Africa is a place that can appear both exciting and slightly intimidating for cyclists planning a bike tour, but it can also turn out to be exceptionally rewarding. Keen Odessan traveler Ruslan Verin cycled across Africa in 178 days, steering his bike for 10,445 kilometers, weaving his way through many countries and learning about their many exotic customs, cultures and ways of life. Verin spoke with The Odessa Review about his adventures on the faraway and amazing African continent.
Odessa Review (Volodymir Gutsol): Ruslan, what was the purpose of your trip?
Ruslan Verin: The initial primary goal was to reach Cape Agulhas, which is the geographic southern tip of the African continent. I got to within 1300 kilometers of it, but did not reach it because I could not obtain a Zambian visa in advance. I also planned my route in such a way that I would be able to see as many amazing and remarkable places as possible, such as the Dead Sea, the Nile, Lake Victoria and Victoria Falls.
OR: What did you find to be most surprising and memorable?
RV: Everything! Especially everything that had to do with my search for the Equator. I was cycling and looking for it for about three hours until I found a special signboard. The Kenyans who worked in the surrounding fields, watched open mouthed as I did a photo- session with it! I was also very much surprised by the African terrain. There are many highways, and it is crazy how the road goes up and down all the time, you can rarely find any flat land.
OR: Did you get to see many African animals?
Yes, I’ve seen scorpions, wild dogs, hyenas, monitor lizards, jackals, all kinds of snakes. Car drivers were constantly trying to pass herds of elephants or other animals as quickly as possible. On the other hand, I was passing animal herds slowly, and they were running away from me!
Wild animals in Africa are amazing! When I first saw giraffes at sunset, I felt a second wind kick in. I would have followed them all night long!
OR: Did you manage to catch any unusual or exotic diseases?
RV: Thankfully, not! Before I set out on my African bike tour, I was vaccinated against yellow fever. In order to avoid the bites of the anopheles mosquitoes I would hide in the tent as soon as it was getting dark. There was a stretch of road where I was attacked by tsetse flies. Funnily enough, a local guy was walking along wearing practically nothing, and the flies did not bother him at all. I was forced to speed up, though. I don’t know why these flies liked me so much.
I did get food poisoning two times. One time because of spoiled eggs, and the second because of rancid goat meat, which was barbecued in a tin can at a roadside café.
OR: What about the problem with drinking water?
RV: In Egypt, where the population is more dense and there are more cars on the road, drivers often stopped to offer me water. In tropical and rural areas, the water is dirty and yellow in the rivers. I asked the locals where I could get drinking water, and they were happy to show me the spots that they use. I did not take any water filters, but I always kept my silver chain in my flask. At first, I was trying to boil water, but eventually stopped, because I was drinking at least 10 liters a day.
OR: What kind of food did you eat most days? Pasta?
RV: What are you talking about! I think I could cycle 200km for pasta, but local food is different. Locals usually eat white corn porridge with greens that looks like grass. It was good, when they added some beans into it, and really cool if there was some meat also – usually chicken or goat. I was trying not to spend time on cooking, even though I was equipped for it. Especially since in some parts of Africa, you can get a good meal for only 50 cents. People often invited me in for lunch. At first, I thought that a home meal would be different, but it was basically the same porridge. In Zambia they also cook rice, not everywhere though, so I savored it when I had the opportunity.
OR: What exotic dishes did you try along the way?
RV: Dishes made of crocodile and zebra meat. I was treated by the locals, I would not be able to cook that myself.
OR: What was your everyday travel life like?
RV: There were times when I accidentally put up my tent on somebody’s property, and then people invited me to stay overnight inside the house. One day in Tanzania, when I set up camp in the forest, the locals advised that I get out of there because of dangerous wild animals, so I had to stay overnight with them. It seems that some blessings of civilization did not reach them yet. At the equator, the sun is down by 7.00 pm and there is no electricity, so imagine the night: the moon, bright stars, black palm trees, and wild animal sounds right in the back yard… My bed was in the open air, a straw mat which I shared with other four men. I was very worried and afraid of anopheles mosquitos because I had always slept inside the tent before. I did get a few bites by morning, and the home owners apologized profusely as if it was their household mosquitos that bit me.
OR: Why did you travel alone?
RV: I asked my friend Alexander Shestakov to come along. We cycled around the Black Sea basin together previously, but this time he wasn’t able to get away on a six month cycling trip. Teaming with someone you don’t know can have a big impact on the overall trip. On the way back, one fellow traveler did join me and we spent a couple of weeks on the road together. However, it was difficult for me because our approaches to life on the journey were very different.
OR: Did anybody meet you in different places or keep track of your trip?
RV: Before I left for Africa, people from our village in Kubey had attached a small Ukrainian flag to my bike and I cycled with it the whole way. Upon my return, they staged a large celebration in my honor. The head of the village organized a formal greeting in the central square, with traditional bread and salt. It touched me so much that I presented my bicycle as a gift to the local museum.
OR: How did you celebrate New Year’s Eve in Africa?
RV: Just imagine – December 31, Tanzania, it is raining, my phone is dead, all the villages that I pass do not have electricity… Well, so much for New Year’s Eve, I thought to myself. A bit further I saw a luxurious house with an array of solar batteries on the roof and asked permission to recharge my phone. They invited me to stay overnight. It was a regular evening with no festivities, but it turned out that their tradition is to celebrate New Year on the night of January 1st. It was great fun: disco music, dancing people in the dark. I enjoyed it!
OR: What will be your next destination?
RV: So far, I plan to go to Ushuaia, Argentina. After my African adventure, I am tempted to cross South America.
Volodymir Gutsol is The Odessa Review’s sports columnist.