(51) Taking the rough with the smooth
Monday 18th March
As the night went on in the town of Arba Minch, the rain got heavier and it was a good test for the tent as it hadn’t had to cope with any rain since we brought it 3 ½ months ago. It was nice to hear it and even better it made the temperature drop to be more bearable. We were however on what was dry earth and a type of grass-weed and knew there would be mud everywhere in the morning. As the sun rose, the rain continued. We were told the rains had come early this year – perhaps they had caught up with us from England where it had pretty much rained every day since we left! The ground sheet protector was covered in mud but with a few things to do in town we left it all to dry.
We caught a tuk tuk to the junction where we could catch a small minibus (that they kept putting people in even after it was over-flowing) down the long hill into the centre of town. We headed directly to the ‘Tourist hotel’ to finish writing the blog in peace and have breakfast which included a fresh mango, papaya and avocado juice for 40 pence each and was delicious. We posted the blog and returned to the campsite to clear up the mess from the night before – we mean the mud not beer bottles ; ) With the sun now shining it made everything easier. The ground sheet had a shower and everything was slowly packed on the bikes.
We didn’t get going till 3.30pm but needed to move on not only to save the cost of staying another night but to try and get a few more miles done before the Kenyan border. We picked up biscuits, doughnuts and bread in a small stall before descending onto the valley floor to enjoy the flat road.
Leaving Arba Minch
Shaz enjoying the flat road
However Sharon’s back had started giving her a lot of pain so the going was slow. We felt good in ourselves and the people seemed nice to start with but after only 30 minutes the first person tried grabbing at things on Sharon’s bike. She was not in the mood and shouted angrily at them – they just laughed; it appeared it was a good game to wind the ‘ferengis’ up. This continued for the next 10 miles with people standing in the road then trying to grab at anything. It was so tiring and we both couldn’t wait to leave the country in a few days. With it now 5.30pm and with only 1 ½ hours of light left, we slipped off the road to cook. It was a good spot and we were only seen by a small boy who just stood and watched for about 20 minutes before saying goodbye. Tim pitched the tent while Sharon lay down and stretched her aching muscles. At one point we got spotted by a tractor driver over the hedge who shouted to us but we remained quiet behind a bush and he finally gave up and drove off. We cooked dinner and headed to bed.
Tuesday 19th March
The rain remained heavy until 7am when it started to ease and with it the birds started to sing louder. One had a great little tune that made both of us laugh. The rain almost stopped so we got up and lit the stove. We could hear people walking along the road but with our position behind a hedge we were almost invisible. We finished breakfast and managed to dry the worst off the tent before packing it. The tent had proved a success with only a tiny dribble on both sides. As we packed the last of our things we were spotted but it didn’t matter as we were just leaving. We passed a young boy and a couple on the road, who immediately asked for money. We just said “Good morning” and rode on.
The Tarmac soon turned into dirt track and with the recent rain the ground had become sticky. As we passed through small villages the kids tried grabbing stuff off the bikes – they would never look at us, just at what was on our bikes – at least there were no stones heading our way. We stopped a few times and they would scatter but as soon as we continued they would be in hot pursuit. This made the dirt road more tiring and so finding a quiet spot to stop moved became our top priority . The scenery was as stunning as ever and we enjoyed the ride.
We rounded the top of a small hill and spotted a good place on the left over-looking a beautiful valley. It was a nice spot to have a cupper but we were soon joined by a couple onlookers. They kept their distance and while the kettle was on Tim stripped a couple of branches of camel-thorn to attach to Sharon’s bike as a deterrent- it seemed to be her bike they always aimed for. Now clad in 5cm sharp thorns it would be interesting to see if they would try grabbing things now. We finished our lunch, packed our bags and said goodbye to our spectators who demanded 10 birr. We politely declined and rode on.
We finally arrived in the town of Konso and the road continued to climb steeply until we reached the centre. We tried to find a cold drink but it seemed everyone was out of everything except beer. It was tempting but with 64 miles of dirt road ahead of us to the town of Yevello, we needed to keep moving. We went to a fuel station to top up our fuel for cooking but there was no power so the pumps wouldn’t work. We did manage to pick up a drink and a couple packs of biscuits as we rode out of the town. 5 miles into the dirt road, most of it downhill, we realised we had forgotten to top up our water bag. We did spot a slow moving stream so Sharon walked down to it and filled a water bottle to be filtered later. The road rose and fell mostly descending following a dried out river bed.
Many trucks passed us
A stunning ride
The scenery was stunning and with a good dirt road this was great – until we came round a corner to see large machines scraping new topping onto a worn out road. We made our way through the mud feeling pretty despondent and were soon on the old rough road.
Burning off stubble
Trucks made the road harder going
It ended up not being too bad and we managed to find a good place to camp behind an old telephone mast. With the temperature still high and the humidity rising all the time we felt really sticky all the time. We pitched the tent and sat in the dark listening out for hyenas. Sharon suddenly sat bolt upright. “Tim, what was that?” She had heard a deep growl which sounded really close and very much like a lion. Tim giggled as he explained it was his stomach rumbling. Phew!
Wednesday 20th March
The rain was heavy in the night but it stopped before sunrise which gave us time to dry everything.
We spotted many of these bright red bugs in the mud
We heard raised voices and wandered if we had been rumbled but with a lot of banging the sound never got any closer. We packed our things and with 45 miles still to cover and knowing how rough the road was we weren’t sure if we would make it to Yevello.
We got on the road and soon noticed what all the noise was about; a small tipper truck had come off the road and was upside down. We asked if the man was ok and we got the ‘thumbs up’ so carried on. We were relieved to find a small village to collect water and after some discussion they led Tim to a large tank. Now with enough water to fill our bottles and hopefully for the day we continued on.
Ladies taking shade
However with the humidity high and it being so hot – usually around 35-40 degrees, we were getting through our water supply pretty quickly. The road got rougher and rougher and we noticed rain clouds ahead. We needed somewhere to have lunch so pulled over and set up the tarp for shelter and to collect water. It worked brilliantly and the water poured off into the bowl. We soon had enough for a cuppa and to cook pasta that evening.
Taking shelter and collecting rain water
As we were boiling the kettle and feeling rather proud of ourselves, Sharon even more so almost jumping out of her seat in excitement at the bowl slowly filled. Two goat herders came over and Sharon pointed to the water we had collected and one of them went to wash in it. We quickly said no and Tim poured them both some to drink each. They left and we filtered the water ready to use that evening. We packed up and headed along the stony track.
One of the few villages we passed
Tim at a camel crossing
A local bus
Tim stopped to talk to some French tourists in a truck which gave Sharon time to catch up. It was hard going and the rain had made parts of the track sticky so the mud got caught in the mud guards. The track wound up and up making it hard going for the afternoon. We stopped to chat to a local teacher who told us about a ‘city’ that was up ahead. It wasn’t on the map but we knew we could get a drink and snack. We continued on up the hill and eventually reached the top. The ‘city’ was a small town and we stopped to get a coke. It was much more expensive than usual but we put this down to being where we were and guessed they didn’t see many tourists. The kids loved Cowburt as always and kept swinging his legs – they kept well away from Sharon’s bike, the camel thorns were clearly working! We stopped to get biscuits before riding on hoping to find somewhere to stop within the hour as it was too late to reach Yevello.
Time to start looking for a camp spot
The road improved temporarily but soon returned to the usual stony track. We spotted a perfect spot to our left but soon noticed a herd of cows and a man. We rode on a bit further and pulled off the road. We rode on sandy earth through prickly bushes for a couple of hundred metres and soon found somewhere suitable. But we had been spotted! They were nice people and watched quietly while we cooked before signalling they were heading back to their village. The kids hung around for a while longer but as the sun was setting they soon headed off too. We made our camp and headed into the tent and were washed and fed by 8pm. We watched the lightning getting closer, and snuggled up ready for the next bout of rain.
Thursday 21st March
After the heaviest rainstorm yet and with the wind hitting the tent Tim turned the light on to see if water was getting in. To our surprise and relief there were only 2 small drips. By 6.30 the rain had stopped and the fly sheet was all but dry. We packed the kit and had an undisturbed breakfast before pushing our bikes back to the road.
A camp in the tree
It was tough going as the track had been soaked in the night and it was like riding in treacle. The road was getting busier but we weren’t sure where all the vehicles had come from as we had only passed a few villages! A small truck was heading towards us and as is got closer Tim noticed a deep muddy puddle as they were about to pass each other. It was too late and in true comedy fashion he got showered from head to toe in mud. It didn’t really matter as we were both filthy and looked forward to a clean set of clothes and a shower sometime soon.
Approaching a small village
We only had 10 miles to Yevello but with the road surface getting worse, by the time we got there we were shattered. As we descended into the town we were greeted by a nice new black strip of Tarmac. It was wonderful and felt effortless after the rough road. We spotted a nice cafe and brought a tea each. We were surprised to see that we’d climbed over 1,000 metres since Konso – no wonder it was such tough going. Once loaded with the things we needed we continued out of town to find it back to compressed earth. It was ok as it had just been rolled and was in the process of having Tarmac put on it.
We reached the brow of a short hill and decided to have lunch after spotting a large rain cloud heading our way. We quickly put up the tarp and lined up our washing-up bowl to catch water and were soon sat in the dry watching the rain pour into it. We rode on and the road workers said we could go on the new road which was littered with rocks to stop cars from going on it until it was finished. It was great going but became a bit of an obstacle course with camel thorn bushes used as well as rocks. Sharon picked up a puncture after about 20 minutes which gave a large rain storm time to catch us up. We picked a tree, grabbed the tarp and with only enough time to cover us like a blanket we sat while the rain bounced around us.
As it eased Tim said it would have to do better than that to stop us leaving Ethiopia! Within 5 minutes a wall of water you couldn’t see through came down the road. We grabbed our bikes and retreated back down the road to some buildings. We stood under an outhouse to stay as dry as possible and 3 young children stood next to us. They were shivering and one of them popped into the house for a jumper. We didn’t understand why they didn’t stay in the house to keep warm but this became clear when we left 10 minutes later as they darted into the house. They had been staying outside to stare at us!
We headed on along the road with it now looking brighter. The gullies were over flowing which was incredible after just one downpour. We passed a group of rather concerned looking Chinese men who were working on the road.
The new road taking a battering from the floods
Everything soon started to dry as the sun shone again and we spotted 2 baboons hanging out in the evening sunshine We started to climb gently and started to look for a place to camp.
Can you spot the baboons?
We passed a school and decided to ask if we could camp in their grounds. We headed in to find the night-watch man. They said yes no problem and we were soon joined by some of the teachers and the Headmaster all curious about us. They told us there were 95 children at the school which captured many of the small remote villages in the area. Some of the children had to walk over an hour to get to school which started at 8am. The teachers were lovely to chat to and we were grateful for somewhere safe to camp. We cooked dinner and with another rain storm looming, they said goodnight and we headed to bed.
Friday 22nd March
We were woken by something outside the tent in the night and as soon as we made a noise it galloped off. We were in a small compound with a fence so could only put it down to being a baboon. We both drifted off and finally woke to loads of chatter that was coming from the nearby bus stop. There were dozens of people waiting for the already full to capacity buses – we counted 25 people in a small Toyota van that would normally seat 8-10.
Late for class!
We greeted the teachers and the kids who had arrived (we counted 15 out of 95 that attended the school) and said our thanks before riding off down the road. We had only covered ½ a mile before Tim realised he couldn’t find his glasses. We rode back and returned to the spot where we had camped. As Tim looked on the ground, the students helped look but were watching what he was doing rather than what was at their feet so Tim feared his glasses had been crushed by an army of feet. We left with no luck and not wanting to empty our panniers in front of everyone, we rode on to find a quiet spot. We checked the inner tent to see if they had been wrapped up in it. Fortunately they had been and glasses found, we rode on a gently undulating landscape watching in the distance as a huge rain storm approached.
Birds nests hanging like Christmas decorations
Sharon decided to have a break to eat a mango we had found on the side of the road and by the time we got going the storm cloud had got closer. As we approached the small town, the storm hit us in full force and we felt annoyed we had stopped and could have been sat in the dry. Lesson learned, we stopped in the town for a coke dripping wet and spoke to a bus driver we had seen on the dirt road from Konso. He said how hard it must have been on a bike and that he knew the stretch between the Kenyan border-town of Moyale and Isiolo, approx 250 miles (400kms) of which was very bad dirt road . We had been dreading it ever since we arrived in Africa as we had been told that it was in terrible condition and we were now in the rainy season which would make it worse and impassable by some vehicles . The bus driver told us the road we had just done was worse – we hoped he was right as Northern Kenya was also probably the most dangerous part of our journey through Africa as there had been many attacks by bandits in that area.
The road continued to have stretches which weren’t finished yet making us ride on temporary side roads which were very muddy and slowed our progress.
More dirt roads
Working our way through the road construction
We continued on only to find ourselves in another down-pour, this time with no choice but to continue.
Tim disappearing into the rain storm
Local boys under their brollies
After the rain had gone
We stopped in the next town and noticed the road climb up ahead of us. We had had enough of hills and it took all we had to do the long climb out of the valley. As we climbed the pass we could see the hill side channelling the rain clouds along the valley like a giant line of ghostly columns.
Shaz on another climb
We finally reached a small plateau of windswept farmland and rode to the top of the hill looking down towards the town of Mega which was nestled inside a valley amongst the hills. The sun was shining as we descended and it wasn’t long before we had found a very basic, cheap hotel and were sat in a dark bar drinking a cold beer.
We were shattered but we needed to wash and eat so once clean we made our way into town for food. We meet an Ethiopian UN worker who was in the process of trying to reinstate a few thousand Kenyan refugees. It was interesting listening about his work and he even insisted on paying for our food which was very kind of him. We wished him good luck and returned to the hotel for a couple more beers. Sharon was still experiencing back pain which she attributed to the climbing and damp weather so she went to rest while Tim chatted with some local guys in the bar.
Saturday 23rd March
With Sharon’s back still bad but feeling a bit better after a good night’s sleep we needed a rest day before reaching the border town. We lay in bed and watched a couple of films before heading out to have some lunch with Sharon dosed up on Codeine.
It was market day and unless you wanted to buy a goat, chicken, a cheap Chinese radio or a dodgy looking shirt it was more of a spectators market for us ‘ferengies’. We had a lot less hassle with-out the bikes and enjoyed playing with the kids and drinking tea. After a nice wander around and deciding not to buy a goat, we returned to the hotel, bought a couple beers – which was also a good pain killer for Shaz ; ) – did the washing and watched a couple of comedies on the laptop before retiring into bed feeling relaxed. It would have been nice to have Internet but the lack of it made us focus on our surroundings.
Doing our chores
Our hotel getting a soaking
Sunday 24th March
We slept really well waking to a nice day. We were relieved that Sharon’s back was much better. We loaded the bikes and ate breakfast at the base of the fig tree. The cleaners looked on as we lit the stove and put the kettle on. We left the hotel after having a shower and started to descend through the town. A man stopped us and asked for our passports, stating that he was a security officer. Tim asked to see his ID first – we always did this if someone asked for our documents who was not in a police uniform. He informed us he had left it at home but everyone in the town knew him. Tim said unless he could show us some ID, then he could be anyone and we wished him goodbye.
The descent didn’t last and before long we were making our way along a much flatter landscape. The people were lovely with only the odd request for money, no stones or grabbing of stuff. The land was a dark red from the recent rain which made the termite hills appear to glow in the light. We saw a lot more birds probably because there were less people on this stretch of road and enjoyed listening to their songs.
Coming into land
Tim didn’t build this one – the termites did!
Beautifully painted houses
We stopped in a small village for Ingera and wat which was really tasty – we think it must need an ‘acquired taste’. The sandy ground changed to a grey and with this the termite mounds looked like granite monoliths scattered for miles along the roadside.
Then they changed colour – some looked like sculptures!
We stopped for lunch and Sharon had the great idea of putting crispy pastries we had bought earlier into some bread baguettes with raw onions and HP sauce – it was perfect and was washed down with a cupper.
How many water containers can you fit on a bus?
We were pretty close to the Kenyan border town of Moyale but didn’t want to arrive until the next day. We don’t like hanging around at border towns in the evenings and always try to arrive in daylight, giving us enough time to cross the border safely. We rode on and with the rain clouds building behind us but not getting any closer we stopped at a village for water. They pointed us to a small pond where we filled up our bottles and rode on to look for a good camp spot. With just 10 miles (15kms) before Moyale we stopped just past a village to find there were no houses just termites mounds so disappeared into the bush and found a great spot that looked like it was used for keeping cattle in.
Shaz preparing our last dinner in Ethiopia
Monday 25th March
We had a very heavy downpour in the night so much so we managed to catch 6 litres of water just from placing the bowl under the end of the tent. This was more than enough for a morning cuppa and to refill our water bottles. We stayed in the tent until 7.30 when it finally stopped raining but with it still drizzly we loaded the bikes and had our breakfast in the tent. We were spotted soon after but they just said hello and went on their way.
We joined the road and were soon on the outskirts of town. We descended the steep hill following the directions on the GPS to a cheap hotel.
The town of Moyale – a welcome sight
When we arrived it was £6 (sounds cheap we know but expensive in relative terms) and Sharon didn’t like it so we found another one for £4 as we had planned to spend a night there. We asked for an Internet cafe and the lady kindly took us to where it was. We did the essential things and both felt we just wanted to get going. We decided to camp across the border and it was still early in the day so we had time to get supplies.
We rode through the town using up our Ethiopian birr on 2kg of spuds, 2 kg of onions, 1 kg of carrots, 3 tins of tuna, 5x 250 gram packs of pasta, 2 tins of corned beef, 18 eggs (we were planning on boiling), tomato paste, peanut butter, a 2 kg cabbage (we named Kevin) ten packs of biscuits, a tin of pineapple rings and 3 garlic bulbs. It weighed a ton and with 14 litres of water we were going to be well and truly loaded. The map showed only a small village for the first 100 miles or so of road/track to a town called Marsabit. It could take as much as 5 days to get there due to the road and planned to collect rain water along the way as it was a pretty reliable source.
As we were about to leave we flagged down a French couple called Pierre and Christene who were passing in their 4 wheel drive. We wanted to get more up-to-date information on the road. We got chatting and they were actually heading the same way but had driven it many times before so were helpful in giving us advice. During the beginning of the conversation, they invited us for a beer. We gratefully accepted and they brought with them some cheese and biscuits. This was soooooo nice as we hadn’t had cheese since we left Addis Ababa. They were great to chat to and we enjoyed our time with them.
Before we said our goodbyes, they gave us some tinned pâté, biscuits and tinned tuna with vegetables along with a block of cheese! It was so nice of them and all the things we missed. We had never carried so much food but with a possible week out on a road where there is nothing other than a bad road, mud, wild animals and perhaps the odd bandit we needed it all. We met up again at the imagination office and took our turn to be stamped out of Ethiopia and then into Kenya – our 15th country. It was so nice to finally cross the border.
The Ethiopian/Kenyan border
Ethiopia had turned out to be the hardest country so far, not just from the roads but from the people constantly asking for money, throwing stones and trying to steal from our bikes. One of the most annoying things was as we would sneak off to camp out of sight; we could often hear singing from the villages of happy songs and laughter and wished we could enter in invisible cloaks because as soon as we were spotted a demand was issued. The wave of welcome would turn into an upturned hand and with an environment and land that could produce more than enough food to feed everyone it was hard to be sympathetic towards the demands. On the flip side, we watched many farmers plough huge areas of land with a single plough and oxen – they worked so hard.
We also saw many Aid workers driving brand new Toyota Land Cruisers making us question that surely there is a cheaper vehicle to drive around in to free up funds for what’s needed? We also saw tourists paying local people 2-5 birr for taking a photo and handing it to them from a large wad of bills – what message does this give? What was worst about all of this was the feelings it created inside us. We had to be honest whilst writing the blog and would have loved to prove the stories we had heard about cycling in Ethiopia wrong. We would have certainly preferred to have painted a prettier picture.
We did however meet some real gems like Wossen and his lovely family, V and Tom, Jamie and Glenda, Gina and Connar at the German embassy, Addis the cyclist and jeweller who helped us with our bike and not forgetting Richard from South Africa and our good Scottish friend Neil Munro from Khartoum who all seemed to make up for all our bad experiences.
With all the problems we had Ethiopia it is beautiful with a huge diverse landscape; we just wished we could have been given the chance to relax and enjoy it to its full potential……
We reached the Kenyan Immigration and paid our $50 each for our visas and as we went to leave, the security guards offered to fill our water bag and bottles. They led us to a large tank so we could fill every container we had. We said thanks and got on the road. We topped-up a Kenyan SIM card that George (from Germany who we met at Lake Tana) had given us. We descended out of the town and found ourselves on a terrible, rutted and deeply corrugated road. We stopped to treat our water only to find small bugs swimming in it. It was lucky Sharon did Tim’s first as she wouldn’t have noticed in her black bottles and could have got very sick. We were annoyed that not only did we have to pump all our water but it had also contaminated our good water. We rode for a few miles just to be clear of the town before finding a camp spot. Tim had a puncture so we called it a day and ducked off into the bush to cook before dark and leave the puncture till morning. As Tim started to unload the bikes Sharon got the eggs from his handlebar bag to find 6 had broken and covered most of the things in the bag in sticky raw egg. Lucky nothing was damaged only sticky so with a bit of a wash it was back to normal. As the sun set and the moon started to rise, the distinct sound of the hyenas started. They got really close so we made some noise to put them off and disappeared into the tent to hide hoping they would find someone else to play with.
Thanks for reading!
Stats for Ethiopia
Distance – 1,207 miles / 1,942 kms
Total distance so far – 9,854 miles / 15,855 kms
Altitude gain – 19,508 metres
Total altitude – 107,984 metres