“There are two good reasons why cyclists should be wary of camping in Africa. In inhabited regions a bicycle is quite likely to be stolen; in uninhabited regions there is a remote possibility that the cyclist will be stolen – and consumed” (Devla Murphy)

At first they wanted $2000 for the marijuana I was found with in my pocket. This was a bad dream surely. There I was sitting in the back seat of a car being driven around Dar es Salaam, whilst a man much bigger than me in the passenger seat said I would be going to prison for five years unless I paid. How could I have been so stupid to trust this guy on the street, now sitting next to me in the car and clearly a police informer?

After what seemed like an eternity I was let out of the car god knows where and $50 worse off. I can’t remember if I walked or found a taxi to take me back to my hotel before locking myself away for the next 24 hours, desperately paranoid that everyone in the city knew what an idiot I’d been.

Well this all happened 11 years ago when I first came to Africa. Back then I thought it was cool to smoke marijuana, and probably trusted far too many strangers. I was too young and hadn’t been on the continent long enough to earn my street-wise stripes.

This time round Dar es Salaam doesn’t really faze me. It’s as dirty and unappealing as most of urban Africa. After staying for a night in a Guest House where half the rooms could only be locked from the inside (it only occurred to me later that if you’re renting the room for an hour or two you won’t need to lock and leave it) I moved closer to the city centre and checked into what I convinced myself to be a good value for money hotel. I woke one morning and found the bananas I’d placed beside my head the night before half-eaten and surrounded by rat droppings.

It was only when I took a ferry across to the Kigomboni district and cycled a short distance along the coast did I realise that any sensible visitor to Dar es Salaam should stay in this beach-front area.

Eleven years on from when I first came here, and almost two continuous years on the continent this time around, I’d like to think I’m a little wiser to deal with the challenges Africa throws at the solo traveller. And so I decided it would make for an interesting post to share some words of wisdom, in my experience, for surviving, saving some money and enjoying your African experience on two wheels. If you have others please share them.

Police road-block

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1) If people you don’t know ask when you’re leaving a town be vague in your reply. When people know your movements ahead of time it means they can talk and plan ahead. When strangers ask me when I’m leaving a place I usually say I don’t know. When I do leave I do so without making announcements.

2) Avoid walking alone at night, particularly in big cities – men with machetes might take a fancy to your belongings.

3) Learn as much of the local language as possible, starting with numbers. When you know how to ask the price for something and understand the reply it will minimize the chances of being ripped off. This most often applies to buying food and finding accommodation.

4) Always ask the price of food when there is no menu. If you don’t ask there is the possibility that you won’t pay what you should have done.

5) If you camp in or close to a village seek permission from the local chief. It will rarely be a problem and you will have protection from an authority.

6) Lie when asked about the price of your bike. Telling people the real value will only have them collapse in hysterics (only a fool would spend so much on a bicycle) before realising it is worth stealing.

7) Understand that being a tourist is not an acceptable answer to police who demand to know ‘what your mission is’. Tourists don’t ride bicycles in places that tourists have never been to before. A teacher doing research is a good answer and in the CAR and DRC it is useful to have an ‘Ordre d’ Mission’ (an official looking letter that you typed yourself to say you are working on behalf of so and so and request permission to travel through such and such region).

8) Understand that many Africans have no idea about distance or real time. ‘Not far’ and ‘not long’ are widely over-used and mis-quoted replies to questions about where there is a Guest House, village or water supply. Consult your map and ask as many people as possible before you come to your own conclusions.

9) Get used to being called ‘foreigner’ in whatever language is being spoken. Yes it can be annoying, but showing frustration or anger can often make things worse.

10) Keep your hands in your pockets when walking in busy areas (markets bus stops) and don’t allow people to block your way.

11) When stopping to eat, look for places where you can park the bike and keep it in vision. If you need to leave the bike find a shopkeeper and ask them to watch it for a few minutes.

12) Always place your hand on a bottle of beer before it is opened for you so you know that it is sufficiently cold. Many Africans prefer their beer warm and don’t appreciate that ice-cold beer is far better than slightly chilled. (yes it is important!)

13) Avoid arriving in the dark, particularly in big cities. I always try to arrive in large cities by midday or early afternoon.

14) Buy yourself a key-blocker. This ingenious device blocks the key-hole when you lock your room, and means no-one with a spare key can enter your room whilst you’re out and help themselves to your belongings, as happened to me several months ago.

Key-hole blocker

15) When officials (police, immigration) you are uncertain of ask to see your passport, show them whilst keeping one hand firmly gripped on it. If your passport disappears and you are asked for money to have it returned (as happened many times in CAR and DRC) it might be a long struggle (assuming you won’t pay) in getting it back.

16) Know something about the English football Premiership to break the ice or distill the seriousness of a check-post encounter. Manchester United and Chelsea have the most supporters in Africa, followed by Arsenal and Liverpool. Manchester city are becoming more popular as well. If someone tells you you look like Wayne Rooney try not to be offended.

17) If you’re cycling through the DRC, cigarettes make for great alternatives to officials who might ask for money. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in a long time, but bought some in the DRC for this reason.

18) When using a boat to cross a river, lake or the sea, don’t always assume that discussing the price before you leave is advantageous. If you know what other locals pay (make an effort to find out before you arrive) and the captain or oarsman doesn’t tell you what you must pay to begin with (massively inflated for a foreigner with a bicycle) then just hop aboard and wait until you’re on the other side. Once you’re there pay what the locals pay plus a bit extra because of your bike. If the Captain asks for more tell him you know what everyone else is paying and stand your ground without getting angry.

19) Patience and a sense of humour are key when dealing with African officialdom. If it’s a border or check-post with some kind of bribe expected, show that you have as much time to wait as the bored official who is looking for how he can solicit something from you. Never give in and pay.

20) Separate your money and consider hiding your US dollars within your bicycle (handlebars in my case). The condition of US dollars and date of printing are important. Notes printed before 2006 with even the slightest tear won’t be accepted for changing in DRC.

21) If you’re on a very long tour it gives you no advantage to brag about how far you’ve come and the kilometres you’ve cycled to people who inevitably ask. Firstly many Africans will not comprehend the scale of what you are doing or reason why you would want to do this, but they will understand that if you’re travelling for so long you must be a millionaire, which in comparative terms in some instances you are. Don’t provide information that will give the impression that you have more money than you probably do.

22) Going to the toilet in the bush is often a far more pleasant experience than a squat-toilet behind a café.

23) If your stomache isn’t feeling 100% right be cautious of your normal on-the-road flatulence. Soiling your padded cycling shorts soon attracts the attention of flies when you remove them and tie them to the outside of a pannier.

24) Beware of buying sun-cream that doesn’t have a brand name and is suspiciously cheap. I recently bought some ‘made in Thailand’ factor 60, which after 3 hours in the midday sun left my chest with the worst sun-burn I have ever had.

25) Be confident when cycling through busy urban areas. If there is a tight space for a vehicle to pass through next to you don’t make way for it, but move out to hog the road. If the driver beeps don’t make way until you consider it safe to do so. Foreigners on bicycles get more respect than local Africans sadly (or fortunately for you).

26) Be slightly cautious of people with no noticeable problem trying to flag you down on an open and empty road. If you do stop and then smell alcohol on their breath, keep calm, smile, and pedal off.

27) Accept that most Africans don’t understand the concept of queuing. Either stay patient until the rush has passed or join the madness.

28) Understand that most African Police are much more willing to help you if you pay them. If you don’t and a guilty party pays them instead they will create a story to protect them.

29) If you unintentionally find yourself with a guide who wishes to show you a hotel or escort you to buy food you may also be expected to pay him, otherwise he will ask commission from a hotel and you will pay more for a room.

30) If you’re buying a girl drinks in a bar frequented by fellow foreigners who probably work in Africa make sure you check the price of cocktails. It might save yourself the embarrassment of discovering you can’t pay the bill.