Day 54: Addis Ababa

Hello!

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!

Where does the water end and the sky begin?

Where does the water end and the sky begin?

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.

Bruce's Green Pigeon

Bruce’s Green Pigeon

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!

Almost there...

Almost there…

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.

Ambi’s malaise:

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.

The mechanics at Gonder

Mrato’s Garage

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…

Eagle spotting in the Simiens

Eagle spotting in the Simiens

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!”

Playtime in the Simiens

Playtime in the Simiens

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!

Male baboon eating lunch

Daddy Gelada

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.

Harry and Duko get close

Bromance Falls

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.

IMG_3216

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.

What goes down must come up...

What goes down must come up…

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

Nice and relaxed while Ambi sees The Doctor...

Nice and relaxed while Ambi sees The Doctor… (Cheers Duko!)

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Day 36: Khartoum

Is Salaam Alykum… still speaking Arabic!

I am sat in the peaceful shade of a mango tree in the sandy back yard of a youth hostel in Khartoum, little birds cooing and tweeting in the boughs above me and red kites soaring high in the sky (common scavengers here!) It seems far-fetched that beyond the gates is a city with a population of 17million people. As you may have gathered, our TRACKER IS NOT WORKING in Sudan and neither will it in Ethiopia unfortunately; it relies on cooperative mobile networks and PinPointPal have yet to establish an agreement with networks in these countries.

The first thing that we have learnt about Sudan is that it is hot. Driving in the middle of the day without air conditioning in old Ambi is torture and we worry that, sturdy as she is, her engine, as well as ourselves, may pass out from overheating. This has meant that if we see the shade of a tree/mosque/other large parked vehicle, we take refuge and try to let her cool down while we sip our new favourite drink, ‘shai bi laban’ – a Sudanese milky tea with cinnamon and lots of sugar of course.

Secondly, true to the guidebooks, Sudanese people are friendly in a generous and welcoming way that Egyptians (for example…) are not. The tooting of horns and flashing of lights simply means ‘hello!’ and even the women give us dazzling smiles and cheery waves as we pass by. We were thrown into close contact straight away with a few too many Sudanese/Nubian people on the ferry across Lake Nasser, which deserves it’s own titled heading….

Aswan to Wadi Halfa:

Reluctant as we were, this is one crossing where it is ‘essential’ to have a fixer: a man wearing a shirt and jacket (of which he keeps lifting the lapels in a “I’m the big man about town” sort of way) carrying a satchel briefcase and constantly plugged into his hands-free set chatting in Arabic to clearly a very important office dogsbody on the other end. He led us on a rat race around Aswan stopping off at a selection of random dirty, smelly locations where a customs or police office was tucked away behind bustling souks hosting crates of chirruping chicks and piles of pungent oily fish laid over old railway tracks. Having eventually gained the right pieces of paper, we headed for the port, apprehensive about the forthcoming moment: the dreaded separation from our dear Ambi as she had to be loaded onto a barge before we would board the passenger ferry the next day.

After a lot more waiting around and a mad rush at the last minute, Harry skilfully drove Ambi onto the barge. It was not an easy task – driving her at a 45-degree angle over two delicately placed steel tracks with little clear direction from a variety of men shouting and waving in Arabic. I held my head in my hands, scared to watch… She was half-on and the front wheels were spinning… it looked hopeless from where I was, but then about eight shrouded men appeared from nowhere and put all their weight behind her. She landed on the barge with a clang and clatter and the steel tracks shot backwards almost taking a few men with them…

Along our way through the mayhem of the morning, we met veteran travellers: Chris and Elayne. Aussies originally from Kent, they had had spent the last 6 years travelling all over the world hoping to break the record for the best-travelled, non-production, home-made buggy (118 countries so far!) Inspiring to say the least, they certainly had a lot of stories and tips and kept us entertained during all the waiting around for documents and the long ferry crossing – http://www.ouradventurebug.com if you’re interested!

Ushered past hordes of people unpacking karts and donkeys loaded with bags and boxes of… stuff… onto the ferry, we realised we’d better grab some space quick! We thought we’d done quite well, upfront by the captain’s cabin hidden behind a barrier of Japanese back-packers who were soaking up the inevitable attention from the Sudanese. However, a few hours later (just before we set off) the captain decided he needed more outdoor space and pushed us back towards the pressing crowd, made up mostly of immature Sudanese men. They were entertaining themselves by attempting to snap a photo of me on their phones; ignorant of my clear wish not to become part of their common tall tale of ‘this is my English girlfriend!’ to other tourists they meet. I turned my covered head away and every few minutes, angrily shouted ‘la!’ (‘No!’) Harry gave them some stern glances that eventually shook them off. I have not once on the trip felt threatened and this was a case of childish behaviour rather than anything worryingly malicious. I am now used to referring to Harry as my husband (‘ma gozee’) which is far easier than explaining the nature of a monogamous boyfriend/girlfriend relationship to Islamic men – they are often baffled enough by my aversion to the idea of Harry having a second wife!

Argy bargy...

Argy bargy…

So we scrambled over the stacks of boxes and piles of bags of everything from kitchenware to electrical equipment, presumably being taken south for new businesses or homes, to find a place to sleep. They literally cram this ferry with as much as it will carry and seem to have no limit on the amount of ‘stuff’ each passenger can bring with them. Just getting to the toilet was a real mission, especially after dark, careful not to stand on someone’s leg or face, hidden under a blanket. We slept on the roof of the captain’s cabin (only monkeys like ourselves could clamber up there!) and once the chattering and singing had quietened down it was actually rather magical. The moon was bright and I didn’t want to close my eyes to sleep because there were more stars scattered above me than I had ever seen before.

Woken up by the call to prayer at dawn, we soon after floated past Abu Simbel, the magnificent temple of the deified Pharaoh Ramses II, built in the 13th Century B.C. It was not built here however! In an ingenious feat of engineering, it was entirely relocated in the 1960’s to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser after the Aswan Dam was built. Harry felt very passionate about how constructing a dam interferes with the natural flow of things and moreover, the negative consequences outweigh the positive. The biggest artificial lake in the world, Lake Nasser drowned 47 Nubian villages and forced the inhabitants to move either to Egypt or Sudan, and many of them now ferry between the countries to visit family in each. Not only this, but the dam barricades silt and all its important minerals from travelling down the Nile, making the arable land less fertile and necessitating the use of more chemical fertilisers. On the upside, the flooding is controlled creating more stable homes and farms with better electricity supplies… but these are short-term gains. We pondered these facts as we took a morning walk away from the port, hoping to catch a glimpse of a crocodile or monitor lizard along the shores of the lake, but were instead blessed with the sight and sounds of many beautiful birds of various sizes and colour.

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The barge with the 3 vehicles on (The Dutch brothers’, Chris and Elaynes’ and Ambi…) actually arrived ahead of time, the evening after we had. However, this bared no relation to us being able to drive her off and away, out of the dusty, dirty port town of Wadi Halfa. The place reminded us of a forgotten planet in a sci-fi movie where a toothless old woman offered you ‘death sticks’ and you weren’t sure who was a mutant or not. We stayed in a very basic hotel, where the room was already occupied by a pair of large spiders on the ceiling. The food about town was mostly sludgy beans and hard-boiled eggs with one saving grace of crispy, spiced falafel in lovely soft pita bread.

We waited for the majority of the next day for workers to unload tons of plaster and boxes of fabrics from the barge before we could unload the vehicles; eventually they set us free in the late afternoon. There was then a fair bit more waiting around at customs, partly because the colonel had been called to deal with an ivory smuggling situation. He came back to the office heaving a sack of broken elephant teeth that were trying to make their way into Egypt to make an immoral chance-taker rich overnight. He quite happily let us have a look in the sack and we shared the sadness of the matter.

Into Sudan…

We camped that night not far out of Wadi Halfa, in a quiet desert spot. Next day we had our first possibly major issue with old Ambi. She failed to start for the first time and luckily, flicking some lights on and off to reduce the battery’s effort, she got going and we headed for Dongola. We stopped for petrol and she wouldn’t start again… Thankfully there was a very kind man at the station who showed Harry where the starter motor was and mimed that the problem may be with the connections, not the motor itself… but we got her onto a downward slope and all pushed and she started again. We sipped more shai bi laban courtesy of the road-side tea ladies in Dongola, and thinking we had gone different routes, were surprised to see Chris and Elayne pull up beside us. They had tried to take a ‘new’ road but were turned back for some unknown reason. Reunited with the boys as well, we all found camp together in a beautiful desert spot outside of Dongola, we even had a BBQ! (I wasn’t so sure about the grizzly meat the boys had bought on the street…)

Driving across sparse dusty desert for hundreds of miles, it becomes a real joy to reach the strip of lush green life that resides on the Nile banks. You realise just how important the Nile life-source is, and how impossible it is to survive far either side of it. The stark contrast of this green to the surrounding desert makes it very inviting and if it hadn’t been for its’ attraction to flies and mosquitoes too, we would have camped nowhere else! I have non-encouragingly just read in an English newspaper here in Khartoum that mosquitoes are becoming resilient to deet! (Mosquito repellent!) Over time they have apparently grown used to the smell of it and are biting regardless… We will be starting our malaria pills in Ethiopia and covering every inch of skin!

Karima Pyramids

Karima Pyramids

We made our way to Karima, a Nile-side town where there are about 20 pyramids and a temple complex overlooked by Jebel Barkal, (‘Holy Mountain’ in Arabic) believed to be the seat of the god Amun by both the ancient Egyptians and the Kushites. Few tourists as it attracts, not many people know that Sudan has far more pyramids than Egypt; although they are a different shape to the famous ones at Giza as you can see in the photos. They serve the purpose of an unmistakable headstone – themselves being filled with rubble and covering a tomb hidden underground, unlike the Giza pyramids hosting tomb chambers themselves. The pyramids at Karima are the most intact in Sudan, built around the 3rd century B.C. We met a lovely group of boys and their teachers on a school trip and Harry had an inspiring conversation with a wise old teacher who spoke the Queen’s English with a very focused demeanour, whilst I chatted to a lovely Nubian woman about her little boy. Her and the school boys were keen to be photographed and stood proudly upright with serious expressions – this surprised us after I had been shouted at in Arabic by a hefty man at the port for taking a photo of our own vehicle coming off the barge!?!

Always parking Ambi at the start of a downhill slope so as to get her started, we carried on to see more pyramids at Meroe.  Such a beautiful spot, we camped there for 2 nights and took the opportunity to do lots of washing – a real battle with the raging wind covering all the lovely clean clothes in sand as soon as I’d hung them up! The Meroe pyramids, supposedly the oldest pyramids in the world, had unfortunately been decapitated by a silly Italian man, Guiseppe Ferlini, in search of riches in 1834. He had been lucky with the first one he struck, that had a Queen’s jewels in a chamber near the apex; this was very unusual as riches are usually buried in the tomb below. He carried on lopping the top off the other 90 or so pyramids finding no other treasures… There’s nothing else to say but… What a shame… Even without their pointed hats on, the colour of the sandstone at sunset was beautiful and appreciating these ancient sites by ourselves with just a few lazy camels wandering in the distance was sublime.

Meroe Pyramids

Meroe Pyramids

Now in Khartoum, Harry is lying under Ambi’s belly covered in grease and sand trying to clean and re-connect the starter motor. Fairly unable to help in that department, I have had time to give you quite an essay to read! Apologies for the longevity and perhaps unnecessary detail of my ramblings.

Depending on getting Ambi fixed, we will be leaving Khartoum tomorrow and heading through Wad Medani to Gedaref, close to the Ethiopian border and crossing at Gallabat to then drive north of Lake Tana, which we have heard is stunning. I will hopefully be able to post again in Addis Ababa within a fortnight’s time.

Love as always to all our dearest back at home. Starting to miss (some of) you now!  Hugs all round xx

P.S. I’m having real issues finding a café/hotel that has WiFi faster than a snail so as to allow me to upload a single photo… Hopefully I will succeed and the photos will follow soon!!

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Day 28: Aswan

Having traversed sparse desert, bumbled over rocky moonscapes and glided down sand dunes; we are now in Aswan awaiting our ferry across Lake Nasser to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.

The last ferry experience was, to say the least, an accurate example of this ‘African timing’ we had been hearing all about… We eventually boarded the ferry in Izkenderun around midnight after a long day in the port. The upside was that we had plenty of time to get to know fellow overlanders doing similar journeys. There were 6 Germans: 3 trucks following Bernd, their ‘Off-Road Kangaroo’ guide, a pair of Swiss boys in a questionable Mitsubishi and 2 Dutch brothers, Erik and Frank, who were soon to become our trusty desert companions. Also in the port, being held in an enclosed space separate from where we were free to wander around near our vehicles, were around 200 Syrians including families with children, off to start new lives in Egypt, Libya and the UAE. During the 26hour journey we were ogle-fodder for the Syrian kids and supposed sources of information about European universities for young men and women dreaming of studying in the West. My overall impression was that Syrian people are very friendly and they take, on average, 10 sugars in their tea.

We approached Port Said late at night, carving a path through all the ships patiently waiting their turn to transit the Suez canal. We were slightly surprised to see riot police lining the gangway off the ferry. I was more surprised that some of the young riot police were wearing jeans and seemingly their own choice of shirt as long as it matched the ‘beige’ dress code. Clearly the police uniform budget is not a priority in Egypt. We were ushered into a non-descript concrete space before later, after much negotiating with our fixer, being led to another area of the port watched over by some army officers and a couple of tanks. As we were there for 2 days and nights (the result of a huge amount of unnecessary paperwork and a small amount of efficiency and office opening hours…) the army guys became more sociable and not only enjoyed an Egypt vs. Europe game of footy but also let us hold their AK47s for fun. Imagine some Egyptian tourists on holiday in England and the British army letting them play with their guns!?!

On day 2 of our incarceration in the purgatorial port, hope of a pre-sunset departure was evaporating. Eventually, Eslaam emerged with our Egyptian plates – giving us very little daylight to navigate around Cairo to our hopeful destination, Giza. This treacherous journey happened to fall on Harry’s birthday and the nice idea of an evening meal in sight of the last surviving Wonder of the Ancient World was thwarted. We missed one turn onto the ring road and ended up far nearer central Cairo than we had ever intended…

Thankfully, a leisurely morning stroll around Egypt’s primary assets (without the expected coach-loads of photo-snapping, pavement-hogging tour-groups) put the stress of the journey into perspective. Aside from the obvious awe that ensued at the sheer size of the Pyramids, there is one theory that Lonely Planet had to offer that I found interesting: It has often been suggested that the enormous work-force required to build the Pyramids was made up of slaves who were, by nature of their task, ill-treated and often left to die following the unthinkable injuries they would have sustained. However, there is evidence that the surrounding area hosted canteens, sick-bays and housing for the workers – suggesting that they were an employed work-force, possibly farmers who could not cultivate their land during the flooding of the Nile each year. During the flooding it was also far easier to transport the stone required to build the Pharaohs’ grand tombs – so the new theory stands that, alongside their role as gateways to the afterlife, the Pyramids were a mass-employment scheme for annually redundant farmers. It is an interesting theory. Slaves or farmers, the people that built the Pyramids followed unfathomably precise measurements to align the structures with astrological phenomena. Whilst their intention may have been to launch their Pharaohs’ souls into the afterlife, the bi-product was that they created some of the longest lasting, weather enduring man-made structures on earth. On travelling past the oasis of Dahkla we saw many natural pyramids emerging from the landscape. The result of wind, time and vast tracks of sedimentary rock. Harry mused over the idea that the Ancient Egyptians saw these formations towering over the landscape and decided to mimic their shape, endurance and strength.

Pyramids at Giza

At Giza we said farewell to our European comrades, and a huge thank you to Bernd for giving us essential co-ordinates that were to guide us across the Western Desert… We were excited to begin a real adventure in a dramatic landscape miles from civilisation. This dream only became a reality when we teamed up with the Dutch brothers (I fear that if Ambi got stuck in the sand, I wouldn’t be much use pushing by myself!). Since the revolution there have been ongoing fuel shortages in Egypt, particularly diesel and, unlike our trusty Ambi’s easy options of petrol or LPG, the Dutch brothers’ Toyota drinks diesel. As a result they were forced to (expensively) fuel up in a dodgy dealer’s back yard, syphoning diesel into their tank from large rusty drums… Another cup of chai (never say no!) and an hour later, we were back on the road, prepared to make camp before starting our off-road adventure first thing in the morning. Our intention was to head through the Black Desert, past Crystal Mountain before tracking East and then South-East into the White Desert…

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We soon learnt that Frank was the younger, and perhaps slightly more reckless of the two brothers, as he drove straight into soft sand within 5 minutes of leaving the tarmac and let the wheels spin to bury their dear Toyota even deeper. This was a chance for Harry to shine… Having equipped Ambi with two bright orange, maxtrax sand ladders that proved to be worth there weight in gold, we helped dig their Toyota’s rear end out of the sand and successfully got her on the ladders. We deduced that Frank had done it on purpose to learn how to deal with the sand early in the day while we all had the energy!? We had a great time following compass directions to Bernd’s co-ordinates, stopping every few minutes to gauge the imminent landscape, deflate/inflate the tyres or do some cartwheels in the sand.

Over much rocky ground, and a nerve-racking but exhilarating first descent of an escarpment via a large sand dune we arrived mid-afternoon at ‘The Magic Spring’, which was literally, paradise. Three pools of warm mineral water surrounded by overhanging palm trees and desert as far as the eye can see… there was no hanging about, we all stank! It was lovely to think how valuable a site like this would have been to desperate desert travelers in times gone by. My favourite campsite so far by a long shot, 5* even by Ollie and Ellie’s ratings!

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Clearly sad to leave the beauty of the Magic Spring, the next morning we headed towards another of Bernd’s co-ordinates, called ‘The Mushroom Field’. On arrival we saw other people for the first time in over 24 hours… about 12 Japanese with Egyptian, Nubian and Italian guides. They had obviously stopped for lunch right in front of the most outstanding mushroom-shaped rock structure, so we decided to postpone ours for a quieter place, but not before gleaning some valuable information from their guides! These amazing ‘mushroom’ chalk structures are created by sandstorms whirling around the soft chalky rock but geology aside, we once again felt like we had landed on the moon (after a similar experience in Cappadocia) or fallen into a Dali painting.

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We briefly visited an 13th century Ottoman town in Al-Qasr, where Harry found his favourite mosque – a simple mudbrick building with an impressive minaret allowing us to view the whole area from a height.

Another notable experience in the Western Desert was a cheery police escort through Al-Kharga. We’d like to think it was because the chief was entranced by our jangles, however, they then gave us a warning flash of lights each time a dangerous speed bump was coming up… so maybe they just thought that our suspension needed looking after!

We then had a starlit race toward the Nile after discovering that we needed to get to Aswan before Sunday morning to load Ambi onto the barge. The ferry only goes once a week and although I wouldn’t have minded another day lying in the sun by the Magic Spring, a week would set us back considerably on our (very vague) schedule. Loading Ambi onto the barge was the most scary moment of our trip so far… Harry was being shouted at by 4 different men which way to turn the wheels to guide her safely onto two planks at a steep angle while I held my head in my hands, watching from behind. Wheels spinning, she needed a hefty push – 6 Egyptian men appropriately appeared out of the woodwork – and with a loud clatter and clang, the planks shot away behind her and she was on. Phew! This being the first, and hopefully only time we will be apart from her, we are obviously a little concerned about her safety. However being without her is a clear-cut reason to stay in a hotel for a night!

I hope the tracker has been giving readings for the majority of our route… we obviously went off radar for a while in the desert as it relies on mobile phone reception. To give you an idea, when Ambi meets us in Wadi Halfa on Wednesday we will be heading through Dongola to Khartoum, onto Al-Qadarif and through the Dinder National Park into Ethiopia. Hopefully we’ll post again before we reach Ethiopia but no promises!

Much love to everyone and thank you for all your encouraging messages!

Ta-ta for now xx

Tracks include: ‘One by One’ – Black Seeds (From Breaking Bad Soundtrack) and ‘Foux Du Fafa’ – Flight of the Conchords

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Day 19: Izkenderun

Salaam!

Whilst sitting looking longingly at the Mediterranean from Izkendurun, we realise we have reached purgatory. Now that our departure for Egypt and Africa has been arranged for the precise time of “some time between Friday morning and midnight Saturday,” we sit, and wait. Although, that is technically a lie – Harry has been buying nuts and bolts to fix things to the roof rack, hammering the jerry can holder that got clobbered on a low tunnel in France back into shape and araldite-ing bits of Ambi back on that broke off when we foolishly let some Turks wash her in Istanbul…

So it appears I have a moment to fill you in about our time in Turkey. Highlights include reverent moments in the Blue Mosque, conjuring scenes of lavish scandal in the Topkapi Palace Harem and exploring ancient underground cisterns and cities. Lowlights include being “taken for a ride” by taxi drivers, having my brown boots force-polished with black polish and being unable to order any food without it coming with pickles. Keen to hear more!?

Istanbul hosts a population of around 18 million people and, the author estimates, 34.7 million cats. The busy hustle of the city pressed upon us, quite literally, from all sides as we eagerly tried to diverge off the routine tourist sight-seeing trail and avoid the “tourist-tat” adorning many shop windows. We were therefore very appreciative of our experience in the Blue Mosque, where other disrespectful tourists were ushered out at the start of prayer-time, and we were left sitting quietly by a pillar, soaking up the atmosphere. I had not realised before visiting my first mosque that images of any creature (human or animal) are forbidden and this means that the space is filled instead with incredible intricate patterns and script. It was entrancing to let my eyes follow these flowing designs round the domed ceiling without the distracting iconography that is present in a church. There was a consequent feeling of space, somewhat missing from cluttered churches lined with pews and candlesticks. I could see that the temptation for some small children to cartwheel and roly-poly across the vast carpeted floor was simply too much!

We happened to arrive on a Friday evening, when our friend Rhi had finished work and was keen to join us for a drink and nagile – she worked round the clock all other days of the week so we were lucky to catch her taking some much-deserved downtime! At street-level it appears that Istanbul, predominantly Muslim, is free of alcohol and Western-style bars, but you only have to gaze upwards to the first or second floors above shops to find a thriving nightlife akin to any other European city. Rhi introduced us to her intelligent and highly cultured San Francisco friend, Perry, and the 4 of us met with other friends of theirs, most of whom were language teachers, creating a very international table of American, English, Swedish, Spanish and Turkish.

Rhi is currently working for an Istanbul tourist magazine reviewing restaurants, sights and even yoga classes. She therefore proved to be an invaluable source of information, and was particularly enthusiastic about the variety of regional Turkish food to get our teeth into. My favourite, apart from the delicious kebap durum rolls (either chicken or beef with grilled veg wrapped in a spicy flatbread), was a street-seller’s phenomenon of cold mussels stuffed with rice and doused in lemon juice – a popular snack for the inebriated late at night. Although I was very keen on the notion of a production line of fish baps fresh off a rocking, in every sense of the word, boat on the Bosphorus, I’m afraid that I was fairly let down by a sandwich dominated by bones and was unable to remove the smell of fish from my hands and general aroma for the rest of the day. In contrast we were both particularly fond of ‘salehp’ a sweet, thick milky drink topped with cinnamon sold by generally older men pushing a cart laden with a huge copper urn along the street (often holding up traffic) shouting out ‘saaahhlep!’ as they go.

Harry’s imagination, fuelled by Turkish delight, ran wild as we strolled down the Golden Road (so-called because the Sultan would throw down gold to his favoured concubines as he passed) through the opulent Topkapi Palace Harem. Once the home of over 1000 concubines brought from all over the Ottoman Empire, vying to become the Sultan’s favourite and perhaps even one of his wives, it was now heaving with Asian tourist groups, even on a Monday in early February. It was hard to discern which parts of the buildings were original and which restored or replaced, but there was one intricate gold-laced dome ceiling in the Princes’ quarters that astonished me, and much Iznik tile work that brimmed with colour and an embossed glaze.

On Briony’s recommendation, we made haste for the underground Roman cistern; built in the 6th century and left undiscovered until Gyllius, a consumate traveller, stumbled upon it in the 1500’s. He noticed that local residents were selling suspiciously fresh fish at some distance from the sea, and after discovering that locals were hauling water up through their basement floors, ventured down into a wet, capacious space supported by hundreds of Roman pillars. The cistern supplied the Topkapi palace during the Ottoman reign however it wasn’t until the 1980’s that 50,000 tons of mud was excavated and walkways built so that people could visit the vast underground spectacle. The sheer size of the underground vaults was mind-blowing, especially since only a third of it was accessible to us – the Romans have impressed me once again! It was particularly amusing that they had chosen to put two huge stone ‘Medusa’ heads at the base of two pillars – one upside-down and one on it’s side – as if her final punishment was to have the whole weight of the city crushing her skull into the murky depths…

Also built under the instruction of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century was the astounding Hagia Sophia. As many buildings of such grandeur were, it was testament as much to the glory of the benefactor as to God. The competitive spirit was such that when Justinian entered it for the first time he remarked: “Oh Solomon! I have outdone you!” He had just cause given that he had created the greatest church in Christendom. It is a church unlike any other however, having been turned into a mosque during the Ottoman conquest in 1453 before being scorned by Catholics (who looted all the gold furnishings and put a prostitute on the Emperor’s throne!) and reconsecrated as a church before eventually being restored and turned into a museum. You can literally see the layers of confused identity under some of the iconography that is painted over Islamic patterns, which themselves are painted over Byzantine mosaics. The Mihrab (central focus in a mosque) is off centre so that it still points to Mecca and there is no altar, but an ascending stairwell called a Minbar from where the Imam would address the devotees. Sultan Ahmet III (1700’s) had a ‘loge’ (elevated grilled kiosk) built so that he could enter and exit unnoticed to pray when he pleased – I thought that the contrast of this to the HUGE Imperial doors leading right into the central aisle so the Emperor could not be missed was rather amusing.

On our last day in Istanbul we escaped on the ferry boat to Buyukada, one of the Princes’ Islands where Leon Trotsky was in exile between 1929 and 1933. It was blissful to wander up through the pine trees away from the dusty roads, polluted air and press of crowds. We watched the sun set and enjoyed some pensieve moments, feeling like the time had come to get on the road again. Harry did a remarkable amount of driving the next day (429 miles!) to get us to the Cappadocia region, a geological marvel that he is going to write all about at the next opportunity…

Farewell from me, till next time, we don’t know when that will be yet as we get the ferry to Port Said tomorrow and head down the Nile over the next week… I caught a glimpse of a weather forecast that said it is still 0 degrees in the U.K. so as much as I’m missing all your smiling faces, I’m happy to be here! Much love to all, Anneka (& Harry) xx

Track: Istanbul (Not Constantinople) – Ska Cubano

Cappadocia!

If you want to conjure an image of Cappadocia in your mind’s eye then you have only to think of Tatooine, the desert planet where the pubescent Luke Skywalker spent his formative years. The region sits astride ancient Anatolia and is riddled with what are bizarrely referred to as ‘fairy chimneys’. I was unaware that fairies had a need to light fires or to build chimneys, however perhaps they were southern rather than magical. In this instance however they would be South Persian and not the subject of an obscure reference from a Guy Ritchie film. Apologies. Whilst many of the pinnacles of rock, accurately known as Hoodoos, have been used as dwellings for both humans and pigeons for over a thousand years, the majority are now uninhabited. They are the product, as so many things are, of the flow water and the passage of time.

Just after this Harry slipped and fell down the slope on his bum! He was rather scared he couldn't get back up... "You don't understand! I'm stuck!" He cried - a first time for everything

Just after this Harry slipped and fell down the slope on his bum! He was rather scared he couldn’t get back up… “You don’t understand! I’m stuck!” He cried – a first time for everything

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Day 10: Thessaloniki

Kalimera!

As many of you might know from following the little red dot, today we have awoken in a hotel in Thessoloniki that possesses those crucial things, a hot shower and warm beds. We arrived in the dark, so perhaps best not to cast judgement yet, but the city seems fairly dirty and hectic. My little book about Northern Greece tells me that there are more than a few historical sights worth seeing hidden beneath the busy, industrial metropolis. Thessaloniki (or Salonika as it was known to the Romans and Byzantines) was once the 2nd most important city in the Byzantine Empire. The road that our hotel balcony hangs over, Egnatia Road, was built by the Romans in the 2nd Century B.C. and was the main arterial route connecting Rome with the empire in the East. From the hotel room, it certainly sounds a little busier than it was then!

The last couple of days have been quite spectacular. We realised that we should take our time in Northern Greece, partly because it is new territory for both of us, but also because word from Egypt is that Port Said (our hopeful entry port into Africa) has been the stage for dangerous protests and riots following the sentencing of 21 locals to death over football riots last year… http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-21220310 Unsurprisingly we are in no rush to get there at the moment! Our ferry from the Turkish coast could be delayed for weeks if the sound of falling stones and molotov cocktails continue to distract Port Said officials… watch this space!

From Ioannina we headed North into the Pindos Mountains and hiked the length of the famous Vikos Gorge. On a sign at the start of the route, headed ‘Guiness Book of Records 1997’, it claims to be the deepest Gorge in the world… I’m not sure that’s actually true but as Harry unwittingly remarked: “It’s simply gorgeous!”

We hiked about 12km, first taking a peek at the monastery of Agia Paraskevi, just below the town of Monodendri, which juts out from the cliff side into the start of the gorge. For a sleepy, cold, early morning start, the “paths” bordered by a 200 foot sheer drop were fairly treacherous and we were adequately chuffed to be walking them alone, not having to pass other tourists at the widest points as one would in the busier summer months. Thankfully, neither of us fell to our death so early on in the trip, and we continued on to walk the length of the gorgeous gorge all the way to the town of Vikos itself. Although in the summer months it is apparently common to see tortoises, lizards, birds of prey and even bears, the most interesting sign of life was the first snowdrops peeking through the frosty ground. Even in winter though, the gorge was incredibly green and lush and we couldn’t begin to imagine what colours it would boast at other times of year. Geologically the gorge is a marvel, carved out over millions of years. Where the river runs through it we were looking at Jurassic and Cretaceous limestone between 200 and 65 million years old!

When we arrived in Vikos (panting and sweating after the rocky ascent) a very friendly Greek couple greeted us and the wife handed us homemade sweet biscuits, fresh and hot from the oven. The husband, Constantin, offered us a lift back to the Ambi in Monodendri. He said that we were the first people to walk the gorge in 2 months! Feeling proud of ourselves, we knew we deserved a good hearty meal and a bottle of wine, and took Constantin’s recommendation of his friend’s taverna in the village of Kipoi. We had roasted wild boar, traditional chicken pie, local wine and of course, an ouzo, before making camp just outside the village overlooking one of the old stone-arch bridges across the river.

We got the impression that they are keen to have more tourists in the area, it perhaps not being as busy in the summer as we expected. Constantin explained that many people who live in the Zagouri region villages (there are 46 of them hidden in the mountains!) live in Athens or other cities and just come back in the summer or retire to the mountains like he and his wife had done. The village of Dilofo where we had camped the first night, had a grand population of 4; a spooky wintry ghost-town as we had experienced.

Yesterday, we made our way through the mountains from Kipoi to Thessaloniki; delayed a couple of hours by a terrible smell and fizzing smoke coming from the front-right brake pads… Harry was up with the jack and off with the wheel to assess the damage, thankfully the sun shone and nothing was severely broken, just severely overheated as a result of the heady concoction of Ambi’s portly frame combined with 40% gradient. After a good dousing with water and subsequent removal of the pad debris courtesy of Ambi’s new air compressor we were on our way.

The video below begins just after this escapade. If you can last the distance, and have the stamina of Alexander, the final track ‘Sway’ is a long-awaited track from the much-heralded ‘Primordial Cordial’, the exceptional new album by SMERINS ANTISOCIAL CLUB. If you like it, you’ll find out more at www.smerins.com – The album launch is tomorrow!

So… after a dose of sightseeing here in Salonika today, we will be heading for Turkey and Istanbul to stay with Rhi, a compadre from Bristol, who is currently writing for a magazine in the city! – http://www.theguideistanbul.com

Much love to all and a “shout out” to my epic kid, Jack…

Thanks for stopping by.

Including tracks: ‘There’s Something in the Water’ by Brooke Fraser, ‘Social Know-How’ by JFB and ‘Sway’ by Smerins Anti-Social Club featuring Nuala Honan

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Day 5: Venice

Buongiorno!

So… after zipping through France fairly quickly, stopping only for a few croissants and a vin chaud in Chamonix courtesy of The Kitsch Inn, we now find ourselves surrounded by the secluded canals of Venice. After whiling away a number of hours learning about the history and debauchery of Venetian masquerade and marvelling at the Renaissance artwork in the Academia Gallery, we happily and quite coincidentally emerged at the top of the campanile of the San Georgio Maggiore for sunset. The sun may have shone but we’ve still got our thermals on! We set sail for Igoumenitsa in north-western Greece at midday tomorrow… It’s a 26 hour journey during which Ambi will be confined to the hold so the tracker will likely be down during that time.

As a tester, here is a short video of a weeny portion of the journey from Aosta to Venice…..

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3 Days til Departure!

We’re almost ready to go…

Since last posting back in November a lot has happened…

We now have all the important documents: our Carnet de Passage, the first 3 visas (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia), International Driving Licences, Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificates, travel and health insurance, 30 spare passport photos each and photocopies of all of the above in separate plastic wallets ready to present at each border crossing!

Harry has had some great things fitted in/on/under/around the Ambi, including a snorkel (it’s not quite a submarine yet but we can manage a few feet of water and it also keeps sand and dust away from the engine as well as water), an air compressor (for adjusting tyre pressure to suit each terrain – but I’m told it can also be used as a spray paint device!), strip LED (very bright) lighting in the back, spare parts and extra jerry cans attached to the roof, lock boxes, a new water filter and pump, a new tap… My contribution to Ambi has been in the form of furnishings – I’ve been stitching loops onto the seat covers to hold them in place on all those bumpy roads, sewing velcro onto mosquito nets to fit around our windows, fashioning a ceiling curtain to block the light from the sun roof for (hopefully not too many) lazy mornings and working out how best to use our storage space for food and cooking equipment.

The event that kick-started a full cleaning of Ambi was both amusing and terribly annoying… While she’d been down in Dorset having some work done, mice had decided to move in – mice who were clever enough to eat the cheese from 4 mouse traps without executing themselves. (A few friends remarked that we should keep the mice as they would scare lions and elephants away… but we had to think of the wires and cables!) Harry shooed one out in Dorset and we had another one hiding under the gas tanks for a day. Maurice was utterly useless, having never caught anything bigger than a butterfly in his life and far more interested in batting the dangly things in the windows with his paws… So we had to clear every cupboard, make a lot of noise and usher the mouse towards the door. I saw it take the big leap and head for the drains… and took delight in demolishing its’ nest in the farthest deepest bottom cupboard that it had fashioned from strips of newspaper that were previously wrapped around our saw. He had eaten through some permanent marker pens, a few corks and a photo frame but thankfully nothing vital.

Other preparation has included getting a very professional-looking medical kit, complete with antibiotics for every instance, needles and syringes which we know are sterile if we have to go to a local hospital, and a fantastic (although rather graphic!) book which I would recommend to anyone interested in gaining some basic medical knowledge: ‘Where There is No Doctor: A Village Healthcare Handbook for Africa’.

We got some fantastic trip-related Christmas presents… Lots of basic (but colourful) camping equipment, but my favourite is my very own Leatherman, which is bright pink so I won’t confuse it with Harry’s… Thanks to Harry’s Mum we also now have a Kindle! I’ve been downloading all the guide books for each country so we can have them all in one place, this is what Kindles must be made for! My brother bought us various items, including a wad of adhesive velcro – not sure what that’s for yet but I’m sure we’ll find out… And he suggested various other items (after his experience of travelling around Australia) including a poo stool… Don’t ask.

When we last visited Egypt I got an awful lot of attention with blonde hair, so I have head-scarfs at the ready and a wedding ring to wave in front of prying eyes! I’ve also been reading another great book called ‘A Woman’s Guide to Traveling Africa’ by Sarah Smith which has loads of good practical advice… Basically, let Harry do the talking and observe!

Harry’s last big job for tomorrow is fitting our tracker on the Ambi. Our neighbour, Doug has very very kindly lent us a fantastic, innovative piece of kit that means you will soon be able to see our Ambi as a moving dot on a map that there will be a link to on here… Once we sort the technical side…

My last few jobs include phoning my Gran (probably the only person I’m certain will NOT be reading this), buying more Yorkshire Tea, uploading some more music onto Harry’s Ipod and possibly buying a fire-wok from a man called Kevin.

Then we just need to have a few drinks with our friends, nurse the hangover, and leave! We are hoping to get a ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre on Sunday night… Drive down to Venice (it was going to be Bari – Harry has just informed me of a change of plan, I’m not complaining!) in a matter of days and then get a ferry to Igoumenitsa in Greece, perhaps a little bit of sightseeing there before an exciting few days in Istanbul.

I’m so so excited and really keen on this blogging thing – I might even enjoy writing about it as much as the trip itself!

Thanks for stopping by…

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Our trip cards

Our trip cards

We’ve just had these little cards printed which some of you may have received… We can give them out along the way so people have our blog address but also for children to colour in!

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