We left Fort Portal on the promise that “It’s all downhill” to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. We’d looked at the map before we left and saw that the elevation did drop by around 1,000 metres, but in Uganda that means that you’ll have to climb over 1,000 metres as well because the roads are continually undulating. The mind is a funny thing though, because it was nothing that we were not usually used to and, secretly, we knew that there would still be some climbing, it seemed so much harder because all we could think about was that is was meant to be all downhill!!
As we travelled, the landscape began to change from tropical lush green jungle to dry savannah as we approached the Queen Elizabeth National Park – famous for its tree-climbing lions. We spent the night at Simba Camp just outside the park gates, but sadly we did not have the time nor budget to stop and enjoy this park – we can’t do it all.
The next morning, we cycled along the road that runs through the park hopeful that some of the elephants might have taken a wrong turn and decided to hang out near the road. [Would that make it a trunk road? – James]. The reality is that this road is the main trucking road to the DRC border and, although we did see some water buffalo and impala, it’s no surprise we didn’t see much else with the huge trucks carrying shipping containers blasting pass. We then endured a long winding climb out of the park. Actually, despite the road surface deteriorating into patchy tarmac, sand and gravel, the climb meant we were able to enjoy some stunning views over the savannah as we climbed back into the tropical zone and passed hundreds of small hold banana plantations. Our day ended at the Cielo Country Inn in Ishaka; a lovely little hotel where the manager Ben hosted us for the night – thank you!
From here we travelled through the hills for two days to Muko, a small village on the banks of Lake Bunyoni, the second deepest lake in Africa. The road to Muko was breathtaking as we passed through tea, banana, coffee and cotton plantations on a brand new tarmac road (thank you Ugandan Government!). Despite the terrain providing challenging cycling, the views more than made up for it and when we turned the final corner of the day we had arrived at the shores of the lake where we would camp for the night.
We woke the next morning to stunning views of the mist rising off the lake; it seemed a great way to spend our final morning in Uganda, a country that we have so enjoyed cycling through. Everyone seems so cheerful, happy and helpful here and we had such a blast. It’s been great feeling fit again too – definitely helped by some great new roads, but I’d go as far as to say I’ve enjoyed almost all the cycling – no major heart palpitations and I even beat James cycling up a hill which has not happened since Bulgaria!
After a seamless border crossing into Rwanda we had arrived in “The Land of a Thousand Hills” and our first stop was a much-anticipated stay with Team Rwanda, Rwanda’s cycling team, in Musanze (Ruhengeri).
We’d been invited to stay at the Africa Rising Training Centre where the team was in the middle of a tough training camp. Some of the team is in preparation for the African Continental Championships in 2 weeks’ time. As the team was in really focused training we did not spend much time with them other than at meals, respecting their privacy and the focus they required. We did, however, have a great time meeting Kimberly Coats, the team’s marketing director, finding out more about the team and its ambitions. Of particular excitement was meeting Team Rwanda’s first female rider, Jeanne D’Arc. Jeanne is working hard as we speak to qualify for the Olympics in Rio and a win at the Continental Champs, which she is expected to do, will guarantee her that place. She’s recently competed at the UCI TT championships where she was the only female rider from Africa in the field – this young lady has incredible promise and we cannot wait to follow her career with interest. As it stands, Team Rwanda will now have two cyclists attending the Olympics in Rio.
Team Rwanda shot to fame at the London 2012 Olympics as they fielded Rwanda’s first ever cyclist at the games, Adrien Niyonshuti who competed in the cross country mountain bike event. The team was established in 2007 by ex-pro cyclist Jock Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France, and is going for strength to strength with Jock and his wife Kimberly at the helm. The centre now has a strong men’s team and their first female rider and hope to have three athletes competing in Rio this summer. The team is based at a complex called the Africa Rising Cycling Centre just outside the Volcanoes National Park in North West Rwanda where they run intensive training camps for Team Rwanda as well as camps for riders from other African countries. We could not help but be impressed with everything we saw there with a hugely dedicated team of cyclists who, through cycling, have united their country in pride and passion for cycling.
That does not mean, however, that it does not come without its problems and the team struggle daily with the pressure of professional cycling in a country like Rwanda. It is particularly hard for Jeanne D’Arc, the team’s first female cyclist. She’s the only girl on the team and would absolutely love to have some female compatriots but finding women who cycle in this country is tough. We learned that throughout East Africa that many girls are made to stop cycling when they reach puberty, because it is commonly believed that riding a bike would lead to a young girl loosing their virginity. It’s such a sad belief and we can only hope that as education levels rise, this will one day become a legend and we hope successful young women like Jeanne will be able to become confident female role models in Rwanda.
The UK arm of World Bicycle Relief, who we are raising money for, provide their Buffalo bikes mainly to young girls to help them get to school and remain in school longer will help to improve education levels in rural communities where it is most needed – never have I felt so passionate about helping girls get an education.
From Team Rwanda we spent a truly magical day trekking to see the mountain gorillas; a day we will never forget. Before we left home we outlined a few things that we really wanted to do, regardless of cost on this trip and although this was by no means a cheap day, it was incredible to have the opportunity to spend some time with these unbelievable creatures. Sharing 97.2% of our DNA, they really are just like big hairy versions of us. The day involved a 14km trek through the bamboo forests and into the jungle where we hacked our way through dense jungle to find the Susa family of gorillas.
Gorilla Trekking Slide Show
What made it better was that we had such a great group of people with us – Matt, a Canadian living in Kigali with his young family and his parents and uncle and aunt who were over visiting from Canada. An highly successful and lovely group of people. It really is a small world as we discovered that Matt actually met his wife whilst cycling across Canada and they spent their honeymoon cycling from North to South America! We are now spending a couple of days with Matt and his wife Jenna in Kigali before we make our move to Tanzania.
We decided to split the journey to Kigali because, although it was only 100km, there is a lot of climbing and we wanted to go to the Genocide Memorial Museum on our way into town so needed enough time to do this. Our ride out of Musanze (Ruhengeri) was awesome as we passed Team Rwanda on their way home from a training ride – a great way to say wave them all goodbye!
After a 7km climb we passed a small guest house around 50km from Kigali and decided, as we did not think we would pass anything else on the way, we’d take a look to see if we could stay the night there and have some time to do some much needed admin before arriving in Kigali. All was looking good – they had a simple room for $5 and a quiet beer garden where we could set up camp and get our work done – we just needed to pick up some food to cook as they didn’t have a functioning restaurant.
Once we’d settled in, the manager arrived and decided that, as we were Muzungus, we should pay extra for the room, no room for negotiation. Now don’t get me wrong, it was not much money more but the room was pretty gross and we were not going to pay more just because we had white skin so we decided to leave, thinking that they would change their minds. They didn’t. We took back the money we’d paid and set off.
One small problem, however, James’s helmet seemed to have disappeared…it was definitely there when we arrived but, having searched everywhere, we whizzed back to the nearest town to see if we had left it there instead but no joy. It was only when we cycled back past the guest house we saw that it had miraculously turned up – and, funnily enough, they were happy to give us the room at the old price. Too late. We decided to wild camp instead so cycled along for a few more kilometres until we found a (very rare) patch of flat land with no houses or crops on it – just outside a church. We found some water from a spring and set about pitching our tent. Rwanda is incredibly populated so it was no surprise that within minutes we had an audience of around 100 people watching us! Even when I popped into the tent to put some trousers on I noticed the local women trying to peer into the tent to watch me. They stayed with us until sunset when we met the local pastor who kindly asked them all to leave us in peace! It was the same the next morning and when I emerged from the tent at sunrise, there was a new audience ready and waiting for us! We didn’t mind too much though, they quietly watched us, clearly fascinated by what on earth we were doing – it just made the morning loo visit a little awkward…!
Although brief, it is great to be in Rwanda, the second time for me. Aptly named the Land of a Thousand Hills, it is incredibly hilly on bikes but incredibly beautiful. In a country with such a dark recent history, it is humbling to meet so many optimistic, friendly people who all take the time to tell us that we are welcome in their country. Their recent past will never be forgotten, it’s hard to when so many people were affected by the genocide here is 1994 however the country is moving forward in the right direction.
For us, we have a few more days here before we hit remote Western Tanzania where we hope it will stop raining soon so that the clay road we intend to take remains a viable route for us!
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.
It’s strange to think that just over a week ago we were arriving back in Lodwar in Turkana, North West Kenya from Nairobi, as it seems like a world away from where we are now in Jinja, Uganda. Just 600km separate the two locations but it feels like we have travelled from one universe to another.
Arriving back in Lodwar we had that same feeling you get when you are about to go back to school – you’re excited yet apprehensive at the same time. It was a shock to the system as well. After nearly a week indoors in hospital and then having some time out in Nairobi to rest up, arriving back in 40-45 degrees Celsius heat was not so fun. We headed back to the Nawoitorong lodge which is a basic guest house that supports a local women’s community project helping get women into work. We were able to camp there and get ourselves ready for our journey ahead.
The next morning we were on the road once again and heading some 85km to Lokichar. We set off bright and early knowing that the road would be bad, but we were not quite prepared for just how bad it was going to be! The road is famously known as one of the worst roads in Kenya, we reckon it could be up for an award for one of the world’s worst roads! We believe that it was tarmacked back in the 60s but no attention has been given to it ever since which is evident by the islands of tarmac surrounded by sand and gravel, most vehicles choose to drive off road just to the side of the road – but as this was mainly sand, it was not an option for us! The worst bit were the relentless corrugations in the tarmac, which are like the ripples you get on sand dunes when it is windy formed by the heavy vehicles bouncing up and down on the road. Nearly an entire day cycling over these bumps made for the most uncomfortable day in the saddle yet, and I think it might take the rest of the trip to recover from!
Once again we were cycling in an oven with temperatures soaring over 50 degrees Celsius and with no cold water available we were drinking boiling water all day, which makes you feel so sick. There is no surprise that we were feeling a little dehydrated at the end of the day however, considerably better than a week before thankfully.
We’d arranged to meet up with a new friend of ours, Matt, who works for Tullow Oil who have a huge camp just outside Lokichar as part of their oil exploration and production work in the Turkana region of Kenya. We’d planned to meet in town for an early dinner but sadly this got called off during the afternoon due to a busy day in the office. However, what we were not expecting was the message that arrived a couple of hours later inviting us to stay at the Tullow Oil camp for the night. Suddenly all was good with the world again and, despite the extra 9km out of town to get there which nearly killed me off, it was an incredible morale boost for us. Matt had told his boss about our trip and we were hosted for the evening, fed an unlimited supply of amazing food cooked in their canteen and, even better and thoroughly unexpected, we had a night in air-conditioned rooms in comfy beds, satellite TV and a hot shower. All this in the middle of nowhere. The icing the cake was the water filter machine that had cold water with ice, which was such a treat. They even have a ‘snake man’ in the campsite who’s sole job is to catch snakes from around the camp. Although Matt told us he was just returned from sick leave having been medevac’d after being bitten by a snake!
Thank you Tullow for inviting us to stay, you made two incredibly tired (and one rather teary) cyclists very happy!
The next section of the road had the long shadow of death and robbery hanging over it.
The whole area has been blighted by conflict between the Pokot and Turkana tribes for decades. Every so often one of the tribes will storm a village at night with the intention of stealing cattle. Guns are used and deaths are many. Miffed by the attack on their tribe, the affected tribe will launch a counter attack in their rival tribe’s territory. And so it continues. The attacks are almost always at night so residents of the villages have taken to excavating the interior floorspace of their straw/mud huts so that they can sleep below ground level to avoid the bullets that are showered over (and through) the huts.
Aside from inter-tribal conflict, some residents of the area have taken to holding up vehicles at gun point- and often using the gun to get their hands on their loot. The hold ups and shootings aren’t always for loads of high value either.
We asked around locally what the current situation was. “It’s definitely improving” our contact told us optimistically. “There haven’t been any reported incidents for nearly 2 weeks now.”
That wasn’t good enough for us; two vulnerable cyclists.
Our only option was to take an armed escort through this bandit territory. So, the next morning, we met our guards who were to drive us from Lodwar to the Marich Pass.
Thankfully at this point, the road was now around 50% tarmac so things were starting to improve.
As we passed through small towns along the way, we were shocked by the harsh reality of the level of AIDS in this part of Africa. The number of AIDS charity vehicles we had passed on the way was a reminder of how bad the problem was. We’d now met quite a few people who had lesions on their hands and faces, a common sign of AIDS. It’s desperately sad. We’d met a lady in Lodwar who told us how bad the problems are in the tribal villages in Turkana as young girls are often raped by infected men and then forced to bring up unwanted children who are often also infected – with no family support. Life is desperate for these poor women and children who face a lifetime alone.
From Kitale we were reunited with tarmac roads at long last and we were able to cover some better distances once again. The landscape was beginning to change once again. Thankfully we were finally out of the sandpit and into a lush, green, rolling landscape where the streets are lined with mangos, tomatoes, avocadoes and even the odd pineapple – we were getting close to Uganda! We’d also noticed a change in the people we were meeting along the way. Children cheered and waved at us from the side of the road – shouting “Go Muzungo!” (the local term for white person) and waving at us with a smiles on their faces. After our experiences cycling in Ethiopia, we were shocked that they did not want to run after us, ask for anything or throw rocks at us – they were just little bundles of joy. Everyone speaks amazing English here as well and we’ve met many incredibly nice people.
We spent the night in a new hotel that is semi-open in a town called Bungoma, around 25km from the Ugandan border. In exchange for buying dinner from them they let us camp in their garden for the night for free. Excited about the prospect of a peaceful night’s sleep in a quiet walled garden with our own security guard we ordered some food. Then the heavens opened and we saw the first rain (minus the Simian Mountains when we were trekking) since Romania – but this was not any rain, this was torrential, monsoon strength tropical rain. Before we knew it water was flowing into the tent into the porch and it was a race to ensure that everything was watertight, sadly James’s sleeping bag got the brunt of the water so it was a rather uncomfortable night’s sleep. On top of this, we were kept awake most of the night by the security guard who had a few shouting episodes during the night – we are unsure whether he was shouting at another person or not. In-between this he spent the night chanting Christian prayers over and over again – we guessed this was to keep him, and us, awake.
The next day we crossed into Uganda – a country we had been so excited about visiting since we set off. Our target was a town called Jinja, which would take us two days. A traveller’s mecca on Lake Victoria where the source of the River Nile is reputed to be – although Rwanda also claims this too!
So far Uganda has welcomed us with open arms and although rather soggy as it has been raining more than it is sunny but we are thoroughly enjoying ourselves. It is election time here in Uganda and there appears to be fierce campaigning going on. It’s not quite how we do things back home though, the candidates’ campaigning appears to be more like a carnival than anything and we’ve enjoyed the atmosphere as we’ve cycled through towns. We’ve giggled a lot trying to imagine Cameron and Corbyn on carnival floats campaigning on high streets! They’ve even held a televised TV debate with 7 of the candidates (although interestingly not the current leader) however after 3 hours of watching it one evening as we ate, we gave up as the poor commentators were running out of things to say as nothing happenedwhatsoever while they sorted out the admin and waited for people to show up. Apparently it went on until the very early hours.
We’re staying for a few days at the Nile River Camp where we are enjoying the beautiful views, hanging out with the vervet monkeys and listening to doctor’s orders to take it a little easier (well minus the white water rafting that we are doing tomorrow – more for James’s enjoyment than mine – perhaps it is payback for loosing his beard!)
Next stop is Kampala where we will be catching up with a couple of old friends before heading west and into our first national park with some of the ‘Big Five’!
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.
We reached the Sudanese border town of Gallabat at 11am and found shade in the café nearest the border post. The incredibly friendly café owner refused to accept payment for the Cokes we’d plucked from the fridge and he even gave us a couple of bottles of water. We obviously looked in a bad way.
We then went through the border crossing formalities. First we visited the security department where the chap wrote our passport information down. We were then escorted to Sudanese customs where another chap wrote our passport information down in a dusty book. Then, we wheeled our bikes round the corner to another building which housed the Immigration Department. Once we’d filled out a form, handed over photocopies of our passports we received the stamp in our passports allowing us to leave Sudan.
We didn’t do so immediately.
We headed back to the café where we’d intended to spend our last Sudanese pounds. I raided the fridge for bottles of water and drinks for our onward journey but, once again, the café owner refused payment saying we were visitors in his country and he wanted us to leave with a good impression. We were just meters from the border with Ethiopia and it was, yet again, an outstanding last-minute example of the hospitality that we’d experienced throughout Sudan. Although, ironically, when he offered to change money he gave us a horrendous rate.
Once we’d been stamped into Ethiopia the next stop was customs. We were directed to what looked like a bus shelter where a couple of bored looking chaps asked us to empty the contents of our panniers.
The customs post was in a public area and people were milling round. I wanted to ensure the chap was a bone fide customs employee before he started rifling through our things but he couldn’t produce any ID. Instead, he stood up and put on a high vis jacket, insisting that this was sufficient proof that he worked for customs. In return, I reached into my pannier, took out my high vis vest and declared to him that I now worked for customs too. It raised a laugh…and a short delay as he went to find someone more senior to prove that this roadside shack was official customs.
The world changed once we’d crossed the border into the Ethiopian town of Metema.
The dusty high street leading up the hill from the border is lined with seedy bars and shifty looking folk – all looking to make a buck from whomever they could. We cycled slowly up the hill, witnessing a bar brawl on the way and debated whether the hostesses’ main employment was from bar work or employment of a more ‘behind-the-scenes’ nature. We read online that Metema was the centre of the people-smugglng trade.
We’d made the decision to take the bus to Gonder because Emily was unwell. We found the bus station and negotiated room on a bus for 100Birr (£3GBP) per person plus another 50Birr for each of the bikes.
Our trusty steeds were hauled on top of the Toyota HiAce minibus and strapped down with string. After a 2-hour wait for the bus to fill up, we departed Metema and clung on whilst we whizzed through the dramatic countryside towards Gonder – every clonk from the roof making us wince as we envisaged gears, disk brakes and frames being bashed with every pot hole.
If Metema was a shifty introduction to Ethiopia, then Gonder was the complete opposite.
After months cycling in the Muslim world it took a bit of time to get used to the things that we’d once considered ‘normal’. Smiling couples walked hand in hand. People enjoyed cool beers at roadside bars. Restaurants offered full menus with ‘farangi’ food: chips, pizza and spaghetti. The bread was raised…and delicious and the fresh mango juice was everything we had dreamt of whilst cycling in the desert.
The Muslim call to prayer was replaced by full Orthodox Christian services being blasted from the speakers of the nearby church. The Sunday morning service started at 2am and was still going strong at 8am.
Even the time in Ethiopia is different.
We’d read about ‘Ethiopian time’ before we arrived but thought it was something similar to Welsh: talked about but nobody knows anyone who actually speaks it. In fact, Ethiopian time is incredibly logical. The day starts at dawn. An hour after sunrise is 1 O’clock. 2 hours after sunrise is 2 O’Clock and so on until sunset, which is 12 O’clock. We had to make sure that any time given to us was ‘farangi time’ (meaning foreigners’ time).
We took a couple of days in Gonder to let bodies recover. And, with the cooler temperatures, great food on offer and large, comfy beds we were both fit enough for the next challenge: a 4-day trek in the Simien mountains.
We’d considered arranging our trip to the Simiens independently. It’s possible to do so but takes a few days to organize all the requirements: Transport, entrance fees, scout etc. Instead, we opted to let a professional take this pressure off us. And we’re glad we did.
Early in the morning (just as the Orthodox Christian service was finishing!) a minibus rocked up which contained our guide, Desu, a driver, a cook and an assistant cook. We picked up our scout in Debark, an hour’s drive away and then headed up the off road track to the mountains.
It’s a requirement to have a scout accompany any visitors to the park. The scout’s job is to carry a gun and shuffle behind the group for ‘protection’. There’s nothing, actually, to protect against (either people or animals) so it’s widely acknowledged that the park’s insistence on an accompanying scout is for job creation. It transpired our scout was actually a local farmer and scouted to top up his meagre wages – something we were happy to facilitate.
We laced up our Zamberlan trail shoes and, over the next 4 days we were treated to views like we’d never seen before. The paths clung perilously close to the cliff tops. And afforded us stunning views across the Ethiopian Highlands. But one small slip could have had us plunge thousands of feet off the sheer cliff face.
We were lucky to see some amazing wildlife too.
Friendly Gelada monkeys grazed (yes, they eat grass!) on the grassy hillsides. We learnt that, because Gelada monkeys are forever in the seating position as they graze, the females display their fertility through their pink chest plate – unlike other types of monkeys whose bums turn red.
Additionally, we saw several ‘bone-breaker’ vultures. The diet of these huge birds consists of the bones of dead animals. If the bones they find are too big to swallow, they’ll pick them up and drop them from a huge height into the ravine below where they’ll weaken on impact with the rocks far below. They’ll repeat the process until the bones are of an edible size.
After months of pitching our own tent, it was pure luxury for us to arrive at camp after our days’ treks to find the tent pitched and flasks of tea and coffee ready for us. We shared popcorn with the ravens and watched the sunset from our high altitude camps – on the evenings it wasn’t tipping it down. In fact, we experienced our first rain since Romania over 3 months ago!
Our chef and assistant chef worked wonders too. They produced tasty, hearty meals from fresh ingredients. Our chicken meal could not have been fresher. In fact, I volunteered to help the assistant chef ‘prepare’ the live chicken for dinner. I held the feet whilst he used the knife.
The temperatures in the Simien Mountains were in complete contrast to the 50-degree heat of the Sudanese deserts from where we’d come. We huddled round the fire to keep warm whilst eating and nighttime temperatures went down to freezing.
Although we were between 3,500 and 4,000 meters, the hiking itself wasn’t too strenuous and, with the aid of great food cooked up by our chef, we were able to get our bodies back to normal, ready for the cycling ahead.
On our last morning in the mountains we discovered blood spots on our sleeping bag liners and bites on our bodies. Back in Gonder we inspected our sleeping bags to find we’d picked up bed bugs from the bedding that had been provided on the trek. Not content with letting them fester, we’ve delayed our departure from Gonder to get the critters dealt with.
All being well, we’ll be back on the bikes tomorrow (Friday) as we take on the 800km cycle for Addis Ababa. A ride that’ll certainly introduce us to rural Ethiopian life. We just hope we won’t get stoned too much by the small children we’ll encounter: a real hazard of cycling in these parts. Please follow our progress on our live GPS tracker.
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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 Principal). 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.