The Fat Kid Diaries, Ron Rutland - how the bicycle changed my life.
September 08, 2023
Ron Rutland is a South African adventurer. He has cycled over 100 000 km through 115 countries on 6 continents over the last 10 years. He has just completed his journey from Japan to Paris to deliver the whistle for the opening game of the Rugby World Cup. And this is how it all started...
On the 30th of June 2013, at 38 years of age, and fatter and un-fitter than I’d ever been in my life, I took a few very tentative pedal strokes on a fully loaded touring bicycle I’d never ridden and slowly pulled away from Cape Town Stadium.
That was the start of an ongoing journey that would forever change my life.
I don’t know where the interest came from, but I grew up always loving stories of adventure, of people exploring the world, and quite frankly of anything that expanded my world beyond the 20km radius of Durban where I spent 99% of the first 18 years of my life.
I read these stories of adventurers, explorers, and other people that seemed to be living life on their own terms, and would always think, “wow, how lucky are they! They must be so rich, so athletic, so brave…so everything I’m not.” And so, despite being in awe of these people and their stories, and often going to bed imagining myself riding a big adventure motorbike from Cape Town to Cairo, or driving an old Lada across Russia, or hiking some obscure mountain pass in the Andes (it was never a bicycle!), I’d wake up the next morning knowing it was never for me.
Then in late 2008 this all began to change. I moved back to South Africa from Hong Kong, where I was living at the time, and settled in Cape Town – a city I had visited a handful of times over the years but practically didn't know at all. I started a small sports event company with a couple of friends, and later a social enterprise turned charity, and from a career/working life point of view I was the most fulfilled and inspired I had ever been. Crucially, through a combination of good fortune and residing in a city that is so focused on outdoor activities, I connected with a group of individuals who were passionate about the mountains and trails of the Western Cape. Gradually, I ended up purchasing my first pair of trail shoes, and later, a mountain bike. I was hooked!
Despite being a middle aged, ex prop, and in my mind not naturally suited to running up mountains and exploring the numerous MTB trails that Capetonians are spoilt with, I absolutely loved this new world. I was far more ‘tractor’ than ‘Ferrari‘, but the cycling in particular gave me a completely new sense of freedom, and dare I say adventure, that I’d never before experienced, and all of a sudden all the books and stories I’d read about people riding around the world seemed so much more real and ‘in reach’. This new world was also introducing me to people that had actually done some of these adventures I’d only read about, and all of a sudden, in my mid 30’s, I realised, ‘these people aren’t richer, more athletic, or luckier than me, the difference was they had a dream and acted on it, and I’d had a 1,000 dreams and always convinced myself of why it was impossible for me to actually live any of them.’ My self-imposed limitations on what I thought I was capable of was the only thing holding me back…not my lack of funds, not my inexperience, etc etc. I then pulled out a map of Africa and instead of starting to dream, I began planning and plotting!
The original idea was to take a 6-month sabbatical and cycle from Cape Town to Cairo. There were plenty of resources to lean The original idea was to take a 6-month sabbatical and cycle from Cape Town to Cairo. There were plenty of resources to lean into for planning a trip like this, and I dived headfirst into it all. As I worked on figuring out the exact route I should take, I started being a little more than curious about the countries I was missing out on by taking the ‘standard’ east coast route from South Africa to Egypt – Uganda jumps to mind as a prime example, and so the line started to become more and more zigzagged, until the point that I started to wonder whether it was possible to find a route from Cape Town to Cairo, that would take me through every country on mainland Africa? Once I realised that this was theoretically possible, and that in my research I’d found no one had ever attempted, on a bicycle or otherwise, I decided that was it – I was going to attempt a single continuous journey through every country in Africa, and to give myself something to aim for, I am going to push on through to Europe, and get to England in time to support the Springboks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
I set a date, began to sell everything in the world I owned, bought a bicycle, some panniers, a tent and sleeping bag, and renewed my passport, and only then did I start telling people.
It’s amazing the difference in reactions when you tell people what you’re actually doing (i.e. taking action) versus what you plan to do (i.e. cheap talk), and despite some of the obvious “what about your career”, “aren’t you worried about Malaria, being kidnapped, being caught up in a civil war, running out of water, having your bike stolen etc” type questions, the overwhelming response was one of ‘that’s amazing, how can I help, I wish I could do that’.
The preparation wasn’t without setbacks (try finding a sponsor when you have zero track record and no experience!), and 3 months before my original planned start date I broke my wrist in a charity rugby match. Two operations later and my non-negotiable departure date had been pushed back by 2 months…BUT, I got to the start line, and with 30 or 40 friends beside me, and on my brand new, never used, 45kg fully loaded Koga touring bike, we set off on the only day of the whole trip I had planned – a normally relatively leisurely 85km ride to Franschhoek – but after having done zero exercise in 4 or 5 months, being on the heaviest bike I’d ever ridden, and being at least 15kg overweight, it ended up being one of the longest days of my life! Our planned 1 pm arrival to waiting friends, ended up being nearer 4 pm, and when I had mates putting their hands on my back and pushing me up Helshoogte, I can only imagine them whispering to each other that if he can’t even make it to Franschhoek, how in the hell is ever going to make it to the UK!
But I did. It took some 800 days (I had 3 birthdays and 2 Christmases on the road), and I covered about 42,000km (coincidently almost the exact circumference of the earth around the equator) through 70 countries in Africa and Europe. My reward? To cycle into Brighton on the 19th of September 2015 to watch the Springboks lose to Japan in their opening game of the Rugby World Cup. I like to think of it as ‘a historic way, to finish a historic journey’, rather than as a journalist implied in an article titled something like ‘how I cycled 42,000km to watch my team humiliated’ that I had wasted my time…think he somehow missed the point!
Anyway, inevitably it was a trip that completely changed my life.
I had dreamt up the hardest thing I could possibly dream up of doing on a bicycle, and I managed to pull it off. I was 25kg lighter than when I started but was full of infinite confidence that now anything really was possible – my goodness how I had underestimated myself for the first 38 years of my life.
I had seen the very best of humanity and the human spirit, and been the recipient of the most incredible kindness and generosity imaginable – through sub-Saharan Africa in particular, ‘the poorest place in the world’, according to Economists and the way they measure wealth anyway, I was never once turned down for a place to pitch my tent, and on countless occasions I was offered food and water, with zero expectations of anything in return – people offering a strange white guy on a bicycle their most valuable resources is pretty much the complete opposite of the way that Africa is often portrayed. I have tried my hardest ever since to not have preconceived ideas of anyone new I meet.
It was hard, really hard at times. Running out of water, struggling to find food, cycling across the southern Sahara, through the jungles of northern Congo, into the relentless northerly winds that absolutely howl down the west coast of Mauritania and southern Morocco, and being alone for 99% of the time – it all adds up, but deep down I knew, something would literally have to kill me to stop me getting to Brighton. I was ‘all in’ – being completely committed is a powerful force. As a quote I once read says, “there is nothing more powerful than the made-up mind”. It’s true.
And from that initial decision to cycle through Africa and Europe from 2013 to 2015, I have since cycled from the UK to Japan, some 20,000km across Europe, central and east Asia, which included countries like Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, India, Myanmar and China – I have never been so cold in my life in times on that journey, cycling up the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan and over the Himalayas and down the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan, surviving (just) landslides in remote eastern Laos, and some bizarre illness in southern China are all memories that will last a lifetime. This journey was hugely different in that I rode with a stranger (who is a now a great friend), and the value of shared experience cannot be put into words – we also raised a significant amount of money for a wonderful charity, ChildFund Rugby, and having that sense of purpose and responsibility certainly made it the most rewarding year of my life.
So much so, that in 2022, Adam Nunn and I returned to Tokyo, where I ended my previous journey, and he and I spent 9 months cycling from Japan to New Zealand, through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, and Australia – again the shared experience, this time through some of the hottest and sweatiest conditions imaginable, as well as once again raising funds for ChildFund Rugby meant that this was equally as rewarding as previous trips – and in some ways, with the challenge of COVID still very much an issue, just getting to the start line was in ways a miracle of determination and good luck!
Having now cycled Africa, Europe (twice), Asia, and Oceania, I was now left with planning a route through South and North America – and as I write this in London, in late August 2023, I am filled with great satisfaction at having done just that. In November 2022, after a month in New Zealand, I cycled to Auckland Airport for a flight to Santiago, Chile, and from there made my way up and over the Andes towards Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, before heading west again for Paraguay, and then 2 of my most favourite new countries in the world, Bolivia and Peru – spending some 6 or 7 weeks at between 3,500m and 5,000m, exploring the Andes from the back of my bike will remain a lifelong memory. Truly an incredible place. I then made my way up through central America, and into Mexico, the US (from Texas to NYC – and some of the hottest riding conditions of my life), before a flight to Dublin, saw me cycle from there to Belfast to Edinburgh to Cardiff and onto London. Finally, I completed my 10-year adventure exploring the world on my trusty bike with a 3-day ride to Paris with an incredible group of people as final drive to raise funds for ChildFund Rugby and delivery the whistle to the opening match of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
I haven’t done the full calculations yet, but I have ridden over 100,000km through some 115 countries on all 6 continents over the last 10 years – and the person that left Cape Town Stadium all those years ago would never have dreamt that the not-so-fat kid that arrived in London last week would have experienced everything he has.
Quite simply, the pace and simplicity that bikes allow one to travel the world is unique. People from all over the world can relate to a bicycle and empathise with their riders – this breaks down barriers in ways that are impossible to explain until you’ve experienced it yourself. I would highly recommend riding out your driveway, and comfort zone, and giving it a try!
Anyway, the bicycle changed my life, and it’s been a wild ride.