Tour d’Afrique rider’s next challenge: the Yukon

More than 100 years after his death, Cecil Rhodes' vision of a Cairo to Cape Town railroad is still nowhere near a reality. But there are other means than steam for making the trip. On Saturday, 60-odd cyc

By Jamie Furniss

Special to the News

CAIRO, Egypt

More than 100 years after his death, Cecil Rhodes’ vision of a Cairo to Cape Town railroad is still nowhere near a reality. But there are other means than steam for making the trip.

On Saturday, 60-odd cyclists taking part in the seventh annual Tour d’Afrique peddled off from in front of the pyramids, starting an 11,800-kilometre human-powered journey to Cape Town.

Participants from roughly a dozen nations will cycle 96 separate stages, averaging 123 kilometres, and arrive in Cape Town in 120 days. Many of the riders are Canadian; the tour is run by an eponymously named Toronto-based firm that also leads adventure cycling tours in Europe, Asia, and South America.

From Cairo to Cape Town—to Inuvik

For Helen Cooney, a British police officer from Liverpool on sabbatical, the Tour d’Afrique is only the first leg in a trip that will see her ride north from Vancouver through the Yukon to Inuvik.

“Four years ago, I took one year out and I cycled around the world. That was just a little adventure,” she joked at Tour d’Afrique’s hotel near the Giza pyramids.

“But I didn’t come to Canada. I’ve now got nine months off. I’m doing the Tour d’Afrique, which leaves five months free over the summer.”

Cooney and her partner, Martin Hill, who is not doing Tour d’Afrique and will instead meet her in Vancouver later in the year, decided they would take those five months to cycle across Canada—but not along the usual route.

“We wanted a bit of a challenge, so rather than go across Canada, from coast to coast, which is kind of the traditional thing to do, we decided we’d go up from Vancouver just as far as you can get, and I believe the farthest you can get is Inuvik.”

After arriving in Inuvik, they plan to fly to Newfoundland and cycle south along the East Coast to New York.

They should be in the Yukon in July.

The Yukon less daunting than “the dark continent”

“That middle bit seemed a bit incongruous, because it’s very much the same, isn’t it,” said Hill about prairies

But the two Brits’ image of the Yukon is very different from the monotony of the Prairies.

“Forests, plateaus, emptiness, snowy peaks, long roads, fresh air, blue skies … lots of trees I think. Just peace and quiet, really,” said Cooney, relating her image of the Yukon.

While its reputation for beauty, remoteness and emptiness continue to work their magic, the Yukon no longer seems a foreboding or dangerous place—unlike Africa.

“It’s clear there aren’t the same sorts of privations as you get in the likes of Africa,” Cooney said, explaining why she and Hill were willing to tackle the Alaska Highway and the Dempster without support, whereas she preferred to make the Cairo to Cape Town journey with Tour d’Afrique Ltd.

“I think Africa is quite daunting, particularly for a lone female. Trying to find maps and routes and information is quite difficult. So I had kind of wiped Africa off the possibilities. I wanted to do Africa, but I thought it’s just not somewhere I’m going to tackle on my own. I’ve got some limitations. But then I saw this and I thought ‘now here is an opportunity to see Africa on bicycle.’”

More tour and

charity than race

Like most riders, Cooney is registered in the “expedition rider” category, which means she is not racing and will not be timed.

Her objective is to finish, which earns riders the EFI prize (stands for “Every Inch”).

The Tour d’Afrique, started by Canadians Henry Gold—a one-time documentary filmmaker on African crises and founder of Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief—and Michael de Jong as a business in 2003, actually bears limited resemblance to its namesake, the Tour de France.

Not run according to International Cycling Association rules, the Tour is more like a hardcore ‘overland’ trip than a competitive cycling race. This year only about one-in-five riders is registered as a racer.

Despite all being at very different stages in life and having highly varied personal goals, most riders agree they would rather stop, meet people, and ‘experience Africa’ than suffer under the tyranny of the stopwatch. Some will skip a few legs along the way to allow for a side-trip to Zanzibar or a photographic safari, for example.

“How many times are you going to get to Africa? You’re probably going to get here once in your lifetime. So why do you want to put your head down, grind it out, kill yourself, get to camp when no one else is there, and wait for the truck with nothing else, there in the middle of the desert,” said John Hinch, a retired educator from Oshawa, Ontario, explaining why he and two friends preferred to register in the expedition category.

Also part charity, Tour d’Afrique uses a portion of each participant’s entry fee to purchase bicycles for African health-care workers so they can access remote areas and provide home care to AIDS patients.

Last year, Tour d’Afrique donated 265 bicycles, said Randy Pielsticker, this year’s tour co-ordinator and a veteran of five previous tours.

“We also provide the opportunity for all of our clients to do individual, personal fundraising campaigns to also contribute to our bicycle donations. On top of that, we get a bunch of people who do fundraising campaigns for other causes. Some people do AIDS relief here in Africa, some people do Save the Rhinos, some people do Stephen Lewis Foundation … some people do something that is completely unrelated to Africa,” said Pielsticker.

Although the number of people willing to pay ,900 for a ticket to travel more than 10,000 kilometres under their own power will probably never be large, the Tour d’Afrique’s hybridity appeals to wide spectrum of ages and interests at a time when socially aware, environmentally sustainable travel in general, and long-distance cycling in particular, appear to be increasingly vogue.

Yukoner and freelance writer Jamie Furniss is in Cairo working on his PhD.