I’m hoping to do a podcast interview with Brian in the coming months, but for now the internet connections in this part of West Africa are too slow.
So, for now, I’ve answered a few of his questions here over at his Korean World blog.
Below is a copy of the interview….
1. What is principle reason you have chosen a bicycle as a means of raising awareness for your charitable foundation?
- I actually decided to raise money for charity and chose the Welbodi Partnership after I decided to cycle through Africa. I figured if I could raise just some money to help improve healthcare for children in one of the continent’s poorest countries, then it would make the trip worthwhile.
- I decided to travel by bike because I think it provides the best way to meet locals and get to know about life in each country and I am cycling to Cape Town because I want to see the ‘real’ Africa – not the Africa in the headline grabbing media stories of wars and famines and corrupt politicians or the Africa in the hundreds of charity appeals of starving, malnourished children and poverty stricken, AIDS infected men and women.
- I want to be able to tell and show people back home what the ‘real’ Africa is like and that’s why I’m travelling with a camera and laptop and have set up the website too.
(If you would like to support Helen on her journey, you can donate to her chosen charity, the Welbodi Partnership through her justgiving page: www.justgiving.com/takeonafrica)
2. What are the benefits of bicycle touring, as opposed to motorcycling or even backpacking?
- Bicycling offers an unparalleled opportunity to see a country and meet it’s people. I have done a lot of backpacking prior to this trip, but you don’t have the same freedom to go where you want – you are reliant on public transport and therefore inevitably spend the majority of your time in towns. The major advantage of travelling by bicycle is the slow pace at which you cover the ground. It means you see so much more – you can appreciate the scenery, you see smaller towns and villages which those travelling on a motorbike or 4×4 would drive straight on through without a glance. And it is this which enables you to meet so many more of the locals, where tourism is often unheard of. You can get a real insight into life in the country you’re travelling through and the cultures that pervade.
- If I went on holiday in the future, I would almost certainly take my bike as well. You have the advantage of being able to cycle if you want and if you feel like a break or doing something different, it’s easy enough to put the bike on a bus or in a taxi.
3. What essential components make up your kit (equipment) to Take On Africa?
- The main essential is the bike of course. The bike pump, puncture repair kit and multi-tool have all been used numerous times to make them essential.
- My digital SLR camera, lenses and netbook computer too – but that’s because I enjoy the photography as much as the cycling and the netbook enables me to write updates for the website without having to spend hours in hot, overcrowded internet cafes and it acts as storage for my photographs.
- I’m also spending significant periods of time away from towns and so the tent and pan set are also proving invaluable too.
- I have plenty of other gear in my bags, but the only other things I would always make sure I have are my iPod, good books, Leatherman and two toothbrushes – one for my teeth and the other for cleaning the bike chain which is suffering terribly with the African dust.
- The bike shorts and change of clothes go without saying!
4. When did your love for two-wheels begin?
- That’s a difficult question – I clearly enjoy cycling, otherwise I wouldn’t have decided to do this trip, but I probably wouldn’t call it a love. I love travelling – seeing different parts of the world and different cultures. Cycling is just a great way to do this.
- My love for travel began at the age of 16, when I applied for a school travel scholarship. I didn’t win, but had the opportunity to travel anyway – for a month, trekking in the Indian Himalayas – it was a fantastic experience I shall never forget and is probably the single most defining event of my formative years which has resulted in me writing this interview from Freetown, Sierra Leone, while taking a short break from cycling in Africa.
- Back to the original question however – my real interest with two-wheels began when I had the money to buy a decent mountain bike in my university years. Back in the UK, I will often put the bike in the back of the car and go away for the weekend for some cross-country riding. My regular spots are the Brecon Beacons in Wales and around Dorset (where friends and relatives will kindly put me up for a night) or more locally around the Chiltern Hills.
5. Do you have any far off memories of cycling in your youngest years, where were you and what type of bicycle did you like to ride then?
- I always remember having a bike but I never used to do a lot of cycling as a youngster. I have a scar on my left knee from when I fell off, cornering too fast onto the loose gravel driveway outside the house. I was about six then and cried a lot!
- I occasionally would cycle to primary school and I remember once I took my younger sister along too – we were busy checking the time to see if we would be late when she cycled straight into the back of a parked car. Needless to say, I got the blame – the eldest always does!
- The only other significant memory is of taking part in a sponsored bike ride, visiting all the nearby churches. I had an old, purple, single-speed bike and convinced my dad to come as I was too young to take part alone. I think we covered about 50miles that day and it was probably the last time my dad got on a bike!
6. What is your favorite style of bicycle? When did you start bicycle touring?
- My favourite style of bike is a hard-tail (front suspension only) mountain bike – I have a Specialized Rockhopper with disc brakes. You really can ride this kind of bike everywhere and it’s great fun. Besides the touring-specific bike I bought for this latest adventure, I have only ever had a mountain bike.
- My first bike tour was in 2001, when I cycled around Ireland for three weeks. I had recently bought my first mountain bike and was looking for a cheap holiday (I was a student then). I really knew nothing about touring – I went into a local bike shop and bought a bike rack and cheap panniers (I didn’t even know that was what those bags were called). I stuffed them full of clothes, a bike pump and puncture repair kit and hopped on the train to Holyhead and then the ferry to Dublin. It was one of my best holidays, but not that cheap – I discovered Guinness two days in and in true student style, it was the black stuff alone that fuelled me for the 800 miles!
7. How long is this journey? Do you have a strict itinerary or are you taking in the sights along the route? What are a few highlights of your journey so far?
- I planned a detailed route for the whole journey before I left and expected the ride from Cambridge to Cape Town to be about 20,000km. My actual route however has deviated hugely from the original plan already, but I always thought it would – for example I intended to cycle through Portugal, but ended up staying in Spain so I could cycle with friends and Guinea Bissau was never on the original route but the two-week tour in the south of the country has been one of the trips cycling highlights.
- I’ve made sure I have plenty of time so that if something interests me or I need to avoid certain areas, I can easily re-route. In the first quarter of the two-year trip I have already cycled over 9,000km. On the other hand, I have imposed some vague deadlines of places to be by certain times but that is purely from a climate perspective – I didn’t want to be cycling in the Sahara mid-summer and I’m hoping to avoid the rainy season although I think this may be wishful thinking.
8. What is important in bicycle maintenance for ultra-distance cycling? What is important on a daily or weekly basis? Do you have any regular pre-ride checks to keep everything moving?
- I’m not the right person to ask these questions – I’m notoriously bad at bike maintenance and until this trip have happily taken my bike to a professional for a thorough service when it’s condition deteriorates so much I can barely cycle any more.
- On this trip, I don’t do any regular maintenance. When you’re riding your bike long distances everyday, I think it’s much more important to listen and feel how the bike rides. And as soon as you start to hear noises, it’s best to check the source of the problem and solve it as soon as possible. This way, I’m hoping to avoid any catastrophic failures.
- During the first four months of this trip I cleaned the bike with a bucket of water once and oiled the chain twice. I’m using a Rohloff (for its supposed low maintenance requirement), so I’ve also had to change the oil in the hub once. In the last two months however, the dusty African roads have taken their toll and I have to clean the chain and re-oil it once or twice a week.
9. What do you eat? Have you experimented at all with freeze-dried foods, or alternatives to fresh when fresh food is unavailable? What is the best road-cooked meal you have ever prepared?
- My diet varies greatly depending on the region I’m cycling through. In France I lived on baguettes, cheese, fresh fruit and red wine and Spain was similar, but I often ate tapas washed down with a beer in the evenings. After two months in Morocco, living off the hospitality of strangers who are now my friends, I was sick of tajines and the sweet tea that is drunk in every street cafe.
- Now I’m in West Africa, when I’m cycling I either buy a cheap, local rice and sauce dish or will cook myself over a small fire in the evening. I’m not very adventurous when it comes to the cooking – pasta with tomato-based sauce is almost always on the menu, but when you add some onions, garlic, chilli and spices and have been cycling all day, it tastes pretty good! The rest of the day I make do with what I can buy locally – bananas, oranges, bread, nuts are all readily available in even the smallest village.
- I haven’t really experimented with freeze-dried foods – they’re not readily available in this part of the world. Another cyclist I’m with has some packets of powdered mash potatoes – they’re not very appetizing, but it means you can at least eat in the evening even if there’s nowhere to cook or buy dinner, which has happened once. But I’d only use it as a last resort.
11. Have you experienced any rough/unforeseen weather conditions? If so, how do you deal with it? What preparations are necessary to enjoy cycling in the rain, wind, sun, snow, fog, etc..?
- Even though I plan my trips around the weather to a large extent, I have still been very lucky. Apart from some grey, wet days at the start of the trip, the weather has been excellent.
- Cycling through the Sahara was hot, even though it was November, and I used up a lot of suncream during this period. The only time I really suffered though, was after I’d been to a hammam in Morocco and the full body scrub had removed not only the dirt but also all the dry skin that had been protecting me – one day cycling later and I had red arms radiating heat that were covered in hundreds of tiny blisters. A painful experience I’ve made sure not to repeat!
- More seriously though, a decent lightweight waterproof makes cycling in the rain much more tolerable. Sunscreen is vital when spending long hours riding through the middle of the day with no shade and although I don’t find it necessary to wear one, many find a hat is one of the best forms of protection from the heat.
- The biggest challenge I have found with the heat is making sure I’m carrying enough water. On some days through the Sahara, I was carrying nearly ten litres of water, when places to refill were few and far between. I also found myself craving for salt, which I would apply in huge quantities to every omelette I would devour at cafes. This was my body telling me I needed to replace the salts I was losing from the constant sweating.
12. How do you find a place to camp? When you’ve found “free camping” is it possible to have open fires, or should one be stealth and leave no trace?
- I usually start looking for somewhere to camp while there is still plenty of light. Sometimes, you have to cycle a long way before you can find somewhere suitable especially if I need to cook.
- I often cook on an open fire (I have broken two multi-fuel stoves on this trip already and not been able to fix either) and so the camp spot needs to have a small clear area and a small amount of wood I can collect.
- I always look for somewhere I won’t be seen or found. The problem in West Africa has mostly been that villages are often closely spaced and there are almost always people walking along the roads. And there have been many times when I have been found, but I’ve never had any problems. People usually just want to check I am OK and that there are no problems. Many seem very pleased that I am taking the time to visit the country and stop in places most tourists would never even travel through.
- I always try to leave the camp spot in the state I found it in however. Of course, the remains of the fire will be there, but I don’t think this is a problem as long as it is properly put out (I wouldn’t want to accidentally start a bush fire!).
13. Are you keen to write a book about Adventure Cycling? How would you describe this future book in two sentences?
- I doubt I’d write a reference-style book about Adventure Cycling and writing a book about some big adventure seems a little clichéd and the market is quite saturated already. That said, I would like to expand on what I have written in my blog, making use of all the additional notes I have taken – it would be great for me to have a full detailed account to read in the future and reminisce about! But that is more a personal aim and a long way from a published book.
- I never intended to write a book, but it’s a question I’m regularly asked and it’s got me thinking… if I could come up with a novel way to write about the trip, then definitely maybe.