Friday, 04 October 2019 08:24

Cycling a Continent: an Irishman's Adventure through Africa

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For Tomás, cycling has always been a way to relax and clear his head. But you wouldn’t think that cycling the length of a continent would be at all relaxing – especially Africa and especially when you’re cycling it solo and unsupported.

And Tomás admits that parts of his journey certainly weren’t relaxing but the good bits by far outweighed the odd sticky situation. We spoke to Tomás to hear more about his story “Adventure through Africa” and learn more about what it takes to cycle a continent.

adventure through africa map web 


You started cycling properly when you were around 17. What about it did you enjoy so much?

I enjoyed the freedom the most. Being able to take off cycling when it pleased me or best suited me, being able to cycle as fast or as slow as I wanted and the freedom to go wherever I felt like going.

Cycling across a whole continent is an incredible challenge to take on. Have you always wanted to take on big challenges and push yourself outside of your comfort zone?

Not really. I hadn't grown up dreaming of cycling continents or cycling at all to be honest! Once I started cycling properly when I was 17 and experienced that sense of freedom, then I began to think about cycling around the world. There is a wonderful world to explore and being able to explore it on two wheels is incredible.

Tropic of capricornTropic of capricorn

Before you embarked on your trip to Africa, you cycled across part of the USA. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

America took 7 weeks and it was 3,000 miles from California to Florida. The journey took me through 7 states in total. California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. I choose America because I had never been there before but a lot of my friends had gone there on a summer visa once and they all seemed to enjoy themselves.

Do you think your trip across the US was good preparation for your cycle across Africa?

Absolutely, it was great experience. It's important to start somewhere and for me, America was ideal. One way it helped was preparing for the African heat. In America, temperatures rose to 35/40 degrees on a couple of occasions. These are temperatures I would never experience in Ireland! So it was great training in that sense. It was also great to get used to the touring life: making sure I ate enough, rested enough and drank enough water etc.

Sahara DesertSahara Desert

And then you decided on Africa. How did your friends and family react when you told them you were going to cycle through Africa?

Haha, yeah. They weren't too pleased with my decision. I can't repeat much of what was said to me as it wouldn't be appropriate! But most people thought I was a bit mad for choosing to cycle the length of Africa. Of course, your family will be worried, parents will always be parents no matter what age you are. Saying all that, despite their wish that I cycle a different continent, my family and friends supported me from day one. I wouldn't have been able to do it without them. While I was in Africa, I was in daily contact with my family and my friends would message me as well to check in on me, especially when I went through my mental battles. Support like that is key, because sometimes you need to feel that love or that arm around your shoulder telling you everything is going to be OK.

You mentioned your mental battles there – a trip like this one is enormously mentally challenging. How did you prepare mentally for a trip of this magnitude?

The thing is, it's difficult to mentally prepare for such a trip. I knew I was going to struggle, but that was part of the challenge. I was leaving behind my family & friends. It was always going to be tough, especially as I knew there would be some very isolated stretches. But I made sure I enjoyed my time at home prior to departure as again, there is no point letting these things get to you. I did my best not to think about it all.

One of the main things you struggled with on your trip was loneliness. Were you expecting to struggle that much with the loneliness?

Yes I did struggle a lot with that. I come from a pub in a small rural village in Ireland. I'm around people all the time, so in parts of Africa where I would hardly meet people during the day it indeed was a struggle. Nothing beats human interaction. Very few people like spending all their time by themselves. Like most, I do enjoy some alone time – that’s why I find cycling so relaxing – but only to a certain extent. But like any of the problems I faced in Africa, I just had to ride through them.

Namib Desert dirt roadsNamib Desert dirt roads

What was going through your mind during those lows? Did you think you would be able to make it to the end?

The low periods were tough. I questioned myself intensively – was I just a mentally weak person? Making a mountain out of a molehill? Over reacting/thinking? But then I realised I was human and I had feelings and sometimes those feelings can hurt you and bring you down. I know us men like to think we're super tough, but sometimes you just need to let your emotions take over and accept that we have feelings that can sometimes make us feel crap. As much as it sucked feeling low like that while I was by myself in countries I had never been to before, I'm glad of the experience. Those low experiences made me stronger and more determined than ever to reach Cape Town.

Can you talk us through your route down Africa a little? Which countries did you cycle through and how long did the whole trip take you?

My route took me through 11 different countries, starting in Egypt and ending in South Africa. From Egypt I travelled onto Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa. From start to finish it was about 11,000 km in total and took almost 7 months.

Elephants in Botswana as I pedalled along Elephant HighwayElephants in Botswana as I pedalled along Elephant Highway

How much did you cycle each day on average and how difficult was the cycling, physically?

On average I probably cycled about 100km a day, which isn't bad going considering the intense heat I found myself in on an almost daily basis. There was no real need to do crazy miles, the longest I cycled in one day was about 190 km. Other than that, I stuck to doing about 100 km or a bit more and that was more than enough. It wasn't a race: I could take my time and enjoy every moment. Terrain wise, I pretty much cycled through everything. Each terrain is challenging in its own way. For example, the desert was tough because it was so isolated, the Ethiopian Highlands were challenging as I was climbing up to and beyond 3,000 meters, but I probably found the rolling hills of Tanzania the most challenging purely because of the heat – it hit up to 40 degrees and about 60/70% humidity. Extremely tough conditions to cycle in, especially on a fully loaded bike.

adventure through africa map kids

What do you think is the one thing from your trip that you’ll remember forever?

The best part about the trip was the people I encountered from start to finish. In this day and age and the way Western society is nowadays, the African people renewed my love for the world again and restored my faith in humanity. For example, in Sudan, the locals always invited me to eat with them. Eating together in a group is the norm, and when they saw me alone, they always invited me to sit with them, eat together and drink tea together. Anytime I would cycle into a rural village in any of the countries I passed through, the locals would approach me and ask if everything was OK, or if I require help. The locals I met are the kindest, warm heartied & nicest people I have ever had the pleasure of encountering in my life.

How did you feel when you reached the end of your trip having been cycling for so long?

I was elated. It was a super tough trip, and as soon as I saw Table Mountain which dominates the Cape Town landscape, I broke down crying. Knowing what I had gone through to get to this gigantic landmark, my emotions got the better of me. It was an incredible moment and one I'll savour for the rest of my life.

Cape town

Having done two long distance cycling challenges through Africa and USA, what advice would you give to someone who wants to take on a cycling challenge on the scale that you’ve done?

Just go for it. Don't over worry about it, and don't let people talk you out of it. If you really want to do it then you'll absolutely make it work. Have fun, smile as much as you can, and be willing to make a ton more friends. Travelling by bicycle is incredible, you really can just about go anywhere you want, while staying super fit & getting tons of fresh air. Plan a little, but there is no need to over plan. Be willing to adapt & be flexible, things won't always go right and that's when you have to stay calm and think on the spot to figure out a plan b, c, d etc. But in my opinion, bicycle touring really is the best way to travel.

To read more about Tomás’s trip, click here.