The Road to Lalibela: Cycling Ethiopia’s Ancient Heartland

Cycling 450 miles to Lalibela Ethiopia

By Matthew Kadey

church ethiopia
The Church of Bet Giyorgis in Lalibela, Ethiopia

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are like nothing else on earth. Most remarkable are not the ones carved into the volcanic rock, but those chiseled completely away from it, leaving all four sides visible.

By far the most impressive one found in this category is the Church of Bet Giyorgis. Crafted with such immaculate detail, I linger for hours peering down at this marvel of human creativity dumbfounded at why it’s not surrounded by a mass of tourists instead of just me and a diminutive boy chomping at a piece of sugarcane.

This was a good time in Ethiopia. The previous eight days were not so unruffled.

Left in the Dust

Riding out of Addis Ababa, the world’s third highest capital, I’m totally stoked.

Completing this route a year earlier, my Canadian cycling mate Scotty Robinson has promised me 450 miles of verdant views, epic climbs, screaming descents and cheap smooth beer in a region of Africa with virtually no tourist footprint.

Our goal? Go on a low-carbon diet and pedal these two mountain bikes north from here through the mountains (“bumps in the road” in Scotty’s parlance) to the historic 2,600-meter settlement of Lalibela in Ethiopia’s northern fringes.

Easy as pie for two fit lads right? Wrong!

biking ethiopia
Setting out on a 450 mile bike trip through Ethiopia

My overflowing enthusiasm quickly diminishes as Scotty, who I was counting on for a little first-day-in-Africa moral support has left me in his dust only a scant distance out of Addis Ababa.

Holding the knowledge that recently he cycled the length of the continent from Cairo to Cape Town, I am not surprised I’m sucking wind and he is motoring along with indefatigable zeal.

Foolishly overlooking the fact that there won’t be too many Kwiki marts along route, I’ve failed to bring along any sugary provisions.

The pre-departure Mars bar has long been burned up which leaves my blood sugar falling faster than Ben Affleck’s career.

A Welcome Feast

With hypoglycemia and a punishing mid-day sun making the frequent undulations so onerous, the thought of hitching a ride with a passing bus that has more chickens strapped to the roof than passengers, is looking more and more like the only way out of this mess.

Just as I am about to plant my sorry butt down in the dirt and think of ways of ensuring Scotty a long, painful exit from this world, a bony middle-aged man wearing torn Levis and an oddly misplaced Kansas City Royals t-shirt crests the hill on his single-speed, war-era bike and insists that I accompany him to his clay and straw roadside home for a feast whose star of the show is Ethiopia’s sour tasting fermented flat bread injera.

“Eat, Eat,” insists the man of the house whose weather-hardened face tells the story of a harsh life in the highlands.

Being a devoted gourmand and ages past the point of starving, I devour their offerings with my sunburned hands as if it was my execution-day meal.

I’m distracted from the comestibles only by a young girl nervously hiding behind an elderly woman in the corner.

Saying the rosary “First faranji,” claims my host as he rips-off a piece of injera, dips it into the goat meat wat stew and sticks it into my mouth. Little did I know that it would be another eight days until we would come across another fellow faranji or, for that matter, a toilet with a seat.

The Cradle of Humanity

ethiopian countryside
The Ethiopian countryside

Hailed as the ‘Cradle of Humanity,’ Ethiopia (historically known as Abyssinia) continues to turn out archaeological prizes that reveal a human history dating back millions of years.

At its heart lie the Ethiopian highlands. The Blue Nile and Tekeze rivers meander through this massive highland complex, the Great Rift Valley rips through its center, and the Simien mountains rise domineeringly to touch the sky at its northern fringes.

Avoiding the livestock on the roads in Ethiopia It’s in this region of the Horn of Africa that skeletons of the earliest known bipedal hominid species have been unearthed. “Lucy” – named for the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which was pumping through the radio when archaeologists discovered her remains is likely Ethiopia’s most famous resident despite being some three million years past her prime.

However, one can’t dispute that mammals of the four-legged variety are more meaningful to today’s denizens.With some eighty percent of the population living rurally, Ethiopia’s livestock population is believed to be the largest in Africa.

So by the time we roll into friendly yet humdrum Debre Birhan some 80 miles north of Addis Ababa, we’ve become de facto experts at downhill maneuvering so as to avoid becoming another donkey-bike collision statistic.

Admiring the landscape

Hot Pursuit

Using our newly honed bikehandling skills, Scott and I weave through Birhan’s rambunctious children, down a few cold Fantas and begin tackling another round of gravel ascents.In pursuit are two of the seemingly ubiquitous slender mountain boys who, despite riding dilapidated single-geared bikes that are becoming more racheting with each turn of their rusted cranks, are doing their damnedest to keep up.

“Now you know why they can run forever,” Scott speaks to Ethiopia’s propensity to turn out some of the world’s great long distance runners.

As we push north and immerse ourselves further into the highlands, the landscape with each tire rotation is becoming increasingly dominated by rolling hills of verdant grass intersected by sheer gorges, quaint adobe huts and an unbroken azure sky.

I find myself stopping often and standing agape at the splendor. A far cry from my preconception that Ethiopia was nothing more than an austere land dominated by sere countryside and searing desert.

The Mussolini Tunnel

As we sweep down from Tarmabir, a beautifully set village at the top of the immense Mezezo Escarpment, where a group of endemic Gelada baboon’s are contentedly foraging on green blades, the zigzagging switchback downhill stretch of tar to Debra Sina is our most blissful ride yet – that is until we come to the hole in the mountain and things go awry.

“Oh shit, watch out for that one,” Scott shrieks out from in front as we painstakingly make our way through the pothole laden and unlit Mussolini Tunnel – a relic from the days when Italy attempted and failed to make Ethiopia a European appendage in the 1930s.

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