It wasn't the threat of kidnapping in Sudan. Or the dodgy roadside bivouacs in Egypt and Botswana. It wasn't even the sandstorms in the Sahara — in fact, they helped push Mark Beaumont and his bike along, at up to 30 miles per hour. What really set the Scotsman back on his record-breaking ride from Cairo to Cape Town were the nearly unmanageable roads in Ethiopia. On them he suffered nine tire punctures in five days. When it rained, his wheels got so clogged with mud that he had to use a spoon he'd packed to free them.
"The rain was torrential, and it would turn the dirt roads into a pig's field," he says. "And then the sun would come out and cake it solid."
Beaumont should have known what to expect. In 2008 the Scotsman had biked around the world in 194 days, breaking the record for fastest circumnavigation on a two-wheeler. The following year he pedaled from Anchorage, Alaska, to Argentina. Then came his attempt at setting the mark for fastest row across the Atlantic Ocean, in 2012. Halfway through, he and his crew were hit by a surprise wave, capsizing their boat. They clung to a life raft for 14 hours before being rescued.
"What I realized is that, in part, I do adventures to push myself mentally and physically but mostly to experience the excitement around the corner," says Beaumont. "The Atlantic is boring as hell."
Soon after, he settled into a life as a freelance sports reporter for the BBC. He married, had a daughter, and put his adventurer life behind him. That is, until he found himself interviewing athletes about their exploits. "Hearing all their amazing stories, I got more and more jealous," Beaumont recalls. "I was thinking, 'I'm not done yet.' "
Convincing his wife that he could reenter his former profession wasn't easy. "It's a selfish lifestyle," he admits. "I nearly didn't come back from the Atlantic." After promising her that he'd avoid anything as dangerous as ocean rowing, Beaumont saddled up again to take a crack at riding the length of Africa, a record last set in 2011.
Beaumont's route took him through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and South Africa. He avoided much of South Sudan for security reasons, but each country he did visit brought its own unexpected challenges, such as being shoved off narrow roads in Tanzania by trucks or biking as fast as he could past baby elephants just feet away from him.
The sight of a white man on an expensive bike inspired a range of reactions. In Ethiopia, a few hostile locals chucked stones and jeered at him. When he slept outside at shelters — which he often did — he locked himself to the frame and tires to avoid theft.
Yet Beaumont encountered an equal number of warm gestures. In the small section of Sudan that he did travel through, he found the locals particularly friendly, despite the ongoing political upheaval.
"People welcome you and give you food," he says. "They want to show you something other than what the news says." There and in other countries that he visited, villagers sitting around open fires would invite him to sleep for the night and feed him, usually goat meat, rice, and beans. "In the U.S. or Europe, you're always looking for a hotel or something established," he says. "In Africa, if there's a village, there's a place to stay and there's food."
When Beaumont finished in May — 6,718 miles in 41 days and 10 hours, breaking the previous record of 59 days, set only weeks earlier by South African Keegan Longueira — he felt mostly relief. After arriving back home, he discovered that his daughter, now almost two, had learned to navigate stairs and say new words. He's still eyeing a few more records, but his two-month Africa ride made one thing clear. "I wouldn't want to be away from home for any longer than that anymore," he says. "My days of half-year expeditions are behind me."