Today, adventurer Tomás Mac an tSaoir advances into Tanzania on his epic charity cycle down through continental Africa. A journey that began in Cairo will finish in South Africa later this spring. He’s run the gauntlet of street gangs and escalating ethnic conflict, he’s suffered at the business end of Kenya’s crazy drivers, he’s endured the Sudanese desert, and had a few tough personal moments along the way. But the west Kerry man is still pedalling. Stephen Barry spoke to him this week.
“I can remember the day I looked at a world map to have a gander at where I could do my next cycle trip. No sooner had my eyes made contact with the map than Africa sprung out. Literally punched me in the face and said, ‘Hey Tomás, bet you won’t cycle here’. Challenge accepted!”
– Ballyferriter, Kerry, September 26, 2018
When he comes home from this epic adventure, Tomás Mac an tSaoir will tell the locals some of the most fantastic tales ever heard in Tigh an tSaoirsigh. They called him bonkers when he stood behind the bar and told them his plans, but when they hear his 12,000km worth of anecdotes, they’ll look quizzically at him while they search for the right word to replace bonkers.
From Cairo to Cape Town, cycling the length of Africa, each country will have its own scéal for visitors to the family pub in Ballyferriter. From getting a police escort through Egypt to the mental torment of endless Sudanese desert. From spending a week wining and dining with the Ugandan vice-president’s wife to having stones thrown at him as he cycled through Ethiopia’s escalating ethnic conflict. And coming closer to death than ever before in a run-in with a Kenyan bus driver.
But aside from those most outlandish tales, he’ll impress on those who were so against him coming here the wonderful welcomes he’s received. For it’s not about the kilometres covered or the time it takes — it’ll likely be April or May before he reaches Cape Town — but the diversions, the laughs shared over cups of tea, the beauty of the landscape and the people, who’ve invited him for food, took him in for shelter, or just requested a selfie along the way.
“Witnesses have reported seeing bodies after extremists launched an attack on a luxury hotel in Kenya’s capital city. A police officer said bodies were seen in restaurants downstairs and in offices upstairs, but ‘there was no time to count the dead’.”
– Irish Examiner, January 15, 2019
“All this nonsense of people saying it’s not safe to travel here since yesterday’s attack is such bullshit — does that mean it’s not safe for kids to go to school in the USA because of all the school shootings? Is it not safe to go to London because of the terror attacks there? Manchester? Paris? Brussels?
“Such double standards because it’s Africa. Shameful to be honest. I’ve spoken to Kenyans (and other Africans since I left Egypt on November 2) who are so sick to death of this sensationalised style of reporting. Shootings in America on a daily basis, knife attacks in London, a gang war in Dublin, riots in France, but sure ’tis grand to visit these places. However, if there is an attack in Africa sure ’tis all crazy and unsafe to visit.
“I’ve been here two-and-a-half months, and I absolutely love Africa to the point I’m seriously considering moving back here. What a beautiful continent with beautiful people. Don’t believe everything you hear — keep an open mind and make your own judgment.”
Nairobi, Kenya, January 16, 2019
Tomás cycles into Tanzania today after a two-week break from the bike to spend time with his girlfriend, Éadaoin. That’ll have been the first thought of their families and friends who saw the news breaking of a terror attack on a hotel complex the day after they were reunited in Nairobi.
The couple were staying on the other side of the city when the chaos broke out, claiming 21 lives, but it’s indicative of something Tomás said earlier on his cycle — the news that filters back from Africa is rarely positive. That’s why the locals worried about the trip, why they advised against it. We often only get one perspective on this gigantic, sprawling continent.
“I don’t try to hide the facts, the tough times, the bad times, the abuse, or the aggressiveness of some people,” he says. “That’s part and parcel of anywhere you go cycling. Ireland or America, you’ll always meet your few bad apples.
Think for a moment: How big do you think continental Africa is? Bigger than America? China? How about Russia? If so, by how much? There’s an image — ‘Africa’s true size will blow you away’ — which puts the scale of Africa, and Tomás’s cycle, into context. It maps other major countries onto Africa — America comfortably slotted into the north-west, barely larger than the Sahara Desert; China merely matching the southern flank of the continent; India only covering some of the Nile basin. Throw in any amount of European countries, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, all of eastern Europe too if you like, and their combined size doesn’t even match Africa.
Three times the size of both America and China, almost twice as big as Russia, it accounts for one-fifth of the earth’s land, up to an estimated 3,000 native languages, and 1.2bn people across 54 countries, 24 of them larger than mainland France. And for Tomás Mac an tSaoir, 12 countries, 12,000km, and roads that go three times higher than Carrantuohill lay between him and Cape Town.
“Took a while to get my balance on the bike due to the weight! Almost fell off getting on the first time! Vehicles gave plenty of room. Tons of truck drivers beeped and were almost hanging out their windows as they waved at us!”
– On the road from Cairo, Egypt, November 2, 2018
“Holed up in some police station! They’re insisting on giving us a police escort for ‘extra safety’. Eventually they told Ruben [a Spanish cyclist] and I to go away when we said they were ruining our experience of Egypt (They weren’t btw). We said to them there was a route along the beach past the checkpoint and they said ‘don’t tell us, just go’. So we left. The Egyptian people have been so brilliant, kind and welcoming. I won’t let the police ruin my experience in this country.”
Zafarana, Egypt, November 3, 2018
Egypt is uniquely hypersensitive to touring cyclists found pedalling along the country’s roads. Their fears are understandable for a country which had its tourism industry decimated after the Arab Spring, subsequent civil unrest, and terror attacks. They’re rare but only on December 28 last, a bomb attack on a tour bus killed three Vietnamese tourists and their tour guide near the pyramids of Giza.
Two months before that latest attack, police took Tomás off the road when he was spotted on his heavy-loaded Vitus touring bike. Amid Irish embassy intervention, he was eventually allowed to cycle on under a police escort — a common privilege for touring cyclists. In between visits to stunning temple after stunning temple, he was even afforded a blue-light, siren-blaring shortcut through standstill traffic in Qena by impatient officers.
“It’s a huge nuisance for the police and for us because Egypt is safe, in my opinion. I didn’t need an escort. I didn’t feel threatened. There was only one day, one of the tuk-tuks [a motorised rickshaw] drove at me and he tried to hit me with a stick. Other than that, there was no other incidents.
“Sometimes they tried to get you into the truck because they didn’t want to drive after you and you can’t blame them. Who wants to sit behind a cyclist with lots of gear doing 20km/h? But I found more of the police fine. I’d a good laugh with them. You’re explaining to them about Ireland and they’re asking a million and ten questions about the country.”
“The first 90km or so went great with the police driving behind me keeping their distance. The wind then changed, which made things interesting. The ride itself was extremely boring — nowhere to stop, no shelter from the sun. Between the sun, lack of a proper rest and the wind, the cycle became a struggle. Not far from the finish I’d a small breakdown — I’d a good cry, then sorted myself out before crying again. I was feeling tired and emotions got the better of me — and this will happen more between now and South Africa.”
On the road to Abu Simbel, Egypt, November 13, 2018
The most relentless, draining part of the journey is through the Sahara Desert, from Egypt to Sudan. Sand to the left, sand to the right, and 40C heat pounding down from above for 1,200km, before dropping close to freezing at night. It’s the equivalent of cycling the length of Ireland, from Mizen to Malin Head, and back — in a desert — with only your shadow to distract you from the isolation and loneliness.
“Your water would turn warm after five or ten minutes. You’d almost boil a cup of tea with it rather than drink it. You couldn’t find shade so you’re eating underneath the intensity of the sun and there’s no getting away from it. There’s not much traffic, not much people out there, and just a very lonely experience.
“You felt so small and irrelevant in this gigantic desert. It was mentally the toughest cycle I’d done in my life by far.
“I’d a few, I wouldn’t call them mental breakdowns, but crying sessions in the desert because you’re all alone and you knew what was ahead. My data wasn’t working so I couldn’t call home for that pick-me-up I desperately needed.”
The calls home, when he finally got through, helped repair him emotionally, as did the company of the locals at the roadside restaurants where he camped.
“Every evening, you’d people inviting you to eat with them, even if they hadn’t a word of English, drink tea, drink coffee. I’ve never had so many pictures taken or Facebook profiles swapped.
“With hindsight, it was a good mental experience. Some people could crack in the desert. It’s probably the first proper test that I passed. I knew I’d be able to cycle the whole length of Africa after that.”
That chimes with the positive mental health message he’s promoting as part of his association with the Donal Walsh #LiveLife Foundation. He’s also fundraising for the charity, established in memory of the Kerry teenager who died of cancer in 2013, but not before inspiring the nation with his anti-suicide plea.
So far Tomás has raised over €10,000 for the cause.
“Been cycling through the desert for the last 1,200km or so, but alas, she has finally let go of me!”
Khartoum, Sudan, November 27.
“The Sudanese have treated me not as a tourist, but as one of their own since I arrived. They’ve really opened my eyes as to how we should live our lives. Despite the ongoing issues in this country, the people haven’t lost their incredible hearts and amazing hospitality. I really hope things improve here — the most brilliant bunch I’ve ever met.
“I’ve promised myself that I will be back. I’ve only been here a short time but I’ve never had a country or people have such an impact on me as Sudan. They don’t have all the fancy things we possess in the western world, but my God are they so willing to share what they have and treat you as if you’re part of their family. Their contagious smile, shouts of hello and welcome ALL DAY LONG, the huge waves, the laughs, kids coming running from every angle to wave and cheer you on (they’re also so polite), I’ve absolutely loved my time here.
“Thanks for showing me the true way to live… Please never change, Sudan! What needs to change is our perception of Sudan in the western world.”
On the road from Al Qadarif, Sudan, December 7, 2018.
What more can you say about Sudan than that? What more of a céad míle fáilte could you want? Could you ask for a better host than one so keen to help before, during and after Tomás’s stay in Khartoum, even getting him out of trouble when stranded without accommodation? No wonder it was such an emotional goodbye.
The Department of Foreign Affairs warns Irish tourists to “avoid non-essential travel” to Sudan. As protests against President Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year rule resurface, Tomás hopes things improve for a people and a country that were simply “heaven on earth”.
“What a last couple of days it’s been! Action packed! Where to start? Being attacked by at least 50 school kids with stones raining down on top of me as I cycled up the last steep hill of the day? A kid lashing me with a nettle plant which stung like hell? A water bottle thrown at me? Another kid narrowly missing me with his cow whip? Or arguing with my hotel today who tried to overcharge me to the point I was being man-handled and I threatened to call the police? (That quietened them).
“I can take a lot of crap, and being a stubborn person, I refuse to let a small minority of people ruin my experience of Ethiopia. It really is a beautiful country!
“I absolutely love the cycling here... The hills are my home. I just love dancing up them, breathing in the fresh air and feeling as free as ever. I make humour of the situation where most other touring cyclists struggle — the constant shouting, constant attention. I can understand how it gets to people, but you need to try to understand why the locals do it.
“For them to see a white person on a bicycle passing them at 20km/h or less makes them so excited, rather than seeing them in a fast-moving vehicle. I always try to wave or say hello when I can — most of them just want to be acknowledged. A simple hello could make their day a great one! I shout back in Amharic [the national language], or saying the most ridiculous of things... My favourites being ‘Ethiopia, wohoooooo’ while I punch the air (kids always join in on this one) and ‘I love you’.”
Dembecha, Ethiopia, December 19.
It’s safe to say Tomás and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had very different trips to Ethiopia in the past month. “I bet he had no stones thrown at him and he missed the soldiers on the frontline… We probably both came away with two different opinions of Ethiopia.”
Despite the welcome from the vast majority of the population, the country is notorious for its hostility towards cyclists. The cultural reasons behind this remain a mystery to Tomás but it manifests itself in stone-throwing and attempts to knock cyclists off their bikes.
Aside from such trifling issues, Tomás cycled through areas which have been consumed by ethnic conflict in the north of the country.
“It was a weird experience because once you get out of the villages and towns, there was nobody walking. No animals, no locals, no traffic, and that’s a bad sign, especially for Ethiopia. That first 100 miles was just so quiet, whereas there were just people on every inch of the land elsewhere.”
The only people they occasionally saw were militiamen. “You just asked them was it OK to cycle on or you just waved as you passed them by.”
However, the army eventually stopped them and said it wasn’t safe to cycle any further. Tomás and four fellow cyclists he’d met in Sudan were taken to the nearest military barracks, where they were given food and their own building to set up camp in, before getting a lift to Gondar the next day.
“They said, ‘Don’t move in the night-time in case one of the soldiers thinks you’re somebody who shouldn’t be there.’ You got the gist of what they meant by that. A shoot first, ask questions later kind of attitude.”
Whatever about dodging stones, he had no intention of dodging bullets and, since he left the area, there’s been reports of an increase in ethnic attacks in the region. After cycling to Addis Ababa in time for Christmas, he flew to Uganda, as it was too dangerous to continue through southern Ethiopia. That meant he’d have to reroute and skip Rwanda on his travels, but it had to be safety first.
It was a pity for a country which, like an oasis rising from the Sudanese desert, reminded Tomás so much of his native Kerry and his training route over the Conor Pass. “It was a good experience to be there. Would I ever cycle there again? With the way things are, probably not, but I’d definitely go back and visit the country as a normal tourist next time.”
“You know what the most difficult part about this trip is? It’s meeting such wonderful people, and then having to say goodbye. Honestly, it’s getting more difficult. I refuse to see it as a goodbye, though — more of an ‘I’ll see you later’.
“I stayed with a lovely gentleman called Frank and his family. Honestly, I could have kidnapped his children. Such little sweethearts! You may have seen them on TG4 — I was asked to say a Happy New Year and I included Frank and his kids in the video.
“Frank, his cousin, Leticia, who just so happens to be married to the Ugandan vice-president, and I met to ring in the New Year. We watched some stunning fireworks in Kampala city centre, then found another bar and stayed out until 4am. A brilliant night and my first ever New Year’s away from home... One I shall never forget!”
Kampala, Uganda: January 4.
A man walks into Tigh an tSaoirsigh one night for his few pints. Tomás, behind the bar, eventually gets chatting to him and inevitably his Africa cycle comes up. The man says he’s got contacts in Uganda and Tomás thinks no more of it. That’s until he gets in touch again as the trip draws closer. He gives Tomás two numbers, one for Frank and one for Leticia, the wife of the vice-president.
“I thought I’d only meet her for a lunch or dinner but jaysus, she was with me nearly every single day. She’d take me out for lunch, for some beers, we drank every night. If you met her, you would never think she was the vice-president’s wife. She was so laid back and low-key, driving around town herself. She was lovely!”
He was greeted by the vice-president, the minister of education and sports, and the president of the Ugandan Cycling Federation, and even made the back-page headlines in the New Vision newspaper.
“As the trip goes on it’s more about meeting people and less about cycling. I mean I’ll still cycle the whole way to South Africa, it’s just when I meet people who are happy to spend time with me, I don’t want to spend a day with them and say, ‘I’ve to go to cycle again because I’ve to go to Cape Town as quick as I can’.
“I made that mistake in America [where he cycled 3,000 miles across the country in 2016], thinking I’d to do X amount of time to make it sound impressive to people. Now, I’m just happy to take my time, enjoy every moment, soak it all in and meet as many people as I can.”
“Had a very near-death experience with a bus — honestly thought I was a goner. I’ve had tons of close calls, but I think this was the scariest. Took ages for the shaking to stop and my heart rate to return to normal! I’ve been warned about the notorious Kenyan drivers, and this bus driver did that warning justice.”
Ujanja, Kenya: January 6
It took almost 5,000km for Tomás to encounter his closest run-in with a dangerous driver. Not far across the Kenyan border, he was almost wiped out by a bus overtaking a truck at speed.
“I’ve never come so close to being made mincemeat. There were four locals walking across the street and they even started screaming because they thought the bus had actually hit me. But somehow, I was able to control my bike to scrape past before diving into the ditch because the back of the bus was going to hit me.
The bus drivers, he says, are paid for a certain number of trips but will often try to squeeze in a couple more to pocket the extra cash. An incentive for risky driving. The roads themselves, like those across vast swathes of the continent, are being built by Chinese companies, but often lack signs warning of dangerous bends.
“It makes for some interesting cycling! You’ve had your near life-death experiences, but 95% of the experiences have been wonderful. If the trip finished today, I’d still have had the trip of a lifetime.
“I’m having the time of my life out here. Every day is a new and wild adventure. It’s been brilliant. You feel fitter, healthier. You feel as if you’re enjoying life to its fullest.”
He’s met an array of Irish exiles and accommodating locals in Kenya, including his former parish priest in Ballyferriter, Fr Ger Godley (small world indeed!), and Chris Froome’s former childminder, and cycled alongside baboons and zebras — a taste of what’s to come the further south he travels.
He’s barely halfway on a trip designed to get the need for an adventure out of his system — a big, crazy trip to blow his mind. Beyond this, beyond Cape Town, he hasn’t planned yet, apart from one meeting.
In Sudan, an American cyclist gave him a book, Quondam: Travels in a Once World. He’d never heard of the author, John Devoy, but he turned out to be a Cork man, no less. Devoy cycled from Ireland to the North Cape, at the very top of Norway, before turning around and cycling south through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, all the way down to Cape Town. 33,000km in two years, and all done in the 1980s.
Before the Chinese built the roads, Devoy had to drag his bike through the desert. You know it’s serious when Tomás calls it mad.
The two will share their experiences over a drink, what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. The book will stay in Africa though.
“What we want to do is keep the book in circulation here in East Africa and pass it on from touring cyclist to touring cyclist because it’s where it belongs.”
The locals at Tigh an tSaoirsigh might think they’re crazy alright, but when they hear their stories, the grand continent will never have seemed so near, so vivid, so full of life and fun and friendship.
You can donate to the Donal Walsh #LiveLife Foundation at www.idonate.ie/cyclingafrica