Posts Tagged ‘wildlife’

Claire, the invisible bear and a kazoo

It was the worst possible sentence to hear since I was dog tired, horizontal inside my tent and intent on a restful night’s sleep. 

“But I love you Amy….You Bitch.”

Having heard that series of words, slurred and probably uttered in the aftermath of necking something brutally alcoholic, and after ruminating on them briefly, I suspected they would herald a long, long night ahead. Dave The Drunk Misogynist, as we’ll call him, was not going to unwind this perplexing dichotomy very quickly – that he loves her, but that he also thinks she’s a bitch. Amy, the subject of Dave’s affections and contempt, had locked herself inside a car which was parked on the banks of a river where I had set up my tent, about a day’s ride out of Seattle. Dave, it seemed, wanted to get into the car with Amy.

‘Come on you bitch, let me in. I love you.’

‘Fuck off Dave’ retorted Amy ‘I don’t love you, I love Brian’

The words must have stung ‘Fine, have your 20 year old boyfriend!’ returned Dave.

Dave, lovelorn but ever the romantic, would retreat for a minute or two offering me the tantilising prospect of slumber, only to charge back to the car and pledge his undying love before an impulse to shout ‘Whore!’ overtook him. Eventually after hours of stalemate (between Dave and Amy, me and sleep) Dave decided the best demonstration of his unrequited love for Amy was to deflate her car tyres, which he did, to Amy’s agonized screams, followed by ‘What have you DONE! Dave, what have you DONE!!’ and then softer and softer whimpering as I drifted off belatedly to dreamland.

Two days in Seattle with my second cousin Liz was well spent since it involved good company, the League of Gentlemen on DVD and quite a lot of ice cream. The Canadian border to me was just another boundary, not something to stress about. I saw no potential of being forbidden to enter Canada or any likelihood of it being more complicated than any of the sixty that have come before it. Or so I thought.

After a chain of predictable questions the border guard asked how long I’d been cycling. Three and half years caused his eyebrows to take a vigorous leap towards his hair line, he swiftly wrote the letter B on a piece of paper and told me to go inside the immigration building. The immigration official was a tall, bald, menacing man with a Scottish lilt. ‘Here’s what’s happening’ he declared in a no-nonsense and well-practiced fashion. ‘YOU (and he pointed at me) have to prove to ME (points at himself, in case I find simple pronouns confusing) that we’re not going to find you working in a bar in Canada. I want bank statements, I want papers, I want evidence. So come on then, show me what you’ve got.’

At this point he put his hands behind his head and wearing an expression akin to that of a sadistic child when pulling the legs off an insect, he rested back into his chair and I got the sudden perception that this was someone who had been short changed in life and was wreaking revenge on society, one cycle tourist at a time. I didn’t have much, no bank statements, nothing to prove that I had funds. In the end certificates proving I was a medic and a phone call to my relatives in Vancouver just about satisfied him. It was too close for comfort.

I stayed with MaryLouise, my mum’s cousin, a kind of extreme superhuman who thrashes twenty year olds in half Iron Man contests. She is also very charming and I enjoyed chilling out with her family whilst I waited for a very cool cat to arrive. Claire is an old friend of mine from Liverpool and also a superhuman by way of being a psychologist, PhD whizz, jazz musician, Frisbee champion, purveyor of winks and wry smiles and expedition leader and who is brilliantly dynamic in lots of other cool ways too. We swapped news, went to a poetry slam, biked around Vancouver and prepared for the road ahead. And we wondered a bit about some of Canada’s furry residents…

Bears – there are two schools of thought in Canada. The alarmists like to remind you of the ease at which a Grizzly can out-run you before it takes a minute to chew heartily away on your bone marrow, and there are the more insouciant brigade who like to compare black bears to big dogs and who offer assurances that they won’t give much trouble. Everybody though seems to think bringing a can of bear pepper spray to fend off a creature that gets too close is a sensible idea. I have my doubts. There are very few things in this world more disagreeable than being mauled to death by a bear. One of those things is spraying yourself in the face with extra potent pepper spray, and then getting mauled to death by a bear. Despite my reservations Claire and I headed off to a hunting store to enquire about some sort of defense strategy even though Claire has a kazoo and I have some interesting dance moves and I reckon a well-choreographed performance might repel even the most hulking of Grizzlies.

We get directed to a hunting store which is staffed exclusively by the sort of men who have taxidermied their own grandparents and have mounted them to the walls of their home, and who can’t finish a beer without crunching the can onto their forehead and growling. These are not the type of men you would leave to look after a family pet if you go on holiday. You might return to find they have finished off little Oscar with a crossbow and are sitting in a circle, skinning or spit roasting him.

‘This is essential’ explained one very serious man, holding the bear spray aloft and tilted unnervingly in my direction.
‘27 foot range. Just blast the bear right in the face, OK?’
‘Um, OK’ we mumble. 

I can’t summon up a mental image of either of us blasting a charging bear in the face with this. Instead I wonder if throwing the can at the oncoming bear and wailing pathetically would impede the attack. Probably not. I’m awed, impressed and a little disturbed by the array of bear repelling devices on offer. There are a variety of bear sprays, bear bombs (which just go bang and aren’t as exciting as they sound), flares, bear guns and projectiles. After a brief discussion, marked by total uncertainty and mild panic, we decide on the bear spray, mainly because the man behind the counter is perusing other bear defeating devices and I’m a little scared about what direction the conversation might soon take.

‘We call this the BEAR-VAP. Push this little button and it will vaporize up to 75 adult grizzlies in a 32 mile radius. Oh wait, you’ll need some of this too. BEAR-O-CIDE. Just sprinkle a thimbleful of this stuff into any small stream and it will kill every black bear that drinks from any river between here and the Yukon for 18 years.’ 

The actual packaging on bear spray. Something tells me it wouldn’t work out quite like this 
So excited, and with only a mild sense of impending doom bestowed on us by the hunting shop, we set off. Given that we had a little time to play with, a loop of Vancouver Island was on the cards before we set out on the more serious mountains of northern BC. Claire had three weeks before a bus from Prince George would transport her and her bike back to Vancouver. This year it seems that Canada’s tourism board have let the intern come up with British Columbia’s tagline, infused, as it is, with subtlety and edge.

‘British Columbia – The Best Place in the World’ 

There’s another one doing the rounds as well, the irritating ‘Super, Natural British Columbia’ which makes me want to decapitate something small, cute and furry just so I don’t have it in my head any more.

I admit it, three and a half years of biking has left me a little jaded. It’s getting harder not to make endless comparisons between where I am and where I’ve been, but having Claire with me has opened my eyes again to just how propitious it is to experience this wonky world by bicycle. Claire gets excited about herons. Claire is surprised when she consumes 200 grams of dairy milk chocolate and moves on to marsh mallows. Claire is enlivened by the prospect of not knowing where we’ll end up or where we’ll sleep. It’s invigorating.

We pedaled up the aptly named sunshine coast watched by the Canadian wildlife, as we watched back. We spotted a scuttling raccoon, a slightly pissed off deer, garter snakes, purple starfish and a seal which could have been doing a good impression of a sea otter. Ferries shuttled us across the watery bits as we sat on deck playing a kazoo, catching up and congratulating Canada. RVs crowded us a little on the roads and I mused over their curious names – The Adventurer. The Expedition. The RV manufacturers had done their research. We all know how important the microwave and foot spa were to Ernest Shackleton.

In Nanaimo on Vancouver Island we hung out with Chris, a diamond geezer, and Joe, his gigantean Newfoundland dog that cheerfully murders the neighbour’s chickens at every given opportunity. Chris cycled with us the following day and after eating for so long in a bakery we fell into a desperate tour-de-France peloton for the ultimately failed race to make the ferry, and after being too full of pastry based food to make it we opted instead to drink beer on the beach, like the serious cyclists we are.

The road that would take us to the world renowned resort town of Whistler and beyond is the Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky to Sea to Sky Highway, don’t let the abbreviated version fool you. Vancouver was steeped in a sullen murk as we rode away over the rolling hills of the coast whilst drizzle spattered the asphalt. Out to our west ethereal claws of mist raked through the dense groves of pines trees which crowded the low humps of the gulf islands.

Claire was the perfect cycling companion, just when boredom threatened she would nonchalantly pull up alongside me with a ‘Steve?’ and offer up some theories on the shape of the universe or ask my opinion on some aberrant topic.

‘Yes Claire’
‘What’s your favourite marsupial?’

We talked about people we both knew of course. We discussed other important issues too – Utilitarianism. Socialised medicine. Why gooseberries are under-rated. Who were the Thundercats. How much of a tosser David Cameron actually is. Interspersed with laughter and this mental and verbal workout we had an intensely competitive thumb war tournament (three all), we lobbed cherries into each other’s jowls and Claire tried to teach me to sing. I would say Claire failed, but really it was me.

There were some moments where I felt a little vulnerable as another pair of eyes appraised my slightly odd ball lifestyle. The discovery of a tin of tuna with a Spanish label and leaking powdered mashed potato that I can say with confidence has been in my food bag since at least Peru was one such moment. But Claire cooked risotto, could read road signs from more than ten metres away and sometimes felt inspired to use the phrase ‘amazeballs’. All of these things and many others made her a great travel companion. And she reminded me of how exciting the serendipity that courts all cycle tourers can be – it’s great when someone else is a bit awed by the hospitality of strangers, by the romance of wild camping, and by the buzz of meeting another biker. It feels good to share.

Claire wasn’t aware of this, but I was surreptitiously undertaking a research project whilst we cycled together through BC…

The effect of cycle touring on a previously uninitiated individual: An observational study.

Aim – To determine how long the transformation process will take from baseline to Cycle Tourer

Methodology – Observation of control subject Claire Press

Day Three – Claire accidentally ingests 95% DEET. Doesn’t seem to care.

Day Five – Claire has begun to develop a bizarre obsession with roadkill. Talk often veers to dead animals.

Day Six – I find Claire slumped outside supermarket surrounded by empty packets of blueberry muffins, crumbs covering her face, and with an expression of unsullied joy and contentment.

Day Eleven – Empties half a jar of strawberry jam onto bread and spreads it around wildly with index finger. Smirks when I offer a knife.

Day Thirteen – Wears T-shirt inside out. Doesn’t notice until mid-afternoon.

Day Fifteen – Uses the exact phrase ‘You know it’s a good day when sweat dribbles down your ass’

Day sixteen – Has become adept in killing mosquitoes in total darkness.

Day seventeen – gazes strangely at inner tube. Perhaps wondering if several of them glued together would make a serviceable bandana.

Conclusion – Transformation complete by 17 days.

Whistler is a busy resort town which hosted many of the events of the winter Olympics in 2010. Our plan on arrival was to find an Australian, an easy task here, buy them a beer, also an easy task, and subtly suggest (not ask) that we camp in their garden. It was a fail. After approximately six hours and thirty cups of tea we found ourselves sitting in a flat with two alcoholics, feeling slightly uneasy, whilst they made jokes about stealing all our stuff. In the end though they showed us to a decent spot to camp in the park, humanity prevailed.

Then it was a short ride to Pemberton where Tammy was going to put us up, a surfer I met on the coast of Mexico and an all-round brilliant human being. We met her briefly on the road where she gave us a very Canadian lesson about how to fight a cougar (‘just punch and kick it in the face’) and offered us her home to rest up in whilst she was away, a cosy forest retreat easily worth the uphill battle to get there.

Claire, pedaling uphill for three km: ‘Steve, I hate you right now’
And then two minutes later ‘I’m sorry Steve. It’s not you. It’s just that I hate everything a little right now’

As sweaty as sumo wrestlers, dizzy and slightly blue, we arrived. Claire admitted her pulse was strangely audible and at a slightly higher BPM than Happy Hardcore.

The next day was a well-deserved day off, and one where the adjective Perfect might just be the best fit. Tammy is also keen on paragliding and had arranged for us to give it a whirl with her mates, and for free. We both floated off the launch site on tandem paragliders, vaguely towards the snow covered crags and glaciated peaks of the coastal mountains and hovering high and occasionally swooping over the broad valley below.

Tammy’s pad was where we wiled away the afternoon, knowing that after you’ve spent the morning paragliding in British Columbia, the day is already awesome and you don’t have to exert any extra effort to make it so. That afternoon a black bear loped into the garden so I sent Claire downstairs to deal with it – part of an agreed plan that she handles black bears, Grizzlies and cougars, I get troublesome insects and noisy dogs.

The next day began with ‘Eye of the tiger’ ringing out from my computer – we needed it. The Duffy Lake Road beckoned. Or in local parlance ‘THE DUFFY’ (which comes with a brief whistle and bounce of the eyebrows). The road climbs a thousand vertical metres and starts out at a 15 to 20% grade with an average incline of 7.5% to the top. THE DUFFY had been on our minds and had exerted its menace well before we glanced up at its preliminary twists and turns, though despite the hype and irrefutable stats (maybe because of them), it was tamer than we imagined. A double handed high five came in the early afternoon as we crested the pass, glanced back behind us and exchanged a little look that said ‘Have some of that, Canada’. And Canada thanked us for our efforts with bold and imposing peaks, bald eagles, prodigious gorges and serene moments skirting turquoise lakes as we rallied downwards, sucking up the odd rush of cool air radiating from churning mountain streams that cascaded into the wide river at the gorge floor. Around us poplar fluff drifted easily on the breeze as if we were biking through a snow dome. In amongst it all two cyclists were grinning like crazy people.

The topography is as changeable as the weather in this part of Canada and soon we were in an arid semi-desert. Lillooet, we were reminded time and again, is the hottest spot in Canada. It’s a fact dished out with gravity by the locals of a country internationally renowned for its incessant tropical heat. ‘It’s gonna be way too hot to ride today’ scorned a local man in the supermarket. He went on to tell me a cautionary tale I only half listened to, which I think involved another cycling couple and probably involved them sweating so hard they were converted into a white crust and had to be scraped off the tarmac and their salt crystals repatriated, but I wasn’t really paying attention. We set off anyway, sweating and panting past signs that told us not to pass snow ploughs on the right.

Back into the verdant arable land to the east and lulled into a sense of invincibility by the absence so far of a bear attack, we camped out in a small village of Native Americans and left food inside our tent instead of the nightly ritual of finding a place to stash it where bears couldn’t get to it. In hindsight, this must have been on Claire’s mind. From deep sleep I was violently jerked into the real world as Claire kicked off her sleeping bag and shouted ‘It’s inside! ITS INSIDE!’

Now Claire was asleep and dreaming, but the important thing to understand is that I had no idea at the time that she was asleep and dreaming, and when someone shouts ‘IT’S INSIDE!’ at night, in a tent, with food in it, in Canada, in bear country, you have to assume the worst has happened, or is about to. Two thoughts raced to the forefront of my mind, interestingly the first was ‘use hysterical friend as human shield’ but this was soon superseded by the more sensible ‘better get the bear spray’. One close look at Claire though and I knew she was in the throes of an ursine-related nightmare. We settled back to sleep but half an hour later Claire threw herself wildly into the side of the tent, another imaginary bear had attacked whilst I was asleep and she was bravely defending us. Imaginary bears are much scarier than real ones.

The terrain flattened out as we climbed slowly up onto the Fraser Plateau and soon we were relaxing in Prince George, Claire’s final stop. I gave a talk to the local bike club, and I said goodbye to Claire. And then it rained. 

To my north and where I’m heading there is a big empty space on my map where I suspect bears outnumber people, moose heads adorn every wall and the women have beards. I will leave British Columbia behind and embrace the Yukon, a place twice the size of England and with a population that could fit inside Norwich City Football stadium. And yes, that really is something to be excited about.

Thank you’s this month – Liz and Zach, MaryLouise, Paul and the posse, Mark, Cath and Superman Luke, Josephine, Norman, Stacy and Deb, Etta, The Powell River Bikers, Vancouver Rotary Club, Prince George Cycling Club, Ruth and Paul, Stephen and Rua, Chris, Tammy, Mike and the paragliders, Brenda, Pero and Vanessa, a whole bunch of anonymous Canadians and whoever it was that drew a penis on the deer signpost near Quesnel. You’ve all been utterly ace, so mad props to one and all. If I’ve forgotten anyone, I blame it on last night’s drinking with Claire, who’s gone for now, but not forgotten.

And then there’s California…

“There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there’s California” – Edward Abbey

Street Life – Mooching around Los Angeles

LA was my office and playground for about a month and ‘work’ was gabbing away about my bike ride, mostly to school kids. I presented at small elementary schools where the pupils mmm’d and ahhhh’d and squirmed at my slides of snakes and spiders, and to an audience of over a thousand high school seniors at a prestigious private school where actor Will Smith sends his kids, who wanted to know whether cycling around the world was a religious experience.

I learnt some things along the way – like never to sign an autograph unless you have 45 minutes to spare because every kid will want one and you will be surrounded by a mob screaming ‘He’s famous! Sign my arm!’. And I have fielded all kinds of questions – the best came after telling a posse of teenagers I have had 210 punctures (lesson: use the more American ‘flats’ in future). One hand shot up and a perplexed youth wanted to know why I had been punched 210 times. I told him that I’m just very annoying.

Pimped up bikers at LA’s Ciclavia Bike Ride
One of my favourite quirks of America is how often strangers come over to make conversation. It’s refreshing and it’s disarming, but being accustomed to miserable England it took some getting used to. If this rare and brazen faux pas occurs in London I assume the person talking at me must be either

a)      Suffering from extreme loneliness
b)      Mentally ill
c)      Extremely drunk
d)      An American on vacation (bless them, they don’t know how to behave in the UK)

My bike is a conversation starter of course – it’s like having a gregarious wingman who’s forever introducing me to new people. And I have started to become Americanized with a z. More than once I have instigated a conversation with a stranger in the street whilst in the depths of my British brain a voice is going ‘My God Man! What are you DOING! Abort, abort, abort.’ And when I speak the American people who grin at my accent are unwittingly responsible for my ever more brutal and comical Lock-Stock style of the British voice. I don’t even hail from London, but I just can’t help it.

The USA is the most patriotic country I have travelled and that I’m ever likely to, though of course not everyone conforms to this stereotype, and less so in California. I know there’s a lot to be proud of, this post is full of American triumphs and delights, but the fact that I don’t see this facet of the national psyche as one of America’s virtues perhaps stems from the fact that I’m British and come from a place with crappy weather, worse food and ugly people. But then this particular brand of self-effacement is in itself something we are proud of, so maybe I’m a patriot too. Examples of America’s self-aggrandising abound – men who announce ‘Welcome to God’s Great Country!’. Bumper stickers that say ‘USA: Back to back World War champions’. The names of local servicemen on roadside flags – these are not men killed in combat, these are serving military personnel, what about the teachers and nurses and policemen serving the American people? Where are their flags? It’s all just a little weird.

Soon after leaving LA I stopped in Ventura and at the home of Cat and Pat Patterson, a couple who contacted me online with the kind offer of a place to crash. Pat had cycled around the world twice, once in the 80’s and again from 2003-2007 with his wife Cat. We drank wine, watched a film of Pat’s ride and talked about some of the pleasures and tests of a life on wheels before a zip around thrift stores so that I could replace the tatty hole-ridden vessels that were once recognizable as shoes.

I’m still revelling in the easiness of biking in the States and maps from the Adventure Cycling Association help, kindly donated to me by Calvin, a generous fella who heard me speak at REI and then gave me a bed for night and bought me dinner. So with cycle touring proving a cinch and a well-honed masochistic instinct still intact, I decided to leave the traditional well-worn Pacific Coastal route of California with it’s RVs, sea breeze, amenities, vegans and smooth tarmac and head instead for the hills.

A road in the sky – Cycling Camino Cielo (Santa Barbara county)

Local knowledge is sacred stuff and KG, a touring biker who came to my talk at a bike coop in Santa Barbara, had it in droves. By sheer coincidence KG’s Dad happened to be my burly companion Kenny who I sailed with from mainland Mexico to the Baja peninsula a few months before. Seeking an adventure away from Highway One I asked KG for advice and his reply came in Spanish – ‘Camino Cielo’. I liked the sound of it, the translation ‘sky road’ told me much of what I needed to know and KG filled in the details – a steep climb from the coast to 4000 feet where a hushed back country track rides a spine of rock in the Santa Ynez mountains.

‘The eye followed them up and up, and farther and farther, with the accumulating emotion of a wild rush on a toboggan…. It left you breathless, wonder-stricken, awed’. The words of author Stuart Edward White on the view of the Santa Ynez mountains from Santa Barbara. He was right. There’s no way out of Santa Barbara without crossing them – the San Marcos Pass is the shortest route and so was a popular spot for bandits to ambush traveling stagecoaches back in the mid-nineteenth century.

I pedaled up and away from Santa Barbara, from stop signs, traffic lights and convenience stores. Road cyclists breezed past me giving a ‘Wow!’ when they took in all my gear, and then a driver rolled down his window to reveal a wry smile before shouting ‘Damn masochist!’. He was right of course. If I were teleported to sea level every time I reached the high point of a road in the mountains, forgoing the reward of a breezy freewheel down the other side, I would still ride up into them. I enjoy the aftermath of pain, the light-headed buzz of breathlessness, the self-doubt and satisfaction they create.

Eventually I arrived at the Painted Caves, 400 year old drawings on rock made with ochre, charcoal and powerdered shells which were created by the Chumash Indians who lived in these hills long before the freakish crowd that makes up modern day California moved in. Visitors had signed the guest book, one entry read ‘We are on a bachelor party! Caves were great! Now we are looking forward to beer and titties!’ the entry ended with a sketch of a woman with enormous breasts which highlighted as well as the Indian cave paintings mankind’s propensity to explain through art. Unnecessarily, perhaps.

I continued climbing. Soon darkness billowed and wafted over the coast like smoke. The plum tinted streaks of cloud were quickly leached of their shine and the stars began to blink and sparkle. I slept rough on an elevated concrete platform, a strange thing – circular, flat, hidden from the road and overlaid with graffiti, and whose function I couldn’t work out. Someone had sprayed ‘locals only’ on the metal stairs leading up onto it and torn cigarettes littered the centre. I guessed that it now served as a weed smoking den for local kids and I was proved right when some ventured up the stairs in the evening. ‘Oh!’ one exclaimed when he spotted my makeshift campsite. ’So I guess we’ll go somewhere else?’,  ‘Umm, Yes please’ and I was alone again as the street lights of distant Santa Barbara flickered to life two thousand feet below.

The next day Camino Cielo turned to dirt and I was left with just the trill of insects and the increasing subdued sounds of gun shots from a local gun club. Nature moved in around me, a green ambush. Hummingbirds jerked and shimmied around the flowering plants which fired up the vista. Crested Caracaras swooped low over the ascending road, one of the most dramatic I have cycled, and the land beside it tumbled on one side into the sheen of Cachuma Lake and the other into remote farmland which flanked the Pacific. In the solace of the wilds I was reminded of the creatures that call it home – Coyote droppings in the dirt, and when I rounded a corner something large and furry ahead sprang up and lumbered away into the bush. The sight of a black bear, just a few miles from people’s homes, reminded me just how alluring and wild much of America’s third largest state actually is.

My plan was to ride through wine country and join the Pacific coast further north but a mistake at a junction took me back to the coast only 15 miles or so from the town I had left two days earlier. But, as with all excursions away from and beyond the well-trodden path, it was worth it.

Biking a legend – Highway One on two wheels

The venerable Highway One is a tourist destination unto itself – it twists around rocky inlets and coves, skims over cliff tops and meanders over headlands whilst the tourists inside gargantuan RVs and riding roaring Harleys take in the ocean view. En route I camped in the cheap and friendly Hiker-Biker camps (which I love more than chocolate) and took (stole) showers from expensive RV parks. Even when my days on Highway One were marred by murk and drizzle, and when the coastline had a menace to it, the Californian golden poppy sparkled, drivers honked their encouragement and finding a cheap place to crash was as easy as sourcing a cheap burrito.

Elephant seals, even without David Attenborough’s mellifluous tones in the background, are impressive beasts, especially when sparring. A beach full of them lies off highway one near Piedras Blancas and I stopped to get some photos of the animals in action:

I usually have a mental list of outlandish adventures I want to accomplish in the next 12 months or so. Cycling Highway One was a long term dream. Another involved a Mexican girl. But in amongst them was the long held desire to sleep in a cave, honestly, it was. So when KG’s email mentioned ‘Pirates Cove’ and a sea cave I decided this would be my chance. I arrived in the pitch black of night determined to shorten that list, and I did it in style – sea view, en suite (err, kind of), open air balcony and minibar (a beer in my pannier). And unlike the penthouse, free.

I closed in on the famous stretch of coastline known as Big Sur. One evening I walked my bicycle off the road up into a grassy space beside an abandoned Ranger’s hut only to find another biker had got there first. Nate had been riding for two years, mainly in the bits of Asia I was most excited about. He grew up in Berkeley and had just a few days left of his epic world tour and I could sense his conflicting emotions – the predictable elation melded with panic. Knowing I will probably suffer the same when I return I advised Nate to pitch his tent in his back yard and slowly reintegrate back into society. The next day we set off together.

The majority of bikers ride south down the Pacific coast, aided by the prevailing trade winds, but Nate and I were exceptions to the rule. Most days on Highway One I would come across these smug south-bounders – ‘You’re going the wrong way!’ their annoying spiel would begin. ‘Oh Yeah, right’ would be my weak and tired reply having heard this twice already that morning. So when Nate and I met swift tail winds and rocketed up the coast of California we made it our business to pull over every south-bound cycle tourer and remind them.
‘Hey man, hows that wind for ya? Must be tough.’
‘It’s gonna be a long day for you guys’.
Two sulked silently, a look of defeat etched on their faces. I think one snarled.

The next day ended with a game of scrabble in a taphouse and a boozy ride in the dark back to camp in amongst the grand coastal redwoods this coastline is so famous for. The next day Nate had a plan, and I was invited.

Big Sur on the hoof – Hiking to Sykes hot springs

Stop in any urban public place in America and look around – you can be sure to see two things. The first is a signpost or seven telling you about all the things there are to be scared about. I call this the ‘Tsunami-Risk Zone Syndrome’ after a spate of signposts near Los Angeles. It could also be termed ‘Beware of Falling Acorns Syndrome’. The second is yet another batch of signposts telling you what you shouldn’t do and what will happen if you do. The consequences are usually enormous fines or some other spine-tingling threat…

‘Do not cross the railroad tracks here, or the US government will eat your grandmother’. 

Or ‘Do not dump litter here. Penalty: Death by steamroller’. 

The word ‘liability’ is used so often I presumed it must be some sort of involuntary vocal tick, but as it turns out people do actually mean what they say. People crave liability as much as the bubonic plague. So when the Park Service at our campground refused to let us stash our stuff there for the two day return hike to some hot springs (‘Liability, Sir’), I was chuffed when a helpful park volunteer offered to let us stash our gear at his campsite which I think shows that as long as everyone is this helpful, Liability Tourette’s doesn’t matter all that much.

We marched off, pack-laden and sweating, up onto the first ridge whilst around us the soundscape was rich with the creaking of redwoods, the knock of woodpeckers and the low gush of the river hidden in the valley depths, only the odd harsh squawk of a Stellar Jay stabbed at the tranquillity. The sinuous trail dipped down to creeks and then climbed to reveal a yawning valley which burrowed through redwood groves out to the invisible ocean somewhere now in our wake. The Sequoias, megalithic and fire-blackened, towered overhead, some trunks had been smashed into hollows by lightning strikes of centuries past, some in this forest were alive at the fall of the Roman Empire. The trail snaked close to the broad, rusty mid-sections offering a pang of vertigo when gazing at either the roots or the upper reaches. Between the trees a tide of resplendent green made of redwood sorrel and poison oak was broken only by the surreal shiny bark of manzanita. On the way I discovered a chest high stick which I used both as a walking aid and as a prop in my intermittent impressions of Gandalf the wizard. On the 12 mile hike to the hot springs we paused every now and then to examine some curiosity of the Californian wilds – yellow bellied newts, some strange striated snake, and then on a mossy log, a slimy yellow Banana Slug.

‘Go on, lick the slug’ goaded Nate
‘Nate, I’m not going to lick a slug’
‘Come on man, lick it. You have to’
‘I don’t have to’
‘Just a quick lick’
‘Will I get high or something?’ I asked, imagining the hallucinogenic toads of Mexico
‘No, no, no. But you still have to lick it’
‘You’re asking me to lick a bright yellow, slimy thing for no reason at all’
‘Look man, if you don’t feel completely welcome in California yet it’s because you haven’t licked a banana slug’
‘I feel welcome Nate’ 
‘Oh for Christ’s sake’

I licked the slug. Nate licked the slug.

‘Welcome to California! Now lets get going.’

As sunset encroached we waded a river and found a multinational posse of trekkers camped out near the hot springs. After lolling in the steamy waters, perfect relief after the time spent on foot, we cooked around a campfire before collapsing into slumber. I woke to find that my legs, unaccustomed to doing much except move in circles, were no longer as functional as I remembered them. Plus, I was in a world of pain.

A Gopher Snake

Yellow bellied Newt

Bayside antics and Bay to breakers – San Francisco

I had the name ‘Warren’ scribbled onto some paper along with rough directions, my friend Ryan had told me that he would host us in Monterey. When we finally found Warren in the hills above the town, we found a man with stories. 

In the 60’s Warren co-wrote the anthem ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye’ (if the name doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll know it when you hear it. It’s often sung to the losing opposition at sports events and has been covered a bunch of times). He was a millionaire by age 19 and working for Mercury Records as a sound engineer at a time where that was a rare profession. By the sounds of it he spent the next couple of decades squandering his fortune and having a blast by working closely with rock legends and pioneers including Jimmy Hendrix, Jon Lennon and a whole host of other household names. More recently he bought the State Theatre in Monterey which hosts live music events and he gave us a tour the following day.

San Francisco was a great venue for downtime and I spent it with Fin, Jon and Max – relatives I’d hardly met before. I now realise that my Irish heritage has benefits above and beyond the genetically inherited appreciation of Guinness, namely relatives everywhere. My mum was waiting for me with them, it was great to catch up – I hadn’t seen her for two years. By day we explored San Francisco and Alcatraz. In the evenings I made some sorely needed cash for the months to Alaska with more talks in schools and even people’s homes in which Fin set up a kind of donation jar and everyone generously chipped in. When I wasn’t performing these talks I listened to Fin and my mum and learnt more about my Irish family background and the characters that coloured it.

At the end of my stay came Bay to Breakers – a eccentric and very San Francisco street race followed by the more important street party where elaborate costumes or nudity are de rigueur and alcohol is slugged for hours. I was sitting in Goldengate park, sipping on a beer too, and waiting for Nate to arrive whilst watching some people party on the roof of one of the four story buildings on the edge of the pan-handle. And then something fell, something human-shaped. It seems strange to me now that I assumed it was a mannequin but in amongst the total strangeness of that day I thought it was some bizarre practical joke on the pedestrians below. Those on the sidewalk didn’t react with shock or horror, they just froze. It was only when the crowd on the roof began screaming did I realise I had just seen a body drop fifty feet onto concrete. I leapt up and sprinted across the park to find a young unconscious man on the sidewalk and next to him another doctor and a paramedic. We all chipped in with the resuscitation effort, stabilised his cervical spine, inserted a plastic tube into his mouth to keep his airway patent and put him on oxygen. Help arrived and he was moved onto a spinal board before being taken to the hospital. Sadly he died that night. He was 28 years old.

Mum and the mountains – Exploring Yosemite

It takes a lot to impress me these days. The back country, and all it’s stirring artistry, has been my home for most of the last three and a half years. When sunshine swept through our coach as it exited the tunnel inside Yosemite National Park, one of the three jewels in the crown of the US park system, the view set my mandible into a kind of involuntary and helpless free-fall that only a choice few spectacles have done.

My eyes were drawn first to the left and El Capitan, the hulking granite monolith which shoots up 2500 ft from the valley floor, beloved by technical climbers the world over. On the other side of the valley cascading water glistened in Bridalveil Falls, and between them the distant half dome, once the site of an improbable soft ball game. Climbers sauntered around gazing occasionally up towards their eventual destinations. The U shaped Yosemite valley carved by glaciers is simply a masterpiece, and still a work in progress as the slow sculptors of wind, rain and ice continue to reshape the land.

Yosemite was made all the more satisfying after our mission to get there. Car packed, mum schooled in American road rules, campsite booked, we set off towards the park. Our Dodge was borrowed from people we had never had the chance to meet. Thirty miles before Yosemite, on the start of a climb, there was a beeping sound and the light ‘check gauges’ flashed. We pulled up in 50 meters and steam billowed from the engine – envisioning a raging inferno we carted everything out of the car and flagged down the next vehicle which by some bizarre coincidence was a tow truck. The mechanics gathered around and quickly concluded the motor was finished and not worth replacing, our borrowed car was heading to the scrap yard.

The campsite down the road outside a motel was run by a woman with learning disabilities and a drunk guy who lived in the only trailer and who played rock music at full volume for most of the night. Hesitantly we decided to stash our stuff with them and took to buses to get to the park where my mum, who hadn’t been camping in forty years, slept fitfully in a valley renowned for the 400 black bears that reside here and that often stray into campgrounds in search of food.

We started with Yosemite Falls, the highest waterfall in the lower 48 states and allegedly the 5th highest in the world, which was funny because I had visited the fifth highest in Peru, 150 metres higher than Yosemite (Yosemite is actually 20th) but natural wonders always get a little embellished by their tour guides. The next day was a tour to Glacier Point and Jack our guide told the legend of Bridalveil falls – looking into the falling water for thirty seconds would mean you will be married in six months. My mum, anxious for a daughter in law and grandchildren one day, nudged me and grinned. Our bus continued past Ponderosa pine trees, the bark coloured a lustrous green by staghorn lichen, which eventually gave way to ghost forests where the larvae of tip moths had laid waste to the life and greenery. As we descended the larger leaved black oak, maple and incense cedar crept back into view. El Capitan was visible again too and Jack told of an 81 year old climber who scaled the granite monster a few years before. It was my turn to do the nudging, my mum considers herself a spritely 62 year old.

Phew! A mammoth blog post and I didn’t even get to mention Alcatraz, Ciclavia or a ton of other crazy stuff I’ve done. Massive thank yous to my hosts and general good people this month – Alan and Eno, Fin, Jon and Max, Calvin, Alynka, Kent, Pat and Cat Patterson, Brian, Janna, Laura and family, Warren, Angelika and family, Bicycle Ambulance for a free bike service, KG, and of course my mum. And I know I’m forgetting several people. You know who you are. I blame it on drink.

Next up – I’m off today, north through the Marijuana plantations of Northern California, into Oregon and Washington. I have less than a month to get to Vancouver from where my next post will come from. For anyone interested I’m speaking in Oregon at Velocult on the 6th of June.

Finally  – a plea for help: I have an unexplained website script problem on I designed the site with a friend before I left with the intention of doing very little with it once on the road. I’ve barely touched the site recently and it’s been so long since I used Joomla that I’ve forgotten how to! If anyone has any experience with Joomla / website design and might know how to help and has the time then please get in touch and I’ll explain my issue – Cheers!

Stevey Gonzales

Admiring a salt lake on the Baja peninsula of Mexico

Contrary to popular belief football is not Mexico’s national sport. It’s sweeping. Mexico’s women are more intensely devoted to sweeping than a gap toothed, tattoo-branded, wailing Milwall fan is to football. Sweeping in Mexico begins before sunrise and continues well into the night. The same floors and spaces are swept more than a dozen times a day, I know, I’ve watched this happen. Every so often I am evicted from restaurants – ‘you’re closing?’ I ask, ‘Si Señor. For sweeping.’

Where the wild things are

Recently it’s been more about the people than the wildlife, but the next thousand kilometres would flip the script, if I was going to have close encounters with roadside beasts, Botswana, I was assured, would be the venue. Nyomi and I get on well most of the time but we get up together, we eat together, we cycle together, we rest together and now we needed a break from being together. When we squabble it’s only ever over trivialities. Classic battles over the last few months have included ‘Stop eating so many aubergines!’, ‘Those better not be your socks in the food pannier!’ and ‘I can’t believe you didn’t eat that chapatti!’

We parted ways in Livingstone; Ny would ride the Caprivi strip in Namibia whilst I cycled a loop through Botswana. We’d meet again in three weeks’ time. Botswana is a country the size of France with a population of two million, all manner of toothsome fauna and more elephants than you can shake a baobab at (around 150,000 roam around the Botswanan bush). Young men in Zambia on hearing my plan to ride through Botswana alone, uttered a phrase I would hear much too often over the next few weeks, an unsettling question for anyone, especially when it occurs to you that you don’t have a good answer.

“But what will you do about all the lions?”

But I had yet to enter Botswana and the bush is not to the only place you can find wildlife in Africa, the border towns are full of it. I warm to most people I meet at the borders as much as I welcome weeping saddle sores. There are all kinds of shady characters, tricksters, crooks, petty thieves, gangsters and opportunists. Their job is to make some money from the unwary, yours is to remain on the ball and not to get stung. The border crossing was a ferry ride across the river. A sign on board gave a list of things you needed to do once debarked, including directions to customs and immigration, it ended with ‘to complete these formalities a guide, ‘agent’ or third party is not required.’ The word ‘not’ had been scratched out, presumably by a moody middleman not wanting the placard to curtail his business. If you need to change money these guys know all the tricks. They give you phoney rates of exchange and usually work in a cartel so everyone has been briefed to tell you the same wacky rate. They use their own calculator and often ‘forget’ a zero, aiming to cheat you by a factor of ten. They hurry and hassle you into changing notes quickly hoping you’ll make a mistake. They sometimes even take your money, claim it’s not authentic, switch it for an actual fake and hand it back to you, pocketing your genuine dollar bills. Changing money at this border was made harder by the fact that the Zambian Kwatcha is the eighth least valuable currency in the world, there are around eight thousand to the pound, and in Zambian terms I was a millionaire. But I’m getting used to African borders and I have developed a strategy to get me through which involves choosing one guy and shouting ‘Everyone else please piss off. I’m dealing with this guy ONLY!’ The ‘please’ is optional. If they are particularly in my face I add ‘you bloodsucking XXXXXX’ (choose from one or more derogatory terms of abuse). It helps to be calm, assertive and always generous with your expletives.

Most people have an out-dated image of Africa where wild animals terrorise villages and jump out at unsuspecting travellers all the time. In fact most big game and any creature that could pose a risk to the livestock has long since been killed or rounded up and left to roam in the national parks, not so in Botswana, a country teaming with beasts. I soon came across a sign with the caution ‘beware of animals’. Couldn’t they be more specific? Did they mean the cutesy, diminutive, cud chewing kind or the sever your jugular and nibble on your spleen variety? I intermittently glanced fearful and expectant into the bush wondering what was about to leap out of the undergrowth, Bambi or Scar? Crouching lions morphed into ant hills as I nervously edged towards them. I jumped at a rustle in the bushes only for a hornbill to emerge and flutter away. A quick-fire nervy internal monologue began in an effort to reassure myself ‘A hornbill! Just a hornbill! That’s an animal! That must be what the sign meant! No lions here, just birds and OH JESUS WHAT’S THAT!’ Just ahead three elephants were stripping the green from a tree. I crossed to the other side and tried to slip by unnoticed but they startled, fortunately they ran away from me and the road. Presumably I had scared them off with my whimpering demeanour and expression of unsullied terror.

A Hornbill
After sixty kilometres I passed the only pedestrian I’d seen all day. I pulled over for a chat. He was a farmer with a rifle slung over his shoulder and this had been his home for many years.

‘I’m surprised you travel in this way’ he muttered, frowning, gesturing towards my bicycle and taking a long stride backward as if it was harbouring a contagious disease.
‘Why?’ was the obvious question.
‘The wild animals here are many. Many, many, many. I never leave home without a gun. Lions live here. I saw some last week’

Why was it only now that I could see the holes in my original plan? Rough camping, alone, in a sparsely populated part of the African bush, in lion country with no weapon aside from the two inch blade on my Leatherman was starting to look like a crap idea. Luckily after one hundred kilometres I came across a campsite. But I knew there were no other campsites or even small villages for the two hundred kilometres after this one so I decided to quiz the owner.

‘What wildlife do you have around here?’
‘Everything mate’
‘Lots. We hear them almost every night. I’ve seen some cyclists pass this way. So far I’ve not heard of any being attacked’

The inflection on the ‘so far’ made it clear she had decided that lion verses cyclist was imminent. Luckily she told me there were some workmen one hundred kilometres south who were helping build the roads. They had a bush camp and, I hoped, something more useful than a Leatherman if a pride of hungry lions came round for dinner. Maybe I should camp with them. As I walked back to my tent a sound rose out of the bush, ‘uuuuuh-huuumph’ repeated again and again, becoming softer and slowly fading into silence. An unmistakable sound. Lions were calling through the night. I’m camping with them.

Later that night, ensconced inside my tent and sleeping bag, I thought about what she’d said. I was excited about tomorrow. This was a real adventure. I hadn’t felt like this since the struggle through the remote badlands of northern Kenya. Now I was alone, experiences more intense, the world a more intimidating place to roam. This wild region was how I imagined Africa to be. It was the Africa of dense scrub and limitless grassy savannah. It was the Africa untouched by cultivation and human hand. It was the Africa of wild beasts. It was the lonely, exhilarating, terrifying side of the Dark Continent. I was frightened. I was enthralled.

I adopted a new strategy. If lions were around I would be off the road by evening, not nightfall as usual, but the next day I fought against an unyielding headwind. With thirty kilometres to go I passed through a game-proof electric fence surrounding a farm but ten kilometres later I was out the other side, there was a paucity of traffic now and I soon found myself riding through the shadowy bush, this was definitely lion hunting time. Finally I made it to the road camp, they were happy and surprised to have a visitor, I was happy and surprised to have made it. The next day was a free cycling safari. I saw a variety of big and small antelopes, vervet monkeys, warthogs, more elephants and hornbills, various birds of prey, buffalo, ostrich, black-backed jackals and not a sniff of a lion. On a vehicle safari the animals don’t often appear very wild especially when surrounded by twenty tourists, each intent on manoeuvring their expensive zoom lens into the lion’s mug. But this was much better, no tour guide, no glass windows, nobody else around at all. The scrub was so thick that often I didn’t see the wildlife until I was nearly face to face. That was the case with one of the elephants I came across, a huge solitary bull. This time he stood his ground and it was me who did the running away. I have seen some freaky creatures during the last year… scorpions in the Sahara, seven foot crocodiles in Ethiopian lakes, a Giant Crab Spider lurking in an Egyptian toilet, but the next one would beat them all hands down. In the grass by the road I caught a glimpse of something slithering. Something big. Something very big. I realise I may have watched one too many nature programmes with Steve Irwin type presenters bounding around after dangerous reptiles because when I spotted it I wasn’t content to watch from a distance, instead my instinct shouted ‘charge into the bush after it!‘. The snake was maybe two metres in length and had alternating black and gold bands. Later I ID’d it as a Snouted Cobra, a species which boasts neurotoxic venom and a potentially fatal bite. After this close encounter I saw a lot more snakes, some road kill, others very alive. I counted over ten Puff Adders, the snake responsible for more human deaths in Africa than any other. Twice I came close to what I assumed to be pieces of old car tyre only to find them suddenly move, transform and rise up into a striking pose, I did wide loops around them. For the next few weeks I also did wide loops around pieces of old car tyre. On the way into Nata I met a local guy on a bike, he had a huge dead vulture slumped across the back wheel. Blithely and with obvious pride he announced he had beaten it to death with a piece of wood. He was taking it home for dinner.

A Puff Adder
A large Snouted Cobra
A bush baby, caught by a guy in the campsite. It was delicious, especially when we added a couple of kittens and a puppy to the shish kebab.
A dead Honey Badger
 The same dots on my map which in Zambia represented large bustling market towns in Botswana now denoted two dilapidated houses and a petrol station. On my way to Maun a car pulled up, the window came down and an accented voice hailing from the North East of England came forth. ‘Hello pal. Come to Gweta Lodge when you pass through. I’ll buy you a beer’ and with that he was gone. The next day I checked in on the stranger, Terry is a character probably best left to be described in the book, not the blog. He did buy me that beer, in fact one turned into two which turned into four which turned into eight. By the eighth or nineth beer it had been decided, I was sleeping in a cabin in his lodge and eating with the staff. If they had a free seat in a vehicle the next day I could go out to the salt pans, unfortunately there wasn’t room so I moved on but with good memories to take on my journey south.

I reached the tourist haven of Maun but couldn’t afford to go out on the Okavango Delta, Botswana offered little I could afford. Most of its revenue comes from diamonds and tourists and in the case of tourism it opts for a policy of ‘low volume, high cost’. Luxury lodges on the salt pans cost 1400 US dollars a night or in simple speak ‘crazy money’. Botswana is not really a backpacker destination unless you happen to be wearing a bandanna, a sarong or crazy pantaloons and have a mummy and daddy that throw ludicrous amounts of money your way to help fund your gap year all because what they really want is you out of the house for a while. Couples and bands of overlanders set out on boats from various lodges for a ‘booze cruise’. If you were going to name a boat for the purpose of taking pissheads out at sunset, what would you call it? I want to hug the person who came up with this…

‘Cirrhosis of the River’

After leaving Maun I saw a number of Herero women, a group of people originally from Namibia. They were adorned in huge dresses derived from the style of Victorian era German missionaries. Enormous crinoline is worn over a series of petticoats as well as a horn shaped hat. But after these colourful characters faded away Botswana got boring. It might be a succinct description but it was 400km of straight roads, flat terrain, no wildlife, nobody to talk to and nothing to inspire interest. Generally it went something like this…

Bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat…ice cream parlour… cow…naked lady… goat… human-sized bottle of cold beer

Stop cycling, slap in the face, and resume… Bush… cow… bush… goat…

In fact the only thing to break the monotony was the odd dog chase. Since the menacing mutts of Eastern Europe I’ve had it easy, dogs in Africa are underfed, scrawny and timid, less intent on attacking strangers than on finding their next scrap of food. But Botswanan farms were home to territorial hounds and once again it’s game on.

On my last night in Botswana I saw a sign for a Crocodile Farm and decided to investigate. They warned me of hippos outside the perimeter and so offered to let me stay in their research facility. I was a bit more concerned about meeting a stray crocodile ‘Oh that’s just snappy, don’t mind him, he’s like one of the family. Snappy no! What have I told you about chewing on the guests’ To keep the hippos at bay the farm was surrounded by a tall electric fence. I’ve fallen asleep to a variety of sounds in the bush, some obscure and many terrifying, but none quite as comical as hippos intermittently being electrocuted.

The next day I had made it to the Namibian border and I was relieved, especially since not one of the immigration officials bore even the slightest resemblance to a bush, a cow or a goat. I filled in the usual forms and wrote ‘professional daydreamer’ under occupation. I don’t write doctor anymore. It feels a bit fraudulent, I probably won’t practice medicine for several years and besides you always risk an American tourist in the queue behind you reading the form and then suddenly recalling that curious blue spot on their ass and ‘would you mind having a quick look at it for me?’. A cyclist? No. That implies I’m some sort of athlete. An adventurer maybe? Too pretentious. What do I do most of the time besides cycling? I’m a professional daydreamer. My old maths teacher was right after all.

Strangely at this border there were no touts or middlemen to be found and I soon learnt why. My route into Namibia passed immediately through a national park and once again there was that disconcerting query, first from immigration officials and then from customs “But what will you do about all the lions?” Despite my half-hearted pleas to ride unaccompanied it was unanimously decided that it was too dangerous, they made a good case. The lions had to cross the road to get to the Okavango River on the other side. They were frequently sighted chilling on the road. On top of that there were no cars whatsoever. I waited and eventually a truck arrived. There was space in the back for my bike but the guy could see I wanted to ride. For twenty kilometres he trailed me as I cycled through the national park. Once again plenty elephant, no lion. I had made it through lion country unmauled and lets face it, it’s a good brag.

In Namibia I stopped at a campsite and I was chuffed to find three friends I’d made in Zambia ten days before. Distances are vast in Africa and I realised that I had almost ridden the equivalent of Land’s End to John ’O Groats since we’d last been together. I was looking forward to hanging out with them on my day off. I asked what they had planned. ..

‘We’re going to rent some bikes and go on a little ride. You want to come with?’
‘Errrrrm… no thanks. Knock yourselves out.’

I set up my stove to cook lunch, pulled out my lighter, sparked it and watched with horror as the whole stove and fuel bottle went up in flames. The bottle was full of petrol. I threw water over it but the blaze continued. Panicking and convinced that the outcome would involve a huge fireball and a surgeon removing metal shards from my face, I took a short run up and punted the entire burning mess into the crocodile infested waters of the Okavango River. No more stove. Luckily in Northern Namibia stoves weren’t really necessary, the surrounding countryside was full of deadwood. I stopped early to collect it and cooked my dinner African style over open fires, sometimes I needed some solitude and I’d camp in the bush, sometimes I needed company and I’d ask to camp in the villages. Maybe I’d stay with the locals more if it wasn’t for the guilt that inevitably follows. It’s a guilt that every Westerner feels when they spend time with anyone eking out a subsistence way of life. My tent looks out of place standing next to mud huts with thatched roofs. We sit around a fire, a fire they lit to keep me warm using wood they collected and chopped up in my honour. I prepare to cook. As I unload each ingredient from my pannier I’m uncomfortably aware that nobody in my company could afford any of them. So I cook more than I need and offer it round. But the adults won’t take it; surplus grub goes to the children. I eat pasta with a sauce of fresh vegetables and beef stock, they munch away at a maize-based porridge. The young men talk about their dreams and their hopes for the future, of leaving Namibia, of getting a job, of finding a life somewhere else, maybe Europe, maybe America. I think about how improbable their dreams sound. I say nothing. I feel guilty. I zip myself into a four season sleeping bag and wonder how they keep warm through the night. The next day I thank everyone. I’m grateful for permission to camp, for water, for the fire, but most of all for the guilt, it reminds me that I’m lucky to have a life of almost limitless options, choices and possibilities. I sometimes run into smug travellers who like to brag about how they can live on less than ten dollars a day. It’s not so impressive when you find out that over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day and over half the world’s population live on less than two dollars fifty. Ten dollars is lavish.
I soon passed the ‘red line’, a fence separating northern Namibia from the rest. It was originally erected in the sixties as an animal infection control mechanism. Farms south of the line are mainly white commercial farmers, north is mostly black communal farmers. There was a small shop and petrol station by the fence. Two chirpy shop assistants approached me and began a rapid and bewildering inquisition.

‘Where are you from?’
‘Do you come from Hollywood?’
‘No. That’s in America.’
‘Is there green grass in England?’
‘Yes. Lots’
‘What about maize?’
‘What about game parks?’
‘Erm, not many’
‘What about wild elephants?’
‘NO WILD ELEPHANTS!’ WHEYY! (They took a while to get over the shock).’ Why do you travel by bicycle?’
‘For an adventure’
‘Will the government in your country pay you money when you return?’
‘Do you write for a newspaper?’
‘No. I write on the internet’
‘Can you take our photo and put it on this internet?’

Ladies and Gentlemen, because Tracy gave me five dollars off my bill, I give you Tracy and Louise…

I rode through the north playing catch up with Nyomi who was few days ahead. In the hills to the west I could see a fire raging, my first impression was that it was a controlled burn started by a farmer but as it got closer I started to guess that if someone was once at the helm, they had long since abandoned ship. This was now a wildfire and it was raging out of control through the dry scrub, wheedled and cajoled onwards by the wind. I watched the wall of flames move quickly across the land consuming power lines. It was almost encroaching on the road, my road, up ahead. A railway line lay between the road and the blaze, I thought it might buffer the inferno but I watched the flames jump the tracks and ignite the scrub on the other side in seconds. Animals raced out of the bush across the road to escape, birds, lizards, crickets and even two kudu hurtled across my path. I pedalled hard envisioning a Namibian policeman having to identify my pile of cinders by the factory number on a smouldering Rohloff hub. I came across a lodge, men were busy hosing down the thatched roof. A bit optimistic. I thought. If the fire gets there, you’re toast. The flames reached the road just behind me but I was out of danger.

 It has to be said, I wasn’t coping well without Nyomi. I was cooking the same amount of food each evening and scoffing it all to myself. I had upped my Dairy Milk chocolate intake to three bars a day. I was showering less than I probably should. I was worried that very soon I would be found slumped by the roadside, clad only in a pair of grubby, torn Lycra shorts, slurring profanities at strangers, surrounded by pizza crusts, fruit and nut bars and empty bottles of cheap Namibian cider. I needed Nyomi back in my life. I finally found her with two couch-surfers, Anthony and Jules, British physiotherapists working in Namibia with VSO. They put us up and even let us borrow their car so we could explore Etosha National Park. Namibia seemed to have more than its fair share of enticing attractions… ancient dinosaur footprints, three hundred and fifty metre high sand dunes, the infamous skeleton coast and the world’s largest meteorite. I decided to give the last one a miss. Apparently it was just a rock and wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. No ethereal green glow, no extra-terrestrial runes carved onto its surface.
A Painted Agama Lizard
A large Skink
A recently deceased lizard, killed by a puff adder which did a runner
A bird of prey in Etosha. Not sure what it is… any ideas please leave in the comments section below. It could do a 360 head twist so maybe some sort of owl???
A Secretary Bird, Etosha
The day after we moved on Nyomi was up before me. She was sporting lycra shorts, cycling gloves, a helmet and a look that said ‘you best be ready for some hardcore cycling?’ We loaded up with over twenty litres of water for our plan was to off-road through the Erongo hills. The scenery was spectacular and there’s nothing in life more cathartic than the crunch of gravel underneath your tyres when you’re riding fast down a graded road. When I eventually make it back to the UK I might have to record that sound and play it at night just so I can get to sleep. Perhaps after I reach Cape Town and Nyomi’s gone home I should also have a recording of her shrill ululations on repeat…

‘Stop eating so many aubergines! Stop eating so many aubergines! Stop eating so many aubergines!’

I’ll drift into a blissful slumber.

We were aiming for Spitzkoppe, a mountain that rises out of the desert, a mountain that is surrounded by tired clichés by tired Lonely Planet travel writers ‘The Matterhorn of Africa’, ‘the Ayres Rock of Africa’. We watched the peak gradually rise up out of the jade desert scrub, hour by hour it became more imposing, more of it filled my field of vision every time I glanced up from the sandy track. We lost the race, the sun made it to the horizon before we hit the mountain. The next morning, as we approached from the east, the sun behind us dyed the western sky a pale blue and Spitzkoppe a rosy hue. By lunch the image and the colours were sharper, sanguine swords of granite reached up to pierce the sapphire sky. After we’d strolled around the mountain it was a straight run to Swakopmund, a town on the Atlantic coast where we planned to have a deserved break. We were steaming in. It was the perfect storm – a strong tailwind, a descent of about a thousand vertical metres, old skool jungle on my IPOD and by ten o’clock AM I had consumed over eight times the Recommended Daily Allowance of glucose in the form of Cadbury’s Daily Milk chocolate. We covered one hundred and ten kilometres in three and a half hours.

So next we ride south through the Namib desert, past Fish River Canyon (The ‘Grand Canyon of Africa’, thank you Lonely Planet) and finally into South Africa. If you liked this post hit the new google +1 button below.

The City of Seven Hills and Le Pays de Mille Collines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally something of the ridiculous… Only in Uganda…