Zwei Personen sitzen am Boden und lehnen an einem Schild an, daran angelehnt stehen die Tourenvelo.


Coming home: around the world by bike

  • #Cycling trip
Monika & Robert
Monika & Robert
Guest authors
© Fotos

Monika and Robi spent 13 years travelling around the world by bike. Here, they shed light on an aspect of their adventure that is often ignored: coming home.

It’s the end of April. The days are getting shorter and the nights noticeably cooler. The roads are frozen over as we tackle the last stage to the southernmost city in the world: Ushuaia, in the southernmost tip of Argentina. There is no overland route leading on from there, so it’s a place where travellers from all over the world get together. Many people start or end long journeys here. Every evening we cook together and share stories of our adventures. It’s a magical place!

A call with consequences

However, our enthusiasm came to an abrupt end when we got a call from Robert’s mother. She asked us to come home as soon as possible because Robert’s father was not in the best of health. After eleven years of adventure, pedalling our way through over 45 countries and covering thousands of kilometres, was this really the end of our odyssey? Our journey had taken us through barren deserts, endless forests, over the highest passes in the world by bike and across entire oceans by sail and cargo ship. We had covered the entire route over land and sea without getting on a plane. Even though it was difficult for us, we had to deal with the idea of interrupting our mammoth bike tour for the first time.

  • Lange Strasse in Argentinien mit Bergen im Hintergrund
    Photo © Monika Estermann, Robert Spengeler
  • Bolivien Kinder in einem Dorf

    Monika with children in Bolivia.

    Photo © Monika Estermann, Robert Spengeler
  • Robert bringt zwei jungen das Velofahren bei
    Photo © Monika Estermann, Robert Spengeler
  • Cambodia: when the track gets too muddy, you just load the bikes onto an ox cart.

    Photo © Monika Estermann, Robert Spengeler

We took a bus to Buenos Aires, which was the plan anyway. During the journey through calm but lovely Uruguay and hot and dry Paraguay, our thoughts kept returning to the journey home. We decided to continue our trip to Brazil and book a flight from South Africa back to Switzerland from there. But we agreed that our return to Switzerland should only be a temporary one.

Not ready yet

We quickly realised that we weren’t ready to simply end our trip around the world. It just didn’t feel right. Our minds were buzzing with many thoughts, and the travel bug simply wouldn’t let us go. We definitely wanted to cross the whole of Africa, the cradle of humanity, and then slowly pedal back through southern Europe to Switzerland. That would complete the circle and we would have covered the entire route over land by bike and across the oceans by ship. We loved the idea. The decision to make the return to Switzerland a temporarily one felt more and more right the more we thought about it.

A container ship took us from Brazil across the Atlantic to South Africa in ten days. We left our trusty bikes with friends in Port Elizabeth in the southwest of South Africa. We flew out in mid-summer temperatures of 37 degrees and landed in Zurich on a cold, grey January morning at minus eleven degrees. The change in temperature was shocking, but the joy of seeing our family again made it all better.

When you travel through remote regions for such a long time and so slowly by bike, you automatically slow down. At first, we were overwhelmed by the speed of life back home. In the West, we always try to do everything at the same time and as quickly as possible, and can be reached any time and anywhere thanks to our smartphones. We weren’t used to that anymore. We were completely unprepared to be catapulted back into Swiss daily life due to our rapid return by air. We sensed that everyone expected us to lead normal lives again, which was a real challenge. However, after the initial shock, we slowly acclimatised thanks to the support of family and friends. We spent time with friends, gave interviews on the radio or in newspapers and organised lectures. The time literally flew by, and it wouldn’t be long before we could book the return flight to South Africa.

The goal firmly in sight

Robert’s father is doing much better now and our travel fund is also well filled thanks to many renovation jobs and lectures about our trip. We managed to save enough money during our ‘holiday at home’ to tackle the next adventure with confidence. After almost nine months in Switzerland and a very emotional farewell, but with lots of anticipation, we returned to South Africa in comfort by plane. As soon as we got back in the bike saddle, we realised that being on the road feels like home.

Bikepacking at Transa

Our Bern and Zurich branches have bikepacking points where you can, with branch staff or on your own, fill different panniers with real equipment and then attach them either to your own bike or one supplied by staff. You can then test exactly which panniers and how much packing volume you need. The branch will give you things like a stove, pot, clothing and other items to use. You can obviously test the weight of the bag or bike with and without cargo and panniers. Then you can take the bike for a test ride. Regardless of whether it’s a standard bike, racing bike or e-bike, we have the right pannier in our range. Our Bern branch also has panniers for you to hire.

Every day we spent in Africa made it clear how many privileges we enjoy in Switzerland: in Europe, you can simply turn on the tap, but obtaining water is a daily challenge for many in Africa. This is a real problem, especially in extremely dry areas such as the north and southwest of Africa. We sometimes had to dig holes in the ground under extreme conditions to access water. It’s the same with simple things such as washing laundry: since washing machines are about as rare in small African villages as hippos in the Rhine, we often simply joined the local women at the rivers or waterholes and washed our things by hand like everyone else. That would be unthinkable at home. It’s a similar situation with food: while in Switzerland everything is available in sufficient quantities at all times, grocery shopping often took up a lot of time during our trip, and the selection was often extremely limited.

By the time we reached Israel, we noticed for the first time that we were getting closer and closer to home: the availability of amenities increased and we started to feel more relaxed. We booked our crossing to Italy by sea. Europe was just over the horizon, and we slowly began to realise that our journey was nearing its end. We experienced mixed feelings when we arrived in Palermo on the cargo ship and pushed our trusty bikes back onto European soil after 13 years away.

We felt that it would be a bit too quick for us to ride straight from southern Italy to Switzerland. We needed more time to arrive. So in Puglia, the heel of Italy, we boarded another ferry that took us to the south of Greece. The idea was to ride north from there through the Balkans. There had been no more border controls since Slovenia, so we had to beg for an entry stamp at the Italian-French border. After so many exciting, complicated and nerve-wracking border crossings, this challenge seemed downright boring.

Arrival in stages

Back in Switzerland, we discovered first-hand that the saying ‘coming home is more difficult than leaving’ is very true. We needed a little time to get back into the swing of things. But we have the advantage that we had left home slowly 13 years ago, and had returned slowly and with various detours via Europe. And we quickly got used to the advantages again: reliability, safety, cleanliness and freedom of movement – the latter especially as a woman. It’s the little things that you really appreciate. Warm drinking water from the tap – unbelievable! Or punctual trains and buses – what a luxury. In contrast, there is the extreme security mindset, the tendency to perfection, the loss of spontaneity, the tendency to neglect wealth and indolence. We’re slowly getting used to it again...

A new home?

What remains after 13 years of travelling around the world? Besides endless unforgettable memories, we realised one thing above all: for us, home is where we are welcome and where we are loved. Countless people who didn’t know us invited us into their homes with great warmth on our journey. They welcomed us and treated us like family. For us, home is no longer tied to one place. Switzerland is our home, especially because of our families, friends and the many beautiful memories. Good relationships with other people, the environment, proximity to nature and simplicity are important. That’s what quality of life means to us: a place where you feel comfortable, where you are accepted as you are.

  • #Cycling trip

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