Yesterday I published part one of Cycling Across Africa: My journey from Cairo to Cape Town. It received a lot of positive feedback and I would like to thank everyone who read and commented on it! If you missed yesterday’s blog post, I will leave a link below for you to check it out. I spoke about my motivation to go cycling across Africa, the Cairo to Cape Town route and told you about my experience cycling from Cairo to Kenya. Today, I am excited to continue that story by sharing with you the second part of my trip. The second part of my African journey continues in Tanzania.
For those interested, here is the route we followed while cycling across Africa:
Cycling Across Africa: Cairo to Cape Town Route
Cycling Across Africa: The journey continues…
Kenya and Tanzania mark the start of the well-known African wildlife corridors. Some of the roads we found ourselves on felt like they should come with a theme tune, such was the presence of zebras, antelopes and ostriches. We had some real ‘pinch-me’ moments, such as one stand-out moment where we cycled alongside a loping giraffe, for around 10 seconds before it hopped a fence and disappeared back into the bush.
Tanzania presented us with some of the finest cycling roads of our journey; smooth tarmac, long, stunning climbs that were beautifully graded, with positive camber into the bends which made fast descents super fun – even on our loaded tourers. Southern Tanzania is sparsely populated, often with hundreds of kilometers between tribal villages. Randomly, we would pass a tiny settlement, followed by a few weathered, sinewy ladies, carrying what seemed to be entire trees on their heads.
The staple carbohydrate in Kenya / Tanzania is maize starch, which is washed, washed and washed again until it is glistening white, and then it is cooked into a dish called ‘ugali’. I am not sure if it is because the washing process is so intense, but ugali is chronically lacking in flavor, and so it is best served with fresh, seasoned vegetables or beans in a salty sauce. My favorite meal from east Africa was githeri – a mix of boiled maize kernels and beans, with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peppers, herbs and fresh greens. Delicious. Dan quickly grew tired of the standard ‘carbs and beans’ affair at meal times, but I could eat like that on any bike tour – it is great for slow-release energy and fast recovery after big cycling days. It’s not difficult to see why the world’s best endurance runners come from here.
Our days were exhausting. Looking back, we really asked a lot of our bodies during those weeks. A day on the road would start by waking up with the sun and stoking up the fire to get some warmth into us (it got pretty chilly overnight out in the open). We would flick the bugs out of our pots and cook porridge over the fire, using as little water as possible, to conserve as much as possible for the heat of the day. We washed our pots using even less water, scraping them out with an old credit card. We would then pack down our tents, and load up our bikes before lifting/dragging our heavy bikes out of the bush – already sweating profusely by the time we hit the road.
The average daily distance we covered in Africa was around 130km, but we would often push this to 150-160km, especially if it meant we could reach a town and refill with food and water. Sometimes we would have the luxury of a sit-down lunch meal, if we passed through a larger settlement during the day. The hardest part of my day was always getting back on the bike after a heavy lunch. Around 4-5pm, we knew we would only have another hour or so of sunlight, so we would begin our hunt for a campsite. This would often involve multiple off-road investigations, in our search for an area flat / clear enough to pitch our tents, with enough wood to build a fire. Hacking through dense bush would scratch us up, or worse, puncture our tires.
Once we had found our home for the night, the evening’s work had only just begun. We would then need to collect and break down wood for our fire, pitch our tents and cook dinner. That said, this kind of evening was often less taxing than being invited into a village where we would need to entertain the entire village, miming and answering their questions, when all we wanted to do was collapse into our tents and rest our weary legs.
There are a couple of route options from southern Tanzania. It is possible to cross straight into Zambia, and head directly towards Lusaka. Alternatively, you can take a more scenic route, and head south into Malawi, along the shores of the lake, and cross into Zambia further south. The idea of visiting another country for only a hundred more kilometers seemed too good to pass up, so we set off due south.
Entering Malawi was like stepping back in time coming from the relative development of Tanzania. Suddenly, there were very destitute looking folk everywhere, very smiley, but looking very much like the clothes they were wearing were the only ones they owned. The rains pelted down on us as we travelled our first few Malawian miles, the apparent secret behind the unbelievable lushness of the countryside. In one sense, Malawi was like a tropical paradise. It was full of dense, jungle-like forest, and looked like any fruit you desire would grow there. It even had a sandy palm-strewn shoreline along the banks of the huge lake Malawi. Several high-end lodges could be spotted in prime lake-front locations, partially hidden away so as not to overtly boast about the chronic economic divide that exists here.
The wealth in African countries is often poorly distributed, and none more so than in Malawi. I often felt a bashful awkwardness about the fact that I owned a high-quality bicycle, and had the means to travel around Africa solely for leisure purposes. We presented a few bunches of bananas to a group of orphanage children next to our campsite, and I will not forget the sheer delight in their eyes to receive their very own banana from us. I have made a vow to (at least internally) replicate that same joy whenever I am gifted a piece of fruit.
Crossing into Zambia from Malawi was like crossing back into modern civilization. Within 50km, we even came across a bike lane, for goodness’ sake. I found Dan in a supermarket in Zambia just walking around the aisles, gazing at all the colorful packaged products he had not seen for weeks.
The Chinese are the driving force behind much of the development in this part of the world – particularly the road and rail infrastructure. Dan and I spent hundreds of miles discussing China’s Belt & Road initiative – an idea to essentially connect China to the rest of the world. Africa is fast becoming to China what China is to the western world – its factory. Chinese labor is still too expensive for certain projects, so lots of it is now being sought out in Africa. This has made for some pretty random phenomenon’s that are now occurring. In some of the more rural parts of east Africa, folk would call out to us as we passed shouting ‘Ali Baba, Ali Baba!’ – because the only foreigners they had ever seen before were Chinese companies like Ali Baba scouting the area for cheap labor.
Zambia is a vast country, and my residing memory of it is long days in the saddle, with epic stop-offs at stone-age settlements, noisy trucks, cosy camp fires by night, and a few friendly villages in between. Dan’s rear wheel started to give up in Zambia, so we spent many enthralling hours scouring the market areas for workshops or indeed anyone that may have the tools we needed to replace his cracked rim and broken spokes. There’s something very unnerving about handing over a delicate, modern disc brake wheel to a workshop mechanic who has only ever worked on agricultural trucks from the 60’s, and whose tool of choice is a rusty crowbar. That said, the state of some of the vehicles still on the road is seriously impressive – it really throws light on how prematurely we discard vehicles in ‘developed’ countries.
Victoria Falls is the prime landmark in this entire region, and the host town, Livingstone, happened to be right on our route. Certain popular tourist stops I have visited are a bit overhyped, but Vic Falls is not one of them. We could see the spray ‘clouds’ of the falls from at least 5km away, and the power and scale of the water there is breath-taking. We had travelled by leg power alone from the arid desert to the mammoth volumes of water here – just one of the stark contrasts we witnessed on our journey.
An interesting shift took place as we crossed through Zambia. Everywhere we’d been so far in Africa, we were the rich guys. Swanning through the continent with plenty of food and water, extra clothes in our bags, and the means to stay at hotels if we needed to. In western Zambia, however, we were starting to enter ‘4×4 tourist country’. Wealthier holiday makers drive 4×4 vehicles up from South Africa, Namibia or Botswana, and tour through Zambia to take in Victoria Falls and other areas of interest. In the company of these folk, we were suddenly the poor guys on bicycles!
The 4×4 traffic increased as we headed further west into Botswana. Hardly surprising, given how much on-road wildlife there is to see. There is a road that runs alongside the Chobe National Park, colloquially known as Elephant Highway. Elephants get pretty skittish around bikes, and are known to charge if they feel threatened. I believe it has something to do with the fact that bikes can move along quickly, but don’t make much noise. And do not be fooled – elephants may seem like slow, lumbering creatures, but they can move very quickly if they need to. We therefore spent many minutes hanging well back, waiting for elephant families to cross the road in peace. If you do ever travel this road, do not miss a campsite called Elephant Sands. To say you camp with the elephants is an understatement. They literally walk around you as you eat, sleep, and chill out – to the point where you really have to trust they won’t tread on your tent in the night.
Our epic wild camps continued as we travelled further west. Once the sun had set, we were conscious that it was just us and the animals out in the wild, so we would stay close to the fire for both warmth and safety. We sometimes woke to find evidence of animal activity in our camping areas, like elephant droppings or footprints. One morning, we found leopard prints less than 50 meters from our tents, leaving us wondering if it had smelt us, but just was not hungry that night. On another occasion, we camped around 100m from a couple of crocodiles – though they seemed even more ready for sleep than we did, so did not worry us at all.
As we approached Namibia, the rock strata took on a more reddish hue, and the sunsets became even more dramatic. Botswana is another huge country, and the colossal landscapes we were passing through made us feel small, and encouraged us to push further, doing longer and longer days in the saddle. The road quality was hit and miss. Sometimes even the main road was deeply rutted and potholed, causing passing traffic to be travelling only slightly faster than us. It took further toll on Dan’s rear wheel. We had managed to source a replacement rim in Zambia, but spoke breakages were starting to become a frequent occurrence. Replacing these involved a complete disassembly of the wheel, and we were running out of spoke nipples. The main roads were generally paved, but minor roads were often gravel or deep sand, which were almost impossible to cycle on.
The main western route through Botswana led us alongside the mighty Okavango Delta. At the time we were there, it was not in flood, so animal movements were not at their most spectacular. However, as we were unlikely to be passing this way again, we felt that not seeing it properly would have been a missed opportunity. There is really only one way to see the Okavango properly: from the air.
I had not been in a helicopter before, but Dan assured me that I’d not regret making this my one splurge of southern Africa. The helicopter was much smaller than I thought it would be – like some kind of oversized toy drone. It was brilliant though – we could flick around in the air as we liked, getting low down over interesting areas, whilst keeping far enough away to avoid distressing the elephant families or the hippo habitats.
The most peculiar creatures we came in contact with on our entire route were the ‘pumbas’ of southern Africa. They are very unfortunate looking, bull-headed things, with a pig-sized body, and I suspect they have very small brains. They would waddle along in front of us, as if they were herded sheep on a farm track, and erratically dive off the track pelting head-first into what they thought was a gap in the fence. It usually was not a gap, so the result was a barrel-roll, followed by a dazed, confused stagger, and a return to waddling shortly afterwards.
We had picked up a tail wind heading into Namibia, so much so that we were tempted to cycle on through the night the evening we crossed the border. We were far enough south, and far enough into winter though, that it was hard to tell how cold we might get in the night. We decided to warm up with a shower and stop-off at a campsite close to the border instead.
Growing up in the UK, I did not learn just how bitterly cold deserts could be. Our campfires had now become essential for night-time warmth. It could drop as low as 2 or 3ºC at night in Namibia, and we would wake up to frosty tents. Now in an area of greater wealth, finding cheap indoor accommodation was more difficult too. The daytime heat was still high though, so we made frequent stops to remove clothing layers during our morning riding hours.
Namibia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. There are 72 languages there, and only 2 million people, and the staggering thing is that many of the tribes only speak their native language. This means that two neighbouring groups of people could come into contact with each other, but have no way of communicating verbally. The other important thing to know about Namibia is that it is home to the most jaw-droppingly dramatic desert-scapes in the world. The colours and texture that can exist in a desert should not be estimated until you have visited Namibia. It was otherworldly.
Namibia is vast, and by this point on our journey, time constraints had found their way into our schedule. The majority of the road network is sandy gravel, most of which is heavily corrugated. Cycling to all the areas we wanted to see would have taken many weeks, so we decided to join the 4×4 community for a few days to access the Naukluft National Park, Skeleton Coast, Etosha National Park, and more besides.
Once our 4-wheeled adventure was over, we were on our final leg towards Cape Town. It was surreal to look at the map and see how far we had come, cycling across Africa. We still had over 1000km to go, but it felt like the Cape was just around the corner. We chose an in-land route, through the remainder of Namibia, via Fish River Canyon, the second biggest canyon in the world after the USA’s Grand Canyon.
Locals met us with very warm hospitality. I suppose the remoteness of the country encourages people to look out for one another, and appreciate passing visitors. Late one evening, on the hunt for a wooded campsite, we found nothing for mile after mile. It was getting dark, and we knew that we would need to find firewood if we were going to survive the night. We finally happened across a highway workman’s camp, and spoke with a couple of the road workers, asking if we’d be able to pitch our tents near the shelter of their camp. They invited us in, gave us a bed each in their camp hut, fed us an incredible dinner, and made great company for the evening.
Entering our final country was an incredible moment. Not only had we survived everything Africa had thrown at us thus far, we were now firmly back in a land of convenience and development. We had multiple food options at every meal, good internet connectivity, and even occasional access to bike and camping shops that stocked the spares we needed to nurse our adventure to the finish line.
It was properly chilly now, and not really warming up much during the day, so we sought indoor lodgings as much as we could. This introduced us to the warm hearted, genuine hospitality of the South African people. I always feel the kindness bestowed to vulnerable cyclists on a bike tour can never really be repaid – unless the host is one day on a bike tour themselves, somewhere which makes it possible for the favour to truly be returned. It is one of the truest, most selfless good deeds that we can give each other, which is what makes communities like Warmshowers so incredible.
Hosting a touring cyclist often means taking in a cold, wet, smelly, dirty human and their mobile existence, into your residence. In doing so, you are literally their lifesaver for that night, and have performed one of the simplest, kindest humanitarian acts still possible in a developed world. In some of the most unlikely scenarios in Africa, we were fed, had our stories heard, were provided with beds and showers, safe places to camp, and given tools and essential battery charging sockets. Those who hosted us were from a vast variety of walks of life, and represented the full spectrum of financial statuses. They are all part of, in my mind, the crème de la crème of society.
South Africa is another huge country, but we were really only passing through the westernmost corner – from the Namibian border to Cape Town. The spot that stands out most prominently in my mind is Citrusdal. It is a stunning area close to the Cederberg mountains, known predominantly for its citrus fruit farming. We cycled through the valley, flanked either side by miles and miles of orange trees, every breath full of the sweetest orange aroma. There were little shacks dotted through the valley, where you could stop off and buy nets of fresh, tree-ripened oranges. They were heavenly, and remain in my mind as one of the great tastes of Africa. The special thing about fruit when you have it fresh, ripe, raw and whole as nature intended, is that there is nothing else in the world you would rather eat at that moment.
Dan and I pedaled south, now with the Atlantic Ocean over our right shoulder. Many of our miles were conducted in silence now, with the apprehension of being so close to our goal. In those last few miles, I suppose we just did not know what to say to each other that could do justice to what we were about to achieve. We had come through so much together, and there was also a sense of overwhelm, that we were actually going to make it, and that our adventure was about to conclude. Table Mountain appeared in the mist ahead. At least I think it was mist. It may have been some water in my eyes. I think it was quite dusty, and dust was, ahem, getting in my eyes…
The ocean wind blew in our faces, making the final stretch take an age. The Cape Town suburbs seemed to go on for hours. It gave us time to absorb the fact that we were at the end of our odyssey, and start to think about the fact that there was nowhere to go tomorrow; no route to plan, no borders to cross, campsites to hunt for or clean water to find. We were surprised a kilometer or two from the finish by someone standing by the side of the road with a ‘congratulations’ sign. It was a contact of Dan’s girlfriend whose name I cannot even remember; the end was such a blur.
Never meet your heroes, they say. Cycling from Cairo to Cape Town had been a decade-long dream of mine – a real ‘hero’ journey I had wanted to accomplish for a very long time. It was never about the destination, but always about the journey. Standing at the infamous yellow photo frame (the unofficial finish point for C2C’ers) felt in some ways like just another stopping point on our journey. It was anticlimactic, but sort of in a good way. Dan had limped the last few hundred kilometers on his remaining 31 rear spokes, but in truth, the journey hadn’t broken us. It had ultimately strengthened us, taught us, uplifted us, opened our eyes, and prepared us for pretty much anything life may choose to throw at us.
It had also confirmed a growing suspicion I had had for a number of years: the bicycle IS the ultimate way to see the world. Walking is too slow, motorized vehicles are too fast and they divide you inhumanely from the environment through which you’re passing. It was an honor to be able to raise some money for World Bicycle Relief on our journey, and visit some of their facilities in Africa. Their work brings bicycles to school children, businesses and medical workers to revolutionize their lives. My Surly didn’t miss a beat. It carried me faithfully through everything I threw it at, and it just kept coming back for more.
So that is it for our cycling across Africa journey. It is the end of this chapter, but there will definitely be more adventures to come. If you have enjoyed reading this account, you might be interested in seeing more photos or videos we made along the way. You can find these @OdysseyAfrica on Facebook, or on the Cyclist117 YouTube Channel. Thanks for reading.