Early morning starts were the norm for the ‘Pathways to Palestine’ quartet. It was the only way of dealing with the searing 40-degree plus temperatures they encountered in Turkey and the Middle East.
Eoghan Quinn, Ronan Sheehan, Gearóid Ó Cuinn and John Maher (apologies for last week’s exclusion, John) cycled through some of the most beautiful areas of Europe and Asia Minor during their epic 40-day cycle to Gaza.
The ‘Pathways to Palestine’ team endured daily starts at 4.30am to counter the searing temperatures.
There were tumbles and cuts along the way (“we all fell at least once,” said Ronan), drinking your body weight in water every two days and an inability, at times, to keep food down.
And, as Eoghan colourfully described, a bike-saddle conducted fight against titanic hounds on the Turkish plains, a mile above sea level, proved one of the more terrifying episodes of their journey.
“We entered this village and every single window and door we saw in the place was boarded up with wood. Wondering what the hell was going on, we slowed down to 13 miles per hour. The next minute we heard this rustling; we looked at each other, wondering what exactly we’d just heard.
“Seconds later, these massive hounds – and I mean massive – were coming towards us and we knew we had to get the hell out of here.
“These hounds were out our heels and all we could was scream. We went from 12 miles per hour to 24 in seconds heading up a hill and we had nothing left. Thankfully, the hounds had given up by then.”
Another of the unexpected aspects of the cyclists’ trip came while wheeling through Serbia, according to Ronan.
“Serbia was beautiful – very green in parts and of all the places we passed through, nothing compared to the Danube Gorge in terms of scenery. It was stunning. And the people were absolutely incredible.”
Eoghan continued: “So many people there came up to us, donating bread and food to keep us going. They were inviting us into their houses too…
“We met the Secretary of State for Serbia along with the Palestinian Ambassador for Serbia while we were there and we ended up on Serbian national television! We were on the front of one of their newspapers the following day, which was hilarious.”
If the group was surprised by the celebrity status they acquired in Serbia, nothing could prepare them for the reception which awaited them in the Syrian capital of Damascus.
There, a university colleague of Gearóid, a member of a wealthy Damascus family, had organised a fundraiser for the group.
“When we arrived in the city, we saw a poster with ‘Pathways to Palestine’ on it,” said Eoghan. “It turned out that there were posters all over the city.”
Ronan described the fundraiser with some incredulity still in his voice.
“They had the biggest band in Syria playing for us! They cost 12,000 pounds sterling to hire and there must have been around 700 people there. It was amazing.”
Said a laughing Eoghan: “We were the highlight of the evening – four lads from the Deise!”
And the surprises didn’t end there. “There was a school graduation ceremony held while we were in Damascus and we were their special guests,” Eoghan continued.
“We arrived into the school on our bikes, still in the lycra – and it was coming up to about 11 at night when we got there.
“We walked up the middle of this hall with the bikes on our backs and we walked up onto the stage where we were introduced. The whole place, about a thousand people, gave us a standing ovation which went on for five minutes. It was crazy. We all had goosebumps.
“We knew then that we were doing something right, that we were on the right path.”
Nothing could have prepared the ‘Pathways to Palestine’ team for the emotions they experienced throughout a remarkable trip, the stories they heard and the friendships forged along the way.
Winning international media recognition for their efforts and a salute from the Scottish Parliament into the bargain, the concluding moments of their journey on the Israeli/Palestinian border may in fact just be a beginning.
A photographic exhibition cataloguing their remarkable journey is due to be held here as well as in London, Glasgow and Nottingham, with all monies raised from these events will go straight to Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP).
“Since it’s gained such momentum, we’re now looking at the idea of sponsoring a student from Gaza for a scholarship which we think is the way ahead,” said Eoghan. “But it’s still in the air at the moment.”
Given the character and steely determination of those who undertook this remarkable adventure, one imagines their plans shall not be in the air for all that long.