Ethiopian Border to Gondar
It's taken two days of very tough riding to get from the border to the town of Gondar.
From what I'd been told of Ethiopia, I was expecting a continual supply of stone throwing children and aggressive adults. I've been pleasantly surprised to find that people are on the whole just as friendly as the Sudanese.
So far, I've had a couple of stones thrown at me but these were half-hearted attempts by very small children that didn't really come close. Many of the other riders have reported being attacked with stones and sticks by older children in what appear to be coordinated ambushes !
Apparently the attacks are worse for riders at the back of the group as the children have been alerted to the presence of “ferengi” (foreigners) by the first groups of riders and have time to plan their attacks on the later arrivals.
As one of the slower riders I can expect to get the full experience over the next few days.
I was also expecting that the country was so crowded that there would be people everywhere. Whenever the trucks stop anywhere near a town they are surrounded by curious children but out in the countryside there is plenty of empty space where you can stop without being bothered.
The Ethiopian landscape is stunning. We cycled through the Simian Mountains which are how I imagined Africa would look. Dramatic mountainous terrain sparsely covered with trees and mud hut villages.
Currently, I'm typing this on a much needed rest day at the Goha hotel in Gondar, Ethiopia. The last 6 days of riding have been extremely challenging and I'm currently experiencing a kind of “deep exhaustion” that I suspect is a symptom of “over training”.
Having done relatively little cycling over the last few years, the tour is in effect the most extreme fitness training program that it would be possible to devise. Imagine doing 6 or 7 spinning classes per day, 6 days per week for a month and that's pretty close to what I'm doing. I must be getting fitter but I'm also getting more exhausted and the net effect is that I'm getting slower. Getting slower is a vicious circle because you then spend more time riding in the heat and less time recovering and re-hydrating in the evening.
I've got on the truck at lunch on both the last two riding days as I've just been so tired. The terrain has been so challenging combined with mounting tiredness from previous days. I'm not remotely disappointed with this as there are limits to what you can demand from your body. Maybe I could have dug deeper and done more but this would only have postponed some inevitable consequences.
It would be interesting to weigh myself as several people have commented that not suprisingly, I've lost weight.
This morning, I was almost too tired to walk and have spent the day resting, eating and taking care of the minimum amount of chores (laundry, bike maintenance and tyre changing). I'm feeling positive and starting to feel a bit less tired. Gondar seems like an interesting town with a brewery and a castle but I'm staying in the grounds of the hotel because I just need some rest and a break from being the centre of attention. Fortunately, the next couple of riding days aren't looking too challenging (114Km and 60Km) before another rest day in Bahir Dar.
Day 26 – Ethiopian Border to Desert Camp
This was yet another really tough day and one of the toughest on the tour. 98Km of really terrible roads which were so rutted and covered with boulders that they were barely ride-able. In these kinds of conditions it's sometimes easier to ride quickly as you can tend to “float” over the top of the bumps better. I have no strength to go fast and crawl along experiencing the full effect of the poor conditions :)
We passed through some Ethiopian villages. The houses are all essentially made from sticks with straw roofs. People here seem to be living as they have done for hundreds of years. The villagers are pretty excited to see us and it's hard to try and wave and say hello to everyone. I don't think many of the other TDA riders are that careful to try and say hello as it is pretty hard work. I wonder if this is the source of some of the stone throwing and aggressiveness that has been reported in previous years. Looking at our arrival from the perspective of the villagers, it is pretty rude to cycle through their village and not even say hello.
The route is rolling hills, with some fairly steep climbs and stunning scenery. I passed one village that had what appeared to be some kind of ore smelting facility immediately next to it. The factory was belching out smoke which covered the village. Pretty unpleasant for the villagers.
As in Sudan, there seems to be a very active road building program in Ethiopia. I can see it's a possibility that next years Tour d'Afrique could be all on road with no or minimal off road sections. This is probably a good year to see Africa before the entire continent is completely modernised.
By about the 50Km mark I'm starting to get really tired and find that all strength has gone in my legs. When I get to the lunch truck I decide to call it a day and load my bike onto the truck. The alternative would be slog it out and arrive in camp late (if at all) yet again, even more exhausted.
Day 27 – Desert Camp to Gondor
This is probably the most challenging day on the tour and probably one of the most fun and challenging bicycle rides of my life. 107Km mostly on utterly terrible roads. I only made to the 52Km point before calling it day and getting on one of the support vehicles.
The road surface was loose gravel, boulders and rutts and was continually either climbing or descending as it twisted it's way around and over the Simian mountains. The climbing was technically quite challenging and required using the lowest possible gear. The descents were steep and required total concentration to avoid hitting a boulder or a rutt and being thrown of the bike at speed. Genuinely dangerous stuff.
At around the 20Km mark was a long climb with a 1 in 10 gradient that went on for 10Km. Yes, this means that in 10 kilometres we climbed vertically 1 kilometre !! The longest climb I've ever done. Each time I thought I'd reached the top I turned a corner to reveal yet more hill to climb.
Eventually, I reached the top with amazing views over the surrounding area. I think at this point my absolute altitude is about 2600 metres. There was then a series of descents. The first passed through a busy village with people stepping out into the road without looking, a donkey drawn cart pulling out directly in front of me even though he had seen me. With so much going on, it's hard to take it all in what with the need to keep making forward progress.
Eventually, there was a final descent on smooth paved road that descended at least 500 to 750 meters in somewhere around 10Km. Top speed was 65Kph, my fastest on the tour so far and pretty hairy without anything protecting your skin should you fall off.
The view was stunning as I could see for miles as I descended into beautiful green fields. I wish I had my video camera mounted on my helmet :/
I was expecting to find the lunch truck at the bottom of the hill, but it wasn't there. That was either the most amazing downhill ever, or the worst detour ever.
There was no way I was going to re-climb the hill to find out, so I carried on in the same direction and hoped for the best. Eventually I came across one of the TDA support vehicles that had some lunch for me. I was the last rider as many other riders had dropped out behind me. It was now 3pm and with 53Km to go there was no way that I was going to finish the ride before dark, so I loaded my bike on the support vehicle again.
I'm very glad that I'd did because the remaining terrain was pretty tough and took 1.5 hours in a vehicle. The very last section up to the hotel included another massive uphill section up to our hotel from which you can see for miles.
Massive respect to those riders that did manage to complete 1 or both of the last two days. An extreme test of fitness and mental resolve. Even more respect to Allan Benn who is, I think, currently leading the race who completed the entire distance in 4 hours 29 minutes !! Unimaginable...