London to Cape Town: Reaching the Halfway Point - Total Women's Cycling

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London to Cape Town: Reaching the Halfway Point

Our TWC contributor shares the story of the journey from Cairo to Addis Ababa

TWC contributor Emily Conrad-Pickles is riding from London to Cape Town. She’s already outlined the start of the journey and told us about the ride through Jordan here. 

The past two months has brought with it highs and lows in terms of health, mood and terrain for Emily and her partner James Davis as they continue their quest to cycle from London to Cape Town. Here’s the latest update… 

All pictures by James Davis

You find yourselves wanting to be as ‘purist’ as possible… sometimes things get in your way – politics, war or health. We have experienced all three in the past few months.

It feels like years since I last wrote about cycling through Jordan! In fact, it has been just 10 weeks but so much has happened in that time, it’s impossible to tell you everything. Most excitingly though, we have arrived in the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa and have reached the halfway point, just in time for Christmas!

When you set out on a voyage like ours, you find yourselves wanting to be a ‘purist’ and cycle as much of your intended route as possible. Sadly though, sometimes things get in your way that just don’t make that possible, whether that be politics, war or health. We have experienced all three in the past few months.

However, we have learnt a lot along the way, and hopefully I can share with you a little taster of what it’s like cycling from Cairo, Egypt to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; three immensely different countries.

We arrived in Cairo by aeroplane from Jordan. At the time, the FCO advice was to stay away from the Sinai Peninsula, which joins Jordan to Egypt, and should we have chosen to cycle through and have a problem, our insurance would not have been valid. As our main objective was to ensure a safe expedition, flying was therefore our only option. Turns out, while we were due to cycle through that section was when the Russian airplane was bombed. We were extremely thankful that we were not there.

Our plan was to stay in Cairo for 4 to 5 days – longer than we wanted – but we managed to time our arrival with the Islamic New Year, which meant Egyptians were enjoying a 4-day weekend. We stopped in Cairo to visit the Pyramids of Giza and to get our visas for onwards travel in Sudan; it did not need to take long. Little did we know that after 9 days, countless visits to the Sudanese Embassy and numerous phone calls later we would still be without visas. Frustrated beyond belief we decided to continue anyway and try again for a visa in Aswan.

We were however pleasantly surprised throughout our time cycling through Egypt and in general met very friendly people and managed to keep the cops at bay.

We were a little apprehensive about setting off – I think it was a mixture of nerves from being off the bikes for a while and too much time to read blogs of fellow travellers who recounted tales of police escorts and intense overcrowding along the Nile, creating issues. We were however pleasantly surprised throughout our time cycling through Egypt and in general met very friendly people and managed to keep the cops at bay.

We chose to ride to Suez, then down the Red Sea coast before crossing the Eastern Desert road to Luxor and finishing in Aswan.

The road to Suez was tough with a strong headwind all the way to the coast – it was certainly a welcome back to cycling with a bang! To add insult to injury, just as we arrived exhausted into Suez a Haboob (desert sandstorm) rolled in with a dramatic change in wind direction – the darn storm was blowing in all the sand from where we had just come from!

Someone out there was looking out for us that day. Out of nowhere we found an unopened, sealed bottle of water lying on the road.

From Suez it was four days straight down the desert road that ran alongside the Red Sea and brought a mixed few days for us. In fact on one day we got things a little wrong, but learnt a valued lesson. It was a scorcher of a day and we had started with around 4 litres of water each. Every day prior to this we had found somewhere to get water at regular intervals and so we didn’t think that today would be any different so we didn’t carry quite as much as we had the previous days. Of course, this was the one day with no shops or water stops at all.

Panic began to set in as we continued with nothing but desert around us. Yes we could see the sea but you can’t drink the sea! However, someone out there was looking out for us that day. Out of nowhere we found an unopened, sealed bottle of water lying on the road. So, delighted and relieved, we picked it up and carried on. About 20kms further along there was another couple of bottles!  What was happening? we could not believe our luck! It wasn’t until around 30kms further along that we found our mystery water supplier in the form of a bottled water lorry that was shedding its load due to some soggy cardboard boxes! We were lucky that day, but lesson learnt.

We were soon in Luxor and cycling down the lush green banks of the River Nile, pinching ourselves that we were actually here.

The rest of Egypt was fantastic – we even managed to avoid any form of tourist police escort (well apart from the 40kms into Luxor). They like to accompany cyclists for extra security but there really is no need. We were soon in Luxor and cycling down the lush green banks of the River Nile, pinching ourselves that we were actually here.

Egypt has had its fair share of problems lately and this has hit the tourism industry hard. We felt perfectly safe wherever we went and the lack of tourists worked in our favour as it meant that we enjoyed visiting many of Egypt’s spectacular historical tombs and temples almost to ourselves. It’s a great country, and I reckon now would be a good time to venture there on a bike.

You’ll be pleased to know that we managed to pick up visas for Sudan without any problems in Aswan – we will never know what was wrong with the excruciatingly painful embassy in Cairo.

Cycling in Sudan offers solitude, wilderness and the thrill of crossing the Sahara by bicycle. Yes, it was hot, and hard work but the people in Sudan are by far the friendliest most hospitable people that we have met so far. In fact, we struggling to spend any money in Sudan, as people would regularly want to give us vegetables or drinks for free saying that we were their guests and they wanted to look after us.

As you are mainly in the desert, carrying water filters is essential as access to bottled water is scarce. You’ll find loads of pots of Nile River water scattered along the roadside for travellers to use. This water had to be filtered, it was horrible! We would often have to carry 10-14 litres each to ensure that we had enough with us but we never went thirsty with some planning.

There are very few hotels in Sudan and so we camped almost every night in the country and we managed to pitch our VAUDE tent in some spectacular places including behind giant sand dunes and right next to ancient temples (Northern Sudan is though to have more pyramids and temples than all of Egypt). With very little cloud cover we were able to sit back at the end of a day and enjoy a star show unlike anything either of us had every seen, it was mesmerising.

In Khartoum I suffered from two stomach upsets of a Biblical nature that left me weak and miserable. Thankfully I was in a house at that point so could at least hide away in comfort.

Sadly it was not all fun and games in Sudan though; I got sick. It was going to happen at some point but when it did it was miserable. In Khartoum I suffered from two stomach upsets of a Biblical nature that left me weak and miserable. Thankfully I was in a house at that point so could at least hide away in comfort. So, we continued on when I felt better but around 350km away from the Ethiopian border I started to feel unwell again. At first we thought that it was dehydration and some heat exhaustion so I rested up for a night and rehydrated. But the next day things were getting worse and we started to realise that it was something different, but we did not know what. I was managing to cycle for around 30 minutes before having to stop for fear that I would pass out or fall off; my heart beat was all over the place and I felt dreadful. Plus, most out of character, I was really struggling to eat or drink anything.

We slowly carried on, bit-by-bit searching out places to by fizzy drinks wherever we could and eventually reached the Ethiopian border and I was a wreck. Having contacted my best friend at home who is a doctor, we think I had an infection somewhere and was suffering from dehydration, I was not well. We then had to make an extremely tough decision. Did we carry on into the mountains, or take a bus to the nearest town in Ethiopia, Gondar? There was not really much of an option but to take the bus, so with our tails between our legs, we arrived on Gondar where I could spend a few days getting my health back on track. You can read more on our London to Cape Town Blog.

Four days later I was starting to come back to life and we spend a few days in the stunning Simien Mountains before hitting the road again.

Despite its beauty, it is hard to recommend Ethiopia as a country for cycling.

Ethiopia is stunning. But cycling through Ethiopia is challenging to say the least with elevations ranging from 1,800m – 3,300 (that’s over 10,000ft) and higher and much steeper than the French mountain resorts. Despite its beauty, it is hard to recommend Ethiopia as a country for cycling. Yes, there is plenty to see and the altitude and hill climbs will certainly improve your fitness however the children in this country are a nightmare. It is not a country to visit if your crave solitude either. Within moments of stopping anywhere, no matter how remote you think you are, within seconds a face will appear and come and stand to stare at you, often from an uncomfortably close distance. Whether you are moving or stationary, children will shout at you. It starts with: “YOU! You! Youyouyouyouyouyouyou!” Then moves onto: “Money! Money! Money! Money!” “Give! Give me Money! Pen! Pen! Pen! Pen……” You get the picture! They will also throw stones at you if you are not looking – with quite astonishingly impressive accuracy too! Plus they’ll often follow you all the way up a mountain as our touring bikes resort us to extremely slow speeds at times; they can often run at the same pace. The more tenacious ones will continue to shout “money” at you for what can appear like hours on end.

It was with delight therefore that we discovered that Ethiopia has a variety of small hotels in most towns where you can get a room for around £3 a night. Yes it is basic, but some have hot water but most importantly for us, it allowed us some peace and quiet and solitude for a few hours.

That said, despite Ethiopia being exhausting – physically and emotionally – we have enjoyed cycling here so far.

That said, despite Ethiopia being exhausting – physically and emotionally – we have enjoyed cycling here so far. We’ve even cycled though the world’s second biggest Canyon, The Blue Nile Gorge. Here we endured 1,300m of climbing in 20km – it is definitely a bucket list climb, but perhaps without 60kgs in your panniers and definitely best done on a steel frame, I would hate to think what might happen to carbon on the rough roads. We certainly feel much fitter and stronger from all the cycling at altitude.

We have also been pleasantly surprised by the presence of cycling teams here. We’ve also been very grateful for their mechanical help. I’ve broken my rear wheel spokes on two separate occasions in the past week (of course it was the ones that fit in behind the rear cassette) and the one tool we decided not to bring was a chain whip – I mean how often do you need one of them?  Apparently twice a week if you are cycling through Ethiopia! There are street mechanics in most towns in Ethiopia but they are only really able to fix a puncture or mend a chain and are generally pretty useless. The only people with the tools are knowledge were the cycling teams. We managed to track down the Amhara Cycling Team, based in Bahir Dar, who very kindly fixed my bike for me twice (even though it meant two backwards trips – one of 50km and another of 170km!).

Through my mechanic mishaps however we have had the honour of meeting some incredibly talented young cyclists. They all live and train together, as well as continuing their studies. They compete at a national level however nearly all of them compete on battered, old kit, most of you reading this probably would not even think of commuting to work on some of their bikes. Through my London club, Clapham Chasers, we are going to send out a box of kit to the team – mainly helmets, clothing, pedals, sunglasses and saddles. If you are interested in contributing to our donation, please email me: cycle@london2capetown.org.

We are currently in the capital of Ethiopia and we have so much more to look forward to as we leave tomorrow to head South West through the Omo Valley, famous for Ethiopia’s many ethnic tribes. The next month will see us cycle into very remote areas where the roads will all but disappear, so do think of us when you are enjoying your Christmas turkey as we are pushing our bikes through sand. I’ll enjoying telling you all about it though. Merry Christmas!

World Bicycle Relief is matching all donations made until December 31 2015. If you would like to contribute to our fundraising team, now is a good time to do so as every pound will be doubled. We have really started to experience first hand how valuable bicycles really are in rural Africa and how they can help change a life.

Read more about the ride and World Bicycle Relief here. 

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