Date:     Fri, 4 Aug 2006


From:    “Michael Ayers” <>

Subject: Gondwana - Erroneous rubber and Exceptional sights in Ethiopia


Selam Phreds, (or should I say “You! You! You!!”)


The surprise addition to the start of the Stage 3 route was Ethiopia, a land full of tall, rugged terrain and historic places, where young boys carry whips - and know how to use them.

Originally, I had not planned to visit Ethiopia, opting instead to begin the African tour in Kenya. However, as I mentioned last time, the sea transfer from Asia caused some big changes to the route. For a while I thought that I would be able to sail from India to Dubai. Then I would have tried to arrange passage around the Arabian Peninsula to Yemen, and across the Red Sea to Djibouti. From there the only way to continue would have been through Ethiopia. With that in mind, I looked into the aspects of travel there, and decided that it was a place I really wanted to see after all. So, when the London Senator got me (eventually) to Cairo, instead of flying all the way down to Kenya I began the Stage in Ethiopia after all. Once I decide to add someplace to the route removing it is harder than cutting off one of my own fingers.  Of course, with a large, new country now included to an already tight schedule, I will need to loose at least a few digits before I hit the seas again.

In adding the new country, I went ahead and did it to myself again. With the first weeks of both Australia and Asia mired in rain, I had been looking forward to Africa, where I had carefully planned the Stage to occur during the dry seasons in all the areas of the route. However, July is the early part of the rainy season in Ethiopia. In fact, rains stretch in a narrow band straight across the continent from Somaliland in the east to Guinea in the west. Watching the weather satellite images you can see storms form along that line every afternoon, then dissipate at night.  There is little movement in the clouds and the storms tend to rain themselves dry over one general location. That is advantageous as, in some cases, when you see a big storm in the area it’s possible to just ride around it and stay dry. On the other hand, sometimes a storm will form directly overhead and just sit there, providing a real soaking. To make matters worse, most of the best destinations in the country are way up in the highlands, which are among the highest areas of Africa. Just about the entire country lies above 2,000 meters, with several of the tallest peaks stretching well above 4,000 meters. However, with its location, fairly close to the equator, the climate is pleasantly cool, in fact, downright chilly in the highest locations. Those same destinations are, unfortunately, linked to the rest of the country by a generally deplorable network of mostly unpaved roads. The three phrases “rainy season,” “big mountains,” and “bad roads” in combination really strike fear into my touring frame of mind. But, I was determined to see the best of the country, and resigned myself to the fact that the hardest part of the Stage would be right at the beginning again.

For many Westerners, the enduring image of Ethiopia is of the droughts, famines, and conflicts of the 01980’s. However, that is a very incomplete snapshot of Ethiopian society. Ethiopia is one of the oldest countries on Earth, long known as Abyssinia, and one of the only countries in Africa to have avoided the scourge of colonialism (save for Mussolini’s brief conquest in the early 20th century.) That has allowed a distinct Ethiopian culture to survive to this day. The official language of the country is Amarhic, which is written with a unique alphabet, similar to Arabic and Hebrew. Though there are still regional languages spoken, especially in the border areas, and a surprising number of people speak English well.  The country is also one of the oldest with a significant Christian presence, dating back to the 4th century. Most of the important historic sites are related to the church, which show many similarities with the Eastern Orthodox sects. With a vibrant culture and a beautiful environment, the people are correspondingly pleasant and friendly, though sometimes the children are a little over-enthusiastic in their friendliness. Most of the population, which is fairly large but widely dispersed, lives simple lives in an agrarian-based fashion. All of these are qualities that I really like in a touring destination.

On the other hand, though famines are just a memory, and most people appear well fed, I found the quality of the food available to be among the worst of the Tour so far. Traditional produce markets had little of interest, though that was probably a seasonal effect, and shops were not much better. The only useable food available at those places was bottled water, small sodas, and little packs of, often flavorless, biscuits. Even in the capital, and the few other towns, the “big” supermarkets were little more than mini-marts, adding dried pasta and powdered milk to the shelves. One or two had chocolates which was always welcome. That left local restaurants, and while there were plenty of those available, filling up at such places was not very easy. The national dish is called “injera,” essentially a giant pancake the size of a large pizza. It is made from flour of a grain called teff, and has a foamy texture and a sour taste.  Served on a large platter, various blobs of pureed vegetables, or similar items, are splooged out on top and the injera is ripped up and used to scoop up the toppings. It’s a dish that I never could quite get used to, as it really did seem like eating an old kitchen sponge.  Meat is also available, but is always described as just that, as in “vegetables with meat.” However, given the wide variety of four-legged creatures wandering about the place, it’s never quite clear as to just where that “meat” came from. One of the only local dishes I actually liked was “tibs.” That was small chunks of “meat” cooked with some peppers or onions, or whatever was available, and served in a dish with a little broth, with bread or injera on the side. It was tasty, but not all that filling. “Meat” is usually not chicken, however. That was a little surprising, as chicken is one of the most dependable menu items throughout the world. There are plenty of chickens in the streets and numerous poultry shops, but it rarely appears on any restaurant menus (in ones where there actually was a menu.) That may be related to the fact that on the two occasions when I ordered chicken in tourist-oriented restaurants, it was prepared extremely poorly. In fact almost all international food was similarly unappealingly cooked. About the only tasty dish was pasta, which was available frequently enough to be one of my staples. It’s rather hard to mess that up, however. On the plus side, not much money is required to stay fed, and most other expenses are equally low.

My route, then, started in the far north, just south of the now-closed border with the recently independent nation of Eritrea, in the historic town of Axum. From there, 630 of the next 870 km would be on rough, mountainous gravel roads, on a winding route past four more important destinations, including some of Africa’s finest. From there, the roads, at least on paper would improve, and I would continue south, through the capital, Addis Ababa, and then on to the Kenyan border. Starting in Axum was a bit of a problem, as it required more flying. The only international airport is in Addis, and riding from there to the north, and back down again would have just been too much. But since I was forced to fly down from Cairo anyway, I gave in and booked the domestic flight. I was actually on stand-by for the flight to Axum, but I got on in the end, which averted a big series of problems.

Axum is one of the most important places in Ethiopia, as early as 2,500 years ago being the capital of the appropriately-named Axumite kingdom, one of the world’s great powers during Europe’s dark ages, and home of the fabled Queen of Sheba. It is also at the center of the area in which Christianity first came to Ethiopia. Consequently, many of the city’s import sites are churches. However, there are also numerous stelae, tall stone monoliths, decorated with false windows. Only one of the really tall ones is still standing, but it is claimed to be the tallest monolith in the world. One of the other large ones has recently been returned from Rome, after being stolen by the Italians in the 01940’s, and is waiting to be reassembled. The oldest church in town, dating from the 4th century, is in ruins, but the 16th-century replacement is open to visitors. It is filled with brightly-colored religious paintings in the Byzantine style, a theme seen throughout the country, and contains 1,000-year old holy book written in Ge’ez, the ancient Axumite language, on goatskin pages.  Another very interesting site is the treasury where the Ark of the Covenant is kept (despite what Messrs. Lucas and Spielberg would say.) The current treasury was built on the orders of Emperor Haile Sellasie, still a much-respected figure, in the 01950’s. No one is allowed inside, except for a single monk, who guards the Ark. He has a liaison to the outside that takes care of his needs. We must then just trust the Ethiopians that the Ark is really there. I had an interesting day there, but after such a long lay-off, I was definitely ready to start riding again.

I had been worried that after over a month off the bike my legs would be too soft, but that, fortunately, did not turn out to be a problem. The recently-overhauled bike did, however. Well, at least at first, only the rear tires. Annoyingly, after only about 10 km, my brand-new Schwalbe Marathon XR rear tire failed. The wire bead had apparently snapped, and the wire pushed through the tire wall, and punctured the tube. Ok, a fluke, I thought. After putting on my extra tire, I rode off, but then, even more annoyingly, that tire failed in the very same way! Now I was not pleased.  I never mentioned it before, but I had two of the same type of tires fail prematurely in Asia too. That time the failure mode was different, when, in heavy rain, the sidewalls split open, looking as if they had been cut by a knife. The Marathon XR is a good tire, but these failures have been a big pain. Schwalbe has been very good about sending out free replacements, but all of that is a chore I really didn’t need. Fortunately, I had one more tire available, a smaller folding version, and I’ve been using that since then, but without a spare until the replacements arrive I’ve been rather nervous. It also would have been nice to have a larger rear tire for all of the bad roads over this part of the route.

Nonetheless, the ride was underway and I was happy about that. It felt like a bit of a cheat in one respect, namely that Axum is up at 2,100 meters. Previously, whenever I had been up at altitude I had always ridden there from essentially sea level. Now an airplane did most of the work, and that didn’t seem right. I’d make up for that in upcoming days, however. The area immediately to the west of Axum is a bit more arid than most of the rest of the country, and so for the first day the gravel road was in pretty good shape, hard and smooth. Along the way I noticed a change in the normal beasts of burden, compared to Asia. There cows, buffalo, and the occasional elephant, handled most of the heavy work, now it was donkeys and camels taking over those tasks, though camels are not used at higher altitudes. Also notable was the new greeting being shouted by the local people; “You!” I’m sure that this is not the English pronoun, nor is it spelled the same, especially as it would be spelled in the Amarhic alphabet anyway, but it was certainly easy to pronounce and easy to remember. Not that I’d have any problem remembering it in any case, as it was shouted over and over again for the next few weeks. Also heard, sometimes with often mind-numbing frequency was the common question, “Where are you go?” Apparently it’s a tradition to ask that in Ethiopia, but it doesn’t make much sense to me. In places like India where you could be going any of multiple places it’s a little more reasonable question. But here, where there is usually only one road, which only goes to one place, it just seems too pointless to me. In this area it also did not take long for me to discover the food situation, as the only produce of any kind available in the village markets was prickly-pear fruit, a delicacy that I had hoped to never see again.

After a fairly easy first day, with the exception of the tire fiasco, things quickly became tougher. The next important place along the route was the Simyan Mountains, part of which are a World Heritage Site, one of four I’d see in the country. The mountains are among the highest, most rugged, and beautiful in Africa, and passing through the area gave me some of the most impressive scenery I’ve seen so far. For the most part, the road runs along a high plateau with tall craggy peaks rising above, and steep-sided gorges cutting down to below. Though clouds sometimes blocked the view, the start of the rainy season had freshened the entire landscape and it looked as if someone had poured a giant can of green paint over the entire area.  Though stunningly attractive, riding was not easy, as whenever the road showed even the slightest grade, the surface changed into one composed entirely of large, jagged rocks; my nemesis for this tour. There was a lot of climbing to do, as the road frequently dropped down into the gorges below. With little food to be had, save for an occasional serving of tibs, it was slow going, and took me an extra day to get through. The worst part was the last big climb, which ended up being a 1,500 meter rise, all of it rocky, topping out at just below 3,000 meters.  It was slow going, and just before I reached the summit, one of those stationary downpours formed directly overhead, and the wetness and high altitude made me feel freezing cold. The rains that fall in those highlands in summer are what used to cause the annual floods of the Nile River in Egypt, before the Aswan High Dam was built, and it was easy to see why, with raging torrents all around me. Just past the top of the climb was the little town of Debark, which is the “gateway” to Simyan Mts. National Park. I thought that there might be a nice place to stay there because of that, but the only accommodation was very basic, and not very warm.  Nevertheless, I was able to get a decent bowl of spaghetti at the restaurant there, and while eating it I could hear a traditional party going on in the back room. One man stood before the crowd and repeatedly bowed a single-stringed instrument, then chanted something in Amarhic, which led to laughter, cheers and clapping in unison from the traditionally-dressed crowd.

Next was a fairly short, but muddy and sloppy day to my first day off, in the provincial town of Gondar. There, the main attractions were the ruins of castles built by emperor Fasilides in the 17th century. While not an especially useful town, I appreciated my rest in Gondar anyway. The main places of interest in Ethiopia are clustered fairly closely together in the north, and the next stop was the regional capital of Bahir Dar. For once, luck was on my side, and the road to there, which was shown as yet another gravel road on my map, had recently been upgraded, with Chinese assistance, and is now perfectly smooth pavement and one of the most beautiful roads you’ll ever see. So I was able to cover the entire 177 km the next day, giving me a full day off to rest some more. It would have been a completely easy day, except rain showers hit in the afternoon at just about the same time as the effects of some bad food I’d eaten at some point began to make themselves felt. The main attraction in Bahir Dar is Tana Hayk, a large lake that is the source of the Blue Nile (if all goes well, I’ll see the source of the White Nile in a few weeks too.) In the lake are several monasteries on small islands, each filled with interesting artifacts, icons, and paintings. What impressed me even more was the environments on the islands themselves, which were almost rain-forest like. That implied that the entire region was once covered with dense forest, as opposed to the pastures and croplands, with occasional clumps of gum trees, seen today. That change must have had a distinct influence on the local climate.

Next were three hard days over more rocky gravel roads and a couple of 3,200-m passes. In that area the kids were sometimes a little overbearing in their enthusiasm, and I did my “Pied Piper” act many times as they insisted on chasing after me, way past the end of their villages, cheering “You! You! You!”, “Where are you go?!” and increasingly “Money! Money! Money!” (Ethiopia is a strange case in the world of child beggars, but I’ll leave that subject for another day.) They also had a rather annoying habit of grabbing on to my bike, sometimes trying to “help” by pushing, but more likely yanking off some of my gear.

In one particularly disturbing occurrence, a couple small kids and a teenager were running behind me as I slowly made my way up a rocky hill.  Things were fine until the teen’s delinquent friend joined the group and proceeded to yank off my tool pouches and dash away (how he managed that I still haven’t figured out, as I have them secured with an extra nylon cord.) His friend tried to pull something out of my pannier but was too incompetent to manage it before he began to see my impending wrath. Apart from the bike itself and my handlebar bag of “valuables,” my tool kit is what I what I would be most reluctant to part with. It took me a couple seconds to turn around, but momentarily I was chasing him back down the hill. He had a little head start and before I could catch him, he disappeared into a little roadside village of a twenty, or so, pole-and-thatch dwellings. I spent the next hour wandering through the village, growling and snarling at the residents, none of whom spoke English, looking for the perpetrator, with every intention of severely clobbering him upside the head when I located him. For all I knew, however, he could have fled out into the countryside, where homes and farms stretched out as far as I could see. At one point a man in modern clothes, who was using his motorcycle as a taxi, came along and I hoped that he would know who I was looking for. But he didn’t speak much English either, so I didn’t waste much time trying to explain things to him and went of to growl and snarl some more. In my absence, however, he and the adults of the village figured out what was going on and when I returned, my tools were waiting on the ground next to my bike. The motorbike man had apparently played an important roll in the affair and he received a generous reward from me, while the teen punk, who was now present, albeit in different clothes, got off easy with only some penetrating glares from me. All the tools and parts were there except for my cassette cracker, which I didn’t notice at the time, but, of course, would end up needing in the near future. Surprisingly, I was in very good spirits the rest of the day, mainly because I had stood my ground, and not just ridden away, and eventually regained my essential supplies, which would have been a total pain to replace.

The next destination on the route was Lalibela, an amazing little town, way off the main road, on a mountain top, which contains 11 incredible churches. These were begun by King Lalibela in the 12th century and are completely hewn from rocky outcroppings on the mountainside. It’s hard to do these churches justice with mere words, but the amount of work required to excavate, hollow-out and finish these subterranean buildings is really incredible. They are more like temples than churches, in the western sense, with no benches or room for large crowds, but they are filled with many beautiful paintings and icons, and the monks still study scriptures and assist the local people with their worshiping. It was a hard place to get to, but certainly worth the effort.

A day later, after skipping a retracing of the road back out from Lalibela, and the last section of bad gravel, on a local bus, I finally broke through onto the nominally paved road south towards the capital. It should have been three days to get there but there were two long sections of the highway which had disintegrated into a muddy mess. The rest of the road had been recently upgraded and was in excellent condition, but those two poor sections delayed me by almost half a day. This area saw the return of camels of which there were many. I decided there that I enjoy sharing the road with camels. Their heads are higher than mine when I’m on the bike, which I find appealing for some reason, they have a relaxed attitude, and they don’t make a big mess of the place like their bovine counterparts do. The first crappy section of road ended just at the town of Dessie, which was probably the first place in the country that seemed like a real town, or at least had something resembling a main street.  There I had the first really good meal I’d had since arriving; a big bowl of pasta, rice with “meat”, a small salad, a little lentil soup, and a drink all for 21 Birr, or about $2.40. Continuing south, the road was good until the next big climb, a 1,700-m slog back up to the plateau, where it was currently being reconstructed.

Eventually, I arrived in Addis Ababa, a little later than I’d hoped, and so I decided to stay an extra day to try and accomplish a couple of repairs and chores. Addis is a city of at least two million residents, but with relatively light traffic it’s fairly easy to ride through. The city was built without any overall plan and so there is no distinct city center, and glassy, mid-rise towers are just scattered all over the place.  However, with essentially no signage, or other aids to navigation, it’s virtually impossible not to get lost. Eventually, I found my way to a decent place to stay and had a fairly restful visit. There is not much notable in Addis. The best thing was a lunchtime visit to the 5-star Sheraton hotel, which I went to only because it had the only useable ATM in the country. While there, I had a really good, but expensive, meal in the restaurant, including only the second good hamburger I’ve had since leaving home (it’s true, even the Aussies can’t make a good one.) That was much appreciated.

With all of the destinations in the country complete, I had only the 800-km stretch of highway south to the Kenyan border left, which I wanted to cover in 5 days. I really didn’t know what to expect from that section.  Looking at the map, it seemed like the area might be lightly populated and similarly arid to northern Kenya. In that case it wouldn’t have surprised me if the road was a disaster. The route also appeared to follow the Great Rift Valley for most of the way, a geologic feature which I will become well-acquainted with over the next several weeks, and, therefore, would presumably be flat. In reality, everything was the opposite from what I expected. Most of the way was crowded (if I heard “Where are you go?” one more time I may have lost my mind,) green and very agricultural, hilly, and windy. Add to that another bout of food-sickness, and I was running further behind schedule. Finally, I broke through into the more arid zone near the southern border, where the people are nomadic herders, culturally more similar to Kenyans than to the rest of Ethiopia. There things calmed down a little, I could relax somewhat while riding without having to greet someone every ten seconds, and camping was much easier than in the more populated regions to the north.

In the end I am extremely glad that I added Ethiopia to the Stage. It was not easy, but the sights were exceptional, the people great (with one or two exceptions,) and the riding rewarding, though challenging. It took me five days longer than I expected, which will be a problem later on, and I left desperate for some decent food, which I expected to find in Kenya.  That would have to wait a little longer, however.





The Tour of Gondwana

May 02005 - Oct 02007