Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Welcome to the Ride

Arriving in Africa didn’t seem so foreign to me this time, yet the ride had taken an unexpected turn – now I was joined by my new wife-to-be; a whole new kind of adventure.  Between us and our first stop were the lands of the Maasai, Kilimanjaro and a big safari.

Jet-set to get set

We landed; we’d made it.  Looking back at it now, it was crazy – six months ago I didn’t even know this woman.  Now she was beside me, ready to cycle the rest of Africa together.  If you haven’t met her already, meet Manoela.

The joy of our arrival in Africa was coupled with nervousness.  Manu had never cycled more than a few miles before, never been to Africa and all-in-all had never taken quite such an enormous gamble – neither had I – but we were committed.  In the game of life we were rolling the dice, giving a chance to our romantic dream.

All this into 2 bags?
Manu e Pretinha

On our way through the airport terminal broad, irrepressible smiles welcomed us.  Kenyans seem to smile with such ease and we were receiving a royal display – it was a good start.  With bike and bags collected we met possibly the most charming taxi driver in Africa, Charles, and began the slalom through the chaos of Nairobi in rush hour.

Manu’s nerves were eased by the unexpected familiarity of everyday life passing by the window, it resembled her native Brazil.  Charles’ hospitality did the rest.  Hello Africa!

Marathon Bike Mechanic
Cycling Couple

The nervous excitement and relief at our arrival left us grinning for a week, while we got the bikes – Habaqa and Pretinha – ready, and showered in the daily downpours.

The comfortable home and generosity of our hosts, Norbert and Nicola, was hard to leave but the time to begin our adventure had arrived.  We rolled out…

Welcome to the ride

Its Simply Miles Ahead

Still adjusting to the new weight of the bike beneath her, Manu was about to face a unpleasant test, navigating safely through the mayhem of cars, people, trucks, bikes, and chickens that ebb their way erratically through the city.

At the first roundabout my heart was in my mouth as I looked back to see Manu almost losing her balance while surrounded by traffic.  It hit a nerve; her lip trembled but she took a deep breath and showed her mettle.  We pedalled on. ‘If you can get through that you can get through anything’, I thought to myself. 

Escaping Nairobi

We soon escaped the chaos and each time I looked over my shoulder, my confidence grew.  I could see Manu was enjoying herself.  All the uncertainty faded away and as we peeled off the road for lunch our joy and relief was almost tangible enough to eat.

Watermelon Smile

We cycled a little further each day, doing our best to dodge the rains and finding our rhythm.  Whether being burnt by the sun or soaked by the rain, it was clear we would enjoy our life on the road together.  The highlight of our experiences on the first days was Meeting the Maasai – an extraordinary day.

Epic Day

You are now entering Tanzania

One morning, just after dawn, we rolled across the border into Tanzania feeling high on life.  However the uncertainties of life on the road were soon to be exposed.

Looking at the map for the day we’d planned our food and water stops and were contemplating our first night in the tent.  There was an immediate sense that things might be more challenging in Tanzania in the first town.  By comparison with Kenya, the place seemed a notch down the development ladder; buildings more decrepit, food more basic and a general absence of English-speakers. We soon learnt the term ‘chipsi mayi’ – egg and chips, which seemed like the best food on offer for our second breakfast.

Our next stop was supposed to be 35km down the road. A few hours down the road however, there was no sign of it.  We pedalled along, taking in the magnificent panoramas around us of Mt Meru and Mt Kilimanjaro.  40km, 50km still no town; by this time we were running on fumes.  The towns posted on the map were nowhere to be seen.  With little spare water or food we had no choice but to push on.

Lively Little Maasai
As Far as the Eye Can See

A tiny Maasai shop offered salvation in the form of warm coke and biscuits.  It was temporary relief; the energy deficit soon wore on us again as we started cycling up the side of Mt Meru.  We were already well past Manu’s longest day yet (70km) and she was having to dig deep to keep her legs turning with gravity leaning against her.

Heaving Herself Uphill

By now it was close to six o’clock; twelve hours on the road.  Still no towns, just mountain. Each time I looked round she smiled.  It was the kind of smile that says, I’m ok, this is bloody hard but I’m ok, preferably never again, but don’t stop, I can keep going.

Far up the road we saw some houses, our spirits raised.  Turn by turn we made it there, it’s not the kind of place you would normally stop but the Savoy wouldn’t have been better.  Surrounded by drunkards and hustlers we gorged ourselves on rice, eggs, chips, coke and beans.  The physical effect was a handsome one; we watched the last of the day’s sun in euphoria.

Meru Hill Silhouette

Arusha - the next day’s intended destination - was still 35km away but after the next ridge we were told it was all downhill.  They say it’s not good to ride at night in Africa, but with no better option and feeling empowered by our mighty feed we pedalled off into the darkening night; fuelled as much by our fears as by our food.

It’s rare that you can trust the directions or descriptions while on the road but thankfully the road tilted downward.  Head torches and smiles beaming we circled the Mt Meru, serenely backlit by moonlight.

Sketch of Epic Day

We arrived in Arusha at 9pm – 110km and 13 hours after we began – elated and exhausted.  Few days have I gone to bed so tired or so fulfilled. This was ‘Epic Day’.

End of the 'Epic' Day


After our exertions arriving we spent a few days in Arusha.  While in the safari capital of the world we haggled our best to get an inexpensive day on safari.  Not the famous Serengeti or Ngoro Ngoro but Lake Manyara.  We knew nothing about the place but off we went crammed on a mini-bus with famers’ butts and breath in our face, and a chicken flapping at our feet; true budget safari style.  

I could probably write a volume about our day on safari but to save on time I’ll furnish you with a paragraph and my photos.

The great mountain wall of the East African Rift valley spills down one side of the park into a rainforest-like area, home to monkeys, countless birds, and tree-dwelling lions*.  On the fringes of the forest giraffe peer shyly over the trees tops and huge families of elephant trample through the thick vegetation and play in the rivers.  The landscape then opens out to a lowland savannah with herds of wildebeest, buffalo. The vast lake lines the opposite side teaming with hippos and flamingos.  Lake Manyara National Park is an environment unlike anywhere else on Earth.

* We didn’t see the lions but they’re there, somewhere.

Same Road

After the trials of ‘Epic Day’ nothing ahead seemed too daunting. We got into our rhythm of early starts, big feeds and early nights.  Even a few days of brutal headwinds didn’t dampen our spirits.

Caution: Wind!
Palm Plantation

Feeling confident, we took the suggestion of Pete Gostelow and spent two days on a small dirt road near Same.  At times the surface was in pretty bad condition - Manu took her first tumble - nevertheless it was a great suggestion the scenery was majestic.

Uncontrollable Curosity
Burton-like Baobab

Along this road less travelled the local people seemed as interested in us as we are in them, and we were given a warm welcome.  No money for photos exchanges or rip-off cola, this was real Tanzanian life escaping from the misrepresentative micro-culture that exists in most tourist destinations around the world.  We loved it.

Plain, Mountain, Home

A few rain soaked days later we sighted our goal, the Indian Ocean. We sailed down the final hills into Tanga and wasted no time, shedding our clothes and diving into the warm sea. It signalled the end of our first leg; what a safari (Swahili for journey) it had been. Next stop volunteering amid the white sands and turquoise seas of Zanzibar.

Sunset in Tanga

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Meeting the Maasai

A night in a motel of questionable clientele, led Manu and I to meet our first Masai. He introduced us to the lion-slaying ways of his ancestors and gave us an unforgettable insight into the life of this iconic tribe.

After a day of being baked by sun and drenched by rain, Manu and I rolled wearily into Kajiado, a small and unremarkable town south of Nairobi. There we met a young Maasai watchman, William, who guarded the 'Snowball Motel'. From the name alone you may be able to gleam an insight into the quality of this establishment, the type which you normally avoid unless practising the oldest profession. Luckily a clean bed and a locking door was all we desired.

Motel of Questionable Clientèle

William Mumeita

William Mumeita

The owner took pity on us and directed William to take us to the only restaurant in town for dinner. We invited him to join us we and exchanged questions and stories about our lives, while picking the bones of some very paltry poultry. It was the first time he'd met a 'mzungu' and our first meeting a genuine Maasai, and it seemed as fascinating to him as it was to us. Often he'd chuckle in disbelief at the most mundane revelation about our lives. We were more interested in his tales of hunting lions.

Apparently lions are hunted only at special times of year, and with great respect for this noble adversary. William had never killed a lion but had been present with the hunting group, sometimes as large as thirty men armed will tall spears and short clubs. He'd also witnessed men being killed, shredded from a single blow. From the look of sincerity and alarm in his eyes, I didn't doubt him.

Our conversation ebbed and flowed, it wasn't always easy to understand one another, but for someone who'd only ever been to a rural primary school his English was mighty impressive.

William lived well outside the town, even this small rural Kenyan truck-stop was too modern for his taste. He preferred the traditional Maasai life, so every day he walked the 30km, five hour round trip to his work. He wanted to show us his home so the next day we arranged to meet him 10km down the road.

The Commute

15km down the road the next morning we hadn't found him. Yet by good fortune when we asked a group of local Maasai women beside the road about the Mumeita family, we met his mother instead. With initial surprise then delight she led us to their home.

We wheeled our bikes along dusty paths, through streams, over hills, cattle paddocks and into ever deepening mud. It was only 5km, but it was a detour we'll never forget. Pushing a bike weighing 50kgs through thick clogging mud, in the heat of the midday sun, as your feet slip from beneath you is hard work. Luckily William found us otherwise we would have struggled to move; our wheels had jammed fast and we had to carry the bikes. Metre by metre we ground our way forward. It was an ordeal but we were rewarded.

Muddy Path

Into the black

Entering the Mumeita family home was like taking a trip back to prehistory. The house was no taller than 5ft/1.5m, rudimentally constructed from mud and sticks. Eight people lived there, seven children had been conceived there yet it was small enough that it would probably fit inside your living room. The most striking thing however was not the size, it was the darkness. As we were ushered in, crouching hands on our knees it was pitch black. I literally couldn't see a hand in front of my face as we waddled through the tiny entrance way.

Inside the Mumeita Maasai Home

As we were manhandled into our seating positions our eyes slowly adjusted to the light that passed through three tennis ball sized windows. In the middle of the room charcoals glowed red, shedding light just enough to see a small puppy stretched out warming its belly beside them on the floor. It is conceivable that design and method of construction of this house had been unchanged for millennia.

Masai Chai

We sipped very sugary tea and had our first lesson in Kimaasai, the Maasai language. Soon we were exchanging English and Portuguese too. As William counted in Portuguese for the first time his brothers and sisters burst out laughing thinking he sounded like the recent troops of Chinese road builders.

Pausing for thought

I tried to take a few photos to capture the moment but it was too dark. By the time the camera had taken in enough light we'd all moved but it did allow us to see the inside of the room for the first time, and as it turned out it was the same for the family too. They'd never seen the inside of their own home.

Pinhole Window

We never discovered why the windows were so small, perhaps simply because that it is the way they have always been.

Maasai Family Mumeita

The family were very charming and wanted us to stay longer. It was considered a good omen that we visited them, one that others would also be most jealous of.

Wondering away

As we made our way back to the road, thankfully via less demanding route, I wondered how long they would continue this way of life. The kids wore mostly modern clothes; one young teenage son only wanted to be photographed with his shades on.

Even with their remote mostly self-sufficient existence the way the world had changed meant they still needed money. What they have to trade is given so little value that William and his father must walk to town and work as watchmen for which they are paid pennies.

Children of the Maasai

One older brother has left and now works in Nairobi. For this family and other I had to wonder how long until all the children leave? One generation, maybe two. They want their all their children to get a better education but for what end? To return to tend the cattle?

The Tanzanian and Kenyan governments have already instituted programs to encourage the Maasai to abandon their traditional semi-nomadic lifestyle. Before too long it seems likely that efforts will be made to preserve the agricultural Maasai culture in a heritage area.

Or else perhaps, as is the currently the case across the continent, the Maasai will be obliged to sell their land to the tide of hedge fund investment in African land [BBC - Hedge funds 'grabbing land' in Africa], as has recently been the case in Ethiopia [Guardian - Ethiopia Centre of Global Farmland Rush]. (Update: there is currently a petition to stop the Tanzanian government selling off Serengeti - sign the petition on Avaaz) This is development, it is not right or wrong, it simply is.

Cultures change, adapting to the environment, merging with others, eventually becoming indistinguishable and effectively extinct. It seems depressing but it the same cycle of cultural death and rebirth that brought our ancestors unwittingly to us. Would you choose any different?

Maasai Earrings & Jewellery

The Maasai have a better chance than most tribes, with their international recognition and strong sense of identity, characterised by their traditional cloths and jewellery.

Whichever way it is to be, it was a privilege to be invited to see this side of Maasai life.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Year that almost Killed Me

An eventful year has passed, with more highs and lows than I would be comfortable to live through again. I got heavily involved in working for a local NGO in Ethiopia and helped to start a shelter for 17 vulnerable young girls; a real high. During that time some back pain began, my stuff was stolen, and I was struck by typhoid; enter the lows.

I returned to Syria to help Bidna Capoeira prepare for our first big project, leaving days before the revolution began. After my return to Ethiopia my back pain was diagnosed as spinal tuberculosis or cancer. I recovered back in the UK, met Kenny for Christmas in Kenya, and in the process met the love of my life.

Chewing Gum Boys' Goha Farewell

It's been a long time coming; this is the story of that odyssey.


Kenny & I read about Yenege Tesfa in the Lonely Planet shortly after arriving in Gondar in late 2010. We were enthusiastically greeted and plunged into the realities of life for orphans and street children in Gondar – a bustling town in the Ethiopian Highlands. After 20 minutes in their office we were committed to getting involved.

Three months flew by as we threw ourselves into the work, creating a website and helping to address some of the serious challenges Yenege Tesfa were facing. In the process I got deeply attached to the whole family: Fenta, Etenesh, Hibiste and especially Nigisti & the kids.

Escape to Djibouti

Before we knew we'd overstayed our visas and our welcome; Kenny and I were summoned before a judge 800km away in Addis Ababa – my first and hopefully last court appearance. We were ordered to leave the country within 10 days so we escaped to Djibouti. Our 48 hours exodus lasted just long enough to soak up some of Djibouti City and for me to get reacquainted with the sea, with a mesmerising dive with giant turtles and a whale shark.

We returned to our adopted family in Gondar, feeling like uncles to the children of Yenege Tesfa and many of the street kids. It became hard to imagine leaving but leave we must. We'd arranged to meet two friends Eve and Vivi in Mombasa, Kenya for a cycle to Dar Es Salam and Christmas celebrations in Zanzibar.

I didn't get there.

Riding out the storm

We'd waved a teary farewell to our friends, the kids, and Nigisti and we'd set off. I had to leave. I couldn't fail to try. I'd got on my bike, I'd left – but my heart and mind remained. The cycling was some of the most stunning yet also gruelling of the trip but all the while I felt like a shadow of myself.

With Yenege Tesfa I'd found a connection to my work I'd never felt before, able to really help and visibly change lives for the better. It felt purposeful - what I should be doing. In my heart our Zanzibar holiday felt out of place. It would be at least three months until I would get back and it was too long.

For the first time since London cycling felt wrong, cycling away from Gondar was a charade. It took two weeks to face up to my feelings and make the call I had be dreading. Eve and Vivi were devastated, as were many others who'd they'd encouraged to support the cause. Fate seemed to cast its vote as after 10,000km my back wheel cracked and I had to hitchhike and bus the final kilometres to Addis.

Luckily Kenny – the most loyal of friends - kept his word to met the girls in Mombasa; saving the day, and their holiday. Both Eve and Vivi have shown a lot of understanding to forgive me but my decision has left a scar on our friendship which will always remain.

Karma Police

I should have been happy to return to Gondar but the Zanzibar storm cast a long shadow. At this point my health took a turn for the worse. After a day picking up one too many kids my back reminded me of my mortality by forcing me to lie flat for a few days. Pulled muscle, I thought.

Rob – one of my oldest and best friends – visited me on his way back from Zanizbar, where he'd flown out to meet me as a surprise - doh! (You can justifiably think that I'm a complete idiot at this point). Blogs and photos are the boring, ugly sister of experiencing Africa first-hand and it was it was so good to share my experiences with him first-hand.

In the midst of all of this the place I was living in with Nigisti was burgled. Most of my kit - camera, laptop, journal, iPod, photos and a lot more - got stolen. At first I was shocked, then philosophical, then pissed off. I have no idea where it ended up but when I totted up over £1200 of stuff missing – however in a country where the minimum wage is equivalent to £5 a month, it's hardly a surprise.

The fact this isn't truly critical to my wellbeing is a sound reminder of how lucky I am. New plan: if my new camera gets stolen I'm taking up sketching.

Fly-by revolution

In February I returned to Syria for a few weeks to assist preparing Bidna Capoeira's first international project in the West Bank (occupied Palestinian Territory). It was a huge success for us to be given a funding by UNWRA and our privilege to run a three month project for 500 kids in 5 different refugee camps. It was a great reward for the months of hard work the team and I had put in while working in Damascus.

This wasn't a time for celebrating however. No sooner had I flown through Cairo than the bloody revolution there began. Our friends and most of Syria stayed glued to the unfolding story with hearts racing, always behind closed doors and curtains. In Syria there is always someone watching.

The Egyptian revolution provided a beacon of hope for Syria but also practical fears. We had a social media team working in an unregistered office. Facebook and Twitter defined the revolution. If suspected as a threat by the Syrian mukhabarat (secret police) our team especially the locals faced arrest and possible torture. It was a stressful, tense time. We closed our office down. Work continued, discreetly.

Days after saying goodbye to many good friends, the revolution in Syria began. A year later it is hard to see an end. My thoughts and hopes are with my friends and people who made Syria my home for one of the happiest times of my life.

Our Bidna projects in Syria and the West Bank continue to this day. Read more about the amazing developments and progress on the Bidna Capoeira website - continuing big respect to Tarek, Ummul and the team.

Mumma Africa

I hereby put my vote in for best Mumma in the world. She flew out to Ethiopia to meet me and arranged to teach English for 6 weeks at a local school in Gondar. It was amazing to be reunited. We drove through the spectacular Highlands, visited the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and delivered books and writing materials to a rural school Ken & I had been introduced to on our ride.

The weeks passed all too fast, not helped by the amount of work I'd taken on, with six projects on the go, I was stressed and my health was wavering. Our time together was capped with a magical trek through the Simien Mountains. We were encircled by baboons, dwarfed by Giant Lobelias and surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.

Body break down

In the weeks after my Mumma left, my health faded. I'd been putting a brave face on what I thought was a reoccurring bout of gastroenteritis for several weeks. After spending another few bed-bound days, flat on my aching back, I felt as weak as I have in my life; really scraping the barrel. The running joke was that I was getting 'life experience', but the truth was this was an experience I could have done without. Before long I was diagnosed with Typhoid.

With a week of vomit-inducing injections behind me, my Typhoid was destroyed but so was my body. I was moving like an old-man from my weakness and continuing back-pain. To make matters worse I had to haul my ass 800km to Addis to renew my visa. Tadessa, my house-mate and physio at Gondar hospital suggested I get my back scanned while I was there – it was good advice.

As I came out of the scan I could see a perfect 3D model of my spine… and the radiologist shaking his head. This is not good he said, pointing to a hole where some spine should be. 'I'm 95% certain you have Spinal Tuberculosis or Cancer'. Boom! No breaking it gently. There it was - the word we dread to hear - the c-word.

He referred it to the specialist who was back in on Monday. It was a nervy weekend I can tell you. I kept the news from home but was grateful for my friend Debbie to confide in. I was more relieved than freaked out, had it not been for my visa run I could have stayed in Gondar thinking it was a disc problem for months.

Tarot Stress Card

To provide distraction Debbie and I did a tarot reading. I've never been particularly convinced by these things but the most significant card did provide a very useful perspective. It was the Stress card – a one man band, juggling, balancing precariously, exhausting himself, a moment away from a big fall. This was a metaphor for the last few months of trying to do too much and it resonated deeply within me. Another lesson learned – it is easy for a man with too much ego to try to do too much. I had and it was a reminder to be more humble.

Monday arrived, the diagnosis remained the same. The Spinal TB or cancer couldn't be confirmed without a painful and expensive biopsy. I was prescribed a super-strength cocktail of medicine and to pack my bags – it was time to come home.

Home Discomforts

It had been 2 years since cycling off from the UK, at first it felt like a different lifetime. After 9 months in Ethiopia everything felt so excessive, even in my own home; the plethora of kitchen utensils, the rows of CDs, DVDs, even the books – How much did all this cost, all these stagnant things? How can we accept this waste when hours away others suffer?

My mind swirled heavy on medication and coming to terms with a sense of failure at being back without having made it to Cape Town. I was like a zombie. I felt anti-social, even slightly uncomfortable around my best friends. Time passed fading in and out of streamed TV series, medical tests and sleep.


Mumma's cooking, time with my nephews, rest and good-old western apathy soon made me feel a whole lot better and after umpteen hospital visits I was told I could quit my medication. The specialists weren't sure what it was yet but it wasn't Spinal TB or cancer. Relief!

Schmorls Node

Months passed as I regained some strength and finally the diagnosis of my spine condition was given. I have Schmorl's Node. In basic terms it's the damage caused when the spinal discs break through the wall of your vertebrae and start destroying the soft tissue; painful, but a hell of a lot better than cancer. Only when pain is very severe do they operate; mine is a regular presence but not worth high-risk surgery.

After months of rest the soft tissue left has hardened and although my spine is now weak, if I'm careful not to put my back under stress then I'm alright. It's a bummer, no more capoeira or lifting heavy things for the foreseeable future, but otherwise I'm back to feeling healthy and I'm very grateful for that.

London Living

I continued supporting Bidna and Yenege Tesfa while living under my Mum's watchful eye. I also took the opportunity to refill the bank account a bit by designing a few websites. In other words I ended up working a lot, welcome back to London living. It was all too easy to fall back into this pattern – what had I learnt from being away?

One Friday night I'd just had dinner with my Mumma and was about to settle back into some work when my brain got perspective; 'why are you working and not spending time with your friends? You will be going back to Africa soon… it's Friday night!'. One call to Rob later and I was on my way out – no other night has changed my life more. Amid drinks and dancing I met Manoela, the beautiful Brasilian woman who is now my wife-to-be.

My return to Africa was delayed as I was in the lap of love, and there was (and still is) no place I'd rather be.


I'd planned to meet Kenny in Kenya at Christmas and I was determined to get there. Kenny had had an epic year since we parted, cycling solo around Lake Victoria and making an outstanding contribution to many many projects on the way, particularly in Naivasha. I my absence he'd really kept the Better Life Cycle spirit alive.

We spent 10 days seeing the progress of the three projects he'd helped there – all of which impressed me greatly. We were graciously hosted by the Nicklin family, who Kenny had stayed with in his 6 months there and were also treated to an unforgettable game drive by Liz & Ruli Tsakiris. It was easy to see why Kenny got so involved here – his new home in Africa. I will I return in a few months' time and hope to continue the legacy he left.

Ethiopia Goodbye

My bike was still in Ethiopia and so I returned to finish my work with Yenege Tesfa. The organisation has almost doubled in size in the last year both in terms of staff and children supported by the shelter, education and healthcare programmes. It was a difficult farewell, lessened by all the positives that have come out of it both for the organisation and for me. Seeing the new Girls Shelter was a great reward for all the efforts the team and I had made - 17 girls who were living lives surrounded by poverty, hunger and abuse, now have a home a family and a bright future; that alone is worth the journey.

The New Girls House

My back will never fully recover but I felt as strong as I had in a year when I set off from Addis Ababa to cycle for the first time in almost 18 months. It took a few days to reacclimatise to life on the bike, not assisted by a torturous few hours where I was pedalling with the back brake locked onto the wheel; clearly a little out of practice. It was a tough mountainous cycle at times however the prospect of being joined by my lady in Nairobi was all the incentive I needed to keep pedalling.

The 700km to the border was like a metaphor for all of my time in Ethiopia, full of challenges and annoyances overcome with joys, friendliness and beauty.

A New Beginning

After a quick return to London to help Manu prepare her things and say a final farewell, I am now prepared to complete what I set out to do: cycle to Cape Town. I hope the lessons learned and outcomes of my efforts made are repayment for all the support I have received. The path I have chosen is longer and more involved than I ever imagined - the journey is more important than the destination as they say - nevertheless I'm determined to get there.

So on with the show and I couldn't be happier than I am to be able to share this experience with the love of my life at my side – a whole new kind of adventure.

Manu & Me

*I've been a little short on cycling detail here but if you want any advice about cycling in Ethiopia or volunteering on your travels, get in touch, I'd be more than happy to help.