Missed Maps and Missed Expectations

Thursday was day number eight, and our sixth day in Ethiopia. It started off well enough, but it fairly quickly devolved into a map-finding problem. I don't mean that I couldn't find the map. What I mean is that the map did not match our on-the-ground information, local driver’s experience, or even GIS data gathered by my wife back home. I knew the approximate distance I needed to cover that day was about 260 km (approx. 160 miles). What I couldn't figure out was what that terrain was going to be like. Plainly put, I like knowing where the hills are. But that knowledge just wasn't available.

I started at the exact same spot where I stopped cycling the night before. On my human-powered expedition, there is always a flag placed at my stopping point, so that my crew can get me back to where I need to be the next day without missing any steps, strides or RPMs. This flag was a bit in the middle of nowhere, but I had been accosted by a group of motorcyclists about 30 minutes after dark, and we’d decided that was enough for one day. But Day Eight would bring a whole new set of challenges.

I began riding at 6:45 a.m., a little later than I like. But as long as I could keep riding steadily, I knew that I was doing everything that I could to makeup time. We can’t always control our outcomes, but we do have ownership over our efforts. I had to make it to Weyt’o by the end of the day or there was very little chance that I would make it to the Kenyan border by 5 pm on Friday, our cutoff time to get exit stamps from Emigration Officials in Ethiopia to be allowed to leave Ethiopia. And if I didn't make that deadline, the expedition was most certainly over. It would take my very best effort!

The weather was cooler that it had been, and the towns we were going through seemed to be more low-key. Every kid still screamed something at me. Usually, they were just saying hello, asking for money, or just calling me a “firangi” in Amharic which simply means “foreigner.” I was not offended by it in the least. It's what I am! I always respect the fact that I am an outlander and those who live in the countries that I visit are kind to allow me entrance and passage.

At some point in the bike ride, I realized the maps we had drawn and the terrain I had expected – hills included – simply weren’t materializing. Despite our best attempts at planning and plotting and mapping, this land was indeed foreign to me, the firangi. After much fretting and trying to take control over the terrain, to tame it with logic and charts somehow, I realized I had to let go of my need for information and just be still. I let my brain quiet, and I kept climbing the massive hills, some of them bigger than any I've ever climbed. As I continued to ride, I found myself hoping that this would be the last big climb…and then this would be the last big climb…and then this would be the last big climb.

I was driving myself crazy because I was disappointed time after time. I finally understood I had to let go of this too. Eventually, I stopped thinking about whether it was THE last big hill and just focused on the climb I was on. I kept myself in the moment, and as the day wore down, I finally found the last climb, although I didn't know it until it was over! 

Harnessing hope that each climb would be the last had put me on an emotional roller coaster. It was torturous. But once I let go of those expectations completely and surrendered to the reality that all these climbs had to be done, regardless of whether it was the first or the last, it became much easier.

Acceptance always helps things work out. And it allowed me to mentally be free of calculation on this day. My only job was to ride the bike.

If you’re following my journey, you already know whether or not I made that deadline and continued on into Kenya. Stay tuned for the next blog to learn ABOUT THE BORDER-CROSSING ADVENTURE AND BEYOND!

See you down the trail,

Charlie

 
Sun is up and I’m ready to ride!

Sun is up and I’m ready to ride!

 

One of many late night map sessions with my team. Solomon is giving us his thoughts on the route, based on his local expertise.

 

Rugged, diverse and truly beautiful.

Hill after craggy, bent hill…

Behind-the-Scenes: How Did We End Up Finding That Bike in the Middle of the Desert?

off road miles.jpeg

A followup on From California to Cape Town… - from a different perspective.

— Written by Drew Harding

(DON’T MISS THE SLIDESHOW FOLLOWING THIS BLOG)

A late-night text startled me, sending my phone buzzing across my night stand.  I read the message from Charlie’s wife, Astacianna, in North Carolina. It said, “Are you currently in South Africa?”   

I responded, “Yes, I am. I am based in Stellenbosch, just outside of Cape Town.” Then I got this message - “Ok. Specialized has a team in South Africa that has the same bike that Charlie lost that they would let him use. I know this is a BIG long shot, but they asked if anyone on Charlie’s team might be able to fly with the bike to Addis. They’ve had bad luck shipping within Africa.”

Charlie had packed and checked his Specialized bike and when he arrived in Djibouti, the airline had no record of the bike ever being checked in!  This was one of the most critical components of his “human-powered” trek across Africa. Quickly, Charlie, Astacianna, and his team went into overdrive to figure out a solution for the lost bike. 

I turned to my wife, and sheepishly asked, “Do you mind if I fly back up to Ethiopia tomorrow?”  I had just returned from Ethiopia 10 days prior! She supportingly said, “You need to do what you are good at. Ethiopia is in your blood, and you should help.”  So, I told Charlie’s team, “Let’s do it!”

Specialized HQ for Africa is in Stellenbosch. Their stellar team packed up the bike, and I was able to pick it up and head to the airport.  In less than 24 hours from the original text, I was wheels down in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia! Travel is so surreal these days. The bike arrived, and the next morning we drove 11 hours into the Afar desert to meet Charlie on the beginning of his epic 5.8 Global Adventure Series.


Back in 2008, the nonprofit I lead, Senai Global, was hosting the premier of Charlie’s documentary, Running The Sahara, in Charlotte, NC.  Senai is a charity that works in Ethiopia providing clean water. It was this work that helped us get connected to Charlie and Running the Sahara.  I met Charlie that night at the premiere and followed his story through the years.  

Fast forward to six months ago - I got a call from Charlie out the blue.  He told me about the 5.8 Global Adventure Series and how he was going to be traveling from Djibouti to Kilimanjaro and passing through Ethiopia for 10 days of running and cycling.  He proposed highlighting Senai’s projects in return for us helping him navigate his time traversing Ethiopia. We began planning, and Solomon, our logistics expert, agreed to accompany Charlie and his team through Ethiopia. 

Now I was able to close the loop, finally meeting up with Charlie after 11 years, multiple phone calls, emails, and WhatsApp messages. I just never expected it would be in the Afar desert of Ethiopia!  The jet black sky had already enveloped the desert landscape as I waited with the newly-assembled Specialized bike under a dim light bulb on the side of the road. Finally, I saw a head lamp bobbing up and down as a weary Charlie emerged out of the darkness, after more than 10 hours crossing the desert from the border of Djibouti to Mile, Ethiopia.  A long embrace ensued, capturing all the emotion of what just happened. Charlie was so pumped to see his new wheels! That evening was spent around a solar lamp recounting how bizarre this whole story was, and pinching ourselves that we had actually pulled off this epic delivery. 


So many amazing people were behind this feat, and all of us are part of Charlie’s story.  We are excited that he will be able to taste coffee from Senai’s coffee project, see the benefits of providing clean water to communities in rural Ethiopia, and experience the ever-changing landscape of Ethiopia. It is a tough and challenging country, but through those challenges there is a hope for the future and a beautifully rich culture to be absorbed. 

Senai has again accomplished its mission of “connecting people to purpose,” this time in a very unusual way. Charlie’s purpose is a journey that far exceeds what most humans could accomplish.  We are honored to play this small part in his challenging feat and are excited about the visibility he can give to Senai along the way.

We hope many of you will engage in what Senai is doing to transform communities across Ethiopia.  Let us know if we can serve you or host you on a trip to Ethiopia. It would be our honor.  

Honored to be part of the adventure,

Drew

 

 

Things Are Getting Real Now

biking-back shot.jpg

Lots of climbing here

in Ethiopia.

Good training for Mt. Kilimanjaro, coming

up in just 2 weeks!

 

Day Five of 5.8 Africa got very real. After swimming and diving Djibouti’s Lake Assal, then averaging about 100 miles a day between running and cycling and no more than 4 hours of sleep a night, the physical toll on my body was expected. But it was still shocking as this day tore into the evening and I hit the deep dive into the abyss. I know what to expect, yet I'm still surprised every time!

Delving into the recesses of memory albums housed in my mind of past international adventures, I’m reminded that maps often don’t match the reality on the ground, no matter how accurate they may seem. Distances often seem to be rounded down or daringly guessed, and mountains bulge up from the ground in places that looked like sandhills on paper! Road conditions, flat tires on both bikes and cars, being stopped at border crossings, and all the other myriad things that have happened on every expedition I’ve ever done, have all pretty much happened here too. 

I was nearly arrested today outside of Awash, Ethiopia for doing what I thought I had been granted permission to do – cross the border from one region to another. There was heavy scrutiny and many phone calls were made by federal police officers to try to gain permission for me to cross under a particularly busy bridge, that I’ve since learned has military significance. 

Ultimately, I got the thumbs up, but apparently, there are places in the world where “thumbs up” does not mean go. As I got farther and farther away from the border, I reached a very large bridge about a quarter mile from the checkpoint. I started to run across it, but I could hear people yelling at me from behind. Oddly, I have learned to ignore people yelling at me here. I know that I stick out, for more than one reason!

Generally, people are just saying hello in loud voices or trying to flag me down to buy some trinkets. I ignored everyone’s calls and kept running. Finally, my own team support vehicle came driving up to me honking frantically, unloading a police officer out of the backseat who was none too happy with me. I smiled and tried to charm him with nonsensical body language like playing charades in different languages, but it was doomed to fail. 

We finally came to an agreement; he wouldn't throw me in jail and fine me if I would agree to just keep moving along. I kind of thought it was a trick solution. Because he was giving me what I wanted without realizing it. In his view he was punishing me by reprimanding me and threatening me to continue trudging on foot. In my view that was no punishment at all because I did not plan to turn around and my desire was to keep running. So, I did!

We found lodging at a modest motel on the edge of the Awash National Park. I prefer to camp and not risk the allure of comfort. The rhythm of outdoor endurance sports and camping under the night sky suits me. However, in northern Ethiopia, just over the border with Djibouti, we were told there were potential armed gangs causing trouble so we would not be allowed to camp. But things would get better later, we were told! As we have traveled south, the opposite has become glaringly obvious. In fact, the internal struggles going on in Ethiopia now are many, and they are significant. No doubt they are also very complex. I do not mean to minimize this at all. This country has been through millennia of struggle, especially over the past 500 years. They don't need any more advice or help from westerners like me. That said, it was my hope that I was coming here to fall in love with this place. They are making it a difficult courtship.

The farther south we move towards Ethiopia’s canyon border, the more edgy and charged things feel. This change is obvious and palpable when we go through towns. In northern Ethiopia, everyone was delighted to see me, waving shyly and politely, not sure what to make of me. Here in Awash, no one seemed to notice me as I cruised through town on a magenta bike wearing red shoes. It’s an unsettling silence. I have been told that cyclists are often the target of rock throwers. I don't buy into that stuff typically, but something is definitely in the air. 

Just before my team sat down for a meal on Sunday, we learned that a hard curfew had been put in place for the southern region of Ethiopia (right where we’d just arrived). Now, we must be off the road by 6:00 p.m. each day or face fines and penalties or worse. Unfortunately, non-official police take advantage of these situations to set up decoy roadblocks and rob people. I will not put my crew, myself or my family counting on me at home in that kind of danger, so we will follow the rules and be off the roads by 6. 

This puts me in a tight spot. I am losing 3-4 hours of cycling time per day but the distance to Kenya hasn't changed. And to borrow a quip from O’ Brother Where Art Thou: “Ain’t that a geographical oddity!” I have only one choice – dig deeper than ever. I will try to reach the mileage I need, which is nearing 200 miles per day to reach Kenya on September 6. This is the day my Ethiopian driver has a transit visa approved to cross the border and exchange gear with my Kenyan driver at an outpost church in Todonyang, Kenya near Lake Turkana – “The Cradle of Humanity” 

I came here for adventure and I have not been disappointed. I will keep pushing, always moving steadily forward. I'm focused on today and nothing more.  

See you down the trail,

Charlie  

 
DAY 1 .  Early miles in Djibouti.

DAY 1.

Early miles in Djibouti.

 
THE CALM.   Before reaching Awash…

THE CALM.

Before reaching Awash…

 
I DIDN’T CRASH.  Dusty Ethiopian roads made this glamour shot possible!

I DIDN’T CRASH.

Dusty Ethiopian roads made this glamour shot possible!