'As hard as it is, you just embrace it' - A Kerryman's solo cycle home from New Zealand

Tomás Mac an t-Saoir has already conquered Africa and America. His attention now turns to the rest of the world.

THE MINUTE TOMÁS Mac an t-Saoir landed home to his beloved Ballyferriter, he knew he had to go again. After conquering Africa and North America, he had to do more.

That was in May 2019.

tomas Tomás Mc an t-Saoir in Capetown after completing the Africa cycle last May. Source: Tomás' World Cycle.

Last week, he left the Gaeltacht village on Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula once again to set off on another adventure of a lifetime: a two-year, 25,000km cycle from New Zealand all the way home.

This all started in October 2016, as Mac an t-Saoir travelled Stateside with not much else other than a bike and a dream. Fresh-faced and fearless in his early twenties, he cycled half way across America in memory of Donal Walsh, who touched the hearts of the nation before his untimely death in 2013.

A talented footballer in his teens, Mac an t-Saoir always loved cycling. He’d happily hop up on his bike and head off into the unknown. But this was on another level.

As he says himself, America wasn’t enough. He wanted something bigger, something better. There was a fire in his belly. A burning desire that wasn’t going to go away any time soon.

That’s when he set his sights on Africa.

“I didn’t know that I’d be going away again on this next trip, and if I could go on one more trip I wanted to go to Africa,” Mac an t-Saoir tells The42 from his family home on Monday evening before heading off once again.

Anyone who has ever cycled the world will always say that Africa is by far, a hundred times over, the hardest continent to cycle. I wanted to go away to some place completely nuts, and just get out of my comfort zone. Have some scary experiences, not near death experiences, but just experiences that make you appreciate life even more.

“I had a view that it was just a wonderful and beautiful continent and it just far, far exceeded my own expectations of what I thought was going to happen to me out there. It was just an incredible trip from start to finish. It was pure mad, like.

“It probably explains why I haven’t settled down properly from it all. Sometimes I still think I’m out there, living that madness again. That leads on to the next trip, it’s a bit addictive really. Once you have these ideas in your head, it’s very hard to convince yourself not to do them. 

“I’m only 25 and I’m free and able to do them, so why not?”

He’d need to write a book to touch on even half of the stories he has from his most recent 10,000km cycle through 11 African countries in seven months — again, raising funds for the Donal Walsh Live Life foundation — but the 25-year-old does his best to give a quick synopsis. 

From Egypt to South Africa, Mac an t-Saoir conquered the Cairo to Capetown route. He set off from the former on 2 November 2018 and landed in the latter on 15 May 2019 after coming through Africa’s three deserts; the Sahara, the Kalahari and the Namib; through mountains and flat lands, in soaring temperatures and outrageous humidity.

tomas Cycling through Africa. Source: Tomás World Cycle.

“I was in God knows how many different scenarios,” he laughs now. “In Egypt, I had the police hounding me and following me everywhere.

“I got into trouble with them one day; they were threatening to send me back to Cairo or deport me because they didn’t want me to cycle. Another time then they accused me of trying to escape from them, which was hilarious because I was going 10 or 12 km an-hour through the desert in southern Egypt.

“I was like, ‘Where am I trying to get to, like? There’s sand all around us. If I left this area, I’d be dead within a day or two.’”

Sudan was lovely,” he continues with a smile, “probably actually my favourite country, just in terms of the hospitality. The Sudanese… I know the perception we have of Sudan in the western world isn’t great, but they were easily the kindest people out there.

Suffering with homesickness and loneliness at the time, the locals really picked him up and sent him on his way. Mac an t-Saoir’s experience in the next country on his route wasn’t quite as pleasant.

“Ethiopia, it went a bit pear-shaped again in terms of people throwing stones on a daily basis,” he recalls. “I had a cow whip at me, bottles thrown at me, stones… I’d be attacked by 40, 50 kids leaving school and stuff like that.

“Then there was ethnic conflict, so the army picked me up in north-west Ethiopia and took me through that region. By the time I got to Addis Abab, there was some of the worst ethnic conflict they have seen in decades. It was just a massive no-go area.

I was hearing stories about grenades being thrown around town, the army going into a motel and killing random people, people dying left, right and centre. There were dead bodies spewed all over the road as you headed towards the border.

“Once I got to the border, there were no checks done; just get the hell out of here and get to Kenya. Worry about it when you get to Kenya and stuff like that.”

Mac an t-Saoir ended up flying into Uganda, and tackling Kenya from there. 

“There were a couple of close calls with lions,” he says casually, before condensing both stories. The first time was in Tanzania, but he was in a safe enough position. The second encounter was a little more close for comfort in Botswana. 

“It was much scarier to be honest, it was outside the tent during the night.”

Mac an t-Saoir and two others his age he was cycling with at the time — one Irish, one English: “They were best friends from college. As soon as your man said he was Donegal, I was delighted. How often now would you cycle through Africa and find another Irishman?” — had a lucky escape after rushing into the tent that evening, while their unwelcome visitor gave up halfway through the night and disappeared. 

Unzipping the tent the next morning was absolutely terrifying, all the same.

“The heat and stuff like that,” he adds as more general observations spring to mind, “I couldn’t really sleep properly, and spent most nights just twisting and turning because of the heat.

I was on malaria tablets and they were giving me these phantom itches. I’d wake up and I’d just be scratching for the rest of the night then even though I wasn’t even itchy. I don’t know what it was, it was just really, really weird.

An absolute whirlwind full of highs and lows, it really was a mental challenge from start to finish. But reaching the beautiful city of Capetown absolutely made it all worth it.

There were good days, and not so good days, but the people he met and things he witnessed along the way still take his breadth away. And he’s ready to do it all again. 

“As hard as it is, you just embrace it,” he nods. “I know I’ll hit walls on the way home again, they can always pop up. But the experiences you have make it all worthwhile.

I know I’ll have moments where I’ll be bawling my eyes out or I’ll be in a mentally low position, but they’re all just temporary feelings. It’s when you start meeting people, seeing beautiful sights and having these incredible experiences, you’re like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly why I’m doing this.’ 

“I might be unsupported in that everything I carry is on my bike and I don’t have anybody driving behind me, but I’m fully supported in the sense that I have an incredible family behind me, and friends and stuff.

“With the way technology is these days, they’re literally a Whatsapp call away. It’s not as if you’re writing letters like the old days and waiting weeks for a reply.”

He’s learned plenty from his two crazy adventures so far, but is the first to admit that he has more to learn with it all ahead of him once again.

Ahead of pointing the car towards Dublin on Tuesday and then embarking on his travels to Auckland, Mac an t-Saoir was understandably feeling pretty much every feeling possible. 

mcan A rough idea of the route. Source: Tomás Mac an t-Saoir Twitter.

He reckons it will take two years and has 25,000km across 35 to 40 countries in mind to cover, but that’s all very loose. He has no solid plans set in place, just a rough route and a vague idea of how he’ll tackle the first few months, averaging 100km per day.

Self-funded yet again with help from family, friends and the odd bit of sponsorship, he won’t be raising money for charity this time around but his previous efforts have amounted to over €28,000 for the Donal Walsh Live Foundation.

He’s gone about other things differently, too — including not cycling since September. But there’s good reasoning behind all of that.

“Ah, these trips are always like a roller coaster of emotions,” he grins before taking off. “I’m obviously really excited to get started, but it’s just like a last-ever countdown.

“Last night is probably the last night I’m going to sleep in my bed, I’ve already said goodbye to my sister and mom. People around the village… we have a pub so there’s been people popping in all weekend and wishing me well.

I hate saying the word ‘goodbye,’ it’s obviously more like a ‘see you later,’ but it just doesn’t get any easier. 

The one thing he has definitely done more of this time around is spend time with his nearest and dearest before jetting off.

“I haven’t trained since September because I couldn’t fit in everything that I needed to do before I went away,” he giggles. “Something just had to go on the back burner.

I literally have not been on a bike since September. I’ve been spending way more time with friends and family because when you go away, that’s when you’re like, ‘Jesus what am I leaving behind… the craic and the friendships and stuff’.

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“Obviously they’re all going to be here at home, but it’s just knowing that I’m going to be missing out on so much over the next couple of years. It doesn’t get any easier.

“If anything, it gets harder because whatever about America, I literally had no idea what was going to happen. Africa then, I was definitely caught off guard by how emotionally and mentally draining it all was. Never mind physically; after a few weeks anyone would be flying fit if they jumped up on a bike and took away off. 

“This time I’ve tried to focus more on being more emotionally and mentally ready.”

That reminds him of something important. 

mc Mikumi National Park, Tanzania, where one of his two close lion encounters in Africa occurred. Source: Tomás Mac an t-Saoir Twitter.

“The other thing with Africa was I started talking too late,” he frowns. “I always thought I had to be completely self-sufficient and not depend on other people, but when you’re out in the middle of nowhere it’s not as if you have people there ready to help you.

You have to make quick-snap decisions by yourself, be able to pick yourself up when you’re feeling down or crappy. One thing I’ll definitely do on this next trip is as soon as I’m feeling kind of crappy, not to wait until the feelings go away or whatever. Just talk straight away and talk every so often.

As of now, he’s just preparing to start out from Auckland tomorrow.  

At the time of our conversation, Mac an t-Saoir had Monday, 20 January, in mind for his departure date after spending the weekend catching up with a good friend in the Kiwi city.

He’ll go from there to Invercargill at the southern tip of New Zealand, via Wellington, before flying to Sydney. He’s keeping the recent bushfires in mind, along with other uncontrollables around the world, so his motto really is “go with the flow”.

“I haven’t even looked at Asia.” he notes. “I kind of have an idea of where I want to go but other than that, I have no flight booked from Australia so I don’t know dates of when I’m going to be in Indonesia.

I suppose there’s no need to panic about the route at this stage because so much is going on in the world, obviously, and so much more will continue to happen. I might have to change Asia because you just don’t know what’s going to happen with the States and Iran and that.

“The whole Middle East could be completely off the cards and I might have to get to India and fly to Turkey or something like that. I’ll have to skip that whole Middle Eastern region if it all breaks into warfare.”

“The thing is, this time I’m not diving into the deep end of the pool like with Africa because I flew into Cairo and it was all completely different,” he adds. “This time I’m starting in western countries.

“I’ll be in New Zealand and Australia for at least four or five months between the two countries and that gives me plenty of time to set myself up for Asia and figure it out country by country.

“There’s no need to plan too long-term with these trips because things change very quickly.”

ts After landing safely in Auckland. Source: Tomás World Cycle.

In the short-term, his entire focus was on packing and his unorganisation across the board.

I only started packing last night at 10 o’clock, I was still packing at 1 o’clock and the bar was flying. I was like, ‘Jesus, I’d love to be down there!’

“I still have to pack tonight, I haven’t everything done. I’m very easy going… like, ‘Yeah it will all work out.’ It will all be fine!”

That, it will, and Tomás Mc an t-Saoir will be back in the family bar before he knows it. Plotting and planning another crazy adventure, without a doubt.

You can follow Tomás’ journey on Facebook at Tomás’ World Cycle, on Twitter @tomasworldcycle, and on Instagram @anbotharfada #ardorothar.

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Emma Duffy

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