ETHIOPIA – The Velvet Fist in an iron glove
By Fred Horny
After many discussions in the winter with my friend Guillaume, our choice was made, we are going to head to Ethiopia. Trails full of oriental perfume, burning incense odors, and big mountains not really known for mountain biking.
It’s a simple plan on paper, start at Bahir Dar (Blue Nile Springs) and get to the roof of Ethiopia, the Ras Dashen (4543 m). Just 450 km of pedalling on the way.
After a turbulent start at the airport, here we are, pedalling along Lake Tana towards the north of the country. Unseen landscapes, nice people, everything is here for a great adventure. Even the traditional Turista, who stops us to sleep in a village after the first ride of 70 km in 35 degrees heat.
It gives us some time to admire the beautiful colours of the rising sun on the Barley and wheat farms.
Three days later we arrive in Debark (2850 m), the entry point of the trekking mecca in Africa.
We sleep in a small lodge for several days, waiting to get all the authorizations and access to the Simien mountains, the first Unesco Park. Dawit, my local contact is getting a bit desperate. Despite the promises we received in the summer, we won’t be allowed to get into the park if we don’t have a 4×4 vehicle following us. Actually, the only mandatory thing to enter is to be with a “Scout”, a sort of war veteran armed with an AK 47 who will protect us from wild animals or any other possible attack (this are actually really rare). He won’t walk all that way, and it’s not possible to rent a horse. I don’t know if I’m a purist but being followed by a car doesn’t make me… very happy. I want to stop, out of principle.
But we are here because of these mountains.
The old Land Cruiser is going to follow us for the next three days. Worgo, the scout will follow us or leave us alone on certain trails depending on each spot. Firew, the driver, looks straight out of an American TV action series with his perfect English.
The first stage is 75 km with 2000m of elevation to get to the first base camp at Chennek ( 3650m ). Herds of sheep live among the wheat crop along endless cliffs in a dry atmosphere. Around a switchback, I come face to face with a group of baboons. I keep my distance and try not to disturb them, but after 2 minutes they are all over our bikes, examining all the bike’s specs. A privileged instant, from the tourist buses. We arrive in Chennek.
Firew has a proposal for us, instead of trying to get to Ras Dashen in 2 days early next morning as planned, why not go really early tomorrow, to do the Mt Bwawhit (4437m) and then the Ras Dashen before coming back into the valley? The broken road after the first summit will make Worgo walk with us. We do not know yet, but we are attempting the first ever pass by bike.
4.30 AM. -5 Degrees.
The first climb is done at 7.30am and we transfer to the East side. Sunshine, incredibly big and magnificent mountains, with canyons as big as the American Grand Canyon.
Now at the bottom of the first valley (2800m), we only (!) have to climb the “Dashen” as the local people say.
Just one stop on the way at the evening’s campsite (Ambiko, 3100 m) to leave our tents and equipment there to lighten up for the final ascent. The climb is quite hard, and we arrive in the village at 11.00 AM. A teenager proposes to keep our stuff till the evening for some Ethiopian Birr. We will see if our kit is still here in the evening…
The way to the top is long but very high too. We start to feel the first climb of the morning in our legs, and the altitude doesn’t help us either. We will have to manage our efforts.
The sun is burning into us all the way up. Worgo, with his gun over his shoulder, follows us faithfully. But he is overheating, probably due to the ancient suit that he is wearing. He also has sore feet, probably due to his plastic flip flops… We are far away from the western trail runner but believe me when I say that he is just as fast! He also takes care of overly enthusiastic children, looking to benefit from the farandijs (tourists). The day is rapidly advancing and I’m starting to doubt our chances of success. “Maybe it’s better to stop and come back tomorrow?”
But Worgo, initially apprehensive about the crazy idea to link up the summits, now makes it clear that we shouldn’t give up at this point. We don’t speak the same language, but we understand each other. The language of the mountains, a passion if you like, is universal.
Guillaume is battling with himself, after 11 hours under the African sun, we find ourselves at the base of our grail. 50 metres of rock separate us from the concrete monument perched on the roof of Ethiopia. A local child guides me to the summit. Magnificent.
We make the most of being up here before attacking the descent through rock gardens, followed by tropical prairies and single track freshly cut into the black soil. I’m starting to worry about getting back to camp before nightfall, especially for Worgo, who is still on foot. I shouldn’t have worried. This fifty-year-old would be esteemed to be an extra-terrestrial, even in my adopted home of Savoie!
The welcome waiting for us back at camp is almost too much for us after our efforts.
That evening we re-join a group of trekkers that we met the day before. Around the campfire, we have Ethiopian scouts, a Savoyard, a Belgian, an American, two Alsaciens-come-Savoyard. But for me, that is the beauty of the whole experience. The evening passes us by with tales in the firelight, some are funny, some are not. But this is a unique experience under the Africain night, with nothing but the stars in the sky to build our dreams.
The next day we head back to the village of Chiro Leba. Only now, Firew informs us that we have accomplished what nobody else has yet attempted to do.
Ethiopia was sometimes hard towards us, sometimes welcoming, always authentic, true to itself and never half-arsed. It was without a doubt one of the most unique and remarkable trips that I have had the chance.
Source pink bike