African Great Lakes Solo Crossing - Ross Exler - Bikepacking | Burley
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African Great Lakes Solo Crossing

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Photos & Article by Ross Exler

Years ago, while I was a student at the University of Colorado and working in a lab that studied species of fish from Lake Tanganyika, I came up with the idea for an expedition. The idea was to link 3 of the largest lakes in the world, Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria in a human powered, solo crossing. These lakes are the largest of the system of lakes known collectively as the “African Great Lakes”.

The African Great Lakes suffer from a bit of a low profile considering how impressive they are. As a group, they contain about 25% of the world’s unfrozen freshwater and perhaps as much as 10% of the world’s species of fish. Lake Tanganyika is the longest lake in the world, and the second largest by volume. Lake Victoria is the second largest lake in the world by surface area. Lake Malawi, the smallest of the bunch, is over 350 miles long, 2,300 feet deep, and may contain the highest biodiversity of fishes of any lake in the world. To me, the objective seemed clear and worth the effort.

The lakes are truly massive, and crossing them would be no minor feat. The primary mode of transportation seemed obvious as waterways are giant navigable passages if you have a suitable kayak or canoe and the skills to use it. The land transportation sections of the trip would be a bit more difficult to figure out: how could I get myself and my equipment from one lake to another using only human power? Walking was impossible due to the distance and the need to carry a large amount of gear including a boat. Traditional bike touring with panniers wasn’t going to work because there was no place to put a kayak.

I needed a folding kayak that could break down into bags between lakes, and I needed a sturdy bike trailer that I could use to pull my boat along behind me.

The more that I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was only one way to make it a reality: I needed a folding kayak that could break down into bags between lakes, and I needed a sturdy bike trailer that I could use to pull my boat along behind me. With the weight and bulk of the boat out of the equation, I could probably get enough equipment onto the bike to realistically transport everything between lakes.

For the expedition, I decided that I would use a Burley Flatbed trailer with the 16+ Wheel Kit. This setup seemed ideally suited for a few reasons: even when broken down into its bags, the kayak is fairly large and of unusual dimensions, so I needed an open design; the weight capacity of the flatbed is high, and the larger wheels should provide some float on sandy roads and also some cushioning for potholes; the design is efficient and simple, with fewer parts to fail; the trailer folds down small for transporting it on the boat; and Burley has an excellent reputation for reliability.

Using this setup, I’ll attempt to travel solo across the vast lake region, transporting all of my equipment along with me. My route will take me approximately 1,600 miles across several African countries, and will be attempted solo, without any outside support. My motivation for the expedition, besides personal ambition, is to raise awareness about the biodiversity of the region, and environmental challenges to their survival.

The lakes are under threat, and face environmental challenges such as overfishing, invasive species, climate change, and increased sediment inputs due to deforestation. All of these problems put this unique, beautiful, and ecologically significant region at risk. Likewise, the environmental issues pose a great risk to the millions of people who depend on the lakes for their food and water. So, to try to help further the effort to protect the lakes, I have teamed up with The Nature Conservancy Africa to spread the word about the importance of the lakes, and the threats to their future.

The Nature Conservancy’s Tuungane Project, located on the Tanzanian shores of Lake Tanganyika, is working to protect the aquatic diversity of Lake Tanganyika, and improve the lives of the surrounding communities. For more information about the work that they are doing, please visit https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/africa/wherewework/tuungane-project.xml.

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