Blog stats: 2012 in review – Thanks for reading!

1 Jan

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 14,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 3 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

Zambia – The Great East Road Part 1

23 Oct

Village life, tasty river water, teaching at school, searching for food and shelter. The wilderness and rural life of Zambia’s Great East Road. 600km, 9 days, $55.

Part 1:

Beggar in Chipata

I’m standing on a veranda looking minted, as usual. I’m the pale male, holding a coke, smoking in sunglasses. I’m in Chipata, the biggest settlement in eastern Zambia, one of the poorest countries in Africa.

A man is hunched under a bloated sack of coal and almost walks past me before he asks. “I am asking you for 1000 Kwatcha. I am very hungry. For food. 1000… 2000 Kwatcha. If I beg, I do not have to steal.” I shake my head. “You don’t have?” He says, already turning away to look inside Restaurant Africana. He tries his luck with the staff. Holding his sack with one hand, he motions to his mouth with his fingers. He gets shot down immediately. The staff bark at him from behind the fried chicken counter. Stay away.

He leans against a pillar, slides down it into a crosslegged collapse. His sack crumpled up next to him. He stares at his feet, then at me. He asks to finish my cigarrette and I give it to him. I start unlocking my bicycle.

Dressed in black t-shirt and trousers, carrying a smartphone, a man steps out from the restaurant. The beggar points up at him. “You do not have food? No? You have food. I can see. Greedy. You are all very greedy. God will punish you and you will suffer.”

The man in black replies quickly. “Do not judge others. You must not judge others, my brother. God is not for you to use to punish others.” And he continues talking in in the local language, Nyanja, sometimes gesturing at me.

He then fetches 4 slices of bread from inside and hands them to the man on the floor, and leaves in a telecom company pick-up truck. I leave on my touring bike. This must be the 20th time I’ve been approached for money for food today in Chipata.

Getting Ready

I’m hanging around Chipata because I’m waiting for Jimbo. A 30 year old Japanese around-the-world cyclist, already 2 years, 8 months and 39,500km* into his 4 year jaunt.

He arrives a couple of days later, lugging around 60 kilos (not including the 11 litres of water he carries, sometimes 17 if the going get’s tough) of kit with disfunctional gears. Strangely, there’s a very large ball of elastic bands on his bike. I haven’t asked him about it yet.

The night before our departure for the Great East Road I meet an English crowd and hit the coffee flavoured brandy (6p per 30ml). A couple of us walked down to the local ‘Cocktail Bar’ and whupped** the locals at pool. By 4am the English are climbing into their taxi and I’m getting my head down ready for the 2 week slog.

800km of empty Zambia, dotted with small villages. That is the Great East Road. We leave late. I go and stock up on water bottles and we use the internet for the last time for a couple of weeks.

We’re ready to go. Like 2 African male lions prowling new territory. Hunting down food, water, and ultimately, of course, a hareem of fertile females escorted by a feeble alpha male.

Before we head off Jimbo warns me “OK Jack. I go very slow. You might be surprised.” He does and I was. We re-enacted the tale of the hare and the tortoise for 6 hours. It suits me fine. I had time to restock my water supplies at the well, have a Castle beer with the local boys and eat some chewy fried goat before Jimbo rolled into the trading town of Chiwoko just before dark.

Jimbo is the expert, so I asked him what he wants to do. “Let’s go to the school.” He says.

We ask around, ride down a dirt road and go knocking at the Headmistress’ home. We ask if we can set up camp in a school building, with thunder and lightning playing rather overdramatically above the hills behind us. Mrs Pele decided we should stay in a classroom and enlisted some students to move desks in the dark to clear space for us.

It’s dark as night now so we do everything by torchlight. After we set up our tents***, we wash with our water bottles, then Jimbo cooks us rice with his temperamental petrol stove while I dice garlic, onion, tomatoes and chilli left over from yesterdays dinner, and mix in a can of pilchards in chilli sauce. We both have huge portions, make some sweet tea and wash up. The classroom door and windows swing and bang in the wind of the rainstorm outside. In terms of my bike tour so far, this coming 2 weeks is going to be another story entirely.

* The circumference of the Earth is 40,400km

** I say ‘whupped’, Whenever we were definitely about to lose the barman came over, picked up the black ball and threw it down the table into a pocket and declared us the ‘champions’. Everyone apart from our opponents would cheer and shake our hands. Fair enough, I reckon.

*** My Tarptent is not designed to stand alone. It require tent pegs. I improvise by tying the 4 lines to desks and realise my new replacement tent pole is quite a bit too long. It’s not perfect, but I’m glad we’re in the classroom and out of the storm. Not sure how I’m going to get into my tent tonight, it’s surrounded by bloody desks holding it up.

A slow start

There’s a strange thing about bike touring in an exotic country. You might find yourself with a powerful urge to purchase the hats on people’s heads. It happened to Jimbo in the Congo. He bought 4. I bought my second in Zambia this evening. A tweed flatcap. The first was a green suede 1920’s detective-style hat. I gave it to Jimbo, he pulls it off a bit better.

In a small trading town I found a small restaurant that serves tea. Fabulous news, yes, but that’s not all. Not only does it serve tea, it also has sofas. Cushiony sofas! A real break from the saddle for the arse cheeks. No thin wooden bench for us. I whistle Jimbo over. He’s as amazed as me. Why is this not in the Lonely Planet, we wonder? Then it get’s better. There’s some kind of automatic back massage feature in my sofa! Very cushty… I lean back and enjoy that for a moment, then jump up and pat down the lump as it wriggles away. It’s a big old rat, sworn enemy of the retauranteur. I guess that’s why you don’t see sofas out here.

This section of the Great East Road is maddeningly straight. We ploughed through the heavy rain into the fairly big truckers town of Katete, had an early lunch and did some much needed bike maintenance. The rain didn’t stop, so we stayed here for the night, covering only 30km today.

Reading the Sunday Post in Katete, I came across this sensational news: Sex with a minor does not cure HIV or AIDS. Here’s a snippet:

The power gradient that places men above women is such that women are more vulnerable to HIV infection because unlike men, women do not in the main choose who with, how, how often, where, and or when to have sex. Jimbo and I headed out to the bars in the evening, drinking spirits and mixers and being chummy with drunk people, when we weren’t refusing to give them money for more drink.

One guy proudly dragged me to the local nightclub, which was decked out with leather cushioned doors, lazer lights and reflective walls. Pretty snazzy. But I had my eye on someone’s hat in the previous bar.

Back to School

We covered a better distance today, and found another school to stay in. At around 6pm, we bought cooked pork fat and freshly fried doughnuts (really good – I bought 6) in a small village and asked where the nearest school was.

Just nearby down the hill, we met the headmaster, who unlocked the bore hole for us to fill up our water bottles and showed us to a classroom to set up our tents for the night. At aroundabout this point I found myself offering to teach an English class early the next morning.

The Head hung around and chatted to us as we cooked our pasta. He explained that there are 5 teachers at the school, and 700 students. Grade 2 has 147 children in the classroom, and each teacher takes 2 classes. I would be teaching Grade 7, there are only 85 of them*.

Just before leaving us to get some sleep, The Head warned us to be careful to look out for spitting cobras, adding that “they get stronger when the moon is in the west.” It didn’t occur to me to go outside and check where the moon was.

At 6am the school bell rang. Or, more accurately, a man hit a car wheel with a stick outside our classroom for 5 minutes.

By 6.20am a couple of hundred kids had turned up and were busy sweeping the grounds with leafy branches for brooms. One boy empties a plastic bag of stones onto a small pile. They’re collecting the stones to rebuild the toilets, which collapsed in the rain. It’s the job of the school’s Parent’s Association to come and crush the stones with hammers, bring sand, and mould bricks.

At a word from The Head, everyone sprints into line. Probably eager to get a seat, as the classrooms are decked out for 30, not 147. The kids are aged 13-14 and are already waiting in the classroom. The teacher, Jim and I walk in. In perfect voice, all 85 kid’s shout out “How are you sah!” with military oomph.

We get started. After introductions Jim and I take a seat and leave it to the professional to begin with. When the teacher asks a question, hands strain to be picked to answer them. When the teacher makes a point they all say ‘yes’ simultaneosly. If the teacher is happy with his point he might reinforce it with an ‘eh?’ and the class say ‘yes’ again. The discipline is extraordinary.

The lack of teaching equipment, also, is extraordinary. Just a blackboard. There aren’t any teaching books, or, as the English teacher put it, ‘we have to rely on our experience’. What this means essentially is that they have to plan every lesson from scratch. Teach every language point in their own words. No wonder today’s lesson practise consists of 5 multiple choice questions.

In the staff room after the lesson we swap contact details with The Head. He’s very keen to twin his school with a well-off school somewhere and get funds for more teacher’s houses and electricity.

On the wall behind him there’s a sheet listing the number of orphans at the school. The number is 85, and ‘full’ orphans, with no parents. Next to that is a ‘how to keep your body healthy’ poster, that recommends you keep your hair ‘clean and well styled’.

I leave the school feeling like I should style my hair, and we ride on and away from the flat savannahs into hills and twisted roads.

* The biggest class I’ve taught before is around 20, and it seemed like a lot at the time.

Hitting the Hills

Stopping at the market town Sinda, I have 2 ice buns, 2 rice samosas, 2 muffins, 2 cups of sugary tea, one boiled egg and a cup of coffee for breakfast. Total price, 90p. Over the rest of the day I ate 5 bananas, 4 more egg, 4 bread rolls, 200g of pasta, a few cokes, 2 more coffees, half a tub of peanut butter, a doughnut, a tin of fish, handful of pumpkin leaves and some okra and garlic and chilli, another bread bun and coffee and 120ml of potable spirits, between 8 litres of water.

This evening we couldn’t find a bore hole for water, a school to stay in or, in fact, anything really. We kept on riding into the sunset*. Over to Jimbo again: “In this case, I go to a small village and I beg for water.” Righto.

We rode for another few kilometres and spotted a couple of huts and a boy stood next to a bag or charcoal. We greeted him and he ran away a few metres. We said ‘don’t worry! Bwanji (how are you)?’ and he ran away a few more metres. We got off our bikes and walked towards him and the huts and he legged it.

Jimbo greeted the women brilliantly. They spoke no English but understood we needed water for washing, cooking and drinking. One women said suddenly summoned up the ability to speak English and said ‘you want Head Man’ and led us along a path through high grass.

A man greeted us and we shook his wrist.
“Are you Head Man?”
“No, I’m selling this stone.” He says, holding up a fist sized rock.
“OK, maybe later.”

We found and met the Head Man, Banda. Head Man of Talandile Village. He arranged for us to have 2 or 3 gallons of water. We washed and set up our camp in the middle ground between the huts.

While we were cooking our pasta, I put BBC’s Planet Earth on my laptop for the kids of the village to watch. We watched 3 episodes before bed – Jungles, Deep Sea and Deserts. They oohed and aahed at the monkeys, giggled at the lizards catching flies and squealed at desert goats butting each other.

In the morning we thanked everyone and gave Banda my hat and some biscuits to share out between the kids.

* Note: Riding West is blinding from 3pm to 6.30pm

Jimbo’s Bad Day

The first thing we saw on the road was an overturned lorry that had taken a corner too quickly the night before.

The sun was scorching today. As I scuttled between the shade of trees along the road, Jimbo plodded along behind. His forearms and legs nearly as black as a Zambian’s, he was doing fine. The road was almost completely uphill and I’d had enough sun, so sped off ahead to a village we had heard sported a bore hole and possibly some cold soft drinks.

I kept speeding off ahead, but nothing came into view. A couple of huts in the grass and some charcoal on the road – probably the remains of previous cyclists – were the closest I could find to a cold soft drink.

We crossed the Luangwa bridge in the morning and were permitted to take an illegal photo of the bridge by the military post.

Finally, at around 3pm, a good 6 hours solid cyling in the sun, a small shop appeared. Some boys showed me to the bore hole behind the shop. I filled up and downed a litre of the water there and then. It didn’t look that yellowy brown at the time.

The shop owner and some boys boiled me up 6 eggs and a couple of litres of tea, which I ate with six bread buns. So I sat in the shade happily, and expected Jimbo to turn up within an hour. No sign.

While I had been relaxing, Jimbo had been working on several consecutive punctures. 6 in total. The first few were out in the shade-less open and at this time we were low on water. Jimbo reckons he nearly passed out before reaching a group of women who helped him with water and sold him bananas.

I cycled back a couple of kilometers to find Jimbo halfway down a hill. I gave him my spare inner tube (which also has a slow puncture problem) and we were on our way again. Jimbo a little worse for wear.

To add to his puncture problems, Jimbo’s higher (easiest) gears stopped working. Remember his middle gears weren’t working at all before we left? That leaves him with just the lower (hardest) gears.

Thunder and lightning were gaining on us, we managed to make it to a small village just in time and ducked into a school before the heavy rainfall.

A very very drunken headmaster allowed us to stay at the school, where we learned that it costs Zambians at least 1.5 million ZK / $3000 each year to study after basic (primary) education, making this utterly impossible for 99% of the population. We also were told that Zambian are the second highest consumers of alcohol worldwide. I can believe it. Every bloke gets completely trolleyed every day on potable spirits (1000 ZK / 12p per 60 ml).

I’ve been joining in. In fact, in the evenings around Jimbo’s petrol stove I’ve invented 2 new cocktails:

The leafy pumpkin
6 parts boiled pumpkin leaf water
1 part coffee granules
2 parts potable alcohol

The nut twister
1 part peanut butter
4 parts coffee
2 parts potable spirits

Just over halfway along the Great East Road now. More to follow!

Zambia – The Great East Road part 2

23 Oct

“Are you nuclear scientists?” A guy called Alex asks us while his friends inspect our bikes.
“No, why?”
“Because only nuclear scientists are mad.”

Jimbo and I are sitting outside a shop eating our morning fritters while the locals of Malambe village tease us.

“You don’t have a job? That is why you cycle. You don’t work so you cycle to burn all your energy!” Said Alex, whirring his hands round manically in a cycling motion while the fellas laugh hysterically.

The days and the kilometers roll by slowly but surely. While I climb the curving hills in high, easy gears I can hear Jimbo just behind me clicking and clattering away, before the inevitable gear-skipping crunch and accompanying Japanese expletive. I know then without having to look back that he’ll be pushing his bike up the rest of that hill.

We rely on the people by the road for information. ‘Is there a village this way that we can buy nshima for lunch?’ ‘Where do they have electricity?’ ‘Where can we buy a cold drink?’ And not to forget ‘how many kilometers?’

Extracting decent intel isn’t easy. Many people apparently have no idea where they are, or where anything else is, but will confidently give directions anyway.

A message now to rural Zambians – You lack basic pointing skills, people. When you point, point in the direction of the thing you are pointing at. Don’t point at a field and look over your shoulder at a road, or point at the road perpendicular to the direction you are trying to indicate. It’s very confusing. And when you point, don’t keep eye contact with me as you flash your arm up to your left. You’re indicating several dozen locations. Sort it out, will you? Then you might not have to personally escort lost and hungry cyclists around town all the time.

We double and triple check the extremely variable answers against what we know from Jimbo’s map, which lists only 5 or 6 towns along the 600km stretch. Jimbo then makes a timeline-style map for each day’s mission, which we use to decide our targets for lunch and which market to buy our veg from for the evening meal.

Often, we’re recommended to stop at villages that aren’t visible from the road, which means we ride past them hungrily. This happens today, and so it’s past 3pm when we finally find food for sale in a small ‘wild-west’ style town, booths and taverns facing out into a dry dirt square – tumbleweeds replaced by empty corn beer cartons. Lunch is impala and nshima, cabbage and mango for 7000 ZK / 85p. Afterwards, we find cold soft drinks in a busy bar, and Jim and I don’t pass up on that opportunity.

While I sit in the shade with my Havana coke, a thin, sharp eyed character struts over with a tall friend.
“I sell you gold. Gold from the mines. Good price, you sell in Germany* and be a rich man. 200 grams for 5 pin**. Good price.” I notice he’s wearing a golden ring.
“Real gold like this one?” I said, pointing at his ring.
“Yes. Like this one. You see? Gold.”
“That’s not real gold.”
“Yes. It’s real. Gold from the mines. 200 grams of gold dust, just 5000 Kwatcha.”
He bent the ring into a ‘U’ shape and removed it from his finger and handed it to me.
“That’s definitely not real gold, my friend. Gold doesn’t, er… bend.”
“Yes. It’s good gold. You buy.”
“It’s fake gold. Sorry. Definitely not real.” I say, looking around at the crowd of earwigging men and boys. It’s probably painted copper from the mines nearby, which provide something like 70% of Zambia’s GDP.

We’ve met one too many drunk or dodgy dealer over the last week, so for a bit of solitude we decide to try to wild camp.

We stock up with water from a bore hole at 4.30pm and ride until just before dark, looking for a quiet stretch of road we can slip off of unnoticed. There are people everywhere. We get our only opportunity at about 6.30pm, disappear down a thin path, over 2 streams and into a field dimpled with hoofprints. We can see smoke coming from 3 surrounding huts. Damn. We would surely be found. The entire local community, drunken ‘gold’ traders and all, would hear about us in no time. It’s after dark, so, frustratingly, we give up and look for somewhere to camp within the next town.

At 7.30pm, we come accross a lodge. The idea of a decent shower and watching football in a bar appeals to me, but not to Jimbo, who is more hardcore than a solid diamond statue of Lofty Wiseman giving a wheelbarrow of hardcore a fireman’s lift. We carry on and find a Jehovah’s Witness church but the pastor isn’t around.

Jimbo and I have been bickering (mildly) since we failed to find a wild camping spot, but I can tell neither of us want to risk falling out. Some solitude is still the solution. I tell him that I’ll camp at the lodge tonight while he stays on the lawn outside the church, but I ride over later to cook dinner with him, inside the church.

* Almost without exception, the Zambians that have a crack at my nationality guess that I’m German.
** 5 ‘pin’ is 5 thousand Kwatcha

Too Warm for School

We camped outside Chiteleywa Basic School the next evening. The Headmistress Mrs. Monica kindly showed us into a hot and dark classroom, but I requested that we camp outside.

“Yes. It’s cooler!”
“But there are snakes!”
“We have tents, we’ll be fine.” I reassured her, unconvincingly.
“What if they crawl under the tent?”
“Er… Jimbo has been camping in Africa for 3 years, every night. We think it’s OK.”
“OK.” She said, with a don’t-come-crying-to-me-when-you-get-bitten look on her face.

In fact, it was very cool outside. For the first time in the 3 months I’ve been in Africa I climbed into my sleeping bag.

Jimbo’s petrol stove – little trooper though it is – ran out of juice after just about heating our pot of pasta.

Similarly, I was also running low on juice. After being surrounded by the Headmistress’ pesky kids, I woke up and we packed up quickly to go and get breakfast. Thirsty as hell because we didn’t like the taste of the water around here.

What’s the matter, mineral-water boy – Afraid you might taste something?

Bore holes have been our preferred source of water. Usually pumped from deep underground by a child nominated to lead us through the bush, the water is clear (a few sand particles aside) and sometimes cool. After around half an hour, however, it tuns yellowy brown.

We both drink the stuff by the gallon, commenting on the distinctive tastes coming from each individual bore hole.

When there’s no bore hole, we drink from the well. This is less desirable as the water is open to the elements and drawn up in scummy plastic containers.

On one occasion, when there had been no bore holes or wells for several dozen kilometers, we took river water. This was in the dark so we weren’t in a position to comment on the colour. Very metallic to the taste, we thought.

We thanked Mrs. Monika and bolted down to the village and asked a shop owner to boil us some eggs and water for coffee. She gave us some drinking water while we waited. It appeared strange and different – clear, you could say. I asked her where she takes the water from.
“The well.”
We looked at her.
“I put chlorine in it.” She said, disappearing into her shop to dig out a water purification solution.
“Does everyone in the village put this in the water?”
“Ah…” We’d been drinking Chiteleywa’s water untreated last night. I’ve been carrying water purification tablets but it hadn’t occured to me to use them – a couple of half hours squatting over a hole in the mornings is nothing to write home about – but if the people in this village are purifying their water, then I probably should too. I plopped a couple of tablets into my camelbak container and tried to ignore a stomachache for the rest of the day.

The Restaurant at the End of The Great East Road

The chicken is crispy, the water ice-cold, the cabbage dish hearty and well cooked. The serving of nshima isn’t too big, and there’s peri-peri sauce on the table. The mama and sister are friendly and give us a good price straight off (6000ZK / 75p). There’s beef or beans if you don’t want chicken. The chairs are plastic and comfortable.There’s soap to wash your hands, and a hand towel to dry them. A cold coke is available.

These things have been missing over the last 10 days and 600km. At our last lunch stop before the end of the road, in Chongwe market, we found a place that has it all – Nelly’s Momba Restaurant

Luke arrives

24 Jun

I haven’t written a blog entry for over 2 weeks. The same 2 weeks my brother came out to join the ride. We’ll never know exactly what happened in those 2 weeks, but we can piece together a few vagaries and monkeyshines to get a general gist.

Vodka, energy drinks, busted lips and blackouts were recurring themes. And mid-day starts, running high and low for capital bars, fast food and Sean Paul.

Belgrade had been hyped up by travellers and Balkanites as the 24 hour party city. The best food, best nightlife, friendliest people, in all Europe. So we headed out to look for this Belgrade.

In one place late at night, we danced the 1-2-3-4 holding-hands-round-and-round Serbian folk dance with old Serbian folk and drank beers for 60p. In another, we danced the 1-2-3-4 back-and-forth salsa dance with young Serbian folk and drank beers for £2.50. We ate at the finest restaurants, had drinks in the most hidden bars and explored exhibitions and the city’s history. But the buildings of Belgrade loom over the Bohemian quarter and the city on that weekend was a lemon, too sparse and spasmodic, to live up to all the hype.

So we started off on our journey to Budapest. It would take us around 6 days to get there. But we didn’t ride from Belgrade to Budapest, we crawled.

Sarajevo to Belgrade 20 – 24 May

1 Jun

Axelle and I took seperate routes to Belgrade; Axelle took a train to the flatland in the north, I headed up into the mountains. We planned to meet 5 days later in Serbia’s capital.

I was glad to stretch my legs and head up into the hills. The heavy rains we had sheltered from in Sarajevo looked to have passed. I started off up through the valleys and tunnels, a common route for buses and trucks heading directly for Belgrade. Adi, Traveller’s Home Hostel owner, was right when he recommended this route, there is ‘amazing nature’. And the climb is long and steep.

Late in the afternoon it looked like I had reached the top. I started looking for restaurants and thinking about where to camp. I asked a woman farming on her land if I could camp there, she brought her husband and son over and as soon as they all realised I was serious about camping on their farm they invited me to stay in their spare room and brought out the rakija.

I was grateful. Still sick and with rainclouds gathering, sleeping inside would be more than a bonus. At the nearby restaurant they had finished serving food by 6pm, so I had tea and the restauranteur gave me a loaf of bread. After ‘dinner’ I rode back to the farm and sat with the family, who brought out rakija and local coffee (like very strong filter coffee without the filtering). Broken conversations, with Vladin, the son, translating what he could, were all we could manage. The more difficult it was to keep up a conversation, the more I could see they were doing me a great favour.

All night I sweated and shivered and didn’t sleep. But I knew the worst of this persistent cold was over. At 8am (2 hours after Vladin had left for school) I woke and they made me a coffee and I bid them farewell.
The second day’s ride was easier than anticipated. I had reached a table top plateau of farmland early, and even with a 2 hour period of sheltering from heavy rainfall I made 2 day’s riding distance. The final 50km was all downhill and took just 2 hours or so. Great riding and very beautiful scenery.

I had made it to Zvornik, the border town between Bosnia and Serbia. Reknowned for the ‘Zvornik massacre’, during which Serbs massacred thousands of Bosnians between 92 and 95, and during which ‘ethnic cleansing’ of over 40,000 took place. I couldn’t afford the €30 hotel price and found what I thought to be a great wild camping spot, on top of an old fortress that straddles the main road on the edge of town. Of course, this was a hangout for kids to come and smoke or whatever, and twice I was woken by groups coming up to the ramparts and shining light on my tent. The second time I decided to get out and meet the group, but as I started unzipping my tent  my hamstring cramped up, and I sprung violently through the velcro frontage which made the group scream in fright. I sat with them chatted a bit while I stretched my hamstrings.

I was woken in the morning by heavy rains. I lay in the tent kicking pools of water drooping down over me for a couple of hours. An inch thick layer of mud and grass over the stone floor of the fortress meant that pegging my tent down was an issue, which resulted in a weak erection.

When the rain had stopped I packed the tent and headed for Serbia. Flatland. Easy riding but monotonous. The kilometers flew by and I found a decent looking restaurant with a spit roasting a lamb outside and got permission to camp nearby on their land. Had some roast meat, drank some beers. Simple life. In the morning the rains returned but I sat in the restaurant and had poached eggs. My mobile phone went missing from my tent around about this point but I didn’t know it yet. I checked my emails and a contact from had replied to my request to stay at his place. He was just 8km up the road in Sabac. He said I should come to his bike shop and say hi.

I got there around 11am and Sasha met me warmly. Before I knew it I agreed to stay at his that evening and spend the day in Sabac with him, his friends and his family. I found Sasha to be a greatly generous man, thriving in his roles as the bicycle shop owner and new father, with a Ricky Gervais laugh and a happy wife and son. We spent some time cruising around on his recumbent bikes, drinking, eating huge and delicious meals, one of chicken liver and mash, the other of creamy local feta cheese, tuna and pickles, both with beer (just me), and entertaining Sasha’s 1 and a 1/2 yer old son, who is a great kid.

The next morning Sasha decided to join my ride to Belgrade with his friend Mika (previously known as ‘Fat Mika’ before he lost 40kg in 3 years, now a fit and lean 78kg at the approximate age of 65). Great news for me, because they could show me a route to Belgrade through the swampy national forest and villages and mud tracks, rather than the busy and dangerously thin main road.

We cycled a good 60km together, ate a really great lunch at a restaurant on a river – amazing fish soup. Sasha paid for mine, just as he paid for everything else, and he noticed that my bike was ‘dancing’ earlier. We looked carefully and the rear tyre had split.

As I said goodbye to Mika and Sasha, Sasha goes into a shop and buys me a beer, previously he had told me that ‘beer is my problem’. I stored the can safely on the bike in my bottle carrier. 40km to Belgrade for me and it was fairly tough going. Dark rainclouds chasing me, I stopped every 10km to pump the tyre back up, and arrived in Belgrade 20 minutes too late for a proper soaking.


30 May

We both took the train to Bosnia’s captial. A really spectacular train journey. €5 for 3 hours of steady climbing through some 50 tunnels, around dozens of lakes and across valley after valley.

Of Sarajevo, I was expecting great bars, amazing cafes and fast food, top notch hostels and to learn something about the recent siege on the city. Bosnia’s capital more than lived up to expectations. Although I wasn’t expecting 30cm of snow to dump the day before we got there.

We spent each evening bar hopping around town with the backpackers passing through our hostel – Traveller’s Home. We bugged snooty waiters at the Sarajevsko brewery, watched Chelsea win the Champions League Final in a massive crowd of Bayern Munich fans, and generally searched for and found bars with great music / wierd interiors / cheap beer / a varied selection of rakija.

Adi, the hostel owner, told us that byrek – a pastry with meat / spinach / pumpkin etc. originated from Sarajevo, and there are 2 famous places to go and buy some. Chibabce also originated here – a kind of beef sausage pitta. Another thing that could be said to have originated in Sarajevo is World War 2. Franz Ferdinand was assassinated next to the Central Hotel, and there’s a plaque and some photos there to mark the spot.

Surrounding the city, high cliffs and hills, leaning over the main streets and visible between the tall buildings and above mosques, churches and synagogs. Apart from facilitating top value ski holidays, these looming hills gave snipers and missile launchers perfect vantage points in the early 90’s. Sarajevo was a sitting duck. The War Museum displays various examples of homemade guns, legal documents proving the legitimacy of Bosnia-Herzegovina, photos of peace ralleys and brutal acts of terrorism. Everybody in the city over the age of 18 would have experienced something of being under siege, of having Serbian snipers waiting for them, of having not enough food or water. The civilians were targeted as they grouped together to buy bread. The Sarajevans dug deep, literally dug a tunnel under the UN controlled airport and fed electricity through it, and held the invaders off for 2.5 years before the UN bombed the Serbs out of town.


29 May


I woke early and had the tent and everything packed up by 7am. Only 40-odd km to Mostar and it was quite a flat ride. I had a bit of bread and a chocolate mousse. There had been no rain since I put up my tent. Good. And the weather looks clearer today. Good, good, good. Easy riding.

I got to Mostar, found Axelle, and we explored the old town, with it’s slippery cobbled streets and iconic bridge busy with groups of tourists. And we explored the new town, with it’s bullet ridden, war torn, recent ruins. Mostar was a major warzone between the Croats, Bosnians and Serbs. The Bosnians were pinned in from all sides. The iconic bridge, that once was the photochild for the whole Balkan area, was destroyed. It’s been rebuilt now, with parts salvaged from the river below. There’s a painted brick leaning on the side of a restaurant in the old town that reads ‘Never Forget’. According to the stories we’ve been told, tensions in Mostar are still very high.

A man said he would jump off the 21m high Old Bridge if the tourists put money in his hat. After plenty of preparation, he jumped, nay, he soared, like an eagle in Speedos.

Dubrovnik, and into Bosnia

28 May

The road to Dubrovnik was pretty flat and good riding until I got within 6km of the town. Then one hell of a hill visibly stretches up and away, growing exponentially at every corner. I got to the top, despite truck drivers’ continual attempts to make orange juice out of me. I ate a bar of chocolate and looked down on Dubrovnik’s famous old town. A town I couldn’t afford to sleep, eat or drink in, but a place I had to see. I rolled down into it. Curving down and following signs for ‘Stari Grad’ (old town), then you see the wall. Or the wall sees you. The massive, blocky, wierd fortress wall with a thousand lookouts and firing holes, squatting in it’s moat like a hippo squats in a paddling pool.

I cycled over the thin drawbridge wedged with tourists/photographers, one of only 3 gates with which to enter the city. After a quick shimmy through the grand old stone town I turned around and went out and into the new town to find the cheapest damn room I could find. Even camping, 10km away from Dubrovnik, is over €10 each per night.

Later, I found Axelle waiting for me in the old town outside the Troubador, a jazz bar, nursing a 25cl glass of local beer that cost her €6. We went to the little apartment (€28 p. night, not bad) about 1km away and got sorted, bought some mussels and cooked a pasta and had wine. We only ate what we cooked or bought from the minimarket. I only drank the beer or wine from the shops, never the bars, and still I managed to churn through €70 in 2 days just on food and drink.

But, incredible Dubrovnik. Giant yachts, tight alleys full of jewellery, almost invisible holes in the wall that take you out from the shade of the fortress to a bar perched on high rocks, where boys jump off. We sat down there and Axelle bought another €6 small bottle of beer, a Stella this time, so help me god. That’s all it took. I decided to jump. If I died, I would be leaving a world where a small bottle of Wife Beater costs €6. I clambered onto the rock and peered over the edge. Good. Just a little jump forwards and then a long way down safely into the deep blue. I stood up and my legs turned their back on me and I sat down again. I always get this wobbly, adrenaline rush of fear when I’m about to jump off something really high, but this was more intense than jumping off the world’s biggest bungee jump. It was because of the rocks, I’m sure. Anyway I jumped and it was fine, obviously. Huge rush though.

Now, after exploring the town a bit, we wanted to walk along the top of the ramparts. That cost 70 Kuna / €10 but we got free tickets easily, by waiting by the exits and asking tourists if we could have theirs.


A heavy thunder and lightning storm had set up camp directly over our apartment in Dubrovnik and much of the Balkans. But was time to get out of Croatia. Axelle opted for the bus to Mostar, I would meet her there in 2 days.

I rode the 105km through the rain from Dubrovnik into Bosnia , soaked and running low on fuel after a weak lunch of thin soup and a bar of chocolate, I set up my tent on the side of the road 25m from the Bosnian border next to a church. An old lady with a walking stick, a Boff on her head and a cross hung around her neck, came to visit me and blew me a kiss. Later I sat in the bar reading after another weak noodle soup and she came in and gave me a streetwise handshake and wordlessly massaged my shoulders for several minutes! I knew the Bosnian word for thanks ‘Hvala’. So I said thanks. It wasn’t a bad massage at all.

Marko’s Place, Croatia

27 May

Let me tell you a thing or two about 75 year old, pot bellied Marko. He lives in a trailer surrounded by worktools and benches and music festival style frescos and quirkiness, like old typewriters and bikes and odd instruments painted blue hanging from his trees or pinned to his yellow walls. He’s a Yugoslav, not a Croatian. And when he crosses the border from Croatia to Montenegro and the border control asks him if he has anything to declare, he says ‘this is still Yugoslavia’, or something like that, and they hug, or shed a tear, or dance the Yugoslavian Tango, I’m not sure.

At the age of 5, he told us, he was a guerilla fighter in WWII. His Aunt or someone else gave him a lettuce to carry past Nazi checkpoints to deliver to whoever. But this lettuce was no ordinary lettuce. This lettuce surrepticiously hoarded 5 grenades.

At the age of 17 he and his comrades escaped from Yugoslavia by stealing a rowing boat and rowed for 3 nights and 3 days to Italy, where they were arrested and taken to a refugee camp. At this camp Marko became a coffee sediment mystic’s agent. They read the future from the coffee sediments for the benefit of richer refugees and earnt bread crusts and salami.

After a year, when he heard he was being sent back to Yugoslavia, he jumped a train to Paris, was arrested in Paris for being covered in coal and soot and given 3 days in Paris in the care of the Red Cross before they would take him back to the Italian camp. He got jiggy with the Red Cross girl who looked after him and then Marko was handcuffed to some trains and taken back. Once back at the camp, the Italians thought that anybody who would run to Paris rather than go back to Yugoslavia is a serious refugee, and gave him political asylum and sent him to paint in Canada.

In Canada, Marko raised and sent money to Che Guevara, met Fidel Castro and, sooner or later, started his own painting business, eventually he was hiring up to 140 people and so he bought himself a yacht. But unfortunately that was sunk by 3 missiles.

At some point he returned to the Balkans to become a political aide, was taken on a submarine to see Albania’s military bases and recommended that Albania’s bunkers be dropped outside ports to make wavebreaks.

But now he lives in his trailer, swims 1km a day or so to try to shed his pot belly, and takes in cyclists and travellers with whom to eat soup and regale with incredible stories.

Herceg Novi

26 May

We skirted the lagoon on a smooth tarmac road shoulderbarged into rock faces. 55km along we came across the old fortress town of Herceg Novi, whose streets and stairways and old churches cascade down the cliffs to a pebbly beach.

After a long search, we got lucky and found a room for €15. We had beer, wine and chicken and bread in the marbled streets until late and spent the morning on the pebbly beach swimming and diving off the rocks.

In the afternoon we entered Croatia by way of a steep mountain pass. Countries are often separated by mountain ranges, a fact that Axelle appreciated fully as she walked her bike for about two hours up the steep incline. On the other side, in Croatia, we took off into the smaller rural roads to find a free place to camp, something I’d found online via – Marko’s place. 3 more hours of walking the bike uphill for Axelle… it was steep this road. Through villages, up and onto a crest overlooking the Adriatic.