Friday, 7 December 2007

Happy birthday Rob from across the plains looking at Kilimanjaro but too cloudy to see it at all. Heading to the coast. Have a grand day.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

I love the smell of fresh bread in the morning

It was all going so well at the Michelin workshop until their car hoist collapsed, with a major hydraulic fluid leak, with our car on it. Luckily only two of the wheels were off at the time. It was then a bit disconcerting to see all the workers scurrying around with trolleyjacks, which also kept slipping and breaking, while other workers were hanging onto the roof rack in a vain attempt to take the weight off the brake discs. Gavin took control and we located the axle stands and made everything decidedly more stable. The only apparent damage was a bent brake guard which Gavin fixed. Once they had successfully fitted and balanced our three new tyres we were happy to leave.

After stocking up on essentials, such as loo paper, powdered and fresh milk, butter and even some fresh meat we planned to depart Addis Ababa. We collected Gavin’s passport and a not so brief return visit to the Land Rover dealer to purchase some gaskets and seals for the rear diff and transfer box as he had now decided that we were losing a bit of oil. Finally we were underway, heading south to the Great Rift Valley. Despite fairly good tar seal the road was slow; littered with the usual carts, poor drivers and their poorly maintained vehicles, motor-tricycle taxis, livestock, pedestrians and cyclists. Also, as usual, our map was a little off the mark and the distances were considerably longer than indicated. So what should have been a couple of hours, to Lake Langano, turned into a night-time expedition. Not advisable considering that the other drivers seemed to think that headlights are not necessary and there were still a few carts and pedestrians on the road. We had been advised not to bush camp in this part of the world so we were relieved to find the motel we had been recommended, we camped right by the lake.

The next day it was a short journey to the hot springs at Wondo Genet. They had a couple of pools and separate male and female showering areas. Entering the ladies area was reminiscent of the Hamman I visited in Aleppo. The hot, hot water gushed out of pipes protruding from the hillside and I was greeted by the sight of a rather corpulent naked older lady sprawled over the ground underneath one of the pipes. There was also a young mother with her two toddlers enjoying a wash. It was wonderful just sitting being pummelled by the water. When we left the queue outside was quite big, it was at the end of the day and many of the locals used the hot springs as a bath house.

The southern part of Ethiopia felt like a different country to the north. Firstly the people were much larger and louder than in the north. The land management was also very different with evidence of larger crops, there were far fewer people walking, instead they rode on carts pulled by donkeys which were also much bigger than those in the north. The women however, still always seemed to carry the heavy loads such as 20 litre water containers while the men had the important job of carrying their stick.

Instead of heading to the border at Moyale we headed south west to the Omo valley which we heard was very interesting in terms of different tribal peoples and the scenery. Also it meant avoiding the infamous Moyale Road, apparently rife with bandits and big sharp boulders to trash your car on. After filling our fuel and water tanks in Arba Minch we headed to the border. Unfortunately we had spot of bother with some police at a barricade by the Bawit river.

There are a few of theses barricades dotted around and generally after waiting, someone appears and after enquiring where we are from and where we are going we are on our way. Not so here. These police officers first of all wanted a letter of some description which we were certain we did not need then they decided they needed a “fee” from us! This we were positive was not required. When the truck beside us was allowed through the barrier we also decided to go, the police however had different ideas. Out came the guns etc so we stopped. Gavin got out of the car to try to reason with them but they then seemed terrified of us and started running away to behind their fire. What was a bit more worrying was when they started sending all the locals away! I just sat in the car thinking that this was not the time for me to give someone a telling off.

So we were at a bit of a stalemate. They would not talk to us but they would also not let us through and were keeping their guns cocked (or whatever you do with guns), not a good time to test my theory that they had no ammunition. Having made sure I had parked the car in the most inconvenient place; in that it blocked the road for any more traffic, I decided to get out the chairs and sit in the shade to wait it out. Eventually a truck turned up, then another. One of the truck drivers spoke good English and helped resolve this impasse. After it became clear that they wanted a bribe for me trying to go through their barrier it also became even more apparent that they were not going to get one from us. All of a sudden we could leave, there were a few firm handshakes and everyone was all smiles and we were on our way.

We made camp that night in solitude. Not a single observer turned up. Also the area did seem to be much more sparsely inhabited than the rest of Ethiopia we had visited. When the sun set we found out why: We were in mosquito hell. Despite a smoky fire, mosquito coils, citronella candle, a useless ultrasonic insect repeller device and even resorting to fly spray, I was bitten nearly 20 times through my specially selected trousers and shirt. Thankfully I had washed before the sun went down.

The next day at Turmi we met some very friendly police officers at the barricade who asked us to take lunch to their colleagues 20 km down the road at the next barrier. Not wanting to have more guns pulled on us we happily obliged them. Or at least we would have if we could find their colleagues. After over 40miles we arrived at Omorate (a border town miles from the border). We ended up giving the lunch box to the Immigration man there and hoping for the best, just hoping that the intended recipient found some food from somewhere.

Omorate is a decidedly unsophisticated town but it did have a man with whom I could change our last Ethiopian Birr into Kenyan Shillings, whilst a kid (young goat) the size of a kitten looked on. A very helpful man told us the way to the border, the turn off was 17km back at a sign indicating that there was a health clinic down the sandy track.

We did not really know anything about the tribes living in the area but given the variety of styles of dress there seemed to be a number of different ones. Most of the women were bare breasted and clearly the Ethiopian Tourist promotional posters depict the girls with the most “fresh” figures, never the women who have had 5 or 6 children or their mothers! Many wore skirts made from cow hides which they also used as backpacks. Both men and women wore lots of necklaces and some rubbed some ochre coloured substance on their faces and into their hair. Some of the men had ornate hair dos with different coloured mud raised up at the back with a feather poking out. Apparently this indicates he has been successful with a big kill over the last year. I am not sure this big kill relates to tribal warfare or to buffalo (I don’t think it relates to tourists). In general these people presented themselves with a lot more dignity and pride than many other people we have seen in Ethiopia wearing filthy clothes and their children with filthy faces and bodies, always with the outreached upturned palms. I am not sure how these tribal people have retained their ancient ways in the face of all the temptations the modern living poses. The area is not very easy to reach but it is also not that isolated and tourists do come here. I don’t know what the tourists do, look at them, pay them to take a photo?

The children along the more main road were certainly relatively tourist wise. They would do tricks and little dances or hold up souvenirs to buy as we drove by, inevitably if nothing is given an upturned palm is offered.

Later on that day we had another odd police encounter at a barricade in the middle of a sandy plain, with a few shacks nearby (maybe they were expecting us to bring them lunch). Anyway after explaining we were going to Kenya we were told we must ask the man standing by the car his permission to go ahead. Permission Gavin duly asked. He was met with a very blank look. So we thought we would show them our passports. Again a blank look, then we were nodded through.

We drove for another 5km and made camp. Luckily I had finished my wash before the locals arrived, having followed our tracks. However, they brought good news- we were in Kenya. The strange barricade 5 km back was the border. When our next visitor arrived, with his herd of cows, I was half way through cooking dinner. He sat and watched us for a while. I think “Big Brother” has not reached rural East Africa yet, so they make do with watching us. After some time he got up to leave so we nodded and waved goodbye. Fatal mistake, he thought we wanted him to stay. So he sat down again and made himself even more comfortable. His herd wandered off while Gavin and I were admiring the full moon as our tummies were rumbling louder and louder. Eventually he got up to leave. We quickly ate dinner fearing more company and lo and behold half an hour later he returned and appeared to settle down for the night with his wooden pillow. Just as we were going to go to bed ourselves he got up came over, said something, waved and was off. We were half expecting him to find him waiting for us in the morning. Despite all this he was quite magnificent to look at; very tall with excellent deportment, wearing a bright cloth to retain some modesty with a touch of face paint here and there.

The next day we made ourselves known to the police in Ileret, a town comprising a police building, their radio antennae and not much else. The route the police suggested took us through the Sibiloi National Park, along Lake Turkana. I did ask if we had to pay Park fees and they said it should be OK because we were driving through. Not so, after driving 70 km, crossing sandy river beds and lava fields we came to the park rangers who wanted a rather considerable sum of money from us. After much discussion we turned around and went back the way we came. Only a delay of 5 hours or so.

Our brand new tyres were already receiving a bit of a hammering from the rocks and lava so at lunch Gavin again played swap the tyres, replacing the rear tyres with the old ones. As we continued on our way we saw no-one, the last vehicle we had seen was yesterday lunchtime. We were really pleased with the privacy this would offer until just before stopping for the night, on the 4th Parallel, the transfer box lever broke. We were unable to select low ratio or apply the diff lock, essential for this terrain (for people with scant technical know-how, like me, this is what helps the car drive up really steep slippery slopes and negotiate technical routes).

The prospect of getting stuck and running out of water in the biggest middle of a dry nowhere was not appealing. We had not seen a well since before the border.

Lucky for me I married a most practical and manly chap (the Frenchies called him MacGyver) who repaired it. So after another omelette dinner we slept easily, well would have, if it had not been a howling, hot gale.

The next day we actually came to a town, North Horr. The people did look at us as if we had come from outer space but they still pointed us in the right direction for Marsabit. That night we ran our water tank dry and our reserve can did not contain as much water as we thought it did. However, my plan of having the fridge and camelbaks fully stocked with water worked and we made it to Marsabit the following afternoon with litres to spare.

We had heard, by word of mouth, of a place to camp called Swiss Henry’s Place. We had also heard that his wife set up a bakery. That clinched it for us-we had to find it. We had some co-ordinates which turned out to be a bit wrong. As we were driving around the hills beyond Marsabit a Land Rover approached and it was Swiss Henry himself. True to form the bakery was great and we gorged ourselves on fresh bread and butter. I even bought a cake to celebrate Averil’s birthday.

Gavin had been fretting for the last two weeks because we had not been able to send any text message or emails and was concerned that his family would be worrying, so he was really pleased to finally get a cell phone signal. Apologies to anyone who might have been worrying.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

The long and winding road

This post was written at Lake Langano, Ethiopia, on 20 November 2007.

Our stay in Bahir Dar was rounded out by a day of sightseeing. In the morning, we took a cruise on Lake Tana, visiting a number of island monasteries. We only went into one (due to budget constraints – there is an entrance fee to each), but the murals inside were brilliant, telling various stories from the Bible and history.

While out in the boat we also had a look at the outlet into the Blue Nile. In the afternoon, we drove out to see the Blue Nile Falls. The falls, known as “Smoke of Fire” are hailed to be 450 metres wide, with spray reaching up to a kilometre away. We were both quite disappointed here though, as the adjacent Hydro scheme draws off most of the water, so the massive falls shown in the posters were reduced to a mere trickle. Worse still, we had paid to go and see them. Catkin wasn’t happy, and someone was going to get it…

First in the firing line was the unwitting carpark attendant, an employee of the tourism bureau. He had asked us what we thought, so we told him, suggesting it was unfair to charge to see the falls at low flow. He happily gave us the name of the Head of the tourism bureau and suggested we discuss it with him, and then had the gall to ask if we could give him a pen. This was his fatal mistake. After having been asked for pens by almost every child in Northern Ethiopia, Catkin let him know in no uncertain terms that he would NOT be receiving a pen from us.

So, the next morning it was off to the tourism bureau office. The Head wasn’t there (maybe he was hiding from Catkin?), so a deputy listened to what we had to say. He was very apologetic that the falls were much reduced from their original splendour, but it seems that is just the way it is, and I don’t think our suggestions to stop promoting them as they were, and in particular, to stop charging tourists to see them, will go too far. He did, however, give us some brochures on Lalibela, which was our next port of call.

He also, a bit unfairly probably, got a bit of an ear-bashing about the behaviour of the children we had encountered in Ethiopia. Almost without fail, after the initial “You! You! You! You!” greeting, the children demand money, pens, t-shirts, “a trouser”, food, medicine, etc. Often it is from children who look healthy, are well dressed and on their way to or from school, with a bag of schoolbooks, but they seemed to have picked up this bad habit of demanding something for nothing from foreigners. When you see the number of Aid agency vehicles cruising the countryside, you can’t help wondering if they are part of the problem rather than the solution, for all the good work they do. Anyway, suffice to say, a tourism department official wasn’t really able to comment on the education of the nation’s children. Later, in Addis Ababa, we happened to walk past the Ministry of Education offices, so I had to quicken our step and point to something on the other side of the road in the hope Catkin didn’t notice, or she would have been in there tearing strips off them.

Always keen for an adventure, we opted to take our ageing tyres on what would hopefully be one last voyage of discovery for them. We had been warned that the road to Lalibela was bad, with many stretches consisting mainly of sharp rocks and large sections under reconstruction by the Chinese. Anyway, it was worse than we expected. Our speed average 25-30km/h for most of the day. After our late start from the tourism bureau, we weren’t able to make the 300km or so by nightfall, so found a reasonable place to camp for the night. In the morning we only had about five or six people stop to watch us eat breakfast and clean our teeth, so it was a good result.

Lalibela is famous in Ethiopia for its numerous rock hewn churches. Of these, 11 are in the town itself, and you buy one ticket to see all 11. Unfortunately, the ticket price (for foreign tourists) doubled a year ago to an extortionate sum, but fortunately (for us anyway) the churches are grouped in three sites, so we quickly worked out that we could buy one ticket and share it. While I was waiting outside one site for Catkin, a “deacon” came and asked if I had enjoyed the churches. I asked why the tickets were so expensive, and was surprised to learn that the money pays the salaries of the priests and deacons. Hmmm…

The late afternoon was spent mending yet another puncture, but it was very pleasing to sit at the hotel at the top of the hill and enjoy a beer as the sun set.

From Lalibela, we were heading to Addis Ababa. More bad roads in all direction, but we decided to take what looked to be the shortest route (although not the main road).

We encountered more stone throwing little boys. I reversed back to one, but he took off at the speed of light. Another, I stopped and jumped out to chase, but my dreams of apprehending the offender ended in a cloud of dust when I slipped over in the gravel! The grazes have nearly all healed now, thanks for asking. Immediately after one incident a white Land Cruiser from Save the Children went past. I reminisced about collecting door to door in Warkworth for Save the Children when I was young, and now here were the very children that have been saved, throwing stones at my car! We joked about a new charity called Stone the Children. Ah, it was funny. We laughed.

The Scenic Route we found ourselves on for the next two days didn’t quite match what was on out map, but most of the time was generally heading south, which was the right direction, so we kept going. I don’t think many foreigners travel this way, as the reactions of the locals were totally different to what we had experienced in the more tourist oriented areas. The scenery was spectacular, crossing three deep canyons, with very steep descents and ascents. Low ratio on the transfer box got a good workout, and we only got two more punctures. And Catkin thrilled the locals in one town by driving the wrong way around their only roundabout, because “some cows were in my way!”

We even made our way into a closed area of roadworks, because we didn’t take the detour (which wasn’t marked…). Anyway, after telling the man in charge “we have to get to Addis Ababa, tonight” he let us through, and sent an escort to make sure we didn’t go the wrong way. We had been having trouble finding a good campsite that night, and it was now dark. We finally did find a spot by a river, and had our coldest night in the tent so far – down to minus 2.5ºC. Icicles all round. Pity I shaved the beard off in Sudan.

We only had a short distance to go the next morning to get to Addis Ababa, and most of it was on a very good asphalt road. Unfortunately, the ability and skill of the Ethiopian drivers is inversely proportional to the condition of the road. Actually, no. They are terrible whatever the road condition, but terrible and FAST on a good road.

There were a few things we needed to sort out in Addis, and top of the list were applying for Kenyan visas and finding the Michelin Man to see about new tyres (although it was now Saturday, so these would have to wait until Monday). In the meantime, we filled in the time with doing our washing and checking email. Although there is plenty of internet access in Ethiopia, all of it is dial-up, and all seems to run through a single server, so it is slow slow SLOW. As for our blog site, we couldn’t even get onto it, let alone publish the post we had been carrying around for a week. Very frustrating, but that’s just the way it is. In the meantime, we have kept writing the blog posts so that when we do get somewhere with decent internet (probably Nairobi now), we can foist them all on you at once.

We have ended up spending a lot more time in Capital cities on this trip than we thought we would. Lately, there have been visas to apply for along the way, and often we need to by a part or two for the Land Rover. We usually save our washing until we are staying in a proper campsite or hotel, and sometimes we even splash out and go out for a meal. Here, we went to the Addis Ababa Restaurant, and I had ribs. And it was just ribs with lots of meat and no vegetables to get in the way. Man, was it good. And I had beer, too. Ribs and beer – delicious.

Also in Addis Ababa, we caught up to Louis the Dutchman, whom we last saw when he departed Khartoum four days before we did. It was good to see him again, and get a few more pointers about our planned route south, as he has been that way before. He seems to have turned over a new leaf, too, as we never saw one bottle of Coke touch his lips, where previously we had seen him often drink three or four in a row.

Finally, on Monday, after applying for a Kenyan visa for me (British Catkin would have needed one, but South African Catkin doesn’t) and buying some exciting Land Rover parts, we found the Michelin Man, and he even had the right tyres in stock to match our (almost) unused spare. All was going well until we broke their hoist…