As the birds started singing their morning songs I dragged myself out of bed and took a hard look in the mirror. Yeah. I looked tired alright. I convinced myself I felt better. I did feel better. A few of my neighbors were up and quizzing me as I loaded tied my Ortlieb bag to Doc. I had to be at the border by nightfall. Maybe I could get as far as Gederef. Gareth wasn’t at optimistic as I — and I learned why later that day.
So I headed into the wild and desolate no man’s land lying between Gondar and the Sudanese border, stopping to fill up with benzine and to fill my two 1.5L SIGG bottles so I’d have the extra fuel if needed. Stocked up three liters of water, too.
The road wasn’t bad. Some marble sized gravel in parts that tend to make the front end dance and move. In some corners it got a bit deep. It was the type of dirt that you couldn’t really go much faster than 65 or 75/kph, sometimes slower. There wasn’t a lot of traffic and the few towns or settlements that I passed were hardly a blip. Of the traffic that I did see, often it was a big truck or lorry. But roadside I was greeted by the usual collection of smiling faces, often carrying firewood, water or accompanying donkeys with sacks of rice, grain or corn.
The landscape changed from green and fertile to dray and semiarid as I got closer toward Sudan. The landscape changed to soft eroding sandstone formation at points and other times just rocky and dusty. I was rounding a downhill corner and approaching another blind nearly ninety degree where the gravel was pretty deep when I bus suddenly appears and is taken the uphill turn extra wide — read: into my lane. I downshift hoping the bus will either stop or quickly move over. But I’m dreaming. He keeps coming and there’s no room on the right other than a sheer drop-off of nearly 100 feet. I’d like to go to the left side but he’s slowly moving that way. The downhill slope is about 40 degrees and do my best to slow figuring when his rear clears I can squeeze behind. No luck. I’ve got to stop and in doing so slide out and crash into the dirt.
Desolate but beautiful. The road to Sudan.
The bike slides a few feet and I fall and bounce up nearly instantly. The bus honks driver honks. The bus is stopped and idling on this uphill turn and I’m eating dirt. I try Gareth’s trick to pick up the bike and before I can tell if it works some locals appear out of nowhere and help me lift the bike. All seems good and I continue down the road. Stopping a bit later for some relief and some hydration I realize that both my water bottles are gone. I think the locals helped themselves while I hastily wanted to get out of the way of the bus. I was concerned. It was friggin’ hot. And there’s no town for fifty or a hundred miles. Shit. I throw another layer of sunscreen on my face and back of my neck instead and move on.
Jukka & Timo – a father and son team riding bikes through Africa.
Small villages along the road, but this camel seems to have lost its master. I’ll bet its engine doesn’t overheat — nor over eat!
This day would be one of the longest, hottest and most tiring in Africa.
A couple hours later I notice a small profile of what looks like a motorcycle coming toward me. This time instead of a local riding a noisy two-stroke, it’s someone on a shiny KTM. We both pull over to opposite sides of the road and move through the usual where you from, where you been and where you going questions and start talking about fork seals and calipers. It’s Steven Manugi from Holland riding an ’04 KTM 959 Adventure. Tall and slim sporting a flock of wavy sandy hair and facial growth that comes with traveling “in the middle of nowhere”, I share with him my run-in with the bus and my unfortunate lack of water. He hands me the remains of an extra bottles and says “Keep it!”
An industrial as well as motorcycle mechanic he assures me that my fork seal will last until Cairo and upon telling about Gareth and Helen’s caliper problem, he assures me that it’s an easy fix. I scribble down the name of our pension and urge him to head there and see if he can’t help get the Kiwi’s back on the road. But his plight is rather amazing. Having come up through the hard, hot and wet terrain of southern Sudan from Kenya, we was thrown into a Sudanese jail for three days because he didn’t have a stamp in his passport for Sudan. Fact is, he did have a stamp, but it was from Southern Sudan which considers itself to be separate and a distinct country from the rest. Hence the ongoing civil war. At the time he was thrown into jail he was with another rider who I’d met briefly elsewhere. And as I pen this story I can’t remember his name. Help!
While we were chatting we soon had the usual audience. This time it was entirely young children ranging 8-12 years old. That’s when we realized down the hill nearby was a small school and just up the road a small little town. The kids surrounded us and often got too close to the bikes. We would wave our arms and push them back. One of the older boys handed us a stick. With his broken English he said “just hit when want no touch”. It reminded me of the traffic police south hitting those kids. I decided my less violent approach would be better. Then I played my little game of flickering my tongue making a rhythmic bla, bla, bla, bla sound in rapid succession. The kids all laugh. And they tried to mimic me. “No. It’s like this,” and I repeated it to more laughter and more attempts to do the same. One boy nearby wearing an bright red Arsenal (a UK soccer team and very famous in these parts) soccer jersey with the Emirates logo on it crept close to me.
“Yeah man! Arsenal!” I declared, “I like. My favorite!” pointing to his shirt and getting a huge smile back. Then Steven got in the act with his own facial expressions and sounds. Soon we had a choir of kids making goofy faces and sounds.
Just as we’re about to say our goodbyes and offer the usual good luck and exchange of email addresses, I remember that we must take some pictures. I went to my bike where I keep my handy point-and-shoot camera handy for photos while riding or for quick grabs when I park and wander. But something was wrong. Not again, I thought. The camera was gone. These kids couldn’t… wouldn’t have. Would they? Then I remembered my little accident some time back. Could the camera have popped out of its case? Not a chance. I’ve carried that thing for more than 45,000 miles and it’s never happened. And not once did someone see and take an opportunity to lift it. But here with my audience of more than 50 kids the camera disappeared. Shit.
I explained to Mark and quickly relayed my Moyale phone disappearance and my magical recovery. “I’m going to get it back,” I said confidently before slapping my hand down hard on the seal of the motorcycle.
“Who took it!” I screamed loudly to a startled audience. With a full understanding that most of these kids knew little English, I mimed the act that had occurred and used facial expressions while sternly communicating my disappointment. A boy came forward who spoke English and he asked the crowd if anyone saw the camera thief. Some discussion occurred and the boy ran off indicating he thinks he knows who took the camera but that the boy ran home. “Wait here,” he told us, “the teacher will come.”
After waiting nearly 30 minutes and baking in the hot sun while getting tired of playing face and sound games with the still 30 or so kids lingering. In the distance just before the horizon as the road dipped and crested to a hill top there was some activity. A few vehicles and what looked like some shops. I suggested that we go to town and share our story. Steven graciously stood by me as I persisted to find the thief and get my camera back. At the little ramshackle collection of corrugated metal and rotted wood shacks we found a cold Coca-Cola. This was bliss for me. Though I knew it would only make me more thirsty. But I settled for instant gratification.
We asked the locals for the police. There was no police. They said we can talk to the military, the army people and they pointed in the direction of Sudan. “No. Can you get them to come here,” we insisted. By the time the armed army folks walked down the dusty road we realized our language barrier was greater than we thought. “We know,” they kept saying as if I’d already explained the situation. “You must wait.” Another long fifteen minutes passes. I’m worried about getting to the border and Steven, I’m sure, wants to be in Gondar before nightfall. But things are looking tough as we’ve burned through a couple hours here.
We always had more than thirty kids around us – often fifty or more – at all times.
A bus pulls up and people start loading and unloading stuff on the roof and in the cabin. Then a late model car with three nicely dressed men cruises by and we flag them down. They do speak English. We explain to them that the camera was stolen, and the kids know who has it. We just want to find the boy and retrieve the camera. The men talk to the men dressed in army fatigues. “They know,” the man tells us. “They are waiting for the camera.” I guess the language barrier in fact wasn’t that big. But without some sort of confirmation we thought we were waiting for nothing.
The stick with the bottle at the end. Our line of defense for those kids and adults who ventured to close to our motorcycles.
Ten minutes later two men carrying guns and flanking the young boy in the red Arsenal soccer shirt walk up the hill. The army men ask the boy something and then hey points to the camera case on my motorcycle. Crime solved and perpetrator captured. TH\he young boy is scolded and taken away. Getting ready to leave Steven points at my Aerostich tank pannier on the right size. Something is leaking and dripping on the ground. Good god it’s gas. I pull the SIGG bottle out of the pannier and there’s a two-inch split in the thick material. This is the same type of bottle used with high-tech camp stoves. There is a puddle of gas in the bottom of the canvas pannier. After cleaning the mess out of the bag and off the handful of items I carry in there, I surmise that when I had the crash in front of the bus, I must have landed on a sharp edged rock that caused the bottle to split.
Steven is heading to Djibouti where he’ll catch a boat to the Middle East where in Dubai he hopes to find work.
Next to the offices foot and at the top of his gun barrel is the notorious SIGG bottle that broke causing gas to fill up my Aerostich pannier.
Smelling like gas, Steve and I shoot the ubiquitous pictures. Then he advises me that there’s construction ahead and suggests that I ignore the barricades and ride through. We shake hands and move in our separate directions.
I had one important piece of business to handle before crossing the border: clear my bike through customs and get my carnet stamped. Finding customs would be challenging. Steven estimated it’d be about two hours until I’d reach the small town of Shehedi where by asking around I should find customs. From there it’d be about an hour to the Ethiopian border town of Metama.
Per Steven’s suggestion I avoided the detours and stayed on the main track. In several areas for a kilometer or two the road was paved. I imagine in a year or two this entire track from Gonder to Sudan will be paved. Sad for overlanders but good for Ethiopia. As a landlocked country Ethiopia has two options for importing and exporting: Eritrea and Sudan. Eritrea is challenging at this time because there are disputes and a war with its neighboring country. Sudan through the Port of Sudan is a long and tough journey. Paving this road will smooth it out as in the last three years the road from the border to Port of Sudan and Khartoum has been paved.
Along the way I meet two bicyclists from Finland. Jukka, the younger guy has been riding for over a year. It turns out the older guy Timo is his father who several months earlier flew to Cairo and since then they’ve been biking Africa together. Timo will get to Nairobi and then fly back to Finland where Jukka will continue on to Cape Town and then South America. We exchange information, road conditions and accommodation recommendations and move on. Thinking this tiny town I’d passed was Shehedi, which wasn’t on my Tracks4Africa GPS Map, I decided maybe I should turn around and check. I’d hate to move on and find myself at the border and missed customs. So I flip a u-turn. On my way back to the tiny outpost that was far from a place where I’d find customs, I felt a hard thump hit me in the chest. It was a rock. I’d heard that Ethiopia kids throw rocks at motorcyclists and bicyclists, but for the two weeks or so I’d been here, I’d had no such experience. I was sure it was a rock, but didn’t see anyone. Passing by the point one more time nothing happened.
Shehedi was a striking contrast to the village I’d been in earlier. It’s busy and seems to have good energy. It’s not a border town. But it’s bustling. So, in Shehedi I stumble into what looks like a government office and turns out is manned by environmental, agricultural and geological engineers who are working together on ways to maximize utilization of natural resources in this part of Ethiopia. They’re eager to chat with me, I’m eager to get stamped and move on. All were puzzled when I asked for the locations of the customs office. But after some deliberation one guy leads me to the place. I’m burning up. For some reason my left lower leg is particularly hot. I ask my new friend if he can find me a couple liters of cold water. I loosen my left boot and pour the whole bottle down, change my socks and I’m still hot. Outside the customs office is a string of flatbed trucks loaded with fresh timber. “Where they from,” I ask inquisitively. “Sudan,” he says stamping the carnet, “Sudan.”
If these trucks came from Sudan, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the opposite direciton would be… Sudan?
I move on to Sudan passing all the trucks awaiting for customs clearance. Then I ran into more construction and taking Steven’s advice I blew past any detour signs and stayed on the main track. That is until I came to a bridge out. A long winding and rocky detour for about 2km finally brought me up and over to the other side. Then I came across another one. Cruising along I saw a friendly local waving with enthusiasm. I flashed my lights and tooted the horn and waved. Love those Ethiopians. Finally I came to what turned out to be a dead end. It was a massive bridge out over a small but decent sized river. There was no detour. No wonder the guy was waving with zest. There was no way around. I ride the 3 miles back and he’s sitting there smiling. And points me to another road. I take this road and after a half an hour and looking at my GPS I seem to be moving away from the Sudan border and south toward Lake Tana. Something’s wrong. So I head back asking several people along the way how to get to Sudan. Nobody knows. Doc’s temperature light comes on and glares at me. At a quarry where they’re making tarmac for the new road a guy points in the direction I just came from. Figuring he’s out of his mind, I take another fork. The road sucks. My leg is on fire and I’m frustrated and now losing my patience. It takes another thirty minutes of riding in circles and back to the zestful and enthusiastic waving man. He tells me to go back where I came from. This is crazy I tell them. I just came from there.
With nothing left to do I head back to Shehedi. And pass the trucks loaded with Sudanese timber. And past the customs office and past the government office that helped me. Then I notice there’s a small unmarked fork in the road. It appears to wind through alleys in this town. But in fact it’s the road to Sudan. I had gone the wrong way. it’s weird. The customs guys and the government geologist all knew I was heading for Sudan. As I passed the Sudanese timber trucks who were heading toward Gondar – in the direction I came from, I had to be going the right way if I was going the opposite way trucks coming from Sudan were? Right?
Wrong. I burned valuable time and baked my poor body further. It took a little more than an hour to get to Metema, the Ethiopian shithole of a town that sits on the Sudanese border. It’s too late to try to cross, deal with customs and immigration on the other side and try to make it to Gederef before dark. So the best place in town, I’m told, turns out to be perhaps the worse place I’ve stayed in during my more than two years on the road. To top that off, some young kid sticks to me like glue and then asks for donations.
Border towns are ugly. I spent barely 12 hours in Matema. Then the kid tries to pimp me his sister. Drunk teens in the street want to practice their English but only are looking for money to buy beer and the moss, and the hotel bathroom… the shared bathroom. Let’s not get into it.
The dumpy town of Metema, Ethiopia. Ended my toughest day here.
Outside the rathole I stayed in before finally breaking free into Sudan the next morning.
The next morning I wake up to a burning sensation on my left calve. Lifting my pants I find a massive blister about six inches long by three inches wide. I tender first aid the best I can and get the hell out. Then at customs I realized that during my first aid process I’d left my glasses on the bed. Even though the hotel was barely one kilometer down the dusty track, there was no way I wanted to do any more back tracking. Especially in this dump of a town. So I gave a guy the equivalent of about fifty cents to ride his bike back to my hotel. He returned in fifteen minutes, and I ran for the border.
This day would qualify for a “what a day” ending to this long post.