It’s been nearly two weeks since we left Walvis Bay and set out into the Namibian desert and we are now just 142km from the South African border which we should cross tomorrow. The Namib Desert has been challenging but beautiful to cross and, despite some really bad sandy roads, we have actually been reasonably lucky with the roads and even managed to fit in a trip to the stunning sand dunes at Sossusvlei.
Exhausted after 12 days on the road and a 75km detour to get my bike fixed (I was riding single speed and had a broken bottom bracket for over a week – if you don’t cycle, be rest-assured, it’s not fun!) we are now on beautiful tarmac, with two working bikes, ready to take on the South African mountains.
There is so much to share about the past week but we are two weary cyclists and, after two weeks of mainly wild camping, we have been given a bed at the Grünau Country Hotel so we are looking forward to actually sleeping instead of shivering all night. Someone has turned down the thermostat over here!
So, for now, please excuse this brief update and enjoy some photos which should give you a flavour of what we have been up to.
Please follow our progress over the last week on our Trident Sensors GPS Tracker and do please consider making a donation to World Bicycle Relief and help us change the lives of some more people – we would love to raise as much as we can during this final stretch.
We’ll be in touch from CAPE TOWN where we will hopefully arrive on the afternoon of the 3rd June.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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???!).
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!!
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!
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.