Pedal Africa 2012:

The adventures of an Old St Beghian

By Rohit Rao (SH 00-07)

From June to August 2012, I lead a team of four other students 3,678 kilometres across Africa by bicycle, entirely self-supported. As far as I’m aware, we became the first team in the world to navigate successfully this route, starting on the coast of the Indian Ocean at Beira, Mozambique, and finishing on the Atlantic seaboard at Walvis Bay, Namibia.

Our cause was to raise funds for seven UK and international charities, and to raise awareness for several grassroots development projects along the route. A plethora of schemes has been introduced in recent years to tackle poverty, water inaccessibility, HIV/AIDS and educational disadvantage in sub-Saharan Africa, and our goal was to link up physically many of these projects, to demonstrate to those at home that development can only be achieved region by region and in a united effort.

The journey kicked off in September 2011, after I sent out a notice to all University of St Andrews’ students, calling for any committed and proactive adventurers to get in touch. With the team whittled down to five and with an expedition name in mind - Pedal Africa 2012 - we set about preparing in earnest. We designed a logo, a website and a banner. I spent most of my phone bills on calling up various companies of all shapes and sizes, pleading for equipment, publicity or sponsorship. I wrote about 150 letters to grant-giving organisations just to get the project off the ground, to little avail. Realising that “the current economic climate” would not do us any favours, we had to work twice as hard for our charities. Every week for most of the year we were running guest lectures, bake sales, hairdressing evenings, cinema nights and pub quizzes to keep the collection tins topped up, long before even thinking of bicycles. At the same time, we undertook courses in bushcraft, wilderness first aid, physiotherapy and bicycle maintenance, as well as having to keep ourselves relatively fit.

By the time of our departure, I for one was already exhausted and looking forward to a break from the telephone and the email inbox. At this stage, we had secured eleven sponsors, covering us for all sorts of equipment, from satellite phones and emergency evacuation services to bicycle panniers and maps.

The trip could not have started any more inauspiciously. Leaving Beira, we quickly realised our Mozambique map was grossly inaccurate and a wrong turn lost us most of the day. When we finally regained our bearings we found our planned dirt road to be ankle deep in sand. For the first two days, the going was three times slower than we had allowed ourselves. Then my bike broke. It seemed irreparable - the rear gear-changer had bent into the wheel, rendering any movement futile and breaking a pannier rack in the process. My only option was to hitch a passing truck back to the nearest town and to wait for the others to re-join me two days later. Sleeping on the rat-ridden floor of an abandoned Portuguese psychiatric institute, I knew that I might as well make the best of the situation. I spent over a day bashing my bike with a borrowed lump of metal until, lo and behold, it became somewhat operational! When the others arrived, I was more than grateful to become mobile again, albeit with only three gears remaining!

Mindful of the number of days we had already lost, we promptly decided to write off our charity projects in Malawi, and to head straight through Zimbabwe with the hope of finding a bike shop in Harare, 700km away. It was a big risk to take, given that the Foreign Office’s verdict on the country was decidedly worrisome, and that my haphazard bike might leave me stranded. What we found instead of a ‘hostile environment for tourists’ were beautiful landscapes filled with some of the most generous people I have ever come across. We spent thirteen nights in the country, of which twelve were spent with a roof over our heads, and we only needed to cook over our stoves on two occasions. We were relayed from town to town along the Eastern half of the country by a series of Methodist pastors, each one of whom had forewarned the next one of our whereabouts. North of Harare (with my bike now fully healed), we received similar hospitality from the few remaining white farmers in the country, some of the most stoical people in the world.

Heading across Lake Kariba - the world’s largest artificial lake - and into Zambia, left us with another difficult decision. Rather than opting for the only significant tarmac road in Southern Zambia, we chose to avoid the difficult climb up the Zambezi escarpment, and to take the “short cut” to Livingstone along the plains of the Great Rift Valley. For six days we stumbled and crashed through dried ravines, prickly acacia bushes and dense overgrowth, and relied solely on the directions of the local people. Once again, the honesty and the warmth of the villagers we stayed with each evening outshone the dark moments spent fixing countless punctures and cleaning up wounds.

After a couple of days recuperating beside the grandeur of Victoria Falls, we set off for Botswana. It was a peculiar experience, with fifteen days of bottom-numbing boredom on the long, flat, hot road, peppered with moments of intense adrenaline bursts. One such burst was a run-in with an elephant. Big game was a common sight on the road, and we would normally slip into a routine of stopping and giving them as long as they needed to finish their business and head out of sight. On this occasion, we watched as a mother and her newborn calf wandered far into the bush, before ploughing on. Just as we came to the point from which they had diverged from the road, we caught sight of another calf on the opposite side of the road. In fear, the calf became agitated as it tried in vain to weave amongst our bikes. We stopped, under the baseless notion that it might encourage the calf to cross safely to its mother. Instead, in a flash, the mother stormed ferociously from its alcove in the bush, stomping and trumpeting towards us. Frozen in panic, we did nothing, and may well have quickly been turned into just another malodorous patch of road-kill had the charge not been false. As the unsettled mother recoiled for a second charge, we knew that we couldn’t get away with it a second time. We were told that the top speed of an elephant is some forty kilometres per hour. I only needed to glance over my shoulder at my pursuer to know I’d exceeded that by some way!

Crossing the Kalahari Desert was tough. For nine days we travelled into a relentless headwind, even being shunted backwards by the occasional gusts. Water became so scarce that we had to watch our supplies greedily. What was worse was that the evenings - and indeed some of the days - were well below zero, so any water bottles more than half full would explode and become unusable. Another couple of days off in the stunning Namibian capital of Windhoek served as our only respite from the next desert, the Namib. The last four days required us to wrap up our ears, stuff our nostrils with tissues and tape- up our sunglasses to our faces because the sandstorms had become so unbearable. The dunes we faced were among the largest in the world, of which one, Dune 7, was 383 metres tall!

We spotted at first clouds, and then finally, our first view of the ocean for 59 days at Walvis Bay. Rather than the overwhelming feeling of elation I had been expecting for the whole year, I was left feeling only a tinge of relief. Perhaps it was the fact that only two days from the end, just as I was starting to get excited, I was forced off the road by a truck and dislocated my shoulder. Perhaps it was also that the west coast was every bit as dreary and grey that day in Namibia as it is in the UK most of the time. I like to think, however, that it was my brain telling me that it’s much happier sitting on the bike than it is getting off it.

So far, the five of us have raised over £7,300, of which half will go towards six charities operating at home: Macmillan’s Cancer Support, the RNLI, the Children’s Hospice Association, Cancer Research UK, Médecins Sans Frontières and Maggie’s Cancer Caring Homes. The other half will go directly to One Water, a charity that provides sustainable sources of clean, accessible water to villages in sub-Saharan Africa, many of which we visited. Our choice of this charity became all the more poignant given that it was the incredible villagers, who were willing to share their precious borehole water with us, that ultimately saved our lives each and every day. Water is something that I now try not to take for granted. As one man at a bus stop in rural Zimbabwe said to me, ‘if you have water, you have everything’.

You can still contribute to our charities by visiting, and please visit our
website:, to catch up on photographs and blog entries. I can be contacted for all enquiries at

(Having read about Rohit’s remarkable achievement, I hope OSBs will support his charities with a donation.  Ed.)



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