Thursday, October 13, 2011

African Finale

 "We're not bad people."

A cold chill runs down my spine.

"We are professionals.  This is our JOB."

Sasha and I are in trouble.

"Give us everything.  If you don't we'll kill you."

Of course.  It all makes sense now.  How could we have missed the obvious signs?  Our new friend William was so chirpy, so charming, so... charismatic.  It had to be a scam.  All that bullshit about his art studies and his mother.  The way he was so keen to help us out.  How the 'shared taxi' heading to the Dar es Salaam airport in Tanzania, where we were to pick up our friend Pip, just happened to drive past so conveniently at that very moment.  The sinister-looking guy jumping in next to us in the back seat soon afterwards.  And for only 5000 shillings?  How could we have fallen for that!?  Sasha had seemed a bit nervous about it all, but I just blithely went along with these dudes, even when they turned off the main roads and went along dodgy unsealed paths through the poor suburbs.  I'd even felt proud that I was getting over my incipient cynicism of the locals.  And now look at where we are - getting mugged while locked in a car with three vicious men.  What a joke.

"Do you not understand me!?  Give me your fucking bag!!"

Reluctantly we hand over our gear.  They demand our wallets.  I try to take out just the money, but they want everything.  The gaunt, angry guy next to me, who up to that point I'd thought was just a random blow-in, meticulously goes through my bag picking out all the valuables and leaving the rest.  My camera, my ipod and, after some deliberation, my ereader - the one that had chased me from backpackers' to backpackers' around India and Iran - are deemed valuable enough to keep, while my GoreTex jacket and ancient-looking GPS are left alone.  Sasha and I plea for the ereader by telling them it can only display Australian newspapers but they're unconvinced.  Luckily our passports were left at the hotel.  Back in good-cop mode, William, sitting in the front passenger seat, takes out the SD card from my camera and gives it back to me.

"Memories are important," he tells me calmly.

But this doesn't last long.  He's taken the three bank cards from our wallets and waves them in front of our faces.  Shit, I think.  So this is where we're headed.

"Write down your PINs.  I'm going to take 100,000 from this one, 100,000 from this one and 100,000 from this one."  Neither of us believe that - that would be less than $200 in total - of course he's going to clear the accounts.  Each one is stocked with well over a thousand dollars.

"That one's not an ATM card," Sasha interjects.  "It's a credit card - it can only be used at restaurants and things."  Thanks, Sasha: the card she's pointing to is actually my loaded debit card.

"Okay, just these two then.  You'd better not be fucking lying to me or I swear I will kill you."

"I'm not lying - why would I lie about that? I just want to get out of here."  Sasha's good at this.

"You!  Where's your card?"  William has noticed that only Sasha has written down PINs on the tissue he found in her bag.  I think fast.

"We're married.  We have a joint account and she carries the card."  Phew.  Just saved myself $1300.

We're driven into a bank car-park.  William gets out and operates the ATM.  I mouth 'help' to the security guard standing next to him.  He looks at me, then away.  'This is not my problem,' the gesture conveys.

William is back and is furious.

"You've tricked me!"  He yells.  "This is the wrong PIN.  Give me the right PIN now or I will stab you with my knife."  He doesn't produce his knife and we doubt he has one.  Still, he could really mess us up - we're completely in his power.

But Sasha is adamant.  She's forgotten her PIN.  She gives them four possibilities and they try them at another bank.  This time it's our friend sitting next to me who goes to the ATM.  While he's out, William politely asks us about our trip.

"Which country are you going to next?"

"Malawi," I answer as monosyllabically as possible.  I cannot contain how extremely pissed off I am.  Our bald, bulbous driver eye-balls us through the rear vision mirror with a look of penetrating contempt.

Our silent friend is back, his pockets bulging with cash.

"When does your friend's flight arrive?  We'll drive you to the airport,"  William offers politely.

"Look.  Don't drive us to the airport.  Just let us out."  He sees the logic in this and, before directing his driver to a side street, hands us 40,000 shillings to pay for a taxi - about $30 of the thousands he's taken from us.  Helpfully, he gives us directions and tells us how to save money by sharing a tuk-tuk.

"But don't get into a dodgy one or you'll get robbed again," He warns.

We're told to get out, walk to the main road and not look back.

After getting over our shock and relief that it's now over, Sasha and I decide not to go back to our hotel, but to continue on our quest to get to the airport to meet Pip - this time we take the bus.

At this stage we were still pretty shaken up, but I think the adrenaline was keeping us going.  When we met Pip at the airport it was hard to give her the welcome she deserved for coming all this way to see us.  Very nervously we took a taxi back into town to spend the afternoon waiting in queues and filling out forms at the Dar es Salaam police station.  We could tell the policemen in charge of doing something were inwardly laughing at our naive belief that something would be done.

In the end it didn't turn out so badly.  Sasha only got one of her accounts emptied and even managed to get it completely refunded by the bank.  Together we lost over $500 worth of cash, but at least the muggers gave back Sasha's ancient phone and all my memory cards; and gave me an undying feeling of pure detestation at these characters' livelihoods.

The police were no help.  Standing around filling out forms and waiting for paperwork for about six hours, being laughed at for not being able to write down our religion ('No religion' is not an acceptable answer in this part of the world), all the while Pip hanging around in the reception for support.  In the end we gave up (my insurance wouldn't cover it anyway), submitted our heathen reports and left for Zanzibar.

Changing locations changed our demeanors.  A few hours on the fast ferry and we were transported to the mysterious other half (literally) of TanZania.  Our arrival was greeted by historic waterfront buildings, acrobatic beach boys bouncing on the sand and narrow alleys twisting around crumbling colonial facades; the hot sea air blowing through this labyrinth and washing away our feelings of crushed personal violation.

Or that could have been Steve.  Our good friend Steve, previously famous in the metaphoric pages of this blog for accompanying me on the Spitti Valley cycle tour in Northern India, had flown into Zanzibar directly bringing with him a healthy sense of perspective about the whole affair.  Sure we'd lost some stuff, but it wasn't as if the universe was about to not have ever existed.  Also, we should stop beating ourselves up about the stupidity of the ordeal - our mistake was to be too trusting, which isn't really such a bad thing to be in general.  This comforting advice was absorbed along with a few beers on the bar balcony perched above the beach in the glow of a spectacular sunset whose splendour was debated for the rest of the evening.

A few days spent in Stonetown, interrupted briefly by an intriguing spice tour (they grow spices here), and the four of us were off to the beach.  We took a public minibus but never completely shook ourselves of the fear that we'd be driven into the bush while the other occupants transformed themselves into cash-hungry Somali pirates.  We were landed at Matemwe on the other side of the island, a large, empty, Rastafarian beach resort greeting our arrival with cheap rates and an enormous poster of Bob Marley presiding over the bar like the Virgin Mary.  Other than beering it up on the foreshore, playing 500 and being apologised to by the tripped-out manager for requiring recompense for his generous hospitality, we achieved nothing over our three days here.  One exception was an awesome day's snorkeling around an off-shore island in which we marvelled at the copious colourfully clad sea life through water so pristine I got vertigo from mistaking the wet plenum separating me from the sea-bottom for empty space.  Another exception was a late-night skinny-dipping game of Marco Polo - inaugurating both Sasha and Pip into the liberating past-time.

After unraveling our trip out back to the Tanzanian mainland, and annoyingly, Dar es Salaam once again (whose main excitement this time came from Sasha locking herself in her own hotel bathroom for an hour), the next excursion was a three day hike through Udzungwa National Park.  For this we commissioned the mandatory services of a guide and ranger, the latter proudly brandishing a machine gun that looked more at home in a ruthless civil war than a pristine environment famed for its biodiversity.  Examples of such biological exuberance were a couple of chameleons changing colour at cartoonish alacrity, enormous elephant prints through the jungle that belied the impassable undergrowth and an Oxford entomologist sporting an impeccable Etonian accent with incongruous Asian ancestry.  On our return from Udzungwa peak (gazetted 500m taller than its reality) we bathed at the bottom of a 75 metre high waterfall and drank in the vertiginous views from the top.

The bus ride back to Dar es Salaam, a city now beginning to taint our sanity like the inescapable odour of an office coworker, to meet Sasha's childhood friend from France, Marine, was notable for being both a form of cheap speed-safari with elephants, zebras, gazelles and warthogs whizzing past within gawking distance, as well as an horrendous road carnage extravaganza of burning buses and overturned trucks littering the highway (I'm not sure if those phenomena were related in any way).  Marine turned out to be an extremely amiable young French-woman and, after a quick tour of the uninspiring city, she accompanied the four of us to Mbudya Island north of town.

This island sucked.  It rained the whole time, the drenched beach where we went snorkeling bobbed with rubbish and buzzed with stinging jellyfish - even the otherwise deserted 'beach resort' where we stayed on the mainland had to be staked out by five lurking security guards 'for our safety'.  On the other hand, we managed to salvage a good moment observing a gigantic tree-crab, suspiciously reminiscent of our own nation's notorious drop-bears.

Taxiing it back to Dar es Salaam yet again so as to wave goodbye to Pip and wish her well for her new Swiss life, and after yet another interminable bus ride, we were back in Arusha from the previous blog and meeting yet more of our excellent friends: Rob and Clarissa and their hangers-on Rachael and Krishna from the UK.  This meeting presaged a morning of scrounging around desperately for cash before embarking on one of those classic tourist activities of Africa that everyone assumes the entire continent revolves around: a safari.  Three days in the Serengeti, one in the Ngorongoro Crater.

As cynical I was about this mandatory expedition to watch large animals tear each other apart from the comfortable cocoon of human technology, I must admit to being quite impressed by what nature had to offer.  Conversely, my respect for the patience and serendipity of documentary photographers dramatically diminished - these animals were, like, right on the side of the track!  Elephants herds protecting their young, giraffes letting us walk alongside their spindly legs, hyenas slinking through the grass with bits of zebra hanging off their faces, enormous gnu migrations spanning opposite horizons, British backpackers freaking out about potentially unfixable flat tyres at nightfall, lions basking in the sun, or in trees, cheetahs with cubs continuously scanning the horizon and hippos just not giving a crap about anything.  We had it all.  I loved the way all eight of us mutually decided we were too stingy to stay in lodges and so were directed to open campsites.  These had zero protection against all the lions and leopards we'd seen during the day but our guides calmed us by saying, "You'll be fine if you don't get out of your tent at night.  At all."  Righteo...

Our guides, almost certainly with the prospect of large tips inscribing dollar-signs on their foveae, took out all the stops to please our lust for megafauna action.  One driver even drove over the tail of a lioness to get the best reaction out of her and the accompanying lolz.  For our part, we spent the time debating the relative educational merits of our guides who managed to provide the passengers of the two vehicles with exactly contradictory information on the animals we were viewing.

Our safari nearing an end - via a spectacular drive and camp at an enormous volcanic caldera that seemed to have trapped in a bunch of animals soon after it cooled down - we were driven back in Arusha, having said our goodbyes to Sasha and Marine as they flew off to a fancy Zanzibar retreat, and Steve, who was to make an abortive attempt on nearby Mount Meru.  The rest of us chilled our heels at a natural history museum and bar where we were to accidentally re-meet our Canadian/Barbidian friend Chris of Kilimanjaro fame.  All was right with the world.

But at last, it was time to part ways.  Splitting up back in Dar after briefly looking for William to punch his face in, we went our separate ways.  Sasha had arrived back and together we took an old rattly train to Malawi, the royal wedding transfixing the station crowds.  As expected, I greatly enjoyed this train ride - trains are so much better than buses.  Although, after ingesting an anti-malarial Doxy on an empty stomach I found myself throwing up in the toilet.  From the train we watched the sun set over the Tanzanian highlands as we punched our way back through Udzungwa and shared our tales with a couple of Europeans also on their way to Malawi.

With these new companions we crossed the border after it had closed by pleading with the immigration staff - but sadly found our entry into Malawi forbidden until morning due to this side being on a different timezone.  Staying illegally in a hotel deep inside Malawi for the night, we 'properly' crossed the border in the morning and then had to tackle the issue of money: the official exchange rate was shocking.  The solution?  We set up a, err... black market exchange at a very competitive rate right outside the Forex bureau - after a few minutes we had crowds of African itinerants clamouring for our business.

That day we made our way down to the eponymous lake of Malawi.  While awaiting the slow Ilala Ferry on the banks of the town of Karonga we sat under a gnarly tree sprawling onto the sandy bank of the lake and over the clear blue water.  After a few hours waiting for the ferry we saw a woman start a small beach fire and cook some fish with ugali (the omnipresent starch they eat here).  When she'd finished she offered it to us, taking little for herself.  We tried to pay her and even just help with the washing up but she refused both.  Sasha and I were shocked at this vastly different attitude towards foreigners here compared to Tanzania, where an undercurrent of resentment and entitlement seemed to be pervade every interaction.

Travelling with others can often be like living in a backpacker bubble.  It's much easier to feel submerged in the local culture when you only have locals to talk to.  That said, Sasha and I did manage to osmoticaly absorb some African zeitgeist.  Naturally, a lot of this came through being forced to watch movies and listen to music on interminably long bus rides.  The movies were made cheaply and locally and focused on hot-button social issues such as polygamy and witchcraft.  The music, I found, was divided into three distinct categories: droning gospel music (except live in churches, where it was cheerful and upbeat); American hip-hop wannabes, like our favourite, 'Mr. Chocolate', and actual African music that seemed to celebrate the local ideal of communal kinship.  The ferry we took for the next five days played a CD of this latter stuff on repeat, and I couldn't get enough of it.

It was well after dark when this ferry whisked us away for its long meander down the lake.  We pitched Sasha's tent on the deck to protect us from the ravages of storms and sunny weather.  During the day we set up deck chairs and consumed a few books while watching the steep jungled hillsides slide past like a non-repeating rotisserie of green delicacies.

Once we'd docked at Nakarta Bay, however, the Ilala broke down.  Typical for Africa, the spare part was driven up from the bottom of the country, found to be the wrong shape, driven to the top of the country to be bashed into shape, and eventually installed after two-and-a-half days.  We spent this idyllic time meeting new backpackers embarking from the small town, jumping off the side of the massive ferry into the pristine piscine waters, and sneaking on shore to watch a local soccer game and procure cheap beer.

I'd just lost a game of shithead - that ubiquitous backpacking card game - and was employing the services of a bamboo branch to pole dance in the main street in celebration of my humiliating defeat when the Ilala horn sounded.  Instantly the entire town emptied and raced to the dock for boarding and witnessing the departure of that fixture of the landscape.  Some backpackers had to come from a neighbouring town over a kilometre away and barely escaped in time.

Two days later, after emerging from idyllic Mozambican waters, Sasha was pulling the horn cord for the ferry's disembarkation at Monkey Bay.  Here, at the southern-most end of Lake Malawi, we stayed at a supremely backpackerish hostel before booze-cruising it up to Cape Maclear over a sunny, beery afternoon jumping from the roof of the barbeque equipped boat.  The following few days at Cape Maclear mainly revolved around snorkling and kayaking through the cychlid-stocked waters.  Sasha and I turned out to be particularly unco at paddling it around the off-shore island, even before we discovered it was infested with crocodiles.  As it happened, we managed to escape unharmed except for a little light toe-nibbling from some surrounding tickly cychlids.

At last, it was time for us to head to Zambia.  En route was Lilongwe, Malawi's capital, where we found ourselves the only guests at a surreal 'Shining'-like hotel near the bus station.  The hotel manager seems to have only bought one satellite TV subscription so our TV watching withdrawal was at the behest of the whims of the reception's set.  At one point during the night a frightened hotel lacky knocked on the door demanding I see the man in charge.  Afraid he was going to extort more money or kick us out onto the street, I soon realised the corpulent rambling manager dressed in a dressing gown was demanding only to see some Australian television.  I pointed him to MasterChef.

In the morning we launched ourselves towards the Zambian border in the well-oiled transportation concatenation only African road networks can offer, immediately arriving at the Zambian capital Lusaka (marking the first time I'd ever been in two nation's capitals on the same day).  At the end of a long trip there's no time for mucking about.  A short night in Lusaka, one of the most modern and western looking cities we'd seen in Africa, and we were off to Livingstone for my trip's final tourism destination - Victoria Falls.

Staying at a vibrant hostel ten kilometres from the descending water, Sasha and I made the most of the enhanced westernisation of Zambia, buying up stocks of icecream and normal-looking vegetables from a supermarket that would look entirely at home in any Australian city.  We spent much of our time here steeling ourselves for the trip's finale: bungee jumping off the bridge over the Zambezi River next to the falls.

I really had no idea what to expect from leaping off a 111m high bridge.  I guess I didn't really take it seriously until my feet had left the platform (although it helped that Sasha went first - her long, high-pitched squeal dwindled off into the distance like a Saturday morning cartoon character).  When it came to my turn I was strapped in at my feet, counted down, and practically pushed over the edge - once I was horizontal and facing the tumultuous river far below me, experiencing the longest period of zero-G in my life, it hit me.  For a few good seconds there was no way to convince myself that I was not about to die.  It's almost embarrassing that of all my various adventures through crazy countries over the previous nineteen months - the wild roads of India, the icy deserts of Iran, an abduction by a repressive regime and a mugging in a desperate continent - it was a tourist gimmick that made me feel the highest degree of terror.  Still, it didn't stop either Sasha or me from jumping off a second time, although feet first and lashed together.

Running out the remaining couple of days in Zambia we mucked about at the top of the falls (largely invisible through the mist); tried to sneak into Zimbabwe (but they were too crafty for us); and walked away with a ten trillion Zimbabwean dollar note, one of only two souvenirs I took away from my trip.  Over the next couple of days Sasha and I both made for the exit.  Sasha to continue her trip for another two months with her family on the west coast, and on her own in South Africa, and I to take the bus back to Lusaka, for a final taxi to the airport the next day.

Getting on the plane at Lusaka was quite a strange feeling.  The three air-legs from there back to Dar es Salaam again (where I had to physically restrain myself from getting a one day visa to punch William in the face), back to Qatar airport (where I was forced to spray myself with my entire supply of deodorant to get it on the flight without wasting it), and finally back to Melbourne after a night watching the Tron movies - they all passed in a blur of fluorescent terminals and desiccated aircraft cabins.  But at last I was on home soil for the first time in over a year and a half.  My parents and brother met me at the airport and were instantly delighted to see that I'd bought some duty free grog for them.

I probably would have been more philosophical and reflective on the conclusion of my epic trip around the Indian Ocean, if I didn't have a massive 28th-birthday/returning-home party to prepare.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Rift Valley Wandering

I begin my tale on board the Trans-Asia Express - the train from Tehran to Istanbul. Apart from continuing to freak out a little about Iran's rather distasteful treatment of their guests, I enjoyed three long days comfortably seated and bedded in a four-berth compartment while watching the bleak, snowy Iranian landscape transform into verdant views of Turkey.

When I say they were long days I was being literal. Crossing the twenty degrees of longitude while travelling west, I gained almost half an hour per day – I was effectively on Mars time. Not since the perennial droning of the cargo ship on the Arabian Sea had I felt more like I was preparing for interplanetary travel.

During the interstices experienced between powering through kilobytes of ebooks and hearing megabytes of podcasts, I got to know my berth companions, all Iranians visiting family in Turkey. Their ring-leader was a burnt-out cop called Hassan who, to my infinite annoyance, purposefully put on a southern American drawl to be 'cooler' and spent much of his time listening to his own podcasts on how to emotionally damage women so they can be more easily controlled.

The highlight of this smooth slide across the Near East was when the train's carriages were packed up and floated across the icy Lake Van on a ferry during the night just after crossing the Turkish border. The next evening, after all the Iranians on board were sure of their departure from the motherland, the partying kicked off. Head scarves were thrown in the air, alcohol was poured freely and rambling unsolicited political opinions were proffered as a guitar was passed around the dining car. I could completely empathise with their palpable sense of relief.

At last, emerging from the mountains during the night, we arrived at the Istanbul terminus - conveniently located within ten metres of the Bosporus. After triumphantly receiving a wad of cash from the first ATM I'd used in over a month, I stepped lightly onto the ferry next to the station with my bike and left Asia for Europe.

The transformation was immediate: narrow cobbled laneways, trams squealing around tight corners, the annoyingly high density of fascinating ruins from Classical times – all my ignorant stereotypes of Europe come true!

After spending almost two months without alcohol in Muslim countries I hit the backpacker party scene hard, usually finding myself with groups of American exchange students eager to dance the nights away. During the day I visited all the standard tourist fare: the Hagia Sophia, the underground cisterns built by Justinian, and a museum room filled with statues of fellow-traveller Alexander the Great. However, six days spent hovering at the precipice of Europe, not quite daring to plunge into the ease and cost of this civilised continent, I jumped on a plane (my first since Bali) and headed south to Kenya. Also, it was snowing in Istanbul. None of that, thanks.

That’s right – it was a new era. I’d abandoned my continuous travelling at the airport as I’d abandoned my bike at the post office (it was to arrive back in Melbourne twelve days later). My mechanical companion had taken me 9,998 kilometres across Asia and the Middle East (excluding side trips and city excursions) and needed to see the Australian bush once more.

The Qatar Airways flight stopped off overnight at Doha on its way to Nairobi, allowing me to rest my weary head whilst straddling four brightly lit, hand-rested chairs at the airport. Upon my arrival in Africa I was met by my buddy Sasha, the first of five friends from home with whom I’d be travelling during my two-and-a-half months in the continent. Sasha had been here a few weeks already, the beginning of a seven month African interruption to her Commerce/Arts degree.

Africa was a sudden shift for me. I’m not just talking about the abrupt climate change from snowy to tropical; nor the wild landscape and unique humanity-adapted biota; nor even the freedom of dress (widening my eyes as I walked the streets after over a year in culturally conservative countries). I am, of course, speaking of the powerful gravitational difference between the heavy high latitudes of Turkey and the centripetally leavened equator. No wonder the locals grow so tall here.

Sub-Saharan East Africa is certainly a land of extremes. The human genetic diversity is immediately apparent for one thing, as is the large range of megafauna no-one’s managed to kill off yet – some of these Sasha and I checked out at the Nairobi National Park, a morning spent giraffe spotting and spying on wild lions yawning by the road beneath the incongruous modern skyline of the metropolis – but some of the biggest extremes are found in people’s attitudes to foreigners.

Often people are overwhelmed with curiosity about us and generously hospitable. Others, however, seem resentful towards the wealth disparity on display. This will extend to not only charging us several times the local cost for something, like any efficient capitalist with an eye to the capabilities of the market, but sometimes they even use price as an instrument of punishment for our relative wealth.

“You have the money, therefore you should pay what I want”, Is one prevailing attitude, much to their financial detriment in the face of alternatives. We encountered this a lot, even when we knew the much lower local price – bargaining was not an option. This ‘suck the tourists dry’ attitude culminated in an unpleasant mugging as we arrived in Dar es Salaam – but I’ll get to that later.

One of the main activities Sasha and I had decided we wanted to do in this part of the world was to climb Kilimanjaro, for the awesomeness points if for nothing else. In the few days before our trip was due to begin we headed for the hills to prepare with some Rift Valley volcano trekking – the mini-Kilimanjaro, Mt Longonot. Annoyingly, after spending the day buying food and local-minibus-hopping to arrive at sundown, we were informed by the ranger that camping in the park would cost us a not-insignificant thirty bucks. Our indignation rising at this special ‘foreigner price’, we stormed out to find a spot to stealth-camp at the park boundary. This moment confirmed exactly how compatibly stingy Sasha’s and my travelling styles were. Sadly, our superior sense of self-satisfaction at stymieing the system was sabotaged by the consumption of cold chow – we’d brought a stove, but no matches.

After a somewhat sleepless night reassuring Sasha that the occasional rustlings outside her tent were neither angry buffalos nor violent tent-invaders, we emerged at dawn to find ourselves amongst a grazing herd of gazelles and a... stand?... of giraffes. The park ranger in the morning gave us the strangest look on learning that.

Mt Longonot itself was climbed and circumambulated during the day, affording us spectacular yet sweltering views of the deeply sunken caldera and the sunlit plains extended of our ancestors’ old stomping grounds.

And at last, after a day raiding Nairobi for proper camping gear to survive the freezing heights of Kilimanjaro, the success of which was celebrated by storming a local pub at the dodgy end of town – only to discover that the sexes were segregated (hey, how am I supposed to notice the womanlessness of pubs after spending half a year in India and the Middle East?), we were on a bus across the border to Tanzania.

The next day, standing at the Kilimanjaro park entrance with eager trepidation, Sasha and I met the rest of the group travelling with us up the mountain. This consisted of one person: Chris – a Canadian/Barbadian ex-champion sprinter, a ‘black muzungu’ in the local lingo (‘muzungu’ being the Swahili word for ‘outsider’, lobbed with varying degrees of derogatoriness). After a brief introduction, this young professor of Black Identity at a nearby university soon began extolling the virtues of stuffing a tampon up one’s nostril when suffering from the effects of a nosebleed. Up to this point Sasha and I had been worried we’d be joined by humourless midlife-crisis cases.

We were treated well on this trip. Too well. The three of us required the services of three guides and seven porters, each porting all our gear, food and tents, plus the gear, food and tents for those doing the porting. In the evenings, after a civilised four-hour slog, we had buckets of warm water brought to us, tents pre-erected upon our arrival at camp including one ‘dining tent’, and meals that got more extravagant by the course. Initially, I was a bit miffed that the national park mandates this excessive and expensive luxury for tourists, but soon I was complaining about the diminishing supply of milky hot chocolate and the failure to provide a table-cloth. A decent foot-massage would have gone down well too.

Kilimanjaro is a monstrosity of a mountain. Disfigured as it is by side eruptions in the style of a man who wakes up one day to discover he is merely a mole on another man’s face, it looms over the surrounding plain as though it were the rest of the universe. The neighbouring 4.5 kilometre elevation micro-protrusion, Mount Meru, sits beneath Big K’s bulk like a cowering little brother, and Sasha and I spent much of our second day scoffing at our good friend Steve’s later intention to ascend it.

For each day we climbed The K, the landscape, the biota, the scenery and the weather all shifted so dramatically it was hard to escape the conclusion that we were actually ascending into different continents, and, later, onto different planets. Lush, dense rainforest sporting monochrome colobus monkeys gave way to alpine grasslands replete with hardy ferns and awkward-looking penis plants. This soon evaporated into a desolate wintry boulder field punctuated by plagues of scavenging brown mice whose main amusement factor derived from their ability to transform Sasha from rugged mountain conqueror to squealing damsel in distress. Chris also kept up my morale by suffering acutely from the main side effect of the Diamox altitude sickness suppressant: frequent urination.

Each morning we awoke to clear skies, the sunrise over the cloud-tops and an ominous underview of the mass ahead. But inevitably, just after setting off, it would rain, or snow, for the rest of the day, forcing us to clamber over streams and through waterfalls as we climbed: the monsoon, right on time. Finally, we arrived at the highest camp, getting to bed early for an alpine start to the summit of... 11pm.

Arising at a time in which, if in Australia on a Saturday night, I’d be getting ready to get off my arse and go to that housewarming in the eastern suburbs, we wrapped up our bodies with every single item of clothing our packs contained, and initiated the ascent. Our spirits were lifted wildly by the sight of a massive thunderhead wafting along next to us, and as we climbed above it we witnessed one of the most spectacular storms we’d ever contemplated seeing – although we were also pretty keen to get above it so we wouldn’t get electrocuted. This keenness to ascend was exacerbated by our discovery that there were several groups ahead of us. With a single nod, Chris and I understood at a fundamental male level that we had to beat them. And to Chris and my collective amazement, Sasha was not only up for the challenge, but led the charge up the hill.

And soon we were at Stellar Point, the confluence of all six Kilimanjaro routes (we’d come up the scenic and somewhat hardcore Machame way), and, after scoring many victims of our immense speed, we were now in the lead. At this stage we’d long since lost all feeling in our fingers and we were being exhausted by the low altitude (not to mention all that climbing we were engaging in).

The final hundred metres to the summit was brain-liquefyingly difficult, clomping through snow and passing unappreciated glaciers and epic views. But at last we got to the summit sign: 5,895m, the highest elevation I’ve ever been on land (and the fastest I’ve ever travelled with respect to the Earth’s core). And we were first – Sasha in particular. Immediately upon reaching the top I keeled over in nausea, spending the next half hour waiting for the sunrise to vomit over the scenery while holding my stomach and groaning – although it wasn’t enough to stop me celebrating Port on the Hill, our highest yet.

Much to my annoyance, Sasha didn’t experience any altitude sickness at all, and thus took all the good photos of the world-burning sunrise over the ocean of cloud beneath us. As we descended in daylight we came across dozens of other walkers struggling up, some, literally being carried by their porters, sporting twisted expressions of altitudinous agony, our guide boasting ‘Kwanza!’ to his counterparts: ‘First’.

But at last we were back at camp. Of course, having got up at 11pm that ‘morning’, reached the summit at sunrise, and descended until 10am, we still had four hours of walking to do to get down to 3,000m. I can tell you I slept pretty damn well that night. Beyond that, it was only a matter of unwinding the biota levels back to rainforest, sorting out the extremely fraught and terribly awkward experience of mandatory tipping, and re-adjusting to normal oxygen levels down at Moshi.

In the following days, the two of us jumped on a bus to neighbouring Arusha where we socialised with a local friend of a friend of Sasha’s, re-acquainted ourselves with Chris for an evening and finally allowed Sasha to clean her nine pairs of underpants. But at last, after a demonic fourteen hour bus ride that disintegrated the back seats next to us, we were onto our next adventure: Lake Victoria.

Basically, the plan was to do an anti-clockwise loop around Tanzania, visiting the various lakes on the way, before meeting up with our other buddies at Dar es Salaam. From the port city of Mwanza, we took a ferry across to the island of Ukerewe after spending an hour trying to shake off a ‘helpful’ local demanding cash for his unnecessary directional assistance. Now out at ‘sea’, Lake Victoria’s lake status became irrelevant as we took in the sweet marine air. After our arrival, we spent an idyllic couple of days dining beneath a sporadically electrified thunderstorm, riding bikes from the ‘Melbourne’ to the ‘Darwin’ of the island (during which we enjoyed the incorrigible company of curious local kids) and finally rehydrating ourselves on the minutely malt-flavoured water Africans call beer in the presence of littoral ugly-stick stricken marabou stalks – I’d been abstaining from my beloved stout so my good friend Rob’s would be my first since Hong Kong.

Our next lake was that of Tanganyika, of Livingstone fame, to which we arrived after a 5am to 5pm bus ride. Here the plan was to catch a ‘water taxi’ from Kigoma to the Burundi border and come back the next day in time for the weekly train to Dar. This was a train we were destined to miss.

Boarding this water taxi – a large, open, motorised wooden boat crammed with about 100 people, much like the ones seen in Australian Liberal Party leaders’ wet dreams – we were met with a scene of beauty we hadn’t anticipated. As the afternoon waned and nightness descended, the steep jungle loomed menacingly out at us like a frozen tsunami of trees and baboons. Even more menacing, however, was the distant opposite shore of the DRC – Conrad’s Congo. You could almost hear the martial drumming.

At the end of an evening covering ourselves in tarpaulin for protection against the rain, helping to bail out the rising boat water and being the subject of our new friends’ bets over whether we’d donate to them our shoes, the sun at last set over the ominous opposite shore. The spectacular sunset and then eerie fishing lights of the lake reflecting the brilliant star field above shielded us from the realisation that we were now on a wooden boat at the Congolese border, at night and with neither accommodation nor any road access for at least fifty kilometres inland. If we’d put our minds to it we would have recognised this state of affairs as bad news.

Luckily enough, Sasha employed her French speaking skills to chum up with the local Burundians and found us a home to stay in at the tri-corner border between Tanzania, Burundi and the aquatic part of the DRC without even getting us knifed as we were led deeper into the jungle than either of us felt particularly comfortable about. In the end, though, it all worked out fine. Other than being constantly asked to fund frivolous medical expenses by our young host, Isaac, and discovering we were stranded in their border village for a day (Sundays are serious in this part of the world).

This forced stay ended up being well worth it, I must say, despite missing our train. We swam the crystalline waters of Lake Tanganyika, drank in a dank pub beneath the daily thunderstorm, attracted derision for our poor stone-skipping ability but destroyed the local team at successive games of pool. The highlight, though, was gaining permission to cross the border for a beer in Burundi where we watched colourful dancing Muslims glide past the bar on their crowded, wooden festival boats. At last, however, we bid our generous (yet rather mercurial) host goodbye – at 4am – for the water taxi back to Kigoma.

The thirty-hour bus ride from Kigoma to Dar es Salaam, my second-longest yet, was all the more interminable for its unnecessariness. It didn’t help me that my usual Celebrity Heads adversary had contracted something on the lake and was thus dead to the world for the duration. However, two days later we were safely back in a civilised-sized city and about to meet our excellent friend Pip from home. we walked excitedly into town to find a local bus or taxi to take us to the airport to greet her arrival and we were soon met by a charismatic young local who was eager to help us out. Within no time we were happily on our way, sharing a taxi with our new friend – a man calling himself William – and another hop-on squished in next to us.

And then they all turned around to face us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Axis of Evil

Soon after I'd stepped off the ferry from the UAE and first put my foot onto Persian soil I realised how badly I'd planned this trip. Lying in my unusually expensive hotel room after an evening of testing ATMs for compatibility with my bank card I at last got to the page in Lonely Planet that told me that, owing to a recent tightening of economic sanctions against Iran, I could only use cash.

Bad news. Bad, bad news. My forehead immediately heating up from the whirring gears of comprehension, I furiously emptied out my pack onto my bed in an Easter-egg hunt for forgotten US dollars. Okay, I thought, if I can survive for the next month on a budget of seven dollars a day, I might just be able to afford a visa into the next country. What a shame that night's accommodation cost four days of my budget. Well, I'd heard that Iranians are incredibly hospitable - it was time to put that to the test.

The next morning I got a look at what I'd got myself into. I felt like I'd been transported back to the land of my childhood: the streets were quiet, people smiled a lot and most of the cars were made in the late seventies. Iran is like Cuba plus twenty years. Taking my eyes off the quaint retro-town of Bandeh-e-Lenghe I pumped up my tyres (I've had a very slow leak for the past two months) and headed away from the coast and into the desert. Soon, I was greeted by an army of giant concrete tepees receding off over the plains that I initially regarded as a potential source of cheap housing but was later disappointed to discover actually sheltered awkwardly deep wells. They seemed to be straight out of Frank Herbert's Dune series.

Towards the end of my first day's ride through the immediately arid Iranian desert I felt a low rumble like a poorly tuned truck. The previously blue skies now flickered with distant lightning over the parched landscape and I knew time was running out to seek shelter. Thankfully, while stocking up in a small desert village on a can of pineapple slices costing a third of my day's budget, a bunch of guys jumped out to invite me into their home. I made an almost audible sigh of relief that the hospitality rumours were true.

However, this was one of the most normal night's stays I experienced in Iran. Over the next month I found myself crashing in three mosques (the secret of Islam's success - fully heated mosques in winter, I nearly converted right then and there), a school, a crowded student flat and even, almost, a military base. This latter source of emergency accommodation involved ingratiating myself with the base's commander and boisterously entertaining the recruit dormitory before eventually heading to bed. Sadly, this all ended in tears when, in the middle of the night, the base got a call from high command demanding to know why they were harbouring an enemy of the Islamic Republic. They kicked me out in my pajamas. To be fair though, the military did ensure I didn't have to pay for the hotel they dumped me in - I should have thought of getting the Iranian military to pay for my holiday earlier.

Apart from all the weird places at which I stayed I was mostly invited into family homes. The patriarch of one of these took me to his weekly game of lame volleyball - a sport invented for the large number of men in the city of Lar who'd been shot in the leg by Iraqis during their war with that country. Shuffling around on the dusty indoor sports hall floor using only my hands for locomotion I impressed the town's limping veterans with my spectacular serving aim.

Annoyingly though, success was never guaranteed in finding a bed (or actually a floor - which is what everyone sleeps on in this country). On two occasions I was forced to sleep outside - once in a burnt-out housing estate out of town, kept awake by a nearby group of local bogans and, later, distant wolf cries; and on another occasion, taking the opposite extreme, on a park bench in a large town's main roundabout - enlivened by an overlooking resident coming out to give me a box of Ferrero Rochers in the middle of the night. Other than the chocolate I have rued my lack of tent and the crappiness of my US army sleeping bag (and unrolling this in mosques is always an awkward experience - it's covered in cheerful American flags).

Another awkwardness occurs when my host, an imam or revered father, inevitably asks whether I'm a Shiite Muslim or Sunni Muslim. At this point his educated and worldly son will lean in and quietly inform him that I am a Westerner and therefore a Christian.

"Actually," I helpfully clarify, "I'm an atheist. It's my opinion that the god you worship every day doesn't even exist." I'm not sure how much they appreciate this insight into my metaphysical philosophy. Thankfully my Farsi isn't quite good enough to communicate the full extent of this heresy.

The ride leading up to the fairly banal city of Shiraz (maybe its banality was related to its absence of wine) was, as always, mindblowingly spectacular. Vast flat plains punctuated by striated mountain ranges, the road zigzagging around them to avoid expensive tunneling. Some rolling green hills made me feel like I was on the Tour de France, a comparison enhanced by motorists offering me food and clothing through their windows as they passed. Of course, some people can be annoying - I do still get the sneered 'Why?' gesture. How do they expect me to answer? "Yes, cycling through Iran is all part of my evil plan to destroy the world."

It was in the learned city of Shiraz that I heard of a method of acquiring some cash - through a hotel in the desert city of Yazd, a 400 kilometre detour. On the way I checked out the ruins of Persepolis, still smarting from the ravages of Alexander the Great's drunken party and subsequent house fire (what a night that must have been!). Knowledge of that conflagration kept my spirit warm as I ascended into three kilometre elevation mountains and was instantly struck by a massive snowstorm.

If there's anyone out there who's tried to ride through a snowstorm they'll know how much worse it is than rain. Not only is visibility reduced to about the distance of your handlebars, but even squinting, your eyes sting with the impact of each snowflake. Abandoning my day's ride half-way through I was forced to return to a town I'd past about ten kilometres back, a friendly truck driver giving me a lift for the last small stretch. Annoyingly I left my helmet in the truck's cabin but I think the extreme paranoia of hitting something for the rest of my ride adequately compensated for my reduced impact safety. As an added bonus, losing the false security of my head-protection launched me into a state of hyper-reality that really enhanced my cycling experience.

I spent the next two nights stranded in the small town of Safa Shar waiting for it to stop snowing while staying at the expansive house of a Zoroastrian engraver/cargo ship captain. On the second evening the local 'sportsmen' took me 'duck hunting'. This involved driving dangerously through deep snow in a 1970s sedan for an hour, stopping frequently when bogged, quickly disembarking to confirm the dearth of ducks, then taking pot shots at stray dogs on the way home. These guys out-boganed the Omanis.

But at last, digging my bike out of the snow, I was on my way. The next three days saw me dropping off the huge snowy plateau upon which I'd been stranded, crossing the vast and genuinely empty Abarqu desert, and finally climbing over another bitterly cold mountain range to Yazd.

Yazd offered my first encounter with foreigners in Iran - the backpackers' hostel there was swarming with them. My main contact here was Jemima, a slow-traveling Sydney girl and friend of my old Uni buddy Adrian, who introduced me and a bunch of backpacking characters to various local digs, bachelor pads and even an impromptu santur concert (a traditional Persian instrument) over dinner one night. During the daylight hours we all explored the Zoroastrian sky burial sites, went on a desert village tour and clambered over the interlocking roofs of Yazd's burnt-sand coloured skyline as the sun set over the mountains.

My companions seemed to involve a fair few cycle tourists, but none riding at the time - all had left their bikes in Tehran on their way across the popular Central Asian route so they could tour the south. One of these, James, even had to resort to eating canine roadkill to survive a deserted stretch in Turkey - I was glad I'd be taking the train.

During all this I was trying to set up a bank transfer with the manager's brother-in-law in India so I could finally get some cash. Here's a tip for doing this yourself: you know the description 'to appear on your statement' your bank lets you write when setting up an online transfer? The bank reads that. Don't describe your transfer as "Iran Cash" - you get a load of anxious emails demanding you call the bank immediately to tell them why your trying to violate international sanctions against the country. After carefully explaining the situation for five days I gave up and left the city, borrowing heavily from Jemima to get me to Tehran. Having left, the bank, Westpac, later spontaneously let the money through... but it took two entire months for it to arrive in India. In the end it was returned to my account because I wasn't related to the recipient - minus two large $20 transfer fees for their trouble which they still refuse to reimburse.

The final thousand kilometres riding to Tehran went by in one long deserty blur. Here I frequently found myself clocking up 150 kilometre days, barely stopping or even changing gears. I interrupted this journey with a few days in Esfahan so I could apply for a visa extension, which I got in twenty minutes rather than purported three days probably because of how awesome the visa official thought my trip was. Esfahan also produced my ebook reader, sent to my hotel there from Mumbai after I had to leave that city too early for its reception. At last I could finally dispense with the grotesquely heavy paper version of James Joyce's Ulysses!

While in Esfahan I hostelled with a Japanese backpacker who spent three days hanging around the headquarters of the Islamic militia, the dreaded Basij, trying to get his passport and camera deconfiscated. He'd been caught taking photos of one of Esfahan's historic bridges... while a demonstration connected with the recent Arab uprisings marched over it. He eventually had them returned within hours of his departure for home.

It was with great sadness that I rode the final 500 kilometres to Tehran for the conclusion of my cycle tour, precariously navigating between the twin nasty countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. The scenery was still spectacular - brain-numbingly vast stretches of desert, isolated villages perched on hillsides, and, at one point, a view of the gibbous moon bulging out from behind a sky-piercing icy mountain elevating a good mood fueled by both endorphins and adrenaline (produced during ascents and descents respectively). This later scene was just before cycling over Iran's underground uranium enrichment plant where I was briefly stopped by the army employing their Farsical language at minimum comprehension levels. It was unfortunate that it was at this exact point that I met the only other cycling tourists in Iran (a Swiss couple) - the army forced us to go our separate ways before we'd got a proper chance to exchange touring stories.

But at last, fifteen kilometres below the massive round cycling total of 10,000, I had reached the capital, Tehran. The next day, after three hours of waiting in queues at the main post office, I'd sent my panniers back to Australia. Annoyingly, my overlong bike was to remain with me for the train ride to Istanbul.

That afternoon, my stuff strewn haphazardly throughout my windowless hotel room like the contents of an inefficient garbage compacter, I went online in the lobby to check my emails. Chatting for a few minutes with Jemima who happened also to be online, we suddenly discovered that we were both in Tehran and, in fact, only about 50 metres away from each other. This called for immediate tea-ing it up (alcohol being illegal in this country) and I jumped across the street to join her for a brew.

Night having fallen, we took the metro across town to what Jemima described as the 'best soup in Tehran'. Well, this was certainly an offer I couldn't refuse and I of course joined her metro-hopping with alacrity - a decision that was to result in one of the creepiest experiences I'd ever had. During our long and eventually soupless search for this establishment, settling instead on kebabs, Jemima told me how she'd been followed around everywhere she went by the secretive Basij, presumably due to a weird case of mistaken identity. She reckoned they thought she was some kind of foreign activist for the opposition movement (they're obsessed with that idea here). She even pointed out neatly-shaven men standing around watching us as potential militiamen. I put this down to paranoia until, just about to take the escalator back into the metro system for our return home, one of these neatly shaven men turned to us and told us to sit down.

We sit. More men emerge from the crowd to make sure we don't go anywhere. They ask for our passports (they're at our respective hotels) and cameras (I keep quiet - mine's in my pocket). After waiting a few minutes we're suddenly grabbed from the side and pushed into the open door of an already crowded car that's just pulled up on the kerb. The driver goes crazy navigating the clogged city streets of central Tehran, pulling into cordoned-off bus lanes, overtaking trucks and speeding around corners. None of the men in the car speak English so a phone is handed to Jemima through which she's asked who I am and what we're doing in the city. It worries me that our story, that we were searching for the best soup in town, seems so implausible they can't possibly believe her.

Soon we're driven into the underground car-park of a suspiciously Soviet-looking concrete building. I check the time in the car: eight thirty p.m. After about 15 minutes sitting on the back seat a group of burka-clad women grab Jemima, blindfold her and take her away. A group of men then come and blindfold me, leading me into an elevator and then the Orwellian 'Room 101' of the institution. They make me put out my hand to stabilise myself against a wall while an English-speaker interrogates me through my left ear.

Up to this point I'm mainly feeling confused and unnerved, assuming it's all just some massive error that will soon be resolved. Standing facing the wall, blindfolded and questioned, I begin to worry about how long we'll be detained and what these guys might do to us. I constantly brace myself for a blow to the head (which never comes) and assume that at any minute I'll find myself waking up in some forgotten cell block. They ask me questions the whole time - who I am, what I'm doing, who I know in Iran, what Jemima's up to. Once I've been mugshotted with my ID they then lead me to believe they're ransacking my hotel room. They seem particularly confused by my assertion that I'm in Iran to pedal my bicycle around their nice country and that I'm completely free of any secret ambitions to overthrow their unpleasant government.

At last, after what seems like many more hours than the two and a half they have me standing there, they make me sit down and hold out my hand. "This is it," I think, "This is where they break my fingers." Instead I'm handed a banana and a bottle of water. I'm led back into the elevator and then, rather than the dank holding cell I assume I've just been rationed for, out onto the street. The car pulls up again and I realise I'm being released.

"Jemima! Where's Jemima!?" I demand.

"I'm here, Felix," a voice near me explains. "I'm standing right next to you." We're both still blindfolded.

After another wild drive through the now dormant streets we're dumped from the car with our bananas and bottles of water to find our own ways home before the metro closes down. As we part I want to give Jemima a hug for support, but these things are inappropriate in this country. I get back to my hotel room towards midnight - it hadn't been ransacked by the Basij, but my pannier-less bike gear is strewn all over it so it's hard to tell.

What an ordeal! I woke up the next day and basically holed myself up in the room not daring to leave until my train for Istanbul departed that evening. Despite the friendly Iranians in my luxurious four-berth cabin I was pretty uncommunicative until I'd had my passport stamped with a Turkish visa. At that point I burst out with, "What the hell is wrong with your country!?".

The story passed up and down the train to Istanbul. Most were embarrassed about what terrible hosts their country had been to me, but many were impressed I was let out without being tortured or indefinitely imprisoned. It was with great relief that I crossed the Bosporus with my bike three days later at the conclusion of my continuous overlanding adventure - I was at last safely in Europe.

Little did I realise what else I was in for once I'd flown into the vast African continent six days later...

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Travelling from one country to another on a cargo ship is a pretty awesome way to get around. After being refused a Pakistan visa I had been feeling pretty awful about having to fly over that intransigent nation, as if my whole trip had been a failure. So it's testament to how much this voyage meant to me that when I first realised I could take this ship, way back in Rajastan's Udaipur, my mood jumped into a higher orbital and has pretty much stayed there ever since, despite numerous subsequent set-backs.

The first night before my departure was celebrated with a small party at my usual Mumbai haunt, the Parsi-run Universal Café (which I flatter myself still misses me), coupled inversely with the discovery that a local foreign bike shop had once again destroyed my bike's bottom bracket. The following morning began with my last skirmishes against Indian bureaucracy as I had a US$50 traveller's cheque converted to Omani riels at a bank advertising a good rate, but had to have the money transformed into first US dollars and then Indian rupees to get there, incurring large commissions and dodgy rates at every metamorphosis until I had barely anything left (and that's ignoring what I had to go through to get the traveller's cheques in the first place!). It was worse than transmitting electricity to Tasmania under Bass Strait.

But soon I had gathered my gear and was creaking and grinding (that bottom bracket again) my way to the Mumbai ferry terminal from whence I would be ferried to the mainland port of Nhava Sheva.

The rest of the day was spent waiting for hours in car parks and container fields, presumably because those were what I was supposed to be during each successive stage of the administrative process. But suddenly, at sunset, I was clambering up the gangplank, and then I was on board. A passenger of the CMA CGM Coral.

I immediately met the disembarking group: two other cycle tourists. In the frantic minutes of our brief encounter we exchanged maps, currency, tips and itinerates: we were riding almost identical trips but in reverse directions. I later discovered that the 'small change' UAE dirhams they handed me (they'd boarded at Dubai) were worth almost $50. I love cycle tourists.

For the next six days life on board was like living in the hotel from 'The Shining' (halls of blood not-withstanding), or on the mining ship Red Dwarf. The few people on board weren't enough to even half-fill the massive floating office-block and they were pretty much always working on far-flung regions of the 280 metre long ship anyway. In fact, at times I worried that I was actually on board the spaceship from '2001: A Space Odyssey' and that some computer was about to switch off the life-support system.

In other respects it was like living in a Soviet submarine. While the crew was mostly Filipino, the officers were all Croatian and Ukrainian and they spent most of the rare periods in which they succumbed to my polite attempts to engage them in conversation reminiscing about the good ol' days under the Communists when the crews were large and the workloads small – plenty of scope for games, music and vodka.

Today, sadly, these cargo ships slide silently through the sea like ghosts. My entire floor, 'E Deck', was empty. I was the ship's 'Spare Officer (A)' according to the sign on my door, and fit somewhere in the hierarchical limbo between superfluous officer and steam-pipe mould. In one telling encounter I'd just finished putting on a wash when I turned and saw the captain standing in the laundry doorway. He looked at me, then at the washing machine.

"Err… do you want to go first?" I asked. He stared at me blankly.

"I'll get my stuff out. You go first."

The ship could also be quite spooky at times. The constant movement and vibrations of the vessel at sea seemed almost human. I often got the sense that someone had just sat down next to me or even gotten into bed with me. Objects placed on tables would march slowly but resolutely towards the edge, finally hitting the floor with a bang that invariably ejected me from my skin. Another concern, only slightly more legitimate, was of pirates. The first mate took me on a guided tour of the rest of the ship one day and pointed out all the anti-piracy apparati: riot hoses, rope ladder axes and even dummy security men equipped with fake rifles. The mate even related some stories of work colleagues who'd been taken hostage in these waters, sometimes for months.

Otherwise I spent my time reading, listening to podcasts, stuffing my face full of the excellent food prepared especially for me and watching movies from the 'Ship's Library'. They had the rather pointless but somewhat interesting 'Darjeeling Limited' about a train journey in a fictional country bearing no resemblance to India, and the much more excellent film 'Chopper', which toyed with my Melbournian homesickness. I filled in the gaps gazing at the hypnotic immensity of the ocean – a desert in flux. One night I saw swirling bioluminescent fireworks being churned up in our wake, mirroring the brilliant starfield above. I often watched leaping schools of fish shadowing our slow progress but I never saw the dolphins diving in the waves that the preceding passengers reported.

Well, I hear you ask, how much did this crazy sea voyage end up costing me? First, think of the carbon footprint: a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts my personal CO2 contribution at an additional 500 mils of fuel for the whole journey (although that's enough for over 2,000 kilometres of chain cleaning). Beyond that, let's just say that if I'd chosen instead to fly it would have required one fifth the money and one fiftieth the time. But stuff that. This was totally worth it.

After six days at sea I was at last disembarked at an Omani port half-way up the end of the Arabian Peninsula. It was 4:30 in the morning and I was thirty kilometres out of town. Miraculously, my ailing bike got me into the city. This was not helped by multiple shells of port security refusing to believe either that passengers could travel on cargo ships or that I could just ride on my bike into the country – but that's fine, by now I'm used to people not believing that what I'm doing is possible. Shortly after arriving in the delightfully named city of Salalah my bottom bracket actually disintegrated on me, flinging my left crank to the ground and grounding me where I stood.

I looked around at this strange new country. Oman is pretty much the opposite of India, the Indian underclass here even ride their bikes on the opposite side of the road (still the wrong side). Another contrast was the distinct impression I got that Salalah had just been hit by a neutron bomb and I was among the few survivors: loose sand blew across the streets; traffic lights flicked red and green unheeded; beige blocky buildings stood silently defiant in the centres of unnecessarily large urban properties.

In other respects Oman is like America. Everyone drives big American cars, there's fast food and enormous freeways all over the place and the materialistic yet deeply religious people are brash and loud while at the same time generous and helpful. They also practice polygamy, just like in America, as I found out from the young Arab civil engineering student sitting next to me on the night bus taking me to Musqat. He boasted that he would one day surpass his brother's acquisition of three simultaneous wives once he graduated and became rich.

The morning after the night's interminable drift through the vast Arabian Desert left me wandering the streets of Oman's capital for six hours, burdened by my unridable bike, looking for a reasonably priced hotel and a decent bike shop and being briefly stopped by the police while the Sultan of Oman drove past (he must never discover that there are other road users). The highlight of this depressing trudge was meeting three independent pairs of cycle tourists within a few minutes of each other. This highlight was soon surpassed when my bike was completely repaired by a Dutch-run cycling shop across town. I was now ready to head to Dubai.

Along the way I had pretty much all of the stereotypes I'd accumulated of Arabia confirmed. All except one: it was raining. For a solo cycle tourist with no tent, no sleeping bag and no sign of any hotels this was a problem. My brain seems to have exorcised the memories of trying to sleep under these conditions, often on freeway construction sites or by a drift of sand beneath a date palm, but I can still feel the occasional crisp sensation of the cold creeping under my skin. One night, just after crossing the UAE border, I awoke to a large motionless dog staring belligerently at me from the darkness. I won't even begin to describe the tenor of my dreams after that experience.

One afternoon in Oman as I was sitting on the coast of the Persian Gulf snacking away at a two kilo mass of date ooze (I was feeling a lot like I was part of an old Arabian caravan, riding through the desert on a diet of dates) I was accosted by a large local family eagerly inviting me into their home. After a long lunch they extended the invitation to the wedding of my English-speaking host's brother the following evening and, as the rain had yet to let up, I readily accepted. In the intervening time I was given the customary Arab tour: I met the family's prized camels, was taken four-wheel-driving on the nearby dunes (with my bike in the ute's tray, nerve-wrackingly) and was encouraged to fire a rifle into the air in preparation for the ceremonies (I never found out where the bullets landed).

Apart from receiving the traditional Arab garb as a gift I found the actual wedding to be a let-down. After the six grooms were simultaneously married without their brides on a football field crowded exclusively with men I stood outside a women-only reception hall with all the males waiting for their womenfolk to get bored and need a lift home (they can't be seen at all by a non-family member). Part of this waiting involved being driven up and down the freeway, whose speed limit of 140 kilometres per hour was universally ignored, doing the odd doughie. These Arabs also have a pathological need to spend ninety percent of their driving time talking on their phones. My old formula, cheap petrol equals bogans, has been proved correct – petrol here costs 40 cents a litre.

However, I had an excellent time with these generous people, learning the Arab culture and language, although the patriarch tried hard to convert me to Islam. One topic often came up though: people kept pointing out that Australia was 'against Iraq'. At the time I tried to explain to them the divergent public opinion on this issue but they all pulled perplexed expressions. It's only now that I realise they were talking about the soccer.

And it seems that love was in the air: as I was departing my host told me he'd just proposed to his uncle's family for their daughter. I later learnt he'd been accepted – his first of perhaps many wives.

The final four days of the tour had me riding over the rugged mountains separating the real Arabian Desert from its kinder coastal cousin and then heading into the most appalling headwind I'd ever encountered. At one point during this muscle-liquefying slog I looked up to see another solo cycle tourist gliding along in the other direction. Immediately we stopped each other to express great relief at finding company in this desolate landscape (although I can tell you there was more relief on the downwind side).

My companion's name was Lukas, a young Austrian riding to Kathmandu (or so he thought). He'd just come through Iran and gave me all his maps and guidebooks, his now superfluous second sleeping bag and many excellent tips of how to survive the Islamic Republic (leaving out one important piece of advice I will get to shortly). In meager exchange I donated the Indian SIM I'd fought so hard to retain. We ended up camping together in an old riverbed far from the obscenely brightly lit highway, staying up to all hours over an ebullient bonfire – an excellent night before my descent into Dubai.

For fifty kilometres I scrutinised the dune-strewn horizon for signs of civilisation. It took a long time before I realised that the ever-receding electricity pylon perpetually obscuring my view was no short pole… it was the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. As I approached, this structure's true scale emerged. I kept on having to remind myself that it was human beings who built this thing (specifically Indians).

Now, rather than stay in the vastly overpriced city of Dubai itself I instead made for a hostel in the neighbouring Emirate of Sharjah, spending the afternoon searching for the place amongst the many and varied normal-sized skyscrapers of the sister-city. But at last I was walking through the doorway. To my left a couple of zombies stared at the TV while they mumbled Koranic verses. On the TV was a live feed from the Kaaba in Mecca which, I can now inform you as a true connoisseur of this cable channel, is really not that interesting. One of these devout pilgrims, a non-English-speaking Shiite Algerian, was sharing my dorm and would not only wake me up each night at three a.m. when his alarm went off for his morning prayer (which I could tolerate out of religious freedom) but kept hitting the snooze for an hour afterwards (which I couldn't). When I at last expressed my annoyance by threatening to throw his phone out the window all our communications were channeled solely through death stares. At least this stopped his constant disapproving gestures during each romantic comedy I put on to feed my unhealthy addiction of that genre that he thought the characters should be married (which would defeat the whole point of the movie).

During the day I made the long bike commute to Dubai – a distance of almost 100 kilometres both ways – along freeway shoulders, failed road-construction projects and floating bridges. It was only while returning to Sharjah on the second day, into another headwind, that I decided that, actually, this journey was too uncomfortably dangerous to do again (although I hasten to add that UAE drivers are surprisingly gregarious on the roads).

Dubai is still the desert. The traffic and bustle at street level don't seem to match the vast forest of empty-looking skyscrapers above. The city is a vertically exaggerated Arab village. Wherever there isn't an army of Indians to sweep the sand away the dunes shift and grow under flyovers and against buildings: it's a desert in the sky.

I spent my two days here checking out the local sites of the Dubai Mall with its huge shark aquarium, the luxurious Burj al Arab (from the outside sadly), the deceptively enormous Palm Jumeirah and the base of the Burj Khalifa. Interspersed amongst these activities I frantically organised for the rest of my trip. At the Iranian Consulate I almost lost my cool on discovery of their visa cost: $210. I inexpertly stifled an outburst while spitefully wishing John McCain had won the 2008 US federal election and had fulfilled his promise to bomb the country. Awkwardly I had to return the next day to collect my passport, but by then they'd already forgotten me. I then had a new pannier rack installed on my bike. When the South African bike mechanic discovered my rear brake pads had suddenly clamped shut during the installation he threatened, oddly, to make a scene in the shop before I even got the chance to accuse him of causing the problem. What an emotionally fraught day! At least my brakes mysteriously realigned themselves on the ride home.

But it wasn't long before all my troubles were forgotten and I was crossing the Persian Gulf to the Iranian port of Bandar-e Lengeh.

Unfortunately a new set of troubles are about to kick me in the teeth when I realise that economic sanctions against Iran mean I cannot access my bank account. I now have to survive the next few weeks on the small amount of cash I happened to have on me during the crossing.

In the next post learn how I have had to hurl myself on the hospitality of the Iranian people. See you then!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Konkan Coast

Finally I had arrived in Mumbai, clambering through the chaotic streets and across freeway merges until I reached the calmer inner core of the central city - jutting out on reclaimed land into the Arabian Sea.

Immediately I was launched back into the stressful world of Indian bureaucracy. I take a deep breath...

Applying for a visa to Yemen I was told that all I needed was a letter from the Australian Consulate and it would be arranged for me that afternoon. Being redirected from my consulate for this service to a visa-organising contractor near Chowpatty Beach, to the Australian High Commission in New Delhi, I finally hit a bureaucratic brick wall. It took me a week to remember I'd developed a contact there who was keen to help me out after bungling my Victorian Election ballot paper, and he directed me to the proper person... back at the Mumbai consulate.

Sadly, $30 letter in hand, this ended up not being enough to placate the Yemeni Consular-General, who was offended by the letter being addressed, 'To whom it may concern' and not to himself. After riding my bike back and forth between the consulates for two days getting the letter subtly reworded my visa was eventually denied on a whim. This was even after an Australian Consular official argued my case over the phone to her Yemeni counter-part - a very kind gesture of my government considering they had a 'Do not travel/Get out now' warning against the country. The Yemeni officials asked why I'd want to visit their fine nation anyway, "To get blown up?"

Actually, the answer was so that, after arriving in Oman's port city of Salalah by cargo ship I could travel overland to Africa. I am now heading north to Iran instead. However, I still had a couple of weeks before my ship departed from Mumbai's port of Nhava Sheva - plenty of time for more bureaucratic wrangling.

All my efforts to acquire a Djibouti visa were now of course moot, as was, I found, wrestling with my travel insurance provider to fill out all the forms required to be reimbursed for not only the cost of seeing a doctor for a sore throat, but also my multiple subsequent visits getting him to sign all the relevant forms for reimbursal - only to discover that it came to less than my coverage's excess. My frequent visits to both the GPO and the Foreign Parcel Office ended up in angry exchanges over why my Christmas present and magazines hadn't arrived. Then, climbing my way up the hierarchy of AirTel's head office to discover why they'd cancelled my pre-paid SIM (immovable bureaucracy meets my bloody-minded obstinacy), I found that the form-checker had looked at one of my signatures upside-down and thus concluded it had been forged. They made me fill out a new form, provide new photo ID and again photocopy my passport before again cancelling my service on a different administrative pretext - this also took an entire day to rectify.

The reason I still sport any hair at all after this is because although by day I battled bureaucracy, by night I partook in the personalities of the peripatetic people of this party polis.

It all began with a night out on the town with Melissa, a young acquaintance of my dad's through his Zen meditation group - we got stuck into Mumbai culture by dining out on beer and pizza at the city's brightly lit foreshore. Amazingly, I again came across my old school friend Sue whom I'd met by chance in Kathmandu. A pair of world-encircling cycle tourists staying in my hotel was next, and, along with several others congealed from my dormitory, we hit the hip scene of Leopold's Cafe, still smarting from terrorist bullet holes, before puncturing the more insane of the nearby nightclubs.

For contrast many of us went on a slum tour the next day, but either Mumbai houses some fairly comfortable destitutes or our guide was grinding an axe over countering portrayals from Slumdog Millionaire and Shantaram, for it seemed no different to all the other Indian cities I'd been cycling through over the last four months.

Armed with my newly repaired bike I took the ferry from the Gateway of India to the mainland and was instantly transported into a world of wide beaches, undulating headlands and fishy villages.

I spent my first night in the failed beach resort town of Kashid where I luxuriated away the afternoon on my first decent beach since Thailand. Here I taught a hybrid French/Indian family how to construct dribbly castles - a vestigial skill from my childhood not improved by my later career.

The next day I was till doubting the wisdom of taking the coastal route (whose roads appeared on no maps and whose motorised traffic seemed to be entirely comprised of autorickshaws sporting bladed hubcaps in the style of Boudicca or Ben Hur) rather than the much more clear-cut Konkan Highway, when I came across a seemingly impassable estuary. As if conjured up by sheer will a small ferry materialised to take me across for a pittance. It was here that I first realised that my Konkan tour was something special: from the ferry roof I took in the surreal sight of small sailing ships meandering around an ancient fort rising straight up out of the sea as an old man next to me sang a quiet call to alms.

These estuarine crossings became ever more frequent on my coast-hugging route. Occasionally they'd manifest themselves as enormous car ferries, or I'd be greeted by a rickety two-stroke wooden boat (in one instance being bailed out more slowly than the inflow leakage), but my favourite were the somnolent gondoliers lugubriously poling my bike and me across shallow swampy inlets, scaring off the coastal birdlife.

Getting between the ferry-heads often required tackling the trickiest tracks through jungles and wetlands, extruding streets from a non-existence even the locals swore by and, in some extreme situations, being forced to ride on the sand itself (the surface is always the least soft as the tide recedes). At one time I was almost caught out over a long beery beach lunch with some local medical students as the tide turned and swamped an inlet I'd previously thought cycle-able. I ended up having to wade across holding my bike high above my head to keep it dry. No such luck for a German heading in the opposite direction attempting to do the whole coast on foot.

In this fashion I passed Christmas Day, marked with a three dollar beach hotel and a large tub of choc/vanilla ice-cream (alcohol was a no-go in the strict Muslim town of Guhegar), but my appreciation of this auspicious date was surpassed by its successor. While riding over a bridge late in the day I suddenly encountered three other cycle tourists: an English brother-and-sister pair, Pete and Keara, along with a Canadian cyclist, Eric, they'd just met mere minutes before. I was so astounded to have found cycling company I ignored the fact that they were heading in my direction's opposite and backtracked 20 kilometres with them to a small fishing village set beneath a massive Moghul fort. This turned into one of the most awesome evenings I've had on my trip so far.

After eating over-sized thalis we stocked up on beer and set off for the fort after dark. As the ruins were right on the beach we of course had to go for a swim to wash off the layers of grime we'd all accumulated over the day. As we each nuded up and waded in the ocean instantly greeted us with the most spectacular bioluminescent show any of us had seen. Even submerging a limb was enough to set off an under-sea firestorm of phosphorescence so diving underwater elicited thousands of trailing flashes like an air raid on a sparkler factory, the foamy surf exploding around us from the darkness. It was other-worldly.

Returning to our well-defended fortress campsite we lit a fire with the aid of the last of my kero and sat around drinking and sharing touring stories until two a.m. - although we were interrupted briefly by separate pairs of suspicious locals checking to see if we were Pakistani terrorists.

Not only was this night amazingly awesome in itself, it also opened my eyes to the world of Indian stealth-camping. The next night, arriving late at the local tourist town of Malvan, I was just about to settle down for the night beneath a wooden fishing boat's outrigger when I encountered a middle-aged Austrian couple inviting me to stay at their palm-shaded beach resort. It was so beautiful and relaxing I ended up staying for two nights during which time I swam, hammocked about reading all day and engaged the Austrians in philosophical discourse (often diverging to debate their outlandish conspiracy theories).

Actually I achieved my first solo Indian stealth-camp the following night in the grass under some headland palms, falling asleep admiring the slowly rotating star-field above me.

And in the morning I was in Goa, crossing the border by ferry on New Year's Eve. I'd been recommended Mandrem beach by some Melbournians in Mumbai but it turned out to be a lot sleepier than I'd expected. Luckily I ran into some trans-Atlantic backpackers with whom I shared the New Year on the beach over some beers. We ended up joining an Indian Army detachment on leave and hit the nightclub scene until the not-so-small hours. Things ended on a slightly sour note when one of the drunk Indians accused the Western girls of being sluts based purely on them being girls... from the West. They then tried to sleaze onto them on the dance-floor. Indians often have this idea about our culture. It reminds me of the misconception a Nepali girl once expressed to me when explaining why she never wanted to travel to a Western country: from the movies she saw our surroundings were always exploding - it looked too dangerous.

In the morning (the light part of the morning) I rode off hung-over through Goa's capital of Panjim and towards Colva Beach. The last few kilometres were through the surf after dark having failed to find a vacanceous hotel. Luckily a nearby restaurant, the Silver Spoon Beach Shack, kindly let me sleep to the sound of the surf on one of their lounges, interrupted only by a curious army patrol rudely poking assault rifles in my face before being waved away.

I ended up staying at this restaurant for a day and a half, swimming, eating Hakka noodles whose incredible flavour transported me to a new plane of existence, sipping port and languidly admiring the predominantly Russian clientele which comprised women so spectacularly beautiful they defied the principles of physiology... chaperoned by men so disgustingly ugly they resembled overfed slugs (think Jabba the Hut). The two extremes held my discreet attention with equal fascination.

Finally I was to return to Mumbai by train (otherwise I'd miss the boat). My arrival at Margao Station presaged the sequel of my Bombay bureaucratic battling when the station-master told me the train had no luggage van for my bike. But in India anything (and everything) is possible and I managed to wedge it in the corridor between two carriages - its articulation matching the train's so as to avoid bending the frame.

And more good news: mere hours before I left Mumbai to sail the Arabian Sea on a cargo ship, my magazines finally arrived at Poste Restante. I'd been published in two of these, both on the subject of Nepal - one for the Melbourne Uni Mountaineer, the other for the Australian Beer and Brewer magazine. A fine addendum to what was almost certainly my most satisfying cycle tour so far.