Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Archive for the ‘Ethiopia’ Category

Planet Ethiopia

Posted by jamesandpolls on May 4, 2010

We have been in Ethiopia now for just over two weeks and have made it to the capital, Addis Ababa. The last two weeks have been incredible, taking us to the biggest highs and lows (both physically and mentally) of the trip so far. It has been nothing like either of us have experienced before . . .

 The most obvious difference between Southern Sudan and Ethiopia is the natural geography. Ethiopia is almost entirely a highland nation, with the majority of the country at over 1500m high. Sudan had been universally flat. After leaving the Sudan-Ethiopia border where the mercury had pushed to its highest so far (51°C), the land started to rise steeply and soon we were winding up sharp S bend turns. It was also getting cooler, cloudier and greener! We had been so used to the drab colours of desert towns that we had been experiencing since Syria that the green lushness of the Ethiopia was a technicolor assault on our senses. Trees, bushes and green fields stretched out as far as the eyes could see.

We have driven to the source of the Blue Nile!

Tukuls are the dwelling of choice in Ethiopia. Small round or square huts built of vertical wood branches with a thatch roof. If the family are wealthy enough the gaps in the walls will be filled with hardened cow dung/straw and the roof will be corrugated iron. The dress is different is different to Sudan; no dish-dashes here, instead western clothes in various stages of disrepair which hang off their bodies and accentuate their poverty.

Crossing the border we also noticed a major population density change. In Sudan we could go for hours without seeing anyone as we crossed a desert. Here most of the population lives in the countryside, and the villages are teeming with people. In a house that you would think would hold 5 people, 20 will be squeezed in. A pub (there are many of these) will be full to the rafters. 15 guys will be crowded round the village table football table, 30 around the ping-pong table.

Pee with a view!

If we stop a huge crowd immediately surrounded us. This was not a problem for the majority of the time but when we were desperate for pee it presented us with difficulties. You have no more than 20 seconds before you are spotted and children seep out of the surrounding land.  We have mastered the ‘quick-pee’ although there are normally a few interested bystanders by the time we get to ‘the shake.’ For obvious reasons this is harder and more embarrassing for Polls who has not yet mastered the use of her ‘shewee’.

 After spending two nights on the shores of Lake Tana, we headed up towards the Simien Mountains for a bit of trekking. En route we had a stopover in Gondar, where we spent most of our time in cafes drinking machiatos – (the coffee is incredible here) and were introduced to Ethiopian history of which they are extremely proud. The underlying pride towards their history is based on the fact that they have, bar a short period in WWII, never been occupied/colonised by a European power, which makes them unique in Africa. For a few hundred years Gondar was the capital city of the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Empire housing a line of Emperors who could trace their blood line back to King Solomon. Each Emperor built a palace when they came to power, all within the same compound in Gondar which was fascinating to visit.

Palace in Gondar

The road up to the Simian mountains in the pouring rain gave us a little taster for the state of the roads to come. PAX was seriously put to the test, but managed to get us to Debark, the entrance to the national park, where we picked up our scout Mular (pronounced ‘moolaah’). He was quite a character with a questionable smell (aka ‘Eau de Moolaah’). Although we had been told at the park office he would bring his own food we ended up feeding him army rations and provided him with our brand new ground tent. His two words of English were ‘OK’ and ‘Doudch’ which we never found out the translation of. He carried a .303 rifle and 5 rounds, all of which he polished religiously (I didn’t want to draw his attention to the plug of dirt in the barrel though). 

On the summit of Bwahit 4430m

We spent 3 nights and 2 days in the park, trekking up to a peak of 4430m. We saw lots of Gelada baboons and Ibex which are quite rare. The views were fantastic, looking down steep escarpments to the valleys below.

A Gelada baboon with a great barnet

Next it was the notoriously bad road up to Axum – the 9 incredibly dusty, bumpy, hot and long hours lived up to expectations.  In Axum we relaxed, sat on the Queen of Sheba’s grave stone and drank lots more Macchiatos, it’s a great town, a really relaxed atmosphere and tree lined streets was a far cry from anything else we had seen.

Covered in dust after long road up to Axum

 HISTORY BIT (skip to next paragraph if not interested!). In 1868 my great-great-great-great grandfather, Lt Herbert Borrett, was part of Sir Robert Napier’s force who had been sent from India to Abyssinia by Queen Victoria to save two British diplomats and some Protestant Missionaries who were being held captive by Emperor Tewodros II at Magdala. It was Herbert’s regular letters to his wife, Annie, which have given this immense journey and the ensuing battle the colour and historical accuracy that we know today. After sailing from India the force of    had to cross 400 miles of very mountainous terrain lacking roads and bridges with hostile locals. Emperor Towodros tried to negotiate and even ended up releasing the hostages but Napier pushed on, eventually attacking Magdala. Towedros eventually killed himself – giving himself to God rather than man. Job done, the British withdrew, and, according to our guide, took many treasures with them back to India. Our route from Axum to Lalibela would largely follow this route, albeit in a LR rather than mule/on foot. But it was exciting to know that my GGGGGrandfather had come this way all those years ago.

Breathtaking scenery of the Simien Mountains

It was following this route that I became ill. Now many of you will know what travellers diarrhoea entails so I will not go into details but needless to say it was not pretty. What made it worse was that the hotel we were staying in was probably the worst ever, playing non stop ‘fairground music’ at full volume in the courtyard below (apparently it was Classical Ethiopian music) which literally drove us insane! Polls made an excellent nurse by preparing rehydration drinks by the bucket load and as soon as I could manage it we high tailed it out of there to Lalibela.

Women by the road

It was on our way to Lalibela that we witnessed quite a nasty road accident. Tarmac roads are a relatively new thing in Ethiopia and the natives have not quite got to grips with it. The fact that a 2 tonne vehicle travelling at 50km/hr will cause some damage if it hits you or an animal does not seem to register. Because of this they cross the road without looking, herd animals along the road-often blocking the entire width resulting in the drive being a stressful affair avoiding everything. To be honest I was surprised that we had not witnessed an accident before this but it was quite a shock nevertheless. An old man walked out in front of us without looking (and we were going quite fast fast), at the last moment he saw us, panicked, and ran straight across the road into the path of an oncoming truck that was also going fast. I saw him fly off the road in my rear-view mirror and thought he was a gonner. We stopped and reversed up to the man, he was unconscious but breathing lightly. He had a severe head injury and was bleeding badly from many cuts. The truck driver was panicking (in Ethiopia the driver is at fault no matter what). After patching him up with our medical supplies as best we could we got him into the truck and he went of to the nearby hospital. It was quite a wake up call. We continued our journey and nearly killed a woman who stepped out without looking – luckily her friend pulled her back.

The more typical road users!

It is here I also want to talk about begging and our general reception in Ethiopia, which has perhaps been the largest cultural shock. As we drive along the roads almost every child below the age of 20 (and there are millions of them) will shout either – pen, Highland (a brand of water), money, China, farangi, or ‘you!’. It is perhaps the last of these that is the most annoying. Driving through a village with a cacophony of ‘You, you, you, you’ shouted hundreds of times at the top of their lungs is not conducive to a pleasant journey. Almost invariably waves from people in the countryside will turn to hands out, expecting something. At first Polls and I laughed it off, wandering which git had travelled through this country distributing pens to the loudest shouting children thus cementing the fate of the rest of us, but soon it started to wear thin. There seemed no pride and it completely prevented us from interacting with them in any way. Anything we asked for was followed by a beg, just giving directions had a ‘going-rate’. One kid tried to spit through my window as we drove past. It started to piss us off. The lowest point was that while we were patching up this man on the side of the road we were also fending off cries for money and pens. What is worse is that the adults do nothing to stop the children doing it. In a country where a large percentage of GDP comes in the form of foreign aid you would have thought that there would be at the most, appreciation at the least, indifference, but not this open hostility. Perhaps the abundance of foreign aid is the cause of our continual harassment..

Priest praying in a church in Lalibela

 Arriving in Lalibela we had a few days of travel weariness. I was still not well, the traffic accident/begging scenario had been a shock and we were thoroughly bored of the harassment – Ethiopia was proving to be tough. Crap food, crap roads, crap hotels because we could not camp (too much hassle from the Ethiopians) crap service. We were in a funk!

 Luckily it didn’t last long – Lalibela is the one ‘must-see’ tourist sight in Ethiopia. It is a village, high in the mountains, which sports 14 rock hewn churches. These churches, some over 11m tall have all been carved out of the rock. They were fantastic, but what was more amazing was the lack of tourists and the fact that the churches are all still mainly used as they were intended, for worship. As we wandered around the tunnels and catacombs with our guide it was not necessarily the rough workmanship which had carved out these monoliths (apparently it was the angels who created them anyway!) which was astounding but more the dedication of the locals in their daily prayer. We felt honoured to be there. Our guide invited us to a wedding on our final morning – he said to call him at 3.30 as the service started at 4. As the Ethiopian clock is six hours behind us, we presumed, no questions asked, that he meant 9.30. Unfortunately, it turned out that he was talking English time, so we missed the service – it started at 4am! Only in Ethiopia would you get married at 4 in the morning!!

Bet Giyorgis church

The road to Addis has some of the most stunning views you can imagine but it was another long drive. We invented some new games to pass the hours. Small pink plastic bags of sick get thrown out of the bus windows from car sick passengers and we would keep a tally as to whose side of the road they were on. It is surprising how quickly we reached 20! We would also choose a favourite shout from the children. For the first round I had ‘You’ and Polls had ‘Highland’ and we would count the catcalls. We lost count at about 130 – 115 after 10 minutes. Our route to Addis was also the first time we saw aid being handed out. In two separate towns huge crowds gathered to pick up their wheat, in one town the EU was the benefactor, the other USAid. I don’t pretend to understand the issues here but we were surprised that in a land that was so green and fertile and after so many years of aid, bags of wheat were still being handed out.

We are now sitting on a very comfortable sofa, catching up on the UK Election issues on News 24 in Addis Ababa. We are thoroughly enjoying the hospitality of Sam who works in the British Embassy here. We met Sam in the police station in Wadi Halfa in Northern Sudan and he generously invited us to stay – a much needed respite from the rigours of travelling in this country. We will stay here for three days, hiding in these modern surroundings before venturing south. We will hopefully cross into Kenya just a few days after leaving Addis then head across to Lake Turkana (The Constant Gardener) before wiggling our way over the Equator to Nairobi. The Sub-Saharan adventure starts and we can’t wait.

Ethiopia has been a challenge; we have been truly taken out of our comfort zone. We have had the worst roads, the worst welcome, the worst food but the best scenery. It has been the most different. You only have to look into the puzzled stare of an Ethiopian as you drive past to see that your lives cross at so few points to make you almost different species.  The massive poverty, dirt, degradation and begging are enough to bring out what we have never felt before on this trip – immense pity and sadness. The sweeping views from almost every mountaintop (and there are many) make a Swiss vista pale in comparison. It really does seem like a different planet. Will we be back? Don’t think so. Do we regret coming here? Absolutely not.



Posted in Ethiopia | 1 Comment »