Cape Town to Italy via Tel Aviv... by bike

Pedaling south to north across the entire African continent with this bare minimum of supplies, he made this epic 19,000 km journey in just over five months

Francesco Ciaghi: Freedom on the open road (photo credit: COURTESY FRANCESCO CIAGHI)
Francesco Ciaghi: Freedom on the open road
A broken toothbrush and spare inner tube, a cake of soap, a one-man tent and a rain jacket are most of what Italian lone cyclist Francesco Ciaghi carried with him on his solo journey from Cape Town to Tel Aviv… plus the phone numbers of two Israelis he met in the very heart of Africa.
Pedaling south to north across the entire African continent with this bare minimum of supplies, he made this epic 19,000 km journey in just over five months, covering from 120 to 300 km every riding day!
Francesco, a cyclist, marathon runner, mountain climber and newly licensed diver, whose home town is Ronzo (pop. 982) in the Italian Alps, revealed that the broken toothbrush was deliberate – he snapped it in half to save weight.
“A cyclist is always looking for ways to reduce weight and save space – so I felt I only needed half a toothbrush…” he explained.
The motivation
Taking a week or so of R&R in Tel Aviv (where he also gave his bike a well-earned service) he related the highlights of his journey on two wheels across some of the most beautiful – and hazardous – regions of the world.
The inspiration – or compulsion – to do this trip came from a book he read about a cyclist who rode from Cairo to Cape Town, where Francesco was living and working for Asics, the running shoe company.
“When I read this book, something just grabbed me. The idea of riding across Africa grew and grew and wouldn’t let go. When my friends in Italy asked me when I was coming home, I would always joke ‘if I ever leave Cape Town it will be on a bike…’ eventually it wasn’t a joke anymore.
“In April 2018, I started planning for my journey of a lifetime. I had no information at all about crossing Africa. I knew nothing about visas, tropical diseases, which countries it would be safe to enter, which to avoid. Through Facebook and Instagram I started contacting cyclists and other travelers who had done similar journeys. If they were in Cape Town I met them. One especially interesting traveler was a Chinese girl who had cycled on her own down the West coast of Africa, crossing countries like Nigeria and the Congo. Then there was the Italian guy who did a cross-Africa trip on an old Vespa. I hosted him in Cape Town and met him again in Rwanda.
“Even more than information, the best thing I got from them all was a lot of motivation.”
It was this motivation that spurred him to run the Cape Town Marathon on the morning of September 23 – and to leave on his ambitious expedition that very same afternoon!
“Perhaps a bit crazy, but then I guess you have to be a bit strange to do a trip like this.”
He continued: “The idea of the trip was not just to cycle, but I wanted to experience Africa and to see what the continent is all about – I really love long days on the bike, but I also do short days to spend time with people, to get to know them and understand what is going on in a country. I had traveled extensively through South Africa, done a lot of cycling, and climbing every weekend; been to Johannesburg, the Garden Route, and the Kruger Park game reserve. I had a map of SA in my room, and I marked wherever I had been in red – the goal was to cover the whole map in red!”
Cyclists will be interested to know that his bike, bought in Cape Town, is a Taiwanese-made Merida with a Shimano shift featuring 2 gears in front and 11 at the back. It has a carbon frame weighing 10 kg.
“Carbon is a little unusual for a touring bike because if something breaks, you can’t fix it; but it’s very light,” he added.
It was fitted with minimal extra trappings, totaling another 15 kg: a small kit bag tucked under the saddle holding his one-man tent and rain jacket, a standard water bottle holder, and two other bags attached to the handlebars to carry essential tools, toiletries (the half toothbrush), a spare inner tube and spare spokes in a bag slung under the cross bar. “I named my bicycle ‘Joy’ and put a sticker with this name on the left crank; because I wanted every pedal stroke of this trip to be pure joy,” he added. Also strapped to his handlebars is a colorful Zulu beaded bracelet. “This is for a cycling companion of mine in Durban who has not been well, and I wanted to carry something of him with me the whole way.”
Francesco used an offline version of Google maps, and carried three power banks, one with a solar panel, which gave him a total of three weeks power for recharging his phone and GPS device.
“I carried a special GPS device, which sent a location signal every 10 minutes – especially for my mother – so she could know where I was at any time!” he added. He also regularly updated his Facebook page on his phone.
He carried about $1,000 in cash, mainly to pay for visas; his credit cards and some mobile apps to draw money or pay for services. He added that the connectivity infrastructure in East Africa is amazingly good and one can pay for anything via the phone.
He tried to change his diet frequently so that he would not get bored with eating the same things all the time, “even if sometimes there are not so many options to choose from in Africa.” He organized breakfast the evening before, so he could eat early and start pedaling at first light.
“During the day I ate regularly about every hour; you really burn a lot of calories -6,000 to 10,000 kcal per day – so you always have to make sure to have some food in your stomach. In the evening I tried to have a good dinner, sometimes treating myself to some special luxuries, hard to find in Africa, like Nutella!
“Luckily in most of Africa, big quantities of cyclists’ favorite food are always available on the side of the road – bananas! And they are very cheap – for one shekel you can get up to 1kg of bananas. Biscuits were also a central part of my diet. You can find them everywhere, no risk of getting food poisoning and reasonably cheap.”
He added that every country had its own typical food, and part of the fun of the day was to try the local food. In Uganda, he said, you can find what they call “Rolex” – not the Swiss watch – but a chapatti with a fried egg rolled in it
“Typical food for all countries from South Africa to Kenya is maize flour with beans and (if lucky) some meat. Most of the time it is overcooked goat. I wasn’t a big fan of it to be honest. Then crossing from Kenya to Ethiopia, the food changes completely. In Ethiopia the staple diet is Injera a spongy flat bread. From Sudan onwards, the main dish becomes closer to Middle-Eastern or Arabic. The base of the diet is “ful” and bread. You know you are eating in Africa when you don’t get a knife and fork. The vast majority of the people across all Africa eat with their hands.”
The ride
Leaving Cape Town on the afternoon of September 23, he headed through the Karoo, South Africa’s semi-desert region to the inland city of Bloemfontein, and then swung east towards the KwaZulu Natal coast, crossing the independent mountain kingdom of Lesotho (“where the roads are perfect but there is no traffic – except for wandering horses…”). To reach the coastal plain he had to descend the hazardous Sani Pass. This steep rough gravel road on the border of South Africa and Lesotho is a 9 km drop of 1,332 vertical meters from an altitude of 2,800 meters above sea level. Doing it by jeep, you need steely driving skills to avoid plunging over the edge.
After visiting friends in Durban – and participating in a three-day mountain bike race (!), he headed north again, through Zululand, to Swaziland, another former British protectorate, then back into South Africa and the grandeur of the Blyde River Canyon, down to the Limpopo River on the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Francesco Ciaghi: Freedom on the open road (COURTESY FRANCESCO CIAGHI)Francesco Ciaghi: Freedom on the open road (COURTESY FRANCESCO CIAGHI)
“Along the way I looked for hospitality rather than camp sites. I wanted to meet the people, not just the view the landscape,” Francesco explained. An app called WarmShowers ( has been set up as a resource for cyclists. It enables cyclists to find hosts anywhere in the world and Francesco took full advantage of the app throughout his journey. “I was hosted mostly by South Africans throughout Africa and in Tel Aviv by someone I found through WarmShowers.”
He entered Zimbabwe on the day the Finance Minister announced new legislation regarding the currency – and the exchange rate to the US dollar plummeted by more than 500% in a day! This led to lines of people forming outside stores to stock up with supplies.
“Zimbabweans are such nice people and when I was standing outside a store in a line that looked like it would take at least five hours to get in, I was asked where I was going. When I told them, they allowed me to enter the store ahead of everybody else to get a few supplies.”
He rode out to the picturesque Matopas, the burial site of the legendary Cecil John Rhodes, the pioneering 19th century Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and after whom Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was formally known, was named. Rhodes had planned a Cape to Cairo railway line “… more or less the same route I was traveling by bike, so there was something of a connection for me.”
Crossing into Botswana, Francesco rode through the wild life sanctuary known as the Elephant Highway to the Zambesi River crossing where Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia meet. He cycled on through to the Victoria Falls and then to Lusaka in Zambia.
“The Elephant Highway is literally riding in a game park; there is wildlife all around you. It’s the only place in Africa where the elephant population has doubled in 20 years.”
From Lusaka he pedaled east towards Malawi, where the landscape changed completely.
“Now it was real Africa; huts and villages with no electricity, very rural. I did long stretches from morning until dark, when I found the nearest village and just asked people if I could spend the night there in my tent. For them, it was an exciting event to have this crazy stranger visit them.
“Malawi was an eye-opener. I thought that without electricity, the pace of life would be dictated by the sun: wake in the morning, go to sleep when night fell. But I was surprised to find out that they keep working in the dark and didn’t go to sleep until around midnight!” he added.
Reaching Lake Malawi in the north, he had cycled about 200 km every day. This meant 10 hours a day, travelling at 20-25 km.
“It was the only thing I had to do every day – like a day at the office! Some days a bit more, some a bit less if there were things to see and people to meet. My longest stretch was 320 km.”
He confessed that his legs did get tired, but tired legs were not really a limiting factor
“You just pedal a little less…” He said the real pressure was on his wrists and backside. “My back itself was OK because I had a really well designed bike with a relaxed geometry, but sitting in the saddle for 10 hours at a time can be a bit trying.”
The rest of his trip was through Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya.
It was on the border of Tanzania and Rwanda that he met Steve and Nir, two Israelis who had bought a 4x4 Landcruiser in Cape Town and travelled up through Namibia and crossed into Rwanda at the same time as Francesco.
“I was pedaling along and suddenly this old jeep comes past, hooting, with the guys waving at me. We met up again in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda and had a few beers together…exchanged notes, stories, addresses and phone numbers – you know the sort of thing: ‘if you’re ever in… call me’ and then we each went on our way.”
Rwanda, he said, has become the Switzerland of Africa. Despite their recent very tragic and violent past, the country is thriving under the presidency of Paul Kagame.
“Everything is clean, there is no garbage on the streets, plastics are banned, motorbikes only travel with a maximum of two people, wearing compulsory crash helmets, you’re not allowed to walk on the grass; the first Friday of every month, every citizen is expected to play a part in cleaning the country.
“Most important is that they have chosen not to cover up their recent past,” he said. The Rwandans have built memorials and museums recounting the genocide. Schoolchildren are encouraged to visit them and the message he understood was: ‘We don’t want to hide what happened. It was bad, let us remember it and learn, so that it never happens again.’”
From Kigali he made his way east again and in Uganda had a broken spoke which he could only repair with a special tool from Kampala to which he had to take a rural bus 350 km each way.
“It was getting near Christmas and I wanted to be in Nairobi by then to spend the holiday with a good friend of mine from my village in Italy.”
He rode into Kenya and stopped overnight at a small village of Iten, where Kenya’s legendary long distance runners go to train and where Wilson Kipsang, one of the world’s best marathon runners, has a lodge.
“The whole village lives for running – they are up at 6:00 in the morning and they are running…training all day, every day. I had worked for Asics, so I had running shoes with me…but my legs were so tired, I decided to join the runners on my bike and I had to ride very fast to keep up with them!”
“Whereas most runners I know do it for the sport, the exercise, and as a social event, I learned that the Kenyans do it to win. Winning races means earning money and they base their competitive spirit on the drive to win.”
After spending Christmas with his friend in Nairobi, he rode north towards the Ethiopian border. At Mount Kenya, he stopped to fulfill what he admitted was a pilgrimage for him – to relive the experiences of three Italian POWs who in 1943 escaped from the British camp near the mountain, in a quest to plant the Italian flag on its peak.
“I had just read their book – ‘No Picnic on Mount Kenya’ – it was inspiring. The short version is that they were bored with prison camp life, planned an escape and climbed the mountain trying to reach the peak at 5,199 meters.”
They didn’t quite get there, but spent about 18 days on the mountain enjoying their temporary freedom. Extraordinarily they returned to the camp and gave themselves up!
Francesco continued: “Being an Italian mountain climber from the Alps, I just couldn’t resist this. It was much more of a challenge than Mount Kilimanjaro would have been. That is basically just a big hill and you can almost walk up to the top. But this had some real technical mountaineering challenges… It was thrilling!”
Continuing north, he encountered the Samburu tribe, known for their colorful dress and customs.
Francesco related: “But I will remember them for something I haven’t shared much until now, because I didn’t want my family to worry – how I was ‘kindly’ robbed.
“A tribe member jumped out of a bush, held me up at gunpoint and demanded money. I thought this was the end of the trip!
“I had about $150 in my wallet and some local Kenyan shillings. I took out a local bank note – worth about $5 – and asked him if that was OK. He said it was and he ran off with it. At the time I hadn’t really realized how much danger I was in. It was only after he ran off that the adrenalin kicked in and I started pedaling furiously!”
Ethiopia was a drastic change in culture, climate and the physicality of the people. Ethiopians are taller, slimmer, more ascetic looking than other African tribes. The food and the language are completely different which is noticeable immediately crossing the border, he explained.
Francesco said that Ethiopians love coffee – as do the Italians, whose “national sport” is complaining about coffee in other countries. But Ethiopian coffee is really good.
“There’s a coffee kiosk on almost every corner and they serve fresh roasted and mortar ground coffee in an interesting ritual, always done by the women.
“I picked up some bike spare parts which my friend in Durban had sent for me, and then I headed north towards Cairo – now still 3,000 kilometers away, but I felt I could see the finish line of my African saga.
“To get to Cairo I had to endure the most difficult part of my journey, through Sudan, not from the people, who were very nice, but the conditions were very tough. The country is flat, but the very strong winds blow from north to south, so I was riding against the wind. Whereas for most of the journey I had done about 200 km every riding day, I was now only doing about 100 km. The wind blows the desert sand which becomes like little stinging bullets.”
After two weeks of struggle against the elements, he entered Egypt.
“The one thing I knew about Egypt was that they were crazy about football, and their national idol is Mohammed Salah who plays for Liverpool. So before I got to Egypt I bought a Mohammed Salah football jersey to wear. This was probably the best thing I could have done, because everywhere I rode people were waving and calling out to me “Mohammed Salah, Mohammed Salah!”
He was escorted by a special division of “Tourist Police” who are very protective of tourists, due to a number of terrorist incidents in which tourists have been targeted.
“I had a unit of four policemen with me all the way in their police car. Whenever I wanted to stop for a body break, they stood very close to me to ensure that I was safe. I was forced to stay in hotels in Egypt, and they slept in the lobby waiting for me to continue the next day. At one point they were getting bored and insisted that I put my bike on the police car and they would drive me to Cairo. I spent about an hour arguing with them – in very broken English – explaining that I intended to cycle every inch of Africa. Eventually they gave in.”
Cairo was his main objective: “I thought, once I get to Cairo I will have cycled all the way from Cape Town to Cairo and the rest will be easy.”
By now he had travelled 17,800 km: “It had taken me five months and two days, leaving Cape Town on September 23 and arriving in Cairo on February 25.”
Now it was time to leave Africa and cross into the Sinai, with his target was the Dead Sea. He rode up the Sinai coast to Dahab, where he did a diving course, and then rode on via Eilat to Petra.
“Eilat was the first place where I enjoyed free Wi-Fi for a long time.”
After Petra he headed for the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea and then across the Allenby Bridge border into Israel, where he got his first puncture of the entire trip just outside Jericho.
“Then I fulfilled the promise I made to Nir and Steve, called them up and said: ‘I’m here!’ They had only been back from their African trip for about 10 days. I got to Jerusalem and we had a wonderful reunion with a lot of experiences to share. Nir took me to stay on his kibbutz for a day or two, which was fascinating for me.”
Francesco then rode down to Tel Aviv, hooked up with another WarmShowers contact and finally was able to relax for a week or so.
“Now I could give my bike a well-earned service which it really deserved,” he added. “Being in Tel Aviv was my first experience of the developed world for more than 5 months. You get to appreciate the little details, like people stopping at red lights, garbage disposal, cycling lanes or the very wide choice of more than three items in a supermarkets.
“The main problem I had with Tel Aviv was the prices – they are very high compared to Africa. I didn’t really know what to expect in Israel. I knew very little about it, but my impression is very positive. I’ve met wonderful people here, like the guys I met in Africa.
“On all my travels, I ask myself: ‘Could I live here?’ and Tel Aviv is definitely a place I could live. The guy I stayed with insisted that I wait until Purim to enjoy the festivities and that was part of the fun!”
When asked if he ever felt like giving up he answered: “In the low moments I told myself that it had been my choice to do this trip and a bit of suffering was worth it. I also told myself ‘you can always go back and restart working in an office earlier than planned’ and that was the most powerful tool to convince me to get pedaling again!
“I had no sponsors; I didn’t want to get famous…I just wanted to see Africa,” he said.
Now Francesco is on the final leg of his journey back to Ronzo: via Cyprus then through Turkey, the Balkans - maybe with a detour to Prague to see a former girlfriend “if there is still a spark there”, he quipped.
“If I don’t go to Prague, I will be going back to Italy, back to the only girl who will never say ‘no’ to me. My mother!”