Interview with Ron Rutland: the man behind Fat Kid on a Bike

Interview with Ron Rutland: the man behind Fat Kid on a Bike

While he may originally hail from Durban, Ron Rutland lives the life most travellers aspire to. Coming from what he describes as an “unworldly upbringing”, he always enjoyed stories of travelling, yet likely never imagined having his passport(s) covered in as many entry and exit stamps and visas as he does today. With his enthusiastic and down-to-earth approach to life, it’s hard not getting caught up in the contagious excitement of meeting the man who cycled through Africa by himself.  

A bit of background…

Ron was educated at Westville, and went onto Pietermaritzburg University. After completing his degree he wasn’t sure what to do next, and his “gap year” turned into a decade of playing rugby in Brisbane and Hong Kong, getting into banking in London, starting a business in Thailand all the while fitting in as much travelling as possible throughout it all.

And onto the next career path...

After travelling extensively around Asia and living in Thailand, he decided to try his hand at a new venture, namely Cape  Town 10s, created together with Bob Skinstad and Robbie Fleck. This eventually brought Ron back to his homeland, and he moved to the Mother City for the first time. As anyone who lives in or has ever visited Cape Town can attest to, the environment caters to all outdoorsy activities. As a great way to explore the city, Ron began trail running and mountain biking, whilst still playing rugby and continuing with charity work. During this time he read a lot about people who have done bike trips across the world. He decided to take a break from rugby (even though the end goal of the trip was to ultimately watch the Rugby World Cup in London) and go on an adventure. 11221509_850176658400784_3043846835255237385_n

How did he come up with the name?

The name Fat Kid on a Bike was chosen because it is memorable, unique and the domain name wasn’t taken! Plus Ron describes himself as being a bit "chunky" at the time. 

How was the route mapped out?

As he had never been further north than Malawi and Tanzania, at first it became about visiting the countries Ron had never been to. But eventually he decided that he was going to see them all. So he chose the shortest route, but went on a principle of ‘in one border and out another’. Sometimes he spent months in a country (depending on how long the visa took) and sometimes he spent days. The route was planned out so that he had enough time to get to the Rugby World Cup in London (and watch South Africa get beaten by the Japanese). 11666279_847858218632628_7721593524471189508_n

What were the visas and passports requirements?

Outside of the SADC countries visas were required for everywhere. He needed two passports, and had to constantly courier them through to South Africa via DHL for his visas (as visas can’t be processed more than three months in advance).

What planning was involved?

The biggest aspect of planning was organising his bike and sorting out visas as best as he could.

What was the motivation behind the trip?

It wasn’t a charity ride, but rather Ron’s African Adventure, a way to experience and properly explore the continent he was born on. His bike was named after a close friend Lettie who was battling breast cancer at the time, and served as a constant reminder of his health, vitality and mobility. The trip was about getting back to the simplicity of life and not being tied down by materialistic things. Once the trip was financed, everything Ron owned was on the bike. This idea is echoed in his philosophy of life, approaching everything with a down-to-earth attitude and starting from scratch every time he moves. He therefore likes to keep his wardrobe to a minimum. 11755192_849234558494994_1029690525619110222_n

What were his safety concerns?

Ron’s biggest safety concerns were about the political situations in Central African Republic and South Sudan. He relied on people he knew, or friends who knew of people living in the countries to provide him with updates of what the situation was like when he was close by. The South African Embassies throughout Africa were also very useful when it came to giving advice and keeping him informed.

How many hours did he cycle a day?

He cycled about 5-6 hours a day on average. 11865179_860396594045457_2813386219355459764_o

Why biking over running, walking etc?

In Ron’s words, he chose cycling because “on a bike you get to experience every smell, every uphill, every downhill, every element and every bump in the road. You get to live as so many do in rural Africa. The journey takes time, but you get to experience things much closer to the ground”.

Why did he choose to go alone?

Ron didn’t ever consider going with anyone else. Travelling for two and a half years can be difficult with someone else, especially as it involves making more compromises than travelling alone. On your own you are less likely to be considered a threat, and while perhaps you may be perceived as more vulnerable, you are also more likely to need help, and it’s easier to help one person than two. Ron did meet up with a few fellow travellers along the way (such as those doing the Cape to Cairo tour- a popular route with cyclists that takes about 4-6 months to do). He met an Australian at the Victoria Falls, and had the opportunity to see the breathtaking view with someone, an experience that is definitely worth sharing! 11667306_844344575650659_7359583156747931083_n

Which countries surprised him the most?

The three countries were Rwanda, Ethiopia and Morocco. Rwanda is very clean (even having a Community Day where everyone cleans up) and the roads are amazing. It serves as an incredible example of how a country has managed to build itself from the ground up and tolerate a painful history that is still very fresh in the eyes of the nation. Rwanda serves as an example of good governance in Africa and how it can be successful. Ethiopia is very unique and so different in many ways (such as the language and the culture). He found the food to be incredible, the scenery beautiful and the economy thriving. Ron had high expectations when it came to Morocco and found his expectations were more than met. He found the country as a whole beautiful, the food as exotic and interesting as one would expect, and he loved the Atlas Mountains.

Did he travel to all the countries he had originally planned to?

Out of the entire route plotted on the map, he landed up missing four countries (which we think is pretty good innings considering the magnitude of the task!). He didn’t go to Libya (as a failed state and war-torn country, even the South African Embassy has retreated from there). He also did not make it to Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea (not for a lack of trying though). The Ebola epidemic was in full swing by the time he reached the Ivory Coast and the borders were closed. He tried to go around from Ivory Coast to Guinea-Bissau by boat, but it wasn’t deemed safe. Ultimately though, the whole trip was never about going to every country, but rather more about the adventure.

How many countries did he actually travel to?

Ron eventually travelled to 45 countries in Africa (including São Tomé and Príncipe).

Weirdest things he ate...

He tried to eat everything and not refuse anything, but he did eat unidentifiable bush meat in Congo and Gabon, which he has his own theories about...  11870887_857941327624317_4259081333938351480_n

How important were shoes and socks?

Shoes were very important. Cycling shoes that were part trail, part cycling came in handy and proved to be the most useful. He also had a pair of slip-slops and a pair of trainers for when he was in the city, especially if going to embassies or when he needed to look a bit smarter. Socks weren’t a big deal, except when it was really cold like in Northern Ethiopia.

His least favourite thing to wear?

A tie (in his own words- because of his huge neck).

Winter or summer?

He prefers summer and is happiest in shorts and slops.

Did he keep a record of the trip?

He wrote in a diary and used a dictaphone until it broke. It captured the sounds that he heard such as the wind and rain against his tent, making the experience feel even more real. He has found that writing down and recording what he experienced is a great opportunity to revisit stories.

How does he describe himself?

He’s an adventurer (and wouldn’t call himself a cyclist). He enjoys giving corporate talks and talking about his story, his experiences and motivating people. And finally he’s an author to be. Writing about his experiences lets him relive them, and gives purpose to his life. 11760193_847858185299298_8930809873229067126_n Check out Fat Kid on A Bike and his Facebook page for more photographs and information about his trip!
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