Cyclist's Australia jaunt became an inner journey Expedition: A writer for National Geographic found that his 10,000-mile trip became a mental exercise more than a physical feat.

May 18, 1998|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

It sounds incomprehensible. Someone must have gotten the facts wrong. But, no. Roff Martin Smith really did it. He took a trip, a 10,000-mile excursion, on a bicycle.

He did it in Australia. Through some harsh Outback territory. Fighting off flies, snakes and ants. Dodging dingoes, kangaroos and wombats. Pedaling through strong head winds and temperatures that sometimes soared to 120 degrees.

"Some people did ask me if I was crazy," says Smith. Crazy or not, Smith says he is a changed man after his trip.

The New Hampshire native spoke last week at two sold-out appearances at the National Geographic Society in Washington and to students at the Key School in Annapolis.

He also wrote about his bicycle sojourn in the December, February and April editions of National Geographic. In his first installment, he talks about beginning the trip in Sydney on July 21, 1996:

"My God! What have I let myself in for? Why slog around Australia on a fully loaded touring bike? I suppose I could have said 'because it's there' and that I like cycling and roadside adventure. And that'd all be true."

But, he says, there was a "sober" side to his effort, too.

Smith was going through some big life changes when he decided to set off on his epic ride. He and his wife of 11 years had decided to divorce. And after spending 15 years working in Australia as a journalist, he wasn't sure if he wanted to remain there or return to America. He also was two years away from turning 40.

But instead of going out and buying a sports car, or a plane ticket home, he reached for his bike.

"Although I had lived in Australia for 15 years, I felt as if I didn't really know it. I wanted to see Australia and then decide what I wanted to do," he says.

Smith was by no means a hard-core cyclist at the time.

"I used to cycle 20 or 25 miles maybe three or four days a week," says Smith. "I always loved it though." Years before he had run marathons, however, and when he was 22, he'd biked from Wyoming to the East Coast.

"But by the time I took off for this, I was rather pudgy," he admits. Preoccupied with organizing things, he also didn't do any cycling at all in the six weeks or so before the trip.

Still, off he went, on a bike loaded with a minimum of 30 to 40 pounds -- and sometimes more.

"After 35 miles, my 'seat' was sore and my knees were very sore," he says. The fleeting thought went through his head of calling the National Geographic Society and saying, "Never mind."

But he carried on -- for nine months and 9,965 more miles, pedaling back into Sydney on April 27, 1997. Smith, who always wore a helmet, had only two flat tires, one minor accident and a bout with the flu.

He is not certain if he broke any records. "I wasn't trying to go fast," he told students at Key School. And the physical aspects of the trip, he said, were the least important changes he went through (although he quickly lost all that pudginess).

Mentally and emotionally, he found himself changed "quite profoundly," he says. Not only did he grow truly interested in his adopted country, he learned things about himself and life.

One thing he learned was to be adaptable. "Be flexible," he told the students. "You might have to go around about" to get where you want to go.

Beyond that, "You discover a mental strength you didn't know was there," he says. "I know that anything is possible. You basically have your life in your own hands. Not that I'm saying the world will be handed to me on a plate. I expect I can get it, though, through my own efforts."

He also finds himself more grateful now for little things most take for granted. "To actually walk up to the tap, turn it on and get a cold drink of water is a big thing!" he laughs.

Smith says the trip also left him with a strong appreciation of nature and the land.

"I was never a tree hugger," he says. "But I've become in tune with nature and attuned to the rhythms of the day. So much of life is an everyday rush." Life, he says, should be taken like the bicycle trip -- one day at a time.

"Some people are only interested in the physical fitness part of it. But the bicycle was just a vehicle for my personal journey. It was a tool."

He hasn't spoken with many other cyclists, he says, but the ones he has run into have offered a one-word assessment of his trip: "Wow!"

Only recently, he says, has he decided to actually climb back on a bike. Mostly, he says, he's been too busy working on other stories for the National Geographic Society, which means living out of a suitcase. He's also writing a book about the bike trip, though he doesn't have a publisher yet.

He's also decided to return to America, although he will also purchase a home in Australia, where his ex-wife and two children remain. "I have two homes, now," he says.

He has no plans for any more nine-month bike trips, though he can see himself hitting the road for possibly two or three months.

"You know," he says, "one day, I would like to do the Alaskan Highway. And maybe Nova Scotia, maybe South America . . ."

Pub Date: 5/18/98

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