When it comes to travelling the globe, John Etherington and Mandy Richards have probably notched up as much pedal power effort as a full time endurance athlete.
The couple have been travelling the world and hosting cycling tours for almost two decades, and have established a successful business around their passion for adventure, fitness and exploring.
Not surprisingly, the self-confessed ‘bike nuts’ are most often found out and about on their bikes. When they’re not leading or planning a cycle tour, they’re checking out new spots, mountain biking with their 10-year-old son or looking for new bike-based adventures.
John has always had a passion for adventure. Although he is a qualified motor mechanic, he began working in tourism when he was 21; as a white water raft guide and then a sea kayak guide in New Zealand, before being a tour driver in east Africa.
His affinity to Africa stretches back through his family tree, with his family history in East Africa going back about 120 years. Both John’s parents are from Kenya and many of his cousins and extended family still live there.
“Having travelled extensively in East Africa in the early 90s, I thought it would be a great idea to set up a business taking people there and it would be awesome to do so on a bike,” he says. “The idea began forming around 1997 and the first tour was in 1999.”
John set up his business Escape Adventures, becoming the first cycle tour operator in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.
The opportunity to experience travel by bike is everything, he says.
“You get to travel at the pace of the local people, smell it, taste it, meet the locals, stop when you want and get fully immersed in the country you are in.
“Every tour is different, and every day on tour is different. Some days could be as little as 20km and others up to 120km. It all depends on the terrain, road surface, climate and what else there is to do on that day. The key factor is that you can ride at your own pace and have your own unique experience.
“All of our tours are vehicle supported so that also gives the option to ride as much as you like each day. Some of our tours are camping, on others we use home-stays, yurts or locally owned hotels.”
John met Mandy in 2004 after she spotted an advertisement for a bike guide for Africa. A personal trainer and with a degree in Physical Education (Otago Uni), Mandy already had extensive tour guide experience having worked guiding on the Milford and Hollyford tracks for many years.
The couple are now partners both in life and in business. After requests from customers for more tours in different destinations, Escape Adventures now offers bike tours in Kenya and Tanzania, Madagascar, Kyrgyzstan, Cambodia, Fiji, China and Tibet, with a new tour being developed in Colombia.
“We generally lead a couple of tours in each destination each year and up to five or six in some destinations, so overall between 12 and 14 tours each year.
“Our tours have a max of 12 bikers per tour, plus two of our own Escape leaders and local crew (drivers and interpreter where required).”
For John and Mandy the thrill of exploring these countries never pales – there is always a ‘wow’ factor.
“For us, sharing it is the greatest personal satisfaction; taking people outside their comfort zone and seeing them light up with new experiences. It’s a pretty amazing job to be able to show people some of the most awesome places in the world and introduce them to the wonderful variety of people and cultures on the planet.”
John says one of the most important aspects is the fact all the tours are their own tours.
“A lot of companies re-market someone else’s tour or contract tours out to a local operator.
“However, we research the destinations, then go there personally to develop the tour. Mandy and I lead the tours or our own New Zealand-based leaders do it. This way we can make sure of the quality and qualifications of our leaders, and make sure we deliver the best tour possible for our bikers.”
He says developing a new tour can take between one and two years, from inception of an idea to taking the first group, depending on seasonal limitations.
“Once a tour is up and running, things constantly change so we need to be on the pulse in each destination.”
Bikes for the tours usually originate from New Zealand, are shipped to the destination and replaced every few years.
“That way we know we have quality bikes and they are always up-to-date and in excellent condition,” he says.
“As most of our destinations are in developing countries, sourcing decent bikes locally is not an option. Even spares, tyres, tubes etc need to be taken there from New Zealand.”
John is currently on the road again leading a cycle tour in Madagascar, before returning home for a few weeks to prepare for a trip to Kenya and Tanzania.