• 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Tanzania again: Mwanza-Muscat Part 2 July 10th, 2015

    Returning to Tanzania wasn’t in the original plan. This was, and remains, to ride north to Ethiopia and beyond. But the British Council, my former employer, needed an English teacher for a short-term contract in July. The job-spec sounded interesting. What would a 600km detour and 3 weeks off the road matter when I had no need to be any place at any particular time.

    So rather than continue north from Kisumu I rode south-east towards Kenya’s Rift Valley – a region of rolling green landscapes, tea-growing estates and welcome cool climates. Naturally this involved a bit of climbing, so it was a good job I’d consumed the 1kg of dates and 1kg of popcorn I had in my panniers when leaving Mwanza.

    Elevation profile: Kisumu-Kericho

    Actually the climb into Kenya’s Rift Valley wasn’t as bad as it looks here. This shows the elevation profile between Kisumu and Kericho – the former lying at an altitude of just under 1200m and the latter, 80km away, at around 2000m.

    I’ve started using this website to find the elevation profile between places. That’s when I can remember to look or have Internet access. Fortunately the strength of mobile Internet in Africa continues to develop faster than anything else here. Kenya, at least in towns, has excellent connection speeds. Worth noting that 2gb of data (including text messaging and about 60 minutes of call time) will cost around £6. That’s more than enough for over a week’s use of Internet on the road. It’s actually significantly cheaper than this in Tanzania.

    Tea plantation country.

    Robinson on the road

    The countryside was scenic, the towns mostly ugly. This came as no surprise. Small shanty-style tin-shacks and larger concrete structures – either abandoned or under construction, made no-where particularly pleasing to the eye when I stopped for something to eat or a place to stay. 

    But I enjoyed the surprise in peoples reactions and subsequent interaction at the roadside when stopping for a drink or stepping into a make-shift eatery. Most of these in Kenya are named ‘hotels’, but it’s simple food and tea on offer rather than accommodation. A lot more beans and chapatis consumed.

    Beans and chapati.

    Highway Hotel Menu

    Highway Hotel

    5 on a motorbike.

    Kiswahili is still widely spoken in Kenya, but it’s not heard as often as in Tanzania. Ethnic languages predominate here – the changing sounds of which are a good an indication of moving from one region to another. So eastwards from the Luo speakers around Lake Victoria it is Kalenjin that dominates the tea growing areas of Kericho and Bomet, before entering Masaai dominated territory that extends up to and across the border with Tanzania.

    Kenya_Ethnic_Map_Today

    Much of the landscape in the latter remains scarcely populated, largely consisting of expansive tracts of scrubland and spiky bush. Here cows and goats probably outnumber people. Massai-dominated towns are in fact as distinguishable by the colourful shawls worn by their long ear-lobed inhabitants as they are by the sight of butchers and the accompanying smell of roasted meat. Nyama Choma (roasted meat) seems to be a staple food in these parts of Kenya.

    Zone Butchery

    Kenyan butchers

    The truth is the meat is very good – far superior to what is served in Tanzania. I ordered 500g of roasted goat meat one evening from the restaurant of a hotel I stayed in (orders of 1kg or 1/2kg are the norm) and decided to do exactly the same the next night. It was some of the best meat I’ve had in Africa – affordable as well at less than £2.

    It might just be that I chose a good place to eat. The sight and smell of some of the butchers here are enough to turn one vegetarian. There are rumours that some nyama choma establishments in Kenya serve up donkey meat to unsuspecting customers. I wonder how that tastes.

    Nyama Choma

    The tarmac road was smooth and mostly quiet as I continued east, dropping in altitude and providing a wide sweeping view of Mt Suswa ahead of me.

    Looking east to Mt Susua

    This route was steering me directly towards Nairobi, which I had little desire nor need to enter for the second time.

    Invisible on google maps, but quite clearly demarcated on my paper map, was a track that appeared to totally bypass the capital. I feared it might be a busy short-cut, but soon realised once I saw the turn off just beyond the small town of Suswa, that it would be anything but. So I filled up my water bottles, bought some bananas, spaghetti, tomatoes and sukuma wiki (a green-leafed spinach type veg) and headed off into the bush planning to camp.

    Off the main road

    I had been looking forward to a night in the tent and had a wide expanse of land to choose from. Well that’s not strictly true. Surrounded by acacia trees and various other thorny foliage it made little sense to venture far from the track before pitching the tent.

    I think some people are under the impression that I spend most of my nights in this small green enclosure. I don’t. When adequate roofed accommodation is available for around £5 or less, which it often is in populated parts of East Africa, I don’t see much point in camping, unless I’m surrounded by some spectacular natural beauty, which usually isn’t the case if there are lots of people living in an area. Besides, wild camping isn’t particularly relaxing or safe if you are close to where people live, but trying to hide yourself. I’ve always found in this situation that it’s better to go and say hello and ask permission to camp. Invariably this often means pitching a tent somewhere like a school or church, or within someone’s compound. I’ve done this many times before in Africa.

    Anyhow, this kind of landscape, despite the mine-field of thorns, was one perfect for camping. I pitched the tent under a full moon and woke up with the tranquility of bird-song rather than a group of noisy children waiting outside for me.

    Camping in Masaai land

    Acacia Thorn

    Moth in my tent

    Fortunately the tyres remained puncture-free as I continued the following morning on a deteriorating but perfectly bikeable track in the direction of Ngong. It was hard to believe I was so close to Nairobi. My surroundings hadn’t felt more remote on this journey. Dirt tracks are always more memorable.

    Two wheels OK

    End of the road

    Back road to Ngong

    A steep climb

    Looking back over Masaai land

    Back on tarmac I joined the main road connecting Kenya with the Tanzanian border of Namanga. More Nyama Choma towns.

    By now I was able to greet people with a call of ‘Supa’ (the Masaai greeting for hello, which I probably mis-pronounced by just shouting ‘super’ at everyone – I think the correct pronunciation is ‘sopa’) from the saddle.

    Another Nyama Choma town

    I had music playing most of the time. When I first started touring I used to wear headphones to listen to music. Perhaps that was in the days before mini-speakers became so compact. Now I have a little blue-tooth speaker that sits in a small frame bag. It weighs almost nothing and emits a decent sound for its size. I just need to download some more music to play out of it.

    Music on the road

    Tanzanian immigration stamped me in for free when I returned. Bonus. Apparently a 90-day single-entry tourist visa, which I have, allows multiple entries back into the country for which the visa belongs to, assuming you are re-entering from Uganda and Kenya. This isn’t publicised, but is part of some East African Community agreement. Without knowing about it I can quite easily imagine many a traveller handing over a $50 bill for another visa. Hard to believe anyone in such an instance being told that it isn’t necessary to pay as their current visa remains valid.

    Namanga border between Kenya and Tanzania.

    The first thing I did after leaving Namanga and the trucks at the border is eat a potato omelette, more commonly known as chips mayai in Tanzania. It’s the national dish and designed for cyclists who want a low-cost high calorie meal. They don’t serve this in Kenya. They should. One usually has the option in places that dish out this African delicacy to order mishkaki (kebabs) – a woeful sized quantity of meat skewered onto one stick. It’s sensible to order at least several – they don’t cost much either.

    Chips Mayai: Tanzania's national dish

    It was massai land again on the road south to Arusha. Here the young shepherds bedecked in colourful finery seemed more interested to flag me down than they did in Kenya. It was always more than just a greeting of course. As I wrote in the previous post no-one ever asks you to stop in Africa just to say hello.

    101km to Arusha

    Evening shadow and Mt Longido

    Massai smile

    Masaai cyclist

    Masaai boys

    Massai feet

    Luxury awaited me in Arusha.I knew the hotel I was booked into and grinned widely as I ducked under the security barrier and rolled-up to the entrance. ‘You can’t park here’, said one of many uniformed guards as he took my camera and offered to take a picture.

    Arriving at The Arusha Hotel

    Ten minutes later I was stepping into a room that I would never be staying in were I paying for it. Lucky me. The only disappointment was the manager not agreeing to my suggestion of placing the bicycle on the balcony.

    Room in The Arusha Hotel

    The Arusha Hotel is one of east Africa’s oldest establishments, although nothing looks like it was here in 1884. Back then there would have been none of the groups of tourists that fill this place now. The car park if full of tour buses and safari vehicles. July is the start of the high season for trips to Serengeti, the Ngorogoro Crater and treks up Mount Kilimanjaro. Big business for people here. Arusha has dozens of forex bureaus. The moment I step out of the hotel I’m practically jumped upon by someone wishing to sell me something.

    I’m here for a few more weeks delivering an English language course to a group of ‘creative artists’. After that the journey continues.

    For those wishing to see the route I took from Kisumu-Arusha, scroll to the bottom of this page.

  • Back on board: Up the Lualaba April 20th, 2011

    The sun sinks fast to the western horizon and gloomy is the twilight that now deepens and darkens.” (H.M Stanley)

    It was worth the effort again. The waiting, the inevitable haggling for the fare, the discomfort, the heat, the mosquitoes, and even the hunger that would accompany my journey by boat further up the Congo River.

    Beyond Ubundu, where the last set of rapids make it once more navigable again, the Congo River is referred to as the Lualaba, which is the greatest headstream of  the mighty river. Over 2000km upstream from where it empties into the Atlantic it is still daunting in scale, a silent powerhouse of a river, which for those who think beyond and below its placid brown surface remains wonderfully mysterious and enchanting.

    This time wood replaced metal and the vessel was far smaller than those barges which took me to Kisangani. The HB Safina looked like it had been put together by a couple of apprentice carpenters, but it floated nonetheless and had a quaint charm as I watched it being loaded with crates of Primus and coke at the port in Ubundu. At least I wouldn’t be stuck for something to drink if we ran aground on a sand bank I thought.

    The cargo far outweighed the number of passengers. There were only ten of us, plus another ten crew. This fortunately meant more space to move, but the HB Safina was no more than 50ft in length and 10ft in breadth.

    HB Safina

    I spent most of my time sitting and sleeping on deck – a foam mattress laid over several dozen plus crates of coca cola proving to be very comfortable, at least when the sun, rain, or mosquitoes didn’t force me to seek somewhere covered.

    Prime position

    Top deck

    At first my intention had been to jump ship half way along the 300km journey from Ubundu to Kindu, and as such I’d only paid for a passage as far as the small outpost of Lowa, where my map depicted a small track heading inland. But the river and everything about the journey won me over again. When we passed Lowa on the second day, which was merely a few shacks lining a muddy riverbank, I told the crew there was no need to stop. I would continue all the way to Kindu.

    There was none of the frenetic scenes of river commerce this time round that had made the first trip so interesting. It was merely being out there on the river as the boat cut velvety smooth ripples through that coffee-coloured expanse of water that was enough.

    The boat often kept close to the riverbank as we motored upstream at a steady 5-6km/hr. This mostly presented itself as an impenetrable wall of tangled greenery. Some people might have looked upon this and the journey as monotonous, for the river just seemed to go on and on, and the jungle was always there. But moving slowly past those overhanging branches, with the brush tops of palms and other exotic trees poking through the twisted and luscious cascade of hanging vines was somehow mesmerising. I could happily stare at the riverbank for hours, for every tree was different, and once in a while the leaves would part and out fly a bird of the forest. Black and white casqued hornbills, African grey parrots, kingfishers, harrier hawks, and all number of other different sized and coloured species. My Congo guidebook tells me the DRC has some 1139 recorded species of birds – the highest count for any single African country. In those four days on the river I probably saw several dozen species – a mere fraction, but it seemed a lot.

    Lualaba river bank

    Storm brewing

    I had hopes that one of those submerged logs that broke the river surface would suddenly reveal a tail or a jaw, but it was not to be. Had we passed a crocodile I rather fear the captain would have cut the engines and done everything possible to capture it.

    The crew told me I was unlikely to see a crocodile in the main channel and occasionally pointed to the tributaries we passed, which drained into the Lualaba. Some of these were still of a scale to make the Thames look like a little stream – the Lowa, Ulindi and the Elila for example. I regarded these in the same way that a mountaineer might do an unclimbed 6000 metre peak, and imagined what it would be like to ascend one of these tributaries in a dugout canoe. Adventure plus plus!

    There were plenty of villages lining the riverbank again, and I wrote down the names of those we stopped at. Dumbadumba, Pene Riba, Katendi. They won’t exist on any map. Forgotten places, like most settlements in this huge country. Children would characteristically yell out ‘Mzungu‘ as the boat motored close by, for that is what I am and will be for the remainder of my time in Swahili speaking Africa. It’s rather frustrating that the word for black person, ‘Mtu Moieusi’, doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily quite yet.

    As we passed women cleaning pots at the water’s edge and men sitting silently under the shade of a tree I kept asking myself the same question I’ve done so many times in Africa – how do people survive out here? The only visible sign of a profit-making activity was that of palm oil production. Middle-aged looking wooden presses existed in a number of villages beside the river. Here several people would walk in a circular motion to squeeze oil out of red palm kernels. The oil would be collected, filtered and emptied into yellow jerry cans to be later transported in dug out canoes and sold at the nearest market.

    The crew and passengers were a good-spirited bunch, although I never felt fully at ease with the Commander. He was effectively the big man, working for the society that chartered the boat and responsible for the safe delivery of merchandise being transported. When I first agreed with him on the fare to travel to Lowa ($15), he did his utmost to solicit extra money by demanding I pay so much for every kilo of my luggage. Well I refused of course. There was plenty of useless clutter on board and an extra 50kg was hardly making a difference. The matter was dropped and brought up again when I explained my wish to continue all the way to Kindu. Really this chap had no interest whatsoever in the river, the villages we passed nor the workings of the boat. His mind was solely on profit, and the only time he seemed to be happy was right after he’d eaten.

    With the Commander

    Crew at the bow

    Well perhaps I should have paid extra. Whenever the crew made food the Commander saw that I ate with him. The fair wasn’t very exciting: fufu (now known as Ugali) provided the stomach-filler, along with smoked fish and perhaps beans or plantain. This act of inclusion and sharing says so much about the true heart of Congolese people, and Africans in general for that matter. Once you get beyond the petty demands for money and gifts that go with being a white face on the continent, the majority of people are far more generous than you might give them credit for at first. No-one was going to let me eat tinned sardines and manioc alone unless I protested that this is what I wanted.

    When I wasn’t watching the river or practicing Swahili with the passengers I was often reading. For an entire year I’ve been carrying two volumes of short stories by Somerset Maugham. I read them first when I lived in Japan. In his tales of colonial life he writes about a time before air travel. Well out on the river as we occasionally passed the crumbling remnants of a red-brick Belgian outpost it was easy to imagine what life might have been like when journeys and news took weeks and months to arrive.

    Like the previous boat the crew possessed absolutely zero navigation equipment. A combination of skill displayed by the Captain and the fact that the river was perhaps naturally deeper meant we never ran aground. I tried to explain what the readings of latitude and longitude from my GPS meant, but the crew were merely interested to know how many kilometres we’d travelled since Ubundu and what our speed was.

    The mood on board became notably livelier when a mobile telecommunications mast came into view in the distance, rising high above the forest canopy. The crew soon had their phones by their ears and even the Commander seemed to hold a smile for more than a brief moment. It signified that Kindu and the end of the journey was close.

    For me the end had come all too soon again. Beyond Kindu the Lualaba continues for another 500km or so, before it rises up to its origins in the Katanga Plateau. There is no regular boat travel, although it would be possible to continue further by dug-out canoe. Now I’m turning my attention east, where another large body of water awaits me.

    For those following my progress on a map, I’m headed south east from here to Kasongo, and then east towards the western shores of Lake Tanganyika. I’ve been unable to update the google map of my journey over recent months due to such terrible Internet speed.

    The plan is to cross into Rwanda at either Bukavu or Goma. If anyone reading this has contacts/friends in either of those towns who wouldn’t mind putting me up for a night or two (and anywhere in Rwanda for that matter) I’d be welcome to hear from you.

    Sunset on the Lualaba

    Pirogue at sunset