Home Cycling Africa Why Did I Cycle through Africa for One Year?

Why Did I Cycle through Africa for One Year?

by Derek Cullen

After some years of jumping back and forth between window cleaning, roofing and working for an investment bank, I dropped everything to ride a bicycle from Cape to Cairo in Africa. I had no previous cycling experience and prepared for this trip by reading one or two travel blogs by people who did something similar in Europe.

I was terribly unfit at the time and riddled with anxiety. This was largely due to alcohol abuse, poor decision-making and my general lack of accountability. In other words, I was forever feeling sorry for myself and blaming everyone/everything else for whatever was going wrong in my life. There was also a lot of personal trauma – the result of my parents passing away within two years of each other in 2006/2008.

But one morning, when I was feeling especially exhausted both mentally and physically, I had an epiphany which prompted me to ask some difficult questions:

– Why am I so unhappy?

– Why am I blaming everyone/everything else for my own decisions?

– Why have I become so negative and disillusioned with life?

– What would I actually like to do with my life?

– Is it possible that I can turn everything around?

– What will happen if I don’t try?

– And now what am I going to do about it?

I concluded that it was necessary to start helping myself and take immediate action to turn things around. I decided the best way to initiate this process was to go away by myself and do something that might challenge me to change my ways/outlook etc. But why the cycle through Africa? I’d like to tell you why…

Why the Cycle through Africa?

I felt it necessary to escape everything (and everyone) that might distract me from the process. But I also wanted to do something that might be exciting/enjoyable and challenge me in ways that might help me figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

Africa was the most interesting place that I had ever visited and my initial idea was to ride a motorbike through the continent. But I didn’t have a license and it would cost a quite a bit, and I also thought this might be more of a “holiday” as opposed to a challenge that would push me out of my comfort zone and far beyond my boundaries. 

After reading a blog about a chap (Tom Allen) that cycled from England to Iran and then onto Ethiopia, I decided to ride a bicycle through Africa and booked a one-way flight to Cape Town. It was necessary to fly all the way to Cape Town because that would deter me from turning around, giving up and going home. 

And this all happened in the very same day; I quit my job, walked home, booked a flight to Cape Town and put all of my possessions up for sale online. I didn’t allow myself to think about much else because anything more would surely scare me off and I was already dealing with a big bowl of depression, anxiety and self-doubt. It was a terrifying moment in my life but you must understand, I was already in a dark place and fully aware that staying in that place would be far more dangerous to my health and well-being – than riding a bicycle through Africa. I know there’s much safer ways to turn things around but I’m not here to rewrite the past or hide my own truth.

How was I able to Afford this Trip?

The total trip cost was just under $4,000 which included flights and visas. I spent a lot of nights in the tent and really cheap guesthouses. Food was also just a couple of dollars each day and there was nothing else on which to spend my money. This means my daily expenses were less than $10 and my motorbike (that I had just bought), xbox, guitars and other possessions amounted to the amount stated above.

What Gear did you take?

There were four pannier bags strapped to the bike. I had my clothing in one pannier, spare parts for the bicycle in another and then food, cooking gear and valuables in the front two panniers. My tent and sleeping bag was strapped across the back.

Where did you sleep?

I mostly slept in my tent or cheap local guesthouses (Maybe 40;60 ratio). As the trip went on, I opted for guesthouses more often because I was more and more tired. 

Did I run out of food or water?

No, I came close one day but never anything serious. I always carried more than enough water. For instance, I carried 12 litres into the Namib desert!

Was it dangerous?

Traffic was the most dangerous thing about the trip and there were too many dangerous drivers along the way. I found the vast majority of locals to be friendly and helpful and a little common sense helped me navigate the very few “bad apples”. I was never attacked or robbed and and felt safer in Africa than anywhere else on my travels. As for the animals, I had a close encounter with a bull elephant one day and often heard animals outside the tent at night but it occurred to me on this trip that most animals want absolutely nothing to do with us people – and who could blame them :p 

How did I communicate?

English is spoken in some of the countries through which I passed but I mostly used hand gestures to find what I needed. That said, it was always pretty obvious what I needed – food, water and shelter – and the locals never failed to provide me with same.

Did I get sick?

I suffered from heat exhaustion in the Namib desert at the beginning of the trip and this was a very big and serious lesson. However, aside from feeling exhausted from time to time, I felt healthy for most of the trip. It was my mental health that proved most challenging. I cried a lot in the first couple of months and felt very lonely but this subsided as the trip went on. After that, there were random days on which I felt sad or disconnected but these days went away – just like the puffy white clouds in the sky.

How did I get visas?

I just applied in person at each border. It was necessary to fill out forms, pay a fee and provide passport photos at most of these borders. However, I needed to post my passport back to Ireland to get a visa for Ethiopia which required me to sit around in Nairobi for two weeks and await the return of my passport via DHL.

What was my favourite country?

Maybe Kenya or Tanzania for the full-African experience but I loved them all!

What was the most amazing attraction?

Walking around Luxor Temple without a single person in sight felt like something from an Indiana Jones movie. Egypt is not doing too well on the tourism front!

What was the best food I ate?

I was amazed to discover the food in Ethiopia was some of the most diverse and tasty food in the world. This is also the birthplace of coffee – and you can taste it!

What was the worst food I ate?

Some of the meat was questionable but I learnt not to have much expectations for food or accommodation throughout this trip. 

Did you keep in touch with back home?

I wrote on my blog every day and after a few weeks, people started to read it. There was a lot of confession-type posts in which I admitted to be struggling with a lot of personal difficulties and issues. My brothers and friends kept in touch through these posts for the most part but that was about all I had in terms of contact,

What did I do at the end of the trip?

I moved to Canada for ten months and worked as a travel agent until I saved enough money to take another big trip. I began by hiking the East Coast Trail in Newfoundland which was meant as a practice-run for the Pacific Crest Trail which I hiked in 2018.

Do I still have the bicycle?

Yes, a friend is storing my bicycle in his shed.

Did I change much?

I believe this trip changed my course and outlook in life more than it changed my own self. To be honest, I thought that everything was sorted by the end of the trip and that I had everything “figured out”. But in reality, that trip brought about more questions than answers and left me feeling unable to return to conventional life. And so as my profound experience became a series of memories, I realized that it was necessary to pursue a life of adventure that did not require me to ride a bicycle across a continent. 

Would I do it again?

Definitely not, once is enough but thanks for asking!

Thank you for reading and if you have any other questions about this trip, I will be happy to answer them in the comments below (not via email, thank you).

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