Cycling out of anxiety and into an African adventure
Derek Cullen’s solo trip across the continent for charity is throwing up some interesting choices
Taking on the road: Derek Cullen and a local lizard in Botswana. Cullen is cycling solo through Africa for charity, taking in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zamibia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya.
Irish Lives: Peddling your way across the African plains, you tend to weigh up your options now and again: do I overtake this elephant now or lag behind and risk getting stuck in a dark forest full of lions?
Thankfully these aren’t routine problems most of us face every day. Nor do we peer out of tents as faraway lightning storms torment the horizon or entertain border guards with tales of our pan-continental adventures.
Derek Cullen does. One day last summer the 31 year old got tired of his life and the anxiety that accompanied it and decided cycling thousands of miles across desert and bush was a far better idea than living out a humdrum Irish existence.
“I flew into Cape Town at the beginning of October with bicycle pannier bags full of everything I would need for the trip: clothes, cooking equipment. When I arrived, I bought a tent and a 13-year-old mountain bike,” he says via a sometimes- working internet connection on the Zimbabwean border.
From Cape Town things seemed simple. The open road unfolding before him, leading into Namibia and on to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and eventually to Kenya.
What drives a man to do these things? For Derek it was an adventure fuelled by multiple ambition: a need to cast out his demons of anxiety – “It took years to realise how badly I was affected” – to live up to the dreams and aspirations his late mother had taught him to cherish and to raise some money for charity.
On his blog, Nohangingaround. com, he describes how he never really recovered from the death of his parents a number of years ago, and what followed.
“I lost my way, lost the girl of my dreams and lost so many friends until I realised I needed to do something about it,” he explains.
Setting out along a seemingly abandoned stretch of western African coastline, through wine country and over the Northern Cape Mountains, he eventually crossed into Namibia where the temperatures surged to an intolerable 40 degrees and his journey of self-discovery was swallowed up by the desert.
In Botswana the roads came to manifest his focus, straight and never yielding to a change in direction. He eventually reached Maun before crossing into the salt flats of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and onto Zimbabwe.
“I had to go right past a huge bull elephant one day in Botswana. He wasn’t moving into the side of the road; it was getting dark and my options were to risk going past him or end up cycling in the dark in an area known for lions,” he says.
“It’s a simple life on the road; I make sure I have enough food [and] water for a couple of days and look for somewhere to pitch the tent before it gets dark . . . sometimes in the bush except in areas known for dangerous wildlife.”
Days of thunder
His greatest test is often the weather. Thunder storms tear through Botswana on a daily basis and there is the inescapable sun.
“I have suffered heat exhaustion many times already.”
There are understandable highs and lows to such a solo adventure. For Derek, his greatest moment to date has been cycling to the foot of the sublime Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, but then he also counts the wildlife and distant thunderstorms.
“Waking up to the sound of the bush around the tent; looking at the bicycle and thinking about how far it has taken me.”
So far, he has experienced no danger on the road. “The locals down here are incredible, I cannot count the amount of times I have been offered something whether it was a meal, bed to sleep in, directions or their friendship,” he says.
“Meeting them on the bicycle is usually a lot of fun. They don’t believe where I have cycled from and often ask why I don’t have a car.”
And yet there are times when the insurmountable scale of the African landscape is overpowering. He concedes his lowest point “was the desperate feeling of isolation in southern Namibia – conditions were very tough and I went days without conversation”.
Too much space
“I’m okay with being alone but being isolated like that teaches you exactly one thing – that it’s not good.”
Derek says the acute anxiety he suffered in life became overwhelming when his parents died of cancer.
Cycling through Africa, he is raising money for Aoibheann’s Pink Tie, an organisation dedicated to helping families cope with the disease in childhood.
“My dad was a big personality and mother such a strong, quiet woman – I’ll never forget her telling me as a child that I could do anything in life and losing them so soon was eventually what inspired me to do what I really wanted.”
He still has a way to go: Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania next, en route to Kenya by June.
“But to tell you the truth, having come so far, I feel strong and have already started dreaming past east Africa,” he says.
“I often imagine cycling right up to the great pyramids of Egypt. ”