Monday, February 22, 2010

Addis Ababa

Odometer reading - 3600 km.

I sit by the roof top pool of the Intercontinental Hotel as I write this blog on my iPhone using the hotel Wifi connection...having just ordered a St. George beer, and a cheeseburger and chips. Such a contrast to our past week and the world outside of this hotel.    

A week ago, after sleeping off the Mardi Gras party, we headed for  Addis. Our run to Addis was a climber's paradise which included 600 km of riding up and down between 1800 metres (600 feet) and 3100 meters (10,000 feet). 

The highlight of the riding week was a time trial up the side of the Blue Nile Gorge. After a 45 km warmup of rolling hills, a 20km descent took us to the bottom of the gorge...some of the most daring riders were able to get to speeds of close to 80 kph. And of course, what goes down must go back up.  The time trial started at the bottom of the gorge - 20km to the top with an average of an 8% grade...essentially think of 20 km of the steepest road close to your house. Yes...a hard day for sure. But certainly rewarding,  even for the couple of riders who held on to the back of passing trucks as relief...or the person who paid some local kids to walk his bike to the top as he followed close behind.

Sickness continues to plague the TDA camp, and I'm in awe of those who power through the these long rides while under the search of the elusive EFI award, which is given out to those riders who pedal Every Flippin Inch of the way!!

On arrival in the bigger cities we typically gather at the city limits and ride into town in convoy. Yesterday's convoy included only about 70 per cent of the riders who started the TDA, which reminded me of the toll that this adventure has taken on the group. Beside those stricken with some degree of stomach bacteria, there have been a full array of ailments and injuries which have kept people off the bike or even landed people in the hospital - infected wisdom teeth, concussions, a broken bone - just to name a few. Long days of peddling in sometimes hostile conditions, new foods, and outdoor living in Africa, is taking its toll.

On a positive note, our chef continues to keep our appetites happy even when food availability can be scarce. It's fasting time in Ethiopia which means that the Ethiopian Orthodox are are not allowed to eat meat.  The TDA chef has therefore had to be creative in getting meat for our dinners. His latest ventured in involved buying 9 sheep from a local farmer and then finding a Muslim butcher to slaughter and cut the meat. Mutton stew, grilled mutton, mutton and pasta are some of dishes that have filled our bellies this past week.

We leave Addis in the morning and I suspect that we have plenty more climbing in our future as we make our way to the Kenya border.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Based on the experiences of previous TDA's, it was expected that we would have a lot of stomach issues once we got to this country, and like clockwork, a few days into Ethiopia, a stomach bug has the TDA under seige. Some have it a lot worse then others, but I don't think I've talked to one person, who hasnt felt at least little off over the last few days. For those that have had it the worse, it has been a trying 3 or 4 days.

But the Tour must go on and, with a constant eye for a possible toilet, we have had a rich few days since my last update. Because of problems with one of the support vehicles we enjoyed an extra rest day in Gondor, where we spent most of our time in the Hotel Goha high above the city...just sitting around enjoying cold drinks and the view, while licking our wounds from the week before.

The ride out of Gondor was probably the most enjoyable yet. About 120 km, which included 2 climbs that were very "Col d'ish", in the way they reminded me of the French Alps - about 5-10km each, of switch backs, fanastic fews and the reward, of a summit, followed by a 20 minute charge down the other side of the mountain.

A quick 60km sprint (for some) the following day has landed us in Bahir Dar, which is a vibrant little town on lake Tana. On arrival, we all outfitted ourselves with outfits(Mardi Gras theme) found in the local market, and held our first TDA party. We highjacked the Hotel bar, to get the night started. Tej, an Ethiopian honey wine, was the drink of choice for many, while others drank the Ethiopian beer, or just stuck to the basics with Johnny Walker Red. After everyone had time to get a bit lubed up we took to the streets and continued the celebration in a bar hosting live Ethiopian music, watched by a full house of people jammed together sitting on crates and passing around Tej.

Although the unknown(like some days of our Epic week) may upset the "day in the life of the TDA", the TDA has become lifestyle, as described by someone in the dinner line a few nights ago. I find it interesting that rest days, have more then a few times, been described as the weekend. In fact as a rest day comes to an end, it feels eerily like a Sunday night, as you, mentally prepare yourself for an early wakeup and a week of work. And of course we wake up finding ourselves in the lucky predicament of having to hop on a bike to earn the reward of putting our feet up at the end of the day,eating a warm dinner,and watching the primetime show of the sun dropping over the horizon.

The stone throwing continues and is expected to through the rest of the country. After a couple of days you learn little tricks on how to anticipate and maybe even avoid the stone throwing. The sideline hecklers can get creative, and this past weeks winners were: the boy who somehow just missed a rider with a bail of hay; and in a seperate incident, 2 boys who tried to block the way of a couple of riders by spreading out the wingspan of a live captive goose.

We continue to indulge in the local cuisine(probably at the displeasure of our stomachs) - but it's too curious and delicious to resist. One such pleasure to which I have not give any written credit are the fruit juices which we have had since arriving in Egypt, but seem to have gotten better as we have headed south. As an example, my latest order was a "mixed", which is served in a large mug and each flavor has its own layer - in this case freshly squeezed/extracted avocado, mango, guava and pineapple. I tend to wonder if the mass production requirements of the west have not put the taste of a freshly made glass of fruit juice on the endangered list.

Sorry again for no new pics, but I'm hoping to have them posted in 5 or 6 days when we arrive in Addis Ababba.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Epic Week!

1000 km in 7 days has landed us in Gondor, Ethiopia.

We started the week with back-to-back centuries(160km per day). The distance itself seemed daunting until we realized that playing chicken with oncoming tour buses, and dodging potholes was part of the agenda. Losing the games of chicken always seemed to be the best option but usually resulted in a fairly hectic bailout off the pavement onto a variety of stones and dirt, often with pedestrians to dodge as well. Stress levels were high these 2 evenings...but we looked forward to a few peaceful days of dirt roads.

Little did we know, the carnage had just begun.

Day 3 - 50km on the tar, and then dirt roads for 90km. A handful of people embraced this transition and beat the big overland trucks to camp. For others, it made for a long day, even longer for a few who got lost and added 60km to their day.

Day 4 - Dinder Day. Dinder National Park will be long remembered by this year's TDA's riders. It was the first time the TDA had ridden through this area, so the roads to come were little known from a cyclist perspective. Dinder is a game park and home to lion, buffalo, buck, warthog, and large variety of bird is also home to some treacherous road. Needless to say with our eyes pinned to ground in front of us, there was not a lot of game viewing to be done. By mid-afternoon, water was low, saddle sores were flaring, injuries accumulating and the arms were jelly...and there was still a long way to go. Just before sundown the first riders arrived at camp...looking like whipped dogs. Since night was aproaching, the TDA staff scrambled to find and pick up the many riders who had lost the race against the sun. Once again the stress levels were high as people nursed their injuries, exhaustion, frustration, bikes and variety of injuries.

Day 5 - a 140km hop to the Ethiopian border.

In my opinion the hardest day of the week. The roads were so bad that even the big overland trucks had a hard time passing through some places, and once again the front riders beat the trucks to camp, but not without a good amount of suffering. Other riders wised up earlier in the day as the outcome was becoming more apparent, and pulled up to wait for a lift.

Day 6 - After spending the night at the border and getting our first taste of Ethiopia, we slowly climbed our way to mountain camp on some freshly paved roads. Everyone treated today as a recovery day so the going was slow, which allowed us to adjust our senses to to huge cultural and landscape change we were experiencing now that we had left the Sudan. The mountains replaced the desert, Christianity replaced Islam, and stone throwing replaced smiling and waving....and the booze is back. At mountain camp a few of us invited ourselves to hut of one of the villagers, who served us some warm (but welcome) beer for a small fee. The head of the household made sure we were comfortable and taken care of, and then he, his family and his friends sat there and watched us indulge.

Day 7 - Climbing day - 100 km to Gondor. On paper, this was meant to be the hardest day of the week. It was a tough day for sure which included about 2500m(8000ft) of climbing, but I think since it was expected, and knowing that we had a rest day and a hotel waiting for us, it was just another day in this epic week. It also was our first real contact with Ethiopia's stone throwing children. I would say that the average TDA rider, by the end of yesterday, would say they were hit with a stick at least once, and had stones thrown at them at least 3 times.

I dont believe I have been overly dramatic in describing the week, in fact, I think if I were to tell each person's story individually, it may even appear worse then described above. My personal woe's included a stomach bug, which earned me a ride on the truck one day after getting dehydrated, urinating blood after 10 hours in the saddle, my first saddle sores, muscle cramps in my legs for the first time in my life, and a perpetual state of exhaustion...but after one night in the Goha Hotel, and a few beers, I am already on the mend, and hopefully even stronger for the weeks to come. However, as challenging it was, it was an amazing week!!

To elaborate on the cultural change from Sudan to is like a different world. First appearances are that is a bit rogue here, perhaps a bit bohemic. The effects of Islamic law have dissappeared, and enterprise is high on everyone's agenda. But I've only been here for 2 days - so more on that later. One thing to keep in mind is that although there is a heavy Italian influence in Ethiopia, it brags of being the only African state not to have been colonized.

Internet access in Gondor, makes the old telelphone dialup feel like lighting, so I will not be able to post pictures until I get to Addis in about 10 days

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Yesterday's tailwind blasted us for 60km into the outskirts of Khartoum, but was no match for the chaos of the inner city. The last 30 km was done slowly in a police convey.

My discovery of Khartoum was enhanced by my taxi breaking down. After the driver opened the the trunk and refueled, he popped the hood to make a few more adjustments. No dice - the car was dead. He gave the me the 2 hands in the air sign(which I interpreted as "I dont know") and then the 2 fingers back and forth(which I interpreted as "Start walking"). So off I went - no questions asked.

Even though Khartoum is a big city, and has the chaos and vigor of any other big city, the people are still the friendly Sudanese that I have come to know.

Tomorrow we start a new phase of the TDA as we make our way toward our first dirt roads, and then the Ethiopian border.


is the best way to describe the last few days. The temperature has been edging into the 40s (thats getting close to 110F) by the end of each days ride.

Now that we are almost 3 weeks into the tour and routines have been established, it seems like a good time to walk through a day in the life of the TDA.

Wake up an hour or 2 before sunrise...usually grabbing a shovel and the baby wipes and heading for the dunes. Since we have crossed one time zone already, this could be 5 or 6 am.

Social interaction at this point usually consists of blinding someone with your headlamp, saying "good morning" and moving along - still not knowing who you've just welcomed to the new day.

Its then time to put on the bike clothes, pack the bag and take down the tent. And for no apparent reason it seems to be a coin toss as to whether all the stuff will be the same size as it was when it was pulled out of the truck the day before. It's right around this time that the official wake up is sounded by music from one of the Overland trucks you've seen in the pictures. The music can be anything from Afrikaans folk to the Foo Fighters. By the way, the unofficial wake up so far comes an hour earlier with a mic check the local Mosque's Muezzin, followed by his call to prayer which has reached us even in the far corners of the desert. Mornings spent in the bigger towns and citys, comes with a full chorus.

Breakfast of Hot cereal (sometimes we are treated to muesli), pita bread, fruit, tea and coffee is served just before sun-up as everyone scrambles to get their stuff into their assigned lockers which are on the big trucks.

After some last-minute maintenance to yourself and your bike, you clock in and are off to work (riding the bike to the next camp) I have been posting pictures of white boards - these are our source of information, and map out the day ahead.

The lunch truck is usually a welcome sight which is set up a little after halfway through the day's ride. At the lunch truck we are treated to an all-you-can-eat buffet of sandwiches and fruit, as well as water and energy drink (Gatorade type drink as opposed to Red Bull).

The rest of the ride is gravy - either ride like the wind to camp, or spin along enjoying the sights and occasional coke stops, which come in the form of street-vendor-type huts that pop up randomly in the desert.

Getting to camp is rewarded with a big pot of freshly made hot soup, which is craved even in the temps of past few days. The rest of afternoon consists of setting up your tent, taking a baby wipe bath, and hunting for some shade, under which to read, write or talk about the day's gossip. If we are not in the middle of nowwhere, there are usually plenty of things to explore, or local foods and drink to taste.

At the cry of "Rider Meeting!" we all gather around one of the trucks, where one of the TDA staff updates us with the next days route and itinerary as well as any miscellaneous suggestions or rule changes. A weekly highlight at the rider meeting is the auctioning of the lost and found pil. The fun starts when someone in need of an item tries to outbid the original owner. The TDA staff benefit from the auction proceeds - beverages of choice.

Dinner is then served - time to replenish for the day to come with freshly cooked food made from local ingredients. James - the man with this enormous task - continues to outdo himself!!

After dinner, people slowly disappear into the night...and oh what nights they are. Clear sky in the desert is certainly something at which to marvel!!!