On Expedition in Ethiopia
You probably wouldn’t associate Ethiopia with mountain biking. Neither did I, until I read about the Simien Mountains, a spectacular range nestled in the north of the country.
When I’m asked to describe the Simien Mountains I see confusion on people’s faces. A lush and fertile range resembling a mix of the Alps, the Andes and the Grand Canyon didn’t spring to mind for most I spoke to about my travel plans.
While Ethiopia holds a plethora of travel beauty bragging rights, today’s misconceptions stem from harrowing footage beamed around the world after the country had been torn apart by famine and civil war in the 80s. Ironically, Sir Bob Geldof’s Live Aid fundraiser, organized to save the country, also set an indelible image for Ethiopia as a place of despair, starvation and barren desert.
Since the (not in any particular order) activist, singer, songwriter, author and occasional actor has continued over the years to make good press, a constant reminder of his defining moment in history has been fed to new generations along with old images of a desperate Ethiopia.
While Ethiopia is still listed by the UN as one of the world’s poorest countries, the region close to where I rode is a far cry from those images some 30 years ago. The aid helped to halt the erosion of lands. Tree-planting and terracing the hillsides has conserved water and soil. Now Ethiopia is looking forward towards building a sustainable future.
Anytime during the dry season - October to May - is a good time to mountain bike in the Simiens. However, its vivid glory peaks in October and November after the rainy season leaves behind an explosion of feathery green. Singletrack cuts through bright soft turf that refuses to be dimmed on misty plateaus. Yet at this low haze time of the year, the beauty of the dark stepped basalts, layered with multi shades of brown to purple and tinged with pink, can be admired and photographed at their best.
An escarpment of 65 kilometres with sharp precipices dropping over a thousand metres in places and rocket shaped pinnacles created by lava eruptions, round off the Simien’s awe-
striking features, which have developed over 70 million years.
This unique beauty and ecosystem along with some rare wildlife are the reasons the Simiens earned a prestigious place on UNESCOs first ever list of 12 natural World Heritage sites back in 1978.
People who live in the highlands have been long treading a spider web of trails to connect small villages through Africa’s largest continuous mountain range. While hiking isn’t new to the route we took, mountain biking is. The time and trekker-trodden trail from Sankerbay to Adi Arkay, summiting Ethiopia’s highest peak - Ras Dashen - on the way, has only been mountain biked before by a handful of mates who went out there to make a film. And I collected a bragging right of my own when I was told by the chairman of the Walia Guides Association - the body that regulates guiding in the region - that it’s definitely the first time a woman has done it.
Our small group of eight riders was put together by Secret Compass, an adventure company who organize expeditions to the world’s wildest places. They pioneered travel in South Sudan and mountain biking in the higher Pamirs of Afghanistan just to give you the picture. If the word expedition makes you think that you need to be a budding Ann Bancroft of north and south pole fame; you don’t. Teams aren’t made up of superhumans with special skills. They are folk just like me; an average being with a zest for adventure and a reasonable level of fitness.
So what should the average mountain biker expect riding in the Ethiopian highlands? Everything from steep rocky steps to flat grassy plateaus that, at times, produced some choice words prompted mostly by fun and occasionally by fright.
Over eight days we ascended 7748 metres and descended a little over the height of Everest riding 15 to 20 kilometres a day. The distance wasn’t extreme, but throw in the oxygen depleted altitude, the river crossings, hike-bike
sections, summiting 4550 metre Ras Dashen - setting up and taking down camp, bike checks, the (crucial) banter and bonding sessions, and you can see why it’s sensible to build in the contingency.
From the first day briefing over breakfast, leader, Secret Compass founder and exparachute regiment commanding officer Tom Bodkin eliminated any competitive fears. “This is a team effort,” he said. When Tom started talking about being days from anything resembling a medical facility, self-preservation kicked in. “Ride within your comfort zone and if you’re not sure, get off and walk the section.”
The team medic reiterated the safety-first mantra, explaining the getting out options would not be easy. The only available helicopter pilot in the area had lost his licence the week prior to our arrival so stretcher and mules were our only ‘emergency’ options. We all agreed a noncompetitive healthy mix of cautious mountain biking, exploration and cultural immersion was more than enough to get the adrenaline rushing and heart racing.
Taking off, the pace was fine by me. Believe me, when a five-foot Gelada Baboon jumps out in front of you, speed is not your friend. A couple of troops of these grass-eating primates ignored us as we rode on tufted plateaus between giant lobelias that grow up to five metres tall. “They’re very sociable, not dangerous,” our local guide explained. Still, their enormous teeth cautioned me that getting into a bike tangle with one would be a very bad idea.
The mountains are also home to some other extremely rare species such as the Simien fox - which is actually a wolf - and the Walia ibex, a goat with enormous horns found nowhere else in the world, which helped the Simiens get World Heritage status all that time ago.
It’s not just the steep singletrack that caused brake-pulling moments. Other unexpected reasons to take care are cows munching on the exits of bends, goats leaping over the track and giddy village children chasing wheels at recordsetting speeds.
Of course it was hard work in places, as you would expect when you sign up to the unexpected. But what would adventure be
without the surprises? And when we found sweet singletrack that we could ride in our comfort zones, the reward centres in our brains went into modus ballistic. It was impossible to wipe the wide grins off our guinea pig faces. The elation was best encapsulated by one of my teammates who at the end of a long run, dropped his bike and with arms stretched out skywards shouted, “I just want to hug someone.”
Adrenaline rushed and more expletives slipped out on exposed edges. Jaws dropped at panoramas that stretched out from escarpment vantage points in the alpine highlands to offer views into the tropical lowlands. I’ve no doubt that Danny MacAskill would be in his element in this ridge-type territory. For the rest of us mere mortals, it was about getting from A to B in one piece, through the ride-able, try-able and hikewith-a-bike-able terrain.
Other highlights along the way were being welcomed with a congratulatory chorus of chants when villagers realized our knobby tires could explore their highlands. We cooled off in rivers and showered under waterfalls. At night time, we were entertained by traditional song while we sipped local beer by the firelight. It felt good to know that all monies spent stayed in local hands to help boost the country’s fledging tourism economy.
A cook who travelled with us prepared plentiful carbs, vegetables, fruit and the occasional goat. Everyone broke into rapturous applause when he appeared in pristine chef whites with head torch attached to present our dinner in the communal tent. The luxury touch didn’t look one bit out of place alongside a demonstrable sense of pride in his job.
We hired villagers with mules to carry equipment from camp to camp, plus a local guide and scouts with guns. Why the weapons were necessary was never really made clear. My first thoughts were that we might stumble
across a poacher or an over zealous baboon. Some post-trip rifling revealed in days gone by scouts were paid to protect the villagers from bandits. These days it’s more about employment opportunity and a bit of extra insurance, which was absolutely fine by me.
My Specialized Era cross-country bike handled the mixed terrain. Though those with bigger travel models had a less rough time on the plentiful rocky patches. We carried basic spares such as spokes, derailleur hanger, gear cable, brake fluid and spare tire. However, when one bike lost a pivot screw, we applied some remote-style mountain make-do. On this occasion, plastic ties, a piece of wood, a little artistic paring with a Swiss army knife and the magic of duct tape fashioned a temporary fix.
The buzz of exploring new mountain-bike territory is something you don’t need to be top of your game to do. It’s in the grasp of most people who can ride 30 kilometres of singletrack several days on the run, is prepared to set up camp at the end of a hard day, adapt to possible changes in the plan and (in this case) deal with the altitude, which even those at the top of their game can’t train for.
Tom told me, “Our aim is to explore the area and run a regular trip each year.” And some of the best mountain biking he’s “ever done” will only get better as he tweaks the itinerary to maximize the singletrack.
The Simiens are now open for mountain bike business and accessible to those wild at heart with a love for exploration, a hardy attitude and a soft tail.
“I’ve no doubt that Danny MacAskill would be in his element in this ridgetype territory.”
“Ras Dashen...has only been mountain biked before by a handful of mates who went out there to make a film.”
“We hired villagers with mules to carry equipment from camp to camp, plus a local guide and scouts with guns. Why the weapons were necessary was never really made clear.”
“At night time, we were entertained by traditional song while we sipped local beer by the firelight.”