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

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.