Hello Frank, can you introduce yourself and tell us what's your job? When did you start traveling by bike and where did you go?
At an early stage in my life I discovered that I enjoyed making bicycle trips more than doing homework. The latter I usually did with a stop watch in my hand and that didn’t always lead to the most desirable result, that is, the result the school desired. It did have another result though, and that was that it left me with plenty of time for my other hobbies such as cycling... In 1971 I decided to go on a holiday by bicycle. As I had never slept in a tent and never even fried an egg, I was far from convinced of the viability of this project that I saw as an expedition into the unknown interior of Europe rather than as a holiday. Full of doubt, but also with high expectations, I set out on my journey. It turned out to be a great adventure and a thoroughly successful experiment.
The freedom I experienced during my month long trip through Belgium, France, Switzerland and Germany was a revelation: to break up camp in the morning and load my gear onto my bike without having the faintest idea where I would set it up again that evening. I had discovered the bicycle as a means of transportation and from that moment onwards every summer I set off on this wonderful machine into the wide, wide world.
While at the university in Delft, where I studied electrical engineering, I extended my trips further and further: Italy, Spain, the United States, North Africa. These trips lasted a full summer, but even then I dreamt of the possibility of making an even longer tour.
A chance meeting in 1978 in Algeciras with Alain Guigny, a French cyclist who had just arrived with the ferry from Tangiers, after a cycle trip lasting three years and traversing most of the continents of the world, gave me the push in the right (or possibly the wrong?) direction. From then on the idea of at the very least, cycling through South, Central and North America wouldn’t let go of me.
Shortly after my graduation I bought a plane ticket to Arequipa in the south of Peru, from where I cycled to Denver in Colorado in nine months.
The journey was an unforgettable experience. I met people from other cultures and all kinds of social status, I enjoyed the grandeur of nature and experienced the Andes, the Sierra Madre, the deserts and the Rocky Mountains like a twentieth century cowboy on a steel horse.
And thanks to that steel horse, I was able to visit not only the usual tourist places, but also far off and often very interesting regions.
For me, the modest and simple farmers' villages in the Andes mountains, with their deep canyons and majestic peaks, were just as interesting and beautiful as the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu or the cathedrals of Lima and Quito. Once again I experienced that wonderful feeling of freedom that I had felt on my very first holiday with my bike. On my return to the Netherlands I managed to find a job as a physics teacher at a secondary school.
After nine months of total freedom, being my own boss, making my own decisions and solving my own problems, I was suddenly confronted with a tight school timetable and 25 students for whom the study of physics was far from their ideal and whom I also had to restrain within that same inflexible harness. This was a task that in difficulty far exceeded that of my 24,000 kilometres journey through South America, over 5,000 metres mountain peaks. After a difficult journey of nearly a year over the highest passes of didactics, I once more hopped on my bike, as I wanted to take a break for one year more. Just one last trip before I would get myself together and lead a serious life.
The 26.000 km trip was to take me across the Balkans, through Turkey and the Middle East to Cairo and then on through East Africa to Cape Town. Naturally once again this trip was one great adventure, especially the journey through Sudan and Northern Kenya where there was hardly any food and where I plodded on for 2,100 km over sandy tracks, dried and cracking mud roads and cobbled paths.
Once again I was delighted to be able to travel the world in this special way and so to experience the real hinterland of Africa with its many cultures, habits and religions that are so different from ours. After this, history repeated itself. I found a job at another school, teaching the same physics to other children, but with the same educational problems. But in the evenings I studied the maps of Asia and once more I couldn’t resist the urge to go out and see the world. In just over one year I cycled from Holland to Bali. Travelling had now totally taken over my life and several more of these expeditions followed: South America for a second time, the Sahara and West Africa, the United States, Australia, China...
By now I had started to publish my travel experiences and so, from a cycling teacher I was transformed into a travelling writer.
I did have to find a balance between travelling and writing, as a writer who always travels, will have little time to write, while a traveller who is always writing, will hardly travel and will soon come to the end of his story. I felt a 50:50 division would come close to the ideal. All that travelling has slowly but quite steadily changed me and opened my eyes to the diversity of people, their culture and their way of life. After all those trips abroad I have become somewhat estranged from electrical engineering and from the Netherlands itself but despite this, I still am and feel Dutch. After a journey from Dar es Salaam to Dakar, my third trip through Africa, that I undertook to raise funds for leprosy projects in that continent, I realised that I was becoming too African for Europe, but had remained too European for Africa. This was by the way a quality that fitted nicely into the 50:50 time division between travelling in the Third World and writing about it at home.
Why did you choose a bicycle and not “a more confortable” vehicle to travel?
I think the bicycle is the best means of transportation for travelling and seeing the world. You feel the sun on your skin and you smel the flowers the sea and the dust. You are closer to the people and the nature than, for example, in a car in which you pass people, villages and interesting natural features far too fast. With the bicycle you place yourself closer to the local people. Climbing a high pass in the mountains or passing through a dry desert by bike gives much more satisfaction than in a car or 4-wheel drive.
You traveled through South America, Balkans, Europe... but in which country you felt like at home?
A real worldtraveller feels at home everywhere. I think I am a little worldtraveller, so I feel at home in many places, but the weather could be good: sunny and warm and not much wind. That is the reason that I never ventured further north than the most northern part of The Netherlands. On Iceland for example I would definitely not feel at home. I am a nature lover and beautiful landscapes like mountains, deserts canyons and forests are my favourites. I also like very much to see little primitive villages with a lot of 'couleur locale', where life goes like 100 years ago. I am not a city-guy and mostly I try to avoid big cities but for interesting cities like for example Jerusalem, Marrakesh, Isfahan, Toledo, Firenze and Damascus I gladly make an exeption. One of the most beautiful cities I ever saw was Venezia, the place of Vivaldi and, of course, my great example in travelling Marco Polo. And no motorcycles there!!
What's your hardest travel by bike? Why?
My hardest travel by bike was my ride through Sudan and North Kenya in 1981-1982. There I rode more than 2000 km over sandy, muddy and rocky roads through mostly abandoned areas where there was almost no food and where the water for drinking came out of the river Nile without any purification. There were no stores, no restaurants and no guesthouses, no telephone or telex and internet did of course not yet exist. I lost there 13 kg of body weight but I felt phisically fine and I enjoyed the trip enormously.
During your trips you met lots of different people with different cultures, can you tell us about an unforgettable meeting?
On my trips I met many friendly and hospitable people. In my 13 books, (unfortunately all in Dutch; only of my book Pilgrims and Peppers is an English translation, available on internet) I have writen a lot of these fantastic meetings. One of them took place in an unsafe tribal area in Pakistan in 1983. Here follows this little story (part of my book Pilgrims and Peppers.):
An invitation by slingshot
Every now and then a bus would fly past. I was slowly starting to resent those brightly decorated things. Not only did I have to dive for safety beside the road, but once in a while I also had to duck for apple cores or tomatoes that the passengers on the roof would throw at me. Sometimes even a stone would whiz past my ears. The thrower must have collected the stone before departure from which I deduced that he didn’t throw it out of hatred or a wish to wound, but just to see if he was so adept at his sport that he could hit a moving object from the moving bus. A purely scientific experiment.
This prompted me also to wish to participate in a scientific experiment that I would perform on the stone thrower if I managed to lay my hands on him!
I had just had some fruit skins thrown at me when, as I rode into Mekhtar, I saw an approximately 10-year old boy standing in the road.
His head was shaved bald, probably against lice. In his hand he held a slingshot which was the favourite toy of all the tribal boys. With it they can practice on birds and goats. Later when they grow up they can benefit from this practice when they change over to pistols and rifles.
The slingshot is therefore an essential piece of tribal equipment and, normally speaking, it wouldn’t bother me too much, but when a loaded slingshot is aimed at me it does bother me and that was what happened. Partly because of my bad temper after my experience with the people on the bus that had just passed me by, I didn’t have the patience to explain to the boy in Urdu that this was not a nice thing to do. I threw my bike against a wall and ran after him. In fright he dropped his slingshot and ran away around a corner. As I came pelting around the corner, I stood face to face with a giant of a man dressed in a khaki vest and trousers. On his head he wore a large blue Afghan turban while in his hand he held an old rifle with a wooden butt.
The boy hid behind this impressive sight, there by somewhat diminishing my desire to teach him a lesson. ‘Problem?’ the man asked when he saw me hesitate. ‘Yes problem’, I answered. Your son aimed his slingshot at me. ‘Son good boy’, the man said running his hand through his son's non-existent hair. ‘Good boy or not, I do not want to get a stone against my head.’ ‘No stone. Joke. Good boy. Come, drink tea and stay night.’
It is unbelievable how one moment you can be irritated by the behaviour of people and the next moment you are invited to come and drink tea and stay the night. I followed him to a simple house and was welcomed with the normal hospitality of the East. ‘Sit’ the man said pointing at a pillow on the ground near the wall. ‘Mee meester Khan; mee cheef weelleege.’ ‘Mee Frank,’ I replied, ‘bike traveller from Holland.’ ‘Good, good. Aziz other son. Speak good Ingeleesh.’ He left the room and I heard him call out in a stentorian voice ‘Aziz, Aziz’. A moment later he reappeared with an approximately 20-year old boy. Aziz could indeed speak better English than his father and said: ‘We are very glad that you are our guest.’ ‘Yes’ I answered, ‘and you owe it all to your little brother.’ And I also owed it to his little brother that I was welcomed here so wholeheartedly. Once more I didn’t have to put up my tent in this tribal area and had a peaceful and safe night. From this, one can conclude that apparently unsafe things such as loaded slingshots can lead to a safe situation... and tour friendships.
Three things that you can't forget at home
I do not understad this question. Do you mean: 3 things that I should not forget to take with me on a biketrip? In that case: My tent, my sleeping bag and, of course my bike. And further: compass, earplugs and warm clothes, because I cannot stand noise and the cold. Or do you meen: 3 things (events) during my trips that I cannot forget because they were so fantastic. I have many of them. One of them follows here (again a passage from my book Pilgrims an Peppers:
Through the eye of the needle
From Agra I followed by roads as much as possible to avoid heavy traffic and to make the trip more interesting. Although I was travelling through Uttar Pradesh, which was one of the most densely populated agrarian areas of northern India, I sometimes passed through quiet, almost deserted stretches of countryside. These bits always made me feel better. The narrow road passed between rice paddies, where occasionally you could see a farmer working the land with a wooden plough pulled by a span of white oxen that were nearly twice the size of their Friesian counterparts.
The weather was pleasant: a gentle sun and no breeze. There was a peaceful, relaxed atmosphere about the land that I hadn’t experienced since leaving the Himalayas. Cycling slowly, I rode through a wood and suddenly it was as if I was in Africa somewhere south of the Sahel.
There were lots of dry thorn bushes and up ahead the wood became denser with higher trees. Occasionally a bird flew up at my approach, to land on a branch a bit further away where it would calmly sit and observe me. I wondered if there were possibly tigers about. As far as I could tell there wasn’t much wildlife around. Or was there? Suddenly the silence was shattered by a loud shout. To the right of me about fifty metres away I saw a group of some twenty-five men in white and grey rags sitting in a circle on the ground. The man, who probably had seen me, stood up and brandishing an axe and shouting aggressively started running towards me. The others now also stood up and followed the first one’s example. I didn’t take much notice and rode on ignoring them.
It wasn’t the first time I had had practical jokers chasing me and I was a bit tired of this sort of pranks. It’s just like with kids: the less attention you pay to their antics the sooner the show stops. In this case though the shouting didn’t stop and quickly grew into a rather ominous roar. This sounded different from the pleasant ries I had experienced up to now. Just when I was about to start feeling alarmed and wanted to look over my shoulder to see what was going on, an axe flew past only 50 centimetres from my right ear. When it hit the ground the sparks flew from the obviously razor-sharp blade.
The whole crowd was only 25 metres behind me and the roar seemed to be mixed with wild battle cries. For a split second I was too amazed to react, but then a hockey stick flew past my other ear, just missing me by another 50 centimetres. The loud crack as it hit the ground awoke me from my inertia and jolted me into a swift and clear conclusion: if you throw a razor-sharp axe over a distance of 25 metres and you miss someone by a matter of inches, then you are not playing around; then you try to kill! I was galvanised into action. I stood upright and powerfully accelerated as I had never done before. The bike swayed and groaned under the strength and violence of my feet grinding the pedals, while the noise behind me escalated to a macabre pitch. Any second now I expected to be struck by an axe, stick, pitchfork or some other murderous weapon. Go on, faster! I didn’t even spare myself the time to look behind me, but remained crouched over my handle-bars, grinding away at the pedals as if I was competing in the last rush of the Tour de France and going for the Yellow Jersey. But this rush had a more important purpose than obtaining the Yellow Jersey. I tried to avoid a red stained one! ‘Please God, no flat tyre now,’ I prayed, ‘no broken axle, split crank or a pedal that comes off.’ That’s all fine in the blazing heat of a desert or in the pouring rain without shelter, but not with a bunch of screaming murderers on my tail. My prayers were heard and my bike saved my life. After a last fortissimo I heard to my intense relief that the noise was receding. Only then did I waste a split second and give myself the time to look over my shoulder. The horde had given up and I was out of range. Despite this, I still rode on as fast as I could answering to my inner wish to get out of this forest with savages and leave it as far as possible behind me. I desperately longed for the hustle and bustle of the populated world. I had passed through the eye of the needle. If the men in the forest had noticed me a few seconds earlier I wouldn’t have got away and my adventures would have come to a violent end. In my mind I pictured how they tore me off my bike and... I shuddered and forced the memory out of my head. Too much imagination can be just as destructive as too little. And what’s the use? And what if the road had been uphill or bad, for instance sandy so that I couldn’t have managed the sprint I just did? Another thought emerged: ‘what if I hadn’t been travelling alone? If someone had been with me? Travelling on your own is not good. Two, three or four people is much safer. That is what everybody always says and usually it is correct, but now I probably owned my life to the fact that I was alone. Or my companion owes his life to the fact that he wasn’t accompanying me. When travelling together, you mostly don’t ride side by side but behind each other. The pursuers would most certainly have caught the one in the rear.
What would the one in front have done then? Return to confront twenty-five bandits armed with axes, sticks and pitchforks and chase them away to save his friend’s life? Ten kilometres further I left the woods and came to a village. By coincidence a police jeep just drove up out of a side street. I motioned to the driver to stop and told them my Wild West story. ‘Yes, that sort of thing happens around here’ the man next to the driver said. ‘There is some tension in the area due to fights between Muslims and Hindus. Especially in Budaun it has become rather unpleasant. I think it would be better if you didn’t travel any further today.’ That was all. No man hunt to find the murderers. ‘They’re all long gone anyway,’ was the policeman’s only comment. ‘We’ll never find them.’ The jeep drove on and so did I. My fear had dissipated and it really surprised me how fast this had happened, because less than half an hour ago I had come through the most frightening experience of my life. Although I had calmed down, it still occupied my mind.
I started to wonder what I was doing here all on my own on a bicycle in the hinterland of India, slap bang in the middle of all sorts of ethnic and religious problems such as uprisings of Sikhs in the Punjab, and unrest between Muslims and Hindus. If the killers were Hindus did I look like a Muslim in my shorts? And if they were Muslims did I look like a Hindu in my bicycle T-shirt? Certainly not. Of course they could just have been plain bandits.
They were known to operate in these areas I was later told. I had this irresistible urge to find out why I had nearly been killed, but to cycle back and say: ‘Hey guys, why were you chasing me like that?’ just didn’t seem like a good idea at the time.
And besides, as the policeman had said, I probably wouldn’t be able to find them anyway.
When you are on travel, you usually sleep in guesthouses, bed and breakfast or everywhere you decide with your tent?
When travelling I sleep in my tent, in a hostel or with hospitable people that invite me in their homes. It depends on the country.
In Europe, Australia, the US and other expensive countries I mostly sleep in my tent. In cheaper countries like India or Southeast Asia where there are many people around and where there is little or no privacy I often take simple hotels.
What does “traveling by bike” mean for you?
Travelling by bike means to me: seeing the world, the people, the culture, the nature and al the other things that make the world so interesting.
Can you advance some details about your next trip?
Next summer I intent to ride my bike from Holland through Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Greece, a trip a 3 to 4 months
Frank travelled all around the world and he wrote 13 books about his adventures. One of these was written in english. You can buy "Pilgrims and Peppers" on Feltrinelli's website... If you want to have more informations about his bike trips and explorations, you can visit his website www.frankvanrijn.nl !!! Have a nice journey Frank!^_^