A black Giant Talon 29er-4 mountain bicycle, some money, part of it gifted by friends, and a head spinning with love: These are what Bill Clintone Linyelela needed to get him on through the 2,201km journey from Nairobi to Mekéle, in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.
On August 30, just before dawn, carrying only of his smartphone and the app Strava, the 27-year-old solitary cyclist set out on a rather hasty journey.
The 16-day trip would not only test his mettle to the core, leave him with physical injuries and see him nearly turn around when the thought of returning home seemed sensible, but would also end rather unexpectedly and leave him in tears.
The inspiration for Linyelela’s journey during a pandemic started two years ago. On February 27, 2018, to mark his birthday, Linyelela had gone to the central business district of Nairobi to buy a gift for himself. He was browsing in clothing stalls on Biashara Street when he saw her.
“Merry Kidane Asgedom was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I said ‘hi’, and she gave the most enchanting smile and a ‘hi’ back. I chatted her up a little and then asked for her number. She gave it to me, and I almost forgot what I was doing there.”
Asgedom, an Ethiopian doctor on a short visit to Kenya, left for Ethiopia a few days later. But in the coming days and months a friendship between the pair kindled into a long-distance love affair. Linyelela visited her in Ethiopia twice; she visited him in Nairobi twice and was going to introduce him to her mother on April 14, a step he imagined would catapult their relationship to the next level. However, the coronavirus pandemic hit and life as we knew it came to a sudden stop.
“She had taken her leave days and I had booked my air ticket,” narrates Linyelela. “Then Kenya was put under a partial lockdown and travel restrictions imposed. I could no longer fly to Ethiopia.”
But a restless Linyelela couldn’t keep still. Four months down the road, in August, the airspace had been reopened but the restaurateur had to shut down his restaurant in Parklands Nairobi, in compliance with Covid-19 related restrictions. His finances fell short and he could no longer afford an air ticket. All the same, he decided he was going to Ethiopia. And he started to see his bicycle as his new ticket to his girlfriend.
“At some point, my finances had gotten so bad that I couldn’t even call Merry anymore. I was behind on rent. So I called her up one evening and told her that was the last call I was making to Ethiopia until I could get some money,” recounts Linyelela.
The following day he received Ksh300 ($3) from a colleague of hers in Ethiopia. “This just blew my mind. I used all of it on airtime to call her,” says Linyelela, a statistician by profession.
“This had just pumped the urge to just hold her in a hug. That little act caused me to make up my mind finally,” he said.
On various Whatsapp groups, he asked friends whether it was a wise idea to cycle to Ethiopia. “About 75 per cent of my friends thought I was being irrational. The reasons given were varied - from the fact that there was still an ongoing pandemic, that I did not have car support, and that this was a route I hadn’t been on before,” he recalls. “But then I went with the few that encouraged me. Someone said ‘sure I know you can do it’. And that was all I needed to hear.”
And that is how Linyelela found himself on his bicycle on the Nairobi-Nanyuki highway at 3.58am, with Asgedom and Mekéle, the capital city of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, on his mind. He had an uneventful first day of riding to Nanyuki, 194km from Nairobi, arriving at 2.23pm. And though still energetic and fresh by the time he got there, he realised that he had overshot the number of kilometres he was meant to cover per day.
At Nanyuki, the app Strava quit on him. “This really disoriented me. This app was supposed to give me directions, terrain, the weather and other such details of the places I was going to pass through to get to my final destination. And even though I had taken written notes on these places, it wasn’t going to be the same. So I really had to convince myself that I would be okay and make peace with this loss because I knew if I fixated on it then I would not move on.”
That night he slept in a mini-hotel that cost Ksh300 ($3).
Linyelela’s trip took him though various terrains: From the tropical climate of central Kenya, to the hard desert-like conditions of the northern fringes, to the hot, arid lands of southern Ethiopia, and then the welcoming lush green surrounds of the Oromia region. He had 21 ground contacts at the possible nightly stops. He had also contacted police stations in case he did not find a place to sleep at night.
“With savings of Ksh7,241 ($72) and a cash gift of Ksh9,000 ($90) from a friend to make Ksh16,241 ($162) and a sleeping bag, I had three options of accommodation; a sleeping bag, a cheap Airbnb, or a cheap hotel.”
On day two he set off at 4am on the 245km Nanyuki-Leisamis stretch. Everything was fine until heavy rains started to fall. Hungry, thirsty and fatigued he realised he had made a mistake those first two days cycling distances more than 150km. “When you are drawing up your route you schedule to stop at the nearest town possible after or before 150 kilometres.
“I was badly fatigued. I realised I had made a mistake in distance calculations. I was supposed to cover 150km on average, and my final stop was Sereolipi according to my plan,” he says. He got to Leisamis Primary School and the guard agreed to let him in. “The night guard was kind enough and provided for me a bath in an old rugged can. I took a shower outside in the open air. The guard brought me some traditional drink – Nabey. It was bittersweet with a yeasty smell.”
“The guard refilled my water bottles in return I tried to give him Ksh500 ($5), which he refused. He was one of the kind-hearted people who helped me along my journey.”
It was so hot between Leisamis and Marsabit that Linyelela drank all the water he had just a few kilometres into the 97km section of the journey on his third day. Lucky for him, another good Samaritan — a pickup driver — gave him two litres of water and car support up to Kamboe, about 60km.
Whenever anyone asked him about his journey, he lied that he was on a coronavirus awareness campaign drive.
“Being behind me in his pickup gave me confidence and enough strength. I stopped at Kamboe to refill and rest and we parted ways. Onwards, crossing the Marsabit Forest became a challenge as I was running out of daylight and my bike had started making a squeaky sound. I didn’t know what the issue was but I couldn’t stop because it was getting late. But the noise got louder. I stopped to check on it and found that the derailleur was falling apart. I had lost two nuts and the chain was dry. I looked for my repair kit and oil, only to realise that I left them at the primary school at Leisamis. I panicked,” narrates Linyelela.
“Then I saw some dik diks grazing nearby. This gave me some assurance that there were few dangerous animals since dik diks are sensitive to predators. I decided to continue with the journey after placing a small stick in the derailleur, which helped. I ate guavas and berries from the side of the road.
"I arrived at Marsabit at 6:51pm. My phone was off, and I couldn’t contact my person on the ground. I booked myself into a small hotel at Ksh200 ($2), had a cold bath, and ate some goat meat that was really cheap. But before I went to bed, I had diarrhoea. The owner of the room had warned me not to leave until 7am due to insecurity. The latrine was 10 metres from my room. I decided to take the risk and ended up sitting outside the toilet for three hours. The diarrhoea stopped, and I was able to sleep for a bit.”
In bad shape
Linyelela woke up on the fourth day with some 124km to cover between Marsabit and Turbi. “My body was in bad shape, the bike too. I almost put my bike on a Moyale Liner coach back to Nairobi.”
While the journey from Marsabit through Choba to Budissa was tolerable with stretches of leafy, green areas, the scorching sun and dusty road between Budisa and Turbi left him worn out.
On day five he rode just 20km between Turbi and Moyale due to the hot sun and damaged bicycle. On the 126-km stretch, he hurtled down a dust-covered desert track. For most of this section, there were no vehicles or human traffic, just mirages.
“Riding this road is an experience itself,” he says, and pauses. “I was nervous and ecstatic at the same time ... the sense of danger was intoxicating, but so was the idea of seeing my love in a few days. I had lots of thoughts in my mind. She still did not know I was cycling to Ethiopia. What if I arrived and found she had lost interest in the relationship since our communication had been cut since Nanyuki? I wondered what she was thinking every time I was offline. My worst fear and worry was if I did this for nothing. And I thought about how reckless riding the road on a bicycle by myself was.”
He reached the border of Kenya and Ethiopia at Moyale at 6pm, and had 275km of hilly terrain to Finchawa, his next stop. He had written down the words for water, food, hotel, police, hospital, good morning and afternoon in Amharic and Oromia.
The border was still closed when he started the Ethiopian leg of his journey and was lucky to find a group of mountain bike riders familiar with the route who helped him cross the border using a back road.
On the Ethiopian side, before he got used to riding on the right side of the road, he had an accident in which he sustained cuts and grazes on his hip, knee and elbow after he fell into a ditch trying to avoid an oncoming lorry.
“I didn’t know how to really use the first aid box. I cleaned the cuts and grazes with cotton wool and rode on.”
For the next three days he covered the 279-km Awassa - Addis Ababa leg of the journey and had to put up with the heavy rain, and hostile police officers at road blocks every few kilometres.
After Addis, he was set to make his final leg of the journey to Mekéle. However, at Aleltu, military officers at a road block stopped him and said he could not proceed due to ensuing hostilities in the Tigray region.
“I pleaded with them but they said for my own safety they could not allow me to carry on with my journey. Dejected, I called my friend in Addis and he told me to return. I gave up. A friend in Kenya had bought me an air ticket back to Nairobi. I called him asking him to push it forward to September 8, the following day, so I could go back home since I couldn’t proceed to the north. Apparently, he had been following the hostilities in the Tigray region and had bought me an air ticket to Mekéle.”
At the Mekéle airport, Linyelela was arrested on arrival for not having a negative Covid-19 test certificate.
“I could see my girlfriend through the window, but we weren’t even allowed to meet. We could only wave at each other. I was forced into a van that took me to a hotel where I was quarantined for seven days. At this point that I broke down and cried like a little baby. My girlfriend and I only saw each other through the window, even at the hotel. We spoke on a phone she loaded with airtime given to me by the medics. She also paid for my quarantine. The day I left quarantine was the day she was leaving to go back to work, so we only spent two hours together and she left for Aksum, a town more than 214km north of Mekéle.”