Kelli Jackson: How I Rode a Unicycle the length of Taiwan
Unicycle. It’s a word that often invokes circus images. It’s not something you’d associate with anxiety. But that’s exactly how it was that I came to ride a unicycle for eleven days and 430 kilometres, from the north to the south of Taiwan, in November 2018.
A few years ago, life threw me some difficult moments - as it does to us all, and I decided in celebration of making it through that year, I was going to do something epic. So unicycling it was. Except, I couldn’t actually ride a unicycle.
"In celebration of making it through that year, I was going to do something epic. So unicycling it was. Except, I couldn’t actually ride a unicycle."
If you ask yourself what the most favourite times of your life were, and dig into why, you’ll find some remarkable insights. So it was for me with cycling everywhere as a teenager and then finally getting a passport at age forty and travelling for two years. Those things came together to give me the idea of an epic cycling tour. Only I didn’t consider it that epic because everyone cycles around the world these days, right? How could I make it a little bit harder? Take one wheel away.
If you’ve ever tried to ride a unicycle, you’ll understand why there are hundreds for sale at half-price, all with the description ‘used once’ on internet for-sale sites. They are incredibly hard to learn - that is why. Not just hard, they are the ultimate test in persistence and patience.
For some people - professional dancers, Olympic gymnasts and Cirque du Soleil acrobats - well, those people could probably learn in around three hours. But for this overweight, middle-age smoker who couldn’t even walk up a hill, it was the most impossible and daunting thing ever.
"for this overweight, middle-age smoker who couldn’t even walk up a hill, it was the most impossible and daunting thing ever"
Over a two year period, I stopped smoking, lost weight and I got really fit. I persisted with that damned unicycle. And persisted. I spent hours holding onto railings, walls, bridge handrails, riding up and down next to tennis nets. Until finally, after a year of trying, I could ride 300 metres without stopping. Which was fabulous, except I was then mentally imprisoned to riding next to handrails out of comfort. In October 2017, I rode the unicycle 162 laps of my local park for a total of 211 kilometres raising money for a charity, but I rode that entire distance next to a safe handrail. I didn’t need to touch the handrail to ride, but riding away from it felt like certain death.
Finally, in November 2017, I rode away from the handrail for the first time ever and rode across my local park, to be forever more ‘handrail free’.
So how did I come to ride a unicycle the length of Taiwan?
When my partner sent me a link in an email to Cycling in Taiwan tours (she later declared it was a secret, selfish move because she was visiting Taiwan and wanted company), I happened to Google ‘Unicycling in Taiwan’. I discovered a group of school children had unicycled around the entire island back in 2011, and of course I thought ‘well if they can do it, so can I’.
Prior to that, I knew absolutely nothing about Taiwan except that most things from hardware stores seemed to be made there. A few more Youtube video views, and it looked like Taiwan was a great place to ride bicycles.
I booked an air-ticket and gave myself just three weeks to get a bigger wheel built, to learn how to ride on said bigger wheel, to work out a way to carry gear on a unicycle, decide on a route, consider accommodation, and the usual activities associated with travelling overseas. No point overthinking or over-planning these things.
"I (...) gave myself just three weeks to get a bigger wheel built, to learn how to ride on said bigger wheel, to work out a way to carry gear on a unicycle, decide on a route..."
What I later learnt was that the school children had someone carrying their luggage, which made the 4,500 metre climbs on the East Coast of Taiwan a bit easier for them. And they could all freemount (get up on the unicycle without holding onto anything). That was still a problem for me. I couldn’t get up without holding onto something, so I decided to take a folding, carbon-fibre hiking pole as an emergency mounting back-up plan. And then checked on street view on Google Maps for some of my route, to see if there was anything to hold for mounting.
In October 2018, I set off from Taipei with my brand new wheel, 3.8kgs of luggage, and a lot of enthusiasm and energy. I deliberately set a smaller distance ride for the first day (21kms), which was all on nice smooth bicycle path, and was well within the Taipei subway system. This was just as well because trying to get up and ride with 3.8kgs of luggage attached to the unicycle, when I’d never ridden any distance with luggage before, was proving so difficult I didn’t think I’d be able to start Day Two.
The first night, I lay absolutely every item I had out on the floor, and picked through it all to to reduce my gear down to the absolute essentials. I caught a subway back to the hotel that was holding my suitcase, and dropped off around 2kg of gear.
On Day Two, I set off again with one set of clothes, my toothbrush, rain-jacket, passport and water and rode to the start of the expressway on the West Coast of Taiwan. The three-storey high expressway. The expressway filled with double-trailer trucks travelling at 100 kilometres per hour, the expressway with no bike lane. The expressway that had a large pack of wild dogs living under it.
You know that saying about ‘your view depends on your perspective’? After crossing the service road under the freeway, whilst pondering how on earth I was going to actually get up onto it without being killed in traffic, suddenly, a bike path next to a river materialised! I thoroughly enjoyed the first five kilometres of that bike path, relaxed and finally thinking that this was what the trip was all about, when the bike path suddenly ended and took me through a series of curvy, hilly, narrow streets in a little village, and popped me out onto – another highway filled with trucks. This was to be a common theme in Taiwan.
There was a decision point here for me. I could either push on and see how I’d go, or I could sulk about it and give up. What I love about adventuring is that it forces you to be incredibly pragmatic. It makes you insanely present in the moment, and intensely focused on the very thing right in front of you. It brings out your inner weirdo-talk-to-yourself voice. In that moment I talked to myself and said ‘well, let’s go then’.
"adventuring (...) makes you insanely present in the moment, and intensely focused on the very thing right in front of you. It brings out your inner weirdo-talk-to-yourself voice."
I will point out that before Taiwan, whilst I’d done up to 40 kilometres in one ride on bike paths, I’d perhaps ridden a maximum of 3 kilometres on roads. Quiet roads. With no traffic. And without any luggage. Here I was, in a country of 23 million people about to embark on a 400-plus kilometre ride, in crazy traffic.
I followed that freeway for 430 kilometres over eleven days. Occasionally there was a lovely, quiet service road all to myself underneath the freeway, shaded in the mornings from the 30 degree Celsius oppressive Taiwanese heat. Occasionally there wasn’t the service road, and I found myself two stories up in a dedicated scooter lane, with not much separating me from falling over the edge if I missed my mounting push-off. Occasionally the freeway just stopped or ran out, and I’d have to wind my way back onto some other provincial highway in-between rice paddies and industrial areas.
Taiwan has over 4,200 7-eleven stores and I’d plan my daily ride around those to use the toilets, air-conditioning, cold drinks and power points. There was also a whole middle section of Taiwan, with not much at all except freeway.
To mount, I used sign-posts and light poles, bridge handrails, a pile of old tyres, the backs of parked trucks, a police vehicle and once, a man’s shoulders.
"I used sign-posts and light poles, bridge handrails, a pile of old tyres, the backs of parked trucks, a police vehicle and once, a man’s shoulders."
I hitchhiked inland to guesthouses, twice, because a ‘Hitchwiki’ site (who knew this existed!) said Taiwan was very safe. It felt safe, and I read it was safe, so out came the sign my host had written in Mandarin, and within a few minutes, a very kind truck driver veered 40 kilometres in the opposite direction to get me to where my accommodation was.
I saw a multi-story church the shape of a high-heeled shoe, visited two-hundred-year-old salt flats, and many incredible Buddhist temples. I rode through a very frightening tunnel with trucks speeding inches away from me, I broke a land speed record when a pack of wild dogs chased me, I saw two dead vipers, beautiful sunrises, rode past nature reserves, beaches and rice paddies. I ate amazing food. It only rained on me for two days. A routing error saw me ride right through the very middle of Taiwan’s third largest city of 2.7 million scooters, oops, people, in Kaohsiung. And I did my longest ride ever of 50 kilometres in one day.
I learnt confidence and a whole bunch of interesting lessons for when I do my next ride, like: ‘Don’t overpack, appreciate that Google Maps street view is probably ten years old, people are generally kind wherever you are, language barriers really aren’t that difficult if you have Google Translate, and you can outride a dog chasing a unicycle, although it’s pretty damn scary’.
"you can outride a dog chasing a unicycle, although it’s pretty damn scary"
People gave me thumbs up whilst passing me on their scooters, lots of ‘Jai-ho’ shout outs, free food and drinks, and after arriving at my final destination in Fang-Liao in the south (at a 7-eleven of course), an incredibly kind family arranged for their friend to drive me an hour and a half to the high-speed train station.
Once home in Australia, I Googled ‘flat, no wind’ places to cycle. Now, I’m assembling a bunch of super interesting rides to do over the next few years - all on the unicycle, although next time hopefully I can mount without that guy’s shoulders!