EAST AFRICA 2018-2019 – SEVEN

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DAY 50. WEDNESDAY JANUARY 30th 2019. ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA

Riding along this morning, a pretty tedious ride as I approached the sprawling capital, I found I had a tendency to be riding faster than usual – only a few kilometres per hour of course, for the Mosquito pretty well regulates itself at 60kph. ‘Why’m I speeding?’ I wondered. Then I realised it was because of an email that I unexpectedly fielded on my iPad over breakfast. There’s not been much connection for some days, but there was a brief contact in the broken hotel cafe where I stayed last night. And one email was from chattery Alice, who so cheered me when I needed it here in Addis three weeks ago. She was back, by coincidence, in Addis last night! What a nice surprise. We’ve enjoyed a lovely, cheerful evening together again. Funny how one can bond so happily, despite the difference of years. So many shared interests and ways of looking at the world. She’s off on a 30 hour bus ride at four in the morning, so maybe the next time we’ll meet will be in Devon. I do hope so. It was such fun to meet again, even just for a long evening. A warm reunion. 

“Alice Yap, I think it’s why I talk so much!”

****

After relaxing for a bit from my traffic-heavy ride back into the city, and taking the delightfully named ‘gingibel chai’ – ginger tea – prescribed by the lady who manages to day to day kitchen of this guest house, I rode out to find Eyob. You may remember, Eyob works for the only bike shop I found in the city – motorbikes are uncommon throughout Ethiopia; no boda-bodas here, just the bloody tuk-tuks. When I met Eyob, he took me to his home for coffee and was so very helpful. I need a few jobs on the Mosquito, particularly the fitting of an in-line petrol filter against all the water and dirt that is being poured into my tank with all the black market petrol. It will be done tomorrow. I need trouble-free riding now to get me back across the first half of the northern Kenyan deserts to Marsabit, where Sam, the mechanic, can give it a little more attention. 

Addis holds few attractions and I hope to spend just a couple of days getting small chores achieved: a new zip on my camera bag, maybe some stitching to my panniers, the housekeeping required on long journeys and usually available in the big cities.

Then, a cheerful evening with young Alice, supper and beers and chatter: the pleasure of bonding with someone else with so many similar enthusiasms, despite the huge difference in age (40 years and a day!) and background. 

DAY 51. THURSDAY JANUARY 31st 2019. ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA

Addis Ababa isn’t a city I much like, I have decided. I shall head southwards tomorrow, having little to keep me here. This morning I took the Mosquito down Bole Road and Eyob and his mechanic cleaned the carburettor and fitted an in-line filter in my petrol pipe. I hope this will solve the coughing and spluttering – of the bike that is; I am beginning to control my own coughing and spluttering by drinking a lot of gingibel chai and taking big, deep breaths. Alice is a nurse, and that was her useful advice. It appears to be working.

We fixed the bike on the pavement on busy Bole Road, rinsing petrol all over the carb, puddling the paving stones, disrupting the pedestrians. It seems to be just the way it is in Addis.

****

I introduced two young Danes; their six weeks’ in Ethiopia started a few days ago, to the joys of the juice stalls. I am in awe of the half litres of avocado juice, freshly crushed and served with half a lime. Then my only task was to try to repair my small camera shoulder bag. I found a whole series of leather workshops around the local ‘stadium’ area, but no one could replace the zip in less than a couple of days. In the end, I settled for a helpful young worker who stitched part of the bag shut. I’ll see if I can get a repair in Kenya or down the road. I hang the camera bag over my shoulder all day on the bike, so I need to keep the dust out. 

****

Fighting off pickpockets is a trial in this city. I am shocked by the number of boys and youths sniffing glue (mixed, I am told, with diesel). It is a serious city centre problem. Thousands of them, sitting on most traffic islands, hunting for petty crime opportunities on every pathway. One of them tried to pick my pocket this afternoon. As it happened, I was carrying a couple of carved spoons I had bought in an ‘antique’ shop. A quick upthrust not only threw his hand from my pocket but dashed his crushed plastic water bottle, with glue and green gunk in the base, into the road. “You’re not even a good pickpocket!” I shouted angrily, turning heads. On one hand, of course, I have to feel terribly sorry for them – street children who have either run away or, in these countries, whose parents have died or abandoned them. On the other hand, they are a bad nuisance to everyone in the streets, causing trouble everywhere all day long. They prey on tourists by choice, thinking we will be easy quarry. But we all know all the ruses and techniques… We pass this information between us. They have not a single chance in life, and will probably be dead quite soon. It’s one of those terribly hard facts of life on this continent. Short lives, utterly wasted. 

****

In every hotel in which I have stayed; every cafe and restaurant in which I have eaten; most buildings I have entered, TVs play constantly, absolutely constantly. It’s either football – mainly from England, occasionally from Europe – or it is **** CNN. Who is interested in constant trivial ‘news’ from America? This is AFRICA. It has not the slightest relevance to anyone that this week is about to be the coldest in a decade in USA. Who cares? Who cares about the arsehole president and his childish megalomania? This ‘shithole’ country is so proud that they have never been colonised. Well, look behind you, Ethiopia. You are being colonised day by day by trite shite, like the rest of us. I’ve had to move into the chilly bar yard this evening to write. I can stand no more of the fluting tones of the announcer, the jingles, the endless upbeat cheery announcement of death and disasters that take on an anodyne meaninglessness. 

Oh, I think I’ll go to bed! I HATE TV, especially wall to wall shite like this. 

Time to move south…

DAY 52. FRIDAY FEBRUARY 1st 2019. ZIWAY, ETHIOPIA

It was at the Bekele Mola Hotel in Ziway that I left my passport four weeks ago tonight. I’m glad that time is behind me and my journey back on form. I reread that part of my journal as I relaxed after my ride this afternoon. I really did suffer an uncommon crisis of confidence.

****

The first 15 miles of today’s ride were ghastly, but not nearly as bad as the last 45 miles of my entry to Addis. I found a much preferable, minor road south and only joined the main highway tonight, 300 metres up the road. I came by a lesser used route, roughly parallel but thirty miles west. Once I left the extended, traffic-clogged tentacles of the capital, it was a quiet, rather undistinguished ride over rolling, parched hills to the town of Butajira, and then a left turn for the last 45 kilometres back to the main north/ south highway which I must follow now back to Kenya. I am determined to limit my days to less than 200 kilometres whenever I can on this southward journey. 

The mosques are groaning around me now. The south becomes increasingly Moslem. It’s sunset, time for the evening moan. It should be atmospheric – indeed, in some Islamic countries, this is a mighty, nearly joyous scream to the skies. In much of Islamic Africa though, it seems miserable and depressing, a tuneless, joyless dirge into the dust-filled sunsets and dawns. It’s Friday of course, so it persists longer. Mind you, the Orthodox incantations tomorrow and Sunday can be even less musical! Amplification has done no favours for religion in these parts. Get some better muezzins and train your priests if you must – or just give me anonymous, cheerful – brief – church bells… 

The road, 100 metres away, is busy with heavy traffic, at almost 7pm. Maybe that’s the weekend effect? Often, when I sit in another vehicle, or watch the streets from a beer bar in cities, I wonder at my gall in contemplating riding in this traffic. It seems just crazed and ill-disciplined. Oddly, though, once I am a combatant, weaving and ducking through the astonishing machinations of thousands of battling vehicles – including those horse carts, flocks of sheep, obstinate donkeys, plodding cows, tuk-tuks, bicycles, taxis, minibuses, buses – not to even mention the mad, blind pedestrians, in this twelfth most populous nation of the world – and I become part of it all, able, thanks to my better training in observation and manoeuvrability, to twist and turn, spurt and dive, accelerate and wheedle – and it all becomes some sort of a crazy game; just all of us trying to make progress against all odds. With this country doubling its population about every twenty years, how will the straining infrastructure cope? Well, I guess it won’t: it’ll just get progressively worse until it all stops. By then, we will have polluted the planet so much it probably won’t matter any more…

****

There’s a middle-aged American woman staying at the guest house in Addis. She seems to spend her time on her computer in the shaded bar yard; even her morning exercise appeared to be walking circles around the yard, not the streets outside. When I arrived the other afternoon, she greeted me and asked from where I was coming. “Oh, I’ve been riding all over the north!” I replied.

“Did you see any unrest..?” she enquired anxiously. Unrest? No, not a thing; not a waver, not a flicker. All I saw was a lot of friendly people, the vast majority of whom held me in much respect and poured out goodwill. This morning, hearing I was venturing out into the world out there, she warned me apprehensively to be very careful. “I had an alert from the American Embassy, not to leave Addis unless necessary. It’s crazy out there…” 

Where do they get this nonsense? The country is actually remarkably stable just now. Here and there, there will be minor tribal conflicts that flare up – this is Africa, divided tribe from tribe – but there is no ‘craziness’ almost anywhere in Ethiopia at present. In fact, I’d choose Addis if I wanted to tell visitors to be careful… This sort of ‘advice’ – the British Foreign Office produces the same nonsense frequently – is like Health and Safety gone mad. You issue a warning so that there will be no blame, no criticism, no redress. ‘Peanut butter: Warning, may contain nuts’, and coffee, ‘Caution, contents may be hot’. It’s not helpful; it’s downright irresponsible. Apart from anything else, any participants in conflict will do all they can to avoid involving foreigners, they know the penalties are so severe. “Did you see any unrest..?” It’s a country twice the size of France. There may be an odd conflict down in the deep desert on the Somali or Eritrean frontiers maybe – but they are as far from that woman in Addis as, well, at least the distance from Calais to Marseilles! I think part of the present petrol crisis may have been caused by ‘unrest’ in one of those FAR distant areas, and Moyale border, where I am headed, was closed for a week or so just before I arrived but Ethiopia, for the time being anyway, is not a hotbed of internecine war!

I’ve a very itchy back tonight. Wonder what got in? The perils of travel! Much more troubling than so called ‘unrest’! Haha. Maybe the miscellaneous block of soap I found by the guest house sink, with which I washed my rotating tee shirt last evening (I have two tee shirts, blue and red, two pants and two socks that rotate day by day). 

**** 

Supper came. Fish cutlet: it’s on every invariable menu: every menu the same. Fish cutlet is pieces of breaded fish, fried and served with fried potatoes. With it comes a side dish of burning red chilli sauce. It’s enough to make me dream of bloody frozen peas…

DAY 53. SATURDAY FEBRUARY 2nd 2019. AWASSA, ETHIOPIA

My mood’s drooping again tonight. NOISE. Why was I so stupid, not to see at 3.00, when I stopped, that being in the centre of Awassa, by the lake and all the bars, would be the noisiest place in East Africa on Saturday night? I could have paid a pound over my limit and had the best room of my trip, but I was swayed by the fact that the owner of the guest house I selected was a charming middle aged Belgian woman, with Ethiopian husband, speaking English. Bibi and I have been talking interestingly in the guest house yard and she too complains of the noise: a relatively new phenomenon with which she is battling. She lives right here in the compound amongst all the new, very noisy beer bars… “And tomorrow we will get the churches!” warns Bibi. “They start at 6.30, and it will be four hours! I hope you can sleep?” Another ear plug night…

****

That damned chain sprocket flew off again – in the middle of nowhere on a very busy, unpleasant main road. This time, a young man gave me the sprocket, that he’d seen fly across the road, the bolt was soon found, but the washer was lost. Again, it was a case of flagging down a pick up, loading the Mosquito in the back and being carried to the next town, some ten or twelve miles on. But this wasn’t a pleasant Ethiopian experience. I was pestered relentlessly by unfriendly people demanding money. Not the people in the car, who seemed to be a bunch of uninterested businessmen, who didn’t even get out of the car, (I was in the back, sitting on the floor with my bike) leaving it all to their driver, but the assembled people who did no more than lift the bike into the car, a moment’s work. Then, in the unfortunately, but, it seemed to me aptly, named town of Arsii, the men who helped lift it out – a task taking about one minute, argued for money until I had to resort to the two English words that seem to be understood across the world (probably thanks to American TV). Oddly enough, the two young mechanics, who WERE helpful and friendly, although I did the work myself, using their spanners and their washers, refused any recompense with a friendly handshake and big smiles, confounding me completely. 

****

I didn’t enjoy any aspect of today’s ride, except its relative shortness, at only 100 kilometres. I am back in the Rift Valley now, still of course at about 1500-1600 metres above sea level, but the landscape is dry as a bone, with the few lakes dotted about. They aren’t particularly attractive though, being often alkaline or brackish. Most of them are infected with bilharzia. The valley is about fifty miles wide, dusty, desiccated and  empty. Vast herds of cattle were herded across the road in many places, hazards that slow the heavy, badly driven traffic even more. Dust circling high above, every shred of any grass grazed to oblivion. African aspirations, across the whole continent are for more and more cattle and babies – probably the two most environmentally damaging aspects imaginable for our straining planet. Abandon all hope…

Before my sprocket incident, I had considered investigating one of the lakes; even maybe staying by one tonight – despite their somewhat unattractive setting and what I read on the internet: ‘at the weekend, all Addis Ababa and their boom-boxes head for the resort hotels and prices rise by at least 20%’.  By the time I’d sorted the bike again, I’d sort of lost the will to travel today, and finding Awassa only 25 kilometres further, I opted to stay here tonight. I stayed here a month ago, stopping in that slightly run down guest house owned by Defige, who’d studied in Dublin. It was quieter by his main road than down here close to the lakeside, with pounding music from seedy bars. I wandered the lake shore in the late afternoon with many inhabitants. Hundreds of gangly, sinister cranes stalk the path and shore, almost tame and well fed by rubbish and visitors, great ugly birds over a metre high with hideous wattles and long angry beaks. The shores of the lake are set with green reed beds, quite attractive if you mentally fade out the thousands of floating plastic, single-use water bottles. 

I ate a disgusting meal, in the dark; maybe it was as well that I couldn’t see what I was eating. It was fish goulash, one of the fifteen items on every invariable Ethiopian menu. It’s just bits of fish deep fried in a red chilli sauce, served with bad chips and revoltingly greasy fried white cabbage, a gesture at vegetables. I’m honestly not enjoying the food. On the whole, I dislike meat, so choose to avoid it when I can, leaving me with oily, greasy fish and hot pepper – another food flavour I could do without. I’ve given up on cold, clammy dishcloth as much as possible and just crave some simple, clean vegetable flavours. Many people extol the virtues of Ethiopian cuisine. The expensive restaurant in Nairobi, I will grant, has very good Ethiopian food; not many places here have.

****

Bibi, the Belgian owner, whose husband is Ethiopian, is a bio-engineer and knows quite a lot of the continent. She’s been in the habit of coming and going between Awassa and Belgium: “We need the hard cash to run the car and so on!” But at present she is trying a sabbatical of a year, living here and adapting to Ethiopian life. “Then we’ll see..!” Echoing to some extent the fears of Daniel from Zurich, she tells me of the fomenting of unrest in some of the ethnic communities. “Especially, the Tigrayans in the north, they are manipulating the tribes. The new prime minister is doing well, but I fear his time will be too short. There may be trouble ahead, if the tribes split. Awassa was always considered the regional capital for the people round here, but factions are making problems. If they insist on separation, there may be trouble.” It’s roughly what Daniel feared when he said he thought there may be ethnic conflict in the future on the scale of Rwanda if tribal jealousies get out of hand.

Thank goodness a conversation over a beer in the yard with Bibi cheered what had become a rather bad day, one way and another. Often my mood sinks through being alone so much, separated from the people around me by the language barrier and insufficient cultural understanding. Days like this are hard, and I am happy I made the instinctive decision to stay near someone of my own culture, despite the appalling noise everywhere tonight. Chatting amicably with my hostess has restored my interest in things around me. People who choose a foreign partner, by the chances that life throws up, tend to have wider views of the life around them, a positive, adaptable approach to change and a healthy interest in what makes people do as they do. By sharing observations, we widen our own understanding of just where I am, here in Ethiopia. I know a lot more about it now, after five weeks, but am still often at sea. “They are so proud of their independence, their lack of colonisation. But they’ve lost out by that too. They have become much more separated from the rest of the world, and the cultural exchange has been so much less than in most of Africa. It’s positive in giving a strong cultural identity, but difficult when you cut yourself off from the world.” 

But at least most Ethiopians don’t understand the trivia spewing endlessly from CNN’s gaping, ever-open eye on its own over-blown, tiny bit of the western world. They can be grateful for that filter at least.

DAY 54. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 3rd 2019. AWASSA, ETHIOPIA

A day of rest. I AM trying to pace this journey back, and I need to gird up for tomorrow’s ride, which, riding north, was the worst of all. The Zebra Guest House was a good place to just stop for the day, take a brief ride out, wash clothes, catch up with life and drink buna. 

I’ll be heartily glad to get away from the hassles of purchasing petrol. This crisis has been going on for over two months I think, not that anyone can actually explain why it’s happening or what it’s about: something to do with the suppliers pressurising the government to raise the price of fuel – it’s much cheaper here than any surrounding country. But putting up that price will create massive inflation, in everything. This being Africa, the people have just found their own ways round the inconvenience. Spotting a huge line of tuk-tuks and motorbikes at a petrol station, I just pulled innocently in, and was once again hustled to the front of the queue, tolerated by the police on duty and my tank expensively filled. I have NO idea what the rate per litre was, but I know my Mosquito hadn’t used as much as 190 Birr (£5.58), but I’m not going to argue in front of 200 waiting customers, who’ve probably been there all day! Who cares? I have my tank filled once more, another 250-300 kilometres’ range, and I’m now about 500 from Kenyan petrol and still have my jerrycan strapped to the bike, another 150 kilometres. So I am almost home…

I regret that I felt not an iota of guilt as my tank was filled in front of all those people. “I have to get to Moyale!” I told the policeman loudly. That impresses everyone, and Ethiopians are very kindly towards ferengis. Most of them even smiled as I told the attendant just to fill right up. As a tourist, I believe I have priority to supplies, according to one fellow I met as I am almost out of the country, who asked where my authority letter from the national tourist office is… Huh.

****

Yoftahe is a charming fellow running a small motorbike repair business at the street side, but with a degree in Governance and Development Studies. He speaks rather good English. I stopped to get my tyres checked, and to see if I could buy a few spare bolts and washers in case the problem continues with my sprocket. I also bought a piece of second hand petrol pipe, since I spot that Eyob’s mechanic has used too short a piece and bent the fuel filter almost to breaking point. If it breaks in the middle of nowhere, I want to be prepared. In the morning, he’ll help me find bolts and washers. An educated, cultured man, he has to earn a living any way he can, and probably jobs in governance and development studies are rarities in Awassa. More African waste.

****

The sermonising from the huge nearby church began in the early hours and droned on and on. Thank god for ear plugs. “I’m bad tempered,” admitted Bibi as I drank my first buna. “Why do they amplify this noise? Everyone’s sitting INSIDE the church anyway!” A brief ride out round the end of the lake, on a new road that I think leads to the airport, was the total of my travelling today. By the time I came back the drone was beginning again, by now in competition with incredible NOISE from all quarters. No one appears to notice: they drink contentedly six feet in front of pounding, beating speakers, while I am reduced in moments to a screaming, foul-mouthed wretch. I’m writing as I wait for food in a vibrating bar, desperate to down my food and get out. And I chose the quietest – fifteen minutes ago. African hearing is SO much more tolerant than mine. Some fellow a few feet away is even talking on his phone! Ethiopian music is horribly, endlessly repetitive too, always following the same beat… At least it IS Ethiopian I suppose. AAAARRRGGGHHHHH!!!!!! SHUT UP!!!! Just let me get my bloody food and go! 

Another personal first: I just ate a burger! Never before in Africa did I sink so low. Actually, it was rather a good burger – made here in the bar, I don’t doubt: I am sitting right by a booth hung with raw carcasses. I’ve not bonded that well with the fifteen available Ethiopian dishes on the whole. I’m not fond of meat or red chilli sauce, or fresh green chillies, the basis of just about everything. And the dishcloth (sorry again, Rico!) leaves me very uninspired with its sogginess, sourness and coldness. But a BURGER..? Oh well, I just needed a change! At least I can be pretty sure I didn’t just ingest antibiotics and hormones – just cow.

DAY 55. MONDAY FEBRUARY 4th 2019. AGERE MARYAM, ETHIOPIA

Things are seldom as bad when you accept the reality and face down the anxious anticipation. So it was with the road today. I’ve been apprehensive since I rode this way five weeks ago – it was at Agere Maryam that I started my Ethiopian journey – and it was this road that exhausted me as I fought with what I now appreciate was probably heavy pre-Ethiopian Christmas traffic. Today, the road was just as bad but the light traffic made it just like any other long trail ride over appalling rock and gravel, without the competitive element that so stressed – and on occasion, frightened me on the ride northwards. I’m a little physically weary tonight – it’s hard exercise – but I’m not in the funk that I was five weeks ago.

****

It was eleven before I got on the road today. First I had a leisurely buna and pancake and fruit breakfast with Bibi for pleasant company and conversation, joined by Frenchman, Gérald. Ethiopia seems to appeal to slightly older, more experienced travellers. Gérald extends a warm welcome to Burgundy. I hope I’ll take him up on that. 

From Bibi’s friendly guest house, I rode to see Yoftahe to obtain a pocketful of spare bolts and washers for my front chain sprocket – emergency supplies in case it flies off again in the middle of nowhere – like the northern Kenyan desert. I’ve left off the guard so I can (somewhat obsessively, it must be admitted), watch the bolt go round. 

At last I was on the road south, fighting my way through racing, clapped out buses; wandering donkeys; carts pulled laboriously by threadbare, rib-ridged old horses and mules; meandering tuk-tuks; mad pedestrians and heavily-laden, badly driven minibuses. It was many miles before the traffic thinned as I climbed into more handsome scenery with trees and views of green valleys. In the last quarter of my 190 kilometre ride, the people changed. It happens this way in Africa; tribal boundaries are quite distinct, even now. It becomes apparent that the population suddenly operates to different norms. There’s seldom any physical, topographic difference, just subtly the mood alters. It’s odd, my instinct tells me as I ride that I have moved into another region. Here it happened that quite suddenly, in a matter of a handful of miles, everyone – but everyone – began to wave at me and flash huge white smiles. It’s my main memory, my first impression of Ethiopia five weeks ago – waving, friendly people. And it’s the same area. I didn’t notice it weakening as I rode northwards out of this region, but five weeks ago my mood was deteriorating into tiredness and gloom and self-doubt about there. These last few miles were a delight: the road was now smooth and new, the audience very friendly, the scenery filled with trees. I entered Agere Maryam with a bit of a smile this time.

****

(Oh dear, I just ordered tibs and dishcloth again! Why bother to ask for a menu when I actually don’t know what half the items are and no one can explain? All I DO know is that whatever I order, it will be meat, chilli pepper and injera… 20 minutes later: it was goat tonight, a little tastier but still bloody meat and chilli and grease… I begin to fantasise about some green vegetables. It’s been WEEKS.)

****

When I stayed here before, I was green to Ethiopia, at a loss entirely, floundering. Now I have five weeks’ experience of the country and know how to find places to sleep a lot more comfortable than the first hotel, where I was woken at dawn by the watchman and asked, “You go..?” 

“No. I don’t bloody well go! It’s DARK!” I remember replying. Irritated, lost and unconfident. Well, maybe I am a little more used to the oddities of Ethiopian life now and can read the cultural signs better. Tonight I found a pleasant place to sleep in minutes, a hotel so new that not much has broken yet. The lavatory doesn’t flush and the seat’s not fixed to the pan – and never will be now. In due course, it’ll snap in half and be thrown away and there just won’t be a seat. Those are the only faults so far, so they won’t need to start building the replacement just yet. There’s no electricity except the roaring generator, but I think that’s town-wide, rather than the newness of the hotel. With luck, the generator will go off before too long. The room rate tonight is just £8.80, very good value, until the place begins to disintegrate like all the others. It won’t take long. The plumbing will go first.

****

At least 50 or 100 times a day, I am told that my headlight is on. Today, it was at least 100 times. Drivers flash their lights, pedestrians wobble their hands, bike riders overtake, pointing desperately, tuk-tuk curtains flap as drivers gesticulate from the interior. Of course, the very fact that they are all so concerned, means that I have been seen. Job done. One policeman, somewhat more officious than the thousands I have passed on the roads, told me, as I entered Lalibela, that my light was lit. “Yes, I know! It’s so the idiot pedestrians SEE me! And it’s law in Europe.” (Well, some places it is). He informed me it is against the law to drive with lights on in Ethiopia, a rule I have studiously ignored for 3500 kilometres, except turning them off for about 300 yards entering Lalibela. I think you are only allowed to show lights in warning of obstacles ahead – or doubtless, if you are an important government official. At dusk, all over Africa, the first one to light his lights is a sissy! I believe drivers think that perhaps they are wasting fuel by being visible.

****

I’ve probably two more rides to get to the border. I could do it in one: the road’s good, but it’s beyond my self-imposed 200 kilometres, and I have a few days left on my visa. I’ll make it two shorter days. 

It’s 8.00 now. I am tired from many miles of hard trail riding. My little Mosquito deals well with rugged roads. It is tall and light, and I can stand comfortably, transferring the weight to the front of the bike. I have big bars, courtesy of Rico and one of his old BMWs, and can easily grip the sides of the wide, comfortable single seat with the insides of my knees. Thus can I keep up a good speed as I bounce and bump, in a pother of dust, over these terrible roads. The Mosquito is under-powered, but a good, light bike for an old codger on African roads. I’m not unpleasantly weary tonight, ready for an early sleep and a reasonably short day tomorrow.

****

One TV screen in this outdoor bar shows CNN trivia whenever the pounding generator comes on; in the other corner a basketball game in which Boston plays Oklahoma. There’s an over-excited, breathless commentary in Amharic, by the same actor who dubs the football games, with many long expressions of excitement: “Oooooooooohhhhh!!!!”. This country is so  proud never to have been colonised. Sorry Ethiopia, but it’s happening now. You are walking into this pernicious cultural greyness with the rest of the world. 

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One thing I will do before leaving Agere Maryam, is go back to the first buna stall in that basic hotel. It was the first, and the best buna of Ethiopia. Coffee will be the biggest regret I leave behind me. It really IS very special here at its origin.

DAY 56. TUESDAY FEBRUARY 5th 2019. YABELLO, ETHIOPIA

Determined to pace myself on this journey south, I stopped at 1.00. I knew from the ride north that there is nowhere to sleep after Yabello except a small hotel in the scruffy, ill-named blink-and-you-miss-it town of Mega. The choices here are more plentiful, but equally grim. There’s something I really dislike about provision for tourists in this country. We are seen as complete cash cows, to be ripped off if possible. I am talking here of the tourism business, not individual Ethiopians. In the one hotel that is favoured by tour groups in this backwater town, the management are grasping and rude, asking me US$44 (£36) – in dollars, which always makes my argumentative hackles rise – for a dingy room with a grim bathroom and worn furnishings and decor. I soon found a preferable place for less than £9! It has the same dingy decor, the same half-functioning bathroom, the drain smell that I now associate with Ethiopia, a better garden and friendlier staff. It’s a pity this country cannot respect its tourists more, since there’s a big drive to encourage tourism. They won’t do it by ripping us off… The receptionist was rude to me, on spotting me this evening, for not going back and cancelling the half-reservation I had made, but needing more money, I left to find a cash machine. Instead, I found several better alternative rooms (one of which was only £4.40 but I couldn’t face the bathroom!). “Sorry, but you were ripping me off for substandard accommodation, I didn’t see the need to return and tell you. I found better for a quarter your price!” The trouble is, many of the guided tourists just book these things on the horrid booking .com, think it’s cheap and have no idea what they are signing up for. Once paid, the hotel doesn’t much care what the customer thinks: there’ll be another dupe along soon.

****

The scenery got bigger and more expansive as I dropped towards the big deserts I have to cross in the next few days. Many people waved frantically and I pretended not to see just how many waves turned into outstretched palms. It’s a problem in the more uneducated parts of this country: the white man is perceived as being the bringer of aid. To make ourselves feel better, to assuage our own guilt at the imbalance of the economics of the world, we hand out money in one form or another – almost always entailed in some way that brings employment and commercial opportunities for the donor nation, of course, but to the rural peasant, they see white people handing things out, apparently for free. Of course, we are then seen as rich givers and there’s a sense of entitlement that builds up for the local people. White skin equals money or material handouts. Oddly enough, it’s much less prevalent in the old British African colonies than in the others. Happily, it will be less of a hassle in Kenya tomorrow. It’s something I really want to get away from. Every second hand here is stretched in supplication. Fortunately, the others are generally stretched in greeting.

Villages were frequent, although towns of any size are rare down here in lower, rural Ethiopia. The villages are mean affairs of basic manyattas, rounded homes of sticks and grass, many of them sadly draped in unsightly black plastic sheeting. There are children everywhere, a new Ethiopian born every twelve seconds. How can one get across the message that this poverty is so largely self-inflicted, and perhaps you wouldn’t need to beg constantly from the passing white man if you didn’t have five or more children, while having no job and no livelihood? It’s utterly unsustainable. These rural people may have a couple of cows, access to an increasingly small and infertile patch of dust, no education, and many children. Not surprising then that begging is seen as an option… 

****

I ride in almost constant trepidation of mechanical breakdown, listening to my engine, watching that bolt fly round in the centre of my chain sprocket, waiting for the noises that presage disaster. When it happens, I don’t panic, but wonder how I will deal with the new problem. Riding along this morning, my engine died. ‘Now what..?’ I thought. A quick analysis suggested it wasn’t electrical. Maybe fuel? But there was plenty. What..? Then I saw that my jerrycan had slipped from its moorings on the left rear foot peg, held by elastics. On some speed bumps it had dropped down and pushed down the side stand. The side stand has an engine cut out switch that stops the engine if the stand is down while the bike’s in gear. If only all my mechanical problems can be so logically simple to solve!

****

Wandering along the road after a rest, I saw a large, very heavily laden BMW 1200 outside another cheap hotel. Daniel is Swiss, again a little older than the average traveller in much of Africa, and riding from Switzerland to South Africa. It’s been good to have a bit of company for a couple of hours. We may meet again in the next days, although with a machine with six times the power of mine, his pace will be somewhat different. But we are riding the same route for the next 1000 kilometres – there is no other. 

How is it in a country in which one third apparently don’t eat even the minimum calories recommended, that almost every meal is of meat and injera? The keeping of so many cattle is denuding the environment even more. Growing vegetables would be so beneficial. But hardly a vegetable, beyond the long-suffering onion, the green and red chilli, and oily white cabbage, exists in this country. 

DAY 57. WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 6th 2019. MOYALE, KENYA

How did I ever ride the last two days’ roads in one day five weeks ago, on top, what’s more, of two long desert rides of 250 kilometres each? I’m not surprised I exhausted myself physically. Crossing a border is an emotionally stressful event too – adapting, learning, observing; lost in a new culture, a different language and even script, new currency, new ways. I was more stupid even than I thought. Today I rode just 200 kilometres in the hot sun; used to the culture and ways of the country – yet I am still weary now at 4.00, having reached familiar Kenya once again. 

And, oh, the joy of a clean bathroom, one of the first in five weeks! Sanitation and plumbing in Ethiopia are as bad as I have found anywhere. For the first time, I can even flush paper down the pan, instead of depositing it in a nasty plastic bin in the corner of the uncleaned bathroom. Oh joy!

****

The time had come to leave Ethiopia. I felt my mood slipping, worn down by the constant evidence of self-inflicted poverty, of endless begging, useless men sitting drinking beer while their poor, abused, sexually mutilated women forever lug twenty litre canisters of water laboriously home, accompanied by girls as small as eight or ten, bent double, staggering under the weight of water for their useless men. The boys play table football and ping pong and never carry more than a herding stick or unused shovel as the bowed women and girls struggle by. The only difference between the donkeys and the women is that the donkeys carry two water containers at a time, while the women are probably berated for carrying only one. The men sit in the shade by the road, self-important and inexcusably lazy. Give women the power on this continent and things would change so fast the rest of the world wouldn’t keep up.

I’d become weary of lack of privacy, interruption and the assumed right to butt in because you don’t speak their language and they have six words of yours; I am sick of smelly bathrooms – another one ponged the night away in my room last night, and the acrid stench was the result of no more than lack of attention to sanitation and cleanliness. I was bored with the over-charging for everything whenever I got near to group tourists; of the invariable diet of meat – in a country on the verge of poverty, while meat is environmentally the most damaging, expensive commodity. “No vegetables available!” laughed a young man helping me to try to find a meatless breakfast. “Yes, that’s because you don’t grow any,” I retorted. There’s land and water, but instead the culture raises millions of cows, dust rising in vast clouds as they trample the dry land, completely stripped of vegetation. I was irritable about my inability to communicate, even in sign language; by lack of infrastructure – that was lacking because no one cares, not because it’s unaffordable; of no bloody petrol for weeks, filthy bathrooms, trillions of discarded plastic bottles; of seeing piles of firewood and charcoal for sale along my road, while as far as the horizon the stripped, barren land contains no tree higher than ten feet. There’s another mouth to feed, another’ baby to rear, every twelve seconds. When this landscape runs out of its last useful natural resource, they’ll move on and strip the next bit. The church does nothing, Islam less; gives no leadership on this disastrous population explosion, sitting complacently on their hands, counting more adherents, not admitting the problem, the insurmountable problem, the problem that will drag all of us into its pit and holocaust. 

Yes, leaving was timely. But of course, I have had some delights and seen some wonders too. Life can’t always be reflecting on the gloom and disaster that Africa can be. I’ve met charming educated Ethiopians who didn’t beg and wheedle, but have been amongst the most kindly, generous people I have met on the continent; well informed, urbane, concerned – just ‘kind’ – there’s no word that describes them better. I’ve seen topographical wonders that were like lightning bolts: those moments of theatrical reveals of the Blue Nile Valley, the northern mountains from the high highlands, the ride up from Debre Tabor, the ride down to Woldiya, both over 3500 metres, higher than I ever rode before.

I met kind people like Biniyam, who helped when my Mosquito threw its sprocket; Eyob, who took me home for a coffee ceremony; Abdulrahman, who is still texting to find out how my cough fares: ‘How are you today.. how was ur wellness? I’m gonna miss u’; ‘I hope ur natural remedies was working faster.. Where are u today? When you live Ethiopia I hope u will meet me on email’. There was Daniel, and his mother Aster with whom I spent a terrific day in Bahar Dar, ending in that traditional music bar doing the shoulder dancing – or a pathetic parody of it at least. The charming Tedla Siyoum, managing director of the hotel chain who arranged the return of my passport and drank beer with Alice and I in his own restaurant amongst the flash wedding guests. There have been many, whose main wish was that I enjoy my time in their remarkable country.

And it IS remarkable, however jaundiced I feel right now about grim bathrooms and upturned hands of the uneducated majority. The culture of Ethiopia is as old and stable and mighty as any in Europe. I believe Ethiopia was writing before Europe; it certainly developed its religion and its extraordinary structures around the time we were building cathedrals. It’s a country rightly proud of thousands of years of independence – although that’s also excluded it from the contemporary  ‘global village’ too. It’s a country with a fabulous history and myths and legends galore. It’s the home of the Queen of Sheba, the supposed home of the Ark of the Covenant, Moses’ tablets. It’s had intimate connections with the fount of Christianity since before most Europeans. It’s at a crossroads of the world’s two largest religions; had Jewish connections since they were new and modern; kings and emperors since time immemorial. It has its own tradition of art and painting; mysterious stele and is truly the ‘cradle of mankind’, for here were discovered the earliest evidence for our human species. 

It’s the home of coffee and knows it. Without any doubt, it has the best coffee I ever tasted, and probably will ever taste. 

And… it has the most beautiful women in Africa and hence arguably in my opinion, the world!

****

So I leave in some confusion. My body is certainly happy to be back in the – almost western by comparison – infrastructure of Kenya: clean bathrooms, comforts, vegetables, ease of communication, being able to pull up to the first pump in Kenya and fill up. No more dishcloth and meat and chilli pepper. No more intrusion. No more blank reactions to my gesticulated needs. No more begging.

But I’ll miss the intellectual stimulation of some of the culture. That doesn’t exist in Kenya. I’ll miss the kindness and courtesy, graciousness and gentleness, politeness and warmth of the educated Ethiopians, truly the gentlepeople of Africa.

****

Now I am back in Moyale, an unpretty place of small attraction, a border town with all the lack of depth and transitoriness that that implies. It’s a largely Moslem town, but by Ethiopian standards, well kept and calm. I found a big – clean! – hotel: the one I rejected five weeks ago as being too close to the giant new mosque (next door!) but selected today on the promise of the clean bathroom, even if I did get a 240 volt belt off the dangerous shower head – but this is East Africa and they’re all lethal! I’ve a decent room on the fourth floor – I always climb high, away from the bar and other guests slamming their doors. I’ve a small balcony looking over the town and catching the western rays of the setting sun, setting over the vast desert that I have to set out to begin to cross tomorrow. 

I feel content to have faced my fear of the sheer scale of the country I just left; to have worked through my loss of confidence; to have seen 3758 kilometres (2350 miles) of it from the back of my little Mosquito, despite my initial fears; to have stories to tell of the small part I have seen. I know I chickened out of seeing so much more: the distant deserts, the Bale Mountains, Axum in the far north, many, many places that the country has to offer. It was just too large to contemplate on my 200ccs of ‘power’. My time was short and I got a flavour of the country. I left with just four days of my visa unexpired, so I couldn’t have gone much further anyway. But part of me feels a little guilty not to have challenged myself even more than I did! That’s the way I am… 

****

I have back my original papers and logbook, that have been stored in filing cabinets at the border posts. It was all most efficient and done in 45 minutes. The border seems to have remained calm since the troubles shortly before I crossed on January 2nd. Many burned out shops and buildings on the Ethiopian side testify to the violence that still sometimes erupts in these out of the way borders, far from the seats of government, where the populous takes politics, envy and jealousies into their own hands. This is Africa – volatile, tribally partial, thoughtless and apt to fight before negotiating. It’s been at the back of my mind all the way south: how would I cope if the border trouble erupted again? There’s only this one viable crossing for me: the other one is remote, hundreds of miles of soft sand, gravel and extreme loneliness – and probably beyond me on my own… Still, that ‘what if’ didn’t happen – and if it had, I’d have had a story to tell as I found a way out of it. It always works that way! 

Just remember those statistics at the end of my Ethiopian travels: the median age in that country is 17.9 years old; 64% of the nation is aged less than 25 years; less than 3% reaches my age; a new Ethiopian is born every 12 seconds; 9078 babies are born every day but only 1936 people die; basic literacy is 49% and there’s one doctor for every 40,000 people. It’s currently the 12th largest country in the world by population, and about 20th from the bottom of the poverty league table. And according to at least two of the informed opinions I gleaned, it has a racial bomb just waiting for the right conditions to detonate. 

These are such depressing figures that they can’t help but temper my enthusiasm for the depth of culture and the kindliest of people, or for the delectable buna and the ravishingly good looking women…

Well, I got in and got out without mishap. I didn’t run into a donkey, horse, mule, sheep, goat, camel, dog, pedestrian, tuk-tuk or ditch. The Mosquito stayed rubber side down and apart from a long, spluttering chest infection – still hanging on a bit, but reducing day by day – I feel I opened my eyes a bit to my 23rd country in Africa: a completely unique, individual one at that. 

Tonight I can’t even celebrate with a Tusker. This Moslem town is ‘dry’. Bah.

Just that big desert to cross now.

DAY 58. THURSDAY FEBRUARY 7th 2019. MARSABIT, KENYA

Mad dogs and Englishmen… But I had no choice, the desert must be crossed. 237 kilometres, a bit past my self-imposed limit, but again no choice. I’m back in Marsabit, a dire town where you have to search for a beer and feel guilty for even wanting one in this Islamic misery. Well, actually, I don’t really feel very guilty – maybe I feel I am expected to feel guilty, a different matter altogether! 

Five and a half hours, four and three quarters of them in the saddle, the sun burning down, the air parched and harsh, the temperature I guess in the high 30s, my face drying mile by mile, my mind reduced to the mathematics of my journey: ‘24kms, one tenth gone… 61kms, a quarter gone, 81kms a third…’ and so on, watching the kilometre posts slowly, oh so slowly, count down my journey.

At Turbi, a one-camel town in the middle of nowhere about half way, with a view of nothing but dust and scrub, a few huts and manyattas, a ‘hoteli’ and a couple of meagre shops selling plastic shoes, out of date biscuits and candles, I stopped for reviving sweet, milky chai. Doubtless, I was the most exciting thing to happen all day, maybe all week, in Turbi, where I guarantee not much happens as the camels plod by and the rocks burn just a fraction more every day. Two mugs of chai from a battered Chinese flask, in a chipped mug, is living it up in Turbi.

But a couple of hundred human beings are confined in this empty place, a few shacks, the rounded, stick and grass-built manyattas covered in bits of lorry canvas, tablecloths, plastic sacks and scavenged fabrics – home. Whenever I stop in such places I pause to wonder about life. I cannot imagine being condemned to live in this hinterland of human existence for even a couple of days, let alone a lifetime, short though it may be. Doing nothing the whole day long – the women and donkeys bring the water the seven kilometres from the well, I wouldn’t even have that task to achieve. No intellectual stimulation; an unchanging view of rock and scrub; no ambitions; no achievement beyond survival. “It’s all they know,” is the usual, somewhat demeaning, explanation. Yes, but therefore life here is no different for the donkeys and camels, for it’s all THEY know too, survival until an early, overworked death; but we imbue the human condition with so much more… Surely life must be more than just existence? I can comprehend their lives no more than they can imagine mine: riding my motorbike through their lives, come and gone in a moment. Maybe that’s why the mosques are there, even in these crude habitations, to give a spurious meaning to life, a promise of something higher, more meaningful, a spiritual life beyond this grim existence. But I see all that as a lie: I have only THIS chance and I have to use it creatively – as I see it. Thank goodness I have no belief in reincarnation: I might be condemned to come back as a camel herder in the empty deserts of Turbi, my mobile phone, football league and the screeching mosque my only diversions…

The nearest doctor is at least 75 miles away, probably more – it’s more likely there’s a nurse maybe; the nearest hospital much more. Get an infection, you probably die. Childbirth is as dangerous – and common – as it was in the Middle Ages. There’s no old age pension, no unemployment benefit; the imam is probably the best educated person around, peddling advice 1400 years out of date and selling the ridiculous comfort that it’ll all be better when you’re dead! When you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s camel milk, some meat and imported maize meal for sustenance. There can’t be a vegetable out here: nothing grows in this dust and if it does, it’s eaten by the voracious goats and camels. It’s a miracle that the huge herds of camels, goats and sheep, that whip up soaring, swirling clouds of dust, find anything to live on.

No, philosophise how I will, I’ll never understand what makes that life bearable. ‘It’s all they know’, but I know more. I am SO privileged, have so many choices, so many opportunities, am so fortunate. I do well to remember that sometimes in our incredibly unequal world. Travelling in Africa is a humbling experience.

****

The wind rose in the afternoon, bone dry and hot – and inevitably, on my little Mosquito, a headwind. Dust devil whirlwinds rose red and high into the vast blue sky. The road swept across the hugeness, a smooth stripe in the tumbled rock, dust, struggling thorn trees and dry-as-dust grasses. The whirlwinds of dust and a few lithe, elegant gazelles are the only movement. Such delicacy and lightness of movement as these little gazelles leap away, impossibly light as the air. I’d love to touch one, their are so silkily sleek and shapely. Here and there enormous herds “of camels, haughty and despising, lollop the roadsides, heads aloof. A few ostriches flop about the rocks and dust, bustles a-flutter in disgust at the whirring piki-piki. Otherwise it’s all desiccated and lifeless, just rocks burning infinitesimally slowly in the searing sun.  

As the dusty tornadoes rose into the endless blue sky, I hoped they’d miss me. They are filled with swirling grit and sandpaper my face if I happen to converge with one as it whips and spins across my road. I chuckled to remember the one that engulfed me as I rode past the municipal tip of a small South African town a few trips back, leaving me wobbling through a tower of twisting, gyrating plastic and paper, eggshells and soap wrappers. 

****

The journey went on and on, the kilometre posts providing my only reward. Marsabit was slowly approaching. I knew where I’d stay; I was here some weeks ago and did a good deal with Saleem, manager of a clean hotel. As I’ve written before, going back in Africa is important. I was confident of a good welcome from Saleem, and another  decent room – in fact, I have the same one. 

If I sleep as well tonight as last, I’ll be content. I slept under just a sheet with the balcony door open to the night. It’s a bit cooler in Marsabit with its own microclimate caused by the localised mountain range on which it sits.

****

Since Addis Ababa, I have been saying to myself that ‘it’ll be sorted once I get to Marsabit’. You may remember that it was here that I left off my oil filler cap, and subsequently met Sam, acknowledged as the best mechanic in town. Before I rested – I knew that if I rested, it’d be the day done – I phoned Sam and told him I was coming right round to see him. He and his brother, Steve, have been mending motorbikes in Marsabit since 1992. Firm Christians (in a Moslem town) they moved here from the middle of Kenya. They’ve an oily, dusty yard on the edge of town, but they KNOW piki-piki maintenance. Sam actually owns a bike the same as mine – something of a rarity in Kenya. I rode right round there and the brothers immediately started to diagnose the small problems I have: the engine is burning oil a bit, the drive sprocket, the dirt in the fuel tank – a few things that need putting right. I’ve left the Mosquito in their care tonight (I didn’t want to have to deliver it early tomorrow!) and they’ll remove the head and check the valves, rings and so forth. No doubt, by the time I walk there tomorrow, my Mosquito will be in its component parts. Some of the problems, says Sam, will be caused by the bad fuel in Ethiopia. “We’ve seen it many times! The fuel in Ethiopia is very bad; a lot of paraffin mixed in, and dirt!” I have every confidence that these two brothers, guided by God in their deep belief, will do the very best they can to help me on the rest of my rugged journey. I am so fortunate to meet such decent, kind, friendly people on my African journeys.

And what a delight it is to be able to communicate with just about everyone, share a joke, an opinion, some news and views. I suppose that’s what I’ve loved about my African travels these past seven winters: I travel to meet people, find out what makes them the way they are, what they think, what they do, how they live. For all that I need language and communication. In so much of eastern, southern and west Africa, I have just that and can share my journeys with so many diverse, interesting people.

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EAST AFRICA 2018-2019 – SIX

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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. 

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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?’

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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.

 

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EAST AFRICA 2018-2019 – FIVE

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DAY 37. THURSDAY JANUARY 17th 2019. AZEZO, ETHIOPIA

Every day has its own stories… Today’s concerns that damned front sprocket again – but it all turned out well, thanks, as always, to the people I meet. I always maintain that 99.99% of the people of this world are good, kind, generous and friendly by nature. They certainly seem to be, around me.

****

By the time I had gatecrashed one of the better hotels in Bahar Dar (shamefully easy to do with a white skin) to steal their fast internet this morning to upload this journal, back up there on the seventh floor terrace, it was eleven before I rode north. But I had quite a short day to ride, just 100 miles or so. The little bike was going well after the attention, although I detected a bad rattle. It worries me so much, my vehicle! Why do I do it, I wonder? I’m an inept mechanic, with little idea what rattles and whines mean. I reckon this one is as simple as the horn (which now works again) vibrating against the lower side of the petrol tank. I am reminded of Kristos, the Estonian, and his worrying rattle that turned out to be a loose bolt rolling about in his bash plate under the engine! 

Anyway, all was going well, despite a rather boring road for the first fifty miles. At last, a high, dry mountain range appeared in front of me; a long, lovely road I was to climb over the next hour or two. A high pinnacle of rock rose from the slopes like a finger, very distinctive, with bird lime over its top. I was to see it three times…

The road was good, the views fine, the sun warm, the landscape green again. I was getting back to an area where people waved at me. I was enjoying myself. Then suddenly the rear wheel locked and I skidded to a wobbly halt on a sunny bend. I knew just what had happened: that sprocket had shot off again.

The sprocket was lodged beneath the swinging arm – actually, later it took a four foot crowbar to dislodge it! I quickly found the offending bolt and washer in the road, but I didn’t have a 10mm socket to remove the plastic cover. What to do..? I flagged down a couple of cars, but to no avail: no sockets. “There’s a monastery 200 metres back. Maybe they can help,” suggested one driver. Well, I wasn’t going to get it fixed where I was so I might as well just push it back to people. A huge crowd of completely unhelpful, but enthusiastic children gathered around me, ironically hiding the bike from the view of any potential help. I flagged down a few more vehicles, but it wasn’t until I spotted a small truck, with a tuk-tuk in the back, that I felt some hope. Biniyam and Tlahu were returning from a PR tour of the north, back to Addis. They have been publicising the horrid ‘cockroaches’ – the three-wheel tuk-tuks that make driving such hell in Ethiopia. They spoke quite good English. I must admit, I DO have all the luck! It’s often been said that if I fell in a drain, I’d come up covered in diamonds…

They didn’t have a socket set, but they did have just enough room on the back of their truck to lean the Mosquito on their sample tuk-tuk back to Addis Zemen, six or seven kilometres back down the mountain. And there were plenty of young muscles to lift my not very heavy machine aboard. We passed the high finger of rock again.

In the small town, we looked for a mechanic, me riding in the cab with Biniyan, Tlahu and their driver. The repair took ten minutes – and was done by my kind new friends, not even the mechanic. “We need to find a way to lock the bolt,” I said. “In Europe we’d use Locktite on the thread…” 

“Well, in Africa we have to improvise!” exclaimed Biniyan. “We use paint!” It was even blue paint, about the colour of the Mosquito. We lifted the bike down: we’d done the repair at eye level on the truck. “Try it! We won’t leave until you try it!” 

They waited to wave me off, helping me to purchase the mechanic’s socket in case of further difficulties. They would accept no recompense – I tried to suggest a coffee or even lunch, not money. I even had to force the cash for the socket (which subsequently turned out to uselessly rounded-out Chinese crap!) onto Biniyam. “No! You are our special guest! When you come back to Addis let’s meet for a beer.”

People are SO good. It’s why I love to travel. The majority of humankind is generous and helpful when you are in trouble. I meet so many kind people…

****

Riding back up the mountain, third time past the big finger of rock, a few youngsters waved. They’d been in the crowd by the monastery. They seemed happy to see me riding by again. I probably made their day.

The last forty kilometres were lovely. By now the light had softened into late afternoon, when the shadows begin to define the landscape and the harshness goes out of the bright sun. I passed fields of millet, dodged endless donkeys and cows, and people waved. It’s funny how this goes in regions. The scenery was very fine, a few painted churches punctuating the dry mountains and the waving eucalyptus. Trees closed in and I was entering Azezo. 

I even found a petrol station with a supply as I entered this odd town. I’ve now got a full tank and a heavy 12 litres strapped to the left side of the bike. It’s such a bore, this petrol business. 

Azezo is a strange place. It seems that every road is being rebuilt. There’s dust and potholes everywhere, yet in the area I find myself tonight are cobbles like southern Europe. This weekend is one of the busiest festivals here in the north, centred around Gondar, 20 kilometres north. I’d have stopped there, not this two-bit town, but I have been warned that accommodation would be fully booked and at a premium for the Epiphany celebrations, in which it has, in recent years, become the fashion for mass baptisms in the castle moat at Gondar. Even here, 12 miles away, most hotels are full already. I tried a few places, all of them charging more than usual, before accepting a fifteen pound room in a smart place, with balcony, hot water and a well appointed room. This, after seeing a couple of dingy pits for the same price. But I’ve had to promise to leave in the morning! I guess I will ride to the mountains the other side of Gondar, and return there after the holiday is over on Monday and everyone goes home. Many will be flying in for the weekend and leaving on Sunday or Monday – I hope.

****

Another full day, concentrating on the road hazards, sitting in the high sun, watching Ethiopia pass by and trying to assess it all. My timing’s bad for this very busy weekend. This hotel is full and noise reverberates in these concrete buildings. Normally, I’d probably have it to myself. The Mosquito is in the car park of the next hotel, 12 litres of petrol still strapped to the side. A tip of 30 pence to the watchman assures me of its security! By now that blue paint must be just about dry. I will check that damned bolt before I leave this time…

DAY 38. FRIDAY JANUARY 18th 2019. GONDAR, ETHIOPIA

From the best accommodation of my present trip to utterly the shittiest for many trips, in a few kilometres. This reminds me of my early journeys – 45 years ago… My room is squalid, the sheets from last night – at least – probably a lot older – (out of interest, I marked them to see if they’d be changed – they weren’t!) Oh well, on my journey across the Middle East and Asia in 1977, it was night 81 before I happened by chance on a hotel on the day the sheets were changed!  It’ll probably do me good… I’ve been getting soft in my old age. 

Sadly, my vile, drain-smelling accommodation coincides with me feeling like shit warmed up, with a sudden heavy cold, slight fever, congestion and feeling a bit grim. Sometimes travelling can be challenging; but as I’ve written so often, it’s overcoming these challenges that are the best confidence boosters. Not that I’ve got a lot to prove on the travel front…

NOISE pounds and vibrates all around me. The smell of drains and drying urine is pungent. This is travelling at its grittiest. The bathroom will be used cursorily tonight, with its half bucket of water. Tomorrow I will move on, but for today, beggars couldn’t be choosers as Gondar is heaving with visitors for its annual Epiphany festivities. Yesterday 17 Boeings flew in from Addis alone. I am paying the same for this shitty room as I paid last night for that very pleasant one, with balcony and large bathroom that didn’t smell. But I had to promise I would leave this morning.

****

Despite my congestion and cold, perhaps exacerbated by the heavy dust last night, for my nasal tubes are something of an Achille’s heel, I enjoyed my day, once again thanks to the generous warmth of people I met.

On the recommendation of the young receptionist at last night’s hotel, I rode into Gondar, directed by a boy on the back of the Mosquito. I’m not sure that I wasn’t in Gondar last night. I thought I was in Azezo, 15 kilometres away, but I reckon I was perhaps in a suburb of Gondar, a city that was the capital of Ethiopia for two or three hundred years in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are a series of fine, hefty stone castles on the hill not far from this ‘grotel’ to prove its importance. At least my grim hotel is central. It’s also unpleasantly close to a ********* mosque, although at the moment there’s no way I could hear the muezzin above the riotous amplified music from all quarters. I will at five a.m though. Thankfully, I bought some capsules to help settle my cold, and the Paracetamol seems to be calming me down artificially. Just as well. There are at least four different sources of incredibly loud music around me. My room has, unusually, a window, painted over with very grubby paint, that opens onto the rugged street above a barber’s shop. I’m not sure if it’s better to have the window with all the extra noise – but the possibility of lessening the drain smell, or to have one of the internal rooms, that are gloomy – and probably also smell of drains anyway.

****

Well, the Piassa Nile Hotel wasn’t a place to linger, so I set out pretty quickly for the castle complex, just up the hill. The castles were quiet and peaceful, most in ruins but impressively large, especially on this continent that has so little physical evidence of history. Many local tourists wandered about and I wondered at the extreme vanity that the iPhone (it’s even included in the name…) and phone photos has brought about. I watched thousands of selfies being taken, thousands. And almost all of them will be terrible, taken into the sun, a situation in which black skin just becomes a silhouette; most taken vertically – you look, next time you see people taking photos with their phones and you’ll see that the world is now recorded vertically – whereas we humans see the world in landscape format. Very odd indeed. What is this need for self-conscious posed photos of yourself everywhere? There’s a PhD thesis in this. I take a selfie about once a month, unless encouraged in it by Africans I meet…

As I wandered in the hot sun up on the castle hill, all the churches began a terrible tuneless groan – the sort of dirge they’d get if they asked ME to intone their prayers. This was the start of the religious celebrations, for there are 44 churches in Gondar, and they would all parade the streets in the afternoon, in this event that will last until Sunday. I positioned myself, about 2.00, in the busy streets to watch. My wallet and passport spent the day down my underpants, safe from pickpockets, although I never felt any threat at any time today, despite the crowds. A few floats were pushed through the streets, but mainly this was a chance for hundreds to dress in church finery, beat drums, chant and sing as they processed down and around the hills. I fought my way through the heavy crowds, watching the enjoyment of the participants. They sang and chanted, swayed and clapped. Most were dressed in traditional white cotton, the embroidery intricate. Others wore crowns and robes in white cloth. Some priests carried flat boards on their heads, draped in heavy velour cloths and tassels, as if they had a draped table on their heads. Culture can be a strange thing. Large Ethiopian crosses were paraded. It was noisy and colourful – and entirely good natured.

After a time, I walked on ahead to watch it all again further down the hill. I spotted a beer bar raised above the street by ten feet and decided to watch, beer in hand. I looked for a chair at the front of the yard, atop the wall by the street. Four young men called me to join them. It’s funny, watching the white tourists today, for this event attracts them from afar. Very few engage with the friendly, utterly unthreatening locals. They see the sights but seldom meet the people (except their drivers and guides – who ARE NOT representative of the people). The tinted windows of their hermetically sealed vans separate them so entirely from the smiles and greetings, laughter and hand shaking. Sometimes I even have to let go of my throttle to shake hands as I ride through crowds on the road, plentiful at this festival season. Happily, I sat down with the fellows at their table. One, Yared, spoke simple English. They called for another beer, meanwhile sustaining me with some of theirs. They were so delighted by my company – and I by theirs. They insisted on buying my three half-litre draft beers and then ordered injera and beans. Ethiopians are so extremely welcoming and friendly, it’s a complete delight. Out came the phones for selfies with the old white bloke – and there was such warmth, with much hand shaking and fist bumping and the very Ethiopian greeting of shaking hands while bumping right shoulders together. I had a great hour with them. When a chair became available at the front they signalled that I could move there. “No, it’s better with friends!” I exclaimed, to their rapture. And it was. I realised I wasn’t that interested in the parade, now I could engage with some friendly strangers. I’d done the parade. My amusing spell with the young men cost me my Ghana Football Cup of Nations cap, which I’ve been using to keep the sunburn from the top of my head. Asmamaw liked it so much it seemed selfish not to tell him I’d find another hat.

I walked back to relax around the castle compound, chatting to Samson from DC for a while. He won a lottery visa ten years ago. “Before Trump…” Then I came back to my grimly dingy, unpleasant room, sneezing, spluttering, feverish and groaning. This would have been more acceptable in last night’s rather more glamorous lodgings. Hopefully, the capsules will work and clear my head soon. I doubt if even ear plugs will keep out the appalling NOISE that thunders from the street, the hotel yard, bars and joyful celebrants, this holiday weekend. I will find a better billet tomorrow.

Right, earplugs in and see if I can get some rest. I’ll continue in the morning. Too full of snuffles and grimness now, although the fever has gone with the Paracetamol. Enough for tonight.

****

Continuing next morning, in the now peaceful hotel yard – relatively peaceful, of course. Peace is always relative in Africa. The noise continued until 3am, with me getting some fitful sleep. Around three I fell into a fretful sleep for a while. The mosque shattered the – relative – peace at 5.30. The bed itched, but from the blanket, not bugs, for there was a foam mattress, thank goodness. I feel just slightly alive. I need to ride north to places quieter in the mountains.

If I could only communicate better as I can in Anglophone East Africa, this would be one of the finest countries in Africa in which to travel. I am surrounded by goodwill, and everyone politely greets, and most return a smile. It’s just that without language we are often at a loss to communicate at all, and I am something different and unknown. This country is rightly proud of its total independence but it does put it rather outside our modern global culture. 

Three small cups of buna have improved my lot a bit. Time to get on the road and get some fresh air in my lungs. Mountains ahead, before I turn south again in this vast country. Mountains always make me happy.

DAY 39. SATURDAY JANUARY 19th 2019. DEBARK, ETHIOPIA

This was a good ride today. Only 75 miles or so, with some very fine scenery, little traffic, a good road and just the relief of shaking off Gondar and its noise and the smelly hotel. Sneezing and hacking northwards it was good just to be in fresh air again – trying to breathe. By good fortune, I was out of Gondar in minutes. It seemed my shitty hotel was right by the main road to the farthest north of the country, the road I needed, although I don’t think I will go to the very far north. This is such a vast country that I think I will content myself with Debark as my most northerly point. I’ve come here to see the Simien Mountains, the Roof of Africa, as the tourist blurb says – exactly the same description as used by Lesotho! It IS high here though. Cool enough for me to stop on the road and pull on my jumper, despite the noonday sun beating on my head and shoulders.

****

It’s often difficult to know if I am on the correct road. I can’t read the script and there are no road signs anyway. I rely on the Bank of Ethiopia, who write the branch name in script I can read. It was slightly easier today as I knew I would be travelling uphill to the north. Towns of sufficient size to register on my map are far between and I’m sometimes a bit nervous that I am going the right way until confirmed by a recognisable town.

The scenery today was handsome, high hills with eucalyptus and vistas of dry grasses dotted with grazing cattle. The views were big, but not as big as that which suddenly opened before me, not unlike the shock of the Blue Nile valley the other day. There was revealed a stupendous view of crumpled, creased, shadowed mountains stretching into the furthest distance. It was a breathtaking moment: it’s no figure of speech, for the exclamation that one makes is extravagant, involving a literal out-pouring of breath in whatever word you prefer to express the surprise. The huge view presented itself two or three more times, before being disguised by the mountains on which I was riding. I suppose this was, yet again, the Great Rift Valley that fell away at my feet when I stopped and walked down a short path, surrounded by a group pf children. 

Photos never do justice to the effect of being there, gazing into these extraordinary depths in reality. I could see tens of miles, maybe a hundred. Rippled and confused, folded and crushed, deep clefts shadowed far below; bizarre rocky lumps, the evidence of old volcanic cores, rose barren amongst the wrinkles. The ground just fell away at my feet, a dramatic chasm, thousands of feet deep and a thousand miles wide, it seemed. 

Traffic light, road good, people waving everywhere, bright sunlight, fresh air. What a delight. The smile’s back on my face.

****

Riding into Derback, I spotted the Simien Mountain rangers’ station. I needed information about how I can see the park. Well, it turned out to be expensive! I am obliged to take a ‘scout’ with me, even on my Mosquito. There’s really no way I could contemplate 150 kilometres on my small bike with a scout and his gun on the back – and I’ve only a single seat anyway… I wouldn’t really see much, being so concentrated on the dirt roads. 

However, I have ridden all this way – and it’s a long way – and it’s doubtful I’ll ever be back. I have had to hire a ‘scout’, driver’ and 4X4 for a day trip. It was that or a pillion for the whole day. I hope it turns out to be worth £165! Oh well, I’ll set it against a few hours’ work in USA and enjoy it! How my travels have changed. But, honestly, it’s been SUCH a ride to get here. I arranged it all with Get, short for something much longer and more complicated, and he assures me there’ll be no further hidden extras. I’ll have the vehicle and men at my beck and call from 8.30 until about 5. I’ll just make the most of it.

****

Finding a hotel was messy this afternoon. I checked out a few places – the bike’s just great for this. This town attracts tourists for the nearby park. The two slightly smarter hotels in the extremely scruffy town asked for high payment in dollars (which I always avoid) and the rest were pretty poor. Most tourists fly in, stay in one of the park ‘lodges’ for hundreds of dollars, see the mountain views, avoid seeing Ethiopians, and fly out again, unaware of much reality and meeting no one but their guides. 

I chose one of the poor selection of third rate hotels, because the sun was shining into the room. I moved in, and then realised that the bathroom was filthy, none of the taps worked, the doorhandles were missing, windows didn’t open and all the electrics were absolutely lethal – including the shower socket plugged in just above the shower, wires bare exposed. That didn’t concern me so much, it’s always thus in Africa. But there was no excuse for not cleaning the bathroom. None. I insisted that someone come to clean it. No, it was easier to change rooms! The next room was perhaps worse. Why is it that no one does any simple maintenance? I know I always say that good travellers should leave their standards at home and judge by the standards of the locals. But these people wanted to charge me as much as much rougher rooms down south and I didn’t think it unreasonable, by any standards, to insist on someone cleaning the bathroom. It became completely obvious that it wasn’t going to happen, so I upped sticks and moved right back out again. I had one night’s squalid accommodation yesterday; it was enough. I returned to a hotel up the street where most of the taps seem to work and the room even has a door handle. There’s not much else to recommend it, but even that’s better! For £3 extra, I get working lukewarm water, taps, handles – and the usual stained old paintwork and dirty windows. What is it about management? How long would it take for a manger to tour his rooms each morning, check they have water, taps that work, sockets that aren’t lethal, curtains clean, lavatories that flush (Oh, luxury!) windows washed and so forth? Twenty minutes? Trouble is, once you hit ‘management’ here on this continent you become far too grand to actually DO anything!

****

Finally settled into a sunny room, even if it is a bit basic, I rode the Mosquito a few kilometres north. My map suggested that there would be a drop from these impressive highlands that are somewhere between 2135m and 2745m high, according to my map (7000-odd feet to 9000). Just a few miles north came another of those views. The road suddenly turned a corner – a gravel road by now, which continues right round the north of the country – and a huge view burst upon me again. I love the visual drama of these moments, the landscape just dropping away into those contorted vistas. I do hope my £165 turns up one or two, or I’ll think I could have just stayed on the road for nothing!

As I stood and gazed into the lengthening shadows to the north, I found that there was total silence except for a few birds calling somewhere below. The scent of dog roses wafted about me, heavy on the still, late afternoon air. For once, in Africa, there seemed to be no one but me around.

Smell is an important stimulus for we motor-bikers. It becomes very much part of the journey. We can smell the crops, the charcoal burning, the hot tarmac, petrol, fumes, food, animals – sometimes people. There’s one unpleasant pervasive smell in Ethiopia: bad breath! I don’t know if it is qat chewing, cleaning the teeth with sticks or just lack of oral hygiene, but it is very noticeable whenever I get close! Horrid and distressingly common.

****

As I lay on my bed having moved to the Giant Lobelia Hotel, feeling, it must be said, a bit sorry for my hacking, sneezing, wheezing self, I heard another parade passing, lots of loud music from amplifiers, horns, whistles and chanting. I wandered down and out to join in for a bit. Much as in Gondar, the entire town must have come out to process noisily down the main street. Ten year old Samuel, attached himself. Very charming and extremely bright, he is already speaking pretty good English, good enough to act translator when I found a wall to sit on amongst the locals. His ambition? To become a guide for the Simien National Park – or a doctor. I encouraged him in the doctoring. A smart young lad, he could do it. But he’s from a poverty stricken family, father dead, mother probably uneducated. It’s such a shame to witness these missed opportunities. Sadly, it’s 100:1 he’ll end up as a tourist guide.

Right, I’m being picked up by my own vehicle, driver and ‘scout’ complete with gun, at 8.30. I’ve had quite enough of the blaring TV in the hotel lobby where I am (are ALL Africans deaf, or do they just have a greater tolerance for noise than me? The latter, I think, after 30 years of travelling on this continent). The bar in the next room plays ghastly whining music with a heavy base beat and the dirge churches are at it again. Time to retire to the third floor. I always go as high as possible to get away from the blaring entertainments in bars and restaurants! 

Eight o’clock. Bedtime. I need rest. I feel grimly full of cold. And I can’t stand the noise any more!

LATER. Whatever made me think the taps would work? Of COURSE they don’t, they were just resting on the pipes. I really think Ethiopia has the worst cheap hotels in Africa. Why not just bloody FIX things when they break?

DAY 40. SUNDAY JANUARY 20th 2019. DEBARK, ETHIOPIA

This is one of those entries written a day later. On Sunday evening I was in bed at 7.30, feeling my age for once, feverish, coughing blood, no appetite, utterly grim. Being ill on the road is one of the biggest challenges I face; fortunately it’s a pretty uncommon occurrence. In a listless search for pharmacies, I found little help. The men running these untidy lock-ups, a multitude of boxes and potions thrown in disarray into old cabinets, are not pharmacists; they are just shopkeepers, meddling in drugs. All offered me antibiotics – this for a viral infection for which they are totally useless. There is no hope, immunity will flourish. Mine will the first – and last – generation to  benefit from the wonder drug that has made surgery so successful, prescribed here for everything from malaria to the common cold and indigestion. 

Some offered me what turned out to be antihistamines, others an array of drugs ‘follow dosage of your physician’. Huh. In one scruffy shop I found hydrogen peroxide. Well, that couldn’t do harm like most of the others. In a brief internet connection I looked it up. It turns out to be pretty much the wonder cure – natural – for sore throats. Through the night I gargled four or five times and today, Monday, I feel almost human again, albeit without a lot of energy. 

Interestingly, a young woman, perhaps German, spoke to me on the stairs of this down at heel hotel (what had their tour company done to them?) and said she has the same complaint and had spent the entire day in bed. Somehow, it always makes me feel better to know that someone else has got what I have! Sorry for her, but glad to know it’s just an infection going round.

****

Going upstairs here at 8000 or 9000 feet or so makes you puff a trifle more than usual. Walking up the slightest hill at 11,000 feet, with lungs half clogged with gloop, swollen tonsils, three hours’ sleep last night and no energy at all, felt like a quick killer. I survived, but only through sheer obstinacy. My day tour of the National Park was the most expensive tourist day I ever spent, and you know me, I wasn’t going to waste it! Stupid bugger.

I had a whole minibus to myself, with a somewhat morose driver, who looked as though he’d rather be doing something else, and a ‘scout’, whose purpose I never really did discover, except that it makes employment for locals. I doubted his dirty old gun actually did anything and all he seemed to do was sit in the back of the van and doze. So the company wasn’t very interesting. Just as well the views of the mountains made up for it, although the free ones of the past couple of days were really just about as good; maybe not quite so dramatically framed by cliffs and walls of rock.

The Simien Mountains are one of the main scenic beauties of Ethiopia. They rise to something over 4000 metres and at Chennek, where we stopped, we were at 3620m, about 11,750 – not surprising I was puffing then, although without the cold I’d have probably coped fine as I have been acclimatised to high altitudes for three weeks. 

It’s not so much the mountains that are so beautiful, it’s the views across the vast abyss to their north that we all come to see. From the escarpment, and the road meets its edge a few times on its rocky, battering way, (my driver stopping at all the predestined views saying, “photo…” in his bored manner) the ground drops away into sun-parched, convoluted, weathered lands as far as the eye can see. It’s pretty powerful scenic drama, although I am becoming a bit blasé about it by now, three weeks into Ethiopia’s striking views of rumpled volcanic remains at huge scale. 

The scenery reminded me often of Lesotho; the high clear air, the rolling rural landscapes, the curling dirt road, the sense of space, freedom and altitude. The dramatic escarpment was very much like South Africa’s Drakensburg Mountains – which hold up Lesotho. But they are green at this time of year, while here everything is parched and dusty, yellow stubble and turned soil for the next sowing. At some time of year these high areas must be covered barley – some of it destined, I imagine, for the Dashen brewery in Gondar. It must be very beautiful up here after the rains. I sat for half an hour on a concrete bench on a precipitous rock promontory, my ‘scout’ silent behind me – was he guarding me? protecting me from bandits? being a witness in case I fell off the cliff? I couldn’t work it out, so I gazed at the stupendous view instead. This landscape has been forming for millions of years, since long before Lucy lived in the deserts to the east of here; it’s still forming now, a few grains of dust blown on the wind, a few grains washed downstream, a rock fall here and there. Relentless, unimaginable time, a bit frightening. All our concerns are tied up in those three score and ten (alarmingly close!). What’s half an hour of gazing in these terms? Nothing. Wrapped in total silence, just a few flies buzzing past; a dog barking on the edge of audibility, miles away; the whoosh of large raptors skimming past on the up-currents; I felt that wonderful calm of very high places. 

Being careful to stand up away from the edge, for the seat was within three feet of a staggering drop, about a thousand feet to the first bounce, and then a lot more, and a momentary black out from the altitude would be the last, I staggered back up the very small hill to the track and a buna at the nearby, strategically placed community cafe. The lack of safety rails was refreshing: I was obviously considered sensible enough to be responsible for myself. 

This, Chennek, was obviously as far as my regulated tour was going. I missed my independence and self will. It doesn’t suit me to go on even the least ‘guided’ tour. I want to do it myself. In the car I felt trapped and detached, even from the scenery, let alone the people we passed, for this national park is well inhabited and agricultural. It’s even on public roads for buses, but the authorities have it well sewn up that tourists, Ethiopian (who, as is the questionable way in much of Africa, pay about 10% of foreign rates) and foreigners, have to pay their extortionate entry fees. I’d have had a different experience and been ecstatic by the end of a day riding myself. But I knew quite soon that I’d not have been able to cope with a pillion passenger – a useless one at that, with a ridiculous gun – on that terrain. Especially in my condition. Fighting my bike on that loose rocky track at 12,000 feet would have spelled disaster. 75 miles of that and my strength gone, we’d have been off frequently. And I am always aware that even a twisted ankle would have huge implications on my journey. Imagine being stuck in that dingy hotel with its stained gloss yellow and pink walls, the curtains knotted since they don’t pull on the rail, the sockets hanging out, the (almost cold) shower with no head that splashed the entire bathroom, the (rather good thick cotton) sheets to small for the bed so they rumpled into a rope, the pillows like cement blocks, the relentlessly dull diet of lamb tibs (small bits of tough mutton, with a mere smell of onion as the only vegetable) and injera – no, I remain aware that a small injury would go beyond just the physical discomfort…

By the way, injera. The flat, usually cold thin pancake is made from teff flour, a seed almost unique to Ethiopia and this corner of Africa. It’s a nutritious grass seed and has for years been banned for export by the government, to preserve stocks of the vital foodstuff. It’s what most rural people live on and grow on their small fields, 85% of the country being employed in small scale, mainly subsistence farming. Land is owned by the state and rented; it can’t be bought or mortgaged – mind you, I’ve little doubt that this is highly open to corruption. So rural peasants have no space for land to lie fallow and recoup strength, so the soils are badly depleted, relying on the increasing use of chemicals by those who can afford it. Cattle dung is dried – in rather fine, shapely stooks in yards, with the haystacks around the stick and mud houses, and burned as fuel, thus not ploughed back in as fertiliser.

Teff, totally immorally, has been granted a ‘patent’ to some greedy corporation in Holland; about as morally defensible as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, in which white men divided up the spoils of this continent with ruler and pen and no reference to the actual land owners, cultures or tribes, an act of supreme arrogance still causing problems 150 years later. 

****

The dashboard clock read 7.30 when we turned back. As well as a different calendar, Ethiopia works on a different clock. It uses two 12 hours time periods, starting at six in the morning, nominally dawn, I suppose. So 7.30 is 1.30pm international time and midnight is 6.00. All very confusing, but, happily, the way I met Alice in Addis, for she had just arrived from Egypt and asked me the time. I thought today, that despite all the friendly people I have met these past three weeks, I haven’t had a single in depth conversation since I was with Alice. It DOES make travelling much more lonely and difficult – no one to compare notes, rationalise problems – just converse, which is, after all, our human condition. This hasn’t been such a lonely problem in most other African countries since so many speak English as second only to their local, tribal language, and I often have much more in depth conversation than, “you – from?” and “where go?”

Heart pumping noisily; it’s a long way down to my feet and back up at this altitude, we made one more obviously regulated stop to walk and look at, “waterfall…” – with a point. My totally non-speaking ‘scout’ led be down another path that I could easily follow for myself, offering no help or encouragement to the wheezing, coughing, suffering white man, to look at the non-waterfall. This is the dry season… There was a very large cleft in the ground and a group of very noisy Ethiopian tourists taking selfies. By now, I realised, I just wanted to go to bed. Even sitting and looking, on the two hour drive back was as much as I could handle. I haven’t felt like that in ages – even the Polish tooth surgery was easier! I was almost beyond thought. I even regretted that my room was on the second floor. 

Beyond a search for medicine and half a bowl of soup, my day was done. I staggered to bed at 7.30, groaning with despair and coughing blood. It had been the most arduous day of my journey – and all I’d had to do was sit and look. 

DAY 41. MONDAY JANUARY 21st 2019. AZEZO/ GONDAR, ETHIOPIA

It appears Azezo was Gondar all along. On my map they are ten miles apart, but it seems I’m in a suburb of this rather sprawling, growing city. It explains why I had difficulty finding accommodation the other evening. I managed to find my way back to the Embassy Hotel, the best place I stayed on this trip. I couldn’t hack the stained yellow paint of the Giant Lobelia Hotel in Debark for another night, and this was a quiet, short ride through pleasant high scenery, even for a mind not entirely itself from the amount of Paracetamol imbibed with those flu remedies! I just fancied a long afternoon in a clean room. I must be ill. 

Debark is a deeply scruffy, litter-filled town, peeling and falling apart through inattention as much as money, really very unattractive, even to the hail and hearty. It’s filled with pestering children whose international greeting is “money…?”. It’s been occasional but not common in other parts of the country. Around here, in Debark, it’s universal – and is irritating – probably because I am disappointed and take it personally, as showing that I am seen as no more than a person who might, just might, give them money, while I want to be an object of interest as I usually am in so much of Africa. 

****

Ethiopia has the most beautiful women I’ve seen in Africa, often with large amounts of flowing raven black hair. Many wear traditional white cotton dresses with embroidery and large silver jewellery, Ethiopian crosses particularly. Ethiopians are very distinct racially, longer, thinner faces, more Arabic or European lip and nose shapes and frequently a lovely, fairer skin colour. All have dark eyes, which with this paler brown skin and the rampant hair can look terrific. Of course, almost all in this country are sparely built; some, indeed, are tiny in stature. I feel a giant here – and graceless. It seems the buna stall holders are often beauties, maybe it attracts the customers. It certainly attracts me, to sit and drink my coffee looking at lovey features. One of the most enjoyable parts of these extremely long rides is to stop for a small bowl – or two – of buna. It’s the nearest I can get to mixing with the people. At today’s stop were two real beauty queens. The coffee wasn’t bad either. 

Still not as good as that first one, which will perhaps remain special, at Agere Maryam, on my first Ethiopian morning. 

****

I’ve returned, still hacking noisily, to the Embassy Hotel, which has functioning bathrooms and tidy rooms merely because it’s only a year old. I feel half way to health now, just listless. I arrived at 2.30, parked my bike in the hotel car park next door (same owner but looking very down at heel – he obviously just built a new one up the hill to avoid the cost of maintenance) and came to my room, where I have remained for some hours watching opera on my iPad. I might even consider another night.

****

Some statistics put Ethiopia into a different perspective. It’s amongst the fastest growing countries in the world, and is already 12th in population size. There are currently estimated to be over 109 million Ethiopians of whom a staggering 64% are aged under 25. The median age of this country is a mere 17.9 years old. Wow! That is a statistic to stop me in my tracks. I knew from the evidence of my own eyes that I see mainly young people, but two thirds of the population under 25… Needless to say then, it’s a country with very high poverty. Daily life is a struggle for most and 35% of households don’t even consume the WHO’s minimum level of nutrition. 

There’s a net increase in the population of one more person EVERY TWELVE SECONDS! 9078 births per day, but only 1936 deaths. The average woman gives birth 4.6 times (much less, actually, than Uganda’s 7.8) and a disproportionate number die in the process, attended only by traditional midwives and about 80% having been genitally mutilated. 

Way less than 3% make it to my age, life expectancy being about 61. In my lifetime, Ethiopia’s population has increased by six times, despite terrible famines, extreme poverty and huge hardships. The population’s doubled in the past twenty years. And this is going on and on. Where does the breaking point come? Or perhaps it has already but we don’t open our eyes to it. My travels in Africa, as you’ve read here in this year’s journal and before, gives me no hope for the long term existence of humankind on this straining planet. How can we go on exponentially increasing thus? The land, in this drought-ridden country, is depleted; resources strained; health provision appalling – one doctor for every 40,000 people, and they’ll mostly be in the cities; food supplies failing; education rates poor, literacy – the most basic literacy – at 49%. And one more mouth to feed, mind to educate every twelve seconds. 

Well, I’ve written it all before, so I’ll leave my depressing conclusions there. I suppose it puts into perspective the irritating, pestering children of Debark and surrounding area, seeing us, rich tourists, and for whom the greeting has become, “Money…?”

****

I WILL stay here for another day and recoup some strength and enthusiasm for my journey. The past few days have been hard going but I feel a change coming. A couple of night’s decent sleep and a few hours doing not a lot will build me up again for the next long rides, eastwards across the middle of the country now, until I turn south again back to Addis and the long ride back to Kenya. 

DAY 42. TUESDAY JANUARY 22nd 2019. AZEZO/ GONDAR, ETHIOPIA

Just the day of rest required. I feel 90% recovered, just a residual weariness and splutter. I had a long, quiet sleep in this pleasant hotel, and awoke to the gentle knocking of a hammer on stone, as I did last Saturday morning. I knew instantly what it was, and it reminded me that life can always be worse! On the corner of the dirty, litter filled dust alley below the back of the hotel, sits a man beside a huge heap of rocks: a lorry load. He sits and breaks those rocks into small stones for building purposes. He does it every day – well, I doubt he’s doing it for my attention, so I assume he does it day in day out – bang, bang, bang until the next lorry load is delivered…

The sun was on the sliding patio doors and I felt ready for another day in Ethiopia, whatever it may bring, and I decided one thing it would bring was a bike-less day. It’s important now and again to go on foot and not always be passing by. After a leisurely breakfast I set out on foot. 

They seem to be building half the roads in this rather sprawling city, which generally means they pile the earth on the pavements – if there were any to start with, so you end up walking on the edge of the broken tarmac, fighting with minibuses and tuk-tuks, or grovelling through dust, rubble and debris with all the other pedestrians, dodging loads on backs, bales of firewood, flocks of sheep, knackered old flea-bitten horses pulling carts and the odd cow that wanders across the city carriageways. It’s hazardous and you can’t hurry. Outside the large university gates I stopped at a cafe for my first buna, watching the customers and passers by as the pretty buna lady prepared her brew, an intricate operation involving fanning her brazier to just the right temperature to boil and boil the thick brew in her clay coffee pot, lifting out the wooden stopper now and again to test progress. I have no idea how it all works, but I love the reverence and symbolism it all seems to take on. 

A man at another table ordered ginger tea – I’d like to order it for my nasal tubes but I don’t know what it’s called. It’s strange that my universal sign language mixed with facial gestures and pointing, has almost no effect in Ethiopia. Even that is beyond most people’s comprehension. They really ARE an independent nation, and quite far off on terms of a world culture. Good for them, not yet culturally colonised by Hollywood and CNN, but it does make travelling here more difficult. Anyway, the fellow ordered ginger tea. When it came, in a small glass cup, he piled in four heaped teaspoons of sugar. He stirred and tasted it, then, to my fascinated horror, added three more heaped spoons of sugar! Buna is taken thus as well, except by me, who always stops the server at one level spoon, which I admit does add to the richness of the coffee, although I’d never add sugar to anything else as a rule. 

Fresh juices are one of the delicacies here. A sundae glass of mango, avocado, pawpaw – even in season strawberry, pineapple and others; always served with half a lime (the best food smell I know), the sadly inevitable plastic straw, and a long spoon, costs 70 pence. It’s my way of keeping up a vitamin intake as I haven’t seen a green vegetable for about four weeks.

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On my way back this evening – I treated myself to the ‘luxury’ of a tuk-tuk – I was astonished how far I had walked, just observing street life. On my wandering I found a fine church built within a centuries old fortification. The central round church was younger and closed. Bunting in the national colours, green, yellow and red, flapped around the yard from the weekend’s celebrations, and later I found the extensive old complex at Facilidese, containing the large pool that was the centre of Gondar’s activity. Somewhat litter-strewn, as normal, with plastic bottles, to which most people appear completely blind, floating in the uninviting grey-green water. 

The scourge of the blue plastic bottle is terrible in Ethiopia. It’s said that access to clean water is poor in the country, but it is perfectly fine in most of the cities – where most of the population lives. These people, on the borders of poverty, are easy game for multinationals, and everyone carries bottled water and tosses the empty (non degradable) bottle into the nearest bit of environment. Trillions of discarded bottles line the highways. The other day I watched a young girl finish her bottle and toss it casually over the stair wall of the castle onto the dry grass below. This old grump made her pick it up and deposit it in the bin, twenty feet away! But I doubt the lesson will last. The irony is that I carry perfectly fine water from the hotel taps just about everywhere I go – and will probably keep my immunity longer than those around me who have such limited access to medical help. Bottled water, the cleverest con trick of the century.

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Young men’s current fashions – and remember, that’s a third of the population – are for trousers with saggy bums, worn on the hips, baggy thighs and tapering to tight ankles. Over this they wear shirts, tails out and their hair is frequently shaved round the sides leaving a raised area on top, their curly short ‘rasta’ twists adding a couple of inches to their generally very small, slight stature. Fortunately, the girls – another third of the country – outshine them in long, high waisted dresses, with embroidery, or simple stitched decorations, falling just above the ankle, with various diaphanous veils and shawls flowing with them. Many of them have huge amounts of lustrously black hair, often naturally straight, commonly worn up, or plaited into intricate designs. Their taste in jewellery is fine, large silver Ethiopian crosses, metal necklaces and nothing tawdry. Elegant, shapely women. I’ve seen no fat people in Ethiopia. 

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A quiet day, revelling in the comfort of a clean, well appointed £15 hotel. I’m not even sure I want to rush on, although chatting after breakfast with Mangeshu, a thickset fellow with a big black beard, and a big, deep laugh, who was a deacon in the Orthodox church for ten years but now works with Save the Children, he tells me I will love Lalibella, my next Ethiopian ‘destination’, a couple of days’ riding away. I’ll see how my energy is in the morning. I have about 17 or 18 days left on my visa, although it makes no sense in these countries to leave it until the last minute. In mere riding terms I am about 9 or 10 days from the border in this huge country. 

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