Around-the-world cyclist Charlie Walker hits Ethiopia and comes under attack – for the first time in his epic 40,000 mile journey
I was lying on the roadside, sheltering from the midday sun under a grand old fig tree, when a farmer woke me up. He gestured angrily that this was his land and literally shooed me away by kicking dust into my face. This hostility (unprecedented on my journey) and lack of welcome sadly was to become a leading feature of my time in rural Ethiopia. Stones were thrown at me on a daily basis and, on slow uphill climbs, children would run alongside relentlessly heckling and begging for money. In most countries dogs chase me. There are few dogs in Ethiopia but the children more than fill the void.
That night I slept in the open on a mountainside ledge and was woken by two men who evidently intended to sleep there too. They lay down next to me in their thin blankets and abruptly went to sleep. It was a cold night and by morning they had cuddled up to me for warmth. I made them coffee that they accepted with suspicion, unable to take their confused eyes off my little stove: white magic.
On a warm afternoon I reached the relatively large city of Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana and got a bed in a hotel’s mosquito-riddled office at a reduced price. That night I joined some expatriate doctors in a “Cultural Music Club” where ceaseless drumming and a little stringed instrument set the beat for Ethiopia’s unique style of dancing. It consists solely of moving your head and shoulders in a juddering, rotating fashion. It seems that there is only one way to do this dance and everyone obediently does it that way. I was struck by the difference of this conformity to the endless (but, admittedly, often unsuccessful) struggle for individuality enacted on the dancefloors of Europe.
An exhaustive 5-day ride took me onto Addis Ababa. I would normally go slower but by this point the persistent hassling from villagers had become exasperating, leaving me with no peace and the desire to rush through it. The landscapes continued to thrill but were harder to appreciate in the sound corridor of shouting created by my presence.
I passed a crowd of children in one village and a couple of stones narrowly missed me. When I turned to look who had thrown them, a golf ball-sized stone conked me hard on the side of the head. My bicycle clattered to the ground as I leapt off in a sudden overflow of pain and irritation. Thankfully I stopped just short of picking up a stone to hurl indiscriminately into the pack of fleeing children. I noticed three or four giggling adults scampering away with them. I was shocked at myself. I don’t think I have a violent, or even particularly hot-blooded, temperament and I’ve certainly never wanted to hurt a child before but for a few red-misted seconds I genuinely did. I worried that I may not be able to pull myself back from the edge if this happened again.
Ethiopia’s ubiquitous begging might be seen as incongruous in a country that prides itself on being the only African nation to avoid colonisation (despite being briefly colonized by the Italians in 1936 before being ousted by the British in 1941). However, for many years now, the country has received more foreign aid than any other except Iraq and Afghanistan. This culture of receiving has possibly led to uneducated Ethiopians viewing foreigners simply as cash, not people. The almost-reflex reaction of presenting an open and expectant palm upon seeing a foreigner (or “farenji”) doesn’t exactly fit with the national pride in a history of imperial conquest, strength and independence.
It was a warm hazy morning when I raced down the winding road into the Blue Nile Gorge. A gaping scar in the landscape, the gorge stretches for hundreds of miles and, in places, is a mile deep. From the small town on one side of it to the village on the opposite lip is about 10 miles as the crow flies but the (Chinese-built) road winds for almost 30 miles, dropping over 1,000m and crossing a (Japanese-built) bridge before climbing again and landing you back at the 2,500m altitude you left off at.
The climb was hot and sweaty and wasn’t helped by having to backtrack a mile or so to retrieve a tool I negligently left on the roadside. A small troop of baboons barked threateningly then scarpered when I disturbed them. Sadly the visibility was poor so the renowned natural beauty of the area was largely obscured. I did, however, enjoy looking down on wide-winged birds of prey wheeling leisurely in the gorge below me.
It was relatively flat from here onto Addis and a fairly unremarkable ride. More shouting, more stones and one boy who asked for money and, upon being ignored, shouted “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you!” repeatedly and increasing loudly until I was out of earshot. I assume he learnt this from an exasperated cycle tourist. In a small village I stopped at a water pump to fill my bottles and the people demanded money from me. Behind them loomed a large sign announcing that the pump was donated by the EU.
The diplomatic centre of the African Union, Addis Ababa is a bulging, bustling city, with little planning, chaotic roads but generally very friendly people. Of the forty countries I’ve now visited on this journey, Ethiopia is a complete anomaly in that the urban population is generally far more friendly and welcoming than its rural counterpart.
But when I left, pedalling up a hill and out of the city, I was threatened by teenage boys with fist-sized rocks while I sat eating lunch on the roadside. I brandished my cooking knife and hurried off when they retreated in panic.
What has been your experience travelling through Ethiopia? Did you encounter the same hostility as Charlie? Or were the locals welcoming and hospitable? Tell us in the comments below.
Charlie Walker is a bicycle adventurer who is a quarter of the way through a four year, 40,000 mile cycle trip to the four corners of the Earth. He is hoping to raise £20,000 for a variety of charities. You can follow his exploits on his website, CharlieWalkerExplore.