Until a few months ago, the Republic of Yemen fell into that embarrassingly large category of nations that I would struggle to point out on an unlabelled map. (Try it now. Yemen. Where is it?)
Occupying the south-west corner of the Arabian Peninsular, this former British colony nowadays makes the headlines only for its continuing run of kidnappings of and attacks against foreigners by members of Al-Qaeda, the well-known clandestine anti-Zionist/crusader organization fronted by the A‑list celebrity Arab, Osama Bin Laden, which is known to have major operations in the country.
At seven o’clock one May morning, as the sun was just beginning to make felt its long ascent into the heavens, a wooden Arabian cargo vessel set sail from the Port of Djibouti for the distant shores of Yemen. On board were an eclectic and rowdy Arab crew, a handful of Somali passengers, six hundred miserable-looking Ethiopian cows, and one exhausted Englishman and his bicycle.
I had been awake for thirty-eight hours, and as the diesel engine growled into life from the depths of the rickety ship, it didn’t sound like I was going to have much chance of sleeping now. Besides, at that moment, the boat’s diminuitive and humorous Indian cook emerged from a darkened hatch bearing a large tray of spicy bean-stew baguettes for breakfast.
Although it was only the fourth morning I’d watched the sun rise over Djibouti city, my stay there had felt like a lifetime. Each morning I had been up and about well before dawn. I’d heard that the cheapest room to be found in the city was priced at forty dollars a night, meaning that two days in a hotel would cost me more than nearly a month of travelling in Ethiopia. So I’d slept in someone’s back yard in a dark suburb, on the floor of a church, in a night watchman’s office outside the port, leaving early every morning to continue my quest to board a vessel bound for Yemen.
Now, with the fresh sea breeze blowing away the haze of fatigue, I was smiling. Dolphins escorted us out of the harbour, and were relieved of their duties some time later by a French frigate, patrolling the heavily-pirated waters of the Gulf of Aden. I wasn’t particularly worried, because I reasoned that pirates probably had better things to steal than a bunch of smelly cows, and besides, we were heading not for Aden but for Mokha on Yemen’s west coast. I was happy to have persevered and to have been successful. It would have been far easier to have hopped on a plane, but money could not buy experiences like this.
The jovial Indian cook strung out two thick lines behind the boat, hoping to catch our lunch and supposedly save himself some of the galley budget. One of the Somalis on board, a friendly and well-spoken chap named Yasser, told me that dolphin was not only flitting along beside us but was also in fact on the lunch menu. Having grown up to consider dolphins the marine equivalent of humans, with fairy-tale intelligence and heart-warming benevolence, I hoped that I would not have to eat one that day.
So I was very happy when, a couple of hours later, two reasonable-sized yellowfin tuna were hauled over the railings, and the cook proceeded to turn them into a mouth-wateringly spectacular curry (with perfectly-cooked and lightly-spiced rice). There was enough to feed the lot of us, with second helpings. Glasses of tea with evaporated milk were passed around. Stomach comfortably full, I lay down on a blanket one of the narrow wooden benches and got myself a couple of hours of well-earned rest.
We arrived in Mokha after nightfall, and the unwieldy business of unloading began. I watched as the cows disembarked in the same manner as they had boarded the ship the previous night — with loops of rope wrapped round their midriffs, in groups of two or three, they were bodily hoisted high into the air by an industrial mobile crane and set down on the quayside, where they were herded together by casual labourers armed with cow-thwacking sticks and huge cheekfuls of qat.
I pedalled away from the proceedings into the pitch-dark night. I had little idea what I would find in Yemen, but I assumed that society would not be all that different to other Arab nations I’d visited. My only other information was the fact that there were more than a few hills, and that my government’s Foreign Office was currently advising against all travel to the country due to the supposed threat of terrorism and kidnapping. My plan was to ignore what I considered paranoid advice mixed with a good dose of propaganda, and cycle along the coast to Oman and to continue round to the Emirates, from where I could take a ship to Iran and back to my girlfriend Tenny. But I had heard that police convoys through the ‘trouble spots’ were the order of the day — only here, there might be slightly more justification for them than there had been in paranoid Egypt.
However, all I could think about was the sweet oblivion of sleep, so I pedalled a couple of kilometres into the night and pitched my battered and worn tent behind some sand dunes away from the road. I couldn’t even muster the energy to unpack my mattress or sleeping bag, so, rolling up my fleece as a pillow, I sprawled out on the floor of the tent and slept like a child.
I gazed out across the plains from my vantage point by a military watch-tower at the eastern edge of the Ethiopian highlands. I was about to leave the familiar craziness of Amhara and to cross the Afar desert, the site of the hottest air temperature ever recorded, and the home of the nomadic Afar tribes.
Even by Ethiopian standards, the road was terrible. I had already pedalled over five hundred bone-shaking kilometres along steep mountain tracks. I couldn’t believe my bike was still in one piece, and I was paranoid that something was going to break in the middle of nowhere.
As usual, the locals of Amhara had nothing good to say about their neighbours. Thieves and murderers, the lot of them, apparently. Those who stopped for a chat loved to spin tales of drivers being pulled from their vehicles and shot. All the tribesmen carried AK-47’s, they said. One young man made me promise to take a bus across the region. “Of course, of course!” I lied.
I waved goodbye to the Tele Café in the piazza of Gondar, where I’d enjoyed many a delightfully-spicy breakfast or pint of mango juice. I was about to experience a magnificent ride through the soaring highlands of north-central Ethiopia. As I rolled out of town towards the green valleys below, however, I was nervous.
Aside from the threat of ill-health making an unwanted comeback, my nerves came from reading too many journals. Those writing about cycling in Ethiopia were far from complimentary – “the single most difficult place I’ve ever cycled because of the human factor”, “the worst roads I’ve ever ridden”, “the mountains were the largest I’d yet encountered”, and so on.
At least one couple I met on the road had resolved that they would never go to Ethiopia, based on their reading of an account of travelling the country that Alastair Humphreys penned in the first part of his round-the-world travelogue Moods of Future Joys, a book which I read whilst planning this journey back in 2006. It was a contributing factor to my initial rejection of Africa as part of my trip, until last year I realised it would be much more sensible to form my own opinions.
I spent four days in Metema. The mild symptoms of malaria were the lesser of my concerns. More worrying was the stiffness and soreness that quickly appeared in my legs, as if somehow sparked off by the unexpected parasites.
By the evening of my arrival, my lower calves were sore and stiff, causing some discomfort when walking. The following morning, after wishing my temporary Austrian companion a safe journey to Sudan, I could barely hobble from my tiny mud-walled room to the latrine across the stony yard. The hotel proprietor, an older woman assisted by her daughters, interrogated me in Arabic as to the reason for my wincing and shuffling. I told her I had no idea.