To date on the trip from Cairo rest days have come round fairly fast and given the pace at which we’ve been riding they have been more than welcome. The section from Kartoum to Addis (Sudan through to Ethiopia) are noted as some of the toughest days of the tour. Sections are rated 1 to 5 in various aspects (cultural interest/wildlife/difficulty) and the second section we began on February 1st is rated 5 for difficulty. With 8 days straight, 869.5 km to cover, 271 off road, a border to cross and hills to climb these were set to be challenging days.
Despite having another 160 km (100mile) day it was to be the off road days that would really test me to the hilt. We set out on the first of these days in our usual group – me, John, Gus and Irin. We were planning to stick together until we reached camp. It would be a long hot day, 45 degrees and we would get into camp much later than normal. While we had no punctures in our group on route John stopped to help 3 others. Thorns were the order of the day and while they were found in tyres we were lucky. Some folk had 10 punctures that day! I had a slow puncture 10km from camp and was able to get in without needing to do a repair on the road. Much easier.
The second day for me however pushed me hard. While the Annapurna circuit in Nepal has been, and at the moment, still remains the toughest test I have undertaken, this second day on off road would be the single hardest day of riding I have ever done. The tracks through corn fields were like solid corregated cardboard and I felt every single bump. While the rear faired okay it was the forearms that just hurt from constant tremoring. OUCH. I was much slower off road. There were breaks from the bumping – gravel! The 18kg tourer, while having front suspension, just sunk in deep patches and keeping the wheels turing fast was key though even then getting off and walking were at times the only options. I wish had done that in the gravel patch just before lunch. As I fell sideways into the pit it was the final straw. A grazed knee, a shattered Miss J and I just burst into tears. We had another 10km to lunch and another 54km from there to camp. It was thanks to Irin and my own stubborness that I made it in that evening. 515pm – just in time for dinner!
The third day off road, while including sections of the dreaded corregation, was also more scenic and brought with it some glorious rides through small villages. An amazing welcome – children clapping and waving – I only had two of them smack my bum! Today would be my day to get Irin to camp. This really was group effort. We arrived a little earlier but it was clear on arrival that many people were suffering from heat exhaustion. The temperature for the past two days had been 49.5 degrees. Fortunately, while we had been out for long days in the sun, we stopped regularly, walked sections to cool down if needed (often in the corregation zones!) and drank, and drank and drank. We were pleased to arrive at the finish and as with the day before, John met us with cold drinks. He had pushed hard, arriving at 145pm. Amazing.
The first day back on tarmac felt fantastic and my legs were feeling strong. Despite a headwind I rode hard and did 60km in 2 hrs 22 minutes coming in second for the girls. That felt great and a good reward for a hard push. While not in as a racer (we could chose between being a racer expedition rider) it’s still good to have days of stretching yourself. That would continue over the next two days until we reached our rest days in Gondar.
The scenery in Ethiopia would change dramatically. We were out of flat rides through deserts and out of rural Sudan – we were heading for the hills. I love the challenge of hill riding and the views always make it worthwhile. Perhaps the best comparision to make for a non cyclist is that long, flat roads feel like motorway driving – you make good ground but it can be long going. In addition to having more to see, riding in the hills means varying speeds, gear changes and the need to be much more alert. Gliding downwards, swooping through the scene, waving at children and the sense of accomplishment on reaching peaks – that’s riding.
The last day into Gondor would set the final challnge of the 8 days with a 2502m climb. With 102km from camp to the hotel it would be a long hot day. The morning was glorious and while there were some steep climbs I would reach lunch happy – despite there being only 2 cheese triangles left (the other option is nearly always tinned tuna, jam or peanut butter – three of my worst foods – yuck!). The afternoon would see the thermastat rising and the hills continuing. It would be a different challnge as in addition to many smiling kids there were also a fair few armed with sticks and stones. We were advised to ride in groups and it certainly put a different slant on Ethiopia. While aware this was likely, when kids as young as 5/6 seem to have it against you it can be incredibly disparaging, you just have to remember the many big brown eyes and smiles of the others. We stopped for cold drinks during the afternoon and as the crowd gathered, many children and adults smiled and made us welcome – much like the chai stops of India and Nepal. I had missed elements of that so far – it’s not all bad!
Anyhow, I finally arrived at the hotel after a long steep climb. Unfortunately I was met with bad news. John had been taken very ill at 77km. He arrived in the jeep and was put on a drip. This heat can be brutal. I went off to find my buddy to give him a big hug and see how he was doing. He still felt weak but I’m happy that today he is starting to get his energy and appetite back and on a final note, I got a cold beer. That felt well deserved. I may just have another….