Congratulations!

Today is your day.
You're off to great places!
You're off and away!

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

So...
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
you're off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!

Oh, the Places You'll Go! 
Dr Seuss

 

It’s been a while since my last blog, but we’re safely back home in England and I’ve finally got round to writing the last chapter.

When we crossed the border into Tanzania from Burundi, we knew that we were running out of time. There was still a long way to go to Cape Town, but our self-imposed deadline was only a month away and it was clear that we’d need to invoke the power of petrol if we wanted to reach our goal.

The town of Kigoma – our first stop over the border in Tanzania – was on the banks of the giant and idyllic Lake Tanganyika, and a boat south would provide a great scenic shortcut down to Zambia. Unfortunately, the fortnightly public ferry had been cancelled for Easter, and our search for another boat failed miserably, despite the harbour master’s insistence that we should ‘ask Jesus - he will help you’. We chose in the end to put our faith in a local driver who agreed to take us south for a day in his Range Rover, dropping us off in roughly the same place as the boat would have.  The route covered hundreds of kilometres of dirt track running through the remote and scrubby woodland of western Tanzania, and after a full day of psychotic hi-speed driving we had made it almost all the way to Zambia. It would have taken at least a week to cycle, and judging by the long distances between villages and regular swarms of tsetse flies that got into the car, it would have been a tough ride. But as always, it would have been well worth the effort if only we’d had time. Edging further away from the equatorial centre of the continent, the landscape became freed of its blanket of steaming plant life, and expanded into the majestic African vistas that I’d grown up watching on nature documentaries. There were sadly no animals to be seen, but that was ok. I was more than happy to mentally ‘photoshop’ herds of mastodon and stegosaurus onto the sweeping grasslands and pretend we were in Jurassic Park.

Back in the real world the next morning, we hopped on the bikes and headed for the Zambian border. It was a nice cool day, but the monsoon rains had been hard at work and murky pools of red mud spread across the dirt road. It was nasty stuff, and splattered its way into everything, clogging up the wheels and mudguards. Fortunately the tarmac returned when we left Tanzania and the mud soon dried and flaked away. Zambia immediately felt very different to the other places we’d been on the sub-Saharan leg of our journey. In our experience, Africa had been a place of extremes but here, the people, the climate, and the terrain seemed gentle and soft. Physically, it is a vast country, and the sparse population and unbroken wilderness made it really feel huge and timeless. Quiet days were spent cycling through an unchanging landscape of tall grasses and stunted woodland. Although we were on the main road running through 1000km of northern Zambia, traffic was few and far between, and towns were so spaced out that we would encounter less than one a day. In a different phase of the trip, the peaceful routine would have seemed like paradise, but with our deadline creeping up it felt frustratingly slow. With 800 further kilometres to go to the capital Lusaka, the temptation to take another lift gnawed at us. With the prospect of exciting and less monotonous travel beyond Lusaka, it was an easy decision. We flagged a down a minivan, and before long, our bikes were strapped to the roof and we were heading straight for Lusaka. It was a long drive. Emily was riding in the front with two friendly but fundamentalist Christians, and I was crammed in the back with an assortment of furniture, and a hyperactive chicken. By the time we arrived, it was late at night. Me and the chicken were both smelling worse for wear and looking forward to some time apart. Emily too was glad to get out, having endured 12 solid hours of inquisition into her feelings about Jesus.

From Lusaka it was only a couple of days to the closest Zimbabwean border post, so we got back in the saddle and hit the road.  The first night, we stayed at one of the best campsites of our entire journey – not only did they show live English football, but they had wild zebra and giraffe wandering about.  The day after, we dropped into the sweltering lowlands of the hippo and crocodile infested Zambezi River. Zambia statistically is one of the most stable country’s in Africa, and even in the space of a week, it had infected us with a Zen-like sense of peace, but Zimbabwe promised a more edgy experience, and it started the second we crossed the border.

The heat was stifling as we pedalled into the eerily quiet, bone dry, wooded savannah. Unusually, there was absolutely nobody on the road – no animals, no bicycles, no villagers pottering about - just a sporadic trickle of lorries coming through from the border behind us. On our map, the area we were in was marked as ‘game reserve’. This - we later found out – was where rich American rednecks come to shoot lions, and there were apparently plenty of lions knocking about. Truck drivers would pass us leaning out of their cabs in disbelief (and not just the normal ‘crazy mzungu’s on bicycles!?’ disbelief). They all issued warnings to cycle quickly because ‘there are tooooooo many lions here!!!’. After the laissez-faire attitude toward wildlife that we’d so far encountered, this was alarming to say the least. For a change, we took comfort in the heat of the mid-day sun, which we hoped would keep the big cats at bay, and pressed on toward a National Park ranger station 40km down the road. Needless to say, we weren’t eaten, but we did acquire a newfound respect for the African bush.

At the ranger station, we were offered a lift deep into Mana Pools National Park. Even in our haste to get to Cape Town, we couldn’t refuse a trip into one of the most famously wild places in Africa. After a few amazing days of mucking about with hyenas, running the gauntlet of hippos and crocodiles on the Zambezi in canoes, and getting treated to sumptuous BBQ ‘Braais’ by sympathetic and better prepared park visitors, we refocused on the task at hand and hit the road. Unfortunately, we had to make up for lost time by taking a final lift through Zimbabwe and into South Africa. It was one of greatest regrets to have skipped so much of Zimbabwe. The nature and especially the people here were among the finest we’d met, and we marvelled – not for the first time – at how such a troubled nation can be so full of smiling happy positive people.

When we first got out of our lift in a motorway service station in South Africa, everything seemed very familiar, yet very strange. Ever since Europe, the world had been getting steadily more exotic, and now suddenly we were back in the sanitised land of ‘western civilisation’. The etiquette and formalities of everyday life as we knew it, had been reinstated and I was immediately aware of how scruffy and dirty we were.

Over the past six months we had slowly, unconsciously, adapted to a entirely different way of life, and now it was as if we had clicked our heels together three times, and been deposited back a the world that we knew, but that had become alien. I went to use the cash machine with the usual feeling of dread. But it worked, first time! I felt elated, but then realised, ‘of course it works’, it’s a normal regularly serviced cash machine. I turned my attention to a nearby fast food joint – a rare treat in most of Africa - and wandered out into the forecourt with my burger to plonk myself down on a clean patch of grass. As I started to eat, it dawned on me that everyone else from the bus was sitting at picnic tables, so I sheepishly got up and joined them. It took a day or so for us to stop having these surreal experiences, but in the end we re-adjusted depressingly quickly to South Africa.

After the rest of Africa, the last 600km of our cycling trip through the glorious Western Cape felt almost embarrassingly decadent, but if truth be told, it was still one of most enjoyable legs of the trip. The cycling was tough (and at times off-road) enough to still feel adventurous, but it was punctuated by regular pit stops at beautiful wineries and delicious cafes, and camping soon gave way to boutique bed and breakfasts. Eventually, we crossed our last mountain pass, and rolled down to the coastal plain which would take us the sea, and southern most point on the African landmass. We savoured every moment of the last few days ride to Cape Town, and by the time we arrived, only our mud-splattered bikes and sun-bleached clothes really distinguished us from regular holiday makers. The rest as they say, is history, and not particularly blog-worthy, suffice to say we spent a wonderful week with my cousin Dane and his lovely family before heading back to Blighty. When we set out 9 months earlier, this was supposed to be our last great travel, before we started ‘taking life seriously’.

6 months later, we’re already plotting the next trip! Cycling to Africa was the best thing we’ve ever done, and we’d do it again tomorrow if there weren’t so many other places to see, and cycle. But there are, and at the risk of being branded as itinerant traveller types, we’ll be off to explore them - with more photos and blog – as soon as we’ve saved up enough money! Until then, in the tradition of all good travel blogs and guidebooks, we’ll leave you with a selection of our favourite ‘Top Threes’ from Europe, Middle East, and Africa.

By the way, if you want to get in touch, you can still reach us at cyclingtoafrica@gmail.com.

 

Final Stats:


Days on the road: 261 days  
Distance cycled: 13,750km   
Average Distance per [cycling] day: 82.3km 
Average Distance per day including rest days: 52.7km
Highest temperature: 49 Celsius (in the shade)
Highest altitude: 3100 metres 
Longest day: 156km 


Top three countries:

1.    Turkey

2.    Burundi

3.    Sudan


Top three cities:

1.      Damascus

2.      Istanbul

3.      Budapest

 

Top three cyclist’s street food:

1.      Rolex (Ugandan egg wrap)

2.      Legemat (Sudanese donut)

3.      Kosheri (for Emily), Falafel (for Max) (both Egyptian)

 

Top three worst food experiences:

1.      Syrian milky/smoky/congealed pudding

2.      Max poisoning himself with his own three day old fried rice in Hungary

3.      Vending machine breakfast, Bulgaria


Top three hairiest moments:

1.      Sandstorm in Egypt

2.      Ugandan minicab drivers

3.      Losing sanity with Ethiopian children


Top three dangerous animal encounters:

1.      Kangal dog attack in Turkey

2.      Trapped in a small room with a camel spider in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia

3.      Cycling through lion-infested game reserve in Zimbabwe

 

Top three idyllic roads:

1.      Orchards and meadows in the Black Forest, Germany

2.      Descending in to Bujumbura and Lake Tanganiyka, Burundi

3.   Passing over the Taurus mountains in Turkey


Top three campsites:

1. Queen Elizabeth National Park on the border of the Congo, Uganda

2. Woods in Romania

3. Sahara Desert, Sudan