Photo © Graeme Warren
Earlier this year, I was both amazed and honoured, when I had the opportunity to interview Heinz Stücke – the world’s most travelled bike tourist.
With some 600,000km under his wheels, and nearly 50 years on the road, it’s an understatement to say that Heinz has a few stories to tell, and experiences to share with other cyclists.
The recording of that interview was released in a podcast, but some listeners struggled to understand Heinz’s thick accent and requested a transcript. Now, I’m happy to say we have one! This is entirely thanks to the efforts of Jesse, a kind TravellingTwo reader who volunteered for the task.
The interview starts with Heinz talking about how bike touring has changed for him over the years.
Heinz Stücke: More and more I like kind of the bicycling, long traveling, long stretches, so that I get into the rhythm of things and, because I camp sauvage [wild], as they call it, “camping sauvage”, you know, I go out late into the day, and I look out for a nice spot, and I set up my camp, I do my cooking, I do my reading, I listen to the radio, and it’s all sort of a rhythm now of … which, what I like much better when I’m getting older. But in the earlier days, I wanted to reach cities, and I wanted to go out in the evening, and you know the way, [laughs] drinking and bars and girls and things like that you know, so…it’s a bit different, my lifestyle has become, a priority is more like slow. On the bike, I don’t rush, you know, I don’t… You know, I stop all the time, and take photographs. So I don’t know, I’m looking for some kind of treasures when I’m going on a route that I have never done.. It’s sort of subconscious, that I look out for something. You don’t go…like in daily life, you work in the factory and you get up at 8 o’clock in the morning, 8 to 5 job type of thing, which is rather depressing, I think.
TravellingTwo: And how have the routes changed since you started traveling all those years ago? Now it’s very common for people to go from Europe, for example, across central Asia and then down to India or China. Was it the same when you started traveling?
HS: Well, that’s, that wasn’t really a sort of standard route in the days when the Soviet Union was there, of course, because that was very difficult—to go through the Soviet Union—but more and more people go through central Asia now. And certainly the standard route in those days—like, well, they called it the “hippie route” as well—was right through Turkey and into Iran, and through Pakistan and into India; you know, that was the standard route… India was usually sort of the end because you couldn’t get into Burma—I mean, overland you can’t. I’m quite sure there’s, still today it’s the same, isn’t it.
TT: Yeah, you have to fly in.
HS: Well, there, in those days, there was, with all the limitation on it, then you really had to run when you wanted to see something. And Burma is a great country, I really liked it there. I went a second time round there, so… Now it is much easier to go in. Although I tried to go in through the Five Pagoda Pass from Thailand and I couldn’t, you know, I had to go back and fly. And I couldn’t even bribe these people [laughs]. You know, you can go in, into the border town. Then I decided to go on, but you were blocked with the military blockage [blockade] on the way, on the road. And of course they wouldn’t—even I offered him $100, that’s a lot of money for those people. And they wouldn’t let me go, so I had to go back out again and back to Bangkok and then had to fly there, fly to Rangoon. But otherwise, you could go many places, not very, the tribal areas, because there’s always some trouble there. But otherwise, you could go to many places, you know, Mandalay and Inle Lake…well, you usually get a month’s visa now, so, in a month you can’t really stay in…
TT: Heinz, I’m curious about how you communicate when you’re in countries like these. Obviously, you’ve mastered the English language very well, but, when you’re in a country like Burma, or maybe China, how do you actually communicate with the local people for asking directions and all the other things you need when you’re on the road?
HS: Well, you have a system, you know, everything you do you still have to try and think about it. And if it’s difficult, for example in China, you find a way of how do you find your way in China, you know, because the people don’t… you can’t ask the people, you know, because hardly anybody speaks English. And my Chinese, I mean, I tried very hard in the beginning and I thought, you know, I memorized something like 500 words, but it was completely useless, because when they see my face, you know, they have this mei you look expression on their face and there is no… they don’t listen, they, oh, you have an English, you have a Chinese, a very good map, there’s some truck driver’s maps, and you can compare signs. And of course you have a guide book, for example, Lonely Planet has, for example, in big cities, places where one could sleep for cheap, and they give directions and things. So I spend like two years in China and cycled 35,000 km there, and found my way, you know. But not with the help of the people because hardly ever, I didn’t, you know, after repeated failures I just gave up.
TT:Was that your most difficult country for communication, do you think?
Photo © Graeme Warren
HS: Well, for communication definitely and for some other things as well, because, as I have camping sauvage, you know, imagine a country where 1.3 billion people live. You know, that’s not very easy. And when you’re a stranger and you know, they stumble upon you in the night you know, of course they sort of call the whatever they… the PSB, you know, the tourist police, sort of. And then they come and then they say “Ah, you can’t sleep that way, you must come with us”. And then they find out that actually you’re cycling in a closed area there, and so then it is, you know, you are stuck! And then they discuss, and then they give you a fine and then they force you to leave their area. So it’s sort of they give you a guide… what’s the funny thing in China is they just are interested that you get out of their jurisdiction. And once you’re out of their jurisdiction, you get back on your bike and you cycle again, you know [laughs].
And you try not to be caught, you know, try not to…you know, it’s kind of hiding all the time. When I set up camp, and, you know, there’re numerous little stories… You know, I was once in an agricultural field, and they steal each others’ harvest a bit there, you know, so they have to kind of guard their fields, and there’s sort of little, makeshift little shelters where, when the harvest is ready and ripe, where somebody watches, you know. And somebody had seen me somewhere up on the hillside from the distance and it just was becoming dark and then I suddenly realized down there they were looking for me, you know, with flashlights and with sticks in their hands, and they walked all around their field. [Laughing] And I was, I kept very quiet for a while and fortunately they didn’t even account of me. But usually nothing much happened except that the authorities are informed. And then I know when that happens you are in for a very unpleasant night.
But, you know, you learn, if you are willing to learn, so it’s amazing what you can do, what often is very much against the law. You know, bike riding and things on the wrong side of the road. I never wear a helmet. You know, because I get headache when I wear a helmet. I’m entitled to not wear a helmet because I’ve got 600,000 km on my back. And, but the police or somebody, they don’t understand that. Down in Australia it was so funny because in the middle of nowhere, in a place called Cloncurry, hottest place in Australia, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, nobody, no soul to be seen, you know, and there I was in Cloncurry sitting in the front room of a supermarket where it was nice and cool. And you can’t sit there forever, so I decided to have my Guiness in one of the bars. And I walked across a road, to cross the street, sort of 300 yards to the pub. And you know what, there was a police car coming by. And the guy shouted “Put your helmet on!” I looked at him [laughing] and I said “You must be joking,” you know. And they gave me a fine of A$30.
TT: And did you pay it?
HS: No, because you can’t pay there, you know. It’s sort of, you have to pay it the Treasury, you know, on your own. You could run away, but you never know these days. You know, the computer is a big dictator. And they put you on the black list, and the next time you come into the country they will say, “Listen, you didn’t pay your fine,” you know [laughs]. “You won’t come into the country.” I don’t think you go to Australia, did you?
TT: Yes, we did, yeah, we actually did make it to Australia. But we wore our helmets, so we didn’t have any trouble with the police!
HS: Yeah, but the helmet, or other things, because they are a pain in the neck the authorities there, you know. In the airport, you know, I had bungee corded up my bicycle, you know, because they wanted it to be covered. And then the bungee cords were not allowed. And the guy, he wouldn’t let me put the bike on the plane because it was, the bungee cord could come off and could hurt somebody who was handling the bicycle, you know.
TT: You must have had quite a few run-ins with bureaucracy.
HS: Well, you know, there is almost 18,000 days on the road now, which means that—of course, a person who is a year or two on the road, you know, he may have some encounters—but, sooner or later, if you are such a long way, such a long time, some other things will happen, you know. And everything will happen, actually, you know. Except that I’m still alive anyway. Because, you know, trucks. And I am for this: you don’t need to wear a helmet, but it must be a law to have a rear-view mirror, because nobody has that and I think, without that, I would be dead by now. You must see what is coming, you know, from behind, and if there is a truck from the front and a truck from behind. And there’s no shoulder. And so you have to know that, you know, and then you know exactly where they will come together, when you look in the mirror, and it must not be a wide-angle rear-view mirror, it must be one that is one-to-one, so that you can judge exactly, you know. Very few people actually have. Do you have?
TT: Yes, yeah, I wouldn’t ride without it. I agree with you, I think it is the most important thing I have on my bicycle. That, and I have a bright yellow reflective vest.
HS: Yeah, that vest is… you sometimes look a bit funny that way, but I also agree with that, because I often wear one of these yellow overjackets, especially in heavy traffic, you know.
People want to get away from cities and they go by bicycle on cycle routes, which I never do, I go out with the cars, and I kind of like it because I’m not out—I don’t want to get away from something, to get into nature, whatever they call it, but if I enter a country I want to have all, and that means I have to move in established sort of lanes, and that’s the main roads. And, you know, I stop so often, every, you know, shops on the side, you know, and cycle paths in the nature, you don’t have those things. So I’m not so fond about cycle paths. Besides, the cycle paths they make now in some countries, I hate them. You know, because they force you off the road and then the cycle paths are not well done. You know, you come to crossings, the signs are tiny, have to get up and put on my glasses to read the signs, you know [TT laughs]. Yeah, because I’m getting older. Listen, I’m getting older, [laughing] I can’t see everything so much any more.
In Germany, it’s awful, the ever—it’s dangerous, they are traps, because they are on sidewalks, and if you have a cycle path only on one side of the road, you know, the cycle paths… And if you’re on the wrong side of the road and cycle on the cycle paths, which you’re supposed to do, it’s absolutely dangerous, because there the people, they come in from side roads, and they ever—I mean, I fight in traffic all through my life and 600,000 km and 48 years and I’ve never had been, I never really was, have any real trouble with other, you know, with drivers on the road.
But here, in Germany, you know [laughs], I was and I come riding down on the cycle paths on the wrong side of the road, of course, and come to a crossing and a car coming from the side, and I have the right of way, so I pass in front of him. Right when I was in front of him he started driving and drove me over! He just ran me down! And he says “Ach! Ich habe sie gan nicht gesehen!” “I didn’t, I just, I haven’t, I didn’t see you!”, you know! Well, I know that! And it was on a Saturday, and bike shops were not open, so I agreed that, I accepted thirty euro from him, and he went off, you know, but I realized that my whole bike frame was bent. You know, it wasn’t damaged because he didn’t have a high speed, he just restarted, but he didn’t see me.
And then, 2 days later, I was on the right side of the road, on a cycle path—on the sidewalk, of course—which is awful, bumpy and shitty, and there was a woman coming from the front, she was on the wrong—well, she was on the cycle path, but she came on the wrong side of the road on the cycle path—and she was driven over exactly like I was 2 days earlier! It’s deadly, it’s deadly, they are traps, you know. I say, you know, the simplest thing is let cyclists travel with the traffic, all you need to do is buy some paint. They spend millions of dollars and euros on cycle paths; instead they could spend just a few thousand on paint and paint a white line about 80cm from the edge of the road. The car driver knows the white line is his limit. And 80cm is enough for a cyclist, you know.
The roundabouts are deadly, you know, they wheel you off and then you have to cross the road, and if you want to go left on a roundabout, you know how long it takes to get… The idea is… buy a bicycle, get off the car and get on a bicycle. But the idea is you are also…you want to get to your destination quickly. Now they slow you down, even, you know, with cycle paths on the sidewalk, and really blocking your way to get on a roundabout if you turn left, it takes you 5 minutes to get to the left turn, you know, while you are with the traffic, in the roundabout. It’s the easiest thing in the world: the driver sees you… you know, even on the Arc d’Triomphe, I went around it, you know, without any problem. In the traffic. You know, it’s like all the people that ride bicycles, for example, that have to go fast on bicycles, they hate the cycle paths as well, they never go on them.
TT: Obviously cycle paths are something that you feel very passionate about. I’d like to go back to countries, though. You’ve traveled to so many places, almost all the countries in the world and, when you look back on it all, is it possible to pick out a few places that really stand out for you as being very enjoyable places to travel on a bicycle?
HS: Well, every country has one thing that is, for you, you know, like food is India, for example, you know. But, what countries are cheap because you have only a little money in your pocket, so you have countries where everything is cheap, you know, and you like that, because of that, you know. And you like countries when things work better, you know, where you can rely on timetables and things like that. And, of course, when I started out in the beginning, it was, I was only exotic countries that counted. And when it was a Western-style country, it at least had to be on the other side of the world, you know. So like New Zealand I would accept, you know [laughs]. But my neighboring countries, France and Italy, and all of these places wouldn’t really matter in my early days, you know. And then when I was twenty years on the road, then I decided that, no, well you always have to have a goal to make it… whatever you move meant is that if you have a goal it makes it much more worthwhile. You can’t just bum around, you know. Although, basically I do that, but in the back of my head I have always a goal. And so, in the 80s, sort of, I decided to go to all the countries in the world, and then it really didn’t matter so much what the culture in the country was, it was… was it close to my own… You know, sure, you feel more comfortable when you are in a society that is a little bit closer to yours.
But I never want to be a specialist in another country, so when I’m 3, 4 or 5 months in a country, depending on size, I usually have sort of the feeling that I knew a bit about the country I’ve been invited, I tasted the food, I’ve seen the sights, and then it was time to move on to another country.
TT: And you’ve been on the road for so long. Have you ever felt during that time that maybe you were getting a little bit tired on the road, that it was just time to go home now?
HS: No, because I’m very ambitious in the sense, you know, this is my life, this is, also this lifestyle feeds me. You see, I’m not somebody who has to go back or to make money again, work in the factory or … Even somebody who has saved enough money for any period of time. And of course it is pure shoestring travel, in the first 20 years, you know, you don’t spend money. You just wait until somebody invites you and then you eat like a camel, you know, you eat 3 kilograms of meat so, for the next 3 days, you don’t need to eat. You know, it was always like that.
Photo © Paul-W
And it was all, just no transport was ever paid for, sort of, you know, I was years and years and years of traveling, seven years in the two Americas without ever taking—or, you know, just in the little bit in the center, in the Darien—never ever taking public transport. And because I met so many people and I got into the families and things, and they often would say, “Okay, let me show you this place” and “Well, have you seen this?” And then they would, we would drive with the family to certain places, you know, so I mean I did that. But otherwise it was just, everything on the bicycle. And the money was usually… you know, like I said I didn’t need much.
Although today it is completely different, you know, because today cyclists do need money. There are some facilities for them, there are small little hostels everywhere, and you can take public transport, of course you fly, you have to fly sometimes, so you will have to count, like, you know, one day costs you about…what, say about twenty euros, something like that, you know. But it was never like that for me for many years.
So, after 10 years on the road, you know, I was not ever thinking about going back to the factory and trying to make a living that way and maybe have a chance. Because that’s what often is the case: when you stop and you get back into the society and, you know, you are maybe in your mid 30s, and you think about “Yeah, it’s about time to make a family,” or the parents pressure you into it, you know, so then it’s very difficult to then start again. So I just stuck to it, I found my Shangri La, and I’m not, because I have always new plans there is no, you know, I resolutely keep going on, there is no time for depression or to think about well, you know, what would have been if you would have had a different life.
And I’m 70 years now, so it’s a bit, because I have no insurance, I have no real future. But I’m, as I am on the road, it’s no problem, because I always find my way. And now I have a bit of a name and money suddenly comes from all kinds of sources. And I can even play a bit of a rich guy, you know, I even sponsor [laughs] other cyclists a little bit, you know because I feel like, you know, I had such a hard time at the beginning and people gave me so much all the time, that it’s about time to give something back, you know.
TT: You must have days, though, I mean, that are a bit challenging or where you sort of question why you’re doing it.
HS: Everybody has, you know. But once you have decided that that is what you would want to do in your life, you know, you’re… unfortunately, most lives in this automated society is very degrading. You know, you have a job that you repeat and… just to get the money and to pay for your life and… Depression is a big thing in society now. And it’s because making a living is often degrading. But then there is a few percentage that have found what they wanted to do, you know. You look at the musician, all he wants to do is play music all his life, you know. Or paint. And so, you name them, people are… when they can make a living with a more creative… even in the olden days, you were a carpenter, it was very rewarding. But now it is not, you know, because you only take a small step and many people have just that one small step in the manufacturing process and that is not very satisfying. If you are in the service industries, it’s a little bit better, but I know… I look around and most people do a job that they don’t really like, but they have to do because they have to make money.
TT: But you like your job.
HS: I like my job [they laugh]. And I’m surrounded now here by all the paraphernalia of my journey. I want a place where I can sort out the tons and tons of souvenirs and mainly pictures of course, because I like, when I travel, whenever… my eyes are open all the time for images, you know, that I can capture, and that’s sort of my treasure, you know, and… Although I haven’t hardly used my pictures. But I sort of feel like yeah, that is what is my work. And more and more it’s like that, you know, where I’m very proud of good photographic results of my journey, you know. But now they are stacked all over as I sit here and talk to you, I’m looking at boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes. So I’d really like a place where I can get organized to make them sort of an archive where I can get at things.
TT:And do you have any plans to publish a book at all, or…
HS: Well, it is always… I said that thirty years ago, you know, while my legs hold out and while there are new places, there seems to be always new places, it doesn’t matter how old and how long I travel, there seems to be always… I’ve just come back from Chichijima and Hahajima—it’s a group of islands called the Ogasawaras, about a thousand km south of Tokyo. Of course these are some of the remote areas, if I… to get there, I could have never thought about it in the past, because it would have been just too expensive. But I seem to get the money that I can just simply fly there… You know, the guy from Hong Kong, a friend of mine, I used to sleep in his storeroom all the time, on top of my booklet in the bike shop that he had, he sent me a letter recently and I just picked it up when I came back from South America, because I’ve been in the Amazon there, in the Transamazonica, and I read that he said “Well, hey, man, it’s been about eleven years or so last time, it’s about time you come for a visit, before your old bones fall to pieces” as he said, you know, and so [laughs] and then he said “Look, I don’t expect you, maybe you don’t have the money, but I will send you €2,000 euro so you can pay for the journey.
TT: Wow! [laughs]
HS: Hey, man! And I wanted to do a quick… because my Christmas is always important. I’ve had 48 Christmases now in different parts of the world. And I don’t want to be Christmas sort of in the same place. And I looked at the map, and Christmas is coming up, and I said “Yeah,” you know, because there are some lists of places that people have to, you know, they make lists that… so, the Guinness Book, for example. You want to be the most traveled person, you have to go to such and such a place. And I have the list. And the list said that the United Arab Emirates are seven emirates, and you have to be in all of them. Because they are sort of independent. And I have been there years ago, but at that time those things were not so important, you know. And now I’m guided by this sort of lists. And then I say, “Well, I haven’t in Fujairah”, for example. And so “oh, boy, that seems to be a good place to go for Christmas” [laughs]. And then the letter from Hong Kong came and I said “Ah, well Emirates flies to Dubai, but they also fly to Hong Kong.” And they fly to Japan, and so I… “Oh, maybe I can combine it.” and then there was this… the only area around Japan—because I’ve been traveling for about two years around Japan, and I’ve been just about everywhere—except that, in this list, it mentions the Ogasawara islands, and I didn’t know where they were, you know [laughs]. They are sort of south, thousand km south of Tokyo, and I found out when ferries were going there—because these areas don’t have airports. And so I combined all of this, you know: I went to United Arab Emirates, I went to Hong Kong to see my friend—had a very fat time there because in China and Hong Kong they eat like crazy. And then it was to Tokyo and I got my ferry, the islands were wonderful, they were so far south that you could swim, and then I visited my friend in Osaka, including the guy that you probably have the news from, Daisuke, you know…
TT: Yes, exactly.
HS: Yeah, and he instantly—of course, nowadays, I don’t use the Internet, I’m Internet, I’m computer illiterate, you know. And I let other people do it, but they, you know, the chatting goes around, they say “Where is this guy? What is he doing now?” And so everybody seems to know when I was at a festival here, [laughing] they already knew that I had been coming back from Japan and had been in the Ogasawaras, you know. You know, you can’t keep any secrets any more, Friedel [they laugh]. And there were a lot of incidents also in the past, you know, my bicycle was stolen when I was on my way to Greenland, and it happened in Portsmouth, just after I left the ferry. And so they, then the local youths and the police and they say, “We have to look good,” they made a story and they have the Associated Press coming, and everybody was on the story suddenly. It went all over England in the national papers, with the Sun, the Daily Mirror, everybody, you know, a big, big story. So from then on—when I finally decide—of course, because of it, the bicycle was found quite quickly. And when I was cycling there, everybody knew it: I got honks from cars, and they shouted at me, somebody… some people stopped and put twenty pounds in my hand [they laugh].
TT: Now, I have to ask you, because I remember reading that story: was your bike locked?
HS: It was locked my way, you know. It was bungee corded, and it’s never really a problem, but, you know, because my bicycle is an old clunker, nobody, there’s no reason to take that bicycle. But these people, in middle of the night they saw my tent, which was a nice tent, you know, it’s a North Face, and they know these days travelers have expensive equipment, and so they just took the bike without ever even considering what kind of bike it was, you know. And when it made the news, of course the guy saw what shit he had in his hands, and he must have dumped it as quick as possible in the next park. And it was like 4 km where it was found. And the guy who saw it, he knew the story and called the police and it was just barely 35 hours into the theft that the call came from the police and they said, “Well, we think we got your bicycle,” you know [laughs].
TT: And is that still the same bike that you started on?
HS: Yeah it is. It’s an old, heavy, 25 kilogram, solid, normal frame, you know, and you can weld it all the time, the frame has been welded so many times, broken so many times, like the time when I was run down by the car, of course, you know, I had to do some straightening. One time in the British Airways from Antigua back to London and Paris I discovered that the frame had been broken in three places, you know. But I was… that was about the time I needed a complete overhaul of the bicycle anyway, and that was a good reason, you know. I went to the bike shop, you know, I’ve got a bike shop here, they had a frame builder, and I was known there, I didn’t have to pay a lot of money there, in fact, I didn’t have to pay anything. And we stripped it down to nothing, sandblasted the whole thing, and then the welder went at it and it was reinforced just about everywhere, the bicycle became at least a kilogram heavier with all the reinforcements. And then it was beautifully painted, and it’s in beautiful shape now. I ride it, but I’m a bit afraid now to lose it again, because its been stolen 6 times altogether. And every time I got it back.
TT: There’s a lot of memories in that bicycle, I think.
HS: Yeah, it’s a nice design, I’ve got my world map on it and there’s a lot of work in that, in the painting in the names and things I’ve painted all over the bike, and it’s a good conversation starter, which, you know, I… always let people come to you and ask something. It’s a different story altogether, you know, when people from their side want to help you. You ask for help, then they will recline because “What’s this kind of guy want?” you know, they’re shy, they’re shy back, but if they come forward and they ask, you know, and it was always like this: “Oh, that’s a beautiful bike, you traveling around the world? Hey man, how, what, twenty years. Wow! Where do you get the money from? You know and more, other things. “You know, you’re welcome to buy the booklet if” “Well, how much is it?” “Oh, yeah, it doesn’t matter, you know, you give what you want and if you don’t have money, I give it to you.” And so they whip out $10, $20 and they give you that money for the little booklet that I have, usually I have it with me. You know, so that’s very good if it’s a conversation piece, people look at it and then they start to talk.
Photo © informatique
TT: I’m sure you must have learned all the tricks for dealing with all these different situations. Was there ever a moment you can remember where you really didn’t know what to do? Where you really thought “gosh, now what do I do?”
HS: Well, when you break down in the middle of nowhere and you have to wait maybe for transport to transport you into the next city, if the frame breaks for example. But since you have no schedule and [don’t] have to be in a place at a certain time you just relax, you know. I mean of course you could be dead in the middle of the Sahara—it’s 50 degrees, 45 degrees—and you run out of water, that’s deadly I tell you. And you get very nervous when you have drunk your last drop and nobody is around. You know, it happened to me when I crossed the Sahara, but it didn’t happen very often because there was enough traffic on the main sort of piste. But in the Sahara they can easily leave that piste because it may be corrugated, it may be too soft sand, and so they try other places and sometimes you see a car passing you in one kilometer distant. And he won’t see you if you need water, you know. And so it was like that when I kind of followed a track, the track veered off because that’s part of the problem in desert areas, because people ride everywhere, or can with their cars, and have maybe a compass to get back on where they want to go, but it’s very confusing for somebody who has to follow tracks to get sort of in the… you know, I know I also need to go north, but I usually follow the tracks and not use a compass, because a compass is not a solution either. And so I must have gotten of the track a bit too far and then I ran out of water. And then I tried to find the, they have a sort of sort of every 5km an iron stick in the ground that you have to… that marks sort of the main piste. And I was desperately checking the horizon, I got my binoculars, my 8 x 21, and finally I kind of discovered it in the distance. But it was a couple of hours before I got back and then finally a truck and I stopped the truck this time and asked for water and of course that is the… in the desert it’s usually a common thing and he can’t just… he may not give you, fill all your containers, but he will give you a few liters anyway.
But usually I have no problem there because people pushed water on to me in the Sahara. You know, when they come by and they stop and they see you on a bicycle and they see the sand all around, and they say “You have enough water?” and you say “Yeah,” because I was capable of carrying 15 liters. But that is very heavy, so I discovered that it wasn’t necessary to carry 15 liters because of all the people that stopped and offered you water on the way, you know. And there were frequently vehicles through the Sahara, so I was usually having my 4-5 liters, that was okay. And in fact many times people stopped and I didn’t know what to do with the water and I had a shower in the middle of the desert. You know, they always say “Fill it up, fill it up, we got plenty of water,” so there was like 15 liters and I didn’t want the 15 liters, so I could use up 5, 8, 10 liters just for silly things. And [laughing] it was kind of funny, sometimes, you know, just a few kilometers on, another car would come and stop and would offer you water. Once I remember a French 4×4. I flatly refused the water. And he got very angry, you know, and he said, when he left he said “You’re going to die here”, you know [they laugh]. So it was very strange, you know, seeing the way things happen.
But you learn, you know, and you learn that on that route there were like 20-30 cars a day coming through there, that it was not necessary to carry water. Except of course the one time when I lost my way a bit. And then when that happens, you are very paranoid about water, you know. I had a few incidents like that and you know you read that you die, you’re dead, when it’s 45 degrees, and the air humidity is very low, and you had your last drop, you have another 24 hours and then you’re dead. And that’s something standing in front of you when you are in a very hot area and you run out of water and there is nobody around, you know.
A few incidents like that did happen to me. And so I’m always very nervous when I haven’t got enough water with me. But, I know I looked at the map and I sort of take calculated risks—that is the way I don’t lock my bicycle in Japan, because nobody ever steals in Japan, okay?. And that’s what I sort of call—you take a calculated risk, you know, if you’re just a few minutes in a shop, like I did in Chita in Siberia. And, I took the calculated risk, because I could see out of the window, I could see the bicycle on the post that I had leaned it against. I was looking for batteries—it was during the time when the big shops in Russia, they had just divided into tiny little kiosks that were where everybody sort of sold what they had to sell. And I couldn’t immediately find the batteries, so I went from one kiosk to another inside the shop.
And I had a glance at the window, the bicycle was there, the next glance at the window the bicycle wasn’t there, you know, and so I raced outside the door and I took the wrong turn, I went left instead of right. The thief had ridden the bicycle away and had taken the wrong turn. And then I did go right, and then a group of policemen came down the road and I asked about this bicycle and well, they more or less understood what I said and they said yeah, yeah, they’d seen somebody riding up the road, and a youngster who was very wobbly. And of course he disappeared. We went back to the police station, we drove around all the blocks in the area there. The bike disappeared, you know.
And then it was the news and the woman—they had to get a translator because my Russian wasn’t good enough—so a woman came who taught German in a school in this city in Siberia. And she went to the local television station. And I sat in the hotel that they had given me, waiting for my stuff to come back—because not only the bicycle, my luggage and everything was on it as well, you know, all my money. I had like about three thousand dollars on me at the time. And I could see the woman on the screen, every fifteen minutes the program was stopped and there was the woman with the microphone telling about the guy—I couldn’t understand it all—about the guy who was traveling the whole world and his bicycle was stolen [Laughs]. And the guy who had taken the bike, he couldn’t take the stolen bike back to his home because, you know, he was a kid, and the parents probably wouldn’t have liked it, so he took the luggage to some friends and left it there and he disappeared with the bicycle alone. And, so, these people, his girlfriend, well, probably not a real girlfriend, but any way, they saw it on television and they looked at the luggage and they say “that’s the luggage!”, you know. So they took it to the police station. And then they told the name of the guy, of course, and the police went to the house where the youngster was. And he wasn’t there. Eventually he had to come back. And so that’s how they caught him. And it took, what, 3 days to get… and he said, oh, he didn’t have the luggage anymore and, you know, he gave some things back, but they put him under house arrest or, in a cell they could hold him for 3 days, that’s how they said and they put him under pressure. And more and more things came back. Until in the end there were just small, little things missing, and among the things that were missing there was a leather belt. And, you know, the police woman that had my case, you know what she did? She took off her, you know, her service police belt and she gave it to me, you know. I wore it for something like 4 or 5 years because it was good quality leather. And I’m sure I have it as a souvenir somewhere, you know. And the bicycle was back, and most things were back. The Russian money disappeared and some food disappeared and that was it, you know, but I could live with it.
TT: You’ve been really, really lucky, I think, to have your bike stolen six times and get it back every time.
HS: And get it back… Well, I was really insistent, of course: I would stay until it was found, you know, if necessary would’ve stayed a month, would’ve tried to find it myself. And, I mean, that’s incredible that it came back—the longest it took was about 4 or 5 days and that was in San Francisco.
TT: Heinz, one of the things that I’m curious about, and I’m sure that many people are curious about is how you’ve financed all this travel over the years. I know that you have a booklet that you’ve sold in the past; is that your primary method of raising money, or do you seek out sponsorships?
HS: Big money is very difficult to get, you know, because all these Red Crosses and the Oxfams and all these big charities, they have the hold on the money industry. So, you write to them, you can forget about it. If you know the boss himself, you will get something, but if you have to talk via the underling, trying to get to the boss, it’s impossible nowadays, because they all have instructions, you know, because so many people ask for this and that, material, money, you name it, that you will certainly get a letter of decline, you know, it doesn’t matter what, you know, so I’m very skeptical if you want to get money out of a company. Cyclists, around-the-world cyclists, you may get some material, you may get some tires, you may get a Brooks saddle or something like that. But to get considerable amount of money, you can forget about that, you know.
I’m making a very good communicator. I’m selling my booklet in the streets and, if I have a good spot, 100 a day at €3-4 a booklet, so at the end of the day I have €300 or €400 in my pocket. And it’s all duty-free, tax-free because I don’t exist, you know. Listen to this: I am very proud that it is possible, in our interconnected, dependent society, to have a guy, is a one-man enterprise, completely lives on his own wits and does reasonably well, reasonably well-dressed, accepting sort of standard laws of behavior in the society, but actually is not counted or I don’t know… I know I have a German passport, but I’ve never worked for 48 years. And I wonder where I, statistically, stand, you know, like am I one of the 6 million unemployed in Germany? Am I counted? [they laugh] And I’m very proud that that is possible in this society without that you run into conflict with the law and the government.
TT: How much do you survive on a day, are you… you said you aren’t quite as frugal as you once were.
HS: No, when I’ve been selling my booklets, and I have made €400 in one day somewhere, you know, I am not stingy. I invite people, I pay for the bill, we go out, we drink and things like that, but that’s for that day. You know, the next day, of course, I take the remainder of the money and say “Oh, this will last for so long,” you know. But it just depends on what has come my way on that day, you know. So I can be… and nowadays, it seems to be much easier, because I haven’t sold my booklet for years now, I have it but I haven’t sold it because there always seems to be money falling from the sky. That’s the way it goes, if you stick enough to your things, then I don’t have too much competition there because it’s like that: you’re reached the top of a heap in one kind of activity, like sports or painting or music or whatever, you know, you reach the top, somebody will… I mean, some of these popular things, and you will be very rich, even. While a little bit down the ladder, you struggle to survive on your art, you know.
TT: I’d like to turn to the future a little bit. Where do you think you’ll be going in the next few years?
HS: I still want to go to the very Nordic places in Canada: I want to go to Labrador, to Sheffordville[?], and I want to go to Iqaluit in Nunavut, and I want to go to Churchill, and I will go to, on the Dempster highway to Inuvik. And this is sort of for the coming summer, because you’d better go there in the summer, I was told [laughs]. If I have enough money I may take a round tour, I have had lots of round tour tickets now with stopovers in different places to get to the last places that I can go to. But it just depends on the money that comes my way, you know. And always I’ve worked out the interesting routes in the last four or five years, but they all came quite expensive, you know, so I would… the one journey 2004-2005 for one year, it cost me €13,000 euros, that was the most expensive year ever, you know.
But I, you know, somehow the money was there so I… at the moment I try to go to all the places that are administratively different or that, for my own reasons, I want to do and most of them are remote. But I’ve already sort of set my deadline for 2012 when I’m basically 50 years on the road, never been back in my hometown—although I’ve been back in Germany, now, because in the beginning I was also forty years I took good care not to step on German soil because it was like going home, and that was not allowed, [laughs] you know, I couldn’t go home. And so, in 2012, I may not have done all these places, it’s pristine, you know.
So, Nunavut is on my list, and that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to go, and I also want to do my 12,000 km by bicycle every year. You know, in 2008, imagine that, in, when I was 68, I did 22,000 km, that’s my best year ever, in forty something years, you know. So I can be proud of that, too. But the reason is that I like more and more those lonely stretches in the desert and in the forest, you know, so I can make more cycling… In the olden days it was like more living, going into the city, staying three weeks, four weeks, you know, more participating in the culture of a country, which is also, of course, interesting. But as I’m getting older, somehow it seems more a sort of daily rhythm of progress, of camping, of independence, of nobody bothering you, of not having to find a hotel every evening, of not having to work it out in the society with all the complicated issues, I can really meditate on my bicycle when I’m riding alone in the bush, you know. And I still have that feeling of progress, because I think it’s the motion, the riding into the unknown, and that is what keeps you quite happy. I don’t know how to explain it otherwise.
TT: Do you still go as quickly as you used to? I read in one story that you go about 100 or 120 km a day, is that still the case now that you are getting older?
HS: I seem to be riding more even. I don’t know it’s… The days are long, I don’t have top speeds, but … I never had really because the bike was so heavy and the luggage was so heavy. And I seem to have a little bit less nowadays, in luggage, because I can leave things in places. While early I may have even had to carry my souvenirs with me, you know, and it was getting heavier and heavier all the time. Because you could stay three or four years in a row in Africa, for example, and,you know, the postal service doesn’t work, you know, and you can’t send really things from there back because it won’t arrive so you just have to carry it and eventually it becomes just too heavy.
And then it depends on the surface of the road, of course, you know. I mean I’m sure in the hour in those days I was probably faster in the early days than now. But I keep… days can be quite… well, if I choose the right time of year in the areas, for example in Nordic countries, you know there the day is very, very long. And, as you get into the rhythm of things, I’m surprised you can ride 16 hours a day, no problem. And that is the way you make good distance, you know. I was riding in the northern part of Yellowknife in Canada and, if you haven’t got a headwind or anything, you know, and the days are long, you just keep riding, there’s no real reason to stop because it’s all, the landscape is all the same, you ride as much as 180-190 km a day. And it is true, because I, in my statistics, because every entry/exit, and every year and all the distance a year, I keep it all registered. The last 10 years, that is from my 60th to my 60th, all the last 10 years I’ve made it into the top 20 years of 48 years in cycle distance, and so that’s not bad.
TT: Heinz, I’d love to talk to you for at least another hour. There’s so many questions that I could ask you. But I know that as I’m interviewing you, you’ve got a big trip planned for tomorrow and lots of sorting out to do, so I’m going to let you go. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.
HS: You’re welcome, you’re welcome.
4th October 2010 at 11:20 am #
4th October 2010 at 5:26 pm #
There’s really one thing to say, WOW. I went on my first biking trip this year and met an old guy on an old bike saying he has 190.000km on it. I was really impressed and now i have some kind of idea what life he lives too. Thanks.
5th October 2010 at 6:49 am #
Great interview and wonderful to read some more about Heinz. Thanks for this.
5th October 2010 at 12:18 pm #
Great work Andrew and Friedel.This is great from the lord him self.I just found this on the thorn tree whilst trying to find info on entering Pakistan from China.x
13th October 2010 at 3:01 am #
Mr. Stucke is an inspiration to many cyclists all over the world. He is proof you don’t need fancy gear to enjoy bicycle touring. He also is proof you’re never too old to bicycle tour. Keep on touring Mr. Stucke!
13th October 2010 at 2:04 pm #
It was great to reading about Heinz. He and Tommy Chambers from Scotland has been idols of mine. I’m not sure if I would ever really get close to Heinz’s total mileage. I’m a little over 1/4. I started to late in life but I wasn’t called to be on the road till about 1993.
2nd January 2011 at 12:02 am #
i would have asked him about how he feels about girlfriends / family / friends. It seems a very lonely life. Does he have relationships with people? He can’t do, he is always alone…
1st February 2011 at 2:40 am #
I met Mr. Stücke in 1984 in Niamtougou, Togo, West Africa. I was sitting having coffee by the side of the road when he road up on his overloaded bike. One thing I clearly remember and have used for years: he showed me how he used evaporative cooling to keep his beer bottles much cooler than the surrounding (hot) African air. He gave me the tree-lined road postcard shown above. The meeting inspired me to ride my own 1-speed Motobecane the (relatively short) length of Togo that summer.
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Thanks for the interview and transcription. I flip through Heinz Stücke’s book whenever I visit my local bike shop. He is an absolute hero.
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