Posts Tagged ‘desert’

Frontier passage and the Jade Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Ain’t no valley low enough

I like to think that this camel in Jordan realised the comic potential in standing under this sign post. If you look closely you can see him smirking.

The approach the Syrian male takes to driving is akin to that the great white shark takes to lunch, and in Syria I felt like the seal pup. The ‘right of way’ is not a given, but instead a hard won battle involving lots of horns, aggressive manoeuvres and even nudging of bumpers. Mirrors are treated as functionless accessories. I knew Damascus, like other big cities, would be an exit fraught with near misses. But before I leapt into the tumultuous mayhem I had to find some inner tubes with a Presta valve, a rarity in the Middle East. It took me two hours to find the bike shop, half an hour to explain what I needed and then an hour following the proprietor around before being told to come back in an hour. I did. He had forgotten about our rendez-vous. He wandered around some more, kicking his way through rims, spokes and various cycle-related shrapnel on the shop floor. If the A-team were locked inside that workshop they could have constructed an aircraft carrier. He told me to come back tomorrow. I did. More meandering about the wreckage, another ‘come back in an hour’ and eventually a “tshh” and raised eyebrows. I’ve come to recognise this as “no” in the rich and frequently befuddling language of Arabic Sign. I walked away with a puncture repair kit and prayed that my patchwork held up until Amman.

During the usual faff at the border I started up a conversation with a motorist and mentioned that my plan was to cycle to Jarash and then Amman, the capital. “Oh my God!” he said with an American lilt and in a fashion that suggested I had just told him I was planning to throw myself off a tall building. “The road’s like 45 degrees man! And the heat! No way!” I’ve grown used to people I meet exaggerating features of my road ahead. It’s often too cold, too steep, too dangerous or sometimes mysteriously just “not possible by bike”, with no explanation offered. I reassured him and cycled off, wondering what happened to all the optimists.

I visited Jarash, allegedly home of some of the best Roman ruins in the world, outside Italy. I was impressed, but then I found some lizards in the rocks, lowered my camera and snapped away for half an hour. Some older tourists watched me with tilted heads and frowns, but I didn’t care. Nature’s glory has always outshone man’s achievements in my book. That night I slept on the floor of the tourist information centre, adding to my growing list of opportune and curious bedrooms. The next day I moaned a bit to myself as I climbed the hill into Amman, but at this point I hadn’t considered the Jordanian monster around the corner, at least five times the size of this amateur incline.

I rode into Amman after some swerving and hard pedaling to get away from a group of young boisterous misfits who chased me up the hill, throwing stones and shouting “hey you donkey! You crazy donkey!” I went immediately to meet Nick, a mate I’ve known from my years spent in Liverpool and who now lives and works in Jordan’s capital. We went out for a curry. A rubicund light had fallen across the city and Amman basked in a surreal, Martian glow. “Dust is coming in from the desert” said Nick. We left the restaurant and entered a strange, ghostly world. People rushed along the street, breathing through handkerchiefs and surgical masks. Within minutes Nick’s car had become coated in a layer of the fine dust and I realised that my respiratory tract would be suffering a similar fate. Visibility was plummeting. Amman can feel like a very Western city, complete with posh shopping malls and multiplex cinemas, but when the desert suddenly encroaches you quickly remember where you are.

For the weekend we were joined by Nick’s friend Jad and went on a jaunt to Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, an arid national park where sandstone and granite rise out of the red desert. Nick and Jad are avid climbers and went off to scale one of the surrounding cliffs whilst I did some trekking and then a bit more of my David Bellamy impression, gallivanting around enthusiastically after local wildlife. Afterwards we drove out into the desert. I’ve never owned a driving license, or even driven a car, so I was chuffed when Nick threw me the keys to a 4 by 4 Toyota and gave me the nod. After some enthusiastic ragging around on sandy tracks we decided that there was more than a strong possibility I had inadvertently driven us across the frontier and into Saudi Arabia, so we turned back. We slept in the desert, tent-less and under a full moon.

I had plenty of time to play with in Amman. I could have taken a day trip to the Dead Sea, leaving my bike behind, and then afterwards cycled from Amman south down the King’s highway. But continuing this journey’s theme of making my life more difficult than it needs to be, I decided it was important that I cycled to the shores of the Dead Sea itself. I felt there was something significant in bringing Belinda down to the lowest point of dry land on earth. This of course meant cycling back up again, a near continuous ascent from 400 metres below sea level to 1300 metres above, to roughly the height of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. It would be serious hillage, at least a fifty kilometre, more or less continuous, climb. Factor in forty degree heat, 55 kg of bike and gear, few places to top up with food and water and this would be tougher than my efforts in the Italian Apennines, The French Alps or the Montenegrin fjord. It would be a test like no other.

I camped on a hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea, I could see the lights of Israel on the other side, Jerusalem just out of view. The night that followed was a lesson in the ills of procrastination. The two small holes in my groundsheet, holes that I’d persistently told myself I will repair later, became the front door to a stealthy nocturnal arthropod invasion. I woke in the early hours to an ant infestation after inadvertently setting up camp on their home. They had found my food and were dropping, like ants, onto me from all over the tent. The day after my restless night I sped downhill, reached the sea and floated and splashed about in the salinous waters.

The shores of the Dead Sea, 400 metres below sea level
The air felt thicker here, the atmosphere cloying, humid and heavy. My mosi repellent is excellent, potent stuff and has consistently kept the blighters at bay, but around the Dead Sea I could have been wearing Plutonium and I would have maintained my beard of fly. I felt violated when I caught an amorous pair in the act on my forearm. More followed suit. They seemed to have a preference for having it off on my nose or forehead. I had become an unwilling participant in an insect orgy. I opted to put up the inner of my tent, just so that I could have lunch on my own. Twice people stopped to offer me and my bike a lift. When I tried to explain I must travel only by bicycle they assumed I hadn’t understood their offer. Then, when they realised that I had, I got the “you must be a crazy nut” look. Getting this reaction makes every painful vertical metre worth it.

After the epic climb my appetite for sleep won over my appetite for food and I drifted off into a blissful slumber. I should have known better. The next day, with no food available to buy en route, I had to haul my carb-depleted ass uphill for almost twenty kilometres to the other side of a gorge. Luckily there were Bedouin around who kept me topped up with water. The next two nights I found some great but vertiginous spots to rough camp. I hoped that I hadn’t developed a habit of sleep walking during the night.

Night one

Night two
Tourism in Jordon is an expensive or lucrative game, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. Prices are escalating exponentially. Cheapest no frills beach on the Dead Sea – that’ll be ten quid please Sir. One hour hike through a national park – fourteen pounds minimum. Petra, as of next month, will cost fifty quid to enter. Jordan has a huge amount to offer, but I feel I have missed out on quite a bit due to my budget, and I’m not talking camel rides and hot air balloons, just access to some of the natural features of this varied land. If money was being ploughed back in and services were improving it would sting less, but the fact is that they’re not, not in any substantial way. There are good examples of money going to local people, the Bedouin in Wadi Rum is one, but I can’t help but think that someone, other than the King, is getting drunk, rich and fat on tourist cash. In fact if you look at the proportion of GDP earned from tourism, Jordan gets a good whack. If you discount islands like the Seychelles or the Maldives then Jordan proportionally is one of the highest in the world. Greedy touts will start to turn travelers away and then Jordan’s riches will be out of reach, especially to backpackers, and that will be a shame.

So it was after some deliberation that I reached deep into my pocket for the entrance fee to visit the Dana nature reserve, one of the cheaper tourist attractions in Jordan. Whilst there I ran into a bunch of ten and eleven year olds from Amman Baccalaureate school. They were a bright and inquisitive bunch. I particularly enjoyed it when, after some conferring with a small group of friends, one young lad reported “we know you said that you’ve cycled from England, but some of us here don’t believe that’s possible”!

After Dana I made my way to Petra, one of the New Wonders of the World, a place I must see before I die, another one to tick off my Lonely Planet checklist (its hard to convey sarcasm adequately using the written word). But it was magnificent, undoubtedly. Highlights included venturing down the dim narrow gorge known as the Siq, the entrance to the city, but also meeting an ostentatiously eccentric gentleman from Borneo who gave me his unique take on everything from politics and history to religion and international relations. My Lonely Planet didn’t mention him. He said his name was Ivanhoe (he noted that his Chinese name wasn’t well remembered by English speakers so he changed it after reading a well known book). He drank stone water and wore magnetic bracelets for their health giving properties and to give him energy.

The Treasury, Petra

So far I’ve visited the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, the Dead Sea (although technically a lake) and now it was time for the Red Sea. I cycled to the resort town of Aqaba. On the way two young lads tried to steal stuff from my bike after I declined to give them the money they had demanded. They retreated, after I got off my bike and did my best to look menacing, but I cycled off to a volley of stones.

Aqaba has some great reefs. Diving is definitely not compatible with my budget, but I decided snorkeling was, so I hired some kit and spent the day swimming in the corals and admiring the spectacular Red Sea marine life. I decided against the campsite next door to the beach, with its inflated tax for a small patch of land, and opted to sleep for free on the beach itself.

My al-fresco free bedroom

The following day I took the ferry to Egypt, with nasty feeling that every border post from here south was going to be a more and more frustrating venture. At the end of the ride the boat’s passengers were asked to surrender passports to the ship’s crew. In exchange we were given a slip of white paper with some uninterpretable Arabic scrawl, and then we were deserted. I was told the passports were no longer on board. I cornered someone looking official. “One minute Sir”, and with that he was gone. This would happen a lot over the next half an hour. I realised that if you hear “One minute Sir” you will never see that person again. Eventually we worked out the procedure which involved trekking between banks, police stations and immigration offices. It was a DIY arrival into Egypt.

In Egypt I cycled south down the Sinai Peninsula to Dahab, a small town that had been dubbed the hippy capital of the Middle East, but now bigger corporates had started to move in to compete for backpacker cash and resorts of the ilk found in neighbouring Sharm El Sheikh were beginning to surface. But Dahab still feels laid back and easy. There are more reefs to explore nearby and it sounds like a good place to vegetate until I hit the mountains again on my way inland to Cairo. I’ve already noted the ‘Churchill’s Bar and Grill’ complete with a photo of Sir Winston, the availability of fish and chips, the red and white striped Brits abroad and the Egyptian response to telling someone you’re British (“Lovely Jubly” in a Del Boy stylee) but I’ve got time to kill and here seems a good place to spend it. Nyomi flies out on the 20th of October and together we will begin the next chapter… all of Africa. I can’t wait.

Finally I leave you with a few images I managed to capture of the desert wildlife of the Middle East. I’m off to a Dahab nightspot where I’ve heard some DJ called “Dave the rave” is playing. Lovely Jubly.

A ladybird taking off

A Giant Painted Agama lizard

The last thing I expected to see crossing the road in the desert… a chameleon

A relative of the Wasp spider

The stunning male blue Sinai lizard, unique to this area

Punctures: 20
Distance cycled: 7656 km
Countries cycled through: 16
Top speed: 75.4 km/hr. Taurus mountains, Turkey.
Longest continuous ascent: 1700 vertical metres
Days on the road: 172
Lifts offered: 4
Lifts accepted: 0

ps. Contacts for Cairo are much appreciated! Please email me if you know someone who would like to meet up or to host us. As usual I will exchange tales from the road for a small piece of floor to sleep on.

Doctor, soldier, vagrant, priest

I left Cappadocia the day the weather changed. A soft breeze began blowing south towards Syria and the temperature dropped by seven degrees overnight, right on schedule for the start of September. I had some downhill to look forward to, and it felt like a freebie. I was almost a kilometre and a half up in the East Anatolian plains but I had hardly noticed the gain in height as it had been earned so gradually on my ride across Turkey. Soon enough I found myself cycling through the stunning Taurus mountains which were covered in pine forests and sprinkled with deep valleys and craggy outcrops which looked fit for Simba from the Lion King to be stood aloft. I cruised down the side of valleys at over 70 km/hr and when I made it to a small town high in the hills another stranger, Fatih, clocked me with my bike and invited me to join him and his family break the fast. It was still Ramadan and only when the Imam’s call sounded from the local mosque could we demolish the sumptuous grub.

Before I left they gave me a warning of wild pigs and snakes in the surrounding hills. As long as I get a good photo, I thought. Before long I encountered some of the local wildlife in the shape of a family of large blue lizards. I leaped around for over an hour like Steve Irwin, trying to get them into the open to capture a descent image.

I cycled down and out of the hills and through arable land with few settlements in sight. As night approached I encountered what appeared at first glimpse to be some ruins, but then not just ruins, a castle, on a hillock a few kilometres ahead. Deserted, eerie and daunting in the dusk. With a penchant for scaring myself and the long unfulfilled desire to spend the night alone in a castle, I decided it was the perfect place to settle down for the night. I turned up a rough track and pedaled up towards it, the view became more and more foreboding as it’s outline loomed over me in the fading light. My mind raced with thoughts of what might be lurking within it’s walls. Heart thumping I peered into every nook and cranny, found a good spot and put my head down. Once the adrenaline had run its course I got a little shut-eye, but more often than not one eye remained open. By morning I didn’t care about my fatigue because I was king of my own castle. From the crumbling turrets you could see the surrounding land for miles in every direction.

The heat returned with a vengeance as I lost altitude. I began to relish the times when trucks came zooming close by. The warm breeze and slight escape from the heat became an easy trade for their noise, their stench and the obvious threat to my personal safety. I have to admit for the next few days I was tired. Tired of the heat and tired of the insects. Tired with people asking me the same questions and tired of giving the same answers. Tired of noisy trucks and their noisy novelty horns. Tired of people staring. Tired of bread and cheese. I cheered up when a lorry driver chucked me a lemon from his window. Why a lemon I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s all he had to chuck. Turkey had taken longer than I had anticipated to cross, not for the distance, the weather or the mountains, but because it’s hard to get far without the invitation of “chai and a chat”. I developed slightly selective hearing towards the end. If I had stopped for every shout, whistle, wave or “Hello my friend!” I would still be somewhere close to Istanbul.

At the border the Syrian guards seemed a little confused that my bike didn’t have a license plate but they waved me through anyway and announced “Welcome to Syria Sir!” and I was excited to be here. A new nation to roam but now a new language and alphabet to contend with. I high fived kids on the street as I rode towards Aleppo and watched them playing in the irrigation ditches in the countryside to escape the heat. There’s no better feeling than waking up in a dilapidated hostel in a strange new city with time off my bike to explore. Aleppo beckoned.

The tourist guide produced by Syria’s Ministry for Tourism was beautifully optimistic and full of random embellishments…

“Syria always has a pleasant Mediterranean climate”

“Most Syrians also speak French and English”

“Every cultured man belongs to two nations… his own and Syria!” (owing to Syria’s reputation as the ‘cradle of humanity’)

I noticed young men in Syria often drove cars with a large photo of Syria’s president, alongside two high ranking companions, in the back window. I tried to imagine yoots in south London proudly displaying large photos of David Cameron and Nick Clegg from the back of their suped up beemers. I couldn’t. Here the media is often state run and there is a ban on Facebook in internet cafes. I couldn’t even access my blog without the cafe owner adjusting the settings that are applied in case government officials come in to make an inspection.

I wondered around and purposefully got lost in Aleppo before I realised it wasn’t just me that was lost but also all of my credit and debit cards. It was the eve of a festival called Eid which marks the end of Ramadan and in one hour everything would be shut for three days. I had no money of any sizable denomination in my pocket. In amongst some running around in an attempt to find them, a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to reach home and get money wired and then lots of calling myself a numpty, I met a tres gentil French girl called Charlotte who chilled me out and lent me money. Of course I immediately realised I was on to something, blew the cash on champaign and caviar and then went on the search for more gullible French tourists to sell my sob story and take advantage of (just joking Charlotte, thank you).

I realised that on the road to Damascus it would be my 30th birthday. Quite apt I thought, the term “road to Damascus”‘ has come to stand for a sudden turning point in a person’s life, after the story of the conversion of the Apostle Paul on the road from Jerusalem. Birthdays are perhaps a good time for some resolutions. I scribbled down a few ideas…

Don’t stress about things you cant control
Try harder with the local language
Eat more fruit
Apply more sunscreen
Drink much less beer. Or at least buy cheaper beer.
Buy a new stove

Always have a achievable one at the end, in case you fail at the rest. I would also like to advise anyone thinking of buying an MSR WhisperLite stove not to, unless you have a degree in mechanical engineering or would relish the opportunity to repeatedly beat yourself in your own head.

I couldn’t find a decent map of Syria anywhere in Aleppo, despite it being a city of two million people, so I opted to put my trust in my compass, point my front wheel south and start pedaling. Slowly, as I rode out of the tourist bubble, I became more and more aware of the environmental catastrophe on Syria’s doorstep. In Albania I was shocked to see the pure volume of roadside rubbish and junk caste aside. In Syria it was staggering. In every city I passed, and for almost sixty kilometres into the countryside, litter was sprawled in every direction. In southern Aleppo people lived in it, children played in it and dogs scavenged in it.

Eventually I made it into the desert. Here people seemed astonished to see me. Men gawped and children chased. I passed the legendary dead cities where people up and left their homes over 200 years ago and the settlements still stood, unused and abandoned.

Soon I began to feel ill. Something I had eaten in Aleppo was having a heated debate with my digestive system, and the dodgy kebab was winning. I had to stop and rush off my bike to find toilets every half an hour, cycling was no fun at all. Syria wins the Cycling The 6 Award for most invitations in one day. Seven invites for a meal and a bed in one afternoon. I had to decline the first six, my stomach was in knots, but perhaps all the goodwill helped tame my angry belly and soon I was feeling better. When a young Arab called Tariq invited me into his home I jumped off my bike to join his clan.

The strange thing about traveling alone is that you start to believe that every seemingly fortuitous occurrence is due to right decisions and good judgment whereas every bad night, every problem and every obstacle is your own fault. In reality luck probably has more of a hand in it than anything, but the four nights I spent on the road between Aleppo and Damascus illustrate how the collision between good decisions, bad decisions, worse decisions and chance can impact on the experience. The four nights ranged from the luxurious to the frustrating to the frightening and to the magnificent. Here’s the tale…

Night 1 (the eve of my 30th birthday)

Tariq had a large extended family all living close to each other in the village. As soon as I hopped off my bike they began to pamper me. First off a large cooked meal, prepared just for me. A shower, with optional aftershave and hair gel. Some tea. More tea. Arabic spiced coffee. Let us wash your clothes. Would you like to watch English television? When they found out it was my birthday the following day they even offered to throw me a birthday party. In the evening I discovered why Arabic families are so big. Whilst we were sitting around chatting a slightly rotund gregarious man arrived. The women suddenly scarpered making room for him on the rug. People stood to embrace him. Here was Mustafa, the head honcho. Quickly I learned through Tariq (the only English speaker and so my translator) that Mustafa had four wives (the most a man can have under Islamic law) and eighteen children. He proudly told me that he usually fathers two sons every year. The gathering grew and soon Tariq’s cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were plying me with questions. Whilst they learned a little about me, I tried to extract a little from them. It was interesting to find out that for a man to get married he must pay the prospective wife’s family upwards of 4000 US dollars. These were not rich people and that would be a small fortune. And what if you have no job, I inquired. “No job, no money, no wife” came the reply. The family erected a sheet tent in the garden for me and again I was waited on hand and foot. I slept peacefully in the open air and woke up refreshed and now thirty whole years young. 

Night 2

Tariq’s uncle got me up and after breakfast he decided my clothes were no good. They dressed me in traditional Arabic garbs. Feel free to chuckle at the photos below. I straightened my shemagh and joined his uncle on a local tour. He paraded me in front of his friends, from village to village and from people’s homes to ramshackle tea houses. Each time I was introduced as “The English Doctor”  to murmurs of approval and Tariq’s uncle would then give an account of my journey by bicycle from the UK to Syria. It began fairly accurate but as we visited more people my host’s description became more elaborate and he would throw in more and more exotic locations “Mongolia, Tanzania, Vietnam!”. I could see those who knew a bit more geography scratching their heads, perhaps wondering how I had cycled from London to Syria via southeast Asia. Twice my medical opinion was sought. A large lady wanted to know the secret to weight loss and an elderly man wanted a cure for his arthritis. After a meaty lunch prepared in my honor I waved goodbye and realised that I now saw Syria and it’s people suddenly in a different, more familiar, light. Before I had wondered what people were thinking as they stared at me when I rode by, now I felt I knew and understood a little more and I felt more at ease. I rode the thirty kilometres to the highway after deciding that I had to give up on the small roads and make up some time so that I didn’t overstay my 15 day Syrian visa. I thought about how, at least to me, it looked like a strange juxtaposition to see Arabs sitting in Starbucks in Heathrow or Gatwick nursing a Mocha in traditional dress. Here they looked completely at home, with their shemagh wrapped tightly around the face, sunglasses on and riding speedily by on motorbikes. I stopped to ask a roadside caf for somewhere I could pitch my tent. Instead I was offered a old bed, lying at a jaunty angle in a car park. I took it. I was kept awake all night by the superimposed gabble of lorry engines and horns, loud Lebanese pop music and nearby television sets on full volume as well as by the bright white lights overhead. The next day would be an effort.

Night 3

The following day I ploughed on, covering 130 kilometres down the motorway. The small fur trees by the road lent south, pointing towards Damascus, ushering me towards my next stop.

I found myself in the outskirts of a Syrian city and somewhere I wasn’t too chuffed to be camping. I’d run out of light but had found myself a pine forest near to some tower blocks. It was almost pitch black as I erected my tent. Suddenly I could hear some mumbling from the bushes. A silhouette was stumbling around, groaning and muttering. I shone my torch into the darkness and a figure came into view. Bearded, bedraggled and wretched looking, he began to shout in an unintelligible dialect, he sounded angry about something. As he lurched towards me I caught the stench of alcohol. Then I saw two torch lights shine out from behind him. It was couple of his boozy chums. They shook my hand and signaled to me that their friend was crazy. At first their presence put me a little more at ease, until one raised his right hand, protruded his tongue from the corner of his mouth and swiftly moved his hand across his neck to indicate his throat being cut. Or my throat being cut. I didn’t know at this point whether this was a threat, or if he was just warning me about the area I had planned to sleep. Either way I packed up in haste and moved on. I found some Syrian soldiers outside their base a few kilometres away. Eagerly they invited me in and let me camp. I was soon having tea with the Syrian army. Army barracks were the last place I thought a British tourist would be made welcome in Syria, the “rogue nation”. Proof, if any were needed, of the chunky divide between people and politics.

Night 4

The next day I had an agenda. My goal was to reach Ma’lula, an ancient settlement high in the cliffs fifty kilometres from Damascus. I got as high as I could, admired the prehistoric caves, passed by some of the oldest Christian monasteries in existence and finally found a small church up on the cliffs. I asked to camp near by. You must find Brother Tophias, I was told. Brother Tophias was a polite, confident, mirthful man but when I asked if I could camp nearby I got a “no, no, no”. I was disheartened until he grinned and announced “you will sleep on the panorama!”. This sounded right up my alley. He showed me up to the terrace, an open space with a staggering vista of the valley, cliffs and landscape below, a view better than any hotel in town, and I had it all to myself. That night I looked down on the town and to the myriad of luminous crucifixes on people’s houses, up to the stars and then across the town to the firework display and congratulated myself. Which was a bit silly, as it was mostly just good fortune.

The next day I breezed into Damascus with a nice tailwind and lots of downhill. I made it there in the time it takes a Syrian Taxi driver to check for other vehicles at a busy junction, in no time at all. So a few acknowledgments this month… thank you Tariq, Jocelyn and Byron, Fatih and your respective families for all your hospitality. Thank you as well to the Syrian soldiers, Brother Tophias, Charlotte and anonymous roadside cafe dude. Onwards to Jordon.