While each of Buettner's previous trips had been difficult, Africa presented some new challenges. Border crossings were never simple. "I couldn't believe the bureaucracy," says Buettner. "I always made sure I had a book with me. If you're patient, officials process your papers faster." But perhaps the most obvious challenge was the Sahara Desert and its dearth of food and water.
PentaPure, a water-purification company based in Minneapolis and one of AfricaTrek's principal sponsors along with 3M, developed a water-purification device that guarantees potable water whether the water is taken from clear-running streams or roadside puddles. The riders attached the device to the bike frame beneath the top tube, allowing each to carry 20 liters of water in a separate container. At the end of every day, the men showered with what they hadn't drunk.
While crossing the desert, the riders ate mostly dates and drank condensed milk. At other times, the team was able to buy rice and borrow a pot to cook it in. During one three-week stretch in Zaire, bananas were the only food, and each man ate up to 70 a day. Sometimes, local people offered the trekkers such delicacies as roasted termites. The insects, says Buettner, "tasted like crunchy butter."
But AfricaTrek was never meant to be a tour of the continent's many cuisines. Thomas says the chance to ride across Africa was a "dream come true." And Buettner views the trip as the sum of its parts, not as a whole. "Along the way, there are lightbulbs that get lit," he says. "The lightbulbs—the Pygmies, for example—make it all worthwhile."
AfricaTrek had many such crystallizing moments. In Nigeria the riders were crowned honorary princes of the Mbembe tribe. In Tanzania, while hiking up Mount Kilimanjaro, the Buettners—the others had gone on to Zanzibar—met a man who claimed to be 122 years old and to have been a guide on the first official climb up Kilimanjaro, in 1889.
And if the riders were secretly hoping for some official recognition of their effort, they received it in South Africa a few weeks before the trip's end. They were granted meetings with Walter Sisulu, then the deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC), and F.W. de Klerk, then South Africa's president. Both men strongly supported AfricaTrek's message of interracial cooperation. Sisulu was so excited by the team's mission that the riders' five-minute courtesy call was extended to an hour and included introductions to the heads of the ANC's arts and youth committees.
Less than two weeks later, after a total of 386 flat tires and approximately 4.6 million pedal revolutions, the AfricaTrek team arrived at Cape Agulhas, South Africa. Here, the riders dipped the front wheels of their bikes into the Atlantic.
"From Pygmies to a president," says Dan Buettner. "Riding a mountain bike across Africa might be a strange way to make a living, but it sure can take you to some weird and extraordinary places."
Next January, the Buettners and two others will begin a three-month MayaQuest. Dan's goal on this trip to Central America is to try to help solve the mystery of the Mayan civilization's ninth-century collapse.
Like AfricaTrek, MayaQuest will be tracked by an on-line computer system. But this time, those following the team will be able to ask questions of archaeologists working at several Mayan sites—and the scientists will ask questions of their questioners. "What I want to do is use MayaQuest as a conduit for curious minds," says Dan, "and to inject new life into a search for an answer to this mystery."