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Struggling through western Tanzania

After a couple of wonderful days with Mike, Jenna and their kids in Kigali it was time to hit the road again. We’d had such a great time with them all that it was hard to leave. Mike and Jenna met while cycling across Canada and never looked back! A few years later they married and spent their honeymoon cycling from North to South America – we had lots of great stories to swap and thoroughly enjoyed meeting them.

We spent the first night after Kigali at the Discover Rwanda Eco-Lodge near Kayonza. It’s located within the Women’s Opportunity Centre where women can come to together and engage in different community and economic empowerment activities.

We were impressed by the eco lodge’s solar power and water heating systems, rainwater harvesting and composting toilets. They even had a wood-fired pizza oven. Although it was slightly weird knowing that the toppings on our pizzas had been grown in the kitchen garden using the very compost that previous guests had contributed to.

Discover Rwanda Kayonza Eco Lodge

The Discover Rwanda Kayonza Eco Lodge had great rooms, dorms, tents and a camping area.

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The Discover Rwanda Kayonza Eco Lodge hd a terraced kitchen garden that provided the toppings to our pizzas. But the composting loos helped the said toppings grow!

We would have loved to have stayed to visit the nearby Akagera National Park but we had to press on to get to Tanzania.

We crossed the border into Tanzania at Rusamo falls; a waterfall located on the Kagura River. Nearly every Rwandan river flows into the Kagura and it was at this point that, during the genocide in 1994, thousands of dead bodies flowed underneath the Rusamo Bridge while a simultaneous stream of refugees crossed over it. An estimated 500,000 people fled Rwanda; 250,000 of those crossed here in a single 24-hour period.

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Thousands of dead bodies flowed underneath the Rusamo Bridge while a simultaneous stream of refugees crossed over it. An estimated 500,000 people fled Rwanda; 250,000 of those crossed here in a single 24-hour period

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One of the many mass graves we passed in Rwanda

Rwanda has come so far since the genocide, but, quite understandably, there’s still a simmering tension across the country. It was a poignant end to our time in Rwanda as we gazed down from the bridge into the churning waters below.

As soon as we crossed the border into Tanzania, we were greeted with a few steep climbs that got our legs and lungs working. But it was great that, just a few miles into Tanzania, we saw the first lady on a bicycle since we were in Hungary. It’s incredible that the bicycle is such an important machine throughout Africa but, it seems, only for men. Traditional gender roles in Africa mean that women work in the field and home and then men venture out of the home. In many countries there is great stigma around women on bikes that prevents them from cycling. We learnt about this while visiting Team Rwanda earlier that week and Emily wrote about how hard it is for women to cycle in Rwanda in an article for Total Women’s Cycling.

At Nyakanazi we turned off the main road onto the B8 – a dirt road that that would take us 960km through remote western Tanzania to the border with Zambia at Tunduma.

Daily rains made cycling on the earth roads incredibly difficult. Car tyres formed some dry patches on the road but we had to negotiate the channels carved into the surface caused by running rain water.

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In most places the road was thick with mud making progress very, very slow!

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This little dude had the most amazing wooden bicycle!

In Swahili, the word for slow is pole. The phrase for very slow is pole-pole. And, with the tough road conditions, we were certainly cycling pole-pole.

One advantage of cycling pole-pole is we got a chance to see animal life that we’d have otherwise missed if we were behind the wheel. We saw dung beetles rolling balls of poo with their back legs, snakes, huge columns of marching ants and even a chongologo which raced us up a particularly steep hill.

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Although this snake was dead, it was sign that we were sharing the road with other creatures!  We think it was a juvenile mamba.

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One of many huge columns of marching ants that we passed

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This chongololo ‘raced’ us up the hill!

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This chameleon was apathetic to the traffic on the road!

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I named him Isiah;  One eye’s ‘igher than the other.

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Another day in the office

It wasn’t long before Emily became the first casualty of the conditions. Her front wheel snagged a rock and she tumbled from the bike, grazing knees and elbows.

The next day, she took a more serious fall, hitting her head and suffered a suspected cracked a rib.

On the 95km day’s ride from Kibondo to the tiny village of Makere we were just 1km short of our destination when the heavens really opened. We threw our bikes under a tree and ran across a courtyard where we were welcomed by a family and took shelter with them on their verandah. The torrential rain bounced off the earth and formed an instant flow of water across the courtyard. It was interesting to watch the woman of the house working away to collect the rainwater running off the roof in buckets, lighting fires in the kitchen and doing other chores whilst the men stood and stared at the rain. Amazingly however, in the hour that it rained, they had probably collected enough water for an entire week.

This chap had an innovative use for an old bike: he used it to sharpen knives

This chap had an innovative use for an old bike: he used it to sharpen knives

The next day, we reached Kasulu, the first significant town since we entered Tanzania and also the first place we could find an ATM that accepted Mastercard. Up until now, we’d been getting by on the tiny amount of Tanzanian Shillings that we had with us and we were getting worried that we’d run out. It was only 50km from where we’d stayed the night before but, after the torrential rains and the horrific roads, it took us the entire day to travel that distance! Ironically, it was our mudguards that held us back the most as the sticky mud would just collect inside the guard meaning we could not move forward! We could only laugh when a lorry passed us and hit a huge puddle that covered Emily from head to toe in glorious orange mud!

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We could only laugh when a lorry passed us and hit a huge puddle that covered Emily from head to toe in glorious orange mud!

Mud got stuck in our mud guards that made it very tricky to move!

Mud got stuck in our mud guards that made it very tricky to move!

Despite the road conditions, some of the views were pretty special

Despite the road conditions, some of the views were pretty special…

Although disheartening when you can see your next ascent coming

…although disheartening when you can see your next ascent coming

That night, we checked into a reasonable guesthouse and decided to take an impromptu but well-needed rest day.

We continued onward to a town called Uvinza. The stretch between Uvinza and Mpanda was incredibly remote and we had to stock up on food for the 2-day, 175km journey. All along this road, we have been passing ginormous refugee camps housing displaced people from Burundi and the DRC – we’d been told that some of the camps had over 250,000 people in them. In these damp, humid conditions, disease spreads rapidly and, despite the UN and aid agencies doing all they can to help, they have quite a humanitarian crisis on their hands. After we’d learnt more about the horrors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, it’s shocking to think that similar troubles are brewing in the neighbouring countries, forcing the mass exodus of refugees.

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We thought we were carrying bulky loads!

We wild camped in the forest and tried to light a fire to keep the mosquitos at bay but everything was damp. Even the sprinkle of petrol I used from our stove burned spectacularly before dying out just as quickly. Phone and sat phone signals also let us down so we were gutted not to be able to do the live call to the Tales of Adventure event as planned.

We finally reached Mpanda, a scruffy town that lies at the end of the railway’s branch line and checked into the ‘New Super City Hotel’, a disappointing choice which was neither ‘new’ or ‘super’ and, after a wander around town, it was doubtful that it could be described as in a city either.

Yet, the rooms were large and it kept the rain from our heads so we decided to take a rest day as Emily had managed to pick up yet another stomach bug and the prospect of continuing the rain in that state was not appealing whatsoever!

The first night we ate at the hotel’s restaurant. I say restaurant, but it was merely one charcoal fire with a few pots on it. Much like everywhere else in the region, the choice was chicken and rice, beans and rice or cow and rice. I opted for the cow. The ‘beef’ was so tough it was as if my molars had been entered as contestants in the Krypton Factor.

In fact, the food options in western Tanzania are as poor as the region itself. We’ve noticed that, in Africa, the poorer the region the less food there is on sale. This is possibly because there isn’t the surplus after the farmer has fed his family.  After the abundant fruit and veg in Uganda and in most parts of Rwanda, we were now scouring roadsides for onions and tomatoes. One thing we always found was the ‘Chipsi mayai’; it’s essentially a chip omelette with lots and lots of oil. Otherwise, we’ve been surviving on stale bread and honey, over-ripe avocados, and bananas that quickly putrefy in the heat and rough roads. When wild camping we’ve cooked up rice and beans and had a chocolate biscuit each for desert.

We walked into Mpanda to get a few supplies. Eventually, we found a small shop that sold bread. We needed two loaves but, although the shopkeeper claimed it was “fresh fresh”, I insisted that we bought one first to check whether it was as he described. Needless to say it was stale so, with a smile on my face, I demonstrated the fact by banging a slice on the wall and then on my head, much to everyone’s amusement.

Back at the New Super City Hotel, we were in our room when we heard a strange, loud chanting coming from hotel’s conference room. I walked down the corridor and peeked inside. What I saw was deeply disturbing. A man had whipped the room into a frenzy by getting everyone to shout “fire! Fire! Fire!” repeatedly. Frightened children ran from the room in tears as the crescendo of “fire! Fire! Fire!” continued. I then watched as he went round to each person, shouted something which included the words “Lucifer” and “Power of Jesus”, placed his hands on their heads and they fell backwards to the floor. Some people even writhed and convulsed on the floor

A screenshot from the clandestine video I shot of the prophet at work

A screenshot from the clandestine video I shot of the prophet at work

That evening, I bumped into the man I’d seen at the centre of that morning’s dramatics in the conference room. He was wearing a designer shirt, carried a smart leather briefcase and smelt of expensive aftershave. I don’t remember his name but he introduced himself as a prophet. I asked what had gone on in the room. He explained that it was the “power of God’ in action. He told me he traveled across Africa working as a “faith healer” and people with health and other problems travelled for miles to see him. He also had his own radio show. He’d hired the hotel room for a few days and invited me to attend the next day.

I couldn’t help myself and told him I didn’t think it was ethical for him to take money from potentially vulnerable people in this way; knowing full well that it was just the power of suggestion at work and that the only ‘prophet’ was the money he was making from the suggestible people in attendance.

In fact, since we entered Kenya, we’ve noticed many churches across 101 different denominations; most of which I hadn’t heard of before. It appeared to me that anyone could set up a church if they wished.

Back in Jinja, Uganda, we met an incredibly nice group of British Jehova’s Witnesses whilst rafting on the river Nile. We talked about the number of different churches across Africa.

To me, Jehovah’s Witnesses are the Jonny Wilkinsons of religion; they never miss an opportunity for a conversion. Part of the group’s time in Uganda was to speak to as many people as possible to show them the Jehovah’s way. Gavin, the leader of the group, confirmed my suspicion that churches sprung up left right and centre in this region and that, on many occasions, they’d be speaking to someone who’d say that their church leader was ‘encouraging’ his church-goers to give 10%-20% of their income to the church each month. Except in January when it was 100%. Gavin described the look on people’s faces when he explains that nowhere in the bible does it say that they must do this. After a long day rafting on the Nile, I didn’t have the stamina required for the resultant debate if I’d suggested to Gavin that there might be an alternative to the bible too. But, the fact remains that huge sums of money are ‘earned’ by ‘prophets’ across Africa, which, if you have a bit of charisma and a copy of a Derren Brown book, could be a very appealing prospect in an impoverished region.

After a mix up with camera chargers, I arranged to pick up my charger from Gavin’s office in Fort Portal a few days later. I quite enjoyed the role reversal of knocking on the door of the Jehova’s Witnesses.

Cycling Katavi National Park

Although we enjoyed seeing the tiny creatures on the journey so far, it was the larger creatures we had to be wary of for the next part our journey.

We stayed a night at the Riverside Camp just on the northern fringe of the Katavi National Park and spent a few hours sitting on the riverbank in the company of their resident hippos.

Cycling Katavi National Park - hippos

The Katavi National Park is Tanzania’s third largest national park and it’s also its most remote. The park is full of wild animals including elephants, buffalos and lions. The main road in the region slices straight through park and cycling through the Katavi National Park isn’t strictly allowed. But, it’s not strictly prohibited either. We did some research and got in contact with Nicolas Marino a cyclist who’d blogged about crossing the park in 2015. In Nico’s reply to us he strongly discouraged us from taking the park on firstly due to the tsetse flies and, secondly, the very real danger of cycling in the presence of wild animals. He even told us how stubborn he had been when he’d cycled across and avoided warnings not to do it (mainly due to the flies) and urged us to listen. It seems, however, that cycle tourists all have a stubborn nature.

Cycling Katavi National Park - Katavi National Park entrance sign

Cycling through the Katavi National Park isn’t strictly allowed. But, it’s not strictly prohibited either.

The crossing of the park was only 60km. And to get a lift would have set us back over USD$150. We figured that the flies “couldn’t be that bad” and lions tend to hunt at night so we decided to give it a go. How wrong we were.

We were up early and crossed into the unfenced park at 7am – before any rangers could take their post at the entrance. Within moments we saw a huge herd of impalas and baboons sauntered across the road in front of us.

But, very soon, the tsetse flies arrived in their hundreds. Tsetse flies are armour-plated biting machines. They landed on every bit of our bodies and bit any exposed skin and through even through our socks and gloves. They got so bad that, even though it was over 30°C that day (of course it had stopped raining that day!), we had to don our waterproof jackets to prevent them from biting through our shirts. We controlled our bikes with one hand whilst swatting the stubborn insects away with the other.

No matter how fast we cycled, the flies landed and bit. The extra effort we put into the pedaling made us hotter. We sweated buckets under our waterproofs and we were reluctant to stop to top up our water because we would get mobbed.

In short, they made our lives a complete misery and we were dehydrating fast in the waterproofs. But at least they took our minds off the larger creatures that lurked in the undergrowth.

From the road we saw a huge herd of zebra and I even saw a couple of giraffes before they ran into the trees.

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This giraffe stuck his neck out to say hello

Then, at the side of the road, we saw huge footprints from some very big cats. Our heartbeats quickened as we realised these footprints were very fresh and that lions were near. We stopped for the quickest of photos then got back on the bikes and followed the footprints for around 8km until they veered left off the road.

Lion footprints whilst cycling Katavi National Park

Lions are about!

 

We followed the lions' footprints for a good

We followed the fresh lions’ footprints for at least 8km

It was a good 20km after the park that the flies gradually petered out. But the effort put into cycling fast through the hostile Katavi National Park in waterproofs had taken it out on us and we were both massively dehydrated and exhausted. We limped to Chisi where we filled our two 10 litre water bags from the village water pump and found a wild camping spot just off the road a few KM further south.

After such a challenging day it was a delight to sit back under the stars and sip a cup of tea whilst watching fireflies streak across the sky tracing their paths with their intermittently glowing bodies.

For two more days we struggled along the bumpy earth road. 35km before Sumawanga we reahed the crest of a hill and the sight before us took us by surprise. A brand new road had been carved through the countryside. Like a river of molten lava it was unsympathetic to the environment and left nothing in its path as it tore through woods and carved deep gashes through hillsides. For two weary cyclists it was like looking at heaven, but it was a sight that would have given Swampy a coronary. But, where there’s a coronary, there’s a bypass, and we were overjoyed to see this ribbon of Tarmac nirvana skirting the villages and snake away from us into the distance.

The beautiful sight of a brand new tarmac road

The beautiful sight of a brand new tarmac road

This symbol of economic progress also meant that we could make better progress too. And we were overjoyed with the knowledge that we wouldn’t see another dirt road again until we reach Namibia.

One of the more impressive bicycle loads. We cycled past this guy pushing this insane load up a very steep 2km hill into Mbeya

One of the more impressive bicycle loads. We cycled past this guy pushing this immense load up a very steep 2km hill into Mbeya

Our time on the road along the west of Tanzania has been one of the toughest sections of our route so far.   The condition of the road, weather, remoteness and physical hostility of the region has taken its toll to the extent that we needed a break. We found a cheap flight from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam where we are now taking a little break. We are incredibly grateful to Ashley and Livi for hosting us in their lovely home by the sea. We spent our first night in Dar sitting by the sea eating fresh seafood and sipping cool, crisp wine. After a few more days like this we’ll be braver, wiser and more optimistic for the journey ahead into Zambia and beyond.


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.

Cycling the Lower Omo Valley to Omorate and on to West Turkana

We would have loved to stay in Addis Ababa for Christmas. But, alas, we had to race to Kenya before our visas expired on the 31st December.

From Addis Ababa, the conventional route to Kenya is the road directly south towards Moyale. However, the first few hundred kilometers of the road in Northern Kenya is renowned for bandits and we’d therefore either have to take transport or an unnecessary risk.

Another option was to head southwest from Addis into the remote tribal lands of Ethiopia before crossing the border at the northwest of Lake Turkana in a no-mans-land between Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. This route isn’t without its dangers though. But, for the touring cyclist, it offers the chance to see various tribes up close and to visit one of the remotest parts of Africa. We decided to give it a go.

Once we escaped the traffic on the road out of Addis, we had a straightforward 80km to Kela on decent road. Except, that is, for the reemergence of the children who, at each and every opportunity shouted the country-wide catchphrase of youyouyouyouyouyouy…moneymoneymoneymoney…penpenpenpenpen whilst running after us. Rocks were thrown.

Kids would run for miles for the chance to shout at us

Kids would run for miles for the chance to shout at us

At Kela, we checked into a grotty ‘hotel’ in the centre of town. We couldn’t blame them for not having running water or a reliable power supply. But we both took exception to the turd we found in the sink of our en-suite ‘bathroom’. Luckily for the boy I made to clean it up, it wasn’t a fresh one so he was able to chip away at it until it came off the basin.

The next morning we passed through Butajira and were astonished to find a plush western-style hotel. We stopped for a cup of tea in the marble-clad restaurant and decided that, as it was Christmas day, we would find somewhere nice to stay that evening where, hopefully, there wouldn’t be any poos in the basin to greet us.

We aimed towards Hosaina where we had been promised a decent hotel and since it was Christmas Day we were extra motivated to reward ourselves with a cold beer and a pizza.

Further down the road, we looked in dismay at our intended turnoff towards Hosaina because the road was nothing but a stretch of rubble. We opted to continue on the tar road but this meant a longer cycle without knowing what the elevation was going to be like.

We didn’t think the road would be too hilly, but we were taken by surprise.

We spent 10 hours in the saddle on Christmas day. We covered 145km and ascended over 1,600 meters. All to the constant and irritating accompaniment of youyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyou, moneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoney and rocks thrown at us regularly. All Emily could think about all day was her new-found dislike for Bob Geldof as she spent the entire day singing “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and, perhaps unjustifiably, blaming him for the rock throwing child beggars.

Utterly exhausted, we eventually got to Hosaina and limped into the first western-looking hotel we could find. We stumped up an extortionate (550 Birr/£17 for the night compared to our usual 100Birr/£3.00 per night). But, it was Christmas and we thought we’d give ourselves a treat. The 566% increase in cost did not equate to a similar increase in service though. Although we enjoyed cool beers, a pizza and a comfy bed, we had to endure the sound of the very loud Christian Orthodox church across the road wailing all night and, at 3am, I woke the pigeon that had been sleeping in the bathroom and spent 15 minutes trying to catch it as it flapped around the room.

Christmas dinner for us was avery meaty pizza. With orange! (Emily is trying to catch the attention of the waiter!)

Christmas dinner for us was avery meaty pizza. With orange!

 

We had a similarly tough ride the next day to Sodo. We saw the first troop of baboons of the trip cross the road ahead of us but the day’s ride itself was made worse by the children and villagers.

As we approached each village, high-pitched screams of “Farange!” would greet us from the sidelines. These shouts rippled up the road before us until the whole village knew to expect us so they could each run out to shout youyouyou, moneymoneymoney, penpenpen and “where-you-go?” at us. With such an early warning system in place, it’s little surprise that Musolini failed to colonise Ethiopia.

At one of the larger villages, we pulled over to the side of the road and, before we could even park our bikes, people had surrounded us. By the time Em returned with two warm bottles of the fizzy stuff, she could barely find me amongst the throng of kids and adults standing, staring, playing with the bikes and asking for money.

Stopping for a Coke becomes an event for the whole village.

Stopping for a Coke becomes an event for the whole village.

Just before we reached Arba Minch, we met Jimmy, a French motorcyclist who was making the long journey from Cape Town to France. He recommended the Bekele Mola hotel to us so we headed there. In their reception they have a sign proudly stating that Ethiopians pay 400Birr and Foreigners pay 580Birr for a room. Camping in the grounds was 300Birr. Needless to say, we weren’t happy with the price differential so negotiated to pay the Ethiopian rate for a room. Which was lucky because warthog roamed the grounds we could have camped in. The view from the hotel’s terrace across the two lakes was stunning and more than made up for the overpriced room and food.

Warthog roamed the hotel's gardens

Warthog roamed the hotel’s gardens

Stunning view from the Bekele Mola hotel in Arba Minch. But don't bother staying or eating there.

Stunning view from the Bekele Mola hotel in Arba Minch. But don’t bother staying or eating there.

A couple of hilly days’ ride through banana plantations later we made it to Konso. We couldn’t find any decent places to stay in town so we climbed up a massive 20% hill where we’d seen a lodge marked on the GPS. With panoramic views over the countryside (a UNESCO heritage site due to the uniqueness of the hill terraces) and an expensive-looking restaurant, I thought the receptionist had made a mistake when she said it was “55 for the night”. That is, until I realised it was US$55. At that price, we had to find somewhere else to stay…which meant travelling back down the hill we’d just cycled. Thankfully, the lodge agreed to store our bags and bikes and we got a tuktuk into town.

UNESCO Heritage countryside

UNESCO Heritage countryside

There, we found a much cheaper hotel where I negotiated the price down from 200Birr to 50Birr for the room on the condition we buy a few drinks. We had couple of beers, paid the 50birr for the room and headed into town for some food.

At the restaurant, ordering our meal was tricky. Firstly, as is common with most Ethiopian restaurants and hotels, the TV is on at full volume meaning nobody can hear anything other than the din from blown speakers.

Secondly there’s a bizarre phenomenon that’s quite unique to Ethiopia. When taking an order for food or drink, the waiter will turn on his heels after the very first item you say. It’s happened at nearly every place we’ve eaten. For example, if you wanted one spaghetti and one pizza, you’d barely be able to finish saying “one spaghetti” before he’s off to the kitchen…even though there’s at least one more dish and a couple of drinks to order.

Thirdly, it was another occasion where the waiter insists that there’s only one thing on the menu. We reluctantly order it. Later, whilst we’re eating, other diners who’ve arrived after us are brought much more appetising dishes. When we inquire, the waiter will say that’s available too. When we try to order it, they say it’s run out. I only mention this because it’s happened several times in Ethiopia!

Anyway, we had a reasonable meal and had fun meeting Harley and Emily, a couple travelling from South Africa to Sweden in their Land Rover.

Meat Tibs with injera

Meat Tibs with injera

Back at the hotel we were preparing for bed when there was a knock at the door. Apparently the room was now 150Birr and not the 50Birr plus beers I’d agreed. After a long ‘conversation’ I was forced to stump up the 150Birr for the privilege of the grimy room with the sound of yet another TV turned up to number 11 in the courtyard outside our room.

The next morning we took a tuktuk back up the monster hill to collect our kit and bikes. At the lodge, we met Tom and Eva, a South African couple who are travelling Africa in their huge unimog 4X4.

The cycle out of Konso was beautiful but hilly. Every inch of the surrounding hillsides was being used for agriculture in an intricate pattern of interweaving hill terraces.

Then something expensive happened.

I swooped down a lovely decent towards a bridge that crossed a partially dried-out river. What I failed to notice until it was too late was a 15cm ‘step’ right across the width of the road where the bridge joined the tarmac road.

I tried to bunny hop, but with a combined bike and rider weight of over 150kg, I could just lift the front wheel enough for it not to take the full force of the collision. The impact was hard. And a sickening crunch rose up through the wheels, into the frame and into my bones as I collided with the obstacle. I just managed to keep control of the bike and avoided a crash but I was helpless to stop my handlebar bag fly open and all I could do was cling on as I watched my beloved Nikon DSLR camera and various other bits of tech hit the asphalt with an expensive smash.

To their credit the kids hanging around the bridge quickly gathered up all the broken parts and handed them back to me. The camera was dead. I was gutted because of the remote and photogenic region we were to cycle into. But, with no obvious signs of damage to the bike and no injuries, the journey continued.

My ex camera! :-(

My ex camera! 🙁

A short while later, Tom and Eva passed and handed us ice-cold waters from their huge vehicle. After the hot water we’d been sipping from our bottles all week, the crisp coolness of fresh icy water was like sipping vintage champagne.

Tom said they were headed to a campsite 75km away. It was 1pm and 75km in an afternoon is quite punchy for anyway but, with Tom’s promise that a cold beer would be waiting for us, we decided to give it a go.

At Woyto, there’s a junction. The asphalt road continues on a longer, potentially hillier road towards Omorate. The turning left is on a hard-packed rough road but it’s shorter. We met Christian, a missionary form Iceland who was visiting friends in the area. He advised that the shorter but unsealed road was best for us. We took his advice and I lead the pace on what Emily called “James’s Omo Valley Training Camp”. Tom’s ice-cold beer was a big carrot dangling in front of me!

Our chosen road took us across the Lake Stephanie Nature Reserve. Lake Stephanie is dry pan but recent rains had caused an explosion of green in the otherwise arid landscape. Butterflies danced beside roadside ditchwater and crickets played a game with us by jumping ahead – always managing to keep at least a meter ahead of our wheels.

The road was rough and there was no way we could make Tom’s campsite. Instead, we stopped at Abore, a tribal village where hundreds of well-behaved kids came out to greet us. A friendly chap called Simon lead us to the water pump where we filled up and then to a small bar where we bought him a Coke and met another guy who was a guide from Konso. He invited us to camp with him in the bush that night.

We pitched our tent amongst several straw huts and chatted to some of the tribe who lived there. The women wore hundreds of stacked neck beads and the little children had painted white faces. They were all very friendly and accepting of our intrusion into their normal life and not a Birr was asked for. We drifted off to sleep to the sounds of traditional singing floating across the bush from a nearby camp knowing that this was a true African experience that we were incredibly lucky to have.

We’d established from the guide that Tom’s “75km to the campsite from the turning” was somewhat inaccurate. In fact, it was 75km from the village in which we were camped. We set off early to get there.

The road conditions were awful for cycling. There were countless dried up creeks that crossed the road so we couldn’t get any rhythm going and had to keep dismounting to push through the sand. Progress was slow and exhausting.

Tough day pushing in sand

Tough day pushing in sand

In the afternoon, we had 30km more to travel but the road disappeared altogether. Instead, we had to haul our heavy bikes through the sand of a dried-up riverbed and then up a 15% track that was nothing but loose sand and rubble. At times the road was so steep that we had to push one bike together up the hill and then return for the other, as it was too steep to push alone. How we regretted not taking the asphalt road and kept remembering the words of the Icelandic missionary who categorically said to us, “It’s not that bad at all, there is a small hill but you should be fine.”

Hauling our bikes along a dried up river bed between Arbore and Turmi, Ethiopia

Hauling our bikes along a dried up river bed between Arbore and Turmi, Ethiopia

For 8 hours we didn’t pass a single village. There were very few people. Of those we did see, some ran off into the bushes upon spotting us. Those more inquisitive folk would return our waves. All the males had little hand-carved stools which they carried everywhere with them. The tribal people seemed more mild-mannered and for us, seeing rifles harmlessly slung over shoulders rather than fast approaching rocks was a relief.

We were exhausted and dehydrated having pushed up over 1,200 meters of ascent through sand and rocks. At 4pm, we saw the first vehicle of the day. They stopped and, when they told us where they were going, we simply could not refuse their offer of a lift.

We joined Rokhan, who was on holiday from Sri Lanka, his guide and driver for a 10km drive deep into the bush where we witnessed one of the oldest and most bizarre tribal ceremonies. The Jumping of the Bulls.

The woman couldn’t have been older than 25. She blew her horn. The man facing her raised his whip and with almighty force thrashed it across the woman’s bare back. The whip tore into her skin. The woman bowed towards the man. Again and again this happened. Each time, the woman would take a single hard lash across the back. It must have been agony. But she barely flinched.

We learnt that, as part of the ceremony, the women beg to be whipped as a sign of their love for the man. It might be the male’s mother, sister or niece taking that takes the beating.

The women of the tribe then stand in a circle, backs towards us. We saw blood dripping from the open wounds. Flies landed, looking for somewhere to lay eggs. The scars of previous whippings were evident.

The whipping ritual inflicts the women with permanent scars that increase their value prior to marriage and earns them respect.

The whipping ritual inflicts the women with permanent scars that increase their value prior to marriage and earns them respect.

We were on to the main event.

Several bulls had been let into the field. About 8 bulls had been pushed, prodded, yanked and twisted so that they were now standing in a line. A naked man edged backwards, eyeing up the task ahead. His challenge was to leap up and run across the backs up the bulls without falling into the gaps between. If he succeeds, it marks his passing from boy to man.

He took a run up and jumped up to the first bull that reeled from the impact of the chap’s foot on its flank. He then skipped across the moving obstacles before losing his footing just short of the final bull. He repeated this 6 times. Everyone cheered and he was adorned with a garment for his neck. He was now a man…and so started 2 days of celebrations.

It was now sunset. Rokhan’s driver dropped us off the short distance to our campsite near Turmi where we finally met up with Tom and Eva at their Unimog. They cooked us a delicious pasta meal and we thoroughly enjoyed their company…and that ice-cold beer that we had suffered so much for.

It was great to meet Tom and Eva who are travelling Africa in their huge Unimog 4X4.

It was great to meet Tom and Eva who are travelling Africa in their huge Unimog 4X4.

It was a relief that the 50km from Turmi to the final town in Ethiopia, Omorate was a gentle cycle on beautiful smooth tarmac. We headed to the immigration office where we had to guide the official, who was clearly drunk, through the process of stamping our passport with an exit stamp with the next day’s date. The process took a while because he couldn’t get his fuzzy head round the concept of our visa being valid from the ‘date of entry’ rather than the ‘date of issue’ which he was insisting was the case. He claimed we were in the country illegally and threatened to take us to Addis Ababa. We were there for over an hour before his desire to return to the bar took over and he finally stamped our passport.

Omorate doesn’t have anything to offer. Not even electricity. And we even struggled to stock up on food for our journey into Kenya. But we did manage to get a friendly chap to charge our Goal Zero Sherpa 100 power pack so we could ensure our GPS would work for the journey ahead.

We’d heard many tales from other travellers that crossing the bridge over the Omo river is an issue. Policeman guard it and insist that it’s closed, despite locals walking across it, forcing travellers to pay for a boat or dug out canoe across the river.

When we approached the bridge, we could see the police guards and, from the distance, they were waving us back. We continued and, just as we approached them, a big pickup truck thundered up on to the bridge from the opposite bank crossed over and passed us. There was no way the police could claim that the bridge was closed now. They made a cursory check of our passports and to our relief, we cycled over the bridge.

Once we were on the far bank, our challenge was to negotiate a confusing network of sandy tracks towards the Ethiopian army checkpoint then through the arid no-mans-land before getting to the Kenya border checkpoint.

This was hot, dry and the sandy conditions of the road made cycling impossible. The weight of our bikes, now even heavier with the weight of 10 litres of water each and food supplies for up to one week, cut straight through into the sand causing a few low-speed crashes.

Hauling our bikes through the sand in the no-mans-land between Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya

Hauling our bikes through the sand in the no-mans-land between Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya

We had to haul our bikes through the sand. It took us 4 hours to make the 29 kilometers from Omorate to the Ethiopian army checkpoint. The friendly squaddies offered us water and we relished the shade. But we had to press on.

Skeletons in the no-mans-land between Ethopia, Kenya and Sudan

Skeletons in the no-mans-land between Ethopia, Kenya and Sudan

There's still a lot of sand to push through!

There’s still a lot of sand to push through!

It took us a further 2 and a half hours to haul our bikes through the sand over the 7km between the Ethiopian and Kenyan border checkpoints. We arrived exhausted.

The Kenyan policeman took our details down in a book (we couldn’t get our passport stamped because it’s not an ‘official’ crossing) and invited us to pitch our tent at the police compound. Another policeman told us that the road onwards would improve and stamped his feet on the hard-packed surface of the police compound, suggesting that that was what we could expect from now on. By now it was 5pm. The sun would set in 90 minutes. We were knackered but decided to press on. It was just 10km to get to our intended destination.

Sadly, the policeman’s description of the road ahead was entirely inaccurate. Once again we were forced to dismount and heave our bikes through the sand.

As the sun went down behind the distant mountain, we were forced to call the day’s ride to an end – just 3km from our target destination. We camped in the bush amidst billions of mosquitos and insects. Later that night, I discovered that the flying sharks had attacked my back by biting straight through my shirt. Emily lost count at over 100 bites. Not great when we’re in a malarial area and aren’t taking prophylactics.

I got munched by mosquitos through my shirt!

James got munched by mosquitos through his shirt and chair!

Since leaving Addis Ababa, we’d been on the road for 10 days straight – our longest period without a break. The terrain had been hilly. The kids were horrendous. We had rocks thrown at us several times a day. We’d been munched by mosquitos. The roads had petered out and turned into riverbeds. We’d had to haul our bikes through kilometer after kilometer of sand. The mercury topped 50 degrees on most days. All this had put a huge toll on our bodies and has triggered a few medical issues. We needed a break. We needed a refuge. And we found that just 3km up the road the next morning at the Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic mission in Todonyang – the first town in Kenya.

We were greeted warmly by Father Andrew, pitched our tent under a tree and brought cold, crisp water by a charming chap named Cosmos. Father Andrew told us that the road between the mission and Lodwar was the same sandy surface we’d suffered.

It would have taken us 7 to 10 days to travel the West Turkana route by bicycle. And we would have had to haul our bikes through the sand and more dried riverbeds. Something we didn’t have the health to do. The next day, we strapped our bikes to the top of the 4×4 and joined Father Andrew (as he drove like a man on a mission) and friends for the incredibly bumpy and uncomfortable trip to Lodwar, where we are now. En route we saw a monument that marks the spot of the oldest skull to have ever been found. Turkana Boy.

We shall make up the miles we missed. In Lodwar, we’ll get ourselves checked out by doctors and speak to the police about the security situation on the road ahead. The long and lonely road between Lodwar and Kitale is renowned for bandits and tribal conflict so we need to get up to date advice on what to expect. Should we need to bypass this section we’ll make those miles up too.

Ethiopia has been an immense challenge that’s left us both utterly exhausted. It’s a beautiful country. But it’s incredibly difficult cycling over such terrain and, despite some magical experiences in the tribal lands of the Omo valley, enduring the constant ‘difficult’ interactions with the people. I’ve found the country has brought out an angry side in us at times. I’ve lost my temper of numerous occasions in situations where I’d normally be mild mannered. When rocks have been thrown at us by children I shamefully admit to returning a few of them with interest. It’s an anger that I’m leaving at the border. And, once we’re fit again, we’re both hugely excited about the journey ahead in Kenya and into Uganda where we expect to be cheered rather than jeered. And where a cold bottle of water is, hopefully, only a village away.

Up high: Getting stoned in the Ethiopian Highlands

It was possibly not the wisest choice for two tourists who were about to cycle in Ethiopia for the first time to watch an episode of “The World’s Most Dangerous Roads” the night before we set off. In the episode in question, British comedians High Dennis and David Baddiel drive their sturdy 4×4 the length of Ethiopia and warn of the dangers of poor road conditions and unskilled driving made worse by long distance drivers that are high on khat (pronounced ‘chat’), a leafy plant, which acts as a stimulant when chewed. Together with the mountains we had to climb and warnings of stone-throwing kids, we left Gondar with a sense of trepidation.

It didn’t take long for the warning bells to ring true.

Within minutes of mounting our bikes, each and every man, woman and child shouted at us in some way.

Men would shout “you!” Women would shout “money!” and kids would shout “You, You, You! Money! Money! Money! You You You You You You! Give! Pen! Pen, Pen, Pen”. And so on.

A slight variant was the shout of “Where you go?” A grammatically-incorrect phrase which, after hearing thousands of times a day, becomes irritating. I tried to correcting a few people by telling them “No, it’s where are you go-ING”

But it was the children that were the worse.

Ethiopia has once of the fastest-growing and youngest populations in the world. In fact, 44% of the population is aged 15 and under. And it appeared that every one of those 41 million kids came out to ‘greet’ us as we cycled the 730km from Gondar to Addis Ababa.

One of the smaller bands of 'supporters'

One of the smaller bands of ‘supporters’

Kids by the side of the road would shout at us. Once they’d spotted us, the children who were further away would run hundreds of meters across fields to reach us as we passed in the hope that we’d respond to their shouts of “You! You! You! Money! Money! Money!”

It didn’t take long before the first rock was thrown.

We’d passed a particularly pesky group of children who’d run alongside us for a few hundred meters. When they gave up the chase, rocks were hurled in our direction. Emily got one square in the back.

These kids, although small, would make great cricketers. Stick one on the square leg boundary and they’d have the arm to hit the top of leg stump 9 times out of 10.

They’re great little runners too. Whole swarms of kids would run alongside us shouting “Money, Money, Money!” or “Pen, Pen, Pen!” as we attempted to negotiate the notorious Ethiopian highlands. At times, particularly tenacious kids would follow us all the way up a hill (our heavy bikes often limit us to 5kph up hills) so they could often keep up; this regularly tested our patience immensely.

Kids would run for miles for the opportunity to shout at us

Kids would run for miles for the opportunity to shout at us

We learnt over time that the best tactic was to smile and greet the kids as we approached and then simply repeat everything they said back to them. It didn’t stop the shouts, but it flummoxed them a little. The best way to avoid the rocks being flung was to turn and face the kids as we cycled by until we were out of reach. Which, with their throwing arms, meant cycling whilst looking backwards for a considerable distance!

The shouty and stone-throwing kids are only really a problem in the rural areas. Here, they’re given a few animals to look after when they’re 6 years old and that’s their life. No school. No prospects other than small-scale farming.

In the bigger towns where kids have been able to get an education (albeit in an education system where some schools are so overcrowded that kids have to attend school in alternating shifts) the people are a little more welcoming.

Education is key. That’s why the shouts of “Money! Money! Money!” is so frustrating – and it’s why we’re proud to be supporting an organization, World Bicycle Relief, that exists to help educate kids in rural communities across Africa. Please support them too: donations are being doubled until 31st December 2015.

Please donate to World Bicycle Relief.
Donations are being doubled before the end of December 2015.

These kids are lucky to get an eduction. Although Ethiopian schools are so stretched that kids have to attend school in shifts.

These kids are lucky to get an eduction. Although Ethiopian schools are so stretched that kids have to attend school in shifts.

Midway through one morning, a truck driver coming in the opposite direction saluted us as he passed. With his beer bottle.

Don’t come to Ethiopia if you crave solitude. Wherever you go and whatever you try to do, someone will pop up from the middle of nowhere. Literally, it’s insane. This makes loo stops particularly challenging. And it also makes camping difficult. In fact, as we discovered that you can stay in hotels for around £1.50 a head, we often opted to sleep indoors in Ethiopia to get a little privacy for a few hours.

Even a roadside breather is an event

Even a roadside breather is an event

On our first night from Gondar we found a small patch of grass on a steep embankment just off the road and pitched our tent – all witnessed by a throng of kids at very close quarters.

We reached Lake Tana and checked into the Bahir Dar Hotel, a simple guesthouse where the small rooms were set around a quiet courtyard. There was free WiFi when the electricity was on but the whole town suffered regular power cuts – something that’s common across Ethiopia. It was only when we returned to the hotel after dinner when we sensed the atmosphere had changed somewhat and we realised that the oldest profession in the world was still going strong at this establishment. Still, for 100 birr (£3GBP) a night, it was easy for two weary cyclists to turn a blind eye and get a reasonable night’s sleep.

We hit the road early the next day. We’d just ventured past the city limits when a ladies cycling team took us by surprise as they whizzed by. Over the next 20km 3 further large groups of cyclists passed us on their training rides, each group giving us a wave as they achieved speeds we could only dream of.

The Amhara Region Cycling Team whizz by

The Amhara Region Cycling Team whizz by

50km from Bahir Dar Emily’s back wheel started clicking so we stopped to take a look at a small village called Wetet Abay. We were helped at the roadside by a couple of lads who’d been cycling alongside practicing their English us but our arrival caused the whole village to come out, crowd round us and stare whilst we tinkered with the bike.

 

A broken spoke becomes the most exciting thing ever to happen in this village

A broken spoke becomes the most exciting thing ever to happen in this village

On inspection, we found a spoke had broken. We thought it would be a simple job to replace but, frustratingly, we had to remove the rear cassette to do so. A job that required a special tool (a chain whip) that we didn’t have.

We were assured the larger village 10km up the road had a mechanic who could help so we flagged down a minibus, hauled our bikes onto the roof and made the short trip. There, the mechanic didn’t have a chain whip either and he started bashing the wheel and used a wrench to undo the rear hub. When he revealed the bearings, we called a halt and decided we wanted to put our trust in someone else who had a bit more knowledge and, ideally, the correct tools for the job. We decided to return to Bahir Dar.

On the minibus back we looked up the Bahir Dar-based cycling team and sent them a few messages to see if they could help us and, once back in the city, we checked back into our guesthouse-come-brothel for another night.

It was by sheer fluke that, later that day, we bumped into a member of the cycling team we’d seen on the road that morning. Molla agreed to meet us the next morning to help us.

At 12:30 Ethiopia time (06:30 foreigners’ time) we met Molla and he took us to the team headquarters of the Amhara region Cycling team. They have a small compound with dormitories, a communal dining area and dozens of battered bikes and parts that have been begged, borrowed and acquired from around the world.

The Amhara Region Cycling Team's base is a fun environment!

The Amhara Region Cycling Team’s base is a fun environment!

 

Amhara Region Cycling Team

Amhara Region Cycling Team

Molla and his friends set about fixing Emily’s wheel. Not only did they have a chain whip but also they had a wheel-truing stand!   Outside, the A-team mustered for a training ride whilst Molla stayed behind to tell us more about the team’s successes and ambitions over breakfast. These guys are incredibly dedicated cyclists but we were astonished by their lack of kit. One rider was using a bike with carbon frame that had snapped. He’d simply taped it up to get back on the road.

An old carbon frame is taped up to keep it going

An old carbon frame is taped up to keep it going

Some of the Amhara Regional Cycling Team prepare for a training ride

Some of the Amhara Regional Cycling Team prepare for a training ride

We said our goodbyes to Molla and found a minibus to take us back to where we’d stopped yesterday and continued our ride towards Addis, only half a day behind schedule, having promised to do what we could to encourage donations of used cycling kit (such as saddles, pedals, shoes and sunglasses) from friends and cycling clubs back in the UK to help them compete with other regional teams who have access to more.

Back on the road, we made it 170km from Bahir Dar when Emily’s spoke snapped again. A passing charity worker gave us the short 2km lift back up the hill in his pickup to the town of Finote Selam where the mechanic there didn’t have a chain whip either. There was no choice but to ask for Molla’s help again.

We locked our kit and bikes in a hotel room and took a minibus 170km back to Bahir Dar. By the time the driver had stopped countless times to make pick ups and drop offs the journey took 4 and a half hours.

A chain whip (or strap wrench) is a long, bulky and heavy tool and, prior to departure, we’d pondered long and hard as to whether we should take one with us. We reasoned that it was highly unlikely we’d need one so took the risk to omit it from our kit list. Something we now regretted.

We were grateful that Molla and the cycling team were able to fix the wheel again and, as we left, the joker of the team waved us goodbye saying “see you tomorrow!” We are looking forward to staying in touch with Molla and his team to follow their progress and will definitely do what we can to try and help them when we can.

Thanks to Molla and friends at the Amhara Regional Cycling Team for getting us back on the road

Thanks to Molla and friends at the Amhara Regional Cycling Team for getting us back on the road

By the time we left the cycling team it was now dark and no local minibuses were departing Bahir Dar. The only options were to check back into the Bahir Dar brothel or get a minibus bound for Addis Ababa to drop us off en route. Fearing for the security of our kit in the hotel, we paid over the odds for two seats to Addis. I made a point of getting up close to the driver to smell his breath for any signs of alcohol before we squeezed ourselves into the back seat of a Toyota HIACE minibus.

Not long after departure, the driver pulled over at a brightly lit shop and returned with a big bag of leaves. Khat. This is what we were dreading. Now in the middle of nowhere, we had no option but to hope the effects of the drug, which is a class-C drug in the UK, would only kick in after he’d dropped us off in 150km time.

We made it back to our hotel in one piece. Although it took some time to get the blood back into our legs after enduring the cramped conditions on the back seat.

Most farm work is done by hand

Most farm work is done by hand

Cattle are used to tread the hay

Cattle are used to tread the hay

Cycling Gondar to Addis Ababa Ethiopia-17
After a couple more days’ ride to the soundtrack of “You! You! You! Money! Money! Money!” we checked into a hotel in Dejen with the aim of getting a good night’s sleep before taking on one of the biggest climbs of the expedition, the Blue Nile Gorge, in the morning.

Our room appeared reasonable on first inspection but, for the life of us, we couldn’t work out how to turn the main light off. The switch in the room controlled the bathroom light. We fetched the manager. After a bit of investigation, we discovered the light in our room was controlled by the switch at the top of the stairs, which was round two corners of the corridor from our room, how logical. We had just drifted off to sleep when guests ascending the stairs illuminated our room as they tried to find their way to their room. I used our precious duct tape to hide the offending switch from further guests.

It’s not just the lights that have kept us awake. The hotels we’ve stayed at have had very bars, which have played very loud music well into the night. Also, Christian Orthodox prayers are broadcast across the town form loudspeakers. Bad luck if, like us, your hotel is close to one. Prayers on a Sunday morning start at 2am and go on through the early hours. The prayers in this video had been going on since 2am and were still going strong at 7am when Emily was racking her panniers.

A Christian Orthodox church. The source of some very loud early Sunday morning prayers!

A Christian Orthodox church. The source of some very loud early Sunday morning prayers!

The sign at the top of the Blue Nile Gorge warned of rock falls and “sloppy” conditions. The descent itself was more suited to mountain bikes than fully laden touring bikes. The road surface was rutted and gave way to gravel in some parts as countless lorries had churned up the surface. Our disk brakes took a pounding for the 90-minute descent.

The Blue Nile Gorge is very "sloppy", apparently.

The Blue Nile Gorge is very “sloppy”, apparently.

The road down was terrible

The road down was terrible

Blue Nile Gorge descent

Blue Nile Gorge descent

Blue Nile Gorge bridge. Guards prohibit photos any nearer.

Blue Nile Gorge bridge. Guards prohibit photos any nearer.

Haystacks being carried up the Blue Nile Gorge

Haystacks being carried up the Blue Nile Gorge

The Blue Nile Gorge world’s second largest canyon and it’s truly breathtaking. But, for us, it was the prospect of the climb out of it that took our breath away.

It’s a 1,360m climb over just 20.05km with an average grade of 6.8%. Several stretches are over 10% and the switchbacks exceed 15%.   It took us 5 and a half hours of lung-busting effort to get to the top. Our progress hindered by the altitude, the trucks that belched thick black exhaust into our faces as we struggled up the switchbacks and the countless children that followed with the familiar shouts of “Money! Money, Money!” But, we’re proud to say we made it!

 

The long, winding and steep road up the Blue Nile Gorge, Ethiopia

The long, winding and steep road up the Blue Nile Gorge, Ethiopia

Mountain goats peer into the abyss of the Blue Nile Gorge

Mountain goats peer into the abyss of the Blue Nile Gorge

Exhausted from the climb, we were descending through the village of Tulu Milki, when, without looking, a woman drove her donkey into the road in front of us. Emily veered left. I had to make the split decision. Do I hit the donkey or do I hit the woman? I knew that injuring or killing a donkey would be expensive (drivers have to compensate animal owners if they kill or injure an animal) so I made the decision to aim for the woman. I veered off the road and down the sloping embankment, taking the woman with me, which propelled me into a wooden roadside shelter where I came to an abrupt stop. I’d knocked the woman’s leg with my front pannier. Apart from shock, she appeared ok. This was until the village surrounded us and talked to her…when, all of a sudden, she started to behave like Ronaldo getting a tap on the ankle. She was dramatically rubbing her leg and wincing. It didn’t take long for the requests of money to come. “You must help this woman” said one man whilst a girl grabbed my arm and shouted for “birr!” I made 100% sure the woman was ok. She didn’t have any cuts or marks so I straightened my handlebars and pushed through the crowd to escape without opening our wallets. The only lasting damage was a wobbly front wheel, which we hoped to fix soon. The donkey was unharmed and took the opportunity to earn a moment’s freedom by running off down the road.

Our traverse of the Ethiopian highlands also took us up to the highest point of the expedition. At 3,115 meters (10,220ft) the air was cold and we battled for breath in the noticeably thinner air.

The morning air is filled with smoke from fires in people's houses.

The morning air is filled with smoke from fires in people’s houses.

Passing chillis drying in fields

Passing chillis drying in fields

Passing chilli fields

Passing chilli fields

We’d been receiving news that there had been protests across Ethiopia. Some of which were apparently violent demonstrations, which caused casualties and disruptions to roads and traffic. We learnt that the Sudan-Ethiopia border at Metema, which we’d crossed only a couple of weeks ago, had been closed for two days due to clashes.

Of particular concern to us were reports of heavy clashes between protesters and security forces in Sululta, 20km north of Addis Ababa. Heavy gunfire had been heard and the main road blocked – potentially barring our passage to the capital.

As we approached the region, we noticed an increase in police and military presence. Soldiers in full riot gear passed in the back of one truck. Policeman patrolled towns.

We passed through Sululta early one morning and saw evidence that burning barricades had been built across the road but, for us, thankfully we passed through safely without incident.

We learnt that the protests are due to the government’s desire to increase the size of Addis Ababa by building in nearby towns and villages. Something to which locals oppose. From speaking with a few people we have learnt that the government has been in power now for 25 years (unelected) and run a dictatorship internally but gives the external impression that Ethiopia is a thriving democracy.

A travel warning remains for the southwest Oromiya Region where we’ve heard reports that up to 75 protestors have been killed by the government. It’s a region we’ll be cycling close to, but not through.

The clouds threatened but we still haven't cycled in the rain since Romania

The clouds threatened but we still haven’t cycled in the rain since Romania

In Addis Ababa, we are incredibly fortunate to have been hosted by Celine and Arnaud, teachers at the International School. Although sadly we missed them by two days, they’ve opened their house to us and we’ve spent a couple of days enjoying the use of a washing machine and the luxury of a kitchen. Who would of thought that making spaghetti Bolognese would be so exciting!

We also met up with Miko, a cycling friend of Molla’s, who, with his brother, helped us straighten our wheels after the incident with the donkey.  We are incredibly helpful for his help.

Addis Ababa marks the half-way point of our cycle from London to Cape Town. We’ve been on the road just over 5 months and have another 10,000km to go before we reach Cape Town in June 2016.

We’re back on the road tomorrow (23rd December) to make the 800km dash to the border with Kenya at Omorate before our visas expire. We’ll be thinking of and desperately missing friends and family back at home as we cycle south on Christmas day knowing you’ll all be tucking into your turkeys. Please raise a glass to us in the form of a small donation to World Bicycle Relief. Donations are being doubled until the end of December 2015.

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas!

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.

Crossing the desert from Aswan to Khartoum

There are two ways to travel independently from Egypt to Sudan. The first is to take a ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa and the second is to cross the recently re-opened land border. Neither of which you can cycle (unless, of course, you are Mark Beaumont setting World Records with a full police escort, a lightweight bike and the ability to cycle 300km in one day!). The bus company was not keen to take us with our bikes so we opted for the well-travelled route by ferry.

Our extensive research told us that we needed to be prepared for this trip – we had read a number of blogs where travellers had been refused ticket sales and bumped off boats due to overcrowding even though they had a ticket, so we were keen to ensure that this was not to happen to us. Once we had our precious Sudanese visas we headed to the ticket office tucked away on an Aswan back street and asked for two 3rd class tickets. “Sorry, no 3rd class tickets available”. First class gives you a tiny cabin, second class entitles you to a chair and third class is deck space only. Since we were happy to sleep in our own space on deck on our sleeping mats third class was more than good enough. But not for foreigners it seems. Eager not to cause any fuss, we bought two second-class tickets for the weekly ferry on Sunday.

We got ourselves packed up and ready to go, bought enough food and water for a couple of days and alarms were set for 4am ready to cycle to the port. You see, we’d been warned that we’d need to arrive really early to get to the front of the queue to ensure we got on the boat (one blog we had read mentioned a queue of over 100 people by 6am). So, after practically no sleep we made the one-hour ride through Aswan’s dusty back streets in the dark and made it to the port by 6am. We arrived to find a ghost town. Were we in the right place? Turns out we were so we set up camp by the gate in time for it to open at 9am, bought some tea and did what us Brits do well, formed an orderly queue all by ourselves. It felt a bit like we’d arrived to start queuing at Wimbledon a week early by mistake.

Two very eager cyclists at the front of the queue for the Aswan to Wadi Halfa ferry

Two very eager yet tired cyclists at the front of the queue for the Aswan to Wadi Halfa ferry

Before long, fellow travellers did start to arrive, with lorries laden with fridges, furniture, fruit & veg and many more household possessions. Still, not nearly as much as we were expecting.  Finally the gates opened and the fun started. No less than 10 stages of bureaucracy and border control later, taking at least a couple of hours, we were at last free to get onto the boat. We whizzed onto the boat keen to get a good spot on deck only to find that we were the only people on the boat! Where was everyone?  Still feeling a little like we had perhaps got onto the wrong ferry, we set up camp under the life rafts (the only place to guarantee shade all day) and went to sleep for a couple of hours. Around 6pm, once the boat had been fully loaded, we set sail for Sudan, although the deck was still pretty much empty.

Good morning from our cabin under the life rafts

Good morning from our cabin under the life rafts

Where is everyone?

Where is everyone? (You can see our makeshift den under the lifeboat on the left)

After a very cold and windy night, the boat docked at Wadi Halfa around 10am the next morning and before we knew it, we were cycling in Sudan!

Exhausted from two nights without sleep we decided to spend the night in Halfa. We checked into a lokanda, the local name for a budget guest house (at $3 a person, it was a revolting as you might imagine and I wasn’t too sure they were that keen on having me there either). We needed to register with the police on arrival in Sudan, pay our entry fees as well as register for permits to travel outside Khartoum which took some time but was all done at the police station. Next stop was to get our photography permit which turned into a two hour wild goose chase as we were sent from one end of town to another a few times. Finally we found the right place but the man in charge was not there so he told us over the phone not to worry about the permit…we have not had any issues to date in Sudan without this permit and have subsequently picked one up in Khartoum.

From Wadi Halfa we took the road to Dongola, which tracks the Nile most of the way. The wind was behind us and we managed our longest day yet (170km) before wild camping amongst piles of bat poo in a disused building behind a water stop.

Camping in a disused building in the Nubian desert

Camping in a disused building in the Nubian desert

In Sudan, you can find water pots alongside the road relatively frequently to allow people to fill up with water – which is vital in the extreme summer heat when temperatures hit around 55 Celsius most days. We’d timed our entire trip to ensure we did not endure these sorts of temperatures and although we did have one day when the Garmin told us it was 50 degrees, it has mainly been between 32-40.

Topping 50 degrees in the Sudanese desert

Topping 50 degrees in the Sudanese desert

Humps on the road in the Bayuda Desert

Humps on the road in the Bayuda Desert

Picking up supplies from a small Nubian village en route to Dongola

Picking up supplies from a small Nubian village en route to Dongola

The road to Dongola was very much the same for the next couple of days, although the wind was not quite so favourable. Along the road were small Nubian villages and mining towns where people were so incredibly kind and welcoming. We had heard how friendly Sudan is and it has been amazing meeting so many lovely people.  If you stop by the side of the road and someone sees you, they will immediately come and shake your hand and say you are welcome before leaving you to your own business.

Capturing the milky way as we camp in our Vaude tent in the sand dunes

Capturing the milky way as we camp in our Vaude tent in the sand dunes

Cycling Sudan desert-14

We stopped over in Dongola in a small guesthouse and stocked up on supplies before our first desert crossing to Karima, which would take two days. We had plenty of food and enough water with us however, we were now heading southeast and the wind had picked up again blowing into our sides, slowing us down considerably. We’d had our first stomach upset and when, by4pm, we’d still not passed any water stations, tensions were rising somewhat at the prospect of having to ration our water until the end of the next day. We had just about enough with us, but it was going to be tight. Around 5pm we saw what we thought was a building in the distance…praying that it was not a mirage we steamed on ahead to check it out and, to our huge relief, we discovered there was a well and a couple of men living in a big concrete house. We were duly given as much water as we could drink, some dates and offered a bed inside for the night which we accepted without hesitation!

Our very welcome shelter for the night in the Nubian desert

Our very welcome shelter for the night in the Nubian desert

Our very smiley Nubian host!

Our very smiley Nubian host!

The next day was 120km to Karima, a town famous for its pyramids and home to Jebel Barkal, the southern most point of the Egyptian empire. Along the way, we met our first overlanders! Libby and Paddy and their two young girls were taking a year to drive from Cornwall to Cape Town – it was so lovely to see such friendly English people (the first English people we had seen since Cyprus!) and hear about their adventure.

It was great to meet Libby, Paddy and their lovely daughters driving all the way from Cornwall to Cape Town

It was great to meet Libby, Paddy and their lovely daughters driving all the way from Cornwall to Cape Town

We mentioned that we were going to wild camp at the Nurri pyramids so we tentatively agreed to meet them later on. The day got the better of us both – the solitude of the desert and driving cross winds were exhausting and we rolled into Karima around 4pm and found somewhere to buy a coke and recharge. We had another 20km to our camp spot and just enough daylight to get there so we set off, excited at the prospect of camping at the pyramids and chatting some more with our new English friends. Unfortunately this was not to happen. Our route took us on a short cut through the town that ended up on a track with deep sand that made pushing our bikes painfully slow and exhausting so after 30 minutes we agreed we were just not going to make it and should fill up with water and find a camp spot. As if out of nowhere, we found a set of water taps and just beyond was a large shelter made from palm trees – a perfect place to camp out of the wind and out of sight! Just as we were setting up our tents two big 4x4s turned up and some extremely charming Sudanese men wanted to check that we were ok! They were on their way to prayers in town and after we assured them that we were fine and had an enclosed tent so no scorpions could get in they pressed on – but ensured that they checked in on us on their way back home! Such has been the welcome we have enjoyed almost everywhere in Sudan!

Camping under palm tree thatching

Camping under palm tree thatching

Once our tent was up and we’d washed, we sat in our chairs to relax for a bit before making some delicious rice and tinned beans. It was only then that we realised that we had accidentally camping right outside the tombs and pyramids of Jebel Barkal just in time for sunset! So, we may have missed the pyramids we were aiming for but we had a lovely surprise! We hope we might bump into Paddy and Libby again on the road as true to their word, they were waiting for us at Nurri Pyramids, just such a shame we never made it there.

The pyramids at Jebel Barkal, Karima

The pyramids at Jebel Barkal, Karima

From Karima it was time to do our second desert crossing to reach Atbara – this time the Bayuda desert – which would take us 3 days. Unsure what we could buy on the road, we stocked up with enough food for the duration and took as much water as we can carry (around 12 litres each).

Outside a nubian bakery

Outside a bakery

Inside another Nubian bakery

Inside another Nubian bakery

It was an incredibly tough three days with a crosswind with us for almost the duration limiting our speed to 12-15kpm most of the way.

Cycling across the desert in 50 degree heat is tough

Cycling across the desert in 50 degree heat is tough

We were still having to pinch ourselves though to remember how much we had been dreaming about cycling across a desert and here we were – living our dream (it would be boring if it was easy right???!).

A harsh reminder of just how hostile the desert is

A harsh reminder of just how hostile the desert is

On the second night it was James’s turn to have a stomach upset which left him drained and exhausted for our final day on this stretch – but all was good, it was just 100km to Atbara we could get through it. Not so fast. Overnight a mild haboob had started brewing and, although it was not as bad as some of the storms we have heard about, cycling for an entire day with sand blowing into your face and frankly everywhere else made for a thoroughly miserable and incredibly exhausting day on the bikes. Of course in hindsight we can now look back on it with a smile and put it down as one of our more adventurous days!!

Putting on a brave face for the camera after been blasted by the desert sand

Putting on a brave face for the camera after been blasted by the desert sand

From Atbara we cycled a further three days to Khartoum along a much busier road carrying trucks to and from Khartoum and Port Sudan. Our first night was spent wild camping at some more pyramids – this time the Pyramids of Meroe – the ancient tombs of the ancient Nubian Kings and Queens of Meroe. Meroe was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush and it is thought that these pyramids are over 4,600 years old. Sadly an Italian explorer called Giusepe Ferlini destroyed many of them in a fruitless search for treasure and, although some are being reconstructed, we were shocked at how unsympathetic the reconstructions are. We’ve since learnt that hundreds more pyramids are being discovered every year here in Sudan and it is thought that there are more pyramids in one small section of the northern Sudanese desert than there are in the whole of Egypt! We felt hugely privileged to be able to enjoy these pyramids to ourselves and have the opportunity to camp just behind them and watch the sun go down. All that we were missing was a gin and tonic!

The pyramids of Meroe

The pyramids of Meroe

Finally, after 11 days on the go (our longest stint yet without a break) we arrived in Khartoum, somewhat worse for wear. We are extremely lucky be staying at KICS, the Khartoum International Community School and to be hosted by Nigel, Natasha and George (Nigel is the school Principle). I’m not too sure what Nigel thought when we arrived looking a little bit like shrivelled up desert prunes covered in sand dunes!  After a shower and some food, we started to feel a little more like human beings and enjoyed our first night in a comfortable bed for some time!

We've arrived in Khartoum!

We’ve arrived in Khartoum!

We feel very lucky to be staying here at KICS – thank you so much to the incredibly lovely Winnard family for making us feel so at home (and Natasha we are so sad you could not be here too). This school is extraordinary. Both James and I have both decided we would like to go back to school here and start our education again. Nigel’s philosophy on education is inspiring and the children passing through his school are very lucky. We’ve enjoyed meeting and chatting to many of them during our stay.

It was our pleasure to meet the Primary Student Council at Khartoum International Community School (KICS). They had some great questions!

It was our pleasure to meet the Primary Student Council at Khartoum International Community School (KICS). They had some great questions and we were able to tell them about the @powerofbicycles

So, Ethiopian visas in hand, we are getting our kit together to hit the road once again with around one more week in Sudan, we should arrive in Ethiopia by the end of the month. Then life will change as we head into the mountains. Eek.


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.

Cycling Egypt: A pharaoh way to go!

Reluctantly, we made the decision to fly from Jordan to Cairo because, had we cycled, our route would have taken us straight through the Sinai peninsular. The troubles in the Sinai have mostly been limited to the north east of the peninsular, close to the border with Gaza, where groups who’ve pledged allegiance to ISIS hang out but there have also been attacks near the border with Jordan at Taba in the southeast. We could have cycled the coastal road to Sharm el Sheikh and then up to Suez but even that would have taken us into a zone that the UK FCO advise against all but essential travel, which would leave our travel insurance null and void if we were to do so much as break a toe. We imagine this map may change again after recent events in the region.

The UK FCO travel advice meant the Sinai was out of bounds, forcing us to fly from Jordan to Cairo

The UK FCO travel advice meant the Sinai was out of bounds, forcing us to fly from Jordan to Cairo

The security procedures at Amman airport were a shambles. The guards manning the scanners took pleasure in picking out westerners and we saw them popping pills out of blister packs and losing an American couple’s passports. They took particular interest in our Goal Zero power pack and, for nearly 45 minutes, we thought we were going to be forced to sacrifice a piece of equipment we are reliant on when travelling in remote areas. They soon got bored of our Goal Zero and decided that, in fact, the biggest problem was our cycle helmets. It took a further 30 minutes of negotiations with numerous security staff to convince them of their importance and that they posed no threat to our fellow passengers! Upon arrival in Cairo, the builder’s bag holding my panniers had been opened and I later discovered our Victorinox knife was missing.

All our bags are packed and we're ready to go. Flying the short hop from Amman to Cairo.

All our bags are packed and we’re ready to go. Flying the short hop from Amman to Cairo.

Our task in Cairo was to get our visas for Sudan. We couldn’t get the Sudanese visa before we left the UK because it has a 2-month validity and we arrived in Cairo exactly 3 months to the day that we departed on the London to Brighton charity cycle ride.

Our guidebook and other bloggers had suggested it would take just 48 hours to get our visas from the Sudan embassy in Cairo. In reality, we were subjected to a level of bureaucracy, incompetence and indifference that I’d never experienced before. I shall publish a separate blog at a later date about our experiences attempting to obtain Sudan visa in Cairo so as not to compromise our efforts to reapply in Aswan or spoil our time in the country…if me make it in.

In Cairo, we met with Dr Azzam, the Head of the African Cycling Federation. Dr Azzam was fresh off the plane from the UCI Gala in Abu Dhabi where he’d presented Chris Froome with an award recognising his Tour de France win. Acknowledging that two touring cyclists from London are in the same league as Froome, he presented us with our own award from the Egyptian cycling Federation.

Dr Azzam, the Head of the African Cycling Federation, presents us with an award on behalf of the Egyptian Cycling Federation. I've hidden it in Emily's panniers.

Dr Azzam, the Head of the African Cycling Federation, presents us with an award on behalf of the Egyptian Cycling Federation. I’ve hidden it in Emily’s panniers.

Dr Azzam and his team were busy with the final preparations for the Arabian Cycling Championship to be held in Sharm El Sheikh the following week but they spared time to take us out for dinner – and also to the wedding party of a colleague, where we witnessed some spectacular traditional dancing.

cycling Egypt-6

Spectacular dancing at an Egyptian wedding celebration

Egyptian wedding: colourful.

Egyptian wedding: colourful.

We’d based ourselves in a hotel close to the airport as we’d hoped we’d make a quick getaway to beat central Cairo’s traffic as soon as the visas came through. However, what was intended to be 4-night stop in Cairo turned into an 11-night frustration fest as we risked life and limb criss-crossing the capital in our frequent taxi trips to the Sudan embassy. Drivers in Cairo have absolutely no concept of any form of road rules whatsoever.

At the hotel, Emily made daily use of the gym whereas I was more content with shuttle runs between our breakfast table and the buffet. Annoyingly, we were both hit with upset stomachs later in the week – something for which I was not yet mentally prepared.

After 11 nights and still without any sign of securing a Sudan visa, we decided enough was enough and got back on the road.

We had a choice of routes from Cairo to take:

  1. My preferred route would have been the Western Desert road, which would have taken us deep into the desert visiting small oases towns along the way to re-join the Nile just south of Luxor. However, the current FCO travel advice ruled this out.
  2. Straight down the Nile. It would have been the shortest route but also the most populated because Egypt’s population is squeezed into a thin strip of land in the Nile valley. More people = more hassle.
  3. Head Southeast to Ain Sokhna. This option was ruled out because cyclists are banned from cycling the Cairo to Ain Sokhna road without special permission.
  4. West on the Cairo to Suez road then south along the Red Sea, heading inland at Safaga to Qena, just north of Luxor.

We opted to cycle the Cairo to Suez route.  Although it was slightly longer, it meant we would delay the inevitable hassle along the Nile and also experience a taste of the desert on the Safaga to Qena road.

We left Cairo early on a Friday morning. It being the Sabbath, the roads were empty and it was great to see a few groups of local cyclists enjoying the wide-open highway.

Cairo is home to 20+ million people so space and accommodation is at a premium. When leaving the city we witnessed the government’s attempt to address this problem by building new cities on the outskirts of Cairo. Simply dubbing these huge suburban urban conurbations as ‘New’ Heliopolis and ‘New’ Cairo, they’re springing up at a rate of knots along the Cairo to Suez road.

After a couple of days break in Jordan and the Sudan visa debacle in Cairo, we’d had 15 days off the bikes and, boy, we soon paid the price. Although the terrain wasn’t hilly, a headwind kicked up and put our fitness to the test. Add to the equation the searing desert sun and the fact that, due to our upset stomachs, our bodies hadn’t retained sufficient liquids over the previous few days we started to suffer. I soon regretted my battles with the breakfast buffet.

We staggered into Suez at dusk, barely able to keep our bikes upright and our bodies from retching. Ironically, the easterly wind we’d been battling all day had flipped directions and, now blowing from the west, the strong wind kicked up a huge cloud of sand from the desert we’d just traversed, blackening the sky further. We could all but manage to stand up as we checked into our Suez hotel, where wedding celebrations and fireworks kept us awake all night.

Ships lining up to enter the Suez Canal

Ships lining up to enter the Suez Canal

Partially rehydrated and rested, we headed south the next day towards Zaafarana. The 107km ride took us along the Red Sea coast and there were plenty of touristy places to stop for water and snacks.

That all changed the next day, however, when we got our water strategy wrong. Some light drizzle had formed a few roadside puddles but, other than that, for the 100km between Zaafarana and Ras Ghareb there were no water sources at all. We’d been expecting a handful of resorts but there was nothing but a couple of army lookout towers where some bored guards were more than happy to chat and fill our Water-to-Go bottles for us. One guard said he’d been watching us approach for the last 45 minutes through his binoculars

Then something funny happened.

A few kilometers further on we spied two full and unopened bottles of Dasani water by the roadside. We gulped them down. Another 5km we found another couple of bottles, slightly squashed but with the seals intact. We put them in our panniers. We made the same discovery another 10km further on. Half an hour later we came across the source of this water miracle; a truck had pulled over and two men were desperately trying to haul their cargo back on to the truck and tie a tarpaulin over it.

They were carrying a cargo of Dasani water. The unexpected desert drizzle had soaked the cardboard packaging, which caused the bottles to fall from the weakened packaging.

Now, Dasani water was probably one of the biggest marketing flops the UK has ever seen. The Coca-Cola owned brand was abandoned after the ‘purified water’ with a 3,000% mark up was found to be nothing but filtered tap water – enabling the British press to liken it to Peckham Spring. The final nail in the brand’s coffin was when independent tests found higher-than-permitted levels of a potentially carcinogenic chemical in the water. Coca-Cola pulled Dasani from the UK market but the brand’s going strong in the rest of the world and, on this day, we were very grateful that these bottles had been ‘falling from the sky’ for us.

Later, the truck overtook us and we scooped up the bottled water for the rest of the afternoon.

Water was 'falling from the sky' for us in the desert

Water was ‘falling from the sky’ for us in the desert

Just after setting off on our last day along the Red Sea, Emily’s pannier rack fell off. We propped the bikes up against a large road sign. Whilst we were tinkering away with our sub-optimal adjustable spanner a 4-foot long snake darted by my feet and hid under between the concrete base and metal structure of the sign. We had no option but to continue fixing the pannier rack knowing that the serpent was inches away from our toes looking at our every move.

Seeing that we were trying to fix the bike, a guy stopped and leant us a spanner from his toolkit. He was a dive instructor at a nearby resort and introduced himself as “Humpty Dumpty”. I didn’t ask where that nickname had come from! Humpty was great and, with his spanner, we got the pannier rack fixed in minutes…although he became somewhat edgy when I told him about the snake just inches from where we were crouching!

Cycling the Red Sea coast. More barren than expected!

Cycling the Red Sea coast. More barren than expected!

We had the wind in our favour for the majority of our few days cycling the Red Sea coast and made it to Safaga, where we stocked up on supplies ahead of the 2-day cycle across the Eastern Desert from Safaga to Luxor.

Our first challenge on the Eastern Desert road was to avoid getting a police escort.

You see, police escorts outside the main tourist areas in Egypt are commonplace and we’ve read many accounts from touring cyclists that they are a hindrance more than help. Some have even given up cycling and hitched a lift with the police instead.  They sit on your wheel, diesel engine rattling. They force you to stop when they want to stop and they rush you along when you want to stop. With little perceived threat in the area we wanted to avoid the police as much as possible. But, with countless checkpoints on the roads, it was going to be a challenge to get them to leave us to our own devices.

At the first checkpoint just outside Safaga, I think we managed to convince the police that we were going to cycle the full 170km to Qena in one day. I definitely think they would have followed us had they known we were planning to wild camp in the desert.

With that small victory behind us, we set off in to the unknown. Desert mountains either side of us and a gradual incline and a headwind made the going scenic but not easy. We supplemented the water we were carrying from a leaking roadside water pipe and, later, had lunch by the side of the road perched on rocks that were shaded from the relentless sun by a craggy outcrop above.

Cycling the Safaga to Qena Road in Egypt

Cycling the Safaga to Qena Road in Egypt

To our surprise there was a small shop selling drinks about a quarter of the way across and, where the map said ‘fuel stop’ at the halfway point there was a cluster of houses and shops all selling overpriced drinks.

The small village also meant more police checkpoints. It was now 4pm and, with just over an hour until sunset, we firmly believed we would be given a police escort or be forced to camp behind the police hut. However, whenever they asked us where we were going, we simply repeated “Qena” to the extent that, again, they were either convinced we were going straight there or they couldn’t be bothered following us because it was nearly their home time.

With our final police checkpoint of the day avoided, we ducked down a sandy bank out of sight of the road and set up our wild camp in the desert, enjoying the remote peacefulness of the desert in our tent for the first time.

Taking the tent down after enjoying a peaceful night in the desert. Yes, we checked for snakes and scorpions!

Taking the tent down after enjoying a peaceful night in the desert. Yes, we checked for snakes and scorpions!

We were up early the next morning to complete the desert stretch out of the heat.   A few minutes after passing another police checkpoint 40 KM from Qena, we heard a diesel engine and looked round to see we had a police escort. They followed us, watched intently as we changed a puncture but then, once we’d passed through Qena they seemed to give up because they’d disappeared.

Our police kept a close eye on us as we changed a puncture - but gave up once we'd passed through Qena

Our police kept a close eye on us as we changed a puncture – but gave up once we’d passed through Qena

It was an incredible experience to reach the fertile Nile Valley. Blasts of colour from vibrantly-coloured flowers and each plant seemed green-than-green after our days of cycling down the arid Red Sea and across the desert.

We continued for the rest of the day with only the constant shouts of “Hello” and “Welcome to Egypt” to contend with as we made our way to Luxor, where we took 2 days to see the world famous historic sites.

In Luxor we did something we’d never done before. We paid for a guide. And it was worth every penny. The knowledgeable chap took as around the Temple of Karnak, the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Nobles as well as other lesser-known tombs. All of which we would have simple skipped around and overlooked many interesting things. What’s more, the perceived troubles meant that tourists are keeping away, meaning we had the tourist sites pretty much to ourselves!

Egypt Sightseeing Slide Show

Our hotel in Luxor had a Tourist Policeman sat on the door. When it was time for us to leave, he again insisted that he call for a police escort. I negotiated that, instead of an escort, the police could take our number and call us at regular intervals to check how we’re doing. So, we set off south without an escort.

It was our first full day cycling down the Nile and we were instantly glad we’d taken the quieter Red Sea route up until now. Every person we passed shouted at us. Most shouted “Hello, What’s your name?” and “welcome to Egypt” whilst others shouted “money money money”.

Half man, half donkey?

Half man, half donkey?

The hassle escalated when we stopped at a bakery, which was next door to a school. I turned round to find Emily and our bikes surrounded by kids grabbing our bikes. I quickly got back on my bike but not before even more kids and adults joined the growing throng. One woman stood in the way of the bike and shouted at me when I tried to move it forward. Three times she purposefully stood in the way then got upset when I tried to move forward. We eventually escaped the crowd with the help of a couple of more sensible adults but out bikes were pushed from both sides as we cycled off.

Things got more sinister later that afternoon. We were being followed by two tuktuks. In one, kids were constantly shouting “money, money, money”. The other was making several close high-speed passes. This became nasty when the lad in the back produced a large iron chain, which he repeatedly threatened us with from the speeding tuktuk. The driver would pass us, drive up the road, turn round then take another headlong run at us…with a chain being dangled from the back seat. The final straw was when he decided to swing the chain out of the tuktuk at us narrowly missing our bikes and enough was enough. We stopped and I think the emotion of it all got the better of Emily who was clearly upset. Within moments of stopping, however, a group of builders came over to help by ensuring the tuktuks couldn’t pass them.

We couldn’t be sure whether there was any real intention to hurt or just intimidate us, but the whole experience was unnerving to say the least and made us wary of any vehicle approaching from behind for the rest of the day.

That night we stayed at a noisy hotel in Edfu and received our first two check up calls from the police – at 1:30am and 2am! Unbelievable.

The next day, we opted to continue on the quieter road on the west bank of the Nile. Again, we were expecting the police to trail us but there weren’t any checkpoints at all. We were about 45km in when we got the first call. In broken English, the policeman asked where we were. “We are going to Aswan” I replied. He asked what time we will leave Luxor. “We leave Luxor today to go to Aswan”.

After suitably confusing him, he hung up. I got another call 10 minutes later from another policeman demanding to know where we were. I told him I didn’t know where we were and that I didn’t know how many kilometers we had cycled. We had the police on our tails.

The western Nile road became less populated as the width of the arable land between the river and the desert became thinner. The road itself ducked in and out of the desert a few times; each time we returned the river we were greeted with bursts of green from the trees and crops on this valuable fertile strip in the middle of a desert.

With 40km more to cycle, we caught a small ferry from the west bank to the east bank of the Nile. A friendly chap called Khalid helped us out with the formalities and even paid our £1LE tickets for us!

Whilst on the ferry, my phone went again.

“I have been ordered to provide security for you. Are you on the desert road?” the policeman asked.
“We have been cycling on the desert road this morning” I truthfully but evasively answered.
I then turned my phone off.

So, for the rest of the run down to Aswan, we managed to evade the police as we felt perfectly safe.

cycling Egypt-5-4

Escaping the police search party by crossing the Nile at Faris (Fars on road signs)

In Aswan we went to see Unfinished Obelisk, which lies in the same granite quarry from which Cleopatra’s Needle was hewn. It was extraordinary to visit this quarry from which most of Ancient Egypt’s famous granite statues came from. What’s more, it’s incredible to think about how on earth they managed to transport them across the country 5,000 years ago.

The Unfinished Obelisk was ordered by Hatshepsut (1508–1458 BC) and was to be the largest ever obelisk erected – at over 42 meters and 1,200 tonnes – had not a flaw in the granite been discovered at a late stage in its formation. After months of carving this huge monument directly from the bedrock by hand, the project had to be abandoned, leaving the thousands of workers as despondent and frustrated as two cyclists attempting to get a Sudanese visa from the embassy in Cairo.

Unfinished Obelisk Aswan

The Unfinished Obelisk: A monument to disappointment

On the subject of visas, we decided to reapply at the Sudanese consulate in Aswan. And our experience there could not have been any different from the debacle in Cairo. We were greeted warmly, guided through the forms (a different form altogether than Cairo), were told we needn’t bother with the ‘letter of introduction’ from our embassy or even put the details of a sponsor down (we did however give them both pieces of information). They took our US$50 each, kept our passports and told us to return “the day after tomorrow” where our visas would be ready “Inshallah”.

Now, ‘Inshallah’ (God Willing) is a catch-all get-out clause in the Islamic world but, in this case, we are 99% confident we can pick our visas up tomorrow – just 48 hours after re-applying.

Update: True to their word, we returned to the Sudanese consulate in Aswan today and, without any further questions, we were handed our passports with two visas firmly affixed inside.  And, with tickets purchased for Sunday’s ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa, we are over the moon; but with a sightly bitter taste in our mouths from our experience in Cairo.

But for now, it’s time to say goodbye to Egypt. And, when we sip a celebratory beer alongside the Nile tonight watching the flocks of migratory birds that have been sweeping south across the sunset sky, we do so with the knowledge that we are now free to join them on their journey south.

With visas in hand, we are now free to join these fellas on their journey south

With visas in hand, we are now free to join these fellas on their journey south

But it’s not going to be an easy journey.  As soon as we step off the ferry, we’ll face a A 1,200KM cycle across the Nubian and Bayuda deserts to Khartoum.  It’ll be hot.  It’ll be remote.  But cycling Sudan is a challenge that we’re relishing.


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.