ADVENTURES NORTH OF A DIFFERENT KIND - ETHIOPIA.


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Africa » Ethiopia » Amhara Region » Gondar
November 4th 2007
Published: January 28th 2008
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The truck north from Isiolo to MoyaleThe truck north from Isiolo to MoyaleThe truck north from Isiolo to Moyale

Passengers are all smiles after not being shot at on the infamous Shifta Road!
An adventure north of a different kind: this time by public transport. We left the motorbike behind at Jungle Junction in Nairobi. 'Broken down' doesn't feature in the BMW motorbike handbook so we prefer to use the term 'waiting for parts'. Actually, this was the case. The bike had been running terribly for a month and getting progressively worse. I didn't really have my broken toe up resting on the couch as much as I was proscribed, finding it far more interesting to figure out why the bike wasn't running as it should be. Luckily I was able to swap parts with another similar model bike that was in the garage and work out which part was broken on our bike. The much needed part could have been expensively couriered from Germany or South Africa, but I knew of someone flying into Nairobi from Germany who could bring the part for free. They weren't arriving for a month but we decided to play the waiting game by travelling north to Ethiopia by public transport and spending a month there instead. A change is as good as a break?

After one of my worst uncomfortable sleeps in memory lying in the
Always working hardAlways working hardAlways working hard

Women about their daily chores as we were enroute north to Addis Ababa
back of the truck that carried cement bags with my knees bent up and people kicking my feet all night, I achingly got up at 5am to walk around the dusty town to recap the past 72 hours events….
The easiest part of the journey had been the multiple Matatu (minivan) trips north of Nairobi Kenya to the frontier feeling town of Isiolo. Not a frontier at all but with the same vibe a frontier town possesses, probably produced I suspect by the multitude of annoying drunks and people pestering you for all your worth.
The roads north of Isiolo leading to the Ethiopian border are infamous with African over Landers and locals alike. The wide deep dirt road corrugations and gravel the size of baseballs has played havoc with the above groups vehicles for years and with the current political parties opposition strong hold in this region things aren't likely to change for a while. . The road conditions mean that public transport is limited to cargo carrying trucks that also double as
Blown tyre again!Blown tyre again!Blown tyre again!

The second of the trip and the same one they replaced before. The replacement tyre this time was worn down to the tyre threads!
buses for the masses. Buses have run in the past……about 500m up the road before they inevitably break their suspension!

The previous night we found out what time trucks departed Isiolo northwards and set the alarm for 4am. A rude awakening at 3.30am with a loud bang on the door "The truck heading north is here and leaving in ten minutes!" We scrambled to no avail - the truck had departed - so we sat down next to two talkative qat chewing students from Nairobi Josef and Steven, also heading north but only half way to the border to a town called Marsabit. Josef said "Don't worry, that truck was carrying cement. Very uncomfortable and the cement dust is bad for you. The next is carrying food sacks." - Qat, a plant that grows up in the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia is mildly narcotic in the way that drinking coffee keeps you awake. In this case when the young tender leaves are chewed and held in a ball in the side of your mouth the effect is to keep you wired all night or day long. Plus there's the added bonus of the taste of bitter leaves in your mouth for hours! - How did the students know what the next truck was carrying I wondered? It turns out they didn't and the next truck also carried cement.
At 4am in the morning I found myself dealing with incoherently drunk people all trying to procure my business by 'helping' me to make a price deal for the drive north. "Just deal with the driver! Just pay the driver! He's the driver!" pointing to someone. Then another "No, he's the driver!" pointing to someone else etc etc. We climbed up the side of the truck and looked into the pitch black depths below. "No room, no room!" were the shouts from below. I switched on my head torch to reveal a jam packed back of the truck full of people basically sitting on top of one another on the cement sacks. Being mzungu (white in Swahili) we had definitely paid more than the other passengers so damned if we were going to stand the whole way. I sat on top of a disgruntled passengers feet, wedged by arse down to the cement bags and braced my body against the legs of strangers as we bounced our way north -
Ethiopian art workEthiopian art workEthiopian art work

National Museum Addis Ababa
Are we there yet?

As the sun started to rise over the northern desert people began to sit up on top of the trucks caged cargo bars and I jumped at the opportunity to do the same when one local called to me "Mzungu, come sit with me." So I shared an uncomfortable spot on top of the truck with Khan, a Kenyan truck driver whose own trucks suspension had only made it half way to the border. He was a very friendly intelligent guy whose sons had taken the chance of government sponsorship to study in England in the 1980's and never returned. They had brought him his truck and subsequent career though. It's people like him in situations like that which make the highlights of any trip - squashed in the canvas dips between the cargo cage bars bouncing along in the dust dodging overhanging thorn bushes like in a Safari drive: I saw a herd of ten to fifteen elephants crossing the road; gazelle standing on their hind legs grazing off thorn bushes; tiny Digi Digi (small gazelle) darting around everywhere; Falcons; Tucans and many other exotic looking bird species.
We made a lunch break in
Labyrinth of HararLabyrinth of HararLabyrinth of Harar

Inside the city's walled streets.
a remote northern Kenyan Samburu village. The tribes people were so beautiful wearing their ornate dress and jewellery, and fascinating that they wore it for everyday activities - the local Samburu herdsmen in full traditional regalia herding cattle, the women styling heavy necklaces collecting the daily water from the well, and the two young men riding north a top the truck with us. These two guys, having reached puberty but not yet undergone circumcision sported various jewellery red clay-caked hair and feathered head dress.
In the late afternoon I spotted a lone elephant red coloured with the mud it had bathed in amongst the lush dark green forest of the Marsabit N.P. I realised as we had rumbled north we had passed through varying landscapes from the post card Kenyan tree-scapes to lush forests set amongst volcanoes. We continued northward in the darkness for four hours until the driver stopped for the night….qat must have worn off. I hustled for a spot to try and rest….

Where we had stopped for the night turned out to be a military checkpoint so the first proceedings of the day were to watch the military extort money from the truck drivers forcing
Harar GateHarar GateHarar Gate

The main gate to the square kilometer walled muslim city
them to carry two armed soldiers each for the last leg of the journey north to the Ethiopian border. It was said not to be necessary to be travelling with the armed soldiers but I did count five tightly grouped bullet holes in the cab of our truck, and the truck would have been less than a year old! When we were underway one of the soldiers looked around nervously - probably having been shot at before? - the other joked and laughed with some other passengers. Both looked like they would be the first to hit the deck if the Shifta (Somali bandits sifting through northern Kenya) started firing!
Even though we were all kicking each other for space the previous night it was all friendly smiles in the morning and the locals were as inquisitive as ever. One guy on the truck who originated from Nairobi but had taken a job as a librarian in Moyale (the border town with Ethiopia) said that the first time he had done this truck journey he thought he was being punished! I could see why!

Exiting the Kenyan border post we asked the Immigration Officer about exchanging our Kenyan Shillings to Ethiopian Birr. He suggested exchanging it on the black market "Do you know the black market?" and proceeded to write down good rates of exchange on our Immigration forms "120, 130, 135. It depends how you talk to them?"
Ethiopian border officials were on lunch so we hunted around Moyale town in the heat of the day for one and a half hours to find a place to stay. Hunting being the operative word - one of the places we were shown around had piles of human faeces in the shower (when questioned about it the guy showing us the room just said "This is shower") and nowhere, not even where we ended up staying had water.

The next two days north to Addis Ababa were luxury travel - cramped Ethiopian chicken buses but so comfortable and fast compared to the truck it must have been like flying on the Concorde when it first flew when you were used to flying Air New Zealand's Friendships landing at Wellington airport in a southerly gale! The landscapes in Ethiopia changed as dramatically as Kenya's had, with red, then white huge phallic termite mounds surrounded by tiny straw huts the villages lived in metamorphosed into cool temperate highlands with the villages living in bigger peaked straw 'witches' huts selling coffee and qat by the roadside. The people had metamorphosed in Ethiopia too: a lighter skin colour and more refined facial features; also they didn't bargain as much (true out of touristy areas) and became offended when trying it on; and we weren't referred to as mzungu anymore. It was now farangi (foreigner in Amharic) but more commonly a rapid "You, you, you, you, you! Give me!"

I think we enjoyed Ethiopia so much because of all the horror stories we had heard from other over Landers beforehand - you're going to be hassled beyond belief / they'll throw stones at you! - going in with low expectations that could only be exceeded! We soon became hooked on the Ethiopian national staple Injera which is like a sour pancake that comes with various toppings like: Kitfu (raw minced meat); Doro Wat (stewed chicken); and Gored Gored (raw beef cubes with awazi - a kind of mustard and chilli sauce) - yum! Plus, thanks to the Italian occupation, there's loads of cafes serving up Ethiopia's finest espresso and macchiato!
After a few
Harar HyenasHarar HyenasHarar Hyenas

Outside the city walls at night
days of enjoying the great food and ambiance Addis Ababa provides we headed east to the historical walled city of Harar. Arriving at the typically insane time of four in the morning we found a cheap place to stay, knocked back a couple of espressos then ventured into the 1 square kilometre, 5 meter high walled city with its 368 alleyways trying to get lost. Surprisingly we couldn't get lost - possibly due to the 82 small mosques and the aroma of fresh highland coffee guiding the way? The ancient city developed as a major trading hub between Africa and the Middle East and still today exudes the fast paced trading life with colourful markets and even more colourful people around every corner.
In the evening we once again experienced a Lonely Planet false build up - the hyena feeding was not to be mistaken as a tourist event, but a long aged tradition - they must not have been there with a bus load of aging German tourists! Still, it was great to see the Hyenas up close and not actually chew anybody's face off!

Back in Addis we continued our scrambling for public transport - a bang on the door at 3am! Man, they had said it would leave at 4am! But once the sun rose the views heading north to Gonder were awesome. Typical stunning Ethiopian scenery was only sporadically broken with the bombed out tanks left on the side of the road from the 1991 Derg war against the then communist regime of the country.
Also by travelling this part of the journey by public transport I was able to meet more people en route to our destinations and talk to them about other things rather than directions and how much is the price of fuel? Osman (a university student in Gonder) explained to me how he thought the current government had been better than the Derg, but after the last dubious elections in May 2005 thousands of opposition were arrested and 70 plus people killed. Yet, the Ethiopians are still positive about democracy and the next elections.

We walked around the ancient Royal Enclosure of Gonder marvelling at how much the Lonely Planet
Shoa Gate HararShoa Gate HararShoa Gate Harar

Another of the 6 gates into the walled city
had talked this place up too! Not to bag this travel guide - it was me who chose to buy it. And I understand they write it in such a way to sell the book, but it is always unfortunate when something is talked up so much it can only lead to disappointment. But, it was nice to walk around and imagine what Fasiladas' Palace and the Palace of Iyasu I would have looked like without the shabby scaffolding holding it together!
We randomly met three other travellers that afternoon and roped ourselves into a four day hike in the Simien Mountains starting the next day! We had a great crew of people: Mitiku (our guide); Seasie (cook); Tazabe (scout - always with his AK-47 at hand with the Safety off!); Karen (U.K); Phil (Netherlands); Chris (Aussie - there's always one!); Gwen and me. The first day we just hiked 4 ½ hours from Buiyt ras (where we were dropped off) to Sankaber Camp which was 3200m altitude. It should have only taken 3 hours but the views were too amazing.
The next day was again awesome hiking up at around 4000m which took in some highlights like the 400m drop waterfall and the meeting of 150+ Gelada baboons. The Gelada have huge fangs but they're just for show as they eat grass and they have red patches of skin (their mating skin) on their chests, which beats having it on your arse like normal baboons! It was beautiful camping upon the hilltop Geech Camp (3600m) but bloody cold because it was so exposed! Yet, it did make everyone want to get hiking the next morning - even if it was just to warm up. It was on Day 3 where we summated Imet Gogo with stunning views over 90% of the Simien N.P before following the cliff faces back down to Chenek Camp spotting Ibex (a type of mountain goat) along the way.
Day 4 saw us moving fast in the frost bitten shade of Chenek Camp to reach another summit called Bawahit at 4430m, before descending back to the hustle and bustle of Gonder town.

We checked out the Debre Berhan Selassie Church which boasts really vibrant paintings of different stories, Ethiopian saints, martyrs and lore, not to mention the ceiling which is covered with 104 painted angel faces. After having a few drinks at the local
Fasilada's PalaceFasilada's PalaceFasilada's Palace

One of the ruins inside the Royal Enclosure Gondar Ethiopia
seedy bars where the toilets were literally walking through the back door and urinating into a bucket on the back steps (never mind the people walking up them), we ended up in a bar being entertained (debatable) by a singing azmari woman (wandering minstrel) and the guy, the masenko playing his single-stringed fiddle. They must have been slagging us off because the other locals in the bar were laughing uncontrollably! Just goes to show that learning the local language is the key.

Travelling without the bike was a pain, but it did have its good sides….like being able to travel in style on a cheap flight to Lalibela - a travel time of 20 minutes compared to a possible week on local buses with bad connections. In typical Ethiopian style there was no I.D required at check-in and when we boarded it was a total scramble free for all to get a seat!
Lalibela was pretty amazing - twelfth century rock-hewn churches carved straight down into the bedrock. One of the churches Bet Medhane Alem was really impressive and is the biggest rock-hewn church in the world dug 11.5m into the rock. If you could focus past all the scaffolding there were amazingly beautiful buildings hidden in the Lalibela area that must have involved some serious work to carve out. We were lucky that the day we visited was St Michaels Day, so Bet Mikael (St Michaels Church) was packed full of local priests and made for a very intense spectacle.

We travelled for a couple of days on dusty bumpy roads back to Addis Ababa - the qat coming in handy. Unplanned, in Addis Ababa we met up with one of our motorbike travelling friends Hugh from Ireland, then later caught up with Rene from Canada and Guy and Marlene from Belgium (who we have met several times since last March) which ensured some late morning rises!
We got stuck in Addis Ababa for two and a half weeks, but as Hugh says (he's still there) "There are worse places to be stuck." The reason for us 'being stuck' was basically Gwen's American passport and the Cameroonian Ambassadors reluctance to issue her a Cameroon tourist visa - maybe he'd had problems going to the U.S himself? It's a long story but she got it in the end with the help of the Embassy's staff - not to mention both of us spending entire days just sitting in the Embassy playing the waiting game to be noticed so they would just give her the visa for us to go away!
In hindsight, it gave us time to explore the city properly and check out some of the infamous markets while making the most of the excellent international flavours on offer - wicked Thai restaurants, Italian, Indian……etc. Walking around the modernity of Addis was a world apart from Ethiopia's rural areas where tribes still hold very traditional ceremonies. Like in the south men prove their man hood by jumping up and running naked across the backs of a line of cattle hoping not to fall otherwise they will be ridiculed and whipped by the watching women! Harsh!

After saying our goodbyes to friends in Addis Ababa we hit the road south (of course at the ridiculous time of 4am!) back to Nairobi Kenya. This time we were joined on our intrepid adventures by the obligatory extreme Japanese backpacker Rey and another mzungu Hanna from Belgium - a wealth of knowledge about Belgium beers. The journey south to the Kenyan border took two pretty uneventful days just sitting back and enjoying the beautiful scenery - a trick that's hard to master when I'm riding the bike avoiding potholes all day! The trip south was broken in the town of Dila. A pleasant dusty town to wander through and be followed in hot pursuit by a crazed woman dragging an I.V line and bag behind her like something out of a horror movie!

Across the border and back into Kenya we organised a truck heading to Nairobi - this time a cattle truck! We drove non-stop on the southward journey passing through landscapes familiar but definitely not known, the qat keeping me and the driver Mohamed alert for any bandits that might spring out from behind rocks. At least that might have slowed us down a bit - Mohamed seemed to be late for a meeting and planted his concrete foot on the accelerator 24/7! I don’t know why as the constant juddering from driving hellish speeds over the gravel road corrugations kept causing us to stop so the cattle handlers could prod their cattle back up on their feet. Plus it broke the trucks suspension making for an unbelievably uncomfortable ride!
It was definitely heading towards Christmas time as everyone wanted more money - none more so than the ever trusting Kenyan Police. Mohamed explained that he did not have a passenger licence to carry us in his truck, so every Police checkpoint south of Isiolo towards Nairobi had its price: between US$1 to US$3 depending on whether or not the Police had a vehicle to chase us with!
Arriving back to Jungle Junction in Nairobi was a signal for ‘All Go!’ so to speak. I put the bike back together with the part brought in from Germany and set about organising with different shipping companies how to crate the bike for the flight to Cameroon in a few days time. We took the bike to Kenyan Airways and in a full day everything was packed up and signed on the dotted line…..along with a few bulging Christmas funds.
Now all that remained was to get ourselves on the same flight in two days time and peer at the shrinking jungle below…..West Africa here we come!



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Our hiking group - Simeon Mts 2007Our hiking group - Simeon Mts 2007
Our hiking group - Simeon Mts 2007

L - R: Chris, Gwen, Phil, Mitiku (guide), Karen, Tazabe infront
View from Imet GogoView from Imet Gogo
View from Imet Gogo

Approximately 4000+m in the Simeon Mts


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