Free Wheels East: Rejecting Society for Historic Adventure

From arctic penguins to Colombian drug boats: we meet the men who cycled on every continent without leaving the ground

All photos: Jamie Mackenzie, Ben Wylson, Free Wheels East

It’s often said that true adventure comes not from the departure or the arrival, but from the journey in between.

For many people though, that telling idiom is as difficult to embrace as it is simple to understand. Your average 9-5er will have dreamt about packing up their things and hitting the road plenty of times, yes, but very few ever follow through on the urge.

Very few are able to give up their place in the system. Very few are able turn their back on society, on everything and everyone they know, to break free from the digital leash, look up and give their full attention to the open road, eyes wide open.

In 2005 though, two Englishmen, 25 and 28-years-old respectively, did exactly that. Coming to the end of academic life and a dead-end job, cousins Ben Wylson and Jamie Mackenzie dreamt up a plan, wild, implausible, to become the first two people on Earth to cycle on every continent without using an aeroplane.

Three years later they would return, having battled cars in Moscow, death in Thailand and meningitis in South America, having spent months travelling oceans on isolated container ships, been ferried by a Colombian drug smuggler, cycled amongst the penguins of Antarctica and having completed a journey that most deemed impossible, all without leaving the ground.

Very few people are able to get up, go and truly escape from the rat race. Ben Wylson and Jamie Mackenzie are two of those few.

Dreaming Up Lunacy

“We were dreaming of the freedom of not having anyone to answer to,” Ben tells us, now 34-years-old. “There’s a short time frame in your life before you have commitments, before you have an important career or kids, before you can end up just working until you retire.

“When we set out we didn’t know if we’d be away for one year or ten. We didn’t buy into the usual ways of society – it all just seemed so pointless. Why dredge on with the usual ways when you can be out there exploring the world?”

It’s a valid question, and one which many who dismiss such visions of freedom as idle procrastination would struggle to provide an answer to.

The idea was pieced together in a pub over drinks, there was no excruciating planning to the extent you would expect, no training at all, amazingly, and most importantly, no deadlines imposed on the journey.

The cousins set off from Dover in 2005 with very little other than a vague plan of action and the knowledge that even the most supportive people around them probably thought they’d be back well before they set foot in Africa or Asia, never mind the Antarctic.

“It was lunacy, the whole thing,” Ben laughs. “Everyone around us knew that we were at least going to give it a good try though. Nobody really doubted us out loud; although they maybe scoffed in silence.

“The only people that doubted we might have been able to do it were us. But it’s nice to set yourself a challenge and then use that as a reason to get out there. You grow to become obsessed with completing the challenge after a while.”

Free Wheels East: Taking on the World

What would follow in the next three years would see Ben and Jamie, three years the former’s senior, experience more than most people will in their entire lives.

Starting at a progressive pace of around 50 miles per day in the Spring, the cousins built onwards until they were travelling up to 100. They passed through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland and Belarus before completing an 120 mile cycle into Siberia on roads that still give them nightmares.

“We cycled right up this main road from Belarus to Moscow,” Ben recalls. “The motorway was four lanes of traffic with a tiny hard-shoulder, but we spent a lot of time thinking we were going to get killed. We would be screaming at each other to get off the road or brace.

“In the West people don’t notice you. You’re just another cyclist and people are so used to seeing cyclists that they can be pretty dangerous around them.”

Safe to say that the sight of cyclists, particularly of the British variety, drew rather more attention on the next stage of their trip.

After taking the Trans-Siberian railway part of the way to Asia, the boys found themselves cycling through China, and riding on to spend Christmas in Thailand from there.

“In China you’d find that you were such a freak – long blonde hair, a union flag and underwear blowing on your bike – that cars were more in danger of crashing into each other than you. They’d literally scream and go off into oncoming traffic.”

Cars weren’t the only foreign custom that caused the duo pain though. The dangers may have been real on the roads, but off the bike in Thailand Ben found himself at the centre of a near-death experience which threatened more than just the duo’s ambitions.

The traveller was at a precariously placed bar on top of a Thai mountain, and took a nasty tumble after leaving to head back down to the base. Jamie left the bar shortly later and stumbled across his cousin in a ditch, lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood with his head underwater.

"He started snorting cocaine in front of us... We didn’t have a clue what to do."

Ben continued: “I don’t know if Jamie hadn’t found me whether I would’ve survived. It was probably more disturbing for him because he found me in this pool of blood. He thought I was dead.”

Ben was taken to a hospital where he would recover and be cleared to cycle within weeks, albeit with a few scrapes, scars and one hell of a black eye to show for his efforts.

“For me, the shock of that was more that after it happened I really wanted to see my family and friends and started thinking that the whole idea was stupid. It’s strange because the longer you’re away the more you start to get this longing for home which is really disproportionate. You could probably go back for a couple of weeks and get your fill, but it really effects you.

“Now when you look back, it was such an incredible time that you think ‘how could I have found anything wrong with that’.”

Far from their home language, culture, friends and family, the pair were on an all time low for the trip. Something had to change, so when the opportunity arose to take a free cargo ship to Western Australia – and return to Western culture – it’s no exaggeration to say the Free Wheels East spark was saved from flickering out.

The Promise Land Down Under

“It was an incredible feeling of getting back to the familiar,” Ben remembers. “It was like going home.” All very well of course, but despite beating the woes of wistfulness, the cousins now faced an even more pressing issue – they were days away from running out of money.

“We said we’d give it a bit longer but if it didn’t work out soon and we couldn’t somehow raise the money, we were going to have to go back. We couldn’t see how we were going to get a ship to the Antarctic either.”

If there’s one thing that Ben and Jamie have proven to the world, though, it’s that where there’s a will, and a hell of a lot of persistence, there’s almost definitely going to be a way.

The duo came up with the idea of putting together a magazine documenting their trip and selling it on the streets of Australia. Sounds like a pretty basic idea, right? It was. They sold over 10,000 copies and ended up becoming local celebrities down under.

“We went from being poor to being, in our eyes, rich,” Ben tells us. “We went from being nobodies to being asked to appear in Neighbours – we did a walkthrough on Neighbours and ended up friends with the cast – and we ended up being on local radio too!

“We stayed all over Melbourne with all sorts of people as well, so didn’t have to pay for accommodation. We must’ve spoken to about 100,000 people all in all. That was definitely our 15 minutes of fame.”

Incidentally, one of those 100,000 happened to get along rather well with Jamie. She’s now his wife, he’s living permanently in Melbourne and their first child was born just over a year ago. Not the worst bonus from what could have been just another optimistic business plan.

Riding With Penguins

With cash in hand, it was time to turn back to the map. The original plan was to go on to Chile and seek a ship to the Antarctic from there, but after Ben noticed how close they already were to the icy continent, they started to wonder if they could cross it off their list a little earlier.

“We got in much deeper than we thought we ever would when we did manage to get a ship to Antarctica. That was sealing the deal because it meant we had been to four continents. We had passed the half-way point. It was the point of no return.”

The team stopped off at Macquarie Island on the way to Antarctica, half-way between Oz and their next destination and home to over a million penguins. But next thing they knew, they found themselves offloading their bikes onto the cold white of the Antarctic, not riding far along the bumpy ice, but riding on the continent nonetheless.

Safe to say the stop-off brought about some of the more surreal images from the three-year journey.

Dicing With Death and Colombian Drug Captains

The cousins couldn’t be stopped at this point. They had proven that if you ask around long enough you can near enough get anywhere for free, and they added further to the theory by securing a place on a cargo ship that 46 days later would touch down in Chile, South America.

Often the world doesn’t work out quite as you want it though, and after a lengthy winning streak for Ben, Jamie and Free Wheels East, Ben found himself once again dicing with death in a foreign country.

Just north of the Atacama Desert, where there’s an average of 15mm rainfall per year, in the small town of Araquipa in Peru, the cyclist spent several bed-ridden days writhing in pain. Jamie arranged for a local doctor to visit, and he diagnosed Ben with meningitis.

“It was really horrible. I started getting this really bad fever, I couldn’t look at the lights, and a specialist came to see me and said I had meningitis. I had heard about people dying from it.

“We still don’t know for definite what it was, but when we got back to Western doctors they said that if we had come to them with symptoms like the ones I was showing in Peru, they’d have rushed me straight to hospital, kept me there for two weeks and put me on a drip. This guy just shuffled through with some antibiotics and said rest up!”

Thankfully, Ben did just that and did indeed recover, though doctors advised him not to cycle for two to three months. Eager to move on regardless, the cousins took a bus to the Colombian shore, where they arranged for a small yacht to take them to Panama.

What should have been a two-day journey became a week-long epic with little food or drink available after the engines of the yacht failed, leaving the boat drifting slowly towards its destination. Oh, and on top of that, they soon found out that the captain of their vessel also happened to be smuggling cocaine.

“He started snorting it in front of us and we didn’t have a clue what to do,” Ben laughs, half in disbelief, half in horror. “We were stuck on that boat much longer than we should’ve been.”

From Panama though, it was plain sailing, or cycling to be exact. The boys were back on their bikes with the open road leading them to the sun, tarmac and McDonald’s breakfast menus in Texas. A cargo ship was soon secured travelling to Casablanca in Morocco from the USA, and when that journey was complete, the objective of Free Wheels East was too.

A Long-Awaited Return

Ben and Jamie had set foot on their pedals in Dunkirk, France nearly three years previous not knowing what life had in store for them. When they replicated the action in Casablanca in 2008, they did so knowing that having entered Africa, they had now set wheels on each of the seven continents on Earth without leaving the ground, and become the first people to ever do so.

And that was it. From there, it was onto Spain, France, and back to England, where family and home soil was waiting for the first time in over 36 months.

"Why dredge on with the usual ways when you can be out there exploring the world?”

It’s an experience that defined two men and their lives, but which also altered them in nearly every way imaginable. You’re never going to see cities the same way when you’ve seen everything else that lies in between.

These days, ten-years-on, and Ben is back in a day job. The student-turned-adventurer now runs his own film company in London, and a rather successful one at that.

The company won the best UK film gong at the 2014 London UK film festival with documentary ‘Mahout: The Great Elephant Walk’ narrated by Stephen Fry.

Needless to say given his adventures though, and the fact that his Swedish girlfriend Ebba, who he met in Bali during the cycle, is a constant reminder of them, Ben still often dreams of the open road.

“For three years we beat society, but they pull you back in,” he jokes. “I’m lucky to have gone to a place that was completely new and to just have once in my life known what is was like to be completely free.

“Now we’re back in the everyday world, but the experiences we’ve had and the hustling experiences along the way… well, when you take them back you find your options are vastly greater.

“Society never will make any sense to me, but because I’m a filmmaker now I try and go on adventures everyday though filmmaking. It sounds cheesy but it takes us a lot of places. You can have an adventure any day you want, you just have to set your parameters.”

It’s a mentality that would be useful for many people growing tired of their daily lives. Perhaps then, the number of people who take the time to set no parameters at all would see a steady growth.

If there’s one thing worth taking away from Free Wheels East, it’s that life is all about the adventure. Don’t live for the sake of living, don’t live to impress and don’t live to achieve simply because you’ve been told to. Find your dream adventure, and at the next possible opportunity, find a way of following it through.

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