Friday, 23 November 2012



If You Can't Take Everything, Why Take Anything.

A few months ago I met a woman who'd lost everything she owned in a house fire. Everything! Did she have a chance to snatch up a few things, I asked. Was there time enough to choose what was most important to her or snatch out a few valuables? Or did she just pull clear whatever was nearest and so had at least rescued something? Did she save anything at all? Apparently not. It happened too fast, she told me and the thought that kept running through her head was; 'If you can't take everything, then why take anything?'

I can't know how traumatic it was at the time, finding herself in a London street watching everything she owned - all the things that made up and defined her life - going up in flames. But when I met her she was philosophical about this change in her fortunes. It had prompted a career change, a complete new beginning. Before the fire she had been successful in a high-flying, high-pressure, world-circling executive job. After the fire she became an artist. It was something she had always wanted to be. She said she was happy. She seemed serenely so.

Though obviously life isn't defined solely by possessions, they are invariably part of who we are. And they certainly form much of how others see us. Things own us as much as we own them. So, in losing everything, there is the sense of a life restarted from scratch. And with the sense of loss an equal sense of freedom.

The idea that one can restart ones material life is attractive on both a philosophical and a gut-feeling level. To lose everything would be an extreme de-cluttering, the ultimate simplification, a possessions re-birth. Even just thinking about having nothing allows us to ask ourselves what 'things' would we allow back into our lives if we we're starting again. What would we re-buy? Would one find things creeping back into our lives like a rising tide; or would life being a tabla rasa make one consider far more carefully every 'thing' that once allowed into one life then costs time, money and thought to own.

These are cool things to think about, but few people are going to purposefully get rid of everything in their life just to see what it's like to start again. Though artist Michael Landy did do that in his 2001work, 'Break Down.' An assembly line of workers reduced all his possessions – more than seven thousand of them, and absolutely everything he owned from his socks to his car, via his passport, his own and others' art works [to be honest one less Damien Hirst in the world is arguably a by-product win for Landy's project], letters, books, the lot – to pieces and then fed them through an industrial shredder.

Travelling, especially in the form of Slow Adventures, is a less radical way of breaking down ones dependency on possessions. To be able to walk comfortably one has to fit ones temporary world into a small rucksack. To travel by any means that doesn't involve bearers or some kind of motorised transport on call means anything more than a big wheely-case and a couple of bags ties you down as effectively as a convicts ball and chain.

When one has to physically carry the things one owns on slow adventures, those things invariably become - paradoxically - both more and less valuable. You have less things and what you do carry has been carefully chosen, adding to their value. But the very act of choosing things to take on a trip, and deciding against taking other things, has already taught one that nothing is ultimately essential.

In Tamanrasset in the deep south of the Algerian Sahara – in the early 1980s - I ended up with a bunch of people in the campsite, all waiting to travel onto West Africa. We'd pretty much all been caught out by the same unexpected and draconian piece of bureaucracy; we'd discovered that before leaving Algeria one had to show that one had officially changed and then spent an amount of around £200. Arrive at the Niger border without this proof and one would be turned back or fined an equivalent amount. For someone hitchers this amount was more than they actually had. It was about a third of my total budget for five months' travel in West Africa. But if I was looking at hassle and a bit of unwanted expense, (a combination of some artistry on an 'official' exchange form and using up the small amount of dinar I actually did exchange on incredibly expensive beers in the Tahat Hotel freed me to head on into Niger), an American was apparently in real trouble.

Nearly all of Chris' possessions and most of his paperwork and money had been stolen, and there was little sympathy from Algeria's officialdom. The most positive measure they could suggest was hitching back to Algiers to try and sort things out and so avoid being arrested and jailed. Instead Chris sat around the camp-site being upbeat and charming and playing the clarinet. 'Something will happen,' he told me over beers. 'Really, without all that stuff to worry about I've just got more freedom.' This seemed insanely positive. A few days later he swept out of Tamanrasset in the front seat of a Mercedes saloon, owned by his new friend, the Malian Ambassador, who was returning home from Algiers, driving across the desert in his new car. Travelling under the diplomatic umbrella Chris was unlikely to have any problems checking out of Algiers even without the all-important exchange certificate. Nor did he anticipate problems getting across any of the borders without paperwork. And once in Bamako he could get everything sorted out. Though, as we said goodbye, he did wonder if he need be too worried about getting all his paperwork renewed. And he certainly wasn't going to bother replacing clothes and sleeping bags and the rest of his things. He still had his clarinet, and if he was carrying little else, then he was freer and more open to 'something happening.'

It would be a brave – or strange – person who consciously chose to abandon all their gear when travelling. But often the decision is made for one. And not always by the enforced and brutal down-sizing brought about by random theft, though that's left quite a few people travelling light and finding they enjoy a less encumbered life. There are gentler ways of sloughing-off non-essential – and even important - possessions when travelling. Leaving things behind, for a start. Whether that's leaving things behind before you start on a trip, or leaving things behind when the circumstances of a trip change and dead-weight has to go.

In the attic of a small cottage in the heart of the Black Forest, where I lived for part of one freezing winter there may still be the guitar, woollen shirt-jacket, odd books, some of my own poems in a notebook and a good pair of walking boots. All were left there when I had my own 'house burning down' life changing moment, with my father's unexpected death. Perhaps I meant to go back to Emmendingen at some point and pick up my stuff. I never did. Actually, the opposite happened – nearly everything that I remembered from my childhood was sold in one extended circus-tented auction; rather than saving things from the sale I added lots from my own possessions. Another guitar – the one I’d carried across the Sahara and across West Africa - tens of books, a stuffed deer head. It was like watching ones house burn down and actually throwing stuff that one had back into the flames.

I never did return to pick up things from the Black Forest. And yet at one time those 'things' had meant a lot to me. I put hours of work into sanding down the guitar to get a matt-finish on the woodwork, but now I honestly can't recall if it was a steel-string or a nylon-string box. In other words I don't miss it that much, if at all and so it was really no loss. The books? Nope, can't remember what any of them were. I can remember quite clearly the green wool shirt-jacket, down to the tear in one chest pocket. But that's not the same as regretting its loss. And maybe I part-re-wrote those poems from memory, but made them better.

In a box in Patagonia there's my R M Williams long, waxed-cotton stock coat; it's been companion on quite a few long distance horse trips in Australia, Africa, Spain and South American but if we never meet again, well, that's the way things go. And there are plenty of things – important at the time – that I've abandoned or put into 'storage' and now can't even remember owning let alone recalling where they are.

I have one mild regret for things lost. Like a phantom limb, or more truthfully like the faint and occasional pain where an amputated little toe once was, I remember all my Moroccan walking stuff. My tyre-rubber sandals, walking stick, basic leather bag, robe, which I travelled a thousand kilometres of Atlas Mountains and pre-Sahara were left in a friend's house in Marrakech when I was away for a few months; I came back to find that they'd been thrown out 'because they looked like rubbish.' Well, indeed, they did, but.....

So, losing practical things, even those items that cost a lot or that have sentimental value, maybe isn't so bad. One gets over their loss. One replaces them. Or one doesn't. They fade from the memory. They're gone

But what if one loses, or mislays, or has stolen, or burnt or lost at sea, more personal items. Things which are genuinely unique. Things that can't be replaced. Journals. Diaries. Photographs. Something hand-made, and perfect, and more than the sum of its parts. The poems in the exercise book left in the Black Forest attic.

Well, here too, there's some hope. Writers are forever losing their original writings or their source material, or journals from a journey. How they cope with that loss and still manage to write has, arguably, given us some of our best individual travel writing. And even created whole genres of writing.

In his early twenties Ernest Hemingway lost every unpublished piece of writing he'd put on paper. That's the manuscript to every story he'd laboured over in his first Paris years. How? The same kind of bad luck and carelessness that has your house burning down. He'd cabled his then-wife, Hadley, asking her to bring a single piece of work that he wanted to edit when she came to join him skiing. She didn't know which MS in particular it was so put ALL of his writings – in the days of single-sheet typewritten originals with no back-up – into a suitcase. She forgot the suitcase on a station platform en route. It was never found. One wonders whether the increased economy of Hemingway's writing style wasn't some kind of response to that loss. It certainly is an indication of his character that he just kept on writing.

Patrick Leigh-Fermor mixed both kinds of losses – the loss of kit and the loss of uniquely personal stuff - on his extended 1930s walk across Europe from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul (or Constantinople, as he insisted on calling it). He set off into mid-winter with singularly little in the way of tramping equipment. His rucksack and its contents was stolen in Germany. He decided that he didn't need a sleeping bag, nor many of the other items he'd been carrying and kept walking east. He recreated from memory the entries in his first notebook which was stolen with the rucksack. Then lost another notebook - the 'green book,' which was left with his Romanian lover when Paddy joined up for WWII. She kept it safely through the horrifying falls in her fortunes throughout the war and then when Romania was behind the Iron Curtain.

Most fatally his other papers from his walk and extended stay and travels in Eastern Europe were stored at a friend's house in London and during the war the trunk with the papers put into storage in Harrod's Depository (presumably the big red-brick building on the Thames near Hammersmith that I used to run past in the 90s, which I called Harrod's Suppository).The storage bill racked up to the immense amount for those days of £90 and Paddy couldn't or didn't pay it; the result was that the trunk and all his original writings were sold off. (As an aside, what was the most likely outcome of those papers; are they sitting in someone's attic, and now worth a lot both monetarily and for literary reasons? Or did someone buy a nice trunk for ten bob, and burn the papers? Along with Hemingway's lost stories there's a library of lost literature somewhere in the world).

The 'green book' was finally returned to Paddy decades later when he re-met his lover. This book became a part foundation for what became his two-part trilogy of his walk from The Hook of Holland to Constantinople/Istanbul. But the Paddy L-F lost papers point up another paradox of possessions. One would expect that the loss of his journal from the actual journey would have been crushing and would have hugely detracted from his ability to write about the trip. But in fact not having the papers had the opposite effect. Using his imagination, his memory and – importantly – huge amounts of research over the following decades into the interests that first stirred on the journey, Paddy invented a new form of autobiography in which youthful innocence was layered and patina-ed by a Rococo floridity of learning and research as if the boy of his memory was shadowed on the whole journey by the ghost of an older, better-informed Paddy from the future.

If he'd had his actual journals to hand, making the reality of his trip and his teenage words inescapable, and grounding flights of fancy and lyrical joy in the dull listing of day to day plodding, he could never have written the magical realism of A Time Of Gifts, and Between The Woods And The Water.

A friend of mine, Sophie Campbell, got up one morning, and on a whim walked out of her door in London and kept on walking until, a couple of weeks later, she reached the coast at Chesil Beach in Dorset some 250 kilometres away. “I just grabbed a day pack, I wore my trainers, oh, and I forgot my toothbrush so I had to buy one on the way,” she says, “I got onto the Thames Path, then the Ridgeway and then the Macmillian Way, but none of it was planned. I just went. I wanted to see what it was like if I got up to go to work but then didn't catch my bus and instead just kept walking. It was a wonderful thing to do.”

But more, Sophie, a writer by profession didn't record her trip; that's braver than trusting one might lose ones journals."Oddly enough my walks,' she says, 'the big one to Chesil Beach, the West Highland Way, the Cotswold Way, are the one time I don't take notes. I take a diary but often find I don't write it. Somehow I want the time to be for me and just be doing it, not looking at myself doing it.'

A long walk is the way to find out what you really need in terms of actual practical stuff. If you can't carry something you can't have it. And if it's heavier and so more uncomfortable to carry than its usefulness merits, then you won't have it. And it's funny how, if you lose something midway through a trip very often one finds it doesn't need replacing.

And losing journals, letters and personal notes – or just not recording a trip - is a radical but devastatingly honest way of testing what your memory retains from an experience.

The paradox of what I carry when is travelling is that I tend to take about the same amount of stuff whether I’m off for a few weeks rambling around Europe or for six months walking, riding, kayaking and partying in South America. So, that would be; basic kit for sleeping out – hammock, poncho, sleeping bag and pot; enough clothes to stay warm, dry and comfortable in the saddle or walking in remote areas and a few more clothes that I can use to create a semblance of smartness when required; the annoyingly bulky, fragile and expensive camera, computer and other technical stuff needed for work; a guitar or at the very least a roll of harmonicas because that's what I do for fun and for work, too, on the move; and then books; minimalist running shoes; and – well, you're getting the idea.

Kayaking around Ireland I took too much stuff just because I could. I had huge storage in my Necky Narpa and so I filled it with all the things I thought might be useful. The weight made good ballast when at sea, but the pain came every time I landed and had to unload tonnes of heavy stuff and carry it – sometimes over hundreds of metres - on trip after trip to set up camp. At first I did use most of this stuff but as the trip settled down I tended to use what worked best; the same clothes, the same simple cooking kit, the same foods, the same emergency stuff. Everything else was just so much dead weight. Quite a lot of stuff I sent off by mail to get rid of it. Other stuff I abandoned along the way. Plenty of stuff I just carried a thousand miles in a kayak as so much dead-weight.

Despite all I’ve written above I’m not a crazed light-weight traveller. Perhaps that's why I’m aware of the paradoxes inherent in owning things, and aware too that sometimes it takes some external force - whether a fire, theft, or some other kind of loss - to show that there are other relationships one can have with things. Whilst the choices as to how much I own and carry are my own conscious decisions then rather than being obsessive about carrying less, I tend to just go for longer with a fair amount of stuff and make those things work harder.

Some odd thoughts and points:

  • Owning stuff is full of paradox. Solving the dichotomy between needing stuff and not wanting to be owned by stuff might just be one of the great human challenges.
  • Freedom from too-many possessions is the privilege of the very poor (in financial terms) and the very rich (in financial terms). A San bushman with little more than a bow, arrows, ostrich egg water bottle travels as light as a maverick millionaire who has enough money to buy or hire what is needed when it's needed, and so can travel with almost nothing more than a credit card.

  • The rest of us are somewhere in the middle. My experience of travelling for eight months with transhumant/nomadic Berbers is that they accumulated stuff just like the rest of us; They had the camels to carry stuff, and the complicated social lives that needed complicated stuff, and just enough comparative wealth to accumulate and horde stuff when on the move, or to leave trunks of stuff in storage with family members around the mountains.
  • In my experience there are few situations sprung on one where one can't borrow, or buy cheaply, or improvise or just do without whatever bit of kit is needed.
  • To own one really good pair of shoes or boots or even sandals is completely different from owning many pairs of footwear. When travelling one's relationship with the one pair of shoes/boots on one's feet is unique; that pair are key to comfort, peace of mine, perhaps a source of pride (any book about long walks quite obviously goes on and on about the walker's boots), and a touchstone for simplicity; one gets up in the morning and one puts on one's shoes and one walks; no choice, no worrying if they're fashionable. The same applies to coats, trousers, shirts and pretty much everything you own.

  • Here's another paradox one has to puzzle out. Is it better to get rid of an item that is still useful, or that one might need some day, or that holds good memories as a literal souvenir to save having to store it, or carry it or think about it? Or should one keep it in case it's useful, or might bring joy, at some point in the future. The former means accumulating things. The latter means you might have to re-buy something you once had, and then have to decide whether to keep or let go the replacement once you've used it.
  • Travelling light has become something of an internet meme. People set themselves challenges to travel for months carrying only hand-luggage, or less. (And airlines add to the attractions of no-luggage travel with their charges and fines and draconian and unfathomable rules on size and weight). And of course it's possible. And often rewarding. But it does depend on what kind of travelling one's thinking of doing, and having a certain amount of money. Ultra-light travel often depends on there being ample services – clothes washing, internet, roofs, heated rooms, transport, indoor entertainment, food – available for hire at your destination.
  • Ultra-light travel does depend to on a certain casualness when it comes to dress and kit for doing anything other than being a tourist. Jeans, sneakers and sweatshirts are fine pretty much anywhere in the world but sometimes you need something smart or roughly the right clothes for riding a horse, hiking, kayaking or whatever. Either one hires the right kit and clothing or one extemporises or one does without.
  • Doing without something is the lightest travel of all. There's a tendency to pack for trips – and for life – to meet all possible situations. But that means carrying an infinite amount of stuff to meet an infinite number of possible scenarios. One can't carry nor own everything one might ever need, for a trip or for life. So..

    If you can't take everything, then why take anything? 


Michael Landy:

An Adventure; The biography of Patrick Leigh-Fermor, by Artemis Cooper

Sophie Campbell, Blue Badge and walking guide to London:

Friday, 26 October 2012



My role in this blog – and perhaps in life too – is to do daft things with varying levels of success, and then report back so that no-one else has to make the same mistakes I've made and instead can just cut straight to the stuff that seems to work. 

A little - very little - local help in India

So, this post is about how I learnt something really quite important about simplicity and bicycles and then tried to make bicycles as complicated as possible until I worked out how to make them simple again. 

It started when having hitched across the Sahara desert and into Burkina Faso I ran out of money. I needed to get to the coast, a thousand miles away. A few weeks as harmonica player with a high-life band in Ouagadougou earned me enough to buy a second-hand, heavy, single-speed, black Chinese bicycle in the market. I loaded my small pack and guitar onto the rack at the back. Made a few peanut butter sandwiches and set off to pedal west to Bobo Dialasso, and then across Mali and into Senegal and finally down to Gambia, where the bike was stolen. In those few weeks of pedaling along sand-tracks and sleeping in the bush, sometimes doing a hundred miles a day sometimes covering no more than five, I realised that world-wide one could pretty much guarantee being able to find and buy a cheap local bicycle and pedal it for thousands of carefree miles, carrying all your gear and seeing the landscape pass satisfyingly faster than walking-pace but still at the cost of a bit of sweat.

There's Always A Local Bike
So, given this huge success, it's hilarious that I got it all wrong next time i set off to pedal a bit. I was going to cycle across the Sahara, from the Mediterranean coast down to the Hoggar mountains, over a thousand miles of dirt roads and sand tracks. I planned the trip really carefully, and took the kit side of things really seriously. My thinking - i suppose - was that the cheap, simple Burkina Faso bike had been good, so something twenty times more expensive would be twenty times better. So, I worked in London as a bicycle-courier to get fit. And to make a lot of money; a huge amount of which I then spent on what was a startling new American idea in the mid-1980s, the mountain bike. Mine was an import – amongst the first in Europe, I suppose – with satisfyingly wide and knobbly-tyred wheels, a super-strong frame made of Molybdenum. It was so strong that I was able to fit racks fore and aft, and hang capacious panniers off them, and put a handle-bar bag on the handle-bars, and clip and fix locks and bottles and tool kits all over the frame, and then put an extra little bag on the back of the seat, and pile up more stuff on top of the back rack. And because it was a complex beast I added, to all the other gear I was carrying, an array of tools and piles of spare parts. Two things did occur to me at the time; that it was irritating having a bike where nearly every bolt, Allen screw, fixing, nut and clip was a different size to its neighbour and so needed a separate tool to fiddle it with; and that I could have pretty much reconstructed a second-bike from the parts I was carrying. These things occurred to me but they didn't point me to the obvious conclusion that I was making things too complicated. I was missing the point of why i'd found my single-speed Ouagadougou bike so good for travelling. My West African local bike had been cheap, mechanically simple and looked like every other bike in West Africa and so didn't stand out and mark me as a rich idiot foreigner (i WAS an idiot toubab, yes, but not rich). Best of all the local bike was already IN West Africa.

Struggling to get over-complicated bike across the Sahara. Using the most reliable low-gear; walking

I was setting off to pedal across the Sahara on an over-complicated and expensive bicycle. A bicycle, moreover that was in Ireland, more than a thousand miles from the start of my thousand miles desert trip. Reader, this idiot toubab started his trip by cycling most of the way from Cork – bar a few lucky lifts – across France in mid-winter to catch the ferry leaving from Marseille for Algiers. It was a truly miserable trip. Mostly I remember hours a day of freezing, dark fog. And the rear-wheel hub exploding in a shower of tiny ball-bearings on a grit road (each piece of grit the size and colour of a tiny ball-bearing) in the rain half way across the Camargue. I found most of the ball-bearings and repacked and reassembled the hub. But it gave trouble from them on and right across the Sahara.

'Stop' -  local bike and minimal kit in Morocco

I won't bore you with the following weeks' travelling. I left Algiers and pedaled up over the Kabylie Mountains and down across the Ouled Nail hills and then I was in the desert proper. I pedaled relentlessly south. All kinds of good thing happened, of course. But here's the point relevant to this post – none of the good things came about because I had an expensive and complicated bike. In fact not having a cheap, local bike was a huge drawback. Not least when I realised that cycling across the Sahara and then around the Hoggar mountains was pretty daft, and i'd be much better throwing my lot in with locals and their camels. If i'd had a cheap local bike I could have abandoned it and done just that; headed off on a camel or on foot. But i couldn't just dump the most expensive bit of kit that i'd ever owned. And the bike that was getting more and more exotic the further into the Sahara I cycled, and so – i'm afraid – more stealable. I had to watch the bloody thing like a hawk night and day. Worse – any mechanical breakdown was a disaster. Bikes weren't totally unknown in the bigger Saharan towns but they were simple single-speed clunkers that could be fixed with a bit of old wire, or with a good whack from a hammer. But not the Rockhopper. To keep it running sweetly it needed the equivalent of regular brain surgery and a constant supply of spare parts that were as rare as FabergĂ© eggs in central Algeria. It got whacked with hammers and tied up with old wire. And, to give the faithful Rockhopper it's due, it kept going. But not easily.

Rajasthani with top bike.

The very worst thing came at the end of my thousand mile pedal across Algeria. And - I know that this defies imagination - but i'd been so fixated on getting down to Tamanrasset and then cycling off into the Hoggar mountains to look at the famed pre-historic rock carvings, and to meeting up with Tuareg to ask them about their music and do some recording, and to visit Pierre Fourcauld's hermitage at Assekrem (the three slender excuses i'd hung my trip on) that I had given no thought about how I was going to get back to Europe. There was a cold sinking feeling in the hot desert sands when virtually penniless, exhausted and hating the bike, I realised with a shock that I was going to have to re-trace my wheel-tracks the whole way back across the Sahara to reach the coast and a ferry back to France.

Think if I had just bought a cheap local bike in Algiers. How easy the trip would have been, then. I'd have carried a third of the kit. Had less mechanical nightmares. And at the end would have sold the bike for a small profit in Tamanrasset, or just given it away, and hitched a truck back to the north and the Mediterranean.

One can get this biking lark really wrong

You'd think i'd have learnt from that.

No. A few months after returning from the Sahara I took the same bike, the same kit plus a warmer sleeping bag and a bivvy bag [see previous post for the joys of bivvy-bag camping; as learnt at this point in my life] and the same attitude to Iceland. I flew there with the bike as my hold luggage. To avoid excess baggage charges I wore every piece of clothing I had with me, and filled my pockets with the petrol stove, spares, tools and the rest of the gear.  (Yes, that's right in those days either nobody cared, or nobody noticed that i had a petrol stove with all the vital statistics of a Molotov cocktail in my pocket on a flight). The next month was spent in a wet, windy early-summer circumnavigation of the thousand mile Icelandic Ring Road, which back in those days was unpaved and so a grinding ribbon of grit and sand virtually the whole way from Reykjavik back to Reykjavik.

At one point I met a Polish cyclist going the opposite way around the Ring Road. The constraints of Iron Curtain economies at the time meant that rather than having a fancy velocipede, he'd just bought a cheap, second-hand single-speed simple bike. We compared notes. Oddly, though we were both cycling around in opposite directions at the same time, we'd both spent the previous two weeks battling against a head wind. This along with other climatic challenges, and a diet of lambs brains and whale steaks, and having to sleep out through nightly rains meant that we were both having just as tough at time of it as the other. But him having a cheap, simple bike to pedal around wasn't making his trip obviously more miserable than my trip on an expensive, complicated bike. I think that's where I finally began to get the point.

Because all the foreign bike trips I did after that used local, single-speed bikes that cost a few quid.

Indian Hero Jet kitted out for the road - note the reading rack.

In India two of us bought wonderful Hero Jets in Jodhpur and rode across Rajasthan, and into Madyar Pradesh, crossing the Satpura Mountains (where the Jungle Book was set) to finish up in Bhopal (of Union Carbide infamy). Those two bikes we actually bought new; and  were so relatively cheap that we added all kinds of extras; sturdy racks to strap our rucksacks onto, kick-down stands to hold the parked bikes upright in treeless areas, and buffalo-hide saddles that started off wooden-hard but were pummeled by a month of being sat and bounced on into delicate sculptures formed to caress our rears with the fit of angels' hands. I added the Indian schoolboy's cunning weapon in the battle for ever better education; the handlebar-mounted, spring-loaded reading rack that allowed me to read a book – The Pickwick Papers, if you're curious – as I was pedalling along. 
Tiffin Box lunch and a siesta in India

Carla and i bought tiffin boxes to sling from our cross-bars and would stop at village chai houses to fill them with chapaties and dahl to picnic on later. 


And best of all, when we'd had enough of cycling across India we sold the two bikes for a slight profit, hopped on a bus and sped away. It would be hard to over-emphasise how much better cycle-touring was on these two paragons of virtue, our sturdy but ultimately expendable Hero Jets, than it was on those trips when i'd insisted on hauling a bike out from Ireland, pedaling it around some far-flung land whilst trying to keep it working and then bringing it all the way back to Ireland again.

Sprucing up the Hero Jets in Bhopal before selling them

So, I did it it the same simple way again on the following trip. The next bike I bought was in Morocco; a cherry-red bomber that cost around €30 in the mid-1990s from a market on the coast in El Jadida. I cycled from the coast to the Atlas Mountains and into Marrakech. 

Effortlessly outpacing a donkey and cart in Morocco

In Morocco i was following in the tyre-marks of a 19th century traveller called Budget Meakin who had made the same trip a hundred years earlier. And he made the same mistakes I'd been making in the past. He had a carefully imported bike, wore a hot and itchy woolen cycling-suit and needed a train of mules and horses following to carry his tent and other kit. 
The cherry-red bomber - the camel of the cycle world

I didn't have a tent, and my kit was no more than a small pack that I disguised with an old sack so my bike was indistinguishable from that of any Moroccan tripping around the place on a sturdy, cheap, simple bike.

Parking in Marrakech

Then, I did it again in Havana. Buying a bike, and cycling around the west of Cuba before selling it back the guy I bought it from at a sligh loss that argued that rather than buying and selling a bike i'd actually hired one very cheaply for a few weeks. A friend, Christina, did the same thing and pedaled considerably further around Cuba than I did, and cheated less, too. Because I was often inclined to put my bike into the back of a passing horse-drawn cart or onto a lorry rather than pedal through the heat. Cheating yes, but proving again the advantages of a simple bike; you can hitch-hike with it.

Then there were a pair of horror-bikes that two of us hired for a long trip out into the desert from the Egyptian oasis of Siwa. Mine too small and its chain inclined to fly off the front chain-ring when i put any pressure on the pedals. Elizabeth's heavy as something made from scaffolding tubing. But even these clunkers carried us sixty miles in a day out across the salt pans to a distant pool amongst palm trees to swim. And both bikes if mechanically suspect were polished and sparkling. Bikes were a point of pride in Siwa. Local men decorated their own bikes with paper fringes, plastic tape, colourful paint jobs and blingy danglers. 

Heading out of Siwa, or perhaps back.

I do think in all fairness that I shouldn't be too hard on the original Rockhopper – I was at fault, not it. It survived the double trip across the Sahara and the circumnavigation of Iceland, and numerous long trips across Ireland and England. And being hammered around the streets of Cork, and often left hitched and forgotten to a lamp-post for days on end. I finally gave it away to a friend; the frame, the wheels, the gears, the brakes and the handle-bars were all original; the saddle had been changed and replaced several times. I kept the back rack to put on my next bike.

And the pair of Karrimor rear panniers are still going strong after more than twenty-five years of close to continual use. So, sometimes there is a return on spending quite a bit of money on something good and new. But on the panniers and not the bike.

And here's a tip - worth reading all the foregoing for. If planning on buying a local bike in some far off country, rest assured that if it's the kind of place that you can pedal then there will be bikes for sale. But there almost certainly won't be bicycle pumps, locks, puncture repair kits and spanners that aren't made out of some material that looks like metal but acts like putty. Nip into Halfords and buy all of the above bits of kit and take them out with you. 

So, that's my argument for heading off for bike travel, pretty much anywhere in the world. Buy 'em, ride 'em, sell 'em.

Keep it simple, don't let it get complicated. 

Simple Bike - Siwa Oasis, Egypt

Sunday, 21 October 2012



You might have thought that last week's Slow Adventure post would have exhausted walking sticks as a subject to the casual reader. But I'm not so sure, especially as quite a few people got back to me about sticks; quite a few with walking stick stories of their own. Anyway as an unrepetant rabologist (someone interested in walking sticks) – or possibly even a rabophile or rabomaniac – here's a bit on what I reckon as the most interesting thing about walking sticks; making them.


  • Of course you don't make a stick in the sense of manufacturing it, but one can 'make' a stick as in selecting and then improving an untamed feral bit of wood with the most sensitivity one can muster, just as one 'makes' a young horse.
  • The most usual and useful woods to make sticks from in Ireland and Britain include;
  • Hazel; a light wood overall especially when dried but strong enough. Pleasingly easy to find ruler straight staffs of all lengths where trees have once been coppiced. One of the easiest to find and cut from a hedge, and start using straight away, when a stick is needed in a hurry. Cut a stick stouter than you might for other woods, and leave the bark on for at least a few days so the stick dries out more slowly otherwise it will crack.
  • Ash; can be found with natural right-angled handles, and 'Y' forks. Very strong with a bit of elasticity when dried. Steam and heat straightens easily and well for longer staffs if necessary. ' A stout ash-plant' features as an essential element in many Irish songs, travellers tales and stories. It's also one of the woods that can be 'trained' as it grows into crooks, curves for handles and in winding 'screw' shapes down the shanks length. (If you have the time for that kind of thing, you lead a different life to me).
  • Black-thorn. Traditional in Ireland for both walking sticks and for shillelaghs – a club made by cutting a heavy mallet-length of trunk as the 'head' with a side-branch as the handle - or heavy cudgels fashioned from a knob of root and a sucker. Immensely strong, but needs slow drying; usually the bark is left on. Uncomfortable to harvest because of the thorns, wounds from which invariably go septic or poisonous. Rare to find straight lengths long enough for a short stick without heat straightening and very rare to find anything straight and long enough for a staff.
  • Chestnut. A good light, strong and attractive wood, but needs to be coppiced to produce straight lengths for sticks. But coppiced woods are worth looking out for.
  • Holly. Not as commonly used as the above woods, as it's difficult to find the lengths you'll need. But in some parts it was coppiced and in certain situations – suckers growing up inside a larger holly tree striving upwards for light – can be found in straight lengths naturally. It's a strong, beautifully close-grained wood. Absolutely my favourite for making thumb sticks.

  • Abroad:
  • Eucalyptus. Individual trees rarely produce straight shoots, but plantations of eucalyptus do. If you're travelling, especially in the Iberian peninsula you might do best looking for Eucalyptus.
  • Sweet Chestnut. Another Iberian peninsula find, though also found in many other southern countries. Often coppiced and so with abundant straight sticks.
  • Wild Olive – the king of woods for walking sticks. Iron hard, strong and heavy when seasoned. Perfect straight pieces are uncommon which makes finding one even more rewarding. Ideally you'll find a shoot growing off a root and can take a heavy orb of rootstock as the handle. Or look for natural crooks, and hooks. Cultivated olive isn't nearly as good, but isn't bad. My favourite walking sticks are all wild olive, harvested and brought back to season in Ireland. I've still got a few to finish off from a trip back from Spain ten years ago when you could put a bundle of sticks in an airline hold strapped to a rucksack and nobody suggested that would cost you a sixty quid for the pleasure.
  • Outside Europe there are all kinds of woods used for sticks – bamboos, iron-woods, malaccas and tens of perfectly straight, hard species that locals will tell you about. Following the laws of supply and demand sticks in stick-less places take on mythical status and incredible values. I've carried a stick deep into the Sahara and had numerous people desperate to buy it from me. A particularly nice stick I carried like a lance on my horse in Kyrgyzstan was equally coveted when I got high into the Tien Shan Mountains. Stick speculation could be a career.
  • In some places walking sticks aren't made from wood at all. Lengths of metal tube with an old umbrella handle, and often weighted with lead at the ground end are popular in some parts of Spain.

  • Harvesting sticks and practicalities:
  • In theory – and actually in practise and in law – sticks growing on someone's land, not unnaturally, belong to them. Sticks growing in road-side hedgerows are a bit more morally ambiguous as to ownership. Nipping a single stick out of the hedge doesn't seem to be a huge crime in my eyes. But try and do it nicely. If you're going to trespass for sticks it would be nice to ask the landowner if you can 'harvest' a few.
  • Plan ahead. Though it's possible to cut down and top and tail and smooth a hazel or an ash stick with a large, or even a small, penknife it's tough work, and something hard like wild olive or blackthorn will probably beat you; best is to carry a saw that fits into your pocket. Or a small axe.

  • If you're just setting off on a walk you can always buy a hacksaw blade or a small replaceable pad-saw blade for a few bob in a hardware shop. As a more portable and regular addition to my kit I carry a wire saw; the one with two rings and 18 inches of rough, braided wire. Wire saws are not actually that efficient but they'll cut a walking stick thickness easily. Best of all – and useful for many other purposes is an Opinel folding pocket saw. They're a bit pricey but worth every quid and more. You could also carry a folding pruning or bush-saw but they're bigger and bulkier.
  • If you're going to start cutting wild olives knobs from the root as part of a stick a small very sharp axe is the best deal.

  • Take some coarse and medium sandpaper along as well.
  • Oh, and maybe a small tub of beeswax polish.
  • The most important thing is to get your eye in. There's a real knack in spotting a good stick in a thicket of sticks. At first one tends not to be able to see them at all. Then one tends to see 'good' sticks all over the place, only to find that they're not good at all when you've cut 'em.
  • When you see one that looks about the right thickness – knowing what's the right thickness comes from experience as it's different for different woods and you have to mentally take the bark off – and you're happy that it's straight over a long enough length, look at it some more and from all angles; it might be straight as a rule from one side and crooked from another quarter.
  • Sometimes a bend or a curve – if its the right bend or curve – can add to a sticks use and comfort. You'll get a 'stick eye' after a bit, and see the finished stick in the still growing wood.
  • People who make lots and who have the time cut bent sticks and straighten them; this is easy if you've got a hot-air heater and a vice – a quick burst of heat and some pressure in the right place. You can also steam bend them. But all this is time-consuming. Better in my view is to walk around looking for one that's straight enough already. And it's the only way if you're making a stick on the move.
  • Wood should be green. Dead wood rarely has the strength – rather than being seasoned it'll usually be rotted.
  • Cut well below where you want the handle unless you're using a knife when the effort of cutting is so much greater that you won't want to make unnecessary cuts. With a saw it's so easy to cut that you can get the stick out well over length and then trim accurately. Make sure that you support it whilst cutting the standing limb, otherwise there's a strong chance of it falling before it's cut through and splitting.
  • If cutting a stick on the move you'll need to look for a handle integral to the stick; look for a natural 'Y' or a bump, nodule or swelling, or a natural bend. Or best of all a swelling where a sucker comes off a root stock.
  • Another way to get a handle is to look for a straight stick coming off a thicker branch and cut a length or a knob of the heavier branch to make the handle.
  • Cut the handle end first and then measure before cutting the ground end tip.
  • There are all kinds of formulae for the correct length of stick. One suggestion is from the bony in the wrist to the ground. I think that that's too short for active walking – it's based on the optimum height for someone with a gammy leg who needs support. My formula is to turn the stick up-side down, bend my arm at a right-angle to the ground, grab the stick making a fist around it and then put my other fist under that and make a mark under the lower fist; cut there and it'll be a handy walking stick.
  • For thumb-sticks and walking staffs I find that a length to under the arm pit is about right for a long one. Or to the sternum for a shorter lighter 'long' stick.
  • As you gathering from all this inexact advice, you need to work what length of stick works best for you. My only suggestion is not to cut a stick too short in the first case – leave it a little long and see how it feels and swings and handles. It's good to bear in mind the old adage; measure twice, cut once. You can always shorten a stick, it's hard to lengthen one.
  • A stick with the handle as an integral part of its make up – so a side-branch or a bulbous piece of root stock – is strongest and aesthetically rather pleasing.
  • To fix a handle onto a stick – as in a piece of antler to a holly shaft, you need to be able to drill a hole into both pieces each of which is dead straight and to fit a piece of threaded bolt with the head cut off. 8-10 mm is good. Glue with epoxy into the handle first. You can mix the epoxy with fine sawdust to fill any gaps or space.Then fit into the shaft without glue and see how the two edges meet; invariable there'll be a gap – either painstakingly file and sand down, or less painstakingly rough it down until it's close and then fit a round of thick leather in-between the two to take up any slack. Glue in to the shaft only when everything meets nicely; put heavy pressure directly down from the top, whilst keeping every straight, till the glue has set.
  • Handles can be made from antler, other woods – it's easy to shape elaborate forms – buffalo horn, rams horns (again use epoxy and sawdust to fill the hollow gap inside the horn).
  • One thing i'd council against is a making a particularly ergonomically shaped handle; lovely for walking for an hour or so if it fits your hand perfectly in one way but comfort for longer periods comes from being able to vary your grip; for this reason I prefer either hooks, knobs or best of all an unequal 'Y' with one heavy and one lighter arm.
  • If you're going to put time and effort into making sticks you can get into all kinds of refinements. Most of them unecessary.
  • One thing you can do to a stick if you travel a lot is divide into two or three with screw-joints – like a snooker cue. For a long trekking pole put in three and you can unscrew it into segments to get your stick into a bag if you're flying or in a city. You can get fancy and have a stick where you can screw different pieces together to make different lengths, or have various interchangeable handles.

  • I've got a segmented walking stick that unscrews into three. The handle also unscrews to reveal a hollow in the top segment; enough to take a tipping tube of whiskey, or something else useful like a fire-starting kit.
  • Even if you're making a stick out in the country as you're walking it's handy to have some coarse and medium sandpaper along to smooth bumps and snags off. Though you can use a knife – it's slower.
  • The wood will need oiling or waxing – proper beeswax polish is good. If nothing else to hand use animal fat or vegetable oil. The real patina and oil will come from constant carrying and the contact of your hands.

  • Ferrules are essential to stop the tip wearing down or – worse – splitting. An approx 3cm piece of copper, or brass pipe will do. Shave the end so it's a bit bigger than the ferrule and force the latter on. Bang a nail or punch tip into the pipe to make an indentation to keep it on when the stick dries out. Most people don't like copper ferrules because they wear away quicker but I find they make less clatter on hard surfaces and have better grip. And they last plenty of time, and you can replace them when they are finally worn too much.
  • You can buy rubber ferules – often a better bet for some kinds of sticks. And you can also buy pointed Alpine ferrules; they're a touch pricey from stick-bit suppliers on the internet but not exactly bank breakers and worth having a few around; if you find yourself in a rural Spanish town find the most old-fashioned hard-wear shop you can (there's a fabulous one in Aracena) and you'll find they're only a few cents; stock up on them.

  • If you're going to use your stick for wading it needs a shoulder cord and a heavy lead weight on the tip to sink it. If using a stick on steep slopes a thong of heavy leather or thick cord that can be slipped over the wrist can save you losing the stick over a cliff or down a scree slope if/when you drop it.
  • In theory once you've made a nice stick you won't need another one. But you won't stop at just making a single stick. You'll see covetable sticks in every hedge, copse and woodland.
  • Rabomania is a powerful force. And has been since humans picked up and used their very first tools – sticks.


Opinel folding saws are in some good tool shops or outdoor shops; otherwise they're easy to find and get on the internet. There are various sizes, but for cutting sticks out of the hedgerow the No 12 is pocket-sized and just right. I bought mine from Wire-saws are also available from outdoors shops and from the internet (Heinnie, as before has a good example); there are various qualities and you pretty much get what you pay for; I'd suggest that just for carrying in a pocket to slice out a useful looking stick from a copse you don't need to pay very much. There's a technique to using wire-saws, especially on standing, green sticks – basically you need to keep your hands fairly far apart and pull back and forth evenly so the wire is fairly straight rather than bent around the stick, and try and pull the stick towards you as you cut to open the saw-cut slightly so it doesn't jam.

Actual sticks, of course, you're going to be harvesting for yourself. And if you're in no hurry, and get around a bit, and know people you'll probably come across bits of antler or rams horns or buffalo horn chunks to use for handles. And ferrules and screw-joints you can make for yourself. But if there's stuff you need in a hurry – and just to see what they've got in tools, and specific stick accessories – it's worth a look at They sell pieces of antler, buffalo horn and other materials for handles. Also ferrules and spikes. What they have that's really useful are screw-joints; you can make your own but these are cheap and good so why bother.

Another on-line stick bits supplier is They also sell useful things like spike ferrules (cheaper in Spain in hardware shops if you were there, but you're probably not). Rubber ferules are useful too. And you could buy metal cap ferrules if you couldn't be bothered to make your own out of piping.  

About Me

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I'm an independent writer on wilderness activities, slow adventures, traditional horsemanship and odd stuff. I'm the author of Paddle; A long way around Ireland (Sort Of Books), and i was the story consultant on the IMAX documentary on cowboy cultures across the globe, Ride Around The Word. The Slow Adventure sends reports back from the front-line of a slow and simple life; horses, kayaks, guitars, long walks, travel, books, simplicity, trains, travel, wildlife and the occasional thrill.