THIRTY years ago, very few Irish people in permanent, full-time, pensionable jobs thought about taking a gap year.
But John Devoy took two years off to cycle from North Cape in Norway to Cape Town, South Africa.
His mode of transport? A bicycle!
John, who is now 63, from Whitegate but living in Rosscarbery, has written a book about his exploits.
Called Quondam: Travels In A Once World, John says: “It is a tale of search and adventure, intimacy and renewal, landscapes and imagination long before the tech-umbilical.”
‘Quondam’ is an old English word meaning ‘at one time’ or ‘formerly’.
John, who is married to Sara and has three grown-up children, says: “It took me 30 years to begin to write Quondam. The journey I did without Sat Nav, GPS or technology would be impossible today.”
The epic journey of one man and his bicycle and the need to explore new horizons changed the direction of his life.
“I came to understand that once upon a time, that is what that person did. Then, I could tell the story as an older guy looking back reflecting on the consequences of travelling,” says John.
“When I was approached by the Rosscarbery Historical Society to give a speech about my travels and how I came here with my wife to run an organic farm, I waded through slides, letters and post-cards stored in the attic. That lit the fuse to write the book.”
The story of John’s wanderlust and sense of adventure starts in Whitegate on the other side of the county.
“My Dad, Thomas, worked in the Whitegate Oil Refinery as a mechanic,” says John. “When I was nine, he went to work for an oil company in Libya for two years. I was fascinated by the accounts of his travels that he sent home to us. It fed my wanderlust and it gave me the confidence to do what I wanted to do.”
In 1985, John gave up his job as a laboratory science technician in CUH. In April that year he set out on his great adventure, in which he covered more than 33,000 kilometres in two years, cycling first beyond the Arctic Circle in Norway, then south through Europe and the Middle East to Africa, where he continued to Cape Town.
Was he an enthusiastic, fit cyclist, like an Ironman?
“Not at all! The cycling was only incidental, going from A to B at my own pace, taking in my surroundings; the people. The journey breaks down into varying bite-sized bits and one part follows the next.
“I was living in the moment. Everything and anything could happen, and I let go a little more, letting go to be vulnerable, for that’s when travel really begins.”
There were hairy moments.
In the Sudan, he faced civil war and hundreds of kilometres of uncyclable sand, pushing his bike across unforgiving terrain to the amusement of locals. He experienced a hit and run incident in Egypt which damaged his bike and he contracted cerebral malaria in the Congo.
So he was travelling by the seat of his pants? “Literally!” says John, smiling.
“My dedicated pair of cycling shorts became frayed and torn with wear and tear. In the rain forest in the Congo, a talented tailor mended my shorts and sewed an impressive patch into the backside of them. They took me a long way!”
John says a journey is a mental game. Navigating through life is more of a minefield.
“People say to me, but you cycled across the globe! That is nothing in the big scheme of things, going through the journey of life.”
What goes through your mind as you push a bike across the sand at night, towards an unsuspecting home?
“Not much really,” says John. “Bar thoughts of what reception might be in store. Syria was the most incredible country for the sense of sheer hospitality and welcome.”
The reception from the people John met was usually a good one.
“I recall one night coming off a mountain in the wrong place, going to a farmhouse to ask permission to pass through their yard, then being asked in for tea, and several hours later being driven to where I needed to be on a full stomach!”
When John returned home to Cork and his pensionable job, he couldn’t stomach the humdrum of 9 to 5.
“I died a little inside, going back to work where my colleagues spoke of looking forward to the weekend pints or going shopping. I couldn’t hack it anymore. You constantly change for two years, you have thousands of experiences, and you just don’t fit into the box anymore.”
But just like on his travels when he met people from all walks of life, John met a young neighbour who pointed him in the right direction for the next phase of his life.
“I borrowed his lawnmower and we got talking,” says John. “He told me about an Organic and Horticultural course in Dromcolliher, bordering Cork and Limerick. The light came on.
“Sara and I had both talked about settling in West Cork to raise our children. That conversation with my neighbour was a pivotal point. It pushed a domino effect.
“The energy from my travels kicked in and we looked to buy some land in West Cork, with a view to starting an organic farm.”
It was another first for John. Embracing adventure and new beginnings, the couple bought a six acre piece of land in Rosscarbery and set about making it viable and sustainable.
“We both love the outdoors and the energy of nature,” says John. “I had no experience of farming.”
But the man who cycled 33,000km solo pushed the boat out.
“In 1999, we sold our house to take on the new challenge, an environmentally friendly approach to farming and to the planet was a whole new adventure from scratch. Getting our organic farm up and running, from installing water and electricity to planting 500 apple trees, we immersed ourselves into the community. It was a clean slate for us.”
John had come full circle.
“I drew a ring around six acres of Rosscarbery and said, ‘That’s my world. I am going to take responsibility for that’. I poured my energy into planting trees, creating polytunnels, and providing food for the locality.
“I thought, if I can travel to South Africa on a bike; I can start a farm.”
The home-grown organic produce from the farm soon became a staple in the local markets, shops and restaurants. “It became a way of life for us,” says John.
What’s next for the adventurer?
“Well, you know, getting the farm going, raising three children takes time and energy,” says John with a smile. “For a lot of years, it was very busy.”
But the sequel to Quondam won’t take 30 years to write, will it?
“Definitely not!” says John. “I’m planning the next chapters as we speak.”
And he’s planning more travel.
“We took our children to the Congo and it was a wonderful experience for them,” says John. “Opening their eyes to a different world was an education in itself.
“I’d like to travel to other countries that get bad press. Like Russia for instance.”
John wonders about travel today for those that wish for something different.
“There is the commercial, the slick, the smooth and the costly, the ‘dumbed-down’ and safe; the symbiotic liaisons between sponsor and traveller” he says. “It’s all there in any format you want it would seem.”
For those who ventured out before the advent of the communications revolution, travel was very different.
John poses a question.
“Is it difficult to travel today, difficult to cut the technological umbilicus, to allow oneself to go solo, to be vulnerable and trusting?”
Who would want to do that?
“But that is what you have to do if you want a great and even a possibly seminal life experience for all the effort you are going to invest,” says John.
“For those who want that, the bottom line is to do it alone, quietly, on the back roads, and yes, without technology.”
That’s exactly what John did.