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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.

Cycling Jordan’s Dead Sea to Madaba ascent

Today I decided to give Emily a birthday treat by setting the challenge of climbing 1,600 meters from the Dead Sea to Madaba; achievable on paper. Much, much tougher in reality when faced with a 40km climb that was consistently steeper than anything we have tackled on this trip so far. Throw in the blazing sun, no shade, 42 degrees on the thermometer and nowhere to fill our bottles (other than the 4 liters each we’d brought with us) and it made for a very, very tough day.

Jordan's Dead Sea to Madaba road. It's steep. Very steep!

Jordan’s Dead Sea to Madaba road. It’s steep. Very steep!

We had some entertainment, however, when a passing motorist did a U-turn to join us for the climb. He drove next to us, urging us to stop and get in or to grab the side of the car for a pull. When we refused he flicked through the radio channels and, with windows down, our climbing was accompanied by an eclectic mix of music, which included Arabic pop songs, stirring classical music, iconic Eye of the Tiger and shouts of “you can do it” as he crawled along next to us.

Further up the mountain, we stopped for a breather and he offered us biscuits and, had I not been around, I’m certain he would have asked for Emily’s hand in marriage.

Emily rebuffs the advances of our new cycling coach

Emily rebuffs the advances of our new cycling coach

We continued our struggle up the mountain. We knocked back a few rehydration sachets. It was tough and we both struggled. Massively.

About two thirds of the way up another car pulled over and out came a gent who offered us water (which we gratefully accepted) and I tried an Arabic coffee that he offered me (tasted of cardamom). He warmly welcomed us to Jordan and asked we posed for a photo at his request.

Our new friend after he stopped to offer us water and Arabian coffee as we climb from the Dead sea to Madaba.

Our new friend after he stopped to offer us water and Arabian coffee as we climb from the Dead sea to Madaba.

 

Nearly 6 hours later at an average speed of just 8km per hour, we completed our 1,600m climb that started from 395 meters below sea level and are now in Madaba. Emily has certainly earned her birthday drink tonight!


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

Cycling across Turkey: Tough times but fantastically friendly folk

We’d been in Turkey a matter of hours when we swung into a small village to pick up supplies. Outside the shop, a group of men were sat at a plastic table chatting as they stirred sugar lumps into their tiny glasses of Turkish tea. They greeted us with smiles and, eager to know more about the strange foreign visitors on bicycles, they asked us where we were cycling to and we replied ‘Cape Town’. Whilst we went into the shop to buy drinks, they must have had a quick conference amongst themselves because, as we sat in the shade nearby, two of the chaps came straight over to us looking very concerned. “Big problem in Syria!” they warned. “Very dangerous!”

They relaxed visibly when we explained we weren’t going anywhere near Syria or indeed the far east of Turkey (where there are also problems). We continued chatting and we were compliant with their requests for selfies – something we’re getting used to now. One of our new friends then explained that they were gathered because his grandmother had died the night before. At the back of the house we could see the women congregating too, all greeting each other solemnly. Even at a time of grief, we were being welcomed to a country that, over the next few weeks, we would find to be one of the friendliest places on earth.

Turkey was our 11th country and we’d set ourselves two targets that, in retrospect, were a little too ambitious. Firstly, to get from the Bulgarian border at Malko Tarnovo to Istanbul in 3 days in time to meet my parents and, secondly, to get from Istanbul to Cappadocia in the east and onwards to the southern port of Taşucu where we were to catch the ferry to Cyprus; a route we chose to avoid Syria and where we were to meet Emily’s parents for a short break.

We took 3 days to cycle from the Bulgarian border to the centre of Istanbul. We followed the D20 road which took us over undulating countryside. The road itself is being transformed from a single carriage secondary highway to a colossal 6-lane highway. Luckily for us, the newly built road was eerily quiet and we enjoyed the whole carriageway to ourselves. Nearer Istanbul, vast road-construction projects are under way and we got caught up with (literally) hundreds of trucks thundering close by us that were delivering the materials. At one stage, we caused a lengthy tailback as the road turned into a single-lane contraflow and the trucks couldn’t pass us as we cycled at 8kph up a long hill before we found an escape route onto the newly built carriageway the other side of the barrier.

Cycling Turkey D20 road to Istanbul

We had a brand new highway to ourselves!

Cycling the D20 road into Istanbul

We managed to get off the contraflow to avoid the trucks thundering past us: not before causing a lengthy tailback!

On our second day in Turkey we pulled off the highway to find a shop to satisfy our new-found addiction to Magnum ice creams. The friendly shopkeeper refused to accept payment for our late-morning snacks despite our protests and, as we rested in the shade outside his shop, he brought us bread, cheese, grapes and tomatoes for us to take with us.

Cycling through Turkey

The shopkeeper simply refused to accept payment for our drinks and brought us bread, grapes and cheese for us to take with us!

It was fantastic to meet my parents in Istanbul. Although I think they were astonished and somewhat embarrassed at how we both attacked the breakfast buffet at the hotel. After weeks of enduring tasteless muesli soaked in water for breakfast, the prospect of a feasting on fresh fruit, pastries and honeycomb that oozed fresh golden sweetness was too much to resist. It was unsurprising, then, that my saddle broke the moment I picked the bike up from the shop a few days’ later.

We took time to see all the major sights but it was also an opportunity for us to do some vital admin. We got our bikes serviced and our wheels re-built with much stronger rims and spokes.

cycling into Istanbul

We just about made it safely to Istanbul

After four fantastic days in Istanbul, we said goodbye to my folks, sad that the next time I’ll see them is when we reach Cape Town in June, and caught the ferry across the Bosphorus to our second continent of the trip, Asia. Within moments, though, we realised something wasn’t quite right with our new wheels so we diverted to a bike shop and had to wait for an entire afternoon whilst they were sorted. (It turned out they hadn’t been built correctly so they weren’t sitting straight in the forks).

Now behind on our schedule, we booked into a cheap hotel, which we thought was close by. It turned out that it was 35km away and 12km away from where we were expecting it to be. En route, we joined a busy highway but the traffic was crawling along, each car was parading the Turkish flag and there was a deafening sound of horns. We had stumbled upon an impromptu protest.

We later found out that the PKK had killed 16 Turkish soldiers in the east of the country and protesters were making their feelings known by bringing the traffic to a standstill by blocking driving slowly, sounding their horns and waving flags out of the window.

We picked our way through the traffic with the deafening crescendo of car horns all around us as crowds flocked to watch from the bridges above the highway.

We eventually made our way to the hotel in the dark on a very busy road. Something that we vowed never to do again (one of our self-imposed rules is to never cycle at night) but on that occasion, we simply had no other option.

The next day, and a day later than planned, we jumped on the ferry from Pendik to Yalova. The reason for this was simple: There is a cycle path from the Asian side of Istanbul that hugs the coastline all the way to Pendik. After Pendik, the cycle path disappears and cyclists are left at the mercy of the incredibly dangerous (and boring) road eastwards. It was a far safer to catch the ferry to Yalova and continue our journey from there.

We had intended to stay the night in Orhangazi with a contact from Warm Showers, but we were delayed further as we had to visit another bike shop in Yalova for a few more tweaks to our wheels.

After overcoming the huge climb between Yalova and Orhangazi, we spent the day cycling into a headwind beside lake Iznik with olive groves either side of the road, eager to catch up on the miles we’d lost to two unexpected and lengthy visits to bike shops.

We headed to a reservoir we’d spotted on the map to pitch the tent. As we made our way to the bank furthest from the road, we slowed to make way for a tractor pulling a trailer laden with freshly picked grapes from the surrounding vineyards. The young farmers greeted us cheerfully and motioned that we should take some grapes from the trailer. Thanking them, I reached up and grabbed a bunch as their tractor slowly passed, only to realise when I picked it up that each of the bunches were nearly a foot long and half a foot wide! But, after a long day in the saddle, they were the sweetest, juiciest grapes I’ve ever had.

We pitched the tent on the shores of the reservoir where we met a couple of local fishermen who were also camped nearby and who took great interest in trying to help us pitch our tent and chase away the local stray dogs that repeatedly approached. After performing our own rituals of pitching, washing, cooking and eating the the call to prayer drifted in the breeze across the still water as we drifted off to sleep.

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

A beautiful sunrise and the sound of clinking bells woke us. Getting out of the tent we were surrounded by goats that were being herded past us. We had a friendly chat with the herder and I made friends with his huge dogs just enough for them not to take my leg off.

We had a long day in the saddle but the scenery more than made up for the strain on the legs. After a few tough climbs the views opened up to reveal a stunning vista of colourful cliffs and distant mountains that felt like we had been transported onto another planet with beautiful bands of horizontal sedimentary stripes. These were the landscapes you dream about cycling through.

Cycling stunning central Turkey

Cycling stunning central Turkey

With nowhere obvious to camp that evening, we cycled on to a petrol station in the town of Cayirhan and were immediately offered tea by the two gents whose job it was to fill vehicles with fuel. As we chatted, we asked them if they knew any good places that we could camp nearby and, after a little conference in Turkish between them, they very kindly invited us to pitch our tent on the grass beside the petrol station! They also offered us fresh, cool watermelon and, best of all, use of the staff shower. We slept well that night, albeit to the soundtrack of trucks pulling in to be refuelled.

Relying on petrol stations continued to be a theme for the rest of our time cycling across central Turkey. The staff were all really friendly and went out of their way to try and make us comfortable. Further east, we found lots of disused petrol stations that still had small shops. Most were run by Kurdish refugees who talked to us about their struggles. It was incredible that, despite their obvious economic hardship, they would ply us with bread, cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese. We either looked in a horrendous state, or it was their natural and cultural urge to look after visitors and travellers.

After our first night camped at a petrol station, we bid farewell to our new friends and headed north, passing giant coal mining facilities either side of the road. We turned off the main road and descended into a fertile valley, with crops of chillies and fruit being doused in water by vast irrigation systems. We past a large camp of what looked like either refugees or nomadic people working on the crops.

We followed our route, plotted in advance on our GPS, until the small road stopped abruptly. In front of us was a river and, where the bridge should have been, was a pile of rubble. As we stood scratching our heads mulling over how we would get across the torrent, a big JCB digger chugged round the corner, made its way to the water and crossed with ease and disappeared out of view on the far bank. Just as we thought we’d missed our only chance of crossing this remote river that day, the digger reemerged back round the corner, reversed back across the river, the driver jumped out and said he’d give us a lift. Without hesitation, we loaded the bikes and panniers into the digger’s ‘bucket’. Emily hitched a ride in the cab whilst I climbed in with the gear and hung on as he raised the bucket and took us across the river. Sadly, he asked me to delete the photos I took (apart from the one below) because they featured his company’s logo.

The bridge was down so we couldn't cross the river...so hitched a lift in a JCB!

The bridge was down so we couldn’t cross the river…so hitched a lift in a JCB!

Just up the road, we were cycling up the track, sticky with mud, when three huge dogs spotted us. They leapt up and came charging at us. Only at the last second were they restrained by the chains around the neck. Barking and frothing at the chops, they were the most ferocious beasts we’d seen and, had they not been chained, I swear they would have eaten us whole!

The next challenge was a killer climb up to the Anatolian Plain. It was the steepest, longest and toughest test yet and, judging by writing scrawled on the tarmac, it must have been used for cycling races in the recent past. After the relatively flat cycling in Europe, we were finally getting used to the hills but it is still a shock to the system, especially when often you can only manage 6-8kph!

It was another very, very tough day and we just managed to find a wild camping spot behind some reeds next to the road about 5km north of Polati as the sun was setting.

 

Can you see Emily? We take on one of the toughest climbs yet - this photo doesn't do justice to the gradient!

Can you see Emily? We take on one of the toughest climbs yet – this photo doesn’t do justice to the gradient!

The next day we came off the busy highway and onto a quiet country road as we had planned to cycle across Tuz Gölü; a vast salt lake just southeast of Ankara and en route to Capadoccia as I’d spotted on Google Earth that it might be possible to crossTuz Gölü on a causeway and both Google maps directions and my GPS confirmed that the crossing was valid.

The further we cycled from the main road the quieter it became and we were happy to have the countryside to ourselves once more. This was short lived however as the tarmac soon disappeared and the surface changed to a rough track. We rattled along, cursing our decision to take the scenic route.

As we approached the lake, we rounded a corner and 3 soldiers suddenly appeared from the bushes and stopped us. In Turkish, they asked where we were from, what we were doing and one demanded to see our passports. We answered the questions and I managed to dissuade them from seeing our passports by saying that they were buried deep in our panniers. In reality, our passports were in my handlebar bag but, although these fellas were in camouflage uniform, I wasn’t 100% sure who they were so I was reluctant to handover documents to them.

We soon learnt that the Turkish army were using the salt lake for firing practice. In a bewildering game of charades, they were making loud explosion noises. They then waved us on…but I wanted to be certain that we weren’t going to be in the line of fire so I too had to make explosion noises whilst pointing at us and miming death by bomb. Although I’m not Marcel Marceau, I just about managed to establish that we were going to be safe if we stuck to the track.

Later on, and just before we reached the causeway, 2 more soldiers stopped us again tried to ask for our passports. In our best sign language, we managed to let them that them know that we had already met their colleagues round the corner and so they then relaxed and insisted that we eat grapes and drink tea with them. They were pretty impressed and somewhat jealous as we explained our London to Cape Town trip to them; especially when we pointed at their small tent and said that we were camping like them too.

Friendly soldiers at Tuz Gölü

Friendly soldiers at Tuz Gölü

After photos with the soldiers, we made it to the causeway. The salt stretched as far as the horizon in each direction. Behind us, in the distance, we could see the large army trucks in position ready to fire their weapons into the salt plain. Perhaps they also had a-salt rifles too? (My niece Maura will give me 1 out of 10 for that pun!).

Tuz Gölü salt lake went on for miles - and was being used as target practice for Turkish soldiers

Tuz Gölü salt lake went on for miles – and was being used as target practice for Turkish soldiers

After 8 days of genuinely gruelling cycling from Istanbul, we reached Cappadocia: the land of the “fairy chimneys” or, as I prefer to call them (and as you can see by the photos) “phantom phalluses”.

Cappadocia: 'Fairy chimneys' or 'Phantom Phalluses'?

Cappadocia: ‘Fairy chimneys’ or ‘Phantom Phalluses’?

The volcanic rockforms surround Cappadocia and, in their need for fertiliser, past generations carved niches into the rocks so they could collect perching pigeons’ poo. They also carved caves and churches into the hillsides; our hostel bedroom itself was hewn into the hillside.

Cappadocia was stunning. And the ‘done thing’ here is to see the area from above from a hot air balloon which, after a lot of debate, we decided was an opportunity we couldn’t miss. Emily has wanted to fly in a hot air balloon since she was a small girl and what better place to try it out than the best place in the world for hot air ballooning.

So, a very early alarm was set and, just before dawn, we jumped into the basket (with a few others!),

Neither of us had been up in a balloon before. I was excited! Emily was, let’s say, slightly ‘apprehensive’ about the idea and had tears in her eyes as we watched the balloon inflate and climbed into the basket – I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or just complete fear. But, as soon as the ground anchor was released and we started to float, all nerves quickly disappeared. It was simply a magical experience to gently float in the dawn air, above the beautiful rock pillars as the sun crept over the hill to bathe the whole scene in a warm golden light. What’s more, there were about 100 other balloons in the air at the same time, which only added to the spectacle. Without a breathe of breeze in the air, the whole experience was so smooth and calm that the pilot even managed to land the balloon on the trailer.

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

There were over 100 balloons in the sky!

There were over 100 balloons in the sky!

After leaving Cappadocia, we had 4 days to cycle 450km south to the southern port of Taşucu to catch our ferry. A challenge greatened by the climb over the Taurus mountains that separate central Turkey from the southern coast.

At the end of the first day we pulled into a petrol station on the busy E90 road near Yeniköy and got chatting to the three chaps that worked their. We learnt quickly that a) they were Kurdish refugees and b) they liked a drink! They were very happy for us to stay the night there though.

We pitched our tent on a tiny patch of grass by the loos (we thought it would be convenient) and the chaps joined us for a chat whilst we set up the stove and boiled our rice – only a few meters from the petrol pumps. By this time, they’d had quite a few beers…and it didn’t look as though the supply was going to dry up any time soon.

After turning in, we soon found our choice of campsite by the loos was a poor one: each group that passed our tent during the night talked loudly about our presence, keeping us awake. More importantly, our sleeping mats had deflated by the morning. Some rogue thorns had turned them into colanders.

In the morning our new (and slightly hung-over) friends cooked a huge omelette for breakfast and we were invited to join them; yet another example of the hospitality shown to us in the most unlikely of situations.

Saying bye to our new Kurdish friends who hosted us in their petrol station

Saying bye to our new Kurdish friends who hosted us in their petrol station

Our intention was to keep north of the Taurus mountains and cycle along the D350 as far as Karaman before heading over the mountain pass at Mut. It was to be a slightly longer route but the traffic was likely to be a lot quieter. When we got to the junction, however, we could see that our chosen road towards form the E90 to Ereğli had recently been upgraded to a motorway. In practise, the road looked like any other large highway we’d been cycling on in Turkey, but the higher status meant that bikes weren’t allowed.

I unfurled the map on the crash barrier at the side of the road and found another route. This time, a secondary highway that headed directly south in parallel to the E90 motorway and crossed the Taurus mountains at Akçatekir. This would mean crossing the Taurus mountains earlier, by then cycling South West along the coast to Taşucu.

An impromptu change of route!

An impromptu change of route!

We set off and, within 200m, mounds of rubble across the road meant that our diversion route was closed due to resurfacing. Nevertheless, we hauled our bikes over the mounds and set off, with a whole closed carriageway to ourselves, ducking off the road only where the contractors were laying the fresh tar.

Yet another barrier – but we soon had a closed road to ourselves!

Yet another barrier – but we soon had a closed road to ourselves!

It was a very, very tough climb. At points the gradients reached nearly 20% and all we could do was grit our teeth and hold on tight. But we made it to top and found a wild camping spot in the pine trees just north of Çamalan Bucağı. A cheeky fox came to visit us as we cooked and re-visited to take a sniff round the tent just after we’d got into bed, exhausted, 9pm.

After breakfasting at a nearby look-out spot above a beautiful steep-sided mountain valley, the morning’s descent more than made up for yesterdays killer uphill. However, my disc brake pads paid the price, wearing out to the extent that I had minimal brakes for the 25km long descent. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve descended with minimal braking power, however. Thankfully this time didn’t mirror the last occasion, which, when I was 16, resulted in a broken clavicle and a trip to hospital.

We cycled along the horrifically busy road west from Tarsus and got my brake pads replaced at a shop in Mersin. It was now late afternoon so we asked the shop owner if he knew anywhere we could camp. He explained vaguely that there were some woods near the beach behind an Audi garage 15km away and we should head there. We set off.

We found the Audi garage and sat at a fast food place opposite as we waited for the sun to go down before we took our bikes round the back of the building. Just as we were getting to the woods, a guy came running after us shouting “stop”. We both thought we were in trouble. He introduced himself as Doğan and said we should follow him and we were to “stay at his workplace”.

We soon found out that Doğan was a Sales Executive in the Audi Showroom. We parked our bikes in the service area and had tea with him in his office. Just as we thought we were going to roll our sleeping mats out amongst the gleaming cars on display, he took us upstairs to the staff quarters where there was a shower and, best of all, a bathroom with a hot shower.

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.

Doğan is a keen cyclist and, we learned later, was friends with the guy in the Mersin bike shop that had replaced my brakes. He was planning to cycle 200km the next day, starting at 3pm, so he left us to it and we took over a salesman’s desk to do some admin before heading up to the staff bedroom.

It was yet another example of overwhelming hospitality in the most unlikely of places. We could not have been more grateful forDoğan’s genuine help and hospitality that night – especially when he explained that the woods in which we’d planned to camp were the local hangout for drunks (a rare thing in Turkey!).

In the morning, we had breakfast on another salesman’s desk and chatted to the lonely security guard, whose job it was to sit at the reception desk watching YouTube.

The next day, we’d arranged to meet Doğan for lunch at his cousin’s hotel 40km down the coast. We arrived at noon.  By this time Doğan and his friend had already cycled 120km up into the mountains and back, had a shower, swim and were relaxing by the pool when we arrived. We had fun chatting to them over lunch: something that was noted by one beady-eyed family member who’d been watching our GPS tracker as he sent a message asking if we’d checked into a nice hotel. If only we had, because later that night, we made it to our destination, Tasucu and pitched our tent behind some sand dunes by the sea. Idyllic in theory. In practise, not so great because the dunes were used by the fishermen as a toilet and the sand flies feasted on us as we had our last meal in Turkey. The next day we were set to take the ferry to Cyprus where we were meeting Emily’s parents and our friend Tamara for a few days R&R (well after cycling over the island’s mountains.

Camping on sand dunes may seem idyllic. However, we were attacked by sand flies and we soon found out that the bush we'd used to prop our bikes on was used by the beach-goers as a lavatory.

Camping on sand dunes may seem idyllic. However, we were attacked by sand flies and we soon found out that the bush we’d used to prop our bikes on was used by the beach-goers as a lavatory.

Cycling through Turkey was gruelling. We set ourselves punchy targets before and after Istanbul not quite realising how hilly it was going to be, nor how slowly we cycle up hills carrying so much weight. Throw in the searing heat and it made for very, very tough cycling which left us with only enough time and energy to find a place to sleep, wash and eat each evening before getting up at dawn to repeat the whole process.

But, no matter how tough the cycling was, the genuine friendliness and hospitality of everyone we met – not to mention the beautiful countryside – made Turkey one of the highlights of the trip so far.

Emily has also shared her views on cycling across Turkey on Total Women’s Cycling.


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.

A day I’d rather forget

It had to happen to one of us sooner or later. It just happened to be me that was first. What started as a good day, later descended into one I’d rather forget.

The day started well; we woke to beautiful misty views across the Danube and, after a quick bowl of cereal, we were on the road by 08:30.

Misty morning on the Danube near Eşelniţa, Romania

Misty morning on the Danube near Eşelniţa, Romania

There was sharp climb out of the village then, a few KMs into the ride, we joined the E70: a main trunk road adjacent to the Danube. After cycling on the Euro Velo 6 path and quiet country roads, it was a shock to the system to have countless lorries thunder past us. To be fair, there was a reasonable hard shoulder and the majority of the trucks gave us gave us plenty of room; but it was a bit hairy when we had to cycle through a tunnel with a juggernaut bearing down on us from behind.

The traffic eased off but the terrain didn’t. We started ascending the day’s main climb, which was about 6km long at 8%-10% gradient. It was now midday and we felt the full force of the sun on our faces. Sweat dripped from my forehead and pooled on the inner rims of my sunglasses until it poured, in one go, onto my shorts, mixing with the salt patterns that had already formed on my thighs from the previous days’ cycling.

At the summit, I spied a patch of shade by a layby and called for a quick time out out to get my breath back. As soon as I stopped the bike I didn’t feel well, but I couldn’t quite place why.

I managed to prop my bike up and leant against a concrete buttress at the side of the layby. Suddenly, a huge wave of dizziness hit me. The world in front of me rotated but I couldn’t focus on it. My legs went weak and, had I not had my back against the wall, I’d have fallen to the ground in the litter-strewn ditch.

I took a step forward and lay down on the filthy floor. A mangy mutt approached and licked its lips as If I were to be his first and only meal for the month.

At this point, Emily took over. She mixed a High5 energy drink and commanded me to drink it whilst force-feeding me sugary sweets.

Once I felt a little better, we decided to find somewhere more comfortable to rest so crossed the road towards a small stand where two kids were selling honey. Beside their stand was a large metal box, which was in the shade, so I motioned to them that I wanted to sit on it. They agreed that I could, but without looking me in the eye.

I sat on the box, tilted my head back and closed my eyes. I could hear buzzing. Was this a symptom of the dizziness? I opened my eyes and saw a cloud of bees buzzing by my head. It was only then that I released that the metal box I was sat on was one of the many mobile bee-hives we’ve seen in the fields throughout Serbia and Romania. I had sat on a beehive! The kids selling the honey looked on blankly, possibly wondering why anyone would do such a thing.

Emily got the stools out and, after another High5 and sugary sweets we moved on and tentatively took on the descent.

Emily decided it was time to eat, so a few KMs further on, we found a grassy spot under a big tree outside a police station. Sandwiches were consumed slowly; with every mouthful I had the overarching desire to fall asleep.

We discussed weather we should continue or find somewhere to rest up. I wanted to continue but, every time I got to my feet, I immediately had to lie down again. Emily was clearly concerned as to whether we should continue. I wanted to give it one last go because we still had over 80km to do so, after my 5th attempt, I made it onto the bike and back on to the road.

With about 75km on the clock, and the same distance again to go, we stopped at a petrol station to stock up on water. Sadly, with my first sip of water, my sandwiches reappeared in a somewhat more diluted form as a puddle by my feet.

However, I almost instantly felt better.

I got back on the bike and I plodded on, keeping on Emily’s back wheel for a further 25km along the trunk road. (No change there, some might say!).

We stopped at another fuel station and, as Emily went in to buy more water, I lay on my back on the paving at the side of the kiosk. This, apparently, caused a scene and, as Emily emerged from the shop, a couple of motorists asked her if I was OK. Right on cue, I scurried to the grass verge to be ill again. My body simply wasn’t taking in all the liquid I’d consumed.

Emily had a quick conference with a motorist who’d stopped and asked about accommodation nearby. The closest being 25km away. Our intended destination was still 40km away.

Again, I felt marginally better after being ill, so we got back on the bikes to see how further we could get. By this time, I’d lost all strength and if was an effort just to look at Emily’s back wheel let alone keep up with it.

It was a touh decision to make but, in the state I was, It would not have been possible to complete the 40km to our intended destination, Calafat.

We plugged the nearest accommodation into the sat nav and made our way towards that, 2km as the crow flies, but an agonizing 7km by road. All I wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep but Emily was really keen that we slept near to civilization and not in a field (just for peace of mind).

With 5km to go, the final hurdle was a short and steep hill; which I simply didn’t have the energy to climb. I looked at the map and thought I could see an off-road route that would bypass the hill so we pulled onto a track, where two farmers watched as I was ill again at the side of the road.

I was wrong about the shortcut so, we had to take on the hill. However, I simply didn’t have the energy. About a quarter of the way up I had stopped and Emily put her bike to one side, ascended on my bike and left it at the top, then ran down to walk with me and her bike up the hill. I simply couldn’t ride or push the bike up to the top, I cannot remember ever feeling this weak. I knew in my head it was only about 5km more to go, now downhill but it took every once of energy, and a lot of gentle encouragement to get me to the hotel on the banks of the Danube, some 30km short of our intended destination.

Emily was told that ‘they were full as they were holding s festival’ but after a bit of pleading and pointing in my direction (I was now a familiar position lying on my back at the side of the road) the hotelier miraculously found us a room.

I was ill once more en route to the bedroom, to the surprise of the hotel workers but once I was inside, it was a quick shower then a power nap.

We put the day’s episode down to dehydration. And it’s no surprise really. We’ve been cycling in temperatures in the late 30s and, foolishly, we haven’t been stopping for enough water since we have been in Romania – I think this is because there has not been a water pump in every village we pass through. Foolish in hindsight. I remembered that I hadn’t really drunk anything the night before whereas, normally, we’d drink at least a litre of water in the evenings.

Emily mixed up two rehydration sachets during the evening and, although I wasn’t able to eat anything, I spent the evening sipping salty drinks whilst listening to the sounds of the music and film festival outside.

The hotel itself was wonderful. It’s owned by a poet and they have various cultural events throughout the year. It was very tempting to stay another night there but, after a good breakfast, I managed to find a 30km shortcut meaning we didn’t have to add on yesterday’s missed mileage to reach tonight’s destination, Bechet where, I’m writing this sipping a water and feeling, thankfully better.

A lesson was learnt the hard way but we are both glad we have some decent first aid knowledge that allowed us to monitor our situation and stay safe.


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.