Day 90: Cairo

Over the last six weeks I passed through Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and now Egypt.

From the last update, I had a nostalgic weekend in Kampala starting with an overnight bus into the city playing Sean Paul music videos. Then a day of biking and camping in Uganda's villages and forests, followed by a minibus ride to the Mt. Elgon region. I wanted to ride around the perimeter of the mountain back into Kenya. It was Uganda's rainy season, and a lot of the roads were barely passable.

The Mt. Elgon region is affected by frequent flooding and mudslides. I camped in a school in the region, and even the principal told me he lost his home in a recent mudslide.

The border to Kenya from here has no customs or immigration posts on either side. Just a simple dirt road connects the countries in this region. Living across the two sides of the border is the Pokhot tribe, a pastoral tribe, whose lives revolve mainly around cattle (and some camel) herding.

One of the surprises of this trip has been how many pastoral tribes and people I have come across, usually on the road with their herds wearing traditional clothes: the Massai and Samburu in Kenya and Tanzania, the Pokhot along the Uganda and Kenya border, and eventually the Turkana in Northern Kenya and the Dassenech, Himba and Hamer in Ethiopia. On the Kenya side of this border, I met a school teacher in the Pokhot region, who said his school is twenty kilometers off the road since his students live so deep in the bush. He said most of his students are in their 20s, as many of the Pokhot spend much of their childhoods tending flocks and only appreciate the potential of education later in their lives.

This border region is not well travelled. In other areas, children in villages get excited as I roll by and chase after me; here they ran away. One older Pokhot teenager stopped and stared as soon as I came close. He looked mortified. I smiled and waved, but he had no reaction. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect I might be the first foreigner he's seen (or maybe just the first one on a bike).

Since I was crossing into Kenya in a border without customs, and planning to leave Kenya through another border area without customs, I was considering just passing through without dealing with immigration. But further down the road I was intercepted by two (non-uniformed) Kenyan police officers that scared me straight. When I reached the first Kenyan town, I bussed south in a long detour through consecutively larger towns until I could find an immigration office. When I did, in the midsized town of Eldoret, the office turned out to be closed for the weekend—days I couldn't afford to lose.

I ended up going back to the Uganda border at a more legitimate post. I expected I would need to spend a few hours explaining my situation to get the stamps I need, but luckily this was a 'one stop border'. That meant one building had both the Ugandan and Kenyan immigration desks. It was easy to walk in from one side, pretend I came in from the other, get my needed Ugandan exit and Kenyan entry stamps, and leave from where I entered.

Next, I took a minibus up to the small town of Lodwar, where I was going to continue biking in the desert Turkana region of Northern Kenya. Here I hit my next few days’ delay: I was made to switch minibuses in the middle of the night and promised my bike would be sent in the next one in just a few hours. In Lodwar, a few hours became ‘by tonight’, which then became 'tomorrow night’ for a few nights in a row. I was worried the bike was actually lost or stolen, so I made the bus company send regular hostage photos.

I happened to meet several people working in a coding and graphic design bootcamp in Lodwar, started by the German Prince Ludwig of Bavaria. I enjoyed passing the time with their volunteers and students until my bike arrived.

I then made my way to Lake Turkana. This is a desert region, one of the most remote in the world. It is home to the Turkana, another pastoral tribe.

The Turkana have frequent cattle raiding conflicts with their Ethiopian Dassanech neighbors to the North. After a day's biking from Lodwar, I was advised that the route I was planning to take was currently too dangerous due to recent escalations of the conflicts. I was pointed to another route back through Lodwar. So I turned back, stuck in the town for one more day.

The new route eventually took me to the last Kenyan town of Todonyang. It had few people and fewer water sources along it, and deep sandy trails I had to push my bike through. Close to the border, a truck of Kenyan soldiers picked me up. We passed by Todonyang Mission, a missionary elementary school that had both Todonyang and Dassanech children, in an effort to bring peace to the area. The soldiers dropped me off at the country's edge. They did not check my passport or visa, just pointed me towards Ethiopia and wished me luck. Then I biked through no man's land.

A short while after taking this photo, I was crouched over my bike adjusting my bags when I heard something fly past overhead. A bullet. It sounded like someone released a slingshot a meter above me. I shot up, put my arms up, and looked around. Nothing in any direction, just the empty landscape in the photo above. Eventually I saw a figure in the horizon, bobbing in and out of visibility. Soon I noticed another, a hundred meters to the left of the first.

The soldiers had told me that although the Turkana and Dassenech frequently target each other, they leave the soldiers and foreigners out of the cattle raiding conflicts. I heard this frequently. A man I met in nearby Lokitaung said "it is insecure for us black men, but for you red men it is safe." I took my hat off and kept my arms up, trying to make my foreignness obvious.

I slowly crept forward, unsure of what to do next. I tried to read the movements of the figures in the distance. Were they crouching in a shooting position or approaching non-aggressively? I considered lying flat, hiding behind the bushes, but did not want to escalate the situation.

Eventually, an Ethiopian trader on a motorcycle came up behind me. I explained the situation, and he suggested I turn back, but agreed to escort me ahead. We got closer to the figures and they walked towards us. It was four, not two, each with an AK-47 strapped on their back. One came up to me and shook my hand. They looked brutal. One had a grid of scar tattoos across his chest and stomach. They spoke with the Ethiopian trader, who explained they are Dassanech and thought I was Turkana from the distance. They fired a warning shot and were waiting on my retaliation. They demanded close to $10 to let us through.

On the Ethiopian side, I spent a few days in Omorate, the first town. I'm delayed again, due to incorrect dates on my Ethiopian visa. I had no intention of coming back the way I came, so I re-applied online and waited in this small town for the visa's approval. It's a Dassanech town.

I camped in a tour guide zone, where tourists meet with guides that take them out to Dassanech villages. One guide I met explained that the scars I saw on the Dassanech man means "he's a hero—he killed a Turkana enemy". He also told me his younger brother went to the Todonyang Mission I passed, but dropped out as he felt he was getting bullied by the Turkana.

The days pass slowly, getting invited to countless cups of coffee and Ethiopian meals with the guides.

Finally, the visa is approved and I get stamped into the country I had been in for the last few days.

I soon hit my next delay though: applying for the Sudanese visa in Addis Ababa. These delays mean I will need to hitchhike and bus through Ethiopia if I intend on reaching Egypt. Luckily, Ethiopia is a great country for traveling by bus. Everyone is friendly, sharing snacks with fellow passengers. One family I met on the bus is on their way to Addis for a wedding. They invited me to join: a celebration full of singing and dancing.

They also invited me to one of the most unique meals of this trip: a dish of raw steaks. They're cut up and eaten with injera bread and a chili sauce.

My Sudanese visa is eventually approved, and I travel through the rest of Ethiopia into Sudan.

Sudan stands out for Sudanese kindness. Everywhere I go I am invited for meals or cups of tea. I hit my last delay in the first Sudanese town. I compliment a Sudanese man on his jalabeya and ask where I can get one myself. He points me to the direction of the town market, where I decide to have one tailor-made over the day.

While waiting, I meet a Sudanese swim coach, Captain Zorrof, who brings me over to the swimming country club. I enjoy the pool and Sudanese meals with the swim students.

In Sudan, I frequently stayed in simple pit stops, sleeping on rope beds and drinking water fetched from the Nile.

I also visit a few historical sites. Unique to Sudan, major sites have no guides, touts, tickets, or security except for the stray dogs. I just wander in and have the place to myself.

Near the Egyptian border I wild camp for the last time. One last night under the African night sky.

Then a ride through the desert to Egypt, with almost no days left to spare.

One last border crossing: a twelve hour ordeal at the disorganized Sudanese-Egyptian border. Then a weekend in Aswan along the Nile, and the sleeper train up to Cairo to start my last and longest ride: 220 km to Alexandria.

And now I am back in Cairo. I spend my last few days in the familiar sites of Egypt, preparing for US immigration, seeing and dealing with family, having bugs once again assigned to me at work, all a nice slap out of trip mode, back into reality. :)

Day 48: Nairobi

Over the past few weeks I’ve passed through Lusaka, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, and now Nairobi.

Nairobi, especially the Central Business District where I am staying, is the most hectic city I’ve seen. I arrived in a matatu / microbus at night, dropped off deep in the CBD, looking for a place to stay. It was a mess of crowds of buses and people, non-stop honking, shouting and fighting.

I was lucky to be walking around the CBD the next day during Kipchoge's historic 1:59 marathon run. Everyone was huddled around small stores showing the run. The street broke out into celebration when be crossed the finish line.

Kipchoge ran a full marathon faster than 20 kmph, faster than I am often biking!

Nairobi has large visible South Sudanese and Somali communities, settling here as a result of the conflicts in the two countries. So I am enjoying Somali cuisine while here: plenty of camel meat and camel milk tea.

In Lusaka, a few weeks back, I didn't have a lot of time to explore the city. But I did have enough time to join this push up competition.

I lost.

From Lusaka, I took a bus to the town of Kapiri Mposhi, the terminal stop of the TAZARA rail line, connecting Zambia to Tanzania.

The roads in Zambia are the most dangerous I've biked on. Barely any shoulders, lots of truck traffic.

Still, taking buses felt a little more scary. The roads are narrow and the drivers aggressive.

I saw this flipped microbus on a day's bike ride outside Kapiri. Luckily no one was seriously injured in the crash according to the gathered crowd.

In Kapiri, I also almost attempted a side trip to the Congo (DRC). I met a Zambian truck driver, Richard, on his way to the Congo from South Africa. He was going to drop off grocery cargo in DRC and return in a 4 to 7 day trip.

I jokingly asked if I could come along, and he readily accepted, saying the bike would fit easily in the truck. I asked about safety and health issues. Security-wise, the worst he deals with is constantly needing to pay bribes at checkpoints—to the army, police, and anyone else stopping traffic. On health, Ebola is only prevalent in the eastern parts of the country, and he was heading the other way. He also seemed like he'd be interesting conversation on the trip: he spent a few years in Japan working in an auto factory and spoke fluent French from his trips to Congo.

Before agreeing, I decided to find some internet to do my own research. It sounded like Richard was right on health and security risks. But getting a last minute visa seemed impossible; it takes foreigners with official invitation letters at least a month. Unfortunately, Richard only had a few hours to spend at the town with the consulate.

On the train, the first passenger I met happened to be Zambian-Congolese. He also insisted the Congo is now a new democracy and safe to visit. Maybe for the next three month trip...

The train was slow, a three day journey. But the scenery enjoyable. I passed time by watching American movies with the staff.

From there, Dar es Salaam, which felt incredibly tropical, an African Phuket.

Then through Zanzibar, with its historical Stone Town, forests, and the beach.

I then biked my way up the coast from Dar and hopped on a bus to the Kilimanjaro region.

A day of hiking near Kilimanjaro, then biking through back roads to the Kenyan border. I came across giraffes and zebras (by the road, not in a park!), and plenty of Maasai villages.

I camped one night at a Maasai family's farm. Their roosters and farm animals woke me up early. The next day, I was hoping to be able to camp in one of the traditional Maasai villages: usually several thatched roofed huts enclosed by a thorny bush fence.

Many Maasai in the area are shepherds, and I frequently saw them herding large flocks of sheep and cattle across roads. They are usually wary of tourists and shout at those trying to take their photo. I got around this with these two women by using an instant printer I carry to give them their photos as gifts.

They got really excited and invited me into their village to have a bigger photoshoot. It was less than 50 meters from the road, but it was invisible to me before I followed them in. The bush fence surrounding it blended in with the wider landscape.

I met other Maasai women and their children and took and printed several rounds of photos. I wanted to work my way up to asking to camp in their village. So I first asked if I could bring my bike in off the road. They immediately made it clear, despite our lack of mutual language, that I was no longer welcome there. As I was leaving, another Maasai man came to escort me to the road and away. He said a lot in Swahili that I couldn't catch, except one word: 'kwaheri' or 'bye'.

Over the next two days, I rode across the border and up to the edge of Nairobi. I hopped into a matatu to avoid riding into town after dark. Traffic was bad, but we went off the side of the road to overtake it. We weren't as aggressive as the bus in front of us though: it zoomed through a sidewalk full of pedestrians to get ahead.

Nairobi was a change of pace as I happened to meet several founders and VCs based here. It feels energetic. Everyone is excited about the future of technology companies in Kenya and the region.

I also met a small social enterprise founder, Julius. I heard about him a while ago from reading this blog post and reached out on Facebook. Julius makes shoes out of recycled materials, using rubber from recycled tires for the soles and extra fabric from local tailors. Before he started his business, he also worked in the autonomous vehicle industry, as a data labeler for Samasource. He proudly told me that he built self-driving cars for two years.

He took me on a tour of Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa, where he grew up and makes his shoes.

I bought a pair to replace my worn out Allbirds. The shoes are genuinely great! You can find some on his website, or he'll make and ship a custom pair. Let me know and I can connect you.

I got myself involved in another business. One of the TAZARA train staff, Deo, told me about his dream of opening up a book-filled coffee shop to promote reading. We talked through its potential business model and, over the ride, persuaded each other to attempt to start small: buy, repackage, and sell good quality Tanzanian coffee.

The Kilimanjaro region, where Deo is from, is home to some of the world's best coffee beans. To help kickstart the business, I got to go to the Tanzania Coffee Board's office near Kilimanjaro to sample their different roasts and grades.

It was clear to all the staff I had no idea what I was doing. But I liked what I tried and bought a small amount. Deo is working on making and printing packaging to resell it in Dar, under the brand Kibo Coffee. He's planning on selling it around offices in Dar, but let me know if you would like him to ship some over. The coffee tastes amazing, with dark chocolate undertones.

From Nairobi, I rode out to Lake Naivasha, in the Great Rift Valley, and hiked around Longonot crater.

I made my way back to Nairobi, and I am currently on an overnight bus to Kampala, Uganda. I've changed my initial plans to mix in more matatus, buses, and other transportation to give me more flexibility. Like going to Uganda, which I initially did not have the time for, and spending more time biking in scenic back roads instead of highways. From Kampala, I'd like to make it to Ethiopia in a week, crossing back into Kenya from northwest Uganda. And less than five weeks after that to make it to Egypt.

Day 24: Livingstone, Zambia

I crossed Namibia over the last two weeks, with Mike until Windhoek and solo since. Namibia feels starkly different to South Africa, clear as soon as you cross the border. A big one I noticed right away: there's Maged drinks here.

Namibia is vast. It is an enormous country, mostly desert, with a population of just 2 million. Britain considered using it as a prisoner colony in the 18th century, but a fact-finding mission found it inhospitable with no equal except the "deserts of Arabia".

It gets hot in Namibia. So hot, our thermometer overheated and misreported 59 C. So hot, my toothpaste exploded. We took breaks from the midday heat in whatever shade we could find.

We spent the first 4 days biking through Ai-Ais Canyon Park: we saw scorpions, snakes, and plenty of baboons; went to a hot spring; climbed dunes; and wild camped for the first time this trip.

I had an unfortunate critical tent pole failure that led to this sad state of affairs for my tent for two nights.

Other than the camping, we were generously hosted by a park ranger one night, and I was generously hosted another day by family friends in the northern corner of Namibia. They took me for a swim in the Zambezi, then we drove a few kilometers downstream to watch some hippos doing the same.

Mike and I took a sleeper train (the Starline) into the capital, Windhoek.

Windhoek is a place I would easily spend a few weeks in if I was without a time constraint. It has the comforts of a big city and intimacy of a small town. We met some students who showed us around, and they recognized people everywhere they went. It gave the sense that we were already friends with the entire city.

From Windhoek, I made my way to Zambia. Here, at least 10 - 20 times a day someone excitedly calls me Moh Salah. This started with kids in Namibia and has slowly grown the further north I've gone. Not sure the resemblance is that strong (he's on the billboard!).

I'm in Livingstone now, near Victoria Falls. It's also close to the corner of four countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia. I'm lucky to have been to all four over the past two days.

Today I biked across the border to Zimbabwe for a better view of the falls. The route to the border is an elephant crossing area, and I saw a family cross the road.

From Livingstone, I will take two buses then a three-day train to Dar Es Salaam. And should be back on the bike from there.

Day 12: Noordoewer, Namibia

Yesterday we crossed the border into Namibia.

The morning out of Strandfontein, 6 days ago, we were hit with a nasty dust storm and headwind. It was clear we were now entering a desert climate.

That day, we made it to the next town at a snail's pace fighting the wind and heat. We asked around for a place to eat, and we were pointed to the town bar. As soon as we walked in, the place went quiet and everyone turned to stare. It was dark, dusty and a little creepy. We turned to leave when it was clear they didn't have food.

Immediately the entire place shifted tone, and everyone insisted we stay and come with them to a braai (bbq) at one of their farms where they can host us for a night.

We agreed and went out to a farm, where we spent the evening with an interesting set of characters.

The farm house was full of large meat grinders, animal head trophies, and Jasper (above) insisted on showing us his pistol and shooting it a few times.

Another interesting place we stayed was what seemed like a semi-abandoned campsite, near the Namibian border.

When we got there, the front gate was locked and the place was empty. We called its number, and they sent someone to let us in. He showed us where to set up camp and then promptly left and locked the gate again, promising to return the next day to let us out. We made our own braai that night.

After staying at Jasper's, we hitched a ride to the city of Springbok. An Afrikaans couple picked us up. They had packed all their things in a trailer and were moving to Namibia. They had their farm broken into a several times and found South Africa too dangerous to stay.

I rode in the back.

From Springbok, we had a two day ride to the border.

P.S. this update is from three weeks ago, but delayed by lack of internet. Namibia update coming up soon!

Day 6: Strandfontein

More wildlife seen on the road: turtles, springbok, flamingos, and lots of ostriches.

We've been riding for 3 days. Today we arrived at and set up camp in the small beach town of Strandfontein.

Our first day out of Cape Town went smoothly. We had a bike lane taking us out of the city, followed by a wide shoulder, and a strong tailwind pushing us forward.

A perk of traveling via bicycle is that it's much easier to notice subtleties in geography. One of these is how small Cape Town is, and how quickly it melts into the veld (or backcountry).

Nearly everyone we talked to remarked how this is a great time of year to be in the veld; right after the winter rains, the terrain is as colorful as it gets.

The first night we camped at a game reserve and made it in time to catch the lion and cheetah feeding.

The next day we reached and stayed at a hotel in a small surf town, Elands Bay.

Much of our route has been on a dirt railway service road away from traffic.

Camping next to us today is a South African family, and one of them works for the railway company. They invited us to join their braai and he explained that this railway is a commercial line for mine trains: carrying iron ore, copper, and zinc.

The trains are apparently the longest in the world, up to 2 km long. And he claimed that they're the only vehicles that can stop within their length; they can brake from full speed in a mere 1.5 km.

Tomorrow we're off this service road and back onto the highways. The first few days have been as pleasant as possible. I'm enjoying the easy times while they last and mentally preparing myself for tougher days ahead.

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