The Dangerous Ride To Bahir Dar

With a visa allowing me seven whole days to visit The Sudan taking up a full page in my passport, it was time for me to make a move toward the Nile: this time the source of the Blue Nile, which sits in Ethiopia at Lake Tana, a good days ride from Addis. I stopped by the DHL office and was told that my package, the tire, would arrive the following day. It’s the second time DHL has dropped the proverbial ball. Further inquiry revealed that the tire was actually on a plane that would land this evening. Great. Then could they get it to me tonight? No, because it would have to clear customs. The tire I fitted in Dar es Salaam had plenty of miles left. I asked if they could get the tire to me by early the next morning. There were no guarantees. I told them I would be leaving before 10am and if they couldn’t get it to me by then, I suggested they ship it to Gondar, where I’d be in a few days. IMG_8203_2.jpg

The next morning my tire never arrived. Fearing a long and hot day, I left Addis just before 10am. The road out of town was slightly confusing then once I was northwest of the city the tarmac turned from poor and potholed to smooth and black. Winding around several decreasing radius turns as I headed down into a valley, I spotted a sign. Seems a joint project between Japan and Ethiopian resulted in a fine road that would take me to the Blue Nile Gorge. Passing through the crowded and pedestrian littered byways of small towns, I came upon another funeral and men in sarong like robes and white headdresses. I continued to spot hundreds of donkeys and the fertile valley seemed rich in vegetation.

Passing through one town I came upon two motorcyclists heading toward Addis. As is the dictum of riding motorcycles in faraway lands we pulled to the side of the road. And then the crowd thickened. Seems Ethiopia crowds might be the largest I’ve seen on my trip through Africa. Here in the middle of Ethiopia I met my first motorcycle travelers since meeting the Matteo, Tom and the others in Arusha, Tanzania nearly two months ago.

Billy Gibson and Trisha Cotton left Australia more than six months ago and were headed south to Cape Town. Billy rode a 1984 BMW Paris-Dakar (PD) and Trisha was on a small Kawasaki Super Sherpa – something I’d never seen but perhaps was a rev of the old KLR 250. We shared information about roads north and roads south and Trisha gave me a Lonely Planet Middle East book in spanking new condition. Because this trek through Ethiopia and toward Egypt was not in my original plan, I was running blind and without a guidebook. We examined each other’s bikes and talked about gear, maintenance and bikes. Billy is an accomplished mechanic and very in tune with his bike — he has to be because at 24 years old the bike has seen some miles, though he rebuilt the entire engine before embarking on this journey.

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Billy and Trisha in front of Billy’s ’84 PD and among friends roadside somewhere north of Addis in Ethiopia.

That’s when we noticed the fork oil spilling out of my left fork seal. Somewhere on the hot road today, the seal gave away. The opposite seal had failed in Zambia several months ago. I had a spare but it’d be some time before I would be in workshop where I could replace the seal. Billy shared a trick where using a thin feeler gauge sized strip of plastic such as cut from a plastic water bottle and slip it between the seal and the fork to clean any debris that might have caused the leak. He says this could give me a 500-1,000km extension before it becomes more of a problem.

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Trisha rides a later model Kawasaki 250cc Sherpa. First time I’d seen one. And she road it from Australia to Ethiopia! In this photo note the three wheeled enclosed motorcycle aka moto taxi in the left rear and the donkey cart just above Trisha… except this cart is not pulled by a donkey. It’s human powered.

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Trisha and I pose around Doc and the usual gathering of new found friends.

After about an hour we parted ways agreeing to catch up on each other’s adventures via email.

As I got closer to the Blue Nile Gorge the road deteriorated. Then it turned into a massive construction zone. The massive gorge with towering cliffs of granite appears deep below. Loose gravel and rocks make riding down into the gorge a bit tentative, but pulling over for a break and a quick photo an old man appears at of nowhere and shakes his finger indicating no photography. Strange. They’re building a new bridge that not only is wider but also softens the bend of the turn you must make to cross the river over the gorge. As I climb up Doc starts spitting and hesitating. Then the overheating light glares at me. There are construction trucks everywhere and I’m riding a 60 degree incline going up. Stop and hold. After a few minutes move again. All I want is to get to flat ground. It’s a bad dirt road that’s been beat up badly by construction trucks. When I get to a plateau and my light still piercing through the harsh midday sunlight, I pull over. The crowd appears and one young cut girl motions me to the other side of the road where trees overhand creating a bit of shade. I wait for about 30 minutes for Doc to cool down. It’s hot, and it’s been low gear, high revving over the dirt and gravel and up and down the mountains. I fear my fan isn’t working. I haven’t heard it come on with the its usual high pitch spin.

This is bad, I think. I’m heading into the Sudan and some of the harshest and hottest desert on the continent. And if my bike is overheating here, what’s going to happen there. I check my fuses. All good. Maybe it’s the relay. Perhaps I can bypass the thermostat control. But I’d burn out the fan. I could concoct a switch and manually trigger it at slow speeds when traversing sand or dirt or through city traffic. All this will have to wait. I’m making my way to Bahir Dar, a laid back town that sits on the shores of Lake Tana. Billy and Trisha were coming from there. They told me the stayed nearly a week with a Canadian named Jeremy who is a professor at the local university. I should look him up if possible.

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The Blue Nile River.

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A new bridge just near the gorge is under construction making riding the road challenging and hot.

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One of many stops and the ubiquitous beautiful donkeys of Ethiopia.

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Could used some shade and canopy on Doc this hot day.

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Worried about leaky fork seals and an overheating engine, I had to make several stops along the dirt road and construction laden parts of the route to let Doc cool. This friendly woman sports typical body ornament – tattoos — of the people in this region. Note her neck, chin and arm.

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Along the route from Addis to Bahir Dar there are dozens of abandoned military armor left over from the intense Ethiopian Civil War which lasted after the marxist Derg over through Halie Selassie in a coup d’etat in 1974 until 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolution Front finally overthrew the Derg.

Until the tarmac I struggled with the overheating motorcycle. On tarmac the speed, breeze and low revs kept me and the bike cool. But all these distractions pinched my time, before I got to Bahir Dar the sun and its glorious display of colors and reflections on the clouds gave way to night. According to my best calculation and not the fairly useless GPS, I had about 50km to Bahir Dar. My PIAA lights were down to one and my high-beam blazed the train ahead. But it was black. I couldn’t see much. Then just cruising at a comfortable 80km/hour I was in a zone. Just cruising and thinking. Then immediately in front of me barely reflecting the halo of my headlight was a donkey cart. I was within 5 meters of the back of this thing when I saw the white eyes and teeth of the two kids craning their necks looking at me. My heart jumped and my eyes widened. I jerked to the left and nearly skimmed the side of the cart with my pannier. I looked for my heart as it was beating hard somewhere in my body it wasn’t used to. My mind played with the other possible outcomes of that close call. They all scared me.

Night riding is treacherous. No matter what continent you’re riding on. But Africa? Good god. I was a bit lazy. Tired. And just dreaming of Lake Tana, a room and a cold beer. I saw another five or six donkey carts before rolling into Bahir Dar, with its sad string of streetlights – less than half of which were working. But street lighting nonetheless. After sunset the donkey carts carry supplies, tools and crops harvested from the fields. I just didn’t see it. There was no reflective material, the passengers were dressed in dark clothes and there was no moon or ambient light coulda helped. Lucky.

I stopped in Bahir Dar at the first sign of civilization to thumb through the guide book. That’s when an older guy riding a chinese scooter pulled up next to me. It was Jeremy, the guy Billy and Trisha had met and stayed at his house. We shared a beer and stories of our mutual friends. He offered his home but suggested against it because there was no running water — wisdom of the city trying to improve conditions but failing miserably for the last two days. And there was a sewage problem. Didn’t sound pretty so he referred me to a local hotel at about $15 including breakfast and on the lake. Sold.

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While these cuties thought I was taking there picture, I was really checking out the “express lane” for donkeys and pedestrians. Why they didn’t have one on the road outside of Bahir Dar is anyone’s guess! Actually this was about 3 hours south of Bahir Dar and over a bridge crossing a small canyon. Donkey Carts!!!

2 replies
  1. jdgill
    jdgill says:

    Hey Allan, ratman is an advrider from SoCal. He came up with a fix for fork seals that takes Bob’s fix one step farther using wet/dry sandpaper and superglue. Worth a look at
    http://tinyurl.com/28au2x
    Keep up the posts Allan, good stuff..

    Reply
  2. WorldRider
    WorldRider says:

    that’s ingenious. so i guess he’s just using the fine grit of the sandpaper to capture smaller particles. if i read this correct he’s just rotating it 5 or 6 times then removing the sandpaper… very cool!

    Reply

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