Emotionally tough

Any long distance, whether riding or running is as much a mental as physical exercise. In marathon running we talk of hitting the wall and I guess in riding 18,000km from Cairo to Capetown there was bound to be a tough week. For me however it was activity around me as opposed to my own mental block that would make for a hard time.

We had just passed half way. It was March 16th and John had now been unwell since February 27th on leaving Yabello. While some of this time we were all  being bused through Kenya due to elections it does not take away from how hard it is seeing fellow riders leave camp each day on their bikes while you have to take the truck. With much of the evening chat being about the days ride there is just no getting away from what you are missing. With this is mind some people have skipped weeks, joining us again at a later date but with a heat rash that you always hope will clear in the next day or so then making a decision to temporaily leave the group is much harder. john stayed with us but unfortuanatly his heat rash stayed with him.

Quite understandably this became more and more frustrating and unfortunately as the person closest to him on the trip I felt the brunt of this. While unintentional it became difficult for me to ask him how he was feeling. One night I noticed he was not eating dinner but on asking him about food and in later offering him a Snickers (not a bad thing here in Africa) it seemed my offers were not welcome. Given I was also watching him speak more amicably with others I found this even harder. The next day I avoiding him at breakfast and dinner. Enough was enough.

Doing this was, for me, just as difficult though. We were in this together and when I care about someone it’s hard to ignore them. Perhaps I fuss too much but that’s just who I am. I woke the next morning and tears were building. John noticed and came to ask me what was the matter. While initially a discussion regarding how I was feeling led to further upset I eventually left the camp having cleared the air and we both now had a better understanding of how we were both feeling. It’s not easy when individual experiences on the same trip are so different. I had struggled in the very early days and it was hard on John now. I just hoped he got better soon and we would be back to the more usual banter. It was also encouraging to see how kind and helpful others on the trip were at this point. It would be support I would also come to need later that week.

For those who have followed this trip from it’s early days you will be aware that the return of breast cancer for my mother put a second planned trip on the back burner and was the primary reason a year long tour developed into five month stages and trips back home. As it happened that has worked out really well and has been a fantastic way to travel –  no time for traveller complacency or lethergy yet, my ma has been better in her health than the initial diagnosis and I have enjoyed catching up with friends and family on visits home. I knew however, following a last appointment in December that the three month checkout in March could be a critical appointment.

While growth was not quick or aggressive it appeared initial hormone treatment was not making a significant difference and chemo was looking like the next likely option. Naturally we were both nervous and while there was still a chance to try a different hormone based option the doctor was clearly keeping expectations low regarding its possible success. March 22nd would be the check-up date.

I woke that morning upset and tearful. I was preparing for news I did not want to hear. It’s so hard being away from home at times like this. I felt I was not even able to call and wish her all the best. There was no cell phone reception at camp.

I started out on my bike but as I found myself biking alone and unable to concentrate (something much needed in off road Tanzania) I decided to ride the truck to lunch. As it passed I displayed a thumbs down and soon my bike was loaded. I turned my phone on – anxiously awaiting a signal. As we pulled into lunch three bars appeared and I was able to call home. It was around 8am in the morning and I was able to call home. With at least that done I felt able to ride again. Irin was now at lunch and once my puncture was fixed (3rd one – from thorn trees as truck drove past them!) we set off.

The appointment was late in the day and with time differences, the fact that we go to bed very early and I had so little phone battery I had to turn it off  it was the next morning before I found out the outcome. No need for chemo. I was overjoyed.

That day I set off for one of our mandatory ride days  – so called because they are so tough. We had 111km to cover, 2052 metres to climb and it was all off road with the exception of 6km downhill at the end of the day. I rode for 11 hours 58 minutues that day making it into the hotel just before dark.

A fantastic ride; an amazing achievement and the best news I could have received. John was also now back on his bike and despite hurting his shoulder and ribs falling in deep sand I was hopeful that the emotionally tough week was coming to an end.

Ethiopia – spectacular but….

Click click. Pedal pedal. Rolling rolling rolling.Huff puff. Pedal pedal.

To date, Ethiopia  is the most beautiful country we have ridden through. The landscapes of rolling hills go beyond where the eye can see. Trees of numerous varieties, lilacs and pinks in the flora and rich, rust coloured earth. Our ride up the Blue Nile Gorge, a 1400m steep climb was truely stunning. S-bend after S-bend, blazing sun but with the most amazing views-  a real highlight.

The countryside is littered with numerous huts made of sticks and mud surrounded by herds of cows and goats and hundreds of people. This is also the busiest country I have visted after India.

You… you… you, you, you you, you.

As we approach each hut, field, village or town the kids all coming running towards the road. Announcing the arrival of the foreigners, waving and generally making a lot of noise. Many are harmless and watched over by parents. Their cheering can be very endearing. While the constant call of salem and waving back can be exhausting in contrast to the small, yet very significant, minority who are quite frankly the worst kids I have ever encountered, this is the easy bit. For almost all riders the vicsious children are the reason a return visit biking in Ethiopia would be no longer be a dream trip but a cycling nightmare. They would not come back. Some have not ridden. Some have discussed that they would never give aid to the country again if called on. This has had a serious effect.

You… you… you, you, you you, you..

Money…money….money, money, money

I’ve travelled in a number of poor countries. It’s challenging seeing the conditions others live in sometimes. Here the call for moneyis a uniform request from all children. In India it is the sick, the orphaned. It’s strange but it makes you wonder whether aid culture has led to this new custom. One riders response – to share out a one biere note amoung the five children asking…. obviously making it useless to all. It’s made us hard but it’s not the request for cash alone that has led to such bitterness towards the under 10’s. It’s the sticks, stones, whips and machettes that do that.

You… you… you, you, you you, you..

Money…money….money, money, money


While it doesn’t always follow the regular chant it’s not uncommon for sticks through spokes or stone throwing to be the follow on jesture. Often the missiles come without the regular chat – behind trees, from distant fields or those waiting at the top of hills. Hiding like cowards, laughing at their games and running at speed if chased. You can see where the marathon running expertise come from! To date riders have had spokes broken from stone throwing, been made to fall off and sprain an ankle as teenagers grabbed handlebars and have a rock hit their face so hard the cut requires stitches and a tooth was chipped. It feels like daily cycle warfare. A few stones each day has become normal for all. Some people have worse days.

We were warned. Alastair Humphreys wrote about kids in Ethiopia in his book, Moods of Future Joys, re his Cairo to Capetown ride back in 2001. TDA highlighted the issue and previous riders spoke of it in their blogs. Nothing however prepares you for kids aged 3 upwards to young adolescents hurtling such abuse.

The strange thing is that when you stop for drinks it’s friendly. Adults keep the children at bay though at these times they watch out of pure curiosity. Despite the bad ones being bad you have to remember the many who shout, cheer, clapoand have even helped me push my bike up steep climbs. One day I rode 50km with the feeling if running a half marathon – clapping and cheering all the way along the roadside. Amazing.

I try to ride each day and greet every person, adult or child positively, gIving out postive energy, hoping it is returned. In the most part this is the case. To those asking for cash I have taught them to say monsters instead or much to my own amusement sung various excerpts from Bohemiem Rhapsody to them – they really didn’t know what to make of that!

That said, arrival at camp, unharmed and bike undamaged always feels like a postive result. It’s all such a shame that such a beautiful country has left such a sour taste with so many. It’s hard to see an answer  – the adults throw stones at kids to stop them. I just hope that the situation improves for future riders. Seeing Ethiopia by bike is the best way to see the magnificent views, feel the landscape and meet those who do want to welcome you to their country. I had no expectations of Ethiopia and other than the stone throwing it is spectacular. Unfortunately it makes for a big but.

Take two

It would be day three of bush camp before I would use the shovel. Digging my own hole for ablutions had not been something I was looking forward to. Desperate, I had to wait till nightfall. I sat anxiously in my tent, thinking through each careful step.We had received an email before the trip started with toliet instructions and as I recalled the key points the need to get to it became more and more urgent. Eventually darkness set in, a shovel became free (it seems we all wait till dark if we can!) and off I went. Hi ho, hi ho… it’s off to poo I go!

I walked quite a distance from camp.I did not want to be caught with my pants down – literally! I dug as deep as the depth of the shovel and carefully sat down my loo roll, toliet wipes and lighter and with remarkable ease set about my business -well, it had been three days! Phew.

Eventually I became used to the ritual and came to find that going off to use the loo was perhaps the one real chance for quiet and own space.As I’ve mentioned before there are more than 50 riders plus staff and with little shade in many of our camps we are often all crammed together taking shelter behind the truck at the end of our rides. Personal space is not easy to find. Further, given the fact that many people are often sat infront of the shovel storage area it is hard to be discreet regarding ones bodily functions. There simply is no chance to be embarassed.

All was going well and then a few challenges set in.

Challenge one – the sandstorm. The wind was strong and the sand actually hurt as it hit your skin. Tonight I was waiting not just till nightfall but also until the gale had dropped slightly. Even going for a pee had been hard enough – one thing you don’t want is gritty sand in your cycle shorts! Predictably night-time came but unfortunately there was no let up in the wind. The storm had even meant planes had been forced to land elsewhere. Holding onto toliet paper would be tough. Needless to say. I failed. Fortunately I had crossed the road from camp so while dirty toilet paper had gone flying it would not head in the direction of the tents. What a relief. I quickly mastered the technique of wipe, ditch and cover with sand to avoid the paper escaping. It was too windy however to use the lighter. All I can do is my best I guess.

Challenge two – solid dry ground. As we came into Ethiopia the depth of sand reduced. We were camping on rock. Not only is this a problem for tent pags but digging a hole became virtually impossible. Using the shoval like a pick axe I managed two inches but as we moved on digging was not possible at all. You now knew where people had been to the loo by recognising small piles of dry matter/dirt topped off with a stone. “X” marks the spot.

Challenge three – hot, arid areas. To date (aside from the windy day) the disposal of toilet paper came through burning. This had been no problem at all. However, as holes were undiggable so too earth to douse the flames was no longer avaialble. Twice I feared setting the country and camp on fire. Embers still glowing, I covered things up, placed my stone on top and headed back to my tent. Could you imagine explaining that one!

We were told as we headed into Ethiopia that we would start using toliet tents. There were simply too many inquisitive locals. The toliet break would no longer provide personal space – apparently this was worth watching!! Given this would reduce the need for digging and provide a bin for waste paper, thereby meaning wind and fires had also now been mitigated, I was quite pleased. Infact, while embarassed about the return of the wind (mine this time not the weather!) I was proud to be able to add something solid the first evening they were available – most of the camp were suffering with upset stomachs! Unfortunately this would become all too apparent the following morning – some people had missed!

We’re in a hotel right now. Western style facilities. I guess we’ll all just have to become accustomed to the new camp ensuite facilities.