Africa

A Day In The Life Of A Bicycle Traveler – Episode 2: South African Karoo

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While the basic schedule of any bicycle tour is pretty much the same (wake up, ride your bike and then go to sleep), the day to day activities behind any bicycle tour can vary greatly depending on the individual, the location of the tour, the weather conditions and a number of other factors.

I frequently get asked, “What is a typical day of bicycle touring like?”… and I usually struggle to come up with a good answer to this question because it seems that almost every day on tour is so different.

That’s why I have recently started a new series of articles here on Bicycle Touring Pro titled, “A Day In The Life Of A Bicycle Traveler.

In the following article, I will be sharing with you my day to day activities from my bicycle tour across South Africa – in a desert region called the “Karoo.” My hope is that by reading the details of my day, you will have a better understanding of how time is spent on a self-supported bicycle tour, and you will be able to better plan your own bicycle touring adventures.

If after reading the following article you have any questions, just leave a comment at the bottom of this article and I will respond to you as soon as I can.

starrynight2

7:07 AM – Yawn. “What time is it?” I think to myself. There is sun bursting through the roof of my tent and I can tell the temperature outside is rising. I check the time on my iPod Touch and then roll over and go back to sleep.

7:38 AM – “Okay, I need to get up now,” I tell myself. It’s getting hot inside my tent and I won’t be able to handle this heat for too much longer. But I’m not really ready to get out of bed. I’m not a morning person and I’m in no rush to break camp. I’ve had a wonderful evening out under the stars and I really don’t want to go anywhere… so I pick up my iPod again and begin reading an eBook via the Kindle app.

8:40 AM – After several chapters of intense reading, I finally roll out of bed… and the first thing I do is eat. I eat an apple covered in peanut butter, three biscuits, a banana and a liter of water.

8:57 AM – Now fully awake, I change into my riding clothes. No shower today. I’m in the desert and there isn’t much water around. It will have to be a bird bath for me today. After changing my clothes, I put on my shoes and then exit my tent. I go to the restroom (number 1 and 2 if you really must know), blow my nose and brush my teeth.

9:15 AM – After my trip to the restroom (which is really just a small shrub and a pile of rocks located about 100 paces from my campsite), I begin to slowly break camp. I pack my panniers, deflate my air mattress and then break down my tent while at the same time eating another banana.

9:55 AM – Just five minutes before 10 AM, I finally finish packing up my things. I load all four panniers, my handle bar bag, my solar panel and the bag containing my tripod and tent poles onto my bicycle and then look around my campsite for anything I might be accidentally leaving behind. There is nothing, so I throw one leg over the bike and slowly begin my ride downhill to the main road.

desertride

10:00 AM – It’s about 300 meters until I hit the dirt road that will eventually take me back to the N1 – the large, paved highway I have been cycling on for the past several days. Once on the gravel road, I turn the bike toward a nearby wind-powered water pump. My goal is to sneak over to the pump and fill up my water bottles before I get back on the road. Without this water, I might not make it to my destination for the night.

10:10 AM – I fill up my water bottles and wash my face in the small stream of liquid coming out of the ground. I could really use a shower, but that will have to wait. “Maybe I’ll get a shower tonight?” I think to myself, “Or maybe tomorrow?”

10:20 AM – With my water bottles full and my face partially clean, I prepare to hit the road. I put my earphones in and turn the music up load. It’s just a short ride up the dirt road before I’m back on the N1.

10:28 AM – Back on the main road now, I stop for a quick photo and then turn left. The highway is relatively quiet at this time of day. The traffic is moderate and passing quickly (120+ km/hour), but there is a huge shoulder to ride in and I feel perfectly safe.

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11:20 AM – It’s really hot out and all that water I drank this morning causes me to have to stop and pee (on the side of the road – there are no toilets anywhere to be found).

11:23 AM – I apply a thin layer of sunscreen and then I’m back on the road!

11:36 AM – It’s nearly noon, but I’m making some progress. A large green road sign tells me that it is now 20 km to Prince Albert Road and 135 km to Beaufort West. I’m not planning to make it to Beaufort West today, but I hope to make it there sometime tomorrow. My goal for the day is to cover half that distance, approximately 70+ kilometers.

12:00 PM – I’m covering a lot of ground when I stop to take a photo and realize that the battery in my camera is nearly dead. Luckily, I’m carrying several spare batteries, so I just pop out the current battery and put in a fully-changed one. I make a mental note to myself to recharge this used battery just as soon as I have access to an electrical outlet.

12:08 PM – I’m back on the road now, pedaling along a long, flat road that climbs and falls at almost unnoticeable percentages. The wind is in my face, but I hardly notice it and just keep riding.

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12:15 PM – Another large green road sign indicates that I have covered another 10 kilometers. It is now only 10 km to Prince Albert Road, 50 km to Leeu-Gamka (my goal for the day), and 125 km to Beaufort West.

12:55 PM – I arrive at Prince Albert Road and quickly realize there is little to be found there. A small gas station and a hole-in-the-wall convenience store are together manned by approximately six lazy workers. There is no water for sale – only soda, so I purchase a 2.5 liter bottle of Sprite. I ask if they have any ice cream. It’s hot and an ice cream sounds wonderful, but they haven’t got any. Nor do they have fresh food of any kind. It’s all just packaged, plastic, junk. I feel like I could eat a horse (even though I’m vegetarian), but I leave Prince Albert Road with nothing more than a giant bottle of soda.

1:10 PM – As I pull out of the gas station at the corner of the N1 and Prince Albert Road, a toothless hitchhiker jokingly asks me for a ride on the back of my bicycle. I tell him, “If you peddle, I’ll give you a ride.” He laughs… and I continue on my way.

1:36 PM – I’m making progress now! Another green sign informs me that it is now only 30 km to Leeu-Gamka and 105 km to Beaufort West.

2:04 PM – As I reach the next green sign, pointing out the fact that I am another 10 km closer to my goal for the day, I swap out  my music with a Polish audio course I’ve been listening to for the last several months. The audio lessons are about 30-minutes long, so I decide I’ll listen to a lesson before switching back to my “cycling tunes.”

2:33 PM – My Polish audio lesson comes to an end at the exact moment I pass another green sign. This one tells me I am now only 10 km from Leeu-Gamka and 85 km from Beaufort West.

3:00 PM I arrive in Leeu-Gamka at 3 PM exactly. The place is small, with little around. I pull into the one and only gas station, expecting yet another small store filled with soda and plastic cookies and candy bars, but am delighted when I see there is a small restaurant attached to the gas station. I park my bike outside the restaurant’s large glass window and then saunter inside, quickly ordering myself a cheese and tomato sandwich with a large order of french fries and a chocolate milkshake. Again, not the healthiest of foods, but it was the best of what was available. Such is life on the road sometimes!

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3:53 PM – I could sit inside the restaurant for another hour or two (it’s hot outside and my legs are sore), but it’s getting late and I need to start looking for a place to spend the night. I purchase a few goodies at the convenient store located next door to the restaurant and then load my food supply for the next day onto my fully-loaded touring bike.

3:55 PM – Just before I pull out of the gas station, one of the bored gas station attendants calls over to me, “Where ‘re ya going on dat ting?” To which I reply, “Swaziland!” He smiles from ear to ear and looks around in disbelief. I imagine he’s thinking to himself, “This guy must be crazy!”

4:00 PM – I purchased an ice cream at the gas station convenient store before I left, but I didn’t want to eat it there, so I put it in my handlebar bag, rode up the road just a short ways, found a stone wall to sit on, and enjoyed my ice cream while calmly watching a slow stream of traffic pass me by.

4:11 PM – “Okay,” I say to myself, “Time to find a place to sleep for the night.” I jump back on my bicycle and pedal east.

4:28 PM – I pass a sign saying it is now 70 km to Beaufort West.

5:00 PM – The sun is starting to go down and I know that I’ve only got about an hour and a half before it gets really dark. I need to find a place to camp for the night, so when I see a side road that leads off into the distance, I turn onto it, cycle down a short gravel street, then turn right onto a dirt road that parallels a set of rusty train tacks. I’m cycling west now, back in the direction I’ve come from, but I’m far off the main road now. I’m just looking for an opening in the barbed-wire fence, where I can pull my bike inside for the night and find a place to sleep. Luckily, I’m able to find such an opening about 2 km down the road. I turn left and cross over the railroad tracks I’ve been following and then let myself into a gated off area where a small number of cattle are roaming near an old stone, brick and adobe ruin.

5:07 PM – The ruins are far from civilization and they give me some shelter from the wind, so I decide to camp there for the night. Before setting up my tent, however, I scout out the location, making note of a nearby stream (where wild animals are sure to gather in the night) and a small cemetery covered in chain link fence and barbed-wire (the saddest cemetery I’ve ever seen). There are animal tracks everywhere I look and I try and pick out a spot for my tent that is out of the way of passing creatures in the area.

5:20 PM – Now completely certain that this will be my home for the evening, I begin setting up my tent.

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5:40 PM – Twenty minutes later my tent is set up, my air mattress is inflated, my sleeping bag is prepared and my panniers are removed from my bicycle and stored inside my tent.

5:48 PM – I’ve got less than an hour of sunlight left, so I decide to make the most of it by reading some more of my book, while sitting on a nearby pile of rocks that overlooks the valley below, and at the same time stretching my sore body. I try to stretch almost every day, but I don’t do it nearly as often as I should.

6:43 PM – It’s nearly dark now. The sun is about to completely disappear for the night and several small bats fly above my head. I remove the headlamp from one of my panniers and prepare to crawl inside my tent.

6:50 PM – An animal (something similar to a coyote, I think) calls in the distance and a single mosquito bite on my leg prompts me to call it a night. I jump inside my tent and eat two vegetable sandwiches, using some of the ingredients I was able to pick up at the convenient store in Leeu-Gamka just a couple hours before.

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7:06 PM – After eating my dinner, I jump outside to brush my teeth really quick, then I change my clothes and jump back inside my tent. I am dirty and sweaty, but there isn’t enough water around to wash my face or bathe in any way. It has been more than four days now since I last had a shower. I’m looking forward to reaching Beaufort West so I can rent a hotel room there and finally take a shower.

7:14 PM – Back inside my tent, I whip out my laptop computer, and using the SIM activated USB stick I purchased in Cape Town, attempt to access the Internet. I’m out in the middle of nowhere, but I am able to establish a connection. It’s super slow and the only thing I can do is check and respond to my emails, so that’s what I do. It takes an entire hour.

8:14 PM – Emails now sorted, I put the computer away and return to my eBook, reading for the next hour and a half.

9:45 PM – I’ve been inside the tent for several hours now and I’m getting tired. I put my iPod away, take one last swig of water, and then I call it a day. My head hits the sleeping bag and I’m out. My day is over and I sleep soundly, dreaming the entire time about the shower I hope to receive in Beaufort West the following day.

About Darren Alff

Darren Alff is a world-renowned authority on bicycle touring and is the founder of BicycleTouringPro.com - the world's most popular bicycle touring website and how-to information source. He is the developer of "The Ultimate Bike Tour Training Course," and the author of four additional cycling books: The Bicycle Touring Blueprint, The Essential Guide to Touring Bicycles, Winter Cycling and Stretching for Cyclists. Darren has dedicated his life to helping others conduct the bicycle tour of their dreams. His websites, books, email newsletter, products and public appearances now inspire and assist hundreds of thousands of people from all around the world.

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29 Comments

  1. David Massey

    May 5, 2013 at 4:01 am

    You mentioned a solar panel. Is that how you charge up your iPod, phone, etc? What brand is it, and what is it’s approximate size and weight?

    Thanks.

  2. Shripad Shidore

    May 7, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Pretty interesting,
    However,we expect the tour in Europe may be shade easier than the typical day in desert described by you.

    Anyway thank you so much

  3. Nigel Pearce

    May 7, 2013 at 10:21 am

    Brave and interesting++. See that you have bigger front bags now and less individual clutter.
    Also, you have your rear bags higher.
    Are those steel forks?
    All the best, keep the body and mind going. Well done.
    Nigel (retired Doctor)

  4. Nicholas Carter

    May 7, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Hi Darren, just read your last mail before I go to bed here in the UK. The time is 9-30pm.
    Are the wild animals a threat I mean at any time?
    It was fascinating to read your days ride it sounds so simple. As you get up at the time you do & finish
    your days ride before dark you obviously have no need for lights on your bike.
    You must be brave or a little mad to do the things you do!!
    Do you ever have to lock your bike?
    I am really pleased that you send me your news letters, Thanks!!
    Take Care Darren.
    Nicholas

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      May 15, 2013 at 6:19 am

      Nicholas, yes, wild animals are a concern at times… but rarely. Not as often as most people think. I almost never use front or rear lights (there is rarely a need for them) and I do lock my bicycle on occasion, but again, not as often as you might think. Over the last 3 months in South Africa, for example, I have probably locked my bicycle only 6 times. The rest of the time the bike is either at my side or in my hotel room.

  5. Steve

    May 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Sounds like a perfect day. I’m looking forward to future touring. It’s great to learn from your experience. I really appreciate all the advice. Steve

  6. Don A. Holshuh

    May 7, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Your day highlights one of the aspects often not spoken about by solitary bike travelers-LONLINESS. From the accounts I have read from others who traveled alone (notably Alastair Humphreys), loneliness can be a problem. I did enjoy reading about your typical day. What kind of tent did you have that allows you to store your panniers? What type of solar panel? Thanks for all you do!

  7. Kerri

    May 7, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Hi Darren

    Thanks so much for the article. I only started cycle touring last year but I love it and have already done lots of short trips and my first overseas cycle tour – a three week trip down the West coast of New Zealand. Your website, newsletters and ebook have been enormously helpful and inspiring. Keep up the good work!

    Kerri

  8. Mary Ann Padglick

    May 7, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    Thanks for this blow by blow description. We are planning our first cross-country bike tour (my husband and myself) for Spring 2014. Your information, insight, and emails have been very helpful. I do have a question…what type of air mattress do you use? I was thinking a Neo-air because of it’s small size and light weight.

    Thanks!

  9. Leigh Stork

    May 7, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Great article. Really enjoyed it.

    Lee

  10. Ernie Coil

    May 7, 2013 at 6:46 pm

    Darren,

    I really enjoy reading of your adventures and watching the occasional videos as well as the “how to do’s” you sometimes upload. Thanks for taking the time to do this!

    I am in my first year of retirement after teaching elementary school for 37 years. I am thinking about attempting a cross country tour this summer. Included in this would be a fundraiser for a former student who passed away last year in her sophomore year of high school after battling cancer. I am not a very technical person, but I would like to set up a blog and perhaps a Facebook page and occasionally post some information and photographs for those interested in following this coast-to-coast attempt.

    Could you please tell me about your solar panel? What kind do you use? Does it produce enough charge for your laptop, cell phone, and Ipod? Not sure about a SIM activated USB stick (aaawwww technology!!!!), I believe from your article this allows you to access the internet? I believe I would have to do my posting at a library or a business that had Wifi, unless this SIM activated USB stick you mentioned would give me the capability to do this. Any feedback you could provide would be much appreciated.

    Safe travels!

    Ernie

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      May 15, 2013 at 6:14 am

      Ernie, the solar panel I use is called the Voltaic Fuse. You can read my full review of this amazing product right here: http://bicycletouringpro.com/blog/voltaic-fuse-solar-charger-my-1-year-review/

      As for the Internet enabled USB stick, this only works if you are traveling with a laptop computer (which I am). If you are not traveling with a computer, then you could get Internet access on your phone or as you said, from libraries, etc.

  11. Joseph

    May 7, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    Oddly enough, this sounds like heaven…

  12. mic

    May 7, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    Thank you darren, I enjoyed your every mail in advice and pictures…..

  13. Paul Fish

    May 7, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    The ph balance in me is changed by me putting into my water some lemon juice and I squirt in some
    lime juice, just in the morning. The trip sounds good, the heat is rough. The not taking a bath doesn’t bother me, I just like to lay down after a good days ride. My question was about the animals and one covered it all. This is a vacation of a lifetime. Enjoy it. I joke with the guys wanting a ride also, come and get on, yet, I am the one with no teeth. Ha. Ha Ha. It is in the middle of the night here, and I want to go on out and ride. How does one get some female compnay out on a trip ? It is not about sex, just say for some campionship. For I tend to get lonely after five or six good hard days on the road. The wind is blowing and I am not making much progress. It Tuscon Az, it was really hot, and I was peddling in high gear. At the end of the day just before dark I was beat. My panniers packed all the way up to tops. I carried food in two little plastic bags. Glad one is finding some water…it has to come out of the groud some where. In Tuscon on my way to Phoniex Az, I drank out of the irrigation pipes and cooled off with that water too. I saw stuff on the road that was not evan there, it just looked like it was there.

  14. H.G. MISHRA

    May 8, 2013 at 1:35 am

    NICE TRAVELLING WITH BICYCLES, I WANT SOME MORE EXPERIENCE ABOUT IT.

  15. Ollie Lambert

    May 8, 2013 at 4:51 am

    Darren Great story. Loved the detailed run down on your day but have two questions if you have
    time..
    1) Where do you get these language courses from to download into an Ipod please?
    2) What is a Sim activated USB stick.
    Good luck Ollie Lambert Perth Oz

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      May 15, 2013 at 6:10 am

      Ollie,

      1) This is one of my favorite language learning resources: http://www.pimsleur.com/

      2) A SIM activated USB stick is simply a USB stick that you attach to your laptop computer to get internet access when you are traveling. It connects to the Internet the same way a smart phone does. It’s basically just a small device that gives you portable Internet access in any place that there would be service on your cell phone.

  16. Beau

    May 8, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    Hi Darren
    Very interesting tale, but is it not a little scary pedalling on the N1 with all the heavy lorries travelling between Jhb and C. Town.
    If you are going to travel up the N2 beyond Durban (100 km) north then you are more than welcome to stay with me for a night or two, have a shower eat some proper food and relax for a day or so.
    my wife and I are working on a cycle trip next year to Europe to cycle the EuroVelo route 6 so your series of blogs has been very helpfull.
    My mobile No is 083 657 1682 if you are in fact coming up our way.

    Regards

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      May 15, 2013 at 6:06 am

      Beau,

      I actually really enjoyed the N1 between Cape Town and Beaufort. The shoulder is super wide and there were not that many cars.

      And thank you for the invitation to come and stay with you. However, my time in South Africa is nearly finished now and I have my lodging each night covered. Thank you so much though. That was very nice of you.

  17. nols

    May 9, 2013 at 4:07 am

    Darren, you should have taken some of the smaller roads through the Karoo. The N1 is terrible, far too much traffic. It would have taken longer to cross the Karoo, but the smaller roads are much more interesting. Also, if you sleep over at some of the farmers, you eat like a king. OK, bit of a problem if you are vegetarian.

  18. mani

    May 12, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    hi ts very good

  19. gng

    June 20, 2013 at 2:32 am

    Hi, Darren
    And do you have such whose timing for each day of your trip?
    Good luck

  20. Johann Rissik

    July 26, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Hi there,
    Interesting write-up.

    Cycling on the N1 is, in my opinion, a big no-no. Vehicles drive in the emergency lane and there are frequent collisions as a result.

    Riding with music in your ears on the N1 is death wish stuff. There are better, more quiet and safer roads, ask me, I live about 70km South east of Leeugamka…..While you were in Leeugamka did you spot the big round hole for when they give the earth an enema ;)

  21. Mark Utzman

    December 26, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    Hello Darren, I’m planning my first long distance bicycle tour in 2014, and want to ask you if you lock your bike at night? I’m a little concerned that my bike may get stolen while I sleep, considering I can’t put my bike in my tent or vetibule. Have you had any problems or concerns about this? Thanks

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