Friday, December 1, 2017

Bike Touring Ethiopia - part 2

A quick overview of Ethiopia and where we were:
It's on the "Great Horn" of Africa, and we were in the top third of the country. 

This is our route; we were quite close to the Eritrean border, with Lake Tana (the source of the Nile where I had started the rive trip) to the left.  
Back to the trip....

After a good day of tromping around looking at the cool rock-hewn churches we hit the road again, and had to deal with a lot of traffic:
there wasn't any signs for "camel crossing" but they are big enough to be signs themselves

It didn't matter where we were or how remote we felt, there were always folks walking the roads and working:
the Princess Leia look has gotten popular in Ethiopia
And we had riding company at times:
Though ironically, despite long distances between towns, bikes were surprisingly rare.  
The Ethiopian people are super friendly and always waved, and kids in particular got really excited when we rolled through:
Running after us.  And it's easy to see why these folks do well on the international running scene; they were fast! 
The kid thing proved to be a little problematic at times.  Most of the time they'd yell "You you you!" (not sure what that meant) or  - more often - "Money" or "Pen".  I'm not sure who the tourists were who long ago started giving kids pens and money, but they created a million-headed monster.  Sometimes the kids would be running behind us and try to grab our bikes via the panniers or rack, but we developed a good technique for that:  just slam on the brakes, which would result in the offending kid slamming into the back of the bike and the rest would scatter.

We had read some blog posts by cyclists in Ethiopia who had experienced a fair bit of rock throwing by kids, and one reason for contacting the British guy who did guided tours was to get a sense of the areas where this wasn't as much of a problem.  He had assured us that the route that he suggested for us had locals who were more accustomed to seeing cyclists and this wasn't a problem, and it really wasn't while we were in the suggested zone, but....we distinctly left his itinerary, and sure enough the farther from that we were, the more rock-throwing we experienced.  It was never malicious; it was pretty much just 10-12 year old boys doin' what they do, and at times - despite our annoyance - it was kinda fun to "combat" them; Ash once veered towards a kid who was zeroing in on messing with her and he in turn veered away....only to charge headlong into an acacia tree branch "fence" loaded with spines, and I surprised a few by charging off the road and chasing them through fields on my bike.

The older kids hooted and hollered at us  -especially as they got out of their (color-coded) schools:
Ash fitting in well at the Blue School
But generally left us alone.

Since we veered off the suggested route we were flying a little blind in terms of details; we had maps that showed distances and a bit of shading for topography but we didn't really know how hilly the terrain was.  As some of the pics above suggest, we had an easy half day of flat spinning, and then it got a bit more real:
And as we got up around 130km with an hour and a half of daylight left and quite a few more kms to go we once again relied on the kindness of locals to throw our bikes into their pickup and shuttle us in towards the next town.

Aksum is a city that was the capital of Ethiopia for many years (long long ago) and is has a fair bit of stuff that tourists like (churches and museums).  So we obliged:
Our first stop: a bunch of fences that was apparently Queen Sheba's palace.  

It was a good thing that this was our first destination of interest, since it wasn't very interesting!  
In town we found more interesting stuff:
These huge obelisks have a bunch of Christian meaning (I kinda lost track of what it was) 

They apparently were originally raised via elephant-power, and now are held up by big cables.  
There is a church in Aksum that supposedly houses the Ark of the Covenant, which I only knew from Raiders of the Lost Ark; the big chest where Moses kept the 10 Commandments.  Apparently whoever looks inside it dies, as per the guy who melted in the movie.  Fortunately, they don't let anyone inside that church, or else I'da likely succumbed to curiosity and tempted fate and taken a peek.

There was also a church that had an inexplicable rule:

Which made part of our team pretty mad.  And it was pretty cool inside:

But Ash was able to entertain herself with more interesting locals than the sexist monks

and found some peanut butter!

While we wandered about town we had a very distinguished gentleman guard our steeds:
And then we were back on the road
The river in the background is the Takeze, which is a fairly major tributary of the Nile and runs for thousands of miles and meets the main stem deep in Sudan.  This was the physical low point of our tour, at 2700 feet, and it was dang hot, and hilly
some amazing snaky descents.  

the grades were almost never more than 7%, which is a great grade for both climbing and descending.  
We had a bit of traffic:
we loved the pink kit

The crowd was going wild as she charged up the climb! 
The roads were built by the Italians long ago, hence their quality, but they were only paved in the last few years in a huge effort funded by the Chinese government, which has cooked up a great deal:  the Chinese government loans the money to the Ethiopian government with the stipulation that Chinese road makers get the contract and used cheap Ethiopian labor to execute it.  But not without a price:
The goat is unimpressed by the loss of life associated with road building.  
These coupla days were the most remote of our journey, but despite that, there were plenty of people on the roads

And the villages that we passed through always had a good foosball tourney going:
Ethiopians have great smiles. 
There were towns/villages sporadically throughout this region (including some Eritrean refugee camps) and out here in the hinterlands we really attracted the most attention.  In one village I was at a little kiosk buying some water and snacks and we were getting pressed in on all sides by locals who had to touch our bikes and yammer at us in Amharic, and over the din I heard Ash bleat:  "Buddy, I'm getting pretty claustrophobic here!"  I debated for a moment as to what to do, took a deep breath, and very abruptly "blew up" and bellowed at the top of my lungs "ALL RIGHT!  ENOUGH!  GET THE HELL OUT OF OUR WAY!"  and acted really mad, even though I was sorta cracking up inside.  And it worked; my faux tantrum made the large crowd scatter - even as they were laughing, knowing full well I was overacting - and we pedaled onward.  
Not the same crowd, but you get the idea.
 Our destination was the Simien Mountains, which go from about 9000 feet on up to the highest peak in Ethiopia at over 14,000 feet, and also is home to mountain baboons, Ethiopian wolves, and Ibex.   As such, it's a big tourist destination, and also as such, it is home to a couple of phat lodges, one of which is called the Limalimo lodge, which goes for way too much money a night, but is super cool.  En route to there, we stayed in a couple of towns where we guessed we were the first white people to ever stay there, and the rooms were about $6/night, and were worth every penny! (and not a penny more!).  But the food was still great, and the locals were super friendly:
These guys spoke pretty good english and busted out their dictionaries to follow our Scrabble game
A bit of miscommunication in the morning resulted in a bit bigger breakfast than we bargained for:
These white people on bikes must have to eat a lot!
The terrain below the Simien Mountains was quite hilly itself, and we had a lot of great climbs and descents;
note the rocks in the road.  Not a lot of traffic in these parts; we probably saw an average of about a dozen cars per hour.  
and we knew that there was one long section of unpaved, bouncy riding, which generally is not a big deal but it also corresponded with a steady 5000 foot climb and the day we did it seemed to be unusually hot.  

Knowing that I rarely let a bike tour go by without at least one day of solid bonkage and dehydration I tried to camel up on food and water, but to no avail; I was fading down the rabbit hole.  We stopped for a rest and I tried to hammer down more water, but within a few minutes I was pedaling squares again, but as fate would have it, we came upon a spring; one of the only springs we saw on the trip. 
However, this didn't cut it.  I needed something else, and things were a bit grim; there was almost no traffic so it wasn't very hitchable, we still had a ways to go, it was getting late, and my legs were cramping from my ass to my feet.  A car came along with two Ethiopian couples who stopped to also water up at the spring, and of course asked if we were ok (since I was pretty much pale as a ghost and collapsed on the ground) and Ash said "Do you happen to have any Cokes?"  Alas they did not, and drove off.  I tried to ride again, cramped, and retreated back to the cool shade of the spring, while Ash tried to figure out the next move.  But suddenly, about 20 minutes later, the car we had seen earlier came barreling back down the road, the guy leaped out, and in his hand were.....two ice cold Cokes! Such great people.  

I drink about 3 Cokes a year, and generally am not psyched about either the product (too sweet, even for my sweet teeth) nor the company (huge global influence promoting bad teeth and obesity via addictive marketing of a fizzy caramel drink).  But that day I slugged those two Cokes down and they pretty much brought me back from the dead.  Within 5 minutes I was able to leap onto my steed and rage up the last third of the climb!  

That is, until we hit the plateau and saw the sign:  "Limalomo Lodge, 800m".  Since I rarely drink such sugary drinks in big efforts I also rarely get the post-buzz crash, but as we neared the top of the climb I kinda felt it coming on.  But whatever, 800m; how hard can that be?  But in that last 800m up the gravel driveway we probably climbed 200m.   I ground slowly up the driveway feeling worse by the half-second and feeling the familiar cramp in my legs -and this time, in my arms as well - and at the end of the drive it turned to a steep path.  We pushed our bikes on up to the lovely lodge perched on the mountainside, and as all the white tourists were in the large living room checking their phones, sipping their cocktails, and enjoying the sunset they looked up, surprised and horrified as I stumbled in, caked with dust and dried sweat, pretty much swooning, and only able to utter one word:  "Coke!"  

Next up:  the Simien Mountains and Lalibela. 


  1. Superb story and what an adventure! Many of your experiences reminiscent of my/our time in Ethiopia. What an amazing country - beautiful in all ways. Did it stop reminding you of Utah at some point?

  2. Wow! I love your adventure... so glad you made it up to the hut on the hill for your “coke” and hopefully awesome food..:) Great photos of locals... the slamming the breaks sounds drastic... looking forward to part III... Margot