Fear and Euphoria

A recount of my most memorable session.

Words by Louie Hynd & Photos by Darcy Ward


I arrive bewildered and exhausted in the middle of nowhere after 24hrs in transit. After two flights and a lengthy overnight drive, I found myself at the location of a wave that should be lighting up according to the charts. The harsh afternoon desert heat blared down on me as I dragged my feet through the orange dirt toward the edge of the cliffs.  As I stood on the edge of the crumbling cliffs, I look out at one of the most notorious surf spots in the world.

The full brunt of the southern ocean was detonating onto a shallow slab of reef. The conditions didn’t look perfect, the solid swell washing through on the sets and a light onshore wind causing ribs and chop on the wave face. Far from the ideal combination at a wave of such consequence. But I thought I may as well give it a go anyway. Just to tick it off the bucket list since I’d come so far.

As I was getting ready, I couldn’t help but feel a strange energy. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and my heart beat a little quicker. It may have been the prior knowledge of some of the dark history that surrounded the place. Standing on the same cliff where a group of early settlers apparently drove 260 aboriginals towards the edge and forced them to jump, or be shot. Maybe it was the fact that the spot is notorious for great white sharks and not too long ago, a man was devoured whole by a great white while surfing the break I was about to paddle out at. The incident confirmed by two eyewitnesses who each then and there, took a vow to never step foot in the ocean again. A pub horror story that remains well versed by many of the locals that call the desolate lands home.

Regardless of the bad juju in the air, there was still the potential for a few crazy rides. The sun was starting to dive and I knew that I didn’t want to stay out too long as the day was fast approaching PST (Prime Shark Time).

The first challenge is attempting to reach the sand to paddle out. No beach access stairs around here. How about traverse your way down a steep, loose-footed rock and dirt cliff instead? Okay! With nobody around to tell me the right way to get down, I decided to go with my default navigational and problem-solving strategy; just wing it. I cautiously and ungainly slip slided my way down the slope. Each wary footstep causing mini avalanches of dirt and rock larger than the last. After a treacherous descent of the cliff, I eventually make it to the beach, but not completely unscathed. Kicking a rock toward the end of the trip down resulted in a ripped wetsuit bootie and bleeding cut. Great, now I was going to be attracting sharks and have numb toes.

My Anxiety had since taken form as a tiny red devil on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, tantalising me with its persuasive allure.

‘This isn’t worth it, the waves don’t even look that good.”

“It’s way more risk than reward.”

“Fuck this. Go back to the car,” the tiny red devil persuaded.

A few deep inhalations later and an empowered ‘Fuck it’ rebuttal from the tiny white angel on the other shoulder gave me the attitude adjustment required to get me out there.

Feeling equal parts anxious and exhilarated, I paddle out through the deep channel behind the wave. The eerie darkness of the water perpetuated the already spooky vibes. Not eager to sit on my own, I paddle straight up to the two guys that were already out to exchange pleasantries.

Being an outsider hunting waves in a heavily localized area of the world means you’re constantly walking on eggshells. And don’t even think about pulling out a camera. I crossed my fingers and hoped they weren’t two gnarly locals ready give me an earful; especially if they’d already detected the not so disguised tripod amongst the cliffs…  Luckily for me, they’re just two men on a road trip from Wollongong. Phew! Bullet dodged.

I always like to take off on a wave as soon as possible. I find it helps me tune in with the energy of the ocean. When the waves are intimidating, the longer you sit and over analyze the conditions and waves, the less confidence you gain and the more fear you begin to develop. My preparation consisted of surfing 2ft, 3-second period wind slop on the Gold Coast for the past two months. It’s a real shock to the system when you're suddenly thrown into a large long-period southern ocean swell. (Period of swell is the time between each wave. The longer the period, the more power and water in the wave as it folds over the reef).

A reasonably sized in-between set wave appeared. I turned to the bloke beside me and probed for a hint to what a good one should look like. He gave a hesitant remark that didn’t exactly give away the answers to the test paper.

Any spot you surf, good ones are the kinds of waves you see break and think fuck, I wish I were on that!  Picking a good one comes down to your ability to read the ocean and identify waves with the right look. At waves of consequence like this one, recognizing the look becomes less of a calculation and more of a spiritual connection.

For me, a swell line with the look emits intangible euphoric energy that connects with my intuition, giving me an instinctive sense of, that’s a good one and you should probably start paddling.

You’re essentially reading the ocean and coming up with a hypothesis on how that particular swell will hit the reef and break. The angle the swell is coming in, how much energy there is in the wave, and numerous other small factors are added up to create your hypothesis. Reconciliation between the scientific calculation and spiritual connection is how you ultimately make your decision to commit or let the wave go.

Surfing this spot, the ability to feel this connection would mean the difference between getting blown out of a crazy tube or being slammed on the reef and ferociously rag-dolled under the water for an uncomfortable amount of time.

Energy doesn’t lie. The result of trusting this intuitive connection and your skill to ride the wave is when you get to experience what I believe to be one of the most incredible natural highs that life can give.

It’s why passionate surfers have that insatiable desire and dedication to search far and wide, hunting new and different waves.

We’re chasing the dragon for another hit.  Each wave is different, making every high unique. That’s how surfing becomes such a strong addiction.

I swing around for a wave and paddle my heart out. So much water is surging off the reef; it feels like I’m not even moving. Eventually, I feel the wave start to pick me up. Time to try and take off on this thing. Hands leave the rail and my feet jump onto my board as I knife down the wave. There is so much power and speed in the wave, I could see it already starting to run off on me before I even got to the bottom. Too late to turn off the bottom I was forced to straighten out. I made it safely out the front of the wave away from the lip; only to be mowed down by an avalanche of white water. One deep inhale of air and I pin dropped off my board.  Despite jumping off in the safest place, I still get absolutely flogged.  Surfacing a little while later, way on the inside of the break. It was time to face the part of the surf I’d been dreading; the long, very lonely paddle back to the take-off spot, through the deepest, darkest, sharkiest water you could ever find yourself in.

I cop a few more waves on the head before I reach the channel. Rattled and dizzy, I take a moment to compose myself. 

“Deep breaths Louie, deeeeep breaths,” I whisper to myself in an attempt to calm my racing heartbeat.

I start paddling as fast as I can without splashing around too much. The feeling reconnected me with my childhood irrational fear of being in the deep end of the swimming pool.

You’re not scared of the water, you’re afraid of the unknown.

“Don’t look down, keep looking forward and keep moving those twigs you call arms. There’s safety in numbers, just reach the lads at the take-off spot and you’re in the clear”, I reassured myself.

Halfway there and I’m quickly heating up. I shouldn’t have worn the 4/3.  I eased off the gas knowing if I try to keep up that sort of record pace for the whole session, my arms would end up turning to jelly very prematurely. With the lads now within close range, I feel more comfortable and reach them pretty soon after.

One of the guys yells out, “Hey mate, just letting you know we’re gonna head in. Not getting that many and it’s getting kind of late. You gonna stay out or head in too?” I’d only had one wave and it was a flogging, no way I was wrapping up my session like that.

“No worries lads, I’m gonna stay out, wouldn’t mind just trying to get one decent one” I reply.

Gone, taking with them the safety of their presence. An involuntary solo sesh is upon me…


As I sit there alone, scanning each swell rolling through, I notice the wind slightly drop off and swing offshore. I’m in luck, it’s the beginning of the natural phenomenon much appreciated by surfers - The LAGO (late arvo glass off).

The ocean cleaned up and the wind started to swing lightly offshore, meaning the absence of a chandelier falling through the barrels. 

An opportunity for a stand tall pit was now truly on the cards.

A set approaches and I feel the instinctive feeling to go. Learning from my mistake earlier, rather than paddling out and waiting for the wave to jack up, I immediately swing and start paddling in as hard as I can.

Paddling feels like I’m battling with the opposite direction on an escalator. As the wave starts to pull me up the face; I grab the rails and jump to my feet. The bottom is dropping out faster than I can get down the face. I freefall for a split second and then land.

I look up and see the golden afternoon light beaming through the lip as it throws over me, illuminating the emerald green tube I’m standing in.

I stand there for a moment, truly present. Mouth wide and eyes beaming in sheer awe of the beauty and energy I’m experiencing. The intense natural euphoria of this moment seems to slow your perception of time, gifting the chance to enjoy a completely unique experience for much longer compared to someone watching. All senses are in overdrive, absorbing and reacting all at the same moment. I come flying out of the tube hooting myself and kicked out into the channel. That’s what I came I here for.


I lay down on my board and start the paddle back out. My body suddenly jolts when a dorsal fin emerges just inside my peripheral vision.

It’s just a dolphin, thank god. I’m suddenly surrounded by a whole pod of dolphins that are just out of arm’s reach. It’s pretty common to see dolphins in the ocean, but to be paddling alone with an entire pod in the wild is something else. I feel safe with them around me, like they are my security convoy, protecting me from harm.

(I later heard an alternative opinion that when a pod of dolphins does this, they are actually drawing the attention of a predator away from them and towards you. Oh the naivety!)

In true ignorance is bliss fashion, I take the experience as a spiritual connection as they swim with me all the way until I get back to the take-off, where they too begin catching waves themselves.  Scoring pumping waves with only a pod of dolphins challenging for priority. There was no way I was heading in now.


I traded a few more waves with the pod until another surfer eventually joined me. I threw him a wave and received one back. I recognised him, it was the underground surfing world core lord known only as ‘Camel’. I’d met him once before but, I still felt slightly star-struck in his presence. His dedication and passion for surfing, especially large tubes, is second to none.

He’s a man who has lived an extraordinary life fuelled by nothing other than the desire of chasing that feeling.

A true inspiration to living life the way you see it. We exchanged tales of epic sessions we’d experienced and I listened in awe as he shared details of some of his wild escapades.

He was coming off a major injury and was just happy to be in the ocean again. He belly boarded a few waves off the shoulder, but his real stoke came from calling me into sets. His mind is so analytically dialled into the ocean after a lifetime studying it. Explaining why a wave was doing with pinpoint accuracy and detail. I had complete confidence in his wave selection whenever he said ‘go this one’. Wave after wave I kick out into the channel to see him claiming it in the distance with pure froth!

As the sun neared the horizon, I decide to wrap the session. I let Camel know my decision and he responded in sigh of relief. “I was hoping you’d say that soon, I was only really staying out to keep you company.” We paddle with purpose back around the top of the wave and make it safely to the sand. One last burst of effort to scale the crumbly cliff side and I make it back to solid ground.

I sit and watch perfect empty waves continue to roll through under the pristine sunset. Revelling in the euphoria of having just experienced one of the most memorable sessions I’ll ever have.


Check out Louie and Darcy's latest clip: IMAGINATION ROULETTE EP003

IMAGINATION ROULETTE EP003 from Darcy Ward on Vimeo.



Instagram:  @louiehynd 

Instagram@darcywardvisuals   Vimeo@darcywardvisuals

Does Feeling Need a Reason?

What I learned from being unfaithful.


Illustrsations by @kika_canika


If we look at racial segregation, sexuality, and the reasonably flaccid cords around our necks, tying our lives to the prying spheres of our parents — we’ve all had a bit more room to breathe recently. The fingers clasped around self-expression, intimacy and all things good have finally begun to relax.

The ways in which we are now able to present ourselves means that our actions become ever-closer reflections of our inherent selves, our natural characters. These are our fundamental traits (sometimes called constructs) that we must fulfil and express in order to belong; to feel accepted — to have joy.

All going well, in time, all inhibitions restricting the means through which we can explore and enjoy these natural tendencies will be uprooted. Meaning more expression. More joy.

If and when expression is repressed or resisted, however, the symptom is always discord — unease, pain. Directly or indirectly, any emotional or physical conflict results from the denial of someone’s natural character.

A jealous partner, for example, resists the ways in which their spouse’s natural dispositions manifest with other people. Or pigs on factory farms, who chew at each other’s ears because they’re instincts have been cut out of the business model. Or simply feeling miserable, where the misery lies in an inability to accept something — resistance to what is — which casts a shadow of dissatisfaction over your psyche, obstructing your joy.

In summary, the repression of natural tendencies makes us feel bad. Whereas, the freedom of expression brings joy, because our natural way of being is accepted and realised.

Why then, as both people and as individuals, do we still maintain the exhausting notion that something that feels good, isn’t always good?

A perfect example of this is intimacy.

Why, when we all aware of the latent joy stored away in deep physical and emotional connection — love and intimacy — do we reserve so many tiers of human interaction for the bodies and minds of one sole individual: the partner?

When intimacy is honest, pure, it is a perfect expression of our inherent joy. Because, like joy, intimacy knows no prejudice, it holds no expectation, no cost. It is fun and free and natural. To enjoy another’s mind and body is literally to be in joy with them.

Yet the idea of what some might still refer to as free love remains a dangerous and unorthodox concept.

Intimacy is joy expressed within the dance of form. Love is the music of the heart. Yet, these instinctual celebrations are routinely cut short by our fixation with definitions and expectation. It often isn’t long before the ballroom becomes a battleground, and the ballet — a brawl.

I recently slept with someone else whilst in a relationship. I’m sure that many of you upon reading that will be met with the heavy thoughts, maybe even memories that you associate with promiscuity. However, I learned a lot from this experience and it feels right to include what happened, here.

In short, I went to a festival with a friend, a girl. Someone with whom I’d always had a strong affinity with. By the third or fourth day in each other’s company, I decided that the intuited calls to be intimate with her were both honest and loving. I felt, too, that my affections had adopted a new limitlessness: I saw that every moment of connection, physical intimacy or emotional, was nothing but the release of some inexhaustible intuitive energy, like a solar flare reaching out from the sun. I realised that connection is never something that we choose, rather only something we become aware of — a thought, a feeling, a rush — rising to the surface of our consciousness. A voice calling out from somewhere within our being that says hey, there’s joy here.

And so what is the difference, then, really, between resisting the urge to breathe and fighting an opportunity to feel?

Although our relationship could not exist as it had, the love and appreciation for my girlfriend and her ways remained completely. I told the older sister of my girlfriend, who I also went to the festival with, and her boyfriend how I felt. At this point, the girl and I had kissed twice and I told them this too. The boyfriend became angry; I was told I could not come home with them, and the girl, the friend, walked away from the group crying. I took my things and followed her into the crowd. It was the last day of the festival, neither of us had any battery on our phones nor any idea what to do. I said I would get a train with her back to London. We spent the rest of the day together and slept with each other that evening.

I told my girlfriend, who was away at the time, the next day. After that, separated, we met with each other three times following the festival. During these meetings there were many moments where all pain that had flared up, like the burning redness that surrounds a wound, was extinguished. When we held each other or looked into each other's eyes, the inferred reasons for why I had done what I did disappeared. Once the focus on the meaning behind my actions had shifted, only the causeless, indiscriminate joy of being in each other’s presence remained. The same natural inclination to be intimate, to laugh, to be close arose in exactly the same way as it had with the girl from the festival.

During our last meeting, and after speaking for a while together, the topic moved back to the girl who I had slept with. I had stayed with her in London and had plans to see her again. Somehow, through the conversation that preceded, I spoke of the amazing resonance that the girl and I shared. At that, the stitches holding together our relationship, still barely breathing, were pulled out, and the tide of hurt and distrust that we had managed so far to navigate drowned out the joy of our togetherness, and we no longer speak.

A leaf that falls from the tree gains a new perspective from the ground.

Photo from Stephen Ellis

In light of what happened, I now believe that how we interact with each other should not be confined by the arbitrary definitions we place on relationships. And any attempt to do so, to cordon love off, only invites pain to grow between the cracks.

Of course, I can understand how sleeping with a girl whilst committed to another can and will be seen as both a betrayal of trust and a sign of disrespect. But as it is, must it be so? Were my sentiments and intentions responsible for the entirety of the pain — or are the rules by which we play the game setting us up to fail?

When kindness is free, what good does it bring to conserve it for the people we’re close to? Laughter is not reserved for friends, so why must sex be reserved for lovers?

The Choice

Ultimately, I think people either believe that love is an internal element within oneself or something that must be acquired from other people.

Whilst it’s true we cannot experience many aspects of ourselves without others to provide a canvas for those aspects to be exhibited, the root of all joy is nonetheless contained within our being. The ability for us to experience love is a permanent and unconditional trait. We love other people because they encourage us to feel and think in certain ways, but the sensation of love can only ever be present when something or someone resonates with our natural character — our joy. You cannot find a joke funny without a sense of humour, just as you cannot love without love.

Really, we do not receive love, we create it.

If someone is giving, for example, the love you feel for their actions is really derived by the appreciation you have for your own charity. Their actions are like a reminder of the virtues of generosity itself, stored within you. On the other hand, if you are inherently Scrooge-like, other people’s philanthropy may arouse feelings such as resentment and anger within your consciousness because they remind you of parts of yourself that you do not love. If someone is malicious, it is your disdain for cruelty as a whole that causes you to dislike them.

The splendour of love is contained within the moment that love is created. Love resides only within the present moment because it is something that we feel — and feeling only exists in the now. By recollecting fond memories we are able to feel love at that moment, so how could love ever be given from someone else?

I believe that the people who understand love’s eternal yet momentary nature are like those who marvel unreservedly at the fleeting pirouettes and explosions of a firework display. They understand that love does not require a purpose; love is beyond reason, existing only to wonder at its own existence, its own complexity. Where those who try to savour and direct love are the people in the crowd taking photos.

To acknowledge love only when you see it in someone else is like enjoying the harvest without any appreciation for the sun: If looking only at the fruit in our basket, we lose sight of the power and greatness of nature; the turning seasons, the perfection and the beauty. Love is no different — we can watch the waves or we can have the ocean. For the moment you decide that you are the source of your joy, never again will you be poor in love.


The Business of Love

In the current paradigm, many do believe that love comes from other people. They seek to possess and protect it, like the assets of a business.

The business of love points all participants in the direction of loss and pain, and revolves around one key principle:

Love is a bit like money.

Firstly, people believe that, like a business, your emotional wealth is determined by what you posses. And so the extent to which you feel loved depends on your relationships — your assets.

Embodying this primary assumption, people then behave in a certain way in order to attract and acquire love. They create an idea of who they are, their strengths, their attractive qualities, like an investment portfolio.

All going well, they will attract an investment: friend, spouse or other. This person will induce certain sentiments that make the person feel good. The individual feels hightened, wealthier.

People then seek to protect their new relationships because they believe that once achieved, love, like money, can be lost. They enter into contractual agreements — boyfriends, girlfriend’s, spouses, friendship groups — in order to ensure their love. Literally to insure it. Each agreement entailing different expectations and obligations, from wedding vows all the way down to agreeing not to flirt with so-and-so.

Then the enterprise changes: someone in the relationship no longer reflects their original portfolio, or they start failing to honour the terms of the contract. They become interested in different things, wish to become more intimate with other people, offer less time and energy to their partners, and so on. In short, they no longer perform how they’re expected to. “They aren’t the person I married,” is an expression often used at this stage.

Like the shares of a stock exchange, the value of the relationship starts to fluctuate when the worth of the partner is reviewed and questioned. People begin to feel poorer because they have grown to expect the same emotional income from their partners.

Rather than allowing the relationship to mature, expand, change hands — to become enriched — the coupling suffers as it remains bound to the initial ideals and expectations laid out first-off, like a business that refuses to diversify.

If the change in the partnership is deemed as a loss, the investment may proove no longer sound and unworthy of maintaining. If so, like a company declaring bankruptcy, the relationship ends.

Then, akin to the bursting of a financial bubble, the love that has been “lost” creates a great psychological void. The love is quite simply gone because we believe it left along with our partners.

In the end, there is confusion, outrage and heartbreak because people feel less valuable. They invested a huge amount of their belonging into one body, and no longer feel as desired, loved, accepted, appreciated or enjoyed without it. This absense creates pain.

To recap,

  • We all have natural tendencies that when experienced bring us joy.
  • When our natural tendencies are denied we experience the resistance in the form of unease or pain.
  • When we experience our joy with other people we call this love and intimacy.
  • These experiences are the result of our ability to create love.
  • Sadly, many people believe that these feelings come from other people — not the realisation of their own loving essence.
  • This belief leads to the formation of committed relationships, in order that love and intimacy are assured. The ability to explore joy, namely intimacy, is then confined to the terms of the relationship.
  • The relationship becomes a symbol of an individual’s emotional wealth — and pivotal for continued access to their joy.
  • Then, when one of the participants within the relationship does or becomes something beyond the expectations of the relationship, the relationship fails.
  • This creates a psychological “void” (pain) because we believe this love has been “lost”. Or, in order to save the relationship someone’s natural tendencies are resisted and denied.
  • Either way, in an effort to guarantee our joy we give life to the only thing that kills it — confinement.


How can we reconcile the idea that committed relationships lead to the pain with things like raising children or purchasing a house?


Society reflects the way we think and the way we behave. We have all bought into the idea of individualism and small family units, and so the structure of our countries continues to embody those ideals. Still, as we grow ever more estranged from our neighbours, we understandably hope to raise children within the most secure framework available to us: a committed relationship with one individual.

However, to recognise that any attempt to define or secure love does not work is a sign that a shift is taking place within our belief system. We are beginning to realise that current relationship conventions are not conducive to expanding the expression of our inherent joy. For one, polyamory (having many consensual sexual partners) is becoming far more common. And so, as we move ever close to what feels natural, we will also hopefully begin reconnecting with people on a deeper, more intimate level. And so, providing an environment of interconnected but unbound individuals in which we can raise children without the need for static relationships.

But what about now — how do I conduct myself within relationships in such a way that honours love’s illimitable nature?

There is nothing you need to do other than respect your true character. Through the people we meet and the experiences we have we are constantly changing, evolving. As we change so will the people that we resonate and spend time with. So the cycle repeats. We are all in a constant state of flux, so to commit oneself to any expectation only reduces the space in which we can continue our journey of self-exploration.

The trees that produce the most fruit will not be found in pots.

The only promise you should make is to discard all other promises. Whichever relationship you find yourself a part of — raising children, a fling, and everything in between. The only guarantee you should ever make is to honour your own evolution, whichever road that may take you. If it feels right to propose and marry somebody as an expression of your joy, then by all means do it. Go forth and be merry! All the while paying mind to the ungovernable nature of that which brought you together in the first place — Feeling.

Does feeling need a reason?


No one chooses who they are drawn to. Lover, friend — whomever. There is no explanation for the affection that is awakened within. It just happens. So why not permit these notions to proceed as they are alwaysin all ways — to be enjoyed in whichever form they adopt on the surface?

No conditions. No expectations. No resistance.

I am not talking about sex. I am talking about intimacy, laughter, love. The stuff we feel for other people that in one-way-or-another screams: I enjoy you!

Do you ever need more reason than that?



Unlearning by Bike Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John

Unlearning by Bike - Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain

Unlearning by Bike 

Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain

Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John


It’s remarkable to hear the stories and wisdom from someone with a mere quarter century of birthdays under their belt. When many twenty-somethings are just becoming their own person, falling into the capitalism cog and finding joy in the form of baggies and beers. Nicole is outside, exploring, learning, unlearning and making a difference to those she cares about. And cycling from Thailand to Spain. 

Nicole Heker has been living and travelling through Asia for the past 3 years.  Managing the Happy Kids Centre in Bhaktapur, Nepal since she was 23. Now she is on her biggest adventure, cycling solo from Thailand to Spain. An unassisted bike trip to raise money for the Happy Kids Centre. Her goal is to raise $12,000 - enough to cover an entire years worth of costs for the centre.

We caught up with Nicole to chat about the best and worst parts of the trip so far and we dive into her philosophy on life. 

Unlearning by Bike Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John

Unlearning by Bike Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John


Why and when did you decide to do this trip? 

I was working as a deck-hand on a sailboat that would circumnavigate the world. The captain of Mr. Percival is an Australian man who decided to leave Australia for the first time and see the world. I was fortunate enough to get a gig working on his boat for a short period of time, crossing the North Java Sea in Indonesia. At this point, I had been traveling for almost two years throughout Asia and had thought that I had a good grasp of what it meant to be an independent traveler. Then, I met Tiphaine and Marco, two cycle tourers who had cycled all the way to Indonesia from France for over 3 years. They rocked up to the boat with two bicycles and all of their gear. They looked tanned and rough and adventure-worn. Over the next three weeks on the boat, they shared their stories, showed me photos and videos and explained the sense of freedom and autonomy. Their stories beguiled me but it was how they carried themselves that sold me. They were so comfortable in their skin, so confident and strong within themselves. They were resourceful, and independent and were quick to fix things that were broken or take on any new task on the boat that needed handling.

It was their inner-state that captured me and brought this trip to the forefront of my brain. But it had to wait. I had 0 funds left and had already signed a contract to work in Korea for one year as an English teacher. Over that year, I saved almost every penny I could. I did the research, followed all the blogs and Instagram accounts I could find and moved toward this goal–riding my bike from somewhere, to somewhere else, far away. I didn’t know where, but I knew what I wanted out of it. Cycling every day gives one a sense of purpose as it is, but I wanted to have a driving intention behind what I was doing, and I wanted to use whatever platform would form from this trip to make a positive impact.

The cause was easy, I have been working as the Director of Development for a Nepali NGO for three years now, we’re a small organization, but our impact has been huge over the past three years, but like any organization, we needed more funding. This is the impact behind my trip.  The intention came a little bit more slowly until I started messaging with an old sociology professor from Penn State University. That’s when I remembered his words on the final day of class. He challenged us to “unlearn everything” and so, Unlearning By Bike was born. I was going to pay attention to the stories around me, the stories that I carried within me, all of the judgments that I harbored and I was going to try, to see as clearly as I could, the truths of the world and of myself. 

Unlearning by Bike Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John


What does, 'its the inner journey that I’m after', mean? 

In short, it means growth. We live in our self-made cages of perceived limitations, fears and redundant stories that for the most part do not serve us. On the bike, I try to observe what's happening, what kind of thought patterns have become habits, and what fears dictate my actions. So often, people travel in search of themselves. While traveling can be a great catalyst for growth, everything–every journey we need to take, every facet of ourselves is already inside of us.

I guess my version of the inner journey is outgrowing my cage by taking responsibility, wandering into the unfamiliar, conquering my fears, and integrating new skills and tools. We are ruled by so many things from our genes to our environment, but, I don’t believe that they have the final word. We have space for growth, improvement, and change. Not just through reading books, or making a Pinterest board of inspirational quotes, but by putting some serious work into breaking down what those limits, fears, and stories are and taking ownership over them. 


What has been the most uncomfortable/scary experience of the trip so far?

Mongolia is a place of extremes. I would easily say that it's one of my favorite countries that I’ve cycled in but it was also scary and uncomfortable at times. One time, in particular, was in a very small town called Ulziit. It was exactly what I imagined the old Wild West to be like–dusty, lawless, streets were strewn with horses, drunk men, and shattered glass. The buildings were short, square and colorful. My three cycling companions at the time, Claudia, Oliver and Jerry, and I rode in on a fair day. The fair happens once a month there and nomads come from all over the region to raffle for a motorbike or some sheep. Everyone was wasted and rowdy, barking at us as we rode in, intimidating us by riding their motorcycles straight for us and then turning at the last second, making sexual gestures towards Claudia and me. We were supposed to be there briefly, just to restock on food and water for the road and then we heard it, “crunch.” It was Oliver’s rim. It was broken. This was a catastrophe. We were stuck in a town where everyone seemed like they wanted to rob us or harm us in some way.

It felt anything but safe, but we were stuck. Jerry and I found a hotel and barred the door with some chairs and Claudia and Oliver got a ride back to Ulaan Baatur where they would buy another rim and meet us back in Ulziit. It took two days. Jerry and I only left that room to pee in the ditch outside, one at a time, while the other stood guard at the window to make sure nothing happened. When we were leaving the hotel owner begged for money and started trying to grab at all of our things laying around the room until finally, my face made its point and she left. Sufficit to say, we did not enjoy our stay in Ulziit. 

What has been the most memorable/enjoyable experience of the trip so far? 

Before this trip, I had never really heard of Tajikistan let alone knew where it was. This small country, surrounded by Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China, exceeded all my expectations. The landscapes were surreal, epic mountains were the backdrop to this incredible stretch of bike riding. Being very unpopulated, I felt like I had the world to myself. All of my camp spots became home, the roads were mostly paved but led us up, up, up incredible passes that gave me a daily sense of accomplishment. We were dirty and rugged and resourceful. We built campfires and bathed in rivers and when something broke we had to fend for ourselves, getting creative as we patched up tires or adjusted chains. Every evening, it was just us, me and the couple other cyclists I met on the road and the stars.

When we did come across the occasional nomad or mountain family they treated us like family, inviting us into their homes and showering us with hospitality, usually in the form of many cups of tea and a place to sleep. There are countless moments, in every country that has touched me in some way, but Tajikistan as a whole was just a wild and adventurous time that tempted my imagination and left me a different person as I exited out the other side. 

Unlearning by Bike Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John
Unlearning by Bike Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John

What do you mean by "designer of my fate"?

Being the designer of my fate is about living with intention. Without awareness and intention, it is easy to get swept up into the crowd and end up living a life where you never question what you want or what makes your heart dance but just follow the herd. It also has to do with circumstance. For example, the night can be dark, and storms can rage, but by taking responsibility as the “master of my fate” and captain of my soul” I’m giving putting my confidence in myself to change the direction of things. My philosophy on living life is ever-changing haha! But at the base of it all is “Follow your heart/bliss/curiosity” whatever that may mean for you and LOOK INSIDE. See what drives you and ask yourself “Is it fear or is it love?” When I’m 70 years old I would be proud to say that I lived–that I tasted and tried and wondered and that I left this world a little better than when I found it.  

What books are you currently reading and what is your favourite book? 

I am currently reading Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. I really love his works, particularly his short stories from Armaggedon in Retrospect. It’s so difficult to choose a favorite book but Siddhartha by Herman Hesse is a short read that I keep coming back to before starting any journey. It demonstrates the non-linear path of a Siddharta’s journey to enlightenment. I keep going back to that book because every time I read it, no matter how different my life circumstance has become, it sings true and teaches me new lessons. 

Unlearning by Bike Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John
Unlearning by Bike Cycling solo from Thailand to Spain Words by Nicole Heker & Photos by Jeremy John

When you were a child and at college, what did you want to do with your life? 

I have always been someone who felt drawn to the margins. When all my friends were checking out the flowers, I was turning over the rocks, looking for something else. I was always pushing the rules and sometimes, I took them way too far, but I had this insatiable curiosity and thirst for experience-based knowing. I wouldn’t say that I thought I was unique in any way, but I knew that I questioned everything and that I had little regard for doing what was expected of me. I’ve never really had a clear image of what I wanted to do with my life.

I’ve always had an idea of the person I wanted to be though. I remember being around 10 years old and going over to my friend Caylin’s house. It was different from any other house I’d seen. It was a Victorian style and painted yellow. Her kitchen was colorful, with orange floors and yellow walls and they had their own garden outside growing strawberries and cherry tomatoes and giant sunflowers. Caylin’s mom had a tattoo, she skinny-dipped in the pool outback under the moonlight, and she went deep water swimming, encouraging me to do the same, something that my parents usually forbade. Her job was in construction and on Caylin’s birthday one year, she put a hammer in all of our hands and taught us how to build. She was different and I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be radical and draw my own lines as she did.

As I grew up, I tried to fit myself back into the mold. I went to university, still not knowing what to do with my life, and thought what office job I would get when I graduated. After studying abroad, something reawakened. I decided to trust myself and just follow my curiosities. That brought me to Thailand after graduation, where I started to really ask myself questions about who I was and what I was interested in. Now, I plan on having many careers! I want to write a kids book and be a yoga teacher or start an eco-cafe somewhere. I want to live in a treehouse and a van for a while and get good at using my hands by practicing ceramics, wood carving, and leather-work. But I find its best not to plan too much. I’ll just keep following my curiosities for now. 



If you would like to donate and keep up to date with Nicole, check out www.unlearningbybike.com

And check out more of Jeremy's work www.jeremyjohn.co.uk and @jeremyj0hn

The Power of Film

Words and Photos by Alex Lostak

In 2013, Ben Stiller released his second film as a director, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. What to many was a feel-good movie for the 2013 holidays, for me, ended up being a demonstration of the catalyst film can be for action, and changed my life forever. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story about Walter Mitty, a film asset manager at Life Magazine, who spends his days daydreaming fantastical scenarios around him, as he muddles through mundane everyday tasks, but the daydreaming began to fade as Walter is sent off on an unexpected adventure, that brings the excitement right in front of him.


As Walter is sent off on an adventure around the globe, chasing down a missing photograph from a roll of film sent into Life by renowned photographer Sean O’Connell, the daydreams stop as Walter begins to experience adventures of his own. He fights off a shark, gets caught in a volcanic eruption, and pays off warlords on his hike through the Himalayas. At its core, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a story about growth, about taking what life puts in front of you and creating your own adventure. Walter spends his life up until this point creating adventure in his head, but when the time comes, he seizes the opportunity and lives out his adventure in the real world.


Watching this film as a teenager lit a fire inside of me. It was something I could relate to more than any film I had seen before. Walter constantly imagining being in another world, doing incredible things and living a lot of his life in his imagination, is something that I did a lot of my adolescent life. I spent a lot of my childhood imagining being in other worlds, in every way from writing to daydreaming. I longed for adventure, to set off on an epic like Frodo or hunt down long lost civilizations like Nathan Drake.

When the opportunity presents itself Walter doesn’t hesitate to venture out for himself, and take on this big adventure, and that struck a cord with me, it lit a fire to go on my own adventure. Sure I wouldn’t be tracking down a world renowned photographer, chasing one image across the globe, but I wanted that adventure. I wanted to stop dreaming about the crazy places and scenarios I would be in, but to go and live them myself.

In addition to the story, the setting of the film was almost as inspiring to me as Ben Stiller’s character. The mountains along the ocean, the waterfalls, the open fields, the volcanoes, it all seemed so surreal. It was astounding to me that these settings were on our planet, but what truly shocked me was they were all in one country: Iceland. I knew that I had to get to Iceland. I knew this was the adventure I had to take. The problem was that getting from Houston, Texas to Reykjavik, Iceland for an incredible adventure wasn’t the easiest thing to pull off as a high schooler. Thus, my dream of venturing to Iceland had to wait to be fulfilled, but all that did was continue to fuel the fire.

In the spring of 2018, five years later, I graduated from college with a little over a month until I started my first job. In that short gap appeared the opportunity to make that adventure a reality. Two and a half weeks split between Northern and Southern Iceland with my girlfriend and longtime friends: that would be my adventure.

For two and a half weeks we drove around exploring the multitude of awe-inspiring locations Iceland has to offer. Every day our schedule was pretty much the same. We would wake up early, draw back the blackout curtains that blocked out the ever-present Icelandic summer sun, then set off in our car to explore until midnight, coming back to crash from exhaustion and do it all over again.

There’s an untouched, natural beauty to Iceland that is getting harder and harder to find in our modern world. A single highway that will take you around the whole country, called the Ring Road, acts as a Sherpa to see everything from iceberg filled glacier lakes to enormous waterfalls. It’s a destination for photographers for a reason, traveling throughout the country you’d find it difficult to take a photo that couldn’t be described as epic.

But it’s not the beauty alone that gets you, it’s the uniqueness of the landscape. Iceland is an island who has been bent to the will of volcanoes, volcanic rock covers vast landscapes that makes it difficult for any sort of farming to occur. Valleys are filled with structures of cooled magma. The heat from the volcanoes powers much of the island and bleeds through the surface through geysers and steam. It’s obvious driving around why everything from Game of Thrones to Oblivion has been filmed here because it truly feels like you’re exploring another planet, a land of fire and ice. One year later, in the full swing of post grad life, that journey feels like it was long ago. But the fire that Walter Mitty lit inside of me six years ago, still burns brighter than ever. The ending of each adventure transitions into the planning of the next. Filmmaking and storytelling are incredible gifts, they transport us to different worlds, get us attached to incredible characters, but perhaps their most powerful ability, is the ability to inspire action in the real world. If I hadn’t seen Walter Mitty six years ago, I may have never taken my adventure. That journey will remain a testament to the power of film to catalyze action and bring moments on the big screen into reality.

Bud Heyser - 13 Knives - Knife maker - Photo by Laurence James

Bud The Knife Maker

I walk down an alleyway and into a fluorescent lit workshop. Behind an assortment of half-built motorcycles and benches is a man in an apron and gloves, pulling a piece of metal from a furnace with a pair of dramatic tongs. He looks like he’s in his element.

He sees me from the corner of his eye, removes his goggles and turns the furnace gas off. Reaching out to shake my hand with his scarred knuckles and a welcoming grin beneath his beard.

I ask him if I was interrupting his flow.

“No, not at all. I was just making a spork for my buddy upstairs.”

I admire a man who orders a custom feeding utensil usually reserved for toddlers.

His name is Bud. He’s a modest man. An adventurer at heart with a love for winding down roads on his motorcycle. He even went to architecture school but I certainly can’t imagine him in a collared shirt slouching over a desk. Now he forges custom knives with intricate handles made from wood and bone.

Bud spent his whole life in Kentucky before packing up and moving to Melbourne a fews years ago. He worked as a furniture maker when he first arrived but it didn’t last long.

“I couldn't handle the clients… it's so wanky haha. That's why I got away from it. I just wanted ideal clients - people who I could relate with. I was already making some knives on the side and everyone I made a knife for was cool. I met some of my best friends by making knives for them.”

Now he forges out of a workshop on Easey street in Collingwood - sandwiched between a bar (Paradise Alley) and a screen printing shop ( While You Sleep ), surrounded by vintage choppers (BITZER). A photo of his manager is mounted on the wall to make sure he stays in line and doesn’t duck next door for a cheeky midday pint.

All kinds of people walk through the door. Some are knife collectors, others are tradies or hunters. He even made a bunch of throwing knives for a guy in the circus.

Heating and hammering metal has always been in his blood.

“My Grandpa ran a forge and foundry called International Harvester and my dad was a machinist; he made some knives as well. I played around when I was younger but didn't really make any knives.”

“Grandpa would always give me a knife on my birthday. Actually, even if it wasn't my birthday. Whenever I went over to his place he’d be like, “do you want this” and hand me a knife… or a BB gun haha.”

Yet, Bud didn’t learn much from anyone else. No fancy knife making school and limiting his internet use as much as possible. Just some helpful pointers from his old man and an old book.

“My dad taught me a bit but I bought a book from 1906 called The Farm Blacksmiths Handbook. That’s it. I try stay away from the internet. People that know how to make good knives generally don't know how to make good youtube videos haha. So you see a lot of bullshit online. I like it this way. It keeps my head down, playing with what works and realising what doesn’t.”

Knife making wasn’t something he planned for as his career - it just fell into place.

“I just wanted it to be a hobby that paid for itself. I rented a space so I had to be doing something in it. So I built the forge and started making knives - I can’t believe it didn’t blow up haha. I still get scared sometimes when I start it.”

But his current workshop in Collingwood wasn’t his first. He got kicked out of his last workspace.

“I went to this knife symposium up in Tharwa Valley. I spent 3 days riding a motorcycle there, 3 days forging with some of the leading experts in knife making and then spent 5 days riding back. I had no cell phone service and no clue where I was going.

"Once I finally got service I checked my emails and one was from the owners of the studio saying that I had to move out because I was being too loud. It sucked haha. I came from such a high from the past week with so many great ideas. And now I had to find a new place to work.“

I guess it was a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, he might never have found Paradise Alley.

We looked through a bunch of his creations; knives the size or my arm, counterfeit coins, cutlery and vertebrae shaped knuckle dusters. With knowledge of metallurgy, alchemy, chemistry, woodwork, fabrication and everything in between, he can create almost anything he thinks of.

“I get obsessive over things and then never do it again. Recently I had this weird fascination with making counterfeit money.”

“I’ve been second guessing calling it 13 knives. Cause I'm also making silverware and jewelry. So I might have limited myself. Now I'm calling it ‘13k, Quality Goods’. So that's the transition. I just want to keep it open ended, making knives and whatever else I'm interested in.”

He hands me a couple of the knives from the cabinet and starts rattling off the different types of bone in the handles.

I was a little skeptical. Is this crazy knife-wielding bloke getting black market animal parts from African poachers?

He doesn’t. Relax.

“I get water buffalo horn, zebra bone, warthog tusk. There's an organisation in Africa that go around and pick up the bones from reservations when an animal dies. There not poachers. The money goes back to the reservation for conservation. Bone lasts for ages when it's treated properly. These knives will last a few hundred years, I hope.

“The handles are a lot of fun to make. But so is the blade... Actually, it's all fun haha.”

These knives aren't mass produced. It takes a lot of time and effort to make a single knife.

“A knife takes around 40 to 50 hours to make. I start with a block of steel, heat it, beat it into shape, harden it, treat it, temper it, and then start doing handle work. The handle work takes forever.”

“I go from one day, brutally bashing out steel to make the blade and then the next day making hidden pins for the handles. There are so many different skills involved in making a single knife. A lot of engineering is involved just to get it all to meet up and feel nice. “

I noticed that he still had 10 fingers.

Which is impressive with all of this hammering, grinding, melting, and fireballs around. I asked Bud if he’s had any accidents.

“Yeah, I ran my finger through the grinder last year. That was pretty bad. I went to the doctor and asked him if it was that bad. He was like ‘yeah, go to the hospital’. They wrapped it in gause really big and told me to take a month off work. I went back to the workshop that afternoon. It was hard though because every time I was grinding, it would shoot sparks straight onto the gause and set it on fire.


He then made a passing comment about getting metal fingertips to prevent it from happening again.

“Not like removing my real nails. Just like attachments. You could do anything with them. My nails are always getting hit on the grinder. That and an exoskeleton and I’d be set haha.  I’d be unstoppable, taking over the world making knives.”

I ask Bud what his next line of metal creations will be.

“I really want to make a steam engine haha. That’s my next thing.”

I could get around that. Petrol is way too expensive anyway, I’d much rather buy a bag of coal and a jug of water. Maybe we should start a new series called ‘What’s Bud Making this week’. I think it has legs.

Check out some of Bud's creations: @thirteen_knives / www.13knives.com.au.

Also, how epic are those photos? I know right. Insane. Make sure you check out their other work: Laurence James -@laurencejamesphotography www.laurencephotography.com.au and Alberto Zimmermann -@betozimmermann


Check out this interview with Bud by Jack Sprenger:


Lapping Contrast and Colours

When we think of snowboarding (or skiing) in Japan we think of gliding effortlessly through beautiful, soft, waist deep snow that curls over your head at every turn, leaving you visionless for a second or two. We think of sharing the memories from that all-time day over just one (ha-ha) beer with your good, new or foreign friends atop or below the mountains. Taking it all in as euphoria engulfs our bodies.

I experienced this for four of the days in the first week of my one-month trip in Japan over February, in Myoko Kogen. I only pulled my camera out for two of those days because  I just wanted to ride, enjoy the snow and not hold the crew up every time I wanted to shoot. Unfortunately, these days were the only ones that I scored powder in Japan but I can surely guarantee that it was worth it. Riding the day after a 75cm dump was so much fun, also dangerous, but lapping the same chair on untouched powder is something I will remember forever.

From Myoko I made my way to Hakuba for three weeks to meet up with some other friends. Rain, sun and ice (no snow for the whole time) kept me off the mountain a little bit more than I hoped… but hey, you get that on snow holidays. I never got to experience Hakuba to its full potential but the small town vibe of Myoko definitely appealed to me more.

Anyway, I let my photography drive the trips that I embark on which has primarily led me to the mountains wherever they may be. I like the beauty of cloud formations around peaks and feeling so vulnerable to mother natures giants. But most of all I enjoy capturing the light as it hits different peaks and ridges - creating dramatic settings of contrast and colours.

Here is a series of my favourite images from my time spent in the Japanese Alps - inclusive of three street shots in Tokyo.


Check out more of Tom's work on his Instagram - @tomhy_


Running A (Half) Marathon In North Korea

Running A (Half) Marathon In North Korea

By Dirk Eschenbacher


I was one of 630 foreigners to participate in the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. It was the second year the regime in North Korea opened the marathon to foreign amateur runners, and when I first read about it, I knew that this was something I needed to do.

I wanted to run this marathon for two reasons. For one, it seemed to be the perfect excuse to make a trip to the infamous and closed-off country. I am a keen adventure traveler, having been to many exotic places, including Nepal, Mongolia, the Golden Triangle and the Tibetan Plateaux. I live in Beijing and I have visited pretty much every country in Asia but, despite its proximity to China, I’ve never made it to such an outpost of society.

The other reason I was drawn to visit North Korea is the constant exposure the country receives in the media. It seems like every day brings another weird headline about Kim Jung Un, and I see photos of him constantly — either as part of a report or as part of a spoof. I felt it was about time to make my own picture of the country, of its people, and of the reality they live under.


Getting to North Korea

The visa is nothing but a loose insert

The trip was actually much less complicated than I had thought it would be. I signed up with a tour operator called Uritours and they took care of everything. You literally fill in a few forms on their website and make the payment, and then they make the arrangements, including the visa — which nothing more than a simple sheet of paper they hand you before you check-in at the airport.In fact, on entry and exit, North Korea doesn’t even stamp your passport.

Other than your memories and souvenirs (you can choose between ginseng, stamps or cool propaganda posters), there is to be no trace of your visit to the hermit kingdom.

We boarded a North Korean Koryo Airlines plane in Beijing and made our way to Pyongyang. There are three flights a week to Pyongyang from Beijing and Moscow, and weekly flights from Shenyang, Vladivostok and Bangkok. Because of the marathon, there were additional charter flights available departing from Shanghai. The quality of the flight was better than I expected; they handed out the Pyongyang Times, a North Korean propaganda paper in English, and a cold burger that actually tasted fine.

Approaching Pyongyang, I couldn’t see any paved roads in the countryside — only dirt tracks. Cars were sparse, just a few people on bicycles; and while Beijing was already in full spring bloom, North Korea was brown and dusty; a rather cold first impression that didn’t dispel my preconceived notions of what the country would be like.

Under construction: The new Pyongyang Airport Terminal in the background

The airport was strange, a one-story building comprised of a single large room. Since there are so few planes coming and going, the room serves as both arrival and departure hall depending on the need (at the time of writing, a new airport was being built just next door). Visitors to North Korea are required to carefully list everything they are bringing into the country, and their luggage is checked for these items.

Special focus is placed on mobile phones and books, each of which is recorded to ensure neither is left behind when visitors leave.

Nobody bothered to check upon exit, but I suppose the risk of being caught is deterrent enough for most. I reckon you can bring in just about anything, although it’s probably advisable to leave your Bible at home.

From there, our group boarded a bus and assumed a seat that, it turned out, would be his or hers for the next three days. Waiting for us was Ms. Lee, our North Korean “minder.” She was to be our guide; our sole source of answers and, more importantly, our political consciousness for the duration of our stay.

Almost immediately, she firmly laid out the first rule of tourism in North Korea: no pictures are to be taken while on the bus. And with that, off we went, en route to the capital, cameras in hand, ready to shoot from the bus, quietly soaking in the first impressions of this strange country.

Not many cars on the road

As darkness set in, only a few lights could be seen in the standardized apartment blocks dictated by soviet-style city planning. Cars on the road were rare, though as we got closer to the city center, there were more than I expected. What was most striking about Pyongyang, though, was the sheer numbers of people walking about or lingering around on the streets. It seemed that nobody was at home, everyone was outside walking. Everyone was on some sort of schedule, heading firmly and confidently to his or her destination.

Where were they all going?

We checked into our hotel — one of several “approved” for foreigners — enjoyed a mediocre dinner, met a few fellow runners, and quickly retired in order to be ready for the big race the following day.


Marathon Day

630 foreigners getting ready for the run of their life

Of the many factors that make the Pyongyang Marathon so special, the venue for the start and finish of the race, the Kim Il Song Stadium, really stood out. The arena seats around fifty thousand people, and on race day it was a full house. As we arrived in our busses, fans were already streaming silently into the stadium, but when we stepped through the gates into the arena, the feeling of being greeted by that many people was nothing short of amazing.

Kim Il Song Stadium

The race route itself is a ten kilometer lap. Participants in the 10k race do it once, the half-marathon runners go twice, and the full marathon heroes lap four times. I would have chosen the 10k, but because it doesn’t finish in the stadium, I opted for the half-marathon.

Arc of Triumph

The route was less scenic than I had hoped. It starts with the Arc of Triumph — the highest in the world, Ms. Lee ensured us, besting the one in Paris by some 11 meters! — and then climbs up a hill beside soviet style housing compounds. At one point there’s a tunnel, followed by a bridge crossing which marks the 5k mark. From there, it’s down along the Teadong River — the “real” cradle of mankind, per Ms. Lee, with relics found here dating back over one million years — then over another bridge, through another tunnel, and alongside more housing compounds until you finally find yourself back at the stadium.

thousands lining the streets

By far the best thing about the race was the people lining the streets. Whenever I could take my mind off catching my breath and focusing on my run, I was high-fiving fans by the hundreds from the very young to the very old.

I estimate there were around five thousand lining the 10k route alone.

Many just stood there and watched, but some where really excited, cheering us on and holding their hands out for contact with the runners. Some kids where even running along, shouting in English, “Hello, how are you, what’s your name?” It struck me that this was probably one of the very few times foreigners have actually been able to interact sincerely and without government interference/monitoring with the people of North Korea.

It was a truly beautiful and memorable experience, and the support of the onlookers greatly contributed to me being able to complete the half-marathon. They kept me going, they kept me thinking about them, their political situation and the reality of their lives. Theirs is a reality I’m unlikely to fully understand, and I certainly wasn’t going to get any closer to them from the seat of the bus under the watchful eye of Ms. Lee.

The kids of North Korea

We finished the race in front of those same fifty thousand supporters, who were eerily clapping and waving flags according to a strict rhythm, as dictated by directors assigned to every seating block. I don’t think that any of the spectators in the stadium really cared about us; they had simply been assigned by the government to attend the event and show the world how “welcome” the foreign runners were.


Pyongyang and the Leaders

The man and his son

The schedule was tight. Most of us had signed up for just a short three-day trip, which meant that after the race we had just enough time to shower or eat — not both. This was also due to the elevator situation at the hotel. With 47 floors, two of the four elevators were working, each stopping at every floor. A 20 minute wait to get back to our rooms was the norm.

(For the record, I opted for a shower, and then went to the convenience store in the lobby and bought myself some German chocolate cookies. They actually had a good selection of sweet and salty snacks from a certain grocery chain in Germany called Edeka.

As for how those goods got to Pyongyang? Look away, nothing to see here.)

Ms. Lee and me

After the break, we got back on our bus and started a sightseeing tour. The first stop was the Mansudae Grand Monument, which every tourist is required to visit. (Naturally, every North Korean must, too.) It shows the two leaders, Kim Jung Il pointing somewhere, and Kim Il Song looking in the same direction. There are three leaders in North Korea.

Kim Il Sung is the “Eternal President of the Republic”.

He is the one always shown leading the way forward. Everyone loves him, so the story goes, he is the man. He was the one to kick out the Japanese, he created the Juche philosophy that guides the Republic, he led the nation through the Korean War, and thusly, is the role model for everyone and everything. He passed away in 1994.

While Il Sung seems to have earned his status by accomplishment, however you wish to define them, his son, Kim Jong Il, in contrast, seems to more closely personify the hot-tempered, nutter mentality more commonly associated with the North Korean dictatorship. Ms. Lee hardly talked about him, in pictures and on monuments — there were A LOT of them — he always stands behind his father. In fact, it looked as if the artists didn’t really want to include him in the pictures in the first place, did so merely on account of him being Supreme Leader from 1994 to 2011.

Wikipedia says about Jong Il:

“During Kim’s regime, the country suffered from famine, partially due to economic mismanagement, and had a poor human rights record. Kim involved his country in state terrorism and strengthened the role of the military by his Songun, or “military-first”, politics. Kim’s rule also saw tentative economic reforms, including the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in 2003.”

Which brings us to the infamous Kim Jung Un, who was nowhere to be seen during our visit. We had hoped to see him in the stadium during the marathon, but he was absent — both physically and by representation. The only evidence we saw of his existence was on television (by photo, not video) where he was inspecting the new airport or visiting a shoe factory.

If this seems strange, that’s because it was, but perhaps he is just keeping a low profile on account of his newness at the whole dictator thing.

To his credit, he did bring Pyongyang a water park and a roller coaster — both of which happened to be closed on the weekend we were there.

Part of the Mansudae Grand Monument

After we bowed at the monument, we headed to the war museum, which treated us to an hour and a half of propaganda surrounding the Japanese occupation, the “imperialist American annexation” of the South, and “the truth about the Korean war.”

We were permitted to board the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship which was captured in the late 1960s and kept as a trophy.

The museum itself is quite modern, replete with 360 degree rotating diorama multimedia show, and is a mix of a traditional museum and Madame Tussauds. There are many depictions which detail the gruesome scenes of the war.

Visiting these monuments and institutions makes the ideology, beliefs and realities of North Korea very clear. On one hand, there is the “Leadership” cult, which so clearly highlights the absence of freedom and indoctrination of the society into a world which no longer exists outside of the country’s borders. Then, there is North Korea’s hermit-country status; a nation with no friends, but clinging to a widespread belief in reunification with the South. (No one else favours reunification.)

The scene left me with mixed emotions.

On one level, if I squinted really hard, I could understand some of the points made by the propaganda. Walking through the museum, I started to sympathize with the North Korea that is a victim of imperialist America and the West. Hearing of the great achievements of Kim Jung Il, I gathered why he is so revered as a shining light in this dark country.

It was still only propaganda, of course — brainwashing. But as Roeland Loof, a Dutch fellow runner says in this New York Times article:

“In the U.S. and Europe, we’re as brainwashed as they are here.”

Is there a better or a worse? Hard to say, it always depends on who you are and where you look from.

Kim Il Song Square

That evening we finished with a nice hotpot dinner, drinking beer and local rice liquors, before heading to a microbrewery for more beers. Finally, we were brought back to the hotel where everyone drank at the bar until one in the morning when the waiters kicked us out. It was the North Korean experience, at least as much as foreigners are able to get.


The Sightseeing Day

Kaesong street scene

The last day was spent mostly on one activity, a two hour bus ride down to the South Korean border and a visit to the DMZ (the demilitarized zone between the North and the South). The road seemed to be the only paved road outside the city and no cyclists or pedestrians were allowed on it. There was no fence, but we were able to see members of the rural population quietly walking or cycling on parallel dust roads.

Sometimes you could see a person actually cleaning the road.

Despite the maintenance, however, the road was in a horrible condition and I was fortunate (or wise) that I had chosen the middle section of the bus. The other runners sitting at the front and back of the bus found the bouncy ride to be much less enjoyable, on account of the shitty roads.

Demarcation line

We eventually made it safely to the border, visited a souvenir shop and bought some memorabilia, before we were escorted to an area comprised of several buildings adjacent to the actual border. This, of course, was home those famous blue houses, where the soldiers from the North and the South stare each other out across the demarcation line.

We saw the flags of each Nation, smoked cigarettes, and took some selfies at one of the world’s most hotly contested pieces of real estate.

While in the south of North Korea, we also visited Kaesong, a special city where there is, believe it or not, some cross-border exchange going on. It’s an industrial zone, but tourism also seems to be big there, in relative terms. Kaesong is famous for its Koryo museum and its ginseng produce, and we had the chance to buy some ginseng products and more stamps before we had a decent lunch in a designated restaurant for tourists.

Not much going on down in Kaesong

Driving to the restaurant, we saw hardly any cars, only people on bicycles moving sacks of rice, kids with schoolbags on their backs, and others washing clothes in dirty rivers or loitering at intersections. A fairly simple life for one of Korea’s biggest cities.

After lunch, we made our way back to the capital, where we then had the chance to take the metro from one station to another. Pyongyang’s metro is the deepest in the world, according to Ms. Lee — 100 meters or more, and its 17 stations are all designed uniquely for their location. That was the last thing we got to see before calling it a day, and heading back to our rooms to rest for our 8 a.m. flight back to civilization.


My Take

Kids of North Korea

Running the Marathon in North Korea helped me form my own opinion about a country and a people so prominently featured in the world press, yet so inaccessible to the vast majority of us. I was surprised to find Pyongyang to be quite a modern city — even despite its lack of widespread electricity and transportation.

I saw a few new luxury cars like S-class Mercedes and Audi Q7s, which seems to indicate some movement towards a system similar to China’s communist one, with capitalist features.

Overall, I felt as if I was teleported into the 1950s, with little electricity, and even fewer modern conveniences, but the strongest image, for me, remains the countless people walking the streets aimlessly toward an uncertain destiny. The people I saw looked well fed, properly dressed and generally not very interested in foreigners, which really surprised me.

At one point during the trip, my neighbour on the bus asked, “Do you think they are happy? They just look so serious.” Did they look happy? I don’t know. What is happiness, anyway? And for the people of North Korea, their lives are all they know.

So this is where I park my North Korean experience for now. For the immediate future, I am content to just keep reading and learning about this enigmatic country. I hope that in time, the people I saw walking along the roads will find their destinations. Especially the kids who gave me high-fives along the run.