Dean Nicholson: ‘How a kitten taught me so much about living’

He was determined to cycle solo around the world. But then Dean Nicholson found himself adopted by a four-legged stray who was equally determined to change everything.

Dean and Nala
Dean and the stray who refused to leave his side. Image: © Dean Nicholson

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.

From the beginning I had a feeling that is what brought Nala and me together. It was as if she’d been sent to give me the direction and purpose I’d been missing. For both of us, our friendship was simply meant to be.

I’d set off on this journey around the globe to shake myself free from the routine of my life [Dean had given up his job as a welder] and achieve something worthwhile. 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.

Nala in bike
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

On that particular morning, I packed up my tent in a small village near Trebinje [in Bosnia], as day was breaking. The cobbled streets were almost empty. I bumped across the stones, then set off on the road that led into the mountains and the border into Montenegro.

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 bike wheel. Then I realised what it was. Miaowing.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. A scrawny-looking kitten was scampering along the road, desperately trying to keep up with me.

I hit the brakes and pulled up to a stop, half expecting it to run off. But 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.

Nala face
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

This cat lived in a normal home, I thought. Perhaps it had escaped or, more likely, been abandoned at the roadside. Left up here to its own devices, the kitten would die from cold or starvation. But while my heart was telling me to pick the kitten up, my head was saying something more sensible. If I was going to make it to Montenegro that night, I couldn’t let this slow me down. I got back on to the road and pushed my bike along, letting the kitten run alongside me. I felt certain it would scamper off. But after five minutes, it was clear it wasn’t going anywhere. More to the point, it didn’t have anywhere to go.

I sighed. My heart had overruled my head. 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 put it in one of the panniers. Its little face poked out, looking at me uneasily, as if trying to tell me it was not comfortable. But 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 jumped out of the pouch, crawled up my arm and scampered on to the back of my neck. I felt it wrapped around me, its head nuzzled into the nape of my neck, breathing gently. Soon, to my amazement, it was fast asleep. I knew from my GPS that the border would be drawing near. In the next couple of hours, I’d have to make some decisions. 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.

Dean and Nala in tent
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

‘So, what are you going to do with her?’ the English-speaking vet in Budva enquired. I’d known the answer since our meeting back in the Bosnian mountains. ‘I’m going to keep her,’ I replied. ‘Thought I’d take her around the world with me.’ He looked startled, but produced a form: ‘You’ll need a passport then. Border guards don’t like undocumented animals. So, you’ll also need a name.’

Late that afternoon I took the kitten for a ride along the coast to a pretty cove where she stood on a large rock jutting out to sea, gazing out like a proud little lioness. One of my favourite films as a kid was The Lion King. And my sister’s favourite character was Simba’s childhood friend Nala. Looking it up, I saw that Nala means ‘gift’ in Swahili. That clinched it. We’d only been together a day, but the little kitten already felt like a gift.

*******

We all get moments when we feel as if our world has been flipped on its head. I had a moment like that the day Nala and I arrived in Santorini. It was 1 April 2019, and for a while I was convinced it was an April Fool’s joke.

Nala on paddle board
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

I had been staying in Athens when I was offered a job working in a kayak business. I needed the money to fund our trip, so Nala and I took a ferry to the island. There had been no phone reception on the ship and my battery was low, so I switched it on, in case my new boss was trying to call me. It started making all sorts of pinging noises. There were too many messages and emails. My notifications from Instagram had gone crazy.

I opened the page and took a look. When I’d left Athens, I’d had around 3,000 followers. I now had nearly 150,000 people following me. Some photos of Nala had been liked tens of thousands of times. The explanation came soon enough. One of the emails was from a friend in my home town of Dunbar: ‘Dean. Have you seen this?’ She included a link to a video on The Dodo’s Facebook page. (The Dodo – a well-known animal website – had contacted me via Instagram and I had a chat with them about finding Nala, which they used alongside my own footage from Instagram.) It was titled: ‘Guy Biking Across The World Picks Up A Stray Kitty’. Looking closely at the screen, I could see that it had already been viewed three million times. I had a suspicion that this video was going to reshape the landscape of my life.

Dean and Nala on bike
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

*******

In February this year I was in Budapest, planning a trip through Siberia to China and Vietnam. I had a tourist agency advising me about a Russian visa, but a new wrinkle appeared. Some kind of flu or virus was causing travel problems in China.

I was beginning to sense that this could seriously affect my trip, but I received an email from the Russian embassy in London. The letter of authority from the Russian government had arrived. All I needed was to come to the UK, go through an interview and I’d have a visa for a year. I pushed my worries aside – who knew what was going to happen? This was my guarantee that I’d get around the world at last.

I asked Julia – who worked in the tourist industry in Budapest (we’d struck up an instant friendship, partly because Nala liked her so much) – whether she’d be willing to watch Nala for a couple of nights.

Nala and laptop
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

‘Be a good girl and I’ll see you soon,’ I said, stroking Nala’s neck and giving her a little kiss.

I really hoped that was true. My plan was to get in and out of London in about 36 hours. I’d stay one night, then fly back to Nala in Budapest the next. But at the Russian embassy in London, they told me I’d have to wait four days for my visa. Things were changing – fast. It was like I was playing a game of Russian roulette. If I delayed my return, the travel situation in Hungary could change suddenly. The shutters could come down and Nala would be marooned there, while I’d be stuck in the UK. We might never see each other again. I couldn’t take the gamble.

As I left the embassy, I walked past a newspaper stand and saw headlines about a European lockdown and borders being closed. I jumped on the train to Gatwick Airport, thoughts flashing through my mind. Should I have hung on for the visa? Was I doing the right thing? The more I scanned the news, the more dire things seemed. It was as if the whole world was being shut down.

Nala and hot air balloons
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

I sent a message to Julia in Budapest. She replied instantly. On the local news in Hungary that night, there had been talk of the borders being closed. It might even happen tonight, she said. The plane landed close to midnight local time and I went straight to Julia’s flat. It was crazy. I’d never been so eager to see someone in my life.

I’d hardly got through the door when Nala exploded out of Julia’s arms. She clung to me so tightly I could feel her breath on my face.

Dean and Nala with bike
Travelling through Austria this August. Image: © Dean Nicholson

The next morning, the government in Budapest announced that it was closing Hungary’s borders with immediate effect. They weren’t allowing people in or out.

I couldn’t believe how close I’d come. I’d made it by the skin of my teeth.

*******

The offer of a temporary home came out of the blue, in the form of a message from a lady called Kata, who followed me on Instagram. She and her husband and children had a house about half an hour outside Budapest, but they were going to be stuck in quarantine in the UK. I’d be doing them a favour by keeping an eye on their property.

There was a silver lining, of course. While our world was shrinking, so too was the space between me and Nala. It didn’t seem possible, but we became closer than ever.

I had plenty to keep myself occupied. For months I had been meaning to go through my archive of photographs. I had hundreds, if not thousands, stashed away on my phone and laptop: finding Nala on the mountain top in Bosnia, our early days together in Montenegro and Albania, our time in Santorini, and our travels through Turkey. The man with whom I shared an orange in a refugee camp, the family who helped me down off the mountain in Turkey…

Nala in bath tub
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

Nala had taught me so much. How to enjoy the most precious moments in life. How to be myself sometimes; to do what I feel like doing and tune out everything else. But how to be of use, too. She had paved the way for me to help a lot of people, and I intended to carry on doing so.

And, of course, she had taught me a lot about friendship. A good friend is there when it counts. I like to think I had been there for Nala. I would never forget a night in the mountains in Turkey when we were camping and she alerted me to a bear, or whatever it was stalking us outside the tent. Where would I be without her?

I was so relieved to get back on the bike in June. We spent the first few weeks cycling around Slovakia, Austria, Switzerland and Germany before I tore the ligaments in my ankle in Austria and was off the bike for a few weeks. We went back to Dunbar in August to surprise my gran. She’s 91, and had been desperate to meet Nala. It was worth all the effort just to see her face when I walked into our family home with Nala.

Nala on wall
Scenes from Dean and Nala’s photo album of their travels. Image: © Dean Nicholson

So far we’ve raised just over £100,000 through my website, which I’ve distributed to more than 40 charities around the world, sending donations as far afield as Brazil and Thailand, the USA and Australia. Most of the charities are working in animal welfare or protecting the environment – the causes that are closest to my heart. They all need as much help as they can possibly get during this pandemic so that’s a real motivation for me to get back on the road. Next, I’m hoping still to cycle to Russia and then on to southeast Asia, but given the situation changes so fast because of coronavirus who knows where I’ll end up.

As long as Nala and I are together it doesn’t really matter. I’ve been blessed with the perfect travelling companion. I love her not only for the joy I drew from having her alongside me on the bike each day, but also because of what she had added to my life; the new sense of responsibility, the purpose and direction she’s brought me. She set me on the right path.

Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye. We’d see where the road took us. As long as we stuck together, I knew we’d be fine.

Follow Dean on Instagram @1bike1world and 1bike1world.com.

This is an edited extract from Nala’s World by Dean Nicholson, which will be published on 29 September by Hodder & Stoughton, price £18.99. Order a hardback copy for £12.99 until 11 October at whsmith.co.uk by entering code YOUNALA at checkout. Book number: 9781529327984. For terms and conditions go to whsmith.co.uk/terms.