By Samuel Roy
It’s when we crossed the border from Sudan into Ethiopia that we said to ourselves, “Wow! Here we enter Africa! “. It was an immediate shock. In a second, you step out of the conservative world of Islam and suddenly see people in T-shirts, Bermuda shorts and most of all, women. The population is regaining its gender balance and we can feel a very clear equality between the genders. In Sudan, hardly any women had been seen, they stayed at home more often and were all veiled from head to toe. Here in Ethiopia they are definitely present and remarkably beautiful.
On our route from Egypt to South Africa by bike, it was certainly in Ethiopia that we experienced the highest cultural intensity and where the experience on two wheels was the most special.
First, because Ethiopia is so unique and different from adjacent countries. Ethiopia is one of only two countries (along with Liberia) on the African continent not to be colonized by European empires. Italy tried hard, without success. However, remnants of the Italian presence are found with the countless espresso machines that work tirelessly along the streets. There are endless excuses to stop pedaling and enjoy the delicious coffee that grows in this country. Add to this the Ethiopian gastronomy that is as unique as it is tasty. Worth noting, due to religious belief, the Ethiopian calendar is 8 years back and therefore shows the year 2011 today. Finally, the behavior and habits of the population as well as the general atmosphere in Ethiopia are much more reminiscent of India than of the rest of Africa.
While riding here, we spent most of our time in the saddle in the highlands at over 2000m altitude and often had the opportunity to climb above 3000m. With each climb, our muscles reminded us that the air is thinner, that oxygen is scarcer, making our head spin, but our lungs will thank us later. Most of the roads are as smooth as a marble counter and unlike our segment in Namibia on the road to hell, I do not envy my friends riding the bumpy roads of Quebec at all. These dream routes are saturated with magnificent climbs and descents with breathtaking views of valleys and mountains.
From time to time we came across tougher passes such as the famous Blue Nile Gorge, 20km at 7% average, which is unique in that you descend before going up. We plunged into the canyon where the Blue Nile winds its way to the bottom before climbing back up to the high plateau on the other side. This climb, enhanced by the altitude and the 42 degrees temperature, puts any Alpine pass in its place.
As we cycled through these glorious landscapes, one can wonder why there weren’t more companies offering cycling holidays in Ethiopia. From a Western perspective, the cost of living is minimal, the weather is ideal, and there are direct flights from Europe. And then, we found what is perhaps part of the answer…
This is a very real phenomenon that is difficult to understand and interpret, but being a white cyclists in Ethiopia, we get rocks thrown by children. Not just small gravel, but stones the size of apples thrown at arm’s length. Some of our party got hit in the face and a few bikes got hit as well. You have to understand that these kids don’t do this out of meanness, it’s just their reaction to our difference. Also, this phenomenon occurs specifically in rural areas where children are perhaps less educated and less exposed to tourists. The roads in Ethiopia are crowded with hundreds of children everywhere and only a small percentage of them take part in this game. Unfortunately a percentage large enough to scare many and leave a little bitterness to those who come.
However, I strongly believe, that we should not allow our image of Ethiopia to be tinted with this game that children play, because overall, this country is so full of kindness, generosity and curiosity. You can feel in Ethiopia such a vibrant and exciting energy that drives people and nature, it is worth experiencing by everyone and cycling is one of the best ways to experience this country in all its glory. Ethiopia offers a playground worthy of the big leagues, up there with Mallorca, the Alps and the Pyrenees. Besides, the real adventure starts when you leave your comfort zone at home, right?