McKenzie Barney is a writer, adventurer, and film maker based in Florida. In this guest post, McKenzie writes about an epic bike tour through the African continent with her partner Jim. Learn more on McKenzies website Yatri Project and follow her adventures on instagram.
In a thunderous scream, the African wild split open and produced a gigantic, tusk-trumpeting bull elephant darting toward us. My brain fired fragmented dispatches: Elephant. Ambush. Bicycles. Africa.
Home to a high density of wild African elephants, the aptly named “Elephant Highway” is one of the most famed stretches of our cycling route that we carved out from Cairo to Cape Town.
Coming across a herd of elephants on the “Elephant Highway”, not long after our encounter with the solitary male elephant.
I am convinced that curiosity exists at the heart of every expedition. While most around our age are investing in mortgages, my partner Jim and I wander faraway places on our planet. Every time we examined an atlas, it seemed that one mysterious land mass continued to call our names: Africa. Inspired by Riaan Manser’s account of riding his bicycle around Africa, I felt compelled to explore the colossal continent by human-power. A few short searches later and there it was, etched into the fabric of my adventurous alchemy: a cycling route from Cairo to Cape Town.
Crossing the equator line in Kenya.
I wasn’t always a bikepacker. Thru hiking stole my heart first. My inaugural long distance hiking trail was the world’s newest at the time: New Zealand’s 1,800-mile Te Araroa, the “TA”. Those five months of living and walking in the wilderness rewired my brain and recalibrated my direction in life. Throughout the trail I would spill the contents of my backpack and scrutinize my minimal equipment. When it came to footwear, I carried a minimalist sandal for camping and off-trail. Many things would change after my TA hike, but my newfound sense of clarity and simplicity remained, guiding me toward further international footpaths. Along the way I met my partner Jim, who shares the same spirit of global adventure.
Hiking in New Zealand.
After walking some of our planet’s most illustrious trails, I began romanticizing the next progression of human-powered exploration: bikepacking. I had a hunch this would be the next step, so a few years ago I flew into Vietnam, bought a cheap bike, and rode it solo from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi. I loved every second of it – although there were definite gear choices that needed amending – and instantly began scheming for the next two-wheeled adventure. Most equipment translated from hiking to biking, but I had yet to find a sandal that could handle the tenacity of a long term bicycle endeavor. I needed a sandal for Africa that was zero drop, comfortable, and could handle the stress of bikepacking. Enter: Bedrock Cairns.
Riding into the Saharan Desert setting sun with my newfound bikepacking sandals.
I can’t take all the credit for this sandal epiphany. After all, it was Jim’s idea. You see, his beloved sandals are his adventure-cure-all. Jim’s been backpacking, climbing, hitchhiking, surfing, and trekking around the world for the last ten years. He’s also a gear junkie with an affinity for well-crafted, built-to-last outdoor equipment, which dovetails with his refined distaste for gear that touts an expiry date. After investigating the ecosystem of minimalist sandal options, he nominated the Bedrock Cairns to the top of his sandal podium and was relieved to have found something that could handle his untamed, off-the-beaten-track voyages.
Jim exploring Thailand’s canyons.
Jim’s sandals have traveled to over 50 countries and five continents. They’ve trekked the Peruvian Andes, through the Nepali and Indian Himalayas, across the lunar landscapes of Chile’s Atacama desert, along remote coffee plantations in Panama and climbed Costa Rican volcanoes – and those are just a few of their favorite tales.
Exploring Peru’s unique desert oasis, Huacachina.
Hiking in the Peruvian Andes.
Wandering Indonesia’s Gili Island.
The sandal’s trailblazer straps are infused with the dirt footpaths they’ve traveled, having accompanied Jim on some of his most notable long distance thru hikes; tagging along on the 1,800-mile Te Araroa in New Zealand, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and most recently the 500-mile Colorado Trail.
Each item in Jim’s thru hiking gear has held up thousands of trail miles.
When the Vibram footbed proved as well-worn as his passport, Jim discovered Bedrock’s ingenious Re-Soul program, where he could send in his worn sandals to be repaired and reused. Worn straps still in-tact, Jim’s sandals were kitted out with a fresh new sole. This changed everything; broadening the lifecycle of our sandals meant added minimalism and reductionism, two concepts intimately woven into our intrepid manifesto. We both try to immortalize our gear, both for the health of the environment and the stories each piece withholds. It’s the reason I bought a used bicycle for our African journey, and why Jim patches his clothes on our travels and sews most of our outdoor bags. It’s also a main reason why I converted to Bedrock Cairns as my chosen adventure sandal. Each piece of gear we collect is expected to last us many trails, trips and bike tours.
For folks who stand for what they stand on (mother earth) and value stories over stamps, the Re-Soul program aligns with our ethos. Not to mention the proud patch Bedrock stitches on for every re-soul. Rejuvenated and rewarded, his sandals have traveled to the Caucus mountains and into the wild of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kurdistan.
As we stepped foot in Egypt, Jim and I set our sights southbound on our sixth continent of exploration: Africa. Our two-wheeled journey down the length of the African continent would take us from the pyramids of Cairo, Egypt to Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, totaling to 10 countries, 11,000 kilometers (6,835 miles) and 5 months. We flew into Egypt, assembled our bikes, attached our hybrid bikepacking/touring bags, and packed only the essentials.
At the Pyramids of Giza.
The symphony of traveling by bicycle seemed transcendent. I welcomed the opportunity to intimately learn the labyrinth of an unknown land, enjoy freewheeling freedom, and pursue what seemed like the next natural progression from thru hiking.
Our trusty steeds – a Surly Disc Trucker for me and Kona Sutra for Jim.
The heightened fragility of our route became clear as we pedaled into Sudan. Situations can change instantly in Africa. We had our first taste of political instability when the military took over the capital in a coup. We found ourselves cut off from the outside world, without phone and internet access, and had to source information from locals on the safety of our path toward Khartoum. Reassured but still weary of the situation, we continued to cycle south toward the capital, attempting to redirect our energy toward cycling the unforgiving elements and great wide open of the Sahara desert.
Jim cycling Sudan’s vast desert.
Wild camping in the desert.
Scattered along the empty desert were the occasional “cafeterias”– Sudan’s version of a truck stop/roadhouse that would offer shade, drinks, food, and sometimes even a cot to sleep on. These cafeterias became our daily destinations and oasis in the blistering heat.
Enjoying a tea at one of Sudan’s cafeterias.
Our sleep set up for the night on cots provided by the friendly cafeteria owners.
Due to the Tigray conflict in Ethiopia, the land border was closed, forcing us to fly from Khartoum, Sudan to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. When we arrived in Addis, we received word that rebel activity in the South was heightened, and we decided to take a bus to the border of Kenya.
Once we crossed into Northern Kenya, we were greeted with the whipping winds of the Turbi Desert. We couldn’t seem to escape the heat, but the sights of semi-nomadic tribes and wild camping under famous acacia trees fueled us with awe and wonder to carry on, eventually reaching the equator line and crossing into the Southern Hemisphere portion of our ride. Kenya was the picture-esque Africa one dreams about.
Lunch stop in Northern Kenya.
Tanzania’s vibrancy, flavor and national pride was as invigorating as the cold drink stalls on the relentlessly hot, hilly days. Our bicycles seemed to be tilted on a never-ending incline as we surged up and down the famed Masai Steppe, and our bodies had no choice but to adapt. It was here in Tanzania that we finally settled into the rhythm of Africa and the reality of our extensive and arduous cycling days.
Cooling off at a roadside stall in Tanzania.
Yes, we ate that entire watermelon in one sitting.
In Zambia, temperatures rose and cycling distances were long. Thick forests dotted with grass hut villages echoed with thousands of hellos and laughter from curious children. The remote North eventually made way for the populated capital, Lusaka, where we spent the holidays and pushed the pedals hard to arrive at one of our planet’s greatest natural spectacles, the famed Victoria Falls, to ring in the New Year.
Taking a snack break in northern Zambia.
With the fresh slate of a new year, we entered Botswana, and were relieved to leave the undulating hills behind for flat, open roads – a cyclist’s dream when you have miles to make up. I remember feeling like I was flying as we clocked some of our biggest days in the untamed wilderness of Botswana, even despite elephant roadblocks and harrowing rain storms. Maybe it was the looming threat of lions nearby that added extra power to our pedals.
Inspecting a chain malfunction in Botswana shortly after the bull elephant mock charge.
Namibia was unquestionably the most unique landscape I’ve ever witnessed on this planet. One of the most sparsely populated countries on Earth, Namibia boasts a biodiverse wonderland of huge sand dunes, majestic creatures like the oryx, and the infamous shipwreck-scattered Skeleton Coast. It struck me as one of Africa’s best kept secrets.
Wandering Deadvlei, a historic salt pan surrounded by some of the world’s highest sand dunes.
As we neared the Orange River border between Namibia and South Africa, our final country, temperatures soared to 119°F and we faced a violent headwind. We made the decision for the final remaining miles to wake at 4am each day in an effort to avoid both beasts.
Elated to reach our final border, but sobered by the sizzling heat.
I have a theory that if Jim and my sandals could talk, they would spin some absurd adventure yarns. Weathered with thousands of worldwide trail and pedal miles, they would breathe bravado, ramble with reckless abandon, and sweat Saharan desert dust. “Onward toward the next adventure,” they would dare. After all, it’s the sense of discovery, near or far, that propels us forward on this planet. Instead of a car, plane or train, we chose a bicycle, and that made all the difference.
Our Bedrock Cairns caked in Namibia’s iconic Deadvlei salt pan.
As we pedaled our final rotations into Cape Town, it became clear that cycling Africa wasn’t so much about cycling as it was about getting lost in something entirely unknown. The bicycle was our chosen vehicle, our way of witnessing a foreign continent and exploring the enigma of a faraway land.
Long live long distance adventures. The ones that take years of planning and months of dedication. The ones that demand your heart and soul and complete presence, and in return, they unravel a little more of their mystery each day.
Our vehicles in all their Cape Town glory on the final day of our 5-month journey.
Jim’s most prized souvenir from the trip: his gnarly sandal tan, brought to you by Africa.
All words © McKenzie Barney. Photos courtesy of McKenzie Barney and James Beatty.