Posts

Long roads, lodges, lions and a long ladder with baboon poo

We just had time to publish our last blog post before we left Livingstone, so I thought I’d do a quick recap on our time there.

We had a rendezvous with my brother Francis, my niece Sarah and my nephew Ben. They’d just about recovered from the Zambezi hippo attack.

In Livingstone, we stayed at the Fawlty Towers backpackers. But there was nothing faulty about the establishment. Once through the small front gates, the area opened up to reveal a large manicured garden, pool and bar area and, they even offered free pancakes in the afternoon!

Francis sponsored both Sarah and me to do a bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge. It’s a 113 meter drop so it was a terrifying way to fundraise another 2 bikes for our World Bicycle Relief campaign (nudge nudge hint hint Francis). Sarah didn’t hesitate at all before hurling herself off which was especially impressive as she only decided to jump about an hour earlier.

James's niece, Sarah, throws herself off the Victoria Falls Bridge to raise enough for another 2 bikes for World Bicycle Relief

James’s niece, Sarah, throws herself off the Victoria Falls Bridge to raise enough for another 2 bikes for World Bicycle Relief

After saying early-morning goodbyes to my family, we rode to the Zambia/Botswana border at Kazungula. There, we bought fuel for our stove from a guy selling it illegally from his hideout in the bushes, got our Zambia exit stamps in our passports and wheeled our biked onto the one of the small flat-level ferries that crisscross the Chobe river between Zambia and Botswana. We’d heard that overladen trucks had caused a few ferries to sink in the past resulting in many deaths. Even though there are now mandatory weighbridge checks for trucks, our ferry’s engine was at full revs at it struggled against the current to get us across.

James checks out the view from the Zambia/Botswana ferry across the Chobe River

James checks out the view from the Zambia/Botswana ferry across the Chobe River

The ferry at the border crossing is a huge bottleneck for the truckers heading north from Botswana. The queue of trucks can stretch for many kilometers and we learned that it takes about 8 days from joining the back of the queue to crossing the border into Zambia. The long-awaited construction of a bridge has recently started.

Once stamped into Botswana, our 23rd country, we headed to the magnificent Bakwena Lodge in Kazungula, where we were incredibly grateful to have been invited to stay for the evening.

Owners Adam and Jen told us they’d bought the land in the early 2000s, but they’d had to endure 12 years of bureaucracy before the land was ‘re-zoned’ from agriculture to leisure/tourism so they could build the lodge. The wait was worth it.

They’ve created a tranquil eco-luxury retreat on the banks of the Chobe River. 10 chalets, each with their own private deck and river view offer simple luxury and a very special personal touch that made us feel incredibly special.

We had the most amazing welcome, meals and what’s more, we got to experience a majestic intimate sunset cruise on the Chobe River. This gave us the opportunity to see loads of animals (Kudu, crocodiles, monitor lizards and hippos) at close quarters but the highlight was witnessing two elephants cavorting in the water – from only a few meters away. It was stunning.

Adam and his son see us off after we spent an amazing evening at Bakwena Lodge

Adam and his son see us off after we spent an amazing evening at Bakwena Lodge

As we got back on our bikes the next morning and the staff sang us a farewell song, we were finding it very difficult to leave. And, if we’d known what was going to happen to us next, we may well have never left at all!

The stretch of road from Kazungula to Nata is 300km long with only two places to pick up water and food. After 100km, there’s a tiny town of Pandamatenga but then there’s nothing for 150km until you reach the Elephant Sands campsite. Then it’s just 50km to the larger town of Nata.

The road slices straight through the Botswana bush which is home to tens of thousands of elephants and huge numbers of buffalo, hyena, leopard and lions. We can’t cycle 150km in a day without leaving at dawn and arriving at sunset – which is highly unadvisable because these are the times at that lions are most active.

We had to plan this section carefully.

Emily and I had been discussing what we should do on this section of road for many weeks. My preferred option was to wild camp out in the bush. If we lit a fire the animals would stay away and African predators, even lions, don’t just pluck people out of their tents at night. Lions aren’t polar bears.

Emily, on the other hand, has a more cautious attitude towards the African wildlife and was dead set against wild camping alone where lions roam free. Her preferred option was to accept an invite from a farmer, Paul, we’d been put in touch with who lived 20km off the road from Pandamatenga. He’d even offered to pick us up from the road. The only trouble with this was that we’d needed to cycle 150km on day 2, which we thought would be too risky on this road to ensure we were off the road at dawn and dusk.

We needed to find a compromise.

That compromise came when we met a northbound cyclist, Jacob, in Zambia. He told us that he’d spent a wonderful night sleeping on top of a lookout tower, which was 30km south of Pandamatenga. He even saw elephants wander underneath his perch at sunset and advised us that it was a very special place to camp.

It seemed like the perfect compromise; we’d be able to do the mileage on day 1 which wouldn’t leave us overstretched on day 2 and we’d get to experience sleeping in the bush – hearing the sounds of the animals at night – whilst being out of reach of any of them.

The only trouble was that Emily’s terrified of heights.

But, after some gentle persuasion, she was wiling to give it a go.

We left Kazungula and cycled past the long queue of trucks. Many of the drivers shouted “be careful of the lions!” to us as we cycled past. Signs at the side of the road warned that we were now in a wildlife area and exempted the authorities if anything were to happen to us.

Cycling Botswana Chobe-4823

Taking a break with the sign warning of animals behind

Taking a break with the sign warning of animals behind

At Bakwena Lodge, Adam gave us parting words that African animals are much like icebergs. It’s not the ones that you can see that are the problem, it’s the ones you can’t. So with that warning ringing in our ears, we cycled along the long, straight flat road towards our first night’s stop, and scanned the bush constantly for any sign of wildlife.

For a road known as ‘the Elephant Highway’, we were disappointed to see only the one elephant on the first day. When it saw us it turned on its heels and ran into the bush. Rather that than at us.

A headwind made progress tough going and, due to a later start that expected, we were battling against time. We both had to put in a lot of effort to battle a headwind. When we finally reached Pandamatenga, I went into the shop to feed our daily Coke habit and came out to find Emily slumped against the wall, absolutely zonked.

After a sugar fix, we were back on the road. It was now 4pm and we had 28 kilometers to do and to ascend the tower before we could be assured of safety.

We received a text from farmer Paul. “Be careful,” It read “Botswana’s largest pride of lions lives 20km south of Pandamatenga”.

This made us put in even more effort on the bike. Emily, who’d been struggling with the heat and headwind all afternoon, found some energy out of nowhere and we made good speed towards our destination.

8km short of the tower, we rode over a cattle grid that marked the transition from ‘safer’ (although not entirely safe) farming land to the open bush again. Soon afterwards, we were stopped by an Afrikaans lady who asked us where we were going because it was getting late and wild animals were around. We explained we were going to sleep up the lookout tower. “You know that baboons live there? “ she said, “You’ll have to fight the baboons for the tower. They’ll probably move away but they’ll bark at you throughout the night!”

This made Emily question our idea even more but I reassured her and the lady that we’d be fine. The lady drove off and Emily told me I was being “belligerent”.

We arrived at the tower just as the sun was touching the tops of the trees. In this part of the world, the sun drops behind the horizon like a lead balloon so we didn’t have much time to make it to the top of the tower.

But climbing the tower was a lot easier said than done.

The platform was high and was reached by a very small, rickety vertical ladder. It was also covered in baboon poo.

Being a gentleman, I invited Emily to go first.

She made it a few rungs up before asking if there was another option. Nearby, there was a compound of disused buildings so we went over and tried to find a way through the padlocked gate. We couldn’t, so there was no other option but to give the tower another go.

This time, Emily made it half way up before being overcome by her fear of heights. I thought about ‘motivating’ her to keep climbing by telling her that lions were coming but didn’t think it would go down too well. She clung on bravely, baboon poo oozing between her fingertips, before deciding that she couldn’t continue.

To be fair, even if we’d made it to the top, it would have been a cold an uncomfortable night and I’d have had to have done 12 shuttle runs up the tower to get our kit up there (for fear of our precious panniers being ripped open by prying animals).

In the meantime, the efforts of the afternoon’s sprint had caught up with me and I started to feel feint and started retching. We needed to get out of there.

We headed back to the road to thumb a lift back to the ‘safer’ side of the cattle grid. The second vehicle stopped and offered us a lift but, just then, the Afrikaans lady who’d stopped us earlier returned with her husband and son and invited us to stay at their house – in fact they had come along to check on us and bring us some coffee before seeing our new predicament. I accepted her offer before she could finish her sentence.

En route, their son told us they had a “very stupid” dog because it kept on sitting on puff adders. Referring our hosts’ dog in Kampala that had chewed my Vaude sleeping mat, I told him that I also knew a very stupid dog. “It’s so stupid it walks backwards and wags its head”. Everyone laughed. When the laughter died down, the boy, in his strong Afrikaans accent said “I don’t know what you just said but I laughed anyway because everyone else did!” which made us all laugh even more.

We are incredibly grateful to Herman and Anname for coming to rescue us that night and giving us a lovely shower, meal and somewhere to sleep that wasn’t covered in baboon poo. They were also kind enough to drop us back at the tower the next morning so we didn’t have to do the additional 30km.

Cycling Botswana-4827

The Lookout tower where we’d planned but failed to camp

Cycling Botswana-4833

Annoyingly, we have lost the piece of paper with Herman and Anname’s address so, if you’re reading this, please do contact us as we’d love to send you a personal thank you.

The next day we battled the headwind on the long road south. Sightings of warthog and giraffe livened up the journey but, in truth, we were still on edge as we scanned the roadside bush for big cats.

Cycling Botswana-4848

Sightings of giraffes livened up the journey

We made it to Elephant Sands, a delightful camp set around a waterhole. As its name suggests, elephants frequent it but due to recent rains, there’s plenty of water around in the bush so the elephants don’t need to come to this specific waterhole. Although we didn’t spot any elephants at the camp, we had a peaceful night’s sleep and breakfasted whilst cheeky hornbills perched on our bikes.

A cheeky hornbill perched on our bikes as we breakfasted at Elephant Sands

A cheeky hornbill perched on our bikes as we breakfasted at Elephant Sands

The next day we made it to Nata, picked up some provisions and headed to Nata Lodge where we camped for two nights. We met Stuart and Sheelaugh, who were Zimbabweans now living in Australia and were on holiday in Botswana. When they lived in Zim, they were good friends with Chris and Hillary, who we stayed with in Zambia. Small world.

Nata Lodge sits on the edge of the Makgadikgadi and Nxai salt pans. It’s the largest network of salt pans in the world – the same size as Switzerland – and, having seen the (former) Top Gear team drive across them a few years ago, I’d always wanted to visit. We booked onto an evening tour to see them. We were more than a little disappointed when the guide pulled up at a huge lake and explained that, because of the rains, the pans were flooded. A warning would have been nice.

The sun sets over the Makgadikgadi Pan - which was flooded on our visit

The sun sets over the Makgadikgadi Pan – which was flooded on our visit

The adventurers at the Makgadikgadi Pan

The adventurers at the Makgadikgadi Pan

We left Nata on my birthday and started early so we could get our 100km done in good time to enjoy our stay at Planet Baobab. It’s an impressive lodge let around huge baobab trees and I allowed myself a birthday beer whilst sat by the pool.

The next morning, we were taking a short break under the shade of a thorn tree at the side of the road when a 4X4 with a familiar logo passed. It was the Tour d’Afrique – the organised and supported Cairo to Cape Town cycle ride. They stopped to say hi and invited us to pop in for a cup of tea as we passed their camp 30km up the road.

We did and chatted to front-runners Rupert and Katja. That cup of tea turned into two or three and, before we knew it, we decided to make up our miles the next day and camp the evening with them.

We’d been following the Tour d’Afrique’s progress and were wondering when they were going to pass us. It was great to spend time with other cyclists doing a similar journey but on a very different purpose, schedule and budget to ours.

Having three meals a day and a mechanic at your disposal sounded like heaven to us but, on reflection, we wondered if they’d missed out on many of the experiences that have made our adventure so special – such as market traders in Sudan refusing payment for our vegetables or being invited to stay in locals’ houses as we have. Perhaps the Tour d’Afrique gives the safety ‘cocoon’ that some people who want to cycle in this continent desire? If so, it’s not a bad cocoon to be in and we had a lot of fun with the team that night and were very thankful for the delicious meal they cooked us.

The Tour d'Afrqiue bandwagon rolls into 'town'

The Tour d’Afrqiue bandwagon rolls into ‘town’

We headed west to Maun, where we had a wonderful couple of nights with Hattie and Chris and their 3 beautiful daughters Isla, Ottalie and Amelia. Hattie is alumni of Emily’s old School and is now a renowned scientific researcher on herbivores. We tried on some of the animal tracking collars that emit signals several times a minute and joked that our parents would be over the moon if we’d worn these on our trip instead of the 30-minute update we have on our London to Cape Town Live GPS Tracker. I had fun throwing tennis balls for the dog but the poor thing had to rely more on smell than on its deteriorating sight due to too many run ins with spitting cobras.

We tried on some of the animal tracking collars that emit signals several times a minute and joked that our parents would be over the moon if we’d worn these on our trip instead of the 30-minute update we have on our London to Cape Town Live GPS Tracker

We tried on some of the animal tracking collars that emit signals several times a minute and joked that our parents would be over the moon if we’d worn these on our trip instead of the 30-minute update we have on our London to Cape Town Live GPS Tracker

Maun lies on the edge of the Okavango Delta. We’d have loved to have paid a visit but you need bags of cash to do so. Botswana has a ‘high value/low volume’ approach to tourism and the inland delta is home to some of the most luxurious, exclusive and expensive lodges in the world. We’ll save that for another day.

Instead, we continued west and put in two gruelling 150+ kilometer days and wild camped in the (now safe) bush. Towards the end of the 4th day we crossed into our 24th and penultimate country, Namibia. A few kilometers after crossing the border we camped at the Zelda guest farm where we saw more animals, albeit in captivity, including warthogs, emus and a pair of young leopards.

At Zelda’s we met a group of Kiwis travelling in a tour group. One of them asked whether we found it “boring” cycling on such long flat roads.   We told her it wasn’t as there are plenty of things to think about.

Yes, the roads are long. Cycling towards a never-ending horizon with little in the way of visual stimuli is mentally challenging. But I spend that time thinking about the family and friends who’ve been in touch with their support but also about those who haven’t. I also think about the foods I miss, the things I want to achieve when I return home and, to be honest, anything else that’ll keep my mind from the pain in my ‘backside’ when I’m spending 10 or more hours a day in the saddle. Above all, I try to think about anything to get annoying songs, earworms, out of my head. So, boring? No, there’s plenty going on!

The first sign for South Africa!

The first sign for South Africa!

A 'cartoon-style- rain cloud

A ‘cartoon-style’ rain cloud

In Gobabis, the ‘meat capital of Namibia’, we were grateful to Warm Showers host Tinus, for giving us the keys to his house even though he’d travelled to a wedding in South Africa. And, halfway between Gobabis and Windhoek we were again grateful to the proprietor of a biltong shop for allowing us to camp in the grounds.

Camping at the biltong shop halfway between Gobabis and Windhoek

Camping at the biltong shop halfway between Gobabis and Windhoek

We made the final 100km to Windhoek (which, got quite hairy in the last hilly 40km past the international airport due to traffic) where we’re staying for a couple of days well-needed R&R at the Cardboard Box backpackers campsite before heading 400km west to Swakopmund for an eagerly anticipated reunion of family on Emily’s mother’s side.

Cycling through Botswana and into Namibia has been much tougher than I expected. Although it’s been mostly flat, we’ve put in some very long days in the saddle, which has caused us both lots of pain. Together with the headwinds and heat, we’ve both struggled and we’ve both agreed to not cycle over 130 in one day unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s just not worth the strain that it’s putting on our bodies.

That said, we’ve given ourselves quite a punchy target for our last section from Swakopmund to Cape Town – 1,800 kilometers across the mighty Namib Desert in just 18 days – so we might just have to break our promise!

Walking back to recovery in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

We reached the Sudanese border town of Gallabat at 11am and found shade in the café nearest the border post. The incredibly friendly café owner refused to accept payment for the Cokes we’d plucked from the fridge and he even gave us a couple of bottles of water. We obviously looked in a bad way.

We then went through the border crossing formalities. First we visited the security department where the chap wrote our passport information down. We were then escorted to Sudanese customs where another chap wrote our passport information down in a dusty book. Then, we wheeled our bikes round the corner to another building which housed the Immigration Department. Once we’d filled out a form, handed over photocopies of our passports we received the stamp in our passports allowing us to leave Sudan.

We didn’t do so immediately.

We headed back to the café where we’d intended to spend our last Sudanese pounds. I raided the fridge for bottles of water and drinks for our onward journey but, once again, the café owner refused payment saying we were visitors in his country and he wanted us to leave with a good impression. We were just meters from the border with Ethiopia and it was, yet again, an outstanding last-minute example of the hospitality that we’d experienced throughout Sudan. Although, ironically, when he offered to change money he gave us a horrendous rate.

Once we’d been stamped into Ethiopia the next stop was customs. We were directed to what looked like a bus shelter where a couple of bored looking chaps asked us to empty the contents of our panniers.

The customs post was in a public area and people were milling round. I wanted to ensure the chap was a bone fide customs employee before he started rifling through our things but he couldn’t produce any ID. Instead, he stood up and put on a high vis jacket, insisting that this was sufficient proof that he worked for customs. In return, I reached into my pannier, took out my high vis vest and declared to him that I now worked for customs too. It raised a laugh…and a short delay as he went to find someone more senior to prove that this roadside shack was official customs.

The world changed once we’d crossed the border into the Ethiopian town of Metema.

The dusty high street leading up the hill from the border is lined with seedy bars and shifty looking folk – all looking to make a buck from whomever they could. We cycled slowly up the hill, witnessing a bar brawl on the way and debated whether the hostesses’ main employment was from bar work or employment of a more ‘behind-the-scenes’ nature.  We read online that Metema was the centre of the people-smugglng trade.

We’d made the decision to take the bus to Gonder because Emily was unwell. We found the bus station and negotiated room on a bus for 100Birr (£3GBP) per person plus another 50Birr for each of the bikes.

Our trusty steeds were hauled on top of the Toyota HiAce minibus and strapped down with string. After a 2-hour wait for the bus to fill up, we departed Metema and clung on whilst we whizzed through the dramatic countryside towards Gonder – every clonk from the roof making us wince as we envisaged gears, disk brakes and frames being bashed with every pot hole.


If Metema was a shifty introduction to Ethiopia, then Gonder was the complete opposite.

After months cycling in the Muslim world it took a bit of time to get used to the things that we’d once considered ‘normal’. Smiling couples walked hand in hand. People enjoyed cool beers at roadside bars. Restaurants offered full menus with ‘farangi’ food: chips, pizza and spaghetti. The bread was raised…and delicious and the fresh mango juice was everything we had dreamt of whilst cycling in the desert.

The Muslim call to prayer was replaced by full Orthodox Christian services being blasted from the speakers of the nearby church. The Sunday morning service started at 2am and was still going strong at 8am.

Even the time in Ethiopia is different.

We’d read about ‘Ethiopian time’ before we arrived but thought it was something similar to Welsh: talked about but nobody knows anyone who actually speaks it. In fact, Ethiopian time is incredibly logical. The day starts at dawn. An hour after sunrise is 1 O’clock. 2 hours after sunrise is 2 O’Clock and so on until sunset, which is 12 O’clock. We had to make sure that any time given to us was ‘farangi time’ (meaning foreigners’ time).

We took a couple of days in Gonder to let bodies recover. And, with the cooler temperatures, great food on offer and large, comfy beds we were both fit enough for the next challenge: a 4-day trek in the Simien mountains.

We’d considered arranging our trip to the Simiens independently. It’s possible to do so but takes a few days to organize all the requirements: Transport, entrance fees, scout etc. Instead, we opted to let a professional take this pressure off us. And we’re glad we did.

Early in the morning (just as the Orthodox Christian service was finishing!) a minibus rocked up which contained our guide, Desu, a driver, a cook and an assistant cook. We picked up our scout in Debark, an hour’s drive away and then headed up the off road track to the mountains.

It’s a requirement to have a scout accompany any visitors to the park. The scout’s job is to carry a gun and shuffle behind the group for ‘protection’. There’s nothing, actually, to protect against (either people or animals) so it’s widely acknowledged that the park’s insistence on an accompanying scout is for job creation. It transpired our scout was actually a local farmer and scouted to top up his meagre wages – something we were happy to facilitate.

Our scout kept watch over us for four days

Our scout kept watch over us for four days

We laced up our Zamberlan trail shoes and, over the next 4 days we were treated to views like we’d never seen before. The paths clung perilously close to the cliff tops. And afforded us stunning views across the Ethiopian Highlands. But one small slip could have had us plunge thousands of feet off the sheer cliff face.

Trekking the Simien mountains: The World's best ridge walk?

Trekking the Simien mountains: The World’s best ridge walk?

 

The path clung to the cliff face

The path clung to the cliff face

 

Don't slip there!

Don’t slip there!

Simien Mountains Trekking-37

Simien Mountains Trekking-36

We were lucky to see some amazing wildlife too.

Friendly Gelada monkeys grazed (yes, they eat grass!) on the grassy hillsides. We learnt that, because Gelada monkeys are forever in the seating position as they graze, the females display their fertility through their pink chest plate – unlike other types of monkeys whose bums turn red.

 

Gelada monkeys grazed on the hillsides

Gelada monkeys grazed on the hillsides

 

Gelada monkeys have 'rubber lips' which they retreat to reveal their teeth when they're getting tetchy

Gelada monkeys have ‘rubber lips’ which they retreat to reveal their teeth when they’re getting tetchy

Gelada monkeys roam the hillsides

Gelada monkeys roam the hillsides

An incredibly rare sighting of an Ethiopian fox hunting for mice

An incredibly rare sighting of an Ethiopian fox hunting for mice

An ibex stands proud against the Simien mountains in Ethiopia

An ibex stands proud against the Simien mountains in Ethiopia

Additionally, we saw several ‘bone-breaker’ vultures. The diet of these huge birds consists of the bones of dead animals. If the bones they find are too big to swallow, they’ll pick them up and drop them from a huge height into the ravine below where they’ll weaken on impact with the rocks far below. They’ll repeat the process until the bones are of an edible size.

After months of pitching our own tent, it was pure luxury for us to arrive at camp after our days’ treks to find the tent pitched and flasks of tea and coffee ready for us. We shared popcorn with the ravens and watched the sunset from our high altitude camps – on the evenings it wasn’t tipping it down. In fact, we experienced our first rain since Romania over 3 months ago!

Although we missed the quality and spaciousness of our Vaude tent, we were happy to have a tent pitched for us each night

Although we missed the quality and spaciousness of our Vaude tent, we were happy to have a tent pitched for us each night

Our chef and assistant chef worked wonders too. They produced tasty, hearty meals from fresh ingredients. Our chicken meal could not have been fresher. In fact, I volunteered to help the assistant chef ‘prepare’ the live chicken for dinner. I held the feet whilst he used the knife.

 

Getting ready for a feast by the roaring fire

Getting ready for a feast by the roaring fire

The temperatures in the Simien Mountains were in complete contrast to the 50-degree heat of the Sudanese deserts from where we’d come. We huddled round the fire to keep warm whilst eating and nighttime temperatures went down to freezing.

Although we were between 3,500 and 4,000 meters, the hiking itself wasn’t too strenuous and, with the aid of great food cooked up by our chef, we were able to get our bodies back to normal, ready for the cycling ahead.

The Simien mountain views were stunning

The Simien mountain views were stunning

On our last morning in the mountains we discovered blood spots on our sleeping bag liners and bites on our bodies. Back in Gonder we inspected our sleeping bags to find we’d picked up bed bugs from the bedding that had been provided on the trek. Not content with letting them fester, we’ve delayed our departure from Gonder to get the critters dealt with.

All being well, we’ll be back on the bikes tomorrow (Friday) as we take on the 800km cycle for Addis Ababa. A ride that’ll certainly introduce us to rural Ethiopian life. We just hope we won’t get stoned too much by the small children we’ll encounter: a real hazard of cycling in these parts.  Please follow our progress on our live GPS tracker.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our email alerts so you’ll be the first to know when we’ve published a new blog post. We’ll never share your details. Ever.

Cycling from Khartoum, Sudan, to Gondar, Ethiopia

A lot has happened in the past week. Not all of it good. Our stay in Khartoum was extended after I endured two separate stomach bugs but, once rested and all systems were back up and working properly, we set off on our 5-day ride to the border with Ethiopia. The plan was to cross at the Gallbat/Metema border before heading into cooler climes and mountain air, something we were both excited but apprehensive about.

The ride out of Khartoum was quieter than we expected and, although we were cycling on a main road, we had plenty of space. Actually in Sudan the lorry drivers are incredibly patient and will wait their turn to pass you if there is oncoming traffic and most will wave and beep their horns at you. The buses however were another story – coaches whizzing across the country at an extraordinary pace pass you with far less patience and on many occasions forced us off the road.

On our first evening after leaving Khartoum, we’d stopped in a small town to pick up some vegetables and a cold drink – we have often found it hard to pay anything for vegetables in Sudan as the market vendors continue to tell us that we are their guests and refuse payment! Cycling out of town to find a spot to camp we were stopped by a man on the road, “Welcome! Welcome! Where are you going?” which is perfectly normal in Sudan however he then added, “But where will you sleep?” – so we stopped to chat and before we knew it our new friend, Ihad, had invited us to spend the evening with his family in their compound.

Both exhausted, we kindly accepted his invitation, as we were keen to learn more about daily family life in Sudan – and we were not disappointed. Ihad lives with the majority of his extended family (25 or so) in a compound just by the Blue Nile and we spent a fantastic evening meeting his children and his two sisters’ children and shared a meal with his immediate family.

Feasting with Ihad and family

Feasting with Ihad and family

Ihad lived with several of his nephews and neices

Ihad lived with several of his nephews and neices

By now, it was nearing 9.30pm and way past our usual bedtime so we were starting to make our excuses to get to bed when I was ushered away by his wife and sister to go and see where we were sleeping. They, however, had hatched another plan and I was whisked away into a room where they wanted to give me a “Sudanese bath”. Now, I know I was probably pretty stinky but I was not expecting what happened next. First, I was given a nightie to wear and told to hover over a scented fire and then before I knew it, they were lathering my body in a sort of body scrub which was rubbed into my arms and legs until most of my skin had fallen off. I have to be honest; I found the whole thing a little traumatising as I sat there trying to be polite, but at the same time slightly overwhelmed by my impromptu scrub! I just about managed to convince them that they shouldn’t put a bottle of olive oil in my hair, as it would run into my eyes the next day. I was then given a traditional Sudanese outfit to go and greet James before bed!

A "scrubbed up" Sudanese Emily

A “scrubbed up” Sudanese Emily

The next morning we were invited to a breakfast celebration as Ihad’s niece’s 2-year old son was getting circumcised. So, after tea and biscuits, we made our way across the town to the party.

Ihad had been to the market early to buy a lamb to feast on. Thankfully, by the time we arrived, the lamb had already been slaughtered and the circumcision had been performed – both tasks James had been willing to perform with our Swiss Army Knife.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-16

Ihad, his mother and son. Ihad’s mother was preparing the sheep’s stomach for the celebratory breakfast.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-17

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-14

Sadly we couldn’t stay for too long as we needed to get on the road but the Sudanese hospitality was amazing and we felt very lucky to have been invited.   Although we couldn’t help notice the forlorn look on the face of the poor lad who’d had the circumcision as he lay on a bed recuperating quietly whilst his extended family celebrated around him.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-13

The man of the moment forces a smile

Back on the road, we made our way to the border where we were due to arrive on Monday afternoon – 3 days ride away and around 340km. The landscape was beginning to change. It’s harvest time in Sudan and the farmers were busy in the fields and as we passed through smaller villages we started to notice a change in the people too with lots more shouting from the sidelines! The conditions were tough – a fierce cross wind had rejoined us and the temperatures were soaring once more; our Garmin actually hit 58 Celsius at one point but nothing we were not used too.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-26

The Garmin registered 57.9 degrees Celsius when we left it in the sun.

But then something changed. At the end of the next day I started to feel ‘not quite right’. We put it down to dehydration and stopped a little early for the day to rest up and drink lots of delicious warm filtered water! For the next two days, things didn’t improve; I was managing around 30 minutes of cycling at a time before having to stop to sit down off my bike, it was like someone had turned off the generator, there was nothing left. We took the decision to have much shorter days, stopping for water and Cokes whenever we could and it was a matter of taking things one step at a time.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-28

Grabbing any opportunity for shade

Just to add to the fun, I left my wallet behind in a small town where we had stopped for a few hours so that I could rest which left us in quite a tricky situation. We returned 20 minutes later but it had gone. We were still a couple of days from the border and faced with the prospect of no money for food and most importantly, in the state I was in, for sugary drinks. An exceptionally kind man came to ask us what he could do to help us although short of getting the wallet back, there was not much that he could do.

Panic set in – not because of the contents of the wallet as we have always been careful to only keep one credit card in there and limited cash – but due to the lack to cash and the seemingly never ending road to the border ahead.

What followed was unexpected and quite amazing – the kind man turned to the dozens of people crowding round us and organised a whip-round asking people to spare some money for us. He apologised on behalf of his people and handed us around 70 Sudanese Pounds (around £7) – which was more than enough to buy enough bread, vegetables and eggs to keep us going! We have been touched by the extraordinary generosity of the people here and will be forever grateful for his help.

Another day had passed and progress continued to be slow. After another extremely hard day, we camped around 25km from the border to Ethiopia, which we made the next day by around 11am after an early start.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-21

We had some unexpected guests as we packed the tent in the morning…

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-24

…although some guests stared more than others.

An incredibly hard decision needed to be made. We could continue to cycle, knowing full well that the mountains were right in front of us, knowing that we were not going to pass through any decent towns until the city of Gondar, 180km across the border, or we could take a bus.

We both agreed before we left home that we were not going to take a bus unless it was an emergency, our bikes were broken, the road was completely impassable, security risks or for health reasons. And I’ve never been one to quit – no matter tough it is – we set out to cycle to Cape Town and raise money and awareness for an incredible cause and did not want to have to stop. However, I just did not have anything left in my body whatsoever. Every time I tried to cycle I thought I was going to fall off my bike and I have lost count of the tears I have shed in the process and so, regretfully, once we were over the border into Ethiopia, we took a bus to Gondar where we are now resting up in a little hotel (L-shaped hotel) which has warm water and a bed. I’ve no doubt all will be right as rain within a couple of days once I have rehydrated and I’ve managed to eat some more and we can continue our adventure in the Ethiopian Highlands.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-32

One thing is for sure; I could not have got through the past few days without James and his tireless support, words of encouragement, patience and love. I feel bloody awful that I have forced us onto a bus, but I know that it was for the best and now it is all about a focus on recovery and regrouping.

Getting a bus: James’s perspective.

When we set off for London on 12th July, the aim was to cycle all the way from London to Cape Town as ‘purely’ as possible. By pure, I mean that we would only be forced off our bikes if absolutely necessary.

Yesterday we got a bus. And I want to explain why we did so.

Sudan has been relentless. Sure it’s been flat. But the lack of gradient only goes some way to make up for how tough it’s been.

Imagine cycling the equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats through barren desert with only 4 towns of any significance en route, no shade, very limited water resources and battling against ferocious winds that whipped up sand that stung the skin. We arrived in Khartoum shadows of our former fighting-fit selves.

Add stomach bugs to the mix. I was able to get over mine by the time we reached Khartoum but, throughout the stay in Khartoum, Emily was unable to rest and rehydrate as she would have liked.

We extended our time in Khartoum but the following days were the toughest we’d experienced. Emily wasn’t in a great place so progress was slow and we dramatically reduced our daily distances. Where before we were cycling 120km per day we were now barely managing 60km. Emily had to stop every 2km or so and cower under thorn bushes for shade and retched at the roadside.

Fiding what little shade Sudan has to offer

Finding what little shade Sudan has to offer

Sadly a familiar sight: Emily slumped over her handlebars

Sadly a familiar sight: Emily slumped over her handlebars

Emily is not a quitter. A GB (age group) triathlete and Ironman competitor, her fitness is not an issue. She’s also been whacked by a few lacrosse balls in her time so knows what real pain is.

One of our stated objectives before we set out was to ensure the expedition was safe. The remote Sudanese plain is not the place to get ill. It was 500km back to Khartoum or 200km ahead to Gondar. Staying put was not an option. Firstly, we were far from medical help. Secondly, even resting in a stifling tent, which in itself can be hotter than outside, was not an option.

Taking the decision to get a bus was painful. But not as painful as seeing Emily suffer and deteriorate visibly without showing any signs of recovering.

Taking the bus meant we missed a 197.5 km section of sealed road which had an ascent of 3,452 meters and descent of 1,947 meters. We’ll be sure to make this up when we get back on the road, hopefully in a few days’ time.

Serbia border crossing

Serbia border crossing

Serbia border crossing

Crossing the border from Croatia into our 8th country, Serbia.


If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.