‘It gets better as you go north’, was a view held by some people about Ethiopia. Had they been describing the landscapes I would have definitely agreed. The Rift Valley has blessed Ethiopia with some of the most spectacular scenery on the continent.

The Blue Nile Gorge for instance, which I crossed during the third day out of Addis Ababa, had me stopping and pulling out my camera at many a hair-pin bend, not just to catch my breath on the long steep ascent (from 1000m in altitude to 2400m), but for the dramatic views. The same was true for many other stretches of road.

View over Blue Nile Gorge

Morning view over the Blue Nile Gorge

Descending to the Blue Nile River

Descending into the Blue Nile Gorge

Unfortunately I can’t say something equally as positive about the people. After a month cycling in northern Ethiopia, covering around 2000km, I don’t think it does get any better as you go north. People, mostly children, can be some of the most unpleasant and annoying I have ever experienced, while cycling that is.

It’s interesting on that note to discover that Ethiopia was chosen as the World’s best Tourist Destination 2015, praised for its ‘outstanding natural beauty, dramatic landscapes and ancient culture’. Were such an award as ‘worst place to cycle tour’ exist, Ethiopia would also almost certainly win.

Cyclist chasing children

From a human perspective it’s hard to imagine any sane person truly enjoying a cycle tour here. On many occasions over the past month I did ask myself the question – Why bother?

Perhaps I hoped things would get better and my experience might differ from others who have cycled here. That by being patient, smiling, stopping to greet the children and attempting to talk with them would make a difference.

Well it was definitely never boring, which cycle touring can be if the landscape is monotonous and there are no people.

Things could have been worse. There were in fact some fantastic days on the road: no verbal abuse, nor armies of children running after me clutching sticks, incessantly begging and occasionally holding onto the rear panniers and saying goodbye with a flying stone as I pedalled away. Unfortunately there weren’t many of these days.

When children just smiled and waved, as they do in so many other parts of the continent, I often felt like stopping to ask ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you not begging?! ’

Lunch stop audience

Cute when not chasing

Ethiopian kids

Young Ethiopian girls

Sometimes children looked so kind and welcoming at first, only to end up following me and begging, often for many kilometres, while I slowly pedalled up one of numerous hills.

Young Ethiopian boy

Ethiopian smiles

Young smile

'Money money money'

Multi-tasking

On the harder days my mind did plenty of drifting to being somewhere else – touring through eastern or central Europe perhaps – enjoying the relative anonymity of riding and stopping to sit somewhere in peace without the verbal onslaught that accompanies cycling in Ethiopia.

Usual suspect

Let it be well known to anyone who reads this blog post that if you cycle in Ethiopia you will have at least one stone thrown at you.

I’m not going to exaggerate. There is no need. If I wrote about every incident a child threw a stone at me, or the many more times a child planned to throw a stone but didn’t because they usually only threw stones when I wasn’t looking (I soon learnt to keep my eyes on feral suspects as I cycled past and turn my head then keep glancing back until I was beyond stone-throwing range) this blog post would run to many thousands of words. Nevertheless, I shall offer a little insight and reflection on this abhorrent custom.

At first I thought stones were only thrown at foreign cyclists in Ethiopia. That isn’t true. I saw several incidents where a car stopped and kids fled while the driver, Ethiopian, got out to give chase. There were also many trucks, the driver probably oblivious, which made easy target practice for little monsters to throw stones at.

I also held the belief that it was only children who didn’t go to school in Ethiopia who threw stones. This is also not true. Packs of children (boys for the most part, but not always) either walking to or coming out of school, were some of the worst to encounter on the road.

As most schools in Ethiopia are so hopelessly over-crowded, many children either attend school just in the morning or the afternoon. This means there is a period of time early morning, midday and late afternoon when children will either be walking to or from school. As some children walk many kilometres, the chances of encountering school children on the road is very high.

Only one stone actually hit me. More a rock actually, a little smaller than my fist. It came flying out of some dense woodland one morning and hit the side of my rib cage. I saw no one nor heard a thing, other than a resounding thud when it hit me. Like a sniper camouflaged at the roadside, whoever threw it had seen me coming, then decided to hide himself until my vision was beyond his location, at which point the little shit decided to pitch it, probably from no more than 10 metres away.

A rock that hit me!

I stopped to take a picture of the rock and check whether it had broken the skin, (just a bruise) then cycled on thinking of the evil things I might have done had I caught the culprit.

On another occasion a stone twanged its way through my front spokes and I decided to turn round and chase a boy of about 10. He ran straight into a stone hut. As I cycled up to the wooden front door it slammed in my face. I pushed the door back to be confronted by a very old woman, perhaps his great grandmother. The boy was no-where to be seen. I picked up a stone to demonstrate that it had been thrown at me, then dropped it and cycled off, wondering what would have been said or done to the boy when I’d safely gone.

What made such experiences stand out, and left me puzzled as to whether I was really enjoying my time in Ethiopia or not, was how they were often accompanied by either scenes of spectacular beauty, or occurred moments before or after acts of human kindness and cultural interest at the roadside.

Ethiopian highlands

Ethiopian highlands

Green field and blue skies

Garlic seller and beautiful view

Cyclist and an amazing phallic rock.

Take the coffee drinking culture for instance. I would arrive in a small village or town and be able to choose from many a place to sit down, watch and enjoy the best coffee on the planet being served out to me with a smile. She, because it is always a she, would have no idea that I spent the last hour or so either dealing with unruly little shits or a litany of ‘you you you’s, ‘where are you go’ and demands for ‘birr birr’ being shouted at me from the roadside as I cycled along. It was such a contrast of experiences, and one which repeated itself on an almost daily basis.

Actually very true

Grinding coffee

On a few of these occasions an English speaker would be present, who would calmly ask my opinion of his country – the greatest country in Africa in his mind, even though Africa is often considered elsewhere in the mindset of many Ethiopians. I would be reminded on many an occasion that this was the only country in Africa to not be colonised, which is not entirely true.

Perhaps that explained the stone-throwing behaviour from the children and juvenile hysteria displayed at times by adults. I have no idea. No where else in Africa are people the same.

The conversations were mostly basic and never got beyond me saying that I was from England, at which point I was often asked what Premiership football team I supported.

Like most people in other African countries, the vast majority of Ethiopians, if not working in a field, sit on the roadside in villages and towns seemingly idle, at least that is how it appeared to me. It might be 11am for example and I would stop for a coffee or a coke. Anything from one or two, to several dozen people, almost all male and usually young, would cast their attention towards me. I soon realised most people in most places were doing absolutely nothing other than passing the time.

It could have been a good opportunity to learn more of a language I wasn’t making much progress with, but after the verbal assault while cycling I merely hoped for some minutes of relative peace before continuing.

Pepsi stop restaurant

I always looked for a quiet cafe or restaurant to stop at on the roadside, and one where I could sit with the bike in full view. I heard plenty of stories of children stealing items of equipment from unattended bicycles. Sometimes there were no quiet places and I just cycled straight through towns without stopping. Other times there was no option and it would be left to the cafe owner to deal with an excitable young crowd, usually with a stick or some stones.

Ethiopian Kids

I’m sure it would have made a tremendous difference were I able to converse with more people beyond exchanging simple greetings. Having said that I heard of an American Peace Corps volunteer who after living in the country for a few years and learning conversational Amharic, was still subjected to stone throwing and verbal abuse while cycling.

'You You stop'

The diversity of people, in terms of how they looked and dressed, was overwhelming. Despite the daily challenges people presented, it also made Ethiopia one of the most fascinating places I’ve toured in Africa.

Old Ethiopian man

Ethiopian farmer

Women walking to market

From a food perspective I found Wednesdays and Fridays to be the best eating days. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar these are fasting days, which means most people don’t eat meat. I’m not vegetarian, but beyaynetu, a platter of vegetables and pulses, tastes a lot better and healthier than the plates of meat – tibs, which are typically served on non-fasting days in most small town eating establishments. I managed to avoid eating raw meat, which is also very popular on non-fasting days.

Another Beya Ainat

Beyayenet

Tibs

Shiro or tegabino, another popular vegetarian dish made from ground beans or chickpeas, together with minced onion, garlic and tomato, was also a good option and easy to find.

Shiro

Tegabino

Injeera, the Ethiopian staple with the appearance of a wet flannel, is definitely an improvement on the maize/cassava that is served up in all other countries south and west of here on the continent, and which goes by a variety of names (ugali/pap/sadza). Fortunately bread is easily available, although light snacks don’t seem to be part of popular eating culture in Ethiopia.

In the larger towns juice bars are a popular feature. This is something hard to find in other African countries, although juice is misleading as fruit smoothies are so thick that they’re easier to drink with a spoon.

Mixed fruit juice

Roadside fruit on the other hand was less common to come by, but that’s not really surprising in highland areas where it doesn’t grow.

Roadside orange seller

Alcohol. Ethiopia scores quite high on the variety, quality and ease of finding a beer in Africa. Cheap too. A large glass of draft beer – ‘Jambo,’ costs around £0.30-£0.40 in a small town. It was easy to sink several of these at the end of a day’s ride.

Ethiopian Draft Beer

Accommodation was also usually easy to find and very cheap. In fact probably the cheapest and worst quality of budget accommodation in Africa can be found in Ethiopia. I would have happily paid more than the £1.50 or less that most single-cell rooms went for, but often these were the only rooms available. Public toilets were equally grim.

As most hotels were just single-storey establishments located behind a bar/restaurant it was at least easy to wheel the bike into the room rather than lug gear up a flight of stairs.

Towels or soap rarely came with the room, but Ethiopian authorities do a good job at encouraging safe sex. Condoms were nearly always there. So were bed bugs. After two days of scratching bites all over my body during the first week out of Addis I visited a clinic and was prescribed a course of oral anti-histamine. ‘You have too many bites on your body to use cream’, said the Doctor, who told me fleas and bed-bugs are common in small towns in the highland areas of Ethiopia.

A $2 room

A $2 room

When there was space in such small rooms I decided it wiser to pitch my tent and sleep on the floor. This also ensured a night free of mosquitoes. Few rooms ever came with a mosquito net.

Guest House camp

Camping out in the open wasn’t really an option, despite days when I thought it would be. Places that at first looked like a good quiet spot would sure enough have someone tending to a flock of goats or cattle nearby, and I didn’t have the energy to chance pitching the tent and dealing with whatever attention would inevitably arise.

It reminded me of cycling in India, as other aspects of life on the road in Ethiopia have done (bed bugs being one). There I did camp in certain places. Perhaps I was more determined to do so back then, although many times people would find me, which could be stressful if it wasn’t the next morning when I was about to leave.

In one small town the Guest House accommodation was so basic and the room too small to pitch my tent that I requested to sleep in the nearby Primary school. At first the teachers thought this was too dangerous, but I locked myself in and slept fine. Schools in rural Africa often make excellent places to sleep.

Room for the night

Like India, Ethiopia just seems to have people everywhere. The population of the country now nears 100 million. It’s shocking to think that in 1950, this was 18 million and somewhat scary to imagine that in 35 years time the population is estimated to be at around 175 million. Having said that the speed at which Ethiopia’s population is growing is apparently on the decline. In the 1990’s women gave birth to an average of 7 children. Now it is under 5.

Of non-Ethiopians in the country the Chinese certainly out-number all other nationalities. I don’t think I have seen so much Chinese influence anywhere else on the continent as I have in Ethiopia. In some places, where the roads have been recently paved and widened, children and adults didn’t yell out ‘you you’, but ‘China China’ as they saw me approaching.

As for interaction with any Chinese themselves, other than one over-weight man taking numerous pictures of my bike with his phone and saying ‘you very strong’ several times after I had just climbed out of the Blue Nile River Gorge, most maintained a near invisible presence.

These wide roads and newly constructed buildings gave many places I passed through a depressing air of Chinese advancement in Ethiopia. Other than the old capital Gonder, with its historical palace grounds and Italian-influenced centre, I found little physical attraction in the rest of urban Ethiopia.

Royal enclosure in Gonder

Royal enclosure in Gonder

Traditional dancer in Gonder

Wall of Fasidiles Bath complex

One of the most pleasant days of cycling (no stones and almost no begging) in northern Ethiopia came when I decided to follow a scenic dirt track from the town of Bahir Dar around the western shore of Lake Tana. Similar to the brief time I was on a new road in southern Ethiopia, it seemed children here hadn’t seen enough ferenji to chase and taunt them. Unfortunately there weren’t enough of these alternative detours. Most of the time I was heading to places most other people who visit Ethiopia wish to see, connected by the only roads to get there.

Back road to Gonder

Roadside Church

Off to market

A happy view

Rural Ethiopia

Dark clouds and green fields

Lalibela is a good example of such a place. Ethiopia’s most well-known tourist attraction, famed for its ancient rock-hewn churches, draws more visitors than anywhere else in the country. Only fitting then that children on the dirt track leading here should be well-trained in the art of begging and stone throwing.

Child devils

I never witnessed anyone stopping to hand out money or pens, which are demanded almost everywhere by rural children, but there must be such instances to maintain and fuel this behaviour. Many people blame the history of foreign aid in Ethiopia. Thanks Bob.

Multi-tasking

Ethiopian girl

Fortunately the scenery surrounding the town made the hardship of reaching here worthwhile. The view from the aptly named Panorama Hotel, where I watched one of  the Rugby World Cup Semi Finals, was one of the most spectacular I have seen in Africa. More impressive, in my own opinion, than paying $50 for the privilege to see the famous 11 Churches nearby.

View north from Lalibela

Road to Lalibela

Bidon carrier

Climb to Lalibela

Descent from Lalibela

Lalibela

Church of St George

Church priest in Lalibela

Church priest in Lalibela

Church window. Lalibela

The importance of religion was evident almost everywhere I went. Churches, ancient monasteries and priests at the roadside were visible on a daily basis, but other than in Lalibela I stayed on the bike rather than be led by a birr-hungry guide to view something I probably wouldn’t have found as impressive as the surrounding landscape.

Christian crosses for sale

I met just one other foreign cyclist during this loop of northern Ethiopia. Frank, from the Czech Republic, was downing a litre of mango juice on the roadside one morning. It was about 10am and he’d already covered 70km. He aimed to cycle at least another 80km that day. Perhaps wisely, from the point of view of Ethiopian kids begging, he had no visible water bottles attached to his bike. More interestingly, his rear rack held a folded-up cardboard bike box, on top of which a single back-pack contained all his gear for a quick tour, by the sounds of it, from Nairobi to Cairo.

He claimed the box made a good tent, except for the mosquitoes. I didn’t ask him what happened when it rained, but couldn’t imagine the box being in a great state to pack his bike in when he flew out of Cairo.

Frank from the Czech Republic

As for Ethiopian cyclists, occasionally I would pass a few boys and young men riding around town on cheap Chinese models. Many of the bicycles were draped with flowers and tinsel and still had the tape on the frame in which they were probably shipped. Some rode with me for a few minutes, but no-one cycled between towns nor used bicycles to transport goods on. They were just play things. Donkeys, and in some of the lowland areas as I returned towards Addis from the eastern side of the Rift Valley escarpment, camels, did the unmechanised transport of goods.

New bike

The standard steed

Cycling company

Bike buddy

Camel traffic in Shoa Robit

There were few, if any, flat days of riding, but the I found the challenges presented by the terrain no comparison to the people. Other than Morocco, no-where else on the continent has the same diversity of elevation to rival Ethiopia. This made for some exhilarating descents (from 3200m down to 1500m on one day) and gruelling climbs (1100m up to 3250m on another), both of which rewarded me with views I wouldn’t be able to appreciate were I not with my own transport.

View from 3200m

Green and cultivated terraces.

Terraces of Teff

On the back road from Lalibela to Woldiya

Rift Valley escarpment

As for memorable wildlife, it was on one of these climbs back up the rift valley escarpment one morning that I encountered a troop of Gelada baboons, indigenous to Ethiopia, on the roadside. This was an unexpected highlight.

Gelada baboon

If you’ve read this far you’re probably thinking I’m glad to be back in Addis Adaba, where I am now, and preparing to leave the country as soon as possible. Well that’s partly true. One of the reasons I didn’t continue to the far north of the country, en route to the Simien Mountains and the historical town of Axum, was that my visa was expiring and Addis Ababa is the only place in the country where it is possible to make an extension. I was also weary of adding even more kilometres to an experience I was not fully enjoying.

On many days I questioned whether I really wanted to make a visa extension, the alternative being to fly out of Ethiopia before the visa expired on 5th November.

Well I’ve stuck with my original plan, which is to continue east from Addis Ababa to the border with Somaliland, about 700km from here, and venture onwards into a country that isn’t internationally recognised. To do that I needed an Ethiopian visa extension, which I now have at great cost.

I also have a visa for Somaliland, one of the easiest I have ever received in Africa. After filling out an application and handing over $70 at the chancery here in Addis Ababa, it was issued to me within 20 minutes.

Somaliland Chancery and Residence in Addis Ababa

Somaliland Visa

Land runs out in Somaliland. The plan, if possible, is to find a boat that can take me off the continent to Oman. I read about a couple doing it a few years ago, although that was before the problems in Yemen started, which is where I would have liked to head next.

Unfortunately it’s not something I will really know is possible or not until I get to the port of Berbera. I’m not even sure how much cycling I’ll be able to do without an escort of some sort.

If I can’t get a boat, the alternative will be returning to Ethiopia and flying out, which is possible as my visa is multiple entry and valid for 90 days. That’s not an option I’m really considering much right now though. An adventure off the continent through the Gulf of Aden seems a much more fitting way to continue this tour.

For those interested in the geographical route that this post describes, scroll to the bottom of the page here.