With Garry Jenkins
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Three months after leaving home, on a remote road in the mountains between Montenegro and Bosnia, he came across an abandoned kitten. Something about the piercing eyes and plaintive meowing of the bedraggled little cat proved irresistible. He couldn't leave her to her fate, so he put her on his bike and then, with the help of local vets, nursed her back to health.
Soon on his travels with the cat he named Nala, they forged an unbreakable bond — both curious, independent, resilient and adventurous. The video of how they met has had 20 million views and their Instagram has grown to almost 750k followers — and still counting!
Experiencing the kindness of strangers, visiting refugee camps, rescuing animals through Europe and Asia, Dean and Nala have already learned that the unexpected can be pretty amazing. Together with Garry Jenkins, writer with James Bowen of the bestselling A Street Cat Named Bob, Dean shares the extraordinary tale of his and Nala's inspiring and heart-warming adventure together.
FINDING THE ROAD
There is a wise old saying where I come from in Scotland: Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye. Some things in life are destined to happen. What’s meant to be, is meant to be. It’s fate.
From the beginning I had a feeling that is what brought Nala and me together. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that we were at the same remote place at the exact same time. Or that she arrived in my life at such a perfect moment. It was as if she’d been sent to give me the direction and purpose I’d been missing. I can never know, of course, but I like to think I brought Nala what she was searching for, too. The more I think about it, the more convinced I become. For both of us, our friendship was simply meant to be. We were destined to grow up and see the world together.
Three months before we met, in September 2018, I had set off from my hometown of Dunbar on the eastern coast of Scotland to cycle around the globe. I’d not long turned thirty and wanted to shake myself free from the routine of my life, to escape my little corner of the world and achieve something worthwhile. It’s fair to say it had not been going according to plan. I’d made it through northern Europe, but my journey had been a series of detours and distractions, false starts and setbacks, most of them self-inflicted. I’d planned on completing the trip with a friend, Ricky, but he’d turned around and gone home already. His departure was probably a good thing, if I’m honest. We were not the best influence on each other.
By the first week of December, as I cycled through southern Bosnia en route for Montenegro, Albania and Greece, I began to feel as if I was finally making progress. I was ready to have the experience I’d wanted. Long-term, I dreamed of making it through Asia Minor and along the ancient Silk Road and into Southeast Asia, from there down to Australia, across the Pacific and up through South, Central and North America. I pictured myself cycling through paddy fields in Vietnam and across deserts in California, through mountain passes in the Urals and along beaches in Brazil. The world was my oyster. The journey would take me as long as it took. I had set no timetable for myself. I didn’t need one; I had no one to answer to anymore.
On that particular morning, I packed up my tent in a small village near Trebinje as day was breaking, around seven-thirty. Aside from a few barking dogs and a dustcart, the shiny cobbled streets were almost empty. I bumped across the stones, the rattling of my off-white bike shaking me out of my sleep, then set off on the road that led up into the mountains and the border into Montenegro.
Snow and sleet showers were forecast for the next day or so, but the skies were clear and the temperatures mild. I was soon making solid progress. After a frustrating few weeks, it felt good to be back on the road and cycling freely. I’d spent much of the past week in plaster, recovering from the leg injury that I’d picked up jumping off the famous Stari Most bridge in Mostar, a few hours back down the road in Bosnia. It had probably been a foolish thing to do. The locals had advised against it during winter when the river was running deep. But I’ve been prone to doing foolish things all my life; once a class clown, always a class clown.
As far as I was concerned, my big mistake was to listen to the guide, who persuaded me to use a different technique than the one I used to jump off the cliffs back home in Dunbar. I’d hit the freezing cold water with my legs slightly bent. I knew I’d done something wrong the moment I came out of the river. A doctor told me I’d torn the anterior cruciate ligament—or ACL—in my right knee and would need to remain in a plaster cast for three weeks.
I’d cut it off after only one. I’d been too impatient to hang around for longer and I left Mostar before my next appointment at the hospital. So as the sun rose up ahead of me and I made my way up the long, slow climb into the mountains that morning, my main concern was the same as it had been since I’d returned to the road—not to inflame the injury in any way. I knew that my knee was okay as long as I didn’t move it from side to side.
I was focused on pumping my legs rhythmically up and down in the same plane. I soon settled into a nice routine, and it seemed to be going fine. I was feeling confident that I might get fifty or even a hundred miles under my belt.
By mid-morning, I had entered a mountainous region on the southern tip of Bosnia. It felt a long way from civilization. The last town of any size had been ten miles further back down the road. I’d ridden past a quarry of some kind a few miles later, but it was deserted. I was on my own. The spiraling road wasn’t especially steep; it was more of a long, slow, gradual climb, which suited me fine. There were sections where the road fell away, too, giving me much appreciated breaks from cycling. The views were spectacular; I was riding along high ridges and looking up to soaring, snowy peaks. It was exhilarating.
I felt so good, I decided to put on some music. The sound of “Come Home,” a new song by one of my favorite artists, Amy Macdonald, was soon blaring out from the speakers I had strapped to the back of my bike. I must have been in high spirits, because I began singing along to the chorus.
On another day, the lyrics might have been designed to make me feel homesick. And there was a moment when I did think about my mum and dad and my sister back in Scotland, waiting for me to come home one day soon. We were a close family and I missed them, but I was enjoying myself too much to dwell on it.
Home will have to wait a while longer, I thought to myself. Of course, it never occurred to me that something else might be waiting for me, a little closer than home.
I was riding along another gently rising section of road when it happened. At first, I wasn’t quite able to make out the faint, slightly high-pitched noise that seemed to be coming from behind me. For a moment I dismissed it as the squeaking of my rear wheel or a loose fitting on the bulky panniers that held most of my clothes and other gear. I’d apply some oil when I had my next break. But then, as I stopped singing and the sound became clearer, I realized what it was. I did a double-take. It couldn’t be, could it?
It was meowing.
I turned and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. A scrawny, gray-and-white kitten was scampering along the road, desperately trying to keep up with me.
I hit the brakes and pulled up to a stop. I was shocked.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I said.
Further down the road, the hills had been dotted with small goat sheds and farms, but high up here in the mountains, I’d not seen another building for miles. There was barely any traffic around. I couldn’t fathom where it had come from, or more to the point, where it was going.
I decided to take a closer look, but by the time I’d parked the bike and climbed off, the cat had skipped off the road, through the metal crash barriers and into some loose boulders. I scrambled down and drew close. It seemed obvious to me that it was a kitten, no more than a few weeks old perhaps. It was a scrappy wee thing. It had a long, slim frame, big, sharply pointing ears, spindly legs and a thick tail. Its coat was thin and weather-beaten and was flecked with hints of rusty red. But it also had the most piercing, huge, green eyes, which were staring at me as if trying to work out who I was.
I approached, half expecting it to be feral and to run off when I got nearer. But it didn’t seem worried by me in the slightest. It let me stroke it on the back of the neck, leaning into me and purring lightly, as if it was grateful for the human contact and attention.
This cat lived in a normal home, I thought. Perhaps it had escaped or, more likely, been abandoned here at the roadside. I could feel myself growing angry at the thought of it. I could also sense my defenses crumbling.
“Poor wee thing,” I said.
I went back to the bike and opened up one of the panniers. I didn’t have much food on board, but I decided to spoon out some pesto that I had brought with me for lunch. I smeared the chunky, red paste onto a rock and let the kitten dive in.
It did so as if it hadn’t seen food in a week, absolutely wolfing it down. I’d been posting the highlights of my journey mainly for friends and family on Instagram and decided to film this odd encounter on my phone. I might share it with them all later. The kitten was certainly photogenic and it almost seemed to be playing to the camera as it scuttled around the stones at the roadside.
The truth, unfortunately, was far less pretty. Left up here to its own devices, it would die from cold or starvation. It could get run over by one of the giant trucks that occasionally went past. Or even get taken by one of the birds of prey that I’d seen hovering over the mountain peaks. It was so small and delicate, an eagle or buzzard would easily be able to swoop in and pick it up.
I’ve had a soft spot for animals since I was a kid back in Scotland and have always been drawn to waifs and strays. At various points I’ve kept gerbils, chickens, snakes, fish, even stick insects. Once, while still at school, I raised an injured young seagull for seven weeks during the summer holidays. The bird became almost tame and my mum and dad still have a photo of me walking around with it on my shoulder. It flew off eventually, healed and healthy, on the day before I went back to school.
Animals being animals, my efforts to help them didn’t always pan out. While working on a farm, I made the mistake of taking home a pair of piglets whose mother had died. I put them in my bedroom under some headlights to keep them warm. What an idiot. They ran riot, burying themselves in my clothes and making a mess everywhere. As for the noise—from the squealing sounds they made, you’d have thought they were being murdered. It was the worst night of my life.
I’d always thought of myself as more of a dog than a cat person. I imagined them to be aggressive creatures, but this one looked vulnerable and innocent; it wouldn’t hurt a fly. But, while my heart was telling me to pick the kitten up, my head was saying something more sensible. My trip had already contained enough drama and I’d now got some momentum going. If I was going to make it to Montenegro by tonight, I couldn’t let this slow me down.
I got back onto the road and simply pushed my bike along, letting the kitten run alongside me. I don’t know why, but I felt certain it would soon get bored, see something else to play with and scamper off. But after five minutes or so, it was plain to see it wasn’t going anywhere. More to the point, it didn’t have anywhere to go. The rocky, scrub-lined landscape was harsh and, if the weather forecasts were to be believed, might soon be covered in snow. It wouldn’t last a day up here, I reckoned. If that.
I sighed. My heart had overruled my head. There was no other option.
I lifted the kitten up and carried it over to the bike. It fitted easily into the palm of my hand and weighed next to nothing. I could feel its ribs poking through. I had a “tech” pouch at the front, where I kept the drone I used to make videos and take photographs of my journey. I cleared it out and put it in one of the panniers. I then put a T-shirt in the pouch for a lining and placed the kitten gently inside. Its little face poked out, looking at me uneasily, as if trying to tell me it was not comfortable. But there was nothing more I could do. Where else could I put it? I got going, hoping it would settle, but it was soon clear the kitten had other ideas.
I’d barely gone a few hundred yards when it caught me by complete surprise. Before I could do anything, it jumped out of the pouch then crawled up my arm and scampered onto the back of my neck. It then made itself at home. I felt it wrapped around me, its head nuzzled into the nape of my neck, breathing gently. It wasn’t uncomfortable or distracting in any way; it was a nice feeling, truth be told. It was obvious the kitten was comfortable too, so I pressed on. Soon, to my amazement, it was fast asleep.
This gave me a breather. A chance to take stock and decide what to do now. I was immediately torn again. On the one hand, while I’d been enjoying being on my own, it was good to have some company. The kitten was hardly a heavy load. It would be entertaining—of that there was no doubt. But on the other hand, it wasn’t part of my plan. I’d had too many moments like this, I scolded myself. I was being distracted again.
As mid-day approached the sun was still climbing into the gray-blue sky. I knew from my GPS that the border would soon be drawing near. I’d have to make some decisions. Big ones.
Deep down, though, I had a suspicion that I’d made the main one already.
Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye.
It was fate.
It took another hour and a half to reach the border, but my new passenger remained clamped to my shoulders throughout, snoozing away, totally oblivious to everything. If only I could have felt so relaxed about life right now.
Weaving my way up the mountain road, my mind was working overtime. I was sure that I’d done the right thing. I couldn’t have left a vulnerable little creature in such a dangerous place. But at the same time, I was being nagged by doubts. What was I going to do when I reached the border crossing? And what was my plan beyond that? I hadn’t bargained on having a cat as a co-pilot.
I briefly convinced myself that I should declare the kitten to the authorities. I’d be honest and simply explain what had happened. I’d found it at the roadside and was going to take it to a vet. Surely they’d be sympathetic? It wasn’t as if I was trying to bring through something sinister. It was only a kitten, for heaven’s sake. But when I thought it through, I realized that wasn’t going to work. There was a reason that every country had rules on the movement of animals. They could carry diseases across borders and kittens were notorious for picking up illnesses. It might need to be put into quarantine; they might even have to euthanize it. I really didn’t want that to happen.
For a while, I thought about getting around this by claiming it was my own cat. But I had no paperwork, no medical certificates to vouch for its health. So that was a non-starter too.
I saw that my only option was somehow to slip the cat into Montenegro unseen. I’d work out my next move after that.
I passed a sign: five kilometers to the border. I stopped at a rest stop on the side of the road. A part of me was still hoping to find a loophole, a workaround. So, as a last throw of the dice, I pulled up a map on my phone; there might be a small mountain road or trail that didn’t have border guards. But the map showed there was no other route into Montenegro. And besides, it was a stupid idea. What would happen if I was pulled over by police and had no official record of entering the country?
Get real, Dean, I told myself.
There was no avoiding it, I’d have to go through customs and get past the border guards. But how precisely was I going to smuggle a kitten across an international border?
That was the question.
At the height of my partying days back in Scotland, I’d had some experience slipping weed and alcohol into music festivals. I’d hidden stuff in my shoes, in my headband, in all sorts of places, with mixed success. I’d been busted a couple of times, but got away with a slap on the wrist. This was different.
Officials in this part of the world carried guns.
I sat at the side of the road, staring at my bike, hoping for a brainwave. I couldn’t slip the cat into the panniers at the back. Apart from anything else, there was no room. They were stuffed full of my gear. For a moment I considered putting on the heavy jacket I had packed away. I could tuck the cat inside. But again, that was a daft idea. The chances of a wriggly, nervous kitten sitting there quietly were virtually zero. It would want to say hello to the border guard, guaranteed.
So my only real option was to zip the kitten up in the pouch at the front of the bike and hope the border authorities didn’t notice it. That wasn’t going to be easy. The wee thing hadn’t stayed quiet before, so why would it do so now? But I had no choice. I had to take the risk.
I played with the kitten for a while in the hope I’d exhaust it. There were some long-stemmed daisies growing nearby. I grabbed a few and let the kitten chase the stringy stems around. It went crazy, running around in circles and springing up and down as if it was on an invisible trampoline. For a while I despaired. It wasn’t slowing down at all; the cat was an insatiable ball of pure energy. The Duracell kitty. But then, as if by magic, after about twenty minutes its batteries ran out and it lay on some rocks next to me, as if ready to snooze again. It was time to make my move. “Okay,” I said, steeling myself. “Let’s do this.”
I was encouraged to see a sudden flurry of traffic heading toward Montenegro. If I was lucky, maybe they’d still be there when I passed through. They might distract the guards, make them less interested in me. No such luck. When we reached the border about ten minutes later, there wasn’t a single other vehicle in sight. It was only me. Or me and my stowaway cat, to be precise.
The crossing was a modern construction, a series of barriers and booths stretched out under a metal frame with a brick building and some offices attached. I pulled up alongside one of the booths, being careful to park the front of the bike past the window, so that it was out of the guard’s eye-line. The kitten was still snoozing, but I was paranoid that it would wake up and start meowing. So I kept my sound system playing at a low level. The young customs official was behind a glass partition, which was a help. With luck, he wouldn’t hear the cat, even if it did start making a noise. It would be drowned out by the gentle thud, thud, thud of my music.
The guy appeared totally bored. He flicked through my passport casually, not even bothering to check my photo or ask any questions. He then reached for his stamp and searched for a clean page to mark. I tried to remain calm and kept smiling, looking at him directly in case he tried to make eye contact. We were nearly through. But then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the pouch. Its surface was rippling and, at the point where I’d left the zip open, the kitten was trying to push out its paw. It was also meowing. Loudly.
My heart nearly jumped out of my chest. Somehow, I managed not to swear, which was a feat for me. I forced myself to hold my nerve and kept looking toward the guard. For a moment all I could hear was meowing. There was no way he wouldn’t pick up on it, I was convinced of it.
I’m no great believer in spirits and guardian angels. But one of them must have been watching over me at that moment, because it was then that a small truck suddenly appeared. It was a battered old vehicle with a noisy exhaust. The truck quickly drowned out the meowing—and almost everything else.
The official stamped the passport and handed it back with barely a glance of acknowledgment. I could only have been at the window for a minute, but it felt like an hour. I pushed off, not even daring to look back behind me. My elation was short-lived. We’d left Bosnia. But now we had to tackle the border into Montenegro. Leaving a country was one thing, entering quite another. This would be more challenging, I knew it.
Sure enough, the second border had more of a military presence. There were a couple of guys with guns walking around a large truck that had been pulled over.
I cycled steadily and went through the same process again, placing the pouch as far from the window as possible. But this time I took extra precautions. As well as turning the music up a wee bit, I put my finger into the pouch every now and again to let the kitten play with it. A couple of times it dug sharply into my fingers, but I tried not to flinch. It wasn’t easy. Its little teeth were like needles and they really stung.
This guard was a lot more attentive. He held the photo ID section up and looked at me. He stroked his chin as if to indicate my beard was a lot thicker than it was in my passport photo. I nodded and smiled. He didn’t speak any English, so I wrapped my arms around myself as if to indicate it kept me warm. He just nodded.
The sound of his stamp punching into my passport was the most wonderful thing I’d heard that day. I climbed on the bike and pushed off past the barrier and down the road, feeling like the weight of the world had been lifted off me. I was ready to celebrate and get the kitten out of the pouch. But as I was about to pull over, I turned a bend to discover—to my horror—there was another checkpoint. This was one was smaller and less intimidating. But it still might catch me out. I approached it slowly, praying that I wasn’t going to be third time unlucky.
Don’t do anything stupid, Dean.
I was about to bring the bike to a stop again when a guard emerged from a small booth. He was on his phone and seemed preoccupied. He simply waved me through, barely offering me a second glance while he talked away. I gave the guy a nod and a thumbs-up, then pushed on.
I was tempted to put on a sprint, but thought better of it. I didn’t want him to think I was some kind of felon, rushing away from a crime scene, even though—technically speaking—that’s precisely what I was.
A few miles on from the border, I came to a stretch of open countryside where some major roadworks were under way. The construction team had obviously taken the day off; there was no sign of anyone, and the diggers and tractors were parked up. I pulled off the road. My knee was complaining after the long climb. I also needed a breather, to calm my nerves and weigh things up after the morning’s dramas.
I sat down on the tracks of one of the diggers and let the kitten explore. It was soon dashing around, getting excited about a patch of grass here and a pile of concrete curbstones there. It didn’t know what it was looking for, nor did it much care. The poor thing was having fun; it was certainly overdue some.
I took a couple of pictures of the cat then spent a few minutes on my phone, scrolling through a website that had a list of vets in Montenegro. The best one seemed to be in the coastal town of Budva, a few hours down the road. It was touch and go whether I’d get there in time tonight, but I decided it was worth a try.
Before hitting the road again, I decided to have something to eat, spreading some more pesto out for the kitten at the same time. For a few minutes I sat there, soaking up the winter sun, but also mulling over what had happened today so far. It had been an adrenaline rush, that was for sure.
I was distracted by the sound of a car engine. I turned and saw a battered, old silver Volkswagen Golf emerging onto the main road from a small lane that led to some fields. There was a young lad at the wheel. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen or nineteen years old. He had a mate with him, and loud music was booming out of the window. They were laughing and waving and shouted something at me. As they disappeared down the road, I smiled to myself. It was as if I was watching a scene from my past. My dad used to have that exact same car, and my journey to this place may well have begun at the wheel of it, on a long and eventful night four years earlier.
It was the sort of stupid stunt that had been typical of my life for the past decade or so. Alongside me in the car that night, as was often the case when I was up to no good, was my longtime friend Ricky. We’d been partners in crime—lovable rogues, we liked to call ourselves—for ten years or so, since my early twenties. We regularly hung out, usually smoking weed and getting up to mischief. Ricky and I shared the same taste in music, had a similar outlook on life. We were both party animals—free spirits, I guess you might say. We didn’t do things by the book.
That was certainly the case that night. We borrowed my dad’s car without telling him our plans. We then drove about an hour and a half from Dunbar up to a field in Kinross, more than sixty miles away. But it wasn’t any old field. It was going to host the big T in the Park music festival in a week or so. We went most years. It was one of the highlights of our summer, a long, sunny weekend watching some of the biggest bands around while smoking and drinking to our hearts’ content.
Our crazy plan was that this year we’d bury some weed at a little spot of open land that we’d be able to recognize when we wandered into the festival later. We’d dig up our secret, personal stash and—hey presto—we’d be sorted for the three days of the festival. We thought we were geniuses. Except we weren’t, of course; far from it.
We’d driven in the middle of the night to make extra sure we weren’t spotted. The organizers hadn’t started building the site yet, but we knew from experience where the perimeter fence and stage was likely to be. Having found the right place for our burial in the beam of the flashlight, we headed straight back down the highway. As the only insured driver, I’d driven up and back again but had been working all day, so by the time we were half an hour or so from Dunbar, I was nearly falling asleep.
I remember closing one eye. The next thing I knew, we veered off the road and hit one of those raised platforms where police cars sometimes watch the traffic. The impact shot us into the road, where we hit the central barrier then started flipping over and over. We tumbled down a thirty-foot hill into a farmer’s field. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, as if we were in a movie. I can still recall how the airbags came up and hit us in the face, and being tossed around as if we were in a tumble dryer. Most of all, I remember us coming to a halt and Ricky and me sitting there upside down, with the roof of the car caved in to within centimeters of our faces. We hugged each other and then sat there, dazed, smeared in blood from a few small cuts. Shaking but, incredibly, otherwise unharmed and so glad to be alive.
Surviving a serious car crash is a life-altering experience. You feel like you’ve cheated death, been given a second chance at life. It was certainly a big turning point for me; it changed my perspective. It gave me a real motivation to do more, to experience more. I kept telling myself not to waste a single day. So when, early in 2018, Ricky first floated the idea of us doing some traveling, my ears pricked up straight away.
- “There are moments of tension, like when Nala can’t be found for a whole morning, and profundity . . . The writing is more like people you just met at a hostel telling you about their travels after a few pints. . . Nicholson is at his best when he tells the story of a man finding a sense of purpose from an unlikely (and adorable) source…charming.”—New York Times Book Review
- “Charming.”—USA Today
- “A gorgeous book . . . complete with photos that will melt your heart.”—The U.S. Sun
- “Feel-good… who doesn’t love a good story about a cat who travels the world.”—Bicycling Magazine
- "Charming."—New York Post
- On Sale
- Sep 28, 2021
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing