Two Crashes in Ethiopia
Ethiopia is both a fantasy dreamland and a horrible nightmare for the adventure motorcyclist. On one hand it is spectacularly beautiful, with lush green mountains, meadows ablaze with wildflowers, picturesque villages, shining waterfalls, and rich farmland. An added bonus is that despite the fact that the country’s development seems to have stopped with subsistence farming, every village has at least one fancy expresso machine – a reminder of past Italian influence? The coffee is the best that I’ve tasted, and you can get a mouth-watering machiatto in even the remotest parts of the country.
I have already alluded to the downside: Ethiopia’s roads are the most dangerous that I’ve seen in all of the 31 countries that I have so far had the pleasure of riding through. There wouldn’t be paved roads at all if it weren’t for the Japanese. They have paid for and constructed virtually every major road in the country. I guess it’s no wonder that every vehicle on the road is a Toyota or an Isuzu. The problem is that none of the local villagers or farmers have their own vehicles. Instead they use the road for the same purpose as they have for generations: the movement of livestock and people. The result is that the few transport trucks, buses, and adventure motorcyclists have to share the road with a multitude of animals, horse-drawn carriages, and pedestrians. The animals and people all seem to have a total disregard for motorized traffic. There is constant chaotic activity along the sides of the road that has a tendency to spill into the centre of the road with no warning.
The other downside is that almost every overlander we have talked to has experienced kids throwing sticks and stones at their Land Rovers, motorcycles, or bicycles. We didn’t get hit much ourselves (I think I was hit once), but you could see the throwing motions. We met one German cyclist, Adrian, in Addis Ababa who had ridden all the way from Germany. He was traumatized by the constant rock throwing, especially when he was going slow trying to climb a hill. On one occasion they even shoved a stick through his spokes causing him to go over the handlebars. He would not advise anyone to cycle through Ethiopia. This is in contrast to his warm fuzzy feelings towards Sudan, where he didn’t pay for a single meal in the 15 days it took him to cross the country. Oddly, after the Ethiopian kids pelt you with rocks and sticks, they apparently still ask for money (the only English word they know), but scatter immediately if you chase after them. We have been told that they are too fast to catch, but that they drop their umbrellas when they take off. One school of thought believes that if they come back to find their umbrellas slashed to ribbons, it might teach them a lesson. I think it would just increase their desire to throw rocks at the next tourist that rides by. Before they were just doing it for fun. Now they would be doing it with a purpose. They may even practice and improve their aim.
Ethiopia was a tough country for both Rosa and I. I came off Rosa twice in dramatic fashion. The first wipeout was on one of the roads that the Japanese have yet to get to. The road mountain from Metema on the Sudan/Ethiopia border to Gonder is dirt and rock. It is actually great fun to ride. We even got to ride through a river. It was Jeremy’s first river crossing, and also his first drop in the middle of a fast flowing current. Great fun.
However, the conditions changed from fun to treacherous when it started to rain (as it does almost every afternoon during the height of the Ethiopian wet season). The heavy rain created a thin layer of extremely slippery mud on the surface of the road. It felt like riding on ice. Tom was the first to go rubber side up, spinning his bike right around going only about 5km/h. After seeing Tom’s wipeout, I was trying to be extra cautious. Apparently I was not cautious enough.
I crested a hill going about 30 km/h. It was a long downslope and I started to pick up speed. Touching the brakes was almost a guaranteed spill. I tried downshifting instead, but even though it felt like a smooth downshift, The back end immediately swung out to the left so that I was effectively sliding sideways down the hill. I tried to steer down the hill to correct it, but I did not get the desired effect. Instead my bike spun all the way around. Now I was sliding sideways down the hill, but pointed in the opposite direction. This all happened in seconds. I could feel the bike start to go over, so I put my foot down (always a bad sign) to try to stabilize it. My foot had even less traction than my tires.
Rosa went down and I went flying off. Both of us slid down the hill (me about 20 feet; Rosa about 15 feet). I slid in a more or less of a straight line. However, Rosa rotated herself 360 degrees before coming to a stop above me. The whole spectacle took place within view of a construction crew, who all ran down to help me. I wouldn’t let them pick up my bike until I had taken a picture of my downed bike (out of tradition, I take a picture of every drop). Both Rosa and I were covered in mud from head to foot. I was undamaged, but Rosa was not so lucky.
Her right mirror was shattered. The bracket holding the passenger foot-peg was bent out so that the passenger foot-peg now was pressed against the side of the bike. My right pelican case had ripped off. The rack holding the case had broken in a critical spot where the rack attaches to the frame of the bike. I didn’t notice this until we washed the bikes when we got to Gonder about an hour later. The broken rack would need a weld.
We had been trying to get to Gonder before the Western Union closed so that Jerry could pick up a money transfer. He was trying to get American dollars, a valuable commodity, but they would only give him the money in Ethiopian Birr, which he could have gotten at an ATM. The whole deal was a waste of time and transaction fees. The point of mentioning the bank deal is that Jeremy had used the help of a local kid, Mickey, who had come up to him and asked him what he wanted, and then directed him to the Bank. This is normal – kids help you find things in exchange for a tip. Little did we know the con that was in store for us.
Mickey was soon joined by two other kids, Johnny (who we nicknamed Coolio because he always wore Tom’s sunglasses from that point forward) and Dude (who didn’t really need a nickname). We could have been done with our helpers right there. But I asked them if they knew of a place where I could get my rack welded. I thought that it would only take a few minutes and then we’d be on our way. Mickey said he would take us to his friend’s shop. He hopped on the back of my bike and directed me up a hill overlooking the town to what we would learn was Six’s Garage. The master mechanic, known simply as “Six” was apparently famous in
Gonder for his outstanding skill. We were pleasantly surprised to find Sam and Peter’s bikes being worked on at Six’s garage when we arrived (although they were not around themselves). It would be good to meet up with them again. We hadn’t run into them since Dongola, Sudan.
Since Egypt, Rosa had developed the unnerving habit of going into complete electrical failure. Every failure would begin the same way – her tachometer would quit working while I was riding. Once I turned off the bike, it was as if the master fuse had blown (but that was not the problem). At first I was able to solve the problem by cleaning the contacts in the fuse box (the fuses themselves were always fine). Initially, the problem would only present itself once every few days. However, by the time we reached Gonder, it was happening more than once a day.
I figured that if Six was as good as his reputation suggested, then maybe he could get to the bottom of Rosa’s electrical problems. Thus began our misadventures at Six’s Garage. I took off the seat, side panels, and gas tank (actually the helpers insisted they were mechanics – they were clearly not – and tried to “help” me remove the tank, breaking a gromet before I could step in to stop them). I tried to explain the problem to one of Six’s real mechanics, but the language barrier was proving an issue. How do you explain that something is working now but periodically fails? It turned out I didn’t need to explain. Rosa’s electrical system choose that moment to quit working entirely. No amount of scraping or filing of contacts would get her going again. Soon the electrical problems got the attention of Six himself, and him and a couple of his assistants worked on the bike for several hours into the night without success. In the end we left Rosa there for the night so that Six and his cronies could pick up where they left off the following day.
But before we left for the night we fell victim to a scam put on us by our “helpers”. They explained that there was a fuel shortage in Gonder, but that they could help us find gas. It was true that there was a shortage – when we had arrived all of the gas stations in town were dry. It seemed like a good idea to fill up with gas since we were on reserve. We agreed to have the kids help us in this task (we assumed for a tip). They phoned around and discovered that one gas station had just received a delivery. Initially the plan was for our helpers to take one of their friend’s trucks to find gas and bring it back to us at Six’s Garage in Jerry cans. Tom and Jerry were in the process of doing some minor work on their bikes as well and their bikes weren’t immediately ridable so we agreed to have the kids bring us 15 litres of gas each. They wanted 700 Birr (about $70), which was an astronomical amount, but they assured us that that the price was out of their hands. There was a shortage after all. Like fools we gave them the money and waited for them to return with our gas.
After 2 hours, I was starting to think that they had split with our money, but they finally returned – empty handed. It seemed that in the environment of the current fuel shortage, you weren’t allowed to fill Jerry cans. Since my bike was still being worked on, Tom and Jerry decided to follow the helpers to the gas station on their bikes. We put my gas tank in the back of the truck. It took over an hour for them to get back. Apparently it was a harrowing ride in the dark in the pouring rain.
At the gas station, the price on the pump said 9.68 Birr/Litre. However, our little con artists insisted that that was the “old price”. Coolio insisted to Tom and Jerry that 15 Birr/Litre was the true price. Jerry tried to find someone in the queue (which was long because it was the first time Gonder had seen gas in days) who spoke English to confirm, but without success. Eventually they paid the 15 Birr/Litre and completely filled up all three gas tanks for about 1000 Birr.
They kids helped us find a hotel, and we bought them beer and dinner in the hotel restaurant once we had checked in. It seemed like we were genuinely making friends with them. Mickey was obviously intelligent, having informed opinions on the state of development (or lack of) in his home country. He was finishing grade 12 and trying to do well enough on his upcoming exams to study economics at the University of Addis Ababa. When our stay in Gonder was extended by Rosa’s mechanical problems, our helpers showed us around the Gonder night-life. They took us to somebody’s house for beer. They took us to a bar where we drank Tredge (honeyed moonshine?) for an exorbitant price while we listened to traditional Ethiopian music. They took us to what they promised was a “Western Disco” but turned out to be nothing more than a dirty brothel. Still, although we were a bit offended that they had taken us to such a place, we still thought that they had been well-intentioned. We continued buying them beer and food. We tipped them handsomely for all their help – 400 Birr to Mickey (the obvious brains of the operation) and 100 Birr each for Dude and Coolio.
It wasn’t until we were riding out of Gonder in a convoy of 5 KLRs on the day of Sam’s unfortunate accident with the child that we realized our “friends” had conned us. Peter, Jerry, and myself had made it to the gas station before we realized that Sam and Tom were no longer behind us. While I went back to look for them, Peter and Jerry filled up. The price they paid was exactly 9.68 Birr/Litre. There was no “new price”. Our “friends” had outright lied to us – despite our generosity.
They were expecting us to be quickly on our way out of town. This had indeed been our plan, but after Sam’s accident we wanted to stay and help him in whatever way we could. We ended up staying a couple more days. On the last night before we left Gonder, we had had dinner with Sam, Peter, and Steffen (who had caught up to us that day). After a few beer, Tom and I decided to call it a night while Jerry went with the others looking for another bar for one more drink before bed. However, we had gone less than a block towards our hotel when Peter caught up with us. He had seen Coolio on the main street. Honestly, I just wanted to let the whole thing go. But Tom was on a mission to confront the kid and demand our money back, which amounted to 370 Birr (about $37).
Once we met up with Coolio, Tom and Jerry accused him of lying and demanded our 370 Birr. Coolio, despite being busted, still insisted that the price we had paid had been right. Steffen, Sam, and Peter were also arguing on our behalf. Peter, who has a strong sense of justice, got particularly involved. When Coolio said that he didn’t have the money but Mickey did, Peter insisted that Coolio phone Mickey right then and there and have him bring the money. At first Coolio insisted that he didn’t know Mickey’s number, but some persuasion from Peter soon got it out of one of the other kids hanging around Coolio (there were always hangers on it seemed). I called the number, but Mickey’s phone was turned off. Peter then insisted that Coolio take us to Mickey’s house. Coolio lamely claimed that he didn’t know where Mickey lived. He was obviously not going to cooperate.
The confrontation started to involve some shouting on the otherwise quiet street. One of the people in the crowd that was gathering was a friendly honest guy (Edward) who we had first met while he was working in the hotel restaurant. I guess he thought the situation might get out of hand and brought a policeman to the scene and translated the situation. Involving
the police would turn out to be a mistake.
The policeman, who was one mean looking SOB, grabbed Coolio by the shoulders and started pushing and shoving him roughly up the street. Somebody in the crowd said “now he’ll spend a year in prison”. We all followed the policeman and his prisoner, while the crowd trailing along as well.
Things turned ugly fast. The policeman’s night stick came down across Coolio’s back, causing him to shriek with pain. The cop then roughly shoved Coolio into a dark shed made of corrugated sheet metal. We could hear him start to beat the crap out of our onetime friend.
We shouted for the cop to stop and that we didn’t want Johny hurt. The friendly guy from the hotel translated our request to the cop. He seemed reluctant to stop, but he relented and pulled Coolio from the shed. I was ready to drop the whole thing right then and
there. I didn’t want to see a kid get beat up over a lousy $37. I
said to the cop “no problem” hoping he would understand. But I was
quickly overruled by the others who said there was a problem – the kid
had stolen from us. I felt helpless – it seemed the situation was rapidly becoming
completely out of my control. There was nothing to do but continue to follow the policeman as he marched Coolio up the street towards the jail.
The jail turned out to be a nightmarish place. It was a collection of crumbling concrete buildings and shoddy wooden shacks in complete darknes – exactly the type of place where POWs are tortured in Vietnam war movies. The whole crowd followed the policeman and Coolio to a small shed at the entrance to the prison compound. His his name, home village, and crime were recorded in a booklet. He was to spend the night in prison. We tried to explain that we didn’t want Johny to go to
jail. Edward urgently explained to us that if we wanted to keep Johny
out of jail we would have to make sure he came back with us.
Once out of the shed, the policeman grabbed Johnny and started shoving towards a the chain that marked the entrance to the prison. Johnny started screaming. The policeman started to hit him with his Billy club again. Tom, the hero, got himself between the policeman and Johnny, correctly assuming that the policeman wouldn’t hit him. The beating stopped. By now Johnny was hysterical and bleeding from his nose.
We were having trouble trying to explain to the cop that we wanted Johnny to come with us and that we would be responsible for him with all his screaming. Jeremy finally told Johnny to be quiet. The policeman seemed dead set on locking Johnny up, probably relishing the prospect of finishing the beating which had been so rudely interrupted. He went around Tom and pulled Johny under the chain. Before he could whisk Johnny away to a cell, Jerry (who was standing nearby) reached out and grabbed Johnny by the arm. A tug-of-war ensued between Jeremy and the cop, with poor Johny being pulled in opposite directions. With more translation from Edward, the cop finally gave up and we left with Johnny.
It still wasn’t over. Peter wanted Johnny to take us to Mickey and get our money back. Johnny’s friends in the crowd told us that Johnny would meet us in the police station in the morning and pay us our money then. Peter told us that if we wanted to see our money, we would have to track it down that night. It turned out that he was right. But to me it just wasn’t worth pursuing the matter any further. It wasn’t worth my time to spend the next several hours try ing to chase down $37 – it was already after midnight. I told the group that I thought we should let Johnny go and meet him in the morning. We ended up going for more drinks with Edward to a small second floor bar with a DJ that had the whole place dancing. It was painfully obvious that the foreigners were nowhere near as good of dancers as the locals, but we still had a great time.
The next morning, Johnny did not show up at the police station. We left Gonder at about midday when it looked like our presence was hurting Sam in the negotiations with the injured child’s family (they thought they could get more money thinking that we would all pool our resources). They ended up paying about $1,700, but not before things almost got out of hand. Apparently, their statement was mis-translated and indicated that Sam had purposefully run over the kid. The police tried to arrest Sam and take him to jail. It was only Steffen’s quick thinking and confidence that saved Sam from the horrendous prospect of an Ethiopian prison. With no hesiation he told the police that they could not arrest Sam until he had phoned his embassy. Since there was no working phone at the police station, he insisted that they could not put him in jail. There is of course bollox, but it worked long enough for Sam to settle with the family and get out of town. Sam has written a detailed account of his nightmare in Gonder on his and Peter’s trip blog.
I hope that Johnny will think twice before ripping off the next tourist, but I suspect he will be back at his scheming before long. There simply aren’t any opportunities for young people in Gonder. There is no industry of any kind. There is only tourism. I think that Johny and Mickey and the rest are actually decent kids. Working for tips from tourists is a more honest line of work than mugging them or picking their pockets. In the West these kids would probably be thriving in sales positions. They just happen to live in a country where few opportunities exist even if you are smart and educated.
The second crash came on a congested highway shortly after we finally got outside the city limits of Addis Ababa on our south. We had been delayed in Addis for longer than we wanted because Rosa’s electrical problems had re-emerged two days previously on our way into Addis. She had required a bump start to even make it to Addis. With her electrical problems solved (at least temporarily), I was glad to be leaving the city and heading for the famed Great Rift Valley and its series of reportedly beautiful lakes. Still, I was riding on edge because the road was particularly congested and Sam’s crash was still at the back of my mind. I guess I was not cautious enough.
I was behind a large semi that had slowed ahead of a railway crossing. I decided to overtake the truck. There was oncoming traffic in the distance, but it was moving slowly because of the shock-pounding tracks crossing the road. A motorcycle like the KLR650 can handle railway tracks way better than the average vehicle on the road, so I was not concerned about hitting the tracks at speed – I would barely feel the bumps. As I drew level with the front of the semi, going perhaps 60 km/h, I caught a glimpse of a large dog darting across the road in front of the semi. It was headed right into my path. I had time to hit the brakes and the horn simultaneously. Then the dog was right in front of me.
I hit the dog square. The front wheel went up over the dog causing it to get squished under the skid plate. At the same time I hit the railroad tracks. The dog being under the skid plate as the bike slammed into the railway tracks threw the rear wheel into the air and caused the bike to spin 90 degrees to the left. The bike dropped out of the air upside down and sideways, landing hard on its right side. I was pinned underneath, lying across the railroad tracks in the middle of the road. I was told that the dog came free of the bike and managed to run off the road. I am sure it crawled into a ditch to die after such an impact.
Luckily traffic ground to a halt in both directions. A crowd formed incredibly quickly, as is always the case in Ethiopia. The fall had pinned the throttle all the way open, and with the bike’s engine roaring in my ears my first thought was to try and hit the kill switch. I couldn’t reach it. Someone tried to lift me up. I resisted. I wanted to assess the extent of my injuries before moving. The most immediate pain was my right elbow. My right hip and knee were also flaring up in pain. I couldn’t believe that Rosa’s engine was still roaring. She was practically upside down. I had to turn her off. I slowly extracted my right leg from under the bike. People kept grabbing at me.
Luckily Jeremy had been following close behind me and quickly parked his bike and took control of the scene, clearing people away from me. He quickly started an assessment, and helped me up and to the side of the road. Tom arrived and finally turned off my bike and moved it to the side of the road. I was extremely relieved that Jeremy was there. He methodically examined my knees and hips. There was some swelling in the right knee, and some minor road rash on both knees, but I had full range of motion and could weight bear. I was relieved that Jeremy was there.
I removed my jacket and Jeremy inspected my elbow. There was some road rash and a laceration that was bleeding, but the joint was intact. A police officer who had witnessed the crash asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. Remembering the conditions I had seen at Gonder University Hospital, I immediately told him no. I felt confident that Jeremy could provide the first aid that I needed. I was right. Luckily nothing was broken and I had no serious injuries. Jeremy e
xpertly cleaned and dressed my flesh wound. I took 1200 mg of Ibuprofen and sat down on the side of the road feeling stunned.
Then Tom and Jerry turned their attention to Rosa. She had sustained damage to the front fairing, fairing bracket, and dashboard. The front fairing was pushed in on the right and broken in two places. The bracket holding the fairing was bent inwards. The whole dashboard had broken off and was sitting loosely on top of its broken connectors. The plastic covering the tachometer was shattered. The speedometer cable was ripped out and hanging loosely. Luckily, Rosa was still in running condition.
A large crowd surrounded the bike, everyone trying to “help” – acting as if they knew what they were doing. They did not. I was weary of the crowd. It became especially irritating when one guy grabbed the front fairing and started reefing on it, causing the split to grow to the point of almost ripping the fairing in half. I just wanted people to give us space.
Tom and Jerry fixed the dashboard (zip ties are the most
useful piece of kit you can bring) and we rode another 15 km to a town
where there were some nice hotels near a lake. I looked like we had stumbled across the weekend playground for Addis’ rich and famous. That night
Jeremy (future surgeon) used zip ties to suture my fairing back
together. Now she looks mean. I like the new look.