DAY 43. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 23rd 2019. DEBRE TABOR, ETHIOPIA
In a hearty attempt not to repeat the trials of the last few weeks, I only rode 100 miles today, and then booked into a… (well, I’d call it pretty good; you’d think it was absolutely foul, but that’s where I differ from most of my readers!) …a ‘pretty good’ hotel in this rather unattractive high altitude town at 2.30 in the afternoon. I had a hot shower and lay on my bed for a couple of hours or more watching Richard Strauss opera, one of my passions that can make me forget the cough, tune out all the impressions, observation, thoughts, and rest my mind on something from my own familiar culture. For this my iPad has added a dimension to my journeys (7 filmed operas and 10 favourite films, a lot of music and some books – I invariably read Jane Austen on these journeys!). Very restorative – and still a bit required, for my cough continues, although all the fevers have gone. My nose bleeds a bit when I blow it, but that’s probably the altitude affecting my capillaries. Here in Debre Tabor I am at almost nine thousand feet. Tomorrow, I think I’ll hit the highest on my motorbike in Africa. There’s a point in Lesotho that claims to be the highest motor-able road on the continent – 3255m – but we beat that in the minibus in the Simien Mountains on Sunday, and I think the road tomorrow will take me around 3355m – 10,800 feet. I’ll keep my jacket handy. It gets chilly up here on a motorbike. I read somewhere that wind chill is one degree per mile of hour. OK, I’m crawling along at 35mph, but that’s still 35 degrees of wind chill.
The first sixty miles today, retraced my journey up to Gondar: I passed the huge thumb of rock for the fourth time as I descended. Then I turned east on a big high plain to begin my circuit across the high mountains before I turn south again back to Addis Ababa. So far my roads have been pretty good and traffic is less dense and less incautious up here, so it can even be quite relaxing, bowling along at my steady 37 miles an hour – on the flat; on these hills I am down to 25mph! Children wave, I swing round donkeys, sheep, cows; and in villages I slow down because the pedestrians have less road sense than donkeys (which often just lie in the carriageway as speeding buses swerve around them). Then there are the decrepit horse carts loaded high with hay at this season, and the ghastly tuk-tuks, that obey no law known to Ethiopian traffic. But I’ve sort of got used to it now, and I can anticipate the hazards better than most, I think. Just expect anything, but certain actions from certain vehicles. Generally, up here on the open road, other drivers are surprisingly considerate.
After I turned east, the scenery became very handsome, with large volcanic cores sticking up everywhere from rolling agricultural landscapes backed by a range of mountains that I was approaching, and soon climbing slowly between waving hands and the strange homes: built of vertical sticks and poles with mud on the insides, with the usual zinc roofs. They are oddly high and could even have an upper floor, but they don’t seem to. I know it’s a fact that something like 30% of Ethiopians, obviously in rural areas, share their living spaces with their animals. It’s also a fact the most sleep on the floor, which, when you consider nighttime temperatures in these mountains, is pretty rugged living. But then, the life of most African subsistence farmers is unimaginably hard (even to me, who sees it all the time – and then pays an extra £3.50 to choose a ‘king size’ bed tonight). Life for Ethiopian peasants is probably harder than most; partly because of the climate and conditions. Ethiopia has, it seems, very little apart from vast arid deserts of formidable dryness, or these high, cold mountains. There’s really not much mid-ground.
Debre Tabor arrived about thirty kilometres sooner than I expected. It’s difficult to judge distance on my map, as the country is so vast, and some of the roads much more convoluted than they are shown. I wondered whether to continue. It was only shortly after two. Then I remembered Kari’s warning advice in an email this morning: ‘please, please rest long enough to recover some strength. Even if you get bored. Keep watching the operas.’ So I checked out the two biggest hotels and chose the Hibren, a large, slightly old fashioned place, rambling over three floors, and picked a room right at the back for peace. For £12.50 I thought I might as well have the king size bed. Very comfortable that is too. It’s quiet and cool enough for a thin duvet up here. It’s 8.00 and I’m in bed. ‘Rest long enough to recover some strength…’ OK, Kari, message received. Over and out at 8.15… No more opera, just oblivion.
DAY 44. THURSDAY JANUARY 24th 2019. LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA
By any gauge, today’s ride counts amongst the best I ever took. It’s up there with some days in Lesotho (still top!), Namibia, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda. It was truly magnificent – most of the day. I rode to my preferred limit, just a few more than 200 kilometres (125 miles), which I hope to maintain after those few ghastly rides that so exhausted me. There’ll be a couple of very long ones going back into Kenya, they can’t be helped.
I slept well and long, luxuriating in thick – ironed! – Egyptian cotton sheets in my distant room all alone at the far back of the oddly dated hotel in Debre Tabor. I’m feeling much recovered although the cough is slow to go. No one had any idea how long my ride would be today; most people seldom leave their home patches in rural cultures such as this. I guessed about correctly from my map, and I could see from that my road would be high all the way, never dropping below 2500m and reaching over 2950m (around 9600 feet ASL) about 50 miles from Debre Tabor – the highest I ever rode any of my bikes. The little Mosquito does well, puffing and straining a bit, coping with the climbs slowly, with lots of gear changes, but it gets me to the top and then down the other side. Tonight I am still at 8500 feet, and very impressive it is too.
The road climbed gently out of Debre Tabor. Once loose of the horrible town traffic, pedestrians and tuk-tuks, the landscape enlarged, rolling mountain scenery, closely cropped grass stubble, all pale yellow and grey and brown. Eucalyptus provided dark shadows and graphic qualities to the wide scapes. The architecture was the first thing I noticed changing: to handsome local homes of the usual vertical sticks and timbers, plied with mud and straw on the insides, but here the houses began to be built as two storeys, with heavy stone bases for the cattle, and a rustic balcony for the simple upper dwelling. These are houses built by mountain people: you see similar solutions to the high climes in the Himalaya, the Andes – even in golf-course Switzerland. Some of them here sported grass thatch and many were attended by smaller round mud and stick huts with conical roofs. They really were a lovely vernacular, of the landscape and well proportioned. They delighted me as I rode. Later I even saw complete rustic stone houses with old wooden doors and wide eaves. Haystacks stood around, and large piles of foot-round, hand-patted plates of cow dung were stored in shapely heaps. Everywhere, families were turning their hay, tossing fountains of yellow straw, catching the sun high on the breeze, with three-pronged wooden pitchforks. It must have looked thus for 100 years, maybe centuries.
Higher and higher I curled. Then, as so often happens in this spectacularly rugged country, a vast chasm fell away suddenly to one side, straight down from the edge of the road to a dry river bed a mile below, crumpled mountains disappearing into the distance haze and fusing into the miasma at the junction of land and endless African skies. Tall eucalyptus lined my road, dappling my foreground and I had no idea that this extraordinary piece of road building was to keep me gasping for the next thirty miles or so, never far from an edge on one side of the road or the other – and most excitingly, sometimes on both sides at the same place, for often the road followed the very ridge of the steeply formed mountains, plunging away on both sides, just ten yards each way and then endlessly down into twisting valleys, terraced laboriously into tiny fields wherever ingenuity has made it possible over centuries of hard graft. It was a captivating ride; thirty of the best miles I ever rode. A motorbike – and I know I won’t convince everyone – except my biker friends – is the perfect way to experience a place like that. You lean and weave, out in the freshness of the air, you feel the light and shade, the warmth of the sun and the cool of the shadows; you smell the warm air, the rush of the breeze; the freedom and space; you become, if the road is quiet and surface good as here, just a part of the scene; you experience it FAR more deeply and intimately than any other way. It makes you smile; makes you content, happy to be able to have this extraordinary – and it is – experience. I hope I will long remember that ride.
Then the chasms fell back and I was in more prosaic farmland, trees and endless villages. Everyone waved – but sadly, whenever I stopped, no child resisted asking for money or pens. It’s irritating, but I suppose I just have to accept that a white person in Africa is generally associated with giving out ‘aid’ of some sort – most of it, I cynically believe, to make us feel better for the gross inequality we have caused in the world, for, let’s face it, we never really give what we cannot afford – or, two, tourists have thought it ‘fun’ and ‘kind’ to give out gifts; but it’s patronising and all it does is give every child the concept that white people have so much they can be importuned for small alms all the time. It alters the social cultural scene so unpleasantly; does nothing for the children and only bolsters the white people’s egos. One of the irritations of travel in poorer countries. If you want to help, give your money to a school or health clinic, don’t hand out useless pennies and cheap pens to all and sundry.
Anyway, back to the journey, the magnificent journey, which was about to continue in as fine form from a small, filthy village where youngsters filled the street – 64% of the population, so they’re always around; the majority not in school or useful employment, many playing table football and pool at roadside bars or gathering in mindless, unproductive groups by the road. From that dirty, litter-filled, dust and dirt-spread village, a road turned north. I negotiated for black market petrol from a tyre mender (they usually know where to get it) and we poured it from drums and cans. I will have to have my tank emptied and cleaned out when I leave the country. So much dust and dirt goes through my engine with this ridiculous petrol situation. It’s been going on for at least two months and there seems no sign of an end. The country is moving around on an occasional delivery to occasional stations – and the rampant black market, that isn’t at all hidden.
The road to Lalibela I knew to be a dirt road. It seemed it would be 64 kilometres, for there was a rare sign at the junction, still just about legible, unusually. The road twisted out of the village and then, with a drama that is becoming almost predictable, dropped fabulously down a very steep escarpment into the vastness of Ethiopia. Once again the limitless, twisted and rumpled landscape lay at my feet, as my wheels bounced from rock to rock. Nothing between me and the endlessness of this gigantic mountain landscape; part of it for more miles than I could measure or see. The sun was lower now, so the views take on sharper shadows and more relief and shape. The light’s softer and colours gentler. Here there was even some brilliant green in the view. I rattled and bumped, shook and twisted. It’s good exercise, riding these trails. Imagine then, my delight when, after a mere fifteen kilometres, I was riding on smooth new blacktop. Apart from a few stretches, it brought me all the way to the last dramatic curling rocky shelf road up to Lalibela, situated on a high ridge with views downward and outward in all directions.
Lalibela is the site of one of Africa’s major archaeological sights, the rock hewn churches from the 13th century, cut deep into the soft rock around this town. They are the attraction best known of Ethiopia, on all the posters. I’ll leave them for tomorrow, but I don’t expect to be disappointed.
I needed to rest and a good place to stay for two or three nights. I rode about the large village, it’s hardly even a town. On the edge of the deep escarpment are a number of smart hotels for the majority of tourists who fly in from Addis – missing the astonishing beauty of the more arduous approach I so enjoyed. These places quote prices in dollars and keep you, the flying tourist, safe from the people of the country; a white enclave with a great view. About 200 yards away I found a slightly run down version of the same thing. Still just the most expensive of my visit but still within my self-imposed budget of £16 after some bargaining. Here I have the hugest room of my experience, with a bathroom as big as a ballroom – with hot water and a flushing lavatory! There’s a balcony with a stupendous view into deep valleys below. Rustically furnished even if it’s just a bit down at heel, it’s rather charming and will do me very well indeed for at least a couple of nights. I’m sitting in a giant room in a capacious locally made armchair of plaited ropes finishing my post prandial Habasha beer, anticipating a long sleep in this cool altitude again.
This was a grand day! The sort of day that makes me forget the sickness of past days and look forward to any more of this extraordinary country that might turn up similar delights. I wonder what tomorrow will bring..?
DAY 45. FRIDAY JANUARY 25th 2019. LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA
Where to begin..? A very full and fulfilling day. The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela deserve their fame; extraordinary monuments, and still important living churches too, attracting thousands of Ethiopian pilgrims to vibrant, lively festivals.
It’s been my privilege to see with my own eyes and experience with my own intellect a pretty large array of the archaeological wonders of the ancient worlds. Alongside the Lalibela churches I have seen and marvelled over: the city of Petra, also cut into standing rock, where I most memorably slept in a Bedouin encampment before they were moved out; I scrambled and puffed my way up to Machu Picchu in a damp dawn to beat the influx from the tourist train later in the morning; I struggled through the jungles to the Mayan cities like Tikal, Palenque, Oaxaca; the rock-hewn temples in India, whose name escapes me, as does all reference to them here, where these fine monuments are lauded as unique in the world (well, they’re not! I can testify to that. (later: they’re at Ajanta)); there are the incredible medieval cathedrals of Europe; the Terracotta Warriors of Xian; the temples and tombs of the Valley of the Kings, including Tutankhamen’s; and all the attendant wonders there; crusader castles in Syria; the giant heads of Nemrut Dagi in Cappadocia; the vast, fog-filled Salt Cathedral in Colombia – another religious structure built inside out; some wonders now lost to the world from fanaticism: the astonishing desert ruins of Palmyra, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the absolutely unforgettable souk of Aleppo, the water wheels of Hama; then there’re the Pyramids of Giza – well, you get the picture: I’m a bit of a judge of such sights! Lalibela is amongst that roll call.
What is so astonishing is that these structures were build from the inside out, so to speak. Like any great sculpture, it’s what you see in the stone before you start, and how you chip away at the material, all the time controlling how much you take away, for it is what is left that creates the result. These churches were carved downwards first, one assumes, creating intricate facades – and chip away too much and you can’t put it back. Maybe they carved out a giant block of stone, creating the pit around each one? But even then, they must have known where the entrance stairs would be and have kept that negative spatial thinking all the time they worked. Then perhaps they carved inward, making several-aisled churches with sturdy pillars to hold up the still natural roofs. Imagine, you’d have to carve in at the doors and then upwards to the high roofs… I suppose, once you reverse the normal spatial thinking for long enough: the way of thought with which most buildings are constructed by adding layer upon layer, and comprehend that you are, in effect, making a mould, an opposite, a negative, a mirror impression, then, once you have that established, it’s just a matter off keeping the overall concept intact. Very impressive, though, speaking as a 3D designer.
Around the town centre of Lalibela, ranged in three groups, are eleven churches dug into the rock. It’s a relatively soft tufa rock of volcanic origin, here and there interrupted by hard basalt. The original designers and craftsmen must have known their geology well. Remember too, that when you dig down, you create waterways and alter water courses. They had to deal with all that, and any geological faults they may have known. The roofs of the churches are set at about ground level, with big pits around them, and approached by intricate passageways and connected by rock cut tunnels. All the churches have different architectural features and styles, and it’s likely that it took more than just the 25 year reign of King Lalibela in the 12th century to complete the work, although most sources agree that many of the churches are roughly contemporaneous; there’s a theory that some of them may have been adapted at that time from much earlier (7th/ 8th century) structures, but no one can agree for sure on any of their history.
These are venerated, working churches, places of deeply held spiritual belief and pilgrimage. It’s a feature of this country, that religious belief still defines much of life and culture. I can’t share any of that, but I am impressed by the fact that it is very much part of daily life, and it does seem to bring a purpose and cohesion to the land. The Orthodox faith is bound up in every aspect of life. Oddly, the moslem faith seems much lower key, even though a third of the country is moslem – but mainly in the lowlands to the east and west of the highlands.
The impressive thing about religion here, as opposed to so much of the Africa that I have travelled, is that it is not an imposed, outside religion, arrogantly brought in to ‘enlighten the natives’, bring ‘development’, or exploit the land. Here religion is indigenous, older than almost any religion in Africa except the natural animistic beliefs. Ethiopia had an organised, national intellectual religion while the rest of the continent was beating drums to quell evil spirits. It is an integral part of Ethiopia’s history; long before white missionaries were invented by greedy western religious bodies, these people followed their own versions of the very religions that were even then only spreading into Europe. These structures were carved at about the time that Europe was building cathedrals and parish churches. Their foundation was a total conviction in a religious discipline that drove this outpouring of creativity and astonishing human effort. I have to respect that, as indeed, I do the belief that built the cathedrals of the world.
St George is a particularly venerated saint in the Orthodox cannon. Tomorrow is a day of celebration, centred on the best known and best preserved of the rock churches, a large block of rock about sixty feet deep, carved into a cross plan. Approached by intriguing single file passageways cut deep into the rock, and short connecting tunnels, it stands square in its deep pit, the always African blue sky arching over its deep hole. Pilgrims dress in white with embroidery, dazzling against the green and brown of the natural rock.
Inside, all the churches are dark and shadowy, dreadfully lit by fluorescent strips dangling about the rock structures. Bright, glittery satin drapes hang everywhere, with some tattered painted canvases in the graphic Orthodox style of story telling. The doors are old and venerable, antique things of great weight, pinned and strapped by ancient iron, secured by shiny Chinese padlocks. You remove your shoes and the steps and passageways are polished by millions of bare feet. Tattered old carpets cover the very uneven rock floors. An occasional monk sits in most of the interiors, sometimes a few chatting together, their pillbox hats and white robes catching the brilliant sunlight that shines here and there from rock-cut windows and soft-edged rock doorways.
My day has been long and hard, clambering about the dusty mounds and rocky ridges of this high town, sustained by half a litre of delicious avocado juice and another of delectable mango juice, pressed freshly and taken during the middle of the day recess and closure of all the churches. It’s surprisingly easy to beat off guides and just see the churches in peace at your own pace, which for me involved just sitting and absorbing the atmosphere, watched by a monk or two but left at peace. This way, you can take in the extraordinary feat of carving and ignore the selfie-takers; enjoy the quiet, the peace and the sanctified atmosphere, but a feeling too of working buildings, for such they really are. These are no tourist monuments to be wondered at, but places to which much of Ethiopia comes in worship. The interiors are an odd mix of ancient stone, plastic containers, battered old stacking chairs and venerable skin drums and artefacts. Each contains a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, so well known in Ethiopia – the reputed ‘original’ supposedly being kept in Axum, the ancient capital to the north. It’s been pretty well disproved archaeologically, but the legend still lives on and captures the imagination. It is speculated that these churches were laid out in a specific pattern for pilgrimage, representing the plan of ancient Jerusalem, long – by the 12th century – a destination for Ethiopian pilgrims. In the 12th century Saladin attacked Jerusalem and pilgrimages were prevented. It’s thought that King Lalibela may have created a site for domestic pilgrimage as replacement.
The vast majority of tourists here are in organised groups, flying in to the local airport and being accommodated in style for big dollars. Mixed amongst them are the usual independents like me, finding our own way, arranging our own itineraries. In a narrow cleft – and most of them are one person wide – I waited a few moments while Nick, a traveller from the Isle of Man, made his way through and we fell into conversation, as one does. He’s 50, and his wife died last year after 30 years together and his way of coping has been to spend a good deal of time travelling, thanks to thoughtful employers. He’s been riding motorbikes in Vietnam where his brother runs a bike touring company. And being a Manx-man by birth and upbringing, he has motorbikes to the core. Our conversation continued over four beers and supper this evening, at his hotel just down the street. He’s just beginning his Ethiopian journey. I find it so amusing that I am now seen, by other travellers, as an ‘inspiration’! Mind you, I did watch a lot of Europeans today, many of them far less than my age, making very heavy weather of their tourism, supported by sticks and guides on the rough, difficult terrain! They should try riding a motorbike on these rugged roads.
Sitting quietly beneath a tree outside one of the church compounds during the middle of the day closure, I had found a haven of peace. I was sitting at the head of a congregation of low stone benches set for pilgrims during celebrations. It was peaceful and welcome. Then up the rise, jumping from seat to seat, came a pretty little girl, aged about ten. She carried a lunch container in a florescent green wool tatted cover and a water bottle, for she had taken lunch to her watchman father. She was bright and cheerful and didn’t even ask for a pen. I spent a charming fifteen minutes with Betty, a warm-hearted child with a bit of simple school English. Her father came out to join us, at Betty’s cheerful invitation, and I had to submit to a photo with smiling, polite Betty. A charming interlude. For the town is filled with irritating children with whom it’s difficult not to get short. They attach themselves and walk alongside. Asking all the same trivial questions and telling all the same trivial information. I have to tell myself that they don’t understand that answering the same simple questions time after time gets really tedious – especially as the approach invariably ends up with a request for pens or money. One kid started to spin a yarn about his father having to bury his grandfather tomorrow… “Oh, go away!” I exclaimed, finally breaking. The more touristic the region, the more the begging, for many fly in with no understanding. I watched one woman tip a boy for helping her on some worn rock steps. She gave him 100 Birr. That’s £3. Most tips here are 5 or 10 Birr. The lad kept a straight face too! But it creates a ‘market’.
I enjoyed sitting in those rock-hewn churches, imbibing the atmosphere. Sitting in one church, I thought to myself, ‘well, so what? I sleep in a rock-hewn bedroom at home’! Not quite so architecturally grand as Lalibela’s churches, it’s true, but hacked from living rock.
DAY 46. SATURDAY JANUARY 26th 2019. LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA
On Saturday there’s a big, colourful market in Lalibela, to which people bring their produce and animals from outlying villages for sale on the crowded, dusty slopes of a lower part of town. Donkeys and goats and sheep; vegetables curiously familiar: small potatoes, onions, tomatoes, ratty cabbages (about the nearest you get to a green vegetable in this country) and copious numbers of chilli peppers, one of the staple ingredients of every damned dish. A lot of teff seeds and unroasted coffee, the two main agricultural products of much of the country, are for sale. There are plastic sandals galore, bright fabric, colourful cheap dresses from China, locally woven cotton with fine embroidery, plastic in every colour and form and cheaply made consumer items that will all fall apart and be discarded within weeks: made in China; not made to last. Soon they’ll be littering the yards and fields, the watercourses and roadsides.
The altitude is enervating, even now, when I have been travelling at these heights for three weeks. Today, pretty well a first in life, I took a rest in the middle of the day – and discovered that subsequently I had enough energy to wander the afternoon away, back at the rock-hewn churches and at the major festival that is taking place this weekend at St George’s church, the most important of the carved places of worship. Thousands of noisy pilgrims had gathered around the hole in which stands the cross-shaped rock church. It was alarming to watch so many, rocking and chanting, genuflecting and wailing, at the edge of an unprotected sixty foot vertical rock wall. In the end, I had to leave. The priests were all out in their glittery satins and tassels; their bright finery of long robes and turbans; shaded by brilliant, colourful parasols. Church members in long white robes and coloured cotton hats or intricate white turbans, crowded the precipitous edge, clapping rhythmically and swaying to the music of drums. A huge crowd balanced on every broken dust surface around to watch and ululate at the wisdom of the officiating priests. Down below, packed around the base of the carved church, were hundreds more pilgrims, all in white.
Exposure to so many tourists makes this an irritating town, however. Children pester and youths assume they have the right to intrude as they wish. Many of the children want to practice their English skills; many also want money or spin well-rehearsed, tedious stories about the need for school books, pens, burial of dead elders, medicines and so forth ad infinitum. The same simple questions, over and over and over become very annoying and it’s difficult to understand that some are genuinely friendly children being polite. As for the youths, most of them are just on the make and can be repelled. It makes walking the broken streets and climbing the cobbled hills tiresome.
One youth told me that the $50 (£42!) each and every foreign tourist pays for a four day entry to the eleven churches goes directly to the Lalibela priests! it doesn’t go to the Orthodox church or to improve the poor infrastructure of this scruffy town, or to pick up the acres litter and plastic, or provide decent signage and tourist services: it goes to the priests. Yet one or two are still not above a bit of private enterprise, rather than the glory of god, when they suddenly dive through a curtain and come back draped in their fine robes, carrying large ornate crosses to pose for tourist cameras – and demand money for the privilege! One security guard clicked his fingers at me after I removed my shoes, demanding to see my ticket. I waved it at him across a ten foot gap, where he reclined against the rock. He clicked that I should take it to him. “Sorry, mate, I paid fifty dollars for this: you can come and fetch it!” He did, somewhat sheepishly. It’s a shame when the respect goes out of dealings between tourists and providers. Without our money, they’d have a much less comfortable life in Lalibela…
Manx-man, Nick and I spent the evening drinking beer and eating dishcloth and meat on the third floor of a local simple restaurant (sorry, Rico, I know injera is one of your favourite African foods. I can’t get so enthusiastic; I’d sooner eat ughali, which you won’t countenance!). I’ve enjoyed some company for a couple of days. He’s at the start of pretty much his first African travel experience, having only visited South Africa before. He has three months or so to wander, and would have really liked to buy a motorbike for his journey, but the problem here is usually registration of said bike in the name of a foreigner. I’ve been extolling the virtues of many African countries of course, inspiring some ideas. He is doing this to come to terms with his overwhelming emotional loss and to give himself time to contemplate the future. It’s so odd that here in Lalibela, Ethiopia, I meet a man who’s even worked with some of the same people with whom I worked back in the late 90s, when I designed the upper floors of the IOM heritage centre in Peel, one of my favourite jobs, thanks to getting familiar with the IOM. We’ve bonded well and we’ve both benefitted by the company. I hope we meet again some day.
DAY 47. SUNDAY JANUARY 27th 2019. WOLDIYA, ETHIOPIA
Just when I’m getting bored, Ethiopia throws another topographical firework to wake me up. It’s an astonishing country for that.
I was riding along feeling guilty for being bored. I mean, I am in northern Ethiopia on my Mosquito riding at well over 11,000 feet above sea level, and I was bored? How ungrateful and complacent can I get? But the air was chilly, the landscape had a washed out quality, almost monochromatic browns and the yellow of stubbly cut hay. The houses were of stone and mud from the same soils, the thatch old and weathered, the eucalyptus dull green, coated with dust by the roadside. The road was long with terrible potholes, most of which stretched the width of the road, some of them a foot deep. The light was bright and tiring; I was so high. But did I really have the right to feel bored…? Surely not! This was the highest I ever rode…
Then without so much as a preliminary flourish, came another of those Ethiopian magic moments to stir my soul once again, back into my journey.
Nick moved to the hotel I had found yesterday. He was being charged $36 for a mediocre room in another hotel. The manager of that same hotel offered me a room for $14 in an attempt to entice me away from the one I had chosen. You really need to bargain in these tourist places, but Nick had recently arrived in Ethiopia and didn’t know the value of rooms or the currency. He took a ballroom-sized room at my hotel for half the price. We breakfasted together at the town juice bar – half litres of delicious avocado juice, and then, with him taking a few photos to inspire his biker friends in the Isle of Man, I rode out of town, back across the wide high valley, with views to the distant horizons. It was the same road by which I approached Lalibela, smooth blacktop for two thirds of the 64 kilometres, dire rock and dust for the other third. My mood was high; company had helped in this country in which I have spent so much time alone thanks to the vast communication gap. I enjoyed the ride: fine scenery, the high mountain escarpment approaching; bright skies; waving people; a curling road such as we bikers like best.
Back on tarmac at the top of the impressive rocky, dusty climb, I stopped at the same mechanic’s booth as I did on Thursday and purchased four litres of black market petrol. It stirs up the tank as they pour it in from old funnels and homemade tin jugs. Each time now, a few miles down the road, my engine coughs and splutters – even cut out this morning. I have to rev wildly to pull the dirt through the carburettor before I can continue. At least I recognise the problem – and will have to get the tank rinsed out in Addis, and again when I get back to Kenya.
Then it was off on a long ride across the top of Ethiopia. I don’t know the altitude (I’ll check when I eventually get some internet), but it was undoubtedly the highest I have ever ridden. But the distance just went on and on, the road stretched out before me, eventually becoming repetitive and tedious, even though I knew I should be revelling in the extreme height of my ride. I stopped to pull on my windproof jacket, for I was chilled through by now.
Eventually, something subtly changed in the quality of the light; you get attuned on these very long rides. I sensed that I might be in for another Ethiopian visual firecracker soon – but had no concept just how explosive this one would be, for the road curled through a narrow defile, and suddenly I found I was at the very top of one of the biggest mountain passes I have ever seen (and I seek them out all over the world!). From the shelf on which I pulled up in absolute astonishment, the rock faces plunged away, falling, I am sure, at least five thousand feet down to where I could see my road twisting and curling like a skein of casually tossed string, etched all about the extreme slopes. Far below, and as far as I could see, tin roofs caught the sunlight like a great inverted glitter-ball, the mountains rising up on the opposite side of the giant valley as I marvelled at the engineers that had the audacity to scratch this ledge, frequently supported by a high wall, across the vast precipices and ridges.
Eventually, exhilarated, I reached the valley bottom. Looking back up at the vast, soaring walls of rock and undergrowth, as much as a mile high, I thought to myself, ‘my Mosquito and I were somewhere up there half an hour ago! How was that possible?’
Narrow, twisting valleys brought me to Woldiya where I decided to stop, having almost done my 200 kilometre self-imposed limit for the day. There’s a very odd discrepancy on my map around here, for Woldiya (called Weldiya on the map), is in a completely different place to the road: about fifty kilometres north… Still, it does seem to have the junction I need to turn south towards Addis Ababa; in fact it’s right outside my hotel window in the centre of town; a town filled with big lorries parked up for the night now, which will ply these extensive roads – 500 miles north or south to reach Axum and Eritrea, or Addis. I probably should have been more circumspect and taken a rear room, rather than being attracted to watch the big dusty, broken roundabout out the front. I guess it’ll be an earplug night again. The Mosquito’s in the yard at the back, amongst the washed sheets on lines. I hope I chose a good place to sleep. It took a while to find something suitable, having spurned a whole section of the town that appeared to boast no less than five mosques in close proximity; rejected the expensive dollar-tariffed best hotel; utterly rejected a place that had raucous music and football games from every corner, and settled on the Yen Hotel, a clean, characterless place, but run by a smiley woman and her daughter. At this time of day, all I need is a good, big bed to stretch across until morning – when another 200 kilometres will turn up who knows what?
I kind of knew intellectually that Ethiopia was mountainous; the map told me as much. But I had no idea just how utterly magnificent would be the scenery I was to ride through. It seems an unknown land, and it’s not until you ride the roads, see it with your own eyes, marvel at the most gigantic vistas you’ve seen in your life; get exhausted by the sheer scale of it all… It’s not till then that you appreciate what an extraordinary country this is.
And I haven’t even mentioned the very friendly people today. It is one of the most challenging countries I have travelled in Africa – for there is no shared vernacular communication at all: rubbing my stomach and play-acting eating movements, for instance, just meets with blank stares of incomprehension, as do all my attempts – usually very successful in all other cultures – to overcome language difficulties by signs and gestures, smiles and role play. The ‘ferengi’ is just a being who might be from another planet, and it’s only when I find someone who speaks some basic English, and they are few and far between, that I am able to manage even the simplest communication – although, as always a smile speaks a lot of words.
There’s a Total station just up the road. It must have had a delivery of petrol, for a line of perhaps 100 tuk-tuks waits all up the road. They have been queuing since I arrived in town, and looking out of my window as I go to bed, they are still lined up out there. (Next morning, the line had not reduced; I expect they were serving petrol all night).
DAY 48. MONDAY JANUARY 28th 2019. DESSIE, ETHIOPIA
This is such a kind country. Almost every day I meet with generous acts and open friendliness. It’s difficult now, looking back, to understand just what my emotional concern and lack of confidence was about, three weeks ago. It was unusual for me to waver that way. I suppose it was just total and utter physical exhaustion, compounded by my inability to communicate. Loneliness is an uncommon emotion for me on my travels, I’m very self-sufficient, but it has been something of a problem here: just forced so much on my own qualities, with no one to rationalise reactions. Yet, all around me I feel an outpouring of goodwill that is truly a wonder. I can think of almost no mean or thoughtless acts I have suffered in four weeks – and that’s not a bad tribute to any land.
All the bikers I have met (precisely three, I think) asked me if I had yet been prey to the children who throw stones? On my very long ride – so far – I HAVE had that three or four times. One child threw a stone; another a spray of water from a bottle and another his exercise book. Others make feint attacks with their herding sticks. I’ve had fun when it’s happened! I stop immediately and turn the Mosquito – which is so very manoeuvrable – and give chase, a face like thunder, yelling. Haha! The children scream and scatter into the fields, running far further than I could ever chase on my little bike. It terrifies them when the ‘ferengi’ reacts thus! Perhaps it’ll discourage them.
But these thoughtless small incidents apart, and some children who think it’s fun to insult the ferengi – who doesn’t understand anyway – I meet with only goodwill and help. This morning, preparing to leave Woldiya, I fell into brief conversation with a local man drinking buna. Did he know where I could get black market petrol, I wanted to know? He pulled out his phone and made the deal for me, at a good rate. The tuk-tuks still lined the road to the Total station; still at least 100 of them. Well, I am rich and would rather pay the black market price and be on my way: it’s still only £1 a litre, a little less on today’s deal. A boy climbed onto the back of the Mosquito and off we rode through town to find the black marketeer – who seemed to be working out of a girl’s school down the road. I bought my five litres for £4.40 and we poured it into my tank. Before I could even offer my guide a tip – I was fumbling for the customary ten Birr note (30 pence), he jumped in a tuk-tuk and disappeared. I was going to give him a ride back to the hotel too…
It was difficult to believe I was on one of the two main roads north and south through this vast land: the traffic was so scarce and quiet as I rode south. In fact, this is the only road that is asphalted all the way to Eritrea and its capital Asmara; the other one, that I used northwards last week is gravel for the northern 400 kilometres or so. I passed through some small, fairly insignificant straggly towns, all tuk-tuks, crazy pedestrians and donkeys, but it was a calm, rather uninteresting ride. I say uninteresting with much the same embarrassment that I caught myself bored yesterday. I was in HUGE mountains, the road twisting and rolling; here and there a few hairpins; everywhere animals to avoid and everywhere smiles and waves. And the pleasure of the wide white smiles of some of the VERY beautiful young women, is a bonus much to be enjoyed in this country!
This was a short ride. I’d actually planned to stop at the next town, 16 miles nearer Addis, but I stopped for buna in Hayk on the way. At random, I picked a buna stall, pulled up and asked for coffee. In a moment or two, a couple of young men joined me. Abdulrahman, in particular, spoke pretty good English. I answered all the usual questions (Why a referendum? Why were we leaving Europe. God alone knows – lies, stupidity and ignorant voters) but realised I was talking with a man of considerable intelligence. He is a head medical officer for a private clinic; wanted to study medicine but is faced with the bill of £12,000 – for SEVEN YEARS’ training. Of course, such a sum is way beyond the aspirations of a medical officer or his rural family. Another African opportunity wasted. This country needs doctors.
We chatted amicably, and interestingly for me. I was able to ask a number of questions that have been puzzling me: like the vast quantity of new building going on in the countryside. What is behind that? Everywhere I ride, I see new houses of stick, earth and zinc – substantial, well built local houses. Was it a government initiative, I wondered? No, it is private speculation on the back of the recent change of government and an anticipated weakening of control from previous repressive regimes. So I assume that given five years most will be falling to pieces. I guess I just came at the time to watch the boom, not the inevitable bust.
Hayk is home to a revered monastery and a rather beautiful lake, a fact I had overlooked entirely. On the back of the little Mosquito, Abdulrahman directed me the few kilometres to the tranquil, delightful lake side. On a promontory, that was an island until 1979, when severe droughts and changes in the lake topography caused a wide causeway to appear, rose the circular roof of the monastery, topped by the customary decorated cupola and Orthodox cross. Abdulrahman is a moslem, but tells me he likes to visit this monastery, a place of deep peace and strict religious discipline, but very much a working place of worship. Again, it’s what’s impressed me about the place of religion in Ethiopian culture: not an imposition, but an integral PART of life. It commands respect; cynicism is silenced in Ethiopia.
We wandered the small island, watching monks working their small fields (they are completely self-sufficient), washing their yellow robes in the sparkling lake water, apparently free of pollution and considered sacred. No plastic bottles bobbed. “It’s forbidden!” exclaimed Abdulrahman.
The monastery was established as long ago as the 13th century, based on even earlier, 8th century religious traditions. The present building is uninteresting, only 19th century and block and concrete. Originally, vernacular stone buildings were bound by earth mixed with straw and egg. Many of the country’s oldest historic structures are just this mix. The little museum was the best I have seen in the country, filled with extraordinary artefacts, as old as the 12th century, displayed so I could see them – and, impressively, with English labelling, and a 75 pence illustrated guide. The monks were friendly and welcoming; we even went to the kitchen and received chunks of their very tasty corn bread. It was a charming afternoon, with Abdulrahman attempting to pay for everything, even my £3 museum entry. Such a kind man – another generous Ethiopian. Already, this evening, I fielded a text message asking me if my onward journey had been good: ‘hellow jonatan. Im Adulrahman. How Was Ur Travle’. When I left him, I only rode another thirty kilometres, by which time the low sun was making it difficult to read the road, the potholes, donkeys, cows and pedestrians.
I stopped in Dessie. I have come to realise – and somewhere, a few nights ago, feeling grumpy with fever and cold, I said that Ethiopian cheap hotels were crap – I now admit that they are actually some of the best value in Africa. OK, they may be a bit idiosyncratic – my bathroom in tonight’s hotel – an almost new hotel – has a drip through the ceiling when I bend over the basin, and the floor – as usual – is awash from leaky plumbing (which is probably leaking to the floor below as well…). No one will fix any of it; they’ll just build a new hotel next door to save the maintenance money. Tonight, I stopped at the best hotel in town – the Melbourne, which reminded me of young Alice from that city and made me wonder where her travels have taken her now – she emailed a few days ago on her way to Djibouti. The hotel was beyond my budget, but a smile and a friendly approach always – ALWAYS – elicits a recommendation; right next door in this case. There I found a decent room on the second floor with a balcony and large comfy bed and spotless bedding for a little under £15 again. Despite the puddly bathroom, it’s just fine, only a bit noisy from the street outside. Earplugs again.
And so saying, it’s time to get back there – I came back to the best hotel for supper. Food is so cheap here (for me, with my European currency), just a fiver gets me supper and a couple of beers in the best hotel in town. Dessie is a cold town, I need to get beneath the covers tonight.
Another good day, made delightful by a random chance of meeting kindly Abdulrahman and his friends in that buna stall. There’s so much kindness in the world if you open your eyes and accept it, and respond in kind, which often needs no more than friendly smiles and a trusting nature.
Back in my room, already in bed. A text from Abdulrahman: ‘U welcome my dear..! I also like to tell u I love that the way u treat people… I like to thanks again for ur time. Have a great trip..’
DAY 49. TUESDAY JANUARY 29th 2019. DEBRE BIRHAN, ETHIOPIA
Gosh, I’m cold tonight! Up in these mountains again – and I think I’ve decided I do actually have a chest infection… I’ll get to Addis tomorrow and try to find some helpful advice and medicine. Maybe some food, bloody meat ‘tibs’ yet again – that’s the small pieces of meat with a shred or two of onion as a mere gesture to healthy eating, served with injera as always. Might warm me up, though. Goodness, I look forward to not eating meat when I get home again!
Debre Birham is about thirty more miles than I intended to ride, making today’s long journey over 150 miles. I’d chosen another town as my destination, but riding through I saw a couple of hotels, in neither of which I thought I would enjoy my night: both looked old, weather-stained and grim. I carried on. And the last miles ended my journey on a high point, in all senses. I began a long, steep climb, twisting and curling up the mountains, back up from the relatively low plain area to which I dropped from Dessie this morning, back up to the Ethiopian Highlands. And wonderful it was too, if cold. The afternoon light is so much more descriptive of the landscape, for I am still only about 12 degrees north of the Equator, shadows filling the deepness of side valleys, shaping contours and making the tall eucalyptus flicker and flash along the roadside. The light takes on more colour too as it warms into the late afternoon, preparing for sunset, which happens here around six. The road was good; quite newly made and the traffic thankfully light, so I could enjoy my ride all alone up to these extreme heights of the Tamaber Pass, a mighty fine ride, with a half mile tunnel at the very top, a nightmare on my Mosquito, which has a light but doesn’t shine at the road. I’d have been as well with a candle in a jar in that densely dark tunnel, feeling my way, hoping for no potholes. After a while, I thought my eyes were getting used to it: I could see more detail. Then I realised that a pickup had come up behind me and was lighting my way. But it overtook, rather than help. Its tail lights, reflecting on the tar, showed me the way out into the bright late afternoon and the long curls down again, sweeping past rural lands and small dark stone houses with thatched roofs and an impressive view of the distant scenery, seen through a narrow, deep defile near the top of the pass. Debre Birham seemed to take a long time to appear; I was tired by now. Then, when the ugly town did arrive, it took me time to find a place to sleep.
The better hotels were all full, and the lesser ones uninviting. I ended up in a faded old joint, with a large room on the third floor for under £6. The bed is large and clean and comfy, and I don’t really care about much else. I’ll be wearing the same clothes for the third day tomorrow. It doesn’t matter much when you travel alone! But there was no way last night, or tonight, that I was showering in cold water in a cold bathroom. My chest feels tight enough already. No one will notice the smell!
I descended quite a way from last night’s high town of Dessie, down to a very boring plain, backed far away by dry mountains on either side. I had to negotiate an irritating number of very tedious ribbon towns, all filled with kamikaze pedestrians (they really are the worst hazard – rushing into the road, then looking…); uncountable undisciplined tuk-tuks, curtains a-blow, mirrors ignored, riders usually on their phones; then there are the minibuses, called, Abdulrahman told me, ‘Abadullahs’ after a former minister, known for his bulbous chin. Add to this mix the thousands upon thousands of animals: donkeys, cows, sheep, goats, dogs, and here camels – all of whom seem to have the right to roam, wander, sleep and carry huge loads anywhere on the road – and it makes for difficult riding with a million hazards every day. It requires constant concentration. Even when I am daydreaming, a large part of my brain is busy keeping observation of the many, many unexpected actions of everyone and everything on the road. 150 miles of this is HARD work!
Much of this country seems to be divided vertically: the lowlands, deserts and plains seem to favour Islam, while as soon as I begin to rise back to the glorious heights, I am assailed by Orthodox Ethiopians. And there’s such a difference in attitudes. On the lowlands are many less smiles and greetings, less waves and astonishment as I pass. Thanks to their miserable, gloom-soaked repressive religion, those people stare and seldom react. Some women here were fully veiled, peering glumly at the world through a small cotton letter box dragging depressedly along, swathed in old cotton veiling, behind husbands and plodding camels. The camels have more enlivened expressions… (Whoops, sorry, a certain prejudice slipping out here! It’s a religion that seems to stifle fun.)
Then I began to climb, and suddenly I was rewarded by all those extraordinarily pretty Ethiopian girls and women, all smiling and waving; the prettiest, happiest looking Africans. It’s such a joy to pass a group of home-going secondary schoolgirls and give them a wave. I am repaid by excited laughter, big smiles and all that luxurious black hair shaken in the breeze. They wear rather elegant school uniforms: a long straight cotton skirt to the ankles and a cotton jacket. Some throw a woven shawl about their head, but many go bareheaded, their voluminous black tresses piled high on their heads. They are quite lovely – and apparently universally cheerful. No furtive, guilt-ridden eyes peering from behind veils for them. They seem to enjoy life and each other – and their religion too, always walking home in giggling, joking groups.
The boys too wear simple cotton long trousers and jackets. Different schools have different colours but the style remains much the same nationwide. Somehow, they become aware of my white face from far off, and by the time I pass, they all know a white man is going by. Waves and thumbs-up, and all manner of gesture greet my passage. It’s generally only the younger children who cannot resist the temptation to beg for money.
Stopping for buna breaks my ride and lets me meet people. Looking for a suitable stall in a straggly town, a girl gave me a big cheeky wave, so I turned and went back to her stall for three quarters’ of an hour. One fellow, Anteneh (Anthony) spoke a bit of English. I have the same conversation all over Africa: “Help me get to your country… I want to go to Engerland!”
It’s the African dream – and of course, it IS a dream. I tell them they haven’t a chance of a visa, especially in these xenophobic ‘populist’ days. I try to explain that it was the illogical, untrue rhetoric whipped up by the right wing that has caused all our present Brexit suicide. I tell them of hundreds of Africans, attracted by that dream, who die every week trying to get to what they think is a better life in Europe – only to end up treated like criminals in camps. I tell them that there’s no work, unless they are doctors or nurses; that the cup of coffee I am enjoying for 15 pence, will cost them £3 in Europe; a bottle of beer – here 65 pence, will be £3.50; that my monthly electricity bill – alone – is 25% more than Anteneh’s monthly take home salary as an office manager. I point out that in England I am poor like them (a bit of an exaggeration of course, but the analogy is what I am aiming for) and it’s only the relative values that make we white men seem so wealthy when we come to Africa. There are no money trees, just work – that’s the worldwide capitalist way. And if you are out of work in Britain – as many are, I point out – you are out of work in the cold. You can’t lounge about at a warm roadside and eat qat, and sleep in a grass roofed house; you have to heat the house, even if you haven’t an income… But it all falls on stony ground, the dream, the myth, is so powerful, propagated by the irresponsible dreams of cheap American TV, pumped endlessly round a world that doesn’t need this trivia. TV, for many unsophisticated viewers is a reflection of real life: the life led by white people, all of whom are rich, aren’t they? But my words make little impression: I am the one with the wealth to travel in their country; they’ll never even get the money together for a rip-off, non-refundable – refused – visa to mine.
Ethiopia has certainly turned up some very impressive scenery, and an admirable, ancient, fascinating culture. It’s bloody hard to travel here, but the rewards are in my reception, for I am welcome everywhere. The uneducated ask for money, which irritates, but the more educated try so hard to make me feel at home and generously want me to take away a warm impression of their country. They are proudly independent, warmly welcoming but limited by their inability to communicate with me as much as I am by my lack of language and understanding of their lives. I have seldom felt so much curiosity and wish for me to understand from any nation amongst which I have travelled. We both know we are losing out by our inability to share real communication, and we both seem to regret it equally. When we can commune, as with Abdulrahman yesterday, it’s a treat for both parties. Goodwill, though, is universal.
Right, bloody cold. Under the covers now, until eight tomorrow morning, eleven and a half glorious hours away.
POSTSCRIPT TO THIS EPISODE, which I will upload in Addis this morning while I have internet. I arrived back yesterday afternoon to find my cheerful young friend Alice (“Alice Yap – that’s because I talk so much!”) at the guest house. We had a happy reunion last night and now she is away on a 30 hour bus ride to the north. Fun how one can bond so closlely, despite the disparity in ages. I do hope she’ll turn up in Devon some day.
Oh, by the way, my chest is improving. The delightfully named ‘gingibbel chai’ – ginger tea, and deep breathing are doing the trick, before anyone worries! Service for the Mosquito today as well.