At 56, retired Irish school teacher and father of four Dermot Higgins recently broke a Guinness World Record by becoming the oldest person to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle. A native of Rush, Co Dublin, he set off on his last day of work at Rush and Lusk Educate Together NS to embark on a 30,000km journey around the world, arriving home to a hero’s welcome on Easter Sunday. While the journey itself was a big challenge, the record wasn’t his sole ambition – he was using his adventure to raise awareness for UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development as well as valuable funds for Irish Aid charity Trócaire’s work in developing communities around the world.
Here, he talks about reaching for those ambitious goals, how one person can make a big difference, and what he’s learned about himself and the world over the last nine months…
I’ve always wanted to circumnavigate the globe.
When I was a little boy, my first toy was a globe and my hero was Phileas Fogg – the protagonist in Jules Verne’s 1873 novel Around the World in Eighty Days. I was really interested in geography as a kid and as a teenager… even as a school teacher, that was my favourite specialty. So when the opportunity came – as I was retiring after 35 years in teaching – I thought the best way I could actually see the world was to go around it on a bicycle, so that’s what I did.
I spent a year training for this trip.
I would have always done outdoor sports – not team sports… I was never any good at that, but hiking, canoeing, kayaking… those were my main passions. I hadn’t really done that much cycling, but I was reasonably fit. I spent a year getting ready for this trip, doing longer and longer cycles, going away for weekends and eventually going away for two weeks uninterrupted at Easter.
I survived the whole nine months on 45 possessions…
…My bike, my tent, camping equipment, a sleeping bag, one pair of trousers, one pair of shorts, zero underpants, one pair of socks, one pair of shorts… I discovered that you don’t need much – the less you have, the happier you become, and the less complicated your life becomes.
I did face quite a few challenges on my 30,000km journey.
There were bureaucratic challenges, but you can find ways around them if you’re resilient. Physical challenges – they were tough. They can sometimes be insurmountable. I had 40 days of headwind in Russia and Kazakhstan. It was supposed to be coming from the west to the east and it was going the wrong way, which meant there were 40 days of very high temperatures in the 40s going up to 50 degrees centigrade; the weather in many places was different from what was expected… #climatechange. I had freezing weather, for example, in the southern states of America, where it was supposed to be warm; the rainy season was supposed to have stopped two months ahead of my arrival in South East Asia and Thailand and Malaysia; and it was bucketing out of the heavens every single day in Indonesia. So the weather was a constant challenge, but that said, I had some lovely days too with sunshine.
Mentally, it was definitely tough… really, really tough in terms of loneliness and solitude. There were lots of days when I was on my own and missed family; I missed my kids. I was on my own for Christmas, which was really tough. The cycling – if you’re strong and weather resistant, you can overcome all those physical challenges pretty well, the bureaucratic challenges you can overcome if you’re good at dealing with them on the way, but mentally, it’s just pretty hard – it’s the toughest challenge.
I’ve learned that an ordinary guy can do an awful lot.
The human body is capable of monumental things. I don’t think that my body is any different to anyone else’s – I’m 56 years old, and I’m still able to do this stuff. I didn’t get sick at all, didn’t get a cold, didn’t get the flu… I think when you put your mind to do things, you can do them. I achieved my goal in terms of getting around the world, but I also believe I achieved a lot in terms of raising awareness about the Global Goals. Lots of people say, “I’m only one person – I can’t do much” but if you put your mind to it, you can achieve an awful lot. I’m not suggesting that people should do something as major as I did, but every small thing counts, and we can achieve a great deal.
The world is not flat, it’s round, and it’s big, it’s wonderful, and it’s full of lots of marvellous people.
99.999% of the people are good; very few people are out there to harm you. I discovered that about people. I also rediscovered my spirituality. It was a total shock to me – I never thought that there would be this bridge of enlightenment, and it did happen, gradually. It may have been to do with the fact that I was very lonely or spending so much time on my own; it may have been to do with the fact that I was in India, a place where spiritualism is just all around you and it’s hard to avoid, but it certainly happened. Some people said it would only last through India and to Thailand and those countries where there’s a great deal of religious devotion, and when I would get to Australia and America that it would go away, but I didn’t find that at all. Even when I got back to Ireland, I brought my mum to church on Sunday – I haven’t been to church in many, many years – which was a nice thing to do. I’m not Christian by any means; I’m not a Muslin or Buddhist or any of those things, but at the same time I feel that there’s definitely a higher power and there’s somebody responsible for the world, and there’s somebody watching over me. There were many times when I was very aware that I wasn’t alone.
If I could do it all over again, I might not be in such a hurry.
I did the trip in nine months, and there was a reason for that because I wanted to be back by Easter Sunday, and I wanted to challenge my body. It certainly would have been better to stop. I wasn’t a tourist – in New York, we stayed for two days; we could have stayed for a lot longer and visited a lot more places and done things. I’m probably the only tourist ever who visited New York and didn’t see the Statue of Liberty. Maybe I should have stopped and gone a bit easier, maybe I should have brought more people with me – that’s another thing that comes to mind because the times that I had people with me were marvellous, but there were also times when I was on my own that I was at my best. There are many things… I would have liked to have raised more money for Trócaire – there’s still time, though. I’ve raised about €17,000. I think the trip is well worth €30,000 – that would mean €1 for every kilometre, and that’s not much, but I think between now and the end of summer we’ll keep that Just Giving page open, working with Trócaire to maximise the potential for that. I saw first hand the great work that Trócaire do – I was in Yangon and got to meet their workers and see some of their projects. I’m fully committed to supporting them and €30,000 will go a long way. Just a small amount of money can do wonders, allowing workers to provide drinking water, food, and humanitarian aid, to teach skills and engage with communities.
There are so many brilliant moments I’d love to relive.
Coming home – the welcome I got – was such a fantastic experience, and as I got closer and closer – that feeling of accomplishment I got was just mind-blowing.
I have plans for another big project for 2020.
I’m actually going on the road again. It’s going to be called the Bipolar Bicycle Challenge – this time I’m raising awareness for mental health and bipolar because that’s something that’s very close to my heart.
I’m also hoping to open a shop in Skerries this summer.
It’s called Zero and it’s going to be Ireland’s first zero-waste grocery shop and hopefully café as well. It will start off small and grow organically.
I always had an idea…
… the idea of opening a shop, the idea of cycling around the world, the idea of becoming a political campaigner, the idea of, you know, wearing my hair the way I wanted to wear it, and I couldn’t do any of those things because various constraints such as my job and other constraints, but once those constraints were lifted, I could do these things, and it was important to me. I could have stayed teaching until I was 60, and none of those things would have happened, I would never have achieved any of those goals. It’s so fantastic that even in nine months I’ve achieved so much, and it’s made me a much stronger person in terms of my capacity to do lots of different things, and I’m delighted.
If you’d like to help Dermot reach his goal of €30,000 for Trócaire, you can make a donation at justgiving.com/fundraising/gogodermo
Photograph by Alan Kelly