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.

Hard yards for everyone

The southern third of Ethiopia wasn’t particularly easy going for us; the roads deteriorated into a dusty mess, the terrain remained high and hilly, and the lively locals somehow became even more boisterous than those in the north. All combined to serve up some challenging conditions which would result in our longest and hungriest days in the saddle – with the 200km either side of the town of Dila thoroughly testing not only our mental reserve, but also our tolerance for dust inhalation. However, as we grinded through the final few hundred kilometres of what has been a fascinating country, some of the hardships we saw along the way gave us plenty of food for thought.

Dusty times…

….and long days.

The team mechanic’ll sort that…

Evidently, the need to carry huge drums of water for great distances is indiscriminate of age or gender in Ethiopia; as we saw terrific volumes being carried by a full spectrum of society – either on heads, on backs, or by any means possible. One of the most notable sights however, was an elderly woman walking barefoot between villages with a single microwave-sized rock tied to her back. The whole process looked excruciating and was no doubt a fairly thankless task. However, she was at least able to reward herself – after a level of physical exertion well beyond this particular duo – with a refreshing mouthful of brown, turbid water.

That’s not full of feathers.

Certainly, cycling long distances across continents has been difficult, and for us, Ethiopia has raised the difficulty-rating of this particular trip. However, the hardships we have witnessed along this route helped highlight to us what seems to be a very western interpretation of that word: hard. Think you’ve got it tough? Try filling your microwave with concrete, hoisting it onto your back and carrying to the town down the road. Then repeat until nightfall.

Ethiopia is a country of quite exceptional beauty, and its position at the heart of Africa’s Rift Valley helps it boast landscapes that would be the draw card of any nation on earth. Its food is unique, its coffee a world-beater, and its people (at least those who are not throwing things) are a well-meaning, generous bunch.  Its flaws though are not trivial, and it certainly seems that there is plenty of work to do here – with the first cab off the rank surely being an attempt to curb this incessant population growth.

Ethiopia has been an aesthetic win.

Phonetics: works in any language.

 

Highs and lows

Ethiopia is proving to be quite a surprise package for cycling, just so long as you’re not one to shy away from the odd hill climb. Each day we find ourselves riding through some spectacular landscapes which could easily be mistaken for the Swiss Alps or Grand Canyon. Most notably, the magnificent 40km stretch through Abay Gorge deserves individual praise and falls easily into the top five days of our entire trip (well, the descent certainly does, the severe three-hour climb out left us wondering whether it was indeed worth it). Interestingly, this area has also provided some of the oldest ever fossilised human remains; apparently some folks were knocking around here about 3 million years ago, so the natural beauty of this place is not exactly breaking news.

Abay Gorge, photo taken after and before a 20km descent/climb.

A slow climb out of the gorge.

Our second noteworthy observation of this county is the quite massive and conspicuous population – if ever a market for promoting the benefits of birth control existed, then Ethiopia is most definitely it. The number of people we see every day is staggering, and the proportion under the age of ten has to be seen to be believed. We were fortunate enough to share an evening meal with a chap named Sisay, who – when not being a charming and hospitable Ethiopian – spends his time running clinics in rural villages to educate on this very issue, and he enlightened us further on the scale of the problem they are facing.

The peloton regroups.

Resupplying , with company.

For now though, the long periods of solitude to which we have become accustomed are a distant memory, as we find it difficult to recall a continuous stretch of five kilometres since entering Ethiopia without passing an unnamed village or encountering at least a group of people. Unfortunately, a few of the local kids find throwing stones at passing cyclists to be a jolly good jape, and while this is a bit of an annoyance, it’s a manageable one.

This country has perhaps provided the most eventful riding days of our trip so far, though certainly not the easiest. However – and quite crucially – the unexpected pleasure of Ethiopian coffee has so far got us through intact.

Late finish.

In search of a lunch stop.

We have also enjoyed a full compliment of weather in Ethiopia.

 

Ethiopia, 2007

After passing through what can best be described as a less-than-watertight border crossing, we left the smiling Sudanese behind and departed a country we’ll remember fondly, though with a cuisine we’ll be happy to forget. The contrast once into Ethiopia was immediate; as the strict Muslim way of life was replaced by a conspicuously more liberal vibe, separated only by a poorly constructed wooden gate.

Border crossing Ebola screening: all clear.

Viewed from above, Ethiopia would appear as a series of fairly significant mountain ranges encircled by an international border. That is to say, this is a very hilly country. As a result, we have settled back into our lowest possible gear, to let the heart rate soar, the mind wonder, and once again get used to covering no more than 10km in an hour.

We carry these guys in our panniers and deploy them when necessary.

Our ride through northern Ethiopia has certainly been entertaining, as every village has greeted us with enthusiastic and very vocal crowds that wouldn’t look particularly out of place on a stage of the Tour de France. It has however been one of the poorest and most confronting sections of our ride so far, and it is hard to imagine that a great deal has changed in these communities in the last 150 years.

Avid followers of this blog may remember the difficulties in establishing the correct time when we arrived in western China to begin this journey. However, it would appear that the Ethiopians well and truly take the biscuit for confusing what should be a fairly non-negotiable concept. In yet another obscure interpretation of the infeasible beginnings of organised religion, the Ethiopians have decided their calendar should begin seven years later than the rest of the world (making it only 2007 here), given themselves 13 months, celebrate Christmas 13 days later, and decided that the sun rises and sets at 12 o’clock (though this does in fact seem to make sense). Unfortunately, on account of alcohol being illegal in Sudan, the conversation in which we learnt about all this coincided with our first beer in a month, which only added to our loose understanding of the subject. Still, for a while now we have taken to operating on our own time, based on how tired, hungry, or energetic we are feeling at any given moment, and so all this has thankfully proved to be fairly circumstantial.

The place where time was re-understood

Up hill, we are usually comprehensively beaten.

Part of a 2,000m climb.