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.

 

 

 

 

Egypt, and the beginning of Africa

From Cairo to Aswan along the Nile Valley

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The iconic image of Egypt

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

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Pyramid dorks

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

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Cairo Metro

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On the hunt for Koshari

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Success!

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Delicious bread

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Cairo at night

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Exploring the old parts of Cairo

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Beautiful Mosque and moon

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

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Cairo Museum

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More night time exploring

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Loving the chaotic streets

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Smoggy Cairo streets

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Of course there is a giant shopping trolley!

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Catching a local mini bus

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Cairo

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

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

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Tea and waiting for the bus to Dahab

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Dahab sheep

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Dahab toilets!

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Our home in Dahab

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

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Dahab. Such bliss.

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An amazing mix of beach and desert

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Morning swim

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Sunset looking out towards Saudi

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

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Relaxing by the beach after snorkling

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Another perfect sunset

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Dahab goats

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More goat

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View from the rooftop of the house we were staying in

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Dog love

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Diving happiness

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

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Looking out of the mountains around Saint Catherine

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Donkey!

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Sweeping views across Sinai

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Walking up into the mountains

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Around Saint Catherine

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The Monastary

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Monastary

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Sunset

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More awesome views

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

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So much beauty

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

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“Lining up” at the embassy of Sudan

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Random cyclist meeting at the Sudanese embassy

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

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Saying goodbye to Mohammed and Cairo

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Sweet potato seller

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Bread on the road out of Cairo

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

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Pedalling out of Cairo

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We start to get a lot of attention

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Everyone comes to check out the crazy foreigners on bikes

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

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Riding along the canal

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Sunset

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Meidun pyramid

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Wild camp win

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

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Beautiful misty sunrise

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Riding towards the pyramid

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Mist over the canal

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canal sunrise

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Meidun

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

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This lady was so kind and gave us free breakfast

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

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Our constant shadow for the next two weeks or so

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Chocolate Haliwa while waiting for our next escort

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

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

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Our ballroom/bedroom

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Outside the ballroom

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

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The Nile!

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On the agricultural road

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

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

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Probably arguing with the police about what road to take

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Often the cycling was quite pleasant in the small roads.

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Donkey traffic is better than car traffic!

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Smooth tarmac

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Typical road side chay stop

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

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Donkey traffic

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Curiosity wherever we go

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

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Such a lovely time of day to be on the bikes

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Normal traffic in Egyptian roads

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Always searching for the small roads

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

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Typical breakfast place for us

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Tea and breakfast

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More chay and snacks

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And more

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Delicious Tamia sandwich was a favourite

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Loved these sandwiches

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Koshari, our standard dinner.

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

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

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

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We are a curiosity wherever we go

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

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The temple at Abydos. Probably my favourite.

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First beers in a long time post temple fun!

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Chay with the people from the hotel

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Hazy view of the Nile valley at dawn

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

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Made it to Luxor!

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Beers on the Nile

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Luxor market

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Valley of the Kings

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Valley of the Kings

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

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Amazing remnants of ancient world are everywhere around Luxor

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Valley of the Kings (again)

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Riding into the valley of the Kings 

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

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The amazing Karnak temple, Luxor

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Admiring the huge columns

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Such a massive scale

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So amazing some of the colours have lasted

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

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

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Resting on the side of the road

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Checking out the inside of an Egyptian ambulance

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The paramedic’s and their friends

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Relaxing at the ambulance station

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

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Looking for the perfect spot

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

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An early finish means time for bike maintenence

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We even built a fire

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Filtering water

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Sunset from our camp spot on the Nile

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

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Moon behind our camp spot

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A beautiful morning’s cycle

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In the Nile, about to start our trash collection

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

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The landscape is changing…

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Feeling closer to the Sahara..

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cycling fashion icon

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Love these mud buildings

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

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Beer on the Nile

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All the flip flops

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All the dates

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Relaxing at Yeha’s

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

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Exited sunset beers, Aswan.

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Sunset, Aswan.

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The idyllic Nile and Felucca boats

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Ewaut practicing for when he builds his boat

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Astrid sailing the Felucca 

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Relaxing on the Nile

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

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

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Heading to the ferry that will take us to Sudan

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All the tuk tuk’s

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Settling in for the journey

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Relaxing on deck

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

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Tea on the ferry

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

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Goodbye Egypt