That first morning was a lovely downhill jaunt, but some effort would be required shortly. Hitting a series of uphill sections in the afternoon I was quickly reminded that, one, I had brought way too much gear — my bike seemed to weigh a ton — and, two, we were at altitude — Addis is about 2300 meters (7500 feet) above sea level. The combination hit me pretty hard and we had to make some changes to our expected daily distances. I wasn’t going to be able to knock off 100km days like I’d expected.
However, the payoff for those hills and altitude is some stunning views and fantastic fast swooping downhill rides — enjoyable even though I knew I’d have to climb back up eventually.
Our routine became to stay in small local hotels, take a leisurely breakfast, then ride for a few hours — stopping occasionally for tea or coffee. After lunch at a roadside restaurant we’d ride again until late afternoon or whenever we reached a town with a reasonable small hotel. Other stops included mangoes, bananas, roasted corn and even the occasional fruit juice/smoothie.
We rode for several days west to Nekemte then down a 1000 meter descent to a lodge that Steven wanted to check out on the Dedessa river. The next day we doubled back up the escarpment then turned south heading toward the town of Bedele — famous for its eponymous beer. But first it was down again another 1000 meters to cross the Dedessa river again further upstream, then back up the other side — this time including about 50km of dirt road. My bike touring legs were getting back in shape by this time, but it was still a long day and we got into Bedele well after dark, following our headlights into town.
From Bedele we continued south gradually climbing through beautiful green forested terrain to Agaro and on to Jimma, the administrative center for the area. After Jimma we took an easy 50km day to Asendabo, then another day riding up and along the rim of the Gibe river gorge. At that point we ran out of time and caught a ride back to Addis since Steven had commitments to get back to.
All in all, a successful scouting tour through beautiful green hilly countryside that’s such a sharp contrast with the dry north I’d experienced just a couple weeks before.
And a plug: if you want to check out bike touring (or any type of touring) in Ethiopia yourself you can get in touch with Steven at Ethio Guzo.
Ah. And two other things I should probably add since I was wondering about them myself before coming here. First, Ethiopians are friendly, very friendly. I couldn’t count the number of times someone yelled “You, you, you!” as I rode by. Which sounds rude to my ears, but I’m not sure it’s intended as such. Even from a quarter mile away over the farm fields people would get excited and yell “Hey, you, you, you!” or “Farenji” or even “China!” Unfortunately it gets old, so I just responded to the more polite sounding occasional “hello” or “good morning”. On my part a wave and “selamna” always got a happy response.
And second, yes, kids do throw stones at bicyclists on occasion. I experienced this twice, both from perhaps eight year old boys. Both times were harmless and when I stopped and glared at the offending child they promptly took off running.
The afternoon transitioned to contemporary Axum with a visit to the modern Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion built by Emperor Haile Selassie. Behind the cathedral is the smaller chapel which houses the Ark of the Covenant. The chapel is surprisingly unassuming and it was surrounded by scaffolding so I didn’t get an interesting picture. I was told that the Ark is guarded by one priest who dedicates his life to the task and is the only person allowed into the Holy of Holies in the chapel.
The day of my visit to Axum was the day before Easter so I was able to come back to the cathedral in the evening to listen to the chanting and watch the celebration that went on for several hours leading up to mass beginning at midnight. The experience was deeply moving — I don’t know a better way to describe it. There were distinct events and rituals that took place throughout the evening, but the chanting from one quarter or another seemed nearly continuous and the transitions between events was fluid, if almost haphazard. So the effect was of hours of continuous chanting gradually building and leading up to a procession around the cathedral at midnight accompanied by drums and trumpets. At first I was hesitant to take pictures or record any video, but no one seemed to mind and eventually I noticed that quite a few other people were using their phones to take pictures throughout the evening.
I’ll post some more video if I can successfully upload it, the network connection is not very fast.
Postscript: Shortly after visiting Axum my laptop finally decided that its hard drive had had enough and died. The next couple weeks were spent biking and so it’s taken me this long to get a new hard drive and re-install everything so that I can post updates and photos.