In the summer of 2016, Dhruv Bogra set out on a 15,000km solo cycling expedition, which took him from Alaska to Peru over a span of some 14 months. His transcontinental journey was as much about discovering other cultures as it was about self-discovery, writes Anindya Tripathi.
“When was the last time you did something for the first time?” This was the question Dhruv Bogra asked himself as he approached his 50th birthday. This was a low point in his life, and his days were riddled with self-doubt. “As I moved closer to my 50s,” Dhruv said. “I realised that my entire life had passed by without me getting a chance to achieve my dream of exploring the raw beauty of nature, and that’s when I decided to take the plunge.”
Having resolved to chase his dreams, Dhruv decided to embark on an adventure trip—a transcontinental cycling expedition that would span some 15,000 kilometres—from Alaska to Peru—and take him around 14 months to complete. More significantly, he decided to make it a solo journey. He wanted his achievements and failures to be his own, and he wanted to face the euphoria and despair of travel alone. The journey was going to take him far from home, but also away from the comforts of modern life. Dhruv was going to live hand-to-mouth on this trip, making do with the bare minimum.
For around 25 years Dhruv has worked with leading fashion brands, establishing himself as a veteran in the retail industry. In the summer of 2015, he took a two-year sabbatical from work and began preparing himself physically and mentally for his American cycling expedition.
Dhruv started sleeping inside a tent at his own home. It took him a year to research the routes and terrains he would have to navigate. He studied maps and survival guides attentively. Later on, he camped in sub-zero temperatures in parts of Himachal Pradesh, in order to get himself acclimatised to conditions similar to what he would have to face in the Americas. Finally, he purchased an all-American Surly Troll bicycle—exactly the kind you need for the long haul—and named it Quest.
Dhruv’s voyage on his Quest began on 21 June 2016, from Deadhorse, Alaska. From here, he set out south towards Mexico, on the Pan-American Highway, which is ranked by Guinness World Records as the world’s longest “motorable road”.
When asked about the reason he chose this particular stretch of Central and South America for his expedition, Dhruv said that he had always been curious about the culture and geography of this region, where the landscape changes as rapidly as the weather—ranging from arctic tundra and remote boreal forests stretching over millions of square miles, to glaciers, mountains, deserts and tropical rainforests.
Apart from its rich geography, this belt is also known for its diverse cultures—from the Inuits in Alaska to the First Nations people in Canada and the Quechua in Peru. There’s a lot to discover here for the first-time travellers. And there’s no better way to discover new places and cultures than at the leisurely pace of a bicycle ride.
It was as a child that Dhruv developed a taste for cycling. But over time, the hobby turned into a passion. Since 2011, he has cycled more than 25,000 kilometres. “After the Hampta Pass, I made a tour of Kangra [both in Himachal Pradesh], a 300km cross-country ride on a mountain bike. That made me fall in love with cycling. Post that adventure, I have had many more in the Western Ghats. Then I did the granddaddy of all expeditions: the famous Manali to Leh route, considered to be among the toughest in the world,” Dhruv said.
On the scale of difficulty, his Peru-to-Alaska journey, too, ranks pretty high. When on 21 June 2016 Dhruv reached his starting point in Deadhorse, Alaska, he was greeted by snowfall—always a bad omen for travellers. A local lady called him “insane” for undertaking such an arduous journey.
The road ahead was paved with more challenges.
Dhruv even had a brush with death. A few actually: when he encountered a bear in a Canadian forest; when he suffered an allergic reaction after eating grasshoppers in Mexico; and when he got sick with typhoid in the middle of nowhere. Although before setting out he never thought of a possibility as extreme as death, he did write his will and share his laptop password with his daughter, Tareene, just in case.
That’s to say that Dhruv was prepared for all eventualities. “It was hard, especially when I ran out of food and water in remote locations or had to climb many mountains in a day. Contrary to the popular concept that one must travel light while hiking on mountains, I had to carry approximately 40kg of gear, because food and water are hard to come by and I had to cover around 30km in one day,” he told Guardian 20.
Camping in the wild, too, has its perils. At times, Dhruv came in close contact with animals. But he always kept his head and dealt calmly with whatever threat he was faced with. Near Yukon in Canada, when he saw a wild bear, he took pictures of the animal and showed the photos to the locals, who nicknamed Dhruv “the Bear Whisperer”.
Interestingly, the voyage changed a lot of his perceptions about South American countries, especially Mexico, which he found to be warm, hospitable and full of the many wonders of nature. “I now understand why our ancestors worshipped nature. The exploration opened my eyes towards the experience of indigenous people and the systematic destruction of their culture at the hands of colonisers and capitalists,” Dhruv said.
Initially, Dhruv had planned to extend his trip all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina. But financial troubles and visa issues forced him to make Peru his journey’s endpoint. He was so impacted by the serene Peruvian landscape that he now regards the place as his “spiritual home”—where he made many friends and where he would happily settle for life.
Dhruv has also written a comprehensive account of his journey in his book Grit, Gravel and Gear. Divided into 22 chapters, the book chronicles the highs of lows of his cycling trip—complete with poems, anecdotes and detailed maps. He started writing the book while he was on the road and down with typhoid; he managed to finish it when he returned to Delhi, in July 2017.
For aspiring cyclists, who might be planning a similar transcontinental expedition, Dhruv has some words of advice: begin with proper planning; research the routes thoroughly; and plan your finances in advance. High standards of physical fitness must also be maintained. But most of all, one must learn how to endure loneliness.