Do you believe in love at first sight? I do, because I have experienced it but if I had any doubts they would have been dispelled the moment I crossed into Angola.
I was nervous, I aways am when entering a new country but this time it had added dimensions – I was entering West Africa and a less beaten track for cyclists than the Cairo to Cape Town East African route. Other travellers talked about how much more difficult it was to travel the West Coast and although I had already been in Africa for 14 months I couldn’t stop my nerves.
The unknown versus the familiar, that is what is all about. The unknown equals fear and apprehension however, as soon as I crossed the border into Angola what I encountered was familiarity and with it I instantly relaxed. Portugal, the old colonial power, had left behind a language that I could understand and communicate with relatively well and foodstuffs that you find in Spanish shops: chorizo, membrillo (quinze jelly), bacalao (dry salt cod) and what I call proper bread which in England call French sticks, it couldn’t get any better.
During their 400 years of occupation, the Portuguese mixed with the local population in a way that I had not seen colonisers do in the rest of Africa and as a result Angola is truly a rainbow nation. They even have names for the different racial combinations – the child of a black person and a white person is a mulato, the child of a mulato with a mulato is also a mulato, the child of a mulato and a white person a chibito and the child of a mulato and a black person is a cafuso. In the way people related to me, my whiteness seemed to be less of an issue here and that also made an enormous difference as to how I felt.
As I cycled along the South of Angola, evidence of the 25 years war the country suffered after independence was everywhere. A war that is still very much in people’s minds. The owner of one guesthouse told me about the soldiers driving down the road in front of us, the sound of the bombs as they dropped and the day she was given the news of the death of her husband. She had to raise her children on her own as a seamstress until she was able to open the humble establishment where I was staying. She kept on repeating that peace is precious and how she wakes up every morning thankful for yet another peaceful day. I was humbled by her strength.
My landlady’s son, like hundreds of other Angolans, was educated in Cuba. Angola still remembers the help received by this country during and after the war with memorials and paintings.
The war is still present not only in Angolan minds. I was moved to receive an unexpected message from one of my South African followers that read:
“36 years ago (December 1983) I crossed that border into Angola as a terrified 19 year old going to fight an illegitimate war against an “enemy” that I didn’t know. I hope one day to cross that border again under different circumstances. If you go through Cahama please pray a blessing over it for me. You are a very courageous lady”
I happened to spend the night in Cahama in A Catholic Mission run by some Mexican priests with whom I spent a wonderful morning. Alejandro, one of the priests, took me to a neighbourhood where a rusting tank sat next to a group of newly built houses and there he said the blessing. Be stood there, silent for a while and my heart ached for that frightened 19 year old.
Catholic Missions became the places I sought to spend the night and they always received me with open arms. In one such mission, I woke up to the sound of singing, the sun was rising behind the papaya trees and the palm trees. The ceremony finished as I was drinking my coffee and the girls living at the nunnery were gathering wood to cook their breakfast. I too began to prepare mine but the difference couldn’t be more stark, whilst I was having a nutritious meal of eggs, cereals and an orange they were stirring with a stick the maiz meal which constituted their diet. My privilege forever present.
Staying at the Missions and talking to the men and women living there I learnt about the terrible drought in the area. On the bike, I had seen shepperds walking North with their herds, gourds with water and cloth bundles with their meagre posesions hanging of the sticks on their shoulders. What I didn’t know was the escale of the migration until I heard on the news that people with tens of thousands of animals were on the move in the search of water and food. Compared to Namibia, Angola seemed very green and I thought that there was a lot of water but maybe this was just an ilusion.
What was not an ilusion were the hundreds of baobabs I saw in the country. How I love baobabs!! I love everything about them and every now and again I had to stop to tell them in a loud voice “you are beautiful”. For the first time I saw the fruit of the baobab being sold by the side of the road, the locals call it mucua and make drinks and ice cream with it.
Neiher was an ilusion the gentleness of everyone I meet on the road and the warmth of their smiles. Without fail, they responded to my greetings and called me amiga. I was totally captivated by Angola.
And like someone in love, I delighted in what had become familiar about Angola – the baobabs, the greetings of the people I met, the daily purchase of bread and also in the new discoveries – the trip to Tundavala with new friends, the semba dance class I went to with my Benguela landlady, the days by the sea, the extraordinary landscapes, the encounters with other travellers, the stories I heard from expats like Allan and Julia founders of the Development Workshop who have lived here for a long time and care about the country.
And like someone in love I had moments of dissatisfaction too. The crossing of the mouth of the Congo river to reach the province of Cabinda was challenging as it ended up with me having to be separated from my trusty bike but once in Cabinda, when a little boy came running excitedly to my tent to show me his puppy love was all I felt.
Tears of pain filled my eyes, I was standing with the bike between my legs and couldn’t move, my whole right leg was gripped by a massive cramp from the groin to the toes and was as stiff as a plank of wood and extremely painful.
It was my first day cycling on Namibia’s gravel roads and I was feeling confident, after all I had experienced gruelling physical exertion in deserts before. In 2013, I had participated in the Atacama Desert ultra, part of a series run by an organisation called 4 Deserts. I liked it so much than in 2015 I convinced my youngest daughter Amaya to join me in their Gobi race. In both ocassions we completed the race. And anyway, hadn’t I also cycled successfully through Sudan and Egypt at the beginning of this trip? Of course I knew about deserts!
There is only one word to describe my attitude, arrogance and the Namib, the oldest desert on earth, was teaching me a lesson and putting me in my place.
Gingerly, as the cramp slightly loosened its grip, I reached for the sachet of electrolites I carry for emergencies, mixed its content with water and slowly drank the solution. It worked and soon I was on my way again but had to stop regularly as soon as I felt my muscles wanting to tighten again.
Water is heavy and I’m not strong enough to carry a lot. I needed a strategy and I needed it fast. In Namibia distances between villages are huge and there is nothing but desert around you. I couldn’t rely on settlements for water but luckily I knew that the area I would be riding through was frequented by tourists in their 4x4s always carrying a lot of water. I would stop cars as soon as one of my bottles was empty and ask for some. I soon found out that often I didn’t need to stop the cars because they would stop without me asking and offer me precious water. Once more I was being the receiver of human generosity.
I loved the emptiness of Namibia. I loved its open landscapes and sitting outside my tent at night watching its night skies with millions of stars and watching dawn drinking coffee in my tent, the light from the East dying the clouds with beautiful shades of orange whilst the stars disappeared. I loved listening in solitude to the deafening silence around me.
I never knew the desert could have so many faces. I went pass areas where scattered black rocks shone like jewels in the hot sand, areas that had been carved by water into deep canyons, areas where nothing grew and yet others where the desert showed a kinder side and small shrubs, trees and even flowers broke its endless sandy face.
Deep Fish River Canyon
Each day was full of wonder but like a crazy maker, the Namib would never let me relax or lower my guard. The gravel roads seemed manageable only to become hellish a few kilometres later, the gentle brise would become a strong head wind making progress difficult.
The dryness and the wind peeled my lips a million times. I would feel the cracked loose skin and try to resist the temptation to pull it because I knew it would bleed but my tongue instinctively went there, feeling the loose leathery skin and the new softer one underneath that no doubt would become leathery a few days later.
Yet, people had chosen to make this harsh environment their home, like Leslie, a farmer who told me how he was the 4th generation in the farm, he told me about his ancestor, a very poor Scott crossing the world for a better life. He also told me how for the past 6 years there hadn’t been enough rainfall to sustain his animals and how farmers were surviving thanks to government subsidies.
It was, Leslie who advised me never to set my tent underneath trees with the big nests of weaver bird colonies because the snakes enter the nests to get to the eggs and chicks and could fall on top of the tent. He also told me not to worry about the leopards roaming in the rocky mountains because unless they are injured they’re not dangerous but as a precaution I always lit a fire if I was camping in leopard environment.
I said goodbye to Leslie hoping to make it to the famous dunes of Sossusvlei now that I showed respect to the Namib but soon it showed me who was in charge, the road worsen and it proved to be too much for me.
The loose sand and gravel made it impossible for me to pedal. I came off the bike twice in the lose surface and decided to get off the bike and push. I thought I would have to push all the way to where I was going to spend the night when a car stopped and offered me a lift. I felt the tag of war within me, one side wanted to continue cycling but the other knew that I had reached the limit of what I was physically capable of doing. The sensible side won but there was sadness in the acceptance that my body is not as strong as once was. Later on that week when, for a second time, a family travelling on a bus offered me a lift in a particularly difficult section, the decision was easier, I didn’t hesitate to accept. Before I left Namibia I had to accept ‘defeat’ for a third time.
There is always a silver lining and getting these lifts, gave me the the opportunity to spend time with some generous, interesting people. I knew I would see Lalie and Jan (my first saviours) again soon. After several nights in the desert, I arrived at their home town, Walvis Bay. The moment they opened the door of their home I was hit by warmth.
Thanks to them I was able to visit the Valley of the Moon and driving on the dry bed of the Swakop River, reach a remote corner where the Welwitschia Mirabilis, a gift from the desert, grows. These fascinating plants are living fossils, some of them over 1000 years old.
I bid my farewell to the family to cycle the last section of Namibia that was between me and Angola. I was to follow some of the Skeleton Coast before turning back inland. The Skeleton Coast gets its name from the more than 1000 shipwrecks littering the coast.
I would be leaving the Namib but I suspected the rest of Namibia wasn’t going to be any easier. My prediction was correct, more headwind, poor gravel roads and now hundreds of small flies intent in getting into my eyes, nose and ears made me grunt with frustration.
I had stocked up with provisions because I knew shops in this section would be few and far between and once more I would have to rely on passers by for water and camp in the wild.
Further North the tourist attraction of the rock engravings of Twyfontein meant there were some comfortable campsites and even further North I would be entering more populated areas. I told myself that life was going to get easier.
And it did, I visited the rock engravings and stayed in comfortable campsites treating myself to a nicely cooked meal round a table with other campers. I stayed at a health centre listening to Amelia, the health care worker in charge of the HIV/AIDS programme, telling me stories of how she walks Kms and Kms to spread the prevention message, offer tests and make sure people take the medication.
I let down my guard but Namibia was ready to strike again. As I left a veterinary checkpoint where I had spent the night all seemed well until the wind became so strong that it knocked me off the bike and even pushing was a struggle. It was then when the third ‘rescue’ took place. A group of South Africans took me under their wing, they gave me a lift, fed and watered me and the following day decided to give me a mother’s day present and take me to the top of the pass ahead. The ride was beautiful, green and hilly. Bryan refused to leave me in ‘such a desolate place’ and ended up taking me to the next town where the tarred road started. I was exhausted, had had enough of gravel roads and desperately needed a rest somewhere comfortable. Bryan giving me a lift was one of the best mother’s day present I have ever had!
A few more days and I would be crossing into Angola. The Namib desert and Namibia had presented me with challenges nearly every step of the way, they made me work hard, at times feeling at the limit of my physical capability but they were generous too and filled me with inmense rewards – experiencing the beauty and solitude of the desert and the incredible skies at night, learning acceptance and meeting wonderful people.
Slowly, I put my parents weeding ring back on my finger, my mother had fused my father’s to hers when he died and I had worn it since she passed away in 2003. Three months earlier, as I entered South Africa I had taken it off alarmed by the comments about crime in the country. The ring is one of my most precious posesions and I would be devastated if I lost it.
Fuelled by conversations with South Africans I met along the way, safety was upper most in my mind. The response to a post in The Solo Female Traveller Network, a Facebook forum for women travelling on their own was not reassuring either. I had posted to find out about the experiences from other like minded, independent women. My post received more than 120 comments, the overwhelming majority pleading for me not to cycle in South Africa. With responses like “Stay away” – “Please don’t do it, it’s not safe here. Sadly you’ll be risking getting raped and killed” – “I wouldn’t do it” – Please don’t do it if you value your life”, it was time to find a way that felt safe to me to still cross the country, get to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa, and back out into Namibia to begin my way back home.
Where to spend the night each day was a start. In other countries I never quite knew where I would end up, improvising as I went along but in South Africa I would be more cautious and very clear where I would be putting my head down at the end of the day. I also planned to stay with a Warmshowers host soon after entering the country, hoping that cyclists with local knowledge would help me with a safe route through. Armed with a plan and ringless I crossed the border.
Everything around me reinforced the image of an unsafe country. Properties were surrounded by electrical fences and threatening signs like “trespassers make sure you have ID on you so we can contact your next of kin” or “Is there life after death? Make my day, come in and find out” (this one had the picture of a very fierce dog). Threats and fear oozing out from every corner. I had never been in a place like this before. I wondered what it would be like living with these feelings every day of your life?
The cycling community took me under their wing and followed me every step of the way. Messages were posted in social media and family and friends were contacted with requests for a bed for the night and the response was overwhelming. I experienced the most amazing warmth and generous hospitality everywhere I went. Even at campsites, once the owners heard about my trip they would let me stay for free or at a very reduced price. Soon, I was able to relax, let go of anxiety and really enjoy my daily rides though this incredible country.
I crossed Free State’s mining country, mine shafts littering the landscape. Some of these mines are the deepest on earth. Agoraphobia filled me when, by the side of the road, a miner told me how five days a week, he walks into a cage with his work colleagues and packed like sardines begins the descent to the guts of the earth. A second cage, two chair lifts and a 20 minute walk take him more than 3,500 mt deep where he begins his 11 hour shift digging for gold. With a smile, the miner told me about the unbearable heat and noise he experienced down there and how by now he is used to it. Wishing me safe travels he walked towards the township that is his home.
Free State is home to huge thunderstorms in summer. For days I’d been listening to the loud rumble of thunder. One early afternoon, I didn’t pay any particular attention to the dark skies looming and to the sound of thunder, I had been there before and the storms had passed me by. This time it was not to be, the wind picked up fast and was so strong that nearly threw me off the road, hail stones the size of big marbles bounced off the tarmac, I could see lightening falling all around me and the sound of thunder was deafening. I lay down my bike on the ground and moved away from it, crouching I made myself into a ball to wait for the storm to pass whilst the hail was pelting me mercilessly.
My route was taking me to Lesotho, the Mountain Kingdom of Africa. As I’d been going through Africa several people had mentioned the Sani Pass as something challenging and not to be missed. It is my ‘policy’ that if the name of a place comes up more than three times I’ll try to get there. Sani Pass was one of those places and although Lesotho wasn’t part of my original plan it didn’t matter, now it was.
What was even better was that I would have company to the border. Alwyn and Werner would cycle with me and Leonie and Marietje would drive to take them and the bikes back home. Leonie and Alwyn had given me a roof a few days earlier and Alwyn had serviced my bike including the rear hub, given me lots of information and a pepper spray. Werner having cycled Sani Pass told me about places to stay.
After a day of laughter and comradery they left me at Camelroc, a campsite/lodge right on the border. I was delighted to hear that they had decided to cycle Sani Pass the following weekend. They would be doing in three days what would take me a week to cycle. Now I had a fixed plan: beers in the highest pub in Africa with my new friends.
Lesotho was challenging and wonderful. It rekindled my deep love of mountains, a feeling so strong that brought tears to my eyes. I will never ever tire of looking at those beautiful giants, listening to their sounds and to their silence, watching light and shadows change their look, being in them and part of them, like those humans that millenia ago had left their mark behind.
Maybe those humans had a better quality of life than current Mosothos (person from Lesotho). With more than half of the population living below the poverty line and the second highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the world, estimated at 24% of the population I saw terrible poverty as I cycled along.
With no jobs available in the country, men used to go to work in the South African gold mines but with mines closing down, gold prices falling and immigration policies becoming tighter, less are able to do so. With fewer jobs around men will sit for months or years waiting for work in a stone village near the Letseng mine. The mine at 3,100 metres it is the world’s highest diamond mine and is 70% owned by Gem Diamonds Ltd with headquarters in London. I just wondered how much of the cash stays, in Lesotho and helps its desperate people.
In the higher ground shepperds wrapped in blankets looking after cashmere goats stopped in their tracks to look at me in amazement as I went by. With gradients of 1:6 (17%) they had plenty of time to examine me and my bike as I painfully pushed my way up he steepest of hills.
Just before a curve on the road, I saw the dreaded sign of 1:6 and at the same time an acrid smell hit me. I couldn’t identify were it was coming from. I had nearly reached him when I saw the shepperd sitting very still on a rock, covered in his grimmy grey blanket he was undistinguishable from the stone he was sitting on. I greeted him and he responded in what seemed a friendly manner. I pushed the bike up the steep slope and he too began to walk up the hill. I stopped, he overtook me and then stopped and it was my turn to overtake him. This leapfrogging game went on for over one hour. I was getting more and more uncomfortable. Any time he was behind I was wildly zig zagging across the road to check on his position. It was a very quiet road and I hadn’t seen a car for hours but as I was getting close to the highest point I knew that as soon as the downhill started I would get away from him so I pressed on. Once more I stopped to rest and this time I got the pepper spray out. He overtook me, his grimmy grey blanket was open and he was sporting a huge erection. Walking in a funny way, he was thumping his penis with his thigh at each step, looking ahead like a zombie. Then, he came off the road and sat in a rock.
What was I to do? I couldn’t possibly stay there forever. With the spray at the ready I continued to climb. I was aware that he knew these mountains like the palm of his hand and could approach me from any direction. I resorted to walking right in the middle of the road to give myself the best chance to react should he come. He didn’t.
It was just wonderful to enter the safety of the Sani Pass Lodge where I could relax and wait for my friends. When they came there were celebrations all around and plenty of beer!
Once more we had to say goodbye. Alwyn and Werner were going down Sani Pass to the South African border, then heroically climb back up again and go home. I would be leaving Lesotho to go west towards the Wild Coast and from there to Port Elisabeth where I would be meeting my dearest friends Kath and Mariaje and with them cycle on to Cape Town.
I had cycled 10,000 km since I last saw the sea at Hurghada in Egypt and it was a wonderful feeling to look at this huge expand of blue and listen to the sound of the waves crushing on the shore.
The road follows the coastline and although enormous dunes prevent you from seeing the sea, you can’t miss feeling it’s powerful presence. The road is a constant roller coaster down at each river mouth – and there are many- and up again. Hopping from seaside town to seaside town and taking it easy because I had plenty of time before the arrival of my friends I arrived at Port Elisabeth.
Port Elizabeth closed my first chapter in South Africa. I had cycled nearly 1500 km to get from the Botswana border and had enjoyed the most wonderful South African hospitality.
At long last Mariaje arrived and four days later Kath landed. It was a wonderful reunion full of smiles and energy. Part two was about to begin.
Merryl, the warmshowers host with whom I’d stayed until my friends arrived joined us for the first few days. It was great to have local knowledge and thanks to her we were able to find and cross the Vans Stadens Gorge via the highest narrow gauge railway bridge in the world taking the back route to Jeffreys Bay.
After three days Merryl left and it was the three of us. On our very first day we were reminded of the deep divisions running through South Africa when we stopped at the village where we were hoping to spend the night. Neat rows of single storey houses were bathed in the golden light of the evening and children were playing in the sandy streets. We asked some men in a car for directions to the guesthouse we’d seen in Google maps only to be told there was no guesthouse in the place and that we should go a few kilometres down the road to a farm shop “where white people go” We didn’t know how to reply and pushed on.
Time flew by when I was with them. Each day we cycled, laughed, cooked, stretched, laughed again, talked, drank wine, shared thoughts, hugged, stood in awe looking at the beauty around us, swam…
Cape Agulhas was a huge landmark for me. It was the point at which I turned around to go back home and I can’t think of two nicer women to reach it with.
At Cape Agulhas the Indian ocean and the Atlantic ocean meet and I was ecstatic and moved. Looking at the inmensity of the ocean, knowing there was nothing between me and Antarctica, being with two friends I love deeply stirred in me feelings difficult to explain. As a way of celebration, wine was drank as the sun was setting.
We had some stunning rides between Cape Agulhas and Cape Town. Kath and Mariaje with their fresh eyes helped me appreciate even more the beauty of our surroundings. When I’m on the road for a long time it gets a point when I get what I call ‘beauty saturation’, a point when the extraordinary becomes ordinary, when a stunning sunset becomes ‘just another sunset’. Seeing things through my friends eyes was like pressing the restart button in your computer.
More celebrations were had in Stellenbosch and Cape Town and then Kath left. Mariaje stayed to celebrate my 61st birthday with me. It would be my fourth on the road, I’d welcomed my 58th in Armenia, 59th in Vietnam and 60th in Egypt. With her eyes still half opened, Mariaje gave me the best of birthday presents, she wished me “Zorionak” (happy birthday in Basque) and gave me a big hug and a kiss.
It was Mariajes’s last day and we made the best of it. We climbed Table Mountain in the mist, walked for hours in Cape Town and went for dinner.
Bereft, I was on my own again to begin my third and last chapter in South Africa. I didn’t have time to dwell on my feelings though, with only 13 days left on my visa and over 800 km left to get to the border I had to get on with it.
I left Cape Town behind with Table Mountain always in the background and four days later I turned my back on the sea once more. I would not see it again until Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. The greenery slowly disappeared to give way to a pretty desertic landscape with a few scattered farms and ‘towns’ where I spent the night.
I got to the border with one day to spare and entered the safety of Namibia where I could put my parents ring back on. After nearly 2000 km on the saddle, I had survived South Africa unharmed.
I let out a big sigh, the strong wind had changed direction again and I was pedalling furiously against it, progressing very slowly and getting very tired. Head wind saps my energy and I need to stop fairly regularly to recoup my strength and be able to keep going.
No one had mentioned the wind when talking about Botswana. I had read about the long distances, about having to sleep in the enclosure of telephone masts to be safe from the wild life which is everywhere in the country but wind, wind wasn’t in my consciousness and here I was battling against it.
It was true about the wildlife though, I experienced it on my first day in the country from the safety of a boat in Chobe National Park. Hundreds of birds, a matriarch leading a herd of elephants by the waterside, baboons playing, buffaloes, crocodiles… We got very close to some huge crocodiles feeding on an elephant carcass but had to move on quickly as the stench of the roting flesh was unbearable, making us gag.
From Chobe I decided to have a brief foray into Namibia where I began to experience the heat, the wind and the long distances without water. In spite of that, I loved the Caprivi Strip, the trees there have so many different shapes, heights and colours. The trees and the interesting traffic signs provided amusement to the otherwise flat landscape.
I left the Caprivi Strip at Divundu, still in Namibia, to follow the Okavango River to the Okavango Delta. The Okavango Delta is a swampy inland delta formed where the Okavango River reaches a tectonic trough in the Kalahari. All the water reaching the delta is evaporated and does not flow into any sea or ocean.
The Delta is in Botswana and as I re entered the country, the wind became less predictable, constantly changing direction, but the flatness of the terrain allowed me to get a rhythm, the rhythm of the road: I cycled for about 30 Km, had second breakfast; cycled another 30 Km, was hungry again and had lunch, usually leftovers from whatever I had cooked the night before; kept going for a bit longer and by about 80 Km I began to get tired, pushed on for a while looking for a safe place to stay the night and as soon as I found one stopped.
There was something different about Botswana. People didn’t ask me for money as I passed by, a first after months of constant demands. Only then, by the absence of these demands, I realised how stressful it had been at times. How in other countries I had avoided stopping by the side of road anytime I saw people because I didn’t want to get asked for money, food, water, my bike…
Botswana is one of the less populated countries in Africa and it is their Government’s policy to give everyone a piece of land where to build their house, keep cattle or open a business. The villages in Botswana looked very tidy, round or square huts with grass roofs. Often hidden in the bush they had signs to indicate their location and huge water tanks with drinking water. Life felt easier than in other countries I’d cycled through. Maybe that’s why the attitude of the people was different.
It was great to be able to find drinking water anywhere there were people but with temperatures over 40 Celsius, the water got warm really quickly in my bottles. I was drinking more than 6 litres a day and the water wasn’t quenching my thirst, I drank and drank but my mouth and throat were always dry and my tongue stuck to my palate, I had to find a solution. Asier suggested wrapping my water bottles in wet cloths and it worked, the water stayed cool for longer, what a relief!
I met with Asier in Maun, the heart of the Okavango Delta. On the road you get close to people really quickly and by now Asier was my pal. We had met for the first time in Nakuru in Kenya and our paths crossed again in Malawi and in Zambia where agreed to meet in Maun, cook a Spanish omelette, have some beers and explore the delta together.
The Delta was everything it promised to be. We drove through deep sand to get to a campsite in the middle of the Moremi Game Reserve. The BaTawana people concerned by the rise of hunting in the Okavango Delta declared the area a Game Reserve in 1963. It was the first wildlife sanctuary to be created by an African tribe in their own area and now wildlife thrives in the Reserve.
We were setting up the tents when some elephants decided to walk through our pitch and we had to make a run for the vehicle for safety. A whole family of elephants went by, two babies with fuzzy downy hair still covering their heads were playing with one another in the middle of the herd, their small trunks going all over the place. I love how uncoordinated they look, how funny.
It was late in the evening when we heard a conmotion amongst the elephants and it was only in the morning that other campers told us there had been lions in the campsite trying to hunt the baby elephants and the adults had scared them away. The lions must have been very close to us because before going to sleep Asier had told me how he had seen some yellow eyes reflecting back the light of his torch when he was walking to the tent. In the light of the morning I thought how in the middle of the night I had gone behind the tent to relief myself and shivers run down my spine.
The lions were still very close to the campsite in the morning and we managed to get very close to one of them. He didn’t seemed to be bothered by us, he just sat there watching us watch him and in his own time, stood up, turned his back on us and walked away.
It was not only the elephants that had new babies. We saw a newborn wilder beast, the umbilical cord still hanging out of his mother who hadn’t yet expelled the placenta, baby jirafes, baby impala. All the animals giving birth just before the rains when food would be plentiful. I just hoped the rains would arrive in time because throughout my months in Africa, the pattern of the rains seemed to be broken, raining when it should’ve stopped and having dry weather when it should be raining. Climate change exposing its ugly face.
The lack of rain would also have a huge impact on the communities living in the delta. We had a chance to go into its heart when we took a mokoro trip through its narrow canals. The mokoros are the traditional canoes used in the Okavango Delta. They are propelled forward by standing in the stern and pushing with a long pole. The traditional mokoros were made by digging out the trunk of a tree but now they are made of fiber glass. Dreamer, our mokoro punter, still had one of the traditional ones in his village right in the middle of the Delta.
We silently moved through the water keeping an eye for hippos which are known to position themselves under the mokoros and pushed them up to overturn them. We didn’t see any but we glided pass beautiful water lilies and water birds.
After these wonderful times together, Asier and I said goodby at a cross roads hoping to meet again in Namibia in 2019, little did we know that we would meet again briefly once more before leaving Botswana.
There was, one more thing I wanted to do before leaving Botswana, I wanted to pay a visit to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in the hope to see the last of the Big Five left for me to see.
Cycling long hot days in relentless wind I arrived at the Sanctuary and went on the search of rhinoceros with one of the sanctuary’s guides. It didn’t take long before we found them by a small pond – a huge bull, two females and two younger males.
The bull came really close to the hide where we were, he was huge and covered in mud. He went over to a tree to sharpen his horn. I was speechless and very moved. The whole scene was bathed in a beautiful light: impala coming for a drink, warthogs wallowing in the mud whilst the rhinos relaxed by the water. I don’t know how long I spent watching these incredible animals in silence.
For a while I’d been trying to decide where to enter South Africa, should I go to Zimbabwe or enter via Botswana? I met so many South Africans who told me to avoid the Zimbabwe border that in the end I’d decided to enter through a small border near Gabarone, the capital of Botswana. At the Rhino Sanctuary I met yet more South African campers who told me I had made the right decision AND I was to avoid Pretoria and Johannesburg at all costs!
I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn getting closer and closer to South Africa, the southernmost country on this trip. The plan was to spend New Year’s eve with Lucy and Liz, a mother and daughter pair I had met in a campsite 300 km from the border.
It was really nice to know I’d meet some friendly faces soon after going into South Africa because now it was not the wind or the heat that worried me. I was worried about being hurt.
Their bodies were bullet shaped and when they landed they folded their wings on top of their abdomen, one wing on top of the other so that the shape remained. They buzzed manically around our heads looking for a chance to land on us and bite. Riding became quite dangerous as, in a panic, our hands would leave the handlebars to stop them getting to us. We were totally surrounded by them and even though it was very hot we had to resort to head nets. Tse tse flies were everywhere in the Old Petauke Road.
Karen was coming from the UK to cycle with me in Zambia and in spite of warnings from the locals that the many elephants in the area made it a dangerous place to go, we had decided to ride this very remote dirt road that follows the Luangwa River, instead of taking the main road to Lusaka.
The only reason that would stop us from taking this route would be the rain, as in the wet the road would be impassable. At one point it was touch and go as furious thunderstorms hit the South Luangwa National Park. One night I laid in my tent in awe, waiting for the thunder to arrive as huge lightenings made the night become day. When the sound came, it was so powerful that I could feel the ground under me shake and my stomach vibrate. The sound went in one direction and then turned around and came back the other way. I was being treated to nature’s surround sound. Luckily the tent weathered the storm and I was safe and dry.
I had been at Croc Valley Farm for 12 days waiting for Karen. In that time elephants had come to visit, people overlanding on big trucks had come and go, I made some lovely new friends, spent a day with Asier, another basque cyclist that I’d first met in Kenya and twice in Malawi, got a surprise visit from Dakin with whom I’d sailed on Lake Tanganika and every night the hippos sang not-so-gentle-lullabies to help me go to sleep.
Karen arrived full of smiles, friendship and precious goodies impossible to get in this part of the continent, Xmas had arrived early. As I teared open plastic bags exposing tyres, filter bottle and spare parts for my panniers and stove, I let out shrieks of excitement. Finally I could repair my ailing panniers and be sure I had enough kit to make it to South Africa where I whould be able to get any parts I may need.
We didn’t delay and soon left the safety of Croc Valley and took to the road amongst the persistent warnings from the locals about the dangers of wild life on the Old Petauke Road, in particular elephants. Asier was ahead of us and had sent us the location of places where we could get water and find a safe place to sleep. He had done the whole 176 Km in two days but we knew it would take us much longer.
We were really excited when we hit the beginning of the road: this was it, we were entering the Old Petauke Road! Ahead of us were a few days of adventure.
It was hot, extremely hot, waves of heat could be seen on the path ahead of us. Very quickly we had the feeling that we were somewhere very remote, the sandy road, the low thorny vegetation, the absence of villages. Scattered dung and trees and shrubs stripped bare told us that there were plenty of elephants around. We constantly looked right and left for their presence, we didn’t want to be caught by surprise.
We were excited and euphoric and to start with the heat didn’t seem to matter but after 40 Km of cycling I began to get terrible leg cramps, my ears were buzzing, light spots appeared in front of my eyes and waves of nausea came and went. I had to stop every few hundred meters and rest on my handlebars before I could continue. According to the coordinates Asier had sent us, we had five Km to go before we reached the first settlement where we could spend the night and there was no option but to carry on. I was thrilled Karen was with me, lovingly supportive. I didn’t feel at all well and it would have been a scarier experience if I had been on my own.
The place in the map was a Conservation College. They welcomed us and after pitching our tents, one staff member escorted us to the bore hole which was a couple of Km away. The principal was worried that we may come across elephants and didn’t want us to go on our own. Pushing Roberts, Karen’s bike, we walked through thorny bushes, crossed dry river beds and finally arrived at the pump. With Roberts loaded with 10 liters of water we went back to our tents, this time a different way through the bush. Everything had thorns and we had to be careful to avoid fallen branches that would have resulted in a puncture.
Back at the camp we had a shower under the stars in a grass enclosure with a pipe pumping water directly from the river. It was bliss to let the water run over me and get rid of the salt covering my body.
Once again the road had provided what we needed and the following day it even had a gift in store for us. Very early on the day, a herd of jirafes crossed the path in front of us. The light was beautiful and they were beautiful and majestic. We stopped to admire them and more and more kept appearing, big and small, we counted around 30.
And the road continued to provide, throughout the day, we foraged the fruit of wild mangoe trees to create a delicious chick pea and mangoe coconut curry that evening that we consumed under an incredible starred sky in a village chief’s compound.
The third day on the Old Petauke Road was the hardest, the gradients became steeper and the surface of the road more difficult with big rocks, sand and loose stones. A fair amount of pushing took place. I love Foxtrot but she’s not easy to push uphill. Push, brake, rest, push, brake, rest. At times like this I go inside myself, all my energy focused on the next five steps, it was a question of mind over matter and I knew I had plenty of energy left because I could still appreciate the beauty of what was around us.
We still had the hardest hill to climb when a couple in a 4×4 stopped and after telling us we must be mad tackling a road like this, they offered us a cold drink. A COLD DRINK!!!!! That cold coke was pure nectar after three days of tepid water. I love this spontaneous encounters with other travellers on the road.
As we approached the ‘main road’ the distance between villages got less and we were able to buy some radioactive looking drinks. They were still tepid as the villages didn’t have electricity but they provided some sugar and a break from the tasteless water.
It was in one of these villages that we stopped on our last night, this time we camped next to the water pump and the madrasa with dozens of children watching our every move.
One more day and we would be in Petauke where we would find tarmac again. It had taken us four days to cover the 176 Km of the Old Petauke Road.
After the Old Petauke Road, Karen and I had more wonderful days cycling together. We went up and down hills, stayed with newly made friends, met Blanca and Oscar also cycling the length of Africa, got thrilled at finding stalls on the road to buy ingredients for our dinners, enjoyed ‘homely’ guesthouses with lovely landladies and laughed at my first ever clipper hair cut.
I do enjoy my own company but sometimes I miss someone to share my experiences with and being with Karen was a real treat.
Sitting having dinner in Livingstone the day before she left, we talked about our time together on the road and when and where we would be cycling together again. At that moment, our encounter with the tse tse flies faded in the distance and was almost forgotten.
She was wearing a freshly ironed orange blouse and a matching navy blue wrapper with orange fishes swimming in it. Sitting on a bike-taxi riding in the hard shoulder just ahead of the white woman on a bike, her hair was an elaborate maze of small plats gathering at the nape of her neck to form an elegant bun. The woman was riding side saddle, her back straight, she was looking with curiosity at this scruffily dressed white woman huffing and puffing as she pedalled up hill on her heavily loaded bicycle. After a while, the woman looked straight into the white woman’s eyes and rubbed her thumb against her middle and index fingers in that universal sign for money and in perfect English said “Give me your money”.
“Give me your money”, “Give me money”, “Give me your bike”, “Give me one of your bags”, “Give me a bottle”, “Give me water”, “Give me food”. I heard those demands hundreds of times a day as I threaded my way down Malawi. They came mainly, but not exclusively, from children. They were never aggressive but by gosh were they persistent!
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, third only after South Sudan and Burundi and the only one which has not had a war. A country where one in ten of the population live with HIV/AIDS, where nearly 83% of the employed population live on less than the equivalent of 3.10 USD per day and where in 2015 it was estimated that nearly 60% of the population didn’t have access to proper sanitation facilities. I didn’t know any of these facts before I came into the country but as soon as I crossed the border I could sense there was a difference between Malawi and the other countries I had been to in Africa.
There was the obvious physical difference, I was leaving behind the Tanzanian mountains with their beautiful tea plantations and cool, clean air to encounter a dry, hot, flat and dusty valley, but it wasn’t that, there was something about the place, about the villages with their grass roofed huts and the big cassava plantations that was rattling me.
Aware of this feeling I made my way to Lake Malawi. I had reached the southernmost lake of the East Rift Valley which I had first joined in Kenya more than 3,200 km away. Lake Malawi is the third largest and the second deepest Lake in Africa and I was intending to have a holiday by its shores having heard from other travellers about its nice campsites, gorgeous white sand beaches and stunning sunrises.
It was in one of those campsites that I met Willie. Willie had opened a campsite popular with overlanding cyclists a few years earlier. A white South African man in his 70s sporting a big beard, Willie had strong opinions which I got to hear when at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning I sat with him to have coffee. I heard how he doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution, how the world was created in seven days just as the Bible tell us, how all the signs are here that the second coming in near. I heard about the corruption, ignorance, superstition and laziness prevalent in Malawi. On seeing the burning of the grass in the local mountains, I heard the red anger in his voice when he asked his employees “why do you burn the mountains? Why? Why? For six hours I listened to his theories being both fascinated and uncomfortable.
” If you get a chance go to Livingstonia” told me Peter and Colleen, two cyclists my age from whom I have received a lot of help and advice. I said goodbye to Willie, jumped on a pick up truck full to the brim of things and people and bumped along an extremely steep ‘road’ towards the village. The pick up truck was slipping on the loose gravel, it had to do three point turns in some of the hairpin bends and at times, its wheels were too close to the precipice for my comfort. I breathed a sigh of relief when finally I arrived at my destination.
Livingstonia, where the missionaries of the Free Church of Scotland moved to escaping from the malaria mosquitos prevalent by the lake, looked as if it was suspended in the past with its small red brick cottages, red brick church and hospital. I was expecting to see the missionaries in their 1880s clothes each time I turned a corner but instead I was greeted by loudspeakers blearing out kwa ngwaru, a song I’ve been hearing everywhere since I entered Tanzania. The music was loud but it couldn’t detract from the views of the lake below and the terracing in the slopes around the village.
Something other than the altruism of the missionaries was moving me now – the quest for a supermarket! Mzuzu, Malawi’s third largest town held the promise of one. I’d been hearing about its existence from my first day in Malawi and I couldn’t wait to get there. Other than cassava, the only ingredients I found on the road were tomatoes and onions and nice as they were I was getting bored of pasta with tomato sauce, rice with tomato sauce, bread with tomato sauce…75 km of dirt road would be no obstacle to reach my objective!!
I get very excited at the thought of a supermarket. The idea of walking down its aisles full of goods, fridges with yogourth and cheese. A place where one can buy breakfast cereals and were there is refrigerated meat that hasn’t been hanging in the sun covered with flies. Each time I find one I religiously walk down each single aisle even those that have items that I don’t want or need.
And finally, here it was, its interior full of goods beckoning, its cool air reaching me through its open doors, the glow of its fluorescent lights illuminating the “SPECIAL OFFER” signs.
Dirty and sweaty, I hovered at the door anxiously looking for a safe place to leave my loaded bike to be able to dive in and there was none. I must have been a strange sight as shoppers going in and out started giving me funny looks. Finally I had to admit defeat, turn my back on the door and direct my wheels to the campsite.
Like all the other Malawi campsites I stayed in, the one in Mzuzu was run by foreigners – white South Africans, Germans, Americans. Designed with mzungu clientele in mind they all were clean and comfortable, hot water, drinking water on tap, cold beers, varied menus, beautiful lawns and in all of them the prices, compared to local earnings were astronomical.
In Malawi inequality stared at me on the face more than anywhere else in this trip and that’s why it didn’t come as a surprise when on my last day in the country, a little girl who had run from her hut to the road with huge strides said: “Give me MY money” as I passed by her.
When I heard the sound of the Liemba’s horn, I was in that in-between state when one is neither fully awake nor fully asleep. For a while I wasn’t sure whether I was dreaming, but when I felt the vibration of the anchor’s chain I knew I was awake: The MV Liemba was having its first stop.
Originally called the Graf von Goetzen, the Liemba was one of three vessels the German Empire used to control Lake Tanganika in the First World War. When the Germans retreated from Kigoma in 2016 , her captain sank it to stop the British getting control of it. It lay in the bottom of the lake until 1924 when a British Royal Navy salvage team raised her and in 1927 she returned to service as Liemba. Its history since then is fascinating.
I first heard about her from Dakin, a South African overlander that I had met in my first few days in Uganda. Right away it captured my imagination. Wouldn’t it be amazing to go on a ‘cruise’ on the last vessel of the German Imperial Navy still actively sailing anywhere in the world? Now, here I was, leaving one of its cabins to see what was happening outside.
When I got out of the cabin the excitement of the other passengers was palpable, the sound of voices was becomig louder, everybody was pushing and shoving to find a good place to see people and goods embarking and disembarking and instructions were being shouted left and right whilst the golden flood lights of the ship illuminated the whole scene.
Around us, in the water small canoes were receiving those leaving the ship and bringing goods for us to carry down the lake. I was ribbeted, witnessing this made me instantly forget how hard it had been the bike ride to get to Kigoma, the Tanzanian port from where she sails.
I had crossed into Tanzania from Rwanda where I only stayed for a few days. Rwanda is a country full of bike-taxis going up and down its many hills loaded with passengers. The passengers get off and walk when the hill is too steep for the taxi and then jump back on when it’s time to go down hill. When they are not carrying people, the bikes don’t stay idle and they carry water or any other goods.
It didn’t take me long to get to Kigali, the capital, with its modern buildings and traditional cloth market. Rwanda has banned the import of second hand clothes to protect the local fabric industry. Other countries in the region tried that approach but the big foreign players didn’t want Africa to stop the huge imports of used clothes and accessories (Kenya alone imported 100 metric tons in 2015) and threatened to get the countries out of the African Growth Opportunity Act which grants duty free access to US markets for items like oil. Isn’t that a surprise!?
Out of four East African countries, only Rwanda stayed strong and maintained the ban and as a result, its markets are full of traditional fabrics and men and women sitting at old fashioned sowing machines creating all sorts of garnments.
I stayed in Kigali for a few days enjoying the company of Desire and Inmaculate, the friendly hostel staff and making the best of fast Internet access. I hadn’t had a chance to back up my photos since Nairobi and who knows when there will be fast enough connection again. There is so much we take for granted at home – you open the tap and clean water you can drink comes out, flick the switch and the light goes on, go to the supermarket and find exactly what you want. On the road everything takes ages: filtering water, washing your clothes, looking for ingredients to cook…but if there is something I have plenty off nowadays is time, so all is well.
Eventually I peeled myself from the comfortable hostel in Kigali and began cycling towards the Tanzanian border.
As in every country I have been, it is amusing to see how men on bicycles are truly put off when they see an older woman overtaking them or steadily climbing up hills without getting off the bike (never mind that I don’t carry the loads they do and my bike has wonderful gears).
One particular man stuck in my mind. He was wearing red trainers and a red top and his red underpants where showing. I passed him climbing up a hill and he tried to catch up with me, overtaking me when I stopped to take some photos. I kept going slowly and he kept on looking back, his calves straining, their veins and muscles bulging. At one point he was zigzagging wildly across the road and kept looking back whilst I continued climbing at my snail’s pace.
Around this time I began to get really annoyed with all the wolf whistling, all the heys and oys, all the cat calling I get from men as I cycle along. Such a difference from women who greet me or respond to my greetings in a dignified way. I decided to totally ignore their whistling, their heys and oys, their cat calling but they refused to be ignored and their calls got louder and louder and followed me as I cycled away from them.
Some of the roots of my annoyance were in the injustice of seeing women and girls in every country always working – carrying wood and water, washing clothes and cooking outside their homes, looking after children, working in the fields, whilst men sat in the shade of trees and bus stands, or in bars and cafés talking and seeing the world go by. Watching tiny girls carry heavy buckets of water on their heads whilst grown up men looked on made me angry.
Firm in my resolution I reached the Tanzania border. As soon as I crossed the border the roads became pretty poor. The road I had to follow to reach Kigoma and the Liemba was a red earth road going through a remote area in the west of the country. Washboards and sand became my daily companions making the cycling hard. Each time a vehicle went by I was enveloped by a cloud of dust that got into my eyes and my nostrils, caked my skin and stuck to hair.
The road was kind to me though and at the end of each day, dirty and tired, I always found a place to sleep in the smallest of villages. The guesthouses where I stayed were very basic and more often than not I would set the tent on the bed to keep out unwelcomed creatures sharing the room with me. Every single day, I was grateful to have found a place and after having a bucket shower, cooking and eating dinner with what little I had left in my panniers and inside the safety of my tent-cacoon I had a wonderful night sleep.
Slowly the vegetation changed and huge golden bamboos and palm trees replaced the low acacia shrubs found in the higher ground. The huts in the villages didn’t change though, they continued to be small dwellings with corrugated iron or grass roofs and dozens of children around them that on seeing me would run to the road shouting “Mzungu, mzungu!!” Like a Mexican wave “MZUNGUUUUU” followed me from hut to hut but if I stopped…if I stopped the children would run away in fear, the youngest crying and calling for their mothers.
As I approached Kigoma what changed was the road, the red earth disapeared and grey tarmac replaced it. Without the red earth the villages suddenly felt less remote, it was as if I was back in the modern world and I hoped that the tarmac would bring an easier life for people in the region.
The tarmaced road took me to Kigoma where I could have a few days rest before boarding the Liemba. And, as luck would have it, I was going to have company too. Dakin, that more than one month before, had told me about the Liemba had managed to get Viv, his Toyota Landcruiser, booked in the same sailing as me and we would be travelling together.
It was nice having company. In the couple of days we had before setting off we cooked together, watched sunsets by the lake, went to the tailors, had a haircut (the second on the road) and tried to keep the vervet monkeys from stealing our food.
Finally the day for departure arrived and from the platform by our first class cabin we watched anything and everything being loaded: hundreds of pineapples, avocados, tomatoes, flour, plasterboards, wicker baskets, jerrycans of fuel, soap, detergent, plastic chairs…The Liemba is the lifeline to the fishing communities that live in the shores of Lake Tanganika. Twice a month, it provides them with the only contact they have with the outside world. Not only it brings them things they need but by taking their bales of dry fish it gives them access to makets.
After that first stop the Liemba stopped 13 more times before finally arriving at Kasanga, my final destination. Each stop was as exciting as the fist one and after each stop the deck got a little bit more empty, the mountains of pineapples sold along the way to the fishermen that came to bring their fish and to take people ashore.
Kasanga was another village lost in the middle of nowhere, the only difference between it and the others we had stopped at is that it has a road that links it to the outside world. A road I would take on my way to Malawi. It was time to say goodby to Dakin and take to the road.
“If you are going to your tent now, mind he hippo” told me the friendly Italian who, impressed by my bike journey, had invited me to a beer. I leaned over the balcony of the restaurant and sure enough a huge hippo was happily munching grass just outside my tent. Nothing for it but to wait until hippo finished its meal whilst I continued my conversation about bike travels in Africa with Alco the Dutch cyclist also staying at the campsite.
I was at one end of the Kazinga channel in the West of the country, very close to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Kazinga Channel is a beautiful stretch of water joining Lake George with Lake Edward.
Only three days earlier I had been in the Channel with Ngozi, a friend from London who had come to Kampala to join me for a few days. The channel is full of life – hippos and elephants everywhere. So much wildlife that I was like a child not knowing where to look, going from one side of the boat to another I wanted to take it all in, fix it in my memory forever .
My encounters with wild life in Uganda started right on my first day when camped on the lawn of the beautifully landscaped gardens of a hotel I had a whole family of blue balled monkeys greedily eyeing my bananas and not going away even when I tried to scare them off. Monkeys here don’t scare off easily, it was funny to see big lorries having to stop after noisily blowing their horns to get a family of baboons off the main road without success. I quickly got used to seeing them on the roads each time I went through wooded areas and was happy to see that they didn’t pay any attention to me.
The monkeys didn’t pay any attention to me but people, in particular children, came running to the road to call out mzungu (White skin) and wave as did street sellers. Stalls selling fruit and vegetables where easy to find, as we’re the chapatti makers in the bigger villages. Chapattis in Uganda are not like the ones we get in Indian Restaurants in the UK, they are thick and oily and made with egg. I loved those gigantic pancakes cooked in a griddle by the side of the road. The ready access to food made me feel at ease and relaxed.
The number of cyclists on the road also made me feel at ease. I saw bikes everywhere heavily loaded with everything imaginable charcoal sugar cane, maiz, mattoke (green bananas). The country is very hilly and the roads are a constant rollercoaster so I often saw cyclists pushing their bikes up the hills, their bodies nearly parallel to the road on the steepest ones.
It didn’t take me long to come to terms with the fact that there would not be flat riding in Uganda, the ups and downs were constant. I have mixed feelings about hills, on the one hand I do find them hard to climb but on the other the hilly terrain makes the landscape more interesting and Uganda is a truly beautiful place. I was happy to know that I would be sharing its beauty with a friend.
Ngozi arrived in Kampala with her bike excited and apprehensive and after a day’s rest we were ready to go. She had never toured before and had to get used to her loaded bike and I had to get used to being with someone else. Together we had to find a rhythm that would suit us both. It wasn’t long before we found it – a good breakfast, some cycling, lunch of delicious avocados and chapattis by the side of the road, usually in a village, more cycling and at some point in the afternoon deciding where to spend the night.
Being with someone who had never toured was like having a mirror put in front of me. I think nothing of the drop toilets and bucket showers found in the cheap guesthouses that are my staple accommodation, of camping in dusty police stations, of the uncertainty that fills each one of my days on the road. Seeing Ngozi’s reactions made me realise how used I have become to this way of life, how much I have changed. Living with uncertainty is no longer the challenge it used to be.
Not all is uncertainty though, I knew I wanted to go on a game drive and when best to do it than when I had someone with whom to share the experience with. It was really nice to visit Queen Elizabeth National Park with Ngozi, to have someone to turn to when seeing a leopard sleeping in a tree, elephants walking by the water or hippos sunbathing.
But then it was time for Ngozi to return to the UK and when I crossed the Ecuator for the third time I was on my own. The awareness that it would be months before I saw the familiar skies of the Northern hemisphere again hit me. For months to come the Southern Cross would become familiar company in the night.
It felt right to start this new phase of my journey crossing the National Park on my bike, first in a tarmaced road and then through 74 Km of dirt road. I was quite nervous when it came to riding the later. I had been told to be careful with elephants and buffaloes that are abundant in the area as they are known to charge. And indeed there was a lot of evidence of their presence, piles of dung and heavy footprints where everywhere. I keep on listening for them and was delighted when I reached my destination without any close encounter.
The ride was memorable, clouds of white butterflies feeding on the elephant dung took flight as I passed by and enveloped me, savanna, thick forest, monkeys, impalas…So much nature and wildlife all around me. At times I felt I was disappearing in the middle of it all, it was as if I was becoming part of the forest, the savanna, the river.
The forests in Uganda are incredibly lush and their impossible slopes they provide sanctuary to the mountain gorillas, an endangered species, according to the last published census there are only 880 left in the world. How could I be in this country and miss out the opportunity to pay them a visit!?
To get to one of the only two surviving populations I had to get to the remote Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, climb steep gradients in dirt roads and then walk for hours into the forest. I knew I would find the ride too hard but was more than ready to push my bike for hours to get there so I was delighted when a local told me about the tea trucks that go to the very remote mountain villages to collect tea from small tea growers. I made up my mind: Foxtrot and I would find a way to get a lift in on one of the tea trucks.
The two of us waited patiently outside the Kayonza Grower’s Tea Factory and when the truck going in the right direction left the factory we managed to get on it. When empty of tea, the trucks provide transport to people from the remote mountain hamlets and settlements. Villagers and their possessions came on an off the truck in each of the hundreds of stops it did along the way.
All around the red earth road, in impossible slopes, villagers were clearing the forest for cultivation, carrying jerry cans of water, picking and carrying tea. On the lorry I was trying out my newly acquired local vocabulary to the amusement of my travel companions who laughed heartily, holding their sides, each time I uttered a word.
It was unreal when the following day I found myself tracking the gorillas in the forest. The light was filtering through the huge tall columnar trees with bare trunks and a crop of leaves at the top. There was not a square centimeter that was not covered with some sort of vegetation. We crossed swampy terrain, climbed up and down incredibly steep slopes following the rangers that were opening the way through the forest with their machetes.
The encounter with the first gorilla was unforgettable, Kabandize a young male was lying down looking at us with lazy eyes that seemed to be saying “Oh bother, here are the humans!”
Not far from him was Rukara, the silver back and leader of the group with the oldest female in the group and her baby, a delightful one year old.
The gorilla group kept on moving fast through the forest and with the trackers hacking away at the forest with the machetes we followed on their path. After one hour with these incredible creatures we said goodby to them and turned back the way we came.
The feelings of the experience stayed present and I knew I needed time to let it all sink in. I turned my back on Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and reached a small island in Lake Buyonyi. Swimming in the second deepest lake in Africa (900 mt) surrounded by bird song and knowing that no hippos would come to my tent was the perfect ending of my time in Uganda.
By the time I got to the Guesthouse I was cursing myself. Why on earth did I buy that half a kilo of sugar? As I was paying for it I already knew that I didn’t need it because the day before I had bought some honey from one of the women selling it by the roadside.
My panniers were already heavy enough with all those just-in-case things I have with me. Why do I carry so many just-in-case things? Is it my attempt to live this nomadic life by the standards of my sedentary life? or Is it my way to make ordinary this extraordinary journey? or do I need all those things to feel safe?
It was quite clear that I didn’t need to carry so much food in a country like Kenya where there are small roadside stalls and shops everywhere selling everything I need for my daily living, not to mention the cafés with cheap, delicious stews and milky sweet teas that I have become addicted to.
After Ethiopia, Kenya felt like a rest. The contrast between the two countries was staggering. From the moment I crossed the border I entered a different world where people helped you with a smile and didn’t ask for money, children waived as I went by shouting “mzungu” (white skin) and the prices remained constant.
One thing that strikes you right away about Kenya is how clean it is. Plastic bags were banned nearly a year ago with strong penalties to those disobeying the ban. The results are incredible, the roadside is clean, there are no plastic bags flying on trees, there are no more ‘flying toilets’ (people used to defecate in a plastic bag, tied and knot and and then threw it away) and people talk about how plastic is bad for the environment. I wish more countries followed Kenya’s lead.
Although roads are clean, the same could not be said of some guesthouses that looked seriously dodgy, particularly in small villages. When I felt my health would be better served by staying in my tent, police posts and police stations became my default camping spots. Their hospitality was fantastic. I was always received with a smile and given water to cook and wash with and in a couple of occasions they even gave me an empty room to sleep in.
Police posts provided continuity to the changes in landscape and people as I crossed the country. In the North I was struck by the traditional costumes of the Samburu people and their colorful jewellery. Sheperds would come onto the road dressed in full regalia with big machetes hanging round their waist and looking quite fierce as they demanded water, sometimes quite aggressively. I learnt to scan the scrub for livestock and listen carefully for the sound of the bells around the cattle’s neck. I would then get ready to throw one of the small bottles of water that I carried in my handlebar bag as soon as I saw the sheperds coming towards the road and quickly make my scape.
In Samburu county I went to Umoja Women’s Village, a women only village set up 28 years ago to provide refuge to women victims of domestic violence, rape and female genital mutilation. The women make their money by selling traditional jewellery and by running a nearby campsite. They used to have cows but after the village got raid by cattle thieves it became too dangerous to own animals and now they have none.
I stayed in one of the village huts. The hut was built with sticks and dung and had some plastic sheeting in the roof for waterproofing. It was very dark inside and at night small coppery crockoaches took over the place. It was sobering to experience the environment in which these women live and to be invited for tea at Rose’s hut and see how little they have and how they live one day at a time buying enough sugar and tea for that day. They don’t need just-in-case things, for them safety is about being together, away from their abusers.
The meaning of what it means to be safe came up again to my mind during a big climb towards the Equator, in an area with huge farms protected by electrified fences and a tea shop that would be perfectly at home in Kent whilst marginal farmers grow potatoes and corn in the barely five meters that separate the road from the electrified fence. That small piece of land where they could grow food was their safety.
By the time I got to Nairobi something had shifted inside me, I relaxed and trusted that the road would meet my needs – a small cafe would appear at the right time, a place where I could pitch my tent, company when I needed it.
And it did! It was really nice to meet Guy again at Jungle Junction, a well known overlander campsite in Nairobi. Guy is travelling from London to South Africa on his motorbike and I had met him twice before, the first time in Gonder and the second in Addis. He was the one that saved the day by giving Amaya a lift to the airport on his motorbike when it was apparent that a taxi would not materialise.
It was bliss doing all those ordinary things that normally I do by myself with someone else without cultural or language barriers: deciding what to have for dinner, shopping, ordering take away pizza and cooking together. I was tired and needed some down time and when best to have it than when there is good company.
By the time Ieft Nairobi I was re-energised and when round a corner I was regaled with the most amazing view of the Great Rift Valley I had to stop to take it all in. The view was breathtaking but it was the realisation that I was in Africa, in the Great Rift Valley that was joyful and overpowering.
The next few days were filled with the same childlike joy especially at Kilimandege House, the place where Joan Root, the film maker and conservationist, lived and died. Sitting in her baranda at dusk I saw giraffes, hippos, zebras, water bucks, dik-diks whilst in the day monkeys came into the kitchen to steal bananas.
Kilimadege House is a magical place where the animals roam freely without the restrictions of electric fences. The house is being lovingly restored by Joseph and is an oasis of peace. It was very special to see Joan’s bedroom where she was murdered for her commitment to conservation but also where dreams and plans for the wonderful films she created with Alan Root were born.
Maybe it was my new state of mind but things just got better and better – a meeting with Asier, another basque cycling in this amazing continent, pink flamingos in Lake Bogoria, majestic acacia trees, camping in a school where the girls were totally amazed by the whiteness of my feet and kept on touching them, the beauty of Kerio Valley, spending time with the Cheptebo community, dancing on the road with an older woman selling bananas, talking politics with a widow-mango-grower…
As for the bag of sugar? I hope it is being enjoyed by the old man to whom I gave it to after he helped me push the bike for a few meters in a particularly steep stretch of road.
When I opened the door of my room I saw that it was raining again. It was only four in the morning and it was still dark. “The rains are early this year” that is what everybody is saying. The rains transform the paved streets of Addis into chocolate streams and the feet of countless people convert the unpaved ones into sludge. Wim’s Holland House, the overlanders’ hostel that had been my Addis home on and off during my time in Ethiopia, is in one of the unpaved ones.
I pushed my freshly cleaned and oiled bike through the mud until I reached the paved road and rode to Meskel Square, where Foxtrot and I were to board a bus to Arba Minch, a town four hundred kilometers from the Kenyan border. From there I was planning to get local buses all the way to the border, too scared to cycle in this country.
When I entered Ethiopia I was already feelings pretty apprehensive having read and heard accounts of other cyclists. Everybody talked about dozens of children running alongside you shouting “YOU, YOU, YOU” followed by “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY” and how some of them delighted in throwing stones at you. Tired of the harassment, the majority of cyclists end up getting buses at some point. Even those who cycle all the way through the country talk in terms of “It wasn’t too bad, the stones only hit us a couple of times” or as Teresie, a young Norwegian I met in Khartoum told me “It was OK, the rocks were quite small and only once a herder used his cattle whip on me as I went by. I was furious, picked up a stone and and followed him only to see that he was about to throw a huge rock at me”
All those stories were playing in my mind when I reached the border at Metema. I hadn’t even crossed the border when I was approached by Ethiopian young men wanting to “help” me cross, get money and get a SIM card expecting payment for their “help” It took more than fifteen minutes of assertively saying “No thanks” for them to get the message and leave me alone.
Not even thirty minutes later, at the ATM, another young man wanted to know whether my card had worked, whether I had Visa or Mastercard and whether he could help me get money out. I could sense how I was begining to build invisible barriers around me and how I was closing down. All it took was for a local to tell me as way of warning “don’t camp in the bush in Ethiopia, you are no longer in a Muslim country” for me to realise that what I was feeling was fear and I hadn’t even started to cycle.
By now I am used to having butterflies in the stomach caused by the excitement mixed with apprehension of entering a new country but I had never felt fear and I knew that unless I managed to control this emotion, it would dominate my experience of the country.
“Open your mind Blanca, open your heart” I said aloud to no one but myself as I pedalled along but however much I tried, I could feel the anxiety drying up my mouth each time I approached a village. Predictably, I was instantly surrounded by children shouting “YOU, YOU, YOU” followed by “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY” some of them grabbing at my panniers and although I was spared the stones, I managed to get myself into a real bad estate of mind.
It all came to a head when on the third day I saw a group of older teenagers walking in the middle of the road. I was going downhill and decided to maintain the speed, thinking that they would get out of the way to let me pass but when I saw that they weren’t going to move I pressed the brakes and one of them punched me in the arm. It didn’t hurt much but the little confidence I had left just drained away there and then.
As luck would have it, two Englishmen I had met a couple of days, earlier went pass on a pick up truck and offered me a lift to the nearest big town which I gratefully accepted. That was the end of cycling in Ethiopia for me.
The visit of my daughter Amaya was a godsend and the perfect antidote for the blues that were setting in. Together we explored the magical chuches of Lalibela, stood at the mouth of a volcano, walked through solidified lava fields, saw salt caravans, looked in awe at the incredible landscape of the Danakil Depression, slept under the stars, drunk honey wine, rock-climbed to reach one of the Tigray churches, trekked in the Simien mountains, explored local markets and talked non stop. I felt bereft when I saw her disappearing riding on the back of a motorbike on her way to the airport.
Alone again I decided to explore Harar, a Muslim city in the East of the country, closed to the border with Somalia. It was comforting hearing the call to prayer once more and walking the narrow streets of the walled city.
In Harar they feed the hyenas at night outside the walls of the Old City. According to the locals, they started feeding the hyenas during a 19th-century famine, when the starving animals began to attack livestock and humans and the practice continues until today.
In the dark I took a bajaj (tuk tuk) with Sisay, a local guide, and through bumpy dirt roads we went in search of the hyena man. We found him sitting in a stone with a basket of meat and bones at this side and over dozen hyenas walking around him. The man was whistling and making throaty sounds to get the animals closer. I sat on a rock next to him and he dangled a piece of meat just above my head. One of the hyenas used me as a prop to get to the meat. I could hear the wet chewing of the animal just by my ear, feel her hot breath on my face and smell her foul breath. It was both scary and exiliariting, a unique experience.
It was in Harar where I met Mengistu, an orthopedic surgeon who had studied for 14 years in Cuba and thus spoke perfect Spanish. When I arrived at his house he opened the door with a big smile in his face. Mengistu is one of those rare young professionals who has returned to work in Ethiopia to contribute to improve the situation of ordinary people in the country whilst a lot of his friends stayed abroad working all over the world as anything but doctors.
Mengistu’s wife, Magaris, made coffee, my first coffee ceremony in Ethiopia, the coffee slowly roasted over red charcoal and then pounder with a pestle and morter before being brewed in one of the special Ethiopian coffee pots.
I wish I had been able to meet more people like Mengistu and Magaris, maybe if that had been the case my experience of Ethiopia would have been very different. As was, I found it a challenging country, I got very tired of the constant hassle, of people’s rudness and aggression, of being overcharged (in a disproportionate way), of the harrassment everywhere I went.
And yet, when I got to Arba Minch I changed my mind and decided I wanted to cycle the last few days in the country. I took a couple of buses from Arba Minch to a town called Yabelo to get closer to the Kenyan border and then started cycling. I was enjoying the ride but as it was getting late and I had run out of water I decided to stop a vehicle to get to the nearest town, a place called Mega. A minibus stopped and the driver told me that he was driving all the way to the Kenyan border. I couldn’t resist the temptation and there and then I decided I would stay on and go to the border.
When I sat on the crowded minibus I was overcome by a sense of relief and a lightness of heart that I hadn’t felt in weeks, a smile filled my face and I felt happy. I was leaving Ethiopia!