Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Todenyang to Lodwar: Out of the Bush and into the Hotel

The Abu Walad Sandwich biscuits we had were labeled “Better Taste!” by the way. We continued towards what appeared to be a city, hitting some mud that we had to walk through, almost locking my front wheel again. Tire clearance – it's a thing. We fantasized about omelets, apparently a thing in Kenya. Omelettes with ham and cheese and honey... yes, surely they'd have them in this small town near the border.

It wasn't a town – it was the mission. And they had guns. And they were grumpy. They gave us water and sent us on our way – then asked us back and gave us four packs of cookies for 20 Bur, about twice what we paid in Ethiopia. To be fair, it wasn't their currency (the Kenyan Shilling), and it was probably expensive to get food that far away from civilization. The guns and high prices and curtness (except for the only woman in camp who wore a sheet... what was it with women in sheets near the border, we wondered?) didn't seem very Catholic. Whatever the case, they were Cappucino flavored, a welcome change from Abu Walad.

We continued on the road, now lacking in mud, replaced with the occasional crossing of a dry, sandy riverbed. I walked most of these, Jacob just powered through. Biking on the doubletrack is a game – you try and find the least sandy part, but it's often the most washboardy. I can bike faster on washboard than Jacob can bike in sand, but to each their own. Sometimes you bike over the plants on the side of the road, offering more traction than the deep sand. Often, you walk. Often. So often. We were grateful it was the dry season – the wet season, no doubt, would be mostly mud, and the river crossings would not only be actual rivers but would probably have crocodiles. They lived, apparently, in the very nearby Lake Turkana, and a one mile venture upstream to munch on white man didn't seem to too far-fetched.

Biking through sand and dirt and mud is an experience. When I first read the article “Bikepacking through Africa,” which recommended 29” diameter, fat tires, I though... that's great for 10% of Africa, but what about when you're on roads? I came to believe that just for that 10%, it would have been worth it. It's difficult to describe the way the sand eats your front tire, stopping you dead or forcing you to turn into more sand, eating your morale, too. You have to fight your instincts to turn towards where the bike is falling, because there's a narrow track your tire will get traction on, and the rest will make you fall (I fell at least three times). You have to balance by shifting your weight, not by steering.

And you have to pedal.

Indeed, you have two choices in the bush: forwards or backwards. No matter how hard the going gets, you can't just stay there – you'll die of thirst. Combined with the dirt roads of the climb to 3000m a week ago, these were the worst roads of the tour. You are constantly searching for a good track; often, when you find it, it lasts no more than 10 meters. Often there isn't a good track – you just pedal and pray your rump can deal with the pain. Drenched in sweat (of that day and the day previous) shoes full of sand, low on water, your only sustenance Abu Walad sandwich biscuits, you have no choice but to carry on.

Averaging 5.5 mph, we finally made it to Lowareng'ak, the first town from the border. Nobody wanted our Ethiopian bur, and people wanted our USD but there was nowhere to exchange it. Finally, we happened across a police patrol, and after some literal back-and-fourth about where to go, we landed at a restaurant in the middle of town to negotiate lunch. I keep a few 20s in case of emergency and had a 10 from paying $50 for my Ethiopian visa – we would trade the 10 for a kilo of rice, half a kilo of beef, and 12 chipati, oily bread things very reminiscent of Indian na'an. Lunch and dinner, we hoped... and still 85 miles to pavement and the first “major” town where we hoped they would change currency, or at least have an ATM... and maybe wifi... and maybe a hotel. It had been 10 days since our last break day, and with the now-lack-of-roads, we were feeling it.

I took out my 10 and inadvertently smelled it. US currency does have a smell, I realized. A smell people wanted. I handed it to the cop, who admired it, then handed it to the chef, who admired it. This was some relic for them – the first time they'd held US currency, probably, and maybe the last. We were lucky to be from the US – lucky we could so easily carry “spare 20s,” so valuable and highly regarded almost everywhere in the world. I hadn't expected to need them – I certainly hadn't hoped to need them – but I was glad, now, that I had them. I made a note to get more in Nairobi, if possible.

We would later realize we'd gotten ripped off, especially for the chipati, but at the time, we didn't care. We blogged while waiting for the food, and ate, and refilled our water, and went on our way. The road was gravelly for some time, and I saw 8s and 9s on my speedometer: ten minutes of hope that Lodwar was only two days away, not three, before plunging into sand and nearly falling over for the tenth time. Back to 5s and 6s.

The rest of the day was the Africa I expected when I said I'd bike across Africa. The roads were as I described – not really roads – the locals were only partly interested in us for our money (compared to Ethiopia), it was sunny and hot, and there was a headwind. At one point we passed what we could only conclude to be the tracks of a hippopotamus. That's probably wrong, but we couldn't think of anything else that would make such big tracks, so far apart, with no hooves. Butt sheep and fart goats occasionally kept us company. A car stopped and asked us about our trip – Maxwell, sympathetic to our situation (no local currency), gave us water and 100 KSH each, “for a Coke.” Definitely not Ethiopia. We thanked him, and he thanked us – he was driving a truck purchased by a US aid organization.

As the sun was setting my front tire slowly went flat. We pulled over to fix it, and I also booted the tire – I had noticed a bulge in the sidewall on previous day; thanks, Schwalbe. Up and ready to go, and then my back tire flatted – I must have put it on some thorns to fix the front one. The sun low in the sky, we gave up for the day, and carried our bikes as far from the road as we could get. Jacob set his down on some thorns and flatted. Some locals watched us, but I went over to talk to them, and they dissipated. Nobody asked me for money. Definitely not Ethiopia.

I fell asleep watching the silhouettes of camels travel down the road.

The next day was much the same: sand, dirt, and a headwind... and Abu Walad for breakfast (now better tasting!). We got water from a borehole in the river, and made it to a minor town where a restaurant owner would trade currency with us. Food! Glorious, glorious food. We even got a bill, clearly an indication of civilized life. The road out of town was “paved,” meaning it had been paved 5 years ago or so, but had since... decayed. The headwind continued. We made camp 26 miles from Lodwar... just one day before a hotel, a shower, and wifi.

My armpits burned: I suspected an infection from four days of sweat. My clothes were white from the salt of my sweat. I had saddle sores, which happens when the salt from your sweat gets in your chamis (cycling pants), rubs off the skin from your rump, and then rubs into the raw skin. We had two liters of water each for dinner and a 26-mile ride. For breakfast the next morning, we split my last pack of Abu Walad sandwich cookies and the drippings of Jacob's empty peanut butter can. Oh, and the Abu Walad sandwich cookies? They weren't better tasting.

Jk they totally were. *cries*

You can guess how the next morning went. “Road.” Headwind. “Mostly downhill,” which I'm convinced is Jacob's way of being sadistic. A water bottle cage broke off of my bike, unsurprising given road conditions of the past few days. We did manage to find a borehole in a riverbed, so we didn't get too dehydrated. But spirits were low.

Finally, after three days of “road,” ten days since the last thing you could call a “grocery store,” out of money and water and food and caked in salt from days of our own sweat, we made it to Lodwar. We found a hotel with wifi (WORKING WIFI!!!), and I sighed the happiest, longest sigh as I stepped into the shower, so much so I wondered if people outside would think we were gay and kick us out (I was in the shower alone. Just me and the shower. Enjoying each other). One knob – the perfect temperature.

Time for a break day.

And for breakfast tomorrow?

Something besides goddamn sandwich biscuits.


  1. I really want to try some of those Abu Walad sandwich biscuits now

    1. I have some good news for you then! They're now better tasting!

  2. Fascinated by the suggestion of crocodiles and hippos, but glad you didn't run into them. I wonder how long one can survive on Abu Walad Sandwich Biscuits???

    Love you, Mom