“Trip into Africa? By bicycle? With your family? For a whole year? You must be crazy!”
This was the most typical response when we announced our plan to cycle from our home in Cape Town to Kenya and back. Fortunately we never paid much heed to these comments, because as it turned out, 2015 will rank as one of our most interesting and enjoyable years. My wife Diana, my two daughters Tegan (23) and Carla (20) and I, decided to take a sabbatical year in order to learn a bit more about our beautiful continent. We left home on 02 February, and started cycling up the east coast of South Africa.
From an equipment viewpoint, we each had a Surly steel frame touring bicycle with 5 pannier bags, into which we packed all we would need for a self-supported cycle tour for a year. This included clothes, tents, sleeping gear, cooking gear, tools, first aid kit and electronics. Food and water we would get along the way.
About an hour after leaving our home, we hit our first little snag – or rather, out first little snag hit us – in the form of a large SUV driving way too fast and too close. Diana was knocked flying off her bike, only to emerge from the bushes a minute later, in shock and holding a very sore and swollen elbow. Having just given up our jobs, invested in bicycles and equipment, and rented out our house for the year, this was not exactly the start to our trip that we had envisaged.
Fortunately, however, no bones were broken, so we limped onwards to our first night’s camp site, to ponder on whether the nay-sayers were not perhaps more correct in their assessment than we would have liked to admit!
In the end we decided to interpret this incident as a close call, but also as a valuable warning – meaning that we would have to be a lot more astute when cycling in traffic. We immediately started developing traffic safety techniques, which eventually saw us through to the end of the trip with no further traffic incidents.
Although we never had a fixed route or itinerary, we had a broad plan to head north to somewhere near the equator, and then to come home again. Having no cycle touring experience, we would have to rely on our ability to learn as we went, and on the kindness of strangers should we run into trouble. Our aim was not to cover as many miles as we could – but rather to go slowly, to enjoy each day, to savour each experience, and hopefully to enrich ourselves and others we may meet along the way.
(Scroll to end for a detailed GPS map and itinerary, with downloadable routes for each section!).
“So where did you sleep?” was a common question.
Where possible, we would aim for camp sites or cheap guest houses, but oftentimes towns were too far apart. In these cases, we would “wild camp” – find a suitable spot near the road, but preferably well hidden to retain some privacy. If we were “discovered”, we would be faced with a large audience as we went about our camp-site activities.
In certain areas, the rural land was too populated to find a private spot in the bush to spend the night. In these cases, we would stop at a small homestead of a few huts, and ask the headman whether we could set up camp for a night on the land of the homestead. Not once was our request rejected.
What followed would be an unlikely meeting between us, a western middle class family, and the family of the homestead, who were usually very poor and living off the land. We would always experience true African hospitality, for example offers of a meal, hot water from the fire for washing, or the use of the toilet. Being totally dependent on the goodwill of people who have very little (in a material sense) is a humbling and life-changing experience. We would ask ourselves whether we, who have so much, would have so willingly offered these wonderful hosts the use of our home if they had knocked at our door in Cape Town.
South Africa is often referred to as “Africa lite”, owing to its first-world, cosmopolitan cities. As we travelled north into the “real Africa”, we got the chance to test some of our prejudices. For example, we couldn’t believe that there were still wild animals in Africa living outside of the many game reserves. So, when cycling through towns such as Kasane, Livingstonia and Kariba, we would be somewhat taken aback when we would have to stop while a herd of elephants crossed the road! And after an experience of being chased by an elephant at a camp site in Botswana, we became especially nervous at these wild-life encounters.
“But isn’t it dangerous? You could get robbed, or sick!”
Well maybe we were lucky, or maybe people in Africa are a lot less threatening than the press make out. In the whole year, we experienced only one incident of malice, when two men tried to hijack Carla and Diana’s bicycles, while cycling near Mombasa in Kenya. Tegan and I were cycling slightly ahead at this point, but the attack was thwarted by the quick reactions of Diana, with the assistance of some passing strangers.
From a health perspective, we were fortunate to experienced only one serious illness, when Tegan contracted malaria in Mlibizi, Zimbabwe. The kindly camp site owner took her to a nearby clinic, where she was professionally treated with the latest Malaria medication – at no cost. We were always amazed that help was forthcoming when needed!
On the other hand, we experienced so many acts of kindness and goodwill that it is not possible to list them all. These included friendly greetings from people on the road, cars stopping to offer us Cokes, people offering us meals or accommodation in their houses, fellow travellers lending us their car to see something not accessible by bicycle, and strangers sending supportive messages from afar. The vulnerability of cycle touring as a mode of travel provided us with many opportunities to experience feelings of community.
“How far did you go each day? And what about punctures”?
Our daily distance varied significantly depending on wind, hills, road conditions and so forth. Once we got fit (after a few months), we would typically do about 100km in a day. We got 14 punctures in total. As our collective mechanical skills were not what I would call “advanced”, we luckily had only one serious mechanical incident. One of Carla’s brake levers snapped off after she took a high-speed tumble on a long downhill in western Tanzania. She then had to manage with only one brake for the next 500km, until we reached Kigali in Rwanda, where we managed to get a spare.
In total we cycled over 11 000km. Where we could not cycle we used local transport. We crossed the lengths of Lake Kariba (using the very excellent Kariba Ferries), Lake Malawi (on the old workhorse the “Ilala”) and Lake Tanganyika (on the “MV Liemba” – at over 100 years old this is the oldest working ferry in the world). These trips turned out to be spectacular “life experiences”. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, we caught the famous Tazara train all the way to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia – we even had a derailment to add to the excitement. Using any local transport in Africa can be an adventure on its own, and provides a great opportunity to converse with people sharing your journey. From regional bus trip to “tuk-tuks” (three wheeled scooters) and “boda-boda’s” (taxi on the back of a motorbike) – each turned out to be an adventure in some unpredictable way.
“You are such brave adventurers!” people would sometimes comment as we trundled past on our bikes.
Well, we set off thinking that this compliment could be true – cycling for so long, with such a heavy load. But then, on a daily basis, we would pass someone like this:
Typical use of a bicycle in Africa – this was a very long and steep hill just north of Kigali, Rwanda
This man’s load is many times heavier than ours, his bicycle is old and has no gears, he has no medical policy or first aid kit, he can’t afford a nice cappuccino when he gets to the next city, and he doesn’t get to stop cycling after a year, then go back to living in luxury. So we learned that the really brave people of the world are those who have very tough lives, and who have no choice in the matter. For them it is literally a matter of survival. Any risks or hardships we faced on our trip paled into insignificance when compared to those faced by many living in Africa. They deserve the true title of “adventurer”!
“Living in such close quarters with my family for a whole year – no way!”
Many people we met could not envisage travelling in this way with their family. Well, one does get to know one’s family quite well when sharing two little tents for a year. We found it amazing that there was so much more to know about each other – after all, we had already all been together for more than 20 years. But the trip provided us with the opportunity to learn to know each other at a much deeper level. It also provided plenty of opportunity to practice patience, tolerance and respect! We all agree that the experience drew us much closer together – in fact we are still struggling to adapt, now that we are separated each day by work and other commitments.
“So would you do it again?”
Yes – we would definitely do it again. What’s not to like about a year long holiday? In fact, on arriving home we were tempted to turn around and start again!
“And would you recommend this type of trip to others?” Well, of course the life of a cycling nomad is not for everyone (nor every family). But what we would recommend whole-heartedly, is to not shy away from embarking on an adventure (or any other significant life change), purely to avoid apparent risks. In hindsight, the hardest part of our trip was to make the decision to do it. Once the decision was firmly made, obstacles were relatively easily overcome. The risks we faced were far lower than what many led us to believe, and we have come away infinitely enriched from our experience. And especially enriched with the wisdom that many in Africa have to offer – how to live dignified, humble, respectful lives, in the spirit of community and self-sacrifice, despite the harsh and challenging conditions.
MAP & GPS
Click on each section of our journey to see detailed itinerary and gps routes that you can download.
- South Africa – beautiful landscapes, scenic back roads, first world supplies, friendly people, and (most importantly) yummy farm stalls! A really stunning option for cycle touring. Prince Alfred’s pass between Knysna and Avontuur (Western Cape, South Africa) is totally worth the effort. The road from Clanwilliam through Wuppertal to Ceres in the Cedarberg mountains (Western Cape, South Africa) must be one of the most stunning rides you can find anywhere, as long as you don’t mind a few hills.
- East Africa (Uganda, Kenya and eastern Tanzania) – lovely equatorial scenery, great fresh fruit and veg from road side stalls, and plenty cheap accommodation options. The cycle alongside Lake Bunyonyi (south-west Uganda) was breath-taking and magical, expect to see a dragon here in the mist.
- Namibia – stunning desolate open spaces and vistas like nowhere else on the planet. The cycle from Betta to Aus in Namibia includes a stretch bordering the Tiras mountains, the vast open spaces and clear air warps the concept of scale and distances, like an un-real picture.
- The road from Nata to Kasane (Botswana) is basically like cycling through a game park for 300km, with plenty of elephants and other wild life to keep you interested and (in our case) terrified at the same time!
- Off bike adventures – crossing Lake Kariba, Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika by ferry. Catching the famous Tazara train trip between Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia.
→ Visit Unclipped Adventure for a wonderful series of cartoons by Tegan that document the entire trip.
- Check your visa requirements for all countries which you visit – South African passport holders generally do pretty well in this regard! We only needed visas for Rwanda and Uganda – and both were covered by the “East African Tourist Visa” (which you can get online). We also asked at each border crossing to extend our passport stamps to much longer than we thought we would need (e.g. if the “default” tourist entry was 30 days, we would ask for 90 days). We generally got what we asked for – which just kept things very flexible from a time perspective.
- Mobile data was surprisingly good and cheap, and widespread in the countries we visited – our first task after each border crossing was to get a new SIM card and some data.
It is generally possible to get power on a regular basis (at camp sites and similar). We had a battery pack, which we recharged every few days, and that provided sufficient power for our phones – no solar charger needed.
- For water, we took our cue from the local people – whenever we ran low, we would simply ask, and would be directed to a water source such as a spring or hand pump. In East Africa, we bought a fair amount of bottled water, as this seemed to be the norm in some of those areas.
- Wild camping – many roads in Africa are heavily populated, so it was not easy to always find a “private” spot in the bush to set up camp. In these cases, we would select a small homestead (village of a few huts) and ask to speak to the “headman”. We would then respectfully ask for permission to set up our tents. We were always treated with warm hospitality, often being offered warm water to wash, use of the toilets etc. We would always leave a small gift of food, clothes or money on our departure the next morning, which was never asked for, but always much appreciated.
- Wild camping in areas with wild animals – the advice we were given (which seemed to work) – was to ensure you get zipped up in your tent before dark, as most animals do their hunting at night, but won’t bother you if you are in a tent. Then if you do need to “spend a penny” at night, be super cautious and use torches to make sure all is clear around the tent.
- General crime and safety – in the countries we visited, we found the people in the rural areas or small towns to be really friendly and peaceful. In the cities, we used common sense (or asked) to keep to the safe areas. On the whole trip, we only had one attempted mugging incident, which we think was a very random (drug related) incident, which could have happened anywhere in the world. And we never had one thing stolen on the whole trip.
- Shake your shoes in the morning – we had a couple of instances of a scorpions or spiders using a shoe for a bed.
- Malaria – we never took anti-malarial tablets, as apparently these are not good for extended periods. We would use mossie repellents and long sleeves towards evening before bed, and try to kill all the mossies in the inside of our mossie-proof tents before going to sleep. Unfortunately Tegan did get Malaria in Zimbabwe, which was no fun, but a dose of Coartem worked wonders in getting her back on her feet after a couple of weeks. The local clinics are very helpful and knowledgeable for these types of issues (we also had a rabies scare) – and often free!
- When on busy main roads, dress in very visible kit! Can’t over-emphasise this.
We timed our trip to avoid the worst of the rainy season in Equatorial Africa – worth researching this.