Friday 20 May 2016

Adventures in simple travel: Harry rides to Patagonia

A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of nights at a lighthouse hostel just south of San Francisco. It had its own beach, though it was too cold and wild to swim, and at night I could lie in my bunk and listen to the North Pacific smashing itself against the cliffs outside.

One of the reasons I love staying at hostels when I travel (in Australia too) is that you never know who you're going to meet over your morning muesli.

All pics by Harry Allen
At Point Montara hostel, while I was checking-in, I met 52-year-old Harry Allen, from Canada. On seeing his fully laden bike leaning up against the wall outside, I asked him where he was headed. His one-word answer created Patagonian mountains and glaciers in my mind: "Ushuaia."

Naturally my curiosity pricked up its ears (I've never been to that part of the world) and started asking questions.

Turns out my new friend had left Vancouver a month earlier and was planning to spend a year riding to the southern tip of the Americas, the last stop before Antarctica.

There's a lot to love about Harry's expedition. It's the epitome of slow, low-impact travel (he's fuelled by the food he eats, not fossilised hydrocarbons). He's doing it for its own sake, for the adventure of it, not to break a record or prove anything or raise money for a cause, which keeps things simple. He certainly seemed content to just let the trip unfold and enjoy what each day brings. And he's funding his trip the old-fashioned way (no corporate sponsors to keep happy), with money he saved (remember saving?).

Two weeks later, when I emailed him for this post, I was home and Harry was... 800km further south, about to cross the border into Mexico.

You can follow Harry's expedition at

In the meantime, here are 10 questions I asked him about what it's like to ride from Vancouver to Ushuaia, so far:

Day 0: Vancouver
1. Where did the idea for this trip come from? 
Actually I think the idea of cycling to Ushuaia came to me when I was a child. Obviously I didn't know where Ushuaia was back then, but I can remember getting my first two-wheeled bicycle. It was just, freedom! I would cycle to the end of the block and back for hours. When I was old enough to cross the busy street by myself, I would ride as far as I could, exploring the neighbourhood and on the weekends and after school my friends and I would ride the trails alongside the river that ran through the city where I grew up. 

Ushuaia was a convenient choice. I didn't have to fly or travel anywhere to start the trip, just step outside my door, turn south and keep riding for 20,0000km or so. It's ultimately the end of the block!

2. Is this your first big cycling trip?
I did a 6-month cycling trip in Europe about 20 years ago, but other than that, I just rode my bike around Vancouver, where I live. I sometimes joke that this trip is a mid-life crisis of sorts. Maybe it is. 

3. What was the hardest thing about preparing for it? 
The most difficult part was trying not to plan at all. I became obsessed with other people's bike blogs and cycle touring videos on Vimeo. I would spend hours reading gear reviews and bike reviews. I stopped planning the day I came across a blog by a guy named Tom Allen (no relation). He said, "The best way to plan a bike trip is to not plan at all." Too many choices equals too much stress. 

4. What’s a typical day like for you now? 
I get up as early as possible (I start to lose my motivation for riding around 3pm, so the earlier I get started the more distance I can put behind me). Fire up the camp stove. A bowl of oatmeal, fruit and yoghurt for breakfast. Tear down the tent and load the bags onto the bike. I stop two or three times a day for a short break and a snack. I also stop to take photos. There's no shortage of scenery on this ride! 

I'll generally ride for 6 to 8 hrs a day, depending on the terrain. Mid to late afternoon, I'll stop riding, set up my tent, eat dinner (always pasta and sauce), read for an hour and listen to music then it's off to bed around 8pm. Rinse, lather, repeat.

The California coast
5. You're travelling so simply, what have you learned about what you really need? 
Travelling by bike, like hiking, is definitely simple; you're pretty much self-contained, self-supported. I've met a few cyclists along the way, older guys, who actually live on their bicycles; all they have is what they carry on their bikes. I'm not quite as streamlined. For one thing, I have about 4.5kg of cameras, hard drives and a laptop. Equipment that I could do without, but I want to document the trip as well as I can. But other than that, what I'm carrying is what I'll live with for the next year. I don't even carry a coffee pot; Starbucks or an independent coffee shop works for me.

6.  What do you love about travelling like this? 
There are so many things I love about travelling by bicycle, but one of the big ones is the health aspect. My diet has improved 100 per cent since I started this trip. No more processed food; everything I buy at the grocery store, aside from oatmeal and pasta, has to be consumed within a day or two. No more Friday night Chinese takeaway binges (although I have had McDonalds a couple of times). 

7. What have some of the highlights been so far? 
There are so many! All of the wonderful people I have met: people in campgrounds or RVs inviting me in for dinner, locals giving me advice on which road has the least elevation gain, other cyclists and hearing their stories, travellers at youth hostels with great stories to tell and travel tips. 

I also love the speed at which I am travelling; the horizon unfolds much more slowly for me [than if I were driving] and I have more time to see, hear and smell what's around me. I’ve seen whales breaching off the coast. Foxes with their dinner hanging from their mouth as they scurry across the road. Herds of elk. Rabbits, birds of prey. The ride along the Big Sur coast [in California] has to be the biggest highlight so far. Huge elevation gains and losses and dramatic views around every turn. Unforgettable!

Bike + beach
8. What’s the hardest thing about it? 
There’s nothing really difficult about it. The first hour of riding is not very pleasant physically, but after that my muscles warm up and I get into a rhythm and everything is good in the world.

9. What has surprised you? 
The fact that every day I feel more and more motivated to ride. Even if I'm riding through an industrial setting like parts of Los Angeles or if it's pouring rain like the first seven days. It’s a curiosity thing. What's around the next corner?

10. What are you most looking forward to? 
Ultimately my final destination, Ushuaia. But until then I look forward to each new country that I enter. South America is a whole new continent for me, so exciting! 


Big thanks for the inspiration, Harry. I wish you tailwinds and friendly faces all the way to the end of the world.

Postscript, 16 July 2016: Harry emailed me a few days ago to say that he's in Mexico -- and has decided stopped riding. The heat was too intense, he said, "like doing a spin class in a hot yoga room for 8 hours." So the ride is over, he's flying back to Vancouver and going back to work. But who knows, maybe there'll be a Part 2 to this Vancouver-Ushuaia adventure somewhere down the road...


  1. Thanks for your update of Harry and taking the time to talk to him & writing about him. Harry is a good friend of mine in Vancouver and it was great listening to your take on his journey and in particularly the 10 questions you asked. Most of them I really never thought to ask him! Harry inspires me too, showing me that you can really do anything you put your mind to, you just have to step outside the door and bring dream to reality! Thanks again...

    1. Thanks! I was so inspired by Harry's adventure, I had to write about him. Love the simplicity of it most of all: a man and a bike.

  2. Got me thinking of a new way to enjoy my twilight years ?!

  3. Hi Louise, I'm a mate of Harry's too, I joined him in Scotland for a few days cycling on his last trip twenty years ago! Its a great way to travel, might have to dust off the bike! Pete
    ps by the way I agree with your choice of Tracks as a superior travel movie - heres my take on it

    1. Thanks Pete, just read your walking-movie post. I didn't see A Walk in the Woods (on purpose - and I think All is Lost could be my nomination for Worst Movie Of All Time! Closely followed by Jerry, directed by Gus Van Sant, so I was surprised it was so bad and boring). And yes Wild didn't do it for me either. But I loved The Way, maybe because of the father-son (or in my case -daughter) thing and I've loved Emilio since The Breakfast Club :-) Happy trails, and thanks for watching :-)

    2. Been spending more time on your site and enjoying it. Looked at your travel books blog and just ordered Consolations of the Forest on your recommendation. I was pleased to see O'Hanlon there although my all time favourite was his Into the Heart of Borneo, he's just so funny. Just reread An African in Greenland too, which I think is a terrific book.

    3. Thanks Claire, enjoy Consolations. I think I need to re-read it. I'm sure you'll relate on some levels to his experience on a Siberian lake... I tried reading O'Hanlan's Amazon book and couldn't get into it, but might try the others...