6 Years Cycling Solo - Interview with Heike Pirngruber
Heike Pirngruber was born and raised in Germany, and she used to work in the television industry. But in 2013 Heike took her talents as a photographer and camerawoman on an epic solo two-wheeled journey: she’s been cycling alone around the globe for the past 6 years, with no plans to stop.
“As a woman showing up on a touring bike, I am immediately different where ever I go, an outsider.”
Since discovering Heike a year ago, I’ve been captivated by her photography. Her Instagram posts are full of faces: new friends she’s made while traveling the world, alone on her bicycle. But I had so many questions about the woman behind the camera lense: who is Heike? Does she ever get scared? And after suffering adversity (sexual harassment, stray dogs, even getting hit by a car), what keeps her on the road?
I’ve been on a mission to hear more of Heike’s story for the past year… and here it is. In all her warmth, compassion, and courage, here is an exclusive peek into the solitary (and not-so-solitary) life of Heike Pirngruber: the Pushbikegirl.
Heike, what is a “pushbike?”
A pushbike is a bicycle – it’s a word used in places like the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia.
You mentioned in one of your videos that you feel lonely sometimes. How do you cope with loneliness?
Good question, with no easy answer so far other than to accept loneliness as part of the journey. Loneliness for me depends on a number of things, the country I’m in, the people I encounter and the challenges in front of me to name a few.
“A diet of shallow conversations leaves me starving. My mind craves the stimulus of good hearty conversation.”
As a woman showing up on a touring bike, I am immediately different where ever I go, an outsider. People may find me interesting, but the questions I’m asked are mostly the same ones over and over. This can be tiring and frustrating. A diet of shallow conversations leaves me starving. My mind craves the stimulus of good hearty conversation. Conversations that feed my mind and soul and help ward off loneliness.
Finding such conversation can be challenging. Lifestyle differences, language, culture, and education barriers, along with merely finding someone with similar interest. Especially with my love of traveling in remote areas where there are few people and life may be very basic. Also, people, even Westerners, I may encounter can be intimidated or lack an appreciation of someone with such a different lifestyle as mine, and sadly, some are far too quick with negative judgments.
I’ve learned to avoid the anonymity present in large cities, where it’s easy to feel you are surrounded by people you have little or nothing in common with, and is sure to bring on feelings of loneliness. Thankfully, in contrast, there is nothing to feel lonely about when I am in the bush – nature doesn’t make you feel displaced or alone.
“I’ve learned to avoid the anonymity present in large cities… nature doesn’t make you feel displaced or alone.”
You’ve spent thousands of hours traveling solo. How has this time alone affected you?
Do I see myself clearly enough to be able to answer this? I am not sure.
It is easy to say that my solo life on the road has changed me tremendously. But I guess I am still the soft soul I have always been.
I learned a lot about myself, but also plenty about others. My biggest fear is to become weird and a lone wolf, because I actually love to be among people. And I am trying my hardest to get along with everyone – which is not always easy – but this counts for every one of us, I guess.
I’ve gained confidence. I’ve improved my survival skills. I learned to accept my weakness and like myself. I stand up for my rights. And I know I can do far more than I ever thought I could.
“My biggest fear is to become weird and a lone wolf, because I actually love to be among people.”
Sharing a meal with someone is very nice – and it happens far more often than one might think. Hospitality worldwide is amazing and I have spent more time eating with others than eating by myself. I guess people at home can be more alone than I am.
Cycling solo suits me. I love to stop whenever I want to. I think I no longer would be able to make any compromises in my pace.
All in all – it became part of my life to be alone often. Sure, a partner to cuddle with would be super to have – but the right guy hasn’t shown up yet.
I would rather be by myself and live my freedom, enjoying my way of life instead of sharing it with the wrong partner who might make me unhappy.
Every lifestyle has its pro and cons.
“Sure, a partner to cuddle with would be super to have – but the right guy hasn’t shown up yet.”
How did you fall in love with bicycling?
I grew up in Germany where riding a bike is like eating ice-cream or drinking a cup of coffee. It is simply part of life.
I don’t know if I’ve “fallen in love” with cycling...my bike isn’t my lover, and it doesn’t have a name. My bicycle simply offers me the best way to explore the planet. I sometimes even dislike riding it. It is simply a “THING” which takes me from one spot to the next. But of course, I am also proud of my lovely solid and colorful bike and always take good care of it 😉
“Solo travel has been part of my life - even in those days when I worked as a freelancer. I have visited 94 countries so far and cycled in 60 of them.”
What inspired you to try solo travel?
A postcard of two Koala bears. I was seven years old when I received it and knew from that moment, I wanted to see those animals in their natural habitat. Australia was far away back then and people told me I was nuts to even consider that I might go there.
But I knew I would get there one day – the thought became my biggest childhood dream. On seeing those two adorable creatures it was even clear that someday I would see them all by myself.
At nineteen I finally flew to Australia and ever since, travelling solo has been part of my life - even in those days when I still worked as a freelancer. I have visited 94 countries so far and cycled in 60 of them.
“Fear happens in your mind – fear is hardly ever reality.”
What were some of your biggest challenges when traveling alone?
Loneliness as mentioned above. Mainly no one to exchange thoughts with. Lack of motivation. Boredom. Homesickness.
Sexual harassment. Armed assaults. Being run over by a car. Aggressive dogs & kids. Fear in dodgy places where men drank a lot.
What are some of your greatest rewards?
Freedom, growth in knowledge, satisfied curiosity. Living an exciting life.
There is nothing more rewarding than sitting around the campfire and enjoying the end of an exciting day while looking into the fire and enjoying a simple meal.
“As a woman alone, people don’t need to fear my presence. I am given a lot of help and invited very often.”
What are the benefits of being a female traveler?
As a woman alone, people don’t need to fear my presence. I am given a lot of help and invited very often. I can knock on doors and ask for shelter, and 99% of the time I am welcomed.
People want to protect me as a woman alone.
I also have the benefit of being able to have contact with the women – especially in Muslim societies were men have no access to the females of a family.
I also believe that I have easier interactions with authorities. Men in most countries are not used to a self-confident lady on a bicycle. I can usually play my “female card” to get my way.
“I have the benefit of being able to interact with the women – especially in Muslim societies were men have no access to the females of a family.”
Fear is a natural human response to the new, unknown, or unexpected. When do you experience fear in your travels? How do you cope with fear?
Fear happens in your mind – fear is hardly ever reality. The more you expose yourself to unknown situations the more you know there is almost nothing to be scared of.
But of course, I’m fearful sometimes. No one wants to get raped, run over by a car or bitten by a malaria infected mosquito. But I learned over the years to avoid the biggest dangers and to follow a few rules to minimize risk.
There is no guarantee in life not to get in trouble – no matter where you are. Just because you know your home far better than any other place doesn’t mean it is safer – it is only less intimidating.
Has your perspective on humans changed since you began this journey in 2013?
YES. The world is an amazing place and full of wonderful and supportive people. If you think it’s dangerous, then simply turn off the TV and your phone and you will be surprised how hospitable and lovable people are. No matter where. No matter what religion, no matter their financial situation.
Humans are not bad – humans are mainly delightful souls who want to live in peace and harmony just like you and me.
“You’ll be surprised how hospitable and lovable people are. No matter where. No matter what religion, no matter their financial situation.”
Do you plan to continue cycling around the world indefinitely, or do you have an end goal?
I would love to step on every country on this planet, but it isn’t my life goal at all. If it happens, fine – if it doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world either. And it doesn’t have to be on a bicycle, but is has to be environmentally friendly!
For now, I am in Africa, and I would love to see as many countries on this huge continent as possible. Then I will see what’s next.
It can easily happen that I might get up one day and toss my bike in the ditch and say the heck with it. I might also ride as far as Egypt and circumnavigate the entire continent. “Inshallah,” as the Arabs say: "If God wills".
“For now, I am in Africa, and I would love to see as many countries on this huge continent as possible. Then I will see what’s next.”
I’ve learned to take it easy. Plans are limitations: they help motivate us, but they also limit your spirit and soul. Being open and seeing what happens suits me better. But I always know the direction I am going (and for the moment I am heading south to Cape Town, and it’s still a bloody long way to get there). Time is not important: the journey is the destination.
What can readers do to support you on your travels?
Thanks for this question. I am a blogger. I share my life on the road with my readers and fans on social media and hope for a donation in return. It is actually the only income I have. You can donate here: www.paypal.me/pushbikegirl Every donor is promised a personal picture postcard from wherever I happen to be at the time. A Big Thank You!
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