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Ethiopia - Mountain Bike Trail Review with Map and Pictures
Big Thanks to Cliff from www.bikebackcountry.com for sending me this write-up.   He has a really nice mountain bike trail system in Parsonsfield Maine, and travels the world in search of mountain bike adventures.

On The Trail Of Queen Sheba And King Solomon

A Biking Journey Into The Cradle Of Civilization


It’s only been 2,000 or so years since Soloman and Sheba roamed the northern  tiers of  Ethiopia pronounced Et..opia  by all who dwell here.   As if it were yesterday, Ethiopians generally speak of the King, Suleiman (Soloman) and Sheba as current characters.   Ponder that! 

After receiving a tantalizing email from David Houghton who publishes Biciklo, a  guide to cycling around the world, I began to get excited about  traveling to Africa. He sent me a link to a tour offered by a small bike tour company called Offbeatroads, run by Scott Robinson.  www.offbeatroads.com was recruiting for a not –for- the- faint- of- heart adventure.

The focus of the expedition was to produce a documentary of riders pedaling through extreme conditions.  We would also try to bring awareness to the overwhelming degree of deforestation evident throughout the country.   Working in conjunction with the Ethiopian Tree Fund Foundation www.etff.org we  helped raise money in advance in support of replanting efforts . The documentary would also shed light on these efforts

The journey began after arriving in Addis Ababa, the capitol, a bustling, auto exhaust choked city.  After a late night flight and finally reaching the Ras Hotel I hit the sack.  In the morning at breakfast I met some of my companions on this.  There were 17 of us; coming  from Canada, Sweden, Austria, Spain, Australia, and USA.  With Just one full day before ride time, we labored to assemble our bikes, organize provisions (sag vans mobile kitchen, cooks, etc), all while getting acquainted with each other.

So began our biking trek north towards the Danakil Depression, one of the Earth’s’ most inhospitable spots and known as “The Cradle Of Civilization.”  

Our first several days of riding was like a race as we routinely rode much further and longer then the trek description had promised.  Ethiopia seemed to be passing by with little time to digest the people or culture.  One night while camping on the outskirts of a town, we heard a terrifying scream, it was a Hyena.  This brought to mind a book I had read recently:  In Search Of King Solomon’s Mines by Tahir Shah.  In it was a story about a man in the south of the country that would hand- feed hyenas fresh meat each night in order to appease their appetite.  This was believed to prevent them from eating the small children of the town.  That same book also mentioned: a rumor that Hyenas protected Queen Sheba’s hidden golden treasure. Historically, Ethiopia has had its’ gold rushes and mining fever and even today there’s much speculation that Solomons’ great temple was built with Ethiopian gold supplied by Queen Sheba.  The Brutality and dangers of mining by hand along with environmental considerations has led the gov’t to keep in place strict limitations on gold mining.

At the end of several days of very long rides, and numerous late- night meals, our group would often settle into very primitive campsites.  Most of our camps were set up in a schoolyard, sometimes without running water and most often without bathroom facilities.  Outside of larger towns this seemed to be the rule rather the exception. If it hadn’t been for our single sponsor, Clif Bar: http://www.clifbar.com/

the group as a whole would not have received the constant replenishment and energy needed to keep going!  Many thanks to Clif Bar for their unfaltering support throughout much of our expedition

Once out of city limits the land was quite rocky and dry with occasional trees, but these were scarce and small.  We noticed small cleared areas of ground in the midst of the harsh terrain used for food production.   This view would go on for miles but occasionally be broken by the appearance of a small town or village of huts. Our encounters with locals, usually on the outskirts of towns, would be as they walked along the roadside, tending to flocks of Burro, sheep, goats , or cows.   It was apparent that animals seemed to outnumber people and often we’d see animals doing the work of motorized vehicles.  Most everything was hauled by Burro or on peoples’ own backs.  Our days biking were long and somewhat frustrating as we didn’t have enough time to linger with the locals.  The terrain so far was gradual, nothing very challenging, and all on pavement.  With such long days of riding we were very thankful for all the nourishment that our Clif bars provided.  Surprisingly though the weather conditions were reasonable and certainly not too hot yet.

Ethiopian religious experience is an interesting mix of  Catholicism, Muslim,and Islam. And we’d often use the greeting, Salam.   Children were in abundance and often came running to greet but more often then not be asking:  what do you have for us?  Many in our group brought small gifts to pass out as we went.  Even when there apparently was no one anywhere in site, from out of nowhere children or adults could appear asking questions out of curiousity.  While camping on school grounds we would often donate a soccer ball or two. English was spoken quite often, but the numerous tribes that remain still retain their particular dialect of ancient Amharic 

As days pushed on and our pace slowed we were able to become more immersed with the people and the culture.  We got a sense that physical endurance, perpetual hardship, and the occasional famine was expected and a way of life.  Nevertheless they remain a dignified and proud people.

Every culture has its’ stimulant, be it alchohol, drugs, etc, and a favorite pass time of our drivers and guides was chewing a fresh grown plant known by the locals as Quat, chewed while green and fresh, like chewing tobacco but could be swallowed. It was used extensively for its’ feel good effects.

After long days of biking we finally reached our first major destination and trip highlight: the historical city of Lalibela, named from King Lalibela of the 12th century.  As the story goes, the queens’ husband, the king, had died leaving her with infant sons one day she noticed bees swarming around one of her child’s crib.  At that time, the appearance of a sign from the animal kingdom foretold the presence of nobility.  So she named him Lalibela after the bees and even to this day Ethiopian honey is a prized treat.   However Lalibela’s brother became jealous of him and decided to poison him.   As it turned out he fell into a very deep sleep but did not die.  When he awoke his brother, now turned into a believer, declared him to be a true king,  Lalibella  said that angels came to him during sleep and told him to erect churches in stone.  During that time it was quite common for large numbers of the population to make the long and very dangerous pilgrimage to the Holy Lands for the high holidays.   Often people never returned from their pilgrimage,  dying from the harsh traveling conditions.  Lalibella gathered all his stonemasons and craftsmen and advised them to carve churches out of the soft volcanic rock found in the city.   Over a 28 year period, he constructed 12 amazing churches down into the surrounding stone.  His goal was to create a replica of the Holy Land so his people did not have to make that journey and remained in Lalibella  to celebrate the holidays.


Staying in Lalibella several days was a well deserved break from the road and biking. We planted ourselves at the 7 Olives Hotel and had a chance to re-charge our bodies and exploring the amazing churches lifted our spirits.  We also were treated to our first traditional food. Injera: Was served on a flat spongy, pizza-like bread. with piles of stewd lamb in gravy of various spice levels of intensity…hot.  These were scattered around the pizza. This we would eat only with our hands , just tearing off pieces of bread while wrapping it around the lamp.  Traditional dress and tunes were also plentiful throughout town.

Another special treat for me was befriending a local family. It was market day and I, being a good tourist, wanted to support the local economy.  While checking out the vast variety of wares including cows, burros, camels, sheep, spices, grains, cheap clothing, jewelry, etc, a little guy, about 9 years old latched onto me and he asked if he could accompany me through this large, crowded outdoor market.  So off we went. Jon soon informed me that the local officials frowned on youngsters bothering tourists and acting as guides. However, Jon did not want money. He just wanted my friendship. So we played it cool around the police patrolling the area and that was fine with me. I could see that he was a bright boy and spoke excellent English and as we walked through the market he became my negotiator.  Of course I couldn’t leave Lalibella without trying some local honey too.  Finished with shopping, Jon invited me to his home to meet his grandmother, sisters and his brother.  

Adjacent to the market, we entered into a small crowded area of huts, all of which were constructed with a mish mash of materials, including cardboard. When we reached his place I was greeted by his grandmother, aunt, and two sisters.  By all standards they were living in dire conditions.  No sanitation or running water and yet they were quite at peace with the situation.  They were very friendly, gracious and generous with what little they had and shared with me their coffee ceremony and some food.  In return, I provided them with some assistance for the upcoming Easter celebrations.  I met up with Jon a few more times and got a chance to meet his older brother, who I’ve been financially assisting with studies at a local computer technical institute.

Seemingly miles from nowhere and difficult to get to, lalibela  sat on top of a steep mysterious looking plateau.  If it wasn’t for its’ remoteness it likely would be overrun by tourists.

All good things eventually have to pass and we soon continued on the journey northeast towards our next major point of interest: the Danakil Depression, the lowest spot and one of the hottest spots on Earth.  The scenery changed abruptly. What little greenery remained yielded to dirt roads with riding terrain much more rugged and mountainous.   On some of the longer climbs if a fuel truck was heading up I would grab onto the trucks’ rear and hitch a ride.   After several days going up and down eventually we made it through the mountains and gradually down,  toward the great depression area.  The Afar region was rapidly approaching.    Aptly named, Afar seemed miles from nowhere.  And its’ name came from the local tribe: The Afar.  A small outpost of a town, it appeared to be at the end of the road. It was also the end of the road for the ancient camel salt caravans coming in from the Danakil.  Long lines of camels would haul in their loads of salt blocks from the dessert.  Carefully following along the impending river valley just ahead the camel drivers would  deposit their salt at the large storage facility here.  We spent about a day here then continued on with even more challenging, now technical riding, good thing we all had mountain bikes and all brought along an extra set of knobby tires for just this purpose.

 Our trail ride now into the valley was short and before we knew it we were setting up camp in a small Afar village.  Here we would count hundreds of camels coming in from the Danakil carrying their salt loads.  We also got a closer look at the Afar people.  Many of the women were dressed and adorned with bright colors and hand-made jewelry.   Most seemed quite shy but playful.  The village was small, about a dozen beautifully sculptured huts constructed out of driftwood looking branches with mosquito net screening .  Here they had just one well with a hand pump that served the entire community.  That night a warm wind blew strong, a sure sign of things to come.

The next day began partly cloudy with only a light wind.  We enjoyed our usual breakfast of bread, jam, sometimes eggs and cereal.  Afterwards we packed up the trucks with our gear but this time our support vehicles would not be able to follow us. Our route would be impassable by any motorized vehicles and take us directly the caravan trail and  valley ahead.  Sharing a very long narrow trail with camels and burrows was exciting and challenging.  Finally we were mountain biking at its’ best and After 4-5 hours, of Yahoo’s, we reached the dirt road and our our sag vehicles.  It would not be long now till we’d be entering the Danakil.  Now with four fully loaded support trucks we hauled all our water, and food for our entire group stay in the Danakil

We biked now a rocky dirt road also used by motor vehicles. The landscape, now lacking any vegetation, began to look like a moonscape or more like the bottom of a very large flat lake for as far as ones eye could see. The road shortly turned into a sandy damp track and after a while all around us seem to have a glassy appearance. I realized that this was salt and remembered reading that this area was once part of the Red Sea.   By now it was getting later and soon came upon a small Afar type settlement.  It was here that our drivers negotiated a price with the locals for us to camp.  In the remote areas there were always negotiations with locals that would first have to take place.   We rented a couple of small Afar style huts and use of a few cots.  We used one of the shelters as a kitchen but most camped outside.  We also employed a number of locals to help us appropriate items that might be needed.

With little shade to be found except in the hot tent or in our very airy huts we began to understand what the heat of a great dessert was really like.  At night the wind would whip up in gales but temperatures did not fall much.  Each day in the Danakil brought temperatures reaching often 110-115 degrees in the daytime and nightime falling only to 90 and this was before the official start of their summer.  Each day we’d get up early to try to beat the heat but there was no beating it.  Some of us biked to explore interesting volcanic activities and the salt mining operations, while others took the sag trucks.  One day the biking fanatics decided to take a short cut route on returning to camp, however this took them directly into the worst salted mud I’d ever seen.

After several days, of intense heat it began to take a toll. Several were complaining of feeling a little sick and numerous stomachs were not doing well either.   Finally succumbing to these extremes we loaded up the gear and now traveling by trucks  seemed to make a straight beeline right thru the dessert.  With apparently no roads ahead our guides seemed to know the way.  After several hours of this wild ride and a few incidents, like getting stuck in sand, we were well underway to one of the worlds largest active lava lakes.  Eventually we reached a track, a bouldered  road, to begin several hours of a hideous slow bump filled ascent which would bring us to within hiking distance of the lava lake. Many of us thought about biking this  but decided to remain in the trucks as we were running out of daylight.   Just before dark with little time to set up camp we arrived at a few very primitive stone huts.

After some negotiating with the “Innkeeper” we rented some . During dinner we attempted to form a plan for the hike up to the lava lake.  A few of us not feeling  well, opted out . However, after much disagreement on the timing to make the journey and plenty of squabbling it was decided to start at 4am in the cooler part of the day, and remain up at the lake throughout the day, returning after dark .

then return that evening.  Many folks did go but those that didn’t headed back by truck next am.  The few of us that had to abandoned that portion in our trip started a 2 day truck ride to Mekele, one of the few larger cities in Ethiopia.  We were rejoined by the group a day or so later.   At this point, much of our adventure was now coming to a close.  Soon we’d be flying back from Mekele to Addis Ababa then all making our flights and returning to our other lives .  However, to put a majestic ending on our rugged adventure the accommodations for the last three nights were spent at Gher Alta lodge: certainly fit for a king or a queen, Solomon and Sheba would have approved.  An Italian Gentleman constructed it as if it were an Italian Villa and he ran it as one too,  Gher Alta lodge offered us the most modern and up to date facilities that one could find throughout all of Ethiopia and some of the best food we had the entire trek.

Special Thanks to Clif Bar www.cifbar.com for their remarkable support and tireless efforts as a leader in the business community for sustainability and a healthy planet

Credits also go to : www.bicyclefilmfestivals.com   Bringing this Ethiopian Adventure soon to a theatre near you


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