Around the world by bike
(716km - 15days - 9 November 2007 – 30 November 2007)
9 November - 15 November – Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
My return from Amman, Jordan, to South Africa, was due to the desperate need of a new passport. To my surprise, Ernest was there as well, but he’d a completely different reason. He, however, left most of his belongings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, whereas I’d all mine with me. After a month of eating and drinking with friends and family, I collected my shiny new passport, this time, a maxi passport with more pages.
After much deliberation, Ernest and I decided to join forces, and the two of us flew to Addis Ababa. I was happy to be back in Ethiopia. Not only was Ethiopia home to some of the fastest marathon runners in the world, but a country with a fascinating history and religion. Ethiopians mainly belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, who claims to possess the Ark of the Covenant, understood to be kept under guard in a treasury in Axum. Ethiopia is also home to the famous rock-cut churches of Lalibela dating back to between the 7th to 13th centuries. Legend has it that, with the help of angels, the churches were carved out within twenty-four hours.
Furthermore, Ethiopia was the home of Haile Selassie, seen as a messiah among followers of the Rastafari movement, and Bob Marley considered Ethiopia his spiritual home. Most of all, Ethiopia was home to excellent coffee and the famous Injera. Coffee from the Ethiopian highlands and injera, a traditional, sourdough-type flatbread or pancake. Traditionally, injera is made from teff flour, but I think any grain can be used. The flour is mixed with water and fermented for several days before baked into a giant, flat pancake with a slightly spongy texture. Usually, a variety of small amounts of stews are scooped onto the injera, and by using one’s fingers, small pieces of injera are torn off and used as utensils to scoop up food.
An entire week was spent in Addis visiting touristy places, including a visit to the famous early hominid “Lucy”, the 3.2-million-year-old fossilised remains of a female skeleton discovered in 1974. Surprisingly short, she only measured 1.1 metres tall and weighed a mere 29kg.
Most of our time was spent organising visas to both Egypt and Sudan, a long and frustrating process. Performing these mediocre tasks made us feel like we were transported into another dimension as, in Ethiopia, time starts at sunrise, therefore an hour after sunrise it is 1 a.m. To add even more confusion, Addis was a blaze of colour and light, as Ethiopians were celebrating the millennium. Although 2007, it seemed we were back in 2000. The Ethiopian calendar is a solar calendar beginning on 29 or 30 August in the Julian Calendar.
While in Addis, I bumped into Wondey, one of the guides of Tour D’Afrique. What a small world.
16 November - Addis – Muka – 80 km
It was seven days later before cycling out of Addis for the relatively short distance to the Sudanese border. I’d become surprisingly unfit, or maybe I’d forgotten how hilly Addis was. The countryside was colourful with farmlands in different shades of green and yellow - November is such a good time of year to visit Ethiopia.
Eighty percent of Ethiopians were farmers, and the road north led past farmlands, where farmers still used oxen and wooden ploughs. The hills encountered nearly killed me and, exhausted, I reached Muka only 80 kilometres away.
17 November - Muka – Fiche – 38 km
Although Fiche (situated at an altitude of 2,780 metres above sea level) was only 38 kilometres away, my backside wasn’t used to cycling, and best to make it a short day. As can be expected, Ethiopians were fascinated by us while children shouted, “You, you, give money,” and, if ignored, stones came flying. Yes, kids did throw stones at cyclists, but I didn’t think the act was ever intended to hurt but more as a way of getting a person’s attention. These kids are fairly good at aiming stones, and if they wanted to hit you, they wouldn’t have missed.
18 November - Fiche – Gohatsion (Goha Tsion) – 76 km
The 76 kilometres to tiny Goha Tsiy was wonderfully colourful, but hilly and, therefore, fairly slow going. Soon, the famous Blue Nile Gorge came into view where overnighting was on the rim of the gorge, one of Ethiopia’s most dramatic landscapes.
The Nile is considered the longest river in the world and consists mainly of two tributaries, the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The White Nile begins somewhere in Rwanda or Burundi (no one seems to be quite sure of the exact location). The Blue Nile originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia after which it flows through Sudan where it meets up with the White Nile and then flows into Egypt where it, eventually, drains into the Mediterranean.
19 November - Goha Tisy – Debra Markos – 70 km
The following morning, the road descended into the legendary Blue Nile Gorge and to our surprise found the 1500-metre descent half paved, making it a piece of cake. The steep 1500-metre climb out was, however, still under construction and workers had put down a thick layer of gravel, making cycling somewhat tricky. As having already cycled that section previously, I saw no need doing it again and got a lift with a truck to the top. Ernest, not having been to Ethiopia before, cycled.
Debra Marcos, only 70 kilometres away, was our overnight stop and allowed plenty of time to shop at the market. We located dried beans, potatoes, onions and chillies which Ernest concocted into a bean stew - something different to injera eaten almost every day.
When the Italians arrived in Debra Markos in 1936, they told astonished locals they’d come to free them from their oppressors, something which left them baffled as there were no oppressors. I giggled at this bit of information as I could imagine the surprised look on the Ethiopians’ faces.
20-21 November - Debra Markos – Finote Selam – 85 km
From Debra Markos, an undulating road ran 85 kilometres to Finote Selam where a room with a piping hot shower at 30Birr ($1.13) became home that night. Fruit and vegetables seemed hard to get hold of; maybe November was the wrong time of year for vegetables. At least, there were plenty of bananas and oranges to be had.
I found Ethiopia more fascinating than ever; not only is it Africa’s oldest independent country but also a county that had never been colonised, apart from a five-year stint by Mussolini. Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, is equally fascinating and is written using an abugida, or syllable alphabet, based on the Ge’ez script. So far, there is no formal method of translating Amharic writing into Roman or Latin characters.
22 November - Finote Salam – Dangla (Dangila) – 99 km
From Finote Salam to Dangla was a pleasant and comfortable 100 kilometres accompanied by the usual, “Where you go?” from kids, before demanding money, clothing and even the bike at times.
Even though Dangla was a tiny village with a population of only about 25,000, it had a long history. It was said to be the centre of the African slave trade way back in 1930 when the British maintained a consulate in town.
Supper was firfir, my favourite food, being injera fried in butter with a hot sauce. By the time I went to bed, I knew it was a mistake.
23-24 November – Dangla – Bahir Dar – 80 km
With the greatest of difficulty, Bahir Dar was reached the next day (I will not go into detail), and the 80 kilometres felt like a lifetime. It was, therefore, with great relief that I crawled into touristy Bahir Dar. The place wasn’t exactly swarming with tourists, but had a few hotels and restaurants.
Dar Gioa Hotel offered camping on the edge of beautiful Lake Tana, but I opted for a room as I’d no energy to pitch a tent. Still feeling unwell, another day was spent in Bahir Dar. Little did I know whatever I’d contracted would stay with me an awfully long time. Feeling unwell, nothing came of plans to visit the island monasteries or the Blue Nile Falls.
25 November - Bahir Dar – Addis Zena – 88 km
The route to Addis Zena stretched along Lake Tana and was, therefore, flat and scenic. We finished the day’s ride in Addis Zena which had a wonderful location at the foothills of the Simien Mountains and the start of the very impressive Ethiopian highlands. By evening, Ernest offered to cook spaghetti as I still wasn’t up to local cuisine. We ate our food while admiring Mount Asiba, Addis Zena’s most famous landmark.
26-27 November – Addis Zena – Gondar – 100 km
Spectacular views greeted us as we cycled the 100 kilometres to Gondar. The following day was spent roaming the streets of Gondar, as it was an old town with plenty to explore. It was also our last chance to buy essentials before heading into Sudan. Gondar was an old and historic city, and once the capital of Ethiopia (1632-1667), with the result there were plenty remains of ancient castles and fortresses.
The walled Fasil Ghebbi fortress was a vast complex of forts and palaces which measured 70,000 square metres and contained numerous restored castles and other buildings. The fortress had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main attraction remained the immense 17th-century castle of Emperor Fasilides, which included a surprising mixture of architectural styles.
28 November - Gondor
Ernest headed to the border, but I decided to stay another day and take a bus as I’d already cycled that particular stretch not too long before but, on that occasion, never had time to look around. I popped into the Debre Berhan Selassie Church with its elaborate murals and ceiling and wandered the streets and markets of Gondar at leisure, while giggling at the school kids greeting me with a sing-song, “Good morning, teacher”.
29 November – Gondor – Metema (by bus)
The next day, a bus ride took me to the Ethiopian/Sudanese border located at the town of Metema, a trip that became quite an experience. In true African style, the driver charged for putting the bike on the bus, and afterwards charged for taking it off. We overtook Ernest, and by the time the bus broke down, I expected him to catch up. I arrived in Metema dusty and maybe more saddle-sore than on a bike, as the seats were rock-hard.
Metema, being a real border town, was dirty, dusty and every second hut a pub/brothel. I found accommodation consisting of a mud room with a sagging bed and electricity which came on when the generator came on and went off when the generator switched off or ran out of fuel. With the lack of individual switches, it was a good idea to keep a torch handy as the toilets were way out back behind a rickety, corrugated iron sheet.
30 November - Metema
Ernest arrived the next morning, covered in dust and sweat, and we thought it best to find another room (not much better but at least a bit more spacious). We enjoyed our last beer as our path crossed the border into Sudan the following day. Being a very conservative Muslim country, alcohol was forbidden and women were seldom seen outside, which explained the considerable number of pubs as Sudanese men frequently popped across the border for a bit of R & R.
1 December - Metema - Galabat - Doka – 88 km
Not being early starters, it was already late in the day before crossing the border from Ethiopia into Sudan at the scruffy border town of Metema. The immigration office was no more than a mud hut under thatch, and on emerging from the dark and dingy room, one found yourself in super-conservative Sudan.
The day was hot and windy and, not feeling 100%, it was a struggle, only reaching tiny Doka towards the end of the day. The tents were pitched in the vicinity of a police checkpoint at the turn-off to the village. Camping close to the police was maybe not the safest place to pitch a tent at that time as trouble in South Sudan was ongoing and police were continuously under attack. The reason for camping near the checkpoint was due to availability of water. Checkpoints always had plenty of water, and we could, therefore, wipe ourselves down and have water to cook as well as fill our bottles with drinking water. Water is always a major concern in the desert and, fortunately, the police didn’t mind sharing. Before setting up camp, we first cycled to the market, but Doka was no more than a few simple homes, a mosque and small market, and all we found were a few potatoes and tomatoes.
With Sudan being such a conservative Muslim and desert country I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d cycle it twice!