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Mountains of the Moon: Crossing Ethiopia

By Brian Vernor

Tour d’Afrique: The road turns up when you get to Ethiopia

Photo: Brian Vernor

Filmmaker Brian Vernor is best known in the bicycle industry for his documentary “Pure Sweet Hell,” which chronicled the cyclocross lifestyle on 8mm black-and-white film. His most recent project is filming and riding the Tour d’Afrique, a four-month bicycle adventure road race across the African continent. This year marks the sixth running of the race, which begins in Cairo, Egypt, and finishes in Cape Town, South Africa. Riders pass through 10 countries at an average distance of 75 miles a day. They are fed enough to survive, given basic directions and generally looked after by a slim crew of seasoned expedition leaders.

It’s hard to believe that just a few months ago I was in Portland, Oregon, for the finals of the Crank Brothers U.S. Gran Prix of Cyclocross.

Temperatures were near freezing that weekend; rain poured down and occasionally turned to snow. At that moment the thought of spending four months of winter in hot Africa, riding bikes and making a film sounded like a darned good idea. Well, I’ve made it through three countries in nearly two months.

Tour d’Afrique: Even when flat, the roads pose a challenge

Photo: Brian Vernor

So far nothing about the trip has been as easy as the decision to come here. For me and for the other participants of the 2008 Tour d’Afrique, our time in Ethiopia was a serious reckoning. Riding across Sudan seemed pretty hard, but Ethiopia promised — then delivered — ridiculously rugged mountains, crappy roads and an assortment of travelers’ woes. More than a few riders fell victim to exhaustion, stomach viruses, crashes, broken collarbones and even a few encounters with stone-throwing children.

Riding into Ethiopia proved a stark contrast to the mostly flat Sudan. Personally, I celebrated leaving the flatlands. Mountains rose up and once-smooth pavement soon vanished. Sudan’s sparsely populated desert was replaced by a sea of 85 million Ethiopians living right in the middle of the road.

For a few days the road was just rough dirt, and pointed mostly uphill.

Tour d’Afrique: The luxury of camp

Photo: Brian Vernor

Instead of finishing our daily stage in four to five hours, we took most of the daylight hours to get to camp. Some riders finished just in time to drop their bikes and pick up their forks for dinner. After riding on dirt roads all day everyone appeared in camp covered in fine road dust. We had to ration water in the dry country — only half a bottle was allowed for bathing — so we awoke the each morning just as dirty. We lived in dirt. Soon, vacant stares of dismay spread throughout the camp like infection.

But riding through Ethiopia seemed as spectator intense as riding a cyclocross national championship race. Upon entering a village the road became a tunnel of humans. Goats and steers lined the road and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of children chanted a high-pitch chorus of “You! You! You!”

With minimal motor vehicle traffic and laws strongly protecting pedestrians in instances of accidents, Ethiopians just don’t look before crossing the road. Quietly approaching cyclists matched with this general disregard for oncoming traffic resulted in numerous accidents between riders and unsuspecting locals. Upcoming village became cause for concern, as no one wanted to get in an accident. But as an added stress, some riders came across the other hazard of rock wielding children.

I still can’t quite explain this phenomenon we encountered in Ethiopia. Ethiopians throw rocks. Adults throw rocks at kids, everyone throws rocks at animals, and kids throw rocks at farenghi (foreigners). I lucked out and was not hit with a single rock while in Ethiopia, but I made a conscious effort to acknowledge people verbally or with clear eye contact as I passed. Often I saw kids with rocks in hand, who dropped them as soon as I spoke to them. Still, some kids threw rocks as I passed, but given their poor accuracy I figured they weren’t trying too hard to hit me.

As in Sudan and Egypt, local Ethiopian cyclists joined us for a spin on their bikes. Numerous young men came spinning out of villages, hot on my wheel and wanting to race. Usually they were equipped with run-down Phoenix bikes, cheap imports from China. Most of these bikes were missing brakes, spokes or pedal platforms, so all that remained of a pedal surface was a spindle. These guys usually gave me a proper run for my money over a five or six-mile distance to the next village. It was fun to have the universal experience of competition with random Ethiopians. With little dialog in English or Amharic, sharing the road with these Ethiopian cyclists was the best possible exchange of culture. Perhaps they were better adjusted to the 9000-foot elevation. I had to wonder what a decent cycling development program would yield in Ethiopia.

Tour d’Afrique: Tell me again why I’m doing this

Photo: Brian Vernor

Despite the trials of traveling through Ethiopia, the country became many riders’ favorite of the trip. I personally took great comfort in the abundance of coffee and doughnuts. And unlike in the Arab world, which we left behind in Sudan, Ethiopians were openly affectionate. Men and women shared common social spaces as we are accustomed to in the U.S. Beer flowed. Music rocked. And anytime we found a shower it was a great relief.

Many people came to the Tour D’Afrique with great anticipation for the ride through Kenya. Unfortunately, due to the current civil unrest in Kenya and most travel insurance policies not working in areas of turmoil, we have chosen to fly over Kenya and resume the expedition in Tanzania. We will arrive in Tanzania during the rainy season and can expect to stay wet and muddy for most of the two weeks until we reach Malawi.

Thanks for reading,

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