Tag Archives: Ethiopia

Finally Leaving Gonder

It has been longer than intended between posts – and we have a lot to talk about! The last delay was due to my little flirtation with tropical diseases, namely Typhoid and Giardia, but it was only a few days of being ill and we are back on the road and in Addis Ababa. I have to say I’m impressed by the speed, quality and affordability of Ethiopian medical care. I am always impressed by Katana’s resourcefulness which located and got us to the clinic when I needed it, even if I thought I would just sit it out and didn’t need help. Anyway back to the story, and we’ll have it in episodes – starting where Katana left you with a cliffhanger as we returned to Gonder to pick up our new tyres. We had just heard there might be a problem…

There was. And it wasn’t the last. Initially there was a bit of confusion over the tyre size we actually wanted so they hadn’t been ordered. They would come the next day, for sure. So we headed South West to Lake Tana to stay by the lake at Tim and Kim Village.

This trip was an adventure in itself in the rainy season since the usually good dirt road is in the process of being paved, which for now means a series of mud holes, water features and one river crossing where a bridge is out spice up the experience. We actually met Tim on the way, heading in the other direction taking  a lift out on a truck, and it was he who warned us of the ‘tricky bits’ and river crossing. Troopy coped well though and we waded the fast flowing muddy river, water lapping at the doors, with ease and a cheer from the local stranded bus passengers (some of whom were wading it themselves, with less ease and comfort). There was, however, one unknown little issue the river crossing caused which would only come to light in the distant heat of the Danakil Depression days later.

The Swimming Spot at Tim and Kim Village
The Swimming Spot at Tim and Kim Village

Kim and Tim’s was the nicest place we’d stayed in a while, with a chance to swim in the lightly cloudy lake waters (the Hippos don’t come near the swimming spot, apparently), and relax over a beer in the comfortable, open sided thatched building that provides lounge, bar and restaurant. Kim chatted to us about how they came to set up this lovely village style hotel and campsite, running it as a project to train local people in good tourism, while baboons in a tree up the hill tried to express their opinion too. We were shown around by  a young lad whose friendly charm, manner and and excellent English were a credit to the project. Later we were treated to a fresh and tasty specially made vegan meal before retiring to Troopy for the night a few metres from the lake. The mosquitoes weren’t even too bad here!

Lakeside Camping at Tim and Kim's
Lakeside Camping at Tim and Kim’s

Next morning’s return trek through a slightly lower river, but no less mud, had us back in Gonder waiting outside the tyre guy’s place just after lunch. Then quite a lot after lunch some people turned up and we waited as the tyres were ‘on the way’. Sometime around 4pm, after a comical but effective Troopy-wash was carried out by an assorted gang of ‘helpers’ and hangers on to pass the time, the tyres turned up in a tuk-tuk! Sadly, they were totally different to the ones we ordered – Bridgestone Mud-Terrain and no doubt cheaper than the BF Goodrich All-Terrain we had paid for. A heated exchange ended with us getting our money back and leaving town for what we hoped, but daren’t assume, was the last time.

Driving at night in Ethiopia is not for the faint hearted. Actually nor is driving during the day, but at least during the day you can see the people and animals that wander down and across the road wherever you are, and avoiding the random giant holes that appear irregularly in otherwise good road surfaces is sometimes possible. Driving at night actually seems to improve other vehicles behaviour, or perhaps the dark just hides the usual horror? Anyway, after some good distance during the evening we continued towards Lalibela in the dark and occasional rain until hunger overcame us and my nerve gave out. Nerve was not helped by having to make a tyre-squealing brake and swerve manouvre on a long descent to thread between a herd of cattle hidden by oncoming truck headlights, missing cows by inches on either side. We pulled into a mountain lay-by aiming to camp behind some trees hidden from the road. This plan was scuppered within 5 minutes (and a few mossie bites), when a passing truck stopped to offload a couple of heavily-armed police officers who told us to move on as it is dangerous to camp in the mountains. Reluctantly we resigned ourselves to a night in another no-doubt-grubby hotel, but were surprised to find a cheap but nice and clean hotel with secure parking in the next town. The rude and incompetent staff were the issue in this place though, and the less said about porridge-with-crushed-raw-garlic the better! On the other hand they failed to charge us for dinner, despite attempts to correct them, so it balanced out I guess.

In the morning we headed to Lalibela – the UNESCO World Heritage site of 11 rock-hewn churches, cut down into and carved out of solid, gently sloping rock.

Noodles for Lunch
Noodles for Lunch

The journey there was a pleasant wander, firstly on paved roads and then some 60km of secondary gravel, variously eroded by this rainy season.

The children appear from nowhere, everywhere.
The children appear from nowhere, everywhere.

We stopped for snacks and lunch, and climbed the long, steep mountain into the town for early evening.  After confusing ourselves and google maps on the tightly convoluted hairpins and mud-hole roads we checked into the Seven Olives Hotel, recommended in our old guide book for its good food. Dinner alone justified this decision as there was plenty of vegan choice again and it was superbly cooked and presented – Katana will be bringing you a post covering Ethiopian Food shortly, so you can read up on the details soon!

We spent the next morning (and $50USD each…this is A LOT of money here, but at least goes to the upkeep of the churches) exploring the 11 churches. These are some of the most important religious sites in Ethiopia, and actively used for worship at all times. Scattered in 2 main complexes plus 1 solitary church across the rugged rocky hillside and surrounded by the tatty town and muddy streets, all that can be seen at ground level are the (somewhat obtrusive) protective canopies placed over most of the sunken churches to protect them. For me, the most memorable sensory experience was the feel and sound of bells and drums reverberating through a large dark cave we had squeezed into down a steep, narrow passageway itself roughly cut deep into of the rock. Having torches was essential!

By lunchtime we were done with this cold, wet mountaintop and ready for the next bit of our journey: 300km of secondary mountain ‘road’ as we headed NE to Mekele, where we wanted to visit the Danakil Depression.

Out Of The Desert And Into The Freezer

The Sahara adventure is over. We escaped Wadi Halfa on Wednesday afternoon and drove all evening and night straight to Khartoum, almost in a convoy with the other two vehicles that were stuck on that barge with poor Troopy. The road was very smooth (in most places) and we managed to avoid most of the field desert mice that kept running across the road in the dark hours. The reason for this dash to Khartoum was to get to the Ethiopian embassy bright and early to get our next visas. We stopped at a sort of truck stop just outside the city and slept for a couple of hours.

In the morning, with some help from a tuk tuk driver and our friends Jack, Eneko and Alba, we managed to find the embassy. It was most certainly not where google maps or the gps said it was supposed to be, but that is becoming quite the norm in these parts. Sometimes I cannot rely on addresses and maps and directions unless they are coming from a local. There is also the added stress of not having a proper map for Sudan and Ethiopia but I seem to be managing navigating just fine.

The Ethiopian visa took about two hours from the moment we got paperwork to fill out until we got handed our passports back with the fresh new handwritten visa. Afterwards we said goodbye to our friends, who were all going to drive to the border, whereas we decided to chill out for the day at the International Camp south of the Khartoum airport, clean out the car, get some supplies, and drive to the border first thing in the morning.

The campsite was anything but luxury. We were told to park our car in some sort of open theater turned football field, and of course we were the only ones camping there, although there were other people staying in little accommodation houses. The facilities were clean but very drab, the many toilets were squats and some of them didn’t have running water. The showers were either ones that closed but had no water, or didn’t close and had cold water. But we made the most of what we had, we filled up our water supplies and I even did some laundry.

The next day we packed up, got fuel and zoomed off to the border. It was a very interesting drive, finishing the Sahara and seeing fields of green. My guess is they had a a very dry season just before this month, because all the greenery is fresh but there were so many dead animals in the fields, and the animals we saw grazing were very skinny. Some places were flooded with muddy water, but overall the scenery was overwhelming for the eyes, having spent over a month in the desert climate and seeing mostly yellow, orange and brown.

We got to the border just in time before they closed for the night. We had to dash around the small border town to get to immigration and customs on the Sudanese side, and then immigration and customs on the Ethiopian side. The border town was bustling with people and activity, and many stared at me as I sat in the car, waiting for Jonathan to get the Carnet stamped.

Finally after crossing the border we were in yet another country! Ethiopia was even more lush and green, almost immediately after the border. The animals looked very well fed, the people wore different clothing, many were waving as we passed, children ran around shouting “hello” and “you” (apparently the Ethiopian equivalent of “hey!”), women were not wearing headscarves and many were seen on the road, including police women! Such a change from the previous two Muslim countries. We stopped at a market town to get some fresh tomatoes and onions, and as we approached the veg stall, we were surrounded by fifteen or twenty children. All of them staring, pointing, saying something to each other, and two particular girls who stood right next to me kept poking me and stroking my wolf tattoo. Quite weird! Then we bought two veg samosas from a shy adolescent boy who hung around our car when we were getting ready to drive off again. The samosas were very good!

We camped just off the road by a stream, next to some trees. The bushes were alive with insects and sounds, so we had to close ourselves in the car, and even then a bunch of midges and a couple of moths got inside and hung around the lights. In the morning we were visited by three children, two girls and one little boy. They hung around looking at us and the car, and eventually I gave them some fruit in exchange for taking their picture. The bananas were eaten immediately, but the orange was still intact by the time we packed up and drove away. Some other villagers passed our car but all were polite and held their distance, unlike our previous village experience in Turkey.

As we continued to Gonder, we started climbing up in altitude and drove through clouds that passed the road. All of a sudden the road would almost disappear, and people or animals would emerge out of the white dense fog like ghosts. We got to Gonder in one piece though, and spent the day chasing spare tires. Two men were helping us out on this quest, and we were assured that the tires will arrive on Tuesday, and we were asked to pay half the price in advance. After all this we drove to Debark, the town with the Simien Mountains park headquarters, and camped in a really crappy parking lot of a dying hotel. There was no running water and the toilet.. well, at least it was just us using it. The night got very cold, I slept in a sweater and socks. Quite a change from sweating into the sheets in Wadi Halfa.

The next morning we went to the headquarters, got assigned a scout (it is illegal to access the park without a scout) and off we went! Our scout’s name was Frey and he spoke about 5 words in English. He brought only what he was wearing and his ancient rifle. Troopy doesn’t really have a second passenger seat, so me and Frey were cramped in the elongated front seat, luckily our scout was small and skinny. The mountains were absolutely nothing compared to any mountains I have seen before. They have flat tops, and rise up very high with long dramatic drops into nothingness. The clouds can be seen below, above and on the level of the road. Everything was covered in green and the earth was very wet. There were some patches of the road that was just mud and puddles, it was a miracle we didn’t get stuck like the other trucks we saw on the way carrying people. From the first impression, it looks like the mountains are lonely and empty, but in fact they are bustling with life: people, horses, mules, donkeys, sheep, cows, and then a whole lot of wildlife, the most impressive being the baboons. Those long-haired mammals hang around on hills and along the road, seemingly unafraid of humans. We saw a group of them grooming and fighting, then another group sitting around pulling out grass and eating it. By their scary large teeth you wouldn’t think these baboons were vegetarians!

We stopped to camp at Chenek, and spent the day making food, drinking hot tea and coffee, lounging around mostly. The weather was getting more cold and severe, so we had to climb into the car for all of evening to escape the rain. Eventually our scout said goodbye and left to go to the “lodge” where there were other scouts and some women who I am guessing live there. The night was very tough, the wind was insane, and with every gust we felt that the car would topple over. Or at least I felt that way. It was very loud, and unable to sleep, we moved downstairs and pulled the roof down to minimize the rocking and the noise. In the morning the hardest was climbing out of the warmth and into the chilling air.

We drove back to Debark and then south to Gonder, to spend the night and get our tires today. However, as we walked around the town last night, our previous “helper” informed us that there might be a problem with the tires. So it is with a heavy heart we start out today, hoping to get our tires, and if not, then get our deposit back and change our plans once more to get the tires first before heading to Mekele.