There are 77 languages in Ethiopia, not to mention the many more regional variations, so reluctantly we have been reduced to the ubiquitous Christian greeting! Our current vocabulary mainly consists of the very useful Amharic words: ‘ishee’ – ‘ok’/’yes’/’good’ and ‘Ndeeee?’ – ‘whaaaaat?’
After trundling from Gedaref to Gallabat to Gonder to Gorgora, and to places not confined to an alliterative pattern, we are once more ensconced in the bosom of civilization, this time in Addis Ababa. The road from Gedaref to the Ethiopian border was punctuated by plagues of locusts plunging to their demise on the windscreen and a menagerie of dead animals at the roadside in various states of decomposition… This was but one depressing example of how Sudan deals with waste…
Another arose when a petrol station bigwig took the rubbish bag I had been venturing to dispose of, and slung it onto the open grasslands to the side of the garage. Although, admittedly, I am unlikely to trudge through the Sudanese grasslands picking up the vast number of limp plastic bags caught up in the spiky bushes, I did feel the need to rescue our own rubbish and pop it back by my feet in the van till we found a bin that might, just might, get our rubbish to a semi-acceptable land-fill. Though fighting the tide of plastic bags could be considered a Canutian task, happily Ethiopia, as reverent of the ‘bottle’ as anywhere in Africa (see ‘The Gods must be Crazy’), operates a very efficient, incentivized recycling system.
In contrast to the borders in and out of Egypt, Gallabat was a piece of cake: only 2 hours of bouncing from office to office, a half-hour wait for an official to finish his lunch, and a 30 Sudanese Pound levy for the ink that was to grace our passports.
Our first impression on climbing away from the border into the Ethiopian highlands was… refreshing. After the sparse, hot, dusty deserts of Sudan, we were now faced with hills and green trees that even had blossom! “Oh what it would be to camp on grass, or even in mud!” We mused. (There is only so much dust that one can handle permeating through all of one’s belongings.)
The Ethiopian government has finally made transportation infrastructure a priority in recent years and (with the help of the Chinese) has built some decent roads through the mountainous landscape. They are, however, inundated by every man and his donkey, goat, cow, chicken as well as slow-moving, bare-footed young ladies carrying water strapped to their backs with cuttingly-abrasive lengths of string. So although we were happy to see tarmac roads (a luxury that will not last…), it was a game of dodgems, trying to avoid killing someone or some animal. Cows stay still and stare, goats bleat and leg it, dogs bark and chase you off their patch, but people… they’re unpredictable.
Tim & Kim Village:
Turning off the smooth tar just west of Gonder onto a 60km corrugated gravel track that anxiously shook every nut and bolt holding old Ambi together was only made worthwhile as first Lake Tana and then the mystical ‘Tim and Kim’s’ came into view. The latter is a stunning campsite that is a profound credit to an inspiring Dutch couples’ hard work and determination over the past 7 years. Tim and Kim have created a magical, homely haven of a rest-spot under fig trees hosting colourful birds, set between rolling hills and the misty Lake Tana. The shower blocks are ingeniously supplied by a spring up the hill and all the lighting (and beer-fridge) is powered by solar. Tim’s enterprising and industrious approach combined with Kim’s bookkeeping, cooking and people skills have created a place in complete harmony with its surroundings. It has been no mean feat. They began by setting up a foundation in Holland before spending a laborious 2 years traipsing from town to town in Ethiopia acquiring the necessary paperwork (where would you start!?) ‘Tim and Kim Village’ has now provided the neighbouring town Gorgora with a capacious supply of water as well as various education projects and even a swim team!
We decided to get out on the water (as is often Harry’s inclination) and went canoeing with Mbrato (a young Ethiopian man who worked for Tim and Kim) and an interesting brother and sister who were born and grew up in Ethiopia but spent their adult lives in Manchester. The older sibling, David, left Ethiopia in 1970 aged ten after his mother foresaw the overthrow of the Emperor Haille Selasse and the inevitable instability that would ensue. Although I was thrilled to see fish eagles, pelicans, Egyptian geese, to name but a few of the fabulous bird species, David reflected that the wildlife is no longer the spectacle it was in his youth given the significant deforestation inflicted on what was once an expansive habitat.
Our time at Tim and Kim’s was largely idyllic, the only exceptions being of a mechanical nature. A dodgy kerosene-petrol mix at the first fuel-up in Ethiopia had wreaked havoc. A perished carburettor gasket and two cracked fuel lines resulted in Harry spending much time under the bonnet and the bombardment we received from the inhabitants of the fig tree resulted in myself cleaning significant quantities of guano off the roof… The beauty of the birds that provided me with such an arduous task was more than enough to make up for it, however I did curse them when I got a lovely splatter on my back in the process.
While we were sat poring over maps one afternoon, an impressive Dutch fellow named Duko strolled in, laden with backpack and tent, a tea-towel on his head and walking stick in hand. He proved to be very amiable dinner entertainment with stories about his great walk through Ethiopia; but admittedly, I laughed most when a preying-mantis launched itself onto his face. After dinner Harry spotted a scorpion scuttling up the wall and Tim responsibly sent it to meet its maker, apparently dealing with three more of the blighters after we had gone to bed… We have since been extra careful to shake our shoes out for scorpions and check under toilet seats for spiders (taking Harry’s Dad’s advice on board!) We also started taking our anti-malarials, inspired by the thick number of mosquitoes under the trees near the lake, and the knowledge that Tim has had malaria no less than sixteen times whilst Kim too was in intensive care for a week with a particularly hideous strain of it. The more travellers we speak to, the more common we realise getting malaria or bilharzia (caught from swimming in murky water where diseased snails are lurking) is, and the more nonchalant about it people seem to be!
The day before our departure we, along with our hosts and Tim’s parents, escorted Duko for the first section of his walk around the west side of Lake Tana. It was a rather strange place to say farewell, under a bedraggled tree, on an incongruous hill. As we watched him fade into the distance we turned to and set about finding a different route back to camp. Walking the length of a country such as Ethiopia is obviously a feat unthinkable to most; but the rewards are more than enough to compensate. We enjoyed Duko’s tales of families welcoming him in, offering him their daughters in return for a princely dowry and force-feeding him ‘injera’ – the staple of the Ethiopian diet, a bitter cross between a crumpet and a pancake. Many rural families believe that the Bible commands them to feed any guest and injera is always on the menu! Kim was another insightful source of information about the local, rural people: their attitudes and how they live. We came to understand that, as in medieval Europe, the Christianity followed depends more on the Priest than on the Bible. Also strange was the absence of a kind of logic we take for granted in the West. The degree to which the basic gestures of communication, ones that we are so used to using absent-mindedly, were misunderstood was astonishing.
We did not yet know just how much damage the poisonous excuse for fuel had done. Tim explained that he had not been able to get petrol for 3 weeks in Gonder; he had heard a rumour that the prices were due to go up in a week and that the petrol stations were mercenarily holding onto their supplies until then. Harry decided we needed the assistance of a mechanic as well as a ready supply of actual petrol, so we enjoyed the ‘village’ for a further night and then juiced with our precious, irreplaceable LPG, went with Tim on his shopping day to Gonder. Trawling from one petrol station to the next, we were finally rewarded and made for Tim’s recommended mechanic, who proved to be a skilled, knowledgeable individual and immediately recognised our V8 range rover engine for what it was (i.e. not what Ambi says on the tin…) He replaced the gasket and had the whole carburettor off for a good inspection whilst Harry de-coked all the spark plugs.
As we plunged forth out of his yard, we were optimistic, but when she spluttered and stuttered and completely failed to climb the hill out of Gonder, we rolled back into Mrato’s garage once again. After a few days of this, the mechanic had come to the end of his expertise and just as the generosity of the friendly recommendation had begun to expire, a friendly Englishman named Alan turned up and gave Harry some good advice which amounted to “Don’t look so concerned, just drive the hell out.”
So on Ambi’s second attempt up the hill North out of Gonder and after some careful tinkering with the tick-over revs, she exuded renewed power, and remarkably made it all the way to Debark, the entry point to the Simien Mountains National Park! We inevitably stalled upon arrival and had to give the spark plugs another clean, with a keen crowd of about 50 curious, bewildered people. We had become quite used to the crowds gathering by now, but the combined frustration of Ambi’s dirty insides and the locals’ lack of understanding that sometimes, you’re just busy, made us just a little less patient with them. Despite my forceful if not effective gestures to shoo everyone away in order to give Harry some space, a beautiful little girl was unfazed and persistent in grinning at me and trying to hold my hand. A total sucker for a cute child, I happily let her walk with us to the National Park Office and gave her my empty water bottle, which clearly made her day. Some bigger boys took it from her and were throwing it over her head, teasing her, but she managed to claim it back and then joyously waved it in the air, beaming at me, tears still running down her cheeks.
After a quick tête à tête with the local ping-pong champ we picked up our compulsory scout and headed up the dusty mountain track to Sankabar, one of the lower camps in the National Park. Ambi was finding the altitude pretty tough and we had to move to def con LPG to handle it. Reluctantly we decided not to drive further up to Chenek the next day and instead do a long one-day hike looping back to Sankabar. We were already at an altitude of 3,260m – the Simiens plateau certainly is the ‘Roof of Africa.’
The Simien Mountains:
Our scout was a weathered ex-military man, only had one phrase of English: “good scout” and used a variety of erratic arm flapping signals in an attempt to direct us… It’s lucky there is only one road! We marvelled at how he was permitted to carry a machine-gun and be our protection from bandits (that have not been a problem for over ten years…) yet possessed a real inability to learn how to open and close Ambi’s passenger door. The office also neglected to warn us that he of course expected us to feed and water him for 3 days… Who goes up into mountains with no food or water!? Whilst we discussed letting him starve, in the end we capitulated. In fairness, he drank and ate very little and proved himself to be a hardy but humble individual. He stopped and stared at me with curious concern when I was huffing and puffing up the steep hills, leaning on trees and rocks for support, but also contently let Harry go on ahead…
Rosita Forbes wrote in 1925 of the Simien rock formations: “When the old gods reigned, they must have played chess with these stupendous crags…”
We could see her point – the domineering ridges were astounding and made the Vikos Gorge look like a playground for mere mortals. Bearded Vultures meditatively circled their way up a 1500m-deep canyon, cast as tiny shadows against the vast cleft hewn into the dark rock of the plateau by millions of years of seminal erosion.
Categorized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, the Simiens are home to some very rare creatures including the Walia Ibex, a unique, elaborately horned goat found nowhere else on earth. The Walia played a good game of hide and seek in escaping our attention, but we did see some elegant Bushbucks and a Klipspringer living up to its name. Gelada baboons are also endemic to the Ethiopian highlands (although not restricted to the National Park) and we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a small family of them foraging in the early morning sun. Just as I was feeling regret at not spending much time watching them later on in the afternoon, we came across an entire hillside covered with around 400 of them! Big dominant males were sat on their hinds proudly staking their territory and tiny babies were playing chase around bushes and tumbling, somersaulting and cart wheeling down the hill. Harry exclaimed: “That one just did a triple back-flip! …On purpose!”
The most thrilling part of this experience for me was just how close we could be to the baboons, observing their behaviour as the troop slowly foraged their way across the hillside. They were clearly aware of our presence, a mother glancing up at me every minute or so as her baby played a sort of peek-a-boo game behind her back, but they were content with sharing the space and not at all fearful or aggressive. I had previously imagined seeing them through the binoculars at a considerable distance, perhaps in an unreachable spot, so I was mesmerized by the experience. I felt completely at ease sat on a rock watching a large male only a couple of yards away when suddenly another male charged a female nearby, and startled, I leapt to my feet in a jiffy. The males vied for dominance, rolling back their lips to show their sharp teeth and pink gums – completely altering their previously quite cute appearance! We later read that the more dominant male in the troop has priority over mating with females at the peak of their cycles, and the other males can mate with them the rest of the time… Charming!
We slept well in the mountains after the epic hike that Harry had promised was ending ‘just around that corner’ at various intervals, and delightfully used our duvet for the first time in a month. I awoke before sunrise the next morning and crawled out to watch it climb over the nearest gorge: my keen anticipation of the moment the sun would creep into view and lay its rays on me was shared and expressed more vocally by the many birds roosting nearby. We were sad to be leaving the mountains so soon, but felt appreciative to those ‘old Gods’ for letting us stay awhile.
After helping the scout into the van once more and depositing him back at the office in Debark, we headed on to Bahir Dar, a city on the Southern edge of Lake Tana, known for its palm-lined avenues. Chugging and spluttering slightly on the way, Ambi did us proud and got us right to the centre of town where we cooled off with a mango juice and an avocado salad… mmmm! Hankering after a nice hotel for a night, we compromised and went to the overlanders residence of choice, The Ghion Hotel, which was very basic but still had a pleasant lakeside terrace and a guarded car park. Fate had played its part and reunited us with Duko, who had ended up there as well. He had fought his way to Bahir Dar on foot and had arrived a day before us – injera clearly being a more reliable fuel than petrol in Ethiopia. (We shunned his phony jokes about the unreliability of Land Rovers.)
The Blue Nile Falls:
The next day we made up a happy hiking party to the Blue Nile falls (a treacherous 30km from Bahir Dar!) with Duko, Nadia, his American friend, Mathias, his new Ethiopian friend/guide and Tanya, a friendly girl volunteering with an Israeli organization helping street kids in Gonder. As you can imagine, 30km was rather ambitious and after about 10km I was admittedly the first to give in to tiredness in the heat and stubbornly sat under a tree saying that I would get on the next vehicle that came along the road and meet the others at our destination. The competitive hiking bravado was ruffled and they all decided to wait with me. Soon after, the six of us were perched atop a cement truck enjoying a thrilling bumpy ride from a lofty height away from the pestering local children.
The Blue Nile Falls themselves, although not as big as they used to be, were a sight for sore eyes after the long dusty road. Enticed by the refreshing spray, we all began stripping off, ready to make a splash in the crystal clear pool below. Seemingly out of nowhere, two angry police officers armed with AK-47s shouted down at us from their post at the top of the falls. Apparently, two students recently died swimming in this area – the hydroelectric dam was opened without warning and the nature of the tranquil pool below suddenly turned treacherous. Disappointed to be denied a swim once again, we put our boots back on and walked back to the village ‘Tis Abay’, meaning ‘Smoking Water’, where Mathias grew up. The bus ride back to Bahir Dar was possibly the most bizarre evening we have had thus far…
Mathias organized and crudely haggled down the price of a private bus and all seemed to be going well; he had a friend bring us cold beers from the village and music was playing… it was quite the party bus. Until suddenly, the driver stopped the bus and keeled over in pain, gasping and clutching at his side. His co-pilot and Mathias were baffled as to what was going on and the driver seemed to hope it would just subside. I passed some paracetamol over and a big bottle of water… But it got worse and he rolled out of the driver’s seat into the middle of the bus. Duko took this opportunity to drive the bus himself and promptly took the wheel while I tried to diagnose what was going on inside this poor man that was causing him such grief. Having had some experience of excruciating pain in one’s side, and communicating a few key factors via Mathias, I was sure it was a kidney problem and we needed to get him to hospital ASAP. The co-pilot was asking Mathias to translate the idea that he thought that the driver had been cursed and someone had given him an ‘evil-eye’… Totally prepared for coming up against this sort of belief after reading ‘Where There is No Doctor’, I explained as simply as I could that the power of such things only lies in the belief itself and what the driver was experiencing was a common problem, likely to be caused by dehydration.
As is the way in Africa, someone possibly dying is not always a priority, and the co-pilot initially directed Duko to the bus company office to speak to their boss. The large proud man came on board in a rather loud, unsympathetic manner towards his driver, but graciously thanked us for our help in the situation and agreed that Duko should drive on to a hospital. Clearly having to focus on the challenge of driving in an Ethiopian town at night, instead of the worrying matter going on behind him, Duko shouted back every few minutes “You need a new clutch!” or “You need some brakes!” It seems that if you are the largest thing on the road, everything else just gets out of your way – who needs brakes!?
I went with the boss as he hoisted his whining driver into the hospital, and spoke to the doctor who straightaway said that it was a kidney stone. Relieved that he knew what he was talking about, although less happy about the facilities available at this small basic clinic, we had done what we could and I gave the driver a gentle but encouraging pat on the shoulder and shook the doctor’s hand.
Now all that we had to do was return the bus to the bus station to park it up for the night! The guards at the station, bemused by the strange sight of white westerners commanding their bus, flung open the gates and directed Duko to reverse park it in the far corner. With Harry’s accurate guidance, he somehow managed to park the big clunky thing and we were free to go and eat some dinner. What a night! We later ended up in the only nightclub so far on our trip; a lively, sweaty, shoulder-popping place called ‘The Office’ and had a real laugh trying to dance Ethiopian style…
The following day was serenely calm in comparison, lazing on a boat on Lake Tana and finally going for the swim we had so desired. A few minutes later a number of eyes and snouts popped up above the water near where we were swimming and the realisation dawned that we were rather close to hippo territory. Harry saw that local people were walking past the hippos just on the shore where they would graze at night and it was perhaps unusual that they co-exist so peacefully with humans active on the land and water so close-by.
Scanning the lake for interesting birds just before sunset, we marvelled as a fish eagle swooped down to claw his prey out of the water carrying the slippery, silvery fish off away from the hundreds of gawping pelicans below. This sparked a discussion of how pelicans actually catch fish and whether or not they store them in their beaks… All we know is that they’re definitely jealous of the fish eagle’s tidy skills.
To Addis Ababa:
After a couple more lazy days in Bahir Dar, we left for the capital, keen to make the 360-mile journey in one day. However our success was thwarted by a hastily built Chinese road now ruined by overloaded trucks and the force of the rains and the immense Blue Nile Gorge.
We couldn’t quite believe that we were actually on the main road to the capital city; potholes were rife and in some parts the tarmac had formed into long deep ridges. There was also a total absence of petrol until the outskirts of Addis, we had run completely dry and were plunging into our emergency LPG once again. Realising it would just be suicide to drive with the many trucks into the darkness, we found a basic hotel that let us camp in the yard about 50 miles from Addis, and judging by the stark sight of 4 overturned trucks and bodies beneath sheets beside the route in the morning, we had made the right decision.
So after that lengthy tale you are now up to date with our current whereabouts – well done for surviving through it! We are staying in Addis till Tuesday to have some more work done on the van – there is a trusty Land Rover specialist here who believes that a broken needle valve in the carburettor may be responsible for the flooding that Harry theorises is affecting the engine… Let’s hope that he is right!
All going to plan, we will be heading south next week to spend a few days in Arba Minch and the Nechisar National Park before heading across the Kenyan border.
Next post will inevitably be in Nairobi, where we have heard that there is a modern supermarket that will equip us with all those home comforts and a charming camp nicknamed ‘Jungle Jail’ after the many overlanders who end up stranded there with irresolvable mechanical issues!
Thanks for stopping by xx