We love inspiring you with new ways to explore Africa. And with a new year upon us, we asked Peter Gostelow, a cyclist with 34,000km of experience on the continent, to pick the ten most rewarding routes you can ride on a two-week holiday.
1. Desert wilderness – Windhoek to the Fish River Canyon, Namibia (900km)
Stunning desert scenery, traffic-free roads and the opportunity to cycle alongside wild animals make this part of Namibia a great place for you to explore by bicycle.
After the ride begins in Windhoek there is a moderate climb southward over the Kupferberg Pass. This provides a warm-up for the following day’s ascent up the Spreetshoogte Pass (Namibia’s highest), which offers dramatic views westwards and an exhilarating descent towards Africa’s most famous sand dunes at Sossusvlei. Take time to climb and explore the famous desert landscapes here, then continue south through the NamibRand Nature Reserve. On a bicycle you’re much more likely to see some of the wild animals (springbok, oryx, kudu, zebra, giraffe) that run freely. If you miss them there is a second chance within the Ai-Ais Richtersveld Park further south. Here you can also ride alongside the Fish River Canyon and gaze into its depths, before soaking in the natural hot springs that mark the end of the road. If undertaking this ride independently you’ll need to carry sufficient water. This route is also offered as part of an organised trip with Exodus. (www.exodus.co.uk)
2. Lake of stars – Karonga to Blantyre, Malawi (700km)
This novel journey sees you travel south along Lake Malawi, both by bicycle and by boat.
Leave Karonga and ride south along the lake’s beach-lined shore, camping and swimming to your heart’s content, before undertaking the challenging ascent to Livingstonia. Views across the lake to Tanzania make this climb particularly rewarding. Continue south on a dirt track towards Rumphi, stopping in villages that rarely encounter visitors. Rejoin the tarmac and cycle the quiet road to Mzuzu. A stunning descent back to the Nkata Bay awaits, before taking a two-day ferry trip to Monkey Bay (views from the boat are spectacular). Ride south towards Liwonde National Park, watching out for colourful birds as well as crocodiles and hippos in the Shire River, then soak up the colonial atmosphere in nearby Zomba. Cycle cross-country to Mount Mulanje, where lush tea plantations carpet the slopes and teashops welcome visitors. Cycle Active (www.cycleactive.co.uk) offers part of this journey as an organised tour.
3. Western and Northern Cape – Cape Town to Springbok, South Africa (700km)
Leaving one of the world’s most beautiful cities is easy knowing that penguins, whales and wine are all in waiting.
Start by cycling south from Cape Town through stunning coastal scenery alongside Table Mountain (keep an eye out for whales) before returning via historic coastal villages and the penguin colony on the eastern shore of the Cape Peninsula. Continue northwards towards the West Coast National Park and enjoy the turquoise waters off Langebaan Lagoon (seasonal flowers abound here between August and October). Camp overnight at Elandsbaai and watch the mesmerising surf, then head towards Lambert’s Bay and Strandfontein along a well-graded and little-used track, which is flanked by windswept beaches. From here a gently undulating road, fringed by picturesque winelands and quaint villages, takes you inland into the wilderness of the Northern Cape. Follow the boulder-strewn landscape and wide-open views northwards towards Springbok. This is a very accessible ride to tackle independently. For those wanting an organised cycle trip in this region, Exodus (www.exodus.co.uk) offers a similar ride starting in Cape Town and heading through wine lands around Stellenbosch.
4. African rift – Lake Kivu, Rwanda to Fort Portal, Uganda (550km)
Not for the fainthearted, this incredible ride involves some serious climbs and heaps of wildlife-viewing potential.
Ascend from the glistening southern shore of Lake Kivu and ride north on a challenging but endlessly scenic track, passing small villages where banana and rice terraces give way to sweeping views down and across the lake to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Take a well-earned rest in the stunning lakeside town of Kibuye, before climbing again and descending through tea plantations to Gisenyi the following day. Dramatic volcanic peaks shadow the well-paved road towards Ruhengeri and north into Uganda. Climb up between Kisoro and Kabale, then enjoy the swimmable shores of Lake Bunyoni en route to Bwindi National Park. Here colobus monkeys are likely to be seen swinging through the ancient forests, which are also home to endangered mountain gorillas. Continue north into Queen Elizabeth National Park, where you can watch out for elephants and hippos at Lake Edward. The freedom to cycle in these two national parks makes this tour special. Finish your ride at Fort Portal after passing alongside the dramatic Rwenzori Mountains that flank the border with the DRC. This route isn’t offered by any operators, but African Bikers (www.africanbikers.com) offer a similar tour that just focuses on Uganda’s national parks.
5. Through the Guineas – Bissau, Guinea-Bissau to Faranah, Guinea (900km)
While this unique route is well off the beaten path, you’ll have plenty of wonderful Guineans to share your experiences with on the road.
Leave Portuguese-influenced Bissau on a smooth, quiet road towards the atmospheric colonial towns of Bafata and Gabu. Traditional villages and cashew nut plantations dominate the landscape along the way. Continue across the border into Guinea and follow the small track east from Koundara into the Fouta Djalon highlands. Enjoy the company of local cyclists who transport goods on this challenging but very scenic ride towards Mali-Ville. Once there have a rest and soak up the spectacular views down into Senegal before taking on the dramatic ascents and descents en route to the town of Labe. There, the tarmac begins again, but the road remains blissfully traffic-free, with plenty of opportunities to stop in small villages and meet the locals. Guineans are amongst the most friendly of people in West Africa. Watch out for monkeys and colourful birds in the dense roadside bush as the rolling landscape continues to Faranah. Here the River Niger begins its long journey. This is an independent trip and bikes should be brought from home.
6. Spice Island loop – Zanzibar and Pemba, Tanzania (300km)
Crooked alleys, beautiful beaches, lush forests and a flying fox or two will greet you on this memorable route.
Explore Zanzibar’s historic Stone Town before heading north to the quiet coastal fishing village of Mkokotoni. Watch local carpenters making traditional fishing boats here before continuing to Nungwi for a stunning sunset. Return south the following day along the quiet palm-fringed east coast, stopping at villages like Pongwe and Chwaka. Enjoy the empty beaches before going off-road for a short stretch beside Jozani Chwaka Bay National Park (keep an eye out for monkeys). If the tide is out, try cycling along the white sand south from Michamvi towards Makunduchi. Be sure to look out for dolphins on the ride over to Kizimkazi. After reaching the island of Pemba by ferry from Stone Town, head north with the pungent aroma of drying cloves from the roadside to keep you company. Like Zanzibar, Pemba’s roads are well paved and quiet. Watch out for flying foxes (indigenous to the island) on the ride through Ngezi Forest in the north of the island and take in the spectacle of fishing boats bringing in the afternoon catch at nearby Tumbe Beach fish market. Return south to Mkoani for the return trip to Zanzibar. Bicycles can be rented on either island for independent rides, or local tour operators such as Cycle Tours Tanzania (www.cycletourstanzania.com) can organise a similar trip.
7. Sea to sky – Ilha de Moçambique, Mozambique to Mount Mulanje, Malawi (700km)
Varied landscapes, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ilha de Moçambique and roadside nibbles consisting of mangoes and cashews make this ride one to savour.
Explore the atmospheric streets of Ilha de Moçambique before leaving the Indian Ocean behind on a well-paved and quiet road. The roadside on your route west is dominated by mango and cashew trees, which means there is plenty to fill up on when they are in season (between November and January). Overnight in Namialo before continuing west past the stunning limestone karsts that surround the town of Nampula. Leave the tarmac at Molocue and climb through beautiful rolling scenery and traditional villages to the tea plantations around Gurue. After a rest explore the photographic foothills of nearby Mount Namuli, before following the remote tracks to Molumbo and the border with Malawi. Watch Mount Mulanje rise up in front of you before crossing the border and turning right to cycle around the eastern side of the mountain. Small mountain streams and rarely-visited villages line the track heading up to Fort Lister and Phalombe. Finish in nearby Mulanje or Blantyre. This route is not covered by organised trips, but it’s a great one to take on regardless.
8. Kili to the coast – Moshi to Tanga & Indian ocean, Tanzania (550km)
See the best of Africa’s mountains, wildlife and beaches (without crowds).
Head west from the town of Moshi before turning north towards Sanya Juu. En route you pass through little-visited Maasai villages, with Mount Meru looming to your left and Kilimanjaro rising to your right. On day two or three you experience a dramatic change in scenery as the dry savannah plains are replaced by the cool cloud forests on Kili’s northern slopes. A steep descent takes you to Lake Chala on the Kenya border. Camp here and explore – you may even see elephants as they migrate through. Head south next, eventually branching off towards the lesser-known Pare Mountains at the village of Same. Quiet roads and remote villages line the tracks that continue behind the Usambara Mountains, which are a true treat. A gradual slope takes you down towards the swaying palm trees on the coast at Tanga. Head south and relax on one of the pristine white beaches. Cycle Tours Tanzania (www.cycletourstanzania.com) offer a range of organised tours in the area if you are not keen on taking it on yourself.
9. Over the Atlas – MarrakeCh to Ouarzazate, Morocco (500km)
After the delights of Marrakech, you’ll be faced with challenging hills, great cultural opportunities and adrenaline-inducing descents.
Leave culture-rich Marrakech and head west, with dramatic views south towards the snow-capped Atlas Mountains. Overnight in the diminutive village of Demnate, then continue with a gentle climb the following day to the stunning Cascades d’Ouzoud, Morocco’s highest waterfalls. Further west the real adventure begins, on a little-used track towards Imilchil, where you pass rugged mountain landscapes and remote villages. As cyclists are rarely spotted here, don’t be surprised to receive friendly invitations from local Berber people to overnight in their house – it’s an opportunity not to be missed. From Imilchil, turn south towards the wild high-altitude scenery and climb over Tizi-n-Ouano Pass (2900m). The subsequent descent to Dades Gorge is adrenaline-inducing. Ancient fortresses dominate the traditional red-brick villages in this area, and it is here that the tarmac starts again – it’s a smooth and scenic ride into Ouarzazate, the gateway to the Sahara. This ride (and other similar Atlas Mountain routes) can be done independently or through Exodus (www.exodus.co.uk).
10. Jungle ride – Bangui, Central African Republic to Kisangani, Democratic Republic of the Congo (600km cycling)
Few cycling itineraries are as adventurous as this one through Central Africa.
Begin by loading your bikes into a dugout canoe in Bangui for the paddle cross the River Oubangi to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Zongo, join local cyclists as they begin their journey south along the remote jungle-track with their enormous cargoes. Villages along here rarely see foreigners, and as many of these poorly maintained tracks are hard to access by motorised vehicle, cycling is the only way to go – it’s an overwhelming experience. Watch out for monkeys and colourful butterflies that line the tracks. Continue south towards the mighty Congo River, catching the barge travelling upstream towards Kisangani at either Lisala or Bumba. The week-long journey on the river is a true adventure. Cycling in the DRC is purely for the adventurously minded, but the rewards are well worth it.
Easy does it
If an entire cycling holiday isn’t up your street, there are many great opportunities in Africa to enjoy shorter stints in the saddle while on safari and still see some amazing things. Here are some of Travel Africa’s favourites:
11. Cape Town, South Africa
There are various cycling day trips based out of this gorgeous city, some on roads and others on trails. Take to the slopes of Table Mountain, or hit the tarmac to Stellenbosch for guided rides through the Winelands.
12. Marrakech, Morocco
There are several operators in the city who rent mountain bikes and offer day trips into the nearby Atlas Mountains. Options include routes in the Ourika Valley, Gadji Valley and Tikla Valley. The latter option is possible all year, but the others are valid only between September to June.
13. Arusha, Tanzania
There are great day-trips here, either riding up in the foothills of Mount Meru or more extended rides that head out on to the plains or some combination thereof. A full day can include a tour – Arusha does have some interesting sites, from the German fort or boma, to the Rwandan war crimes tribunal. Further afield, lie a crater lake and some rural areas that offer fantastic mountain biking.
14. Manyara, Tanzania
Short day trips are available from Lake Manyara Serena, which normally include a visit to the village of Mto wa Mbu. Further afield, however, there are some real gems, from riding outside of Tarangire National Park to areas further south around Kolo and Kondoa (where there are ancient rock paintings). This region is great for a blend of culture, history and landscapes.
15. Mount Kenya, Kenya
Mountain bike rides on the lower slopes of Kenya’s highest peak are organised by several companies. These can be done as day trips or as part of a multi-day cycling trip into the nearby Laikipia Plateau. A day-ride is a great add-on to those trekking the mountain.
16. Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya
There are few opportunities to cycle amongst classic African wildlife within a national park. Hell’s Gate is one such place. Bikes are available to rent nearby along the shore of Lake Naivasha (Fisherman’s Camp is one well-known option). The park’s volcanic landscape is stunning too.
17. Garden Route, South Africa
There is no shortage of great mountain bike trails along the Garden Route, between Plettenberg Bay and Knysna. They are varied in difficulty, which means there are routes for beginners as well as for experts.
18. Oudtshoorn, South Africa.
A popular route that involves you being driven by bus up to the top of Swartberg Pass, which gives you the opportunity of a gravity-assisted 54km ride back to town. Possible stops en route back to town include the impressive Cango Caves, camel and ostrich farms and a swim at the Cango Wildlife Ranch.
19. Moshi, Tanzania
Not unlike Arusha, Moshi does have a rich history and you can certainly visit various sites with great cycling in between. Day trips up the slopes of Kilimanjaro are great for those who really want the exercise and there are some easier rides around town.