Get on your bike and ride. It's something almost everyone has learned to do. For some people, the thrill of first riding their bike at four or five years old faded after a few years, and sadly, dimmed to zero once they got their first car. For others, it just keeps getting more fun. When I'm on my bike and working, pushing to get up a hill, I know I've earned that rush down the other side. If you're driving, you just simply can't appreciate the land – the whole environment – in the same way. (Drivers, think what you will, but you cyclists know exactly what I mean.)
A bunch of years ago, some friends and I got on our bikes and rode from Toronto to Vancouver over the course of the summer. It was an amazing trip of almost 5,300 km (3312 miles) that took two and a half months, and ultimately took me to the land of great coffee and my own little rebirth. Man, oh man, did we see Canada, and it's still a significant milestone/accomplishment in my life. But this is an altogether different thing.
One day, South Africans Nathim Cairncross, 28, and Imtiyaz Ahmad Haron, 25, were throwing ideas at each other. One stuck: What if they were to bicycle from their home in Cape Town to Mecca for Hajj? Yeah, you read that right. An idea so simple and yet so awesome you wish you'd thought of it yourself. Like any crazy idea, there's excitement because although it might be crazy, it's not impossible. So they did it. They got on their bikes and rode. And they even made it early for Hajj.
Almost 11,000 km (6875 miles). 12 countries. Nine months. Not all of it going as planned.
The trek to Mecca requires you to rally your Clark Kent self and turn into a hero. That iron horse is only powered by your huffing. With enough time, you can power your way up the Rocky Mountains or K2, and not be surly about it. Eventually you will triumph, maybe even reaching Utopia.
(That was more work than I thought it would be…)
The Cape 2 Mecca Cycle (C2MC) blog is a bit sparse in terms of stories, but hey, Hajj just ended, so I suspect they'll be writing a lot more very soon. They do have a Facebook page and a whole lotta pictures!
Cairncross and Haron started riding February 7 and made it into Saudi Arabia in late October, well in advance of Hajj, and were welcomed by powerful storms, thunder, and lightning. Their story impressed and inspired many people along their route, which included friendly people in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. They were stymied by petty functionaries with clipboards at the Ethiopian border, forcing them to fly to Turkey and continue the trip southward from there through Syria, Israel, Jordan, then finally Saudi Arabia. (My map above includes some of the cities they named and capitals of some countries. It's not their official map.) Luckily, the Tabuk People of the Clipboards (in Jordan) restored the reputation of the Clan of the Clipboards. Cairncross and Haron's story impressed three generals enough that they expedited their visas and gave them food and shelter for the night. Rock on border guards!
It's a huge undertaking. There's no other way to think about it. One of the many similarities between their trip and mine was the sheer power of having a goal, not really having a good idea of what you're getting into, but doing it anyway. And once you realize you're in, there's no turning back. Another was people calling them crazy. Yet another was wonderful people along the way who would help in so many ways – food, lodging, or even just moral support by riding alongside. You get to talk to everybody, and discover their stories and dreams when you're travelling on a bike. It's just different from other forms of travel.
The journey to Hajj, by its history and nature, has always been a long and arduous one, filled with struggle and danger. Many people have died en route over hundreds of years, and many more during the Hajj itself. No doubt the danger continues during the return home. (These two still don't know how they're getting home yet – they're discussing donations on their Facebook page.) It's not like there's no struggle nowadays, but getting on a plane in Toronto and landing in Jeddah 15 hours later is a significantly different level of challenge. (Shortest flight I could find.)
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Cairncross voiced a feeling that I share, and which first became truly meaningful for me during my own bike trip:
"If I work very hard for something, at the end of the day it's sweeter; I value it more. After nine months [cycling] through Africa and the Middle East – of course, I value it more."
We've also said another thing in common (although I never said it to the BBC): "It was a life-changing experience. I would definitely do it again."