Race Against the Clock
Explorer Reza Pakravan set off from the northernmost point in Europe to cycle to the other end of the planet, Cape Town, in record time. With his partner, Steven Pawley, they were attempting to set a world record of just 100 days to do over 11,000 miles, completely unsupported, and they completed the journey in 102 days. Battling against punishing terrain and primitive roads, harsh and debilitating climates, their thrilling journey brought them face to face with some of the world’s most stunning, memorable and volatile regions. Through the expedition, Reza raised over £70k, which resulted in five schools being built through NGO SEED Madagascar.
We found out more about this epic journey…
After finishing your journey, did you initially encounter culture shock on your return?
Yes. It hit my face as soon as I arrived in Heathrow Airport. After 102 days of adrenalin rushes and dealing with uncertainty all the time, I found it difficult to deal with normal life. I was walking down the street and didn’t know how to deal with myself. I had a lot to process. The remedy was to buy a ticket and leave for California to see my family and start writing my book. It took me six months to finish writing and I was fortunate to find a publisher who decided to publish it. The writing, and later on making my TV series, helped me a lot to process what I went through.
Was it difficult to manage the filming while you were cycling?
Extremely difficult. We were riding 10/12 hours a day in some of the most unforgiving climates and roads in the world, we were struggling to find food and basic requirements, so adding in filming was quite a difficult task. No matter how tired I was, I still had to find the energy to pick up the camera and make sure I had enough coverage to tell the visual story.
Sometimes you just want to be in the moment – for example, if you are in the middle of Africa and you experience something fascinating, or you come out of a life and death situation or see the hospitality of a stranger – for all of these, you want to live that moment, but you have to take the camera out and film.
What was your biggest mental challenge in Kapp to Cape?
To keep pushing and motivating myself to pedal ahead. There were times that I got really ill and times that I got knocked down by heatstroke, food poisoning and malaria, but to just wake up and pull myself together and carry on was the most difficult challenge.
To be honest, the expedition was a journey and it’s finished, but the personal journey started when the expedition finished. I realised the most challenging part after the expedition was coming back to normal life. I decided to change my life and do what I love to do. I spent my entire savings on going to film school and retrained myself. I was broke and had no money left. During those times, I was receiving calls from headhunters asking me to return to the corporate world with a six-figure salary. I didn’t know when my next pay cheque was coming and I was struggling with my finances, but I had to tell them no. Turning those calls down was a character-building exercise. They were very tough moments to get through.
Kapp to Cape takes you from the tip of Norway to the tip of South Africa. What was the starkest contrast between the two points?
Temperature! Then, obviously, wealth is the second contrast. And diversity. In Norway and Finland almost everyone is basically the same. The races are limited. In South Africa, it’s a very multiracial society.
Have you found a commonality among people in your travels?
It’s fascinating because when you travel the world at the speed of a bike and you see the world in that level of detail, the needs are so basic – eating, sleeping, water, food – and you actually start to look for similarities rather than differences. Even if you want to go as fast as you can, you are still going so slow!
You see the hospitality of people everywhere. You see that most of the people in the world are the same. They will go out of their way and help you if they can.
Has it been difficult for you to find the words to tell your story?
It took a while for me to reflect. We had some really extreme experiences. I also asked Steven and he had the same feeling. I really had to dig deep to process those emotions and then start putting them into words.
During Kapp to Cape, you worked to raise money to build schools in Madagascar. Why did you choose schools in Africa?
In 2009, I went to Africa to do volunteer work with an NGO [non-governmental organisation] in Madagascar, which is one of the most impoverished places in the world. I spent a month in the bush helping to build a school, doing manual work. The experience was so rewarding and filled me with gratitude for what I have. I started looking for ways to help and I decided to use my expedition as a way to raise funds for the people and places close to my heart.
It was also important to feel the energy of people behind you. If you are doing something at that scale, why not raise money for a good cause? I combined my expedition with fundraising and it was a win-win situation for everyone, as well as being inspiring for others to do the same.
What would you say would help bring the biggest positive change to our world collectively?
If every person takes one step and does their bit, collectively we could make this world a much better place. Whether you wish to help the environment or eradicate poverty, all it takes is that first step towards positive change. You will be surprised at how many people will help you.
What do you want people to gain from your story?
I receive at least three to four emails weekly, from people who want to do big adventures or change their lives. Whatever you want to do, whoever you want to become or whatever change you want to make, take the first micro-step towards it. Initiate incremental success, gain confidence from doing something very small and, next time, take a bigger step. You will get there. I left my corporate life with a six-figure salary and went to a film school to retrain. I set off on a big expedition and filmed it. Against all the odds, I made my first TV series, which became a huge success. If I could do it, you can too. If you are really passionate about something, sooner or later you will be good at it.
Do you think this was a required way to go – to just up and quit corporate?
Absolutely not. I was in my thirties when I left my job. I didn’t leave my job to go to Africa, see an elephant and say life is beautiful. I saved up, planned, researched, trained, learned and built a network, and then did what I had to do.
Why do people do what makes them safe vs. what they desire?
This is one of the struggles of modern days. As a species, what made us successful was our desire to take risks, cross the oceans and explore the jungles. There is something so powerful about risk taking. It makes me feel alive.
Is it possible to merge comfort with adventure living?
I can’t see why these two should contradict each other. I equally enjoy my warm and comfortable home to roughing it in the wild. You can make a comfortable life out of adventure if you are really passionate about it. If you want to make a living out of adventure, you should have a skill to offer. Adventurers make a living from writing, speaking, storytelling, photography and film-making. If you like adventure and you want to make a living, you have to become an expert in something. Just adventuring on its own is not enough. That serves you, not others.
Which places did you ride through that you thought, I must come back here?
Definitely Botswana was the highlight. I just love that country. Pure wilderness, incredible people and an abundance of wildlife. Also, the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia was fascinating. The only Buddhist settlement in Europe. Really blew my mind.
Were there any places you never wanted to return to?
Ethiopia. It was us against the country. Stone-throwing kids, non-stop rain, sickness and difficult riding conditions left a bitter taste in my mouth. However, all was superseded by the stunning sceneries and kindness of strangers. I went back to Ethiopia last year for the second time.
What did you see that had the greatest impact?
I cycled through wealthy as well as poor regions, stable countries and war zones but I can remember one encounter that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I saw a kid, in a really bad shape, staring at me while I was chewing on a pack of Haribo. We started to look into each other’s eyes and that look had a profound effect on me. I gave him the pack of Haribo. He said thank you and disappeared, he didn’t even eat it. Perhaps he wanted to save it for later.
You talked about climate change quite a bit in the Sahel piece (see the last two issues of Sorted), but what did you notice on that issue on this ride?
To be perfectly honest, I was so focused on hitting our daily targets and surviving in difficult conditions that climate change was the last thing that came to my mind.
What sort of bike did you need for that kind of journey, and how well did it stand up to the pounding it must have got?
I was using a trekking bike custom made by Koga. It was heavy and sturdy, with four pannier bags hanging from its racks attached to the frame. It really stood up to the pounding. Bikes have come a long way. Nowadays you can use special road bikes with clearance for thicker wheels and tyres as well as light bags with no need for heavy racks. I was carrying 30kg of equipment. With new bikes you can get away with carrying only 16kg.