Cycle Across Africa
Cycling in Ethiopa: When Everything Is Wrong
Walking through the city centre completely oblivious to the cars, the people, the laughter, the footsteps. All the way home: what to do?, is this it? Is this all there is? why have I no interest? What am I doing? Where is my life going? Everything seemed to be going wrong.
So many questions and no answers, the sun was smiling in defiance to the end of summer but for at least one lost soul walking the streets of Dublin that September, it was another dark morning.
It‘s hard to see the future, when it appears there is nothing there.
(September 2013 – Dublin, Ireland)
Cycling Ethiopia – Almost One Year Later
I wanted to fall in love, defy stories about children throwing stones in Ethiopia and find warmth where others found frustration. I had come farther than was once possible and radiated with positivity emerging from the hellish roads of Northern Kenya. Yes, I was now ready to counter locals attention with unrelenting patience, win over the unsavoury characters with humour and find only beauty in what sounded like a broken place.
I failed miserably.
Crossing the border was strange given there was no sign of anyone else doing so and the road up into the first town was a glimpse of what lay ahead. A very different music boomed out of the roadside stalls and after weaving between tuk tuks, donkeys, people and carts, the bicycle got stuck in between a herd of goats and a chorus of people shouting “YOU,YOU,YOU“.
Knocking the goats out of the way with the bike panniers, I revelled in the madness of it all – the surrounding chaos seemed every bit as wild as the wilderness I had just come from.
The passing of a bearded cyclist brought a very different reaction to anything previous. They were just words to begin with – excited people acting on the impulse to interact but it would soon become a slow drip – constant, loud, repetitive.
It must be said the majority of people were kind and good natured but nothing can prepare for the intense attention and vulnerability experienced travelling alone like this on a bicycle. I was now struggling to deal with even the simplest of tasks never mind the actual part of cycling some of the biggest Mountains in Africa.
There seemed to be no gauge for what was appropriate or not: Was it the locals right to demand money from this ATM machine on wheels? Was it fair that my failing to hand anything over resulted in even louder shouting or aggressive behavior?
When the stone throwing began, it seemed unlikely we would ever get along.
Observations at a checkpoint
The first meeting with authorities was no different when a group of soldiers began questioning in Amharaic. I had no language at the time but that didn‘t stop the questions and taunts flying from all angles. The bags were searched, all the while the soldiers excitedly hustled around the bicycle.
“YOU, YOU“….“PASSPORT“….“YOU, GIVE“
Their demeanor derived from excitement and I stayed calm but it didn‘t take analysis to understand the entire act was for the purpose of their fun rather than security.
It honestly felt like speaking with a group of bold children and as the passport went around, two of the soldiers even began “play-fighting“ over it.
Similar scenarios would happen again cycling in Ethiopia, some more frustrating than others. On the boundary of Addis Ababa another angry police official demanded the bags be emptied amidst the rain and a chaotic mess of trucks, buses, bikes, goats and street children……..it just felt unnecessary every time.
The beginning was a lot easier than what followed but still overwhelming – The first day alone ended with a slap from a drunk man across the back, an intimidating youth obstructing the bike in town and a rude guesthouse owner.
I felt down already and did something that night which would become routine – closed the bedroom door and lay on the bed feeling exhausted and very alone. Depressingly, not a single day passed for weeks without longing to be treated with the same respect as the locals showed for each other.
The climbs were already double the size of even the largest encountered but I surprised myself by persevering to the summit of each one and then further by not allowing the sight of another climb feel any more than just a challenge. For the sake of getting through it and for the purpose of countering the inevitable annoyances the focus of each day was spent entirely on controlling my emotions.
In a busy town full of road diversions, a deep frustration began settling in when I had to carry the bike up over a series of barriers – I seemed to be lost and there was no end to people jumping in the way or making fun of the situation.
I cycled past an old homeless man sitting in rubble on the road and expected the usual demands for money but instead:
“I LOVE YOOOOOU FERENGI“
It didn’t fall lightly to hear those three words, I went back and many bystanders laughed when as I said back to him “I. Love. You. Too. Man“ – we shook hands but I doubted the moment meant as much to him, as it did to me.
They may have an every day use for many people reading this but I‘ve always had trouble with these three words and questioned that I was able to give them so easily to a homeless man in the middle of Ethiopia and not to someone for which I genuinely felt it in the past. I hoped this was only a sign that I don‘t take it for granted anymore, that I have changed.
Regardless this was one of several moments that restored some fast wavering faith.
Another similar incident followed when a man jumped out and grabbed me cycling past. I left the village and stopped feeling stressed but when I looked up to the field aside, there were two very elderly men in old tattered suits with beaming smiles and one of them hobbled forward with excitement. It was hard not to laugh of these two little characters.
He was so fragile, grey beard, few teeth, worn hands, red sore eyes – the look of a man who had seen it all and weathered the many storms of his countries past. He threw his arms and walking stick around me repeating the word “Amasiganalu“ over and over, he kissed me on the forehead and hobbled back to his friends side where they both stood together again, smiling still.
“Amasiganalu“……… it was me who should have been saying those words:
I watched these two men enjoying the long friendship of one another and was reminded of how there are always good people everywhere, even in bad situations. I really needed to stop the negative incidents from coloring my image of the locals as a whole.
It’s a Long Way Down
What I was beginning to realize on this cycle tour of Ethiopia was how even though the circumstances were difficult, the reason it had been effecting me so badly was just as much my own personal flaw as anything else.
It had been a long road since Cape Town and an even greater time to spend alone. The harsh truth was that despite the intensity of the situation, I had failed to remain as patient with the locals in Ethiopia, as I had for the many times it had been difficult in the past.
I came here to experience it for what it was; the good, the bad or the poor and of all places in the world, Africa was not mine to judge. I should have been trying to understand why the locals were behaving in such a way, not complaining about how it was affecting me. Afterall, my concerns were nothing next to their problems and I had the choice that most of them would probably never have – to visit a different world and step back of it again.
With clarity, it wasn‘t the people at all – it was the situation. These were poor individuals with no education, no support and little experience with foreigners never mind the concept of travelling somewhere for pleasure – at least certainly not on a bicycle.
I needed to respect this point and not take my frustrations with the realty out on people who actually have to live within it – to take it for what it was or learn nothing at all.
The climb into Ethiopia‘s Capital was a task in itself, heavy traffic, no hard shoulder, exhaust fumes and potholes everywhere. It felt tense weaving through the city sprawl from one expensive hotel to another, exhausted and wanting only for somewhere to sleep the night. Past upmarket cafes with well dressed tourists, it was the first time to see tourists in five weeks and I really wished I too had some nice clothes and friends with which to drink coffee.
An Angel in Addis
A torrential downpour started in the city centre, it was all I needed but on with the rain gear and on with the search. A couple of hours later I joked around with a receptionist in one hotel, delaying the inevitable walk back outside into the rain covered in dirt.
However, when I did go to leave, I heard a soft voice and looked up to an umbrella.
“Come back inside“ – it was the Manageress
With perfect English, she explained how they would give me a room on condition that I didn‘t tell anyone how much I paid. It was a tease – walking around this fancy hotel knowing full well that even a discount would still leave it too expensive but playing along with the fantasy of sleeping somewhere so nice was too good to miss.
Bliss – double bed, white cotton sheets, fridge with complimentary drinks and cable television and I felt homesick looking at the nicest bathroom shower I had seen in Africa.
“So ho much can you afford“ asked the manageress.
It was embarrassing to answer this but to my complete disbelief, she smiled and said “Okay but don‘t tell anyone what you are paying“.
It was confusing why this happened – Had someone called ahead and told them to treat me like royalty? Maybe she felt sorry for me, maybe she was too embarrassed to say no, maybe she liked my beard ….I preferred not to know at all.
One minute standing in the rain full of mud, the next in front of this mirror for just thirteen US dollars per night.
I was in heaven…. maybe she was an angel.
The North of Ethiopia involved ascending to almost three thousand metres above sea level and through one of the biggest mountain ranges in Africa. It took a huge mind shift to start out of Addis Ababa and an even greater effort to maintain it. In short, it wasn‘t so much the level of endurance needed but more that it was happening at a bad time – despite shifting to a much better mindstate, I was still lonely, demotivated and afraid of what lay ahead.
On and on, harder and harder. It never eased but I was becoming quietly aware that despite what I was thinking, my legs just kept pushing. It was an act of brainless momentum more than anything but soon it began to seem possible again. No motivational thoughts, no Rocky soundtracks, no inspirations – Just shut up legs and keep going.
A Time Long Ago
I don’t think a lot of people realise how important it is to be part of a generation who knew life before and after the internet. It has changed the world completely and this change is taking hold of Africa too – maybe not in my lifetime but there will come an age when all of this is gone forever which left me appreciating what happened in the mountains even more.
The mud huts with straw tops, ox driven carts, heavy laden donkeys, farmers and enclosed villages built in exactly the same way as an age old fort. If it wasn‘t for the trucks that went by from time to time, it would be easy to imagine I had fallen asleep and woken up in Medieval time. Life was hard back then but in the mountains of Ethiopia life is still that same way – it wasn’t true but on the eye, it looked and felt every bit like a “fairytale”.
CYCLING ABAY GORGE
Abay Gorge is the third largest canyon in the world and the point at which the Blue Nile River cuts through the Ethiopian Mountains.
What a feeling to stand there, heart swelling in the chest, no longer existing but completely lucid standing on this two and a half thousand metre high ledge – so high the bottom of the Blue Nile Gorge was barely visible.
It should have been nothing but pain that followed and I expected a completely miserable day trying (possibly failing) to get a sixty kg bicycle back up the other side – However, what actually happened… surprised.
After having such a hard time dealing with the attention for weeks, I was literally stunned to see the locals applauding as I pushed hard at snail pace up steep switchbacks. Lines of heads out the side windows of buses, camera phones from old Toyota’s, truck after truck cheering and throwing bottles of ice cold water out the window onto the road ahead. Kids pushing the bike from behind, one little girl shouting “I Love You“ – everyone willing the Ferengi up the mountain side.
This was exactly how I wished to remember the people in Ethiopia.
“As always, looking back down from the top of a Mountain is an empowering feeling but it rarely feels that way cycling up to get there“
The Warm Heart of Africa
I knew in the mountains that I would miss it, that the experience of meeting the real people of Africa had changed my life forever. There is a saying that the warm heart of Africa is in Malawi but the truth is, it beats all over the Continent in the same way and at no point is that any more obvious than when meeting the little people in every Country.
South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia….
Too often I‘ve watched a small boy or girl ditch a herd of goats, drop a basket of fruit or leave their mothers screaming after them, just so they can chase some skinny white guy down the road on his bicycle.
My memory of Ethiopia will no doubt be a complicated one but how could anyone ever forget the experience of so many children wanting to know you, talk to you, touch you, see you – how is it possible that just by saying hello, one can bring so much laughter to so many little strangers.
It has to be said that despite the troublemakers, there were dozens more happy kids like the ones in these pictures and watching them live in such difficult circumstances really brings it home – no matter where you go in Africa or in the world, kids never change. Despite their problems, education, lack of toys, money, friends or illness no matter if they have no food or nothing to look forward to, they never stop searching for something to be happy about.
In many cases they may look like they have nothing but as they run behind the bike for those precious few seconds, it’s clear that most of them have have everything they need. The kids have given so many fleeting moments of Happiness to this skinny white guy on a bicycle – I’ll miss them.
The climbs kept coming, the accommodation was as expected and it rained hard.The altitude left it very cold for the first time and quite often I found myself cycling amidst the clouds. Ethiopia would finish with two chaotic villages and a crescendo of scenery from that of another planet.
A sensation of relief came over like nothing before as the stamp slammed down onto the passport.
“Welcome to Sudan“
I cycled away from immigration and heard the last calls of “YOU,YOU,YOU“ – one last glance over the shoulder and Ethiopia was a memory. Five minutes later and I could hear the wind rushing through the bushes and the tyres meeting the tarmac but it seemed different to before – it was the sound of relief.
Locals carried on with their daily chores, showing little interest in the new arrival but when they did, it was nothing more than a wave or a quiet greeting.
I just couldn‘t accept that any of it was real – Arriving in Sudan was like going on Yoga Retreat after being stuck in a nightclub for six weeks.
It stayed that way, from one day to the next locals made sure to make the visitor feel welcome. Every thirty kilometres there were communal water pots and shade to hide from the scorching sun above, there were often kids hanging out in these small shaded shelters and they sat quietly alongside, people were curious but nothing more.
It would be wrong to write bout the Sudan at any length because really, two weeks is a minuscule amount to gather much of an impression. However, this following story pretty much sums up my experience with the locals.
Arriving in a small town, an elderly man with white flowing Jalabeya approached as I cycled past a small market.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT HERE?“
I was looking for somewhere to sleep and taken aback by his unusual greeting. I feared he had issues with the white man, he was surely unhappy about my being there in his little village.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT HERE, THIS IS OUR MARKET?“
I was still unsure, was he telling me I had no place in this part of town? I wanted no trouble.
“I SPEAK ENGLISH MY FRIEND, DO YOU NEED ME TO HELP YOU FIND SOMETHING IN OUR MARKET?“
“Tomatoes and onions“ I laughed realising how wrong I had been.
“TOMATOES AND ONIONS, NO PROBLEM MY FRIEND“
He led me through the market until we found both and once satisfied I had everything, he said thank you, wished a safe journey and walked away.
I found it difficult to grasp what had happened, he left with a smile and wanted for nothing – I was so grateful, not because he had helped but the reasons for which he did so.
In the days that followed, another local gave me five Sudanese dollars as a “gift from the Sudan“ and everywhere I turned a friendly face would ensure I did not pass without them greeting respectfully.
“Welcome“…..I just couldn‘t get over how many people wanted to make me feel this way without wanting anything in return. Welcome to my home, welcome to share food, welcome to drink some tea, welcome to sleep here – I felt undeserving of their good nature and the Sudan was becoming one of the most friendly places since leaving Cape Town last year.
Running Out of Time in Khartoum
The sprawl of Khartoum made finding a place to stay incredibly difficult and I cursed not having a map but it was the delay with a mandatory visa registration and travel permit that was most frustrating. Losing almost four days to bureaucracy made it impossible to reach the once a week ferry to Egypt in time and the chance of seeing some historical sights en route to be there.
Race For Wadi Halfa
It was now a race to Wadi Halfa and nothing seemed to be straightforward about travelling Sudan. It took an entire day just to find a bus to catch up to the town of Dongola but even when I went to the station the following morning, a police man directed me back to the city to acquire a “Travel Permit” – it seemed half of the time allocated for the visa was being spent acquiring more forms and more permissions.
Sadly, I loved Sudan for what it was but of all the Countries visited in the cycle through Africa, it is definitely the one I know least about.
It was extremely hot but the final days toward the Ferry were a story of simplicity, enjoying the simple pleasures and unwinding from what seemed like a hectic couple of Months struggling through Ethiopia and then rushing through Sudan.
It was now a welcome return to what I had enjoyed so much about the trip through Africa, watching the sun go down, crossing remote areas and interacting with friendly locals.
It was not so romantic as I expected but there were flashes of wonder still – like lying on deck next to the bicycle, surrounded by bodies and staring up at the stars or like watching the locals face Mecca and answer the Call to Prayer at sunrise.
I sat up on my roll mat still half asleep and watched distant sand dunes as they disappeared over the horizon – with each one, I felt something being left behind. It could not have been more symbolic really, there I was next to the bicycle, we had slept together again and would start a new day once more in yet another strange place. In the first light of morning, I watched beneath the handlebars as waves rippled out across the Lake and marvelled at how much of an adventure was this journey through Africa “Wherever will we find ourselves next?“….
A big chapter was now coming to an end – Egypt was still on the same Continent of course and there was still a long way to go but people looked different on the boat, life slightly more civilized, the culture changing – in my mind, in a sleeping bag at the very back of an overcrowded ferry, I was now watching Africa move farther away.
It Breeds Hope
Cycling alone through Ethiopia alone was the hardest challenge I had ever completed. I genuinely saw no purpose to any of it during the first two weeks and spent most of the time wondering how much worse it could get but like all great adventures, it didn‘t take me where I thought I was headed:
Something changed along the way and during what seemed like a dark and lonely time, from nowhere came a road rising out of Abay Gorge and a wave of locals willing me back up into the clouds. My heart soared at that very moment but it was my mind that changed for good – standing at the top I knew that for every climb, there would always be a somebody pushing from behind.
I knew right then that everyone wants another person to succeed in the face of adversity – like every hardship, every illness, every low and every fall. Nobody wants to see another person lose, feel down or fail, it might feel like they do sometimes but really, they don‘t . People want to see you get back up and win whatever it is you’re fighting for – it breeds Hope.
No Hanging Around
One of the defining reasons for undertaking this journey was a hope for personal change and it far exceeded those expectations. In many ways it stripped down all the junk and took me to a part of myself that would otherwise be left unexplored – this entire experience and none more so than Ethiopia, had re-enforced what my mother always told me growing up “You don‘t know how lucky you are“ – Well I do now.
On the ferry I reminisced about the Greatest Adventure and as huge sand dunes began disappearing over the horizon one by one, I said goodbye to Africa and a part of me that I never needed in the first place.
For all the bad that happened, for all the times when I failed to be positive, when I struggled to see the great possibility of a future and a chance to take control of it. The message was always loud and clear “Keep Moving“.
Three years ago an elderly South African man told me as he reminisced about his own great adventures.
“Riding a bicycle across Africa will be one of the three most important things you will ever do in life, along with getting married and having children“
Years later now, these words echo throughout what has been a most profound lesson on the rewards for positive thinking and while the Africa of my mind moves farther away still, I am content in the comfort of knowing, that there are more adventures ahead and that the bad times will always give rise to the good.
Riding a bicycle through Africa was to be one of the three most important things I would ever do and how fitting that it all began on a dark morning in Dublin, when everything seemed to be going wrong.