Saturday, 1 December 2007

Bonfires and Baboons

This was written in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, on the10th of November 2007. Due to very poor internet facilities in Ethiopia I am posting this from Nairobi.

What a difference a day makes. As soon as we entered Ethiopia we started climbing and the temperature plummeted, but more of that later.

The day we left Khartoum turned out to be a long one, complicated by getting lost in both of the towns we went through. In Wad Madani we ended up at a dead end on a dusty football pitch on the Nile and in Gedaref we got caught up in a diversion that took us through back yards and drying laundry. A very kind taxi driver led us through the dusty, cobbled (if we were lucky) rutted tracks to where we could pick up the main road again. The road from Khartoum to Galabat on the border was very good. Except for our little detours we were motoring, clocking up the most miles driven in one day since we left Worcestershire.

That night, being November 5th, Gavin had a little surprise. He pulled out a small packet of sparklers and despite not having a guy to burn on our rubbish fire we celebrated Guy Fawkes Night in style.

By now we had left the desert behind. We camped in a crop field surrounded by properly sized trees, grass and such vegetation we have not seen since Turkey. Of course we also had the insects to entertain us. The locusts were huge and the grass hoppers and other bugs were into everything, up a sleeve, frying in the flame of the stove and adding protein to our pasta.

Departing Sudan was far more simple than entering and in no time Gavin had all the paperwork completed. I stayed with the car because there is no point me trying to sort out the paperwork in an Islamic country, and we do not like leaving the car unattended at borders where there are always many dodgy geezers hanging around. We then crossed a rickety bridge into a far more chaotic Ethiopian border post. There were people everywhere. Ladies carrying umbrellas to shelter the baby on their back, border guides offering their services and horse drawn carriages. Interestingly a number of young Ethiopian men approached me, advising not to change money at the border, that there are banks in the next town and that many Ethiopians at tourist destinations are not to be trusted. Entering Ethiopia was also very simple. After a passport stamp and ensuring that we had yellow fever certificates we were on our way.

Ethiopia is a beautiful country and much of it mountainous. The countryside seems to be evenly and quite densely populated and the main method of transport being Shank’s Pony. There is never a stretch of road where we do not see either people walking and/or livestock grazing or on the move also. I think that the people are also very fit, considering that most live at altitude and they are on the move the whole day- the children are certainly fast running after us. Gavin likens some of the villages to fairy villages. They are very picturesque with thatched rondavels. The people are petite as is the livestock. I have never seen such dainty cows, tiny lambs, all the donkeys look to be miniature and the horses are more the size of donkeys. Much of the day to day living seems to take place in the outside and the country just feels to be bursting with life with human activity, lush vegetation, ,birdsong, the sounds of insects and animals making the noises they make.

We had been told a few things about Ethiopia in advance. One was about how bad the roads were. Indeed the road for the next 200km or so to Azezo was a bit of a bone shaker as was the road to Simien Mountains National Park. We had also been warned about the children; that they throw stones and are always asking for pens, money etc. Later on we decided that the children are in fact a type of pest and we need a type of child repellent. Anytime we stopped children would gather around; “are you poor?” they ask, “give me pen, give me money, give me your clothes ….” the demands never end which is similar to their presence. The worst times are early in the morning and in the evening when they are on their way to and from school. We have to get up half an hour earlier so that we can complete those private ablutions, one prefers not to have an audience for, under cover of darkness.

Despite being in the opposite direction to our destination we headed up to Simien Mountains National Park to observe the endangered Walia Ibex and the Gelada Baboons. On the way we stopped off at Debark to pay our park fees and arrange to pick up the obligatory armed Scout (Awaco) at 7.30am the following day. During our lunch stop we were amused by a group of honeystealers, attempting to nab some of the sweet stuff from a bees nest in a eucalyptus tree.

The extremely conscientious Awaco, complete with AK47, was punctual the next morning and after realising that he did not know how to open or close the car door we were on our way. If a man is not carrying a big stick or umbrella he is carrying an AK47. However, we have not seen ammunition anywhere so I was not too worried. Also, Awaco did sit in the back with his thumb over the barrel, most of the time, which was most reassuring!

The road out of Debark was a shocker with football sized sharp boulders as cobbles, livestock and people everywhere, but back on the open road the track improved for the 40 minute drive to the entrance of the park. One child threw a stone at us which hit the rear window. Conscientious Awaco, now having figured out how to open the car door, was almost out of the car before I had a chance to stop. Off he ran, nimble as a mountain goat, after the children, returning with the offending boy. But we did not know what we were supposed to do with him. Awaco did indicate that we could tie his hands together and take him with us! Not sure that was such a good idea, so after some finger wagging and stern looks we sent him on his way. Once in the park the flora changed from pastoral agricultural land with barley crops and grazing to a more alpine belt with arboreal heathers and hypericum. The heathers were wonderful, hanging with thick lichen (remember Gavin’s “beard” at Ohau, Mum?). Higher up the only vegetation was the giant lobelia. We saw many raptors gliding and diving and the Gelada baboons were not at all shy and great fun to observe. They seem to spend the whole day sitting in the sun feeding by tearing up the grass and preening each other. The odd male will also act as the urge takes him to make marital relations with a chosen female- as I said, they are not shy.

That afternoon we decided to test our fitness at altitude by climbing the hill behind the campsite. For the first half hour we were huffing and puffing, but taking it very slowly. Then quite suddenly we felt so much better, first Gavin and then myself. Our breathing was much easier, my legs did not feel so heavy and I had more energy. We made it to the top quite easily and were at about 4000 metres. Certainly the highest I have ever been. Needless to say storm clouds were gathering and the view was not so great.

On the way down we came across a group of shepherd boys clustered around a very smoky turf fire and looking rather bedraggled as they huddled under their blankets. They were toasting barley which was delicious.

Closer to the camp it started to rain and by the time we were back at the car it was hailing and becoming very cold. We quickly erected the awning and had a brew. As night fell it got colder and colder. Overnight it was 2 degrees Celsius in the tent. Considering that the coolest temperature we had experienced in months was 25 degrees and that was only just before sunrise, we were really feeling the cold. We were really glad for our Swandris.

Up with the sun in the morning we saw Walia Ibex which are quite majestic and spent more time watching the baboons. The young were hilarious as they cart wheeled up and down vertical rock faces. As the sun melted the frost the Park was seething with life. Everywhere we looked there were insects, birds and mammals scurrying along. After breaking camp we drove up the Bawhit pass, recording 4300m altitude on the GPS. I think that is the highest the car is ever going to reach in its life- imagine driving higher than Mount Cook. Amazingly enough, just past the top of the pass were four men, just sitting by the side of the road.

Then it was back to Debark to drop off Awaco. On the way another child threw his stick at us. Gavin stopped and reversed but the child was off. Again Awaco made chase. This time he returned with a few boys but not the naughty one. He wrote down their names and proudly retrieved the felonious stick as evidence, which he indicated he was going to make a report about. Now when we see a child with a mischievous glint in their eye and something hidden in their hand we just drive straight towards them and they scarper pretty quickly. This missile throwing behaviour is not so bad for us so far, but we have heard of some Overlanders with dents in their cars. For motorbikers and cyclists it is a real hazard.

In Gondar we visited the Berhan Selassie Church where we were introduced to the Ethiopian Orthodox style of church decoration, quite vibrant and unique. After stocking up on a few groceries and filling our various tanks we continued south. Expecting more slow and rocky roads we anticipated a long drive to Bahir Dar. What a pleasant surprise, it was tar seal all the way and the journey was only a few hours. We camped in the grounds of the Ghion hotel right on Lake Tana with its wonderful bird life and plantations of coffee and banana. Lake Tana is also the source of the Blue Nile (although it still looks brown to me). Gavin has been stocking up on meat (lately he has been obliged to become almost vegetarian) and we have enjoyed a few beers with other overlanders around the fire soaking up the mild tropical atmosphere.

We plan to visit some of the Coptic Monasteries on the many islands of Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls. Then we have to decide whether to tackle the rocky slow roads and cross over to Lalibela or just head straight towards Addis Abiba. Michelin have so far been rather useless in locating a tyre dealer for us and a couple of the tyres do look as if they are about to fall to bits, but I will not say anything about holes in rubber because I really do not want to tempt fate.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Happy birthday Averil! Hope you had a good day. We're safe and sound in Kenya. Poor comms - previous message from a week ago. Hopefully can update in Nairobi.
Lalibela fantastic, very bad roads. After 3 days in Addis Ababa have parts tyres and visa - now ready for Kenya via Omo Valley. Unable to access blog here!