Welcome to my new blog Cork to Cape - the second leg of my round the world motorcycle adventure. As some of you know my first trip took me down through Central and South America on the back of a BMW R1100GS. This trip will take me from Ireland to South Africa on an F800GS. My goal is to take my time, enjoy the ride, meet new people and volunteer along the way. I welcome everyone to view and enjoy the blog, add comments and give me any advice on special places to see or people to meet. And, of course, if anyone wants to join me for a section of the journey or if there is a place you always wanted to visit, please come along.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Southern Comfort

Day 341

Milage 29,101 (46,561 km)

The rains are coming
After well over a month in Ethiopia it finally became apparent that if I am ever to complete this journey then I must continue to move south. I had started to grow comfortable with the people, the language and the culture and although there will always be more to see and do in this beautiful and diverse country the impending rains were about to make moving on even more difficult. While at Holland House, in Addis Ababa, I’d bumped into a fellow over-lander with similar plans for riding south on an identical bike. Ross Clarke, from England had been staying in Addis awaiting parts and repairing his bike after a losing control while trying to avoid a cow in the road. As a professional engineer he knew his way around the insides of a motorcycle and had been keeping busy helping the owner of Holland House, Wim, with the upkeep and maintenance of the aging guesthouse. 

The amazingly capable Ross Clarke
There are two possible ‘roads’ from Ethiopia into Kenya, the most commonly used route goes through the border town of Moyale, it is recommended that you travel this way only in the daytime and, ideally, as part of a large convoy as tribal conflicts in the area have created occasional problems for those passing through . Some time ago in Egypt another rider had advised me to attempt the alternative route from Omorate to Lake Turkana but he had warned of the remoteness of the region with, potentially, no fuel, food or water for up to 1000 kilometers and challenging riding conditions along the entire way. With my bike’s range tested to approximately 650 kilometers, when riding conservatively, I’d decided that if I couldn’t find someone going in the same direction then it would be an unwise choice. 

As it turned out Ross had similar plans but was awaiting someone to ride with so we sat down over a cold beer and discussed how best to approach the challenging route. The lack of fuel was to be our most pressing concern, followed by water and then food. With my bike already carrying close to its maximum weight I had some concerns over adding yet more, the rear shock on the F800GS is said to be one of the weaker components and Ross had just replaced his after it had failed several weeks before. Ideally we wanted to find a group of four wheelers going in the same direction so we could offload the additional fuel and water that we would need to complete the journey. Over-landers pass through Holland House with regularity, it is a small oasis of like minded people on the long road from Cairo to Cape Town and within a few days a large Toyota Landcruiser pulled up carrying two young guys on their own journey from The Netherlands to South Africa, we did our best to try to convince them to join us on our intended route but their tight time schedule would not allow for the significant detour. The momentum of our planning and the intrigue of the unknown swayed our preference towards the more interesting, but challenging Turkana route and we decided to throw caution to the wind and attempt it regardless of the logistical difficulties.

The Protector of Arba Minch

With our bikes packed we said goodbye to the wonderful staff at Holland House and turned south along the Rift Valley, swapping the grimy city streets of Addis Ababa for the pristine lakes and mountains of southern Ethiopia. We stopped briefly in the Rastafarian outpost of Shashemene before pulling into the lakeside town of Awasa in time for a few cold beers with some friendly local Peace Corp volunteers as the sun set set over the placid waters. Impossibly large Marabou Storks quarreled in the trees above us or scavenged along the shoreline as the sky blazed with color. The following morning we left the peaceful town and turned south west toward the small city of Arba Minch on the shores of Lake Abaya, the last sizable settlement before leaving the paved roads and venturing into the Omo Valley region. We spent a couple of days there stocking up on supplies and filling every possible container with additional petrol, uncertain as to where we would see the next source of fuel. Soon after leaving Arba Minch the asphalt disappeared and we wondered whether this was the beginning of the infamous 1000 kilometers of dirt roads. The surface of the roads varied significantly from bone jarring corrugations to fast, well graded, smooth dirt. We had both fitted new rear tires before leaving Addis and we were glad of the additional traction provided by the aggressive tread patterns, progress was fast and we took a short detour into the small village of Key Afer where a colorful, open air market was in full swing. Tribes from the local region gathered in their traditional dress adorned with colorful beads and animal hides, their hair braided and coated in red ochre and animal fat. As soon as we pulled up on our large motorcycles we became the center of attention and we were quickly surrounded by a large crowd of curious onlookers. Children would poke our bulky riding outfits marveling at the underlying armor that makes our elbows, knees and shoulders look somewhat deformed. It was oppressively hot underneath our heavy suits so we stopped for a cold drink at a nearby hotel before resuming our ride towards the village of Turmi and the camp we had chosen for the night.  

A young Hamar girl near Turmi
Just before reaching Turmi, on a stretch of particularly rough road, the back of my motorcycle began to violently fishtail and I assumed I had blown my rear tire, I struggled to keep the bike upright as I tried to bring it to a halt only to find that one of my panniers had detached itself from the luggage rack and was dragging behind the bike held on only by a thin security cable. One of my fuel containers had ruptured and after salvaging the contents that remained we carried out a quick roadside fix and were soon on our way again. Every time we would pull over along this road, no matter how isolated we though we were, before long a local would turn up to stare at our unusual machines. By early evening we reached a small campsite on the outskirts of Turmi which had been recommended by a Dutch couple who had traveled through the region a few weeks before. After a peaceful night we packed up our camp as a young boy from the local Hamar tribe deftly climbed through the mango trees above showering us with ripe fruit for a delicious breakfast. From Turmi we continued southwest towards the sleepy border town of Omorate in order to have our documents stamped out of Ethiopia. On our arrival in Omorate, as we negotiated with some locals over the price of the black market fuel, the skies darkened and suddenly a huge rainstorm turned the sandy roads to slick, sticky mud. The locals warned us that the roads in town were nothing compared to what lay ahead and it would be wise to spend the night so that the tracks could dry out before we got into the really difficult terrain. The rainy season was upon us and as we settled into a cheap, simple hotel we wondered if attempting this route was a wise choice at this time of year.

My bike having a rest
By morning the roads appeared to have dried, we filled our fuel containers, topped up our water supplies, and set out to find the indistinct turn off towards Kenya. We were immediately greeted by deep sand, muddy river crossings and blistering heat. It was slow going and by the end of the day, after nearly eight hours of challenging riding we had covered just over seventy kilometers. Exhausted, thirsty and hungry we pulled into the small village of Ileret just inside the Kenyan border, the prospect of several more days of this type of traveling was both daunting and exhilarating. After registering with the local police we found a small shop and enjoyed a warm Coca-Cola and a packet of dry biscuits. The police kindly offered to let us use their barracks as a camp for the evening but a local man from the Daasanach tribe suggested we try staying at the Turkana Basin Institute (TBI), ten kilometers to the south. We took his advice and rode to the gate of the fenced compound and asked to see the manager who agreed to let us camp within, it was only after asking him the purpose of the institute that we realized we had stumbled across one of the dig sites of the renowned anthropologist Dr Richard Leakey. Still under construction the site will eventually host fieldwork groups from around the world as the fossil rich region is explored more extensively. What has been found to date would strongly suggest that this region was pivotal in the evolutionary story of humanity and it is now commonly referred to as the ‘Cradle of Mankind’.

Tea with Arkoy at The Turkana Basin Institute
The staff at the institute made us feel very welcome, we dined with the workers that evening on a simple but delicious meal of lentils and chapatis. After several cups of sweet milky tea the following morning we said our goodbyes and thanked the crew for their kindness but, less than five kilometers from the gate my bike developed a problem and soon we were stranded. Ross rode back to the institute and asked for some assistance and before long I was being towed back to the compound by one of their helpful drivers. It was still early and we spent the rest of the morning going through probably causes for my sudden loss of electrical power. When I say ‘we’ it was mostly Ross who diagnosed the bike, as a professional marine engineer he has an intimate knowledge of all things mechanical and electrical and by lunchtime he’d isolated the fault to a damaged stator within the alternator. Part of the system that generates electrical power for the bike it is critical for its correct functioning, while the engine is running it tops up the battery’s power which, in turn serves the bikes multiple electrical systems. Without power the bike’s Engine Control Unit (ECU) ceases to function, the fuel injectors quit and the coils fail to create their much needed ignition sparks. We were stranded, a long way from any kind of repair or replacement opportunities, the manager of the institute made a call to the head office of TBI who agreed to allow us to stay as long as it would take to have a spare brought in or have the bike carried out on the back of a truck. Over the next few days we tried to find a viable spare or a suitable truck that could fit the bike on board for the long journey out. We were at least three full days drive from Nairobi and at the end of a long and challenging road, trucks were rare and all spare seats were typically oversubscribed long before they even arrived. There was a rumor of a large truck trying to make its way to the institute from the town of Marsabit but it was still two days away and road conditions were preventing it from getting closer. When a truck finally did show up four days later the driver wanted an extortionate amount to get the bike to a place where it could be repaired or stored until a spare could be located. At this point we bought a new 12 volt truck battery off the priest at a small catholic mission, strapped it to the back of the bike and set off once again. We had spent five nights at the institute and had been very well looked after. It was sad to say goodbye but we had to try to get out of the area under our own steam.

Daasanach girls eyeing Ross as a potential husband
For the next five days we struggled south on some of the most challenging roads we have ridden to date. Deep sand (my personal nemesis), loose rock, slick mud and thorny bushes all compounded to make for a true adventure, never sure how long the battery on my bike would last we spent many hours on the side of the road switching power sources from one bike to the other. In the evenings we would pull into small villages in the hope of finding a charger to top up the big battery, unfortunately many of the chargers were solar powered and of little use at night. Our concerns over the lack of fuel took a backseat after we discovered most villages would have at least one, albeit overpriced, source. The bikes took a beating and the damage after over 1000 kilometers of rough roads consisted of one broken alternator, two punctures, one battered pannier and a broken luggage frame. In hindsight it was all worth it, the terrain we experienced along the way was breathtaking; lush rolling hillsides, scorching hot, barren flat deserts, deep gorges and the igneous rocks of the lakeshore of Turkana. Wild herds of oryx and zebra roamed the open plains, camel trains crowded the dusty roads and the people we met along the way were simply fascinating. Many of the experiences we had would not have happened had we not had our challenges along the way. When we finally hit our first asphalt road we felt glad to finally ride on a smooth surface but a little disappointed that our only significant dangers from now on would be other drivers. I need to keep reminding myself that they drive on the left in Kenya, or they are supposed to. We broke up the ride to Nairobi by stopping at the campsite at Thomson’s Falls Lodge in the town of Nyahururu where we bumped into an inspiring young Dutch couple, Peter and Leonie, who are on their own voyage to Cape Town. Ross had ridden with them in Libya and they were coincidentally staying at the same campground. You can follow their adventures on www.amsterdamtoanywhere.nl, of course such an auspicious reunion gave us the excuse to have our first genuinely cold beers since leaving Ethiopia. The following day after charging the battery for the final time we set out along the edge of the Rift Valley, across the equator and into the bustling, sprawling city of Nairobi towards the comfortable over-lander haven of Jungle Junction. As I pulled into the premises my bike spluttered to a halt, the battery completely spent. I plan to spend a few days here while I find a local expert with experience in rewinding stators, it will be significantly cheaper than having one shipped from abroad. In the meantime my bike is long overdue for some much needed maintenance and with two full time mechanics onsite and the knowledge of the resident expert Chris Handschuh I can’t think of a place more suited to my needs at this time than here. 
Samburu warriors in South Hor

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Smelling the roses

Day 315

Milage 27,383 (43,812 km)
The twisting roads of Ethiopia
If  the path to success was simply a matter of combining hard work with ingenuity then Africa would be full of successful people, especially women. I am frequently reminded of how I have squandered opportunities afforded me by where I was born and the color of my skin. The people of Ethiopia are beautiful and they will proudly tell you it is because they are the only African country never to have been colonized. I have been propositioned by the most stunning women on many occasions but they are always honest about there motives, a new life overseas and an opportunity to prosper. I try to dissuade them, telling them my wife just ran off with another man because I was such a terrible husband but they don’t seem to be deterred. This country has challenged many of my preconceptions, there is heart breaking poverty everywhere but a cheerful positivity that belies the destitution and a ‘can do’ attitude that makes me feel humbled. It is anything but the war torn, famine ravaged wasteland we see through the lenses of our western media. The population is booming and there are children everywhere. Agriculture is the main employer and the vast majority of people still live in the fertile rural regions. Farmer’s markets are just that, it is not uncommon to see caravans of camels and donkeys being driven towards the nearest town carrying their seasonal harvest, sometimes a couple of days before the Saturday market. When the markets open there is a festival atmosphere fueled by a locally brewed alcohol and spicy snacks as thousands gather to trade and barter for all kinds of produce and goods. 

Prayer time in Lalibela

The quiet mountain town of Lalibela turned out to hold much more of interest than just its rock hewn churches and my original plan to spend a couple of days there eventually stretched to over a week. Stripping the bike of its luggage allowed me to explore some of the more difficult off road trails in the area and with the rear seat clear I’d often give rides to locals walking between the small villages in the region. Sadly I don’t have the space to carry passengers when the bike is fully loaded as it is nice to have a little company at times and the people I do pick up seem to appreciate it. On one search for fuel I picked up a young boy who promised me he knew where I could find it. We ended up driving over 30 km from his home, further than he had ever been before and on the return journey I pushed the bike over 160 km/h while screamed with joy and hung on tightly behind me. He asked me to drop him outside his school when we returned to his village as he couldn’t wait to tell his friends about where he had been. Finding fuel has become problematic in the more rural areas, what few petrol stations there are often run out although there is always someone nearby willing to sell individual liters of black market ‘benzine’ for twice the regular price and often half the purity. I carry a useful funnel which filters out debris and water and it has proved to be a priceless part of my kit.

I got to know a few of the residents in Lalibela and when I joked about my upcoming ‘Ethiopian’ birthday they threw a small party to celebrate with me. After attending a coffee ceremony in the morning I was invited to return to the same modest home later that day. When I arrived a freshly baked loaf of bread held several candles and I was given a homemade card and a hand carved cross. It often surprises me how those with the least are often the most generous, I was deeply touched by this gesture and reminded that I need to focus on becoming less selfish myself. The surrounding mountains had endless opportunities for some great hikes although by late afternoon heavy clouds would build and a huge electrical storm would unleash its raw power over the town. Power cuts were common and the water supply tenuous but the locals took it all in their stride and candles were never far from hand. I could have stayed much longer in this beautiful area but sometimes the magnitude of my journey makes me think I need to keep moving so after a week I loaded up the bike, said goodbye and took the road to Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana.

More winding roads
Again I found myself rolling through spectacular countryside on delightful, twisting mountain roads before gradually dropping down into the flatter terrain surrounding Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile River. I stayed in the university town of Bahir Dar, considered by many Ethiopians to be their own Riviera with its broad streets lined with palm trees and its views of the sparkling waters of the vast lake. On my first day in town I took a walk out to the bridge overlooking the Blue Nile as it exits the lake and was soon snapping pictures of the abundant wildlife, downstream a pod of Hippopotamus wallowed in the cool, muddy waters while dozens of pelicans stood watch on the shore nearby. I couldn’t help but notice several of the locals crossing the bridge giving me funny looks, some shaking their heads while others wagged their fingers. Before long a policeman approached and I began to wonder if the Ethiopian authorities shared the same paranoia over picture taking that I had encountered in Sudan. The police officer enquired as to what I was doing on the bridge, with a sheepish grin I pointed to the river and then to my camera but as we glanced over the railing together we noticed a group of naked men scrubbing themselves vigorously in the waters directly below. He gave me a suspicious glare and asked me to move off the bridge immediately. Thirty kilometers from the lake the Blue Nile plummets over the waterfall of Tis Isat (Water that Smokes) although a hydroelectric plant has diverted much of the original flow and, while still impressive, it now appears as though it has smoked a little too much. I took the motorcycle to the beginning of a hike that would take me to the falls along a heavily rutted road that had long stretches of deep mud after the recent rains. It provided to be a challenging ride but the bike handled it all with ease. Lake Tana is also home to many island monasteries but with shifty boat operators hustling hard for business I decided to explore the area on a mountain bike instead. I rented one from a hotel in town and took off around the shoreline, within a few kilometers I was riding along narrow paths through thick forrest into villages where it felt as though they had never seen a white person before. Children would run alongside the bike laughing and waving, easily keeping up with my slow pace. With no gears and no suspension it was a bumpy ride and I would have been thankful for my own bike which sits gathering dust back in California. 
Tis Isat, Blue Nile Falls
After four days exploring Bahir Dar I packed up and took the road southeast to the capital, Addis Ababa. Yet again, I underestimated the distances, terrain and conditions and soon I found myself racing against the clock, determined not to get caught out after dark. There is a noticeable lack of privately owned vehicles on the roads here, cities are swarmed by buzzing tuk-tuks, three wheeled motorcycle taxis that ferry people around at minimal cost. The tuk-tuks compete for custom with the larger mini-vans which race around impossibly overloaded, inside and out, these have become a baneful nuisance as they often race each other to the next customer, stopping frequently without warning and often pulling out with no regard for who is approaching. Then there are the white Toyota Land-cruisers of the myriad of NGO’s that thrive on Ethiopia’s misfortunes, mostly empty they speed between towns only to gather outside the ritziest hotels by nightfall. To top it all off there are the big buses and trucks that lumber slowly along belching copious amounts of diesel fumes and kicking up vast quantities of dust. Getting stuck behind one of these ancient behemoths leaves you sucking in lungfuls of smoke and sand before summoning the courage to blindly break out of the cloud and into the oncoming traffic, hoping your timing won’t prove fatal. I had the closest call of the trip on the road to Addis as this very maneuver left me face to face with a stubborn bull who refused to move from the road, I missed one of his horns by inches and he was a big enough beast that he would have probably ruined my day and not just my underpants.

Roadside village
As I approached Addis Ababa the dark clouds that had been building all afternoon finally released their contents and thunder, lightning, rain and even snow, yes snow, accompanied me on the final descent into the capital. By the time I reached the city the streets had become overwhelmed by the deluge, darkness had fallen and I was left cold, sodden and hungry as I attempted to navigate the way to my accommodation. Rivers of refuse raced to the lowest point in the city accompanied by the fetid odor of raw sewerage. First impressions were not going so well and on top of all this large portions of the city centre had been torn up to accommodate a Chinese sponsored railway project so when I did stop and ask for directions even the locals were confused. Tired, cold, wet and hungry, I finally found my destination, a cheap backpackers on the south side of the city, and as I checked in large puddles formed around my feet on the reception floor. I am often asked why I have undertaken this journey and on days like this I sometimes ask myself the same question.

After a day on the south side of the city I moved into the centre and pitched my tent at Holland House, an over-lander’s haven behind the old bus station. As I pulled my motorcycle into the secure compound I noticed another bike, almost identical to mine, parked under a tree. It belonged to a young English rider called Ross who I had heard stories of from the BMW crew in Egypt. He is on his own adventure from London to Cape Town so we had plenty to talk about as we shared a cold beer later that evening. I hadn’t been there more than an hour before another two F800GS’ turned up coming from Cape Town with the friendly German couple, Katrin and Michael, finishing the last stages of their own round the world adventure. Suddenly we had four identical motorcycles parked at Holland House and plenty of stories of how bikes and bodies were holding up over each of our respective journeys. Our first night out together lasted well into the early hours of the next day and over the next few days we completed some overdue maintenance while comparing notes on any small issues we have been having with the bikes. Overall it was a hearty thumbs up for the F800GS, each of us had had concerns over the new untested machine as it has not been on the market long enough to gain the reputation of some of the older, proven over-lander bikes but all of us were impressed by how tough and capable the bikes were in all kinds of terrain. St Patrick’s Day just happened to coincide with our little gathering in Addis and Wim, the Dutch owner of Holland House, took it upon himself to take us on a thorough tour of the city’s liquor stores in search of a bottle of Irish whisky. Not a single bottle was to be found other than behind the bar of the plush Sheraton Hotel so we settled for local beer instead. 

St Patrick's Day at Holland House, Addis Ababa
I’ve been in Ethiopia for over a month now and I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The people have made my stay a memorable one and I still have much more to see. The roads are exceptional although time will tell how durable they really are, trucks overloaded well beyond there intended capacity are already causing noticeable damage but, off the main highways, there is still plenty of off road adventures to be had and the terrain is simply breathtaking. I had never imagined Ethiopia to be so interesting and diverse, the variety of flora and fauna is simply stunning. Cheap and cheerful, it is a perfect destination for the more adventurous traveller but a question mark still hangs over how well the tourism industry will be managed. Sustainability seems to be a low priority at many of the popular destinations and the damage off overuse is beginning to show. With a motorcycle the entire country open to exploration and getting off the beaten track is as simple as turning the handlebars. As I plan to move further south I know I will miss what is behind me but if I slow my pace any further I will never reach Cape Town.
A flock of 800's

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Once upon a time...

Day 297

Milage 26,415 (42,264 km)
The Nile confluence bridge, Khartoum
I am currently in the small mountain town of Lalibela, home of so much more than the rock hewn churches for which it has become famous. The sound of an engine is rare, cheerful music and the rumble of distant thunder fills the air. Days begin slowly with the crowing of roosters and delightful birdsong, and nights are accompanied by the chirp of crickets and the occasional barking of dogs. The people are friendly, eager to talk and quick to smile, there are children everywhere, marching to and from school or playing with homemade toys in the streets, always asking for pens or pennies from the tourists that wander by. Time has slowed, jobs get done when those that do them are ready, no sooner, no later. The pace of life is so relaxed it is contagious, my original plan to stay for two nights has now been stretched to three and I still haven’t decided if I will move on tomorrow. And then, of course, there are the churches, hewn from solid rock and frozen in time they are a sight to behold. Connected by an intricate network of pitch black, subterranean tunnels and winding stairways each one is still in use and pilgrims descend upon this town from far and wide to worship in the cool air within. Each day around noon a haunting chant echoes through the air as services commence and the faithful gather to offer their prayers and devotions.  

Tea time on the road

I spent several days more than I had planned to in Khartoum, the presence of a couple of over-landers from Greece, Georgia and Nikos, who were coming to the end of their two year African odyssey, made for good company and a perfect opportunity to pick up a few tips about some of the regions I would be traveling through. While there I was able to obtain my Ethiopian visa with relative ease and explore some of the large markets around the edge of the city. As with the rest of Sudan I was constantly struck by the kindness of its residents. On a hot afternoon as I strolled across a bridge into the older part of the city with my new Greek friends we were all feeling quite dehydrated when a truck carrying bottled water drove by. I gestured to the driver that a bottle would be nice and he unexpectedly stopped while his passenger ran across the busy road to give each of us a free sample. Later that same day we stopped at an old fun fair near the Nile confluence to ride the dilapidated ferris wheel and were soon surrounded by locals eager to have their photographs taken with us.  With only a few days in a city getting a feel for the layout is always a challenge and asking a taxi driver is often the easiest way to get directions. Typically, in other cities, they would insist you get on board so they can take you there but in Khartoum they will help you as best they can and expect nothing in return. Unfortunately there are times when some of the directions will be questionable but they would rather tell you something than let you down. 

Soon it was time to move on and I decided to follow the Blue Nile towards the romantic city of Wadi Medani, Sudan’s most popular honeymoon destination. During the day it is a  hot and dusty, riverside market town but as soon as the sun goes down the area along the riverfront comes alive with couples and young families enjoying the warm evenings and the languid Nile. I took a cheap room at the Continental Hotel, a crumbling, colonial relic with large, foliage filled gardens and tired, old furniture, spending the evening on the patio watching the townsfolk stroll by in their finest attire. With the border to Ethiopia so close I made the final push south and spent my last night in Sudan in the busy market town of Gederef. As I rode into town in the late afternoon I passed through the outer suburbs where I noticed a young boy, 12 or 13 years old, standing by the roadside acting strangely as I approached. As I got closer he casually reached down and picked a bottle off the ground and cocked his arm behind his head as though he was about to throw it. I’ve seen this behavior many times since entering the Middle East but it rarely leads to anything, most likely they just want to see you flinch but on this occasion he followed through and launched the bottle in my direction. This took me completely by surprise and it was only after the bottle bounced harmlessly off my leg that I realized what he’d done. I had always wondered what I would do if this happened and I wanted to let him know that this wasn’t acceptable behavior so I turned the bike around and rode back to where he stood. As soon as he saw me turn he ran off over an expanse of wasteland towards a nearby market assuming I wouldn’t follow. I wanted to make him aware that all actions have consequences so I chased after him for a little while until he disappeared between the tightly packed market stalls. Perhaps he will reconsider his behavior the next time he is taken with the urge to throw anything at a motorcycle or maybe I’d just helped to start a new sport in the otherwise quiet town.  

Gucci handbag and an AK47
Gederef lacked the charm of Medani but it was interesting to wander through the bustling markets and marvel at the ingenuity on display. When we talk about recycling in the West we often assume we are doing our best by separating our trash and putting it in the right bins. Here recycling means breaking used goods into their most basic components and finding a use for everything. Stalls full of what we would consider junk lined the market and people were hard at work repairing everything that could be repaired. Watches, shoes, mobile phones and bicycles were among the multitude of items that would have long since been discarded in the West. I found one section of the market occupied entirely by tailors so I had a few sturdy repairs made to some of my battered clothing. Even after dark the streets felt perfectly safe and once the market had closed for the day I strolled through the darkened streets looking for a suitable place to eat. Simple stalls selling all kinds of food come to life in the evening and soon the streets were buzzing with people eating and relaxing. Alcohol is outlawed here, possession of which can be punishable with up to 40 lashes so public intoxication is almost unheard of, tea is the drink of choice, served steaming hot and impossibly sweet. I would get strange looks when I would ask for tea without sugar which was often interpreted as just two heaped spoonfuls as opposed to the mandatory four. After eating questionable food it has become common practice to wash it all down with a cold Coca Cola. I really dislike the stuff but it has its uses and killing undesirable bacteria in the stomach is one of them. 

Castles of Gondar, Ethiopia
The following morning it took a little over and hour to reach the Sudan - Ethiopia border and I almost rode past the final checkpoint on the Sudanese side without the necessary stamps. Helpful locals directed back me towards the various unmarked shacks and compounds where I could clear security, customs and finally immigration. Of course it was tea time at the customs compound and everything was on hold so I was invited to join the officials for a refreshing cup under the hot morning sun. Before long I was allowed to enter no-man’s land and cross the small bridge over yet another frontier. Entering Ethiopia was reminiscent of Dorothy’s arrival in the Land of Oz where everything suddenly appears in vivid technicolor. After the rather drab, conservative dress codes in Sudan, Ethiopia was bursting with cheerful colors and provocative styles, even the red, gold and green of the national flag seemed more radiant. Gone were the burqa and hijab, I’d almost forgotten what the female body looked like and some of the outfits on display left little to the imagination. All this was accompanied by a general cheerfulness even amongst the border officials and I immediately felt very welcome. I was soon riding into the nearby city of Gondar excited about this vibrant, new atmosphere. A couple of other travelers I’d met on the road had suggested I stay at the Belegez Pension near the centre of town. It promised secure parking, fair prices and even the chance of hot running water and electricity although, not necessarily, all at the same time. As I looped around the 17th Century castle that dominates the centre of town for the third time a local flagged me down and asked where I planned to stay. He sent me off in the right direction and even turned up shortly afterwards to make sure I’d found the place. I got talking to him later and it turns out I had arrived at a rather auspicious time, a 56 day long period of fasting was due to begin the following day so that evening the town would be on full party mode before abstaining from beer, sex and animal products for the near future. He promised to stop by later that evening and show me where the locals would be hanging out. 

Roasting the beans in a coffee ceremony

The Ethiopian people like to do things their way. The date, depending on who you ask, is June 27th, 2006 (which means I turn 34 tomorrow) and time is measured in relation to the sun. The sun rises and sets at twelve o’clock and one hour later it is one o’clock, it takes a little getting used to but it seems to make sense. The food is amazing, spicy and bursting with flavor and color it is often served atop a large, rubbery pancake called injera which often replaces the need for plates and utensils. The sour tasting injera takes a bit of getting used to but it compliments the savory dishes well and to wash it all down they have good beer although you do have to specify that you’d like it cold otherwise it will be served up at room temperature. As the original home of coffee the drink is available everywhere and ordering a cup often involves an intricate ceremony where the beans are roasted, ground and passed around for inspection, while incense burns and the water boils slowly over a small charcoal fire. Eventually you are presented with an espresso size cup of the best coffee I have ever tasted with a bold, complex aroma and rich, exquisite taste. I’ve never been a huge fan of coffee but now I feel as though everything else will fade in comparison. 

After eating and drinking my fill my new friend, Moulish, returned to see if I wanted to join him for a night out. We began at a sleepy, little hotel in the center of town and I was beginning to think it was going to be a quiet night before I was approached by a very attractive young woman who insisted on joining us. After eventually learning the absolute basics of Arabic I was now fully out of my depth, yet again, with the local language of Amharic. Unlike anything I have heard or read before it seems to save some of its longest words for the simplest of greetings so I found myself reverting to the tried and trusted method of talking slowly and loudly in English, waving my arms about and using the ‘old dog, new tricks’ excuse for my linguistic laziness. As luck would have it my new acquaintance ‘Mary’ spoke very little English so we got on quite well. So well in fact that she insisted I make a solemn promise to sleep with her before the night was over, at least that’s what I think she said. I was suddenly reminded of an old Groucho Marx quote about not wanting to be the member of any club that would accept people like me as a member so I made my excuses and left the bar. Moulish joined me and we ended up at a local’s club where the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different.

The amazing roads of Ethiopia
The club was packed and hot and the music was loud. A remarkably talented selection of locals would take to the stage and entertain the audience who danced in a variety of styles reflecting the subtle, regional variations in each of the chosen tunes. Had I not been with Moulish I’d have barely noticed but most variations included the ‘shoulder dance’, an impossibly fast shaking of the upper body that, had it not been perfectly in time with the music, would have resembled a cross between a demonic possession and an epileptic seizure. It was remarkable to watch but impossible to imitate so I sat quietly on the edge of the dance floor like an over excited teenager, eager to join in but too self-conscious about making a fool of myself. The atmosphere was electric and the night stretched well into the next day, Ethiopia was growing on me.

After checking out the old castle complex in the middle of town and racing to the nearby hilltops for evening cocktails as the sun went down I realized I could easily push the pause button on this trip and stay indefinitely in Gondar but the prospect of gorging myself on all this new country had to offer was too enticing to resist so after a few days I loaded up and turned north towards the Simian Mountains. The road from Gondar to Axum turned out to be one of the best roads I have been on yet. Still under construction, it offers a long day of very mixed conditions, from perfect, silky smooth asphalt on the completed sections to very rough dirt, to talcum powder fine sand, so dry it squeaks under foot, all through some of the most spectacular mountain scenery with breathtaking views at every hairpin bend. When it is completed it will be one of the finest road rides in the world provided the heavy traffic doesn’t tear it up too soon. I hadn’t expected this part of Ethiopia to be so mountainous as I had done very little research prior to entering but what I found delighted me and the bike never ceased to impress me by how well it handled the varied terrain. As night fell I rolled into Axum exhausted but exhilarated by the long day’s riding. 

The Obelisks of Axum
The town of Axum is full on intrigue and mystery and is one of the most important ancient sites in all of sub-Saharan Africa. Thought by many to have been the home of the Queen of Sheba it is dotted with the relics of an illustrious past. The Axum obelisks (stelae), delicate granite needles, pepper the area, some as tall as 33 meters, 6th and 7th century tombs of an ancient nobility are plentiful and according to local legend still conceal vast quantities of treasure. By far the most significant feature of the town is the carefully guarded Church of St Mary of Zion, believed by many Ethiopians to contain the original Ark of the Covenant. Foreigners are kept well away from this holiest of shrines and the Ark itself is protected by a single monk, legend has it that all others who gaze upon it are immediately struck dead. I told a local guide that I was willing to take the chance and he looked at me in absolute horror, their faith runs deep in this town. From Axum I turned east and was soon enjoying the amazing roads of the mountainous Tigray region, stopping for a few hours to explore the Debre Damo monastery. Perched on top of a sheer sided amba (flat topped mountain) it is accessed by hauling yourself up a 20 meter cliff face on a weathered looking, old leather rope. After a stopover in the busy, university town of Mekele I resumed a southerly route, up and over steep mountain passes, through small villages and bigger market towns avoiding the menagerie of animals that would occupy the road. Monkeys, camels, donkeys, sheep, goats and snakes all helped to keep me focused as I put the miles behind me. That particular day was the first time when I had to track down fuel on the black market as every fuel station I stopped had run out of petrol. It turns out it is not that difficult to find but it is very expensive and the quality is questionable so I would buy a few liters at a time, enough to get me to the next town where I hoped I could get regular fuel. 

One of the churches of Lalibela
Since entering Africa I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon when it comes to asking for directions. The local people’s knowledge of where nearby landmarks are is limited to about a 50 kilometer radius, beyond that they rarely have any idea as most have never travelled that far and estimates as to how long a particular journey will take are wide and varied. It adds a little spice to planning a destination for the day and I have been caught out a few times finishing a tough, long ride after dark. Most of the primary roads are reasonably well surfaced but the secondary roads, which are sometimes more direct are often in very poor condition. As I rode the last 60 kilometers of the journey from Mekele towards the small town of Lalibela the road I had chosen got steadily worse, dipping into steep sided gullies, over dry river beds, through mud hut villages full of excited children, I began to wonder if my route choice had been a smart one. As the sun dipped lower towards the horizon and a light rain began to fall I had no idea whether the distances I had been quoted were accurate or not but with the bike handling all of the terrain with ease it felt quite adventurous to be riding into the unknown. I suspect this will become the norm from here on, my maps are average but my compass is true and I know I need to keep moving south. Road signs are rare but help is never far away and if things go wrong it is only a matter of time before somebody turns up.
Fifty Shades of Grey?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Life on the Nile

Day 283

Mileage 25,141 (40,225 km)
Sunset over Lake Nasser
The Nile River, the world’s longest watercourse, has been my traveling companion since leaving Cairo. I have never strayed far from it lush, verdant valley as it cuts a winding, green path through the heart of the Sahara Desert. Its waters have supported life in the region for thousands of years and it is lined with settlements old and new as countless civilizations have risen and fallen upon its banks. The contrast in terrain just a few kilometers from the river is remarkable, from fertile farmland to barren desert. It wasn’t always this way, the Sahara is one of the youngest deserts on Earth. As recently as 8000 years ago there were rolling savannah grasslands and dense forests where now there is but a vast sea of sand and arid rocky plains. I have reached the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, built upon the confluence of the White Nile and the Blue Nile and for the next few weeks I intend to follow the latter to its source in Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

Abu Simbel, Lake Nasser
Although I have tried not to use ‘fixers’ for border crossings on this trip, the logistics of getting through the Egyptian/Sudanese frontier, over a 400 kilometer portion of  Lake Nasser, were beginning to become rather complex. A friend in Cairo had recommended I get in touch with a local acquaintance should I have any difficulties and within hours of my arrival in Aswan I was beginning to encounter a number of significant problems. According to the ferry company, all seats were fully booked on the boat I had intended to take and the next alternative would not be leaving for another 4 days and even then it was unsure if that sailing would coincide with a suitable barge departure that could carry my motorcycle. Ideally I’d rather travel with my bike at all times but in this case it was simply not possible, so, I gave ‘Kamal the Fixer’ a call and in less than twenty minutes he had made arrangements to get me the sailings I wanted. I arranged a meeting with him the following day to discuss the details and he struck me as a very relaxed, but competent person that I could work with, we agreed on his fee and for the next two days we worked together to, firstly clear the bike through the exit procedures and then to get my paperwork in order. Acquiring the Sudanese visa was relatively straight forward, with an office in Aswan that charges half the price of the Cairo branch and takes a fraction of the time I was soon stamped up and ready to go, the visa being a prerequisite for purchasing the ferry ticket. They recommend allowing up to 6 weeks if applying for the same visa through the Sudanese embassy in London, I had mine in under an hour. With Kamal, I took the motorcycle to the port after I had stripped a few essentials off to keep me going while the bike was in transit. It is often a slow process of obtaining the right authorizations in the correct order but Kamal knew the procedures intimately so with his help it took only a couple of hours, oh how the Egyptians love their paperwork. It seemed as though he was on first name terms with every official at the port and at one point he was even pushing a few of the soldiers around in a jovial manner. After removing the Egyptian license plates and clearing the Carnet de Passage, we were soon lashing the motorcycle to the deck of a rusty old barge bound for Wadi Halfa, set to leave the following day. 

On the day we loaded the bike the port was virtually deserted but when we returned the following afternoon to secure my passage on the ferry the place was a hive of activity, porters struggling with oversize loads, ticket agents yelling at each other, a handful of sweating westerners in the chaotic line hoping for a few last minute cancellations, and the police and army strutting around trying to look officious. Amongst all of the hustle and bustle, here and there an individual would slowly spread out a prayer mat and quietly go about their devotions, oblivious to all the noise and mayhem. We had arrived at the port shortly after 1pm and on my behalf Kamal spoke to the notorious Mr Salah, the general manager of the last company to service this route. He appears to relish his power as he wanders nonchalantly through the heaving crowds, smartly dressed, eyes hidden behind dark aviator shades. He recently refused passage to a European cyclist who was impertinent enough to enquire as to why his fare differed from the amount paid by locals. With my motorcycle already loaded on another boat and the ferry reportedly full I was a little anxious at the prospect of my bike sitting in Sudan unattended for several days if I could not catch this sailing. With Kamal’s connections I secured one of the last three seats and I felt somewhat guilty knowing the people still queueing outside the ticket office were probably out of luck. By 3pm I was onboard but with the departure scheduled for 6pm I still had plenty of time to settle in. I watched in wonder as the boat was slowly packed to full capacity and then well beyond. Every possible space was occupied with passengers or packages, even the lifeboats were filled with people trying to find a spot to stretch out and get comfortable for the 18 hour voyage. Kamal had spoken to the captain as we boarded and I was allowed to sit up on the foredeck in front of the wheel house where I had almost the entire area to myself, I’m not sure what Kamal had said but nobody else came near this prime spot. He probably hinted that I had some kind of rare contagious disease. 6pm rolled by and the boat was still being loaded, night fell and the preparations to depart were still underway but, miraculously, by 7 o’clock the horn sounded, the gangplanks were lifted, the tethers released and we were on our way. 

Early morning on the ferry
As with the Egyptian traffic this boat also ran without any lights other than the ghostly glow from the instrument panel inside the wheelhouse. As soon as we cleared the port and all background light faded in the distance the night sky came to life with a display of stars I haven’t seen since my time in the desert. When the partial moon dropped below the horizon even more stars appeared and the Milky Way stretched high and wide overhead. I spent most of the night lying on the hard steel deck gazing at the free light show picking up the hint of new constellations on the southern horizon as we neared the Tropic of Cancer. It was pleasant enough to sleep with only a motorcycle jacket for warmth and a light breeze helped to keep the bugs at bay. Occasionally I would get up and wander below deck to stretch my legs or visit the overflowing toilets amidst the stale, dank air of the overloaded vessel. It was uncomfortably warm inside and I was thankful of the space I had out in the open air. I was able to sneak in a few hours of sleep but at one point I was awoken by something scampering across my chest on top of my jacket. I didn’t get a chance to see what was and I hope it was only a cat even though it did seem a little too light. 

Shortly before dawn I gave up on getting any more sleep so I readied myself to catch the sunrise on the port side of the boat. In the early morning light eager fishermen hauled their nets onboard small wooded boats as hungry pelicans patiently watched nearby. And still we moved south, past the ancient pharaonic ruins of Abu Simbel and into Sudanese waters. At noon the distant port of Wadi Halfa came into view and the restless passengers readied themselves for the chaos to come. By 1pm the ship had berthed, a tiny door was opened and the exodus began through the tight bottleneck. Traveling light, I was able to get off the boat with ease and I was soon walking along the jetty towards customs with a smile upon my face and a new country under my feet. A cursory glance at my passport followed by a few simple questions and I was through the gates and on my way to the small village of Wadi Halfa, Kamal had called ahead and had a friend waiting outside the port gates to give me a ride to a cheap hotel nearby where he had thoughtfully reserved a room. I had been told it would be quite difficult to find accommodation on the day the ferry arrives as the sudden influx of people often overwhelms what few guesthouses there are. Kamal’s friend turned out to be another fixer who arranges transport for over-landers traveling north and he filled me in on the procedures required for entering Sudan. He already had several other motorcycles and a few trucks ready to load for the crossing to Aswan. He also gave me the news that the barge carrying my bike was delayed because of engine problems so I could expect to stay in Wadi Halfa for a couple of extra days. 

Discussing routes with the logistics guru Mazar and fellow over-landers
from Switzerland and France in Wadi Halfa
Throughout this journey I’ve noticed subtle changes in the people and landscapes I’ve travelled through but the differences between Egypt and Sudan have been most profound. I had never imagined the 400 kilometers separating Aswan and Wadi Halfa would bring with it such a noticeable change. Crossing the Red Sea was a major milestone on this voyage but sailing to the southern side of Lake Nasser felt like going beyond a point of no return. Only in the north of Sudan has it felt as though I have truly entered Africa, although still predominantly Arabic in their customs and beliefs there is a significant contrast to what I have experienced up to now, a raw power to the landscape that is inescapable and which is reflected in the resilience and vigor of its inhabitants. I’ve experienced a generosity that belies the obvious poverty, on many occasions total strangers have insisted on paying for a cup of tea or a bag of bread, I know it is only pennies but in this case it really is the thought that counts. The locals take a noticeable pride in how they present themselves and how they are perceived by outsiders. Before leaving Israel I was advised not to trust ‘the Arabs’, ironically, by a deceitful bastard who turned out to be one of the least trustworthy men I have ever met, but there is an honor amongst these people that leaves me feeling confident about leaving my bike and belongings. A technique I picked up from Damo in Jordan has served me well since, when leaving the bike unattended I choose someone sitting nearby and ask if they think my stuff will be safe while I am away. If they answer yes, they tacitly assume some responsibility and when I return I thank them graciously and move on. There are many times when I have no choice but to leave the bike to purchase food or find a place to stay and it can be stressful knowing that if a person wanted to they could easily make off with some or all of my gear. Obviously, I use some common sense when choosing where to leave it and most of the equipment is locked to the frame but that would only discourage the opportunist and if someone was determined they could easily get past my basic locks.

The 'French Mobile'
Sudan has been full of surprises, the main roads are in excellent condition, some of the revenue from their lucrative oil industry is being put to good use on improving the infrastructure and there are many Chinese civil engineering companies involved with the expertise and manpower to get major projects completed on time and within budget. Moving south from Wadi Halfa, I was initially riding through harsh, unforgiving desert but by the time I reached Khartoum there was significantly more foliage and it feels as though I am beginning to finally exit the Sahara Desert. I am already two months behind schedule and had hoped to avoid some of the strong winds that ravage this region at this time of year but the sandstorms have added to the overall experience even though I have yet to be caught in one that ‘turns day into night’. The day time temperatures are pleasant so the motorcycle gear doesn’t feel too oppressive. In many of the towns and villages I have stopped in I have been the only foreigner and within minutes a crowd often gathers around my bike keeping a respectful distance but always asking the same initial two questions of “How much?” and “How fast?” 

Ancient temples abound, often close to the river and easily accessible from the road, pyramids from the period of the Meroitic Pharaohs with a more elegant, slender appearance than their northern counterparts.  Every site I stopped at I had all to myself, there are very few tourists here, at one point I would have been glad to have had some company as I buried the bike up to its axles in the deep, soft sand. On the evening of my first night in the sleepy village of Dongola, I was invited to attend a festival being held nearby and on arrival I was greeted by the loudest music I’ve heard in a long time and hundreds of men in traditional long, white robes brandishing swords and sticks dancing in a style reminiscent of the whirling dervishes of Turkey. Sudan operates under Shari’a law so alcohol is prohibited but the atmosphere was intoxicating as they spun feverishly in the warm evening air. The only women to be found were gathered in quiet groups around the edges of the party. 
Pyramid complex outside Karima, Sudan
One element of the local culture that is hardest to accept is the treatment of women. Openly regarded as second class citizens and heavily swathed in their hijab and burqa they often appear solemn yet sorrowful. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely practiced in Sudan with an estimated 95% of women having undergone the barbaric procedure. I spoke with an OB/GYN Doctor from the local hospital in Dongola who had countless stories of how this practice had ruined the lives of many. Any culture or creed that deems it necessary to interfere with the bodies of their children in this way needs to be questioned. I have heard many arguments for and against such procedures but why not let the individual involved hear those same arguments so they can make their own informed decision. FGM is often, mistakenly, associated with Islam but there are no religious texts that support or require the practice. It is rooted in the cultural traditions of this society and supported by a lack of education and awareness, mostly in rural areas. It was only upon my arrival in Khartoum that I first noticed women openly smiling. 
Meroitic Pyramids
Khartoum is not one city, but three, clustered around the confluence of the Blue and White Nile Rivers. It struck me as surprisingly modern with glass tower blocks stretching into the skyline and a busy airport close the centre. I had decided to stay at the one and only youth hostel, other travelers I had met described it as cheap and convenient with plentiful parking within its open compound, there were even rumors of the possibility of getting a hot shower. With my crude maps and trusty compass I eventually stumbled across the hostel, street signs are rare here and, as with much of the Middle East, directions are given in relation to things that are nearby. With secure parking and comfortable dorms it had everything I needed so I decided to make it home for a few days even though the showers were cold. With the only crossing into Egypt so close I have encountered more over-land travelers as they converge upon Wadi Halfa and the ferry to Aswan. Most are moving north so it is good to pick up tips and advice for the regions I will be traveling towards, road conditions, places to stay, areas to avoid, etc. All have been couples which often makes me wonder how different this part of the journey could have been but I try not to dwell on those thoughts for long. Each is filled with stories of adventure and adversity as they come to the end of their own journeys and it fills me with excitement to listen and wonder about what lies ahead for me. With over 40,000 kilometers, roughly the circumference of Earth, behind me an untold number ahead, this journey feels as though it has entered a new phase. Africa feels wilder and less predictable than what has come before, conditions are considerably more challenging and the senses are constantly being assaulted but it all feels exactly like what I need right now. I feel as though I belong in this moment more than ever.

Meeting the locals

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Don't pass gas

Day 271
Milage 24,480 (39,168 km)
Giza, Egypt
Cairo, Egypt’s dusty, bustling capital, Africa’s largest and fastest growing city somehow functions under the strain of warring political factions, limited recourses and a faltering economy. The resilience and resolve of its enormous population is infectious. The energy of this remarkable city is almost palpable, it is a thriving metropolis built upon a historical legacy stretching back over many millennia. The streets are impossibly crowded and the notorious traffic keeps moving as drivers squeeze through its clogged arteries from its thumping heart to its ever expanding periphery. I was apprehensive about plunging into the chaos but once you learn to accept its rhythm and go with the flow it can be sadistically pleasurable to ride through the narrow gaps that briefly appear between overloaded trucks and smoke belching buses. The screeching of brakes and the blaring of horns are ubiquitous throughout, adding to the atmosphere of urgency and excitement. How anyone could live amidst this urban extravaganza amazes me but they do, in their millions. I have heard many estimates as to what the true numbers are but most agree the population of Cairo and its suburbs is close to 30 million. Add to this the current state of heightened police and military activity, where many streets are blocked by tanks and barbed wire barricades, and it should be cause for complete gridlock but it somehow manages to keep going. 
The political situation here is very complex, the revolution that overthrew Mubarak three years ago seems set to come full circle and a return to the way it was before the uprising now seems inevitable. The optimism that gripped the country until recently has mostly evaporated and the brief experiment with democracy seems to have backfired. The corruption that fueled the protester’s anger is so deeply ingrained that the entire system would need to be overhauled if genuine change were ever to take place. The military was, and is, in control and many fear they always will be. Speaking to people who took part in the events in Tahrir Square it is clear that the ideals they fought so bravely for have come to nothing. There is a revolving door between the military and most branches of government with many retired officers going on to assume key roles within the country’s fragile infrastructure. When the Muslim Brotherhood took power the country was plagued by rolling power cuts, water and fuel shortages much of it engineered to weaken the newly elected leadership. A population can only tolerate disruption like that for so long and soon the strain began to manifest itself in further protests until the military staged a coup and resumed power, having never really conceded it. They now control the media with such an iron fist that any dissent is dealt with harshly. Arrests are common and newspapers and television stations have been shut down if they challenge the status quo. Bassem Youssef, the wildly popular satirical news reader, has been taken off the air for openly criticizing the government. Facebook and Twitter have both been targeted for censorship and the military retain the power to cut off all forms of external communication. Much has been learned from the methods employed by the original protesters and the new regime is taking all precautions to prevent a repeat of the events of three years ago.
My lovely horse la la la...
Sadly, the tourism industry has suffered greatly as international news outlets report only on the sporadic violence that occasionally rocks the country. While the revenue from the Suez Canal supports the government and the military, many working class people rely upon tourism as their primary source of income and visitor numbers have been dramatically impacted over the past three years because of how Egypt has been portrayed by the international press. At no point in my travels through Egypt have a felt threatened or uncomfortable, there has been plenty of staring but when I react with a smile it is often reciprocated. The felucca captains and the taxi drivers certainly hustle for business but two or three polite refusals and they retreat to look for business elsewhere.
Arriving in Cairo I was promptly greeted by Sam, a Horizons Unlimited member and keen overland enthusiast. A mild mannered, good natured teacher by day and an intrepid explorer during his time off, he can often be found roaming the infamous Sand Sea in his trusty Landrover ‘Stella’. Our first night was spent exchanging stories over curry and lager before returning to his ground floor apartment in a grand old colonial house in the suburbs of Maadi. Sam’s last trip into the Western Desert, along some of the routes used by the Long Range Desert Group during the second world war, had involved getting shot at by the Egyptian army, stumbling across an active smuggler’s cache and rolling one of the Landrovers, exciting stuff. Using Maadi as a base I dropped in to the BMW motorcycle store to meet with Haytham and Gehad for a chat about suitable rides while in Egypt. They invited me to stop by the Egypt Motorcycle School (EMS) afterwards to meet some of the local riders and take care of a few routine maintenance procedures on my bike. When I dropped by the school later in the week I was very impressed by the operation they run with a small fleet of Chinese bikes for introducing beginners to basic skills and a couple of bigger Japanese road bikes for the more advanced students. All lessons came with helmets and body armor included, two things you rarely see on the roads in Egypt. Nothing else like this exists in the country and it was encouraging to see the level of professionalism with which they approached educating young riders. 
The great crew at Egypt Motorcycle School (EMS)
My bike was overdue for an oil change and a bit work on the chain and the guys at EMS insisted on supplying everything I needed and completing the work on the bike. Afterwards they put on a spread of food that could have fed a small army and before long we were making plans for some desert rides while I was in the area. 
EMS chain gang
During my stay in Cairo I couldn’t resist a visit to the Pyramids of Giza so I made my way out to the edge of the city where the desert plateau meets the suburbs and spent a day exploring these amazing structures. Nine pyramids occupy the Giza site along with numerous other lesser temples but it is the three pyramids of Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure along with the iconic Sphinx that make this site so well known. The last remaining structures of the seven ancient wonders of the world they served as mausoleums for the pharaohs on their path to the afterlife. Standing at the base of each structure it is hard to imagine the physical effort required to put each block in place, never mind the thousands that went into each pyramid all without modern machinery and each one still stands strong after over four millennia. They don’t make them like they used to. Imagining all that physical effort made me quite thirsty so I retired to the nearby Mena House Hotel for a cold beer, a rather fancy hotel and way out of my league but with a spectacular view of the pyramids nearby I couldn’t resist it.
The following day I ventured into the city centre via the Cairo Metro, one of only two fully fledged metro systems in Africa, it moves around a billion passengers annually for the minimal fee of  one Egyptian pound. Once in the city I sought out the Egyptian Museum for its extensive collection of pharaonic artifacts including the evocative death mask of Tutankhamen. Cameras are confiscated upon entry so the postcard vendor sees plenty of trade. After the museum I attempted to wander through Tahrir Square but the military had the entire area cordoned off with barbed wire and tanks, there were no signs of any protesters and much of the graffiti that adorned the surrounding buildings has been painted over. From Tahrir I wandered through the heart of the city towards the grand bazaar of Khan al-Khalili, a warren of alleyways selling a prodigious variety of locally made goods. The smells that waft through the dark narrow passages combine  the sweet fragrance of the bubbling sheeshas with the tangy scent of fresh spices. The market thrives with activity and there is a noticeable absence of the tourist tack that I’ve found in many other city bazaars, this one felt like the real thing. 
The pyramids of Giza
It was eventually time to leave the city and turn south, yet again. Four potential routes are possible from Cairo to my eventual destination of Aswan and after talking to local riders I opted for the Oasis Road which takes a long, lonely detour through the Western Desert. After almost a week in one of the world’s busiest cities the prospect of spending time in the peaceful desert looked very appealing. On my last morning in Cairo, Sam insisted that I join him, Natalie, Connie and Kiki on a leisurely breakfast cruise along the Nile in a traditional white sailed felucca so I could hardly refuse. It was a great way to finish a fantastic stay and by mid afternoon I was back on the bike and battling my way through the crazy Cairo traffic. It took a full hour to clear the city and I was soon rolling into the desert, past the pyramids, and away from the chaos. The Oasis Road is the least travelled of all the southerly routes in Egypt so I often had it all to myself and as the miles rolled by and I got deeper into the desert I could feel a sublime peacefulness settling over my mind and body. The desert has a peculiar energy to it, something that is entirely alien to an Irishman, there is a  sense of serenity underscored by a subtle sensation of danger. As beautiful as it is, it can also be deadly and the unique combination inspires a feeling of wonderment. 
With fuel in short supply I filled my auxiliary tanks for the first time with the intention of testing the true range of the bike while fully loaded. I had called ahead to my first stop at Bahariya Oasis, over 400 km from Cairo, and had been told they had not had any fuel delivered for several days and the small town was dry. The next possibility for picking up fuel would be another 200 km beyond that, at Farafra Oasis, and they were unsure whether there would be fuel there or not. Beyond Farafra it would be another 200 km and I knew this was well beyond my maximum range but I set off anyway knowing it would all work out and if I had to spend a few days waiting for a fuel delivery then I could enjoy the desert even more. My late departure from Cairo left me on the road with not enough time to beat the sunset and after my first experience in Egypt driving at night I had no desire to have another. With the gear I carry on the bike I can stop and camp anywhere so I told myself if it gets too sketchy I can just pull over. The lack of traffic and the reasonable road surface allowed me to make good progress and by the time it was completely dark I knew I was only within an hour of my intended stopping point so I pushed through. It may not sound like such a big deal but driving at night in Egypt can be a white knuckle, butt clenching experience. The habit of driving without lights still baffles me but the road surfaces can deteriorate rapidly and it is not uncommon to see the bloated corpse of a camel on the side of the road, and then there are the potholes. These nocturnal demons like to come out at night, especially the big ones, they are hard to spot until you are almost upon them and then you have the dilemma of whether or not to weave to avoid them on a questionable road surface or gun the throttle and try to lift the front wheel over them. 
The empty Oasis Road
Obviously I made it to the first oasis without any serious mishaps and I was soon settling in to the Desert Safari Home of a wise old Bedouin named Madry Khozam. Madry sees so many overland bikers that it is expected that you park your machine inside the lobby and he had a hot meal waiting for me after my long ride. After a great night’s rest and a delicious, traditional breakfast of egg, beans and bread, we sat talking in the sunny courtyard about the road ahead and the roads we have travelled. When he handed me a few of his cards to distribute to bikers traveling in the opposite direction I hesitated and then pulled out one of my own. He immediately commented on the photo of Beth and I and asked as to her whereabouts. Reluctantly, I shared my story about how the last few months have been and he sympathized with my situation but added that my journey will provide me with the answers I seek. 
With no fuel available in the Bahariya Oasis I topped up my main tank from my external auxiliary supplies which total and extra 9 liters, just over two gallons, hoping that my next stop in Farafra would have more. The road south took me through the Black Desert where the sand is coated with a dark, thin layer of volcanic dolerite from the surrounding mountains which gives impression of riding across the surface of a darkened, apocalyptic wasteland. Further south the road then cut through edge of the White Desert where wind sculpted, snow white rock formations create an even more surreal landscape. As I entered the region I found myself riding into the heart of a powerful sandstorm. With little hope of finding shelter I pushed on to my next destination, as visibility dropped, the sand penetrated everything, at one point I could see less than 20 meters ahead and I had to adjust my speed accordingly. Coated in a fine white powder I eventually emerged on the south side of the storm crunching sand between my teeth. 
After several days of involuntary exfoliation in the desert I emerged once more into the Nile Valley just outside Luxor. The road across the final desert plateau had taken much longer than I had anticipated with the surface deteriorating with every mile I travelled. Cracked and twisted by the intense summer heat, at one point it vanished altogether and I had to pick my way between large mounds of sand to find a way through. After that the road became a muddy, slippery mess for many miles as it was clearly still under construction. I was thankful for the semi-off road Heidenau K60 tires I’d had fitted to the bike several months before. The subsequent delay left me on the road after dark yet again and as I dropped down into the fertile Nile Valley it became apparent that my arrival had coincided with the annual harvest of sugar cane. Overloaded tractors and trailers were piled high with the sugary stalks forming long convoys of what looked like a moving snake of vegetation, children lined the roadside chewing on a sweet bounty of stray cane that fell from the precarious loads. 
Karnak Temple, Luxor
Luxor proved to be a fascinating city on a beautiful stretch of the Nile River with an extraordinary concentration of ancient ruins. I couldn’t resist exploring a few of the local sites and spent a day longer than I had planned to in the area. With Aswan so close and the ferry to Sudan departing once a week on a Sunday, I decided to eventually push south to give myself enough time to organize the paperwork and finalize booking arrangements. The road from Luxor to Aswan, though relatively short, is incredibly busy and every town along the way has installed some of the most brutal speed bumps I have ever experienced. For almost 200 kilometers I rarely made it out of third gear and the entire journey took close to four hours. 
And so I find myself in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city and more African in character than anything I have experienced on this journey so far. The Nubian culture is more dominant here and the pace of life is much more relaxed than in the north. Today I loaded my bike onto a slow barge to Wadi Halfa, in Sudan, and tomorrow I take the 18 hour journey by passenger ferry upstream along the Nile River. The road that will eventually replace the need for the ferry is not yet fully open to the public and a permit to use it is extortionately expensive but I can think of worse ways to spend a day than taking a slow boat along the Nile.
Egypt has been the first country on this journey where I have had to travel alone but I have yet to feel truly lonely, the people I have met along the way have exceeded all of my expectations and I feel a little guilty for some of the stereotypes I brought with me to this part of the world. I doubt I would have been exposed to as much warmth and generosity had I not been traveling solo and as I prepare to move on I can only look back at how this trip has evolved and focus on the positive experiences that may not have occurred had things turned out differently. The truly amazing gift of spending time at home over the Christmas holidays would probably not have happened and the overwhelming support and encouragement of family and friends through these difficult times has made me feel more loved and cared for than I ever could have imagined. On top of all of this I have the opportunity to practice forgiveness, to liberate myself from the anger and bitterness that darken my thoughts, those ugly, primal emotions that feed into negativity and depression. There are still ups and downs but I take each day as it comes and realize that it is my attitude that will define how the world perceives me and how I perceive the world. I feel a strength growing inside me with each day that passes and as daunting as the road ahead can appear at times, I know, that whatever challenges I may encounter I have the resourcefulness and ability within me to prevail. I saw a t-shirt on my walk back from the Sudanese embassy after securing my visa, it said "You don't know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have". 
Sunset on the Nile