Editor’s Note: Words by Dain Zaffke with images by Dain Zaffke and Dan Milner.
Ethiopia has really big mountains. So it must have really great mountain biking, right? No one really knew, because no one had ever really brought mountain bikes into Ethiopia’s Simian highlands.
We went on an expedition—with pro riders Sarah Leishman and Kamil Tartarkovic—to find out whether the land famous for being the “cradle of mankind” could someday be a mountain bike paradise.
I had never been any place quite this remote. The evening before our departure, we huddled around a map and got a briefing from our British guide, Tom Bodkin of Secret Compass. “I will have a first aid kit and a satellite phone. In case of a life-threatening injury, I can call for a ‘chopper with the sat phone, but keep in mind that the heli-service is based in Addis Ababa, that’s about a four-hour flight from where we’ll be. And the heli-pilot is based in Nairobi, which is a six-hour flight from Addis. So it’ll be about a day before the chopper comes to our rescue. So let’s stay safe!”
Over the course of eight days our crew circumnavigated the Simian Mountains national park, traveling rugged footpaths created in the sixth century. With no roads, no running water and no electricity, the crew fell into a simple routine: wake up, break camp and spend the day riding.
The riding was rough. Every five minutes of fast, flowing singletrack was met with ten minutes of hike-a-bike, over (or around) unrideable ledges and rock piles. The route skirted a 6,000-foot-deep canyon, summited a 14,930-foot peak and covered stunningly diverse scenery with everything from highland tussock grass to tropical lowland forests. We met countless welcoming locals and encountered hundreds of gelada baboons—fierce-looking apes with thick coats and walrus-like teeth.
Was it a mountain bike paradise? It probably depends on who you ask. It’s not in the way that Whistler, Queenstown or Moab are considered paradise. But there were so many moments of staggering beauty—of frantically excited children, the power of the scenery of the Simians, learning (or attempting to learn) how to dance like a local, the incredible food—that this expedition was truly a trip of a lifetime for us.