It’s been less than i week since my last blog entry and honestly not a whole lot has gone on. I’m more or less just making use of the hotel’s free wifi at 5am after having been woken up by the morning’s call to prayer from loud speakers perched no more than 30m from mine & Gavan’s bedroom window... This wouldn’t be the first time i’ve honestly considered leap-frogging from my hotel’s balcony over the adjoining rooftops, to the mosque, and wire cutting the speaker wire at 4:30am.
On 25 February 2012 we reluctantly left our posh hotel bliss in Nairobi and rode 164kms to the border town of Marsabi. Being quite a long day’s ride we intended to leave early and aim to cross the border that day but we ended up getting going between 10am-11am as Wade, who had a few weeks earlier, sadly broken his camera, found a last minute replacement (that morning) which we raced out to grab. We also met up with Patrick who through friends of friends, kindly allowed us to bombard his PO Box in Nairobi with spare parts for our bikes and gift/care packages from home. Patrick and his wife Erica’s generosity (to us complete strangers) was largely typical of the amazing generosity we’ve come to encounter throughout this journey and it was really nice to be able to meet them.
Speaking of people: for the last few days we’ve ridden on the edge of the Massai Steppe and have seen an abundance of traditional Massai tribal folk
in their traditional robes/gowns, jewellery, ear rings and very used and presumably sharp spears and daggers. I’ve wanted to snap a photo of these beautiful people (even the guys, in all their gear, look stunning) but not being sure what their reaction will be (their spears are definitely NOT accessories), i’ve opted to err on the side of caution.
Sleeping in Marsabit on 26 February 2012, we awoke and crossed the border into Tanzania the following morning in a world-record time of less than 20 minutes. I’m not so sure it was an exercise of efficiency as much as it was just a more relaxed approach to border security on account of the reduced threat between the two nations. No complaints from me though.
The ride from Marsabit to Arusha was about 115kms and despite being what’s come to be a short distance was actually quite difficult owing largely to a strong headwind and a gradual climb past Tanzania’s Mt Meru (which is effectively the same size as Mt Kenya (i.e. almost 5kms above sea level!!). Quite embarrassingly, for about ½ of the day we all thought that that Mt Meru was the amazing Mt Kilimanjaro until Gavan applied some basic logic and explained that we’d all just taken dozens of photos of the wrong mountain. This reminded me of a similar incident I had when I went to visit Uluru in Australia. I was warned not to be one of those silly tourists who sees Mt Cook in the distance and presumes that’s Uluru. Despite being armed with this inside information, I still managed to find myself taking self portraits with Mt Cook in the background. Sucker.
So we finally arrived in to Arusha in the evening of 26 Feb and did all of the normal things one does when they enter a new country: change currency, buy local SIM, see what soft drink delicacies are on offer etc etc. Speaking of currency, Tanzania’s is by far the most ridiculous. A can of soft drink costs almost 2,000 Tanzanian Shillings so we found ourselves withdrawing hundreds of thousands of shillings from ATM’s just for a few day’s use. Carrying around a brick of money which is roughly equivalent to $100AUD makes you feel quite rich.
So Shane and Wade have gone off on what sounds like an amazing 3 day Safari into the Serengeti while Gavan and I have opted for a 1 day “Safari” into the Tarangiri National Park which is today. I’m not sure how we’re going to fill the balance of time off in Arusha (we have 3 days off in total) but i’m sure we’ll find something to do. This place is full of Western people and has, by far, the biggest concentration of non-African people that we’ve come across on this whole trip. This sees the general services, food quality, supermarket content and begging all increase dramatically.
Gavan & I caught a taxi yesterday (youtube clip below) and while being driven got the name of a Tazanian hiphop artist being played by the driver (Professor Jay for you music aficionados at home). Once being dropped off, I went to look for a CD of Professor Jay. I bumped into a local DJ (named Peace) who assured me that he knew where to get it. It was only 3 minutes away. Everything in Arusha is only 3 minutes away. 35 minutes later, I was being led through a maze of backstreets going from music store to music store. I cracked it and told him if he was taking me somewhere to roll me, that we should just have it out there in the street. He laughed, called me a paranoid mazungo (mazungo is ‘white person’) and kept escorting me in the search for Professor Jay. I ended up ditching Peace and returned back to my hotel. In a completely unrelated incident, I asked another local guy, Richard, if he knew where to get something else I was looking for (to finalise my safari costume) and he said he’d find it and would call me when he did. I stupidly gave him my mobile number. The next thing, Peace, Richard and a few other local people i’d never met, were calling my phone hounding me to buy their wares. I even walked out my hotel and found Peace perched outside waiting for me (I didn’t tell him where I was staying) with 2 Professor Jay CDs. Therein commenced 20 annoying minutes of haggling as Peace wanted the equivalent of $25AUD for the CDs (which is an extraordinary amount of money and a blatant rip off). I try not to get too annoyed at this kind of behaviour as the locals are quite obviously doing it tough here and see us affluent white people as a meal ticket, which I frankly don’t blame them for.
Gavan & I managed to bump into the two people we’d be sharing our day-trip into the Tarangiri National Park with. They’re an Australian couple from Melbourne Australia who are hitch hiking from Cape Town north to Cairo. I thought what we were doing was mad- I take my hat off to these two for a brave and very unique trip. I don’t know too many (any??) couples who would do this kind of holiday (rather than spending weeks kicking around some tropical beach in S/E Asia). We went out for dinner and drinks with them last night (in torrential rain like I’ never seen before, which I hope was an isolated incident) and had a great night and got some great information on the route ahead, which they’d just completed. They’re great people and it was a real pleasure to have been able to spend some time with other Melbournians. I hope to catch up for a beer and hear about the balance of their journey once we’re all back home.
I’ll keep it at that- i’ll upload some photos of mine & Gavan’s small safari shortly.
Well, we’ve officially made it half way through this trip. Thinking back to before I left, I actually never imagined i’d make it this far. I remember speaking to my girlfriend before I left almost assuring her that i’d be home within the first month or so as a result of illness, serious mechanical failure or some other unforeseen incident. As well planned as this trip was, I just presumed that the odds were against us. To be here, at the halfway mark, is an exciting feeling and one which I struggle to explain with words. This, right now, is by far the biggest accomplishment of my life and I am now 100% focussed on crossing the finish line in South Africa in 2 month’s time. It’s sounds a little corny to say, but every fibre of me is now committed and focussed to completing this adventure. The group recently spoke about the balance of our route and the tourist attractions we have ahead of us with a view to striking a balance between time and reward in seeing these attractions. It dawned on me that I really don’t care for playing the tourist on this trip. For me (and I don’t speak for the other guys, obviously) this trip for me is solely about starting, spending 4 months with 3 of the greatest guys I know, and finishing with them: that’s it.
Since my last update from Marsabit, we rode for another 2 days on the worst roads in the world, before finally hitting tarmac about 140kms from Isiolo. We hit the tarmac after 2 solid hours of riding (and covering only 24kms). We’ve had some moments of pure happiness on this trip, but I have to say that reaching that tarmac is by far the most happiest I’ve felt on this trip. It made me laugh how my desires have become so basic that something as simple as reaching tarmac can provide such levels of happiness. We had a ceremonial worship of the tarmac as Gavan got down on all fours and literally kissed the ground. We were happy to be able to sit on increased speeds of 25+km/h averages. Not having used your standard group of cycling muscles in the 5 previous days (from riding the Highway to Hell, which requires the use of a whole different muscle group set), the increased speed from ‘norma’l cycling on tarmac quickly exhausted me but despite this, with pushed out an enormous day of 164kms into Isiolo where we said goodbye to our Police Escorts as we’d now successfully passed through the ‘danger zone’. Earlier on in the day, I asked our police escorts just what the risk against us was (with bandits). They explained that bandits were predominantly desperate cattle thieves who, if they saw us, would rob us at gun point of our valuables (we were assured our bikes would be of no interest in them). I asked whether there was risk of us being harmed in the process. One of the young cops replied “if you resist, you’ll quickly meet God”. I thanked him and reminded him how much I really valued their services. I double checked his gun’s magazine was full and ready for action. It was.
Arriving in Isiolo was a bit of a cultural shock as it marked the end of the Kenyan desert and bush we’d just spent the last 5 days crossing. It also marked a drastic change in scenery, culture and affluence. Scenery-wise, things became a lot greener and dense (as opposed to the desert, where nothing grew). For the first time since Sudan, all of our phones received 3G service which we quickly put to use with long awaited email replies back home. People-wise, the tribal-folk in their cloths and beautiful jewellery with spears gave way to designer clothes and mobile phones. By some fluke of luck, our Police Escorts had brought us to one of the best hotels in town which had a restaurant menu roughly the size of an Oxford Dictionary and we ate like our lives depended on it. A new record for me: 5 milkshakes and 4 bowls of ice cream (not including dinner and breakfast) in less than 12 hours. Any calcium deficiency I may have had (i looooove dairy) had been quenched.
That night we all pow wowed about the route ahead of us and decided that the planned route ahead through Hells Gate National Park (which you can cycle through) was too much effort (i.e. 2-3 days) for very little reward and the route was culled and we would instead head straight to Nairobi which we’d make in 2 day’s time.
The following 2 days passed quite normally; though for one of the first times on this trip, the days were much shorter as we only had 200kms to complete in 2 days to get to Nairobi. The first day saw us finish riding at 3pm and I put the afternoon to use by knocking off some chores that I had planned for Nairobi. Seeing that we potentially had an audience before the High Commissioner at the Australian Embassy in Nairobi, I had a shave and a haircut and also mailed some unused items home. Just on the subject of mailing items home, in earlier blog I mentioned how I sent some other items home that I wasn’t using and also included a beautiful dagger I’d bought in Sudan. I realised that I may have SOME issue getting the item into Australia, so included a nice explanatory letter in the box for any Australian Customs official opening the box. What I didn’t expect was a letter sent to my Mum (who I’d mailed the box and dagger to) explaining that the knife had been seized and she was now to expect legal action on account of receiving prohibited items. I would like to publically apologise to my poor Mum who I have certainly created an enormous headache for. I now have to write to Customs and explain myself and ask that any action arising out of my folly be brought against me. If I do end up in jail, I want the bloody knife back.
So here we sit in Nairobi in more 5-star bliss at the Regency for the next 2 nights. Today is Wade’s birthday which is all very exciting. Seeing that we’re going to the Australian Embassy tonight for drinks and some serious shoulder rubbing, we went to a mall before and bought shirt and slacks for the occasion. We each only have one pair of non-bike clothes and figured that rocking up at the embassy in grubby shorts and t-shirts probably wasn’t kosher. Being that it’s an Australian Embassy, said new shirt and slacks will be worn with thongs (seriously). I must remember to cut my toe nails before I go as they currently resemble a bird’s talons (ahhhh, life without personal standards and no girlfriend to impress...). After presumably drinking VB while listening to Khe Sanh on repeat while eating vegemite sandwiches at the embassy, we’re all heading out to Carnivores restaurant where you were previously able to order just about any kind of African meat (though i’m not lead to believe the menu no longer includes zebra) for Wade’s celebratory birthday dinner.
Tomorrow will be largely dedicated to giving our bikes a much needed tyre change and general maintenance before we start the remaining 5,000-6,000km trek through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and then finally South Africa.
Again, thank you to everyone for your ongoing contacts. It’s been fantastic to have had so much contact from people we don’t even know (largely from the article in RideOn magazine), as well as work colleagues, friends, friends of friends and family. All your emails are shared between the group and we really get a kick out of receiving then.
And, if anyone from Australian Customs reads this, please back off my Mum and give me my bloody knife back.
Hi all, i've finished uploading all of my photos (i think it's close to 300 in total) in my Ethiopia page
and also my new Kenya page
It's 9am in Nairobi and we've all met downstairs in our luxurious hotel's atrium for breakfast, to wish Wade a happy birthday and to also plan our day ahead. We'll be visiting Nairobi's best bike shop(s) to pick up some much needed spares before kicking around town today and possibly buying some (decent and clean) clothes to head to the Australian Embassy tonight where the High Commissioner wants to meet us over drinks at an Australian "bar night".
Sometime later today i'll type and upload another blog detailing the events of the last week or so.
Again, Happy Birthday to Wade! Be sure to jump over to his blog
and check out his entries and great photos. Wish him a happy birthday while you're there.
Well, we've we finally reached Nairbo; which marks the halfway point for us (approx). I'll keep this short & sweet.
1- We are all well. Very well
2- We have 2 1/2 full days off here in Nairobi!!
3- I have uploaded 2 new blogs and 200+ photos in my Ethiopia page
4- I have many more photos to upload (for Kenya). I will do this tomorrow (23/02/2012).
5- I will also write up and upload another blog tomorrow re: the events from Marsabit, Kenya, to Nairobi, Kenya.
6- Happy birthday for tomorrow Wade
I’ve heard people say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. At least it’s bloody paved. The road we’ve just spent the last 3 days on (between Moyale and Marsabit (both in Kenya)) may not have lead to hell, but one could be excused for thinking so. Unintentionally, I can now say that I know exactly what it’s like to cycle across the moon, with temperatures akin to those you would find on the sun. Imagine this if you will: picture those scorching hot 40+ degree days we occasionally get in Victoria through summer. You know the ones where you don’t normally dare leave the air conditioned comfort of your home, except to make a daring dash across to a 7/11 for a large slurpie and the 30 minutes of relief it brings you? Well, increase that temperature by a few degrees. Now, picture the worst rocky, gravel and sandy road you’ve ever driven on. Actually, no, imagine a beach and cover that beach with every large rock you’ve ever seen in your life. Now imagine that rocky, sandy beach had corrugation and ruts, the whole way along it for 400kms. Now take your 40-50 degree weather, and imagine cycling along that sandy, rocky, corrugated and rutted road on the biggest, heaviest and most awkward bicycle you can find, for 4 days, at a little over walking pace (average speed of 10km/h). Well, that’s been our own personal hell for the last 3 days. But we did it, and in hindsight, I have NO idea how we survived with body, mind and bikes still intact. I have never felt a bigger sense of accomplishment in my life.
I’ll wind it back a little bit from my last blog post. We spent the 3 days from Arba Minch to the border of Ethiopia (Moyale) without anything overly exciting happening. Of note was the baboons we saw about 10kms riding out from Arba Minch, which was quite exciting. About 5 or so literally ran across the road in front of us and continued on crashing through the vegetation away from us. They were quite big and I hazard a guess that they would have stood about 4 or so feet high. That definitely piqued the excitement amongst us.
We rode from Arba Minch to a town called Mega from one mountain, through a valley, and into Konso which was perched ontop of a hill. It was by far our longest day having left Arba Minch at about 8am and arriving into Konso around 9pm that evening, having only covered about 120kms on account of the off-road conditions (which paled in significance to the route we’d take from Moyale a few days later). Konso was a very dodgy town and we struggled to find somewhere to stay that a) had sufficient beds for us all, and b) wasn’t crawling with prostitutes. At one point, Wade & Shane were cautioned by a local that Konso wasn’t really a safe town and they probably shouldn’t be walking around town (they were getting dinner). The rest of the night was spent in the confines of our rooms.
The following day was my birthday and I awoke to find a party hat, chocolates and a note left at my room’s door which was a great way to start the day. I’ve never spent birthday abroad and away from family so the gesture was greatly appreciated. The day past quite normally but I was fortunate enough to receive a few calls from home and loved ones.
Fast-forward to our ride into Moyale, which was filled with a little bit of anticipation on account of the Australian Government’s recently revised “Do Not Travel” warnings for the area due to the tribal conflicts erupting there in the week prior. I’m not up to date with the news, but as I understand it, 40 locals were killed in these clashes just a week or two prior. We passed from Ethiopian customs, through Kenyan customs in record time: less than 30 minutes. The ‘no-mans-land” buffer zone between the two borders was quite hilarious as the Ethiopia’s a right-hand-drive country and Kenya’s the opposite, so between the two, you have this chaotic scene where over a 50m stretch, you’ve got to switch lanes with a bunch of other cars, trucks, busses and bikes. And there’s no system either- you just fight for your place. Kenya’s immigration and customs offices were a perfect demonstration of efficiency, and air conditioning, as compared to Ethiopia’s where the official honestly looked as though he’d just woken up, half thrown a shirt on and proceeded to fumble his way through the whole process in an office which was no less hotter than your average pizza oven. Kenya’s immigration was air conditioned, the very helpful, polite and efficient official had definitely not just woken up and we were in & out in less than 10 minutes.
Being that there’s certain amounts of unrest in northern Kenya, we’d arranged an escort (the gun-wielding type, not the other type) for the first few days of our riding. We set straight off to the police station to meet the Inspector and get things arranged for our early morning departure. The efficient, kind and welcoming experience we’d had at Kenya’s customs continued at the police station as we met both the Inspector and his deputy and spent an hour or so going over our route and plans for the 4-5 following days. They were more than happy to oblige. We left the meeting under the impression that 4 officers would be waiting to escort us from Moyale the following morning at 7am. What we awoke to was a small army. There were 8 fully armed ”police” sitting in the back of a troop carrier, each with machine guns, hand grenades, rocket propelled grenades and enough ammunition to honestly conduct a small war. Our arrogance levels increased immediately. Though these guys were officially police, their job doesn’t involve the sort of basic policing that goes on in Australia (i.e issuing infringements, breaking up fights, eating donuts etc etc). These guys spend a hell of a lot of time in armed conflict with Ethiopians coming across the border and smuggling guns and weapons through to Nairobi. And they were all young: no one older than 25 and all with the kind of gaze and mentality you normally see in men much older. They seemed hardened though very professional guys who were ready for action and they were all literally there to keep us safe over the coming days. I asked a few whether they’d been in battle and used some of the scary amounts of weaponry they were carrying. “All the time” was their response. Again, these guys aren’t ordinay police. They were as curious of us as we were of them and they were all the most kind, humble and friendly people I think I’ve ever met in my life. More than once we were told that “we’re here to protect you” and we all got the impression there was nothing we couldn’t ask for that they wouldn’t be more than happy to do (except my suggestion that if any kids throw rocks at us, they were to “take them out”). So they sat in their troop carrier, 50 metres behind us all day. We stopped for lunch, they stopped for lunch and ate with us. I felt bad as we ate our mangos, fresh bread rolls with fresh tomato, biscuits and mango juice, while they ate army rations of dried biscuits and tins of corned beef. They didn’t complain though.
That night were stayed 80kms from Moyale in a roadside town called Sololo; which didn’t consist of much more than some roadside restaurants and an actual township 7kms off the main road, down a sandy, dirt road. We stayed in the police/army camp, with a few of the police, in these little circular tin sheds that would have been no bigger than bigger than 3 metres across and consisted of nothing more than 1 bed and a small handful of personal belongings. This is where we met Arthur, a police man, who was our age and had been stationed there for 1 year and about 8 months. He has a wife in Nairobi (about 800+ kms away) who he sees every few months when he has leave to go and visit her. There is NOTHING in this police camp other than about 5 of these tin sheds, an outside toilet and a shower. When they’re not working, they literally just sit around camp (doing what, I don’t know). Arthur was so proud of his immaculate little shed. He brought us in for tea and told us all about his family. We kept trying to steer the conversation towards his job and the conflicts he’s been involved in, but he was more interested to talk about life in Kenya, Australia and show us photos of his couch, microwave and other odds and ends in Kenya. He explained that he had just joined the police (after an 18 month induction and training process) and this was his first posting. I asked him if he wished he was posted somewhere else (he lived in a tin shed for crying out loud) to which he replied “why would I wish that? My accommodation is great and I’ve got a great opportunity”. It just shows you what we (I?) take for granted. He probably makes less in a year than I do in a day, but he couldn’t have been a more welcoming and generous host and I think i’ll always remember the brief time I spent with Arthur in his camp.
Later than night, I awoke to hyenas howling VERY close to mine & Gavan’s tin shed which had the door open (it was really hot). In a state of panic, I closed the door, satisfied that I’d saved both our lives from the blood thirst pack of hyenas closing in for the kill. I asked Arthur about them the following morning to which his blasé response was “oh they come every night to drink from the damn (which was about 30m away)”. Arthur probably eats hyenas for breakfast.
So we set out on day two of our highway to hell with a different bunch of escorts; who I can confidently say don’t understand the meaning of “escort”. They immediately raced past us and waiting for us 20km down the road. We caught up, they raced off. This continued all day. Fortunately, we rode all morning without incident to a new “state” in Kenya and our next police escort for that afternoon (police from one state can’t escort into another state). We discovered that our new escorts couldn’t come with us as their one and only 4WD had broken down. They decided to send 2 men, with all of our food and water, 35km ahead on a civilian truck that was just passing through, to a guarded communications facility where they would wait for us and we could camp with them for the night. Again, the police were 2 young, kind, friendly and very humble guys who stayed up the whole night “guarding” us in the fenced and locked compound while we slept on the roof, jus t in our sleeping bags, under the most incredible star display i’ve ever seen. It was by far the most surreal experience I’ve had on this journey. The weather that night was like a hot, hot, hot summer night, so we all loved the opportunity and experience of sleeping, literally, under the stars on a roof in the absolute middle of nowhere. Still without an escort the following morning (and under the strict assurance that we would be perfectly safe), we made the final push down the highway to hell en-route to Marsabit, but not before I asked whether I could grab their guns and pose for some photos. Thankfully they were more than willing to oblige and I got the one photo I’d been craving for the last 3 days.
The last day brought a lot of wildlife. I almost ran over a big snake that slithered across my path. I later found out that said snake is “VERY venomous”. I spent the next few hours on code-red snake alert . That was up until we all saw a hyena about 30m ahead of us. I never knew they were so big and bulky. Think ‘small cow’. Thankfully, the hyena took off and didn’t come back. I spent the balance of the day on code red hyena alert, with snakes a distant memory.
So in nutshell, that’s been our last week. We knew the last 3 days were going to be hard, but not as hard as they were. I’m proud we all made it and survived that very brutal and remote stretch and am very thankful we had the chance to (at times) share some time with the young members of the Kenyan police/army. It’s definitely something i’ll never forget. So far Kenya’s quickly becoming my favourite country of the 4 we’ve been into so far. The people are incredibly friendly and kind and strangely humble. Perhaps it’s also the fact that the majority of people seem to have a strong grasp on English and we are able to communicate perfectly with them. Up until now, this hasn’t been possible in Egypt, Sudan or Ethiopia.
We have a day off in Marsabit tomorrow- with nothing of significance to do. I plan to literally and figuratively recharge my batteries and, as I always tend to do on days off, eat an unhealthy amount of food while searching for thick shakes (what’s with these thick shake cravings??).
All’s going great- we’re all healthy, happy and banding together to get ourselves through the tough times. I’m having the time of my life and still feel that I’m very lucky to be a part of this journey with these guys.
In about 1 week’s time we’ll be entering Nairobi which will be approximately 5,500kms travelled since we left. This marks both the halfway point in time and distance, which I find very hard to believe. Thankfully, as I understand it, we won’t have to travel down any roads which even compare to what we’re just spent 3 days slogging it out on...... I’m personally ok if I never ride another gravel road again.
We only have 3 days left in Ethiopia and I can’t help but reflect how I cycled into Ethiopia somewhat cocky having largely cruised through the previous two countries. It only took Ethiopia one day to put me back in my place and remind me who was in charge.
I wholeheartedly despise the rebirth of this word, but feel it’s absolutely appropriate: Ethiopia is epic. I don’t know whether I’ve loved or hated the experience of cycling through 3 weeks of mountains (i kid you not, Ethiopia is nothing but mountains) but the impact this has had on me has been borderline spiritual. I’ve learnt so much about myself in these 3 weeks (for example, you do not immediately die after sweating close to 10 litres per day- gross I know). Most importantly, I’ve learnt to switch off my mind as it screams “STOP!” knowing that my body will give out loooong after my mind will.
Ethiopia’s cultures and landscapes have continually changed- which has been a source of great anticipation and excitement each day with the uncertainty of what each day will bring. We’ve seen abject poverty, affluence (Addis), tribes, and lately a sort of balance between the two on the “roads” towards Arba Minch; which is a beautiful town perched in the mountains amongst a series of lakes. Our 130km ride into Arba Minch was characterised by endless mango and banana plantations and an equally amount of endless people farming these plantations. For anyone who knows me well knows that these two fruits are by far my most favourite and I feel that i’ve stumbled across heaven on earth. Gone are the kids who throw rocks at you. Now, people throw bananas and mangos to you as you cycle past. I couldn’t wish for a better setting. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the people in the last week and enjoy taking some time to talk with them (usually as the cycle out of town with us).
I’d mentioned in previous blogs about the limited and somewhat annoying vocabularies that the local children have. I’m pleased to announce that this limited vocabulary has somewhat increased as the kids and adults now yell “i love you” as you cycle past. This has been wonderful for my ego as I cycle past everyone doing feeling very much like Ryan Gosling; despite being covered in sweat and dirt and looking like i’ve spent the previous night sleeping on the streets. It’s been an unusual cultural transition. The landscape, though still mountainous, has now become somewhat tropical with lush green landscapes and endless plantations. While up in the mountains, the weather has been warm but bearable. When we descend to somewhere close to sea level, the weather immediately changes back to the almost unbearable oppressive heat. We do this multiple times every day (ascend, descend) and the effects of the sun are becoming apparent on us all as our skin slowly begins to resemble the colour of the locals.
I’m slowly beginning to come to terms with the relentless hill/mountain climbing on account of the amazing rush you get as you descend 20+kms downhill at speeds averaging 60km/h. To date, the fastest i’ve descended has been 78km/h which is a real buzz when you’re doing it on a heavy touring bicycle which is akin to driving a bus at break-neck speeds. I feel like a 5 year old kid on his first ever bike when I go this fast and commonly yell “woooohooo” and “weeeeeee” when doing these unnatural speeds.
Unfortunately, we’ve taken a bit of a battering on the electronic-side of things with 2 cameras, Gavan’s GPS unit, all of our bike-mounted phone recharge units and most recently by kindle having broken in the last 2 weeks. This has left us all without the ability to recharge our mobile phones for a week or so which has been compounded by the fact that the whole of Southern Ethiopia has been without electricity for 5 days. This has made even finding a restaurant to eat in a difficult task, though we’ve made do with freshly baked bread rolls and random fillings every day. The most exciting of these fillings has been my tomato and sultana rolls which I strongly urge Subway to bring into menu rotation. Again, food has become less of a culinary experience and more of a body refuelling exercise. We generally eat whatever we can get our hands on, however we have drawn the line at raw beef which is a local delicacy.
After our day off in Arba Minch (today) we still have 3 or so days riding before we reach the border of Kenya. I’m not sure what these 3 days have in store for us. I think we can expect a dramatic deterioration in road conditions as yesterday, riding in to Arba Minch, we spent about 1/3 of the time on rutted, corrugated and very dusty unsealed roads. Unfortunately these poor road conditions don’t deter trucks and busses passing you like they’re in a Formula 1 race. Vigilance prevails. I presume that there’s MUCH more of this to come. I personally don’t mind these roads as though they require immense amounts of concentration, they also see you cycling very slowly and without much physical exertion and you can really take in the surroundings. Though not really being a plant-man, I’ve enjoyed the very green landscape and being able to see frangipani and bougainvillea trees; something that’s not possible when you’re zipping by at 40km/h on good, flat roads.
For the first time, the scenery’s really taken on the image i’ve had in my head of what this African experience was going to be like and I’ve also only now started to realise that I really am in Africa. The wildlife has also been more apparent as we’ve seen lots of little monkeys and the somewhat larger baboons crossing the roads ahead of us. There’s talk of this part of the world hosting hyenas but I personally don’t mind if we don’t see them.
I think we’re all heading off today to see a village market which should be quite fun. I don’t mind poking around at markets and flushing economies with cash in exchange for tacky souvenirs. Upon arriving into Sudan I bought a knife/dagger at an ad-hoc market and sent it home the other day with a bunch of other stuff I don’t need on this trip. The UPS lady had some reservations about me sending this (she actually refused) but I snuck it back in the box before she sealed it up with a nice note to Australian customs who i’m sure will throw some kind of hissy fit when/if they scan the box and see my 30cm razor sharp “ornamental” dagger. I propose to send more of this stuff home so I apologise to my Mum who’s going to be the recipient of these wares and the potential customs headache that may accompany them.
I feel ‘at home’ on this journey now. We’re approaching the 1/3 mark as tomorrow we’ll clock up 4,000kms. It still doesn’t feel like i’ve been gone that long until I think back to everything I’ve seen and experienced so far. Happy times indeed. In a couple of weeks we’ll be at the halfway point of both time and distance (Nairobi, Kenya) which will be a bitter-sweet experience indeed. There were times at the beginning of Ethiopia where I doubted that I had the physical and mental ability to complete this journey but with each day that passes, I feel more and more confident that I will be crossing the finish line in Cape Town at the end of April 2012.
One very exciting thing for 4 hungry cyclists entering a new country is the promise of a change of cuisine that we will try and satisfy our insatiable appetites with. For Egypt, it was fool. Ethiopia was enjira and tibbs (lamb). I have always liked enjira and upon entering Ethiopia (@ Metema) I boldly exclaimed “I will NEVER get sick of enjira” only to retract that statement within 4 days after the experience of eating enjira resembled trying to eat a dish washing sponge soaked in vinegar. I have no idea what Kenyan cuisine will entail but I hope it’s more palatable than what Ethiopia had to offer.
It’s always quite funny when we arrive at a remote roadside cafe for lunch. Like a whirlwind, we take our seats in our hot, tired and sweaty states and immediately begin depleting their stocks of food, water and soft drinks. We order enough food and drink to fuel an entire sports team and the waiters look around wondering where the other 10 people are who we’ve ordered food for. We eat like we’ve just escaped from a POW camp, then order round two (and sometimes round three). The staff stare in amazement wondering how 4 relatively skinny guys can gorge themselves so much. The bill comes, which by local standards is an astronomical amount. We happily pay the $5AUD equivalent and leave contently, knowing that we’ve just thrown enough money into the till to probably put the owner’s three children through high school and university two times over. Despite the chaotic way we arrive, order, eat and leave, staff always appreciate our coming to their establishment and it’s very much a win/win situation as we fuel up my simultaneously stimulating their business’s bottom-line with nothing more than the equivalent of Australian lose change.
I write this from the comfort of a 5 star hotel in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia’s capital city) making my way through my fourth helping from the buffet breakfast; feeling incredibly out of place amongst business men and women preparing for their professional commitments ahead of them. I, on the other hand, am wearing the same clothes i’ve worn for the last 5 weeks, look like i’ve just crawled out of a jungle somewhere and trying to remember my table etiquette (seeing as though cutlery (and table manners) long went by the wayside) . So far, i’ve not been evicted so I presume my farce is holding up. I’ve never stayed in anything this lavish before, so i’ve promised myself to forego any unnecessary site seeing in Addis and instead spend the next 2 days eating, resting, recuperating and making use of all of the in-house guest services available.
We rode into Addis last night at about 7pm after a whopping 9 ½ hr, 165km ride over Ethiopia’s relentless hills and mountains. As if this wasn’t difficult enough, this was done after almost 1 week of continual hill/mountain climbing topped off by riding through (and then up) Ethiopia’s spectacular Blue Nile Gorge the day prior. My poor legs have never been in this much pain- but despite the blood, sweat and tears that this week has involved, I wouldn’t change it for the world. More than once on this trip I’ve finished the day gasping, broken and dirty and slurred the words “THAT was the hardest day of my life”. I don’t think i’ve finished uttering those words yet either.
(side note: I’m now on to my 6th helping and am waiting to politely be tapped on the shoulder by the friendly wait staff and be asked to finish up)
Ethiopia has been an enormous culture shock- but in a very positive way. Upon leaving Gondar en-route to Bahir Dar, the first thing to become apparent to us all was just how much Ethiopia’s landscape resembles Victoria’s. Ethiopia is covered with the same species of gumtree that is native to Victoria. It’s strange to have a break every day on a patch of grass, under a gum tree, in a scene that would resemble any public park space in rural Victoria. And then there’s the landscape- roads that wind their way through hills and mountains (with the same gum trees and the amazing scent that come with them (think hot summer morning in Australia)); which makes me feel as though i’m cycling through my most cherished part of the world; North East Victoria. More than once i’ve let the imagination wonder and pretend that i’m cycling on the back Porepunkah Road. Unfortunately, these day dreams are usually punctuated by kids yelling and hurling rocks at us, but more on that later.
Upon leaving Gondar a week or so ago we had a couple of small riding days (less than 200kms in total) before getting to the small and quite charming lakeside city of Bahir Dar. We had planned to have a whole day off in Bahir Dar but we arrived at 10:30am and decided to sacrifice the day off and instead just have a relaxing afternoon off. Wade arranged himself a private boat tour of the monasteries on Lake Tana while Gavan, Shane & I cruised around town and largely kicked up our heels.
Then followed 4 or 5 days of largely uneventful days of riding (and hill/mountain climbing) through Ethiopia’s high country, which was characterised by small villages every 30 or so kilometres. These villages have absolutely nothing in the way of modern amenities and I couldn’t help but feel that what we were seeing was exactly the same as what one would have saw 100 or 200 years ago. The people were very tribal and wore nothing more than robes and head scarves and lived in wooden huts that were clad in mud with straw thatched roofs. Of note are the women who are all covered in tribal tattoos on their faces, foreheads, necks and arms. I spoke with one girl who was 21 who explained that all girls, at the age of 10, get these tattoos. Whether they’re of religious or just cultural significance, I don’t know, but they look beautiful. I’ll try and get a photo of some soon. In the villages there was nothing in the way of power lines, running water or any other mod cons I love so much. I have no idea how the kids manage to power their Play Stations. Unfortunately, around this time, Gavan became very unwell with the same kind of food poisoning/gastro that struck me down a month or so ago. I saw it was unfortunate (for Gavan), but I secretly loved the relaxed pace and reduced amount of kilometres we were doing in an effort not to kill Gavan. It was one of the first times I was able to actually take in and enjoy the surroundings. However, Gavan being the freak of nature he is, dug down into the depth of his motivation and proceeded to determinedly pick up the pace and kilometres so as not to fall behind our itinerary and push out an opportunity to have 2 rest days in 5 star bliss. I’ve met some tough-willed and determined people in my life, but nothing comes close to the incredible effort Gavan put in over the last 4 days. There were times where I, with an absolute fit bill of health, was struggling to stay upright on the bike as we climbed hill after hill, only to look across as a pale and very unwell Gavan, as he powered past me in an almost mocking demonstration of determination and strength.
We’d heard a lot about the annoying rock throwing kids of Ethiopia. Perhaps naively, I presumed this to be more an exaggeration than fact. How wrong I was. Upon approaching the villages I referred to above, one kid (a lookout, a scout?) would see us coming and start what I believe to be a call to all of the other 100 or so kids in their village. It seems that school teachers only teach Ethiopian kids a total of 6 English words. These are “You”! “Where are you go”? and “Money”!. So, this is how your standard village passing goes: the first kid (the lookout) spots us approaching from about 500 metres away. He will begin sprinting (everyone think back to the Olympics and which country generally dominates the distance running..Yes, Ethiopia) from his work in his field (Ethiopia’s land is almost 100% dedicated to faming) towards us yelling “You, You, You, You”!!!. The other kids hear this and also cease their farm chores and start running towards us from hundreds of metres either side of the road. So all you hear is this chorus of “You, You, You, You”!!! followed by, “Where are you go”?? Being that we hear this almost 100 times a day, we just ignore the kids. Within a minute two, the road is covered with kids yelling these 5 words. And they whip themselves up into a frenzy so that the words become more of a furious scream. The scene is eerie and resembles something from a zombie movie as your entire field of vision, both left and right, consists of fields covered with kids sprinting towards you screaming the same thing... Some kids then move on to just yelling “Money, Money, Money”!! When we have passed the kids, they then begin throwing quite large rocks at us. And i’m not talking about little pebbles either. These rocks, if they hit us, would quite easily concuss us. Fortunately, these kids, for the most part, are terrible shots. I’ve lost my patience a few times, stopped and thrown my bike to the ground, and started returning fire at the kids who are by now making a cowardly retreat. Fortunately for the kids, Wade, who has an incredible aim, has not retaliated; otherwise there’d be a lot of Ethiopian kids with rock-related injuries. As fun as this whole scene sounds like, when it’s happening about 15-20 times a day, it gets old quickly and tends to tarnish our experience. The kids will also chase after you (see previous Olympic comment) and try and steal things from your bike. Shane had his stool stolen from the back of his bike, only to give chase to the kid through field and thankfully recover the stool. The kid doesn’t know how lucky he is- Shane is not someone you want perusing and ultimately catching you. Think Bruce Lee crossed with Steven Segal with a bit of Jackie Chan thrown in.
2 days ago we rode into the Blue Nile Gorge. I’m not sure that the Ethiopian name is for the Blue Nile Gorge, but i’m sure it roughly translates to “Picturesque Hell”. You descend 20kms down into the gorge, which sounds fun. However, the road is was full of pot holes, ruts, bumps and other kids of madness making it impossible to sit on a speed above 15km/h. Usually, when descending mountains, it’s not uncommon to hit speeds in excess of 60km/h-70km/h, so this descent was slow and painful. Once at the bottom of the beautiful gorge, we stumble across an organised Ethiopian road cycling event which was a 4 day ride from Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar with about 50 very serious cycling participants. We stopped and got chatting to them all and quickly became the spectacle with everyone. There were big group photos taken with all of the participants boggled at the size and weight of our bikes (which weigh close to 45kms, compared to their 7kg-8kg bikes). We saw the race start and then kicked off our 20km ascent up out of the gorge. It was my own personal hell. Never having ridden up anything more steep or long than an incline on Collins Street, Melbourne (between Swanston St and Russell St), I have no experience, skill or technique in climbing hills on a bike. Thankfully, a couple of days earlier, Gavan shared some of his climbing techniques, which I put into practice ultimately conquered the climb after almost 3-4 hours. It definitely wasn’t easy, or fun, but it will be something that I will use as a yard stick with every difficult thing I come up against in life forever. At this point, Gavan was in the midst of his illness and not having eaten or slept sufficiently for the previous 3 days, still managed to power on and finish the climb. How he managed to do this, I have no idea. Again, freak of nature.
So people, that’s roughly the events of the last week or so. It’s been tough, I’ve stunk, every item of clothing I have (which were all new 5 weeks ago) look like they’ve been found in a gutter on the streets, i’m sunburnt badly, am grossly under weight (to be remedied over the next 2 days), tired, sore but despite all of this- happy, smiling and proud. This trip was never going to be a “holiday” and I don’t think i’d have it any other way.
I have no idea what awaits us once we leave Addis. I’ve given up caring about our itinerary or our route. I find I get more enjoyment out of just experiencing whatever comes. I know we’ve got a week or two until we hit Kenya. I, perhaps naively, hope Kenya doesn’t have mountains. So far we’ve ridden close to 3,500kms of our approx 12,000km total. We’ve almost crossed 3 of our 10 countries and have passed both the quarter marks of both duration and distances. The last 4 or so weeks have passed so quickly. It it wasn’t for my ridiculous tan lines, I’d quite easily forget just how long i’d been on this trip.
I’m still receiving lots of emails from people which I really do appreciate. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s telecommunication infrastructure resembles what Australia had about 20 years ago so am only able to update my site, email or maintain our twitter feed when in large cities. I’ll try and respond to everyone’s mail over the next two days. Our rooms at the hotel all have scales and over dinner last night we all shared our amazing weight loss. Collectively, we’ve all lose close to 30kgs. To everyone who expressed concern over my previous comments about losing 8kgs, understand that it’s physically impossible to do what we’re doing and maintain weight. Our stomachs just don’t have the ability to hold the amount of food we require- but it’s not through lack of trying.
Anyway people; food, massages, spas, saunas, bath robes and other forms of pampering await me.
Our very own Gavan has featured in this quarter’s RideOn magazine, with a small write up on our bikes. For anyone interested, you can buy the magazine at any newsagency (apparently). The magazine link is here http://www.bv.com.au/general/join-in/129/
Can someone please get me a copy, pleaseeee?
Also, new photos have been added to the Ethiopia photo page. Check them out.