We stay a few days in Bale. I’m taking some time to update my travel diary and Willem makes some friends in the emergency department of the local hospital. One early morning we defy the freezing morning cold and we ride up to the Bale Mountain national park to spot the very rare Ethiopian wolf. After an hour riding in the freezing cold we end up on Africa’s highest all year accessible road, 4000 metres above sea level.
I expect a long and difficult search for the wolf. But there’s almost no vegetation and the red-brownish fur of the animal contrasts quite hard with the moss covered rocks in the background.
We spot right away a little male. Later we even see a mother with four cups. It even seems to us that the male tries to lure us away from his female and cups. That’s at least what our David Attenborough imagination tries to tell us. We descend the other side of the mountain pass and we treat ourselves to a marvelously hot coffee in a little green village. When we return we stop at a truck that’s stacked with mattresses. Three guys pop up from under the chassis. Their truck broke down three days ago and they’re trying to repair it, spending the last few nights in the freezing cold in the trucks cabin. Help should finally be on its way they tell us. We share our cookies with the guys and leave for Robe, happy not the spend the night in a freezing truck cabin.
The time has come to head up north for Addis Ababa. On our way to the capital we ride between the gold fields of the Oromia Region, the breadbasket or rather the injerabasket of Ethiopia. Randomly we decide to stop for the night in a little town called Bekoji. There’s only one hotel, Wabe, which makes our choice and life easy.
In the morning we meet what seems to be the owner of the hotel, Tola (the day before we thought he was just a random client). He’s wearing a sweater of the Chicago marathon. In Ethiopia is off course well known for its long distance runners. I ask him about the sweater. He turns out to be not only the owner of this amazing hotel but also an international marathon runner. He has run several international marathons: Tokyo, Arizona, Boston, Paris, Chicago (off course!)…
It turns out that Bekoji is the Mekka of long distance runners. The Dibaba sisters come from this little town in the Ethiopian high lands. They have eight gold medal winners in this village. I point at a small water tap and ask him is there’s something in the water. Tola laughs and shakes his head: “maybe, but we don’t use all those fancy vitamins and shakes. We just eat Injera and Wat. I think that’s our strength!”
He has to interrupt our conversation because he’s expected to attend a short meeting at the athletics training camp of Bekoji. I offer him a ride and he gladly accepts. (It’s only 6 kilometres form the hotel, he could have run!). That’s how I end up in a small meeting room with four Ethiopians, discussing the current affairs of the Bekoji training centre. I must say that I’m not very impressed by the infrastructure of the center. But than again what infrastructure do you need to train long distance running? Just long dirt roads, preferable some hills and high altitude to stimulate the production of red blood cells? No?
Well, Bekoji has it all. Beautiful, but steep hills, and long straight roads that separate endless grain fields. Kids come here at the age of 16. They will train and the coaches filters out the real talent. Tola is now 34 and back in the day at the start of his career this centre didn’t exist. It was founded a few years ago to professionalize the training programs. Tola, just like Tirunesh Dibaba and the rest train in Addis, where there is better infrastructure.
After the meeting he takes me to the stadium of Bekoji. It’s just a 400 m gravel track. I take some pictures and show them to him. Tola looks shocked.
“I’m fat! I really look fat. Look at my face. This is a disgrace. I really should start training again”.
Tola had a hamstring injury a few months ago and is still recovering. He still has to rest on doctors’ order but after seeing my pictures he’s eager to ignore this good advice.
Tola belongs to the international second tier of marathon runners. He’s best time was 2h8min on the Arizona marathon. He still makes a good living from this sport. He was able to built Wabee hotel from his earnings. He’s planning to open a second hotel in Asela. I love the way he invests all the money he earns with his sport back in his community. With his hotels he provides jobs to a lot of people in the village.
Tola drives an old, modest mazda.
“Why should I buy a big fancy 4×4? It’s better to invest it in something that serves the whole community and where everybody can reap the benefits from”.
I think a lot of European football players could learn a lot from this attitude.
Tola invites us for lunch and traditional coffee. On his lap is his 2,5 year old son.
“I took him to Tokyo a few months ago. He was already outrunning the 5 year old Japanese kids! I swear it!” Tola laughs.
He might be the next big talent of this town? Who knows? Here you’ll find the trailer of a Documentary (“Town of Runners”) about Bekoji’s running fever:
During the Ethiopian coffee ritual our conversation turns a bit darker. Tola has three big water tanks and still that’s not enough. The land is green and water seems abundant, yet the whole village has a water shortage.
“It’s a lack of investment in infrastructure from the government. There is a lot of times no electricity. Since a few months no internet. It’s frustrating”.
As he talks I can see that this quiet and peaceful man loses his temper a bit. Riding along the roads in Oromia we saw some traces of burned tires. Also during the last olympic games in Brazil, Feyisa Lilesa, made an arm gesture to support his Oromo tribe while finishing second on the Olympic marathon. I want to ask more about it, but somebody passes and Tola stops to speak. When he resumes, he starts to talk about the weather. It’s clear that everybody knows that the government’s ears and eyes are everywhere.
We drive further to Addis. We’re not allowed on the express way (Chinese made) because we’re driving on two wheels, a typically too stringent interpretation of the law. We don’t want to wage this battle. We take the old road. A lot of trucks are still driving on the old road. Which means that this new 8-lane express way misses its target.
We stay in Taitu hotel (cheap as hell) and the oldest hotel of Addis. It was built when emperor Menelik 2nd decided to make it his capital.
In the old town there are a lot of houses inspired on Albanian and Armenian building style. It Gives the impression in combination with the old soviet buildings that you’re in an Eastern European capital. People are also very light skinned. It makes us realize that we’re gradually making our way up towards the north of the continent.