Bahir Dar to Addis Ababa
The last few days have been very difficult. I seem to be getting weaker and slower as the trip progresses rather than faster and stronger as I had expected. Some online research in Bahir Dar confirmed what I already suspected, I am being affected by something called “over training syndrome”. This is basically when your body doesn't have enough resting time or food to repair the muscle damage done by exercising and so you get weaker, rather than stronger as the exercise continues.
I have most of the symtoms, as described on Wikipedia. A sore throat, difficulty sleeping, sore legs and of course “reduced physical performance”. Rest is the best treatment for over training syndrome and if you're not careful you can end up needing months of rest to get over it. I've considered supplementing my diet with extra protein, but apparently there is already plenty of protein in the meals provided by the TDA.
Essentially, I did no training for this event and haven't done a great deal of cycling anyway in the last few years. Now I am most definately paying the price :).
I have already lost a lot of weight, maybe around 10 kilos. Whilst I still have some spare fat to loose, at this rate I will have used up all my fat reserves within 2 or 3 weeks. At that point, I guess the real the trouble will start ...
My plan (hope) is to arrive in Capetown supremely fit rather than a physical wreck so clearly something must be done. I've talked to a few of the other riders and staff and it seems like part of the problem is that I'm not getting enough calories. We're burning something like 8000 calories per day and it's very difficult to eat that many calories in a typical cycling day. I need to make the best possible use of the “rest days” by eating as much food as possible :).
To help with my overall health, I've also gone down with a stomach bug. Fortunately, the main effects only lasted for about 12 hours although it left me pretty weak and feeling rubbish for about 48 hours. I spent two days riding the truck.
I suspect the altitude has also been a problem. Most of this section has been above 2000 metres with the highest point being 3200 metres.
The highlight of this section of the trip has probably been the 15Km, 1350 metre descent into the Blue Nile Gorge. The biggest challenge, the 20Km, 1850 metre ascent up the other side of the Blue Nile Gorge. All the days of riding have been hard with rolling hills, steep climbs and awesome downhills.
I've been getting increasingly sick of the Ethiopian kids. I've heard “you, you give me money” at least 500 – 1000 times per day since the Ethiopian border and it's started to hurt my ears. When kids ask for money, I've taken to saying, “no, you give me money”. When they're just shouting and screaming “money, money, money” I've started immitating them in my best whiney voice. It sometimes confuses them or sometimes they seem to get the point I'm making. Either way it generally shuts them up or at the very least helps me deal with their constant bleating.
Anyone who thinks I'm being unkind should try cycling across Ethiopia! The tourists that bring pens, pencils, sweets or money to hand out to the kids have created a culture of expectation that has turned most of these kids into annoying brats that expect handouts from white people and sometimes resort to spiteful violence when they don't get what they want.
At one point, in a cafe in Bahir Dar, I was paying my bill and a guy sitting at a table near the till asked me two buy him two "coka's". At first I didn't understand what he was saying and when I did understand it still didn't make any sense. I asked him, "so, you want me to buy you two cokes?". "Yes", he beamed clearly pleased that he had made himself understood. "Er, no. Why would I want to do that ?" I replied. He continued chatting to me as if nothing bizarre had just happened.
We've been advised by the TDA that if we want to give out such things, the best thing to do is give them to the local priest or the headmaster of a school. That way these resources find their way to the people that need them most. Our tour director witnessed a van full of Polish tourists pull up into a village and give out 1 Birr to each child. These tourists are helping to create a culture of dependance and expectation of help from foreigners rather than encouraging the people to help themselves.
I should point out that the almost all of the adults and many of the children are lovely, friendly people. If I've stopped by the side of the road, usually someone will stop and ask if I need help. Sometimes, especially in rural areas, they will just stop and watch intently whatever it is that I'm doing.
Day 31 – Bahir Dar to Farm Camp
161Km on good paved roads. Rolling hills with an overall gentle climb for the first 80Km to lunch. After lunch it's still rolling hills but with a steeper underlying climb. The total net elevation gain for today is 1000 metres so considering some of the awesome downhills the total climbing must have been much higher than this. There are very few flat stretches of road, it's either uphill or downhill and the downhills don't really compensate for the effort of the uphills.
There have been quite a few attacks from children today although fortunately they all missed. At one point I turned my head in time to see a stone whizz past a few inches to the right of my face. I stopped to chase these particular kids but they were very quick to disappear into some woods. On the last downhill section of the day (where I hit a top speed of 77kph) some stupid little sod threw a fist sized boulder at me because I didn't immediately stop at his request for “money, money, money”. It fell way short, but it's the thought that counts.
At another point, a guy that was riding a little way behind me was hit very hard on the arm by a kid with a stick. All Ethiopian men (and many children) seem to carry stout sticks which are used for all sorts of purposes such as controlling (ie hitting) donkeys and balancing heavy loads on their shoulders. This particular kid swung the stick into Eric's arm and chest like a baseball bat with sufficient force to shatter the stick. Fortunately, Eric got away with a bruise but two inches higher and he would most probably have had a broken jaw. Some Ethiopian men chased after this particular kid. Strangely, I'm pretty sure I passed this same kid a few minutes earlier, waved and said hello and he was perfectly friendly. He didn't even ask for money. This is Ethiopia !
A few miles further on I came across a lot (maybe 10) children of various ages blocking the road. Several had sticks and one had the stick raised like a sword preparing to hit me as I passed. I slowed down, pointed at him and told him “you do that and you will absolutely get your arse kicked”. The words were for my benefit but the tone of voice gets the message across and he runs off. A few of his friends are now closing in and they get my best “don't even think about it” look as I cycle past.
With all this talk of violent kids it's worth reminding you that almost all of the adults are extremely friendly. (The worst I've had from adults is the very occaissional sour look). On several occaissions I've been stopped by the side of the road and drivers have stopped to see if I need help. There have also been many “thumbs up” and waves from drivers and their passengers. One guy standing at the side of the road said to me “please to ride fast to be with your friends soonest”.
I passed through one particularly friendly village around 105Km south of Bahir Dar (actually, most of the towns and villages are pretty friendly). In this village I asked at a local shop if they had any Pepsi. They didn't, but a woman who was standing nearby sent one of the children off to fetch one. It took about 20 minutes for the kid to come back with an Orangeade (perfect) by which time I was surrounded by a group of about 30 kids. The kids in towns are friendly and I chatted to them about the usual stuff, where I'm going, where I come from etc. They hadn't really heard of England, but predictably they had heard of Manchester United and Arsenal. I told them I lived near Manchester. As always, the kids are supremely curious about everything we do. Thirty pairs of eyes watched intently as I drank my Orangeade.
Quite often, a local on bicycle will pull up along side to talk to you or maybe just to “race” you . Today one particular guy cycles up and asks the usual “where are you go” type questions. He followed along with me for a while, which always makes me uncomfortable as many of them have a very under developed sense of self-preservation and are more than capable of swerving randomly into your bike.
After a while he indicated that he would like my cycle helmet. No chance. He continued to follow along and asked if he could have my sunglasses. Er, still no. After a few more K's he asked if I wanted to swap bikes - his was “very fast”. Tempting, but ultimately, no. After about 5Km's he told me that he had to stop now, so could I just give him some money ? He seemed somewhat surprised and disappointed that I declined. It's tragic, but many of these people seem to think that all white people just have money, pens and shirts to hand out.
Earlier in the day I cycled for a while with a guy who was very friendly, explained that he works for China. When we arrived at the stick building where I guess he worked he waved and wished me good luck. He didn't ask me for anything.
As I was nearing the end of the days ride and approaching the last village of the day, I came across a large group of about 50 – 75 adults marching along the road into the village. They had a flag and more than a few of them had some noticeably shiny AK-47's. They were chanting something as they marched. It really didn't look good. I gave them my best and most hopefull “salam” and friendly wave. I got 50 – 75 friendly waves back! Phew. As I passed through the village, I noticed that the villagers could see and hear the group and didn't appear concerned. Who knows what was going on ?
We camped that night at a farm. It was a long days cycling for me at 9.5 hours. I was one of the last riders to arrive and there was already a perimeter cord up around the camp to keep the 100 or so potentially sticky fingered local children from wandering through the camp.
Some of the kids have brought bottles of Pepsi and beer in the hope of selling them to us. I didn't really want a fizzy drink but I bought one anyway as I admired their enterprising spirit. The kids will be there until nightfall and back again wrapped in blankets at first light.
Day 32 – Farm Camp to Forest Camp
Started today very tired. 119Km of steep rolling hills. We've been warned that the distance today is less than yesterday for a reason ! The route starts with an excellent 30Km descent with a few short climbs through villages. The next 35Km consists of big, steep climbs with smaller descents up to lunch. The total climb so far today has probably been about 1000 metres. By 40Km's I'm totally exhausted and I'm walking up hills and generally struggling.
Pleasantly, there seem to be some really nice kids today. Much less begging and only one stone thrown. We walked and cycled for a few Km's with one group that were on their way to school. They walk 6Km each way to school every day in bare feet !
At about 1:30 myself and Edward are picked up by the lunch truck that has come back to look for us. Normally, we would have been caught by “the sweep” but the person riding sweep didn't spot us as we were having coffee in one of the villages.
I rode the truck to camp in the afternoon as I was exhausted and wanted to recoup some energy for the Blue Nile Gorge the next day.
In the evening I had a chat with Allan and Graham about the fact that I'm getting weaker. It transpires that even the fittest racers are having problems with getting weaker. It's encouraging to know that it's not just me having problems. Based on their advice, I force myself to have 3 mugs of soup (which is isotonic to replace lost salts and fluids) supplemented with a tin of tuna, 3 mugs of tea and as much dinner as I can reasonably eat. I start to feel quite positive and energetic about the next days riding.
Tonight we are camped in a forest which makes it difficult to pitch our tents close together and secure the perimeter with a cord. Children from the local village are watching us and wandering about the camp. Every now and then I can hear what sound like excited squeals from the children and they all run off to some other part of the forest. What could be so much more exciting than us I wonder? After a few cycles of this, I spot one of our Ethiopian “advisors” chasing the kids through the forest with a stick. He definitely looks like he means business and will have no problem giving the kids a severe incentive not to come back. However within 30 minutes or so the kids will indeed be back and the advisor will go to work again. Tough kids.
By the time I was ready to put my tent up it is already dark. Personally, when I get to camp my priority is soup, tea, relaxtion, dinner and then tent so it is usually dark when I do the tent thing. I set my tent up, put my bags inside and then it's time to go to the toilet. I collect one of the shovels from the truck and wander off into the now very dark woods to find somewhere suitable to dig my hole. Last night, one of the South African staff heard hyenas during the night so I am alert to the possibilities. The last thing I want is to get attacked by hyenas with my shorts around my knees. I keep the shovel close to hand just in case.
When I get back to my tent I open my bag to get my mattress and sleeping bag and there is a small lizard inside staring back at me. It looks like some kind of Gecko. I eventually fish it out of my bag and evict it from the tent. Clearly, it has found my bag and crawled in through a slightly open zip as my bag was lying around whilst I drank tea and “made merry”. If a lizard could crawl in, anything could haved crawled in – and by anything, I mean SPIDERS. A search of my bag reveals no further wildlife but clearly I will have to be more careful in future. Apparently, there are no dangerous spiders in the countries we pass through, but there are some big, furry, harmless ones. For me, there is a very real danger that I will simply die of fright if I find one of these things in my tent.
Day 33 – Blue Nile Gorge
When I was safely back in the UK the infamous Blue Nile Gorge seemed like the highlight of the tour. I thought I would be super fit by the time I reached and wondered how quickly I would rip through the “time trial” part of the day. Now that I'm here “on the ground”, I realise the scale of the challenge.
Despite yesterdays positive feelings I woke up feeling not very energetic. The day starts with steep climbs and some good downhills which are a challenge in themselves and I struggle to make it the 50Km to the lunch truck and the start of the descent into the gorge. I am determined that whatever it takes I am going to complete “the gorge” and not get on the truck.
The Blue Nile Gorge consists of a 15Km, 1350 metre steep descent into the gorge followed by a 20Km, 1850 metre ascent up and out the other side. The ascent is a time time which starts just after you cross a bridge over the Nile at bottom.
The descent is awesome with breath taking views, hard breaking into bumpy corners and very rapid acceleration up to about 60kph out the corners.
I did have one set of kids try to poke a stick into my wheels at 50kph and unusually one adult picked up a stone and pretended to throw it at me. I went back to shout at this idiot, telling him how stupid he was and threatening to call the police. What a waste of breath. I wish I'd thought to pick up a stone and pretend throwing it at him so that he could see what it felt like. Anyway, I was determined not to let idiots spoil the fun, but you have to watch out for them.
At a guess, it took about 20 minutes of awesome high speed descent to get to the bottom of the gorge. It was very noticeably hotter at the much lower altitude. Unfortunately, now it was time to “pay the piper” and cycle up the other side.
I was tired almost immediately and stopped frequently. My first rest stop was after about 1.5Km and I had several more before I got to the 5Km point. Both my energy and ethusiasm for cycling were at a serious low. I decided that rather than keep stopping I was better off walking as at least that meant I was making progress up the hill.
At one point I was passed by the lunch truck and whilst it was tempting to jump onboard giving up was not an option.
There were more than a few kids shouting for pens, money and shirts. I wasn't in the mood for them. All the kids get the benefit of the doubt with a friendly wave and a “salam”. Any persistent or particularly shrill ones get short shrift. “No pens, go away”. Hey it works, they leave me alone.
I walked most of the next 5Km to a coke stop at the halfway / 10Km point. I felt much better after a couple of cokes and cycled the most of the next 10Km to the top. There were quite a few places where the hill was so steep that it was actually quicker and more efficient to get off and walk. At points, the edge of the road, which had no barrier was very close to the edge of the gorge. As you might imagine there were stunning views on the way up. At times, some locals walked with me and gave me encouragement. Eventually, I made it to the top which was an unbelieveable relief. My time for the climb was 4 hours 15 minutes.
We camped that night at a “CPAR” facility a few hundred metres from the top of the gorge. CPAR stands for Candian Physicans for Aid and Relief which is an organisation started by Henry Gold, who also founded the Tour d'Afrique. CPAR is now a fully "indiginised" NGO which means that it is fully staffed and run by Ethiopians but just keeps the original Canadian name. They desperately need more funding to continue they're on going projects, so if you have money you might like to donate, please check the CPAR website.
Day 34 – CPAR to CPAR
Woke up today feeling really hacked off with cycling. The prospect of yet another day in the saddle was enough to bring me almost to tears. The prospect of yet another 86 days seems like the worst possible torture. I opted for a “duvet day” on the truck.
This is kind of a shame as today the tour reached it's highest point at 3200 metres. I would have liked to have cycled to it, but today I just needed to rest.
By the time the truck arrived at the next camp, I was thinking I could really do with the toilet. Within 45 minutes I had serious diorreah and nausea and was feeling like death. I have finally caught the stomach bug that has been working it's way through the tour group. I struggled to put my tent up, crawled into bed and kind of slept until the next day.
Apparently there were some stunning views of the gorge within easy walking distance of the camp but there was just no way I was moving.
Day 35 – CPAR to Addis Ababa
Woke up very weak this morning but at least I was feeling better than yesterday. I had a terrible night's “sleep”. Getting it together to pack my kit and tent was very difficult. Clearly no cycling today. I slept for most of the journey on the truck. We waited outside of Addis Ababa for all of the riders to show up so that we could all travel through Addis to our campsite at the Guennet Hotel.
I was still feeling pretty rubbish so I put up my tent and had a snooze. Around 5pm I started to feel better and within an hour was feeling pretty much fine. My outlook on the whole tour has changed and I'm feeling positive again. Eating food seems to make me feel slightly ill, which is a bit of a problem as tomorrows rest day is my opportunity to stock up on calories for the next few riding days.
Day 36 – Rest Day in Addis Ababa
No plans for today beyond eating as many calories as possible, doing some laundry and trying to get internet access to send a few emails and update my blog.
Eating enough food is going to be a real challenge. It's ironic that back in the UK eating too much food is the problem. Here, where food is seriously cheap and I need to eat as much as I can, I don't feel hungry. I wouldn't mind finding some strawberry ice cream though :). I've noticed that I've gone down 4 belt notches !
STOP PRESS: I found some strawberry ice cream and after talking to a few people I'm probably going to be taking it easier on the next stage of the tour by riding the truck more. We'll see how it goes, but the next 3 weeks are supposed to be the hardest section by a big margin. I'm already suffering a potentially serious health problem (over training syndrome) so I'm going to have to be realistic about what I can do without making that worse. As one of the riders said, "I'm prepared to challenge myself, but I'm not going to suffer". Good advice, I'm probably going to take it...