June 1, 2018

From the magazine:

The Year of Cycling Dangerously

Riding from Cairo to Cape Town in 1938

This feature originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

In 1937, 27-year-old Canadian Douglas Carr was holed up in a dingy Salvation Army hostel in Rome, Italy, with Dietrich, a.k.a. “Dutchy.” The tall, bearded Dutchman had just extended a thrilling — and chilling — challenge: would Carr care to cycle with him to Johannesburg at the base of Africa, some 7,000 miles due south?

It was a daunting proposition given the evident danger they would have to face traversing scorching deserts and dense jungles on nonexistent roads. Wasn’t the continent fraught with wild animals, not to mention lethal ticks? And wouldn’t they be virtually cut off from civilization? Even with an equally foolhardy companion by his side, how could this prove anything but a suicide mission?

Doug Carr (right) and his traveling companion Dutchy, stop by a roadside marker east of Tobruch Libya, 22 kilometres from the Egyptian border and 1,800 kilometers from where they had started in Tunisia.

Carr had already tested his verve over the past seven months since leaving his parents’ comfortable middle-class home in faraway Ingersoll, Ontario, a sleepy agricultural town known for its cheddar cheese. And wasn’t he the one who had insisted, when he set sail for England, that “there must be something more rewarding than selling shoes in a depression?” So what hurry was there to get back home? Why not see a little more of the world before settling down somewhere?

After all, he was already an able cyclist. His original plan was simply to attend the coronation of King George VI, but weather-imposed delays on the high seas had kept him from making that ceremony at Westminster Abbey. So he decided to travel around the kingdom instead — the way George’s subjects did. He purchased a sturdy bicycle with a three-speed hub at Selfridge’s department store in London and registered with the Cycle Touring Club and the Youth Hostel Association. He proceeded on a delightful two-month, 2,000-mile tour of the British Isles.

To be sure, he was no superman. He didn’t even look athletic with his thick glasses, receding hairline, and his meager 140-pound, 5-foot 10-inch frame. Truth be told, he was so stiff and sore after that first day of riding — 70 miles from London to Cambridge — that he lounged for an entire day in his hostel bed. But his body adjusted admirably, and he had since gained complete confidence in his vim and stamina.

Moreover, he was no stranger to adversity. That July he took his bicycle to France and, after visiting the World’s Fair in Paris and touring the Loire Valley, he headed toward Germany. He wanted to see for himself what the fearful Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler was really up to. As if to steel himself for the shock, he purposely rode past the grim military cemeteries dotting the Belgian countryside and crossed the notorious battlefields where, only a generation earlier, millions of young men had perished. 

Riding through the picturesque Netherlands, Carr at last reached Germany. He had no quarrel with the “eminently likable” locals, but he could not help but notice an alarming proliferation of soldiers and weaponry as well as a stunning new infrastructure designed to facilitate military maneuvers. “It’s the same old story,” Carr lamented. “The ordinary man is a good Joe. It’s the darn governments that create problems.” 

After hunkering down for three straight nights of blackout rehearsals prompted by the visit of the Italian leader Benito Mussolini, Carr no longer doubted that Europe was indeed marching mindlessly toward another world war. And he knew full well that he would soon return to this beautiful but troubled land — as a soldier, not a tourist.

Carr had already weathered a few misadventures of his own. Following his forays into Denmark and Sweden and his exhilarating ride over the Alps, he sold his bicycle to the manager of the American Express office in Lucerne, Switzerland. Ambushed moments later by hostile Swiss officials, he faced an ultimatum — either pay the equivalent of 10 Canadian dollars for his failure to report the sale of his bicycle or spend the next 20 days in jail. After some consideration, the budget-minded Carr grudgingly paid up.

After reaching fascist Italy by train, Carr once again clashed with the local authorities. One morning in Florence, he tried to photograph King Vittorio Emanuele III entering the Duomo. Three irate policemen pounced on Carr, ordering him to stop taking photographs. They let him go only after they had examined his passport and rifled through his belongings.

Still, despite all the challenges that he had already tackled abroad, at no point had he ever felt that his life was in any real danger. Was he really ready now to court death in Africa and perhaps even a tortuous one at that?

“Of course, I’ll go with you,” he assured Dutchy after a moment of reflection. Carr would later explain his reasoning: “Here was my chance to have a companion and to travel down Africa from north to south. He was a little older than I, spoke several languages, and had a tent. What was I waiting for?”

Carr promptly got himself a new set of wheels at a bicycle store in central Rome. After parting with the equivalent of 21 Canadian dollars, he exited with a fancy gold Venanzi equipped with sew-up tires and the latest Vittoria Margherita three-speed derailer.

Carr and Dutchy cycled together down the coast to Pompeii, the ancient city destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. From Naples they sailed to Palermo, Sicily, and then on to North Africa, where Carr’s year of cycling dangerously was about to begin.

Road sign at Namanga River Camp, Kenya.

For the first time, Carr found himself in an entirely unfamiliar culture. Everything seemed white in Tunis — the domes of its mosques, its buildings, even the clothes of its inhabitants. Only the women’s veils, it seemed, were dark. “I thought it strange,” he would recollect, “that the husband alone had the privilege of looking at his wife’s face.”

Still, Carr adjusted quickly to his new environs. He and Dutchy explored the exotic city’s narrow, twisting streets and alleys. At the bazaars, they jostled with the locals, haggled for their provisions, and admired the handmade brass trinkets and colorful carpets on display. All the while, they took in refreshing whiffs of coffee, flowers, and perfumes. In the evenings, they patronized smoky Arab eateries where they feasted on couscous.

After a few days of loitering, it was time to finally start cycling in Africa. The two tourists planned to hug the Mediterranean coast all the way to Cairo via Italian-occupied Libya. Carr was well packed for the challenge. His gear included a camera, a rubber mat, blankets, and an inflatable mattress and pillow. All told, the loaded bicycle weighed 10 pounds more than he did.

Sharing a fine road with donkeys, camels, and carts, they passed olive orchards, vineyards, and flocks of goats and sheep. A battered signpost informed them that Tripoli was still a good 700 miles away. They were occasionally delayed by flat tires, which they became quite proficient at repairing.

Desiring to see the great mosque of Sidi Okba, the oldest in Algeria, they made a side trip to the west, across a desert. It was well worth the extra effort just to see the holy site’s huge courtyard, stunning prayer hall, and array of shiny marble columns. From its graceful minaret, they took in a spectacular view of the old city, famous for its carpets and copperware.

Heading east once again, they came across the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. One starry night, soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, which held sway over that region, invited them to stay at their camp. “We sat around their campfire at night,” Carr would recall, “eating their food and listening to their stories. I didn’t know how tough they were supposed to be. They seemed like ordinary fellows to me.” When the cyclists left the next morning, they were pleasantly surprised to find that their hosts had slipped provisions into their bags.

After several futile attempts to get past the Italian authorities at the Libyan border, the cyclists were at last allowed to proceed after promising not to dawdle on their way to Egypt. They cruised along on the new, Italian-built “hard-topped” highway, which they had virtually to themselves. They admired a number of ongoing irrigation and construction projects. The new rulers were also busy “piecing together” the vestiges of the ancient Roman civilization that had once flourished there.

The cyclists pushed through storms of dust and rain — the first downfall in that arid locality in over a year. At last, they reached the capital city of Tripoli. For Carr, that Christmas would prove unique. He was far away from his family, it was raining, not snowing, and there was barely a trace of any decorations or festivities. At least he got to ride a camel for the first time.

The friendly Egyptian border police insisted that the cyclists sit down with them for tea. Carr, a nonsmoker, reluctantly puffed on the cigarette they passed around, knowing that “it would have been an insult not to accept their hospitality.” Shortly thereafter, at the customs house, the tourists used traveler’s checks to purchase local currency, paid duties on their bicycles, and chatted with the officials in English.

After having spent the past month sailing along Mussolini’s highway for over 1,000 miles, the cyclists now found themselves rumbling over narrow, stony roads. Passing through villages with flat-roofed buildings made of sun-dried mud bricks, they encountered fawning inhabitants who offered them food and water. The locals were in a festive mood, dancing and playing music all night, as they celebrated the marriage of the young King Farouk. 

In the great port city of Alexandria, Carr happily collected his first batch of letters, newspapers, and parcels since leaving Rome. He also feasted on sumptuous Egyptian delicacies served up by the locals who were celebrating the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. All was not rosy, however. He and Dutchy had had a falling out, and they decided to go separate ways. 

After reaching the ancient Egyptian capital, Carr became a typical tourist. He checked into a hotel and took in the sights. He explored the tombs of the pharaohs, gawked at the mysterious Sphinx, and climbed the Great Pyramid. All the while, he marveled at how the ancients could possibly have produced such massive and sophisticated wonders.

Soon, however, Carr would get an insider’s view of the modern city he deemed “a kaleidoscope of East and West, Old and New.” A friendly Egyptian storekeeper named Yusef persuaded Carr to move in with him and his wife Zakia. Carr would linger in that comfortable and hospitable home for a full two weeks. At a local bicycle shop, he had his bike completely overhauled, adding new tires and fenders. Meanwhile, he purchased a small tent and commissioned an artisan to make a pair of panniers made of cotton and wool, similar to the traditional donkey saddlebags.

A Carr on a camel! Notice the Libyan "license plate" on the camel's neck.

But where would he go next? If he kept going east toward Palestine, he could perhaps reach India and continue across Asia, making this an “around the world” trip. Or should he just stick to the original plan and turn south toward Johannesburg, even though he would now have to travel alone?

His heart, he soon realized, was still set on seeing the “real” Africa — that is, the wild heartland that he had imagined but had yet to truly experience. In particular, he longed to see Victoria Falls, so often compared to Niagara Falls, and Kruger National Park, the great game reserve.

Sensing his resolve to complete his African journey, his hosts helped him prepare an itinerary. Just before his departure, Zakia, perhaps feeling a tinge of responsibility for Carr’s fate, wrote to his mother back in Ingersoll:

“It was our great pleasure to meet your son Douglas. He is happy and looks cheerful all the time and can make friends very easily wherever he goes. I, being a mother, thought of writing to you this note so that you will not worry about him being so far away! He is enjoying everything and is taking notes of everything he sees, and he certainly will have a lot to tell you and shall be greatly benefited by this tour.”

On March 2, Carr finally left Cairo. Heading south along the densely populated banks of the Nile, he visited Luxor with its magnificent temples and tombs, and Aswan with its spectacular dam. At the ancient village of Shellal, having been advised that it would be impossible to cycle any farther south, Carr took an overnight train to Kosti in Sudan. He then boarded a paddle-wheeled barge to head up the Nile to Juba. 

During the 11-day journey, Carr got his first taste of African wildlife. At nights he could hear the echoes of elephants and lions. One day he spotted three locals crouching by the riverbank, their spears poised for action. They were awaiting the arrival of a small deer that was making its way across the river toward them. But to the hunters’ great dismay, the deer suddenly sank — claimed preemptively by a crocodile.

Meanwhile, on the boat, Carr was also becoming familiar with the native people. At Malakal, the packed barge took on a group of Dinka tribe members. He was shocked to see that they wore “practically no clothing, except for the string of beads around their necks and waists, or copper wire around their wrists.” 

At Juba, the present capital of South Sudan, Carr finally penetrated the African heartland. Much to his pleasant surprise, the first stretch of cycling seemed rather tame. True, the path was a bit bumpy, the tsetse flies were pesky, and the weather was hot. But he was bowling along in perfect solitude, enjoying tantalizing glimpses of exotic birds and game. Perhaps cycling in Africa wasn’t so bad, after all.

But soon conditions worsened. The flies increased in number and ferocity, pricking him like needles. And the animals, which now included snakes, deer, wild pigs, hyenas, and wildebeests, seemed uncomfortably close. The grass on the plains was often taller than he was, obscuring his view of whatever danger might lay ahead. He spent one unforgettable night cowering in a treetop, clutching a rock, in fear that the muffled sounds he was hearing were those of a hungry lion, tiger, or leopard. In the morning, he saw two mischievous baboons and was convinced that they “were laughing at the scare they had caused this amateur of the African wilds.”

Carr wisely opted to forgo his tent and spend his nights in a rest house where available or within the safely walled confines of a village or mission. The first morning he awoke in a native hut, he was introduced to an Austrian baron who was working as an elephant control officer. “He was a fine fellow,” Carr recalled, “and I spent the rest of Easter Sunday with him in his rustic home. Never will I be able to thank that gentleman for the knowledge I gained from him about Africa, which probably saved my life.”

A mud road in the heart of Africa with giraffes in the distance.

Although Carr had often been warned by westerners that it was not safe to eat the native food, he did not hesitate to do exactly that as he cycled south. “It was cheap and perfectly alright,” he would recall. “I would sit around a native’s fire in the evening and eat his mealy-meal porridge with my fingers just as he did.” His only precaution was to drink quinine or boiled rainwater.

In Uganda, Carr endured more flies during the day and more animal scares at night. He spent a day at a leper colony, comprised of some 700 afflicted adults and children, and headed by one European missionary. “Although it was one of the most depressing days in my journey,” Carr would recall, “it was a revelation to me how she kept such a smile and cheerful outlook in the midst of so much misery and sorrow.”

Carr continued on through Kenya and spent a night at Timboroa, the site of the highest railroad station in the British Empire, before crossing the equatorial line and reaching the bustling capital city of Nairobi. From there, he cycled through giraffe country to the Namanga River Camp. A signpost informed him that Johannesburg was now less than 3,000 miles away.

In Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Carr passed by Mount Kilimanjaro, the inactive volcano with Africa’s highest peak. He was soon hobbled by a snapped brake cable but was elated to find a bicycle repair shop. The kind owner not only fixed the cable, he also handed Carr a box full of spokes and tire solvent, telling him with a sly smile, “You might need these.”

In Rhodesia (today Zambia and Zimbabwe), Carr was occasionally obliged to cycle along the railroad tracks, so sandy were the roads. He carried a bag of coarse salt rather than coins. “At night I could barter a tablespoon of salt for a couple of eggs,” Carr recalled, “or occasionally milk or even fowl.” He no longer had any qualms about ripping apart a chicken with his bare hands.

At last, the Canadian reached the majestic Victoria Falls, famously “discovered” by the Scottish missionary Dr. David Livingstone in 1855. There Carr saw a rare nocturnal rainbow lit up by the full moon. He went on to the beautiful but barren Matobo Hills to see the grave of Cecil Rhodes, the then-vaunted British imperialist after whom westerners had named the region.

Makeshift sleeping arrangements inside a church/school building in Nyasaland (present-day Malawi). A blackboard had been removed from the wall and laid across the round log pews to form a flat surface for Carr's air mattress.

Crossing into “the Union,” Carr found the roads generally tolerable until he reached the arid Karoo region where they were simply “terrible.” He was surprised to learn that South Africans already knew of the “Mad Canadian,” for they had been following his progress in the newspapers. As Carr would reminisce, “People recognized me on the street from newspaper pictures and often stopped to talk. All were surprised that I would tackle a trip down through Africa without carrying some kind of firearm.”

In the town of Louis Trichardt, a young westerner named Ken gave Carr a tour of the region in his automobile. Seeking a shortcut, Ken veered off the main road. The car sank into the sand, its rear wheels spinning in vain. The two walked to a nearby village and, using sign language, recruited a team of young men and donkeys to extricate the vehicle. After the successful operation, Ken handed one of the boys a coin, and to the westerner’s great surprise, he blurted in plain English, “Jesus Christ, two shillings!”

At last, Carr reached Johannesburg, a modern city that in six short decades had sprung from a small settlement. He tracked down a young South African journalist whom he had met at the youth hostel in London. After touring a local gold mine, Carr found another driver willing to take him to — and through — Kruger Park, a day’s distance away. They spent almost a week combing the immense reserve and interacting with the protected wildlife.

From Jo’burg, Carr vowed to push on to the extreme southwest corner of the continent, reasoning that a solo ride from “Cairo to Cape Town” had a nice ring to it, and the latter was “only” another 600 miles distant. Along the way, in Kimberley, he toured the famous De Beers diamond mines.

Carr arrived at his destination on October 2, seven months to the day after he had left Cairo. He basked in his newfound fame, granting interviews to a slew of journalists and radio broadcasters. The mayor hosted a banquet in his honor. And he met two famous fellow adventurers: Lincoln Ellsworth, the American polar explorer, and the Australian pilot D.C.T. Bennett. The latter had just flown a seaplane from Scotland in a near-record time of only two days. “I prefer my method of transportation to yours,” the beaming airman cracked upon meeting the Mad Canadian.

The woefully beat-up Venanzi was at its end. Unwilling to scrap it, Carr packed it up and sent it home as a souvenir (years later, he would donate it to Ingersoll’s Cheese & Agricultural Museum, where it remains today).

All told, Carr had cycled some 15,000 miles in Europe and Africa. He would go on to spend another year on the road, mostly in Asia and North America, to complete his global circuit. But he would use other means of transportation — for all its charms and advantages, he had found touring by bicycle “hard work.”

When his wandering finally came to an end, Carr would indeed settle in Ingersoll. Until his retirement in 1986, the lifelong bachelor and his brother Bertran would run Carr’s Book and China Shop. An affable character beloved by everyone in town, he loved to talk about his epic journey, especially the cycling part. Yet he always made the short trek between his childhood home to the store downtown on foot, never by bicycle. And though he would live until 1994, he seldom strayed far, or for long, from Ingersoll.

He did, however, have one more unforgettable experience abroad after his homecoming. That was in mid-1945, when he returned to Berlin as a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Exploring Hitler’s abandoned bunker, he came across what had been the Nazi leader’s personal bathroom. Carr could not resist expressing his contempt for the monstrous murderer who had killed himself only a few weeks earlier in the nearby den. Using a finger, the proud Canadian scrawled on the tub’s grimy surface “Carr from Canada.” And then he urinated in the tub.

Carr still carried no grudge against the German people. On the contrary, as he walked through the ruined city, he fondly recalled the happy times he had spent at its now defunct youth hostel. How enlightening it had been to sit down with dozens of fellow youths from so many countries and cultures. 

Carr marveled that Germany itself had launched the hosteling movement prior to the last war. If only it had gotten an earlier start and multiple generations had grown up experiencing its spirit of international fellowship, Carr reasoned, perhaps the world would never have sunk to such appalling depths of depravity and destruction.

For his part, he was grateful to have had the opportunity in his youth to roam the world and experience humanity at its best. He felt certain that his great adventure had enriched him for life, just as Zakia had predicted it would. And he always found solace in her parting words: “It is better to be rich in friends than to be rich in wealth.”  

David V. Herlihy is the author of The Lost Cyclist, and Bicycle: The History.