Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa: a test of human resilience while skirting the roof of Africa

04/01/2011 - 13/01/2011 BAHIR DAR TO ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA (Reza)


-Distance: 551km

-Days cycling: 7 and a half

-Average distance per cycling day: 73km

-Top altitude: 3102m above sea level

-Highest altitude climbed in one day: 1400m, from 1060m to 2460m


On leaving Bahir Dar, we had anticipated a difficult journey ahead of us to Addis Ababa.  However, our anticipations were all too modest and the eight days that followed proved to be the most backbreaking, unnerving and emotionally testing eight days of the trip thus far.  Prior to our departure from this lively little lakeside town, we had made friends with a few Peace Corps volunteers at a New Year’s party whose homes were dotted along our chosen route and who had kindly invited us to stay with them if we happened to pass through their appointed locations.  We had gratefully accepted and following our first day of cycling, we arrived at Dangola where we had planned to meet with Jennifer and her boyfriend Dominic.  The road climbs steadily from Bahir Dar but this was a comparatively easy day of cycling compared to what lay head.  We spent a pleasant night exchanging experiences of Ethiopia, learning more about the work of Peace Corps volunteers and being informed about innovative research into solar panels (thanks to Dominic’s expertise in this field).  On the morning that followed, Jennifer demonstrated her resourcefulness as she backed fresh muffins on nothing less than a campsite cooker. Kudos Jen, the muffins were ace!


From Dangola, the road becomes steeper. It winds and bends as it skirts along the roof of Africa.  Now we were cooking!  Along this stretch of road we were surprised to see old disused soviet tanks left by the roadside, half rusted and stripped to their steel skeletons.  These were abandoned following the fall of the ‘Derg’.  In brief, the Derg were a soviet backed Marxist-Leninist military group who ended Haile Salassie’s reign as emperor in 1974 and established a communist state.  Their reign of power lasted some 15 years and came to an end as a result of the withdrawal of soviet backing of both arms and aid which coincided with the well known droughts and famines that ravaged the country in the late 1980s.  The communist government, then unable to withstand the relentless guerilla attacks, was superseded by a transitional government and by the mid 1990s Ethiopia first democratic election took place.  However, the remnants of Ethiopia’s past remain and are a constant reminder of the country’s unsettled past.  


Before long we felt the physical side of our adventure was pushing us harder than ever before, but now came the emotional aspect: the testing of patience, of pride, of anger.  The test of human resilience was upon us.  As the days rolled by, the number of stones thrown at us increased significantly.  Directly proportional to this was the ‘fuck you’, the spitting and the attempts to push us from our bikes, not to mention the repetitive, incessant, infuriating ‘money, money, money’ from men, women and children.   “Hold it together Reza” I thought to myself.  “That stone missed, no big deal.  He can’t spit that far, no harm done.  What the hell, that was a rock!!! Just keep moving, we’ll be out of this place soon enough”.  The hills quickly became mountains.  As we climbed them at 4kph (walking pace while carrying a loaded shopping basket), an entourage of children would follow for the 3, 4 and sometimes 5km stretch.  Hearing “money” and “fuck you” being repeated at a progressively increasing volume for the best part of an hour is enough to drive anyone insane.  This occurring several times a day is nothing less than a test of self-control on biblical proportions.  I’m surprised at how long we held it together.  But if you poke the most docile bear for long enough, at some point it will bite.  And so this bear finally took a swipe back following one too many stones, one too many fuck you’s and one too many mouthfuls of saliva being hurled at our direction.  It happened following a particularly tough uphill stretch and as we sped downhill, Hannah ahead of I.  A few crude attempts at hindering our progress were avoided and as we approached the valley, there stood a group of young men.  I spotted one of the guys taking aim at Hannah and throw a stone at close range, the arm action alone making her swerve dangerously. He laughed and she struggled to regain control of the bike.  This was the ‘stone’ that broke the camels back.  I saw red.  I hit the brakes hard and before the bike had come to a halt, I was after this coward. With the anger oozing from my body, I sprinted after him; growling, shouting and raving.  Luckily for both of us, he was faster down the rocky banks of the river than I.  I returned to the roadside still fuming.  Villagers crowded around as I hurled abuse at anyone close enough to receive it.  Most had seen what had happened but nobody cared.  Their audacity to ask for money once I was back on the bike was not at all surprising at this stage.


The show must go on, and it did in pretty much the same fashion for the remainder of the day.  That evening we reached Finote Salam, a small, dusty, sleepy town where we were due to meet someone who we had only heard of through mutual friends,  Keith.  Keith is the spitting image of Hannah’s grandfather Duane and someone that you could sit with in silence for hours on end without feeling the need to sound interesting or exciting.  Aged in his late 60’s and following his retirement, he had traveled extensively before deciding that he needed more from life and thus joined the Peace Corps.  He welcomed us with open arms and amazed us with both the contribution he is making to the community that he now serves as well as with his hospitality.  His general aura made us feel safe and comfortable; feelings that we were in desperate need of experiencing.  Having recuperated on more than one level, Keith prepared us the breakfast of champions – a porridge mix of oats, nuts, fruit and seeds in addition to a few local grains.  Exquisite! And once again, thank you so very much.  


We set off on a two day stretch to Dejen in order to meet our final Peace Corps volunteer and friend, Chris.  To our surprise, we continued to progressively climb in altitude and on occasion reached close to 3000m.  We knew two things of Dejen.  The first was that Chris lived there.  The second was that it was the last town before “the gorge”.   And so we rested for a couple of days, ate home-made Mexican food, watched videos and drunk cold beer.  What luxury!  We scoped out the gorge prior to our departure in order to assess the beast that we were up against.  And what a beast it was: a 22km stretch of downhill into the valley followed by a steep 22km climb on the other side.   But this beast would have to be tamed.  Looking down at my skinny, knobbly legs, I wondered how this would come about.


The route down was not as pleasant as one would imagine.  The corrugated effect of the worn tarmac made it a bumpy and hazardous experience… and the view of the climb on the other side made my heart sink further every kilometer we descended.  Following an uncomfortable hour coupled with spectacular panoramic views, we reached the river that ran through the base of the gorge.  We had descended a whopping 1400m to a modest 1000m above sea level.  More optimistic than I had predicted, we began our steep ascent.  And it was STEEP!  We pedaled so very hard.  We pedaled until our arteries supplied our muscles with battery acid.  Then we pedaled some more.  The hours passed slowly and painfully.  Stopping to rest meant only that starting again would be more difficult and so we persevered.  On and on we went, each movement of the legs bringing more pain than the last.  After an exhausting 7 hours, we reached the top and were greeted there by an amazing sunset over the mountain range that we had spent 3 days crossing, each colour of the spectrum of light splitting over the varying peaks.


With the worst behind us, we made a final push to Addis Ababa.  Now blessed with the knowledge that we were capable of climbing for a continuous 7 hours, we battled with a new lease of confidence.  Each day brought us closer to our haven.  Until finally, following a final 6km climb came the view of the capital sitting perched on the side of a huge mountain.  We had made it!  Rolling blissfully downhill, we glided into Africa’s 4th largest city and quickly found a comfortable room to rest our weary legs.  Here we spent 3 days indulging on ice cold beers, hamburgers and new reading material.  We strolled around the dusty streets and enjoyed macchiatos while watching this foreign world go by.  We were once again reminded of Ethiopia’s communist past with a grand monument standing proud in the centre of town boasting its crimson star. Addis proved to be a culturally exciting yet soul relaxing place and the 3 days slipped by without hindrance nor aggravation.  From here we’d set off for the border and to Kenya!  


Although it was by far the most difficult stretch of the journey to date, I feel that we have both gained a great deal from it.  Words such as self-belief, self-control and self-preservation all spring to mind but this list is by no means exhaustive.  Now rested and stress free, I wonder with eagerness what more this spectacularly beautiful yet unimaginably demoralizing country has for offer.


gorge 2