On Ex­pe­di­tion in Ethiopia

Mountain Bike for Her - - Front Page - Words and pho­tos by Tracey Croke

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.”

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