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

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

    Duration of tour: 238 days

    Total distance cycled: 10,375 km

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

    Climbing away from Jebel Shams

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

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

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

    Highest altitude cycled: 3300m in eastern Ethiopia.

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

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

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

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

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

    Camping on Mughsal beach

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

    Harar beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Picked up by the Police

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

    Sitting with some crew

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

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

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

    Man and mountains

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

    Camp at night

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

    Exploring Rustaq's fort

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

    Rustaq Fort

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

    Tea drinkers outside Rustaq Fort

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

    Date palms and the Hajar Mountains

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

    View from Rustaq fort

    Rustaq sits at the base of the Hajar mountains.

    Canon in Rustaq fort

    One of many canons within Rustaq fort.

    Nakhal Fort

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

    Looking out from Nakhal Fort

    Looking out from Nakhal Fort

    Daniel Dorosz aka Dosh

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


    Morning at camp

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

    Barbecued chicken time.

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

    Cycle lane in Muscat!

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

    Mutrah corniche

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

    Park camp in Mutrah

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

    Beach in Muscat

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

    Cycle lane ahead!

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

    Coastal mosque and fort

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

    Coastal town in Al Batinah region

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

    Coffee and date invitation

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

    Fort in Al Suwayq

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

    Beach in Al Batinah region

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

    Fishing apparatus on beach

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

    Ahmed and his fighting bull

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

    A night out in Oman

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

    A night out in Oman

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

    Morning catch

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

    The catch

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

    Abandoned sea front

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

    Omani bike

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

    Morning view from the tent

    Morning view from my tent. Blissful.

    Morning at camp

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

    Sand dunes in UAE

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

    First night in UAE

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

    UAE back road

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

    UAE back road

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

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

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

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

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

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

    New wheels. Indian made single speed roadster

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

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

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

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

    Worldbikers

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

    Bedu father and son

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

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

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

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

    Bedu LunchBedu tent LunchBedu portrait

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

    Bedu Camp

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

    Camel portraitBedu and their camelDesert camel at sunset

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

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

    Bedu camp at sunsetNight with the Bedu

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

    Camel milk for breakfast

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

    Ferry from Masirah Island to Shannah

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

    Masirah Island

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

    Beach camp on Masirah Island
    Beach shack camp

    Masirah Island camp

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

    Sand dunes of Oman

    Desert mosque camp

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

    Seafront at Al-AyjahSurFishing boat in Sur

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

    Sur harbour wall

    Sur harbour wallSur harbour wall

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

    Al Kabil Castle

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

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

    Wadi Bani KhalidCamping at Wadi Bani Khalid

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

    Date palms at Wadi Bani Khalid

    Date palms at Wadi Bin Khalid

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

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

    Old Omani doorOmani doorOman doorOmani doorOmani doorOmani doorOmani door

    Omani doorOmani door

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

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

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

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

    Mosque in Nizwa

    Nizwa town and mosque

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

    Nizwa souk pottery

    Nizwa Souk

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

    Nizwa souk fish market

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

    Edge of Nizwa old townAli the Kiswahili speaking Omani

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

    Camping in Nizwa

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

    Bahla FortOutside Bahla FortSulaiman the Warm Showers host

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

    Bahla Fish souk

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

    Climb to Jebel Shams

    View from Jebel ShamsOn the edge: Jebel Shams

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

    Jebel Shams goat

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

    Steep descent from Jebel Shams

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

    Climbing away from Jebel ShamsTop of a steep one

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

    Rare ominous clouds

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

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

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

    Omani village

    Geologically gorgeous

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

    Wadi campAnother wadi camp

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

    Improvisation

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

    Evening shadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Camping on Mughsal beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Where is Oman

    Frankincense Seller in Salalah souq

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

    Frankincense for sale

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

    Cruise boat tourists in Salalah Souq

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

    Frankincense tree in Wadi Dawdah

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

    Wild Camp Wadi Dawdah

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

    View back to Mugsahl

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

    Climbs ahead

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

    Awdah the awesome Omani

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

    Greetings from Oman

    Road to Muvvai

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

    Searching for shade

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

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

    Desert sign-post

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

    Village supermarket

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

    Luxury for a night

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

    Hotel room in Salalah

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

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

    Salalah Roadside

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

    Taqah beach front

    Roadside fruit stall Salalah

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

    Mosque in Taqah

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

    Night cycling

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

    Sunrise from my sleeping bag

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

    Oman flag at Mirbat Fort

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

    Sea-front at Mirbat

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

    Town of Mirbat

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

    Indian bike outside Mirbat Fort

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

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

    Omani boy with his bicycle

    Omani cyclist

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

    Exploring Mirbat

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

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

    Old Omani house front in Sadah Old Oman

    Meeting Oman's road construction workers

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

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

    Coastal road to Hasik

    Seeing faces

    Coastal road to Hasik

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

    Fishing boats on Hasik beachFishing boats on the beach at Hasik

    Turquoise viewsCoastal view in Southern Oman

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

    Southern Oman coastal road

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

    Sunrise on Ash Shuwaymiyyah beach

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

    Packing up from Ash Shuwaymiyyah beach.

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

    Fish Biriyani for lunch

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

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

    Camping near Shalim

    Thorny tree and my loaded Thorn

    Broken kickstand

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

    Camel racing

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

    Racing camels near Shalim

    Making Omani friendsPhoto stop

    Random Omani wanting a pic

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

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

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

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

    Cows on the sea

    Some of the 500 cattle

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

    Bike firmly strapped on.

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

    Majid one of the Pilots

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

    Crew sleeping

    My berth on the boat

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

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

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

    Another Indian boat

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

    Captain Samir

    Crew member

    Gujarati crew

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

    Sitting with some crew

    Meeting the crew.

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

    Ayaj the first cook

    Preparing goat meat

    Communal dining

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

    The Engine room

    Crew member

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

    East to Oman

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

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

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

    Feeding time

    Feeding time

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

    The long drop

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

    Betel nut preparation

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

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

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

    International Navy boat

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

    Mountains of Yemen

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

    Sunset over Gulf of Aden

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

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

    Numbering cattle

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

    Unloading cattle

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

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

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

    Saying goodbye to the Gujarati crew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Central Berbera

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

    Old building in Berbera

    Berbera ruins

    Berbera ruins

    View over Berbera

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

    Fish warehouse Berbera

    Central Berbera

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

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

    Old Persian mosque in Berbera

    Mosque in Berbera

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

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

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

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

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

    Beach in Berbera

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

    Qat and chai

    Qat for sale

    Somaliland beer import

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

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

    Berbera Boys

    Young girl in Berbera

    Woman and daughter Berbera
    Mother and daughter

    Berbera children

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

    Colourful rubbish in Berbera

    Qat chewer

    Mad qat chewer

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

    Local tea shop Berbera

    Young girl in Berbera

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

    Berbera cat

    Berbera cats

    Berbera ruins

    Qat stall and goat

    Local restaurant Berbera

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

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

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

    Hassan

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

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

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

    Berbera Airport Entrance

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

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

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

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

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

    Berbera bay

    Berbera from my hotel roof-top

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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