The First Human Powered Circumnavigation of the Globe | Part 2

Having cycled from London to Lagos, crossed the Atlantic in a pedal boat and traversed America on rollerblades, Jason Lewis tackles the next leg of his life-defining journey: the vast Pacific Ocean.

26th June 2023 | Words by Luke Phillips

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of Jason Lewis’ incredible story. Catch up with Part 1 here

‘If you are a brave man, you will do nothing. If you are fearful, you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery.’– Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

A daunting 9,321 miles of open ocean awaited Jason and his fellow adventurer Steve. The plan was to pedal to Hawaii as a makeshift island checkpoint, then continue all the way to Australia. However, the expedition had taken its toll on Steve. Loyal and honest to the end, he admitted this expedition had become more than just a journey: it had become his life. He wanted to prove that he was doing this for himself and not because he felt he had to. So, he made the difficult decision to leave the expedition after reaching Hawaii. This would leave Jason to pedal across the largest and emptiest part of the Pacific Ocean alone. The journey to Hawaii with Steve took 74 days. It was a fitting goodbye.

Jason Lewis Pacific Ocean

They were both relaxed and sombre. There were barely any disagreements or fallings out, a final vindication of their enduring friendship. As Steve departed, Jason reflected on his friend’s decision, one he completely understood. He recalled American author Ursula K. Le Guin’s apt words: “It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” Both men had realised that ultimately, if you’re honest, open hearted and strong minded-enough, any journey can evolve to be something else – a stepping-stone to wherever you need to go next, learning whatever it is you need to learn.

Still, if Jason had felt alone on the Atlantic crossing, the word took on a whole new meaning as he stared into the vast expanse of the Pacific. The sea around him shimmered like a pane of glass. The deafening silence taunted him, like the calm before the storm. He still had over 2,000 miles to go until his next island stopover of Tarawa, if he could find it, and ahead the legendary Doldrums counter-current awaited. Every sailing buff in San Francisco had told him it would be impossible to cross without a sail. But he persevered. Once more unto the breach.

Jason Lewis on Pedal boat Moksha, expedition 360

Into Dark Waters

‘For sometimes, it’s all we can do to simply maintain. But if there is one thing we can be sure of in life, it is that nothing stays the same, and if we can just find a way to keep pedalling, in whatever shape or form that may take, circumstances will eventually change in our favour.’– Jason Lewis, The Seed Buried Deep

Alone in the Pacific Ocean, sat in a makeshift pedal boat called Moksha, Jason Lewis was making his way through the Doldrums. Stuck in the notorious counter-current, he’d pedal all day to exhaustion, only to awake each morning and realise he’d drifted back further than he’d progressed the day before. The situation looked bleak. He felt darkness creep over him, scribbling a note in his diary: “I am fully at the mercy of my own mind.” Frightening stuff. But he didn’t give up. He hadn’t spoken to another soul for almost 3 months. He hadn’t seen another face for even longer, but he had that burning light inside him that made him keep going, despite his body being close to breaking point, with a suspected bout of blood poisoning, horrific saltwater sores and signs of him losing his mind. He reminded himself that he still had more to give. “The body is capable of immense feats of endurance”, he remembered, “but only if the mind buys into it.” All it takes is a mental shift, that willingness to push on when all else seems hopeless. So that’s what he did. Jason traded the fictional friends he’d been talking to for a well-timed dose of optimism. Pedalling on the spot is better than drifting backwards in the counter-current, he thought. Just keep going – because you have to.

With only one vegetable left in his boat, which he’d initially saved for crossing the international date line, he switched plans. Instead of heading south through the impassable current, he’d turn slightly west, reach the date line, which was tangibly close, and then eat his final vegetable: a carrot to chase. Though in reality it was a mouldy onion. Still, hopefully a small victory buried amongst a mirage of pain would give him the strength to power through. The strategy paid off. With a bit of good fortune and enormous self-will, he reached the date line on July 3, 1999, at 21.56 GMT. Five long years since leaving London and a lifetime of memories already made. He was halfway through his circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey so far had been slow, excruciating and laden with difficulties. But reaching this halfway milestone worked exactly as Jason had hoped. Now firmly in the Eastern hemisphere, he trudged back south and resigned himself back to fighting the counter-current. With a newfound determination and drive not to drift back into yesterday, he ploughed through with superhuman strength. Within a few days, he felt the current change. He was out. He’d reached the end of the Doldrums, a feat which nobody thought was possible. With the southeast trade winds now pushing him along, he headed towards Tarawa and Australia.

Troubles Down Under

‘To remain open to truth, you press on regardless into the void, knowing those first rays of the morning will push back the shadows. For there is always good if you look for it, even in the farthest-flung corners of this barren rock we call home and the darkest recesses of the human soul where light seldom reaches.’

Jason stopped for land in Tarawa before continuing on, navigating the Solomon Islands. The Pacific Ocean was complete, but he still had half the world to traverse. He arrived in Cairns, Australia after painstakingly navigating his way through the Great Barrier Reef. But he’d made land, through all the trials and tribulations of a solo pedal across the Pacific. Surely now he was back on terra firma things would be better. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The expedition was bankrupt. The constant struggle for sponsorship, scrimping funds to carry on, had petered out. With the expedition two-thirds complete and having just completed 4 hours’ worth of shows for the Discovery Channel, he figured that sponsorship would be easy. But that wasn’t the case. He got a move on regardless.

Taking loans from family, friends and anyone else who had already been involved in keeping the expedition going, he continued the journey across Australia, bikepacking thousands of miles across the country’s ‘red centre’, all the way up to Darwin. From there he took stock, re-examining the myriad of problems facing the rest of his journey. The expedition was worse than bankrupt: it was $106,000 in the red. He needed to stop, reevaluate and work out how he could pay this monster debt off before continuing again. It wasn’t the same wall that had stopped him in the Pacific; this was the all-too-familiar wall of real life. It’s one that many of us try and avoid for as long as possible, but as Jason would find out, he had to face this demon just like the Doldrums of the Pacific Ocean. The only way was forward. Just keep on moving.

‘Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.’– J K Rowling

It was the best part of five years before Jason had paid off his debts and could get back to the expedition. Bit by bit, week by week, he lived in the solitary confinement of work, paying off $20 here, $20 there, making sure that everyone who had contributed to the expedition thus far was not left out of pocket. He spent a lot of time soul-searching, wondering if this is what he truly wanted. He’d started this expedition to get away from the monotony and mediocrity of normal life. But almost ten years after the initial idea, he found himself halfway around the world and stuck in the exact lifestyle that he’d set out to avoid. Did the expedition still suit his needs? Whilst the notion of completing the first human-powered circumnavigation still gave him goosebumps, he found himself thinking of Steve and the reasons why he had left the expedition. Ten years was a long time. Life had moved on. Everything had changed. He thought back to Paris all those years ago and the unresolved riddle he’d posed himself: ‘Life, how to live it?’

He looked back at the original mantra that had kept him going:

Rule #1. Find a way to keep moving forward.

Rule #2. When all else fails, refer to Rule #1

This made him realise that the harsh realities of bankruptcy and working his way out of debt was not the end of his trip. This brief encounter with civilization was just another leg of the expedition, another ocean to cross. In the end, all you have to do is keep on going. Following this change in mindset, he saw life in a different way. It felt good to be working, to be part of a community and seeing the same people. Building relationships and sharing banter is something he’d missed on the long ocean crossing. But he reminded himself he was there for a reason. Every day at work, paying off debts, took him one step closer to finally realising his dream to complete the circumnavigation.

Jason Lewis arriving in Indonesia, Expedition 360

The Journey Continues

‘I am homesick from a place I’m not sure even exists’– Anon.

From Darwin, Australia, the next phase of the expedition was ready to begin. Jason would take the trusty pedal boat Moksha from Darwin to Timor, then kayak across the Indonesian islands all the way to Singapore. From Singapore he would travel overland through Tibet, China and then to India, then pedal boat towards Africa. This would be the home stretch: all the way north back to the starting line in Greenwich. He set off across the water to Timor-Leste. The vast nothingness of the Pacific now made way for perilous shipping lanes, whilst the pain of saltwater sores was replaced by mosquito bites, and the ever-terrifying danger of crocodiles. It was now a completely different adventure.

He was older, wiser, but had also had a taste of normal life, something which he had little love for. He was keen and ready to move on. Eating up the distance, he revelled in the simple life once more. He was happy to be away from civilisation again and noted how his time travelling had distorted his perception of all things modern. Even the distant sound of an engine now sounded like an evil and corrupting thing. He longed for the simple splash of his paddle in the water, or the sound of his bicycle chain whirring as he ate up miles on the way towards Singapore. Like all adventurers, his perceptions of how to live life had completely changed during this long trip. Unlike Steve, he hadn’t found a wife, he hadn’t found love. He had found what made him happy. He realised the importance of living a simpler and more sustainable existence, something which back in the early 2000s was still almost unheard of. It was a vindicating thought for the effort he had put into making this journey completely human-powered. He noted that: ‘travel makes you a witness, brings you closer to the Earth and its people. You witness the best and the worst in humanity, starting with yourself. This was the blight of the twenty-first century, the way machines and technologies detached humans from their surroundings and accountability from their actions.’

Jason Lewis Kayaking to Singapore, Expedition 360

‘Tragedy should be utilised as a source of strength. No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.’– His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Jason continued his journey. His biggest issue, as with all those previous legs, was money. Arriving in Singapore, he was faced with that familiar problem and the question he often asked himself: ‘Should I give up?’ He was bankrupt again but loathed the idea of jumping back in the rat race just to scrimp and save, flogging his stories in Singapore malls. Then, something amazing arrived in his inbox. He had finally found sponsorship. All the years of struggling to get by and sleeping on roadsides, working in malls, trying to pay off the trip mile by mile was over. He could finally finish this journey.

He continued gleefully overland to China, bikepacking with his panniers full of recording equipment. Sponsorship meant he would hardly be living a life of luxury, but it would see the job done. Heading up through the Mekong to reach another significant antipodal point and up through China, he juggled the myriad of visa and secrecy issues that each nation plagued him with. Onwards through Tibet he cycled up and down the Himalayas, avoiding military checkpoints at night, taking refuge in his tent or in ancient monasteries, and succumbing several times to altitude sickness, thanks to the difficulties of ascending and descending such high altitudes each day. But he made it through, as he always did, all the way to the India and then to the coast of Mumbai. There he finally reunited with his trusty pedal boat and took the journey across the perilous Arabian sea and around the Horn of Africa to Djibouti. He was finally on the home stretch north now. He’d hit all the key checkpoints to make the circumnavigation valid. Now, he just needed to get home. But as with all journeys in life, nothing is ever simple.

Jason Lewis in Tibet, Expedition 360

The Long Road Home

‘Despair is only a state of mind, an arbitrary perspective with no basis in reality. Just when you think you can’t take it anymore, someone who has it much worse rolls up and makes you feel like a complete wimp.’– Jason Lewis

From Djibouti he cycled the 4,250 miles north through Africa, towards Istanbul and finally Europe. On his way through Sudan, he stumbled across a few British faces that were familiar. Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman were there, filming their 2007 series Long Way Down. But if there’s one thing that dampens the spirits of intrepid explorers, it’s the sight of another face from home. Whilst they were all happy to chat, it broke the immersive feel of both their adventures. For Jason, seeing two famous motorcyclists coming this way made him feel close to home but also, ultimately jealous. They didn’t have to put up with the constant visa issues that he did, or the border problems. As for Ewan and Charlie, struggling through the Sudanese desert, to come across what can only be described as an English lunatic 13 years into his pedal around the globe, surely made their struggles feel inadequate. But the real adventure is within. A person shouldn’t compare themselves with anyone else. We are each fighting our own battles and are all just trying to find our best path through life. Just before parting ways with the duo, the producer of Long Way Down, Russ Malkin, stopped Jason, conversed about the struggles of sponsorship and funding, and slipped him a life-changing £1,000 to finish his trip with. Jason notes that the irony of that final piece of sponsorship to get him home wasn’t lost on him. After thousands of sponsorship proposals and rejections, one of their biggest and most important backers would be another UK expedition. It was a nod to how the adventure scene is a likeminded community, one which will often strive to help each other achieve great things, even when nobody else will. Despite the fame and fortune of Long Way Down, they still took the time to help a relatively unknown figure achieve something extraordinary. Of course, the adventure wasn’t over yet.

‘Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.’

From Sudan, Jason had to make the perilous journey into Egypt, one final challenge. He had applied for permission to enter the country six weeks previously, but confirmation still hadn’t arrived. The ambassador informed him it was on its way, but time was running out. He couldn’t wait any longer. Costs were mounting, and his non-extendable Sudanese visa was about to expire. Eventually, he threw caution to the wind and took the journey across a small section of Lake Nubia, which lies on the border. He kayaked through the night in an attempt to avoid the various gunboat patrols that monitor this illegal crossing. Somewhat inevitably, the Egyptian authorities caught him on the lake in the middle of the second night, arresting and detaining him as a possible spy. He spent two days in an Egyptian prison, not knowing whether he would be sentenced, killed or deported. The latter sounded most appealing. Then on the second day behind bars, the authorities came to get him and said: “Mister Jason… the application you submitted six weeks ago to cross into Egypt has just been approved. Welcome. I wish we could have met under better circumstances. But go now, and finish this great journey.”

“There are two terrible things for a man: not to have fulfilled his dream, and to have fulfilled it”– Bernard Moitessier

Jason was on the home stretch. He’d crossed all major obstacles and after rowing across the Bosphorus back into Europe, he was almost home. It was plain sailing from here, so to speak. But something was wrong. After so long away, he found himself annoyed by the smallest little things. Swearing at drivers on the German autobahns, getting angry at the traffic in France. It wasn’t anywhere near the chaos of the roads in Indonesia or India, but this trip had changed him. It had worn him down.

On 6th October 2007, thirteen years after setting off, he found himself back in Greenwich. With a media fanfare and a large crowd, they carried the now legendary pedal boat Moksha up to the Greenwich meridian, passing the start/finish point at exactly 12.42pm. The journey was over. Jason’s first words to an interviewer were simply: “It’s been a long trip. It’s good to be back’”, with tears brimming from his eyes. The TV cameras showed a man clearly overwhelmed by the whole situation. But the real struggle for Jason was yet to happen. Assimilating back to modern life was his biggest fear and he found himself lost in an overcomplicated world, struggling to reason with life. He twigged that: “It wasn’t adventurers who were the bravest, most patient, tenacious, or level-headed – as I had been described in media interviews. It was people with conventional occupations the world over who endured the petty humiliations of modern life, indignities that frequently involved the inflexibility and discrimination of mass transit employees, many of whom appeared to have undergone personality-bypass operations. With grace and aplomb these people held down a job, raised a family, put food on the table and rode the 17:10 from London to Reading five times a week.”

Jason Lewis, London, Expedition 360

‘You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.’– Mahatma Gandhi

Jason realised that facing real life after such a long time away was the real challenge. This was the true adventure, for which he was even less prepared than the circumnavigation. He struggled with bouts of depression and anger as he assimilated back to normal life. These were the darkest times of his life, but in the end, he came out of it with a simple call to action. He would devote his time and life to putting the lessons he had learnt aboard Moksha into real life. These would be:

    1. Adopt a plant-based diet
    2. Use human power to get around more
    3. Fix stuff when it breaks
    4. Use water sparingly
    5. Cut down on waste
    6. Switch to renewable energy
    7. Join the ‘sharing economy’

Underpinning this sustainable philosophy is the realisation that many of the adaptions he had to make to stay alive on this trip are the same modifications that we, as a species need to make to sustain an overpopulated, but astonishingly beautiful world.

Jason Lewis arriving home, Moksha, Greenwich

‘Travel is a timeline of extremes, a series of highs and lows that can leave you emotionally skinned, but with a greater appreciation of how there is always good if you look for it, even in the farthest flung corners of the world where at first you thought all was darkness.’

Like all journeys this one had to end eventually – and after 13 years away, it was finally over. As a writer and adventurer, I’ve looked at a lot of different travel pioneers. But Jason’s story and struggles call out to me. Not for the rollercoaster of a ride, or the incredible feat of adventuring that he completed. But simply because Jason was – is – a normal person. He’s a person with simple roots who wanted to achieve something outstanding. He wasn’t rich, he wasn’t famous. In fact, he still isn’t either of those things. But he is a pioneer. A world first. He’s that burning beacon of optimism that every single one of us has the capacity to do something extraordinary. He’s a symbol for what you can achieve when you have the will to break out of the rat race and the monotony of normal life. He’s a glowing example of pure humanity. Imperfect, but remarkable in almost every way. To everyone who has ever had that seed buried deep inside them to do something amazing, to dream of what lies beyond their valley, to embark upon that grand adventure, Jason can be an example of how anything is possible: ‘I draw comfort knowing that there is always hope, and where there is hope, there is the strength to carry on.’

Jason Lewis, Expedition 360 Map Source: Daily Mail

All quotes are taken from:

  •  Lewis, Jason. The Seed Buried Deep: The True Story of the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation. London: 2012
  • Lewis, Jason. Dark Waters: The True Story of the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation. London: 2012
  • Lewis, Jason. To the Brink: The True Story of the First Human-Powered Circumnavigation. London: 2012

Jason Lewis, The Expedition Book

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