"He spent 40 days in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry."
The Bible, New Testament
It's been almost 40 days since my last blog but am happy to report that after struggling through the remote wilds of Southern Ethiopia and North West Kenya, we have finally reemerged - a few pounds lighter - back into the welcome arms of hot showers, cold beers, and intermittent internet access. Somewhere along the way we also crossed the 10,000km mark (or as I like to think of it, the 1 billion centimeters mark). A combination of extreme heat, non-existent roads, and long stretches of harsh uninhabited desert bush made this our toughest challenge yet. But, the breathtaking and ancient tribal wilderness we got in return was worth every drop of blood, sweat and tear. The one outside influence that has managed to penetrate this forgotten corner of Africa are Christian missions. With their help, and a huge box of rations from the Kenyan army border post, we just about managed to get through in one piece.
On paper it didn't seem too hard: From Addis Ababa, it was a
week's cycle south along the western flank of the great rift valley, before our
route turned west, plummeting down from the heavily farmed hills of the Ethiopian
Highlands, and into the scorching lowland plains of that would lead down to the
Lower Omo Valley and eventually, the Omo River. From here, the river would
guide us south into Kenya and onto the barren shores of Lake Turkana, which we
had to follow for a mere 150km until we finally got back to civilisation.
In practice, this leg of the journey was extremely tricky. In fact it's become notorious as the worst bit on the route from Cairo to Cape Town. We got mounds of advice to take a more straightforward but boring route toward Nairobi but in the end, the mysterious tribal lands proved too seductive to resist.
The week from Addis Ababa down to Konso - the last major town in the Highlands - was unpleasant and wearisome. The constant mindless begging and harassment continued unabated, and I spent many hours on the road consumed with hatred for the Ethiopian people. Fortunately, I could block them out to some degree with Emily's iPod, and the spectacular mountainous scenery also offered some relief, especially the views down to the distant shimmering hippo-filled lakes on the floor of the Great Rift Valley.
After a long week, we eventually crested a hill, and instead of seeing another one rising up ahead of us as per usual, there with nothing but haze and yellowy brown plains, stretching away below us all the way to the horizon. it was the end of the Ethiopian Highlands! Pointing our wheels downhill, we plunged into a new world, or rather, an old world. The area from here to the Kenyan border is inhabited by various tribes of cattle herders for whom life is still tough and traditional. There are no roads, no mains electricity, and in some parts it hasn't rained properly for years. Half naked women in goat-skins, beads, and bangles are a common sight, as are painted and decorated tribal warriors with kalashnikovs. All rather weird at first, but you get used to them after a while.
Anyway, as we dropped out of the highlands, we were hit by wave of hairdryer-like air. Even at 4.30pm, it was oppressive, and a serious shock to the system. But for such an inhospitable place, it was surprisingly green and lively. As we made our way toward the Omo Valley, we were surrounded on both sides by thorny bush and sporadic patches of forest. Hornbills squawked in the trees, and guinea fowl and dik-dik (small deer) skittered nervously through the bush as we rode past. Our first encounter with a discernible 'tribesman' came as we were struggling to push our bikes up a steep slope from a fjord in a stream. He was leading his cattle back up the slope after taking them for a drink and at first glance I thought he was wearing nothing but earings, a loincloth, and white leggings. On closer inspection I realised his legs were actually covered in wavy patterns, drawn with chalk. I was eager to see how he would react to us and was relieved when he regarded us with a mixture of sympathy and amusement that's become quite familiar over the last six months. I like this reaction - it's the sort of response I would have in his position - and I sensed some kinship between us. The next day, at a village called Arbore, we sat down in a thatched hut (the local 'pub') for an afternoon rest and bottle of Fanta. Before long, two tall and impressive looking men came in. Their hair was ornately styled with clay and they were covered in copper armlets, and brightly coloured earings and necklaces. They were from the Hamer tribe, we were told. To my delight, they sat down opposite us and also got themselves some Fantas. I had thought they must be there on some kind of goat-related business, but no! Apparently they were just getting out of the sun for a refreshing fizzy drink like us. We nodded pleasantly to each other and drank our drinks. It was beginning to seem that these strange people weren't so different from us after all.
There were supposedly a lot of hyenas in the area so we stayed put in Arbore that night and the next day we made it to Turmi, the last stop before the Omo River. Here we got our most welcoming reception in all of Ethiopia, and I ended up getting drunk on the local fermented honey wine before lunch, and was then roped into playing football [still a bit pissed] for the local team in a very important match against a team of road workers from out of town. It was a great way to end a very long 5 weeks in Ethiopia and when we got to the Omo River I was almost (but not quite) sad to leave. In Turmi, we also met up with Sadie and John, an American couple we had met in Sudan who we were reuniting with to cross into Kenya, and Aaron - another American who they had picked up along the way.
Crossing into Kenya, we knew things would be getting a lot harder. In Ethiopia, a steady stream of tourists coming to see the tribes means that there is some infrastructure but this is not the case on the Kenyan side. In addition, the first 50km is a volatile no-mans land, next to a disputed border with South Sudan, and the site of an ongoing conflict between tribes from either side of the Kenya-Ethiopia border.
When we got dropped off on the other side of the Omo River on a little boat we had hired, we were well prepared, carrying about 20 litres of water each and five days worth of food (including lots of instant noodles). But to our horror, there was no sign of any kind of road or track so we had to push our bikes through the sandy wasteland in roughly the right direction, hoping for the best. After a while, we came across some tyre tracks that seemed to go the right way so we followed them. It was 10 grueling km later that Aaron looked at his GPS and announced that we would be entering Southern Sudan in 2km if we continued. We'd gone the wrong way already! With considerable frustration we turned back and retraced our steps. After consulting some local tribesmen, it turned out that we'd missed the correct turning - a single set of tyre tracks branching away to the south near the beginning of the track.
Back on the right trail, the bright colours of tribal Ethiopia drained away. The landscape took on a barren but beautiful post apocalyptic feel, with little now growing in it, apart from patchy grass. The ground was an unfortunate mixture of sand and volcanic dust - the worst thing imaginable to try and cycle through - and more than half our time was spent trudging sweatily through soft sand, pushing the bikes. After two days we had only just made it into Kenya.
Aaron had had enough. He persuaded some guys at the army barracks to take him onward in a truck. For the rest of us, things began to look up. The army guys had replenished our water supplies and generously given us a huge box filled with all sorts of goodies from corned beef to tinned pineapple chunks (ridiculously opulent treats in our mindset at the time). We also met the wonderful Father Lazarus who took us into the local mission and managed to find us a huge Tilapia fresh out of Lake Turkana, which we greedily fried up and scoffed down with some rice from the army boys. We now had more than enough food to get us through even at this slow rate, and according to Father Lazarus, we should be able to get round the lake by hopping from mission to mission to find water and a safe place to sleep.
As we continued on, our most formidable foe was the heat. I had never been anywhere so hot and the power of sun was literally becoming fearful. There was no escape and rarely a cloud in the sky. The only comfortable time to ride was between 6.30am - 9am. After that, the temperature would soar to around 45 Celsius and remain there until nightfall. Even then, we needed to sleep with our tent open (regardless of scorpions and other things) to stop ourselves melting away in a pool of sweat. Our daily routine involved waking up at around 5am to pack up camp and eat breakfast in the dark, before waiting nervously until there was enough light to set off. During the day, we spent much time underneath shady trees trying unsuccessfully to get out of the heat and conserve water (I was drinking about 12 litres per day, more than I'd thought humanly possible).
Still, we couldn't complain. The wilderness and the people who were sharing it with us were awe-inspiring and we felt very privileged to be there. The track also improved, and bit by bit, we managed to get round the lake. On the 5th day after crossing the Omo River, we rode into the town of Kalakol. After 10 days of juddering along rocky tracks or being bogged down in sand, our tyres hit tarmac. It was like gliding through air, and with our hardships behind us, we were ready to see what the 16th country on our route had to offer.
Sorely in need of some home-style comforts, Kenya - a former British colony - was surely the right place to be. Almost everyone wears smart shirts and speaks English and they have various cultural reminders of home. Sadly, and shockingly, it still proved impossible to find a decent cup of tea, but remarkably easy to find Guinness and live Premier League football. I indulged in both before leaving Kalakol and was amazed at how fanatically people here support Arsenal - definitely more so than where I grew up in North London. On my way out of town a fisherman started riding alongside me with his day's catch tied to the back of his bike. He enquired eagerly whether I had "ever seen an English football match, physically?". "Yes" I said, "I've seen lots of games - I live in England". "Wow!" he said dreamily, "the day that God accepts us to watch a game physically....ohhhhh....we shall rejoice!".
As we continued south-west toward Uganda, we had to take a short lift
(our second since leaving home) to get past a dangerous stretch of road where
bandits from the Pokot tribe had recently been jumping out the bushes and
hijacking people. It was a horrible, hot and bumpy ride squished in the back of
the lorry amongst sacks of coal and miscellaneous wicker products, and
ironically, it did more damage to my bike than 11,000km of riding.
As we gradually climbed up to 2000 metres, the baking heat of Turkana soon seemed like a distant memory as the landscape became steadily wetter and more lush. For a while now, greenery had been so sparse that all plants had to be covered in a thick layer of thorns to protect against being nibbled to death by goats. Now, fertile red soil was everywhere, and from it oozed all kinds of new flora. Fortunately for Emily, who had long-held and severe cravings for fresh fruit and veg, this included plenty of banana, mango and papaya, which was sold on the roadside for as little as 5p a mango! It seemed inconceivable that tinned pineapple had seemed so exciting barely a week ago. The red soil soon managed to permeate all our belongings, either dust when it was dry, or mud when it rained, but it was a small price to pay for the paradise it created.
As mentioned, Kenya holds various clues to its British past, but I will always remember one in particular. We’d turned off the road one afternoon in search of a campsite and after following a dirt track for a minute or two, we popped out in front of a perfectly quintessential English country cottage nestled among flower beds and an immaculately kept English country garden. It was quite surreal. Polite Kenyan staff bustled about and before long we met the owner, an elderly woman in her 90’s called Jane who was quick to sternly point out, "it doesn't look English, it is English". Jane had come over in the 1950s and her parents built the house, where she still lived with her son, Dick. The whole experience there was extraordinary. It was as if the whole place had been suspended in time for the last 60 years, and now existed as a rare and purified form of Englishness, all but extinct back home in the modernised multi-cultural England of the 21st Century. We sat down to a big Sunday roast with them and as the staff fussed around us in their perfectly preserved 1950’s living-room, I felt like we’d been sucked into a post-war period novel. Dick pulled out a strange looking pot of anchovy stuff labeled 'Gentleman's Relish' which one of his friends had brought over from England. He was surprised I didn’t know what it was and I had to inform him that regrettably, this kind of thing is no longer available in your average English grocery shop. When we left Dick and Jane, I felt very extremely lucky to have met and stayed with them. In many ways, they gave us a cultural experience that in modern times, had become just as wonderful and unique as any tribal rite of passage that we’d seen in Ethiopia.
Back in the real world, we headed for Uganda via the North slopes of Mount Elgon. With the toughest trials now surely behind us, it's started to feel like we're almost on the home straight, but as we cycle toward the steaming jungles of Central Africa with the rainy season closing in, perhaps we're not out the woods just yet.
Stats so far
Days on the road: 194
Distance cycled: 10,943km
% of total distance done: 60.8%
Average Distance per [cycling] day: 82.3km
Average Distance per day including rest days: 56.4km
Highest temperature: 49 Celsius (in the shade)
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