Another year passes by on the roads of Africa; this one spent between the mountains of northern Cameroon and the tranquil shores of Lake Malawi. I managed a modest 12,000km of cycling –  about the same as last year, and crossed through 8 countries.

There were jungles and big rivers, endless palm-fringed beaches, bribe-demanding immigration officers and chaotic urban traffic. Last year I wrote a post summing up some of the memorable places and experiences of 2010, so here is a similar list of random highlights and lowlights from 2011. Feel free to comment and add a category. And a belated Happy New Year to all those who’ve followed the journey, whether it be from the beginning  or more recently.

Destination I’d most like to return to: Zanzibar. The famous spice island of the Indian Ocean is popular with tourists for a good reason. It might not be wild, untamed and adventurous Africa, but the authentic Swahili culture and food, beautiful white sand beaches and fascinating history all compacted together make this one great place to cycle.

Stone town back street

Most interesting week of the year: The one where I travelled by boat up the mighty Congo river. This was/is the Africa of boyhood imagination. A Conradian journey through the equatorial jungle, and one that very few westerners have taken in recent decades.

Sunrise on the Congo

Worst day of the year: 5th July. I returned to what had been the locked room of a Guest House in Kenya to find it open and most of my valuables missing.

Best new piece of equipment: In light of the above I bought a key-hole blocker. This small piece of metal jams into a keyhole and prevents someone with a spare key from entering a locked room.

Key-hole blocker

Most scenic country: Rwanda. I only spent 1 week here, but would have happily spent longer. Wonderfully green, clean, peaceful and challenging to cycle.

Hardest day on the road: Northern Mozambique: 90km of hot sandy tracks, including two bridge/boat-less river crossing and a lot of mangrove swamps. I pushed the bike for half the day and finished it by falling into the Indian Ocean completely exhausted.

After the mangroves

Most expensive/over-priced country: Mozambique. Not quite sure why one of Africa’s poorest countries is also, at least in terms of accommodation, probably one of the most expensive. Paying $10+ per night to pitch a tent in Africa isn’t budget travel.

Most Awkward moment: Being told by my long-term Japanese cycling companion that he’d read my website and found out what I’d been writing about him.

Hardest border crossing: Exiting Central African Republic (CAR) for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The CAR immigration officials demanded money to have my passport stamped and returned to me. After an hour or so I settled for buying them beers before crossing the Ubangui River to DRC where a similar experience awaited me.

Most water consumed in one day: 11 litres. Brutally hot weather on the road south from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania had me continually stopping to drink water with no toilet stops to show for it. The 11 litres doesn’t include the coca-cola stops.

Country I think about returning to the most: DRC. Every day was an adventure in this huge country. All those unexplored rivers and roads and the villages where foreign faces have never been seen before made this the most exciting of travel destinations.

Pole man and fish

Best beer award: Primus in the DRC. There was something distinctly African about drinking one of the continent’s most famous beers with Congolese music playing in the background. I was also a fan of the 720ml bottle size.


Worst beer award: Carlsberg in Malawi. Am as unimpressed by the size of the bottle (the first country in Africa where beer comes in bottles smaller than 500ml) as I am by the taste and lack of alternative beers

Most unexpected telephone call: Tim Butcher, author of Blood River, calling me from South Africa when I was in Kisangani to ask if I could give a copy of his book to one of the characters in it who helped him organise boat transport on the Congo River.

Busiest road: Mombasa Highway in Kenya. One constant stream of trucks taking goods from the coast to half a dozen countries. Fortunately I was only on it for 50km.

Most noiticeable difference when crossing a border: Crossing from DRC to Rwanda. Whilst the former was chaotic, poor and massively underdeveloped, the latter was calm, clean and much more advanced in terms of infrastructure and general development.

Most worthwhile detour: Cycling around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. The ride took me from arid Massai-dwelling villages to deeply forested woodlands, all the time with Africa’s highest mountain looming in the background.

Below Kilimanjaro

Friendliest country to spend time in: Uganda and Malawi. These two anglophone countries are full of smiling faces and eager to get-to-know-you English speakers.

Colourful characters: Ugandan school children

African language I learnt the most of: Swahili. Starting from as far back as eastern Congo, Swahili was spoken in parts of Rwanda and Uganda and then more seriously in Kenya, and particularly Tanzania. I was even able to use it for the first few weeks in northern Mozambique. I learnt and spoke the most during my time in Tanzania.

Biggest made to feel like an idiot moment: Counting my Malawian money that I’d received in exchange for Mocambican metacais on the the black market and realising that I’d been cheated.

Best food award: Tanzania: I never seemed to get tired of chappatis, the fried street food, fresh fish on the coast, spicy biriyani and pilau and the road-side fruit and nut sellers.

Most restless night of sleep: In a maternal clinic in the DRC. During the night someone died and another gave birth a few metres from my tent. It was pitched black and all I can remember was a lot of screaming, crying, the sound of drums outside and rain lashing on the corrugated roof.

Most over-heard song at the roadside: Nwa baby I don’t think there is a country in sub-Saharan Africa where this Nigerian song has not been played to death during 2011.