Epic bike rides: The Tour D’Afrique

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Tour d’Afrique lives up to its name: a ride across the entire continent of Africa. It’s tough on the bike and gruelling on the body.

Through stinging beads of sweat I looked ahead and the road shimmered into the distance – a thin grey line with endless plains of sand on either side. We’d cycled 50 miles (80km) so far and had the same distance to go. The sun was beating down, and the desert wind was relentless. It was like riding into a hairdryer. With added grit. What a crazy place to go cycling.


This was my first day on the Tour d’Afrique, a long-distance race from Cairo to Cape Town, Africa’s traditional northern and southern extremities. This annual test of endurance covers around 7500 miles (around 12,000km) divided into eight stages of 14 days, giving four months to ride the continent end-to-end. And while some pedal the whole distance, those with less time can ride just a stage – which is no mean feat in itself. There’s also a team relay option, and in 2009 I was part of a Lonely Planet team, with two riders completing each stage then handing on the baton.


The Tour d’Afrique starts at one of Africa’s best-known landmarks, the Pyramids of Giza, on the edge of Cairo. After obligatory photos in front of the giant monuments, and one for luck in front of the Sphinx, the peloton heads south to begin its epic journey. Route details change each year, as new roads are built or borders close, or when countries become too volatile to visit, but the Tour d’Afrique follows pretty much the same overall pattern. From the Egyptian capital, riders head to the Red Sea then follow the coast road before tracking inland to reach the Nile Valley and cycle through a landscape of palm trees and crop fields that have barely changed since Pharaonic times.


A ferry ride along Lake Nasser brings the riders to their second country, Sudan, and a demanding few days on sandy roads through the Nubian Desert, an eastern extension of the Sahara. In this remote part of Africa, where travel is hard at the best of times, cycling adds an extra level of endurance and excitement.

In Khartoum my own adventure began, as I joined a Lonely Planet teammate on that heat-soaked highway through the endless desert landscape. Distances between towns were long, so we often stopped for a drink and a rest at basic roadhouses, some little more than a lonely shack surrounded by sand. We enjoyed small glasses of sweet black tea, and an unexpected bonus was the availability of glucose biscuits. Together they kept us fuelled for another hour or two of tough cycling.


From Sudan we crossed the border into Ethiopia. Almost immediately, the flat desert changed to a fertile landscape of green rolling hills, and dead-straight roads gave way to frequent bends as we climbed into the Ethiopian Highlands, a range of mountains sometimes dubbed the Roof of Africa.


From the vantage points of the bikes, we were able to see local people working in the fields, kids going to school, everyone just getting on with daily life. We were also joined by a group of Ethiopian cyclists, and a highlight of the trip was riding alongside them as the dramatic scenery rolled past, chatting about life in Ethiopia and the finer points of the local bike-racing scene.


After Ethiopia, the Tour d’Afrique goes to Kenya. The route may be out of the mountains, but the cycling gets even harder with a traverse of the arid Dida Galgalu Desert. When the Lonely Planet team were here in 2009, a freak rainstorm turned dirt roads into mud. One of the riders later reported: ‘It was much more than just cycling. It was a matter of survival.’

A day of climbing into the lush foothills of Mt Kenya comes as a welcome relief, enhanced by crossing the Equator, from where it’s an easy ride to Nairobi and on to Tanzania through a classic African landscape of savanna grasslands dotted with flat-topped acacia trees. On a bike it’s easier to see monkeys, giraffes, zebras and other wild animals that car-drivers might miss, and the vista is further enhanced by the snow-covered peak of Kilimanjaro serving as a backdrop.

The next port of call is Malawi. In this poor country bikes are everywhere, metal beasts of burden carrying vast bundles of firewood, piles of bricks, giant gas canisters, rolls of corrugated iron, even beds. With locals and Tour d’Afrique riders having two wheels in common, it’s the perfect opportunity to share a friendly wave or a few words of greeting.

In Zambia, long straight roads cut through a vast empty country to reach yet another classic African landmark, Victoria Falls, where the Zambezi River plummets into a gorge, sending up a cloud of spray that can be seen from far away; a very welcome sight at the end of a hard day’s cycling.

Beyond the Zambezi are the relatively developed countries of Botswana and Namibia, but easy conditions are offset by long days in the saddle, including the approx. 129-mile (approx. 208km) ‘queen stage’ along the Trans Kalahari Hwy. If that doesn’t raise a sweat, riders may also encounter elephants on the road – guaranteed to get the heart pumping.

Then comes the last section through South Africa, where once again the bikes bring riders closer to stunning landscapes, with final off-road forays through Namaqualand and the sculptured orange rocks of the Cederberg mountains.

The Tour d’Afrique ends as it began, at a famous landmark: weary but elated cyclists pass the flat-topped summit of Table Mountain to reach Cape Town and the end of a truly epic ride.

TOOLKIT

Start: Cairo, Egypt

End: Cape Town, South Africa

Distance: Approx 7500 miles (approx. 12,000km). The route varies but usually goes via Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. Riders can opt to do the race (with competitive sections most days) or the ‘expedition’ (which means just taking part).

Duration: Covering the entire distance requires around 120 days, divided into 90 riding days and 30 rest/ sightseeing days.

When to ride: The Tour d’Afrique is organised every year, usually mid-January to mid-May, by TDA Global Cycling (www. tdaglobalcycling.com/tour-dafrique). More info // Support trucks carry supplies and camping gear. Some riders may also take advantage of a truck-ride to cut daily cycling distances.

CAIRO TO CAPE TOWN RECORD BREAKERS
The first Tour d’Afrique in 2003 set a new benchmark in long-distance cycling events, and also set a new world record, with nine riders cycling from Cairo to Cape Town in 120 days. Over the following decade, the record was reduced by several solo riders. In 2015 the record was broken by British cyclist Mark Beaumont, covering around 6718 mile (around 10,812km) in a brisk 41 days, 10 hours and 22 minutes.

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Reproduced with permission from Epic Bike Rides of the World, © 2016 Lonely Planet

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