africa – ethiopia 2012.
‘Where are you go’ – a catch cry by literally every villager we passed.
We stayed on the border literally i.e. I think if I stuck my arm out of my room’s window it would’ve been in Sudan, if it had a window. Changes of the new country outside of the money and language were soon evident once on the bike from the more dramatic landscape, changing terrain and the frequent open plan villages commonly split by the road into two.
With the transitional stage of landscape experienced in southern Sudan we now got to witness some greenery, with trees that could actually be used for shade dotting the landscape. These were a welcoming aid as the heat continued to result in blistering noses and skin that felt like it was on fire. The benefit of this lush (this I admit is a slight exaggeration as really there were just a few more arid trees) landscape was fruit, a welcoming inclusion of a food group that was actually fresh.
The second day in Ethiopia would be remembered as the hardest day I’ve had on the bike and one that probably won’t be eclipsed anytime soon. Today it was only the 3 of us as Justin bused ahead due to illness, something I had moments of being envious of during the day. It was a combination of continual climbing, no money, 25kgs of luggage and again the sweltering heat. At times I was riding up a hill at a pace that enabled boys and girls (kids) of the local villages to walk alongside asking for money for several kilometers. The hilly terrain wasn’t something that we had faced on the trip so far so it was a bit of a shock to the legs when the climbing pretty much lasted the entire day (and country). It’s never a good sign when at the 26km mark of a 120km day you stop for lunch out of necessity and as company you have 30 locals admiring some very unengaged and tired tourists. The fact that we lost our only local currency didn’t help matters and this coupled with a series of tiny villages we passed through with the absence of a shop let own a bank added to the inconvenience.
This I am happy to say was finally overcome at about the 100km mark where we swapped some US dollars resulting in possibly the best warm coke I will ever have. At some stage during the day the three of us individually bonked (cycling term for being physically spent) and more then likely several times over. With us eventually arriving well into the dark at Gondar it was a massive relief knowing that we had 2 full rest days awaiting us.
We spent a day taking in the northern Simian Mountains, taken there by a car, which was a novelty in itself. Its amazing to experience how much more ground can be covered when you’re not sitting on a bike. The trip up was pretty bone jarring not helped by our 1986 landcruiser, which seemingly failed to include the suspension option. It was on these roads that we first noticed construction works and local workers getting led by Chinese managers, a site we seen many times throughout Africa. Very interesting knowing (concerning) the amount of investment that China is offering in return for natural resources. Arriving at our destination we were greeted with panoramic views across the layering shades of distant ranges, foraging and cleaning gelada monkeys and a sense of satisfaction that we didn’t chose to cycle this way.
Throughout the entire country we cycled through numerous villages each day all reflecting a flash mob featuring scores of locals as we made our way through or stopped for some rest. The novelty of 4 random white people cycling through was evidently not something that happened on a daily basis so we had people rushing from nowhere, surrounding us or just running along at impressive speeds. At times it was a hard balance to engage with the locals considering the unshared languages whilst you sat for food or drink all whilst keeping an eye on our bikes. The smaller villages in the south welcomed you with many NGO (charity) signs announcing which projects the various agencies funded. Witnessing the remoteness, the barren lands, lack of infrastructure and the inevitable lower economic status of these areas it certainly validated reasoning for the funding along with the campaigns over the years of Ethiopia’s hard conditions. Due to the continuing saturation of the village scene I did have several moments of simply riding by without taking a second look, something I soon rectified realizing the uniqueness of each scene and how quickly it will change as we go on.
In regards to road conditions as mentioned previously hills were something that dominated the landscape and our journey right throughout Ethiopia. At times it seemed the road purposely re-directed its justified course to go straight over the top of all of them. The largest climb we tackled (of which I greatly enjoyed!) was the 20km road out of the Blue Nile gorge. It was an opportunity over the space of near two hours to take in the views as you cycled through each switch back, sweated out half of your body weight when you weren’t in the small pockets of shade and questioned your decision to bring the weight of 2 t-shirts rather then 1. As with most climbs it was ‘simply’ a matter of finding the right gear and getting comfortable in the right headspace i.e. yes it hurts but it will end eventually. What goes up must go down and it was here on one of these descents that we managed our top speed of 83km/h, which on fully laden bikes feels pretty fast. All of this whilst passing through villages waving to the locals on the fly while dodging their livestock who were happy to occupy the centre of the road. In the south we got our first proper taste of dirt roads with several days not seeing bitumen. It was in these more remote areas that rather then having the opportunity to converse with locals we were robbed of the chance as children, women and even spear carrying men retreated into the bush. Perhaps it was Shane’s white lycra knicks.
The capital Addis Ababa allowed a bit of normality with its modern feel, an opportunity to rest but most importantly some diverse food choices. Yes again a country that doesn’t sway too much from its tried and tested agricultural experiences, in this instance injera bread with a topping of tibs (lamb). This is a meal that I have had countless times whilst in Melbourne and really enjoyed, I now know having it countless times each day for nearly a month isn’t as enjoyable. The capital again offered opportunities to take in the sites with most being centered around the country’s strong Christian faith whether this was the temples, churches or statues. To counter this I also took in the museum with its highlight being the skeleton of Lucy, who at a mere 3.2 million years old was very impressive.
The capital and its two rest days also allowed some rest for Gavan, who after eating something that didn’t agree with him struggled to hold anything down for several days. Realising by now how important food and fluid intake was to fuel your day it was amazing that he managed to ride on. On the other downside for Gavan it was during the rest days that his iphone was ‘borrowed’ from a ‘spit on you then I’ll wipe you down’ local. Despite the loss this was the only incident of theft we encountered for our entire trip, an indication of the amazing kindness we encountered with the locals and perhaps a bit of luck.
The final few days in the country were marked with Shane getting chased by a fire-breathing warthog, numerous drugs of dependence and the first of my many dead cameras. These were all separate events. The drugs included the locally grown khat, a leaf that is chewed by the bag load over the course of numerous hours for a small adrenaline high, a very popular choice for modern day pirates. The second drug was a coffee in an area that is known for the origins of the bean. For me it was my second coffee ever and most likely my last as I don’t want to dilute the story of my coffees. Considering its traditional setting and the fact it was shared with locals I’m happy to retire (and to share the expanded story of the experience.)
A mere rope that hung in the air like a wayward branch marked the border between Ethiopia and Kenya for us it marked not only our fourth country but the beginning of what was reportedly the hardest section we would face.
It should be noted that despite the throwing practice I put in during my pub cricket training that not many rocks were thrown at us as warned by others who have ridden through Ethiopia. Perhaps they were pre-warned out about my well-aimed arm.