Rocking and Rolling to and from Addis Ababa! (Arba Minch, Ethiopia – KM 15,130)

From the 2,400-metre high ridge at Lalibela it is a nice descent on pavement towards the airport, and another snapped brake cable for Pierre! The low quality spare parts we have been able to find locally, combined with Ethiopia’s dramatic topography have seen us restocking weekly with these useless cables, not counting some terrible tires and tubes. We are looking forward to reaching Addis Ababa where a box of goodies is waiting for us since July.

After a night spent camped by a house—where the owner asks for money once it is time to leave, “you can” is his argument—the road—now dirt—starts to climb steadily. Being alone must be a curse for Ethiopians because everyone I encounter on the rocky path waits for me and walks along, stick or riffle slung across the shoulders, wrists resting on its body, hands dangling. If I stop for a sip of water, they stop, they wait, they stare. Then we go again, together. When my front tire goes flat I summon Pierre to come and help me. One switchback up I can see my partner is being “bothered” by a battalion of children, gripping his bike and throwing rocks. He walks down to me—we could not replace the last broken brake cable—fixes my flat tire—don’t judge—and we continue on the steep zigzags up. By now the crew of little road terrorists has grown in size and is rabid. A truck is coming up. Our thumbs go out. Our bikes are loaded in the back and we climb in the cabin. We are safe! Pierre laments, “Man! Climbing on my bike in beautiful landscapes is my favourite thing in the world and now I’m afraid to do it!”

The driver is coming back empty from delivering cement to Lalibela. He is headed to Addis Ababa and we are welcome to ride along. While it is a tempting offer we want to travel slowly for a few more days and discover a different area of the country. After climbing to the “China Road” and its pavement on a high plateau, and reaching its eastern extremity in Weldiya, we reassemble our mounts and ride into the sunset. From there the road is fast and busy, we go as low as 1,600 metres, banana and papaya trees line the road, guavas are 10 birr per kilo (1USD=20 birr).

KM 15130a

Leaving Lalibela. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130b

Camped in donkey dung, fixing yesterday’s flat tires before getting charged 50 birrs for the hospitality…after hard negotiations! Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130c

A fast ride on a perfect road. Cycling-wise, Ethiopia truly is world-class! Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

An Ethio Telecom truck parks on the shoulder in front of us. The driver pops his head out and says, “you want a lift?”. Pierre and I look at each other. My mind makes an inventory: we have ridden 55 kilometres today, we fixed 2 flat tires—acacia needles are a bitch—, I got attacked by wasps and bitten in the neck by one, I also grabbed a young man by his collar after he had said inappropriate things to me. Not taking into account the number of children who ran after us yelling “money, money, money, money, money”, because that is a given, our answer is, “we’ll take it!”

After Taklu Abebe has bought us a kilo of oranges, as we are racing down the road to Dessie to have dinner with his family, I come to realize that these encounters with truck drivers are the closest relationships we have developed with Ethiopians. It is definitely our own doing for we have become so stressed on the road it shows in our body language, in our willingness to let people in. We can only imagine how enjoyable this country must be when you sit in a Land Cruiser, like the few tourists we have seen passing us, smiling dozing, totally relaxed, going from one incredible site to the next through a garden of Eden, eating good food, drinking good beer. The thought puts me at peace with these afternoon teleportations.

KM 15130d

Spaghetti bolognese with shiro and injera! We did not know it was a possible combination. Miam! Taklu’s appartment, Dessie, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130dd

Taklu’s wife makes the traditional coffee ceremony, roasting, pounding and brewing the grains. The arabica plant originated in Ethiopia and coffee is celebrated at every cup. Dessie, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130e

Outside Kolbocha we come face to face with Nurye Said, the truck driver delivering HIV medicine that gave us a ride to Sekota (see previous post). He lives here and wants us to stay for the night but it is still early and we are eager to keep going. When we say we might see him again, our Muslim friend answers, “Inch’allah!”, God willing! Three days later we bump into him again in Debre Berhan! Kolbocha, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130f

Further down the road Taklu passes us in the Ethio Telecom truck and stops to see how we are doing. We thank him again for the wonderful dinner his wife and sisters prepared last night. Our Christian friend is a teetotaller but does not remark on my jersey from the best microbrewery in the world, Microbrasserie de Charlevoix! Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

From Dessie it is a 22-kilometre descent to Kolbocha at 1,800 metres. The valley is rich, there is cotton growing, fruits and corn. Our location, down from the eastern escarpment and the highlands, overhanging above the Afar Depression and its connection to Djibouti and the Red Sea, explains the many camels we see on the highway. The influence is also noticeable in the large mosques, women’s colourful hijab and men’s beards and keffiyeh. The valley descents slowly to 1,300 metres, every river we cross is running to the east and the Awash, a river that never reaches the ocean. It empties in lakes on the border with Djibouti and disappears in vapour!

KM 15130g

Yellow jerrycans and women lining up at the water pump is a daily sight in Ethiopia. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130h

The other kinds of trucks! Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Is is said that what comes down must go up. On the first day, from Shewa Robit to Debre Sina we climb 1,300 metres over 30 kilometres. The next morning we make it to Tarmader Pass (3,230m) and reintegrate the highlands. We progress on a rich agricultural plateau filled with busy people. A small boy carrying a load on his head yells “Hey!Faranji! Hello!” and smiles. We are not used to such niceties anymore. We get even more startled at the Eva Hotel in Debre Berhan—where we are poking around for an open wireless connection—when a tall man comes to us, smiling, coffee cup in hand.

-How far did you travel on those?

-We started in Norway 15 months ago.

-Wow! You need to rest. Come!

-Oh! We won’t stay here actually, it is above our budget.

-I own this place. Let me invite you!

The next day, after cleaning out a third plate at the breakfast buffet—sitting among Turkish railway workers, American aid workers and Russian god-knows-what—we make it to the Promised Land: Addis Ababa!

KM 15130i

No scarecrows here but experienced snipers! Sorghum is protected by elite slingshot handlers hoisted into baskets. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130j

Gelada monkey king showing his red heart and wind blown hair. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130k

Before the pass, Tarmaber village specializes in oregano, butter and moonshine. We try them all…and buy some oregano! Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130l

Sending our geoposition to families and friends with our InReach SE, “ET phone home!” Tarmaber Pass, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130m

Rolling hills, fresh air, broad bean garden, this could be Quebec’s countryside! Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130n

Amazing homesteads dot the plateau. Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130o

When Ethiopians are not fasting they ditch the vegan diet promptly. One of the big treat is kitfo, which is warmed raw meat with butter, hot peppers and herbs. A restaurant advertises very fresh meat! Debre Berhan, Amhara Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

Menelik II made Addis Ababa (New Flower) his capital in the 19th century for its beauty, hot springs and agreeable climate. “Addis” is now also the capital of the African Union and hosts more diplomats than any city except New York and Geneva! We had imagined it with gold-paved streets and it is exactly like that!

We have perfect hosts, a Warmshowers family with a heart of gold. Our package is waiting on “our” plush duvet. It has been sent by a friend from Quebec to Switzerland, from where the family has picked it up and carried it on the plane to Addis. We have received new Michelin tires, Ryders sunglasses, break pads and an Ipod Touch. Obviously when we ordered months ago we did not think of tubes and cables!

Our host sells us some Jagwire cables, a couple of tubes, a patch kit and another tire. He drives us the the Kenyan Embassy, the Ugandan Embassy, patiently helping us acquire two East Africa visas. He takes us to Alliance Française for a night of live Ethio-Appalachian rock music where we drink beer with aid workers from France, Benin and Sweden. He also keeps us well-fed and makes sure every night that our glasses of red wine stay full. Merci beaucoup!

Through our host Pierre meets an American expat with a fleet of 11 mountains bikes, and is given a Sun Rim wheel to replace my front rim that has started to crack—thank you so much buddy! We have ice cream and cake, Nutella and wholewheat bread, salads and lasagna, even Korean food, all treats unavailable to us for weeks and weeks. Quite a gear change!

KM 15130p

Water delivery service! Any brakes on this? Addis Ababa, Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130q

The African Union (AU) has 54 members and a new building that dominates the skyline, a “gift” from the Chinese government. Addis Ababa, Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130r

Reluctantly leaving this corner of peace and joie-de-vivre, saying “au revoir!” to our host and heading to Southern Ethiopia. Addis Ababa, Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

From Addis Ababa heading south to Arba Minch there are two options: the Rift Valley or the Hosaina road. The first one would be busier, the traditional route following a string of lakes nestled at the bottom of the massive Great Rift. The second, only paved recently, is higher (1,900m to 2,700m) and quieter. We go for that one, bien sûr!

Five days later we arrive in a pick-up truck inside the front garden at Forty Spring Hotel, in Arba Minch, shell-shocked and sick.

KM 15130s

Thirty kilometres from downtown Addis Ababa donkeys have a busy day! Never been more entertained on roads by animals than in Ethiopia. Oromia Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130t

Our modus operandi is to end our days in small towns and rent cheap rooms (50 to 80 birr) in hotels doubling as drinking spots/brothels. We call it “indoor camping”. The toilets are always memorable—for all the wrong reasons—but it keeps us dry, rested and affords moments of privacy we desperately want. Lemmen, Oromia Region, Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130u

After Butajira the huts and houses are impressive and colourful, set against a backdrop of rich agricultural land, but we take few photos of them. We are busy pushing hard on the pedals to escape the complete pandemonium that follows us. We make gestures and say things we thought we would never say to anyone. It’s a mess. Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

KM 15130v

Main road on market day. “Coming through!” Doyogena, Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.

After Sodo, where the Hosaina road connects with the main rift valley road, we got a ride in a pick-up truck with two gentlemen working for a German aid organization. Pierre had been having night sweats, muscle pains and was lagging behind me on the uphill sections, all sure signs something was seriously wrong with him. Plus, I had a front flat-tire curse that was not going away and the housings around my brake cables needed replacing, making my brakes jam randomly—and my bike mechanic was down! 😉

We sat behind our “rescuers” and talked for well over an hour about our experiences since entering Africa at the Suez canal, and everything we love about their country: the exciting topography, the cool climate, the fantastic birds, the fact that it is very clean with little pollution, no littering and few smokers, how safe it is, how good the food is, etc. Then they asked “how is the people treating you?” “Well, it is pretty terrible, never experienced anything like it before”, we answered. “Maybe you can tell us why children throw rocks at us, spit at us, slap and whip us, kick, grab, push our bikes while we are on it. Why most adults we have encountered since Butajira has presented a begging hand even if they have houses, fields, khat leaves to chew and more cows than we have seen in our entire lives. And why everybody stops what they are doing to scream “money” as soon as they see us? ” I had been asking these questions—like all bike travellers riding through Ethiopia—to whoever looked like they could answer, and I had collected hypotheses.

1-Tourists have spoiled the children. I kept wondering who would give anything to a child without asking permission from the parents first. Is it a behaviour they reserved just for developing countries? And where were they these tourists?

2-Ethiopians used to be proud self-sufficient farmers but were broken by the Derg. In 1974 Emperor Haile Selassie (aka Ras Tafari) was deposed—and probably killed—by the Derg, a radical military group with Marxist-Leninist ideology. The land reforms, resettlement campaigns, communal farms and “villageisation” programs sunk the country in hunger and violence. The Soviet-backed regime ended in 1991 but the damage was done.

3-Ethiopians receive so much foreign help, they think all white men are here to give them something. During the 1984-1986 famine “white man” charity started to pour in—remember “We are the world”?—and it has not stopped since—in 2013 Ethiopia was the third beneficiary of foreign aid, after Afhganistan and Irak, although Ethiopia is not at war, has a fast growing economy and the second largest army on the continent. OK, but I am sure aid workers don’t walk around distributing one birr coins and pen to five year old kids!

And they call you “China” because the Chinese that have built the roads and communication infrastructures are the only foreigners they have seen”. That’s one we had figured out by ourselves, but did the Chinese workers spoil the children? Is it a new or old phenomena? Is begging part of the culture? As you can tell, this “welcome” has been occupying our thoughts!

After 24 hours of rest in our clean tilled room at Forty Spring Hotel Pierre was not feeling better. A blood test at a local clinic revealed murin typhus bacteria in his veins! The doctor said it was from contaminated food, the worldwide web said it was from a flea. The latter makes more sense since Pierre has had a oozing flea bite on his ankle since Debre Sina. So, here we are still, writing, popping pills, healing, eating grilled fish, drinking papaya juice and preparing for the last push to the Omo River valley and the Kenyan border at Lake Turkana. Lots will change in the next few weeks and we are ready for it!

FORTY SPRINGS HOTEL

The only way out is through! (Lodwar, Kenya - KM 15,680)
Higher and Lower! (Lalibela, Ethiopia - KM 14,335)

One Comment

  1. What a conflicting push and pull! With its diverse geography, great food and good roads Ethiopia looks like a fantastic country to visit but the social environment seems unworkable for bike travelers any less resilient than yourselves. I would love to see the country but how heartbreaking to have to view it from the backseat of a Land Cruiser! Bon voyage – Steve

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

required