When I got married in 2017, I signed the marriage register with one huge caveat: I would one day be able to temporarily leave my wife, and go cycling across Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town – however long that took. It had been a decade-long dream for me – I saw it as the ultimate bike ride. Many cycle tourists dream of world circumnavigation or the Tour de France route, but for me it was all about Africa.
Most wives would not have agreed to such an irrational, dangerous idea, and most people consider married life to be about settling down, buying property and popping out a few kids. I guess my wife is more understanding than most, and a little bit awesome. She even helped me figure out what I would need for indefinite survival in the least developed continent on earth. It would need to keep me safe, warm / cool, hydrated and energized, and all be transportable on my Surly Long Haul Trucker.
In Europe, you can plan a road trip using Google Maps. Pick your countries, the terrain and cultures you would like to visit, and off you go. Not so possible in Africa. There are lots of areas that require huge amounts of guts, money and organization to access. The general route I had in mind avoided all the REALLY dangerous areas, the uncrossable land borders, and the national parks through which cycling was prohibited:
Cycling Across Africa: The Cairo to Cape Town Route:
Africa, by the way, is gigantic. The Mercator projection of the world map, that we are all familiar with, really does not demonstrate how huge the continent is. Mapping a spherical world in a 2-dimensional plane will always skew the perceptual dimensions of certain countries. If you are interested, check out the Gall-Peters projection, which maps all areas such that they have the correct sizes relative to each other. Cycling across Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, along the route we had planned would equate to around 12,000km. That is further than the distance from London to Hong Kong!
In January 2019, I packed up my life as it was at the time and booked a flight to Cairo. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, my high-school mate Dan was tying up his own loose ends in Australia and getting ready to join me.
Cycling Across Africa: The Journey Begins…
Our cycling across Africa journey began in Egypt. We met up at 3am in a grubby hostel in the outskirts of Cairo, tired out from our flights, but conscious that the journey ahead was likely to be far more exhausting. The extent of what lay ahead was unfathomable. The distance we had to cycle, unimaginable. As we explored the fascinating historic gems and structures that Cairo had to offer, the impending adventure hung over us, unavoidable, but also massively exciting.
Beginning an African adventure in Cairo is very much ‘in at the deep end’ for English-speaking folk from the western world. Away from the touristic areas, Egypt is a devout Islamic country, where men and women are often kept separate. Roads are long and dusty, the traffic is absolutely chaotic, and scams are common practice at every mall and market. Many roads featured on Google Maps turned out to be sandy alleyways, blockaded off, or simply not there at all.
Our first proper day of cycling took us east from Cairo, out towards the red sea. It was a tough day in the saddle by any standards. Any cycle tourist will tell you that leaving or entering large cities are the most exhausting, difficult and dangerous days on the road. Even after cycling the entire length of the continent, and in various other locations around the world, including Jakarta, the world’s most congested city, Cairo is the worst city I have ever cycled out of.
Our exit route involved lifting our bikes up onto half-built bridges, pushing through deep sand, and a stiff headwind all 130km of the way to the coast. In an early scare, Dan’s chain came apart during a gear-change on the highway, causing me to have doubts about the reliability of his entire bike. I had visions of us being stranded for weeks out in the desert.
In addition to this, the Egyptian police have been on high alert ever since the Arab Spring movement, and clamp down heavily on independent tourists who travel away from the usual places of interest. The country is riddled with police checkpoints, and we picked up police escorts as we headed south towards Sudan. These were a huge inconvenience, as they prevented us from taking certain routes and interacting freely with locals in the villages along the Nile. They also prohibited us from wild camping in the desert unless we managed to give the police the slip during their shift change-over.
One memorable evening, our escort vehicle pushed us further and further on into the night, promising us a convenient campsite just 10km further ahead. We would cycle another 10km, only to be told the spot was not convenient after all, but there was a good spot just 10km further on. We gave up after 150km and arranged to be taken by truck to the next town. We spent the rest of the night in a horrid little guesthouse, at the mercy of the owner who charged us whatever he liked, knowing we had nowhere else to go.
By southern Egypt, the hectic community of the Nile delta region had given way to a more relaxed way of life. Villagers were far more welcoming, more generous, less inclined to overcharge and even our police escorts were more friendly. They would drive much further behind us, sometimes letting us proceed on alone – a welcome relief after the police trucks of the north who almost nudged our panniers, driving us mad with the constant din of their diesel engines.
Once beyond the Aswan dam, we were out into the desert proper, with no settlement or services for 300km. We were conscious that we would be relying solely on what we had chosen to carry with us from that point forward. This was not a bikepacking trip through civilization anymore – this was the Sahara.
The road, all credit to the Chinese, was fantastic. A ribbon of some of the finest tarmac I have ever seen, stretching from Aswan to Abu Simbel. It is clearly visible from airplane cruising altitude, so keep an eye out if you are ever flying over this part of the world. By night, ruined buildings provided shelter from the dusty wind, and we conserved our water as much as possible in the heat.
From Abu Simbel, the southernmost town in Egypt, it is possible to catch a public boat across Lake Nasser, where another road takes you to the Sudanese border. This boat, however, did not appear to be running, and local residents of Abu Simbel suggested it may be days or even weeks until the boat would run again. We had heard, however, that it was possible to make the crossing on a military boat, so we befriended the Egyptian Army, and negotiated our passage across to Sudan.
After disembarking from the military boat, we arrived at the Sudanese border late in the evening and were filled with trepidation about what lay ahead. Sudan has had a torrid time these past few years, and convenience infrastructure is extremely limited for foreigners. It’s only possible to gain a visa by invitation, and there are no ATMs in Sudan, meaning we had to carry all the money we’d need in cash. Bandits would know that this was the case, which made us feel like sitting ducks as we crossed the border.
We need not have worried. The Sudanese are overwhelmingly kind and hospitable, and not once did we feel our situation was taken advantage of. In fact, Sudan stands out as one of the most hospitable countries I have ever visited, to the extent that very little of our cash reserves were used during our time there. We would ride into villages in the middle of nowhere, and it would not be long until we were invited into someone’s home, fed, watered, and given a safe place to sleep.
Exchanging money was a surreal experience, not least because the value of the Sudanese pound seemed to fluctuate more than the wind. Sometimes it was 50 Sudanese pounds to 1 USD, other times it was 90. This was our first experience of everyone having huge wads of cash on them, much of it hardly worth the paper it was printed on.
Riots were taking place in Khartoum during our time there, and on the approach to the capital, we could see plumes of smoke rising from the city. We kept our heads down, prepared to divert back off into the safety of desert isolation if necessary. Military presence was strong in the city, but we felt largely safe, once we had gotten used to the alarming number of AK47s constantly on show.
Roads in Sudan were often excellent, occasionally deeply potholed and sometimes completely washed away. It was noticeable how roads deteriorated towards the borders – a pattern we grew accustomed to as we pedaled south. The biggest cycling boon in Sudan was a stonking great tailwind, particularly in the north, which had us covering up to 180km per day – not bad on our 40kg bikes.
Since Sudan is mainly desert, water was of huge concern. There are clay water pots found dotted out along the main highways, such that you hardly go 50km without finding one. We understand a truck goes along periodically, filling all these pots for desert travelers – an utter lifesaver for us bicycle tourists. We used our filters and chlorine tablets, and did not have any problems at all.
Sudan was also the venue to some of the most amazing home-prepared meals we enjoyed while cycling across Africa. We would wash our hands and sit on the ground around huge spreads of fresh bread and fruits, with lentils, beans, and eggplant-based dishes. It was polite to only use the right hand for eating – a skill sometimes tricky, especially when breaking bread. Being a very conservative Islamic country, we rarely saw women in Sudan, which was a shame as it sometimes felt like we were only seeing half the country, and we could not even thank them for the delicious food we knew they’d prepared for us men.
One lesson I learnt the hard way: Some Africans do not trust or like cameras! We were enjoying the company of a hospitable group in one village, and had just enjoyed a meal together. Some of the guys had smartphones, so I figured it might be OK to shoot a little video with them. I began to ‘vlog’, and the group quietly and calmly dispersed, leaving just Dan, myself and one or two others on the rug they had laid out. Conversations we had with others further down the road revealed that some folk believe the camera has some kind of spiritual power, and can perhaps see into the soul. I do not know what the exact reason was that night, but the experience certainly made me more cautious about filming.
The Sudanese-Ethiopian border was one of the most memorable crossings on our odyssey. It was up to the usual level of African border chaos, this time with an overwhelming number of offers of help for everything we could possibly want in Ethiopia. It is common for westerners to have a ‘fixer’ when entering countries like Ethiopia, but almost everyone we met assumed this role, and it became a minefield figuring out who to trust. The immigration and customs buildings were not positioned on the main thoroughfare, seemingly designed this way to make the scammers’ job that little bit easier.
We lugged our bikes through the sand from one building to another trying to find our way through whatever ‘system’ was really in place. It was exhausting, especially with a local entourage in tow, half of whom were accusing the other half of trying to scam us. Trusting no-one and going to have a look in each building for ourselves, proved to be the formula for eventual success – a plan of attack we used at more than one African land border.
Cycling through Ethiopia is probably the most challenging thing I have ever accomplished. Here is one of Dan’s Facebook posts to demonstrate:
When Africa was demarcated into countries during colonial times, it appears to have been geographical markers that were used to define them. If Sudan was ‘desert’, Ethiopia was ‘mountains’! Ethiopia is extremely hilly, and cycling there offers some exceptional backdrops. It also offers lots of near-death experiences.
Children (and some adults) in Ethiopia see cycle tourists as target practice, so being pelted with rocks becomes a daily occurrence. Anything left even briefly unattended will be stolen immediately, and it is not unusual to be pulled off your bike by teenagers, people posing as police officers, or police officers themselves. Every brief stop, whether to check the map, eat a date or check your bike attracts an unbelievable amount of people, who seem to appear out of thin air. A staggering amount of Ethiopia’s population live in rural locations, so this occurs even if you are miles from the nearest shop or settlement. It is not usually threatening, and it is great to see them – people are the main reason I travel after all. It is exhausting though, when you are used to being on your own for a few precious moments of each day, such as when you are having a wee. I would be imprisoned in the UK for some of the scenarios that unfolded in Ethiopia.
Many of the villages we cycled through were built on a long, straight hill climb, so as we approached, we knew we would be running the slow, painful gauntlet of screaming kids, rock throwing and aggressive shouts of ‘YOU, where are you go?? YOU, wherareyougo?’. I can only conclude that someone went and taught the entire country that one exact phrase – we heard it everywhere, with no exception and no variation.
The most common human reaction to seeing us in Ethiopia, aside from shouting and throwing rocks, was the upturned hand, accompanied with demands for a bewildering array of goods. ‘Give me my pen.’…’Give me my phone’…’Give me my bicycle’…’Give me my money…’ Oftentimes, the road surface would disappear, leaving dirt, rocks or sand to cycle on, making our progress even slower, and prolonging the onslaught.
The food did little to perk us up at the end of the days, as it would invariably be ‘injera’, a fermented bread made of teff, which would be served with a variety of potent-tasting substances. On occasion, we would find spaghetti, a joyous alternative left over from the brief Italian rule in the country. Ethiopia is proud of the fact that it is the only African country never to have been officially colonized, however, we were left wondering whether they would have benefited from a few years of external influence, to bring a bit of variety or creativity to society.
A disappointing theme we witnessed throughout the continent was people operating by ‘imitation’ rather than ‘innovation’. Ethiopia is blessed with incredibly fertile soil, and a young, strong population to work it. However instead of using it to produce something innovative or exportable, everyone just grows more teff, to make yet more injera. I believe the problem stems from a chronic lack of basic education, whereby lots of aid money has come in to provide food and build infrastructure, but the concepts have not been grasped by the locals meaning any improvements made are not sustained.
On our last day in Ethiopia, we put in a 210km shift to the Kenyan border, keen to move on to more fulfilling cycling, and fewer rock hurling incidents. The final town, Moyale, summed up our Ethiopian experience; the only 2 guest lodges in town were burnt out due to recent political unrest, meaning we had to backtrack a few km’s up a steep hill to find somewhere to stay.
As scathing an account as I have just written about Ethiopia, it does get under your skin. There is something about the country that still makes me recommend it to any avid traveler I meet. The texture of the country is raw, and having to fend for yourself in the way that Ethiopia makes you do, is a good life lesson for those of us who grew up in the protective cocoon of western society.
Crossing into Kenya was an incredible moment on our journey. Ethiopia is well known as the African cycle tourist’s nemesis, so it felt like an immense accomplishment to have survived it. It toughened us up for the journey, and gave us a feeling of invincibility. The feeling of elation was not quashed by the fact that we were entering one of the most remote areas in Africa – the Turbi desert, an area known for being somewhat lawless, frequented by Somalian ‘shiftas’. Also, an area that marked the start of national parks and wildlife territories. We wild camped in the desert bush, building fires for the first time, both to save our cooking fuel, and to ward off the wildlife. Lying in my tent in an unknown location in the Kenyan bush, listening to the crackle of the fire, and the hyenas laughing in the distance will be a forever-memory for me.
Kenya was under British rule for a long time, so much of the infrastructure was familiar to us. It felt like a homecoming – back to cycling on the left, the road signs were the same as home, and English-style chips were available in all the towns! The heat was still a huge factor, so it was important that we continued to make sure we had sufficient water for each day. Outside of the towns, life was very basic, with no running water or proper sanitation facilities. Our usual post-ride shower was a bucket of dirty water.
We witnessed lots of evidence of tribal warfare in northern Kenya. Each tribe had its weapon of choice – from sticks to stones to daggers. A nationwide crisis was occurring during our time there, and the fighting had led to famines, water shortages and refugee camps. It was humbling, and desperately sad to see such genuine, honest people negatively affected by the actions of so few. We felt to pass quite swiftly through certain areas, though we never felt under threat ourselves.
We took a few days off the bike in Nanyuki to climb Mt. Kenya – a 5900m mountain that takes 4 days to scale. It is the cheaper, prettier, less frequented alternative to Kilimanjaro, and was actually one of the most challenging weeks of all my time in Africa. Our hired equipment was not up to much, and we were not prepared for how cold it was near the summit. The final morning, we trudged through a snow blizzard at -8C, to reach the summit at sunrise. It was an unexpected, but magnificent moment on our odyssey.
Nairobi marked a mental ‘halfway’ point for us on the trip. Mileage-wise, it actually only proved to be a third of the way in, but Dan and I were both being joined by our partners for a couple of weeks R&R, and were looking forward to not riding our bikes for a while! Sarah, my wife, flew out with a bag full of spares, so that I could service my Surly and prep it for the next leg of the journey. Spares included replacement chain, cassette, brake pads, brake and gear cables, and replacement bottle cages for ones that had not survived the Ethiopian onslaught. Amazingly, I covered the entire African continent on one set of Schwalbe Marathon tires. Thanks, Schwalbe!
Kenya and Tanzania are similar countries in the sense that they share a history, have similar geographical landscapes, and tribal folk who live in the border areas are allowed to cross the border at will. The main difference for tourists is the fact that Tanzanian national parks are even more prohibitively expensive than Kenyan ones – likely because they are more well known, e.g. Kilimanjaro, Serengeti. From what I have seen, Kenya is every bit as beautiful and enchanting.
This was Part 1 of Cycling Across Africa – My journey from Cairo to Cape Town. For Part 2 of my cycling across Africa story: CLICK HERE!