Traversing the high country of Ethiopia
“The mere animal pleasure of traveling in a wild unexplored country is very great. Great exercise imparts elasticity to the muscles, fresh and healthy blood circulates through the brain, the mind works well, the eye is clear, the step is firm.”
. . . David Livingstone, African explorer
Animal pleasure is one way of describing the effort, pain, elation and sense of achievement that participants of the Tour D’Afrique have felt in traversing the high country of Ethiopia.
For ten days, the road was mostly rocks, sometimes dirt. The dirt was a relief from the pounding, but made worse the dust from passing trucks; beige, gritty fog that reduced visibility to metres. One day a parade of 15 dump trucks passed in a quarter of an hour, choking riders. All the time, climbing or descending on harsh grades, the hills many kilometres long, at elevations of 8,000 to 11,000 feet, altitudes that would leave breathless our buddies at home.
As Livingstone found, we have become more fit than ever before in our lives. Fatigue and adrenalin make a potent medicine that sharpens the senses.
Nothing was more vivid than our entry to Addis Ababa, a modern city with broad boulevards and teeming markets, a centre of international affairs for all of Africa, ringed by mountains, like the Seven Hills of Rome only higher and grander.
Our first fast day on good pavement brought us to within 15 kilometres of Addis. We came over a pass 2,000 feet above the city, escorted by a dozen Ethiopian bike racers and as many security vehicles. We were pedaling hard — I was holding onto the back of one of the TDA trucks for the last part of the climb. Then we topped the hill, the racers plunged into the twisting chute, and we followed. Slowly it dawned on us that the road had been cleared and we let go the brake levers, swooping through the corners, blasting through intersections as we entered the city, downhill all the way. People clapped as we passed and gave us thumbs up; inattentive laggards scattered. Cavalry (yes, cavalry!)horses girded in red and gold, riders with hair like the manes of lions, the symbol of Ethiopian valour — cavalry cut into our ranks at a rattling downhill gallop, the warriors chanting.
Bikes, horses, cars, sirens, blood singing in our ears, we arrived!
We hardly noticed the band and the dancing girls that followed.
The tour is a third over and we have covered 3,500 amazing kilometers. The race itself (remember that most of us are here for the adventure)is resolving into a
battle among five very strong riders: Austrian Sascha Hartl, Briton David Genders, Canadians Steve Topham and Scottie Robinson, and American Kyle Yost. Sascha has raced a lot in mountains and is very strong on the hills and at altitude. He ate up Ethiopia, opening an overall lead of six hours as of March 1. Dave, another experienced mountain biker has moved up steadily from fifth to third.
But tomorrow is always another day. From here to Cape Town, we are told, there is only 400 kilometres of dirt road. The rest is tarmac — which will favour the road racers — with humid heat, malarial mosquitos and new varieties of dangerous driver.