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Cairns’ cycling cyclone

He has been locked in detention in The Central African Republic on suspicion of being a member of the press and had an Iranian revolutionary threaten to shoot him after wrongly assuming he was an American citizen. Clearly, Aveo The Parks resident Robert Waldthaler is anything but your typical retiree.

When it comes to cycling, Austrian Robert Waldthaler is about as sacrosanct as they come.

For more than four decades he has traversed the globe as a professional cyclist, visiting 143 countries and being exposed to some of the most intriguing places on the planet. But now he has given up the work that consumed much of his life, he limits his travels to largely domestic adventures in and around Cairns.

But to assume that the 77-year-old professional’s retirement means he spends less time cycling is to do him a great disservice, with Robert and wife Renate – whom he met in 2003 while on tour in the Algerian Sahara – typically clocking up around 300-400 kilometres on their bikes each week. By early next year, he is expected to surpass the 500,000-kilometre mark with grand plans to have cycled one million kilometres before leaving his mortal coil.

As someone who didn’t even learn to ride a bike until aged 12, he has clearly come a long way.

Having trained as a pastry chef in his native Austria, Robert – named Tilmann at birth – has always been a keen traveller, using his unique cooking skills to help subsidise the costs of what were up until that point fairly traditional adventures.

In 1975, while working and travelling around Australia, he met a Belgian cyclist who inspired him with his stories on the road, so much so that within two years Robert had returned home, sold many of his possessions and equipped himself with a custom-built touring bike that took 12 months to build and 3200 German mark to acquire.

He intended his first trip to last three weeks, instead it has lasted 49 years.

“My longest cycle tour has been from Invercargill in New Zealand to North Cape in Norway. During the tour I travelled four years and 55,000 kilometres. To get the money needed for such a long trip I worked during the tour in the Antarctica, New Zealand, Australia, India, Pakistan, Italy and Norway as a pastry chef but I also took on casual work.”

A trip around the world along the Equator from Dakar in Senegal back to Dakar consumed two years of his life and resulted in a further 35,000 kilometres on his trusty bike.

The art of fuelling

Robert admits that when he started cycling back in 1977, he “didn’t know very much” about cycling and living outdoors. Time on the road has since taught him the importance of refuelling his body as well as not putting himself in unnecessary danger.

Robert says most touring cyclists develop their own habits of fuelling their bodies during longer rides and he is no exception.

Being a lacto-vegetarian helps as this means that he is able to eat dairy products and eggs which simplifies travelling.

“Oats, brown rice, couscous, dried fruit and vegetables, honey, sprouting seeds, lots of water and a few other things are the basic nutrients I’ll take with me. [I’ll visit] market stalls, bazaars and restaurants to source salads and meals which give me a healthy boost, vitamins and veggies. Fast food, snacks and all sorts of other junk food are not on my bucket list.”

In addition, he ensures he also carries a tent on each adventure, arguing that while it is not always possible to use the tent, in certain places it is “safer, better and cheaper to sleep inside a room”.

“Listening to the locals and asking them for advice is very important because they know the area and what is happening.”

So many highlights

A naturally curious person who speaks, reads and writes in German, French, English and Italian, Robert says his skills have enabled him to enjoy many once-in-a-lifetime-type experiences the highlights of which include a raft of popular travel and dining companions including Bob Marley, the Indian PM Indira Gandhi and the King of Tonga.

“[In addition I] travelled by bicycle through Iran during the Iranian Revolution and during the war in Iraq. An Iranian woman revolutionary guard wanted to shoot me as she assumed that I was an American. My Aussie passport saved my life.”

Another time things got a bit dicey was when Robert found himself locked up for three days in what he terms “one of the most corrupt countries on earth” after being found carrying a camera and an Italian press identity card.

But it wasn’t just being exposed to corrupt officialdom that helped make Robert’s time on the road enjoyable with floods in Cambodia and Thailand, an earthquake in Costa Rica, and volcanic eruptions in both Sumatra and in Bali adding to his extensive memory bank.

Ultimately, however, Robert says while meeting the odd celebrity or breathing in the beauty of his surrounds has been great fun, the learnings taken from his time on the road have given him far more than just pictures to look over with friends.

“I have used the roads of the world to discover the path to myself. In all these years on the road, I became aware that every good trip starts with gathering information about the country, culture and people. This type of information is vital as it makes travelling so much easier. In order to experience adventures, I still have to leave room for on-the-spot decisions and changes to the original plans because situations can change from one minute to the next.

Lessons learned

Having established a reputation as an author (he’s now written 17 books documenting his travels), presenter and equipment tester during his travels abroad, Robert was able to attract sponsorship from a variety of corporates and successfully negotiated the receipt of 14 bikes, all of which he was able to keep long after his latest tour had ended.

This, he says, afforded him the opportunity to go some of the way to repaying the people who have assisted him on his escapades.

“Travelling through countries in Africa and Asia I found that the people have been very kind to me. Sharing the little they had with a world cyclist, offering me a place to stay, share their stories, problems, sad times but also moments of joy. Never asking anything from me. Most of my 14 bikes I have offered as souvenirs to real good friends or they have been auctioned off for a worthy cause, helping to build a school in India, helping children through the Care for Rare Foundation. This is my way of saying ‘thank you’ to the people of the world who have been so kind to me.”

Robert, who fresh from an interview by Joan Duplock for Aveo The Parks’ village newsletter, was about to set off on another cycling adventure to Western Australia, says while he has been able to cross off many countries on his bucket list, there are still a few remaining.

His ultimate goal, however, is unlikely to be one achieved with pedal power.

“During my travels I have seen so much poverty, injustice and suffering in the world, that I feel very privileged to live in Australia and we can enjoy the little we have. Due to the many trips I have done I love travelling but at home at the Aveo The Parks Community in Cairns I am at ease which adds quality to our life. It is a privilege to be at home with my wife, turn on the tap for a shower, cook a good meal and sleep in a comfy bed, lock the doors and let the world out there turn around with us on it.

“My wish is very simple but not very practical. People have not understood how to best use the resources available to us. The future holds a lot of adventures for us all and I hope that we’ll find a way to manage them peacefully and with less violence.”

Original article from Chapter Magazine.

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