Miles on the clock: 29,010
Ethiopia immediately differed from conservative, neighbouring Sudan. Metema, the border town, was a strip of bars, pool halls, women in tight-fitting clothes, loud African music on tinny speakers, barber shops with paintings of proudly-sported afros, and even a topless white woman painted on a shop front.
The picturesque villages consisted largely of small, circular thatched huts with outer fences to enclose livestock at night. Each habitation seemed literally overflowing with children. Strangely, a large proportion of them sported shirts but no pants or shorts. In the last 25 years the country’s population has more than doubled to 87 million and is still 85% rural subsistence farmers. This increase, and the subsequent deforestation and regular famines (averaging one every 7 years since 1960), is Ethiopia’s biggest cause for concern.
The hills got steeper, and that relatively chilly night I used my tent for the first time since turkey. The morning rides were my favourite part of my journey through Ethiopia: sleepy villagers stumbling from their huts to start cooking fires; semi-somnambulant herders traipsing along behind their lumbering beasts; cool, fresh air and crawling mountain mists. However, it was never long before the bleary-eyed children would spot me and shatter the peace by harking “you, you, you”, setting of a chain reaction that raced along the road faster than I could ride.
Sturdy, austere and unornamented stone structures; the castles are reminiscent of medieval European castles and it is likely that their construction was overseen by the Portuguese Jesuits who were prolific in Ethiopia for several centuries.
I wondered around the peaceful, green enclosure for a while, noting the stars of David carved over several doorways, alluding to the imperial line’s supposed links to the Solomonic dynasty.
Sat atop one of the crumbling watch towers in the perimeter wall, I watched a funeral procession pass with a startlingly-narrow coffin draped in a purple shroud and surrounded by men carrying variously-coloured, tasselled umbrellas. A throng of mourners followed in white shawls, bunched around two men performing a sombre ritual dance.
The road southwards was, for a while, less tortuously contoured and passed through more pleasant rural scenes that I would describe as idyllic were it not for the copious amounts of children screaming their demands for “money, money, MONEY!”
Large baobab and fig trees dotted the landscape as well as tightly-planted eucalyptus trees. The species was imported from Australia in the late 19th century to solve the firewood shortage.
I was lying on the roadside one day, sheltering from the midday sun under a grand old fig tree, when a farmer woke me up. He gestured angrily that this was his land and literally shooed me away by kicking dust into my face. This hostility (unprecedented on my journey) and lack of welcome sadly was to become a leading feature of my time in rural Ethiopia. Stones were thrown at me on a daily basis and, on slow uphill climbs, children would run alongside relentlessly heckling and begging for money. In most countries dogs chase me. There are few dogs in Ethiopia but the children more than fill the void.
On a warm afternoon I reached the relatively large city of Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana and got a bed in a hotel’s mosquito-ridden office at a reduced price. That night I joined some expatriate doctors in a “Cultural Music Club” where ceaseless drumming and a little stringed instrument set the beat for Ethiopia’s unique style of dancing. It consists solely of moving your head and shoulders in a juddering, rotating fashion. It seems that there is only one way to do this dance and everyone obediently does it that way. I was struck by the difference of this conformity to the endless (but, admittedly, often unsuccessful) struggle for individuality enacted on the dancefloors of Europe.
An exhaustive 5-day ride took me onto Addis Ababa. I would normally go slower but by this point the persistent hassling from villagers had become exasperating, leaving me with no peace and the desire to rush through it. The landscapes continued to thrill but were harder to appreciate in the sound corridor of shouting created by my presence.
Ethiopia’s ubiquitous begging might be seen as incongruous in a country that prides itself on being the only African nation to avoid colonisation (despite being briefly colonized by the Italians in 1936 before being ousted by the British in 1941). However, for many years now, the country has received more foreign aid than any other except Iraq and Afghanistan. This culture of receiving has possibly led to uneducated Ethiopians viewing foreigners simply as cash, not people. The almost-reflex reaction of presenting an open and expectant palm upon seeing a foreigner (or “farenji”) doesn’t exactly fit with the national pride in a history of imperial conquest, strength and independence.
Is was a warm hazy morning when I raced down the winding road into the Blue Nile Gorge. A gaping scar in the landscape, the gorge stretches for hundreds of miles and, in places, is a mile deep. From the small town on one side of it to the village on the opposite lip is about 10 miles as the crow flies but the (Chinese-built) road winds for almost 30 miles, dropping over 1,000m and crossing a (Japanese-built) bridge before climbing again and landing you back at the 2,500m altitude you left off at.
It was relatively flat from here onto Addis and a fairly unremarkable ride. More shouting, more stones and one boy who asked for money and, upon being ignored, shouted “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” repeatedly and increasing loudly until I was out of earshot. I assume he learnt this from an exasperated cycle tourist. In a small village I stopped at a water pump to fill my bottles and the people demanded money from me. Behind them loomed a large sign announcing that the pump was donated by the EU.
The diplomatic centre of the African Union, Addis Ababa is a bulging, bustling city, with little planning, chaotic roads but generally very friendly people. Of the forty countries I’ve now visited on this journey, Ethiopia is a complete anomaly in that the urban population is generally far more friendly and welcoming than its rural counterpart.
I found a cheap campsite and pitched my tent for a few days while looking for someone able to fix some problems with my bike. I met three Scots on a motorbike journey from Edinburgh to Cape Town and spent a few days resting up with them while they took an engine to pieces, changed a piston, and reassembled it.
We bought the National strip on the street and were squashed into the increasingly frenzied stand almost three hours before kick-off. The excitement rose to fever pitch before the game even began and the trees and rooftops surrounding the stadium soon filled with people. Even the narrow scaffolds that held the floodlights accommodated numerous precariously-perched figures. When the game got underway the sport was disappointing but this didn’t bother the fans who chanted and stood on their seats throughout. One of the most often heard chants was “Lucy, Lucy, Lucy” referring to the 3.18m year old hominid skeleton that was found in Ethiopia in the ‘70s and is an important evolutionary link; another odd point of national pride in a conservative orthodox Christian country where creationism is widely accepted.
Ethiopia won the scrappy but tense game 2-1 and the celebrations were euphoric. Fans continually tried to climb the fence and get onto the pitch but were opposed by policemen with liberally-used wooden truncheons. About 90 minutes after the final whistle we managed to exit the stadium only to find that the entire spectatorship was outside waiting for the team bus to run the gauntlet of screaming, dancing, chasing fans. The police seemed torn between hitting people and joining their revelry. The bus (and its exasperated looking passengers) was surrounded for a slow moving mile or so before it broke free and the celebrations moved into the city’s many bars. It was a long and jubilant night. I woke in the morning, along with three very groggy Scots, to find my hair had been put into plaits by the numerous bored prostitutes that plague night clubs.
I pedalled up a hill and out of the city wearing my new football shirt in the hope that it might deflect some of the hostility I had come to expect. Unfortunately this didn’t seem to work as I was threatened by teenage boys with fist-sized rocks while eating lunch on the roadside. I brandished my cooking knife and hurried off when they retreated in panic.
The minor road carried me through a small Muslim district in which not a single stone was thrown and nobody shouted at me. I was invited into homes for lunch and tea and had interesting conversations with the people about their feeling of marginalisation by the predominantly Christian government.
From this island of peace I made a long climb to a pass high in misty mountains before zooming down to a small village. I had covered 90 miles and was long overdue lunch so was scanning the roadside for a café when I saw a young man run out of a shack carrying a full two-litre water bottle. A second later the 2kg bottle flew past, brushing my cheek, and crashed onto the tarmac. I snapped. Next thing I knew, I was stood over my floored bike bellowing furiously and wordlessly at the doorway into which the thrower had disappeared. After a moment’s silence, a chorus of shouts arose: “sorry, so sorry mister”, “please go now”, “where are you go?” “you, you, you”, “give me money”. I rode on with evil thoughts shouting in my head that I should have done something. I was shaken by my second loss of temper and could only throw my energy into speeding up another long climb.
It was late afternoon when I approached the top and everybody seemed to be out on the road in an increasing state of excitement. In the town of Sodo the streets were blocked by screaming, celebrating, dancing, pushing throngs of people. I later discovered that their local football team had that minute been promoted to the country’s highest league.
Night arrived and still nowhere to hide. The “super moon” (14% larger, 30% brighter full moon caused by elliptical orbit) rose in the east, illuminating the land. It immediately seemed foreboding to me. There was madness in the air and my uneasiness grew as I passed through a small village every mile or so with a knot of people engaged in ever more frenzied celebrations. I kept as low a profile as possible while edging through these wildly pulsing crowds and managed to stoically accept the occasional blows that landed on me.
In one of these small villages a particularly large crowd of about 200 people saw me coming, illuminated by a brief flash of motorbike headlights. There was no way around so I put on a polite smile and tried to ease a passage through the tight barrier of pungent-smelling bodies.
From here things happened quickly. The crowd suddenly flared into a mob and closed in on me. I was pulled from my bike and pushed to the ground. I think it must have been only about 15 or 20 seconds that I was cowering in the foetal position while people desperately jostled to land a blow on me. Strangely it seemed that most the hits were slaps rather than punches or kicks and I think I was saved by the disabling closeness of the crowd preventing any well-aimed or particularly hard knocks.
Standing alone in a small clearing with hot-blooded aggression all around me, I had an instant to make a decision. My bike lay nearby and amazingly unplundered. I picked it up, and trying to retain an air of authority and dangerous unpredictability, I began wheeling it at the wall of uncertain people. A single old man with a stick was trying to clear a path on my behalf. To my relief and surprise the wall gave way and a narrow passage appeared; a gauntlet in which I didn’t want to linger.
I mounted and started riding but only got a yard or two before two young boys ran forward and spat at me, one in my face. This seemed to unstop the temporarily-corked bottle of mob anger. The hail of rocks and shoes began. I kicked hard on the pedals and made my escape with hard objects bouncing off my back and shoulders.
I suddenly found myself riding along and with the frantic roar fading fast behind me. My hands were shaking and adrenalin was streaming though me. I dashed on a mile or so with ears closed and very suddenly veered down the bank and between two bushes. There, with heartbeats drumming in my ears, I listened for any shouts but heard none. I pushed through some more bushes and came out in a cornfield with a tree in the middle. Under the tree, and in the shockingly-stark moonlight, I put up my tent with trembling hands and tumbled in. I broke into pathetic sobs for a while. This catharsis completed, I tried to analyse what had occurred. I could surmise no further than the incident being the result of over-excitement, the liberating mob anonymity of darkness, and plain racism.
To my relief, I caught up with the Scots and two couples in 4x4s that I’d also met in Addis and we camped together on a hilltop in a small town called Konso overlooking the Rift Valley. A night of good company refreshed me and I set out on the road again with slightly restored confidence.
It was a long descent into the valley and the heat rose accordingly. A young girl hurled a rock at me from about two meters away as I raced downhill. It struck my head and my speed worsened the impact but I retained balance on the bike and didn’t really register what had happened. My fury was spent. I rode on while a lump rose on my head.
In Turmi I caught up with the little motorised convoy of tourists again and we spent a pleasant day camped in the cool shade of fecund mango trees. We went to market and the seven of us bought a goat to slaughter and cook for dinner.
A ten-puncture ride (due mostly to a knackered tire) brought me to Omerate where I woke the immigration official and got stamped out of Ethiopia. I spent my last pittance of Ethiopian money on a dugout canoe to carry me across the Omo river and into no man’s land. Here I had a little glimpse of the indigenous tribes for which Southern Ethiopia is famous but I was soon on a mud track through utter wilderness.
Eventually I arrived at a thin rope slung limply across the path. Beside it, under a sheet of corrugated metal, was Peter; a lonely Kenyan borderguard. I made us tea while we talked. He asked about Ethiopia and seemed unsurprised by the hostility but sympathetic towards me.
“Come and stand over here, opposite me. OK? Now, you see those mountains in the distance over there?”
“They are in South Sudan. And everything to your right there – that is technically Ethiopia. Now, you see where your right foot is?”
“Welcome to Kenya!”