Cycling in America, pt.2

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.

The group from Pinedale to Rawlins

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.

We carried on through the empty terrain, meeting a group of local people reenacting the pioneer trek across south pass, when the west was still young

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.

Colorado brought with it enjoyable riding along quiet dirt roads. We got a sense of the growing wealth, cycling last some luxurious ranches and beautiful wooden homes.

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)

I briefly stopped in Chicago to get a hair cut and beard trim and catch up with Emkay, a friend from Korea, before hopping on the last leg of the trip, a mammoth 19hour train ride to New York.

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…

Cycling in America, pt.1

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.

IMG_20170804_174521.jpg

Beautiful views from halfway down Union Pass. Note the rocky road!

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.

IMG_20170804_170343.jpg

One snapped rack stem…

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.

dav

Travis with the completed bike

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.

IMG_20170709_121713

Up on the shoulder of the mountain, looking South

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.

dav

Flat, hot roads through the Okanogan Valley

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.

dav

Republic Brewing Company, a brewery in an old fire station

dav

A friendly fire station by the Pond d’Oreille river. Over 70% of fire stations here are voluntary, and they have to deal with massive forest fires every year

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.

sdr

Trying to drive a boat in Sandpoint

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.

hdr

Lake Koocanusa, a huge reservoir that stretches North to the Canadian border

dav

Eureka, Northern Montana

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!

mde

The North Fork Hostel, on the border of Glacier National Park

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.

IMG_20170721_092702

Panorama of the Going-To-The-Sun-Road

IMG_20170721_101223

You can see the line of the road as it follows the contours up the mountain

dav

With Payam at Waterton Lake

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!

sdr

Breakfast diner in Lincoln, Montana

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.

dig

Cycling that day included a fair bit of pushing!

dav

John and Barbara’s Biker Cabin (spot the Llama)

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.

IMG_20170802_102036

Panorama of a trail I followed off road in Yellowstone

dav

Morning Glory Pool. The colours are created by the gasses escaping from deep within the pool and the bacteria that live in it

dav

I’ve noticed that a lot of tourists don’t even look at what they are taking a photo of. This is Old Faithful, one of the largest geysers in the world.

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.

IMG_20170803_154230

Togwotee Pass, one of the passes I came over to get here

dig

Finally, a lone Grizzly Bear spotted on top of the Togwotee Pass. He was just munching away on some grass, not bothered by me at all

IMG_20170803_173336

The Pinnacles, a mountain range that has dominated my view over the past two days

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.

 

Pics from weeks 2 and 3

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:

America Trip – Week 1 photos

An assortment of photos from the first ten days. I may add captions later, but for now you can make them up yourself…

America Trip – Summer 2017

I’m here in North America on the bike for 8 weeks this summer, being ambitious and trying to see lots of friends and cycling up a lot of big hills. I’ll try and get a few updates here.

Here’s the route:

While at home…

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.

And finally, I uploaded 50 recordings I made during the trip to The Freesound Project. My favourites are:

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

 

Malawi and the end of the road

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.

Elephant and calf, Vwaza Marsh (50m from my tent!)

Elephant and calf, Vwaza Marsh (50m from my tent!)

Following that I spent 5 days up on the Nyika Plateau, a vast area of wild grassland, zebra, bushbuck, viewpoints and great biking trails!

Camping on the Nyika Plateau

Camping on the Nyika Plateau

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.

Campsite at a resevoir near Mazamba, Malawi

Campsite at a resevoir near Mazamba, Malawi

Entering the forest, Chikangawa

Entering the forest, Chikangawa

Crossing a 'bridge' on the way to the lake

Crossing a ‘bridge’ on the way to the lake

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.

Back at Bandawe Secondary School, 6 years later

Back at Bandawe Secondary School, 6 years later

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.

With Cuthbert in Ruarwe. You can see his house on top of the hill in the background

With Cuthbert in Ruarwe. You can see his house on top of the hill in the background

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Malawi and the end of the road (early draft)

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:

1

Saying goodbye to my second graders in Taebaek

9 months ago, 21st March:

Evening in Qingdao, China

Evening in Qingdao, China

8 months ago, 21st April:

Trekking in Northern Laos with some random South Dublin lads

Muang Ngoi, Laos:
Trekking in Northern Laos with some random South Dublin lads

7 months ago, 21st May:

DSCF1479_1400x1050

Ghandruk, Nepal:
Eileen and Suzi show how to walk down hills in the Himalayas: flap your hands

6 months ago, 21st June:

Morning on Chukhung-ri, our first 5000m+ peak in the Everest region

Chukhung, Nepal:
Morning on Chukhung-ri, our first 5000m+ peak in the Everest region

5 months ago, 21st July:

Warm up cycle with Yut and Frankie before hitting the Manali-Leh highway

Manali, India:
Warm up cycle with Yut and Frankie before hitting the Manali-Leh highway

4 months ago, 21st August:

Rajasthan, India:Bull in Jodhpur, the 'Blue City'

Rajasthan, India:
Bull in Jodhpur, the ‘Blue City’

3 months ago, 21st September:

DSCF3881_1400x1050

Chenek, Ethiopia:
Pumping water for the trek with Liam

2 months ago, 21st October:

Near Nairobi, Kenya:Cycling out of the Rift Valley

Near Nairobi, Kenya:
Cycling out of the Rift Valley

1 months ago, 21st November:

Songwe, Malawi:Return to Malawi, six years on

Songwe, Malawi:
Return to Malawi, six years on

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]

Slowly down the Great Rift Valley

I really didn’t expect to be freezing cold in Ethiopia, of all places. On my first few days in Addis Ababa the temperature went below 10 celsius and it rained constantly. I couldn’t handle it – I had to wear all my clothes, sleep in my hoodie and got a head cold. Don’t know how I’m going to survive back in Ireland!

I had chosen Addis as an entry point to Africa because of a cheap promotional flight from Mumbai with Saudi Arabian. $200 for the biggest jump of the trip so far – from the steamy monsoon of Mumbai to the chilly rains of Ethiopia. Otherwise I would have just taken a flight to Nairobi and headed to Malawi from there. But I’m really happy I decided to come to Ethiopia; the country is really beautiful in parts. I spent a month in the North of the country, wandering around some ancient Coptic churches, trekking up to the highest mountain in the country and then driving into the baking Danakil desert to the edge of very active volcanos.

Had a good time in Ethiopia

But first I had to learn a bit about the country. I spent the first couple of days visiting the excellent museums of Addis Ababa. Being from Ireland, I’m quite proud of my country’s ancient history going back to the megalithic tombs of Newgrange, but the age of history anywhere in Europe is nothing compared to here. The first exhibit of the first museum I went to was an original 3.5 million year old humanoid skull, found out in the deserts. From there the museum was full of discoveries charting the evolution of mankind, all found in Ethiopia.

A skull in the Ethnological Museum, Addis Ababa. Dated at around 3.5 million years old.

Then there were artefacts from the beginnings of Christianity (which came to Ethiopia in the 4th Century, 100 years before most of Europe) and older rock inscriptions that suggest the existence of a Judaic civilization long before that. Other museums were full of stories of the Italian imperial army’s  defeat to Ethiopia at the end of the 19th century (the only African army to defeat a European invading force) and pretty shocking collections from the time of the Derg, when Mengitsu armed local militias to kill thousands of dissenting civilians. In the Red Terror museum there are rooms full of skulls of the victims of the cold-war regime, toppled by a group of fighters that included the prime minister Meles Zenawi, who had just died two weeks before I arrived. The country was still in mourning, and every street is still lined with images of the ex-prime minister.

Fish for breakfast by Lake Awassa

After Addis I got a series of buses for 2 days through the fertile highlands filled with green and gold fields and round huts to Lalibela, an area full of 12th Century churches and tunnels hewn out of solid rock. I had a great day wandering between the churches – which are sunk into the rock rather than dug into a rock face – and getting lost in the labyrinthine tunnels.

St. Gyorgis Church, Lalibela. Cut out of solid rock 900 years ago.

The weirdest thing about Lalibela is that at any moment you could come face to face with a skeleton. Ethiopians believe that dying in the vicinity of a church grants you automatic entry to heaven, so many arrange to die in cells peppered around churches. As a result, walking down dark tunnels or entering the compound of a church, I often came face-to-face (or face- to-toe) with skeletons hundreds of years old packed in to small enclaves in the rock.

Some skeletons I found along the path

But the best part of Lalibela was just hanging around the cafes and restaurants. Ethiopia must have the best coffee in the world, and I became addicted to the stuff while I was there. For 10 cents you can have a cup of the best black coffee around or for 20 cents a thick, sweet macchiato. It’s central to the culture here and just walking down the street you can constantly smell it wafting around. I spent most of my time in Lalibela in coffee shops chatting to people. I hung around with the night receptionist from my hotel (BSc Pharmacy), the waiter their friend, a local technical school teacher (BA Education). Most young people in Ethiopia are very well educated but the opportunities for employment are pretty limited, so you meet them on buses and hanging around the towns with little to do.

Lunch, Ethiopian style

Next I took more buses North for one and a half days. Journeys in Ethiopia were very long but most of the road system was very good. Chinese contractors are building thousands of kilometres of roads around the country – on any given road construction site you can see a big group of Ethiopian construction workers with picks and shovels labouring away in the hot sun under the supervision of usually one Chinese engineer with a massive straw hat and smartphone. I arrived in Wukro, a one-horse town and entry point to the Tigray region, home to around 80 clifftop churches that date back as far as the 5th century.

The road to the Gheralta (with the worst bike in the world)

I rented a dodgy bike for two days and squeaked my way through the roasting hot countryside to the churches, climbing up the sheer cliffs using centuries-old hand and footholds to the little churches, perched on pretty stunning ledges and caves 100-200m above the plains. When the first Christian monks came here to convert the locals, they found that they got the most respect if they built their churches and monasteries on top of the rocky cliffs that jut out of the scenery. It worked, and the locals stopped worshipping sun and moon gods who lived on top of the hills and nowadays most of them are Coptic christians.

Climbing up to Abuna Yemata Guh, part of which includes walking along a 1m wide path with a large drop on the left.

While in the Gheralta area I stayed in Hawzen, a village infamous for a different reason. In the 80s the Tigray region was full of rebels trying to topple Mengitsu’s regime. In response he waged the ‘red terror’ campaign, killing thousands of people who lived in the rebellious region. One of the worst atrocities of the time was when Mengitsu sent in his Russian planes to bomb Hawzen on market day, when people from miles around converge on the village. Over 2,000 people died. Mengitsu fled Ethiopia when the cold war ended and his military support stopped, and now lives with Bob Mugabe in Zimbabwe. I gave the bike back and took trucks and buses along the very North of Ethiopia, up to the Sudanese border and back to Gonder to join up with some other travelers for a hike. It was market day as we traveled along the roads, which were full of hundreds of camels being driven to market accompanied by herders with AK47s on their backs. The Northern region is fairly volatile and is dotted with refugee camps full of Eritraen and Sudanese refugees. The Ethiopian government has offered all the refugees full citizenship but most of them haven’t taken up the offer, instead prefering to wait in the camps in the hope of gaining asylum to countries such as Sweden or Norway. They seem to have a decent enough quality of life; each camp I saw had a massive UN compound on the edge with WFP feeding tents, UNHCR tents and Medicen Sans Frontiers jeeps driving around.

Somewhere in Northern Ethiopia

We hiked for 7 days in the Simien Mountains to Ras Dashen (4500m), the highest mountain in Ethiopia and the 4th highest in Africa. It’s a beautiful wilderness area on the edge of the Northern tip of the Great Rift Valley with endemic species such as the Gelada Baboons that wander around, a special type of Ibex and the Ethiopian wolf.

Gelada Baboon

We hired a donkey, a scout with an AK47 (mandatory for any off-the-beaten-track travel in Ethiopia, it seemed) and a guide and set off into the hills. The hiking was fairly tough but the views were amazing – sheer drops off the edge of the path of up to 2,000m into the plains below. At night we camped in rented tents. I had rented a sleeping bag as well which ended up being a bad choice as it was infested with fleas. After 3 nights of scratching and feeling them hopping all over me I ditched the sleeping bag and wrapped myself in aluminium foil instead – less comfortable but just as warm! We crossed rivers in full flood that nearly washed some of us away, passed kids playing homemade guitars and donkey trains carrying WFP maize up into farms in the mountains.

Yotam, near the top of Ras Dashen

On the 6th day we reached the summit, up a sharp scramble on an exposed rock face. That evening back at camp we bought a sheep, butchered it and ate almost the whole thing (I accidentally had a chomp on a testicle before spitting it out).

Trekking along the escarpment towards Ras Dashen

A great thing about Ethiopia was the type of people I traveled with. Most people don’t think of Ethiopia as a travel destination, and the type of traveler that makes it here tend to be quite ‘intrepid’. India had been full of hippies and culture vultures, Nepal had its fair share of no-nonsense hikers and Southeast Asia was full of kids on their first trips abroad. But in Ethiopia I traveled with a mad mix of people – a Tanzanian historian trying to prove links between the Queen of Sheba and the West Arabian Old Jerusalem theory, 2 lawyers who had worked on Charles Taylor’s case at The Hague, a Japanese teenager who had bet his friends that he could travel from Cape Town to Egypt in 60 days by public transport, a Belgian who had worked with the Rwandan government for a year researching renewable energy possibilities and an Israeli student who was tracking down and interviewing Sudanese refugees who had been expelled from Israel earlier this year. Great bunch of travelers.

Hiking with friends at the Jinbar Waterfall.
Noam (Israel), Luke (Ireland), Liam (Ireland), Amelia (USA/UK), Yotam (Israel)

After the Simiens we took a bus journey from hell along an as-yet-unfinished road to Axum, capital of the Axumite kingdom that lasted from the 3rd Century BC to the 7th AD. At its height it was the only civilization apart from the Persians, Romans and Chinese minting their own coins, hosted the prophet Mohammed’s daughter and wife who fled from persecution in Saudi Arabia, and stole the Ark of the Covenant from Israel!

A tomb in Axum

We had a touristy day touring the tombs and visiting the huge stelaes, one of which had been stolen by Mussolini and shipped to Rome, where it stood outside the UN building until 2005, before the Italians finally agreed to fly it home to Ethiopia. The history and stories there would have been enough to fill a week, and the good food and great beer we consumed could have lasted us days, but after a day it was time to move on.

Stelae. Nobody really knows why these were built

The last trip in Ethiopia was to the Danakil Depression, a huge saline area over 100m below sea level along the border with Eritrea. We went there mainly to visit Erta Ale, one of only 6 continuously erupting volcanos in the world. It’s way out in the desert, 2 days drive from the nearest road. It’s also a very volatile region where Eritraen forces occasionally slip across the border to get up to mischief, and 5 tourists were killedon the volcano crater in January. The Afar people who live in the region are quite warlike, and kids threw stones at our jeeps as we drove past. Because of these things, we hired 2 jeeps for ourselves (8 tourists) and an extra jeep with 3 army guards and 3 local Afar scouts – all with guns.

Afar kid (photo by Jonathan)

This area was the stage for the Ethiopian – Eritrean War from 1998 – 2000, when both countries – already dependent on aid – spent 100s of millions of dollars on a pointless border war over an area of arid desert, causing around 100,000 deaths. Our little convoy drove through the arid desert, stopping off at tiny scruffy villages to pay homage to the local chiefs along the way. On the evening of the second day – after the heat of the day had disappated – we climbed up to the volcano crater over sharp lava contorted into weird and wonderful formations.

Pushing parts of the drive to Erta Ale

Standing on the edge of a volcano, looking into the red-hot lava that occasionally flared into 3-4m ‘fountains’, it was hard to believe that it wasn’t going to blow at any moment, entombing us all in lava. Apparently there are tunnels and passageways under the volcano that allows the hot lava to flow away from the crater, enabling a ‘circuit’ of boiling and cooling lava that prevents a major eruption. It was every boy’s dream, standing on the edge of the volcano throwing stones into the lava and playing with our guards’ AK47s. That night we slept on mattresses on the edge of the crater, in the light of the full moon and the glow of the lava, listening to the sound of the ebb and flow of the volcano underneath us. That day was also Dad’s 5th anniversary so it was extra special – I think he’d be pretty intrigued if he knew I was sitting on top of a volcano that night!

Looking into the crater of Erta Ale (photo by Yotam)

Erta Ale from 100 metres away from the edge. Hot stuff

We spent the next two days driving around the Dallol area that surrounds the volcanoes. It’s a huge saline area formed when the Red Sea flooded the Danikil Depression. Over thousands of years the water has evapourated and mixed with gases pushing up from the volcanic activity underneath the earth, creating otherwordly chimneys, poisonous pools, brittle terraces and deadly geysers. I got some good recordings of stinky sulphuric gas escaping from one of the psychadelic chimneys in the middle of a pool of water with a PH of around 3. Best to describe it more with a couple of photos:

Somewhere on the dark side of the moon

Walking on seas of cheese

Walking on seas of cheese

Detail from a bubble of sulphur coming up through the ground, Dallol

Detail from a bubble of sulphur coming up through the ground, Dallol

After the Dallol it was time to leave Ethiopia. It was nearing the end of September and I had only planned to spend 2 weeks there. So I took a series of buses back to Addis – relatively cool and refreshing after the 45 degree heat of the desert – and watched the All-Ireland final two weeks after it happened. It was great to watch Donegal win the Sam for the first time in 20 years, sitting in a hotel lobby stealing their fast wifi and drinking copious amounts of coffee to steady my nerves.

Time off from the road in Awassa, Southern Ethiopia

On from Addis it was a four day journey to Nairobi, down the Rift Valley through rich farmland and past lush lakeshores to the border at Moyale and then on through the Northern Kenyan wilderness, full of ostriches, dikdiks, zebras, giraffe and monkeys, dotted with nomadic villages and ubiquitous Chinese road builders toiling in the sweltering heat. I arrived into Nairobi at 5am at Eastleigh (nicknamed ‘Somaliland’), a dodgy area full of lads lurking in the shadows and angry looking graffiti. Luckily I was helped by some friendly ladies on their way to work who showed me the right busline into town from where I walked – covered in sand and mud from the bus journey – past all the smartly dressed people on their way to work in the CBD to my hostel where I stayed washing and recovering for two days. Kenya seemed so developed and efficient after Ethiopia. Nairobi was an exciting city to walk around – not the ‘Nairobbery’ I had been told to expect. Out in the countryside farmers used machinery and grew cash crops rather than the subsistence farming everywhere in Ethiopia (I saw 2 tractors in a month’s travel in Ethiopia; hundreds in Kenya).

Cycling in West Kenya’s forests

Everybody in Kenya speaks great English and were friendly and easy to talk to; in Ethiopia 90% of the conversations I had with people had contained requests for money. I was also pick-pocketed 4 times in Ethiopia, never felt unsafe in Kenya. In Ethiopia as I cycled in the countryside kids had thrown pebbles at me and shouted “YOU YOU GIVE ME MANEY”, in Kenya they waved as I cycled past and said “Hello, how are you?”. In Ethiopia every restaurant bill I received had some extra fake charge on that I then had to haggle about, in Kenya this didn’t exist: many things were easier. I spent three weeks in Kenya. An idea had been growing in my head since India to cycle down the Rift Valley to Malawi. So I bought a bike, a phone and a tent and started out from Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria (where I bought the bike).

Cycling with the Kenyan cycling team

Armed with a phone and fast internet I was more organized, and contacted cycling organizations and groups around the country before setting off. I also used Couchsurfing for the first time since Korea, and stayed with couchsurfers all over the place. First I visited Buffalo Bikes in Kisumu, a factory that produces extremely strong bikes suitable for African roads and paths. They sell all over Southern, Central and East Africa and also support communities with free bikes in some cases.

Pedestrian

From there I headed up to Kakamega, in the heart of sugar cane country. It was quite hilly around there and I found the speed of the slow-moving sugar cane tractors perfect for a bit of ‘surfing’. But I wasn’t the only one grabbing on to the back as they moved up the hill. Kids would appear from the fields and run along beside the trailer, grabbing desperately at the canes to get some free snacks. I have to admit I munched on some myself. Extra energy. I visited the Kakamega forest reserve the next day with Miles (an American couchsurfer and avid cyclist!), walking in to the jungle during the night to watch civet cats hunt and eating a buffet dinner in the nearby colonial-style lodge (the waiters wore dickie-bows). From there it was a long slog up to Iten, the home of long distance running in Kenya. I checked out a cycling club there – Kenyan Riders– who train professionally for big races (they placed 4th  in last week’s Tour de Rwanda 2012). I had tea and banana sandwiches with the lads and tried to keep up with them on their morning ride – 70km down the rift valley escarpment and back up a 15km hill to Kabsabet. I managed to keep up with them for all of 3km! My thick MTB wheels and inferior gears held me back, honest! But I caught up with them around 20km down the hill, where two of them had collided and caused a pile up. Teeth had been knocked out, backs bruised, but nothing serious. All in a day’s work.

50km/h down into the Rift Valley on a Monday morning

I stayed for a while by Lake Baringo in the Rift Valley. I camped for the first time 10 metres from the lake. It was an amazing location – hippos grazed in the lake and a rather large crocodile sunned himself around 20m from the door of my tent. The next day I cycled further down the valley along dry and hot roads to Lake Baringo, where I lazed in hot springs all afternoon, ordering cocktails from the bar. And they say travel in Africa is difficult…

Camping spot, Lake Naivasha

Over the next couple of days I made my way back to Nairobi. Cycling in the Rift Valley was very hot, but enjoyable. There were wild animals everywhere. I stopped off at a seasonal lake beside the road for a while and watched hundreds of turtles slouching about in the water as a herd of Zebra drank from the other side. Later I bought wild honey from a lady by the side of the road north of the equator and ate it with some chapatti a kid was selling from a stall south of the equator. The countryside became more lush as I approached Nakuru, and more commercial farms started springing up along the road. Long avenues of trees marked entrances to white-owned ranches and private conservancies.

Walking down the Hell’s Gate Gorge

I spent a couple of days by Lake Naivasha, cycling through Hell’s Gate gorge, created by a massive flow of water millennia ago when a huge lake burst and flowed down the rift valley. Nowadays it’s full of warthog, zebra, hot springs, buffalo, baboons, 5 geothermal power plants and giraffe. I went right down to the bottom of the gorge, where it gets so narrow I had to walk sideways to squeeze through the caverns and then raced a 12 year old English kid to the gates before they closed for the evening. After a week cavorting about Nairobi I was ready to head to Malawi. I had had to change my route. My original plan of cyclingdown to Lake Marigat (you might know it from the movie ‘The Constant Gardener’) and across into Tanzania, past Lake Natron, up to Ol’ Doinio Lengai (an active volcano) and around the edge of the Ngorogoro crater was too adventurous, according to the Tanzanian embassy who wouldn’t give me a visa to cross at that border point.

Road to The Mara

So I contented myself with a cycle to the Masai Mara and on to Lake Victoria. On my first day I made 156km, the biggest distance so far. I was helped massively by David Kinjah and his Safari Simbazclub. He’s a pro-rider in Nairobi i had made contact with and he’s training up a young team to be the next generation of world beaters. And they’re tough. Riding down the escarpment into the rift valley at 60kms an hour, we overtook trucks and safari jeeps and belted it around the bends. One of the kids took his eye off the road for a second and collided with the guy in front, doing a full flip over his handlebars onto the road. Undeterred, he got back on his bike and kept going. I said goodbye to them at the bottom of the escarpment and headed on to the Masai Mara, another day away on good roads.

Cycling with the Safari Simbaz. I’m second from the right. Also, that’s not my bike

I cycled through the Northern area of the Masai Mara, outside the park boundaries. But it was full of herds of buffalo, wilderbeest, gazelle and zebra, with cows being driven by Masai warriors winding past them.

Nice place to watch sunrise over the Masai Mara

It was a beautiful cycle through classic African scenery along a bumpy dirt road, and I camped that night on the escarpment overlooking the Mara. I woke up before dawn and watched the most amazing sunrise as herds of animals trotted around hundreds of metres below my rocky outcrop. I felt like an extra in ‘The Lion King’. From there I headed on to Migori and on Halloween crossed into Tanzania. Three days later I landed in Mwanza, on the shores of Lake Victoria. I had been camping out for a long time, and had been washed out one night when I chose a low camping spot that got flooded during the night (I woke up puzzled at how I had acquired a waterbed), so it felt amazing to be sleeping in a proper bed again and dry out all my stuff. I stayed with Feng Tingkai, one of the million or so Chinese entrepreneurs working in Africa.

With Tingkai on the shores of Lake Victoria, rain coming in off the lake

He’s developing a satellite TV company in Western Tanzania – Startimes – providing decent subscriptions at a fraction of the price of DSTV, the South African owned competitor. Mwanza was a nice town to relax in for a couple of days – crumbling colonial buildings, a busy port, a forgotten railway line that has found a new life as a fish market, and a really good Chinese restaurant with Sichuanese chefs! I biked out of Mwanza finally on the 6th November, well fed and rested. From there it was 5 days to Kigoma, along the southern shore of Lake Victoria past the gold mines at Geita and on through the bush, turning South near the Rwanda border at Biharamulo to Nakanyazi and on South along the Burundi border to Kigoma. I found the cycling relatively easy compared to India. It was relatively flat (if you call 3km gradual climbs followed by 3km gradual downhills flat) and the weather mostly behaved itself (apart from the occasional downpour, when I put on my ridiculous superman-style plastic poncho and pedalled on).

The road to Biharamulo. Plenty of sand for my chain to make friends with

Cycling in East Africa is pretty repetitive. The scenery doesn’t really change: forests occasionally give way to scrubby maize fields cut out of the bush fronted by a well-swept mud hut compound with 7 kids playing around it, a man sitting in the shade checking his mobile phone and his wife washing clothes, preparing dinner, feeding the baby and pounding maize all at one time. “Mzungu wa bisakelli, wayway?! Ah ah AAAH!” (“A white man on a bike, why why?! Ah ah aaah”). Then the villages: all exactly the same. Two rows of mud huts with tin rooves front on to the road. The population is ever fluctuating: people walk to the village to drink tea and catch up on gossip and buy a miniscule blue plastic bag of salt or a single cigarette before walking back into the bush to their farms. I usually took an hour’s lunch break and sat watching the world go by. A truck or bus would arrive in a cloud of dust and suddenly the village is a frenzy of activity – a month’s produce of onions, mangos, firewood, charcoal or potatoes is offered on outstretched hands or in tubs expertly balanced on the seller’s heads.

One of my cycle buddies in Tanza. 100kg, no problem bwana!

Every village in Africa has a speciality – one will produce very good red onions while 3km down the road you’ll find everyone selling good quality toothpicks. There’s no diversity – usually only 3 or 4 types of local produce will be for sale. The truck revs up needlessly for a couple of minutes and then hurtles off, and the village settles with the dust. A crazy man with matted hair and bloodshot eyes (every village has one) wanders around in filthy rags, shouting abuse at everyone. People shout abuse back, then chuckle and give him food and beer to placate him. In the restaurant on the side of the road I’m usually sweating at a too-small table still wearing my helmet and eating a delicious meal of rice or ugali and goat meat (boiled vegetables if I’m lucky). The waitresses always insist I wash my hands in filthy brown water with a bar of laundry soap, then fills up my teacup with too-sweet spicy tea.

“mazuuuuunguuuu”

The kids amble around in their starched school uniforms with their schoolbooks. It’s 11am but there’s no need to actually go to school – the teachers are all sweating in the shade of the mango tree in the street checking their phones and conducting business (their salary of $70 per month isn’t enough to support their own family so they spend their time trying to make money on the side). But it was enjoyable – Africa is a continent of cyclists so I was never really alone. I’d be accompanied for a couple of kilometers every couple of hours by lads carrying huge loads of charcoal from the bush to the next market town or passed out by cheering bike taxi men with a chortling African mama on the back, weighing in at around 90kgs. Everyone rides ‘Black Mambas’, single speed Indian-made bikes that last forever and every time i stop men crowd around my bike, marvelling at the gear system and disk brakes. The only bad experience I had in 3 weeks cycling was being slide tackled by one of the aforementioned ‘village crazy men’ in SW Kenya, who ran from a roadside bar and took out me and the bike with a premiership – worthy 3 metre slide tackle. We both landed in a heap in the dust, luckily uninjured. As I picked up my bike and straightened the handlebars he did push-ups in the street in front of me and then stood up bellowing and approached me again. I threw a pebble at him and he scarpered. The whole village fell about laughing.

Back to civilization at the end of a long day

I reached Kigoma – the end of the road on the shores of Lake Tanganyika – for the weekend after a long long ride, and waited there for a week to catch a ferry down the lake. I stayed with Insun, a Korean volunteer teaching physics at the local secondary school, teaching Taekwondo in his garden and cultivating a lush garden of crops for his very productive kitchen.

Scruffy Irish Cyclist Reaches Shores of Lake Tanganyika. Washes Properly For The First Time In Weeks.

We went camping by the lake that weekend and I swam actively for the first time since Thailand. We set up tent on the beach, barbequed up some tender goat and fended off the monkeys when they tried to steal the mangos and bananas. On Monday he headed off to work and I explored the town. Kigoma is the end of the road and railway from the coast and feels like it. In the distance across the lake were the mountains of Congo with permenant thunder clouds hanging over them. Fronting on to the lake is a busy port with a large ship docked loading equipment for a prospecting voyage around the lake. Other boats were shipping goods up to Burundi and at night the lake lit up with fishermen fishing using spotlights to attract the fish. I cycled around the sleepy town eating endless snacks and drinking fresh passion fruit and mango juice before catching the MV Liemba on the 14th November.

Sunset over the Congo

The MV Liembawas built in Germany in 1913 and sailed to Dar Es Salaam, where it was taken apart and transported by the newly built railway line across the country. By the time it arrived World War 1 had broken out and it was fitted with guns to fight the British and Belgians on the lake. It’s a long story but basically it was purposefully sunk and lay at the bottom of the lake for 9 years before being resurfaced and has chugged up and down it ever since.

On the roof of the Liemba, the Mahale Mountains in the distance

Nowadays it ferries people and goods up and down Tanganyika from Kigoma to Zambia and back. I got myself into a tiny 1st class cabin and tied the bike up on deck and for the next 3 days sailed down the lake. There was a great bar on the boat and good food, and I got tours of the engine room and could drop in to the bridge to hang out with Captain Titus Benjamin whenever I wanted. There were other travelers on the boat too – a German social worker, Austrian architect and English sculptor. We spent a lot of time up on the roof of the ship watching sunsets and sunrises among the drying piles of fish.

The Liemba, almost fully loaded

Every time we stopped at one of the little fishing villages a frenzy of canoes and boats would surround the boat and start trading with the passengers. Fish, pineapples, baskets, roofing wood were all thrown on and off the boat as prices were agreed or disagreed on. Passengers disembarking at the villages also had to jump off the Liemba onto little canoes to make their way back to the villages and I saw more than one baby slung unceremoniously over the side and down into a canoe. We passed some ultra-luxurious wilderness lodges along the way too: Mahale Mountains national park had a forest lodge Bill Gates hangs out in and further south near Kipili is a $2000-per-night island where Arnold Schwarzenegger apparently spent his holidays last year. This all contrasts ridiculously with the people making their way up and down the lake in their canoes, but such are the paradoxes of Africa.

Trading boats, Lake Tanganyika

After leaving the Liemba at Kasanga we stayed at Oscar’s place for 3 days. He had made his money trading fish with Congolese and bringing back gold to Tanzania in his boat and had beached it in Kasanga, built a bar and some chalets and set up a tourist camp. Great guy.

Chipwa village, hiking to Kalambo Falls

We rented his boat out and sped down incognito into Zambia for a day to climb to Kalambo Falls, the 2nd highest waterfall in Africa. It was a great day, but a bit uneasy when we almost ran out of fuel on the way back, being chased by a huge electric storm coming across the lake from Congo. And finally it was up to Mbeya from Kasanga. I had wanted to link up with a Dutch cyclist on his way to Cape Town from the North Cape of Norway, so put the bike on top of the bus instead of cycling (which would have taken 3-4 days). 18 hours after leaving Kasanga we met up in Mbeya. After a day’s rest sipping juices and fixing up the bike a bit in Mbeya (the gear cables had snapped, of all things) myself and Gijs set off for Malawi.

Gijs cycling along Lake Malawi. He had just passed his 15,000km mark, I had just passed my 1,500km mark! We celebrated with beers on the beach. http://www.capetocape2012.com/

He’s riding an electric bike, which gives a little boost when the batteries are plugged in. He’s also got narrow tyres and is much fitter than me. But he’s carrying 70kgs and I only have around 25 so we even out in most things. We’ve tried swapping bikes and we still can keep up with each other.

Parting ways by the lake

We made it across the Malawi border in one day from Mbeya, up through pretty tea and coffee plantations, camping in a chief’s compound on the Malawi side. On the second day we cruised along the lake, looking out at the beautiful Lake of Stars I last saw 6 years ago. We parted ways in Chitimba, he to Mzuzu and myself up to my current position at a permaculture farm near Livingstonia.I’ve been here 3 days swimming in the nearby waterfalls, hiking up to see the 104 year old hydroelectric system on the nearby hill, having a barbeque and helping out a bit in the gardens. Auke – a Congolese-Belgian who has been here since 1995 – is an avid cyclist and i’ve already agreed to sell him the bike after I finish. He’s given me lots of ideas of places in Malawi to cycle, and I’m already ready to head off again into the Malawian bush.

It’s good to be back.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Back in Africa

I haven’t updated this blog in too long. Since India, i’ve spent a month in Northern Ethiopia, then a week traveling down to Nairobi by buses and 10 days or so cycling around Kenya.

I will blog about all this in great detail come late November.

As of now, I’m in Nairobi about to leave on a long cycle to Malawi through Western Tanzania. The route will take me past (but not ‘through’) the Maasai Mara lands and Lake Victoria in Kenya, the Serengeti and Burundi border in NW Tanzania, then a 3 day sail down Lake Tanganyika on the ‘MV Liemba’, a 99-year-old German gunboat that still plies the route twice monthly and finally through the SW Tanzanian highlands to the Malawi border, where I hope to rest for a while.

I won’t be updating the blog until then, but for now here’s a map of the proposed route:

Route plan:

27th October: Nairobi to Narok (144km): couchsurfing

28th October: A day in Narok: couchsurfing

29th October: Narok to Oloololo (113km): camping

30th October: Oloololo to Migori (79km): couchsurfing

31st October: Migori to Musoma [Tanzania] (125km): couchsurfing

1st November: A day in Musoma: couchsurfing

2nd November: Musoma – Serengeti Stopover Camp (87km): camping

3rd November: Serengeti Stopover Camp – Mwanza (135km): couchsurfing

4th November: A day in Mwanza: couchsurfing

5th November: Another day in Mwanza: couchsurfing

6th November: Mwanza to Kasama (93km): camping

7th November: Kasama to Musasa (130km): camping

8th November: Musasa to Kakonko (88km): camping

9th November: Kakonko to bush camp (115km): camping

10th November: bush camp to Kigoma (144km): couchsurfing

11th November – 14th November: 4 days in Kigoma: couchsurfing

14th November – 16th November: 3 days on MV Liemba ferry

16th November: Kasanga port: hotel/camping

17th November: Kasanga to Mtai (64km): camping

18th November: Mtai to Laela (100km): camping

19th November: Laela to Tunduma (120km): camping

20th November: Tunduma to Mbeya (110km): hotel/camping

21st November: Mbeya to Tukuyu (70km): camping

22nd November: Tukuyu to Katumbi [Malawi] (70km): camping

23rd November: Katumbi to Chitimba (115km): camping

… and from there i’ll see what happens.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,