In 2012, Juliana Buhring became the fastest women to circumnavigate the world by bicycle. Here she shares her incredible journey.
Things started to go wrong again from the moment I landed in New Zealand. Apart from strong wind and rain, the GPS stopped working, my phone battery died, and there were next to no signs, so it was all guesswork. Either I didn’t understand the locals, or they couldn’t understand me, because somewhere along the way I got onto the wrong road. I had intended to head for Te Kuiti and follow the west coast to Wellington, but instead found myself someplace in the middle, winding up on Desert Road, a highway passing through a high mountain plateau, so named because there is no civilization for 150 kilometers. I had been pedaling uphill for a good 130 kilometers without the slightest reprieve. The only food I had eaten apart from bagels and cream cheese that morning were some protein bars I’d brought with me from America. My muscles were shaking with fatigue. I had no way of knowing where I was or where the nearest town was. There was only one thing I could do. Keep pedalling.
The winds, which had been behind me most of the day, began sweeping down the snow-capped mountains in a westerly direction. The gusts grew increasingly strong as the sun set, blasting into me with a force well over 100 kmph. It was impossible to continue pedalling, and after being blown off the road twice, I was forced to walk. Temperatures plummeted with the encroaching darkness. In addition to being inadequately dressed for minus temperatures, my clothes were drenched with sweat from climbing all day. As long as I was pedalling, I could stay reasonably warm. I began to lose all feeling in my extremities, my body shaking uncontrollably in the early stages of hypothermia. The wind was so strong, it lifted Pegasus off the ground, bags and all. Staggering slowly along, trying to keep on my feet, for the first time I begin to feel real concern for my safety. Fortunately, I was saved by an old couple pulled off the side of the road in their campervan, who fed me whisky and sausages and let me sleep the night in the shelf over the driver’s seat.
While in New Zealand, I ran out of money and posted a video to my online followers, informing them that due to lack of funding, I would have to return home. I had hoped that by leaving without securing a sponsor, I would prove my serious intention to cycle the world, and perhaps some company would pick me up along the way. This never happened. No sooner did my video go out, than supporters sent messages telling me not to worry about the money, to keep on going. Within a couple days, donations had flooded in, enabling me to continue on to Australia.
To my dismay, the prices in Australia were through the roof, eating rapidly through my limited cash supply. I survived almost exclusively on cheap petrol station meat pies and the everything-thrown-in burger. However, I had many friends in Australia who put me up along the way, which helped keep costs down. Then came the Nullarbor desert with the longest straight road on Earth. Civilization grew sparser after Adelaide, but the start of the Nullarbor really kicked in with a sign next to a dusty roadside garage stating Last Shop For 1000 km. I decided it was a good idea stock up with food and water. I planned to use the long flat desert road to eat kilometres, trying for an average of 250 km a day.
There is a great camaraderie between travellers on the long road through the Nullarbor. I would get a honk and a wave from almost every passing driver. At one rest stop, I came across a group of retired men in matching yellow and green jerseys drinking beer. The Fawkin’ Hawkin’s, as they called themselves, were a colourful group of old school friends who would meet for a road trip to a different place in Australia every year. And every year, a different matching theme jersey was created and worn for the occasion. For all their perfunctory “gruff and rough”, bad jokes and ribbing, they turned out to be pure gold. After getting the full interrogation about my adventure, I was presented with an honorary autographed yellow and green jersey, and a 70 dollar donation they pooled together for me.
Such occasional human encounters were about the most entertaining breaks in the monotony of pedalling one long straight road, with nothing on either side but calf-high shrubs. There was not a single tree, and even animal sightings were rare. Live animals, that is. Road kill was a distinct feature of the Nullarbor road. Most kangaroos came out at night and were hit by the giant train trucks speeding through. By morning, the road would be covered in fresh corpses; the tarmac stained a permanent rust colour from old blood perpetually replaced by new. Dodging road kill whilst holding my breath became my main preoccupation. That, and fleeing from the giant, bee-sized horse flies.
Australian spring meant that, like the magpies who frequently dove kamikaze-style into my helmet, the horse flies too had it in for me. Unlike the magpies, they were out for blood and as the closest living blood source for miles, they were relentless in their pursuit, like a herd of elephants following a receding waterbed. Even headwinds failed to deter them. Keeping close behind me in a fly’s version of “drafting” allowed for smooth access to my posterior which they rudely settled upon and chomped down on. Their mouths are like a tiny pair of scissors with which they neatly slice open your skin. My first natural reaction was to slap them away, which you can imagine, made a wonderful scene for passing motorists. Me, pedalling at a desperate pace, whilst slapping away at my arse with one hand, a bit like “giddy up horsey”. In hindsight, this may well have been the reason for all the friendly honks and waves.
This story was prepared for Apidura by Juliana Buhring. Juliana holds the first Guiness World Record for Fastest Woman to Circumnavigate the World by Bicycle. She is a bestselling author, children’s rights activist and endurance athlete. You can follow her blog at http://julianabuhring.com/blog.