A 33,000km cycle ride that changed my life

West Cork farmer John Devoy tells Ellie O’Byrne about the 33,000km solo round-the-world bike trek three decades ago, that he has now turned into a book
A 33,000km cycle ride that changed my life

LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE: John Devoy during his epic 33,000km cycling trip around the world in the ‘80s

IT’S 99 kilometres from Whitegate to Rosscarbery. But not for County Cork man John Devoy: he’ll tell you it’s a journey of some 33,000km.

These days, John and his wife Sara have a six-acre organic farm near Rosscarbery. But when he was in his twenties, he went on an epic journey that changed his life and made him the person he is today: he cycled solo around the world, a 33,000km adventure that saw him slog through deserts, forests and mountain ranges from the Arctic Circle to Capetown.

His thirst for adventure began, he says, with his childhood in Whitegate. His father, a mechanic, got a job in Libya working on oil refineries, and would send home cards and gifts that were tantalisingly exotic to the ten-year-old John.

Later, while studying in UCC, John joined the caver’s society, and that’s where his real-life love of adventure flourished. A three-week cycling holiday in Brittany with a friend from the UCC society planted a seed.

“We hit the festivals in all these coastal villages and I thought, ‘This is great. This is what travel is like: you get drunk, you meet French girls’,” John says. “You’re 21, the world is your oyster and you’re going, ‘I can do this by bicycle’.”

In the spring of 1985, John set off on his journey, riding North first, to the Arctic Circle in Norway, before pedalling through Europe and the Middle East, and then through Africa to Capetown.

He faced obstacles, including parasitic worms and a near-fatal dose of cerebral malaria, pushed his bike through deserts without roads to pedal on, and wild-camped in isolated spots with only the stars for company.

He encountered dangerous and unpredictable scenarios, but says that everywhere he went, he met with hospitality. “I speak from my own experience, but when you really begin to travel, about nine months in, the fear ebbs away,” he says. “I realised everyone was helping, everyone was supporting me. In Finland, I remember people in their cars pulling in and offering me to stay on their farm.

“All your worries about food, where you’re going to sleep and everything else is in your head, but then you realise your biggest fear should be what’s whizzing past you at 100km per hour.”

Some of the most overwhelming hospitality John encountered on his herculean two-year quest was in Syria and Sudan, two countries that have been decimated by war since.

“I remember back to the people I met and their families, people who were my age,” he says. “God knows where they are now, scattered all over Europe of maybe dead? You just say, ‘why?’ And what happened in Sudan? It’s horrendous.”

In the pre-smartphone, pre-internet era, travel was very different to what it is today, and John says he feels modern travellers are missing out on opportunities to forge real connections by staying connected to technology like smartphones and satnav.

“The places you’re travelling through have completely changed,” he says. “At the flick of a button, everyone can know what everyone else is doing, which has fundamentally changed the game of travel.”

In that era before digital communication, one shocking turn of events came for John when he arrived in Nairobi following his arduous trip through Africa, to discover a telegram awaiting him with the news that his father had died while he was on the road. He missed the funeral, but with the support of his family, John continued his journey.

“I knew my father was ill,” he says. “I had conversations with my brothers and they said, ‘Continue, he would have wanted it’. What was I going to come back for?

“So I did continue, and I almost felt I did the second part of the journey with more of him present than when I set off from Cork.”

JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY: John Devoy has finally put his experience into words, in a new book
JOURNEY OF DISCOVERY: John Devoy has finally put his experience into words, in a new book

Finally returning to Ireland in 1987, John resumed his lab job in CUH, then The Regional Hospital. But he couldn’t settle back into nine-to-five work. He was a different person to the young man who had set off on his travels, with different priorities.

“I went through a hell of a time trying to come back, he says. “You return to the same place and people think you haven’t changed, because they haven’t moved and you have. You’ve had thousands of experiences and you just don’t fit into the box anymore.”

Several years later, married and with his wife Sara and their small son Oisín in tow, John set out on another adventure: the young family bought six acres of land in Rosscarbery and founded an organic farm.

“I remember saying to Sara, ‘I can’t live in the city any more’. I had no farming experience but I needed to work with my hands and have my head and heart engaged with a project: I needed to be self-employed. I had to do something that was producing something primary, like a head of cabbage or a bunch of carrots.”

Now 61, John says life is busy but good. His travels are restricted to the occasional family holiday: “With a farm and three kids and 870 hens, it’s a seven-day week,” he smiles. “We grow blueberries, apples, courgettes, kale, salad. We have woofers, and two employees.”

But he’s not so busy that he hasn’t finally found the time to write a book about his journey, called Quondam: Travels In A Once World.

Having tried to consign his adventures to paper following his return, he says he needed to let some time pass before tackling his debut travel book, documenting his hair-raising escapades on the African continent.

For years, no-one knew his extraordinary tale until a member of Rosscarbery Historical Society spotted a picture of John on his bike in the desert. “Nobody knew; everyone just saw me as the farm guy,” he says, smiling.

Never one to do things by halves, he’s now writing the second installation, and plans on making the entire tale into a trilogy.

His first book will be launched by travel veteran Dervla Murphy, whose first book was about her bike ride from Lismore to India in the 1960s; John says he’s delighted and honoured to have her support.

The launch of Quondam: Travels In A Once World takes place on Culture Night, Friday, September 21, in Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen, with special guest Dervla Murphy: https://culturenight.ie/event/uillinn-west-cork-arts-centre-2/

The book can be purchased on Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1999601408

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