For decades Ethiopia has been notorious amongst long distance cyclists due to stone throwing children and aggressively begging individuals. In the weeks leading up to our arrival, people relayed their recent experiences on the Cairo to Cape Town WhatsApp group; a head injury due to a rock being thrown from the ledge above; the relief felt after the fear of having been locked in a room for a prolonged time and a man with an AK47 opening the door with aggressively yelling people around him; an attempted robbery and assault; and military escorts due to escalating tribal warfare and one of the these escorts being attacked too. It sounds crazy while I am writing this, that despite all of these reports we were still willing to cycle in Ethiopia. Our choice of crossing at the remote Lug Di border into the Tigray region was influenced by continued reports of civil unrest around Metema. We rationalised with ourselves that as a group of four we should be less of a target for abduction and random violence, and that wearing our helmets could prevent potential head injuries. Before arriving we would often chat about how we wished our time in Ethiopia could/would differ from other people’s experiences – that it would be a pleasant and fun experience, how much we wanted to love the country and the people that lived there. I can honestly say that when the time arrived, we all crossed the Lug Di border with open minds and hearts.
It was another 25 kilometres of riding in the scorching afternoon heat along a mostly deserted road, until we could see if our hope had been misplaced or not. Pulling into the first place that looked like it served food and perhaps the highly anticipated cold beer we had been dreaming of for weeks in the Sudanese desert, we were not disappointed. Plates of injera (the staple food of Ethiopia – giant pancakes made from fermented grains) were prepared and consumed, as were numerous cold beers and strong coffee. Our presence had drawn attention, but it was the curious and friendly type. Those who spoke English asked us about our trip. Those that didn’t still shouted ‘faranji’ as we cycled by and groups of children would run to the road shrieking and waving madly for our attention. A group of children followed us out of town on their bikes and we enjoyed their friendly chatter and cycling camaraderie.
After another 25 kilometres we arrived in Humera where we were to register our arrival in Ethiopia with the immigration office (Lug Di is such a small border that they don’t officially register your arrival there). We spent an hour riding around town searching for the office and by the time we had received reliable information as to its’ location, office hours were over. We booked into a cheap guesthouse and freshened up for the night before hitting the town for more cold beer and injera. Humera had a relaxed, friendly and unassuming vibe – and we liked it. The next morning we did register ourselves as having arrived in Ethiopia and no one minded that it was a day later. The rest of our time was spent doing all the things you need to do when first arriving in a new country – cash, SIM cards, food supplies, washing clothes, eating, drinking coffee – the usual.
Over the next 5 days we cycled from Humera to Shire along the small northern road that ran along the Eritrean border. It was desolate and beautiful. After the flatlands of Sudan our eyes feasted on the mountains that loomed on the horizon. Drawing ever closer, they appeared as giant monoliths that looked ancient and weathered. Our thigh muscles burned happily, cycling on the first hills we had experienced since arriving in Africa. A hot sun beat down on us and we felt as dry as the earth that was a stark parched yellow, devoid of anything but the occasional tree. As we moved from the flatlands into the mountains the housing changed from wooden buildings to stone ones, reflecting the natural materials available for construction.
As this is road is rarely visited by travellers, our presence in the small villages would draw everyone from their homes. We would rest, eat and drink, being watched by hundreds of eyes, mesmerised by our presence. Having been a teacher at one stage in his life, Martin was excellent at engaging with the kids. He’d play with them, joke around, they’d pull back with uncertainty and then shriek with laughter when they understood what his intentions were. The one adult that spoke English (usually the school teacher) would be found to engage with us and translate for the village, answering who we were and what we were doing there. The teenagers and young men continued to ride their bikes with us from the village for a few kilometres and then with a wave of the hand they would turn back leaving us to the empty road ahead.
With the region being so sparsely populated, we were able to wild camp for a few nights, which we enjoyed. Consistently being the centre of attention was tiring and at times overwhelming. This feeling of needing our own space would grow exponentially as we entered the more densely populated areas of Ethiopia, but for now it was just a pleasure to be free to set up camp and cook dinner in nature, watch the sun set, listen to music or a podcast and then fall asleep with the stars shining above.
But for me not all was well. I had been experiencing intermittent left hip pain since Greece and this was now increasing in frequency and severity. In Humera I had developed angular cheilitis around the side of my mouth, which was spreading to my cheek and chin. And two days out of Shire I developed the symptoms of fatigue, insomnia, fever, reduced appetite, epigastric cramping and nausea. I knew how sick I was, but in the age-old struggle of the long distance cycle tourist, I must admit that I still wanted to cycle every kilometre of our journey. So I ignored my body and pushed myself on. Fortunately the others took pity on my stupidity and we agreed to shorter cycling days with increased rest breaks. On the first night we pulled over early and camped in the beautiful grounds of a nunnery. I had no energy to look at the intricately and brightly painted church and sat exhausted on a log surrounded by the white robed, elderly nuns. Despite the poverty they lived in, they glowed with kindness, generosity and a spiritual exuberance. My feelings were in stark contrast to their energy.
Our next rest days had been scheduled for Aksum, one days ride from Shire, and home to the ancient Aksumite kingdom and as legend has it – the of the Ark of the Covenant. Still weary with illness and lulled into a sense of security by the beauty and kindness of the last week, the shock of the first begging and screaming was shattering to me. The high pitched “you, you, you”, followed by “pin, pin, pin” (actually pen mispronounced) followed me the whole way from Shire to Aksum. Where and why this changed occurred befuddled my fevered brain, but even when the sickness passed I could still not figure out what made some villages/areas immune to begging and others rampant with it. I continued with my friendly smiles and waves, and apologised to everyone for my lack of foresight in packing my panniers full of things I needed for my journey and no “pins” for them. Then came the first rock. Again I was not expecting it. I saw a small boy, perhaps 5 years old, running towards me like many small boys had over the previous days. Thinking nothing of it, I waved and called out the local greeting of “Selam”. Just as I passed by him, he launched a fist-sized stone at my head missing me by half a metre. I slammed on my breaks, spun the bike around and started yelling abuse at this child. I dared him to throw another at me while we were face to face. He was running back to his house to hide, his face pale and legs visibly trembling. Neither of our finest moments in life, that’s for sure.
The closer we got to Aksum, a town frequented by tourists, the more intense the begging became. “You, you, you. Money, money, money.” “You, you, you. Pen, pen, pen.” “You, you, you. Give me … (insert money, pen, books, your bike, something/anything!!)” Cycling in through the poorer local section, before getting to the business and tourist district, one could see that this was indeed a town divided by socio-economics. Martin had already found a hotel for us and I was so happy to collapse into a clean bed next to a functional bathroom. And there I remained for approximately the next 24 hours as the bug I had progressed to the bum water stage (eek…).
While convalescing, Ewaut and Martin let us know that they would both be heading their own ways. Ethiopia had been Ewaut’s dream destination and he wanted to do some solo riding in the mountains. Time was of the essence for Martin and he felt he couldn’t wait for me to recover. So after 7 weeks of cycling and love, the habibis would be disbanding. I felt like we were losing part of our family and my heart was sad. We had travelled so well together, each of us had brought something unique to the group and we had supported each other through many challenging situations. Despite this sadness, it felt like our little family had come to a natural conclusion. We all had our own paths ahead of us, and this was exciting. The habibis would always be there, both in our memories and in real life on the end of a phone or another cycle journey in the future. Ewaut and Martin, thank you for the amazing and crazy times that we shared, this journey was enhanced by your presence, and your friendship and love will always be remembered.
Looking at the map, we chose to forego the main road and take the more direct route through to Lalibela. Having come out the other end of my illness, I was ready for the freedom of cycling again. Arriving in Adwa we turned south on to the newly paved secondary road and at Sele we turned south again on to the dirt road that would lead us the whole way to Lalibela – 260kms away. In hindsight, this was one of the toughest sections we have cycled. We relished the remote and desolate surroundings, the exceedingly hot and dry climate, and the challenge of climbing thousands of metres on bad roads. The stark natural beauty was some of the most spectacular of the trip so far. What pushed me beyond my limits was the people. For every positive interaction, minutes later we would have a greater opposing interaction. Leaving every village, large groups of children and teenagers would mob us, begging, mocking us and eventually the stone throwing would begin. Luckily their aim was bad most of the time, but we both ended up with bruises from when it was good. Despite being malicious, the rock throwing always involved cowardice as it was always done when our backs were turned and they would run away immediately when challenged. On one particularly bad occasion we were followed for 5kms up a hill (so we couldn’t out cycle them). Being harassed and threatened with violence for that long is harrowing. Eventually we gave up, sat down and hoped to bore them into leaving. But children with nothing to do, have a high boredom threshold. Then to complicate my frustration and rage, before eventually leaving us, a small group came up and offered us the remainder of their lunch. Recalling this day still brings tears to my eyes.
Ewaut messaged us with photos of himself with a head injury from a rock being thrown at him from above. Only two days ahead, this was the catalyst for the partial reformation of the habibis. En route to him we stopped for beers with the men of one village. They had also met Ewaut and were mortified to hear about what had happened. The headmaster of the local school was so distressed and subsequently worried about our safety that he ran next to us for 6 kilometres, slept at the same monastery we camped at and woke with us at 4am to wave us off and see that we had left his district unharmed. Our 4am start in the dark felt necessary as we were climbing into the highlands that morning and the thought of being harassed while doing such a big climb was too much. We trundled through villages, our presence only being noticed by dogs and sheep. In the predawn light we marvelled at the beauty of the landscape below us. For the first time that week a small sliver of joy entered my heart and I knew that the depression I had sunk into was not all encompassing.
Ewaut spotted us from a distance across the valley and came out to greet us. Chatting excitedly, we appraised his stitches and laughed at how the beret he had found in the Sudanese desert covered the injury nicely. Still a bit shell-shocked, we all needed a few days of peace and Sekota was a nice little town that provided the space. We relaxed, ate big plates of salad and pasta, and enjoyed fresh fruit juices. Together again, we cycled in a small pack, each watching out for the other. Not far out of Sekota we stopped to explore Wukir Meskele Kirstos, our second rock-hewn church along that road. The priest guided us around the small carved church with 6 pillars and colourful paintings dating back to the 13th century. The skeletons of the local kings and chiefs since its construction were in residence, as was an underground tunnel that supposedly led to Aksum in one direction and Lalibela in the other.
Stopping for lunch in Asketama village, we had a timely reminder about keeping our eyes on our belongings. We usually choose a restaurant that we can sit outside of to keep an eye on our bikes. As we had had no issues thus far with theft in Ethiopia, we thought nothing of sitting just inside the only restaurant that appeared open and trying to keep an eye on our the bikes that were parked just outside. With our attention diverted by food and the hilarity of Ethiopian music videos (men jiggling about in tiny shorts and shirts covered in buttons, AK 47s slung over some shoulders), we missed the gathering crowd outside that was hiding the youths that were stealing our belongings. At least a hundred people saw them doing it, but only the family who ran the restaurant said anything to us or them. By the time we had reached the police station, one of the two youths was already in custody. Within 20 minutes a second youth was in custody and our belongings were returned to us. We made a statement and were then told that we had to remain in the village until the court case tomorrow afternoon. “Not a chance”, we replied, thanked them for their help and cycled out of that village as quickly as possible. After another 30 minutes riding, my handlebars began to slip and I realised that as I had nothing of value to steal from on the bike, they had attempted to steal my handlebars.
Due to my increasing despair and depression, I had no inspiration to take photographs while cycling and I stopped keeping my daily diary, as I did not want to relive the trauma of each day. Instead I lived each moment and then forgot it, the rhythm of cycling and the beauty around me giving me reprieve from the ever burning question of ‘Why?’. The problem is so complex, I could not come up with an adequate answer. The adults would tell us that it was due to the fact that the children were illiterate and uneducated, excusing them with one hand and throwing a stone at them with another, as they were getting too close and boisterous. Slowly I began to see how violence was entrenched and normalised in the culture, and concentrating on this I lost sight of the kindness that was present too. Luckily I had Jude to remind me of the value of perspective.
It was not just Jude that kept me afloat at this time. It was also the acts of kindness and decency from the handful of amazing adults that we met, such as Abebe (our couch surfing host in Lalibela), his friends and family. Abebe’s house in Lalibela was an oasis for us, removed from the main tourist area, it was surrounded by trees and birdsong. He took us to his favourite places in town, shared his story, hopes and dreams, and gave us space to explore Lalibela in our own time.
The 12 rock hewn churches of Lalibela were the reason for our visit. Unlike the churches in Tigray, which are carved into the rocks above the ground, the churches of Lalibela were carved into the rock below. Legend has it that they were completed in 12 days, one of them overnight by a group of angels. I spent two afternoons wandering through the labyrinth of tunnels and the dark interiors of the churches, awestruck by the work and dedication that went into creating such a place. On Sundays the churches are still used and it was interesting to see all the locals and pilgrims dressed in white gathering around the buildings, the preachers giving sermons to the masses. Religion plays such a large role in Ethiopian society, culture and history.
The guys we had met and left in Khartoum were gaining on us, so we had organised to meet up in Weldiya and travel together until Addis Ababa. The morning we meant to leave Lalibela to meet them, Jude was struck down with a tummy bug. With 108kms to cover that day, and now being in a more densely populated area resulting in no privacy when squatting on the side of the road, we convinced her that getting a lift that day would be the best thing. The difference was palpable and it made travelling through the landscape and especially the towns much more enjoyable. I could now see why people on package tours would not find the country all that challenging. It was only if you stopped that the shrieks would begin and you would be mobbed. As we were cracking our first beer in our lodgings, Craig, Clo and Arthur arrived. It was great to see them all again. That evening we sat on the balcony, drank beers and exchanged stories about how messed up travelling by bike in Ethiopia is. There was again talk about ethnic tensions ahead, so we agreed that sticking to the main road would be the safest and fastest option for our route to Addis.
As we had found when travelling in a group of six in Tajikistan, the greater the number of cyclists, the greater the number of styles and speeds of touring. Collectively our usual number of kilometres covered daily dropped, our morning leaving time blew out and our rest breaks were longer as we were waiting for more people to arrive at the same place. Despite this draw back (Jude and I now had a specific time to get to Nairobi as we had been accepted on a meditation retreat there) there was something thoroughly enjoyable about travelling in this new group. Negotiating accommodation was also sometimes interesting for us. We found that if the hotel was run by Christians, they would have a huge problem with people of the same sex sharing the same room and bed, but no issues with us drinking beer at the establishment and the locals bringing prostituted women back to the hotel. If the hotel was run by Muslims, they would have no issue with people of the same sex sharing a room and bed, but the consumption of alcohol was prohibited, but chewing chat and locals bringing prostituted women back to the hotel was also fine. The religious and cultural nuances would humour and infuriate us to no end.
From Lalibela onwards the scenery was changing dramatically. It was more lush and green, and when we began to drop down into the different valleys along the route, the feeling was at times almost tropical. Rain clouds began to gather in the afternoons and during our epic descent from Dessie to Kombolcha the sky opened up and we were drenched in our first rain since we left Athens the previous December. There was something exhilarating about dropping 800 metres over 20 kilometres, rain pelting our faces and bodies as we lent into every corner and switchback. Steam rose in clouds off the road and mini streams formed across our path. A hot coffee and a cold beer were the perfect finish to such a ride. It was also the last stretch of road that we would ride together as a team of six. Ewaut had chosen to catch a bus to Addis from Kombolcha as he no longer enjoyed riding in Ethiopia and wanted to spend time in Addis listening to live jazz. Arthur had come down with a stomach bug in Haik, and despite being a trooper and pushing on to Kombolcha, his diabetes added to his increasing dehydration and symptoms of dizziness and weakness. After starting with us for the first 10 kilometres out of town, we received a text message from him that he felt too sick to continue and that he would stay for the rest of the weekend in Kombolcha to recover. And that left four. The ‘Smash it to Kenya’ group was born – we had a beer and coffee.