The bridge over the river was a welcome sight, until I made it to the other side. Two men dragged a wooden pole across the road while another quickly pulled on a blue police shirt and blocked my way forward.

Bridge over the Omo River

‘He says this bridge is closed and you need permission to cross it’, said a nervous teenager translating what had just been shouted at me.

I didn’t need this, nor expect it. The sun was about to set and I wanted to reach Omorate’s immigration office before dark.

It had been a long and hot day. First the Turkana sand and then the powdery mud as I entered Ethiopia on another track that looked like it might disappear at any moment. Then there were the half-naked kids running up from the riverbank to my right who followed me in the hope of a money handout or some sweets. Perhaps this is what other white faces who I caught glimpses of inside tour vehicles in the days to come were doing as they made their way to a tribal village or market, for which the region is well known.

Ethiopian girl beside Omo River

Moments before reaching this new bridge over the Omo River there was also a man, drunk or certainly high on something, who approached me and made a half-hearted attempt to relieve me of my bicycle – my left arm repeatedly pulled away from the handlebars as I pushed through a bad stretch of deep powdered mud.

‘Touch me again and I’ll fucking hit you’, I said slightly shocked and shaken, both at the attempted theft, if that’s what it was, and the words that came out of my mouth. I think he got my point.

Patience and persistence worked up on the bridge once the bogus police officer realised I wasn’t falling for whatever he had in mind, and I was soon at the immigration office asking where I could change some money.

A dread-locked Kenyan soon appeared on the scene and I switched to speaking Kiswahili. It took the edge off the feeling that I wasn’t a fresh arrival, although Kiswahili doesn’t get you very far in Ethiopia, where the pit of a Guest House I ended up in that night operated a dual pricing system – 100Birr ($5) for ferenjis like me and 70Birr for locals.

The Amharic phrasebook I had with me, and the app I’d downloaded on my phone some weeks before, confirmed how different and difficult Ethiopia’s national language was going to be to learn compared to others in Africa. It took me several days to finally remember how to say ‘thank you’– ‘A-me-se-gen-hal-lu’, hardly the simplest of words for something that should be easy to say in any language I thought.

Ethiopian coffee

I knew Ethiopia was going to be challenging to cycle in, for various reasons. I’d almost come a few years ago over Christmas and New Year, but opted instead for a tour of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. I knew that would be more of a holiday experience based on the information I’d read and been told about cycling in Ethiopia.

To start with things were fine. A newly paved road gently climbed through a peaceful landscape of uncultivated scrubland. After Omorate and the surrounding straw-hut villages beside the river there didn’t seem to be anyone living out here.

Morning light

Acacia tree with beehive

In the village of Turmi it was market day, famous for another of the many distinctive tribes from the Omo Valley – the Hamer. People wanted me to take their picture, in exchange for money of course. I’ve never felt comfortable with paying people so I can take their photograph. Here it’s a full on business – prices determined by who and what you photograph. I didn’t enquire, but later heard that pictures of breasts or breasts being sucked by babies cost more.

An English-speaking teenager kindly showed me to another fleapit of a room, marginally better to the previous nights, before explaining that I should watch a ‘bull-jumping festival’ the next day. This is a rite of passage for young Hamer men, who must jump over a line of 10-30 bulls, completely naked and without falling, as a means to impress the local girls who watch while being whipped in the process. I might have gone along, had it not required some permit, entrance fee and mandatory guide that I needed to organise from the village’s tourist bureau in advance. I also expected the event to be something of a human zoo experience, with me one of the camera-wielding ferenjis being hounded for pictures and money.

The air began to cool as I continued climbing towards Key Afer the next day, another of the tourist-trail tribal villages popular for its weekly market. Here a similarly-aged teenage guide hoped I would be employing his services, but I’d missed the market and wasn’t planning to wait five days for what I imagined would be little different to the Turmi experience.

The following day was New Years Day – 12th September 2008, according to the Ethiopian Calendar. It also happened to be one of the hardest days I can recall on the road.

Looking south between Weito and Konso

Road to Konso from Weito.

The heat and hills I could deal with, of which there were plenty. It was when the first stone landed about 2 metres in front of me that I vividly recalled what almost every other cyclist who has been in Ethiopia warned me against. I glanced to my left in the direction the stone had come, then upward. A group of boys looking down from an embankment had obviously seen me approaching their village and decided to welcome me with a flying stone. Thanks guys.

As I continued and tried to think what I’d done to deserve this, oddly reassured that my experience was probably similar to others I’d read about who cycled here, more kids joined the roadside. There was no stone throwing now, just incessant calls for ‘highland highland’. I soon realised this was a brand of mineral water, given all the pointing and occasional attempts to snatch at my water bottles.

From walking age up to around twelve or thirteen, almost every child I passed for the rest of the day found the energy to run alongside me, as close as they possibly could, repeating the word ‘highland’ many hundreds of times. If I was going uphill, which I often was, it was easy for them to keep up, while going downhill occasionally meant kids stood in front of the road to block me.

Bike chasers

Had there been villages selling water bottles I might have given some away. As there were none the value of a water bottle was clearly high. I suspected other tourists passing in vehicles threw them out of the window. I later heard about and saw stones being thrown at them too.

"Highland highland''

It’s worth mentioning that Ethiopia is not the first country I’ve cycled in where children have thrown stones at me. I recall days in Pakistan, Tibet, Turkey, Jordan and the Sinai desert in Egypt, which were challenging because of this. Looking back however they seemed to be more isolated occurrences, detached from the rest of the chaos that accompanies cycling in Ethiopia.

There were also many days in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and the Central African Republic where I was swamped by curiosity as hundreds of people surrounded me. Most of the time however that was when I stopped. A village elder or someone of authority would soon appear. People merely wished to stare, rather than demand things from me. In those countries there was little of the wild and feral persistence that existed on this particular day in Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent the next day (there was less climbing mind you) while I cycled from Konso to the town of Arba Minch.

I attempted various tactics to appease the scenes of rural hysteria that awaited me once I had been seen from the roadside. There was the waving, smiling, slowing down, greetings in Amharic and a general display of innocence and ignorance when demands were made of me. When kids shouted ‘highland’ at me I just repeated the word back, like it was some kind of greeting. Perhaps it helped a little. It’s hard to say. In some villages I just had to keep moving while a crowd of 10-20 kids followed me like hounds chasing a fox.

I came to the conclusion that most children merely saw it all as a game. Lets see what it takes to wind this ferenji up. Where is his breaking point? When will he stop and shout? Well I could tolerate the incessant taunts, but when a hand reached into my pocket or another onto a water bottle on my bike I did what I suspect many other people would do, which was remove it forcefully. And so the times when I did stop and called ‘beka’, meaning ‘enough’, children tended to run off laughing, only to follow me again when I continued.

Adults occasionally shouted at the children to stop, at least when they were present, but I suspect most did the same when they were young. There really is no other country in Africa quite the same from this perspective. Looking at the faces of many of the children you’d never think they could be so damn annoying.

Young cattle herder

The town of Arba Minch felt like an oasis of peace and civilisation when I rolled in. The hotel was a little more expensive than I budgeted for, but there was a shady garden, cold draft beer, wifi connection (at least when there was electricity), and a beautiful English speaking Ethiopian woman who seemed shocked when I told her in more simple and polite terms that her countryside was over-run by feral gremlins.

Looking over Lake Chamo

Friendly face from Arba Minch

The town itself had little to boast of, but I was in good company and after twelve continuous days on the road I decided to stay almost a week.

I got introduced to chewing chat/qat here, which I realised is a popular pastime in Ethiopia. I’m not sure why. Perhaps my chewing technique was wrong and I swallowed too much, but it merely tasted like grass and left me with constipation for the next two days. I tried it again and the result was entirely the same.

Chewing chat

North of Arba Minch the children were moderately better. There were less shouts of ‘highland highland’ – probably because water bottles were more abundant. Now it was a ‘you you’ from the children and ‘where you go’ or ‘where are you go’ from adolescents and adults that provided the soundtrack to my days. Whenever I stopped in an area that looked peaceful it was a mere matter of seconds or minutes before I heard the calls again. At times it seemed like kids appeared from underground like zombies.

Walking from the field

I kept thinking if I was ever to teach English or train local teachers to teach English in Ethiopia I would start by explaining that yelling out ‘you you’, is no form of a greeting and comes across as aggressive and rude. And other than correcting the grammar in the question about my destination, if you’re going to ask it then at least do it with the intention to hear a response, rather than yell it out of a window while passing by. Many people didn’t seem to care and just broke into laughter, so I started playing the same game and provided random answers like ‘Congo’ or ‘Nigeria’, wondering if anyone would reply back with an answer that showed they understood anything I said.

Ultimately I was probably just frustrated I couldn’t converse in Amharic, but I was still puzzled as to what made many people so hysterical while I was cycling. Perhaps had there been more local cyclists on the road I wouldn’t have drawn the same attention. In this case I might have been better off riding a donkey. Here in Ethiopia it is donkeys that transport items that bicycles do elsewhere on the continent.

Water carriers

I had planned to camp one evening when I knew I wouldn’t make it to the town I had in mind. Any quiet spot near the roadside or someone who looked like I could approach and ask permission to camp would have done, but it just seemed easier to ride on into the darkness for a short while and find myself a room to close myself away in.

Ethiopian sunset

If there is one overwhelmingly positive thing however about coming to Ethiopia, and for which the people do better than any other country in the World (other than annoying cyclists) it is the preparation and serving of coffee. Many other countries in East Africa (Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi) grow excellent coffee, but it is for an export market. Locals generally prefer to drink tea so it’s only in big cities (mostly capitals) where western-style shops/malls exist that good coffee is served (at close to western prices).

Coffee beans being roasted

Fortunately here in Ethiopia coffee is embedded in the culture. And it’s not instant crap the rest of Africa serves out most of the time, but freshly roasted, ground and brewed coffee. Everyone drinks it and it’s served almost everywhere for around 3 birr (£0.10) a cup.

Preparation for coffee

The coffee table

It was over coffee on the outskirts of the town of Sodo that I met a young University teacher one morning. Other than insisting he pay for my 3 cups he explained I should take a new paved road, which wasn’t marked on my map, in order to travel north towards Addis Ababa. I double-checked he was sure before I pedalled off.

Well this new stretch of road, from Alaba Kulito to Wuibareg, should anyone be curious to know, turned out to be the most peaceful and pleasant stretch of cycling I may end up doing in Ethiopia. I could associate this to the fact that it was Monday morning and children were going to school rather than idly hanging out on the roadside, or that it had something to do with the fact that all villages I passed through had a predominantly Muslim population, whereas others before didn’t. But why should that have made a difference? The fact was this road was new. Few foreigners had travelled along it. And so there was no chasing, no taunting, no begging, no yelling, and no stones -just curious looks and smiles. Too bad it didn’t last longer than 60km. I needed to find more roads in Ethiopia less well travelled if they were going to be like this.

Ethiopian man and son

Ethiopian home

As I approached Addis Ababa the road naturally became busier, although most traffic was heading in the opposite direction, either for the Muslim holiday of Eid Al Adha, or the Christian celebration of Meskel. I looked forward to seeing what happened during the latter, and how my time in Addis would compare to the rest of my experience in the country.

Road to Addis

Entering Addis Ababa

 

The route map accompanying this blog post can be viewed at the bottom of the page here.