The reading I'd done about cycling Ethiopia had done little to prepare me for the reality. Tales of other cyclists had singled it out as one of the most testing places on the planet to pass; stone throwing kids being the main culprit soon followed by volleys of verbal abuse and highway robbery. How inspiring! The reality however, was a world away.
By this point I'd given a lot of thought to how to appease pebble pelting kids even contemplating cycling all day in a superhero outfit! Alas no Superman and Spidey costumes for two overgrown fellas could be found in Sudan.
So with a breath of hesitation and a pinch of positive bravado Kenny and I rolled across the border.
The change after nine months of being in the Arab world was stark; swathes of brightly dressed people, hustle, bustle, bars and women; publicly visible women. My word, even some cleavage! Steady on – eyes on the road Kenny! It was a riot and amusement to the senses. Brilliant!
Without our superhero outfits, Kenny and I had been honing our Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia) from a phrase book instead, trying to close the cultural chasm that had been laid out in the books and blogs of travellers before us. Our first attempts seemed to go down well; everyone seemed friendly. After 10kms we'd had no rocks in the face; what were we worrying about? We pedalled into the lush green hills with tails wagging.
I've never visited a fantasy planet or time-travelled but our first few hours in Ethiopia seemed to come pretty close. If you're familiar with the Lord of the Rings, we'd entered the Shire, home to the Hobbits.
The land seemed energised. Ancient knotted and twisted trees branched to fantastical proportions. Plants, flowers and vegetables bloomed. Little wooden huts lined the road. People dressed in garments with more patches than a grandmas quilt. Unanxious animals roamed freely. Hills rolled into mountains. It was quiet; a whisper of wind and the ambience of clunking pans, mothers natter and children's laughter. Life seemed simple and happy. There was serenity; a natural order between people, animals and environment. It was like another world, where life lived in balance.
Our rapture was soon complete. Rolling towards a huddle of humble wooden homes we were greeted by a line of female smiles across the road. We were blocked and soon surrounded by a wall of singing sirens bewildering the two-wheeled sailors who'd floated in whilst in a dream. For all my travels I would not ask for a moment more beautiful than this.
As night fell we thanked our lucky stars and spent the night under the mosquito nets and hospitable gaze of a family we met on the road. Welcome to Ethiopia.
Road to Gondar
We set off early riding towards to the sunrise. Our progress was slowed by the stunning beauty of the light and scenery that the reams of photographs I took still fail to adequately capture.
The road wound its way through successively higher peaks and we ground our way up and glided down the mountain-sides drawing closer to Gondar. The ride provided the trials and rewards of adventure; flung into a new culture and language, tasting new food, camping in mountains, seeking refuge from the torrential rains under majestic trees, and provoking screams of laughter from children with our attempts at Amharic.
It was striking just how many kids there were. Not a rest stop went by be it in a sunny vale or rainy mountain-side where children didn't appear.
Still no stones
The only thing thrown at us to this point was a volley of requests for anything it was assumed we might have. In trying to politely refuse requests we consulted our phrasebook:
No = m'be
I'm sorry = aznalo
Easy enough! So with a touch of self-assurance we regaled this phrase along our route. We found out much later m'be is considered slightly rude and aznalo the kind of sorry you say when someone has died; truly lost in translation. For reference, a better phrase would be 'Yellenyem yikarta, eshi?', 'I'm sorry, I don't have any – ok?'
Despite our commiserating Kenny had truly flipped the script and seemed to be getting the hang of getting kids to push him uphill! Quite a turn-up for the books… and blogs.
That night we watched one of the most heavenly sunsets we might ever be likely to see.
Knowing we'd be very unlikely to find a stealth camping spot, with people seemingly everywhere, we chose to seek refuge in a church. Our request to camp caused an almighty row; the main protagonists shaking rifles at each other. To save a death before dinner we tried politely to leave but this caused even more consternation and rifle wagging at us; easy tiger! In the end it seemed that problem was not if we could stay but with whom. The most diplomatic solution was soon reached and we were given simple but perfect lodging inside a store room.
The following day we passed the world and his wife and their cows walking to market; a procession that stretched for over 10km either side of the town. There are so few cars in Ethiopia it seems that everyone walks no matter how far. Outside Addis the only traffic you'll be held up by is of the kind that munches grass for fuel. Alas cows' constant methane burping is not much better than cars for our environment but here at least there's a natural balance.
Soaking it in
We sat out the afternoon rains in a town surrounded by intrigued kids eager to hone their English, which they start learning in 2nd Grade. The attention could be overwhelming but for now it wasn't, we were drawing close to the ancient capital of Gondar, with its castle, 47 churches and unbeknown to us at this point an inspirational local NGO called Yenege Tesfa.
I will remember the days from the Sudanese border to Gondar as some of the most magnificent of the trip, the kind of adventure I'd dreamed of. The landscape lush and green, the rainy season having restored life, wealth and full bellies, the start of an eye opening expedition into Ethiopia that after six months still continues.