Posts Tagged ‘desert’

Star gazing in the Atacama

So I’m in Cusco, about to set off to Machu Picchu.

Here’s a description of an astronomy tour in the Atacama Desert whilst I was in San Pedro about one month ago…

I pitch into the lap of my neighbour before retreating, embarrassed and apologetic. The Toyota had abruptly veered off the paved road onto a pothole-strewn track, one of many that scores the surface of the Atacama Desert around the small town of San Pedro in northern Chile. The orange blaze of the car’s headlights dissects the night, roving over flat plains of sand and rock. Suddenly the silhouette of a solitary figure develops from the blackness, hunched over a wide cylinder.

Our group pile out into the dark, expectant and excited about an astronomy tour in the most renowned star gazing region on earth. The Atacama boasts the quintessential ingredients – altitude, little cloud cover, dry air and a lack of light pollution. As we climb out of the vehicle heads fall backwards and faint sighs of appreciation escape into the night. “Wow, what a sky!” affirms an American. A shooting star flashes across the hazy arch of the Milky Way, the cosmos responding to our tributes.

A broken circle of eight shivering bodies enclose the resident expert and his telescope. “Welcome!” announces Pablo, arms and fingers outstretched, palms tilted skyward as if our guide owns the night’s sky and we are only invited guests to the wonder of nature. Pablo is a small, animated man, mummified in an array of thick over-garments. I stand trembling in my shorts and sandals as the other tourists observe me with the same look of wonder and concern that most people reserve for the very, very drunk.

Saturn is first on the agenda, it’s an opener designed to impress. We crowd the telescope, taking it in turns to admire the surreal, off-kilter rings. Pablo describes the visible constellations with the aid of green laser pointer and identifies stars that likely no longer exist; their life long since extinguished but their light still travelling through space.

Everyone has a question, most have many, and Pablo meets each with an understanding nod and an explanation, sometimes then directing lively demonstrations in which volunteers charge around, simulating orbiting bodies and solar eclipses. The curious gratified, Pablo introduces us to a star he has christened The Rastafarian. As I squint at the flek it shimmers green, gold and red and Pablo erupts into a rendition of Bob Marley’s ‘no woman no cry’. He is soon joined by a chorus of voices from the gloom.

We cram back into the Toyota and as we chug off through the rough I peer back over my seat to see a little man and his telescope, drenched in the red of the car’s rear lights, slowly dissolving back into the desert night. Those with window seats aim enlightened eyes at the celestial sphere, the hunger for star gazing not yet sated. A voice complains that the low lying white dot of Venus had sunk into the horizon. “Don’t worry”, comes the reassuring voice of our driver, “she’ll be back tomorrow night”. He smiles at his prediction. “They all will.”

Waiting for flying idiots

I’m a complete idiot. Only idiots make mistakes like this.

The thought repeated itself as I moodily shuffled through Salta’s empty streets, cleats clipping the cobblestones, carrying two bike tyres. The part of Salta that wasn’t sleeping peacefully was on their way to or from church, because it was a SUNDAY, not a MONDAY as I assumed it must be. I couldn’t leave Salta without some bike parts and gas for my stove, items that are easy to find on any day of week in Salta, except SUNDAYS. And it was definitely a SUNDAY. That was clear, as clear as the fact that only nomadic, dreamy idiots who have been travelling for over two years make mistakes with the day of the week and end up staying an extra day when they should be en route to Chile.

So finally I escaped the clutches of the cosy city and I cruised up a cloudy gorge, Quebrada del Toro, to San Antonio, brimming with the same sense of nervous excitement that always builds when I know I’m about to leave civilisation behind, this time for around five days. But I was a little sad to leave Argentina behind, it’s the largest country I’ve travelled through so far and I have spent more days cycling here than any of it’s twenty nine predecessors on my route so far. So it’s lucky that it also happens to be one of my favourite. The landscape of the North is captivating and hugely varied, the people are helpful and friendly (although as a Brit I had to ignore the occasional whinging and muttering concerning the Falklands), the tourism industry is organised, the food is great and many small towns have free campsites for tired bikers like me. Plus there’s the girls… enough said.

Paso Sico – another venture above the 4000 metre mark. Paso Jama, a little further north is the paved and popular route into Chile, making Sico a kind of reclusive kid at school nobody wants to know. After a few days of lung crunching, leg breaking, lethargic ascent I arrived at the far flung and lonesome Chilean border post and wondered what the Chilean policemen could have done to get stranded out here, on the side of a mountain, two hundred kilometres from the next sizable town. I decided that at least one of the three men who worked out here had got a little too drunk at the Police Christmas party and said something inappropriate to a senior officer. They were ticking off the days they had left on the wall like prisoners in a jail cell. To brighten their spirits I told them how beautiful I thought it was up here in the mountains, but my comment was met with a derisive laugh that said “you want my job? Have it!”. They warned me of a monster that roamed around the mountains, a name I hadn’t heard for twelve years, the legendary Chupacabra. When I was last in Chile farmers told me tales of this mythical beast, a bit like the Beast of Bodmin or the Loch Ness Monster, which they blamed for disappearing livestock (Chupacabra literally means ‘goat sucker’). It was good to know that the Chupacabra was still alive and well, although if animals were going missing then I probably should be more worried about meeting a puma, the more likely culprit.

A Chupacabra
The battle for Sico really began when I left the Chilean police post and a steep climb and storm force headwind teamed up against me. In retaliation I enlisted the help of James Brown via my IPOD. Nothing can stop me and James. Sico soon relented. I could have reached San Pedro on my penultimate day in the mountains but I wanted one more night of quiet isolation before I hit gringo central. The next day I rose early and began my morning routine which has become full of strange rituals –

Check for scorpions hiding in my shoes
Put water bottles in the sun to melt the solid ice (its usually around minus five degrees C at night (23 F)
Curse when I eat porridge because I’m fed up with it but there’s no alternative

I’ve been around tourists a lot of late and I don’t really mind the questions. The trials and joys of a cycle tourer are intriguing to other travellers, and my answers to their questions have become fine-tuned and automatic, but perhaps in a year’s time I’ll resort to barefaced lies in order to avoid the predictable inquisition…

‘Hey are you travelling by bike?’
‘Ummm no. Definitely not. I don’t even like cycling.’
‘Isn’t that your bike?’
‘Oh that. No no. I’m just watching that for a friend.’
‘Is that Lycra you’re wearing?’
‘Errrr, yes. I always wear Lycra. I like how it feels against my skin.’
‘Wait a minute, isn’t that a spanner in your pocket?’
‘I’m just pleased to see you’

Somebody once told me that a burden of cycling around the world is that you will be expected to talk about it at every dinner party for the rest of your life. Fast forward thirty years, I can envisage the following scenario.

‘Hey everyone, this is Steve. Some years ago Steve cycled all the way around the world! He’s got some great stories. Go on, tell us a story Steve’

Shotgun to temple
Chh chh boooooom!
I ruin the dinner party

So to avoid brain landing in someones lemon sorbet thirty years from now I have devised a few alternative answers to those common questions, answers designed to stupefy, perplex, outrage and entertain. From now on I will be using these when anyone asks a question about my life on a bicycle, be it backpacker, journalist or curious local.

Why do you travel by bicycle?
It was part of a deal brokered by my defence team at the trial. My prison term was commuted to bicycle touring years. The judge, the prosecution and my victim’s family all agreed that five years of bicycle touring was a fair trade for twenty five to life in solitary. I went along with the plea bargain. Mostly, I wish I hadn’t.

Isn’t it dangerous?
Yes, it’s very dangerous. I wear full Kevlar body armour underneath my Lycra, I carry heavy arsenal in my rear panniers and I have a handlebar mounted flamethrower which I can discharge by tugging on a piece of brake cable.

What has been your favourite country so far?
England. I especially enjoyed the M25 ring road and the suburbs around Milton Keynes. To be honest, it’s all been a bit underwhelming since then.

What do you eat?
I live off the land. Most days I stop a few hours before sunset to collect nuts, berries and wild mushrooms and to trap field mice and hunt small game. In cities I live almost exclusively on deep fried confectionery.

How do you afford it?
People smuggling. I can just about fit a refugee in my rear pannier. But only small ones. After a few border runs it can be quite lucrative.

Where do you sleep?
I usually just lie down in a ditch or put the bike on autopilot and slump across the handlebars.

What do your family think?
I didn’t tell them. In our culture bicycle touring is shameful. They may have disowned me.

How many kilometres do you ride per day?
It depends on many things – the wind, the road, the hills and the quantity of amphetamines I managed to score from the last big town en route.

What type of bike do you have? How much did it cost?
Very little. I constructed it myself using common household items. The handlebar is half a broom handle, the frame is composed of central heating pipes welded together and the rims are hollowed out undersides of metal trash cans.

How much does your kit weigh?
Difficult to answer because I no longer work in kilograms. Like most cycle tourers the unit of weight I am most familiar with is the Packet Of Pasta (POP). My gear usually comes to around 68 POPs. More with a refugee on board.

Do you ever take lifts?
No. Although sometimes I give backies to tired motorists.

Don’t you get lonely?
No. I have Jake.
(which begs the question ‘and who’s Jake?’)

Oh you’ve not met Jake yet? He’s around here somewhere. Here he is, hi Jake!

(at this point I will produce a sock puppet and begin a conversation with Jake the Sock Puppet using a high pitched screechy voice for Jake)

How long have we been friends Jake?
Since you started cycling Steve
You’re my only friend aren’t you Jake
Yes I am

I will continue the pantomime until…

1. Someone asks another question or
2. Everyone slowly backs away from me and I am alone or
3. I feel a sharp stabbing sensation in one of my buttocks. A syringe wielding orderly has just dosed me with a potent dose of antipsychotic medication and I will soon be rendered unconscious. But at least I won’t have to answer any more questions.

How do you cross the oceans?

(I hate this one. Since teleporters have yet to be invented there aren’t that many options, are there? Perhaps it doesn’t deserve an answer, but to appease all the curious idiots out there…)

First I will politely ask Curious Idiot to bend over. Once in position I will insert the end of a bicycle pump and inflate, rapidly. Before 50 PSI the Curious Idiot should be airborne, at which point I will shout ‘Like that!’ in answer to their question (hence the title of this blog post). If the Curious Idiot isn’t a projectile then they probably have a massive hernia, better call the paramedics. No need to apologise though.

What will you do when you come home? Will you write a book?
No. I will walk a bit funny for a while and then marry my bicycle. Eventually I will probably shoot myself in the head at a dinner party when someone asks me a question about what I will do next. And then someone else will write a book about it.

If anyone is interested in the real answers, I have recently updated the FAQs on my website.

So here are some shots from Quebrada del Toro and Paso Sico –

Another milestone

Finally I made to San Pedro where I had to wait until I received a parcel from home containing essential bits of new kit for Bolivia, a parcel that still hasn’t arrived, a parcel that was left in a corner of the customs building in Santiago whilst everyone ignored it, a parcel that has been the bane of my life for the last two, boring, expensive, stir-crazy weeks. Whilst looking for a campsite in San Pedro I asked some street side hippies for direction. Just camp with us! came the invitation. OK. They had been working converting their home into something that I couldn’t quite tell yet, mainly because after five years ‘working’ on it they hadn’t got very far. They worked harder keeping the tourists and inhabitants of San Pedro stocked up with marijuana. Around mid-morning, after smoking vast quantities of weed, one of them would forget where they had left the joint and so they would usually abandon the days work on the house at this stage to find the missing drugs. Occasionally they would go to the nearby sand dunes to take LSD, a place called ‘Valle de la Muerte’ which translates as Death Valley, perhaps not the most sensible option if you plan to take potent mind altering chemicals. I tried, with limited success, to be as constructive as I could be in San Pedro – I wrote, pitched and submitted freelance travel features (a new line of work), I read several books, I visited the valley of the moon, even though I’d been there before and every country seems to have a valley of the moon, and I helped the hippies locate missing marijuana.

I realise that on the whole this has been quite a moany post, so on to a more optimistic future. Bolivia is next, a place that will undoubtedly contrast sharply with my experience of South America up until now, being as it is, one of the poorest and least developed countries in Latin America. I will cycle to and across the world’s largest, most famous and most photographed salt lake, The Salar De Uyuni and then make my way up to the capital La Paz from where I’ll send the next post. I can’t wait, even though thanks to a certain international courier, CALLED DHL, I have to. (Hence the title of this blog post).

Running down dunes in Death Valley, near San Pedro (there was no LSD involved, I promise)

The silence of the llamas

Paso Pircas Negras, 4200 m above sea level

“We can do this the easy way or the hard way Belinda. What’s it to be?”

It was a subdued response, I didn’t really expect an inanimate object like my bicycle to react fervidly when quizzed, but there was something in the curve of her handlebars and glint in her side mirror that made me suspect she was game for an adventure as well.“The hard way it is then Belinda”. Her silence was telling.

Villa Union to Tinogasta: The EASY way…

300 km up the now familiar route 40, probably with a couple of climbs but nothing to really test the quads. Mostly smooth tarmac, plenty of traffic, shops and places to find water. Three days of plain sailing.

Villa Union to Tinogasta: The HARD way…

A 800 km loop through the high Andes taking around two weeks. It would involve riding for over 200 km at an altitude of over 4000 metres, climbing two Andean passes on the way. The first, Paso Pircas Negras, is a remote crossing 160 km from the nearest town and open only 35 days of the year. The second, Paso San Francisco is the second highest pass between Chile and Argentina at 4767 metres and nudges up against the highest volcanoes on earth. Over two weeks I would climb more vertical metres than from sea level to the height of Mount Everest, and with no shops for 12 days I would be forced to carry a large amount of food. With every extra kilogram, every vertical metre promised to be an extra effort.

Signpost on approach to Paso Pircas Negras
(translation – danger of getting stranded in snow, danger of hypothermia, temperatures less than minus 15 degrees Celsius, no telephone signal, roads in a bad state due to snow, no shelters with facilities)
Spurred on by the concrete support of a bicycle which I have christened a girl’s name and talk with frequently I was heading once again into the high Andes, and this time riding higher than ever before. Unless Tescos or Wallmart had expanded their operations to include siting a store on top of one of the 6000 metre high volcanoes in the vicinity, I would need a lot of food, and that’s when I had entered the cyclist’s vicious circle – the more food I carried, the heavier my bike, the slower I go and the more food I need. In case you wondered, this is what 12 days of food for a hungry cyclist looks like…

17 kilograms of stodge
This is on top of my 20 kg bike, my 35 kg of gear and my 8 kg of water. A total of 80 kg verses a diminutive 70 kg of me. Too much, maybe, but some challenges of the road I can handle – brutal climbs, fierce weather, hours of boredom and weeks of solitude, but completely bland food has no place in my lifestyle. I look forward to cooking and eating, it’s the reward for putting up with the rest.

The details of the route were afforded me by the trailblazing and hardcore Pikes, a British couple who took a year a half to ride around South America, tackling some of the highest passes and toughest roads and then studiously collecting the details so that others could follow in their tyre marks. Check out their amazing website Andesbybike. This time I needed accurate information, if you regularly follow this blog you might remember that I got lost in the Andes several weeks ago, close to where the Uruguayan rugby team crash landed in a plane in 1972 and turned cannibal in order to survive, immortalised by the Hollywood film ‘Alive’. You may think that it’s a bit of a stretch to compare my situation to theirs, after all I hadn’t recently survived a high speed plane crash and I wasn’t combating the effects of hypothermia in thick snow, but at least they had a ready supply of food, even if it was the frozen corpses of their recently dead friends. I was down to my last packet of Super Noodles.

My first task was to get an exit stamp for Argentina in Vinchina, the last town for two weeks. At the Gendarmeria I was told that they only stamped people out Wednesday to Sunday, it was a Tuesday. I argued, debated and reasoned, stretching my Spanish to it’s limits. When told to return in three hours I came back in one. Sick of my pestering, the official finally relented and I had my stamp.

The symptoms started early. Too early. My ascent was rapid and my bike heavy enough for me to guess that some symptoms of altitude sickness were inevitable but on my third night, at a mere 3200 metres, I started to develop a headache, lethargy and breathlessness, tell-tale signs of Acute Mountain Sickness. Why some get altitude sickness and others don’t is an unfolding mystery and theories abound. Serious mountaineers reading this would probably scoff at anything less than 6000 metres but in terms of risk factors, I was sitting on a full house. Physical exertion – tick, rapid(ish) rate of ascent – tick, previous altitude sickness – tick, male sex – tick, someone who participates in regular physical activity – tick. To push on when so symptomatic is never a good idea so I decided to call it a day after a slow and laborious twenty kilometres and hold up in a mountain refuge where some kind soul had left two packets of biscuits for the next to scoff. A mountain guide came by a few hours later and told me that someone lived in the next refugio on my route, this person allegedly didn’t like visitors and I made a promise that I wouldn’t stay there.

28,000 km milestone
I’m one of the lucky few who can sleep through anything, especially after a day on the bike, but that night I was plagued by insomnia, my oxygen depleted unconscious mind deciding that sleep would only make things worse and over-riding my desire to get some. Day break was blurred by low hanging clouds. Feeling tired but slightly clearer mentally I packed up and started to pedal up towards the pass, my eyes often on the sky, weather changes fast here and it pays to watch for the warning signs. The world was now a pink, green and black one, the colours were smeared onto the hills, melting into one another like the swirling blend of gases in pictures of distant planets. Clouds often obstructed the sunlight so bright beams scanned the hills and reds and greens came to life momentarily and then faded sharply as the sunlight passed again. The breeze was light and so the soundscape of this strange world was almost a total silence but occasionally I jumped to the “mwa” of a guanaco, a relative of the llama, an alert call to the herd when I got too close after which they fled in a loping gallop across the rose scree. Then suddenly some movement in my rear view mirror. I squinted, nothing. I turned around, still nothing. I pedalled on. Minutes later I was sure I had seen something once again, it looked like the reflection of another cyclist behind me. I stopped and looked but couldn’t see anyone. Once I even shouted out, but to no avail. It seems slightly crazy to me now that I wondered why the cyclist in my mirror didn’t come over and say hello, why they were hiding from me in the hills. Crazy, because there never was another cyclist, just some weird artifact of a tired and oxygen deprived mind resting on a tired body, cycling a heavily loaded touring bike through the Andes.
Paso Pircas Negras

25th June 2012
Dear Doctor,

Regarding patient: Stephen P Fabes

Thank you for referring this patient

Clinical history –

Mr Fabes is a 31 year old cyclist from the UK who developed a rapid progression of symptoms in early 2012 which evolved from talking with himself in the initial stages to development of a delusional relationship with his bicycle, whom he referred to as “Belinda” and soon afterwards frank visual hallucinations.

Earlier this month Mr Fabes was taken into custody by the Argentine police after he was found dragging his bicycle through thick snow at over 6000 metres in the Andes Mountain Range. He was completely naked, suffering from hypothermia and covered in blood. Inside his panniers police found the dismembered carcass of what is believed to be a recently slaughtered llama. When questioned about this the patient is reported to have said “I was just fed up with pasta.”

The clinical picture is one compatible with the increasingly prevalent ‘Toured-Out Syndrome’ (or TOS) which is seen almost exclusively in long distance cycle tourers. An essential component of this condition is the naming and conversing with a bicycle although in severe cases patients have also been known to talk, and even develop friendships, with spanners, Allen keys and inner tubes. Other features of the syndrome include an unkempt appearance, an insatiable appetite, poor short term memory (especially concerning the date, people’s names and when they last changed their clothes) and various obsessions, the most common of which is the refusal to accept the value of everyday goods and foodstuffs which often manifests as compulsive bartering.

These patients typically take a long time to recover and to reintegrate into society. Indeed it is not uncommon after they return home for sufferers to be unable to sleep in their own bed but to instead create makeshift campsites in their back garden, cook goat’s meat over open fires and relate rambling stories of their travels to anyone who will listen. Interestingly prognosis in males is related to the density of nasal hair at the time of diagnosis, in females the length of armpit hair is a more useful prognostic indicator.

Treatment is usually supportive and involves weaning the patient off a pasta-based diet (abrupt withdrawal can be dangerous as can be seen in Mr Fabes’ case), encouraging better personal hygiene and hoping that the patient will eventually give some consideration to their personal appearance and to social norms, although sadly the latter is often not achievable. Counselling also has a role although group counselling sessions have proved to be counterproductive as the conversation tends to become dominated by the pros and cons of Rohloff Hubs and the different varieties of Schwalbe tyres.

If the patient ever recovers to the extent that they become employable then bicycles must never enter the daily routine, especially on the commute to work, as a patient may suffer an acute relapse. On occasion I have been called to deal with such cases to find the patient slumped by the side of a cycle lane, hundreds of miles from their place of work, covered in daily milk chocolate and surrounded by empty packets of Super Noodles. In another case a patient was detained in a branch of Sainsbury’s after attempting to barter for seventy five Yorkies, forty tie wraps, some electrical tape and twelve litres of cherry flavoured Fanta.

There are some that maintain that TOS is a ‘lifestyle’ and shouldn’t be medicalised. After spending many years treating and counselling these patients I wholly disagree. These individuals are more than just unbalanced, they have serious pathology that warrants immediate treatment.

I hope this clarifies the issue

Many thanks

Professor Jones

On with the story…

Up, up and up, past the snowy humps and creases of Cerro Veladero, to 4400 metres where I met the frozen Laguna Brava and a brief snow shower. After some technical problems with my bike I found myself at dusk outside the shelter the guide had warned me to stay clear of. On my way I had been trying to solve the mystery of who could live here, in this utterly remote, bitterly cold refuge, high in the Andes. I imagined it to be a hideous recluse, someone so ugly they had been shunned by humanity. I approached the refugio, mildly terrified and found it to be empty but then, on the edge of the desolate plain to the east, stood a red Andean fox, glistening in the golden light of dusk, inspecting me at a cautious distance. I realised my Spanish had failed once again. This must have been the tenent the guide had warned me about. Sorry mate, this place is mine tonight. But despite the absence of Frankenstein’s monster the refuge had a spooky quality that only deepened as I explored the inside. I found a miniature dolls head which had bafflingly been wedged into the rocks of the shelter, I shuddered as the wind howled around me. I explored the outside and as I peered into a pile of stones my eyes met a jaw bone, human, my eyes reluctantly took in the bigger picture and I found a skeleton gaping back at me. A few trinkets had been added to the makeshift grave, I could see now that’s what it was, the skeleton was still wearing a pair of trainers and scraps of clothing remained.

The next day, once again after little sleep, I made some more progress but then something strange happened. At around 4300 metres my vision suddenly blurred. I stopped and checked my vision in each eye. My right was fine but everything I could see through my left eye was indistinct and fuzzy. I have no idea what had caused this but after I descended to below 4000 it resolved. Any medical colleagues reading this please give suggestions!

Later that day I came across a temporary camp for some mine workers, population seven, they examined my tatty, sweat stained t-shirt and torn shorts, shrugged and invited me inside. So the night after I ventured sleep but failed, shivering and sick with altitude in a lonely mountain refuge next to some human remains I found myself sat amongst a band of cheery mine workers, fresh from a warm shower, eating roast chicken, drinking coca cola and watching satellite TV. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.
The descent

Pass number two, San Francisco. Acclimatised now the first ascent to 4300 metres was an easier one. I dropped down to a salt lake, Salar Maricunga, a field of white penetrated by tent shaped islands and rocky outcrops, on it’s edge stood a lonely warehouse which served as Chilean immigration. I got my exit stamp and slept peacefully inside the immigration building before climbing once again. 

On the way up a car stopped and the driver asked where I was going but I couldn’t remember my destination, I realised this was probably not a good sign. I’ve never passed out before but a few minutes after this was as close as I have ever been. A sudden dizziness preceded the tunnel vision, I stumbled off my bike and slumped against it in the dust, seconds before a black out. On the basis that I had spent almost a week at altitude and all of my other symptoms had faded away, and perhaps more significantly that I had stopped hallucinating cyclists in my side mirror, I decided to continue, but this time at a crawl. Fortunately the terrain flattened out at 4400 metres and by nightfall I had reached Laguna Verde, essentially a base camp for mountaineers taking on the surrounding volcanoes which consisted of two geodesic domes, a long drop, a batch of tents and some 4 by 4s in amongst some thermal pools. A group of Russian climbers were planning to ascend the nearby Ojos Del Salado, the highest volcano on earth and the second highest peak in South America. Some Chilean climbers and two German couples had been up and down some other surrounding cones, one of the Chileans was suffering with the altitude more than anyone else, he lay in the foetal position next to his tent.

After a better night’s sleep I nursed a mug of hot coffee and took in the unfolding early morning tableau. The first rays of light had illuminated the ridges on the far shore of the lake, creating jagged shadows which fell into the still water. Steam drifted ethereally from the termas over white rubble and ridges which contributed to the appearance of a lunar landscape. Amongst this the climbers were rummaging through rucksacks in beanies and bright puffy down jackets. The placid mood of the air, the sky and the lake contrasted to the exuberance of those amongst it, the Chilean climbers exchanged words and then hugs with the Russians, I guessed wishing each other good luck in their respective tongue. 

Salar Maricunga
Laguna verde

Altitude sickness isn’t a two way street and as I descended I was pondering the injustice of this. Surely once I’m acclimatised to the thinner air at altitude then there should be some happy effects of all this excess oxygen after I descend. I should feel suddenly clear-headed, energised, pumped up, buzzing with serotonin. But no, all I have to take down with me is the memory of brain splitting headaches, sleepless nights and a hypoxic hangover. But the descent was quite fun. From the rocky slopes of baron mountains, where winter snow is permanent and little vegetation can survive, I whistled through the Puna, a region of high elevation montane grassland which lies above the treeline at 3,200 – 3,500 metres elevation, and below the permanent snow line. A road sign warned “no moleste a la fauna”. I know it’s fairly obvious and innocent translation, but Spanish words have a funny way of sounding like English ones with a slightly different but related meaning, in this case I couldn’t help envisage an elderly, horny German tourist running naked through the Puna after a panic stricken llama. 

After 175 km, a descent of 2500 metres and with three hours of daylight left, I reached the town of Fiambala to discover that my plastic water bottles containing air from four and a half thousand metres up had crumpled under the new atmospheric pressure. Another sleepy town, another wait. Siesta is taken very seriously north of Mendoza and if you want  to buy food staking out the local supermarket until it reopens is all you can do. At 2 pm sharp metal grates are pulled over shop fronts and the streets empty as if some legal curfew has been enacted. Even the ten year olds on scooters which usually ply the streets of every Northern Argentinian town disappear. In some towns the buses stop running and campsites lock their gates and as I walk through the dead streets eyes watch me from house windows and I wonder if they are contemplating alerting the authorities about my refusal to heed the sacred Siesta. The only places that stay open are the ice cream parlours, a perfect base camp.

Then, finally, I was back on the conveyor belt of Route 40 which delivered me sweaty and tired into the peaceful charms of the The Santa Maria valley. It was a Sunday, the smell of grilled meat on asados wafted through the small villages and men reclined on their porches cradling bottles of local brew and just about summoning enough energy to manage a lacklustre wave as I past by. For one morning I cycled with Dirk, a Belgian biker. The difference between me and ‘The Holiday Biker’ has become extreme. There was a sheen to Dirk’s bright white panniers and neat cycling jersey. His bicycle was a picture of perfect health and it purred perfectly as he pedalled. We both produced maps to compare routes, his a brand new folded chart, mine a crumpled mess which had long since disintegrated into almost ten sections, each oil stained and most unreadable. My clothes were ripped and dirty. My handlebar grip looked as though a Samurai warrior has unleashed a furious attack on it. Someone observing this meeting might assume that Dirk had cycled straight out of a local bike shop whilst somewhere in the direction I had cycled from there had been some near apocalyptic event and I had just about managed to escape with my life.

Down the road to Cafayate more bike trouble was followed in predictable fashion by a sense of panic. I used to have the same approach to bicycles as my mum did with computers. My mum would press a single key on the keyboard with such deliberateness that 27 of the same letter would flash across the screen, the next five minutes would be a flustered hunt for ‘delete’. Luckily we have both improved. I think I have had well over my fair share of bad luck when it comes to bicycles but maybe fixing bikes and fixing people aren’t all that different – here are some striking similarities:

1. Prevention is better than cure
Stop smoking, lose weight, oil that chain, check that spoke tension.

2. Listen to your patient
Every medical student will have been subjected to the timeless medical adage, usually retold by a bald, bow tie wearing Professor… ´Listen to your patient and they will tell you the diagnosis´. Not literally of course, that would make doctors defunct, but the implication is that the clues are in the medical history, the same applies to bikes. When bikes make new and strange sounds it pays to investigate before it’s too late. When my bike makes a new sound I stress for about an hour and then put on my IPOD in the futile hope that Kool and the Gang will give me some inspiration.

3.  Hitting elderly patients with large spanners will not make them better, and may make them worse
I believe this is one of the first things they teach you at medical school. Apparently it also holds true for old bicycles.

4.  Leave it to the experts
Don’t ‘have a crack’ at the following if you are not 100% sure what you are doing – brain surgery, wheel building, coronary artery bypass grafts, bearing transplants.

5. If you can’t fix it / him / her, give up and move on to the next one
(just joking)

The Puna
Fiery tongues of sandstone light up the surroundings on my descent to Fiambala
Finally I embarked on a another loop, taking in the famous quebradas, or gorges, of Northern Argentina, South of Salta. The landscape was, well, I’ll let the photos do the talking…

Quebrada de las Conchas…

Quebrada de las Flechas…

Cuesta del Obispo and Los Cardones National Park…

I arrived into Salta and looked over at Belinda, but this time I didn’t bother to pose the question. Next up – Abra Del Acai – the highest pass in Argentina at 4972 metres above sea level, then the remote Paso Sico into Chile which involves various climbs to over 4000 metres and finally the rugged Lagunas Route into Bolivia and to the edge of the world’s largest and most famous salt lake, a place I have dreamt about biking for years – The Salar De Uyuni.

Paso San Francisco

Deserts and desserts

Something didn’t feel right. We were in Swakopmund, a small Namibian town on the Atlantic coast, it has a one way system and a bicycle lane. I noticed that people walked small dogs, there were lots of grand houses as well as a ‘Super Spar’ supermarket and even a few fat people. Once I saw someone running, and not after a wayward goat, but for pleasure. This wasn’t Africa. This was Europe. It looked like someone had surgically removed part of Germany, airlifted it to Africa and stitched it into place.

After a two minute conversation with a total stranger at the Malawi / Zambia border two months before Nyomi was handed a business card and an invitation ‘Give us a call when you get to Swakop, you guys are welcome to come and stay with us’. We arrived and made contact. Signet, Pierre and Willy… A fantastically hospitable Namibian family who night after night cooked us great food and introduced us to Braai, barbecue Afrikaans style. We stayed for an action packed week which included sand-boarding, a German festival, taking a boat out to a seal reserve, visiting a snake park and then to top it all off Nyomi jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet.
We left Swakopmund well rested, keen to continue. The coastal road was where the dry Namib desert met the sea. On our first night we pitched our tents on a huge granite mound which rose of the sand. We watched the sea fog roll in behind us, consuming the land and enveloping our passage east in a mysterious shroud. I had missed the desert, the clear skies, the emptiness and the fact that you never have to think about where to pitch your tent. But I had made a school boy error. On our way out of Swakopmund I asked a local guy where I could next find some water ‘what about here?‘ I had innocently suggested, pointing to a small dot on my map. ‘Yes’ came the rapid reply. I’ve been traveling in Africa long enough to have known better. I’d been sucked in by a phenomenon known as ‘The African Yes’. Whilst people are often eager to help they don’t always understand the question thus reverting to the default response of ‘Yes’. We were waterless in the Namib Desert, the dot on the map was a mountain, not a village. If I’d had my suspicions about the African Yes I might have put it to the test…

‘Can we get water at this village?’
‘Can I get a double Bourbon on the rocks at this village?’
What’s your name?’
Do you believe Elvis is alive and well?’
‘Who would win in a fight – a penguin or a badger?’
‘What’s the opposite of yes?’
‘Do you know the meaning of life?’
‘What is it?’

As always it was locals, this time motorists, who came to our aid and filled our bottles. We pushed on to the sprawling metropolis aptly named Solitaire. I found it amazing that a place that consists only of a petrol station, a lodge and a bakery had found its name onto road signs advertising it’s existence one hundred kilometres away, but this was Namibia after all. It’s the bakery I was interested in. Even before we had arrived into Namibia I had heard rumours about a bakery in the middle of the desert run by a legendary figure known as Moose. People assured me that this bakery was home to The Best Apple Pie in Namibia. I was so lost in pastry-based fantasies that I had got well ahead of Nyomi on that sandy track leading to Solitaire. A car stopped beside me ‘your friend’s hurt’ said the driver ‘she crashed’. I pedaled back to the accident site; Nyomi was flat out staring vacantly upwards and complaining about her leg. I looked her over, it would be big bruise but probably no lasting damage, although clearly she couldn’t ride today. She hitched a lift with her bike, I arranged to meet her in Solitaire. But when I arrived I faced a short lived dilemma…

Check to see if Nyomi’s OK
The Best Apple Pie in Namibia
Check Nyomi
Best Apple Pie
Apple Pie

My conscious mind could barely recollect who Nyomi was, I had to find Moose, thankfully he wasn’t hard to find. Moose had the physique you’d expect of a man who’d been baking apple pie in the middle of the Namib desert since 1992. His pies were evidently so good that pretty soon he was going to need to stop looking at pastries and start looking for a good cardiovascular surgeon. He was closing shop when I arrived

‘I’ve only got Apple pie left’ said Moose
‘That’s all I need Moose. Tell me, is it the Best in Namibia?’
‘Well it’s the best in town’

Moose had been selling apple pie to travellers for years. Solitaire is remote but also relatively close to the huge red sand dunes at Sossusvlei, Namibia’s premier tourist attraction, relatively being the all important word. This meant that the bakery was adventurer central and Moose had met them all. He’d met people who’d arrived in black London taxis, in double decker buses and a Chinese man who arrived on foot. From China. He’d met a Dutch cyclist whose journey dwarfs mine; he was on his third circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle. Not much impressed Moose these days. I checked on Nyomi, she said she felt fine. I didn’t. I’d overdone it on apple pie. The next day we continued to the famous dunes, for the last section we left our bikes at the campsite and got a lift with a French family – mum, dad and three children aged 3, 6 and 10. They were traveling around the world for two years in a converted fire engine. Check them out…

We got out of the truck just before sunrise and climbed ‘Dune 45’. The world abruptly became a computer screen saver. Only two colours existed in this peculiar and angular world – the blue of the sky and the fierce orange of the sand. But I couldn’t help feel a bit shortchanged. The appeal of the desert, for me at least, is the lonely serenity, the space and the silence. I found myself amongst a hoard of hysterical Overlanders trying to get a photo of their mates doing star jumps. And then there’s the helicopters, ever-present in sites of natural beauty because there’s rich people and money to be made. It all began to feel less like a wilderness and more like a theme park. But despite the chaos, this was the desert at it’s most luminescent and stark. A photographer’s paradise.

We got moving again and ran into another family, the third to take us in the last week. Mike, Carol and their four kids fed us more braai, beer and information about our increasingly chilly route through South Africa. We were out of the tropics now and this was winter time. My Buff has gone from sweatband to neck warmer, woolly hats and gloves have been unearthed from the ‘pannier of doom’. The mornings are what a British weatherman might describe as ‘fresh’ or ‘crisp’, what I’d call XXXXXXX cold. My body’s confused; it had been stuck in a perpetual summer. I realise I’m a bit like a farmer in that I’m always talking or thinking about the weather. But I suppose that’s because, like a farmer, I’m always in it and it matters. A downpour or a headwind can really spoil my day. Nyomi’s eccentric appearance had reached new heights. In the chilly mornings she would emerge from an ice covered tent wearing everything she owned, including socks on her hands. The human cocoon would pedal off looking somewhere between Kenny from Southpark and the Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. As the day gets warmer she sheds layers until she’s stripped down to a pair of lycra shorts over lycra leggings, a vest top and a headband. In three hours she goes from Eskimo to aerobics instructor. If she continues this commitment to increasingly deranged fashion statements once she goes home next month it will only be a matter of time until she is pounced on by six orderlies and forcibly injected with anti-psychotic drugs.

We zigzagged through Namibia on dirt roads, occasionally happening upon dusty backwaters and end of the road towns where I always expected to find fresh fruit and veg and where I was always disappointed. I still hadn’t learnt to lower my expectations. A shop with ‘mega’ or ‘hyper’ in the title might sell crisps and nuts, a ‘supermarket’ – some penny sweets, and in a ‘retail outlet’ there might be a couple of empty shelves, occasionally a front door, never anything for retail and sometimes a sign saying ‘back after lunch’ that a neighbour tells you has been up for three days. Finally we got back to tarmac and were heading south once again. It felt good to be facing Cape Town, our noses pointed south, or my nose at least, Nyomi’s was hidden under buff headwear, neck warmers and polo-necks. We were heading to a town called Keetmanshoop. It didn’t sound much like a town to me, it sounded more like a lesser known member of the Wu Tang Clan. Nyomi’s family arrives into Cape Town at the end of the month so we had to push on quickly down the B1. We were interviewed in Swakopmund for a national Namibian newspaper after which the reporter happened to mention the ‘B1 Butcher’. That’s right, Namibia had it’s very own serial killer. But it’s OK, the reporter reassured me ‘we think he’s dead’, ‘you think?‘, ‘yeah, someone died and, well, it might be him’. Great. Keetmanshoop was a good venue for our day off, we explored the Quivertree forest, the quirky rock formations at the Giant’s Playground and then fed some captive cheetahs.

Quiver trees
Once again we were on the receiving end of warnings from passers by, South Africa was apparently crime-ridden and full of those ubiquitous ‘Bad People’. It was clear we were closing in on our final African nation when I saw this sign in the window of a bakery…

So back onto the B1 but still 210 km from the South African border. We’d never make it in one day. The ups and downs of life are more pronounced when you’re always moving. I get excited about little things and banalities – smooth tarmac, a meal I didn’t have to pay for, a shop selling cheese, another cycle tourer, a tailwind, a strange insect on the road, a quirky road sign. I was about to get really excited. An hour after starting out through the Southern Namib desert the raging northerly wind hit gale force. It was so strong we found ourselves freewheeling on the flat at 40km/hr, giggling and screaming like children. We were swept off the desert plateu and descended to the Orange River marking the border. That day I broke two records – the first was the greatest number of kilometres I have cycled in one day and the second was the most days I have gone without a shower. It was an unfortunate that both records coincided, after a hearty 209 km and 8 days without a shower I ‘hummed’ (Nyomi’s words). In the border town I gave everyone a wide birth, everyone except the petrol station attendant who tried to charge me ten Namibian Dollars for use of a cold shower. Curiously the fee was quickly wavered.

At last we were in South Africa, only 120 km to the next town, Spingbok, we’d easily make it. But we’d used up all our good karma, first hills, then flies, then punctures, then a headwind, then pointless squabbles bourne of frustration impeded our progress. At first the landscape reminded me of Sinai in Egypt, a dead world of rocky outcrops, crags, boulders, scree and beige. The land grew a touch greener and I recollected my time in Western Greece and Central Anatolia. I have cycled so many roads that de ja vu is almost a daily occurrence. A sudden suspicion that I’ve ridden this road before, the sun is in the same position in the sky, the landscape looks eerily familiar. If I think hard enough I can work out which road in which country it reminds me of.
South Africa
We made it to Springbok. Whilst strolling around town a guy leaned out of a green Golf GTI, jeered and then shouted me over. He wore huge sunglasses and an off kilter baseball cap. Perhaps he was one of these Bad People. I cautiously approached, he fired out some questions and I replied, telling him briefly about my journey before saying farewell. A minute later he bounded down the street after us and thrust a 100 Rand bill into Nyomi’s hand ‘Have fun in South Africa’ he said smiling. South Africa may have one of the highest murder rates in the world but perhaps it also has one of the highest getting-handed-money-by-complete-strangers rates as well.

The gift came at a good time. South Africa and Namibia are more expensive than anywhere I’ve passed through since Western Europe. Most travellers spend the majority of their funds on accommodation and ‘tourist’ activities. We spend little on these, as a proportion of our budget much, much more goes on food. Here are Steve and Nyomi’s ten ways to save money (Nyomi’s the really thrifty one, I could be more frugal were it not for the twin vices of beer and chocolate).

1. Have a ‘quick look’ around a five star hotel and then steal the toilet paper. A special thank you to The Livingstone in Zambia. My saddle sore arse got the five star treatment it deserves.

2. Rough camp. It’s easy to free camp in the bush but we also ask at police stations, schools, churches and hospitals when we get to towns, even when there’s a perfectly good campsite or hostel around the corner. When you have to stay in a guesthouse never choose one with ‘oasis’, view’ or ‘resort’ in the title. I’m sure each adds 50% to your bill.

3. Don’t buy new books… use hostel book swaps. You will occasionally find a gem but be prepared to sift through the rubbish. In one Turkish book exchange, next to an autobiography by Richard Hammond, I actually found a self-help guide to genital herpes. It was good to see it in the same vicinity as the autobiography though, I can think of many similarities between Richard Hammond and genital herpes, but I can’t help wondering what they swapped it for. Did they saunter off with a smug grin and War and Peace tucked under their arm?

4. Internet… in Europe you can ask a student. If you’re lucky they’ll lend you a card or password and you can use the university computers. In Africa you just have to cough up at internet cafes.

5. We love it.

6. Repair, don’t replace. Africans are much better than we are in the wasteful west. My shorts are a patchwork quilt. Hole in your tyre? Just put a piece of old tyre inside to plug the gap.

7. Always wash your own clothes. Scrub, rinse, black water down the drain, scrub, rinse, black, scrub, rinse, black, scrub, rinse, oh that’ll do.

8. Avoid other tourists and their hangouts. Eat with the locals.

9. Haggle, trade things, shop around, let people buy you beer.

10. If it’s free… go to town

Unfortunately I don’t own a laptop, I have to use internet cafes to write this blog. Internet’s not cheap in South Africa so this post and the next few will cost a fair bit. I could cut down on food and eat less to save money but let’s face it, there are few images more bleak or farcical than a grown man in baggy lycra. So instead, if you want you can help contribute to the cost of this blog by donating three quid… just click on the blue ‘Support’ button in the right hand column and at the top of this blog, underneath the map. Bar The Apocolypse, my next post will come from Cape Town, the end of my African odyssey.

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.