Posts Tagged ‘lakes’

Shadows and dust

I’m the dot, riding across a volcano in Central Chile
It looked like a cloud clinging to the horizon, some lonely, benign clump of cumulus at the edge of the vast blue expanse of Patagonian sky. But locals made shifty, furtive glances in its direction because they knew better and so did I. That whitish grey smudge came from deep inside the malevolent belly of the earth itself. Last June, after laying dormant for half a century a volcano named Puyehue suddenly and violently erupted, not from it’s old caldera but instead by ripping a huge gash into the surface of the earth, six miles long by three miles wide, two and a half miles away. Bariloche, the town I found myself now, had been covered in a thick coat of ash. The tourist industry was predictably decimated and is still recovering as the volcano continues to belch out thick plumes of ash, enough to warrant closing not just Bariloche airport but also an airport the other side of the Pacific in Melbourne, Australia. Chile makes up part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and boasts a chain of about 2,000 volcanoes, the world’s second largest after Indonesia. Some 50 to 60 are on record as having erupted, and 500 are potentially active.
The eruption in June ( photo from Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)
Ongoing ash plume visible from Bariloche
Guide books bragged about Argentina’s Route of the Seven Lakes, I counted two, a grim haze hung across the land and a suffocating slate-grey membrane eliminated light and space, extinguishing the promise of pristine lakes and majestic mountains. The dank, sodden coat of ash filled crevasses, lined ridges and dowsed every mountain for miles, the hint of grey giving the only clue that this was not snow. The air was thick with the volcanic dust, the sun just a torchlight searching for distant targets through a foggy night, finding none.  The wind didn’t lift the murk the way fog drifts skyward on the breeze, instead the air was thick and tepid, carrying with it more burnt earth in its gripe. Houses and trees had slate-coloured tops of powder, lorries sprayed the streets with water to wash away the gunk, cars drove with headlights on full beam and people shuffled along holding handkerchiefs to their mouths or wearing surgical masks. Ash was regularly cleared from the road and sat heaped up in huge soggy banks by the roadside. Eventually every part of me and my bike wore the sticky residue. My eyes watered, my mouth dried up and when the faint shadow of another cyclist brightened out of the gloom I realised my mistake, I wasn’t prepared for this at all. The figure was clad in a huge overcoat, donning a surgical mask, a broad rimmed hat and swimming goggles. 

Gringos in the mist
Roadside ash piled high
North of San Martin the dust made way for undulating sheets of gold. This side of the Andes is an arid semi-desert, the mountains wrestle any moisture out of the atmosphere so it remains fresh and green in Chile, yellow and dusty in Argentina. I relish the kind of freedom that a life on a bicycle allows, I treasure the moments when I can abandon all my plans on a whim or after some sketchy advice from another cyclist. In San Martin, after two minutes with an Argentine biker, my schedule was upended and a new plan was coming together. The road map of this region looks like two interlocking trees, side by side. The trunk of the first is Chile’s main highway that connects most of the major cities up to Santiago and beyond, part of the famous Pan-American. The trunk of the other is Routa 40 in Argentina which runs the length of the country. Branches flow east and west, trying to connect but often not finding their opposite, an invisible obstacle, the Andes, won’t permit it. But a few link across, jerking left and right in violent erratic wiggles as they close in on the Andean peaks. I traced my finger over the network of rough roads, the long thin ends of the branches, trying to find vertical links, there were a few. I penned a rough route, my roads of choice were nestled high and deep in the Andes, where settlements were sporadic and wilderness king. The loop I had drawn ran through seven national parks, nudged up against several volcanoes and finally delivered me back into Argentina via a remote, and not strictly speaking legal, Andean pass. Immigration didn’t exist here, I was destined to become an illegal alien in Argentina and I’d have to deal with that later. I would need a lot of food, the bike would be heavy, the road tough but the plan was simple, spontaneous, slap dash and full of optimism. The plan was perfect.

So that was how I found myself set once again on a course bound for Chile and as I neared the borderlands the looming cone of stratovolcano Lanin was there to greet me. Lately I had been riding from tourist-ville to tourist-ville but now I was alone and I stopped every so often just to appreciate the stagnant, sublime silence. The failing sun cast its final rays over the cliffs, submerging the land in liquid gold and monkey puzzle trees became silhouetted against the colossal volcano creating an aura of pre-history.

After the pass rural life played out over my handlebars. Mine were the only inquisitive eyes here, there was no reason for other tourists to come this way, that had been the reason to take this road in the first place. When I asked how many kilometres to the next village people just shrugged, they may have lived here all their lives but their answer came in how many hours it takes on a horse or an ox drawn cart, that was my first clue, I was getting off the tourist trail. When I ate lunch children would approach and begin a silent vigil, staring, intrigued but mute despite my encouragement (clue 2) and when I stopped to ask directions, a bunch of strange looking men grunted and smiled inanely (clue 3). Some years ago I guessed a brother and sister had gotten a little too close. This was Chilean hillbilly country.

As villages became more and more scarce and I began to enjoy the increasing detachment, a truck pulled up. The passenger, a woman, began a rapid-fire babble in the harsh dialect typical of rural Chile. I strained to make sense of the torrent of words and gestures, she emphasised and repeated the important bits but never reduced the pace. I discerned a few bits of information, enough for vague terror to build.

A volcano is erupting
It’s name is Sollipulli
It’s in the direction you have cycled from
The eruption has melted a glacier
We are driving around to tell people

I had a thousand questions, my pidgin Spanish denied me most. I asked the only one my language skills would allow. “Was I in danger?”

A shrug, more babble, brief concurring with the driver, wild gesticulating and then an answer which I interpreted as “if you were cycled the other way then “Yes”, but you should be OK”

I wondered if they knew just how slow my battle down this bad road was, I wanted to explain that bicycles were not the best machines for outrunning volcanic eruptions. As they drove off, my mind raced. They weren’t the army. This isn’t an evacuation. I can’t see anything on the horizon. I should be OK. But whilst the thought process seemed vaguely logical it didn’t stop me glancing tentatively in my side mirror, half expecting to see the forest behind me rapidly consumed in pyroclastic soup.

Finally I left cultivated land far behind me and cycled along Routa Interlagos, by evening I had found a campsite and had been adopted by the family in the tent next to me. I was the father’s nominated drinking buddy for the evening, he was a raging alcoholic. His family seemed relieved more than happy to have me there, probably just grateful that the mindless drunk was now my responsibility. Alcoholics are never the best people to test your language skills. If you make a mistake or can’t think of the right verb they do little to help aside from an arm around the shoulder and some slurring in a tone unintelligible to any ears.

The next day I started into one of the National Reserves, it was clear this was real volcano country. Alert systems were in place on the outskirts of every town or village and signs advertised the risks. Soon I was amidst a surreal, black desert of basalt. The last eruption here was in 2008, they expect one every five to ten years. In the background to this bare arena were colourful hills, metal ores painted the rocks red, green and amber. Over lunch I sat admiring the volcano, sheltering from the wind behind a van with a camera crew taking photos for a European sport’s brand. The guide addressed the group “Just looking at him makes me exhausted!” gesturing towards me as everyone chuckled.

A volcano alert system on the outskirts of a town

Alone, I descended over the other side of the volcano, the track became smaller, less distinct, soon barely traceable. I didn’t have a good enough map of the area to navigate properly. A brutal climb disappeared upwards, I began to push, for hours I continued onwards, shoving, dragging, panting. Every so often a river crossed the path, I had to dismount and carry my panniers over two by two. After an equally huge and steep descent I knew that turning back now would mean a gigantic effort.

Where roads turn into rivers
Soon came the inevitable questions, each filled with dread and unease – Is this right? This can’t be the way. Maybe I should of taken that left at the lake. What if… It was abrupt, that sense of vulnerability that seemed to sprawl out over the hills and mountains, bigger than the sky, further than the horizon, insurmountable and unbeatable. I realised then I was scared. The root of my fear lay in everything I didn’t know and could never know. Whether I had enough food, whether I was on the right track, how long until I got to a village, if I should turn back. I was scared too that I didn’t have it in me, physically and mentally. For two days I didn’t see another human being, deep in the Andes, scared and alone, every decision a burden, heavy in self doubt, and out here it was a lot to carry.

Then finally through the trees I sighted a river and by the bank, a few tin houses. Suddenly elated I ditched my bike and ran to the bank, there was no bridge and it was too deep to wade across but a rickety basket attached to a pulley system would do the job. A man on the far side spotted me and over the next half an hour he helped transport my panniers and bike across the river. The relief was almost worth the panic and toil. I was back from the brink.

I got some information from the locals, I was only thirty or so kilometres from the pass but then once again with no map, no signs, no people and no obvious route I had to freestyle my passage across the mountains. I waded through milky rivers with rocks stained yellow and where the eggy stench of sulphur swirled on the breeze, soon I began wondering once again if I was lost in the Andes, at junctions I would recce on foot and make a choice and if I was lost now, I was getting more lost. I tried to mark my route in case I had to backtrack. Horseflies plagued my every move, biting through my t-shirt. Even when swatted and convincingly dead the invincible critters re-inflate and fly away to torment me again.

Things got tougher but I began to be hopeful I was on the right track, my compass agreed with me and the road. Fist-sized chunks of ancient volcanic debris littered the ascent and I slipped and landed heavily, bicycle on top of me. I lay still in the dust and began to laugh, suddenly everything was hilarious. I laughed that it had taken me three hours to cover ten kilometres, that I had been effectively lost for most of the last three days, that I was totally alone and that bikes don’t belong here. Finally I laughed at the fact that I was lying in the dust, under my bike, on a remote Chilean mountainside and could only guess where I was heading, because that probably shouldn’t be funny.

It was a few hours later that I lumbered up another switchback, edged over another ridge and there before me, naked and clear, land in every direction, most of it beneath me. I had made it. This was the pass. 

I took a small stone as a souvenir and headed down through a peat bog, a lake and a faint silhouette of what appeared to be a hut were my targets. An astonished Mapuche farmer, perhaps believing I was an apparition or an evil spirit eyed me nervously. I has staggered onto his remote farm through a peat bog, dirty, grimacing, heaving a bicycle in front of me and probably groaning. In hindsight his expression made perfect sense.

In Caviahue I sat for a whole day in a cafe, watching a violent thunder storm roll in, reading, writing, drinking beer and chatting to other customers only to find out with the aid of a decent map and some local knowledge that I had completely missed the pass I was aiming for, I had crossed another one, one not featured on my map or, as I found out later, on googlemaps.  I thought about the nature of optimism, of how it can be a duplicitous beast. Without one side of the sword I wouldn’t have started my journey, to travel you need an undercurrent of positivity, the feeling that the world isn’t as perilous or angry as the media might have you believe, that chances are things will work out OK in the end, that it’s always possible and that the faint line on my map zigzagging over the border was doable on a loaded touring bike. But it was that same hope that had led me to a baron, lonely track, lost, with a redundant map not detailed enough to navigate. It was foolish, naive, blind faith. I had underplanned, I had carelessly pushed on regardless. Optimism doesn’t wait on facts. It deals with prospects. A healthy dose of pessimism leads to ‘what if… ?’ and then maybe a contingency plan.

“If pessimism is despair, optimism is cowardice and stupidity.
Is there any need to choose between them?”

I made my way down from the hills as wild fires blazed out of control through the dry Argentine scrub. Soon I connected with route 40 which tossed me from one hill to the next. The land was dry and bald but stark and serene, especially in the minutes before sunset. I passed through a succession of small dusty towns where the kids looked bored and stray dogs outnumbered people. I found the odd campsite, places where the owner greets you with a sympathetic frown which says “I’ll take your money, but are you sure you want to stay here?”, places where strays come and go as they please, pissing on people’s tents, where you have to usher away a hurd of cattle in order to reach the bathroom, where scorpions occasionally venture inside your tent and where nearby campers play Cumbia loud into the night (to the uninitiated Cumbia is the acoustic equivalent of being tied naked to a cactus and ravaged by rabid Rottweilers)

The scorpion that found its way underneath my sleeping mat. I found him the following morning
Without a Argentine stamp in my passport I could be in real trouble so my plan was to take another remote pass back into Chile making it appear that I had never left in the first place. Getting information about these passes is near impossible without some local knowledge. Hours on Google was time wasted so it was lucky when I met three more cyclists, one had come down from Alaska. The message was that the pass was possible by bike, although they hadn’t come that way themselves. And more luck, just as I was readying to leave Malargue I met a dutch couple who had actually cycled the pass. Unfortunately there was immigration but I decided to go for it anyway. The couple drew me a map that looked as though it should describe the location of buried loot and was full of landmarks and instruction that only cyclists would consider relevent.

Turn left at the dead cow
Big climb after the angry dog
Good wild camping spot between the wonky trees

I have cycled across the Andes six times now, and I’m not done, but this one, Paso Vergara, was my favourite of all. Tough at times, a rugged blend of prodigious mountains, bleak desert and verdant plains where horses grazed. I was getting nervous as I approached the Argentinian border post, the last trace of civilization was three days behind me, being turned back was not an appealing option. In every country people have a penchant for hearing how great you think their country is, but nowhere is this more the case than in Argentina. If you forget to add some praise in conversation an Argentinian may well go fishing for it with “Do you like Argentina?” as wide, pleading eyes await the predictable and courteous response. Not yet satisfied the game sometimes continues
“And the landscape? Do you like our mountains?”
“Do you find the people friendly?”
And if it’s a guy inevitably “And the women? What do you think?”
“Que hermosa!” I would reply “how beautiful!”

There’s a strong sense of national pride in Argentina and the Argentinians are suckers for flattery, my plan at the border post was to exploit this quirk. I entered the small lonely hut which sat in the shadow of the mountains and served as immigration. I approached the official, firm handshake, eye contact and straight to business, schmoozing.

“What a beautiful place! The mountains, the lakes, beautiful!”

His expression was interested and warm, inviting me to continue  
“Yes, I think so too” he said
“I’ve been cycling for two years now and Argentina is my favourite country of all”
“Verdad?” he blurted, “true?”
“Yes. The people are so hospitable and helpful”
His eyes goaded me on. Time to lay it on thick
“The food is incredible, there’s so much to do and the women, wow!”
That was it, he was putty in my hand. By this stage I could have surrendered a kilogram of uncut cocaine to the customs official and he would have winked and waved me through.
“Oh, and… I have this little problem with my passport…”
Two minutes later he was reaching for the red stamp and I had “salida” across another page despite the lack of an “entrada”. When I reached the Chilean immigration post twenty kilometres later I realised that in his flustered state the Argentinian official had forgotton to give me the slip of paper I needed to gain entry into Chile. “I’m so glad to reach Chile, its much better than Argentina” I told the official and freewheeled down the pass into the green hills of the new country.

The descent was a rapid rally through forested valleys with white frothy rivers and then into lowland central Chile where vast vineyards owned the panorama. I cycled north on route 5 to Santiago, knowing that the Andes to my right were gaining in stature all the while. Every pass north of my next one climbs to over 4000 metres, but I know I’ll be back, The Andes are a prize and a punishment and one I can never refuse. My bike and my tent have suffered a bit lately as well and need some good repair work, but it’s all been worth it.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the cost of an IPOD so I have some banging tunes to listen to. Next post will come from Argentina once again after (at least) one more mountain pass.

A motley peloton and the Carretera Austral

Backpackers heaved off their weighty packs, exchanged tales of testing bus rides, skimmed through Lonely Planets and made plans. I sat and watched them gloomily, still waiting and still glum because I was still here. As each group came and left I remained in the hostel, hostage by virtue of a swollen knee. Two Polish bikers arrived and they were stuck here too. Their tent had undergone some mini disaster and they were waiting for the Argentinian snail mail to cough up new parts. At least now my life had a focus. I knew that I had to get out of here before the Poles. The race was on. Every day I peeked tentatively under the covers and studied, stretched, flexed and massaged my knee. After a week I decided I could no longer risk postmen, big parcels and jubilant Polish faces. I had to get out of here.

I began cycling out of town, uneasy and unsure, but after the sameness of the plains in the far south Patagonia began flaunting it´s tail feathers, I was entering the realm of the Andes, the longest chain of mountains on earth and my majestic companion for the majority of South America. The Patagonian peaks are a lot smaller in stature than their cousins up north but formidable nonetheless, they glared at me from afar, daring me closer.

I soon joined forces with Vincent, a 27 year old Frenchman who carried his luggage in a slick, egg shaped, perfect white trailer. No corners, just curves and a hatch for access. It looked like space age technology. A French flag stood proud and sturdy and in the breeze towards the rear. That evening I found myself rough camping with three other cyclists, we were all travelling north and all planning an audacious adventure across a remote border post into Chile. Alongside Vincent and myself was Tim, a conspicuous Dutchman, tall with refulgent yellow panniers, a luminous yellow jacket and an equally luminous grin. The most notable part of Tim´s plan was the absence of one. He claimed no solid time line, direction or schedule. Instead he would simply ride vaguely Northward through South America whilst his money lasted. For Tim this was an insouciant jaunt where the best plan was no plan. The last member of our motley posse was Michel, a sixty two year old Frenchman with the wiry appearance of someone for whom travelling by bicycle has been habit for decades.

The team
The next morning we set off early to avoid that gusty menace characteristic of Patagonia. The four of us performed a ballet, tucked into slip streams, shuffling and re-ordering, buoyant and giddy to be riding as a unit. We swept into El Chaiten as condors swooped and glided in elliptical circuits above, the midday sun cast their shadows down to earth, they darted across the ragged terrain like sinister predacious beasts. The knobbly white facade of snowy crags and peaks dominated more and more of my gaze until we were all cowering under their prestigious glint. The sheer granite cliffs of Fitzroy took precedence over the rest, it stood aloof and self important in centre stage, flouting its juts and angles in the glare of summer sun. Mountaineers packed into the town seeking the rare weather window to make a summit attempt, a technically tough climb and a vicious micro-climate make tackling Fitzroy the preserve of only the most experienced climbers. We knew a few bits and pieces about the route ahead, some rough facts gathered from other riders we met coming South. This would be adventure cycling at it’s truest, with all its tests, trials and hopefully, triumphs.

Thirty km rough road. Probably very windy.
First boat – leaves at 5pm daily (unless very windy)
Camp the other side of the lake
Very Tough Stretch – 22 km, most is unridable. Carry bikes and panniers through rivers, swamp etc
Second boat, leaves twice a week – don´t miss it. Nowhere to get food.

Tim and I set out together into violent gales. My weather meter clocked wind speeds of 60 and 70 miles an hour, Beaufort ten, almost hurricane force. We abandoned pedalling but found it tough to even stand in the face of the gale. The road surface became airborne and the stinging particles drove into our faces, it would be a “sand blasting” in the desert, this was a “dust whooping”. Huge ethereal columns of dust surged upwards from the road and raced towards us. The clouds overhead tore across the sky as if someone had pressed fast forward. Luckily the shape of the land began to provide some shelter from the wind, we could ride again and made enough progress to ensure we wouldn’t miss the boat. On arrival a local man gave us the grim news – “El Barco” he explained was “Kaput”.

This was normal, he divulged, the boat usually breaks down a few times a week. The others arrived and I explained, we were all aware what this could mean. No boat today meant we risked missing the second boat which departed only twice per week. I watched Vincent digesting the news, he shook his head and sighed his frustration. Tim’s grin was replaced by a troubled frown, he muttered profanities in Dutch. My attention shifted to the 62 year old Frenchman, his eyes met mine, he shrugged, grabbed an invisible Senorita and began dancing through the pelting rain with his imaginary girlfriend whilst singing ´La Bamba´. At least we were all in this together. Four more cyclists then arrived, two Brits, a Spaniard and a Romanian, we all began sniffing around for information. At the last minute a van arrived and it seemed, the boat´s captain. Relief spread through the party. We were leaving tonight after all.

From left Andre, Tim, Vincent and Nick

Eight cyclists
Sunlight flooded our free campsite on the lake shore and one by one I watched as another head peered out of canvas, eyes admired the pristine lake and then tentatively glanced at the hills and the daunting prospect upwards. A few of us braved the chill for a quick dip in the glacial melt waters of the lake. A few Argentine backpackers gathered and pointed towards the bobbing bodies in the water, “Mira!… Europeans!” they gasped as if we were exotic creatures. Now we set off through the trees. Over the next five hours we pushed and dragged our loaded bikes through dense bush on narrow tracks and through thick mud, hoisted them over huge dead tree trunks, carried them on our shoulders whilst wading through rivers knee high in water, hauled them up impossibly steep slopes and edged over slippy tree trunks traversing turbulent rivers below. A Slovenian trekker amongst us was the only one to have travelled this route before. He was finding it tough to disguise his glee at our painstaking passage.

“Are we past the worst bit yet?” Came a hopeful voice

“No no no. Of course not!” replied the Slovenian with mischief in his eyes. He paused for dramatic effect and to ruminate over this fact

“You haven’t even reached the first swamp yet! And then of course there’s the huge climb to the pass, oh and the river with no bridge, and the second swamp and… “

I had to cut him off before more unwelcome details emerged  “… and then the dark forest of death and the valley of the doomed, but you should reach Mordor by sundown”

Perhaps it was because we were new friends and there was some male bonding going on, or perhaps it was simply out of necessity but at times our journey seemed interspersed with moments that belonged to melodramatic war films. Every so often weary legs would lose their footing, another cyclist would arrive at their comrade’s aid, hauling the fallen to their feet and returning to action. In between the groans of effort and dismay emanating from our inching party and the scraping of panniers and rattling of racks came odd music of strange birds, siren-like calls echoed through the forest. Heads low, shoulders hunched, faces wearing the strain but with underlying resolve we moved onwards. It seemed improbable that there would be anything marking the border crossing out here but as we edged over the crest of another hill the words “Bienvenidos a Chile” slowly rose up to meet triumphant yet jaded eyes. There was nothing else here of course, but the sign meant everything. We summoned the energy to pose for the obligatory group shot under the sign, munched biscuits, gulped down water and descended. I passed two cyclists coming up and had to fight the urge to tell them to watch out for “The First Swamp“. After another icy dip in another lake the much heralded boat arrived to take us to Villa O’Higgins and the very beginning of the infamous Carretera Austral.

In Villa O’Higgins Tim and I headed off together before the chasing pack. We were both meeting friends in Bariloche for Christmas and so had to make quick ground. I had a dirty secret – the deadline felt good. It’s a romantic notion I can’t fully claim to enjoy – taking off into the wild without deadlines, schedules, routine or constriction. In a life without structure I can’t resist creating some. Tim and I were a good team and rode at a similar pace. Tim was a racing road cyclist in his previous life, competing in La Marmotte in the Alps amongst others. On tarmac climbs he would power past me as I span a slower ascent, but on rough roads the tables were turned and the figure of the tall Dutchman would slowly diminish in my side mirror. Of the many lessons Africa imparted, riding fast for hours on bad roads was a prominent one. Cycling at speed meant of course that when we hit supermarkets the result was carnage. Five minutes after passing through the checkout we would both be sprawled on a bench or just the ground, only metres from the exit and surrounded by empty family packets of crisps and chocolate wrappers with beer cans in hand. On at least one occasion we failed even to make it outside the store before descending into gluttonous scoffage.

Serendipity comes with the territory on the Careterra and usually it’s easier riding with a buddy but I am sure Tim´s tendency to tempt fate didn’t always help us on our way. He would emerge from his tent in the morning declaring ´Today will be perfect, I can feel it!´. An hour later, in fierce gales and pelting rain his attention would turn to the graded road ´God this road is great! I bet it stays like this for ages!´. After an hour of bouncing over washboard-like terrain and skidding and sliding over tennis ball sized rocks I would shoot daggers his direction as he sealed our destiny ´Well it has been tough today Steve, but it can’t get any worse tomorrow´.

The Carretera Austral was Pinochet’s baby, a rough road connecting the southern settlements of Chile, swinging through thick forests, fjords, glaciers and steep mountains. More than 10,000 Chilean soldiers helped construct the road, many lost their lives in the process. It stretches for over a thousand kilometres and seems to slip perfectly into this pocket of Patagonian wilderness. The Carretera is also something of a bottleneck, cyclists invariably choose this path over the windy and dull alternative through Argentina. It’s the first thread on a spider web and afterwards a multitude of different options branch off, scattering cyclists to different corners of the continent. The route is hardly ever flat, the ups and downs though serve to satisfy every cyclist’s inner masochist. The dips, rises and curves of the roller-coaster make every minute a different one and every corner and crest reveals a new view. Sometimes it felt like I had cycled through a portal, suddenly transported to another distant place on the planet. The road veered around emerald lakes, courted deep blue rivers, bounded over the foothills of glistening, snowy giants and then floundered deep into moist, mossy, deciduous green. Black faced Ibis cawed and Kites and Hawks languidly glided overhead. Some of this won’t last. HidroAysén is a controversial mega project that aims to build five hydroelectric power plants in Chile’s Aysen Region. Two on the Baker River and three on the Pascua River. The project is estimated to flood 14,579 acres of natural reserves. But for us, for now, we could immerse ourselves in nature and we embraced it, cooking over campfires, drinking straight from glacial streams and jumping into icy lakes when we felt the urge.

Some of this was familiar, I had cycled the length of the Carretera twelve years ago, as a nineteen year old punk on my Gap year. Then it was April, blustery and colder than now. But there was actually a lot I had forgotten, it made me worry about how much of my world tour I will be able to recall in my dotage. Now it was summer and there were definitely many more cyclists than I remember, and Patagonia was in bloom – lupins painted the surroundings with scintillating, uncompromising hue, the air was thick with the scent of pine and pollen. Only one thing spoilt the party – December and January are months for what locals refer to as the “Tabano” – a biting breed of horsefly. Every day they tracked me up the hills, feeding on me in my weakest moments.

Me and my brother in 2000, Carretera Austral, Chile
Vincent was maybe a day or so behind us, the young French cyclist with curiously hairless legs. It had emerged that Vincent had taken to shaving his legs, reasons for which could only be guessed at. A popular theory was that his girlfriend urged him to and that he relented. Tim and I of course were unable to let this lie and it became an ongoing jibe on the Carretera. We often met cyclists travelling in the other direction and we were unable to resist passing them messages to relay to Vincent behind us
´We love your shiny legs´
´you´ve missed a bit´
Sometimes we´d hand them a razor to pass on when they came past him, along with the message
´in case you run out of wax´.

This region was cyclist central and every day I rode past a blur of riders taking on the hillocks and troughs. I came across the Lycra clad Speedsters and the ponderous meanderers. I met those on two week breaks from work, others on epic trans-continental expeditions and a few who had pedalled down from Alaska. I came across the super-lightweight and the unprepared and overloaded. I ran into solo riders, couples on tandems, threesomes and cyclists from twenty five different nations (that’s right, I´ve been counting), the cycling-mad French topping the league table. I met trundling pensioners and a couple with a three year old toddler in a trailer attached to Dad’s bike. I met the enthralled, the absorbed and the defeated, a few looked ready for a bus ride home.

In a small, inauspicious village along the Careterra was a Casa De Ciclistas. These refuges can be found throughout South America, they are homes whom the owners have opened solely for passing cyclists to spend the night. No money changes hands and nothing is expected in return. There were ten riders sharing the space that evening, we all relished the free shower, the bed and the good company. Hundreds of others have passed through over the years, their scribbles, sketches, cards and photos were crammed inside the guest book. Some wrote poems, one had added an altitude map of the road ahead. There were numerous messages of gratitude to the owner as well as addresses of blogs and websites. Up to eighteen had stayed here on a single night last year. We all crammed inside, loaded bikes were stacked up against each other in the open plan living room, people rummaged for pots and pans, pasta simmered away, stiff limbs were stretched, journals were scribbled in. We shared food, stories, tips and time. Maps were studied and discussed, our futures just lines and dots, soon a picture, later a memory, one of many. Tomorrow we would all leave, the house will be empty again until the late afternoon when more weary bodies in mud splattered Lycra shuffle inside. A few days later Tim and I camped under a bridge to shelter from the rain. We obviously weren’t the first to take cover here either. On the concrete bridge supports other cyclists had drawn simple sketches of loaded cyclists riding through a mountainous backdrop. Like primitive cave paintings by hunter gatherers they had documented their presence for others to see.

The Carretera stunned and challenged us all over the next couple of weeks. Tim and I rode through nasty bouts of gastroenteritis, the Spaniard’s chain snapped twice, Michel’s bike would suffer a major technical problem and he would have to hitch hike north, the Tabano seemed to have a particular taste for Romanians and of course Vincent had to endure constant taunts about his shiny, hairless legs from cyclists coming in the other direction.

The next bit, strangely, I remember in detail from my time here twelve years ago. Queulat – a lush rain forest decorating the Patagonian Andes in which waterfalls drape from virtually every cliff face. The Queulat icecap and associated glaciers lie high and deep amongst the peaks. It rained of course, it usually does, some parts have 4000 mm of rainfall annually and over 300 days of rain per year. In 1766, the Jesuit Father José García Alsue explored the area searching for The City of Caesars, a mythical and enchanted city which was purported as having mountains of pure gold and diamond. Instead he found Queulat and almost certainly got a drenching for his trouble, though for me there really was mystery here and slowly it all began to come back to me. The roadside was as dense as I remembered with understories of bamboos and ferns and every vista dominated by evergreen trees and the huge exotic leaves of Chilean rhubarb, two metres in girth. I remembered too the sudden, sullen, all-encompassing envelope on entering the forest, I remembered the ashen clouds loitering unnaturally low, waist high to mountains and ephemeral rainbows. I remembered how the waterfalls looked like twine, tethering a huge unsullied white tarp of snow to mountain tops. And I remembered the all pervasive sounds of moiling water, the trickle and gush of a thousand creeks, rivers, brooks and streams.

My 25,000 km milestone in the murk
Soon afterwards we crossed the Chile – Argentine border for the fourth time. On Christmas day we pedalled still, along the lakeside the inhabitants of nearby Bariloche were coming out to cook meat on barbecues, drink wine, play music and swim. I made my deadline and was reunited with old friends I hadn’t seen in almost two years after a twenty day mission with just one day off my bicycle. So I’m resting over Christmas and the New Year and then I set off north once again through Argentina towards Mendoza and Salta. A volcano spewing ash might make things tricky but as Tim would say “Its only a volcano. What could possibly go wrong?”

Finally… I need a new IPOD this Christmas so if you feel like helping me out by way of a belated Christmas present, even though I got you precisely zip this year, please check out the right hand column of this blog where you should find a blue button where you can donate just three pounds to help me get some music back in my life.

Have a great New Year

Let’s go clubbing

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

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

‘Wait stop. What was that last one?’

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

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

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

‘I’m sorry?’

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

Errrm Mr Jones?…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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