Wake up! You’ve got to just stay awake. These were the words echoing in the depths of my mind as I drifted in and out of consciousness, lying in the desert sands of an abandoned railway tunnel. Do not sleep, whatever happens do not close your eyes. I was lost, alone and out of water in the wastelands of Kazakhstan. A week spent camping in the docklands of Baku City, trying to hitch a lift across the Caspian Sea on a local cargo boat, had left me exhausted. Waking each night to the sounds of fog horns and loading trucks.
The boat came a day before my visa ran dry and before I knew it I was watching the last of Europe grow small through the glass a grubby cabin porthole. A restless night on the waves followed and then, well, there I was rolling off a boat and into a desert, stocking up on water in the port town of Aktau, using bungee to strap as many litres to my bike as I could and off I went… like a fool, a wild grin on my face, drifting slowly into the nowhere.
This is as close as I get to landing on Mars, I’d thought as the buildings turned to sand and the road to rubbled tarmac. It was another world, hazy, yellow and endlessly flat and, of course, the ride has started well – spending a night with locals on the outskirts of town after chatting to a man walking down the highway and being invited to his home, a small clay dwelling on the edge of the desert. I slept under the stars on their porch, covered in dusty blankets and, the next day, was waved off by his kids, passing wild camels as I went.
Water? I said to the puzzled looking security guard at the gates and waving my hand like a drink to my mouth. He smiled, walked inside and came out with a huge tanker. Lucky, I thought, cycling away – a crude drawing of a map on my hand and my bottles refilled. Round one with the desert, survived.
But, only a couple of hours in and it was getting hot, a little too hot and the empty road, that had turned to complete rubble by this point, had come to an end at a huge power station in the middle of the desert. Suddenly, I realised, I may have taken a wrong turn. I had no map and I’d drunk the full ten litres I’d been carrying.
Scorpions! Dozens of them, scuttling out from beneath my tent! Keeping themselves warm between my face, the tarp and the ground. Good way to wakeup. Ok. Pack down. Reach that rail line and keep going! I began pushing. The bike slowed and ground to a halt. Suddenly, I was stuck! What now? I remember shouting into thin air. It was some kind quicksand, turning the ground to sticky, brown paste. I lifted the bike free and hauled it to safety, but the struggle had left my legs heavy and the bike covered in gluey mud.
The sun was rising fast, drying the stuff to my wheels, rendering them useless. I spent an hour in the heat scraping the tyres free. By that point, once more, my water was gone. I tapped the cycle computer. That can’t be right. The screen was reading 48’c!I looked to the sun and back to the digits and realised, in that moment, that I needed to get out of there, fast. I could barely move the bike, pushing it slowly through the sand for twenty metres, then resting for a few minutes before pushing on again until I found the railway tunnel and in I went, keeled over in pain, dehydrated and quickly losing focus. How had this happened to me so quickly? I could barely move.
Get up Rob. An hour went by… then two. Do not go to sleep, get up! My eyes were just so heavy, trying to close themselves and a strange weight had come over my mind. All I wanted was to pass out, to let go. The thirst was unbearable and the shade barely making a difference. But, that’s when I heard it – the sound of bells… the clanging of goats!
From the tunnel opening, I could see a small house shimmering on the horizon. It has to be now, right now. Get up Rob! Stumbling to my feet, I grabbed an empty bottle, the whistle on my key chain and wandered into the open, scorching desert. I just left the bike behind – my wallet, my phone – and began to hike, delirious and with complete abandon, in search of safety. The sun now high, blinding, burning. The ground hazing in the heat.
After what felt like hours I was staggering passed wood pens full of goat and sheep, moving through a network of small clay houses, that milky farm scent hanging in the air. It must have been a strange sight – opening the door of your desert home to see a foreign man dressed in strange clothes, drooped over. What was he doing here? Where had he come from? I pointed to the railway line, made cycling gestures and held up my empty bottle, smiling faintly. The bottle came back full of yellow, murky liquid and smelt of rancid milk. I did all I could not to throw up before drinking the entire four litres in one go.
Like all I had met across Turkey and The Cradle, they were a kind family, never hesitating to help me. The kids chucking buckets of water on my head as I lay with my back to a wall. The mother bringing me sugary tea and some dry bread. We sat in the shade of the porch for an hour, mostly silent, just smiling at one another, the sound of bells clanging in the wind and the odd word of Turkish exchanged.
I was taken back to the bike under the tunnel, pointed in the direction of the road and, after a few hours clambering through the night and dreaming of cold pepsis and sweet snickers bars, I saw the lights of a town and the main highway coming down from the mountains. I’d been way off course. Headed in the opposite direction, into complete desert.
Minutes later, I was slumped against a shop, in the middle of the night, guzzling pepsi and eating that snickers bar! But, it didn’t end there; exhausted and black-eyed from dehydration, I rolled into the high street, asking locals of places to stay. Come in, come in! A young lad said to me, in good English, outside one noisy building. Are you alright? Please bring your bike in, have some food!
Before I knew what was happening, I was in the midst of a huge Kazakh wedding being served raw meatballs on silver plates, drinking my way through big cartoons of orange juice and surrounded by dozens of people all pulling me into photos and shaking my hand. This is ridiculous, I’d thought. Utterly ridiculous! But, I was safe, saved by the locals and with newfound respect for the desert. A lesson learned and one I was lucky to survive. And then? Well, then I was escorted straight to the police station… to setup camp of course!
The novel A Thousand Dawns is a tale of adventure, a journey into the unknown and a life lived on the open road. Four long years of stories, from my day in the Kazakh desert to car crashes in Malaysia, riding with the nomads in the Himalayas to bribing policeman on Croatian highways, all crammed into one neat little book with chapters weaving moments from my past and the struggles of obsessive compulsive disorder into the story of how I cycled east for over a thousand epic dawns.
The accompanying photobook Lifecycle is a collection of landscapes and cultures captured from the saddle as I cycled east across thirty countries. Both books can be pre-ordered separately or as Twin collection on Kickstarter… Checkout the official Kickstarter project page here.