Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya (late April 2002)
Lieutenant George: “Pip, pip, tally ho and Bernard’s your Uncle!”
Captain Blackadder: “In English we say ‘Good Morning’.”
The question “why?” is always on everybody’s lips. George Mallory tried to
climb Everest “because it’s there”, Ranulph Fiennes explains his expeditions
as “a way to pay the bills” whilst Robert Swan’s Antarctic exploits are
allegedly “a way to impress girls at parties”. All are evasions; none are
answers. For the truth is impossibly hard to enunciate. If you have to ask
why, you will never understand.
The Sheraton in Addis Ababa is possibly Africa’s finest hotel. Toilets I
would happily live in, free peanuts and cocktail-sipping high-flying
business women who couldn’t get enough of my (possibly slightly exaggerated)
tales of heroic adventure.
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 (no tangerines),
guavas, pineapples, avocadoes, 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 lay on a Best-of-British bum-wiggling dance routine (in my Union Jack
shorts, bien sûr!). I was disappointed (but not surprised) by the howls of
derogatory laughter from a group of female onlookers.
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.
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
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. In this
village alone I had seen a large sign saying, “Village supported by
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 and Union Jack-shorted 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.
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. As you will read later, my mind is in need of
something to occupy it!
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.
Many local people dress magnificently in red robes, carrying spears and
wearing more necklaces than B.A. 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!
Civilisation at last: road signs, rubbish bins and above all – SAUSAGES!
Kenya is a green and very pleasant land. 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, acned bread thing is devoured
with every meal in Ethiopia.
I crossed 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.
A symptom of too much thinking time on the bike: I’ve become embroiled in a
conundrum about my name. Do I prefer Al or Alastair? Maybe it’s time for a
new name altogether? How would my life change if I began introducing myself
as Nigel? I try key sentences in my mind to see how they sound,
“Have another sausage, Al.”
“Have another sausage, Nigel.”
So much for deep insightful reflection.
Can you help?
I still have had no joy at obtaining any wider media coverage of my journey.
In order to maximise the fund-raising potential of it all and to raise the
profile of Hope and Homes for Children I really need a wider readership than
my mum, my mum’s friends and you (who should probably be doing some work
If you know of anyone who may be able to help please do forward them the
details of my web-site. Thank you.
“I am the one and only”
– Chesney Hawkes
Cycling with four other people has been so different to riding alone. Not
better, not worse, just different.
In many ways I found the south of Ethiopia to be like a holiday. With a
group of five people there is no security risk and no problems with leaving
your bike whilst you shop or eat or go to the toilet. You have practical
support with breakages and repair, enormous moral support in the face of 200
staring people, relief from monotony as you talk away the long, dull cycling
hours, company in the evenings, fun, laughter and evening beers.
But cycling en masse deprives you of the days of silence, the intensity of
experience, the unavoidable (and ultimately unmissable) interactions with
locals and the fears and tears and frustrations of being alone in the heart
of Africa. The character building as my Dad would say!
In conclusion: if you want to have fun then travel in a group. If you’re not
after that, stick by yourself.
One sad man and his football team
“We’re gonna stay with you for ever; at least until the world stops going
– Leeds United anthem
It has been a long season. I remember well the first home match for Leeds United way back in August. A fantastic afternoon of released anticipation, excitement and high hopes for the campaign ahead.
But after that I remember nothing. Because now I am south of the equator in
Kenya. I left home after that first home match (the timing is not a
coincidence) to cycle around the world. I have missed all the highs and lows
and real lows of the last nine months at Leeds United, only occasionally
catching up with the news on the Internet.
Yet despite missing the action Leeds have still been prominent in my life
this year. Pedalling through Africa I never know (nor need to know) what day
it is, except on Saturdays. Saturday is the only day of the week I remember
(this is useful: Saturday is now the day I take my weekly malaria pill). On
Saturdays I fill the long, hard hours in the saddle wondering how Leeds are
getting on, wondering who is in the team today (I hope Smithy’s playing…),
wondering about injuries, suspensions and league positions etc. etc.
These Saturday daydreams focus my world, whisk me away from Africa for a
while and help spur me on down the endless road. So thank you Leeds: I’m
half a world away now, but Saturday is still the beautiful day.
[look out for my report of the World Cup as experienced in Africa… Coming
soon to a web-site near you]
Don’t tell Everyone!
Think of Ethiopia. What images form in your mind? Ethiopia has a serious,
serious image problem so let me tell you about the Ethiopia that I recently
experienced. You will be surprised.
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile river and one of those special
places on the planet that you can spot instantly on any map of the world or
photograph from space. It is a great place to nurse a cold beer (25p a pint)
amongst lush tropical banana trees, watch hippos on the lake and flocks of
pelicans and exotic hornbills swooping in to roost at sunset. Nearby are the
Blue Nile Falls (locally known as ‘the water that smokes’), second only to
Victoria Falls in Africa’s hierarchy of aquatic majesty. Virtually tourist
free (as is all of Ethiopia, such are people’s preconceptions), you feel as
though you are the first to ever lay eyes on the spectacle. Further
downstream the Nile carves through the Blue Nile Gorge – almost a mile deep
and another unmissable sight.
The Rift Valley witnessed the birth of humanity. Along the valley is strung
an ageless chain of lakes, beautiful and stark and home to a breathtaking
variety of birds and wildlife.
The history of Ethiopia is unique, one of the few nations of the World whose
history stretches from the dawn of man to modern times without ever being
properly conquered. This adds many unusual quirks to the country – it has
it’s own language, a complex alphabet and even a different calendar (it is
1994 in Ethiopia now). The food is different but tasty: roast meats and
vegetables, spices and lots of chillis all served together on top of the
huge communal flat bread (njera) that accompanies most meals.
The highlight of the highlights of Ethiopia’s history is Lalibela, a genuine
Wonder of the World. Over 800 years ago the 11 monolithic churches of
Lalibela were hewn from solid rock. Today they are as awesome and deeply
atmospheric as ever. Samuel Johnson wrote about the Giant’s Causeway that it
was “worth seeing, but not worth going to see”. Lalibela was definitely
worth seeing but the ‘going to see’ was even more splendid – the mighty
silence of one of Africa’s grandest mountain ranges, small villages
unchanged since the days of Lalibela’s creation, men ploughing the earth
with oxen and cracking the air with their whips.
Living costs in Ethiopia are extremely low – your money will go a long way
here – good meals for £1, cheap flights, souvenirs and hotels that range from
50p all the way up to complete luxury. The Sheraton in Addis Ababa is one of
the very top hotels in the World. Accommodation there is certainly not
cheap, but early evening drinks cost only £1- not bad for a setting of
extraordinary style and decadence. The perfect way to toast the memories of
a fascinating holiday.
You will find for yourself that Ethiopia does have a terrible image problem
in the UK. It is a beautiful country, richly historical and very, very
different. Get here and see for yourself before everyone else does!
There are several travel companies arranging travel in Ethiopia, from budget overland trips upwards. All tastes and budgets are catered for. Internal travel is easy thanks to a cheap and efficient airline network. Kenya is right next door – why not tag a safari onto the end of your holiday? You should consult a doctor before travelling. A visa is needed. British Airways (and others) fly to Addis Ababa several times a week from Heathrow (approx. £500).