'The Big Bike Trip': Four Kiwis' 23,000-kilometre bike ride from Bali to Buckingham Palace

While Aucklanders battle over the possibility of being able to cycle from the city to Takapuna, four Kiwis have taken the idea of a cycling journey a lot further.

Sean Wakely, Freddie Gillies and his brother Arthur (who you may know from the latest season of The Block NZ) have just released their new book The Big Bike Trip, telling the story of their journey on bikes from Bali to Buckingham Palace.  

They spoke to Newshub Travel before appearing on The AM Show.

'The Big Bike Trip': Four Kiwis' 23,000-kilometre bike ride from Bali to Buckingham Palace
Photo credit: Sean Wakely

People make the decision to get more active all the time, but that usually only goes as far as joining a gym. For Sean, Freddie and Arthur, a 23,000-kilometre bike trip was more their thing.

 Freddie Gillies says the adventure was something he talked about a lot in school, taking inspiration from his parents who cycled around India in the 1980s.

"They did 7000kms back when you had to read maps. Wild. We grew up with that spirit I guess - camping trips, outdoors, cycling, sports - it was all part of our childhood," Freddie said. 

Biking companion Sean Wakely said once he heard about the idea, there was no turning back.

"Why the hell not, basically. Once the thought was there, not doing it was not an option," Wakely said.

Before setting out on the journey, Freddie, Sean and Arthur spent weeks planning in Bali - planning in a loose sense of the word.

"Lots of saving, far too much debauchery, and plenty of planning and training for me. I'm a meticulous planner so I spent many lectures researching parts, routes, visas - when I should have been listening," Freddie said.

'The Big Bike Trip': Four Kiwis' 23,000-kilometre bike ride from Bali to Buckingham Palace
Photo credit: Sean Wakely

The biggest part of the planning process was making sure they weren't breaking any laws.

"The main thing was working out the visas. The bikes and gear - that was all easy enough. The visas involved having to work out how long it would take us to travel through each country."

Once the group began the 23,000-kilometre journey, it didn't take long for the team to get a taste for the glorious scenery that was ahead of them.

"The moment we finally saw the northern coastline of Bali as we crested the last climb on the very first day... It was late in the day, the light was golden, and it was just the most beautiful and unbelievably relieving sight to see," said Sean. 

"It was the first instance of realising that for every hard climb there is always a reward worth pushing the pedals for, no matter how small the reward might be, and in fact, you eventually learn to love that struggle and roll with it because of what it will bring to you." 

All agree that there were too many amazing sights to come up with a single favourite, but they do have some contenders. 

"On our last day in Myanmar, we walked up the Mandalay Hill and watched the sun go down over the Irrawaddy River. There were fires burning everywhere which created a sort of mysterious haze over the plains," said Freddie. 

"The sun looked like a half-cut orange and appeared to set in mid-air on account of the smog. It was nearly New Year's Eve too and was the end of our South Asia leg so that was pretty special. 

"But then there's the sunrise over the Himalaya which was very special. We stayed at the Australian Camp. It was a cold morning with frost on the grass. We stood together in silence and watched as the sun hit Annapurna. Incredible." 

Sean was also a fan of the Himalaya moment.

 "We'd cycled along the Tarai without really getting much of a glimpse of the giant range through the fog. Waking up early that morning and the sun almost seemed like it was rising right at the end of the Himalayas and illuminating the whole range, with a clear blue sky as a backdrop. One of those kinds of sights that just stops you and holds you in place," he said.

Not only did the group get to see some amazing landscapes and sunrises, they got to see a more natural side to the people of the world.

"What struck me most is that every human we met was prepared to go out of their way to help us, especially if we ever asked for it. I'm convinced our (humans') natural response is to help people, not to be malicious or unkind. It was quite a rewarding trip in that way, it really gave me faith in humanity," Freddie said. 

'The Big Bike Trip': Four Kiwis' 23,000-kilometre bike ride from Bali to Buckingham Palace
Photo credit: Sean Wakely

'Just keep moving' 

But the trip wasn't just jaw-dropping sunsets and friendly chats with the locals.  Tens of thousands of kilometres was never going to be easy.

Freddie says there was practically never a point when all members of the group were at 100 percent. Everyone went through roller coaster rides of physical and mental strengths and weaknesses.  

At one point, plans to meet a fourth traveller, Timmy in Istanbul meant they had to make at least 100km each day to do it in time. 

"For me the most difficult was probably Turkey. I was still sick from India (Giardia hangs around apparently) and had lost a lot of weight -  we all had," said Freddie. 

" It was cold and we were underprepared for temperatures below zero. In Georgia I cut holes in an old pair of socks to make mittens that could go over my gloves for extra warmth. We got inventive, but it was still too cold. 

'The Big Bike Trip': Four Kiwis' 23,000-kilometre bike ride from Bali to Buckingham Palace
Photo credit: Sean Wakely

"I also had a calf muscle injury that wouldn't go away, and my arm was in a split, the result of an over-eager sleeping bag stuffing incident." 

For Sean, Northern Vietnam and Laos were where he felt mentally exhausted. It was also at a time when the entire group had been ravaged by illness.

 "Georgia - again, ravaged by illness after India. I vomited blood in the middle of the night, but the hospital told me they wouldn't treat me. Freezing cold, ice in our hair. Back spasms on a category one climb. Difficult," Sean said.

 He added he feels personally that he never really 'coped,' he just kept going.

 "At the end of the day, coping was just 'keep it moving'. It boils down pretty simply really. Each day we got up, we rode to the next stop. That's about it. If you had an awful day you just go to sleep and hope the next one is a little more forgiving," he said.

Another challenge of being on the road with the same group for a long time is how you get on with each other

"You could have counted the number of times we fought on one hand. Remarkable really. We're all best friends and came out of it even stronger," Freddie said.

However, Sean had a slightly different story.

 "Freddie was punishing at the best of times so he was practically always pissing me off. I didn't want to brush my teeth before breakfast once and it almost started bloody World War 3 in Myanmar!"

'The Big Bike Trip': Four Kiwis' 23,000-kilometre bike ride from Bali to Buckingham Palace
Photo credit: Sean Wakely

Lessons learned 

As the group made their way into London on their last day of cycling, the focus shifted from the road ahead, to the bigger picture.

"The most important thing is not about whether you travel, or write a book, or have crazy dreams, it's about being kind to other people, Freddie said.

For Sean, it's about enjoying the moment you're in. "Looking back on the trip and through the book, I wish I had been far better at that," he said.

"Especially with what's happened around the world with the pandemic, there have been so many times I wished I could go back to many moments on the trip with the boys. Just cherish the moment - you don't need to think about the finish, how many kilometres are left in the day, even where you're going to sleep that night. 

"Enjoy the sight in front of you and the people you have next to you. Who knows when you'll get to have that again?"

 Sean said the bond he had with these boys and the camaraderie got him through many of the tough times. 

 "I couldn't possibly have done it without them and their support, and I'm sure there are days where they would say the same," he said.  "No matter what the problem was - illness, never-ending climbs, exhaustion, relationship breakdown, or all of that happening at once." 

'The Big Bike Trip': Four Kiwis' 23,000-kilometre bike ride from Bali to Buckingham Palace
Photo credit: Sean Wakely

The big finish

Finally, after months on the road, the group got to see the final destination with their own eyes: the big gates and the majestic building that is Buckingham Palace. But, had the team really come all this way to visit the queen?

"Well we're all devout royalists. No, the sooner we're a republic the better. The Mall seemed dramatic enough and ceremonial enough to end it there," Freddie joked.

"It starts with B like Bali, it's big and easy to aim for," Sean said.

So, what's next? Another book? Freddie seems keener on another adventure.

 "We talk about South America a lot. There will definitely be something else someday, but what and when, we don't know." 

 Whereas Sean is playing the long game. 

"We'll still be dreaming of potential trips and places to put a bike into our 80s I think."

Watch Freddie Gillies' interview on The AM Show above.