Lieutenant George: “Pip, pip, tally ho and Bernard’s your Uncle!”
Captain Blackadder: “In English we say ‘Good Morning'”
The Sheraton in Addis Ababa is possibly Africa’s finest hotel. Toilets I would happily live in, water
fountains synchronised to light and music (‘Rule Britannia’ played as I strolled by), free peanuts and
cocktail-sipping, high-flying business women who couldn’t get enough of my (possibly slightly
exaggerated) tales of heroic adventure. Over the fence poor people queue for dirty water at a single water pump. Madness?
I bumped into the cycling team I had ridden with for a while in the Sudan and decided to ride with
them again as we headed south through Ethiopia. The first stage of Kenya is notoriously dangerous bandit
country: there was no chance I would be allowed to ride alone, but I hoped that with five of us we may be
allowed to cycle it. Besides, riding with company is good fun, the pace is relaxed, the hassle from kids is
much easier to tolerate, and security is not an issue. In fact everything is much easier and much, much
more fun. Any group of cyclists who have beers at lunchtime have to be worth tagging along with!
Beneath the dawn mists roll endless hills, forested and untouched far to the horizon. It is hard to cover
enough miles: too much time is needed to stop and eat fruit from roadside vendors. Mangoes, bananas,
guavas, pineapples, avocados, sugar cane and watermelon are all for sale at regular intervals. An
enterprising Ethiopian could do a good trade with a roadside Indigestion tablets stall.
On the top of a mountain we meet a man with a kirar, a homemade instrument somewhere between a
guitar and a harp. Inspired by his impromptu performance I laid on a Best-of-British bum-wiggling dance
routine (in my Union Jack shorts). I was disappointed (but not surprised) by the howls of derogatory
laughter from an on-looking group of women.
Many small boys ride bicycles far too big for them. They have to sit painfully astride the crossbar to
pedal, as they cannot yet reach the saddle. I wonder whether this is a devious government strategy for
future population control…?
In many remote villages in southern Ethiopia we receive no hassle at all, the locals are busy with their
lives and, after a wave and a smile, are content to leave us to our lives. Suddenly in one village scores of
children chase me, shouting a whole Christmas list of demands (Give me money! Give me pen! Give me
sweets! Give me bicycle! (the last chap was very optimistic!)) and trying to pull things off my bike. I tried
to suggest to them that in English the usual greeting is “Good Morning”. Call me old-fashioned. And it
was only in this village that I noticed a large sign saying, ‘Village supported by so-and-so charity.’
The rainy season arrives in style, an oppressive build-up of humidity spectacularly smashed by
thrashing rain whipping the road. Loving it, I race along bare-chested singing at the top of my voice.
Judging by the hilarity provoked in villages I rode through I began to deduce that this is not considered
normal behaviour in Ethiopia. After the rain I spend a few hours in anguish caused by prickly heat
sunburn. The last time I suffered this particularly unpleasant affliction was a few years ago when I wrote
‘Leeds United’ on my belly in sunblock and then proceeded to fry myself in the garden for several hours.
Ahead of me lay Kenya. It is traditional when recounting tales of foreign lands to marvel at how
wonderful the native people are. But I had just about had enough of staring crowds, stones being hurled
and extraordinary amounts of begging. I was ready for Kenya. Ethiopia was fascinating, it was extremely
beautiful and it was challenging in every way. For those reasons I loved Ethiopia, and those are the
memories I will savour. The other memories will stay with me too, memories that ask me lots of
questions and give me a good deal to think about.
In northern Kenya lies (allegedly) ‘the most dangerous road in Africa’. (Alleged) hordes of Somali
bandits plus a well-guarded police checkpoint mean that I am forced back onto motorised transport yet
again. We managed to hitch a lift along the (allegedly) dangerous stretch in a tourist Overland truck. It
was a fun couple of days: I saw tears, laughter, romance and even a cracking punch-up! The only thing
that I didn’t see was Kenya. I was relieved to get back on the bike again.
Many local people dress magnificently in red robes, carrying spears and wearing more necklaces than
BA Barracus. It is tragic and deeply upsetting that many of these people are starting to switch to
European dress. I say that not as a nostalgic lament for an irretrievable past. I am just upset that most of them choose to wear Manchester United shirts.
Kenya is a green and very pleasant land. Civilisation at last: road signs, rubbish bins and, above all,
SAUSAGES! For I was sick of njera: the ubiquitous Ethiopian food that looks (and tastes) like the facial mask of a disfigured alien in a low-budget Sci-Fi show. This sour, acne scarred pancake is devoured with every meal in Ethiopia. I cross the equator. After 12,000 km, 8 months and 19 countries this is a very exciting and important landmark. In the absence of champagne I mark the occasion by dropping and smashing my camera. A sausage sandwich soon cheers me up again.
On my way to Nairobi I visit an Allied War Cemetery (1939-1945). It is as immaculately tended as the memorials in France. The true meaning of ‘World War’ becomes clear to me here amongst the humid coffee plantations. Even thousands of miles from Europe the madness still hit hard.