Helen Lloyd spent 20 months cycling through Africa. She covered 25,000km, pedaling across the Sahara and through West Africa to the Democratic Republic of Congo. From there she continued on into southern Africa and cycled down to Cape Town. Along the way she fell in love with the continent and its people. To kick off a new series of interviews with inspirational African adventurers, Helen had a chat with Mary Askew
Why go by bike?
Previously I had been backpacking, but backpackers are confined to getting about by hitching or using public transport, so you end up just going from town to town. I find the bits in-between towns more interesting. You are also very approachable on a bike – much more than if you are in a car. On top of all that, cycling is cheap, and you go slowly so you end up seeing a lot more.
What did you pack?
Very little. I had my camping equipment, first aid kit, camera, laptop and three sets of clothes – something to bike in, something not to bike in, and something warm. I picked up my food and water along the way.
Where were you happiest?
The Congo. I felt quite at home there and made some great friends. I think it was people’s attitude I liked. All over Africa you find that people live for the day, but in the Congo they have had a lot of problems in their recent past, so that attitude is even more extreme. It’s so very different from the rat race in England where life is all laid out in front of you – your education, your career and your home life. I am not settled enough to be part of that at the moment.
Was it easy to find food & drink?
I just ate and drank what the locals did. Typically in West Africa I ate pasta with a sauce made from onions, chillies, tomatoes and a Magi stock cube. In Ghana I ate lots of jollof rice. In Congo I started eating fufu and got quite addicted to it. If the locals drank the water then so did I, whether it came from a river or the village pump. I fell ill only twice, once when I drank from a tap in someone’s house in Morocco, and then again in Gabon.
What was the most valuable thing you had with you?
Initially it was my camera, but as I went on it became my journal, as it was irreplaceable. About half way through I realised I could take photos of each page of my journal so I had a copy.
Did you bike all the way?
I took an iron ore train in Mauritania, which was filthy, rocky and very long – it’s meant to be the longest train in the world. I was right at the back with the windows jammed down and ended up absolutely caked in dust that was blown straight into the carriage. I also took a boat down the Niger. That river trip was probably the toughest two weeks of any travelling I have done. I randomly met another cyclist, and we had a boat built in Guinea in a town about 100 miles from the source of the Niger. The boat was a pirogue, a heavy wooden panel boat with a flat bottom. It was the dry season, and we kept hitting rocks and capsizing. A snake got into our food bag when we camped on rocks in the middle of the river, but our main concern was the submerged hippos. I was physically shattered afterwards. I much preferred the bike!
Were you frightened in a tent at night?
Not at all. Ideally I’d camp in a remote spot, but often that was difficult to find as there are so many people. It was funny: I’d think I’d found a perfect spot then someone would appear out of nowhere. Some nights I had a whole crowd watching me set up my tent and cook dinner. In Central Africa I camped in villages. I’d go to see the chiefs and they’d sort out a family to be in charge of me, or they’d find me a place to put my tent. I always felt very safe. I never used a bike lock. I just left my bike by my tent. People always ask, “wasn’t it dangerous being on your own?” It was the complete opposite. Everyone I met was really kind. I suspect it helped that I was a lone woman. People assumed I could do with some help! I think I found it easier than some blokes who travel alone – people think men are tough and not so approachable.
So no scary moments at all?
The scary moments of the trip were all to do with animals – particularly in Botswana and Namibia. Elephants were a problem on the road as they were surprisingly hard to see for such large animals. They couldn’t hear or smell me until I was close, and then they would feel threatened as they are not used to cyclists. There were a couple of times I had to pedal very fast out of the way. If I knew there were lions about I cycled in the heat of the day when they were less likely to be hunting – at least that was my theory!
Was it difficult coming home?
No, because I had already planned another trip, this time to the Americas. I basically flew back to the UK from Cape Town on a Friday and started work the following Monday to earn the money I needed. Five months later I was back on the road.
Do you have any advice for people thinking of going on an African adventure?
Just do it. The hardest part of all is getting out the door at the start. It’s so easy to make excuse after excuse, but then you never go.