Open Your Eyes: Cycling from London to Cape Town with Jake Thorpe

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Grit your teeth.
Wrap your head in rags—
Mummify.
Close your mouth, nose, ears—
If you can.
But not your eyes.
You need them open.
To burn a visual brand
A souvenir—
Of a place with so little to look at—
Yet so much to see.

I stood at the gateway to the Sahara, staring down the barrel of my next two months of riding. In front of me, towered a road sign; an exhaustive list of my destinations to come, all on the same interminable stretch of tarmac. Being confronted with such a significant chunk of your future, spelled out impersonally in black and white, feels strangely terminal. 

Planning my trip – a ride across a continent, cycling from London to Cape Town – from the relative comfort of a shared house in South London last year, I remember poring over a particular section of West Africa: Western Sahara. It was a big question mark, a section of the world’s largest hot desert. A vast expanse of nothing. 

Well, almost nothing. A smattering of towns punctuate the desert: Akhfenir; Tarfaya; Laayoune; Fishing (no prizes for guessing what happens there). Oh, and more than a smattering of landmines. Nine million of these incendiary relics remain after the region’s bloody battle for independence that waged for over two decades from 1976, filling the vacuum left by its Spanish colonizers. Well, there goes my cavalier approach to wild camping. A single cord of asphalt carves a corridor through the dune fields and scrubland, hence the cluttered road sign. Settlements appear every 100 kilometers, with service stations striking the off-beat. Beyond that? The lone and level sands stretch far away…

"With little external distraction, the gaze settles internally."

For days before I’d entered its gravitational field, the desert had preoccupied my thoughts. I found myself unable to relax, tangled in the worry of the weeks to come. I couldn’t shake a distinct sense of futility. Why was I about to put myself through this? It felt like arbitrary punishment for little discovery; little reward. At least hauling yourself up a mountain pass brings with it the promise of a hair-raising descent; or battling through a jungle, you encounter some weird and wonderful wildlife. 2,000 kilometers of flat desert road? Not exactly riveting. It felt both exposed and exposing. With little external distraction, the gaze settles internally.

"You become sensitive to increments: the subtle palette of dawn, the scents caught on the perpetual breeze, the position of the sun in the sky."

Apprehension weighed heavy. I woke early and ceremoniously wrapped every inch of exposed skin in rags, carefully sealing out the sand. The world settled into a soft, psychedelic glow through the polarized lenses of my Herons, the final addition to my desert uniform. Despite my desert-ready get-up, my cranks turned sluggishly. I felt as if I were fighting some magnetic repulsion, pushing me away from the stretching eternity of the Sahara. Before long, though, I broke free of the shackles of imagery and snapped back to reality to discover the magnetic repulsion was simply a headwind. 

Jake Thorpe in Heron Mountain sunglasses on his overland cycling journey from London to Cape Town

Now, this was strange. The only information I’d received from fellow cyclists who’d previously tackled this barren stretch of coastline was that the riding itself was a breeze. Literally. There’s a prevailing northerly wind that gently encourages you down the continent. Of course, today would be the meteorological exception that proves the rule. And things got stranger yet. The very definition of a desert lies in its perpetual aridity, so you’d understand my confusion when the sky hung heavy with clouds. Clouds which soon broke. A soaking certainly wasn’t what I’d expected for my first day in the desert. 

"Just as your eyes adjust to the dim gleam of a moonlit night, so they do to the sublime and stretching sands of the desert."

Water ran in rivulets across my lenses and soaked into the thin cotton of my rags. The protection, though designed for altogether different storms, proved surprisingly effective against the rain. Cocooned, I pressed on in defiance of the downpour, which soon abated. The desert’s charm shone through as the skies cleared and I rode into a picture perfect dunescape. Before long, I was caught up in the magic of the place as I passed signs warning of camels crossing, and wove around dunes that had burst their banks, spilling their sandy load across the road. 

It’s a strange phenomenon. Just as your eyes adjust to the dim gleam of a moonlit night, so they do to the sublime and stretching sands of the desert. Before long, you begin to breathe together. You synchronize. The desert moves from a barren, impersonal wasteland into something that – though worlds away – begins to resemble home. With so little to look at, you become sensitive to increments: the subtle palette of dawn, the scents caught on the perpetual breeze, the position of the sun in the sky and the corresponding shadow you cast on the blank tarmac canvas around you. You begin to realize that, despite the austerity of the place, there is a beautiful tension between its sheer gravity, and the proximate level on which you perceive it. A tension that takes the patience of pedal pace to truly understand.

Photos courtesy of Jake Thorpe

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