Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Xtremely Queer : Looping the World - Part 1

We return to my new series on members of the lgbt community who push themselves to the extreme.

Already in the Guinness Book of Records as the first woman and youngest person to row solo across the Indian Ocean you’d think Sarah Outen (b.1985) would want to spend the rest of her life on the international speaker’s circuit. But not so. Less than two years later Sarah embarked on an extremely ambitious expedition to bike, row and kayak around the world under her own power.

The expedition was called London2London: Via the World and was more accurately an expedition to encircle the northern hemisphere (to class as an official circumnavigation Sarah had to cross the Equator or Poles at least once, which she didn’t). The expedition was divided into four sections. The map below shows the route I’m going to take each section one by one and write about each one over the next week.

The media, especially the local media here in her home region, followed Sarah’s progress around the world – all the highs and all the lows. Everyone was looking forward to seeing her complete her mission. I say “was” because, as you may have heard on the news, just a few short weeks ago Sarah was forced to abandon her expedition on the final stretch home. I’ll write more about that later in the week.

Far from being an April Fool, Sarah Outen set off on her extreme expedition on 1st April 2011 from London’s iconic Tower Bridge. The first leg was by kayak, and as she set off along the Thames and paddled towards the North Sea she was cheered on by family, friends and supporters.

Sarah reached France three days later and mounted her bike, the trusty steed “Hercules” for the longest leg of the expedition, the cycle through Europe to Japan, a total of 11,000 miles. From Calais Sarah pedalled through ten countries to the Pacific. From the familiar scenery of Europe Sarah entered the more bleak landscapes of the southern Russian wilderness and way across into the Gobi desert. For several days in Russia she was given a police escort “to keep you safe”, as Sarah recalled on her blog for The Independent. She had no such escort through the unpredictable traffic of China.

Through Kazahkstan there was very little but wilderness on her route. No proper roads. These old trade routes have changed little in the hundreds of years they’ve been used. On this part of the journey Sarah even received a marriage proposal! That’s not the only one to occur on the expedition, and if you don’t know that story already I’ll not spoil the surprise later in the week!

There are always unexpected encounters factored into large expeditions like this. The original plan for Sarah’s loop of the world was for Sarah to return to Tower Bridge by Autumn 2013. As we’ll see, some delays were major and held up the journey longer than expected.

The first unexpected encounter occurred in China. Sarah had reached Urumqi, capital city of the Xangiang Uyghur region in western China, a major centre of the old Silk Road. There she met a young man called Gao who was so enthusiastic about joining her that he persuaded Sarah to let him cycle with her to Beijing. Even though Sarah was keen to keep to the schedule she agreed and their joint journey was one of the highlights of the first leg of London2London. Gao hadn’t actually cycled more than 7 miles or so before so the 35-day long, 2,485 mile ride was certainly a positive experience for them both.

Once the Beijing section was complete Sarah was back to her expedition and headed eastward to Russia’s Pacific coastline. There she met up with her kayaking partner and film-maker Justine Curgenven who has accompanied her on her English Channel crossing.

And there we leave Sarah for now. Tomorrow we’ll follow her next water-bound leg of her loop around the world, and the most gruelling – a solo row across the Pacific Ocean.

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