AFRICA: CYCLING CAIRO TO CAPE
Africa is an incredible place, a continent unlike anywhere else on Earth. I spent nine months cycling the length of it from Cairo down to Cape Town, a journey of more than 12,000 kilometres, through 12 countries. Only a fraction of a 100,000 kilometre expedition, but nevertheless Africa stands out for me as the odd continent out; the one that is the most ‘different’. Unfortunately, it is also without doubt the continent I have enjoyed the least. I am writing this article partly just to share a general overview of the experience, but also hopefully to inform anyone else considering making a similar journey through Africa on a bicycle. I have received many messages from people around the world asking for advice, and this article is aimed at providing that.
Africa is amazing, a land full of wonderful, kind and diverse people. It is home to a staggering array of cultures, landscapes and wildlife. It is a vast continent, utterly different in one place to another. When I say that I ‘cycled Africa’, I really didn’t. I merely cycled a thin wedge of it. I can’t claim to talk about Africa as a whole, only the parts I went through. That said, the route from Cairo to Cape Town is the most popular and well travelled through-route for cyclists. And from speaking to friends who have cycled down West Africa I can say with at least some degree of confidence that the experience is likely to be similar there, at least for many parts of it.
I want to state early on that, despite what many people assume, Africa is not a particularly dangerous place. Obviously there are exceptions (I wouldn’t recommend riding your bicycle through Somalia for instance) but in general I don’t believe that Africa is any more dangerous than anywhere else. The countries I rode through were generally perfectly safe. The only real security issue I had was in Egypt, but I was a long way off the beaten track and in hindsight the issue could probably have been avoided if I'd been more careful. If you are unlucky you can have a problem anywhere in the world of course, but in general, in the areas through which I travelled, safety was definitely not a major concern. In my opinion safety is certainly not a good reason to avoid cycling through Africa. To start with, I'll run through a brief overview of my experiences in each country along the way. I’ll then talk in more detail about some of the main issues I encountered and consider whether I ultimately think it's a good or bad place to cycle.
Although in hindsight it was one of my favourite countries in Africa, cycling in Egypt was a major headache. I’ve written before about my experiences so won’t go into much detail here, but suffice to say that there are far too many restrictions and issues with the police to make cycling in Egypt particularly enjoyable, at least as things stand at the moment. It's an incredible country and one that I was very happy to visit, but Egypt is definitely not a good country to explore on a bicycle.
This is one of my all-time favourites. Sudan is amazing, and full of some of the nicest people you could hope to meet anywhere in the world. Cycling through the Sahara Desert was a massive highlight, and this was a really wonderful country to experience by bicycle. I absolutely loved Sudan. ETHIOPIA
If there is a bicycle touring hell, it is Ethiopia. That’s probably a bit strong, but cycling through Ethiopia is definitely a bit of a nightmare. This has been widely documented by plenty of cyclists, and Ethiopia has been notorious in the bike touring world for decades. It’s a beautiful country with a fascinating and unique culture, but unfortunately the people (and the children in particular) are, to put it mildly, hard work. The begging is on a
level which I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world. It is incredibly aggressive and ubiquitous, and because of the incredibly high population density combined with the slow speed of bicycle travel you are essentially harassed from dawn to dusk every single day.
Stone throwing is very common; several cyclists I know were hospitalised in Ethiopia after being hit by large rocks to the head or neck, thrown by children from high above the road. There are plenty of nice people in Ethiopia as with anywhere, and I met plenty of them, but taken as a whole the fact remains that I have never felt less welcome in any of the other sixty-plus countries I’ve cycled through than in Ethiopia.
I’m not here to judge Ethiopia; it is a very poor country where life is extremely tough, and I am exceptionally privileged. I can completely understand why many Ethiopian people acted as they did. I don’t hold it against them. All I’m here to do is to report my experiences as honestly as I can. And the truth is that there isn’t enough tea in the world to make me cycle through Ethiopia again. I don’t regret going. But never again.
The biggest exception, and my favourite country in Africa. Kenya has it all: spectacular varied scenery, friendly people, amazing wildlife, stunning campsites and a myriad network of dirt roads and trails. Kenya was an incredible place to bikepack, and definitely somewhere I want to come back to with a bicycle.
UGANDA & RWANDA
My experiences were similar in both of these countries and this, for me, was where Africa started to lose it’s charm. Both are really beautiful countries; I crossed some stunning landscapes, met some incredible people and overall had a positive experience. Uganda is also home to what is probably the greatest snack food in the world for cyclists, the 'Rolex'. That said, towards the end of my time in these countries I was desperate simply to reach Tanzania. The reason for this is a recurring theme and something I’ll go into in more detail later into this article: population density. All I’ll say here is that although I do think both Uganda and Rwanda ARE good places to cycle tour for the most part, I don’t think I would personally want to return with a bicycle.
I had some really good experiences in Tanzania, but I was also really quite bored for significant chunks of it. After the crazy population densities of Uganda and Rwanda it was an immeasurable relief to have some room to breathe and to be able to wild camp again. Tanzania’s landscapes are exactly how I imagined Africa. One section in particular was remote enough to mark as a world highlight. There is definitely some adventure to be had in Tanzania; a sense that you are really off the beaten track in the wild heart of Africa. That said, even in Tanzania there were more people around than I expected . Even on the most remote and interesting dirt roads I was never more than a few hours ride from a village. And wild camping wasn’t as easy as I'd thought it would be as there were still usually people around somewhere nearby. There are certainly parts of Tanzania which are more remote, but as a whole the country was far more populated than I expected.
ZAMBIA, ZIMBABWE & BOTSWANA
Zambia I honestly found very dull. There are some more interesting routes to be found in the northeast of the country, but as I had to take a train straight to the capital of Lusaka due to my rear wheel collapsing, I was forced to miss these. The section I did ride was bland, empty and boring. There was nothing to see, and because everything was fenced I wasn’t even able wild camp. Towns were uniform and uninteresting. It was all thoroughly uninspiring.
Victoria Falls was nice of course, but it's obviously just a tourist spot and has very little to do with the rest of the country. I skimmed just a tiny corner of Zimbabwe and it was then a long slog on thousands of kilometres of boring desert roads through into Namibia. This section did have its moments as I was able to see a bit of wildlife from the saddle; it is a really amazing thing to see elephants, giraffes and zebras up close from a bicycle, not to mention the memorable day on which I defeated a wild ostrich at a 3 kilometre road race. You might think that these experiences would make for an amazing ride, but in truth these wildlife sightings were few and far between. Mostly it was just hour after hour of the same bland and featureless landscapes which I had been cycling since Tanzania. Wildlife is wild and therefore obviously can’t be predicted; others might be luckier and see more, but I found this section too long and dull to be really worth cycling. The main consolation was that wild camping was finally possible again, and finally pulling off the road to camp was usually the best part of every day.
I had really high expectations for Namibia, and it is definitely one of the more notable countries I’ve cycled through. After months of flat, featureless landscapes it was an incredible joy to see mountains again. Namibia had some truly incredible sections, and it gave me some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve seen anywhere in the world. However it also gave me plenty of long boring sections and I didn’t like the touristy vibe through much of the country. Most of all though, I was very disappointed by the fact that almost every single road I cycled in Namibia was fully fenced on both sides. Namibia is the second least densely populated country in the world and I had anticipated being able to camp wherever I wanted, but in fact I almost always ended up having to stop beside the road instead. I could have jumped the fences, yes, but the fences nevertheless changed the feeling of the place. Perpetually surrounded by fences, Namibia never really felt properly wild, and this really bothered me. Namibian dirt roads are hard work, which adds to the adventure, but for the boring stretches it also really slows you down. Several sections in Namibia were a real grind. Overall Namibia is a country that I definitely would like to come back to with a bicycle, but I would be a lot more selective with my route choices and I don’t think I’d do it as a through-ride. I think the north of the country would offer far more adventure and off-the-beaten-path choices than the areas I rode through.
To be fair, I can’t really claim a whole lot of experience cycling in South Africa as it was right at the end and I was racing through, desperate just to reach Cape Town and finish off the continent. But South Africa is an incredible country to cycle, albeit one that does have some very legitimate safety concerns with the way things have been increasingly turning ugly. Things will hopefully improve in the future, but at present I would be very careful about wild camping in much of the country. South Africa has huge potential as a bikepacking destination, so if things settle down I would really love to come back to explore properly with my bicycle.
I learned a lot about myself during my ride through Africa, and of course I also learned a lot about Africa itself. That I learned so much is a redeeming feature which I value very highly, especially since, taken as a whole (as there were certainly many exceptions), I don’t really think I found cycling Africa to be generally very enjoyable in the same way that all of the other continents have been.
Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. Clouded by the rose-tinted sunglasses of selective amnesia my memories of riding Africa are now increasingly fond. I remember all of the wonderful people that I met, the beautiful places I saw, the breathtaking encounters I had with African wildlife, the beautiful wild camping and the sections where I rode feeling truly alive, on top of the world. But that is not the truth of my ride through Africa, or at least it was not the truth at the time, for most of the time. Reading back through my journals, it is clear that for a significant portion of the journey I was bored, frustrated, emotionally drained and utterly fed up with Africa. For much of it I simply was not enjoying myself, cycling out of pure stubbornness and a desire simply to ‘get through’.
There are varying reasons for this, and these reasons apply differently to different parts of Africa. But at its heart, it came down to simply two things: the people, and the landscapes.
As a hopelessly vague generalisation, people in Africa are very nice, just as they are pretty much everywhere around the globe. The Sudanese in particular are up there for me with Papua New Guineans as probably the nicest people I’ve met anywhere in the world. But nevertheless, honesty compels me to admit that with the exception of Sudan the people were often a major contributor to my frustrations. Even omitting Ethiopia, which as I’ve said before is an absolute nightmare to cycle precisely because of its people, I quite often found some people in Africa to be a test of patience. Not because of any meanness or intent, but simply because I was on the continent for so long dealing with the same conversations and issues day after day for months on end. Many things which started out being fine, gradually became more and more tedious as time went by, slowly but surely wearing down my patience until by the end I wanted nothing more than to be left alone in solitude.
Although common in much of the world, nowhere is it as common as in Africa. This is obviously not a surprise as many people there are appallingly poor. On seeing a white foreigner it is completely understandable that people might beg for money or gifts. Understandable, but when you have to deal with it day after day, month after month, it is exhausting. And it also makes it so difficult to connect with people. Comparative wealth often formed a huge barrier – so much of the time I felt like people were only interested in me for what I could potentially give them. Often I felt people saw me as little more than a rolling ATM. People would talk to me, call me friend, only to demand money.
I know, I know. 'Cue the tiny violins; the plight of these desperate poor people is inconveniencing the carefree wealthy tourist'. I get it. I say this not to judge or criticise. I obviously understand why, and I am not here to complain about people begging. To anyone that would say "if you don't like it you can always go home, you don't know how lucky you are" or something along those lines: you miss my point. I am not criticising, my purpose is only to state the facts in order to inform any other people considering a long distance journey through Africa. And the fact is that the begging was sufficiently ubiquitous throughout Africa as to be exhausting, and that it was often consistent enough to make travelling by bicycle an ordeal rather than an adventure.
The thing is, I came to Africa with expectations. I always try to avoid this, as I find expectations are generally detrimental, but I nevertheless had an idea in my mind as to how Africa would be. And the number one expectation I had for Africa is that it would, at least, be wild. I imagined vast wilderness areas, the kind of thing I had seen on National Geographic or David Attenborough documentaries. I imagined that I would spend much of my time in very remote places far from civilisation.
What I found however was that just about the only places where this was actually the case, was in the deserts, which were generally very boring. Limited road choices through those deserts usually meant that I ended up on roads with a reasonable amount of traffic, which killed any illusion I might have had of being 'in the wild'. And for large parts of the continent the idea of being alone was often a fool's hope. Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda were the worst for this, but also in Egypt and parts of Kenya and Tanzania there were always people around.
There's nothing wrong with that, at first. Generally people are very friendly, and very curious. They are keen to ask where you're from, where you're going, or just to say hello. At first, it's really nice. But for me, after months on end of this I was exhausted. The same exact interactions, hour after hour, day after day, month after month. It really wore me out. In many places I could not stop to have even a moment to myself as curious crowds would immediately gather. In Rwanda I was rarely alone even whilst cycling, as locals on bicycles would tailgate me for miles, completely oblivious to the irritation this caused me. And wild camping was usually impossible as there were was always someone around. I could always ask permission to camp, but that would mean hours more conversation, and hours more of being made a show of. After a full day of the same, all I wanted by the evenings was somewhere private where I could write my journal and read my book in peace.
I'm not criticising any of this behaviour, none of it was intended to make my life harder. It was harmless, and I can completely understand why people would be curious at seeing a white man on a strange-looking bicycle turn up in the middle of nowhere. I can totally understand why they all asked the same questions that they did. It makes complete sense. And over a short period this would be no problem. At first I was very happy to connect, to share my life and to try to learn what I could about other people's, even if I often got the feeling that people were more interested in my wealth than they were in me as a fellow human being. It's just that when cycling the length of the continent you have to deal with it for so long that it really starts to wear you down.
In most of the northern two-thirds of Africa (except Sudan), the population density was much too high for me. For the southern third this wasn't an issue, but instead the landscapes were often extremely dull so I had a different type of problem to deal with. I think part of the issue is the type of person I am. I am what is apparently called an 'extroverted introvert'. I like people, but there is only so much of being around lots of people that I can take. I REALLY need some time to myself to recharge, which is why I value wild camping and remote places so much. For most of Africa I wasn't able to find this space to recharge, and it really drained me. For extroverts who thrive on being around a lot of people and who love the energy of being the centre of attention all the time, I imagine cycling Africa would be much more enjoyable. But for me, it was just too many people. Learning that about myself was one of the best things I took away from my time in Africa. I now know beyond any doubt that I simply do not enjoy bicycle travel in densely-populated areas, and I won't be doing it again for anything beyond a very short timescale. For me, it just isn't worth it.
The begging I had expected, even if it was worse than I had feared. But the problems with alcohol which I encountered throughout sub-Saharan (non Muslim) Africa were a nasty surprise. Alcoholism has a death-grip on Africa; I had to deal with obnoxiously drunk men on practically a daily basis. Big towns; tiny villages; day or night. It didn’t matter, there was almost always at least one local drunk who would see me and quickly invite himself over to demand money, cigarettes, beer, or simply to impose his slurred conversation upon me. Save for leaving town, there was no escape, and it was a daily test of my patience. Drunk men made it extremely difficult to find any peace. Stopping for lunch in towns was often a ticking clock; how long would I have to myself before the nearest drunk found me?
Life is very hard, often hopeless, for many of these people. Again, I can completely understand why they would turn to alcohol. But it is destroying Africa, and destroying so many families. Men would tell me, beer in hand, that they had no money to feed their families. But they always seemed to have money for beer. And most of the time they weren’t even asking me for money for their families. They were asking; demanding; only beer. Nowhere have I seen a better example of what an ugly, destructive and contemptible drug alcohol is than in Africa.
Africa has some absolutely incredible landscapes, no doubt about it. Of the countries I cycled, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa in particular have parts that I would rank amongst the best in the world. All of the countries I went through had some beautiful sections. That said, on a bicycle you are prevented from riding through the majority of the best National Parks, due to the presence of dangerous animals like lions and hyenas. In most of the world I have always felt that being on a bicycle has unlocked many more route options that wouldn’t be possible in a car. In much of Africa I felt the opposite was true, and that the bicycle was sometimes more of a limitation than a benefit. Long desert stretches which could be covered in a day or two by car would mean many weeks of pedalling with a bicycle. Africa is the only continent where I would rather go back with a 4x4 than with a bicycle.
Taken as a whole, cycling through much of Africa could be described as a long slog through an incredibly vast and relatively boring desert. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good desert. Cycling through the Sahara in Sudan was a major highlight. But personally, I like my deserts in moderation. And after months of desert riding I was utterly sick to death of it and desperate for something, anything on the horizon to provide visual stimulation. Much of the ride from Tanzania to Cape Town, which amounts to almost half of the entire continent, was through a seemingly endless expanse of dull African steppe.
Weeks on end of riding through landscapes that did not change. Absolute boredom was a daily challenge, broken up only by short stops in towns or villages where I would have to deal instead with beggars, drunks, or drunk beggars. For so much of it there seemed to be so few redeeming features. Even the towns barely changed. From Kenya to South Africa the settlements were largely the same. There seemed to be little cultural diversity, the food was generally bad, and even the beer was terrible. If I had to describe the experience of cycling the route I took through Africa in just one word, that word would be ‘bland’.
THE REALITY There are, in all likelihood, people reading this who are shaking their heads at the things I am saying about Africa. I have had people tell me that as a ‘privileged white boy’ I should keep my mouth shut. Africa is an exceptionally sensitive subject. But again, I am NOT criticising. Criticism requires judgement, and I am not judging Africa. But nor will I conceal or temper the truth of what I saw. All that I can do, all that I must do, is to report, as truthfully as I can, my experience. The fact that I often did not enjoy these experiences is beside the point.
If there is one good reason I can think of to cycle through Africa instead of going somewhere else, it is to see the true reality of life there. Not everything of course, and not everywhere. But by travelling so slowly, for so long, through ordinary places far from the reach of tourism, a person gets a far better idea than most of what these places are really like. I was often amazed, speaking to tourists and short-term volunteers, at how naive and clueless many people were about the realities in Africa. I spoke to large numbers of visiting foreigners who were enamoured with how ‘nice’ it all was, how happy the people seemed and how colourful everything was. They were often fresh from visiting tourist villages where tribes would perform for their paying audiences. I spoke to wealthy overlanders who spoke enthusiastically about all the safaris they’d done and how nice their drivers were. Never mind that poaching and trophy hunting is driving species to extinction or that local staff are often paid barely enough to survive.
Very few travellers that I met, though plenty of locals, saw what I saw. I wanted very much to come away from Africa feeling hopeful for its future. I wanted it very badly, for all the kind people I'd met who deserve so much better. But after almost a year in Africa, I do not feel that way. On a smaller, micro scale there is certainly hope that things can get better. Many NGOs and charities are making a real difference. But as a whole, on the macro level, I do not believe that Africa can be fixed. It is too rife with corruption, too exploited by both it’s greedy politicians and by foreign powers who care nothing for the people on the ground. Education has been deliberately stymied and the culture has become too short-sighted and apathetic. I can not see a brighter future for Africa as a whole, a fact which I regret deeply. It is upsetting to say it, and it may upset some people reading this, but it is the truth as I saw it. And that is what cycling through Africa showed me, for better or worse.
I’ve said a fair bit about some of the more negative aspects of cycling through Africa, but there were also so many positives to my time on the continent, and this article would not be complete without making that clear. I had some fantastic experiences and met some wonderful people, finding what I’m sure will be lifelong friends. I rode beside elephants, ostriches, zebras and giraffes. I cycled clear across the Sahara desert and Africa’s Great Rift Valley. I saw the pyramids, and Table Mountain. I ate great food in Egypt, some terrible food in Kenya, and everything in between. I would rank some of the places I camped as amongst the best in the world. The incredible experience of sleeping under the stars, alone in the vast sand-ocean of the Sahara, will always be with me. In Kenya; the beauty of her lakes and mountains. In Uganda, the Rollex; the best cyclists snack food in the world. Namibia’s sand dunes and sunsets. Tanzania’s forests. The nightly Kalahari campfires in Botswana. Even Ethiopia, for it’s beautiful scenery and for the baseline it now gives me whenever I feel like complaining about how tough or unpleasant things are. Africa has given me so much.
Time dulls the pain of difficult memories. I may not have always enjoyed Africa, I may not want to do it again, and it may not even have felt like it at the time, but I look back now at my ride through Africa and see it as one of the best adventures of my life. Selective amnesia is a powerful thing, but I am nevertheless left with so many fond memories from Africa. And if I could go back in time to speak to the pre-Africa version of myself, I would without hesitation tell him to do as I did; and to go there.
SHOULD YOU CYCLE AFRICA?
So, should you cycle the length of Africa? It's a difficult question and I still don't feel that I can give a definitive answer. Should you cycle through Africa? Well yes, of course you should. It would be an experience that you would remember for the rest of your life. You would learn things that you couldn't learn any other way; both about yourself and about Africa. It would change your life forever. It would be an adventure of which you would always be proud. Of course you should cycle through Africa.
But should you cycle through Africa instead of somewhere else? That one is harder; it's the question I still can't answer. All I can do is present the facts as I saw them and let you decide for yourself whether you'd be better off in Africa, or somewhere else. Are you an extrovert, who loves being around people all the time? If so, you'll probably enjoy Africa a lot more than I did. Do you really love deserts, or are you more of a mountain person like me? How do you feel about being isolated and remote, because if that's what you're looking for then most of Africa is probably not the place for you. What are you looking for? There is so much to consider.
For me, cycling Africa was not 'fun', generally speaking. I am incredibly glad to have cycled through as I did, as overall it was a fantastic experience. But I would definitely not do it again, whereas with every other continent I would (and will) certainly go back and cycle through for a second or even third time. I expected Africa to be an adventure, but in truth it didn't really feel like one. I was never far from civilisation. Boredom, monotony and a lack of privacy were the biggest challenges I faced.
Since leaving the continent, I have now been bikepacking in South America for the past five months, the last three of which I have spent in Patagonia. The contrast of experiences has really driven home to me just how boring I ultimately found much of the journey through Africa. In Patagonia I feel like every day has been a adventure. I have had exciting new routes to explore, spectacular scenery and a true wilderness to delve into. I have had challenges too, but they have been the kind of challenges I have actually enjoyed rather than just a constant battle with ennui. Patagonia is an exceptional place, true, but there are many exceptional places in the world. And if I'm honest, I think that most people will probably have a better time cycling through some other part of the world than the route I took through Africa. That is, I think, the closest I can come to an answer. The rest has to be up to you.