How to Bike 4,000 Miles Across Africa While Running Your Business and Raise Over $12,000 for Women Win

Posted on / by Natalie Sisson / in Business Travel / 19 comments

Two months ago to this very date, I arrived in Cape Town South Africa with 4,000 miles under my belt, an experience of a lifetime and some really bad tan lines.

I’d just completed The Ride of My Life – a personal challenge like no other and a huge test of whether my business could survive me essentially not running it for 2 months.

Since then, so many of you have asked me what it was like to cycle from Nairobi, Kenya to Cape Town in just over 2 months, while running my business and attempting to raise $10,000 for 

Even though I’d written a candid update titled `This is Africa‘ early on, and shared 20 Business Lessons Learned While Riding Across Africa….I’ve finally pulled this post together to tell you exactly how that felt.

The short version can be described in three words: Challenging. Redefining. Epic.

The longer version is below. If you’re prepared to read the full post, then I’ve included answers to all your questions you’ve asked me over the past few months, on why I took this personal journey. I also share the results of your generosity in helping me to raise awareness for Women Win’s great work and helping young girls gain the rights, freedom and leadership skills they deserve through playing sport.

If you don’t want to read it all right now, then I ask kindly to watch this video.

Together, we raised $12,612 for Women Win thanks to 190 contributors!

Watch the video to see the impact you have made in the lives of many young girls. It’s also less than 2 minutes long and describes the journey and what that amount raise will actually go towards.

Why did you decide to cycle 6,500km across Africa?

What is life without a challenge or two? Some big scary thing that pushes you well outside your comfort zone and allows you to step up to the challenge. I’ve done a series of cool things every 4 years or so including training for and winning a body sculpting competition, and dragon boating across the English Channel to smash a world record.

I felt it was time for my next adventure.

I’ve never done anything other than commuter cycling, so I knew this would be one heck of a challenge and a great way to visit a continent that’s been on my list of places to travel to since I was a kid. I also used it as a reason to support something much bigger than just my own personal goal, and that was to raise money for the charity Women Win who empower young girls in developing countries through sport – perfectly aligned with my values in life.

How did you prepare physically and mentally for the ride?


Not very well in reality. Nothing can prepare you for biking on average 100km plus per day (60 miles). I didn’t even purchase the bike I rode on until the first week of February (one month before I started Tour d’Afrique). I started training in the hilly suburbs of my hometown Wellington when I was back visiting New Zealand.  If you know Wellington, you know how windy and cold it can get – not always pleasant riding conditions.

I competed in a 48km race, a 100km race and then the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge of 160km to show myself that I could complete that distance. I was quite psyched up mentally for the challenge of doing a similar distance day in day out for 2 months, but I’m not sure I was really prepared for the challenge mentally – it’s something that you just need to experience for yourself.


What were the biggest challenges you experienced?

In all honesty, there were an array of challenges that you probably wouldn’t think about. Aside from just cycling 6,500km over 2 months, you also had to contend with the routine of each day. Getting up at 5am onwards, packing up your camping gear, getting in line for food, understanding the directions and route for the day ahead, completing the ride before sunset, unpacking the tent, having dinner and getting some quality sleep. Not so easy with incessant barking dogs, hyenas and crickets or late night locals partying.

In addition, you had the ongoing cultural changes as you rode through 7 different countries, the languages and people, as well as the climate (from hot and humid in Tanzania, to chilly when we reached South Africa). Plus, cycling with a group of around 50 people from all over the world was a big social experiment in itself – loved everyone though by the end of it.

Challenges aside from the terrain and the daily distances, were things like getting flat tires or having bike problems, I became known as Flatalie after having a whole week of at least one flat tire a day! There was also being run off the road by crazy buses or trucks on busy highways (that always had some slogan like `God Loves You’ on the back’).

Challenging terrain in Tour d'AFrique

Being a `Mazungu’ (white person) in a village where the locals were just fascinated with your every move was initially a unique feeling, but then it became somewhat of a burden. You’re seen as`money’ in reality, and in areas with major poverty, the begging was hard to deal with and not become hardened to. I felt better knowing I was raising money that would be distributed where it was really needed with a real impact to more than just one person.

How dangerous was it?

I would say this depends on your propensity to risk and danger and your attitude towards it. To be honest, there were very few times I felt unsafe or in danger. I think I was more of a danger to myself – flipping my bike 180 degrees in the sand and catapulting myself over the handle bars twice – all in one day!

There were five riders who had serious illnesses or accidents during the trip who had to be airlifted out.

A few people had their bike stolen by locals even when they were close by them. In Ethiopia (which I didn’t cycle through), there were days when all riders had stones thrown at them by local kids, and I experienced some of that in Tanzania.

We had 14 of our camp chairs stolen from a bush camp by the locals we’d hired to guard it in Malawi! They also took speedometers and bike accessories. Monkies stole food from some peoples’ tents at our accommodation in Victoria Falls.

Elephant highway in Botswana was amazing but potentially dangerous as at any time these beautiful creatures could just cross the road up ahead of you. That was a really amazing experience! We also had an elephant walk around the perimeter of our camp one evening, followed by a hyena outside my tent and a few others close by who were searching for food!

What was your best experience?

The best thing by far was the journey itself. It really was an eye opening experience to see so many countries by bike and truly experience every moment. It’s my new favourite way to travel the world, and I can’t wait for the next adventure.

The interactions with the locals, and with the fellow riders, was really special. The trips to the Serengeti, Victoria Falls and the Okavango Delta were equally unique. The wild animals running across the road in front of you or the people waving and passing you, just added to the whole experience.

Just to be able to say I did it, I cycled through Africa, and I made it to Cape Town, was pretty fantastic to me!

Random moments on tour dAfrique

The `best’ experience for me, and no doubt many others, was getting over the mental challenge of such a journey. I thought I was a lot tougher mentally, but there were days when I felt I couldn’t go on and had some severe internal battles with my mind and body. Thanks to those defining moments I feel I know myself, and my limits, a lot better now.

I also know that you are capable of much more than you initially think and that the only real limits you have are those you place on yourself.

Riding across Africa with Natalie Sisson

What was it like ‘roughing it’?

I really enjoyed camping day in and day out and the routine of it. That surprised me as I thought it would get on my nerves, but there’s something very simple and back to nature about sleeping in a tent and listening to the sounds at night. Or gazing up at the stars, which in darkness of the night in African villages, are so bright and bold.

I definitely won’t miss the `shit tents’ that were a dug out hole in the ground surrounded by a canvas awning and zip up door that were sometimes unbearable to enter. When people had diarrhea – which was often, the smell was just too much to bear.

Or the many large insects and creatures you shared your tent with or that crept in during the night. Or the lack of any way to keep yourself clean apart from wet wipes. But it certainly made you appreciate your normal creature comforts. Plus, the after dinner chats with other riders, outside the truck under the stars, or around the bonfire, were very entertaining.

What was the longest time you went without a shower for?

When we entered Tanzania for the off road section we were told we’d have 8 days without showers. That was definitely going to be the longest period I’ve been without in my life! Most of us were preparing ourselves for the worst.

Luckily we were treated to 3 `bucket showers’ over that period, whereby locals bring along a bucket of water you pay a whopping $0.70c for and can wash yourself one scoop at a time, or just throw the whole thing over yourself.

I’m telling you those were the best cold showers ever and felt like a million dollars.

What was the toughest moment?

Actually the first day of the ride was especially hard. I joined this group, that had ridden from Cairo already, at the halfway point. So they were were all experienced and used to it the daily ride by now and much fitter and stronger than me.

My first day was 161km – so no easing in there. It was hot, it was long (around 9 hours out on the road – including rests), and there was this shitty 30km off road section of extreme corrugation (think sand, rock and bone jangling terrain).

I had to get off my bike and walk for 5 minutes when I noticed I was losing energy and struggling to breathe. Turns out it was a combination of heat stroke, the effect of my Malaria medicine in the sun and lack of food. When I collapsed in my tent that night, I seriously wondered what I’d gotten myself into and how I was going to make it for the next 2 months.

Throughout the journey, there were hills that seemed never ending, sandy and rocky sections that you could barely hold on to the handle bars for and weather conditions that tested your endurance. But it’s really surprising once you’re on your bike just what your body can endure. The ability to keep on going and just keep pedaling is something that never ceased to amaze me, even when mentally I was struggling to find the energy and determination.

Day 1 – my smile is hiding the exhaustion

How did you handle running your business from a bike?

It was certainly a test to see if what I preach here on this blog could be put into practice. I’ve ultimately set up my business model to give myself more freedom. I aspire to have a lot of it. My motto is creating freedom in business and adventure in life. I can’t think of anything better than doing what you want, when you want and from where you want. I do pinch myself a lot as to how lucky I am to be living this life. I did hustle and work very hard to create this lifestyle business.

When it came to leaving it to run itself for close to two months though, I did have my doubts. I have great systems in place and a fantastic virtual assistant I hired just two weeks before leaving. I had put together a series of video tutorials for her on my blog publishing, newsletter campaigns and responses to the hundreds of emails I get through my contact form.

I basically shared my best practices and methods for these important parts of running an online business and handed them over to her one by one. I’d also gathered a lot of guest posts in advance (a first for me to feature more posts from others than myself) and had done several podcast interviews in advance. I’d told my coaching clients that for two months they’d only get email coaching and that was the proviso on what they’d signed up for.

From a community building and social media management aspect, I had handed over some strategic objectives and tasks to my VA and wherever possible on the trip, I’d check in for updates myself, like posting photos, saying hello from the road, sharing some insights, responding to comments, notifications and messages.

Hard earned cider for another flat tyre
Hard earned cider while doing yet another tire change

That said, I didn’t open my laptop for the first 3 weeks and only checked email briefly after one week to tell my friends and family I was alive. I bought sim cards in each country to make calls or send texts from my basic phone where possible, and stole people’s iPhones and paid them for data when I thought it was really necessary.

But most of the time I was just focused on riding which consumed all my energy and left me little to think about my business.

The results? Aside from less growth in my community during that period than normal, all else pretty well ran like clockwork. I think this is best explained and broken down in another post!

How did you go about raising over $12,000?

Man, reaching over $12,000 in donations was an amazing feeling. I recall mentioning to several friends months before I left for Africa, that my attempt to raise $10,000 for WomenWin scared the `bejeezus’ out of me. I’ve never raised that amount of money in my life, and for me it was a daunting prospect. Once again this could be a whole blog post in itself, but I have to say it was one of the most worthwhile projects to undertake.

It was almost like a full time job on top of running my business in the lead up to my ride (around 5 months out) to start contacting people to support my ride and raise awareness. I did a lot of connecting, emailing, messaging and talking.

I sent out sponsorship proposals and dedicated emails with a short 1 page PDF on the ways in which people could support me – writing a blog post, posting on social media, emailing their community, interviewing me etc. I just kept on approaching people with why it mattered and how they could make my day and make a whole lot of young girls lives better.

I also had the lovely folks at Start Somewhere build a dedicated website off of this one to show the four ways in which people could get involved.

I personally loved the fact that people could:

  1. Donate with varying degrees of amounts that had meaning – like funding a soccer ball, a uniform or a whole tournament.
  2. Shop and feel good and know a percentage would go to the charity – the t-shirts were a hit and I loved pinning photos of people wearing them here.
  3. Amazing Sponsors (both individuals and businesses) stepped up to cover some of my considerable costs in return for some love and PR and shout outs on social media.
  4. Or people could simply support by sharing and spreading pre-written updates and tweets to allow more people to know about my cause and the ride of my life.

Whenever I sent out an email, I saw an increase in donations coming in which was thrilling, especially once I was on my ride when it felt more `real’ to give and support the cause. I sent one on my birthday, which drew the most impact and took my campaign over the halfway threshold.

What was the moment you knew you’d make your goal?

Whenever I sent out an email I saw an increase in donations coming in, which was thrilling, especially once I was on my ride when it felt more `real’ to give and support the cause. I sent one on my birthday, which drew the most impact and took my campaign over the halfway threshold.

Screenshot on a Skype call of my halfway donation mark

That was the moment I thought I might make it and reach that goal of $10,000. More generous donations came in and continual support. People stepped up in all sorts of ways, writing posts on it like this one about the ride on Nerve Rush (thanks Joel!). This Q&A from Prime on Solo Female Traveler and the big supportive shout out from Dave Ursillo and his personal video. Or this interview over on Tripping, plus many more and this one from Caleb at Pocket Changed.

Standouts for me were people like Liz Dialto who raised over $500 with her product sales supporting my ride, Nathalie Lussier who donated half her sales from this program, Jo and Janine who wrote this awesome post and interview and donated 5% from their profits and once again my sponsors who stepped up to contribute.

From there it snowballed and what amazed me was that the people with the least amount of money gave the most – even if it was $20, it made a big impact and they’d often donate more than once.

The flip side to this was the people who I thought would not blink an eye to making a small donation. These were people who I approached because of their interest in sports (not just that they were making 6 to 7 figures online or off).

I’ve realised this is actually a common thing – the people who have the least often give the most. The rich get richer by holding on to their money….

In my mind, the more I give the more impact I feel I’m making, even as just one person. Imagine if we all regularly contributed to causes and organizations we believed in most that were really making a difference? That’s why I just wrote about the 5 crowdfunding campaigns I’ve supported and why I feel they were a success.

Tour dAfrique group photo in Namibia

Would you do it again?

Most definitely. As I said, I think biking across the world is the new way to travel (well at least for me). I am particularly excited about Tour d’Afrique’s new route being planned for September 2013 from Shanghai to Singapore! Anyone keen to join me? It’s only 7,940km…..