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


Buen camino

P1070086The familiar greeting of “Buen Camino!” (literally meaning ‘good road’) amongst fellow pilgrims personifies the friendliness and camaraderie amongst the wayfarers who travel along the Way of St James. Often carrying a scallop shell and occasionally a gourd to signify their pilgrim status – and to ward off thieves or those with less than honourable intentions – the vast majority of pilgrims walk whilst a minority, including myself, cycle the route. I’ve already met a Dutch couple who are travelling with their young son on brightly coloured recumbents festooned with flags; gangs of lycra-clad mountain bikers in search of the next adrenalin rush; cycle-tourers on tandem bikes; and even a group of German farmers that have driven their lovingly restored tractors all the way from Kesslingen, Germany. Whilst the mode of locomotion may be different, the sentiments in the shared goodwill of the expression, ‘Buen Camino’, amongst walkers, cyclists, and tractor-enthusiasts alike remains exactly the same.

The ride from Roncesvalles into the Basque stronghold of Pamplona, the first main city along the Camino de Santiago, was an exhilarating one. I chose to take the road so that I could enjoy the twists and turns as it unravelled through the Valle de Erro. Woefully lost trying to navigate the spaghetti junctions of dual-carriage ways that orbit the city, charitable locals clearly saw my increasing desperation with the map and pointed me in the direction of my refuge for the night. P1070010Thankfully, I soon found the Albergue de Peregrinos de Jesús y Maria close to the cathedral nestled unassumingly in one of the many narrow cobbled streets of the beautiful medieval quarter. It is here that I was first introduced to the chorus of snores that have become the nigh-time soundtrack to the handful of Albergues that I have stayed in along the way.

Often run by volunteers, an Albergue is basically a hostel for pilgrims that charge anything between 5-10 Euros or simply ask for a donation for the luxury – and I do mean luxury – of a shower and bunk bed for the night. This privilege is only afforded to pilgrims and the Credencial del Peregrino must be presented on arrival for refuge to be granted. In return, a distinctive stamp confirms that the pilgrim has stopped for the night before continP1070493uing their pilgrimage the following day. It also represents a record of the way-points that pilgrims have journeyed along the road towards Santiago de Compostela.

Having been used to starting my day at a leisurely pace which first involves firing up the stove for an invigorating brew before packing up the tent to avoid unwanted attention from a local farmer or the Guardia Civil, I was surprised to see pilgrims at the Albergue set out to begin their day’s walk before the sun had even risen. We all travel at our own pace and rhythm but, personally, coffee always comes before cycling if the day is to get off to a good start. Without doubt, Albergues are exceptionally social places and a great opportunity to meet fellow pilgrims even if the symphony of snores at night keeps slumber a distant prospect – even for even the heaviest of sleepers.

P1070110Following a day’s rest to explore the lively city – mindful to stay well clear of any charging bulls – and with only a few hours’ wakeful kip under the belt, I pushed on to enjoy a succession of wild camps that took me though the fertile grape-growing plains of Navarra and La Rioja. The first green shoots heralding this year’s harvest for wine-production on an industrial scale were beginning to emerge. Spring had indeed finally sprung and the roadside verges that fence off the few fields left to fallow were sprinkled with bright yellow dandelions and buttercups.

Stopping off in the historic town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada situated on the banks of the Oja River for a typical lunch of cheese and fresh bread, I got chatting to a local woman, Maria, who was sharing quality time with her baby daughter in the shade of the town square. As we talked, I beckoned her towards me with an encouraging ‘hola!’ and to her mother’s astonishment, Eva began to take her very first steps: It’s the small but extraordinary experiences on the road that take on the greatest poignancy. As in life, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but is it really the destination or the journey itself that truly matters?

One of the many striking features of the El Camino is the wonderful mix of natural landscapes, flora and fauna that it takes you through. From flat, wide-open agricultural plains that stretch out from Burgos as far as the eye can see to the fresh pine forests and carpets of ferns and wild herbs that cling to the mountain range of the snow-capped Montes de León; or the lush green rolling hills of Galicia that is so reminiscent of Wales or Ireland that I have had to continually remind myself that I am in Spain. P1070049The route takes you through small rural hamlets with crumbling centuries-old farmhouses covered in moss and creeping ivy, over ancient cobbled Roman bridges, alongside gurgling brooks and into quiet, peaceful town squares complete with ornate water fonts offering thirst-quenching respite for the travel-weary pilgrim. The journey has so far been undeniably a kaleidoscope of colour, sights and smells that lift the spirit, nourish the mind and rejuvenate the soul.

P1070159The rich experiences that camping affords along this geographical fused-storyboard of Christian and Celtic landmarks has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. I’ve camped under stars framed by the lofty arches of the 12th century ruins of the Convento de San Anton – that once served as a hospital to treat the sick and ailments of passing pilgrims during the medieval ages – and have taken refuge from the howling wind and rain in the shelter of small chapels that overlook the Atapuerca Sierra that was first inhabited by some of the earliest human settlers in Europe.

Nature always plays its inevitable hand too. I’ve been woken up more than once by the bad-tempered barks of what I can only imagine are from Wild Boar and have shared my breakfast with a curious Stoat. In so far as the elements are concerned, I’ve been frozen into my tent after being forced to strike camp close to the Cruz de Ferro on the ridge of the Montes de León in a freak snow storm. P1070266The next morning – after a freezing night of fitful sleep above 1500m where I discovered that a hastily prepared hot chocolate on the stove in the early hours can make the difference between cocoa heaven and the onset of hypothermia – I watched the sun rise above the clouds and was treated to a warm hug and coffee shortly after breaking camp by an angel from Normandy. As the feeling to my hands returned, she told me that her name was Anneline, who had been so touched by travelling the northern coastal route of El Camino the previous year that she had decided to give up her philosophy studies at university and practice a philosophy of life that revolves around living off the land and offering coffee and cake to pilgrim’s as they reach the highest point of the route across the Iberian peninsula.

Like Anneline, there are many people who live on – and from – El Camino. Take Sergio from France, who said ‘au revoir’ to his Parisian life and has for nearly the past three decades lived on various sections of The Way of St James, picking litter as he goes. Soon to embark on his 24th pilgrimage to date. He told me that it is to mark the anniversary of St Francis of Assisi who made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela 800 years-ago this year. When I enquired how long it would take him to walk the route from the Italian spiritual centre of Assisi to Santiago, Sergio replied matter-of-factly: “Three months, give or take a few.” Or there is David from Barcelona, who renounced his life in the Catalan capital six years ago to live a life of simplicity offering service to pilgrims who should pass by and stop at his humble makeshift home outside the historic-walled city of Astorga.P1070213 “Life is process,” he mused as he broke up some wood to fuel the flames so I could enjoy a coffee brewed on the fire, whilst he drank herbal tea.

Apart from those that have decided to make a life from El Camino, there are of course the pilgrims themselves. Just like myself, all make the journey for uniquely personal reasons. I’ve met so many amazing people along the way, it’s not possible to accurately recount or do justice to the conversations I’ve shared but the common theme has been a desire to slow the pace of life down and reconnect with themselves, and others: There is Klaus, an art therapist from Munich, who says he is in need of some therapy himself. Or Bruno, from Lake Garda in northern Italy, who is cycling a furious 100km plus a day to carry a banner of get well wishes in his backpack for his ex-wife who is battling for her life after a heart-bypass.P1070225 Then there is Miquel from Logroño, who wants to give up his addiction to alcohol and television. Or Tina and Marchant from Australia and Poland respectively, who have decided to spend their honeymoon walking El Camino before they get married just make sure they are truly compatible in wedlock. Meanwhile, Zoe from South Korea is looking for love along the way. And then there is Ben, a happy-go-lucky horticulturist student who is walking the route before he starts his internship simply because it is “fun”! And it sure is fun.

For me, the penny truly dropped as I was talking to an Italian pilgrim, Mau, who had a monastic air about him and had met his partner, Nia, on the Way of St James six years-ago. He says they never reached Santiago but ended up settling in the peaceful town of Castrojeriz, in the central municipality of Castilla y León, just a few kilometres down the road from the Convento de San Anton. Aptly called the Hospital de Alma (Hospital of the Soul), they have spent the last couple of years restoring an old Castilian barn into a place of contemplation to remind pilgrims that the Camino is not completed by two feet or, indeed, two wheels; rather – the journey takes place within.

P1070367A striking photographic exhibition situated in the entrance to the building, Chasing the Shadows, takes an interesting perspective into the notion of pilgrimage and why increasingly more people each year are compelled to embark on one. The central message is universal. Just like the first steps that Eva took in the square in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, we walk because it is both a naturally innate human desire to do so but also an external expression of our own inner state. It is in this sense that the repetition of walking – or turning of the pedals – becomes not just an act of simply getting from A to B, but a means of processing the habitual nature of life so that we can gain a deeper understand of ourselves. In short, we become the Camino.

Without any ceremony, I doggedly pushed the Sherpa into the Plaza del Obradoiro overlooked by the soaring spires of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela exactly on the count of ten; totally exhausted but elated. I was exhausted because I was recovering from a marathon night ride with only the brilliant beam of my headlight to light the way down empty lanes as bats swirled above, rabbits darted left and right, and owls hooted from the shadows of the trees in their familiar but haunting call and response. Jolted by the deeply sad news of the departure of my grandfather from this life – a kind, gentle Yorkshireman with a big heart and who always had a twinkle in his eyes – I could not stop until I had finally reached Santiago fuelled only by impromptu coffee stops brewed on the stove with lashings of sweet honey in the still of night.

I felt elated because I was entering a revered space that for centuries, countless pilgrims have risked life and limb to journey there. It is hard to explain, but is was as if the collective memory of emotions resonating in those worn granite stones embraced my heart in one singular moment, and I became overwhelmed with joy and sadness as I lit a candle for the loss of a dearly loved family relative. After more than 1200km on the road since arriving in Bilbao one month earlier, I had finally made it to Santiago de Compostela – almost to the day. P1070483Next stop… to the ‘end of the flat world’ at Cape Finisterre on the Atlantic Coast.

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.

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.


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.