#8. Gondar to Addis Ababa... Cycling in Heaven!

Beyond the Saddle ....Cairo to Cape Town
Howard Fairbank
Thu 22 Feb 2007 11:34
09:00.755N 38:44.808E
   Issue #8


to Addis Ababa….

Cycling in Heaven!



A view of the Blue Nile Falls before the sun started setting...
from my special 'bedroom' !


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia……..21 February, 2007.


(Elevation 2225m…..3rd highest capital city in the world!)

It feels really satisfying sitting here in my 7th floor hotel room, in ‘downtown’ Addis Ababa, looking north at the Entoto mountains above the city, from where I descended yesterday, to complete Stage 2 of my adventure to Cape Town. With 3588km now behind me since Cairo and just 9 degrees to the equator, the trip is truly ‘underway’….I looked at my body in the mirror today, and couldn’t believe how much weight I have lost!  I just love the challenges being presented, the simplicity of life, and the daily diversity and intensity of ‘African’ experiences.


The section from Gondar (my last newsletter) to Addis Ababa has been wonderful, with two natural highlights being the Lake Tana area and the Blue Nile Falls Gorge, and then the high altitude cycling experience.


Ethiopia has really surprised me in many ways, some positive and some negative, but there is no doubt it’s a fascinating country that offers so much more than the picture of arid countryside and poverty stricken people that I had in my head. It becomes increasingly apparent that I will merely sample a limited range of Ethiopia’s delights on this trip, and maybe even more so than Sudan, I am already feeling the need to come back in the future and have a broader experience of the country.


So to the highlights…..:


You may have already picked up that I have been fascinated by the Nile, and the ‘story’ that has unfolded as I have followed upstream its course from Cairo. From Khartoum, where I stood on a little island at the confluence of the blue and White Nile Rivers, I have had to be content to leave the White and ‘just’ follow the Blue Nile story. It hasn’t disappointed…..


The Source point of the Blue Nile……….


Lake Tana was the emotional highpoint, and at 3000 square km is the largest lake in Ethiopia, a country blessed with a vast number of Rift Valley lakes. Lake Tana, not being formed by the ‘Rift Effect’ is a natural collection/drainage point for the surrounding mountains watershed area. The ‘horizon-less’ lake was visible while cycling two days before my arrival in Bahar Dah, the vibrant town on the extreme south edge of the lake, and strategically positioned to ‘guard’ the Blue Nile’s start of journey to Khartoum. I say guard, because that’s how it felt….crossing the longish bridge across the river into Bahar Dah, I was warned by army personnel armed with semi-automatics, that it was a ‘sacred’ place and not to stop nor take photos. That gets me going…. I set out later that day to cycle the 500m up next to the river to get to the ACTUAL point where the Blue Nile exits the lake! (It’s a weir system that basically controls the amount of water going to Khartoum…..so quite a ‘political valve’ I’d imagine!)  Well I could see the aqueduct, but after repeated failed attempts to find the road, I befriended a 14 year-old on a bicycle, who delighted in joining me on an adventure to the source point. He obviously had some idea of the path, which was a foot path at best, and finally we arrived at the aqueduct….. hmmm….just about to whip out my tourist camera, and two angry guards point rifles at us! They call ‘my guide’ aside, physically manhandle him, and obviously tell him off for bringing a tourist to this no access point!  I beg and plead for one photo but to no avail….we get back on our bikes and head off, no photo….but the story will remain a memory! It’s actually quite funny, because the photo wouldn’t have been much…for I achieved what I wanted… securing another emotional ‘jigsaw piece’ in this story of the Nile.


A similar guards and rifle story happened when I took a 10 km cycle downstream of the Blue Nile, with another befriended, 14 year-old cycle ‘guide’ (Mengstu) to ex Emperor Haile Sellassie’s palace on a hill overlooking the river. Advertised as a ‘must see’ it was closed, locked up and guarded by highly aggressive armed guards!  (This time I got my photo though…but it didn’t make it into the newsletter ‘top 10’!)



My local bicycle
guide Mengstu on the
hill where Haile
Sellassie's palace is,
and with a view
upstream of the Blue
Nile with Lake Tana
in the extreme



Interestingly both these teenagers who helped me, were ‘pleasant surprises’, in that I spent a couple of hours with each, and they were well educated, could speak good English, coming from parents who were ‘middle class’ farmers. Our time was spent discussing real things, and they unselfishly gave me information and showed me around, without ever asking for money or payment in exchange. Mengstu, on an unsolicited basis, even offered to take a few photos of me with the various tourist spots as backdrop. All he did ask is that I send him a hard copy photo of the one you see of him in this newsletter. These two experiences restored my hope for a change in Ethiopia’s handout culture!


The Blue Nile strangely flows south from Lake Tana, as part of its long tortuous semi-circular path around the Ethiopian highland plateau, before it gets onto its north bound route to Khartoum. This south bound section enabled me to have two more very emotional encounters with the river again…….


The Blue Nile Falls…..


The first one being my 70km ‘freedom’ trip from Bahar Dah to the Blue Nile Falls (Tis Isat, or Smoke of Fire in Ahmaric) and back while on a rest day in Bahar Dah. I decided I needed to see the falls on my own, and in a special way, so put on my pannier frame, packed a few vital essentials, and headed off by bike for the falls. The road was bad, but slightly descending the whole 35km, and the scenery great. I felt the additional risk of being out there now on my own, and thrived on the freedom this gave. Long story, not for now, but after a lot of challenges I managed to get a private ‘bedroom’ right in front of the Blue Nile Falls, in time for sunset!  Couldn’t believe my luck, the crowds had gone, and I was the only one there….of course the bedroom ceiling was heaven and the stars above! Oh…and it was valentine’s day, so I had a 20 minute hook-up on the sat phone with my special Ruth who was in Switzerland! I had been warned that due to the Hydro Electric plant (73MW) that was built in 2003 (by a consortium of Ethiopian, Yugoslav, French and Chinese companies), the falls are half as impressive as ‘the photos’ show. With this low expectation, and the special-ness of being there on my own, the falls delivered more than I could have imagined. 


Lake Tana itself…..


Before leaving Lake Tana, to experience the next piece of the ‘Nile jigsaw’, I was able to have a wonderful lake experience, through paddling a ‘Tankwas’ the local single kayak made of papyrus, and used to move between the 30 or so islands that are to be found on the lake. (See the photo)  Now I know…..papyrus isn’t waterproof….it just slows the rate at which water leaks in….! Every 20 mins I had to bail, to prevent the boat sinking! Many of the islands are inhabited by Ethiopian Orthodox monks who live in old monasteries……I visited one of the closer islands and found it a wonderful living environment and also very interesting.



Trying to master
the 'Tankwas'...

a Papyrus kayak used 
on Lake Tana.





I found Lake Tana a very, very relaxing and peaceful place… first time I felt very restful and tranquil….. maybe it was the water, and its effect on me….! Part of the Ethiopian culture seems to be to have what they call ‘Recreation Centres’. The ones on Lake Tana were really special….. Right on the waters edge, a terraced area, with chairs on the terraces, a waited bar and snacks service, where time stands still. Locals go there, often couples seeking a romantic chat, its very quiet, no kids, no 'You you you', or 'Munney, munney' stuff, one is left on one’s own, and even the locals respect privacy and don’t sit close to others. I spent probably two hours at one…..the birdlife was just amazing….. The only downside…..there is a ‘Camera Policeman’… An elderly ‘official’ who looks like he comes out of the old colonial days with his khaki safari suit, and pith hat, who pounces on you for 10 Birre (US1.10) when he says you lift your camera for a photo! Small price to pay! Lake Tana was the first place I really, really felt sad leaving!   


The Blue Nile Gorge….


It was then onto my first encounter with the Great Rift Valley, which essentially dissects Ethiopia, and it involved the Blue Nile again…..  The Blue Nile Gorge!


The crossing of the gorge involved a 67km cycle day, of which the first 17km was from the campsite to the northern rim, then a 20km, 1200m descent to the Blue Nile bridge crossing, followed by a 20km tough 1400m climb to the top of the south rim. All dirt road, and much of it in shocking condition, lots of mud on the descent, and dusty, exposed rock surface on the ascent. Once again a very sentimental journey, with the whole valley officially declared ‘sacred’ and no photos or stopping allowed! Armed military guards pop out from the most unexpected places all along the way! (Hence the lack of quality ‘Gorge’ photo’s in this newsletter.


The gorge was impressive, similar to, but on a smaller scale than the Grand Canyon.


So much for the Blue Nile and related highlights……anything else I hear you ask?


It would not be complete if I didn’t share with you some of the other ‘general highlights’ of this past 8 days….. 


The weather ….


Even though I am at 9 degrees latitude…it’s quite cold up here at 2500-3000m. Particularly at night when the wind can get up….. gets down to 7 degrees C.


Another huge milestone - the first rain since Cairo…apparently very unusual for this time of the year…. in the form of an electrical storm that caught me by surprise, and forced a few of us ‘tent-less’ campers to scurry for a place under one of the trucks! I guess my long run of starry nights, and no tent since the last day in Egypt is coming to an end I’ll have to dust the tent off!


The Wild Life…..African type!


A lot has happened in this area, since the excitement of the bird life in my last newsletter….


Cycling up one of the many, long and tortuous mountain passes one morning, I was treated by three separate troupes of monkeys…. First was just the ‘plain old vervets’, next was a larger size vervet type, that had large white beards (haven’t found their name), and the last and very special were the Colobus Monkeys, endemic to Ethiopia….. large monkeys, probably 1.2m tall when sitting, black and white, with marmoset type faces, and lots of facial hair, with long bushy white tails. Sorry no photos, they were difficult to track down closely and keep still! 


One night hyenas were howling close to our campsite, and a few nights later I was offered a revolver for protection against the hyenas by ‘Abie’ the landlord of the property I slept out on! On that same property, I was fortunate to have a close-up viewing of a troupe of about 40 Gelada baboons, traipsing their way back home along the rim of the canyon. The males are particularly beautiful with the red triangle on their chest…once again difficult getting close, before they take off.




A magnificent Gelada Baboon.

The best photo I could do...






Lake Tana bird life deserves a special mention….. Abundant water bird life, with many Fish Eagle sitings, a huge amount of pelicans and kingfishers, and while at the Recreational Centre I was entertained by numerous grey cranes building new nests in tough and trying wind conditions.


Interestingly, the bird life changed dramatically once I was above 2200m, with the only birds of note being the big birds of prey…..eagles, kites, vultures, and lots of crows.


The Countryside… an overview…


The countryside since Gondar has reminded me many times of South Africa…..the Kwa Zulu-Natal midlands, then of the Zululand area, then Mpumalanga… all very familiar….. the difference being the abundance of water, and the higher elevation. Bearing in mind it's winter, the terrain looks very fertile, and ideal farming land with undulating hills, interspersed with huge plateaus. Cycling along the road, every 20-40km one comes across villages which form the social and ‘commercial’ centres for the extended farming areas. The farms have surprised me in their size, yet primitiveness. They are typically beyond subsistence size, well laid out, and include grain products (maize, sorghum, and tiff), and livestock (cattle and goats). There is no mechanisation, and fields are still ploughed by primitive ox-drawn ploughs.


The sad thing is that the farming doesn’t seem to have been able to lift the game to the next level, where there is a thriving agriculture-centred second tier local economy that creates jobs and broadens the wealth base. The result is that there are a huge amount of people in these rural areas who have a basic education, but no prospect of work, or even an idea of how they can create income. Tourism is in the embryonic stage, and although there are glimpses of hope in this area, it looks like a long hard road ahead before it can really have a significant economic impact on these local people. The nett result is one is constantly being bombarded by locals who ‘just want freebies’ from us ‘rich people’. Unlike the Sudanese, whose pride and dignity took them down a different path, the Ethiopians have a strong ‘handout’ culture and are unashamed to pester one for ‘Munney, munney, munney!’, or slightly better…..‘Pens, pens, pens’!)


I thought it worthwhile trying to paint a picture for you of one of these typical rural villages...


Cycling past the outlying farms I was struck by the neatness of the farmhouse, surrounding buildings, well demarcated pastoral areas, and the often huge bales of hay collected to tide them through the winter. The first signs of an approaching village is the presence of more densely arranged round mud huts with thatch roofs, and rough branch fencing segregating neighbours. These are the poorest people in the village. Houses then take on a more first world appearance, being rectangular, with a sloping iron roof, often with an ‘architecturally pleasing’ covered entrance porch. The whole construction being tightly butted eucalyptus tree ‘poles’ covered by a very thick naturally occurring clay, which is then smooth plastered to give a quality exterior finish. Windows and doors or basic corrugated iron, and distract from the otherwise pleasing look. One then passes these ‘upmarket’ houses to come to the ‘commercial’ centre of the village…..lots of ‘holes in the wall’ lining the streets offering very similar and basic wares, such as a huge range of plastic cans, bananas, tomatoes, cattle dung(!), basic toiletries, primary packaged food stuff, and in some cases ‘fashion’ clothing. The main road is walkway for people of all ages and abilities, animals of all types, and then the occasional vehicle struggling to claim back its designated ‘road’. For some reason these villages have a surprisingly large number of ‘hotels’…not the sort of places for tourists, so there must be a fair amount of inter village travel. Locals are milling about everywhere, some just sitting staring into the distant yonder, others, socialising in the many ‘Bar and Restaurant’ offerings. There is always a Post Office, and a Bus Stop, and from the photo of a ‘typical Post Office’, you can take a view on the likely reliability and speed of the service! 


I hope this newsletter is not too long, but I feel there is so much I want to share with you…..


Also, feedback is REALLY welcomed, and if I ain’t giving it to you, please tell me about what you would like to hear.


Remember, I update my blog daily at http://blog.mailasail.com/howfair, with cycling-focused info, and daily GPS positions on GoogleEarth


I am REALLY looking forward to the next sections challenges, and most of all crossing the equator to Nairobi!


Till my next one….Take care!


PS:  You may be wondering what happened in Gondar with Emanuel…..Well he struggled to get his teacher to meet me...but eventually did.....English teacher who was useful to talk to, and confirmed that Amanuel (yes it's with an ‘A’) is an orphan, and one of only two in the class....he is a seriously disadvantaged kid....no mentor, no real home, basically a subsistence hunter and street kid at his age... tough stuff! With his input and the teacher's advice we went to a bookstore and bought him an Oxford dictionary, (English to Amharic), an Oxford grammar, phrase and spelling book, and a Geometry book for his level at school. It was absolutely amazing, Amanuel knew just what he wanted, and chose them with passion....then hugged me afterwards thanking me very much.....emotional stuff….and, there is lots more as I will continue working through his teacher....but after TDA.


The first signs of an approaching Ethiopian Village....the walkers and donkeys with their 
goods for the markets. 


Note the dress and the mandatory sticks the men carry!

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

  • Hours cycled since last newsletter:

  • Distance cycled since last newsletter:
    806 km

  • Distance cycled so far:
    3588 km

  • Km to go to Cape Town:
    8296 km

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.

Section dates:


5 February to 20 February


This was my view having sundowners at a wonderful bird hide pub on the Blue Nile, just 500m downstream of its exit from Lake Tana.


Beers were US$0.50, bird life wonderful, and I was the only customer!  

That's the 'sacred' bridge you see in the background!


A view of the last section of the road out of the Blue Nile Gorge.... 

with the Blue Nile far down below, and the North Rim where I came from forming the horizon!

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.  


Section dates:

22 February to 11 March

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


A typical upmarket farm....

note the huge hay bales, a key feature
of all farms, and the large amount of livestock.


A 'typical' Post office in the centre of a rural Ethiopian village.

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