Words by: Eric Melson | Photos by: Campbell Diebolt
The stars aligned. It felt like the universe had conspired to make our two-week bikepacking trip in Ethiopia a reality, surprising considering how loosely dialed our trip planning had been.
One of my best friends, Campbell, has a history with Ethiopia starting off with a two-year Peace Corps tour that left him deeply connected to the land and people. He’s returned several times over the last few years working in tourism education and development, with assignments lasting for months at a time, this latest round was seven months where he served as the General Manager for Limalimo Lodge which is located inside the Simien Mountains National Park in the Amhara region of Northern Ethiopia.
Cam and I lived together immediately following his time in the Peace Corps and the stories he brought back sparked an interest in me. When he told me that he was going back to Ethiopia for work, I jumped at the opportunity to join him once his contract ended in February.
The plan, we conceived, was to bike from the Simien Mountains National Park to a mid-sized city named Mek’ele, the capital city of the Tigray region – hitting some semi-touristy spots along the way but making sure to spend as much time embedded in the local scene and culture as possible. 90% of the route was unknown to Cam, but through local knowledge, he determined that the roads were better suited to gravel-adventure bikes rather than mountain bikes.
We discussed, planned and finalized the trip over a series of emails, a simple spreadsheet, and random g-chats late at night when our time zones overlapped. Having done several expeditions where planning is critical (week-long ski touring trips, multiple Grand Canyon trips, ten-day backpacking treks) I have to admit, the pre-trip planning on this one was a little more half-baked compared to some others…I blame the international time differences and the fact that reliable internet in Ethiopia is spotty at best (not to mention the Ethiopian government’s practice to intentionally disconnect the internet, but that’s another story). Needless to say, we made due with what we had, a theme that continued into the trip itself.
The route was chosen for a couple of reasons: 1) we could leave directly from Limalimo Lodge where we could build bikes, drink as much coffee as our hearts desired, and get a few good meals before pedaling off 2) it traveled through some of the most scenic and remote mountainous terrain where traffic would be minimal 3) it connected several areas of interest and cultural / historical significance so we could gain insight into some of Ethiopia’s deep historical and cultural roots 4) it passed through large enough towns on the daily that we could re-supply on basics and water and 5) most of it was totally unknown, adding to the sense of exploration and uncertainty. Cam’s contract ended on a Thursday and we set off the following day.
The route took us from Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains (the countries highest mountain range and home to the towering Ras Dashen, which is the highest peak in Ethiopia standing at 14,930’) through a diverse range of landscapes, ecosystems, villages, towns, and points of interest. Starting off, the Simiens feel….almost tropical and indicative of rural parts of Hawaii (almost) with stands of mature acacia and eucalyptus trees, endemic Gelada monkeys, and super steep lush escarpments that house spectacular waterfalls in the rainy season. We dropped over 4,000 feet in elevation on day one, eventually diving down as deep as the Tekenze River Gorge several days later into our ride, where the mercury licked triple digits and my pale winter skin blistered from sunburn.
Notable stops along the way included, well, damn near everything along this route was notable for me, this being my first time in Africa and in Ethiopia, but the stand outs in my mind were sleeping in a primary school compound with an armed guard watching over us all night in Addi Arkay, stumbling upon a military owned “international resort” in the town of Shire with a sun deck overlooking the city and indulging in a handful of cheap Ethiopian beers, touring the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum where legend has it that the Arc of the Covenant is located (after being treated to a coffee ceremony by the local family who took us in for the night), refusing to kiss a priests’ cross at a church in literally the middle of nowhere Ethiopia, staying two nights at KorKor Lodge in an area that I swear is identical in scenery to Southwest Utah, and deciding that “Ful”, a paste-like breakfast dish made of smashed fava beans and all of the most delicious fresh accompaniments (e.g.: tomato, garlic, egg, avocado, and this almost pita-like fresh bread that sets the whole dish off) is the absolute best way to start a demanding day of riding.
These incredible experiences didn’t come without their costs, however. Kids threw rocks at us from time to time, a stray dog attempted to attack Cam as we rode through a rural village, my rear lights were stolen off my bike, and we had a few sketchy moments that tested our patience and forced us to rethink and improvise. But that’s what makes trips like this special – there’s no one way to do it, no mold to fit it in, and all plans are subject to change.
All this is to say, if you have an interest in bike touring in Ethiopia, do it. But set reasonable expectations and go at it with an open mind and heart. You will be challenged physically, mentally, and maybe even slightly spiritually. My recommendation would be to study up on the language, nail down a few key phrases (beware that there are 82 languages in Ethiopia so before arrival be sure to practice for each region you plan on riding through) and put on a genuine smile. You will be amazed by how warm and welcoming Ethiopians are to foreigners as long as you say hello, bring good vibes, and attempt to speak their language!
There are plenty of towns that have bottled water, basic foods, restaurants and cheap hotels to stay at along the way. Part of the fun of a trip like this is researching and planning, so I’ll stop there to save you the fun of discovery.
This trip would not have been possible without our silver stallions, RLT 9 Steels, decked out with Blackburn Outpost bags shod with WTB Resolute and Riddler skin wall tires that carried us on our five hundred kilometer journey across Northern Ethiopia. The bikes never paused once at a 3,000-foot climb or balked under full loads. They navigated every road condition imaginable, from rock-filled moon dust to fresh Chinese tarmac, the bikes were flawless and we escaped without a single mechanical (or flat, if you can believe it). The RLT 9 Steel is a proven international bikepacking expedition tool, one I will reach for again and again domestically and for all future travels into the unknown.