Posts Tagged ‘Kenya’

The people of the grey bull

Celebrating 14,000 km, Western Kenya
They watched. A hundred eyes were trained on me as I entered a room packed full of Turkana women, each cradling a child in their arms. They were adorned in huge colourful necklaces and wore trademark Mohican style haircuts. In their gaze I saw mixed impressions. Wariness, curiosity, hope. This was one of Merlin’s outreach projects, the medical aid charity I’m raising funds for, and these sentient eyes belonged to the mothers and children directly affected by their work. Two nurses were weighing, measuring and vaccinating the infants and they dished out nutritional supplements along the way. So far this morning five children had been deemed to be suffering from severe malnutrition, some of these may also be suffering from the affects of co-existing disease such as HIV or tuberculosis. They would be transferred by Merlin to the Stabilisation Unit in the nearest hospital at Lodwar.



Everything about this remote Northwest province of Kenya appeared tough and unforgiving. Tough to live here, tough to survive here and tough to provide healthcare to the inhabitants, the bold and ambitious task taken on by Merlin amongst others. The region is roughly the size of Scotland, with a tenth of the population. The Turkana are nomadic pastoralists, put down a medical clinic and chances are they won’t be around for long to use it. Merlin understand that you usually have to go to them. The area is intensely hot and arid, no rain fell at all during the short wet season this year. The longer the current drought rages on, the further they travel in search of greener earth, sometimes crossing international boundaries. When water is available it goes to the goats first, without them there’s no milk and no food. The Turkana, like other tribes, often cut the necks of the goats, mix the blood with milk and drink it.

Merlin work to strengthen the capacity of remote clinics in Turkana and on day two I was able to visit one and learn something of the success stories. The last epidemic of measles was in 2002, others may well have been prevented by Merlin’s attention to mass vaccination programmes. Medicines, staff, training and equipment are all essential and there seemed to be even more Merlin could do here with more funds and resources. On my third day I visited the local hospital in Lodwar and met children suffering diseases and conditions rarely encountered in the Western hospitals I trained in, tropical disease just another in the long list of burdens facing the population. I met a severely stunted five year old with visceral leishmaniasis, or Kala Azar, a parasitic infection I’d only ever read about in medical textbooks. Another had a snake bite, it was the forth bite from a carpet viper they had seen so far this year. Cases of polio do come in, but I was told that by the time patients present the disease is usually very advanced and sufferers often die or are left with permanent paralysis. One bay was devoted to the severely malnourished babies. They were oedematous, quiet and meek in their mother’s arms.

I have often read Merlin’s aims and objectives, one in particular I had recited several times in interviews with the press…

‘Merlin help those communities in greatest need.’

Now I was looking right into the heart of this need, staring it down. The Turkana are tough and resilient people coping with poverty, disease, drought, malnutrition, occasional conflict and an unforgiving environment and they are a group vulnerable for all those reasons. These are people living on the brink and if no rain falls in the wet season this year they will fall, Merlin will do their best to catch them. Having seen Merlin’s efforts firsthand I left Lodwar in no doubt that their work here is essential to the health and wellbeing of the Turkana and that the money raised through my journey was going right to where they said it would, to a community in great, great need.


The Merlin staff were the first to offer me a stern warning of the security situation on my road ahead. I was planning to travel through a region in which the Turkana and Pukot tribes were fighting. I reasoned that as long as I wasn’t wearing my ‘I heart turkana’ t-shirt or singing traditional Pukot shanties I would be OK as fighting between the tribes rarely affects tourists, unless you’re unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire. I worried more when I was told banditry was also common around these parts. I rode into Lokichar and a local man asked me which direction I was heading, to which I told him south. He immediately warned me not to continue by bike and told me that bandits plied this route, bandits who would take everything, including my bicycle. Then I came across a French couple in a Land Cruiser. They told me of another cyclist they had met recently who had taken a lift from this point for fear of armed thieves ahead. They urged me not to continue. As I rode out of Lokichar it was the policeman’s turn to offer me advice. He told me of how a lorry had been hijacked twenty kilometres from here on this very road by armed men. ‘Was this recently?’ I asked, ‘Yesterday’ came the reply. I explained to him that I did have concerns and that locals had told me the bandits would take everything, including my bike. ‘No no no’ he said. ‘They won’t take your bike. But they will take your money. And that IPOD. And your clothes. And probably some food and water. Do you have a camera?’
‘I do’
And that too’.

I left town and began my journey across the boundary between Turkana and Pukot territory. I wondered if I was also crossing another boundary, the hazy line that lies between the adventurous and the foolhardy. Then came warning number six, a truck stopped and the driver leaned out of the window, his face said what the hell do you think you’re doing?
‘You’ll be killed’ he said finally ‘bandits are everywhere’.

I’ve grown numb to warnings of ‘bad people’, if I’d heeded every one I wouldn’t have made it past Greater London. But this was different. There comes a point when you can’t stop ignoring people telling you that you are about to get robbed and murdered. I pushed my bike onto that heavy truck with an even heavier heart. I planned to take the lift for just one hundred kilometres, a distance I could comfortably cover in one day, but I couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling of defeat. But then at least I’m not dead, as almost everyone has told me since. When we pulled away I very quickly realised I had jumped into the wrong vehicle. The driver was an unhinged nutter. The journey along the pothole-laden, ungraded road with a speed freak behind the wheel was an hour and a half of my life I’d rather forget. I tried to hold my bike upright whilst protecting myself from smashing into the metal roll cage which was the only feature of the interior of the truck. Seatbelts were as absent as my drivers ambition to use the brakes. I constantly smashed my head and shoulders into the metal and sprained everything sprainable in my neck. If five Pukot bandits had given me a solid pasting I doubted they would have done a better job than I was getting in the back of this truck. We overtook many vehicles, none came past us. Another passenger pointed out the popular ambush points along the road and mentioned that there were more tribal warriors around today than usual, I felt slightly better about my decision but one thought resonated through my bruised and bouncing cranium…

If I die here, in this truck, I’m going to look like a right idiot

I imagined people chatting at my funeral ‘I know, I know, it’s very sad. And to think, he wasn’t really cycling around the world at all’.

I was dropped off at a campsite which smelt of mushrooms and which had a large group of endemic monkeys scampering around the tents. Every so often they would get into a loud and vicious fight. Back on my bike I started out riding through undulating hills, through tea planatations and in and out of luscious green valleys. When I arrived into one town a young Kenyan lad ran out in front of me and started cleaning my bike with an old rag. When he was done he yelled ‘Go go go!’ and patted me on the back. I cycled off feeling a little like a Formula One racing driver at a pit stop.

I carry my life around on my bicycle and there’s little room for luxuries. I have begun to get attached to the few possessions I own. I recently christened one of my inner tubes ‘Old Patchy’ after the 25 odd repair jobs he’s been through. On my way to Nairobi came the sudden and unsettling realisation that I may have befriended an inner tube. For anyone worried about my mental state I must stress that I’ve never had a (full) conversation with Old Patchy and I didn’t shed a tear when he eventually headed for the dustbin.

I continued south through the Kenyan countryside and picked up a curious smell. A nice smell. A great smell. Not just one, a host of different scents mixed together, but the combination familiar and now unmistakable. It was the smell of home. They say your sense of smell is the strongest link to your past, Kenya filled me with nostalgia and I realised suddenly that this was now the longest I have ever been away from home. The smell was from my childhood, of plants and flowers with names I’ve never known. Rain fell for almost the first time since I left Europe behind me six months ago and the countryside began to smell even more like the England I remember. It was still raining as I crossed the equator, a line I expect to ride through another five times before I get back to England. The rain was cool, refreshing, copious and welcome. You never miss the rain until it’s gone. There were numerous other small similarities to home, many probably relics of Kenya’s colonial past. Money is colloquially referred to as ‘bob’, people (are supposed to) drive on the left, electrical sockets have three pins, even the traffic police uniforms look strikingly similar to ours and tea always, always comes with milk. Judging by the boozy aroma emanating from virtually every Kenyan male that approached us, Kenya also has an alcohol problem to rival that of the UK.


There is a lot to like about Kenya. Most of all I like that every Kenyan is the proud owner of a preternaturally wide smile and that every Kenyan holds an obligation to show it off whenever they greet anyone. The children laugh and giggle when they see me approach, a very different reaction to that of those little sadistic anarchists in Ethiopia. I finally arrived into Nairobi at the start of February, slightly ruffled by numerous close skirmishes with Kenyan drivers, the worst I’ve seen in Africa (but not the world, sorry Syria, nobody’s stealing your crown). The first thing I noticed was the obvious wealth on display in the capital. Turkana was a world away, the gulf immense. In a country still plagued by corruption it made me angry to see how money never seems to filter down to those most in need. Kenya’s also a country more outwardly religious than most. Gospel music drifts through Nairobi’s streets and avenues, it’s slums are full of churches and signs on public transport command ‘No Preaching’. When I visited an HIV clinic in the west of the country the nurses all sat down to pray for the patients before they started work and every so often a beaming young Kenyan would put their arm around my shoulder and utter that brave opening gambit ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’

In Nairobi I was reunited with Nyomi after a month apart, a month during which she had hiked 5000 metres up Mount Kenya with her boyfriend, we swapped tales of our separate adventures. I looked at her bike and noticed that a catapult now sat tethered to the handlebars. I pointed at it and raised my palms skyward in question. ‘For the monkeys!’ she declared with bright eyes and a winsome grin. I won’t deny we needed the break from each other, but it felt good to be cycling together again. Earlier on in our African adventure Nyomi’s dreadlocks and the sign which sat on the front of her handlebar bag emblazoned with the words ‘I DON’T BRAKE FOR ANYONE’ had given her a bizarre and unique appearance. Her look often made me chuckle, I loved the sharp contrast between ‘friendly hippy’ and ‘violent sociopath’. When we met up again Nyomi had decided that enough was enough and those dreads had to go. She shaved her head – grade 1 – raging sociopath. At least drivers will think twice about cutting us up in future. I’m trying hard to encourage her to invest in some fake gold teeth and a studded leather neck collar.



In Nairobi I visited the Merlin team based there and stayed with John, an expat and another seasoned cycle tourer. After the well needed break Nyomi and I set off, travelling west towards Uganda. My journal entry from Thursday Febuary 17th reads simply ‘washout’. Some days just are, nothing you can do, nothing you can prepare for and no level of positive thinking will change that.

6.15 am – Wake up in my tent. We had camped with the police in the outskirts of a small town. I tell Nyomi I’m excited about the day ahead, my first day riding through Masai country. I’m optimistic we’ll cover a good 140 km before sunset.

7 am – Tent down, bike packed, mango consumed, police thanked.

7.01 am – Attempt to pump up back tyre. Pump breaks and air escapes from tyre.

8 am – Multiple attempts to fix pump using gaffa tape, o-rings and my leatherman eventually fail

8.01 am – Punch air, throw pump around petulantly, curse everything

8.10 am – Wander into town. Can’t find any bike pumps for sale but manage to get tyre re-inflated

9.15 am – Set off

9.25 am – Puncture

9.30 am – I repair it, cycle a ten kilometres on Nyomi’s bike into town and back to get tyre re-inflated

9.50 am – Return with tyre

9.51 am – Realise I have another slow puncture. I repair another tube and this time Ny cycles back into town with the wheel to get tyre re-inflated

10.15 am – Ny returns with inflated tyre

10.20 am – Realise Ny now has a puncture

10.30 am – Fix Ny’s puncture and inflate tyre with our other pump (the one that only works with the valves on Ny’s bike)

10.45 am – Nyomi’s pump breaks. Tyre not fully inflated but we cycle off anyway

11.15 am – Nyomi gets a puncture. We fix it and re-inflate the tyre by screwing together parts of the two broken pumps

12 pm – We lose a bolt in the sand and spend half an hour searching for it

12.30 – We sit down for lunch. Ny sits on an ant’s nest, I sit on a thorn bush.

13.30 – We set off again

15.30 – Thunder, lightning and heavy downpour. We get a soaking.

16.00 – We agree to officially class the day as a washout and a right-off. We’ve covered 26 km all day.

16.30 – We find a cheap hostel and decide to focus on tomorrow. As I lift up my bicycle to get it over the step the back wheel falls off. I’d forgotten to tighten it back on again after I fixed my last puncture. Crowd of onlookers laugh. So do I.

In the tropics when the rain settles and the sun shines once more, the land becomes caked in a damp, glistening, refulgent glow. There’s the foliant blaze of wet vegetation, the splendent gold of the yellow fever trees and the tiny brilliant scarlet dots of Masai people working in the fields. We pushed west with the infamous Masai Mara game reserve lying to our left and stretching out to the horizon and together we sang.

‘I see clearly now the rain has gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a (ny) bright, (me) bright, (together) bright sun-shining day!’

It was two days out from Nairobi when I noticed a portentous concrescence of dark grey clouds, almost black, overhead. There was a sudden disquieting groan, as if the sky above were being tortured. Each clap of thunder soon became indistinguishable from the last, a constant rumble echoed through the dimming light and quickening breeze. Within seconds the sky opened its dark underbelly and hail fired down upon us. We scrambled for raincoats and with no shelter nearby we hunched double over our bikes and covered our ears as the large hailstones smashed into our heads and backs, stinging as they made impact. After ten minutes the hail had turned to rain and we began to pedal onwards. It rained for the last days we spent in Nairobi and for almost every day since. Not the steady drizzle of Blighty but tropical rain, rain preceded by warm sunshine and then abrupt and torrential. It usually persists until sunset which is a sudden eclipse unlike the sunset of northern latitudes. I know the familiar pattern will only get more familiar, this is just the start of the big wet season which reaches its peak for us in April when we ride through Rwandan rainforest and then Tanzanian savannah.


After three days on the road (discounting the ‘washout’) we reached Kisii and met up with Merlin once again with a plan to visit projects in the area. Kisii was the polar opposite of Turkana – densely populated, wet and green with abundant food and water. The main problems being tackled here were HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. We visited a HIV clinic, the pure numbers involved incomprehensible. The hospital was heaving and it was easy to see how and why HIV infection in Africa is so often referred to as an epidemic. This one centre had an HIV positive population of 10,000 under it’s care. Some experiences with patients as a health care worker will always stay with you, indelible recollections of the good and the bad. For me the first and only time I have had to give a patient a positive diagnosis of HIV infection is one. In an instant I gained insight into the deep psychosocial trauma of HIV. Here in Kenya nurses counselled small groups of patients about to start on treatment and I didn’t envy their task but I could see how vital education, advice and support would be, and the groups also functioned to show people that they weren’t alone, that other people were suffering too, or in Kenya’s case, lots and lots of other people.

On the road west we passed villages just five or ten kilometres from the place of Barrick Obama’s grandmother’s home. The young men here described Obama as ‘our brother’, the pride was palpable. For a small fee you could visit Obama’s grandmother, she is now a popular tourist attraction. I waved goodbye to the last of the smiling Kenyans and crossed the border into Uganda.

Most people if they were pushed to describe my journey with a single adjective would probably choose ‘absurd’. I agree. And during my absurd adventure I know that at times I will closely scrutinise my own motivation. I wonder what I’m looking for, what I’m trying to achieve and ask myself why, again and again and again. Watching Merlin at work has been a huge boost for me and I feel privileged to have had the chance to see what most fundraisers don’t get the chance to – to look into the faces of the people whose lives have been changed, in big or small ways, by the donors at home who have sponsored my journey. It was worth seeing, if only because it makes me feel that describing my ride as ‘absurd’ doesn’t quite cover it. It gives some meaning to what can sometimes feel meaningless. In the tough times ahead I will try to remember that. In Turkana and Kisii I witnessed firsthand the need, the progess and the potential. I urge anyone moved to make a donation to Merlin to do so here. I hope I have shown that every penny is needed and that every penny will be spent wisely to help communities like the Turkana, ‘the people of the grey bull’, people who have the odds stacked squarely against them. Thanks for your support…

http://www.justgiving.com/cyclingthe6


Me and the Merlin team celebrating my 13,000 km milestone in Lodwar, Turkana.
In Nairobi I also found the time to add tags to all my images on Flickr, an online photo sharing service. To see a list of my tags click here, to see photos arranged in sets by country click here and to see a chronological slideshow of some of the best images from my ride so far click here.

Frontier passage and the Jade Sea


“An adventure is never an adventure when it is happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment and an adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility” – Tim Cahill

The variety in culture, language and tradition is abundantly clear in Ethiopia. We heard the word used for ‘white person’ change four times as we traveled south through areas using different regional dialects. For just three or four towns and villages the women wore their hair in wavy bops, the traditional style of their ethnic group, and just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. For a few more towns the children began a bizarre dance routine when they saw us approach, quickly knocking their knees together, and like all the other curiosities it soon petered out and we never saw those strange dancing children again, but I loved Ethiopia all the more for it. The Ethiopian children south of Addis kept up their demands for money, to which I replied by asking them for pens, or for pens, to which I then asked them for money. These weren’t poor children, they were boisterous chancers who would often throw stones or pretend to ram large sticks into our spokes as we rode past and I was getting fed up with their baleful antics.


We rode towards a lakeside town called Arba Minch, mountains to our right and vast banana plantations to our left. Baboons surveyed us suspiciously from the road ahead and then scampered off to feast on the fruit nearby. Young children from the villages tried optimistically to sell us live chickens. We would usually arrive into a village together and leave in a peloton, anyone in the vicinity with a bicycle would hop on to follow us out and for several kilometers past.

‘You ride from England!?’
‘Yeshalla!’ we would reply. Amharic for ‘anything’s possible!’.

When we arrived into the town it was Ethiopian Christmas, which fell on January 7th. Most of Arba Minch was drunk, including the policeman who stopped me in the road. I was cycling on the left, in Ethiopia nobody paid much attention to which side of the road you were on, but the inebriated copper was having none of it. He looked unsteady and clumsy and sported an unnerving malevolent sneer, I immediately sensed trouble. ‘This is the wrong side of the road!’ he bellowed. ‘Of course, I’m very sorry’ I replied and began moving to the other side. ‘Stop there!’ he yelled. ‘Don’t go anywhere! I’m talking to you!’ I was now in the centre of the road and a queue of vehicles was building up on either side of me. ‘Don’t you know this is the wrong side of the road? This is very bad news. I am a policeman! Bad news! Bad news!’ I apologized and edged away. Drunk officials are a dangerous breed and all too prevalent in Africa.


Arba Minch sat by a lake famous for huge crocodiles, hippos and birdlife. We ventured out on a boat in search of the crocs and came across several five metre long specimens sunning themselves on the lake shore, mouths agape and motionless they stared out at the water with an ancient fire behind their bright green lambent eyes. Just ten metres away I watched a local fisherman standing thigh deep in the lake humming a tune to himself, oblivious or indifferent to any apparent peril. Our guide informed us that every year around five fishermen go missing, presumed eaten by hungry crocodiles who have become increasingly ravenous as their main food source is in decline with the lake being over-fished. It seemed to me quite an effective but cruel self regulating system for the crocodiles to then eat the fishermen.



Afterwards we went out in search of ‘tej’, a locally brewed honey wine gulped down voraciously by Ethiopians out of glass vials similar to the ones I used in my chemistry lessons at school. When I entered the tej bar my first impression was that some sort of scientific experiment had gone very acutely and horribly wrong. In the dim light I could make out the glass vials, many were smashed and a viscid yellow goo spilled from them onto the tables and the floor. Men were slumped around the room, semi-conscious and drooling, some mumbling incoherently. One man glowered in my direction, he was cradling a vial of tej in his left hand and an AK47 assault rifle in his right. Bees flew in erratic and haphazard loops around the room and some floated in the vials. Tej’s cunningly benign taste hides a potent kick that takes full effect when you attempt anything more ambitious than ordering more tej. This includes trying to stand up, having a conversation and then a little later, maintaining eye contact.

The arid, thinly populated badlands of Northern Kenya are without doubt the most dangerous parts I would travel through on my passage to Cape Town. It’s a large area which borders southern Sudan and Uganda in the west and Somalia in the East, it’s poorly administered and in many parts essentially lawless. It’s a region of tribal warriors, nomads and the notorious and ruthless ‘Shifta’, local bandits who don’t hesitate in taking lives. The main ‘Moyale Road’ that runs for 500 km has for some time been considered shifta territory. Armed guards are stationed on overland trucks and buses traversing this route and in Khartoum we met a truck driver who had been shot through the windscreen of his vehicle on this road just one month before, the bullet had entered and exited his right shoulder. I guessed rough camping here would be courting with extreme danger and friends and fellow cyclists alike warned me to abandon any hubris and take a lift if it didn’t appear safe. I wanted more than anything to ride all the way to Cape Town without resorting to cadging lifts in buses or trucks. It’s often hard to sort the scare stories and myth from the facts, even so I knew I had enough information to make a simple choice – not to ride the Moyale road. Despondently I surveyed my map and something caught my eye, a faint line in the crease of the page, well west of the Moyale Road, and it looked to cross the border into Kenya. This new option passed close to southern Sudan and skirted the shores of lake Turkana, ‘The Jade Sea’, an active volcanic region and the world’s largest desert lake. I did some online research but information was hard to come by. I discovered there were no customs or immigration on the Kenyan side of the border. The Lonely Planet and other guide books didn’t even see fit to mention crossing here as a possibility. All I had to go on was a few threads from online forums and a couple of isolated blog reports from the precious few adventurous souls who had decided to tackle the Lake Turkana route, and fewer still had attempted it on a bicycle. Although bandits may be more scarce the route was not without its own unique challenges. This is the very edge of civilization, due largely to a highly inhospitable environment, a combination of extremely high temperatures, virtually no rain and ferocious winds year round. It’s a desolate wilderness and if things went wrong out here there would be little support, many of the sandy tracks snaking through the region saw no vehicles for a week or more. Good maps of the area were non-existent and without a GPS navigation would be tough. There were also very few water points meaning I would have to carry up to twenty litres on my bike as well as a large quantity of food. I heard stories of inter-tribal conflict across the region and of lions drinking at the lake and carpet vipers common underfoot. I knew that the decision to ride or to get a lift had to be an individual one for myself and Nyomi. With her boyfriend paying her a visit in Nairobi, for Ny the decision was an easy one and she planned to hop on a bus at Konso. With the prospect of climatic extremes, arduous cycling, desolation, vulnerability, warring tribes and fierce beasts for me too the decision was easy. I started to make preparations for the ride straight away.

‘Sudden, violent storms are frequent. Nile crocodiles are found in great abundance on the flats. The rocky shores are home to scorpions and carpet vipers’ – Wikipaedia

‘We were going to die. I was sure of it now. When the next vehicle passed, they’d find my decaying corpse under an acacia. Eric was putting up a more positive front, though I caught him furrowing his brow every time he snuck a look at the compass. We obviously weren’t headed in the right direction.’ – Amaya Williams,world cyclist, http://www.worldbiking.info/

‘In 25 tours and almost 30,000 km of touring I would rate those days as some of the toughest. Hot, barren, and kinda vulnerable are the words that come to mind.’ – Thorn tree forum.

‘You’ll find animals (there are lions too, not only elephants) and rocks and sand. You’ll push a lot. The  tribes fight very often.’ – Thorn tree forum.

I gathered as much information as I could from local tour guides whom I judged may know something of the area. ‘You want my advice?’ said one ‘Don’t do it. It’s too tough’. I heard ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’, ‘wouldn’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ and with each admonition a childish stubborn urge in me flourished and I felt compelled to give it a crack. I also found out that Merlin, the medical aid charity I’m raising funds for, have a base in the Turkana district. They operate throughout the region and this was an opportunity to visit them en route and witness their work firsthand.

Konso felt like the precipice, the last place to stock up, the last paved roads and the last town of any descent size before I leapt into an unknown abyss. It’s also where I waved goodbye to Nyomi as she sat on the back of a bus bound for Kenya. I purchased a litre of Ethiopian honey, half a kilo of peanuts, half a kilo of porridge oats, lots of rice, pasta and biscuits and got my bike ready. Before I reached the lake I would ride through the Omo valley, an area famous for the colourful local tribes, often dubbed ‘a human museum’. Some tourists fork out some petty cash for photos of the tribes. On my way through it was sad to see so many tribal people abandoning their traditional way of life to stand by the roadside in an effort to blag money for photos from passing tourists, tourists who generally contribute little to the local community and spend their money in far away countries with distant tour operators.

The descent into the Omo valley was magnificent, from the highlands I saw great plains stretching out beneath me, dust devils sprang to life in the distance, raced across the flats, slowly languished and then dissolved back into the desert. As I coasted down hill two women rushed out to greet me. They were topless with ocre coloured hair, goat skin skirts and were decorated in cowries, copper bracelets and wore the marks of scarification – I recognized them as members of the Hamer tribe. They seemed to find me as fascinating as I found them. They had children in tow who were clearly suffering from the effects of severe malnutrition. When they turned to leave I noticed large scars on their backs, marks from ritual flagellation, a long tradition in Hamer society. I continued to descend to the hot river basin. The temperature was consistently in the high 40’s and in the sun I recorded 56.5 degrees Celcius. I was now drinking eleven litres of water per day.



In one small South Omo village I was stunned to encounter another cyclist and a true veteran of the game. The Swiss man had clocked up over 60,000 km in Africa, traversing the continent 3 times by bicycle, and had ridden over 200,000 km worldwide. ‘I’ll die on my bike’ he assured me. He had a habit of bellowing every word and swore profusely, our conversation resembled a sergeant dishing out a set of commands to a fresh army recruit, but his instruction was invaluable. Amazingly he had just ridden the Lake Turkana route and he seemed just as surprised as me to have found someone else willing to ride the same path. He wasted no time in detailing how treacherous and precarious the journey would be, and from an old-timer his words carried extra weight. As he described the route ahead and traced his finger across my map he would intermittently stop in mid flow, grab my thigh, fix my gaze and yell ‘IF YOU MISS THIS TURN YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’ and then soon after ‘IF YOU DON’T TAKE 20 LITRES OF WATER HERE YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’ and finally ‘IF YOU CAMP HERE YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’.
‘Alright, alright. I’m definitely going to die.’
‘It’s serious! Death is serious!’
‘I know, I know! Thank you’

Appropriately the sign that marked the last Ethiopian town before the border said ‘Welcome. Value your life’. Here I loaded my bike onto a dug out canoe and crossed the Omo river. On the opposing bank was a faint track and my route to Kenya. The Swiss cyclist had assured me that on this section it was impossible to get lost and I resented him telling me that. For some people it’s never impossible to get lost, and I happen to be one of them. Inevitably I ended up riding in circles, recurrently returning to the same dead goat, but on each lap I had accumulated a slightly larger group of naked tribal children following behind. Eventually a tribesman guided me to the right path. The headwind was biting and the sand underneath my tyres meant that I had to get off and push my bike more often than I could ride it. Twenty kilometres took me over three hours to cover but slowly I left the people and tin huts behind and I was riding solo through the empty desert following a faint track which frequently deteriorated to the point of non-existence and then reappeared somewhere up ahead. I persevered and eventually reached a remote police outpost. They topped me up with murky water from the river and I headed off again, pushing my bike through the sand, a bike which now carried fifteen litres of water and weighed as much as I did. I abandoned the sandy track and continued off-road, keeping the track to my left and just in view. The thorny desert scrub meant numerous punctures. In the fading light and after hours of struggling I arrived at a remote catholic mission in the Ilemi Triangle: a literal no-man’s-land between Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan which is territory disputed by all three. The priest welcomed me.

‘Well done, you’ve made it through the most volatile region’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The Turkana and the Dassenach tribes are at war. We lost sixty lives here last year’
‘I had no idea’
‘I bet you’re glad you didn’t’ he said


I pitched my tent and discovered a small carpet viper slithering inconspicuously nearby. It made a retreat when I pelted it with stones but I slept restlessly knowing that the zip to my tent inner was broken and that it had to remain open through the night. The next day I spent two hours repairing the numerous slow punctures in my cheap Chinese made inner tubes, the last two I had left. I pushed off again but slowly my house of cards began to tumble down. First the pump to my stove broke irreparably meaning I couldn’t cook any of my food. Then the fuel for my now useless stove leaked inside my pannier leaving my remaining snacks with a petrol-y aftertaste. Then I realized I was probably on the wrong sandy track. Then my brakes seized up. Then more punctures, then more pushing through the sand and then finally a local tribesman demanded a bottle of water which I felt compelled to hand over after realizing this was a command and not a question, reinforced by his menacing tone and ready rifle. It was a bad day at the office times a thousand. But just when I was starting to abandon all hope that I could complete this section by bike, my luck changed once again. It started with a faint sound of a car engine and then the first vehicles I’d seen since crossing the Omo river, four French couples in 4 by 4s, the same group I had met days before in Ethiopia. It had taken me a day and a half to cover what had taken them an hour. They topped me up with water and checked their GPS – I was just seven kilometres from an alternative track which branched off and took me on a longer route through the mountains, but which was hopefully an easier option. The rocky road ended up being almost as tough as the sand, the stones were loose and again the track often disappeared altogether. It ran through a gorge, Turkana tribesmen watched me from the cliffs above. I needed to get to the town marked on my map before nightfall and as the light faded I was sure the characters above looked familiar. My mind overflowed with dark paranoid speculation. Were they following me from up there on the cliffs? Were they waiting for darkness to fall? Fuelled by the adrenaline of fear I pedaled furiously and arrived into the small town completely exhausted where I happened upon another catholic mission which had a bed for me and a small charcoal burning stove on which to cook.

The next day I pulled out my repair kit to fix my third puncture of the morning and to my horror found that my tube of glue had leaked. There was none left. That was it. It was all over. Only one or two vehicles passed down this road per day and there wasn’t a settlement marked on my map for 150 km, I’d have to hop on the next truck, whichever direction it was heading. I was gutted that such a trivial problem such as a loose lid on a tube of glue had killed my dream of making it by bicycle. But the next vehicle happened to be a motorbike. I explained my predicament and the driver told me that there was a village nearby, ten kilometres from here but off the main road. He offered to ride there and check for the glue and in an hour he was back with what I needed. I thanked him rapaciously and carried on to yet another catholic mission and a small impoverished community of Turkana people. The indigence here was striking. Their cattle were dying, no rain had fallen in the wet season this year and the temporary shacks which they called home looked ready to disintegrate at any given moment. The roofs were constructed out of the cardboard from boxes of US food aid. I was covering only fifty kilometres per day now and the next was the toughest yet. Gale force winds came from over the lake and slowed my progress to walking pace. In the distance a haze hung over the hills the way smog hangs over a city. I guessed that it was a sandstorm and I was heading right into it’s maw. Soon I was engulfed, my senses obliterated, eyes, nose, mouth and ears full of sand. I was completely disorientated in the murk. I pushed my bike on through the storm and finally reached yet another catholic mission and then some beautiful, glorious tarmac. For two more days I pedaled, each turn was a huge effort in my weary and underfed state. At last I arrived into Merlin’s base at Lodwar to a warm welcome from the staff at the compound. I’ve made it, I told myself. I’ve made it. I’ve made it.