“And with each challenge faced, with each victory won, you suddenly come to the realization that you are a different person than the one who began the journey.”
A year on the road and only about two weeks of cycling left. Maybe a little premature for an epilogue but I can sneak Kenya in at a later date. Here are my reflections, lessons and highlights from 12 months cycling through Africa. Plus a glimpse into the crystal ball about the future.
Warning: It’s been a long journey so at 3000 words this is my longest blog post to date, you might want to get a cup of tea, coffee, wine or beer before you start reading. And like any long journey you should have a pee too before you start!
It was a year ago this week, I can remember vividly the flight from Amsterdam to Cape Town on the 3rd of November 2011. Rather than reading, sleeping or watching films I spent most of the flight staring at the blue screen watching the little airplane fly past the countries I anticipated passing through a year or two later. Morocco, Mauritania, Mali , Senegal, various Guineas, Cameroon, DR Congo and so on. I was relieved that after more than 18 months of planning that I my trip had finally started.
Looking back it seems a life time ago and so much has changed in me in the mean time despite already being an experienced cyclist and fairly sure of who I was. I haven’t kept a precise log of how far I’ve travelled but a rough guess from GPS tracks that cover most of my journey show that I’ve travelled about 14,000km almost 11,000 of which I cycled. I guess the distances already show a big change in me, the purest is gone. If I get sick or short on time for something, I don’t have an issue with getting a bus. I no longer have anything to prove to myself or others in that department and in the future aim to regularly get the bus or train through boring parts of a country if on a long trip. Life is too short for weeks of mindless plodding through boring scenery. I believe Alistair Humphreys and/or Rob Lilwall coined the phrase “Miles not smiles.” In their books Moods of Future Joys: Around the World by Bike and Cycling Home from Siberia both good reads BTW. This seems such a waste, get a bus smile again sooner ?
The highlights of the trip
South Africa :
- Zigzagging over the Zwarteberg mountain range, not particularly high but pretty all the same and a nice warm up for things to come.
- Being hosted by several Warmshowers.org hosts, especially Johann. Johann has now become a treasured friend and mentor who has helped me through some of my toughest decisions during this journey.
- Spending a few weeks with Candice and Steve Black at the Kotsho horse farm, including a horse riding trip into Lesotho. In those three weeks I also Hiked the Giants Cup Trail possibly the happiest five days of the trip, being alone in the mountains with awesome scenery.
- Cycling up the infamous Sani pass to Lesotho 15-25% gradient, gravel, rocks, rain and the confused look on tourists faces when they saw me from inside their 4×4’s.
- Not Dying in the South African Kalahari during summer despite a nasty crash, cracked rib, cracked elbow and choosing to cycle through a desert during the height of summer.
Lots of hills, often cycling at 3000m, awesome scenery and a weird WII party with the staff of AfriSki on New Years eve.
- Desert, Desert, Desert. Between Kimberley in South Africa and Swakopmunt on the Namibian coast I’d spent almost 2 months in the Kalahari/Namib deserts during Summer. My accommodation in that time was a three was split 60/20/20 between wild camping/ paid campsites/ hotels. In that time my fears of wild camping became a memory and sleeping in the bush became my life blood.
- Despite a couple of near misses with death, dehydration and once practically running out of food and water, some of my happiest times during this trip were whilst suffering in the desert. I think only when living so close to the edge can one feel so alive. Living in the bush, carrying a week of food and as much water as I could I felt in my element. I felt like the adventurer I’d always wanted to be and felt alive and on top of the world.
- Namibia also brought a visit from my best friend and ex-girlfriend Linda. Linda brought a welcome break from cycling and being alone. She also brought a holiday budget which allowed for fancy hotels and a hire car which meant we spotted two Leopards among other things in Etosha national park.
- I also spent a few days being hosted by Johann’s girlfriend in Windhoek, a wonderful host, and friend that I would later affectionately call the cat lady.
- Though cycling the Caprivi strip with a head wind was hard and boring, I did get to see my first of several wild elephants, scary, exciting but awesome to see them in their element.
- Spending four days on the banks of the Zambezi with Peter Gostelow, doing what boys do. Pete and I are now good friends and still have almost daily contact.
Botswana had zero highlights along the Trans Kalahari Highway and the main road along the Okovango. This was about 700km of mind numbingly boring road, and in hindsight I should of got a lift the whole way. The road for more than 1000km (include the Caprivi strip) is tar road, 10m grass left and right, then endless bush you can’t see through. It’s pretty, but quickly gets pretty boring. That said, wild camping was easy and beautiful.
Zambia was one of my favorite countries and for no particular reason. The cycling was as boring as the previous 1000km of bush apart from the week I cycled in the West towards Mongu.
- The people of Zambia were some of the friendliest I met during the trip along with Zimbabwe and Mozambique (Coincidence that they all border on the great Zambezi river?).
- Cycling 30m away from three cheetahs in Kafue National Park.
- Meeting and being hosted by Siri and Gerrit while I rested in Lusaka.
- Meeting and being hosted by the folks at Munali coffee farm. Also drinking gallons of Munali coffee at the farm and in the weeks after thanks to them weighing my panniers down with coffee.
- Meeting and cycling with Ken McCallum, who is now a treasured friend.
- A micro-light flight over the Great Victoria falls.
Zimbabwe has a special place in my heart. This is the country I fell in love with and really should of just stayed put. Friendly people, a healthy mix of real Africa but cosmopolitan cities, perfect wild camping and a special lady in Bulawayo whose heart I broke by pedaling into the middle distance like I said I would after a wonderful month together.
Mozambique : The big surprise.
I’d been worried about going to Mozambique due to its recent history, talk of land mines and the huge language barrier.
- Despite poverty, history and the language barrier the people of Mozambique where kind and patient with me, some of the friendliest people I’ve ever met and without the “Mzungu give me money” attitude of their neighbours to the North. They also often respected personal space and didn’t crowd me too much in the small villages when I stopped for a break.
- Mozambique has the nicest bread in Africa, called Pau.
- After Mozambique an orange will never again taste so sweet and juicy.
- Awesome wild camping between Dondo and Caia.
- Manica beer, tasty warm or cold.
- Spending a couple of weeks at Nkhata bay. Eating, drinking and watching life go by as I tried to recover from my mini burn out.
- I also had a great weekend in Nkhata bay when more than 10 other cyclists randomly arrived.
Apart from that I wasn’t impressed with Malawi, too many tourists, NGO’s and “Mzungu give me money.”
I was however relieved to get across the lake without sinking.
- Cycling Southern Tanzania. Despite the bad roads and road works, a lot of the route was very demanding and beautiful. Once I hit the more boring coast road at Lindi I got a bus to Dar es Salaam.
- Finally a wide selection of beer, most of which were better than the beers of previous countries.
- The awesome views of the mountains West of Tanga.
- Along the coast eating a fresh coconut almost everyday, along with other fruit.
- Spending a week on the pristine beaches.
- Stepping back in time in Stone Town.
- Another visit from Linda, so flashy hotels, good conversations and tourist food again.
Is covered here >>> Kenya
Before the trip I was a confident man, knew what I wanted from life in the short term and had a reasonable amount of experience cycle touring. I was looking forward to the challenge and adventure Africa would bring.
The early months in South Africa I was just finding my feet, recovering from pre trip stress and learning to accept that this is my new life.
Through the deserts I finally had a lot of time to think and meditated during the rhythmic turning of my pedals. Two months in the desert where you rarely have a conversation longer than “How much is a camping spot.” or “ Could I have some water please.” Brings you close to yourself or close to insanity. In this time I had enough time to think about my life, choices I’ve made, situations I’ve regretted etc, etc . With many moments of outrage or tears I put all my demons and skeletons to rest in the Namib desert.
Changes, the good, the bad and the ugly.
There have been many changes, some I recognize, some I don’t, many subtle many I like and some I don’t.
First the bad and the ugly…….
I’ve changed in a negative way.
I’ve become tired of Africa and all that makes Africa interesting and fun. I no longer have an interest in learning about new cultures or meeting new people. I only stop briefly at villages for a drink or groceries and quickly move on without too much conversation.
Africa has physically and mentally drained me. I feel like a shadow of my former self, the desert adventurer is now a hollow drained body and mind.
I have increasing difficulty dealing with poverty, each time I see a cow or goat eating rubbish or a person rummaging through someone else’s rubbish it makes me feel sick.
Africa has lost its charm for me which is sad with so much still to see.
I have ZERO tolerance for touts, hustlers or anyone that starts a conversation with me that leads to them wanting something from me. This also blocks out the possibility of the occasion genuine person that just wants a chat. I’ve had enough of people asking for money, telling me they have a cousin that has something for me, or people asking for help with their study.
I can only hope that these are all temporary things that will be fixed with a little rest in Europe and that in no time I’ll once again be on top of the world and in my element somewhere and once again open to contact with strangers.
The good changes…..
Africa had humbled me. I’ve been brought to my knee’s physically and mentally a couple of times. I have learned that the human body and soul are strong but far from invincible.
Because I’ve been brought to my knees I’ve learned that pride and ego can be put to one side. I value my self sufficiency but several times during this trip I’ve had to ask for help from a stranger, on one occasion saving my life.
I am now more open and tolerant of peoples opinions and choices in life, a lot less judging of how people choose to live or travel, each to their own and all that. Though I still think backpackers that take Valium to sleep during a night bus are frigging stupid!
I have been humbled by the amount of interest that has been shown in my trip by complete strangers, ex-colleagues, friends and distant family. Also by the support shown via the Paypal button to donate a little to buy me a coffee, beer or clean hotel room. Thank you all!!
I’ve learned that just about all people are good (well OK I knew that already it’s just been reinforced in Africa). It doesn’t matter where in the world you cycling into a small village and ask for water or help, people will go out of their way to help a stranger. This is especially true in Africa where a sense of community and pride are very strong.
Note : this is only true outside of tourist areas, in tourist areas people will also go out of their way but in the hope of earning something from you. That said shop keepers remain about 40/60 for either trying to rip me off or give me a fair price. The former I affectionately call Mzungu tax.
From Botswana to Tanzania I cycled thousands of kilometers with a head wind and fairly uninspiring scenery ( I only had about a dozen days of tail wind during the whole trip), this gave me a strong mind and body.
I’ve found a passion for wild(bush) camping, in the early days I had sleepless nights hearing animals or people. Now I sleep like a baby if in the bush. The ability to wild camp a few days a week now dictates if I like an area or country more than the people or scenery.
I’ve discovered a joy for writing and learned to express myself more through writing and sharing the things I see around me me. My blog has also made me more conscious of the moment, constantly thinking “How am I going to write this up?” Naturally my spelling and grammar need a lot of work but you can’t have everything. I think many moments would have been lost forever if I hadn’t thought about writing it up on my blog. I now see and experience more and have become more aware of the small things around me through my writing. I’ve seen a large improvement in my writing in the last six months, a process that is a wonder really for someone that has light dyslexia and near enough failed English at school.
I’ve developed a healthy respect for the easy luxury life we have in the “civilized world.” And a respect for the things we take for granted:
- Electricity all day every day
- A fridge, freezer, kettle and other kitchen luxuries
- Clean fresh water from 6-10 taps in house whereas many villages I passed through only had one tap for dozens of families
- A well stocked supermarket within walking distance
- A choice from dozens of different types of fresh bread rather than dozens of stale white loafs.
- A machine that makes your cloths smell nice rather than hours of hand washing.
- Gas/ electric cookers in a separate kitchen rather than a charcoal stove in the one room house/hut or outside
- A clean spacious bathroom
- Waking in the morning not itchy from mosquito or bedbug bites
- Education, welfare system, medical system and strange things called work contracts and pensions.
- Fairly efficient and not too overcrowded public transport
- Fast reliable internet
- Good coffee
- Police that are generally not corrupt
- Health and safety laws
- etc etc etc
I’ve learned the value of a good conversation, something I’ve been desperately lacking most of the trip.
My original plan was to continue from Kenya around Lake Victoria through DR Congo then to cycle the West coast of Africa. Thanks to recent events, see “The Wall” I’ve decided to stop my trip in Nairobi . Thanks to the experiences of this trip I’ve learned what I want from cycling touring. It seems the “Blunt instrument “ (as Tom calls a RTW trip) of a long term trip is not for me.
I’m not the bicycle nomad I thought I wanted to be but at the same time I have found what I do want to be. I was happiest being pushed to my limits in the Desert, cycling the mountain passes of Lesotho and hiking through the Drakensburg on the Giants cup trail.
I have in fact discovered my passion lies in being an adventurer more than a nomad. Challenging myself to my limits rather than slowly plodding around the world.
Looking into the crystal ball about the Future
It was a relief when I decided to escape “Living the dream.” I now have time and money left over for other things before going back to work. Things that inspire and motivate me more than just plodding on for another year or so, I no longer feel trapped in my trip.
I’ve discovered that my passion lies in adventure and challenges rather than the long slog and also that I love writing in my own unique open and honest way, as well as sharing useful information for other cyclists. At the same time as anyone who has done a trip of any length in a third world country I’m looking forward to enjoying the luxuries of home for weeks or months after a trip.
I hope to spend the next year or two finding balance between enjoying the luxuries of home and doing tough and/or interesting adventures. I hope to be able to do seasonal work in Europe each summer, preferable 6-8 months. Then in the winter head off somewhere for a cycling/hiking/other adventure.
This trip maybe finished now but I won’t be working for a few months yet so have a few things in the pipe line.
Early January I plan to tick off one of my few remaining childhood wishes and walk the length of Hadrians wall in Northern England (140km). In February I plan to explore the other extremes of weather by cycling to Lapland. During my time in Lapland I will spend more time concentrating on learning to enjoy camping at -20 degrees than actually cycling, only actually cycling about 40km a day. I hope to develop the field skills and learn what I need to learn to be ready for a big cold weather trip during winter 2013.
So I’m not done, I’m just moving continents and looking for new challenges.
I also hope some time in 2013 to finish an e-book about my trip and add a lot of information to my site as a resource to others planning a bicycle trip through Africa.
To stay up to date of my future adventures and mindless ramblings follow me on
My main website shanecycles.com
My new cold weather site wintercycletouring.com
Thank you everyone who has shown an interest in my trip, thank you for your comments and support. I hope you’ll choose to continue following in the next round of adventures.
My trip is dead. Long live my trip.