Africa’s crossroads

International border crossings have become standard practice for us now and generally pass without incident or effort. It was with this complacency that we floated across the Zambezi River – on a platform of questionable buoyancy – toward an area of the world that can probably be considered as expert-level border crossing. Standing in Botswana, with Zimbabwe to our left, Namibia to our right and Zambia directly behind us, the passport stamps were flowing thick and fast and the currency touts seemed to pounce whenever we paused to get our bearings. This situation ultimately saw us entering three countries within sixty minutes; the final of which involved a short boat ride to what turned out to be the surprise package of Impalila Island, located at the very eastern tip of Namibia. In a much anticipated visit, Fran’s parents had kindly made the trip from South Africa to introduce us to this area, which would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Crossing into Botswana.

Finding our way.

Our days of rest on this trip are generally spent fixing things, washing things or tending to admin and usually leave very little time for much else. Thankfully while at Impalila this was not at all the case. In addition to the invaluable catch-up with family news, trying (in vain) to summarise the last nine months of our lives, and enjoying the abundant wildlife, we also indulged in the activity for which the area is famed: Tiger fishing (although our party of four certainly experienced varying degrees of success in this regard). Riding through Southern Africa it is easy to see that one is spoilt for choice in this region when it comes to national parks and areas of natural beauty in which to allocate your time, but overlooking the serene setting of Impalila Island would have been an error.

Elephant spotting:easy

A tranquil morning, but limited success for the women.

An Impalila Island highlight: a pretty substantial 2,000 year-old Baobab tree.

The planned route after leaving the Island was through Chobe National Park (in Botswana) towards the Namibian border. However, upon reaching the park gate it became apparent that this was not a road commonly taken by cyclists. Despite our protests and pleads to ride through, when the opposing argument included that ‘many lions and other animals, make it not safe for you’, our stance became somewhat weakened as we slowly retreated to Plan B. This unfortunately involved our first major backtrack of the trip – to Zambia – which in turn, meant floating once more across the Zambezi.

Sunset over Chobe National Park.

Back to Zambia.

Finally, in some bicycle news, one of our rides has unfortunately been operating as little more than a single-speed for the last 500km. And not a single-speed in the cool hipster sense of the word, rather more in the exhausting, heart-attack-inducing sense. As such, the bike shop which apparently waits only a few hundred kilometres away cannot arrive soon enough.

The Routine

This footage was taken some months ago in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, between the Nile River and the Red Sea. It will hopefully give some insight into our daily routine over the last few months.

 

 

The two Queens

Queen Victoria did a pretty solid job at securing a legacy for herself, what with all those lakes, stations, mountains, cities and concert halls named in her honour. She must have been particularly pleased with herself though, the day she found out that she had also bagged naming rights on the waterfalls. Victoria Falls lies on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe and – although there are probably a few Canadians that might disagree – it would be hard to imagine a more awesome way in which water could possibly fall. For our entire journey through Zambia, despite encountering overwhelmingly pleasant and helpful people along the way, we couldn’t help but feel that this was a country lacking a main event. The Falls well and truly filled this gap, and it’s easy to see why Dr. Livingstone would have got so excited by the whole ordeal.

The highlight.

Looking ridiculous is a prerequisite for visiting Victoria Falls.

However, this Natural Wonder of the World was somehow easily upstaged by the company with whom we enjoyed it. One of the drawbacks of this trip for us has been the long absence of family and friends, particularly during some of the more trying times.  Because of this, our arrival at the Falls was counted down toward like a child does so before Christmas, and for a very good reason, as we were spending the weekend with the closest of close friends – the only disappointment of the whole affair being that we couldn’t carry her away with us in a pannier when we parted company. Throw in some outrageous hospitality from a fabulous woman who appeared to be living in Mick Jagger’s house, and what resulted was a weekend that removed us from our usual routine to provide a brief reminder of normality, in a setting that was anything but.

Someone very special turned up. And then we all cried.

Mick’s house on the banks of the Zambezi.

It’s all so fabulous.

 

Stormy outlook

Something we had been particularly boastful of until recently was that during the first seven months of this trip we had experienced only seven days of rain. However, it seems that the rainy season of central Africa is so called for a very good reason. As a result, our otherwise uneventful kilometres through Zambia have been spent mainly guessing when we’re going to get wet and exactly how wet that might be – it is a game as unpleasant as it sounds and doesn’t seem to improve with frequency.

There’s been quite a lot of this.

For the avoidance of doubt, that’s a massive storm cloud behind.

In addition to some menacing storm clouds, Zambia has also provided us a fairly diverse range of people to share some time with. We have been hosted by Moses, a local padre who is part-way through building his extended family home. We have shared breakfast with the committed owners of Shiwa Ng’andu (or Africa House) who are working to maintain their family legacy in Zambia which dates back two generations to a quite remarkable grandfather – Stewart Gore-Brown – who, among other things, was a key player in the independence movement of this country. We have stayed at some charming (and some not so charming) guesthouses, mixed for an evening with former Zimbabwean – now Zambian – farmers, and even been housed for a night by a foreign missionary and seven of their ten children. We’ve seen a reasonable cross-section of what makes this country tick and one recurring topic of conversation has been the issues that have blighted progress here over the last century, and more crucially, what lies ahead for the country (and for the entire continent).

Moses and family.

Incredibly, only 70% of available offspring shown.

The impressive Shiwa Ng’andu.

Where some have absolute optimism that this is indeed Africa’s decade and the tide is turning after what has been a troubled fifty years, others see a much bleaker side and give a rather depressing outlook.  An interesting fact which gave us some context to the debate though, was that upon independence in 1964 the new president of Zambia inherited a country of less than 100 university graduates, less than 1,000 high school graduates, and a national debt in the tens-of-millions of dollars, handed down by those gracious British colonialists.  That is to say, although the laughable levels of corruption, the rigged elections and the former (and some current) reprehensible leaders make for easy targets in this part of the world, it seems clear that it wasn’t exactly a level playing field to start with. The more we see of this continent, the more outrageously complex the problems (and the conversations) become, but given the hand that many of these countries were dealt in the twentieth century, there has to be at least some recognition of the progress that has been made since then. Particularly in light of what we have witnessed in Zambia.

As for the future, perhaps Bono can help.

Enjoying the dry times.

Contemplating Africa through the medium of a bag of crisps.

 

The untold stories

It has been brought to our attention that this blog is perhaps presenting a fairly rose-tinted view of our last eight months. Therefore, in the interest of unbiased reporting and to show what lies behind the smiles and the sunsets, we have compiled a series of photos which should illustrate the somewhat less glamorous side of cycling from China to Africa.

Back to basics: bread, water and bikes have been our staples.

Not usually a fussy drinker, but the homemade Tajikistan brew was not to our liking.

The floor is often preferable to the bed.

With a limited wardrobe, all fashion sense was discarded early on.

The reason communism failed: an ex-soviet en suite bathroom.

Uzbekistan was hot! Taking a post-lunch nap under a bus shelter.

There is simply no greater (nor more widely available) refreshment.

Bike rebuild in Istanbul.

Language barriers occasionally require a more hands-on approach.

You know that storage room behind a hotel reception…. our first night in Egypt.

Finding a pesky thorn.

Another unsatisfactory breakfast.

Fire up the bedroom stove, again.

Beans for lunch and beans for dinner. Hope you like beans if you’re heading to Sudan.

Who would have ever thought that camping in a thorn field would result in multiple punctures?

Low key birthday celebrations this year.

‘Hotel’ rooms: there have been some heart-sinking moments.

Pursuit of cash in Africa has been a challenge: queuing for another empty ATM.

A familiar sight on rest/laundry day.

The washing Wife.

Don’t drop the soap… loo and shower combo.

The simple life: our luggage for the year.

 

The Rocky Road to Dodoma

An invisible boundary seems to exist in Tanzania, separating the gin-and-tonic-drinking, land-cruising safari goers of the north, and the far more rugged, relatively untouched centre of the country. Both areas have their merits, but one is certainly far less appropriate for travel by bicycle.

Colourful Tanzania.

The central ‘highway’.

In a quite significant route selection error on our part, we found ourselves day-upon-day battling sand and gravel tracks, as our futile search for the new tarmac road through central Tanzania rattled our bikes to within an inch of submission (sand incidentally, being second only to ice as the surface you’d want to avoid on a bike). The days were long and slow going, and one even delivered our slowest average speed for the trip; a truly pedestrian (yet exhausting) 10.8 km/hr, beating our previous low set in the winds of Kazakhstan – a record we were certain would never fall.  However, once we’d stopped feeling too sorry for ourselves, it became apparent that we were in fact riding through a pretty authentic slice of this continent; with its friendly locals, enormous baobab trees and red dusty roads cutting through the lush rolling green hills. If we could have conjured up an image of what cycling down Africa might be like before embarking on this trip, then this was it. What a joy.

Both parties equally entertained.

The Africa we had imagined.

Negotiating a camp spot with the locals….

…successfully.

Fellow rider.

All that being said though, given that the final 50 km into the commercial centre of Dodoma was a corrugated and rocky cycling nightmare, we were very pleased to once again see tarmac, before a much needed rest day.

Gently does it…

Africa has provided a mainly carbohydrate diet.

Waiting for Tanzania’s signature dish: the chip omelette.

 

The Ngorongoro Crater

Given the nature of this trip, our primary objective on any given day is to keep our wheels turning and (crucially) pointing in the right direction, so as a general rule of thumb we seldom deviate more than 10km from our route for any sight or attraction. However, on account of our first wedding anniversary we made an exception to this rule, for what turned out to be a pretty exceptional place.

The Ngorongoro Crater provides a focal point of the Tanzanian highlands and was formed from the collapse of a gigantic volcano, leaving behind the expansive caldera which exists today; and so it already confidently ticks the boxes of unique and impressive place on earth. The fact it is now teeming with African wildlife, who share the nutrient-rich crater floor with Maasai tribes protecting their grazing herds, makes for an environment we’re unlikely to experience again anytime soon. This quite unbelievable setting, coupled with lodging and service from & Beyond – at a standard which was difficult to imagine could have in any way been bettered – made for ample justification of the New Year detour.

Sunrise over the Crater.

Early morning game drive.

Beats our usual breakfast offering of oats and instant coffee.

Fran looking for the Crater…. it’s over there Dear.

 

Good places and good people

The ride from Nairobi in southern Kenya, to Arusha in northern Tanzania was a cracker. The roads were quiet, the scenery spectacular and the people of the Maasai tribe who populate the region made for a very unique and colourful sight along the way. Even the border crossing was a breeze (and actually quite enjoyable), as we had our first taste of the laid back and friendly Tanzanian style. Africa was delivering a splendid end to 2014.

A passing Maasai.

Getting rid of the final Kenyan Shillings.

Not the grandest entrance, but certainly one of the easiest for us.

Mount Meru obscured by afternoon clouds.

Once into Arusha (the first major town in Tanzania), we fell into the flawless hospitality of Claire and Niall, who were kind enough to host us for a few days under the impressive shadow of Mount Meru.  What’s more, we were also able to share New Year with some of their friends, which was a situation far preferable to our Plan B: seeing in 2015 from a roadside camping spot. The group were interested to hear of our journey to Tanzania and in a collective act of generosity, decided that a New Years Eve poker game was in order, with the winning pot to be donated to Bicycles for Humanity (B4H).

B4H is a voluntary, not-for-profit organisation providing second-hand bicycles to developing countries, from donations made around the world. There will be more on B4H as we make our way down Africa, but for now, if you wish to find out more about this organisation or follow the lead set by Tanzania’s finest, then feel free to click on the donate tab at this website: http://www.bicyclesforhumanity.com

B4H

Kathmandu can

For a reason that will forever remain uncertain (but yet fiercely contested), we managed to lose our tent poles somewhere in northern Ethiopia. Since then, we have been without our trusty and ever-dependable Kathmandu tent; a situation which was going to make our onward journey down Africa somewhat trickier.

However, thanks to the thoroughly good folks at Kathmandu in Australia, a replacement set was couriered to us in Nairobi as part of a very well-timed Christmas gift, and so we once again have a shelter.

Thank you Kathmandu, for a level of customer service that we didn’t know even existed.

Check them out: www.kathmandu.com.au

Corporate good.

 

Kenyan Driving Lessons

Our entry into Kenya was through the post-apocalyptic border town of Moyale, which provided nothing more than a list of compelling reasons to depart as swiftly as possible. Since beginning this trip we had debated the feasibility of the notorious northern Kenya stretch, as it presented perhaps the most pressing security concerns of anywhere we were planning to ride. We had taken advice from several sources as we neared the border, and after much deliberation we decided not to play our part in that unappealing game of Kidnap & Ransom, and instead, take a bus from Moyale to Isiolo. Given the information we received and the considerable military presence we observed en route, there is either a very tangible threat in this region, or a very paranoid Kenyan State. In the end it was an easy decision.

First stop in Moyale: our ticket out.

Upon reflection however, it may have indeed been preferable to take our chances with the bandits and negotiate our own ransom, given the moderately terrifying experience delivered by our Kenyan bus driver. At the beginning of the journey our biggest concern was whether our bikes would survive the bumpy ride in one piece. Upon arrival in Isiolo though, we were simply pleased to be stepping off at our intended destination. If you ever find yourself needing to make this journey, there is almost certainly a more desirable alternative than the lunatic drivers that operate this route.

Don’t even think about it….

Once back on the bikes and making our way up the foothills of the beautiful Mount Kenya, it was easy to see why this place was the former jewel of British colonisation efforts in Africa. It also felt as though we had finally left behind Northern Africa and crossed a frontier into a very different part of the continent; with conveniences and language no longer such a challenge, and where we were relieved to be generating far less attention as we rolled through each village.

Pre-accident foothills of Mount Kenya.

The fresh fruit is plentiful and delicious.

We finally crossed it.

However, things didn’t improve much on the road. Within the first forty Kenyan kilometres, a particularly impatient and incompetent driver decided that my panniers would look better on the roadside, and my front wheel would work better shaped like a pretzel. After knocking half the peloton onto the verge, he fled the scene immediately (like the gracious gentleman he surely was), leaving behind a shaken rider, an unrideable bike, and equipment in need of some considerable duct tape attention. This was a low point.

In the aftermath of the incident however, as irritated as we were by the clown behind the wheel (of the black Probox, registration KBR115M), we were equally overwhelmed by the kindness of Kenyan locals who represented the antithesis of the moronic driver. Most notably, was the outrageously efficient Victor Mbuthia, who took it upon himself to collect the fractured wheel rim from us and return it as-good-as-new within a couple of hours – and this, in a town where the technical section of the bike shop stocked only baskets and bells. What’s more, Victor then took us on a cycle tour of the Mount Kenya Game Ranch to showcase the region’s highlights; Africa’s second highest peak and its abundant wildlife. Should you ever visit this region, Victor runs bicycle safaris around Mount Kenya, and if our experience with him is anything to go by, they’ll be a well-oiled and worthwhile outing.

Mount Kenya Game Ranch.

Cheeky…black & white Colobus.

We made our way from Mount Kenya to the chaotic sprawl of Nairobi – a city in that would test even the most hardened urban cyclist – where we were fortunate enough to spend Christmas with our friends Jon & Jude, who provided a much needed recuperation for our bodies and bikes; which seemed to be broken in equal measure.

A Christmas Day detour to Tsavo National Park with our hosts.