We haven’t seen too much sun recently. Our bikes sit unridden in sheds, our tents packed away in loftspaces, the clothes we wore for exceptionally long periods between attention from a bar of soap have thankfully been thrown away. It’s been a while since we got back home. We’re still cycling a bit, but our commutes to work and lectures aren’t really something worth blogging about. BUT. There is something worth blogging about.
We did the cycle because we wanted to. To go and see amazing places by an awkwardly slow, repeatedly frustrating, emotionally and physically wearing means. And thankfully we made it to the end. But, as well as that, from the first time Calum mentioned the idea, we wanted to try and raise money for an excellent cause. We never imagined how much you would go on to donate.
SIXTY SEVEN THOUSAND AND TWELVE UNITED STATES DOLLARS. [At time of writing]
Enough to buy and distribute thirty four thousand three hundred and thirty nine insecticide treated nets, to keep those horrible buzzing carriers of malaria, mosquitoes, off of SIXTY THOUSAND PEOPLE. Over one hundred and twelve villages. Apologies for writing those numbers out in full, just trying to get across the scale of what your donations have achieved.
Those nets are part of AMF’s distribution to 12 districts in Malawi, providing universal coverage of the population in those districts. When we cycled through the country the headteacher of a school we stayed in told us that Malaria keeps the local hospital over capacity. Those nets are arriving throughout October and November.
We were massively helped in fundraising by Sumitomo Chemical, pioneers in vector (mosquitoes etc.) control and manufacturers of malaria nets. They promised to match all donations up to $30,000, and that target definitely motivated people to donate. That $30,000 target seemed unreachable as we pedalled out of Cairo, but by the time we arrived in Cape Town, we’d already exceeded it. Huge thanks to all the friends, family, strangers, people we see regularly, and those we don’t, who decided to make all that cycling worth it.
Why the Against Malaria Foundation?
As well as mentioning how much we raised, I wanted to explain why we picked the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF). Critical news stories about the charity sector are pretty frequent. Some, like the Oxfam scandal in Haiti, or the Children’s Trust in the UK, put the sector under pressure as donors become cynical. People question whether the money they donate is really going to the right place, or doing the good they want it to achieve. They are reasonable concerns, but I don’t think we should let those bad news stories tar the amazing work which the third sector can do.
I came across AMF in a book called Doing Good Better. The author, William MacAskill is an advocate of effective altruism, applying “data and scientific reasoning to the normally sentimental world of doing good… [showing that] by targeting our efforts on the most effective causes, we each have an enormous power to make the world a better place”. It’s a positive message. As donors you can make a genuine difference. AMF are a key charity through whom you can do that.
There are groups who examine data and evidence to ascertain which charities can do the most good with money they are given:
The Life You Can Save argue that, if we can provide immense benefit to someone at minimal cost to ourselves, we should do so. They point to highly impactful nonprofits which reduce suffering and premature death for people living in extreme poverty. AMF have been their top-rated charity since 2012.
Givewellcall AMF one of their top-rated charities, one which “offers donors an outstanding opportunity to accomplish good with their donations”.
Giving What We Can is “a community of effective givers. We inspire people to donate significantly and as effectively as possible”. They say that AMF “realises its potential in combating malaria and its effects…. [and is] highly cost-effective, as its lean organisational structure, careful use of technology and partnerships with local charities keep its costs exceptionally low”.
We picked AMF thanks to the recommendations of those evidence-based charity evaluators. We knew how much good they would do with money we raised. We didn’t realise how much you would give to achieve so much. We’re incredibly grateful.
Apologies that there haven’t been any funny anecdotes in this blog, or stories about things we got up to in our long time in the saddle/the African continent, but I thought the story of why we picked AMF was a story worth telling. Give some of the websites which helped us pick AMF a look, they make for interesting reading.
And if by any chance you wanted to keep that total we raised ticking up then our page is still open. And if not, but you’re considering running a marathon, or jumping out of a plane, or not drinking for a month, or cycling across a continent, then maybe consider making AMF the charity you want to raise money for while you have all that fun.
Wind farm. Desert. Farm house. Police station. Community centre. School. Chicken farm. National Park. Churchyard. Medical clinic. Town hall… some of the alternative places we stayed the night over the last six months.
At the end of a long day’s cycling we really craved our own beds and a hot shower, but those were generally denied us by the thousands of miles separating us from our homes. Such things we took for granted back home, and they came to represent the highest luxury.
In the more populated strips of Africa we often opted to stay in cheap roadside hotels rather than camp, relishing the opportunity to clean ourselves and our clothes. They were a cheap and cheerful alternative to the highly expensive tourist lodges that pepper southern Africa.
With a limited budget our expectations of hotel amenities had to lower a little. Before long we viewed a shack with a long drop toilet and a bucket shower as if it were a bathroom at the The Ritz. If it had running water, hallelujah! A plug socket hanging on a loose wire from the ceiling, praise be! Such establishments sometimes came with complimentary bed bugs and a nighttime excitement of trying not to lose your headtorch down the longdrop when nature calls in the middle of the night. Petty trip-advisor criticism aside, those hotels were ideal for what we needed: a (clean-ish) bed, a door between us and the town outside, and maybe a bucket of water to rinse off days of grime with.
Sometimes there was no room at the proverbial inn, or there was no actual inn, and as our expectations of what we wanted from a place to sleep stripped down we ended up staying in some unlikely places, here are a few:
We were closely monitored by a firm but friendly police escort, who tail all cyclists daring to travel around the country.
The boys in blue with AK47s forbade us from camping; being concerned for our safety without explicitly stating what the cause for concern was. Despite that we managed to spend one night camping in a wind farm (not a subtle reference to Ralph tent) and another behind a gas station (not a subtle a reference to Ed’s tent).
The Sudanese police take a much more laissez-faire approach. They have lots of desert and not many tourists so let us go where we wished. With free reign to camp in the Sahara, we spent most nights under the stars trying to remember constellations. With no light pollution (unlike London) the stars were incredibly bright and it was only a few minutes before we spotted a shooting star and made a wish (for the provision of food supplies more exciting than spaghetti, shredded tuna meat and canned tomato paste).
We also stayed with a number of Sudanese families, who taught us the meaning of Sudanese hospitality (several litres of Sudanese tea and great company). Mr Mohadin, centre, below, was a prodigious sugar-and-milker of repeated glasses of tea.
One memorable night we stayed with a sheikh (Right) on the banks of the Nile. He took great delight in telling us how superior British goods were to Chinese, shouted ‘Land Rover!!’ a couple of times into the night sky and woke us up at 5am to continue the conversation. An eventful night.
Bartering for beds. On arriving in an Ethiopian town at the end of the day, the first thing to do was to ascertain where the cheapest hotel is – usually behind a bright-red Coca-Cola sign advertising a bar. In the courtyard a conversation would inevitably take place right before we managed to fit ourselves and our bikes into one of the pokey rooms. The deal-making began.
‘We would like one room please.’
‘But there are three of you?’
‘Can we all stay in one room?’
‘But there’s a double bed and one of us will sleep on our camp bed on the floor?’ (Much confusion ensues at my attempt to mime a camp bed)
‘It is illegal to have more than one person stay in a room in Ethiopia!’
‘No it’s not, it wasn’t in the last hotel in the last town!’
‘One person to one room!’
‘But what about couples?’
‘Ok but you must pay double price!’
‘But we’re only getting one room??’
Consternation would be etched onto the hotel manager’s face as he wondered how he could get more money out of these three argumentative and grubby ferenjis. At this point they usually saw our determination, plus how badly we need a wash. After an extensive back-and-forth we would cram in to the room having parted with our money.
Sometimes the dollar signs in the manager’s eyes would be too obvious as they demanded either one person to one room or an unreasonable price. We would pull our bikes around and head to the nextdoor hotel. Thankfully there were loads in every town – Ethiopians love going on internal holidays!
Hotels were necessary in Ethiopia. Camping and privacy is made very difficult as wherever you are in the densely populated country, you have approximately 5 seconds before a crowd turns up. On one occasion in the Ethiopian highlands we camped nexto a farmhouse and twenty children arrived, perplexed by what we were doing there. They helped us put up our tents, taught us some Amhara dance moves and then played noughts and crosses with us. Next morning when we woke up, we found that the farmer had stayed outside all night watching over our bikes. He was wrapped in a thick sheep’s fleece, chanting Ethiopian Orthodox prayers – a humbling moment.
Our first night in Kenya was surprisingly spent at a police station, and not due to how criminally we all smelt. At the checkpoint on the road a certain Sgt. Kiplagat had invited us to spend the night in the police barracks. We were lent the beds of soldiers out on night duty and treated to Kenyan style spaghetti chez Kiplagat,.
The following evening as we slogged up a particularly steep hill the heavens opened. We decided that any more cycling would be folly and rushed to pitch our tents. The real folly, however, was where we put our tents – on the slope of a hill. We had forgotten that water obeys the law of gravity. As we sat snugly in our tents, water began to pool beneath, a pool which turned into a torrent. In a manner oddly reminiscent of the UK property show ‘Location, Location, Location’ we ran around outside semi naked trying to find higher ground. Once we did, we moved straight away.
Asking locals where to stay invariably leads to more interesting places than hotels.
In the village of Fufu in Tanzania, we were short of a place to stay and asked a group of boda-boda drivers (Motorbike taxis). Shortly after, we were being led down a sandy track towards the village’s community centre, donated by Japanese donors a few years before. This was kindly opened for us by Mr Living, a teacher at the village’s school who chatted us about life in rural Tanzania and the difficulties families face placing education before agriculture. Baby bats in the roof squeaked above us as we fell asleep.
A few days later we were struggling up a hill not far from the Malawian border as dusk fell. Cycling through a tiny village we asked a policeman if there was anywhere to stay, ‘not for another 20km’ he replied. It was clear that we were not going to find a place before nightfall. Glancing up, I spotted a church perched on a nearby hill. Five minutes later I had scrambled up to said church, just as the congregation was leaving. An elderly man, Emmanuel, came over. I asked if we could pitch our tents in the churchyard, ‘of course’ said Emmanuel.
Only as we pitched our tents did we realise that our arrival in town was akin to the arrival of the circus for the village’s kids. Our tents were objects of great amusement – strange bushes suddenly teleported into their playground. They stuck their heads through the tents’ windows and tried to clamber in. My camp bed soon became a trampoline, and even Emmanuel himself had a lie down on the bed, chuckling to himself. After a game of football with a ball made of many plastic bags tied together, the village bade us good night and we settled into our green bushes for a long slumber.
The ‘warm heart of Africa’ really lived up to its name. On our first night we stopped in a town just south of the border hoping to find a place to stay. The only other outsiders in town were Chinese construction workers. It quickly became clear that there was nowhere to stay and it looked like we’d have to camp along the busy road. However, on realising there was a school nearby, I went to investigate. I found a huge complex of empty breeze block classrooms. A friendly student led me to the headmaster’s bungalow. I waited outside, unsure what to expect. Before long, the door opened and the headmaster appeared. At first he was was a little confused why a ‘mzungu’ (foreigner) had turned up on his doorstep, but after explaining our situation, he said ‘why of course you can stay’ and clasped my hand warmly. Before long we were in one of the breeze-block classrooms bedding down beneath an ancient chalk board.
What we hadn’t expected was that the whole town would have a party all night – a party to end all parties. And this party was happening right next to the school. Thumping tunes rang through the night air and the floor of the classroom we were sleeping on. As did the excited shrieks of the town’s kids who were surprised by the sudden apparition of some mzungus in their classroom. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t get much sleep. We certainly learned one thing from our time in that school – Malawians love to party.
Fences. On entering a country with tighter controls on private land, camping became significantly more difficult. Barbed wire uninvitingly topped these barriers and the threat of roaming game rather unnerved us.
Cycling south of Lusaka we found ourselves at the end of the day hemmed in on either side by such fences. An easy night’s sleep would not be possible if camped within metres of the busy road. We ploughed on as the sun set, until, to our right, a gate appeared in the never-ending fence.
This turned out to be a chicken farm and we asked the guard if we could camp inside. We waited in the dying light as he went to fetch the farm ‘manager’. We didn’t expect a guy our age in rugby shorts who had studied in Reading but that was what we got.
‘You guys want somewhere to stay?.. Got plenty of room in my bachelor pad.’
The rest of the evening was spent in Ryan’s family sized house watching the World Cup, cooking spaghetti bolognese and discussing what it was like to manage a chicken farm in rural Zambia at our age.
Camping in the UK is often limited to a cushy campsite with showers, WiFi and a self catering kitchen. In Botswana, as we lit our fire in the bush to ward off wild animals, it was to that style of camping that we wistfully thought.
We had spent the day trying to dodge elephants on and off the road through Chobe National Park and were fully expecting more to appear during the night. To problematise matters further, Ed had found a large hole near our campsite that we believed to be the home of a honey badger, or maybe an underground-dwelling lion (we were thinking rationally, as you can see).
Pitching our tents in triangle formation, we fortified our camp with branches and my shoes (smelly enough to scare off anything living). As we cooked dinner, a bush nearby rustled, and a bull elephant lumbered into view. We froze, sensing the hour of our fate. The bull advanced till he was 10 metres away, his heavy breathing reverberating around the camp. At the last moment, the fire crackled and he halted, paused and then disappeared into the bush.
Our interaction with these mighty animals was not over however; throughout the night they wandered close our camp, their deep bellowing and the crunch of branches under their feet sending shivers down our spines. We lay dead still in our tents, praying that an elephant foot wouldn’t stomp down through our feeble nylon shelters. To cut the story short, we survived.
We got on pretty well with police forces throughout Africa (who generally found us amusing), none more so than the Namibian police force.
In the remote town of Vanrhynsdorp we asked if we could camp at the police station and were quickly directed to a concrete courtyard. We slept well and weren’t woken by anyone being led off to a cell. As we made our breakfast in the morning, the courtyard began to fill with police officers in full uniform. More and more poured in, some dressed in desert fatigues with holsters at their hips, all rather curious as to what on earth we were doing there. We soon realised that we had camped on the parade ground and decided we should move or risk becoming target practice. We bade the officers farewell and cycled off wondering whether life as a police officer in Vanrhysdorp was similar to that in the movie Hot Fuzz (Cornettos aside).
In the most developed of the countries we visited, camping was again difficult due to the primacy of private land in the country. In Northern Cape, we pushed our bikes through tunnels and behind rocks to get away from the road. Barbed wire again proved a snag. Lifting bikes over fences felt a bit like crossing a mine field.
On the penultimate day of the trip, we found ourselves with the sun setting on a dirt track deep in the farmland of Western Cape. We spied a farm ahead and went to ask if we could camp in their grounds. ‘This is a chicken farm and if you stay here you might get bird flu’ we were told frankly by the fellow at the gate, ‘but Michael, the farmer down that track, might be able to help you out.’ With the last of the sun illuminating the fields of rooibos, we cycled along a sandy track away from the road. On reaching the farm, we stumbled into man we presumed to be Michael, who asked cheerily if we wanted somewhere to stay.
Bowled over by his generosity we accepted and before long he and his wife, Annelle, were cooking us the largest T-bone steaks we had ever seen and offering us delicious local wine. Over dinner we discussed with, Michael and his 84-year old friend Dirk, how they felt South Africa had progressed, and faltered since the establishment of democracy in 1994. In South Africa, more so than any other country in Africa we have visited, politics lies just below the surface. Speaking to figures from the rainbow nation’s many ethnic groups has opened my eyes to a country still coming to terms with its racist past, and forging a way through a troubled present.
A nice part of itinerant travel by bike was learning that finding a place to stay in Africa doesn’t require lastminute.com, more often a friendly conversation. People helped us and welcomed us up and down the continent. All we needed was a patch of grass to put up some tents, and we often got so much more out of the kindness of peoples’ hearts and homes.
The Noises of the Night
Unless sleeping out on a windless night in the desert away from the road, nights in Africa weren’t always so peaceful. Born of both paranoia and reality, we’ve heard some interesting noises while encased in our sleeping bags. Below I’ve tried to reproduce some of the most striking:
‘Wooooosh.’ Inside a tent, the sound of the wind blowing through the trees in the dead of the night can easily be mistaken for the growl of a fierce animal.
[Machine Gun noise] -The pitter patter of rain is magnified to sound like the approach of a mighty storm.
‘bzzzzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ’ Getting louder until you feel the tickle of the mosquito flying into your ear. In your sleep-deprived state you slap the side of your head to kill the disease-carrying blood sucker. Sleeping behind a mosquito net you would be spared from the repeated dive-bombing of mosquitoes. It’s hard to understate the feeling of relief and security, anbd the better night’s sleep you get behind a good net.
‘Rooooooo’ in Namibia – thought to be the low rumble of a lioness. In reality, a mother cow in search of her young
‘Flit…flit…flit’ in South Africa – though t to be a helicopter about to land. In reality, the flapping of our tent in the wind.
‘Zzzzzz….zzzzzz’ every night. Thought to be a steam train approaching at speed. In reality, Ralph’s prodigious snoring.
‘Ulululululululu’ in Ethiopia- thought to be a car alarm going off nearby. In reality, the ululation present in traditional Ethiopian music. While not exactly smoothing, it is certainly impressive.
‘UNST UNST UNST UNST’ – The deep bass coming from a nearby bar, deafening its 2 clients until the small hours.
‘Vrooooooooom’ in most countries – thought to be a low flying passenger plane. In reality, a lorry driver having a quarrel with the clutch.
‘Cruuuunch … snaaaap’ in Botswana – thought to be an elephant. Confirmed as an elephant. Aaaaah!
‘Awwooooo’ in Namibia – thought to be a hyena by Ralph. Jury’s still out, but very likely in fact to be a hyena or the rarely sighted Aardwolf.
‘COCKADOODLEDOO COCKADOODLEDOO COCKADOODLEDOO I’M A CHICKEN WITH NO CONCEPT OF WHEN DAWN IS’ – A major lesson has been that chickens do not crow at dawn, but all night, whenever they want, just as you fall asleep. Antisocial creatures.
I hope this has given you a sense of a night in the life of a cycle tourist in Africa. One thing’s for sure, we will never again complain of the odd noise in the night in the UK! If you hear noises in the night telling you to donate to The Against Malaria Foundation, oblige them here:
A month before we flew to Cairo I was panicking. Venting to my mate Ben I told him “I really don’t think I can do this, it’s going to be too dangerous, maybe I shouldn’t go…. what am I going to be able to eat???”. That sentence didn’t end how you thought it would, did it?
My biggest worry in January wasn’t about cycling, or countries I knew nothing about, or languages I couldn’t speak, or the relentless heat of the sun. It was about something small and unimportant to most people, but which for me constitutes an ever-present worry: the humble peanut.
I’m allergic to peanuts. Doesn’t sound like a huge problem really? Lots of people have allergies, it isn’t the worst condition to be afflicted with, but it would be nice not to have to worry about it. As that’s what you have to do – worry. I can’t imagine what it is like to be able to eat whatever you want, whatever cuisine, with abandon, unthinkingly, without wondering to yourself – will this kill me?
A few weeks before seeing Ben I had left my work’s Christmas party in an ambulance. I’d been given the wrong food by accident, only realising a few bites in that there were peanuts in my dinner. The ambulance was there quickly. I felt guilty for taking up ambulance time – I hadn’t been in a car crash? Was I really such a priority? The paramedics said yes – Schedule 1 – top priority.
Ambulances race to allergic reactions because they can become critical very quickly. If I ate peanuts and received no medical attention then my breathing would slow, my throat would close up, and I would die.
While the rest of the christmas party went on, people wondering if the intern had just died, I sat in King’s Hospital wondering why on earth have I committed to go on a trip through one of the most peanut-dense areas of the world?
Some ladies nexto buckets of de-shelled death.
This was the picture I’d been staring at before I saw Ben. It shows the density of peanut production across Africa. As you can see, there’s rather a lot of it (Note that blank spaces do not necessarily mean no peanuts, but often, no data.)
Peanuts are a staple in many African cuisines – they’re cheap, grow easily, and have loads of protein in them. In areas affected by famine, the high calories of peanut butter have made it an important part of the diet provided to malnourished children by relief efforts.
I had also been googling the names of countries we planned to visit alongside the word peanut. E.g. ‘Sudan + peanut’. The results weren’t promising. Sudanese cuisine is particularly peanut-heavy, the staple stew being half fava bean, half peanuts. In a country where the staple is often the only thing available, my chances of cycling through 1500km of Sudanese desert, eating all the calories needed to sustain that seemed small.
Pictured: A plate of fool sudani/death paste.
Further googling of ‘Africa + allergy + peanut + travel’ turned up very little of use. The only testimonies of people who had travelled with severe allergies were from people who had stayed in high-end, 5 star safari lodges, where the Michelin Star chef had kindly kept peanuts out of the food. That was great for them but of no use to me – the people making our food would change every day, multiple times a day, the language they would speak would change, the cuisine they made would change. Lots of stuff to worry about.
If I ate some accidental peanuts from a roadside cafe in the Sahara, an ambulance was unlikely to appear in time over the sand dunes. But I didn’t want an allergy to stop me going there, to keep me limited to countries where hospitals and ambulances are close at hand.
Pictured: Satisfyingly symmetrical crumbling gate in the Sahara. Not pictured: Ambulances
So we had to take with us everything an ambulance would use to control a reaction. That means a couple of injections: first adrenaline (epipens), then a steroid injection, then antihistamines. That’s what an ambulance would do, and it’s something we could do (despite a lack of formal medical training). I got a kit of needles and all necessary pre-mixed vials from a private travel clinic, put it in the bottom of my bag, and hoped it wouldn’t have to come out.
To prolong the time til any accidental peanuts made it into my food we also had to bridge some language barriers. Peanut allergies are much less common in Africa than in the UK and awareness of allergies are consequently lower. I didn’t (read: don’t) speak Arabic, Amharic, Oromic, Swahili, Bemba, Nyanja, Chichewa, Shona, Xhosa, Afrikaans (to name just a few of the languages we would be encountering). GCSE Spanish would be of little use. With the help of speakers of these languages I made little cards with this text:
Hello. I am allergic to peanuts. If I eat peanuts I will die. Does this food have peanuts in it? What food do you have with no peanuts?
Big thanks to all those who helped on those. They worked. Of particular use in addition was a phonetic translation into Arabic written for me by Petros Samano. Faces brightened up in comprehension in many Sudanese cafes and homes as this sunburned English boy, who had formerly shown only knowledge of basic greetings, suddenly came out with a few sentences of fluent (undoubtedly badly pronounced) Arabic.
As we travelled it also helped to find locals who spoke good English, whose advice consistently proved very useful. For example a truck driver in Malawi telling me to watch out for little white bits in stewed veg, and that “Everything in Botswana has peanuts in it”. Google didn’t have that info, people who lived in those places did. To play safe I stayed away from sauces and stews where peanuts could be hidden, and when we cooked for ourselves we could be sure that I was going to survive dinner.
And my final defense against hidden peanuts – Calum and Ed. Like a paranoid king I would look down at any unfamiliar food put infront of us, and ask my tasters to have the first bite; checking for hidden poison. As you can imagine, their opinions of “It doesn’t taste particularly peanutty” or “I think that’s a bean not a peanut” put my mind at (in)complete ease.
Their responsibilities didn’t stop there. As the most qualified scientist in the group (BA Hons Biology) Ed was declared team medic. Calum’s capacity for fainting at the sight of needles eliminated him from the selection process. After 170 days, three epipens and six needles have found their way into my leg. Thankfully we finished with some spare.
One of the first symptoms of a reaction, which sounds over the top but is medically attested to, is an ‘overwhelming sense of dread’. It’s a sudden feeling, an unpleasant one, one which makes the panic bells in your head start ringing. On the trip I got this quite a few times, some were red herrings, some turned out more seriously.
On our last day in Sudan we thought we had got through the peanut danger-zone (Neighbouring Ethiopia generally doesn’t cook peanuts into dishes but has them as a snack). The arabic for peanut is ‘fool sudani’. I hadn’t had a serious reaction in three weeks there, only needing to wolf down antihistamine pills as a precaution a couple of times.
We were having a meal arranged by the owner of a cheap hotel on the border, a corrugated iron courtyard with some beds. After a few bites the dread hit – this definitely had peanuts in it. We grabbed the med kit and pulled out the contents, the vials resemble little glass bowling pins, all glass, not the rubber-topped vials I had been shown before. With rubber-tops you put the needle through the rubber to draw up the liquid, no needles were getting through these glass bowling pins.
Cal suggested we snap the top off; Ed & I disagreed, thinking this seemed far too brutal a way to open these delicate vials. We called the first medically trained person we knew, Cal’s dad, with our last calling credit to ask his opinion. Just as I explained the problem we ran out of credit and the line cut out, leaving him with the knowledge that his son’s mate was possibly having a serious reaction and was unable to open the meds. It turned out Cal was right, these were snap tops. He found this by having a go and cutting his hand on the snapped glass. Ed drew up the liquid and injected me. Then the second vial. I sat jittering on the bed, high on the adrenaline injection, my teeth chattering. The wheezing went away. I lay down, falling asleep quickly as that adrenaline quickly wore off. The boys stayed up, watching to check that I kept breathing (Very easy to do given my snoring). Cal got a text through to his dad who was probably sitting quite worried about the whole thing.
The most serious incident was a few weeks later. In Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, I heard about a highly acclaimed indian restaurant which we went to for a nice dinner with some mates from home. I wanted a change from Ethiopian food, I wanted peshwari naan and saag paneer. Despite checking that there were no peanuts with the waiter I got that horrible feeling a few minutes after having tucked in. My head felt hot, my stomach hurt. I’d been ill quite a bit in the previous few weeks so my complaining of feeling off was nothing new – we thought this could be a red herring again.
The meal finished we went to a neighbouring bar, but my symptoms got worse. My skin was hot and hives started appearing all over my torso (red splotchy reaction). I told the boys we needed to get in a taxi now – the meds were back in the flat across town.
It isn’t easy to tell a taxi driver that he needs to race across town or he’ll have a dead passenger when you don’t speak his language, his two toddlers in the passenger seat are distracting him, and he is faced with the choc-a-bloc traffic of late night Addis Ababa. We asked how long it would take to get there… “30 minutes”. Thankfully urgency transcends language and Cal managed to get him to step on it. Meanwhile the hives had covered my entire body and my breathing was getting a lot heavier.
Thankfully we had two epipens (first adrenaline injections). I injected the first one and hoped we would get there faster. Time crawled, as did the traffic. After ten minutes I put the next epipen into my thigh, hoping we’d get there before it too wore off. We did.
Ed jumped out, ran to the flat and got the injections ready. I limped after him – what a time to have to walk off pins and needles. Having had more adrenaline and the other meds syringed into my thigh we waited, watching my breathing return to normal and the hives slowly go away.
After those big scares I thankfully didn’t have another reaction.
I wrote this because I could have done with seeing something similar before I came out here. When you grow up scrutinising the smallprint on packaging, worrying about the cake other people bring to school on their birthdays, the idea of travelling through unfamilliar places, languages and cuisines is scary. Thankfully I found a way to deal with that, to solve any problems I could and did have, and the fear of what’s in my food didn’t keep me at home.
I hope this can be of use to someone else, though this is contingent on getting solid medical advice about what meds you need, how severe your allergy is etc.
In response to my venting back in January Ben told me “Don’t worry, i’m sure you’ll find a way to deal with it”. I’m writing this on the plane back from Cape Town – thankfully he was right.
Since we finished donations to the Against Malaria Foundation have kept coming in. We’ve now raised over $65,000. Thanks so much to everybody that has donated.
To celebrate the end of the journey we did as all good scholars would. We headed to a bookshop. David, our host in Cape Town, made his living as a book purchaser around the continent for Clarke’s – the city’s oldest bookshop and one which counts current president Cyril Ramhaposa among its clients. David and Henrietta welcomed three unwashed cyclists into a library of antique and first edition books with a bottle of champagne and chocolate cake. Looking around the bookshelves it felt like being back in the Bodleian.
Studying history at university gives you either a love or a hate of libraries and reading lists. Each week you are presented with a list, twenty to thirty titles-long, for next week’s essay, your tutor suggesting this “short” list will give you a good starting point before you branch out into “wider reading”. That “wider reading” proved elusive in my essays’ bibliographies, which would stick to the books at the top of the reading list, the shortest articles, and exclude the wealth of info garnered from Wikipedia.
Coming on a long cycling trip through a continent I knew nothing about I reverted to the only means of preparation university had given me – I read. I read about Africa, about deserts, about cycling a long way, about difficult journeys through unfamiliar places…. all in the hope that it would add to the journey itself.
And that reading didn’t stop when we got off the plane in Cairo. Of course we didn’t have space to carry a library in our panniers (Though that didn’t hold Calum back from lugging a 700page hardback biography through Egypt with him).
Pictured: The Biography of Fitzroy McLean, left for the next lucky occupant of room 5 at Aswan’s Golden Nile Hotel.
One of our most valuable possessions on the trip has been those portable libraries in the palms of our hands – our kindles (This is not a paid promotion by Amazon for any suddenly wondering). When we’re off the bikes, not cooking, playing cards or repairing flat tires; whether sitting by the roadside for a 15 minute break, or by headtorch-light in our tents, we’ve been reading away.
Ed found reading a bit harder with an audience.
As we reach the end of the trip we thought a blog about the books we’ve found most valuable on the trip would be worth it.
Grouped by themes of:
As you might have realised. I don’t hate reading lists.
— Africa —
If you google ‘best books about Africa’ you are given suggestions nearly all written by white people.
Two of Google’s top suggestions are Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Karen Blitzen’s ‘Out of Africa’. Having read both, I’d suggest giving them a miss. You can call them ‘of their time’, or you could very reasonably call them racist.
Alternative and much more worthwhile bits of fiction, which repudiate the infantilizing picture of Africans and pre-colonial African culture presented by Conrad and Blitzen, are available. Books about Africa, by Africans.
1. The African Trilogy, Chinua Achebe
The first of Achebe’s trilogy, ‘Things Fall Apart’ refutes the savage picture of a dark continent without culture that Conrad cemented in European minds. He shows Nigeria’s complex pre-colonial culture and how it was disrupted by the arrival of Christianity and colonial government.
2. A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi wa Thiong’O
Thiong’O is Kenya’s Shakespeare – it’s hard to pick just one of his books. A Grain of Wheat follows a group of Gikuyu through Kenya’s Uhuru (independence) from Britain.
Travelling through many former British colonies I’ve been made very aware of my insufficient knowledge of British imperialism. The history curriculum in British schools undoubtedly fails to discuss the huge influence Britain had on the rest of the world. A yougov poll showed that 59% of British people thought the Empire was more something to be proud of than ashamed of.
Thiong’O’s work problematises that reponse by accounting the oppression and brutality carried out in Kenya in the name of King, Country and Empire. German students are taught about the horrors of their country’s past – the history of the Third Reich and concentration camps aren’t glazed over – so why does British education ignore the Empire and the concentration camps we set up in Kenya during the Mau-Mau rebellion?
3. Born A Crime, Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah is a household name, as presenter of The Daily Show he is the face of American political satire.
He’s come a long way from a difficult start in life. Born under apartheid in South Africa to a black mother and a white father the act of his creation was a crime. This account of his childhood is both hilarious and incredibly sad.
I’m sure the book on paper is great, but as an audiobook it is exceptional. Noah is a comedian, a storyteller, a fantastic impressionist and a polyglot. You get a much better understanding of his world by hearing his impersonations – his Xhosa mother, his Swiss father, Afrikaaner policemen – than by reading them off the page.
— Journalism —
1. Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, Ryszard Kapuscinski
Kapuscinski was the Polish Press Bureau’s foreign correspondent in Africa – he was first on the scene at every coup and revolution of the post-colonial period.
Shadow of the Sun brings together a great range of his writings and recollections. He tells stories from across the continent – the lives of dictators, miners, farmers, the great and small – all told through Kapuscinski’s beautiful prose.
2. China’s Second Continent, Howard French
There are 1 million Chinese people in Africa, they are one of Africa’s biggest and most recent immigrant populations. Everywhere we have cycled fresh new tarmac spans countries, built at speed by African road-crews under the watchful eyes of Chinese overseers.
Having heard from a Kenyan taxi driver that ‘the Chinese are taking over everything’, Cal and I read
French’s ‘China’s Second Continent’. He examines Chinese neo-colonialism across the continent through the lives of Chinese who have moved to Africa to set up businesses in the most unlikely places.
— Journeys —
1. Moods of Future Joys, Alistair Humpreys
Humpreys is the number one guy in the ‘Go outside! Have an adventure’ market. He’s the most fantastic optimist and has been on some incredible journeys.
If you aren’t bored of reading about English guys cycling long distances, his account of the first half of his cycle round the world is brilliant. In 2001 he set off to cycle around the world on a budget of £7000. He first intended to go through the middle east but 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan forced him south – through Africa. I tore through this short and beautifully written book in one night back in December.
2. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
” I want to see mountains GandRalph’ said FrEdo UnderHill of the (hamp)Shire. They were joined on their quest by a tall, long-striding ranger(read: scout) from the North” – [Annotated extract from Tolkien’s first draft]
We grew up with Tolkien. We played Lord of the Rings as kids. And now as large kids on a bike ride we can quote appropriate Tolkien extracts for every occasion.
Firm favourites reappear daily such as: ‘Get off the road!!’ – as a truck comes speeding down a road lacking in hard-shoulder; or ‘Fat hobbitses ate them!’ – as we wonder how yet again the biscuit supply has diminished overnight.
The unabridged audiobook we have is not only a great adventure in your mind as you cycle along, it has also proved a highly successful sleep-aid.
— Deserts —
1. The Martian, Andy Weir
As we pedalled through the desert we listened to the audiobook of The Martian. Protagnist Mark Watney talks to himself at great length, discussing the finer points of surviving on Mars – including all scientific and mechanical problems attendant to that. This helped us realise that our own isolation and (bike)mechanical problems weren’t really that bad.
Sadly it wasn’t read by Matt Damon. Also for those wondering Andy Weir is no relation of mine, there isn’t a scientific gene in the family.
2. Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger
Thesiger crossed the empty quarter of Arabia with the help of bedouin companions and some dromedaries. They survived on the most meagre of rations, less than a pint of water a day in searing heat. Cycling is a sweaty business, when we went through the Sudanese Sahara we were drinking closer to 10 litres each per day – don’t know how they did it.
Arabian Sands reveals deserts to be beautiful, dynamic and varied landscapes, not the monochromatic sea of sand I had imagined.
The first person we talked to in South Africa was a borderguard. This guy wasn’t the friendliest , lording over his dominion – the southern end of the Orange River bridge between Namibia and South Africa. Looking us up and down accusingly he asked ‘Where is your registration number?’. ‘Well…these are bikes, they don’t have registration numbers?’. He seemed dissatisfied by this, but handed us a ticket each to get our ‘vehicles’ registered as we entered the country. A friendly start.
Thankfully his colleagues at the other end of the border compound were much friendlier. We asked if they could take a picture of us with the South Africa border sign (one of them decided to join us). We then had one of the countless back and forths we’ve had on the trip with people we met, which would go something like :
‘Where are you from?’
‘You came on a bicycle??’
‘No, no we came from Cairo.’
‘You came from Cairo on a bicycle??? On this bicycle???’
That’s the standard start. It can change a little from that point onwards, the next questions asked often revealing something about the asker, and sometimes about their country when the same questions pop up repeatedly.
In Botswana, that great home of lions and elephants, the question was ‘But what about wild animals?’. In South Africa the route we took was devoid of such megafauna, so no one worried about whether we were at risk of a trampling/mauling/tusking/eating. Instead our friendly policeman enquired ‘But are you not being hijacked along the road?’. We cast our memories back through the trip, trying to remember whether at any point gunmen had assumed control of our bikes and taken our possessions; we all came to the same conclusion that ‘No… we haven’t been hijacked’.
A question of that ilk has popped up repeatedly from various South Africans we’ve met. Generally it is put in less forthright terms, asked simply out of concern and interest – ‘Had any problems?’. To this we will again answer…. ‘No’.
Ignoring a few bouts of illness and of frequent-puncture syndrome we haven’t had any big problems. Before the trip we received advice and predictions concerning possible issues we might have from friends and family.
On the extreme and unuseful end we had ‘You’re going to die’ – this from a friend who had never set foot on African shores. I’m sure anyone reading this will be gratified and aware that my friend’s prediction did not come true. We’ll all be returning to the UK alive and well.
A second friend was less catastrophising, but advised from years of experience working around Africa – including moments at the wrong end of a gunbarrel – that ‘At some point you’re gonna be robbed’. With the exception of one failed pick-pocketing attempt by a young pick-pocket who I picked up to get him to give back the cash he had picked from my pocket, we’ve not had any attempts on our possessions made (Sorry about the tongue-twister). I’ve merely lost things through general absent-mindedness.
A third, having worked in a hospital out here, said his biggest concern was road safety and trucks. He had seen what happens when things go wrong on the roads far too many times. We had a close call on that front, one truck speeding past so fast and close in Ethiopia that the vacuum of air behind pulled me off my bike and into the road. Thankfully there were no cars following and Cal behind slammed on his brakes, not wanting to use me as a speed bump. All I had to show from this was an unimpressive bruise on my elbow. I was lucky. According to the World Health Organization, if traffic was a disease it would be the deadliest disease in Africa. We’ve spent six months on the roads of countries with some of the worst rates of road traffic deaths in the world, and all I got was a bruise. We’ve been lucky.
Are these the problems people are expecting to hear about when they ask us? When you’ve travelled in a pretty vulnerable manner (on 13 kilos of steel and rubber) through countries which the newspapers don’t print many good-news stories about, I think people are expecting bigger problems than some punctures and a bruise. In South Africa, people seem to be expecting bigger problems. The policemen at the border were certainly prepared for those, each sporting a pistol holstered on his hip.
Having asked where we’ve come from, people then ask where we’re going. ‘South Africa’ or ‘Cape Town’ we reply. This elicits a couple of responses. SA can be the place where a poor young guy from rural Malawi or Namibia aspires to find a job and strike it rich. Cape Town can be a ‘lovely town’, ‘the funnest city’, ‘just like somewhere in Europe’. But people always follow this praise with a warning, the repetition of which builds a paranoia in your mind: ‘You’ve gotta be careful down there, South Africa is dangerous’.
South Africa’s history weighs heavily on its shoulders. Apartheid ruled from 1948 until 1991, disenfranchising the great majority of the population. This history of enforced racial segregation
left deep scars in the national consciousness, with historic racial tensions compounded by huge levels of social and economic inequality. That inequality is only too evident here today, and sits at the root of those policemens’ questions. No one with a secure job is going to be out hijacking cars.
I’ve digressed a little from the whole cycling thing. Back to that. We waved goodbye to our police friends and rolled into our final country. The rolling didn’t keep going for long though, as my back wheel, which had a growing tear in the aluminium since Tanzania, finally gave up. The wheel was bent out of shape and no longer cyclable – I was stuck in that canyon in the midday heat. The others weren’t though.
So the boys left me to hitch a lift to the next big town, Springbok, where I might be able to get a new wheel. The first lorry to pass was driven a friendly Namibian guy, Walter. Taking pity on this lonely cyclist he happily stopped to pick me up. Based on this trip it would appear I am cursed by the puncture gods, as one of Walter’s 36 wheels shortly punctured and ripped off. That made two of us in need of new wheels in Springbok. As he pulled into the truck garage I noticed a shop nextdoor. I was in luck. A row of bikes behind the glass – I was saved. Bike shops with the parts we need are fairly rare in Africa, and this was the only bike shop in town, if not for 200 miles. I arrived just as they were closing up, but by 8am the next day I had a fully functioning bike with a shiny new wheel.
The boys arrived in town in a heavy sweat after a tough 100km, the views of which I had enjoyed from behind Walter’s windscreen. And the views were beautiful, Namaqualand in the Northern Cape is stunning. After the lifeless desolate expanses of Namibia we were cycling into a new landscape speckled with colour. The guy at the bike shop told me that we had come just in time – the flowers were out. Rocky hillsides were now carpeted in green, pink, yellow and blue under clear skies.
The weather favoured us by day – no hint of rain, and a wind which drove us south over rolling hills at great speed. By night that wind blew so viciously at night that I was forced to jam earplugs in; blocking out the racket of rattling canvas.
Scrubland began to be replaced by carefully tended for fields. Most famous down here are the vineyards – South Africa’s wine country. We prepared for this trip by pedalling around France for a week, enjoying cycling through vineyards and nicking refreshing grapes as we passed. In South Africa you can’t nick any grapes – many fields were ringed with razor wire. Not so picturesque.
France a rather long time ago (August 2017).
A feeling grew throughout the country that we had left Africa and been transported to Europe. The Dutch and German tones of Afrikaans placenames had something to do with that. As did the Italian-feeling valleys of orange trees, where we stayed in the aptly named town of Citrusdaal. Or maybe it was the motorway service-stations, where we ate high-performance-athlete-appropriate lunches of takeaway pies, cadburys chocolate and crisps. We have eaten such junk in the last few weeks, leading to repeated claims that ‘I will never eat a gingernut again!’ ‘No more biscuits when I get back home’ etc. The likelihood of these strict no-biscuit diets being fulfilled seems slim.
Man and biscuit.
Sun-fried cyclist excited to eat deep-fried food.
We worked off some of those calories coming out of Citrusdaal. In the early morning we slowly inched our way up a 6km ascent, rising above cold morning mist on the valley floor to clear air before ascending into clouds topping the ridgeline. Visibility dropped, as did the road. Cycling downhill at speed through a cloud doesn’t feel safe, it feels cold and wet – Cal’s beard dripped with icy condensation as we stopped to don rainjackets despite the lack of actual rain. Where in Europe were we now? Yes you guessed correctly. Wales. Or maybe Scotland. Definitely somewhere with lush green grass, a general lack of sunshine and sheep in fine-fettle.
A sign you might be unlikley to see in Wales.
That afternoon as shadows lengthened and the sun began to set we were on a gravel road between big stretches of farmland. We weren’t going to be able to cycle the 15km to the pleasantly named town of Darling before sundown, so had to find a place to stay (it is never worth cycling at night). We asked at a chicken farm but they said there was too great a risk to us from chicken flu. The chicken farmer pointed us across the road, saying ‘Michael who lives down there will help you out’. Michael and his wife Annelle did help us out. All we asked for was a patch of grass to camp on, and what we got was a welcome as if we were family; being invited for dinner, a few glasses of wine and a long chat. It was a fantastic last night on the road to Cape Town – a great last bit of unexpected hospitality, something which pops up repeatedly when you travel on a bike. South Africa has been no exception, so many Cape Townians have offered us a place to stay, or invited us for a braai (bbq). We have had to decline them all, having already been offered a place to sleep off our months of fatigue in the city, with Mr David Leishman, a friend of Cal’s from back home who has shared with us his veritable wealth of knowledge about Africa over many cups of tea.
Our evening back at the farm was spent trading stories about life on bikes and farms in Africa. With only one day’s cycling left, and the great age of 170 days since Cairo behind us, we were already reminiscing. Rose tinted glasses were donned as we told stories of how ‘Back in (insert country) that happened… that feels like such a long time ago’, ‘That’s because it was a long time ago!’.
Annelle, Michael, Dirk and Leonard.
Between Michael and Annelle’s farm and Cape Town we had 80km left. The last day. Incoherent attempts were made to sing One Day More from Les Miserablés as Table Mountain hove into view. Cape Town had just been two words, a goal given little thought, a goal which in itself was arbitrary – just somewhere far enough away to drag us across a continent. And now it was infront of us.
Pictured: Just a dot and a marker on a map
Our last lunch on the road was at a gas station in suburban Cape Town. We have looked out of place everywhere we’ve been, but looking so weatherworn, unwashed and with big bike bags doesn’t quite fit in with suburbia. As ate our low-quality pies quite a few people came over to ask us where we were going and congratulate us when they heard. You don’t get a cheering crowd down the Champs Elysees at the end of this bike ride, but you do get the ‘well dones!’ of friendly strangers.
Man with pie.
Then began the mad dash. Lets just get there. Cape Town curves around the bay, we needed to get to the Waterfront area below the city centre. This was fine at first on a road with a generous bike lane, but then that disappeared. The road was now punctuated with big sets of fast-changing lights, and our bikes looked alot smaller next to lanes of speeding traffic. We assume we took a wrong turning, where did the bike lane go? Now stuck on the wrong side of a motorway – this wasn’t fun anymore.
Attempting to stay out of the traffic we cycled along the grass verge, over a bridge, and down the hard shoulder – bikes weren’t meant to be there. We left Cairo by cycling across three lane motorways, and here we were doing that again. Apparently Cape Town is meant to be a great city for cyclists? We disagree. Signs for The Waterfront appeared, pointing in different directions down more stretches of motorway. We got off and pushed, not wanting to end our last day sprawled on a BMW’s windscreen.
We needed to find that big yellow frame, and were pointed in the right direction by a policeman. Finally we cycled down Nelson Mandela Boulevard. On all sides we were hemmed in by glass and metal, highrise buildings emblazoned with the names of hotels and big corporates. We were back in Europe again, this time soulless Canary Wharf. But there it was, our yellow frame, up a level from the street. Eschewing the stairs which our bikes were too heavy to carry up we cycled up the tight switchbacks of the accessible ramp, then rolling over to that big rectangle of metal which meant finish. We slammed our hands on at the same time, and it was over. Everything we had planned for months, the 170 days we spent continually in each other’s company, a life of cycle, eat, sleep, repeat – all over.
There was noone there to welcome us, so we recruited a photographer from a family on a day out. Our mums couldn’t be there but these guys did a pretty good job in their place. And then they were gone, and we were left sitting in that big yellow frame, wondering what do we do now. We grabbed takeaway coffees and in the fading light and thought back to 15 months ago.
In the Turf Tavern on Holywell Street in Oxford I arrived out of the rain, got a pint of Old Rosie and sat down in the window. A guy I didn’t know with long hair and glasses turned up. ‘Are you Ed?’, ‘Yeah I am, you’re Ralph I’m guessing?’, after a while Calum turned up – the link we both knew but not really that well. ‘Right boys I’ve got an idea, It’s something I definitely want to do but it’d be great to have you along as well’.
This is the last country blog, the last ‘here’s what we’ve been up to’ penned in Africa, but there will be a few other topical blogs to come.
Just wanted to take the time to mention some thanks at the end of all this. Our donation page to The Against Malaria Foundation has a figure nearing $65,000 on it. That’s a sum we never imagined we would reach.
Firstly thanks to all our individual donors – your money is going to a charity which does exactly what it says: buying mosquito nets and distributing them to people in areas affected by this deadly disease. Saving lives.
Secondly to our corporate sponsor Sumitomo who matched all donations up to $30,000. That agreement doubled the amount of good that we could help AMF achieve. Massive thanks to John Lucas for the original idea; Adam, Jotham and Fred for support throughout; and to Youssif and his team at the Africa Technical Research Centre in Tanzania for showing us around the centre and teaching us about malaria prevention.
And to all our friends and family who have encouraged us, shared our story and helped keep those donations to coming. Chief among those is our head fundraiser, my dad Alan Weir who has shaken the proverbial bucket far and wide to garner support for AMF.
The capacity of three boys on bikes to do some good has only been possible thanks to all of your support.
And if you want to do some more good, here’s the link:
(The first section of this blog is best enjoyed sung to the upbeat section of The Beatles ‘Day in the Life’ where John Lennon goes through his morning routine)
Woke up, got out of my sleeping bag, pulled a sweat-stained shirt over my head. (Du du dum dum du du dum dum).
Brushed my teeth, and packed away my tent, ate a bowl of oats lit by the headtorch on my head. (Cha cha cha cha)
Hopped on my bike, put on my hat, prayed today I’d get no flats. (Da da dah dah da da dah dah)
Pedalled away with my mates behind my back, a hundred k to go down a long tarmac track.
[It’s at this point that the cheery section of The Beatles song ends, reverting to a forlorn discussion of traffic, the news and perhaps the pointlessness of existence. On that cheery note we’ll turn to a similarly existential discussion – what it’s like to cycle through Africa every day]
After the early morning cycle the mind turns to one thing…
— Carbs —
Are you riding a bicycle through countries where food choices are sometimes limited? If so then you must do as the locals do, eat the carbs they do. Our staple foods therefore change as countries and their cuisines change. But one thing remains the same – we eat a lot of carbs.
We have eaten so many, that picking our favorites is quite tough. Anyway, honorable mentions from the trip so far:
– Captain Majid biscuits in Sudan.
– Delicious fresh chapati in Kenya and Tanzania, thoroughly enjoyed with East African sugary tea.
– Mandazi, essentially a fried bread ball, which have been our filling and stodgy friends through tough times in Malawi and Zambia. Buying Mandazi at the roadside is always a lottery though, will they be sweet and hot, fresh from the pan? Or a cold and soggy leftover from the day before?
– Injera, the sour, moist and floppy pancake used to mop up Ethiopia’s delicious sauces.
– Some of Sudan’s staler and surprisingly moist (for a desert country) breads.
We haven’t really achieved a balanced diet. We eat a lot of Carbs. Especially in biscuit form. When stopping for a break atop a steep hill (breaks happen more often than this) biscuits provide the glucose rush we all crave. In the UK, you might have a biscuit with a cup of tea, here we liberally share out a packet every time we stop, to the extent that one of Ed’s pannier bags looks like he’s the biscuit smuggler himself. We’ve sampled crumbly and crunchy creations in all ten countries, from Capuccino biscuits in Ethiopia (we would buy 33 at a time from the bemused shop keepers) to Vanilla Creams in Malawi, which our teeth did not enjoy. But the undisputed king of biscuits is the humble Ginger-Nut, with whom we have had a whirlwind affair as they tease us up hills with anticipation of their crunch at the top. We need to stop eating biscuits.
Pictured: Calum showing that happiness is a warm, gas-station pie
How is that day’s cycling going? May depend on…
— The Wind —
When you walk out of your front door and it is a bit windy, you may notice it but quickly forget about it. When you wheel your bike onto the road in the morning and feel the wind on your face, you don’t forget about it. It can decide your day. Will it be a carefree day flying at great speeds through beautiful countryside (if the wind is behind you)? Or will it be a day of slogging slowly along, crouched to your handlebars and trying to hide in the slipstream behind your mate in front?
Our received understanding before this trip was that ‘Africa’s prevailing wind blows from the North’. Naively we believed that this meant tailwinds all the way. In Egypt and northern Sudan we were blessed by whipping Saharan winds sending us southward. Since then it has become a little more complicated. In Zambia we downloaded an app which revealed the complexity of wind patterns (Ventusky), this showed us that the paths of prevailing winds generally followed our route west from Botswana then south through Namibia to Cape Town.
As every good meteorologist, sailor, and experienced cyclists knows – winds are highly complex and don’t just blow in one direction down a continent. Who knew?
Headwinds are miserable.
— Bike Maintenance —
Do you know what is a real let down? A flat tyre. It is something that, as a cycle tourist, you have to become accustomed to. The sun is shining, the wind is at your back, all is going well, when suddenly, Bam, flat tyre. Well more accurately, pshshh, flat tyre.
The next 30 mins is then spent grumpily unloading you bicycle, turning it upside down, removing “problem wheel” and once the tyre is off, searching the inner tube for an miniscule puncture. Who knew something so small could cause so much pain.
We started the trip with confidence running high with our first puncture in Khartoum, not bad. Fast forward a few months and both Ralph and Cal have decided to stop counting after 20. Myself, on the other hand, am sitting smugly on 3. We have decided to put this down to the fact that I am significantly lighter than the others and not due to my superior cycling skillz. Yes i spelt skills with a z.
The worst part of a puncture is not the 30 minutes it takes to fix it but rather the puncture paranoia you have to live with. What’s puncture paranoia I hear you say? Its when you spend literal hours staring at the wheel asking yourself the question “hmmm is my tyre a bit softer?” You stop, have a feel, call over your friend for a 2nd opinion, realise there is no problem, cycle for 20 mins then repeat. It’s crap.
— Ed Hill on Hills —
In the flat desolation of Namibia a strange thought occurred to me… one which I never would have imagined before this trip.
I miss hills. I miss cycling up them and I miss cycling down them. I genuinely miss the long, steep climbs of Ethiopia. The boys agree. This makes us sound masochistic or as if the desert’s emptiness has finally driven us mad, but hear me out.
Pedalling along long stretches of flat is monotonous and repetitive. At the end of the day you can pat yourself on the back, feel like you’ve gone somewhere, and know that it will be exactly the same tomorrow. Dull.
Cycling in the mountains, is not only more beautiful; but once effort, sweat and pain has been poured into lugging you and the bike up the tarmac, you get an overwhelming sense of achievement. And once the summit is reached you gain the sweet reward of free-wheeling down a winding road. It’s these high points (see what I did there) that make long days in the saddle enjoyable. I miss hills.
After ending on that high point you can look forward to what’s to follow… a night in the life.
‘Welcome to Cattle Country’ proclaimed a sign as we entered Gobabis, our first Namibian town. Big wide streets, grid-layout towns, pickup-trucks and cowboy hats abound – this is the Wild West. I’ve had cowboy tunes playing in my head on repeat, though that may be due to the playlist of western soundtracks Ed downloaded last week.
The Wild West as we know it thanks to Messrs Wayne and Eastwood was a land of untamed, endless range. But as all those who took the Early American History module in their university days know, the days of cowboys driving cattle over open ranges didn’t last long. Why you ask? Because of fences. The advent of the wired fence allowed the west to be portioned off bit by bit under private ownership. The same is true in Namibia. Across much of Africa the roadsides are populated with wandering cows, here they’re populated by fences.
Pictured: Wondering why this fence is needed to keep this area of nothingness from that area of nothingness.
Fences stretch off to the horizon; hemming in that perfectly straight road. After long intervals dust roads break off from the main tarmac down to ‘(Insert Afrikaaner second-name)’s Ranch/Lodge/Cattle Station’. Miles of wire and posts demarcate great acres of scrub for their cattle to graze on.
Afrikaaners are proud of their beef, ‘We are the kings of dried meat’ a woman proudly told us as we crossed the border into Namibia. Lonely little shacks on the side of the road sell biltong (dried meat) to occasional passers-by.
Unsurprisingly the concept of vegetarianism is quite alien in this land where nothing edible grows. All the plants have far too many spikes for that. We’ve had quite a few flat tires as a result. After 10,000 kilometres we are starting to look a little like the tread of our tires – a little worn down.
Cal mentioned the spiky vegetation in the previous blog, but the point bears repeating. These are no ordinary thorns, and they are on every single bush! Our cycle through Namibia has consequently been punctuated by repeated punctures, daily we have sat by the roadside fishing these vegetative defense mechanisms from our tires and replacing our increasingly holey inner tubes; our supply of tire patches and rubber glue swiftly diminishing.
Despite the efforts of the local vegetation, in a few days we made it to Windhoek, Namibia’s capital. It’s a weird place… or maybe weirdly placed? Everything is so American – this is the new west!
The surrounding hills are peppered with sprawling mansions – Windhoek’s Beverley Hills. Below these lie estates of copy-and-pasted new-build houses hid behind razor wire, looking more like prisons than the ‘Communities of family homes’ their billboards suggest. Concrete brutalism is apparently in vogue.
The avenues of the centre of town are also dedicated to two pillars of American culture – cars and consumerism.
Cars. Personal car ownership is higher in Namibia than anywhere else we’ve been. Gone are the overcrowded minivan buses of East Africa, instead everyone in Namibia seems to drive a shiny white Toyota Hilux. We also now share the road with fleets of rental ‘Overlander’ 4x4s who fly by at high speeds. Hired for self-driven safari holidays around Southern Africa by a mix of Afrikaaners, Germans and Americans, these cars pack in hot-showers, fridges and rooftop tents – everything you could need to glamp in style in the bush. Their fold-out barbecues put our more limited camping-culinary-capacity to shame.
In this more prosperous corner of Africa people have greater choice in their purchasing, consumerism is here. Southern Africa’s big towns boast supermarkets, something absent in many of the places we’ve been. It’s very easy to decide what to cook for dinner when the tiny village shop offers so few choices, an ease we’ve had for much of the journey. In contrast, surrounded by aisles of choice in a Windhoekian supermarket Ed asked what I wanted to cook for dinner, I was paralysed by the range of options available… until he suggested that we just cook the same thing we always cook (Shakshuka – eggs poached in a thick tomato sauce). Prices down here are also a bit higher, so that shopping basket at the end does cost A Few Dollars More.
Stocked up on dry goods (chiefly ginger nut biscuits) we headed south out of the city, into the great-wide-nothingness. The desert.
I wasn’t very good at geography at school, achieving a D for attainment and a 4 for effort (on a scale of 1-5, 1 being good effort) in my end of year 9 grades. That spelled the end of my geographical studies, leaving me ignorant of the complexity behind geographical terminology. For instance, informed by sweltering scenes shown by hollywood, I always took ‘Desert’ to mean big, hot, sandy place. A quick google reveals my definition to be worthy of that D. Desert really signifies aridity, dryness, a general lack of precipitation. Indeed Ed has smarmily informed me that the world’s largest desert is in fact Antarctica – desert doesn’t have to mean hot. Indeed African weather, contrary to my ignorant assumptions, isn’t always hot. It’s bloody freezing here!
While Britain’s lawns lie unwatered in the sweltering heat, we have been sleeping in our tents wrapped in every item of clothing we can muster against the midnight chill. After a few mornings of cycling with fingers almost lost to frostbite (exaggeration), we headed to PEP, the Primark of southern Africa, where thick fleece gloves are available at a very reasonable price. A few days later I returned to another PEP for some fleece trackies, I sleep much cosier now.
The Namibian winter has sought in other ways to further confuse me on my geographical learning journey. As we lay one night in our tents, pitched among scrubby bushes on a bed of sand, we heard the pitter-patter of rain on the canvas. Rain?? In the desert??
There is a particular sense of despair I have always felt at being in a tent in the rain. While a tent confers a temporary state of dryness, there is always the knowledge that at some point you must go out and get your one set of clothes wet. This sentiment may have been borne out of one too many rain-drenched Reading Festivals as a teenager, or perhaps the Duke of Edinburgh expedition on Dartmoor where our teachers evacuated us early, the incessant downpour having washed away people and cars in a nearby village. Presently that feeling comes as I write this from a rain-drenched tent in the desert. You may have sensed a tone of indignation. Namibia apparently has very predictable weather (normally), and at this time of year it’s never meant to rain! Having been through the desert on bikes in the rain, I can tell you it didn’t feel good to be out in the rain.
Namibia is the fifth least densely populated country in the world. A lot of space, a lot of animals, not a lot of people. Cycling through Namibia is therefore at times an exercise in sensory and social deprivation.
We met an american guy in Zambia cycling the other way (Cape Town to Cairo), and traded stories about our trips so far. Of Namibia he said: “I lost my mind in the desert, those headwinds were traumatising”, we held ourselves back from checking whether America (the band) were correct in their assertion, that “In the desert you can’t remember your name”. His testimony was an example of the insufficiently studied medical condition: ‘Exhausted and crazed solo cyclist syndrome’. The condition is known to afflict cyclists facing: consistent headwinds; monotonous landscapes; insufficient human contact or a lack of rest…. for days on end.
Thankfully for social contact we’ve had each other, whether that is always positive for our mental wellbeing is another matter. Anyway, of much greater value are the previously mentioned soothing tones of Kirsty Young and Sue Lawley on Desert Island Discs, we’ve listened to hundreds by now. For those wondering my luxury would be an endless supply of porridge.
After days of desolate landscapes your memories begins to blur into one another. Its hard to separate the memory of one identical pasta dinner from the next. After one of our longest cycling days of the whole trip, Calum wanted something more than spaghetti (western). The town of Keetmanshoop (What a fun name!) had something to offer.
Having spent his formative years (last winter) perfecting his waltzing skills in the palaces of central Europe, Calum has developed a keen taste for German cuisine. He can smell a schnitzel from a mile away. This town delivered on his desire.
Thanks to one of colonialism’s oddest hangovers you can step from the dusty streets of Namibia into a little slice of Germany. Bad 1980s europop serenades you from a tinny speaker, the table is decorated with a kitsch christmassy centrepiece, the beer comes in steins and most items on the menu end in -wurst or -shwein.
In cycling clothes which hadn’t seen a wash in quite a few days we weren’t typical customers to this establishment, the rest of whom were Afrikaaners in their 50s. We hope (in vain) that our smell didn’t put them off the inordinately large portions of meat sat infront of them. It certainly didn’t put us off, no smell can get between Calum and a schnitzel.
I wish I could say we had a magnificent seven days going south from Windhoek. But persistent headwinds and driving rain didn’t make for cheery cyclists in that middle stretch of Namibia. Weather and scenerydo a lot to dictate your mood when travelling by bike. The phrase ‘pathetic fallacy’ is probably relevant here.
Thankfully our last few days were not so cursed by the weather gods. The wind spun to our backs, and the sky cleared to beautiful, cloudless blue. We climbed a gradual incline through russet-coloured, rocky hills.
That incline eventually curved off to a subtle pinnacle – downhill all the way to South Africa… for 180 kilometres. We flew. Borned on a gail at our backs our pedals stayed stil as mother nature and gravity did the work.
Through wind, rain and shine we got through Namibia. It was tough at times but the end is now in sight. Cape Town is 700 kilometres away – seven days if nothing goes wrong. For months we’ve been saying ‘We’re cycling to South Africa’…. now we’re here. We’ve almost done it.
As ever we’d like to thank everybody who has donated to the Against Malaria Foundation through our page. We’ve raised $60,971. If you think we’ve worked hard enough/you’re enjoying the blog then consider donating at: