036 – Into The Gorge
It was still dark at 5:35 in the morning when I stepped outside my room. There was a hard cold wind blowing but the sky was clear. I could see the stars.
Occasionally I heard the sound of one of the big dinosaur trucks roaring down the road. Traffic had started. Like me they were making the trip into the gorge as early as possible, hoping to make it up the other side before the full heat of day.
I still felt sick and hoped I wasn’t making a mistake trying to cycle through the gorge and get to Dejen. But I couldn’t see why being on the road would be any worse than staying in Goha Tsiyon. I could just as easily throw up at the side of the road as I could in the toilet at the Mana Bunna Gooh Hotel.
Except for the trucks the streets of Goha Tsiyon were empty and quiet. The little shifta (as I’d started to call the children – much to Aberra’s amusement) were still in bed, their little legs probably twitching as they dreamed of chasing ferenji down open roads.
The sun still hadn’t emerged when I reached the lip of the gorge, but there was enough light to see. I stopped to tighten my jacket around my neck in anticipation of the long swooping descent to the bottom and pushed off. Within seconds things had gone terribly, terribly wrong.
On the one hand I suppose I couldn’t complain. People had given me fair warning about this gorge. They’d told me ad nauseum about the lions, the hyena, the shifta, and the heat. An informant in Addis had even told me that the gorge was so dangerous that the buses and trucks travelled in armed convoys. On a bicycle he said it would be suicide. As I got closer to the gorge the warnings became more dire and specific. Now the soldiers guarding the bridge would surely arrest me as an Eritrean spy and the charcoal makers, the poor people living in the gorge, would set on me and steal everything, or worse.
Eventually (even back in Addis) I became fed up with all this silliness and disputed the danger of lions and roving bands of thieves. I told my informants what I’d come to believe was true, that Ethiopians suffered from a deeply ingrained mistrust and fear of everyone and everything. They practically revelled in this fear and people were so terrified of being held accountable that they tended to the gloomiest and worst case scenarios just to cover themselves.
When I arrived at Goha Tsiyon I applied common sense and my own observations. Trucks and buses did not go in armed caravans. Personal vehicles came and went at will. With my binoculars I could see that far from an untamed wilderness the gorge was heavily farmed and packed with people in villages and in individual farming settlements. All of the dreaded demons of the gorge were evaporating into thin air.
But (there has to be a but) in all the warnings, in all the crazy advice, they all neglected to tell me the one thing that would have been nice if not essential for a cyclist to know: the road in the gorge was unpaved. And not just unpaved but torn to shreds. What surface there was consisted of big, sharp stones sticking up and out in all directions. It was like trying to cycle down a staircase that had been hit by a bomb. And over these embedded rocks were strewn loose rocks, few of them less than 2 inches high. My swoop to the bottom became a painful jarring with the brakes locked up tight and my wheels constantly slipping out from under me. It was like some evil genius had designed the ultimate uncyclable road. Then just to make things interesting there were deep pools of gravel dust, the most slippery substance known to cycling humans and my rear wheel would spin uselessly as I tried to get out.
The worst thing about this slow crawl was that as the day progressed and the sun rose I was at the mercy of the flies and the Ethiopians big and small. It took half my energy to fend off the flies and the other half to survive the onslaught of people. And the savage jolting was shaking up what evil mixture remained in my colon into a nice bacterial puree. I had to repeatedly stop the bike, at the mercy of the crowd, while waiting for stomach cramps to pass. Still, I kept on. I clung desperately to the hope that this road couldn’t go on like this forever. The other side at least – my uphill side – had to be paved. If there was any justice it had to be paved.
I reached the the bottom after two hours of bone and bicycle smashing. On the near side of the bridge a milling crowd of men with guns tried to stop me, but the total confusion made me wary of them and I just kept pedalling. On the other side there was even more of a commotion. More men with guns shouted at me. Crowds of labourers were yelling and shouting. Everybody wanted a piece of the action, but I blew right past them and started climbing the other side. I figured if it was really important that I stop they’d send a vehicle after me.
If coming down was hard going up bordered on impossible. The heat was overpowering, the road in even worse shape, the flies more savage and the people more hostile. There was one bad moment when a mob with sticks chased me and looked to be gathering their courage for an attack, but I turned on them with a very real anger and stood them off with my own mighty dula and a sound tongue thrashing. I think they were simply awed by the nearly insane emotion pouring out of me.
About half way up I got off my bike to rest, sat down at the side of the road and passed out cold. When I came to I rested a long time, but my pulse and breathing rate wouldn’t go down and I felt numb in my hands, feet and lips. I wondered if this was the beginning of heat stroke.
I made one last effort to keep cycling, but it was hopeless. I was too weak and the road too torn up. I sat down once more at the side of the road (carefully and slowly this time) and considered my options. I had a tent with me and could have looked for a place to camp, but sick as I was the idea wasn’t appealing. The tent would have been an oven in this sun. And by the severity and frequency of the cramps that wracked my body I was going to need to make a lot of trips into the bush and the privacy to do that was not going to be readily available. And even if by some miracle my usual entourage did not follow me how could I guard my bicycle and tent?
In the end I approached a truck that was broken down at the side of the road and asked if I could get a lift with them when they finished their repairs. In a short time my bike and bags were hoisted to the top and I climbed up to complete my journey to Dejen in style, sitting, I was told, on a load of artillery shells destined to be fired at the Eritreans when and if the border war picked up in earnest.
The children we passed stared with astonishment (and I assume frustration) at the ferenji high above them, far out of their reach. Most still turned and ran after the truck. One grabbed a stick and threw it at me. There were two young men on the truck with me and they pointed at the children while making threatening throat-cutting gestures. It was nice to see that at least somebody else thought that what these children did was not very polite.
In Dejen I was dropped off at a surprisingly large and, for this part of the country, luxurious hotel. I got a room with its own bathroom, which I immediately used to be horribly sick. On my knees clutching the toilet bowl I wished I had the strength to laugh. All the warnings may not have proved true in the strictest sense, but the score was quite, quite clear. Blue Nile Gorge: 1. Dumb White Guy on a Bike: 0.