On History of Cycling in Zimbabwe

Last updated on August 8, 2015

History of Biking in Zimbabwe: Charles Duly's trip from Johannesburg to Bulawayo by bike in 10 days
History of Biking in Zimbabwe: Charles Duly’s trip from Johannesburg to Bulawayo by bike in 10 days

From the 1961 brochure commemorating the 50th anniversary of association between Duly & Co. Ltd. (Twitter) and the Ford Motor Company

“The first motor car to arrive in Rhodesia — a 6.5 h.p. French Gladiator. At the wheel is Charles Duly and beside him Mrs. Edith duly — the original Rhodesian [Zimbabwean] motorists.” Photo and caption from the 1961 brochure.
Modern bike enthusiasts might find it weird but it was the man who brought the first car into Zimbabwe, to promote the cycling culture perhaps more than anyone else in the Southern African nation. And he pioneered it in an a way that would be tough to repeat.

A Charles Duly Motor and Cycle Depot ad in 1908
A Charles Duly Motor and Cycle Depot ad in 1908

In 1894, accompanied by a Scottish carpenter (name unknown), Charles Duly, 24,  rode out of Johannesburg on a bicycle, travelled to Pretoria, then on to Polokwane, over the Limpopo river, through Tuli — Tuli being the first location north of the Limpopo/Shashe rivers where a ‘European’ style building, a police station, was erected — and Masvingo and then by the mail coach route to Bulawayo. Here is how the 1961 booklet explains the audacity of the act:

It was a country over which wild animals still swarmed, including lions. It was fever-ridden in a day when effective malarial preventatives were unknown.

The trip took Duly 10 days to complete. Over the same route an ox-wagon would have taken anything from 13 to 20 weeks. To beat Charles Duly and his companion today while cycling the distance on a tarred road would require you to average over 50 miles a day, in sweltering heat and with at least one mountain range to cross.

A 1905 Charles Duly ad of the 7th Avenue, Bulawayo Motor and Cycle Depot
A 1905 Charles Duly ad of the 7th Avenue, Bulawayo Motor and Cycle Depot

The year Charles Duly arrived in Bulawayo, the Bulawayo Chronicle was launched in what is now Zimbabwe’s second most populated city. Six hotels were operational:

  • the Charter,
  • the Queen’s,
  • the Caledonian,
  • the Masonic,
  • the Central and
  • the Maxim.

Board and lodging averaged some 10 pounds a month upwards. The city boasted a two-mile race-course, an athletic club, cricket pitch, tennis courts. It took passengers willing to travel to Harare four days by a mail coach (12 pounds single).

  • Pretoria (six days)
  • Cape Town (nine and a half days)
  • Beira in Mozambique (10 and a half days)

With the agency for the Raleigh bicycle brand, one of the leaders in its field in Britain, Charles Duly opened a cycle shop in what is now Jason Moyo Street (where Edgars is now).

This poster is of a 60's version of Raleigh's longest running campaign in Africa - which started just after the Second World War. The series of posters chart developing prosperity in Africa as original posters showed the rider in just shorts, but over the years he gained long trousers, a smart long sleeved shirt and finally a gold wrist watch
This poster is of a 1960’s version of Raleigh’s longest running campaign in Africa – which started just after the Second World War. The series of posters chart developing prosperity in Africa as original posters showed the rider in just shorts, but over the years he gained long trousers, a smart long sleeved shirt and finally a gold wrist watch.

One day, a khaki-uniformed man walked into Duly’s shop with a usual request of the day. After the Second Matabele War (1896-97), soldiers of the Relief Force were anxious to hire a bike to return to their base in Mafeking, or to go even further south to the Cape of Good Hope.

“Bulawayo, as it was shortly after Charles Duly’s arrival in 1894. The two horse-drawn carts are outside his first cycle shop in Abercorn Street [Jason Moyo Street, where Edgars is now]” Photo and caption from the 1961 brochure.
Around this time, in 1897 the first railway trains reached Bulawayo. Oh and guess what! — Bulawayo had electricity before London. One of those early trains brought Rudyard Kipling to Bulawayo. Two bicycles accompanied the popular writer on the journey to Africa. The epic railway journey was organised by Rhodes: “Cape Town – Kimberley – Bulawayo – Kimberley again – Johannesburg – and so back to the Cape. It was also on invitation by Rhodes that Rudyard Kipling came to Cape Town in 1898. He explored Bulawayo on bicycle, and visited the Matopos.

From the Christmas, 1902, issue of the Bulawayo Chronicle
From the Christmas, 1902, issue of the Bulawayo Chronicle

While in Bulawayo, he occupied a classic 100-year-old Edwardian building called Douslin House which now houses the National Art Gallery. Because the number of requests was huge, bicycle-pioneer-turned-entrepreneur Charles Duly made a policy of outright sale only. Even the stubborn request to hire from Rudyard Kipling did not change Duly’s sales decision. Kipling agreed to find a guarantor. “A good one,” insisted Duly. To which Kipling retorted he would bring two. One of the two was Sir Charles Metcalfe, Cecil Rhodes’s principal adviser on railway construction.

Hovering in the doorway enjoying the fun was Cecil Rhodes.

Rudyard Kipling hired Charles Duly’s bicycle for 7s. 6d. a day, including Sundays, an arrangement that lasted three months. He ended up paying far more than if he had purchased the bike. Seven shillings and six pence refers to the UK coinage before the introduction of decimal currency in the early 1970s.

A photo reproduction of a historic newspaper story -- the arrival in Bulawayo of the first motor car
A photo reproduction of a historic newspaper story — the arrival in Bulawayo of the first motor car

Although nearly half a century earlier he had not heard of Rudyard Kipling when he came to the Cycle Shop, later on Charles Duly became an ardent reader of this writer. And despite the growth of the automobile sales, the cycle track still called him. He donated a track to the City of Bulawayo.

It was an ironic fate that when Charles Duly was officiating at a race meeting, at age 79, he walked unsuspectingly into collision with a cyclist, and the old bike enthusiast was injured. That accident, unavoidable and comparatively minor, was quite likely to trigger the end of Duly’s life about a year later, on November 21, 1949.

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