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On the trail of Hannibal

13 January, 2012

Hannibal’s extraordinary invasion of Italy over 2,000 years ago is the stuff of legend. Intrigued by the journey, Aussie brothers Danny, Ben and Sam Wood followed Hannibal’s 4,000km route by bike, and managed to persuade the BBC to make a TV documentary of their adventure. Sam Wood shares their amazing story with Ride On.

“E` vietato – no shorts allowed!” We were surrounded by a patrol of towering Italian Cuirassiers, the President of Italy’s personal bodyguard (they have a minimum height requirement of 190cm). Not only were we dwarfed, but we felt even more underdressed than usual in this the most fashionable of countries. We were grubby after six weeks of bike touring through Spain, France and Italy.

The Cuirassiers guard the Quirinale Palace, which contains the only existing bust of the Carthaginian General Hannibal. In 219BC he had led his huge army and 37 elephants from Cartagena in southern Spain all the way up and over the French Alps and into Italy in an attempt to defeat the powerful Roman Republic. We had followed his route so far on bikes and now, 2,500 long kilometres later, found ourselves clacking around the drafty side entrance of the Quirinale Palace in our riding shoes, being barred entrance to see the inspiration for all that hard work.

Following the 4,000km route that Hannibal marched was an idea born of my love of cycling and history.  Always up for adventure, I proposed to my brothers that we take on this epic journey on bikes. And seeing as we had had great fun filming home movies as kids about Chuck Norris, zombies and King Arthur, why not film it as we go?

All being in Europe at the time, we sent in a proposal to the BBC, which was so well received that they commissioned a documentary series based on the idea! We were utterly shocked and perhaps slightly apprehensive – we were complete novice documentary presenters.  My eldest brotherDanny had at least done TV news reporting but was no keen cyclist. Ben and I had done plenty of riding but had never stood in front of a camera hoping to talk semi-intelligently about anything. Following Hannibal’s army’s epic journey on our bikes with a BBC film crew in tow was a dream come true.

So we trained hard and got our equipment together. Paul Hewitt, of Lancashire, custom built some brilliant touring bikes for us which we fitted out with huge panniers to house all our gear. We would attempt to experience the trip as close as possible to how Hannibal’s men may have done (which in all honesty, was not very close) but we travelled under our own steam, camped in tents, cooked meals and carried everything we needed. And once the BBC put Ben and I through a crash course in TV presenting we all of a sudden found ourselves arriving Murcia airport in southern Spain.

Our location manager Jason met us there – parking our support vehicle, which doubled as the crew’s living quarters, illegally but conveniently right outside the front door of the airport. I initially thought perhaps this is what happens when you are on a film shoot – you do whatever you like and ignore all the rules for the sake of your bloated ego.

Then I noticed Jason was busy fending off Spanish parking police. It turned out the camper van was just too big to get into the car park. We hastily packed up and headed off to Cartagena, lucky to escape without a ticket. On reaching our first campsite, we spent the first few sweaty hours on location getting our bikes back into one piece, all the while joking about how we were going on a paid holiday.

These jokes paled rapidly as we started to understand what it took to put together a TV documentary. The actual filming required patience, imagination and expertise – qualities the BBC crew had in abundance. Hours of wide shots, close shots, wide non-sync (no sound), GVs (general vision), PTCs (pieces to camera), POVs (point of view), pulling focus, tilt shots, tracking shots . . . What we imagined as a physically strenuous but mentally fun touring bike holiday quickly became an intense film shoot with a strenuous touring ride squeezed in around it.

Early starts and late finishes designed to make the most of the good  filming light meant riding in between, during the hottest hours of the day, and  having much less time than we had anticipated to cycle the allotted distances, so night time catch-up riding was a regular necessity.

The first leg of the trip took us from Cartagena, at the bottom of Spain, up the coast to cross into France over the Pyrenees. In hindsight, this leg was easy – respectful drivers, mostly good roads, lovely scenery but often touristy towns, and no great hills to climb.

We stopped briefly in Alicante as La Vuelta (Spain’s equivalent of the Tour de France) rolled into town. Matthew Lloyd (Silence-Lotto) very graciously got up extra early the next morning to chat to us before Stage 10 of the race. Able to lift his bike literally with one finger, I tried to convince him into a swap, but he was having none of it, and as he went off to breakfast with his teammates we lumbered off in the opposite direction thinking what a nice bloke he was and dreaming of light road bikes.

The Pyrenees passed by surprisingly quickly as we skirted the beautiful Mediterranean coast, but once over the mountains we had the mistral wind shrieking around our ears and seeming to push our laden bikes backwards, leaving us physically and mentally broken and with tens of kilometres to catch up on.

Over the whole trip, however, we were incredibly lucky with the weather; only three days of rain out of eleven weeks on the road, the heat of September in Spain nowhere near the highs of July and August, and winter hit the French Alps just as were leaving them behind – a metre of snow filling the pass I had traversed just the week before.

We were also incredibly lucky mechanically – plenty of punctures and blown tyres, one wonky rear derailleur and a pedal fell off, but no significant breakdowns over the 4,000km.

The Alps were one of the highlights of the trip – definitely the hardest but also the most rewarding. With a sibling race up Mont Ventoux warming up our climbing legs, and being pretty fit by then, we were excited to be there, but after a week of long mountain hauls and huge amounts of filming, often arriving at 10 or 11pm exhausted and famished, we were on the brink of collapse.

We did, however, enjoy some beautiful quiet night-time rides with huge shadows of anonymous mountains and the eerie feeling of vast chasms at the edge of the road. These evenings you could easily imagine Hannibal and his men looking at the same night sky and thinking the exact same thing – what on earth am I doing here?

At this point we split our trio as we each explored a possible route Hannibal may have taken over the final passes into Italy – the greatest mystery of his journey. We each found ourselves looking for clues as to Hannibal’s passing, and being the youngest I got Col du Traversette, a walking trail which reaches 3,000 metres and has snow all year round. My bike survived the drag but it took me days to physically recover.

Back on our bikes and forty kilometres all downhill from the pass at Col Agnel meant that before we knew it we were in classic northern Italy. We headed south through rolling Piedmont away from the winter cold, through Emilia Romagna and into the beautiful countryside of Tuscany and Umbria.Hannibalspent five epic days traversing the Arnoswamps here – his men couldn’t rest in the muddy marshes and Hannibal himself contracted an eye infection that led to the loss of one of them.

We then headed to Rome and to our confrontation with the Presidential bodyguard. To finally be in the presence of Hannibal after a few thousand kilometres of cycling in his honour was strangely moving. But there was no time to stop and relax ­– we had to get on and film our PTCs, POVs and GVs!

After Rome we crossed to the east coast towards Taranto in the heel of Italy’s boot.Italyseemed to be changing as we travelled further south. The sophisticated north was long gone and we rode through hundreds of kilometres of olive groves and vineyards often guarded by unchained dogs which would liven up a long stretch of road. It’s surprising how fast you can go with a salivating dog on your wheel.

To finish the journey we first had to get toHannibal’s homeland,Tunisia, a ferry ride away. We wanted to get to Zama, a long day ride west of Tunis, and where the final battle between Hannibal and the Romans took place.

Hannibal had returned from Italy and lost a battle at Zama against an invading Roman force and retreated to the coast, much as we had done. For a time he was involved in Carthaginian politics, but after some political intrigue he was forced from the city and spent the rest of his years roaming the Eastern Mediterranean, looking for allies to continue his fight against Rome.

Eventually the Romans caught up with him and surrounded his house. He took poison, saying proudly, “Let us put an end to the life that has given the Romans so much anxiety.”

We didn’t take poison, although we sometimes wished we could have administered some to each another! After 11 weeks, nearly 4,000km and over 200 hours of footage we were finished, mentally and physically, but hugely satisfied with our accomplishment and relieved at just having survived it!

A year on, the BBC has aired On Hannibal’s Trail five times in the UK, and the ABC is in the process of reviewing it, and hopefully procuring it for Aussie viewers to enjoy soon too.

My legs have recovered and only have to pedal me to work and back, and the mental exhaustion rapidly transformed into such thoughts as, “Which other great commanders or epic journeys can we follow?”

We now have combined with a bike tour company to put together some great epic expeditions and classic tours – Hannibal is at the top of the list, and we plan to be back on his, as well as maybe some other great historical leader’s trails, next year!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Dave Jones permalink
    14 January, 2012 12:31 pm

    This show is on BBC 2 starting January 20th… would be great if it came to Australia!!

  2. Chris permalink
    5 November, 2012 12:20 pm

    It is on in Australia now if you have Foxtel…. 9:30pm friday nights Nat Geo Adventure channel…

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