Ethiopia pt. 2: Sandy pistes and interesting encounters in the Omo Valley 

As always it feels like ages since the last update, even though in reality it was only a few weeks ago that we left Addis Abeba and our lovely temporary home there. There is quite a lot to tell you about this second stretch in Ethiopia. Should I start with that night when we (nearly) were held hostages in a monastery or maybe when Sam got chased by a sparsely dressed teenager with a rifle? Rhetorical question; I’ll just do it chronologically as usual.

Sam and I arrived in Addis Abeba on the first Friday of December, the 4th. Lucky as we were, we got to stay with a warmshowers (warmshowers is like couchsurfing but for touring cyclists) host in Addis Abeba. Stéphane, his wife Anne who works for the Swiss embassy, and their two daughters Zoe and Julie showed us incredible hospitality. Their place was like a quiet and peaceful oasis in the middle of the capital. The Bolognini family made us feel like home and offered us everything we could wish for: actual warm shower, clean beds free from bed bugs, washing machine, European food, tools and spare parts for our tired bicycles. There was even a badminton court and a slack-line in the garden! We had a wonderful time and took the opportunity to rest for a few days.

Stéphane & co. were actually not the only Swiss people we met in Addis Abeba. We also got a new cycle companion flying over from Ghana to join us for a couple of weeks. Marcus (actually Marc-Antoine) has been cycling from Switzerland and down the western coast of Africa for the last six months. Just like us, he intends to reach Cape Town at some point. Now, though, he was getting tired of all the complicated visa application procedures and also a bit concerned about his safety when crossing Nigeria and Congo. Therefore, he decided to take a flight from Ghana to Addis Abeba and cycle down through east Africa instead. Naturally, Marcus was more than happy to cure his homesickness a little bit at Stéphanes and his family’s house. You should have seen the look of his face that night when his dreams came true and we got to enjoy a real fondue, made of cheese miraculously brought from Switzerland. We even got Swiss wine and of course Swiss chocolate with the coffee. What a feast! Marcus was like a child on Christmas.

One of the few things we did in Addis Abeba besides resting and eating was getting the so called ‘east Africa visa’. This relatively new tourist visa allows you to enter the three countries Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Quite practical since it costs 100 dollar and is valid for three months. At the moment the embassy of Uganda seems to be the only one that issues this visa, so in case you’re planning a similar trip – don’t repeat our mistake and cycle all over town to the embassies of Kenya and Rwanda just to find out that they won’t help you at all.

Anyway, we got the visa and with new powers Sam, Marcus and I left Addis Abeba (Wednesday the 9th of December) and continued cycling south towards Kenya. There are two possible border crossings: the main one at the town Moyale and the smaller border crossing at Omorate, close to the Omo Valley in the southern region where most of the remaining tribal people live. We chose the second. We had read and heard that the roads could be slightly rough around there, and that the barren area by the Lake Turkana on the Kenyan side might be a little bit dodgy, but this route still seemed way more appealing than the other. Indeed, this last stretch would turn out to be both tough and adventurous, even more than we had expected.

We were still far from the Omo Valley when the adventure gods seemed to be keen on providing us with new experiences. It was our first day on the road and time to find somewhere to sleep. Marcus, who refused to realize how densely populated Ethiopia is, thought wild camping would be just as easy as it had been in west Africa. After a while he surrendered and declared that there was literally people everywhere. But before going to a hotel he wanted to try one last (free of charge) option: a monastery. ”The priests and nuns must be willing to help some Christians with shelter for the night”, Marcus said confidently and went to a big church at the side of the road to ask for permission to camp on the grass outside of the building. It was not really clear who was in charge of the decision making, so he simply asked a group of men standing next to the entrance. Due to the usual language barrier he had to communicate with hand gestures. We waited for about 20 minutes while the guys discussed intensely in Amharic. Then one man with a kind face came back and signed at us to enter the yard, that was like a gated area. We humbly thanked him and entered with our bicycles.

The area was nice and quiet. Only a few munches and nuns wrapped in colorful blankets were walking slowly across the yard. But we had barely started pitching our tents before we felt that something was wrong. One man with red eyes and an angry, hostile look on his face rushed in through the gates and started hitting our bicycles with his stick while shouting at us. Even though we could understand a single word it was clear that he didn’t want us to be there. But when we slowly tried to leave he closed the gates. We must have looked a bit nervous, because the munches tried to assure us that there was ”no problem, no problem”. But clearly there was a problem. And the fact that the upset man was also carrying a rifle did not make the situation any better. Neither did the language barrier. A crowd had soon gathered outside of the fence, but although it seemed like half the village was present there was nobody that could explain to us what was going on. Fortunately a couple of men intervened and stopped the angry man from attacking us more, but we were still not allowed to leave. To say that we were held hostages in the monastery might be a bit exaggerated, but that’s how it felt like during the confused thirty minutes we spent there. Without really understanding what had happened or for what reason we had been refused to leave we were finally let out by a man who presented himself as ”secret police”. We were told to turn our lights on (at this point it had got completely dark) and move on to the hotel in the next town 5 km away. Relieved and with slightly shaky legs we quickly cycled away. After that night Marcus didn’t insist on trying to camp anymore. But as we moved south the landscape got more and more barren, and after a week or so we could finally sleep in our tents again, without being bothered by anyone else than the mosquitos.

When we reached the Omo Valley after almost one week of cycling we had gone down from the highland and were now only about 400-500 meters a.s.l. rather than above 2000-2200 (where Addis Abeba is located). This naturally means some long and enjoyable descents, but also a much higher temperature. We were sweating like pigs and had to carry a lot of water. Until now, we had mostly been taking main roads which had been in almost perfect condition. But the road construction projects often funded by Chinese companies with interests in Ethiopia seemed to be absent in this area. Until a village called Woito the road was alright. Then we took a turn off towards the tribal village Arbore and the real off-road cycling started. For some parts the road was just very bumpy and covered with sharp rocks. We got loads of punctures which made our slow pace even slower. But except the heat and the pain in the wrists from the bumping we didn’t really mind the slow pace. The landscape was stunning. And it was quite interesting to cycle through the tribal villages full of half-naked people with colorful jewelries, big smiles and tattooed faces. But some of the people we met were quite demanding as well, and it was clear that they were getting used to tourists passing by. ”Photo, photo, money, money!” ”Foreign, foreign!”. We were used to refusing giving money at this point, but it’s harder to deny when a clearly thirsty person asks for water. Luckily, we were carrying enough to share.

The hardest stretch we did before reaching the Kenyan border was the one between the two villages Arbore and Turmi. It was only about 70 km but took us two exhausting days. For some parts we could cycle, but then the road ended and we had to push the bikes over a dry sandy riverbed for several hours. The last challenge before we reached Turmi was carrying the bicycles over an actual river. It sounds more adventurous than it was though, because the river was far from deep. But finally, we arrived to the village where we could fill up with food and water and have a little rest. When we told the locals at the restaurant about our tiring journey, they looked a bit surprised and asked us why we had taken the crappy road instead of the brand new paved one. The answer is that we had just taken the one that looked shortest on our map, presuming that both would be quite bad. Well, well, we got some peace and silence – and a walk. After Turmi there was a smooth Tarmac road (not surprisingly paved by a Chinese company) the whole way to Omorate. We were flying.

But before leaving Ethiopia we had to deal with a few more slightly aggressive people. The last morning we got stopped by three nearly naked teenagers with rifles. They were smiling and were obviously not after anything else than some money or clothes, so Marcus and me managed to just say hello and then sneak away. But Sam, our polite British, stayed and stretched his hand to say hello properly. He shook hands with the first chap. Then the second one jumped back to his stretched hand and ran behind his bike, stole one of his shoes and ran away with it. Sam got upset and started cursing this inhospitable behavior. The guy dropped the shoe, Sam picked it up and then got chased from the scene.

After that day we felt that it was high time to move on to Kenya. Traveling through Ethiopia had been interesting, but hard work. And so would the following stretch be. After Omorate, where we got stamped out from Ethiopia, we cycled about 30-40 km on a sandy piste to the border crossing in the middle of nowhere. Once again we were rather sliding around in the sand than actually cycling, getting frustrated by not being able to advance. When we reached the first police checkpoint on the Kenyan side we would still have to do another 170 km off road before reaching the first paved road. Luckily, the Kenyan policemen were super friendly and let us stay the night at the station. The next morning we set off along the lake Turkana. To conclude this story about our journey through Ethiopia I asked Sam to summarize it in a purely over-dramatic British manner. He said: ”It was like a crazed circus, partly funny, pleasant and interesting. But also like being stuck in a roller coaster on its last legs, with rickety highs and soul-plummeting lows and with many a turn terror grips”.