• 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.

  • Deportation: Mwanza-Muscat Part 6 September 17th, 2015

    Things were going OK until my passport disappeared. Snatched out of my hand by a drunkard wearing a white singlet and combat trousers. I’d only been in the country thirty minutes. Welcome to South Sudan I thought to myself.

    He first approached me moments after I’d crossed the border and gone in search of an immigration official. The newly built office block nearby, with a sign outside reading ‘Immigration Office Tsertenya’, was clearly closed and the flag poles bare. A good enough sign that few people came through this little-used post.

    South Sudan immigration

    I asked a group of men playing dominoes under the shade of an acacia tree where I could find the immigration officer.

    ‘Go and ask for Jacob up there’, pointed a disinterested police officer in the direction of several tin-shacks.

    In doing so I had chosen to brush aside this drunken fool, who in a slurred drawl pumped his fist on a bulging scar in the centre of his muscular torso and claimed to be working for the CID. Criminal Investigation Department perhaps?

    The immigration officer was fortunately sober, but confessed, somewhat embarrassingly while he stamped me into the country, that this fool was indeed a government employee. Without asking much more I got the feeling that if there was any hierarchy of authority out here, unfortunately he was quite senior.

    I was just about to leave, after having filled my water bottles up, when he re-appeared on the track in front of me and demanded to see my passport.

    It would have been wiser to hold onto it firmly for inspection. I recall doing this in certain places in Africa where law and order have little meaning and the person requesting to see my passport probably had little authority to do so, and was most likely, as on this occasion, drunk.

    Well my passport wasn’t even opened before it disappeared in a side pocket and the fool stumbled off out of view. Great.

    As I stood calmly waiting and wondering what to do, it also occurred to me that it would have been wiser to cross the border in the morning – less chance of dealing with a drunken border official. Actually, it would have been wiser not to enter South Sudan at all.

    In the days and weeks leading up to entering the World’s newest country I mostly avoided telling people my plan to cycle there. The day before entering the country there had in fact been another signed agreement for a ceasefire to come into play between government troops and rebel forces loyal to the country’s Vice President. Whether that was going to make much difference to the general atmosphere in a country wracked by years of Civil War I had no idea. What I did know is most of the recent conflict was taking place in regions I would be well away from. Some solace as I looked out into a scenic expanse of green bush in the late afternoon sun.

    I patiently let time pass as various people became involved in either trying to retrieve my passport, or attempting to explain, mostly in a drunken manner, that they worked for another government department and that now I must follow them.

    The passport during this 40-minute time frame moved through various hands. There was plenty of discussion, but eventually it came back to me from the immigration officer, who in leaning towards me while handing it over uttered two clear words. ‘Go now’.

    An abandoned tank appeared in the bush moments later as I rode between high elephant grass towards green mountains. Something in Arabic was written on the front and I wondered when in the past this had last been in use.

    Abandoned tank

    Heading to Ikotos in South Sudan

    There were no villages visible. When I pitched the tent a short distance from the track I assumed it would just be the familiar sound of insects to fall asleep to in the sultry air.

    Wild camping. First night in South Sudan.

    I was wrong. Drumming, singing, voices and several gunshots were audible as I lay still trying to guess how far away this village was. Actually there must have been more than one village or compound of huts as the sounds came from different directions.

    It wasn’t the only night I heard singing and drumming while lying in my tent during the short time I spent in South Sudan. As for the sound of gunshots – well I soon realised that the possession of a gun here was more common than that of a mobile phone. There probably aren’t many countries in the World that can claim that.

    Toposa gun man

    Guns were everywhere – nonchalantly slung over male shoulders from a young age. It was hard not to think how quickly a calm rural setting could change in an instant should one of these guns be in the possession of an angry youth one day, who just so happened to see a foreigner on a loaded bicycle approaching.

    The reality was most people on the roadside looked on with bemusement as I rolled past with a hand in the air to greet them. When I did stop it was clear few people spoke any English, so I just pointed in front of me and named the next known settlement on my map.

    People frequently asked for water, and when I had plenty spare I offered what was left in a bottle. On other occasions when I was running low I did my best to point and explain I had little left.

    Girls on the road to Kapoeta

    South Sudan girls

    With the history of conflict it’s little wonder I saw no large animals as I rode through what my map demarcated as Kidepo Game Reserve. Surely nothing edible and valuable, such as elephants, could survive out here.

    Much to my surprise the dirt track here had been recently regraded, although only one vehicle came past me as I headed towards Chukudum. The sky was a deep blue, and despite the many dry river-beds I crossed I guessed rain wasn’t all that uncommon in this part of the country.

    South Sudan landscape

    Road to Chukudum

    Track to Chukudum

    Kidepo River

    ‘Please bear with the situation’ said the local driver cheerfully as he slowed to greet me in a landcruiser with a ‘Norwegian Peoples Aid’ sticker on the side.

    In Chukudum I managed to obtain a local sim card. The mobile tower pointing out of the greenery beside a single street of tin and wooden shacks was the only significant indication of the modern world I had seen since entering the country.

    Sunset in Chukudum

    I enquired about accommodation and got pointed towards a Catholic mission, which in structure and setting turned out to be one of the most impressive I have seen in Africa.

    Mission in Chukudum

    ‘Built in 1947 by the Italians’, I think the Pastor had said. He gave me a brief rundown of the history and life in Chukudum, before I pitched my tent in the shade of some mango trees. I was too tired to remember much beyond him saying that most gunshots I might hear at night were just boys showing off or possibly hunting an animal. It was somehow reassuring.

    The mountainous surroundings continued on my third day in the country as I rode towards the town of Kapoeta.

    Road to Kapoeta

    ‘Be a little careful going through Camp 15’, cautioned the Pastor. ‘The Didinka and Toposa are sometimes raiding each others cattle’. This, for the most part, seemed to be the biggest security problem I had been hearing about. One tribe stealing livestock from another. Camp 15, which wasn’t on my map, but sounded rather ominous, turned out to be as peaceful as the rest of the countryside.

    East from Camp 15 to Kapoeta

    In Kapoeta I pitched my tent in the cool shade of a large campsite called ‘Mango Camp’. If ever there were an oasis of calm in a war-torn country this would be it. Campsite would actually be the wrong description, even if there were a number of large permanent tents in the compound. Aside from a few missionary and NGO groups passing through, I very much doubt anyone else came to stay here.

    Mango camp: Kapoeta

    The owner, who had in fact assisted me with providing an invitation letter to secure a visa for South Sudan, was out of the country. The main business here wasn’t providing accommodation, but running a borehole drilling company. There were also a number of containers belonging to a gold mining company on the compound. It would have been useful to meet him, not only to ask about where I could find boreholes on my route ahead, but information about the condition of the road and the general security. This task fell to the responsibility of a few individuals working for an NGO called the Carter Centre.

    Back in Tanzania, when I hatched the idea of crossing through South Sudan, a former employee of the Carter Centre, working on Guinea Worm eradication in and around Kapoeta, had given me the idea that it would be possible to cross the border from South Sudan to Ethiopia. Until I saw a detailed road map of East Equatorial Province from one of the locally employed Carter Centre staff, I didn’t think it would be possible, but sure enough there were tracks, and more importantly boreholes from which to access water.

    The distance into Ethiopia from Kapoeta would be about 350km, so I calculated around 4-5 days of travel, for which I would need to provision myself with food. There would be nothing to buy en-route and crossing into Ethiopia would involve walking up to a rocky plateau and then into a tribally sensitive no-mans land. It all sounded like pure adventure. My mind was made up.

    I rested in Kapoeta for several more days, which as a settlement turned out to be a sprawling dump of tin-shacks where the smell of human excrement filled the air. The place had no toilets! Kenyans mostly ran small shops and other businesses frequented by the local Toposa tribe, some of whom lived in the town. Others had probably walked in from the bush. With little or no public transport in South Sudan I realised that people here were used to walking for an entire day or more to reach somewhere.

    Central Kapoeta

    My stay just so happened to coincide with some annual Carter Centre meeting. White faces, all American I think, flew in on small charter planes to the nearby airstrip. I only spoke with a few, one of whom happened to be living very close to Ethiopia on the route I had planned out. He clearly thought it was a mad idea for various reasons (security, roads, remoteness) and shrugged my idea off with little encouragement. We didn’t talk much after that.

    On the way out of Kapoeta an immigration official caught up with me on the back of a motorbike. I needed to register my passport and details of where I was headed. I did so in a nearby tin shack. All seemed fine and I cracked on.

    Road from Kapoeta to Kenya border

    Toposa girl

    That night I slept beside a Primary School in a small village with a borehole. It was a familiar African scene – schoolteacher and a small collection of other locals watching on as I erected the tent, emitting gasps of surprise and wonder as the sleeping mat was unrolled and inflated.

    Primary School camp

    The track which I’d now turned onto had also been recently up-graded. No vehicles, just a few toposa, walking I knew not where. Other than cow, goat meat and milk I couldn’t work out what people lived on out here. There appeared to be no cultivation of crops.

    Toposa girl

    Toposa girl

    Toposa Shepherd boys

    It was certainly a remote road, as well as scenic. In stretches where dry black cotton mud covered the road, I was thankful the skies stayed clear. Several hours of heavy rain would have been a nightmare out here. When I pushed the bike off the track to reach a borehole I ended up jamming the wheels with thick mud. It took the best part of an hour to get moving again properly.

    On the road north to Boma

    Flowering baobab tree

    Baobab flower

    I camped between thorny acacia bushes the next night and spent half the time while eating a bowl of spaghetti stamping on scorpions. They were obviously attracted to the light from my head-torch.

    I had only been on the road the next morning for 10 minutes when a Toyota Hilux pickup came driving towards me. Two armed police jumped out of the back and a passenger in military fatigues stepped out of the vehicle.

    ‘Where is your document to be travelling on this road’? he asked as I handed over my passport. The visa was expiring in 3 days time, but I calculated I would be out of South Sudan by then.

    There then followed a serious of questions about my mission, where I had slept the previous night and where I was going. I soon learnt that this vehicle, in convoy with another, had driven out the day before under the orders of the Police Commissioner from the town of Narus, some 150km away. I hadn’t passed through this town, where apparently I needed permission from the Commissioner to be where I was.

    It all sounded like rubbish, but I was in no position to argue or defend myself. Moments later, with bike lying flat in the back of the pick-up and me over a wheel arch, I was being driven back in the direction I had just come.

    That journey was one of the most frightening and painful I have ever taken in my life. Moving at speeds of 100km/hr and more on a dirt track while I bounced around in the back had me fearing for my life. The only time we stopped was to pick up two random walkers who jumped in the back with a goat. About 80km further on they were dropped off. Thanks to me I just saved them a 2 day walk.

    Picked up by the Police

    ‘There are many wild animals out there like elephants, lions, rhinos and tigers’, said an older military-clad official who looked through the pages of my passport while my bags were thoroughly searched back in Narus. The journey back here, had taken less than two hours.

    Wild animals sounded as much like bullshit as ‘special permission’ to be where I was. It wasn’t a closed area. There was no rebel fighting. I had a visa.

    Apparently someone in one of the villages had reported seeing a foreigner on a bicycle with bags and the Commisioner, who I never met, decided to deploy two armed vehicles to drive out into the bush to get me.

    ‘You know people out there are backward. They might harm you’, said the immigration official an hour later. Not only had I been driven back to Narus, but I was now at the border with Kenya, 20km away from Narus, and effectively being deported from the country. I couldn’t believe this.

    Well at least I remained unscathed following the journey in the pick-up. And contrary to what I feared when I first arrived back in Narus, no one had made any mention of a fine for having police deployed to drive out and pick me up. Things could have been a lot worse, although I still couldn’t quite figure out what all the fuss was about. I was basically just a random anomaly, attached to no organisation, and the authorities wanted me out of their head-space. Had I gone to the Police Commissioner in the first place to request permission to cycle this road and cross into Ethiopia I rather suspect it would not have been a simple case of agreement.

    Whatever, I would now have to detour 350km through Turkana county in Kenya to reach Ethiopia, another challenge in itself.

    You can view the map route for section of the journey by scrolling to the bottom here.

  • Northern Uganda: Mwanza-Muscat Part 5 September 1st, 2015

    Not many people visit northern Uganda. This is understandable. For a number of years most areas were considered off-limits as a rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army terrorised villages and communities, effectively dividing the country in two.

    The LRA and their infamous leader Joseph Kony no longer operate from Uganda, but places ravaged by years of destruction, child abduction and neglect don’t recover all that quickly, and memories for people don’t fade.

    I had this in mind as I moved north from Arua. The road was actually only a few years old – a smooth ribbon of tarmac cutting a wide swath through a peaceful countryside of conical straw-hut villages.

    Rural Uganda

    The larger settlements, still villages, but usually labelled trading centres in Africa, consisted of more concrete buildings. Most of these were covered in bright paint advertising the companies who had obviously paid for this lurid spectacle. Soap powder, mobile phone, solar panel and of course paint companies dominated. The scenes on the roadside could have been from a number of African countries.

    There would typically be a small shop of some description, a wooden bench or two outside and perhaps a tree providing shade nearby. Within that shade sitting on those benches would be anything from two to a dozen plus boys or men. A few motorbike taxis might also be parked alongside. The people were always male of course. Just sitting, passing the time. Sometimes there would be a game of cards taking place. Other times it just appeared like people were waiting for something to happen or someone to arrive. At least that is how I interpreted it. I imagined there must be hundreds of thousands of people in the countryside, maybe millions, doing precisely nothing for most of the day. Too hot perhaps, although the women  were working.

    None of it surprised me. I’ve seen it everywhere in rural Africa. I would wave, attempt a greeting and pedal on in the heat, wondering what discussion would follow in my wake.

    The languages in fact changed too often for me to keep track of. In an area where Uganda, DRC and South Sudan – countries with years of instability and the subsequent movement of people, come together quite closely, I suspected there must be a complete mix of ethnicities. At least where English didn’t work so well Kiswahili sometimes helped.

    The children mostly seemed to entertain themselves with what nature provided them with. Had the water been clearer and cleaner I might have joined an excitable bunch as they hurled themselves off a bridge near some rice fields one afternoon.

    Water acrobatics

    Watch me!

    Kids having fun

    One of the most noticeable man-made features in many of these settlements were the churches. Uganda is predominantly Christian and there were no shortage of large missions on the roadside. Each one seemed to be demarcated on google maps. Little else was.

    Uganda church

    The landscape remained green, but the sun became hotter as I left the tarmac and descended back towards the banks of the River Nile on a dusty track.

    Dusty road from Koboko-Moyo

    Grass huts in view of Mt Otzi

    Descending to the River Nile at Laropi

    I was hoping the heat would actually dry out my GPS. It had stopped working in Murchinson Falls National Park following the mother of all rainstorms. I’d left it on the bike under blue skies for a few hours when I’d taken a trip up the river. The following morning when I packed-up to leave it went into a beeping frenzy and then switched itself off.

    For the next few days I observed the screen fogging-up as I had it charged into the e-werk electrical converter that is connected to my dynamo hub. Power was obviously going into the device as the battery was charging, but none of the buttons were responding.

    Fogged-up GPS

    In the town of Koboko a guy working in a phone-repair shop opened it up with a tiny screwdriver. No sign of moisture so I followed the advice from others on the Internet which was to leave it in a bag of rice for several days. A 1 kg bag of local rice was duly purchased and I crossed my fingers that this would do the trick. To date there remains no sign of life.

    Fortunately my smartphone can easily log the rides using the GPS function and be charged from the dynamo hub.

    Inside of a Garmin 705

    The Nile ferry crossing at Laropi departed 30 minutes before schedule. This rarely happens in Africa (it’s also a free service which is even rarer), but no-one seemed the least bothered because sitting in the heat beside a collection of wooden shacks serving tea and snacks provided little joy.

    Local cafe

    Boat across the Nile

    River Nile at Laropi

    I slept in simple lodgings most nights (£2-£5) and washed my shirt and shorts from dust and salt stains while I showered with cold water. It often seemed somewhat pointless as it would only take a few large vehicles to pass me the following day on the road to return my body and clothes to the state they were in before. Still, wearing something cleanish in the morning is a better start to the day than putting on dirt-encrusted clothes. When camping there is of course little choice unless one is fortunate to be next to a source of water.

    Dealing with dust

    I thought I heard a gun fired at my back one day on the road into Gulu. Within seconds the rear tyre had gone flat. I pushed the bike off the road and inspected it. A huge hole appeared in the middle of what are often dubbed indestructible tyres by touring cyclists. How had this happened?

    End of an XR

    For a number of weeks a split in the wall of the same tyre had occasionally pinched the inner tube and caused several punctures. Earlier on the same day the tyre blew-out I’d patched up a large tear in the tube and continued riding. Under what was obviously tremendous pressure I later cycled over a splint of metal, which not only caused the tube to pop again, but pop with so much force that it blew this hole through the tyre profile.

    Tyre wall split

    Fortunately I was carrying a spare, although hadn’t expected to need this for some time, if at all on this tour.

    North from Gulu I imagined a narrow bush track would lead towards Kitgum and the border with South Sudan. Several years ago that might have been the case. Now the track has been widened and graded. I suspect in the next few years another smooth black ribbon.

    Restaurant in Gulu

    Water collectors

    Rain ahead

     This track widening continued north of Kitgum – a new highway of sorts connecting Uganda with South Sudan, although for the moment there is practically no traffic other than work vehicles.

    Road construction

    Breakfast view

    Sign in Mada Opei

    I had no idea what the Ugandan border post with South Sudan was called or whether it even existed.

    I pulled over alongside a huddle of women beside a collection of grass huts. At first it looked like they were filling 20 Litre jerry-cans with water. But the jerry-cans were partly inflated and there was a sweet smell of alcohol in the air.

    ‘That’s gu’, said the immigration official as I at in the cool shade of another conical hut a short distance away some minutes later. ‘It’s a mixture of maize and sugar. Very strong. They will walk over there’. He pointed to a line of green mountains in South Sudan. It looked so far away.

    Ugandan immigration

    Ugandan immigration

    ‘So you’re a missionary’? asked the official as he continued to write down my passport details in a notebook.

    ‘Do a lot of missionaries come through this way?’ I replied, before explaining he could write ‘teacher’ instead.

    ‘They used to’. Just a few Ugandans come through here now.

    ‘So where is the South Sudanese border post?’, I asked another official as I stepped back out into the glaring sun.

    ‘It’s 22km away’, he said pointing down the road on which these women were now walking. I said my goodbyes and hoped the entry into South Sudan would be equally as smooth.

    Alcohol carriers

    The route for this section of the journey, up to Kitgum, can be viewed here