10 Questions: Cycling In Africa
Alongside amazing cultures and landscapes is a fear of the unknown. Not nearly as much information is out there for Africa, compared with more popular biking destinations like Asia or Europe.
Yes and no. Before we set out on our bike tour, I imagined security would be a major issue. In fact, most parts of Africa are very safe for cyclists. I’d steer clear of Somalia, Chad DRC, and Central Africa Republic, but most other countries can be cycled through if you keep your wits about you.
What I didn’t imagine was the state of the roads—especially during the rainy season. Roads really can become impassible, so it pays to do research on the weather and find the best times to travel.
Dealing with extreme heat is tough on the body, but you learn to adapt. Water was a huge issue for us. In cities there are regular water cuts and in rural areas pumps are often broken or locked except during certain hours to avoid wastefulness. By the end of the trip I became obsessed about stocking water.
We cycled through 37 countries in Africa, so picking a favourite part is a tough task. Biking in Botswana with elephants wandering across the highway, giraffes mating by the roadside and hippos outside the tent waking us in the early hours of morning is at the top of the list. That’s about as exotic and adventurous as it gets.
And I fell in love with the desert in Africa. Nothing beats the sense of vastness and total solitude that can be found in Namibia and Sudan.
We carried a lot more tools and spare parts than are necessary when biking in other parts of the world. Otherwise, you don’t need and special equipment to bike through Africa.
If you plan on cycling through West Africa, I’d invest in a high-quality, sturdy bike that can take the jolts of rough roads. A 36-spoke wheel is a necessity.
Solar-chargers are also practical on a continent where many areas are still without electricity.
Don’t forget to pack a water purification system. We relied on Aqua-Pure tablets and drops, but you may want to carry a filter for added peace of mind.
North African countries such as Morocco, Egypt and Ethiopia have delicious food.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa aren’t known for their cuisine. Cassava, a tropical plant with edible roots, is one of the mainstays throughout the continent. You’ll enjoy your travels a lot more if you take a liking to cassava. I can’t stand the sight or smell of cassava, so I suffered.
Throughout my two years in Africa, I ate rice and beans almost every day. In rural areas, that’s about the only option for vegetarians. Bush meat—things like snake, crocodile and even monkey—is regarded as a delicacy in many Central African countries.
Obviously, you won’t starve in Africa, but you won’t find markets overflowing with produce. Large, well-stocked western-style supermarkets can be found in major cities but prices can be prohibitive. Africa is a good place to practice lifestyle simplification.
Touring in Africa is more expensive than in other parts of the developing world. A lot of food items are imported and accommodation can be very costly in countries that have little tourist infrastructure and therefore little competition.
Costs vary widely. In Tanzania, Egypt or Ethiopia, $10 a day will stretch pretty far. You could have one meal in a cheap restaurant and still afford a room in a simple guesthouse.
If you’re biking through Botswana, Congo or Gabon, $10 will just be enough to cover your food costs.
Some super-frugal cyclists who always stealth camp might be able to get by on an average of $5 per day, but it will be tough.
We spent an average of $10 per person per day, occasionally staying in cheap guesthouses or catholic missions and often camping in villages. We ate most of our meals at roadside food stands or self-catered.
I would definitely bring along camping gear on a trip to Africa. You won’t want to miss spending nights in the desert under a star-filled sky or be forced to take cover in a filthy guesthouse next to an all night disco. Organized campsites are rare except in Morocco, but pitching up in a village or hidden away off the road is always possible.
7. Sometimes the roads can be quite rough, or even non-existent. Can you tell us about a particularly difficult stretch and how you dealt with it?
Roads can be horrendous in Africa. We tackled so many difficult stretches I just don’t know where to start.
I suppose the absolutely worst roads are in Central Africa. One particularly bad stretch that pops into mind was in the Republic of Congo. The ‘highway’ was a narrow dirt track that had turned to oozing mud after days of heavy rain.
It was impossible to cycle, we had to push. We’d been slogging away for hours and were becoming hopeless. There was no traffic and we hadn’t passed any villages. Suddenly I heard a horn blaring in the distance and I looked back and saw a giant truck grinding its way towards us. It seemed impossible that a vehicle could make its way through the wet earth.
Normally catching a lift would never cross my mind, but in that instant there was no hesitation. We flagged down the over-loaded truck and begged them to make room for us. That vehicle was the only one able to make the journey and it was packed to the max with people and goods. Fortunately, they understood our plight and squeezed us in without even a grumble.
8. What is the toughest challenge overall for people considering going to Africa?
Although cycling through Africa is physically demanding, for me the most difficult aspect was dealing with the constant attention I attracted. There’s something very disconcerting abut being surrounded by a sea of 40 curious faces. Often I just wanted to be alone. To be anonymous. To blend in with the crowd. I was tired of explaining ‘my mission’ to the head man of the village and greeting every toddler who could shout ‘hello’.
But I knew many of the people I was meeting had had little or no contact with a foreigner. I felt it was my duty to be a good ambassador and show friendliness and interest. Being the village entertainment show night after night is draining. But if you just ignore the locals, they will feel hurt and this will have an effect on the welcome the next foreigner who passes receives.
Once when we were biking through Nigeria I was exhausted and could just not summon up the energy to wave, smile and greet all of the villagers as I passed. I hunkered down and ignored the locals calling out Obroni (white man).
As we left the village, a man on a motorbike followed us and eventually got us to pull over. He explained how disappointed the children had been that we hadn’t stopped to meet them and begged us to return to the village.
Bureaucracy can be a huge headache in some parts of Africa. Visas for countries in East Africa and Southern Africa countries are relatively straightforward and can normally be obtained at the border. But visas for most West African countries must be obtained in advance. That means a trip to the embassy in the neighboring country, reams of paperwork to be filled out and fees to be paid.
The cost of visas really adds up fast. Just to get from Morocco to Cape Town via West Africa I spent more than $1,000 US dollars on visas alone. This took a big bite out of the budget.
Some countries also have crazy requirements. To enter Cameroon I was asked to write an essay on why I wanted to visit the country. The Nigerians wanted to see bank statements, proof of health insurance and a letter from my employer. Authorization to travel in Sudan meant getting a letter of reference from my embassy.
There are lots of hoops to jump through, but if you’re organized and persistent you’ll end up getting your visas.
10. What’s the best reason you can give for why people reading this should book their next bike trip in Africa?
Africa has yet to see the backpacker invasion that has changed travel in Asia and South America. For me, Africa is synonymous with adventure. If you’re someone who wants to test your limits, get way out of your comfort zone and explore a continent of raw natural beauty, this is the place for you.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in Africa:
- Travel Guide to Africa by Bicycle
- Take on Africa: From the UK to Capetown
- Top 10 Fears about Cycling in Africa