Compostela to Land’s End

P1070674Santiago de Compostela is full of the walking wounded – but they are the happiest, most joyous band of walking wounded you will ever see in peacetime. Under the watchful gaze of the statue of St James flanked either side by the two soaring lichen and moss-covered spires of the cathedral (okay, one was covered in a facsimile of its real self as it received a facelift but I do hope they leave the lichen where it is), the vast expanse of the Plaza de Obradoiro is the perfect place to sit and watch the extraordinary scene of pilgrims enter the concourse in pure celebration and sheer relief that their arduous journey has reached a momentous conclusion.

P1070460With knees bound or ankles in supports, some cast their hiking sticks or staffs to the ground to walk the last few steps of their pilgrimage unaided. Many hug each other to congratulate one another for their achievement, whilst others burst into gleeful song. Others sit or lie down deep in thought; occasionally shedding a tear and to savour the emotional crescendo of a defining moment in their lives. I have no doubt that the universality of emotions touches everyone who arrives in the plaza having completed a journey of many hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres but I do wonder what the scene was like centuries ago. Unlike the pilgrim of today – commonly dressed in breathable, waterproof walking attire and the latest technology in sports apparel – the tide of medieval pilgrims who actually made it to the plaza must have been a very different looking band of individuals. The spectacular Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, founded in 1492 and now an exclusive parador, once served as a hospice for pilgrims stands testament to the fact that El Camino de Santiago was literally a journey of life and death.

P1070476All the theatricality of a Catholic service is bestowed to pilgrims in the cathedral for Pilgrim’s Mass, which takes place at noon everyday. On the Sunday that I attended, the cathedral was packed to the rafters with the faithful and those that were there to soak up the charged atmosphere. The service concludes with the ceremonial swinging of a huge, ornate incensor that is first hoisted up by five clergymen and swung from the central knave across the east and west transept. The burning of the incense was a fragrant and dramatic end to the service but I couldn’t help but think how it must have originally served to mask the bodily odours rising from the great sea of unwashed pilgrim’s gathered in the congregation below.

After patiently waiting in the long queue to collect my certificate of accomplishment, or Compostela, from the Peregrino Office – which confirms I had completed my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles along El Camino Francés to Santiago – I turned my wheels west until there was no more land left to cycle. Joining the many pilgrims who continue their journey to the rock-bound peninsula of Cape Finisterre which literally means ‘Land’s End’ (not to be confused with its counterpart in Cornwall, England) and was believed to be the edge of the world during Pax Romana, I had only 90km-or-so to complete my journey across the entire breadth of the Iberian Peninsula. The following day, fuelled by the previous night’s delicious wild camp chorizo pasta cooked on the stove whilst the mosquitoes dined out on me during a wild camp under the eucalyptus trees outside the sleepy town of Pereira, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief as I first made sight of the Atlantic Ocean. It was as if the poignant, heavy atmosphere of Santiago de Compostela was lifted and evaporated into the perpetual sea frets that make landfall.

P1070623In order to complete as circuitous a route as I could around the tip of Galicia, I headed northwest in the direction of the battered and scarred rocky promontory of Muxia to see the Faro (lighthouse) that still guides fishermen into its safe harbour to this day. The changeable Galician weather didn’t fail to disappoint and the blue skies quickly became concealed behind a fine mist that coated the bright yellow roadside gorse in a fresh dew. The Costa del Morte (Death Coast) is a wild, and still dangerous coastline for mariners to chart, with charming white sand beaches framed by high cliffs. It is a diverse landscape of mountains, shaded valleys, wildflower meadows and little villages dotted with old hórreos (stone granaries) and weather-worn cruceros’s (stone crosses). It is also easy to appreciate why humans for millennia have chosen to settle here and there are a number of megalithic sites, stone-age dolmens and celtic burial grounds to visit. There are many legends of saints arriving by boat; Cristo de Fisterra, Virgen de la Boca, Virgen del Monte de Camariñas amongst others, and even the myth of the forgotten city of Duium that disappeared under the sea many moons ago.

As it happens, it seemed like myth and reality actually did collide when I cycled through the popular seaside town of Fisterre enveloped in a P1070687dense fog. As I reached the end of terra firma on the Capo de Finisterre; there was no horizon, sea or sky to behold but only the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the rocks below. Sitting at the ‘edge of the flat world’ to the acrid smell of smouldering walking boots (it is a recent custom to burn your boots or item of clothing when you reach the point – I did neither), I cracked open a beer to celebrate and looked out into the unfathomable nothingness as thick cloud swirled all around me. Maybe the Romans were onto something after all.

Returning to the Office of the Concello de Fisterra to collect a piece of paper which certifies that I had officially reached the end of the ‘flat world’, I was, well, flatly refused. It seemP1070682s that the paucity of stamps from Santiago de Compostela in my Credencial del Peregrino was enough to turn me away. A small price to pay I suppose for the free wild camps that I had enjoyed along the way. As I smiled at the futility of how I had succumbed to collecting immaterial souvenirs that get either framed or filed away as a sentimental token of certain occasions in life, a chap from Germany approached and introduced himself as Dennis. With a wild glint in his eye, it turns out that he had arrived ten months earlier and was so drawn to the place that he feels no desire to return to Germany. He now lives quite happily in his tarpaulin-constructed refuge on the western tip of the peninsula. We chatted about El Camino, the absurdity of ‘stamp’ collecting, and he suggested that head up to the Monte Facho to check out the white ‘moving stones’ and spend the night up there. And that’s exactly what I proceeded to do. “If you find the moving stones, you must make a wish!” Dennis vouched as he bade me a fond farewell.

As if the fog couldn’t get thicker, it surely did as I eventually gave up pedalling and pushed the Sherpa slowly up the steep climb to the highest point on the peninsula. P1070728Despite the fact that visibility was down to five metres, by a stroke of luck I managed to spot the two radio masts that Dennis had excitedly pointed out on the map, and struck camp nestled amongst a distinctive group of distinctive eroded rocks nearby. Whether it was close to the fabled seat of the Celtic crone-goddess Orcabellam, I have no idea, but it was a spectacular wild camp spot that was secluded and out of sight from another breed of officious ‘stamp’ collectors who prefer that wandering pilgrims keep to one side of the blue line.

P1070747My efforts were rewarded beyond belief as a change of wind cleared the fog almost immediately to reveal the ‘path of milk’ as the Romans referred to it – otherwise known as the Milky Way – stretching over the Atlantic. It was the best wild camp of the journey by far as I awoke early in the morning to watch the sun rise over the Galician mountains that I had cycled across from Santiago de Compostela in the distance. And yes, I did find the moving stones; and yes, I did make a wish. All I can say is that whilst Capo Finisterre may not be the end of the known Earth, it is certainly a very special place indeed.

Wanderer, your footsteps are the road

and nothing more;

wanderer, there is no road,

the road is made by walking.

By walking on makes the road,

and upon glancing behind one sees the path that will never be trodden again.

Wanderer, there is no road.

Only wakes upon the sea.

Antonio Machato


Camino calling

P1070244It has taken a while but the bean is back on the bike – this time to follow ‘El Camino’ (also known as The Way of St James) across the Iberian Peninsula towards Santiago de Compostela.

My original intention has been to update the blog as I go; to write about the exhilarating highs and occasional lows of cycle touring, or the elemental experience of wild camping across the diverse patchwork of regions that make up northern Spain. Yet, I’ve not been able to commit the words to the page until now. It’s partly because I’ve wanted to resist the compulsion to write and be in search of the next available wi-fi zone to publish another update. But more than that, I’ve wanted to allow the gentle rhythms of nature to take over so that the need to be in, or have access to, instant communication day or night via digital means becomes merely a possibility, rather than a necessity. And it is this desire to, well, coin the old cliché – to ‘turn off’ and ‘tune in’ – that has helped to shape the journey along the Camino de Santiago so far. The only dropping out, however, is the chain on the trusty Sherpa from time-to-time.

P1060942Arriving in Bilbao after an unusually smooth crossing by ferry across the Bay of Biscay from Portsmouth, England, I decide to get the leg muscles back into shape by tracking the coastline along the Costa Verde towards France. This was with a view to joining the Camino on the French side of the border at the popular starting point of Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port and then back into Spain across the hinterlands of the Pyrenees to ‘officially’ start my pilgrimage from the monastery at Roncesvalles. Although I appreciate it may seem counter-intuitive to head completely in the opposite direction of Santiago de Compostela, it turned out be a good decision. The legs, as expected, were painstakingly out of shape and despite the forgiving ride of the steel-framed Sherpa, a serious amount of necessary weight needed to be jettisoned before the fully laden bike felt more like its sprightly former self than I had been accustomed to on my last cycle tour to the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia.

P1060958Punctuated by some cracking wild camp spots en-route, the crimson sunsets along the Costa Verde as the sun plunged into the deep blue waters each evening was the perfect reward for the succession of punishing hills that I encountered each day. In fact, I was actually reluctant to leave the undulating coastline to head inland from the combed white sands of St-Jean-de-Luz; but the Camino was calling and I needed to reply. Thankfully, the legs responded too and I soon got into my stride on the Sherpa, stopping off for the occasional refreshing natural cider poured at a height – to achieve that perfect effervescence that is so characteristic of the Basque outlook on life – as I cycled through the verdant rolling farmland that straddles each side of the western Spanish/French frontier.

P1070492I met my first pilgrim, Maria from Austria, on the winding climb up from Arnéguy before the swift descent into Roncesvalles. We stopped for a chat under the baking hot midday sun. It turns out that she was a tour guide who decided to take some time out from the demands of her work and be on the other side of the tourist fence for once. She was the first of many Maria’s and Mary’s that I would meet on the road. Fortunately, I was allowed to camp in the monastery grounds of free of charge with the helpful advice that I should present my newly acquired Credencial del Peregrino (Pilgrim’s Passport) to the officer of the Guardia Civil if they turn up to enquire why I had chosen to sleep in a tent rather than take advantage of the accommodation provided by good folk at the monastery.

I appreciate that to some folk it seems an odd choice to decline the offer of the warm bed for the night for the confines of a cosy tent. But my decision to wild camp my way along the Camino has been not only born out of reasons of self-imposed financial austerity but for the very fact that it’s the sheer joy of getting off the beaten track and being as self-sufficient as possible. The mitigating factor is that if I am going to carry a nylon home and all the associated paraphernalia that goes with it; I might as well use it. P1060992That night, the weather changed dramatically and the familiar brilliance of the milky way and waxing moon became shrouded in a swirl of storm clouds. The thunder and lightning display that ensued was a dramatic start to my journey along this ancient pilgrimage route that has experienced a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years.

El Camino de Santiago – also known as Camino Francés across the border – is essentially a collection of established walking routes that fan across Europe and converge on the shrine of the Apostle of St James in the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the apostle journeyed to the Iberian Peninsula after Jesus’ death on a mission to spread Christianity amongst the Pagans. On his return to the Holy Land, he met an unfortunate end and was martyred by the sword of King Herod in Jerusalem. His decapitated body was said to have been taken by his followers to Jaffa where a stone boat was commissioned. Miraculously, the boat floated and after seven days at sea, the boat was washed up in a great storm, undamaged and covered in scallop shells, at Padrón. After some deliberation with the local chiefs, his body was allowed to go to the earth in Spanish soil in a tomb 20km inland from the Galician coast. P1070450For more than 800 years, his resting place was undisturbed until a shepherd called Pelayo was led to a bright star shining in a field where the body of James the Apostle and his followers were discovered. It is from the field (campos) of the stars (stella) of Saint James (Sant Iago), that the name Santiago de Compostela is derived.

Not long afterwards, Alfonso II – the King of Asturias – declared St James the patron saint of Spain after there were reported visions of him leading the charge in shining armour on a white horse against the Moorish invaders, earning him the title ‘Santiago Matamoros’ – or St James the Moor Slayer. A church and monastery were built over the tomb in recognition of his decisive interventions that turned the tide in battle against the advancing Islamic army, and so the illustrious history of Santiago de Compostela began. Steeped in myth and the mists of time, the Crusades and reconquesta of Catholic Spain had finally found a patron; the Golden Legend was born, and the pilgrimage routes that we know today across Europe have been a magnet for pilgrims far and wide.

Legend, historical and religious complexities aside, the question concerning why people embark on a pilgrimage of their own is a fascinating one. My own personal motivations for cycling along one of the major sections of the Camino that follows an ancient Roman trading route to the Atlantic is not for religious reasons – but neither do I discount the fact that, for many, it is a journey of great religious importance.P1070171 I suppose it is partly down to a desire to slow down and reconnect with nature; to be ‘still’ again and to fully appreciate the moment, away from the perpetual distractions of modern-day life. Another dimension has been to allow the soul, body, and mind to experience the freedom of the open road again; unheeded, unhurried and most of all, to be at peace in an increasingly chaotic and conflicted world. I’ve also keen to discover the myriad of reasons why others have decided to make time to make their own pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and how, the experience has, if at all, profoundly changed them.

Road to Lalibela

You can understand why King Lalibela wanted to establish his ‘New Jerusulem’ in the back of beyond. Reaching the holy town is a journey in itself. Nearing the final leg of my ‘Tour de Ethiopique’, I set off at daybreak from the junction village of Gashana to get some kilometres behind me before reaching the fabled ‘pista’ that I knew lay in wait before me. Affectionately termed by Ethiopians as a road without tarmac, the ‘pista’ is by all intents and purposes a ‘road’ surface consisting of rubble, volcanic detritus and infinite quantities of dust. Riding it on two wheels is little like skiing without poles; it’s a controlled fall, even uphill. For the first few kilometres, the going was good until the inevitable ‘roughstuff’ kicked in with gusto. Zig-zagging my way through the scree, I went for a tumble a couple of times. The biggest effort of all was trying to keep my eyes on the road whilst the breathtaking table-top escarpments continually vie for your attention.

After an impromptu espresso stop (100% sun dried Harar Arabica) shared with a young shepherd and his two sisters on their way to school, I realised that I had run out of water. Never a good idea when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the oppressive midday sun is beating down on the rocks like a solar-charged anvil. So, I pressed on in the hope that I would reach a village with a water pump, that works. My map of Ethiopia that I had, by now, become so accustomed to its jaw-dropping inaccuracies (which has led me on wild goose chases in search of ‘ghost towns’ that did not exist on more than one occasion) pointed me in the direction of a river. For once, the map was right. And there was running water; a double bonus. Pulling up, three young shepherds and their father gathered to inspect the bike and proceeded to search for the absent engine as I unpacked the stove for a long-overdue brew.

I was in luck. The father’s fields bestriding the river were ripe with garlic, onion and capsicum peppers: Time for lunch. As I cooked up a slap up pasta over the MSR, the workmen that I had passed further back turned up in their rusting water tanker to refill, bathe and wash their clothes. ‘I’m the grading technician, how do you like the road?’ said one with beaming pride. ‘Smooth’, I replied, daring not to look up from stirring my spaghetti for fear that he would see a glint of untruth in my eyes. ‘In fact, the stretch of pista back there was surfaced with some of the best graded gravel I have experienced in a while’, I added, omitting the fact that my bum had turned completely numb for hours. Gobez! (great), he replied and stripped down to his birthday suit before plunging in to the cool, clear rushing water. As I ate, the three young shepherds came to watch. Not having the heart to continue my lunch, I offered them my concoction which they wolfed down with speed.

The next few moments proved to be surreal as I went on to brew an espresso with my trusty Bialetti for each of the gravel technicians. They lazed in the sun-kissed running waters enjoying their brew, without a thread between them; another of those priceless, unscripted, moments that occurs on the road.

Accounts of shiftas (bandits) started to creep into my mind as the sun banked low in the warm afternoon shimmer. I still had more than half way to go if I was to reach Lalibela by nightfall. Sure enough, the ascents got steadily steeper as I winded my way back up the twists and turns from the valley floor. This also meant that the descents got more treacherous. The gravel technicians clearly have a job on their hands if they’re going to grade this lot, I thought to myself, as the Sherpa bounced and shuddered from loose stone to stone of varying shape and size. The sun continued its inexorable course towards the horizon and by now, hung low in the deep spectrum of the African sky. Flat-topped acacias cast their long shadows across the naturally formed chimneys and minarets that had been carved out of the looming escarpment walls by nature’s hand. They grew with each minute as my leg muscles began to tire. Embracing the hopelessness of my situation, I stopped to watch the sun set in a last final burst of golden light before it sank behind the silhouetted teeth of a fold of mountains that faded into the growing darkness. Night began to close in and Lalibela seemed further away than ever.

One-by-one, pinpricks of starlight began to appear in the celestial firmament above and I was now being guided by the reassuring glow the Sherpa’s Schmidt front beam. Outlines of young shepherds returning their cattle to the safety of their home ducked and dived in and out of the roadside gloom as I kept my wheels steadfastly turning. Their enthusiastic greetings were an encouragement to redouble my efforts and keep on pedaling. The spectre of shiftas (bandits) which I had been informed by the local police ‘sometimes’ ply their unwelcome trade at night became however an ever-present, intimidating thought. Just as my exhaustion levels and paranoia reached an all time high, the ‘pista’ – by some stroke of luck – gave way to asphalt again, and, buoyed on by my change in fortunes, I pushed on. The distant flickering of fires could be seen burning high up on the escarpment as farmers retreated into the warmth and safety of their mud and straw Tukus for the night. The occasional haunting whoop of the Hyena call echoed across the vast, empty expanse.

Eventually, I reached another village and stopped to pour the last remaining drops of water that I had filtered from the river earlier in the day down the back of my dry, dusty throat. With one last steep climb to tackle, I set off again with one final surge of determination. No sooner had I negotiated my way round the last territorial dog when a voice cried salem! (peace) from behind a row of thorns. ‘Please come inside,’ said the welcoming voice. Too exhausted to enquire further, I took off my cycling mitts, rested the Sherpa against the hedge and followed the voice into the Tuku. In the middle of the candle-lit circular space covered with goat skins was a young woman and her broad-smiling husband who was coaxing their one year-old daughter to sleep. ‘Please, stay and eat’, Endalitch said, offering me a tray of injera and helva (staple Ethiopian food), and a glass full of tella (an alcoholic home-brewed drink made from teff and maize). She returned to the fire at the back of the hut and soon enough, the aromatic smell of roasting coffee emanated from the tray that was placed on the embers. Endalitch stirred the beans gently to the percussive sound of popping and crackling. As I ate, the beans received a forceful pounding into a coarse grind and were placed into the earthenware jabana (coffee pot) which was being licked by the open flames as it rested on the fire. Her husband, Desal, rocked his six-month old daughter lovingly who had now woken to observe the pale-faced visitor with a short wail followed by a long yawn, before falling back asleep. Finally, some etan (incense) was placed on the burning charcoal. The Tuku infused with a warm spicy fragrance as we chatted and drank coffee. After the beureuka (blessing) – or third cup – I could stay awake no longer and retired to my tent, counting my lucky stars. Traditional Ethiopian hospitality, the incredible generosity of the human spirit, and a yeu buna a feulal (coffee ceremony) had, yet again, saved the day.

Eat sleep cycle

Once the circadian rhythms of cycle touring fully set in, it’s the simple things that take on a special significance:

The honey-dew light of daybreak as the early morning sun spreads its golden wings over a jagged table-top horizon; an aromatic stove-brewed espresso with the restorative power to clear the mist of a dream-state mind; the perceptible physical gear change of aching leg muscles as they burst back into life again; encounters with sprightly, giggling groups of children as they make the long walk to school; starbursts of luminous green aloe lining the roadside verge; the faltering flight of butterflies that pass miraculously through a blur of spokes in a dance with death or the soaring of arcs of buzzards as they warm their wings high above in the rising thermals; cooling quenches of (filtered) fresh stream water at the back of a dry, dusty throat; warm smiles and whoops of encouragement from passing drivers; exhilarating downhills that reward the punishing uphill with kilometre-after-kilometre of glorious freewheeling; pastel-coloured brushstrokes of wheat and barley clinging tenaciously to the terraced hillside; a deep endless blue African sky stroked by fingers of wispy white cloud; pit stops of freshly-picked, sweet, energy-giving bananas; the medicinal fragrance of eucalyptus and pine scenting the mountain air; or the staccato call of young shepherds carousing their wayward herd back to the safety of the homestead before the last precious rays of the day fade to a reveal the bright constellations of a starlit night sky.

It’s the heady kaleidoscope of sight, sound, and smells that make cycle touring so addictive.

Eat. Sleep. Cycle… (and drink coffee).

A Roundabout to Coffee

I never thought that I could be so overjoyed at the sight of a strip of tarmac. So overjoyed, in fact, that I wanted to kneel down and kiss its smooth, bitumen-coated surface. This was trumped shortly afterwards by a giant pot of coffee.

After battling through seemingly endless kilometres of ungraded gravel, I finally reached Jimma, the capital of the coffee growing region in the western highlands. In addition to its bold claim to be the origin of coffee; the dusty, chaotic but charming university town is worthy of a visit for many reasons. For one, I can’t think of any other town that can boast of its very own ‘coffee-pot roundabout’. (If anybody knows of existence of another one, I would love to hear from you!) The other is that it serves as one of Ethiopia’s major gateways to the birthplace of the Coffea Arabica bean.

Feeling unashamedly feral due to the fact that I hadn’t properly washed for over a week, it was like reaching an oasis of gentility and sophistication, with the added bonus of a warm shower. The giant jabana merely added a surreal touch of Alice in Wonderland to the whole scenario. To clasp eyes on a great big bulbous pot of coffee complete with ceremonial cups standing serenely in the middle of a roundabout was a welcome sight for any travel-weary, coffee-inspired pilgrim.

The moment the combustion engine triumphed over pedal power

If the truth be told, the previous week had been a test of endurance; physically and mentally. To spend eight hours of hard labour on the bike chased by groups of screaming young children, only to check the stats in the evening to learn that you have covered a paltry 40kms, is vexing to say the least. Meanwhile, your body is telling you that it has just cycled four hundred. It’s one of those paradoxical aspects of bike touring where the physiological sensations are at complete odds with the geographical arithmetic.

(I have to make an admission here: The last 80km were actually covered with the Sherpa strapped to the top of an Isuzu after a moment of sheer exasperation at my woeful state of progress. Swallowing my pride – and stubbornness – I threw in the proverbial towel to flag down the next available lift. It took me two hours to cover the same distance in what would have taken me two days on the saddle; one of those very rare occasions where the joys of cycling gave way to the convenience of the combustion engine).

And so after a weekend of rest and recuperation – plus a memorable visit to Jimma’s wonderfully eccentric museum where its energetic guide, Mohammed, drives home the provenance of its haphazardly displayed collections dating back to the reign of King Abba Jiffar (1852-1933) by thrashing them enthusiastically with a cane stick – was all it took to feel like a master of the road again, as opposed to a beast of burden on two wheels.

Putting Rome to one side for a moment, all roads – in my view – lead to the Roundabout of Coffee…

The Coffee Pot Roundabout of Jimma

Leaving Jimma’s quirky landmarks behind me, the swift twists and turns of glorious asphalt northwards soon took me deep into coffee-growing territory. Bird-filled canopies of ancient woodland stretched into the distant rolling hills as far as the eye could see. This is ‘wild coffee’, the product of nature’s way rather than the intervention of the farmer’s plough. At the roadside, the brilliant flash of ripe, red cherries, clustered on the coffee trees by the grassy verge was a joyful precursor to the collection and processing of the harvest I was about to witness.

Highland Hysteria

You know you’re getting off the beaten track because the faranji frenzy turns into pure highland hysteria. If you could bottle it, it would be strong, potent stuff. The more ‘off-piste’ you go, the more hysterical the children. It’s an overwhelming,  psychologically challenging, at times hilarious, often surreal, deeply moving, endlessly entertaining experience; especially the bizarre sight of young boys jigging about whilst shaking their ‘moneymaker’ for all it’s worth on the dusty roadside verge.

Following on from an account in a previous post, here is the latest abridged version of the perpetual roadside chorus that has accompanied my ‘Tour de Ethiopique’ wherever I go:

Habasha (Ethiopian): High, high, highland, highlaaaaaaaannnnd!
Faranji on a Bike (foreigner): Habasha!
Habasha: Money, money money… give us the money!
Faranji: Sorry, no Birr. [I don’t give money to children for obvious reasons]
Habasha: You, white man, are you sure?
Faranji: Positive.
Habasha: Bag, bag, give me one bag!
Faranji: Any particular pannier that you would like?
Habasha: Highlaaaaaaaand! Where you go?
Faranji: Up that mother of all hills…. [To add to the growing list, other interchangeable destinations have included Chester Zoo, Gretna Green, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and to the ‘stomping ground’ of Kaldi the Goatherder]
Habasha: [Pointing at the open space in the bike frame] Oh my god, where is the machine?
Faranji: Engine yellum. [Amharic for ‘there isn’t’].
Habasha: Lemin? [Amharic for ‘why?’]
Faranji: Pedal power is all you need.
Habasha: What are you doing?
Faranji: Cycling to the birthplace of Buna [coffee].
Habasha: Bravo! You are guest in my country, now give me your bike!
Faranji: Of course, can you give it a service as well?

And the most perplexing so far…

 Habasha: Are you Jesus?

More 'hedgerow' than 'holy'

Although I’m accustomed to the rather predictable repétoire by now, this roadside réposte totally floored me. It’s not that I’m suggesting that Jesus neglected his sartorial duties in the holy beard maintenance department, but I’ve put it down to the fact that my growing facial fungus is now starting to resemble a rather unkept hedgerow.

The other sign of getting off the beaten track is the flip side to highland hysteria. For the sake of this post, let’s call it ‘faranji fear’ (or loathing). This quickly became apparent as I crossed the mighty Great Rift Valley in the culturally and ethnically diverse Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region that borders the Kenyan border. In short, it amounted to a 110km stretch of ungraded gravel and volcanic rubble.  Still, the  spectacular scenery and rich array of wildlife was enough to keep me sufficiently distracted from the fact that my hands and derriér had turned completely numb from the continual battering they and the poor Sherpa were receiving from the ‘rough stuff.’ (As my 84 year-old grandfather ‘Harry The Bike’ would affectionately call it. You can read more about his weekly exploits on two wheels as he leads the esteemed Watson Wanderers’ Tuesday ride around the byways, highways and rough stuff of NW England/Wales on his blog here. Long live the Roughstuff Fellowship!).

Along this remote stretch, the only presence of tourists are from behind the tinted glass of Land Cruisers that trail a large swirling cloud of fine red dust as they roar passed. And then there is the faranji fear and loathing-inducing Rotel Tours mobile. Now, the first time I saw one of these bright red beasts, I honestly thought I was hallucinating from sunstroke.

Tourism's answer to the 'Death Star' on wheels

Basically, the Rotel Tours mobile takes the form of a large HGV-cum-B&B, complete with upper ‘observation deck’, converted to carry up to twenty SLR-armed tourists. It even contains bunk beds at the back just in case you get tired of watching the ‘local curiosities’ and fancy a snooze. It’s the equivalent of the kind of fun ride that you would expect to see in a theme park. Except the ‘theme park’ is far from make-believe. In effect, the Yabello Wildlife Sanctuary has by its very presence been turned into an open human zoo. The spectacle of pasty-looking tourists taking pictures of the locals without consent from the ‘intrepid’ confines of their ‘articulated armchair’ made my heart sink; a vulgar example of just how culturally insensitive some manifestations of mass tourism can be.

‘Are you with them?’ I was gingerly asked by one elderly chap as he turned his back to the monstrous juggernaut as it rumbled passed, bristling with paparazzi-style telephoto lenses. ‘No’ I replied, shaking my head in dismay and disbelief. He didn’t even say a word in response, just smiled and shook my hand firmly before leading his grandson back through the low entrance of the family hut, out of sight and earshot of the rapid fire of lens shutters and digital AF beeps. His silence spoke volumes. As much as the rolling Rotel Tours mobile struck fear and loathing into my own heart – I dread to think what the locals thought of it and the perception they have formed of foreigners.

Disclaimer: This photograph was taken at their request!

I admit that I am equally guilty as charged for unintentionally causing my own fair share of faranji fear. Young shepherds who are tasked with the huge responsibility of looking after the family herd or groups of tall, slender – always giggling and smiling – young women wearing the most vibrantly colourful shawls and sporting amazingly intricate hairstyles platted with patterns of beads would stop and turn abruptly as I slowly approached. Whether it was the unfamiliar sight of a heavily laden touring bike or the faranji at the helm sweating through countless layers of sun block whilst deep in concentration trying to keep the Sherpa going in a relatively straight direction, I will never know. But the response was consistently the same as they quickly dived for cover into the hardy shrubs and giant Aloes at the roadside. Only until I passed with a wave  to signal I was more friend than foe, would they emerge, with startled looking expressions before bursting into fits of laughter. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them. In many ways I looked just as out-of-place as a Rotel Tour. On reflection, I’m sure I must have looked like some strange apparition with streaks of sweat-lined lotion running down my face as I pedalled passed at a bone crunching rate of 5 km/h. More ghost on a bike, than bean. It is then that the tables are refreshingly turned and within seconds their mobile phones were trained on me as I bounced over the rubble from one pothole to the next.

Maybe it was a largely due to a strong desire to notch up my first wild camp in Ethiopia because it transpired that I had no choice but to find refuge under the canvas that night. This was in part due to a rare torrential downpour that turned the rough road into a river of red mud.

(Tragically, the rains in the region have failed for a second year running and the telltale signs of water stress and drought are everywhere; the cracked earth of dry riverbeds, dead carcasses of animals on the roadside, fields prepared but no healthy green crops growing, the heart wrenching sight of malnutritioned children, widespread soil erosion, abandoned homes, the sad and sorry list goes on… Despite this, many aid international agencies are active in the area – including the charity Water Aid who I am raising funds for – to help prevent further needless suffering and improve lives with deep well, irrigation and sanitation projects).

Yet again, the chunky tread of the Schwalbe Marathon Extremes did what they said on the can and with characteristic herculean grip, managed to throw mud into every nook and cranny of the Sherpa with a the force of a thousand spades until my wheels eventually jammed and would turn no more. It was a timely cue for my first Ethiopian stealth camp in the wild. Fortunately, the rain clouds cleared to reveal the majestic African night sky as the celestial white band of the Milky Way arched its long back around a luminous waxing moon. Having got the tent up with time to spare for a hearty meal of pasta and tomato puree generously seasoned with some local spices to give it some much-needed kick, I tucked into my sleeping bag in anticipation of a deep sleep. No chance. Within minutes, the blood-curdling cries of Hyenas could be heard calling to each other in the far distance; presumably coordinating yet another nightly attempt on a raid of the local livestock. In fact, these powerful nocturnal predators are so feared by the locals that it is widely believed that they are actually the spirits of young men who have taken the form of a Hyena to hunt and run with the pack during the hours of darkness. The only proviso is that they are forbidden to eat human flesh. An Ethiopian version of a Gothic vampire, if you like. Despite my aching legs and exhausted mind, my senses were on high alert and refused any onset of restorative sleep. It turned out to be a long night as my imagination ran wild to the howls of the Hyena and sound of wildlife as they went about their night-time activities, peppered with the occasional gunshot. A spine-tingling experience that was only tempered by the comforting rhythmic sound of drums and singing that softly padded through the cool night air from the village nearby. At daybreak, I managed to pack up after catching only a few precious hours of restless sleep in the half light of morning. Miraculously, I managed a lightening-quick brew with lashings of honey without being rumbled by raising my first ‘faranji alarm’ of the day. Truly a miracle.

Needless to say, the going was painfully slow and it took me two full days to cover a mere 100km. This did however allow me to enjoy the sweeping vista as the land opened out into wide open savannah dotted with massive termite mounds, sometimes as high a double-decker bus. Camels loafed about in the shade of the acacias with their toothy, slightly haughty expression. Large groups of Gibbon Monkeys would mooch around the roadside and allowed me to get surprisingly close before they set off together into the scrub and towards the safety of a treetop. Humming birds and butterflies fluttered from the few flowers that had blossomed as Grass Snakes or Lizards basked on the warm rocks. Occasionally, young gazelles and their mother would leap across the road with incredible elegance – as if for the sheer joy of it – and because they can. I am still yet to spot my first predator of the feline kind that is reputed to roam the coffee forests further to the north however, before it spots me.

The generosity of the locals has been a humbling experience. Despite the daily hardships they face, I’ve been offered maize, fruit, coffee, precious supplies of water and invited to freely camp amongst the enset and orange trees. Highland hysteria aside, I’ve received exceptional highland hospitality as I edge closer to the birthplace of coffee.

Next stop on this blog: the Choche Coffee Farmer’s Cooperative where I’ll be helping out with the washing of the red cherries on one of their wet mill stations in the western highlands. The annual Ethiopian coffee harvest of 2011/12 has begun in earnest… Time to get my skates on.


Tour de Ethiopique

When the day of departure finally came, the early morning sun was shining brightly in a big, blue African sky without a threatening storm cloud in sight – the first time in a month. A sign that Kareumt (the long rainy season from June – September) was finally coming to an end as the warm rays bathed the Friary garden with the promise of an Ethiopian spring.

Brother Lucas helps out with some essential bike maintenance to get the Sherpa ready for the (off) road

After bidding farewell to the Brothers over a simple breakfast of honey and bread, washed down with copious amounts of freshly prepared coffee, I took a deep breath and started to turn my wheels once more.

If the truth be told, I had mixed emotions; elated to be back on my trusty steed again, sad to leave the company of the St Francis Capuchin community that had been my home for a nearly a month, and a little nervous about the prospect of encountering the battalions of stone throwing children that I have heard so much about. Whether there is any substance to this myth or not, their reputation certainly precedes them. Either way,  I was soon going to find out en-route to the southern Ethiopian coffee growing highlands of Yirga Cheffe. My mission? To help out with the agricultural activities on a Oromia cooperative farm in preparation for the coming harvest. The only thing that stood in my way was 500kms of winding Ethiopian asphalt through fertile farmland and the Lake Abiata-Shala National Park where tales of highway bandits that lie in wait on the roadside abound. Putting this last thought out of my mind, I pressed foot firmly to pedal and pushed on. There was no turning back now.

The pan-African colours of the national flag to mark the recent passing of the Ethiopian New Year (in the Coptic calendar the year is 2004) fluttered in the breeze as I free-wheeled the gentle downhill into Addis city centre. A quick detour to say goodbye to the good people at Tomoca Café and to stock up with half-a-kilo of their fine freshly roasted Longberry Harrar Coffee – a perfect primer for the Bialetti and calf muscles – and I was on my way: A five-day ride south beckoned. At least.

Leaving the smudge of the smoggy city skyline behind me, I felt like I was cycling out of a high altitude portal of relative modernity into a completely different world. The harsh glint of the, by now, hot midday sun reflected by the corrugated iron roofs of Addis’ suburban tin shacks soon softened into a rural pastiche straight out of a scene from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Nestled amongst the fields of maize, shady enset (false banana), teff, avocado and papaya, are the impressive Tukus – traditional round huts with thatched conical roofs – that stand like large pepper pots made of mud and straw. Oxen, goats, an occasional forlorn looking mule tethered to a wooden cart, and chickens scratching around in the undergrowth completed the sensation of being teleported to the pastoral idyl of the Shire. High above, vultures slowly rode the thermals in long circular arcs, like the undead Nazgul of the skies, scouting for the next road kill on the menu far below.

In terms of geographical phenomena, the Great Rift Valley is a masterwork of Mother Nature in progress. Riding a small part of this massive tectonic fissure in the Earth’s crust that stretches from the Arabian Peninsula all the way down to Mozambique is truly a sight to behold. Scarred, gaping mouths of extinct volcanoes dot the landscape like giant eroded cones rising of out of the expanse of the vast valley floor. Tree-clad tabletop ridges flank the horizon on each side whilst ancient igneous debris is strewn everywhere. A fine red dust of the African earth coats everything; clothes, hair, brakes, chain and, no doubt, the lungs.  Once the primal forces that are literally tearing this part of the African continent in two have finished their subterranean work in another million years (give or take a few), this 4000km long valley connected by a string of lakes will be reclaimed by the deep waters of the Red Sea.

Marvelling at this dramatic story of almost biblical proportions being played out over geological time only added to the drama on the road. Despite being regularly enveloped in the thick black soot that belches out of the back of the ubiquitous Isuzu trucks (often stacked at an gravity-defying angle or crammed full with a dozen-or-so windswept camels) that zoom passed with clockwork predictability (and cringing proximity), I was coming to terms with a force to be reckoned with of a different kind.

With more regularity than an Isuzu, my journey so far has become increasingly accompanied by an entertaining roadside repertoire of call and response. The exchange goes something like this:

Habasha (Ethiopian): Faranj, faranji, faranj, faranji!
Faranji (Foreigner) on a bike:
You, you, you, you, you…
: Hey you, how are you?!
Where you go?

[Interchangeable with any other destination you care to mention. Recent port of calls have been the Sea of Tranquillity; Dagobah; Utopia; the fourth dimension; Birmingham; Buna ersha (coffee farm); or just plain and simple – but to the point; as far as my legs will carry me…]

Habasha: Money, money, where’s my money!
Sorry, no money!
Good, good, very good. One Birr, give me one Birr!
Sorry, no Birr!
Caramello, give me one caramello!
Sorry, no caramello!
Pen, pen, give me pen!
Sorry, no pen!
I love you!
I love you too!
Thank you!
You, you, you, you, you, you…!”

[Repeat as desired]

And my all time favourite so far….

Habasha: Never mind.

 [Spoken by a young girl who was herding her wayward band of goats off the road as she nonchalantly glanced at my bike with pity as I laboured up a hill] 

At first, it is easy to feel a little besieged by the attention that a ‘faranji’ on a bicycle appears to attract. But once you start to peel away the vocal layers of this roadside choir, the essence is one of pure excitement. In fact, it becomes more endearing as each day passes. I’ll try to explain.

The choral ensemble is usually marshalled by an eagle-eyed child, sometimes up to a hundred yards away. Raising the ‘faranji alarm’, said child begins to run at full pelt towards the road as fast as their legs will carry them. This in turn alerts other children in the vicinity to the faranji pedalling in their midst. Within a matter of moments, a growing number of nimble-footed ‘faranji alarms’ are now running in hot pursuit. To the staccato cries of ‘you, you you, you!’ they reach the roadside in such a fever pitch that their voices are cracking by the sheer exertion of their little lungs. All you can do is wave and smile with equal enthusiasm. Meanwhile, the adults look on watchfully and either give a bemused wave or join in with the collective ensemble. As you can imagine, any prospect of wild camping has been on a sliding scale between nil and zero.

The question poses, how do you deal with these wide-eyed, adorable, excitable, energetic, vocal scamps of the road? My strategy to date is two-fold. Firstly, I promised to pimp my ride a while back in Lebanon. So I did with the national flag.

Indeed, this only adds to the hysteria but as a mere guest in their country, the least I can do is proudly fly the colours of this enchanting, beautiful, diverse, life reaffirming land of wide, beaming smiles.

The second method I’ve tried to employ is to engage in the good-natured banter as much as humanly possible. I’ve saluted, waved, bowed, grinned, pulled faces, and laughed – sometimes to the point where I have had to hit the brakes for fear of falling off my bike from laughing too hard – at the sheer surreal nature of the whole situation. Okay, I admit that I’m not going to start trying to perform some kind of two-wheeled circus act anytime soon, but my desire to interact in a sincere but humorous way is just as strong, even if it does shave a few kilometres off my daily average. Their speed and stamina is astounding too. It really does come as no surprise that Ethiopia is home to some of the world’s finest long-distance runners when entire classrooms of young Haile Gabrselassie’s have given chase for well over a kilometre without any visible signs of fatigue.  My own fitness levels have truly been put to shame.

The ride has not been without its fair share of perils either. Any food strapped to the back of the bike is, par the course, fair game. I’ve heard (and felt) the crack of a whip split the air just a little too close for comfort by curious young shepherds who have turned their attention away from their grazing cattle to see how a pedalling ‘faranji’ responds, if subjected to similar treatment. Likewise, small mischievous hands have tried (unsuccessfully to my huge relief) to poke a stick into the Sherpa’s wheels in a bid to force me to screech to a stop. Yes, I’ve had countless children climb onto the back of the bike in an attempt to hitch a ride home. Yes, stones and other missiles such as the discarded remains of a chewed husk of maize have been flung my way with varying degrees of accuracy. And yes, I’m keeping count. (Please see the right hand column for a running tally – currently the ‘habasha home team’ have the lead by a narrow margin).

This is not to mention the uninvited amoebas that had taken up residence in my gut, forcing an unscripted few days’ recovery whilst I nuked my system with an arsenal of strong antibiotics in the lovely lakeside town of Awasa.

A small price to pay for an unforgettable experience so far… Just.

People often ask me why on earth I am travelling alone. The truth of the matter is that in Ethiopia, you never are actually ‘alone’. Well, not for long anyway. Kids of all ages sporting brightly coloured Chinese-made bikes festooned with reflectors have often joined me for a stretch to the next village, only to ‘pass on the baton’ to another budding young gang of cyclists. Safe in the knowledge that there will always be a crowd of cheering children waiting round the next corner, I can’t help but sometimes feel like I’m completing a never-ending final stage of ‘Le Tour de Ethiopique’.

It’s as energizing as it is exhausting.

No yellow jersey or finishing line in this ‘race’ though; only a sure, steady ‘sprint’ towards the birthplace of the bean.

Next stop: The primary coffee cooperative of Killenso Mokonisa to stay on a family run farm where I will be temporarily trading my cycling mits for gardening gloves. A daily routine of weeding, seed bed preparation, clearing diseased crops, collecting water from the river, and cutting back the overgrown shade trees awaits just as the uniquely floral-tasting Yirga Cheffe variety of coffee berries are now beginning to ripen on the branch. Magic.

Fast and Furious

Negotiating the chaotic bumper-to-bumper traffic of Tripoli in a vain search for a hostel shocked me into the feeling that I had been grabbed by the scruff of my neck and pulled through a proverbial Lebanese bush backwards. I must have had the stunned look of a rabbit caught between the headlights because a Swedish chap of Lebanese descent called Nasser – who had recognised the EU ‘halo’ of stars on my mudguard – pulled up in his 4×4 to insist on subsidising my night’s accommodation. This was followed shortly by a pit stop of fresh carrot juice prepared by a kindly roadside vendor who refused payment. Yet again, random acts of human kindness left me reeling with gratitude and amazement.

Traffic lights (when they are observed) seem to be less of an instrument of traffic regulation and more of an opportunity to drag race from 0-100, irrespective of engine size. No sooner do the lights go green, car horns blare as the collective sound of screeching rubber rises from the road.

Pimp my Beetle

I’ve never seen so many pimped-up beamers, mercs and veedubs laying sonic claim to the streets (judging by the size of the bass bins, these immensely powerful sound systems are clearly designed to rearrange the driver’s own molecules) as I have in Lebanon. The roads are loud, fast and furious; the ideal arena for unchecked petrol-fueled anarchy. I can of course understand why: If you live in a country that has endured so many decades of strife and conflict; life is for living.

And Lebanese drivers don’t want to waste a single second.

The tragic reality is that incidents on the road are high and I had already witnessed two collisions on my first day of being in the country (I won’t go into details). The intensity of the heat only adds to already frayed tempers and altercations through the window are a common sight. This in turn requires a more bullish mode of cycling as a moment’s hesitation would be an act of committing highway Hara-Kiri. To add to the mix, the mere presence of a touring bike on the road seems to be like waving a red rag to a bull for most moped riders.

Personal Services for Cars

I still can’t fathom this one out yet but for some bizarre reason, motorcyclists appear to want to compete with me for dominance on the road. It’s not that I want to dominate any part of it; the only concession that I ask for is a passing distance that doesn’t shave the hair on my legs.

It’s a regrettable fact but I suppose even roads have their own pecking order. Being a cyclist in Lebanon is a continual reminder that – in road usage terms – you are unashamedly at the bottom of the ‘food chain’. Even pedestrians receive better treatment. Maybe this is my first introduction to cycling on the highways and byways of the Middle East or maybe it’s just the Lebanese style of driving, sans highway code. Either way, I feel that I should have some ‘L’ plates fixed to my bike whilst I slowly adapt to the anarchic road etiquette, even if it is an exercise in futility.

If you can’t beat them, join them. So I’ve decided to ‘pimp’ my own ride. Once the bike comes out of the workshop after a long overdue service, the Sherpa will soon have its very own ‘tow bar’ fixed to the rear pannier rack. With some improvisation, this bespoke modification will provide ample room for some reflectors and space to fly the country’s national flag; all in the hope that this will give me added some much-needed visibility/psychological advantage over passing motorists on the fast and furious road ahead.

A Turkish Tale (of two halves)

There’s a word for it in Turkish. It’s called ağırlamak, which means ‘to show hospitality.’ And it has blown me away – except from the one occasion when it nearly did. But let’s start with Turkish hospitality in the truest sense of the word. I had only been on Asian soil for a couple of hours after taking the short evening boat trip across the Marmara Sea from Istanbul when I stopped off for a roadside sucuk (spicy beef sausage) to fuel the legs. Night had fallen fast and I still had a good stretch of road to go before I could get into any serious wild camp country. Whilst supper was sizzling on the charcoal flames, I dashed to the petrol station to collect some water and returned to find not one, but two kebaps on the table. Just as I was lamenting that my woefully poor Turkish had been lost in translation yet again, the guy came over and said that the second was ‘on the house!’ It was a taste of things to come.

Bitumen Bath

The next morning, I awoke to the sound of the Marmara Sea lapping against the shore just a few metres away from my refuge for the night. A curious Kurdish father and teenage son came over to inspect my improvised beach camp and wanted to share a beer with me – even if it was 7am in the morning. Politely declining their offer of a morning tipple, I stuck to a Cherrybean blended espresso and was back on the road by eight. Feeling the muscles warm up after a few days off the saddle, I was enjoying the sensation and rhythm of cycling again and became lost in my thoughts as I winded my way through cherry orchards of olive groves.

The mercury was rising quickly and the road was actually beginning to bubble under the fierce heat of the midday sun. The grip on my chunky ‘off-road’ rear tyre was more than I had bargained for and soon enough, the Schwalbe Marathon Extreme was collecting a mass of tar, stones and other roadside detritus with each turn. It was like cycling through treacle with the added challenge of an uphill just to keep things interesting. Every 100m or so, I would have to pull over and pick off the excess that had attached itself to my mud guards and bike frame. With perfect timing, a chap pulled over and offered if he could help, glancing at the state of my rear wheel. I said I was fine and with that he gave a dry smile, shrugged and sped off.

Another hundred metres later, he turned up again and we stopped for a chat. He introduced himself as Ibrahim and commented that he respected the Brits for their ‘courageousness’, to which I thought he said ‘craziness’ and nodded in agreement as I looked down at my black-stained fingers. ‘Do you need a tow up the hill?’ he asked. ‘I’m fine thanks,’ I said without much conviction. ‘It’s no problem, you can hold onto the car here.’ He replied, pointing at the open rear window. I could sense that by now he had taken it upon himself that his good deed of the day was to pull me up the hill whether I was on the saddle or not. Before I could respond that I would rather pedal, he was rummaging in the boot. ‘You can hold onto this’ he said, producing an umbrella. By now, my protestations had little effect and he was back amongst pots of olive oil, honey and collection of spanners. ‘How about this?!’ he said, pulling out a plastic buckle strap; of the kind that would usually carry a computer or camera case. The next item however coincided with a Eureka moment: ‘Ah yes, there is always a solution!’ he cried and soon enough, my bike was fastened to the back of Ibrahim’s car with a length of rope. His determination to help was such that by now, I did not have the heart to deny him the opportunity to help me reach the top of the hill unaided.

At first, things went okay. It was an odd but not unpleasant experience as the frayed length of rope took the strain instead of my legs. The challenge was to keep the bike going in a straight direction as I ploughed a sticky furrow up the road. Of course, ‘this was only going to end one way’ I thought, as the surreal realization dawned on me that I was now attached to a guy’s car with whom I had only met a few moments ago and was being towed uphill through a river of tar. With one arm out of the window and a thumbs up in the rear view mirror, Ibrahim was either gaining in confidence or getting bored with our slow progress and started to accelerate… 10km/h…. 15km/h…. 20km/h…. ‘No faster than first gear!’ I shouted over the rising revs of the engine to which he must have heard: ‘Faster, change gear’! He duly did. The immediate torque produced from the sudden de-acceleration and acceleration as the clutch engaged was too much for the rope and with a loud ‘thwack,’ I bailed out to go for a burton in the bitumen in one direction and the Sherpa in the other. Thankfully, with the exception of a few cuts and bruises and a broken bell, there was no significant damage sustained by me or the bike. More than anythıng, I felt pretty annoyed with and ashamed of myself that my fırst ‘bail out’ ın 2500kms was with the aid of a motor vehıcle.

Ibrahim tutted to himself as I checked the rest of the mechanics of the bike to make sure everything was in running order and bade me a crestfallen farewell. On reflection, I realise that it was actually a good lesson learnt. In effect, I had allowed myself to have been pulled in a direction by another person’s force of will (metaphorically and literally) – no matter how benevolent or hospitable their intentions were – and for that I won’t be accepting any further offers of an uphill tow, no matter how steep or long the climb. The other lesson is that ‘no’, really does mean ‘no’. On the plus side, I now have some prime Turkish national highway real estate on my Ortleib panniers and I have say that they are now a lot more waterproof than they ever were. That evening, I pulled into a campsite to take a shower, wash my tar-covered clothes and cooked a yummy risotto on the stove with fresh oysters and muscles that I had combed from the beach. Ah, All’s well that ends well.

Fly me to the Moon

I was determined to reach the south coast avoiding as many main roads as possible with a desire to experience rural Turkey in all its raw splendor away from the tourist traps and the combustion engine. As if in a dream, the days and nights unfolded as I pedaled my way through sweeping agricultural plains of golden wheat, barley and white poppy fields as far as the eye could see (despite efforts by the US to prohibit the trade, it seems that opium production in parts of central Turkey is alive and well).

From wild flower meadows to ancient forests with pines 50-60 metres high, to plunging waterfalls raining down from the heights of jagged canyon walls, the achingly beautiful scenery of the Kovada and Baskmutan national parks took my breath away. Again, Turkish hospitality became the rhythm to each day’s ride and with consistent regularity, I would be invited by groups of men to join them for a refreshing çay (tea) on the usual café veranda under the shade of an old olive tree. The conversation usually starts with following volley of questions (and always in the same order): ‘Where are you from?; Why are you cycling?; Why are you cycling, alone?’ I’ve actually stopped mentioning that I’m on my way to Ethiopia as the look of total disbelief and incomprehension on their friendly, sun-weathered faces when I get the map out to explain my route to the next town, never mind country, or even continent, say it all. Judging by their expressions of astonishment, I might as well say that I am going to the moon.

Man’s Best Friend or Cyclist’s Foe?

Okay, it’s only fair that I should register a conflict of interest here; it concerns the perennial debate that has the power to divide the global community squarely into two. The debate is of course the ongoing battle of preference over dogs or cats (the other is Marmite), and I have to say that I stand firmly in the cat camp. So now that I’ve nailed my colours to the feline mast, I have to take issue with the old adage that a dog is indeed a ‘man’s best friend’. I suppose it’s all a question of standpoint as to whether you’re a dog owner or not (this obviously does not apply to cats because we all know they will never allow themselves to be ‘owned’), but for a cyclist, they are anything but friendly.

If dogs have become ‘man’s best friend’ since their early domestication by humans as a guard animals for livestock thousands of years ago, there’s a special breed of dog originating from central Turkey that continues to do this job supremely well today; the Anatolian Shepherd Dog. In appearance, it’s a muscular beast with a thick neck and strong legs that can carry its long sturdy body along at an exhaustively fast, muscle-burning, pace. Their creamy white coats of wiry fur and black ears mean that they blend incredibly well into a flock of sheep or goats. And they mean business. According to Turkish shepherds, Anatolian Shepherd Dogs are capable of overcoming a pack of wolves. They like to roam too, as they were bred to travel with their herd and hunt for predators before they can attack their flock. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting cyclist, the sight of brightly coloured panniers and a high viz cape on the back pose a real certain danger, and they take this threat with utmost seriousness. So when the tell-tale sound of tinkling bells can be heard in the distance, you can bet your bottom dollar (or Turkish Lira) that there will be an Anatolian Shepherd Dog with a wild glint in its piercing bright blue eyes amongst the herd; ready to give chase at a moment’s notice. As if they aren’t fearsome-looking enough, some of them even sport a chunky neck collar bristling with 4-inch metal spikes that makes them look like more like a four-legged gladiator ready to go into battle. A fashion statement for pooches they are evidently not.

The ideal scenario to be in when you encounter these terrorists of the canine-kind on the road is with the aid of a good, steep downhill – so as to assist a speedy fly past – but there are times when I’ve been far less fortunate. The closest I’ve come to being bitten was an occasion when the odds were hopelessly stacked against me. Firstly, the bike was weighed down with four litres of water. Secondly, the terrain could only be described as a  pot-holed mountain track (I couldn’t call it a road). And yes, it was uphill. The final factor that tipped the balance unequivocably in the dog’s favour was that there was not one of them, but five. Spotting the dogs at the same time that they spotted me, I tried to increase my pace as fast as I could desperately changing through the gears one-by-one. It was a futile gesture. Within seconds, they had gained on me and the pack were snarling and snapping at my legs from both sides. The thought of stopping and getting off the bike to confront them seemed like an act of utter suicide so all I could do was just keep pedaling – like my life depended on it. I think the only thing that prevented them from sinking their flash of large white teeth into my ankles was the fact that they were revolving so quickly that it must have been a furious blur to them. The ‘chase’ had now become a match of endurance and is was sheer adrenalin that got me to the top of the hill. Eventually, the dogs realised they had done their job of seeing off their two-wheeled, high-viz ‘predator’ and turned round to return to the flock. Meanwhile, I collapsed on the road, leg muscles burning and my chest heaving with such force that I felt like could not get air into my lungs fast enough. I really should give up smoking.

And that’s my experience of the ‘domesticated’ breed. I’ve been warned a couple of times not to camp in the wild as there are packs of wild dogs that roam the forests, especially in the mountainous plains of Emir Daglari. The warnings are clearly based on substance as the sound of guard dogs barking and the crackle of gunfire would carry across the fresh evening air as the shepherd’s drove their flock from pasture back to the relative safety of the village. The only perverse comfort I took from this fact was that I was heading in the opposite direction with the expressed hope that I wasn’t going to cross paths as they closed into the village for suppertime. Fortunately, I did not encounter any of these feral beasts during any of my wild camps through the country but nevertheless, I was on guard and ready for the unexpected as I nervously put the tent up every evening and hung any food I had (especially the sucuk) high up in the tree canopy. The only thing that did wake me up unexpectedly in the middle of the night on a few occasions was my bladder. Personally, (and apologies to all dog lovers out there!) from the perspective of a cyclist camping through the Turkish ‘tundra’, dogs are four-legged, furry terrorists and a man’s best friend (or defence) are his wits, a willingness to pedal faster than ever before, a strategically placed pile of stones within arm’s reach, and erm, a sturdy stick.

Taking the ‘Delight’ out of Turkey

I’ve had children run out from the shade of lush orchards to give me a box full of fresh succulent, cherries or watermelon; I’ve been invited to share lunch with a family in their home; once, a breakfast of bread, rose jam and helva was hastily prepared for me over the shop counter (I only popped ın to buy some eggs); I’ve enjoyed generous offers of çay and Turkish coffee from coast-to-coast. There have been free kebaps. I’ve even been towed up a hill (well, half way), and other random acts of human kindness too many to count. It’s been a humbling experience beyond belief and I’m in awe at the friendliness and welcoming nature of Turkish people. But there has been one occasion where Turkish ‘hospitality’ was extended to me in a manner in which I did not want to reciprocate.

The sun was already low and it was time to strike the camp before night fell. Blinded by the stunning views, I found what I thought to be a secluded spot away from road and began to unpack. To each side of the wooded valley were soaring walls of granite and sandstone that reflected a burnt red hue in the sun’s afterglow. All was well, ‘another successful wild camp in the bag’, I thought to myself with a short-lived sense of satisfaction. You guessed it, I had been spotted from a dwelling high above overlooking the valley floor. The sound of whistles and calls started to echo between the valley walls with increasing urgency and, realising I that had been rumbled, began to pack up and make a quick getaway. Scraping through the thorny shrubs and rocks back up to the road, yet another dreaded Anatolian Shepherd Dog had sniffed me out and was now snarling and salivating in front of me with its familiar white flash of teeth. As I reached for my stick, a powerfully built middle-aged woman emerged from the footpath above – with an even bigger stick – and spoke to me in Turkish which I hopelessly could not understand. The tone of her voice however said it all. I grabbed my phrasebook and explained I was looking for a place to camp. She shook her head sternly and as she did, drew the staff to her line of sight, as if to pull an imaginary trigger. It was a simple, chilling gesture that sent a shiver down my spine. Whilst I am always careful not to wild camp on private property or land that is cultivated for farming, I had obviously trespassed. Quickly leafing through the phrasebook, I apologised and tried to explain that I did not want to cause any offence. She raised her staff yet again and paused momentarily to keep her staff pointing at me just to reinforce the message. To say that I felt threatened would be too strong a sentiment but the intention was loud and clear, I was clearly not welcome. Neither did I want to hang around for long enough to find out the consequences of my actions and made a hasty retreat. Back on the road, two guys pulled up in a pick-up truck and asked me what I was doing.  Signalling the universal gesture for ‘campsite’, they pointed in the direction down the road and sure enough, after an exhilerating, fast downhill there was campsite (unmarked on the map) nestled amongst the pine trees at the foot of the majestic Candir Canyon; a perfect place to rest my aching legs for a day and have my first proper shower in a week. Supper that evening was freshly grilled trout caught from the freshwater river opposite. The friendly, warm smiles and nods of approval from the other campers at the sight of my stick (it’s actually a length of wood used for making unleavened bread!) strapped to my rear pannier thawed the ‘chill’ I had caught from my encounter earlier. It was the only time that I can honestly say that I felt unwelcome in Turkey.

Turkish Coffee Revisited

I’m still not the finished article yet but with hours of caffeine-induced practice and some invaluable guidance from the guys at Cherrybean Coffees in Istanbul, I feel confident enough to share some top tips on how to successfully brew a good Turkish Coffee. Here we go…

  1. Procure yourself a ‘cezve’ (conical coffee pot with handle, preferably made from copper to distribute the heat evenly, failing that stainless steel will do)
  2. Obtain some (preferably) freshly roasted, ground Turkish Coffee
  3. For each serving, pour one around 70ml of fresh water into the cesve
  4. Add one heaped teaspoon (around 5g) of ground coffee into the pot and add sugar to taste (for medium-sweet coffee, one spoonful for each serving will do)
  5. Stir the mixture thoroughly over low heat. DO NOT BOIL!
  6. When the coffee starts to froth, a ‘ring’ should start to form on the top, pour a little of the foam into each cup. If you are sharing coffee with a guest, they usually get the first pour (and best) of the foam
  7. Return the cezve to the heat. As soon as the coffee starts to froth up again, pour the contents into the cup(s); grounds and all. Allow to settle. (Public health warning: Never stir once poured into the cup and be sure to sip it gently so as not to disturb the grounds)
  8. Turkish coffee should always be served with a glass of fresh water  so as to clear the palate and fully appreciate its rich, wholesome taste
  9. Finally – and most importantly – enjoy!

And on that sweet note – it’s a reluctant güle güle (goodbye) to Turkey. Next stop? The Land of the Cedar Tree; Lebanon.

La Ciclista Dolce Vita

Italy is unquestionably a cyclist’s (and coffee lover’s) paradise. It’s as if the country has been designed for the bike. Then again, for a nation that celebrates the romance of cycling with such style and passion it is hardly surprising. And thanks to Tullio Campagnolo’s ingenious invention – who changed the course of the history of the bicycle with the momentous words ‘Bisogno cambiá qualcossa de drio!‘ (something must change at the rear!) – of the first quick release wheel followed by the derailleur, Italy is one of the few countries that can be credited with revolutionising cycling beyond recognition. In evolutionary terms, it is akin to our own leap from walking on all fours to standing on two feet. Cycling in Italy is therefore surely in the blood as much as food, football and conversation. You only have to glance at the racing groups of lycra-clad riders with sinewy legs of pure muscle as they whizz passed on their feather-light carbon framed Bianchi dream machines to realise that they take their sport very, very seriously.

So, rocking up at a roadside Gelateria on an old-school steel frame Thorn Sherpa that could be described as a tank by comparison for a cool ice cream always attracts attention and some rather bemused looks. It’s also a great conversation starter and I’ve lost count of the number of times that fellow cyclists have come over to inspect the bike and share their touring experiences across Europe and further afield. There is a general respect for cyclists on the road too. Motorists will almost always give you bags of clearance with a friendly honk of the horn as they pass (apart from BMW drivers for some strange reason – surely the ‘ultimate driving machine’ has brakes and a steering wheel?); often shouting words of encouragement out of the window as you determinedly take on the hill covered in beads of sweat and dreaming of the next ice cream and espresso-fueled pit stop.

It’s the singular experience of encountering people on the road that takes on a special significance. One special moment is as follows… My cycling companion Richie and I had just hopped off the bikes to get some provisions when a sprightly elderly chap darted over from the old red clay brick church opposite. With a sparkle in his eyes, he asked where we had come from and were going to, before sharing  his forthcoming cycle touring plans. He explained how he had cycled the famed Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route through Spain last year and was now planning to cycle the Balkans this summer. In his animated hands was a card with a picture of the Virgin Mary framed by a bike chain.

‘Do you believe in God?’ he quizzed. I replied that I didn’t on the basis that there is no hard scientific evidence to prove the existence of a creator one way or another but do respect other people’s position of faith. ‘So are you against God?’ he shot back with a playful glint in his eye and promptly invited the priest over. It turned out coincidentally that the young priest cycles around the region giving services and he offered to translate the text from inside the card. Of course, it sounds much more beautiful in Italian than English but here is a rough translation:

The Cyclist’s Prayer (Preghiera del Ciclista)

“In cycling, call us to make good
the best physical, moral and spiritual
that you have given us with love.
Help us to build on these thy gifts
because the spirit is synonymous
with honesty, sincerity and respect.
In times of trouble you be the strength and courage.
Always support us in going forward and
Keep us from every form of evil.
Good Father we ask,
through the intercession of Mary,
Mother and beauty of caramel,
that our effort
and comparison with other increases in us
the spirit of charity
to all those we encounter on our journey”.

After the priest had read out the passage to us impressing carefully on the sound of each syllable, the older chap shook my hand reassuringly with the words: ‘Our meeting was not an accident or just a coincidence; things happen for a reason. Remember we are not alone,’ and bid us ‘buona fortuna’ (good luck), before skipping off past the church and down the cobbled road into the distance.

Respect; honesty; sincerity; charity; humility; protection; knowing your limits (I’m still working on this!).

Personally, the question of being a believer or not was almost beside the point; it was our faith in these universal characteristics and common shared humanity that we both could believe in.

Coast to Coast

Our meandering route to avoid busy roads at all costs (even if it meant an extra 200 metre climb) from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic has been a perfect introduction to southern Europe. The rolling hills and vineyards of Toscana unfold like a patchwork quilt of pastel coloured hues, becoming richer and more intense as the searing midday sun mellows to bathe the countryside in a soft afternoon light. Groves of gnarled olive trees stand between the rows of well manicured vines that show the first green shoots of this year’s grape harvest. Wildflower meadows border the cultivated soils and thickets of beech and chestnut trees provide the perfect opportunity to provide cover for ‘stealth’ camps along the way. A free camper’s paradise. Along the roadside, poppies sway in the breeze next to patches of purple Iris’ and pink foxgloves whilst bright green speckled lizards bask on the baking asphalt. As the evening sun slowly sets, the long shadows of poplar trees grow across the fields like nature’s very own brushstrokes, accentuating the contours of the land. It is easy to see why the constantly changing scenery and bountifulness of Toscana has inspired so many artists and painters.

If rural Toscana is the classical musical equivalent of an adagio, then the hilltop towns and villages are an architectural crescendo to the region’s natural beauty. The open courtyards and piazzas in towns like Siena and Pienza were the perfect place to munch on fresh fruit, enjoy a smooth doppia (double) macchiato, stretch the legs and do some people watching; watching them, watching us. Listening (but necessarily understanding) to conversations had to be a favourite pastime too. Italians simply love to talk. The rhythmic syllables and expressive Latin intonations is a joy to hear and watch. The conversation is just as much a visual exchange as it is vocal. Every point being made is accompanied with a shrug of the shoulders or the cutting of the air with a flourish of the hands. It’s as if the conversation is not only being spoken, but conducted. I suppose it is the descriptiveness of the language that adds to the conversational poetry. Author of The Dark Heart of Italy, Tobias Jones, who chronicles the rise of Silvio Berlusconi’s political ambitions and vast business over the last decade points out that the more eloquent the concept, the more beautiful the word seems to be. For example, a bow-tie is a farfella (butterfly) and cuff-links are gemelli (twins). My favourite has to be the Cappuccino, said to derive from the quintessential sight of Capuchin monks in their brown/black habits whilst sporting a shock of white hair on top.

We left Toscana after stopping off at the UNESCO World City of Peace, Assisi, for a few hours to appreciate the ornate high vaulted Basilica’s and pay our respects at the tomb of St. Francesco. As we slowly climbed out of the town up the valley, the beech and chestnut gave way to the Umbrian pine, spruce, sycamore and oak. The   uphills became longer (and more chocolate was required to get up them), whilst the downhills became faster (and scarier). Within a couple of day’s ride we were in the Monti Sibillini national park.

Putting our faith in a rusting old campsite sign (free camping in the national park can fetch a fine of up to 150 Euros) that sent us on a winding thirty minutes’ ride in the pitch dark to an empty lakeside campsite occupied only by a few deserted frame tents, a man and his dog, thankfully paid off the next morning. I love the overwhelming sense of wonder of arriving at a place in the dark and not really quite knowing what is around you, only to wake up to views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains. Add the sound of the trusty Bialetti giving off a full head of steam to the equation as it brews up a glorious 100% Arabica Nicaraguan espresso and it felt like heaven on earth. At the bottom of the campsite was an emerald coloured lake. Its deep mysterious waters were so still you could see the unbroken reflection of the 2000m plus peak that dominated the horizon above. As we glided a smooth, fast, winding, descent out of the national park, buzzards rode the thermals in the clear pine-scented air. It was time to get the Bialetti out again.

What have the Romans ever done for us?

If it’s not Renaissance art that wows you in Italy then it’s the Roman remains. Or both. The country appears to be one big incredible open air archaeological site. The high arched bridges, wall frescos, floor mosaics, crumbling amphitheatres, baths, aqueducts, hospitals, barracks and looming dry stone walls encompassing the remains of a once thriving market town nearly 2000 years ago make you realise what a truly industrious lot the Romans really were. Visiting the remains of the Urbs Salvia settlement in the Marche region built during the reign of Augustus was like traveling back in time. On the outskirts of the town, there stands the remains of a large amphitheatre peculiarly ringed with a crown of oak trees. The amphitheatre was used for gladiatorial contests and you could almost hear the roar of the crowd echoing across the centuries as you walked down through the main vomitorium opening out into the auditorium below. It makes you wonder how much has popular culture really changed in two millennia? Celebrities of the day had to ‘win the crowd’ by fighting for their freedom; today, it’s celebrity death by text message.

A Fine Italian Blend

Of course it is impossible to talk about Italy without mentioning coffee. Alongside the ubiquitous international brands such as Illy and Zagfredo, it is heartening to see there is usually a traditional coffee shop in each town offering its very own house-roasted Italian blend. My preferred hit had to be the Caffè Macchiato (which literally means ‘stained’ or ‘marked’ with milk) taken with honey.  A consistently strong and aromatic coffee. The other is the after dinner Caffè Corretto, usually served with locally produced grappa, brandy or aniseed-flavoured liquor. Yum.

I will be sad to leave Italy. It’s made a big impression on me and the Italian connection with coffee that I have often wondered about now finally makes perfect sense. It is often said that food and drink say a lot about a culture so it stands to reason that the convivial and sociable aspects of coffee drinking go hand-in-hand with the Italian approach to la ‘dolce vita’ (the sweet life), love for food and passion for conversation. It seems such a perfectly natural, happy marriage. And long may it continue.

And finally…

The last day of cycling in Italy was also auspicious for the very reason that I passed my first milestone 1000 kms on the road so far. Despite this diminutive figure in comparison to the overall distance, I still could not help feel a small sense of achievement and decided to mark the moment with the help of two friendly young local cyclists, Matthew and Erico, who joined us for a short stretch towards the port of Ancona and kindly lent me their front wheels for the obligatory roadside photo-op:

Next stop, Greece.