We bid farewell to Goha hotel in Gondar. By contrast to our usual roadside camps, it has been a taste of luxury. Even so, the town reflects a reality for many Ethiopians: subsistence living. In a populous country with an economy based largely on agriculture, well-paid work is rare. "There is no middle class." as one local man told me. Notwithstanding the struggles, the majority of folks have an upbeat disposition.
Friday, January 31, 2014
Now, the second section of the tour heads north through the Simien Mountains to another ancient capital, Axum. We start today with a climb to almost 3,000 meters before descending to bush camp. The road will be paved in some parts and dirt track in others. The landscape is lovely and the hills justify the use of a "mountain" bike. Riders have changed their tires to meet the demands of the new surface.
The Tour d' Afrique has a foundation that raises money to provide bicycles for communities through which the tour passes. Today, there were 21 bikes presented to a local organization called Link Ethiopia. At a restaurant, Brian explained the purpose of the gift and the support the TDA lends towards sustainable, active transport in African societies. A variety of officials from the recipient organization spoke in Amharic, expressing their gratitude for the new wheels and the ongoing partnership.
Two cyclists, Birgitta Hermann and Catharine Daly, presented bikes to locals. Their fund-raising was devoted to the purchase of bikes for the African people. Smiles all around. In all, 90 bicycles will be donated in five places en route to Cape Town.
Cycling is a marvellous means of transport in any society. It makes sense here due to the low cost, the relative ease of maintenance and the healthy benefits. When one cycles in towns, one can appreciate that the air quality would improve if more folks rode (or walked) rather than used the tuk-tuks or piled onto pickup trucks.
A quartet of us visited a World Heritage site here in Gondar: the Royal enclosure of King Fasilides. It is in the centre of town, a walled compound within which are centuries-old stone structures built for a succession of kings. The Ethiopian tour guide association provides well-trained guides and we hired one, Enoch, who ushered us around the various buildings. He explained the various purposes for each structure; there was a concert venue and a sauna among the lot.
Brian had a guide book that augmented what the guide shared with us. Having spent a lot of time here over the years, Brian's perspective is helpful to many cyclists.
Next on the itinerary, after a sumptuous local meal, was a trip to the Debre Birhan Selassie church. It was opened by the attending priest who invited us to kiss the cross. Within the church, there are painted walls with religious iconography. The narrative of mother Mary is represented as well as portraits of the Trinity.
We were asked not to use a flash within the dark chamber of this church. A concerted effort is made to conserve the painting on the walls. Many Ethiopians are protective of this religious tradition. Crucifixes are often large wooden pendants and some women have the cross tattooed on their foreheads.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
Ethiopian cuisine is simple and tasty. The standard meal of injera and curried dishes is delightful. We have already sampled a few versions. It is clean and almost all reputable eateries do did a tap for washing. We sanitize our hands and dig in.
The fruit juices are brilliant. One can order a combination of mango, papaya and guava in a drink that resembles a smoothie. We started our day at a bar called Sofa where they served us this concoction. It is rich and healthy. Check out the cocktail below.
Also refreshing is the presence of women who are free to socialize and interact with their partners or be on their own in a social setting. This phenomenon is in contrast to the rare sight of any women in public places in Sudan. Here is a Gondar lady enjoying a morning beverage and chat.
Had it not been for my childhood friend, Brian Hoeniger, I would not be here. Brian has worked for the Tour D'Afrique since 2008. He and his wife Lorrie first worked in Africa with an organization called Canadian Physicians for Aid and Relief in the 1980s. CPAR's director, Henry Gold, had hired Lorrie as a nurse for a project in Ethiopia and Brian had complementary skills. Several years later, Henry again hired Brian to do book-keeping and administrative tasks for TDA. Brian put the seed of riding Africa in my mind years ago and I slowly mustered the gumption to give it a go.
When we climbed up to Gondar to complete the first section of the TDA, Brian was at the Goha Hotel where we have an option of camping or rooming. He has worked throughout Africa and considers Ethiopia his favourite country on earth. He will join us for the Gondar to Addis section of the tour which is novel due to the re-routing of the TDA. If you are interested in the biblical sites along the path, look up Axum and Lalibela. There are ancient churches en route and the rich Orthodox Church tradition remains in these towns. Below is the World Heritage site of Fasiledes castle here in Gondar.
We bid farewell to the Sudan at the dusty, hot town of Qadabbit which leads to a bridge that symbolically marks the transition to Ethiopia. It was a long day on the saddle: 166 kms. Some opted to take the lunch truck to lunch and pedal the latter part. We all had to submit our passports at the small structure on the Sudanese side. Paperwork was filled out confirming our stay in Sudan and then we pushed our bikes to the Ethiopian custom house where we were photographed and fingerprinted by scanner.
Immediately, one can feel a difference in the people, the land and the culture. The African tri-colour theme is dominant in the contemporary clothing. Coffee and beer are on offer. More English is spoken in addition to the national tongue of Amharic. Children abound in a nation that is bursting under a population growth that is staggering.
Wherever the tour stops, a posse of young entrepreneurs set up a cold drink emporium adjacent to the camp. It is a quick, thriving trade for a group of thirsty, depleted riders. Given our appearance, we draw a crowd of onlookers who are content to gawk at sweaty westerners sitting under the shade of a tarp.
These kids are reputed to throw stones at cyclists for no apparent reason. While some riders have copped a few projectiles, the intent of the children does not seem to be malicious. Some speculate that the village kids grow up with livestock who are herded by tossing pebbles or by prodding with branches and the dirt-throwing is an extension of that practise. For the most part, they simply want to engage. They will shout "You! You! You!" and ask "Where are you go?"
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
One lasting impression is of the rugged, serene creatures that inhabit the desert and upon whom pastoralists rely for their livelihood. Goats, camels, donkeys and cattle roam the vast landscape that is Sudan. They are sometimes accompanied by sun-baked herdsmen and their spouses or children. These beasts somehow eke out enough nutrition from an unforgiving ecosystem to survived. The asses and camels carry burdens. They all have value. I salute their constitutions.
Another image that will never leave me is the carcasses of the animals by the roadside. They look as though someone has punctured a balloon and simply deflated the beast. Sometimes, the vultures have had their way and there is a rack of bones on the shoulder of the road. In a society where livestock are a major source of wealth, the animals that fall to disease or injury or accident are left to natural decomposition. And in countries where animals share roads with humans, the end of life is in your face at the roadside, reminding you of how fragile life is.
The desert epic culminated with a long slog, by our sand standards, from a village by a canal to a town with a sugar cane plant that was visible from kilometres away. Navigation was a challenge as the path of hard-pack dirt ended with a maze of cane fields that are irrigated by a subtle checkerboard pattern of channels. Sharita, our tour director and chief navigator, had scouted the route weeks earlier but the pattern of navigable paths change quickly. Ever resourceful, Sharita employed a Sudanese motorcyclist to chauffeur her from checkpoint to checkpoint. She would hop off the back of the bike and flag the direction to follow. The herd pursued her route until we hit pavement and then it was a straight line to the market town of Al-Qadarif.
Al-Qadarif is a bustling city that has a vibrant souk or bazaar. The TDA secured lodgings for cyclist at the guest house there. Nestled down a side street, the guest house was a peculiar walled compound that one entered through a gate. Inside the gate, one could find refuge in a dorm that offered a fan as relief from the heat. The whir of a fan is sweet music to those of us who find the intense temperature unsettling.
I plunked my gear on a bottom bunk and went out to explore the bustling atmosphere of the souk. The sheer concentration of a souk breathes commerce: textiles, pharmaceuticals, kitsch,...you name it. Curiously, the images of people on the products are often cute Caucasian children. It is ironic given the complexion and culture of the target audience. The Sudanese merchants have been consistently hospitable and engaging. Often, they offered us tea, falafel, ful, cold drinks for free.
On our arrival at the guesthouse, the TDA tour leader, Randy, was interviewed by Sudanese television. Again, it is a sign of their genuine interest in a group of western cyclists that they would air interviews with us on local media. Jennalea (a cycling mate from Arnrprior) and I were both interviewed. We wee asked to give our impressions of Sudan. We both noted the warmth of the people and their kindness. The interviewer prefaced one question by suggesting that the western media perceives Sudan as a potential home to terrorists. We were both circumspect in avoiding the references to politics. People are people and the Sudanese, especially those with whom we have shared time, are lovely folks.
Once sand becomes deep, both tires can come to an abrupt stop. Tire type and bike model can help one overcome or meet the challenge of sand. Fat, knobby tires can claw into the loose earth and mountain bikes have preferable geometry to plough through it. As well, deflating the tires allows the rider to get a grip and carry on.
Alas, when I left Toronto, I had no idea we were being rerouted through an open sand desert. My bike is a touring bicycle with a steel frame for durability. I did not bring tires wider than 37 mm. Thus, the amount of energy I needed to navigate sand was huge. Often, if the track was hard enough to attain speed and distance, it would ultimately lead to a thick swath of quicksand-like substance. All one can do is get off and push.
There are subtleties in the desert surface. In order to cross the terrain with some pace, you focus your attention on a line of soil that includes some pebbles, stones or anything solid. Once a line is established, you exploit it as long as you can.
Leaving the market town of Atbara, there was the notion that I would complete the entire 12,000 kilometre route without getting off the bike. By the end of the riding day, the vaunted EFI goal was lost. And it was so close. Had it not been for sand, intense heat and ultimately mental exhaustion, I would have rode or pushed into camp.
The group exited Atbara on a dirt track which merged onto a paved road. The course veered toward the open desert and that is where the rough ride began. Lunch was set up 58 km. from Atbara in a non-descript patch of sand. Most of that stretch required heavy pedalling as the track was intermittently "hard pack" and sand. While the former surface affords some purchase and therefore momentum, the latter can be torturous.
The dominant plant in the desert is the acacia, a tree marked by piercing thorns. We fixed several punctures today. Mercifully, I only had one. With my flat repaired, I followed a route that led to a green mosque. At that point, our navigation had no landmarks other than red flagging tape set about 2 kms. apart. Though I covered the day's distance of 102 kms., at the 90 km. mark, I lost the route and became disoriented in an ocean of sand. Having ridden and dragged my vehicle for 10 hours, much of it through nasty heat, I put all my energy into finding a fellow rider.
Off on the horizon, there was the glint of a bicycle. Saved! I managed to push to the place where we were supposed to be and waited until the TDA sag wagon came along. Although I was crestfallen to forego the accomplishment of doing every inch, the wise decision was to remain healthy. With me on the truck were others who had succumb to the heat and relentless sand. Medic Hannah plied us with oral rehydration to replenish our electrolytes.
This was the beginning of a five-day run of sand. Ah yes, the fabled desert passage. Below, you get an image of the flats. However, there is a vehicle and a settlement on the horizon. Most of the passage was through barren, arid, unpopulated earth. When we did come across nomads, they were invariably friendly. Camels, goats and donkeys surely outnumber people in this part of the Sudan.
Sunday, January 19, 2014
The organization of a four-month cycle tour is no mean feat. The people who feed us, guide us, and in some instances, carry us deserve gratitude for their kindness and attention to detail in a continent that can be frustrating.
The tour leader is Randy Pielsticker, an excellent, experienced traveller with a sense of humour and a clever turn of phrase. He sets the daily agenda for the road, replete with "coke" stops and roadside attractions. Sharita is a savvy South African who scouts our route; this year she has been instrumental in adding sections due to the loss of the Egyptian leg. Our cook, Yanes , another South African, has produced consistently delicious fare. Another Capetown resident, Alex, is our mechanic and he has kept our wheels fit for cycling.
Those who do not want or cannot ride can choose to have their bike put atop the truck. You can see Alex up there sorting out bikes and tires.
The vehicles are driven by Noah, a native of Harare Zimbabwe, and Steven, a light-hearted Tanzanian. Both assist with all meals and camp chores which include purchasing water and fuel when available. Our medic is an RN from the UK, Hannah, who has worked for the British Army. Communications to the TDA office are handled by Bina, from Pennsylvania and her husband, Justin, is a jack of all trades. Gillian records times for the racers and wards them their kudos after each stage. Each cycling day, a staff member "sweeps" to ensure that no one is left behind. Thank you to the staff for having our backs.
We set out from Dongola by crossing a bridge over the Nile. The vast sandy landscape extends from either side of this lifeline. The further one strays from the river, the less vegetation one sees. It becomes an ocean of sand, rock and rugged weeds: unforgiving and barren except for camels.
The first day was relatively easy. The distance was moderate and the road was smooth. Some TDA cyclists were "racing". They try to win stages by posting the fastest time. My approach is expeditionary. Making it to the lunch truck and subsequently to camp is a modest goal. The energy and water required to do so compels me (and others) to be conservative. Pacing is crucial so the various groups of folks I ride with tend to be in it for the long haul. To date, about half the 30 Khartoum to Capetown participants have maintained their EFI status. That is: they have rode every inch or millimetre.
There is also a parallel competition to see if any soul can stay every night in her or his tent. Given the absence of modern conveniences such as toilets, showers and laundries, the aspiration to camp for four months is only for the intrepid and well-organized. Pitching the tent and setting up a cot to sleep comfortably is not optimal after pedalling for seven to ten hours. Soup is usually available courtesy of Yanes the cook and most individuals sit and fortify themselves with the quenching broth.
Salaam. Wherever you are in the Sudan, the sight of a minaret and the call of the muezzin is not far away. Of the five pillars of Islam, the morning call to prayer is most evident here. The invocation to pray is broadcast via loudspeaker in towns. This morning, it was high volume and resonant throughout our park campsite.
Men in white, flowing robes dominate the marketplace. In towns, the cargo vehicles share space with tuk-tusk and donkey carts. One needs to be wary as a pedestrian that one does not venture close to traffic. There are no sidewalks so everyone who is not in a vehicle shuffles in the dust at the side of the road. Below you see five of my comrades walking into town on a common surface.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
We pulled into camp in an abandoned amusement park in this Sudanese city yesterday. The campsite is luxurious compared to our first three desert sites where one simply pulls up on the side of the road and clusters around the TDA vehicles: a truck with our gear in lockers, a lunch truck with food and water, a Toyota Hilux pickup for monitoring and the SAG wagon which collects riders who are distressed or fatigued.
One word to describe the first four days of cycling: tough. 500 kms. into a headwind is not the usual opening gambit for this tour. Alas, starting in Cairo was impossible and the organizers wanted to add distance. Some of those kilometers were northbound from Khartoum. Some Sudanese questioned the wisdom thereof as the prevailing winds are from the north and yet the die was cast. The lot of us plodded on and arrived with sore buttocks, aching legs and a sense of relief that we are not going north from here.
Time to eat now so I will join some fellow cyclists for falafel and a cold beverage. More to come on the initial days.Salaam.
Thursday, January 9, 2014
We were out on the bikes a few times today. Our sojourns into the streets of Khartoum were exciting. The city is congested and traffic is based on the honour system rather than lights, signs and roundabouts. A group of nine of us just did a 20 km. loop over three bridges, choosing the Blue and White Nile rivers. We managed to stay together with a lead and a "sweep". This is no mean feat in the absence of any road rules. The sweep, a humourous fellow from the Bay Area, said "let's meet at the mosque".
The truck is packed and I will show you more or less what it looks like. There it is below. My Sudanese friend, sadig, poses in front of it. The truck is one of four vehicles which will accompany and support the group. Sadig will join us for the Sudanese section which will take us through Dongala, Atbara, and Al-Qadaref. We get a police escort to the edge of Khartoum and the. Head for our first camp in the desert.
Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Today's inaugural meeting of the group to launch the TDA 2014 began after breakfast at the hotel Acropole, our local lodgings run by an affable Greek Sudanese gentleman who is a legend in these parts. Our tour leader, Randy, breezed through an agenda of items: overview of the entire route, health concerns, bike maintenance, mealtime rituals, practical attitudes, etc. Randy is an articulate, experienced mensch; he has done this tour five times in addition to his many other expeditions around the globe. Staff were introduced and they are all affable, helpful folks.
We were invited to assemble our bikes on the terrace. Our South African mechanic, Alex, and Randy helped put the bikes together for those who wanted or needed a trained hand. Here is mine after assembly in front of the legendary Acropole
The hotel staff offered to arrange a driver to take us out to the camel market in the edge of town, where the brick houses give way to the desert. Several of the group wanted to see the display so we packed in and became acquainted with the camel trade. You can see that these animals are valuable as the owners tie their legs to prevent escape. One camel was lifted on to a pickup truck and it was not a happy creature.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Four of theTDA cyclists arrived in the wee hours of this Tuesday morning at Khartoum airport. Much tour relief, the bikes arrived intact along with our bags. We were met at the airport by a representative of our hotel and he helped navigate us through immigration and customs with the standard fees paid to the officialdom on duty. Our truck was stacked high with four bike boxes and all our gear. Again, the stuff arrived without loss. Some Sudanese night clerks let us in to the Hotel Acropole, owned and operated by Greeks, and we crashed.
After necessary sleep, I met some of the support staff and fortified myself for a walk out into a chaotic, bustling city devoid of navigational aids. Equipped with a Khartoum map that was not even close to scale, I set out in search of the Nile. After an hour or so of following my intuition, I stopped and asked a local man where the mighty river could be found. He pointed me north to the Blue Nile which enter Sudan from Ethiopia and joins the White Nile that flows to Cairo.
I would include other photos but I was approached by an armed soldier who asked me to delete some shots. Apparently, some government institutions are not to be shot by tourists. There are plenty of embassies, consulates and foreign investment structures by the river. As one walks away from the river to the south, you enter a crowded, hot city which does not have sidewalks. Pedestrians beware as you often share the road with buses, cabs and trucks. Women sell nuts and fruit on the footpath. Men in uniform stand and lend a semblance of order to the mad swirl of human traffic.
Cars are everywhere, mostly Japanese, and they are often being washed by boys who must earn a living doing so as the sand must stick to the car after every use.
My first impression is that the people who speak English are very kind. Many are fluent in Arabic. I can exchange pleasantries with them but nothing more. Language opens avenues of exploration. Today, I roamed without a compass and appreciated how different this environment is. The Islamic culture is ubiquitous: the minarets, men praying on the mats set up on the footpath, and women in hijab/niqab. For hours, I was the only Caucasian around and this vulnerability reminds me how it feels to be a stranger.
Monday, January 6, 2014
Having flown here Turkish Airlines, I was expecting to catch a flight to Khartoum last night with my co-rider Catharine and the tour leader Randy. To condense the story, the plane took off with my friends and without me. We had all visited the departure gate well in advance. Restless to explore and stretch my legs before the connecting flight, I walked around and returned a half an hour before the scheduled flight time only to discover that the gate was closed. Turkish Airlines apparently have a policy of rejecting any latecomers regardless of whether the plane is still loading.
Fortunately, this embarrassment was not experienced alone. I met a man from Kosovar who also missed it and we commiserated. We sorted out how to get on the next flight (which is today) and caught the metro into town. En route to Sultan Ahmet, we bumped into a Brazilian fellow who was looking for a hostel. We found accommodation and bunked for the night.
This mishap allowed me a day of sightseeing in Istanbul, a city with which I am unfamiliar. Given my appearance, I was an easy mark for the carpet salespeople. Even so, the inevitable spiel included a tour of the standard sights: the Blue Mosque, the basilica cistern, the Egyptian columns, etc. after the obligatory cup of local coffee, I wandered down to the water and hiked for several kilometres. It is a dense city that straddles the European commercial connection and the Islamic history of the region. My local guide, Murat, just finished his compulsory military service and he managed to teach me the pleasantries in Turkish. The mere attempt to say thank you in another tongue ingratiates one to the community, no matter how badly you pronounce the courtesy.
The Bosporus with ferries crossing. A curious phenomenon was the cat population that appears to live on these rocks, fed by locals.
Saturday, January 4, 2014
This day has been hectic. Collect the bike from Bateman's, buy some last-minute items, clean our home, say goodbyes to loved ones. There is stress associated with the process as one's mind wanders to the horrible hypotheticals. Fortunately, friends and family put it in perspective and the worries can melt away. My pal, Peter Steen, a.k.a. Ice Wino, met Cathy and me at Bateman's to give me a Boy Scout badge for cycling.
So here we go, from snowy Toronto to mild Istanbul courtesy of Turkish Airways. The bags are packed. Contrary to my usual practise, I am perhaps overpacked. Driven by a minimalist sensibility, my bias is to underpack. Given the length of the ride and the uncertainties, one can include items that may never be used (bike parts, formal clothing,...). One indulgence is a daily crossword. Some thoughtful person hooked me up with the NY Times hard copy crossword calendar. A little diversion to take my mind off saddle sores.
Thursday, January 2, 2014
Inveterate fan of my hometown sports teams, I must say that it has been a long time between drinks. Right now, the Leafs and Raptors are travelling well. While it may be good for one's spirit, the prospect of a collapse can never be ruled out. While we pedal in Africa, here's looking at the local squads for some successful playoff runs.
And speaking of competition, let us hope for a peaceful games in Sochi. While politics has long played a role in the Olympics, there is a glimmer of what is noble in the human spirit when athletes from around the globe give it their best and display sportsmanship. Our Canadian women and men will presumably do us proud.
The Christmas tree is on the kerb, auld lang syne has been sung and it is time to try to keep our resolutions. My commitment is to enjoy every moment of the grand tour and learn as much as I can about the people and their circumstances as we roll through community after community.
To do the TDA, each person requires huge support from kith and kin. First and foremost, I must acknowledge the loving support of my partner Cathy who has endured my obsessions and idiosyncrasies. She even claims that I "deserve" this ride. Our offspring, Michelle and Josh, have been behind me all the way. And if you are reading this, thank YOU. Without all the marvellous people who honour me with their friendship, I would not be able to do such a trip.
At the risk of being maudlin, I want to remember my parents, David and Elizabeth, who provided us with everything a child needs: love, kindness, moral guidance and honesty. My siblings Christine, Anne, Ian and Dave care for one another, especially when the chips are down. Both of my sisters are enduring hard times and I will keep both of you in my heart on the way. Likewise, with my brothers, I admire their calm, steady consistency and support.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
The reality of the tour is upon me now. In a few days, the group will assemble in Khartoum to start the expedition to Capetown. Some say that the tour has become easier due to the improvements made by the tour organizers and the pavement of more roads. Even so, the prospect of rigorous climbs, long days and some rough patches inspires a bit of trepidation in me. And yet these elements of adversity motivate me to meet the challenge.
Packing is not my forte, especially for four months of cycle touring and camping in Africa. The two trucks that support the ride contain lockers in which all of your gear, excluding your bike, go. The dimensions of the locker are 43 cm. wide by 58 cm. tall by 83 cm. deep. Featured below is a box simulating the size of the locker. To date, I have managed to get most of my gear in the duffel bag.
What I need to complete the list is to retrieve my bike box from Bateman's cycle on Bathurst. The crew there have been invaluable in reviewing the needs for the ride. They also prepared a small box for me that has extra parts, maintenance tools, tubes, etc. Cathy will drive me to the airport with the bike box, the bag and a knapsack. Et voila. More or less ready.