We crossed the border from Sudan into Ethiopia at Metema, a border town that intersected two worlds: one Muslim, the other predominantly Christian. However there seemed to be an easy flow of people crossing both ways. We waited four hours for all the paperwork to be finalized for the Tour vehicles, sitting in a café stall watching the passing foot and donkey traffic while a young woman roasted coffee beans over an open fire, pounded them in an oversized wooden pestle before brewing it in a classic Bialetti espresso maker.
The original plan had been to bicycle from Metema to Gondar, a distance of 200 kms with an ascent of 2,500 meters (8,200 ft). But unrest had broken out in the area: riots, house burnings, threats of even more violence. Security forces insisted that we bus. Tour organizers hastily organized a convoy of mini vans to take us; the bikes were stacked onto the back of a truck. Even as we were leaving Metema, a group of about 30 or 40 men, emerged from a side street waving Kalishnikovs and AK-47s, singing and chanting their way down the main street. It was unclear who they were.
We traversed a landscape of trees, terraced mountain fields, and bucolic scenes of villagers tending cattle or making their way to market carrying bundles of produce. The contrast with the empty austere desert of Sudan was stark. We were in a different world, eyes hungrily feasting on greenery and the abundant signs of life mitigated only by the strong military presence all along the route. As we climbed higher and higher on steep switchbacks I couldn’t help wonder how I would have done on a bike.
The schedule had us stay two days in Gondar, ancient capital of 17th century Ethiopian emperors and gateway to Simone National Park, a World Heritage Conservation site which attracts trekker from around the world. A British Chinese woman I met tells me there are direct flights from Manchester to Addis Ababa and direct flights from different cities in China. She says the Chinese come to do business. She cites an example of one factory set up to manufacture fashion boots for the American market that employs 10,000 workers.
I wander about the city, which exudes a degree of self-confidence that was not in evidence in Sudan. If in Dongolo the bustle seemed almost furtive, a necessity to glide as unobtrusively as possible from point A to point B; in Gondar, the men and women walked with an easy sway that said, we are masters in this place. They approached us with a familiarity that seemed to be token long acquaintance, starting conversations that soon turned into offers for trekking tours or guides to markets or to historic sites. The greatest danger seemed to be avoiding the hundreds of tuktuks that plied their trade in every now and cranny of the city.
On the third day we are back on our backs headed to Bahir Dar and Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.