that Mercian machine!

Before you read further, let me say, it’s an honour to write for OldVelos. What follows focuses mainly on one thing…a Mercian. Lovers of bikes and Mercian lovers in particular, will no doubt tell me how many times ‘Mercian’ was referenced, if at all, in Quondam: travels in a once World. Honestly, I wasn’t counting! The book was written neither for-nor-about that ‘Mercian machine’. Yet, be in no doubt, when you do get to read it, you’ll understand how central it was to the success of that long-ish journey. 

Now, where to begin or how? 

Fools Day, 1985, Upper Aghada, is as good a place as any! I still recall the drizzle but the Mercian didn’t care a whit, she took me round that first bend and that was it…the beginning of a seminal adventure into a quondam world. Before anyone gets carried away, let me come clean. Back then I was no cyclist or even a regular bike user, just a guy who understood that to extract the maximum from a long-haul trip, it had best be done on two wheels. Sure, Dervla Murphy’s 1963 adventure left its mark but, though I met her and we spoke of ‘bikes’ she was of the ‘Sturmey Archer’ generation and thus I made my own call – a Mercian it would be.

To sit on a Brooks B-17, atop of a Mercian frame, for two years through thirty-three countries, is long enough to feel at-one with what’s under you. One’s butt moulds the leather until they fit like lock-and-key. One’s body adjusts, unconsciously, to the bike’s ‘personality’, its ‘way’, how it ‘holds’, how it moves, what the needs are, as the weeks and months roll-by. It was a veteran, now in cycling heaven, who told me first to opt for a Mercian. Brain Murphy knew a thing or two about bikes and I, not knowing anything…duly listened. And George Harding, of Hardings, that quondam quintessential bike shop in 1980’s South Terrace, Cork city, George had the job of assembling her pieces and make her feel like a true ‘war-horse’. Oh, if she’d known where she was being taken, she might have opted to remain on Leeside but then, innocence is beautiful – for her owner didn’t know either and thus we departed a duo, a man-Mercian duo, knowing very little between us except we would do it together…whatever that meant. Looking back we were truly a Don Quixote and Sancho Pança or perhaps better put, a half-dotty Don and his trusty steed, Rozinante!

In Ireland we understand what it means to have ‘a grá’ for someone or something. Sometimes the ‘grá’ grows slowly and that is how it was, a slow love. For nine months or more it was a pragmatic affair, just a mechanical functionality. I had a job to do so she would get oiled and tweaked and ‘fed’…that was it really and then…twelve months later, crossing the Nubian desert…

‘It felt colder than an Irish winter when we departed the chai-station. I rummaged for a pair of trousers, pulled them on, then climbed in between my two companions. Ali, before he turned the key, rearranged my Palestinian head shaal ‘… in the arab fashion,’ he said, ‘to keep the sand and cold out’, but my concern was for the bike. It lay on the metal floor of the empty truck, tied to both sides with rope and cushioned by every item I could find, including panniers, a tarpaulin and a two old tyre tubes. This care for a bike bemused Ali, and for a good hour I tried to explain how ‘it and I’ had become a team and as a team we had to care for each other, so to speak. We had a long way to go. 

I had never been sentimental enough to give the bike a name. It was an inanimate object, after all, and I often felt bemused at those who christened their bikes names like Rick or Roger or whatever, yet the more I sat on that Brooks B17 saddle, the more I oiled, greased, tended and repaired, the more I tightened nuts, straightened spokes, coaxed or even kicked it in frustration… yes, the more I lived, trudged, battled and soared with this machine, the more a bond was formed and respect grew. The bike became me; that’s how it felt, like I was caring for myself. If I was to give it any name it would be my own.

and months later in South Sudan, amid a civil war…

‘How differently I saw the bike to them, not as a piece of expertly welded tubing with pedals, carriers, brackets, bars, not as a clothes-horse for my ward- robe, bedroom, kitchen, toilet. I saw it as a hill farmer would his loyal collie or an Egyptian fellah his old donkey, this well built Mercian machine, this unsung hero. What it had been through, and we were only half way there! I was one hundred percent attached to it now, like Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, enough at least to have some private chats, which were many—‘When will we ride again, in thunder, lightning or in rain?…It’s been too long my friend. Bloody hell, if you could talk.’ I longed and dreamed of cranking up the pedals to the limit on a long straight road with a cool wind on my back—‘Surely one is coming, somewhere out there in Africa, surely.’ 

No more need I say about a grá for a Mercian but how our ‘relationship’ ended is another story entirely. 

Originally written for OldVelos magazine Feb. 2020

travel writing, a thought!

I’ve been asked (by a few in a Bicycle-travel-writing group!) to ‘say’ something about writing, travel writing that is. Gee? What can I ‘say’? What do I know? Not much but ok, here goes and off the top! – We face a tough task, perhaps an almost impossible one, in attempting to truthfully and whole-heartedly express the many many layers of a journey. It takes time, and especially time to understand the consequences of a long trip. Travel writing becomes far more potent and richer when those consequences have been lived. The living of them returns to enrich the writing of the journey. That is why much travel writing today, when it’s written too quick, too fast, blurted out… is…sorry to be blunt here, but superficial. Best wait and digest the awesome thing one is doing. Remember it is FOOD, just as the food you eat to push the pedals, don’t forget that, – food to be slowly digested, otherwise one will spew out only the surface stuff…but then again it depends on what you really wish to express. Surface stuff is fine, if that’s just what you need to get across…but some writers need or really wish to express a bit more. Each one is different here. Good travel writing must, indeed, has no choice but push the boundaries, it’s got to push YOU, like a very very long climb in the dark, against the wind, with rain coming and with no idea of where you’re going to camp. But when you finally get there, there is a physical relief and a ‘high’…well, that’s how it should feel after a few hours digging with your ‘pen’ into the truth of your story. It is not mere description…sorry, but any kid can do that. One thing for sure and it’s this, try to avoid ‘telling’ the story. Dig deep, listen, reflect and find a way to ‘show’ what happened…indeed, sometimes to do that…it may require to write oneself out of the script! We, ie. ‘the traveller’ ‘us’ you’ ‘me’ is not the point. Get beyond the ‘surface layers’ of mere description, get deeper into that moment. The truth of the journey is in there. Feel-out and feel-into the intimacy of ‘that’ small, sometimes seemingly inconsequencial moment, open up to what was ‘really’ going on there, then of course balance it with the wider, grander, open-ended context of where and how and with whom. Ted Simon mentioned to me once about ‘surrender’ in travel. When you surrender and be vulnerable, the words will come. Good luck to us all with all our writings, it’s an endless long climb!

‘Virunga’ – the ‘Quondam’ chapter that lost its title!

In the spring of 2017, we went to Virunga, in the Eastern Congo. When I first told my wife where I wished us to go with our three teens, she threw the ‘proverbial canary’, but then, after she calmed down, she went straight to ‘Google’ !! As to our subsequent conversations…well, if you are up to speed with that part of the World, you can guess what kind of ‘conversations’ we had! Sara took the time she needed but when she finally got ‘on board’, we all sat around the round kitchen table to discuss this fairly big family (ad)venture. The ‘reading-up’ and bit of research was done, we got the jabs and the gear and even began a little training (to climb the 3,470m active volcano, Nyrogongo and sleep on top, and later to trek the 4,400m Mt. Mikeno in search of gorillas.) It was Easter and thus to expand the trip to over three weeks, we took the kids out of school one week either side…with the blessing of the Principle, Mr Coombs who said ‘…no doubt they’ll learn far more from this than time in class.’

On departure day, en route to Dublin airport, they were literally collected from school, tossing their bags in the boot, with waves from friends and a few envious geography teachers and off they went, cool as you like, from Bandon to central Africa. In Cork the car was dropped with a friend, we took the air-coach to Dublin, flew to Istanbul to spend the night. From there, seven-plus hours to Kampala, Uganda, then Kigali, Rwanda where we stayed a week. Onward by local bus, through extremely hilly country, to the busy border crossing between Gisenyi, Rw. and the million-plus city of Goma, D.R.Congo.

Both cities straddle the border and sit right on the scenic edge of the usually calm lake Kivu. Calm but potentially hazardous. A lake with its bottom full of volcanic gasses, sitting atop of a tectonic plate and butting-up to an active volcano, hmm! Those in the know describe Lake Kivu and/or its adjacent volcano, to be akin to a tick-tock-tick-tock waiting to go ‘boom’ – but then the same folk say much the same about the San Andreas fault in California.

There’s so much that could be written about the trip itself but suffice to say it was the best thing we ever did with-and-for our children and I think it left a hugely positive mark with them. But to go back a bit, if I may.  A year before and with everyone else in bed, I sat at the kitchen table, working on the penultimate chapter of ‘Quondam: Travels in a once World’. (At that time that chapter title was ‘Virunga’. After the trip I changed the title to ‘If our brother gorilla’s could speak’). Anyway, in the background, the kitchen radio was low – some late night debate about the financial costs of getting ones children through education. I’d heard it all before and was hardly listening but then, one contributor’s off-the-cuff remark made my ears prick. To paraphrase her comment, ‘if one spent a fraction of that ‘pot of education money‘ to bring one’s kids on a truly off-the-beaten trail adventure, what an experience that would be…it would be money well spent’. I stopped writing. In that instant a ‘crazy notion’ shot through my mind – ‘…bring ‘em to the Congo, of course. Why the hell not?’  And that, strange to say, was how the trip began.

For six months, prior to departure, I was in regular contact with Robert Williams, chief North American writer/blogger for the Virunga Park. In my gut I knew we would be fine but Robert merely confirmed that belief. There was nothing to fear, but then fear of the unknown is deep in us, and I had to convince my wife that all would well. As for our three teens, they couldn’t wait to get going and all the ‘hypotheticals’ and ‘what-ifs’ were never going to out-gun their bursting enthusiasm. The core reason to go was for them and at 18,16 and 15, (boy, girl, girl) I had absolutely no doubt that they were not only fit and hardy enough, but also mentally and emotionally robust and ready for whatever…and so, as I said, old boots were waxed, new boots broken-in, more gear purchased, research done and up and down early in the mornings we went, on our nearest half decent hill in Carrigfadda Hill, all to prepare for the most memorable ‘family trip’ we’ve ever done.

Epilogue 1

Quondam means ‘a period of time that has passed’. Now that you have read it or perhaps listened to the story, I guess it is a ‘quondam’ one for you! Thank you indeed. I hope it engaged and was an uplifting experience!  I shall endevour to take it onward from where it abruptly ended, but… patience please!

Some asked how the detail of such a journey could be ‘recalled’ from over thirty years ago. The answer is simple, firstly, the writing of Quondam would have been impossible without detailed diaries. While on the road these were attended to without fail, like the brushing of one’s teeth!  Secondly and more to the point, the experience of travelling then, was altogether different to today. As I wrote in the book, there was ‘…no-where-else-to-go with what you witnessed and experienced.’ It could not be ‘uploaded’, off-loaded or instantly ‘shared’… even discussed with anyone, (I was solo for the most part.) You went to your tent with everything the day offered, to chew, or not, over it all! In the travel-bubble of that time, the experience went more ‘in’ than ‘out’, (ie ‘out’ as it mostly does today.)

If thoughts and observations were not recorded immediately, they certainly they were recorded intimately. Not all but many a journeyer approached that ‘travel-diary’ with a sense of…at times, reverence, and many wrote as if it would be the last thing they would ever do!  There was a commitment to the diary and recording the daily stuff, the little things, the small or the grand, mattered a lot. On the long-road then, especially with the slow pace of a bicycle… those small things didn’t just come to life, they burst to life, and as anyone who travelled for a lengthy period would confirm, in the end, they ‘became’ one’s life. The world was ‘smaller’, more engaging, indeed, more intimate you might say, and the mind which witnessed was a different mind to todays, more ‘contained’ or self-contained.

And thus, to dive into the nuance and detail of dozens of hand-scrawled diaries over thirty years old – so as to extract the ‘marrow’ between the lines, and be as true as is possible, to the truth of that journey – was a daunting task. It would have been far easier to simply ‘tell’ the story straight from the diary, to merely recount it, but In my opinion, too many travel tales, though great physical journey’s in themselves, are merely ‘recounted’, merely ‘told’, straight from the diary page! This is not enough.  It leaves the story dry, impersonal, academic or even, sadly, with many, just superficial, without an attempt to ‘get-at’ the inner subtle-substance that is…at least half the journey. ‘Do NOT tell, show. Write, as if to your own mother…‘, so said one literary adviser I have not forgotten.

Brian, R.I.P.

He was a bushy bearded urban countryman, a Walt Whitman lookalike. He told me once, how he would walk from his terraced suburbia to the city bus station, check what buses were going to where, and then, in a calculated or at times instinctive moment, hop on one, to begin his mini ‘adventure’. Most of the bus drivers knew him well and I could so easily imagine the question, ‘Well, Brian, where will I let you off this time?”

Adventure is just thinking or doing outside the box-of-the-norm, that’s all, and that was Brian. For him it usually didn’t matter where the bus was going. He decided how far he wished to walk that day and then got on with it. He’d get off, ten, fifteen or more kilometres along a country road, for he always chose buses servicing the villages. By a farm gate or in a field he’d sup tea from a flask, nibble a biscuit, look at the weather, look at his compass, look over the field to check for any bull… then pack up and strike-off in a beeline across the agricultural countryside back to city suburbia.

Through fields and farmyards, around or over hills, over styles and streams, through gaps, down lanes, wherever the compass directed. Chats with farmers were inevitable and being in Irish countryside that meant, at the very least, a cup of tea in the hand and perhaps another biscuit! Getting actually ‘lost’ was a high point! A simple but grand adventure. Familiar places from different angles and always home for tea. That was Brian.

Let’s hear it for a heroine

What a sweet feeling it was to be bluntly told “…ah sure, you’re only a young fellah!” As I look down the barrel of 61, that made me smile. You can only nod and smile when an octogenarian puts you in your humble age place. And I remembered, too, neighbour and dairy farmer Jim at 88 telling me much the same, “You’re only a lad,” he said, and I reminded myself that when I was born they were at the age I was when I set out to cycle the world. They’ve seen it all and I know that beneath their wry replies they were telling me gently that at 61 there’s plenty time to do crazy things and reinvent yourself, given a bit of vision, desire and good health.

So let’s hear it for a genuine Irish octogenarian heroine, Dervla Murphy, a friend, still at her writing desk, reading, reviewing, encouraging, campaigning, and indeed every other elder.

Dervla Murphy remembered by the travel writer John Devoy, author of Quondam Travels in a once world - an epic, true-grit expedition by bike through the heart of Africa.

Dervla Murphy remembered by the travel writer John Devoy, author of Quondam


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