Pedalling through Kenya

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Kenya obviously came with a massive sense of relief. We had survived Ethiopia. I have rarely been so happy to leave a country. The same slight sense of nervousness of the unknown still accompanied me over the border, however there was little feeling that it could be any worse than what we had just encountered. And Kenya was certainly probably everything and more than we had hoped for. The feeling of space and peace we felt wild camping with not a soul around that first night was immense.

The riding days were still hard, at least physically. This is Kenya’s northern frontier, a vast expanse of desert like country, sparsely populated by the Semburu (a people related to the Masaai) of whom many live a nomadic existence based on cattle herding. It’s hard country, very dry and very hot with water often two days walk away for the cattle. The people eek out an existence on the meager fertile land (especially right now, in a drought) and we were told on more than one occasion that many Semburu carry AK47’s and that they sort out their own disputes, with very little (or no) police involvement.

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“Areti’s hotel for delicious food” we were sold. It was indeed delicious.

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Not much out here but camels and cattle

The hardest part of this frontier ride for us was the wind and the water. We were hit by ferocious, hot, cross winds that slowed us and made riding tough, and water is also harder to come by. It is so dry out here that it is common to see children and adults standing on the road holding out water bottles and shouting for water from passing trucks and cyclists. We barely had enough water for ourselves and were shocked to see the basically large puddles of brackish water that constituted the people’s drinking water. We too collected our drinking water from these brown puddles, but unlike the locals we could double filter ours. It’s hard not to feel that some simple water harvesting techniques such as water tanks for storage and guttering for roof run off could make a world of difference. Especially when we saw that government places like police stations had exactly this.

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They were not joking!

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We took it in turns to break the wind

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Warm beer was common in Kenya, sadly.

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This is how we all felt just prior to arriving in Marsebit

By the time we reached Marsebit, we were all quite shattered and in need of a rest day. Henry’s Camp was a true oasis and possessed hot water and the cleanest bathrooms I’d seen in months. We recuperated with beer and plenty of food. None of us particularly wanted to leave, but Astrid and I had signed up to do a Vipassana meditation retreat in Nairobi and needed to get there. Craig decided to join us on the cycle south.

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Day off breakfast beers

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This place was such a haven

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Henry’s camp, such a sweet spot

The next few days were marked by long hot days in the saddle, sweet milky tea and chapatti breaks in tiny restaurants, camping behind pubs and even an invite to a Semburu house for lunch. Everyone was super friendly, and almost everyone spoke English. It was a joy to be able to communicate in a more meaningful way and learn about the lives people lived out here.

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A foggy descent from Marsebit before more heat

South of Archer’s Post, the old colonial frontier, things began to change. There was less of a wild west feel and more development. We began to climb towards Mount Kenya; the area became much greener with fenced farms and fruit for sale on the side of the road. Rolling into Nanyuki we got a reverse culture shock; coffee shops, supermarkets and all the trimmings of modernity. And also something else. Something that took us a while to put our finger on, but which revealed itself over the next few weeks – Kenya in places, especially Nanyuki and later Nairobi, felt in many ways still so colonial. Many white Africans lived in beautiful homesteads (or houses), mostly sheltered from the everyday hardships of modern Kenya. A lot of old British traditions still linger on, and having just lived in England, it felt in many ways, quite British. I guess for us Kenya was also the first time we’d come in contact with white Africans and there was a stark contrast between how they lived and most Africans we’d come in contact with so far. Not to mention the fact that everyone has a maid, gardener and nanny (or a variation there of). You don’t actually have to be rich to have help in Africa, in time we met people from all walks of life, many middle or even lower middle class families who had hired help. There is no doubt that in a country where unemployment is a huge issue, that this gives valuable income to people. I guess it’s just so different from how we grew up, and on some fundamental level makes me uncomfortable. Over the next few months Astrid and I were probably constantly annoying various maids by trying to be helpful. I think we just need to accept that we can’t make a bed that well!  Anyway, I have massively digressed! In Nanyuki, in a supermarket carpark we were lucky enough to meet Joost (who enlightened us on many quirks of Kenya). Joost, originally from The Netherlands has lived in Nanyuki for 20 years and very kindly invited us to stay in his garden. His home is gorgeous with views of Mount Kenya, surrounded by trees and flowers. We all sat on his porch that first night, sharing food and wine and felt so very fortunate. Joost is such a kind soul, and let us store our bikes and panniers while we headed to Nairobi for the meditation retreat the following day. Craig stayed behind to work on his blog and rest and we would find him in much the same position two weeks later.

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Joost and Eveline who kindly took us in

As we had run out of time to pedal, Astrid and I took a metatu to Nairobi. These are mini buses that leave when they fill up and are incredibly affordable. The driving can be hectic, but no more than other parts of the world we’ve been in! Once in Nairobi we took a local bus out to where the meditation retreat was going to take place.

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On a metatu

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A typical shop in Kenya, buying delicious avocado

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Pedalling around Nayuki

What followed was an incredible 10 days. Astrid had already done one Vipassana retreat in the UK, but for me it was new. It was quite different to the one we’d both done in Thailand back in 2014 and I found it very rewarding. We meditated for 10.5 hours a day, starting at 4.30am and finishing around 9pm. Astrid had suggested that by fully committing I would get the most out of it. So I took her advice and I am glad I did. It was incredibly difficult at times, but so rewarding. I especially loved the secular nature of it and the humour with which Goenka uses to teach this very valuable skill. At the end I felt like I had had a mental health reset and was filled with even more enthusiasm and joy for life.

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Sleeping quarter’s at the retreat.

Having completed the retreat, Astrid and I took two days out to relax. We rented a small cottage and treated ourselves to delicious food and some time alone together. It was a great way to not only process the meditation retreat, but also the last 6 weeks of craziness that had been Ethiopia.

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Our awesome cottage

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Enjoying the luxury of our own space and a kitchen

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Delicious breakfast

On our return to Nanyuki we were happy to discover Craig was still at Joost’s place and we all decided to leave together. The rainy season, although late, had started to hint at arriving and we left under moody, heavy skies. Our route was not direct, as we wanted to avoid the main road into Nairobi and Craig was headed further west to Uganda anyway. That first day was particularly memorable as we got our first glimpses of giraffes and signs that elephants were about (although we didn’t see any actual elephants). Our lunch was shared with a Masaai guy herding his cows. Just another day in Kenya.

Saying goodbye to Craig was sad and we all hoped our paths would cross again further down the road. Astrid and I continued on alone, sometimes on main roads, other times on dirt tracks as we slowly made out way to Nairobi. We got super excited at our first proper sighting of zebras and nearly lost our shit when we a saw giraffe cross the road in front of us. It was a joy to be out in the Kenyan bush, seeing all these amazing animals. One morning, after wild camping in the bush, we saw some zebras meander by as we drank our morning coffee, meeting all our fantasies of cycling in Africa. The rains did eventually find us just after we swept down into the very impressive rift valley. We sheltered in a crowded restaurant and ate hot chips, waiting for the storm to pass. That night it was too wet and populated to wild camp, so we asked at a police station (which is the norm for cyclists in southern Africa). We were not disappointed. The kind officers gave us a dry room in which to pitch our tent (luxury by our standards) and the next morning the boss invited us in for breakfast. It was interesting to hear his opinions about Kenya, while overall he felt things were moving in the right way, it was sad to hear that while very educated, many Kenyans face unemployment and that subsequent alcohol issues prevail in many rural villages.

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Kind of a milestone

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Looking out over the Rift Valley

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Looking for wildlife

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Such a good road – no cars

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Zebra!!

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The long way to Nairobi

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Beautiful skies

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Bush camp happiness

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Happiness in camping in the bush

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Looking at a monkey creeper

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Outside the police station

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Inside our hut

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Police boss

We continued to get intermittently wet  as we made our way down to lake Naivasha, a popular tourist spot for foreigners and locals alike. Unfortunately I had become ill – some kind of stomach problem associated with fever and opted to go the short way around the lake to the campsite we had decided to stay at. For hours I battled shitty roads and rain, going so slowly that Astrid who had ridden much further (and seen giraffes) only arrived 20 mins after me. At least there were hippos grazing right by the lake that night. We could hear them munching from our tent!

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The equator! Another milestone

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Giraffe!!

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Lake Naivasha

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Fishing

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The watery sunset

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So beautiful

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Night hippos!

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Making food at Lake Naivasha

We could have stayed at Lake Naivasha for days, but we were running out of time to get to Nairobi as a friend from England was soon to arrive to join us, and Vero who we were staying with and wanted to see, was only around for a short time due to work and family commitments. So, rather reluctantly we pushed to probably ride the worst 90km either of us have ever ridden. It was more or less okay until we had to climb out of the Rift Valley and then we were faced with the most fucked up driving I’ve seen since Iran. More than once we had to abort into the gutter. The road was narrow and full of seemingly suicidal truck drivers who would over take on double lines while going up hill on blind corners. It was harrowing and not helped by having to take ibuprofen or paracetamol every two hours to stop my temperature from spiking, a lack of energy from being ill, flat tubes and the encroaching dark. We rode the last 20km through the outskirts of Nairobi in the dark, fearing for our lives from the horrific traffic. People always come up with all kinds of reasons why Africa is dangerous – people, animals, crime, etc, but in reality, like everywhere else on the the planet, it’s deranged humans in metal boxes that are the most lethal.

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Before the insanity, riding with Lake Naivasha in the distance.

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We tried some back roads but were stopped by fences

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Fixing a flat

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Some of the stupid driving

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I was so slow and struggled all day

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Contemplating the beauty of the valley and near death

Reaching Vero’s felt quite momentous for a variety of reasons. Mostly it was just wonderful to see Vero and Gabe again. And probably because I was ill I very much appreciated being enveloped by all the comforts we usually happily go without – soft bed, hot shower, cats, oven, couch and wifi.  Our time in Nairobi was spent resting, making food, hanging with cats and catching up with various friends – some that we’d made at the retreat, as well as other cyclists. Particularly exciting was meeting up with Evan – a touring cyclist we’d crossed paths with in Albania in 2015. We had a wonderful time with him and his partner Megan, which included a pizza and movie night with Gabe, as Megan had also stayed with Vero in Dushanbe when she lived there. Small world! Lucy also arrived, which was exciting and we all prepared for the next leg of cycling.

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Being thoroughly spoilt in Nairobi by one of Vero’s colleagues, Pauline.

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First washing machine since Aswan (Egypt)

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It was great to finally meet Tristan, a fellow cyclist we’d been talking to on whatsapp in person for beers

One highlight that needs mentioning, and where photos will speak louder than words, is the Nairobi National Park. We were so lucky to be taken there by Pauline(a friend of Vero’s) one Saturday morning, and it is simply incredible how many wild animals live in the vast park so close to the metropolis of Nairobi.

We were not ready to leave Nairobi, it’s the kind of city you could lose weeks in. Not only because there are things to do, but it’s the kind of place that attracts many people and is kind of a melting pot of expats and travellers. Also, because Astrid and I were still a bit tired – that kind of long term fatigue that sneaks up on you gradually. We could have spent a week reading, watching films and making food. However, we had a date with Doug and Niovi in Zanzibar and two weeks to pedal there. So, slightly reluctantly (although looking forward to Zanzibar) we hit the road south.

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Heading south

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And then there was three!

First however, we had a date with Patricia and her friends in the Ngong Hills. We’d met Patricia at the meditation retreat and she was a fellow vegan – something very rare in meat loving Kenya, and had invited us for dinner. It was one of the loveliest evenings and Patricia made the most amazing food.

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Such amazing food

From the Ngong hills in the south of Nairobi we headed towards the Tanzanian border and the iconic Mount Kilimanjaro. We’d chosen a more off the beaten route which skirted Amboseli National Park – again due to Kenya’s incredibly high park fees, we did not visit, but enjoyed seeing the wildlife which doesn’t actually recognise the park borders. At night we camped in the bush, or next to people’s huts, or once on the roof of a pub. Kenyans are friendly and we felt incredibly safe and welcome. We snacked in local restaurants and were overjoyed to find cheap avocados and an abundance of chapatis. It was fun traveling as three and the rain mostly held off (although a nasty headwind began to slow our progress).

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A ‘Hotel’ in a typical place to eat

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The kitchen

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Beans and greens

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Cooking breakfast

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Camping next to a families huts

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Astrid playing with the kids

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One of our camp spots. We couldn’t resist the grass

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On the roof of a pub

Soon we began to see the momentous Mount Kilimanjaro on the horizon, signalling our end to pedalling in Kenya. For me, this has been one of the loveliest countries to cycle through. People are incredibly friendly, it’s beautiful and safe (in our experience) and there are back roads to explore and animals to see. We both hope to return one day.

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Last tea before the border

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Kili under the clouds

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Kenya was an absolute pleasure

Many beers through Ethiopia

 

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Our route south

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Our group had now been reduced to 4 and we still had several days cycle to make it to Addis, which we were all very much looking forward to. Our route dropped us down into a vast and fertile valley and it grew hotter. The four of us got along really well, and it was easy (well as easy as Ethiopia can be). Our days consisted of making sure one of us didn’t whack an Ethiopian child (who was hurtling rocks at us), cold beer stops, avoiding injera (we had all had enough of it by now), negotiating hotel rooms (we sometimes had to pretend we were two straight couples), pimped up two minute noodles and more cold beers. Moments that stand out during our ride into Addis include; a hotel room that was so filthy (blood stained sheets) that Astrid and I slept on the balcony and the guys put their tents on the actual beds; eating chip butties on the side of the road; getting drunk and laughing endlessly in one of our rooms (while cooking two minute noodles); climbing up a beautiful pass that was lined by eucalypts and reminded me of home; the kindness of a family in whose hotel we stayed in at the top of the epic climb, and sailing into Addis so ready for a few days break.

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Snack break

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Early mornings are best

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It is such a beautiful country

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A beautiful fertile valley, such a contrast to the dry north.

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Pedalling through a village

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View as we climbed

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Reminds me of home

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The road upwards

 

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Beers at the top

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Selfies on the descent

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Reminds me of Scotland!

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Cyclist’s in the mist

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Where we slept when the room was too gross

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Breakfast stop

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Beers outside the friendly hotel

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Avoiding injera

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Festy bed on which tent was pitched

Ethiopia wears on the soul like no place I have ever visited before. Addis however did prove a short reprieve. We treated ourselves to a hotel that had hot water and working wifi (most of the time), drank delicious coffees in a hipster café, ate (vege) burgers and the best samosas I’ve ever encountered.

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Hipster coffee happiness

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View of Addis from our hotel

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Gelato happiness

Dimitri also arrived back in town, after a short break in Europe, bringing with him treats from France, as well as treats Craig had ordered for everyone to share (thanks guys!).

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Craig, the bearer of many gifts

My favourite memory of Addis is of drinking cheap wine and helping Ewaut cook up a massive couscous dish for all of us (Craig, Clo, Arthur, Dimitri, Astrid and I) in the slightly festy kitchen of their hotel. We ate it on the roof, along with cheeses and French wine,(thanks Dimitri and Craig) laughing and trying to make sense of Ethiopia, and discussing onward plans. Later we caught a bus to see some jazz, accidentally crashed a brothel and stumbled home around 6am. It was the blow out I think we all needed.

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Cooking happiness

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The couscous mater chef

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Getting into the couscous

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Ewaut’s amazing couscous

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Wine on the balcony with Clo, Dimitri and Craig

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At a jazz place. We look like we are a advert for a weird sitcom

Soon it was time to leave, which meant a heartfelt goodbye to Ewaut who was heading back to Belgium to begin work on his sailing boat. I have no doubt he will manage this and our paths will one day cross again (he’s promised to come pick us up in his boat!). I will miss Ewuat a lot; his facts, humour and podcast/tech genius, and just the fact that he is an all round awesome human. Thanks for a brilliant three months man.

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Outside of favourite cafe before leaving Addis

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Ethiopian church, Addis Ababa

Our ride south towards the border with Kenya disintegrated rapidly in a way only Ethiopia can. We’d been warned the south was worse; and it was. There were people everywhere and I felt like from the moment I pushed down on the first pedal stroke, to when I wheeled my bike into a crummy hotel room at night, there was abuse. People (adults and children) shouted; ‘you, you, you!!’ aggressively, we were chased by kids who tried to grab stuff off our bikes, or put a stick in our spokes, or simply scream ‘give me money, give me pen!’ At one place some men grabbed my arse (I lost my shit and they eventually apologised) and in another village a woman punched Astrid. Not all of it was aggressive, but a lot of it was.

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On the road doom south

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Virgin power, virgin pride!

As I pedalled I wondered if  this was some kind of universal karma for being white and middle class? For daring to pedal through a country, displaying my relative wealth? I have no idea. I keep grappling with the why. Why is it so difficult here?! I don’t believe people are inherently bad or anything. I can come up with partial reasons; poverty and lack of education for sure, although having now travelled in countries poorer, or just as poor, where the kids don’t throw a single rock, it can’t just be this. Then there’s the fact that Ethiopia suffered a devastating drought in the 1980’s and was subject to much international attention and although diverted by the army,  subsequent international aid. Do they simply see foreigners as a source of endless ‘stuff’ given to alleviate our western guilt? And then there’s also the myriad of agencies like USAID, Oxfam and various Christian charities that operate here, possibly leading to the assumption that foreigners exist to do something for you. There are many people in Ethiopia that simply stand on the side of the road holding out their open hands when we pass. And at some point some tourist (or worker?!) must have given out a nation worth of pens. I want to have a serious conversation with that person or people.

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Everyone is curious about the weird foreigners on bikes

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Craig, ever patient, chatting to a child

One could argue that we have caused at least some of these issues. If I was an Ethiopian child in a village, used to seeing foreigners come and do things for my village, or give me stuff, I’d be miffed too if some rich gits on bikes came through and didn’t give me the sweeties I’m accustomed to. Or the sweeties my parents told me they used to get from the white people. For this is certainly generational. Twenty years ago cyclists were having rocks thrown at them by Ethiopian children too. Those kids are adults now and their kids continue the same behaviour. I might sound harsh; maybe I am. While I am not against all aid, I do think charity is problematic (at best). Sure, if there’s a crisis like an environmental disaster, or famine, the international community certainly has an obligation to assist. What I have a problem with is top down charity; well-meaning rich people or organisations giving, or doing things for people, without proper consultation or collaboration. I think it’s offensive and disempowering to the people that are being ‘helped’ and doesn’t address the deep rooted systemic issues of inequality, and it’s very often not sustainable. I am by no means an expert; these are just my observations combined with some reading I’ve done on the issue. Plus my belief in solidarity, not charity as a guiding principle when trying to assist those less fortunate than ourselves.

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Outside a hotel

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A typical scene from a village. The children can be cute and curious, but also demanding and irritating.

So it was some of these issues that I pondered while being chased by rock throwing children and jeering adults. Ethiopia certainly tests you. Your humanity and patience, not to mention compassion. I was worried before I came here that I would crack; chase some rock throwing child into his home in a rage and be stabbed by his father (this actually happened to a cyclist). Or maybe just get so upset that I would have to leave. Neither of these things happened however. I think I managed to keep my compassion and humour most of the time, and while tested for sure, I didn’t entirely loathe my time in Ethiopia. I found it challenging for sure, frustrating, tiring, annoying, confusing and down right exhausting. But somehow I still felt the adventure of it all, and the fun of travelling as a group. This certainly helped a lot. Also, by the time we were riding towards the Kenyan border, I knew how Ethiopia in most parts, worked.

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Ethiopian coffee is awesome.

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Buying papaya

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A typical town

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All the bread ever

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Craig prepares a ‘traveller’

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Party in our hotel room

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Crowded

There is something about the human condition that finds comfort in familiarity, no matter how unfun that familiarity can be at times. I knew everyday I would face a certain amount of harassment, which would be tapered by a few friendly interactions. The food was familiar; I knew what I liked and how to order it. I knew the prices of things and where to buy vegetables. At the end of the day I knew what to expect of hotels, that there would be an inevitable battle for Astrid and I to share a room, but that it would be cheap. The water might not work, but someone would bring us some. Best of all, I knew there would be beer. Perhaps this sounds crude, or alcoholic, but I took massive comfort in the fact that at the end of the day the four of us could debrief over beers. I like the taste of beer, but it was more than that. It was something familiar from all our cultures in this often confronting and difficult country. In many ways it felt like debriefing after a hard day at work with people who understand and have shared your experience.

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Beer time. Again.

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Camping in an empty room of a full hotel.

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Coffee and beer coping strategy

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One and only broken spoke

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Warning: break dancing ahead

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Bin donkey

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Preparing dinner outside a hotel room

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Deep fried snacks

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Creepy statue outside a hotel

So we bumbled our way south in this manner, cracking our first beer at lunch time (or sometimes before) and ending our day eating pimped up two minute noodles (a bad habit started in Ethiopia) on the floor of some less than fancy hotel. Some days were better than others; one night, after having refused to pay the outrageous price to camp by a lake, we stopped for afternoon beers at a bar (which was really some guys house) and then asked if we could camp there. We gave him a donation and he and his lovely family let us pitch our tents under a shelter and even brought us a table and chairs to use (not to mention beers).

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Would have been awesome to camp here, but they wanted an outrageous price

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So we ended here instead. Would rather give money to a family anyway.

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The ‘Bar’ aka someones house (:

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whooo hooo beer time!

Another day we stumbled upon Odd, while looking for hippos. Odd was a Norwegian guy who had married an Ethiopian lady and was trying to set up a camp. He warmly welcomed us to camp by his VW’s and spend an afternoon relaxing and watching hippos. It was our first encounter with African wildlife and we were all rather excited. We decided to take a day off and enjoyed relaxing and Astrid gave the guys awesome hair cuts.

Unfortunately after the brief reprieve of the hippos, we encountered the most harassment we had faced so far. One town in particularly was awful; screaming, people trying to grab at us, or our stuff, children chasing us and just a generally very aggressive energy. This wasn’t helped by the torrential downpour we encountered while pedalling through, adding to the feeling we had reached some kind of end of the world apocalyptic village. Once we reached the outskirts we all kind of looked at each other. I think we had run out of words. Even for Ethiopia that had been bad.

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Beer coping strategy

Clo needed to meet his dad in Kenya and wisely decided to waste no more of his time pedalling through Ethiopia, which by that stage was causing us all various emotions from rage, to confusion, to despair. It was sad to see him go. Our group of four had been fun, and an antidote to the insanity that can be cycling through Ethiopia.

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Going to miss Clo

Astrid, Craig and I pushed on towards the border and I am pleased to report that things started to improve. Children still chased us up hills yelling for pens, but the aggressive vibe began to change. The ‘you, you, you!’ felt more like a greeting, then a threat and the  population also thinned out as we reached the beginning of the Great Rift Valley. We would follow this epic geographical feature all the way down into southern Africa. The vistas really were beautiful and we even managed to wild camp twice before the border.

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South bound

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A much more peaceful Ethiopia

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A beautiful sunset, things getting less hectic as we approach Moyale

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A rare wild camp in Ethiopia

By the time we reached Moyale on the Ethiopian side however, we were all very much done. I felt my temper really fray negotiating our last hotel room (which was an epic struggle and overpriced), had a melt down of the price of beer and food and snapped at anyone who was remotely annoying. I knew I needed to leave for my own sanity. I think we all felt the same. We spent the last of our Ethiopian birr on beers (which felt fitting) and then slowly rolled towards the border.

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We are nearly done! Last day breakfast in Ethiopia

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We can see Kenya!

Kenya, I am so ready for you.

 

 

 

 

Coffee, injera and violence – the first few weeks in Ethiopia.

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One of the many beautiful roads we cycled in Ethiopia.

For decades Ethiopia has been notorious amongst long distance cyclists due to stone throwing children and aggressively begging individuals. In the weeks leading up to our arrival, people relayed their recent experiences on the Cairo to Cape Town WhatsApp group; a head injury due to a rock being thrown from the ledge above; the relief felt after the fear of having been locked in a room for a prolonged time and a man with an AK47 opening the door with aggressively yelling people around him; an attempted robbery and assault; and military escorts due to escalating tribal warfare and one of the these escorts being attacked too. It sounds crazy while I am writing this, that despite all of these reports we were still willing to cycle in Ethiopia. Our choice of crossing at the remote Lug Di border into the Tigray region was influenced by continued reports of civil unrest around Metema. We rationalised with ourselves that as a group of four we should be less of a target for abduction and random violence, and that wearing our helmets could prevent potential head injuries. Before arriving we would often chat about how we wished our time in Ethiopia could/would differ from other people’s experiences – that it would be a pleasant and fun experience, how much we wanted to love the country and the people that lived there. I can honestly say that when the time arrived, we all crossed the Lug Di border with open minds and hearts.

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With my helmet on, I am optimistic about our cycle through Ethiopia.

It was another 25 kilometres of riding in the scorching afternoon heat along a mostly deserted road, until we could see if our hope had been misplaced or not. Pulling into the first place that looked like it served food and perhaps the highly anticipated cold beer we had been dreaming of for weeks in the Sudanese desert, we were not disappointed. Plates of injera (the staple food of Ethiopia – giant pancakes made from fermented grains) were prepared and consumed, as were numerous cold beers and strong coffee. Our presence had drawn attention, but it was the curious and friendly type. Those who spoke English asked us about our trip. Those that didn’t still shouted ‘faranji’ as we cycled by and groups of children would run to the road shrieking and waving madly for our attention. A group of children followed us out of town on their bikes and we enjoyed their friendly chatter and cycling camaraderie.

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Our first plates of injera – the local staple.

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Excited to have our first cold beer since Egypt.

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Drawing a friendly and curious crowd.

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Our cycle escort out of town.

After another 25 kilometres we arrived in Humera where we were to register our arrival in Ethiopia with the immigration office (Lug Di is such a small border that they don’t officially register your arrival there). We spent an hour riding around town searching for the office and by the time we had received reliable information as to its’ location, office hours were over. We booked into a cheap guesthouse and freshened up for the night before hitting the town for more cold beer and injera. Humera had a relaxed, friendly and unassuming vibe – and we liked it. The next morning we did register ourselves as having arrived in Ethiopia and no one minded that it was a day later. The rest of our time was spent doing all the things you need to do when first arriving in a new country – cash, SIM cards, food supplies, washing clothes, eating, drinking coffee – the usual.

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Enjoying a coffee break.

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Appreciating cold beer.

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Relaxing of an evening in Humera.

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One of the many tasty meals we ate while resting.

Over the next 5 days we cycled from Humera to Shire along the small northern road that ran along the Eritrean border. It was desolate and beautiful. After the flatlands of Sudan our eyes feasted on the mountains that loomed on the horizon. Drawing ever closer, they appeared as giant monoliths that looked ancient and weathered. Our thigh muscles burned happily, cycling on the first hills we had experienced since arriving in Africa. A hot sun beat down on us and we felt as dry as the earth that was a stark parched yellow, devoid of anything but the occasional tree. As we moved from the flatlands into the mountains the housing changed from wooden buildings to stone ones, reflecting the natural materials available for construction.

 

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Enchanted by the boababs.

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A typical farmhouse with goats.

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The housing changed as different building materials became available.

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Brightly coloured churches are everywhere in Ethiopia.

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Enjoying the hills.

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Many modes of transport.

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Dropping down into another valley.

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Typical streetscape.

 

As this is road is rarely visited by travellers, our presence in the small villages would draw everyone from their homes. We would rest, eat and drink, being watched by hundreds of eyes, mesmerised by our presence. Having been a teacher at one stage in his life, Martin was excellent at engaging with the kids. He’d play with them, joke around, they’d pull back with uncertainty and then shriek with laughter when they understood what his intentions were. The one adult that spoke English (usually the school teacher) would be found to engage with us and translate for the village, answering who we were and what we were doing there. The teenagers and young men continued to ride their bikes with us from the village for a few kilometres and then with a wave of the hand they would turn back leaving us to the empty road ahead.

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Everyone would come out of their houses on arrival in a village.

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Martin was great with the kids.

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Whatever we did would draw a crowd.

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On that rare occasion when we didn’t have a crowd.

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There was always a farewell group of watchers.

With the region being so sparsely populated, we were able to wild camp for a few nights, which we enjoyed. Consistently being the centre of attention was tiring and at times overwhelming. This feeling of needing our own space would grow exponentially as we entered the more densely populated areas of Ethiopia, but for now it was just a pleasure to be free to set up camp and cook dinner in nature, watch the sun set, listen to music or a podcast and then fall asleep with the stars shining above.

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Wild camping.

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Sunset over our camp.

But for me not all was well. I had been experiencing intermittent left hip pain since Greece and this was now increasing in frequency and severity. In Humera I had developed angular cheilitis around the side of my mouth, which was spreading to my cheek and chin. And two days out of Shire I developed the symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, fever, reduced appetite, epigastric cramping and nausea. I knew how sick I was, but in the age-old struggle of the long distance cycle tourist, I must admit that I still wanted to cycle every kilometre of our journey. So I ignored my body and pushed myself on. Fortunately the others took pity on my stupidity and we agreed to shorter cycling days with increased rest breaks. On the first night we pulled over early and camped in the beautiful grounds of a nunnery. I had no energy to look at the intricately and brightly painted church and sat exhausted on a log surrounded by the white robed, elderly nuns. Despite the poverty they lived in, they glowed with kindness, generosity and a spiritual exuberance. My feelings were in stark contrast to their energy.

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All churches draw a crowd as religion plays a large part in Ethiopian society. (Martin’s photo)

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Our camp at the monastery – also draws a crowd.

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Our guard for the evening – photo courtesy of Martin.

Our next rest days had been scheduled for Aksum, one days ride from Shire, and home to the ancient Aksumite kingdom and as legend has it – the of the Ark of the Covenant. Still weary with illness and lulled into a sense of security by the beauty and kindness of the last week, the shock of the first begging and screaming was shattering to me. The high pitched “you, you, you”, followed by “pin, pin, pin” (actually pen mispronounced) followed me the whole way from Shire to Aksum. Where and why this changed occurred befuddled my fevered brain, but even when the sickness passed I could still not figure out what made some villages/areas immune to begging and others rampant with it. I continued with my friendly smiles and waves, and apologised to everyone for my lack of foresight in packing my panniers full of things I needed for my journey and no “pins” for them. Then came the first rock. Again I was not expecting it. I saw a small boy, perhaps 5 years old, running towards me like many small boys had over the previous days. Thinking nothing of it, I waved and called out the local greeting of “Selam”. Just as I passed by him, he launched a fist-sized stone at my head missing me by half a metre. I slammed on my breaks, spun the bike around and started yelling abuse at this child. I dared him to throw another at me while we were face to face. He was running back to his house to hide, his face pale and legs visibly trembling. Neither of our finest moments in life, that’s for sure.

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The closer we got to Aksum, a town frequented by tourists, the more intense the begging became. “You, you, you. Money, money, money.” “You, you, you. Pen, pen, pen.” “You, you, you. Give me … (insert money, pen, books, your bike, something/anything!!)” Cycling in through the poorer local section, before getting to the business and tourist district, one could see that this was indeed a town divided by socio-economics. Martin had already found a hotel for us and I was so happy to collapse into a clean bed next to a functional bathroom. And there I remained for approximately the next 24 hours as the bug I had progressed to the bum water stage (eek…).

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Main street of Aksum.

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Riding through town.

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The stelae of the ancient Aksumite kingdom.

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The waters.

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Feeling good enough to have a beer – kind of.

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Exploring Aksum by bicycle.

While convalescing, Ewaut and Martin let us know that they would both be heading their own ways. Ethiopia had been Ewaut’s dream destination and he wanted to do some solo riding in the mountains. Time was of the essence for Martin and he felt he couldn’t wait for me to recover. So after 7 weeks of cycling and love, the habibis would be disbanding. I felt like we were losing part of our family and my heart was sad. We had travelled so well together, each of us had brought something unique to the group and we had supported each other through many challenging situations. Despite this sadness, it felt like our little family had come to a natural conclusion. We all had our own paths ahead of us, and this was exciting. The habibis would always be there, both in our memories and in real life on the end of a phone or another cycle journey in the future. Ewaut and Martin, thank you for the amazing and crazy times that we shared, this journey was enhanced by your presence, and your friendship and love will always be remembered.

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Sunset over Aksum.

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Our farewell beers – the end of the habibis (for now).

Looking at the map, we chose to forego the main road and take the more direct route through to Lalibela. Having come out the other end of my illness, I was ready for the freedom of cycling again. Arriving in Adwa we turned south on to the newly paved secondary road and at Sele we turned south again on to the dirt road that would lead us the whole way to Lalibela – 260kms away. In hindsight, this was one of the toughest sections we have cycled. We relished the remote and desolate surroundings, the exceedingly hot and dry climate, and the challenge of climbing thousands of metres on bad roads. The stark natural beauty was some of the most spectacular of the trip so far. What pushed me beyond my limits was the people. For every positive interaction, minutes later we would have a greater opposing interaction. Leaving every village, large groups of children and teenagers would mob us, begging, mocking us and eventually the stone throwing would begin. Luckily their aim was bad most of the time, but we both ended up with bruises from when it was good. Despite being malicious, the rock throwing always involved cowardice as it was always done when our backs were turned and they would run away immediately when challenged. On one particularly bad occasion we were followed for 5kms up a hill (so we couldn’t out cycle them). Being harassed and threatened with violence for that long is harrowing. Eventually we gave up, sat down and hoped to bore them into leaving. But children with nothing to do, have a high boredom threshold. Then to complicate my frustration and rage, before eventually leaving us, a small group came up and offered us the remainder of their lunch. Recalling this day still brings tears to my eyes.

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The kids would have a fun time with us and then throw rocks as we cycled away.

Ewaut messaged us with photos of himself with a head injury from a rock being thrown at him from above. Only two days ahead, this was the catalyst for the partial reformation of the habibis. En route to him we stopped for beers with the men of one village. They had also met Ewaut and were mortified to hear about what had happened. The headmaster of the local school was so distressed and subsequently worried about our safety that he ran next to us for 6 kilometres, slept at the same monastery we camped at and woke with us at 4am to wave us off and see that we had left his district unharmed. Our 4am start in the dark felt necessary as we were climbing into the highlands that morning and the thought of being harassed while doing such a big climb was too much. We trundled through villages, our presence only being noticed by dogs and sheep. In the predawn light we marvelled at the beauty of the landscape below us. For the first time that week a small sliver of joy entered my heart and I knew that the depression I had sunk into was not all encompassing.

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Sharing beers with the local teachers.

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Exchanging hats.

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Pre-dawn looking down over the valley we just climbed out of.

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Looking back.

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Jude making her way up and up.

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First light hits the mountains.

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Further along looking down another valley.

Ewaut spotted us from a distance across the valley and came out to greet us. Chatting excitedly, we appraised his stitches and laughed at how the beret he had found in the Sudanese desert covered the injury nicely. Still a bit shell-shocked, we all needed a few days of peace and Sekota was a nice little town that provided the space. We relaxed, ate big plates of salad and pasta, and enjoyed fresh fruit juices. Together again, we cycled in a small pack, each watching out for the other. Not far out of Sekota we stopped to explore Wukir Meskele Kirstos, our second rock-hewn church along that road. The priest guided us around the small carved church with 6 pillars and colourful paintings dating back to the 13th century. The skeletons of the local kings and chiefs since its construction were in residence, as was an underground tunnel that supposedly led to Aksum in one direction and Lalibela in the other.

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Catching up with Ewaut at the side of the road.

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The most exciting meal I had eaten in months 🙂

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The habibis partially reunited.

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Inner entry to Wukir Meskele Kirstos.

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The priest next to one of the colourful pillars.

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The painted pillars.

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The priest in front of the room where the remains are kept.

Stopping for lunch in Asketama village, we had a timely reminder about keeping our eyes on our belongings. We usually choose a restaurant that we can sit outside of to keep an eye on our bikes. As we had had no issues thus far with theft in Ethiopia, we thought nothing of sitting just inside the only restaurant that appeared open and trying to keep an eye on our the bikes that were parked just outside. With our attention diverted by food and the hilarity of Ethiopian music videos (men jiggling about in tiny shorts and shirts covered in buttons, AK 47s slung over some shoulders), we missed the gathering crowd outside that was hiding the youths that were stealing our belongings. At least a hundred people saw them doing it, but only the family who ran the restaurant said anything to us or them. By the time we had reached the police station, one of the two youths was already in custody. Within 20 minutes a second youth was in custody and our belongings were returned to us. We made a statement and were then told that we had to remain in the village until the court case tomorrow afternoon. “Not a chance”, we replied, thanked them for their help and cycled out of that village as quickly as possible. After another 30 minutes riding, my handlebars began to slip and I realised that as I had nothing of value to steal from on the bike, they had attempted to steal my handlebars.

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Our bikes are already drawing a crowd in Asketama village.

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Jude thanking the police officers for getting our things back.

Due to my increasing despair and depression, I had no inspiration to take photographs while cycling and I stopped keeping my daily diary, as I did not want to relive the trauma of each day. Instead I lived each moment and then forgot it, the rhythm of cycling and the beauty around me giving me reprieve from the ever burning question of ‘Why?’. The problem is so complex, I could not come up with an adequate answer. The adults would tell us that it was due to the fact that the children were illiterate and uneducated, excusing them with one hand and throwing a stone at them with another, as they were getting too close and boisterous. Slowly I began to see how violence was entrenched and normalised in the culture, and concentrating on this I lost sight of the kindness that was present too. Luckily I had Jude to remind me of the value of perspective.

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I lost sight of the beauty and kindness that was around me.

It was not just Jude that kept me afloat at this time. It was also the acts of kindness and decency from the handful of amazing adults that we met, such as Abebe (our couch surfing host in Lalibela), his friends and family. Abebe’s house in Lalibela was an oasis for us, removed from the main tourist area, it was surrounded by trees and birdsong. He took us to his favourite places in town, shared his story, hopes and dreams, and gave us space to explore Lalibela in our own time.

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Some of the people that showed us kindness – an invitation for coffee as we cycled by.

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Abebe’s house where we spent a relaxing weekend.

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Jude and Abebe at his favourite breakfast cafe.

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Abebe’s extended family had us over for dinner and drinks on our last night.

The 12 rock hewn churches of Lalibela were the reason for our visit. Unlike the churches in Tigray, which are carved into the rocks above the ground, the churches of Lalibela were carved into the rock below. Legend has it that they were completed in 12 days, one of them overnight by a group of angels. I spent two afternoons wandering through the labyrinth of tunnels and the dark interiors of the churches, awestruck by the work and dedication that went into creating such a place. On Sundays the churches are still used and it was interesting to see all the locals and pilgrims dressed in white gathering around the buildings, the preachers giving sermons to the masses. Religion plays such a large role in Ethiopian society, culture and history.

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The incredible churches of Lalibela.

The guys we had met and left in Khartoum were gaining on us, so we had organised to meet up in Weldiya and travel together until Addis Ababa. The morning we meant to leave Lalibela to meet them, Jude was struck down with a tummy bug. With 108kms to cover that day, and now being in a more densely populated area resulting in no privacy when squatting on the side of the road, we convinced her that getting a lift that day would be the best thing. The difference was palpable and it made travelling through the landscape and especially the towns much more enjoyable. I could now see why people on package tours would not find the country all that challenging. It was only if you stopped that the shrieks would begin and you would be mobbed. As we were cracking our first beer in our lodgings, Craig, Clo and Arthur arrived. It was great to see them all again. That evening we sat on the balcony, drank beers and exchanged stories about how messed up travelling by bike in Ethiopia is. There was again talk about ethnic tensions ahead, so we agreed that sticking to the main road would be the safest and fastest option for our route to Addis.

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First beers with the guys in Weldiya.

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The crew of 6 getting ready to go.

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Ready to hit the road. (Photo courtesy of Craig)

As we had found when travelling in a group of six in Tajikistan, the greater the number of cyclists, the greater the number of styles and speeds of touring. Collectively our usual number of kilometres covered daily dropped, our morning leaving time blew out and our rest breaks were longer as we were waiting for more people to arrive at the same place. Despite this draw back (Jude and I now had a specific time to get to Nairobi as we had been accepted on a meditation retreat there) there was something thoroughly enjoyable about travelling in this new group. Negotiating accommodation was also sometimes interesting for us. We found that if the hotel was run by Christians, they would have a huge problem with people of the same sex sharing the same room and bed, but no issues with us drinking beer at the establishment and the locals bringing prostituted women back to the hotel. If the hotel was run by Muslims, they would have no issue with people of the same sex sharing a room and bed, but the consumption of alcohol was prohibited, but chewing chat and locals bringing prostituted women back to the hotel was also fine. The religious and cultural nuances would humour and infuriate us to no end.

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Cycling together is fun.

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Time for lunch and beers.

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Clo and Craig.

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Ewaut and Jude.

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Another rest break.

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Coffee and doughnuts.

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Got to love fresh papaya.

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The soon to be ‘Smash it to Kenya’ group.

From Lalibela onwards the scenery was changing dramatically. It was more lush and green, and when we began to drop down into the different valleys along the route, the feeling was at times almost tropical. Rain clouds began to gather in the afternoons and during our epic descent from Dessie to Kombolcha the sky opened up and we were drenched in our first rain since we left Athens the previous December. There was something exhilarating about dropping 800 metres over 20 kilometres, rain pelting our faces and bodies as we lent into every corner and switchback. Steam rose in clouds off the road and mini streams formed across our path. A hot coffee and a cold beer were the perfect finish to such a ride. It was also the last stretch of road that we would ride together as a team of six. Ewaut had chosen to catch a bus to Addis from Kombolcha as he no longer enjoyed riding in Ethiopia and wanted to spend time in Addis listening to live jazz. Arthur had come down with a stomach bug in Haik, and despite being a trooper and pushing on to Kombolcha, his diabetes added to his increasing dehydration and symptoms of dizziness and weakness. After starting with us for the first 10 kilometres out of town, we received a text message from him that he felt too sick to continue and that he would stay for the rest of the weekend in Kombolcha to recover. And that left four. The ‘Smash it to Kenya’ group was born – we had a beer and coffee.

 

Thoughts on Food.

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Our ‘Kitchen”

I decided it was time to write about food. It is after all what fuels us, day after day as we spin our pedals across continents. Cycle travellers often obsess about food; mainly what is being missed (cheese and chocolate are common!), but also about what countries have the best food (Indonesia, Thailand and China for us so far), and exciting, unexpected finds (soya chunks and cheap avocados in southern Africa). As long distance cyclists, most of us travel on small budgets, and quite a few cyclists we have come across live off eggs and two minute noodles (plus cheap street food). Then there is Astrid and I (and a few others we’ve met and travelled with) who travel with a full assortment of spices, a frying pan, and think nothing of making flat bread, or spending a morning making pancakes, or an evening making curry. The way we ‘do’ food varies from country to country, according to what’s available, the season, the socio-economic situation and whether we are in the countryside or a city.

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“Koshari” an Egyptian staple and amazing fuel for cyclists

Food thoughts at home

Since our first spin across the globe, Astrid and I gave up dairy and eggs and became pretty much vegans while in London. Astrid and I aren’t vegan all of the time for various reasons explained below. Neither do I believe you have to be 100% plant based to make a difference. Absolutism makes me uncomfortable and doesn’t fit with the often nuanced and complex way that I see the world. We became vegan mainly for environmental reasons, animal cruelty and lastly (we love vegan junk food) health. From an environmental perspective, veganism is at least part of the solution, however replacing beef cattle pasture with mono cultures of soya, or almonds, isn’t the answer either. I think ultimately we as a society need to change how we grow food as much as what we consume. Veganism in itself doesn’t exonerate one from all environmental impacts. It is surely a good start, but it is unfortunately more complicated than that. I think we need to seriously look at viable solutions – like permaculture, which rather than fighting the land to grow monocultures, often utilizing more and more pesticides, uses concepts such as design, water harvesting and companion planting to grow an abundant variety of food. A system like this would allow for smaller scale organic locally grown food resulting in less food miles, not to mention the health and social benefits the simple act of growing food can have on a community. This kind of system is probably not compatible with capitalism, at least not the hyper capitalist societies we find ourselves in. Eating less animal products, along with deep rooted systemic change is the only way (I think) we can decrease our negative impact on the environment when it comes to what we consume. Can you tell I think about this a lot?! Both Astrid and I are very keen to practice permaculture when we get home and plan to study it early in 2020. I guess it’s because we are quite passionate about food and the impact it has, we talk about it a lot, especially because travelling has often led us to at least partially compromise on our values.

Supermarkets, dumpsters and wild food through Europe

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Foraged mushrooms

During our summer cycle of 2018 Astrid and I began to change a little how we ate (from our last cycle) because it became harder and harder to ignore our moral compasses. One thing we learnt about food is that local knowledge really is a key to eating more in line with our principles. When we first got to London we shopped at the supermarket and our local off license. By the time we left we were mainly eating organic, locally grown veg (from a box scheme) and tried to shop at the affordable smaller shops and less evil supermarkets. Not to say I am a saint, I certainly succumbed to the odd Tesco sandwich and dirty vegan processed meal more than a few times.

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We were often found outside of Lidl…..

It is local knowledge that you lack when cycling through places (unless you go very slowly, something which I am keen to try in Australia) and this, along with limited funds, saw us straight into the budget supermarket chains throughout Europe. Our bikes could often be seen parked outside Lidl, Aldi, Bonus (Iceland), Biedronka (Poland), Rema 1000, to name a few. We generally cooked all our own food in Europe sticking to the classics of pasta, curries, the odd bean dish and as much hummus as we could afford. Sure, we read labels and tried to be conscientious, but at the end of the day we were still supporting supermarket chains. I have always been uncomfortable with this somewhat ethical slide, born out of ease and budget. So, tentatively at first, we began dumpster diving.

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All of this was from a dumpster

Basically, supermarkets throw out ludicrous amounts of food that is still completely okay to eat. The richer the country, the more in the bin (from our experience at least.) This food would otherwise go to waste, so we aren’t vegan when we dumpster dive and at this point I am ethically okay with this. At first it was scary; dumpster diving is often not technically illegal, or legal. It fits in a grey area and depends on the country you are doing it in, sometimes even the city. The bins are usually around the back, and it’s often best to go when the supermarkets are still open, as they sometimes lock away the dumpsters. That makes for a lot of awkward standing around, pretending to be really interested in something on your bike, waiting for people to walk passed before peering into the bin. Sometimes we went at night, and one of us would do circles on the bike, while the other snuck into where the bins were. After the initial fear, it became a thrill. There is something incredibly satisfying about getting free food that would otherwise go to waste. Not to mention the glee of eating things we wouldn’t normally buy; smoked salmon, cheese, cakes and pastries. As well as  bread, fruit and vegies. This alleviated at least some of my supermarket guilt. Dumpster diving isn’t exactly the perfect solution, at the end of the day the food we eat still comes to us because our society is so crazily wasteful. However, the way things currently stand it feels less bad to me than other options. Sometimes less bad is all you’ve got.

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More dumpster food

In Europe at the end of summer and into autumn, there is quite a lot of food to be foraged as well. We found many trees heavy with fruit (in public places) as well as mussels in the sea and mushrooms. Eating mussels was another ethical dilemma we had talked about for a while. Mussels and oysters are relatively low impact environmentally (from what I’ve read) and lack a central nervous system, so some class them as more plants than animals. It’s certainly a grey area and one I’m still figuring out, but literally finding hundreds of mussels on the sea bed was too great a temptation. We took what we could eat and left the rest for others. It really was a joy to be able to forage some our food. Mussels cooked in white wine wasn’t exactly the menu I had envisioned when I thought about cycle touring!

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More foraged mushrooms

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All of this is from a dumpster

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Foraged mussels – not what I had envisioned!!

 

We cook what we can find.

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Perogi, our favourite.

Once out of Europe, our eating habits changed. There are much fewer supermarkets (outside of capitals) and very little waste. We choose street food, local restaurants and cook our own food. When we buy food to cook, it’s still all vegan (god I am so sick of studying the packs of biscuits!). There is usually an okay selection of vegetables available and rice. We have a load of spices and tend to cook up vegetable curries as a staple. This is sometimes supplemented with pasta with a red sauce. Most nights, unless staying in accommodation (and often even then – in the bathroom) we cook our own food. In northern Africa we could get loads of flat bread and often ate that for lunch with tomatoes and cucumber, or peanut butter. For breakfast we favour oats, although between Ethiopia and Zambia we had to ditch them as they were too expensive. We normally shop in the local market, or tiny stalls on the side of the road. Sometimes we have to search for the market, they are often in the back streets of small African villages. I feel we get a glimpse of life that we otherwise would not, and it adds depth and connection to the places we pass through. I especially like the humorous interactions with sellers when trying to convince them I want 5 sweet potatoes, not 5kg. Sometimes, in the more remote parts of southern Africa all we will find are some tomatoes, red onion and soya chunks. We’ve come up with a variety of dishes using these – from salads to sauces and everything in between. I enjoy the challenge and simplicity.

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Deep fried sweet potato

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Bedroom cooking

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“Nasi Champur” Jude and Astrid style (cook whatever you can find with rice)

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Vegan pancakes

In Kenya and Tanzania we lived off chapatti, avocado and tomato. Bloody luxury if you ask me. Then chapati disappeared, so we bought flour and made our own flat bread. Sure, it’s time consuming, but also very delicious. For a while, when avocados were everywhere and about 15p each, we gorged ourselves, and even began to make avocado chocolate mousse (just add cocoa and sugar to a mashed avocado and let it sit, seriously it’s amazing). We tend to buy less processed food than we did last time round as being mainly vegan cuts out a lot. No powdered milk, or many sweet biscuits (except the cheap accidentally vegan ones!) and we’ve even stopped buying peanut butter most of the time as it’s simply too sugary. Our last shop consisted of 1kg of flour, eight eggs (we started eating eggs again out of a kind of necessity), 2kg of tomato, some kind of leafy veg, soya chunks (very processed but delicious) and beer.

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“Avocado rice”

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So many pineapples in Tanzania

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Papaya happiness, Tanzania

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Roasting coffee beans

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A slightly less exciting meal!

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Local market, Zambia

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More market shopping, Egypt

Eating local and the path of least resistance

 

 We tend to eat what the locals do, at least once a day; fuul in Egypt and Sudan as well as falafel sandwich or oily and delicious aubergine. Injera in Ethiopia, Ugali with beans in southern Africa, often washed down with tea. Also samosas, deep fried donuts, deep fried cassava, deep fried potato. There is certainly too much oil in our diet, but this isn’t forever, I’ll be eating smashed avocado in a hipster café soon enough. Eating locally not only keeps costs down, it really adds a dimension to understanding a country and culture. This is why, despite our aversion to dairy and meat, there have been times when we’ve eaten it. Often it’s accidental; a dish in Ethiopia that comes with delicious fresh yogurt, or that age old thing where chicken isn’t actually meat (insert eye roll). Other times, it’s because we are curious, and just once would like to taste the thing the locals really love (meat always seems to be a favourite). We don’t do this as often as we used to (I did go on a massive meat binge in central asia) but do still occasionally try something if we fancy. Then there is being invited in for dinner. The concept of vegetarianism, let alone veganism is not understood in most of the places we have travelled (bar the big cities). When someone invites us in to eat, Astrid and I choose the path of least resistance. We gratefully accept and eat whatever we are given. I don’t know if this is right, but for now I am not hardcore enough to explain myself every single time. It’s such a foreign concept, and especially if language is a barrier, and people have kindly invited you in to eat, I just feel rude refusing.

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Beans and greens, Kenya.

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Donuts, Ethiopia.

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“Mix Juice” Ethiopia.

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Injera with veg, Ethiopia.

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“Dubbo firfir” with egg and fresh yogurt, Ethiopia.

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“Bread and fruit” Ethiopia

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Bean, rice and greens, Tanzania

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Fuul and bread, Sudan.

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“Tamia” sandwich, Egypt

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Pap, seswa and mapane worms, Botswana. An occasion where we ate the food that was so kindly prepared for us. And it was delicous.

 

Variety is the spice of life, but only for some of us

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“Mexican” a bunch of us got together and made this as we were all missing the variety we get in our home countries.

In the west we live in some kind of food variety bubble. We are spoiled for choice and honestly I deeply appreciate it. I love being able to eat Vietnamese, or Chinese dumplings, go for a curry, or munch on some tasty middle eastern snack. I am used to variety in my diet, even if it’s just swapping curry for pasta when on the road. A lot of the world in my experience is not like this. We asked an Ethiopian friend what his favourite food was (this guy lived in a town where he had access to more variety of food due to tourism) and he replied injera (the Ethiopian fermented bread). I’ve since heard about a Malawian who had been working in London and was disappointed with the place because he couldn’t find Nashima (the maize or cassava based staple in southern Africa). We are able to avoid this lack of variety to some extent because we use our own spices and unlike the mostly subsistence farming population, we can afford to buy what little there is available.

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Ethiopia really was pretty amazing for food..

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Mashed beans, Kenya

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Preparing fuul, Egypt.

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Injera being made, Ethiopia

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Breakfast, Ethiopia style

In southern Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia) there especially seems to be a real lack of variety in the diet. It is difficult to know how much of this is due to real scarcity, or weather some of it is cultural. Most rural Africans own some kind of land, and given the climate, can at least in theory grow a variety of crops. Everyone however appears to grow the staple of maize or cassava, which is then turned into a kind of filling paste (Nashima, Ugali, pap, depending on where you are) with the nutritional value of a shoe. Add to this some overcooked beans or meat and you have a filling but essentially nutrition devoid meal. We met some NHS doctors working in Malawi who told us that there are real problems with malnutrition in the child and adult population in much of Malawi and other parts of southern Africa.

When in cities..

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Treating ourselves in cities is fun….(:

 

Reaching a city in Africa has always felt like we are achieving milestones. The distances are big and it’s often weeks, even a couple of months between capitals (also because we don’t visit all of them). Between say Nairobi and Lusaka we didn’t really visit a supermarket. In many ways this great; I feel better buying locally off the many small businesses we encounter, weather market stalls, or small shops. However, I am still a product of my culture; I like variety. And I like food. A lot. So when we do make it to ‘western’ supermarkets I have been known to spend an hour looking around in reverse culture shock. So Astrid and I will usually go to one of these large supermarkets and buy some of the things we can’t usually get; good coffee, vegan sausages, baked beans, and chilli sauce, to name a few. Sadly hummus still eludes us. We’ll also treat ourselves to a meal somewhere. In Europe we would look up the vegan cafes and restaurants in the cities we visited and far out, we found amazing vegan food, especially in Eastern Europe, which was unexpected. In Africa the concept of ‘vegan restaurant’ doesn’t generally exist. However, capitals all over the world attract people from many different cultures and we can often find an Indian restaurant, or some other kind of cuisine we’ve been missing. These trips are a highlight to any stay in a capital and often discussed at lengths in the days leading up to our arrival.

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Being spoiled by our host in Nairobi

 

In conclusion

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The kitchen in action

So I guess we are two mildly food obsessed travellers who try and apply our ethics as best we can on the road. We’re still trying to figure out exactly how that looks. Ultimately, I suspect the slower you go and the more you seek community connections, the less impact you have on this earth. This stands in stark contrast to our fast paced culture and it’s a little sobering to realise that even as low carbon bike travellers, we don’t move completely without negative impact. Everytime I put a bag of plastic waste in a bin in Africa, knowing it will be burnt, or buried in landfill, I cringe. I feel personally happiest when we buy our food at markets, forage, or dumpster dive. Our stove is something I am also starting to reconsider; we currently use a multi fuel stove (fires when we can) to cook, and for months, (although I love the practicality of the stove) it has made me increasingly uncomfortable. Using a stove that utilizes petrol just doesn’t sit right anymore. I suspect in time our style of travel will change again. We’ve both been searching for something more, and it’s interesting that by unpacking how we eat, we actually unpack so much more. It’s testament to how fundamental food is to everything we do and how we when we examine how we eat, we examine how we live. And taking these ethics and this kind of low impact life (really, the ethics of permaculture) out into travel, is something that both Astrid and I feel inspired to continue to build on both of at the tail end of this trip and on future journeys by bicycle.

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Our preferred method of cooking!

 

Crossing the Sahara

Wadi Halfa to Lug Di

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1112eSudan felt almost immediately different. Although we were delayed in disembarking from the ferry by at least an hour, as they had somehow managed to ram it into the dock in a rather obscure way, meaning no one, and no one’s washing machines could get off.

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Finally getting off at  Wadi Halfa

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Pleased to be here

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I decided to take a short cut

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Lots of stuff coming from Egypt

When this was finally rectified, we joined the masses in piling off the ferry. This was an exercise in unorganised chaos, but eventually we got everything unloaded. A quick search of our bags (not very thorough) and we were finally in The Sudan. We pedalled the short distance into Wadi Halfa itself, where we had to register at the police station (a load of more random paperwork, passport photo and copy of passport). Once that was achieved we set about getting Sim cards (note to anyone reading this who is planning to go there, at the time we visited MTN had almost no coverage outside of major towns, I would consider going with ZAIN). When that was done, as well as some drinking of mango juice, we set about finding a hotel for the night. The arrival of the ferry is a big event in this small, desert town and hotels book up fast. We did manage to find one in the back streets however.

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Night time food, Wadi Halfa

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Banks don’t work for us in Sudan. Cashed up with Sudanese pounds.

In the evening we walked around Wadi Halfa and took in the atmosphere of this new country. We are definitely in the desert now, surrounding the town are the sands of the Sahara, with shimmering lake Nasser in the distance. The vibe is completely different to Egypt. So much more relaxed. We were able to walk through the town without being hassled, stared at, or asked for money. I felt like I could breathe again. People were friendly, but not overbearing. Not all of Egypt had been like that of course, I guess it was just the accumulation of stress and frustration over the last few weeks. Sometimes you don’t notice how much a place has worn on you until you leave it.

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Typical tea/coffee stand in Sudan. Definitely more women working here.

The four of us left Wadi Halfa in high spirits, ready for the long stretches of solitude and desert. After Egypt I was craving the wild places and the space to just be alone. I was not disappointed. The road south was lightly trafficked, the trucks that did pass were full of waving and smiling people, and we felt very welcome in this new country. The highlight for me was the end of the day, when we pulled off into the desert and built a fire, surrounded by nothing but the Sahara and some low lying hills. Sure, we could hear the road a little, but the sense of freedom and nature was palpable.

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Leaving Wadi Halfa

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Happiness headstand

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Drink break

Our days pedalling south started early, we’d break camp after a quick breakfast and coffee. Second breakfast was at one of the road side tea houses, which served fuul (fava beans in a broth, sometimes spiced a little), bread and hot, sweet chay. The food in Sudan was filling, but not particularly variable! We’d push on and take tea breaks almost whenever the opportunity presented. The road was hot and sparsely populated, the tea houses offered relief from the daily increasing temperatures (and beds on which to rest!). Water became a big part of our day, well drinking and sourcing it anyway. Luckily Sudan is very well organised when it comes to water. The side of the road is doted with ceramic pots full of water for everyone to use. Just another way Sudan’s friendliness extends into all aspects of life. It’s hard not to feel welcome in a country like this. Just before sunset we’d pull off the road and make camp in the desert, usually with a little bit of time for yoga, meditation and generalised relaxing before building a fire and making dinner all together. At night we’d stare at the sky and try and recognise the stars. Beetle juice became a favourite.

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Typical water pots

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Lunch time in a shelter where you can also resupply with water

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Fuul cooking

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More water pots

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Really feeling the Sahara vibes

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A typical meal in Sudan

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Such beautiful landscape

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I wish! Sudan is dry, sadly.

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A magical time of day to be on the bikes

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Looking ahead for camping opportunities

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Definitely prime wild camps

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Campfire happiness

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Another super camp

On one day Astrid and I lost half the Habibi team. We’d met up with tour d’ Afrique, an organised cycle tour between Cairo and Cape Town. For many weeks we’d heard about them, trying to guess when our paths would cross. Anyway, while cycling and chatting, Martin and Ewaut completely missed our agreed turnoff. We had all decided to go to the other side of the Nile to see Soleb temple. The Egyptian influence reached far beyond what is now modern day Egypt, into Nubia (this region of Sudan). Astrid and I pedalled into the dusty Nubian village of Wawa alone but were soon found by a local guy who said we could store our bikes at his guest house while he arranged a boat for us. This coincided with arrival of Israa and Van who we had met on the ferry, as well as Oscar who they had met further down the road. Israa speaks Arabic, so after some negotiation, a price was agreed and we all trudged down to the Nile. It was so beautiful; date palms, fields of fava beans, and the shimmering Nile. One of those ‘I can’t believe I’m really here,’ moments.

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Pedalling through Wawa

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Walking passed the fava fields

We motored across the Nile and then walked the remaining way to Soleb temple, rising out of the landscape in an almost mythical way, this piece of beauty from the ancient world just sitting their amongst the fields of fava beans. It was amazing to explore a temple so devoid of other tourists, or touts. Sudan is such a gem for this. On our way back to the other side of the Nile, we even spot the rather shy Nile crocodile.

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Boating across the Nile

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First glimpse of Soleb

From Wawa Astrid and I now had to find the lost habibi’s. We bade Israa, Van and Oscar farewell, sure that our paths would cross again, and began to pedal. We surmised that somewhere along the road we would find them. And indeed we did. They greeted us with open arms about 50km up the road and we all hugged excitedly right in the middle of the highway. It felt so good to be reunited and highlighted to us all how much we loved travelling together. From here we rode a little further down the road and ran into the Tour d’Afrique team, camped on the bank above the Nile. They kindly offered us the left over of their dinner (everything is catered for) and we gratefully tucked in.

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Taking a break on a rock

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Loved these beds, available in tea houses to wait out the heat of the day

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The Nile

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Happiness is a free dinner!

Sudan is scattered with temples, pyramids and archaeological sites, and part of its charm is that there are nowhere near as many tourists, nor is it as easy to get to. Travel feels more like an adventure here, more off the beaten track, and I like it. Because Astrid and I are slight dorks, we dragged the others to Dukki Gel, an ancient Egyptian city, to explore the really interesting rounded mud brick structures that were scattered in an unassuming field. We also visited to the site of Kerma, an ancient Nubian settlement with the largest mud brick structure (western defufa) in the ancient world.

After this we had a choice; to continue on to Dongola on the main highway, or take a detour to Karima to see some pyramids. Ever since we had seen a photo of Neil (who we cycled with in China and Central Asia) camped by some Sudanese pyramids, it had been a dream of ours to do the same. Everyone else was on board too, so we stocked up on water and supplies and headed deeper into the Sahara. Until now, although at times spread out there had been enough places to get food and water along the road. Now there was only one place we had been told we could collect water until the town of Karima 150km away.

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Desert fashion

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Finding a small amount of shade for lunch

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Something is dangerous!

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Camels chilling

Heading towards Karima also meant turning into a ferocious cross wind – we rode in a fan like formation, swapping out the leader every 5km and rotating around. It was hard going, but working as a team took the pressure off somewhat. And playing music really loudly from Ewaut’s speaker. The temperature also soared – well into the 40’s and it became even more desolate and harsh. Not much survives out here; a few derelict buildings, long deserted, some mobile phone towers, and petrified bits of wood. Not much else.

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Riding in formation to help with the crazy cross/headwind

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Tough going out here

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Riding into the wind

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Love it. Nothing out here.

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Astrid and the salmon

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I love these buildings.

We did indeed find water and some shade after about 80km and gratefully refilled. In the evening we pulled off into the desert to make our camp. It really felt like the Sahara now, I could see sand dunes, which weirdly, although we’ve crossed many deserts, haven’t actually been that common.

The following day we reached Karima in the late afternoon, restocked and headed to the pyramids on the other side of town. There was almost no one there when we arrived – just one local who looked like he was maybe guarding the place. I think he was trying to tell us we couldn’t camp there, but as the sunset and the call to prayer reverberated through the valley, he too left. So it was just us Habibi’s and the pyramids. We found a spot not far from them and set up camp. Dream of sleeping next to pyramids realised.

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Headstand happiness at Karima

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Astrid and the pyramids

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Pyramid posing

From Karima we rode towards Khartoum, looking forward to up coming rest days. On one particularly dark and moonless night, we decided to all get naked and dance in the desert under the stars. Ewaut, ever the DJ had a perfect mix ready, and even Martin, slightly hesitant at first, partook. There was something about being in socially conservative countries for the last two months that had gotten to our psyche. There was something so liberating, just being with other humans, dancing under the starlit African desert sky. It was somehow something my soul had really needed.

We woke one morning to a ferocious dust storm, thankfully the wind was at our backs and propelled us on to Khartoum. Our entry into the Sudanese capital coincided with the build up to the revolution. We saw a lot of security, evidence of the protests, but no violence or protests as such. None of us ever felt unsafe, either. In fact we just continued to feel welcomed, like we had everywhere else in Sudan.

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Testing Ewaut’s super porridge

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Ewaut and  I were delighted to find this!

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Desert picnic

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Washing wherever we can!

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The kettle is always on in Sudan.

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Astrid creates a lot of interest writing in her journal

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Curious boys in a tea house

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Fuul. Again.

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Ewaut has the best sense of style

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Resting

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Typical desert shelter

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Dust storm

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Wind break out of bikes and panniers

Our short break in Khartoum was relatively busy. We needed to apply for our Ethiopian visa, wash clothes and meet up with other cyclists. Ethiopia is the most difficult country to cycle in (rock throwing kids for starters) and has a horrible reputation. Arthur, another Cairo to Cape cyclist had started a WhatsApp group for those of us who were going to be in Ethiopia around the same time. Most of us were in Khartoum at the same time and we all met up one afternoon to discuss plans. I’d actually been chatting to Craig – a British cyclist – since Cairo on WhatsApp, so it was cool to finally meet him. Craig was on a similar route to us – London to Cape Town. There was also Clo who’d cycled all the way from France through Iran and Oman, Dimitri who was on an epic human powered mission, and Arthur from Belgium who is a insulin dependent diabetic and is interviewing diabetics as he travels. It’s always great to meet up with fellow cyclists and we had a lot to talk about. We weren’t sure if we would all pedal together as such, but it was certainly good to meet and talk, especially as we all had different bits of information about Ethiopia.

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tea on the street, Khartoum

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Khartoum at night

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Washing our bikes at the Blue Nile Yacht Club

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Exploring Tuti island which sits in the middle of the Nile in Khartoum

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Tuti Island

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Can’t really tell, but the white and the blue Nile meet just behind us

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Bike gang – the habibi’s plus Craig and Clo

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Riding around Khartoum

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We can still cannulate! Using our paramedic skills on a sick Dimitri.

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Heading out of Khartoum

Aside from route planning and generalised chores, Martin had a contact in Sudan who soon became a friend. He and his wife took us for coffee on the banks of the Nile and for a party BBQ at their home (complete with home brewed alcohol!). It was brilliant to spend time with them and it saddens my heart greatly that none of us have heard from them post revolution. The Internet in Sudan is currently shutdown and the situation appears to have deteriorated with the security forces attacking peaceful protesters.

After several days resting, acquiring our Ethiopian visa, socialising, route planning and running errands, it was time to head south and into sub Saharan Africa. As Clo and Dimitri, and then Craig had all fallen ill, it was only going to be us leaving Khartoum. We felt pretty sure our paths with the others would cross again somewhere in Ethiopia.

The desert gave way to Savannah as we rode south and then east towards Ethiopia. Due to ethnic conflict in the region and reports of cyclists needing armed escorts, we had decided to forgo the normal border of Metema and head towards the more remote border of Lug Di, near Eritrea. This meant more kilometres, both in Sudan and Ethiopia. Not that we minded. We’d heard some positive reports from other cyclists about the Tigray region of Ethiopia (where we’d be crossing into) and were keen to have whatever positive experiences that we could. Our days towards Ethiopia were not without drama however. One day, while minding my own business, riding along the road, I heard an almighty scrapping behind me. I was just about to turn to see what it was, when I was hit from behind. Hard. The greenfairy and I were sent flying. Luckily I only sustained superficial injuries, and the greenfairy was also okay, although the force had been hard enough to bend my steel rear rack. I looked around to see what had hit me. Turns out 4 metal beds had fallen off a Sudanese army truck and slid down the road at speed. Astrid, who had been behind me said it was absolutely terrifying. Out of all the things that I thought might nearly kill me in Africa, a bunch Sudanese army beds was not one of them.

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Nile at sunset, we had a quick dip!

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Last camp by the Nile

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Slight damage…the extent to be revealed much later on in Ethiopia…

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Could have been a lot worse! The offending beds are in the background.

Later that day it was poor Martin who needed the medical attention. He became quite ill and could barely stand up. We sat with him under a tree for a while, but he seemed to not improve at all. Possibly heat exhaustion combined with a dodgy stomach. We decided to hail down a lift. This being Sudan it took all of about 10 mins, the first suitable car pulled over and a bunch of friendly guys came to our aid. There wasn’t enough room for us all, so Martin and Ewaut’s bikes were loaded in the tray and they piled into the back. Astrid and I agreed to meet them the following day in town where they would take a rest.

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Martin and Ewaut’s transport

Martin soon recovered and we continued on the unpleasant narrow and busy road south, before turning off to wind our way passed Chinese mining interests and a relatively new dam (also Chinese made). In a village that definitely had an edgy vibe (a man we bought soda’s off said it was a mix of locals and refugees, displaced by conflict)  we also ran into our first problem with the police. We were detained (after much loud objection from Martin and I) and questioned why we were there. After a lot of explaining (and apologising for my somewhat irate behaviour) we were escorted across the village to yet another official. This one spoke French, and luckily so did Ewaut. He basically explained that they just wanted to know why we were there and that because we were in a border area, things could sometimes get tense. Once reassured that we were in fact just a bunch of dirty tourists, not spies, we were free to go and find the ferry across the dam.

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Donkeys sheltering from the heat

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On the ferry

Once across we took a quick dip and collected water before heading off on a bumpy dirt road towards the border. Until now Sudan had been so friendly and quite relaxed. The vibe had changed slightly now, and for the first time we felt a bit wary finding somewhere to camp. We’d tried at a teahouse, but the people seemed suspicious of us and the police indicated that we should move on. And when we did the police came by and told us not to take photos of the moon.

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Last wild camp in Sudan

That was our last night in the Sudan, and it was a particularly beautiful. What an incredible country this has been. In a place where the environment is often harsh and quite stark, I cannot over emphasise how warm the people have been. They make Sudan the amazing country it is. There is such a beautiful soul here. We, as the international community cannot forget them. The Sudanese people, like all people, deserve free and fair elections and a civilian government. I hope one day to return, and until then I will never forget the hospitality and kindness we received.

Thank you.

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The illegal photo of the full moon rising.

Egypt, and the beginning of Africa

From Cairo to Aswan along the Nile Valley

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The iconic image of Egypt

Egypt. There are so many things I want to say about this complex and complicated country. It has certainly left a lasting impression, in both good and bad ways. It is not somewhere I would necessarily have chosen to cycle, but I am glad I did, because I don’t think I would have otherwise had anywhere near as immersive an experience of this country on the edge of Africa.

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Pyramid dorks

Our Egyptian experience started off in the best possible way. After negotiating a taxi for us and our bikes (straight into hardcore haggling) and then being whisked through crazy Cairo traffic, we were deposited at Mohamed’s house, an oasis of calm in this hectic city of 70 million. We immediately felt at home and were humbled by Mohamed and his families’ kindness. Not only did his wife Shaheera cook us a vegan meal, Mohamed was also full of information about cycle routes and what to do in Cairo.

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Cairo Metro

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On the hunt for Koshari

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Success!

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Delicious bread

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Cairo at night

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Exploring the old parts of Cairo

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Beautiful Mosque and moon

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This covering up of european number plates is apparently a status symbol..

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Cairo Museum

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More night time exploring

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Loving the chaotic streets

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Smoggy Cairo streets

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Of course there is a giant shopping trolley!

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Catching a local mini bus

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Cairo

For the next few days we eased into Egyptian culture. Of course this involved exploring the pyramids of Giza as well as the Egyptian museum (literally crammed full of antiquities!), but also how to take micro buses and the metro like locals, what to eat and generally how to negotiate this new country. I had a wonderful feeling of excitement, the one you get when you arrive in a totally different culture, where everything is a bit hectic, confusing and new. I always feel so positive and excited in a new country, everything sparks my curiosity. After a time this naturally fades, as the realities of a place set in and you become more immersed and familiar with the culture.