Doug Nienhuis spent the better part of a year cycling and hiking in Ethiopia in the late 1990s
Travelling slowly, Doug explored nearly every corner of Ethiopia and experienced many sides of the country. Wonderful landscapes, a rich historical heritage and hospitable people form some of his fondest memories, but he also had moments of frustration due to illness and stone-throwing children.
In this week’s 10 Questions, Doug shares his memories of cycling in Ethiopia and some tips for anyone considering a trip to this part of eastern Africa. You can see more of Doug’s beautiful photos on his flickr profile.
1. Why were you attracted to Ethiopia for a cycling journey?
I was attracted to Ethiopia for a number of reasons, but I think the deciding factor was that Ethiopia had a lot of mountains. I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Africa, but I find riding on flat land a bit uninteresting.
I also liked that Ethiopia had such an interesting history, with so many monuments, ancient monasteries, exotic churches, and historic cities to visit. Ethiopia also seemed to offer a lot in terms of natural attractions, for example the Simien Mountains, the Blue Nile Falls, and the Rift Valley.
Ethiopia seemed to be much cheaper than many other countries, meaning that I could stay there longer for the same amount of money. I liked that English was widely spoken among educated people. And, finally, not many people (particularly cyclists) seemed to go to Ethiopia. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to go somewhere that was a little bit off the beaten track.
2. How long did you spend there and which main places did you visit?
I stayed in Ethiopia for a little over 10 months. I know most people would travel halfway around the world in that time, but I tend to move pretty slowly. It took me nearly a month just to leave Addis Ababa after I arrived. The rest of my time in the country was divided between the northern plateau, the region around Harar in the east, and the area around Gambela in the west. I eventually stopped cycling, and did some hiking. I hiked along the Gambela River, through the Simien Mountains, and then I revisited some regions in the north, this time on foot.
When I cycled through the north I went in a clockwise direction out of Addis Ababa, which made my first major stop Debre Markos, then Bahir Dar and the Blue Nile Falls and Lake Tana, and then Gondar. After Gondar, I stopped to do a trek through the Simien Mountains. Then I continued on to Axum and Adigrat where I turned south for the long and incredible ride through the mountains back to Addis Ababa, stopping off to visit the underground stone churches of Lalibella.
I also spent a good chunk of time riding out to Harar and back. After that, I was interested in a change of pace and I stored my bicycle in Addis and walked and hitchhiked to Gambela in the west.
3. How would you describe the landscape?
The landscape was spectacular and one of the great things about the country. The roads through the north were rocky and steep and went through rugged mountains that offered amazing views. I often looked ahead and simply couldn’t believe that the road was going to go through the mountains and not around them.
Even when the road wasn’t going through the high mountains, it always seemed to be going up or down to the many rivers cutting through the land.
The land was much greener and much more cultivated in the north than I had expected. Every scrap of land seemed to be occupied by a farm or village. Once you came down off the mountainous plateau in the north, you were in either desert or in what I think of as typical African savannah. The temperature skyrocketed and the land became much flatter.
4. What were the people like? Did you encounter any stone-throwing children? Did you feel welcomed?
The people in Ethiopia were one of the great mysteries of the country. Many of the people I met (and sought out) were teachers, and they were friendly, intelligent, and welcoming. The culture in Ethiopia has a strong tradition of hospitality, which can be seen in the coffee ceremony, to which I was invited day after day. Everywhere I went, people offered me assistance and advice. At times, the help was much more hindrance than help, but their hearts were in the right place.
However, there was also a near-hysteria that greeted me almost everywhere I went. I came to think of it as ferenji hysteria – ferenji being the local word for foreigner. Otherwise sane and normal people would run up to me and simply scream the word ferenji over and over again – often right in my face and at a deafening volume. Others shouted “You, you, you, you!” endlessly and for no apparent reason. Add to that the universal and persistent culture of begging (“Give me one pen!” “Give me one birr!” “Give me bicycle!” “Money, money, money, money, money, money!”), and encounters with people in public could be a bit trying to say the least.
As for the now infamous stone-throwing children, I encountered them on pretty much a daily basis. They also made a game out of grabbing my bike and holding me back, trying to puncture my tires with thorn bushes, whacking me with sticks, grabbing at anything that wasn’t locked or strapped down, and otherwise making my life miserable.
The odd thing about this behavior was that once I was off the bicycle, all of the rock-throwing behavior vanished and Ethiopia seemed a much nicer and friendlier place. That’s not to say it was ever easy. It was a challenging place no matter how I got around.
5. Was it easy to find basic supplies like food and water?
The easy availability of food, water, and accommodation was one of the pleasant surprises of Ethiopia. I found that nearly every town along the main roads offered something in the way of a place to eat and a place to stay. These places were often extremely dirty and primitive, but a home is a home, and I was always glad to find them.
Food was also available almost everywhere. Some people might find the daily diet of injera and wat monotonous, but I’ve never had trouble eating the same thing every day. Water was also fairly easy to find once you knew where to look. I quickly fell into a routine where after settling into my home for the night, I’d grab my 10-liter water bag and go in search of the local village well or pump. I would get my 10 liters of water and then filter and purify it back in my room and be ready for the next day.
6. Are there any cultural considerations for cyclists? Should you dress conservatively, for example?
I can’t think of any cultural considerations offhand. It was cold enough in the mountainous areas that I dressed in long pants, shirts, and often a jacket much of the time. So dressing conservatively came naturally. For cyclists, the key cultural consideration would seem to be to find ways of NOT losing your temper. I suppose one shouldn’t pick up the rock-throwing child, hoist him over your shoulder and then march around the village looking for his parents. One shouldn’t, but it can sure feel good…
7. What stands out for you as the highlight of the trip?
Every single day in the country was a highlight for me. The country threatened to turn me into a raving lunatic on a daily basis, but my time there stands out as one of the best times of my life.
Nights I spent in my tent in villages along the Gambela River among the Nuer and Anuak people were certainly a highlight. The Simien Mountains were another highlight, as were numerous stretches of spectacular mountain road – for example, the section around the small village of Maychew in the north. Another highlight was my visit to Lalibella. I approached Lalibella down a small almost unmarked road and felt that I was cycling into the true unknown.
However, if I had to point to one thing and one experience that stands out for me, it would be the few weeks that I spent in a small town in the mountains in the north. I just happened to meet some personable and friendly teachers there. One teacher’s family ran a small hotel, and I settled in there for a while and simply lived day-to-day while meeting everyone in his family and then in the town.
In places where there were no schools, I stayed with local farmers and those nights were also memorable. They not only invited me into their homes, they would literally not take no for an answer. It was simply assumed I’d be their guest. Their instinct for hospitality was so strong that it was almost impossible to leave the next morning.
8. Was there a time or a moment that you found particularly difficult?
The most difficult times (other than being overwhelmed by mobs of children) were by far the times that I fell ill. This happened more often than I like to remember. It was impossible to control everything that I ate or drank, and I became sick to my stomach on a number of occasions. Many of the places I stayed in had no bathroom facilities of any kind. One just had to find a spot out in the fields.
However, among local people there was a real concern for security (almost paranoia) and I often found the hotel doors and gates locked and barred, making it difficult to get out. More than once, I was forced to climb over the walls or out windows, clutching my stomach and groaning, only to be stopped by armed guards. Any chance of dealing with these extreme calls of nature in anything like privacy then became impossible.
When hotels had bathroom facilities, it was little better. These were often just holes in the ground in disgusting shacks. For reasons I never understood, Ethiopians had a habit of, well, missing the hole. It wasn’t any fun to use these places when I was in good health. When I was ill and had to spend hours in there doubled over with excruciating stomach cramps during the cold nights, it was much, much worse.
After a day of being stoned by children, a night like that would make me start to wonder, “What in the world am I doing here?”
9. What kind of person do you think would enjoy a trip to Ethiopia?
That’s a tough call. I don’t think I’ve made cycling in Ethiopia sound like a particularly fun thing to do. However, I think almost anyone who enjoys bike touring would enjoy the challenge of Ethiopia. It was certainly rewarding for me. Still, to enjoy a trip to Ethiopia (particularly by bicycle) a person would have to be willing to put up with a lot of physical hardship and emotional stress. It was a tough place from almost every point of view. I’ve mentioned some of the difficulties of travel there, but there are others that I haven’t mentioned, for example the very real poverty that one encounters. The person who would enjoy a trip to Ethiopia would be someone who was looking for an adventure.
10. What advice do you have for cyclists considering a trip to Ethiopia?
There are certainly a lot of practical considerations for cyclists going to Ethiopia. The hotels were often quite primitive, and staying in them was more like urban camping than staying in a hotel. Therefore, camping gear is extremely useful even if you aren’t technically camping outside.
It was also surprisingly cold in the north, particularly in the Simien Mountains. I carried a winter-rated down sleeping bag and a thick Thermarest and I never regretted it. Hotels supplied blankets but they were never warm enough for me, and I always slept in my own sheet and sleeping bag.
Also, despite it being cold, the sun was very strong, and some kind of sun block for your lips and nose is essential.There were also incredible numbers of flies on the roads. Every time I stopped in a village to chat with people or get a drink, I’d leave with a new cloud of the monsters buzzing and flying around my head. You wouldn’t want these flies around your own eyes, so some kind of form-fitting sunglasses and insect repellent is a good idea. Ear plugs are a good idea for the hotels. Many of the hotels serve local truck drivers and bus drivers, and they come in late and drunk and making a lot of noise.
As far as a touring bicycle is concerned, a very strong bicycle with a low gear ratio is a must for Ethiopia, unless you’re willing to push your bike up the endless steep switchbacks.
My final piece of advice to anyone planning a cycling trip to Ethiopia would be to have plenty of time and to be willing to spend that time in just a few places. The more I stayed in one place, the more enjoyable the experience became. The actual cycling part of cycling in Ethiopia can be a bit overwhelming. But once you slow down, it becomes clear what an amazing and beautiful country Ethiopia is.
Thanks to Doug for answering 10 Questions on Ethiopia and providing the photos.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in Ethiopia:
- Owen Abroad – Notes from 2 weeks of cycling in northern Ethiopia
- And They Stoned Me: The Joy of Cycling Ethiopia – An honest account of the challenges of cycling through Ethiopia.