The Leicester lad who biked to Australia
Post-trip flashbacks with Ben Leo Hollis on his big solo journey, joys of spreading awareness, and the kindness of strangers.
On a summer's day in 2018, Ben Leo Hollis, 18, met his mates for a game of football at Leicester's Victoria Park. Mid-way through, he hopped on his bike, cycled away, and kept riding. Thirteen months, 31 countries, and 12,000 miles later, he'd come full circle. Back at the park where he began, he resumed the match. "As if nothing had happened," he says.
After eight months of careful planning, Ben started his solo bike journey from Leicester to Australia. to connect with his family there; to make people act on of climate crisis, immigration issues and unequal education opportunities. “One of the big things was raising money for the three charities I was really passionate about. To raise awareness for them, and an excuse to start conversations about those issues,” he says.
The modesty is striking when Ben’s talking about the fund he set up which helped him gain over £3,700 for good causes. “Sol is kind of a little thing I’ve started with my friends,” he says, revealing the plans for it to become a long-term charitable trust. So far, he’s donated to Cool Earth, Stand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI) and Camfed (dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through the education and empowerment of young women).
Still, every movement starts with a spark – an impulse. Having decided on the trip, Ben worked four different jobs while studying for his A-Levels so he could be financially independent. He was selling programmes at the Leicester Tigers, doing food deliveries, working at a pub and washing cars. His parents who were first shocked and sceptical about his plans, soon changing their attitudes from “sure mate, you're never going to do that”, to “this is pretty cool.”
It was pretty cool. Ben’s eyes sparkle when he’s bringing back to life memories of the places that inspired, impacted him the most. Inhabited by a few tribal groups, misty Meghalaya with bridges made from the roots of living trees. Tragic Sarajevo, with its haunting history and abandoned bobsled tracks from its communist past. Stunning Indonesian landscapes, and the most welcoming locals.
Yet, you need the luck to make it happen. Myanmar’s borders opened only recently for solo travellers. “When I left for my trip I didn’t think I’d be able to cross. I had no clue what I was going to do” he says. Instead, he relied on luck and the kindness of strangers. Like Tika from Padan who invited him to celebrate Eid with her family. Like everyone who hosted him. Like Arena and Eric, a German couple he bumped into and cycled beside across Europe. “There’s this international community you didn’t expect to be there and show that ridiculous kindness. One of the biggest benefits of travelling alone is that it connects you to other people,” Ben says. "Be happy to everyone, it’s worth it. People are happy back," is his mantra. Power lays in unity and a will to make an effort.
Knowledge of a few local words and an appropriate attitude can work wonders. Especially when you’re camping in the woods in Nepal and the rain is falling like rocks on your roof. Oh, no hang on, they are rocks… “The people from the road were throwing them at me. Because I think they thought I was going to set the valley on fire. As soon as I’ve shouted 'I’m a tourist', they stopped,” he says. He also mentions the damage that alcoholism does, especially in small villages. Crowded, and impossible to cycle on road in India where he witnessed some horrific car accidents.
Among all of this, the scariest places he visited were inside his mind. “Loneliness was the biggest challenge of the trip,” Ben confesses. Spending 12 hours a day there gets you nostalgic about home. You’ll miss even the grey clouds you never liked before. Finding a way to stay sane is crucial. Being alone for a year, almost all of it has really evolved me. It gave me a new level of confidence. I am self-sufficient and I can be mentally strong,” he says.
Coming back a changed man, he became aware of the importance of day-to-day interactions and blissful ignorance of modern societies. “In the west, we’re constantly suspicious of other people, we don’t start conversations in daily life because we’ve got our phones to occupy ourselves. We don’t want to intrude upon other people’s lives,” he says.
Getting to experience life at its core, a bit further away from the black screen and financial stability, taught him to look from the other perspectives – to be grateful for everything he has. Somewhere there, people don’t have the luxuries that are commonplace in the Western world. They’re occupying their time with just surviving, helping out the family. Having only the inner strength to keep going.
The strength that wouldn’t let Ben give up. “I was on my own in my tent that first night, just outside Leicestershire, surrounded by cows. I cried myself to sleep. The thought of having one year alone ahead of me was a big challenge. But I never questioned that I wouldn't finish it. I’ve never thought of quitting, seriously,” he says.
Making it to Australia and back, Ben, now 19, is currently studying Biology at UCL. He is an admirer of Greta Thunberg, being hooked on climate strikes movement. While those issues are rather distant for most involved, Ben has lived the experience. “Rainforests are amazing for the planet, not just in terms of beauty but also resources they can hold, like medicinal plants. They’re being cut down at ridiculous rates. In the countries I visited like Indonesia, most of them are already gone,” Ben says.
Even though he loves the fast-paced and ever-changing tempo of London, nothing can make up for the utopian scenery unravelling before his eyes almost every night. “After a long, tiring day on the saddle, I’d set up my tent and find a hidden spot in the forest or even just between houses. Then I’d have my little stove that used petrol to cook up my veg curry. I would just sit and watch the stars. Every night I’d sit outside. Just me and the stars above. I was lucky to have hundreds of times like that.”
There'll be a hundred more times as Ben plans for other journeys. Maybe it’ll hit home closer this time – after all, Kent in the summer-time happens to be one of the most astonishing places he’s ever visited. “When you’re travelling abroad, you realised how awesome your home is."
To donate to Solcycle, visit www.gofundme.com/f/benleohollis-thebigone.