Finding fear and freedom between Sydney and London

Nathan Millward rode a 105cc postie bike halfway across the world. This is his story.
Arriving in San Francisco © Nathan Millward
By Oliver Pelling

Nathan Millward is a human male. But he is no mere man. You see, way back in 2009, Nathan decided to embark on a trip the size of which most of us could only dream of. In fact, for most people, it’s the kind of trip that’s more likely to invoke feelings of fear rather than any type of fabled that ‘wanderlust’ stuff.

Nathan - who's originally from Mansfield in the UK - followed his heart to Sydney earlier in 2009 but things didn’t quite work out the way he’d planned. With a broken heart and only a short stint left on his visa, he made the decision to take the long route back to England.

Whilst most people would class brief stint in Singapore, Dubai or Hong Kong (or any of the other main airline hubs along the way) as ‘the long route back to England’, for Nathan it meant driving Dorothy, his 105cc postie bike the entire way home. And so, with little more than two days' worth of planning, that’s just what he did.

He made a short documentary about his trip - ‘Sydney to London on a Wing and a Prayer’ - which is one of the most honest accounts of travel you’re ever likely to watch. Nathan makes no bones about the hardships he faced and, more profoundly, at the end of it all he found that travel mightn't the big fat philosophical ‘answer’ it's so often billed as.

The route © Nathan Millward

Nathan, tell us a little more about how exactly your trip came about...

I suppose I'd just reached that point in life when I needed an adventure. I needed to get away and to test myself. I was 29 years old and had drifted quite a lot in life. I didn't really know what I wanted or where I wanted to be. I was lost in a way and desperate to find a purpose and path in life.

Through quite a few twists and turns I ended up with the idea for this trip and it just stuck in my head and for a long time. I thought I'd never do it because it just seemed so improbable or something I'd always talk myself out of. Then one day I found myself in Australia, with an old postie bike, no visa and no desire to go home to England and all of a sudden the idea to ride a small bike across the world seemed like the most sensible thing I could do. Obviously I'd slowly been orchestrating it all and bringing my life to that point, but I never realised it at the time. Then, two days after deciding to do the trip, I set off on my journey across the world.

The Australian Outback © Nathan Millward

Had you ever embarked on anything similar before?

No I'd never done anything like this before. I'd ridden a motorbike before and had done some working holidays in Europe and had gone to Australia on a working holiday visa, but I'd never back-packed, never travelled anywhere by motorbike, never been to Asia and so the day I set out of Sydney I didn't really know what to expect. I had read about it and done my research but I can't say it really prepared me for what lay ahead.

What had you gone to Sydney for in the first place, and why did you decide it was time to leave?

Like most adventures mine began with a failed relationship. We'd met the first time I was in Australia on a working holiday visa and having returned home to England I missed her a lot, so after six months jumped on a plane back to Australia.

It was one of those relationships that was three steps forward, two steps back. We were a volatile couple and as much as we tried to make it work it just kept going around in circles, I guess ultimately because we wanted different things out of life.

I was in Australia on a tourist visa and had had one extension already. When I went for another extension Immigration told me that I’d have to be out of the country when the current visa expired at the end of the month.

Road kit, USA © Nathan Millward

In hindsight, do you think there was a self-destructive edge to your trip? It seems relatively mental to go into something like that with minimal planning and expect to come out unscathed.

Yeah, I think there was an element of self-destruction and nihilism. I think what I realised is that I had nothing left to lose. I'd given everything to going back to Australia, to trying to make it work, and when I realised I just didn't have it in me to make a proper go of things I felt so much anger and frustration - mainly with myself - and I suppose the trip was just about me channeling all that emotion at the road. I hit the road in a rage of determination to prove to myself and to others that I could do it, no matter the cost, and I think that's what saw me through to the end.

Colorado © Nathan Millward

What was your family’s reaction when you told them you were driving from Sydney to London on a postie bike?

My parents found out three days into the trip when I emailed them from a McDonald's near Grafton, Australia. I'd not told them before I set off because I knew they would have tried to talk me out of it and to be honest I would probably have allowed that to happen. I thought that if I tell them after I'd set off then there wouldn’t be much they could do about it.

Obviously my parents were worried and my mum rang me on my mobile the moment she got the email, trying to talk me out of it. But I was certain it was something I wanted to do by then and told her not to worry. Of course she did worry for the whole nine months it took me to get to England, but they were hugely supportive and helped me out in all sorts of ways. I couldn't have done it without them.

Way back in Nepal © Nathan Millward

I know you said in the documentary that you had $2k, but did you have any other help along the way? Did you need to get any flights or pay for any accommodation as you went? How did you get your bike out of Australia and into SE Asia?

I had $2k in cash that I'd saved from working in a cafe, but I also had two credit cards and some room on my overdraft, so I figured that I'd have access to about $7k in total. I wasn't sure if this was going to be enough and I was obviously aware that when or if I got home I'd be in a lot of debt, but I accepted that as a necessary evil.

The $7k was to cover everything from visa to shipping and living costs. By the time I reached India I was already running out of money. To try and make up the shortfall I'd already sent a load of postcards out to newspapers and magazines whilst I was in Thailand, asking if they'd consider running a short story on my travels in exchange for some travelling funds. The Sydney Morning Herald Motoring section emailed back and asked me to write 500 words in exchange for about $300. I wrote that, sent it off and didn't think anything more about it.

Monument Valley © Nathan Millward

Somewhere in India I got an email from the commissioning editor of a book publisher in Australia who asked if I wanted to write a book. Obviously I jumped at the chance and the advance they paid me was enough to cover the rest of the trip. So in a sense it was a bit of good luck. My folks also had to help me out by sending me some cash in Nepal when my debit card was eaten by an ATM.

As for getting the bike out of Australia, I put it on a cargo boat in Darwin and sailed it to Dili in East Timor. I had to fly because you can't travel on the cargo boat. My living costs per day were about $15, which was enough in Asia. I camped wild a lot, ate street food, with most of the money going on the unavoidable costs relating to visas and shipping and things like that.

Climbing the Indian Himalayas © Nathan Millward

Did you have any problems with the visas?

East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand I knew could all be got at the border or at the embassy in advance, so they were easy enough. Pakistan was a hard one to get as when I went to the embassy in Bangkok they insisted I'd have to apply for one in my home country. I explained that was where I was heading (England) and was prepared to take a flight home to get a visa, then come back again to carry on the bike trip. When the guy at the embassy asked what bike I was riding and I told him it was a 105cc postie bike he took pity on me and gave me a 10 day tourist visa. All for the slightly extortionate price of about $150.

Iran was also difficult and in the end I wasn't able to get one, simply because at the time the British government weren't on good terms with the Iranian government so all visa applications were being rejected. Canadian, American and Australian visas were also being declined.

Not being able to get an Iranian visa meant that the only way back to England from India was to ride into Pakistan, up and over the Himalayas along the Karakoram Highway, into China, then on though Kyrgzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia - effectively over Afghanistan rather than beneath it. To get the permits to go through China took six weeks and cost $2000 as you have to have a guide to go through China if you're entering on your own motorised vehicle. This is why the book deal came in handy, as it helped pay for this.

Sleeping wild in Kazakhstan © Nathan Millward

To what extent did you have to rely on the kindness of strangers during your trip?

It's common to hear travellers talk of the kindness of strangers and my trip was no different. On the second day in I got a puncture and didn't have the right tools, an old chap named Dave stopped to help and went home to fetch his tyre levers. I realised then that I wasn't really on my own in all this. It didn't matter what country I was in or what trouble I was in, someone from somewhere would always turn up to help. It was almost spooky.

At the tourist information centre in Mt Isa in Queensland, the woman who worked in the canteen told me that if I was ever in trouble then I was to ask for the angels and fairies for help, and they would come. At the time I thought she was nuts, but slowly I realised that she was right. So many amazing people helped me along the way. I definitely learned that far more people are inherently good than bad.

Monument Valley © Nathan Millward

What was the most overpowering emotion you experienced during your trip?

That's a tough one, as for me it was a roller coaster of emotions. One day or one hour you're up, and the next you're down. One minute you love the solitude, the next you hate the loneliness. It's therefore hard to pinpoint one emotion.

I guess I just loved the challenge and the fact that life out there was so simple. Everyday I'd wake up and my only objective was to make progress on my journey from Sydney to London.

Of course at times I was scared and frightened, especially the first week or two in East and West Timor, but I also had so many stretches of elation and euphoria. I've never taken drugs before but I imagine at times it was like being on some permanent high.

The road to Alaska © Nathan Millward

Which country surprised you the most, and why?

Pakistan was the obvious surprise as all the way up to it I'd expected it to be really difficult and threatening. I'd expected the people to not like me and the threat of banditry or abduction to be very real.

In the weeks prior to my entry a French traveller had been kidnapped and a Polish worker had been executed. So I was very frightened riding into Pakistan, even fatalistic: if the worst was to happen then so be it. That was my mindset. But then I crossed the border and met the people and saw the towns and cities and realised it's not that bad at all.

In Lahore they have KFC, Subway and Caltex petrol stations. The people tend to speak better English than the Indians and the roads are a little less hectic. You also get a lot less hassle and the people are incredibly polite.

Islamabad is a new build city and so reminded me of Milton Keynes or Canberra. Abbottobad, where Osama Bin Laden was found, seemed to be a pleasant little town. I remember a guy there stopping me and inviting me in for tea. He tried to comb my hair as well but I'd not washed it for six months so it was bit knotted at the time…

Colorado © Nathan Millward

Which country did you find you liked the most?

I liked Thailand, especially away from the main tourist locations, and Indonesia is a cool place too. It's not as developed or cynical as some of the countries I passed through so I had a real good time meeting people and observing their way of life. I liked Indonesia a lot.

If I was to pick a favourite though, it would have to be Australia, particularly the Outback. I just loved the atmosphere and the solitude of the place. Not seeing hardly any traffic, being alone in the world, then coming across a homestead where everyone would gather to chat and share stories before returning to the road again.

At what point in the trip did you feel the lowest?

There was one moment, trying to find a ferry from the top of Indonesia across the Strait of Malacca to Malaysia. I got to the port the day before my visa expired, there were no vehicle ferries and no one seemed willing to help. I rode back into town and felt totally broken. I didn't know what to do. I was alone. There was no one to help or ask for advice and at times like that I didn’t have much choice but to dig deep.

So I psyched myself up, swore at myself a lot, rode back to the port and just pushed and pushed until I found someone who could help, then someone else, until finally a man offered to take my bike across on his boat. I had to leave the bike in a warehouse and meet her four days later in Malaysia. I was worried that I was never going to see the bike again but it all turned out okay, but at the time I really did think I was going to be stuck in Indonesia forever.

Camping in Alaska © Nathan Millward

Same question, but the point you felt the highest.

I would say it would be reaching the highest point of 5,328 metres on the road from Manali to Leh in the Indian Himalayas. I'd ridden up there to test the bike at altitude before crossing into Pakistan where I would have to ride at similar heights. It had been the worst day ever reaching that altitude.

I'd had to get off and push the bike and keep restarting her after she stalled. It was cold and wet and I only had Converse on and was missing a sock. My welding gloves were sodden, the air was really thin so I had a banging headache and so when I reached the sign and realised it was all down hill from there I was totally ecstatic. Just real triumphant joy. But to be fair there were many occasions like that, just when you feel like you're on top of the world.

Can you describe the feeling when you finally made it back to London? What was going through your head?

I guess it was a sense of achievement in having ridden 35,000 kilometres on a 105cc bike after two days of planning. I was looking forward to seeing my parents and friends and looking forward to not having to spend another night sleeping in a hedge bottom, which I'd been doing all the way from Kyrgyzstan.

There was probably also a sense of fear, because for nine months my life had been entirely about riding a motorbike, and now all of a sudden it was going to end. My adventure would be over and real life would kick in again. In that sense there was a large dose of anti climax. You expect to feel amazing once you've landed, but I didn't really. It was just quiet satisfaction. And then immediately a sense of what now, what next, and how on earth do I stand still after so many miles of movement?
 

Climbing the Indian Himalayas © Nathan Millward

With the gift of hindsight, do you think the trip gave you what you wanted to get out of it?

No not at all. That was the hardest part of it. I think at the beginning I saw the trip as the cure to everything I didn't like about myself. My mindset was one of 'if I can do this then everything will be alright. Life will be good, my problems will all be solved. I will be happy.'

I don't know why I felt like that but I'd put so much pressure on this trip and it could never live up to that expectation. I think all of us do it to some extent. Some people put that pressure on getting married, or having a child, or finding a dream job, or moving to a dream location.

And I just don't think as humans we're programmed to reach a point where we're happy with our lot. We always want more. And so I suppose at the end of the trip I realised it hadn't really achieved anything and how I was still in the same mess as when I set off.

At that moment I couldn't see the point of anything, even life itself. I have to admit to becoming incredibly depressed, at times even suicidal after the trip. Though it wasn't post trip blues, I'd been feeling like that before I set off, and hoped, like I said, that the trip would be my cure. Thankfully, my decision to return to the road a few years later and ride the same bike across America and up to Alaska was the right one. I returned from that feeling a lot better about things. But I do sometimes feel that you need this state of turmoil in order to find the will to travel. Happy or content people don't generally find the need to risk it all on the road.

British Columbia, Canada © Nathan Millward

At the end of the doco, you mentioned that your problems were still very much problems once you made it to the other end of the road. Do you think travel in general tends to be quite romanticised as this solve-all solution, when in reality, no matter how life-changing a trip is, it’s really only a temporary fix if you’re going to have to face your issues at the end of it anyway?

Indeed. I think travel is over-romanticised. I get a lot of people who see the pictures of the trip and say how much they'd love to do something like it. But I'm not entirely sure they would.

From my encounters with other travellers on the road I realised that most people who do these kind of things are running from something, or have reached a point where they have nothing left to lose and so take to the road. I met people escaping from the pain of divorce, or a girl who was cutting free from her family who had ostracised her for not adhering to their Catholic faith.

I didn't really meet people doing this sort of thing for pleasure or enjoyment; everyone's trip had begun with pain and I try as much as I can to be realistic with people about how my trip came about and the effect it's had on me.

It's been a positive experience, but also a negative one, and I don't think it's for everyone. Ultimately you know deep down if it's something you really need to do or not. I encourage people and give them advice if I can, but I never talk people into it (or out of it), if that makes sense.

Now 36, Nathan lives in England and works as a freelance writer. He's published three books - one about his trip from Sydney to London - and two about follow-up trips across America, one of which was with his wife. He'd like to make Australia the destination for his next trip. You can keep up to date with Nathan and purchase his book on his website, www.nathanmillward.com

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