Cycling the World With McKenzie Barney Part 2

In Part One of her Cycling the World story, McKenzie Barney wrote about going all-in on bike touring after an introduction to unsupported two-wheeled travel in Vietnam led to a months-long ride down the length of Africa. In Part Two, she picks up the thread in recounting her solitary rides across New Zealand, Australia and South America.

After traversing the length of Africa with my partner, I had this deep desire to continue exploring the planet on two wheels. Life was so simple out on the road, yet upon re-entering the “real world” I was immobilized by more. More options, more stuff, more plans. Once the wheels stop spinning, the secret is to maintain that kinetic energy to escape the quicksand of post-adventure blues. Disorientation is best mitigated with setting course to a new focus. So I began moving the mind toward my “Cycling the World” project finish line of 18,000 miles.

First, I had to repair my bank account. Many people’s first question about my project is how I funded traveling the world on my bicycle. My disclaimer on the following answer is that this bicycle journey was prefaced with thousands of miles of walking in the wilderness and a disdain for consumerism. First, I eliminated the “real world” costs of rent, gas, and entertainment. Then, from ground zero, I built the framework of essentials. Finding out what you truly need is key– I’ve found when you want less, you can experience more.

Worth the Weight

On any multi-month self-supported expedition, each item you bring must be worthy of its weight. The bicycle is the most efficient machine built by man. It is also a shape-shifting magician, pulling a seemingly endless amount of tricks from its bags. By day, it’s a vessel transporting an entire kitchen stocked with water, nourishment, and—if you’re smart enough to have chosen a Brooks saddle—a comfortable seat. At night, bags open and a home appears, complete with a bedroom, front porch and a brand new backyard. Distilling your life down to only the most crucial necessities is fertile ground for budgeting.

Growing up, I traveled a common path that led to college and, after, the beginnings of building a career. A fortuitous surf trip to Iceland with legendary photographers gave me insight into the alternative lifestyle of international adventuring. I turned off autopilot and traded in the formula I had been following for the greatest rebellion in existence: creativity. Instead of working a full-time job, I pursued a few months of seasonal farm work with the sole intention of saving every penny to travel. Once I made that conscious choice toward an unconventional existence, everything changed.

I realized that time is the ultimate wealth, and decided to stop trading so much of my time for money that was spent on things I didn’t truly need. Work suddenly became more enjoyable when I knew it was fueling my next voyage. After all, a typical day on the bicycle— depending on which part of the world you travel to— would cost me around $10. It’s astounding what little amount you need when your transportation and accommodation are free, bills are non-existent, and the entertainment frenzy is avoided. Home from Africa, I began working on the farm again, saving feverishly, imagining the familiar two islands in the Pacific that I would be traveling to next.

Revisiting New Zealand

My partner’s home country, Aotearoa (New Zealand), holds a special significance in the story of my blossoming adventures. Home of the Te Araroa Trail— my first thru hike— this country was my introduction to self-supported long distance travel. For two weeks I aimed to traverse the entire South Island on two wheels. This ride was a grit and gear test that precluded a longer voyage on the horizon. Akin to my tour of Europe before Africa, this was my opportunity to test my new minimalist approach, trading a traditional pannier-equipped touring setup for soft-mounted bags more streamlined to the frame.

My setup: a Kona Sutra LTD steed (still smitten with steel), 10L saddle bag, stem and top tube bags, and handlebar dry bag. The only parts that stayed the same from Africa were my full frame bag and front fork hydration cargo cages. My stove stayed behind, as I opted to cold soak my breakfast (coffee and oats) and dinner (instant noodles).

Setting off from Picton with a view of the Cook Strait, I pedaled my first days spellbound by hidden bays. Wine vineyards gave way to glaciers as I was welcomed to the west coast by its infamous ice cold rain. I climbed up Haast Pass and descended through Lake Hawea’s postcard-esque vistas, through Wanaka and onto the mountain wonder of Queenstown, where I hopped on board a historic steamboat and rode dreamy dirt roads to the Lord of the Rings movie scene of Mavora Lakes. Arriving at the bottom of the island in Bluff, my gear passed the test, and I was ready for the next one.

Crossing Australia—In Summer

Someone once said that you are free once you expose yourself to your deepest fears. Crossing the Outback of Australia in the summer was ambitious, and I was terrified of potential heat exhaustion, dangerous multiple-trailered trucks dubbed “road trains,” and a wind-whipped vast and treeless desert. I wanted to explore my physical limits on two wheels, so I decided to up the ante with a time limit of thirty days to get from Melbourne to Perth.

During my previous trips riding across Vietnam, Europe, Africa and New Zealand, I had never made predetermined routes beforehand. Nothing against planning, but in the philosophy of Steinbeck, I tried to relinquish control and let the trip take me. I also tried to balance modernity with analog simplicity. Pen and paper would do just fine for jotting down daily observations in my field notes.

I minimized tech wherever possible, deciding not to bring along a cycling computer, and utilizing a mix of Maps.Me and Osmand apps on my phone for navigation. I realize this may sound archaic in today’s hyper-connected world, but I wanted to eliminate any distractions from daily experience. I would set out with a rough idea of my beginning and end point, allowing for local suggestions to alter my vague itinerary. Australia’s Nullarbor desert was a glaring exception to my free-spirited overlanding. The combination of my minimal setup and 200-kilometer distances in between roadhouses meant that I would have to carefully plan my resupplies.

Staying present was tough when my only companion was my shadow. Distracting the mind was easier. I devoured audio books through the Nullarbor, one of the planet’s harshest desert environments. At the end of every single 12-hour day, through searing heat and violent headwind, I was “bloody knackered” as the Aussies say. Yet somehow, day by day, I was feeling more powerful. How was this happening?

I realized that rides don’t get easier, you just get stronger. We have to investigate our barriers to discover how indestructible we truly are. Exactly thirty days after leaving Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road, I crossed the Outback and reached land’s end at the Indian Ocean in Perth.

South America: The Grand Finale

In the spirit of my grand finale shake-up in South America, I’ll unpack a few secrets I’ve kept buried until now. Upon arriving in Bolivia, I was scared shitless. My previous New Zealand and Australian voyages had also been solo, but this continent had more drastic implications. The remote mountain passes were higher than I had ever biked before, and the plummeting temperatures the coldest I had ever camped. I also wasn’t fluent in the language.

My broken Spanish was my biggest shortfall, not allowing for any deep conversations. However, this also catalyzed my deep dive inward, investigating my own self-belief and creating compassionate inner dialogue. Catapulted into the unrecognizable landscape of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, I had to recalibrate each of my senses, desperate for anything familiar to make sense of where I was. Like the local language, nothing spoke in a familiar voice. Alone on a 10,000 square foot emptiness, I cleared space for a new relationship with myself.

Distance on the Salar was seemingly perpetual; the horizon, a blurred never-never land. I drew parallels to the great human experience, riding this grand mystery toward an unseen island ahead, unsure when I would arrive. Eventually the island came into view and I set up home for the night before the temperatures dipped below freezing.

No Point in Suffering Twice

Everyone tells you to be careful when adventuring as a solo female. I always take the words of warning with a grain of Bolivian salt, because what we hear on the news is not an accurate depiction of the world. As it turns out, I had more locals offer their help when I was alone than when riding in Africa with my partner. In my experience, people are predominately generous and helpful. I’ve lost count of the many “hellos,” free meals, souvenirs, and offers to stay in someone’s house that have been extended to me.

Echoing from the theme I set for Australia, I wanted to push myself in Peru. Looking no further than the giant Andean peaks in the distance, I found the Peru Great Divide, arguably one of the most illustrious dirt-road touring routes in the world. My days were spent winding between alpine lakes, neck on a permanent 45-degree tilt, in constant awe of the snow-capped Cordillera mountain peaks.

Every day I had to give myself a pep talk. The repetitive challenge of a 16,000-foot mountain pass was exhausting the minimal air that my lungs could suck from the high-alpine atmosphere.

In Peru, I began to dissect my fears. As many know, wild camping alone can be terrifying. But out here in nature, I felt a deep sense of peace and belonging. We face more danger in the city, amongst motorists and overcrowded urban environments, than we do out here, in the great wide open. I began dissolving into the natural world, no longer viewing it as a separate entity, but a part of my human experience. Any sense of dread or unease was put to rest by the harmony I felt within Earth’s greater ecosystem.

There is no point in suffering twice. Experiencing hardship is one thing, but worrying about a foreseen event is an agony that I tried to eliminate. Every mountain pass I climbed and frozen night I camped alone led to my courage being built up like a callus. I collected water from streams, queued my sleep rhythm with the sun, and scouted the sky for my weather report. Dark clouds congregated in the afternoon every day like Peruvian clockwork. I could count on one hand how many vehicles I would encounter each day on the remote dirt roads. Most were related to nearby mining operations. Compact mountain settlements offered meager resupply options. Isolated in the silence of the Andes, I had little human contact, but I felt far from alone.

Crossing the border from Peru to Ecuador, I set my sights toward the Pacific Ring of Fire. First up was the country’s highest mountain: Chimborazo volcano. I camped in the foothills of the behemoth volcano with a clear view at night, and awoke in a cold cloud by morning.

Travel destroys habit and obliterates routine. There is no such thing as ‘the same ol’ on the road. Every five feet of pavement in front of me reminded me how much traveling to new places keeps us fascinated.

Once I left the towering mountain of Chimborazo, I was almost immediately struck with Ecuador’s volcanic icon: Cotopaxi. For two days I rode along the Panamerican Highway, a network of roadways that stretches the length of the Americas, with Cotopaxi in view. I was pleasantly surprised when the national park rolled out the red carpet: a dedicated bicycle lane with smooth pavement. My home for the night was tucked into the trees with a front row view of the active volcano.

My most secretive truth of all is that I never, at any point, completely knew what I was doing on this world cycling project. “Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth,” as Alan Watts once said. My South American grand finale felt like a completion to my own personal pilgrimage or rite of passage into a new chapter, but I was reminded by Watt’s axiom not to try and make too much sense out on the journey. Just live the experience fully and the answers will come afterwards. Some call this “type two” fun for a reason. The power of the journey lies in retrospect.

In Kenya my wheels crossed the equator for the first time, alongside my partner, headed southbound. This time, I crossed 0° latitude pedaling northbound in Ecuador.

As soon as I crossed the border into Colombia, my final country of this world project, I witnessed the devastating Venezuelan refugee crisis. Many young families were walking or traveling their way to a better life. Where my human-powered travel was a chosen situation, their journey was not. Rambling through the coffee region, I was struck with a profound sense of appreciation for the privilege and opportunity to see the world by bicycle.

A Self-Made Finish Line

As I pedaled across my self-made finish line in Bogotá, Colombia, the numerical value of my 18,000-mile, 28-country and five-continent voyage was no match for the impact it had on my inner atlas.

In today’s day and age bicycle touring can range from an overnighter to around the world. That’s the beauty of exploring on two wheels — the length of the journey isn’t as important as the width of the experiences. The variables are endless. Terrain can vary from pavement to gravel to dirt. Setups range from classic touring to streamlined bikepacking. You can enter a race, join a campout with friends, or fly into a foreign continent completely alone and start riding in one direction. What matters the most is that you’re out there, pedaling by your own power, toward the unknown horizon of untold stories and unfamiliar faces.

Years ago, I was producing documentary films and felt something was missing. It dawned on me that I had been telling other people’s stories, when I didn’t even know my own. I had to go out into the world to understand my place in it. What I found along the way is revealed in my upcoming film, called “Cycling The World” which I’ve been touring around the US over the past month. There are still a few more 2023 dates ahead in partnership with The Radavist:

October 28  – Treehouse Cyclery in Denver, CO
October 30 – Storm Peak Brewing – Bus Stop (presented by Big Agnes) in Steamboat Springs, CO

Currently the only way to see the “Cycling The World” film is at McKenzie’s tour events. Starting in November 2023, she is also offering Online Events that include a film screening and Q&A session. Stay tuned for upcoming Live Event Tour announcements for early 2024.

To find out more about the film and events:

Watch the Official Film Trailer here: CYCLING THE WORLD | Official Trailer