Bike touring in Ethiopia is certainly an experience! This blog post covers my time cycling from Gondar to Addis Ababa as part of my England to Cape Town bike tour.
Bicycle Touring in Ethiopia
Note: This blog post was written in 2006 when I was cycling from England to South Africa. Reformatting this post in 2020, I can still confirm that Ethiopia is my least favourite country for bicycle touring! Maybe I should go back one day to see if it's changed!
Day 172 Gondar – Addis Zemen Wed 10/01/07
The two days off doing nothing and eating tremendous amounts did me good, and I was looking forwards to moving on again, especially as the road should be sealed for most of the way!
I made good time and the only obstacles were two fairly big climbs, and of course, hundreds of money wanting kids.Is Ethiopia a land of beggars? It would certainly be nice to see another side as I am cycling through.
Arrived in Addis Zemen for one, and booked into a fifteen birr a night room, which was actually quite nice. Today was a fasting day, so the only food available was bread and eggs.
Kids throwing stones in Ethiopia
Day 173 Addis Zemen – Bahar Dar Thursday 11/01/07
Quite a good night's sleep, as the place had a mossie net. I thought I had been badly attacked by them a few days before reaching Gondar, but it turns out they were flea bites, so that's ok. Still, it was good to stick two fingers up at the mossies from inside my safety net!
Breakfast was a stale roll and a black banana I found at the bottom of one of my bags, and after stocking up with supplies at one of the shops (well, biscuits as they didn't have anything else), I was off.
An easy day's cycling, with no major hardships and only a dozen or so minor chase/begging incidents.
One of them thought it was funny to throw stones at me, but I turned around and threw some back with more accuracy. I really didn't think I would be cycling with a pocket full of rocks before I set off from England, but if its part of the culture to throw stuff at each other, then I simply MUST join in!
I reached Bahar Dar which is situated next to Lake Tana, and made my way to the Ghion Hotel. As I cycled down the drive, I noticed a familiar orange truck. It seems I caught up with the Dragoman guys again! (The reason being that they detoured to the north and east of Ethiopia and rejoined the road to Addis, whereas I just stuck to the main route.)
It was good to see them again, and they said it was ok to join them on a tour the following day, so I decided to camp there at least two nights.
Visiting the Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia
Day 174 Bahar Dar Friday 12/01/07
In the morning, I went out with the Dragoman guys in their truck to the Blue Nile Falls. It took about an hour to walk down from the drop off point, and I got talking to Rich, one of the drivers. Dragoman sounds like quite a good company to work for, so maybe I'll apply to join as a driver, as I could combine travel with work perfectly then!
The Blue Nile Falls themselves were pretty spectacular, and the spray could be felt some distance away. The power with which the water tumbles over was quite impressive, and it was a good place to chill out for a while.
Back in town, I had lunch, stocked up on supplies and messed around on the net. A strain I'd felt in my stomach the previous day was lessening, so the day off was probably a good idea.
I've been very lucky so far with health and fitness, (in fact no problems at all), so I'm aware of even the slightest niggle, and it was probably nothing to worry about.
Rest Day in Bahar Dar, Ethiopia
Day 175 Bahar Dar Saturday 13/01/07
I spent last night talking with Clare, the other Dragoman driver, who needed a break from her clients. Bless ! I couldn't sit there and not drink whilst she was steaming through the vodka, so I had a few beers as well, my first in a long time!
However, beer = laziness, and after the second one, I had already decided to stay in Bahar Dar another day.
The Dragoman guys moved on in the morning, but one of them had mentioned that he had been able to withdraw some money from a bank using his visa card. Result! I was getting low on dollars, so I got some cash out.
Feeling plush, I had a few meals and generally dossed around on the internet, working on my website among other things.
On a different note, when I was writing my diary outside in the dining area, I noticed a lot of monkeys up in the trees, indicating that it was probably monkey shit and not bird shit which landed on a Belgian girl the night before.
Cycling from Bahar Dar to Dangla in Ethiopia
Day 176 Bahar Dar – Dangla Sunday 14/01/07
I was up quite late last night, as the manager of the hotel wanted help with some letters he was writing, and also wanted to work out how much material he needed for a new building he was planning.
In one of my previous jobs, I used to have to read building plans and work out quantities for builders who couldn't be bothered to do it for themselves, although why the manager should randomly ask me to help him as I passed by the reception area I don't know.
He offered to give me a night for free, but I really had to move on, and so after the biggest breakfast ever, I went on my way. I felt strong all day, (probably the omelette, eight slices of toast, porridge, juice and tea supplemented by biscuits helped), and it wasn't too hot. Uneventful.
Day 177 Dangla – Burie Monday 15/01/07
It was probably just as well that I called it a day at Dangla, as some of the hills early on in the day were pretty brutal. They seem to save the steepest sections for going through hick towns, so that every kid can easily run alongside and behind my bike.
‘You you you. Money money money.' etc etc. Yawn.
They should really come up with something more original, although one teenager made me laugh when he asked if I could give him a ride into town because he was tired. Right-o !
The town of Burie is actually some two kilometres from the main road, but there were a couple of hotels on the main road.
I didn't really want to go into the town itself, because last year, another English cyclist was involved in an accident and was then stoned by a crowd before being arrested.
At 8 Birr a night, the hotel was the cheapest so far, and rampaging mobs of stone throwing Ethiopians were not to be seen.
Broken Spokes in Ethiopia
Day 178 Burie – Debre Markos Tuesday 16/01/07
The first two hours of the day were relatively easy, but then I reached a monster of a hill, which was a bit of a shirt drencher. After that, the day just got harder and harder, with climb after climb, and the exercise at altitude was making me a little dizzy at times.
About thirty miles from Debre Markos, I checked the bike, and discovered that one of the spokes had broken on the rear wheel. Buggeration.
The wheel had a bad wobble, but I decided to carry on to Debre Markos anyway.
I booked into a posh hotel (by my standards!) for two nights with the intention of getting the wheel sorted out the following day, resting my legs, and having a beer.
Bicycle Repairs in Ethiopia
Day 179 Debre Markos Wednesday 17/01/07
The beer (I recommend Meta) was quite tasty last night, but didn't give me the lay in I had hoped for, so I was up at six as usual. Oh well.
Had a giant breakfast, and at nine one of the guys in the hotel took me to somebody that repairs bicycles.
The mechanic had never seen a bike like mine before, and couldn't even let the air out of the tyres, which wasn't the best of starts.
Because the broken spoke was on the rear wheel, and neither of us had the tools to remove my cog set, it was difficult to put my spare spoke in.
Eventually, we had to bend it around the cogs and then straighten it out with a pair of pliers. Not ideal, but no other choice.
The next section of road to Addis includes an extremely tough part with a gravel road, so it was fingers crossed it would get me to Addis without any problems!
Spent the rest of the day eating and using the internet at a frustratingly slow 56 kbps… where's broadband when you need it?!?!
Note to self: Maybe 26 inch wheels are better for bike touring?
More Bicycle Problems
Day 180 Debre Markos – Dejen Thursday 18/01/07
Thirty five today !! Dear oh dear. Still, on with the cycling.
There were yet more tough climbs, and I stopped frequently to check the rear wheel which I am even less confident about now.
About three hours into the day, the rear went flat. Now, Ethiopia is not the place to get a flat tyre. It's difficult enough getting two minutes to myself to take a piss at the side of the road without the countryside emptying and people surrounding me, let alone doing repairs to the bike.
My luck was in though. I was at the top of a particularly tough peak, and over to my left was a pine forest which was not only devoid of people, but also provided shade.
I would say that changing my inner tube 10 metres into the forest was the quietest time I have experienced in Ethiopia. No people – Bliss!!
I carried on a bit happier and got to Dejen for two. The hotel didn't have any water to wash with, but it did have a restaurant which served pasta, so I had two meals before having a siesta.
When I woke up, I decided to check the bike over and noticed a loose spoke. Absolute buggeration.
I have no doubt in my own ability to cycle to Cape Town, but these problems with the bike really get on my nerves.
I knew that I should swap the front and rear tyres around anyway, so I decided to put in some work. On my birthday too! Somehow, I didn't think I would be doing bicycle maintenance in a three pounds a night hotel room in some peasant town in Ethiopia on my thirty fifth birthday.
Anyhow, after the usual wrestling match with the tyres, I got them off, tightened the spoke and put the tyres on opposite wheels.
I really hope this rear wheel problem doesn't persist, as I've still got about 8000 kms or so to go. I am also hoping that Nairobi has a quality bike shop where it can have a major service.
I knew the next day was going to be a tough one, so I went back for a third helping of pasta.
Cycling the Blue Nile Gorge in Ethiopia
Day 181 Dejen – Goha Tsion Friday 19/01/07
Today was a tough day. Possibly the toughest both physically and mentally of the whole trip so far.
To set the scene, the distance I covered was only 42kms, but it involved descending 1400 metres and then immediately reascending 1200 metres as I crossed the Blue Nile Gorge.
If this wasn't bad enough, the road wasn't really a road, but a rough gravel track, strewn with rocks, boulders and abandoned crashed cars. This was not a fun day.
The descent, which took two hours, was more difficult than I thought it was going to be, and my hands ached all day from where I had been gripping onto the brakes.
And the kids were back. In force.
It was a public holiday, so school was closed, and feranji (foreigner) chasing was apparently the only thing for them to do all day.
I'm holding on to the brakes and handlebars, trying desperately to stay on the damn bike and pick a good route through the rubble as I descend slowly at a steep angle, all the time hounded by kids.
‘Money, money. You, you. Give pen/clothes/highland'. It started getting to me today, as I realised that they don't see me as a human being, struggling along on a bicycle.
All they see is a ‘feranji', who by definition is a walking cash machine, giver of pens and clothes, and somebody that doesn't need the water they are carrying.
Now, I've been trying hard to avoid falling into the trap of de-humanising them, but today I just couldn't help it. They reacted the way a pack of dogs would as I passed by, and it wasn't just one group but every single kid, without exception.
So, this carried on for the first hour of me going down hill, with the usual ten or so kids running behind or alongside me yelling the normal stuff, only to drop back and be instantly replaced by another pack of kids.
Then, as I passed one village, a massive collective roar of ‘you, you, you' went up, and the village seemed to empty.
Looking behind me I now had over one hundred kids running after me, all yelling for money, water, pens and clothes. Retrospectively, if somebody had a video camera, I'm sure it would have looked quite amusing, but at the time, I was probably at the lowest point of my trip.
I mean, whats the fucking point? Where's the enjoyment? It would be far easier just to flag down a bus, and I could be in Addis Ababa in a few hours. I wouldn't have to worry about the bike, the road, hassle, looking over my shoulder all the time or any of the other things I have to be constantly aware of. More importantly, I could be away from these animals.
But, then I thought about some people who said that cycling to South Africa was impossible, that I couldn't do it and was mad to try. I have two lines from an L7 song I sing over and over again in my mind at times likes this.
For all the ones who put me down …. Shit list
For all the ones who fill my head with doubt ….. Shit list
Putting the enitre population of Ethiopia sixteen and under firmly at the top of my shit list kept me going, and fortunately, after five minutes of this massive crowd running after me, a guy stepped out into the middle of the road waving a stick and the kids stopped. Thanks mate!
When I reached the bottom of the gorge, I crossed a bridge over the River Nile, and then had the 21km ascent to look forwards too.
The dust clouds from passing lorries were choking, the sun was a scorcher, and the sweat poured from me. It was impossible to cycle some of the sections, and I had to push the bike more than I wanted too. All in all it was just very, very hard work.
Although I didn't see any accidents, there were plenty of crashed lorries being towed away, and I saw one mashed in bus halfway down a cliff face. Looked like it could have been painful.
Each bend was replaced by another, all going constantly up at the steepest angles imaginable, and then, after six hours of pain, tarmac!!! Joy!!
My spirits instantly lifted as I cycled into the town of Goha Tsion. I'd done possibly the hardest thing in my life, hadn't given up, and come through the other side.
Anything and everything was now possible, and nothing left as I cycle to Cape Town can be as hard as this.
‘You're wonderful' a passing Ethiopian said as I cycled to a hotel. ‘You know what mate? I think you're right' I answered with a smile.
Day 182 Goha Tsion – Fiche Saturday 20/01/07
Hills, kids, blah blah blah. Finished the day at Fiche which left me 100 kms to cover to Addis Ababa.
Day 183 Fiche – Addis Ababa Sunday 21/01/07
I didn't have a tremendously good nights sleep, but in the morning I felt strong, and all the accumulated negativity of the last few days had evaporated. Destination – Addis Ababa, where I could take a few days off and relax.
The road was ok, although the final mountain climb getting into Addis was a bit of a killer. I somehow found my way into the centre, and located the Baro hotel.
A room wasn't available until eight, so I had something to eat and a wander around. When I got back, I noticed the Dutch/Belgian couple who have been driving overland, and I had first met them in Cairo and last saw them in Bahar Dar. So, I'm not going too slowly!
We went out for a meal at night with another couple of travellers, one who was a freelance photographer and the other who was a film translator.
Time off in Addis Ababa
Day 184 Addis Ababa Monday 22/01/07
After breakfast, I managed to phone my parents and brother over the internet using Skype, which is by far the cheapest way for travellers to call home. It works out to be 0.017 euro cents a minute. Marvelous.
Then, I looked for a new hotel as the Baro couldn't give me a room for another night, and was very over rated as well. I've gone for the Taitu Hotel, and have taken one of the rooms in the main hotel building.
Its expensive by my standards, but the room is huge, with a high ceiling and a great balcony. Well worth the extra money I think.
After moving my stuff, I caught a taxi to the Sheraton, which has one of only two working ATM machines in Ethiopia, and took out some money.
Then I caught a taxi to the Kenyan embassy to apply for a visa. 538 Birr lighter, I left to go back to the hotel, and spent an hour trying to true my bicycle wheel.
I think I've done a reasonable job, but only a day on the road will tell. Found a shop near the hotel which sells a twix like chocolate bar made in Iran. I've now eaten eight of them, and still want more. Mmmmm … chocolate.
That's it for now folks, and the next update should come from Nairobi in a couple of weeks time. Please remember to sign my guest book!!
More from this bike tour
Next update – Travelogue 22 – Cycling from Addis Ababa to Nairobi
Previous update – Travelogue 20 – Cycling from Khartoum to Gondar
Start from the Beginning – Cycling from England to South Africa