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.