Huge elephant sees cycle tourist and hides behind a tree

sdrWe arrived in Zambia by accident and before we had officially crossed the border. Apparently, by crossing the road to spend the last of our Malawian Kwatcha on a cold beer, we had crossed into Zambia. Not that anyone minded – the border official who was also buying a beer laughed and said he’d see us soon.

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Lundazi

Once officially stamped into Zambia we had a short ride to Lundazi where we briefly had a stress getting access to money – none of the ATMs took Mastercard (they were all broken) and we didn’t have visa (thanks to a hungry ATM in Malawi). Luckily, we did have US dollars and were able to change them just before the bank shut. Phew. Now there was nothing left to do but go find a Norman castle to call home for the night.  Built in 1948 by the British administrator, Lundazi castle is perhaps one of the oddest things in Zambia. The rooms are super old school with no hot water, (but a friendly guy working there brought us more buckets than we needed), mismatched ill fitting furniture and a fair amount of  British kitsch. But we certainly enjoyed the novelty of spending the night in a fake Norman castle in southern Africa.

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Lundazi Castle

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Our castle room

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Stove maintenance in the castle

We’d been debating over the last couple of weeks which route we’d take through Zambia. Our options were the main highway via Chipata to South Luangwa National park, then on to Lusaka, or the more adventurous option of small back roads and then onto the Old Petauke Road, a route which was heavily discussed on our whatsapp group due to lion sightings.  Predictably, we chose the latter.

And I am so glad we did. What followed were some of the best riding days in Africa so far.  Small dirt roads with mostly bike and foot traffic (and not a lot of that), immaculate little villages (sweeping is an African wide obsession it seems), with thatched roofs and smiling kids, and the wildlife! We rode through the Luambe national park where we would round corners and startle elephants who would then try and hide unsuccessfully behind trees (pretty funny watching a giant elephant try and hide behind a tiny tree). There were a myriad of different antelopes, as well as warthogs, and loads of birds. It was truely spectacular riding and fitted in with all the cliché dreams one has of this continent and its magic.

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It’s for roads like this I cycle tour!

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Forest camp before big animals became an issue

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Huts along the road

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A school

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That light!

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And some more of it

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I imagine not many foreigners get to see these parts if rural Africa

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Riding through a typical rural Zambian village

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One of our favourite parks

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Looking at the Luangwa River and the hippos

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Hippos chilling out

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A big elephant

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A big elephant is scared of us and leaves

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Always on the look out for animals

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The national park gate is a safe place to call home for the night

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Sunset behind the rangers huts

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I love the sky and this tree

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Another small and delightful backroad

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so many shades of gold

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Quick lunch stop – bread and peanut butter is standard

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It is so dry

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They do indeed!

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Huge boabab

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The dry and dusty landscape indicative of the drought

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Zebra watch us

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Giraffes meander by

After 3 long days on dirt roads and sleeping at national park posts, we reached the relative tourist hub of Mfewe. Here we shopped for food (and a cold beer) and then headed off to Wilderness Camp, a place that came highly recommended by other touring cyclists on the Luangwa River. On our way into Wilderness camp, which is several kilometres outside Mfuwe, we were held up by a herd of elephants. There were dozens of them eating right next to the road, some with babies. Although we had never experienced aggressive elephants, they are more likely to be protective/aggressive when they have young with them. Luckily, some dudes in a truck rounded the corner and escorted us to the camp. Just another day in Zambia!

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Filthy but happy

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Had to stop in here!

At the camp we were told they had no tent spaces available. They must have taken pity on our exhausted and slightly devastated faces, and the fact that we were both covered in red dust, looking rather worn. Very kindly and generously they offered us a safari hut with ensuite for the same price as a camping spot. We were floored and so grateful. It was quite an experience wheeling our bikes through the camp. I feel really uncomfortable writing this, as it’s not at all what we’re about, and to us this life is so normal and we know so many people do this kind of trip. However, walking through that camp I can only describe that it felt maybe a bit like what it feels to be a celebrity. Everyone stared at us. And then everyone wanted to talk to us. We kept getting side tracked with offers of drinks and people wanting to hear our story. It was very flattering and slightly overwhelming. We hadn’t seen so many white people in one place in months, nor had that much attention (other than from children).

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Elephant family

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Wildlife camp

Our safari tent was lush. Probably one of the nicest places I’ve stayed and our small balcony overlooked the Luangwa River, complete with hippos. During the night I woke to a ginormous bull elephant eating a tree right outside the tent (it was a solid safari tent and not dangerous at all), I was so excited and a little bit startled and I had to wake Astrid to show her. He was massive! It was an amazing experience.

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Our safari tent. Luxury!

Our time at Wilderness Camp was slow and easy. We ended up getting two nights in the Safari tent before a campsite became available.  In the mornings we drank tea and made use of the camp kitchen, caught up on writing, reading and went swimming in the pool. I never got tired at looking at the river, which was full of hippos (some were pink from sunburn!) and crocodiles, and would turn the most divine silvery colour at sunset. We talked with other travellers and were thoroughly spoiled by several different South Africans who invited us for dinner and sunset drinks.

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The bar and pool area

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It was hard to leave

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Luangwa River

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Not sure if things get much better than this..

The major draw card of this area is the South Luangwa National Park. While we had already cycled through some of the park and seen many giraffes, antelope and warthogs, its also one of the most affordable places to do a night safari. So we thought, why not? While it was cool and we did see a leopard, I’m not sure I’m a massive fan of the safari. There were a lot of us being driven around, looking for the same animals. Everyone wants to see a big cat of some sort (which we really didn’t care about that much) and it all felt a bit contrived. This is kind of where cycle travel ruins you for normal tourist experiences! I’d much rather stumble across a heard of giraffe on my bike. Or be drinking coffee as zebra graze nearby. While we might not have spotted all of the ‘big 5’ Astrid and I just found seeing animals incidentally like this much more rewarding.

After our break at Wilderness Camp it was a day and a half ride for us along the last of the Old Petauke road to the main road. This section traversed an area that was known for a lot of wildlife, including lions. It was the bit we’d been most hesitant about, but after enjoying the first section so much, we weren’t about to take the main road now. So off we pedalled, along something that wasn’t much more than a bumpy track at times. Again, we were rewarded with elephants, warthogs, waterbucks, impala and even a herd of buffalo. We passed through a few small villages with heavily fortified animal enclosures, which always alerts us to the fact that predators are around. As we were making good time, we passed through a larger village where we knew we could have stayed as a fellow cyclist had overnighted there. The afternoon wore on and the track got bumpier and rougher, the light began to turn a little, indicating the approaching evening. I began to get a bit nervous. What happens if there wasn’t another village soon?! All kinds of scenarios began to come into my head. I could tell Astrid was thinking the same thing. Surely, there was going to be a village soon?!

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I just love this

The bush began to look ominous and I longed to see a break in the trees that indicated agriculture and a nearby village. Our phone maps weren’t helpful, as villages are often not marked. We had half a fight and began making plans about building something around our tent, and talking about the likely, or non-likelihood of lions. I felt responsible for the decision (although I don’t’ remember why now) and as it turned to evening I really began to panic inside while trying to remain calm on the outside, making a plan to build a big fire to keep the lions away. Then through the trees we spied a field. I felt relief, but only a bit. It looked abandoned and all around us there seemed to just be more bush. I never usually want to see people just before we pull over to camp but tonight I was desperate to see another human. It’s the first and last time I’ve felt like this in Africa, and it was an interesting feeling to observe. I felt fragile and alone, aware of my inability to fight off any kind of predator, wanting to be with my own kind, away from the scariness of the bush and all it holds. Mostly I actually feel the opposite of this.

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Back into the wilderness – of sorts

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Just us and the bush

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The light is fading and we’re not sure where the next village will be

After what seemed like forever since we’d seen the field, I finally spied a mobile phone tower. I’ve never been so happy to see one of those! They are always in villages. What a relief. We were not going to be eaten by lions after all. Soon we reached the outskirts and some friendly guys (who didn’t seem at all surprised to see us) directed us to the school where the lovely teacher said of course we could camp in the classroom. We were soon setting up and cooking our meal, while the kids peered in at the weirdos, shouting “hello and how are you!” (over and over again) and giggling at the dirty cyclists camped out on their classroom floor.

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Safe in the classroom

Our time in more remote Zambia had now drawn to a close as we met up with the great eastern road the following morning. This was the major road into Lusaka, sealed and busy at times. We still enjoyed our cycle into the city over the next four days as we found the countryside quite beautiful, the people friendly and the wind on our side.

Lusaka was a huge reverse cultural shock: first big supermarket since Nairobi and so many shiny malls (which we didn’t really like). We enjoyed the diversity of food – although still no hummus, catching up with some Italian cyclists and doing bike repairs as well as some serious clothes washing. For the first few days we couch surfed with a lovely woman called Sylvia. She gave us an interesting insight into life in Zambia and the hurdles often faced by women. Teenage pregnancy is rife and girls are unlikely in general to even finish high school, which in itself puts them at much greater risks of poverty. Then, if you do finish high school and go on to university and a good job, people still judge you and believe you only got there by sleeping with the boss. Sylvia had herself faced many obstacles, including a crazy long walk to school from a small rural village, which involved river crossings – things we can’t even comprehend. One of the really interesting things about Sylvia was that she was seriously smashing some stereotypes; not only did she live alone, have a master degree, she also was a navigator for rally drivers on weekends and had won loads of trophies. Super cool.

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Looking out onto the hills

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The great eastern road

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Camping at the police post not far out of Lusaka

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Another day, another sleep at a police post

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Beers on reaching Lusaka

From Lusaka we rode steadily south towards Livingstone and Mosi ao Tunya (Victoria  Falls). It wasn’t the most interesting, or pleasant ride south, especially as Astrid became quite ill just before we reached Livingstone. Of course, being super tough, she managed to cycle 100km with a fever before 2pm.

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The road south

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Searching for a camp

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Such amazing colours at the end of the day

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A typical camp for us in the bush

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Small roads are good for hiding

In Livingstone we collapsed into a camp and spent a few days recovering. Because of a severe drought, the Zambian side of the falls weren’t flowing much, so we decided to head over the border to Zimbabwe. Our plan was to spend two days in Zim, before crossing into Botswana. But plans have a funny way of not always working out…

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on the road to Zimbabwe

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Boabab magic

The dusty and magical backroads of Malawi

80F57D41-B22E-4885-A3F7-87F8693A2787We cruised into Malawi with no issues, fresh from a morning of descending amongst beautiful tea plantations in the wonderful sunshine. It felt so good to be alive and out of that hotel room and pedalling into a new country.

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Riding towards the lake

Our route took us down towards Lake Malawi and it felt much like many other places we’d been in Africa. People were friendly, waving and smiling, children were mildly annoying (the occasional shout for money) and wares were sold by the side of the road, often near a cluster of huts.

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FLEE!

Oh and there were amusing signs.

By the time we reached the shores of lake Malawi it was getting late, and as the sun began to fade from the sky, we didn’t have the energy to find a place to wild camp. Instead we opted for the easier ioverlander (travelling app we’ve been using a bit in Africa) option and soon found ourselves at a seemingly semi deserted resort by the lake. It was a little run down and old school and exuded a charm that instantly resonated with us. The men running the place were super friendly, we were able to camp and they kindly let us store the bikes in an empty room and even use the shower (which we didn’t actually use as we have a high tolerance to mild fest. And are possibly lazy).

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Happy to be in Malawi

Before too long we were sat by the lake, admiring the changing colours and sipping a beer. Life was pretty perfect. Some locals came to talk to us and they were lovely and we all had a nice chat before they headed off home and we went to cook our dinner. Malawi felt friendly and safe, like most of the places we’d been.

The following day we meandered along with the lake on our left, sometimes in sight, sometimes not. We stopped off in Karonga, a larger town, to stock up on some supplies and the inevitable painful and time consuming simcard activation (I still don’t know why it is always so hard). In the afternoon we passed  small villages where people sold tiny dried fish from the lake, tomatoes, onions, eggs and not much else. Men on bikes were slightly annoying, trying to race us (failing) and watching us have lunch. It wasn’t threatening, but we were glad to turn off to the sanctuary of Floja Foundation camping and lodge. This Dutch supported social enterprise helps children with extra educational opportunities who would normally fall through the cracks. Next to the school was a rather idyllic campsite on the lake. After a couple of weeks of wild camping in Tanzania and the odd dingy hotel, this was paradise. We tried out all the hammocks and best chillout spots and debated far too long the exact perfect place to put our tent.

Needless to say we spent two restful and peaceful days at Floja. We meditated at sunrise and even snuck in a swim after hearing the risk of Bilharzia was minimal. The water felt delicious. Pauline and Andre were wonderful hosts and we treated ourselves to some freshly baked bread and a glass of wine or two. Simple but very luxurious items for us.

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Sunrise

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So peaceful

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Fresh bread!

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Tea time happiness

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Watching the colours of the lake

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More lake loveliness

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And some more

After Floja it was time to leave the shimmering beauty of lake Malawi and climb up onto the escarpment and the hilly interior of Malawi. Judging by the severe wiggly lines on our mapping app, we surmised it would be a fairly challenging feat. At the turn off we were met by a host of men who told us we couldn’t possibly cycle up the hill. I rolled my eyes and was ready to just ignore them, but Astrid is much more patient. She humoured them and let one show her the first part of the road. When she indicated it would be fine, he changed his story that she would be robbed by bandits. So she asked about why Malawians would rob tourists and he retorted that it was people from other countries. It all sounded a little far fetched. No doubt a tourist or tourists have been mugged on the road at some point. However, it smelt heavily of  cash making opportunism to me. And look, if they’d offered a reasonable price, to save our legs and support some locals, we would have paid. However the price they asked for was about 5 times us much as locals paid and well beyond our budget. So we opted to cycle.

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The road up

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Getting closer..

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Hot, sweaty, tired but happy!

And gosh, I am so glad we did. It was a beautiful ride. No one mugged us. People just waved and beeped in encouragement as they passed us panting up the hill. The road was rough in parts but the hairpin bends actually made the gradient mostly rideable. We only pushed a few times. The 10km did take us about 3 hours, but it was worth every pedal stroke. The views from the top were spectacular, as was Mushroom Farm, a guest house built on the edge of a cliff.

This place is one of my favourite places I’ve ever stayed. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves and add that the food is amazing and the associated permaculture garden a wonderful example of what is possible. We stayed longer than we had planned because the atmosphere and surrounds just suited us so much. While we were there we did some walks and made onward plans for southern Africa. We even started talking vaguely about logistics for Namibia and South Africa. Shit is getting real!

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Views don’t get much better..

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Vegie burger happiness

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Breakfast time

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Cooking in the kitchen at Mushroom farm

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Our amazing camp spot

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View of our spot

By the time we left Mushroom Farm we had completely changed our plan for Malawi. We were now headed high up to the Nyika Plateau. A local had told us about how beautiful it was, then added how we’d never be able to make it up there on bikes. Challenge accepted.

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Livingstone, a slightly creepy mission town…

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Trying to find our way out of Livingstone

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Still trying..

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Success

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Taking a breather

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Heading towards Nyika

It took us a day to get within striking distance which included spending the night camped by a school, our one visa card getting eaten by an ATM machine and us cycling up some of the steepest, gnarliest roads (where at times we were pushing) on the trip so far (well, not quite as bad as cycling up a river bed in Kyrgyzstan). By the time we reached the national park gate we were pretty exhausted. The guards who manned the gate were super kind, quite used to the odd cycle tourist making it up here, and introduced themselves and then unlocked the toilet for us. Again, we felt very cared for and safe.

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Small rural roads made us happy

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Loving the lack of traffic

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Sleeping a school

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Breakfast set up

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Towards the mountains!

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Snapshot of a typical rural Malawian (and African really) market

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Shopping for supplies

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The dry and dusty road – how amazing are the women carrying stuff on their head?!

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So we found the mountain..

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Ever upwards to the national park boundary

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Sleeping at the park boundary

The ride further up onto the plateau was hard, even though it was only 40km. After a day of seriously steep riding, we were tired. Some more seriously steep riding on slippery, stony dirt roads was challenging. Plus, there was the obvious threat of animals – nothing too menacing but elephants were a distinct possibility. We climbed and climbed and climbed. A few locals passed us in trucks, and one 4X4 with foreigners. Mostly though, we were alone with just the African bush, steep roads and sweeping views (of more steep roads).

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Elephants are definitely around..

By the time we reached the campsite on the Nyika Plateau, the sun was fading from the sky and the air was cold and damp. We were high up now, and the landscape was all rolling treeless hills, mist and crisp air. In many ways it reminded us of the Scottish highlands, instead of sheep we had various antelope, including my favourite the Eland. While hugely overpriced, the Chilinda campsite was rather lovely and came complete with a man who seemed to be employed solely to light our campfire and keep the fire for our (very hot, amazing) shower lit. Aside from the hot shower and the fire lighter (kind of my dream job), the campsite was super basic, but exactly what we didn’t know we had needed. Oh and it also came with two very nice NHS doctors who handed us beers on our arrival.

Aside from the cold beers, friendly doctors and deliciously hot showers, Nyika gave us space to breathe and be still. While Africa is full of wild places, it is also full of people. And this is exactly what makes this continent so wonderful; it’s friendly, hospitable humans. The nature of the way that we travel ensures that we have dozens of small interactions a day, from chats at the water pump, to kids giggling at the funny mzungu on bikes, to buying food in small villages and asking about where we can put our tent for the night (when we can’t wild camp). We’re an understandable curiosity wherever we go, sometimes this means we unknowingly (or knowingly) crave the quiet places.

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being watched..

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View from our campsite

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Morning eland

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It could be Scotland…

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The dramatic mist rolls in

Well the Nyika Plateau gave us that. We sat by the fire, went for misty morning walks, made flat bread and read our books. It was so quiet and so peaceful, sometimes zebra and antelope would come and graze in around our campsite. If it hadn’t been for the hefty price we would have stayed longer. However, our budget meant that after two wonderful days we needed to retrace our steps back to the park gate.

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being watched

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Flat bread happiness

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Chilinda campsite, Nyika plateau

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On our morning walk

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Fire!

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More moodiness

Of course this time it was all mostly down hill and much easier. We stayed again at the gate with the friendly guard lady and made tracks the following day. It was a steep descent, the one where your hands get tired from braking and you can’t quite believe you cycled up those hills. We needed food for the next few days and stopped at several small villages to try and stock up. Malawi is one of the poorest counties in Africa and there is certainly a lack of a variety of food to buy. I enjoyed the challenge of it. It felt very real and much more adventurous than heading into a supermarket and buying exactly what you want. We bought flour to make bread, rice, tomatoes, eggs, soya chunks and red onion. With some imagination we made some pretty delicious meals.

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Nyika plateau

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Back off the plateau causing a stir

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Water collection

Chasing down the last of our supplies we took a slight detour up a dusty road, hoping we’d find a stall selling tomatoes and some cold beers. We found these and also a small bar, the type you find all over Africa and the kind I feel most foreigners probably don’t see. They’re usually simple wooden shacks, with a home made bar from where someone sells beers from an ancient fridge. Men will be crowded inside, often drinking and shouting above the blaring TV which will be streaming music videos. It’s always a lively place and we’ve always been treated with respect and genuine kindness. People seem happy to see us, even in these kinds of bars and every effort was made to make us feel welcome. After several funny conversations and exchanging of phone numbers (everyone wants our number and it often leads to a few weeks of exchanging texts before people inevitably grow bored of us) we left the bar and went back out into the bright African sunshine. We now had everything we needed for the next spot of relaxation.

Vwaza Marshes national park was a short ride down the road and here we found more idyllic living. While, like everywhere in Africa, the national park fees were steep, they weren’t as steep as other places (Malawi has some of the most affordable fees so far for us). A guard then led us to simple shack, which overlooked a lake. Half an hour later we were sitting on our porch, drinking a beer and watching an elephant herd walk by. Life couldn’t get much better. While elephants came down to drink, hippos lounged in the shallows and the occasional nervous warthog family would make an appearance. It was simply one of the best places we’d been and the simplicity and beauty resonated deeply.

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Our hut, Vwaza Marshes

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Our view

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Pretty happy

After two days enjoying the tranquility of the lake, the bellowing hippos (they really are very loud), elephant families and the beauty of watching the colours change over the landscape we left to hit more back roads towards Zambia.

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Sunset, Vwaza

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Hippos!

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Morning yoga

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Elephant family

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More hippos

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Hard life…

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And some more

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coffee time

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Flat bread making. Serious stuff

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Elephant footprint

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Just ‘cos it’s so pretty

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Feeling pretty chuffed

We biked along small dirt roads where not many tourists go. Children were polite and friendly (unlike other parts of Malawi where they beg quite a lot), adults bought us lunch, or helped us shop at the market just out of kindness and we genuinely felt welcomed and not like wallets on wheels. Pen wielding tourists have not yet found their way to this part of Malawi. Not that we had found it too bad at all, even in the more touristy places we’d been. However, many friends had reported they’d found the children in Malawi particularly tough.

By the time we neared the Zambian border we felt not like leaving, but like staying to explore more. For us Malawi being the “warm heart of Africa” had rung true. People had been warm and welcoming, the scenery diverse and beautiful and we were certainly inspired to return someday. It remains one of our favourite countries in Africa.

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Fuelled by avocados, chapati and pineapple – a ride through Tanzania.

IMG-20190513-WA0021Having accidentally overstayed our Kenyan visa (we had a month, instead of the 90 days we thought which was completely illegible on our visa) we were happy to be in Tanzania without having been relieved of any extra money. It was already dark, so a border official walked us over to a cheap hotel where we bedded down for the night. Our first impression was that both the hotel and the beer was very affordable.

Our route now was to pedal south and east towards Dar Es Salaam. We dropped down from the high plains surrounding Kilimanjaro, on smooth roads, surrounded by lush green. The rains had arrived and we were regularly soaked and muddy. Luckily for us, Tanzanian hotels are very affordable, and we were happy to spend a few dollars every night, rather than put up a damp tent in a field somewhere. It is very hard to dry out at all in the wet season!

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“Top Jesus” we were highly amused by the trucks in Tanzania

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Definitely in need of an umbrella!

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So lush and green

Tanzania initially was rather soul sucking. After the thrill of whizzing down from the border, we were now faced with endless undulations, surrounded by rather dull monoculture sisal crops as far as the eye could see. Day after day we rode on the shoulder of a busy highway, wind in our faces, rain intermittently soaking us, pedalling over endless hills. Tanzanians don’t speak as much English as Kenyans, so we were faced with a bit of a language barrier as well (we’d been a bit lazy with learning Swahili) and unlike Kenya, a lot of people tried to rip us off on food when we stopped to eat. This makes interactions with people a little tiring, and it gets my back up, which is not a pleasant way to be. On top of this, we were killing poor Lucy. Having spent the best part of a year on the bikes, Astrid and I were used to doing around 100km a day. While not new to cycle touring, Lucy had had a tough time over the last few months and was not at peak fitness. Nor had she or I discussed how many kilometres we did on average a day, a massive oversight on both our parts. All of us being cycle tourists, we’d made a bunch of unwise assumptions, which was now causing us issues. Not only because we had to meet Doug and Niovi in Zanzibar, but also for the rest of Africa. We needed to pedal around 100km most days to feasibly make it through, especially with the side trips. Most days  Lucy had to get on a bus in order to make the kilometres. While she quite enjoyed the bus rides, and it was awesome that this was an option, we did feel bad that we had to make her do this, and she in turn felt bad that she couldn’t pedal as fast as us. The camaraderie between us was great though, and we had fun in the evenings and mornings hanging out together, but on the cycling front we were proving to be somewhat incompatible at this stage in the game.

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Endless hills

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Saturated by the afternoon rain

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So much sisal

It was a valuable lesson for us all; about the importance of communication and danger of making assumptions. And also about the dynamics of inviting someone to come cycle touring. When you are already on a trip, and invite someone along, it’s a very different dynamic to when you meet on the road. With Craig and Clo and the Habibi’s, we’d all been on our own tours already, with our own goals and route plans. We became a team because it worked at the time and we had all meshed together well. However, at the end of the day we were all independent travellers. While we looked out for each other, we didn’t have the same responsibility one does when someone joins your tour. At any point in time, we could have left to do our own thing (like when Ewaut left for a bit, or Clo headed off on the bus) and while we made decisions collectively about things like food and short term destinations, we all had our own longterm routes planned.

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Lucy was also a vegan, so we made the best food together

With Lucy it felt more like we were dragging her along (even though she was having fun), at a speed that was uncomfortable for her. Plus we had more or less decided which way we would travel through Africa, and being a couple who are used to travelling together we were probably quite set in our ways when it came to daily chores and the way we go about our day. I felt increasingly like I was being unfair to Lucy, but not knowing exactly how to change the dynamic. We needed and wanted to get to Zanzibar, having made a commitment months ago to be there. Lucy too, was having second thoughts, not only because of our speed issues, but a variety of different and personal reasons.

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Towards clouds and rain

The last few days into Dar, Lucy went ahead by bus to go and figure out what she wanted to do. We put in big, long days, both of us not really feeling it. In many ways we just wanted to be in Zanzibar, the endless somewhat boring road was wearing on our tired souls. After some discussion we came up with a compromise; Dar and Zanzibar were side trips anyway, so we would ride to the turn off, and take a bus into the city. On our way out in a few weeks, we would take the bus back to the same spot, ensuring a continuous cycling line through Africa. Not that we cared that much, but we did care a little!

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So many shades of green

The bus journey reminded me again why we had been so adamant at avoiding putting our bikes on transport this time around. We were instantly surrounded by men trying to rip us off, our bikes were then questionably secured on the roof (causing us anxiety the whole way) and although a price had been agreed, we then needed to argue about it again (like always). Then finally, the 140km journey took over 5 hours as the bus stopped every few minutes, driven at dangerous speeds in torrential rain.  On the bus I also got an awful phone call from Lucy.  She’d been a victim of a temporary abduction and assault. A guy had scammed her to get her into a taxi and then taken her to an ATM to clear out her account. This had not succeeded as she hadn’t had her cards on her, but they had terrorised and assaulted her when she couldn’t deliver. Eventually they’d let her go, relieving her of only her camera and a few dollars. At that moment speaking to her on the phone in that crowded bus, I hated Tanzania. Both Astrid and I were now desperate to get to Lucy and the endless bus journey was nerve wracking on another level. Of course we’d been mislead as well, and the bus didn’t actually take us into Dar, like they had said. So at 7pm at night we found ourselves still 20km out of the centre, it was dark and the roads were narrow and completely suicidal to ride.

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Drink stop

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We spend a lot of time listening to podcasts

What to do? It was one of those moments where I realised how adept we are at traveling and how things  rarely fazed either of us anymore. We went into a crowded market and I found a rich looking guy in a fancy car and asked him for help (cos I figured correctly he would speak english). Being Africa, he was only to happy to assist (it was a good reminder given Lucy’s current circumstances, that on the whole Africans are incredibly kind). Within a few minutes he’d called a friend who came to get us (at a price, obviously). Soon us and the bikes were crammed into a makeshift taxi, whizzing towards the city.

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“avocado rice” one of our favourites

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Tanzania is hard.

Finally  after more than 6 hours of travel we reached Lucy and gave her a massive hug. She was in remarkably good spirits, given her ordeal. We talked and talked,  ordered room service and drank beers well into the night.

Lucy had already decided that she was going to fly back to Europe from Dar, before the assault. It just wasn’t the right time for her to be traveling in Africa by bicycle. So the next day we helped her pack and organise her things. It felt sad to see her go, she really is a remarkable human. I think this experience with someone less amazing could have really gone badly, given all the hurdles we’d come up against. Even before what happened in Dar, the three of us had managed to negotiate a challenging situation with compassion, open communication and understanding. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that our cycle together hadn’t worked out. And I think it showed a lot of strength and insight for Lucy to make the decision she did to go back to Europe. Not to mention how amazingly calm and philosophically she had dealt with the horrible abduction/assault. She really is an amazing individual. We promised each other that one day we would plan a tour together somewhere in the world.

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Scrabble and beers on our final night together

It was now time to go and meet Doug and Niovi who had just arrived on Zanzibar. For weeks Doug and I had been sending each other screen shots of the weather in Zanzibar as the forecast had been more or less torrential rain. So I was pleased to arrive in Stone Town with blue skies and sunshine. It was the end of the wet season and we’d all been slightly concerned it would still be pouring.

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Riding on the beach, Zanzibar

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Most days were like this..

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Many hours were spent in this pool

We found Doug and Niovi by the pool of their hotel and there was a lot of excited hugging. Niovi had only met us once or twice before when she was really little, but it wasn’t long before we were all playing together in the pool. And this was pretty much how we spent the next two weeks. I’ve never been on holiday with a 4 year old before, but it was awesome. Niovi was so much fun. We played in the pool and the sea, went for walks, played more in the pool, danced, played games, read books and watched amazing sunsets. At night Doug, Astrid and I drank too much vodka and caught up on life. The weather was mainly awesome. After a few days of rain, the skies cleared and we had hot sunshine and blue skies. One night we built a fire on the beach and got pizza delivered (to the beach). Another day we went snorkelling. But mostly we just hung out and played in the pool. It was very relaxing and a lot of fun. Doug had kindly treated us to an amazing villa for a few of the days, which was complete bliss. Zanzibar is an incredibly beautiful island and it was such a treat to just slow right down for a bit.

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So much fun with these two

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Beach walks

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Relaxing

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Beach fire

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Beautiful sunsets

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Hmmmm Vodka?

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More beach walks

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Stone Town walks

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Niovi’s artistic impression of our holiday

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Happiness

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More blue

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Dreamy susets

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Cocktails…

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Boating

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Night sky loveliness

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Pool or sea? Hard choice.

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Our amazing temporary home

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One can never get sick of this view!

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Watching green fairy maintenance (:

Astrid and I were sad to see Doug and Niovi go, but grateful they had come to see us, and for their friendship. We pedalled back to Stone Town and celebrated one year since leaving London. It was now Eid, so Stone Town was full of celebrating families and we enjoyed the night market and energy a lot.

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View over Stone Town

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Stone Town is known for its doors

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More amazing doors

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Stone Town

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amazing architecture

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Exploring the backstreets with Lucas, another cyclist.

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Sunset beers and one year on the road

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Night Market, Stone Town

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Sunset fun, Stone Town.

From Stone town we headed back the the main land via the cheaper night ferry and spent a few days with a Warmshowers host, Elaine and her two lovely kids. We needed some time to re group and prepare for the road ahead, mentally as well as physically. In many ways it felt like we were about half way, from here we would be heading southwest to Malawi and into southern Africa.

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The road awaits

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But first a small break

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And some lunch

By the time we began to pedal again the wet season was well and truly over. It was hot and sunny and fruit was on sale on the side of the road. I actually need to mention the food in Tanzania. While the diet in the local cafe’s remained pretty dull and nutritionally lacking  –  cooked to death beans, ugali and chips, the availability of fresh food was wonderful. Markets were brimming with avocados (about 10p each), tomatoes, bananas, papaya and pineapples. Oh and you could pick up freshly cooked chapati for a couple of pence. Needless to say we lived off avocado and tomato wraps, fresh fruit, and we even began to make avocado chocolate mousse. When we cooked for ourselves we were certainly eating like queens.

From the coast we headed inland and through our first national park where we saw elephants. That was a huge highlight, seeing these humungous creatures chilling under a tree, ears flapping in the afternoon heat. We also saw giraffes and a myriad of different antelope which made us grin from ear to ear. From the national park (Mikumi) we climbed up and into a wondrous valley of baobabs, and then higher up to the fertile plains around Iringa. Here there are many huge farms, and we had the fortune to be invited to stay at one. Our friend had put us in touch with a friends of hers; Mark and Mel and this is where we now headed.

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Mikumi National Park

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Fine for animals

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Elephants!

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The amazing baobab valley

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So magic

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Coffee and tree happiness

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We arrived in the dark and woke up to this

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They look a bit like ancient spirit people..

They were absolutely wonderful people. Mark was one of the managers at the farm and the first thing he did was give us a box of veg to eat. While we had already been eating well, Tanzanian’s (and everywhere else we’d been too) seem to have a habit of all farming and selling the same products. You can be riding along the road and see 10 stalls all selling onions. Or tomatoes. Or avocados. While you can get a lot of things, there isn’t a huge diversity. So to have baby corn, mushrooms, cucumber, broccoli and cauliflower was a massive treat.

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All the vegetables!

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Exploring the farm

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Beer o clock

Our days soon went like this: wake up, copious cups of tea. A hike around the farm. Breakfast. Discussion about what dishes to make. Recipe research. Bread baking. Food prep that went all day, interspersed by cups of tea. Sunset beers on the balcony. Cooking. Amazing dinner. Hanging out together, reading, or finally watching Fleabag. Repeat. Needless to say, it was hard to leave. Mel and Mark are super amazing people and the time with them gave us the normality we didn’t know we’d been craving. It gave us a kind of peace we hadn’t experienced for some time.

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Tea and reading

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Awesome breakfast

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Mark and Mel who looked after us so well

Traveling in Africa, and traveling in general is of course amazing. We are so privileged that we get to do this (and also we’ve made unconventional choices about how we want to live life) but it doesn’t mean that at times we aren’t challenged. Africa especially can be confronting and wearing on the soul. Not only are you the centre of attention in most places, but you are very aware of your own privilege. You can’t hide from it and it’s inadvertently pointed out to you at many opportunities. You are often asked for money and after months, it can feel a little dehumanising. I don’t know exactly why, but Tanzania was a our down point. Having had friends join us, and the sanctuary of Mark and Mel’s had also highlighted some of what had been lacking; community, normality, friendship. In a place where you are understandingly always viewed as ‘the other’ this was something we had deeply and unconsciously missed. Perhaps it was somewhat more intense for Astrid and I; being a same sex couple in a continent that has some of the most violent and ingrained homophobia, is on some level quite exhausting. We’d never felt threatened, but had to constantly police our behaviour and wonder how we would be perceived if people knew.

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I have a pineapple!

We may have left Mark and Mel’s with slightly heavy hearts, but like all things, this too passed. It was interesting how difficult leaving had been; psychologically we’d been dreading going out onto the road but within a few days we were back in the swing of wild camping, buying delicious fruit and veg from the market, laughing with locals and climbing up into the mountains. It seemed that our rest really had cleared our souls as nothing was as hard as we had imagined it would be.

For our final leg of Tanzania we had decided to head high up into the mountains onto the Kitulo plateau. It was some of the best riding we’d done, and certainly the best in Tanzania. For days we climbed, along dirt roads, through smaller and smaller villages until we were finally high above the clouds. We made a point to wild camp right up on the plateau and it was certainly up there with picturesque spots we’d slept in.

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Towards the mountains

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Heading towards Kitulo, some of the most beautiful riding!

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Hard work, but so worth it!

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For roads like this!

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And this

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High above the clouds

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Slightly misty

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A choice spot to camp

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Contemplating the descent

After our brush with the clouds it was a heady descent back to sea level and the Malawian border. Unfortunately, Tanzania wasn’t quite done with us. The day we were to pedal the last leg to the border, I was struck down (again) with some god awful stomach issue involving endless fevers and diarrhoea. Luckily we had antibiotics and while I lay around waiting for them to work and feeling miserable, Astrid brought me food and drinks and was generally awesome. After two full days of living in a rather dim and depressing cheap hotel, I had recovered and it was finally time to bid Tanzania farewell.

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Finally leaving the hotel!

We wooshed passed beautiful tea plantations down towards Lake Malawi and Southern Africa, excited and thrilled about what lay ahead.

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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.