Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The promise of Africa


An egyptian 'hill'. Scary, white knuckle stuff.

An Egyptian traffic jam

How to confuse another tourist whilst cycling around the world...

"So where are you from?"
"I'm from England"
"Oh great. And where have you come from?"
"From England"
"No no. I mean where have you cycled from?"
"From England"
"Oh wow. (pregnant pause). That's a long way. How long did that take?"
"Around six months"
"No kidding! And where are you heading?"
"Back to England"
"How long will that take?"
"Around four and a half years"

I had a few conversations along these lines in Dahab. It made me chuckle, but reminded me that after clocking up eight thousand kilometres I'm still only one tenth of my way around the world. My days by the Red Sea were spent indulging in nice activities like snorkeling in lagoons, eating nice hot food, drinking nice cold beer, having a nice chat with nice new friends and occasionally having a nice quiet siesta. It didn't feel right. It was only six days but a guilty feeling descended like a curtain, and with it an urge to push on. I kept poring over my map and the route inland across Sinai. More hills. I had a debt to pay and those mountains were calling it in. I reminded myself that hills are just like all those cold showers. The thought is always worse than the experience. This would be the last vertical test until the highlands of Ethiopia, maybe 2000 kilometres away. Until then the theme would be Red Sea coast, Nile valley and Sahara desert. Dahab was a great place for a break, but there were few solitary travelers here, everyone seemed to be part of a group. I started to miss home. Recently whenever I'm feeling a bit nostalgic something quickly crops up to put a smile back on my face. Sometimes all it takes is a tailwind or an exotic creature in the road, sometimes some local hospitality or if I'm lucky it's meeting another cycle tourer. On my way inland across Sinai, whilst my mind wondered about the people I'd left behind in England, I met two.

The first was Nils, a German guy who'd taken off on his bike at the ripe old age of sixty six. I realise now that our conversation would probably have sounded strange to anyone else if they happened to be listening in. Two strangers met in the road and covered, in quick succession, altitude, kilograms of gear, prevailing wind directions and then the pros and cons of Rohloff hubs. I happened upon a pilgrim whilst riding through Turkey perhaps a month or so ago. A sunny, gregarious character from Austria called Martin who was walking from his homeland to Jerusalem. Amazingly Nils had run into him too, in Serbia. I waved goodbye to Nils who was just finishing his tour and then tried to ignore taxi drivers who frequently stopped to offer me a lift. I thought it was fairly obvious that I had put at least some time and consideration into my chosen method of transport, but they tried their luck anyway. I asked a couple if they wanted to ditch their taxis and find bicycles. They didn't get what I was on about. I'd picked up one of those water spray bottles they use in hairdressers whilst I was in Dahab. I intermittently soaked my face to escape the heat and I liked it resting in my bottle holder. It contributed nicely to my increasingly bizarre appearance. The police at the numerous check points found it hilarious. I think every cyclist should have one. Also great for washing up, brushing teeth and for a very limited "shower".


Nils
The second cyclist was Rob. A Brit who'd cycled all the way from Capetown, he'd made it in seven months despite more then a couple of chunky loops and detours. He was heading to Istanbul. We greedily traded information, the road ahead for the road behind. He probably knew a bit about my future and I of his. His tales inflamed my curiosity. These encounters with cyclists coming the other direction, more then any guide book or web search, help shape my decisions about the route ahead. Rob was full of useful tidbits. Here's his entertaining blog. Cycle tourers met so far... It's England  2, Germany 1.

Rob
I moved north, flanked by desert and sporadic red sea resorts. On my way I gave myself indigestion by eating my weight in various life-giving health foods, mostly pot noodles and family sized packs of kebab flavoured crisps. I love the Middle East, not least for those crisps, but some things I won't miss. Mainly people's inability to queue properly but also the fact that you have to barter for every commodity. I expect to haggle for gifts in the Souqs of Damascus or Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, but when you get to an Egyptian pharmacy and have to negotiate the price of six Rennie and a toothbrush you begin to wish things just came with a price tag.

Cycling through desert can be an uninspiring effort. After Sinai it was a stale, stagnant, unchanging landscape. Only the odd dead White Stalk and red or green stripes of mineral deposits in the rocks roused my interest. Nothing but the bare beige backdrop to stare at. To me camels always look glum and a little bemused. Stick twenty in a lorry, with their heads poking out of the top, and drive it fast through the desert and they look quite comical, but that was all that broke the monotony. Only one thing to do then. Three cups of coffee, some new school breaks on the IPOD, switch off that internal monologue and get cracking. At the end of the day is when the desert really shines, the nights and evenings are magnificent. The bleached blandness of the day diminishes with the light. Shadows rise, colours sharpen, contours look to twist and morph. With few settlements, no light pollution and dependably clear skies, the cosmos fluoresces in all it's glory. During the desert nights I could easily make out the hazy streak of the Milky Way, luminescent planets, star clusters and even the faint haze of Andromeda, our neighbouring galaxy, three million light years away.




I ran out of food again after consuming the edible dregs from the deep recesses of my pannier. After fifty kilometres and still no breakfast I spied a coastal resort, and then once inside to my delight, and their imminent regret, an all you can eat breakfast buffet. French and Italian tourists picked at the salads and cereals. I went to town. When I piled my plate as high as I could manage, for the third time, a few olives bounced away under the table. The bill then quickly arrived without me asking for it. I stuffed two hard boiled eggs into my pockets, paid and made for the exit, ignoring the disgruntled looking staff. I felt no shame. This is not the first time, and it will not be the last time, that I take a few liberties with buffet carts.


I was cycling on the only two inner tubes I had left and it was making me nervous. The valves on the only ones available to buy in the Middle East didn't fit through the holes in my rims. I hoped things would hold up until Cairo but of course the inevitable happened, a sudden 'woooooosh' and on examination a split, right where the valve comes off the tube. I hadn't glimpsed a bike shop since Amman, over one thousand kilometres behind me. When my inner tube ruptured I was fifty metres from one. They didn't have the right tube, but of course in Egypt my problem was not a problem. If the tube didn't fit, the young mechanic would make it fit. He swiftly removed the tyre, chucked away my tube, grabbed some pliers and set to work widening the hole in my rim. Within ten minutes he had solved the problem, inflated the new tube and replaced the tyre, adjusted my brakes and refused payment. It took me longer to persuade him to at least take some money for the tube than it did for him to fix it. In the end I could only convince him to take the Egyptian equivalent of about two quid sterling.



I cracked on, hungry for Cairo, munching up the kilometres and trying to ignore the Egyptian stripped down, minimalist approach to motoring (who needs lanes, indicators, brakes, mirrors or eyes). Eventually I made it. I've spent about six months on the road, it would have been five were it not for that troublesome knee. I expected the hectic in Cairo, so sunnies off, headphones out and game face on. I needed all my senses. Time to embrace the chaos, forget the rules and above all, commit to every move and turn. This time I quite enjoyed it.


Cairo... the old and the new

When I first found out Nyomi might want to join me I asked her to choose a country. I didn't expect her to answer "Africa", but I'm glad she did. She arrives today and we have a lot to do in Cairo, on top of all the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the city to sample. So what are my hopes and fears for the roads ahead through 'the dark continent'? There are many. I'm not looking forward to the police escort we'll get in Egypt from Cairo to Aswan. Egypt's boys in white insist on trailing cyclists if you choose to ride down the Nile valley. Rob had them in tow for four days. I guess they don't care much for independent travelers. They prefer tour groups, where you're told what to look at and then escorted to the gift shop. Many a cyclist has also recounted tales of the stone throwing hoards of children in Northern Ethiopia. I don't know if anyone knows for sure why they do it. Perhaps it's perceived as bad luck to see a traveler on their turf, perhaps it's just youthful mischief, either way many cyclists I have spoken to warn of sporadic attacks along this route. The road through Northern Kenya is notorious, a rough lumpy hot bed of ups and downs. Hundreds of kilometres of what amounts to back to back speed bumps, and then for us a few weeks of difficulty walking in a normal fashion. Ethiopia and Rwanda have some hefty inclines to deal with, and of course I also sometimes worry about having all of our stuff nicked. The temptation's obvious. In Africa our bikes are worth a fortune, but it's unlikely that I will pass through anywhere on my five year expedition that has a higher rate of bike theft than my prosperous home town of Oxford.

Malaria is one that sometimes hits cyclists. It is a particular risk when you're outside all day, but we have tactics to deploy. Obviously covering up and avoiding bites in the first place, good mosquito repellent (and I have some), nets at night and prophylaxis. Many don't bother, complaining the tablets are "not natural", that they're not 100% effective or that they have side effects. Personally I couldn't give a mosquito's arse about the first, the second is true, although surely you should try what you can to reduce the risk, and the third? Well malaria has side effects too. Off the top of my head... haemolytic anaemia, liver and kidney failure and occasionally death. Whilst I've never seen a patient who has developed side effects to anti-malarials severe enough to warrant a hospital admission, I have been involved in the care of quite a few patients with malaria, including one who subsequently died on the Intensive Care Unit. Some had taken prophylaxis, but most had not. We also carry a malaria self test kit and some Quinine for treatment of Falciparum malaria if all else fails. Finally there are those wild beasts of Africa. If Nyomi and Steve disappear without trace and only their camera is recovered, the last photo may just show grins of the purest gorgonzola and edam, the pair oblivious to the pride of lions in the corner of the image and just over their shoulders....

The geographer George Kimble put it aptly when he said that the darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it. In the next chapter of the saga I hope to learn something of the continent through the people we come across on the road. I hope to visit some of Merlin's projects. I hope the journey is as exciting as it has been up until now. I hope my knee continues to fair well. I hope our journey's hard and I hope it hurts and then I hope to sit on the beach at Capetown, beside Belinda and Nyomi, and know that we conquered Africa together and that all the sweat and tears and saddle sores and long days and bumpy roads and dodgy bowels and aching limbs and homesick times were worth it. Steve and Nyomi! Nyomi and Steve! Team Ny-eve! Hang on, that doesn't quite sound right.

Every thousand kilometres I cycle I stop, write the distance on whatever comes to hand and take a photo. The idea is to put together a collection of eighty images for every thousand of the eighty thousand kilometres I expect to pedal. So far I have written in the sand, in stone, in the ice on my tent or just on a piece of card. Here are the first eight of these milestones...
Fresh-faced in the French countryside
Blog posts:
The beginning 

On the Italian Riviera
Blog posts:
Lesson one

Getting a soaking in Croatia
Blog posts:
Reggae, rain and a dodgy beard

A frosty morning in Macedonia
Blog posts:
Paranoia and pesky pooches
Heartbreak

Back on the bike after knee surgery, Istanbul
Blog posts:
The humble fare
Recovery, japery and some summer shenanigans

South of Cappadocia, Turkey. I carved the numbers into the soft tufa rock
Blog posts:
Meltdown

North of Amman, Jordan
Blog posts:
Ain't no valley low enough
Doctor, soldier, vagrant, priest

The Sahara desert, Sinai peninsula, Egypt.
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6 comments:

  1. Awesome stuff. Keep the updates coming and good luck along the Nile.

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  2. Great post Steve! We're 2,500km into our trip and you've given us hope that we'll do another 2,500km! As it's getting colder in Eastern Europe we've considered hitting Egypt! Hope that the saddle sores aren't too numerous and that the stone throwing kids(have heard the same thing primarily thro' Al Humphries book) stay at bay... or at least throw small ones! Good on you! Go n'eiri an bothar libh (Irish greeting meaning "May the Road Rise to Meet You (plural)! ) Linda, Phil and Luca ( btw: Phil and I met you at RGS last year)

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  3. Wait. a. minute. You can carve the soft tufa rock in Cappadocia?

    Okay, as far as the buffet goes ("to my delight, and their imminent regret, an all you can eat breakfast buffet"), at least you have the excuse of biking kabillions of kilometers every day. For me, there is only the gluttony.

    I'm nervous about Africa for you. Please, little soldier, post as often as you can, so we all know you're okay.

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  4. Hey Sketchy,

    Safe journey through Africa, will be following you closely. You really should turn this into a novel one day. Some friends of mine recently told me they had met a 'nutter' who was on crutches in Keiths this summer, who had claimed he was cycling round the world. I replied; 'I know that guy! And he IS a nutter!'
    But then, all the best people are.
    You've completely inspired me to follow my dreams and I'm finally planning to leave Liverpool next year...
    keep up the good work and look after yourself mate, Jo xx

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  5. You and your bloody Rennie's!

    Miss you, so very proud. As I return from Africa, you embark on one seriously interesting leg of your journey. Cycle safe, keen an eye on Ny and I hope to see you soon.....know your new ETA for Malawi?

    xxxxx

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  6. Inspiring ! Thank you so much for posting such an epic adventure ! I will set for some adventure in the next coming years, and hope it is as enjoyable as yours was !

    Cheers and live life

    Narciso

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