Things We Have Learned In Africa

Today we bring you a random list of observations and lessons we have learned in our African travels to date.  Enjoy.

1. In Africa, it is not unusual to see 3 or more people on a bicycle.

Family outing with valuable cargo securely fastened

2. Bicycles are the pick-up trucks of Africa (Malawi and Zambia at least).  3 riders have developed slight cracks in their light weight wheel rims on tour even though we have a sag wagon to carry our kit.   Bicycles need to be a little more rugged  in these parts.

These bags of coal weigh 50 kgs each! These guys push their single speed bikes uphill, but they ride on the flats.  It’s no wonder so many of them have challenged us to “races” for kilometres at a time.


3. The rule of the road here is “right of weight” rather than “right of way”.  Busses in Sudan are the worst.  A donkey cart with passengers did not get out of the way of an oil tanker in time in Ethiopia – we will spare you the outcome.

4. Stronger is better.  This may well apply to everything, but as far as biking goes it means less hours in the saddle and more energy for other activities. We’ve been rolling out of camp around 6:30 AM lately on longer mileage days.   This sets up a 9:15 ish lunch and flexibility with “coke” stops to arrive in camp around 2:30PM.  That’s about 6 1/2 hours in the saddle.  The speedsters can arrive around noon, and laggards sometimes struggle to make the 5:30 rider meeting. 

What we have learned is to pace ourselves to build in enough time for  photography and interaction with fellow riders and natives, while arriving in ”camp” with ample time to set up our tent, clean up and unwind.  The 25 km stop on previous tours has turned into 40.  We can peel and eat a banana on the go.  When facing headwinds we sometimes ride in a pace line and take a less relaxed approach to get the job done.  

Stronger would be better, but luckily we are fit enough to enjoy almost every day.

5. A bucket of water is a lot of water! On many occasions there has been no water for washing up.  We have learned to make do with wet wipes, which  come in more varieties than you may be aware of.  In comparison, a single bucket of water is a godsend. A bucket of water can be hard earned over here, so this is not an exaggeration.

Here’s the drill: 

  • Secure bucket of water from local entrepreneur for about 50 cents and follow him/her to a designated private area – often a stall with a squat toilet which must be straddled with extreme caution
  • Using a bike water bottle or equivalent as a scoop,  wet hair
  • Wash hair with bar of soap (for G. “soap is soap”, but L. uses “products”)
  • Rinse hair and soap body with runoff.
  • Soap, rinse and repeat as necessary. 

Believe it or not, an average sized person in an advanced stage of ripeness will have enough water left over to wash a garment or two – set a water bottle with clean water aside for rinsing before using what’s left in the bucket as a wash tub.

Lenore crosses another item off her “bucket” list

6. As bathroom facilities go, the desert is a good option. Shovels and an endless suppository of sand are better than 2 conventional installations for a group of 35. On the down side, darkness may offer the only privacy. When camping on the property of hotels/lodges etc., TDA rents 2 rooms for their shower and toilets.  We are a feral group of sweat laden, eating and drinking machines – African plumbing is usually not up to the task.

7. A tent is a safer and more controlled environment than a cheap African hotel room with no AC, air circulation and inadequate screening. Mosquitoes and heat cannot be taken lightly here.

8. The ground stays warm under a tent in the desert long after sundown, but it is wise to have a sleeping bag handy when falling asleep before the temperature drops.

9. The Tour d’Afrique version of “don’t judge a book by its’ cover” is to not to size up the ride ahead by statistics on paper alone.  Kilometres and elevation gain are absolutes, but the wind, weather, road surface and traffic are big factors. The tour itinerary is set up with empirical data, but occasionally a 150 km day classified in the log book as “moderate” because of usual prevailing tail winds turns into a monster when that wind shifts.

10. “EFI” (every f**ing) inch) is more about luck than ability.  Completing the Tour d’Afrique without missing a single inch is definitely a “thing” for some.  The chance of being thwarted by illness (a bout of gastro on bike is not pleasant), extreme heat, a split second of inattention leading to injury, or mechanical issues over 88 moving days is high.  Again, stronger is better, but grit is the more important requirement here.  For the record, we have each had to take 2 half days off.  Together, we have “couples”  EFI – we can be proud of that record.

11. 4 months is a long time. So much has happened since those 1st apprehensive days in Cairo that the experience in totality is almost surreal. Our lives here are driven by routine and we are so focused on the present that we rarely have time to reflect on events of the past 3 months. In any case, it is not an undertaking that can be easily summarized. When well spoken tour participant Romi flew back to Amsterdam to sign a document (timing her trip so as not to miss a single km of riding!) was asked by someone what it’s like to bicycle the length of Africa all she was able to muster was “it’s good”. 

Clearly it is a long tour when 2 riders are about to rejoin us here in Victoria Falls after flying home for periods long enough to mend broken bones! Many clothing items and equipment will not be making the trip home because they are literally worn out. Most of all, we miss family and friends. And the dog.

12. 4 months is not long enough. Now that we are accustomed to the simple daily routine of life on a TDA tour, time is passing quickly. The aggressive agenda means that we are not seeing many points of interest which are close by in relative terms.  There are also times when have to curtail our activities to preserve energy for the main objective (see “stronger is better” above). Alas, when has there ever been enough time for anything?

13. Beer is better cold, showers are better when warm, but we’ll take what we can get.  What we can get is more often than not a local pulling a “cold one” out of a pail of lukewarm water.  A cold shower trumps baby wipes and even a bucket of water any day. We’ve learned to appreciate the little things.

14. Africa is beautiful, diverse, conflicted, complicated, everything we expected, not what we expected and more than we expected. The experience is a privilege

Thanks for reading.

Morning sky over Zambia

Author: Gerry

Gerry & Lenore have 3 daughters who they thought might want to keep track of their parents as they travel - hence the blogging. Oh. . . . we hope to put up some content worthy of your consideration as well!

22 thoughts on “Things We Have Learned In Africa”

  1. I am deeply moved by your experience(s)
    To do this spectacular journey together is a gift you’ve given to each other. Koodos and thank you so much for sharing. Africa looks beautiful


  2. Your blog and amazing photos is really making your experience come alive for me as a reader!
    And I can’t imagine being in the bike saddle day In day for those type of kms (my butt was damaged after doing the Ottawa-Kingston ride!) – You guys rock!
    It also makes me realize how lucky we are here in Canada when you see what a precious resource water is elsewhere in the world.


  3. Very insightful, beautifully written summary to date. We will definitely want to hear more than just “good”!
    Be safe


  4. Yes, you will never get to the end of this trip. As you describe it, it is too big and mysterious to ever apprehend. But we will try, over grilled fish and wine. Hey, maybe you’ll just have to do it again! Kisses to Lenore.


  5. Love your list of observations especially the 14th. What an incredible experience of a lifetime. Cherish every minute – you can enjoy as many buckets of water as you want when you get home 🙂


      1. “It is life near the bone where it is sweetest” (Thoreau)

        When Thoreau wrote this line in 1854, he was referring to the experience of the poor.

        I have often been reminded of this quote as Gerry and Lenore witness every richness and hardship that a cycling trip through Africa affords.

        Thank you for reminding us that comfort isn’t the only way to get at the meat of life.


  6. I second every one else’s comments especially ‘you will never get to the end of this trip’. It will be in your hearts and heads forever. And oh the faces of the children… Judy and Jack

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am very much enjoying and inspired by your commentary. I have visited a number of the same African countries, but in a lot less challenging, and more luxurious conditions. I think you are capturing the real heart and spirit of Africa. The hardest part may be coming home, or at least returning to a North American routine. Wishing you both a continued safe journey.


    1. Starting to get a sense of the “return” already. Looking forward to an upcoming flight over the Okavango Delta which I’m sure you can relate to. Thanks Kathy.


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