Exhibition: Travelling from Alaska to Oaxaca by Bike

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Airport security and missed train departures don’t need to be part of a multi-country journey. Equipped with a bicycle named Ramona, an orange surfboard and a pocket-sized camera, Tom Wolff’s travel snapshots capture a more laidback, joyous version of travel.

Words and Photography by Tom Wolff

Tom’s latest exhibition features a selection of the best photos taken on an eighteen-month bike trip through the Americas. Here he shares what he’s learned along the way.

Gobe:

In your own words, can you tell us who you are and what you do?

Tom:

I guess I do a little bit of everything. I work in outdoor education but I’ve been a freelance writer for about six years. And I’ve been taking photos for a long time, on film for about five years.

Gobe:

And tell us about your photo exhibition!

Tom:

It’s basically all photography from a bike trip I did, which started in Anchorage in Alaska in June of 2017. And then it quickly became a surf trip. I started with just a bike, a backpack and some paniers. And after about two months I ended up staying with this wonderful lady called Deb & her husband Ed in the city of Victoria, and I decided I’d build a trailer for my bike so I could carry a surfboard as well. 

It was actually because I’d watched a movie called Slow is Fast, a short film by Patagonia, which features a guy called Dan Malloy and a couple of others who did a bike trip from Northern California to Mexico. And I just copied his design. So it quickly turned into a surf trip, and remained a surf trip.

“I want the exhibition to get people riding bikes, because bike travel is an amazing way to see places.”

Gobe:

And what were each of the destinations you hit along the way?

Tom:

I went North for about a month, the most Northern point I got to was Dawson City. And then I turned South and followed the coast, so I went through southeast Alaska on boats – ferries and a fishing boat, and then I got to the US and rode all the way from Washington down the west coast of the US, down Baja California and then covered the whole coast of Mexico. 

So I went through Washington, Oregon, California, and then the whole coast of Mexico. The original plan was to go all the way to Patagonia, right down the bottom, but I just got to Mexico and decided I would stay there. 

“The things people did for me, and how far they went out of their way to help me would never have happened if I was driving a car.”

Gobe:

Why did you decide to stay in Mexico?

Tom:

I lived there maybe five years ago when I first started learning Spanish, and now I’ve been fluent for three or four years so I’d always wanted to go back to Mexico. For me, if I wasn’t going to live in Australia, Mexico would be the part of the world I feel most comfortable in. I really love it, it’s just such an amazing place, especially the south. More than anything, it’s the people, and the food is insane, the waves are also very good and the landscapes are pretty incredible. 

Mexico has got a large Indigenous population, so there’s a lot of really interesting history, and in a more intangible sense, the energy is pretty incredible and there’s a lot of traditional stories about that area of the world having a strong spirituality about it. I think that’s why I really connected with it. And being able to speak the language helps as well.

Gobe:

Do you think your feelings about Mexico influenced the exhibition? Were the people and the spirituality of the place key themes?

Tom:

It’s funny, usually I take photos of people, because I don’t feel like I’m a very good landscape photographer. But as it turned out, the photos in the exhibition – the big framed ones – there aren’t that many with people in them. But because I had about two hundred photos to choose from, the trick was finding photos that told the best stories of the trip. I really wanted to portray the differences between each place; Alaska was so different to Mexico and everywhere in between. So I felt like I wanted to pick photos that were good photos, but also had a bit of a story behind them.

“I have one particular memory of getting off my bike off the highway in Oregon on a freezing cold day and just stepping off my bike, putting my wetsuit on, and paddling out with nobody around.”

Gobe:

And what was the creative process of pulling together together the exhibition like?

Tom:

Yeah, I’ve really enjoyed it. I know why artists don’t make any money, firstly, or not many do. But for me, it’s been cool to learn that process. And I’m lucky that my Mum has curated exhibitions before, which has helped a lot – she’s pretty good with the ideas. 

I got home about a year ago, so for me it’s going to be a really nice opportunity to reflect. The whole process has been a real reflective process of like, ‘this is what I did and this is what it meant for me’, and to have that opportunity to share it with everyone else is really the aspect of exhibiting that is most appealing to me. It could be my last exhibition, I have no idea, so I want to enjoy it. 

Gobe:

And what do you hope people will think or feel after going to the exhibition?

Tom:

I had a lot of people over the course of the trip that had the realisation that they could go on a trip like that, and it’s not that hard. I’d like to hope that it makes people realise that there’s no reason you can’t go and do things like that if you want to. For me, it was a long time coming up to it, but I know four or five people that ended up doing bike trips as a result of meeting me. So that was really cool to stay in contact with those people and have them go on a trip and probably inspire other people to do the same thing. So I think probably more than anything, I want the exhibition to get people riding bikes, because bike travel is an amazing way to see places. 

Gobe:

What do you like about bike travel?

Tom:

It’s obviously better for the climate, but that’s not the reason I did it. You’re much more connected to your immediate surroundings than being in a car. And people are much more generous. A big part of it was the little experiences I would have, where you’d pull up on the side of the road and instantly someone would come up and start talking to you because of their curiosity. The things people did for me, and how far they went out of their way to help me would never have happened if I was driving a car. The generosity I got from people, everywhere, was so humbling. People that you wouldn’t always expect, either. 

And obviously it’s good for your fitness, and good for checking the surf actually! I have one particular memory of getting off my bike off the highway in Oregon on a freezing cold day and just stepping off my bike, putting my wetsuit on, and paddling out with nobody around, it was so good. 

“There was a guy in Alaska, on the third day of my trip and he was saying, ‘once you go on a bike trip, you’ll never look at roads the same way’, because your awareness of the landscape is so enhanced.”

Gobe:

And did you experience any difficulties along the way while riding a bike?

Tom:

The obvious ones… I didn’t really know how to change a tyre before I left. So bike maintenance was a big problem at the start. And traffic – I has one encounter with a truck that was pretty scary. 

I started out in Alaska, kind of in the bush, so the main thing to worry about was bears and not leaving your food in your tent. And then as I got further South, and there was an increasing number of humans around, I realised that, the areas with the most people around are some of the most difficult parts because you’re not allowed to camp in certain places and do certain things. So I found it much easier out in the middle of nowhere where I was just worrying about food and water, rather than when I was in cities with heaps of people and traffic lights and worrying about finding accommodation. Usually I’d either sleep in my tent or stay with people I’d met, or stay in places using Warm Showers, which is couch surfing for people that ride bikes. I used that heaps and met a lot of cool people too, people who knew all the local info on places to ride.

Gobe:

And if someone was considering doing a bike trip like yours, what would be your advice to them?

Tom:

My advice would be that anyone who knows how to ride a bike can go on a bike trip. I’ve always said just do it. Even if it’s three days, or a week. There was a guy in Alaska, on the third day of my trip and he was saying, “once you go on a bike trip, you’ll never look at roads the same way, for the rest of your life”, because your awareness of the landscape is so enhanced. I met a lot of people who were passing in cars and I’d ask, “what’s the next 50ks like?” and they’d say “oh it’s pretty flat”, but anyone who’s ridden a bike knows there’s no such thing as a flat road. But yeah, my biggest piece of advice is to just do it. 

“Being a bike trip, I didn’t really want to take a big camera because weight was already a massive issue. But that camera has served me so well – it takes such nice photos for a point-and-shoot.”

Gobe:

And what do you think you took out of your bike trip most?

Tom:

To be completely honest, it reinforced my faith in humans, in so many ways. Just because of  the generosity I received from so many people across such a large part of the world. My trip wouldn’t have been what it was without all of the people I met. When I started the trip, I didn’t have any social media, and then my Mum started an Instagram on my behalf and started uploading photos that I was sending her. And then I decided about six months into the trip that I would actually start using it myself, and it became a really good tool for meeting people. And a lot of people I met that way, I’m still in contact with. 

Gobe:

Do you think you’ll do another trip like this?

Tom:

I’d love to. I don’t know where. I was actually considering a horse trip – there’s a guy who lives in Byron who’s done the trip I’d like to do, which is through Patagonia on horses, with surfboards. I think the plan is to try that. But I’ll definitely do another bike trip as well. 

Gobe:

Where else do you think would be cool to do another bike (or horse) trip?

Tom:

I’d love to do one in Europe because of all the bike trails. My friend has done one in Kyrgyzstan in the Middle East that looked pretty interesting. I’ve also though Rural China would be a sick one, in the mountains of China. And South Africa would be pretty good – there’s apparently massive shoulders on the roads, so that’s always a plus if you’re on a bike trip. New Zealand would be cool, Japan too. I’ve only got one lifetime.

“Each of the photos are so connected to really strong memories that you get to a point where you can’t figure out which ones are good and which ones aren’t.”

Gobe:

What do you look for in a place to do a bike trip?

Tom:

Everywhere has got its pros and cons, and I guess it depends on what trip you’re after. Some people just want to ride for twelve hours and two hundred kilometres a day. I’m more interested in riding fifty kilometres, taking it slow and meeting people along the way. And I think pairing it with surfing works quite well, so somewhere coastal. 

Gobe:

Back to the exhibition before we go, what gear did you use to shoot the photos?

Tom:

I actually used a point-and-shoot camera. It’s a Minolta – a Zoom 70. It was the first film camera I ever bought and I got it for $4 from the tip shop in Hobart. I still use it now. Being a bike trip, I didn’t really want to take a big camera because weight was already a massive issue. But that camera has served me so well – it takes such nice photos for a point-and-shoot.

I think it was more about the kind of film I got. I got some beautiful film a couple of times; I got a really nice Japanese roll in Canada, and I shot a few rolls on Portra. That camera is very dependent on the type of film you put in it. 

But in terms of gear, it was pretty minimal for weight reasons. I’m actually putting the camera in the exhibition, because people sometimes assume that I’m using a really nice camera, but all of the photos in the exhibition were shot with the Minolta. I wanted people to know that I used that camera for the entire trip and the photos have turned out nicely. 

Gobe:

And is there a favourite photo of yours in the exhibition?

Tom:

Yeah there is. It was taken the day after my birthday in April of last year, and it’s just a photo of a couple of surfers walking along the beach at a distance. I’d just had three days of the best waves, and I just snapped this photo and put my camera away because I was so hungry – I was aching to eat food because I’d been surfing for eight hours, and the photo just turned out… I think it’s the best photo in the exhibition. Each of the photos are so connected to really strong memories that you get to a point where you can’t figure out which ones are good and which ones aren’t, but that one’s probably my favourite.

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Tom Wolff

I grew up in Lennox Head on the north coast of NSW and after many years away I’m thinking it’s where I may end up. After studying an arts/commerce degree in Sydney, I moved to the island of Tasmania to work as a bushwalking guide for a few years. Now I’m working with kids in the bush in an outdoor classroom. I like taking photos on 35mm film and I also like to write. My work has been published in North Journal, Byron Arts Magazine, The Saturday Paper, Global Hobo & Southward Journal.