• Some Stats: Mwanza-Muscat Part 18 April 10th, 2016

    Before I head off on another adventure I thought it would be interesting to post some statistics from my recent tour, alongside a few comments and reflections:

    Duration of tour: 238 days

    Total distance cycled: 10,375 km

    Total distance on unpaved roads: 2071 km. In northern Kenya and South Sudan I had no other option but to ride on dirt tracks. In other countries – Uganda, Ethiopia and Oman for example, I sometimes chose to take dirt tracks as a more adventurous/quieter alternative to the paved roads.

    Climbing away from Jebel Shams

    Number of non-cycling days: 106. I spent 3 weeks working in Tanzania (not in the original plan when I planned the trip) and took long rest stops in Kampala and Addis Ababa. Fortunately I was not bound by time constraints, so had the luxury to tour slowly and take as many rest days as I liked.

    Mean daily distance cycled: 78 km. People often ask how far I cycle each day. My reply is an average of 80-100km. On this particular tour I did plenty of short days.

    Longest day: 144 km in eastern Ethiopia. I was riding until late hoping to find somewhere to camp – never easy in Ethiopia as so much of the roadside was cultivated and populated. I ended up in a cheap Guest House.

    Highest altitude cycled: 3300m in eastern Ethiopia.

    Cost of visas: £410. Visas in Africa are almost always paid in US $ and the cost of mine as the trip progressed goes as follows: Kenya – $50 (3-month on arrival), Uganda – $100 (3-month on arrival), South Sudan – $100 (applied and paid for in Uganda), Ethiopia visa extension for 3 months$150. (I already had an original visa for Ethiopia that I had bought in London – £60 for a 6-month multiple entry – this needed extending when I was in Ethiopia as it was already 4 months old when I entered the country) Somaliland – $70 (1-month visa bought in Ethiopia), Oman $50 (1-month on arrival which I extended by another 1 month for an additional $50).

    Total cost of tour (including visas): £2450. When I left Tanzania for the final time I emptied my local bank account and changed all the remaining Tanzanian shillings into US $ ($2200 worth to be precise). Carrying more cash than necessary is never really recommended, but this kept me going for some months before I relied on my UK debit card to make cash withdrawals. I expected Oman would be the most costly country to tour through, but I camped almost every night during my time here. This meant daily costs were kept to a minimum, particularly as I wasn’t drinking alcohol and tourist attractions were very cheap.

    Mean cost per day: £10.29. By camping or staying in simple lodgings, eating local food and avoiding expensive tourist activities, my daily costs were relatively modest on this tour.

    Total spent on accommodation: £637.50. Most nights in Africa I stayed in local lodgings, ranging in price from bed-bug ridden £1 Guest Houses in Ethiopia, to more comfortable rooms costing £8-12+ (the highest I paid was £18 in Kenya). During the 3 weeks I worked in Tanzania accommodation was paid for. I was also invited as a guest in several places and used the Warmshowers website when there were hosts on my route.

    Number of nights spent in tent: 59. Most of my camping was done in Oman where I slept in the tent on 41 nights. Only on 1 of these 59 nights was I in a campsite where I paid to sleep (Murchinson Falls National Park in Uganda). I mostly wild camped in Oman because camping here was so safe, easy and scenic. Accommodation in Oman, when it did exist, was also relatively expensive (typically £30 upwards).

    Camping on Mughsal beach

    Total number of beers consumed: 361. This number is about 90% accurate; the 10% uncertainty owing to the days when I drank too many beers to remember. Bottled beer is easily available throughout East Africa. I consumed more beers in Ethiopia than anywhere else, which is partly because the bottles were generally smaller (often 330ml instead of 500ml like Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda) and also because they were so easily available. Beer in Ethiopia was also cheaper than anywhere else (around £0.30 for a bottle) and the hardship of my days cycling here usually demanded I drink at least 2 every night.

    Harar beer

    Mean number of beers consumed per day before arriving in Somaliland: 2.2. Once I left Ethiopia and continued through Somaliland and Oman I went without a drop of alcohol for well over 2 months.

    Number of punctures: (2 in Tanzania 4 in Uganda, 1 in Ethiopia, 1 in Oman).

    Hardest country to cycle through: Ethiopia (by far). Almost every day presented a battle with people (mostly children) who took great delight in chasing and taunting me from the roadside.

    Easiest country to cycle through: Oman. Safe, friendly, easy to camp, scenic, great roads (some can be steep!) – the list could go on. A fantastic winter cycle-touring destination.

    Most pleasant surprise: Being able to cycle freely in Somaliland without an armed escort, which I’d heard might be necessary.

    Country I would most like to return to: South Sudan. For reasons that puzzled me a little at the time, I was deported from the country on a remote road that felt as adventurous as anywhere else I’ve toured on the continent. Several months after leaving I read of another foreign cyclist who was robbed and left badly beaten at the roadside. Looking back, perhaps my desire for adventure had been sensibly curtailed by the police who found me. South Sudan was, and remains, far less secure than most of the other places I toured on this journey, but I’d seen so little of a country that looked like it had so much more to offer.

    Picked up by the Police

    Highlight of the tour: Spending 4 days at sea crossing from Somaliland to Oman with a crew of 15 Indians and a cargo of 500 cows. This was a timeless journey; detached from so many of the World’s problems one is witness to when on terra firma with an Internet connection.

    Sitting with some crew

  • North to Abu Dhabi: Mwanza-Muscat Part 17 February 27th, 2016

    I almost never went to Muscat. Oman’s capital, which had at one time been the end point to this tour, lost some of its appeal once I arrived in the town of Ibri and took a much needed break. I was now much closer to the UAE and Abu Dhabi, where my brother had recently moved. This seemed a more fitting place to finish a tour. Unless I were to fly out or take a boat to Iran, this really would be the end of the road.

    But I had some remaining weeks left on my Omani visa. Leaving the country on a highway to the UAE and Abu Dhabi, when there were more mountains, wadis and desert camping to explore in one of my favourite cycle touring destinations, seemed like a poor plan. And so off I went towards Muscat, before turning round and finding the quietest possible route into the UAE.

    Man and mountains

    I left Ibri with Daniel, aka Dosh, who was cycling from the UK-India. At least that was his plan when he set off some 6 months previously. He had recently been in the UAE and Iran. His route plans for Oman were vague so on the morning of departure we decided to ride to Muscat together. His blog is here.

    Camp at night

    Our first night on the road took us back into the Hajar Mountains. The moon was almost full. I put the camera on my tripod and opened the shutter for about 1 minute. I used to fear lighting fires when camping, but in Oman it’s perfectly safe. Wood is also surprisingly easy to find in many places.

    Exploring Rustaq's fort

    We cycled through the town of Rustaq on our second day, which like many old Omani towns, has a fort worth stopping to see.

    Rustaq Fort

    Over the past few decades many forts in Oman have been restored, at huge cost. Rustaq’s fort, like most of the ones I visited, charges a very modest £1 entrance fee.

    Tea drinkers outside Rustaq Fort

    Tea drinking outside Rustaq Fort. The only inconvenience with most of these forts in Oman is that they close at around 4pm.

    Date palms and the Hajar Mountains

    The view from Rustaq fort. Despite there being so little rainfall in Oman there are parts of the country, which thanks to an ancient system of aqueducts, keeps areas like this fertile year round.

    View from Rustaq fort

    Rustaq sits at the base of the Hajar mountains.

    Canon in Rustaq fort

    One of many canons within Rustaq fort.

    Nakhal Fort

    From Rustaq we continued to Nakhal, which also boasts a fairly impressive fort.

    Looking out from Nakhal Fort

    Looking out from Nakhal Fort

    Daniel Dorosz aka Dosh

    Dosh was riding a Koga World Traveller, a popular Dutch-made touring bicycle. We chatted a lot about gear, as is usually the case when meeting another tourer.


    Morning at camp

    Our tents are both manufactured by the same company – MSR. The Hubba Hubba, which Dosh was using, is the tent I used before while touring in Africa. My replacement, the MSR Nook, beats it on weight and compactness, but I do prefer the extra floor space in the Hubba Hubba and fact that is has two vestibules and entrances. Without the flysheet the Hubba Hubba is also a better star-gazing tent. I may go back to this in the future.

    Barbecued chicken time.

    Grilling chicken on hot stones. We failed to find a fresh chicken so I bungeed a frozen chicken onto my front rack for half the day. This wasn’t long enough to defrost it, but we managed to cook it quite well in the end.

    Cycle lane in Muscat!

    The ride into Muscat included a surprising stretch of cycle lane as we went along the coast at Seeb. This only lasted about 5km.

    Mutrah corniche

    Mutrah, the old quarter of Muscat, is where we headed to in the capital. This could have been the end of my journey had I decided to finish here. Looking back over the years I don’t think I’ve ever come towards the end of a tour and been happy to finish. Other than the jubilation of reaching a goal, life off the road soon makes me restless. It was just as well as I was tagging on another 600km or so to ride to Abu Dhabi.

    Park camp in Mutrah

    There can’t be many public parks in capital cities around the World where camping is safe. This one in Mutrah did in fact close over night as the gates were locked at 11pm –  probably a good thing. I expected a visit from the Police at this time or whoever was closing the park, but we were left in peace until the muezzin in the mosque pictured here, woke us at 5am.

    Beach in Muscat

    I said goodbye to Dosh in Muscat and headed north along the coast.

    Cycle lane ahead!

    Fortunately parts of the highway were not completely finished. For some stretches I was able to cycle on a 6 lane highway to myself.

    Coastal mosque and fort

    The Batinah coastline, which stretches north from Muscat to the country’s third largest city of Sohar, provided plenty of minor roads passing through small towns and coastal villages.

    Coastal town in Al Batinah region

    The view from one of the coastal forts in Al Batinah.

    Coffee and date invitation

    Outside of which I was invited for coffee and dates with this friendly duo. Omani men take great pride in their appearance. No wonder there are so many barber and tailoring shops in every town. As for Omani women – well during my entire stay in the country I recall speaking with one. Not everything about Oman was great…..

    Fort in Al Suwayq

    The fort in Al Suwayq was closed when I passed, but impressive enough from the outside to appreciate.

    Beach in Al Batinah region

    Most of the coast here is populated with fishing communities, who could probably learn something about protecting their environment. So much rubbish is washed up and thrown on the beaches here.

    Fishing apparatus on beach

    Fishing apparatus along the Al Batinah coastline, including a tradtional shasha reed boat.

    Ahmed and his fighting bull

    In the small coastal village of Aluwaydat I met Ahmed, who worked in one of Muscat’s big hotels. He had come home for several days of leave and invited me to stay with him. This involved a tour around the grounds of his family’s property, where they kept several large bulls. ‘This one is a champion fighter’, boasted Ahmed as he grabbed the nostrils of an enormous beast. I didn’t know until I researched it later that the Al Batinah province has a long history of bull-fighting. Unlike the Spanish style of bull fighting, here the animals fight each other – mostly locking horns and using their strength to move or scare the other bull away.

    A night out in Oman

    My first and only night out in Oman was with Ahmed. This was less of a night out than him driving me 30km to the nearest bar where we sat in an almost empty hall listening to an Egyptian singer playing popular Arabic hits. The other dozen or so clientele were all Omani men, sheepishly sipping beer. I practically downed my first one having not had a drink in over 2 months. Alcohol is not forbidden in Oman, but not easy or particularly cheap to obtain.

    A night out in Oman

    In another smaller room within this bar/hotel establishment were more men – Pakistani mostly, as well as several women – Indian Ahmed had said. The latter spent most of the time sitting on chairs facing the tables of men, occasionally walking over to exchange greetings and probably numbers. It was a pretty depressing sight. Oman definitely isn’t a country to travel to for a drinking and dating experience.

    Morning catch

    I continued the next morning along the coast, slightly heavy-headed, which is when the fish markets are most active.

    The catch

    Several days previously while camping with Dosh for the last time we had tried to buy fish from a market in the small coastal town of Barka, but had arrived too late in the day. Not far away was a hypermarket, where I expected the price of fish to be far more than the cost from a local market. Whether that was the case or not, we bought over 1kg of fresh barracuda (2 fish) for £3. We ended up steaming these in tin foil on the beach later that night. One of the best meals I have had while camping.

    Abandoned sea front

    A lot of the houses and buildings along the Al Batinah coastline are slowly being abandoned. It was Ahmed who told me of the government’s plans to build another highway alongside resorts and other housing here. Traditional fishing communities who once lived here are now offered money to build new homes some 500 metres or so from the beach front. The result is almost 200km of neglected and ruinous infrastructure.

    Omani bike

    Omani teenager in one of the Al Batinah coastal villages. Turns out this is great for letting the back wheel slide out when turning a corner. I saw a number of other bicycles in Oman put together like this.

    Morning view from the tent

    Morning view from my tent. Blissful.

    Morning at camp

    My last camping spot in Oman turned out to be as memorable and scenic as many of the other 40 odd places I pitched my tent in the country. There wasn’t enough wood here to make a fire, but the surrounding mountains, silence, night skies and beautiful sunrise were a fitting finale to a country I will probably remember best for its quality and ease of places to camp.

    Sand dunes in UAE

    A lot of sand dunes as I crossed into the UAE, although getting to them was impossible as most of the roadside was fenced off – probably a good thing. I was disheartened at how much rubbish is thrown into the desert by careless people in Oman.

    First night in UAE

    My only night camping in the UAE was within some semi-dead vegetation. Roadsides are entirely tree-lined and irrigated in this country. They are also almost all entirely fenced off, which makes camping away from the road somewhat challenging. Fortunately I had spotted a break in the fence nearby here and ducked in to hide myself as the sun began to set, kicking away broken irrigation pipes to pitch the tent.

    UAE back road

    In order to avoid the 10-lane highway that connects the Omani border with Abu Dhabi I managed to cycle on almost empty minor roads that run parallel to it. Most of these connect strips of irrigated farmland, worked on by teams of Bangladeshis, as well as some private estates. I expected to be turned back when I rolled up to the gate pictured here, but the smiling Ghanian security guard waved me through.

    UAE back road

    Most of these side roads were only visible when zooming in close to google maps or using maps.me, a phone app I’ve increasingly relied upon for this tour. This picture was taken about 60km from Abu Dhabi. Some 5km later I hit a highway full of trucks. I knew then the tour, for all of its enjoyment, was over. My brother had said to call him when I got close to Abu Dhabi so he could come and pick me up. With the wind at my back and adrenaline running high alongside traffic moving at 160km/hr+ I ended up riding right into Abu Dhabi, at which point traffic lights and pavements came to my rescue. Not a ride that I would wish to do again.

    I locked the bicycle outside a mall and disappeared to find a wifi connection, paying £4 for a cappuccino while my brother came to meet me.

    A change of sceneryAnd then a few kilometres later, with bicycle loaded in a 4×4, I was gazing up at the many glass towers of Abu Dhabi. After almost 10,500km since leaving Mwanza in June last year, this was the end of the road, at least for now. The route for this final stretch can be viewed at the bottom of this page .

    For those who’ve read through the blog posts from the start of this tour, thanks for following along. These days I realise an update and some photos on facebook are likely to be read more than clicking through to a website.

    I decided to keep a spreadsheet on this particular tour, with some basic stats including distance, accommodation prices, beer consumption (that was going well until I entered Somaliland) that I will put into a forthcoming blog post, along with some reflections on the journey now that it’s over.

    I’m no longer in one of Abu Dhabi’s glass towers, although my bicycle is. I sit writing this 100 metres from a beach in southern Kenya. It seemed a more fitting place to return to and sort out job prospects (alas not here) than a cold, wet England in February. Perhaps I’ll write a blog post about my time here with a new set of wheels. Isn’t she beautiful.

    New wheels. Indian made single speed roadster

  • More from Oman: Mwanza-Muscat Part 16 January 29th, 2016

    I shall start where I left last time, which is somewhere in the Omani desert around about Christmas time. No real festive spirit in this part of the World, just a lot more beautiful camping spots, mountain climbs, historical towns and memorable encounters to enjoy as 2015 came to an end.

    Beach camp at nightSunrise in Southern OmanSunrise at campA sandy ChristmasSunrise at camp

    It’s hard to pick a favourite camping spot in Oman as there have been so many. I sometimes pulled off the road before sunset, or waited till I found what was going to be the best place to sleep before it became too dark to see. As the weeks went by I became less concerned about hiding myself from the road. Camping in Oman is as stress free and safe as I recall it to be in Japan, where I first cycle toured over ten years ago, except there I would never be very far away from people.

    Worldbikers

    Eric and Amaya are well-known in the cycle touring community, posting lots of useful information online for fellow cyclists. They’ve been on the road continuously for almost 10 years now and Oman is their 100th country visited to date. Having been in contact over the years it was a great opportunity to finally meet up with them in person, share some stories and camp together for the night before parting in opposite directions (they were headed south) the next day.

    Bedu father and son

    An equally memorable encounter, shortly after saying goodbye to Eric and Amaya, was being invited to stay with a Bedouin family in the desert.

    The Bedouin, or Bedu as they are often referred to in Oman, are the original desert-dwellers of the Middle East and North Africa. In Oman, like elsewhere, many have given up their desert lifestyle by moving to towns. Others prefer to hold onto their nomadic traditions, opting for a lifestyle that combines living somewhere between the two.

    Mubarak, pictured at the front here, was driving back out to the desert from his town house when he passed me on the road. He stopped and we chatted for a short time in simple English. At first I was hesitant to accept his invitation, but then realised such an opportunity might never come again. I was in no rush to arrive anywhere that day. So I loaded my bicycle into his pick-up and off we went into the sands.

    We only drove about 8km from the road to an area which he said had received rain in recent months. It looked pretty barren to me, but apparently there was good grazing for his camels, which numbered about twenty, and a small herd of goats.

    Bedu LunchBedu tent LunchBedu portrait

    I was soon sitting in a traditional Bedu tent, meeting the family and sharing lunch, and wishing that my Arabic extended beyond more than simple greetings.

    Bedu Camp

    A mixture of old and new: a traditional Bedu tent, albeit with metal poles to hold it up, alongside a less traditional portacabin type mobile home and a Toyota Hummer that belonged to Mubarak’s brother. I slept in the tent.

    Camel portraitBedu and their camelDesert camel at sunset

    Later in the afternoon Mubarak showed me his beloved camels, which hold special significance for Bedu. Camels are everywhere in Oman – idly roaming mountain and desert landscapes many miles from any human habitation. Most of these camels, Mubarak explained, would be branded in order to denote the owner. Were a camel killed on the road by a vehicle during the day time the fault would lie with the driver. At night the owner of the camel, whoever he was, would have to accept responsibility. In years gone by camels might have been raided by other Bedu clans, but Oman is a very different country from the time when this man wrote about travelling here.

    Shortly before sunset Mubarak’s camels were herded together by his two Bangladeshi employees. It was they that prepared the food and milked the camels.

    Bedu camp at sunsetNight with the Bedu

    As night fell a fire was lit inside the tent and more family members arrived from a neighbouring camp. Women, long-veiled and wearing traditional Bedu head coverings, sat aside, eating once the men had finished.

    Camel milk for breakfast

    In the morning the fire was lit again and foaming fresh camel milk was brought out. Mubarak later drove me back to the main road. We exchanged contacts and I thanked him for such tremendous hospitality.

    Ferry from Masirah Island to Shannah

    A few hours later I was taking a boat to Masirah Island, which is Oman’s largest Island.

    Masirah Island

    Measuring about 100km from north to south and 15km in width, this truly is a desert island. Windy as well! The beaches here and further north along the Omani coastline are popular sites for turtles to lay their eggs, particularly during the summer months.

    Beach camp on Masirah Island
    Beach shack camp

    Masirah Island camp

    In such open and exposed settings I fortunately found a few makeshift shacks that protected me from the wind. Having camped on sand and been so close to the sea for the previous few weeks my bicycle, and chain in particular, were now suffering somewhat.

    Sand dunes of Oman

    Desert mosque camp

     But the sand and wind were to continue for a few more days as I continued north along the coast, camping outside a desert mosque one evening to shelter myself. It was in actual fact the last day of the year and there was no phone network to wish friends in livelier places a Happy New Year. Just like several other years when I have been cycling on New Years Eve, I was fast asleep long before midnight.

    Seafront at Al-AyjahSurFishing boat in Sur

    A few days later I reached the scenic town of Sur. This was the first sizeable town I had been in since leaving Salalah, although seemed as soporific as everywhere else. Sur, I had read, is the only place in Oman where traditional wooden dhows are still constructed. I had anticipated a bustling boat-yard, but found just two dhows in the process of being built.

    Sur harbour wall

    Sur harbour wallSur harbour wall

    Of more interest, well at least colour, was Sur’s harbour wall, which was in the process of being painted with murals. This was conveniently located opposite the regional police station where my passport was receiving a 30-day visa extension for 20 rial (£35). I returned an hour later to pick up the passport before leaving the coast and heading inland.

    Al Kabil Castle

    I had the pleasure of sleeping inside the courtyard of a restored castle in the small town of Al Kamil a few nights later. The eccentric Omani owner had decided to turn the place into a museum; well worth visiting should you ever visit the town.

    Traditional Omani coffee potsTraditional Omani coffee pots were just some of the many things the Castle museum housed.

    Wadi Bani KhalidCamping at Wadi Bani Khalid

    Then it was onto Wadi Bani Khalid, which is one of Oman’s most photographed and famous tourist spots. Fortunately I arrived late in the day when most tour groups on day trips from Muscat had left. In many places in the World a site like this would either charge for camping or ban it entirely. Such a move would probably evoke a public outcry in Oman. The deep pools of water here were great for swimming.

    Date palms at Wadi Bani Khalid

    Date palms at Wadi Bin Khalid

    On top of the Wahiba sands.Camping beside the Wahiba sandsCamping beside the Wahiba sands

    Equally as popular to visit are the Wahiba Sands, an area of Oman that displays the desert at its most beautiful. Cycling off onto 100m high sand dunes wasn’t really an option, so I made do with camping in a date-palm plantation where the dunes ended. Magical.

    Old Omani doorOmani doorOman doorOmani doorOmani doorOmani doorOmani door

    Omani doorOmani door

    Intricately carved wooden doors remain in many old parts of Omani towns, outlasting the crumbling mud-brick dwellings that have now mostly been abandoned. I started seeing and photographing lots of them.

    Said's farm in the Oman desert.Breakfast with Said

    Another memorable encounter was a night camping beside an Omani farm. The green fields appeared like a mirage in the rocky landscape one late afternoon as I was thinking where I might sleep that night. Slowing to see what was growing beside the road, Said, dressed in the traditional long white dishdash that Omani men typically wear, called me over. After a short tour I was soon pitching the tent nearby and joined by Said’s friends. A fire was lit and then an enormous platter of roasted quails was brought out with fresh vegetables from the farm. Said returned in the morning as I was packing up. After a breakfast of pancakes, local honey and coffee I did my best to explain that it was not possible to carry kilos of tomatoes, aubergine and beetroot that were handed to me by one of his Bangladeshi workers.

     Road to IzkiAway from the coast and desert sands I headed towards the Hajar mountains.

    Mosque in Nizwa

    Nizwa town and mosque

    Nestled at the base of the mountains is one of Oman’s oldest towns – Nizwa, famous for its fort and souk.

    Nizwa souk pottery

    Nizwa Souk

    Both of which appear so clean and almost recreated for the likes of tourists like me that they’ve lost the authenticity that the literature about them evokes. Perhaps I should have arrived on a Friday when there is a weekly livestock market. The souk, like souks and many shops throughout Oman, closes between midday and around 1600, which isn’t very convenient.

    Nizwa souk fish market

    I decided to wait around a few hours for the fish market to open, which was about as lively as the place got.

    Edge of Nizwa old townAli the Kiswahili speaking Omani

    While walking through the empty streets of Nizwa’s old town I met Ali, overhearing a conversation he was having at the time with a Zanzibarian. They weren’t speaking in Arabic, but Kiswahili. This language isn’t all that foreign to Oman as it once owned the island of Zanzibar, which now belongs to Tanzania. It was a good opportunity to reacquaint myself with what I would classify as my second language. Ali was born in Tanzania, but has lived in Nizwa much of his life. I ended up being invited to spend the night in his home, which turned out to probably be one of the town’s oldest inhabited buildings.

    Camping in Nizwa

    Despite the offer to sleep inside, I opted for the mosquito free comfort of my tent.

    Bahla FortOutside Bahla FortSulaiman the Warm Showers host

    Beyond Nizwa it was onto Bahla, site of another enormous fort. I visited this the morning after being hosted Suleiman, who is a member of the warmshowers website. Omani’s with an interest in cycling aren’t very common.

    Bahla Fish souk

    Bahla’s souk isn’t as touched-up for tourists as Nizwa’s. Tuna fish seem to be popular in Oman. Around £5 for a kilo. Shame I can’t buy and carry this on the bike.

    Climb to Jebel Shams

    View from Jebel ShamsOn the edge: Jebel Shams

    Not far from Bahla and at just over 3000m in altitude, Jebel Shams is Oman’s highest mountain. It only seemed right that I should have a crack at cycling up it, although the road ends at around 2000m, following a steep 15km climb. I camped half-way up, left my bags in a cave then continued to the top the following morning, cycling back down and camping in the same place the next night.

    Jebel Shams goat

    Goats rather than camels are more at home in this mountain geography.

    Steep descent from Jebel Shams

    Descending from Jebel Shams reminded me just how steep the gradients in a few places were. Riding a bike weighing 60kg up this is something of masochistic pursuit.

    Climbing away from Jebel ShamsTop of a steep one

    As it was on this nearby track, which required some pushing when my back wheel started spinning.

    Rare ominous clouds

    Cloudy skies are rare in Oman. A few spots fell out of these dark clouds, but not enough to stop cycling and seek shelter.

    Wadi Damm CampWadi DammAnother wadi and another great camp/swim spot. This is Wadi Damm – located towards the western side of the Hajar mountains.

    Cycling companion For several days I was joined on the road by a friend who now lives in Oman. This was the first time we had cycled together since I left England and started cycling to South Africa. Some years ago now.

    Omani village

    Geologically gorgeous

    Hard to ask for much more than this: great weather, smooth quiet roads and beautiful scenery. Actually the paved road stopped soon after this – not a problem for me but hard-going on a road bike.

    Wadi campAnother wadi camp

    More wadi camping. When there is wood, which there often is beside a wadi, camp fires are part of the de rigeur camping experience in Oman, where nights can be surprisingly chilly.

    Improvisation

    I somehow left behind a tent pole while packing up my gear one morning. Idiot. Fortunately I can improvise with a stick.

    Evening shadows

    The constant companion. My time spent cycling each day in Oman was rarely very long. This was partly a measure of the sun setting before 6pm and the need to find somewhere to sleep before dark, but also because I was never in a rush to be anywhere, often stopping to charge phone battery for a few hours in a small cafe/restaurant, or look around whatever there might be of interest in the places I went through. With the exception of one rest day in Salalah I kept on the move constantly for over 5 weeks – typically riding 5-6 hours a day and covering 70-100km on average.

    Oman is not quite over. This journey is after all entitled Mwanza-Muscat, so it’s the capital I’m headed to next. My route through Oman can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

    If you have a question about cycling in Oman, or some other aspect of what I’ve covered here, please leave a comment below.

  • Arabian contrasts : Mwanza-Muscat Part 15 January 26th, 2016

    At first I was hesitant. Was it safe? Should I be asking permission from someone? Would an audience soon gather around me or visitors come in the night?

    The sea was calm, clear and blue; the beach long, sandy and empty. It was my first day on the road in Oman and I’d arrived at a beautiful place to camp.

    Camping on Mughsal beach

    In most of Africa a beach like this, at least one next to a paved road, would never be so peaceful nor safe to sleep alone on. There might be a fishing community living in makeshift huts beside it – possibly some high-walled compounds housing the comparatively rich nearby.

    Camping alone in such an easily seen and accessible place might be risky. I’d more likely ask someone to pitch my tent or choose to sleep in a nearby Guest House.

    But this was Oman – a World away, as I was to discover over the coming days and weeks, from the life I’d left behind in Africa.

    When a few 4x4s later drove along the beach at sunset, the drivers merely waved at me. What I was doing appeared to be totally normal. Camping, as I soon learned, is very much a part of Omani culture, although no-one camps alone here.

    I expected my time cycling in Oman would be a contrast to travelling through Africa. And so it has been – on many levels. Be it the quality of the roads, the ease of finding food or water, the safety of camping and the silent and seemingly empty towns, or the interaction with people who often wanted to give me things (usually bottled water, food or even money) Oman has turned out to be one of the simplest and most peaceful places I’ve toured through.

    Also beautiful, as I hope some of the pictures below are testament to. I’ve taken so many during my time here that I’ve split this update into two blog posts.

    Any negatives? Well alcohol is prohibitively expensive (around £5-6 for a beer in a licensed hotel) and like many Islamic countries conversation tends to be only with men. That gets a bit boring after a while.

    Anyhow, here is the first part of a visual tour from the last 5 weeks on the road in Oman, covering around 2700km. Most of the photos here follow a chronological order from when they were taken, moving from Salalah in the South to the small town of Ibri, where I’m writing this from, in the north.

    A map showing the route I took can be found at the bottom of this page. For those reading and wondering where exactly Oman is, here we are:

    Where is Oman

    Frankincense Seller in Salalah souq

    My first stop after saying goodbye to the Indian crew who brought me from Somaliland to Oman was the souk in Salalah, famed historically for its sales of frankincense and perfume.

    Frankincense for sale

    I always wondered what Frankincense looks like. Well here it is – a product that has been traded through the Arabian peninsula for thousands of years. Not much use carrying this in my panniers. Every other shop in the souk seemed to be burning it.

    Cruise boat tourists in Salalah Souq

    My arrival in Salalah and its souk coincided with that of a cruise ship carrying over 2000 passengers. Now this was a curious sight….

    Frankincense tree in Wadi Dawdah

    Frankincense trees grow around Salalah, although most of the World’s production comes from Somalia. The trees are mostly small and hardy in appearance – more impressive for their ability to grow out of barren looking surfaces.

    Wild Camp Wadi Dawdah

    I slept one night within a Frankincense tree plantation at Wadi Dawkah, a short distance from Salalah. The site came with a bench and pristine clean toilet block. I haven’t encountered such civilised wild camping since I cycled in Japan.

    View back to Mugsahl

    I cycled west from Salalah to begin with, taking me towards the border with Yemen. This was a good decision. Not only was there that beautiful beach to camp on, pictured at the top of this blog and in this picture, but some wonderful mountain and coastal scenery. During the summer months of June and July this coastal stretch of the Arabian peninsula turns green as monsoon rains transform the barren hillsides. That deserted beach would then probably be full of Arabs from around the gulf, who apparently flock to Salalah during those wet months. I was happy to have it to myself.

    Climbs ahead

    View towards Salalah
    Climbing up from the coastSteep climbing here, from sea level up to 1000m with gradients of 10-15%+. Other than beautiful views, the road had almost no traffic and the air temperature was no more than 30C. This would be truly murderous to cycle during the summer months when temperatures soar above 40C.

    Awdah the awesome Omani

    It was mid-way up this steep climb that I met Awdah, the first Omani I’d really spoken with since arriving two days previously in the country. He had pulled off the road a short distance up ahead and was taking pictures of me with a large camera as I slowly climbed towards him. Once we got talking I realised he also had an interest in travel and adventure, although preferred to drive off into the desert with a gun. ‘Not for people just for fun’, he explained before I was given about 2 kg of bananas and several litres of bottled water. ‘When you come back to Salalah just call me. We meet OK.’

    Greetings from Oman

    Road to Muvvai

    I later turned away from the coastal road, which would have taken me to the Yemeni border, and headed into the desert on a dirt track towards the remote town of Muddai.

    Searching for shade

    Not much shade out here – well none in fact. Earlier in the day I’d stopped at a military air-base and filled up with about 4 litres of water for this 70km stretch of bumpy gravel.

    Desert diversionThe GPS app (maps.me) on my phone proved useful out here where tracks often veered off in different directions.

    Desert sign-post

    Naturally I wanted to make sure I stayed on the main track on this gravel stretch.

    Village supermarket

    Even in what by Omani standards are remote places, a village shop here will often be as well-stocked as a much larger place in Africa.

    Luxury for a night

    Before arriving back in Salalah I decided to call Awdah, who explained through a Whatsap message that accommodation had been arranged for me. I assumed this meant an invitation to his home or a place to pitch my tent, but he had gone ahead and booked me into a hotel. When I enquired about the price, he made clear that I was his guest. And so I checked into what was a 2-star hotel, which probably cost around £40-60 per night, feeling slightly odd that this stranger I had met on the road for 10 minutes was paying for me (I realised when I checked out that he was friends with the owner so perhaps there was no money exchange on my behalf).

    Hotel room in Salalah

    With wild camping so easy, safe and free in Oman and budget accommodation, when it does exist, starting at around £20 a night, but more typically £30 upwards, I chose to camp throughout my time here.

    Selfie with AwdahAwdah later came to meet me, hoping I would stay around Salalah longer. We continue to keep in touch through Whatsap.

    Salalah Roadside

    Leaving Salalah for the second time I headed east along the coast. Salalah and its coastal environs, largely because of those monsoon rains, is greener and more tropical than the rest of Oman. Coconut palms grow along the beach road beside banana and papaya plantations.

    Taqah beach front

    Roadside fruit stall Salalah

    I managed to find space in my front panniers for half a kilo of bananas and some tangerines on the way out of Salalah.

    Mosque in Taqah

     Mosques are everywhere in Oman, which is of no surprise as the population is predominantly Muslim. For the cycle tourer who wishes to wild camp this is particularly good news as almost every mosque will have a chilled water drinking dispenser beside its ablution block, as well as some toilets. The latter, which usually consists of at least several cubicles depending on the size of the mosque, will always have a tap beside the squat toilet, which allows one the privilege of an African-style bucket shower (there is usually a plastic container beside the tap) and opportunity to wash a few salt-encrusted clothes if need be. I timed my arrival at mosques to be outside prayer times, which meant they were usually empty. In this way I could happily tour for days and weeks while camping every night and keeping clean.

    Night cycling

    The night-lit roads were my first ever views of Oman when I flew into the country a few years ago on a night flight from Tanzania. Back then I thought what a contrast this was from Africa – street-lights stretching for many kilometres beyond any human settlement, shining throughout the night. I avoid cycling in the dark whenever possible, although on roads like this it doesn’t really matter. I was looking for somewhere to camp.

    Sunrise from my sleeping bag

    And ended up here – 10km beyond the small town of Taqah. It was a stunning spot above the sea, but the wind was so strong that it was impossible to pitch the tent so I rolled my mat out on the concrete remains of a mosque.

    Oman flag at Mirbat Fort

    A short distance along the coast from Salalah lies the quiet coastal town of Mirbat. Quiet is a word that could be used to describe almost every place in Oman. Mirbat retains some of its historical charm, with a pretty little bay and perfect swimming beach in front of the fort.

    Sea-front at Mirbat

    Despite being so close to the sea for a lot of the time in Oman, this is the only place I went for a swim – my bicycle conveniently within sight leaned against the wall of the fort just behind where this picture was taken.

    Town of Mirbat

    A view of Mirbat’s old town from the top of the town’s restored fort.

    Indian bike outside Mirbat Fort

    The classic Indian roadster is a common sight in Oman, used by many of the South Asian’s (Pakistanis Indians and Bangladeshis) who come to work and live in Oman.

    Bike shop in MirbatBicycles and sea-air don’t mix well. Many of the bicycles I did see in towns along the Omani coast were rusted.

    Omani boy with his bicycle

    Omani cyclist

    The only Omanis I saw riding bicycles were children. Not much status to be had on two wheels when you can roar around in 4x4s on cheap fuel (£0.20 a litre).

    Exploring Mirbat

    Exploring Mirbat and its Yemeni-style architecture. Many buildings like this are no longer inhabited.

    Omani architectureTraditionally Oman was a sea-faring nation. Many buildings along the coast depict this with maritime features in their facade.

    Old Omani house front in Sadah Old Oman

    Meeting Oman's road construction workers

     The Salalah to Muscat coastal road is entirely paved, although in stretches work crews are in the process of making it into a dual carriageway, which doesn’t seem necessary considering how little traffic there is. Many new roads in Africa are financed and built by the Chinese. Here it is South Asian labourers (predominantly Pakistani) doing the work, with lots of these human lookalikes holding flags to warn drivers.

    Wadi SunriseIt’s rarely hard to find a place to camp in Oman. After several nights I decided to leave the rainsheet off my tent, which allowed for better star-gazing, although on some nights a heavy dew would descend leaving myself and gear somewhat damp in the morning. Wadi’s, (dry riverbeds) such as this one between Mirbat and Sadah , are everywhere in Oman and often the most obvious place to pitch a tent as there are soft spots of sand and usually trees/rocks to lean the bike against or provide some protection from any wind. Wadis can also be very dangerous places to camp should there be any rain, quickly filling with water in a matter of minutes. I always tried to find a spot away from the main channel or beside the wadi itself.

    Coastal road to Hasik

    Seeing faces

    Coastal road to Hasik

    East from Mirbat the Dhofar mountains drop into the sea, providing for some spectacular coastal cycling.

    Fishing boats on Hasik beachFishing boats on the beach at Hasik

    Turquoise viewsCoastal view in Southern Oman

    Up until a few years ago this stretch of stunning coastline, east from the village of Hasik, was only connected by an unpaved road.

    Southern Oman coastal road

    Beautiful Oman
    Tobias from AustriaThe first touring cyclist I met in Oman was a young Austrian. This was Tobias’s first tour – a 4-week ride from Muscat-Salalah. It was late in the day when we met so we ended up camping together on a nearby beach outside the town of Ash Shuwayimiyyah.

    Sunrise on Ash Shuwaymiyyah beach

    Tobias had no tent, which isn’t a necessity in Oman as it rarely ever rains. I too started the night without pitching the tent, until the whining sound of a few mosquitoes dive-bombing my ears woke me up.

    Packing up from Ash Shuwaymiyyah beach.

    Meeting Wolfgang in Ash ShuaymiyyahAbout 20km down the road in the town of Ash Shuaymiyah I met another Austrian – Tobias’s step-father Wolfgang. For one reason or another they had decided to cycle separately.

    Fish Biriyani for lunch

    King-fish BiriyaniRestaurants and cafes are easy to find in Oman, typically run by Pakistani, Indian or Bangladeshis, and often very good value for money. Fish Biriyani, such as pictured here, would cost around £2-3 and a simpler plate of fried dal with chapatis less than £1. I often used the time in these small roadside eateries to charge my mobile phone.

    Camp pasta concoctionEvening meals while camping often consisted of a large bowl of spaghetti/pasta/rice, mixed with whatever vegetables I was carrying and possibly some tinned tuna and takeaway roti/chapati from one of the cafes and restaurants I had been in earlier that day.

    Camping near Shalim

    Thorny tree and my loaded Thorn

    Broken kickstand

    Camp spots with a tree or rock to lean the bicycle against became more important when my kickstand decided to split. No point in trying to weld this as it’s aluminium plated.

    Camel racing

    ‘Do you want to see camels racing’, came the voice from a pick-up passing me by on the desert road east from Shalim one morning. 10 minutes later my bicycle was parked beside a camel racing track and I was sitting alongside a Bedu driver who was timing half a dozen camels running a 1km course. ‘Just practice today’. 90 seconds was the winning time. A minute later I was handed some water bottles and back on the bicycle.

    Racing camels near Shalim

    Making Omani friendsPhoto stop

    Random Omani wanting a pic

    On an almost daily basis Omani’s would pull over on the road and offer me bottled water, sometimes a soft drink and on several occasions I was asked if I needed financial help! Some spoke English, others just wanted to say hello and take a picture.

    There are plenty more pictures to come from this journey through Oman in the next blog post.

  • Cattle Cargo: Mwanza-Muscat Part 14 December 30th, 2015

    The cows didn’t smell as bad as I thought; hardly at all in fact. This had been my initial worry when I realised I would be spending three days and four nights at sea with them.

    Cows on the sea

    Some of the 500 cattle

    There were 500 in total, crammed into a series of pens on three tiers of decking. There was also a fourth deck – the forecastle, at the bow of the boat, loaded with covered straw bales for the cows, and a quarterdeck of sorts at the stern, which is where I and the crew spent most of the time. This consisted of a bridge and two cabins, around which a covered wooden decking allowed movement from one side of the vessel to the other, and access to one of two long drop toilets either side of an enormous wooden rudder. More on that later.

    Bike firmly strapped on.

    A large wooden wheel manned in six-hour shifts by one of the four pilots dominated the bridge, to the right of which the engine controls, a compass and small GPS were fitted.

    Majid one of the Pilots

    Behind the bridge a bare-floored central cabin provided space for crew to sleep. This gave access to the aft-cabin – a cozy carpeted space that contained two berths, one for the captain and the other kindly offered to me. Attached to the captain’s cabin was also a small cubicle for a bucket shower. All in all simple, but fairly comfortable and sufficient quarters to pass time at sea I thought.

    Crew sleeping

    My berth on the boat

    The boat, the Shahe-Al-Sabir – so named after the owner’s son, measured 39m in length by 11m in breath and was built almost entirely of wood. Like the crew it was Indian in origin; both from a place called Salaya in Gujarat to be more precise.

    According to the captain around 100 similar vessels, known as vahans, ply the seas of the Gulf of Aden, mostly transporting livestock from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, and foodstuffs on the return voyage. All those Somalian goats and sheep I’d seen weren’t being consumed by Somalilanders, but Arabs in Saudi Arabia, Oman and other gulf nations.

    On the third day another vahan carrying 5000 goats from the port of Bossaso in Puntland (another autonomous region of Somalia) came close by. The crew, like the crew on all vahans, were also Gujarati. As for the cows I was accompanying, well they had come from Ethiopia. This was a long journey to the slaughterhouse.

    Another Indian boat

    Other than the captain, Sabir, and the first engineer, Salim, none of the crew (15 in total) spoke English. They were all young guys in their twenties, not only coming from the same town in Gujarat, but from the same extended family.

    Captain Samir

    Crew member

    Gujarati crew

    Despite the barrier in communications I made the effort to learn everyone’s name and quickly felt welcomed onboard. Chai was frequently offered and meals were shared in typical Indian fashion.

    Sitting with some crew

    Meeting the crew.

    One goat and four chickens started the journey with us. Ayai, the First Cook, and his younger brother Riswan, the youngest crew member at 19, served these up in hot oily sauces with rice and chapattis during the voyage, cooking on the starboard side of the quarterdeck over a couple of simple covered gas hobs.

    Ayaj the first cook

    Preparing goat meat

    Communal dining

    The sea was relatively calm during the 660 nautical mile journey through the Gulf of Aden. The 1200CC 12-cylinder engine that Abid, one of the Engineers showed me, powered us along at a gentle 8-10 knots in speed. What little spray did come over the bow ended up giving the cows on the open section of the third deck a refreshing cool-off.

    The Engine room

    Crew member

    During the hotter months of the year on a crossing with little wind this would have been an uncomfortable journey for both crew and cargo. When there was a lull in the sea breeze during the second day the crew attached an awning for the cows out in the open, and blew air through the use of two large fans for cows on the lower decks. For most of the time a large sail channeled the sea breeze to cows on the lower decks.

    East to Oman

    The cows were silent most of the time, although mid-morning for one reason of a bovine nature seemed to be a time of increased activity within the pens, with many an attempt at procreation taking place. Considering how tightly packed the animals were this required much manoeuvring on the part of certain cows in order to hit the target so to speak.

    The bales of covered dry straw were fed to the cows once a day, just before sunset. As for water, despite the boat carrying 10,000 litres for them, which Salim said they would receive on the third day, the poor animals never got a drink. Naturally 500 cows urinating on an open wooden deck shortly before arriving in Salalah would have created quite a mess for the crew to clean up, which I assume is one of the reasons they didn’t get their drink.

    As far as I could tell when we did dock, all of the animals had survived, although I’m sure a number of kilos in their body mass would have been lost during the time at sea.

    Feeding time

    Feeding time

    As for my diet and digestive system, the daily diet of chapattis and apprehension of squatting 5 metres above the sea in open view only seemed to block me up, which reminded me of an episode of Micahel Palin’s 80 Days Around the World when he took a sea voyage to India.

    The long drop

    When not seeing to the cows, which didn’t take up that much time, the crew spent most of their day preparing and chewing betal nuts. This practice is to some Indians what qat is to Somalians. While eating was very much a communal affair, and the job tasks on board were shared, each crewmember appeared to have his own stash of betel nuts and chewing tobacco. The sound of betel nuts being crushed with a pair of pliars was a familiar one, both day and night, during the voyage. Once the nut was crushed into small pieces it would then be mixed with tobacco and a white powder I never identified, before being thrown into the mouth. This made conversation with the captain, who seemed to chew practically the whole day, somewhat challenging, unless he’d just leaned over the deck rail and spat the contents of his mouth – a reddish liquid, into the sea below.

    Betel nut preparation

    If not chewing or sleeping the crew would be watching videos on their phones. I never asked what salary any of them made, but almost everyone had a smartphone, although that’s not really a big deal these days. There seemed to be a happy harmony amongst them onboard.

    During June and July they told me they would be back in India with their family, leaving again in August with a cargo of rice for Somalia. This simple life didn’t seem like a bad one to me. Out at sea under the immensity of a cloudless sky in a vast expanse of blueness beneath, all of the World’s problems seemed far away.

    Several large navy ships came into view on the third day. I had by this stage asked the captain about pirate attacks in an area of the World renowned for them. Well that was the case several years ago. Of late there have been very few incidents of piracy in these waters, owing in large part I guess to international navy boats, such as those we saw, patrolling the seas. A boatload of cows and an Indian crew also didn’t seem like great booty. I had already imagined smearing myself in straw dung and hiding in one of the pens should we have been attacked.

    International Navy boat

    A forecast of stronger winds on the third day had the captain changing course slightly so that we steered closer to the Yemeni coast. When I first thought about this trip back in Tanzania, Yemen had been included, but with the current insecurity there was no way I was heading there – a shame as the towering mountains that rose out of the sea looked dramatic.

    Mountains of Yemen

    Sunrises and sunsets were special, although dinner always seemed to be served about 5 minutes before the latter. It was only me who paid any attention to what for everyone else was just another period of time in the day.

    Sunset over Gulf of Aden

    Shortly before sunset on the third day, some 10 miles or less off the Yemeni coast and just after the crew had fed the cattle for the final time and thrown the remaining straw overboard, we saw a pod of dolphins, perhaps 50 or more, playing in the sea close to the boat. This the crew did take more interest in. I had been told it was common to see dolphins and sometimes whales. It was a magical sight and I was partly sad the journey would be over the next day.

    When we did dock in Salalah the following morning I was in no particular rush to leave the boat. Small tins of blue paint were the first items to come aboard, almost immediately after we tied up. At first I thought this was for the crew to do some touch-up work on the boat’s paintwork, but they were soon amongst the cows marking the backs of all of them with a zero. This, I was soon told, was to identify the owner.

    Numbering cattle

    A crane arrived soon after and so began the process of unloading all 500 cows, a job that took most of the day. It was somewhat saddening to have spent several days with these animals, who must have been in discomfort, to watch them being taken away to a slaughterhouse rather than some open green pastures.

    Unloading cattle

    ‘Do you want to borrow my phone to call your people here’, asked the captain, who assumed I had friends in Salalah. Back in Berbera I had mentioned something about having friends in Salalah as an assurance that if there were a problem when I arrived I had contacts who would assist me. I knew no-one here.

    By the time I’d got my Omani visa and bought a sim card to connect my phone it was afternoon. Salalah was 15km away. No hotel was going to come at the prices I was familiar with in Africa, so I asked to sleep aboard another night. This wasn’t a problem, so I shared a final dinner with the crew and sent photos I’d taken of them during the journey to their phones.

    When I did leave the next morning it was time to pay the captain. Not once had he ever asked for money. Back in Berbera it had been me telling Maulid the agent that I would pay for the voyage. I’m sure the captain must have thought I would tip him, but it required some effort for him to accept the $100 bill that I pressed into his hand. For him, the crew, the shipping agents, immigration and so many other people, the fact that I was with a bicycle and choosing to take a passage at sea for 4 nights with 500 cows and 15 mostly non English speaking crew was surely because I couldn’t afford other means to travel.

    Saying goodbye to the Gujarati crew

    For me the experience and adventure had been priceless. I would have happily spent another day at sea, or longer with this crew. Now though it was time to explore a new country; one that I imagined to be very different to any in Africa – Oman.

    A map showing the course the boat took from Berbera-Salalah can be viewed at the bottom of this page.

  • Goodbye Africa: Mwanza-Muscat Part 13 December 15th, 2015

    At first it looked like finding a boat to leave Africa would be easy.

    ‘Inshallah this will not be a problem’, were Mohammed’s reassuring words as I found myself sat in a newly built air-conditioned office during my first morning in Berbera.

    ‘We are agents for Maersk. One of our ships will arrive here tomorrow. If the Captain agrees I see no problem for you to travel to Salalah in Oman when it goes back’.

    I liked his optimism. This sounded perfect, particularly when I enquired what it would cost me.

    ‘Oh don’t worry about that. As a Muslim I wish to help and shall see that you go free’.

    I went away from his office in high-spirits. What a weight off my mind. Now I could continue exploring what looked to be one of Africa’s most alluring places.

    Central Berbera

    Berbera’s importance as a seaport goes back many centuries before the British administered it as the capital of their protectorate in 1884. ‘The true key of the Red Sea’ and a ‘harbour coveted by many a foreign conqueror’, was how the explorer Richard Burton described it at a time of Ottoman influence. Arab, Persian, Asian and even Jewish communities all settled here at some time. The evidence of which remains to this day in a fascinating, display of crumbling decay.

    Old building in Berbera

    Berbera ruins

    Berbera ruins

    View over Berbera

    Were Somaliland internationally recognised I have little doubt that the old quarter of Berbera would be given UNESCO World Heritage status. Here is a time-warped treasure trove of colonial and pre-colonial buildings, most of which were abandoned when Civil War broke out.

    Fish warehouse Berbera

    Central Berbera

    What I first assumed was war-torn damage is in fact due mostly to the weather. It rarely rains here, but when it does heavy storms bring down roofs and old walls. The result is a sad sight. Many buildings are in a desperate need of preservation. The little construction I did see taking place is not to restore the historical fabric, but to build new again.

    In the summer months Berbera records temperatures of 45C plus. Now in December it’s at least 10C cooler, which is hot enough.

    Old Persian mosque in Berbera

    Mosque in Berbera

    Mohammed’s ship, the MV Souni, duly arrived as he said, but wasn’t expected to dock at the port until sometime later the next day. This seemed like a good opportunity to venture into the port itself, have a look around and hopefully meet the Polish Captain, whose name I had written down but couldn’t pronounce.

    Well that wasn’t going to happen. Berbera’s port security took an instant disliking to the idea, even if I was with Mohammed’s logistics officer and agreed to leave my camera with them at the gate.

    Mohammed arranged for the Captain to visit the shipping office the following morning, where I soon discovered I would not be on his ship leaving for Salalah later that day. The Captain was open, honest, even apologetic, explaining that for matters of insurance, safety etc etc, he wasn’t in a position to authorise it. Only if one of the ship’s 19 crew were not on board would there be a chance of getting a passage, and that would still require authorisation from the Greek owners.

    I probably could have been told this three days previously had I been able to communicate directly with the Captain, who said he had no real idea why he was meeting me until that morning. The search for a boat would have to begin again.

    My general upbeat mood changed now. I couldn’t relax. Before arriving in Berbera I imagined spending my last few days in Africa on the beach. There was endless white sand and crystal blue waters a few kilometres from the town, which I’d visited briefly when I first arrived, but I wasn’t going to find a boat out there. I realised I needed to find more contacts, be persistent and be taken seriously. This meant staying in the town, even if little happened between midday and 4pm when businesses more or less shut up shop.

    Beach in Berbera

    A cold beer or two would have helped ease the stress. Were there just a few simple outdoor drinking establishments for the non-believers in town Berbera would have been an infinitely better place to pass the time. Instead it was male-dominated tea-drinking and qat-chewing establishments all over again, broken up by calls to prayer in one of the many mosques. The closest Somaliland comes to serving alcohol is a pathetic non-alcoholic malt drink that calls itself Bavaria.

    Qat and chai

    Qat for sale

    Somaliland beer import

    English conversation was rarely hard to find. Some of Berbera’s older generation spoke fluent English or had returned from years overseas. Many remembered a time when their father or uncle worked for a British man. Like other countries in Africa with an anglophone history, it is the older generation who speak better English than the youth of today, where large class numbers and poorly trained teachers typify most government schools.

    Still, the kids here were mostly friendly and less of a nuisance than their Ethiopian neighbours, some of which had come this far to clean cars, polish shoes and beg.

    Berbera Boys

    Young girl in Berbera

    Woman and daughter Berbera
    Mother and daughter

    Berbera children

    Many men would call me over from the side of the road, curious to know why I had come to Berbera. Most were always high on qat, or on their way to becoming so. After exchanging a few pleasantries I would move on. Perhaps it was the heat or character of being a port town on the edge of Africa, but Berbera also seemed like a haven for madmen. There were many of them wandering the dusty streets between the litter and goats. Perhaps they were also hoping for a boat out.

    Colourful rubbish in Berbera

    Qat chewer

    Mad qat chewer

    My hotel room was about the only refuge in town – incongruously modern, clean and providing consistently good wifi for $10 a night. Sitting outside during the day meant dealing with armies of flies. Perhaps that’s why everyone ate their plates of spaghetti and rice so quickly. I don’t recall any other town in Africa so full of them.

    Local tea shop Berbera

    Young girl in Berbera

    There were also plenty of cats and goats, but they were less of a concern for my health. If Berbera was the first place you came to in Africa I’m sure your digestive system would take a battering.

    Berbera cat

    Berbera cats

    Berbera ruins

    Qat stall and goat

    Local restaurant Berbera

    As the days went by I built up a mini phone directory of numbers, telling each and every person I met on the street, the sane ones that I could judge at least, how I wanted to take a boat from Berbera. People were always positive, as they often are in Africa, but no-one could ever give me a direct answer. ‘Don’t worry you will find. Inshallah’. This wasn’t the answer I wanted.

    What I really needed was to meet someone influential. Someone who could cut through all the pleasant small talk and make things happen.

    Initially I thought this might be Hassan, an elderly Somalilander of that educated generation who didn’t seem to be addicted to qat. His friendly speaking English fluency and time overseas led me to believe he was a big shot in town. Surely with 4 wives and 22 children you have to be a big shot in Somaliland?

    Hassan

    Well if he was short on influence he more than made up for it with kindness, calling around and driving from one shipping agent to another.

    I knew there were boats that left Berbera for Oman. I was also happy to wait until my visa expired the next week if one person could say for sure ‘Yes you can take this boat’. After years living and travelling in Africa I should have known that nothing is ever certain on the continent until it happens.

    The alternative to leaving by boat would either be returning to Hargeisa and flying to Dubai, now that Berbera’s Airport is no longer in use, or over-landing/flying all the way back to Addis Ababa and flying from there to Oman. Neither would be simple, cheap or the adventure I had in mind. I couldn’t travel West to Djibouti as I had no visa and East lay Puntland, a no-go area.

    Berbera Airport Entrance

    In the end it proved to be more stressful and complicated than I could ever have imagined.

    Port security continued to deny me entrance to the port on three more occasions.

    They say you are a correspondent’ laughed Maulid, another young shipping agent who tentatively agreed to allow me to travel on a boat of his to Salalah. This was after I made it clear, on several occasions, that British citizens don’t require a visa before arrival in the country. He’d told me when I first walked into his office how a German, some years previously, had got on a boat in Berbera without an Omani visa. The boat was then held at the port in Salalah for many days while immigration authorities contacted his embassy and made problems for the captain of the boat. Idiot.

    I had been in Berbera a week now and still not been inside the port. The Port Manager or even the Mayor might have helped had either of them answered their phone.

    From the roof of the hotel I could see several half-sunken ships in the bay nearby. This would have made an excellent place for a sun-downer, although I doubt the other hotel guests thought so. 

    Berbera bay

    Berbera from my hotel roof-top

    When the Indian Captain of the boat Maulid was the agent for agreed and we shook hands one morning I breathed a sigh of relief. That was until I realised he didn’t have the final say. There was an agent in Salalah I needed authorisation from as well as the owner of the agency, Maulid’s boss, who was somewhere else in Somaliland. More nervous waiting ensued.

    ‘You will be on the boat tonight. Inshallah’. Maulid said as he instructed Hassan to take me to the immigration office after the Captain agreed. Here an exit stamp was issued and I was relieved of $30, which may or may not have been official procedure. I didn’t care. This sounded like progress. If my passport had an exit stamp from Berbera Port then surely I must be leaving from here.

    I returned to the hotel to pack up and buy some supplies for what I’d heard was a 3-4 day journey. The boat would leave that night when its cargo – 500 cows, were loaded.

    I checked out of the hotel and sat in the reception. I was still nervous and had a headache. Maulid called and said to visit his office.

    ‘My boss says you can go, but the bicycle must stay here’. This sounded ridiculous. When I asked why some nonsense about port rules in Salalah and the boss of the shipping company not wanting to be responsible for anything that wasn’t his cargo, was given to me.

    ‘Don’t worry you can leave the bike in Maulid’s office and they will send it on another boat to Oman. Or just buy one there’, suggested Hassan. It was clearly apparent that no one realised how important this bike was to me. Leaving it in Berbera on the premise that it would be sent at a later date just wasn’t an option. I wondered if Maulid and Hassan had hatched some plan to keep my bike for themselves.

    It was dark now and the boat would soon be leaving. I left Maulid and cycled down to the port with Hassan following in his car. Now that my passport had been stamped out of Somaliland and I had a port pass I finally made it inside.

    I wheeled the bike between various shipping containers and made my way to the dockside. A large wooden boat was moored alongside. ‘Shahe Al Sabir’ was written around the bow. This was my boat.

    I waved up at the Captain standing 3 metres above me on the deck. He’d seemed nervous when we met in the agent’s office that morning. Now on more familiar turf he smiled and waved, keeping a close eye on half a dozen cows that were flying through the sky 10 metres above me. The last of the 500 cows were being strapped together on the dock and soon to be craned into the open hold of the vessel.

    The reality was this boat was about to leave within the next hour and the Captain wasn’t going to allow me to take my bike unless he had authorisation to.

    My headache had intensified by this point. There was no way I was leaving the bike behind, but staying now that my passport had been stamped out and my visa soon to expire was going to be an equally big headache.

    Maulid arrived to give the boat final clearance to leave. This was the first time he had seen my bike. I pleaded and asked for the shipping owner’s number.

    ‘This bike and the bags on it are my life. It is impossible to leave it’ I shouted as Maulid checked all was ready for departure. It was becoming clear that the bike mattered.

    Telephone calls were made. The Indian crew looked down at the bike and me, confused I’m sure as to what was going on. I don’t recall ever being so stressed in all my time in Africa.

    A few anxious minutes passed and Maulid called me over. ‘He says you can take the bike’.

    I helped and watched the crew hoist it over the side with two ropes tied onto the frame, before speeding back to Maulid’s office in his pick-up, where I was asked to write something to the effect of clearing the agent of any responsibility for me.

    This was it. I was leaving Somaliland and Africa by boat.

  • Cycling Somaliland: Mwanza-Muscat Part 12 December 10th, 2015

    It was a welcome surprise when my passport was handed back to me with permission to freely go. For the previous hour it had been in the possession of a member of the Somaliland Immigration Police Force, whose black-stained teeth and dark wrap-around sunglasses cut something of an ominous appearance as I arrived in a country that doesn’t officially exist.

    On most maps, and to most international observers and organisations, the area of Somaliland forms part of a country that continues to be plagued by instability and danger – Somalia. To most other people, Somaliland sounds too much like Somalia to be conceived any differently. ‘Have you not seen black hawk down’? commented one person on Facebook. Mogadishu lies over 1000km away from anywhere I was headed to.

    Somaliland map

    Somaliland on the map

    The truth is that for the past 24 years, when Somaliland claimed independence from its southern neighbour following the break out of fighting several years earlier, the country has witnessed relative peace. Somaliland has its own ruling government, army, currency and free press.

    War muriel in Hargeisa

    Up until 1960 the area that is now Somaliland was a British Protectorate, and British Somaliland was recognised as independent from its southern neighbour, modern day Somalia, which was then under Italian control.

    Despite a relatively untroubled recent past I still wasn’t certain whether cycling here was permitted. The few travel reports that do exist said much the same as my 7-year old Lonely Planet; outside the main towns of Hargeisa and Berbera an armed guard was mandatory for foreigners. It was hard to imagine a soldier with an AK47 over his shoulder pedalling alongside me.

    It was not a great shock therefore when I rolled up to a little used border following a peaceful nights sleep in my tent between the Ethiopian and Somaliland immigration posts (the first wild camp since northern Kenya) that I should be pointed to load my bicycle into a waiting vehicle.

    No-mans land camp

    Despite my passport no longer being in my possession I kept calm and refused, holding onto the handlebars while someone who had been ordered to assist with the loading attempted to relieve me of it.

    Words were exchanged amongst immigration police and the driver. I expected a lengthily delay, but was soon permitted to cycle to the nearby town of Borama, 8km away, while this vehicle containing my passport followed closely behind.

    I imagined this might be the scenario for the rest of the day, and at some point I would be presented with a bill for the driver’s expense and anyone else who had come along to witness the rare sight of a foreigner on a bicycle in Somaliland.

    The fortunate truth was that once another teeth-blackened immigration officer had looked at my passport and visa, deeming it satisfactory to receive an entry stamp, I was free to go.

    One of the many problems of not being an internationally recognised country is that there is no international banking system. Somaliland has no ATM machines accepting Visa cards so cash must be brought into the country. Cash means US Dollars.

    Soon after gaining my freedom I was in a petrol station forecourt agreeing to change $100 into Somali Shillings. This was a mistake, for it took somewhat longer to count out the 780,000 Shillings, handed over to me in a mixture of 1000 and 5000 denomination notes. I later realised most businesses, be they tin-shack cafes or village shops, readily accept US Dollars, although having much smaller denominations of $1 and $5 notes is obviously preferable when a cup of tea costs about $0.12 and a meal between $1-3.

    Somaliland shillings

    Unlike other African countries where $50 and $100 notes fetch a higher rate of exchange, here it doesn’t matter what denomination you use to buy Somali Shillings with. 1 US dollar = 7800 shillings and the only notes in circulation are worth 500, 1000 and 5000 Shillings.

    Most Somalilanders get over this inconvenience by paying for nearly everything with their phone, electronically transferring funds to an account number displayed by the shop, restaurant or whatever business in question they are paying.

    Somaliland lacks Ethiopia’s dramatic scenery, but I soon realised there was none of the roadside frenzy of shouting, chasing and stone throwing as I headed in the direction of the capital, Hargeisa.

    The fact that there are far less people living here and very few foreign visitors is one reason to account for this relative normality. Indeed the semi-arid shrubbery at the roadside is more suited to goats than human habitation. There are more than twice as many of them (over 8 million) as there are people (3.8 million) here. Wild camping in such a setting is easy, although hyenas are also common. Now that I’m trained in feeding them I didn’t fear hearing them too much at night.

    Wild camping in Somaliland

    At least half-a-dozen Police check posts broke up the 120km journey between Borama and Hargeisa, but the effect of qat chewing, which is as ubiquitous here as eastern Ethiopia where its mostly grown, fortunately seemed to have more of a tranquillising effect on  those who manned the rope across the road. A few greetings, smiles and a simple explanation of nationality, where I was coming from and going to was usually sufficient to be on my way again. No one asked for money nor made life difficult.

    In comparison to Ethiopia, people, for the most part, seemed wonderfully welcoming and civilized. Perhaps it was the traces of colonial history, or just a strong Muslim identity where the duty to respect and welcome the few visitors that do come here was being adhered to.

    People frequently slowed down in passing cars to greet me, quickly asking my name and where I was from. Some spoke fluent English, having spent time overseas – be it in America, the UK or somewhere else in Europe. They were returning to visit family or set up a business in Hargeisa.

    Roadside chat

    Education seems to be taken seriously here, at least if the number of schools and universities is anything to go by. Hargeisa is full of them, as it is pharmacies.

    ‘Good business’, explained Ismail, a young Somalilander, educated overseas but now back to help run his family clinic in the capital.

    Fortunately I had no need to visit a Somaliland pharmacy, but wondered what regulations existed to ensure the authenticity of medicines sold.

    I stayed in Hargeisa’s oldest hotel – the Oriental, during my time here. Compared to Ethiopian standards accommodation in Somaliland is definitely an improvement, although that isn’t saying much when I think of some of the bed-bug filled cells I passed a night in there.

    Internet is also an improvement. Mobile Internet in Ethiopia is amongst the most expensive in Africa. It’s cheaper in Somaliland and the broadband service is far faster owing to a fibre-optic cable linked to Djibouti.

    Too bad there is no alcohol. Other than sit in the company of other men and drink Ethiopian coffee, fruit juice or chew qat, there isn’t a huge amount to do in Hargesia. By 9pm most streets are deserted.

    Like lots of other Muslim countries I’ve travelled through it was plainly obvious how much of a man’s world this was. I could freely walk around day or night and sit to eat and drink wherever I chose. A single foreign woman would either have to be very brave or in the company of other women or some male friends to feel quite so comfortable to explore.

    Outside my hotel window

    This doesn’t mean to say Hargeisa was dangerous – quite the opposite in fact. Walking around the congested and chaotic streets it was easy to be drawn into friendly conversation with people. At first I was wary and assumed there must be a catch. There are almost no big cities or capitals in Africa where anyone who approaches you for conversation has merely a conversation and offer to freely help in mind. Sad, but true. Hargeisa, for the most part I think, defies this. Whether I was sitting in a busy restaurant in the centre of the city or visiting the capital’s livestock market, as I did one morning, people were mostly curious, sometimes too much so.

    Clothes market from my hotel window

    Hargeisa market

    Livestock market in Hargeisa

    Women and goats

    Goats for sale in Hargeisa.

    I visited the Ministry of Tourism on the morning I left Hargeisa. Somaliland’s main tourist attraction consists of a series of caves filled with ancient rock paintings dated to between 3000-9000BC. Located some 60km east of the capital on the way to the coast, entrance to Las Geel, I had been informed, needed permission from the ministry and payment of $25.

    In a country whose annual number of tourists runs to hundreds rather than tens of thousands, the friendly team of Somalilanders weren’t particularly busy when I arrived at the ministry, issuing the permit within a few minutes. No mention was made of a mandatory armed guard, and I politely refused the offer of having a letter written for me at the cost of $20 to explain to the police at various check posts what I had successfully already been doing.

    At Somaliland's Ministry of Tourism

    Las Geel, should you ever be in Somaliland, is well worth the visit. Not only is the site surrounded by some magnificent desert scenery, but it’s more or less guaranteed that the experience of viewing these ancient rock paintings will be done so alone, which adds to experience.

    View from Las Geel caves

    View from Las Geel

    Las Geel rock art

    Las Geel rock art

    Las Geel rock art

    Las Geel rock art

    Somaliland desert

    Somali house

    Camping here also made the trip memorable. Rain started falling shortly before I arrived and pitched my tent next to a wadi. What had been a waterless bed of sand dramatically transformed into a fast-flowing river within seconds as I watched a surging body of brown foam roar its way past my tent, safely pitched 10 metres away.

    Camp at Las Geel

    ‘Are you the guy trying to get a boat from Berbera’, said a female voice from inside a car the next day as I headed towards the coast. Indeed I was. This had been on my mind for days, weeks in fact. How I was going to proceed from Somaliland. Soon I was about to find out.

    The American tourist and her German travel partner were visiting the coast for the day in a private car, having also stayed at the Oriental Hotel, where they’d obviously heard about me. I saw them again later in the day on their way back, the passenger seat now occupied by an armed policeman.

    It seemed absurd that here I was out on the road alone, passing through check posts more or less freely, while other tourists were renting cars and so called mandatory armed guards when I suspect they could have been using local buses. If there was a danger from terrorism or kidnappings it wasn’t apparent. Not one Somalilander warned me of any threat to being on these roads alone. There were so many check-posts and the desert landscape impossible to traverse by vehicle that unless I was going to be kidnapped by helicopter I really didn’t see any threat.

    Desert scenery in Somaliland

    I’d told plenty of Somalilanders about my plan to leave the country by boat from Berbera. The responses had been optimistic. ‘Oh don’t worry you will find one, inshallah’, had been the general reply. Little did I know then how much the word inshallah would unsettle me over the coming days.

  • East from Addis: Mwanza-Muscat Part 11 November 25th, 2015

    There are two roads to leave Addis Ababa on if travelling East. One is a new toll road consisting of beautifully smooth Chinese-crafted tarmac; the other is an old road – narrower and lacking a paved shoulder. As drivers must pay to use the toll road most stick to the old road. I should have known that.

    Theoretically bicycles are forbidden on toll roads, but as this is Africa no one really cares. I only discovered this, although in hindsight felt I should have known this too, on my second day riding out of the capital.

    Unfortunately by this point the toll road ended after 12km and I was back with the madness of trucks I’d spent the first day with.

    Entering the Expressway

    Empty Expressway to Nazrat

    As Ethiopia is a land-locked country it relies heavily on goods from its nearest port. This is in Djibouti – the destination for 90% of the container trucks and other large vehicles I spent the next day and a half with.

    Road hell

    It wouldn’t have been so bad had there been a paved hard shoulder to give myself a bit of distance from this constant stream of metal monsters.

    Max Max on the road

    In months to come the new railway (Chinese constructed of course) should handle most of this cargo, but for now the road between Addis Ababa and Awash remains one of the most dangerous I’ve cycled in Africa. I lost count of the number of over-turned vehicles lying in the arid shrubbery at the roadside – usually with the surviving driver or passenger watching over whatever cargo or other stealable goods were present.

    Overturned container truck

    At least the traffic took care of the children – running alongside me would have been suicidal for the most part.

    An armed policeman stopped me on the road a short distance before most of these trucks made a left turn towards Djibouti. He emerged from a tin-shack shelter beside a bridge over the Awash River. Not much English was spoken, but enough to understand I couldn’t cross the bridge. Too dangerous seemed to be the initial reasoning. This made little sense as the bridge was only 100m long and just as wide as the rest of the road. There was even an old dis-used bridge that I could have crossed nearby. Also a no-go. Apparently I needed to return to the nearby town of Awash where permission from the police to cross this bridge with my bike on a vehicle could be given. It sounded like nonsense to me.

    Awash bridge

    I politely refused to cycle back so decided to sit on the roadside beside this tin-shack. About an hour went by before another policeman showed up and decided to flag down a vehicle, onto which my bike was loaded and I was driven across the bridge.

    Policeman at the Awash bridge

    The whole episode left me a bit confused. Perhaps as the bridge was so strategically important for transport coming and going to Djibouti someone senior had ordered it closed for all non-motorised traffic. This still didn’t really make sense, but I wasn’t going to get a coherent or logical answer from either of these policemen.

    The delay didn’t really bother me, except that I realised I would now probably be camping, rather than arriving in the small town of Mieso where I had planned to pass the night.

    Like almost everywhere else in Ethiopia the bush, desolate as it often looked at first, was dotted with people – kids tending livestock, women collecting brushwood etc. Had I attempted to pull off the road and set up camp without being seen I would probably have failed. So when a friendly male voice greeted me in the dying light beside a solitary mud-brick dwelling, I stopped and decided that unless this guy was a total mad-man I was going to kindly ask to camp next to his home. Been here and done this many times before I thought to myself.

    Osman, who had no idea that calling out ‘Salamno’ was going to lead to such an encounter, ended up sleeping outside that night. I wasn’t entirely sure if this was for my own protection or to guard the sacks of charcoal that he and most other people living along the roadside were selling during the daytime to passing traffic. 

    Camping with Osman

    I wasn’t on the road very long the next morning when I passed a hyena lying at the roadside. I made sure it was dead before getting close enough to have a better look. Moments later a tuk-tuk stopped and two men got out. After prodding the hyena with a stick to make sure it was also dead they muttered some words at me, then proceeded to pull the whisker hairs off the hyenas face. The hairs were carefully placed inside some paper, which was then folded and put into their shirt pockets before they got back into the tuk-tuk and disappeared.

    I was later told some people believe the smoke released from burning the whisker hairs of a hyena can help cure a sick baby. Well there’s an interesting and little known snippet of information.

    Road kill

    Ethiopia’s eastern Highlands don’t quite rival the scenery further north in the country, but there were plenty of dramatic vistas in the next few days to make the riding challenging and worthwhile.

    Eastern Highlands

    Looking north from the Eastern Highland escarpment

    Looking back to Hierna

    Fortunately stone throwing children, albeit still present, were rarer the further east I went. In one sense this made life on the road more peaceful, but villages and towns were now inhabited by people intoxicated from the effects of chewing qat. This made roadside encounters and communication with the majority of Ethiopians, at least while cycling, more frenetic than anywhere else in the country.

    Young chat chewers

    Qat seller

    Old dude

    Despite my love for the scenery, coffee, beer and friendliness of some Ethiopians (at least when I was actually off the bicycle) I longed to escape this mad country.

    Coke stop company

    Afar girls

    A chaser

    Young chaser

    Roadside in Eastern Ethiopia

    The old town of Harar was at least a welcome surprise. Here is a place whose UNESCO World Heritage protection seems to have saved it from the ugly hand of Chinese contractors, present almost everywhere else in urban Ethiopia, including the outskirts of Harar.

    Harar old town

    Harar old town

    Mosque in Harar

    Inside Harar's old town

    Harar old town

    Inside Harar's old town

    Inside Harar's old town

    Sugar cane donkey

    It may have been dirty and overcrowded, just like Zanzibar’s Stone Town or Fez’s old quarter, but that only added to its character – a place where hyenas enter the streets at night to be fed. This practice has gone on for a number of years – I presume to stop the animals attacking livestock and people.

    Feeding hyenas

    There was a notable change as I left Harar and continued eastwards – both in the landscape that was more arid, as well as the people. Women were mostly veiled and children no longer chased nor yelled out ‘you you’ from the roadside.

    Somali lunch stop

    Somali homes

    Coke stop

    Camel Crossing

    Boulders east from Harar

    Boulders east from Harar

    The town of Jijiga, where I spent my last night in Ethiopia drinking draft beer in one of the few establishments serving alcohol, was very much Somali-dominated. I knew these would probably be the last beers I’d drink in a long time. That was a sobering thought, but after almost 10 weeks and 4000km of cycling in Ethiopia I was looking forward, albeit with some anxiety, to entering a country that doesn’t officially exist – Somaliland.

    Harar beer

    Somaliland ahead

    As usual, if you’re interested to view the route and altitude chart for this stretch of the tour please scroll to the bottom of the page here.

  • Sticks and Stones : Mwanza-Muscat Part 10 November 9th, 2015

    ‘It gets better as you go north’, was a view held by some people about Ethiopia. Had they been describing the landscapes I would have definitely agreed. The Rift Valley has blessed Ethiopia with some of the most spectacular scenery on the continent.

    The Blue Nile Gorge for instance, which I crossed during the third day out of Addis Ababa, had me stopping and pulling out my camera at many a hair-pin bend, not just to catch my breath on the long steep ascent (from 1000m in altitude to 2400m), but for the dramatic views. The same was true for many other stretches of road.

    View over Blue Nile Gorge

    Morning view over the Blue Nile Gorge

    Descending to the Blue Nile River

    Descending into the Blue Nile Gorge

    Unfortunately I can’t say something equally as positive about the people. After a month cycling in northern Ethiopia, covering around 2000km, I don’t think it does get any better as you go north. People, mostly children, can be some of the most unpleasant and annoying I have ever experienced, while cycling that is.

    It’s interesting on that note to discover that Ethiopia was chosen as the World’s best Tourist Destination 2015, praised for its ‘outstanding natural beauty, dramatic landscapes and ancient culture’. Were such an award as ‘worst place to cycle tour’ exist, Ethiopia would also almost certainly win.

    Cyclist chasing children

    From a human perspective it’s hard to imagine any sane person truly enjoying a cycle tour here. On many occasions over the past month I did ask myself the question – Why bother?

    Perhaps I hoped things would get better and my experience might differ from others who have cycled here. That by being patient, smiling, stopping to greet the children and attempting to talk with them would make a difference.

    Well it was definitely never boring, which cycle touring can be if the landscape is monotonous and there are no people.

    Things could have been worse. There were in fact some fantastic days on the road: no verbal abuse, nor armies of children running after me clutching sticks, incessantly begging and occasionally holding onto the rear panniers and saying goodbye with a flying stone as I pedalled away. Unfortunately there weren’t many of these days.

    When children just smiled and waved, as they do in so many other parts of the continent, I often felt like stopping to ask ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you not begging?! ’

    Lunch stop audience

    Cute when not chasing

    Ethiopian kids

    Young Ethiopian girls

    Sometimes children looked so kind and welcoming at first, only to end up following me and begging, often for many kilometres, while I slowly pedalled up one of numerous hills.

    Young Ethiopian boy

    Ethiopian smiles

    Young smile

    'Money money money'

    Multi-tasking

    On the harder days my mind did plenty of drifting to being somewhere else – touring through eastern or central Europe perhaps – enjoying the relative anonymity of riding and stopping to sit somewhere in peace without the verbal onslaught that accompanies cycling in Ethiopia.

    Usual suspect

    Let it be well known to anyone who reads this blog post that if you cycle in Ethiopia you will have at least one stone thrown at you.

    I’m not going to exaggerate. There is no need. If I wrote about every incident a child threw a stone at me, or the many more times a child planned to throw a stone but didn’t because they usually only threw stones when I wasn’t looking (I soon learnt to keep my eyes on feral suspects as I cycled past and turn my head then keep glancing back until I was beyond stone-throwing range) this blog post would run to many thousands of words. Nevertheless, I shall offer a little insight and reflection on this abhorrent custom.

    At first I thought stones were only thrown at foreign cyclists in Ethiopia. That isn’t true. I saw several incidents where a car stopped and kids fled while the driver, Ethiopian, got out to give chase. There were also many trucks, the driver probably oblivious, which made easy target practice for little monsters to throw stones at.

    I also held the belief that it was only children who didn’t go to school in Ethiopia who threw stones. This is also not true. Packs of children (boys for the most part, but not always) either walking to or coming out of school, were some of the worst to encounter on the road.

    As most schools in Ethiopia are so hopelessly over-crowded, many children either attend school just in the morning or the afternoon. This means there is a period of time early morning, midday and late afternoon when children will either be walking to or from school. As some children walk many kilometres, the chances of encountering school children on the road is very high.

    Only one stone actually hit me. More a rock actually, a little smaller than my fist. It came flying out of some dense woodland one morning and hit the side of my rib cage. I saw no one nor heard a thing, other than a resounding thud when it hit me. Like a sniper camouflaged at the roadside, whoever threw it had seen me coming, then decided to hide himself until my vision was beyond his location, at which point the little shit decided to pitch it, probably from no more than 10 metres away.

    A rock that hit me!

    I stopped to take a picture of the rock and check whether it had broken the skin, (just a bruise) then cycled on thinking of the evil things I might have done had I caught the culprit.

    On another occasion a stone twanged its way through my front spokes and I decided to turn round and chase a boy of about 10. He ran straight into a stone hut. As I cycled up to the wooden front door it slammed in my face. I pushed the door back to be confronted by a very old woman, perhaps his great grandmother. The boy was no-where to be seen. I picked up a stone to demonstrate that it had been thrown at me, then dropped it and cycled off, wondering what would have been said or done to the boy when I’d safely gone.

    What made such experiences stand out, and left me puzzled as to whether I was really enjoying my time in Ethiopia or not, was how they were often accompanied by either scenes of spectacular beauty, or occurred moments before or after acts of human kindness and cultural interest at the roadside.

    Ethiopian highlands

    Ethiopian highlands

    Green field and blue skies

    Garlic seller and beautiful view

    Cyclist and an amazing phallic rock.

    Take the coffee drinking culture for instance. I would arrive in a small village or town and be able to choose from many a place to sit down, watch and enjoy the best coffee on the planet being served out to me with a smile. She, because it is always a she, would have no idea that I spent the last hour or so either dealing with unruly little shits or a litany of ‘you you you’s, ‘where are you go’ and demands for ‘birr birr’ being shouted at me from the roadside as I cycled along. It was such a contrast of experiences, and one which repeated itself on an almost daily basis.

    Actually very true

    Grinding coffee

    On a few of these occasions an English speaker would be present, who would calmly ask my opinion of his country – the greatest country in Africa in his mind, even though Africa is often considered elsewhere in the mindset of many Ethiopians. I would be reminded on many an occasion that this was the only country in Africa to not be colonised, which is not entirely true.

    Perhaps that explained the stone-throwing behaviour from the children and juvenile hysteria displayed at times by adults. I have no idea. No where else in Africa are people the same.

    The conversations were mostly basic and never got beyond me saying that I was from England, at which point I was often asked what Premiership football team I supported.

    Like most people in other African countries, the vast majority of Ethiopians, if not working in a field, sit on the roadside in villages and towns seemingly idle, at least that is how it appeared to me. It might be 11am for example and I would stop for a coffee or a coke. Anything from one or two, to several dozen people, almost all male and usually young, would cast their attention towards me. I soon realised most people in most places were doing absolutely nothing other than passing the time.

    It could have been a good opportunity to learn more of a language I wasn’t making much progress with, but after the verbal assault while cycling I merely hoped for some minutes of relative peace before continuing.

    Pepsi stop restaurant

    I always looked for a quiet cafe or restaurant to stop at on the roadside, and one where I could sit with the bike in full view. I heard plenty of stories of children stealing items of equipment from unattended bicycles. Sometimes there were no quiet places and I just cycled straight through towns without stopping. Other times there was no option and it would be left to the cafe owner to deal with an excitable young crowd, usually with a stick or some stones.

    Ethiopian Kids

    I’m sure it would have made a tremendous difference were I able to converse with more people beyond exchanging simple greetings. Having said that I heard of an American Peace Corps volunteer who after living in the country for a few years and learning conversational Amharic, was still subjected to stone throwing and verbal abuse while cycling.

    'You You stop'

    The diversity of people, in terms of how they looked and dressed, was overwhelming. Despite the daily challenges people presented, it also made Ethiopia one of the most fascinating places I’ve toured in Africa.

    Old Ethiopian man

    Ethiopian farmer

    Women walking to market

    From a food perspective I found Wednesdays and Fridays to be the best eating days. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar these are fasting days, which means most people don’t eat meat. I’m not vegetarian, but beyaynetu, a platter of vegetables and pulses, tastes a lot better and healthier than the plates of meat – tibs, which are typically served on non-fasting days in most small town eating establishments. I managed to avoid eating raw meat, which is also very popular on non-fasting days.

    Another Beya Ainat

    Beyayenet

    Tibs

    Shiro or tegabino, another popular vegetarian dish made from ground beans or chickpeas, together with minced onion, garlic and tomato, was also a good option and easy to find.

    Shiro

    Tegabino

    Injeera, the Ethiopian staple with the appearance of a wet flannel, is definitely an improvement on the maize/cassava that is served up in all other countries south and west of here on the continent, and which goes by a variety of names (ugali/pap/sadza). Fortunately bread is easily available, although light snacks don’t seem to be part of popular eating culture in Ethiopia.

    In the larger towns juice bars are a popular feature. This is something hard to find in other African countries, although juice is misleading as fruit smoothies are so thick that they’re easier to drink with a spoon.

    Mixed fruit juice

    Roadside fruit on the other hand was less common to come by, but that’s not really surprising in highland areas where it doesn’t grow.

    Roadside orange seller

    Alcohol. Ethiopia scores quite high on the variety, quality and ease of finding a beer in Africa. Cheap too. A large glass of draft beer – ‘Jambo,’ costs around £0.30-£0.40 in a small town. It was easy to sink several of these at the end of a day’s ride.

    Ethiopian Draft Beer

    Accommodation was also usually easy to find and very cheap. In fact probably the cheapest and worst quality of budget accommodation in Africa can be found in Ethiopia. I would have happily paid more than the £1.50 or less that most single-cell rooms went for, but often these were the only rooms available. Public toilets were equally grim.

    As most hotels were just single-storey establishments located behind a bar/restaurant it was at least easy to wheel the bike into the room rather than lug gear up a flight of stairs.

    Towels or soap rarely came with the room, but Ethiopian authorities do a good job at encouraging safe sex. Condoms were nearly always there. So were bed bugs. After two days of scratching bites all over my body during the first week out of Addis I visited a clinic and was prescribed a course of oral anti-histamine. ‘You have too many bites on your body to use cream’, said the Doctor, who told me fleas and bed-bugs are common in small towns in the highland areas of Ethiopia.

    A $2 room

    A $2 room

    When there was space in such small rooms I decided it wiser to pitch my tent and sleep on the floor. This also ensured a night free of mosquitoes. Few rooms ever came with a mosquito net.

    Guest House camp

    Camping out in the open wasn’t really an option, despite days when I thought it would be. Places that at first looked like a good quiet spot would sure enough have someone tending to a flock of goats or cattle nearby, and I didn’t have the energy to chance pitching the tent and dealing with whatever attention would inevitably arise.

    It reminded me of cycling in India, as other aspects of life on the road in Ethiopia have done (bed bugs being one). There I did camp in certain places. Perhaps I was more determined to do so back then, although many times people would find me, which could be stressful if it wasn’t the next morning when I was about to leave.

    In one small town the Guest House accommodation was so basic and the room too small to pitch my tent that I requested to sleep in the nearby Primary school. At first the teachers thought this was too dangerous, but I locked myself in and slept fine. Schools in rural Africa often make excellent places to sleep.

    Room for the night

    Like India, Ethiopia just seems to have people everywhere. The population of the country now nears 100 million. It’s shocking to think that in 1950, this was 18 million and somewhat scary to imagine that in 35 years time the population is estimated to be at around 175 million. Having said that the speed at which Ethiopia’s population is growing is apparently on the decline. In the 1990’s women gave birth to an average of 7 children. Now it is under 5.

    Of non-Ethiopians in the country the Chinese certainly out-number all other nationalities. I don’t think I have seen so much Chinese influence anywhere else on the continent as I have in Ethiopia. In some places, where the roads have been recently paved and widened, children and adults didn’t yell out ‘you you’, but ‘China China’ as they saw me approaching.

    As for interaction with any Chinese themselves, other than one over-weight man taking numerous pictures of my bike with his phone and saying ‘you very strong’ several times after I had just climbed out of the Blue Nile River Gorge, most maintained a near invisible presence.

    These wide roads and newly constructed buildings gave many places I passed through a depressing air of Chinese advancement in Ethiopia. Other than the old capital Gonder, with its historical palace grounds and Italian-influenced centre, I found little physical attraction in the rest of urban Ethiopia.

    Royal enclosure in Gonder

    Royal enclosure in Gonder

    Traditional dancer in Gonder

    Wall of Fasidiles Bath complex

    One of the most pleasant days of cycling (no stones and almost no begging) in northern Ethiopia came when I decided to follow a scenic dirt track from the town of Bahir Dar around the western shore of Lake Tana. Similar to the brief time I was on a new road in southern Ethiopia, it seemed children here hadn’t seen enough ferenji to chase and taunt them. Unfortunately there weren’t enough of these alternative detours. Most of the time I was heading to places most other people who visit Ethiopia wish to see, connected by the only roads to get there.

    Back road to Gonder

    Roadside Church

    Off to market

    A happy view

    Rural Ethiopia

    Dark clouds and green fields

    Lalibela is a good example of such a place. Ethiopia’s most well-known tourist attraction, famed for its ancient rock-hewn churches, draws more visitors than anywhere else in the country. Only fitting then that children on the dirt track leading here should be well-trained in the art of begging and stone throwing.

    Child devils

    I never witnessed anyone stopping to hand out money or pens, which are demanded almost everywhere by rural children, but there must be such instances to maintain and fuel this behaviour. Many people blame the history of foreign aid in Ethiopia. Thanks Bob.

    Multi-tasking

    Ethiopian girl

    Fortunately the scenery surrounding the town made the hardship of reaching here worthwhile. The view from the aptly named Panorama Hotel, where I watched one of  the Rugby World Cup Semi Finals, was one of the most spectacular I have seen in Africa. More impressive, in my own opinion, than paying $50 for the privilege to see the famous 11 Churches nearby.

    View north from Lalibela

    Road to Lalibela

    Bidon carrier

    Climb to Lalibela

    Descent from Lalibela

    Lalibela

    Church of St George

    Church priest in Lalibela

    Church priest in Lalibela

    Church window. Lalibela

    The importance of religion was evident almost everywhere I went. Churches, ancient monasteries and priests at the roadside were visible on a daily basis, but other than in Lalibela I stayed on the bike rather than be led by a birr-hungry guide to view something I probably wouldn’t have found as impressive as the surrounding landscape.

    Christian crosses for sale

    I met just one other foreign cyclist during this loop of northern Ethiopia. Frank, from the Czech Republic, was downing a litre of mango juice on the roadside one morning. It was about 10am and he’d already covered 70km. He aimed to cycle at least another 80km that day. Perhaps wisely, from the point of view of Ethiopian kids begging, he had no visible water bottles attached to his bike. More interestingly, his rear rack held a folded-up cardboard bike box, on top of which a single back-pack contained all his gear for a quick tour, by the sounds of it, from Nairobi to Cairo.

    He claimed the box made a good tent, except for the mosquitoes. I didn’t ask him what happened when it rained, but couldn’t imagine the box being in a great state to pack his bike in when he flew out of Cairo.

    Frank from the Czech Republic

    As for Ethiopian cyclists, occasionally I would pass a few boys and young men riding around town on cheap Chinese models. Many of the bicycles were draped with flowers and tinsel and still had the tape on the frame in which they were probably shipped. Some rode with me for a few minutes, but no-one cycled between towns nor used bicycles to transport goods on. They were just play things. Donkeys, and in some of the lowland areas as I returned towards Addis from the eastern side of the Rift Valley escarpment, camels, did the unmechanised transport of goods.

    New bike

    The standard steed

    Cycling company

    Bike buddy

    Camel traffic in Shoa Robit

    There were few, if any, flat days of riding, but the I found the challenges presented by the terrain no comparison to the people. Other than Morocco, no-where else on the continent has the same diversity of elevation to rival Ethiopia. This made for some exhilarating descents (from 3200m down to 1500m on one day) and gruelling climbs (1100m up to 3250m on another), both of which rewarded me with views I wouldn’t be able to appreciate were I not with my own transport.

    View from 3200m

    Green and cultivated terraces.

    Terraces of Teff

    On the back road from Lalibela to Woldiya

    Rift Valley escarpment

    As for memorable wildlife, it was on one of these climbs back up the rift valley escarpment one morning that I encountered a troop of Gelada baboons, indigenous to Ethiopia, on the roadside. This was an unexpected highlight.

    Gelada baboon

    If you’ve read this far you’re probably thinking I’m glad to be back in Addis Adaba, where I am now, and preparing to leave the country as soon as possible. Well that’s partly true. One of the reasons I didn’t continue to the far north of the country, en route to the Simien Mountains and the historical town of Axum, was that my visa was expiring and Addis Ababa is the only place in the country where it is possible to make an extension. I was also weary of adding even more kilometres to an experience I was not fully enjoying.

    On many days I questioned whether I really wanted to make a visa extension, the alternative being to fly out of Ethiopia before the visa expired on 5th November.

    Well I’ve stuck with my original plan, which is to continue east from Addis Ababa to the border with Somaliland, about 700km from here, and venture onwards into a country that isn’t internationally recognised. To do that I needed an Ethiopian visa extension, which I now have at great cost.

    I also have a visa for Somaliland, one of the easiest I have ever received in Africa. After filling out an application and handing over $70 at the chancery here in Addis Ababa, it was issued to me within 20 minutes.

    Somaliland Chancery and Residence in Addis Ababa

    Somaliland Visa

    Land runs out in Somaliland. The plan, if possible, is to find a boat that can take me off the continent to Oman. I read about a couple doing it a few years ago, although that was before the problems in Yemen started, which is where I would have liked to head next.

    Unfortunately it’s not something I will really know is possible or not until I get to the port of Berbera. I’m not even sure how much cycling I’ll be able to do without an escort of some sort.

    If I can’t get a boat, the alternative will be returning to Ethiopia and flying out, which is possible as my visa is multiple entry and valid for 90 days. That’s not an option I’m really considering much right now though. An adventure off the continent through the Gulf of Aden seems a much more fitting way to continue this tour.

    For those interested in the geographical route that this post describes, scroll to the bottom of the page here.

  • About Addis Ababa November 3rd, 2015

    Many African cities are swelteringly hot. Addis Ababa fortunately isn’t. The World’s fifth highest capital (2300m in altitude) is also Africa’s fifth fastest growing (in terms of population) – according to this list anyhow.

    The growth is evident. Construction and people everywhere. Even a light railway – the first of its kind in sub-saharan Africa, opened just days before I rolled in. This, together with the wide roads, flyovers and large buildings gives the place more of a city feel than many other urban areas in Africa.

    Addis Ababa

    Easy enough to cycle around, despite the hills and diesel fumes. No one throws stones at you here and the roads aren’t yet clogged with the traffic that exists in say Nairobi, Kampala or Dar-es-Salaam. Cars are far too expensive for the vast majority of people.

    Motorbike taxis, common in those east African cities, are absent here, as are tuk-tuks. This leaves a lot of taxis – distinctive old blue ladas mostly, on the streets.

    Churchill Road Addis Ababa

    Plenty of poverty here too, most obvious in the amount of beggars – young and old, lining the roadside. More like India than the rest of Africa I thought.

    My arrival happened to coincide with one of the biggest Orthodox Christian holidays in the Ethiopian calendar – Meskel. Like most religious celebrations I can’t confess I knew a whole lot about the significance of this one, other than it involved lots of public gatherings around bonfires with a cross in the middle to commemorate the discovery of the true cross, whatever that was.

    Alongside what must have been tens of thousands of others I joined the largest of these gatherings in Meskel square one Sunday evening – a fantastic display of light once the sun set and candles were lit.

    Meskel Square at dusk

    Fire Torch in Meskel square

    Meskel Celebration in Addis Ababa

    I met up for the second time with another foreign cyclist here. A few days previously Gurgan, from Turkey, contacted me from Addis Ababa, having heard through a mutual friend on facebook that I was arriving. He’d flown in recently to begin the African leg of his 7-year World tour. Turns out we not only share the same birthday, but were born in the same year! Too bad he was headed south to Kenya.

    In a country with few English speakers and all the unwanted attention and hysteria at the roadside it would have been nice to cycle with company. He certainly hadn’t chosen the easiest African country to come to first.

    Two tourers

    Knowing there would be a dearth of bicycle shops in the city I managed to get in touch a few weeks previously with someone flying into Addis from Europe. I might not need the spare tyre or tubes, but there are some kilometres left yet on this tour.

    Spare tyre and tubes

    The plan had been to roll or rather climb out of Addis on a Sunday morning, but my head was heavy from watching an early England exit from the Rugby World Cup the previous night. I also suspected that once I’d left the cityscape behind, life on the road in Ethiopia might bear similarities to the challenges I’d experienced in the south of the country. For that I needed to feel fresh and strong.

    Leaving Addis Ababa