It's only been 2,000 or so years since Soloman and Sheba roamed the northern tiers of Ethiopia, pronounced "Et..opia" by all who dwell here. As if it were yesterday, Ethiopians generally speak of the King, Suleiman (Soloman) and Sheba as current characters. Ponder that!
After receiving a tantalizing email from David Houghton—who publishes Biciklo, a guide to cycling around the world—I began to get excited about traveling to Africa. He sent me a link to a tour offered by a small bike tour company called Offbeatroads, run by Scott Robinson. Offbeatroads was recruiting for a not-for-the-faint-of-heart adventure that would last 26 days and go more than 500 miles.
The focus of the expedition was to produce a documentary of riders pedaling through extreme conditions. We would also try to bring awareness to the overwhelming degree of deforestation evident throughout the country. Working in conjunction with the Ethiopian Tree Fund Foundation we helped raise money in advance in support of replanting efforts. The documentary would also shed light on these efforts.
The journey began after arriving in Addis Ababa, the capitol, a bustling, auto-exhaust-choked city. After a late-night flight and finally reaching the hotel, I hit the sack. In the morning at breakfast I met some of my companions on this. There were 17 of us, coming from Canada, Sweden, Austria, Spain, Australia, and the United States. With just one full day before ride time, we labored to assemble our bikes, organize provisions (sag vans, mobile kitchen, cooks, etc.), all while getting acquainted with each other.
So began our biking trek north towards the Danakil Depression, one of the Earth's most inhospitable spots and known as "The Cradle Of Civilization."
Our first several days of riding were like a race as we routinely rode much further and longer then the trek description had promised. Ethiopia seemed to be passing by with little time to digest the people or culture. One night while camping on the outskirts of a town, we heard a terrifying scream—it was a hyena. This brought to mind a book I had read recently: In Search Of King Solomon's Mines by Tahir Shah.
In it was a story about a man in the south of the country that would hand-feed hyenas fresh meat each night in order to appease their appetite. This was believed to prevent them from eating the small children of the town. That same book also mentioned a rumor that hyenas protected Queen Sheba's hidden golden treasure. Historically, Ethiopia has had its gold rushes and mining fever and even today there's much speculation that Solomon's great temple was built with Ethiopian gold supplied by Queen Sheba. The brutality and dangers of mining by hand along with environmental considerations has led the government to keep in place strict limitations on gold mining.
At the end of several days of very long rides, and numerous late- night meals, our group would often settle into very primitive campsites. Most of our camps were set up in a schoolyard, sometimes without running water and most often without bathroom facilities. Outside of larger towns this seemed to be the rule rather the exception. If it hadn't been for our single sponsor, Clif Bar, the group as a whole would not have received the constant replenishment and energy needed to keep going!
Once out of city limits the land was quite rocky and dry with occasional trees, but these were scarce and small. We noticed small cleared areas of ground in the midst of the harsh terrain used for food production. This view would go on for miles but occasionally be broken by the appearance of a small town or village of huts.