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How to Plan an Epic African Bike Ride - Part I

Some tips from Rob and Pol that they learned in planning a cross-continental bike trip from South Africa to Wales.

storm 80 °F

We're now well into our bike ride from South Africa to the UK and thought somebody out there would like to learn from our mistakes and successes!

When people ask how much planning did we do for our trip I usually say, “not much really – just buy a bike, some panniers, a tent and start cycling – there's nothing to it!”

This to an extent is true, being on a bike is so much simpler than cars, planes or trains. You can travel as far or as near as you want, you have no timetable to keep, crossing borders is a synch and when you get tired pull off the road and pitch the tent.

Turned out to be a pretty fast border crossing!

Turned out to be a pretty fast border crossing!

However – there are a few things you need to think about before you pedal out of your front drive:

Find out what you are letting yourself into!

Talk to people who've done it before. There are not many places on the planet that haven't been cycled through by a slightly odd cyclist.

Before our trip we googled cycling “Cape – Cairo”, “Cycle Touring Africa” and found that there are a few people who've done it before – if you can get hold of them they are super friendly and keen to chat. I spent an entire evening talking to a German guy – who cycled Germany to Cape town in 1994. He raved about his trip so much that after the conversation our minds were made up – we had to do the trip.

Where shall I do my epic ride?!

We didn't have to think too hard about this... we were living in South Africa and needed to get home!

We did have to choose a route through Africa, the first decision is whether to go up the East side or West. We plumbed for East Africa – The majority of Eastern African States are currently politically stable, borders would be easier to cross, food and water would be easier to come by.

Getting maps for the route wasn't hard. I called Map Studio a South African company asked the lady if she had the appropriate maps for our trip.

“Sure” she said. “In fact soon we'll be bringing out a 'Cape to Cairo' map – it will be perfect, it'll fit into your glove box of your 4x4!”

Talk to people who've done it before. There are not many places on the planet that haven't been cycled through by a slightly odd cyclist.

“Oh no, no” I said smugly “we're not doing the route in a vehicle – we're doing it on Mountain Bikes”

“Oh that's wonderful – you're the 4th person I've spoken to this month doing it on bikes!”

With my ego thoroughly dented, I put the phone down. “Polly” I shouted down the hallway, “we have to change our route!”

Once we had the maps, choosing a specific route wasn't hard – in most of Africa there are very few roads to choose from, and even fewer that are marked on maps!

We also had a number sights that we wanted to see along the way, like Victoria Falls between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the beautiful island of Likoma in the middle of Lake Malawi, and Lake Tanganyika, the longest lake in the world and very remote. Heading to Lake Tanganyika is where we would get seriously off the beaten track – with over 1000 km of bad dirt and sand roads! As far as we are aware only one other cycle tourer has cycled this road!


Lake Tanganyika - well worth battling the dust and heat

The rest of the route was created by thinking how can we get home without crossing the volatile southern Sudan, the anarchy of Somalia, and the extremists of Libya. Those places avoided, we had our route.

When Shall I do my ride?

This is definitely as important as where you are going to do your ride – You simply can't cycle on dirt roads in the wet season, and it is extremely unpleasant and dangerous to cross desserts in the summer.

Despite the changing world climate African weather is still surprisingly predictable. By planning to be in the cycling during the cool dry winter, we managed to cycle for three and a half months and only got rained on 3 times!

For example, we hit Tanzania at the end of the dry season. Cycling during the dry season was VERY hot, but two weeks later and the foot deep dust would have turned into three foot deep mud.


Deep dust definately preferable to deep deep mud!

We have broken up the cycling by working in Rwanda in the wet season. The rain is spectacular, it goes from bright and sunny to windy and torrential rain in a matter of minutes. When we leave Rwanda in January and cross back into the the Northern Hemisphere, we’ll cross the wastelands of the Nubian desert during the winter and enter Europe just as spring will be blooming!

Spend as much as you can afford on your bike. That is what we did and we haven't regretted it.

What bike and accessories?

The guy who cycled from Germany to South Africa told me – spend as much as you can afford on your bike, so that is what we did – and we haven't regretted it. It's pretty easy to justify splashing out. Our old car would never have made the distance and it cost a lot more than our bikes.

The main question... are you gonna be on road or off road?


Off road is much more fun because you can get really remote and the interactions with the locals are far more positive because they have seen very few 'Mzungus'. Conversely tar is sooo much easier to cycle on!

If your trip is gonna have sections of off road get a mountain bike. Front suspension very useful. It means you can go much faster downhill and saves your hands a bit on the dreaded corrugations, though even with the suspension we had trouble with numb hands and fingers that didn't really move very well.

Although other bikers might disagree, I'd say don't worry too much about weight. Better to have a slightly heavier bike that takes a little longer to get from A to B than a lightweight bike that breaks and leaves you stranded somewhere between the two. Consequently our bikes are bombproof but heavy. This came in handy when Rob had a high speed crash on tar. Both Rob and his bike survived, with only 1 dent to show for it. And that was on Rob's knee.

The coolest features of our bikes:
1. Indestructible tyres - These are incredible. Made by a company called Schwannable they are almost puncture proof. We have only had three punctures between us in three and a half months and the tires are still going strong.

2. Internal gears - If you've ever done any cycling at all you'll know that if something goes wrong with the bike it is something to do with the front, rear derailers or casette (basically the gears). Our gears our inside the rear hub and are basically maintenance free and should never fail. Some people are concerned that with internal gears it would be hard to fix if they break in the middle of nowhere. However, you have a normal gear system - you will run into problems at some point and as most bikes in Africa are single-speed Chinese makes, parts for western geared bikes are very hard to come by.

What do I put in the panniers?

The number one rule is don't put too much in. If possible don't take front panniers, as any extra space you have you will fill.

Our favourite bits of kit include


A Turkana stool. My sister bought this from a shepherd boy in Northern Kenya. I have it tucked under one of my bungees, and it provides me with an instant chair or pillow whenever we stop.

Insect repellant. There is a general rule that if you haven’t used it in a month, drop it. Don't be too ruthless about applying that rule. We carried a bottle of DEET as far as Malawi, then threw it out. Two weeks later we were mobbed by tsetse flies that laughed in the face of our 'peaceful sleep' insect repellent, could bite through clothes and keep up with us cycling at full speed!


A hammock. This has been such a luxury, after a day in the saddle it is sooo nice to collapse into the hammock (especially when the alternative is sitting on the ground where spiders, ginormous ants, snakes and scorpions live!)

So we've talked about a few of the essentials here, just a couple more things left to cover in a future entry. Next time we’ll talk about what to do about wild animals, what medical kit to take, what to eat and where will to find water.

If you have other tips and tricks for your fellow travellers, then join us in educating travellers worldwide. To get started, send our editors an email at unravelled [at] travellerspoint [dot] com. Let them know a bit about yourself, and maybe include some writing samples and ideas for entries. They will review your submission and, if you fit the bill, they will welcome you to the team.

Posted by robandpol 16:00 Archived in Rwanda Tagged bicycle

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