Ethiopia Epic

Words by Dain Zaffke
Images by Dan Milner and Dain Zaffke

AN EIGHT-DAY EXPEDITION THROUGH THE SIMIEN HIGHLANDS

Ethiopia has really big mountains. So it must have really great mountain biking, right? No one really knew, because no one had ever really brought mountain bikes into Ethiopia’s Simien highlands.

We went on an expedition—with pro riders Sarah Leishman and Kamil Tatarkovic—to find out whether the land famous for being the “cradle of mankind” could someday be a mountain bike paradise.

Our route explored the Simien national park, an environment so stunningly unique that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We spent eight days circumnavigating the park, skirting a 6,000-foot-deep canyon, summiting a 14,930-foot peak. For the most part there were no roads and we traveled rugged, rocky footpaths (some built in the sixth century).

"It'll be about a day before the
chopper comes to the rescue...
and they won't dispatch until
payment is cleared by wire transfer.
So let's stay safe!"

I had never been any place quite this remote. The evening before our departure, we huddled around a map and got a briefing from our British guide, Tom Bodkin of Secret Compass. “I will have a first aid kit and a satellite phone. In case of a life-threatening injury, I can call for a ‘chopper with the sat phone, but keep in mind that the heli-service is based in Addis Ababa, that’s about a four-hour flight from where we’ll be. And the heli-pilot is based in Nairobi, which is a six-hour flight from Addis. So it’ll be about a day before the chopper comes to our rescue. Also keep in mind that they won’t even dispatch the pilot until payment is cleared by wire transfer. So let’s stay safe!”

With that warning in mind, we proceeded with caution. The riding was slow and frustrating. Every five minutes of fast, flowing singletrack was met with ten minutes of hike-a-bike, over (or around) unrideable ledges and rock piles. Most of us muttered that we’d be riding this stuff, no problem, if we were at home. But we were far from home.

Soon we fell into the rhythm of each day’s routine, getting used to the dramatically different scenes in this foreign land—being swarmed by crowds of children near every village, trailside gelada baboons (fierce-looking apes with walrus-like teeth). We attended a village party. We drank honey wine and Dashen beer as a group sang Ethiopian folk songs and a ten-year-old boy played a single-stringed, homemade masenko with the focus and skill of a musical prodigy. A dance circle formed around a roaring fire and each of us was applauded as we tried our best to mimic the beautiful, shoulder-shaking-gyrating dance moves of the locals.
By the last day I was finally becoming more relaxed and comfortable on the brutally rough terrain. Sarah Leishman and I find that we’re taking more risks. We’re ahead of the group and trade places leading each other over rock slabs, with the rider ahead yelling out warnings like, “oh, shit, pull up on that one!” Some of the sections feel like we’re rolling the dice, and it’s the most fun we’ve had all week.

"My teeth snap together
as my chin hits and my first
thought is, I just broke my jaw
and I’m in rural Africa."

Next thing I know I’m over the bars, slamming face first into hardpack. My teeth snap together as my chin hits and my first thought is, “I just broke my jaw and I’m in rural Africa.” Sarah is there in a split second telling me to lay still, worried about a neck injury. We take stock as blood gushes from my face into pools on the dusty ground. Our guides, and the first aid kit, were far behind and preoccupied nursing our videographer (who’d been struck by a nasty case of dysentery the night before). So we used rudimentary supplies from Sarah’s pack to sop up the blood and hold the skin together (fortunately, all teeth were intact). I rode the final stretch of singletrack holding gauze onto my chin.

Within six hours we were in the region’s best hospital. It’s what most of us would consider the equivalent of a slum motel, with a diesel generator running in the lobby and broken windows. The doctor didn’t speak English, but went straight to work threading course sutures, seemingly made of yarn, through the shredded flesh. There was someone else’s blood on the floor and the operating room was so dark that we used Tom’s flashlight to illuminate the surgery. By the time we flew home the group was bruised, beaten and exhausted and I have a ridiculously large bandage on my face.
It’s been months since I’ve returned from Ethiopia, yet I find myself reminiscing about it daily. Every aspect of life in the Simiens was so dramatically different from home. I’ve come to appreciate the details that I used to take for granted (clean water and quality healthcare, for example), but I also long for the vibrant culture. The smell of cardamom, the intensely curious kids, waking up to the Muslim call to prayer over loudspeaker…

Several people have asked me if I’d recommend Ethiopia as a mountain bike destination. Well… the Simien Mountains are far from a mountain bike paradise. But without mountain bikes we wouldn’t have had the same interaction with the culture. And that culture made this the trip of a lifetime.