Photos and words by brand ambassadors: Campbell Diebolt & Eric Melson
I’ve been noodling around with the idea of exploring Ethiopia by bike for a long time. Maybe the draw for me was the fact that I’ve lived in The Motherland on and off for the past 8 years – working in Sustainable Tourism Development. Or maybe it’s because while I’ve had plenty of time to wander around this country, I had never before taken the plungevia my beloved human-powered sufferfest.
Aside from a few doughty travelers, not many folks have actually taken the initiative to do this sort of thing, either independently or with the help of a tour operator, because traveling can be quite intimidating here. And honestly, from the viewpoint of a prospective traveler who has never visited Ethiopia before, I can understand the hesitation to cash-in on vacation days in exchange for a bikepacking trip to a locale with a whole lot of question marks and not many trip reports to assist in the work-shopping. Thankfully, my personal history with this country provided me with a smidge of insight into how a 7-day self-supported bike trip might shake out, thus sweeping those foreboding pre-trip planning details that sometimes spook prospective bike travellers well off my radar.
Acutely aware of my need to round up the right kinda dude for this trip, I flipped through my rolodex of adventure doofuses in hopes to reel in a friend with strong off-the-couch winter fitness, a penchant (and tolerance) for fairly deep levels of suffer, and an open brain space to accept and process all the beauty and struggle that will inevitably surround us. Insert longtime compadre Eric Melson – IMBA government relations guy, a decently good cyclist (in reality, a heavy ripper), and someone who has reached “brother” status over the years. All in all, a helluva fella.
The mission was pretty damn straightforward: ride 500 km on mixed gravel and tarmac roads through two of Northern Ethiopia’s largest mountain ranges, while making friends along the way and setting up camp wherever we could – primary schools, housing compounds belonging to folks we met, agricultural land, and the occasional wilderness lodge. Route wise, our plans were half-baked. Why you might ask? Because they could be! That said, Eric and I did know two things: 1) we’d be starting our trip from the absolutely stunning Simien Mountains National Park (Think: Grand Canyon meets jungle) and 2) we’d finish up in the mid-sized city of Mek’elle. What lay in store between those two destinations, however, was almost completely unknown for both of us.
As we pedaled our bikes up the last incline of Day 1 to the small mountain town of May T’semere, we soon realized that the “Ethiopian hospitality” so frequently proclaimed was going to be extremely beneficial to our cause over the course of this trip. Upon arrival, a principal of a primary school welcomed us to his school’s compound and insisted that we stay there because we’d be safe and have a bit of privacy. Needless to say, we were plenty safe during our night spent at the school, but the privacy thing…not so much. The local kiddos had already heard that the circus was rolling through town.
Throughout our trip through Northern Ethiopia, the generosity of Ethiopians revealed itself daily. Whether we were pedaling through the stunning landscape of the Amharan or Tigrai ethnic regions (there are 7 main ethnic groups in Ethiopia), the treatment we received was uncommonly genuine…filled with heaps of mutual respect, selflessness that’ll make you tear up, and an unwavering curiosity. We were treated like family, even though we were only passing through.
As we continued our long days pedaling through Northern Ethiopia, I found myself reliving thoughts and emotions that had unraveled inside me during my first trip to this country through witnessing Eric’s experience. I could literally feel the sense of happiness and wonder that these interactions with Ethiopians were bestowing upon my friend, alongside the new ideas and perceptions that were constantly forming and reforming in his mind. I saw all of this happening, and felt stoked.
In typical bike touring manner, once we arrived in our final destination, Eric and I beelined for a few cold draft beers at an alleyway bar overlooking ancient cobblestoned streets. We laughed, and marveled, and reflected over the how smoothly the trip went considering how little we had actually prepared for it. During that conversation, I quietly realized that sharing moments like these was truly what life was meant for and I wouldn’t have it any other way.