Every month we feature inspiring women as our Travelette of the Month – but this month we want to introduce you to TWO inspiring female travelers, Helena and Marie from Cycle with Women. In fact, we let them do the talking and tell you their story of two women, two bicycles, six countries, 3.500km and way too much luggage.
Crossing Africa on a bicycle
We have cycled through six countries in Africa in two and a half months. We started off in Rwanda, crossed Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and finished in South Africa.
We are two women, Marie and Helena, originally from Germany and the Czech Republic. We live in Uganda, East Africa and met a month before we set off on this journey.
When telling people about our travel plans, we were told that we were crazy, that it was not possible and that we would not manage. We were told that we were putting ourselves at risk while cycling as ‘just women’ without any men to accompany us. We were confronted with people’s negative assumptions about the African continent and its perceived dangers.
Having lived in Uganda before, we had a more diverse perception of what we might encounter and knew that most of these prejudices were not based in reality. Nonetheless, we did not know what to expect – but started our journey with excitement and anticipation. Our expectations were exceeded. We never had to experience any of the unpleasant predictions people made. Every day was full of wonderful people, beautiful landscapes and diverse impressions. We swam in Lake Kivu in Rwanda, in crystal clear waters in Lake Malawi, cycled through sand and mud in the rain season, raced on perfect tarmac roads with cycle lanes, peddled next to giraffes and elephants on deserted roads in Botswana, sweated in the heat in the Zambian hills, and shivered in the cold South African winter.
The incredible kindness and generosity of all the people we met was often overwhelming. If we were to start writing about each of these encounters, we would struggle to know where to begin. Maybe it would be with all the people that invited us to stay in their homes and looked after us, those who refused to accept money after giving us food or water to refill our bottles or the people who chased after us to bring one of our smart phones that we had forgotten charging in shops and restaurants. These experiences were alike in the big capital cities, as well as in the remotest villages.
We are aware that many of the experiences that we had are determined by our white privilege, the fact that we are white women with EU Passports.
The privileges that come along with white skin and EU passports are immense. There is an ease of moving from one country to another, knowing we can just show up at a border and receive visas without applying before we arrive.
We reflect often upon our privilege and ask questions such as: “What would be the experiences of black women or black men traveling through Europe on bicycles with a passport from an African country? What would be the reactions towards them if they knocked on someone’s door, with too much luggage and dirty clothes, asking for a place to sleep or some food to eat?“
Although we carry our white privilege with us, traveling as women brings its own risks no matter where we travel to in the world. Being white women, highly visible and perceived as needing protection removes some of the risks. Nonetheless, the inherent risks of traveling alone as women remain. During our cycling tour, we were very aware of issues of vulnerability and risks that often do not apply to men. Still, we felt very safe and did not feel any more vulnerable than in other places we had traveled to before.
How it all started…
Helena: “I had the idea of cycle-touring in my mind for some time and decided to start in Rwanda and see where I could get to. Two female friends planned to join me for a part of the journey. Shortly before setting off, I met Marie in Uganda and our conversation went something like this: Marie, we are leaving in two days to Rwanda to cycle somewhere south and see where we get two. Do you want to come?”
Marie: “I don’t have a bicycle or anything but, erm….sure, ok.”
Helena: “Marie is one of the most resourceful people I know. In two days, with close to zero budget, she managed to get an old bicycle (somehow working/often not), even older non-waterproof bike bags, two pairs of second hand cycling shorts and we were ready to go.”
Every day was new and unplanned.
We did not know where we would manage to get to, where we would sleep, or where or what we would eat. We traveled on a low budget. We camped, slept on floors in countless schools and churches and in people´s homes. We ate a lot of bread and peanut butter and whatever else we could find.
We had no support vehicle, we fixed our bicycles ourselves (as much as we learnt along the way). We had no sponsors or high-end equipment. Improvisation was our style; a bicycle with a backpack strapped with long ropes to a make-shift rack that later fell off, a tent with broken poles, a cooking stove made out of a drinking can, a blow-up mattress that managed to stay up for only half of the first night of the two and a half month trip… you get the idea.
We decided to just go for it.
Marie: “The biggest achievement of my cycling career prior to the journey was cycling for 3km up a hill to my University.
Helena: “What was my biggest achievement? Erm?” [silence]
We did not train nor were we super fit to begin with. We figured that we would get fitter as we went, cycle just as much as we want each day and rest when we needed to – and this sophisticated training plan worked just fine. Of course it was challenging, some days more than others. On our more serious days, we usually got up before sunrise and were on our bikes most of the day cycling 80-100km. Some days we took it easy, falling asleep after lunch, getting lost in markets, eating too much food and not being able to move. We took rest days in bigger cities for a few days to sleep, eat and explore.
We decided to cycle only with women.
Cycling together and spending so much time together as women was far more empowering and enriching than we initially anticipated. We created a safe atmosphere full of support and encouragement without competition. We pushed each other on, shared responsibilities and valued each other’s skills and abilities. We gained a sense of freedom, self-determination and independence. We developed confidence in our ability to deal with challenges that come our way.
We founded a social business ‘Cycle with Women’.
This trip compelled to provide other people with an opportunity to experience a similar sense of adventure and support while having a positive impact on other people’s lives. With this in mind, we founded our social business ‘Cycle with Women’, providing tours and cycling adventures in Uganda and other countries. We offer tours for small women-only groups as well as mixed groups. We also customize trips for groups and individuals with as much or as little cycling as people wish. We aim to create opportunities for people to discover and explore and get a diverse picture of the places they visit. It is important for us to create a safe and enriching space for our participants. As a part of our trips we also provide mindfulness meditation workshops lead by a Clinical Psychologist.
In our social business, we employ local guides, mechanics, drivers and chefs, who are mostly women. With a part of our profits, we support charities improving women’s physical and mental health. To raise awareness of ‘Cycle with Women’, we got back on our bikes this summer and cycled 1.400km from Rome to Prague. This time eating more pizzas, less peanut butter, yet still carrying too much luggage. Especially for the Alps crossing.
Join us for a trip, find more information and become a part of the community. Check out our website www.cyclewithwomen.com or drop us an email at email@example.com. We would love to hear from you.