In the second part of our interview with cycling guru and Ballyferriter native Tomás Mac an t-Saoir we hear all about the challenges he faced cycling the length of Africa and what he plans to get up to in 2020….
What were the high points for you?
The biggest highlight about the trip was the people I encountered from start to finish. In this day and age and the way Western society is nowadays, the African people renewed my love for the world again and restored my faith in humanity. For example, in Sudan, the locals always invited me to eat with them. Eating together in a group is the norm and when they saw me alone, they always invited me to sit with them, eat together and drink tea together. Anytime I would cycle into a rural village in any of the countries I passed through, the locals would approach me and ask was everything OK, did I require help etc. The locals I met are the kindest, warm-hearted and nicest people I have ever had the pleasure of encountering in my life. Not once was I ever stuck, or left stranded. I was always greeted with a smile and an offer of help. Aside from the people, Africa itself is an incredible and beautiful continent. Beginning in Egypt I was lost in the sheer abundance and immense temples and seeing the Great Pyramids of Giza was just an unforgettable moment. Sudan was dominated by the fearsome Sahara Desert, Ethiopia with its magical landscapes, left untouched as it is the only country in Africa never to have been colonised. Kenya was the beginning of the wildlife and cycling along the Great Rift Valley was immense. Seeing the Victoria Falls in Zambia was also a huge highlight and biking through the oldest desert in the world (The Namib Desert in Namibia) was brilliant. The closest thing to Mars you’ll find on earth. Finishing in Cape Town is a superb place to end a tour. Seeing Table Mountain was an emotional moment, something I had thought of for sooooooo many months, the sheer abundance of scenery, beauty and historic landmarks on show in Africa is simply mind-blowing.
Did you have any low points and how did you overcome them?
The toughest challenge of cycling Africa was the loneliness. This affected me at different times throughout the trip. It began while I was cycling through the Sahara Desert. I had read a lot about this vast and huge desert, but when I began to cycle through it, I realised how irrelevant and small I was in the world’s largest desert. I’d spend hours and hours each day cycling on my own with nothing but vast amounts of sand stretching miles and miles in front of me, as far as the naked eye could see, in every direction. There was no escaping it. During the first half of the desert I cried multiple times, on a daily basis. But I rode on, knowing that if I could ride through the desert and through the mental anguish then nothing would prevent me from reaching Cape Town.
Some other countries threw up some isolated cycling stretches too – Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia. All these I found challenging, especially East Zambia as I had been going through a bad spell that didn’t seem like it would end. Here I found myself at my most vulnerable. A rut I couldn’t wiggle out of. On one day in particular, I spent the first hour of my cycle crying as I climbed up a hill and I couldn’t stop. As soon as I hit the top of the hill, I had a breakdown, the biggest breakdown of the trip. I was crying uncontrollably. I knew I couldn’t continue like this. I had to recompose myself and sort my head out, or else my tour was over. The mental turmoil I had suffered during the previous six weeks was too much to bear. I had cracked. My options were to either quit or take my spoonful of cement, toughen up, sort my head out and continue this trip of a lifetime. Fortunately, I chose the latter and I ploughed on to finish in Cape Town a couple of months later. My family were absolutely incredible during these months. I knew it really affected them, knowing I was like this and they were thousands of miles away. It obviously isn’t a nice thing to put your loved ones through, but their support is really what helped me through it and something I’ll always be grateful for.
Tell us about any funny stories or characters you may have met along the way
I met plenty of interesting people including a good few touring cyclists, Irish Ambassadors, Irish Embassy staff, not to mention hundreds of local characters. I was fortunate enough to have a contact for the wife of the Ugandan Vice-President and through her, I met the Vice-President of Uganda himself, along with the Sports Minister and the head of the Ugandan Cycling Federation. That was all really cool. Being honest, most locals in Africa were very funny, really open and chilled people who loved a laugh. So, there are probably a million and one examples of funny stories. Once the locals saw you, they’d all just stare, some would approach you and touch you, touch your hair, obsess about the bicycle and ask what the hell am I doing. The reaction was always the same when I told them I was cycling all of Africa – ‘Whaaaaaaaaaaaaa’. We’d chat and laugh about just everything and everything. The amount of random conversations I had was mad. Also, there is no such thing as personal space in Africa. As soon as I pedaled into a countryside village, I’d be surrounded in no time, which I thought was hilarious. People were just amazed to see you, especially on a bike. And rather feel intimidated by the sheer volume of people, I just had the craic with them. They were always up for the craic, so there was never any shortage of laughter or entertainment.
What did you learn from the trip and how has it impacted you personally?
I learned a ton on the trip. But the most important thing I learned is to love and respect everyone. A smile and a conversation can absolutely go a long way! Never underestimate the power of a smile, or sharing love and respect. And a hug is the best gift you can give anyone. On a personal level, I learned to have a more positive mindset when I was faced with challenges, not to let the negativity take control and that there is always a solution to any problem. I’ll be better equipped to deal with whatever life throws at me because of the challenges I faced in Africa. I can take huge pride in reaching Cape Town, especially after hitting rock bottom in Zambia. Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom just to realise the potential and inner strength you have. Africa tested me like nothing before. I learned that giving up wasn’t an option. You must keep fighting, keep knocking those walls down. In a way, Africa wasn’t just a cycle, it was a life lesson. And I’m definitely a better & stronger person after the trip.
What’s your next challenge going to be?
My next adventure is my biggest to date – I’ve booked a one-way ticket to New Zealand and I’m going to cycle home. I get to cycle the bits of the world I haven’t cycled yet – New Zealand/Australia, Asia, Middle East, and Europe. I leave on January 14th for Auckland. I’m not putting a time frame on this trip, but it’ll take at least 1.5 years and I absolutely can’t wait to get started!
Tomás Mac an t-Saoir was educated in Ballyferriter and Dingle before graduating from NUIG in 2016 with a degree in Irish and History. Since 2016 he pursued a different type of education and cycled 5000km across American and followed that trip with an 11,000km cycle down the length of Africa in 2018/2019. Tomás is currently planning his biggest cycle tour to date in January 2020 when he plans on cycling home from New Zealand. In between these trips he is usually found at home working in his family pub (Tigh an t-Saorsaigh) in Ballyferriter, or else around the roads of Kerry working as a cycle tour guide with his uncle’s company, Green Road Cycle Tours.