Apologies if you’d been expecting my monthly update and got radio-silence… It was the first time I’ve missed a blog post in the last seven years. My excuse is that I’ve been embroiled in all manner of projects since coming back and the blog had to take a back seat. But I will continue to post here.
I’ve been honest, I promise. Yes, some of my gear is sponsored and yes, of course I have a vested interest in promoting the freebies, but on this trip I only approached sponsors who are at the top of their game and I refused kit that I suspected wasn’t up to the job. I haven’t included anything in the lists that follow that didn’t work extremely well in some of the tough and varied conditions I experienced en route. This is a breakdown of what worked and what didn’t, what I really needed and what I could have done without. It’s in no particular order. Hopefully it will be useful for anyone planning their own cycle tour, expedition or outdoor adventure. There´s a full kit list on my website here.
Top ten kit list
(items which cost less than £50)
1. A Buff
How do you describe a Buff? Maybe ´Multifunctional headgear´ covers it. I used it in a variety of extreme conditions and I reckon I have worn it in every possible fashion (see the video below) including the ‘Driving Miss Daisy’. It stopped me accruing ice crystals in my beard in the Alps, it turned into a sweat band in the Middle East and saved my eyes and nostrils from a sandy oblivion during a sand storm in Sudan. One word of warning though… don’t walk into an Albanian bank wearing a Buff as a full face mask as I did, you will inadvertently terrorize all the staff.
Cyclists are a vulnerable bunch when it comes to mosquito bites and the diseases they carry. It’s fair to say that as an absolute minimum, a bout of malaria would have really pissed me off. I found Incognito – a non DEET based repellent and gave it a go. Whilst riding through the malarial zones in sub-Saharan Africa it has been incredibly effective and I’ve been malaria free. Plus it makes you smell like lemons, which after cycling 150 km can only be a bonus. You can get some here
3. P20 Suncream
4. Endura Hummvee 3/4 shorts and trousers
It´s a bold statement I know, but I reckon Endura make the best cycling clothing out there. I rode in these almost every day. Loads of pockets with zips, stretch panels and side zipped ventilation. And they look cool, which of course is very important when you’re completely on your own for days at a time in the middle of a desert.
5. Craghoppers base t-shirt
I alternated between two of these t-shirts whilst cycling through Africa and both look almost brand new today. They cost less than a tenner and are made from moisture-wicking polyester which keeps you dry and not caked in sweat. Bargain.
|Craghoppers Base t-shirt and Endura 3/4 shorts|
6. The Nomad Expedition Poncho
Its all about multi-functionality when you’re gram saving to avoid chugging too slowly up those hills. Yes it’s a poncho but I also used it as a tarp and a ground sheet. It got me through the wet season and anything that copes with tropical rain in Tanzania must be worthy of a place in this top ten. Find it here
7. Seal skinz socks
The Sealskinz range of waterproof socks keep your feet warm and dry even in the worst weather conditions and definitely worth investing in if you´re planning a journey through a wet climate. Unique patented technology – find out more here
8. Moleskine journal
A symbol of contemporary nomadism. These are the ultimate, classic, smartest notebooks, used by the legendary explorers and artists of yesteryear. I’m particularly fond of trying to convince strangers that they are actually made from mole’s skin. The Moleskine is where my blog begins and where my book, if I ever write one, will be spawned from. There are several different varieties. I use the large ruled hardback which has loads of pages, little pockets for all the scrap paper I scribble disjointed ideas down on and a reward section at the front. More info here
9. Park MTB-3 Multitool
10. Sea to Summit Sleeping bag liner
Washing a sleeping bag is a hassle so these save you the trouble – you just wash the liner. They also keep you even warmer on cold nights. There are various versions including silk and cotton. You can get some here.
Top ten kit list
(items that cost more than £50)
(items that cost more than £50)
1. The Santos Travelmaster bicycle
I bought Belinda, my bicycle, knowing I needed to spend enough money to guarantee a solid, trusty steed. She hasn’t let me down. Santos allow you to do a complete custom build, so you choose each part of the bike from a range of different components. You choose the frame colour and type of metal, the accessories, the brakes, the chain, the pedals, the rims… everything. This freedom of choice and high quality of the parts doesn’t come cheap but I reckon it’s worth the price tag and would certainly favour a Santos over, for example, a Thorn – another popular touring bike in the UK. The bike came with a Rohloff hub – a device which contains 14 internal gears and holds a solid reputation – most long distance cyclists I came across have one. I wanted a bike that was durable and easy to fix. Mine has a steel frame and isn’t light – perhaps weighing around 20kg – but it’s as heavy as it needs to be and will hopefully last me the five years I plan to be cycling. It came with a Brooks saddle, a handlebar mounted compass, a very strong kickstand and a dynamo hub.
I have ridden thousands of miles in relative comfort thanks to Alasdair at MSG Bikes who does an ergonomic bike fitting which is unique to him and not available anywhere else. Their slogan “it’s not all about the bike is right.¨ Check them out here
Is this the largest music memory of all portable MP3 players? I don’t rightly know but that’s got to be the main draw. 160 GB = about 40,000 songs. That’s over 110 days and nights of listening continuously until you reach the end of the track list. I have almost 30,000 on mine so I doubt I´ll ever get bored. Yes Itunes is annoying and makes accessibility difficult but it still has to be head, shoulders, knees and toes above the other MP3 players out there.
3. Leatherman Wave
4. Ortlieb Panniers
Out of the 26 cycle tourers I met between London and Cape Town almost all of them had Ortliebs, and there must be a reason. Immensely durable, watertight and suitably voluminous for starters. They are an obvious choice for most.
5. Tubus racks
In South America I was once flung far from my saddle when a cheap aluminium rack suddenly bent and jammed into my spokes, obliterating several of them and leaving me rackless with a sore arse in a ditch. So it’s fair to say I did my research this time round, make way for the Tubus. The concensus seems to be that these are the strongest racks out there and well worth the investment, unless you have a penchant for mud in your face and the taste of blood.
6. Schwalbe tyres
I did almost 16,000 km on my front Schwalbe Extreme, that’s the distance from London to Tanzania. This is another brand the long distance cyclists stick to like glue. Overwhelmingly more popular than the competitors, some cyclists complain of forgetting how to fix a puncture after fitting them. I have the Schwalbe Dureme on now, they might sound like a brand of condom but they do the job and I suppose if either bursts you’re going to have a pretty bad day.
7. Terra Nova Superlite Solar tent
|Camping in thick snow, the Alps|
8. Exped Downmat
Down and air is the combo gives you the warmest night’s sleep. These sleeping mats are also much more comfortable than a thermorest or a simple roll mat. Check them out here.
Tough sandals you can cycle in, with cleats if you need them. I wore them almost every day I was in Africa and they lasted me all the way. You can pick up a pair from Madison here.
10. Business cards
Not just a good way to avoid constantly writing down your email address to people you meet en route on scraps of paper which inevitably get lost but also a good way to promote a blog or website. I´m tired of explaining my route around the world so I have a map on the back of the cards so I can just show people instead.
Never leave home without…
A couple of good books
Kit I wish I’d brought…
A descent multifuel stove – such as the Primus Omnifuel
Two litre water bottle holders for the bike (still can’t find any)
A decent travel pillow – the key to a good night’s sleep
Presents for people / thank you cards – maybe some photos from home
A half decent netbook
A decent dry bag for the rack to keep everything together, such as this one pictured from Overboard Africa…
Some kit I wish I had left behind…
MSR stove (I had one, it is now floating around the crocodile infested waters of the Okovango river in Botswana. Good riddance.)
Self sticking puncture repair patches – good for a race when you have to repair punctures quickly but not for touring. They all eventually fail.
Cleats – still not sure if these were behind my knee injury but I no longer take the risk
My crap bike pump without a pressure gauge, always have a gauge.
Tubes with Presta valves – You will never find replacements outside Europe, go instead with Schroeder valves which are also handy because if your pumps breaks, and it will, you can re-inflate at petrol stations
3 things I would never skimp on…
2. Sleeping bag
So a quick update – I´m currently in Argentina and about to begin the next leg of the journey – The Americas. It will be around 18 months from here to Alaska. Cant wait to get started. My knee has been a problem of late but the MRI scan in Cape Town was better than I had anticipated and the knee has improved a fair bit since, so on I go. More stories from the road very soon.
The Northern Cape province of South Africa was a series of striking and tranquil tableaus with robust mountains and winding valleys and bright wild flowers beginning to bloom. As we moved south, homing in on Cape Town, we encountered more humbling South African generosity. It came first from yet another stranger who handed us yet another 100 Rand bill so that we could buy some lunch. A few days later a white van pulled up and a sack of 36 large oranges was unloaded into my hands through the open window, ‘for energy!’ shouted the driver. We were already carrying some ourselves so we now had 48 oranges to eat in three days. Nyomi began adding orange juice to her pasta sauce.
Further south we hit the vineyards of the Western Cape and then the Atlantic coast. We were growing impatient for the finish line. ‘Cape Town’ – two words that mean much more to us than another big city and a stop over, Cape Town is the podium, it represents a mission accomplished and a challenge surpassed. For the last sixteen months it has felt like a distant dream, a fairy tale city, and even now it felt as far away as ever. On our last day, Nelson Mandela’s birthday, we battled down the highway against the wind. During lunch a car pulled up and the driver felt the need to issue us a word of warning
‘Cape Town?… guys you know that it’s at least 50km from here? Very far on a bicycle’.
We both laughed, he didn’t get the joke. Soon afterwards another car pulled up.
‘Where are you guys staying in Cape Town? You have to come to mine. I have a city house and a beach house. I’ll give you the keys. Which one takes your fancy?’
This was a ludicrous situation. I was dirty, windswept, cold, hungry and tired and now suddenly I was standing on the roadside giving serious consideration as to whether I wanted to retire to the city house or the beach house. We opted for the city pad, our new friend Paul drew us a map and we pedaled off again with renewed vigor. Table Mountain, the ‘Guardian of the South’, faded into view, it was more imposing and grand than I had imagined. Cape Town’s drivers honked and waved their encouragement. Soon we found ourselves in the Central Business District and I caught sight of a board advertising the day’s specials outside a restaurant. ‘Egyptian Koshary’. We had to stop. This was our favourite meal in Egypt at the very start of our African journey. It must be a sign. I got chatting to the waiter; he was Malawian and hailed from our favourite hangout, Nkata Bay. We quickly discovered we knew all the same people, including his cousin. The strange coincidences were mounting up but things were about to get even more surreal. First a transvestite walked past our table glammed up in a fluffy pink cardigan, a miniskirt, plentiful lipstick and numerous sequins. He winked at us and pouted as he passed by. An elderly man then approached us with a guitar and began a serenade. Bemused, we ate our fill and cycled to Paul and Kirstin’s pretty Victorian town house, situated right at the base of Table Mountain itself.
There was one more piece of the jigsaw; no journey across Africa would be complete without reaching the Cape of Good Hope, the most South Westerly point on the continent. So the next day we were off again, stopping on our way at Paul and Kirstin’s beach house and then meeting up with Jill, Sean, Megan and Andrew, a family we’d run into days before on the coast. They took us out for tasty fish and chips and we stayed the night before making the final push to Cape Point. On the way we rode along Chapman’s Peak Drive, a road of 114 curves which hugs the near vertical face of a mountain for 10 km along the coast and it was here we came past a road cyclist who waved us down.
‘Hey are you that doctor that’s cycling around the world?’
‘I am!’ I answered, astonished
‘Hey and are you that girl that fell over?’
‘I am.’ Grumbled Nyomi, dispondent
Glenn was recently back from a tour through Namibia. He had heard about us whilst he was there but we’d never met. The end of our trip was becoming as full of bizarre twists and turns as our road to Cape Point and our entire journey through Africa. We came across road signs warning of baboons, penguins, tortoise and then golfers. En masse the last must be a real menace with their outlandish fashion sense and flagrant disregard for good taste. The last section had a couple of climbs, we powered up with legs that were born in the Ethiopian highlands. The headwind was brisk but it was a gentle breeze compared to the gales on top of Rwandan hills. The sun beat down on us but it had nothing on the formidable heat of the Sahara. Every road, every path and every track leading up to this point had made our lives easier and our bodies more resilient. Finally after 23,215 kilometres, 26 international boundaries, one year and four months on the road, 265 days in Africa and a farcical puncture count yet to be tallied, we rode into the Cape of Good Hope. The end of our journey wasn’t quite as I had envisaged. There was no champagne, there were no dancing girls, there wasn’t even a little man I had assumed would follow us around playing ‘Chariots of fire’ from a stereo. Our celebration was low key, it involved a hug, some of those iconic shots at the Cape and of course, lots of oranges.
It was only as I turned tail and began to ride back down the road we had just come from that it really struck me. We were retracing our steps because the road had ended, and so had Africa. We could go no further except in loops and repetitions. I stared out to the Western horizon and remembered how I had stared out to the Eastern horizon many months before on a boat bound for France. Already my mind flitted away to distant lands, skimming over the surface of the sea to the next adventure. The Americas.
I have reveled in the last 16 months for many, many reasons. Living outside, all the exercise and all the unfamiliar faces and places have conspired to make me feel more alive than ever. I’ve relished the unpredictability, of having no clue where I’ll be sleeping that evening, the buzz of carrying everything I need in my panniers and the freedom that I know I’ll never have again. There have been so few big decisions to make and those that come up can be mulled over and meditated on. I am no longer caught up in the tide of rapid decisions and consequences that inevitably comes with life in the city. It’s a good feeling.
Our bedrooms have been a strange and diverse mix. Most often I have collapsed into a tent set up by the road, in campsites, on farms, in villages or even on sheer cliff edges. I’ve pitched in thick snow, heavy rain, strong wind and many times under starry skies. But we have also slept in churches, schools, hospitals, police stations, traditional huts, in the shed of a water buffalo and in the research facility on a crocodile farm. I have so many warm and enduring memories from Africa. I remember the magnificent vistas, the thick forests, the empty deserts, the towering mountains and the rolling hills, but no landscape was as vivid, colourful or inspiring as the people we met along the way. It’s the extraordinary generosity of people that has helped us through and it was the people of Africa who have encouraged us more than anything else. We’ve never been refused water and hospitality has become the default in every single country we have passed. People have helped without being asked and without expecting anything in return. People, men and women like Sugnet and Pierre in Namibia who fed us terrific food and let us rest up for a whole week. People, like the Turkana tribesmen who helped me find the right track when I was lost in the desert. People, like the team of engineers who plucked us out of a fierce thunder storm during the wet season in Tanzania. People, like the Ethiopian children who pushed us up the hills. There are far too many others to mention. I have lost count of the number of drivers who have stopped their cars to hand us food or drink or just to say well done. It has been people right to the end that have helped us through and we’re grateful to Paul, Kirstin, Jill and Sean who all gave us a place to stay, rest and celebrate in Cape Town.
But the person I am most in debt to is Nyomi who I have spent about half the time since I left England riding alongside. It’s been great to have someone to share Africa with, someone to exchange those fleeting glances that say ‘are you getting this?’ At first it wasn’t easy, riding alone had probably made me a bit self-absorbed and self-obsessed with no one else to consider and I had to adjust. Yes she can be irritating, yes she can be loud, especially in the mornings, and yes she can be overwhelmingly flatulent, especially after onions, but she was always determined, constantly positive and unashamedly eccentric with a knack of making me laugh when I didn’t feel like laughing. Most of all Nyomi is a people’s person and in Africa, the most human of all continents, that made her one of the best partners in crime I could wish for on this stage of my journey. Without Nyomi it would have been a very different adventure, tougher probably, more peaceful definitely but certainly a lot, lot more boring. I will miss her, although I’m secretly glad her ukulele will be on a plane back to England and that I bottled my urge to use it as kindling for the campfire.
So have we changed? Has Africa left an indelible mark? Here’s a before and after, you can judge for yourself…
So what’s next? For the Americas my timing has to be right. Southern Argentina is a chilly place this time of year and in order to hit Alaska in the summer time (more bears, less frostbite) I have three months to kill, three months I’ll spend mostly in Cape Town, and there’s a lot to do. My bike, blog and website will all be getting a make over, Nyomi’s family are coming to visit next week followed by mine a month later, I have to cadge a lift in a boat going to South America for some time in late October, I will be doing radio and newspaper interviews and a couple of public talks about my journey, I will begin another push for equipment sponsors, there’s the rugby world cup to watch on tele and at the end of September I travel to Malawi to DJ at the Lake of Stars Festival. I also plan to do some road cycling around the Cape Peninsula with some local cyclists as well as taking off on my bike once again to explore the Garden Route, the Wild Coast and possibly to climb a holy grail for mountain bikers – the legendary Sani Pass – the route from South Africa into the landlocked mountain kingdom of Lesotho (details to come). This blog will also continue and over the next three months you can expect the following posts…
Statistics – every stat from the last sixteen months that you could conceivably want to know and lots that you don’t
An Equipment Top Ten – A round up and review of some of the great gear I’ve used so far
‘Musings on… Africa’ – a few impressions about life, money and politics
Stories from of any cycling I manage to fit in around South Africa and Lesotho
Having reached this milestone I thought now might be a good time to ask for some sponsorship. Click here to go to my Justgiving page, every penny donated goes to the medical aid charity Merlin. To browse the best 250 odd images from the last sixteen months copy and paste this link into your browser for a slide show (you’ll need flash player)… http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyclingthe6/sets/72157626055646576/show/
Finally I have to mention my left knee. I have kept quiet since the surgery 18,000 km ago, I didn’t want to hex it. When I came home after only five months I was heartbroken and when I returned to Istanbul I fretted over the fate of my knee for weeks, worried the injury would recur and end my ride. My knee ached a little after long days until about Uganda, but now it feels great. Another job for my growing to do list… thank you cards to my surgeon, my physio and the nursing staff on the ward at St Thomas’ Hospital.
It’s usually only the bad news in Africa that makes our newspaper headlines, the disease, the conflict, the corruption, the poverty and the crime. It is a continent portrayed in the media as being either full of victims or a selfish, dangerous place, full of criminals and malcontents. Having cycled it’s length that’s not how I see it. I can’t help feeling that some of Africa’s problems stem from its public image. When people ask me ‘what was the best bit?‘ I find it hard to answer. The best bits all involved people, but there are far too many to mention.
Something didn’t feel right. We were in Swakopmund, a small Namibian town on the Atlantic coast, it has a one way system and a bicycle lane. I noticed that people walked small dogs, there were lots of grand houses as well as a ‘Super Spar’ supermarket and even a few fat people. Once I saw someone running, and not after a wayward goat, but for pleasure. This wasn’t Africa. This was Europe. It looked like someone had surgically removed part of Germany, airlifted it to Africa and stitched it into place.
After a two minute conversation with a total stranger at the Malawi / Zambia border two months before Nyomi was handed a business card and an invitation ‘Give us a call when you get to Swakop, you guys are welcome to come and stay with us’. We arrived and made contact. Signet, Pierre and Willy… A fantastically hospitable Namibian family who night after night cooked us great food and introduced us to Braai, barbecue Afrikaans style. We stayed for an action packed week which included sand-boarding, a German festival, taking a boat out to a seal reserve, visiting a snake park and then to top it all off Nyomi jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet.
We left Swakopmund well rested, keen to continue. The coastal road was where the dry Namib desert met the sea. On our first night we pitched our tents on a huge granite mound which rose of the sand. We watched the sea fog roll in behind us, consuming the land and enveloping our passage east in a mysterious shroud. I had missed the desert, the clear skies, the emptiness and the fact that you never have to think about where to pitch your tent. But I had made a school boy error. On our way out of Swakopmund I asked a local guy where I could next find some water ‘what about here?‘ I had innocently suggested, pointing to a small dot on my map. ‘Yes’ came the rapid reply. I’ve been traveling in Africa long enough to have known better. I’d been sucked in by a phenomenon known as ‘The African Yes’. Whilst people are often eager to help they don’t always understand the question thus reverting to the default response of ‘Yes’. We were waterless in the Namib Desert, the dot on the map was a mountain, not a village. If I’d had my suspicions about the African Yes I might have put it to the test…
‘Can we get water at this village?’
‘Can I get a double Bourbon on the rocks at this village?’
What’s your name?’
Do you believe Elvis is alive and well?’
‘Who would win in a fight – a penguin or a badger?’
‘What’s the opposite of yes?’
‘Do you know the meaning of life?’
‘What is it?’
As always it was locals, this time motorists, who came to our aid and filled our bottles. We pushed on to the sprawling metropolis aptly named Solitaire. I found it amazing that a place that consists only of a petrol station, a lodge and a bakery had found its name onto road signs advertising it’s existence one hundred kilometres away, but this was Namibia after all. It’s the bakery I was interested in. Even before we had arrived into Namibia I had heard rumours about a bakery in the middle of the desert run by a legendary figure known as Moose. People assured me that this bakery was home to The Best Apple Pie in Namibia. I was so lost in pastry-based fantasies that I had got well ahead of Nyomi on that sandy track leading to Solitaire. A car stopped beside me ‘your friend’s hurt’ said the driver ‘she crashed’. I pedaled back to the accident site; Nyomi was flat out staring vacantly upwards and complaining about her leg. I looked her over, it would be big bruise but probably no lasting damage, although clearly she couldn’t ride today. She hitched a lift with her bike, I arranged to meet her in Solitaire. But when I arrived I faced a short lived dilemma…
Check to see if Nyomi’s OK
The Best Apple Pie in Namibia
Best Apple Pie
Ny… PIE PIE PIE PIE PIE PIE PIE
My conscious mind could barely recollect who Nyomi was, I had to find Moose, thankfully he wasn’t hard to find. Moose had the physique you’d expect of a man who’d been baking apple pie in the middle of the Namib desert since 1992. His pies were evidently so good that pretty soon he was going to need to stop looking at pastries and start looking for a good cardiovascular surgeon. He was closing shop when I arrived
‘I’ve only got Apple pie left’ said Moose
‘That’s all I need Moose. Tell me, is it the Best in Namibia?’
‘Well it’s the best in town’
Moose had been selling apple pie to travellers for years. Solitaire is remote but also relatively close to the huge red sand dunes at Sossusvlei, Namibia’s premier tourist attraction, relatively being the all important word. This meant that the bakery was adventurer central and Moose had met them all. He’d met people who’d arrived in black London taxis, in double decker buses and a Chinese man who arrived on foot. From China. He’d met a Dutch cyclist whose journey dwarfs mine; he was on his third circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle. Not much impressed Moose these days. I checked on Nyomi, she said she felt fine. I didn’t. I’d overdone it on apple pie. The next day we continued to the famous dunes, for the last section we left our bikes at the campsite and got a lift with a French family – mum, dad and three children aged 3, 6 and 10. They were traveling around the world for two years in a converted fire engine. Check them out… http://www.chamaco.fr/.
We got out of the truck just before sunrise and climbed ‘Dune 45’. The world abruptly became a computer screen saver. Only two colours existed in this peculiar and angular world – the blue of the sky and the fierce orange of the sand. But I couldn’t help feel a bit shortchanged. The appeal of the desert, for me at least, is the lonely serenity, the space and the silence. I found myself amongst a hoard of hysterical Overlanders trying to get a photo of their mates doing star jumps. And then there’s the helicopters, ever-present in sites of natural beauty because there’s rich people and money to be made. It all began to feel less like a wilderness and more like a theme park. But despite the chaos, this was the desert at it’s most luminescent and stark. A photographer’s paradise.
We got moving again and ran into another family, the third to take us in the last week. Mike, Carol and their four kids fed us more braai, beer and information about our increasingly chilly route through South Africa. We were out of the tropics now and this was winter time. My Buff has gone from sweatband to neck warmer, woolly hats and gloves have been unearthed from the ‘pannier of doom’. The mornings are what a British weatherman might describe as ‘fresh’ or ‘crisp’, what I’d call XXXXXXX cold. My body’s confused; it had been stuck in a perpetual summer. I realise I’m a bit like a farmer in that I’m always talking or thinking about the weather. But I suppose that’s because, like a farmer, I’m always in it and it matters. A downpour or a headwind can really spoil my day. Nyomi’s eccentric appearance had reached new heights. In the chilly mornings she would emerge from an ice covered tent wearing everything she owned, including socks on her hands. The human cocoon would pedal off looking somewhere between Kenny from Southpark and the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. As the day gets warmer she sheds layers until she’s stripped down to a pair of lycra shorts over lycra leggings, a vest top and a headband. In three hours she goes from Eskimo to aerobics instructor. If she continues this commitment to increasingly deranged fashion statements once she goes home next month it will only be a matter of time until she is pounced on by six orderlies and forcibly injected with anti-psychotic drugs.
We zigzagged through Namibia on dirt roads, occasionally happening upon dusty backwaters and end of the road towns where I always expected to find fresh fruit and veg and where I was always disappointed. I still hadn’t learnt to lower my expectations. A shop with ‘mega’ or ‘hyper’ in the title might sell crisps and nuts, a ‘supermarket’ – some penny sweets, and in a ‘retail outlet’ there might be a couple of empty shelves, occasionally a front door, never anything for retail and sometimes a sign saying ‘back after lunch’ that a neighbour tells you has been up for three days. Finally we got back to tarmac and were heading south once again. It felt good to be facing Cape Town, our noses pointed south, or my nose at least, Nyomi’s was hidden under buff headwear, neck warmers and polo-necks. We were heading to a town called Keetmanshoop. It didn’t sound much like a town to me, it sounded more like a lesser known member of the Wu Tang Clan. Nyomi’s family arrives into Cape Town at the end of the month so we had to push on quickly down the B1. We were interviewed in Swakopmund for a national Namibian newspaper after which the reporter happened to mention the ‘B1 Butcher’. That’s right, Namibia had it’s very own serial killer. But it’s OK, the reporter reassured me ‘we think he’s dead’, ‘you think?‘, ‘yeah, someone died and, well, it might be him’. Great. Keetmanshoop was a good venue for our day off, we explored the Quivertree forest, the quirky rock formations at the Giant’s Playground and then fed some captive cheetahs.
So back onto the B1 but still 210 km from the South African border. We’d never make it in one day. The ups and downs of life are more pronounced when you’re always moving. I get excited about little things and banalities – smooth tarmac, a meal I didn’t have to pay for, a shop selling cheese, another cycle tourer, a tailwind, a strange insect on the road, a quirky road sign. I was about to get really excited. An hour after starting out through the Southern Namib desert the raging northerly wind hit gale force. It was so strong we found ourselves freewheeling on the flat at 40km/hr, giggling and screaming like children. We were swept off the desert plateu and descended to the Orange River marking the border. That day I broke two records – the first was the greatest number of kilometres I have cycled in one day and the second was the most days I have gone without a shower. It was an unfortunate that both records coincided, after a hearty 209 km and 8 days without a shower I ‘hummed’ (Nyomi’s words). In the border town I gave everyone a wide birth, everyone except the petrol station attendant who tried to charge me ten Namibian Dollars for use of a cold shower. Curiously the fee was quickly wavered.
At last we were in South Africa, only 120 km to the next town, Spingbok, we’d easily make it. But we’d used up all our good karma, first hills, then flies, then punctures, then a headwind, then pointless squabbles bourne of frustration impeded our progress. At first the landscape reminded me of Sinai in Egypt, a dead world of rocky outcrops, crags, boulders, scree and beige. The land grew a touch greener and I recollected my time in Western Greece and Central Anatolia. I have cycled so many roads that de ja vu is almost a daily occurrence. A sudden suspicion that I’ve ridden this road before, the sun is in the same position in the sky, the landscape looks eerily familiar. If I think hard enough I can work out which road in which country it reminds me of.
The gift came at a good time. South Africa and Namibia are more expensive than anywhere I’ve passed through since Western Europe. Most travellers spend the majority of their funds on accommodation and ‘tourist’ activities. We spend little on these, as a proportion of our budget much, much more goes on food. Here are Steve and Nyomi’s ten ways to save money (Nyomi’s the really thrifty one, I could be more frugal were it not for the twin vices of beer and chocolate).
1. Have a ‘quick look’ around a five star hotel and then steal the toilet paper. A special thank you to The Livingstone in Zambia. My saddle sore arse got the five star treatment it deserves.
2. Rough camp. It’s easy to free camp in the bush but we also ask at police stations, schools, churches and hospitals when we get to towns, even when there’s a perfectly good campsite or hostel around the corner. When you have to stay in a guesthouse never choose one with ‘oasis’, view’ or ‘resort’ in the title. I’m sure each adds 50% to your bill.
3. Don’t buy new books… use hostel book swaps. You will occasionally find a gem but be prepared to sift through the rubbish. In one Turkish book exchange, next to an autobiography by Richard Hammond, I actually found a self-help guide to genital herpes. It was good to see it in the same vicinity as the autobiography though, I can think of many similarities between Richard Hammond and genital herpes, but I can’t help wondering what they swapped it for. Did they saunter off with a smug grin and War and Peace tucked under their arm?
4. Internet… in Europe you can ask a student. If you’re lucky they’ll lend you a card or password and you can use the university computers. In Africa you just have to cough up at internet cafes.
5. http://www.couchsurfing.org/. We love it.
6. Repair, don’t replace. Africans are much better than we are in the wasteful west. My shorts are a patchwork quilt. Hole in your tyre? Just put a piece of old tyre inside to plug the gap.
7. Always wash your own clothes. Scrub, rinse, black water down the drain, scrub, rinse, black, scrub, rinse, black, scrub, rinse, oh that’ll do.
8. Avoid other tourists and their hangouts. Eat with the locals.
9. Haggle, trade things, shop around, let people buy you beer.
10. If it’s free… go to town
Unfortunately I don’t own a laptop, I have to use internet cafes to write this blog. Internet’s not cheap in South Africa so this post and the next few will cost a fair bit. I could cut down on food and eat less to save money but let’s face it, there are few images more bleak or farcical than a grown man in baggy lycra. So instead, if you want you can help contribute to the cost of this blog by donating three quid… just click on the blue ‘Support’ button in the right hand column and at the top of this blog, underneath the map. Bar The Apocolypse, my next post will come from Cape Town, the end of my African odyssey.
We parted ways in Livingstone; Ny would ride the Caprivi strip in Namibia whilst I cycled a loop through Botswana. We’d meet again in three weeks’ time. Botswana is a country the size of France with a population of two million, all manner of toothsome fauna and more elephants than you can shake a baobab at (around 150,000 roam around the Botswanan bush). Young men in Zambia on hearing my plan to ride through Botswana alone, uttered a phrase I would hear much too often over the next few weeks, an unsettling question for anyone, especially when it occurs to you that you don’t have a good answer.
“But what will you do about all the lions?”
But I had yet to enter Botswana and the bush is not to the only place you can find wildlife in Africa, the border towns are full of it. I warm to most people I meet at the borders as much as I welcome weeping saddle sores. There are all kinds of shady characters, tricksters, crooks, petty thieves, gangsters and opportunists. Their job is to make some money from the unwary, yours is to remain on the ball and not to get stung. The border crossing was a ferry ride across the river. A sign on board gave a list of things you needed to do once debarked, including directions to customs and immigration, it ended with ‘to complete these formalities a guide, ‘agent’ or third party is not required.’ The word ‘not’ had been scratched out, presumably by a moody middleman not wanting the placard to curtail his business. If you need to change money these guys know all the tricks. They give you phoney rates of exchange and usually work in a cartel so everyone has been briefed to tell you the same wacky rate. They use their own calculator and often ‘forget’ a zero, aiming to cheat you by a factor of ten. They hurry and hassle you into changing notes quickly hoping you’ll make a mistake. They sometimes even take your money, claim it’s not authentic, switch it for an actual fake and hand it back to you, pocketing your genuine dollar bills. Changing money at this border was made harder by the fact that the Zambian Kwatcha is the eighth least valuable currency in the world, there are around eight thousand to the pound, and in Zambian terms I was a millionaire. But I’m getting used to African borders and I have developed a strategy to get me through which involves choosing one guy and shouting ‘Everyone else please piss off. I’m dealing with this guy ONLY!’ The ‘please’ is optional. If they are particularly in my face I add ‘you bloodsucking XXXXXX’ (choose from one or more derogatory terms of abuse). It helps to be calm, assertive and always generous with your expletives.
Most people have an out-dated image of Africa where wild animals terrorise villages and jump out at unsuspecting travellers all the time. In fact most big game and any creature that could pose a risk to the livestock has long since been killed or rounded up and left to roam in the national parks, not so in Botswana, a country teaming with beasts. I soon came across a sign with the caution ‘beware of animals’. Couldn’t they be more specific? Did they mean the cutesy, diminutive, cud chewing kind or the sever your jugular and nibble on your spleen variety? I intermittently glanced fearful and expectant into the bush wondering what was about to leap out of the undergrowth, Bambi or Scar? Crouching lions morphed into ant hills as I nervously edged towards them. I jumped at a rustle in the bushes only for a hornbill to emerge and flutter away. A quick-fire nervy internal monologue began in an effort to reassure myself ‘A hornbill! Just a hornbill! That’s an animal! That must be what the sign meant! No lions here, just birds and OH JESUS WHAT’S THAT!’ Just ahead three elephants were stripping the green from a tree. I crossed to the other side and tried to slip by unnoticed but they startled, fortunately they ran away from me and the road. Presumably I had scared them off with my whimpering demeanour and expression of unsullied terror.
‘I’m surprised you travel in this way’ he muttered, frowning, gesturing towards my bicycle and taking a long stride backward as if it was harbouring a contagious disease.
‘Why?’ was the obvious question.
‘The wild animals here are many. Many, many, many. I never leave home without a gun. Lions live here. I saw some last week’
Why was it only now that I could see the holes in my original plan? Rough camping, alone, in a sparsely populated part of the African bush, in lion country with no weapon aside from the two inch blade on my Leatherman was starting to look like a crap idea. Luckily after one hundred kilometres I came across a campsite. But I knew there were no other campsites or even small villages for the two hundred kilometres after this one so I decided to quiz the owner.
‘What wildlife do you have around here?’
‘Lots. We hear them almost every night. I’ve seen some cyclists pass this way. So far I’ve not heard of any being attacked’
The inflection on the ‘so far’ made it clear she had decided that lion verses cyclist was imminent. Luckily she told me there were some workmen one hundred kilometres south who were helping build the roads. They had a bush camp and, I hoped, something more useful than a Leatherman if a pride of hungry lions came round for dinner. Maybe I should camp with them. As I walked back to my tent a sound rose out of the bush, ‘uuuuuh-huuumph’ repeated again and again, becoming softer and slowly fading into silence. An unmistakable sound. Lions were calling through the night. I’m camping with them.
Later that night, ensconced inside my tent and sleeping bag, I thought about what she’d said. I was excited about tomorrow. This was a real adventure. I hadn’t felt like this since the struggle through the remote badlands of northern Kenya. Now I was alone, experiences more intense, the world a more intimidating place to roam. This wild region was how I imagined Africa to be. It was the Africa of dense scrub and limitless grassy savannah. It was the Africa untouched by cultivation and human hand. It was the Africa of wild beasts. It was the lonely, exhilarating, terrifying side of the Dark Continent. I was frightened. I was enthralled.
|A Puff Adder|
|A large Snouted Cobra|
|A bush baby, caught by a guy in the campsite. It was delicious, especially when we added a couple of kittens and a puppy to the shish kebab.|
|A dead Honey Badger|
I reached the tourist haven of Maun but couldn’t afford to go out on the Okavango Delta, Botswana offered little I could afford. Most of its revenue comes from diamonds and tourists and in the case of tourism it opts for a policy of ‘low volume, high cost’. Luxury lodges on the salt pans cost 1400 US dollars a night or in simple speak ‘crazy money’. Botswana is not really a backpacker destination unless you happen to be wearing a bandanna, a sarong or crazy pantaloons and have a mummy and daddy that throw ludicrous amounts of money your way to help fund your gap year all because what they really want is you out of the house for a while. Couples and bands of overlanders set out on boats from various lodges for a ‘booze cruise’. If you were going to name a boat for the purpose of taking pissheads out at sunset, what would you call it? I want to hug the person who came up with this…
‘Cirrhosis of the River’
After leaving Maun I saw a number of Herero women, a group of people originally from Namibia. They were adorned in huge dresses derived from the style of Victorian era German missionaries. Enormous crinoline is worn over a series of petticoats as well as a horn shaped hat. But after these colourful characters faded away Botswana got boring. It might be a succinct description but it was 400km of straight roads, flat terrain, no wildlife, nobody to talk to and nothing to inspire interest. Generally it went something like this…
Bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat…ice cream parlour… cow…naked lady… goat… human-sized bottle of cold beer
Stop cycling, slap in the face, and resume… Bush… cow… bush… goat…
In fact the only thing to break the monotony was the odd dog chase. Since the menacing mutts of Eastern Europe I’ve had it easy, dogs in Africa are underfed, scrawny and timid, less intent on attacking strangers than on finding their next scrap of food. But Botswanan farms were home to territorial hounds and once again it’s game on.
On my last night in Botswana I saw a sign for a Crocodile Farm and decided to investigate. They warned me of hippos outside the perimeter and so offered to let me stay in their research facility. I was a bit more concerned about meeting a stray crocodile ‘Oh that’s just snappy, don’t mind him, he’s like one of the family. Snappy no! What have I told you about chewing on the guests’ To keep the hippos at bay the farm was surrounded by a tall electric fence. I’ve fallen asleep to a variety of sounds in the bush, some obscure and many terrifying, but none quite as comical as hippos intermittently being electrocuted.
The next day I had made it to the Namibian border and I was relieved, especially since not one of the immigration officials bore even the slightest resemblance to a bush, a cow or a goat. I filled in the usual forms and wrote ‘professional daydreamer’ under occupation. I don’t write doctor anymore. It feels a bit fraudulent, I probably won’t practice medicine for several years and besides you always risk an American tourist in the queue behind you reading the form and then suddenly recalling that curious blue spot on their ass and ‘would you mind having a quick look at it for me?’. A cyclist? No. That implies I’m some sort of athlete. An adventurer maybe? Too pretentious. What do I do most of the time besides cycling? I’m a professional daydreamer. My old maths teacher was right after all.
Strangely at this border there were no touts or middlemen to be found and I soon learnt why. My route into Namibia passed immediately through a national park and once again there was that disconcerting query, first from immigration officials and then from customs “But what will you do about all the lions?” Despite my half-hearted pleas to ride unaccompanied it was unanimously decided that it was too dangerous, they made a good case. The lions had to cross the road to get to the Okavango River on the other side. They were frequently sighted chilling on the road. On top of that there were no cars whatsoever. I waited and eventually a truck arrived. There was space in the back for my bike but the guy could see I wanted to ride. For twenty kilometres he trailed me as I cycled through the national park. Once again plenty elephant, no lion. I had made it through lion country unmauled and lets face it, it’s a good brag.
‘We’re going to rent some bikes and go on a little ride. You want to come with?’
‘Errrrrm… no thanks. Knock yourselves out.’
I set up my stove to cook lunch, pulled out my lighter, sparked it and watched with horror as the whole stove and fuel bottle went up in flames. The bottle was full of petrol. I threw water over it but the blaze continued. Panicking and convinced that the outcome would involve a huge fireball and a surgeon removing metal shards from my face, I took a short run up and punted the entire burning mess into the crocodile infested waters of the Okavango River. No more stove. Luckily in Northern Namibia stoves weren’t really necessary, the surrounding countryside was full of deadwood. I stopped early to collect it and cooked my dinner African style over open fires, sometimes I needed some solitude and I’d camp in the bush, sometimes I needed company and I’d ask to camp in the villages. Maybe I’d stay with the locals more if it wasn’t for the guilt that inevitably follows. It’s a guilt that every Westerner feels when they spend time with anyone eking out a subsistence way of life. My tent looks out of place standing next to mud huts with thatched roofs. We sit around a fire, a fire they lit to keep me warm using wood they collected and chopped up in my honour. I prepare to cook. As I unload each ingredient from my pannier I’m uncomfortably aware that nobody in my company could afford any of them. So I cook more than I need and offer it round. But the adults won’t take it; surplus grub goes to the children. I eat pasta with a sauce of fresh vegetables and beef stock, they munch away at a maize-based porridge. The young men talk about their dreams and their hopes for the future, of leaving Namibia, of getting a job, of finding a life somewhere else, maybe Europe, maybe America. I think about how improbable their dreams sound. I say nothing. I feel guilty. I zip myself into a four season sleeping bag and wonder how they keep warm through the night. The next day I thank everyone. I’m grateful for permission to camp, for water, for the fire, but most of all for the guilt, it reminds me that I’m lucky to have a life of almost limitless options, choices and possibilities. I sometimes run into smug travellers who like to brag about how they can live on less than ten dollars a day. It’s not so impressive when you find out that over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day and over half the world’s population live on less than two dollars fifty. Ten dollars is lavish.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Do you come from Hollywood?’
‘No. That’s in America.’
‘Is there green grass in England?’
‘What about maize?’
‘What about game parks?’
‘Erm, not many’
‘What about wild elephants?’
‘NO WILD ELEPHANTS!’ WHEYY! (They took a while to get over the shock).’ Why do you travel by bicycle?’
‘For an adventure’
‘Will the government in your country pay you money when you return?’
‘Do you write for a newspaper?’
‘No. I write on the internet’
‘Can you take our photo and put it on this internet?’
Ladies and Gentlemen, because Tracy gave me five dollars off my bill, I give you Tracy and Louise…
It has to be said, I wasn’t coping well without Nyomi. I was cooking the same amount of food each evening and scoffing it all to myself. I had upped my Dairy Milk chocolate intake to three bars a day. I was showering less than I probably should. I was worried that very soon I would be found slumped by the roadside, clad only in a pair of grubby, torn Lycra shorts, slurring profanities at strangers, surrounded by pizza crusts, fruit and nut bars and empty bottles of cheap Namibian cider. I needed Nyomi back in my life. I finally found her with two couch-surfers, Anthony and Jules, British physiotherapists working in Namibia with VSO. They put us up and even let us borrow their car so we could explore Etosha National Park. Namibia seemed to have more than its fair share of enticing attractions… ancient dinosaur footprints, three hundred and fifty metre high sand dunes, the infamous skeleton coast and the world’s largest meteorite. I decided to give the last one a miss. Apparently it was just a rock and wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. No ethereal green glow, no extra-terrestrial runes carved onto its surface.
|A Painted Agama Lizard|
|A large Skink|
|A recently deceased lizard, killed by a puff adder which did a runner|
|A bird of prey in Etosha. Not sure what it is… any ideas please leave in the comments section below. It could do a 360 head twist so maybe some sort of owl???|
|A Secretary Bird, Etosha|
‘Stop eating so many aubergines! Stop eating so many aubergines! Stop eating so many aubergines!’
I’ll drift into a blissful slumber.
We were aiming for Spitzkoppe, a mountain that rises out of the desert, a mountain that is surrounded by tired clichés by tired Lonely Planet travel writers ‘The Matterhorn of Africa’, ‘the Ayres Rock of Africa’. We watched the peak gradually rise up out of the jade desert scrub, hour by hour it became more imposing, more of it filled my field of vision every time I glanced up from the sandy track. We lost the race, the sun made it to the horizon before we hit the mountain. The next morning, as we approached from the east, the sun behind us dyed the western sky a pale blue and Spitzkoppe a rosy hue. By lunch the image and the colours were sharper, sanguine swords of granite reached up to pierce the sapphire sky. After we’d strolled around the mountain it was a straight run to Swakopmund, a town on the Atlantic coast where we planned to have a deserved break. We were steaming in. It was the perfect storm – a strong tailwind, a descent of about a thousand vertical metres, old skool jungle on my IPOD and by ten o’clock AM I had consumed over eight times the Recommended Daily Allowance of glucose in the form of Cadbury’s Daily Milk chocolate. We covered one hundred and ten kilometres in three and a half hours.