Sam: We were both born in Redhill. Alice was brought up in Dorking and arrived in Cranleigh through teaching, first at Cranleigh Primary School and then retraining as a fitness instructor 4 years ago. She now works at the Leisure Centre and the Golf and Country Club. I was brought up in South Holmwood and have worked all over the UK. At one time I even worked in London during the Olympics as a cycle paramedic. I’m now working out of Burgess Hill and Brighton as a Paramedic Practitioner and as part of that training I worked an 8 week placement in the Cranleigh Medical Practice.
It was Alice’s love for the village that drew me to Cranleigh, and I’ve since been fortunate enough to get to know lots of the locals, as Alice knows everybody!
A few years ago, we had started talking about what the future held for us. We were renting a place in Horsham at the time and we talked a lot about going away together to have an adventure and forge some lasting memories outside of the UK, before settling down to have a family.
Alice and Sam in Venice
We discussed every different way to travel you can think of-cars, vans, trains, flying, as well as volunteering our time. The idea of touring around cities on buses sightseeing, really didn’t suit us, particularly Alice as she can’t sit still! We started to discuss our passion for fitness and how we could incorporate it into our travels, and as a result, Alice suggested cycling.
From that point on we spent all of our time researching the different options in terms of bikes and cycling kits and received endless different pairs of padded shorts and overshoes from all of our friends and family for Christmas.
Our initial plan was to get on a boat to Spain and aim for Iran. However, when we looked at the cost of getting a boat and the temperatures in Northern Spain we decided it would be wise to head further south so we booked ourselves an Easyjet flight to Marrakesh. Our budget was limited (around 20 Euros a day), so we planned to camp throughout our trip to keep our spend as low as possible.
Our friends helped inspire possible destinations during our leaving party
And that was it. We collapsed our bikes, put them in boxes, stuck them on the plane and then built them at the airport the other end upon our arrival at Marrakesh. We then departed in darkness to the centre of Marrakesh with our bikes laden with 4 panniers each.
We actually hadn’t fully accounted for how heavy our packs were and neither of us had experience of cycling with that much weight before. We were both carrying around 40 kilos, including all of our food and water supplies each day. In fact, we were so heavy on our bikes, that by the end of the trip the spokes in one of my wheels had completely given in under the pressure!
After fighting our way through the packed streets of Marrakesh at 11pm, constantly apologising for knocking into people with our backpacks, we spent our first 4 nights at a guest house down a little back street. Despite our initial bewilderment, the people were incredibly friendly and welcoming which really helped to put us at ease. In fact, the fantastic hospitality is one of our most resounding memories of Morocco.
The bikes weren’t quite road worthy on arrival at Marrakesh Airport
After spending a few days in Marrakesh, we set off, with no plan other than ‘let’s head South’.
The Atlas Mountains were our first major challenge. There was still snow on the road and conditions were icy cycling up, although the roads were much quieter the further away from Marrakesh we got. The scenery was breath-taking and, in a sense, we felt that we were embarking on an idyllic adventure, but little did we realise how we’d failed to prepare mentally for the 2,000-metre climb that lay ahead.
Alice: “Fitness wise I was at my peak, I’d been teaching 16 classes a week, so physically I was very able. In my head I thought “Woohoo, we’re going away for a year, this is going to be so great!” and then 6 hours of cycling uphill, with just my thoughts for entertainment and it was getting colder and colder, I realised I wasn’t really prepared for this! So that mental challenge was the bigger struggle for me.
Many hazards on the road in the Atlas Mountains
Sam: As well as the mental struggle we’d hugely understated the cold temperature, and as a result we did end up staying at a few hostels during the first week. After that we met a man who was cycling in the opposite direction, who told us how he would camp down little tracks off the side of the road and had never had any problems. So, we decided it was time to be brave and give camping a go for ourselves.
At first, I would lie awake for hours, panicking about every possibility from stray dogs to wild boar to gangs of thieves, with Alice snoring away next to me blissfully unaware. I was very conscious of the fact that I had promised Alice’s dad that I’d bring her home safely in one piece!
The local people were always curious about us and we spent most nights entertaining various people in one form or another. At times they would come over and sit with us, often until the second we zipped up our tent and said goodnight. At other times, they would physically pick up our stove and food and carry it into their own houses where they would insist we join them. We’d spend entire evenings playing games, dancing, and attempting to converse in broken Arabic, French or English.
The first major climb of the trip was a little chilly but the sweet Moroccan tea kept us energised
Alice can hold a conversation in French and I had tried to learn a little Arabic (which I discovered was actually Egyptian Arabic, and of little relevance), but much of the time we had to rely on other forms of communication, like body language, music, smiles and sharing family photos to get by.
They’d always want to know everything about us, and by the end we had started to get a bit exhausted of entertaining families in a third language all night, particularly after cycling all day, and longed for a few nights alone!
Alice: I can remember how much I just wanted to sit on a chair. We’d spend all day on our bikes and then the evening hunched over the stove cooking and then sat by the tent. My posture definitely suffered! In Morocco everyone sits on the floor. You realise what a privileged existence you have just being able to sit on chairs!
Laundry and exercise combined when Sam invented the ‘Spin Cycle’ out of an old bike and a discarded washing machine
Sam: We decided to head West to the coast and then up to Fes. We stayed in Safi as it was on route to the North where we ended up meeting a German man who kindly took us in and fed and watered us, which we were eternally grateful for. We were probably the first white faces he’d seen in a while!
After Morocco we really didn’t have much of a plan so we then made our way across the Rif Mountains, which were stunning, and got the ferry into Algeciras, Spain. We’d realised early on in the trip that our cash was going to run out if we planned on continuing on in the same fashion. A friend of mine back in the UK, had done some training with a woman whose sister ran a farm in Spain and she text us one day to tell us about a farm we could go and work at.
We applied to work at the farm through a website called workaway.info. There’s another site called wwoof.org that offers a similar service. We sent off all of our details and available dates and the farm confirmed our stay. Little did we know we would fall in love with the farm and stay there for 2 months!
First (daunting) sight of the Atlas mountains
The farm was a 20-hectare olive farm on the side of a valley, hosting 6-8 volunteers, it was owned by a British woman who’d lived in Spain for 20 years, whose goal was to live self-sufficiently ‘off grid’ There was no direct access from the road and it came complete with compost toilets and solar water heaters. We worked hard every day on the farm, but it was a truly amazing place that stole our hearts.
We actually considered staying there and not going on. Had it been towards the end of our trip we’d probably still be there now. But because it was so early on and we’d only just got into Spain, we felt we’d always regret not continuing our cycle.
So, we left the farm and hot footed it into France. Our aim was always to head to Iran, so we knew that we were going east. We met various friends and family along the way, all the while keeping our eyes pealed for green areas where we could camp.
Wherever we lay the tent; that’s our home
Alice: We had a few pretty demoralising days in France. At one point we ended up getting really lost and cycled in a big circle ending up at the same round about we’d started at 30 kilometres earlier. It was so hot and we were in the middle of nowhere in the south of France so I was always worried about running out of water.
Even though it was beautiful, I much preferred cycling up a mountain where you know the only way is up!
France to Italy was a huge accomplishment. It was 2350 metres from the bottom to the top of the mountain, through the ski resort Isola 2000 and over Col De La Lombard. I said to Sam at the bottom ‘Right I’m not stopping I’m just going to keep going until we get to the top. I’m not stopping for anything.’
Sam: At one point on the Isola we were at 9% gradient. But it wasn’t the gradient that was the issue it was the fact that you were at any gradient for such a long period of time. 27-kilometres up hill in fact.
Cycling a mile vertically in a morning. That’s just how we roll!
Alice: When we finally reached the top, I climbed off my bike, threw it to the floor and shouted ‘Can we have a baby now?!”
When we got to the top, the first thing we did was go for a pizza and a beer. Which was a real treat for us as normally we’d just be eating cans of tuna, and bread. Just the same food every day as it was cheap and easy to carry.
Japanese tourists were taking photos of us. Looking elated, dishevelled and pretty skinny! Sam actually lost 9 kilos in the first 2 months.
Alice ventures out without her stabilisers on
One of my fondest memories about reaching the top of that mountain was finding a group of cyclists who had a support van with them carrying all of their belongings. We really felt like it was an achievement carrying all of our belongings and food and water on our backs at that point.
Coming down the mountain, there was a scary moment when my brakes failed. We were cycling down a single-track road next to the cliff edge and Sam had already gone on way ahead. I decided I would be fine as long as I could put my feet to the floor to slow myself down. When I eventually reached Sam, he wouldn’t let me cycle any further (rightly so!) without fixing my brakes.
Sam: To this day I have no idea what had happened, but I took the brakes apart and put them back together again, and by some miracle they started working again. After that we managed to reach the bottom pretty quickly.
Cooking dinner in the Parque Natural Sierra de las Nieves, Southern Spain
Alice: We continued on through Italy straight across the top, we passed through places like Milan, Asti and Venice experiencing the fantastic cuisine Italy has to offer. In one sense we felt it was a shame that we weren’t able to indulge in as much sight seeing as we would have liked. Given the cycling distance between locations and our limited budget, but in another sense the richness of our experience came through the journey we had. Stopping off in small villages and meeting the locals, sharing a coffee with strangers who were interested in our travels. It was all of the things we wouldn’t have seen or experienced had we been driving around the country in the car, staying at hotels.
From Italy we went on to Hungary to meet up with a friend from the farm we’d stayed at. We stayed a week in Budapest and worked at a music festival she was performing at.
The biggest culture shock we had was going from Hungary into Serbia, particularly across the border. In the first few villages we encountered, the poverty was extreme. It felt grey and hopeless. Jobs were scarce and there was no hope for the future due to the rise of industrial farming. It felt really sad. Their minimum wage was less than we were paying for a coffee. I felt a horrible weird feeling of privilege, that we were lucky enough to be able to leave our jobs for a year and cycle around. To the people we met, working and earning a living to support their family was what they knew and they didn’t understand why we were doing it. It seemed completely ludicrous to them.
Alice’s total brake failure on the way down from the Col de Lombard was a ‘slight’ concern
Why did we do it?
Sam: For the personal challenge.
Alice: Setting off I hadn’t really considered why I was doing it. If Sam hadn’t suggested it initially, it would never have occurred to me to go. On reflection, physically it wasn’t necessarily such a challenge, as I was used to a high level of physical activity through my job. The challenge for me was the mental aspect. For me, 8 hours on a bike with my own thoughts started to drive me insane after a while. You can’t talk to each other very easily and so that was the most challenging aspect. I totally underestimated the mental side of it. Also getting back into everyday life.
Sam: It’s definitely brought us closer together as a couple and given us a greater understanding of one another, by overcoming all of those challenges together. We shared so many amazing moments and can spend hours looking back on all of the little memories, like Alice falling off her bike at every occasion! It consolidated our understanding of one another. You develop a certain level of intimacy when you’re constantly surrounded by strangers together.
What would become our final destination, an interesting city with living memory of violence and political upheaval
Alice: It’s changed us by reminding us how privileged we are to live the life we do, and that we’re lucky to be able to go and do something like that. Even little things like the fact that we have all of our teeth. Such a huge number of people we met in poorer countries didn’t have any teeth because they don’t brush them, and don’t have a national health service.
Our next adventure?
We just bought a house. We’re going part time with our current jobs as of March next year and taking on a charity, running a residential centre over in Forest Green called The Mill. We’ll be running school groups, cooking and cleaning, advertising and managing the bookings. It’s for inner city kids from London, that can come down and camp for the first time and experience being out in nature but it will also be available for other private hire groups too.