We leave Gondar early. I had been staying at a small hotel in town opposite the 17th-century castle; rest days gives us an opportunity, if we wish, to exchange tent for a room. It’s a welcome change. I still struggle with the daily routine of the pre-dawn dismantling of camp and the rush to set up again before dark. The hotel has the rather grand name of Lodge Du Chateau. The establishment has a handful of rooms, simple but adequate, around a small rectangular courtyard of flowers and greenery. Simon, who runs it, is a soft-spoken man in his early forties, of middling height sporting a pencil-thin mustache that gives him the air of a Cesar Romero, the Latin lover of Hollywood films of the 40s and 50s, enhanced by his attentiveness and sharp watchful eyes. He seems to be everywhere, gliding through the courtyard and up the stairs to the open rooftop terrace where breakfast is served, issuing commands in undertones to staff, solicitous of his guests, at your elbow, almost before you know you wanted something. He tells me his staff have been with him since the hotel opened some dozen years before and that even in the time of troubles, when they were closed for several months, he kept staff on payroll. It’s 5am and we’re (there are five of us from the tour staying there) lugging our bags to the gate. The doorman in an ancient livery jacket the rather worse for wear, greets us with a nod and a smile; half his teeth are missing.
Soon enough we are on our bikes whizzing through the city, even at that early hour bustling with pedestrian and tuktuk traffic. It’s a mainly downhill ride out to the countryside. It’s a glorious day and we only have about 120 kms to cover. I continue to revel in the rolling agricultural landscape after the harshness of our long sojourn in the desert, which has left its mark on me. The fine dust has penetrated my lungs and left me with a minor infection. The rest in Lodge Du Chateau (and the antibiotics) seems to have done me good. I am alert, energetic, waving and greeting the endless procession of children who from a young age are out in the fields herding goats or bearing huge bundles of hay on their heads.
It seems everyone, young and old, carries stout cudgels, the goat herd’s trademark tool. Nearly all of them when we pass begin shouting “you, you, you, you” in a chant that doesn’t stop until we are well past. If a boy or girl sees us from afar in the field they run tirelessly and at astonishing speed to intercept us. Often accompanying the “you, you, you” is a different incantation: “money, money, money”. Still, I am having a glorious day. Others aren’t so lucky.
From the start we’d been told that Ethiopia is an extraordinary country of great beauty and with a rich history and friendly people. We’d also been told that the kids can be “naughty”, that is they have a tendency to throw stones at passers by, particularly cyclists. I avoided the stone throwing although a few times a gaggle of kids, who seemed to range in age from six to sixteen, would form a line across the road but as I approach they disperse, holding out the palms of their hands for a high five. Once or twice some made gestures with their cudgels as if to tap us but none actually did. Quite a few of us fared less well. Two of the women were struck quite hard, one on the chin, the other on the knee, drawing blood. Another was thumped hard on the thigh as she cycled by a group of boys. One of the guys had his handlebar pulled by a young girl and he took a tumble. Yet at our stops at roadside stalls in the villages the children gathered round us, eager, friendly, curious. They bore us no malice; somehow the stone throwing had become an entrenched habit. It wasn’t something confined to us foreigners; we often saw parents admonishing or catching the attention of their children with a flick of a rock.
There was some grumbling that night at camp; but we had been warned and took it as a matter of course. However, the next day groups were formed so no one rode alone. Tallis, the Tour leader, in cycling shorts and flip flops, joined the ride into Bahir Dar.