Friday, 15 March 2013

Yabello rest day to Kenya border...

The ride into Yabello and a rest day became known as the toughest of the trip. I know I keep saying that, but this day of off-road cycling, and other factors such as a strong head wind and climbing made it that little bit more challenging. It was a seriously long day on the bike and some riders cycled at a pace which brought them into camp 8 hours later. Obviously with stops in-between, but that still a hell of a long day to be out on your bicycle. 

However to make it interesting, the scenery as always was beautiful with very impressive termite mounds to keep your mind off the dusty dirt road causing painful muscle cramps in your legs.

We did a really fun stop in a local village, and as per usual we attracted a massive crowd of onlookers. After many photo's and a quick drink it was back on the road, praying that Yabello would appear around the next corner.

Once at camp it was time to celebrate not only a fellow TdA rider's birthday, (... HAPPY BIRTHDAY Naomi!), but also the end of a really challenging day.

Birthday Girl Naomi and her good friend Erin
Yabello was a cute town, nothing much to offer, and to my frustration absolutely no internet, but once again we had massive smiles on our faces because across the street was a cafe selling chocolate doughnuts. The hotel was know in town to serve the best food, so we all got ready to indulge in delicious food. However, upon arrival the electricity was out, and thus the kitchen only had limited options on the menu -- basically spaghetti with tomato sauce or meat sauce, and that was it. That evening, the power came back on and we enjoyed the luxury or a wider menu of food choices. Now there were burgers and pizza available! We immediately ordered our favourite western meals, but we sure paid for it in more ways than money. I was just beginning to get back to my fit and healthy self, but after sharing a pizza that wasn't cooked properly, I suffered the effects of a very upset tummy and serious nausea. Once again my rest day became a recovery day.

While in Yabello we had the important subject of Kenya to discuss as the up coming election drew closer and closer. The TdA organizers had been advised not to let us cycle anytime nearing the elections for safety and security reasons, as there was evidence of serious riots and unrest during the previous elections. A group of cyclists do not want to be caught up in this! So with that in mind, everyone agreed that avoiding trouble was key. We were therefore going to cycle two days to the border of Kenya and then have only 1 day of off-road cycling to a bush camp. Thereafter, a bus would transport us to Marsabit and then Nanyuki where we would wait out the election process over four days. All TdA riders were grateful for the long rest period as, finally, we could have the feeling of being on holiday.

After feeling poorly on the rest day I was pleased to wake up on the morning of the 128km cycle feeling much better. It was a difficult day, with a headwind once again, several parts being off-road and, of course, a lovely unforgiving climb just to remind us we still in the rolling hills of Ethiopia. I had a great morning, cycling alone to my music. I didn't realize I was actually leading time wise for the ladies racing that particular stage. Arriving at lunch, it dawned on me that I could push hard and hopefully get my very first stage win. I had a quick bite to eat, filled up my water, jumped back on my bike and cracked on with a strong pace up to the finishing line. It was extremely difficult, but at the same time, it was a great way to challenge myself. I believe being competitive adds to the fun of the TdA tour. Arriving at camp, I was the first girl to time-in and I knew I had won. It was a very proud moment and I'm incredibly happy to get my first stage win. 

The ride to the border was short, only 80km, but a consistent headwind made it a slow day. We had been told to be at the border before 13h00, because thereafter they close the offices for a two hour lunch break. It was 11h30 and I was about 5km from the border, while mid conversation with a friend cycling beside me, when my front wheel came out from under me… Yes, it just fell off!!! As a result, I had a spectacular fall over my handlebars once again. Totally confused and unsure why I was lying face down in the middle of the street again, I saw my front wheel completely detached from my bike frame. Luckily we were moving slowly, due to a slight incline and headwind, because if this had happened on a downhill, my injuries would have been far more serious. Once I had collected myself I inspected my broken bike and realized that the problem must have been that my front wheel wasn’t on properly. From all the bumps the day before, the quick release must've loosened and slowly the front wheel worked it’s way out until it became totally detached. As a result of the accident, my axle was bent, I had broken two spokes, and the break router was damaged. At this point I wasn’t able to continue riding to the border, because I physically couldn’t get the wheel back onto the frame. I called the TdA organizers support vehicle, which came to pick me up and got me to the border to start the paperwork process.

Upon arrival at the border, I learned that two minutes earlier the Ethiopia Immigration Office had decided to take an early lunch break. So there we were, stuck in Ethiopia for two hours when all I wanted was to be at camp in Kenya, putting the continuing challenges of Ethiopia behind me. In the end, we had two hours to kill, so we found a local bar selling cold drinks and played an interesting "Snooker" type game with some locals. 

Finally the Ethiopian Immigration offices opened and we all got ready to enter a new country. I'll be honest, Kenya has been a country I have really been looking forward to visiting.

With my bicycle still lying broken and without a front wheel in the back of the TdA support vehicle, I walked across the invisible line separating Ethiopia and Kenya. The first thing I noticed was that the beautiful paved road had suddenly came to an abrupt stop, and a rocky dirt off-road had begun... again. At this point I truly appreciated my Trek bicycle, so kindly sponsored by the CYCLE LAB in Cape Town. On these rough roads, my trusty mountain bike has really been top drawer, allowing me the freedom to excel...

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Ethiopia continues...

As we rode in convoy out of the city, I was actually sad to leave Addis Ababa. One rest day was just not enough. With so much to do and see, I feel like I needed a week to really enjoy what the capital of Ethiopia has to offer. In the end, I spent most of my rest day, once again, sleeping, eating and contacting friends and family via a painfully slow Internet connection. We went for a buffet dinner at an expensive hotel, the Sheraton. After all the cycling, no a la carte meal was going to be enough. At least, with a buffet, you know you're walking away fully satisfied. After eating ourselves into a food coma, we headed to the nearby bar for farewell drinks as we said goodbye to a few TdA sectional riders leaving in Addis Ababa. But when a few leave, there are also a few that join the TdA family. With a good nights rest in a comfortable bed, which doesn’t deflate like my camping mattress, and a full tummy, I was excited about getting back on the bike. At this stage, numerous riders were still suffering from tummy problems, but by taking extra precautions, I’m pleased to say I’ve not been ill again.

From Addis Ababa we made our way to Gogetti camp, which was basically a bush camp near a small village. It was a fun 110km ride, as we descended more than we had to climb... a great change. We actually had a few local Ethiopian riders cycle the day with us. This made issues with stone-throwing kids a little more manageable because from a distance the local riders scared them off by shouting at them in a language they could understand. Arriving at camp there were the usual warm Cokes and Sprites for sale. When you're tired and craving sugar after a long hot days cycle, a warm Coke is actually heavenly. A few riders went for a long walk to the nearby riverbed and spotted hyenas in the distance. I don't like Hyenas at all. They just freak me out... So when it was time for bed, I crawled into my tent and struggled to fall asleep, knowing hyenas were lurking. In the middle of the dark night I woke up needing the toilet. As I unzipped my tent, I heard the scary, familiar call of hyenas and they were very close to camp, or shall a say, they were basically in the campground, obviously attracted to the food bins standing only a few meters from my tent. I popped my head out and investigated with my torch. With the glitter of several eyes looking in my direction, there was no way I was going to leave my tent and so I sat until morning with a painfully full bladder. When the first light of sunrise became apparent, I was ecstatic to finally do my business without any wildlife interruptions.

I needed to take it slow on the following day's cycle. After a terrible, restless night, I didn’t feel extremely energized, so doing several refresh stop was on the cards and, of course, we attracted a massive audience. It's the strangest thing, basically while drinking our sugary drinks, the crowd of locals are watching us, watching them, watching us!!!  Very bizarre...

The day's cycle was a long one with the usual unforgiving climbs. I cycled so hard and so fast... I just wanted to get to camp as soon as possible. However, with all the haste and rush, I overshot the turnoff to the Hosiana Deaf School, which was to be our camp site for the night. Yip, I was in such a hurry to finish, that I ended up doing and extra 15km of rolling hills due to getting lost... Lesson learned I hope, rather go slow and concentrate.

Spending the evening at the Deaf School was a great experience. All the kids were fascinated with us camping on their school ground and watched us do our daily chores from a distance. As they became more confident, slowly slowly they started to creep closer and interacting with the kids made us realize how friendly, well mannered and educated they are. This Deaf School is the only one in Ethiopia, so the kids at the school are from all over the country and probably seldom see their families. However, the school's program is run very professionally and it was reassuring to see these kids in good hands. I could go as far as saying they were the nicest kids we'd met in Ethiopia, possibly because they weren't throwing rocks at us.

Anyhow, the next day's cycle was to yet another bush camp and it was a good ride, because of a very fun, fast and long downhill descent.

But as my luck goes, it never remains easy. After lunch, the local kids had come out of school and their main aim was to be as irritating as possible to passing cyclists. Just to add to the frustrations of the day, I got a puncture too. Luckily there was a Coke stop nearby where I could change my tube and enjoy a cold drink.

Thereafter, as we started to leave town and finish the 30km to camp, we came across a very nice café which sold delicious cakes and chocolate doughnuts. It's amazing! I don't usually like doughnuts, but when luxuries such as cakes and doughnuts are hard to find, and you've been in a desert for over a month, a chocolate doughnut is a golden treat. We sat down and each ate one with the biggest smile on our faces...

... And, of course, we bought all the chocolate doughnuts in the shop and took them back to camp to share with our TdA friends. I must say we were very popular at camp because of the treat we had delivered.

The 96km cycle to Arb Minch Hotel camp was a beautiful ride, as we passed cute villages and green lush fields.

There was a large amount of off-road, which slowed many riders down, but once at camp we had the option of stay at a very nice hotel at our own cost...

As a reward I believe I deserved, I treated myself to a room, which I share with a friend Claire. Nice warm shower did some laundry and a comfy bed to sleep in made it all worthwhile. That evening it was time for bike maintenance as well as changing tires as we reach more bumpy off roads.

The cycle to the next riverbed camp started with the fabulous familiar paved roads and then it was back onto the off road...

We made it to the lunch stop in good time, even with our several coke stops and taking photo's.

But to delay us just for a little longer, my wheel had a slow leaking puncture and so, before it caused more trouble, I decided to fix it under the comfortable shade at the lunch stop, where help was also readily available.

Thereafter we continued the days ride and did the usual afternoon stops. However, as the sun got hotter and we all started feeling tired and ready to relax at camp, my cycling buddies and I decided to crank up the pace and get to camp quickly.

At this stage I thought I had learned from my mistakes after getting lost en route to Hosaina's Deaf School... But I guess not. Yes, that’s right, once again I missed the turn off and endured an extra 20km of off-road climbing.

Maybe I just enjoy punishing myself by making the cycle just that little bit harder. The moment I realized I was lost, my feeling was -defeat, -frustration and a little -scared. With no signal to call for help, the only way out of the dusty valley was to cycle 20km back up the ruthless off-road uphill. It was also getting late and the last thing I wanted was to be lost after dark. With no other options, I pushed myself up that hill, constantly on the edge of emotionally breaking down... but that wouldn't have helped anyone and it would've taken energy I didn't have to spare. Finally reaching the riverbed camp just before dinner was served, it was reassuring to see that the TdA organizers were all in their support vehicles, just about to send out a search party for us. They said that where we got lost was a common occurrence so they would have found me in no time if worst came to worst. It's times like these that I am happy to be doing this trip through Africa with support from TdA, because being alone and getting lost is dangerous. Running out of water after taking a wrong turn can be very worrying. That evening I felt extremely dehydrated and exhausted so an early night was key for me...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Ethiopia, here we go!!!

Crossing borders from Sudan to Ethiopia was a quick process as far as the paperwork was concerned. Before I knew it, I was walking my bicycle across an old bridge and into what seemed to be a whole new world. The difference between Ethiopia and Sudan was instantly clear. The border town was also very unique, shall I say. Everywhere you looked there were what I could only describe as brothels, advertising alcohol and obviously promiscuous women exposing more than they should. This was a massive change from the alcohol free, conservative Sudan. My TdA friends and I had made a deal that when we crossed the border, we would stop at the first available bar and drink a celebratory ice cold beer. And so there we were, sitting outside a dirty brothel, enjoying the first beer in a long time. It felt good to have conquered yet another country. Only 10km from camp we decided we should keep it to a 2-beer limit, and it felt like it went straight to our heads. The locals were very intrigued with these white people wearing colourful, tight clothing on bikes, coming to drink beer at the nearby brothel. Before we knew it, we had attracted a huge crowd of spectators. Amongst the onlookers were several kids, one of whom grabbed my bike computer straight off my bicycle when I wasn’t looking. When it came time to get going, I noticed it was missing, and asked the crowd in sign language to help find it. It wasn't long before this naughty little kid reappeared, trying to convince me he'd found it down the road, where it had fallen off. A likely story, considering that it had been ripped off together with the three screws which usually nail it to the bike. It's impossible for it to just fall off! I grabbed the computer off him, explaining to the adults he tried to steal it, but the child aggressively demanded money from me as a reward. When I protested and said no, he began threatening me and pulling at my bike. Luckily the friends I was drinking a beer with stepped in and just told me to get on my bike and cycle off as fast as possible, and so I did. However the gang of kids ran after me shouting and throwing stones, my fellow TdA riders caught up and protected me by cycling in a row behind me, thus keeping the aggressive child away and unable to hurt me as we left the border town. I was very shocked at this behaviour, because in Sudan the kids had never become so aggressive. Welcome to Ethiopia, and it’s wonderful friendly children I guess….

Once at camp we could relax and enjoy the company of the TdA riders, away from the chaos of the local villages. With money exchange and a new local number I was ready for Ethiopia, well, as ready as I can be…

As the journey through Ethiopia continued it dawned on me how incredibly beautiful this country truly is. For cyclists who enjoy climbing, it is perfect, as it seems to only have rolling hills and relentless uphill roads.

Anyhow, the border crossing was still part of the grueling 8-day stretch without any rest days. The previous off road section in Sudan ruined numerous TdA riders as our exhausted bodies become prone to illness. At this stage we still had 4 days to go before the relief of a 2 day rest in Gondar, but the riding until that point would prove to be intensely challenging.

The first day's cycling in Ethiopia was fun, because everyone was excited about being in a new country and being back on paved roads. They always seemed to be going uphill, but at least they were paved… we faced our first day of climbing. I’m from a flat farm, with not many hills around, so I took it slow. This was a new physical challenge I was to put my body through yet again.

Luckily, cycling with a group of friend distracts you from the muscle cramps and pains. Seeing everyone have a hard time reminds you that you're not the only one struggling. The TdA riders act as a great support for each other as we're well aware of the difficulties each of us face on a daily basis. I found that doing regular stops is a good way to regain your strength, but also a great time to interact with locals and truly experience the Ethiopian culture. Sparking up conversations keeps you smiling when all you really want to do is cry, because the heat is too intense or the climbs too grueling for the body.

I've also found that planning a fun activity at camp like playing cards, telling jokes under a shady tree, playing music or having a movie night helps you get through the day. It gives you something to look forward to, kind of like a reward for completing the day's cycle. The evening at Matema camp, we decided a feel-good movie was necessary. So, with the incredible backdrop of Ethiopia's rolling green mountains, we set up a laptop with speakers and enjoyed the entertaining cartoon film "UP".

The day which stood out the most for me was the day we cycled into Gondar. We climbed 2505m and it was impossibly difficult.

I spent the morning is some of my lowest gears crawling a snails pace for what felt like hours. This climb was a huge challenge for me and once I got to lunch I felt myself getting very close to giving up.

After procrastinating at the lunch stop for as long as possible, the time came to make a decision; either I just stop and get on the lunch truck back to Gondar or I pull myself together and finish the final 48km. The only reason I finally decided to continue was the fact that I had already cycled the hardest part of the day and it was only 48km of rolling hills. By the time I started, the heat of the midday sun was unbearable and to make matters just that much more irritating, local kids were coming out of school, which meant ducking and diving rocks. Luckily a good friend, Alex, was also having a tough day on the hills and we ended up being a great support for each other during the grueling day. We did lots of coke stops and made sure we kept our spirits up, because this was a serious mental challenge.

When I finally reached the hotel where the TdA riders were camped I almost burst into tears, as I was so relieved to have made it to the end of the day, my worst day on the bike at that point.

The 2-rest day in Gondar was heavenly! All we did was eat, sleep, and enjoy the luxury of connecting with friends and family via relatively fast Internet. The following day we ate and slept, sat online a little more as well as doing some bike maintenance.

The day cycling out of Gondar was incredible as we made our way through mountains and enjoyed stops under beautiful trees, but what I found most surprising was that no matter where you decided to stop, local kids would find you and beg for money, making the rest stop very rushed and unpleasant.

Before camp we did a village stop and had the usual coke, sprite and yummy Ethiopian Coffee. I’m always shocked to see the high standard of delicious coffee that is made in these rundown village shacks, the locals do take pride in their coffee and presentation is key. I also believe the café owners pull out all the stops when a group of foreigners visit, because it give them a chance to show off their small business and of course get a big tip.

The farm camp we stayed at as we made way to Barhir Dar was very nice.

Unfortunately this was the evening I started to feel poorly, and so a restless night meant the following day would be extra difficult. Luckily we only had 60km to cycle to the next rest day in Barhir Dar. 

Arriving in this well-established city at lunchtime, we still had heaps of time left to explore. A group of us wondered into the markets and once again went for food and drink at the recommended Wudu Coffee Café. 

The actual rest day in Barhir Dar was terrible for me. The stomach virus I was having a few problems with before was now in full swing and, for an entire nigh and day, I was violently ill. The rest day was more a recovery day than anything else. The following morning, facing 167km of rolling hills, I realized my energy levels were far too low to even attempt the day’s ride. After 24 hours of no food or water, I felt absolutely horrendous and even the TdA medic suggested it was a good idea that I not try push myself. And so the very difficult decision was made to get on the support vehicle for the day and get my energy levels up so that I can be ready to ride the following day. Feeling disappointed and defeated, I got on the truck. I really hoped that I would be capable of cycling the entire way from Cairo to Cape Town. However, illness is something I cannot control... my biggest frustration.

The day on the truck wasn’t so bad, though. I was still able to see the scenery and got to camp early, which meant socializing with the local kids, playing soccer and helping set up the TdA camp.

When riders started to arrive, I felt happy about my decision to not ride while feeling weak. Even the strongest riders struggled and I don’t think I would have been able to finish the day without destroying myself physically. That evening we enjoyed socializing around camp and being entertained by musically talented TdA riders. I went to bed feeling a hundred times better, and it was looking good for me to return to the bike once again.

The day I got back on the bike we once again had 1805m of climbing to do. I took it easy, at a pace which was comfortable. Feeling strong, the 117km ride to the camp in the forest was a challenge, but one I enjoyed.

We stopped at the top of big climbs and held up our bikes with pride and rested along the road, as the day was long, local kids annoying as always and the midday heat takes it’s toll on us all.

Camp was a real treat with shade protecting all the TdA campers, and I was finally able to set up my hammock and relax listening to music; it was the ideal way to recover.

That evening at the rider meeting we got the total low-down of what was install for us the very next day… THE BLUE NILE GORGE!!!! 

We had a distance of only 89km, but the last 20km was a relentless, cruel climb of 1362m... on a day where we'd climb 2461m from start to finish. Yes, this was a difficult and extremely tough day, not only for me but every single rider that attempted the Gorge challenge. The fastest time for the Gorge was about 1 hour 40 min. I was nowhere near doing it that quickly. I took 2 hours 40min as I crawled up this unforgiving 20km hill in my granny gear. I stopped for plenty of photos, a great way to pace myself and keep hydrated. Riders came into camp with bloody noses, others on the support vehicle because they couldn’t finish, and most suffered from exhaustion. However, every single rider was very proud of completing the massive challenge of the Blue Nile Gorge, and what a magnificent day it turned out to be.

The day after the Gorge, we left our lovely camp site amongst the trees as it was time to reach yet another mile stone as we continues climbing until 3104m the highest point of the TdA trip. It was about 10 km after lunch and the altitude at this point was getting the best of me.

Luckily, to keep us amused, some military or security patrolling the area stopped us, and after a quick chat, they willingly offered to have their pictures taken and so we did. These guys are an everyday sighting as we cycle through Ethiopia. However, I must say, I have been more fearful of a child with a rock than a military man with a gun. So far these kids have done more damage, but that’s not to say you should be careless... there are obviously still plenty of dangers to keep in mind.

Anyhow, when we reached the highest point we excitedly celebrated by taking silly photo’s... what else is there to do?

After the highest point highlight, we stopped in the next village for a quick, but yummy coffee, which gave me the buzz I needed to push on to camp.

That evening, camp was near a small village that had the most incredible view of the Blue Nile Gorge that we had conquered just a few days ago. We sat at the nearby restaurant, had a quick drink, and enjoyed the magnificent views below.

It was then time to cycle into Addis Ababa for a very necessary rest day. After the Blue Nile Gorge and the constant climbing that Ethiopia has to offer, all of us riders were looking forward to a day for restoring our energy, and enjoying some time off to explore the Capital city of this vast country.