Yesterday, 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 shonky internet café with download speeds only slightly faster than the donkeys in the street outside) it’s a good opportunity to bring this blog up to date, and to reflect briefly on the African journey of the past 14 days.
The last post was Monday 9 Feb from the city of Bahar Dar in Ethiopia. Bahar Dar sits on the banks of Lake Tana, often billed as the ‘source of the Blue Nile’, although of course hundred of streams and rivers flow into the lake, and only the farthest point of the longest stream is regarded as the true source of the Blue Nile.
But, geo-technicalities aside, it was good to be beside the Lake and see the Nile waters flowing south, as we hadn’t been near the great river since Wad Medani, south of Khartoum, after the Tour d’Afrique route pretty much followed its course for two weeks (and over 1000km) through southern Egypt and northern Sudan. So Bahar Dar made the perfect spot for our rest day.
Tuesday 10 Feb (Day 25 of the tour)
After the Bahar Dar rest day, today’s ride was a long one: 161km. 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 in Ethiopia.
And up here in the highlands, another African myth gets shattered. It gets surprisingly cold at night – so we’re grateful for the tent and merino wool thermal gear kindly supplied by Snowgum.
Wednesday 11 Feb (day 26)
A shorter stint compared to yesterday – 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. The 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)
Shorter day again – a mere 90km – but for many riders today is one of the highlights of the entire trip, because today we meet the Nile again, where it cuts a massive gorge through the Ethiopian landscape. Billed as the Alpe d’Huez of Africa (a reference to a notoriously steep mountain that often features on the Tour de France), for me the ascent of the Blue Nile Gorge is the highlight of my two-week ride.
The morning is a limber up: 50km through rolling hills, then a 20km descent into the gorge, hairpin after hairpin, switchback after switchback, from an altitude of 2400m to less than 1000m. Many riders punctured on the descent, not because they picked up flints or glass in their tyres, but because the constant braking mean red-hot rims and melting inner-tubes.
At the bottom of the gorge, we cross the Nile on a new bridge, then started the ascent: 1500m of climbing in 20km. And just to make it interesting, the Tour d’Afrique organisers ran it as a time-trial. The rules are simple: fastest rider to the top is the winner. Plaudits to Alan, the South African rider, who covered the distance in 1 hour 19 minutes, riding a super-light cyclo-cross bike fitted with narrow slick road tyres. And an even bigger ‘chapeau’ to my Lonely Planet team-mate Quentin Frayne 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 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 take us into Addis Ababa and the end of the stage. Quentin and I meet 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 – even those long hard days in Sudan when the temperature was over 45 degrees and the wind seemed warm enough to desiccate human skin – and even those long off-road climbs in Ethiopia where I discovered my max speed was 8km per hour, while local kids can run at 9.
So, thanks to Quentin for good company and great laughs all along the way. Thanks to Tony Wheeler for making it all happen. Thanks to the Tour d’Afrique organisers for a smooth operation, and to all the other 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…