Rein Lepik, the President of the Estonian Cycling Club set off for his first cycling tour in 1977. He had graduated from the university, and the joyful times of students' summer camps turned into history. Yet there was a huge wish to stay in touch with alumni peers and kick off something exciting together. The first cycling tour led to Ukraine with just three enthusiasts participating, but only a year later a Cycling Club "Vänta Aga" was established. Adventurous pedaling through Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan soon followed, despite the risks related with military conflicts taking place in that region then. Initially, tours were organized once a year and usually covered at least 1000 km in 10 to 12 days - a challenging task for even a seasoned cyclist. Central Asian routes in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstani led the travelers 3000 - 4000 m up into the mountains, and conquering of some peaks was part of the package. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and opening up of the western boarders, Rein hit the European roads with two groups of cyclists and a bus. "Strange as it may seem now, we bought the bus for about mere 4000 dollars," remembers Rein. "It was a much better deal than renting one, and we could travel around on our own bus. Finally we sold it to a transport company with a slight margin, and planned what to do next."
Transoceanic routes to America and Australia followed. "We travelled in big groups of 5 to 13 people back then. Now we are cycling around the world just the two us - my wife and I. We can easily manage to arrange our working schedule so that we can have full 2 months a year for travelling. Not so many can afford that." Rein's entire velo-touring experience comprises 91 countries, and the round figure is close already. Together with his wife, he shares the less pedaled cycling routes ever, e.g., in Africa. They wish to see with their own eyes what the life is like out there. They cover distances of up to 100 km a day, giving preference to small, light and easily foldable bikes. Pulled out of a travelling bag, they can be quickly opened up anyplace, like an umbrella when a sudden downpour catches you. It's a great way to explore the most amazing spots of the world, a unique chance of immersing into and savor these places with all your senses.
Route: Accra, Mole NP, Volta region, Togo and Benin coastline; 3 day trip - Takoradi - Axim - Takoradi, with total length of 504 km.
A cycling tour through the small West African countries, like Ghana, Benin and Togo in the north-west offers a two and a half week journey almost beyond description, saturated with unmatched senses. A very distinctive ambience of Africa seems soaking deep into your very pores and never abandons, until the moment you leave the continent.
An integral part of African urban scenery is armies of goats, treading across busy streets that are bustling with cars. Participants of the chaotic traffic obviously rely upon God's mercy, paying a little or no attention to what's going on around them. Cyclists, for the sake of their own safety, must keep their eyes open and watch out, and best of all, if eyes were in the back of your head too. In Accra, the capital of Ghana, cars speed by unceasingly, making a huge noise. Hectic rush in the cities never abates, although the overall social reality under the African sun lacks any particular mobility. Kids may run out on the road without even looking, or women quickly walk across, balancing heavy buckets and huge bundles on their heads. They never lose their graceful gait and sway of hips, however, neither a single drop of water from a bucket or a fruit.
Much of people's daily life takes place on the street, as if their homes, like clothes were turned inside out. Wooden or clay huts squat side by side with modern skyscrapers, while the entire life of their inhabitants unfolds outside, in front of a threshold, mingling with hens, goats and other domestic creatures. Food is cooked there in large pots on live fire, and meals are served, too.
A lavish layer of garbage enfolds the President's residency, located a little outside the spruced up perimeter. Rubbish attracts children, exploring heaps of dirt, and dirtiness seems to be a natural part of life there. It's something that travelers have to be aware of and to try deal with. Hotels are horribly untidy - no clean bed linen is to be expected there. It seems that it has never been laundered, in fact, and you can easily trace what sort of person has slept there before you. Therefore we always use our own sleeping bags. Pre-booking of such lodgings is not possible for a simple reason that they are not available on the Internet. When selecting your cycling route, it is advisable to stick to the coastline - usually you can find cheap and more or less acceptable lodgings for about 10 dollars per double room there.
After a decent pedaling, one feels a decent hunger as well. You can eat almost everything in Africa, just pay attention what it is and where it's server. Fast food eateries at street sides or bus stations might not be the best choice, unless you favor a daily meal with a gritty touch of street dust.
My passion is taking travel photos and videos, yet in Africa I was forced to cut back on it. First of all, shooting of monuments and governmental building in Ghana is prohibited. Moreover, if you wish to take a photo of local people, you have to ask their permission, and it costs some cash. I was trying to capture a view of a crowd from an upper level of some supermarket, yet my attempt did not stay unnoticed. A black security guy came over and asked if I had obtained a proper permission for such an activity. A fact alone that I had received an approval of the store manager was not enough for him - I should have asked it to every single person in the crowd of hundreds below there. And most definitely, it would have cost some money!
Once, a local man, asked about immortalizing him in a photo, did not object at all but said he would like a bit of money for such a favor - just some 5000 dollars. I started to ponder if I hadn't made a slip of the tongue and offered to purchase the man himself or his home, but that was not the case. As friendly as these people may seem, they always expect money. A white man is just supposed to give it. The principle „You must give me money!" is seated deeply in their minds, and their rigid insistence is absolutely amazing. A typical scene of a poor country is a begging black person, with hands pressed together, following a white one.
In Africa, there will always be something you have to pay for. Just anything! Armed policemen sit under a tree at a roadside and gesture cars to stop, without even bothering to stand up, yet it doesn't prevent them from collecting fines. If you refuse to pay, you may get yourself into a serious trouble. In the worst case, you can be falsely accused for some crime. There will be no way to refute it, and you will find yourself behind bars...It is a very corrupt society.
A seasoned German cycling tourist once said that lions wouldn't give a damn about your presence and would pay no attention to you or your bike, but you have to be cautious in your communication with people though. We didn't encounter any lions while moving away from Ghana coastline deeper into inland, yet we met elephants and some other, smaller animals. Those meetings proved to be mutually respectful, only snakes caused a slight anxiety. The most incredible sight was a zillion of bats hanging upside down from branches of a tree, like some bizarre fruits. The most warm-hearted meeting proved to be the one with monkeys at Baobeng-Fiena Monkey Sanctuary where they are happily cohabiting with people.
Such an idyllic coexistence of humans and animals as well as some other local peculiarities make it mandatory to take all the required vaccines before going to Africa in order to protect you from diseases like yellow fever, hepatitis and malaria. Travelling by bike, it's also necessary to have a well-stocked first aid kit with you.
African land is so unique and exciting that we dream to travel across it in the North - South direction. Such tours are offered by a Toronto based company, Tour d'Afrique Ltd. (http://www.tourdafrique.com/). The prices are rather steep, however, and it would take 4 month, covering up to 150 km a day along very bad roads.
A flight to Africa costs about 500 EUR, depending on airline offers. Total costs of a three week tour reached 1000 EUR, including car rental, food and lodgings.
It has to be noted that Sudan and Ethiopia are not advisable for cycling tours, because of tough local conflicts and a rather dangerous security situation, particularly risky for a white man. It may easily turn out that a tourism information office is some sort of criminal organization, set up to capture you - you can never know...
China is a bicycle-friendly country, and the most developed infrastructure for this purpose can be enjoyed in cities. The situation in rural areas is different, but even there roads are wide enough for both cars and bicycles to safely proceed along their routes. Distances are huge, however, making it impossible to get from one city to another just by bike.
Outside cities, like Shanghai, for example, and particularly outside the southern cities, scenery is rather monotonous and boring - just blocks of factories, small, poor villages and dirtiness...
In China, we first time ever during our long traveling experience became robbery victims, which put an end to our tour then. Our money, documents and video camera were gone. We were left without anything, and it was in China! It happened early in the morning in the middle of the city, in the crowd of people. It was an expensive lesson to learn, and our plan to continue our way to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos vanished immediately.
The political situation in China determines that anyone who utters a word against the Communist Party gets instantly arrested, yet it doesn't make any sense to complain about a robbery - the police would pay no attention whatsoever to it.
We have developed our secret hideaways in and beneath our clothes where to safely put away our essentials, yet in the sweltering heat there was no such possibility. It just proved that you have to always be on your guard.
South Korea is an interesting, yet from the cycling tourism point of view, a rather scantily developed country. In the capital city, the cycling infrastructure is in more or less decent shape, yet outside the situation is different. Korea is a very peculiar county, and not among the most popular touristic destinations. It has a unique and remarkable historic, architectural and cultural heritage, yet it is far from the top of the list where you would like to return again and again.
Japan is rich in historic traditions, but it is not possible to explore and understand it by travelling alone. It triggers a desire to delve deeper into the lifestyle and values of its people - why do they wear ornate kimonos, walk in tiny steps, and why such an outright impoliteness is so typical there...We didn't see any youngster offering a seat in a public transport to an elderly passenger, just on the contrary - on some occasions, they would quickly maneuver themselves past the old ones and slump into a seat. And it's just one example.
Japan is a pretty small country, therefore convenient for cycling, and fast trains will carry you to its most distant corners. The only problem is that they commute in daytime, arriving at their destinations at night, when there is nothing you can do, and sleeping in a train seat is very uncomfortable.
Cycling infrastructure is rather undeveloped - streets and roads are narrow and streaming with cars, and it can be a tough task for a cyclist to squeeze in there. Often you have to look for smaller roads to avoid fast-moving highways. The country is quite unprepared for a cycling tourism yet. Another obstacle is language - people do not speak English there. Even coworkers of tourism information centers, similarly as in China, do not know any foreign languages. All in all, it can turn your tour into a bit of a struggle.
China, Korea - 40 days /2000 EUR.
In Malaysia, the same way as in Japan, it's not allowed to carry bikes on a train. As our choice is foldable bicycles easily fitting into bags, this restriction usually doesn't cause any trouble. There was an exception, however, when a vigilant controller noticed a small part of a bicycle edging out of a bag, and raised a huge row. Yet as soon as the bag was properly closed - no more problems! People obsessively follow rules and regulations, and it's worth being well prepared and informed before travelling there.
Malaysia is cycling friendly country - drivers respect cyclists and do not endanger them with aggressive behavior.
Singapore, in its turn, boasts to be a country of good governance and an outstanding beauty. Its capital city features an impressive central part with high-rising skyscrapers, river, seashore and submarine parks; it features Indian and Chinese quarters, and a very well developed cycling infrastructure that allows savoring this truly multicultural country.
India,Goa - 550 km
It is quite a challenge for a cyclist to fit into a busy stream of traffic of major towns there. Consisting of cars, bikes buses and cows, it moves on under accompaniment of loud and ceaseless honking. Our route, however, passed mostly through small villages of Goa district where we could observe the daily life of local people. Our travelling around on bikes met with great interest, and we were even invited as honorary guests to a local wedding party. Everyone, especially kids, felt compelled to give a little tug or at least to touch our vehicles, and it was a blissful adventure for anyone, who was taken for a short ride on a rack. On a dusty village street, where thirsty and heat wearied dogs are drowsing, you can sit down and have a chat with some snake-charmers or even feel a hug of an Indian earth-crawler around your neck. We watched friendly local people getting on with their daily chores, going out to sea, and returning with fish. As the day's catch is divided, one can trace the social hierarchy, existing there - everyone seems to know how big fish they may take, and who isn't supposed to get anything at all.
In India, people keep surprising in many ways - how they climb several meters high palm trees with monkey's speed and agility and build those tiny, lopsided huts with badly slanting walls, which still do not fall apart but trustfully serve their purpose. And finally, how many people can fit in a minibus, considering that some hang on outside, balancing on the vehicle's steps. And how it is possible to feel so much at home, living practically on the street, where children's first toys are plastic bags, paper scraps and other rubbish.
However poor and dirty this corner of the world may be, a pleasant warm feeling filled our hearts while we travelled it.
Perhaps it is reliance, also unshakable reliance upon God that helps them survive. It is clear, however, that tourism should be considered as a major opportunity for poor Asian counties. For example, in Cambodia, people cannot afford to pay for education, although a school year costs only 10 dollars. While tourists, arriving there, have at least 1000 bucks in their wallets...
Route - California, Nevada (USA), Mexico - 1000 km
San Jose - Monterey - Pismo Beach - Santa Barbara, San Diego - Tijuana, Las Vegas, Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe Region
A great starting point for a cycling tour is Vancouver, Canada. An entire road follows the Pacific Ocean shoreline, finally reaching San Diego in the USA. It offers fabulous scenic ocean views, while comfort and quality services en route are almost nonexistent, making it impossible to cover the whole distance on a bike. It's a popular touristic route, however, and if you go by car, reaching a nearest stop (hotel, café or shop) located hundreds of miles away is no pain at all.
Camping in tents is fine for us, yet knowledge that the closest place to get some food and water supplies is 100 km away makes you a little nervy. Between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, one has to pedal up to 200 km without any pit stop for "fill-up" at all. You should never save time and efforts on proper preparation and gathering precise information about the route you plan to take, otherwise it may turn out to be your last cycling tour. These remote, unpopulated areas boast the most beautiful natural scenery in America, however, like Grand Canyon Las Vegas and Yellowstone National Park. We also could observe colonies of seals jostling and playing on the beach.
Great cycling routes are available in Florida, especially along its Eastern shore. They are pleasant and comfortable for cyclists, and the roads are safe. On the other hand, a cycling route that leads from New York to Miami, although marked in a map, is only theoretically feasible. It may sound strange, but it seems that people, who have worked out those routes, haven't even seen them in reality. "The most exciting" cycling route in the USA, marked in the map too, starts in Vancouver, Canada, and challenges with thousands of kilometers of almost monotonous desertedness - Texas, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Huston, New Orleans, Miami, New York...Absolute madness! New York, for example, is cycling friendly, while outside the city there is nothing but highways.
A major attraction of Florida is the Space Centre. Unfortunately we were only moments too late to witness a spaceship's take off and caught just a thin white line left in the sky. Locals are so used to those sights that couldn't imagine that we would care to see it.
Our route finished in Mexico, close to San Diego, and its final part proved to be the most interesting and diverse of the entire US tour. It's an area of outstanding beauty with scenic mountains and long stretches fabulous beaches. Water is very cold, though and doesn't promise a pleasant, relaxing dip.
Exciting cycling routes can be experienced in Costa Rica and neighboring Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama. Yet it has to be marked that safety can be an issue there. Costa Rica amazes with its national parks and diverse wildlife, and with flourishing corruption on its border. Almost like in Africa, there are always some fees and charges to be paid.
Costs largely depend on available airfares, starting from 800 EUR. Overall price level on commodities in the USA is lower than in Europe.
Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina - 361 km
Santos, Foz do Iguacu, Corumbá, Rio de Janeiro and the road along the shore
Southern regions of Brazil are rather dangerous, and red traffic light robberies are not a rare occurrence at all there. Yet whatever the criminal situation might be, Brazil is a land of fantastic beauty. We drove up to Foz do Iguaçu in Paraná, which is the most beautiful waterfall in the world - a huge amount of water pouring down the cliffs with tremendous force. We followed to Mato Grosso do Sul wetland areas, deeper into the continent, to glance into eyes of crocodiles. We decided to cross Bolivian - Paraguay border on bikes, as we were not certain if it's allowed to traverse it by car. One should be very careful in Brazil. The Federal and State Police are not able to fully control the local mafia, which has more power; armed clashes between both sides seem to be almost normality in the streets of the city.
Brazil is a very musical country - people are singing and dancing on every corner. Even birds sing loudly there, and it seems that the air is filled with sounds and melodies.
Interesting cycling routes can be traced in the Amazon River region. Fantastic boat trips can be joined with equally exciting cycling experience, when you get out on certain places and continue exploring the river bank by bike.
Caribbean Islands, e.g., Dominica, Grenada and Barbados, are small and very beautiful, and two days are perfectly enough for seeing them. Unfortunately there is no proper ferry service connecting the islands, which considerable hampers individual travelers. One can use local airlines, of course, but it takes time and increases travel costs. Another option is cruise ships that make a stop at each island for a day or a half, which can then be used for exploring the island by bicycle. For many people on board it seemed a great idea, yet hardly anyone had even thought of grabbing a foldable bicycle along in the trip. We escaped a standard tourist excursion along the most treaded tracks this way, inevitably accompanied by a cheerfully chatting guide (it last for an hour and cost about 50 dollars). Instead, we freely pedaled along and observed an authentic flow of life. In Puerto Rico, we had a chance to savor a fantastic Saturday evening, with local people gathering for a late night party. It's an amazing experience of immersing oneself into the simple and joyful spirit, so typical for Spanish speaking people. In Grenada, people were begging and following on our steps, and it was another kind of experience that provoked different feelings.
11 day cruise costs 1000 dollars (www.cruises.com).
AUSTRALIA & NEW ZEALAND - 1022 km
Sydney - Gosford - Forresters - Newcastle - Sydney, Wellington, Lakes Entrance - a one week tour of the New Zealand's North Island.
Australia. Exploring of this detached continent started in Sidney. It's easy and comfy to savor the city on a bike, both in daytime and at night. Traveling both by car and on bicycles, we headed deeper into the central part of the continent. Our route led from Sydney to Bourke city, further on to Broken Hill, Melbourne, and finally back to Sidney.
Life in Australia bubbles largely along its coastal regions, where its largest cities are scattered. In opposite to that, its central areas are quite desolate, with thousands of kilometers leading deep into nowhere land. People avoid going there even by car, because, if some trouble happens, there will be no one within a reachable distance to help you. Australia is not very favorable for cycling tourism, and even the coastal roads are narrow and windy. It is quite problematic to share a road with drivers; moreover, Australia is a left-side traffic country.
Worth mentioning was our encounter with Aborigines, the indigenous inhabitants of this land. They seem to be very proud of who they are and doesn't pay much attention to anyone else. Aboriginal community receives state financial support which lightens their lives. We observed them drinking, singing and playing cards for cash early in the day, and making a rather big noise.
Unique and unforgettable is Australian wildlife, its birds and animals. Sounds of nature resemble tunes of the Australian aboriginal musical instrument didgeridoo, and springy kangaroos seem hopping around in the same rhythm. Iguanas hide in the shadow, and parrots clamor in the treetops. Most incredible living creatures enjoy the lavish Australian sun, while sheep farms in the distance resemble moving wooly mosaics.
Australians have great respect for nature and they treat it like a queen! Both big cities and rural areas are neatly spruced up. Riding a bicycle, you can melt into the surrounding environment and profusely enjoy the beauty of nature. And after pedaling all the long way to the ocean, a massage of wild waves feels so well deserved.
It is worth the efforts to take the 8 - 15 hour flight to New Zealand. Although located close to Australia, it possesses a distinct individuality. A network of roads doesn't allow much of a choice in selection of a route, and the standard one leads along the coastline. The road goes through the mountains here and there, where some shortcuts and detours are possible. New Zealand boasts an excellent camping infrastructure - you can easily put up a tent in a campsite or opt for a nice and remote corner in the bushes, which gives your overnight stay a touch of an adventure.
The North Island of New Zealand is dotted with geysers, and you don't have to bother where to boil your breakfast egg! New Zealand's Aborigenes, unlike their Australian counterparts, have strict and deeply rooted traditions.
We devoted one week trip both by car and by bike to each of New Zealand's islands, and could admire snow-capped mountains, waterfalls and stunning volcanoes, where you can literary see the earth boiling. Swimming in the sea, you can suddenly strike a warm stream of water, or even come across a very hot underwater spring. Amazing!
Keywords: cycle routes, cycling