New on Sidetracked:

Friends and Their World

"Turn your life into a dream, and that dream, into a reality.” Antoine de Saint Exupéry
Morgan Monchaud, Brian Mathé, Siphay Vera and Bertrand Dolci

For years, we dreamt of looking over the majestic Tian Shan Mountains of Kyrgyzstan, of contemplating the azure shores of the Timor Sea, and of looking back over our shoulders having crossed the famed Australian Outback. We dreamed of sharing countless meals with generous shepherd families, of making new friends and of finding new cultures. In order to quench our thirst for exploring and in order to realise this childhood dream, the bicycle quickly emerged as the most suitable means of transportation. To encircle the planet.

Lifelong friends, the four of us grew up in a small village in the south of France. We were determined to turn our dream into reality and embark on a three-year journey to cycle the world, touching all continents. As adventurous souls, we also wanted to include some unusual challenges like paddling down the Yukon River in northern Canada on a raft we built ourselves, crossing the Amazon rainforest from west to east and using a kite to have the wind pull us on our bicycles across the Australian Outback.

The seeds of our trip actually started thirty years ago. Morgan’s father had embarked on his own adventure, wintering in Antarctica on a sailboat in the 1980s with three of his friends. Hearing of these adventures growing up, Morgan started to think towards a journey of his own. He created the team ‘Solidream’, inspiring our group of longstanding friends to dream together with him.

Morgan: ‘I marked places down on a map that have always inspired me: the Sahara, Amazonia, Alaska, the Australian desert, Tibet. Then I connected the dots on a map by tracing a line between them. I calculated that it would take three years to follow. For me it was now or never; this trip would bring more rewards than we could possibly imagine.’ On August 29, 2010, after two years of preparation, Morgan, Siphay, and Bertrand left from Le Grau du Roi in the Camargue region in southern France. Bertrand planned to join the trip as far as Antarctica, and Brian would join the group in Chile, eight months later.

The sun was our clock; the weather forecast, our calendar. Overall, our progress was linked to the seasons. We had to – for instance – be in Antarctica for summer and cross the Amazon during the dry season. Daily life was governed by our philosophy of ‘pedal to enjoy’. We preferred to press on for days, even weeks, without stopping until we came to a place we particularly liked. There we might decide to pause for several weeks to allow time to get to know the local people and blend into the local landscape. The three weeks we stayed in Alter do Chão in Brazil are a good example of such a relieving break. After 40 days in the jungle during what had been our most difficult challenge of the whole adventure, this paradise of crystal-clear waters was a perfect spot.

There we took time to enjoy watching the pink dolphins swimming their way down the Tapajos River and learned to dance forró and carimbo at night. We had decided early on never to pay to sleep, so our evenings were often dictated by the relationships we struck up. When we were not in a remote area, we would sleep on restaurant terraces, in the garden of an obliging farmer or in the comfortable bed offered by an American family. Whether we were in the icy rivers of Patagonia, assaulted by clouds of aggressive Alaskan mosquitoes, shivering from an icy shower in the back of a gas station, or gingerly tipping litres of water into our gourds, we always took the trouble every evening to wash and change clothes. After all, we had to make a good impression on people.

The sun was our clock; the weather forecast, our calendar. Overall, our progress was linked to the seasons. We had to – for instance – be in Antarctica for summer and cross the Amazon during the dry season. Daily life was governed by our philosophy of ‘pedal to enjoy’.
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The four of us made a point of exploring various types of ecosystems and thereby seeing some of the most extreme parts of the world. Some of our biggest challenges were crossing the Sahara, an expedition on a sailboat in the Antarctic, traversing the Andes from Patagonia to the high Bolivian plateau, and crossing the Amazon – the stiffest challenge of them all.

Morgan’s father and his two friends had, three decades ago, sailed around the world for five years in their boat named KIM. In 1981, to finish off the voyage, they took on a crazy bet to go to Antarctica and spend a year there. The notion of some kind of link with these old sea dogs and Solidream began to take shape and, on January 6, 2011, the six of us left from Ushuaia for a two-month trip in their footsteps, to the frozen continent.

Bertrand: ‘We navigated the mythical Cape Horn and followed our route due south. The wind was fierce enough to remind me our human condition was no reason for the sea to calm down. The first time the boat rolled onto its side I seriously thought our last hour had come. Then it levelled itself again, as if by magic, and the hull resumed its waltz with the ocean. Neophyte that I am, I felt I should be helping the crew, but in such conditions any movement on deck calls for dexterity in cold temperatures and plenty of experience, as the slightest slip could be fatal.

After four days of extreme conditions, we finally discovered the first icebergs. We quickly immersed ourselves in this magical world of killer whales, seals, and penguins. We navigated between immense snow-capped mountains and dream-like places while remaining wide awake. One does not emerge unmarked from a journey on a continent untouched by humans.’

The toughest part of our trip was unquestionably crossing the Amazon Rainforest. We had braved nights of -15°C to -20°C in Bolivia a few weeks earlier with cheap, inadequate equipment. But the humid heat of the jungle was harder to bear. We had minimal maps of the Trans-Amazonian highway and had difficulty locating potential sources of water among the hazy pictures we found on Google Earth. In such humidity, exposed to the sun without any shade on the trail from the jungle trees, we would drink 10 litres of water each and every day. The locals drink directly from the river or well water filtered by the earth and soon we were doing the same. Camping in the jungle was new to us and people alerted us to the danger of jaguars. The humidity level was approaching 90 percent, and the heat was searing even at night.

Brian: ‘In my hammock, I couldn’t sleep soundly without my long-sleeves which were supposed to protect me from potentially malaria-carrying mosquitoes. I would wake up in the night bathed in sweat and surrounded by darkness caused by vegetation. I tried to imagine the world immediately surrounding me and – attuning my hearing to all these strange and new sounds – I felt infinitely vulnerable.’

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Group travel is not for everyone. We were basically together 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for three years. Clashes were inevitable. Although they were rare, we all agree that this was the most sensitive aspect of the trip.

Brian: ‘I am a relatively introverted type of person, and I like my share of solitude in civilised life. With the team I sometimes felt suffocated. We had no private space, it was the team first, always. For instance, one issue was that the guys didn’t mind riding long hours in the dark when I would often feel tired and would have enjoyed our comfy tent earlier. But we listened to one another and soon learned to become flexible.’

In this context, we understood what tolerance and respect really mean for a good group atmosphere. We learned to speak our minds frankly and tried to leave our egos behind. We acquired perspective as we lived through moments that would unite us forever; most of the time, we were just brothers sharing precious memories. The team has helped us find our potential and – thanks to the many encounters we made – we learned that beautiful and memorable human connections can happen easily when you open yourself to the world.

Morgan: ‘In my opinion, what shapes my future overall is affected by all the personal encounters I have had, the difficulties I overcame, and new goals I have set for myself, in the context of our trip these three concepts were tested daily. Nothing ever happens just by itself. It’s up to me to continue to direct all my energy in shaping my own future. In this way, every day our journey has changed my life and has built the foundation for the person I will be tomorrow.’

On this trip we were blessed with unbelievable generosity and hospitality by people we didn’t even know existed. Our way of looking at life has developed: we have learned to enjoy simple things and we think every human has an interesting story to tell, to make happen or to inspire. Now that we are home, the project is not really over. We have acquired an appetite for adventure. It will be part of our lives for years to come.
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