Posts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had to plan this section carefully.

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

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

We needed to find a compromise.

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling Botswana Chobe-4823

Taking a break with the sign warning of animals behind

Taking a break with the sign warning of animals behind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a gentleman, I invited Emily to go first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling Botswana-4827

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

Cycling Botswana-4833

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

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

Cycling Botswana-4848

Sightings of giraffes livened up the journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The adventurers at the Makgadikgadi Pan

The adventurers at the Makgadikgadi Pan

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

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

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

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

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

The Tour d'Afrqiue bandwagon rolls into 'town'

The Tour d’Afrqiue bandwagon rolls into ‘town’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first sign for South Africa!

The first sign for South Africa!

A 'cartoon-style- rain cloud

A ‘cartoon-style’ rain cloud

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

Camping at the biltong shop halfway between Gobabis and Windhoek

Camping at the biltong shop halfway between Gobabis and Windhoek

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

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

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

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.

Walking back to recovery in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

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

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

We didn’t do so immediately.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Even the time in Ethiopia is different.

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

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

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

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

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

Our scout kept watch over us for four days

Our scout kept watch over us for four days

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

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

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

 

The path clung to the cliff face

The path clung to the cliff face

 

Don't slip there!

Don’t slip there!

Simien Mountains Trekking-37

Simien Mountains Trekking-36

We were lucky to see some amazing wildlife too.

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

 

Gelada monkeys grazed on the hillsides

Gelada monkeys grazed on the hillsides

 

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

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

Gelada monkeys roam the hillsides

Gelada monkeys roam the hillsides

An incredibly rare sighting of an Ethiopian fox hunting for mice

An incredibly rare sighting of an Ethiopian fox hunting for mice

An ibex stands proud against the Simien mountains in Ethiopia

An ibex stands proud against the Simien mountains in Ethiopia

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

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

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

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

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

 

Getting ready for a feast by the roaring fire

Getting ready for a feast by the roaring fire

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

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

The Simien mountain views were stunning

The Simien mountain views were stunning

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

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

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

8 of the strangest places we have camped whilst cycling through central Turkey. #7 was by far our favourite!

8 of the strangest places we have camped whilst cycling through central Turkey. #7 was by far our favourite!

Cycling through  central Turkey has been tough as it’s very hilly.  But the people we’ve met have been incredibly friendly and the hospitality has been amazing.  So much so that we’ve managed to pitch our tent in some rather beautiful and unusual places!

1. On the banks of a reservoir

We pitched our tent on the banks of the Çerkeşli göleti reservoir. The reservoir's banks were dotted with fisherman and we were even given a huge bunch of freshly-picked grapes from the farmers as we pitched our tent

We pitched our tent on the banks of the Çerkeşli göleti reservoir. The reservoir’s banks were dotted with fisherman and we were even given a huge bunch of freshly-picked grapes from the farmers as we pitched our tent

2. Behind trees just below a highway

We simply couldn't cycle any further on this day, so we ducked down below the D170 road (which is just behind the trees) just east of Göynük, Tepebaşı, Turkey.

We simply couldn’t cycle any further on this day, so we ducked down below the D170 road (which is just behind the trees) just east of Göynük, Tepebaşı, Turkey.

3. On a tiny patch of grass at a gas station

After a long day in the saddle, we pitched up at this fuel station in Davutoğlan, Turkey. The extremely friendly staff offered us watermelon, showers and for us to pitch our tent on a small patch of grass adjacent to the petrol station.

After a long day in the saddle, we pitched up at this fuel station in Davutoğlan, Turkey. The extremely friendly staff offered us watermelon, showers and for us to pitch our tent on a small patch of grass adjacent to the petrol station.

4. Behind some reeds right beside a highway

With 115km on the clock, we pitched our tent behind some reeds that shielded us from the road.

With 115km on the clock, we pitched our tent behind some reeds that shielded us from the road.

5. In the bushes behind a 5* hotel

Wild camping in Aksaray, central Turkey

We couldn’t afford to stay at the 5* hotel in Aksaray, Turkey, so we found a wild camping spot on the hill behind it!

6. At a play area in a gas station

We were shattered, so could have slept anywhere. Just as well because the friendly staff at a service station east of Karahamzalı, Turkey, showed us the place to pitch our tent: a children's play area!

We were shattered, so could have slept anywhere. Just as well because the friendly staff at a service station east of Karahamzalı, Turkey, showed us the place to pitch our tent: a children’s play area!

We were shattered, so could have slept anywhere. Just as well because the friendly staff at a service station east of Karahamzalı, Turkey, showed us the place to pitch our tent: a children’s play area! Can you see our tent? Sadly for some kids, we blocked the entrance to the climbing frame for the night.

We were shattered, so could have slept anywhere. Just as well because the friendly staff at a service station east of Karahamzalı, Turkey, showed us the place to pitch our tent: a children’s play area! Can you see our tent? Sadly for some kids, we blocked the entrance to the climbing frame for the night.

7. In an Audi car showroom

We were searching for a place to pitch our tent in the trees between the car showroom and the beach when Doğan came running after us. He said that we could stay 'at his workplace' and we were quickly ushered into the Audi showroom. OK, it wasn't strictly camping. But sleeping in the staff bedroom upstairs was very welcome and a very kind gesture from Doğan and his colleagues.

We were searching for a place to pitch our tent in the trees between the car showroom and the beach when Doğan came running after us. He said that we could stay ‘at his workplace’ and we were quickly ushered into the Audi showroom. OK, it wasn’t strictly camping. But sleeping in the staff bedroom upstairs was very welcome and a very kind gesture from Doğan and his colleagues.

8. Right outside the toilets at a 24-hour motorway services

We thought this patch of grass was suitable. However, it was right outside the toilets, so we had a steady stream of noisy travellers wandering past the tent throughout the night. The grass was also littered with tiny thorns that managed to puncture both our sleeping mats.

We thought this patch of grass was suitable. However, it was right outside the toilets, so we had a steady stream of noisy travellers wandering past the tent throughout the night. The grass was also littered with tiny thorns that managed to puncture both our sleeping mats.


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.

Passau cobbled street

Too old to party in Passau

I was looking forward to Passau. A beautiful Bavarian town steeped in history and, importantly for us after staying in some horrible caravan parks, the chance to stay in a beautiful riverside campsite where only tents were allowed.

We arrived mid afternoon and chose a fantastic position just by the waters edge and read our books in the last of the day’s sun as the river gently bubbled below the bank.

In high spirits we headed into town in search for a place that would serve a traditional stein and for a cheap meal. Hunger overtook before we could find anywhere that sold one litre lagers. Nevertheless, we’d given ourselves a rest day in Passau, so there’d always be the next night to find one.

Beautiful Passau

Beautiful Passau

 

 

We returned to the campsite after our meal to find that it had been overrun by ‘youths’. Tents were crammed everywhere and they continued to arrive.

We learned from a Dutch couple we’ve been meeting along the Danube that they’d been warned when checking in that tonight was likely to be noisy as there was a festival going on nearby.

In fact, there were about 4 lacrosse teams there. And, all of the blokes had a resemblance to the character Stiffler from American Pie. They were all pissed and, as we tried to sleep, more and more people arrived and the noisier it got.

Now, in years gone by, I may well have been tempted to join in and swig vodka from a 2-litre bottle and snort tequila through my eyeballs (or whatever they were doing) but, now that I’m an endurance athlete(!), a good night’s sleep was the order of the day and that’s not what I got.

The low point was probably around 3am when a further group arrived and decided it was a great idea to put up their tent less than a metre from ours, tripping over our guy ropes and singing as they put thier tent up.

The morning after the night before (our tent is in the background)

The morning after the night before (our tent is in the background)

The next morning, having barely slept a wink, Emily and I decided that, as last night’s antics were just the warm up to the next night’s proper party, we should reluctantly ask for a refund of our second night’s camping fees and find somewhere else to stay.

The trouble was, the campsite office only opened at 6pm so there was no clear way of getting a refund. That was until I spied a member of staff and asked her how I could get a refund. “Not possible” and “Come back when the office is open” were the replies to my request. Then I suggested either she or the café gave me a refund and when the man from the office returned that night she could get the money from him. A simple bookkeeping process one would think. However, my suggestion was met with (literal) shouts and screams of “This is not normal” before she finally stomped off, slamming the door in my face.

I returned to help Emily pack up the tent, asking her if she might be able to go and reason with the woman however before she had the chance (I think to Emily’s relief) the lady came bounding out of the office and, with tears in her eyes, threw (yes threw!) the 18 Euros at my feet shouting “this is my money! I work hard for my money!” before storming off.

Maybe we caught her on a bad day. Or, quite possibly, she hadn’t had any sleep either. Either way, we finished packing our tent and headed into town with an audience of bewildered campers wondering what on earth I could have done to provoke such a reaction.

The cathedral in Passau is claimed to house the ‘world’s biggest organ’. Now, there’s a confident boast for you. Realising the only real way to measure organs is with a tape measure, we sat on a bench outside eating our packed lunch and could only imagine the size of said organ as we heard a man playing furiously with it behind the cathedral’s closed doors.

We decided the best way to get a good night’s sleep was to cycle 20km downstream to a campsite that was marked on the map at Pyrawang, just over the border in Austria. As we passed the Austria sign, I released I’d not managed to have a Bavarian Stein, so it’ll have to wait until a visit to Katzenjammers upon my return to London next year.

Germany Austria border

Crossing into our fourth country: Austria.

london to cape town by bike-10

We arrived at the Pyrawang campsite at a time when they were setting up for an Ibiza-style ‘Danube beach party’ so we continued another 10km to find a nice little campsite alongside a marina at Hütt-Siedlung.

Here we met a lovely Austrian couple, Ilse and Manfred, who’d canoed all the way from Innsbruck and plan to navigate the majority of the Danube then pick up bikes and continue their journey into Georgia and on to Iran. They’re both teachers and we learnt that teachers in Austria can opt to receive only 80% of their pay for 4 years then take a year’s sabbatical in the 5th year receiving 80% pay. There’s no limit to the number of sabbaticals they can take. So, in effect, every 5 years you get a year off. This is a concept I may suggest to my boss when I’m back.

Just as we’d erected our tent the ‘youths’ in the caravan immediately adjacent to our pitch turned on their own Ibiza-style music to number 11 and started to get stuck into their Vodka Red Bulls and Jeagermeisters. Again, a (very) small part of me wanted to dust off my copy of Ministry of Sound’s Clubbers’ Annual 1996, get a 6-pack and pull some big-box-little-box shapes with them. But, as we’d left Passau a day early and continued an extra 10km to avoid noise, that thought was short-lived and I was, in fact, a miserable old git so went to get ‘someone in charge’ to tell them to shut up. Fortunately, the lady at this campsite was helpful and she told them to keep it down. The kids dutifully turned the music down but, as is the tactic for any party host when they’ve been told to keep the noise down, they gradually turned the volume up by one notch at a time until it was soon back up to 11 again.

We went to sleep with earplugs in. It then pissed it down so, for once, we were glad for the rain as they retreated inside.

Today (Sunday 2nd August) was soggy. We packed up our soaking tent in the rain. We cycled in the rain. And we passed through one of the highlights of the Danube (the river does a series of hairpins in a beautiful gorge) in the rain and sadly with clouds at tree height restricting our views.

Nevertheless, it was a mostly tranquil day by the grey Danube aside from an insect that collided with my face at speed and managed to sting me on impact.

After a day worrying that we’d be sleeping in a soggy tent, we arrived in Linz and I was astonished that Emily opted to camp rather than stay in a cheapish city-centre hotel room I’d found online. Exactly three weeks in and I think we’re getting the hang of this!


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.

 

 

Life on the Danube

Germany is a country I knew very little about before leaving home, and it’s not heavily marketed to us Brits so we don’t tend to visit much. I had visited Munich and a small place called Friedrichshafen on the Swiss border a few times for work but other than that, if I am honest, it has never been a country on my “must-see” list. For this reason, I was both intrigued and excited about the prospect of spending 10 days cycling through the Black Forest and along the Danube River – to see some of the Germany had I been missing.

We instantly knew we had arrived in Germany when within minutes of crossing the border we bumped into a couple with bikes laden with VAUDE panniers heading to the bike paths – we were going to fit in here just fine. In fact we have been the envy of many of our fellow cycle tourers when they see all of our great VAUDE kit – we’ve been stopped a few times now!

Our first few days in Germany were beautiful but hilly. I’m not sure Germany got the memo on mountain road switchbacks that we all dream about cycling (or driving) up and gradients frequented 20-25% making for tough going when you are carrying your worldly possessions with you – at times my heart was beating so fast I wondered if it might leap right out of my chest onto the road in front of me!

For those who may be interested, the Danube is the second longest river in Europe and flows around 2,800km. The river originates in Donaueschingen in the Black Forest of Germany and travels to the Black Sea in Hungary. Once a main frontier of the Roman Empire, the river is the lifeline to 10 countries from central to Eastern Europe. We have been tracking it for 10 days now and it has not failed to impress.

The source of the Danube (Donauquelle) is an underground spring that is incased in a well outside a German stately home in Donaueschingen. We went to take a look but, but it sadly was undergoing repair work. However, we took a moment to reflect beside the water that would be our route marker for around 2,500km. We were unsure what to expect ahead but we were excited to get going.

James and Emily at the Donauquelle: the source of the Danube

James and Emily at the Donauquelle: the source of the Danube

From here we left the concrete jungle and the path took us off road, on mainly well-managed gravel paths through a simply breathtaking gorge, steeped in Geological history. Once upon a time I would have been able to tell you more about the surroundings but long-term memory fails me, my Geography teachers will be most unimpressed. We could not stop smiling as we made our way along the river along with the other cycle tourers on their summer holidays.

Biking the Danube

Cycling down the beautiful Danube Gorge

Quick pit stop in a town called Sigmaringen was our first taste of the beautiful towns that lay ahead, we celebrated with pizza and a beer before heading back to our campsite.

From here we headed to a town called Ulm where we were due to spend a day. Much to my excitement, it was also one of the only towns along the Danube in Germany that does not have a campsite and so, by the time we realised we’d overshot the Youth Hostel by 5km, we were forced to stay in a hotel for a night. A mattress meant my first proper night’s sleep since Alsace and it was pure bliss.

Actually enjoying a German meal

Actually enjoying a German meal

Ulm is a stunning 12th century town on the riverbank full of hidden gems around every corner and, apparently, it has the tallest church spire in Europe. It was certainly impressive; walking around the town felt more like I was in an Italian town than a German one – why had I never heard of this place? More was to follow with the next few towns we passed – all should go onto a holiday visit list – Donauworth, Inglostadt and the most impressive of them all, Regensburg.

We’ve slowed down a bit since France to allow us to enjoy the surroundings – we don’t want to miss anything – cycling for 4-6 hours a day instead of 8-10 hours has made a real difference. It does not, however, take away some excellent moments that only tiredness can produce such as James getting on his bike backwards and me loosing my sunglasses for a good 10 minutes before finding them on my head.

Regensburg is the oldest town in Germany and the old capital of Bavaria. We checked into a campsite for a couple of nights so that we could spend a day looking around the town. Being in the centre of Bavaria means that a can of beer costs around 40p…around half the price of a can of coke so as my Grandpa would have said, “It would be dangerous not to” so we enjoyed a few beers and cooked a feast at the campsite enjoying a lie in the following morning before heading into town.

Regensburg

Regensburg

Naturally, being a rest day, it rained nearly all day, but that did not take anything away from how incredibly beautiful Regensburg is. If you are into shopping, this is the place to go (Dad I suggest you get Mummy to skip this paragraph) as it is fully of boutique clothes, furniture and household shops as far as the eye can see and squares around every corner with cafés and restaurants. The cathedral was a highlight, dating back to pre 1100; it is home to world famous medieval stained glass windows dating back to 1230.

We are currently around 60kms (and one puncture) further along the river in another charming town called Strau

Ahead of the storm

bing; again home to a beautiful church and an idyllic walled town centre with cobbled streets lined with cafés.

Before you ask – no, sadly we are not wining and dining in all these towns, budgets do not allow but it has been a complete privilege to travel through them and experience their beauty with a packed lunch!

We have been camping on and off for nearly 3 weeks now and are now into a routine. James has nearly managed to work out how to pack his panniers in under two hours every morning while I have time to dismantle the tent, have a shower and do my nails 😉 and it was with much excitement that 5 nights ago we finally worked out how to put our tent up properly. We have been enjoying some good sleep and making the most of German campsites with hot showers and fresh water while it lasts, we are fully aware that before long these luxuries will disappear.

So, naturally, being the man James in in charge of fire and map reading (for those who know me well, you will all agree that both these things are good responsibilities for me not to have, otherwise we would have burnt down the tent and be cycling towards Norway). I am mainly responsible for the kitchen duties, chopping vegetables and washing up, relatively safe, and no, I have not cut my fingers off with a knife yet!

It’s safe to say, we are having the time of our lives and loving every minute of this adventure so far, we’ve met some great people along the way already. I don’t think we will ever get tired of seeing people’s expression when they ask how far along the Danube we are going and we tell them we’re cycling it all and then continuing to Cape Town. One of the great things has been meeting so many families out here, all cycling together – with kids as young as 2 years old.

 

Smiles by the Danube

Smiles by the Danube

Germany is as slick and efficient as you might imagine. For the cyclists out there reading this, it comes highly recommended as a place to visit – whether on touring bikes or your road bikes. The national bike paths are incredibly well signposted and take you to some unbelievably beautiful places and nearly every major road has a cycle path alongside it. If you fancy cycling for a week or two without any cars, this is the place to come!

Ahead of the storm

Tomorrow we head about 110km further along to our last stop in Germany, Passau which is meant to be Germany’s answer to Venice to we shall mark our last day in Bavaria with a Stein, a few sausages and some Sauerkraut. After that it’s on to Austria and hope to be in Vienna by next weekend.

Thank you Germany, we can’t wait to come back again some day.


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.

Feeling the heat in the first week

For the last few months before we set off to cycle from London to Cape Town, I had imagined the first week on the road in great detail. We would both gently amble through the French countryside, the sun gently warming our backs, we’d get the day’s miles done by noon allowing for ample time to kick back and relax after the last few hectic weeks before we departed. I imagined I’d have Tweeted every hour, written a blog post every day, stopped to take enough photos worthy of winning the Travel Photographer of the Year and I’d be well in to the second book on my to-read list by now.

In reality, our daily mileage has been high, our days long, we’ve battled heat fiercer than anything we were expecting in Africa, photos have been snatched from the side of the road and we’ve arrived at our days’ destination late (both having a remarkably similar odour and saltiness to the camembert we bought one lunchtime that slowly baked and disintegrated in our panniers all afternoon) and with only enough energy to find a bed for the night or pitch the tent and with mouths as dry as our dust-filled cycling sandals.

10 days in and I still haven’t made it past the first chapter of my book; I’ve had to re-read the same page three times as my eyes have involuntary closed at each attempt and our sleep has been interrupted by round-the-clock harvest vehicles and church bells and even wild boar surrounding our wild camping spot in the middle of the night.

Our first week has been hot. Very hot. Temperatures have been at or over 40 degrees all week. This has made cycling over undulating French countryside with fully-laden panniers incredibly tough…and slow!

After crossing the channel courtesy of DFDS Seaways, we landed on French soil very early on Bastille Day and followed the Avenue Vert and country lanes all the way to Beauvais. As everything was closed, we picnicked in our cheap hotel room.

We rose early the next day, and followed quiet country lanes through wheat fields towards our destination, Villers-Cotterêts, where, as we stopped for a chilled Coke in the town square dedicated to Three Muskateers authors Alexandre Dumas who was born there, the temperature on our Garmin topped 43 degrees. That night, we headed deep into the Retz forest and found a quiet spot to pitch our tent. The forest was described as “home to a wonderful variety of fauna including deer, rabbits, hares, foxes, pheasants and even wild boar.”

Wild camping in the Retz Forest

As we cleared our cooking equipment away, a large deer wandered by in the distance, making its distinctive call into the empty darkness.

“What’s the hell is that!” I woke abruptly as Emily grabbed my arm. “They’re coming!” with panic in Emily’s voice. Listening, I could hear the rustling of the leaves coming nearer and nearer. I urged Emily to keep quiet. We both lay rigid as, closer and closer, movement in what would otherwise be an empty, dark and lonely forest came nearer. There was a grunt. “Wild boar!” Emily whispered.

These potentially dangerous beasts were now surrounding the tent, millimetres of fabric between us, our food and their dangerous tusks. They grunted, they sniffed and they rummaged in the foliage around our tent whilst we lay, hearts pounding and daring not to make a sound.

We’d tied our rubbish up in a tree, so, after finding our presence didn’t bring any food source outside our tent, they finally continued their way through the forest. It was almost impossible to sleep after that; every movement of a leaf would make us jump bolt upright.

Our third day cycling in France was also a scorcher but it was fantastic to cycle through the vineyards of the Champagne region. Epernay was our destination but, by the time we got there champagne was the last thing on our mind; we would have happily paid champagne prices for magnums of tap water.

The cool of the champagne cellar was a welcome respite from the heat of the day

After Epernay, we had a long 85-mile day, which mostly followed a canal-side bike path. After a very long and tiring day We were struggling to find a camping spot so asked some villagers if they knew anywhere to camp. We were astonished and incredibly grateful to be invited to camp in a lovely lady, Marylène’s garden. She offered us showers, drinking water and even vegetables from her garden!

Camping in Marylène's garden

The next day was 93 miles. This time it wasn’t on a flat bike path. It was hilly. We reached our wild-camping spot by a lake exhausted and were munched by mosquitos and red ants as we cooked in the dark.

Wild camping in France

Emily’s brother, Jeremy, joined us for the next day’s cycling. Although our handicap of panniers ensured the pace was slow as we climbed over the North Vosges Mountains to Alsace. It was fantastic to meet Jeremy, Marie-Agnes, Laurie-Anne, Lawrence and Richard and they looked after us incredibly well over two evenings and a rest day.

It was a special moment when 6-year-old Laurie-Anne joined us for the first few KMs of the day from the family home in Bergbieten. Again, it was incredibly hot as we spent a very long day in the saddle as we gradually climbed up to Triberg in the heart of the Black Forest where our efforts were ‘rewarded’ with the display of the ‘world’s largest cuckoo clock’.

Climbing up to Dabo

After so many punishing days in the saddle, we decided we needed a shorter day. Apart from two horrifically steep climbs to the ski slopes above Triberg in the morning, it’s been a descent all the way to tonight’s campsite at Donaueschingen; a town that sits at the source of the Danube; the river we’ll be following for the next 2,500km or so!

Donaueschingen: The source of the Danube

 

Take a look our the London2CapeTown Facebook page for more photos!


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.

Vaude Ferret 3 tent

The countdown begins – and the nerves have arrived!

It’s now less than 6 weeks today until we begin our cycle from London to Cape Town and it’s a good time to start our blog.

I’m not sure where the time has gone. I remember it being February and packing up our things to take to the London Bike Show and thinking – “hurry up, July, I want to leave!” And now, as I sit here, panic is beginning to set in slightly as the reality of what we are attempting is dawning on me.

There is still so much for us to do. The last few weeks have been completely rammed. We are both still working full time and have extremely busy work schedules which means that we have to fit everything into our evenings and weekends. But, slowly, we are getting there. From wilderness first aid courses, to practice bike rides, route planning, kit checks – as well as planning our fundraising schedule and organising our London to Brighton cycle ride it has been a busy few months.

We are so excited about the expedition and hope many of you will be following our journey along the way. We are lucky enough to be using the same GPS tracker that Mark Beaumont used on his recent epic World Record breaking Cairo to Cape Town cycle – supplied by Trident Sensors. Once we set off, our location will be updated daily on a link via the route section of our website. But, do not be fooled, we will not be travelling at Mark’s speed or daily distances so you will need a little more patience to track us.

We plan to share our journey as often as we can – so you can experience some of the journey with us. We’ll also be blogging each month on Total Women’s Cycling where you’ll not just be able to ready about the journey but also find out about the kit and equipment that our generous kit sponsors have provided us.

A huge thank you to everyone who has helped us get to where we are today – a particular mention must go to Chris Davison at Vaude who has pretty much kitted us from head to toe in the best cycling and camping equipment for cycle touring. Also to our family, friends and colleagues whom have all helped us to get to the start in some way or another. You’ll hear more about them along the way.

Thanks also to Sea to Summit, Victorinox, CamelBak, Click Stand, Goal Zero, DFDS Seaways, Involution and Thrive who have all supplied us with invaluable equipment and services, which we’ll blog about in due course.

In the meantime please Like our Facebook page, follow us on Twitter and, if you haven’t already, sign up for our London to Brighton Charity bike ride on July 12th.

Emily