Many beers through Ethiopia

 

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Our route south

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Our group had now been reduced to 4 and we still had several days cycle to make it to Addis, which we were all very much looking forward to. Our route dropped us down into a vast and fertile valley and it grew hotter. The four of us got along really well, and it was easy (well as easy as Ethiopia can be). Our days consisted of making sure one of us didn’t whack an Ethiopian child (who was hurtling rocks at us), cold beer stops, avoiding injera (we had all had enough of it by now), negotiating hotel rooms (we sometimes had to pretend we were two straight couples), pimped up two minute noodles and more cold beers. Moments that stand out during our ride into Addis include; a hotel room that was so filthy (blood stained sheets) that Astrid and I slept on the balcony and the guys put their tents on the actual beds; eating chip butties on the side of the road; getting drunk and laughing endlessly in one of our rooms (while cooking two minute noodles); climbing up a beautiful pass that was lined by eucalypts and reminded me of home; the kindness of a family in whose hotel we stayed in at the top of the epic climb, and sailing into Addis so ready for a few days break.

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Snack break

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Early mornings are best

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It is such a beautiful country

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A beautiful fertile valley, such a contrast to the dry north.

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Pedalling through a village

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View as we climbed

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Reminds me of home

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The road upwards

 

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Beers at the top

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Selfies on the descent

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Reminds me of Scotland!

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Cyclist’s in the mist

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Where we slept when the room was too gross

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Breakfast stop

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Beers outside the friendly hotel

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Avoiding injera

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Festy bed on which tent was pitched

Ethiopia wears on the soul like no place I have ever visited before. Addis however did prove a short reprieve. We treated ourselves to a hotel that had hot water and working wifi (most of the time), drank delicious coffees in a hipster café, ate (vege) burgers and the best samosas I’ve ever encountered.

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Hipster coffee happiness

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View of Addis from our hotel

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Gelato happiness

Dimitri also arrived back in town, after a short break in Europe, bringing with him treats from France, as well as treats Craig had ordered for everyone to share (thanks guys!).

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Craig, the bearer of many gifts

My favourite memory of Addis is of drinking cheap wine and helping Ewaut cook up a massive couscous dish for all of us (Craig, Clo, Arthur, Dimitri, Astrid and I) in the slightly festy kitchen of their hotel. We ate it on the roof, along with cheeses and French wine,(thanks Dimitri and Craig) laughing and trying to make sense of Ethiopia, and discussing onward plans. Later we caught a bus to see some jazz, accidentally crashed a brothel and stumbled home around 6am. It was the blow out I think we all needed.

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Cooking happiness

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The couscous mater chef

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Getting into the couscous

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Ewaut’s amazing couscous

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Wine on the balcony with Clo, Dimitri and Craig

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At a jazz place. We look like we are a advert for a weird sitcom

Soon it was time to leave, which meant a heartfelt goodbye to Ewaut who was heading back to Belgium to begin work on his sailing boat. I have no doubt he will manage this and our paths will one day cross again (he’s promised to come pick us up in his boat!). I will miss Ewuat a lot; his facts, humour and podcast/tech genius, and just the fact that he is an all round awesome human. Thanks for a brilliant three months man.

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Outside of favourite cafe before leaving Addis

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Ethiopian church, Addis Ababa

Our ride south towards the border with Kenya disintegrated rapidly in a way only Ethiopia can. We’d been warned the south was worse; and it was. There were people everywhere and I felt like from the moment I pushed down on the first pedal stroke, to when I wheeled my bike into a crummy hotel room at night, there was abuse. People (adults and children) shouted; ‘you, you, you!!’ aggressively, we were chased by kids who tried to grab stuff off our bikes, or put a stick in our spokes, or simply scream ‘give me money, give me pen!’ At one place some men grabbed my arse (I lost my shit and they eventually apologised) and in another village a woman punched Astrid. Not all of it was aggressive, but a lot of it was.

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On the road doom south

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Virgin power, virgin pride!

As I pedalled I wondered if  this was some kind of universal karma for being white and middle class? For daring to pedal through a country, displaying my relative wealth? I have no idea. I keep grappling with the why. Why is it so difficult here?! I don’t believe people are inherently bad or anything. I can come up with partial reasons; poverty and lack of education for sure, although having now travelled in countries poorer, or just as poor, where the kids don’t throw a single rock, it can’t just be this. Then there’s the fact that Ethiopia suffered a devastating drought in the 1980’s and was subject to much international attention and although diverted by the army,  subsequent international aid. Do they simply see foreigners as a source of endless ‘stuff’ given to alleviate our western guilt? And then there’s also the myriad of agencies like USAID, Oxfam and various Christian charities that operate here, possibly leading to the assumption that foreigners exist to do something for you. There are many people in Ethiopia that simply stand on the side of the road holding out their open hands when we pass. And at some point some tourist (or worker?!) must have given out a nation worth of pens. I want to have a serious conversation with that person or people.

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Everyone is curious about the weird foreigners on bikes

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Craig, ever patient, chatting to a child

One could argue that we have caused at least some of these issues. If I was an Ethiopian child in a village, used to seeing foreigners come and do things for my village, or give me stuff, I’d be miffed too if some rich gits on bikes came through and didn’t give me the sweeties I’m accustomed to. Or the sweeties my parents told me they used to get from the white people. For this is certainly generational. Twenty years ago cyclists were having rocks thrown at them by Ethiopian children too. Those kids are adults now and their kids continue the same behaviour. I might sound harsh; maybe I am. While I am not against all aid, I do think charity is problematic (at best). Sure, if there’s a crisis like an environmental disaster, or famine, the international community certainly has an obligation to assist. What I have a problem with is top down charity; well-meaning rich people or organisations giving, or doing things for people, without proper consultation or collaboration. I think it’s offensive and disempowering to the people that are being ‘helped’ and doesn’t address the deep rooted systemic issues of inequality, and it’s very often not sustainable. I am by no means an expert; these are just my observations combined with some reading I’ve done on the issue. Plus my belief in solidarity, not charity as a guiding principle when trying to assist those less fortunate than ourselves.

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Outside a hotel

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A typical scene from a village. The children can be cute and curious, but also demanding and irritating.

So it was some of these issues that I pondered while being chased by rock throwing children and jeering adults. Ethiopia certainly tests you. Your humanity and patience, not to mention compassion. I was worried before I came here that I would crack; chase some rock throwing child into his home in a rage and be stabbed by his father (this actually happened to a cyclist). Or maybe just get so upset that I would have to leave. Neither of these things happened however. I think I managed to keep my compassion and humour most of the time, and while tested for sure, I didn’t entirely loathe my time in Ethiopia. I found it challenging for sure, frustrating, tiring, annoying, confusing and down right exhausting. But somehow I still felt the adventure of it all, and the fun of travelling as a group. This certainly helped a lot. Also, by the time we were riding towards the Kenyan border, I knew how Ethiopia in most parts, worked.

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Ethiopian coffee is awesome.

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Buying papaya

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A typical town

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All the bread ever

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Craig prepares a ‘traveller’

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Party in our hotel room

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Crowded

There is something about the human condition that finds comfort in familiarity, no matter how unfun that familiarity can be at times. I knew everyday I would face a certain amount of harassment, which would be tapered by a few friendly interactions. The food was familiar; I knew what I liked and how to order it. I knew the prices of things and where to buy vegetables. At the end of the day I knew what to expect of hotels, that there would be an inevitable battle for Astrid and I to share a room, but that it would be cheap. The water might not work, but someone would bring us some. Best of all, I knew there would be beer. Perhaps this sounds crude, or alcoholic, but I took massive comfort in the fact that at the end of the day the four of us could debrief over beers. I like the taste of beer, but it was more than that. It was something familiar from all our cultures in this often confronting and difficult country. In many ways it felt like debriefing after a hard day at work with people who understand and have shared your experience.

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Beer time. Again.

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Camping in an empty room of a full hotel.

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Coffee and beer coping strategy

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One and only broken spoke

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Warning: break dancing ahead

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Bin donkey

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Preparing dinner outside a hotel room

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Deep fried snacks

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Creepy statue outside a hotel

So we bumbled our way south in this manner, cracking our first beer at lunch time (or sometimes before) and ending our day eating pimped up two minute noodles (a bad habit started in Ethiopia) on the floor of some less than fancy hotel. Some days were better than others; one night, after having refused to pay the outrageous price to camp by a lake, we stopped for afternoon beers at a bar (which was really some guys house) and then asked if we could camp there. We gave him a donation and he and his lovely family let us pitch our tents under a shelter and even brought us a table and chairs to use (not to mention beers).

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Would have been awesome to camp here, but they wanted an outrageous price

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So we ended here instead. Would rather give money to a family anyway.

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The ‘Bar’ aka someones house (:

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whooo hooo beer time!

Another day we stumbled upon Odd, while looking for hippos. Odd was a Norwegian guy who had married an Ethiopian lady and was trying to set up a camp. He warmly welcomed us to camp by his VW’s and spend an afternoon relaxing and watching hippos. It was our first encounter with African wildlife and we were all rather excited. We decided to take a day off and enjoyed relaxing and Astrid gave the guys awesome hair cuts.

Unfortunately after the brief reprieve of the hippos, we encountered the most harassment we had faced so far. One town in particularly was awful; screaming, people trying to grab at us, or our stuff, children chasing us and just a generally very aggressive energy. This wasn’t helped by the torrential downpour we encountered while pedalling through, adding to the feeling we had reached some kind of end of the world apocalyptic village. Once we reached the outskirts we all kind of looked at each other. I think we had run out of words. Even for Ethiopia that had been bad.

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Beer coping strategy

Clo needed to meet his dad in Kenya and wisely decided to waste no more of his time pedalling through Ethiopia, which by that stage was causing us all various emotions from rage, to confusion, to despair. It was sad to see him go. Our group of four had been fun, and an antidote to the insanity that can be cycling through Ethiopia.

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Going to miss Clo

Astrid, Craig and I pushed on towards the border and I am pleased to report that things started to improve. Children still chased us up hills yelling for pens, but the aggressive vibe began to change. The ‘you, you, you!’ felt more like a greeting, then a threat and the  population also thinned out as we reached the beginning of the Great Rift Valley. We would follow this epic geographical feature all the way down into southern Africa. The vistas really were beautiful and we even managed to wild camp twice before the border.

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South bound

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A much more peaceful Ethiopia

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A beautiful sunset, things getting less hectic as we approach Moyale

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A rare wild camp in Ethiopia

By the time we reached Moyale on the Ethiopian side however, we were all very much done. I felt my temper really fray negotiating our last hotel room (which was an epic struggle and overpriced), had a melt down of the price of beer and food and snapped at anyone who was remotely annoying. I knew I needed to leave for my own sanity. I think we all felt the same. We spent the last of our Ethiopian birr on beers (which felt fitting) and then slowly rolled towards the border.

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We are nearly done! Last day breakfast in Ethiopia

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We can see Kenya!

Kenya, I am so ready for you.

 

 

 

 

Coffee, injera and violence – the first few weeks in Ethiopia.

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One of the many beautiful roads we cycled in Ethiopia.

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.

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With my helmet on, I am optimistic about our cycle through Ethiopia.

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.

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Our first plates of injera – the local staple.

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Excited to have our first cold beer since Egypt.

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Drawing a friendly and curious crowd.

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Our cycle escort out of town.

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.

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Enjoying a coffee break.

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Appreciating cold beer.

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Relaxing of an evening in Humera.

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One of the many tasty meals we ate while resting.

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.

 

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Enchanted by the boababs.

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A typical farmhouse with goats.

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The housing changed as different building materials became available.

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Brightly coloured churches are everywhere in Ethiopia.

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Enjoying the hills.

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Many modes of transport.

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Dropping down into another valley.

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Typical streetscape.

 

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.

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Everyone would come out of their houses on arrival in a village.

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Martin was great with the kids.

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Whatever we did would draw a crowd.

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On that rare occasion when we didn’t have a crowd.

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There was always a farewell group of watchers.

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.

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Wild camping.

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Sunset over our camp.

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.

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All churches draw a crowd as religion plays a large part in Ethiopian society. (Martin’s photo)

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Our camp at the monastery – also draws a crowd.

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Our guard for the evening – photo courtesy of Martin.

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.

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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…).

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Main street of Aksum.

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Riding through town.

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The stelae of the ancient Aksumite kingdom.

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The waters.

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Feeling good enough to have a beer – kind of.

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Exploring Aksum by bicycle.

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.

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Sunset over Aksum.

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Our farewell beers – the end of the habibis (for now).

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.

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The kids would have a fun time with us and then throw rocks as we cycled away.

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.

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Sharing beers with the local teachers.

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Exchanging hats.

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Pre-dawn looking down over the valley we just climbed out of.

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Looking back.

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Jude making her way up and up.

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First light hits the mountains.

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Further along looking down another valley.

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.

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Catching up with Ewaut at the side of the road.

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The most exciting meal I had eaten in months 🙂

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The habibis partially reunited.

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Inner entry to Wukir Meskele Kirstos.

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The priest next to one of the colourful pillars.

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The painted pillars.

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The priest in front of the room where the remains are kept.

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.

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Our bikes are already drawing a crowd in Asketama village.

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Jude thanking the police officers for getting our things back.

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.

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I lost sight of the beauty and kindness that was around me.

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.

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Some of the people that showed us kindness – an invitation for coffee as we cycled by.

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Abebe’s house where we spent a relaxing weekend.

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Jude and Abebe at his favourite breakfast cafe.

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Abebe’s extended family had us over for dinner and drinks on our last night.

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.

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The incredible churches of Lalibela.

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.

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First beers with the guys in Weldiya.

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The crew of 6 getting ready to go.

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Ready to hit the road. (Photo courtesy of Craig)

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.

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Cycling together is fun.

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Time for lunch and beers.

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Clo and Craig.

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Ewaut and Jude.

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Another rest break.

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Coffee and doughnuts.

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Got to love fresh papaya.

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The soon to be ‘Smash it to Kenya’ group.

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.