“We didn’t pick the best time to cycle here,” Koen Verstappen jokes while in Sudan. “It was an impulsive decision anyway to venture to Africa,” Jelle Adams adds. The two Belgians are in the Nubian desert, which runs from Egypt to Ethiopia. Jelle and Koen, who call themselves the Steeldonkeyz, have been cycling around the world for one year, to the day. “Our next goal is Cape Town.”
The two men met at a Portuguese festival, a few years back, and there was a sense of friendship right from the start. “It was crazy really, we had just met and still it felt like we had known each other for years,” says Jelle. In January last year Koen revealed his plan to cycle around the world. “The idea had been trotting around in my mind for years, like a fine wine maturing. I was positive: now is the right time.” Jelle, being equally excited, decided to come along.
Not around the world, due to corona
“The original plan was to cycle around the world, literally,” Koen explains. “From Belgium, we wanted to head as far east as possible, through Europe and Asia, towards Australia. Then cross the water to the United States to ultimately end up in Belgium again.” The duo planned the start in March 2020, but corona put a spoke in the wheel. On June 15th, the day that the Flemish borders reopened, the men set off. “Where we’re going entirely depends on what corona does. Will the borders be open or not? Will a PCR-test be affordable? We will see where the journey takes us.”
The Flemish guys fly from Istanbul to Cairo, into the African continent. “Cycling further east proved to be impossible. Many African countries, however, do allow tourists.” Thus, the cyclers plan to head for Cape town via the eastern part of Africa. “Going to Africa was a rather impulsive choice. The high temperatures are proof of this. This is not a cycle season at all,” Jelle chuckles.
Wrong time, but beautiful anyway
“Temperatures around here are simply absurd. I’ve never seen this before,” Jelle explains about the desert. In the daytime it is 47 degrees Celsius on average. “They have cycled through the desert only one time during day hours.” Jelle starts laughing and Koen takes over: “That is something we won’t repeat!” Soaked in sweat and close to a sunstroke, the duo arrived at the resting point. “It was more like a police shack in the middle of the desert. At these venues one can drink water and rest. We looked at each other and decided that from now on we would only cycle at night.”
That same night, the men once again mount their bicycles. “Otherwise, we would have been in that shack for 36 hours,” Jelle explains. “The desert at night is really pitch dark. Without a light you wouldn’t see a thing. At least, that is until the middle of the night. Then the full moon appears and lights this sandy world in a magnificent way,” reminisces Koen. On that particular day the guys cycled around 280 kilometers, a record for each of them. The men grunt: “We felt as strong as sharks!”
“Steeldonkeyz, steel donkeys, that is what we call ourselves,” Koen states proudly. “The idea originated from the proverbial “steel horse”, which means bicycle in the low countries. Given the route we chose, steel donkeys sounded more appropriate.” The men do not regard their bike as an object, but as a draught animal that they take care of. A beast of burden that helps Jelle and Koen across the world, together with their extensive baggage.
“Yeah, as far as I’m concerned, the journey was actually overprepared,” says Jelle. Both men dragged around 30 kilos of stuff with them on their bike. That does not include bottles of water. “We sent a number of packages home by mail and still, I feel some of our stuff is superfluous.” The party, for example, carries a solar panel for electricity that works fine but is hardly being used. Winter clothes, absolutely unnecessary for the months to come, are also still in their bags. It will be used when the men arrive at Mount Kenya. “Also, the large tent for two persons was exchanged for two small one-person tents. This way it is easier to divide the weight, while being in a tent on your own is also less hot.”
Despite all the preparations, Koen gets in trouble halfway through Egypt, when one of the axles of his bike breaks off. “We have plenty of gear with us for small repairs, but an entire axle is a different story.” Koen gets on a train back to Cairo, for the next thirty hours to get a replacement part. “I had the chance to see Egypt twice,” the cheerful biker quips. “Well, that’s the point,” Jelle adds, “In Europe you can find a spare part in almost any village or town, but it is very different here.”
The way to come
At this moment, Jelle and Koen find themselves in the north of Sudan. “It was quite a venture to get across the border. We spent four hours waiting in the hot sun until our passports and test results were approved.” With another almost 400 miles to go through the desert, they will produce an additional significant amount of sweat before they get to Khartoum. From there, they will take a plane to Ethiopia, to continue their cycle journey to Kenya and Uganda. “In Uganda we were asked to participate in a fundraiser for Equal Aqua. In addition, we decided to donate the sales of our merchandise to that NGO.”
What will happen from there, the men are not sure about. Koen unfolds the world map and takes a look: “We will have to assess the situation in Northern-Mozambique by then.” Also, it is still uncertain whether Cape Town will be the end of the trip. “Cape Town is our current goal, but who knows what our goal will be by that time. As long as we’re having fun and we can afford it, we will go on. This way of travelling is the greatest thing there is.”
The journey of Steeldonkeyz Jelle and Koen can be followed on Instagram. Every occasion where the men have internet, they share their updates.
In the series Overlanding Africa we talk to overlanders, about their adventures. Earlier we talked to Niels Janssen, who – way ahead of Koen and Jelle – cycled from Cairo to Cape Town.