"There was a rustling, that seemed like a bustling,
Of merry crowds justling at pitching and hustling,
Small feet were pattering, wooden shoes clattering,
Little hands clapping and little tongues chattering,
And, like fowls in a farmyard when barley is scattering,
Out came the children running."


The Pied Piper of Hamelin, Robert Browning


This is precisely the effect we seem to have on the children of Ethiopia, but unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin, we can't get rid of them. Unfortunately, this has led to the very people that we are trying to help through our chosen charity, becoming the bane of my life. So numerous and intensely frustrating are the children of the rural north of Ethiopia, that I have come to wish they would all just disappear. We’re holed up in Addis Ababa at the moment, nursing our frayed nerves with satellite TV and pizza delivery, but it’s only a matter of time before we’re thrust back out into the giant hamster wheel of hell that is cycling through Ethiopia. Waiting for us 800km away at the Kenyan border is the wild and remote – and child free - Lake Turkana region, but this is hardly a comforting thought. Once the cradle of evolution for our early ancestors, it is now ironically, one of the most inhospitable places in Africa. Bad roads, extreme temperatures, unreliable water supplies, unsavoury wildlife, and warring tribes make it the most disconcerting stretch on our entire trip. I was at the Kenyan embassy today seeking some reassurance and was put on the phone to an official who knew the area. I asked him about the current status quo regarding tribal warfare. He paused, and said matter-of-factly in a hilariously African accent, ‘they are not fighting right now, but if you steal their cattle…they will kill you’.

So, bearing all this in mind, I would like to cast my mind back to happier times, for therapeutic purposes, and also to let you know what we’ve been up to.

Khartoum – like the rest of Sudan - was a blast, and after camping for a few days on the banks of the Nile at a sailing club in the middle of town, we reluctantly packed our panniers and prepared to tackle the 500km to the Ethiopian border. The boat-owning high flyers of Khartoum that we’d been hanging out with at the club had put us in touch with a local racing cyclist who in the spirit of good Sudanese hospitality, very patiently led us out of town and saw us safely on our way. We were also with an Italian guy we’d met called Andrea, who would end up riding with us all the way to Addis Ababa.

For a day and a half, we sped south through Khartoum's agricultural hinterland before breaking away from the Nile toward Ethiopia. The fields soon disappeared and were replaced once again by the wilderness. As we edged nearer to Ethiopia, a clear transition was occurring as life was slowly breathed back into the dusty desert landscape. Carpets of bleached savannah grass stretched into the distance, and clusters of budding acacia trees were taking hold in the richer soils. It was wonderful after such a long time in the seemingly sterile desert, to hear birds and insects again. And with every few kilometers, the sights and sounds of the wildlife became denser and more diverse.

It was such a novelty the first time a saw a really beautiful piece of wildlife - a bright iridescent blue bird - that I leaped off my bike and pursued it through the roadside trees and scrub trying to get a photo. Within 50km, these birds were everywhere, and in my twisted logic, they were now far too common to bother getting my camera out. The temperature was also increasing to uncomfortable levels, but the movement and colour seeping back into the land was exciting and contagious, and seemed to have a rejuvenating effect which drove us on. When we stopped for the night near a small roadside tea-shack, the obvious downside of the flourishing wildlife soon became apparent. After pitching our tents, we put on a big pot of rice to boil, but huge crickets, grasshoppers, and other noisy flying things were everywhere, crashing into us, and ending up in the food. Doing our best to calmly fend them off, we tried to finish the cooking, but a weird looking rodent appeared next the stove and sent us squealing. As I jumped up, I noticed a scorpion right next to me, so naturally starting leaping around and pointing at it helplessly, shouting 'SCORPION, SCORPION'. The owner of the tea-shack heard the commotion and came trotting over with a grin on his face, and promptly stomped both rodent and scorpion to death. Two more scorpions were discovered and squished before the rice was done, and I wondered how long it would be before one slipped through the net and stung somebody. The answer was about 12 hours. Whilst fumbling around in the tent's outdoor 'porch' area for clean underwear the next morning, Emily put her hand down and recoiled in pain. It was only a baby, less than a centimeter long, but still inflicted a painful bee-like sting. It reminded us that even after 9000km without incident, it could still all go very wrong, very quickly, if we weren't careful.

Changes continued to emerge the next day. In the north, settlements had been made up of squat rectangular buildings made from mudbrick, manufactured from river clay. Now, with no river and lots of trees, people took to building the more quintessentially African  round thatched huts. I loved these very much, and to my delight, when we stopped in a little village that night, we were invited to stay in one - a beautiful 'guest hut' with 3 beds - apparently reserved especially for impromptu visitors such as ourselves.

When we crossed over the border a couple of days later, it was immediately obvious that we had finally left the Arab world behind. Metema, the border post on the Ethiopian side, was a true frontier town. There was a whiff of lawlessness in the air, and the main street was lined with seedy looking bars, where Sudanese could come to surrepticiously consume alcohol and no doubt engage in other naughty business. After gleefully knocking back a few beers for the first time in a month, thoughts turned to the new country ahead.

In many ways, Ethiopia symbolized the mystique and glamour of Africa: The mountain kingdom of legends, filled with strange tribes and exotic wildlife, standing alone as the only country in Africa never to be colonized by Europeans. The other - very different - image of Ethiopia, recalled from my youth, was of the world's iconic 'poor country' and the subject of Bandaid's hit record, 'Do they know it's Christmas?'. One of the first things I discovered was that Northern Ethiopians are pretty serious orthodox Christians (mostly), so they do indeed know when it's Christmas time. On the other hand, as I also quickly found out, anything to do with time here is very confusing. Ethiopia still uses the Julian calendar - so it's currently June 2003 here - and to make matters worse, 'one-o-clock' means one hour after sunrise.

The first 200km of our cycle through Ethiopia would be a steady but tough climb from 500m altitude in the baking lowlands, to over 2000m at the edge of the cooler and more populated highland plateau. We saw very few vehicles on the road - only the occasional oil tanker coming from Sudan, or shipment of timber heading toward Sudan.  Villages were few and far between, and the three day climb was a tough but pleasant cycle as the terrain became steadily more mountainous and dramatic. Finding quiet spots to camp was no problem (although there were more scorpions), and the wildlife continued to blossom as it had begun to do in Sudan. Just as I was starting to wonder how such a dry climate could sustain all this flora and fauna, we had a quite momentous occasion. For the first time in almost 3 months (since 29th October 2010 in Northern Turkey) the sky clouded over and it rained. I had been quite looking forward to rain after so long in the heat and the unfamiliar smell of wetness brought back lots of memories.

The road got steeper and the last part of the climb into the highlands was long and hard. Children had been consistently begging for money by the road and seeing us panting away, some of the more entrepreneurial amongst them now seized the opportunity to make a quick buck. In teams of five or six they got behind the bikes and started pushing us up the hill. I appreciated this and every few hundred metres I tossed them a small packet of biscuits to keep them motivated. It was a convenient arrangement and I found it quite amusing, but eventually it began to feel a trifle vulgar (skinny African child labourers pushing well fed Englishman uphill for biscuits) so I apologetically pretended to be out of biccys and the kids soon disappeared. The climb went on until we were higher than we'd ever been on a bike. When we finally reached the top I staggered off my bike and collapsed next to the road in a storm drain to have a biscuit and recuperate. But it didn't seem right to celebrate our toughest climb so far in a concrete gully so I clambered on to a large boulder and that felt better. As I gazed back down to the lowlands, stretching hazily away toward Sudan, two old men in traditional dress passed by, carrying ancient single-shot rifles, and I felt that we'd really arrived in Ethiopia.

The next week saw us ditch the bikes in the town of Gondar for some chill out time with Emily's dad and step-mum who had come to visit, and to head into Simien Mountains National Park on foot to see some of Ethiopia's most spectacular scenery and wildlife. Both of us turned 30 whilst we were there, and celebrated by buying a live chicken which we somewhat unsuccessfully managed to BBQ on the side of a mountain. The next morning we saw a hyena - hopefully for the last time on the trip - and headed back to Gondar to continue on our way south.

Unfortunately it all started to go downhill from here (apart from the roads, which always seemed to go uphill).

The cycling was physically quite tough. As in Sudan, the Chinese had been hard at work building roads, but here they had neglected to make any tunnels or bridges so we were going up and down like a roller coaster, over hills and into stream beds. In the more fertile and attractive territory of the highlands, the countryside was becoming much more crowded. Finding a discreet place to camp on our first night out of Gondar was very tough. As night fell, we tried to conceal ourselves in a field behind an embankment next to the road but remained woefully conspicuous. The sun went down and we started cooking up some food, hoping we'd got away with it, but three figures shortly emerged out of the darkness, in plain clothes, carrying Kalashnikovs. I tentatively said 'hello', hoping they weren't bandits, but they didn't look scary enough to be bandits, and sure enough they turned out to be policemen ordering us to move on. Apparently, we would have our stuff stolen if we stayed but we decided it would be more dangerous to continue in the dark to the next town, so we stayed put. They left, and before long another two men showed up with sticks, each wrapped in a blanket. We were used to people appearing out of nowhere and staring at us so I just greeted them politely, hoping they would go away soon, but they didn't. They spread out their blankets and sat right next to our tent and started chatting to each other. After brushing our teeth and packing away our cooking things the men were still there so we said goodnight and went to bed, hoping their presence would at least deter the thieves. In the morning, we awoke to hear them still sitting there chatting away, right next to the tent. 'How bizarre', I thought. Had they been sent to protect us by the policemen? Or were they just bored? We never found out.

As we hit the road again, the countryside felt more crowded than ever. The traffic stayed sparse, but the roads were now bustling with people, donkeys, and herds of cattle all going about their business. Being immersed in daily life like this would normally be a good thing but here it was not.

Wherever we went, kids would flood out on to the road as if we were driving some kind of enchanted ice-cream van, manically screaming 'you, you, you, you, you, you, youuuuuuu....where are you go?'.

Most beg incessantly for money, plastic water bottles (which they can resell), pens ‘for school’ (which they sell because of course they aren’t in school), and clothes (which they must also sell as my clothes are much too big for them). If they don’t get what they want – which they never do – they just run alongside you, sometimes for over a kilometer, asking and asking, again and again. When they finally get bored of that, many then throw stones at you as you cycle off. This has never become dangerous or threatening but it is non-stop and incredibly annoying. The annoyance is amplified by the fact that we're normally at breaking point anyway because of the relentless hills.

For the first few days in the lowlands, we patiently tried to respond to every child, and apologise to them individually for choosing not to give them money, but we couldn't sustain this for long. We now respond with wild bi-polar mood swings. Often I feel at peace - birds are singing, people are friendly, beautiful scenery abounds, and I can put up with the odd annoying child. The next minute, I'm panting my way up squiggly mountain roads, being followed by hoards of children, mindlessly repeating phrases like 'bring me money' or 'give me pen', and something snaps. We get at least one outburst of rage each, per day. Sometimes it involves swearing and threats of violence, like the time Emily got off the bike screaming, and gave chase to a gang of 10-year-old stone throwing goatherds. At other times I quietly consider phoning up UNICEF Schools for Africa to demand that none of our sponsorship money get spent in Ethiopia. Then later, I admit to myself that I should probably be demanding that it all get spent here as I can see no other way than education that this situation will ever change. The children wearing school uniform always seem like good kids, but they are in a small minority. Adults incidentally, are normally friendly and charming but too many condone the kid's behavior and stone throwing antics.

One of the most upsetting things is that - in my opinion - many clearly don't need to beg. They're not disabled, elderly, homeless or starving. They're usually tending 1000s of dollars worth of cattle and have families and communities that support them. But they beg anyway, as if they feel entitled to our money whether they really need it or not. 'Is this the fault of decades of foreign aid?' I wonder. It's tempting to draw a link, but I don't have enough knowledge or experience about Ethiopia to confidently do so.

In any case, my patience has been slowly whittled away to the point where I can no longer keep up the politeness and tolerance that I usually try to show in new countries. Anybody begging or trying to 'be my friend', now gets very short shrift. It's a great shame that it's come to this, and I feel in some way that I have failed in letting it do so, but I'm looking forward to leaving. It's a particular shame because Ethiopia is in fact a very beautiful, safe, friendly, and culturally intriguing place, but this attitude that people have toward us makes the north of the country an utterly impossible place to enjoy cycling through as far as we're concerned. I now believe that contrary to my preconceptions, (outside the tourist areas) there is nothing mystical and glamorous about life in the Ethiopian Highlands. Most people simply struggle to get by, in an overcrowded region with limited resources.

So, the upshot of all this is that Addis Ababa - which is by normal standards a fairly crowded, ugly, and chaotic city - currently seems like a wonderful island of tranquility compared with the sea of irritating countryside that surrounds it. Tomorrow however, we're off again, and with our minds and bodies recharged, we'll be doing our best to go with goodwill, in an optimistic frame of mind, hoping that the south of the country will provide a different experience.


Stats so far

Days on the road: 164
Distance cycled: 9737km
% of total distance done: 54.1%
Average Distance per [cycling] day: 84.7km
Average Distance per day including rest days: 59.3km
Highest altitude: 3100 metres (near Fiche, 100km north east of Addis Ababa)
Longest continuous climb: 1470 vertical metres (from the bottom of the Nile Gorge to the top)
Longest day: 156km (somewhere in the desert to Khartoum)
Best wild animal sightings: hippos, hyena, baboons, vultures.

Most amusing heckles from kids: 'Are you a male or a female?' (to emily)
'Bring me my money!' (cheeky bastards!)
'China, China, Chinaaaaa!' (Many people think we must be Chinese if we're foreigners in Ethiopia. Clearly we all look the same to them!)