Guns, malaria, terrorist attacks and lions. Not what you expect to encounter on a typical cycling holiday, but there is very little typical about Andy Bristow.
After seven years working for Merseyrail, the Southport resident decided it was time to focus on himself and embarked on an extraordinary adventure – cycling from his home town all the way to South Africa.
After being granted a year long leave by his bosses, the former Churchtown Primary School and Stanley High pupil embarked on a journey which saw him clock up more than 9,000 miles on the bike, tackle temperatures in excess of 50°C, and meet people who would change his entire world view.
“I’d worked for Merseyrail for seven years,” explained the 33-year-old. “I was doing alright in my career and thought it was time to do something for myself and wanted to ask, ‘What would make me happy?’. Merseyrail gave me a year off and I just thought, ‘go for it’.”
“I’ve always had aspirations of travelling and like doing things my own way, I don’t like to follow the crowd.
“I’ve always travelled on city breaks but you don’t get that feel for the place when you do that.
“There was very little planning, I just pointed at a map.”
The European leg of his journey saw Andy travel through France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia, before then heading to Turkey and then Egypt.
This stretch of the journey was far from incident free. He found himself in Belgium at the time of a terrorist attack which killed 32 people and injured more than 300. Not long after, another attack hit while he was in Turkey.
Andy was not to be discouraged though, and the first time he had any doubt about his adventure, he says, was when chatting to nine other cyclists in Turkey and realising he was the only one who wasn’t heading east.
“Why was no-one else going towards Africa?’ he asked himself.
The answer soon became apparent and it was the first time his relaxed planning had caused a problem (he doesn’t use travel guides and only plans one day ahead), and quite a big one it was. He’d arrived in Africa in the height of summer.
“Most people go there in February or so when it’s the winter, I’d got there in the middle of July!”. After suffering a mini-crisis of self doubt, Andy briefly gave in and flew back home.
He then headed to take part in the Camino de Santiago walk in Spain, where he was left in awe of many inspirational people, including one man was on his eighth annual pilgrimage since being diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he felt a renewed desire to return.
His return to Africa, taking in Uganda, Rwanda, Botswana, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia and finally South Africa, saw him begin to take in eye-opening new experiences.
He was unable to enter Burundi because of a civil war, came down with a severe bout of Malaria, witnessed the reality of third world poverty, became accustomed to seeing people carrying AK47s and pistols, and even received an offer of a man’s sister in exchange for his bike.
One day in Namibia, as temperatures reached 51°C, Andy cycled through 200km of national park, containing “lions, elephants, just about everything you’d think would be out there’.
“All day, I’m thinking a lion is going to jump out and nail me, but then you kind of accept it and think, ‘I’ve made this decision to be here so just accept it and carry on’”.
On another day in Namibia, Andy journeyed through 170km of ‘beautiful but desolate’ land containing no villages or town.
Although he carried up to 10 litres of water each day, he still was forced to rely on passing truck drivers who offered him drink as they witnessed his unbelievable journey on the difficult red dust roads.
This kindness of strangers is one thing Andy came to truly value as he became immersed in the Central African culture.
“I believe people in the world are generally good. I knew there’d be good and bad situations but you size someone up pretty quickly and make a decision if you’re OK or not.
“It’s strange to see how friendly people are. It’s a very giving place. There’s people who have nothing at all but they would still invite you in to eat and spend the evening with stay with them.
“You also see kids with real issues and that’s the hardest thing. You speak to people and they tell you about their family history, the things they’ve experienced and witnessed and that’s a real eye-opener.”
“My personal view is that we could do a lot more to help those people. I’ve also got more appreciation for what I can do and what more I should do to help others”
“I’ve come away with a new appreciation for Southport and the western world, things like healthcare that we take for granted. Being in Africa, where people have literally nothing, where kids are cycling 15 miles for clean water, it made me realise how lucky we are.“
Having returned from an incredible adventure, Andy’s travelling days are far from over and he is urging more people to follow their dreams.
“If you stop worrying about things and start saying yes, you can experience so much more.”
“I don’t know what’s next for me but I want to keep following my dreams. It’s been a great adventure, but it’s not over yet.”