• Caroline Soubayroux

South & East Africa

Credit: Georg Lindacher for Wilier Triestina

Africa. 6438km. 40 days. It’s taken me quite some time to write this blog.

We finished in Africa on the 8th of February. Since then we have cycled in Hawaii, Australia and Europe and successfully completed our world tour. Yet I barely know how to describe and give a good account of what happened in Africa. But I must try, at least to avoid my memories of the place to fade too much, and I hope that, now that time has passed, I can better understand and describe what we went through whilst cycling this amazing continent.

We landed in Cape Town on the 26th of December. We had a 10-hour stopover in London where I went to get my booster vaccination and I felt consequently very tired the first day. Forcing us to keep the riding short so that I could rest and recover. David and I know Cape Town well and it felt quite familiar to ride there. This part of South Africa has a very chilled vibe although there are still strong inequalities and swathes of poverty which do make some parts relatively riskier to go through - mugging is quite common. But the risks are more than largely compensated by the vibrant beauty of the Cape. David and I love Cape Town. We go there whenever we can and we hope to come back many more times in the future.

After our day in Cape Town we aimed North toward Namibia. We decided on the Namibian route rather than the Zimbabwean route based on the feedback of several South Africans who confirmed the route would be safer and quieter. The border with Namibia is also not as busy as the one with Zimbabwe, a key advantage in covid times. Overall, riding was good, the landscape drying up day after day as the sea moisture slowly disappeared once we passed the beautiful wineland. Drivers were not the friendliest, likely due to the Western influence on the roads, meaning drivers think the road is theirs and cyclists should not be on it. But we managed, and after Clanwilliam, we enjoyed the reassuring protection of a shoulder. Wild life near the road was not particularly rich aside from the many adorable dassie rats running in and out of the roadside rocks, a few turtles which I promptly helped crossing the road, and a scary encounter with a panicked boomslang trying to avoid traffic. Places to eat or find water on the road became more and more sparse, and Afrikaans slowly took over English as the main language. From the third day, we started to get a headwind, and that dreadful headwind would stay with us more or less all the way to Mombasa.

The most notable moment of our time in South Africa was the day of the border crossing. As we were racing against the sun, having already finished in the dark the night before, David’s back bikerack fell off: a screw head had been shaven right off, the body of the screw still stuck in the bike frame. We were in the middle of nowhere and this could have been the cause of a big delay for us: covid test results expiring, having to get a ride to a city, losing a day or two to get the repair sorted… yet, maybe due to all the issues we had already faced on the trip, both David and I remained dead calm and started to see how we could somehow get the screw out. Using pliers and skills picked up from his job, David somehow managed to slowly push the screw onto itself and bit by bit unscrew it and take it out of the frame. We then proceeded to take a screw off his handlebars to use it as spare and fix his rack. Crisis averted! That night, we crossed the border and at midnight, on the 1st of January 2022, we slept in the Namibian desert.

Thinking of Namibia I will always remember hundreds of white butterflies crossing near a dried up river bed, 48C heat, the sheer emptiness of the white sandy plains, the immensely long stretches of straight road with no shoulder and the acacia thorn trees full of sociable weavers, our only sources of shadow in the desert. I loved it. David was very worried about Namibia. Much like in the Yukon, between two cities you would have up to 200km with literally nothing in between and very little traffic. The first day, we stopped at a gas station near the border and packed up our bikes with food and most importantly water, 7L each. And every time we could, we would fill them up. It was the right thing to do even if the extra weight made the going more difficult. Just like in the Yukon though, it was a pleasure to discover that in arid empty places, people look out for one another. The very first day, a couple stopped their cars to bring us water: they explained their uncle had told them about us. The man had indeed met us in Cape Town and had asked his nephew to stop and help us if he saw us in the desert. This would happen two other times in Namibia, with people giving us cold water and even fresh food.

The road in Namibia was tricky. The traffic was not heavy but there were big trucks coming along the narrow road with no shoulder and deep sand each side. David spent the whole time looking back and alerting me when a truck was coming. In general, people from Namibia onwards proved very patient on the road as they are used to traffic involving all sorts of slow vehicles and animals. Cyclists are therefore not something that annoy them. Most drivers were kind and every truck coming the other way said hello to us. But we did have to jump out of the road regularly if a truck did not move or if two trucks came at once. This was a tricky manoeuvre as the sand could easily bury our front wheels and make us fall off. We stayed very careful and are grateful nothing terrible happened in the end.

Namibia, in terms of culture and communications with local people, was pretty much like South Africa. Very westernised with pockets of poverty. Neverthless, even in poorer townships we never felt any sense of threat. Not many Namibians talked with us but when they did they were always courteous and pleasant. I did very much enjoyed the German influence still present in the country and it was a pleasure to also chat in German with our hosts in the evening over a cold beer. When camping outside, the ground was hard and so hot you could barely lie onto it. We slept with no outside tarp, having just a mosquito net over our heads and feeling the strong desert wind crossing in and out of the tent all night long. I kept my glasses on as long as I could before falling asleep to enjoy the amazing starry night sky over our heads. Both David and I witnessed shooting stars so big we thought someone might be releasing fireworks into the night.

From Namibia we crossed into Botswana. The crossing was pretty easy as we could sort Covid tests quickly in Windhoek and the paperwork was limited. Botswana is a very green and flat country with very safe roads in terms of traffic and shoulder, but full of wild life. Lions and other predators are not too much concern as they generally leave humans alone and are quite rarely close to the road. The only pride of lions we saw was at a good distance from us, and the one hyena was unfortunate roadkill. We did see many birds like kingfishers or red-billed hornbill (i.e. “Zazu” for the Lion King’s fans out there), as well as many giraffes, impalas, springboks, warthogs and zebras. They generally did get more scared of the bikes than of cars… We encountered as well a lot of elephants which can be a real threat to cyclists: they won’t necessarily get scared but can charge if they feel threatened. In the end, we learnt to pass slowly near the elephants, hiding on the other side of the road being traffic. I did however have a face to face encounter with a young female at a rest camp as I was walking toward our lodge. She looked at me concerned and fake charged me before running away. It was one of the scariest moments of my life!

People in Botswana were lovely; reserved and soft spoken at first, and always helpful. The country is large for a small population and seems to be thriving thanks to tourism. There are many lodges there, where you get this very stereotypical “out of Africa” catered experience, and can safely camp. Food is mostly meat based - lots and lots of excellent beef. Weather-wise, the country being so flat, the headwind was excruciatingly bad and I had to come up with visualisation techniques not to lose my mind: I would picture myself sailing as I used to in my childhood, enjoying the wind rather than resenting it. The rain was heavy but bearable, as it would come and go quickly. Lightning created however some pretty low points for us, as we had to choose between stopping to avoid getting struck or keep going to avoid becoming a very reachable standing prey for local predators. In addition, from Botswana onwards, our cloths would almost never be fully dry. This, combined with a bad reaction to the malaria medication, meant that I started to have skin rash and itches which lasted for the entire African trip and deeply affected my mood and overall well-being. I still suffered from them a month after leaving the continent.

Getting into Zambia was a complicated two-day affair. We struggled to find a place to do our PCR test and a very zealous Zambian border guard did not like the test we had done in a countryside hospital and made us lose an entire day just to do another test which would go into the official database. Frustrating. The border passed, we left the flat roads of Botswana for the richly green hills of Zambia. We visited the Victoria falls, which I felt was a mandatory detour, and then proceeded to follow the main road towards Tanzania.

Zambia was rough in terms of road safety and weather. The road was safe at times thanks to a shoulder but the shoulder would often suddenly run out and the road be pretty beaten. Trucks were a constant feature there: most of them transporting minerals like copper and very smelly sulphur. Some of them were painted and decorated with all sorts of illustrations from Manchester United to Jesus. More and more of these crazy looking trucks and buses would appear as we progressed toward Tanzania were they would become the colourful norm. With the heavier traffic and the many crashed trucks we could see on the roadside, road safety became a big concern for us in Zambia and things got pretty dangerous after Lusaka. We did enjoy a brand new Chinese built road, but we also were submitted to a punishing unpaved ride all the way to the border city of Tunduma. We kept eating mud, dust, and fumes, and David got almost hit by a truck passing him very closely at night. On top of a difficult road, the weather was awful. We had heavy rain almost every day. Everything would get flooded and at times lightning would fall just next to the road. We had to stop to find refuge wherever we could.

There were many other challenges in Zambia. Firstly, it was nearly impossible to camp in a densely populated country where you were a constant source of curiosity. We could find places to sleep but comfort was minimal: cold water, tiny beds, mosquitoes (so many mosquitoes!), sometimes limited hygiene. Secondly, it was difficult to get anything done quickly, a key requirements when you are trying to ride over 200km a day. Service was very bad and we lost patience many times especially when people just lied to us: you would come to a place asking if there was a restaurant, they would say yes until you paid for your room, and then they would tell you there was “no food”. So a restaurant, yes, but no food in it. Negotiations would start. After a long day, this was torture. Thirdly, food-wise, we could always find something, but it was invariably very lean chicken and nshima, a thick corn porridge. I ended up eating and drinking mostly nshima and coke, becoming maybe the first tourist to ever be massively constipated in Africa. Between the poor diet, the lack of sleep, the mosquito bites and the allergic hives my mind and body finally collapsed before we crossed into Tanzania: a forced rest was taken after a 240km-day, and I only could get out of bed at 14:00 the next day.

People in Zambia were however quite unforgettable and made up for the harsh conditions. Wherever we went, everyone said hello, everyone called after the “muzungus”, all the children constantly ran after us screaming “how are you”, wanting to give us a thumb up or a high five. We met many people on bikes as well, trying to catch our wheels and hide from the wind. It was constant smiles, glee and cheers. Despite areas of poverty, none of them ever asked for money and they would always try to sell us something in exchange of anything we would try to offer. All of the Zambians were also very proud and excited to tell us about their country or be curious about our ride. On one the worst days, as we were absolutely drenched and cold in the rain, a truck driver named Peter stopped his truck and invited us in for a hot tea and bread. His kindness to us in this miserable time made me cry like a baby. On another rainy day, we found refuge in a police post, and had a chat with the policemen there. A few days later we ran into one of them again at another border post. He insisted we took his number in case we ever needed help. At a bikeshop in Lusaka, we could find no supply for our bikes, but we found Dr Bob who also insisted we took his number and said that as a local chief, we could contact him if we ran into any issue. And that’s just a few examples.

The crossing into Tanzania happened at night. The border was one of the longest ones to cross with one of the most painfully deep lateral flow tests I have ever had. Neither David nor I enjoyed the following few days. We did not find people as friendly as in Zambia. The weather was very wet and quite cold. The road until Iringa was plain suicidal at times, with trucks overtaking cars overtaking tuktuks over an awful tarmac. No day was under 1200m climbing with some challenging steep ascents over 15%. Night riding was challenging due to huge flies and moths: I ate more of them than I like to recall. Places to sleep and foods did improve, with the ability to eat rice, vegetable curry and chapati, but we were still not really enjoying ourselves.

One of the lowest points was on a long day towards Dodoma when a flash flood had finally got the better of the road. Heavy flows of water ran across it. The flood was divided into two sections. The first one shorter and less fast, of about 300m. The second looking like an angry river for a good 900m. Lines of trucks and buses just waited on each side. I decided to push my bike across the first section and David followed me. The water was knee-deep: we kept our cycling shoes on and crossed without much difficulty. For the second section we thought for a while and waited. Finally, two young me started to cross on the other side. We watched them to see how deep the water was, and it seemed to be waist deep. More than holes in the road, the true danger was the current, which could bring a big branch or trunk, making you fall into the water potentially overcoming you. As they reached us, both men offered to help David and I cross: while we carried on our back our most valuable items in case the bikes would be taken by the current, the two men helped us hold the bikes and the four of us went across. Everyone both cheered and mocked the wet Muzungus. Of course, seeing that we were managing, trucks and buses decided to also go before we were on the other side, making huge waves as they passed and dangerously submerging us! Once done, we gave money to our two helpers and ran away from an overwhelming crowd somehow also asking for a reward. We were drenched in mud and rode into the night.

Our experience in Tanzania improved after Mtera and Dodoma, and as we headed towards the big national parks. First, we had a brand new road that had been built so recently it was not on any map! Nothing beats smooth tarmac. We also had a few days of sunshine which really helped. We still had a lot of climbing everyday but we did enjoy beautiful views over valleys with gorgeous rainbows, hundreds of baobabs, and bright green fields and forests. The wildlife got also richer with chameleons, giraffes, zebras and baboons to entertain us. People and attitudes also changed slightly there and we met many shepherds and Masaai recognisable by their distinctive dress. It is a pity that on our last day the cloudy sky stole us the view of Mount Kilimanjaro but we got to see and climb the hills around Mount Meru.

The crossing into Kenya was easy. All the admin was uploaded and sorted online before we arrived there, so passing the border was a refreshing formality. Once in Kenya, the weather also got drier and warmer, for which I felt very grateful. There is nothing worst in life than wet bib shorts. Any cyclists can tell you that. Because we stayed on the main road, our way into Kenya was however not particularly beautiful. From the border to Nairobi, this is pretty much a succession of urban areas, and the entry into Nairobi was an absolute nightmare on a bike. From Nairobi to Mombasa the landscape did improve and we enjoyed a bit of wildlife as we cycled next to some of the national parks.

The lack of beauty in the landscape we crossed was however totally compensated by the kindness of some of the people we encountered and by the fact Kenya is a cycling-loving country. Two figures in particular marked us: Steve first, a cyclist who guided us into Nairobi. Steve lost his job as film producer during Covid but managed to reinvent himself: he started to make treats and snacks and to cycle 250km every week into Nairobi to sell them. This way he continued providing for his family and could enjoy the time he got on his bike. He was a wonderful guide for us. The second person was Ibrahim, who we found as we were looking for a bike shop. Ibrahim used to race bikes but had to sell his racing bike in order to buy his little roadside shop, which was more like a little bike kiosk. He knew a lot about cycling and told us many things about the Kenyan cycling scene, the Safari Simbaz and about how he used to ride with Chris Froome in his youth.

Our last days in Kenya were made difficult by a very bad headwind as we got closer to Mombasa. My front wheel as well, which had been slowly dying since Namibia was now properly gone, and the noise it made was an unbearable metallic torture. Once in Mombasa though, we rewarded ourselves by spending a day by the seaside, celebrating 40 days in the saddle with barely any day off. That day at the beach, we had mixed feeling about our experience in South and Eastern Africa.

In part, we were relieved to be done with what had been one of the hardest legs of the trip. Many things had been difficult for us. When you try and ride over 200km a day, having quality sleep and food and speedy service is key. We could not get that often and that really did play on our minds. As our nerves were shattered we also struggle at time with the constant attention we received. In remote areas, we were naturally a big source of curiosity and it was not rare to have big crowds coming to watch us deal with punctures or mechanicals, or just eating a roadside sandwich or trying to relieve ourselves in a bush, making the process quite awkward at times… Yes, countries in south and east Africa can be difficult for Europeans like us, because we live a privileged comfortable life and we have become soft in many ways. Now that time has passed, both David and I are proud and happy of the challenges we faced because they made us better people. But that is what cyclists call “type 2 fun”: when you live it, it is sometimes hard to embrace the struggle!

Once we were finished, we were also glad that the trip had been more than a lovely holiday experience. Cycling is the best way to see a country. Because we stopped often, because we went to remote areas where tourists rarely go, we experienced each country in what we believe is a truer and more accurate way than most visitors. We have seen Sub-Saharan Africa far from its manicured image of impeccable savannahs and wild landscapes. We have experienced wonderful sunsets and biblical rainstorms. We have faced untamed wildlife and seen messy cities, grubby villages and dirty roadside stops. We have slept under the stars and in dirty rooms. We have eaten doubtful meat. We have met amazingly generous and resilient people, but also terribly annoying and deceiving ones. We have experienced the countries in all their nuances, and perhaps, because we did not have the same language barrier, even better than we did in South America.

Finally, we were sad to leave the African continent, which is difficult yes, but is also bursting with life, opportunities and happiness, far from the depressing images of poverty and danger western media often use when referring to sub-Saharan. The smiles and the joy is what I will always remember from our time there. So many children running and smiling. Cycling in Europe a few days later, we were happy to get our comfort back, but we felt hugely lonely. No one talked with us much. Drivers were impatient. The simplicity and joy for life that we had found in Africa had gone. I missed the smiles, I missed the laughter, I missed the amazing resilience and generosity of the people of South and East Africa. The next time I meet a stranger in my country I hope I can impart at least some of the African warmth and joy to them. I now know that a big smile, genuine interest in their travels and being happy to share local knowledge is often all that is needed to boost a stranger’s day and make them feel welcomed.

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