Ethiopia, YOU! YOU! YOU! YOU! Give me money!
9th January to 23th February 2006
Following the usual border formalities we crossed in to Ethiopia. I canft explain what a relief it was to be back on asphalt once again. On arrival at customs, following the usual immigration procedure, we discovered that it had just that minute closed for a two-hour lunch break, apparently on Sundays they take three hours! This has to be the only country in Africa where the customs closes for lunch! We were livid but what can you do but sit and wait. Much to our relief even the guides and hustlers went home for lunch! So I moved Grommet to the shade, got out the chairs, following a couple of samosas and we were both having a quiet little snooze. After their two-hour lunch, the officials returned, ten minutes later we were free to go and at last on our way.
We were expecting, desert, famine, poverty and the roadside lined with hostile children who stone tourist vehicles (these were to come later). But as usual the reality was somewhat different. The landscape was as dry as Kenya but by contrast, was covered with green scrub while the problem of persistent droughts seems to be being addressed with the installation of a new roadside pipe line, water points and many new bore holes. There also appeared to be some military assistance with a few army water tankers in the dryer areas, where the pipeline had yet to reach. I have to say that all this was quite a surprise and not what one would have expected, where were the dead and dying animals like the ones we had just witnessed across the border in Kenya | and where were Sir Bob and Bonno!
What was concerning us though, was the large number of well-armed men along the road, dressed in both military and civilian attire. Could these be the gbanditsh that we had been warned about! We were later relieved to see a long convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers with tinted windows go past at speed with an armed escort, obviously on some form of official businesscc!
With the gbandith problem out of the way we found a spot in the bush away from the road just before the town of Yavello.
Typically, when we stop, I give Grommet a quick once over visual inspection and it was on this occasion I discovered that one of the front leaf spring bolts had sheared right through and would need replacing. I had a replacement of sorts in my spares box, the bolt wasnft quite long enough for the lock nut but would at least get us out of trouble until I could find a replacement in Addis Ababa.
After a quiet night, a few passing locals, on their way to get water, dropped by to greet us but they only spoke their local language and the encounter was surprisingly short.
Back on the road, every now and again the landscape would be dotted with huge white termite hills giving the impression that wefd stumbled upon an ginstallationh of Henry Moore sculptures!
Our intention was to visit the Omo valley to see some of the ethnic peoples unique to the area but as Grommets front suspension was just an inshallah repair and the road to the valley was in a very poor state I made the decision to give it a miss and buy Blanca a copy of the National Geographic insteadcc..!
One thing that strikes you about Ethiopia that is just like Rwanda: the whole population appears to be on the move, the roads are full of people walking with their animals and they have absolutely no road sense.
Ethiopia has to be one of the first African countries were bicycles are used for personal transport as well as pleasure and not just as a two wheeled substitute for a small truck. Here instead of a small truck there is of course the Ethiopian woman or if you have some money, a donkey or donkey and cart which form yet another of the road hazards. The vehicles that do exist here, wing mirrors and indicators are there purely for aesthetics and are never used and to protect the driver from the sun, whilst on the move a thick curtain is hung in the window as a shade. Ethiopians are strong believers in God and his ability to protect them at all times, in particular when entering a stream of fast moving traffic or crossing the road to greet a friend and they have to be some of the worst drivers in Africa! Wefve seen more crashed vehicles here than anywhere else!
Another thing that strikes you as you travel along is the number of table tennis and table football tables there are. The games appear to be the major national pastime along with trying to get run over and watching football.
Anyway, back on the road the landscape to Awasa was stunning, very hilly, surprisingly green with meadows and forest interspersed with the usual scrub and little streams and rivers. There seems to be a lot of water in Ethiopia, much more than one would expect.
At Awasa we stayed at a little campsite run by a German woman and her Ethiopian husband, the parking area was small but the fantastic food and spotless shower and toilets sure made up for the lack of space.
Ethiopia is definitely lagging behind the rest of Africa with regard to ATMs and ways to obtain cash, some banks will change dollars and euros but there is almost no currency black market and the rates offered are very poor.
Wefve now left the gmuzunguh yelling Africans behind to be replaced with gYou, You, You,h along with ggive me money, pen, book, watch, t-shirt, etch or gone Birrh cries from the locals.
While in Awasa, as well as getting some money and catching up with things at the internet cafe we checked out the local beauty spot, Lake Awasa, but found it smelt a bit like a toilet.
We also received the bad news that our tenants had handed in their notice and decided to return to Australia. This created a state of panic with our thoughts turning to abandoning poor Grommet somewhere and a premature return to Europe. Luckily my best mate Tim and our friends in London were on the case and had the house re-let, for which we are exceedingly grateful.
With some local currency we headed for the hot spring resort of Wondo Genet to have a hot soak. Set in a forest with a small garden, complete with tame colobus and vervet monkeys, the resort is beautiful if a little odd architecturally. I donft think the place sees many overlanders like us, as by the time I put up the roof tent we had assembled a small audience and attracted the attention of a TV film crew producing a documentary on local tourism. The director Michael and his crew were to interview me later, in the pool, about our travels and our impressions of Ethiopia in particular. At the springs we also met some locals from Addis who introduced us to the traditional national dish called Injera. Think of a piece of old grey foam or bar towel, with a variety of spicy meat or veg stews placed on it. The art in eating Injera is to tear off a piece of gfoamh with your right hand, collect some of the stews and transfer it to your mouth, hopefully avoiding your clothes in the process. I have to say that the stews are really very good but regarding the gold foamh the jury is currently out! It would be fantastic if you could forget the foam in favour of rice or a chappati. Even when there is rice on the menu it is virtually impossible to get a rice and national food combination
We left the springs and headed off to Lake Langano just up the road. The lake is an odd colour a bit like a cup of strong tea with just a dash of milk, we resisted the temptation to swim, bilharzia or no bilharzia! Here we met up again with the group from Addis. The Lake was yet another place where the wealthy from Addis go to relax and let of steam, water skiing, jet skiing and horse riding along with drinking, chewing chat, (a kind of mild stimulant) and partying well in to the early hours of the morning to music pumping out from their car stereos. Not quite the image one has of a starving, poverty stricken nation, the third poorest in the world! It made a welcome change to see the glocalsh getting hassled and charged silly money for things, ghow much for that gourd?h After a very bad nightfs sleep, too many loud stereos, we made arrangements to meet our new friends at yet another hot spring resort at Sodere, with its Olympic size hot pool, on the way to Addis Ababa. It was strange to see this huge pool empty and the gbabyh pool packed, as you soon discover travelling on this continent, very few Africans can swim!
I think that Ifve had enough of hot springs for a while and have started to feel like a boiled vegetable!
Addis Ababa is a huge, dusty, sprawling, chaotic city, where goats, donkeys, cows and beggars mingle with the traffic on the streets and the run down shanties rub shoulders with plush new sky scrappers. Somehow we managed to fight our way though to the Taitu Hotel, the oldest hotel in Addis set in the Piazza district. The hotel is not the best and has seen better days, very faded colonial springs to mind, with the staff almost outnumbering the guests. For our first three days, a water shortage, was only resolved when we refused to pay. Still it is fairly cheap and well located, and a good meeting place for travellers. For some unknown reason, one has to take a room even though we were camping! We did consider sub letting the room by the hour to make a little extra money on the side, but judging by the number of used condoms everywhere, I think the hotel has already got that market covered! At least some people have adopted a responsible attitude to Aids and population growth!
In the hotel car park we met up again with Edouard and Sandrine who along with Bernard, Sonia and Anni had already been waiting well over a month for their Sudan visa. We were then joined by gthe accountantsh Ivan and Rachel who we had met in Kampala and were also making their way north and later by Walter, Christine and their dog Dimef from Belgium travelling south in an old Range Rover. Quite a little family of car park dwellerscc.In England I think we would be referred to as gtravellersh and ordered by the police to move on!
Begging is a huge problem here in Ethiopia, almost everyone wants something, Ifve yet to meet a local child who isnft hungry, who doesnft want a pen or money, whose parents are still alive and who isnft a struggling student, etcc Immobile beggars can transform to international athletes and even the gblindh can somehow detect a gwhite faceh and veer across the road to beg. What is particularly annoying is when beggars bypass locals in their BMWs, Mercedes, Range Rovers and Land Cruisers to target the poor white person, usually a tourist, crushed in a local mini bus to ask for money! This country definitely has the highest number of beggars we have seen so far, and ok some of the people are visibly poor, but begging and the number of beggars really is a problem, especially if you are a foreigner and is something that really has to be addressed by the Ethiopian Government. The flood of NGOs just seems to make the situation and dependency on foreign aid worse. It is almost impossible to go anywhere in this country without somebody holding out their hand and asking for something!
Anyway, before we could apply for our Sudanese visa, we had to get Blanca, yet another passport from the Spanish Embassy, the one we had obtained in Mozambique was by now under the required six month limit. Bureaucracy, donft you just love it, still the Spanish Embassy staff were very helpful even bending the rules slightly to suit our needs.
With a new passport in hand, now for the next trick, apply for the Sudanese visa. Sitting in the car park of the Taitu we had heard so many horror stories, people waiting for up to two months without a result, others who have flown to Cairo obtained the visa in hours and then flown back, while others have just crossed the border illegally with out a visa and taken their problem direct to Khartoum!
We had met the Sudanese Consul in Lusaka who had given us the name of a friend and contact in the Embassy here in Addis, with luck this might short cut some of the formalities. But it seems you can know the Ambassador personally and still have problems, apparently all visa applications here have to be approved by Khartoum or at least thatfs what you are told! Each visit to check on the situation with our application was met with rudeness, insolence, disrespect and always gmaybe tomorrow!h
While in Addis we met up again with Michael and before we knew it, we were set to appear with Nando, a Spanish cyclist on a round the world trip, on gMeet ETVh hosted by Tefera Gedamu, the Ethiopian equivalent of Michael Parkinson. Following a quick interview we were recorded and then appeared in a half an hour show on national TV discussing our trips, Ethiopia and our problem with the Sudanese Embassy and our visa application.
Fortunately here in Addis, if youfre not that taken by the gNational Foodh, there are some very splendid pasta dishes, superb coffee from old espresso machines and delicious cream cakes, a legacy from the time of Mussolini and the Italian occupation. Food here is so cheap and a meal for two with drinks can cost less than a packet of bacon! Itfs so cheap to eat here that we havenft cooked in weeks and if we donft get the visa soon we will have to join a local fitness centre, to work off the effects of the new pasta diet.
While we have been waiting, Ifve been kept busy in between embassy visits sorting out a few problems on Grommet. I sourced a replacement for the broken suspension bolt and changed the oil. We now have a working volt meter and Jonathan at Crozier 4x4 sent me out a couple of new oil cooler pipes that had started to weep. Then there were the other rovers that required attention, changing the rear shocks and fitting a ball joint repair kit to gthe accountantsh Defender 110 and accompanying Walter to a local garage to supervise the replacement of the Range Rovers engine mounts and assorted repairs to the suspension and exhaust system.
Those travelling south, come and go, and the many fly by tourists, drop in to find out what we are doing in the hotel car park, disappear off on their guided tours retuning to find us still waiting for the visa.
After two and a half weeks waiting wefd had enough of gmaybe tomorrowsh and hatched a plan with the French group, who by now were in their seventh week of gmaybe tomorrowsh, to fly to Cairo and obtain the visa there, despite the cost of two return air tickets. This really was the only option open to us and a way to obtain the visa for certain. We had even tried the British Embassy in Addis, where the lady at the counter said it would be at least a further four weeks before they could even attempt any communication with the Sudanese Embassy and why did we want to go to Sudan anyway! In the end eight of us paid a visit to Egypt Air and booked our flights, since we were such a big group we managed to get quite a good deal.
Wednesday morning arrived and we were all on the 4am flight to Cairo arriving at 8.30am local time. We separated and headed for our various embassies for letters of recommendation. The UK letter just states that her Britannic Majesty no longer issues letters of recommendation and for this we Brits have to pay 20. The British Embassy in Cairo was the complete opposite to Addis, friendly, polite and efficient! With our letters, forms and photos in hand it was just a quick walk round the corner to the Sudanese Embassy. Again a complete contrast to the Addis equivalent, friendly and helpful, there was even a small cafeL for a snack or drink while you wait. We were told to come back in two hours when the visas would be ready. The receptionist was even kind enough to write down the address in Arabic for us to give to a taxi driver should we need it!
With the exception of Ivan and Rachel, gthe accountantsh, none of us had been to Cairo before and what a change from Addis, no beggars, no hassle just the usual hustle and bustle of a huge metropolis, but the traffic was some thing elsec..why only use two lanes for two cars when you can just about squeeze in four! And try and spot a car without some kind of body damage. It reminded me a little of Madrid in Spain. Should you want to escape the traffic, you can escape underground and use the very cheap metro, where the first two cars are reserved for women and the odd foreign male only. We were all surprised by the number of people who bid us welcome to Cairo or Egypt, it made a pleasant change from Addis and the occasional ggo back to your own country!h Following a little lunch, we popped back to the embassy and sure enough there were the passports complete with bright shining visas, just like that, it seemed so easy we were all a little shocked.
So with our passports back we took the opportunity to convert our Egyptian visa into a multiple entry one and apply for a Libyan visa. Yes, you guessed it, the route back is changing yet again. An enquiry at the Syrian Embassy brought the response that it was only possible to obtain the visa in our home countries. It may be possible to get it at the border but itfs a long way to go and have to turn back! With all the visas, the applications and other official paperwork out of the way, we were left with enough time for a celebration dinner and the chance to do the tourist bit and some sightseeing. Blanca wanted to see the pyramids but was out-voted in favour of the Cairo Museum, the treasures of Tutankhamun and a wander round the historic Islamic quarter before heading out to the airport and our flight back to Addis.
We all arrived back in Addis feeling strangely refreshed despite our three day whirlwind visit to Cairo and we had the all important visa for Sudan, so there was nothing now to prevent us now from moving on. The French group left almost immediately, they had done all their sightseeing already, quickly followed by Ivan and Rachel with us trailing along behind, as usual we still had do a little shopping and stock up.
Finally we were on the move again and heading north towards Weldiya. The road was good asphalt and we were soon making up for our late start despite the animals and locals meandering about the road. The scenery was incredible, very hilly with extensive cultivation all round. It was getting dark as we pulled into a motel but we quickly pulled out again when they told us the price for camping in the car park, twice the price of a room in Addis. Wefd hoped to find somewhere to bush camp but this being Africa, it got very dark very quickly so we ended up on the forecourt of a small village petrol station. It was strangely peaceful and we managed to have both, our dinner and breakfast in peace, which is almost unheard of here. To avoid any hassle we were up very early and were actually on the move by 7.30. The road continued to climb and at one point you pass through the mountains via a series of tunnels, the first of which turned out to be a bit of an off-road experience with mud and water filled potholes and not quite what I was expecting!
After such a long time in Addis, I think our deep cycle batteries had dropped below their minimum voltage and now refuse to hold their charge, so we will be looking to replace them in Egypt and maybe try and get a solar panel as well.
After Weldiya, the asphalt gives way to a stony gravel road. Why are most of Ethiopiafs places of interest only accessible via the worst roads? Climbing up to Dilb poor old Grommet was suffering, itfs one long continuous climb up to 3,500m, and half way up he ground to a halt. The electric fuel pump was pumping but not drawing fuel, oh, and the hand brake had broken en route, so Blanca now had to leap out and place a stone behind the wheel, much to the amusement of the gathering groups of kids. Then it starts ggive me pen, give me money, food, book, t-shirt, shorts, shoes watch or what ever they could spy in the cab, after about 20 minutes of this we were finally able to move off but only for a couple of hundred meters. Grommet stopped again and we were surrounded by the same kids who then proceeded to go through the same routine as before and we gave the same answers as before, No! No! No! So it continued until eventually Grommet decided after about half a dozen attempts to go and we could finally leave the kids behind empty handed. As we continued to climb there were people and their donkeys everywhere, but all heading in the same direction up! Near the top it all became apparent and the reason for this strange migration, there was a food aid dump and they were handing out sacks of Canadian wheat as part of US aid.
We reached the top and were both exhausted by the climb and dealing with the kids, time to find somewhere to stop for the night. By chance we found a gquieth spot away from the road at a place that translates to gFox Field.h We were joined immediately by a small group of kids who had to send for an English speaker to ask for pens, money, shoes, etc, etc. Luckily the boy was old enough and knew enough English for the conversation to go beyond the initial request for things and we spent an interesting couple of hours chatting about Ethiopia and its problems with poverty, ignorance and over-population amongst other things until it got dark and they went home for fear of a hyena attack! It was only after the kids had gone that we realised that our blue plastic bowl was missing. We had retired inside, as at this altitude, boy oh boy is it cold, and were having a sandwich, when we got a call from outside, the boy had discovered that one of the kids had taken our bowl and had brought it back! That wasnft our only stroke of luck there as I saw a couple of rare Ethiopian foxes!
Next stop, Lalibela and its Monolithic churches. The guidebook describes the journey to Lalibela as gquite long and arduoush and they are not wrong, despite the fairly recent road, there is definitely a sense of achievement when you finally get there. We met up with gthe accountantsh, Ivan and Rachel again along the way and continued together until the last steep climb brought Grommet to a halt again. Once we got going again we met up again at the Seven Olives hotel, sourced a guide and prepared to check out the churches in the morning.
The churches are simply spectacular having been carved from solid rock and hollowed out and then finally decorated and covered in Christian mysticism. The first set of churches we visited represented earthly Bethlehem and Jerusalem and the next day we paid a visit to the set that represents heaven and this is probably the closest Ifll ever get. My favourite church has to be gBet Giyorgish or the church of St George shaped like a Crusaderfs Cross, it is simply stunning. And of course, not to be missed are the group of beggars that look like a scene from the Python film gThe Life of Brian.h gSpare a few cents for an ex-leper!h and my favourite, the beggar sitting under a block of concrete held up by a few strands of wirecc Oh, for some wire cutters and a quick test of faith!
After the wonder of these Churches you canft help but think what has happened to Ethiopia since!
Well it definitely wasnft road building! We headed back towards the Weldiya to Lake Tana piste and Grommet was by now seriously playing up and on the steep climb to Gashena we were back to the stopping every half a kilometre or so, surrounded by the hordes of kids who pored down the hillsides to beg each time we stopped! This was obviously hellcc.! It was a miracle that we reached Gashena and the junction without me or Blanca killing someone!
Grommet obviously needed a checkover, we found a little hotel in a town called Nefas and checked in. In the morning I set to work cleaning all the fuel filters and boy, were they dirty, I drained the tank and refilled it and managed to fix the hand brake. The previous evening, the hotel had been taken over by a group of hockey players and after Ifd finished working on the Grommet, the players invited us to join them for the start of the regional tournament nearby. We texted ethe accountantsf with our location and headed off to the local schoolfs playing field for the opening ceremony. As we arrived, it was as if gPosh and Becksh had just dropped by, we were mobbed! The intention was to stay a few minutes and then escape, but escape was by now impossible especially when Ivan and Rachel arrived swelling the number of whites to four! So there we were seated like celebrities with the local dignitaries and our minders. The nine days of games began with a display of local horse riding, then an introduction to the teams followed by some Ethiopian wrestling, well a little bit more like grappling, before the first actual hockey match. We were watching the games and probably more than fifty percent of the audience where watching us!
We had a great time and an unexpected look at another aspect of Ethiopian life but it was time to move on again. Grommet was a lot happier after his checkover. Still the road is appalling, stony, dusty and slow going making it easier for the local kids to mob the car or use it as a target for stick or stone throwing. We were very lucky that nothing was broken, but we know of people who had their windows broken and a couple of cyclists who had to receive medical treatment for cuts to the head from thrown stones.
Following a very long hard dayfs drive we at last reached the fantastic new asphalt road between Bahir Dar and Gonder. On arrival at Bahir Dar we pulled in to the Ghion hotel and bumped into Tony the cyclist who we had last seen in Addis, he was now travelling in style in a Land Rover 110 with a South African couple. Tony had grown tired of being hassled by the locals and was even considering flying with his bike to Cairo. At the Ghion we met an Australian couple travelling round the world on a Harley Davidson Electroglide and I thought I was crazy! We also met Tom and Jan, a Canadian couple doing the Cape to Cairo and then on to London route in a very well kitted out Toyota Land Cruiser. As we were quite a big group we managed to get a good discount on the tourist trips to the Monasteries on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and The Blue Nile Falls which we were lucky to see with some water as like Victoria Falls, Zambia, the majority of the flow is diverted to produce electricity.
Following Bahir Dar it was back on to the silky smooth asphalt road and Gonder, these Ethiopians really are spoilt! At the Belegez Pension in Gonder we were joined once more by Tom, Jan, Tony and the South Africans Pita and Lion, quite a little group, I fitted some more fuel filters to Grommet before we did the tourist bit and checked out the magnificent palaces there. They must have been quite spectacular in their day. While in Gonder I managed to convince Tom, Jan and Tony to avoid the hassle, the kids and the horrid road to Lalibela and fly there.
In fact if I were to contemplate a future visit to Ethiopia, I would fly to Addis Ababa and use this as my base and then fly to all the places of interest there by keeping all the You! You! You! Give me! Give me! Give me! To a minimumcc. As with regard to the constant begging from virtually every body rich and poor, Ethiopia has to rate as the worst country that we have visited so far, worse than Ghana and the visa requests, and Congo DRC.
Well after the tourist bit of the north we were at last on the gravel road winding our way through the last of Ethiopiafs mountains and heading for the border with Sudan at Metema. Everybody we have met has said that the Sudanese people are wonderful and respect your space. I really hope that this is true as it will be great to be in the wild again and bush camp away from everybody and try and regain some sanitycccc.!
Asphalt at last!!
A road hazard
Black and white Colubus
Wondo Genet hot springs
Michael and the crew
Some odd architecture
Friends from Addis
Locals having fun
Suffering, I guess not
Nando, round the world cyclist
The car park dwellers
Meet (ETV) the tourists
Flying to Cairo
The mythical visa
The team with our visas
What, no beggars?
Could almost be Paris
Would make a great hotel
Back in Addis
Green fields of Ethiopia
The guys from Fox Field
Inside a rock church
Church of St. George
Priest and the holy crosses
Church of St. George
Another rock church
Raider of the lost ark
Shame about the scaffolding
Introducing the hockey teams
Watching us, watching you
Hockey team and mascot
Tony, round the world cyclist
Monastery, Lake Tana
Blue Nile Falls
Us at the falls
Yes, itfs a Harley
Give me penc
A palace, Gonder
Inside the palace
More of the palace
Women labourers restoring the baths
The royal palaces