Month: February 2019

Tribal Lands

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The road to Capetown

Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa marked the end of the second stage of our Cairo to Capetown adventure. Our odometers have clicked over the 3000 km mark.

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Rolling hills south of Bahir Dar

We have said it before: big cities get in the way on bicycle tours.  Addis is home to 3 million plus and it is a congested mess.  Thirty riders convoyed in and out of the city, 2 abreast, behind our support vehicles. This is not anyone heres’ idea of fun, but it proved a safe and efficient way to get to the Addis Ababa Golf Club, our location for an off day.  Addis stands  in stark contrast to the spectacular rural countryside we had enjoyed riding in the morning.  4 cell phones would be brazenly stolen from our ranks in the next day and a half as tour participants ventured into the city.  We came here to discover Africa. Unfortunately, this is part of the experience. 

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Ethiopia has often been called the original home of mankind because of various humanoid fossil discoveries.  The famous Lucy was discovered in 1974 in the Afar region of the country.  The specimen is an early  australopithecine and is dated to about 3.2 million years ago. We met Lucy at the National Musem and were surprised that she stands barely 3 feet tall. We limited our touring to museums, abstained from the downtown nightlife and came away unscathed.  And yes – some of you may have been asking yourself – G. did play 9 holes in Addis.  Our off day was above par in all respects. 

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We traded 4 sectional riders for 4 new ones in Addis. The transfusion of new blood has been good for the core group going “all he way”.  We have now met 2 people who have summited Everest  in our lives, both of them women. A year ago we met Pam from Fla. who likes to have a steak every night for dinner.  New rider and Everest conquerer Irena from Moscow is also a committed carnivore. She told us of a woman who died on the mountain in the same group as her own successful Everest bid. With a heavy Russian accent, she put the tragedy down to “She was vegetarian – not strong enough!”  Our contention in this space previously that “stronger is better” aside, we are not making a statement here.  Although . . . 

Sectional riders are occasionally used as “mules” by TDA staff and the participants themselves.  When Jonas left us in Khartoum G. bought his shoes and headlamp.  This time around, Tom from Montreal is leaving, but he was will return in Nairobi to complete his journey to Capetown. When he does, he will have items for at least a half dozen participants, including a  cot from MEC for Lenore to replace a thermarest mattress she is unhappy with.  It is hard to source or repair forgotten/broken/stolen items when constantly on the move in remote areas.  We consider ourselves lucky.

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Tribal Lands

Section 3: Tribal Lands

TDA calls section 3 – Addis Ababa to Nairobi – Tribal Lands.  The section features diverse changes in scenery and riding conditions: from plateau to desert to savannah. We returned to rolliing countryside after escaping the city to arrive in an area interspersed with alkaline lakes, including Lake Koka where we shared our camping area with magestic Marabu storks that stand taller than Lucy. We are now near Lake Langano camping with ostriches and wart hogs at the Abisata-Shula National Park. We’ll visit the wildlife sanctuary at Yabello before leaving the country. 

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Campsite guests

The border from Ethiopia into Kenya at Moyale will mark the beginning of Kenya’s Dida Galgalu lava rock desert. The scenery will be desolate as we complete the current 8 day run, the longest of the tour, with a rest day in Marsabit, Kenya. That market town is set on the slopes of an ancient volcano.  The route then descends again into the arid lands that are home to the Samburu people and their herds of camels and cattle. From Isiola, the route traverses the western slopes of Mount Kenya, before crossing the equator in Nanyuki, which is a short day’s ride from Nairobi, East Africa’s largest city.  

Lots to look forward too. Thanks for anticipating it all with us. Here are a few shots from beautiful Ethiopia.

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Ready to please

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Hauling firewood out of Blue Nile Gorge

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“Dung cakes” used as fuel

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Cows trample teff to liberate the seeds used to make injera.

One Day: Blue Nile Gorge

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Hello from Ethiopia!

5:00 AM. Wakened by the alarm after a comfortable night for sleeping. The altitude has us back in the sleeping bags which were given a rest during the recent hot streak. Our desert camps in Egypt and Sudan were necessary, and we abided them happily, but the Adirondacks is our DNA, and our tent sites in Ethiopia have reminded of that. Who knew?

Next. A walk into the woods to heed nature’s call. Armed only with the communal shovel described in an earlier blog, tripped over the leg of one of our Ethiopian facilitators who sat slumped against a tree, asleep, with a Kalashnikov across his lap.  This same fellow had been the beer sales entrepreneur the previous evening – just sayin’. 

Security personnel are with us, in part, to ward off the locals who seem to materialize out of thin air, at any time, in the most unlikely places. There is no policing outside the roped off area in which our tents are pitched. This is where we walk in the woods. A thorough quadrant search is required to ensure an uninterrupted moment. Life TDA style leans toward the primitive side.  

Firearms and a lack of plumbing aside, some readers who commented that “envy” is no longer a reaction to our chronicles may soon reconsider.  This account of our day cycling through the Blue Nile Gorge may be a start. 

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Our marching orders for an epic ride

 

Within 30 kilometres of its source at Lake Tana, the Blue Nile enters a canyon about 400 kilometres long, flowing through a series of virtually impenetrable gorges cut in the Ethiopian Highlands to a depth of some 1,500 metres. Blue Nile Gorge is the world’s 2nd largest canyon. It is an awe inspiring sight.  

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Blue Nile Gorge switchbacks

The 50 km to lunch on this day were typical of our cycling patterns, with G. falling behind L. and the other riders we began the day with as the photo opportunities became impossible to resist. The photography itself accounts for only a fraction of the time lost. In the seconds it takes to ready the camera, a handful of locals will approach, with the usual “where you go”  lead in to an English – Amharic disconnect. We’ve  taken to beating them to the punch by asking where they go, to which the lack of response has led us to conclude that they have no idea what the question even means.  Still, with effort, more often than not something clicks, and a hand offered for shaking is always reciprocated with gratitude. After these exchanges, fellow cyclists are long out of sight.  

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G. and his flock

There is no hurry on days like this (lots of climbing but moderate mileage), when we are confidant that we will have time to set up camp and relax before the rider meeting and dinner. There is no masseuse waiting there for us.  No Starbucks.  No Netflix. What awaits is soup. Soup. But the School of Ethiopia is open, and tuition is free.  So we take our time, savour the ride and enjoy the lessons. Today we learned about the eucalyptus trees we have noticed riding through the countryside.

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Eucalyptus scaffolding

The prevalence and importance of eucalyptus in Ethiopia becomes quickly evident when looking at the building materials of simple homes and scaffolding used on construction sites. Astute Kiwi tour participant and former farmer Phil pointed out the many plantations which supply lumber yards where piles of eucalyptus are stacked according to circumference – no uniform 2×4’s in sight. For background on what we had deciphered in our own, we went to Google which taught us that in 1894 Emporer Menelik ordered the construction of a new capital at Addis Ababa. There was a great need for timber so Menelik endorsed the introduction of eucalyptus to Ethiopia from Australia. He encouraged its planting around Addis because it is fast growing and when cut down it grows up again from the roots. It can be harvested every ten years. 

There is much to be learned peddling across a continent. 

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Our lunch spot on the descent into the Gorge

Lenore was pulling out of the picturesque lunch location as G. pulled in with the camera shutter button as hot from overuse as the disk brakes on the bike after only a fraction of the descent into the gorge. The rest of the way down was a bit taxing due to the poor quality of the road. The views, on the other hand, were stunning.  As advertised, we happened upon Baboons sitting  roadside at the bottom of the canyon. We had been warned that these animals are several times more powerful than the average male rugby player, and that coming between a mother and its babies could be asking for trouble.  We saw several of those babies, and did not hang around for their mothers to announce themselves. 

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Baboons roadside at the base of the Gorge

We actually like to climb hills on bicycles, so the the real fun began at the base of the canyon – at the (no photographs allowed!) military bridge over the Blue Nile itself. From there it was 1360 meters of vertical over 20.05 km with an average grade of 6.8% (with several stretches of 10%+).  A formidable climb in the afternoon heat. 

G. caught  Lenore about half way up (at the coke stop) and we rode the rest of the way together, feeling strong. 

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Tent site overlooking the Gorge

The camp offered stunning views over the canyon and the group could look over the rock face to cheer on later arriving riders as they negotiated the final switchbacks that stood between them and . . . soup. 

A day to remember.  

Here is a short video of what it’s like to cycle in Ethiopia.  Thanks for indulging us.  

 

 

In Our Element

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Children along the road to Bahir Dar.

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A painting at every turn.

We are in our element.

The last days riding south in Ethiopia from Gondar to Bahir Dar have been the most engaging of the tour to date. Rolling hills alternating with cultivated pastoral farmland present periods of exertion followed by the reward of the descent. This has always been our favourite type of terrain.  With the museum that is Ethiopia tossed in, we are living the dream. 

There are 110 million Ethiopians, 2nd only to the number of Nigerians on the  continent. The number of people swarming in villages that look like no more than a handful of streets defies belief. We battle for space to navigate alongside tuk tuks, donkeys towing carts, cows, chickens and bleating lambs being lead to market gripped by a foreleg forcing them to hobble along on the other 3. The streets are thick with the smoke of home fires fueled by charcoal or sundried cow patties. Not good. “Where you go?” We are asked a thousand times. “Addis”, we answer,  to be respectful but keep the conversation brief.  The capital city of Addis Ababa is 500 km down the road, still 8000 shy of Capetown. 

Outnumbering all the barnyard animals, farmers, merchants and TDA bike riders put together are the children. The median age in Ethiopia is 18, and 60% of the population is under that age.  By comparison, the median age in Canada is 40.   Kids running amuck are part of the frenzy in the towns,  but they also materialize in great numbers from the doorways of eucalyptus wall and corrugated steel roof farmhouses. They  come at us barefoot from fields, running at full speed waving and yelling  a rapid fire high pitched “youyouyouyou” or “money money money“.  There is no escaping them. 

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Onlookers at lunch stop.

At our lunch and camping sites we have come to the section of the tour that gave us pause when we first saw the images: it is necessary for the staff to create a perimeter area with ropes to keep the natives at bay.  These flimsy barriers are respected. Onlookers take positions just beyond the ropes and observe us like animals in a zoo as we go about our business.  Does envy enter into all this, or are we just a peculiar spectacle?  This show would even turn some heads back home.  Dealing with this is work in progress.

Another disquieting aspect of the tour which every blog or other written account by cyclists who have done distances in Ethiopia touches upon is the unfortunate pastime of stone throwing by (primarily) young boys.  It is definitely a thing. We’d rather not dwell on it, but readers who have been on organized cycle tours will appreciate the severity of the problem when we say that none of the well known tour companies could ever operate here.  A real shame.  

We have 2 days off the bike in Bahir Dar on the southern edge of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. We took an excursion on the lake to get out on the water and (incidentally) see hippos.  Last night we dined on the Tana subspecies of Nile Tilapia. We know Tilapia as a sometimes maligned farmed fish, so it was interesting to learn that  aquaculture of the Nile Tilapia dates back to ancient Egypt.  Today they are not farmed very often because the dark color of their flesh is undesirable for many markets. Breeds which have lighter meat have been developed. We washed it all down with a bottle of Ethiopian Syrah from the Rift Valley.  3 stars. 

Tonight we have a group party and have been instructed to dress up in local garb and be creative. We will be looking for material that we can cut into rags later to rid our bicycle derailleurs of African grit.  Never a dull moment. 

Thanks for reading.  

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Lenore with her flock.

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Ethiopian Orthodox Christian. 

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Strapped in.

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A cyclist’s dreamscape.

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Commerce.

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Gallery at the “definitive” coke stop.

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Spent some time with these 2 after a climb.

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Loading up.

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Part of the 60% under 18 demographic.

Ethiopia

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Last sunrise in Sudan at Gallabat

“A person who has not crossed an African border on foot has not really entered the country, for the airport in the capital is no more than a confidence trick; the distant border, what appears to be the edge, is the country’s central reality.”

              Paul Theroux, from Darkstar Safari

The Sudan/Ethiopia border was another 4 hour “hurry up and wait” exercise. This time questions about travel to the Congo and an infrared thermometer  pointed at our foreheads served as safeguards against Ebola. Money changers were busy in the neutral zone between countries so we were able to load up on Ethiopian birr at a rate exceeding that offered by the banks in Gondar. After finger printing, mug shots and some very assertive passport stamping, we walked our bikes into the 3rd country of this adventure and exchanged birr for beer while we waited for our support vehicles to clear customs.

There were some armed demonstrations in the streets of Matema as we rode our bicycles a short distance to where the military forced us to board arranged mini vans to get to our destination in Gondar.  Later we saw some burned out farm houses and passed several military check points.  From our understanding there are disagreements  between the tribes (there are over 80 ethnicities in Ethiopia) of this region stemming from the policies of Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abi Ahmed. It is unfortunate that the unrest is situated in our path as Ahmed is well regarded at home in general, as well as in international circles. He has forged peace with Eritrea and created political stability and impressive economic growth all in a short period. 50 % of his ministers are women. Great stuff, but we still were relegated to the bus.

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Our vehicle preceeded by a military escort on the road to Gondar

The topography en route to Gondar quickly becomes mountainous and could easily be mistaken for that of Arizona, especially with the appearance of prickly pear cacti to go along with the Juniper, fig and purple flowered jacaranda trees in the city.  It has been a fascinating transition from the desert we were beginning to think might never end, to the mountains of East Africa’s Rift,  Agriculture, architecture, natives, dress, food, drink, SIM cards, the air temperature here at 2200 meters of elevation and so much else have all undergone makeovers that came quickly, even at the rate of progress a bicycle allows.

2 rest days now in Gondar, known as the “Camelot of Africa”.  This city became Ethiopia’s capital in 1636 and grew as an agricultural and market town.  The former magnificence of the palaces and gardens is evident  by what remains of the (World Heritage Site) Royal Enclosure, at the base of the bowl of hills that mark the city. They were constructed over almost 2 hundred years before the capital was moved and the city plundered and sacked.   Ethiopians take pride in never having been colonized, but the Italians did overrun the country in 1936.  The British chased them away in 1941, but Gondar became Mussolini’s last stand and some of the monuments suffered further damage.

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Alem-Seghed Fasil’s castle – Gondar

 

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Walls of the Royal Enclosure in Gondar

 

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Injera

“You will get sick on your days off”, we’ve been warned, “and it will likely happen in Ethiopia.”  At the same time we’ve been encouraged to sample one of Africa’s finest cuisines.  Last night we had our 1st local taste of injera: a gray, spongy bread made from fermented grain and spread over a whole large platter like a thin pancake.  It is topped with sauces called wot and small mounds of meat, vegetables and a boiled egg. A vegetarian version falls under the “fasting food” title on menus.  It is meant to be eaten by tearing off pieces of the injera by hand and scooping up the toppings. We were not impressed with this dish last year in an Ethiopian restaurant in Brooklyn, but this version was delicious. So far so good on the “sick” front btw.

 

Throughout Sudan and now here in Gondar the group has indulged in the tea and coffee offerings of women installed at small “stations” within ramshackle lean-to style gathering places we refer to as “coke stops”.  With practised technique they create wonderfully aromatic and invariably sweet concoctions. Boiling  pots of water and Italian style coffee pots sit on expertly managed charcoal burners (or more often on the charcoal itself) that do little for the surrounding air quality. They draw from shelves full of jars containing various tea leaves, coffee and spices to make their brews. They will not be rushed.  Since crossing the border the ladies are roasting their own coffee beans (Ethiopia has among the finest in the world) and grinding them on site with huge mortar and pestle set-ups (including a robust piece of rebar in one instance). A small pot is served rather formally on a tray with 4 small cups for 30 birr – $1.25 Canadian.  It is a gift.

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Hanging with the usual crowd at a coke stop on the long road to Capetown

The Cast of the 2019 Tour d’Afrique

As we make our way to Ethiopia here is one last image from Sudan.  Sadly the line up of vehicles is the result of a long standing gas shortage (relatively recently independent South Sudan has the oil). The line up of young typically smiling gentlemen was spontaneous as the camera made an appearance. 

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Line ups

We just were told at this evenings’ rider meeting that we will be bussed to Gondar from the Ethiopian border due to political unrest.  Whereas this is disappointing for the participants,  it is a logistical nightmare for the organizers.  Clearly the safety of all concerned is the chief concern.

The www has been hard to access in Sudan.  The lack of distractions has given the group every chance to grow together.  It has been a pleasure.

 

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Rider meeting in the desert – leader Tallis and Doctor Jen holding court

30 riders began the 2019 edition of the Tour d’Afrique. We lost 3 “sectional riders” in Khartoum and gained 5. We now have 7 women, 3 of whom are travelling with their husbands. One of the couples have kids in their 40’s and are on their.  5th tour with TDA, including the even longer South American Epic. Bicycle touring royalty.

The sweet spot in terms of age is around 60 – post “retirement”.  It does, after all, take time and  a chunk of change to do this.  There are about 10 riders in the 30- 35 bracket.  Canada is the best represented country, but we also have a few Brits, a couple of Dutchmen, a Swede, a German, an Irishman and a smattering , of Aussies and Kiwis. We have one woman who is of Chinese descent and a gentleman of Indian descent, but the rest of us here in Africa are slapping sunscreen on our exposed bits like it’s a matter of life or death.  Perhaps it is.  

Among the recently retired we have the former head of the paediatrics ICU at Sick Kids, a former federal court judge from Montreal and a NFB documentary maker turned novelist.  We have a welder. Phil kept a heard of 3200 ewes on the South Island of New Zealand. We have a British geologist on leave from a contract in Rwanda who rallied the group to visit the ancient Nubian temples at Jebel Barkel. We have an architect, retired military, real estate movers and a former corporate lawyer who lasted 3 weeks at home with his wife before signing on as a bike mechanic at MEC!

Everyone here has his or her own variation on the dream of crossing Africa on a bike.  For us, this trip is the culmination of many years of increasingly challenging and exotic bicycle touring. We like journeys that don’t double back on themselves. Crossing a continent qualifies. After 10 years of circling back to the TDA webpage, it was time. Others have lived or worked in Africa and see the trip as “coming home”. Some like to cycle fast and are here to exert themselves on new terrain with new challenges to overcome. Speed bumps and wayward donkeys are unwanted distractions. Others are comfortable enough on their bikes, but are more interested in the sites and the people of Africa, getting to the day’s destination a little later. For them, distractiions make the miles go by quickly. And then there is Mats, who on a given day will head out of camp at the back of the pack with the sweep rider to enjoy a more social riding experience, and the next day might be the first to wash his porridge bowl as he prepares to blaze a trail to camp hours ahead of the last arrivals.  

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Lenore, Peter and Jerome

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Coke/tea stop

We’re not being dramatic in saying that participants have to be accepting of some “difficult” living conditions on this tour. The leaders are champs at giving us every advantage to realize our dream, but they are unsympathetic when it comes to mitigating hardships – “there is no water for washing up” is not preceded by “sorry, but . . .” .  Many of us have been sick. A gastro case in the group needed hospitalization. Orthopedic support tape provides support for knees,  ankles and achilles tendons. A bad flu and chest infections requiring antibiotics hit many, including both of us.  Jennifer, our amenable tour medic, keeps stressing that it is better to rest and keep the long game in mind. She is the voice of reason, but everyone here is stubborn.  Every one of us would rather ride a bike than the bus.  

To a certain extent self preservation is tantamount. There is jostling for the “shady” tent spot. The line forms quickly when “open kitchen” is called for second helpings.  The sound of tent zippers could be heard earlier and earlier over the last days as the realization hit that cool mornings trump afternoon heat. We’ve seen this before. It will change once everyone figures out that minutes don’t make a big difference over the course of a day, and certainly not over 4 months.

At the same time there is a blossoming collective effort which we all recognize works to everyone’s advantage. On the road casual pace lines form when the wind is not in our favour. We help each other with flats tires, putting up tent flys that won’t cooperate in the wind and reminders to hydrate for the weary looking.  Riders have been rolling into camp to applause on the hard days, lead by the strongest among us who know that the additional hours on the road mean less time for other tasks and rest, compounding the deficit. Stronger is better, period. There is mutual respect. Lasting relationships are being formed.

The cast and crew of the Tour d’Afrique are  a travelling sideshow of vehicles and cyclists playing leapfrog across a continent, a tribe unto themselves. Our back stories served as ice breakers in Cairo. Now we are all the same, dreamers with one purpose, to ride our bicycles and get the most out of each day until we reach Capetown. 

Here is a promotional video called “I Seek” from TDA which might help to explain this, and maybe even spark a dream of your own.

Thanks for reading.