Many beers through Ethiopia

 

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Our route south

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

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Snack break

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Early mornings are best

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It is such a beautiful country

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

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Pedalling through a village

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View as we climbed

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Reminds me of home

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The road upwards

 

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Beers at the top

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Selfies on the descent

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Reminds me of Scotland!

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Cyclist’s in the mist

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Where we slept when the room was too gross

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Breakfast stop

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Beers outside the friendly hotel

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Avoiding injera

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Festy bed on which tent was pitched

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

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Hipster coffee happiness

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View of Addis from our hotel

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Gelato happiness

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

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Craig, the bearer of many gifts

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

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Cooking happiness

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The couscous mater chef

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Getting into the couscous

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Ewaut’s amazing couscous

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Wine on the balcony with Clo, Dimitri and Craig

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

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

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Outside of favourite cafe before leaving Addis

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Ethiopian church, Addis Ababa

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

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On the road doom south

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Virgin power, virgin pride!

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

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Everyone is curious about the weird foreigners on bikes

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Craig, ever patient, chatting to a child

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

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Outside a hotel

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

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

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Ethiopian coffee is awesome.

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Buying papaya

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A typical town

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All the bread ever

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Craig prepares a ‘traveller’

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Party in our hotel room

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Crowded

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

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Beer time. Again.

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Camping in an empty room of a full hotel.

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Coffee and beer coping strategy

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One and only broken spoke

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Warning: break dancing ahead

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Bin donkey

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Preparing dinner outside a hotel room

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Deep fried snacks

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Creepy statue outside a hotel

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

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

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

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The ‘Bar’ aka someones house (:

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whooo hooo beer time!

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

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

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Beer coping strategy

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

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Going to miss Clo

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

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South bound

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A much more peaceful Ethiopia

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

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A rare wild camp in Ethiopia

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

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We are nearly done! Last day breakfast in Ethiopia

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We can see Kenya!

Kenya, I am so ready for you.

 

 

 

 

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

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One of the many beautiful roads we cycled in Ethiopia.

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

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

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

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Our first plates of injera – the local staple.

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Excited to have our first cold beer since Egypt.

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Drawing a friendly and curious crowd.

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Our cycle escort out of town.

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

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Enjoying a coffee break.

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Appreciating cold beer.

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Relaxing of an evening in Humera.

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One of the many tasty meals we ate while resting.

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

 

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Enchanted by the boababs.

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A typical farmhouse with goats.

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The housing changed as different building materials became available.

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Brightly coloured churches are everywhere in Ethiopia.

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Enjoying the hills.

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Many modes of transport.

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Dropping down into another valley.

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Typical streetscape.

 

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

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

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Martin was great with the kids.

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Whatever we did would draw a crowd.

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

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There was always a farewell group of watchers.

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

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Wild camping.

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Sunset over our camp.

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

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

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Our camp at the monastery – also draws a crowd.

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Our guard for the evening – photo courtesy of Martin.

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

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

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Main street of Aksum.

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Riding through town.

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The stelae of the ancient Aksumite kingdom.

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The waters.

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Feeling good enough to have a beer – kind of.

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Exploring Aksum by bicycle.

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

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Sunset over Aksum.

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

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

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

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

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Sharing beers with the local teachers.

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Exchanging hats.

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

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Looking back.

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Jude making her way up and up.

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First light hits the mountains.

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Further along looking down another valley.

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

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Catching up with Ewaut at the side of the road.

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The most exciting meal I had eaten in months 🙂

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The habibis partially reunited.

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Inner entry to Wukir Meskele Kirstos.

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The priest next to one of the colourful pillars.

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The painted pillars.

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

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

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Our bikes are already drawing a crowd in Asketama village.

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Jude thanking the police officers for getting our things back.

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

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

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

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

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Abebe’s house where we spent a relaxing weekend.

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Jude and Abebe at his favourite breakfast cafe.

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

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

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The incredible churches of Lalibela.

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

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First beers with the guys in Weldiya.

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The crew of 6 getting ready to go.

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

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

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Cycling together is fun.

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Time for lunch and beers.

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Clo and Craig.

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Ewaut and Jude.

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Another rest break.

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Coffee and doughnuts.

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Got to love fresh papaya.

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

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

 

Crossing the Sahara

Wadi Halfa to Lug Di

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

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Finally getting off at  Wadi Halfa

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Pleased to be here

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I decided to take a short cut

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Lots of stuff coming from Egypt

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

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Night time food, Wadi Halfa

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

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

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

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

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Leaving Wadi Halfa

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Happiness headstand

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Drink break

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

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Typical water pots

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

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Fuul cooking

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More water pots

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Really feeling the Sahara vibes

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A typical meal in Sudan

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Such beautiful landscape

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I wish! Sudan is dry, sadly.

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A magical time of day to be on the bikes

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Looking ahead for camping opportunities

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Definitely prime wild camps

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Campfire happiness

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Another super camp

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

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Pedalling through Wawa

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Walking passed the fava fields

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

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Boating across the Nile

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First glimpse of Soleb

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

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Taking a break on a rock

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

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The Nile

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Happiness is a free dinner!

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

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

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Desert fashion

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Finding a small amount of shade for lunch

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Something is dangerous!

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Camels chilling

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

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Riding in formation to help with the crazy cross/headwind

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Tough going out here

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Riding into the wind

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Love it. Nothing out here.

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Astrid and the salmon

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I love these buildings.

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

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

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Headstand happiness at Karima

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Astrid and the pyramids

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Pyramid posing

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

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

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Testing Ewaut’s super porridge

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Ewaut and  I were delighted to find this!

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Desert picnic

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Washing wherever we can!

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The kettle is always on in Sudan.

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Astrid creates a lot of interest writing in her journal

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Curious boys in a tea house

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Fuul. Again.

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Ewaut has the best sense of style

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Resting

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Typical desert shelter

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Dust storm

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Wind break out of bikes and panniers

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

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tea on the street, Khartoum

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Khartoum at night

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Washing our bikes at the Blue Nile Yacht Club

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

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Tuti Island

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

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Bike gang – the habibi’s plus Craig and Clo

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Riding around Khartoum

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

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Heading out of Khartoum

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

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

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

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Nile at sunset, we had a quick dip!

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Last camp by the Nile

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

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

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

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Martin and Ewaut’s transport

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

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Donkeys sheltering from the heat

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On the ferry

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

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Last wild camp in Sudan

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

Thank you.

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The illegal photo of the full moon rising.

Albanian Impressions

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

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Cars on the roof, why not?

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

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These bunkers dot the landscape, built by the former dictator

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Another abandoned something

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Enjoying the wide shoulder

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Lady birds painted on a building, why not?

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

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Excited to find this vegan burek type thing

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

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second breakfast

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off road to look for camping..

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

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Turkey’s!

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

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left over second lunch

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tea time

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

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On the illegal motorway..

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

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Camping in a vineyard

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By the river

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heading up towards the border

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A different Albania

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Leaving the lowland behind

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Border post

Thirty six hours through Montenegro

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Signs are there to be climbed!

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

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Happy to be back in Montenegro

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Overlooking a dam on our way into Niksic

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

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Petar showing us the way

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

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The amazing road

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So fun and so beautiful

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

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A church at the monastary

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At the Monastary

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

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The high monastary, built into the rock

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Impressive!

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Exploring by night

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Outside the monastery where we slept

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

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The road down

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more beautiful road..

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On the road to Podgarica

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Podgarica

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Outside the church Petar showed us in Podgarica

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Church and bike posing..

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Inside the church

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

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Looking towards Albania..

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Towards the border

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Lovely in the late afternoon!

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

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Thanks for everything!

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A pedal through the changing cultural landscape of Bosnia Herzegovina

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

 

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

 

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

 

Later, while eating lunch by a Church, we spoke about our first impressions of this new and complicated country. Firstly, there are many taps, which we loved. Water being freely available is a cycle tourist’s dream. Next, the Serbian nationalism in this area was potent. Almost every village had a Serbian flag. Many houses were literally painted in Serbian colours. I mean, nationalism and flags always make me a little uncomfortable at the best of times, let alone in the context of the recent history. Then there were the deserted villages and obvious shrapnel damage to the houses…what happened there? One shudders to think. We passed a Muslim graveyard too, a whole field of white pillars, eerie and silent in the damp afternoon. There were a few mosques as well, nestled amongst some of the villages we cycled by. How must it feel to be a Muslim in this part of Bosnia Herzegovina now?

 

The autumn afternoons were becoming shorter and not long after we began a gentle but steady climb, the light began to fade. In the last few days the weather had certainly changed; the Indian summer felt over. It was already mid October and the fact that it was only now getting cold was such a blessing. Finding a place to camp had an added difficulty here in Bosnia as there are still landmines from the war. From what I hear no one has been maimed or killed in quite a while (and the areas where they are appear to be signposted) but we were still wary of going off piste too much. We found an old mountain road, which definitely looked like it had been in use after the 90’s and pitched up on it, next to a creek. Over dinner I looked at the map on my phone; we had 96km to go to reach Sarajevo, including two big climbs. Our plan had been to reach it in two days, but with the drizzly, cold weather, another night in the mountains didn’t massively appeal.

 

The next day was Sunday and therefore pancake day, a tradition we had started in Iceland. Astrid has perfected the art of the vegan pancake over the last few months and it’s always lovely to have a break from our usual muesli with water and banana. Over pancakes and coffee we discussed the possibility of making it to Sarajevo. It’s always a bit exciting setting a challenge like this. Especially if there is a warm bed and a cold beer at the end of it.

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chopping banana for the pancakes..

We climbed all morning, a steady but constant gradient winding ever upwards into the Bosnian mountains. There was little traffic. We passed a few villages but mostly it was forest. Occasionally there was drizzle but the worst of the rain held off. It was cold and we both wore full waterproofs. Hard to imagine a week ago we were in t shirts in the sun. At the top of the first and hardest climb was a restaurant and we gratefully scrambled inside to get out of the cold and have something to eat. I looked at the kilometres. We still had 80km to go and it was 1.30pm. To hell with it: I emailed our host in Sarajevo (who owns a hostel) and told her we would probably be showing up later that day.

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checking the kilometres..

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A village in the mountains

A cold descent followed, through forest and then across windswept alpine meadows. I pedalled hard, trying to keep up with Astrid. After an hour we stopped and checked our map – we had done just under 30km. We could do this. I was starting to really enjoy the challenge, as was Astrid.

 

We stopped once more to stuff Burek into our faces and then climbed hard out of the valley. As we neared Sarajevo the traffic got heavier. I got surprised by a huge descent and found myself braking because the cars were going too slow. We flew off the mountain, through beautiful gorges and into another valley. It was cold and beginning to head towards dark. We put on more layers and braced ourselves for the traffic and the icy wind.

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Downwards..

At a petrol station we pulled up with 12km to go and the weather coming in. We needed a break though. It is sometimes these last few kilometres that can be your undoing. So we had a hot drink and ate a pack of crisps. Then we attached our lights and once again joined the traffic. It got a bit scary then, it was dark and busy and we needed to ride through quite a few tunnels. Riding close together we kept our nerves and our lives, and were soon in the city, amongst trams and traffic lights and people. One final insane climb and we reached our goal; The Doctors House Hostel, owned by the wonderful Cat who is also a Warmshowers Host. Cat wasn’t in but we were greeted by Riccardo who was not only doing a workaway there but also happened to have just cycled east Africa on a bamboo bike. Life.

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Cat’s wonderful hostel

We quickly settled down for an evening of beer and bike chat. It felt wonderful to have succeeded in our cycling challenge. My body ached in all the right places and I felt tired but elated. We now had several days off the bikes and one of our friend’s was arriving the next day.

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View over Sarajevo

Sarajevo. What a city. I visited 2 years ago with Misch (one of my oldest and closest friends), and ever since then I’d been keen to show it to Astrid. To me it feels like one of the most interesting places in Europe; the strong Ottoman influence meeting the distinctly European one, the beautiful architecture, the surrounding mountains, and of course it’s place very much in the centre of 20th century European history. The city of today dates back to the 15th century and the Ottoman occupation. When that empire began to crumble and lose its grip, it was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During this occupation the city was industrialised and rapidly developed (it had the first tram in Europe). While the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo was the catalyst for WW1, it was certainly not the cause. Europe at that time was increasingly unsettled, with the major players all vying for power and new territories (not to mention colonies). After being part of the two Yugoslavia’s, (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) when Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence, Sarajevo was subjected to the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. So definitely a place that has a varied and complicated history!

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Fuelled by falafel and a long sleep we packed up our bikes the following afternoon and headed the short way to meet Doug, who had kindly rented an apartment for us to stay in while we were all in Sarajevo together. After a lot of excited hugging and a cup of tea, the three of us headed off to explore the city. It was fun just to wander around the old bazaar, exploring narrow lanes, popping into tiny bars and marvelling at the architecture. The sounds, sights, smells, made me feel like I wasn’t in Europe at all. Then, walk a few hundred metres and we were surrounded by huge impressive buildings from the Austro-Hungarian period, complete with wide streets and trams.

 

 

Over the next few days we explored the old bazaar, watched the sunset from high above the city, visited the very disturbing museum of war crimes and genocide, went dancing at Kino Bosniak (highly recommend Monday nights!), had a fight with a stick (stick 1, Jude 0 – Astrid and Doug had to patch up my face), drank probably too much raki, went to an amazing vegan restaurant and had many chats late into the night. It is always so wonderful when friends visit and we both thoroughly enjoyed Doug’s company. All too soon it was time to bid Doug farewell, however with the hope we may see him again in a few weeks for Astrid’s birthday.

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Raki time!

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Patched up face..

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At Kino Bosniak

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cake!

After a day recovering from late nights and Raki at Cat’s hostel, it was once again time for Astrid and I to hit the road south. We had a two day pedal to Mostar in front of us and had read on the internet that the road wasn’t particularly nice for cyclists. I must say I was pleasantly surprised; the road wasn’t too busy and the end of the day brought one of the most stunning descents of the trip (unfortunately not many photos exist of this descent!). Our warmshowers host Orhan in Konjic would not hear of us camping, but instead gave us a room in his lovely hostel for the night. Konjic seemed like a great town to explore, but by now Greece was calling. In just a few short weeks 15 friends are meeting us for Astrid’s 40th. It would be rude for us not to be there.

 

 

We followed the Neretva River through narrow canyons, which included 8 tunnels (luckily not scary death tunnels). The last part of the day we were blasted by a ferocious headwind, which was exacerbated by being in a narrow valley. The riding was hard and we took it in turns to act as a wind break, the kilometres slowly ticking by. Our next host had a permaculture plot just outside of Mostar. Our kind of place. We had intended to stop there for a day and maybe help with some of the construction, or the garden. Sometimes things don’t go to plan though. The wind brought a huge storm which more or less raged for two nights and a whole day. Instead of gardening we pitched our tent inside Bambi’s greenhouse and spent a day drinking tea, eating, cuddling kittens and playing board games with another cycle tourist, Goren, and Dafni and Shilo, a couple walking through Europe, looking for some land to buy in order to start their own permaculture farm. I love how random the road can be and we definitely thoroughly enjoyed our time living in a greenhouse.

 

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Pomegranates!

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Happiness is a kitten and making pancakes

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Pancakes!

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The “little cat”.

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Had a great time with these folks!

Mostar also has a history of siege and division. During the war, the city was initially besieged by the Serb dominated Yugoslav People’s Army, and later by the Bosnian Croats from the surrounding mountains and buildings. I’ve seen footage of soldiers and civilians running across the medieval bridge (before it collapsed) under fire. It was strange to walk across it now in the cool evening air with only tourists around taking selfies. The old part of Mostar is magical but to me not quite as magical as Sarajevo. It is beautiful though; all Ottoman architecture, cobble stones and hidden bridges.

 

In Mostar we really began feeling that mental fatigue that creeps up on you unexpectedly. We had planned one night in a hostel after our time in the greenhouse and then a steady pedal over the mountains to Kosovo. For a few days we’d talked about maybe changing our route as time was running away from us, but had decided, no, we would head to the mountains. The morning we were to leave I felt so incredibly morose. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then Astrid turned around and said; “why don’t we just stay here today and ride through Montenegro and Albania instead? And spend your birthday at Lake Ohrid?” As soon as she said it I felt such relief. It’s funny, sometimes until someone verbalises something, you don’t know that it’s exactly the thing you need.

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Sniper Tower

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heading up to the roof

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Art in sniper tower

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Sniper tower was supposed to be a bank..

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On the roof

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Sunset beer

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View over Mostar

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More view

So we rested up in Mostar (attending to life admin which we’d very much neglected) before hitting the road south refreshed. Only we didn’t get far. It began to rain, then it began to pour. By 2pm after having explored Blagaj and the Dervish house, we were both soaked and freezing. There was no sign of the rain stopping. If we’d been somewhere like Iceland, where basic accommodation was often close to 100 euros, we would have had to suck it up. Here in the Balkans, we could pay much less than that for a warm apartment with a kitchen, fast wifi and a hot shower. So we did that and ate delicious curry and watched a BBC program. I just realised how British that sentence sounded..

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Dervish house in Blagaj

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The swollen river

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Last time i was here I ate where the water is now!

The rain stopped. We now had a couple of day’s cycle on a rail trail. Probably one of the last things I expected to find in Bosnia Herzegovina was a rail trail. But thanks to an EU project, an old rail line had been converted into a bike path. It’s amazing and we would highly recommend it (especially the unpaved part). The trail winds it’s way through rural Bosnia Herzegovina, passed tiny villages (with no bakeries!), along the Neretva river and then high up alongside the mountains, through hand cut tunnels. The engineering of this rail line was amazing. The cultural landscape had shifted again as we headed south of Mostar. Now instead of the Bosnian flag and mosques we were seeing catholic churches and Croatian flags. Croatia and the former front line was just over the hill. We rode passed signs warning against landmines.

 

You can actually ride all the way to Dubrovnik on the rail trail, although we turned off early, having already explored Dubrovnik on our way to London. We pedalled through what felt like ghost towns, with ruined buildings and hardly an occupied house. The rail line from the Austro Hungarian era closed in 1975 after the abolition of narrow gauge railway, but it was the war in the 1990’s that really laid waste to the area. This project to bring tourists back into the area is brilliant as cyclists, just by the nature of the way that they travel tend to spend local. I hope it will bring many cyclists to explore and revitalise this beautiful part of Bosnia Herzegovina.

 

On our last day we shopped at the local market in order to try and spend the last of our Bosnian marks, ate a huge amount of Burek, decided to cycle via the Croatian Coast (we were enjoying the warmer weather), rode 500m and then changed our minds and headed for the mountains and Montenegro instead. Just another typical day on the road south.

 

A Danish Summer Holiday

 

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Back to summer!

As hoped we rode off the ferry and back into the long awaited summer. Heat, wind and sun hit our faces and layers were quickly removed. Having grown up in a place with long, hot summers and recently lived in a place where summer lasts for about 2 weeks (this year being an exception obviously) I don’t think I realised quite how much I would miss the warmth and sunlight until our cold and rather dreary (weather wise) 5 weeks in Iceland. I don’t want to take away from Iceland. It is a magical place and I am so happy we went it’s just that the worst summer in 100 years put an ever so slight dampener (pun intended) on our experience.

Our first stop was the supermarket where we bought all the things we hadn’t been able to afford in Iceland. Like hummus, fresh fruit and good bread. We gorged ourselves and then headed for the northern point of Denmark, Skagen. Here the North Sea and the Baltic meet and it was a popular place for impressionist painters in the late 19th century due to it’s unique light. We were mainly going because Carsten had told us we must. And Hannah’s parents had so kindly lent us their house (they were on holiday) so it seemed the perfect place to relax and re group after Iceland.

Arriving in Skagen after a swim in the sea and a day of sunshine our spirits were high. Having an entire house after 7 weeks in the tent was also complete luxury. I am deeply grateful for the kindness we so often receive. We relished the chance to drink wine in the garden, bake focaccia, do yoga, meditate, wash our clothes and relax. During the day we visited the seaside, ate sorbet, walked around the town (a popular tourist destination) and watched the sunset (where everyone claps when the sun finally sinks below the horizon). It definitely felt like a summer holiday.

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Sorbet!

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Craft beers in the park

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Breakfast in the garden

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Beautiful sunsets

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Watermelon anyone? All our clothes are being washed!

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we can afford to eat salad again!

After a few days it was time to tear ourselves away from the luxury and head south. It was hard to leave but we were excited to see Hannah and Carsten in Aarhus and meet up with Bec who was coming to join us. The three days it took us to cycle down to Aarhus opened us up to a few surprising things. Firstly we found loads of fruit on the side of the road apparently going to waste, so we picked it. Next we found an entire dumpster full of artisan bread outside a supermarket, we also helped ourselves to that. Then, on an afternoon swim we found mussels and after some discussion we helped ourselves to a few of those too. Mussels are one of those borderline things where due to a lack of central nervous syst