Friday, November 17, 2017

Bike Touring Northern Ethiopia - Part One

A new friend trying out Ash's steed
The first installment of a series of posts on our travels in Ethiopia.  The Blue Nile river trip came first, but the bike trip is now foremost on my mind and chronology doesn't really matter anyway.....

Ash and I connected easily at the Addis Ababa airport, and got onto a connecting flight to Makele, one of the capitals of Tigray, which is (maybe?) the state that comprises most of the north of Ethiopia.  I was a little concerned that the bike boxes might be too big for our plane, and after spending $400 to get our 2 bikes to Ethiopia it was going to hurt a bit to pay yet again, yet we were checked in with no mention of either luggage size or additional birr (the Ethiopian currency, which conveniently was devalued by the Prime Minister while I was on the river; good for exports (??) and tourists, but not great for the local economy.....).

Ash had a quick nap and a decent nighttime sleep and was ready to launch on our 100km first day.  As we rolled through town a guy came up behind us and said "where you go?" and I was surprised to see that he was on a pretty nice bike.  Turns out he's not only a road racer type but also a mechanic, and he insisted on giving me his phone number "just in case" we had some bike issues, which seemed like a good idea.
Gigi, the first of our many spontaneous and gracious Ethiopian benefactors!
We rolled out of town and up the first climb we were surprised to see a small pack of full-on roadie guys doing intervals on the 1000' climb on the outskirts of town.  And even more surprised to see another posse, and then another.  Apparently Makele is a hotbed of road cycling, and it was odd to see these kitted-out guys on sweet bikes amongst the other rattletrap bikes that plied the town roads.  I tried to get a pic but they flew past us in both directions too fast for me to grab my camera!

It is not a solid Ash and Tom bike tour without a major mechanical issue to happen in the first bit (broken derailleur in Boulder, UT, a fallen-off crank near Price, a frozen freehub in Vietnam), and this adventure began accordingly.  I was rolling along when suddenly my rear wheel skidded to a stop, almost throwing me over the bars.  I glanced back and my heart sank:  a split rim.
 Old school (ie non-disk) brakes wear down rims  - especially in places like sandy southern Utah - and I hadn't noticed that my rim was deeply grooved.  The only fix was a new wheel.  I immediately thought of our new bike wrench friend Gigi back in Makele and I said to Ash "we gotta go back to Makele (knowing how much we both hate backtracking) but she said "call him and see if there's something ahead.  As always, she has wise thoughts, so I called him and he said the next town had a shop, and as I hung up Ash flagged down a passing pickup and we were on our way.

"Bike shops" in Ethiopia basically consist of a guy alongside the road with a toolbox. 
at the bike shop
We found that town's local guy, and he said "no problem", and next thing I knew he was stripping my wheel of spokes.  I've seen other people tape the new rim to the old and move spokes over, but apparently that's not the Ethiopian way.  Once he had it stripped he leapt on his bike, raced off, and a few minutes later returned with a brand new rim.  An hour later it was laced up and ready to go.  To be sure, it took a lot of finessing and I still have a bit of a lump-lump in the wheel - which doesn't help a butt that's lost its saddle-toughness after a month+ off the bike - but it spins, and that's all I need.  And I guess one gets what one pays for; the whole deal was about $10.
The mechanic's honey spoke good english and was excited that we had actually done the 24 hours of Moab featured on her shirt!
Back on bikes we continued to roll northward on a beautiful, uncrowded road (though it was the main highway) towards an area that was polluted with the "rock hewn" churches that this area is known for.  Around the 6th century as Christianity was taking hold in Ethiopia they decided to make easily-defendable and durable churches by digging straight into sandstone cliffs up high and building churches literally into the rock. As such, of course it's a big draw for dork tourist white people.   And also as such, it's a ripe area for a couple of phat lodges that cater exclusively to dork tourists, and we were headed for one:  Gheralta Lodge.  We knew that it was owned by an Italian couple and was nearly impossible to book due to its popularity, but when we rolled up we found that a large crew had left (by helicopter!) a day early and they were wide open.  We are suckers for these fancy eco lodges, and we had no problem throwing down plenty of birrs for the sweet place and delicious Italian food (due to two occupations by Italy, the "other" food in Italy is Italian, which is handy if cheesy white folks tire of injeera and roasted lamb). 
Our notso humble accommodations

Ash roughing it in deepest darkest Africa
We met a great English couple there; the guy is a surgeon who specializes in cleft-palate reparations; when you see those tear-jerking mailers from philanthropic NGO's who sponsor this surgery, this is the guy who is actually doing it!


hanging out with other new friends. 
Africa is clearly tough livin'....
And the next morning we rolled down the road 10km more to the....next Italian-owned eco lodge with scrumptious food!  (complete with actual swiss cheese that had been hand-carried by other customers from Switzerland). 
Ash once again roughing it.


The terrain looked a lot like Utah; we wondered why we had flown halfway around the world to get Zion-esque views! 

A traffic jam in Ethiopia's Moab
Given the fuzzy beta we had we hired a guide to take us to a couple of the churches.  These Christians earn their worshipping!  One involved a 1500' climb up a steep lower slope, a mid-cliff slot canyon, and then "moki" (Ethiopi?) steps carved into sandstome to ascend to the church.
a fun slot canyon approach

The other involved an easy fifth-class medium-length climb to a 2-foot ledge with a 200m vertical face below; not for the faint of heart (and we saw a few white folks who were a bit faint of heart).

Some are caves, some are combos of cave and built-on, like this one.  

The idea of digging into solid rock for a church construction method itself was remarkable, but the interiors were equally so.  Huge columns held the place in place:


the books are really big (made of goat skin) and really old...
and the frescoes inside were incredibly detailed, colorful, and painted even on flat and rounded ceilings.
Mary the babe are almost always featured prominently
Ash hanging out in the cubby hole that apparently was carved so that the monks could sit and look out the window as they meditated.  
One of said monks
Looking pretty regal....
 shoes are not allowed in the churches, so for this one they aren't allowed on the last climb either!  
The first church was up on the peak to the left.

another bizzy day for the "guards" of the churches.  The guy in the middle just got up and wandered up to the church with us, then asked for about $8 to do it! I gave him about $4 to be nice....
we needed a tuk tuk to get to this one.  I wondered if he had 3WD? 

After a full day of rock-hewn church-ogling we retired back to the lodge for another evening of roughing it in the wilds of Africa.  And we began to plot our next move.  As I mentioned in part zero, prior to the trip we had paid a nice guy to help us create a good route in Ethiopia, but as we rode and the maps started to take on more life, we became recalcitrant customers and basically decided to throw out his route and do our own, despite our good rationale for hooking up with a guy who knows the country and the best bike touring pretty well.  Our new route would be a near-loop and take us up into the Simien mountains - which is one of the biggest/baddest ranges in Ethiopia and has lots of wildlife - and into the city of Gonder that has plenty of dork tourist things to see. And Dork Tourists we were:
"which way to the sights?!"
Enough for now....more riding and touristo sights to come, and I'll also take the time to show some mappage to put Africa, Ethiopia, and Tigray into perspective. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Blue Nile - part zero

Many years ago, not long after I met Ashley, I had so many adventures that I wanted to do that I came up with a "bucket list" of trips before the term "bucket list" became common.  Before that and since then I've had the good fortune to do a lot of good adventures around the US, Canada, Asia, South America, and Europe, but a big void for me was Africa.  The vastness and diversity of the entire Africa continent is pretty overwhelming; it could fit the US, Mexico, India, China, Japan, and Western Europe all with its land mass!
So with such a huge area and so many different countries, climates, and things to do I was a little overwhelmed with where to go and what to actually decide to do there.  So on my bucket list I simply wrote "Do Africa".  Which Ash of course thought was hilarious: to this day every once in a while she'll come home and say something to the effect of "did you do Africa today?" or "Are you doing Africa next week?" And the truth is that after all that time, and all the options that doing Doing Africa represented, I still haven't been there.  Long ago I did a few memorable weeks in Egypt which is of course technically on the African continent, but it's much more Middle East than what I consider to be Africa (what do I consider to be Africa?  I barely know).

However, the day has come:  I'm finally off to Do Africa!

But of course, not quite.  I'm headed to Ethiopia,

where I'm going to join my old buddy and nutjob river explorer Rocky Contos to float the Blue Nile, which - along with the White Nile forms (not surprisingly) The Nile, the longest river on the planet.  It's not the biggest (the Amazon is by far the biggest in terms of discharge, putting out more water into the Atlantic than the next seven biggest rivers combined!) but the Nile is probably the most important in terms of populations of people that depend on it for life.
After the confluence with the White Nile it flows through the rest of Sudan and all of Egypt, where most of that country's population lives within a few miles of the river bank.  
Rocky has been on a tear for the last few years: he's been doing multiple trips per year down the Rio Maranon in Peru (biggest source for the Amazon) and been working on trying to stop the multiple dams that threaten that, the Salween in Mynamar (one of the biggest rivers in Asia), the Ususmacinta (Mexico's biggest river), the Grande Colorado in Argentina (one of the biggest rivers in South America after the Amazon), this year he did the Rhone (one of Europe's biggest), and also fit in a trip down the Grand Canyon with Eric Weihenmayer that was recently chronicled in his new book "No Barriers" (Eric is blind; a big challenge to successful kayaking, and he mostly followed the soft-spoken Rocky down the rapids!).  Rocky has become a legend in the riparian world; even before his global gallivants he was famous (infamous?) for his solo river escapades (here's an article I wrote about Rocky in a 2007 issue of American Whitewater) and even today's (and yesterday's) professional kayakers (if there are such people any more) would likely agree that Rocky is the most intrepid river explorer of his time.  That said, over the last few years Rocky has spent less time doing his legendary solo descents and spent more time enabling others to join him on these big trips, partly because it's what he does, and partly because many of the rivers he's doing are endangered by dams.

The Blue Nile is no exception.  Ethiopia is in the final stages of completing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near the Sudan border; it's the 7th largest dam in history, will take 5-15 years to fill, and has been very controversial since it was first proposed years ago.  As mentioned above, Egypt is absolutely dependent on the Nile, and they are naturally very distrustful of a neighbor who will soon retain the ability to mete out water on its own terms and Egypt has actively sought to stop construction since it was first proposed in the 1950's.  As it's being finished Egypt is still trying to deny it; here is an article from July where Egypt is freaking out about the fact that there's a pool forming behind the dam.

Rocky did a recon trip down the Blue Nile in July (at higher water during the summer monsoons) and asked me to join him for that, but given the awesomeness of the trip I thought Ash would want to go and high summer doesn't work for her, so we signed on for a longer raft trip in November.  However, she couldn't do a monthlong trip and we assumed that there would be other people coming in and out of the river, but as it turns out all the participants have figured out a way to spend a month on the river, so she'd be on her own going in and out, and that - along with a few other reasons - was a bit of a deterrent for her.  Rocky isn't able to go on that trip himself but is going down on a trip in October, and once that all became clear I decided to change course and go down for the October trip.  It kinda kills me to miss October in Utah; as with a lot of places it's one of the best months to play in both the mountains and the desert, but so it goes.

As we discussed this trip and other fall plans, Ash had still had time blocked out for a trip and we discussed a bike tour as we've done the last few falls, and when we determined that I was going to be in a fun, beautiful, interesting, and warm place post-monsoon we decided that she can come meet me for a bike tour in Ethiopia.  So after I am off the river she will make journey down - with my bike, as well as hers - to do a bike tour.

After our tour of Vietnam a few years ago where we felt like we didn't nail our route choice very well (we weren't able to glean beforehand the amount of construction and busy-ness on the roads we chose) and the fact that blogs about cycling Ethiopia talk a lot about dodging rocks thrown by locals in some regions we thought it would be helpful to get some on-the-ground beta by someone who knows the area well, and found Richard of Tadele Travel, who is indulging our "we don't want an organized tour" mentality (even as I'm going on an organized river trip) and helping us design a good route.  I hope to be able to meet Richard in person; he's a former British Olympic runner (2:10 marathoner) and his partner on another deal in Ethiopia is Haile Gebrselassie, who is arguably the greatest distance runner in history.  

Speaking of organized trips, I keep saying how much I love simple, self-contained kayak trips, yet keep finding myself going on big raft trips!  But every time I do, I don't really anticipate how much fun I'll have with the varied folks on the trips, and this one - at a month long! - will let us all get to know each other very well, for better or worse!

One of the interesting aspects of African rivers - indeed, maybe a lot of places in Africa? - is the presence of large animals that have no problems killing people.  Rocky saw 274 crocodiles on his recon trip (yes, he counted them all) and crocs have been known to kill kayakers, and hippos pose a pretty big (so to speak) problem as well.  After my experience this past spring with another large animal that has no problem killing people I of course am a bit concerned at their ability to out-athleticize kayakers:
Thanks to Bryan Tooley, whose son William is on the trip as well, for this daunting imagery!
But there are good ways to mitigate this danger....mostly, when the river is flat (where crocs tend to lurk)  I'll likely be sunning myself on the raft instead of in the kayak!  And today I'm starting to take steps to alleviate the dangers associated with the second-most dangerous animal on earth:
that kills 750,000 people per year!

The most dangerous animal?  Us!  Between war, genocides, and homicides we are particularly deadly.  Which was particularly acute last week, when a friend of Rocky's was killed on the lower Amazon by bandits (this UK news story's video was shot by Rocky in June).  Floating rivers in tropical zones where foreign river runners (rightly) are perceived as rich and intrusive is not the same deal as our relatively remote and civilized Western rivers.  But Rocky has paved the way for a good relationship with the river's occupants and the cultural aspects of this journey should be a highlight.

I am leaving today, hoping to easily check a Liquid Logic hardshell kayak (I should be bringing my pack raft!) and six Cataract oars in addition to my own river bag onto the plane, but it will be a good test for Ash checking two bike bags in a month. I may have a chance to throw up a quick blawg post from Addis Ababa (the capital city) before we head for the river, but more likely I'll update at the end of October when we get off the river.  In the meantime, here are some of Rocky's pics from his July descent.

Finally Doing Africa!


Friday, September 15, 2017

Pack Rafting the Grand Canyon of the Elwha


I first heard about the Grand Canyon of the Elwha in about nineteen hundred and ninety two.  At that time I was an enthusiastic kayaker who - along with Mike Elovitz and Michele Martin (Gray) and other pards - was paddling all sorts of class 3 and 4 rivers in northern Oregon and southern Washington and theoretically was aspiring to do harder rivers that were farther afield but never really got the experience or confidence to do them.  And one of the mythical rivers was the Elwha:  deep, dark, difficult, and foreboding, with must-run, difficult-to-scout class 5 rapids and  - gasp - you had to hike every inch that you paddled!  There were so many great rivers to do that had easy access to the put ins and takeouts that the concept of carrying your empty kayak more than a couple hundred yards was never really considered, much less carrying a kayak loaded with gear and food for overnight trips.  One of Michele's friends was a top level paddler at the time and definitely had the temerity and skills to tackle something like the Elwha and dragged his boat the 9 miles in, only to find that he had ground a substantial hole in his boat; self-bailing kayaks don't really work that well.

Lo these many more years hence and I've paddled a fair number of challenging rivers, tho not so many over the last few years, and even though I've done a number of trips to Washington, the Olympic Peninsula was just that much farther than the rest of the state, and the Elwha only really "goes" in the summer after the snowmelt and rain that feeds the other rivers that lured us to the area, so it had pretty much fallen off my radar.

That said, the Elwha did make national news in the late 90's and early 2000's when it became the first American river to be seriously considered for the removal of its ancient dams.   The river flows off the northern side of the Olympic mountains down to the Straight of Juan de Fuca:
the square is where the Olympics are

some detail:

and is only 45 miles long, but its presence in one of the world's great rainforests made it an early target for dam builders, and starting around 1910 an individual built two dams on the lower reaches for hydro power.  This was devastating to the watershed; the Elwha is one of the only rivers in the country that supported all the big salmon species of the Northwest:  Chinook, coho, chum, steelhead, pink, and sockeye, as well as bull and cutthroat trout.  The pre-dam salmon runs were thought to be in the 400,000 fish range; post-dam this number had dropped to a dismal 3000, and the effects on the watershed (salmon predators, the riparian environment that depends on fish poo and carcasses, and the lack of a sediment-deposit delta at the Strait) were considerable.   Washington state actually anticipated such a scenario, and according to an 1890 statute:  "Fish passage devices must be built wherever fish are wont to ascend" but the dam builder ignored this (they pursued him, and he tried to mitigate by building a hatchery, but it was a shit show and never worked).

The dams generated about a third of the power needs for a mill in Port Angeles, but under pressure started by the local native tribe and then pursued by the likes of the Sierra Club, American Rivers, and others throughout the 80's the concept of dam removal became more realistic.  It finally became a hot political topic in the late 90's with Washington's two senators being strongly split on the subject, but ultimately Republican Slade Gordon - who had actively campaigned against removal - relented and the land was conveyed to the Department of Interior which was to organize the removal.  It was at this time that I was reminded of the Elwha, since I was working at Patagonia and Yvon Chouinard - who hates dams more than most folks - got involved in the effort as well.

It took another decade to get the project going, and $300M+ later (the 2nd biggest renewal project the National Park Service has ever undertaken, after the Florida Everglades restoration) both the dams were taken out, which set the stage for a cascade (if you will) of dams to follow:  Marmot on the Sandy in Oregon, Condit on the White Salmon in Washington (the link is a video; the first two mins are really cool), and - this summer, with a huge effort by one of my Arctic pards Brad Meikeljohn - the Eklutna river dam near Anchorage, among others (the Matilija dam, near Yvon's house in Ventura and another worthless piece of shit dam, still stands, despite his efforts there).

All that said, the dams did not affect the dramatic canyons upstream; Lake Mills - formed by the Glines dam - came up to the mouth of the canyon, but not into it, so paddling the stretch has always been an option for the intrepid.  

Which led to a couple of weeks ago when Mike Curiak asked me if I was interested in the GC of the Elwha, and instantly it came back on the radar.  The new generation of pack rafts are absolutely viable for class 4+ whitewater, and combined with the packability of them makes them the perfect craft for and adventure like this, and I felt a little sheepish that I hadn't thought of it myself!  The online videos that we found made the canyon sections indeed look pretty intimidating, but we were planning on being in there with about half the flow that we saw in those videos, which we hoped would enable potentially-less commitment to the unportageable/unscoutable gnar.  And Mike - being at the nexus of many strong adventurers, also had another good pard in Thor Tingey, one of the owners of Alpacka pack rafts, so we had a good threesome.  After a surprisingly-little amount of emailed organizing conversations, we were headed for Washington, with our incredibly-compact crafts in our checked baggage.

Our first adventure started at the trailhead, when in the gratuitious gear clustering Mike gave one of those sort of desperate "ooohhh" sounds that makes your heart sink, 'cause it's bad.  No spray skirt. But another great benefit of having Thor along is that not only does he have a good solution to the problem, he is probably the only guy willing to do it:  cut holes in the bottom of his boat!  Though kayaks can't be self-bailers, rafts can, and one of the models that Alpacka sells is indeed a self-bailer, so Thor just cut holes in his floor and gave his skirt to Mike.
Mike anxiously watching Thor cut holes in (Thor's) boat.  
And with that we were marching happily up the trail!

I grew up in Oregon and "know" rain forests, but it still always amazes me at how green it is up there, how big the trees get, especially on the Olympic Peninsula.
It's kinda hard to be a Tree Hugger when the trees are this big!
a crazily-barked tree
Mike tried to count the rings but got tired....
something tells me that even if no one was arounds, this one made a big noise when it went down....

You don't see funghi like this in Utah....
And after a few hours of hiking (on the trail high above the river) we were at the river's edge, which made for a nice camp.
Looks pretty mellow; how hard can it be downstream? 

Shortly below this the walls rose up abruptly and - as nearly is always the case when that happens - the rapids began. The first rapid of note is Eskimo Pie, likely named for its mostly-white (water) filling that's punctuated by black ledges.  Scouting only happens from above, and if you don't want to run it....well, you probably shouldn't have gone there in the first place.  That said, the water was low enough that we were able to delicately portage the first ledge hole, which had a ferocious boil coming up from the tumult of the ledge drop, and the move was to slide off the rock and  - again, delicately - slide across the top of the boil with the intent to come off of it going downstream and not get sucked into the hole you just portaged.

Fortunately the remainder of the ledge holes downstream were not as sticky and we were able to bob down them with only a couple of boof strokes to sail over the holes.
all of the good pics here are Mike's; mine are the blurry/poorly composed ones!  
clearly my photo, but barely worth including to prove that indeed Alpackas boof!
The next obstacle was the one we were most worried about:  any rapid called "Nightmare" probably isn't one that river runners will be keen for.  Again, only really scoutable from the top and a mandatory run due to the vertical walls, but Nightmare has the added bonus of a bit of a web of big logs at the bottom.  Helmet cam video we'd seen on the interwebs at high water made it look like you had to try to literally crash through a hole between logs and was unnerving at best.  But from our vantage point above it appeared that at our lower water level the rapid ended just above the logs and not only was there only just current there but also possibly an eddy, and again the top of the rapid was the gnarliest bit that was portageable so we could slide into the heart of the rapid with confidence that we wouldn't be heading into the log fence out of control.  And thus it came to pass:
Thor boldly charging towards the fence

getting closer.....
Mike's POV as he's blasting towards the fence. 
indeed there was much rejoicing at having cleared what we thought would be the most challenging part of the journey.

After paddling another half day of great class 4ish rapids in the beautiful gorge the walls suddenly fell away and we were in the canyon between the canyons where it was open, inviting, and campable.
The next morning we paddled another short distance downstream and again the walls rose up abruptly and we entered another deep and darkly-greened gorge.

 "Goblin's Gate" was the first rapid, which - yet again - had the gnar up top, but this time the scout came with a price tag; the "eddy" to get out was basically a packraft-sized bit of still-pretty-swiftly-moving water right at the horizon.  With the information from Mike (who had waded downstream a bit, which itself was not an insignificant move) Thor was able to drive into another mid-river micro eddy and then drive across the current and - taking advantage of his skirt-less boat - leap out of it and onto the rocks.  A solid, bold, and necessary move, done at the lip of the drop that we indeed did portage.  But the rest of the rapid went just fine, as did the good number of class 3-4 rapids downstream that were exciting enough to keep us on our toes but let us look up and marvel at the gorge that indeed Goblins most certainly love.
Mike getting a faceful

and keeping those paddle strokes in tight!

Based on the height of the logs above the river, there has clearly been some real water flowing through here.... 

Only in the northwest are the slugs keen to pack raft....

And soon enough we popped out of the canyon.

I felt pretty giddy; not only had we successfully gotten through a challenging section of river that I'd heard about for about 25 years, but we were bobbing merrily down a river:
that used to be a lake.
It's not a section that is "worth" paddling on its own, but the presence of moving water and the clear ability of the river and the riparian environment to have repaired itself so much in such a short time made me pleased that the federal government can indeed do good deeds and also validated the financial support that I've made for lo these many years to environmental activist groups.
silt buildup behind the old dam. 
Approaching the old dam
Unfortunately, the section below the upper dam is apparently filled with riprap from the broken dam itself that has been taken downriver during floods and thus is dangerous to paddle; the irony of this was not lost on us (the class 2-3 canyon used to be rafted commercially).  A cost for sure, but the various salmon species are no doubt charging up past the debris with nary a slight deviation from their spawning missions.

Thanks again to Thor for the idea, Mike for spearheading the trip (and letting me poach his great pics), inviting me along, and both for being great pards on a challenging excursion.
our favorite shot from the trip: clear water, great rapids, and beautiful rock in a stunning gorge