Oliver’s Travels – Fuelled by passion

~ Biking from Germany to South Africa and from St. Maarten to South America~

Published in The WEEKender supplement of The Daily Herald, 2012

By Sanny Ensing

There is so much to be said for dreaming… it keeps you sane and most people need it to give their life direction, but for many of us a dream remains a dream. For Oliver Niedzielski, however, the dream of cycling from his hometown Hamburg in Germany to Cape Town, South Africa, became reality, solely due to determination and will power, and as Oliver says with a smile: “luck, I am quite a lucky guy!”

Oliver radiates a powerful self assurance that stems from reaching a much sought-after goal. He explains that it was not an easy start. A cycling aficionado from the day he was big enough to balance on two wheels, he decided at age 22 that he wanted to see the world, and that traveling by bike was his way to go. “I thought about going by car but realized that if there would be any engine troubles I’d be stuck. With a bike I knew I could fix any problems myself. I ended up building my own bike for this trip. That way I could incorporate a design that would make my toolbox a bit lighter. I made sure for instance that all the bolts on the bike were of the same size, so that I could take the whole bicycle apart with just one wrench.”

His dream in place, it was not that easy to realize. He wasn’t the happy-go-lucky guy he is today because he had quite a debt that needed to be repaid, but the dream of leaving Germany and seeing the world by bike kept him strong and grounded and “helped me to come out of the hole I was in, I would not want to think where I would be today without my dream.” He decided he’d give himself five years to pay back the money he owed and save 10,000 Euros in order to make it to South Africa. Ultimately it took him two years more to save this money, but at age 29 he finally set off to bicycle the 24,000 kilometers to the bottom tip of the African continent.

He had not much travel experience before leaving and so he felt euphoric when he finally biked passed the border of Germany into Austria. He enthusiastically recalls this sentiment with, “Yeah, now I am out! Now it is official, I really left and set out on my journey!” And onward Oliver went, from Austria to Slovenia, trough Italy and by ferry to Greece, through Turkey and Syria, then Jordan and Egypt, on to Sudan and Ethiopia, to Kenya and by boat to Zanzibar, to Tanzania, then Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and finally South Africa.

I decided on my route before leaving Germany,” Oliver explains. “I left with a GPS on the bike, a basic repair kit, bike tubes, a cooking pot, and a burner that I disposed of once the propane gas cylinders could not be found anymore. I continued the journey by making a fire at night, spoon, fork and knife from the army to eat with, a toothbrush, a fleece jacket, one pair of socks, a hat for cold days, two trousers, one swimming shorts, two t-shirts, a sleeping bag, a thermo-rest mattress, a camera, a telephone and a music player.” He laughs and says: “Music turned out to be very important! When I was biking through the dry and sparsely populated lands of Namibia, I was alone for a week, and without music I would have gone crazy!”

I have so much respect for Africa,” Oliver explains. “That is why I went there. At first I thought Africa had no streets and that the sun shines every day and that African people can be dangerous. It was the newspaper stories and TV reports that I read and saw about Africa that made me think that way, but today I know not to be afraid. You have to look out for yourself as many people automatically assume that you are very rich, and to them you are, because they are so much poorer, but also so much friendlier, than Europeans. Once in a while I experienced a scary situation but 99 percent of the journey was super, so great actually, that I can’t wait to go again and bike down Africa’s west coast!”

The cyclist biked between 10 kilometers and 220 kilometers per day. “In the beginning I kept pushing onwards and in certain places in Africa I stayed a bit longer but mostly I pushed on. I woke up when the sun rose, made my breakfast and sped off.” Ten thousand Euros might seem like a lot but to make it last a year and 10 days, the time it took Ollie to reach Cape Town, meant he was on a very tight budget. “I slept outside in a tent every night apart from when I was biking through a big city, and then I’d stay at a hostel. I spent 7000 Euros by the time reached Cape Town and I always had an emergency fund in case I needed an airplane ticket back to Germany.”

Sudan is quite a dangerous country and many people advised Oliver not to travel through it. Oliver, however, treasures his Sudanese biking experience. He explains that on Mondays a ferry boat takes people from Egypt into Sudan. It is the only way into the country, by crossing Lake Nassar. “I had ten Sudanese pounds on me,” Oliver says, “That is about two Euros fifty. We Europeans think we can buy everything in the world with plastic, so when I got to the first town in Sudan I went looking for an ATM. The guy at the bank told me that the nearest ATM was in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, straight through the desert, about 1000 Kilometers away! I was envisioning myself pushing my bicycle through mountains of sand but I was in luck, just the day before the president of Sudan had officially opened a free asphalt road to Khartoum. I was however, completely out of money after buying much needed bottles of water with my last pounds.” Oliver followed the Nile, and drank out of buckets with foul-smelling but clear river water. Biking through the desert to Khartoum took him nine days and according to Oliver the only reason he survived the ride is due to what he calls his ‘heroes’ alongside this stretch of road.

Oliver: “Many people along that road literally saved my life by giving me food and water and a place to sleep and sometimes, even money, which I did not want but was not allowed to refuse. One of my heroes, a fifteen year old boy, told me it was his religion and belief that if someone had less money that the other, he had to give him his money, and another hero gave me three kilo’s of dried dates that helped me make it through the last days on the road to Khartoum.”

When Oliver finally arrived in Khartoum, however, the first ATM, at the Hilton hotel, had just been removed two days previously, and the second, at the bank, would not take his VISA card. “Apparently the connection had been cut 9 months previously.” “So, I had three pounds left,” says Oliver, “with one pound I bought bread, with the other some cigarettes and with the third I called my mom and asked her to send me some money with Western Union. I called her back the next day with a borrowed pound and was told that it was also impossible to send money into Sudan from Germany. So I opted for my last resort, the German Embassy, and there, just like in a proper German office, was a lady ticking away behind her computer who at first scolded me for coming into Sudan unprepared and then let me transfer money into the embassy’s account via internet banking and gave me cash out of the safe. Lucky again, but it would have been impossible without the many friendly people along the road!”

The journey took him through the jungles of Zambia, the desert of Namibia, the highlands of Ethiopia, and more. Oliver’s eyes sparkle as he reminisces: “It was amazing!” But how does one prepare body and mind for this bike ride of a lifetime? “Physically, I think you are ready in three weeks,” says Oliver, “by being on the move continuously for three weeks, your training is in order, and then it is all in your mind, psychologically I said to myself many a time, I am going up this mountain but you have to be strong in mind to climb 2500 meters up on a 10 kilometer distance, with luggage. His self-assuredness is instantly visible when he boasts: “It was hardcore, but I made it!” and then he smiles modestly and says: “But sometimes, like in Tanzania, I hung off the back of a truck, and it pulled me up a steep slope, or even sped me down some flat roads. That was so much fun and super fast going!”

When Oliver got to Cape Town on May 12, 2010, he was very happy and quite proud that he had made it all the way, but by then Cape Town had become just another stop on his journey. “Halfway through Africa I realized that I was not going to go back home, work some more and then go on another trip. This was it! I am on my journey! I realized I have fire in my heart now and it is burning stronger than it ever did before, so I decided to continue onto South America!” Oliver got himself a job in Cape Town as a guide on an overland truck, and pinned his name and number on a blackboard in the city’s marina. “I knew I did not want to fly from Africa to South America. That is like going into an elevator and stepping out of it on the other side. On the road travelers’ talk a lot and that is how I found out that you can travel by boat from Cape Town to South America or the Caribbean. In the meantime my overland job made sure I saw even more of Africa. Two and a half months later I got a call and set off on a 38 foot Sunsail Catamaran that was being delivered to Abaco in the Bahamas.”

Oliver sailed for 52 days to get to Abaco, together with the boat’s captain and first mate. “I stayed in Abaco for two weeks, but the first mate had told me about St. Martin and the possibility of a work permit on the French side so I came here.” He stares toward the Simpson Bay Lagoon when he says: “ I imagined the Caribbean a little different I guess. I find it quite crowded here with a lot of tourists. When I arrived in Abaco, the first country I visited outside of Europe and Africa, I thought ‘Wow, this is just like Africa, easy going and friendly,’ but when I came to St. Martin I had a different feeling. There is a very great divide between rich and poor, with such big mega yachts here (points at the lagoon) and little shacks just off the roads surrounding it, on such a small island. You see that difference in Africa as well. In Ethiopia for example, a beggar will be seated on one side of the street whilst a 12-metre-long limousine is pulling away at the curb on the other, but I find the divide quite extreme here, too.”

In St. Martin Oliver is staying at the crew house in Cole Bay. Oliver: “I have met nice people here. Chita, one of the ladies that run the crew house has helped me lot and I have my own ‘grandma’ here in Cole bay that I visit all the time.” He laughs: “She has got amazingly long nails!” and continues explaining: “I met people here who live in the shacks and talked to them. People here are friendly but in Africa they are friendlier. People here are helpful, but in Africa they are more helpful. It is almost the same everywhere in tourist places. Like in Venice, at the Victoria Falls or in Cairo, whenever there are tourists, they seem to change the mind of the local people. In Africa it is very obvious because on the road between the tourist towns, it is so clear that people are true, and honestly enjoy your company.”

Oliver tells that he has biked around the island lots of times and has driven into all the little side streets. Oliver: “You can cycle around and around, and I like it here, but I don’t want to stay, so I am leaving by the end of March for sure. I did buy an onward ticket to Venezuela but I prefer to go by boat to South America. I really want to make a round trip around the coast of South America; from French Guinea to Brazil, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and then Mexico. I think I need two years to travel through South America and budgeting at 10 dollars a day, I need 10,000 dollars. I don’t have that money right now, so I will have to work whilst traveling, or tighten my budget even more. Worst case scenario, I might leave the continent earlier, but do it I will!”

This inspired, passionate biker serves as a great example to assure the dreamers amongst us that if only we dare to believe that our visions can become reality, and we truly work towards the goal, and dare to do it, we can make those dreams become reality. Reach for the stars!