We knew it was coming, but there's still a lot of nervousness when you know that you are about to do the biggest climb of the trip. Over 22km we would climb 1800 meters. But first we had to cycle 50km before we would even see what we were facing.
I woke up with a bit of a chest cold, which is not what you want in Ethiopia. The children here can smell weakness. It encourages them to attack. I was slow and wheezing, and they knew I was an easy target. At one point I had 20 kids chasing me down the street, pelting me with stones machine-gun style. I did a count at one point. I have 38 bruises caused by these evil little monsters and their stones and whips and sticks. There was a pack of three kids who threw at me. When I stopped, one ran, but the rest stayed, albeit at a distance. I said to the one kid " You want Birr?" - he didn't trust me. I held out a Birr - if he came close I was going to grab him and bring him to the nearest house and get his folks to beat him senseless. He circled me like a nervous pup eyeing a piece of meat. After a bit an adult came near and I went over to him and told him what had happened. He walked over and spoke with the kid - I don't know what happened in the end, because I was on my way again.
It was beautiful. The Ethiopian Grand Canyon. I looked out at the route ahead, all the way from the very bottom, up the winding road that went on forever. At least we would be going down first. I jumped on my bike and started flying. When I got to the bottom I realized that my tire was on wrong, but I couldn't get the brake to stop rubbing which meant I was only going about 50km/h. It was probably a pretty sensible speed, what with all the women hauling wares up from the depths of the gorge, the donkeys that spooked easily, and the kids (who fortunately couldn't take aim as we were going faster than they expected). It was amazing, nonetheless - being able to fly for 20km downhill.
And then the up. The first 5km had me thinking that I would get on the trucks if they passed. It was well over 40 degrees and the drudgery of each pedal push was unforgiving. Suddenly I came across Sharita - she had found a water spout at the side of the road. I soaked myself completely, and then filled one of my empty bottles ( my camel pack was already running low). After that moment, you couldn't drag me onto one of the trucks. We climbed all the way to the village at 10km, where the backup truck was waiting and we could refill our water bottles. We sat down for a coke and then spotted a kid with a popsicle. We asked the local crew if they were for sale. Next thing you know we were in heaven, eating popsicles in the middle of the hottest climb ever - it was great for the jealousy factor when we got into camp.
And we climbed and climbed - I was riding in close proximity to Sharita, Lloyd, Alex and Tom. Every once in a while we would stop and take in the most stunning views. We were in a time-trial, but racing was secondary.
When we got in we were at a CPAR camp - an aid organization that the founder of TDA also founded. Most of us walked down the road to the hotel and bought showers and beer. I sadly forgot my headband there - it's been following me everywhere since Australia, but I suppose that's what happens when you sweat every ounce of water out of yourself and then have a cold beer. We raced back to CPAR for the rider meeting and dinner, but unfortunately the fellow heading up the organization gave a bit of a talk on what they were doing there and their needs, which consisted of him saying "We are doing many big projects and you should tell your government that we need money otherwise we won't be able to complete our big projects." Basically no detail but incredible wordy. We were starving. The frustration in the crowd was tangible. He finally stopped and we ate ourselves silly. Sometimes it's wiser to have the speech after the meal.
The next day I was pretty run down with the cold and rode only the half day. I couldn't have made a better decision. I slept on the truck as it cruised up a hill, and woke up in time for the most beautiful descent all the way into the next CPAR camp. There was only a bit of uphill at the start of the ride and at the finish - and the highest point on the tour - 3300m. For some reason I got "Rolling Down the River" in my head, and I sang it aloud all the way into camp. I think it helped to scare the kids into submission. Or maybe because I was the first person coming through, they didn't have time to react.
I got into camp and there was a massive pump/well. I had the most beautiful shower as a fellow pumped water over my head.
I walked down with some of the folk to the overlook pub. A tributary of the Nile wrapped its way through the base, and in the distance we could hear religious chanting. There were farms all the way up the cliff sides, accessible only by the thinnest of footpaths. It is no wonder donkeys are so necessary for Ethiopians.
We looked out, talked about how frustrating it is to see Ethiopia, a country that is so agriculturally-rich, and so filled with tourism potential, sit around and wait for the next handout rather than use its own initiative to start up their own economy. The eighties ruined Ethiopia. We need to let Africans run African and back off. Why do we keep thinking that we will be able to "make them see the light"? Why do we insist on lecturing people on how their countries are run?
But in the end, there is not much to be done but hope that it comes out all right.