Nic Cuthbert

Marathon swimmer, surf life saver and wannabe adventurer, Nic Cuthbert has swam oceans and conquered deserts while pursing his dreams. In 2009 along with best mate Matt Sladden, he cycled over 16,000km in six months to complete a full circumnavigation of Australia and in doing so raised money for and awareness of youth suicide and mental health issues.

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A bloody long way!
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Lumbini (Nepal) to New Delhi

On 25 May 2012 4:00 pm

Maybe it was just the day I had.  Saturday 12 May.  My day began stopped in traffic just over the border in India from Nepal watching a child die in the back of a powered rickshaw.  There was no mistaking the predicament as a family franticly but somewhat submissively massaged blood into the girl’s lifeless limbs.  My day finished around 12 hours later slumped over my bike having just found the seconds to kick the stand out before I passed out.  I came too with 100 Indians standing around throwing water on me.  The in between was 324kms of almost unbelievable heat, dust and simply frightening road conditions.

What should be said of India is that the people are wonderful.  Friendly, helpful and willing to help someone in need, as I found out in Varanasi, Indians display a heart-warming closeness.  Almost certainly a result of being forced to live somewhat harmoniously amongst billions but either way it is incredible to see.  Otherwise and sadly I must say that I don’t like India.  I do not like it at all.  In the three days I lay in bed in Varanasi and the subsequent days driving to Agra and onto New Delhi, I found myself asking what possibly there is to like.  Entrenched generational poverty, chronic pollution, massive environmental degradation, rampant corruption, racial, caste based and religious tension, widespread public health issues and TV advertisements glamorising what should be the problem of organised marriage.  If the western world considers a mobile phone ownership a sign of a developing nation then India is heading in the right direction.  Likely we have it wrong.  80% of Indians own a mobile phone, 40% have access to a proper toilet.  I was reliably informed in Delhi that in the last ten years and beyond, India has performed negatively in almost every meaningful development indicator available.  From what I have seen the “emerging middle class” is a myth.  70% of the population live on less than $1 a day.  Whilst a government with entrenched bureaucracy continually fail to find the answers it seems a whole population continue to be blind to the responsibilities of and not the notion of a democracy.  I digress…

Varanasi is one of those ideal places to combine your activities by the waterfront.  Have a swim, brush your teeth, do the dishes, throw out the rubbish and take a shit.  Later on you can throw a dead relative in the Ganges, that is of course after parading them through the city streets.  I can only best describe the place as putrid and on the first day I was able to move out of my guest house I must have made quite a sight stumbling along the ghats trying to find my way back, throwing up over myself, wiping it up with my sarong and then using that to cover my mouth because the smell of my own vomit was better than that of the available air.  Despite Varanasi being a holy sight for Hindus alike it was a rather forgettable experience for me and I was glad to get out when I gathered a half strength and managed to drive 134km down to Allabadad on the on the 16th.

It took another two days to drive onto Agra, the famed location of Indias most widely recognised monument, the Taj Mahal.  After arriving I treated myself to a spaghetti bolognaise at a Radisson hotel almost unable to come to terms with seeing such luxury after the last few days.  I did however justify this pricey meal on account of it being my first proper meal in 5 days.  Afterwards I marvelled at the best 500m of road I had seen in India, running between the Radisson Hotel and the Taj complex.  Never the less there were still hundreds living in slum conditions along the stretch.  I stayed over the night in Agra and headed out early the next morning to see what all the fuss was about.  There is no use beating around the bush, the Taj Mahal is truly remarkable.  True to word, I doubt photos do it justice and the whole experience certainly is a pleasure to the eyes.  Of course what is glossed over is that it was built by Muslim invaders and 20,000 workers who took 20 years to finish it each promptly had a hand cut off so as to be unable to recreate such a marvel.  Before leaving Agra mid morning I also checked out Agra fort, built 100 odd years earlier than the Taj yet still quite a sight.  It was easier to imagine the fort being a living breathing palace rather than the mausoleum of the Taj.  Ironically the bloke that built that built the Taj ended the last years of his life imprisoned by his son in the fort.  It does seem however he had a good view of it from his cell.

I arrived in Delhi in the afternoon on the 19th, very glad to be being hosted by a friend’s sister who works at the Australian High Commission.  There is also another Australian and a Russian girl staying here and it is certainly the best accommodation I have had since I left.  It couldn’t have got better when I was offered a Coopers Pale Ale, yes real Coopers made in SA, and Tim Tams.  With Australian chocolate, wine and Allen’s lollies in the fridge I seem to have found myself an oasis amongst the mayhem.  Plan is to have Snow serviced at the BMW dealer here in Delhi coupled with a couple of days rest before heading onto Rishikesh and then Shimla, the gateway to the Spiti Valley and its famed perilous mountain passes.


Nepal

On 25 May 2012 3:59 pm

One of those magical days truly unable to be re-created. A collection of remarkable moments in time about which was a pleasure to write of rather than a chore. The second day of a two day strike and subsequent people enforced national lockdown gave me the opportunity for a once in a lifetime 210km scenic drive from Pokhara to the holy city of Lumbini. 180km of impossible natural beauty with no more than 500meters of straight road returned me to the Gangenic plain at the city of Butawal and was driven without any traffic. I speak not figuratively in this regard. In 10 hours of driving I encountered 18 vehicles. This consisted of 6 Ambulances, 5 jeeps full of Maoist protesters, 6 inevitable Honda 125’s and 1 tandem bicycle piloted by a chirpy yet exhausted Swiss couple. Even the cows stayed in their paddocks, I mean what was the use there were no cars on the road!

Whilst yesterday it seemed that locals were happy to sport their Sunday best and roam the streets in dispersed crowds to show their support for a uniethnic Nepal, today was different. I think for no other reason that it had been done before. Besides, it was a stunning day weatherwise; a perfect 25 odd degrees with clear skies and local villagers appeared happy to soak it up in a unified collective of nothingness. Though this was not true of the city of Butawal where several large yet peaceful gatherings were seen towards the end of my days ride. In most places however, adults were content to lay back in shaded yet shuttered shopfronts while kids were seen to be involved in any one of a huge number of cricket matches being played out along the empty roads. Some villagers could be seen to be loosely manning self imposed road blocks consisting of a stick of bamboo or string of rocks across the road, all were happy to quickly remove defences and lower guard as I came sauntering into view.

When Matthew Sladden and I rode our pushies around Australia we would almost daily seek respite along with a cup of tea in the afternoon. It became an enjoyable habit where the simple pleasure of a nice cuppa was preceded by the routine of unpacking half the gear and setting up the MSR jet stove. Today I took the first opportunity to do so on this trip whilst also giving a trial run to my new toy, a SteriPEN. While surely containing a certain element of gimmick, this device picked up in Pokhara will allow me to ditch the practice of buying into environmental decimation (through the purchase of plastic) and instead pummel tap or well obtained water with UVs. Apparently it removes most of the germs and bacteria found in water so prevents sickness in that regard. I will get back to you on this one. Today’s stop overlooking a huge open valley, maybe 4km wide and towered on all sides by hills was different in so far as the audience I obtained. Pulling up at a quite spot on the side of the road was followed minutes later by the usual materialisation of people from no-where. But it this case it was a group of girls, my age who although speaking little English were happy to sit down across the stove and be part of the occasion. It is probably the first time while in Nepal that I have been readily able to identify (on account of them telling me) the age of a group of people, particularly women. This is no less due to the rigours of poverty quickly draining the youth out of anyone born into this environment. It was also an interesting situation given that girls/woman approaching a man especially a foreigner on his own is a societal rarity in this part of the world. The girls were followed by a younger group of boys who seemed to step over the edge of a vertical cliff face nearby to join the party. True to form they were more interested in the bike and proceeded to ask the normal questions, “How many CC?”, “How much you buy?” etc. They were however and perhaps being children much more interactive than adults, generally men who just stand and continually stare at me until I depart the area. Although seemingly simple it was a refreshing experience.

I write above of a scenic drive, this cannot be understated. If Nepalese roads are dangerous it is no less due to the hazard of trying to remain on an impossibly perched sky trail whilst also taking in the impossibly panoramic spectacular being played out around one’s vehicle. Although I had driven up from the plain to Kathmandu two weeks ago, today’s road was wider, better surfaced and followed a kinder route vertically, in the most part loosely tracking river systems as they emptied out to the south. From leaving one World Peace Buddha Stupa, on the edge of a high peak overlooking Pokhara with the mighty Himalayas stretched across the background, to arriving at another near identical World Peace Buddha Stupa, in a field beside the small town of Lumbini time stood still. I was more than content to keep rolling through an endless stream of small picturesque villages past smiling, waving children. Snow (my motorbike) I were in our element, this is what this trip is all about I thought to myself.

So here I am on the rooftop of the Maya Devi Guest House and Hot Kitchen in the holy city of Lumbini, in fact a small town significant for being the site for where a wee lad named Buddha supposedly took his first breaths no less than 14 centuries ago. With a Siam Reap feeling to it but not much more than a few guesthouses, mud huts of villagers and a huge paddock, I will be off to take in the World Heritage Listed site tomorrow morning. Meanwhile I am getting accustomed to not being hemmed in by huge mountain ranges as pillars on all sides and enjoying the balmy evenings typical of sub-tropical North India.


Made it to Kathmandu!

On 2 May 2012 5:23 am

Well it’s been a while since my last update so here we go. Last update had me in Bangkok about to fly out to Kolkata. I had boxed the bike up and chosen luggage to fly with me. I arrived in Kolkata on the night of 11 April and was picked up at the airport by my girlfriend, Donna. It is certainly true what the say about Kolkata and despite coming from the madness that is Bangkok, the city of 11 million on the Houghly River certainly is confronting. One leaves the relative calmness of a small airport and is thrust into a sea of people, cars, bikes, powered rickshaws, human rickshaws, cows and goats milling around open sewerage and insanely potholed roads. The scene is set to the tune of an endless honking of car horns and for most of the day it all simmers in sweltering head and somewhat morbid humidity. The smell is overpowering and that it is easy to spot people defecating in the streets makes Kolkata not everyone’s cup of tea. This of course is available on every street in the form of chai, more often than not served out of small handmade pottery cups.

Kolkata does seem to close down relatively early around 9 or 10pm so by the time Donna and I got to Sudder Street, downtown (if there is such a thing) we weren’t able to get our hands on anything substantial to eat so we called it a day. The next morning I woke up to that constant honking that typifies Kolkata and to which I would inevitably start my day for the next two weeks. Yes Centerpoint Guesthouse Mirza Galhib Street, Kolatta would be my home for the next 14 days. Donna and I spent the first couple of days doing the invariably touristy things, India Museum (like stepping back in time), Victoria Memorial (striking monument to an imposter on Indian soil), Motherhouse/Mother Teresa’s tomb and taking a human rickshaw ride (had to be done). A highlight of the time Donna and I shared together was going to a 20/20 India Premier League match at Eden Gardens between Kolkata Knight Riders (sometimes with Brett Lee) and Punjab Kings IV (featuring Adam Gilchrist who we had seen at Motherhouse the day before). Kolkata has much less tourists that what I had anticipated and Donna and I didn’t go unnoticed buying tickets in the arvo before the night match and we were interviewed on the channel that was covering the game. This started for me what has become a normal scene, having 150 Indians, almost always men simply standing around and staring, on this occasion both Donna and I. In her person, Donna (likely on account of her blond hair and not her good looks) gets a lot of attention in India, and not a day would go by when I wasn’t asked if it was ok for a group of people to take her photo or have photos with her. A funny moment at Victoria Memorial occurred when we were asked for a photo and I was given the camera to take it.

It was saving grace that Donna was in Kolkata at the same time, as a visit to Briyani House after the cricket on the first Sunday (15 April) would be followed by nearly 4 full days out of action with the inevitable sickness that accompanies most westerner visits to the sub continent. I won’t go into any further detail other than to say it was not nice. I was very fortunate that Donna was there at the time to nurse me, herself also not feeling the best. Thanks Don! Donna left on the Wednesday and I was left to my own devices which basically meant not a whole lot until my bike arrived (due that Sunday). I spent the time catching up on business, getting photos done and talking to other travellers in Raj’s Café. Owner of certainly one of the most popular tourist spots in Kolkata, Raj and I were to become good friends, one reason at least being that in May he himself sets out from Howrah Bridge in Kolkata on a Royal Enfield to become the first Indian to ride solo from there to London. Raj was in Delhi that first week arranging his various affairs but I became a fixture at his shop as I read, interwebbed and nursed myself back to full strength. Arriving home on Sunday, Raj was to become integral to my trip, as he took me to the airport on the Monday to help get Snow cleared through the mayhem that is India Customs. I cannot thank Raj enough for his assistance that day, a day which started out at 9am from his café and ended at 9pm. I won’t say too much more at this stage but that day will forever be engrained in my memory as an eye opener. The bottom line is by some miracle and other influences I cannot divulge (as my India experience is not yet over), I rode Snow out of the airport just after 7.30pm with a big smile of on face, the adventure was back on! As it turned out I needed to stay in Kolkata one more day, as my original Bangladesh Visa had expired and I wanted to provide some small assistance to Raj in planning for his upcoming endeavours.

I left the next morning Wednesday 25 April. Raj and his mate, Mark drove out of the city centre with me to the airport with a news crew taking footage the whole way. After a quick interview I was once again all alone in the world, just me, my bike and 1.2 billion other people. And it’s not hard to find those people, they are everywhere. The next 50km took me six hours in the sweltering heat as I pushed the small distance to the Bangladesh border. The road is simply crazy, the only rule being there are no rules. To say that driving in India is life threatening is a dire understatement and although I would smarten up to the task in the following days, that first day was a mission. A huge part of it is the attention that my one person travelling party receives on the road. I don’t think I could accurately describe just how much attention a BMW F800GS gets along the roads of India. Since leaving Kolkata (and even while there) I simply cannot be stopped for more than 5 minutes with no less than 100 to 200 people crowding around the bike to just look, it is simply astounding. The difficult first day out from Kolkata was also no less due to a fairly major road block in my plans, for which we may call the “Bangladesh Fiasco”. After relatively easily escaping India, I spent 3 hours at a senior ranking officer’s desk on the Bangladesh side, the end result being that they would not accept my carnet de passage as export guarantee and instead would require a bank guarantee of an overwhelming amount (more than the bike is worth), which simply wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t entirely unexpected but was no less a surprise as the rules had only changed a matter of months previous. As explained to me it was likely to change again in a matter of months (and the carnet would once again be accepted like it is in 30 other countries that I am visiting). As it turned out the Bangladesh authorities were very apologetic and the senior officer took down my details and promised to write when the rules were changed. I didn’t mull on the fact, and quickly scamped back to India where the customs officials weren’t entirely surprised to see me back. Although I got going as soon as I could I didn’t get very far. Far being around 30km up the narrow road where just as it got dark it also started belting down with rain. I just managed to get myself under some shelter I had passed, albeit in a tiny village with no hotel, nor power for that matter. One villager offered his wheat storeroom/garage/bedroom to store Snow overnight while I was whisked off by a family of five to a nearby dwelling where I was promptly provided bedding for the night. This of course may not sound like what it actually was. Basic is the word, but for people with almost nothing to provide to me (without anything in return) certainly makes up for what was lacking. In fact it was heart-warming and I felt honoured to be there. As it seems so also did the villagers, when the whole place turned up to see me off at 6am the next morning.

That day was pretty straight forward, just a lot of driving on very poor roads, in stifling heat with trucks and buses being flung at me like some real life tetris game. A very long day for not much gain (265km) wound up with me in my basic hotel room, with the managers friend sitting on my bed refusing to leave until “you sit with me in my shop next door for five minutes so that people can see me talking to you”, I relented, at least he was honest. The next day, Friday 27 April would see me ride 365km through to Jogbani on the India/Nepal border where I arrived just after 3.30pm. The day was made easier by much improved roads and less traffic (less not little). However, the Nepal Border experience, I won’t be forgetting in a hurry. The border itself can best be described as a dusty sandpit simply chock full of people, animals and vehicles. For Indian’s and Nepalese it is an open border, there is no immigration requirement nigh significant customs interference, though as I quickly found out, they don’t see foreigners very often (“I think we had a tourist here 6 months ago”, said the offical). Although time consuming (lots of Chai with the Senior Rank etc) I managed to get out of India OK but it was getting dark. Once in Nepal, and after about an hour it seemed I wasn’t going to be allowed in. Although Snow’s passage would be granted, they didn’t seem to have an immigration facility (or any facilities for that matter), more likely it seemed to me that they didn’t physically actually have an immigration stamp present. Bottom line is that they needed me to return to India and drive (back east) around to another border to gain entry. For me this wasn’t a major issue, despite the unfortunate fact that was more stamps in my (quickly filling) passport and more slips out of my carnet (not a good thing). What I wasn’t expecting was getting chased by Nepalese Military Police as I drove back out. They motioned to me and yelled in broken English to return to Nepal as I wasn’t allowed to leave, well this was news. The scene (now watched by about 300 people shuffling with me back and forth over the border line) then descended into a verbal stoush between Indian Customs Officials (who it seemed were trying to protect me) and Nepalese Military Police. The upshot was that I ended up return to Nepal whereby an outranking uniformed officer was going to allow me to stay over the border (with no immigration procedure or stamp into the country) that night and proceed internally to the other border (again a backtrack) the next morning to be processed. This I did. The next morning came and I left Biratnagar early for Kakahavita 120km away on a surprisingly good highway. Once in Kakahvita I was processed by immigration but customs then refused to process the bike, I would have to go back to Biratnagar to have that done. This wasn’t too much of a hassle as it was on the way I needed to go but would add 60km to all of the stuffing around I had done anyway. Just after lunch on Saturday 28 April I was cleared for travel in Nepal and I proceeded on Highway H01 west to the East-West Highway which would take me on to Kathmandu. I would only make it 101km along the highway before bad light forced stumps for the day and I found a surprising nice hotel in Lahan.

The driving along the Nepal plain was mostly through farmlands that seemed incredibly dry and although I passed over maybe 50 rivers during the day, maybe 2 or 3 had water in them (and one was the mighty Ganges). All rivers ran a direct route due South from the might Himalayas just 50 or so kilometres on the horizon (although out of sight in the haze). At one point I was in a beach like area totally windswept almost to the horizon in every direction.

The next day Sunday 29 April was one of those unforgettable day’s in one’s life. Starting out at 4.30am I rode off the Gangenic Plain (elev. 150m) and rose over 2500m through the Himalayas to Kathmandu arriving at 6pm. The ride was simply heart stopping, firstly because of the 1000 foot drop on one side of the road, barely centremeters from my tread, but secondly for the incredible scenery. Looking down was not an option as I drove up 40 degree inclines for much of the day trying to stay as much I could, away from the edge without becoming pushed off by the buses and trucks coming the other way. A big surprise was Kathmandu itself and although I had done a significant amount of research on locations for this trip, Kathmandu, much like Nepal had remained off my radar. Visions of a romantic hillside hamlet quickly gave way to, as I am told, one of the most polluted cities in the world. Kathmandu can best be described like Kolkata but worse. What should be, and probably were pristine rivers running through the city lie as I rubbish pit for the millions of impoverished people that call the cesspit home. The smog is simply bizarre and everything is covered in a layer of grit and dust from who knows where. Frequent power cuts are a normal part of life, in fact in most dwellings including my hotel receive power for less of the day the day than it is off. A city, with power rationing, in 2012!? Fuel is also rationed and I witnessed long snaking lines of vehicles queuing for petrol, apparently as a result of the countries largest creditor, Indian Oil Corporation having not been paid. I was told from a reliable source that Nepal’s highest earner (for GDP) was foreign aid followed by remittances from foreign nationals working overseas.

As it turned out I met at my hotel (Kathmandu Guesthouse, $10 a night, where the Beatles stayed in the 70’s) a trio from Perth that were running a small NGO that contributed to a school in the city. The first full day I was in Kathmandu I went and visited the place, spoke to the kids and let them play with the bike. It was a fairly depressing experience and I was told of the constant battle with various groups/management etc just to get separate sewerage and drinking water. Most of the 110+ kinds (from pre-school to young adults) were full time borders some, who as a result of the geography and cost hadn’t seen their parents since they were toddlers. Never the less it was a good experience. True to form, one of the Perthites was best friends with a good family friend of mine, small world.

The rest of the Kathmandu experience featured catching up on washing and maintenance. I swapped out the rear brake pads, on account of their wear and the fact that they would probably be needed in the following days going downhill! Apart from a light globe replacement in Mae Sot this has been the only maintenance Snow has required in already 7,000+ km of travel, touch wood. I also cleared out the air filter on account of the constant dust that Kathmandu seems to be enveloped in. From Kathmandu I plan to travel firstly North West out of town to view the Latang ranges at sunset/sunrise and then West to Pokhara and hopefully some views of the Annapurna Ranges, stay tuned!!


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