Overland traveler Dan Harrison, 32, escaped the life of a corporate suit and took off from his apartment in Wandsworth, London via bicycle. He planned for a year-long cycling, Couchsurfing and volunteering trip to the southern tip of Africa. Now, three years and over 10,000 kilometres later, he’s halfway there and has been sucked into the international NGO world in Damascus, Ethiopia and Zanzibar. He was joined by partner Manoela Tavaras (Manu), 29, in Nairobi in April of this year.
Dan’s fundraising charity, Better Life Cycle has raised almost $30,000 for the various projects he’s visited on his journey. They’ve been stopped in Zanzibar for the past few months, working on NGO projects and getting some R&R, but this week, Dan and Manu hit the road again, leaving Zanzibar for mainland Tanzania and the rest of their journey. DontFlyGo.com contributor, Rachel MacNeill, finds out more about this epic overland trip.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: Can You Remember What Your First Day on the Road was Like?
Manu: I was excited, nervous and in many ways completely unprepared; I’d barely done any cycling – none with all of the bags on the bike – so the first moments were quite a lot to get used to. To make matters worse we were starting from the middle of Nairobi in rush hour. It was quite hectic to say the least. I almost fell off my bike at the first roundabout. I had to hold back tears – but I composed myself and somehow after that it didn’t seem too bad. We made it 50km on the first day. The hills were very hard… and so was my saddle! But it felt amazing. I knew from the first few hours I’d made the right decision. I felt free.
Dan: My first day was a little more tame. I know London very well, so it was all familiar. It was emotional to say goodbye without really knowing when I would return but mostly the main feeling I had was relief. Relief at finally leaving after 18 months of dreaming.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: You’ve been making a lot of stops along the way. What type of things have you done?
Manu: I’ve really only just joined the ride. In Zanzibar, we’ve both volunteered at Fahari, a women’s social enterprise, and I have also spent some time at the Montessori School in Bububu just outside Stone Town, as well as just taking time to enjoy the island.
Dan: I’ve been on the road three years but only about 5 months of that was spent cycling. I spent nine months in Damascus helping to start an NGO there teaching Capoeira to underprivileged children, many of whom were living in refugee camps. I also spent the best part of a year in Gondar, Ethiopia developing a small local NGO that supports vulnerable children. I use the management skills from my professional career to help the leaders of organisations. Typically the people who start small NGOs are very caring, compassionate people. Their organisation grows to the point they become a manager, which requires a very broad set of skills and knowledge. I help train them in some management skills which help them feel like they’re in control again.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: When did you start to actually realize what a huge commitment this was?
Manu: I think I’m still learning. I’m not committed to cycle all the way to Cape Town in the same way as Dan is. For me this is an experience and a chance to build a beautiful relationship. Of course I hope it works out but if not there will be another interesting path for me to take.
Dan: Given that so many people have sponsored me to cycle to Cape Town, I am obliged to complete the ride and, what’s more, it’s my dream. It will take a cataclysmic event to stop me! There are times where it feels like I’d like to do something else… three years is a long time but to persevere when it’s tough makes the achievement all the more rewarding.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: Worst travel experience?
Dan: My worst day was probably in Ethiopia. Super hot, cycling up mountains on rough roads with little food/water – not a great start but manageable. I was coming close to Lalibela, a stunning but very touristy area and the children were non-stop with their requests… “pen… money… pen… PEN… give me pen”. And so on, without a break for several hours. There are literally hundreds of kids asking all day and after a while it’s psychologically hard to deal with, especially on top of the physical demands. However there were always moments when a kid would come steaming towards me, my mind would be thinking ‘please no’ and instead he or she would beam a huge smile and wave – those moments were golden.
Manu: My hardest day we call the ‘epic’ day. We’d planned to stop in some towns to eat, which were on the map but didn’t exist. We ran out of food… then had to climb a mountain! (Mt. Meru) I was beyond tired, and in the end we rode well into the night having started at 6:00 am. That was hard. We started on the Kenya/Tanzania border and finished in Arusha 15 hours and 110km later. The most I’d cycled before that in a day was 65km. It was the worst day but also the best. We treated ourselves to a hotel room that night. I don’t think I’ve ever slept so well.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: What’s the best part of traveling this way?
Dan: I’ve had a lot of chances to learn about NGOs from working directly with very dedicated people. On another level, being surrounded by so many cultures, people and landscapes has allowed me to develop my passion for photography. I have just received my first professional job so I’m excited to see where that takes me.
Manu: For me to be seeing the world with new eyes and a sense of freedom is wonderful. I haven’t been on the road long but even in this short time I’ve discovered more about myself. Who knows where it will lead but just being here is wonderful.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: What are some other benefits of cycle travel?
Dan: Cycling forces you to take your time, to appreciate the environment around you and to interact with people. You can’t just hop from one tourist site to the next; there can be days or weeks in between. Those in between places are where the most authentic experiences are gained.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: Have you guys tried to kill each other yet?
Dan: Not yet! To be honest there have been some tough moments in adapting to life on the road together. It’s a very intense experience. We’re together almost all the time so it’s natural to misplace some of your negativity about a situation on to the person nearest to you. But even in those moments there is respect, we know we love one another.
Manu: It’s fair to say that a trip like this would probably test the strength of any relationship and we are no different. We’ve known each other less than a year but have had more thrills and experiences that most people might live in 10. On the way we discover more about each other and grow closer.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: When you first started out, did you imagine the trip going the way it has?
Manu: I was very naive about the realities before I came out – but I feel like I’ve adapted well. I can’t wait to get back on the bike and explore more of Africa.
Dan: My vision was also very naive, about how long and what it takes to really make a difference to the projects we help. I thought it would take a year to 18 months, now it’s been three and I still don’t know. I’m enjoying the journey not looking at the destination. This will probably be a trip that never ends.
Cycling London to Africa Overland: The next step?
Dan: Next we’re heading back to the mainland and cycling north back to Kenya, heading for two NGO projects in Naivasha, before cycling around Lake Victoria and down south.
Keep up with Dan and Manu’s volunteering and cycling journey on www.BetterLifeCycle.com.
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