Long-Distance Cyclist Kazimierz Nowak

In the sketchy days before WWII, he rode the length of Africa twice – and alone.

Before you consider the saga of Kazimierz Nowak, think for just a minute what it would be like to ride the length of Africa today – and not just once, but twice. War zones, unfriendly locals, disease, traversed by a lone white man on a bike. That’s just what Nowak did, but from 1931 to 1936, when Africa was an equally dangerous but far less known and more mysterious place, when there was no safety net and a world on the verge of war cared less about a Polish traveler and photojournalist pedaling 40,000 kilometers.

Born in 1897 in Poland, Nowak had fallen in love with bikes and travel by the time he was in his early 20s, but marriage, children, and a job in insurance constrained his wanderlust. In 1925, though, he did what so many directionless adventurers do: declared himself a journalist and photographer and hit the road, riding across Europe several times and reporting from Hungary, Austria, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Romania, Greece, and Turkey. In 1928, he found himself covering war in Northern Africa, and though sickness and lack of funds sent him home, he vowed to return and ride the length of what was still called the “Dark Continent.”

knowakIn 1931, he did. Pedaling a seven-year-old bike, he set off south from Tripoli only to be stymied by officials who couldn’t fathom a white man crossing the Sahara by bicycle. Several hundred miles into the journey, he was rebuffed, told to ride back north to the Mediterranean, head east to Egypt, then turn south. Which he did.

Smith rode alone and was happier far from European settlements. He found more comfort with the many and diverse tribes of the central continent – the Tuaregs, Watussi, pygmies, Transvaal Boers, Hottentots, Bushmen, Babinga dwarf people, wild Abasalampasu, Hausa, and others. Occasionally, he’d come across Polish ex-pats, who offered encouragement and a comfortable touch of home, but more often he’d meet rapacious and greedy white men looking for nothing but profit in Africa and he’d pedal away with a feeling of alienation until back in the welcome company of tribes.

In April 1934, he reached land’s end at South Africa’s Cape Agulhas, turned around, and headed home.

The journey north was beset by traveling challenges. In South-Western Africa, in the middle of the desert, his beloved and hard-ridden bike broke into pieces. He acquired a horse named Lynx, got a saddle horse named Wildcat, traded Wildcat for another horse named Cowboy, and rode for 3,000 kilometers. At the edge of the river Kassai, he traded the horses, got a boat named San Francisco, lost the boat in a waterfall, and then walked several hundred miles, got another boat, this one named Mary after his wife, then walked another long stretch. He took five months crossing the Sahara in a camel named Ueli, then rode another 1,000 kilometers Algiers to Uargla by bike.

Nowak had 40,000 kilometers under his belt, but he still wasn’t done. Selling photos and stories to German and Polish newspapers had financed his trip (his sole sponsor gave him bike tires), but he arrived in northern Africa near penniless, with just enough money to buy winter clothes for Europe and a ferry ticket to Marseilles. In France, he peddled photos from Africa, his wife sent money, and his tire sponsor co-signed on a loan to buy the ticket back to Poland.

He arrived inspired to lecture, write, and show his photographs before setting out again on another long journey, this time across Southeast Asia, but it wasn’t to be. Malaria followed him home from Africa, along with periostitis in his left leg. Less than a year after finishing his journey, Kazimierz Nowak died from exhaustion, malaria, and pneumonia. He was 40. A short life, but an unequivocally badass one.



Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.
Showing 21 comments
  • Vernor

    Feeling it.

  • bumbo

    yea. that’s badass.

  • Mike


  • jared

    w o w

  • Trap

    Not many of that breed left.

  • majchers

    Amazing man, amazing trip. Too bad such a short life…

    • steve casimiro

      What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…unless it kills you.

  • majchers

    “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” – A. Einstein

  • Allan

    Wow! This guy is the real hardcore. Surviving alone in the desert is no joke. He is a real inspiration.

  • Peter Gostelow

    Wow. What an adventure! I would love to see more photos from that journey. I made my own trip by bicycle through Africa – full of adventure. I couldn’t imagine doing it all those years ago! http://petergostelow.com/thebigafricacycle/

  • Chris Collard

    Great stuff, thanks for sharing.

  • Jay Long

    New hero; amazing human being!

  • Alec

    Amazing story, is there any sort of collection of his writing from that time? Or journals?

  • roman dial

    So why is bikepacking always touted as something new? The guy’s bike-load looks like a Revelate add, right?

  • D

    B A D A S S

  • Katrin

    Really impressive. An I am really curious how his wife was doing when he was away for so many years.

    • Dave Redmond

      My wife would have been busy divorcing me.

  • Joseph Knecht

    “A badass life”? Yikes!

  • Dan Murphy

    Thanks again for telling us about a true badass. These are the coolest stories ever.

  • William E. R. Davies

    This is a truely an amazing adventure bike ride…. I first read of it some 25 years ago, while doing some biking research. This is TRUE GRIT in all it’s essence… Wonderful inspiration to all adventurers…

  • PRN

    Hello! This is english edition of the polish “Rowerem i pieszo przez Czarny Ląd” – his writing from that time:
    https://www.amazon.de/Across-Continent-Bicycle-Diaries-1931-1936/dp/8365419823, and on publisher’s site

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