Cairo to Cape Town. The words tumbled together in poetic cadence. Africa’s malleable cycling route from the Pyramids of Giza to Table Mountain was my dream of a decade. Soured by the rigid nature of sponsors’ expectations, I chose a bare-bones expedition. Plans and timelines aside. To travel for travel’s sake. To sink my teeth into the truth and toss the rest by the wayside. I started from the Egyptian pyramids with just my kiwi partner, the most efficient machines ever created, and the entire African continent ahead. Southbound and on edge, we began our trans-continental cycling journey dissecting Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa.
A long time ago I decided to seek distant lands in a way that departed from the ordinary. Disillusioned with itineraries and silver capsule time travel, I longed to find the link between two points on the corners of an atlas and experience the daily life of foreign cultures far beyond the tourist traps. Around this time I was introduced to long-distance, multi-month, self-supported footpaths: thru-hiking. Echoing the spiritual nature of a walkabout or pilgrimage, I quickly realized the primal rhythms of traveling only by your own human power. Moving through a landscape, I felt a deep immersion into each country’s culture, observing the rural ways of life that so many travelers miss by parachuting into chaotic city centers.
The locals seemed to respect my means of travel through their land and were much more willing to open conversation– and sometimes even their doors– to a foreigner. After living in the wild and walking the faraway lands of New Zealand, Chile, Nepal, and our very own Pacific Crest Trail, I wondered about the next evolution of this alternative slow-paced symphony. Maybe it was witnessing the lunatics in the Himalayas, hauling their bikes over our planet’s tallest mountain range; or the brave steel gravel cyclist delicately weaving around Colorado Trail’s rock-ridden path. Whichever the catalyst, two-wheeled travel was calling. My litmus test: cycling a used mountain bike the length of Vietnam. My training session: riding the length of Europe. The grand safari: pedaling the length of the entire African continent.
There was no question about it, our wheeled vessels needed to be world tour machines. Strong as an ox without compromising pace. Kona’s 2021 Sutra 700c for Jim. Surly Disc Trucker with 26” tires for me. We blurred boundaries with a bikepacking-gone-touring hybrid. Our steel homes-on-wheels were furnished with Jim’s handmade x-pac full-frame bags, classic touring Ortlieb back panniers, cargo cages mounted on the front forks for up to 2L of water capacity each, Revelate mountain feedbag for my quick-to-grab memory-catcher devices, and a custom handlebar bag by Ukrainian artisan LesenokBag. Threads were chosen with a purpose; our clothes had the sole intention of keeping the hot sun off of our skin. For fuel, we ditched our stove early on, in favor of local cooking for the benefits of lightened load, supporting small villages, and an opportunity to converse with locals. Meal time meant cultural and culinary immersion.
Our journey was a mosaic in motion. Over five months, ten countries, two hemispheres, and 11,000 kilometers, we endured a military coup with no communication to the outside world, were spit on and robbed by a phone-stealing scam, and deflected a tribal boy’s spear being thrown at us. We saw more camels than cars, averted a wild elephant ambush, and navigated a post-pandemic world of increased border logistics and decreased travelers. We tasted sweat-soaked discomfort every day, ridden with saddle sores, all-too-close truck horns echoing through our shaky bones, and foreign stares shadowing our every movement. We made friends from every region who went out of their way to offer us treats that cost an entire week’s salary.
One moment we would be freewheeling down a cloud of creamy asphalt, only to be shocked with a pothole-infested dirt ‘road’. Wild camping was a tricky balance of getting far enough away from town but not too close to wildlife. Somewhere across the continent, adrift in the remote, daunting unknown, we became familiar with the foreign land. When we dropped our guard and trusted locals, Africa became our home. Like all noteworthy quests, our trip was pliable, constantly bending in different directions– its spirit unbreakable.
Turbulence and Red Tape – Egypt & Sudan
Egypt is like nowhere else on this planet. Dust-caked townships and hidden dangers are contrasted with delicate designs and ancient architecture. It’s a holidaymaker’s maze, with shiny attractions. But on the fringes of the tourist track, we rode our bicycles through a lesser-known land, far away from the hassling scams and McDonald’s of the large towns.
Unlike other bicycle tourists with glamorous GPS devices and a pre-planned track, we decided to navigate on the fly, marking our Maps. Me offline whenever we stumbled upon scarce wifi. Not knowing where to even start from the Pyramids, we sludged along remote village tracks to avoid congested traffic and unwanted attention, isolating ourselves amongst a culture teetered between hospitable and outright dangerous. One moment I was pushed off my bike by a dreadful little punk on a scooter, and the next a tiny roadside family-owned ice cream booth refused to take our money and proceeded to pile on sugary delights. Rambling into small townships we would surge into chaotic scenes of daily markets, camels, horses, cars, speakers, and scooters.
Eventually, we were caught by the two most daunting elements: the heat and the police. In Egypt, police escorts are commonplace for foreign bicycle travelers. A heated topic of the Cairo to Cape Town bicycle route, as some cyclists aren’t as lucky and get sent back to Cairo, often without explanation. Luckily we avoided any questioning fiasco, but the irritating bureaucracy was unavoidable. Thankfully Jim’s disarming jokes charmed the Egyptians, and we in turn were offered tea and new friends. Water sources in Egypt were mostly Nile river water placed in clay pots. The oasis hideaways were scattered under the roadway, usually under a shaded bench area. When we finally boarded the ferry to cross Lake Nasser and cross into Sudan, we realized how far we had traveled away from the Western World.
Within one step of entering Sudan, the desert seemed to unfold in front of us and continue in a perpetual motion of sand and boiling heat. Tailwinds or headwinds shrieking – there was no in-between. The desert decided from which direction. We’d take refuge at the only landmark on the map: cafeterias. These were roadside rest stops dotted sparsely through the inhospitable desert, offering a meal, shade, or if we were really lucky, a cot to sleep on.
Gone were the days of forced baksheesh (tips, but really meaning bribes). The bare desert dwelled in silent whispers. Expansive and empty, our thoughts were finally able to flow freely. Cars and trucks became as rare as our exposed skin. The Sudanese displayed unwavering kindness and generous hospitality, bewildered to find two strangers who found it fun to travel through their desert on a machine without an engine. Cafeterias being so few and far between, we often found ourselves peeling off the road at dusk to find a hidden spot to camp in the sand.
Mention the country Sudan and you’ll get one of two extreme reactions: danger or friendliness. How can a country draw such a polarizing response? Travelers tend to report the unwavering kindness of locals upon visiting, shattering their prior assumptions. As fate would have it, our desert ramble dissolved into pedaling head-on into a military coup, witnessing firsthand the polarity between the outside world’s perspective and our on-the-ground experience.
When the notorious wind wasn’t dictating our passage, we were whipped with the fragility of politics. A few days away from Khartoum, we began noticing the military on the airwaves, with locals glued to the screen. As it turned out, years of protests had finally surmounted into a military coup. Communication to the outside world was cut off, the airport was closed, and Sudan’s fate seemed to be a stand-still. The locals assured us safe passage, and that we could continue cycling into the capital. Uncertain and unable to check global news sources, we followed their advice and timed our arrival into Khartoum on a day without protests. There we waited to see the fate of Sudan and the rest of our Cairo to Cape Town journey.
Terra Incognita – Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia
Due to the Tigray Conflict in Ethiopia, we were forced to fly from Khartoum to Addis Ababa. That meant waiting patiently for the airport to open, cramming our two touring bikes into three kid-sized bicycle boxes we found at the market, and bartering exorbitant baggage costs. An overland bikepacker’s nightmare. Luckily we had previous practice in sidelining all expectations after a long day waiting in disorderly lines for our Sudanese visa. Disheveled and overcharged at the Khartoum airport, we were relieved to touch down into Ethiopia and push our pedals again. But cyclists ahead of us warned of rebels in the south of the country who were closing roads and detaining fellow travelers. The looming threat proved unworthy of a gamble, and we decided to ride by bus to the Kenya border.
As we crossed into Kenya, the wind turned on us. Never have I battled such a vicious headwind. The boiling temperatures added a heat poisoning surprise at the end of most days. Passing through many tribal villages, one young boy took an opportunity to hurl his spear my way. Avoiding my wheel by merely a few inches, I turned around in a thunderbolt of anger just in time to see him hide in embarrassment behind his mother. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, foolish teenage antics are universal. For the most part we didn’t bother looking at elevation, but I remember one instance where our map looked to have drawn an eternal staircase. We carved into a hillside and clashed through extreme climate zones, from 110° to 35° F and back down again. In the glory of the freewheeling descent, a large sign materialized in the distance: EQUATOR.
Between Kenya and Tanzania, we shared our path with zebras, giraffes, monkeys, warthogs, and knew that lions and hyenas were never too far away. In Tanzania we battled relentless climbs and were rewarded with almost daily roadside stalls full of fresh fruit and curious onlookers.
From Tanzania we traversed into Northern Zambia. Not many cyclists travel this remote route, most preferring instead to navigate east into Malawi. Shock was written all over the faces of local Zambian children, confused at the strange visitors who slowly rambled past their village without tinted windows and air conditioning. We had our longest stretches without food markets in Northern Zambia. By the time we finally made it down to the affluent capital in Lusaka, we savored the excuse of the holiday season by taking a long-awaited rest.
Ambush – Botswana
Almost immediately upon crossing the border into Botswana, we approached a massive gray boulder in the middle of the road. The roadblock turned out to be our first elephant herd encounter on Botswana’s famous Elephant Highway, a stretch of road home to wild African elephants. Not long after, a lone bull elephant appeared, charging full steam in our direction. Caught off guard, we quickly retreated and so did the gigantic creature. Wide-eyed and frantic, I’m not sure who was more surprised – us or the elephant. The large mammals had a tough time deciphering the two-wheeled enigmas, so we kept our distance and flagged down nearby cars to escort us past.
Botswana was precisely the Africa I had imagined. Empty landscapes, abundant wildlife and explosive sunsets were the exceptions on our voyage, in high contrast to the populated frenzy on the majority. The wild camping was as tasty as the flat elevation and smooth sailing on the bike. We were finally able to make up some lost miles from the undulating Tanzanian hills and Zambian New Year extravaganza.
The Secret of Namibia
On the way from Cairo to Cape Town, there’s a multitude of routes to choose from. The route passes through three main regions of Africa: north, east, and south. Each cyclist may choose different roads, but they all have to cross over the same paramount invisible lines: the Equator and the Tropic of Capricorn.
We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn not long after detouring to Namibia’s iconic Sossusvlei sand dunes. Of all the places we encountered on the continent, Namibia would be the first I would earmark. Uncrowded, idle and overflowing with natural wonders, Namibia boasts an unusual combination of sand dunes, ancient tribes, shipwrecks, German beer, and national parks. Spellbound and just having scratched the surface, I resist the temptation to overshare, with the same allegiance as a surfer to his secret break.
Final Fragments – South Africa
When we finally crossed the border into South Africa, we were relieved that we made it through the Sudanese military coup, Ethiopian war, and countless bureaucratic obstacles. Patience became our most valuable piece of equipment.
A long time ago I lost myself in the tangle of a map and a mystery. It took me a while to collect my courage and then slowly watch it crystallize into motion. Whether it was the lack of sleep or excess of local attention, Africa slapped me awake. Denied the luxury of daydreams and headphone distractions, I was forced to pay attention. In retrospect, it’s the most alive I have ever felt. Scared shitless of the oncoming traffic. Content to stay in the small Sudanese village forever, eating the popular ‘ful’ bean dish with our local host and his family. Present as ever in the malaria-mosquito inferno of grungy guesthouses. Pinch-me moments in the desolate Zambian roads passing straw-and-mud huts.
You see, we all come pre-programmed with some amount of paranoia. Threatening lands. Risky situations. Terrible consequences. Why not just stay home where it’s presumably safe? Because the most paralyzing ramification comes from placing our dreams in the shadows and living in a world of “what ifs.”
I went to Africa to pedal my way between two distant corners and find a link between it all. Over 135 days, I peered through an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, rotating between misery and revelation. Throughout 10 countries, I navigated a maze of fragmented moments that turned my world upside down and back again. In the end, the delicate line down 11,000 kilometers from Cairo to Cape Town materialized into a mosaic of experiences that, when combined, created a bespoke masterpiece.