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,