28 February 2012
Hitch-Biking Through Africa
Author of ‘A Hitch-Biker’s Guide Through Africa’
Travelling the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, on folding bikes? Were we completely mad or had we come up with an idea that would prove to be the simplest and most fun way to travel?
An unexpected opportunity to take a trip through Africa arose that my partner and I couldn’t resist. The only question was how were we going to do this? The most obvious way would be with a car or motorbike, but these would be expensive, complicated and take too long to organise. After scrutinising the other, rather limited options, public transport or a bicycle looked best to suit our pocket. But why not combine both? Unlike my Belgian partner, who has been cycling his whole life, my cycling experience was minimal. The prospect of cycling the whole distance was pretty daunting, and so I liked the idea of a folding bike. We would still have our independence and mobility, but, when distances were great, a folding bike would give us the added flexibility of being able to catch a train or bus.
This wasn’t going to be a competition about how far or how fast we could cycle each day. This was going to be about the journey.
Before the start of the trip neither of us had taken into consideration the prospect of hitch-hiking. I mean, hitch-hiking in Africa? Wouldn’t that be far too dangerous? But hitch-hiking (or hitch-biking as we came to call it) proved to be all too easy.
Our first full days’ cycling, with all our gear, would hopefully take us from Cairo to Beni Suef, a town 120km to the south. Initially spirits were high as we cycled along the course of the Nile, enjoying the contrast of the green irrigated land against the backdrop of the yellow desert beyond. But we had seriously underestimated the distance and the heat.
It was mid-afternoon when we came across a road sign which said we still had 50km to go. I don’t think covering 70km on our first day was too disgraceful, but now my back-side was aching and my pack was digging in. I’m not sure how it started, but in desperation one of us stuck out a thumb in the hope of getting a lift. To our astonishment a small, battered truck stopped almost straight away. Amidst fumbled sign language and broken English, we folded the bikes and were bundled inside. After numerous offers of tea, the driver dropped us at the entrance to the town of Beni Suef, before carrying on his way. It was as simple as that.
After such an easy introduction this became our ‘modus operandi’. There were a few exceptions when we did catch a bus or a train, but for most of the way, all through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia and Namibia, we started the day cycling. When it became too hot, or we were tired, or the distance just too far we would hitch-bike a ride with a truck, often a government official, and once in Tanzania with the glamorous wife of a diplomat in her normal four door sedan.
The portability of the folding bike is not in dispute, but what about how the bikes performed? Of course the 20” wheels were a bit limiting, but even we were surprised at how well the bikes handled the rough mountain roads in Ethiopia (I’m using the term road very loosely!).
After leaving Debark, high up in the Simien Mountains in the North, the amazing scenery kept us so enthralled that we even turned down a kind, unsolicited offer of a lift. But the mountain tracks were brutal and not a single other vehicle passed that day. After a tough day of climbing and descending we were forced to bush-camp for the night. We were both exhausted, but the bicycles had stood the test with not even a puncture to complain about.
Although, that can’t be said for the rest of the trip; there were some frustrating days when we had puncture after puncture with no respite. But all in all, apart from one broken wheel spoke and a rusted cable, punctures were the only problems we had to deal with.
Of course the purists out there will want to know all about the technicalities of how far we actually cycled, but I don’t even know the distance we travelled, never mind cycled. As I mentioned this was about the journey and not about the number crunching. The people we met along the way, through the novelty appearance of our folding bicycles, more than made up for any guessed at calculations. Keeping things simple and travelling as light as possible made things less stressful in a crowd and, I guess, a less likely target for any criminal intentions. We didn’t have conventional panniers, which we considered too bulky. Instead we had small backpacks and 5kg luggage racks. Our tent weighed less than 1kg and was probably more suited to one person, but we managed, with synchronised turning. The spares that we carried were limited, but thanks to the Chinese, freely available even if the quality was very much questionable. All in all it was an incredible trip. If I had the opportunity, would I do it again? Definitely; and I wouldn’t change a thing.