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.

From Cairo we caught an 11 hour night bus to Dahab on the Sinai peninsula. We had decided to take a break over Christmas to join our friend Loiuza who was running a retreat, as well as to do some scuba diving in the Red Sea. Getting to Sinai itself is a bit of a mission; the north of Sinai is considered unsafe as it is infiltrated by several Islamic terrorist groups, this means getting off the bus several times in the middle of the night at army checkpoints and having your stuff searched. Understandable, except don’t try and apply logic. After having our bags searched and no one getting on or off, we drove 5 minutes, only to have the whole thing happen again. A taste of what was to come on our cycle later on…

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Tea and waiting for the bus to Dahab

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Dahab sheep

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Dahab toilets!

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Our home in Dahab

By the time we arrived in Dahab we were both exhausted but so happy to have arrived. Dahab is a hippy oasis, in what can at times feel like quite an oppressive country. It is completely different to the rest of Egypt and so far the only place I’d want to return to. It is relaxed and low key, a mix of divers, expats, locals on holidays, Bedouins, and Egyptians looking to escape the craziness of the capital. This being Egypt and the nature of the current political situation, I am not going to say much more about our retreat. What I will say is that we had an amazing time. We met such wonderful people over those 5 days and by the time we left we felt like we had made real friends.

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Dahab. Such bliss.

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An amazing mix of beach and desert

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Morning swim

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Sunset looking out towards Saudi

Aside from taking part in the retreat, we went swimming, did yoga, meditated and laughed a lot. We also learnt lot about Egyptian politics and culture. Some of the Egyptians we met had been active during the revolution, and it was awful to hear about the trauma they had been through, only to have everything they had fought for hijacked and turned into something that is perhaps worse than before. There is a collective depression amongst progressive Egyptians (Mohammed had said this also), a loss of hope that is palpable. It was sobering to be reminded of our own privilege. Here were these amazing humans who had literally put their bodies on the line to try and achieve the things we take for granted. Not to say our societies are perfect, or that there isn’t corruption or censorship on some levels too, but a lot of things (like civilian government, being able to put on a play without government involvement, journalistic freedom – to name a few) we take for granted. Not to mention our ease of travel, or the fact that the Egyptian economy (heavily reliant on tourism) has slumped significantly since 2011. Life is difficult in Egypt if you have an education and a job, let alone those who are stuck in poverty. In saying that I don’t want to just write about doom and gloom, our new friends were some of the kindest and most wonderful humans we have met. Their spirit really touched our souls and we were buoyed by their openness, despite all that stood against them. It is telling that I am not including any photos of them here. Perhaps I am being paranoid, but with people disappearing, and some in jail for something as simple as a facebook post, I am not taking any risks.

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Relaxing by the beach after snorkling

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Another perfect sunset

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Dahab goats

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More goat

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View from the rooftop of the house we were staying in

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Dog love

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Diving happiness

From Dahab we travelled to Saint Catherine, one of the oldest Coptic monasteries in the world. It is quite a magical place, with a long history of Muslims and Christians living and working together. There is mosque inside the monastery, and many of the Muslim Bedouins’ are employed in the monastery. We stayed at a desert camp and also hiked in the mountains, before heading back to Cairo.

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Looking out of the mountains around Saint Catherine

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Donkey!

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Sweeping views across Sinai

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Walking up into the mountains

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Around Saint Catherine

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The Monastary

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Monastary

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Sunset

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More awesome views

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We hiked up to this ruin which was built by a Turkish Sulatan

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So much beauty

Once back in Cairo we stayed with one of our new friends and attended the necessary admin, which mainly involved applying for out Sudanese visa. At the embassy we met 4 other foreigners, three of them cycle tourists like us. We were all leaving within a few days of each other, and one of them gave us the link to a WhatsApp group of nearly 200 cyclists currently pedaling between Cairo and Cape Town (see, we aren’t the only crazy ones!). A super way to stay up to date with information, especially in an ever changing continent like Africa.

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“Lining up” at the embassy of Sudan

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Random cyclist meeting at the Sudanese embassy

After spending time with our Dahab friends in Cairo (they mostly all live in Cairo) and with Mohamed, it was finally time to leave the comfort of sedentary existence. Mohamed kind as ever, led us out of the city, before wishing us well and saying goodbye. Now it was just us and around 12,000km of Africa in front of us.

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Saying goodbye to Mohammed and Cairo

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Sweet potato seller

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Bread on the road out of Cairo

Our first day was the slight cultural shock I knew that it would be. We’ve been living in comfort, in Cairo and Dahab where many foreigners reside. The Egyptians who we’d befriended were open minded and while not rich, they’d travelled and lived lives not so different from ours. The truth is, the rest of Egypt is very different. At least what we experienced anyway. Once passed Giza and out in the countryside, our mere presence evoked a lot of attention. Boys driving tuk tuks and on motor bikes followed us, people waved and shouted ‘welcome to Egypt’, and at one point we had car loads of people following us, shouting and waving, and in each village we seemed to collect more and more and the whole thing was fun, but slightly overwhelming. We were certainly now in a different Egypt; the rhythms of rural life dominated here, and the modern world seemed partly suspended. People wore traditional dress, women became less visible, there were animals everywhere; goats, donkeys, chickens, as well as groups of boys who were usually mildly annoying. On the road side there were chai tents, where we could stop for refreshing tea, and many places to buy falafel or fuul.

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Pedalling out of Cairo

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We start to get a lot of attention

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Everyone comes to check out the crazy foreigners on bikes

By evening of the first day we were exhausted from the constant stimulation, the traffic and attention. As the sun set, the call of the mosque could be heard reverberating around the Nile Valley and people passed us by on their way home from the fields. There had been nowhere visible to camp – Egypt is known to be tricky for wild camping – discovery leading no doubt to a lot of attention, or the police. We were however in luck. In fact, it’s quite funny how in tune we are. I’d spotted a place and slowed down, Astrid had seen the same spot and was looking at it, rather than the road and almost ran into me. It was in fact perfect, hidden completely from view of the road, in the yard of a ruined and deserted house. Wild camp win for Egypt.

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Riding along the canal

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Sunset

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Meidun pyramid

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Wild camp win

Unfortunately, our freedom in Egypt drew to a close that morning. We’d been expecting it. Egypt is notorious amongst cyclists for the annoying police escorts that are forced upon you. In fact, it’s so bad now, barely any of the country is completely rideable. The Nile Valley is about the only route where they won’t at some point force you on to a bus or van (in our experience). We had an escort from about 100km outside of Cairo to at least Luxor. We’d asked our Egyptian hosts whether it was necessary for security and their answer was a resounding no. Plus they surmised, if there was an attack on us the kind of police sent to escort us would be pretty useless. Of course there have been terrorist attacks in Egypt targeting tourists, but they are random and infrequent, targeting big groups on buses rather than lone cyclists. There are also terrorist attacks in London and many other places in Europe. And surely, what better way to advertise that a foreigner is in the area, than a great big police escort?! They made our presence completely unsubtle throughout Upper Egypt.

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Beautiful misty sunrise

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Riding towards the pyramid

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Mist over the canal

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canal sunrise

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Meidun

IMG-20190112-WA0003.jpgAnyway, a police escort picked us up as we went to look at the nearby Meidum pyramid a little after sunrise. The individual officers are nice enough, but completely don’t get what we are doing. They basically want to hand us over as quickly as possible to the next area, to be rid of us. Stopping to eat, or rest is a hassle for them, and we actively had to fight to stay off the main roads. More about that later. Our first day with an escort was uneventful but annoying, as they made us stop and wait at check points for the next escort and lied about where we could eat (resulting in us both getting irate). Luckily, one officer spoke good English (although he asked us how our husbands could allow us to be traveling like this) and we arranged with him to meet up with two other cyclists, one we’d met at the Sudanese embassy, and one I’d been chatting to on WhatsApp. Ewaut and Martin were only a bit ahead of us, and had already found somewhere to stay that night. I felt that joining them would be the easiest option, and potentially we could ride together, at least for a bit to ease the frustration of being followed constantly.

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This lady was so kind and gave us free breakfast

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Our freedom is over. The police escort hover nearby while we eat.

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Our constant shadow for the next two weeks or so

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Chocolate Haliwa while waiting for our next escort

Although the police were initially concerned that we’d be with two men, we assured them we could handle it. We pushed on for 130km, finally arriving at a ballroom by the Nile a bit after dark. Ewaut and Martin had gone rogue, deserting their escort they had pedalled to this weird theme park kind of complex. The people there had kindly allowed them (and now us) to sleep in their ballroom and the police appeared to have agreed. After a frustrating day, it was a relief to see Martin and Ewaut, even though we didn’t know them at all really. An experienced shared is somehow easier. We debriefed about our equally frustrating times with the police and settled down for the night. The police were so paranoid, they even followed us to the toilet.

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Happy to be riding together, the awesome habibi team is born.

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Our ballroom/bedroom

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Outside the ballroom

We didn’t know it then, but that night was the beginning of our awesome ‘habibi’ cycling family that would last all the way to Ethiopia. The more I travel by bike, the more I realise these chance meetings on the road often make the best teams. While happy to share the road, we are all quite independent and that somehow changes the dynamic in a subtle but important way.

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The Nile!

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On the agricultural road

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Our police milling about, always a little impatient with us to get going.

Martin and Ewaut are both exceptional humans and we slowly got to know each other over the next few days and weeks. Martin is British and in his 60’s, (we’ve actually met him before at the cycle touring festival in the UK!) and we bonded over our shared appreciation of tea and Radio 4 (amongst other things). He has a wealth of experience cycling all over the world and is full of the best stories. Ewaut is 25, has already built his own gypsy wagon, hitch hiked all over the US, cycled Spain to Senegal and plans to build his own sailboat. Plus he’s a podcast and techno guru! The four of us got along so well, and our banter and humor helped us all deal with what was at times a frustrating cycle through Egypt with our ever present police escort.

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Probably arguing with the police about what road to take

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Often the cycling was quite pleasant in the small roads.

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Donkey traffic is better than car traffic!

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Smooth tarmac

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Typical road side chay stop

Every morning we had to fight to stay on the small roads that ran along side the canals in the Nile Valley. This sometimes involved pedalling passed yelling police officers with guns, and even locals who were trying to stop us. Even if we took the time to talk to the officers and explain and show them the map of our route, they would always try and force us on to the main, heavily traffic routes anyway (which was obviously more of a threat to our safety than terrorism). Or they’d lie and tell us the road stopped, despite the obvious through traffic. Once we’d forced ourselves onto the small roads, they’d eventually calm down and follow us from a distance. Part of me felt bad for being so disobedient, it wasn’t their fault, they probably didn’t want to follow a bunch of tourists on bikes. We tried to be as kind to the officers as our patience allowed, remembering it was their superiors that ordered this ludicrous escort. Occasionally, when cutting through villages, we’d lose them in the hectic traffic and could hear their desperate sirens as they tried to catch their rogue ferangi.

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Donkey traffic

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Curiosity wherever we go

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Staying off the main roads, possibly one of the times we escaped the police for an hour (:

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Such a lovely time of day to be on the bikes

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Normal traffic in Egyptian roads

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Always searching for the small roads

For breaks we stopped at road side tea stalls and snacked on delicious fuul, tamia (falafel) and koshary (amazing carb fest of rice, pasta, chickpeas, sauce, fried onion and garlic). The Egyptians we met were kind and welcoming, although we often even felt hindered in even speaking with them as the police would hover around and try and interfere. One officer told us that the reason they follow us is because we cannot speak Arabic and the traffic is so dangerous, while I really don’t think this is true, but it does go some way to explaining the overbearing attitude of the police. They cannot, it seems conceive of what our lives are like, because it is so far from their reality. To tell them we’ve all cycled in many parts of the world with equally (if not worse) crazy traffic, where we also don’t share a culture, or language, falls on deaf ears. Perhaps because they themselves have never been outside of Egypt, or perhaps they just lack imagination. Either way, the prevailing attitude is that we need to be protected and helped, especially Astrid and I. The sexism was fucking infuriating.

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Typical breakfast place for us

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Tea and breakfast

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More chay and snacks

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And more

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Delicious Tamia sandwich was a favourite

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Loved these sandwiches

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Koshari, our standard dinner.

In the evenings we were always made to stay in hotels, and it some places they even tried to stop us from going out to dinner (we actively disobeyed this). We either had an armed escort, or on one occasion the extremely nervous man from the hotel following us, trying to prevent us from crossing the road and generally hovering right by us wherever we went. The whole thing starts of as kind of funny, but after days on end having armed escorts follow us to the toilet and sometimes driving directly behind us with sirens, my patience was waning.

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Negotiating hotel rooms with police and then getting all our gear inside is always fun at the end of the day..

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Some of the hotel rooms we stayed in a re a bit eccentric!

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We are a curiosity wherever we go

A few days before Luxor, the intensity of our escort thankfully waned. In Abydos we were allowed to explore the temple of Seti I and Rameses II unhindered. These temples completely wowed me. In fact, even after exploring Luxor, the temple of Abydos (Seti I) is my favourite. The carved and coloured hieroglyphs and paintings were absolutely stunning, and like nothing I’d seen before.

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The temple at Abydos. Probably my favourite.

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First beers in a long time post temple fun!

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Chay with the people from the hotel

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Hazy view of the Nile valley at dawn

The escort completely left us just outside of Luxor and we were free to choose where to stay. We chose Al Salam camp on the west side of the Nile and it proved to be a lot less hectic than the east bank. I think we were all grateful for the days off and the chance to drink a beer and just relax. Of course we explored the Valley of the Kings, riding out there one day and marveling at the tombs. They really are other worldly, the long and amazingly decorated corridors taking you deep (or so it seemed) underground to where the mummies once lay.

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Made it to Luxor!

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Beers on the Nile

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Luxor market

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Valley of the Kings

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Valley of the Kings

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Too expensive to visit, but here’s the photo from the outside

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Amazing remnants of ancient world are everywhere around Luxor

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Valley of the Kings (again)

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Riding into the valley of the Kings 

We did also head to the east bank to explore Karnak temple, which is also phenomenal. Such exquisite work. I tried hard to imagine how it would have been when complete; its grandeur was something I couldn’t quite comprehend. It would have been so beautiful, softly lit with torches, the faded colours that we see today bright…Amazing.

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The amazing Karnak temple, Luxor

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Admiring the huge columns

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Such a massive scale

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So amazing some of the colours have lasted

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From Luxor we headed south towards Aswan without a police escort! It felt amazing. On the evening of our first day out of Aswan we asked if we could sleep at an ambulance station. They readily agreed, and one of the paramedics actually spoke perfect English. We were treated with such kindness, given cups of tea and brought dinner, which we all shared together. Astrid and I even got to check out the inside of the ambulance, which was similar to the ones we work in. Although we were told Egyptian women don’t work as paramedics as they are too delicate. Sigh. We all bunked down in the same room to sleep, and I must say, their overnight work load is a lot less than Hackney. Not once did they go out on a job overnight! In the morning we were given tea and breakfast and sent on our way. I was so humbled by their kindness and struggled to imagine some dirty cycle tourist turning up at Homerton Ambulance Station and being treated the same way. What different worlds we come from. If only we could take a little bit of theirs and they could take a little bit of ours.

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We took it in turns to ride in front as we often had a headwind

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Resting on the side of the road

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Checking out the inside of an Egyptian ambulance

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The paramedic’s and their friends

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Relaxing at the ambulance station

After exploring Horus’s temple in Efu the landscape began to change. We were closer now to the Nile, there was more agriculture, smaller villages, less people, palm trees. Almost on a whim we followed a track through some fields to the banks of the Nile. What we found was an idyllic place to camp, we didn’t care that it had only been about 40km. You can’t really go anywhere in Egypt without people noticing and we soon had a small crowd watching us brew tea and generally relax. The adults came down later and assured us that it was fine to camp there. What bliss. We built a fire, cooked a delicious meal and watched the light fade over the Nile. Sometimes fantasies of countries do come true.

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Looking for the perfect spot

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Our idyllic spot on the Nile, with locals coming to watch the weirdos

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An early finish means time for bike maintenence

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We even built a fire

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Filtering water

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Sunset from our camp spot on the Nile

The next day we rode through some of the most picturesque scenery of Egypt so far. It was slightly hilly, with small villages, palm groves, fruit trees and views of the Nile. Unfortunately I was also creeped quite badly. I’d dropped behind to look for a place to pee and noticed a guy had seen me and turned around in his tuk tuk. At first I thought nothing of it and just kept going, but it became clear he was watching me, as every time I stopped, so would he and go to turn around to follow me. So I decided to just keep riding. Unfortunately he decided to follow me and get his penis out, while casually saying hello. I slammed on my breaks and just started yelling every profanity at him I could muster. He sped off. I picked up a rock and hurled it at his head as he came back passed. Sadly, it missed. I knew I was kind of in trouble, the road was deserted and I had an inkling he’d be back. I pedaled as fast as I could, finally feeling fear instead of anger. He did come back and ran me off the road while I hurled abuse at him. He did manage to grab me but I think I swore so much and so loudly, he left. What an utter arsehole. I shakily rode to where the others had stopped to wait for me and told them what had happened. After that we all went and sat quietly by the Nile for a bit. Then Ewaut and I collected a bag of trash, it felt somehow right to combat something so negative with something positive. Ewaut carried that bag the remaining 50km to Aswan and deposited it in a bin.

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Moon behind our camp spot

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A beautiful morning’s cycle

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In the Nile, about to start our trash collection

In the afternoon, things didn’t really improve. We were constantly harassed by what looked like 10 year olds in tuk tuks and one of them grabbed Astrid’s arse. I picked up a rock and chased them, but sadly was unable to catch the little arseholes. I mean being assaulted by a grown man is one thing, but by a barely teenager, it’s almost worse. Somewhere, they are being told on some level that it’s okay to grab and harass women when they are just kids. I mean what the fuck is that even about?!

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The landscape is changing…

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Feeling closer to the Sahara..

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cycling fashion icon

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Love these mud buildings

Luckily Ewuat had arranged for us to be hosted by Yeha in Aswan and it was such a relief to be around a normal Egyptian man. Mostly people are kind and respectful and it was important to be reminded of that. We had a lovely evening talking and I was super impressed about Yeha’s commitment and enthusiasm for Couchsurfing. I thought we hosted a lot in London but Yeha is a super host!

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Beer on the Nile

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All the flip flops

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All the dates

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Relaxing at Yeha’s

Our days in Aswan were fairly relaxed. We booked our tickets for the ferry to Sudan as we had decided to take the boat across Lake Nasser to Wadi Halfa. There was some shopping at the market, eating, drinking beer on the Nile, a felucca ride, meeting lots of other couch surfers, dropping by Yeha’s mechanic to encourage him to finish the much delayed service (as you do) and a movie night. One day we barely left the house, (only once to buy food) as we all just needed a break. Egypt relies heavily on tourism, and since the huge reduction in foreigners visiting the country after 2011, people are desperate for your business. Of course this is totally understandable, but it does get tiring being seen as a wallet on legs and hassled for taxis, felucca rides, clothes and any number of things. And then if you do happen to actually want something being asked to pay 5 times of what you know the normal price is.

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Exited sunset beers, Aswan.

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Sunset, Aswan.

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The idyllic Nile and Felucca boats

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Ewaut practicing for when he builds his boat

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Astrid sailing the Felucca 

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Relaxing on the Nile

By the time Sunday morning came around and we were getting ready to ride the 16km to the ferry, I was ready to leave Egypt. It has of course been overwhelmingly a positive experience. However, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at times a difficult country to cycle in. I will leave you now with some of my happier impressions of this country; laughing with friends around bowls of fuul and cups of tea in Dahab; snorkeling in the Red Sea; Mohamed’s hospitality; sitting by the fire on the banks of the Nile, watching the sunrise; hazy, smoggy, sunsets; old men riding small donkeys; 3 camels in a pick up truck looking suave; cups of steaming shay; delighted waves from friendly kids; the smiles of old men; palm trees and the shimmering blue of the Nile; giggling girls wanting selfies with us; shouts of ‘welcome to Egypt!’.

The ferry from Aswan to Wadi Halfa is a pretty authentic way to travel between two police states. There is a lot of paperwork, x-raying of bags and pointless procedures (poor Ewaut had to get an ancient computer to try and print out his online visa, as despite it being completely legal, the immigration officer freaked out about the stamp in his passport). Once we boarded, around 12 noon, we found a place on deck to call home. Then it was several hours of watching mainly washing machines and tuk tuk’s being loaded onto the boat. Finally, as a dust storm was blowing, we motored slowly out onto lake Nasser. We drank cups of tea, chatted to people, snacked and listened to podcasts and music, a perfect way to leave a country and head towards the unknown.

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Heading to the ferry that will take us to Sudan

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All the tuk tuk’s

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Settling in for the journey

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Relaxing on deck

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Life is better without drugs according to the Sudanese government (;

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Tea on the ferry

So, the first thousand kilometres or so of Africa are behind us. The Sahara awaits.

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Goodbye Egypt

 

A ride through Greece, and we briefly call Athens Home.

Both Astrid and I were pleased to be back in Greece, as it was one of our favourite countries on our way to London. It certainly didn’t disappoint this time round either.

While the last time we had pedalled through Greece it had been the beginning of spring, we were now in the final throws of autumn. The landscape was a faded brown, the last of the leaves clinging to the trees, the sky a washed out grey. Our riding days were cold, but at night we were able to build fires to keep warm. In Greece there is space to be free. This my spirit could really feel, and we embraced our nights by the fire surrounded by nature, our last wild days of Europe.

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Winter is nearly upon us. Always good place to camp in Greece though.

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The slightly barren landscape

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so much space to wild camp

As we headed south towards Athens, the weather changed. The cold – but until now dry autumnal days became wet, and the riding became tough. It rained and rained, descents were painful – water in eye, half blinded, hands gripping in sodden gloves. Cafes and Tavernas were our haven, and on one day we decided to drink tsipero to make the bleak, cold riding more fun. It certainly worked, and we got more than we bargained for when the locals kept insisting on buying us tsipero. Greek hospitality! We certainly left that taverna in better spirits than we entered it!

The rain was so constant and we were so soaked that we began staying at hotels. They were such a haven and to have somewhere to thaw out at the end of the day and to dry clothes was such a treat. It made the rain soaked days bearable.

Our final day into Athens, the rain had finally ceased. We’d had our last wild camp of Europe the night before and were ready for the Greek capital and Astrid’s birthday celebrations. First we had 130km to pedal and our day was rather eventful. Firstly, the secondary road stopped and rather than take an epic detour we had opted to try our luck on the motorway. This was totally illegal of course and we were soon being shouted at by a highway police kind of person, he was especially irate at me as he had seen me cruise passed an exit and ignore his frantic gesticulations from the other side of the motorway. Oops. In the end, we achieved what we had set out to do, as he made as get off at the exit we were going to take anyway. After that we basically ran out of food. There were no shops anywhere, the many cafes indicated on the map were closed. Luckily we were finally saved by a guy in a fast food van who happened to be the Greek voice over guy for Donald duck. I mean of course we would meet someone like this! Not only did he refuse payment, but he also made us a sandwich to eat later. The Greek people are so kind. The last part of our day we pedalled through the suburbs of Athens in the dark, having sneaky sips of tsipero for fun. Rolling up to have a beer just beneath the Acropolis felt epic; we’d made it.

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Hot springs!

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There are a lot of smooth roads in Greece

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This is more like it

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So nice to see the sun

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The voice of Greek Donald Duck. Awesome guy.

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Feeling shattered on our ride into Athens. Taking a 5 minute nap

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On the outskirts of Athens, time to drink Tsipouro!

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Made it!! Beer time

Some of our friends were already in the city and we joined them for much needed food and probably not so much needed more alcohol. We were both exhausted but very happy.

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Dinner after making it to Athens

The following day more of our friends began to arrive and we moved to an epic three storey apartment we had rented to celebrate Astrid’s 40th. Now we were able to settle into some serious celebration. I was also finally able to give Astrid her giant vegan cheese wheel, which had taken quite a combined effort to make it to Athens.  Before we’d become vegan, Astrid had always said she wanted a giant cheese wheel for her 40th. Initially, I thought that it wouldn’t be possible, but with some research I was able to find a vegan cheese maker in East London (of course!). She took on the job with much enthusiasm (she’d never before made a giant cheese). From there Abi took over as cheese delivery coordinator; an east london motorcycle paramedic was commissioned to pick up the cheese and it was then stored in a fridge at an ambulance station before finally being brought to Athens by Abi. I could not have done this without help! And the look on Astrid’s face made the whole thing so very worth it.

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Handing over of the cheese..

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Happiness is a giant vegan cheese

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More cheese glee

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It was so delicious

Our days were filled with a lot of fun; we had a roof top barbecue, champagne breakfast, went on a walking tour of the city, explored the Acropolis, ate delicious Greek food, drank too many beverages of an alcoholic nature, danced, talked, had a house party, made friends with the owners of a local bar, and generally behaved like silly adults. It was so wonderful to see our friends again, for while this life of travel is wonderful, I do find myself missing conversations and shared moments with the other people that make up my world. There was so much hugging and love and joy. We are truly very lucky to have these amazing people in our lives. A deep and heartfelt thank you to all of you who were able to make it to Athens for Astrid’s birthday.

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Breakfast before we moved to our epic place

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Our lovely apartment

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Hadlee and Abi on the roof

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Afternoon drinks, day one.

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Birthday breakfast

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Astrid, Ally and Jo looking out over Athens

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The Acropolis

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View over Athens

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Abi showing off her house

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Most of the team

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More stunning architecture 

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So happy to see this one

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Being a zombie?!

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Abi, Bec and Javier are excited about ice cream!

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Daniel and Erica

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Phoebe, Pat and Christina 

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Javi and Abi 

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Wine in a blanket

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Dancing and hugging at Pspsina 

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Hadlee and I

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Freaking out about giant bread

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Ally and Astrid

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Astrid looking super cute

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Hangover face

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Everyone leaving was of course quite difficult. Astrid and I both felt sad, even though we were excited too, as the next leg of our journey was soon to begin. First though, we had a mountain of life admin to do. Our bikes needed work, this blog required updating (moderately successful), we needed to research our route, visas, vaccinations to name a few. What we needed was a base. This is where hanging out at the same bar a few nights in a row comes in handy! We’d befriended the wonderful owners of Pspsina and they had offered to rent us a room opposite the bar. Perfect.

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Pspsina at night

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‘Our’ street

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Mornings of writing and reading

Our days in Athens began with coffee and breakfast at the bar, reading and writing, before beginning on all our chores. For lunch we almost always went to the falafel place around the corner, and in the evenings we always dropped by the bar for a chat and at least one drink. We were probably less productive than we could have been, but it was delightful to have a base. I even managed to go running a few times, and it was an incredible feeling just being able to marvel at the Acropolis as I passed by. We explored Athens a little, spent time talking to George and Evi and everyone at the bar, watched films and generally settled into life in Athens. It’s a city I will always remember with much love and warmth; the street art, the bar, the slight edginess, mildly crazy traffic, casual ruins of the ancient world, being offered drugs by the same guy for two weeks and gradually getting to know the neighbourhood we were calling home. Mostly though it was our wonderful ‘Greek family’ at the bar that made time in Athens so memorable though. Evi and George, John, Bobby, the other John and Carlie.

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Astrid looking cute and feeling a bit ill

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It felt good to rest and we were less productive than we perhaps could have been

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Soup and wine!

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Felafel house, we ate here every day

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Relaxing in our room with Asian soup

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Back to cooking cheap dinners in the bathroom…(:

For a treat, and to celebrate 9 years together, Astrid and I took a ferry to the nearby island of Agistri. Turns out, Greek islands in November are almost deserted. We did manage to find a hotel that was open and one taverna nearby where we ate every night. In a way, even though it would have been more vibrant in the summer, with more choices, we kind of loved it. Our days began slowly, with breakfast overlooking the sea, and we then went running and hiking over the island. On one day we found a deserted beach, built a fire, cooked lunch, drank whisky and went for a skinny dip in the still warm Mediterranean. Pretty idyllic, and certainly not possible in the high season when this beach would not doubt be packed.

Our island adventure over and our bikes almost ready, the time to move on was almost upon us. We’d wanted to try and find a yacht to take us across the Mediterranean, to avoid flying. This in theory is possible, and we know of many people who travel like this, by boat and bike. However, we now have a dead line as to when we want to be back in Melbourne, and finding a boat can be time consuming (it was also not the most popular time to be sailing across the med it seemed). With more than 12,000km in Africa to pedal, and then another few thousand across Australia, we were conscious that we need to keep moving, unless we want to rush the cycling, which we didn’t. So we compromised and booked a flight to Cairo for the 18th of December.

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Final night at Pspsina

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we need to get these bikes and our boxes on the metro…

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Getting to the platform proved epic

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Waiting for the train

So, this is how our first leg of the journey draws to a close. Our last evening, we did of course have a little party at Pspsina, saying a heartfelt goodbye to everyone there. It has truly been a wonderful experience living in Athens and getting to know all these wonderful people. Thank you!

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And we are off to Africa!!

Controversy in a name: FYROM, to the Republic of Macedonia and now North Macedonia…

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Happy to have arrived!

The naming of the country north of Greece has a long history of controversy, which dates back to World War II, although it wasn’t until the break up of Yugoslavia that it really became an issue. Greece claims the only Macedonia is that of its northern region, and that (North) Macedonia is attempting to appropriate Greek Culture and symbols (Alexander the Great for one). The most hard line Greek nationalists feel that if (North) Macedonia is allowed to keep its name, it will eventually lead to armed conflict and taking of their land. The majority of people living in North Macedonia are an ethnic south Slavic people, speaking a slavic language. However, North Macedonians see themselves as direct descendants of Alexander the Great, also claimed by Greece…

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Love this flag, it is so very bright!

You can see where this gets complicated. In fact, Skopje has a whole plethora of neo classical statues (built in 2014), which aims to reclaim its history back from the Greeks. It’s complicated, and we certainly felt the hostility later on our journey when we accidentally referred to Macedonia (then its actual name) as Macedonia, not FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). In Greece, that’s what you call it, otherwise you get a death stare.

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Lake Ohrid

By the time we were pedalling through this country with a controversial name, a referendum had been held to change the name, thus making way for the country’s entry into the EU and NATO, which until then had been blocked by Greece. And as of early 2019 The Republic of Macedonia official became North Macedonia. Apologies if any of my facts are wrong, this is a complicated issue and I’ve done my best to try and break it down a bit.

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So happy to be here

We reached (North) Macedonia after climbing for an hour on the Albanian side. After being stamped in, we free wheeled down towards Lake Ohrid. At one point I hit a pot hole so fast, my rear pannier came off. First time on this trip. After a lovely descent we were soon riding along the shores of the incredibly beautiful lake. There had been no rest days since Mostar, three countries ago, so we were looking forward immensely to some time off the bike. As it was my birthday the following day, we’d treated ourselves to our own flat, overlooking the lake. Now we just had to get there.

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Pedalling into Ohrid

It had been a long, gruelling morning of climbing through Albania, but now we were so close. The sunset over the lake and mountains was spectacular; a hint of what was to come. I had been keen on Lake Ohrid ever since I’d heard about how beautiful the town and lake were supposed to be, back in 2015 when we were first cycling through the region. It did not disappoint.

 

As we pedalled into the town of Lake Ohrid, the call to prayer was being sung, and I could see many churches. While I am not religious, I deeply appreciate these places – were religions exist side by side. It shows us the better side of humanity. Ohrid once had a church for each day of the year. That seems a little over the top!

 

To reach our flat, we needed to negotiate the narrow and steep medieval town of Ohrid. That meant full on standing up in first gear, pumping the pedals, after having already been on the road for 10 hours. Mildly exhausting! Our phone GPS was freaking out, and a few times we came up against narrow and steep stairs and had to turn back. Finally, after bumping our bikes down some steps we made it. Our hosts let us in and then it was just us and our own little space for a few days. Bliss.

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Tea in the sun happiness

After a shower and overloading the washing machine with our filthy clothes, we headed out in what clothes we had left. Ohrid is simply a magical little town, full of steep winding steps, paths, churches, cobbles stones and beautiful views of the lake.

 

I woke on the morning of my 35th birthday with a view of the lake from my bed. Amazing. I had a wonderful day of phone conversations with friends and family, messages, amazing food made by Astrid and relaxing in the sun. An explore of the town, sunset wines, more amazing food and a sneaky whiskey on our balcony to finish off the day. Perfect.

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Birthday breakfast

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I don’t think I would ever get sick of this view!

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Exploring

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Waiting for the sunset

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Sunset drinks

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So crazy beautiful

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We spent the next few days relaxing and exploring Ohrid. Our almost 6 months on the road was beginning to be felt; we were tired and extended our stay by one night. Finally though, we needed to leave. Greece was calling and Astrid’s 40th was now only 10 days away.

 

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Leaving Ohrid, next stop Athens!

A little reluctantly we packed up and bumped our bikes out of the old town and headed towards the Greek border. We followed the road out of town and then up a valley, beside a river. It was a beautiful late autumn day and felt good to be pedalling again. There was a gorgeous, empty secondary road we found in the afternoon, climbing amongst the pines. Our camp for the night was absolutely perfect, on soft grass, surrounded by trees and plenty of firewood for a warming us (it was cold!).

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Break time!

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Empty roads are the best

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Looking for a camp spot

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Found a perfect one!

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It’s definitely getting cold out here

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Bikes covered in frost

The following morning we pedalled into the town of Bitola, consumed a huge amount of Burek, poked around an archaeological site and then left for the Greek border.

North Macedonia, it’s been a pleasure. We will be back one day.

 

Albanian Impressions

unadjustednonraw_thumb_10c95Although we had not planned to cycle through Albania this time round, neither of us minded coming back, and even retracing some of our cycle from 2015. Albania is a place close to our hearts. It’s like nowhere else in Europe we have been, and reminds us a little of everywhere we have travelled.

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Cars on the roof, why not?

It’s always interesting when you only cycle in a country for a short amount of time, don’t speak the language, or have much meaningful contact with locals. Sometimes that just happens, and in a country, particularly one as seemingly obscure as Albania, one can be left with somewhat confusing impressions. Many things don’t ever quite make sense.

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These bunkers dot the landscape, built by the former dictator

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Another abandoned something

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Enjoying the wide shoulder

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Lady birds painted on a building, why not?

Why does Albania have so many car washes, for instance? Seriously, every few kilometres you find them. And sometimes a few grouped together. Men (with perfectly coiffed hair) either sit around on their phones waiting for business, or carefully soap up already shiny black Mercedes. Another thing; there are so many fancy German cars in this country. Mainly Mercedes, but also Audi’s and BMW’s. In a country that obviously has problems with poverty, it seems quite crazy. I’ve heard some of them are second hand from Germany, brought here because they last longer on the bad Albanian roads. Staying with the car theme, there are also a phenomenal amount of petrol stations. And quite a few abandoned shells of petrol stations. Was there some kind of petrol station fad? Get rich abroad and come back and buy a petrol station? I have no idea. Sometimes it’s fun to make up stories as to why things are the way they are.

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Excited to find this vegan burek type thing

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Albanian drivers unfortunately haven’t improved much since 2015. The roads are generally narrow and people drive fast. It is certainly a country gripped by the status of the car. Safety and road rules are not a thing. I was nearly reversed in to, and it is standard to talk on the phone, pull over suddenly, use the horn furiously, or use the street as a car park. We saw quite a few amusing arguments as people parked their cars in what up until then had been a lane to drive in, blocking all traffic behind them. The constant feeling of being a second class citizen whose right to life on the road was only temporary, was exhausting and we took breaks sometimes just to get out of the traffic. Thankfully after Tirana, things became better.

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second breakfast

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off road to look for camping..

The landscape we cycled through was initially flat and dusty, heavily cultivated and dotted with eccentric large pink houses (built by rich Albanians?), petrol stations, car washes and random shops and small villages. We saw a woman herding turkey’s in a field, men driving what looked like pimped up wheel barrows with a motor, and quite obscurely, one person in a wheel chair, on a highway, going backwards. Go figure, it’s Albania.

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Turkey’s!

The gap between rich and poor appears immense here, the corruption is almost palpable. Men in shiny black sports cars, big shopping malls, huge houses. This is interspersed with families travelling by horse and cart, barefoot children begging outside supermarkets and shanty towns. We received some candid stares and shouts, one manchild threw a bottle at Astrid’s head. Women had faded into the background of life here, and it was mainly men we saw – washing cars, driving cars, drinking coffee, milling about. Still, by and large people were kind to us and I feel no animosity towards Albanians. It is a country still coming to grips with its identity after a tragic and frightening past, running head first into capitalism and all the problems that come with this very flawed system.

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left over second lunch

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tea time

At one point there was a no bicycle sign on a motorway, but all we got was a smile and nod as we cycled by the police. Later, on another motorway we wanted to ride through a newly built tunnel. Here the traffic man became quite insistent that it was dangerous. I became quite irate; not riding through the tunnel would mean a climb up a narrow road that had already proved dangerous. After days of exposure to bad driving I was having none of it and refused to comply. He said he would call the police and I told him to go ahead and rode off. Poor Astrid had no choice but to follow me. Ironically, pedalling on the footpath of the tunnel was the safest we’d felt all day (possibly in the whole of Albania). We then flew along the newly built motorway at top speed, with a wide shoulder and almost no traffic. Either we outran the police (unlikely), or they were never actually called.

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On the illegal motorway..

From camping hidden in people’s orchards on the crowded agricultural lowlands of Albania, our path took us into the mountains. Here the air was fresher, the landscape wilder and more beautiful. We followed a river upward towards the border with the Republic of Macedonia. Our time in Albania this time was brief, but I am sure it won’t be the last time we visit this unique country.

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Camping in a vineyard

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By the river

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heading up towards the border

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A different Albania

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Leaving the lowland behind

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Border post

Thirty six hours through Montenegro

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Signs are there to be climbed!

After climbing all morning through the beautiful mountains of Bosnia, the first thing I thought as we free wheeled down the road on the Montenegrin side was; it’s not as beautiful as I expected. Kind of harsh I admit! The landscape was rocky, dry, and quite bare. Not the Montenegro I remember of 2015. Of course, first impressions are often wrong.

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Happy to be back in Montenegro

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Overlooking a dam on our way into Niksic

After snacking on left overs, we rolled into Niksic in search of potato burek (second lunch) and an ATM. We found both, with the potato burek possibly being the best we’ve ever had (big statement I know!). While in the bakery, unashamedly scoffing our second helping, a guy came over to talk to us. Petar was a local Warmshowers host, and after chatting for a bit, he offered to show us a scenic route to Podgarica. We happily accepted.

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Petar showing us the way

What followed was up there with some of the best and most scenic cycling we’ve done. We followed Pieter up a small, smooth road (Montenegro has ridiculously good roads) as it wound itself gently up the mountains. The views were magnificent and I felt dwarfed by the sheer beauty of nature all around us. By the time we reached the Ostrog monastery it was late in the day, making Podgarica as we had planned was looking unlikely. It was one of those moments where you choose just to embrace the moment and go with the flow of what is being offered up. Petar showed us the church and explained a little bit about his religion. Although neither of us are the slightest bit religious, I do appreciate the sacredness of churches, temples, mosques, and the beauty of the architecture and art work. The icons in orthodox churches are impressive. And it has an air of mysticism I did not expect.

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The amazing road

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So fun and so beautiful

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After Petar had a quick chat with a priest, we all ended up being invited in to eat in the monastery dining room. I can only imagine this is where the monks eat? There was some praying and then we were served up delicious food, including quite a lot of wine. Some people joined us, and it turns out the woman was an Abbott from Russia. So that’s how we ended up sharing wine and food with a Russian Abbott and some monks in an orthodox monastery in Montenegro. You never quite know how your day will turn out on the road…

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A church at the monastary

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At the Monastary

Later on we explored the high monastery, which is impressively cut into the stone. It is a really beautiful and spiritual place and a site of Pilgrimage for Christians, as Saint Basil of Ostrog’s body is there (rather creepily in an open coffin). He is apparently the saint of Miracles.  Petar, being the generous and humble guy he was, organised for us to stay in the monastery dormitory that night. He also stayed as he is currently in between jobs and had no plans. I love how he could just spontaneously join us. We spent the evening drinking tea and talking; about religion, the difference in our lives, relationships, travel, anxiety, love…Petar is not one to waste time on trivial matters and it was refreshing to talk to someone obviously so smart and interested in everything.

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The high monastary, built into the rock

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Impressive!

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Exploring by night

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Outside the monastery where we slept

In the morning singing from the church reverberated over valley in a wonderful and other worldly manner. The sun shone, promising another perfect autumn day. It felt like we were outrunning the bad weather again. The three of us left early and headed down the mountain and valley into Podgarica, the Montenegrin capital. Here we ate lunch in a park by the university that Petar had once attended.

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The road down

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more beautiful road..

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On the road to Podgarica

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Podgarica

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Outside the church Petar showed us in Podgarica

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Church and bike posing..

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Inside the church

It was now time to head to the Albanian border, just over 20km away. Petar decided he may as well join us right to the border. Unfortunately he hadn’t brought his passport, otherwise I think we would have continued cycling with us! The road out of Podgarica was awful at first, fast and busy, but luckily improved as we began climbing out of the valley and back into nature in the late afternoon sunshine.

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Looking towards Albania..

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Towards the border

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Lovely in the late afternoon!

At the border we said our goodbyes. Meeting Petar was certainly the best thing that happened to us in Montenegro. It made our brief 36 or so hours here so much richer, and showed us places we would otherwise not have seen. We may lead very different lives, and come from very different backgrounds, but this ride was a reminder of how human’s are kind and open, given half a chance.

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Thanks for everything!

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A pedal through the changing cultural landscape of Bosnia Herzegovina

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Bosnia Herzegovina. I am not really sure how to start this blog. There is so much I want to say and express. It is probably one of my favourite places in Europe, rich in history, culture and natural beauty. And it would be impossible not to mention the recent tragedy of the war and genocide that followed the break up of Yugoslavia in the early 90’s. But I guess I am going to pair it right back to how we experienced this varied and often complex country. It is far beyond the scope of this blog to delve into the complexities of the history and politics of this region. Although I will not completely omit them either.

 

We arrived in Bosnia Herzegovina over the Drina River, cars with Bosnian and Serbian number plates crossed the border seemingly without issue, and it was hard to believe that this area was once the site of major fighting. We pedalled a short distance into Bratunac to find food and an ATM (typical just arrived in a country activities). While I was in the supermarket Astrid got chatting to a man who invited us for coffee. When first in a new place it’s always so lovely to be able to speak to someone about the country, to try and get a sense of it. Our new friend had spent 25 years living in Britain and had only recently returned. He was frustrated by the corruption and slowness of getting things done, and he expressed a sadness about the huge divide that now exists between Serbs and Bosnian’s, which he said in his youth had not been the case. To clarify; there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia Herzegovina; Serbs who are mainly orthodox Christians, Bosniaks who are mainly Muslim and Croatian’s who are Catholic. One can see how these ethnic divisions can easily be exploited.

 

With history and politics swirling around in my head we headed off, the sky felt heavy, the air was cold and damp. It felt like autumn had really arrived. Our road towards Sarajevo took us through an area that had been involved in intense fighting between Serbs and Bosnian’s (we went quite near Srebrenica). There had been massacres of entire Bosnian villages in this area.

 

Later, while eating lunch by a Church, we spoke about our first impressions of th