Doctor cycles from London to Cape Town

Completing the first leg of a unique around-the-world journey through the length of six continents, Steve Fabes found Africa to be a life-affirming place

Medical doctor and cycling enthusiast, 31 year-old Steve Fabes, is on a remarkable journey. Described as “hugely ambitious and inspirational” by triple gold medal winning Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy, Steve’s aim is to cycle the length of six continents – a five-year journey covering 60 countries and 80,000km.

Steve’s journey is raising money for medical charity Merlin, and he has already achieved just under £20,000 in donations. Steve will be taking a route through regions affected by Neglected Tropical Diseases – 14 largely ancient infectious diseases affecting an estimated 1bn people – to witness firsthand their effect on local populations.

In July 2011 after 16 months on the road, Steve completed the first leg of the journey, having cycled just over 23,000km from London to Cape Town. Before setting off again from the southern tip of South America towards Northern Alaska, he shared his experience so far with Positive News.

Like all decisions of great consequence my plan to cycle around the world was made in a pub, beer in one hand, mini-atlas in the other. I was working as a hospital doctor and struggled with the question of whether it was brave or stupid to say goodbye to it all, to my friends, to my family, to my country and to the job that I loved. Finally I gave myself permission to ignore my doubts and to embark on an epic adventure – a five-year bicycle ride across six of the Earth’s continents. I was terrified but I couldn’t wait to get started.

As my lonely migration east began and I cycled slowly away, full of trepidation and emotion, the coldest snap in almost 30 years descended upon the UK. After coming under repeated fire by English school children armed with snowballs I boarded a boat bound for France where the big freeze continued.

As I climbed up into the Alps the temperature at night plummeted to minus twenty degrees Celsius. Eastern Europe may have been warmer but it came with its own unique challenges and Greece was the venue for the first in a series of acts of terrorism from fiercely territorial farm dogs, making haste from menacing mutts became part of my daily routine.

In Turkey I twice wondered which component of my bike was clicking only to realise the sound was emanating from my now painful and swollen left knee. Following a scan I discovered that a chunk of cartilage had broken off the end of my femur. Crushed and heartbroken I stashed my bike somewhere safe and then hitchhiked back to London for surgery.

Post-op and after two months of physiotherapy I returned to Istanbul, ready to explore the Middle East and I was soon astounded by the unparalleled hospitality that I encountered along the way.

In Cairo I met up with Nyomi, a friend from the UK. Together we planned to tackle all of Africa. We coasted along the flat terrain beside the Nile through Egypt and then Sudan but when we crossed into Ethiopia it soon felt as though we were at sea and a vicious storm was brewing, the hills rolled in like great waves, each one more foreboding than the last. Every day gangs of children chased after us, chanting “YOU! YOU! YOU!,” demanding money, waving sticks, throwing stones and stealing belongings from our bikes.

Over Christmas I gorged myself, safe in the knowledge that I needed the calories. I had lost 15kg since Istanbul and there’s not an image more bleak or farcical than a grown man in baggy Lycra.

Whilst Nyomi sat on a bus bound for Nairobi I cycled off alone into the arid, thinly populated badlands of Northern Kenya, a region of tribal warriors, nomads and ruthless bandits. I loaded my bike into a dugout canoe and crossed the Omo River, on the other side I pushed my bike through a sandy, desolate wilderness for days, this was the very edge of civilization.

After a testing slog I was reunited with Nyomi and together we rode through the verdant and undulating tea plantations of Uganda and Rwanda, the roadside was full of bright eyes and winsome grins. Southern Africa was the Dark Continent of my imagination; wild, lonely, terrifying and exhilarating. Thankfully I made it through lion country un-mauled. Lets face it, it’s a good brag.

Finally after 23,215 kilometres, 26 international boundaries, one year and four months on the road, 265 days in Africa and a whopping puncture count of 113, I rode into the Cape of Good Hope.

I studied Belinda, my bicycle. She had scrappy ribbons of electrical tape holding together the handlebar grip, there were scratches on the frame, and tie wraps sat where long lost pannier clips should be. She wore the marks and scrapes of those 16 months on the road, and so do I. The contours of my legs have changed, I’m thinner, there are two small scars on my left knee and my hairstyle is bordering on full-blown mullet.

Along the way my bedrooms have been a curious and opportune mix. Aside from my roadside tent I have slept in churches, derelict castles, schools, hospitals on a crocodile farm and in the shed of a water buffalo.

More than anything it’s been the extraordinary trust and generosity of people that has encouraged me forward. I have never been refused water and I have lost count of the number of drivers who have stopped their cars to hand me food or drink or to offer me a place to sleep. Three times I have been given money, once I was passed a bag of thirty six oranges, and on another occasion I was handed the keys to a beach house.

I have relished this first stage of my ride for many, many reasons. Living outside, plenty of exercise and all the unfamiliar faces and places have conspired to make me feel more alive than ever before. I’ve reveled in the unpredictability of life, of often having no clue where I’ll be sleeping, the buzz of carrying everything I need in my panniers and the freedom that I know I’ll never have again. I am no longer caught up in the tide of rapid choices and consequences that inevitably comes with a life in the city. It’s a good feeling.

I have many warm and enduring memories from Africa. I remember the magnificent vistas, the thick forests, the empty deserts, the towering mountains and the rolling hills, but no landscape was as vivid, colourful or inspiring as the people I met along the way. When people ask me ‘what was the best bit?’ I find it hard to answer. The best bits all involved people, but there are far too many to mention.

It’s usually only the bad news in Africa that makes our newspaper headlines – the disease, the conflict, the corruption, the poverty and the crime. It is a continent portrayed in the media as being either full of victims or a selfish, dangerous place, full of criminals and malcontents. Having cycled its length that’s not how I perceive it. I can’t help feeling that some of Africa’s problems stem from its public image. Nine months ago I set off into what I was assured was the most frustrating, dangerous and incomprehensible continent on earth. I think I will remember Africa as the most life-affirming, the most human, and perhaps the most beautiful.