Stephen Fabes has just finished a mammoth cycle around the world; Chantelle Kelly speaks to him about the experience…
In January 2010 Stephen Fabes left his job as a medical doctor at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, mounted his bicycle and set off to pedal the length of six of the earth’s continents. Six years later he has travelled a total of 83,209km and visited an impressive 75 countries – that’s a distance equivalent to more than twice around the globe.
He succeeded his original plan and cycled across six continents – Europe, Asia, South America, Central and North America, Australia and Africa. During his ride Stephen visited remote medical clinics, projects and organisations that assist marginalised groups with health problems: “I’m interested in the relationship between marginalisation and disease,” he explains. When I asked what else there is to know about him, he adds: “I love 90’s hip hop, anything outdoors and chocolate hobnobs.”
Why he did he decide to take on the challenge and how did it turn from an idea into an actual plan? “The simple reason, and one that never seems to wholly satisfy people, is that I wanted an adventure. Why six years? Perhaps I wanted to beef up the challenge. And I was keen to learn about and document both the physical journey by bicycle and my own journey of understanding, which came from visiting the various health projects.”
“The idea of biking around the world grew from another bike trip. 12 years before I pedalled the length of Chile with my younger brother. We were both teenagers and messed it up spectacularly, but it was a great misadventure that inspired me to travel again by bicycle because it gives you a king of backstage view of the world.”
On Stephens first day of his adventure he had a nervous wobble; after setting off and waving goodbye to his friends and family he panicked: “I realised with a thump that the world was too big. I was unfit and underprepared and feeling ungrateful for breezing too willingly away from a profession I loved, interesting friends and an existence that was easy to be with.”
“I wondered suddenly if I was making a huge mistake. So I did a quiet U turn and headed to the pub. Friends and family, on the other hand, assumed I was cycling towards France. My mates arrived and I was gently coerced to stop drinking and cycle around the planet like I’d bragged I would!”
Great hospitality in the middle east and Turkey, incredible landscapes in South America, strange wildlife and amazing people in Africa.
Stephen had managed to save up for the trip before he left, and he managed to make the funds last three years: “Then I made money through public and school presentations, freelance travel writing, selling photography and public donations.”
“I didn’t need much – I lived on less than 10 dollars a day, very little in the way of transport or accommodation costs. It was all about finding money for food.”
Looking back to the most memorable moment, on a birthday: “Being thrown a birthday party by a Syrian village was pretty special, months before the country fell into war.” He adds that “camping on the Bolivian salt flats and fitting ice tyres to cycle across the frozen lake Khovsgol in Northern Mongolia” were other stand-out moments.
He said that the cultures that surprised him the most were “usually the ones for which there had been an element of isolation, for physical or political reasons – so Myanmar, Ethiopia and Mongolia.”
Are there any stand-out locations or landscapes that took his breathe away? “The salt flats in Bolivia of course, the desert-scapes in Namibia, any of the high passes in the Andres between Chile and Argentia, Yosemite and the Pamir Mountains.”
Out of the 75 countries he visited he said he has no favourites, and liked different places for different reasons: “Great hospitality in the middle east and Turkey, incredible landscapes in South America, strange wildlife and amazing people in Africa, and culturally Asia was the most different to my home country, so that was exciting too.”
He also met some incredible characters along the way: “I recently met Heinz Stucke, who was a reminder that someone is always doing something more crazy than you. Heinz spent 51 years cycling around the planet, a bit more than my measly six. He was a complicated guy, very driven, and inspiring to meet.”
Inevitably, he faced some difficulties on the way: “Crossing Mongolia during the winter meant camping at minus 35, on one occasion on the frozen surface of a lake. I had three sleeping bags and three sleeping mats, but even then!”
Other life threatening moments included: “Some scary animals in Africa – lions were not far away form my tent and I had a black widow inside! I got dengue fever. I was detained on suspicion of espionage in China. I hit a motorbike in Uganda. A man put a gun to my head in Peru. I needed knee surgery. I cycled through the ash cloud of an erupting volcano for three days. A severe tropical storm, a blizzard or two, and I got a bit lost in London on the way home – my sense of direction is still pretty ropey.”
Loneliness was also a factor: “To combat it I coerced friends into joining me for sections, and I regularly spoke with friends and family on Skype. Failing that: sock puppets!”
How did you feel when came back and was greeted by your family and friends again? “Mixed emotions, mostly elation and relief. But part of me was sad that this era in my life was over. Life will be a bit more predictable from now on!”
What three things did you learn from your journey? “The world is a big, welcoming place. Persevere – things get better. Life is about taking risks and making sacrifices.”
What advice would you give to a beginner wanting to travel the world by bike? “Don’t listen to the doomsayers. Don’t over plan the route. Document as much as you can, by whatever method suits you. Bring cable ties!”
What’s your next adventure? “Writing a book about it all!”
To read more about Stephen’s cycling adventure visit his website www.cyclingthe6.com which features all his blog posts, photographs and videos from the trip.
You can also follow him on Facebook www.facebook.com/Cyclingthe6 and on Twitter @cyclingthe6.