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When former Billings resident Andrea "Amaya" Williams first proposed bicycling 31,000 miles through Africa, her husband's immediate reaction was that she was nuts.

He ticked off the obvious dangers - vast deserts, wild animals and entire countries on the verge of, or recovering from, civil war.

Williams knew the risks, but a story about two sisters cycling from Paris to Beijing fired her imagination. She and her French-born husband were already world travelers who had backpacked extensively through Asia and South America.

They set off from France in June 2006 on their grueling African adventure. Living on $10 a day each, they have made their way through 29 African countries to reach the southern tip of Africa, a distance of about 18,765 miles. It took them one year, five months and six days to travel on the west side of Africa from Morocco to Cape Town, South Africa.

In July, they started on their return trip along the continent's eastern side, traveling from South Africa to Cairo, Egypt, with hopes of reaching Egypt's pyramids by New Year's Eve.

Recently, the couple stopped in Nairobi, Kenya, where they contacted The Gazette via an Internet phone service.

During the trip, which they paid for themselves, they are also raising money online to educate girls in sub-Saharan Africa via a charity named CAMFED, Campaign for Female Education.

Their quest "to experience the world firsthand" has involved many hurdles, including crossing the Sahara Desert, where there were 90-mile stretches between water sources.

In Gabon, in Western Africa, waist-deep water washed out roads, forcing a temporary halt. In the Republic of Congo, they rode a freight train guarded by soldiers through rebel-held territory.

In Equatorial Guinea, corruption and bribes are a way of life, said Williams, a 41-year-old whose English carries a slight French accent.

"People throw logs across the road to stop people," she said.

At one such roadblock, a man demanded they pay a special fee. When they refused, he menacingly revealed his AK-47.

"The message was, 'Either you pay up or there's going to be trouble,' " she said.

When they backed down, he refused to take the bribe, vowing to haul them off to prison. The stalemate ended when he doubled his fee to about $20 U.S. dollars.

While wildlife and national parks draw most tourists to Africa, it's the people that make the continent so attractive to Williams.

"It's just the warmth you feel from the African people," she said.

In rural villages, with no hotels, the couple has been invited to stay in grass huts. One family slaughtered a chicken to welcome them, a meal usually reserved for celebrations.

Williams concedes there have been some rough spots, including cycling through deserts.

"Your lips are burned. Your throat is parched. You don't know where you're going to sleep at night. You're scared," she said.

At those moments, she tells herself that she is not a quitter and tries to focus on the good times.

"Sometimes, the worst situation turned into the best in just a matter of minutes," she said.

Once, they were in a remote desert area as the night grew dark. They hadn't seen anyone for hours. A passing motorist told them that no villages were nearby. A few minutes later, they saw a ranger's house, a short distance off the road.

"He welcomed us like he'd been waiting for us," Williams said.

In Africa, the peaceful, wide-open places sometimes remind her of Eastern Montana.

Williams lived in Billings during grade school and junior high, when her father, Glen Williams, taught business administration at Eastern Montana College, now Montana State University Billings, and later worked as a controller for the college. Her mother, Shirley, worked as a nurse at Deaconess Hospital and the Billings Clinic.

In 1982, the family moved to Missoula, where her father was vice president for fiscal affairs at the University of Montana and her mother worked as a nurse at the university's health service. Her parents still live in Missoula.

"As parents, we try not to worry too much because it isn't going to do us or them much good," Shirley Williams said. "They're pretty careful people. In their planning, they don't take a lot of chances."

Glen Williams said the youngest of their three daughters always loved looking at exotic photos of faraway lands in National Geographic, but he is as mystified as anyone over just why she would choose to circumnavigate Africa by bicycle.

In high school, Williams hated camping because she disliked getting dirty, said long-time friend, Tracy Swanson, a captain in the Montana Army National Guard who lives in Billings.

After high school at Missoula Sentinel, Williams got a degree in business administration from UM. She was working for Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco when Swanson ignited her global wanderlust.

In the mid-1980s, Swanson worked on commercial fishing boats in Alaska and lived in a tent on the Hawaiian Island of Maui between the time he left the Army and before he re-enlisted in the National Guard. When he stopped to see Williams in San Francisco, she seemed stressed out by her responsibilities at the bank.

"I just let her know there was a whole group of people out there in their 20s living this lifestyle before they got married," Swanson said in a phone interview.

Since then, Swanson said, Williams has never stopped living the adventure-travel lifestyle.

"I don't understand how she has become so adventurous, more adventurous than anyone else I've ever met," Swanson said.

After Williams ditched her bank job in 1995, she headed for Asia. In Laos, she met her husband, Eric Schambion, who gave up a career in the European Space Agency to backpack around Southeast Asia and India. They were married just before New Year's Eve in 1998.

After working awhile in Europe, they set off for a year exploring Latin America, then worked in Europe again to tuck away money for their African expedition.

From Nairobi, the couple planned to head north through Kenya to the rugged mountains of Ethiopia, into Sudan, where they will cross the Nubian Desert and continue on to Egypt.

They have already covered more than 26,000 miles of their African adventure and have about 3,700 miles left to travel.

"We're going to have a very, very tough portion of our trip now," Williams said. "I'm most worried about getting water. You can go for very long stretches and not get water."

Much of the existing water is contained in swamps.

The road through northern Kenya tends to be sandy, soft enough to swallow cyclists. There may be fighting among numerous tribes in the area, and travelers are sometimes preyed upon by bandits.

"I'm much, much more concerned about water than bandits," she said.

If all goes well, they will arrive at the Egyptian pyramids by New Year's Eve. The whole trip will have cost $30,000, including their health insurance, laptop computer and high-quality camera.

From Egypt, they plan to tour the Middle East, returning to Europe in May. From there, they will bike across the United States, arriving in Montana in August to see Williams' parents, who are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.

The last time she visited Montana was for her high-school reunion in 2004.

After circumnavigating Africa, the trip across the United States should be a breeze.

"I do it with my eyes closed, I think," Williams said, slipping into French phrasing for her English sentences. "No worries about bad water, about food."

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or 657-1292.

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