Coffee, Heat, and Culture Shock: One Woman’s Cycling Journey Across Saudi Arabia

When Madeline Hoffmann loaded up her second-hand bicycle and began pedaling earlier this year, she had no idea she’d eventually wind up on a solo cross-desert journey in Saudi Arabia just as spring temperatures began to edge up into the red.

“I’m not a planner,” the cyclist told ExplorersWeb in an interview last week. “I don’t even know my route for tomorrow yet.”

Raised in Germany but living in Australia for the last nine years, Hoffmann’s accent is a fascinating mix of clipped Teutonic inflection spiced with the occasional, “No worries.” And it’s the latter attitude that seems to inform her current journey — a meandering route that began in Germany with an initial planned end in Turkey.

a woman poses with her bicycle

Cyclist Madeline Hoffmann poses for a photo on an endless stretch of Saudi Arabian highway. Photo: Madeline Hoffmann


Hoffmann’s biological father is Turkish, and she didn’t know him while growing up. She first landed on the trip as a way to reconnect with him. The slow pace of human-powered travel allowed her to absorb culture as she traveled eastward, and she found the freedom of bike touring appealing. So appealing that after visiting with family in Turkey, she decided to just keep pedaling.

Before she knew it, she was on a nine-day leg across the Saudi desert, crushing kilometers in the mornings and evenings and waiting out the day’s heat in the three-sided prayer shacks and mosques that dot the highways. At night, she pitched a tent under the stars.

a woman huddles in a three-sided structure

Using a prayer structure for shade in the hottest part of the day. Photo: Hoffmann


Once, nearing exhaustion, she flagged down a motorist and asked how far it was to the next town. Some Google Translate exchanges and one call to the motorist’s quasi-English-speaking cousin later, the answer came back: 5 kilometers. Hoffman held out her hand, fingers splayed, to make sure.

“Five?” she asked. “Five kilometers?”

Affirmative nods. Hoffmann kept cranking, only to discover the town in question was 50 kilometers out, not five.

Desert hospitality

Translation issues aside, she’s found the hospitality of the Saudi people to be universally excellent.

Hoffmann spoke to me from the guest bedroom of her current host family’s home. Our interview was interrupted twice by the host to inquire about her food preferences. It is, Hoffman said, representative of the overwhelming hospitality she’s received as she pedals her way across Saudi Arabia’s vast deserts.

It’s important for Hoffman to prove herself worthy of communal goodwill along her route. She funded the trip by working two jobs (her primary gig as a fashion designer plus a side hustle), saving up for a year, and crowdfunding. Every little bit helps; strangers give her water, food, and directions freely and with good cheer.

Plus, she’s a popular subject of selfies, particularly in the more rural areas of the country.

a woman and two children sit on the ground with food arrayed before them

Enjoying a meal with a host family. Photo: Hoffmann


“When I first got here, there was some culture shock,” Hoffman told me.”I’m a feminist.”

Women in the country haven’t been legally required to wear traditional Saudi abayas since 2016. But Hoffman found the practice still deeply entrenched in the remote areas of Saudi Arabia. In more urban environments, things are a little more liberal.

Hoffman tailors her own garment choices based on the predominant culture of the areas she finds herself — but the baseline is always loose-fitting with maximum coverage. Culture aside, it’s a wise idea while cycling under the Saudi sun.

a woman poses for a picture while straddling a bicycle

Motorists often stop to offer Madeline Hoffmann water, coffee, and food. Photo: Madeline Hoffmann


Trailed by security

According to The Washington Post, Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud‘s regime has loosened some of the country’s most restrictive religious practices in the years since he came into power. The paper also reported that the prince is pushing to develop the country’s tourism economy — an observation Hoffmann echoed based on her recent travels.

Hoffman’s first leg across the Saudi Arabian desert took nine days. Photo: Madeline Hoffmann


On her second day cycling through the country, Hoffmann found herself trailed by a member of the Saudi security forces. Her initial fearful reaction turned to irritation when it became apparent that the man was more concerned about her safety as she crossed the desert than he was in keeping tabs on her actions. A country in the middle of amping up its tourism operation doesn’t need a dead cyclist in the news.

“I’ve cycled through [more than a dozen countries],” Hoffmann recalled thinking at the time. “I don’t need this.”

She eventually convinced him she knew what she was doing, and she hasn’t had a security run-in since.

What’s next?

Saudi Arabia is a large country — much of Western Europe could fit comfortably inside it — and Hoffmann’s travels there are far from over. You can follow along on her blog or Instagram account. As of this writing, the cyclist is pedaling towards Jeddah, a port city on the Red Sea.

From there, Hoffmann might seek out a mountainous region, trading flat roads for cooler temperatures. But she is, characteristically, unsure of the details. She knows she needs to get out of the desert before high summer, but where and what that looks like is weeks in the future.

No worries!

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).