#7. Ethiopia...What a dramatic change! ...Lots of cycling too!

Beyond the Saddle ....Cairo to Cape Town
Howard Fairbank
Mon 12 Feb 2007 19:53
12:37.255N 37:28.081E
   Issue #7

What a dramatic change!

...Lots of cycling too!



The bar area in the
'Love and Peace' Bar 
and Restaurant 
where we had lunch!



Gonder, Ethiopia.   12 February, 2007.


(For those who don’t know, Gonder was the old world capital of Ethiopia)


Khartoum, and my last newsletter to you, are more than 800km of hard cycling behind me now. The title of this newsletter implies content beyond the cycling stories, but given that I have covered such a huge distance, over some very diverse terrain and challenging roads, my body tells me it would inappropriate not to devote some of this week's newsletter to the cycling experience….!.


In hindsight, there is a good reason why we covered this huge distance so quickly….. that’s because it was a ‘dash’ to reach the magical new environment of Ethiopia, and pass through the uninspiring Sudanese scenery, post Khartoum, as fast as possible.


Sadly, the wonderful memories of the Sudanese terrain and people, prior to Khartoum was tainted by this flat, garbage ridden, desolate landscape, that included a long and boring road (thankfully tar covered) that was not fit for the volume of massive double-horse and trailer traffic travelling along it, to and from Port Sudan. 


It will take a long time to forget the lonely straight sections of road, with continuous oncoming trucks travelling at high speed, creating these strong wind shock waves that pummel one virtually to a standstill…then, similar trucks coming the other way, at times forcing me off the road, and then sucking me along with frightening acceleration as their wind-wave passes me going the same direction!  I was left feeling insignificant, demoralised, and physically battered!!  All this, in searing 45 degree centigrade heat, and with no beautiful scenery to compensate! Looking at the photo of me taking a rest on one of the open-air beds at the tea ‘lounge’ on the side of the road, you can now probably understand how difficult it was not to pack in the cycling and just relax the whole day there!  


(I worked out that probably because of the flat terrain, and the need to move goods huge distances, the Sudanese law allows these monster truck trailers that are illegal in most other countries.) 


In my mental preparation for this adventure, I had imagined many ‘pointless’ days like these, but have been pleased to find they have arrived later than I expected, and thankfully look like they may be behind us now….well I hope so!


It wasn’t all so bad though…life can never be all bad hey! …..


The first positive….


As the kms rolled by it became apparent that the terrain was gradually
changing…..from the post Khartoum dust and garbage bowl, to more semi-desert, even acacia trees, then the nomadic herdsmen moving their huge cattle and goat herds from one demolished grazing ground to the next …then a few isolated ‘koppies’ (small mountains in Afrikaans) appeared on the horizon with extensive thorn bush vegetation replacing the semi-desert, and there were the parched valleys  of perennial rivers, the first since the Nile, then wheat fields. Along the road there was evidence of life beyond domestic animals, in the form of baboons, snakes, a dead rabbit, and even a hedgehog!  The nomadic people were replaced by villages of mud huts, and grass thatch roofs, similar to those found in South Africa. Could this be Ethiopia getting closer???    


The second positive, a wonderful present from ‘nowhere’…..


Not very popular with the tour organizers on this one…..but on the one particularly difficult 150km day, a virtual headwind added to the difficulties, but I was blessed by ‘finding’ a petrol tanker cruising along at a steady 43km per hour….saw it coming and ‘pedalled my butt off’ to then catch the ride of my life behind, with the full cooperation of its driver, for the next 110km…yes…that is  one hundred and ten kilometers, almost 3 hours staring at the back of the truck you see in the photo! For those that don’t know…..by being in the truck’s slipstream, I not only saved a huge amount of energy, but was also able to do the 43 km/h, when around 18km/h would have been the best I could have done with the headwind on my own… It was far from relaxing though…as I had to continually be on the lookout for sudden stops or potholes! Yes, there is still a little boy inside this 49-year-old body!  At one point, both tuck rear indicators started flashing, then the break lights came on, and I thought sadly the ‘tow’ was over. I pulled out from behind, thanked the driver and started dealing with the mindshift needed to be positive again facing the headwind alone…not easy! About 5 minutes later I hear the same truck coming along at the same speed and the driver beckoning me to tag on again….oh he needed to have a ‘pee’, and had politely stopped to let me go safely by, knowing he could pee in peace, and would pick me up later! (Anyway we have been told by the tour organiser that this drafting is not allowed in future.)


Just the back of a truck....

No, a special one for me...'towed' me
for almost 3 hrs

....this was my view...

but then there wasn't much to see




Back to the bigger picture….Yes Ethiopia was near, but what REALLY surprised me was how dramatic the change was….. a change of terrain, road quality, scenery, wildlife, quality, people, religion and culture, and even the weather!  Basically the whole environment, over a distance of fifty kilometers at most….virtually from border post to border post!


The border crossings went without incident (unusual for me as some of you will know!!), and suddenly we were in an environment that was obviously free of the Islamic constraints, with alcohol freely available, a whole range of ‘new food’ restaurants, and people everywhere, not allowing one any privacy, both in body space and verbal demands. Another surprise was the number of brothels all over the place, obviously tapping into the deprived, cross-border, Sudanese market! This little border town of Metema was humming….so we decided to sample some of its offerings…not the brothel ones…ohh…., like previous tour participants we did get to use their showers though!


The restaurant the two Tom's and I chose for a late lunch was called ‘Love and Peace’, off the beaten track down a dirty back alley, with a ‘tourist begging’ sign outside that said ‘Winner Bar and Restaurant’ standing out in big red letters amongst a whole lot of Amharic words. No tourists (other than us!) here though! Soon after sitting down I had to deal with the stuff you see on Ethiopian documentary TV programmes….the blind teenage boy, dressed in rags, a bit retarded, looking hopelessly to the heavens, being led by his younger equally badly dressed brother who was begging for money….all difficult stuff when you are about to have a cold beer and full-on lunch!


For lunch we had to try one of the variations of the national dish for most Ethiopians, called injera - a huge, flat, sour dough pancake made from a special grain called teff, which is served as one communal pancake with either meat or vegetable sauces. Each person eats the injera by tearing off a bit with ONLY the right hand (!) and then using it to pick up pieces of meat or mop up the Berbere sauce that is served in separate dishes. Berbere, is the blend of spices which gives Ethiopian food its characteristic (and hot!) taste.  I bought a bottle of ‘Fine Ethiopian Red Wine’, Goudar label, which turned out to be very pleasant back at the campsite that night (See the photo of my Dutch friend Jorge  enjoying it!)   


A special bottle of wine...

Ethiopian, and our first in almost
four weeks!  

Thats my Dutch friend Jorge!



That first night in Ethiopia, sleeping out in the open ‘under the stars’ as usual, I woke up in the middle of the night, and as I stared at the fluffy white ceiling above me, illuminated by the almost full moon, I thought I was in some fantasy land …..oh those are clouds I had to remind myself….hadn’t seen any for three weeks!


My first day’s cycling in Ethiopia, was a very special experience. I think it was just the shock of the change, and how it reminded me of the Africa I know well…. the dense thorn bush vegetation, dotted with a huge variety of baobabs, against a backdrop of dramatic canyon-like buttresses, and the quietness, with just the wonderful sounds of all the birds around. What a change…..that day I must have seen more than 25 different species of birds, from Giant Kingfishers, African parrots, rollers, hornbills, Ibis, Hadeda, barbets, kites, hooded vultures, and a large variety of finches, to name a few….many species I hadn’t see before…. I wish I had my bird book with me…..but bike spares and protein powder took priority on space!  I know for some of you this may be an environment you can ‘get at home’ but somehow for me experiencing on a bicycle the abrupt contrast of this real African bush, with the deserts and scenery of the past weeks had a huge emotional impact.


The terrain became more challenging as we approached Gonder and had to climb a 2280m mountain pass through countryside that reminded me of Mpumalanga in South Africa…God's Window, and Blyde River Canyon, but spotted with traditional Ethiopian villages along the way. The climb was a series of switchbacks, to OUR ‘Roof of Africa’ with the inevitable few ‘false summits’ that just as easy raise, then break spirits in the hot and dusty conditions. Being the main road to Gonder and Addis Ababa, it had quite a bit of traffic that created clouds of dust at one as it passed. Part of the mountain pass-users were also a surprisingly large number of lonely, flashlight carrying, ‘souls’ leading their (usually) two heavily laden donkeys to some overnight destination!



The Ethiopian Village
just before the start 
of the climb to 2200m!





These first two days in Ethiopia were long, hard days, but very rewarding to have experienced and have ‘in the bag’! The conditions took the toll on many of the riders, and it was not surprising that there were no takers for the two day trekking option available on the rest days! It’s one of the downfalls of doing it the hard way by bike, and at the pace we are going….very little time to take diversions to explore some of the specifics….like the national park around Mt Ras Dashen, the REAL ‘Roof of Africa’ (4620 metres) ….I always said this adventure was my Africa ‘recce’ mission….. I’ll have to come back one day!


This newsletter would not be complete without trying to communicate to you the difference in the approach of the Ethiopian people along the way (vs Sudanese). I was warned about this, but it’s hard to prepare oneself for the mental torment….


……Everywhere you go you are joined by kids who are just fascinated by a visitor. Sometimes they just circle you and stare while you are having a tea, sometimes it’s trying to chat, sometimes it’s trying to help, and yes, sometimes…..it's trying to steal something! The same Jorge in the wine photo, has had his expensive bike computer/watch stolen off his bike while he was drinking tea next to it!


Worse still, is the constant… ‘You’…’You’…’You’… chanting as you ride by….I have no idea where the ‘You’ comes from, but I never thought I would find being addressed by something other than ‘Mister’ more irritating! With the steep climbs, one often is doing almost walking pace, and these kids come next to you, chanting the ‘You’ carrying sticks designed to be pushed through your wheels, and often with stones that they throw at you once one summits and starts speeding off…! When you have been in the saddle for 7 hrs, and the temperature is 45 deg, the road dusty, it takes a lot of focus to keep ones cool! 


On the positive people side…..two good experiences…


First one…


I had this 12 year old guy called Emanuel befriend me as I cycled around Gonder, searching for the hotel meeting place. He immediately struck me as a very special kid….perfect English, very streetwise, good sense of humour, bright and knowledgeable. We met again yesterday, and I bought him lunch at a local restaurant, and he told me about his life and struggles as an orphan in Gonder… but not in pleading for pity or looking for money handouts, wanting REAL help. Turns out he can speak 6 languages, and is one of the top pupils in his school class of 100. There is no doubt he is a gifted child, and I am meeting him and his teacher today to see where I can take it from here. Fate delivers difficult hands for some hey!…..I have no doubt that given a more ‘silver spoon’ upbringing this guy would be a formidable leader and contributor in broader society.


Second one…


I persuaded Dean (the bike mechanic, and a lovely guy) to join me on a pub and club crawl through the streets of Gonder last night…..I also had agreed with Emanuel that I would meet him in town… Well we had a wonderful night visiting traditional music bars, where they have a group consisting of a drummer, a traditional single string instrument player, and a female dancer. These pubs are packed, with highly energized, participative dancing, and we were quite a novelty as the only non-locals. The music is ‘typical’ African, with a strong beat and rhythm, and the band members dressed in traditional clothing. Still waiting to get to the real Rastafarians a bit further south. Although alcohol was freely consumed, the environment was very relaxed, friendly and orderly. Emanuel excelled himself by taking us to this late night restaurant coffee bar where we had real Ethiopian coffee, served the Ethiopian way…taking 20 minutes to prepare.


So, in conclusion…..it's now exactly one month since I left Cairo……and I have come more than 17 degrees south, now being at just over 12 degrees North, and I am ABSOLUTELY thrilled with the whole experience so far, and how I have managed. I am looking forward to leaving tomorrow on the 730 km to Addis Ababa, and entering the special terrain of valleys, mountains, lakes, and volcanic activity associated with the Rift Valley. With so many riders suffering from sickness, I am just holding thumbs that I stay healthy through this next section.


Till Addis Ababa …

’Ow’  -  Goodbye in Amharic…..pronounced ‘How’

A typical roadside village Tea Lounge, 
with me taking a rest from the nightmare trucks!

The Progress So Far
  • Current Section:
    Khartoum to Addis Ababa

  • Hours cycled since last newsletter:

  • Distance cycled since last newsletter:
    802 km

  • Distance cycled so far:
    2798 km

  • Km to go to Cape Town:
    9 110 km 

The Mud huts with grass roofs two days out of Khartoum, with the family posing holding a baby goat.

A day before leaving Sudan....Finally managed to get the women to agree to a group photo, in their colourful dress.

A typical Nomadic group, moving their herd across the flatlands in Sudan

Busy with....Section Two: 
Khartoum to Addis Ababa  


From the city of Khartoum to the border of Ethiopia, the route passes through the “bread basket” of the Sudan. The countryside gradually changes towards Ethiopia and there is much evidence of the transformation from the Arabic Muslim world of northern Africa to the more tribal and traditional nature of the Horn of Africa.


Once in Ethiopia, the ride of a life begins. Ethiopia contains some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world. This section will challenge the body more than any other section due to the high altitude riding. However, beyond the mountains there are also many interesting stops throughout Ethiopia such as Lake Tana with visits to the ancient monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls.


From a cycling standpoint, the highlight of this section will be the Blue Nile Gorge, an 1800-meter precipitous descent and ascent over a crumbling road that will test the mettle of cyclists of any calibre. Once the Blue Nile Gorge has been conquered, the beautiful rolling hills of central Ethiopia will ‘whiz by’ as the route moves to a newly paved road into the capital city of Addis Ababa. The descent from the surrounding hills of Addis into the downtown core will be an experience not to be forgotten.

A change from Sudan...
Typical Rural Ethiopian village huts.

Coming up....Next Section:
Addis Ababa to Nairobi  

South of Addis Ababa, the terrain changes yet again to flatter countryside interspersed with beautiful lakes. Lake Langano is set against the Arsi Mountains and is an ideal stop to camp and take a much-deserved dip. The route then continues through Shashemene, the unofficial capital of the Ethiopian Rastafarian community. with a stop in Yabello, and a visit to the wildlife sanctuary to catch a glimpse at some of Africa 's rarest birds such as the Prince Ruspoli Turaco.


Crossing from Ethiopia into Kenya begins the “Meltdown” portion of this section because the roads in northern Kenya consist of an unpaved lava rock expanse that redefines the word bumpy. This road runs through a hot flat rock desert and then the paved highway begins signalling the start of the ascent around majestic Mount Kenya.


From here the route goes through some spectacular scenery, and includes the huge milestone of crossing the equator and some of the most drastic elevation changes on the approach to the halfway point of the adventure….Nairobi. The “Meltdown” has the most diverse changes in scenery and riding conditions: desert, mountains, and savannah. Cycling the “Meltdown” in its entirety is an impressive accomplishment for any cyclist.

The Complete Route

  • Total Distance Cairo to Cape Town: 
    11 884 Km

  • Countries through which the route passes:
    Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa

  • Sections:  
    1. Cairo to Khartoum  
    2. Khartoum to Addis
        Ababa (Sudan/Ethiopia)
    3. Addis Ababa to Nairobi
    4. Nairobi to Iringa
    5. Iringa to Lilongwe
    6. Lilongwe to Victoria
        Falls. (Malawi/Zambia)
    7. Victoria Falls to
        Windhoek (Zambia/
    8. Windhoek to Cape Town  
        (Namibia/South Africa)

  • Expected arrival in Cape Town:  
    12 May 2007

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