From the start of the Tour, the Blue Nile gorge had been spoken of in whispers as one of the great tests of our stamina and endurance. On our daily navigation board it was called “the epic climb”.
Lonely Planet calls the twisting, serpentine ascent the most dramatic in Ethiopia. The climb is preceded by a tortuous 20-kilometer descent to the bottom of the gorge before rising 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) on the southern side of the river. We are warned that the descent is on a road rutted with deep potholes and other obstacles, including recklessly speedy trucks, erratic donkeys and herds of goats darting across the road.
It is a rough ride down, our hands become numb from non-stop pumping of the brakes. At the bottom of the gorge the temperature has risen by about 10 degrees; it is stifling hot as we begin to climb. We are also confronted with a new obstacle: troops of scavenging baboons. They are picking at grain scattered from the trucks that thunder by and food tossed by passengers from the ceaseless flow of buses. We are told the baboons can be dangerous if alarmed or feel threatened. “Don’t smile at them,” Tallis warns us; bared teeth are a sign of aggression. “And don’t point cameras directly at them.” It is hot, the ascent is steep and the baboons numerous. No way that we could, should we need to, outrun them. We gingerly skirt around them as best we can.
I ride with V, who is from New Zealand. She and her husband are experienced cyclists but this kind of trek is new to them. She is still suffering the effects of the stone throwing; we are wary as we pass small knots of kids. At one village some young girls make to grab at our bikes. V has a whistle hanging from a lanyard, which she blows to ward them off. We push on encouraging each other to do another kilometer before stopping for a breather and a drink. A man comes stumbling out of the bush, a torn shirt hanging from his back; his pants half undone. He approaches us menacing, shouting. Another rider happens to be nearby; together we shoo him off. We continue on our way pushing on our way meter by meter, curve by curve.
As we get closer to the top the switchbacks become steeper; a stop to share gels and snacks revives our energy. We can see the top now, where a group of riders stand cheering us on. Then we’re there at our campsite; we made it. When I had first heard moorings of the Gorge, I had, as a novice cyclist, figured that it was unlikely I could do the climb. Yet here I was, doing what to me had once seemed impossible. There are more things we are capable of doing than we had ever imagined.