Observations: Jonas Deichmann
Eighteen thousand kilometres, across 15 countries, from the North Cape, Europe’s northernmost point, to Cape Town in South Africa—German ultra-cyclist Jonas Deichmann completed the feat in 72 days, 7 hours, and 27 minutes. We gave him a call to hear about his world beating ride.
__THE IDEA__Basically, if you look at a map of the world, there are three big continental crossings. The first one I did was Eurasia, going from Portugal to the Russian Pacific in 64 days—a world record. And then I did the Pan American one last year, unsupported from Alaska to Argentina. Cape to Cape was the last of them. After Eurasia and Pan America it just seemed like the logical next step: the thing I had to do.
__GETTING STARTED__When I was 17 and 18, I did road races in Germany, so I have an athletic background. I stopped when I went to university. During university, I had a lot of free time and no money, and I wanted to travel the world, so I thought the bicycle would be perfect. It’s very cheap and a nice way to go. I cycled once around the world as a student, but that was on a touring bike, and I went very slowly. Having this athletic background, and then knowing the adventure side of touring, I thought, why not combine those two and try to set world records in endurance cycling? I would try to cross continents as fast as I could, and do it unsupported. I will never do anything with a support group. That would be a challenge, but not an adventure. So that’s how I got started. I was working after university in Munich in sales, when I got sponsored by my company to do the Eurasia trip. After that, I got more sponsors and was asked to do the first paid motivational talks at companies. I quickly quit my job, and now, for the last two years, this is my full-time job.
__LOGISTICS__The Cape to Cape is so challenging, and I think that a lot of people are probably scared of the places. It’s only possible if you have two passports, because of the visa regulations. A lot of nationalities wouldn’t be able to do it. As a German, you can have two passports. There are a few countries in Africa, where you can only apply for the visa 30 days before you enter the country. I would already be on the road then. So what I did—I have two passports, and I sent one, for instance, to the embassy when I was in Russia, and they sent it back to Georgia. It was a logistical nightmare.
__DISTANCES__My daily average was 250 km, but that includes when I got food poisoning in the Sahara and again in Ethiopia. Then, I only averaged about 180 km, so I had some short days when I was sick or ran into conflicts or other problems. I think the shortest days were 170 km or 180 km. The longest days were 330 km to 340 km.
__NILE WATER__If you average 250 km, you pass at least somewhere where you can buy water a few times a day, so it is not an issue. I could put one and a half litres on the bike, and another three litres on the bike for the long stretches, so that was fine. I think I had perfect equipment. The only mistake that I made was that I didn’t have a water filter for the Sahara. I’d imagined that I could buy bottled water, but the people there are so poor that there is no market for it. They don’t have it. And in the Sahara, it is 45 degrees. There’s no shadow. If you face a headwind, you’ll dry out in minutes. I needed 15 litres of water minimum, and I didn’t get it, so that was why my food poisoning was so bad in the Sahara. I already had food poisoning, and then I was forced to drink the Nile water from the locals, unfiltered of course. That is not a good idea if you already have food poisoning. You either die because of thirst or you drink the Nile water—that was the choice that I had.
__JAIL TIME__In Egypt, there is a really big problem with the police, because they are paranoid about terrorist acts against tourists, since the tourism sector is important for them. There is a checkpoint every ten to 15 kilometres. At every checkpoint, you get stopped, and they try to put you on a pick up to drive you to the next stop. Of course, I couldn’t do that, so I had to negotiate with them. After the negotiations, I might be given a police escort, or they would force me to sleep there. One night, I got to a police checkpoint, and they said, no you can’t continue riding. I wanted to camp there then, but they said, no you can’t camp here; it is very dangerous. They wanted to drive me to a hotel, but of course I couldn’t do that. So, after long negotiations, I was put in a prison cell for the night. They did keep the door open, I must say. That was a good story—a really bad night.
__LIONS__In Africa, you don’t see wildlife outside of national parks. The only exception is Botswana. There is a 300-km stretch in the north, where the wildlife is just running around on the road. It is really crazy. I saw something like 30 elephants across the road, giraffes, zebras. And there were also lions. During the day, they are not that dangerous, because lions avoid the road. They are nocturnal. And all of the other animals, as long as you keep your distance and are careful if they have children, are fine. It’s only a problem at night, because you don’t see them on time and can get really close, and then it can be dangerous. I wanted to camp and make a campfire, because they don’t come near fire, but it was really raining, so no fire. It got very dark, and I thought, okay that’s not good. And then I arrived at a police station, a checkpoint, and I asked if it was okay to sleep there. They said, yeah, but you have to sleep inside, because there are elephants running around the camp. That night, a lion came and ate one of the dogs. I was happy to be inside.
__RIOTS__In Ethiopia, I cycled into Addis Abeba, and there were massive demonstrations everywhere—burning car tyres, barricades of stones and car tyres, and hundreds of people running through the streets with sticks and stones, destroying things. The streets were burning. I didn’t know what was happening at first, but I figured it out afterwards. A political activist from the region had made a false claim that he had been put in prison. At first, they started demonstrating, but this is Africa and they are very emotional, passionate people, and it switched very quickly from a political case to pure destruction. They were hooligans. They burned the houses of non-Oromo people, so people from another tribe. More than 100 people got killed. And I was right in the middle of it. I didn’t know what was going on, which was the worst part. There was one situation where I was on the bike and I had to get out of the town, because there were people everywhere and I found myself between two very agitated demonstration groups. They were never against me. Most people were very friendly towards me. They said, you have nothing to do with it; you go. But then the 16-17 year olds, they were sometimes just looking for trouble, and a group of people ran with sticks in my direction and were quite aggressive. Some older people with authority formed a circle around me, and one of them shouted, “no one touches the white man!” Then, they let me into a hotel with a metal fence around it and gates, and I stayed there until I got a window of opportunity to escape. The thing is it was just completely unpredictable. I didn’t know at all what was going to happen. I didn’t have the situation under control at all.
__ROADS__ In a lot of places in east Africa, the Chinese have built just perfect, smooth roads—obviously, the main roads. Everything else is terrible. The main roads have been newly paved by the Chinese. Then there are places where you have 100 km of road construction and really bad gravel. I would say that I rode almost 1000 km of dirt roads, but it was mostly due to road construction.
__FOOD__This is the challenge in Africa. If you go across Africa with a support group, it’s actually not that difficult, I presume, but unsupported it is just a nightmare, because of food and logistics. Cycling is an eating competition. You have to get in the calories or else you are not going to be able to keep going for the long term. It wasn’t a problem until Egypt, but from then on it was just a nightmare, because in Sudan and Zambia and those countries, they have no functioning refrigeration, so you can’t even find chocolate or anything. The only thing you find are dry biscuits, which are really disgusting and for the rest of it… after the second time I got food poisoning, I was so scared of eating that I only ate rice with ketchup and then biscuits, Coca Cola, Sprite—whatever I could find and as much as I could. But it’s really a nightmare. I was basically running on sugar and cookies.
__LOCALS__The good thing in those countries was that the people thought I was a rather poor tourist, because I arrived on a bike. If I would have money, I would go by car is what they think. So, they don’t know the value of the bike. The reactions of the people were very different. In most countries, especially in Africa, they were just incredibly friendly. They were curious. Everyone wanted to talk to me. A lot of people actually speak English in Africa. They were very hospitable people. They would wave at me and ask if I was a bit crazy, what I was doing there, but in a very positive way. The only exception was Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, the older people are super nice and most children too. But there are a lot of children that throw stones at cyclists. And there are children everywhere. Ethiopia is highly overpopulated, so when you’re cycling, there is always a group of children running after you, and some of them throw stones at you—big stones sometimes. That’s not fun.
__RUSSIA__Russia gets nice in the east, but the European part of Russia is hell for cycling. The small roads are in very bad condition. You can’t take them if you are on a record hunt. And the intermediate roads are suicide roads, because they have no shoulder, and the trucks pass you at full speed at a distance of 10 cm. So the safest option is actually to go on the biggest highway that you can find, but that’s really not fun. You have a shoulder, but you’re nonstop on a highway, with the trucks passing you at full speed all the time. Russia is just a country that you want to get out of as fast as you can.
__FAMILY AND FRIENDS__The only person I really keep in contact with on the road is my dad. I talk to him every two or three days for a few minutes, and I send him updates every evening. But he is the only person, because I don’t have time otherwise.
My friends and family still think I’m a bit crazy, but they support me and they know that I can do it. Beforehand, a lot of people do say, like, are you sure that you want to go to those countries? They aren’t very well known for safety and infrastructure and those sorts of things.
__WHAT’S NEXT__Right now, I am very happy to be off the bike for a few weeks. I came back to Germany a few days ago. So now I have some speeches and media stuff, and in two weeks I fly to Brazil for five weeks of hammock and margaritas, and then I’ll start thinking about the next project. It is a world first. No one has ever done it before. It’s set for July next year, and I can only say that it is much, much longer and harder than what I have done so far, but it is top secret at the moment. It’s absolutely crazy.