Whether you're considering signing up for the cycle challenge of a lifetime or simply want an alternative to a conventional safari, riding a bike is an eco-friendly way to see Africa at its best. The slower pace gives you more time to register the sights, sounds and scents of the country you're riding through, and you're likely to develop a closer connection with the local people that you meet on your way.
It's also a great way to keep fit, with options to suit everyone from cycling novices to hardcore adrenalin junkies.
The Importance of Bikes in Africa
If you decide to explore Africa by bike, you won't be the only cyclist on the road (or track). Bicycles are an important form of local transport throughout Africa, allowing people to transport heavy objects, ferry essential supplies to rural villages and transport families to work and school without having to spend an impossible amount of money on a car. They are easy to fix, and run on muscle power rather than gas - which can be expensive and difficult to find in the most rural parts of the continent. In areas without tarred roads, it's often easier to navigate potholed tracks with a bicycle than it is with a car.
Cycle Safaris and Tours
Mountain bike safaris are becoming increasingly popular on private game reserves in both Southern and East Africa, offering a novel way to get close to the wildlife without intruding too much on their natural environment.
In countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Rwanda, an abundance of breathtaking mountainous terrain offers endless opportunities for cycle tours, while South Africa is a mecca for all cyclists. There are plenty of scenic routes to enjoy (both on and off the road), especially in the Western Cape province.
Your first step should be to decide where you want to go and what you want to see, and then research cycle tours in that area.
For example, Escape Cycle Tours offers bicycle vacations in South Africa, Botswana and Swaziland, ranging from cultural day tours of Soweto to multi-day cross-country adventures through legendary game reserves like the Kruger or into the Swaziland mountains. New Zealand-based Escape Adventures specializes in mountain bike tours from Nairobi in Kenya to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, taking in the best of both countries' scenery along the way. Rwandan Adventures and Active Africa also offer excellent cycle tours in Southern and East Africa, while Wildcat Adventures focuses on the sights of Morocco.
Cairo to Cape Town by Bike
The transcontinental Cairo to Cape Town route is the stuff of dreams for adventurers of all kinds, including cyclists. Some choose to make the journey under their own steam, an odyssey that can take several years. If you're pushed for time or simply want the expertise of those who have done it before, consider signing up for the famous Tour d'Afrique cross-continent expedition with TDA Global Cycling. The 7,065 mile/ 11,370 kilometer route runs from north to south, crossing through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia before eventually arriving in South Africa.
The full tour takes 17 weeks, with the option to join for specific sections as well.
Cycle Races in Africa
For competitive cyclists, South Africa is arguably the continent's best destination, with many different road and off-road races held every year. Of these, the most famous include the Cape Town Cycle Tour (the world's largest timed cycle race); and the Absa Cape Epic (an eight-day mountain bike race that draws 600 teams of two from all over the world). Elsewhere, other notable cycle races include the La Tropicale Amissa Bongo, which sees Africa's best cyclists battle it out over 600 miles of scorching roads in Gabon. In Kenya, the 10 to 4 Mountain Bike Challenge is a charity race with courses for all abilities, on a route that runs from 10,000 to 4,000 feet down the slopes of Mount Kenya.
When to Go
The best time for an African cycling holiday is when the weather is dry, but not too hot. In East Africa, that means planning your vacation to coincide with the January to February and July to August dry seasons. In North Africa, October and April are good months to go biking, while the southern hemisphere winter (May to August) is the driest, coolest time for trips to the continent's southernmost countries. In West Africa, November and December work well because there's less dust and precipitation is at a minimum - but be prepared for high temperatures all year round.
Books About Cycling in Africa
Find inspiration for your own African cycle adventure by reading the memoirs of those that have gone before you. Top reads include Helen Lloyd's Desert Snow, which tells the story of the author's 15,500 mile/ 25,000 kilometer journey from England to Cape Town. I Never Intended to Be Brave follows author Heather Andersen's cycle odyssey through Southern Africa, while Neil Peart's The Masked Rider is set in West Africa. Africa Solo is a must for would-be Cairo to Cape Town adventurers, detailing the experiences of Mark Beaumont's world record attempt to complete the race alone.
This article was updated and re-written in part by Jessica Macdonald on October 31st 2017.