That evening we arrived in Chandigargh, a new city in an old country. For one thing there was a distinct lack of cows in the street or tin shacks on the pavements. Our joy at the distances we were covering disappeared as we read an e-mail from London informing us that the ship was not confirmed and could we please organise it from wherever we were. Suddenly we found ourselves racing around the city searching for international telephones and fax machines.
We moved off early the next morning for Delhi still unsure if we would be able to leave India without flying. At one point a motorbike passed us with at least thirty chickens attached. We couldn't work out if they were alive or dead. Definitely dead was a beheaded horse we had to swerve to avoid. Also dead - and nearly eaten by birds and dogs - was the skinned cow in the neighbouring field.
As we approached the capital the sky turned brown and the traffic grew heavier. By the time we arrived in the centre of the city my throat was sore and my sinuses were stinging. We found a cheap hotel and asked for a room with no window. Even then we could still smell the traffic fumes creeping in under the bottom of the door. We washed clothing, the bikes and ourselves in the hotel shower and went downstairs to check e-mail. At long last the London shipping line confirmed our passage to Singapore.
With pollution draining our immune system, nearly a year on the road and the number of times we had to eat at hygiene-challenged food stalls it was inevitable we would get ill. As we cycled out of Delhi we found ourselves having to make frequent stops at the side of the road so we could dive off into the bushes. Our stomachs continued to complain as we moved southwest through Agra towards Mumbai.
We were also getting an increasing number of punctures. As I stopped to repair my fourth of the day in the middle of the Rajastani desert I was relieved to find that there were no houses - and therefore crowds - nearby. But as soon as I had the bike upside down a local bus appeared. The driver spotted me and pulled over to the side of the road. He waved at everyone on the bus to get off. They dutifully complied and made a circle around the bike. In the middle of the desert, many miles from the nearest town, I resumed the repair of the puncture surrounded by a seventy strong crowd of men and woman, all watching my every move. Ten minutes later the inner tube was fixed and I put the bike back together. Realising the show was over the bus driver hooted the horn. The crowd reboarded their bus and continued to wherever they were heading. We pedalled west towards Jaipur, alone once more.
Our surroundings remained bleak. The monsoon had failed for three years. Empty fields lay ploughed, ready for crops, but idle. People stood outside their mud homes and watched us waltz by. The healthiest creatures were the camels, and sharing the roads with them was a pleasure. The huge, elegant beasts padded silently along the side of the road. Heads bobbing and eyes watching, they carried their loads and pulled their carts with incredible dignity. Drivers dozed on their backs or on the carts, mesmerized by the meditative rhythm. The real beasts of the desert, the camels didn't need people to tell them which way to go.
We also knew which way to go, but were just finding it increasingly difficult to get there. Our stops at the side of the road were increasing in frequency as our energy levels and weight dropped. We made it as far as the famous camel town of Pushkar, and realised we would have to get a train to Mumbai.
The next day I awoke as the first rays of daylight were beginning to flicker past the outside of the window. My bunk was suspended from the sealing by a couple of chains. Above my pillow was a giant stack of panniers, all to the wall with a complex array of string, straps and twisted handles. This left my bed a lot shorter than me - but I didn't care. We had made it onto a train bound for Mumbai and would be arriving there in a few hours. I heard a noise at the end of the bed and got up to investigate. It was a man pulling a large crate asking if I would like breakfast. With my stomach feeling better I said yes, and Lowanna and I soon found ourselves sitting on the floor of the compartment diving into a collection of silver bundles. Opening each in turn we revealed wave after wave of rice, chapatti, daal and potato curry. Not your conventional breakfast but better than anything I had experienced on English trains and, at less than a pound for the two of us, considerably cheaper.
The beauty of travel is observing and absorbing the strange world around you. To be able to do this you need to be anonymous; invisible to the life. For most of India we were pushed, pulled, tugged and surrounded by the masses, constantly reminded we were foreigners in another land. I relished the last few moments of anonymity on an Indian train, before I looked out the window and saw Mumbai station rolling into view.
We retrieved the bicycles from the luggage van and set off for the harbour. Within hours we were watching the Hoegh Dyke pull into the dockside. The crew lowered the ladder, came down onto Indian soil, picked up the bikes and bags and signalled to us to join them as they climbed once again into the hulk of the ship.
Rocked to sleep in the biggest of cradles we grew physically fitter and stronger by the day. Ten days at sea and India was gone from our minds and bodies. We were ready to deal with the city-state of Singapore as it beckoned us from the horizon.
The dockers wore shoes, had trousers instead of loin clothes...and interspersed with the steaming jungle backdrop were gleaming tower blocks. We gathered our possessions, reloaded the bikes, and followed shiny BMWs into the city centre. Nobody stared at us and the only litter was leaves falling from the greener-than-green trees. The beautiful people hurried in and out of air-conditioned stores, clasping a mobile phone to one hand and designer-branded bag to the other. With steamy tropical heat one minute and ice-cold blasts from the air-conditioned stores the next we weaved our way through traffic to the house of two British expatriates who had invited us to stay via email after reading our first article in the CTC magazine.
Spending the next two weeks at their house on the Internet paid dividends, and we soon found ourselves on a ship once more, bound for Australia....
As we approached Brisbane harbour Lowanna spotted a large untidy sheet attached to a crane. We then spotted a few ant-sized people jumping up and down. As we got closer the sheet revealed the words 'Welcome to Oz, Bike2oz' and the people were revealed as Lowanna's mother, father and two of her sisters. For Lowanna, arriving home four years to the day after her backpacking departure, it was an emotional moment.
After the sedentary existence on board the cargo ship it was great to be on the road again. Brisbane's urban sprawl transformed quickly into golden and green rolling fields. Silver trees rose majestically from the ash of the summer bush fires as fluffy clouds above released refreshing showers of rain. We awoke the first morning to the sound of whip-birds whipping and bellbirds belling. Suddenly English bird names seemed unnecessarily complicated.
The following weeks were a blur of mountains, waterfalls, forest and incredibly friendly locals. A typical breakfast would be spent with farmers and their families while evening would contrast with a battered house in the middle of nowhere. 'The Only True Wilderness Is Between A Greenies Ears' read the sign on the fridge as the owner shared his dinner with two environmentalists. Cycling through Gloucester, Stroud, and Newcastle we wondered if we really had come as far as it seemed.
And then we were there. The jagged city skyline cut into our horizon. The bridge and the opera house came into our vision. Early morning interviews on the radio and television kept us on our toes...and then the huge crowd of friends, family and media cheered us to the finish line in Sydney's Botanical Gardens.
12000 kilometres, 485 days and 16 countries after leaving Oxford we had finally achieved our objective - to Bike2oz.