Words and photos by Dan Milner
It’s amazing what a little bit of “magic" can do. I say “magic" but really it’s nothing more than a couple of deft movements of the hand, bending a thumb to look like a detachable finger, an impromptu bit of juggling, Dad-like antics usually reserved for a Christmas dinner.
But the magic quickly draws wider attention, and word spreads through this Ethiopian village. Within five minutes, about halfway through my act, I’m being mobbed by thirty or more kids, all clambering to see something, all desperate to know how it’s done, eager to get a grasp on what the heck this white guy is all about.
"They converge to see if the rumour is true, that seven foreigners really are pedalling bikes through this unlikely landscape. For them it’s either magic or insanity. For us it’s a little of both."
Attention is something you have to get used to as a foreigner here. Wherever you go in Ethiopia people gather to watch, and it’s not just kids that are inquisitive. People suddenly appear, as if teleported, their stares fixed on us, our tents and on our bikes, especially our bikes.
Bikes are a rare sight in Ethiopia’s remote and rugged Simien Mountains National Park and news of our imminent arrival races ahead of us to lure kids and herdsmen from their toil in the terraced fields that patchwork the steep hillsides. They converge to see for themselves if the rumour is true, that seven foreigners really are pedalling bikes through this unlikely landscape. For them it’s either magic or insanity. For us it’s a little of both.
If you’re forty-something you’d be forgiven for thinking some magic is at play too. Nobody would have foreseen tourists riding bikes through a country that was widely written off to famine by Geldof’s Live Aid charity gig in 1985. And if you’ve seen photos of the country’s plunging rift valleys and implausibly steep mountains, then you’d think our two-wheeled mission was insanity.
But the reality is that Ethiopia has pulled itself out of the chaos and starvation of the 1980s, and steep, rugged terrain like the Simien Mountains are what mountain bikes are meant to be ridden on, right? After all, you just need trails to mountain bike and Ethiopia, the most densely populated landlocked country in the world, has lots of trails.
Widely considered the “cradle of mankind", the place that spawned our species Homo sapiens, Ethiopia’s inhabitants have had plenty of time to stamp trails across its million square kilometres of terrain. Thousands of years of rural inhabitation has left a legacy of footpaths, zigzagging across plateaux and radiating like spider webs from hillside villages.
It’s these trails that form the only lines of communication between many settlements and it’s these trails that make it possible to ride across the Simien Mountains, or at least try.
“It’s sporty," says Tom Bodkin, our guide and the mastermind behind the trip, describing the next day’s descent, a full 1000m plunge down the side of a rock-strewn gorge to the valley floor below. I’m sharing end-of-day beers with the rest of our group, pro riders Sarah Leishman and Kamil Tatarkovic, videographer Devin Schmitt, writer Aaron Gulley and Giro marketing honcho Dain Zaffke, at the most spectacular campground in which I’ve ever pitched a tent.
"It’s like he’s saying: “If you sign up, shut up!" but to the tune of a lullaby."
Perched precipitously on the edge of an abyss, we look across a deep ravine at the 4200 metre high peak that kicked our arses on our first day of riding. We’re glad it’s behind us, but apart from the lung-beatings we’ve been dealt, so far most of the footpaths and mule tracks we’ve followed have been challenging but mostly rideable. Mostly. But now a few days in and tired, we’re reading between the lines of Bodkin’s ambiguous trail description. By the sound of it tomorrow’s beast of a downhill may wield the hammer blow for morale, or worse.
Bodkin organised an Afghanistan mountain bike trip, which I photographed in 2013. On it I got to see how this ex-army captain has learnt to use spin to maintain morale amongst his “troops", be they camouflaged paratroopers or eager adventure tourists. He curates his words to encourage his co-adventurers to look at every challenge as life-affirming and just part of the adventure. It’s like he’s saying: “If you sign up, shut up!" but to the tune of a lullaby.
Sure enough it turns out that “sporty" is an understatement. Loose, steep and committing, the descent is a mix of death-grip manoeuvres and reeling from exposure. Tyres scrabble for grip, brakes smoulder to stem the pull of gravity, and sphincters quiver at every switchback. It’s the toughest trail we ride (or try to ride) in our eight-day expedition and it serves as a sweaty reminder that we are a long way from flow trails, from the familiar nests we’ve feathered with convenience, predictability and workshop-tuned technology that make up our usual rides.
"Breaking a leg here could mean a bumpy ride out on the back of a mule, or using our satellite phone to call in a helicopter for evacuation to hospital in Addis Ababa."
Here, on a wild path that exists solely to connect two remote mountain villages, we’re a long way from home, and it feels like it. Breaking a leg here could mean a bumpy ride out on the back of a mule, or using our satellite phone to call in a helicopter for evacuation to hospital in Addis Ababa. Either could be a two-day mission.
But our descent is also a reminder of the mountain bike’s origins, riding natural trails long before bike parks and trail centres and the kind of buff manicured singletrack that renders redundant the six inches of plush suspension we’ve all bought into. It might be the catalyst for collective outbursts of expletives, but this trail, like the one we rode yesterday and the day before that, is a reminder that mountain bikes were conceived to be ridden down mountains.
We emerge from the descent physically, mentally and in some cases emotionally exhausted, and roll out onto the banks of a river. It’s February, the height of the dry season and most of the rivers we’ve encountered are little more than shallow trickles of dubiously-tinted water. Dry, hot weather has made our river crossings easy, but it’s stolen our baths too.
But now on our fifth day, with grime worked deep into our pores, we have found a river that spills over ledges and pools deeply between boulders to form the perfect bathing spot. And the locals know it too. We shed dust-encrusted jerseys among villagers who are elbow deep in laundry, surrounded by kids whose heads are a foaming mass of soap. Our bathroom is quite the hive of activity.
"Skirting a vast plateau we scatter cliff-dwelling Gelada baboons while enormous raptors circle effortlessly upwards until finally, like tiny fading ink blots, they’re absorbed into an enormous cloudless sky."
For eight days we pedal a dog-leg route across the Simien Mountains National Park, accompanied by our support team and half a dozen gear-carrying mules, a caravan that can’t escape attention in every village we pass through. Each night we don duvet jackets to combat the near-freezing night temperatures and illuminated by head torches we eat our way through a spread of local dishes that lay siege to our taste buds. The lentil wat (stew) is well received by all, but the rancid, sourdough injera bread wins fewer hearts in yet another round of the sensory overload that is Ethiopia. Here, it seems, everything is an assault on the senses.
We wind our way between towering pinnacles of rock, and traverse wild, open hillsides, velvet with swaying golden grass. Skirting a vast plateau we scatter cliff-dwelling Gelada baboons while enormous raptors circle effortlessly upwards until finally, like tiny fading ink blots, they’re absorbed into an enormous cloudless sky. Every village we pass through sheds its cargo of kids, in hand-me down clothes and shoes three sizes too big, who run excitedly alongside us or try to help push our bikes up impossibly steep climbs. We’ve become a circus of excitement and chatter and there is no escape from this barrage, not even when we arrive at our daily ad-hoc campgrounds situated on village football fields and schoolyards.
Our progress up, across and over these 4,000 metre-high mountains is painfully slow at times, but our accompanying stream of acclimatised children has no difficulty in keeping up with us on foot. Nor does our local guide Getachew, a keen trail runner, or our two scouts, Molla and Sewnett, aging rifles slung across their backs. Molla is a National Park scout, and Sonay a local villager and their guns are more a show of strength than an acceptance that anything bad might happen to us here.
With Somalia neighbouring to the east and south, it would be easy to ignorantly assume that Ethiopia shares its instabilities. But ignorance is far from the truth and in reality Ethiopia’s safe, peaceful and stunning National Parks have huge tourism potential, and it’s this that the authorities are protecting.
"The guns are more for show than anger…"
Arming the obligatory scouts that accompany foreign trekkers eliminates any risk of mishap, however miniscule that may be, which could damage its fledgling tourism industry. The guns are more for show than anger as Bodkin points out when he is handed Sewnett’s AK47 to look at. “They’ve been about a bit," he says about the blunt rounds and a gun that probably hasn’t been fired in years.
Aside from the repeated risk of going over the bars to tumble down a vertical mountainside, we never feel unsafe. In fact the most likely incident to befall tourists would be being buried by inquisitive kids at one of our campgrounds. It’s something that Molla and Sewnett prevent by energetically waving two-metre long bamboo sticks.
This theatrical show of crowd control is an obvious game of cat and mouse as cheeky kids test our scouts’ limits of tolerance and our scouts respond by sternly brandishing the long sticks while trying to hide their grins.
Playtime aside, as with all expeditions ours has an objective, to scale Ethiopia’s highest mountain, the 4543 metre-high peak of Ras Dajen, with bikes. The challenge comes early in the itinerary and on day three we find ourselves puffing up the long, arduous 4x4 track that runs like a surgical scar across the shoulder of this hunchback peak.
We pause at the pass to catch our breath for a good half hour before riding onto a singletrack that leads us towards the summit. The last fifty metres to the top are more rock climbing than riding and with cleats scrabbling for grip on the rocks, we sling bikes onto our backs for the final clamber up to the outcrop that is the top of Ethiopia.
Having an objective, I’m told, is what defines an expedition but now sitting on Ras Dashen’s naked, oxygen-starved summit I can’t help wonder if ours is a little convenient (if “convenient" is the right word for riding at this altitude). People climb mountains regularly, and many climb mountains with bikes. We’re no pioneers.
Certainly we’re not the first to scale Ras Dashen on bikes, but despite following in the tyre tracks of two other bike teams, the sight of mountain bikers in villages that have dotted this landscape since the sixth century is still a novelty. The excitement we bring is half our reward, the rest is what we take away from the experience.
As a couple of kids haul themselves up to the summit, each armed with a crate of electric-orange coloured sodas to sell, I begin to realise what the true objective of our expedition is and, for me at least, it has little to do with the calorific spend of scaling a mountain. It has little to do with the endorphin rush of loose descents or comparing the virtues of tubes against tubeless tyres.
Sitting here, in the cradle of mankind, it is about rediscovering the base values of life, of finding a thread of common humanity with people whose lives would never otherwise connect with ours. Against the vast history of mankind our bike trip is an insignificant moment, but for this assembled group of westerners, it is an enlightening experience.
And it’s these experiences that are the real drive for so many expeditions. Our bikes, our technical clothes and our vibram-soled shoes are just an excuse, a tool for getting ourselves there.
For a week we rode through a landscape that has largely been unchanged for centuries, through the very epicentre of where our species started. And we did so surrounded by supportive, enthusiastic strangers while connecting in the only way we can: through laughter, lots of laughter.
DO IT YOURSELF:
Ethiopian Airlines has return flights from £566 and taking your bike as excess baggage costs £62 each way. See ethiopianairlines.com
Guides & Route Planning:
Having explored the route with Dan Milner, Tom Bodkin's company Secret Compass now offers the itinerary. See secretcompass.com for details.
Preparation & Safety:
To ride in the Simien Mountains you’ll need a decent level of fitness, a very real thirst for adventure and a sense of humour. With 7280m of ascent (and more descent) the riding is tough but the rewards are plentiful.
The 8-day expedition offered every year by Secret Compass takes place in the dry season between October and March. Daytime temperatures can be 30C+ but drop to 0C at night at the high campgrounds so pack both sunscreen and a three-season sleeping bag.
The riding is technical so a 150mm travel bike will help keep you out of trouble, and bike shoes with outsoles good for hiking will help keep you moving when trouble gets the upper hand.
Head here to read the rest of Mpora's March Origins issue