Looking Back, Over my Shoulder
A few Tour stage memories from David Else, Lonely Planet relay team
A few days ago, I arrived home after two weeks cycling from Khartoum to Addis Ababa on Stage 2 of the Tour d'Afrique. There were still patches of snow in the fields around my house (I live in southern England) – a minor remnant of the motorway-blocking drifts that hit the country a week ago, and a world away from the heat and dust of Sudan and Ethiopia.
Sitting here at my desk with a fast broadband connection (rather than in a dusty internet café with download speeds only slightly faster than the donkeys in the street outside) it's a good opportunity to recall the last few days of the stage, and to reflect briefly on my two-wheeled journey through this wonderful part of Africa.
Tuesday 10 Feb (Day 25 of the tour)
After the rest day in Bahar Dar, on the banks of Lake Tana, today's ride was a long one: about 160km. The wind was mostly behind, as we pedalled south on good roads through rolling hills. The landscape was green, with grasslands clipped short by goats and cows, patches of eucalypt trees and fields of crops being harvested. Life is probably still pretty hard for the locals, but this fertile country is the total antithesis to the barren deserts we expect to see Ethiopia.
Wednesday 11 Feb (Day 26)
A shorter stint compared to the previous day – 118km – but no walk in the park, thanks to the larger hills to be crossed on today's route. We passed through the towns of Jiga and Dembecha, and then the small city of Debre Markos – all with good cafés to tempt thirsty cyclists. Our choice includes the omnipresent Coke, multi-coloured multi-layered fresh juices, or an espresso. Good coffee and good roads seem to be the two main legacies of Ethiopia's brief period of Italian colonial rule.
Thursday 12 Feb (day 27)
A shorter day again – just 90km – but today we reached one of the key landmarks of the entire trip: the Blue Nile Gorge, where the great river cuts a massive canyon through the Ethiopian landscape. Billed as the Alpe d'Huez of Africa (a reference to a notoriously steep mountain that often features in the Tour de France), for me the descent into the gorge, and then the climb out was the highlight of my two-week ride.
The morning was a limber up: 50km through rolling hills. Then came the 20km descent into the gorge; hairpin after hairpin, switchback after switchback, from an altitude of 2400m to less than 1000m. Some riders punctured on the descent, not because they picked up flints in their tyres, but because the constant braking mean red-hot rims and melting inner-tubes.
At the bottom of the gorge, we crossed the Nile on a new bridge, then started the ascent: 1500m of climbing in 20km. And just to make it interesting, this section was run as a time-trial. The rules were simple: record your start-time, record your finish-time, fastest rider to the top is the winner. Big respect to winner Allan, who covered the distance in 1 hour 19 minutes, an even bigger 'chapeau' to my Lonely Planet team-mate Quentin who clocked 1 hr 35 to get second place, riding the 15kg mountain bike he usually uses for commuting to work.
I just scraped under two hours, and in the bizarre kind of way that only other cyclists might appreciate, I thoroughly enjoyed every sweaty, pulse-thumping, muscle-aching kilometre – especially the top section where the bends were so tight, and some jokers had chalked encouraging messages on the road in true Tour de France style.
Day 28 and Day 29.
Two final glorious days of about 100km each took us into Addis Ababa and the end of the stage. Quentin and I met up with Jim and Carlo, the next two riders in the Lonely Planet relay team, and hand over the virtual baton.
Looking back, I enjoyed every single minute of the past two weeks – even those long hard into-the-headwind days in Sudan when the temperature was over 45 degrees and the air seemed to desiccate my skin – and even those long off-road climbs in Ethiopia where I discovered my max speed was 8km per hour, while local children can run at 9. No wonder this country turns out world-beating marathon athletes.
I managed to avoid the ‘bug' that swept through the camp, and stayed healthy the whole way (although did have my own little medical incident when I managed to fall off my bike in Sudan). I found the infamous stone-throwing kids were not too much of a problem, as long as I got in a pre-emptive smile, wave and shout of local greeting. So no bruises from child-propelled missiles, but my arm aches from all that waving, and I seem to have sunburn on my gums.
So, thanks to Quentin for good company and great laughs all along the way. Thanks to Lonely Planet's Tony Wheeler for making it all happen. Thanks to the Tour d'Afrique organisers for a smooth operation, and to all the other TDA riders for showing us the ropes in the first few days, patching me up when I fell off my bike, and making me slightly envious as they head on down the continent towards Cape Town…