Amaya Williams grew up in the Big Sky Country and is a graduate of the University of Montana. She set off to explore the world in 1995 after an old high school friend asked her the probing question,”Is this really what you want out of life?” Caught up in the corporate rat race at the time, the answer was an emphatic ‘NO’. Since that time, Amaya has been traveling around the world and recently returned from a 2+ year bicycle journey through the continent of Africa. I asked Amaya to share with you some of the lessons she learned on her incredible journey… and here is what she had to say:
To many, the continent of Africa seems a distant and dangerous place, a land of endless deserts, dark jungles and war-torn, famine-sapped, lawless countries. Certainly not a suitable place for a first-time bike tourer.
That’s how my husband felt when I first pounced on him with the idea of an Africa cycling adventure. Eric, the doubting Frenchman and normally intrepid traveler I’d married 8 years earlier had his doubts. His reaction was something like, “Have you gone off the deep end? There are deserts to be crossed, wild animals to contend with and half the continent is either in the midst of, on the verge of or recovering from civil war.”
Undaunted, I continued my subtle techniques of persuasion, and six months later we’d quit our jobs, sold most of our belongings and were busy pedaling south towards Morocco.
Now we’ve cycled through almost 60 countries and pedaled a total of more than 60,000 kilometers since we began our ride in June of 2006. That’s equivalent to one and a half times around the equator. For us, settling in to our Brooks saddles is like curling up in a favorite armchair: comfortable as can be.
Friends and family were aghast when I first mentioned the idea of setting out on a biking expedition through some of the harshest terrain on earth.
“Why take the risk?” they asked. “Why would you want to give up a steady income and an interesting job for the uncertainty of travel in the third world?”
The answer was easy. I saw my friends reaching middle age and trading in their dreams for a big mortgage and a comfortable lifestyle. I didn’t want to find myself in retirement moaning about all the adventures I wish I’d lived. I saw no reason to postpone fulfilling my dreams.
A bicycle is the ideal way to explore the world. You see so much more from the seat of a bicycle than you do when you’re whizzing by in a car. Bicycles break down barriers in developing countries because the locals also use them as a primary means of transport.
Our quest to experience the world firsthand has involved many hurdles. The first major challenge of our cycling expedition came in August of 2007 when we crossed the vast Sahara desert. The region is sparsely populated with settlements (and sources of water) often more than 150 kilometers apart. On top of that, the desolate landscape offers little shelter from the scorching sun and gusts of wind are known to sweep sand across the highway cutting visibility to near zero and making it nearly impossible for a cyclist to stay upright.
Seven months later, muddy tracks with waist-deep water and washed out roads in the West African country of Gabon brought our cycling to a halt as we waited for the rains to subside. In the Republic of Congo, we were forced to board a freight train with military escort when authorities informed us we were entering a rebel-held zone.
We have been in some potentially dangerous situations, but we’ve never experienced any type of aggression or been harmed in any way. Africa is an amazing place. The local people were truly concerned about our welfare and wanted to protect and help us. The world is a pretty safe place, contrary to what the cable news channels would like us to believe.
Our bike tour has above all taught us to trust and open up to strangers. Africans, in spite of their poverty, are incredibly generous and hospitable. Obviously when you’re traveling by bicycle you’re not always going to find hotels along the way. When we arrived in a village and spoke with the chief about camping amongst his people we were always warmly welcomed and offered his assistance. Connecting with people and learning that ultimately we all want pretty much the same things out of life is something I’ll always carry with me.
Pedaling around the world has taught me the value of perseverance. We’ve biked through parched deserts and hostile tribal zones. Our cycling expedition has taken us through hundreds of chaotic African cities dodging kamikaze drivers and on the rare occasion, stone-throwing teens. We’ve cycled through driving rain for weeks on end and even battled our way through a snow storm. Sometimes I would break down and cry or through a fit like a spoiled six-year-old. But I never gave up. A sense of accomplishment and increased self-confidence are the rewards of forging on through difficulty.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of simple acts of kindness to change lives. Many times we contemplated returning to our comfy, humdrum lives in Europe– convinced that the suffering outweighed the joys of cycling.
But on every occasion someone popped into our lives and made a difference. A family pulled over to offer us tea from a thermos as a snowstorm raged in the highlands of Syria. Locals invited us in to warm up and dry off during a downpour. Laughing children called out greetings as we slogged on through the desert heat. Kind villagers presented us with fruits and snacks, giving generously in spite of their own poverty
When we pedaled into Cape Town after 17 months on the road, we were faced with a difficult choice. We’d achieved our original goal, crossing the African continent, but didn’t feel like giving up the wonderful world that had opened up to us. We just couldn’t fathom going back to being chained to desks. Our new roles as itinerant cyclists had connected us with people, places and possibilities for a whole new lifestyle.
Eventually, we decided to cycle all the way back to France – up the eastern side of Africa, through the Middle East and on to southern Europe. On May 14th 2009, after two years, eleven months and seven days on the road, we arrived back at our starting point in Obernai, France.
We may have circumnavigated Africa and made it back to our starting point, but the long road hasn’t come to its end – far from it. Our cycling adventures now continue in the Americas. Life’s a little tamer in the US, but I’m certain adventure awaits just across the border in Mexico. We’ll be taking on Central America before heading over to the East Coast of South America. Once we reach the continent’s southernmost tip, Ushuaia, we’ll turn around and bike back up the continent via the Pan American Highway. I guess we’re addicted to a nomadic way of life.
Amaya Williams grew up in the USA, has lived in Europe and Asia, traveled through more than 100 countries and is the author of the Africa chapter of the latest edition of the Adventure Cycling Handbook. You can follow her cycling expedition at: www.worldbiking.info Or visit her fundraising page for World Bicycle Relief at: www.firstgiving.com/worldbiking