I have been fortunate enough to have done some travelling in New Zealand this year, South Island – to be more accurate, and while browsing in a back street charity shop in coastal Oamaru I came across this book called “The Impossible Ride” by Louise Sutherland.
Louise was a native of New Zealand, a registered nurse, and a lifelong cycling enthusiast and traveller.
She was aged in her 50s when in 1978 she took on the challenge of a lifetime, to be the first person to cycle the Tranz-Amazonica highway, and right across Brazil.
I’d never heard of Louise previously, and was short of good reading material, so I parted with the required $4NZ ( ! ). I was pleased to later discover the author’s signature from 1990 inside the cover, which made the find even more special.
The expression “It’s not about the bike” somehow came to mind, at least in regards to Louise’s admitted mechanical naivety, and she had to rely on the assistance of others for most mechanical help.
The bike was a blue Peugeot mixte, donated by Peugeot themselves for the journey, having an upright riding position, with 5 derailleur gears. It looks like the kind of bike that one might ride to the local shops on !
At times Louise mentions that she would have preferred the Sturmey Archer 3-speed gears that she had always used on previous journeys, because they had never given her any trouble, unlike the derailleurs !
The bike was fitted with a front handlebar carrier and a rear pannier rack and bags whereas she was used to using a trailer on her earlier travels. From the description of some of the roads encountered, perhaps that was just as well.
The journey was solo, of around 4000km distance, from Belem, at the delta, to the Peruvian border, and there were many struggles – with the biting insects, the storms, bike falls, and the dust and mud. Small in stature, she travelled with an open heart, having her faith in humanity and the local indigenous people (mostly) confirmed, and she completed the journey, contrary to the warnings of many.
“I was never lonely while cycling, I always had my bicycle to talk to.” she would say. Sleeping was mostly in a hammock, wherever she could find a village, town, hut, or even two trees, and there were many off-route diversions and new found friends along the way.
My copy was the second edition of her book, the first being after the actual ride, self published after much difficulty, in 1982. The main purpose of the book was to raise enough money to buy a VW Kombi fitted out as a mobile clinic to help improve the health of the Indian people living along the Tranz-Amazonica ‘highway’, which was relatively new at the time, being without many services and mainly surfaced with dust, dirt, or mud, depending on the weather conditions.
There is a reasonable amount of information about Louise on the internet including a Wikipedia entry, and an interview by British TV on YouTube.
Sadly, for someone so full of life and determined, she suffered a brain aneurysm and died suddenly in 1994 aged 67.
Hers is a wonderful story, shining brightly among many great legends in the world of cycling.
See Ya !