Readers' Africa: Cape to Cairo on a folding bike
Jo Charnock recalls a six-month journey 'hitch-biking' through Africa
AFTER sailing to Europe, my partner Jan and I decided to return to Cape Town overland. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision, which didn't give us much time to plan. We guessed that folding bicycles would allow for versatile travelling. The freedom of cycling could be backed up with public transport or hitching a ride, especially when distances were far and carrying enough water could be a problem. What we hadn't anticipated was just how easy the trip would prove to be.
After flying into Cairo, we ticked off a list of firsts: first time in Egypt, first day cycling with all our gear, first glimpses of the Nile and first sightings of the pyramids.
Nothing compares to cycling in a strange land, being exposed to the elements and experiencing all kinds of unfamiliar sights and smells. But sometimes cycling isn't possible. In northern Sudan, we were faced with the unforgiving Nubian Desert. Options to cross were limited. Open-sided trucks masquerading as desert buses didn't look convincing, nor did the once-weekly train, which has a reputation for lengthy delays. Fortunately, we were offered a lift to Khartoum with American missionaries, whom we had met on the ferry between Egypt and Sudan. They were heading south in their newly purchased customised 4x4 ex-army truck.
Though it was winter, most of Sudan was too hot to ride. As we headed for Ethiopia, Sudanese truck drivers came to our rescue and offered us a lift. Sitting high up in an air-conditioned cab, watching the dusty, flat expanses slowly pass by, was much easier than cycling.
There were stone-throwing incidents in Ethiopia, where the children aggressively begged. Their frantic cries of "Yoo, yoo, yoo, faranji, give me money!" were enough to try anyone's patience. But the castles in Gondar more than made up for the harassment. As did the amazing scenery we experienced throughout the rest of the country, from the Simien Mountains to the plains of the Great Rift Valley.
As we crossed into Kenya, the dreaded Moyale Road was another barrier to the bicycles. So our bags and bikes were tied to the roof of a bus, by which we headed south on the bone-jarring track through the black volcanic desert.
Our timing for arrival in Nairobi could not have been worse. Elections had recently been held, accusations of vote-rigging were rife and the violence was out of control. After a near miss with rioters, it was definitely time to move on to Tanzania, where the only other misadventure was experienced. On a ramshackle ferry in Dar Es Salaam, a young pickpocket blatantly tried to steal our camera. He was caught red-handed by the surrounding local people, who frog-marched him to the nearby police station. Here, a very large woman gave the young thief a beating he probably won't forget.
A change of pace welcomed us in Malawi, where we found people cycling everywhere. Friendly young boys on old-fashioned bicycles would cycle beside us, asking questions like "Where you from?" Older ladies and gentlemen, cycling in their Sunday best, greeted us demurely as we cycled alongside the legendary lake.
In Zambia, the distances proved too far and the pot-holed roads too treacherous, so we took a train from Lusaka to Livingston.
This must be the longest train ride in the world, with a journey time of nearly 30 hours to cover a distance of 500km. Still, the impressive sight of Victoria Falls was worth the wait and you will do well to learn that travel in Africa requires patience.
Namibia signalled that we were nearly home. We enjoyed a few days camping in the Caprivi before the final push.
After nearly six months on the road, we arrived in Cape Town, recalling fantastic, positive experiences. The simplicity of life on the road had been truly refreshing. Our deciding factors were how far to travel, what to eat and where to sleep. We ate cheaply in small local eateries or shopped for vegetables in the markets. Camping was our first choice for accommodation, but facilities were not always available - often a cheap local hostel would do. All in all, it was an incredible trip. If I had the opportunity, would I do it again? Absolutely, and with my folding bike! © Jo Charnock