Hannah Smith and Diarmaid McDonald had no illusions about the challenges posed by a 14 000 km cycle trip from London to Cape Town. It would be mentally demanding, physically exhausting and possibly quite dangerous. What they didn’t anticipate was the raw, unforgettable beauty of the African continent and the incredible kindness of strangers. A hint of Zen and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance? Pretty much…
‘We wanted an adventure… some time out to live a little, away from a computer screen and into the real world.’
For Hannah and Diarmaid, a London-based couple who work with NGOs in the fields of HIV-Aids advocacy and sustainable development, the “real” world was a formidably long and physically draining bicycle ride across Western Europe and down the entire length of the African continent. Two weeks before we went to press with this issue of PM, they arrived in Cape Town after an experience that changed their lives.
Okay, so the first and most obvious question: why did you do it?
Diarmaid: “We have a few friends who have cycle-toured in Asia and America, and after speaking to them, we began to understand that you can go pretty far on a bicycle. We also try not to fly for environmental reasons, so the prospect of having Hannah’s extended family waiting for us in Cape Town was a big motivation.
“We also wanted to do something that would be a challenge. We’d never done anything like this before, so although we set off with determination and confidence, we remained aware that we might not make it to the finish line.”
How did you plan the trip?
Hannah: “It actually started with us poring over The Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook. Then there’s a host of Web sites dedicated to bicycle touring. We spoke to friends, trawled blogs and spent a day in an amazing map shop in London called Stanfords. We also signed up for a weekend-long wilderness medical training course – just in case.”
Diarmaid: “We spent two years honing the idea, followed by six months of concerted effort every weekend. We both completed an evening course in basic bike maintenance that covered gears, brakes and wheels. We also spent two weekends at our local bike shop – Brixton Cycles in south London – giving our bikes a full check-up under the watchful eye of Simon and the other mechanics. Once on the road, we kept them clean and well-oiled, lubricating them once every week or two, and more often in the desert. Amazingly, the only things we had to replace were brake pads, a tyre, one chain and several inner tubes.”
Blog extract #1
‘It is agreed then that we can camp. A verbal contract that can only be made official once a small child has been dispatched to rouse the sleeping chief. He does so, and five minutes later, a crumpled, smiling man whose taqiyah (small prayer cap) is level with Diarmaid’s chest comes to give us his blessing.’
What did you wish you’d brought along, and how did its absence affect you?
Diarmaid: “We spent ages agonising over our kit. There’s a limit to what you can carry with you on a bicycle, and our budget was pretty tight. We decided to take a basic Nokia C1 phone rather than a smartphone. At times we did regret not being able to connect to Wi-Fi or use the now-excellent 3G coverage across the continent to update our tour blog, tweet pictures or e-mail friends, but having said that, we were happiest when we were disconnected from the wider world.”
Hannah: “We considered a GoPro action cam but ruled it out solely on cost. We really enjoyed capturing footage on the road but getting steady shots with our DSLR while in motion is tough. Recording a long descent in the desert or capturing the bustle of a town as you try to navigate the chaos is almost impossible. Stills don’t cut it and the shaky videos on our DSLR make you feel a bit queasy. Having seen the quality video captured by other travellers, I’d definitely find the money for a GoPro next time.”
Diarmaid: “It sounds a little pretentious, but we found that people wanted our contact details all the time, so maybe some business cards would have been a good idea, and to help communicate what we were up to, perhaps a small map of the world. We opted to use maps rather than GPS, and discovered that everyone loved studying the maps of their country.”
So it was an odyssey packed with surprises?
Hannah: “There were many. The biggest came when we rolled into Cape Town and my dad and sister suddenly appeared from their hiding place behind the Milnerton lighthouse, having travelled from the Caribbean and Scotland respectively to meet us. I expected some kind of welcome from a gaggle of South African relatives, but this was a complete shock.”
Diarmaid: “It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but Africa is changing fast. I was in Ethiopia eight years ago, and on this trip I hardly recognised the place. There are new roads, hotels and factories everywhere. You’ll find a growing middle class drinking lattes and using iPads. That said, inequality is increasing and people are still struggling to survive. The continent’s connectivity was another surprise: you can get excellent 3G coverage from Egypt to South Africa, and decent Wi-Fi in most big towns, so the Internet is really shaking things up.”
Hannah: “Another big surprise was how few mechanical problems we had. I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t know much about keeping a bike on the road before we left, and I was genuinely excited about becoming a puncture pro. For the first half of our trip, say 8 000 km, we had only two punctures – thanks to awesome Schwalbe tyres – so come Malawi, I still hadn’t learned much. But I needn’t have worried. By the end of the trip, thanks to treads worn thin, the puncture count had hit the thirties.”
Diarmaid: “Amazingly, Italy’s roads were some of the worst on the whole trip. And the people we thought would be our nemeses – lorry drivers – turned out to be our closest allies. I think they understood the long days on the road, and they consistently respected our space, greeting us with real enthusiasm.”
Blog extract #2
‘…we survived the huge numbers of hauliers plying the route from Mombasa’s gigantic port to the Kenyan capital and beyond thanks to our rear-view mirrors and a simple communication strategy. “Off!” one of us would shout; we’d hit the brakes and swoop on to the roadside scrub to wait for the thundering lorries to pass.’
How about scary moments?
Hannah: “The Nairobi-Mombasa highway was frightening. The Lonely Planet Guide said cycling it was “tantamount to suicide”, and we certainly had some pretty hairy moments with all the trucks heading to and from East Africa’s biggest port. I had to career off some pretty big drops to get out of the heavy traffic a few times. It was an intense five-day stretch on the road. Everyone always asks about lions and snakes, but drivers were our biggest threat. Getting down the Simplon Pass in the Alps was also treacherous. It was so cold that my hands could hardly grip the brake levers. I’d cycle up it again, but not down!”
Did you prepare properly?
Diarmaid: “I think so. Nothing went too badly wrong on the road, so we must have done something right.”
Hannah: “I love Excel spreadsheets, and we had about nine of them covering everything from budgets to kit to medical stuff.”
Diarmaid: “On reflection, I should probably have got the panniers packed a little earlier than 4 am on the day we were supposed to roll out!”
Did you choose the right bikes?
Hannah: “Yes, definitely. They’ve given us very few problems. The Surly Long Haul Truckers were pretty affordable at about £1000 (R14 500 at today’s exchange rate) for what we were undertaking, and I didn’t find a single critical review in my extensive Internet research. The one thing we missed was a kickstand. Surly says they can damage the frame, and that there’s always a tree or fence you can lean it against. Speaking from experience, there are no trees in Sudan!”
You’ve written in your blog about the incredible kindness of strangers. Did this trip restore or reinforce your faith in humanity?
Hannah: “Constantly. We were offered water, wine, beds. People paid our bills in restaurants, bus drivers stopped to give us sodas, hoteliers gave us free rooms in luxury lodges. A gracious Sudanese man bought me a pair of shoes. It was wonderful to see people’s enthusiasm for our adventure… everyone we’ve met has been very supportive. When we had some stuff nicked along the way, friends back home had a whip-round so we could replace the camera and other kit we’d lost. The world is full of good people who often give without being aware that they are giving.”
Diarmaid: “When things were tough, strangers always seemed to be there with the right word or smile, a toot and a wave.”
Which country especially impressed or delighted you?
Diarmaid: “France was a joy to tour in – like Disneyland, as a fellow cycle tourist put it. Everything you could possibly want is within easy reach: great coffee, a network of very good C roads, and a nation of cycling fans. The Western Desert in Egypt was probably the most serene and beautiful place we encountered… you can almost hear the emptiness. Sudanese people were generous beyond belief. Ethiopia is incredibly challenging but exceptionally rewarding. And the Namibians and South Africans have been so warm and kind.”
Did the experience change your relationship?
Hannah: “We’ve become a better team. In fact, we’ve developed an uncanny ability to finish each other’s sentences. Hopefully this will wear off a little… it’s kind of embarrassing.”
Diarmaid: “We managed to get ourselves imprisoned by the only drunk man in teetotal Sudan! He pulled up his car as we were cycling south of Khartoum and invited us to stop for tea in his house in the next village. At this stage, he seemed lively, but it wasn’t until we arrived at his place that we realised he was hammered. By that point it would have been rude to turn on our heels and leave. He kept on drinking and even rolled a joint – probably a hanging offence in strict Sudan – and then proceeded to frighten us by telling us that people there didn’t like Westerners. He wanted us to stay the night and it took all of our firm but polite willpower to get out of there. His enthusiastic hospitality bordered on kidnapping…”
Hardest times and hottest experiences?
Diarmaid: “The first day’s cycling in northern Sudan was ferocious. We’d underestimated the challenge and cycled through 40-degree heat until we found our first shade at three in the afternoon. From then on, we managed to adapt our rhythms, getting on the road early and stopping by 11 am. We’d rest until 3 pm, then get back on the bikes as the heat eased.”
Do any other travellers stand out in your memory?
Hannah: “We met a wonderful Japanese couple on the way to Cape Town. He’d been on the road for four years, covering all of Asia and the Middle East. He met a Japanese tourist in Nairobi, they fell in love, and she bought a bicycle and joined his journey. We also met a man named Freddie in the Northern Cape who was walking every inch of South Africa. For the past 16 years, he’s walked for 11 months and rested for one. There are only a few square kilometres of South Africa that he hasn’t visited – and he’s ticking them off as we speak.”
Diarmaid: “Chris from Leeds was also an interesting young chap. He was walking from Cairo to Somaliland to raise money to build a women’s hospital there. He was accompanied by a camel that was carrying his stuff, but they wouldn’t admit the camel to Sudan, so he’d fashioned a cart for all his kit. He was dragging it behind him through the desert and over the Ethiopian highlands.”
Blog extract #3
‘Then we rounded a corner… and looking down at us was a giraffe. And then another. Then elephants, far back from the road. Until all around us were zebra and impala and every kind of animal you’d hope to see as you cycle by, and none of the ones we didn’t. It’s very special to coast by an elephant and hear him ripping up grass to chew.’
Can you offer useful advice for anyone who’s thinking of doing the same trip?
Diarmaid: “Just do it! You will not regret the decision, and anything you get wrong in the preparation can be figured out on the road.”
Hannah: “I read on a blog somewhere that you should never allow the lack of money to stop you. This is a very cheap way to travel, and people find very creative ways to keep going.”