A Travellerspoint blog


Leaving Addis

A cruise accross the Ethiopian Highlands

sunny 25 °C

We were thoroughly refreshed and revitalised after our time in Addis Ababa which was just as well since leaving the city meant a day climbing 2000m as we started out up the northern escarpment. As we left behind the morning city rush we passed many laden donkeys making their way into town with fodder for the city livestock and fuel for the many coffee makers, in the form of piles and piles of dried-out cowpats! As our altitude increased we found Ethiopia's strongest and fittest rigorously training on the high ground and up the steep slopes. Both cyclists and runners were out in force covering the ground at great speed. After the ascent the land stretched out on all sides and we were surrounded by pasture dotted with homes.


A day's cycling took us to a vast gorge dropping down to one of the tributaries of the Blue Nile - the perfect spot to spend the night.

Don't jump!

Don't jump!

The following day we continued to climb and although we reached our highest point in Ethiopia the climbs were a lot less severe than they had been the day before.

Us - cycling hard!

Us - cycling hard!

Our number increased again when we met a fellow cyclist, Graydon, heading our way. We were on route to Bahir Dar on the southern shore of Lake Tana. We had not only many kilometres to cover but also the Blue Nile gorge to traverse. The gorge is a traditional tribal boundary and it is easy to see why when you gaze down the drop of 1500m over 20km. The drop is mirrored by the climb on the other side of the river.

Feeling high at the top of a 20km descent, Graydon aka the HGV

Blue Nile gorge

Blue Nile gorge

Our first glimpse of the Blue Nile as it winds its way from Lake Tana into southern Sudan before joining the White Nile in Khartoum.

We punctuated the beautiful scenery west of the Blue Nile (as elsewhere in Ethiopia) with plenty of stops to drink coffee and eat oodles of spaghetti, a few evenings listening to Graydon strumming tunes on his guitar (he doesn’t travel light) and hearing about his many adventures on his various bicycle travels throughout the world, and of course the inevitable emergency breaks whilst Graydon or Rob vanished over the horizon accompanied by the tortured cries of a small, very badly behaved child. There was also the occasional awkward stand-off with significantly larger, equally badly behaved boys!!! We also had an amusing mis-understanding whilst negotiating the price of a room the night before we reached Bahir Dar. Graydon had asked the price and been told 25 Bir. We decided we would stay and take a room each since they were very small but the girl then said the price was 45 Bir. We argued for some time; her insisting it was 45Bir, us annoyed and insisting the total should be 75 Bir since she'd told Graydon 25 Bir per room. Eventually we realised that 45 Bir was the total for 3 rooms - 15 Bir (70p) each - and 25 Bir was the hiked-up price so we had been trying to haggle the price up!! Happily we accepted the rooms and slept very soundly.


Views between the Blue Nile gorge and Bahir Dar:


He was one of a troop on their way to market. He was quite anxious that we were taking too long taking the photos and ran off to join his friends as soon as we'd finished.

Uniquely Ethiopian wares. The balls are stuffed rigid with shredded sacks and make a comfy portable stool (a lot heavier than Rob's little wooden Turkana stool) and the pointy things are picnic baskets used for taking your injera (savoury pancakes) into the fields with you.

Remnants of the war, a Russian tank.

Warm, friendly faces greeting us in Bahir Dar

Bahir Dar was everything we'd hoped it would be with it's palm fringed streets and innumerable fruit juice bars. We drank a lot of juice!! We couldn't quite bring ourselves to try the strange murky green juice which we kept on seeing everyone drinking and we were quite relieved we didn't when we discovered it was avocado juice - yuk!!

On the water's edge we spotted countless varieties of exotic birds including hoopoes and lovebirds whilst we watched the numerous pelicans float by.

Rob visited a branch of the famous ‘Fistula Hospital’ with our host Dr Andrew who runs the unit.

Well over 80 million people live in Ethiopia, most of whom reside in hugely remote areas with few healthcare facilities. Consequently if a mother suffers obstructed labour she and her baby will most likely die. If she survives she will be left with a permanent connection between her bladder/rectum and vagina (Fistula) from the immense pressure exerted by the dead foetus’s head over several days. This trauma will leave her not only suffering the stigma of having been unable to deliver a live baby but also with the horror of incontinence in a society where water is rarely available for luxuries such as washing.

The hospital provides a the utterly life changing procedure of fistulae repair with a success rate (return of continence) of 95% in combination with education (healthcare, numeracy, literacy, theology) rehabilitation and a new clean dress to return home with.

Graydon greeted us very excitedly one evening when we met up for some delicious pizza. The cause for his excitement turned out to be a very sturdy, solid wooden stick that he had purchased at the market. Swept along by his excitement we were never the less slightly bemused until he clarified it's purpose with a little demonstration. "look, look" he said. "If I keep it on the bike I can clear a good space all around me when the kids come" - he swung the stick around him from side to side causing a few of the waiters to jump out of his way.

We were never to witness the impact of the wooden stick as our paths parted at Bahir Dar. Graydon pedalled on after a single day's rest whilst we waited a day longer to fit in with the weekly ferry.

The Lake Tana ferry

This looks like it fell, quite literally off the back of a lorry! Thankfully it's only used for loading and unloading the ships cargo!! Our bikes were spared the ordeal since in Barhir Dar at least there was a jetty for the ferry to moor to and we were able to walk straight on.

Papyrus fishing boats!!! Skill-fully constructed at very little cost it's a brave man who dodges the hippos on one of these. Allegedly it can carry a cow with ease although we didn’t see any cows floating around on them so we have to take his word for it.

We passed many little islands and stopped off at one on our way to stock up on fish.


Arriving in Gorgora on the northern shore we clubbed together with one of the other passengers to stay in a 3 bedroom lake view house at the port hotel since the price was the same as for two rooms!! The views across the waters, particularly at dawn, were stunning. The house was the holiday home of the former communist president Mengistu, the dictator who instigated the “Red Terror” in which thousands of Ethiopians were killed. We slept in his bed!

A day on the bikes from the Lake took us to Gondar.

Gondar; Africa’s Camelot was a mixed bag. It has some well-preserved castles from the 1600’s and some elaborately decorated churches from the same era.


But as a tourist in Gondar you can be sure that wherever you go and whatever you do there’s someone not that far behind who wants something from you, and they’re watching you.....



Posted by robandpol 10:02 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged bicycle Comments (4)

Extreme Ethiopia

Highs and Lows in a Land of Crazy Contrast

semi-overcast 24 °C

Ethiopia truly is a country of extreme contrast. It’s inhabitants claim not to be African - yet have lived in Africa since time began. They claim to be the only African (!) country never colonised. But after a convincing military defeat the Italians ruled here for 4 years. Every large town has a piazza. You have the choice between injera (huge pancake) or spaghetti in any restaurant in the country. All towns are equipped with multiple coffee and pastry shops and after you have finished your espresso you will leave with “chao” ringing in your ears.


It is where we have come across the most vile, obnoxious and unfriendly children on our entire trip. After we have given a smile, wave and a greeting ‘Salam’. We have been spat at, had sticks and stones thrown, swiped at with hefty staffs, and had the water bottles stolen off the back of the bikes while peddling uphill. A Slovenian cyclist we met coming the opposite direction said to us “Zey are eevill.. I look in zair eyes and just see eevill”

And you are faced with a dilemma - what to you do when a sizable rock whacks into the back of your head or skims past your ear. Turn the other cheek? Ignore it with the hope that any reaction is exactly what they are after? Chuck a bigger rock back? Or drop the bike - chase and catch the little blighter and make your throbbing head feel a bit better as the child whimpers/cries/screams while being shaken vigorously by the crazy Farangi with his mum in the background (who can sense the White Man is teetering on the edge of loosing control) pleading for mercy.

Rob usually chose the final option, but being a nation of runners he only caught about 1 in 3.

But like I said the country is one of extreme contrast. The memories that will endure are the ones of the feral children. But they are the small minority. Ethiopia is also host to the sweetest, kindest children that we have come across.


These 2 pushed us up a huge hill and expected no payment. This morning as we rode into town a small child stopped and with a broad smile said “Welcome to Ethiopia”.

Some of the adults have been the most friendly we have encountered. Many trucks/4x4s and even a policeman have stopped to ask if they can help us in any way. The bus conductors will lean out of the door and scatter the children trailing us with the aid of a hefty stick or some angry words. The man below translated for us in a guest house and then insisted on showing us his pharmacy and buying us drinks


The geography is also only demonstrated in polar opposites. Near the southern border with Kenya we slogged through the heat in the flat bottom of the great rift valley. Temperatures were in the low 40s in the daytime and the nights were spent watching the stars wile lying in a puddle of sweat thinking ‘aren’t deserts supposed to get cold at night’.


However the landscape abruptly changed as we climbed well over 2000m out of the rift. As we ascended the temperatures fell. Greenery and trees started to appear. ‘It looks like it rains a lot here we thought’ and sure enough black clouds gathered and 5 seconds after finding shelter the scenery was pummled by marble sized hailstones.

The following morning we donned our waterproofs (only the second time in the entire trip) and braved the rain a few minutes before dawn. 40 minutes later there was no sign of sunrise or of the rain stopping any time soon and we were chilled to the core - polly unable to flex her fingers well enough to stop on the steep downhills. Seeing an old man sheltering under some corrugated iron in an uninhabited looking village we asked “Chai?” While doing drinking hot fluid mimes. Soon we were beckoned into a dark room with a charcoal stove for us to reanimate our extremities. With steam wafting from our socks and our eyes becoming accustomed to the light we noticed the man in the corner of the room - grinning at us snugly tucked up in bed - we had been welcomed into this poor guy’s bedroom!!


Another incredible contrast hit us as we peddled into Addis Ababa. 80% of the population lives in the rural Ethiopia - where little has changed in the past 500 years.

The fields are still worked by oxen and wooden ploughs:


The houses are still made in a traditional style from natural materials:


By far the most common form of transport is foot or pony carts and all goods are moved to market strapped to the back of sullen donkeys.


But Addis, on the other hand, is surrounded by ever-increasing suburbs. Sky scrapers dominate the skyline. Shacks with a steaming kettle advertising their trade are replaced by glass fronted ‘Burger Queen’ and ‘Star backs’ selling cinnamon machiatoes to well dressed Amharas. In fact the only thing reveals that it is the capital city of one of Africa’s poorest countries is that 90%of all the 4x4s have World Food Programme/UN/World Vision or the like emblazoned across their doors (In 2003 95% of Ethiopia’s government revenue was aid money). And of course the occasional heard of sheep clogging up the ring road - on it’s way to market


Addis tourists are slightly unusual too. Many of the young white couples walking the streets or sipping coffee are accompanied by their newly adopted child looking more than a little bewildered - a phenomenon we have not seen in any other big African city we have passed through.

We had been looking forward to Addis for weeks, being able to buy a bar of chocolate in a supermarket, watch a film and most of all to stay with friends (well friends of friends - soon to be our friends!). Our first few days were spent staying at Ali’s house - She is working for DFID (British Government Aid organisation). We didn’t realise until late that she had a plane to catch to the UK about 5 hours after our arrival in her house - in those slightly hectic 5 hours she managed to wholeheartedly welcome us and host dinner for us and Esther (Ali’s best buddy and good friend of my sister’s husband - expat Africa is a small world). The next 3 days were spent trying to get Sudan and Egypt visas and using any spare moment to get our fix of Ali’s extensive DVD collection!

Our next hosts were Frank and Ann Rispin- friends of Polly’s aunt. Teachers from our home town who have moved to Ethiopia and are busily starting and running schools. They have 3 under their belt already!


They were incredible hosts. Frank took a day out to guide around the sights of Addis and to top things off we went out for some traditional food and death defying head banging.


We were very worried that someone’s head was goning to pop off and knock over our beer!

Posted by robandpol 06:53 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged bicycle Comments (7)

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