Taking 18 days off the original Guinness World Record, Mark Beaumont cycled from Cairo to Cape Town in just over 41 days. Olivia Rook caught up with him to find out how he survived this epic challenge. Photographs by Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Tim Chevallier and Anton Crone
What made you want to become an explorer?
I started cycling very young on the farm in the Highlands of Scotland. When I was 12, I biked across Scotland and this naturally led to many expeditions by the time I left university. In the last decade I have travelled to 130 countries, made numerous BBC documentaries and written three books. So from small beginnings, a career has happened quite by accident.
How did you prepare for the trip?
My training took place during a very harsh Scottish winter, so I often ended up on the velodrome and in my garage on the static bike. I also fell run regularly, as it’s the best form of preparation for expedition cycling.
Being unable to carry much with you, what essentials did you pack?
I carried about 8kg of kit, all in frame bags. Apart from basic spares for the bike, like a length of chain, some spokes and a tyre, I had one spare set of clothes, a few small cameras and my GPS devices. I also had a very small tent and sleeping bag, strapped underneath the handlebars, but I never had to use them.
Describe your experience looking out across the Blue Nile Gorge
The ravine is in the grassy flatlands and suddenly appears as a huge hole in the earth. Far below, on a rutted and hair-raising road, with animals and trucks getting in your way, you cross a bridge and start the long, slow drag up the other side. I arrived after 160km of cycling and at the end of a day, so was not feeling very fresh. It was tough, but very exciting and one of my absolute highlights from the ride. The gorge is staggeringly beautiful and a real surprise.
How did you manage to keep hydrated while cycling in such extreme heat?
Although Sudan was the toughest riding, it also has some of the best roads in Africa, especially north of Khartoum from the Egyptian border at Wadi Halfa. With a strong wind from the north I averaged over 320km a day through the sand storms. This wind helped me hugely as there are big gaps between supply points for food and water and I was carrying very little on the bike. I was limited to daylight hours so started each day in the cool of first light and then rode right through the midday sun, despite temperatures reaching well over 40°C.
Any encounters with wildlife along the way?
When I crossed the Zambezi River from Zambia, I immediately started pedalling past elephant on the roadside. At one point, I even had giraffe cantering alongside me. It was wonderful and pretty intimidating, as there were so few cars out here. As it grew dark, I became more wary of the animals and travelled down the middle of the road, peering into the dark for any signs of shapes ahead!
Did you hit a breaking point during your journey?
The most challenging stretch of the 10,500km ride was through southern Ethiopia. After passing the capital, Addis Ababa, I expected paved highways until Moyale on the Kenyan border. However, I accidentally timed my trip with the authorities’ plans to redo this entire stretch. So for nearly 400km there were construction roads, and with the heavy rains every afternoon these turned to mud and I was forced to carry the bike. I also had food poisoning, so couldn’t keep much down and was feeling incredibly weak. This section was definitely my toughest test.
Tell us a funny anecdote
So much planning and preparation went into the entire route, but I arrived at the start and realised I had no idea how to actually get out of Cairo. Thankfully, some local cyclists were there to point me in the right direction!
Did you ever struggle to find a bed for the night?
Luckily, I never had to ask a second person for a place to stay. One of my favourite stop-offs was in real Botswana, where I couldn’t see any towns on the map ahead and was prepared to camp out. But then as it got dark, I waved down a car and asked if I could get a bed anywhere. The young man took me to his parents’ house, where he gave up his room and said he would sleep with his cattle that night. It was a wonderfully generous and surprising gesture.
What kind of food did you experience during your trip?
Rice, beans, meat stew (often goat) and omelettes were typically on the menu. In rural parts, you can always find biscuits and Coca-Cola, which are good for the calories and sugar. It’s not perfect sports fuel, but when you are riding 12 to 16 hours a day, you take whatever you can find.
Do you think you could beat your own world record?
Yes, as the road in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya is pretty much brand new, with perfect tarmac now.
Tell us about the charities that you support
Orkidstudio is a small humanitarian organisation that brings architecture to parts of the world where buildings are normally constructed without a real design. We create places that become the heart of communities and are sympathetic to the climate, built with local materials. The funds raised from the Africa Solo ride will help build a new hospital in northern Zambia, which is the only healthcare centre for more than 480km.
Where will you be cycling to next?
Africa was a training ride for what comes next. That is all I can say for now. Check out markbeaumontonline.com and my social media outlets for upcoming announcements.