The Tour d’Afrique is an annual transcontinental bicycling odyssey that starts at the pyramids near Cairo, Egypt, in January, and then traverses 10 countries and every kind of road surface imaginable before spinning into Cape Town, South Africa, some four months and 11,800 kilometres later. It attracts nomadic souls and cycling enthusiasts of all ages and abilities, from triathletes to retirees.
As a recreational biker and former humanitarian aid worker in Africa, I had dreamt of cycling the Tour d’Afrique since it was first held in 2003. Having zero long-distance cycling experience, I was both intimidated and inspired by the prospect of biking across Africa, so I trained hard on Toronto’s bicycle paths and on a stationary bike. In the end, I completed the tour in two halves, riding from Tanzania to Cape Town in March to May 2008 and from Cairo to Tanzania in early 2009, all without a serious hiccup, aside from a few falls and the obligatory stomach upset.
For first-timers, the allure of long-distance bicycle touring quickly becomes apparent. You are rewarded not merely by encounters with new lands and cultures and by the physical conditioning of riding 80 to 180 kilometres day after day, but, above all, by the incredibly intense feeling of freedom that comes with having nothing to do except cycle down the African road, eat and sleep. It’s all too easy to become completely removed from the world of workstations and laptops, and, with between 50 and 65 other riders sharing the adventure, the camaraderie among the tour riders and the largely volunteer staff is strong.
An African Dream
If anything, the four months exceeded my expectations as the challenge of a lifetime. There were many highlights, but some memories definitely stand out. Discovering how friendly the Sudanese people are – contrary to the country’s reputation in the western press – was enlightening. In fact, on several occasions I was invited by shopkeepers to share a meal of fuul (mashed fava beans) and pita bread. As Sudan is a Muslim country, there is virtually no crime to speak of and there was nowhere I felt safer on the entire trip.
Ethiopia’s biblical landscapes, unique cultures and cuisine were definite eye-openers as well. In Gondar city, the capital of Ethiopia in the 16th and 17th centuries, King Fasiledes’ castle, a World Heritage Site, is a must-see. On a rest day at Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana, a group of us took a boat to ancient island monasteries, where we viewed manuscripts of the Ethiopian Coptic Christian Church dating back to the 10th century. Washed down with Dashen beer, Ethiopia’s fiery national food staples of injera (flat pancakes made from teff flour), wat (stew) and kitfo (steak tartare) are beyond delicious, although an acquired taste for some!
The sheer majesty of Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River is breathtaking and, by contrast, makes Niagara seem a mere trickle. Whether you choose to get soaked at the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park (meaning ‘the Smoke that Thunders’), go white-water rafting or bungee jumping 100 metres down from the bridge separating Zambia and Zimbabwe, or just enjoy the view over a buffet breakfast from a hotel balcony, the falls live up to their billing as one of the world’s seven wonders of nature.
The wildlife is another unforgettable aspect of the trip. I will long treasure the experience of heading out at dawn with birdsong and my bike as the only sounds, not to mention the day I cycled past a family of elephants at 6:30am just outside of Kasane, Botswana. I will never forget one Zambian farmer commenting that “The elephants are really bad this year!” as he bemoaned the damage to his crops and gardens, much the way rural Canadians might decry deer or wolves for wandering into their yard.
A sublime sense of accomplishment and a delicious bowl of soup at the end of the toughest days always seemed to make me forget about tired muscles, and finding the elusive cold beverage on a really hot day was bliss. Although I’m not normally a fan, a chilled fizzy drink has never tasted better than on a dusty African roadside.
The Experience of a Lifetime
There are crazy bus drivers in Sudan and southern Tanzania who will force you off the road. In Ethiopia, where the population has exploded to almost 80 million, you are unlikely ever to be alone and guaranteed to be pestered and plunked by stone-throwing shepherd boys (“You! You! You! Give me money!”).
That being said, provided you watch over your health, know your limits and when to slow down on an off-road rock-strewn downhill, you will be fine. There are some rainy days, but the tour has been designed with the prevailing winds and seasons in mind. Sunshine and warmth typically predominate, including a few days of extreme heat. Perhaps the biggest setback is packing up the bike at journey’s end and bidding adieu to Africa and new friends, knowing it’s time to go home and back to work.
In short, the Tour d’Afrique challenges riders physically and mentally like nothing else, with rewards of unsurpassed and diverse terrain, and an incomparable feeling of achievement that few have the opportunity to experience. Seeing the funds I raised for the Tour d’Afrique Foundation converted into bicycles for African community health and development workers was the icing on the cake.
If I can do it, then believe it or not, so can you!