A Travellerspoint blog

November 2009

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 Comments (0)

Anyone Have A Stamp???

Or How To Keep In Touch

La Baule Mailbox, by lil_lil

La Baule Mailbox, by lil_lil

When you depart on a new travel adventure, be it for a few days or a few months, you leave behind family and friends who would like to get some news update now and then, particularly if the journey takes you to places that they’re excited about, or where they have little understanding of, and therefore are anxious about your health and safety while you are away. For some of the closest and dearest, this is also their opportunity to live vicariously through you, so why deny them the joy?

So what are your options, and how can you stay close (while physically at a distance) without busting your travel budget?

Montmartre, by slopes

Montmartre, by slopes


In this day and age, what the postman brings to our doorstep invariably consists mostly of the following: bills, bank statements, advertising and promotional materials, online purchases and magazine subscriptions (if any). When was the last time you got a snail mail from someone you loved? Remember the whoops of delight in reading something you could cherish? Quite possibly, it was a postcard you received.

A postcard is a traditional and rather slow way to send news, but it brings much joy to the recipients even if they may not receive it until after your return. This is especially true if you were in a place with a reputation of terrible postal service, or you didn’t get a chance to sit down and pen those few lines until your last days of the trip, or you were simply away for just a handful of days. Moreover, postcards make great souvenirs. If you come from a huge family and have an intricate network of friends who live worldwide like mine, there isn’t always luggage space or the budget to purchase plenty of small gifts for everyone, and a postcard is the little something that you can send on the go. Big on sentiments but without major monetary value that someone may try to steal (e.g. gift packages that went missing) or bringing financial burden on the recipients (e.g. stamp duties being charged) - it is a beautiful compromise.

red internet bus - franz josef, by geranddebs

red internet bus - franz josef, by geranddebs


This is likely to be the most convenient way to keep in touch, given relative ease to access the internet in most parts of the world. Many hostels or hotels nowadays should be wired to the cyberspace, often with in-house computers and free internet access for their guests. Alternatively, cybercafés are often abundant. Some savvy local entrepreneurs even create one-stop hubs that cater to traveller’s needs by not only offering internet services but also laundry service (where you would usually have to hang around and wait as it is), basic postal services (they have stamps and they will post your letters/postcards for you), backup CDs/DVDs (think all the photos in your memory card that you don’t want to lose), etc. It’s a win-win scenario: you get your stuff done with minimal hassle or tracking down places, they make their profits.

Travellers who are on the road with their own laptop, netbook or internet-enabled mobile phone (e.g. iPhone) can try to track for free wi-fi connections where available. Otherwise, messages can be composed ahead, stored in a memory device, and be copied and pasted for delivery in the internet café. (A side note: not all internet cafés allow your personal memory device be plugged in for use on their system.)

Social Networking Sites

E-mails are usually sent to only a handful of people that are closest to you, but if you are conscious about general news for everyone, this is when social networking sites come in handy. Many of us have access to Facebook, Twitter, Ning, MySpace, etc. that there is nearly no excuse to not take just a minute or two to post a couple of lines of status updates. You may also start on the photo sharing!


Blog entries are your travel anecdotes with (or without) pictures and/or videos that everyone who has access to the blog can see. No more worries about sending emails that are too large due to the photo attachments. Or clogging up someone’s mailbox for pretty much the same reason. On top of that, your blog readers can catch up on the blog posts at a time that suits them, and come back to the entries over and over should they wish. You can even use it as a guide that you can send to other travellers when recommending or discouraging them for particular travel-related products/ tours/ locations.

Blog entries are your travel anecdotes with (or without) pictures and/or videos that everyone who has access to the blog can see.

Maintaining a blog while on the road is by no means easy. There are often so many activities to do and sights to see that computer time really is at the bottom of the list. Time is required to write the entries, to choose appropriate photos/videos, and to put everything together. It can be time consuming but it is worth the effort put into it. If you don’t already have a blog, why not start a TravellersPoint blog? It can be integrated with your photo albums as well as your itinerary maps on TP, making it a pretty awesome tool in comparison to most generic blog. And yes, it is free to set one up!

Instant Messengers/Chats

Chat in real time with your contacts that are online at the same time as you. Gmail users have integrated Google chat function. MSN users commonly use MSN messenger. Even Facebook has chat functionality. Or if you have too many contacts interspersed across the various systems, try an integrated client such as eBuddy.

Reed phonebooth, by jhetland

Reed phonebooth, by jhetland

Mobile Telephone Calls

There are days you miss the voices of those whom you love. Or just want someone to talk to. Most travellers today bring mobile phone with them, but to make long distance calls while on roaming can chalk up the bill very quickly. During extended stays, it makes sense to buy a local top-up variety SIM card and use it with your mobile handset (provided the phone is “unlocked” from the network you bought it from). Alternatively, it is also possible to buy a new, cheap mobile phone (particularly in Asia). The credit of use is added whenever required. Not only you can now call to keep in touch, you will also have a mean of contacting local hostels, stations, airlines and other businesses at a reasonable cost.

International Calling Cards

Making international calls, even with a non-roaming local SIM, is not always cheap. It is therefore useful to buy international calling cards. They often come with a free phone number for dialing from a phone booth or a local phone (e.g. borrow one from the hostel) and they usually have great calling rates that you will be able to chat for ages without paying much. With this, you are also not changing phone numbers all the time (unlike the new SIM option) although it does make the communication somewhat one-way, in that you can get the others but it’s difficult for them to do otherwise (unless you get the permission to give away the hostel phone number). Leftover credits on a card tend to be useless from outside the country of purchase, and often the card also has an expiry date of certain number of days following the pin code activation.

Skype, Google Talk and Other VOIP Services

With an access to internet, phone calls can be even cheaper or free! If the persons you’re contacting are also users of the same protocol, these computer-to-computer calls are essentially free (except for what you pay to use the internet) and you may even add a webcam function (if device available) to see each other in real time.

With an access to internet, phone calls can be even cheaper or free!

Skype also has a credit system where it can be used to dial to normal phone/mobile numbers and not another computer. Thus it pretty much works like an international calling card, only the credit is in your Skype account and you never need to worry about unused credits when you leave a country. It can also be used to send text messages. With the advent of internet-enabled mobile phone and Skype application, phone calls can now also be made via Skype using the mobile phone without incurring the roaming charges.


I’m normally wired up to the internet all day long. I often have my mobile phone with me, but in silent mode (I christened the profile “Shhh...”) and let’s just say I won’t be the person you’d want to call in event of emergency as I’m quite liable to miss your call. Like most web users of our day, I can be found on Facebook, Skype, Twitter, Flickr and across several blogs and forums.

Perhaps it’s not too big a surprise then, that when I’m away, I don’t want to be present on any of these mediums. Well, at least as little as I can. I become a technology recluse.

Instead my faithful companion is my Filofax notebook, complete with addresses of my family and friends. I’d stop by shops/newsagents/stalls that sell postcards and take my time selecting a big bunch of them. Next up, a good café/park break, usually some place with a view, and I’d be spending the next couple of hours writing snatches of what I’ve experienced thus far, with a promise to properly blog about them and share the photos at a later stage. No two messages are identical. And I could easily write a whooping 20 to 30 postcards in one go! The postage alone does add up, but given the number of loved ones that I reach out to, it’s money well spent.

In knowing my love for sending and receiving postcards, many of my friends began a campaign to send plenty of them to me in return.

One of my best friends is a cabin crew and therefore she flies everywhere. All. The. Time. Last couple of months alone, I’ve received postcards from Hamburg, South Africa, New Orleans, Singapore and Philippines from her alone (thanks Eve!). Another friend created a catchphrase for his postcards. They always said “Everybody goes to (insert city name)”. Well, maybe except me? ;)

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 lil_lil 07:13 Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (2)

(Entries 1 - 2 of 2) Page [1]