Cairo to Capetown: Biking Through the Heart of Africa
By Daniel Gold
“Alllllllllaaaahhhhhhhhhh….” The booming voice of a muezzin reciting the morning prayers from a mosque loudspeaker jolts me awake.
The first attempt to open my eyes proves unsuccessful, as the sand that has accumulated in them (as well as every other orifice in my body) from the previous day’s ride presents an obstacle.
When I’m finally able to blink out the crust, I can make out the luminous Sudanese desert night sky through the screen ceiling of my tent, stars shining and free from competing against pollution and skyscrapers.
At 4:30 AM, it’s still too early to get up, so I decide to make a feeble attempt to sleep through the deafening morning prayers.
After finally drifting off an hour later I am once more unceremoniously disturbed from my slumber, this time by the booming vocals of Freddie Mercury.
The opening lines of Queen’s bicycle song (“I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike….”) blare from our support truck.
Despite waking us up with this song every morning for the past three weeks, our overland support staff still finds this funny. Hilarious, those guys.
I struggle to get up once again, change into my riding clothes, pack up my tent and sleeping gear, and swallow down some bland porridge before starting the 70-mile trek in the Sudanese sun. So begins another day on the Tour D’Afrique.
Covering Some Territory
The Tour D’Afrique is the longest most grueling bike race/expedition in the world, covering 12000 kilometers (7,456 miles) through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
My uncle, Henry Gold, started the tour in 2003 as a way to promote sustainable transport and introduce adventurous travelers to a continent he fell in love with, a continent that most people would be reluctant to travel through on their own.
In 2006, more than 50 riders attempted the trip from Cairo, and I was one of them.
Land of Contrasts
There’s not enough I can write to capture the essence of my experiences on the tour and in Africa. I hate to generalize Africa as one place, because if there is one thing I’ve learned it is that Africa is a place of a million different contrasts.
It’s a place where change always seems imminent but things appear to have stayed the same for hundreds if not thousands of years.
It’s a place that can be filled with staggering beauty and heartbreaking displays of humanity one minute, and frustrating and full of despair and pain the next, leaving you feeling disillusioned and hopeless.
Still, whenever I missed the comforts and modern amenities of home, or when the strain of the tour and the poverty and despair became almost too much to bear, something extraordinary would happen, as if the continent itself was trying to reach out and grab hold of me, shaking me until I’d wake up and become fully aware of my surroundings.
These events left me feeling as if I was trespassing through a different world, witnessing and doing things that people like me aren’t supposed to be doing.
The Heart of the Story
Forget the other-worldly landscapes, the wild animals, and the other conventional African formalities. At the heart of every good African story lies the people, the locals, and there were many I met along the way.
Some of them tugged at your heart strings, while some just tugged at your pants in a not so subtle attempt to remove your wallet.
There were the proud Sudanese villagers, displaying a hospitality and generosity that would come to define the country for me (and contradicting every prior assumption I had made), who would invite me into their sparse homes for chai, refusing to take no for an answer.
Insomniac Truck Driver
I hitchhiked with an insomniac Kenyan truck driver who took 36 hours to cover 900 km (560 miles), traveling over roads that stretched the definition of the word and chewing the amphetamine qat the entire time.
One night a few of the other riders and I went out drinking and dancing in an Ethiopian nightclub, which was really just a one-room aluminum shack with a sound system and bar. We continued through the night even as the city was struck by a power outage, the Ethiopians singing and the dance floor lit by candlelight.
Another memorable night occurred in Tanzania when a few of us, unable to sleep, wandered away from our bush camp through the darkness following the distant beating of drums. We came upon a small gathering of children and village elders, who continued to dance and sing songs in Swahili as we joined in.
It was with the children of these countries that I interacted the most. No matter where I stopped in Africa, no matter how deserted it looked, shoeless children in tattered clothes would materialize out of thin air as if spontaneous generation was a scientific truth.
One particularly hilarious incident that made this clear occurred in Ethiopia when Kevin, one of the riders, went off into a field to have a water bottle shower.
Within a few minutes, all you could see was a pale white speck being converged on by scores of tiny kinetic black dots, as the excitement was almost too much for the children to handle.
Kevin stood painfully unaware as everyone at camp laughed and watched the spectacle unfold until he finally noticed the avalanching army of children and struggled to quickly put back on his clothes in time.
Singing and Smiling
Riding through villages, I was usually greeted by singing and smiling children, no matter how impoverished or desperate they looked.
Not to completely gloss over it, there was a decent amount of harassment for money, and some occasional rock throwers, but if I was 12 years old and people were passing through my town in fluorescent spandex I would probably throw rocks at them, too.
The True Africa
But that’s the beauty of the tour. Camping and covering Africa by bike, you have experiences that one else does. I smirked at the other tourists I saw along the way. They weren’t seeing the true Africa, staying at the Hilton and going on guided tours through tourist trap towns.
My Africa is the real Africa. My Africa is meals of unidentifiable meat that cost 20 cents eaten in fly infested huts, labyrinth markets, wearing the same clothes for three weeks, heavily chlorinated water, pit toilets, dirt roads, locals digging through our garbage, pickpockets, old men lounging around drinking beer, women working in the fields and cooking maize at every turn, and blistering desert sun.
It’s a place where the standards for hygiene dip far below a level you never thought they could get to: showers = wet wipes, five inch bugs find their way into your tent, the nighttime soundtrack is hyena woops or barking dogs, time loses all meaning and the only clue that another world exists outside of the hut village you’re in is the Coca Cola signs.
My Africa is beautiful, depressing, and exasperating, on a biblical scale.
Looking back through my pictures of Sudan and Ethiopia, it hard to comprehend that I was actually there. My faint memories are more reminiscent of a dream I try to piece together than of actual experiences.
The Allure of Africa
There’s a certain quality of Africa that makes you feel this way, as if you’d subconsciously entered another world and found your senses so overwhelmed that you can’t quite remember what you were feeling.
It’s the allure of Africa. It’s why Paul Simon was inspired to record Under African Skies, why Bob Geldolf felt compelled to stage Live Aid, why Angelina Jolie spreads her incredibly attractive brand of crazy all over the continent.
Everyone who has been there feels it. From my experiences, with every place you travel to, you leave a part of yourself there but also take something new with you, and there’s a lot more I’ll take with me from Africa, besides the scars.
Daniel Gold completed the 100-day, 7,456-mile Tour Afrique in 2006. His uncle, Henry Gold, founded the event in 2003.
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