• 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Central Berbera

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

    Old building in Berbera

    Berbera ruins

    Berbera ruins

    View over Berbera

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

    Fish warehouse Berbera

    Central Berbera

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

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

    Old Persian mosque in Berbera

    Mosque in Berbera

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

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

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

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

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

    Beach in Berbera

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

    Qat and chai

    Qat for sale

    Somaliland beer import

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

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

    Berbera Boys

    Young girl in Berbera

    Woman and daughter Berbera
    Mother and daughter

    Berbera children

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

    Colourful rubbish in Berbera

    Qat chewer

    Mad qat chewer

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

    Local tea shop Berbera

    Young girl in Berbera

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

    Berbera cat

    Berbera cats

    Berbera ruins

    Qat stall and goat

    Local restaurant Berbera

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

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

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

    Hassan

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

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

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

    Berbera Airport Entrance

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

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

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

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

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

    Berbera bay

    Berbera from my hotel roof-top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Somaliland map

    Somaliland on the map

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

    War muriel in Hargeisa

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

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

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

    No-mans land camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Somaliland shillings

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

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

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

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

    Wild camping in Somaliland

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

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

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

    Roadside chat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Outside my hotel window

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

    Clothes market from my hotel window

    Hargeisa market

    Livestock market in Hargeisa

    Women and goats

    Goats for sale in Hargeisa.

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

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

    At Somaliland's Ministry of Tourism

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

    View from Las Geel caves

    View from Las Geel

    Las Geel rock art

    Las Geel rock art

    Las Geel rock art

    Las Geel rock art

    Somaliland desert

    Somali house

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

    Camp at Las Geel

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

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

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

    Desert scenery in Somaliland

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

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

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

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

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

    Entering the Expressway

    Empty Expressway to Nazrat

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

    Road hell

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

    Max Max on the road

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

    Overturned container truck

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

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

    Awash bridge

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

    Policeman at the Awash bridge

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

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

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

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

    Camping with Osman

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

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

    Road kill

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

    Eastern Highlands

    Looking north from the Eastern Highland escarpment

    Looking back to Hierna

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

    Young chat chewers

    Qat seller

    Old dude

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

    Coke stop company

    Afar girls

    A chaser

    Young chaser

    Roadside in Eastern Ethiopia

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

    Harar old town

    Harar old town

    Mosque in Harar

    Inside Harar's old town

    Harar old town

    Inside Harar's old town

    Inside Harar's old town

    Sugar cane donkey

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

    Feeding hyenas

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

    Somali lunch stop

    Somali homes

    Coke stop

    Camel Crossing

    Boulders east from Harar

    Boulders east from Harar

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

    Harar beer

    Somaliland ahead

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

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

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

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

    View over Blue Nile Gorge

    Morning view over the Blue Nile Gorge

    Descending to the Blue Nile River

    Descending into the Blue Nile Gorge

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

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

    Cyclist chasing children

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

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

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

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

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

    Lunch stop audience

    Cute when not chasing

    Ethiopian kids

    Young Ethiopian girls

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

    Young Ethiopian boy

    Ethiopian smiles

    Young smile

    'Money money money'

    Multi-tasking

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

    Usual suspect

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A rock that hit me!

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

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

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

    Ethiopian highlands

    Ethiopian highlands

    Green field and blue skies

    Garlic seller and beautiful view

    Cyclist and an amazing phallic rock.

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

    Actually very true

    Grinding coffee

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

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

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

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

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

    Pepsi stop restaurant

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

    Ethiopian Kids

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

    'You You stop'

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

    Old Ethiopian man

    Ethiopian farmer

    Women walking to market

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

    Another Beya Ainat

    Beyayenet

    Tibs

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

    Shiro

    Tegabino

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

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

    Mixed fruit juice

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

    Roadside orange seller

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

    Ethiopian Draft Beer

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

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

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

    A $2 room

    A $2 room

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

    Guest House camp

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

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

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

    Room for the night

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

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

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

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

    Royal enclosure in Gonder

    Royal enclosure in Gonder

    Traditional dancer in Gonder

    Wall of Fasidiles Bath complex

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

    Back road to Gonder

    Roadside Church

    Off to market

    A happy view

    Rural Ethiopia

    Dark clouds and green fields

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

    Child devils

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

    Multi-tasking

    Ethiopian girl

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

    View north from Lalibela

    Road to Lalibela

    Bidon carrier

    Climb to Lalibela

    Descent from Lalibela

    Lalibela

    Church of St George

    Church priest in Lalibela

    Church priest in Lalibela

    Church window. Lalibela

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

    Christian crosses for sale

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

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

    Frank from the Czech Republic

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

    New bike

    The standard steed

    Cycling company

    Bike buddy

    Camel traffic in Shoa Robit

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

    View from 3200m

    Green and cultivated terraces.

    Terraces of Teff

    On the back road from Lalibela to Woldiya

    Rift Valley escarpment

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

    Gelada baboon

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

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

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

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

    Somaliland Chancery and Residence in Addis Ababa

    Somaliland Visa

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

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

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

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

  • About Addis Ababa November 3rd, 2015

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

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

    Addis Ababa

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

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

    Churchill Road Addis Ababa

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

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

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

    Meskel Square at dusk

    Fire Torch in Meskel square

    Meskel Celebration in Addis Ababa

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

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

    Two tourers

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

    Spare tyre and tubes

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

    Leaving Addis Ababa

  • Ethiopia: First Impressions. Mwanza-Muscat Part 8 October 12th, 2015


    The bridge over the river was a welcome sight, until I made it to the other side. Two men dragged a wooden pole across the road while another quickly pulled on a blue police shirt and blocked my way forward.

    Bridge over the Omo River

    ‘He says this bridge is closed and you need permission to cross it’, said a nervous teenager translating what had just been shouted at me.

    I didn’t need this, nor expect it. The sun was about to set and I wanted to reach Omorate’s immigration office before dark.

    It had been a long and hot day. First the Turkana sand and then the powdery mud as I entered Ethiopia on another track that looked like it might disappear at any moment. Then there were the half-naked kids running up from the riverbank to my right who followed me in the hope of a money handout or some sweets. Perhaps this is what other white faces who I caught glimpses of inside tour vehicles in the days to come were doing as they made their way to a tribal village or market, for which the region is well known.

    Ethiopian girl beside Omo River

    Moments before reaching this new bridge over the Omo River there was also a man, drunk or certainly high on something, who approached me and made a half-hearted attempt to relieve me of my bicycle – my left arm repeatedly pulled away from the handlebars as I pushed through a bad stretch of deep powdered mud.

    ‘Touch me again and I’ll fucking hit you’, I said slightly shocked and shaken, both at the attempted theft, if that’s what it was, and the words that came out of my mouth. I think he got my point.

    Patience and persistence worked up on the bridge once the bogus police officer realised I wasn’t falling for whatever he had in mind, and I was soon at the immigration office asking where I could change some money.

    A dread-locked Kenyan soon appeared on the scene and I switched to speaking Kiswahili. It took the edge off the feeling that I wasn’t a fresh arrival, although Kiswahili doesn’t get you very far in Ethiopia, where the pit of a Guest House I ended up in that night operated a dual pricing system – 100Birr ($5) for ferenjis like me and 70Birr for locals.

    The Amharic phrasebook I had with me, and the app I’d downloaded on my phone some weeks before, confirmed how different and difficult Ethiopia’s national language was going to be to learn compared to others in Africa. It took me several days to finally remember how to say ‘thank you’– ‘A-me-se-gen-hal-lu’, hardly the simplest of words for something that should be easy to say in any language I thought.

    Ethiopian coffee

    I knew Ethiopia was going to be challenging to cycle in, for various reasons. I’d almost come a few years ago over Christmas and New Year, but opted instead for a tour of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. I knew that would be more of a holiday experience based on the information I’d read and been told about cycling in Ethiopia.

    To start with things were fine. A newly paved road gently climbed through a peaceful landscape of uncultivated scrubland. After Omorate and the surrounding straw-hut villages beside the river there didn’t seem to be anyone living out here.

    Morning light

    Acacia tree with beehive

    In the village of Turmi it was market day, famous for another of the many distinctive tribes from the Omo Valley – the Hamer. People wanted me to take their picture, in exchange for money of course. I’ve never felt comfortable with paying people so I can take their photograph. Here it’s a full on business – prices determined by who and what you photograph. I didn’t enquire, but later heard that pictures of breasts or breasts being sucked by babies cost more.

    An English-speaking teenager kindly showed me to another fleapit of a room, marginally better to the previous nights, before explaining that I should watch a ‘bull-jumping festival’ the next day. This is a rite of passage for young Hamer men, who must jump over a line of 10-30 bulls, completely naked and without falling, as a means to impress the local girls who watch while being whipped in the process. I might have gone along, had it not required some permit, entrance fee and mandatory guide that I needed to organise from the village’s tourist bureau in advance. I also expected the event to be something of a human zoo experience, with me one of the camera-wielding ferenjis being hounded for pictures and money.

    The air began to cool as I continued climbing towards Key Afer the next day, another of the tourist-trail tribal villages popular for its weekly market. Here a similarly-aged teenage guide hoped I would be employing his services, but I’d missed the market and wasn’t planning to wait five days for what I imagined would be little different to the Turmi experience.

    The following day was New Years Day – 12th September 2008, according to the Ethiopian Calendar. It also happened to be one of the hardest days I can recall on the road.

    Looking south between Weito and Konso

    Road to Konso from Weito.

    The heat and hills I could deal with, of which there were plenty. It was when the first stone landed about 2 metres in front of me that I vividly recalled what almost every other cyclist who has been in Ethiopia warned me against. I glanced to my left in the direction the stone had come, then upward. A group of boys looking down from an embankment had obviously seen me approaching their village and decided to welcome me with a flying stone. Thanks guys.

    As I continued and tried to think what I’d done to deserve this, oddly reassured that my experience was probably similar to others I’d read about who cycled here, more kids joined the roadside. There was no stone throwing now, just incessant calls for ‘highland highland’. I soon realised this was a brand of mineral water, given all the pointing and occasional attempts to snatch at my water bottles.

    From walking age up to around twelve or thirteen, almost every child I passed for the rest of the day found the energy to run alongside me, as close as they possibly could, repeating the word ‘highland’ many hundreds of times. If I was going uphill, which I often was, it was easy for them to keep up, while going downhill occasionally meant kids stood in front of the road to block me.

    Bike chasers

    Had there been villages selling water bottles I might have given some away. As there were none the value of a water bottle was clearly high. I suspected other tourists passing in vehicles threw them out of the window. I later heard about and saw stones being thrown at them too.

    "Highland highland''

    It’s worth mentioning that Ethiopia is not the first country I’ve cycled in where children have thrown stones at me. I recall days in Pakistan, Tibet, Turkey, Jordan and the Sinai desert in Egypt, which were challenging because of this. Looking back however they seemed to be more isolated occurrences, detached from the rest of the chaos that accompanies cycling in Ethiopia.

    There were also many days in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and the Central African Republic where I was swamped by curiosity as hundreds of people surrounded me. Most of the time however that was when I stopped. A village elder or someone of authority would soon appear. People merely wished to stare, rather than demand things from me. In those countries there was little of the wild and feral persistence that existed on this particular day in Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent the next day (there was less climbing mind you) while I cycled from Konso to the town of Arba Minch.

    I attempted various tactics to appease the scenes of rural hysteria that awaited me once I had been seen from the roadside. There was the waving, smiling, slowing down, greetings in Amharic and a general display of innocence and ignorance when demands were made of me. When kids shouted ‘highland’ at me I just repeated the word back, like it was some kind of greeting. Perhaps it helped a little. It’s hard to say. In some villages I just had to keep moving while a crowd of 10-20 kids followed me like hounds chasing a fox.

    I came to the conclusion that most children merely saw it all as a game. Lets see what it takes to wind this ferenji up. Where is his breaking point? When will he stop and shout? Well I could tolerate the incessant taunts, but when a hand reached into my pocket or another onto a water bottle on my bike I did what I suspect many other people would do, which was remove it forcefully. And so the times when I did stop and called ‘beka’, meaning ‘enough’, children tended to run off laughing, only to follow me again when I continued.

    Adults occasionally shouted at the children to stop, at least when they were present, but I suspect most did the same when they were young. There really is no other country in Africa quite the same from this perspective. Looking at the faces of many of the children you’d never think they could be so damn annoying.

    Young cattle herder

    The town of Arba Minch felt like an oasis of peace and civilisation when I rolled in. The hotel was a little more expensive than I budgeted for, but there was a shady garden, cold draft beer, wifi connection (at least when there was electricity), and a beautiful English speaking Ethiopian woman who seemed shocked when I told her in more simple and polite terms that her countryside was over-run by feral gremlins.

    Looking over Lake Chamo

    Friendly face from Arba Minch

    The town itself had little to boast of, but I was in good company and after twelve continuous days on the road I decided to stay almost a week.

    I got introduced to chewing chat/qat here, which I realised is a popular pastime in Ethiopia. I’m not sure why. Perhaps my chewing technique was wrong and I swallowed too much, but it merely tasted like grass and left me with constipation for the next two days. I tried it again and the result was entirely the same.

    Chewing chat

    North of Arba Minch the children were moderately better. There were less shouts of ‘highland highland’ – probably because water bottles were more abundant. Now it was a ‘you you’ from the children and ‘where you go’ or ‘where are you go’ from adolescents and adults that provided the soundtrack to my days. Whenever I stopped in an area that looked peaceful it was a mere matter of seconds or minutes before I heard the calls again. At times it seemed like kids appeared from underground like zombies.

    Walking from the field

    I kept thinking if I was ever to teach English or train local teachers to teach English in Ethiopia I would start by explaining that yelling out ‘you you’, is no form of a greeting and comes across as aggressive and rude. And other than correcting the grammar in the question about my destination, if you’re going to ask it then at least do it with the intention to hear a response, rather than yell it out of a window while passing by. Many people didn’t seem to care and just broke into laughter, so I started playing the same game and provided random answers like ‘Congo’ or ‘Nigeria’, wondering if anyone would reply back with an answer that showed they understood anything I said.

    Ultimately I was probably just frustrated I couldn’t converse in Amharic, but I was still puzzled as to what made many people so hysterical while I was cycling. Perhaps had there been more local cyclists on the road I wouldn’t have drawn the same attention. In this case I might have been better off riding a donkey. Here in Ethiopia it is donkeys that transport items that bicycles do elsewhere on the continent.

    Water carriers

    I had planned to camp one evening when I knew I wouldn’t make it to the town I had in mind. Any quiet spot near the roadside or someone who looked like I could approach and ask permission to camp would have done, but it just seemed easier to ride on into the darkness for a short while and find myself a room to close myself away in.

    Ethiopian sunset

    If there is one overwhelmingly positive thing however about coming to Ethiopia, and for which the people do better than any other country in the World (other than annoying cyclists) it is the preparation and serving of coffee. Many other countries in East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi) grow excellent coffee, but it is for an export market. Locals generally prefer to drink tea so it’s only in big cities (mostly capitals) where western-style shops/malls exist that good coffee is served (at close to western prices).

    Coffee beans being roasted

    Fortunately here in Ethiopia coffee is embedded in the culture. And it’s not instant crap the rest of Africa serves out most of the time, but freshly roasted, ground and brewed coffee. Everyone drinks it and it’s served almost everywhere for around 3 birr (£0.10) a cup.

    Preparation for coffee

    The coffee table

    It was over coffee on the outskirts of the town of Sodo that I met a young University teacher one morning. Other than insisting he pay for my 3 cups he explained I should take a new paved road, which wasn’t marked on my map, in order to travel north towards Addis Ababa. I double-checked he was sure before I pedalled off.

    Well this new stretch of road, from Alaba Kulito to Wuibareg, should anyone be curious to know, turned out to be the most peaceful and pleasant stretch of cycling I may end up doing in Ethiopia. I could associate this to the fact that it was Monday morning and children were going to school rather than idly hanging out on the roadside, or that it had something to do with the fact that all villages I passed through had a predominantly Muslim population, whereas others before didn’t. But why should that have made a difference? The fact was this road was new. Few foreigners had travelled along it. And so there was no chasing, no taunting, no begging, no yelling, and no stones -just curious looks and smiles. Too bad it didn’t last longer than 60km. I needed to find more roads in Ethiopia less well travelled if they were going to be like this.

    Ethiopian man and son

    Ethiopian home

    As I approached Addis Ababa the road naturally became busier, although most traffic was heading in the opposite direction, either for the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha, or the Christian celebration of Meskel. I looked forward to seeing what happened during the latter, and how my time in Addis would compare to the rest of my experience in the country.

    Road to Addis

    Entering Addis Ababa

     

    The route map accompanying this blog post can be viewed at the bottom of the page 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

  • New visas: Mwanza-Muscat Part 3 August 10th, 2015

    A refrigerator box made an excellent container to transport my bicycle on a plane out of Tanzania. Cycling away would have been preferable, were it not for the fact that in order to go north, which is the direction I’m generally going, I’d be re-riding some of the roads I’d already covered. This rarely has much appeal, unless the roads are stupendously scenic, which they weren’t.

    Fortunately FastJet fly from Kilimanjaro Airport to Uganda and tickets cost all of £20. Well that’s before tax, after which the price quadruples. Even still, with an extra £20 for the bike and several quid for the gear the total price made it an affordable option. I also had good memories of cycling in Uganda.

    Bike in a fridge box

    My 3-week stay at the Arusha Hotel finished with me signing a bill I was very glad I didn’t have to pay. Goodbye full English breakfasts and 5-star luxury. Goodbye bus-loads of safari-clad tourists who always filled the hotel lobby every morning to be briefed by tour-operators about their impending trip to one of the nearby National Parks. None ever seemed to venture onto the streets of Arusha. Well that wasn’t in the itinerary, and being hassled by multi-lingual touts would only mire what were probably very expensive holidays.

    The hotel must have been making an absolute fortune from this lot. Had I cared more I would have told the Indian manager to invest in some better customer service. It’s a concept that remains mostly foreign in Tanzania, even when people pay western prices. Instead I gave one of the security guards the two pairs of trousers I’d bought to work in and pedalled off to a Warmshowers host. Thanks for the fridge box if you happen to be reading this Eric.

    My short teaching contract provided a welcome break, as well as a good opportunity to be back in the classroom interacting with Tanzanian students. If I could live a life of cycle-touring for several months then pick up a 2 or 3-week well-paid teaching contract in an interesting location I might just spend the rest of my life doing that.

    Ugandan immigration had little time for my reasoning that I didn’t need a visa when I arrived. I was in Uganda for a weekend in late May and paid $50 for a visa which I hoped would allow me free re-entry to the country within 90 days. Tanzania and Kenya at least follow this policy. So much for an East African Union making it easier for people to travel freely around the region.

    Painting of President Musuveni

    Uganda now in fact charges $100 instead of $50 (prices changed on July 1st) and I was going nowhere until I paid it.

    ‘Don’t worry.You will enjoy Uganda. There is plenty of food and good security’, said a portly immigration officer as he relieved me of a crisp bill and stamped my passport.

    Ugandan lunch

    As international airports go, Entebbe’s is an easy one to cycle away from, located as it is at the end of a peninsula jutting into Lake Victoria. The main road from here, well pretty much only road, heads to Kampala, just 35km away.

    Kampala

    I hadn’t planned such a long stay here, but then didn’t anticipate the obstacles and delay in acquiring a visa for South Sudan. Fortunately, Kampala, despite the crazy traffic and near death experiences every time one gets on the back of a boda-boda (a motorbike taxi) isn’t such a bad place to pass the time. People are friendly, they speak good English and there seems to be less of the immature ‘Mzungu’ calling that accompanies a stay in Tanzania. There also happens to be a great selection of bars and restaurants. An easy place for a single man to get trapped perhaps, as I’m sure many have…

    Downtown Kampala

    Boda Boda Drivers

    Beer with a view

    Kampala bus park

    Kampala bus park at sunset

    When I first conceived the idea for this current tour South Sudan had never been on the agenda, fraught as the country is with Civil War. A quick look at the FCO website will confirm that the 4-year old country isn’t the safest on the continent to visit right now. But I’ve never used the FCO website as a means to plan where I go, recognising that conflict in one part of a country doesn’t necessarily mean everywhere is actually as dangerous.

           South Sudan FCO travel advice

    A friend in Tanzania had worked in the country a few years back and started convincing me, or rather helped convince myself, that it would be a challenging and adventurous way to enter Ethiopia, which remains the plan.

    A visa for South Sudan isn’t easily obtainable, requiring a letter of invitation from within the country. Anticipating this to be a minor hurdle I decided to write my own invitation letter and forward it to my friend’s colleague in South Sudan, who could then sign it, which he did.

    The problem is self-written invitations don’t look so impressive without official letter-heads and stamps. My application was quickly rejected.

    I returned two days later with what I considered a formal invite, only to be told that I now needed a ‘Certificate of Incorporation’ in order to prove that the company who had invited me were officially registered. The letter could also not be addressed ‘To whom it may concern’ but the ‘Visa section’.

    By this point I was close to giving up, which wouldn’t have been a huge issue as I can just cross back into Kenya and enter Ethiopia that way.

    The certificate was soon emailed to me with the necessary letter changes. I returned once again. This time the Consular wasn’t in the office, but I was assured the visa would be processed, which indeed it was. Same day service as well (normally it takes 3 working days). Another $100.

    I have until September the 6th to enter the country. Well I assume that the 1-month duration of my visa is from the day I enter the country rather than the day the visa is issued. Such trivialities shouldn’t matter in Africa. I have northern Uganda to explore first.

    South Sudan Visa

  • On the shelves: Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook July 25th, 2015

    The latest edition of the wonderful ‘Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook is now available to buy. It’s a great resource for anyone planning a cycle tour, with plenty of practical information covering aspects such as what bike and equipment to take, as well as chapters focusing on regions and popular routes to cycle.

    I was very happy to have contributed to the chapter on Africa – updating the sections on cycling though East and Southern Africa as well as West and Central Africa. That’s a lot of countries. Some barely got a mention. Perhaps it’s time a guidebook dedicated to cycle-touring in Africa was put together. Hmm.

    Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook

    Unfortunately I won’t get to see a copy for a while. Next week I’m back on the road, although need to box my bike up first.