I’ve now reached New York, bikeless. Since boxing and shipping my bike in Denver, Colorado, I’ve spent four days on long distancs trains and visiting friends through the West and Midwest. But before the train tales, let’s go back to Pinedale…
Things always happen for a reason. Such a cliché, but loosely scientifically and philosopically correct,so I’ll stick with it. If my luggage rack hadn’t broken on the rocky descending road from Union Pass, I wouldn’t have taken a rest in Pinedale. That would mean I wouldn’t have been outside AZ Hardware late the next morning and wouldn’t have met Renato and Doug, who were coming in off a ‘Nero’ (nearly zero I.e. nearly zero miles ride) day, soon joined by Cheryl and later by Cedric and Justin. Then finally Mike, found way out in the desert the next afternoon.
It was because of the support and camaraderie of this group that I made it to Rawlins and on to Colorado, a gruelling, windy and extremely remote route that took four days across dusty and windy roads. If I had been on my own I’m not sure I could have made it. But as a group it made it manageable and enjoyable, and Wyoming is a state that will forever be etched in my memory for those epic four days.
On the first day we made it across a huge swathe of desert to Atlantic City, an eleven and a half hour cycle not helped by the fact that myself and Cedric lost the group for a few hours and first thought they were behind us, eventually figuring out that they were ahead when we saw four dots on the distant horizon.
Atlantic City is a semi abandoned gold rush town, far from anywhere. Populated only by a few families, on one side of a dried up dusty creek we stayed with Wild Bill, a hunter/boutique knife craftsman/beef jerky producer who put us up in his cabins and served us a massive bottomless breakfast the next morning in his front room, surrounded by his stuffed prize animals staring down at us as we gorged on pancakes, coffee, sausages, eggs etc.
The next morning we set off into rolling desert, losing the way a couple of times through criss crossing tracks. The only water source that day was Diagnus Well, miles into the desert and only marked by a white rock lying by the road side. Eventually, at 8.20pm that night we made camp at AM reservoir, a man made lake stocked with fish to keep the oil workers out here occupied.
On the third day we rolled in to Rawlins, a wild west town with saloons, cheap motels and an off license. It was such a relief to get out of the barren wastelands of the Wyoming Basin, but even though it was tough it was one of the highlights of the trip, due to the surreal nature of the never ending views and end of the world feel.
Two days later and we were in Colorado, having lunch at a ranch right on the border. The ranch manager told us of his 900 cows which wander in to the surround kilometers of forest in Spring, just to wander with the encouragement of some cowboys back before the snows come in October. The remoteness out here is huge. He was just leaving on a six and a half hour drive to south dakota, to an agriculture sales event.
And finally made it to Steamboat Springs. A resort town in the heart of the Rockies, we set down our bikes and went to the bar. There was a mountain bike race in town that weekend and it was very busy. The local bike shop advised against riding over the pass to Denver due to narrow shoulders and heavy traffic, so we reluctantly boxed our bikes, saying goodbye to those who were continuing the trail south (they’ll eventually end up in New Mexico).
In Denver I stayed with Gareth and Aubrey, two friends from my time in Korea. We went to Breweries, went out in the gentrified warehouse district in downtown Denver, and cooked up some mean Korean food at home. It was a perfect rest time after 5 weeks and 3300kms in the saddle.
Then on Tuesday I began my four day journey East on Amtrak, the US long distance rail network. On the first overnight to Omaha, we were three hours late due to weather and freight trains taking priority on the line.
I spent the next day in Omaha with Justin, a former band member. Omaha is famous for Warren Buffet and Steak, and it didn’t disappoint. We cycled along the Missouri river, had a huge American breakfast (this is a solid theme in all my travels this year you’ll notice) and went line dancing in athe club called ‘Rednecks’ that night. A great introduction to Midwestern culture.
From there I hopped back on the Amtrak to Chicago. Distances are huge in America: this leg was a ten hour trundle through endless corn and soy fields. The trains are two storey, and give a great view of the surrounding countryside. The panoramic viewing car is where you end up talking to all sorts of people. I got chatting to ayou pig farmer from Iowa who was going to visit her son in Chicago, and a marijuana farmer from California who was going to visit his mother in Baltimore (with a large rolly bag of his own product hiding in the luggage compartment)
Now I’m finally in New York and ready to go see some sights over the next few days. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the states from the train. People are always so friendly and talkative and you get a real sense about what people think about their country, as we whizz by on the double decker coaches…
I’m currently in Pinedale, Wyoming. Yesterday was a beautiful day on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a cycling route I’ve been following on and off for the past few weeks.
It goes all the way from Banff in Alberta to Antelope Wells on the border with Mexico. I’m just following parts of it, because to do all of it I’d need a more mountain-ready bike with less weight. But more about that later.
Yesterday, I was flowing along nicely over Union Pass, a 9,200ft pass that crosses the continental divide over some stunning Alpine scenery.
The road was gravely and rocky, which was slowing me down a bit, but the views made up for it. By evening I was descending as planned towards Pinedale taking in the views of the Wind River mountain range ahead of me, when suddenly I heard a snap from the back of my bike and I skipped to a stop. My rack, which holds all of my luggage, had snapped both forks. Pretty bad news when I still have 6 days or so on my route, across the Wyoming basin and through the Colorado rockies.
I managed to bungee-cord the rack to my seatpost and struggled on to Pinedale, a small town in the middle of Wyoming. This morning I’ve found a cheap rack in a hardware store here, attached it, and hopefully (fingers crossed) it will hold for the rest of the journey. I’m not overly confident about it though, so decided to take the day off to allow other cyclists catch up and I can ride with them tomorrow through the desert.
Which gives me time to write a blog post! I’ll run through how the trip has gone so far:
I began after a couple of days in Tacoma, Washington, where I learned how to build a bike down at the community bike shop with Travis, Noah and Nate.
Then it was on to the North Cascades National Park, where Angela, a friend from my time in Korea, is studying at the North Cascades Institute. It’s a beautiful region with high lofty peaks, loads of bears, marmots, mountain goats and birdlife. We spent a day hiking up to a glacier with Chris (another friend from Ulsan) and Becky, Angela’s friend.
The next day I began my cycle proper, with an extremely tough 110kms over Washington Pass. Most of the day consisted of climbing up steep roads. I spend 60kms in total climbing. I was exhausted at the top, and much appreciated the pizza and beer in Mazama at the bottom of the pass.
From there it was two days through the Winthrop and Okanogan valleys, lovely hot dry valleys where the snowmelt from the Rockies allows for intense irrigation and a very successful fruit and wine farming industry.
Over the next few days I passed through rural Washington State. People were very friendly. I stopped off in the town of Republic, where I had beers with the local Democratic party organiser, and a few local woodcutters, who were definitely not Democratic. I was stopped by the side of the road by a friendly volunteer fire station who were having a barbeque and plied me with food and drink. And I camped by the Pond d’Oreille river where a ‘military’ family (father and son had both worked in the army and had interesting opinions) offered me dinner and some fish they had caught that day.
A day later I was in Sandpoint, Idaho, where I spent a relaxing two days with Lindsey and Jacob, friends from my time in Taebaek. Lindsey runs an outdoor shop in town but it was the weekend so we took their boat out on the lake and went for dinner in a village across the bay.
My next destination was Glacier National Park, but to get there I had to cycle through some beautiful mountainous roads through Idaho and Northern Montana. I really enjoyed the little towns of Libby and Eureka, and met some friendly people in their local Breakfast joints.
To get from Eureka to Glacier National Park I had to first crest the Whitefish Divide, a high pass over a very bumpy forestry track. It was a tough day, made all the tougher by experiencing my first technical on my bike when a big rock kicked up by my front wheel smashed my rear derailleur into the spokes of my back wheel. Dejected by the side of the road, I attempted to knock the derailleur back into shape. Lucky a nice older couple gave me a lift ten miles down the road to Polebridge, my destination for the night. The North Fork Hostel is a biker’s haven, run by a touring cyclist from Germany and populated that night by no less than 23 cyclists. So with their help I got it sorted!
Glacier National Park lies in the extreme North of the US, bordering Canada and cresting at the Rocky Mountain ridge. A road goes through the park called the Going-To-The-Sun-Road, and I took it over the most spectacular scenery of the trip so far. My destination that day was Waterton Lakes National Park, over the border in Canada, where I met up with Payam, another friend from the Korean teaching days, and his friend Harry. We spent a day barbequeing, drinking beer and driving to some viewpoints in the park. The perfect rest day.
From Waterton, I headed back over the Going-To-The-Sun-Road, spent two days heading South to Lincoln, Montana through areas where forest fires raged and ‘fire camps’ had been set up where people from all over the Northwest arrived and camped out to help with the fire-quelling efforts (apparently this is quite lucrative).
In Lincoln, I met up with a group of Great Divide bikers who were heading on the same route as me. I met them in the morning at a breakfast diner. I have been burning around 6,000 calories a day cycling, and without American style breakfasts (sausages, eggs, hash browns, coffee, pancakes, toast etc.) I don’t know how I’d get through a lot of these days. I could easily have two dinners and still feel hungry. Anyway, we met in a breakfast diner, a place where long distance cyclists spend a lot of their mornings!
We cycled together over a pretty steep pass, by chance passing the cabin where the Unabomber lived in the 80s and 90s, and finished our day in a beautiful cabin in fields overlooking a lush valley. Ten bicyclists, One cabin, Two llamas.
The cabin was free for us to camp at. The Great Divide route passes through some very remote areas and quite a few local people have opened up their gardens, cabins and sometimes even their homes to passing cyclists. Pickup trucks passing sometimes offer water or advice on the route, and people a generally very friendly.
After a few hard days on the road, I was tiring and needed a rest day. I stopped in Butte, known as ‘The Richest Hill on Earth’, which was at one time the copper capital of the world. Those days have passed, the population has dropped from 130,000 to 30,000, and now it’s quite a surreal place to visit. Half the town is abandoned and huge mine shafts and tailing piles dominate the landscape. I arrived when the Eval Kneival show was in town, so it was quite busy, with plenty of motorbike tricks and bikers drinking on the streets.
From Butte, the final leg of my trip is a 10/11 day trip across Southern Montana, Wyoming and Colorado to Denver, where I’ll finish up. I spent the first two days passing through drier but no less spectacular scenery which gives Montana its nickname ‘Big Sky Country’, camping in the ghost town of Bannock one night (it was the first capital of Montana but when the gold ran out, so did the people. This happens quite frequently in this part of the world).
Throughout my journey, I’ve been amazed at the amount of open spaces in the US. The reason for this is a lot of America is Public Land, owned by the state, where people are not allowed to build or develop. Much of it is forested in the Northwest, but a lot is just wilderness. In Montana alone, there is 144,000km2 of public land. In comparison, the entire area of Ireland is 84,000km2.
Leaving Montana reluctantly behind, I headed into Wyoming, and into the Yellowstone National Park. There, I didn’t manage to see any animals, but lots of tourists. It’s jammed at this time of year, with tailbacks of cars and huge crowds at the main geyser sites. Still, it was nice to see.
Since Yellowstone, I’ve followed a lovely route through the Bridger-Teton national forest (one of the biggest in the world) into Wyoming proper, where I am now after a 10 hour cycle yesterday, 3 of those spent with a broken luggage rack.
So there you have it, a very rushed and not-too-detailed recap of the trip so far. I have around another week on the bike to Denver (if I get there with this new rack!) where I’ll meet up with Gareth and Aubrey for a few days and from there I’ll be on the trains to Chicago and New York.
Now I’m off for a burger. Back on the road tomorrow to Atlantic City, a city (village) nowhere near the Atlantic.
I’ve arrived to my rest day in Butte, Montana. Copper-rush mining city and Eval Kneival is in town! In the meantime, here are some no-comment photos…
They’re all mixed up in chronology, but the most recent is the doom-laden overlook of Butte after roaring down a 10 mile 6% gradient hill on interstate-15:
During my travels in 2012 I collected 14 hours of video. This week I finally got around to making it into a single collection, and put it online:
I also got around to writing detailed blogs for cyclists on crazyguyonabike.com of my routes in The Annapurna (Nepal), The Manali – Leh Highway (India), The Nubra Valley (India) and East Africa. When I was researching these routes it was very difficult to find information and advice online, so I hope they can help people who are thinking about those routes in the future.
A buddhist ceremony of killing ‘ego’ in a monastery in the Himalayas
A train idling at night in India surrounded by frogs
A funeral song in Laos
Erte Ale volcano in Ethiopia
A pool full of bubbling sulphur in Ethiopia
Durbar Square market at night, Kathmandu
A final update on the 2012 trip:
I spent a very enjoyable 3 weeks in Malawi on and off the bike. After a couple of days in Livingstonia I cycled to the Vwaza Marsh Reserve on the border with Zambia where I camped on the edge of a lake full of hippos and visiting elephants.
Following that I spent 5 days up on the Nyika Plateau, a vast area of wild grassland, zebra, bushbuck, viewpoints and great biking trails!
Then I stayed for a couple of days in Mzuzu before heading down to the lakeshore via the Chikangawa forestry road, an old road from the colonial days that zigzags down from the highlands to the lakeshore through pristine indigenous forest. On my second night I found my favourite camping spot of the trip: in a wood beside a lake full of loud birds during the day and insects and frogs at night.
I visited my old school at Bandawe, where I had volunteered for 7 months in 2006. All of my old colleagues had transfered to other schools or other jobs, but the school itself was in good shape, well equipped with a new science lab and computer lab and girls’ dormitory, all provided by the good old EU.
And to finish off my time in Malawi I went up to Ruarwe for a few days, a village I had visited before that can only be reached by a hot 11 hour boat ride. It was on that boat ride that I randomly bumped into Cuthbert – one of my old students – who was on his way home from university, so I had a chance to visit his family’s farm perched on top of a hill overlooking Ruarwe bay.
The best thing about being back in Malawi was seeing my old students again. The great thing about Facebook is that I’m back in contact with a lot of them, after a 5 year gap in communication. It was nice to hear that they had the second highest grade in the whole Northern region in the JCE (Junior) examinations the year after I left Bandawe and that now most of them are studying in 3rd level education. It’s difficult for students from a rural background to study in university because of a lack of scholarships or bursaries, but the government (and their donors) have recently introduced ‘bonded study’, paying the way for hundreds of budding nurses and teachers through college who then must work for the government for 3 years at a reduced salary.
Finally, it was onto a bus to Johannesburg to catch my flight home, where I’ve spent my time with family and friends at home, skiing in France and at my grandfather’s 90th. Good to be home! It was quite a trip.
So it’s all over.
After 10 months of traveling through Korea, China, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, India, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, and then a long bus journey through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa i’m sitting in Abu Dhabi airport on my way home. There’s an Arab Santa Claus handing out free chocolates nearby and terrible christmas songs on the loudspeakers but I can’t feel that it’s christmas. Today is the first day in 4 months that I pulled on my trousers instead of shorts, and I can’t really believe I’m finally going home.
It’s been an amazing 10 months since I finished my job in Korea at the end of February. I’m trying to think what I was doing on this day each month since then. Photos help!:
10 months ago, 21st February:
9 months ago, 21st March:
8 months ago, 21st April:
7 months ago, 21st May:
6 months ago, 21st June:
5 months ago, 21st July:
4 months ago, 21st August:
3 months ago, 21st September:
2 months ago, 21st October:
1 months ago, 21st November:
I had a cracker of a time in Malawi. Spent time in Livingstonia, Vwaza Marsh, Nyika National Park, Mzuzu, Viphya Forest, Bandawe, Nkhata Bay and Ruarwe. I wrote about it on the last flight while I was quite tired and hungover from my last night in Africa in Johannesburg, but it’ll have to do!:
It was great to be back in Malawi. After over 9 months traveling in places i’ve never been before on roads I didn’t know, it was nice to finally be back in familiar territory. And it was also the most beautiful country I traveled in since Nepal, by far the most beautiful in the African leg.
After peddaling along the lake for a day from the border with Gijs, he headed South and I turned up the road to Livingstonia. From the lake it rose 900m up 20 or more switchbacks on a rocky dirt track called the ‘Golotti’ road (a mispronunciation of ‘God’), named so because Livingstonia was where Scottish missionaries finally found a place they could live in Malawi without dying en-masse of malaria as they had been down by the lake. It’s quite a surreal place: little British-style cottages set in neat rows under bluegum trees and a neat town square with a church bell, technical college and university of education set on a campus that reminded me of Queen’s quad in Belfast.
I was there for 6 days, wandering around the place with Barney (a church historian from London) and Matthew and Jess (an Aussie couple interested in botany, compost toilets and beekeeping). Barney was searching out all the old (and mostly forgotten) infrastructure of Livingstonia and we hiked up a nearby hill one day to look at the water system and hydroelectric generator, built in 1908. Hidden away in a crumbling brick shed now used for drying cassava and maize was the hydro generator built in Leeds, covered in dust but amazingly still working. The next day I joined Matthew and Jess at the beekeeping co-operative where they were busy building mango-drying racks. At this time of year in Malawi there are so many mangos falling off the trees that people can barely even sell them in the markets, but in 6 months time you won’t find mangos anywhere. Starting up a business to package and sell dried mangos is an easy money maker, but nobody is doing it here. Hopefully the bee co-operative will soon with these new racks.
Livingstonia was a great place to spend a couple of days. Malawi’s highest waterfall is nearby, with big rockpools to swim in and the place I camped at Lukwe (down the hill from the mission station) has a big permaculture farm, where I learned a lot about the techniques used to manage water and combat Africa’s malicious invasive species (mainly insects). Auke – a Congolese guy – came here 16 years ago and was given the mountainside to farm by the local chief who told him he would never be able to successfully farm the steep, arid hillside. Now it’s a lush garden, producing all sorts of crops – coffee, maize, tomatoes, pineapple, lettuce, peppers etc. It’s made possible by trapping rain and spring water in holding pools and slowly allowing it to channel through the garden, giving growth year round.
After Livingstonia I cycled along back roads to Rumphi and on to Vwaza Marsh. The farmlands there contrasted sharply with Lukwe; the farmers are having the harshest dry season in living memory. The topsoil is blowing off their arid fields and people are surviving on food handouts. One of the previous governments most successful programs was giving out subsidized fertilizer to farmers. This bought them votes and they got a second term, but now farmers are complaining that the seeds they use demand more and more fertilizer every time they plant, increasing the cost and labour required to crop.
I cycled in to Vwaza, an old wildlife reserve lying almost forgotten on the border with Zambia. It’s a huge marsh area that in the dry season (now) shrinks down to just one small pool where vast herds of elephant and hippo congregate to eat, drink and mate. There used to be a tourist lodge here but the company pulled out and it’s been neglected by the government, who prefer to spend the national parks budget buying new SUVs you can see driving squeaky clean around Lilongwe (the capital city). As a result the old electrified fence that used to seperate the marsh from the local farming population is no longer electrified, hunters have stolen large parts in the fence to use for snares and traps, and elephant roam through the resulting gaps to pillage people’s maize plantations, mangos and cassava. I was out walking with Shadreck, one of the few remaining rangers, in the park when gunshots rang out from a couple of hundred metres away. He had to run out to resolve the situation – luckily the villagers were just trying to scare the elephants away from destroying their fields, and he eventually ran them back into the reserve. This is a constant battle, fought day by day and even through the night – as I lay in my tent under the acacia tree that night I could hear people hitting their pots and pans to scare away the elephants and hippos. An easy solution would be for the Malawian government to pay to re-electrify the fence, but that’s not going to be done because they’re broke!
From Vwaza I cycled up to the Nyika plateau, a huge national park 2,000m above sea level where juniper and eucalyptus trees grow among pine and endless grasses. It’s full of zebras, warthog and every type of antelope around. I had the hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads to myself for 3 days and it was the best cycling i’ve done in Africa. The first night I camped out in the middle of a vast plain of grass overlooking kilometres of rolling hills and filled up my water cans from a dam beside a herd of bushbuck. The roads endlessly rose and fell over the grasslands, leading to viewpoints where I could spot lake Malawi on one side and Zambia on the other. I camped in the national park campsite, beside a big logging camp where I shopped for rice and beans and a friendly lady cooked me a dozen scones. Then it was off to Uledi.
I had heard of Uledi in Livingstonia. It’s a ranger’s outpost at the northernmost point of the park and a path from there leads up to a twin-peaked mountain called ‘Mpanda’ where Doctor Laws (Scottish missionary and founder of Livingstonia) had started building a house on top of a mountain. Details were a bit sketchy so I decided to try and find it. It was a long day’s cycle from the Nyika plateau down into the hot, dry farmlands bordering Zambia and along a 40km path past gobsmacked kids and chuckling grannies. I spent a great evening with the three rangers of Uledi, who earn $75 per month to patrol a huge area of wilderness against poachers while also educating the local people about the benefits the national park can bring them. They told me stories of epic chases and capturing of poachers, who often start wildfires to chase the animals into their traps. One chief in particular called ‘Dia Dia’ was causing a lot of trouble, as he sees the northern part of the Nyika as his ancestors and therefore his rightful hunting ground.
The next day we walked up to Doctor Laws’ house, set on a ridge with stupendous views of the Nyika plateau, Lake Malawi, Mount Mpanda and the valley leading to the Luangwa, one of the last remaining big ‘real wilderness’ areas in Southern Africa. Why he started building here is a mystery – he probably just wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of Livingstonia. But he was in the middle of building a big 4 room bungalow complete with fireplaces and outhouses when he mysteriously stopped. Or perhaps died, not sure of the history there! We couldn’t even find a water source, and had to follow some baboons down a deep gully to a small stream where we drank our first water in 4 hours of pounding heat. It was a good trip though; well worth it.
The next day I had planned to cycle halfway back to Mzuzu along the lake but the sun was so strong and it was so hot that I threw in the towel after lunch. The landscape north of the Nyika isn’t as beautiful anyway, somewhat marred by the presence of a massive Australian/Chinese uranium mine that the road loops around. It was so hot that as I was coming into Karonga the surface of the road was melting, slowing down my tyres and almost ruining my chain. I had a chicken and chips, threw my bike in the back of the minibus and we drove to Mzuzu.
Mzuzu is the largest town in Northern Malawi, 1,000m above the lake and therefore much cooler. I remember it from 2006 as a good place to go for a fun weekend and nothing has changed there – I spent a couple of days relaxing, eating good food and meeting up with former students. To meet these guys who have grown up from the kids I remember teaching biology and physics to six years ago was brilliant, and we sat talking for hours. It was great to hear that of the 50-odd kids I taught, 49 passed the Junior Certificate exams the following year, and the majority of them passed their Senior Certificate. Around 20 of them are in higher education, which really surprised me. Of these, 3 are in the nation’s top university. I met up with Morton (trainee nurse), Brave (working for Airtel, the biggest mobile phone company) and Funsani (entering university to study business admin).
[Unfinished… see other post. This was a draft]