Kyle in Lake Assal, Djbouti

Monday, January 31, 2011

Days 7 - 14: Dire Dawa, Harar, Valley of Marvels, and Amhar Mountains

Day 7: After a big breakfast and some last minute re-packing, I left Dire Dawa for the city of Harar. It’s only a 48km ride, but leaving Dire Dawa meant climbing a long, winding road up to 2,200 meters above sea level. This 20km stretch took just under 3 hours, but I was finally on pristine tarmac that made the ride a lot easier than the previous days had been.
Once up high, I turned left to head east toward Harar. On the way, I started weighing my options. I have only 21 days remaining on my (single-entry) Ethiopia visa, but I still have a valid visa for Somaliland. If I go past Harar to Jijiga, I can then cycle to the Somaliland border and on to the city of Hargeisa. The nightmare of getting a new Ethiopia visa in Djibouti City convinced me that if I went to Hargeisa, there’s a good chance I’d be stuck in Somaliland and not be able to get back to Ethiopia. My only option at that point would be to fly, which would cost too much money, especially with the bike. I also don’t know if I could get into Somaliland on a bicycle as they have strict rules for foreigners traveling outside Hargeisa – everyone must hire an armed guard from the government to follow them everywhere they go.

Visiting Somaliland, then, would most likely meaning leaving the bike behind in Ethiopia and traveling Somaliland by public transport. When I first had the idea of Low2High, I wanted to do the entire trip by ‘human power’. To me, that means ALL travel by bicycle or walking, even on days off. If I need to repair the bike, apply for a visa, go to a restaurant, etc, all travel would be by human power and never by car. I always pictured a true claim that the whole expedition was human powered, from beginning to end. Basically, no riding in cars for 3 whole months. Maybe that’s a bit extreme, but to me, that’s the purest way to do this expedition.

By nightfall I had made up my mind. I was going to skip Somaliland, but still aim to see Jijiga in the far east of Ethiopia. I got a hotel room for the night and went to sleep.

Day 8: I woke up early to start the ride to Jijiga. I left most of my gear at in Harar since I would be coming back through on my way to Addis. After about an hour, I decided that Jijiga was not that important, and I could use the extra day to get to Addis Ababa. I rode as far as the Valley of Marvels, just past Babile
The Valley of Marvels sounds much more impressive than it actually is. The rock formations are interesting, but I don’t feel they were worth the trip out there. If you happen to be going to Jijiga anyway, then stop and explore. I had to pay a guy with Chat-green teeth 20 birr to guard my bicycle, and was too paranoid about it being stolen to really enjoy the excursion.
I rode back to Harar and arrived at 2pm. I put my bicycle in the hotel room and then walked around the city. Harar is an ancient Muslim city. There’s an old wall built around it to keep the pesky Christians out. It is built like a fortress, but is now open for all to move freely in and out. The new city is all around the old walled city. Modern restaurants and hotels, banks, and businesses pepper the outside. I was more interested in the old city, so I wandered inside the wall. I first went to the Harar Coffee Factory to buy my favorite Ethiopian coffee right from the source. A whole kilo of roasted and ground coffee was only about $4.50 USD!

After that, I decided it was time to get some camel meat. I went to the camel market where raw meat is purchased from butchers. Across the courtyard from the butcher is a restaurant where you can bring your own meat, and they will cook it for you. I had a kilo of wonderful, tender, juicy camel meat with Somali spices.
Above the market, hawks perch on the rooftops waiting for any meat to be dropped. A guy whom I had met earlier that day named Ramadan showed me just how good they are at grabbing stray food. He asked the butcher for some scraps, threw them straight up into the air, and 2-dozen birds of prey swooped down in a choreographed swarm. Not a single piece of meat hit the ground, and within 5 seconds, all the birds were back on the rooftops, silently waiting for the next freebie.

After a quick rest back at the hotel, I was off to see the Hyena Man. The people of Harar have always shared the land with hyenas, so they came up with a way to live in harmony. Every night the Hyena Man, a job apparently handed down from father to son for years, would bring scraps of camel meat outside the walls of the city as an offering to the hyenas. By keeping them fed and happy, they would not enter the city to threaten people. This tradition has now turned into a big tourist attraction. The original charm may be gone as vanloads of tourists pull up with their thousand-dollar cameras and shine their headlights onto the animals, but it was still a bit of a thrill. I’m a tourist in Ethiopia myself these days, but I still feel this separation from other tourists having lived here for 2 years.

The hyenas looked threatening, but behaved like tame dogs as the Hyena Man brought out the night’s offering of camel scraps. He dangled meat in front of the large predators, and they playfully jumped through the air to grab it in their jaws. After a few more feedings to show how gentle these hyenas were, it was time for the audience to feed the hyenas. I jumped at the chance, and Hyena Man gave me a stick to hang meat from. First using my hand, one hyena calmly walked over and snatched it off the end of the stick. The Hyena Man then took the stick and put it in my mouth, meat dangling. Another hyena walked over and chomped down on the meat. As she did, she let a puff of hot breath out of her nostrils that made me jump back.
After the feeding, I had a beer with Ramadan, but then went to sleep. All night long, hyenas could be heard howling outside my hotel. Harar is definitely a city like no other.

Day 9: Heading west from Harar toward Addis Ababa means traversing the Amhar Mountains. Stretching a good portion of the range’s length is a relatively new road, paved and impressively steep at times. This is where the riding got hard, not just because of the mountains, but because of the famous rock-throwing, bike-grabbing, tourist-harassing, foul-mouthed children of Ethiopia. Other cyclists have told me the horrors of cycling through some parts of Ethiopia, but this was really my first taste of it.

I have to be clear, I have lived in Ethiopia for more than 2 years, and have a strong fondness for this country and its people. The children in the small towns on this stretch of road were so horrible that I wanted to pack it in and quit this whole trip, giving Ethiopia the finger as I fly home. I was hit with 2 rocks in the lower back that both left welts, another in the shoulder, and several dropped from a clifftop that bounced off my helmet. Children were pulling water bottles and whatever else they could find off of my bike, which was easy-pickings for them since I was so slow on the constant uphills. They yelled ‘Fuck you!’ at me in every village. One child spit in my face, and another tried to put a stick through my spokes. They all do this with big smiles on their faces like it’s a big game. I tried getting angry, chasing them, yelling, being nice, speaking in Amharic, and NOTHING worked. They were unstoppable. The parents did nothing to stop them, and often cheered them on. It was the most horrible part of the trip thus far. I was humiliated and physically harmed by a constant barrage of undisciplined little fucks for two days straight. I hated it.

I could go on about the horrible treatment, but I won’t. There is still a lot to be desired about this country I’ve called home for the last 2 years, so for the rest of the blog posts covering this section of riding, I’ll focus on the good moments.

At the end of Day 9, there was a bit of redemption. I climbed the final hill of the day into a town not on my map called Caramille. The kids were amazingly helpful. They helped me find a cheap hotel, and even offered to help push my bike up the last bit of hill. I was so happy to feel welcome again that I let the kids help me and had a nice chat as we rolled into a hotel compound. One kid in particular was so helpful that I bought him dinner at the restaurant next door.
At that same restaurant, the bartender, Seid, was very curious about my presence in this small town. He spoke near-perfect English, and told me stories about visiting Saudi Arabia to see his parents who are working there for a wealthy family. We spoke for about half an hour while I ate, and I welcomed the change of pace of sitting and chatting with someone so interesting. We exchanged emails, and I went to my hotel room. The Christian call-to-prayer sang me to sleep.

Day 10: I left Caramille at dawn. It was foggy and a bit chilly in the mountains. It was hard to imagine that I was below sea level a few days earlier, and now cycling at 2,200 meters elevation. Ethiopian mountains are impressive.

The first half of the day was more misery. Hard peddling and misbehaving kids. By lunch, I was in the lowland town of Hirna. The downhill ride into town was fast and fun, and I probably coasted for 4 or 5 minutes straight. I ate a lunch so big that I had to sit for an hour and digest before I could start cycling again. The people in town were very curious about my bike, and we all had fun looking at my map. It was hot, so I was quick to convince myself to sit in the shade and relax.
Around 1pm, I started the ride climbing out of Hirna. It was a big climb, and it took me 2 full hours. However, my legs and body felt good. I peddled the whole 2 hours non-stop. I had a lot of energy, so I took advantage of it. The afternoon was a bit more up and down, but the kids in these villages were so much nicer. They greeted with ‘Hello’ instead of swearing, and generally let me be. The day ended with a long downhill ride into Asbe Teferi where I got a hotel room. It was the last big town before leaving the Amhar Mountains, so it was a good place to stop and enjoy some better accommodations. The hotel was playing loud music until late in the night, which was irritating, but I finally drifted off into a deep sleep.

Day 11: I left Asbe Teferi very early. The sun wasn’t even up yet. I had a gradual downhill for 30km to the next town, Mieso. The downhill gave me a huge advantage, and I covered the 30km in under an hour.

Mieso offered nothing, not even a restaurant that looked worth stopping, so I continued toward Addis Ababa. I rode about 40km west of Mieso, and then had a fairly bad breakdown. My rear wheel made a sound like wood splitting, and then locked up, bringing me to a screeching halt. I was lucky not to have an accident, it was so sudden. I got off the bike, unloaded all my gear, and took a good look. Several spokes had broken on one side, and the spokes, unbalanced, bent the rim toward the other side, jamming itself against the frame. The whole wheel needed some serious care.

Ignorance and arrogance - Both got the best of me. I needed to remove the gear cassette to replace the spokes, but I didn’t have the tool to do that. I was stranded. It didn’t take long to realize I needed to get to Addis Ababa to fix the wheel. I carried my bags out frm under the tree where I was inspecting the damage to the road. The very first car that came by stopped and picked me up.
We strapped my bike to the roof and tossed my bags and me into the back of the Land Rover. The people who picked me up were four Ethiopians that work for an NGO in Bahir Dar. It was great to talk about my city again! They were very kind, and took me all the way to the front door of my American friends’ house in Addis. I unloaded my bike and all my gear, went inside, and took a shower. It was Friday afternoon, so there was little point in trying to get anything done. I took the rest of the day off.

Day 12: Rest day in Addis Ababa. Saturdays in Addis are tricky, as most important places are not open for business – ie Embassies. Also, the African Union Summit was going on, making it near impossible to get around the city. Streets were closed and armed police were turning pedestrians away from certain routes. I wrote off the day and spent time with friends.

Day 13: Sunday in Addis Ababa. Everything closed. Rest Day.

Day 14: Monday! Time to get things done. I left early to get to an ATM machine for some cash. After that, I went to the Kenya Embassy to apply for my visa. They told me they need to keep my visa until the following afternoon, which annoyed me a bit.

Later in the morning, I was at the bike shop. I was able to get my hands on the tool to remove the gear cassette from my rear wheel, and then it was a quick job of replacing the broken spokes. To prevent future mishaps, I bought the tool I need to carry with me. I also bought 20 spare spokes since I’ve already exhausted my supply.
Back at my friends’ house, I spent the afternoon truing the wheel and tuning up all the moving parts of the bike. I tightened the steering, replaced the chain, rotated the tires, and inspected the bike from end to end. After a test-ride, the bike seems good to go, and I should be back on the road on Wednesday (Kenya visa coming late Tuesday). My pride is hurt a little since I was foolish enough to not be prepared for this kind of breakdown, but I will have to the tools and parts before I leave Addis again in case this happens again. I’ll hitch a ride back to where I broke down, and Low2High will continue from there. My goal of a total ‘human-powered’ expedition has already been shattered, but I’m still going to carry on. Lesson learned.


  1. Looks like you were able to keep your luck with getting private rides, and pass it on as well! Danielle and I had several free rides around Harar, so I'm happy to hear you didn't lose that luck too! :)
    Happy riding!!

  2. Good read, thanks! Going to Harar tomorrow!