This famous journey may have been undertaken before, but not many have covered the total distance on a bicycle in just four months. Charles Butler tells Eleanor Bonsor about his adventure.
Why did you choose Africa?
I was born in Zimbabwe but emigrated to Australia when I was 18. I soon realised that despite spending most of my life in Africa, there was still so much of it that I had not yet explored. Doing this journey was a way for me to get a first-hand view of the many diverse and wonderful places that the continent has to offer.
What was your route?
The trip was actually organised by TDA Global Cycling. The company organises an annual Tour d’Afrique, which goes through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. We weren’t able to cycle through Ethiopia due to political unrest, so Uganda and Rwanda were added. The journey was 11,300km in total, and took 421 hours of cycling over four months.
Which was your favourite country, and why?
I really loved the vibrancy of all the East African countries, but my top pick has to be Namibia (pictured below). It was just dramatically beautiful in every possible way, from the red dunes of Sossusvlei to the vast views atop the Spreetshoogte Pass. Not a day of cycling went by when I wasn’t blown away. Another highlight was the road from Mbeya, in Tanzania, to the Malawian border.
Tell us a funny or scary anecdote from the trip
One of the funniest moments was watching a football match between two Tanzanian towns. The game was played on a field that had huge potholes and anthills, which meant the bounce of the ball was a surprise to everyone. Of course, the game ended in acrimony when the referee disallowed a goal by the home team — cue accusations of bribery and a bit of pushing and shoving between the players… and the referee.
What were the challenges and did you overcome them?
For me, the toughest aspect of the tour was the near-constant discomfort of camping in somewhat inhospitable surroundings. After a while, the lack of running water and the sand in your tent start to wear you down mentally. If things ever became really dire, I would just think about the fact that the alternative was sitting at a desk in an office — that would usually help put things into perspective.
What was the toughest day?
I had a particularly difficult day when I was cycling through Sudan. The heat was in the 40s and I kept getting punctures until the overuse broke my hand pump. This meant cycling on a flat tyre until I reached some shade in a local town where I could fix it. I managed to get a serious bout of dehydration from the exertion and ended up needing a drip to replace my fluids.
Were there any unexpected highlights?
Sudan was a massive highlight. Due to its negative global press, we went in with fairly low expectations. These were completely shattered when we explored Khartoum and witnessed Nubian wrestling (pictured below) and, in particular, the whirling dervishes who created an incredible amount of colour and energy.
You travelled through multiple villages and towns on your journey and stopped for food. What was the most memorable thing you ate?
Africa has some delicious street food and the benefit of cycling means that you are able to stop and try all of it. Some of my favourites were ‘Rolex’, a sort of omelette rolled in a chapatti, and vitumbua, a coconut-rice doughnut covered in honey or sugar. I became utterly obsessed with the latter.
What did you pack? Any tips?
I packed way too much but some of the key things not to forget are: battery packs (much more practical than solar panel chargers), tent pole sleeves (your tent poles will snap on a journey this long), a foam mattress (blow-up mattresses are the pits), clip-on time-trial bars (your back will love you). A good-quality saddle also goes without saying.
Your cycle ride raised funds for Helping Rhinos’ campaign for the Black Mamba Anti-Poaching Unit. What made you choose this cause?
Helping Rhinos partners with high-performing rhino conservation projects throughout Africa and then provides them with funding and support. Black Mamba is one of these. It has had strong success as a result of its unique conservation model that empowers women in local communities to perform effective anti-poaching. I also feel that the fate of rhinos is, in some ways, very symbolic of humankind’s relationship with the planet and all its animals; if we can’t save a creature like the rhino, then what hope do the other creatures have?
What’s next on your bucket list?
I really want to go to Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains. Due to the impact of climate change, the glaciers on the mountains will have completely melted in the next couple of years, so time is of the essence. TDA Global Cycling has also just started a new route through West Africa, so I would love to give that a go… Once I am ready to spend a couple of months in a tent again, of course.
Tempted to try it? For more information about TDA Global Cycling’s annual Tour d’Afrique, visit tdaglobalcycling.com.