Sixty-two years ago, Colombo-born Henry Merryl Fernando heard of a fellow Sri Lankan’s feat of riding a bicycle covering a distance of 11,000 miles.
As a youth this seemed like a challenge to him, and he decided to someday attempt to break this record. As days passed he confided his wish to his best friend Ivan Rathnayake, who encouraged him in this endeavor. Henry was 20-years-old while his friend Ivan was 23.
They planned their journey and decided to cycle 14,000 miles all the way to England. Their journey would last 14 months as per their itinerary. Before they began the arduous journey, they obtained the blessings of the then Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, Sir John Kotelawala. The Prime Minister also apprised the Sri Lankan ambassadors of the countries they would pass through during their cycling trip to render any assistance to the duo.
Everything had been well planned. Two “Humber” bicycles were gifted to them by Sir Chittampalam Gardiner, a reputed entrepreneur in the country at the time. He also gifted them with Rs.1,000 each to meet expenses. They began their journey on March 3, 1955 from Colombo, obtaining the blessings of their parents, family members and a crowd of well-wishers.
They expected to cover Colombo, Talaimannar, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Arabia, Turkey, Italy, Switzerland and France before arriving in England.
It had taken three days for Henry and Ivan to reach Talaimannar. Thereafter they crossed by boat and arrived in India. From there Henry had to proceed alone in his quest as his friend Ivan stayed back in India.
It was sheer determination and Henry never looked back or faltered although he was alone. He continued cycling through the great cities, basking in the cold weather, feasting his eyes on the colossal buildings in Europe and the breathtaking views of hinterlands. One could just imagine the challenges he would have faced when crossing the borders of Arabian countries and arriving in Europe. Having been educated in Colombo schools, his knowledge of the English language no doubt would have helped him communicate with strangers and explore these countries. He remembers how surprised he was to meet his friend Ivan when he reached Rome, although he did not join him the rest of the way to England.
Henry cannot forget the difficulties he encountered in the Arabian deserts. Braving an unbearable climate and escaping the gangs of robbers who frequented the route, he finally arrived in England after 16 months of cycling. There may have been many other unforgettable incidents which are yet to be revealed by him. In one instance he remembers parking his bicycle by a wayside boutique in Afghanistan to have his lunch. When he returned, he was shocked to find that his bicycle had been taken away by some thieves. The news of his endurance and the plight he suffered in losing his only mode of conveyance spread all over that country and within moments he was grateful when the authorities presented him with a bicycle, with which he was able to complete his journey. There were news of his feat in most newspapers of the countries he passed through and even our sister paper, Sunday Lankadeepa at the time, carried a story of his untiring efforts.
On arrival in the city of London, Henry was interviewed over the BBC radio on September 12, 1956 for six minutes. He was well received by the British citizens of that time who greatly appreciated his attempt.
In London, he received the opportunity of joining the Royal Air Force and after training, was posted to Malaysia by the Air Force for his first appointment. Upon making inquiries, he found that he was given this opportunity as he was a Sri Lankan. He served in the Air Force until retirement and is now a permanent resident there. He married an Italian and is the father of four children who are also employed in England.
He visited the island recently to meet his three brothers and spent a memorable time with their families. He hopes to get back to England soon. He was sorry to hear about the demise of his friend Ivan three years ago.
Summing up his great achievement, he said “I love the country where I was born. I had an aim in life and through determination and experiencing much difficulties I achieved my goal. In the decision I took with my friend, I was able to achieve that target and bring glory to my motherland but it was regretful to note that the authorities at the time did not bother to appreciate what I did. I believe that everything happens in life only for the good of that individual.”
In conclusion, he advised youth to give first place to believing in oneself. It gives you strength and once you begin your journey, your determination and dedication will carry you through life, he remarked joyfully.