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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!

Walking back to recovery in the Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

We reached the Sudanese border town of Gallabat at 11am and found shade in the café nearest the border post. The incredibly friendly café owner refused to accept payment for the Cokes we’d plucked from the fridge and he even gave us a couple of bottles of water. We obviously looked in a bad way.

We then went through the border crossing formalities. First we visited the security department where the chap wrote our passport information down. We were then escorted to Sudanese customs where another chap wrote our passport information down in a dusty book. Then, we wheeled our bikes round the corner to another building which housed the Immigration Department. Once we’d filled out a form, handed over photocopies of our passports we received the stamp in our passports allowing us to leave Sudan.

We didn’t do so immediately.

We headed back to the café where we’d intended to spend our last Sudanese pounds. I raided the fridge for bottles of water and drinks for our onward journey but, once again, the café owner refused payment saying we were visitors in his country and he wanted us to leave with a good impression. We were just meters from the border with Ethiopia and it was, yet again, an outstanding last-minute example of the hospitality that we’d experienced throughout Sudan. Although, ironically, when he offered to change money he gave us a horrendous rate.

Once we’d been stamped into Ethiopia the next stop was customs. We were directed to what looked like a bus shelter where a couple of bored looking chaps asked us to empty the contents of our panniers.

The customs post was in a public area and people were milling round. I wanted to ensure the chap was a bone fide customs employee before he started rifling through our things but he couldn’t produce any ID. Instead, he stood up and put on a high vis jacket, insisting that this was sufficient proof that he worked for customs. In return, I reached into my pannier, took out my high vis vest and declared to him that I now worked for customs too. It raised a laugh…and a short delay as he went to find someone more senior to prove that this roadside shack was official customs.

The world changed once we’d crossed the border into the Ethiopian town of Metema.

The dusty high street leading up the hill from the border is lined with seedy bars and shifty looking folk – all looking to make a buck from whomever they could. We cycled slowly up the hill, witnessing a bar brawl on the way and debated whether the hostesses’ main employment was from bar work or employment of a more ‘behind-the-scenes’ nature.  We read online that Metema was the centre of the people-smugglng trade.

We’d made the decision to take the bus to Gonder because Emily was unwell. We found the bus station and negotiated room on a bus for 100Birr (£3GBP) per person plus another 50Birr for each of the bikes.

Our trusty steeds were hauled on top of the Toyota HiAce minibus and strapped down with string. After a 2-hour wait for the bus to fill up, we departed Metema and clung on whilst we whizzed through the dramatic countryside towards Gonder – every clonk from the roof making us wince as we envisaged gears, disk brakes and frames being bashed with every pot hole.


If Metema was a shifty introduction to Ethiopia, then Gonder was the complete opposite.

After months cycling in the Muslim world it took a bit of time to get used to the things that we’d once considered ‘normal’. Smiling couples walked hand in hand. People enjoyed cool beers at roadside bars. Restaurants offered full menus with ‘farangi’ food: chips, pizza and spaghetti. The bread was raised…and delicious and the fresh mango juice was everything we had dreamt of whilst cycling in the desert.

The Muslim call to prayer was replaced by full Orthodox Christian services being blasted from the speakers of the nearby church. The Sunday morning service started at 2am and was still going strong at 8am.

Even the time in Ethiopia is different.

We’d read about ‘Ethiopian time’ before we arrived but thought it was something similar to Welsh: talked about but nobody knows anyone who actually speaks it. In fact, Ethiopian time is incredibly logical. The day starts at dawn. An hour after sunrise is 1 O’clock. 2 hours after sunrise is 2 O’Clock and so on until sunset, which is 12 O’clock. We had to make sure that any time given to us was ‘farangi time’ (meaning foreigners’ time).

We took a couple of days in Gonder to let bodies recover. And, with the cooler temperatures, great food on offer and large, comfy beds we were both fit enough for the next challenge: a 4-day trek in the Simien mountains.

We’d considered arranging our trip to the Simiens independently. It’s possible to do so but takes a few days to organize all the requirements: Transport, entrance fees, scout etc. Instead, we opted to let a professional take this pressure off us. And we’re glad we did.

Early in the morning (just as the Orthodox Christian service was finishing!) a minibus rocked up which contained our guide, Desu, a driver, a cook and an assistant cook. We picked up our scout in Debark, an hour’s drive away and then headed up the off road track to the mountains.

It’s a requirement to have a scout accompany any visitors to the park. The scout’s job is to carry a gun and shuffle behind the group for ‘protection’. There’s nothing, actually, to protect against (either people or animals) so it’s widely acknowledged that the park’s insistence on an accompanying scout is for job creation. It transpired our scout was actually a local farmer and scouted to top up his meagre wages – something we were happy to facilitate.

Our scout kept watch over us for four days

Our scout kept watch over us for four days

We laced up our Zamberlan trail shoes and, over the next 4 days we were treated to views like we’d never seen before. The paths clung perilously close to the cliff tops. And afforded us stunning views across the Ethiopian Highlands. But one small slip could have had us plunge thousands of feet off the sheer cliff face.

Trekking the Simien mountains: The World's best ridge walk?

Trekking the Simien mountains: The World’s best ridge walk?

 

The path clung to the cliff face

The path clung to the cliff face

 

Don't slip there!

Don’t slip there!

Simien Mountains Trekking-37

Simien Mountains Trekking-36

We were lucky to see some amazing wildlife too.

Friendly Gelada monkeys grazed (yes, they eat grass!) on the grassy hillsides. We learnt that, because Gelada monkeys are forever in the seating position as they graze, the females display their fertility through their pink chest plate – unlike other types of monkeys whose bums turn red.

 

Gelada monkeys grazed on the hillsides

Gelada monkeys grazed on the hillsides

 

Gelada monkeys have 'rubber lips' which they retreat to reveal their teeth when they're getting tetchy

Gelada monkeys have ‘rubber lips’ which they retreat to reveal their teeth when they’re getting tetchy

Gelada monkeys roam the hillsides

Gelada monkeys roam the hillsides

An incredibly rare sighting of an Ethiopian fox hunting for mice

An incredibly rare sighting of an Ethiopian fox hunting for mice

An ibex stands proud against the Simien mountains in Ethiopia

An ibex stands proud against the Simien mountains in Ethiopia

Additionally, we saw several ‘bone-breaker’ vultures. The diet of these huge birds consists of the bones of dead animals. If the bones they find are too big to swallow, they’ll pick them up and drop them from a huge height into the ravine below where they’ll weaken on impact with the rocks far below. They’ll repeat the process until the bones are of an edible size.

After months of pitching our own tent, it was pure luxury for us to arrive at camp after our days’ treks to find the tent pitched and flasks of tea and coffee ready for us. We shared popcorn with the ravens and watched the sunset from our high altitude camps – on the evenings it wasn’t tipping it down. In fact, we experienced our first rain since Romania over 3 months ago!

Although we missed the quality and spaciousness of our Vaude tent, we were happy to have a tent pitched for us each night

Although we missed the quality and spaciousness of our Vaude tent, we were happy to have a tent pitched for us each night

Our chef and assistant chef worked wonders too. They produced tasty, hearty meals from fresh ingredients. Our chicken meal could not have been fresher. In fact, I volunteered to help the assistant chef ‘prepare’ the live chicken for dinner. I held the feet whilst he used the knife.

 

Getting ready for a feast by the roaring fire

Getting ready for a feast by the roaring fire

The temperatures in the Simien Mountains were in complete contrast to the 50-degree heat of the Sudanese deserts from where we’d come. We huddled round the fire to keep warm whilst eating and nighttime temperatures went down to freezing.

Although we were between 3,500 and 4,000 meters, the hiking itself wasn’t too strenuous and, with the aid of great food cooked up by our chef, we were able to get our bodies back to normal, ready for the cycling ahead.

The Simien mountain views were stunning

The Simien mountain views were stunning

On our last morning in the mountains we discovered blood spots on our sleeping bag liners and bites on our bodies. Back in Gonder we inspected our sleeping bags to find we’d picked up bed bugs from the bedding that had been provided on the trek. Not content with letting them fester, we’ve delayed our departure from Gonder to get the critters dealt with.

All being well, we’ll be back on the bikes tomorrow (Friday) as we take on the 800km cycle for Addis Ababa. A ride that’ll certainly introduce us to rural Ethiopian life. We just hope we won’t get stoned too much by the small children we’ll encounter: a real hazard of cycling in these parts.  Please follow our progress on our live GPS tracker.

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Cycling from Khartoum, Sudan, to Gondar, Ethiopia

A lot has happened in the past week. Not all of it good. Our stay in Khartoum was extended after I endured two separate stomach bugs but, once rested and all systems were back up and working properly, we set off on our 5-day ride to the border with Ethiopia. The plan was to cross at the Gallbat/Metema border before heading into cooler climes and mountain air, something we were both excited but apprehensive about.

The ride out of Khartoum was quieter than we expected and, although we were cycling on a main road, we had plenty of space. Actually in Sudan the lorry drivers are incredibly patient and will wait their turn to pass you if there is oncoming traffic and most will wave and beep their horns at you. The buses however were another story – coaches whizzing across the country at an extraordinary pace pass you with far less patience and on many occasions forced us off the road.

On our first evening after leaving Khartoum, we’d stopped in a small town to pick up some vegetables and a cold drink – we have often found it hard to pay anything for vegetables in Sudan as the market vendors continue to tell us that we are their guests and refuse payment! Cycling out of town to find a spot to camp we were stopped by a man on the road, “Welcome! Welcome! Where are you going?” which is perfectly normal in Sudan however he then added, “But where will you sleep?” – so we stopped to chat and before we knew it our new friend, Ihad, had invited us to spend the evening with his family in their compound.

Both exhausted, we kindly accepted his invitation, as we were keen to learn more about daily family life in Sudan – and we were not disappointed. Ihad lives with the majority of his extended family (25 or so) in a compound just by the Blue Nile and we spent a fantastic evening meeting his children and his two sisters’ children and shared a meal with his immediate family.

Feasting with Ihad and family

Feasting with Ihad and family

Ihad lived with several of his nephews and neices

Ihad lived with several of his nephews and neices

By now, it was nearing 9.30pm and way past our usual bedtime so we were starting to make our excuses to get to bed when I was ushered away by his wife and sister to go and see where we were sleeping. They, however, had hatched another plan and I was whisked away into a room where they wanted to give me a “Sudanese bath”. Now, I know I was probably pretty stinky but I was not expecting what happened next. First, I was given a nightie to wear and told to hover over a scented fire and then before I knew it, they were lathering my body in a sort of body scrub which was rubbed into my arms and legs until most of my skin had fallen off. I have to be honest; I found the whole thing a little traumatising as I sat there trying to be polite, but at the same time slightly overwhelmed by my impromptu scrub! I just about managed to convince them that they shouldn’t put a bottle of olive oil in my hair, as it would run into my eyes the next day. I was then given a traditional Sudanese outfit to go and greet James before bed!

A "scrubbed up" Sudanese Emily

A “scrubbed up” Sudanese Emily

The next morning we were invited to a breakfast celebration as Ihad’s niece’s 2-year old son was getting circumcised. So, after tea and biscuits, we made our way across the town to the party.

Ihad had been to the market early to buy a lamb to feast on. Thankfully, by the time we arrived, the lamb had already been slaughtered and the circumcision had been performed – both tasks James had been willing to perform with our Swiss Army Knife.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-16

Ihad, his mother and son. Ihad’s mother was preparing the sheep’s stomach for the celebratory breakfast.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-17

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-14

Sadly we couldn’t stay for too long as we needed to get on the road but the Sudanese hospitality was amazing and we felt very lucky to have been invited.   Although we couldn’t help notice the forlorn look on the face of the poor lad who’d had the circumcision as he lay on a bed recuperating quietly whilst his extended family celebrated around him.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-13

The man of the moment forces a smile

Back on the road, we made our way to the border where we were due to arrive on Monday afternoon – 3 days ride away and around 340km. The landscape was beginning to change. It’s harvest time in Sudan and the farmers were busy in the fields and as we passed through smaller villages we started to notice a change in the people too with lots more shouting from the sidelines! The conditions were tough – a fierce cross wind had rejoined us and the temperatures were soaring once more; our Garmin actually hit 58 Celsius at one point but nothing we were not used too.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-26

The Garmin registered 57.9 degrees Celsius when we left it in the sun.

But then something changed. At the end of the next day I started to feel ‘not quite right’. We put it down to dehydration and stopped a little early for the day to rest up and drink lots of delicious warm filtered water! For the next two days, things didn’t improve; I was managing around 30 minutes of cycling at a time before having to stop to sit down off my bike, it was like someone had turned off the generator, there was nothing left. We took the decision to have much shorter days, stopping for water and Cokes whenever we could and it was a matter of taking things one step at a time.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-28

Grabbing any opportunity for shade

Just to add to the fun, I left my wallet behind in a small town where we had stopped for a few hours so that I could rest which left us in quite a tricky situation. We returned 20 minutes later but it had gone. We were still a couple of days from the border and faced with the prospect of no money for food and most importantly, in the state I was in, for sugary drinks. An exceptionally kind man came to ask us what he could do to help us although short of getting the wallet back, there was not much that he could do.

Panic set in – not because of the contents of the wallet as we have always been careful to only keep one credit card in there and limited cash – but due to the lack to cash and the seemingly never ending road to the border ahead.

What followed was unexpected and quite amazing – the kind man turned to the dozens of people crowding round us and organised a whip-round asking people to spare some money for us. He apologised on behalf of his people and handed us around 70 Sudanese Pounds (around £7) – which was more than enough to buy enough bread, vegetables and eggs to keep us going! We have been touched by the extraordinary generosity of the people here and will be forever grateful for his help.

Another day had passed and progress continued to be slow. After another extremely hard day, we camped around 25km from the border to Ethiopia, which we made the next day by around 11am after an early start.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-21

We had some unexpected guests as we packed the tent in the morning…

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-24

…although some guests stared more than others.

An incredibly hard decision needed to be made. We could continue to cycle, knowing full well that the mountains were right in front of us, knowing that we were not going to pass through any decent towns until the city of Gondar, 180km across the border, or we could take a bus.

We both agreed before we left home that we were not going to take a bus unless it was an emergency, our bikes were broken, the road was completely impassable, security risks or for health reasons. And I’ve never been one to quit – no matter tough it is – we set out to cycle to Cape Town and raise money and awareness for an incredible cause and did not want to have to stop. However, I just did not have anything left in my body whatsoever. Every time I tried to cycle I thought I was going to fall off my bike and I have lost count of the tears I have shed in the process and so, regretfully, once we were over the border into Ethiopia, we took a bus to Gondar where we are now resting up in a little hotel (L-shaped hotel) which has warm water and a bed. I’ve no doubt all will be right as rain within a couple of days once I have rehydrated and I’ve managed to eat some more and we can continue our adventure in the Ethiopian Highlands.

Cycling Sudan Khartoum to Gallabat-32

One thing is for sure; I could not have got through the past few days without James and his tireless support, words of encouragement, patience and love. I feel bloody awful that I have forced us onto a bus, but I know that it was for the best and now it is all about a focus on recovery and regrouping.

Getting a bus: James’s perspective.

When we set off for London on 12th July, the aim was to cycle all the way from London to Cape Town as ‘purely’ as possible. By pure, I mean that we would only be forced off our bikes if absolutely necessary.

Yesterday we got a bus. And I want to explain why we did so.

Sudan has been relentless. Sure it’s been flat. But the lack of gradient only goes some way to make up for how tough it’s been.

Imagine cycling the equivalent of Land’s End to John O’Groats through barren desert with only 4 towns of any significance en route, no shade, very limited water resources and battling against ferocious winds that whipped up sand that stung the skin. We arrived in Khartoum shadows of our former fighting-fit selves.

Add stomach bugs to the mix. I was able to get over mine by the time we reached Khartoum but, throughout the stay in Khartoum, Emily was unable to rest and rehydrate as she would have liked.

We extended our time in Khartoum but the following days were the toughest we’d experienced. Emily wasn’t in a great place so progress was slow and we dramatically reduced our daily distances. Where before we were cycling 120km per day we were now barely managing 60km. Emily had to stop every 2km or so and cower under thorn bushes for shade and retched at the roadside.

Fiding what little shade Sudan has to offer

Finding what little shade Sudan has to offer

Sadly a familiar sight: Emily slumped over her handlebars

Sadly a familiar sight: Emily slumped over her handlebars

Emily is not a quitter. A GB (age group) triathlete and Ironman competitor, her fitness is not an issue. She’s also been whacked by a few lacrosse balls in her time so knows what real pain is.

One of our stated objectives before we set out was to ensure the expedition was safe. The remote Sudanese plain is not the place to get ill. It was 500km back to Khartoum or 200km ahead to Gondar. Staying put was not an option. Firstly, we were far from medical help. Secondly, even resting in a stifling tent, which in itself can be hotter than outside, was not an option.

Taking the decision to get a bus was painful. But not as painful as seeing Emily suffer and deteriorate visibly without showing any signs of recovering.

Taking the bus meant we missed a 197.5 km section of sealed road which had an ascent of 3,452 meters and descent of 1,947 meters. We’ll be sure to make this up when we get back on the road, hopefully in a few days’ time.