African Voices

I cycled for 2 years through 44 African countries. This is what I learned

Story highlights

Ron Rutland cycled 26,700 miles to support South Africa in the Rugby World Cup

Though disappointed at the shock defeat, he says it's the best decision ever made

CNN  — 

Most dedicated sports fans would buy a season ticket; or perhaps take a plane to catch a game of their favorite team abroad. But would they spend two whole years cycling 26,700 miles through Africa and across Europe to support their team?

Ron Rutland

Ron Rutland did just that. The South African rugby fan set off from Cape Town in April 2013, pedaling all the way to Brighton, England, to see his beloved Springboks take on Japan last Saturday at the Rugby World Cup – only to witness two-time world champions South Africa losing against 13th-ranked Japan in a nail-biting showdown.

Despite suffering the bitter defeat, Rutland’s adventure left him with a more important lesson.

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The 41-year-old – who had three birthdays on the trip – raised $9,000 for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation in memory of his friend Nix “Lettie” Haynes, who died of cancer. And by biking solo through 44 African countries, he’s witnessed the extraordinary qualities that make the continent’s people, food and landscape so unique.

We caught up with Rutland to hear about the highs, lows and near-death experiences.

Why did you choose to do this epic journey?

Ron Rutland: Africa is the iconic continent of adventure; it’s still widely unknown to the world – if you’re going to do one big adventure in your life, you may as well choose Africa.

Yet it gets such bad press. You hear about people canceling holidays to South Africa because of Ebola and realize most are pretty ignorant about what Africa’s about. I wanted to prove to anyone who’d listen that Africa isn’t this big scary place – it’s more accessible than you might think.

In my entire trip, not once did anyone turn me down a place to pitch my tent. Not once. I adamantly believe that 99.9% of human beings are good people. The rest of them make the headlines, or are politicians.

Rutland: "Ordinary people of the world don't want to fight or bring harm to their neighbor, they just want the best for themselves and their families."

Tell us your best anecdote

RR: The adventure really started when I cycled into Mozambique – that’s when I entered the real bush of southern Africa. I proudly pitched my tent and set up my little gas cooking stove. In August, the climate’s dry. The next thing I knew, the grass had caught alight.

It started the size of a square foot, then it was a square meter, then the size of a room. The wind was so strong. The first night of hardcore camping and I’d started this huge bush fire. I was standing there in my underpants and sandals, miles away from anyone. I thought, “Oh my goodness, what have I done.”

I lost my tent. I tried to rip it out but my bike was more important. I don’t want to exaggerate but the blaze was two or three football fields big. It went over the brow of the hill and must have hit a dry river bed, because it eventually burnt out. Only when I got to Zimbabwe did I manage to get another tent, but I had my sleeping bag and it didn’t rain. I covered my face with a T-shirt at night to stop the bugs. Even a tent isn’t proper protection from hyenas or wild cats.

Ron Rutland Gambia

What differences struck you along the way?

RR: The most distinctive change was crossing from Kenya into Ethiopia. Up until then it had been traditional sub-Saharan Africa, but as soon as you step into Ethiopia, it’s a different calendar. I happened to arrive on the 31st of December so for me it was New Year’s Eve, but there it was the 10th of January and a different year. They use a different timing system, they have a 6am equivalent to what we call midnight.

Some of the best food was in Ethiopia too. The spices and variety were very distinctive. Often in southern Africa you rely on maize meal with a clump of meat you can’t always recognize, maybe a bit of gravy. It was very monotonous at times. If I was alone in the bush or desert, my default was two-minute noodles, rice, sardines or sugary biscuits. I struggled on nutrition at times – other times I was going through Uganda, Rwanda and Northern Zambia, where avocados and mangoes are dripping off the trees.

Rutland had lived in Asia and Europe but never seen much of his own continent. Pictured, a boy poses for Rutland's camera in one of Lesotho's mountains.

The most beautiful places you visited…

RR: The Simian Mountains in northern Ethiopia are some of the most dramatic I’ve seen in the whole world. It took my breath away. It was just weeks of pure cycling and visual pleasure.

The other place that struck me was Sao Tome and Principe, off the coast of Gabon. There are six island nations in Africa and Sao Tome and Principe is the second smallest, with about 200,000 inhabitants. You fly in on this caravan airplane, low and slow – straight away it looked like Jurassic Park. It’s completely covered in tropical rainforest, an unspoilt piece of Africa in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with beaches like anywhere in Thailand. It was extremely unique and beautiful.

…and the scariest thing that happened?

RR: The scariest thing apart from the crazy traffic was running out of water. It’s so humbling. You can be Donald Trump or The Queen of England, but if you haven’t got water, you’re dead.

It becomes your biggest concern. Your mind starts playing games. You think, “Am I going to be one of those fools you read about who goes into the wilderness ill-prepared and is found like a prune next to a tree?” People often ask me did I dream about pizza, steak or beer but there’s times that I just dreamed about ice cold jugs of water or having a proper shower.

The number of times that the poorest people on the planet would share food or water with me was staggering. You can’t grow water, you can’t farm water. The water that people are sharing with you has been lugged, with great effort from a stream or a lake. That’s got to be the most humbling thing in the world, when someone who has absolutely nothing shares it with zero expectation of anything in return. When I come back into the “real world” I want to be sure I don’t ever take that stuff for granted again.

Would you do it again?

It was the best decision of my life. I’d definitely do it again – if anything I’d take more time over it.

And I know the Springboks can pull this back.

Rutland hopes to raise $25,000 for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, which promotes youth development through sports