Category Archives: Ethiopia

Tour d’Afrique 2013 by Laura Holms by Laura Holms: Sports & Adventure | Blurb Books


Tour d’Afrique 2013 by Laura Holms by Laura Holms: Sports & Adventure | Blurb Books.

On January 11, 2013, exactly 1 year ago today, the 2013 Tour d’Afrique began in Cairo.

A couple of weeks ago, my sister Laura surprised me by giving me a book for Christmas that compiles all of my blogs from the ride plus a collection of photos she gathered from other riders.

It looks great and brings back many good memories.

You can have a look at it and order it you wish by going to:

Yesterday the 2014 Tour d’Afrique riders left from Khartoum. I hope they enjoy their ride as much as the 2013 crew did.

So Long Ethiopia

We spent a long time in Ethiopia, longer than we will spend in any other country on the Tour. It has not been an easy place to like – from a cyclists perspective. While the country is beautiful and the landscape spectacular, the people in the rural villages that we have cycled through have been a pain in the ass. There is an excellent book on the history of the countries and trade around the Indian Ocean called the Empire of the Monsoon (I think – read it a while ago). The book tells about the Portuguese trekking inland in the 17th century looking for the mythical Prestor John and being stoned as they tramped through the hills. Throwing rocks at strangers is nothing new in Ethiopia. It has always been a place apart in the hills that did not easily welcome strangers. For the 500 years before the Portuguese arrived East Africa was a major trading partner for the Middle East. And one of the commodities the Middle East traded most regularly was slaves. It is no wonder they weren’t in the habit of welcoming strangers easily. But this is 800 or a thousand years later. Why are they still throwing rocks?

The cities are different. There is a growing cosmopolitan feel and sense of progress. People are friendly and helpful. Bahir Dar is a lovely place. Addis is big, bustling and busy. But progress outside the cities is slow.

The bike

The bike is holding up but it is taking a beating. So far I have had to repack the headset, replace the front derailleur, replace the chain, replace the bottom bracket and unbend the rear derailleur (it needs replacing but I didn’t bring a spare – have ordered one and will pick it up when I am in Dar). I have had the wheels trued a couple of times. The bar tape is getting torn and ratty. I have used a lot of dry lube. The Schwalbe marathon tires continue to perform well. After almost 5000km I have not had a single puncture (touch wood). The Avid BB7 brakes have been excellent. The frame and set up continue to be good. I have had no aches and pains and strains caused by the bike. I think if I were to change anything on the Croix de Fer I would put on 105 components rather than Tiagra, I would have a front shock option, I would have more spread on the rear stays so that a larger tire could be fit, and I would possibly add a third chain ring on the front (I don’t really have a granny gear; the best ratio I have is 34 on the front and 32 on the back; many with a third chain ring go from 27 on the front to 34 on the back; good for those long, steep climbs).

The body

I think the reason I have been able to keep going is that I have stayed healthy. Not many of us have. Although I went through a period when I was feeling run down and not recovering adequately, now that I have started using ORS regularly, I feel less run down and am recovering much better. My ass has taken a bit of a beating on the off road stages but it has also recovered well. No boils or open sores. Tough as leather. I brought two big tubes of chamois cream and haven’t used any yet. I have also now lost some weight. The hills in Ethiopia took a lot of effort. While I didn’t really lose much weight during the first 3 or 4 weeks, I have probably lost 5 or 6 kg in the last 3 or 4 weeks. This makes the hills a little easier. So far, so good.

The head

I miss Liz and the girls but will see them soon. We are almost at the half way point. But there is also a very congenial group of riders that I am happy to ride and spend time with. And the group is large enough that there is lots of variety. In Nairobi we will pick up an additional 19 sectional riders. It will really be a big group then and the dynamic will undoubtedly change a bit. We have settled into an easy rhythm and some people are already wondering what it will be like to leave this self-contained and very focused world in a couple of months. For we have almost reached that point where we start counting the days left rather than the days completed.

Nuns and Beer

Day 51, bus day, stages 40 & 41, 175km

Start, bush camp Sololo

Finish, Catholic convent, Marsabet

The morning started almost an hour earlier than usual. Breakfast was at 6am sharp. We were to be on the road by 6:30. In the end we were in the bus and ready to go by 6:40. Not bad. Only one problem, our police escort had not arrived. So one of the staff dashed off in the Hilux to chase them down. An hour later they were with us in full combat fatigues with semi-automatic rifles and magazines in place. OK. We need to be cautious. I just hope they don’t start shooting at their shadows. Not quite like cycling through the south of France from vineyard to vineyard.

Thankfully the bus had padded seats. The ride was brutal. The roads were worse than the day before but nothing we hadn’t ridden before. The bus was the last vehicle in the convoy so we were covered in everybody else’s dust. I spent my time opening and closing the window, fighting a losing battle between a little fresh air and enough dust to choke a times the dust was so thick and coming in such thick waves that it seemed we were under a sea of dust. It took us 2 ½ hours to cover the first 43km. We could have ridden our bikes as fast.

Our destination for the day was Marsabet and the compound of a Catholic convent, 175 km from out starting point. It took us about 9 1/2 hours. The landscape was unremittingly bleak. A great desert of lava rock. Nobody could live there. Camels would find it hard to find a place to put their feet. Even goats would find nothing to eat. The lave rock even crowded out the ubiquitous thorn bushes. It would have been a very tough two days of cycling. So some relief amidst the general grumpiness in the bus.

The convent was on the far side of Marsabet so we had to drive through the town. Campaign rallies were in full swing. The centre of town was filled with busses. It was not all locals. At first everyone was in organge t-shirts and caps. They swarmed like the fruit flies in the Sudan. Our convoy threaded its way through. We passed briefly through what can only be described as a demilitarized zone before we came into the midst of the red t-shirted swarm. They were not yet as organized as the orange swarm. They were still getting out of vehicles and gathering in a football field at the side of the road.

Stragglers were pissed out of their gourds. It was Saturday night and was clearly going to be a bit of a bun fest. In contrast, the nunnery, a couple of miles out of town, was an oasis of calm. These nuns were clearly in business. Whoopi Goldberg would not have been out of place. Two steps out of the bus the nuns were waiting to sell us cold beer, crisps and chocolate. It couldn’t get much better. They also fed us dinner and had rooms for rent – neither as good as the beer, bit both welcome. No cycling today but we were all just as tired as just as dirty. There was no water in the taps at the sinks. But there was a trickle of water coming out of a spout about waist high in one of the communal showers. I crouched under it and tried to get clean. I’m glad nobody was taking pictures. I am sure I looked like somebody enjoying a slightly illicit catatonic fit on a gas station washroom.

It was another 6:30 departure tomorrow. So it was early to bed on the thin mattress in my nunnery cell. I think I made the guy on the crucifix on the wall cringe on despair.

Prison Canteen

Day 49, stage 38, 89km

Start, bush camp

Finish, Kenyan wildlife service, Moyale, Kenya


Since we cross the border into Kenya to day there is no race. I was up and away early. The first 15km were great, the wind was quiet, the road was ok and the land flat. Around 7:45 it all went bad. As the sun grew hot the wind picked up the road deteriorated into lumps and potholes. And the climbing began. But it was a relatively short day so not that punishing really. And now that I was taking ORS daily, I was recovering better and riding better.

After lunch we had just less than 40km to go, so not far. It was hilly but pleasant riding. I rode in a pelaton with Jan, Bridget and Rosie. It was a good group. We stopped for some ice cold cokes a couple of km before the border and then pressed on. Formalities were minimal. We were in Kenya before noon. Just as well, because we later heard that the Ethiopian immigration office closed from 12 – 2 and that those who had arrived there after 12 had to wait for two hours.

A new country means a new SIM card for my cell phone. Our first stop in Kenya was Moyale, a real border town, full of money changers and chancers, a bit of an armpit really. A few people had purchased SIM cards in local kiosks only to find that they didn’t work. I decided I would try my Tanzanian card. I was told it would roam in Kenya. It didn’t. but by the time I found this t we were travelling again and there was no place to buy a SIM so I was going to be out of communication for a few days. This was not ideal because the Kenyan elections were approaching and there were worries about security.

We stayed in the walled in compound of the Kenyan Wildlife Service. It was across the street fro the Moyale prison. The best bar in town was bar attached to the prison operated for the welfare of prisoners and staff. It was a great place. We could see the guys in striped pajamas just over the wall of the bar.

That evening we were briefed about changes to our itinerary due to the Kenyan elections. We were to miss five riding stages and we would be bussed from Sololo to Nanyuki. In 2007 over 1000 people died in riots after the presidential elections were disputed. This is the first presidential election since then and also since the passing of a new constitution. A lot is riding on this election. There are about 100,000 police and army personnel on duty. There are also thousands of neutral election observers involved. But there is still very real concern about what might happen. We have been advised by the Kenyan police among others, not to travel on election day, March 4, or for the days immediately following the election. We have also been advised not to stay in certain potentially volatile areas during the election period. We were due to have a rest day in Marsabet on election day. But Marsabet is one place we were advised not to stay. It was agreed that a safe place to stay was Nanyuki. Ordinarily we would have arrived in Nanyuki on the third riding day after our rest day in Marsabet. But in order to get there without travelling on election day we would have to arrive there on March 3rd, which meant travelling there on march 2nd nd 3rd – since it is a two day bus journey from Sololo. So we would miss the two riding days from Sololo to Marsabet, bus from Sololo to Nanyuki on March 2nd and 3rd, and then spend 4 days in Nanyuki waiting to see what happens during the election period. If all goes well we will cycle the last two of the section into Nairobi and be back on schedule. Let’s hope it works.

The decision to bus over 500km and miss 5 riding days was not taken easily and while we all recognize and accept the wisdom of the decision, we also regret it a bit. We came to ride. Even the tough bits we bitch about – and three of the five days we miss are tough off road days. Although it must also be admitted that there is some relief in missing a few tough days. At the end of the day having 6 days off the bike will also give those who need it a chance to recover more fully. And perhaps climb Mount Kenya.

Gotta Love the Chinese

Day 48, stage 37, 127km

Start, Yabello, Yabello motel

Finish, bush camp

Today was billed as a difficult off road day – but with some sections that might be better because the Chinese have been building a road to the border. We left the motel on the dirt road, ready for a tough day. Shortly after we headed out we saw the road bed the Chinese were working on – packed and graded dirt. It was not that much different than the dirt track we were on but it was much smoother. After about 3 1/2 km I asked myself what the hell I was doing riding on a rough track when there was a smooth track 20 metres to my left. So I carried my bike through the thorn bushes and set off on the Chinese road bed. I love the Chinese. John and Gus, who I had left Yabello with, soon joined me. It was a great ride. And after about 5 km the hard packed dirt turned to hard packed fine gravel – the next layer of the road bed. After anther 5km we rode up onto the next layer, rough tarmac. And yes, after another 5km we were on the finished road, new, smooth, hard and fast tarmac. The best thing about it was that there were no cars and trucks. The road was not yet one to traffic. Every 100 metres or s the road was blocked across its width with large boulders and dead thorn bushes – bad for cars and trucks, but not so bad for bikes. There was always enough space to sneak through.

It was great while it lasted but it ended well before lunch. We were then back on the pre-Chinese road surface – some dirt, some bad old lumpy and potholed tarmac. We rose steadily all day, culminating in a 6 or 7km climb to a high plateau that was spectacular. The head wind though was a killer. It had been with us throughout Ethiopia and wasn’t about to let us forget it as we were leaving. It swept across the plateau like a gale. But the views from the top were amazing. And at the summit were the ruins of an ancient mud brick prison. A bleak and lonely place.

What goes up must of course go down. I skated down steep 5km descent to a small town where I stopped for a coke. As I was leaving John Chevis joined me. We raced the last 25km of rolling hills into camp at a pretty good pace. We got into camp early and had a lazy afternoon. Tomorrow we would be in Kenya.

As advertised the kids had not been bad today. In fact they were hardly noticeable. There was a definite change in the feel of the place. It was more sparsely populated and less influenced by the outside world. It was peaceful.

Two Horse Town

Day 47, rest day, Yabello

Yabello is pretty much a two horse town along a strip of tarmac that stretches for 6 or 7 kilometres. The Yabello motel is at a T junction at the end of the tarmac. Turn right onto the dirt and you head towards the Kenyan border. We wandered up and down the strip looking to change money, to buy peanuts and cold drinks and to look for restaurants other than the one at the Yabello motel. Got some peanuts and a snickers bar (like coke you seem to be able to get them everywhere), changed some money and found but didn’t eat in any of the local restaurants. The bank was a crazy chaotic place. Lots of guards with big guns of course. And lots of people who just seemed to be hanging out like in an old fashioned barber shop – sitting on chairs in the shade. They could have been waiting for service. Or maybe not. They had one of those money counting machines behind the counter. You put the paper money in the top. It shuffl3s and counts them, gives you a number and returns them in a neat pile out the bottom. Not here. The guy behind the counter put a stack of money into the machine while we were waiting to get our money changed. If you have ever been to Africa you will know that some of the paper money is older than Methusela. It is worn almost beyond reading. It is dirty. It is often stapled or taped together. (The irony is that they won’t accept any but the crispest, newest $US bills in exchange.) So when the clerk loaded the machine with this stack of old bills and asked it to count them, the machine did what any self-respecting machine would do. It spit them out. All over the bank. A tornado of Ethiopian Burr flew everywhere. Maybe that’s why all those people were sitting patiently on chairs in the shade.

As with most rest days, it was a day to do chores. Get the laundry done. Clean the bike. And so on. It was almost five by the time I had been into town, come back and done all the chores. When bedtime is seven, that doesn’t leave much time in the day. And after waiting an hour and a half for yet another plate of spaghetti and meat sauce there was even less time.

We only had two more days in Ethiopia. Most people were glad of this. While it is a fascinating and I many ways a beautiful country, the kids had spoiled it for many. Off our bikes they were not that different than kids in most other African countries – curious, wanting to talk to you and often to touch you. But basically friendly. On our bikes they are a menace – aggressive and casually and unthinkingly violent. But we have been told that as we approach Kenya, they become less of an issue. We hope so.

Crazy Kiwi

Day 46, stage 36, 98km

Start, riverbed camp

Finish, Yabello, Yabello Motel

Today is a ‘mando’ day. Mando days are reserved for the tightest days of the tour. Today was a real test. We did over 1400 metres of climb off road, some of the climbs of 10% and more. That much climbing on good roads is a challenge. On boulder strewn dirt roads where it is tough to get traction it is more than tough. Today was unanimously voted the toughest day on tour so far. I was out there for more than 8 ½ hours – this includes several stops for coke and lunch. And once again I drank at least 10 litres on the day. Many people did not make it. May people did not try it and road the truck. But there was a real holiday atmosphere at the end. All the finishers were clapped and cheered as they made it into the courtyard of the motel. The last people arriving just as darkness fell. A long day indeed. And there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – a hotel, hot showers, cold beer.

Vince, the crazy Kiwi share a room with when there is a hotel available had won the stage the day before. He is a good off road rider, has a bike built for these conditions and is fearless. Vince’s strategy is to be last to leave camp every day. When he catches people up, as he always does, he has then gained time on them. He usually passes me some time before lunch and finishes well before me.  Since he had won yesterday he insisted that there was no pressure on him today and he would take it easy. He had his stage win for this section. About 20 kilometres from the end of today’s ride there is a long and steep hill. I had been cycling since lunch with Italo, an Italian rider about my age. About half way up this hill I realized that Vince had not yet passed me today. My immediate thought was that the crazy idiot had completely forgotten what he said last night about ‘no pressure’ today and had come flying out of camp like a kamikaze and had crashed. Sure enough, at the top of the hill there was a TdA Hilux driven by the tour director. He filled my once again empty water bottles and then asked if I heard about Vince. Sure enough, he had crashed within 2km of camp going like a banshee down a steep dirt track. His bile went left. He went right. His right shoulder left its rightful place.

Italo was right behind him – Vince had passed him at full tilt a few seconds before – and found the poor bugger in a heap in the dust. Italo then spent the next half hour pulling Vince’s arm in a direction that would keep the muscles from seizing up. Half an hour later, when the m3dics had arrived, three additional people put their backs into trying to pull his arm back into the shoulder socket. When it finally popped back in Vince jumped to his feet and said: ‘right, where’s my bike? I’m off then.’ And after taking a couple of painkillers, he was off. And he finished. One tough son of a bitch! This will be the only time on the tour that I finish before Vince. But there will be an asterisk next to the results.