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He's cycling around the world to bring light to Africa

Last updated on: July 5, 2012 13:28 IST

He's cycling around the world to bring light to Africa

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Divya Nair

A freelance photographer by profession, Sean Conway embarked on a world tour in February this year on his bicycle. He aims to raise funds and bring solar power to several poor families in Africa.

Sean Conway is a man on a mission -- to travel the world in less than 150 days and attempt to break the Guinness World Record for Fastest Circumnavigation by Bicycle, in a bid to raise one million dollars for charity. He is supporting SolarAid, a charity that aims to provide solar power to poor villages in South Africa.

So who is Conway and what inspired him to set forth on a mission like this?

A photographer by profession, he hails from South Africa and is one of nine riders competing in the inaugural World Cycle Racing Grand Tour.

While five competitors gave up along the way, officials at Guinness confirmed on June 4 that Mike Hall from Yorkshire has emerged as the new record holder, clocking the journey in 91 days and 18 hours, beating British cyclist Vin Cox's 2011 record of 163 days, six hours and 58 minutes.

Conway, who is currently cycling through Bosnia is unaffected by the new record, said Rachel Cumella, a friend who accompanied him through his India leg. "Sean heard about Hall's record, but he wants to complete the mission he started," Cumella shared over the phone.

He started his journey on February 18 from Greenwich, London and had already travelled 20,000 miles cycling through France, USA, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore all the way up to Bangkok, before landing in Mumbai on June 21. He travelled thousands of miles on his bicycle from Kolkata to conclude his Indian lap in Mumbai, where he joined a group of avid cyclists from the city in the evening to raise awareness about global poverty, climate change and talk about solar power.

We managed to catch up with Conway in Mumbai on June 22, where he finished the Asia leg of his journey and was preparing to leave for Istanbul.

He told us that over 80 per cent of Africa lives in villages and the people can't afford electricity. "However, Africa has a lot of sunshine, but they don't use it all," he emphasised and went on to explain why he'd agreed to take up the cause.

"I was born in Zimbabwe and a major part of my growing up was in South Africa, where over 98 per cent of rural people live without electricity. I wanted to do something for them. When I moved to London, where I worked as a photographer for 11 years, I heard of SolarAid, a UK-based charity that promotes the use of solar energy. I wanted to connect Africa to this charity and create awareness about Africa's condition to the world. That's how it all started," said the 31-year-old.

What's particularly interesting is that Conway is an 'adventure photographer' and he'd never cycled so rigorously, or participated in a cycle race until he set forth on this journey.

Four months into the trip, however, he has seen it all, from sleeping in the wilderness to surviving an accident in the USA -- and insists that his journey would have been incomplete without these bitter-sweet moments.

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Image: Sean Conway
Photographs: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com

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From non-cyclist to professional racer

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Conway says he was always an adventure freak, as far as he remembers. "I would climb the trees, jump over heights and scare away elephants. My parents were scared, but I always loved adventure."

After successfully climbing Mount Kilimanjaro dressed in a 'penguin suit' last year, cycling the world, swimming the English Channel and clinching Everest were follow-up adventures on his list.

Interestingly, Conway, who chose to cycle the world in 2012, has never participated in a professional cycle race before.

Yet here he is, chasing a long a long-cherished dream, challenging 12 professional riders from across the country and promising to take on a Guinness Record for the shortest time to circumnavigate the globe on a bicycle.

"I sought help from a professional trainer who trained me for six months, 40 hours a week." But physical training, he says was just a tiny fragment of the preparation. The world tour would have been impossible without the help of his sponsor Uswitch, a UK-based company that agreed to take full care of his expenses on this trip -- from flight expenses to food and hotel accommodation, wherever necessary.

"They (Uswitch) wanted to help me in this cause. And I am glad they did. They arranged for the visas, the food, the stay, everything. However, I am doing this for charity and I wanted to cherish every bit of these memories from the trip. I wanted to reach out to as many countries, as many people and spread the message far and wide."


Image: Sean Conway cycled over 2,000 miles from Kolkata to Mumbai
Photographs: Rachel Cumella

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Roadblocks, accident, delays...

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While travelling the globe seems like fun, which he plenty much had, Conway has had his own share of roadblocks and disasters along the way, which he likes to refer to as "unavoidable parts of the journey".

He was cycling on an Arkansas road in the USA in April 2012 when he was struck by a Ford truck.

"It must have been about 5:45 am when a truck hit me and threw me off my bike. I landed on the bonnet before falling to the side of the road. My helmet was broken, but it saved my head from fatal injuries. That was the last thing I remember."

Conway ended up with a T11 fracture and has had difficulty cycling for long hours since then.

But the fracture and back ache are the least of his concerns now. "The accident delayed the mission by four days. Initially, I'd start at 4 am and go on till 11 in the night. Before the accident, I'd cycle a good 18 hours every day. But after that, I have slowed down because my back hurts," he remarks.


Image: Sean Conway was back on the road four days after the accident; (inset) his bike after he was thrown by a truck
Photographs: Courtesy: Cyclingtheearth.co.uk
Tags: USA , Conway , T11 , Arkansas

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'In the Atacama, I had to go without water for miles together'

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Despite planning in advance, Conway says they can be foiled during adventure trips and so believes in taking things as they come.

"Planning is important, but when you are on a road trip, sometimes your plans fail. You have to be optimistic and be prepared to take things as they happen."

Currently on the last leg, he adds that cycling in South America was the toughest of them all.

"In the Atacama (Desert), I had to go without water for miles together. Since I had to travel as light as possible, I could carry only enough water and food to last a few hours. I was travelling with a crew and I had asked them to park whatever resources I would need at various pick-up points across the route. But some routes were really not friendly."

Australian roads were equally tough, he remembers. "The distance between two food points seemed too long to scale on a cycle. At 35 degrees (Celsius), I would ride 300 miles at a stretch without water or food."


Image: Sean in the Atacama desert in South America
Photographs: Courtesy Cyclingtheearth.co.uk

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'Travelling to India wasn't a shock to me'

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The cyclist has endured every part of the journey by living on minimal means wherever possible.

"I haven't had a tent, so I have slept wherever I found a place to rest. I have slept under bushes, on park benches which are just a few feet wide, just enough to hold my body...In South America, I slept in the desert. In India, I stayed in hotels."

Of the 20 or more countries he'd planned cycling through on the trip, Sean has only been to certain destinations in Europe and to India before. "India is always a good place to visit. Travelling to India wasn't a shock to me. I have been here before, but it's been the hottest place so far. Mumbai is humid," he observes.

However, Conway says he loves the people of this country. "People here are very loving. They stopped and asked about my mission and also spent time with me. I am not very fussy about food. But everytime somebody offered something to me in India, all I would tell them is: No spicy food. And the best part is that I haven't got ill, not once through the journey."

To raise money for the charity, Conway visited schools and spoke to people in the countries he visited, addressing them about the situation in Africa, the impact of global poverty and appealing to them to switch to solar power. "I also visited a school in Kolkata and interacted with the students and teachers there. Even in Mumbai, several bikers volunteered to cycle with me and help me in the mission."

Conway, who has so far managed to raise 12,000 pounds for charity is thrilled that he could reach out to so many people in so many countries.

"When I embarked on this journey, I did not know anyone. Now so many people have become a part of this trip. These are all part of my memories, which I will document in a small movie later," said the adventure cyclist, who plans to screen the movie in several nations to promote cycle racing on his next trip.


Image: Sean Conway takes a break at a tea stall in Amravati, India
Photographs: Rachel Cumella

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'It's an assembled bike and cost me 4,000 pounds'

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Conway's epic journey would have been incomplete without his bike and he proudly navigates through its key elements, detailing their importance to us.

"The guys at Thorn (Cycles) have done an excellent job. It's an assembled bike and cost me 4,000 pounds. The tyres are flat, if you can see. People often wonder how you can cycle with flat tyres, but when you are cycling for long hours, you need speed and less friction. So flat tyres really help. Together, both tyres weigh less than 500 grams, can you believe that?"

Conway's bike has a few essentials like a cycle computer to track his distance, an iPhone on which he listens to The Foo Fighters, a GPS map navigator and a GPS transmitter, a bright headlight for night riding, and a power converter.

He made a few additions himself before he hit the road. "The pedal is engineered to fit into the sole of my biking shoes. Although it looks so sleek, it's a tough guy."

And he has had to take extra care of his bike to deal with the wear and tear. "The chains had to be replaced; so were the tyres when they punctured."

As for the GPS transmitter fitted between the handlebar, the battery-operated device sends out satellite signals and helps record his movements every 10 minutes. "The device is linked to my website and so the information gets updated there for people to see. Besides, whenever I find the time, I update the blog and keep them posted about my activities," reveals Conway.


Image: Sean Conway's assembled bike has a GPS map navigator and a GPS transmitter, while its pedals (inset) are engineered to fit his shoes
Photographs: Hitesh Harisinghani/Rediff.com
Tags: GPS , Conway

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'You never know what you are capable of doing, until you push yourself'

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Conway may or may not be successful in his mission, but he definitely has some advice to share with first-timers and non-professional cyclists. And most of it comes from his personal experience from accidents and roadblocks.

"Always wear a helmet. Do you see this helmet I am wearing now?" At this point, he takes it off and explains that it was not the same one he started the journey with. "The first one was damaged in the accident. It broke at the edges when I fell. So I could not use it again. But the helmet saved my head from injuries. It saved my life."

"Take breaks, eat at regular intervals and drink water or juices. Invest in a good pair of shoes," he continues, before explaining how cycling can be a great way to burn calories and stay in shape. "Cycling is a great exercise and the cheapest and most efficient way to see the world," says the world tourist, who confessed to losing four kgs in the last four months.

Conway has only taken small trips to different countries before and did not have the slightest idea what a global cycle race would be like unless he actually took it up. And that's exactly what he's learned from the journey and would like to share with the world: "You never know what you are capable of doing, until you push yourself. Don't underestimate your abilities and get set on your dream today."


Image: Sean Conway addresses a group of school students in Calcutta
Photographs: Rachel Cumella
Tags: Conway

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