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Getting stoned in Ethiopia’s highlands


‘You!’

I smile weakly at the children who abandon a game of football to check out the latest ferenj to pass through their territory, and I roll uncertainly to a halt on the broken gravel road.

‘You! You!!!’

Sprightly figures leap the piled earth and rock on the roadside; boys in faded cloth trousers and dusty ill-fitted shirts, sleeves rolled up, some with shawls of light linen draped across their shoulders; girls in absurdly pretty frocks plucked from an English Sunday-best wardrobe a half-century past; all running up to me, barefoot. They’re maybe seven or eight at the youngest, twelve or thirteen tops, all lean and stringy, fit as fiddles, staring and jostling for proximity to the weird white-skin on a bicycle.

Ferenj.’

They’re just little humans, I tell myself. And I try to make friends, smiling and talking about my journey, pointing ahead and behind – ‘Gondar! Bahir Dar!’ – smiling some more. Some of the kids respond hesitantly, slowly repeating my words, staring at me as if I am an alien, or some kind of grotesque museum exhibit. I frown.

Then it dawns on me that I am.

I am an alien.

Attempts at rapport miserably trampled, I hesitantly make as if to continue riding. A ripple of havoc. The crowd, which by now has swelled considerably, attempts to part in order to let me through, and the domino effect lifts the smallest kids off their feet, sandwiched, others stumbling, and the wave of faces sways in front of me, as if Moses was warming up before attempting to part the Red Sea. Amidst the milling bodies and sudden yelps of amusement, I attempt to ride, reluctant to run anyone over. Gradually I gain momentum on the flat road. Then the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

‘YOUYOUYOUYOUYOUYOUYOUYOU!!!!!!’

Shit.

A stampede of footfalls. Sixty Ethiopian children simultaneously lose all self-restraint and belt hell-for-leather after the wobbly ferenj, chasing me down the road.

Quick – can I grab a strap on this bag? How heavy is the bike? How much would it take to slow it down? What a hoot!

A few of the lazier members drop back; they can’t be bothered, it’s gone now – back to the football.

‘You!!!’ Pant. ‘YOOUUU!!!!!’ Gasp.

Heels hammering dirt. Flying gravel.

I pedal as hard as I can. To no effect; I’m going uphill! I cannot outrun the mob! But suddenly the bicycle’s momentum wins through and the remaining crowd is receding in the shattered remains of my rear-view mirror. And I keep my eyes on the road ahead. I don’t want to know what’s co . . .

Thwack!

Clang!

The first stone hits a pannier. The second glances off the metal rail at the back of my saddle. More stones sail through my vision and bounce off the road ahead. I hear more dull impacts on the track behind me. The surge of adrenaline is fading by the time I come to terms with the fact that a gang of kids has just thrown a load of rocks at me.

For fun.

Here, children are going to throw rocks at me, for fun.

I’ve seen a fair few versions of normality, now, but this is the first in which I am a mere toy, whose only purpose is to provide target practice.

And money.

Ethiopian landscape

‘Money!’

‘Give me one birr!’

‘Money!’

‘You!!! YOOUUUUU!!!’

‘Highland!!!’

What the hell is Highland?!? I wonder as I continue to cycle, alone and vulnerable, wearing a stupid grin on my face like I’m still cycling across fucking Derbyshire. And at the next village I collect a following of at least two hundred children, who are already standing in the middle of the dirt road as if they’re waiting just for me.

I don’t stop. They dive this way and that, giggling, recovering quickly to give chase, and I blank my mind as more rocks come hurtling in my direction. I blast downhill at full speed to the next village and dash into a small building with a garishly painted ‘Hotel’ sign outside. I hand over a couple of dollars’ worth of birr for a shoebox room facing the yard and its resident goat, stow the bicycle safely inside, sit on the heap of blankets, and try to collect my thoughts.

What the hell?

I tiptoe gingerly towards the gate by road. There’s a cafe of some description opposite the hotel, tempting me with its fresh fruit juices. Looking up and down the street, I can see no children at all. Adults go about their business, ignoring me completely. And I am awash with a feeling of purest serenity.

When I return to the hotel room, I find that the four empty water bottles I’d been keeping in the end-pockets of my panniers have disappeared.

Hold on . . . water bottles . . . Highland . . .

Highland!

It’s a local brand of bottled drinking water.

They’d been shouting at me for my empty water bottles!

Extracted from Tom’s excellent book Janapar: love on a bike. This vivid account of a long-distance bikeride has also been made into a film. Buy both or just check out his website for some travel inspiration.  Most photos courtesy of shutterstock.

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