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Cycling the Lower Omo Valley to Omorate and on to West Turkana

We would have loved to stay in Addis Ababa for Christmas. But, alas, we had to race to Kenya before our visas expired on the 31st December.

From Addis Ababa, the conventional route to Kenya is the road directly south towards Moyale. However, the first few hundred kilometers of the road in Northern Kenya is renowned for bandits and we’d therefore either have to take transport or an unnecessary risk.

Another option was to head southwest from Addis into the remote tribal lands of Ethiopia before crossing the border at the northwest of Lake Turkana in a no-mans-land between Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. This route isn’t without its dangers though. But, for the touring cyclist, it offers the chance to see various tribes up close and to visit one of the remotest parts of Africa. We decided to give it a go.

Once we escaped the traffic on the road out of Addis, we had a straightforward 80km to Kela on decent road. Except, that is, for the reemergence of the children who, at each and every opportunity shouted the country-wide catchphrase of youyouyouyouyouyouy…moneymoneymoneymoney…penpenpenpenpen whilst running after us. Rocks were thrown.

Kids would run for miles for the chance to shout at us

Kids would run for miles for the chance to shout at us

At Kela, we checked into a grotty ‘hotel’ in the centre of town. We couldn’t blame them for not having running water or a reliable power supply. But we both took exception to the turd we found in the sink of our en-suite ‘bathroom’. Luckily for the boy I made to clean it up, it wasn’t a fresh one so he was able to chip away at it until it came off the basin.

The next morning we passed through Butajira and were astonished to find a plush western-style hotel. We stopped for a cup of tea in the marble-clad restaurant and decided that, as it was Christmas day, we would find somewhere nice to stay that evening where, hopefully, there wouldn’t be any poos in the basin to greet us.

We aimed towards Hosaina where we had been promised a decent hotel and since it was Christmas Day we were extra motivated to reward ourselves with a cold beer and a pizza.

Further down the road, we looked in dismay at our intended turnoff towards Hosaina because the road was nothing but a stretch of rubble. We opted to continue on the tar road but this meant a longer cycle without knowing what the elevation was going to be like.

We didn’t think the road would be too hilly, but we were taken by surprise.

We spent 10 hours in the saddle on Christmas day. We covered 145km and ascended over 1,600 meters. All to the constant and irritating accompaniment of youyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyouyou, moneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoneymoney and rocks thrown at us regularly. All Emily could think about all day was her new-found dislike for Bob Geldof as she spent the entire day singing “Do they know it’s Christmas?” and, perhaps unjustifiably, blaming him for the rock throwing child beggars.

Utterly exhausted, we eventually got to Hosaina and limped into the first western-looking hotel we could find. We stumped up an extortionate (550 Birr/£17 for the night compared to our usual 100Birr/£3.00 per night). But, it was Christmas and we thought we’d give ourselves a treat. The 566% increase in cost did not equate to a similar increase in service though. Although we enjoyed cool beers, a pizza and a comfy bed, we had to endure the sound of the very loud Christian Orthodox church across the road wailing all night and, at 3am, I woke the pigeon that had been sleeping in the bathroom and spent 15 minutes trying to catch it as it flapped around the room.

Christmas dinner for us was avery meaty pizza. With orange! (Emily is trying to catch the attention of the waiter!)

Christmas dinner for us was avery meaty pizza. With orange!

 

We had a similarly tough ride the next day to Sodo. We saw the first troop of baboons of the trip cross the road ahead of us but the day’s ride itself was made worse by the children and villagers.

As we approached each village, high-pitched screams of “Farange!” would greet us from the sidelines. These shouts rippled up the road before us until the whole village knew to expect us so they could each run out to shout youyouyou, moneymoneymoney, penpenpen and “where-you-go?” at us. With such an early warning system in place, it’s little surprise that Musolini failed to colonise Ethiopia.

At one of the larger villages, we pulled over to the side of the road and, before we could even park our bikes, people had surrounded us. By the time Em returned with two warm bottles of the fizzy stuff, she could barely find me amongst the throng of kids and adults standing, staring, playing with the bikes and asking for money.

Stopping for a Coke becomes an event for the whole village.

Stopping for a Coke becomes an event for the whole village.

Just before we reached Arba Minch, we met Jimmy, a French motorcyclist who was making the long journey from Cape Town to France. He recommended the Bekele Mola hotel to us so we headed there. In their reception they have a sign proudly stating that Ethiopians pay 400Birr and Foreigners pay 580Birr for a room. Camping in the grounds was 300Birr. Needless to say, we weren’t happy with the price differential so negotiated to pay the Ethiopian rate for a room. Which was lucky because warthog roamed the grounds we could have camped in. The view from the hotel’s terrace across the two lakes was stunning and more than made up for the overpriced room and food.

Warthog roamed the hotel's gardens

Warthog roamed the hotel’s gardens

Stunning view from the Bekele Mola hotel in Arba Minch. But don't bother staying or eating there.

Stunning view from the Bekele Mola hotel in Arba Minch. But don’t bother staying or eating there.

A couple of hilly days’ ride through banana plantations later we made it to Konso. We couldn’t find any decent places to stay in town so we climbed up a massive 20% hill where we’d seen a lodge marked on the GPS. With panoramic views over the countryside (a UNESCO heritage site due to the uniqueness of the hill terraces) and an expensive-looking restaurant, I thought the receptionist had made a mistake when she said it was “55 for the night”. That is, until I realised it was US$55. At that price, we had to find somewhere else to stay…which meant travelling back down the hill we’d just cycled. Thankfully, the lodge agreed to store our bags and bikes and we got a tuktuk into town.

UNESCO Heritage countryside

UNESCO Heritage countryside

There, we found a much cheaper hotel where I negotiated the price down from 200Birr to 50Birr for the room on the condition we buy a few drinks. We had couple of beers, paid the 50birr for the room and headed into town for some food.

At the restaurant, ordering our meal was tricky. Firstly, as is common with most Ethiopian restaurants and hotels, the TV is on at full volume meaning nobody can hear anything other than the din from blown speakers.

Secondly there’s a bizarre phenomenon that’s quite unique to Ethiopia. When taking an order for food or drink, the waiter will turn on his heels after the very first item you say. It’s happened at nearly every place we’ve eaten. For example, if you wanted one spaghetti and one pizza, you’d barely be able to finish saying “one spaghetti” before he’s off to the kitchen…even though there’s at least one more dish and a couple of drinks to order.

Thirdly, it was another occasion where the waiter insists that there’s only one thing on the menu. We reluctantly order it. Later, whilst we’re eating, other diners who’ve arrived after us are brought much more appetising dishes. When we inquire, the waiter will say that’s available too. When we try to order it, they say it’s run out. I only mention this because it’s happened several times in Ethiopia!

Anyway, we had a reasonable meal and had fun meeting Harley and Emily, a couple travelling from South Africa to Sweden in their Land Rover.

Meat Tibs with injera

Meat Tibs with injera

Back at the hotel we were preparing for bed when there was a knock at the door. Apparently the room was now 150Birr and not the 50Birr plus beers I’d agreed. After a long ‘conversation’ I was forced to stump up the 150Birr for the privilege of the grimy room with the sound of yet another TV turned up to number 11 in the courtyard outside our room.

The next morning we took a tuktuk back up the monster hill to collect our kit and bikes. At the lodge, we met Tom and Eva, a South African couple who are travelling Africa in their huge unimog 4X4.

The cycle out of Konso was beautiful but hilly. Every inch of the surrounding hillsides was being used for agriculture in an intricate pattern of interweaving hill terraces.

Then something expensive happened.

I swooped down a lovely decent towards a bridge that crossed a partially dried-out river. What I failed to notice until it was too late was a 15cm ‘step’ right across the width of the road where the bridge joined the tarmac road.

I tried to bunny hop, but with a combined bike and rider weight of over 150kg, I could just lift the front wheel enough for it not to take the full force of the collision. The impact was hard. And a sickening crunch rose up through the wheels, into the frame and into my bones as I collided with the obstacle. I just managed to keep control of the bike and avoided a crash but I was helpless to stop my handlebar bag fly open and all I could do was cling on as I watched my beloved Nikon DSLR camera and various other bits of tech hit the asphalt with an expensive smash.

To their credit the kids hanging around the bridge quickly gathered up all the broken parts and handed them back to me. The camera was dead. I was gutted because of the remote and photogenic region we were to cycle into. But, with no obvious signs of damage to the bike and no injuries, the journey continued.

My ex camera! :-(

My ex camera! 🙁

A short while later, Tom and Eva passed and handed us ice-cold waters from their huge vehicle. After the hot water we’d been sipping from our bottles all week, the crisp coolness of fresh icy water was like sipping vintage champagne.

Tom said they were headed to a campsite 75km away. It was 1pm and 75km in an afternoon is quite punchy for anyway but, with Tom’s promise that a cold beer would be waiting for us, we decided to give it a go.

At Woyto, there’s a junction. The asphalt road continues on a longer, potentially hillier road towards Omorate. The turning left is on a hard-packed rough road but it’s shorter. We met Christian, a missionary form Iceland who was visiting friends in the area. He advised that the shorter but unsealed road was best for us. We took his advice and I lead the pace on what Emily called “James’s Omo Valley Training Camp”. Tom’s ice-cold beer was a big carrot dangling in front of me!

Our chosen road took us across the Lake Stephanie Nature Reserve. Lake Stephanie is dry pan but recent rains had caused an explosion of green in the otherwise arid landscape. Butterflies danced beside roadside ditchwater and crickets played a game with us by jumping ahead – always managing to keep at least a meter ahead of our wheels.

The road was rough and there was no way we could make Tom’s campsite. Instead, we stopped at Abore, a tribal village where hundreds of well-behaved kids came out to greet us. A friendly chap called Simon lead us to the water pump where we filled up and then to a small bar where we bought him a Coke and met another guy who was a guide from Konso. He invited us to camp with him in the bush that night.

We pitched our tent amongst several straw huts and chatted to some of the tribe who lived there. The women wore hundreds of stacked neck beads and the little children had painted white faces. They were all very friendly and accepting of our intrusion into their normal life and not a Birr was asked for. We drifted off to sleep to the sounds of traditional singing floating across the bush from a nearby camp knowing that this was a true African experience that we were incredibly lucky to have.

We’d established from the guide that Tom’s “75km to the campsite from the turning” was somewhat inaccurate. In fact, it was 75km from the village in which we were camped. We set off early to get there.

The road conditions were awful for cycling. There were countless dried up creeks that crossed the road so we couldn’t get any rhythm going and had to keep dismounting to push through the sand. Progress was slow and exhausting.

Tough day pushing in sand

Tough day pushing in sand

In the afternoon, we had 30km more to travel but the road disappeared altogether. Instead, we had to haul our heavy bikes through the sand of a dried-up riverbed and then up a 15% track that was nothing but loose sand and rubble. At times the road was so steep that we had to push one bike together up the hill and then return for the other, as it was too steep to push alone. How we regretted not taking the asphalt road and kept remembering the words of the Icelandic missionary who categorically said to us, “It’s not that bad at all, there is a small hill but you should be fine.”

Hauling our bikes along a dried up river bed between Arbore and Turmi, Ethiopia

Hauling our bikes along a dried up river bed between Arbore and Turmi, Ethiopia

For 8 hours we didn’t pass a single village. There were very few people. Of those we did see, some ran off into the bushes upon spotting us. Those more inquisitive folk would return our waves. All the males had little hand-carved stools which they carried everywhere with them. The tribal people seemed more mild-mannered and for us, seeing rifles harmlessly slung over shoulders rather than fast approaching rocks was a relief.

We were exhausted and dehydrated having pushed up over 1,200 meters of ascent through sand and rocks. At 4pm, we saw the first vehicle of the day. They stopped and, when they told us where they were going, we simply could not refuse their offer of a lift.

We joined Rokhan, who was on holiday from Sri Lanka, his guide and driver for a 10km drive deep into the bush where we witnessed one of the oldest and most bizarre tribal ceremonies. The Jumping of the Bulls.

The woman couldn’t have been older than 25. She blew her horn. The man facing her raised his whip and with almighty force thrashed it across the woman’s bare back. The whip tore into her skin. The woman bowed towards the man. Again and again this happened. Each time, the woman would take a single hard lash across the back. It must have been agony. But she barely flinched.

We learnt that, as part of the ceremony, the women beg to be whipped as a sign of their love for the man. It might be the male’s mother, sister or niece taking that takes the beating.

The women of the tribe then stand in a circle, backs towards us. We saw blood dripping from the open wounds. Flies landed, looking for somewhere to lay eggs. The scars of previous whippings were evident.

The whipping ritual inflicts the women with permanent scars that increase their value prior to marriage and earns them respect.

The whipping ritual inflicts the women with permanent scars that increase their value prior to marriage and earns them respect.

We were on to the main event.

Several bulls had been let into the field. About 8 bulls had been pushed, prodded, yanked and twisted so that they were now standing in a line. A naked man edged backwards, eyeing up the task ahead. His challenge was to leap up and run across the backs up the bulls without falling into the gaps between. If he succeeds, it marks his passing from boy to man.

He took a run up and jumped up to the first bull that reeled from the impact of the chap’s foot on its flank. He then skipped across the moving obstacles before losing his footing just short of the final bull. He repeated this 6 times. Everyone cheered and he was adorned with a garment for his neck. He was now a man…and so started 2 days of celebrations.

It was now sunset. Rokhan’s driver dropped us off the short distance to our campsite near Turmi where we finally met up with Tom and Eva at their Unimog. They cooked us a delicious pasta meal and we thoroughly enjoyed their company…and that ice-cold beer that we had suffered so much for.

It was great to meet Tom and Eva who are travelling Africa in their huge Unimog 4X4.

It was great to meet Tom and Eva who are travelling Africa in their huge Unimog 4X4.

It was a relief that the 50km from Turmi to the final town in Ethiopia, Omorate was a gentle cycle on beautiful smooth tarmac. We headed to the immigration office where we had to guide the official, who was clearly drunk, through the process of stamping our passport with an exit stamp with the next day’s date. The process took a while because he couldn’t get his fuzzy head round the concept of our visa being valid from the ‘date of entry’ rather than the ‘date of issue’ which he was insisting was the case. He claimed we were in the country illegally and threatened to take us to Addis Ababa. We were there for over an hour before his desire to return to the bar took over and he finally stamped our passport.

Omorate doesn’t have anything to offer. Not even electricity. And we even struggled to stock up on food for our journey into Kenya. But we did manage to get a friendly chap to charge our Goal Zero Sherpa 100 power pack so we could ensure our GPS would work for the journey ahead.

We’d heard many tales from other travellers that crossing the bridge over the Omo river is an issue. Policeman guard it and insist that it’s closed, despite locals walking across it, forcing travellers to pay for a boat or dug out canoe across the river.

When we approached the bridge, we could see the police guards and, from the distance, they were waving us back. We continued and, just as we approached them, a big pickup truck thundered up on to the bridge from the opposite bank crossed over and passed us. There was no way the police could claim that the bridge was closed now. They made a cursory check of our passports and to our relief, we cycled over the bridge.

Once we were on the far bank, our challenge was to negotiate a confusing network of sandy tracks towards the Ethiopian army checkpoint then through the arid no-mans-land before getting to the Kenya border checkpoint.

This was hot, dry and the sandy conditions of the road made cycling impossible. The weight of our bikes, now even heavier with the weight of 10 litres of water each and food supplies for up to one week, cut straight through into the sand causing a few low-speed crashes.

Hauling our bikes through the sand in the no-mans-land between Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya

Hauling our bikes through the sand in the no-mans-land between Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya

We had to haul our bikes through the sand. It took us 4 hours to make the 29 kilometers from Omorate to the Ethiopian army checkpoint. The friendly squaddies offered us water and we relished the shade. But we had to press on.

Skeletons in the no-mans-land between Ethopia, Kenya and Sudan

Skeletons in the no-mans-land between Ethopia, Kenya and Sudan

There's still a lot of sand to push through!

There’s still a lot of sand to push through!

It took us a further 2 and a half hours to haul our bikes through the sand over the 7km between the Ethiopian and Kenyan border checkpoints. We arrived exhausted.

The Kenyan policeman took our details down in a book (we couldn’t get our passport stamped because it’s not an ‘official’ crossing) and invited us to pitch our tent at the police compound. Another policeman told us that the road onwards would improve and stamped his feet on the hard-packed surface of the police compound, suggesting that that was what we could expect from now on. By now it was 5pm. The sun would set in 90 minutes. We were knackered but decided to press on. It was just 10km to get to our intended destination.

Sadly, the policeman’s description of the road ahead was entirely inaccurate. Once again we were forced to dismount and heave our bikes through the sand.

As the sun went down behind the distant mountain, we were forced to call the day’s ride to an end – just 3km from our target destination. We camped in the bush amidst billions of mosquitos and insects. Later that night, I discovered that the flying sharks had attacked my back by biting straight through my shirt. Emily lost count at over 100 bites. Not great when we’re in a malarial area and aren’t taking prophylactics.

I got munched by mosquitos through my shirt!

James got munched by mosquitos through his shirt and chair!

Since leaving Addis Ababa, we’d been on the road for 10 days straight – our longest period without a break. The terrain had been hilly. The kids were horrendous. We had rocks thrown at us several times a day. We’d been munched by mosquitos. The roads had petered out and turned into riverbeds. We’d had to haul our bikes through kilometer after kilometer of sand. The mercury topped 50 degrees on most days. All this had put a huge toll on our bodies and has triggered a few medical issues. We needed a break. We needed a refuge. And we found that just 3km up the road the next morning at the Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic mission in Todonyang – the first town in Kenya.

We were greeted warmly by Father Andrew, pitched our tent under a tree and brought cold, crisp water by a charming chap named Cosmos. Father Andrew told us that the road between the mission and Lodwar was the same sandy surface we’d suffered.

It would have taken us 7 to 10 days to travel the West Turkana route by bicycle. And we would have had to haul our bikes through the sand and more dried riverbeds. Something we didn’t have the health to do. The next day, we strapped our bikes to the top of the 4×4 and joined Father Andrew (as he drove like a man on a mission) and friends for the incredibly bumpy and uncomfortable trip to Lodwar, where we are now. En route we saw a monument that marks the spot of the oldest skull to have ever been found. Turkana Boy.

We shall make up the miles we missed. In Lodwar, we’ll get ourselves checked out by doctors and speak to the police about the security situation on the road ahead. The long and lonely road between Lodwar and Kitale is renowned for bandits and tribal conflict so we need to get up to date advice on what to expect. Should we need to bypass this section we’ll make those miles up too.

Ethiopia has been an immense challenge that’s left us both utterly exhausted. It’s a beautiful country. But it’s incredibly difficult cycling over such terrain and, despite some magical experiences in the tribal lands of the Omo valley, enduring the constant ‘difficult’ interactions with the people. I’ve found the country has brought out an angry side in us at times. I’ve lost my temper of numerous occasions in situations where I’d normally be mild mannered. When rocks have been thrown at us by children I shamefully admit to returning a few of them with interest. It’s an anger that I’m leaving at the border. And, once we’re fit again, we’re both hugely excited about the journey ahead in Kenya and into Uganda where we expect to be cheered rather than jeered. And where a cold bottle of water is, hopefully, only a village away.

Up high: Getting stoned in the Ethiopian Highlands

It was possibly not the wisest choice for two tourists who were about to cycle in Ethiopia for the first time to watch an episode of “The World’s Most Dangerous Roads” the night before we set off. In the episode in question, British comedians High Dennis and David Baddiel drive their sturdy 4×4 the length of Ethiopia and warn of the dangers of poor road conditions and unskilled driving made worse by long distance drivers that are high on khat (pronounced ‘chat’), a leafy plant, which acts as a stimulant when chewed. Together with the mountains we had to climb and warnings of stone-throwing kids, we left Gondar with a sense of trepidation.

It didn’t take long for the warning bells to ring true.

Within minutes of mounting our bikes, each and every man, woman and child shouted at us in some way.

Men would shout “you!” Women would shout “money!” and kids would shout “You, You, You! Money! Money! Money! You You You You You You! Give! Pen! Pen, Pen, Pen”. And so on.

A slight variant was the shout of “Where you go?” A grammatically-incorrect phrase which, after hearing thousands of times a day, becomes irritating. I tried to correcting a few people by telling them “No, it’s where are you go-ING”

But it was the children that were the worse.

Ethiopia has once of the fastest-growing and youngest populations in the world. In fact, 44% of the population is aged 15 and under. And it appeared that every one of those 41 million kids came out to ‘greet’ us as we cycled the 730km from Gondar to Addis Ababa.

One of the smaller bands of 'supporters'

One of the smaller bands of ‘supporters’

Kids by the side of the road would shout at us. Once they’d spotted us, the children who were further away would run hundreds of meters across fields to reach us as we passed in the hope that we’d respond to their shouts of “You! You! You! Money! Money! Money!”

It didn’t take long before the first rock was thrown.

We’d passed a particularly pesky group of children who’d run alongside us for a few hundred meters. When they gave up the chase, rocks were hurled in our direction. Emily got one square in the back.

These kids, although small, would make great cricketers. Stick one on the square leg boundary and they’d have the arm to hit the top of leg stump 9 times out of 10.

They’re great little runners too. Whole swarms of kids would run alongside us shouting “Money, Money, Money!” or “Pen, Pen, Pen!” as we attempted to negotiate the notorious Ethiopian highlands. At times, particularly tenacious kids would follow us all the way up a hill (our heavy bikes often limit us to 5kph up hills) so they could often keep up; this regularly tested our patience immensely.

Kids would run for miles for the opportunity to shout at us

Kids would run for miles for the opportunity to shout at us

We learnt over time that the best tactic was to smile and greet the kids as we approached and then simply repeat everything they said back to them. It didn’t stop the shouts, but it flummoxed them a little. The best way to avoid the rocks being flung was to turn and face the kids as we cycled by until we were out of reach. Which, with their throwing arms, meant cycling whilst looking backwards for a considerable distance!

The shouty and stone-throwing kids are only really a problem in the rural areas. Here, they’re given a few animals to look after when they’re 6 years old and that’s their life. No school. No prospects other than small-scale farming.

In the bigger towns where kids have been able to get an education (albeit in an education system where some schools are so overcrowded that kids have to attend school in alternating shifts) the people are a little more welcoming.

Education is key. That’s why the shouts of “Money! Money! Money!” is so frustrating – and it’s why we’re proud to be supporting an organization, World Bicycle Relief, that exists to help educate kids in rural communities across Africa. Please support them too: donations are being doubled until 31st December 2015.

Please donate to World Bicycle Relief.
Donations are being doubled before the end of December 2015.

These kids are lucky to get an eduction. Although Ethiopian schools are so stretched that kids have to attend school in shifts.

These kids are lucky to get an eduction. Although Ethiopian schools are so stretched that kids have to attend school in shifts.

Midway through one morning, a truck driver coming in the opposite direction saluted us as he passed. With his beer bottle.

Don’t come to Ethiopia if you crave solitude. Wherever you go and whatever you try to do, someone will pop up from the middle of nowhere. Literally, it’s insane. This makes loo stops particularly challenging. And it also makes camping difficult. In fact, as we discovered that you can stay in hotels for around £1.50 a head, we often opted to sleep indoors in Ethiopia to get a little privacy for a few hours.

Even a roadside breather is an event

Even a roadside breather is an event

On our first night from Gondar we found a small patch of grass on a steep embankment just off the road and pitched our tent – all witnessed by a throng of kids at very close quarters.

We reached Lake Tana and checked into the Bahir Dar Hotel, a simple guesthouse where the small rooms were set around a quiet courtyard. There was free WiFi when the electricity was on but the whole town suffered regular power cuts – something that’s common across Ethiopia. It was only when we returned to the hotel after dinner when we sensed the atmosphere had changed somewhat and we realised that the oldest profession in the world was still going strong at this establishment. Still, for 100 birr (£3GBP) a night, it was easy for two weary cyclists to turn a blind eye and get a reasonable night’s sleep.

We hit the road early the next day. We’d just ventured past the city limits when a ladies cycling team took us by surprise as they whizzed by. Over the next 20km 3 further large groups of cyclists passed us on their training rides, each group giving us a wave as they achieved speeds we could only dream of.

The Amhara Region Cycling Team whizz by

The Amhara Region Cycling Team whizz by

50km from Bahir Dar Emily’s back wheel started clicking so we stopped to take a look at a small village called Wetet Abay. We were helped at the roadside by a couple of lads who’d been cycling alongside practicing their English us but our arrival caused the whole village to come out, crowd round us and stare whilst we tinkered with the bike.

 

A broken spoke becomes the most exciting thing ever to happen in this village

A broken spoke becomes the most exciting thing ever to happen in this village

On inspection, we found a spoke had broken. We thought it would be a simple job to replace but, frustratingly, we had to remove the rear cassette to do so. A job that required a special tool (a chain whip) that we didn’t have.

We were assured the larger village 10km up the road had a mechanic who could help so we flagged down a minibus, hauled our bikes onto the roof and made the short trip. There, the mechanic didn’t have a chain whip either and he started bashing the wheel and used a wrench to undo the rear hub. When he revealed the bearings, we called a halt and decided we wanted to put our trust in someone else who had a bit more knowledge and, ideally, the correct tools for the job. We decided to return to Bahir Dar.

On the minibus back we looked up the Bahir Dar-based cycling team and sent them a few messages to see if they could help us and, once back in the city, we checked back into our guesthouse-come-brothel for another night.

It was by sheer fluke that, later that day, we bumped into a member of the cycling team we’d seen on the road that morning. Molla agreed to meet us the next morning to help us.

At 12:30 Ethiopia time (06:30 foreigners’ time) we met Molla and he took us to the team headquarters of the Amhara region Cycling team. They have a small compound with dormitories, a communal dining area and dozens of battered bikes and parts that have been begged, borrowed and acquired from around the world.

The Amhara Region Cycling Team's base is a fun environment!

The Amhara Region Cycling Team’s base is a fun environment!

 

Amhara Region Cycling Team

Amhara Region Cycling Team

Molla and his friends set about fixing Emily’s wheel. Not only did they have a chain whip but also they had a wheel-truing stand!   Outside, the A-team mustered for a training ride whilst Molla stayed behind to tell us more about the team’s successes and ambitions over breakfast. These guys are incredibly dedicated cyclists but we were astonished by their lack of kit. One rider was using a bike with carbon frame that had snapped. He’d simply taped it up to get back on the road.

An old carbon frame is taped up to keep it going

An old carbon frame is taped up to keep it going

Some of the Amhara Regional Cycling Team prepare for a training ride

Some of the Amhara Regional Cycling Team prepare for a training ride

We said our goodbyes to Molla and found a minibus to take us back to where we’d stopped yesterday and continued our ride towards Addis, only half a day behind schedule, having promised to do what we could to encourage donations of used cycling kit (such as saddles, pedals, shoes and sunglasses) from friends and cycling clubs back in the UK to help them compete with other regional teams who have access to more.

Back on the road, we made it 170km from Bahir Dar when Emily’s spoke snapped again. A passing charity worker gave us the short 2km lift back up the hill in his pickup to the town of Finote Selam where the mechanic there didn’t have a chain whip either. There was no choice but to ask for Molla’s help again.

We locked our kit and bikes in a hotel room and took a minibus 170km back to Bahir Dar. By the time the driver had stopped countless times to make pick ups and drop offs the journey took 4 and a half hours.

A chain whip (or strap wrench) is a long, bulky and heavy tool and, prior to departure, we’d pondered long and hard as to whether we should take one with us. We reasoned that it was highly unlikely we’d need one so took the risk to omit it from our kit list. Something we now regretted.

We were grateful that Molla and the cycling team were able to fix the wheel again and, as we left, the joker of the team waved us goodbye saying “see you tomorrow!” We are looking forward to staying in touch with Molla and his team to follow their progress and will definitely do what we can to try and help them when we can.

Thanks to Molla and friends at the Amhara Regional Cycling Team for getting us back on the road

Thanks to Molla and friends at the Amhara Regional Cycling Team for getting us back on the road

By the time we left the cycling team it was now dark and no local minibuses were departing Bahir Dar. The only options were to check back into the Bahir Dar brothel or get a minibus bound for Addis Ababa to drop us off en route. Fearing for the security of our kit in the hotel, we paid over the odds for two seats to Addis. I made a point of getting up close to the driver to smell his breath for any signs of alcohol before we squeezed ourselves into the back seat of a Toyota HIACE minibus.

Not long after departure, the driver pulled over at a brightly lit shop and returned with a big bag of leaves. Khat. This is what we were dreading. Now in the middle of nowhere, we had no option but to hope the effects of the drug, which is a class-C drug in the UK, would only kick in after he’d dropped us off in 150km time.

We made it back to our hotel in one piece. Although it took some time to get the blood back into our legs after enduring the cramped conditions on the back seat.

Most farm work is done by hand

Most farm work is done by hand

Cattle are used to tread the hay

Cattle are used to tread the hay

Cycling Gondar to Addis Ababa Ethiopia-17
After a couple more days’ ride to the soundtrack of “You! You! You! Money! Money! Money!” we checked into a hotel in Dejen with the aim of getting a good night’s sleep before taking on one of the biggest climbs of the expedition, the Blue Nile Gorge, in the morning.

Our room appeared reasonable on first inspection but, for the life of us, we couldn’t work out how to turn the main light off. The switch in the room controlled the bathroom light. We fetched the manager. After a bit of investigation, we discovered the light in our room was controlled by the switch at the top of the stairs, which was round two corners of the corridor from our room, how logical. We had just drifted off to sleep when guests ascending the stairs illuminated our room as they tried to find their way to their room. I used our precious duct tape to hide the offending switch from further guests.

It’s not just the lights that have kept us awake. The hotels we’ve stayed at have had very bars, which have played very loud music well into the night. Also, Christian Orthodox prayers are broadcast across the town form loudspeakers. Bad luck if, like us, your hotel is close to one. Prayers on a Sunday morning start at 2am and go on through the early hours. The prayers in this video had been going on since 2am and were still going strong at 7am when Emily was racking her panniers.

A Christian Orthodox church. The source of some very loud early Sunday morning prayers!

A Christian Orthodox church. The source of some very loud early Sunday morning prayers!

The sign at the top of the Blue Nile Gorge warned of rock falls and “sloppy” conditions. The descent itself was more suited to mountain bikes than fully laden touring bikes. The road surface was rutted and gave way to gravel in some parts as countless lorries had churned up the surface. Our disk brakes took a pounding for the 90-minute descent.

The Blue Nile Gorge is very "sloppy", apparently.

The Blue Nile Gorge is very “sloppy”, apparently.

The road down was terrible

The road down was terrible

Blue Nile Gorge descent

Blue Nile Gorge descent

Blue Nile Gorge bridge. Guards prohibit photos any nearer.

Blue Nile Gorge bridge. Guards prohibit photos any nearer.

Haystacks being carried up the Blue Nile Gorge

Haystacks being carried up the Blue Nile Gorge

The Blue Nile Gorge world’s second largest canyon and it’s truly breathtaking. But, for us, it was the prospect of the climb out of it that took our breath away.

It’s a 1,360m climb over just 20.05km with an average grade of 6.8%. Several stretches are over 10% and the switchbacks exceed 15%.   It took us 5 and a half hours of lung-busting effort to get to the top. Our progress hindered by the altitude, the trucks that belched thick black exhaust into our faces as we struggled up the switchbacks and the countless children that followed with the familiar shouts of “Money! Money, Money!” But, we’re proud to say we made it!

 

The long, winding and steep road up the Blue Nile Gorge, Ethiopia

The long, winding and steep road up the Blue Nile Gorge, Ethiopia

Mountain goats peer into the abyss of the Blue Nile Gorge

Mountain goats peer into the abyss of the Blue Nile Gorge

Exhausted from the climb, we were descending through the village of Tulu Milki, when, without looking, a woman drove her donkey into the road in front of us. Emily veered left. I had to make the split decision. Do I hit the donkey or do I hit the woman? I knew that injuring or killing a donkey would be expensive (drivers have to compensate animal owners if they kill or injure an animal) so I made the decision to aim for the woman. I veered off the road and down the sloping embankment, taking the woman with me, which propelled me into a wooden roadside shelter where I came to an abrupt stop. I’d knocked the woman’s leg with my front pannier. Apart from shock, she appeared ok. This was until the village surrounded us and talked to her…when, all of a sudden, she started to behave like Ronaldo getting a tap on the ankle. She was dramatically rubbing her leg and wincing. It didn’t take long for the requests of money to come. “You must help this woman” said one man whilst a girl grabbed my arm and shouted for “birr!” I made 100% sure the woman was ok. She didn’t have any cuts or marks so I straightened my handlebars and pushed through the crowd to escape without opening our wallets. The only lasting damage was a wobbly front wheel, which we hoped to fix soon. The donkey was unharmed and took the opportunity to earn a moment’s freedom by running off down the road.

Our traverse of the Ethiopian highlands also took us up to the highest point of the expedition. At 3,115 meters (10,220ft) the air was cold and we battled for breath in the noticeably thinner air.

The morning air is filled with smoke from fires in people's houses.

The morning air is filled with smoke from fires in people’s houses.

Passing chillis drying in fields

Passing chillis drying in fields

Passing chilli fields

Passing chilli fields

We’d been receiving news that there had been protests across Ethiopia. Some of which were apparently violent demonstrations, which caused casualties and disruptions to roads and traffic. We learnt that the Sudan-Ethiopia border at Metema, which we’d crossed only a couple of weeks ago, had been closed for two days due to clashes.

Of particular concern to us were reports of heavy clashes between protesters and security forces in Sululta, 20km north of Addis Ababa. Heavy gunfire had been heard and the main road blocked – potentially barring our passage to the capital.

As we approached the region, we noticed an increase in police and military presence. Soldiers in full riot gear passed in the back of one truck. Policeman patrolled towns.

We passed through Sululta early one morning and saw evidence that burning barricades had been built across the road but, for us, thankfully we passed through safely without incident.

We learnt that the protests are due to the government’s desire to increase the size of Addis Ababa by building in nearby towns and villages. Something to which locals oppose. From speaking with a few people we have learnt that the government has been in power now for 25 years (unelected) and run a dictatorship internally but gives the external impression that Ethiopia is a thriving democracy.

A travel warning remains for the southwest Oromiya Region where we’ve heard reports that up to 75 protestors have been killed by the government. It’s a region we’ll be cycling close to, but not through.

The clouds threatened but we still haven't cycled in the rain since Romania

The clouds threatened but we still haven’t cycled in the rain since Romania

In Addis Ababa, we are incredibly fortunate to have been hosted by Celine and Arnaud, teachers at the International School. Although sadly we missed them by two days, they’ve opened their house to us and we’ve spent a couple of days enjoying the use of a washing machine and the luxury of a kitchen. Who would of thought that making spaghetti Bolognese would be so exciting!

We also met up with Miko, a cycling friend of Molla’s, who, with his brother, helped us straighten our wheels after the incident with the donkey.  We are incredibly helpful for his help.

Addis Ababa marks the half-way point of our cycle from London to Cape Town. We’ve been on the road just over 5 months and have another 10,000km to go before we reach Cape Town in June 2016.

We’re back on the road tomorrow (23rd December) to make the 800km dash to the border with Kenya at Omorate before our visas expire. We’ll be thinking of and desperately missing friends and family back at home as we cycle south on Christmas day knowing you’ll all be tucking into your turkeys. Please raise a glass to us in the form of a small donation to World Bicycle Relief. Donations are being doubled until the end of December 2015.

Wishing you all a very merry Christmas!