Posts Tagged ‘Ethiopia’

Frontier passage and the Jade Sea

“An adventure is never an adventure when it is happening. Challenging experiences need time to ferment and an adventure is simply physical and emotional discomfort recollected in tranquility” – Tim Cahill

The variety in culture, language and tradition is abundantly clear in Ethiopia. We heard the word used for ‘white person’ change four times as we traveled south through areas using different regional dialects. For just three or four towns and villages the women wore their hair in wavy bops, the traditional style of their ethnic group, and just as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. For a few more towns the children began a bizarre dance routine when they saw us approach, quickly knocking their knees together, and like all the other curiosities it soon petered out and we never saw those strange dancing children again, but I loved Ethiopia all the more for it. The Ethiopian children south of Addis kept up their demands for money, to which I replied by asking them for pens, or for pens, to which I then asked them for money. These weren’t poor children, they were boisterous chancers who would often throw stones or pretend to ram large sticks into our spokes as we rode past and I was getting fed up with their baleful antics.

We rode towards a lakeside town called Arba Minch, mountains to our right and vast banana plantations to our left. Baboons surveyed us suspiciously from the road ahead and then scampered off to feast on the fruit nearby. Young children from the villages tried optimistically to sell us live chickens. We would usually arrive into a village together and leave in a peloton, anyone in the vicinity with a bicycle would hop on to follow us out and for several kilometers past.

‘You ride from England!?’
‘Yeshalla!’ we would reply. Amharic for ‘anything’s possible!’.

When we arrived into the town it was Ethiopian Christmas, which fell on January 7th. Most of Arba Minch was drunk, including the policeman who stopped me in the road. I was cycling on the left, in Ethiopia nobody paid much attention to which side of the road you were on, but the inebriated copper was having none of it. He looked unsteady and clumsy and sported an unnerving malevolent sneer, I immediately sensed trouble. ‘This is the wrong side of the road!’ he bellowed. ‘Of course, I’m very sorry’ I replied and began moving to the other side. ‘Stop there!’ he yelled. ‘Don’t go anywhere! I’m talking to you!’ I was now in the centre of the road and a queue of vehicles was building up on either side of me. ‘Don’t you know this is the wrong side of the road? This is very bad news. I am a policeman! Bad news! Bad news!’ I apologized and edged away. Drunk officials are a dangerous breed and all too prevalent in Africa.

Arba Minch sat by a lake famous for huge crocodiles, hippos and birdlife. We ventured out on a boat in search of the crocs and came across several five metre long specimens sunning themselves on the lake shore, mouths agape and motionless they stared out at the water with an ancient fire behind their bright green lambent eyes. Just ten metres away I watched a local fisherman standing thigh deep in the lake humming a tune to himself, oblivious or indifferent to any apparent peril. Our guide informed us that every year around five fishermen go missing, presumed eaten by hungry crocodiles who have become increasingly ravenous as their main food source is in decline with the lake being over-fished. It seemed to me quite an effective but cruel self regulating system for the crocodiles to then eat the fishermen.

Afterwards we went out in search of ‘tej’, a locally brewed honey wine gulped down voraciously by Ethiopians out of glass vials similar to the ones I used in my chemistry lessons at school. When I entered the tej bar my first impression was that some sort of scientific experiment had gone very acutely and horribly wrong. In the dim light I could make out the glass vials, many were smashed and a viscid yellow goo spilled from them onto the tables and the floor. Men were slumped around the room, semi-conscious and drooling, some mumbling incoherently. One man glowered in my direction, he was cradling a vial of tej in his left hand and an AK47 assault rifle in his right. Bees flew in erratic and haphazard loops around the room and some floated in the vials. Tej’s cunningly benign taste hides a potent kick that takes full effect when you attempt anything more ambitious than ordering more tej. This includes trying to stand up, having a conversation and then a little later, maintaining eye contact.

The arid, thinly populated badlands of Northern Kenya are without doubt the most dangerous parts I would travel through on my passage to Cape Town. It’s a large area which borders southern Sudan and Uganda in the west and Somalia in the East, it’s poorly administered and in many parts essentially lawless. It’s a region of tribal warriors, nomads and the notorious and ruthless ‘Shifta’, local bandits who don’t hesitate in taking lives. The main ‘Moyale Road’ that runs for 500 km has for some time been considered shifta territory. Armed guards are stationed on overland trucks and buses traversing this route and in Khartoum we met a truck driver who had been shot through the windscreen of his vehicle on this road just one month before, the bullet had entered and exited his right shoulder. I guessed rough camping here would be courting with extreme danger and friends and fellow cyclists alike warned me to abandon any hubris and take a lift if it didn’t appear safe. I wanted more than anything to ride all the way to Cape Town without resorting to cadging lifts in buses or trucks. It’s often hard to sort the scare stories and myth from the facts, even so I knew I had enough information to make a simple choice – not to ride the Moyale road. Despondently I surveyed my map and something caught my eye, a faint line in the crease of the page, well west of the Moyale Road, and it looked to cross the border into Kenya. This new option passed close to southern Sudan and skirted the shores of lake Turkana, ‘The Jade Sea’, an active volcanic region and the world’s largest desert lake. I did some online research but information was hard to come by. I discovered there were no customs or immigration on the Kenyan side of the border. The Lonely Planet and other guide books didn’t even see fit to mention crossing here as a possibility. All I had to go on was a few threads from online forums and a couple of isolated blog reports from the precious few adventurous souls who had decided to tackle the Lake Turkana route, and fewer still had attempted it on a bicycle. Although bandits may be more scarce the route was not without its own unique challenges. This is the very edge of civilization, due largely to a highly inhospitable environment, a combination of extremely high temperatures, virtually no rain and ferocious winds year round. It’s a desolate wilderness and if things went wrong out here there would be little support, many of the sandy tracks snaking through the region saw no vehicles for a week or more. Good maps of the area were non-existent and without a GPS navigation would be tough. There were also very few water points meaning I would have to carry up to twenty litres on my bike as well as a large quantity of food. I heard stories of inter-tribal conflict across the region and of lions drinking at the lake and carpet vipers common underfoot. I knew that the decision to ride or to get a lift had to be an individual one for myself and Nyomi. With her boyfriend paying her a visit in Nairobi, for Ny the decision was an easy one and she planned to hop on a bus at Konso. With the prospect of climatic extremes, arduous cycling, desolation, vulnerability, warring tribes and fierce beasts for me too the decision was easy. I started to make preparations for the ride straight away.

‘Sudden, violent storms are frequent. Nile crocodiles are found in great abundance on the flats. The rocky shores are home to scorpions and carpet vipers’ – Wikipaedia

‘We were going to die. I was sure of it now. When the next vehicle passed, they’d find my decaying corpse under an acacia. Eric was putting up a more positive front, though I caught him furrowing his brow every time he snuck a look at the compass. We obviously weren’t headed in the right direction.’ – Amaya Williams,world cyclist,

‘In 25 tours and almost 30,000 km of touring I would rate those days as some of the toughest. Hot, barren, and kinda vulnerable are the words that come to mind.’ – Thorn tree forum.

‘You’ll find animals (there are lions too, not only elephants) and rocks and sand. You’ll push a lot. The  tribes fight very often.’ – Thorn tree forum.

I gathered as much information as I could from local tour guides whom I judged may know something of the area. ‘You want my advice?’ said one ‘Don’t do it. It’s too tough’. I heard ‘don’t’, ‘can’t’, ‘wouldn’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ and with each admonition a childish stubborn urge in me flourished and I felt compelled to give it a crack. I also found out that Merlin, the medical aid charity I’m raising funds for, have a base in the Turkana district. They operate throughout the region and this was an opportunity to visit them en route and witness their work firsthand.

Konso felt like the precipice, the last place to stock up, the last paved roads and the last town of any descent size before I leapt into an unknown abyss. It’s also where I waved goodbye to Nyomi as she sat on the back of a bus bound for Kenya. I purchased a litre of Ethiopian honey, half a kilo of peanuts, half a kilo of porridge oats, lots of rice, pasta and biscuits and got my bike ready. Before I reached the lake I would ride through the Omo valley, an area famous for the colourful local tribes, often dubbed ‘a human museum’. Some tourists fork out some petty cash for photos of the tribes. On my way through it was sad to see so many tribal people abandoning their traditional way of life to stand by the roadside in an effort to blag money for photos from passing tourists, tourists who generally contribute little to the local community and spend their money in far away countries with distant tour operators.

The descent into the Omo valley was magnificent, from the highlands I saw great plains stretching out beneath me, dust devils sprang to life in the distance, raced across the flats, slowly languished and then dissolved back into the desert. As I coasted down hill two women rushed out to greet me. They were topless with ocre coloured hair, goat skin skirts and were decorated in cowries, copper bracelets and wore the marks of scarification – I recognized them as members of the Hamer tribe. They seemed to find me as fascinating as I found them. They had children in tow who were clearly suffering from the effects of severe malnutrition. When they turned to leave I noticed large scars on their backs, marks from ritual flagellation, a long tradition in Hamer society. I continued to descend to the hot river basin. The temperature was consistently in the high 40’s and in the sun I recorded 56.5 degrees Celcius. I was now drinking eleven litres of water per day.

In one small South Omo village I was stunned to encounter another cyclist and a true veteran of the game. The Swiss man had clocked up over 60,000 km in Africa, traversing the continent 3 times by bicycle, and had ridden over 200,000 km worldwide. ‘I’ll die on my bike’ he assured me. He had a habit of bellowing every word and swore profusely, our conversation resembled a sergeant dishing out a set of commands to a fresh army recruit, but his instruction was invaluable. Amazingly he had just ridden the Lake Turkana route and he seemed just as surprised as me to have found someone else willing to ride the same path. He wasted no time in detailing how treacherous and precarious the journey would be, and from an old-timer his words carried extra weight. As he described the route ahead and traced his finger across my map he would intermittently stop in mid flow, grab my thigh, fix my gaze and yell ‘IF YOU MISS THIS TURN YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’ and then soon after ‘IF YOU DON’T TAKE 20 LITRES OF WATER HERE YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’ and finally ‘IF YOU CAMP HERE YOU WILL DEFINITELY DIE!’.
‘Alright, alright. I’m definitely going to die.’
‘It’s serious! Death is serious!’
‘I know, I know! Thank you’

Appropriately the sign that marked the last Ethiopian town before the border said ‘Welcome. Value your life’. Here I loaded my bike onto a dug out canoe and crossed the Omo river. On the opposing bank was a faint track and my route to Kenya. The Swiss cyclist had assured me that on this section it was impossible to get lost and I resented him telling me that. For some people it’s never impossible to get lost, and I happen to be one of them. Inevitably I ended up riding in circles, recurrently returning to the same dead goat, but on each lap I had accumulated a slightly larger group of naked tribal children following behind. Eventually a tribesman guided me to the right path. The headwind was biting and the sand underneath my tyres meant that I had to get off and push my bike more often than I could ride it. Twenty kilometres took me over three hours to cover but slowly I left the people and tin huts behind and I was riding solo through the empty desert following a faint track which frequently deteriorated to the point of non-existence and then reappeared somewhere up ahead. I persevered and eventually reached a remote police outpost. They topped me up with murky water from the river and I headed off again, pushing my bike through the sand, a bike which now carried fifteen litres of water and weighed as much as I did. I abandoned the sandy track and continued off-road, keeping the track to my left and just in view. The thorny desert scrub meant numerous punctures. In the fading light and after hours of struggling I arrived at a remote catholic mission in the Ilemi Triangle: a literal no-man’s-land between Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan which is territory disputed by all three. The priest welcomed me.

‘Well done, you’ve made it through the most volatile region’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The Turkana and the Dassenach tribes are at war. We lost sixty lives here last year’
‘I had no idea’
‘I bet you’re glad you didn’t’ he said

I pitched my tent and discovered a small carpet viper slithering inconspicuously nearby. It made a retreat when I pelted it with stones but I slept restlessly knowing that the zip to my tent inner was broken and that it had to remain open through the night. The next day I spent two hours repairing the numerous slow punctures in my cheap Chinese made inner tubes, the last two I had left. I pushed off again but slowly my house of cards began to tumble down. First the pump to my stove broke irreparably meaning I couldn’t cook any of my food. Then the fuel for my now useless stove leaked inside my pannier leaving my remaining snacks with a petrol-y aftertaste. Then I realized I was probably on the wrong sandy track. Then my brakes seized up. Then more punctures, then more pushing through the sand and then finally a local tribesman demanded a bottle of water which I felt compelled to hand over after realizing this was a command and not a question, reinforced by his menacing tone and ready rifle. It was a bad day at the office times a thousand. But just when I was starting to abandon all hope that I could complete this section by bike, my luck changed once again. It started with a faint sound of a car engine and then the first vehicles I’d seen since crossing the Omo river, four French couples in 4 by 4s, the same group I had met days before in Ethiopia. It had taken me a day and a half to cover what had taken them an hour. They topped me up with water and checked their GPS – I was just seven kilometres from an alternative track which branched off and took me on a longer route through the mountains, but which was hopefully an easier option. The rocky road ended up being almost as tough as the sand, the stones were loose and again the track often disappeared altogether. It ran through a gorge, Turkana tribesmen watched me from the cliffs above. I needed to get to the town marked on my map before nightfall and as the light faded I was sure the characters above looked familiar. My mind overflowed with dark paranoid speculation. Were they following me from up there on the cliffs? Were they waiting for darkness to fall? Fuelled by the adrenaline of fear I pedaled furiously and arrived into the small town completely exhausted where I happened upon another catholic mission which had a bed for me and a small charcoal burning stove on which to cook.

The next day I pulled out my repair kit to fix my third puncture of the morning and to my horror found that my tube of glue had leaked. There was none left. That was it. It was all over. Only one or two vehicles passed down this road per day and there wasn’t a settlement marked on my map for 150 km, I’d have to hop on the next truck, whichever direction it was heading. I was gutted that such a trivial problem such as a loose lid on a tube of glue had killed my dream of making it by bicycle. But the next vehicle happened to be a motorbike. I explained my predicament and the driver told me that there was a village nearby, ten kilometres from here but off the main road. He offered to ride there and check for the glue and in an hour he was back with what I needed. I thanked him rapaciously and carried on to yet another catholic mission and a small impoverished community of Turkana people. The indigence here was striking. Their cattle were dying, no rain had fallen in the wet season this year and the temporary shacks which they called home looked ready to disintegrate at any given moment. The roofs were constructed out of the cardboard from boxes of US food aid. I was covering only fifty kilometres per day now and the next was the toughest yet. Gale force winds came from over the lake and slowed my progress to walking pace. In the distance a haze hung over the hills the way smog hangs over a city. I guessed that it was a sandstorm and I was heading right into it’s maw. Soon I was engulfed, my senses obliterated, eyes, nose, mouth and ears full of sand. I was completely disorientated in the murk. I pushed my bike on through the storm and finally reached yet another catholic mission and then some beautiful, glorious tarmac. For two more days I pedaled, each turn was a huge effort in my weary and underfed state. At last I arrived into Merlin’s base at Lodwar to a warm welcome from the staff at the compound. I’ve made it, I told myself. I’ve made it. I’ve made it.

Suicidal goats and helping hands

Ethiopia was country number eighteen and immediately more incomprehensible than the rest right from the start. In Ethiopia the year is 2003 not 2010, they run on their own calendar. In Ethiopia nine o’clock is not 9 am but nine hours after the sun rises. In Ethiopia there are eighty-four indigenous languages, although most speak the ancient language of Amharic with it’s own unintelligible script. In Ethiopia there are just two medical doctors per 100,000 people. But beyond the bewildering it’s a country full of immense promise for the cyclist. There’s a tasty variety of food, a welcome change after a month of the bean-based foole of Sudan. There is a lower cost of living than perhaps any country I will visit over my five years on the road. Ethiopia also boasts great beers, prodigious mountains, palpitation inducing coffee and rumour had it, the most beautiful girls in all of Africa.

I woke early on my first morning in Ethiopia, smothered in a wonky mosquito net and instantly aware of the deafening medley of animal sounds. Ethiopia is a land brimming with both people and livestock and it played a very different theme tune to the hushed stillness of Sudan. It was as if each creature was competing with the next. It was ‘Old MacDonald Has A Farm’ at 300 beats per minute, without the lyrics but with guest vocals from an array of anonymous beasts. We packed up and cycled east towards Gondar but on the way I continued to struggle with stomach pains and diarrheoa, farting profusely into my slip stream. From behind rang loud profanities as Nyomi cussed with colour and gusto.

After two and a half thousand kilometres with barely an incline to test our quads we spied our first mountains. It felt as though we were at sea and a vicious storm was brewing. The hills rolled in like great waves, each one more foreboding than the last. I had my mountain legs, and the vivid memories of obtaining them, but Nyomi had yet to earn hers and Ethiopia offers a unique test to the uninitiated. We edged slowly toward a tough ascent into the Ethiopian highlands, a continuous climb of seventeen kilometres and over one thousand vertical metres. We arrived at a small settlement which marked the beginning of the pass up into the mountains and stocked up on local food and water before I issued Nyomi with a scandalously patronizing pep talk about mountains being bigger in your head than in reality. As with every Ethiopian village we came to we were quickly surrounded by a hoard of children and suddenly I realized that bits of our kit were missing from the pocket of my handlebar bag. We tried every tactic to earn the return of our possessions, demanding, pleading and offering money without success. “The thief runs very fast” was the message from onlookers. We gave up and started up the steep side of the mountain. I was angry, at us for leaving the items on show but mostly at the thief in the crowd. I began to hear cries and shrieks from behind. When I turned to look I could see that Nyomi was being chased by another great seething mob of kids.

They’re at it again

But I noticed that she was sporting a broad grin and it was then I started to understand. They were pushing her up the hill. The idea caught on and soon I had my own group, tiny hands pressing against my racks and panniers and propelling me upwards. It went on for several kilometers and soon we were high enough to get staggering view of the village in the valley far below. They giggled and cheered as they pushed with impressive stamina. At six years old there’s no way I could have run for several kilometres up a steep mountain pushing a fat man uphill on a bicycle. I started to see how the best distance runners in world hail from these parts. The children’s gift could not have come at a better time. Soon the theft was a distant memory. What Ethiopia takes, it also gives back. This, I’m sure, will end up being one of my most enduring and heartwarming memories of Africa and worth more than couple of bits of kit. I realize of course that the image of a group of small, poor, exhausted, black African children pushing a white Englishman uphill on a bicycle is a disconcerting one. Some would say that it even has colonial undertones. You’ll just have to trust me, it wasn’t like that at all.

After the children gradually peeled off we powered on unaided, thighs like pistons, doing battle with the mountain and waging war on gravity. I could see the determination and resolve in Nyomi’s face and I knew that this mountain, or any other, would not beat her. Towards the upper reaches a slow chugging truck crept past me and a man sitting on top flashed me a grin and then clenched and unclenched his fist. I instantly understood his message, he was inviting me to latch on. I had heard of cyclists in Africa grabbing onto the back of slow moving trucks to get up hills and I’d always wanted to try. Cheating? Maybe. But my arse was still firmly on the saddle and I’m in this for the experience. I raced after the truck and grabbed a wire jutting out of the back. It took a few moments to steady my weighty bike, then I relaxed my arm and I was coasting upwards. I abandoned my free ride after a passenger leaned out of the window and told me to let go. The irony wasn’t lost on me. The hefty Englishman who had just been pushed uphill by small children was being told to let go of the 15 tonne lorry as evidently he was slowing it down too much.

The very young children who shepherd the livestock in Ethiopia were so fascinated by us that they would often forget their role and instead turn and gorp as we rode by. Their animals, now without direction or guidance, would shamble into the road in front of us and there were frequent near misses. I wondered how much a donkey would cost to replace, it seemed that bowling into one face first and at high velocity was inevitable. And if it was an ox, I knew who’d be coming off worse. But it is the goats that inhabit western Ethiopia who are the hardest to avoid. In this part of the world they seem to have lost any inherent will to live. With an air of departing resignation they wait until the last moment as I zoom down a hill and then, in a manner I assume they share with the depressed man who steps in front of a train, they step directly into my path. They make eye contact with me and await their fate whilst I screech to a halt with just milimetres to spare. Perhaps the survival instinct in the goats of Western Ethiopia has been bred out of them intentionally. After all it would be quite useful for a community who slaughter thousands of goats if the goats didn’t really want to live in the first place. On top of dodging all the animals, life became even more difficult after discovering that the rumours were true, the women in Ethiopia are indeed stunningly beautiful. They often took my eye, and on the downhill this occasionally led to near fatal losses of concentration.

We arrived into Gondar in the north of the country and roamed the streets, taking in the sights and smells of the new city. We were invited into one family’s home, a grubby dingy shack where ten or twelve slept together. They were all drunk on ‘tela’, a homebrewed wheat beer, including the six, seven and eight year olds. Before we left a friendly local Rastafarian finished off Nyomi’s rudimentary dreadlocks and we had our first taste of Khat, a local plant with a strong unpleasant bitter taste that gives you a hit somewhere between strong coffee and amphetamines. Confident that I have put myself through worse in the pursuit of pleasure, we munched as much as we could tolerate and went out dancing all night.

Continuing south we decided on a 270 km unpaved road which would shave off perhaps 100 km from our route, it was a mistake with welcome consequences. The cycling was a grueling slog by any standards. I’d forgotten how hard rough roads can be, on us and on the bikes. But it was the same old trade, the more off the beaten track you are prepared to venture the greater the reward. People in this rural region were more surprised and more welcoming than usual. On one evening as the light faded and we still hadn’t found somewhere to camp, a local farmer and his family invited us in to sleep. We all shared food and he pulled out an animal hide for me to sleep on. During the night I sensed small creatures crawling over my skin, I brushed them aside, intent on rest. In the morning I could see the critters with clarity. The fleas were everywhere. Over the next two days red, intensely itchy lesions covered my back, stomach, shoulders, neck, legs and arms. Nyomi stayed free of bites, but on the same day she managed to lose her glasses and come down with a nasty bilateral conjunctivitis. She had to ride without lenses or glasses, and during our lunch break she squinted and pointed to our left ‘ohhhh, look at that school and all the children’, she was gesturing towards a small group of three donkeys and a goat.

The attention we receive in Ethiopia is unparalleled; it ranges from curious and friendly to overwhelming hysteria. Everywhere we are observed with intense scrutiny by dozens of faces. Even going to the toilet in Ethiopia is an unavoidable public spectacle. The faces pop up from long grass, from behind trees, from donkey carts. Faces with bright, unblinking eyes everywhere we turn. We wild camped a few times but each night was a restless one, we talked in hushed tones, terrified of triggering the ‘faranji’ alarm. If discovered, word would quickly spread and the village would all come out to have a look, and in all likelihood, to watch us sleep. Unfortunately the theft in the lowlands was not to be the last. Every so often a youngster would try their luck and bread, jumpers and others bits vanished from our bikes. Lets be honest, it’s hard to stay angry at a small Ethiopian child who steals bread from your bicycle, but we soon learnt that anything not firmly stashed away in a pannier was fair game and in Ethiopia, homeland of the infamous Haile Gebre Sellassie and other giants of distance running, the thief always runs faster than you do.

Ethiopians like to shout, usually one word and usually over and over. Here’s a few common ones and how we dealt with them…

Ahhhh the ‘You’ game. Child shouts ‘you’ repeatedly until you look at them. Child wins. Don’t look and you risk a volley of stones. As you can see it’s a bit boring and there’s only ever one winner. And it’s never you.

‘Give me money!’, ‘Give give give!’ or sometimes the beautifully presumptive ‘bring me my money!’
We never give money to children, for all the obvious reasons.

“FARANJI! FARANJI! FARANJI!” (translates as ‘foreigner’)
To this our choice response was ‘Absouja’ (‘Ethiopian’ in Amharic) which you can also shout whilst pointing back if you like.

There are lots of better things to give – time, knowledge, help with English or just a little entertainment – silly dances routines and animal impressions do best.

“Where are you go?”
Don’t be fooled, this isn’t really a question. Very few listen to your answer, but even if they do they will often repeat the same line at a higher volume. I rotated my answers through ‘Timbuktoo’, ‘Basingstoke’; ‘The moon’, ‘anywhere’ and ‘nowhere’ but this got boring fairly fast.

Why do the children think we’re Chinese? The Chinese are building roads throughout Africa in return for cheap petroleum. The Chinese are the only foreign visitors some children ever see and so to them, it’s logical that we must also be from China.

The ratio of adults to children is very obviously skewed in Ethiopia. It’s not uncommon for families to have fifteen or sixteen children. The average life expectancy is just 45 years so children are everywhere with relatively few adults to exert authority. When huge numbers of children chase us chanting ‘YOU YOU YOU’, brandishing large sticks and throwing stones it can feel a bit like you’ve stumbled into an African ‘Lord Of The Flies’. Add to this that the school uniform is usually coloured overalls making the children look like escaped convicts and Ethiopia can be a daunting place to venture. On the downhill in Ethiopia I’d learnt that the animals don’t move out of the way for a cyclist, whereas the people usually do. So from now on when I see that line of silhouettes I steady my handlebars, narrow my field of vision, build up some velocity and take aim for the smallest people-shaped shadows I can find.

We pushed south and neared Addis Abeba, cycling to over three thousand metres above sea level and through vast golden arable plains, coniferous forest and then areas of short grazed green grass with solitary exotic looking trees dotted over the landscape, we could have been riding though the grounds of a stately home or a golf course rather than rural Africa. Lorries passed by with a singular lively but soon-to-be-dead goat tethered to the top. The Ethiopian version of a pack lunch. We tackled the infamous Blue Nile Gorge, an even bigger ascent than the climb into the highlands two weeks before. It was particularly testing for Nyomi who frequently had to capitulate and join in with my double handed high fives and accompanying ‘huhhh!’ in an American football style which I frequently insisted on. On Christmas day we sang Christmas carols loudly and out of tune as we cycled into the Ethiopian capital. We wished people Merry Christmas in Amharic only to hear ‘Yes. Now bring me my money.’ I gorged myself with food and alcohol, safe in the knowledge that I needed the calories. My weight has dropped to just 65 kg, I have lost 15 kg since Istanbul. Christmas is a reminder of the old and familiar and it did have me pining for home a little. I tried my best to bury a futile yearning for country pubs, chip butties and chocolate hobnobs.

Ethiopia wears a dreamlike air of the exotic. My preconceived mental image of African huts and villagers is set firmly in the grassy savannah, not amidst the mountains, and perhaps it’s this juxtaposition that contributes to this aura. Perhaps it’s also the brightly coloured exotic birds dipping and diving over herds of livestock in the fields or the young children with Mohicans and other strange haircuts who chase our bikes and shriek with excitement. Perhaps it’s the rich soundscape in the early evening, shepherds whistling, people yelling, strange birds twittering and whips on the hides of oxen. Perhaps it’s the palpable optimism of the Ethiopian people, they’ve never had it so good after coming through years of oppression, the cruel communist ‘red terror’ regime and devastating famine. But I think that above all it’s that Ethiopia is full of something that makes travelling there completely exhilarating – the unexpected. That’s why, of the eighteen countries I have passed through on my bicycle so far, Ethiopia, with it’s extraordinary atmosphere and unexpected sights and dramas around every corner, is my favourite of all.

If anyone feels inclined to make a Christmas donation to my charity Merlin please visit my justgiving page http// The adventure continues next through the lawless tribal borderlands of Ethiopia and Kenya, skirting the shores of Lake Turkana, a desolate wilderness where lions, crocodiles and carpet vipers roam.