Let’s go clubbing

I asked a local guy what we could do on or around Lake Malawi, he assured me it offered tourist activities galore…

‘Well you can snorkel and scuba dive, windsurf, feed a fish eagle, cliff jump, go on a fishing trip, canoe, club baboons…’

‘Wait stop. What was that last one?’

Yep, that’s right, I was informed Malawi is one of the last places you can legally pay to go out and club baboons to death. Hmmm, it didn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, I can’t really see the appeal. I wondered what type of character goes baboon clubbing. Can it be something many people are interested in? Could ‘baboon clubbing’ ever find its way onto someone’s Curriculum Vitae under ‘other interests’? Would it ever come up in a job interview?…

‘So Mr Jones, we’re very impressed with your experience. Now tell us a little about what you like to do outside work’

‘Well I like to read, I’m a big fan of travel literature. I watch my son Johnny play football on Saturdays, I go to church and I play squash twice a week. Oh and every so often I club baboons’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘It’s sort of a blood sport, great for relieving stress. We catch them in big nets and then bludgeon them to death.

Errrm Mr Jones?…

Sometimes I bring my family along too. You should see the look of excitement on little Johnny’s face when we catch a big male baboon and batter it into a bloody, writhing pulp…’

‘MR JONES PLEASE!… We’ll, erm… we’ll let you know’

On one of my last mornings in Malawi I woke up next to a gorgeous Malawian girl, pondering both whether it would be so bad to stay in Malawi a little longer and how on earth I had managed to coax this beauty back to my place, my place consisting of a tent with a broken air bed, a rich variety of ever-present arthropods and the far from alluring aroma of sweaty cyclist. I had some breakfast in the hostel and noticed that someone had inscribed a message in large chalk letters on the blackboard…

‘BIN LADEN IS DEAD! (but we’re not sure. It might be Bon Jovi)’

Riding and relaxing along the shores of the lake felt a bit self-indulgent, this was hedonism when compared to life before Malawi. But Zambia had the cure for our Malawi holiday hangover… The Great East Road beckoned. I said goodbye to anonymous Malawian girl and pawed over my now redundant map. Won’t be needing that. It was sent into one of the many deep dark recesses of the ‘pannier of doom’, a place full of all the stuff we need to carry but rarely use. I knew what I needed to know. Lilongwe to Lusaka, seven hundred and fifty kilometres, no left turns, no right turns, plenty of hills and just a sprinkling of villages en route. We set off early, Nyomi and I and our bicycles, Belinda and Dave (Ny has belated decided to christen her bike Dave because ‘everybody’s got a mate called Dave’. You can’t argue with that).

Camping in a Zambian village
At the end of our second day in Zambia we ran into another cyclist at a guesthouse who was also traveling in our direction. Yves was a forty year old Belgian, skinny, bald and sporting a pointed goatee beard. He had sellotaped empty multicoloured packets of noodles to every inch of his bicycle frame. Imagine Ming the Merciless swapping his spaceship for a bicycle after taking a large and very potent cocktail of psychedelic drugs. I liked his style. Nyomi obviously felt some subconscious urge to compete with this glib attire. She had recently washed her underwear and so she attached each item of negligee to the back of her bicycle to dry in the sunshine. She rode off expressionless, unperturbed and unconcerned  in spite of the many chuckling Zambians. It looked like a mannequin had done a runner from a department store with half the lingerie section. I rode off despondently, depressed about my relatively bland and understated appearance, professing to do something about it.

Once the Great East road would have been a test but we were noticeably fitter now, we breezed up the hills and covered 140 km a day to Lusaka. Witchcraft is alive and well in Zambia and along the way I could often hear drumming from the ceremonies conducted by witch doctors in the villages. Even in the Zambian capital Lusaka there were posters and adverts abound. I was given one pamphlet for a traditional healer who claimed to help a panoply of different people from the bewitched to the insane and the infertile. His instruction was to come with two small stones and 20,000 Zambian Kwatcha, the local currency. An equally bizarre piece of advice followed…

‘If you come for treatment, don’t eat any fish’

He also claimed to help people win the lottery, get job promotions and pass exams as well as a special service of ‘chasing away the Tokoloshe’, the Tokoloshe is a dwarf-like water sprite, considered a mischievous and evil spirit in zulu mythology. On a more disconcerting tip he also offered to help women with cancer and people with HIV. I have to admit that I share some of the same opinions about homeopathy and herbal medicine as Dara O’Briain…

After Lusaka we pushed west towards Livingstone. On one night we slept on the floor of a church, I woke in the early hours with a start. An insect of some variety had decided my ear was a cosy place to spend the night. Somehow it had managed to work its way deep into my auditory canal and it was a stale mate. It couldn’t find its way out and I couldn’t evict the intruder. Every minute scratch and wiggle was thunderous. It was probably freaking out when confronted by the overcrowded insect necropolis of my inner ear. Whilst cycling bugs seem to get into every orifice. My retina has also become a cemetery for suicidal insects and I’m sure there are a few survivors in there somewhere, floating around and feasting on my aqueous humour.

It started with a sound. A low pitched sonorous rumble and then a fleeting glimpse, through the trees. I wondered if I would ever truly appreciate a waterfall again after Victoria Falls, the rumbling giantess that eclipses all others. The falls is the result of the mighty Zambezi river, almost two kilometres in girth, hurling itself off a hundred metre high cliff, collecting again after a frothy white oblivion. It’s the largest sheet of falling water in the world, and now, during the wet season, even more water crashed over it’s rim than usual. Huge fingers of spray danced a nimble jig through the air and as we approached water began to strike us from every direction. The misty mask obscuring the falls added to the intrigue, every so often a patch would fade and behind the waterfall’s spectacular rim would come into view. We circled the falls from the Zambian side, a sign read ‘If you walk across the lip of the falls, watch out for sudden water bursts’. No skulls and crossbones, no authoritative demands or mandates, just a message that equates to ‘Do it if you want, but try not to die’.

We relaxed for a while in Livingstone. Where there are tourists, there are touts. The ones here were selling ‘one trillion Zimbabwean dollar’ bank notes, relics of Zimbabwe’s days of hyperinflation. But Zim is not on our itinery. Next Nyomi and I seperate briefly once again, I plan to ride a thousand kilometre loop through Botswana, around the Okavango Delta and through the Makgadikgadi salt pans. Nyomi will take a shorter passage via the Caprivi strip in Namibia, we will meet again in a couple of weeks.

We bumped into lots of fellow travelers in Livingstone, as usual they had questions about cycling, how far we cycle, why we cycle. People ask me what do I do all day. Do I get bored? Sometimes, yes, but there are always ways to occupy your mind and lift your spirits. I leave you with an extract from the blog of a fellow cyclist. My life has become similar…

“What do I do all day? Well, many things really. In addition to the obvious, I also have a habit of thinking of a particular family member or friend and dwelling on my experiences with them. Sometimes I even talk to them. I also constantly analyze and re-analyze my life and find ways, and there are many, to try to improve my general disposition and future direction. Many times, I sing. I wonder why my pointer finger toe is longer than my thumb toe. I often search the side of the road for anything salvageable. I eat. I read. I stop to scribble down ideas. I pee. I apply sunscreen. I, depending, remove or add layers of clothing. I chat with curious drivers. I repair flat tires or change out broken spokes. I listen to music. I take pictures. I write letters. I make to do lists (an unshakeable habit). I choose career paths and then quit. I re-live days of my youth, both the good and bad. I explain things to people that aren’t there and they finally understand. I think of things I should have said but didn’t. I, depending, laugh, cry, or am neutral in regards to certain memories. I try to remember where I slept seventeen nights ago. I look at the picture of my family that I have in a clear piece of plastic on top of my handlebar bag and am thankful. I look at maps and decide. I exchange fleeting pleasantries with people. I think about the future. I dwell on the past. I am surprised at the present. I remember things I’ve forgotten to do and add them to those to do lists. I grow my beard. I miss people. And, I watch the amazing scenery unfold. All in all, it makes for quite a full day.”

The warm heart of Africa


“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill

I no longer run for cover when the sky blackens, when the thunder booms or when electricity lights up the gloom. It’s when the locals head inside that I know we’re about to get a soaking. That night in Western Tanzania the road threading through the murk was empty and when the rain began it was more intense and ferocious than I have ever seen. With no cover nearby we plowed on, smothered in green ponchos, grimacing against the deluge. Lightning sparked every second and sheets of rainfall blasted the tarmac. It became impossible to hear anything over the rain’s deafening patter and my eyes welled up. Water must be getting in somewhere. A turbulent torrent of water gushed by the road’s edge. A pick-up stopped, the driver addressed us in a German accent and offered a lift. The next town was at least twenty five kilometres away he told us. We declined and waved him on. The bombardment continued, water permeated my poncho. I didn’t think we’d make the town before dark, equally I couldn’t imagine pitching a tent without creating an indoor swimming pool. I blotted out any thoughts of how we’d see through the night, our only task now to cycle and hopefully towards somewhere or something better. The German in the pick-up returned after half an hour. He was giving us another chance to change our minds. He worked for Strabag, a German company building the roads in this part of Tanzania. Their compound was twenty kilometres up ahead. I looked at Nyomi and knew she was getting into that truck before she had said anything. My turn to decide. I shouted to the driver through a crack in the truck window.

‘Thanks but I’ll be OK’
‘Get in. These are extreme conditions. Its very dangerous’ he bellowed back
‘I’m sorry I can’t. I know it’s a bit crazy’
‘It’s very crazy! You are very crazy!’
‘Tell me why it’s dangerous?’
‘The lightning. The trucks. The dark. The bandits. You shouldn’t camp here. We close this road at night. Vehicles get hijacked.’
‘Nyomi’s coming with you. I’ll meet you there’
‘Your friend is safe with us. I hope you make it. There will be a cup of tea waiting for you when you arrive. Good luck’

He hadn’t convinced me. No way bandits would be out in this. I’ll pull off the road when a truck comes. The lightning? I’ll take my chances. They pulled away and not for the first time I wondered whether pride, ego and blind optimism were leading me down a path I didn’t want to be on. But I had one thing to get me through… the thought of that big cup of warm tea. That’s all I needed to muster the strength for the twenty five kilometre dash. Soon I was alone and immersed in the deep blackness of nightfall in the African bush, but the rain slowly cleared and forty five minutes later I reached the compound. I had envisioned a small hut, perhaps, I thought, I could sleep on the floor, and I could almost taste the warm milky tea. I entered a very different world to the one of my imagination. The compound appeared to be more like a small town. I saw the German at the gate.

‘Hi. Where’s Nyomi?’
‘Oh she’ll probably be in your chalet’
‘Our ch… our what?’
‘Yeah your chalet. Or if not then maybe at the bar’
‘The baaa?’
‘The bar. Over there, you see? Between the swimming pool and that tennis court.’

I couldn’t be sure how I had met my end but perhaps it was a lightning strike, perhaps it was a speeding truck.

‘We can wash your clothes and you can eat in the restaurant over there. Oh and we’re having a party tomorrow night. There will be a big barbecue with loads of kebabs and the bar’s free. Just help yourself to a beer whenever you want.’

Who’s going to tell my poor mum

‘We also have table tennis, table football, darts, a gym. Take a break. You guys need it.’

Then I saw a beaming Nyomi. This was real. In the middle of rural Tanzania we had come across the equivalent of Centre Parks. The compound had been built for the multinational team of engineers and it would be grounded after their three year contract was up. We retired to the warmth of our chalet. There’s nothing like washing with a cold bucket of cold water every third day to make you appreciate the next warm shower. I grinned at Nyomi.

‘Oh my god. Score!’
‘Yeah! Shall I put the kettle on?’
We both laughed heartily


We were cutting a diagonal across Tanzania from the Rwandan border, aiming for capital Dodoma, and I was in pain. I had developed a nasty tendonitis of my right wrist, I could feel the swollen tendons crunching beneath the skin. It was the result of the repetitive use of the grip shift on my bike (and not what Nyomi liked to insinuate). Late one night we found ourselves without a spot to camp with a broken stove. We were escorted to a nearby village by some local men where a large family let us use their charcoal burning cooker. The children were dirty, clad in tatty rags and covered in flies. One three year old held a large machete. Nobody in Tanzania seems to think giving a toddler a large sharp pointy thing isn’t the brightest idea. They were evidently poor but welcomed us into their community without asking for a thing and without suspicion or a second thought. It was not the last act of kindness we would experience over the next few weeks. The hills gradually transformed into grassy savannah, pastoralists replaced arable farmers and shawls and sticks characteristic of the Masai tribe were visible once again. In Dodoma Nyomi and I parted ways. She wanted a break in Zanzibar, I’d been there eight years ago during an overland trip I had taken through East Africa so we agreed to meet again in one week’s time in Mbeya near the Malawian border. Goodbye Nyomi, goodbye tarmac, karibou rural Tanzania and solitude. I probably needed it. My route south was again peppered with strangers helping me out at every turn. One night a group of nuns took me into their convent and fed me pasta and coffee before giving me a bed for the night. A Estonian motorcyclist stopped and invited me to join him and some mates for wine and pizza before again letting me crash. Then a British guy called Mark stopped me on the road to hand me fruit juice and nuts. Later that day I arrived at the campsite I had told him I was planning to stay at and the manager came out to greet me.

‘You don’t need your tent’
‘Put it away. You’re staying in the lodge tonight. And you’re having dinner. And breakfast tomorrow. A friend has you covered’
‘You got it!’

Me and the Sisters of the Holy Family
The Tanzanian sense of humour

Cycling through Malawi feels a bit like I’d imagine it would feel to bung on a santa outfit on Christmas Eve and charge into a room full of excitable five year olds. The feel good factor for riding through one of the most densely populated countries on earth is massive and I think maybe equal in measure only to Rwanda. Our mere presence, the white face and the loaded bicycle, was enough to induce wide smiles in almost everyone who spotted us ride by. I spent so much time reciprocating that by the end of the day my face would ache. Malawi felt like one big village rather than a collection of many and there were more bicycles here than any where else I’ve been, many transporting hauls of fish or several chickens or up to four people or occasionally a couple of bound and bleating goats. It must be the easiest country in Africa for the cyclist. It’s nice and flat along the lake, it’s full of campsites, resorts and backpacker hangouts, there are water pumps and boreholes every five or ten kilometres, the main roads are perfect tarmac with hardly any traffic and the helpful Malawians often speak good English. If you have a three week holiday on the cards… go cycling in Malawi. We swung towards the lake and drifted past piles of drying fish, then through woodland and past crops of casava, we tried to avoid the expensive resorts choosing instead to rough camp by schools or hospitals or police stations.

Even in Africa, a musical continent, Malawi stands out. Sound systems blare from every bar and every cafe in every village, women sing to the babies on their backs, men sing when they drink Chibuku, children grab your hand and burst into song and teenagers sing into light bulbs mimicking microphones. To me Malawian women look more stereotypically African than most. Usually one baby will be wrapped by cloth to her front suckling on a breast, another is sometimes wrapped to her back, in one hand she holds a colourful umbrella to protect from the heat of the day and on her head will be some variety of package, anything from a bulky sack of maize, firewood, some food, a full bucket of water or even just a pair of shoes. On one day in Malawi I stopped to fill up my water bottle at a pump. There were some young children playing at their mother’s feet when I arrived. They looked up and reacted immediately. One screamed and fled panic stricken into the bush. Three more rushed behind their mothers, their terror filled eyes peeped out at me from behind their mother’s kangas. All of them had burst into tears. The mums found all this hysterical but their laughter did nothing to allay the children’s fears. We’d seen this reaction once before in Sudan. I was probably the first white person the kids had ever seen.

One of the many quirks of Malawi is that the young men, especially those in and around the tourist spots, give themselves strange and wonderful English nicknames. I’d hear conversations like this one…

‘Hey have you seen Lazer or Fortune?’
‘Nah. There’s a party tonight though. Chicken & Peas is coming’
‘Cool. How about Lucky Coconut?’
‘Not sure. He’ll probably be hanging out with Happy and Mr Spanner’

I’d like to say something a bit more profound about my experience in this part of Malawi. I’d like to make some comments on the local culture and traditions or perhaps make some observations about the national psyche. I’d like to, but I can’t. Once we hit the lake I was introduced to XXX, a scanderlously cheap brand of rum sold in thirty mililitre sachets and after this point Malawi gets a little out of focus. There were defintiely lots of backpackers, I think there were parties and I have heard only rumours of our mock breakdancing, skinny dipping and other antics.

Like most of the capital cities in the sweltering tropics Lilongwe sits in the hills, over a thousand metres up. We climbed up from the lake shore and were riding through a small village when we sighted two figures in the road ahead. They were running towards us, grunting and growling in unison. As they got closer I felt a sudden chill when I caught sight of their wretched and bedraggled appearance. They were clad in muddy rags, their faces were under cloth and completely hidden from view. In each hand they carried machetes which they waved erratically and with vigour. They resembled how the undead might be depicted in a Hollywood blockbuster. Children scattered as they came close. I turned to a local man beside me.

‘Whats going on?’
‘This is Chewa culture’
‘Is it a game?’
He laughed loudly. This wasn’t a game.
‘They want money’ he said

Even the adults around looked genuinely afraid. I have since learnt that these were ‘Gule’ – young men dressed as ancestral spirits, members of a secret society. Gule are considered to be in ‘animal state’ when they are dressed in such attire, and are not to be approached. If one has the misfortune of passing a Gule on the road, traditional behaviour consists of dropping a few coins for the Gule – never handing them the money directly for fear they will grab you and take you to the cemetery for ritual purposes. Generally, villagers believe it is best to avoid Gule, in their animal or ancestral state, they are unpredictable.

The theme of this post has been hospitality, although really that’s been the theme of my entire journey so far. In every country I have passed through there has been at least one act of generosity from a stranger who expects nothing in return. I have never been refused water and only very rarely a place to camp. This month has been a outpouring of hospitality from ex-pats and locals, from men and women, from the young and old, from the rich and poor. When we arrive into Cape Town I know that a lot of people had a hand in getting me there, there will be lots of people to thank.

This week I received an email that had my memory drifting back to a golden evening in the desert of Northern Sudan and another act of kindness. It was the end of a long day. We had covered over 150 km and the light was fading when three quad bikes zoomed past us. They stopped up ahead. It was Val, Jamie and Kris, three young Australians on a mission to break the Guinness World Record for the longest ever journey by quad bike. They invited us to camp with them and waited for us up ahead. We turned off into the sand and spent the evening chatting and sharing food. This week I received the news that in Malawi Val had collided with a vehicle traveling on the wrong side of the road, the car was being pursued by police. He was seriously injured in the crash and airlifted to Johannesburg. Very tragically Val died on the flight. Val, Jamie and Kris were just some of the people who have helped us on our journey and I remember Val’s generosity, enthusiasm and passion for adventure. The other member of the ‘Quad Squad’ will continue in Val’s memory.
Kris from ‘Quad Squad’

The City of Seven Hills and Le Pays de Mille Collines

Next week I pass a milestone… its been one year on the road, one year riding my bike and one year away from my friends, my family and my home. My bike has scrappy ribbons of electrical tape holding together the handlebar grip, there are scratches on the frame and tie wraps sit where long lost pannier clips should be. She wears the marks and scrapes of that year on the road, so do I. The contours of my legs have changed, I’m thinner, there are two small scars on my left knee following keyhole surgery and my hairstyle is bordering on full blown mullet. I can recall the word for ‘thank you’ in a dozen languages. I have memories from three continents, twenty one countries and hundreds of busy highways, quiet country lanes and baron tracks. I know that being one year in means that I’m still less than a quarter of my way through the journey, it’s a scary thought and one I try not to indulge in. The big picture is always terrifying, unfathomable, infinitely difficult, impossible. I think only of the present or the next few places ahead, occasionally I allow my imagination to drift to Cape Town, but I never let it creep away beyond Africa. I don’t know how I’ll feel about this life in another year or in two or three. It’s impossible to know. Perhaps I’ll be tired of moving, tired of not knowing where I’ll sleep and tired of always being immersed in the unfamiliar. Perhaps it will still feel fresh and exciting. I’ll stick to thinking in small chunks.

We crossed into Uganda whilst the country was in the midst of elections. People warned us to be careful, there had been many claims of election rigging and boxes of pre-ticked ballot papers had been discovered. We were worried about protests or an an uprising and perhaps violence. The incumbent has been in power for almost 30 years, as the populace went to the polls he mobilised the army and riot police which we saw almost everywhere we went, perhaps not the actions expected of a leader of a true democratic nation. Jinja was our first stop, the origin of the white Nile and an area well known for white water rafting. I side stepped thoughts of my budget and we both spent a day contending with the grade five rapids.

After Jinja it was Kampala, ‘the city of seven hills’ and one of my favourites so far. Wondering her streets is hassle-free and safe and it’s one of the best party cities in Africa. She’s busy, vibrant, welcoming, lively, Ugandan. In Kampala Nyomi’s new skinhead style had been attracting some attention. A Ugandan girl asked after her name and then retorted

‘Nyomi? So you’re a boy with a girl’s name?’

Nyomi laughed it off but when a Kampala taxi driver leaned out of the window and bellowed ‘Hey look, it’s Wayne Rooney!’ she lost the plot a little and gave him two fingers, which was the appropriate response for the society loathing anarchist she now resembles.

Between parties we zoomed around Kampala on ‘boda bodas’ or motorbike taxis. It’s often three on a bike and there’s rarely a helmet, some journeys can be quite hairy. One took me on a back route through Kampala, he zoomed down alleyways in the dark, over old railway tracks, through the slums and backstreets where groups of children huddled around small fires and cooked goat’s meat and liver. The driver played a jaunty brand of Ugandan pop music loud from the bike’s speakers. A sign sat on the front of the bike and declared ‘born lucky’. I had heard that around five boda boda drivers die every day in Kampala. I couldn’t help imagining a macabre scenario… the aftermath of a horrific accident in which I lay trapped in the burning wreckage of the crash. The jaunty music was still playing from the stereo but at a lower pitch and the drivers bloody corpse lay motionless next to the ‘born lucky‘ sign.

We rode towards Fort Portal, the gateway to several of Uganda’s national parks. I loved riding west, in the morning the sun warmed our backs and in the evening we rode towards the setting sun but then again tropical rain eventually caught us up. We found ourselves in another sudden hail storm after hours of warm sunshine. I took my sandals off so I could get some waterproofs on, the ground was hot, almost too hot to stand on in bare feet, yet hail fell all around us. Soon a dense silvery mist started to rise off the quickly cooling tarmac and the road became a spooky ethereal serpent winding through the jungle.

After three days we sighted the majestic Rwenzori mountains in the distance. Their immense looming silhoutte, vast compared to the surrounding hills, had an almost menacing air. The illusion was that they were moving towards us and not the other way around. Finally we arrived in Fort Portal and it was here we got our first taste of African wildlife up close. We were on our way to visit a swamp and nature reserve and were walking the six kilometres down a quiet track through a forest to the main gate. I heard some rustling in the bushes up ahead. Then, from just ten metres away, a large female African elephant stepped out in front of us and paused. We were both suddenly still and silent, waiting for the mock charge which never came. She slowly trundled off into the bushes and then from behind her two baby elephants emerged from the undergrowth. I snatched for my camera. Snap.

There was a lot to do around Fort Portal, we swam in crater lakes, went in search of Columbus Monkeys and ran into a group of brits from an NGO called ‘Cricket without boundaries’ who coach cricket to kids in Uganda. We took half a day to join them and get involved, it was hours of fun and games with a big group of rowdy children and I loved it. That evening we heard music coming from the hills behind our hostel. Determined to find the party we took a bee line towards the source of the sound. After an hour of trudging through the dark, through banana plantations and people’s gardens, we stumbled onto a field full of young Uganadans twisting, grinding and gyrating to home grown hiphop emanating from a large outdoor sound system. It was a free rave put on following the elections and we joined them and danced all night long on that field.

Cricket Without Boundaries
We rode through the foothills of the Rwenzoris, up and down, up and down, up and down. Sweaty, breathless and always hungry but moved by the sensational landscape. We cycled into Queen Elizabeth National Park, there was nobody to stop us. It was an eerie experience, I knew that lions, hyenas, leopards, buffalos, hippos and elephants all lived here, we were riding through their back garden without protection. When we set up camp Ny had a face-off with a hungry warthog and during the night a hippo passed right next to my tent, I could hear it breathing and stomping as it grazed. The next day we decided to save the ten dollars it cost for a nature walk and go off on our own without the mandatory armed guard. Our DIY approach may not have been an altogether sensible escapade but it was free and exhilarating.
A hippo shambles into camp
Nyomi verses warthog
A Flame Tree
We rolled on through Uganda, past papyrus filled swamp, dense jungle with bright green algae filled pools of stagnant water, verdant savannah and then back into the undulating banana and tea plantations which cover great swathes of the country, the occasional flame tree lit up the surroundings. Excited children would quickly encircle us when we stopped to eat, gorping and giggling. We munched on jack fruit and in the evening ‘matoke’, cooked plantains. After 110 kilometres of hills I was riding down the last one of the day, along a rough clay track two kilometres from Lake Bunyonyi and our campsite. Nyomi was riding just ahead when I spotted a motorcyclist coming towards us. He swerved past Nyomi putting himself directly into my path. I gripped my brakes and skidded as he continued to speed towards me.

He sees me, he’ll turn or stop
He sees me, he’ll turn or stop
He must see…

It was a head on collision. I was almost stationary on impact, he had hardly applied the brakes. I remember being catapulted off my bike and landing a few metres away on the roadside. The motorbike careered off a near vertical forested verge and the driver was flung over the vehicle. I caught sight of the end of his trajectory, his body arced several metres through the air before smashing into a pine tree and landing a long way down the slope. The crash was followed by the sort of deep silence that always seems to follow sudden accidents. Stunned I tried to work out if I was injured. There was a bloody laceration to my left shin but it looked superficial. My right thigh was painful but I stood up and the leg took my weight. I could hear the driver moaning but his body remained still. A bunch of young Ugandan men appeared and helped to get the driver and bike back onto the road, a task of many hands and much effort. I examined the driver. Unusually he had been wearing a helmet. He was alert but in pain. There was a boggy swelling over his left knee but he could flex it and weight bare. The motorbike had sustained some damage, both wing mirrors and the speed dial were in pieces. Then came the accusations. The surrounding band of local men decided quickly I was to blame despite not one of them having witnessed the crash. Perhaps this was because the driver had come off worse than me, perhaps because I’m a ‘mzungu’, a white man, and they saw pound signs. Usually the young men who drive boda bodas borrow heavily to cover the cost of the bike and repay the debt over time with money from the fares. I doubted he could cover the cost the damage and he also needed money to get to hospital and for treatment. They never have insurance. In the UK paying money after an accident is to admit liability. In Uganda you just pay up, regardless of who’s to blame. If I had not I feared the group of men would quickly transform into an angry mob, so we debated a price and I paid. I don’t know why he didn’t stop, he had plenty of time to react to me, but obviously things could have been a lot worse for both of us. I was just lucky to get out of there with a few cuts and bruises and a dent in my budget.

After a couple of days we reached Rwanda, ‘the country of a thousand hills’. It was as lush and green as its neighbour and the steep hills here were terraced for farming giving the country an extraordinary look and feel. The children were just as startled to see us and as we rode towards the capital Kigali they ran alongside laughing and asking questions like ‘How is Queen Elizabeth?’ In Kigali we met up with some Irish mates to celebrate St Paddy’s day and set off once again into the wet. In April we will be traveling through Tanzania, a month in which 400mm of rain is expected to fall, eight times that of London.
In the twelve months I’ve been cycling I know I could have covered more ground and I know I could be closer to Cape Town. Riding through Rwanda and Uganda was a loop I didn’t have to do, but I have never wanted to take the shortest or the easiest path. Loops are prettier than straight lines. So far we’ve met three cyclists aiming to ride the length of Africa in four months, many others are striving to break the world record for cycling around the globe. By setting a time limit you beef up the challenge but sacrifice something more important – the adventure. You may see a lot, but you experience little. The times I have felt most alive have not been on busy highways but on those rough tracks on the very edge of civilization, in those wild places. The times I’ve most enjoyed have been when I’ve taken up offers of hospitality from local people, offers which would have to be declined by the speed freaks. It’s a shame that we seem to have entered an era of fast and furious expeditions and adventures. Leave speed to the athletes. Explorers and adventurers of the past and present are rarely blessed with special powers or skills, they are often simply able to make the sacrifices needed to live and experience things that others cannot or will not. Take the dusty track, not the highway, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said ‘Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.’ Here’s to more loops, detours, baron tracks and adventure. Here’s to four more years on my bicycle.

Finally something of the ridiculous… Only in Uganda…

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…


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.