Suicidal goats and helping hands

Ethiopia was country number eighteen and immediately more incomprehensible than the rest right from the start. In Ethiopia the year is 2003 not 2010, they run on their own calendar. In Ethiopia nine o’clock is not 9 am but nine hours after the sun rises. In Ethiopia there are eighty-four indigenous languages, although most speak the ancient language of Amharic with it’s own unintelligible script. In Ethiopia there are just two medical doctors per 100,000 people. But beyond the bewildering it’s a country full of immense promise for the cyclist. There’s a tasty variety of food, a welcome change after a month of the bean-based foole of Sudan. There is a lower cost of living than perhaps any country I will visit over my five years on the road. Ethiopia also boasts great beers, prodigious mountains, palpitation inducing coffee and rumour had it, the most beautiful girls in all of Africa.

I woke early on my first morning in Ethiopia, smothered in a wonky mosquito net and instantly aware of the deafening medley of animal sounds. Ethiopia is a land brimming with both people and livestock and it played a very different theme tune to the hushed stillness of Sudan. It was as if each creature was competing with the next. It was ‘Old MacDonald Has A Farm’ at 300 beats per minute, without the lyrics but with guest vocals from an array of anonymous beasts. We packed up and cycled east towards Gondar but on the way I continued to struggle with stomach pains and diarrheoa, farting profusely into my slip stream. From behind rang loud profanities as Nyomi cussed with colour and gusto.

After two and a half thousand kilometres with barely an incline to test our quads we spied our first mountains. It felt as though we were at sea and a vicious storm was brewing. The hills rolled in like great waves, each one more foreboding than the last. I had my mountain legs, and the vivid memories of obtaining them, but Nyomi had yet to earn hers and Ethiopia offers a unique test to the uninitiated. We edged slowly toward a tough ascent into the Ethiopian highlands, a continuous climb of seventeen kilometres and over one thousand vertical metres. We arrived at a small settlement which marked the beginning of the pass up into the mountains and stocked up on local food and water before I issued Nyomi with a scandalously patronizing pep talk about mountains being bigger in your head than in reality. As with every Ethiopian village we came to we were quickly surrounded by a hoard of children and suddenly I realized that bits of our kit were missing from the pocket of my handlebar bag. We tried every tactic to earn the return of our possessions, demanding, pleading and offering money without success. “The thief runs very fast” was the message from onlookers. We gave up and started up the steep side of the mountain. I was angry, at us for leaving the items on show but mostly at the thief in the crowd. I began to hear cries and shrieks from behind. When I turned to look I could see that Nyomi was being chased by another great seething mob of kids.

They’re at it again

But I noticed that she was sporting a broad grin and it was then I started to understand. They were pushing her up the hill. The idea caught on and soon I had my own group, tiny hands pressing against my racks and panniers and propelling me upwards. It went on for several kilometers and soon we were high enough to get staggering view of the village in the valley far below. They giggled and cheered as they pushed with impressive stamina. At six years old there’s no way I could have run for several kilometres up a steep mountain pushing a fat man uphill on a bicycle. I started to see how the best distance runners in world hail from these parts. The children’s gift could not have come at a better time. Soon the theft was a distant memory. What Ethiopia takes, it also gives back. This, I’m sure, will end up being one of my most enduring and heartwarming memories of Africa and worth more than couple of bits of kit. I realize of course that the image of a group of small, poor, exhausted, black African children pushing a white Englishman uphill on a bicycle is a disconcerting one. Some would say that it even has colonial undertones. You’ll just have to trust me, it wasn’t like that at all.

After the children gradually peeled off we powered on unaided, thighs like pistons, doing battle with the mountain and waging war on gravity. I could see the determination and resolve in Nyomi’s face and I knew that this mountain, or any other, would not beat her. Towards the upper reaches a slow chugging truck crept past me and a man sitting on top flashed me a grin and then clenched and unclenched his fist. I instantly understood his message, he was inviting me to latch on. I had heard of cyclists in Africa grabbing onto the back of slow moving trucks to get up hills and I’d always wanted to try. Cheating? Maybe. But my arse was still firmly on the saddle and I’m in this for the experience. I raced after the truck and grabbed a wire jutting out of the back. It took a few moments to steady my weighty bike, then I relaxed my arm and I was coasting upwards. I abandoned my free ride after a passenger leaned out of the window and told me to let go. The irony wasn’t lost on me. The hefty Englishman who had just been pushed uphill by small children was being told to let go of the 15 tonne lorry as evidently he was slowing it down too much.

The very young children who shepherd the livestock in Ethiopia were so fascinated by us that they would often forget their role and instead turn and gorp as we rode by. Their animals, now without direction or guidance, would shamble into the road in front of us and there were frequent near misses. I wondered how much a donkey would cost to replace, it seemed that bowling into one face first and at high velocity was inevitable. And if it was an ox, I knew who’d be coming off worse. But it is the goats that inhabit western Ethiopia who are the hardest to avoid. In this part of the world they seem to have lost any inherent will to live. With an air of departing resignation they wait until the last moment as I zoom down a hill and then, in a manner I assume they share with the depressed man who steps in front of a train, they step directly into my path. They make eye contact with me and await their fate whilst I screech to a halt with just milimetres to spare. Perhaps the survival instinct in the goats of Western Ethiopia has been bred out of them intentionally. After all it would be quite useful for a community who slaughter thousands of goats if the goats didn’t really want to live in the first place. On top of dodging all the animals, life became even more difficult after discovering that the rumours were true, the women in Ethiopia are indeed stunningly beautiful. They often took my eye, and on the downhill this occasionally led to near fatal losses of concentration.

We arrived into Gondar in the north of the country and roamed the streets, taking in the sights and smells of the new city. We were invited into one family’s home, a grubby dingy shack where ten or twelve slept together. They were all drunk on ‘tela’, a homebrewed wheat beer, including the six, seven and eight year olds. Before we left a friendly local Rastafarian finished off Nyomi’s rudimentary dreadlocks and we had our first taste of Khat, a local plant with a strong unpleasant bitter taste that gives you a hit somewhere between strong coffee and amphetamines. Confident that I have put myself through worse in the pursuit of pleasure, we munched as much as we could tolerate and went out dancing all night.

Continuing south we decided on a 270 km unpaved road which would shave off perhaps 100 km from our route, it was a mistake with welcome consequences. The cycling was a grueling slog by any standards. I’d forgotten how hard rough roads can be, on us and on the bikes. But it was the same old trade, the more off the beaten track you are prepared to venture the greater the reward. People in this rural region were more surprised and more welcoming than usual. On one evening as the light faded and we still hadn’t found somewhere to camp, a local farmer and his family invited us in to sleep. We all shared food and he pulled out an animal hide for me to sleep on. During the night I sensed small creatures crawling over my skin, I brushed them aside, intent on rest. In the morning I could see the critters with clarity. The fleas were everywhere. Over the next two days red, intensely itchy lesions covered my back, stomach, shoulders, neck, legs and arms. Nyomi stayed free of bites, but on the same day she managed to lose her glasses and come down with a nasty bilateral conjunctivitis. She had to ride without lenses or glasses, and during our lunch break she squinted and pointed to our left ‘ohhhh, look at that school and all the children’, she was gesturing towards a small group of three donkeys and a goat.

The attention we receive in Ethiopia is unparalleled; it ranges from curious and friendly to overwhelming hysteria. Everywhere we are observed with intense scrutiny by dozens of faces. Even going to the toilet in Ethiopia is an unavoidable public spectacle. The faces pop up from long grass, from behind trees, from donkey carts. Faces with bright, unblinking eyes everywhere we turn. We wild camped a few times but each night was a restless one, we talked in hushed tones, terrified of triggering the ‘faranji’ alarm. If discovered, word would quickly spread and the village would all come out to have a look, and in all likelihood, to watch us sleep. Unfortunately the theft in the lowlands was not to be the last. Every so often a youngster would try their luck and bread, jumpers and others bits vanished from our bikes. Lets be honest, it’s hard to stay angry at a small Ethiopian child who steals bread from your bicycle, but we soon learnt that anything not firmly stashed away in a pannier was fair game and in Ethiopia, homeland of the infamous Haile Gebre Sellassie and other giants of distance running, the thief always runs faster than you do.

Ethiopians like to shout, usually one word and usually over and over. Here’s a few common ones and how we dealt with them…

Ahhhh the ‘You’ game. Child shouts ‘you’ repeatedly until you look at them. Child wins. Don’t look and you risk a volley of stones. As you can see it’s a bit boring and there’s only ever one winner. And it’s never you.

‘Give me money!’, ‘Give give give!’ or sometimes the beautifully presumptive ‘bring me my money!’
We never give money to children, for all the obvious reasons.

“FARANJI! FARANJI! FARANJI!” (translates as ‘foreigner’)
To this our choice response was ‘Absouja’ (‘Ethiopian’ in Amharic) which you can also shout whilst pointing back if you like.

There are lots of better things to give – time, knowledge, help with English or just a little entertainment – silly dances routines and animal impressions do best.

“Where are you go?”
Don’t be fooled, this isn’t really a question. Very few listen to your answer, but even if they do they will often repeat the same line at a higher volume. I rotated my answers through ‘Timbuktoo’, ‘Basingstoke’; ‘The moon’, ‘anywhere’ and ‘nowhere’ but this got boring fairly fast.

Why do the children think we’re Chinese? The Chinese are building roads throughout Africa in return for cheap petroleum. The Chinese are the only foreign visitors some children ever see and so to them, it’s logical that we must also be from China.

The ratio of adults to children is very obviously skewed in Ethiopia. It’s not uncommon for families to have fifteen or sixteen children. The average life expectancy is just 45 years so children are everywhere with relatively few adults to exert authority. When huge numbers of children chase us chanting ‘YOU YOU YOU’, brandishing large sticks and throwing stones it can feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into an African ‘Lord Of The Flies’. Add to this that the school uniform is usually coloured overalls making the children look like escaped convicts and Ethiopia can be a daunting place to venture. On the downhill in Ethiopia I’d learnt that the animals don’t move out of the way for a cyclist, whereas the people usually do. So from now on when I see that line of silhouettes I steady my handlebars, narrow my field of vision, build up some velocity and take aim for the smallest people-shaped shadows I can find.

We pushed south and neared Addis Abeba, cycling to over three thousand metres above sea level and through vast golden arable plains, coniferous forest and then areas of short grazed green grass with solitary exotic looking trees dotted over the landscape, we could have been riding though the grounds of a stately home or a golf course rather than rural Africa. Lorries passed by with a singular lively but soon-to-be-dead goat tethered to the top. The Ethiopian version of a pack lunch. We tackled the infamous Blue Nile Gorge, an even bigger ascent than the climb into the highlands two weeks before. It was particularly testing for Nyomi who frequently had to capitulate and join in with my double handed high fives and accompanying ‘huhhh!’ in an American football style which I frequently insisted on. On Christmas day we sang Christmas carols loudly and out of tune as we cycled into the Ethiopian capital. We wished people Merry Christmas in Amharic only to hear ‘Yes. Now bring me my money.’ I gorged myself with food and alcohol, safe in the knowledge that I needed the calories. My weight has dropped to just 65 kg, I have lost 15 kg since Istanbul. Christmas is a reminder of the old and familiar and it did have me pining for home a little. I tried my best to bury a futile yearning for country pubs, chip butties and chocolate hobnobs.

Ethiopia wears a dreamlike air of the exotic. My preconceived mental image of African huts and villagers is set firmly in the grassy savannah, not amidst the mountains, and perhaps it’s this juxtaposition that contributes to this aura. Perhaps it’s also the brightly coloured exotic birds dipping and diving over herds of livestock in the fields or the young children with Mohicans and other strange haircuts who chase our bikes and shriek with excitement. Perhaps it’s the rich soundscape in the early evening, shepherds whistling, people yelling, strange birds twittering and whips on the hides of oxen. Perhaps it’s the palpable optimism of the Ethiopian people, they’ve never had it so good after coming through years of oppression, the cruel communist ‘red terror’ regime and devastating famine. But I think that above all it’s that Ethiopia is full of something that makes travelling there completely exhilarating – the unexpected. That’s why, of the eighteen countries I have passed through on my bicycle so far, Ethiopia, with it’s extraordinary atmosphere and unexpected sights and dramas around every corner, is my favourite of all.

If anyone feels inclined to make a Christmas donation to my charity Merlin please visit my justgiving page http// The adventure continues next through the lawless tribal borderlands of Ethiopia and Kenya, skirting the shores of Lake Turkana, a desolate wilderness where lions, crocodiles and carpet vipers roam.

The Nubian way

My 10,000 km milestone in the Sudanese Sahara
It is prohibited to cross the Egypt-Sudan border on land, and no paved roads connect the two countries, so a boat across Lake Nasser was our only option. We boarded the boat after stumbling through hours of beguiling bureaucratic chaos and paying an array of equally befuddling taxes. We settled on the top deck with a small band of foreigners. Each of us expectant, cheery and full of intrigue about the new lands waiting beyond the water. This felt like how you should enter a new African country. By night and by boat. Crossing a vast wild lake gave our entry a surreptitious and mysterious edge. We were past Aswan high dam where the densely populated Egyptian Nile ends and where crocodiles roam.

The boat was due to leave at noon. The sun had long since set by the time we were underway. I had already adjusted to African time. No matter how fast we cycled, I knew Africa would never change her pace for us. Four hundred souls crowded on board, many with all their worldly goods. It was a tight squeeze, people slept in the life boats, in the gangways and on every inch of the ship, above and below deck. Our small group hailed from northern latitudes, we were two Canadians, one Swede and two Brits. The other passengers on board were a mix of Egyptians and Sudanese. The five of us stood out all the more in our shorts and t-shirts. The remaining three hundred and ninety five looked ready to tackle a Siberian winter. Mummified in an array of thick over-garments, they observed us with the look of wonder and concern that most people reserve for the very, very drunk.

When I reel off the list of the places I will travel through, a select few are guaranteed to provoke a sharp intake of breath and raised eyebrows; places perceived to be too hostile for the cyclist, either due to climatic extremes, conflict, crime or political unrest. Amongst them northern Alaska, Colombia and of course the Sudan. In my mind the name invoked images of war and danger and violent disorder. However the north and the east of Sudan are relatively safe places for independent travel, not just safe relative to the rest of Sudan but safe relative to the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. The rate of violent crime is vanishing low. Islam is the predominant unifying force here, as opposed to the tribalism of the south where warring factions compete for power and oil revenues. Sharia law was implemented in 1983. We were arriving at a historic moment. In January there is to be a referendum to decide whether the country divides, north from south. An exodus of people was flowing to the south where the original inhabitants had fled from conflict years before. Frightened by the prospect of a divided nation they were returning home and we saw them en masse traveling the roads leading towards Khartoum.

The reputation of the Nubian people indigenous to northern Sudan precedes them. Cyclists I had met talked of unparalleled hospitality from these generous and kind-hearted desert dwellers who frequently take in and feed weary travelers. A Nubian man on the ship’s deck welcomed me to Sudan. The festival of Eid was upon us and I was worried about the availability of food if shops throughout Sudan were shut for the three day public holiday. “Don’t worry” he told me “if you are hungry just knock on someone’s door. Anyone’s door. They will feed you. It is the Nubian way”.

We debarked and loaded up with supplies and almost twenty litres of water. The contingency supply was a wise move. We started out through the desert and after 50 kilometres there were no signs of people, no water points and no buildings in sight. Just sand and rock under the formidable Saharan sun. At 70 and 100 kilometres still nothing, it wasn’t until we’d ridden almost 150 km could we refill and rehydrate. Even so the desert was a welcome friend after Egypt’s Nile valley, often congested and cramped. The Saharan silence was a penetrating, piercing silence that I have lived in only once before, a decade ago when I rode through Patagonia. It’s a silence so complete and unsullied that it almost has volume. A muffled scream in the open blankness of the Sahara. It becomes even more profound at night or when there’s a lull in the wind, insects scuttling under the tent can sound like huge machines. With the serene solitude comes a filament of vulnerability, something I’ve always been drawn to, and the essence of a good adventure. We wild camped at night, unaware at this point of the stories of travelers ravaged by hyenas and wolves nearby. Later I heard Nubian men recount these tales with great enthusiasm. Local folklaw or fact? I can’t be sure. Little wildlife exists in this region, but when I greeted these accounts with a dubious frown I was assured a motorcyclist had been hunted, mauled and killed by a hyena just two years before. If I wanted they would take me to his BMW motorbike, still by the roadside. I declined their offer, choosing blissful semi-ignorance.

During our breaks for lunch or for a snack we wriggled into the shady shelter of the ubiquitous tubular drains that ran beneath the road. Aside from the infrequent Acacia trees, these were the only sanctuary and retreat from the scornful, merciless Saharan sun. Eventually we were reunited with the Nile. The verdant cloak of riverside pastures had been ripped from her, she appeared naked against the desert backdrop. The heat was intense and oppressive. In the whole of 2010 this area of Sudan had received just ten minutes of light rainfall and on one day in June this year the temperature had been recorded at 49.6 degrees Celcius (121 F) in the shade. In the sun we recorded a high of 48 degrees Celcius (118 F) and this was winter. We drank the murky turbid water from clay pots by the road with fingers crossed after our filter gave up the ghost, hoping that it had been drawn from a well and hadn’t been lifted straight from the Nile.

Lunch time in the drainage tunnels

It was goodbye to the delicious melon flavoured Fanta of Egypt and hello to feta cheese in a carton, equally good but without the flagrant Egyptian over-charging. There were lots more welcome small differences. Sudan is still Arab but has a slightly different dialect of Arabic, the temperature is even hotter here, there are slightly different customs but outwardly it was the manner and attitude of the Sudanese that contrasted most sharply. They appeared conservative, demure and polite as opposed to the gregarious, voluminous and excitable Egyptians.

When Eid came Nubians did feed us and when Eid was over they fed us some more. I enjoyed these meals. Typically Nyomi and I would split up, women and men dining in separate parts of the home. The women wore bright colourful robes with floral motifs and, if married, henna adorned their hands and feet in elaborate swirls and curlicues. The men were clad in white robes and the white prayer cap or taqiyah, their lower lips bulging with clumps of moist tobacco. Occasionally I would see Nubians with scars on their cheeks. Facial scarification is a Sudanese tradition, many ethnic groups and tribes have their own mark of distinction. We would greet with a hand on the shoulder followed by a shake of the hand. Eating was also done with our hands and was a velocious flurry of food snatching. Conversation was impossible if you wanted any nourishment. Sometimes they would give us food to take away, often completely unsuitable for carriage on the bikes such as huge raw joints of lamb, but as the man said, that is ‘the Nubian way’.

After eating we got the chance to practice our less than pigeon Arabic. On one occasion an elderly man thought it prudent to warn us of the ‘dangerous people and thieves’ we’d find in Africa after we left Sudan. It all sounded a bit familiar. In Eastern Europe it was the Turks who were demonised as bandits and thugs. I encountered nothing but the greatest hospitality in Turkey, but whilst there I often heard of how the neighbouring Arabs would slice me up and rob me blind if I wasn’t careful. In the Middle East I found many good-natured and generous characters who went out of their way to help me. Now in Sudan I was getting the same old warning. I wondered if every community harbors a dark paranoia of their neighbour.

Nyomi and Nubian women having lunch

As we continued through the desert I began to feel a bit uneasy. We were coasting along with a swift tailwind, my knee felt sturdy, people were friendly, there was no snow, no chasing dogs, no insects, no mountains, no police, no bandits. Cycling through Africa shouldn’t be this easy. Something had to give and that something was Belinda, my bicycle.

Before I left for South America ten years ago I was worse than useless when it came to bicycle maintenance and repair. Over the following five months of riding, when every sub-standard component on our cheap bikes fell off, cracked or shattered, I never really improved. Every time I went near a bicycle with some tools and optimistic intent I would invariably do more harm than good, initially through my own incompetence and then later when I lost my temper with the tarnished machine. The result was that I developed a sort of phobia of tools and bicycles, a bit inconvenient if you harbor dreams of cycling around the world. So I before I left from London I did the fantastic Cycle Systems Academy (City and Guild) bike repair course which gave me loads of skills and confidence sorely needed. More or less every component on my Santos Travelmaster bike is serviceable by the road. One vital part that I had no intention of going near was the infamous Rohloff hub. Without getting too technical the Rohloff hub is an internal gear mechanism, which means there’s no derailleur to faff with. It allows me to switch between fourteen gears. Ninety percent of serious cycle tourers have one. It adds almost a thousand pounds to the cost of the bike and has been on the market for twelve years. Rumour had it there has never been a mechanical failure. It is revered, respected, allegedly indestructible and is a very complex feat of German engineering.

It felt like a small puncture. I looked back. Tyre looked OK. Then I noticed the spoke flapping in the breeze. A broken spoke could easily be replaced but on closer inspection I saw the real extent of the problem. Inexplicably a piece of metal had spontaneously fallen off the Rohloff shell, the part where the spokes attach to. There was no way I could re-attach the spoke by the road and by the look of it I would need a new hub and with it I would have to deal with a whole world of problems. I was wary in my ability to build a wheel strong enough to take me to Cape Town but I also knew that whatever I did, I had to do it fast. My Sudanese VISA expired in three weeks. I had to pedal onwards to the next sizable town, Dongola, 50 km away. We were still 500 km from the capital Khartoum. The wheel became more and more untrue as I rode, dancing an erratic shimmy every turn. Now Sudan, once vivid, new and exhilarating was the last place in the world I wanted to be and the broken hub was beginning to look like an almost insurmountable problem. That night my mind was in turmoil. How could this happen? Every obstacle, every option, every possible outcome and consequence tumbled through my imagination in my semi-conscious doze.

The next day we arrived in Dongola. I photographed the damage, emailed bicycle experts in the UK and went on the hunt for the best bush mechanic in town, or failing that any guy with a drill or a welding iron. I kept hearing the same mechanic’s name and after three days, with some help, I’d tracked him down. I was particularly lucky. He had the kit to weld aluminum, a rare skill, and he set to work welding a piece of metal to the hub and re-tensioning my wayward spoke. He worked with attention and skill and when he was done I almost hugged him. The weld had strengthened my hub, my resolve and my hope that I can complete my journey across six continents without using other forms of transport, aside from boats across those watery stretches. It’s an absurd, ridiculous and petty ambition I know, but never-the-less it remains somehow important to me. I waited to hear from mechanics at home and in the meantime we delved into Sudanese life, frequently being invited for meals as well as attending two wedding parties and taking a dip in the cool waters of the Nile.

Word came that Santos and Rohloff had teamed up to ship a whole new wheel and hub to Khartoum. I have since learned that the incidence of this type of hub failure is approximately one in five thousand. Karma owes me one. We set out for Khartoum but yet another problem re-surfaced. The widest inner tubes available locally were too slim for my new back tyre which I fitted in Cairo. Unable to fully inflate the tyre, the tube could move around inside and pressure was applied to the valve when I used the breaks. The tubes had been rupturing again and again, right by the valve. Only just out of Dongola and another tube was heading for the bin. I had to reduce the internal size of my tyre. “Socks!” I announced “We need socks!”. I stuffed nine socks into the tyre and inflated the tube and rode on with no more problems. If my plan had failed I knew I had no more socks left to add, but I was ready to ride ‘commando’ if it got me to Khartoum.

We continued, sweaty and sockless, our progress marred by those problems ubiquitous to travel in Africa; oppressive heat, insects and dodgy bowels. Our protracted symptoms were perhaps consistent with the parasitic infection Giardia from the muddied water we’d binged on. We kept up our spirits by riding side by side, talking of life in England, shared friends and past experiences, the good and the bad. The desert sand was an ochre sea with a million ripples over the surface. The limitless terrain was dotted with thorny bushes and prodigious termite mounds and occasionally the sky would appear on the earth, a desert mirage, the exhausted desert traveler’s nemesis. We passed huge trains of camels, one hundred and fifty strong, loping through the desert. They were being taken through the Sahara from Southern Sudan to Birqash, a large camel market in Egypt where they would be sold for meat. The ancient camel route north was named after the time it takes for them to arrive, the ‘forty-day road’.

A termite mound

A rare patch of shade

Camels on the ‘forty day road’

On our approach to Khartoum I passed my 10,000 km  milestone and then wrote another to do list. The first task was a cathartic throw away…

“Go on a gram-saving mission. Get rid of anything and everything we don’t use. Be MILITANT“.

We chucked away a load of clothes and a few luxuries. Shampoo and deodorant were surplus accessories we could also afford to ditch. We might smell funky but that’s the price you pay to get quicker up those hills.

It wasn’t my ingenuity or resourcefulness and it wasn’t good fortune that helped me solve the problem with my bike. It was people. The Nubian mechanic, the Korean family who found him for me, the bicycle experts in the UK, especially Cycle Systems Academy and MSG bikes, Rohloff and my bike sponsor Santos. Thank you all. Next stop will be Christmas in Ethiopia after we tackle the first proper mountains Africa has to offer. Afterwards we get much more off the beaten track by skirting the shores of Lake Turkana, a desolate wilderness and tribal area in the borderlands of Kenya and Ethiopia where few cyclists dare to venture and where lions, crocodiles and carpet vipers roam. We’ll need strong legs, strong wills and probably a lot more socks.

Nyomi riding a ridge in the desert

Lucky, lucky gits

It flows through old hushed Egypt and its sands,
Like some grave mighty thought threading a dream,
And times and things, as in that vision, seem
Keeping along it their eternal stands,–
Caves, pillars, pyramids, the shepherd bands
That roamed through the young world, the glory extreme
Of high Sesostris, and that southern beam,
The laughing queen that caught the world’s great hands.
Then comes a mightier silence, stern and strong,
As of a world left empty of its throng,
And the void weighs on us; and then we wake,
And hear the fruitful stream lapsing along
‘Twixt villages, and think how we shall take
Our own calm journey on for human sake.

‘The Nile’
James Henry Leigh Hunt.

I greeted Nyomi at the airport. It was good to see her beaming, familiar face. After a beer and some catching up I had a look through her gear, I was curious as to what kit she had put together to aid us on our trans-African passage. The first item to emerge from her box was a small guitar shaped bag. Nyomi had brought a ukulele on a bike ride across Africa. Now, feeling a little nervous about her judgment, I sifted through the remaining gear wondering if I’d find coat hangers and hot water bottles, but instead I found she had managed to get a bunch of high quality cycling kit from several companies as sponsorship. We had very little to buy in Cairo and quite a lot to send back to the UK. I was however more than a little suspicious of the Eurohike tent option. My fears were confirmed when I read the following words printed on the bag…

“A budget priced tent for sheltered summer use aimed at youngsters seeking their first camping adventure, perhaps in the back garden”.

Summer use! Back Garden! Nowhere did it mention wild camping for nine months in the toughest and most unforgiving continent on earth. We bought another. I realised though that the ukulele was a nice touch. Not wanting to be outdone I hot footed it to a local music shop and purchased not one, but two, fine harmonicas. We have started up a traveling band. Neither of us have any clue about how to play either instrument and what’s more we have nobody to teach us and no text to learn from. But we do have time and enthusiasm. Surely that’s all we really need. We need a name for our traveling band. Please leave suggestions in the comments section below.

In Cairo we made our final preparations for the road ahead and explored the city on foot. Our first task was to secure VISAs for Sudan and Ethiopia. The Sudanese required a ‘letter of intent’ from the British embassy. We collected the letter, which was actually a letter stating that the British Embassy do not issue ‘letters of intent’. It cost 30 quid for the privilege on top of the one hundred US dollars for the Sudanese VISA. We visited the pyramids with an Australian fine dining chef called Damian who was about to start running across Africa. We decided against taking a camel ride even if getting around the pyramids, according to the touts, “is very far on foot”. In the evenings we chilled out in Al-Azhar park, chatting with young Egyptians and contemplating how young life here contrasts with our own in England. We were having fun but I was keen to get going. Cairo can be a hard place to find peace. In a crowded city of twenty million arguments can quickly erupt between locals, the barmy din of car horns and voluminous touts permeates every moment and mosquitoes and smog hang in the air. Perhaps it was a reaction to the surrounding chaos but I realised we were undergoing a subtle transformation. Ny started dreading her hair. My beard was making a comeback. We ate falafel and smoked shisha. I practiced the harmonica. We talked about how to sleep for free in Cairo. If we had continued in this hippie-esque vain we may have ended up dancing naked around central Cairo with flowers in our hair, so I was relieved when finally our panniers were packed and we knew the location of every spoon, every pair of socks and every spare spoke. The Nile would be our guiding companion for the next two thousand kilometres. We would shadow her twists and turns. The prevailing wind is brisk and blows reliably towards the south. Surely at least the cycling would be easy along her flat fertile flood plain, although I suspected our ride along the mighty river, like most things in Africa, would not be that straight forward.

Sunset over Cairo

The Nile, Cairo

We were off, a curious, grinning, two-person peloton. At first we weaved our way through the industrial outskirts and through the grimy detritus caste aside by Cairo’s burgeoning population. Little by little the traffic thinned and settlements became punctuated with greenery and pastures. The dusty road became an avenue lined with palm trees, prickly pear and sugar cane. Grey herons flew high over our heads and excitable ten year olds whooshed past our shoulders on motorbikes shouting “weeeeeeeeeelcoooooommmmeee!”. I took a long look at Nyomi. She sat proudly aloft her heavily laden touring bike wearing a large green rimmed hat. Two dreadlocks protruded from under the rim and were at right angles to her head. A piece of luminous yellow and green twine was tied into her hair. She had several spring onions and a large cucumber strapped under the bungees on the back of her bike and a ukulele was strapped to her back. On the front of her bike tied to the handlebar bag was a bright yellow metal plate emblazoned with the words “I DON’T BRAKE FOR ANYONE’. I realised at that moment that the question was not whether we were ready for Africa, but whether Africa was ready for Nyomi.

On our second evening we turned off the main road, found a nice patch of grass to camp and were soon surrounded by cheerful, tittering, curious faces watching us keenly as we ate and then erected the tents. We felt, above all, safe and secure here. But the night of Halloween was drawing in, all those friendly faces soon disappeared behind the locked doors of their homes and our situation changed. The sound of motorbikes zooming close by kept me from slumber. A group of seventeen and eighteen year olds approached the tent. I poked my head out to explain we needed some sleep. They skulked away out of sight. Then, a little later I heard some scuffling at the tent porch, a quick count and a pannier was missing. I went outside and found them rifling through Nyomi’s clothes. They saw me and quickly retreated but I had a feeling they’d be back so I sat vigil outside the tent. Again they came, now more aggressive, demanding money and making threats, again I ushered them away. I mentally sorted through our options and was left short changed. Again they came back but now with additions to the party, four or five more lads, two brandishing large sticks. They had upped the ante, diplomacy had failed and I had some very quick decisions to make. I had some CS gas and a knife in my tent. Adding either to the mix could only make things worse. Then I spied two figures walking down the road. Perhaps they would help us. I shouted for Nyomi to run over and enlist their help whilst I tried to stop the group raiding our stuff. The two lads got involved, pushing the boys back and shouting with menace. It was  brave thing to do. Our assistants cant have been much older then those in the group. Slowly the group dispersed. An old man appeared after hearing the commotion. He introduced me to his friend, a lean, grim character clad in a long brown robe and with a full beard. He lit a fire close to our tent and placed a foot long curved knife on his lap. He would act as our protector and bodyguard through the night. We paid him some baksheesh for his trouble the following day.

The next day I knew we had to metaphorically, as well as physically, get back on the bike so we found another village to rough camp in the evening and this time it was a much less restless night’s sleep. We were welcomed by a large extended family. We sat munching on sugar cane with the children and a cow was milked so that we had something to drink. Nyomi rode around on a donkey to everyone’s delight and amusement. We watched the sun set over the palm trees, sat around a fire and then when bed time came the villagers moved a water buffalo from it’s shed so we could sleep there.

A sugar cane snack
A man and woman living and traveling together for nine months, but not as boyfriend and girlfriend, is a concept that would be completely lost on most people in Islamic Egypt. So to prevent confusion, to ward off the attentions of Egypt’s many many leering romantics and to make life easier we pretend we are married and Nyomi wears a ring. Now that I have a cycling buddy to consider I have had to adapt after my slightly self-absorbed and solitary life before Cairo. I was glad Nyomi had done some training in the UK before she left and she has had no trouble on our first days on the road, easily keeping pace. What’s even more impressive has been her ability to match me mouthful for mouthful at breakfast, lunch and dinner. In Egypt we have the perfect leg fuel… Koshary. It’s a mixture of pasta, rice, tomato sauce, dried onions, garlic sauce, chick peas and chilli sauce. Tasty, loads of carbs, dirt cheap and available in every town and on virtually every street.

Egyptian children are a curious bunch and often seize the chance to chat away in English although sometimes the conversation doesn’t exactly flow…

“What is your name?”
“What is your name?”
“What is your name?” (now shouting)
“Like Stee-fen Gerrard?”  (there’s no ‘v’ sound in Arabic)
“Yes like Stephen Gerrard”
“Like Stone Cold Steef Austin?”

Of all the Stephen’s in all the world it’s not Steven Speilberg, Stephen King or even Professor Stephen Hawking but the WWF wrestler ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin who is my most well known namesake.

A few days after setting out the police escort arrived that I had been dreading and soon it started to wind me up. They tailed us for four days during which we had to use hotels where we would find them waiting again for us the following morning. As I write this blog there’s a policeman over my shoulder staring at the screen, although I don’t think he speaks much English. WE DON’T NEED A POLICE ESCORT. No reaction. It’s not just the constant hum from behind my back wheel as they trail my bicycle but the fact that they dictate when you can stop for a rest or for food. Inevitably they say “not now. In five kilometres” and this always means fifteen. On the third day I had a flat and it was a good excuse to stop for a while but the police wanted me to fix it immediately and move on. The policeman pointed to the long grass nearby and did an impression of a sniper taking a shot. Unimpressed with this ludicrous exaggeration Nyomi and I began a lie down protest by the road. The police predictably went bizerk and clearly didn’t know how to handle this novel situation. They telephoned a senior officer for advice. I can only imagine how the conversation went…

“Hi Sir. We have an, erm, situation”
“There’s two English cyclists lying down by the road”
“Have they had an accident?”
“No Sir”
“Are they sick”
“No Sir”
“Well what is it then?”
“They just won’t move Sir”

Although some grated, most of the police I met were friendly and of course only doing their job, and when they drove in front and sounded the siren as we rode into town I couldn’t help feeling quite presidential. They were also helpful when I had to stop to fix a puncture and a mob of children descended. They began helping me change the tyre but their hands were everywhere and I noticed a few sniffing around my handlebar bag. The cheap inner tube had completely ruptured, the split ran right through the words ‘made in China’. With the flat fixed I readied to go but realised my speedometer was missing. I erupted into a loud tirade, after a few minutes the speedo was returned but they wanted money for their ‘find’. At this point a policeman appeared and doled out a few clouts to the nearest youngsters who quickly scarpered.

During that evening I started to feel sick and the next day was the first on my journey where I have been physically unable to ride. I had a blistering headache, rigors, severe diarrhoea and my temperature intermittently spiked to 39 degrees. We rested up in a shabby hotel whilst I self medicated from my pannier pharmacy (‘borrowed’ from my hospital) and winged to Nyomi. But the next day we pressed on. Eventually we cruised into Luxor at the end of a healthy one hundred and forty five kilometre day. Shower, koshary, feet up, beer.

We hadn’t seen another tourist over the seven hundred kilometres we’d ridden from Cairo, but Luxor was packed full of backpackers. At the infamous Valley of the Kings I watched tour bus after tour bus arrive with amusement. Out piled elderly American and French package tourists. Clearly they had all been given some sort of instruction by the on board tour guide.

“Right Gentlemen, yank those shorts up to your armpits and lets see those pale wrinkly legs. Ladies, get those big golf hats on. Now everyone… cameras ready and I want to see those mouths open and eyes up towards the sky. Remember what I told you, don’t walk, shuffle.”

The last stage through Egypt was Luxor to Aswan at which point we planned to take a ferry across lake Nasser to Sudan. The road south to Aswan was lined by flowering plants of effulgent hue, beyond them crops of oil palm, cabbages and sugar cane. Traffic at last was sparse but there were more police around than usual, and for Egypt that’s a lot. Susan Mubarak, the wife of the president, was visiting a village nearby.

In Aswan we took a ride in a felucca along the Nile and made the necessary adjustments for the next stage. Chunkier tyres for the less salubrious terrain ahead, stashes of cash hidden around our panniers (it would be maybe two months until the next ATM) and new maps. On Saturday we take a ferry across the lake to Sudan and then I have a feeling that life’s about to get a little less comfortable. My next post will come from Khartoum.

I leave you with a few words regarding our journey I received recently via email from a good friend…

“The pair of you are about to set off into the most frustrating, dangerous, incomprehensible continent on earth. It is also the most life-affirming, the most human, and arguably the most beautiful. You lucky, lucky gits.”

Already much of those words ring true. The cycling has been easy but even so it’s been a tough start to our African epic. We’ve been sick, we’ve been threatened and we’ve been robbed but we’ve also been surprised, inspired and often overwhelmed. Already we have stories. I can’t imagine how many more we’ll have to tell in Cape Town. There’s no doubt in my mind that we are lucky, lucky gits.

Here are some stats…

0 – number of Killer Nile Crocodiles, deadly snakes or walking mummified undead spotted so far
1 – number of shisha pipes knocked over in Cafes
2 – number of times Nyomi has fallen off her bike blaming the toe clips
3 – metric tonnes of koshary consumed
4 – number of marriage proposals from Egyptian men to Nyomi
5 – number of English pounds required for a hotel, slap up dinner and beer in Egypt
6 – number of dreadlocks in Nyomi’s barnet
7 – an insufficient number of policeman to move two tired cyclists
8 – number of times we’ve crossed the Nile
9 – number of ruptured inner tubes over the last thousand kilometres
10 – our ‘skankiness level’ on arrival to Aswan (on a scale of one to five)

I leave Egypt with many striking images ingrained on my memory. Here are a few we caught on camera…

A Great Egret

The police helping me mend another puncture
Never leave your children with this woman

A young family who took us in for the night on our way to Aswan
A felucca on the Nile (but not one of the many sponsored by McDonald’s which actually do have the golden arches logo on the sails)

This was the ‘bike shop’ we were directed to. Four guys and a box of tools camped out on the street corner.

The promise of Africa

An egyptian ‘hill’. Scary, white knuckle stuff.

An Egyptian traffic jam

How to confuse another tourist whilst cycling around the world…

“So where are you from?”
“I’m from England”
“Oh great. And where have you come from?”
“From England”
“No no. I mean where have you cycled from?”
“From England”
“Oh wow. (pregnant pause). That’s a long way. How long did that take?”
“Around six months”
“No kidding! And where are you heading?”
“Back to England”
“How long will that take?”
“Around four and a half years”

I had a few conversations along these lines in Dahab. It made me chuckle, but reminded me that after clocking up eight thousand kilometres I’m still only one tenth of my way around the world. My days by the Red Sea were spent indulging in nice activities like snorkeling in lagoons, eating nice hot food, drinking nice cold beer, having a nice chat with nice new friends and occasionally having a nice quiet siesta. It didn’t feel right. It was only six days but a guilty feeling descended like a curtain, and with it an urge to push on. I kept poring over my map and the route inland across Sinai. More hills. I had a debt to pay and those mountains were calling it in. I reminded myself that hills are just like all those cold showers. The thought is always worse than the experience. This would be the last vertical test until the highlands of Ethiopia, maybe 2000 kilometres away. Until then the theme would be Red Sea coast, Nile valley and Sahara desert. Dahab was a great place for a break, but there were few solitary travelers here, everyone seemed to be part of a group. I started to miss home. Recently whenever I’m feeling a bit nostalgic something quickly crops up to put a smile back on my face. Sometimes all it takes is a tailwind or an exotic creature in the road, sometimes some local hospitality or if I’m lucky it’s meeting another cycle tourer. On my way inland across Sinai, whilst my mind wondered about the people I’d left behind in England, I met two.

The first was Nils, a German guy who’d taken off on his bike at the ripe old age of sixty six. I realise now that our conversation would probably have sounded strange to anyone else if they happened to be listening in. Two strangers met in the road and covered, in quick succession, altitude, kilograms of gear, prevailing wind directions and then the pros and cons of Rohloff hubs. I happened upon a pilgrim whilst riding through Turkey perhaps a month or so ago. A sunny, gregarious character from Austria called Martin who was walking from his homeland to Jerusalem. Amazingly Nils had run into him too, in Serbia. I waved goodbye to Nils who was just finishing his tour and then tried to ignore taxi drivers who frequently stopped to offer me a lift. I thought it was fairly obvious that I had put at least some time and consideration into my chosen method of transport, but they tried their luck anyway. I asked a couple if they wanted to ditch their taxis and find bicycles. They didn’t get what I was on about. I’d picked up one of those water spray bottles they use in hairdressers whilst I was in Dahab. I intermittently soaked my face to escape the heat and I liked it resting in my bottle holder. It contributed nicely to my increasingly bizarre appearance. The police at the numerous check points found it hilarious. I think every cyclist should have one. Also great for washing up, brushing teeth and for a very limited “shower”.

The second cyclist was Rob. A Brit who’d cycled all the way from Capetown, he’d made it in seven months despite more then a couple of chunky loops and detours. He was heading to Istanbul. We greedily traded information, the road ahead for the road behind. He probably knew a bit about my future and I of his. His tales inflamed my curiosity. These encounters with cyclists coming the other direction, more then any guide book or web search, help shape my decisions about the route ahead. Rob was full of useful tidbits. Here’s his entertaining blog. Cycle tourers met so far… It’s England  2, Germany 1.

I moved north, flanked by desert and sporadic red sea resorts. On my way I gave myself indigestion by eating my weight in various life-giving health foods, mostly pot noodles and family sized packs of kebab flavoured crisps. I love the Middle East, not least for those crisps, but some things I won’t miss. Mainly people’s inability to queue properly but also the fact that you have to barter for every commodity. I expect to haggle for gifts in the Souqs of Damascus or Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, but when you get to an Egyptian pharmacy and have to negotiate the price of six Rennie and a toothbrush you begin to wish things just came with a price tag.

Cycling through desert can be an uninspiring effort. After Sinai it was a stale, stagnant, unchanging landscape. Only the odd dead White Stalk and red or green stripes of mineral deposits in the rocks roused my interest. Nothing but the bare beige backdrop to stare at. To me camels always look glum and a little bemused. Stick twenty in a lorry, with their heads poking out of the top, and drive it fast through the desert and they look quite comical, but that was all that broke the monotony. Only one thing to do then. Three cups of coffee, some new school breaks on the IPOD, switch off that internal monologue and get cracking. At the end of the day is when the desert really shines, the nights and evenings are magnificent. The bleached blandness of the day diminishes with the light. Shadows rise, colours sharpen, contours look to twist and morph. With few settlements, no light pollution and dependably clear skies, the cosmos fluoresces in all it’s glory. During the desert nights I could easily make out the hazy streak of the Milky Way, luminescent planets, star clusters and even the faint haze of Andromeda, our neighbouring galaxy, three million light years away.

I ran out of food again after consuming the edible dregs from the deep recesses of my pannier. After fifty kilometres and still no breakfast I spied a coastal resort, and then once inside to my delight, and their imminent regret, an all you can eat breakfast buffet. French and Italian tourists picked at the salads and cereals. I went to town. When I piled my plate as high as I could manage, for the third time, a few olives bounced away under the table. The bill then quickly arrived without me asking for it. I stuffed two hard boiled eggs into my pockets, paid and made for the exit, ignoring the disgruntled looking staff. I felt no shame. This is not the first time, and it will not be the last time, that I take a few liberties with buffet carts.

I was cycling on the only two inner tubes I had left and it was making me nervous. The valves on the only ones available to buy in the Middle East didn’t fit through the holes in my rims. I hoped things would hold up until Cairo but of course the inevitable happened, a sudden ‘woooooosh’ and on examination a split, right where the valve comes off the tube. I hadn’t glimpsed a bike shop since Amman, over one thousand kilometres behind me. When my inner tube ruptured I was fifty metres from one. They didn’t have the right tube, but of course in Egypt my problem was not a problem. If the tube didn’t fit, the young mechanic would make it fit. He swiftly removed the tyre, chucked away my tube, grabbed some pliers and set to work widening the hole in my rim. Within ten minutes he had solved the problem, inflated the new tube and replaced the tyre, adjusted my brakes and refused payment. It took me longer to persuade him to at least take some money for the tube than it did for him to fix it. In the end I could only convince him to take the Egyptian equivalent of about two quid sterling.

I cracked on, hungry for Cairo, munching up the kilometres and trying to ignore the Egyptian stripped down, minimalist approach to motoring (who needs lanes, indicators, brakes, mirrors or eyes). Eventually I made it. I’ve spent about six months on the road, it would have been five were it not for that troublesome knee. I expected the hectic in Cairo, so sunnies off, headphones out and game face on. I needed all my senses. Time to embrace the chaos, forget the rules and above all, commit to every move and turn. This time I quite enjoyed it.

Cairo… the old and the new

When I first found out Nyomi might want to join me I asked her to choose a country. I didn’t expect her to answer “Africa”, but I’m glad she did. She arrives today and we have a lot to do in Cairo, on top of all the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the city to sample. So what are my hopes and fears for the roads ahead through ‘the dark continent’? There are many. I’m not looking forward to the police escort we’ll get in Egypt from Cairo to Aswan. Egypt’s boys in white insist on trailing cyclists if you choose to ride down the Nile valley. Rob had them in tow for four days. I guess they don’t care much for independent travelers. They prefer tour groups, where you’re told what to look at and then escorted to the gift shop. Many a cyclist has also recounted tales of the stone throwing hoards of children in Northern Ethiopia. I don’t know if anyone knows for sure why they do it. Perhaps it’s perceived as bad luck to see a traveler on their turf, perhaps it’s just youthful mischief, either way many cyclists I have spoken to warn of sporadic attacks along this route. The road through Northern Kenya is notorious, a rough lumpy hot bed of ups and downs. Hundreds of kilometres of what amounts to back to back speed bumps, and then for us a few weeks of difficulty walking in a normal fashion. Ethiopia and Rwanda have some hefty inclines to deal with, and of course I also sometimes worry about having all of our stuff nicked. The temptation’s obvious. In Africa our bikes are worth a fortune, but it’s unlikely that I will pass through anywhere on my five year expedition that has a higher rate of bike theft than my prosperous home town of Oxford.

Malaria is one that sometimes hits cyclists. It is a particular risk when you’re outside all day, but we have tactics to deploy. Obviously covering up and avoiding bites in the first place, good mosquito repellent (and I have some), nets at night and prophylaxis. Many don’t bother, complaining the tablets are “not natural”, that they’re not 100% effective or that they have side effects. Personally I couldn’t give a mosquito’s arse about the first, the second is true, although surely you should try what you can to reduce the risk, and the third? Well malaria has side effects too. Off the top of my head… haemolytic anaemia, liver and kidney failure and occasionally death. Whilst I’ve never seen a patient who has developed side effects to anti-malarials severe enough to warrant a hospital admission, I have been involved in the care of quite a few patients with malaria, including one who subsequently died on the Intensive Care Unit. Some had taken prophylaxis, but most had not. We also carry a malaria self test kit and some Quinine for treatment of Falciparum malaria if all else fails. Finally there are those wild beasts of Africa. If Nyomi and Steve disappear without trace and only their camera is recovered, the last photo may just show grins of the purest gorgonzola and edam, the pair oblivious to the pride of lions in the corner of the image and just over their shoulders….

The geographer George Kimble put it aptly when he said that the darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it. In the next chapter of the saga I hope to learn something of the continent through the people we come across on the road. I hope to visit some of Merlin’s projects. I hope the journey is as exciting as it has been up until now. I hope my knee continues to fair well. I hope our journey’s hard and I hope it hurts and then I hope to sit on the beach at Capetown, beside Belinda and Nyomi, and know that we conquered Africa together and that all the sweat and tears and saddle sores and long days and bumpy roads and dodgy bowels and aching limbs and homesick times were worth it. Steve and Nyomi! Nyomi and Steve! Team Ny-eve! Hang on, that doesn’t quite sound right.

Every thousand kilometres I cycle I stop, write the distance on whatever comes to hand and take a photo. The idea is to put together a collection of eighty images for every thousand of the eighty thousand kilometres I expect to pedal. So far I have written in the sand, in stone, in the ice on my tent or just on a piece of card. Here are the first eight of these milestones…
Fresh-faced in the French countryside
Blog posts:
The beginning 

On the Italian Riviera
Blog posts:
Lesson one

Getting a soaking in Croatia
Blog posts:
Reggae, rain and a dodgy beard

A frosty morning in Macedonia
Blog posts:
Paranoia and pesky pooches

Back on the bike after knee surgery, Istanbul
Blog posts:
The humble fare
Recovery, japery and some summer shenanigans

South of Cappadocia, Turkey. I carved the numbers into the soft tufa rock
Blog posts:

North of Amman, Jordan
Blog posts:
Ain’t no valley low enough
Doctor, soldier, vagrant, priest

The Sahara desert, Sinai peninsula, Egypt.
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