On the 13th January 2017 Charles Butler posted an Instagram photo at the Egyptian pyramids. He stood happily with his bike, the iconic pyramids gleaming in the background. It marked the beginning of an epic adventure – a four month trip in which he would cycle from Egypt to South Africa, raising money for charity and pretty much having the journey of a lifetime.
I caught up with Charles, who was currently in Zambia and three months in, to discuss the highs and the lows, the sights and the culture, and everything else that happens during endless biking through this epic continent.
What inspired you to take on this adventure in the first place?
A year or two ago, the father of one of my friends told us how he cycled through Africa in his late 20s. He had some hairy but incredible experiences that he was able to tell us about. Having emigrated from South Africa to Australia when I was 18, the stories reignited my passion for seeing more of the African continent and I thought that cycling it would be the perfect way to experience and understand it better.
What common misconception would you like to address about the continent?
The first misconception that I couldn’t stress enough is that Africa is not a country. There is this misconception in many Western countries that Africa is one homogeneous mass where everyone looks the same, has the same culture and speaks the same language. From the decoration of the barber shops, to the quality of the bread, to what little kids shout to us as we cycle past, I am continually surprised at how marked the differences are between countries when you cross the border.
Another massive misconception of most African countries is that they are unsafe to travel through. Unfortunately, this image is perpetuated by developed countries whose travel advice websites still believe that every African country is on the brink of civil war. This truly isn’t the case.
What have you discovered from the journey so far?
Some pretty good sign language! One of my goals on this trip has been to have a haircut in each country I have travelled through. English isn’t widely spoken in a lot of the smaller towns, so the language barrier has led to many an interesting haircut. This has led me to become skilled in a basic form of sign language that’s stood me in good stead throughout the trip. Sign language ability aside, I came into this trip with very limited camping experience, so setting off on a four-month camping adventure was no small feat. Despite getting off to a rough start with Sudanese sandstorms tearing through my tent I’m happy to report that I’m doing just fine.
What’s been the toughest challenge both emotionally and physically?
This trip has been an emotional roller-coaster and I think the toughest challenge you face is the relentless uncomfortable nature of camping and cycling in remote, inhospitable locations. Its a bit of a novelty at first but the lack of facilities like showers and clean toilets – basics that you’ve taken for granted your whole life – wears you down after while. The riding has probably been the easiest component of the tour but I had a period in the south of Sudan where my bike broke down and I had to borrow a series of staff bikes to complete the next few days of riding. This was done in temperatures of plus 40 degrees, on bad roads and with a stomach bug…
What made you decide to fundraise for rhinos in particular?
In recent years rhinos have come under increasing levels of poaching to the point where it is expected that wild rhinos will be extinct by 2024. Having spent many a game drive viewing these amazing creatures I refuse to believe that the only way the next generation will only be able to view these animals is in zoos and not in their natural habitat.
In addition to this, I feel that the fight to keep the rhinos alive and in the wild represents a flash point for all wildlife conservation because if we can’t prevent one of the most symbolic African animals from extinction then what hope do we have preventing other animals from a similar fate?
On your travels so far what has been your favourite city?
Dongola, Sudan. It may have been the fact that we hadn’t seen any significant civilisation for a couple of weeks but this little town in northern Sudan had so much to offer: rotisserie chickens, local bread and spices, freshly squeezed juices, an array of baklava-type desserts dripping with local honey, and more! Another great aspect of this town is that it is located a couple of hours’ drive from Karima which is host to a huge array of ancient pyramids and temples which have hardly any tourists.
What has been the most scenic spot you’ve visited on your adventure?
There have been so many breathtakingly scenic spots on this tour, including some of the obvious ones like the ancient temples of Egypt and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. However, a real visual highlight of the trip was the ride that we had as we descended into Malawi and the Rift Valley. With rows of tea being picked by ladies in colourful east African dresses in the foreground and then beautiful mountains dropping into Lake Malawi in the background it was one of those pinch-me moments that you never forget.
Any notable anecdotes to share?
One particular standout for me was my first boda boda ride through the Kenyan town of Kisumu (editor’s note: a boda boda is a motorbike taxi frequently used in East Africa). I desperately needed to print and scan something, asked the camp manager to help, and found myself introduced to a friendly boda boda driver. The next 20 minutes were spent careening through traffic as my own emotions swung wildly from being exhilarated to petrified. We finally made it to a small shopping centre where, in addition to a small printing shop, there was a KFC. The boda boda driver explained that I should get some because he felt I was too skinny and needed fattening up if I was to make it all the way to South Africa. I needed no further excuse and soon we were homeward bound with me desperately trying to juggle the papers I had printed out, a huge bag of KFC and clinging onto the boda boda driver.
Where in Africa would you advise North Americans to visit if they had just one week?
Rwanda really has it all. 20 years after tearing itself apart in the Rwandan genocide it has made incredible strides in terms of development. As far as activities are concerned you have a huge amount of options, including the gorilla treks in Volcanoes National Park, biking or hiking the Congo-Nile trail next to Lake Kivu, doing a coffee or tea plantation tour, or just visiting the Rwanda Genocide Museum in Kigali. It really is a great introduction to the diversity and vibrancy of sub-Saharan Africa.
How will you celebrate finishing your journey?
I have a friend who won an Italian cooking show before emigrating to Cape Town, South Africa where he set up a fine dining experience called Lapo’s Kitchen. The dinner happens at his house-cum-commercial kitchen which allows for an informal atmosphere where I will be able to celebrate with friends and family whilst Lapo gives us a rundown of each dish.
A proper holiday through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy is on the cards afterwards. That said, this trip has only confirmed in my mind that cycling is the only way to travel through a country so I may just do a self-supported cycle back through Europe to London once I have eaten myself into croissant stupor.
Charles Butler travelled with our friends at TDA Global Cycling, a Toronto-based operator specializing in bicycle expeditions.