At the age of 72, one woman has cycled from Sweden to Cyprus. But now she needs to get home. ALIX NORMAN finds out what was behind the epic journey
“Do you have a boat?” asks Dorothee. “Cyprus is lovely, but I am longing to get home!”
Over the past 10 months, the 72-year-old has cycled through more than 20 countries, travelled some 10,000 kilometres, and become a minor celebrity. But now, it’s time to go home. And, as an advocate of sustainable travel, she’s adamant that a plane won’t do: it’s bike and boat if she’s to leave the island!
A figure of some renown, Dorothee Hildebrandt is a climate activist from the town of Katrineholm in Sweden. Almost a year ago, she decided to attend COP27 – the annual UN Climate Change Conference, this year held in Egypt. But for this eco-warrior, the carbon footprint associated with flying simply wasn’t an option. So she bought herself a hot pink ebike (affectionally known as Miss Piggy!) and set off on her epic journey by pedal power alone.
“I started in July in Sweden,” reveals the venerable cyclist. “I cycled down through Denmark, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Then into Asia, through Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. And by November, just in time for COP27, I was in Sharm el-Sheikh.”
Dorothee had been planning to demonstrate at the conference. But when she arrived, she found things weren’t quite as clear-cut as she had imagined. “There were rumours that there was a special area for demonstrations and protests,” she explains. “But none of us there for that purpose ever found it!”
Instead, Dorothee discovered that the message she wished to convey – stop climate change – had been achieved through another, entirely unexpected avenue: the media.
“Throughout my expedition, I had been contacted by journalists who wanted to feature this 72-year-old woman who was cycling across a continent alone!” she says, clearly still surprised that her journey is of such international interest. “When I arrived at the conference, there were many media outlets who wanted to hear more about my trip, so I took this chance to put across my message.”
As a minor celebrity, Dorothee was also contacted by various local dignitaries, and invited to visit a number of the pavilions. “I met some very interesting people, and heard about new techniques,” she says. “I was also asked if I’d like to cycle alongside the President of Egypt – a decision I didn’t make lightly given his politics. But I did it, reasoning that it would be good publicity for methods of sustainable travel.”
Although Dorothee was dissatisfied with the outcomes of COP27 – “I’m glad money was pledged to help poorer nations fight climate change, but there are so many other things that must happen” – she admits she did achieve her aim. “Through the media, my message of climate awareness reached far more people than I could have dreamt of,” she acknowledges. “That wasn’t at all what I was expecting!”
Interviewed in almost every country she visited, Dorothee has become a bit of a sensation. And yet she’s firm in the fact that neither her journey nor the acclaim has changed her in any way: “I’m still the same person as I was before,” she asserts. “Yes, I have many new experiences. But I still have the same morals and motivations as before. I still take life one day at a time!”
It’s a fitting outlook for someone who has braved solo bike travel at the age of 72, and is decidedly not on the wealthy side. “I saved and saved before I began, and am incredibly grateful for all the donations I continue to receive on my GoGetFunding page. But the journey was still much more costly than I expected…”
Staying with friends or in hostels, relying on couch surfing, ‘Host A Sister’, or the biking community of warmshowers.org, Dorothee has been saving money wherever possible. “But still, it’s been financially challenging,” she admits.
Avoiding Syria for safety reasons, Dorothee was forced to take a €200 ferry from Turkey to Lebanon – an unforeseen expense that decimated her funds. “Then, when I got to Jordan, I didn’t have enough to pay the €60 entry into the country. But I was very lucky,” she adds. “The border guard took pity on me and Miss Piggy. He did a quick whip-round, and even other travellers crossing the border contributed! I was immensely grateful.”
Such kindnesses, say Dorothee, have been the hallmark of her epic journey. “You wouldn’t think a 72-year-old woman would feel safe crossing an entire continent alone,” she says. “But honestly, people are kind wherever you go. Many times, in many countries, if someone couldn’t host me, they’d pay for my hostel or refer me to a friend. When hills were too steep for Miss Piggy and me, kind strangers offered a lift. The only time I’ve felt in danger was in Turkey and Jordan when I was chased by wild dogs,” she adds. “And both times, passers-by helped me escape.”
Having cycled back from COP27 through Israel and Palestine, Dorothee arrived in Cyprus at the start of April. Staying at the KATKA Hostel in Paphos, she’s enjoying the island hugely. But, by this point, she’s longing to get home.
“Of course, I will cycle back,” she says. “Change has to happen at all levels – from politicians to the public.” Even at Christmas when Dorothee was in Alexandria and missing her family, she refused to take a plane to Sweden. “This is not my message, this is not what we must do to help our planet,” she asserts.
But, with no regular ferry to Greece until the end of May, Dorothee may well be in Cyprus for a little longer. She’s already looking for work that can fund her stay on the island. But her desire to return home after almost a year on the road is entirely understandable – hence the appeal for a boat.
“Maybe,” she says, “there is someone with a boat? Someone who is sailing to Greece and could take me with them? I would like to keep moving; it will take many more months to cycle back to Sweden. And I am longing for home.”