Nothing but Warmth from Everyone We Met: Cycling in Ethiopia

When Ethio Cycling Holidays reached out and asked if I had ever considered cycling in Ethiopia?
my answer was “No, but tell me more !”

Richard (one of the founders) showed me a few photos and told me about the rich culture and history of Ethiopia. “Wow!” I replied I’d love to make this happen.

It’s the 4th of March. My wife and I are making our way to London Heathrow Airport (Terminal 2) to begin our journey to Makelle, Ethiopia. The capital city of the Tigray region which is north of Addis Ababa. Before our flight to Makelle, we take an overnight flight to the Ethiopian Airlines hub in the capital city of Addis Ababa.

The aircraft tyres squeak and we touch down in Makelle. Picked-up by our local guides, we then drive into the city centre. Immediately we feel the bustling nature of this city with over 300,000 people.

Our cycling journey takes us on a loop, covering 465km and climbing a significant 8387m in just four days. The altitude will have quite the effect too, as we will spend all of our time between 2000m and 3100m. This will reduce the ability to oxygenate our bodies.

A quick trip to the local market (a must see) to pick-up some food supplies and we’re off. Our legs are fresh and our minds energised we have a warm breeze pushing us along. We ride toward the first of our climbs and excitingly we’re joined by some local riders from Ethio Cycling team. These riders are fast! Four hundred vertical meters of joyous alpine-style switchbacks at an average gradient of 6% later, we’re at the summit and already descending the other side towards Wukro, the near the halfway point for today.

Our mission: to get to Adigrat and the terrain provided seemingly endless rollers and one more set of very photogenic and dramatic switchbacks to get us up to the hill top of Negash. A stunning blue topped mosque providing a dramatic finish to the climb. We rolled through, the light starting to fade, showered with a soul warming, golden light whilst hitting the city of Adigrat.

The early morning prayers echo around the city. It is the time of the fast of Great Lent, lasting 55 days. Fasting involves abstention of eating animal products before 3pm. As vegans this suited us well. Everywhere we went we enjoyed delicious traditional Ethiopian food. Most Ethiopians maintain the abstention for the entire period. But don’t worry! Restaurants offer both Ethiopian and western cuisine with or without meat/dairy.

During our morning brief on the second day, our guides (Sammy and Binyam) said, “you are going to love this!” And they weren’t wrong. We left Adigrat meandering up towards a summit of 3050m above sea level where the effects of altitude were definitely felt. Endless views and reveals surrounded us − as we pedalled towards Axum, our next destination.

15 km later, an incredible set of switchbacks that could easily feature in any list of the world’s greatest cycling climbs. We had to capture this on camera before continuing our descent. Like going down a helter-skelter with speeds reaching over 80km/hr. Electrifying. I wish we could have done it again and again. Proceed we must until reaching the first coffee stop of the day in Adi Goranda’iti.

If you are a coffee lover like myself, then you will have heard about Ethiopian coffee. What I didn’t appreciate was their definition of fresh. In Ethiopia they quite literally are freshly roasting the beans over charcoal to make your cup.

Like all good things, patience is a virtue as it will take time, but they will deliver the smoothest coffee. Delicious! And I don’t think it needs the sugar which they usually put in your cup. Au naturel is best.

Standing in the square at Axum, Sammy tells us more about the history of the city and the Obelisk of Axum. This obelisk was created in the 4th century and only recently returned, as it had been removed during Italian occupation. Before arriving in Axum, I was expecting hidden streets to get lost down and plenty of old architecture, but the reality was a bustling town with a lot of construction. This was common everywhere we went.

Our third day starts with a 12km backtrack to get us on our way to new and exciting roads. We climb from Adwa towards Workamba some 100km away. Multiple fun descents and big sweeping panoramas before approching “the beast”. Renowned for its hot temperatures. Like a hot air drier blasting in your face on maximum power and 35ºC heat (95ºF) it lived up to its name.

We were happy to be wearing merino blend apparel from 7mesh inc to keep us relatively cool in such heat. Although we had a support car with our overnight bags, we still packed light.

7km, 5km, 3km, 1km, the summit! After 600 vertical meters of climbing up a snake-like pass at an average gradient of 7% we see breath-taking views and the town of Workamba. Where we stayed that night.

To complete our four-day loop there was just 117km between us and Makelle. With an early rise we were on the bikes to enjoy the sunrise. As the sun defracted through the surrounding hills, we paused and closed our eyes to absorb the soul warming light. A great way to start the day.

It is always sad when the days elapsed outnumber the days remaining, and today being our last day with Ethio Cycling Holidays was bittersweet. There were more joyous views, epic cycling and great food but within hours we were airborne − heading towards Addis Ababa, and the Hyatt Regency hotel.

Timings wise we could have flown home that night, as the Ethiopian airline flight leaves very late to London / most European flights leave late, but happy to have spent a day in Addis. Glad to relax after a solid few days riding and to have spent some time meandering around the streets of the capital.

If you’re looking for something different, where you’ll enjoy better tarmac than in most European countries, better riding than most also then I highly recommend Ethiopia. Our legs and minds got opened up to a whole new world of riding and the people so warm and friendly.

Thankyou to Ethio Cycling Holidays and 7mesh Apparel for their support in making this trip possible. Amazing.