Tag Archives: bike touring

Running in Egypt

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We are paralyzed at the curb wondering how to cross. We’ve stood here for five minutes watching the traffic flow. The airport is a kilometer behind, our destination 19 ahead. A biker in a hooded sweatshirt and track pants passes, merging with traffic from the right. There are no traffic lights in this city of 16 million.

Six months traveling so far and it turns out Cairo is the best. It has some grit and so many people that it can get overwhelming.

“Welcome to Egypt,” they say. Men invite us into their shop or offer assistance. 

Thank you.

We drink freshly pressed cane sugar juice and eat small liver sandwiches. I never thought I’d like liver, but if it’s only a little and it’s spiced and served with pickles it tastes nice.

We walked the ten mile stretch from the city center to the pyramids of Giza. Along the way we saw lots and lots of traffic– mostly cars and walkers and some mopeds and a few donkey carriages and a few bikes. . It’s fluid and sometimes walking upstream is the best way to get across. Everyone weaves their way through.

There’s a golf course in front of the pyramids and a bus depot across the way.

No one wears t-shirts even when it’s hot in the sun. No one wears shorts. Men and women wear robes. Many men dress western and some women do too. I turn heads in slouchy sweatpants. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me because most of the time they’re just curious.  

I put on a long sleeve shirt and a pair of shorts and go for a run. After a day in Cairo, I knew it would be a spectacle. A little boy on a dirt bike gives me a thumbs up. A teenage boy winds up and pretends to kick me like a soccer ball. A taxi driver tells me I did a very good job. A young woman hisses at me, pinching her fingers open and closed. I hear people running behind, but I don’t turn to look at them.

I love it here.

Few gates and few locks are refreshing after so much barbed wire in South Africa, but I guess you can wear shorts there.

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three months in South Africa

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Three months in South Africa are coming to an end. I have ridden big open roads through the desert. I have seen mangoes dropping from trees and the sea and red rock and blue sky and monkeys and even a giraffe. And we’ve stayed with so many people that I want to count them on my hands, to remember and honor them. I want to thank them for welcoming us into this magnificent country that breaks my heart with its kindness and generosity, with its injustice and its apathy.

There was Juliet and her family in Table View. She picked us up from the airport and made us a pasta bake. She carried a mattress and pillows into her daughters’ dollhouse in the yard so we could sleep. She told us we must start the day by dunking rusks into rooibos tea. Her family went on a three month cycling trip through Europe this past spring.

There was Johann in Prins Albert that encouraged us into the Karoo. He told us that no matter what color your skin is, we all bleed red. He’s supported the Freedom Challenge for years. This will be his year to ride.

And then Jaco pulled up in his bakkie. He said we must stay for two days so we can have a proper braii and see his orchard and clean our clothes.

There was Monsieur Joubert that quickly thawed lamb and kudu sausage and poured us cooldrink after cooldrink– first diet coke and then Tab and then coke zero.

Sydney and Gay asked us what we needed and brought us to their guesthouse and gave us a freezer pack of lamb and kudu biltong. In the morning I nursed a sick lamb with a baby bottle. They thanked us for visiting when we left.

Who else?

The Mom and Dad and daughter and son and grandmother with a French surname and sheep and cows.

And 24-year-old Vossie with 8000 lambs and a jolly smile and a George Foreman grill and a father dying of cancer. He referred us to his friend Chris in Wartrail that invited us into his guesthouse with no questions asked.

And the young dreadlocked jobless professor at the bottle shop at the border to Lesotho that spoke his hopes for the future.

Into Lesotho, Canadian-Ukrainian Ivan with his grassroots permaculture technical school and solar-powered everything. He arrived to dry dust in the ’80s and has since planted thousands of seeds in the last thirty years.

The two chiefs in Lesotho that let us camp in their yards.

The Indian couple in the shit-hole town that has seen much better days. They reheated spicy spicy curry and sugared our coffee.

And the folks with maize and cows and guns to shoot wild pigs.

Estra and Wim with their macadamia trees and picture perfect meals and koi pond.

Canadian Edie and South African Roy that met on the internet and married on a whim and have been together for the twenty years since.

The young guy in the sedan that pulled over to check on us and then brought us to his mother’s house. She stood on the dirt inside the fence eating a bowl of pap and chicken’s feet. She just smiled and laughed and laughed when she saw us.

And for Christmas– the uncle who carted us to his old village to relax with his brother’s family and then to the three surrounding bottle shops to search for the coldest beer. Everywhere we went, he told us to feel at home. Feel at home, Nico. Feel at home, Lael. Then he brought us to his home. I danced with his daughter and his great niece sat in my lap as if she were my own.

In Vaalwater, Mike and the Lehmkuhls pulled into the gas station and asked where we stayed at night. They called us to their timeshare on a game farm six kilometers away and at once told us we must stay with them in Centurion as well.

In Rooiberg, Swaney, the owner of the Koekepan, asked where we’d sleep. We asked for a patch of grass for the tent and he said he’d sort it out and then fed us a braai and gave us the keys to a fully stocked bachelor pad and came around in the morning to invite us to breakfast at the pub.

And now we’re at home with the Lehmkuhls in Centurion.

That’s an even twenty hosts and that’s just counting roofs, but they’ve shared so much more than that. They’ve shared stories of family and relationships and origins. They’ve shared ideas and criticisms and uncertainty and pride. They’ve shared who they are and how they fit into this complicated place.

After so many talks over dinner, I have a very full plate.

And I mustn’t do the dishes because a lady will come in the morning. Of the twenty families we’ve stayed with, well over half have house servants. These ladies feel like secret elves that cook and clean when no one is watching. Sometimes I’ll bump into them in the morning in the kitchen. We say hello and smile at each other.

It’s wonderful and it’s hard. At once, I feel honored and all mixed up. 

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To the Karoo!

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The winding road to Montagu passes by rock and water and long grass and birds. The town is colonial and quaint.

Our last stop before the Karoo, we stock up big. We don’t expect any services or pavement for three days. Three pounds of golden delicious apples, 2 large rounds of potbrood, a dozen school buns, a brick of mature cheddar, a brick of ladismither, an english cucumber, a pound of cherry tomatoes, a pack of viennas, coconut biscuits and eetsumore shortbreads, Kloof coffee and chicory, festive fruitcake chocolate, 4 avocados, safari peanuts and peri-peri sauce.

We’ve strapped 4 water bottles to our forks and fill them at the cafe on the way out of town. The owner Keith introduces himself as Mr. Mountain Bike. He eyes our bikes and offers to cart our gear up the pass. Nick is too proud, so I am too. He directs us to the road and promises to take his wife on an evening drive to check up on us. We thank him and head uphill.

I still have no idea what or where the Karoo is. I’ve heard from some that there’s nothing but ostrich farms and brush. Others speak of mountains, antelopes of all sizes and horn configurations, baboons, and the one time they saw a leopard. And then they say it’s hot. Everyone says it’s hot there.

Near the top of Ouberg Pass, Keith and his wife catch up with us. We talk a minute, they wish us well and we roll down as the sun sets. 

We sleep out and wake early to ride smooth wide dirt roads to jeep tracks in the Anysberg Nature Reserve. The sign at the unlocked gate welcomes cyclists and swimmers and smiley faces and indicates an office down the way. The previous days saw rain and we see nine stocky antelopes drinking from a fresh spring. They flee as we approach, but watch us from a hillside, their eighteen thick straight horns toward us. 

We continue to the nature reserve office, nearly the only building we’ve seen since Montagu.  There is a new kitchen and a swimming pool made out of a water tank. It’s time for shade and a little running and lunch. We pedal through the hot afternoon on sandy rocky jeep tracks and lift our bikes over a couple of fences that lead us out of the reserve to a white house and a windmill. I spy an older woman behind a fence and call after her, raising a water bottle. She responds in Afrikaans. I try again in English. She waves her arms at the windmill. A metal pipe pumps groundwater into a large tank under the mill. We fill nine liters and roll down a smooth county road to camp.

The next morning promises to be a cooker and we’re looking forward to hiking down The Ladder to The Hell.

For now, we’re following the Freedom Trail, a 2350 km dirt route across South Africa. Most people race the Challenge in the opposite direction in June. We’ve read a couple trip reports, but it’s hard to tell what’s what when up is down. The trail promises to be full of legends and adventure.

In the morning we smell the green onions and chives of Rouxpos before we see the fields. Distant laborers raise their arms and cheer us on. Vleiland has a town hall with a library.  There is a store. We drink cold Stoney ginger beer on the stoop out front.

The dirt road leads us to a private reserve and a gate identifying a 4×4 trail called to “The Hell and Back”. Nick calls the listed number. The man allows us to pass, but warns that the landowners down below “can get angry.” We chunk our way to the ladder. The Ladder is nearly a 2000 foot drop to The Hell. The trail used to be a donkey route to deliver supplies to the Afrikaans community below. They settled in the valley in the mid 1800s and remained nearly isolated until the road was built in 1962. I gingerly lower my bike down steep loose rocks. Actually, the bike suffers minor abuse.  The trail is extremely steep and loose and rocky.

Below, we cross a stream towards a couple of estates. A lady stands in our path. I wave and she crooks her finger at me, reeling me in. From farther than conversation distance, she recites:

“Who are you? Where did you come from? Who told you that you could come down here?”

I continue towards her. She repeats:

“Who are you? And where did you come from?”

I respond: “I’m Lael and I’m from Alaska.”

Perplexed by our bikes, she softens, asking about our ride and telling us we’re lucky we didn’t encounter the Mr. McGregor up above. He never would’ve let us come down. She asks where we’ll sleep and says she has a camp up and over the hill. We must hurry as we have to make a fire to heat the bath water. She assures us we’ll encounter Donald in a beat bakkie along the road and tells us the code to the electrified gate. As we pedal past she calls that we’ve a climb that’ll break our backs ahead of us. There’s a special word for it in Afrikaans.

Up and over we cross paths with a sunburnt bobblehead in a Datsun. It’s Donald. He says we must camp at his place.

“How much?”

He mumbles something about 200 Rand and interrupts himself to say that he must ask his sister and the camp is signed. We thank him and continue.

We pass a wooden pennant marked  “camp”. We still have an hour of daylight, so we continue down the valley. Soon we see another pennant for “Donald’s house”. The valley only really becomes Alice in Wonderland when we reach the electric fence. The code we were given opens a lock box that holds a key that unlocks the gate, which gives a gentle electric buzz through the handle. Mountains tower the quiet valley. It’s floral and sandy and smells good.

After hours, a sign at the visitor center tells us to inquire at the house around back.  She asks if we’ve just ridden into the valley, and are leaving tomorrow.  There is only one rideable route into the valley, which will be our exit. We agree, so as to avoid describing the semi-confrontation with the woman at the end of the valley. The kind lady there encourages us to camp at Donald’s and offers us the electric fence code. We smile and nod and keep going the other way to find an empty group camp down the road. I jump rope to the sunset and we eat the last of our hotdogs and cookies.

We get up at first light to climb steep switchbacks before the sun bakes The Hell. It’s worth it. We’re 2000 feet up and out in the cool air before seven. The road continues for the next 40K as a series of ascending hills, up and down. The brush and the mountains are beautiful, the climbs more challenging as the sun heats up. The recent rains flow though cool streams and we stop to submerge ourselves three times. 

At the top of Swartberg Pass is a descent all the way to Prince Albert, over 3000ft below. Baking hot with blazing arms from three days of sun I shoot straight down the mountain. Pink and orange and red rock tower along the sides of the steep gravel road, like the Mund’s track into Sedona. Flying down, I think about how I’d like to climb this canyon, to spend more time moving through it, to slow it down. For now, I have to get out of the sun. I’m pretty sure even my eyeballs are sunburnt.

Prince Albert is straight out of a Larry McMurtry novel. Wind whistles through flowering trees outside white-washed houses lining Main Street, except everyone drives on the wrong side of the road.   

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hello albania!

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Everywhere we go, we hear little voices and they call out hello! Sometimes we don’t see them at first and then we look, up hillsides and down valleys and sure enough, there’s a small small person or maybe two, smiling and waving.

Where are you from? How are you? What is your name?


In Albania everyone wants to talk. Sometimes their English is just hello hello! Sometimes they sound nearly American. They all want to be friends.

Albania good?

Yes! Albania is beautiful!

Their faces light up. Their hearts are for Albania, their home, and they invite us in.

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Bird hands replicate the Albanian flag.

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Most kids over four feet ask to ride our bikes.

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This guy was too little to climb on the bike, so he spun the pedals with his hands instead.

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bikes on a train.

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We went third class on a twenty-four hour sleeper train from Lviv to Simferopol. It cost 175 hryvnia (20 bucks) to travel over a thousand kilometers.

The stewardesses are mother hens. At first they sassed and scolded us about the bikes, making us wipe them down before bringing them on the train. Later they came around with fresh linen and hot tea. In the morning they woke us up, so we didn’t miss our stop. I fell back asleep and ten minutes later the stewardess came back hollering. Once out of bed and in a daze, she gave me a mug of tea. It reminded me of being late for school.

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Polonina flipbook, starring Mr. Polish

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We ride the mountains of western ukraine. All the red shrubs are low bush blueberries sporting their fall colors– huge and sweet. The man in red is Przemek. Over the weeks we’ve traveled with him, he’s developed a character called Mr. Polish. It started because the locals couldn’t remember his name and referred to him as pan polska (polish man). Przemek is excellent at english and speaks nearly accent-free. He’s easy-going, bright and kind– a great guy to travel with. Mr. Polish speaks with a thick polish accent and a cunning wit. He’s arrogant and hilarious and we all enjoy him a whole lot. 

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laughing through tears.

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I feel like we’re constantly talking in comparisons and relationships because we cross borders all the time. Languages change and people change, but everything physically touches, so it all relates. How is it the same? How is it different? What does it taste like? How do you feel when people look at you, when they talk to you? Questions lead to speculation. This life is stimulating. When I have little routine and few obligations, my senses are heightened. Other people’s rhythms wake me from my daydreams. We share smiles and space. I’m grateful.

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After three weeks in corsica, I’m back on the gr5 in belgium. Bread is good, beer is great and the winding trail is magnificent.  

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