Month: February 2019

Ethiopia

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Last sunrise in Sudan at Gallabat

“A person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick; the distant border, what appears to be the edge, is the country’s central reality.”

              Paul Theroux, from Darkstar Safari

The Sudan/Ethiopia border was another 4 hour “hurry up and wait” exercise. This time questions about travel to the Congo and an infrared thermometer  pointed at our foreheads served as safeguards against Ebola. Money changers were busy in the neutral zone between countries so we were able to load up on Ethiopian birr at a rate exceeding that offered by the banks in Gondar. After finger printing, mug shots and some very assertive passport stamping, we walked our bikes into the 3rd country of this adventure and exchanged birr for beer while we waited for our support vehicles to clear customs.

There were some armed demonstrations in the streets of Matema as we rode our bicycles a short distance to where the military forced us to board arranged mini vans to get to our destination in Gondar.  Later we saw some burned out farm houses and passed several military check points.  From our understanding there are disagreements  between the tribes (there are over 80 ethnicities in Ethiopia) of this region stemming from the policies of Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abi Ahmed. It is unfortunate that the unrest is situated in our path as Ahmed is well regarded at home in general, as well as in international circles. He has forged peace with Eritrea and created political stability and impressive economic growth all in a short period. 50 % of his ministers are women. Great stuff, but we still were relegated to the bus.

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Our vehicle preceeded by a military escort on the road to Gondar

The topography en route to Gondar quickly becomes mountainous and could easily be mistaken for that of Arizona, especially with the appearance of prickly pear cacti to go along with the Juniper, fig and purple flowered jacaranda trees in the city.  It has been a fascinating transition from the desert we were beginning to think might never end, to the mountains of East Africa’s Rift,  Agriculture, architecture, natives, dress, food, drink, SIM cards, the air temperature here at 2200 meters of elevation and so much else have all undergone makeovers that came quickly, even at the rate of progress a bicycle allows.

2 rest days now in Gondar, known as the “Camelot of Africa”.  This city became Ethiopia’s capital in 1636 and grew as an agricultural and market town.  The former magnificence of the palaces and gardens is evident  by what remains of the (World Heritage Site) Royal Enclosure, at the base of the bowl of hills that mark the city. They were constructed over almost 2 hundred years before the capital was moved and the city plundered and sacked.   Ethiopians take pride in never having been colonized, but the Italians did overrun the country in 1936.  The British chased them away in 1941, but Gondar became Mussolini’s last stand and some of the monuments suffered further damage.

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Alem-Seghed Fasil’s castle – Gondar

 

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Walls of the Royal Enclosure in Gondar

 

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Injera

“You will get sick on your days off”, we’ve been warned, “and it will likely happen in Ethiopia.”  At the same time we’ve been encouraged to sample one of Africa’s finest cuisines.  Last night we had our 1st local taste of injera: a gray, spongy bread made from fermented grain and spread over a whole large platter like a thin pancake.  It is topped with sauces called wot and small mounds of meat, vegetables and a boiled egg. A vegetarian version falls under the “fasting food” title on menus.  It is meant to be eaten by tearing off pieces of the injera by hand and scooping up the toppings. We were not impressed with this dish last year in an Ethiopian restaurant in Brooklyn, but this version was delicious. So far so good on the “sick” front btw.

 

Throughout Sudan and now here in Gondar the group has indulged in the tea and coffee offerings of women installed at small “stations” within ramshackle lean-to style gathering places we refer to as “coke stops”.  With practised technique they create wonderfully aromatic and invariably sweet concoctions. Boiling  pots of water and Italian style coffee pots sit on expertly managed charcoal burners (or more often on the charcoal itself) that do little for the surrounding air quality. They draw from shelves full of jars containing various tea leaves, coffee and spices to make their brews. They will not be rushed.  Since crossing the border the ladies are roasting their own coffee beans (Ethiopia has among the finest in the world) and grinding them on site with huge mortar and pestle set-ups (including a robust piece of rebar in one instance). A small pot is served rather formally on a tray with 4 small cups for 30 birr – $1.25 Canadian.  It is a gift.

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Hanging with the usual crowd at a coke stop on the long road to Capetown

The Cast of the 2019 Tour d’Afrique

As we make our way to Ethiopia here is one last image from Sudan.  Sadly the line up of vehicles is the result of a long standing gas shortage (relatively recently independent South Sudan has the oil). The line up of young typically smiling gentlemen was spontaneous as the camera made an appearance. 

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Line ups

We just were told at this evenings’ rider meeting that we will be bussed to Gondar from the Ethiopian border due to political unrest.  Whereas this is disappointing for the participants,  it is a logistical nightmare for the organizers.  Clearly the safety of all concerned is the chief concern.

The www has been hard to access in Sudan.  The lack of distractions has given the group every chance to grow together.  It has been a pleasure.

 

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Rider meeting in the desert – leader Tallis and Doctor Jen holding court

30 riders began the 2019 edition of the Tour d’Afrique. We lost 3 “sectional riders” in Khartoum and gained 5. We now have 7 women, 3 of whom are travelling with their husbands. One of the couples have kids in their 40’s and are on their.  5th tour with TDA, including the even longer South American Epic. Bicycle touring royalty.

The sweet spot in terms of age is around 60 – post “retirement”.  It does, after all, take time and  a chunk of change to do this.  There are about 10 riders in the 30- 35 bracket.  Canada is the best represented country, but we also have a few Brits, a couple of Dutchmen, a Swede, a German, an Irishman and a smattering , of Aussies and Kiwis. We have one woman who is of Chinese descent and a gentleman of Indian descent, but the rest of us here in Africa are slapping sunscreen on our exposed bits like it’s a matter of life or death.  Perhaps it is.  

Among the recently retired we have the former head of the paediatrics ICU at Sick Kids, a former federal court judge from Montreal and a NFB documentary maker turned novelist.  We have a welder. Phil kept a heard of 3200 ewes on the South Island of New Zealand. We have a British geologist on leave from a contract in Rwanda who rallied the group to visit the ancient Nubian temples at Jebel Barkel. We have an architect, retired military, real estate movers and a former corporate lawyer who lasted 3 weeks at home with his wife before signing on as a bike mechanic at MEC!

Everyone here has his or her own variation on the dream of crossing Africa on a bike.  For us, this trip is the culmination of many years of increasingly challenging and exotic bicycle touring. We like journeys that don’t double back on themselves. Crossing a continent qualifies. After 10 years of circling back to the TDA webpage, it was time. Others have lived or worked in Africa and see the trip as “coming home”. Some like to cycle fast and are here to exert themselves on new terrain with new challenges to overcome. Speed bumps and wayward donkeys are unwanted distractions. Others are comfortable enough on their bikes, but are more interested in the sites and the people of Africa, getting to the day’s destination a little later. For them, distractiions make the miles go by quickly. And then there is Mats, who on a given day will head out of camp at the back of the pack with the sweep rider to enjoy a more social riding experience, and the next day might be the first to wash his porridge bowl as he prepares to blaze a trail to camp hours ahead of the last arrivals.  

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Lenore, Peter and Jerome

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Coke/tea stop

We’re not being dramatic in saying that participants have to be accepting of some “difficult” living conditions on this tour. The leaders are champs at giving us every advantage to realize our dream, but they are unsympathetic when it comes to mitigating hardships – “there is no water for washing up” is not preceded by “sorry, but . . .” .  Many of us have been sick. A gastro case in the group needed hospitalization. Orthopedic support tape provides support for knees,  ankles and achilles tendons. A bad flu and chest infections requiring antibiotics hit many, including both of us.  Jennifer, our amenable tour medic, keeps stressing that it is better to rest and keep the long game in mind. She is the voice of reason, but everyone here is stubborn.  Every one of us would rather ride a bike than the bus.  

To a certain extent self preservation is tantamount. There is jostling for the “shady” tent spot. The line forms quickly when “open kitchen” is called for second helpings.  The sound of tent zippers could be heard earlier and earlier over the last days as the realization hit that cool mornings trump afternoon heat. We’ve seen this before. It will change once everyone figures out that minutes don’t make a big difference over the course of a day, and certainly not over 4 months.

At the same time there is a blossoming collective effort which we all recognize works to everyone’s advantage. On the road casual pace lines form when the wind is not in our favour. We help each other with flats tires, putting up tent flys that won’t cooperate in the wind and reminders to hydrate for the weary looking.  Riders have been rolling into camp to applause on the hard days, lead by the strongest among us who know that the additional hours on the road mean less time for other tasks and rest, compounding the deficit. Stronger is better, period. There is mutual respect. Lasting relationships are being formed.

The cast and crew of the Tour d’Afrique are  a travelling sideshow of vehicles and cyclists playing leapfrog across a continent, a tribe unto themselves. Our back stories served as ice breakers in Cairo. Now we are all the same, dreamers with one purpose, to ride our bicycles and get the most out of each day until we reach Capetown. 

Here is a promotional video called “I Seek” from TDA which might help to explain this, and maybe even spark a dream of your own.

Thanks for reading.

The Gorge

Sunrise over the desert.

Sunrise over the desert.

We have now surpassed the 2000 km mark and completed Pharoah’s Delight, the 1st of 8 sections of the tour ending just outside of Khartoum. We were bussed through that city for safety.  Looking at the mayhem and sprawl through the windows we reflected on the words of the travel writer Paul Theroux, who wrote in Darkstar Safari, his chronicles of an overland Cairo to Capetown  journey in 2002:

“Even at their best, African cities seemed to me miserable improvised anthills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and devisors of cruel scams.  Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.”

Harsh words, which we would not hazard to comment upon. We certainly hope for a good outcome for the people of this country who have struggled under economic sanctions since 1997.

We are excited about the next phase of this year’s Tour d’Afrique: The Gorge. This 1250 km section comes with a TDA “far out” rating of 5 on 5.  We will head south from Khartoum and pass through the Gezira region – the “bread basket” of Sudan. Approaching Ethiopia, the mosques we have seen in every town will give way to the more tribal and traditional nature of the Horn of Africa. We will have to set the alarm clocks in the absence of the 5:00 AM call to prayer.  

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Topographical change as we head for Gondar, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia offers some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world, as well as one of its most unique and ancient cultures. Our work will be cut out for us as soon as we cross the border, with two days of climbing up to Gondar (2500 meters worth on arrival day – the most of any stage on the tour).

We will be encouraged to sample the spicy local cuisine and somehow avoid the well documented “problems” it may give us. From a cycling standpoint, the highlight of this section will be the Blue Nile Gorge, a 1360 meter precipitous descent and ascent that will test our nerve. After that, the beautiful terrain of the central Ethiopian plateau will see us through to capital city of Addis Ababa. 

We have a rest day today. Time to do laundry, bike maintenance and charge up devices.  We will be entertained by traditional Sudanese musicians later this afternoon. The next 6 days will bring a change of scenery and new challenges.

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“New Challenges”. Next shower in 6 days. We have booked a hotel in Gonder to give the tent a break.

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Mornings will begin to look different than this start in the desert.

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First electricity in days – plugs at a premium.

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Photography is discouraged for us in Sudan, but the natives can’t stop taking shots of us (especially selfies).

Thanks for reading.

 

Feeling The Heat

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Dead Camel Camp

It is hot.  We are sitting ducks under a relentless sun in the Sahara, the biggest sand pit in the world.  

The Sahara spans the continent from east to west under several aliases covering 9 million square kilometres, 31% of Africa.  Cycling in the Red Sea and other areas outside of the Nile delta in Egypt we were in the Eastern desert. The  Nubian desert covers the area we find ourselves in now near Khartoum.  

The iconic image of any desert are ergs (sand seas  or large areas covered with sand dunes), but this forms only a minor part of the Sahara. Rocky  hamada (stone plateaus) accounts for most of the area.  The central Sahara is hyperarid, with sparse vegetation. We are beginning to see shrubbery, which  indicates that we are coming into the Sahel, a transition zone between the  Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savana to the south. 

Some readers were surprised to see riders in pants and sleeves in earlier posts.  That’s over for now.  3 scorching days riding in the direction of Khartoum have topped 40 degrees.  145 km in a blast furnace is one thing, but when the destination is “Dead Camel Camp” ( the answer is yes), clean up involves an industrial sized wet nap, peeing in the sand barely leaves a wet spot and the heat from the ground still rises in the tent after sundown, well . . . life Tour d’Afrique style is hard upon us.

Stage 16: Dead Camel to Desert Camp, was 143 km dead into a 25 km/hr wind that offered no relief from the heat. Commercial traffic travelling at high speed forced us off the road at points, sandblasting us in their wake.  This route was to be improved upon, but  political unrest in Sudan dictated otherwise. Less than half the riders completed the day, with many calling it quits at the lunch stop at 80 km. After that point every km gained was a struggle, and Lenore became one of several casualties, actually shivering roadside in the impossible heat!

As her day ended after 90 km a  4X4 with 2 gentlemen and their driver pulled over to offer assistance. We consulted briefly and determined that they would be  able to deliver her to camp – a pullout along the highway to Khartoum where they were headed.  We loaded her bike into the vehicle and off she went, relieving TDA of one rescue.  The rest of us peddled on.  

“So you trusted complete strangers in Sudan of all places?” (We heard you).  Yes. The people of Sudan have been among the friendliest we have ever met.  As it turned out the Sudanese Minister of Agriculture and a businessman/ agricultural engineer from Turkey looking to establish maize and other types of plantations were perfect gentlemen though they were rather shocked to see the look of our accommodation for the night!  We did not know of their credentials beforehand, but we went with our instincts.  It’s how we got here in the first place, and it’s how we’ll make it to Capetown.  

Stage 17: Desert Camp to Abu Dolooa, was 148 km with similar conditions to the previous stage, maybe hotter, but with one extra coke stop – more important than you can imagine!  This time Gerry succumbed to the extreme conditions and rode the van in from lunch while Lenore arrived at camp after ten and a half hours on the road.

Each of our successful days were the toughest we have ever done on a bicycle. We lost our EFI (“every effing inch” – more on this later) status, but that was never a priority for us. This journey is a marathon. Heat stroke is serious business.  We intend to play it safe and choose our battles.  

Thank for reading.

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Coke stop!

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Shrubbery

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Another day is done

Sudan

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Off with the sunrise

Farqua  to Nile Ferry Camp, Sudan

Excerpt from Rider Meeting:

Tallis (tour leader): “Tomorrow’s instructions are very simple: turn right  out of camp, travel 145km, turn right into camp.”

Rider #1: “Will there be any water for a bottle shower or laundry?”

Tallis: “I don’t know yet. But there  is the Nile.”

Rider #2: “Is there bilharzia in the Nile?”

Tallis: “The risk is low.  But you have to make your own decisions.”

Rider # 3:  “Are there any crocodiles in that section of the river?”

Tallis: “Stick to the areas where there is a current.”

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Lake Nassar ferry

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1st miles in Sudan

We entered Sudan with the expected fuss: a 2 hour wait to exit Egypt, then another hour to clear Sudanese customs.  An earlier ferry ride from Abu Simbel and a quick 35 km from the opposite bank of Lake  Nassar  to the border brought us to lunch time, which the crew served up in the “no man’s zone” between borders, effectively turning the buffer area into a buffet area.  Great use of down time. We experienced a similar scenario a few years ago between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, except that in that buffer zone all manner of opportunists, including money changing cowboys waving “bricks” of cash at panicky tourists, were permitted to conduct their business with machine gun toting police from 2 countries turning a blind eye.  Beyond comprehension.  The activity here was much lower key, the border mosque blasting the usual prayers being the exception.  

The 1st miles in Sudan looked like a video feed from a surface rover on Mars. We made good time through the unscathed desert to allow time for “housekeeping” duties at camp. The first order of affairs was to swap $200 US through the window of a pick-up truck for 12K (or a 2 inch high stack) of Sudanese pounds. The rate was roughly 3X the “official” rate. The next acquisition was a couple of SIM cards from another African entrepreneur who showed up at the local municipal sandlot (our home for the night) to feed our internet habit.  We’ll see if the downloaded VPN workarounds for social media get us anywhere. If you are reading this you have the answer! Like in Myanmar and other countries, WhatsApp and the like have been used to fuel escalating protests against the government, so they shut them down. Short term for a regime under duress. We’ll have to repeat this new country “reset” 8 more times before we’re done. 

“Out of Arabia and into Africa” is how Stevie from Tanzania, one of our drivers, described crossing the border. The faces are darker, bodies longer and thinner.  Islam has a tighter hold. There will be no beer or alcohol of any kind to smooth out the kinks of days on the bike. In Abusara, a small gold mining town where it seemed that every man in the world with a metal detector had gathered, we – I should say Lenore – quickly garnered a crowd of about 30 wide eyed men at the Coke stop. Few tourists make it to Abusara. We have no souvenir of this, however. Photography is by permission only. Women (when we see them)seem never to give permission.  Pity, they are shrouded in bright ad colourful dresses. Giggling teenaged girls did engage us in “conversation” as we ate in Dongola, where it had been difficult to communicate to anyone the simple need for a restaurant.  We stand out here.  

Children surround us at camp. We have seen pictures from previous tours where onlookers have had to be roped off, with galleries several bodies deep. So far that has not been necessary. The kids seem to have some savvy when it comes to putting up tents. They work for cokes – or at least the money we give them for that purpose because coke is the obvious currency.  We are not sad to see it pocketed for other uses.

Breakfast has been moved up 15 minutes for the early birds to rack up some miles before the heat. The sun did not get the memo, so we’re pulling up tent pegs under the moonlight. For us lunch is usually before 10:AM and we are into camp by 2:00 easily. 

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Lunch!

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145 km. Check. We bathed in the Nile (surprisingly cool) and are here to tell you about it.  Another great , uncomplicated day in our March across the continent. 

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Nile Fisherman

 

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Nile at Farkwa

Thanks for reading.