Our mate Jamie with us at the finishing line.
Over the last few days we've been eating delicious food, hanging out with family, sleeping in bed til 10am and sipping a little champagne, so we're a bit late in updating the blog. Last Wednesday - 286 days since we weaved away from Tulse Hill - we cycled along the South African coast, past Robben Island and rolled to a halt for the last time. Surrounded by Hannah's overexcited family we tried to come to terms with the fact we'd made it to Cape Town. Farcycal had come to an end.
We'll take a little time to reflect on the whole trip and write something more thoughtful in the next few weeks, but for now we wanted to say a simple thanks.
Thank you to our families for supporting us every step of the way, and to Hannah's South African tribe for their amazing welcome to Cape Town. Thanks to all the people we met along the way - the waving lorry drivers, the inquiring kids, the generous strangers, the old friends who hosted us and the new friends we made. Thanks to the bikes for giving us no jip, and to the people back home who prepped us for tackling the tiny problems that arose. Thanks to all those who gave to our fundraising effort, and to those who are about to! Thanks to work for giving us this chance. Thanks to those who came to us in our odd hour of need with more generosity than we could have imagined we deserved. Thanks to the people who read the blogs and liked the posts. Thanks to those who got in touch to say hi. Thanks to Jamie who joined us for the beautiful final leg. Thanks to the mountains and the valleys, the deserts and the trees. Thanks to each other, for getting us up the hills and through the low points, and for all the grins and spine-tingling team moments. Thanks to cycle touring for being such a wonderfully fulfilling way to be. Thanks to all the forces that got us here safe.
With three weeks, hang on, less than three weeks til we get to Cape Town and the whole adventure comes to a close, our blog is clearly in need of being brought up to date. We left you with an insight into the kind of gentle evening we have had so many times in the company of new friends. That was a couple of days into Tanzania. We’re a couple of days ride from the South African border now, so in the next few hundred words I’m going to try in vain to squeeze in a bit of Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia; leaving Smith to take it home from Botswana...
We pulled out of Nairobi along a wide highway, passing a smiling policeman who boomed, “Long Distance Cyclists, welcome to Kenya! Enjoy yourselves!” Our decision to cut east from Nairobi towards Mombasa was regarded by Kenyan professional road racer and mentor to Chris Froome, David Kinja*, as possible, but stressful. Lonely Planet reckon cycling it is “tantamount to suicide”. But we survived the huge numbers of hauliers plying the route from Mombasa’s gigantic port to the Kenyan capital and beyond thanks to our rear-view mirrors and a simple communication strategy. “OFF!” one of us would shout; we’d hit the brakes and swoop onto the roadside scrub to wait for the thundering lorries to pass. After four days of this we were rewarded by a few days off on the idyllic beaches south of Mombasa, and by the quiet road south towards Tanzania.
The terrain to the border was flat and a warm breeze on our backs swept us swiftly along to the man with the stamp. Crossing into Tanzania the hills started and the humidity sky-rocketed. Humidity sapped our energy in a way the dry heat of the desert never did, so we were glad to climb up and away from the lovely town of Tanga and inland from the coast. Like most of Africa, Tanzania is busy improving her roads, but the stretch south of Segara, where we joined the main Dar-Arusha highway was not finished. Covering hills with the contours of 1000 London bobbies’ hats placed in a line, a new layer of tarmac was down on the road, but no markings, meaning buses had no yellow sideline to stay on the right of. Twice we had to launch ourselves off the foot high drop into the bushes to escape when two buses passed at once or someone tried an ill-advised overtaking manoeuvre. Tanzania’s drivers – most Tanzanians seemed eager to agree – are the worst on the continent.
Halfway through our second dangerous day of this we were frazzled. We were aiming to get to Bagamoyo to hang out in the place where our buddy Kathy had been doing a Phd. Bagamoyo is 70km off to the left, and we’d be turning round and coming back the same 70km to the main road, so we decide to get a bus to escape the last 40km of the hellish narrow, hilly road. As bad as any road is, the stress of getting our bikes and all our bags (nine, plus camera, sleeping mats and tent) onto a bus is a pretty miserable alternative, but we negotiated it without too much hassle and zipped ludicrously quickly over the hills to the Bagamoyo turnoff.There we hopped off the bus and back on our bikes, downhill on a newly finished, and almost totally empty of traffic, road. It was much nicer riding. But we had set off after 2pm to cover 70kms. We’d be cutting it fine to get there before dark. Everything was going to plan, until 20km out from town the new road ended. The tarmac turned to gravel, and the gravel turned to dry and dusty mud. Our speed plummeted and we found ourselves cycling alongside Tanzanians making their way home as day turned to dusk. They kept us right – guiding us along side tracks that avoided the trucks on the main route and, as it turned from being difficult to see to impossible to see, along the back streets of town to a place where Kathy’s friend could come and find us.
There followed a great couple of days in the hospitality and company of Sylvain and his family, Stefano, Kaya and the rest of Bagamoyo. Another few swims in the sea, bike rides to ruins and excellent Burundian home cooking by Sylvain’s beautiful wife and family. Thanks all.
Back on the road we had a few of the most special days of cycling we’d had since the Ethiopian Highlands. South of Morogoro the main road towards Zambia and Malawi passes right through the middle of an amazing national park. We did our research and realised that this is one of the few parks that allow cyclists to ride through. We reached its edge and, passing the huge CAUTION DANGEROUS ANIMALS sign, pedalled on with our best lion spotting eyes on. If you’ve ever been on safari, you’ll know that every log, ant hill, oddly shaped tree and patch of grass is at first glance an animal. We cycled for 20kms but saw little actual wildlife. Then, we rounded a corner and looking down at us was a giraffe. And then another. Then elephants, far back from the road. Until all around us were zebra and impala and every kind of animal you’d hope to see as you cycle by, and none of the ones we didn’t. It’s very special to coast by an elephant and hear him ripping up grass to chew.
Beyond the park the road climbs for a few days up into the Southern Highlands. We weaved our way through alpine valleys and past hills as pointed as piles of sugar. We made it to Iringa, where ten years previously I’d attended in-country training before my placement as an SPW volunteer. Unlike returning to Ethiopia after eight years, everything in Iringa – indeed Tanzania – was familiar. The town, and the country are as sleepy as I remembered. This East African giant has not yet woken from its slumber, still apparently a very difficult place to do business with a government in no hurry to reform. Tanzania was the first place we’d been where people weren’t excited to talk politics.
My old friend Frank greeted us at gloriously unchanging culinary institution, (think beans on toast, omelettes and chips, Kellogg’s Frosties and cold milk) Hasty Tasty’s. He was coming to the end of a two year stint in the town working for the same organisation we’d both volunteered for – SPW, now rebranded as Restless Development. He and his friends took exceptional care of us for a few indulgent days in the town of warm days and cool nights – a colonial posting of your dreams.
Leaving Iringa we headed further south to Mafinga where we left the bikes behind to catch the bus to the village where I’d volunteered ten years ago. I still call the village chairman Baba Yangu – Kiswahili for My Father – and we’ve been in sporadic contact over the last decade. He knew about our journey and we’d been texting back and forth about our progress til our phone got nicked in Sudan and with it his number. Despite Frank trying to get hold of his contact details number, we’d never managed to find a number that worked so were getting on the bus with no idea whether he’d even be there.
Having wound up into the hills through tea plantations and old growth forest the bus came to rest in Mdabulo after three and a half hours. It quickly became surrounded by meeters and greeters, and people picking up packages, and others just coming for a look and to shoot the breeze with whoever’d been to town. We stepped off and chatted with the old faces I recognised, then wandered down the path to Baba Yangu’s. As we got close his son, now 12, was playing outside. He recognised me and shouted “Mac!” We hugged him and he led us into the house where Mwan ya Kiti Kangalawe was having a nap. The surprise in his eyes and familiar half-smile as he worked out what was going on will stay with me forever.
Most things seemed to be very much the same in Tanzania, but in Mdabulo one thing was exceptionally different. When I was a working there we took some volunteers, including Baba Yangu, to be tested for HIV in Iringa – showing the importance of knowing your status. The best doctors could do for those who tested positive – and some unquestionably would have – was to return to the village, eat well and stay as healthy as possible. Treatment for Africans living with HIV was a pipe-dream. Now there is a gleaming HIV Testing, Treatment and Care unit attached to the small rural health clinic. Over 1600 people from Mdabulo and the surrounding area are now receiving life-saving HIV drugs, including children as young as six, thanks to international development funding.
You meet a lot of aid cynics in Europe and indeed Africa but the clinic records showing, in red ink, the list of patients with dangerously low immune cell counts was incredibly stark. Those patients are now all on ARVs. It is unquestionable evidence that aid works, and millions are alive because of it.
We spent three days in Mdabulo, walking the roads, calling in on old friends, getting tipsy on ulanzi and komon and trying to remember people’s names and to whom they are related. By the time we got back to the bikes in Mafinga I was feeling decidedly peaky – as we’d both known, drinking the home brew bamboo juice (ulanzi) and millet beer (komon) was a bit foolish. I was laid up. After a couple of days we set out again, now riding in the middle of the Tanzanian rainy season. We got thoroughly drenched once, but narrowly avoided the most cataclysmic thunder and lightning we’ve ever heard. Sheltering in a small guesthouse we sipped beer and listened to the air crackling and fizzing as lighting came to earth just outside and the electric storm passed right over our heads.
The contrast in culture, language, landscape and, honestly, almost everything when you pass from Egypt to Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya is shocking. Crossing from Tanzania into Malawi, the changes were more subtle. There are South African supermarkets in the bigger towns in Malawi, and with them a much improved supply of Cadbury’s. And Malawi’s roads are empty, a consequence of an economic crisis that has left people struggling even more than usual to make ends meet. We found the prices of everything had taken another little hike, as happens every time you get further south from Ethiopia. Whilst still a friendly place, Malawians’ stress was palpable, and an anger about the government and the IMF advice on economic reforms close to the surface.
People’s inability to cover the cost of filling their petrol tanks meant we were able to cycle alongside the beautiful Lake Malawi and through rubber plantations on roads where cyclists out-numbered motorists. Malawians and Zambians were some of the first people to have an understanding of our journeys and how far we might go in a day, because here too we met people cycling 120km round trips to visit families, attend funerals or work a distant piece of farmland. Malawians understand the efficient beauty of a bicycle; how to load them eight feet high with firewood, and ride them over 30kms of hills to market.
Through Ethiopia we’d come to rely on cheap and decent hotels to rest our heads being available in every small town we passed. We didn’t quite shake the habit until Malawi where it felt like we got more of the adventure back. We struggled to find food, we camped wild, we slept in the courtyards of guesthouses no longer open for business. One afternoon I ate a sandwich with two slices of bread as a filling. Our map was totally wrong (think made up towns and non-existent roads) and so we relied on local know-how for directions. It felt like the trip was intrepid again. Coming into Salima, David who was on the return leg of a 110km round trip to his family maize field, guided us off the road and along a narrow 15km shortcut to town, passing through fields and past villages as people gathered in front of their homes to discuss the day as the sun lowered itself towards the trees. We’ve rarely been able to stray far from the tarmac and so this was a wonderful change of pace and perspective.
After climbing away from the lake up into Lilongwe we rested for a few nights. Since Tanzania we’d been on a much stricter schedule. I’ve to be back to work on the 1st of June (albeit from Cape Town for the first two weeks), my Mum and Dad had booked a flight to meet us in Livingstone, and our brilliant chum Jamie has confirmed he’d be coming to meet us in Springbok to join for the final leg through South Africa. Basically we no longer have the freedom we’d had in the north, where the end seemed far too far to imagine, never mind factoring it into our daily mileage or plans. Having consulted the maps of a couple of French bicycle tourists – the wonderful Romain & Emilie* who are travelling from the Congo to Cape Town – we realised Lilongwe to Chipata, Zambia was 148km, not 90km as our piece of shit map suggested.
Determined not to slip behind, and learning that the road was flat, we decided to attempt our longest day of the trip. Pulling out of Lilongwe just after 6am, we made great time thanks to a tailwind and a road which, better than flat, was slightly downhill. We were over the border, visas stamped and onto the first major town in Eastern Zambia by 4pm. That though was the easy part. There followed six days through constantly rolling but very scenic Zambian hills, with the sections either side of Luangwa Bridge particularly testing. Zambia, however, marked a welcome return to something we’d almost forgotten. Solitude.
The country is vast and the population is only 13 million. The land either side of the Great East Road to Lusaka sustains a small population and we relished the novelty of eating lunch alone at the side of the road. Not since Sudan had we had this kind of quiet. It feels strange to say it, but whilst the people we’ve met have been essential to making this trip special, the serenity and calm of simply cycling and breathing and watching the world has been deeply moving. It was great to get that feeling back.
To immediately counter my own point, we came to a rest one evening in the village of Rufunsa, the kind of place where the only foreigners who are likely to stop are bicycle tourists or NGO workers (bicycle tourists often find they’ve cycled as far as they can in the most unlikely of tourist destinations). There, having enquired about a place to sleep, we were pointed towards the frankly grubby establishment of Mr Lazarus. Lazarus presides over an intriguing courtyard mix of enterprises: guesthouse, welder’s, mechanic’s, scrap metal dealership, and restaurant. We took a look at the rooms and after a few exchanged glances, Hannah and I enquired about camping in the scrap yard. Lazarus was unflustered – it turns out he’s hosted many a cycle tourist. Indeed his first ever guest was a Russian on a bicycle, also heading for Cape Town. Lazarus worked as a boiler fitter in the mines in the north of Zambia for many years, but had now returned to his home town to work the land, run his own business and raise a family. Along with his constantly busy wife, Lazarus is typical of so many parents we met throughout the journey; working slavishly hard and sacrificing a lot to get their kids through education in the hope they’ll get on.
A fascinating man with quick wit and solid knowledge of world affairs we talked politics and economics, mining and farming. We pulled out our kit to cook dinner and, as a former boiler man, he took a keen interest in our stove. Our MSR Whisperlite pump had sheared itself in two in Ethiopia and our back up gas canister number (generously donated to us in Sudan by motorcyclist Rick who’d realised he was only going to eat in restaurants) had sprung a leak in Malawi. There we’d been reminded by a Yank who’d walked the west coast of America of the Pepsi can stove and set out to get the ingredients to craft this simple and brilliant methylated spirits burner. Lazarus loved it. So having hunted down a couple of spare Fanta cans I set about making one with him so he could start production himself. Meths are sold in the village shop and everyone wants to be able to make a quick cup of tea without having to wait for the charcoal to get going. It was a wonderful exchange.
Lazarus also talked to us about the weather and GM crops. The rains have been particularly bad again in Zambia this year. Like in Malawi, many people in drought hit regions are relying on food handouts. Lamenting the drive to embrace GM maize Lazarus noted that – yes, with reliable rain and fertilizers you’ll get a bigger yield with genetically modified maize, but the traditional, local varieties are more drought resistant and will still produce a harvest without the need for expensive fertilizers. He was also one of the few who knew exactly what the problem was. All along the way we’d met farmers lamenting the rains, but Lazarus was one of the first to mention climate change before we did. He spoke to other farmers in the fields about it. They all know the climate in their region has changed – is changing – before their very eyes. But, as Lazarus lamented to us, “What can we do? Zambians didn’t create this disaster.”
It is an incredibly frustrating and damning indictment of our world, when farmers in Zambia can identify the problem, but the leaders and the populations of the nations responsible for climate change still find weak excuses to ignore or deny the reality and the solutions that we know exist to resolve it.
Arriving into Lusaka halfway through day six on the road, and over 700 hilly kilometres from Lilongwe, we camped at Kalulu Backpackers and went out for a slap up lunch. Getting to cities on bicycle tour is always a bit of a guilty pleasure – strolling around supermarkets to stock up on the badly needed calories with luxuries like fresh cheese and salt and vinegar crisps. On our second day Hannah began to feel quite rough, and she retired to the tent to sleep. By the following day – despite some super strength lemsip – she was still feeling rough. We’d ruled out Malaria cause she’d been taking her prophylactics and was feeling feverish. That evening the Frenchies rolled into town, also knackered by the long push from Lilongwe. Hannah explained how she was feeling to Emilie and she practically ordered her to the clinic. She was right. Two hours later her lab results confirmed that she had malaria.
A tent is not a nice place to recover from malaria, so we found a guesthouse at a decent price across town and got in a taxi. We knew the place was going to be interesting from the conversation I had with the owner, Mr Oumo:
“So how much is the room?”
“250 a night sir”
“Is there any flexibility on that? We were hoping to pay around 150”
“Well why don’t you come here and we can discuss”
“Ah, but once we’re there we’re trapped – you have us. Could you do 200?”
“Ah ha ha! Well we might be able to do something, but really it is Mrs Oumo who is in charge. You can come here and discuss with her.”
“Can I speak to her now, or can you not agree to 200 please for a night? We normally pay around 80 to camp but my girlfriend has malaria...”
“You’ve to speak to Mrs Oumo – I’m sure you can work something out.”
We did work something out...250 a night, with a free breakfast. But Mr & Mrs Oumo, from Northern Uganda, were truly wonderful hosts. As Hannah snored in the room I accepted Mr Oumo’s offer of an Amarula, and sat chatting in the lounge with him and his wife. The place is like a 70s B&B, but spotlessly clean, and very homely. We were able to cook in the kitchen, and choose our satellite TV channel, and Mr Oumo sorted out our taxi (with roof rack) to the bus station. Because after five days recovering from the misery of malaria, Hannah was well enough to get out of bed, but not by any stretch of the imagination well enough to get on a bicycle.
We booked the luxury 9am Mazhandu bus to Livingstone and, having received by text our seat number confirmation, headed to the station. The bus was genuinely one of the most comfortable I’ve travelled in – complete with complimentary snacks and drinks. I thought the man standing up at the front of the bus at the start of the journey was our host – ready to talk us through our journey and the on-board facilities. But no. This man was a Pastor. A religious man on the make. Zambia is an exceptionally religious country (all Africa is, but the abundance of Seventh Day Adventist and other evangelic churches alongside southern African roads makes me feel it’s getting crazier the further south we go) and this chap was ready to service (and exploit) this predilection. The first hour of our journey we were led in booming prayer by this young man no more than 21 years of age on the biblical lesson of “he who does harm unto me, I shall do harm unto them”. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening and looked around expecting to share a few raised eyebrows and looks of ‘what can you do’ with the young, wealthy Zambians on the bus, but instead I saw many reaching for their copy of the bible to find the corresponding chapter and verse, with the rest bowing their heads. The prayers ended, of course, with an envelope being passed around – indulgences to ensure the bus travelled safely and swiftly to its destination – before, with his takings tucked under his arm, the Pastor hopped off the bus and left us to fend for ourselves. I’ve never been more convinced that a vehicle I was in would crash than that bus.
We got to Livingstone safely – passing the Frenchies on the road. And the next morning hitched a lift with the taxi providing the free airport pick up, to meet Helena and Oliver McDonald off the plane. There followed ten adventurous days off the bikes in our own fully-equipped 4x4, complete with rooftop tents. We saw Victoria Falls, and plunged through the deep sand of Chobe National Park in Botswana to watch families of elephants swimming and lions greeting the day. We got to hang out with my parents and get to chat properly with people we know about the trip and life outside Farcycal. And we got to understand why you’d want to do Cairo to Cape in some way other than by bike. The freedom of a four-wheel drive car is incredible, especially when you’re in a place like Botswana, where the roads are straight and long and scrubbily dull but the back country is world-class beauty. Plus you have cold beer in a fridge in the back.
*We were honoured to meet David and his crew of young pros of the future in Nairobi. We read about him in the blog of another tourer, found his website and gave him a call out of the blue. He arranged to meet us and we went on a ride with his Safari Simbas Cycling team and saw their workshop and training facility. In reality these are all small rooms in David’s tiny compound in the poor Nairobi suburb of Kikuyu. David trained Chris Froome when he was a youngster, and he now trains a new generation of Kenyan road cyclists; feeding and housing them in his tiny home on a very meagre income. He is a true inspiration and an awesome guy. He’s one of the people who deserve a whole blog piece.
*The wonderful Frenchies have been basically on the same schedule as us since Mzuzu in Malawi, but a few days behind. We’ve had a lot of fun overlapping when we rest in a city for a few days and they roll in just before we roll out. We’ll be there to welcome them to Cape Town!
This blog is about one night, when the sun went down.
The A14 rises and falls with the dogged unpredictability of a turbulent sea. Each crank is powered round with exaggerated effort and if a rhythm can be traced it’s dead or off beat. We’re worn-out and anxious to get off the road and to sleep. Stuffed buses, trussed up like fairground attractions, rage past on a Dar Es Salaam deadline and as I chew over the irony of one’s mud flap motto God Will Decide, I suspect I’ve too much lactic acid in my thighs to stay alert. We’ve limited water left, having showered at noon to shake off the humidity and will have find a village or a house. Tonight, it doesn’t take long for a cluster of ochre shapes to become life-size houses.
Thirty metres back from the main road and opposite a sisal plantation – both pleasing and alarming in its uniformity – a run of tiny faces, effulgent in the last sun bounce in a successful attempt to attract our attention. Breathless and frenzied the small people yelp and whoop and wave. Behind them a brood of women, settled at the base of a tree, oversee the situation with good grace. Although concerned that our presence might be an imposition on a village so materially poor, the women’s warmth and a call of Karibuni (welcome) draws us to a standstill.
We bump our ungainly loads off the road and wheel back towards the group. The run of youngsters vanishes and joy is replaced by horror as the unpredictable, frankly volatile Mzungu (foreigners) – a.k.a us – abandon the realm of expected behaviour. White people don’t usually stop...says a broad woman with soft features as she gestures for us to join, to sit down.
A raised eyebrow and a nod is enough to establish it is okay for us lean our bikes against the first house. We do so gently and as I forage without grace in my back pannier for a skirt to restore modesty, Diarmaid pulls on the granddad striped trousers he had tailored in Sudan, slips off his sandals in his own evening ritual and pads across to the brood.
Blossoming steadily the group stretches to some thirty people, most of them small. Those at the apparent helm are all women and the absence of men, at this time, is a joyous omission. A peaceful excitement rests easily around us and using broken English and fitful Kiswahili we talk through our story in brief:
From Tanga? By bicycle?
But...actually...we started first in London, London in the UK.
London? By bicycle?
When did you start your journey?
The broad woman with soft features is the undisclosed but doubtless leader of this group. Her round eyes and faultless complexion framed by a neat kohl headscarf. 40 I guess, 45 at a push. At odds with the peacock of colourful skirts around her, her black robes broadcast that she’s in mourning. Lest that is our guess. We don’t ask. And she doesn’t say. What she does say is My name is Salima.
Salima welcomes us quietly into the tribe – a term that I use here to describe a simple but visceral bond between peoples; a sensation more than an emotion that enables a shared calm. Small dust-clarted legs tumble over one another to get a closer ear as Thuli, Salima’s daughter, translates what she can of us to the group; here secondary schools are expected to teach in English. Teased lovingly by their elders, the children who had scattered in fear slowly return. The least confident relieved at their burgeoning human shield. It is agreed then that we can camp. A verbal contract that can only be made official once a small child has been dispatched to rouse the sleeping chief. He does so and five minutes later a crumpled, smiling man whose taqiyah (small prayer cap) is level with Diarmaid’s chest, comes only to give us his blessing.
It’s not long before the neighbours hear and friends and acquaintances from the nearby ward come over for a good old look. A woman in her 80’s struggles to our side and in surprisingly loud Swahili shouts an enquiry to which I cannot respond. Bending herself straight she prises the small purse around her neck and pulls out a mobile phone. Snap. A photo, she had asked if she could take our photo. Suitably tickled and happy with the shot she shuffles silently on. As the sun casts its final layer of gilt we erect the tent and begin to cook.
With orange titanium arms that snap into a spider like spine, a delicate mesh roof and rainbow of Nepalese prayer flags our tent seems designed to please crowds. The more inquisitively minded delighted to be asked to grab a pole. Up in a flash, we unstrap our mats and fling our panniers inside. Diarmaid grabs the kitchen – his front right pannier – and we settle back down, with Thuli opposite, in the carefully kept centre of the fold.
With his stalky beard tickling the top of his fleece, Diarmaid sits cross legged and, as magician might, begins to pull out one kitchen item at a time. An act of necessity not conjury – it is a simple matter of space: the pepper sits inside the tin mugs, the knives and the chopping board only accessible after the pot has vanished. A ripple of discussion chases each item. Is that oil? What kind of oil? Where on earth did you get such big onions? [Kenya] The soy sauce is passed around on a flat bedded spoon for only the bravest to taste. Thuli likes it. We learn some basic culinary terms and after great discussion it’s concluded that they don’t grow lentils in Tanzania.
A slow and preposterously poor choice of bicycle fodder, the lentils take over an hour. But with Salima and Thuli as guides we sail comfortably through the dark.
Do you know any songs? Asks Thuli
Not many but Diarmaid does and I wish I did. You?
Can you sing?
Noooo but we’d love to hear you.
And she starts. And others follow. The Swahili version of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the kids carry each other through the national anthem with a clarity that only the young seem to muster. Diarmaid croons his way through The Boys of County Armagh to rapturous applause before a gentle solo from Thuli leads us to a close. The lentils! They’re ready to serve.
It’s now about 9 o’clock and long past ours and many of the kids’ bed times. Having arrived at dusk I’m conscious of the fact that I haven’t actually seen anyone else eat. It feels uncomfortable to be spooning mounds of rice and dahl into two bowls. I clean our spare bowl and fill it to the brim. There’s an awkward moments of indecision when I can’t work out who to give it to and pass it into Thuli’s hands.
If you guys want to try some, please, er, share it around, I stumble.
And I feel immediately silly. Almost before the sentence has fallen from my mouth Thuli is spooning a dollop of the dahl into each and every small hand.
And it made me sad but at once it made me strong also. For any person or group that gives before it takes and gives without being conscious that it is giving must be spiritually more complete than the one who looks to meet their own needs before giving.
By 9.30 we’re tucked up in bed and the kids, high as kites, have been sent home. For a sizeable number of those that home was the closest mud brick house. Salima, we discover, was caring for an extended brood. We didn’t ask though. And she didn’t tell.
But she did say is:
Goodnight and god bless Mac, goodnight and god bless Hannah.
Thanks for everything.
With huge thanks to all those who have donated to our fundraising efforts, we've been able to pay out our first grant of £1000 to a grassroots HIV campaign designed to get Kenyan political leaders to deliver free access to HIV medication for all who need it, and improved healthcare for all Kenyans. You can read about the work below, and donate through this page of our site
. Thank you! As Kenyans prepared nervously for their first general election since the violence-marred poll of 2007, HIV and health activists led a highly innovative election campaign fight, demanding leaders look beyond manipulation of tribal divisions for votes, instead forcing them to win support by addressing the issues that really matter.
In a country where over 62,000 people died in 2011 from AIDS-related illnesses, meaningful action from leaders currently seeking office is desperately needed. Maureen Milanga, 24, from Nairobi has been working for over a year, building up a grassroots movement to secure Presidential candidates’ commitment to deliver universal access to HIV treatment and to spend 15% of the government budget on health.
Maureen and her colleagues from the AIDS Law Project
and the National Empowerment Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Kenya
(NEPHAK) criss-crossed the country to distil the recommendations of people living with HIV into a HIV Manifesto for the election. Now the activists are taking their demands directly to the candidates ahead of the March 4thpoll.
“I’ve just got back from a rally in Kakamega”, said Maureen, speaking in Nairobi last month. “We met with 20 local people living with HIV and made banners demanding access to treatment for all. We got there early and set up directly opposite the podium so when the presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, came out to speak we would be the first thing he sees. Two guys lifted me and another lady on their shoulders so the banner was really high – he couldn’t miss us. But just in case, the team interrupted him three times during his speech to chant our demands.”
The tactic worked – Odinga, the former Kenyan Prime Minister and joint favourite with competitor Uhuru Kenyatta for the Presidency, demanded his people find out who they represented and what they wanted, and crucially to offer them a meeting. This approach has been repeated to great success at rallies across Kenya, eliciting on-the-record commitments from candidates from across the political spectrum.
The coordinated disruptions continued over the last month of the campaign and just over a week before the poll, Odinga, under pressure from 17 people living with HIV carrying placards, announced to a crowd of thousands in front of the media that he would deliver free access to HIV treatment for all and direct 15% of the national budget to health – a startling achievement for a small but organised campaign effort.
But what may seem like standard election campaigning to outsiders is virtually unheard of in Kenyan politics. The last, indeed every, election in Kenya has been won and lost less on the quality of a candidate’s policies or competence, but rather careful arithmetic and alliance building amongst the leaders of tribal voting blocs. Kenya has consistently disappointed since independence with poverty and inequality increasing rather than decreasing. Many blame a political elite rarely held to account for their failings and this is what the activists are hoping to change. When asked if making demands of political candidates like this is normal, Maureen burst into laughter,
“No – not really! In the beginning when we started doing it everybody was really sceptical. We would go around the country telling them, ‘You know, we will be attending political rallies and trying to get politicians to say things about HIV’ and some people were pretty freaked. I must admit that I was a bit scared myself in the beginning, but we got help from people with HIV who had mobilised to mount a very visible HIV presence in 2002’s election, as well as organisations who have done this kind of campaigning in the US and other countries who gave us tips on how to do it, and how to make it safe in an African country.”
It is salient to remember that unexpected violence plunged Kenya – which had a reputation for peaceful, if flawed, democracy – into crisis after the disputed results of the last general election, claiming thousands of lives and leaving a deep scar on the national psyche. And the violence has not disappeared. Whilst, to most eyes, the 2007-08 violence erupted from nowhere, this year’s campaign witnessed isolated but deadly incidents linked to the poll. Milanga and her colleagues have had to navigate the risks involved very carefully.
“There are all kinds of risks, the main one being the people attending the rally being really rowdy and wanting to attack you....And also you face the risk of getting muffled out by party officials. But we make sure that we communicate that we’re there to exercise our right to free speech, even including brief disruptions of the rally. We make it clear we’re not representing any other political party. And usually we stand next to the press!”
Despite the safety concerns Maureen claims she loves it. “I almost wish there was an election every year. It’s great to be part of something that I believe is going to end AIDS. If they accept the guidelines in our manifesto, and we hold them to their word, it would mean that Kenya would be able to end the epidemic very soon.” Clinical trials proved in 2011 that HIV treatment also prevents the transmission of the virus, with scale up to universal anti-retrovirus drug coverage now a key aspect of an AIDS-response strategy that many believe could finally begin the end of AIDS.
For the Kenyans taking part, the experience can be nerve-wrecking and is always new, explains Milanga, “We get there early to prep the 20 or so local people living with HIV who we are going to take part in the action...you need to make them feel comfortable. We work with the national network of people living with HIV. All kinds of people take part.
“It’s a new experience for them, but it’s something that they take positively. It’s not something that most people do; people don’t take the government to task…they find themselves being able to ask the government for what they need…it makes them feel good to be able to say ‘I am able to ask my government for something I need.’”
Politicians, too, have had to adapt quickly to this new political dynamic. Used to events crammed with unquestioning supporters, at first they assume the activists are from the opposition, sent to disrupt their campaigning. But they now understand the rationale, adapting their stump speeches to address health and their commitments in the area. As Maureen argued,
“There are 1.6m people living with HIV in Kenya. If you add our friends, families and workmates– that’s a formidable voters’ bloc. And being faced with a life-threatening illness can transcend tribal affiliations—if one candidate pledges to help the AIDS community a great deal more, and more visibly than the others, he will gain a windfall of voters that can carry the day in hard-hit ‘swing’ areas like Western Kenya, Nairobi and the Coast.”
And that is the hope, that this election will see Kenya transition into a more mature democracy that focuses on policies proposed and results delivered by politicians. Other changes are in evidence too – the first-ever live televised debate earlier this month saw eight presidential candidates line up behind a row of podiums to defend their record, critique their opponents and pitch for support. It had Kenya hooked, and gave politicians with no large tribal backing, and so little chance at the polls, the opportunity to hold the front-runners to account – another subtle shift.
The political campaigning by health activists could, it’s hoped, inspire others to engage and change the system. Paul Davis, a seasoned HIV campaigner from the U.S., now based in Nairobi, has seen these tactics work in congressional and presidential elections in both the States and Kenya.
“Aside from everything else they tell you about the honour of representing their community or their drive to make a difference, politicians care about attaining and retaining power. And when we can make demands directly of aspiring candidates and stand on their toes until we change their responses, the democratic process is working. That’s as true in Kenya as it is in Kentucky. Here, we are all sick of ineffective political leaders, so it has been exhilarating to join with activists using the power of direct access to confront candidates during election season, making leaders choose between delivering for Kenyans or getting turfed out of office. Over six per cent of Kenyans are living with HIV. It is not acceptable, or, in such a closely fought election, smart, for politicians to ignore them.”
As the focus shifted to ensure other candidates match Odinga’s historic pledge, Milanga had hopes for her work, for a peaceful election, and for the future of her country,
“I want to see a Kenya where politicians don’t just tell stories from the podium when they are holding a political rally. I want a Kenya that elects a President who works to better the lives of all. Hopefully we’re helping to change the system to make that a reality.”
Finally bundling ourselves over the border into Ethiopia felt like a release – both from Sudan (delays, robberies and flat landscapes eventually overpowering the incessant decency of the Sudanese
), and of raucous unembarrassed life itself.
We made it in time for me to have a birthday beer. The whole of Metema, the Ethiopian border town, felt like a bar where you constantly watch your bag and nervously eye up the locals for signs something’s about to kick off. Few border towns are particularly pretty, but the rough edge of this place was put into sharper relief by the sober Sudan we’d left behind. Huge beer ads lined the road metres from the customs station and the streets were suddenly filled with women, including sex workers with tight jeans and bare shoulders who flirted with us both as we pushed our bikes to the hotel.
Ethiopia has attitude – a self-confidence that spills over into rudeness that can sometimes frustrate – but it was actually nice not to be treated as semi-royalty for a change. Our appreciation for the contrast was cemented by the other incredibly visible change – within days we’d seen female police officers, builders, tuk-tuk drivers and welders. Interactions with Sudanese and Egyptians were almost always with the less fair of the sexes; women making only rare appearances and always in the company of their husbands or brothers. Ethiopian women fought alongside the men when rebels overthrew the old Communist regime, and that equity in war seems to have had some impact on gender roles in civilian life.
As we set off cycling through the same stunning countryside where the civil war raged over 20 years ago, in each hill-clinging village and mountain-hugging town, the same image was everywhere. The smiling face of the Dear Leader, Meles Zenawi, the young rebel leader who went on to become President, was on huge billboards and stickers on every minibus. We’d arrived in a country in mourning. Three months before, in a hospital in Belgium, a brain haemorrhage had suddenly and unexpectedly cut short his reign and Ethiopians were shell-shocked. I too was confused, but for very different reasons.
I was a VSO volunteer in Ethiopia in 2005. The first truly-free elections in the country’s history were being held, and were exhilarating to behold. Ethiopia was not the result of a hap-hazard carve up of land to suit European empire builders, never colonised bar a brief Italian occupation, but a Kingdom which traced its lineage right back to the royal blood of the House of David. For this reason the last Emperor, Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari before he ascended the throne), was worshipped as a God on earth by Rastafarians. He was apparently smothered in his bed by the leader of the totalitarian Communist Derg regime, Megistu Haile Mariam, who seized power from the old king. The Derg’s brutal rule ended after overseeing the epic famines of the 1980s, when in 1991, they were forced from power by the rebels of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front who continue to rule today. Until that election eight years ago Ethiopia’s leaders had never sincerely asked for their peoples’ opinion.
The excitement was palpable. Opposition parties put aside differences and coordinated themselves in an effective political coalition; rallies were held, posters plastered the streets and cafes buzzed with political debate in a way friends told me they’d never experienced before. But the effectiveness of the opposition perhaps took the government by surprise. The results showed they’d swept the incumbents from power in the councils of all the major cities and massively increased their share of parliamentary seats. Buoyed by their progress opposition supporters took to the streets and – probably overstating their case - claimed the results were rigged, and demanded an end to the rule of former rebel commander, President Meles Zenawi.
Meles was a respected thinker, supposedly part of a new wave of African leaders to lead the continent towards prosperity, democracy and stability. But faced with the imminent loss of authority he ordered a crackdown. Students were shot dead in Addis Ababa by the curfew-imposing army; thousands were rounded up in cities across the country and taken into temporary imprisonment in military camps; the internet was shut down; and opposition leaders were arrested, later to be tried on trumped up treason charges, or sent into exile. Meles was seen by many as a reviled figurehead of a murderous regime. Newspapers were shut down, tight controls on the opposition and NGOs were imposed and elections in 2010 produced a farcically result, the government claiming 99.6% of parliamentary seats. The door to democracy swung open and was slammed shut.
Now Meles was dead and I returned to see his record in power portrayed in a very different light. Eulogised as a great leader Ethiopia, nay, Africa would never see the like of again, his death was marked by a full month’s official mourning. Now, three months later, life had returned to normal but even friends who had seethed with anger at the events eight years ago would not go further than to say, “Yes he made some mistakes, but he did so much right.”
Indeed, Ethiopia was certainly changing fast under his watch. Every town we passed had at least one, often many more, new hotels built within the last five years, and major towns like Addis, Awassa and Bahir Dar had witnessed a building boom of late-nineties Ireland proportions. Tuk-tuks have replaced the formally ubiquitous pony and trap taxis. The cars zipping past us on the newly resurfaced roads were more frequently driven by the newly money-middle classes, than the NGO vehicles that overwhelmingly dominated the highways eight years hence. Ethiopia was posting annual growth figures of over 10% and its investor-friendly policies were attracting large-scale inward investment – we passed at least five huge factory complexes built by the Chinese.
Even the issue I was working on as a VSO vol, HIV, seemed to have witnessed an unprecedented success. Eight years ago about 5% of Ethiopians were living with HIV. Today almost everyone who needs HIV treatment receives it, the prevalence rate has dropped to just over 1% and the country’s approach to integrated healthcare is lauded as an example for Africa in international development HQs in London and Geneva.
But a few things niggled a little at our awe of the transformation. No one quite knew where all the money was coming from. The veracity of government figures claiming record-breaking year on year growth across the board from agriculture production to GNP have publically disputed by the IMF and others. Indeed, even the headline HIV figures were questioned by a USAID worker we met – albeit with little but a shrug of the shoulders and shake of the head when asked for evidence. More frustratingly, homophobia seems to be raising its head there too, mirroring the trend in other sub-Saharan African countries – even, we discovered, amongst Ethiopians working on HIV. We camped one night in the grounds of a monastery of the Ethiopian Orthodox church surrounded by pilgrims who had traversed the land to seek a divine intervention to alleviate illness. Chatting with a young deacon about his work, he remarked how they could even cure AIDS, and sent home those living with HIV with orders to stop taking their treatment. A deadly myth that should have long ago been quashed.
But what is most obvious about the economic development of the country is that Meles hadn’t managed to tackle inequality. Despite the fact that a report published when we were in Addis Ababa on global rates of inequality showed that the UK has higher rates of inequity than Ethiopia
, in Ethiopia it is much closer to the surface. Whilst standards of living sky-rocket for some – witness the hoards of clubbers buying Stoli and Jack Daniels by the bottle on a Friday night in towns across the country – the majority rural poor have seen only a moderate improvement. As we pedalled up and up and up from Sudan into the thigh-busting Ethiopian Highlands blue smoke rose with us from the straw roofs of mud huts. The deep green and blue beauty of the hills no consolation for the families subsisting on them.
When we’d battled our way to Gonder we left the bikes behind to spend four days hiking through the Simien Mountains. As we marched breathlessly up to the plateaus we passed by tiny crops of barley clinging onto every farmable inch of land. Harvesting is done by hand, thrashing by circling oxen. Kids here only do half days at school so they can work shifts patrolling their family smallholding, chasing away raiding monkeys with hand-woven slingshots.
If you’ve seen the episodes of Planet Earth or Human Planet focused on mountains you’ll have been wowed by the Simiens’ sheer scale and beauty. We’ve seen sights on this trip that we’d seen before on TV, like the pyramids, and felt the telly had over-promised and under-delivered. However, the exquisite BBC camerawork of the highest mountain range on the continent paled in comparison to the awe-striking reality.
The epic tectonic forces which wrenched the crust asunder here ripped open the vast Danakil Depression a few hundred kilometres to the Simiens’ east – the lowest point on earth not covered by water – where magma constantly bubbles in an open scar in the land. In contrast the Simiens were forced into the sky, huge lumps of rock that suddenly plunge back down, thousands of metres to the valley floor. On the high plateaus troops of Gelada monkeys, hundreds strong, graze like cattle; Lammegeyer vultures circle on vectors of warm air; and Augur buzzards swoop from cliff edges.
Ethiopia is defined not by the dry, dusty landscapes of a famine-ridden land seared on our brains by news reports on famines, but by fertile, gigantic mountains. As we cycled on from Gonder up and down through spectacular valleys, the vast areas of farmland to our left and right were being harvested by people bent-double, hand-scything their way to enough food to feed their families. And there are a lot of mouths to feed. Although the birth rate is stabilising, the population now stands at just under 90 million.
For bicycle tourists this means there’s a child around every corner. The blissfully empty desert evenings under the stars were truly behind us, and on the couple of occasions we camped wild, having asked permission from people in villages along the road, we were surrounded by scores of inquisitive faces, discussing our garlic chopping techniques.
The children of Ethiopia all behave like the tinkiest kid in class. Cycling blogs abound with stories of screams for money, attempts to knock you off your bike, and stones lobbed when you aren’t looking. It’s not like this anywhere else. We planned to meet this onslaught with a Zen-like nonchalance, totally unconvinced it would hold up under the stress of climbing 1500m through the Blue Nile Gorge. Nonetheless, our smattering of Amharic helped and we met every cry of “You, you you! Money, money!” with smiles and greetings and regretful apologies that we were empty-handed. For the most part it seemed to work – see the upcoming blog post on Zen and the Art of Ethiopian Bicycle Touring for our top tips – only three half-hearted stones were thrown.
The children were annoying at times but they live a difficult life. Imagine waking before dawn, helping get the fire rekindled and maybe, if you’re lucky, having a sugary tea for breakfast. Then, as it gets light, walking the livestock out from the village to graze on the surrounding grassland with an empty belly. You’ll do this seven days a week with little to keep you entertained but the goats and the other kids doing the same thing. I too can understand getting over-excited about seeing some crazy ferenji (foreigners) cycling past.
Obviously some tourists do go bearing well-intentioned gifts of pens and money so it’s worth a shot, and a scream, and if they cycle on with severe looks, worth throwing an odd stone to get the giggle-inducing indignant reaction of the provoked forlorn foreigner. If you ever visit Ethiopia don’t bring pens, rather give a little to an effective NGO; the kids might not thank you face-to-face but it will do more good, and cause less harm.
With one final push up a slow hill, we left the country urchins behind and were thrust headlong into Addis. We rolled through the chaotic streets to a hotel in the Piazza area. This old Italian heart of the city is, in Hannah’s words, a dystopic, modern Dickensian mêlée. Street kids shove trays of tissues at your chest to hide their nimble fingers working at your money belt; people with mental health problems mumble nonsense into your face; pissed punters wander down the middle of the street between bars; glass fronted shopping malls sit next to crumbling colonial piles; and cafes spill out onto the streets music drowning out the sound of the revving, smoky engines. It is extremely fun once you have your bearings, but not before.
Ethiopia, and I shudder as I write this classic cliché of Africa, is a place of contrasts. It’s by no means an easy place to cycle tour – the mountains are steep and big and plentiful, and the kids would test the patience of a saint. The obvious pride that Ethiopians have in their country sits awkwardly with the begging of adults and kids when you cycle past or met them in the street. This country is starting from a very low base but, despite questions about inequality and free speech, it is definitely a development success. But starting each day with the best coffee in the world, ending it with delicious fresh food, and spending the intervening hours cycling through constantly changing cool mountain valleys fuels your soul enough to forget the stresses.
After Addis we could roll downhill to Awassa where I lived eight years ago. I’ve very many happy memories from there and the old friends I met ensured it felt good to be back. Ethiopia feels like a place we’ll definitely return to. There are sights I want to see before I die that we missed – like the Danakil Depression. But after eight years I barely recognised Awassa, new roads, hotels and a multiplex under construction. I hope after a few years under Meles’ successor there will be more changes to witness, and Ethiopia’s evolution continues with a little more democracy, equality and perhaps some Ritalin.
A fringe of gold and rust Acacias flitter the last of the sun across the tarmac, shafts of light tumbling us through the pages of a Sudanese flick book. To the north and the south stretch sunflowers, the first of many plantations we will ride through. Unlike the arid desert of the north the land here, southwest of Khartoum, blushes with a manicured productivity. It’s unclear to whose gain though – both of the compounds we end up sleeping in shelter workers of foreign owned farms, including one which exports maize exclusively to the Middle East. Sudanese inflation hit 48 percent in November and since separation with the South last year the Government of Khartoum has struggled to make up for lost oil revenues.
With the Ethiopian border just days away the open road gives me room to reflect. The terrain of northern Sudan pushed our resolve and forced us to question whether we could see this adventure through. We got robbed twice and knocked out by tonsillitis for two weeks straight. In Khartoum, someone spat in my face. But we were also awakened to the power of a stranger’s kindness and I felt regularly grateful for the patient rhythm to life in the Sudan. When you pass someone on your bike here, more often than not, he’ll hold his hand to his heart and say ‘Welcome’ or ‘Join us’. And welcomed we truly were. With a spirit of generosity, it may be impossible to find elsewhere.
We gave; our energy, sweat, determination, un-blistered skin, a bit of pride that we were savvy travelers and near a thousand pounds worth of kit (!)
And were given; food, encouragement, shoes, help, countless cups of tea, a photo shoot, henna, advice, the best beds in people’s houses, perfume, conversation, evenings of music, escorted tours and a new bike basket. It is impossible to thank all those who deserve thanks but Eltayeb, Hasseen, Midhat, Mohammed and the DiBebba crew, Saddique, who I doubt will ever read this, thank you. On giving…up?
Rest days are essential. When you hatch a lie-in your body feasts on its first day off but take a chunk of time and the dexterity of the daily turn is lost with frustrating ease. We had sailed through the Western Desert at 120 Kilometers a day but an enforced lay off in Aswan and overconfidence from our 3-week desert stint through Egypt meant we approached northern Sudan as fools.
The wind fought against and across us, buffeting handfuls of sharp sand into our faces. Our legs uncharacteristically useless - like some joker had traded our real ones in for fakes (look closely and the label reads Lags, not Legs). And the sun! This wasn’t the sun that decorates butter packets or pops up from behind a set of spherical green hills, it was raw, real and commanding. The mercury had catapulted since Egypt and by 11am rested at 43 degrees. It didn’t take long for us to feel in desperate need of shade that didn’t come.
No abandoned building. No solitary checkpoint. No bank of sand.
Our first failure was an anxious scarf strung between the two bicycles. It cast a shadow broad enough to cover our heads but nothing more. The second was a desperate decision to erect our tent at midday. The sand beneath had been collecting and storing heat since daybreak and it was, of course, impossible to lie down. We clambered out almost to cry. The thermometer in the static bike computer registered an unfathomable 56 degrees.
Our third mistake was to carry on, though at the time we felt we had no choice. A band of blisters soon camouflaged my arms, which began to itch and burn. We would later learn it a side effect of our anti-malarials, any exposed limbs felt as though they were being pressed and held against a radiator. Our hearts raced faster than felt healthy.
By 3.30, a pitiful 45km from the Sudanese port of Wadi Halfa, we found a tree. A tree. The only tree. A flat topped Acacia carpeted by a scramble of scrub, thorns and flies. We dropped our bikes, moved hastily into the scattered shade and lay down only to breathe. Letting our chests retrace restoration and wordlessly arriving at the same conclusion. Perhaps it wasn’t possible. We had just confronted the limits we has tasked ourselves with meeting. Beaten not by distance or dexterity but by nature and no-one was going to hand us a gold medal come sun down. The parameters of this trip were of our own invention. My good chum’s Victoria’s dad John warned me not to make a martyr of myself on this trip and I heard him for the first time then.
Later in Sudan, we would meet Johannes. A young Ethiopian ducked beneath a similar roadside acacia. We stopped to fill his water bottle, only for him to unexpectedly catch up with us some 15km down the road. I clocked him, shouted hello and he dove into the roadside rest stop to see us. Impossibly polite he had to be coaxed to sit down. I’ve never seen someone who needs water as a matter of urgency. Johannes did then. When we stopped, I knew he was walking but I hadn’t thought he was walking far. Ignorantly I presumed he was on his way to work at a nearby farm. In fact he was walking further; to Gedaref the last big town before the border and an 8 to 10 day walk away. Work had dried up and with no money to hitch a ride he had no choice but to head out into the sun’s fury on foot. Johannes and the three or four other young men we saw walking east that day screamed a vital if wordless instruction: only a fool puts their life in danger just because they can.
Northern Sudan was a shock. We did eventually limp into Khartoum but visibly weakened by the experience. Skin and fingernails scorched, spirit and pride dampened. We’d made it but it hadn’t been fun. Unlike the peak of a climb or the lunar beauty of the Western Desert the heat and hostility of this muted land had caught us unprepared. There’s been a Wobbery!
It was hardly surprising then that the first robbery happened when it did –five minutes after our dazed arrival in Khartoum. Stood at a bustling junction, sandwiched between a disorderly wall of empty cars, I pulled our panniers out of the rickety taxi we’d slumped into to help us navigate the city and escape the sun. With two bags down by my feet I twisted to yank the other out and lay it down next to the...
GONE. Where’s my bar bag? GONE.
Drained of all fight and suffering from heat exhaustion I had nothing to offer the situation but a few pathetic tears and an incoherent warble while Diarmaid gave chase in compulsive through utterly arbitrary manner. We hadn’t seen or noticed anyone.
Whoever took that bag hit the rollover. Any other pannier and he or she’d have inherited at best a decent sleeping bag, at worst some shredded underpants and a half eaten jar of jam. Instead they left with a digital SLR camera, an ipod, a kindle, a GPS emergency locator, a bike computer, a phone, a rearview mirror, some sesame snap biscuits and a Dictaphone. This you see is the one bag you never let out your sight.
Our knight came in the broad, jovial shape of man called Hasseen – a young software developer who had spotted me in tears. Hasseen it turns out is a total gent and that day cast himself as a key character in the 3-week sitcom that unfurled. He called the police, went to the station, helped us make a report and dropped into our hotel to check we were fine the next day. He’d later take us for medical tests, see if he could get someone to lend us an SLR, get a GP to call me on my sickbed, buy us dinner and take me out of town, as a surprise, to be painted with henna. None of which he let us pay for or contribute to, not because he earns a lot but because we were his guests and guests of Sudan. A concept deeply rooted in the culture and the psyche of the Sudanese people.
In just about every town, roadside hut, house and hotel we stopped in we met with dumfounding generosity. Restaurants refusing payment, cokes from bus drivers, watermelon from gold miners, and dinner bought once again by the smiling stranger in the corner. As an experience that is an extraordinary gift to receive. The simple act of treating every new face as a guest has a profound effect on people’s interactions with one another. For rather than this simply being for us, the foreigners, it is the Sudanese way of honoring any new acquaintance.
A sense of togetherness not easily squared with a country whose past and present we know to be riven with disunity, internal conflict and violence. That said the importance of separating the actions of a government from those of its citizens cannot be understated.
Sudan’s ICC (International Criminal Court)-indicted president, Omar Al Bashir, has clung to office with the tenacity of a true politician since 1993. Following a period of significant growth for Sudan and with it investment in much needed infrastructure - Chinese built roads, new schools and hospitals - the country’s economic health has deteriorated rapidly in the last two years. Unable to buffer food and fuel price hikes, separation - and loss of reserves - from the oil rich South and continued military campaigns in Darfur and against its own citizens in key border states have left the country in economic despair. The official inflation rate is close to 50% though rates for food are much higher. Most of the traders and shop owners we spoke to talked of goods having more than quadrupled in price.
Are people angry? Some are, no doubt. In the dead of night, as we slept peacefully, in downtown Khartoum tanks rolled through the streets a few blocks away. A dawn raid and the arrest of several senior political and military figures accused of plotting to overthrow Bashir. The papers conspicuously silent and people unaware, we only discovered this had happened via the BBC. But what of the average citizen - the unofficial gold miners, hoteliers, traders, farmers, tea sellers, students and young entrepreneurs we had the fortune to meet and talk to? No, a bit, perhaps. The truth is it is difficult to tell. He’s a good man but a bad politician
said Kareem, an assessment that I could have quite comfortably turned on its head. Despite a quietly growing protest movement (see and follow the #SudanRevolts
on Twitter – they deserve more ears), I didn’t detect much anger or sense that people felt capable of making demands of Government. Most sounded reticent, even weary. But having relatively recently emerged from the longest civil war in African history and with separation from the South still fresh and unsettled it’s hardly surprinsing that people have no appetite for upheaval. Nevertheless, with political and economic problems mounting you have hope that the sense of togetherness we witnessed and people’s extraordinary strength of the character will be enough to see them through.
The Ferry to Wadi Halfa. We lost the photos which should accompany this blog when our camera was nicked in KHT. This one's courtesy of greenturkey.co.nz!
Aswan remains the easiest place to get a Sudanese visa in Egypt.
Lonely Planet Guide - Africa, 2012
Aswan remains the easiest place to get a Sudanese visa in Egypt. With your passport, a photocopy of it & two passport photos (incidently it doesn't matter if they're home made and half your head's been chopped off. You're all hair anyway Hannah)
head for the Sudanese embassy. Hidden in a housing estate, not far from the train station, are the high waisted officials who will stamp you on in a matter of hours. Once approved you can proceed to Mr Salah's HQ. It's from here, behind a full mirrored glass facade, that the Nile Valley Transport Corporation operate. Book yourself onto the next boat with Salah. The weekly ferry will take you from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan and traverses the length of Lake Nasser - the world's largest man made lake and the only open border post between the giant neighbours.
...Or Aswan is the only place you won't be issued a Sudanese visa. With your passport, a photocopy of it & two passport photos you'll find yourself amidst a bunion of officials, enacting a live role play of Diplomacy with only a fist sized bag of lemon and chili crisps to see you through. I hate lemon and chili crisps. Diplomacy
(shout out to the Daz) is a game of old school territorial conquer, of negotiation, alliance building, conspiratorial action and ultimately betrayal. A world where perfectly nice people grow werewolf teeth.
We get to the Embassy early Sunday. With the no visas, no boat tickets and the last ferry for 10 days scheduled to depart in 32 hours time we are surprisingly sure of ourselves. Cocky you could say. It's 8am and with the exception of the young receptionist, whose timid moustache may well be his first, the embassy is empty. Our we is now a three - in the overlanding bottleneck of Aswan solo travellers are catapulted into a world of other Hawajas (Foreigners) - and we'd bumped into Akira the day before. Heading south to Kenya via Sudan, he is an absolute pleasure to hang out with. Occupying the waiting room in it's totality and armed with an A4 file (concertina no less) we tell the receptionist 'we'll wait
After a customary inspection of each others passports (ooh you've got a nice emblem haven't you...)
the first shards of a strategy take shape. It's quarter to nine and we need to change it up. Uur aim is to get to Mr Salah's HQ by 10.30 at the latest. The boat may or may not - did you hear that Daniel Pratt's mum has a tree for a head? - be full. The boat is usually very busy but the upcoming festival of Eid had allegedly placed the service under a significant additional strain. 'Upstairs?
' Upstairs [Level 2] lies an almost identical waiting room but it lacks the captivatingly large portrait of Omar Al Bashir - Sudan's ICC indicted president - we have on Level One, and one of the three wooden chairs is broken. Still, a trickle of post weekend employees have headed that way and the embassy staff on our floor arrive and dive into their offices with a fervour that suggests they won't be right with us.
[Convoy to Level 2] There's already two others in the queue. Shit we'd been swinging our legs in the wrong place. I clock a notice board and turn to check it. TOURIST VISAS TAKE 14 DAYS TO BE PROCESSED. Times New Roman on a canary yellow sheet. Interestingly, I choose to I think nothing of it. We'd spoken to people who had a two hour turn around last week - which with the islamic weekend falling on a Friday and Saturday is equivalent of yesterday. I'm confident - Here Here - there won't be a problem.
It's soon impossible to shake the feeling that staff have been primed to ignore. Polished shoes waft through the stale waiting room but noone engages us directly. Enough is enough. We must breach a mock Mahogany Door. First up is Akira, who returns before I finish my sentence. 'She said that there is a new rule from Khartoum - visas cannot be issued faster than two weeks, we must come back then.'
I compute. Come back in two weeks equals no boat tomorrow, plus no extra boat in 10 days time and ultimately a three week wait for transportation south. That's Tulse Hill to Italy in cyclo time. And the answer? You're having a giraffe.
By 10.30 I've weasled my way into the the office of the man with a form and i'm not moving. Jackpot. Diarmaid has deciphered that contrary to official lines the man with the stamp is off on the hajj and won't be back from Mecca for two weeks. Outside, two slightly puffed up group leaders patrol a waiting room now swamped with a chatter of overland tour groups. A fever of mobile phones has broken out as people try to ascertain who and what might help. Progress in real time has been stunted by the disappearance of the man with the form and his replacement by a nail filing woman with no form. 'Excuse me but may I ask why you are still here?'
Now i'm sure that on an ordinary day, one where immigration staff have visas to process, this woman is an asset to her employer but today she's doing an exceptionally poor job of making herself look busy. In the half an hour we've spent together she's not even finished manicuring one hand. 'Er, I'd like to just wait if I may.'
We limp on.
Enter the fixers. The human equivalent of stepping off its a Small Small World and onto the Nemsis at Alton Towers, negotiations take a gear change. Hired by the leaders of opposing tour groups, Abouda, Mahmud and Kamal create a commotion even before they sweep onto the scene. Abouda is dressed in perfect prayer whites, his clipped hair decorated by a pair of expensive sunglasses. He chews gum and twitches prayer beads. He never quite meets your eye. Mahmud in contrast is softer. A tall, older, open faced Sudanese man who'd lost a relative that day but daren't miss this appointment. Kamal, variously described as stoned or bonkers, is Mahmud's confusingly likeable, sheesha wielding sidekick. These three men, we would go on to learn can make or break your ticket south.
Minutes turn into hours where progress is measured by the number of times you've run up and down the stairs between [Level 1] and [Level 2]. Bashir, no Bashir, Bashir, No Bashir Bashir, No Bashir, No Bashir, catch your breath, Bashir. There are of course points for pace. A snoopy hairdryer and all expenses paid holiday to Hawaii for speed which convinces others you've had some kind of break through. That's right by now niceties have dissipated and someone has just used the phrase 'Dead weight'
. One of the tour group leaders has stopped looking at you altogether. 'We've got cars already on the vehicle barge on route to Wadi Halfa.' 'It'll cost us hundreds if we're not there to pick them up.' 'Half our group have visas we can't send the other half back to Cairo.'
'You're not even travelling south for a fortnight'
'If I don't go now I wont ever get the chance to visit Sudan.'
At some point during what now feels like a badly scripted team building activity, Diarmaid, Akira and I - the only tourists not attached to a fixer paying tour group make an unspoken decision to hang on their tail coats with absolutely no shame.
By 4, having weathered a fruitless rumor that the Ambassador himself was on route and might be able to do something, Abouda offers us a rare piece of free advice:'I think you've done all you can now. It's time for you to go home.' 'Gee Thanks Abouda. You know what you're right. What rotten luck that the second in command has just agreed to do what he can to authorise 5 visas and it's time for us to go home!'
We would later learn that such charm was not unusual for Abouda. Fast forward ten days and after an unsuccesful attempt to set himself up as our friends Anna and Brian's fixer, he threatens to remove their boat booking; going on to gloat to another chum Roberts that he had to power to stop Anna and Brian getting the boat. Bravado that frustratingly seemed to hold weight. In an altogether mindboggling finale to this story Anna and Brian, Ray and Avril and Rob Roy, our new overlanding chums, eventually find themselves pitted against a Lentil Barge (that's right a barge of lentils) fighting until an hour before departure to get their vehicles on and loaded in time. They do but not without sweat and betrayal and they end up in Sudan with no vehicles and nobody answering their phone. Though Aswan's bureacratic hoops are eminently jumpable, whichever way you travel, the Fixers here seek to make themselves indespensible by trying to throw spanners in the works for people who choose to go it alone.Meanwhile back at the Embassy...Sorry sunshine
(Bureaucratic wrangling oft turns me into a Glaswegian police Inspector) if there's a chance any person in this building has a stamp and the power to use it, we're not going anywhere. And we don't. Just wait
Mahmud tells us. Patience
. In contrast to his Egyptian counterpart Mahmud was happy to let us in on a no fee ticket.
After 10 dead horse flogging hours we reach a state of un fed delirium. One where doors open and close so quickly I don't know whose corridor I'm in. I've perfected a listless slump, cleaned under my nails and interrogated every portrait and foreign newspaper in the room. Then an hour after official closing, Diarmaid (our chief negotiator) emerges from the Hall of Doors with an air of breakthrough. The second in command has agreed to process a block of visas overnight. With 33 of us vying for approval there are no assurances that ours will make the final cut. The murmurs though are positive. And we're tired and it's time to go home. Come back tomorrow at 10am. There is a chance, after all this, that we'll make that damn boat.
Back to base. Pack the bags. Up at 8. Divide and conquer. Hannah to the pharmacy and to source supplies for the boat. Diarmaid and Akira to the embassy. If all goes to plan we simply pick up visas, taxi to the port and join an orderly queue for last minute tickets. The boat leaves at 4pm but passengers get their elbows out as early as 11am to sneek in a decent spot on deck.Beeeep beeep beeep. [incoming text]Diarm Egypt:
They only just turned up, all looking good though. Pack bags and get ready to meet outside. Will text you when on way (in taxi) sent 10.30amHannah Egypt:
How's it going? sent 11.10amDiarm Egypt:
We got them! Just waiting for all forms to be stamped etc Will be with you by 12. sent 11.30amHannah Egypt:
Any joy? sent 12.15pmDiarm Egypt:
Lots of confusion...think yours hasn't been processed. sent 12.15pmHannah Egypt:
Whaaaaaaaaaaaaattt? Just mine?
I sit, all bags and no taxi, like a jilted date in a crap blockbuster. Aware that, as ones script might read, hope was slipping away. Diarm Egypt:
On my way. Got them. Be ready in 5 mins
Whaaaat. okay. Lets go. A late 70's Toyota Corolla careers to a stop outside the hotel. With Diarmaid and an anxious looking Akira aboard. We scrabble the bikes to the roof with some luggage straps, ram in eight buxom panniers and go. To the port my man and make no delay. Well almost, first there is an additional stop at Akira's hotel to endure and an episode where D goes walkabout on an unnecessary hunt for water, but we get to the port in good time.
Good time here refers to arrival at port post riot. Yes that's right folks. A lady did/doth throw a stone. This boat marks the last opportunity many have to cross the border for two weeks. More significantly it marks the only chance some have to get home to their family in time for Eid. A festival of equivalent significance to Christmas - emotions run high.
Dozens more people than there are tickets or space for want to get south and for the first time we realise the consequences of a two week delay are for us but that. Frankly it'd feel a bit uneasy to get a ticket at the expense of someone seeing their family for chrimbo. And so although we stuck it out for another hour, as hands from behind a locked gate fed extra golden tickets to the crowd, we didn't fight tooth and nail to get aboard. It wasn't to be. Despite the brilliantly farcycal (excuse the product placement) turn of the events and the glory that would have been had we boarded we bowed out and trundled, windows down, through the afternoon heat and over the high dam back to Aswan.
Over the next 10 days we'd get our first proper taste of Nubian hospitality, fish on the banks of the Nile at sundown, race in a minibus to the Red Sea, snorkle and share dinner with the first Egyptian women we'd met since Cairo and get know a top team of other Overlanders also caught out by the unexpected Eid storm. Rob Roy, Anna & Brian- nice joking! Ray & Avril - your snickers and proscuittio know no bounds. Roberts - nice triangulum & Rick www.climatedenial.org
The story you'll be glad to know ends with us all comfortably aboard a star soaked ship bound for Sudan. Atop the captain's cabin, we'd sail through the night calmed by a deck full of low whispers and rise to the sound of a gentle drum and Kora. Just in time to see the sun rise over Abu Simbel. Just wait
as Mahmud said. Patience
The long and unwinding road...click on the pic above for a whole gallery full of photos from the Western Desert
The only truly essential part of a Cairean's car is, I'm told, the horn. At 7am the unruly brass band was beginning to warm up. The sound was pretty intimidating - matched only by the sight of too many cars going too fast in too small a space. We pushed off gingerly into the maelstrom: a grubby, overflowing stream racing downhill, overtaking itself at every opportunity.
Whilst the streets are chaotic and it demands all your attention, traffic accelerates and brakes in the space it is given and as we took our place in the flow we were, for the most part, seen and respected.
Over the course of the morning we moved from city streets, to eight-lane highway, cycling over the Nile, past the Pyramids, out of Cairo and into the suburbs towards the half-built 6th October City. A government planned conurbation designed to relieve some of the stress of urbanisation from the capital, 6th October is an eerie place, miles from anything and with few noticable services; it looked like a failed 60s council estate even before completion.
Beyond 6th October the traffic diminished considerably. We were taking the thousand-odd kilometre Western Desert Road which connects a series of oasis towns until it rejoins the Nile near Luxor. The first town after leaving behind Cairo and 6th October City is Bawiti in the Bahariya Oasis - 375km along an empty, scorched road.
Some people skip this first section, hopping on a bus to Bawiti to avoid the chaos of escaping Cairo and what is thought of as a less beautiful stretch of desert. But these first difficult few days were an incredible experience. We pushed our way through a landscape we'd never seen before. The earth rushed off to meet the sky at the horizon with little or nothing in between to distract. The colours were pared back to muted yellows and browns, bright blues and whites, and of course the long black strip of tarmac which rolled out ahead.
This part of the desert was desolate yet busy. We could draw to a pause and hear nothing but the wind and cast our eyes for any sign of movement without success bar the scattered road side rubbish fluttering in the breeze. But then trucks would rumble past, we'd arrive at a gatehouse to nowhere, or an isolated railway station with a solitary guard that in four days only saw a single locomotive come by.
For some stretches we were joined by swallows making the same journey south, our migrations overlapping. They inspired and humbled us, a joyful connection to familiar nature in an alien place. I hope we provided them with a brief grin and distraction on their epic journey.
We made very grateful use of a distance table downloaded from the cyclingegypt blog. At the end of the first day we rolled into our first Asaaf (Ambulance) Station. Soon we'd be arguing over the finer architectural details of these places, equipped to spot them from miles off, as they became our essential retreat from the elements all along the route.
Established to respond to accidents on this remote road, the paramedics who staff them work 'two-week-on-two-week-off' shifts and with only one or two call outs a month spend most of their time battling boredom. These men (they were all men) were without doubt some of the best people in Egypt. Warm and funny and welcoming, we spent many very happy hours shading from the sun, filtering water, cooking food, sipping tea and chatting in broken English and very broken Arabic with them.
Diaa in particular was exceptional company. He had taken advantage of Mubarak's fall by growing a beard favoured by more committed followers of Islam, beards having been banned under the now-imprisoned dictator's rule. This gave him a slightly intimidating first impression but he had a wicked sense of humour, was a patient arabic teacher, and spoke with ease in warm philosophical terms. We were like migratory birds, he told us. 'You don't pass often but when you do people are always pleased to see you.'
'Macdonald - you are my brother in humanity.'
Whilst we spent our first night in the first Asaaf Station, coming to terms with what we'd embarked upon, most nights we cycled until around 5pm, searched for a spot to drag our bikes off the road. We slept in our tent without the flysheet, able to fall asleep to the sight of a sky thick with stars.
The harsh terrain brought the best out in people. With temperatures hovering between 38 and 44 Celsius no one wanted to be left without water, and everyone understood how seriously safety must be taken. We were offered water, chai, food and lifts (!) countless times by passing strangers. Hannah rightly observed that there is a unexpected, empathetic connection between truckers and cyclists. They were certainly the most jovial of the wavers and honkers- the shared understanding of difficult long days on the road creating a kind of solidarity we didn't expect.
Towards the end of the third long, hot day through striking but monotonous terrain we happened, without fanfare, upon our first hill. At the brow we were unexpectedly swept down into a transformed landscape of exquisite beauty; a long ridge of hills smoothed and swirled by the wind rose up from banks of sand to mark the horizon. The afternoon sun created shadows and silhouettes framed by rich oranges and reds. It was stunning.
At the bottom of the hill I free-wheeled to a stop and turned to watch Hannah coast up beside me. Tears rolled down her cheeks and fell to the ground. The desert makes constant demands of you; the landscape, heat, isolation and exhaustion combining to deliver a deeply emotional response. Not for the last time in our three weeks in Egypt's Western Desert, Smithy had been moved to tears through the simple power of its beauty.
After four testing, rewarding days, the first oasis opened up around us and we eventually rolled into Bawiti. Typical of Bedouin hospitality, two people had stopped their cars along the way, given us their contact details and invited us stay with them when we reached town. Incredibly, one, Araniya, was waiting for us at the edge of town when we arrived, having picked up news on our location from minibus drivers. In what was an unbeatable end to dusty days on the road she led us straight to a hot spring where we immersed ourselves in the water. We spent a day in Araniya and her husband Hamada's home - rested and resupplied and headed south towards the White Desert.
The Black and White Deserts should be as famous as the pyramids. What was unchanging before, was constantly evolving and dramatic now; the dry land left and right rising up into rock formations and racing over in vast swooping bowls of stone and sand to meet the sky. The names are not deceptive - the iron in the rocks of the Black Desert gives the landscape a dark and ominous hue. The limestone chalk of the White Desert in places resembles an alien fall of snow and in others has been carved into breathtaking towering shapes by the wind.
We spent a night in this most magical of settings; completely alone in a place so beautiful I've delayed writing this blog because the task of putting words to its wonderfulness was so intimidating. We sat on a slope of sand, surrounded by curved white rocks, and with dusty hills lined up in rows towards the horizon. The only footprints were our own, the only sounds our breathing. We cooked as the sun set over this empty wilderness. We ate as the sky filled with stars. We slowly tidied up the camp as a full moon rose red and massive into the night sky. I've never been somewhere more special.
Waking before daylight we made porridge and brewed up some coffee. We sat on a ledge to watch another day start, feeling the first creaking rays of sun on our faces as the cool air began to slow-cook once more. We packed up our tent, lathered ourselves in suncream and dragged the bags and bikes back to the road.
Further south the traffic died away almost completely, and we saw nothing else on the road for hours at a time. Between two oasis towns, 300km apart we had to travel 94kms before we reached a checkpoint with a water supply. At these times, after 600-700kms and over two weeks in the desert, you pass the day in simple ways...
Stare ahead towards the point on the horizon where the road disappears from view. Head down, watch the tarmac scroll past the spinning pedals. Glance in the tiny rear view mirror at the sky over the place you've come from and Hannah a few yards back. Check the kilometre count. Turn round and look hard for trucks coming into view. Throw head left and right at the passing sand and rocks, noting the constantly changing landscape. Keep the legs turning. Fix a point in the distance, see how it evolves over ten minutes as you get closer to it, then pass it. Pick another point. Keep the legs turning.
Those desert days were parceled up into small comprehensible chunks. The first easy hours before the sun gets hot or the wind too strong. A stop for a snack mid-morning, noting your progress. Back on the bikes, trying to get more than halfway before lunch. Finding a shady place - hopefully in the company of paramedics - to cook and eat. Working through the post-lunch slump and hottest part of the day, trying to get within spitting distance of the day's kilometre count. Entering the last hours when the heat is dropping and we start eyeing up places we could drag the bikes and pitch a tent hidden from the road.
The rest of the journey through the desert was marked by constantly rewarding interactions: young army kids cooked us dinner, lorry drivers fired up shisha pipes on the side of the road, strangers with no english called friends with a few words to interpret our ramblings and then went out of their way to deliver any assistance we needed.
The relief of sleepy oasis towns gave us the respite we needed to push on and the desert and its people never lost their beauty. But the days got harder. We'd been fairly lucky to get either no wind, tailwinds or crosswinds most of the way from Cairo. But as the road turned eastwards for the last 400kms days became slow battles into a strong breeze, turning 25km per hour into 12-14km per hour.
As any of you who cycle will agree, head winds are way worse than hills. Hills have a top, and when you get there you feel great, and get to go downhill. Headwinds sap your energy with no reward, no end in sight and no predictability. The last days' effort to get out of the desert and back to what we'd now built into an Eden-esque paradise of the Nile valley were brutal. The final stretch should have been a long slow descent but the wind was blowing strong. Now, its one thing for a headwind to buffet you as you go along the flat, or torture you on a climb, but stealing away a downhill is soul destroying.
The last 60kms to the Nile we had to battle our way downhill - the desert's last trial. We had become so normalised to the tarmac, sand and sky vistas that the wide swathe of green that we slowly edged towards brought disbelieving grins to our faces. We'd had a glorious, unforgettable experience in the desert but we were exhausted and very ready for the comforts of Nile life.
We turned left at the Luxor road junction and headed north towards the home of the Valley of the Kings. Suddenly the mood changed. After over 1000km without a cross word, on this 30km stretch into town we got stones thrown at us, repeated demands from money from people we passed, and a man riding in the back of a passing veg truck hit me on the waist with an aubergine. As difficult as life in the desert was, running the gauntlet of the Nile route seemed worse. Egypt's tourism industry should bring in 20% of the nation's income but has shrunk dramatically since the revolution. The country is incredibly safe and an enchanting place to visit. But the desperation of the traders and others who rely on tourism has caused them to pester tourists in a way that will only further discourage visitors, with Luxor home to by far the worst offenders. Cynicism with tourists seemed to have spilled over and bred a resentment we'd not seen before.
But these small frustrations are dwarfed by the gifts that Egypt and her people gave us. Three of the most arduous and awe-inspiring weeks of our lives through the desert. A privilege we'll never forget.
A brief taste of life on the road and a thanks to all who keep us rolling, here and at home: