bicycle

PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT

Ethiopia: our first taste of Subsaharan Africa, our first mountains since Europe, and children galore

02/01/2011 METEMA (AT SUDANESE BORDER) TO BAHIR DAR (Hannah)

- Distance: 370km
- Total distance cycled since London: 5730km
- Top altitude on bike: 2240m
- Top altitude on foot: 3525m (hiking in Simien Mountains)
- Biggest climb on bike: 26km leading from 900m to 2240m altitude
- Bike issues: broken spoke (rear drive side, Reza's bike), punctures (rear tyre, Reza's bike)

The border crossing at Gallabat consisted of a sequence of improbable offices requesting the same standard details in each, interlinked by a "helper", a friendly guy who makes anything possible then charges an unfriendly and impossible sum - but overall, it was as straightforward as African standards permit.

We half expected to be met by a shower of stones on the Ethiopian side. We had been warned enough times by veteran Cairo-to-Cape cyclists of this Ethiopian phenomenon: the chanting ("youyouyouyou moneymoneymoneymoney") followed by stones whizzing by your head and sticks wacking your panniers (at worst, whips whipping your backs, or sticks ramming into your spokes) and it was with this fear in mind that we entered the country. A cup of fairly priced boona (spiced coffee) and 30 unbothered kilometres later, we relaxed enough to let down our defensive guard and interact with the folk in the village we'd reached. There was a hotel, it was cheap, and it had beer. Our first since Egypt! Beerfast was broken, with the accompaniment of a little injera (traditional fermented flat bread) and tibs (goat meat in a spicy sauce). A good rest was then necessary before the day that followed: as any map of Africa will show, the Ethiopian borders neatly outline a great mass of mountain. After 80km of warm up, we hit the first "wall" and spent the night at its base: though it was an early stop to the day, the truckers we met at a roadside cafe warned us of the 26km of steep uphill that lay ahead, so we left it until the morning. In fact, we'd anticipated this particular climb since London and had it mind during the more difficult days in the Mediterranean Alps. It was a threshold we had to pass. Contrary to our predecessors though, we were lucky enough to find a newly finished tarmac road on the ascent - so in a way, we had it easy. Still, it was a climb that would lead us from 900m to 2300m altitude in half a day. For the first 2km, we were followed by a cohort of children who took turns at pushing us with more or less effectiveness up the steepest part of the hill. Two Pepsi stops (we are boycotting Coca Cola), much sweat and only a rational amount of swearing later, wereached the top just in time for a well deserved lunch and the first of many a macchiato.

The downhill we earned was fabulous, and had we not discovered a new broken spoke on Reza's back wheel (drive side yet again), we would have made it to Gondar that night. Instead, we found ourselves in a village 30km away and thought it wiser to stop and take the time to fix the wheel in a relaxed fashion that evening. NOt so. As soon as we stopped and before we could work out whether there was a hotel there or not, we were surrounded by at least 100 bodies, their 200 eyes scrutinising us and a random number of arms reaching out to us or our bikes, for a more tangible assessment of the "farangis" that had just turned up in town. After a nervously drunk Pepsi (how did this happen? we are now regular fizzy drink consumers), we found out there was somewhere to stay and were led there by a few helpful young men, followed by the less helpful crowd. I don't know if they ever left. Some filtered into the hotel and as far as inside our room. The latter consisted of a cubby hole off a small corridor in the mud house, with space for one small bed and for the door to open. Privacy should have been achieved once the most persistant males were kicked out of the small room, but thanks to the 5cm gap between the door frame and the wall, we were never too far from prying eyes. The night was bewildering. We almost gave up on dinner for want of escaping the claustrophobia of the ever present people. We asked for the toilet, there was none. The back door was opened and we were offered the open space of a large court, onto which half of the village's houses looked. Free to go wherever we wanted. The little boy who'd opened the door "kept guard" (we think - why else would he watch us pee?). Our tiredness knocked us out, but it was not a restful night - the sound of rats directly above our heads on the tarpaulin that separated the room from the roofspace, and the advice to keep the light on in case they came in, saw to that. In the morning, and after repeating the toilet procedure in broad daylight with the entire village as spectators, we made our way out of town through the winding, narrow, uneven dirt streets filled with donkeys and more people than the dusty air could provide oxygen for. We couldn't shake the potent feeling of claustrophobia we both felt until the main road was within view and we could breathe again. We looked at eachother and agreed it was probably the poorest village either of us had ever seen.

Gondar is one of the larger towns, more accustomed to tourists, for better or for worse. We holed in at a decent hotel which would be our home for Christmas, de-lumbered ourselves of luggage and explored town. Macchiatos, macchiatos and more macchiatos were consumed, in the most Italian coffee shops outside of Italy. Fancy (art deco, apparently) interiors, charming balconies, immaculate waitressing, and mouth-watering cake displays: really? Ethiopia? Thanks Italy for at least one positive testimony of your short occupation. Gondar otherwise stands out as having once been the capital of Ethiopia, it's castle and grounds having been declared a world heritage site. Nearby Gondar are the even more famous Simien Mountains, where we spent two days hiking (our rest from the saddle) after Christmas. Breathtaking views, a welcome break from the crowds and noise, and large groups of entertaining and not unfriendly baboons: brilliant.

We returned to our bikes in Gondar and set off for Bahir Dar, another sizeable town on the shore of Lake Tana, to get there in time for New Year. From the topography on our map it looks as though it should be a fairly level ride, but we found there to be two decent mountains mid-route, which we tackled on the same day. We were invariably hounded on the ascents by more and more aggressive children and teenagers, some of which would threaten us with large rocks whilst demanding money, others with the sickles they had just returned from the fields with. Once the crest was reached, we were generally safe; from the 6km/hr uphill grind, we sped up to 55km/hr leaving them to aimlessly throw the few pebbles that remained in their hands at our backs. The reward of our struggles was the descent of the second mountain at sunset, flying down the Southern, extremely beautiful, face.

Anyone travelling through Ethiopia, and particularly those who do so by bicycle, will have been somehow marked by it's children. Ever present, ever grubby, and ever begging, from the most annoying stone-throwing rascals to the sweetest natured few. Poverty in Ethiopia is of the in-your-face type. Where in Sudan, it was somewhat masked by the giving nature of the people, here it is blatant and completely unavoidable. Begging is most people's second nature, and farangis are of course a favourite target. It is difficult to deal with and I plea with anyone who has the wisdom to tell us what is best to do. Knowing that Ethiopia's economy actually relies, to a huge percentage, on international aid, doesn't help the perception that here, people take it for granted that free help will be available whenever needed and that Western coutries have the responsibility of mothering Ethiopia indefinitely. How does this actually help anything? And yet, when it gets down to it, how can you deny a child who is simply asking for a meal or a fruit juice?

We celebrated the New year with a group of young people from the American Peace Corps after couchsurfing with Kyle, who has just finished his 2 year service. They offered us some interesting insight into the world of volunteering in Ethiopia and life as a farangi here. Now we've just come from sitting for a few hours with some fresh pineapple juice at our campsite next to the lake, pouring over the Michelin map and deciding what
route to take next - there is a lot to see in a definite period of time, and as we learn more about each country we are next to enter, the route invariably takes a new course. The most immediate decision is whether to take the trickier and less travelled road through the Omo Valley to Kenya, or stick to the traditional border crossing at Moyale... we still have the hills between here and Addis Abeba to make up our minds!

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