Chinese Gods of the Road
We cross the equator twice today as we snake around mountains to get back onto the main highway that will take us to the Ethiopian border. We're on the Trans-African highway which once had the reputation as the worst road in Africa, quite often taking a whole day to cover 100kms. Dubbed the "Road to Hell" by overlanders. Thankfully Kenya made a deal with the Chinese in recent years to build a tarmac road and it is now a beautiful stretch of easy riding through northern Kenya. For the whole 700km stretch I keep making thanks to the Chinese Gods of the tarmac road. We pass a couple of villages where you can see the remains of temporary residences for the Chinese workers. They have their own camps, fenced in with signs at the gates "China".
It's a nice scenic road, passing Mount Kenya on our right, passing through farm land, raw barren desert. There are many villages we pass on the way and many people walking along the roads, carrying water, firewood, big bags of maize. Women seem to do a lot of the carrying along the roads - mostly on their heads, unless they're fortunate to have a donkey. A lot of people wave, a lot of people put their hands out for money, a lot of people sign with their hands moving from belly to mouth to indicate hunger. We pass many cattle herders - cows, goats, camels. The cows are very skinny and I learn that northern Kenya is in the grip of a major drought - causing herders to walk their cattle far and wide in search of pastures to feed. In the past few weeks, it is this that's causing unrest in the area around Marsabit - with some cattle herders storming tourist lodges, burning them and moving their cattle in to graze.
The Begging Bowl
We pass many villages on the way but whenever we stop we immediately get people harrassing us for money so we are reluctant to stop. I'm in a state of conflict with myself all the time - there is heart wrenching poverty in most of Africa. Life is very basic - living in mud huts, no running water or sanitation, no electricity most of the time, cooking on firewood or charcoal. The villages look very grim - just built in the dust/mud and are visually depressing. Depressing for me riding through them, I can't begin to imagine how depressing it is living in them. What difference can I make giving money to one person, two people, a hundred people? No difference at all. I can't change the life any one person or feed thousands or millions of Africans. I'm not Bob Geldof. We can't afford to give to every one, so we made the decision long ago not to give to anyone. I feel ashamed sometimes. We seem very rich to most of these wretched peasants. They see us as a mobile ATM and have some glimmer of hope that we may brighten their day with a dollar or two. But we don't. Harsh. I console myself and consider that if I was on a two week holiday - cashed up to go on safaris and climb mountains, then I probably would give a few dollars away, but then it would be limited and I could go back home after 2 weeks and replenish my money at the next pay day. But I can't, so I don't.
Jeff finds a place out of town up a dirt track where we pull over for a short break for water. It looks like there's no-one around - but we always think that and people seem to come out of the wood work. No sooner have we stopped we see a female Maasai goat herder, herding her goats along the road. She spots us and comes marching up the dirt track. She looks too determined just to be coming to say hello, so we brace ourselves for the inevitable begging hand to come out. She moves hand from belly to mouth. OK, she's hungry. I don't mind giving food when I've got it but don't give money. I give her a packet of almonds I have in my pannier. It's not much but they are filling and nutritious. She immediately stashes them in a pocket of her dress and puts her hand out for money, shouting something at me in Swahili. I ask if I can take a photo, and of course I will give her some money. I take one photo of her while she's rabbiting on at me and give her 100 shillings (US$1). She's not happy at all and has another rant, but walks off.
I walk further up the dirt track to see if we can ride out that way, then I hear Jeff shouting at me to run back and get out of here fast. He's turning my bike around and says Mad Maasai woman is shouting down the road and it looks like she's calling on her villagers to come. My heart starts pounding, conjuring up images of being attacked by machete-wielding goat herders. We get on the bikes quick sharp and ride out down the dirt track and onto the main road again, seeing her fade into the distance. My heart thumping. No goats chasing us.
We see quite a bit of wildlife along this road - Ostriches, Camels, and a spectacular sight of a group of Vultures feeding on a dead donkey - it feels like we're in a David Attenborough documentary.
We stop for 2 nights at Camp Henry in Marsabit. It's 500 shillings (US$5) each to camp or 600 shillings (US$6) for a dorm bed. The camp spots are just dry dust so we opt for a dorm bed. We think we have the place to ourselves until a group of bikers turn up late in the afternoon, on a guided ride through Africa. There's 2 blokes who really don't want to camp - especially as now it's been raining for a few hours so they buy a 600 shilling bed each. It's quite a cute hut with 6 cute beds in it - I feel like I'm in Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
It's 200km to Moyale, on the border with Ethiopia. The Kenyan border departure process goes quite smoothly (still with the usual money changers hassling us though). It takes about 30 - 60 minutes. We head out on the beautiful Chinese tarmac road, leaving Kenya behind, and suddenly the beautiful Chinese tarmac road just comes to an abrupt halt and we're thrown onto the dirt. Welcome to Ethiopia!
Welcome to Ethiopia!
Jeff's ahead of me when we leave Kenyan border post. Some blokes jump out at me and I assume they are border post guards so I stop, but I can’t understand what they’re saying and I can see Jeff getting away from me, “Let me go, I need to catch up with my husband…”.
I catch up with Jeff and there is no hint of a border post to enter Ethiopia at all, no sign, nada. We’d heard it was difficult to find, but you would think at a border town they would have something signposted wouldn’t you? No!
Some bloke points us down a rough dirt road side street, jostling with trucks, and points around the corner where ‘immigration’ is hidden. We stop at the gates which are closed, and we’re immediately surrounded by the usual touts - money changers, helpers, kids begging for money. The helper tells us immigration is closed until 2pm. The money changer, Brook, is hassling us to change our Kenyan shillings, and as usual all money touts want US dollars. We just change 2000 Kenyan Shillings, about $20 worth, into Ethiopian Birr, so we can get some lunch while we wait for the immigration office to open.
The “helper”, Adam, desperately wants to help and we think he’ll be useful to show us where customs is, which we know is in a completely different place in town. He says to ride our bikes around the corner to a hotel cafe where they will be safer. The three of us share a traditional Ethiopian dish of Injera (a sourdough-risen flat bread) with a beef stew which comes in a cast iron dish over some hot coals. Already Ethiopian cuisine is getting our thumbs up, and beats most other African countries we’ve passed through already who seem to have a staple diet of rubber chicken and rice.
The immigration office opens and Adam says they will show us where customs is, so we give him $5 (instead of $10 if he had shown us where customs was). He’s been helpful showing us where the immigration office is and guiding us to lunch.
Immigration procedure is quite straight forward - photos and finger prints - which has become the norm the past few border crossings. We ask where customs is and they direct us to turn right back onto the ‘main road’ and it’s near a certain hotel. It takes a few goes up and down the road to spot customs - hidden amongst the general melee of the town and behind a corrugated iron fence. We park up on the street outside and are immediately surrounded by people fascinated by us and our bikes. We decide to go one at a time to customs. Jeff goes first, while I look after Wallace and Gromit. I’m surrounded by kids with their hands out, local motorbikes on their 100cc bikes, street touts selling all sorts. I position myself so I can see both bikes clearly. One young boy is very persistent with his begging and keeps pushing other kids away as if I’m his prize catch only. This boy is funny - he stands in my personal space and looks deep into my eyes rubbing his tummy with his hand out. I keep shaking my head, he keeps trying. I step back at one point and he’s right behind me and I stand on his toe. He feigns pain and I roll my eyeballs. Next, I move around the other side of my bike and he puts his foot right under my heels ready for when I take a step back - the little bugger :) I laugh, and so does he. He’s still not getting any money.
A man comes over with his baby boy - probably about 2 years old - the boy is pointing to my Elvis teddy bear I have tied to my pannier - the man asks if the baby can have it. You’re joking aren’t you - that’s a wedding present from Elvis. So no, the baby doesn't get my teddy :) Gosh, I’m tough.
The road from here is paved a bit, with construction on going so it’s not as bad as it was at the border, but still a bit challenging wondering what side of the road to ride on with the road partly built. It should be the right side of the road now. It’s been left hand side up until Ethiopia.
I found a potentially OK hotel to stay here in Moyale the night, The Koket Borina - all we have to do is find it. It takes 2 laps of the town but it is indeed OK. Safe parking, double room with our own bathroom with a sit down toilet with a shower hanging over it for $25. After scrubbing up we venture out to the nearest ATM - which is behind a railed 6ft fence with armed guards. Apparently the network is down in the whole area so the ATM is not working. We need money, we haven't got much cash on us and Ethiopia is cash-only most of the time. As we’re having dinner in the restaurant later, the money changer, Brook, finds us, insistent that we need more money than we’ve got. We tell him we’re going to try the ATM in the morning and if we can’t get any cash we’ll exchange some Euros with him. He comes back at 8am and the network is still down, so we get some Birr from him - just enough to see us to the next town. We have our first taste of the famous Ethiopian coffee. It’s delicious and it’s a welcome change from the hugely disappointing instant Nescafe in countries where their main crop and export business is coffee.
Plastic Bottle "Petrol Station"
We really need petrol before we leave here as we’ve already passed our comfort zone where mileage on the tank goes, 500km. We try a few petrol stations in town but none of them have got any fuel. Oops. It’s 200km to Yebelo where we’re heading today and nothing much in between except a whole string of small villages, and TomTom can’t see any petrol stations along the way. Jeff got 700km on a tank once, around Sydney with good fuel so we take a leap of faith and just ride out. I reason there must be somewhere to get fuel as there are a few local 100cc bikes. They tend to stick around their own towns / villages so I‘m hoping there are some villages with bikes along the road.
The road is very good condition, the weather is perfect, the countryside quite pleasant and even the mud huts are a little more colourful - the mud has been painted with some quite striking patterns. Some of the landscape looks very much like outback Australia with the red earth and similar bush.
There are lots of small villages along the way and seemingly a long string of people walking along the road, carrying the usual supplies of water, firewood and sacks of grain. Lots of donkeys doing the donkey work and pulling shabby wooden carts.
We come across a large village on the road with a small row of shack shops. We pull over and play the charades game of asking if there’s any petrol here. A man comes over with a couple of 2 litre plastics bottles of fuel. We ask for 10 litres each, so out comes a steady supply of 2 litre plastic bottles. By now I’m surrounded by the villagers all wanting to take a look at me and my bike. I don’t know why but they don’t surround Jeff, only me. The petrol man charges us 25 Birr per litre which is over a bit, but we’re not complaining. It takes a good few minutes to fill the tank from 5 bottles, but we’re very grateful to have enough fuel to get us to Yebello now. We say our thanks, wave goodbye and get on our way. It has been quite refreshing that not one single person asked us for anything.
We stop for one night in Yebello at the Yebello Motel on the main road. It’s quite expensive we think for Ethiopia at $50 for a double en-suite room, but the alternative is $20 and a shared bathroom. There are a lot of local men at the motel for a conference on insurance for live stock and we don’t fancy sharing a squat and drop loo with them.
We get some lunch first and are flabbergasted at how fresh the bread is - we haven't had bread this fresh for months, or maybe since leaving home. Breakfast is included in the room rate, and as usual we ask what time breakfast is served. "Breakfast is from 1 O'Clock to 4 O'Clock", he says. There's a tumble weed moment . . . "What?". "Ah, you are tourists. Your time, it is 7 O'Clock to 10 O'Clock". This has got to be one of the strangest things about Ethiopia. Their Zero O'Clock time starts at sunrise, our 6am. That was strange enough. We pay for the room and we get a receipt dated 6th June 2009.
So at 2 O'Clock in the morning, 7 years ago, we go for breakfast. And there is obviously more of a language barrier here - not so many people speak English, and my Amharic's a bit rusty, so there’s a minor hiccup ordering breakfast. We think we’ve ordered 2 eggs with some bread each, what we get is half a dozen eggs each and an enormous basket of bread. How greedy must they think we are?
pot hole city
We did hear from the bikers we met at Marsabit that there’s a 200km stretch of road that is really bad - between Hawassa and somewhere else we couldn't remember, so we don’t know if it’s coming up.
We soon find out 100kms up the road, and the road turns to rat poop. A regular dirt road would be fine as it's usually quite predictable, but this is as rough as guts. Some sections are very rocky; some are badly corrugated; some sections are scarily sandy; all very uneven and full of pot holes; trucks weaving and grinding to a near stop to tackle the pot holes; crazy buses over taking and blinding us with dust; some sections actively under construction so we’re dodging construction vehicles; some sections where we don’t know which side of the road to ride on; some paved sections going through towns which have more potholes than tarmac; people jumping out on the road trying to sell us pineapples; one man tries to grab us as we’re riding passed. It’s very challenging riding and you can’t let your guard down for one second.
We’re blinded by dust behind a mad intercity bus at one point so Jeff pulls over to one side a bit then immediately warns me there’s deep sand. I stop too quickly and drop my bike. There’s no damage to me or the bike and some guy comes running down the hill to help pick it up and I quickly give him 100 Birr (US$5) before other “helpers” arrive.
We finally get to Dila and are exhausted, dying for the loo and stinking hot. We’re trying to find the Delight International Hotel - which I’m sure in my fantasies is a fabulous hotel. We haven’t been able to pin point it on our navigator as Google maps bears no resemblance to TomTom where this town goes. We stop on the side of the busy town street opposite something called Delight. I ask a man on the side of the road if it is a hotel. He says yes and holds his hand out for money. You’re kidding me? You want some money for blinking well saying “Yes”?! We manage to park up near by and I go in while Jeff guards the bikes. Unfortunately it’s not a hotel, what we’re looking for is just down the road. I come out and Jeff goes into to use the loo. I stand by the bikes and there’s a row of people just staring. Five young kids have taken up residence on the wall, staring at this latest entertainment for the afternoon.
Our international delight hotel is just a few blocks down the road, and is not the stuff of fantasies but it's good enough and is only $20. Our room is up 6 flights of stairs (no lift), and at the front of the building overlooking the busy street. There's some loud music coming from a shop across the road and must be from the Ethiopian top of the pops chart music from 100 years ago - it's some dreadful repetitive high pitched screeching that seems to go on for ever - 7 hours of it to 11pm seems like a billion hours. I feel I've died and gone to heaven when it finally stops.
The next morning my anxiety starts early. Ahead of us, we’ve got another 100kms of the same road conditions as we had yesterday. My stomach is churning and I feel sick. I have trouble getting some breakfast down. After several visits to the loo, I’m ready to leave. Putting my helmet on, I tighten the strap but go into a psychological dry retching and gagging fit. I’m nearly sick and have to yank my helmet off again and breath. I don’t know what worries me so much as I can handle the riding OK. Yes, I fall off sometimes but that’s when I’m moving slowly or coming to a stop. I think it’s the thought of such a long tough ride requiring a lot of effort and concentration.
Anyway, we head off and as soon as I’m riding my nerves disappear - it’s still challenging, even the first bit getting out of town, but once we’re on our way I’m OK.
Here's a 4 minute movie of the road from Dila to Hawassa - which, by the way, is the main trunk road from the Kenyan border to Addis Ababa.
We reach Hawassa and the dreadful road ends and we reach relatively good tarmac - hooray. We need fuel before continuing to Lake Langano where we will stay tonight. But it’s the same story here, a lot of the petrol stations don't have any fuel. We find one with a "queue" of motorbikes, tuk tuks and trucks and get in line. One of the local motorbikers waves us around and indicates we should go around the other side and get ahead of the queue. Really? OK, thanks very much.
It's another 60kms to Lake Langano and we turn off the main road down a dirt track for a few kms. We happen across a resort that looks quite nice but they're fully booked. We ask the way to Karkaro Beach Campsite, but the receptionist says we have to go back up to the main road and turn next right. We're a bit reluctant to do that as we were pretty sure it was just a bit further along from this resort. After a few hand signals and arm waving he tells a worker to show us how to get there. The worker wants a lift on one of our bikes but there's no room - so he runs in front of us and leads us down the dirt road at first but then veers off into the fields on some dusty footpaths around the back of some houses, through some more fields, cutting through hedgerows and brings us out onto a dog rough road just outside Karkaro campsite. Voila! I give him $5 for his efforts and wonder already how we're going to find our way out in the morning!
The ride to Addis Ababa is without too much trouble, but the road is full of potholes. This is OK for us most of the time - we can quickly swerve around them, but it causes buses and trucks to slow down to almost stopped to tackle them, or swerve widely across the road to avoid them. This makes for interesting overtaking as they're swerving around unpredictably. And it's a pain as we overtake them when they're nearly stopped, then they get their testosterone up and have to overtake us again on a smooth bit. Traffic into Addis city centre isn't as bad as I was expecting (but La Paz is the worst benchmark which will take some beating). All is well until my bike cuts out at a major intersection - 3 lanes of busy rush hour traffic - who aren't very sympathetic that I can't get my bike started. Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep, Beep. As buses and cars manoeuvre "around" me within a hairs breadth of my panniers. Thankfully Jeff has stopped across the traffic lights and we're on our intercom. I tell him it seems flooded so he quickly diagnoses a possible problem and tells me how to get it started. It limps along choking for a bit but gets us to our hotel in the city centre.
We're staying a week in Addis to sort out visas for Sudan and Egypt. We get the ball rolling on the Egyptian visa first as we need that to apply for the Sudan visa. To apply we need to present photocopies of our passports, address and contact details of a hotel in Egypt, bank statements, 2 photos and $40 each.
We leave our application with the Egyptian Embassy and we are to return on 2 days' time.
In the meantime we visit the National Museum to see Ethiopia's most famous and oldest ladies - Lucy. She became famous in 1974 being the most complete skeleton of an early human ancestor ever discovered and she is 3.2 million years old. She was found at Hadar in the Danakil Depression in the NE of Ethiopia. Her discovery marked a turning point in our understanding of human evolution. Some say she was found with her arm outstretched, hand out, palm up.
off street dentist
A filling has chipped in half - one that I had done in Chile last year after my root canal treatment. It's not painful yet, but I don't want to wait until it's agony, so I seek out a local dentist in Addis. The first one around the corner looks quite professional and modern, but they're fully booked. So I get brave and phone another local one, she gives me the name of the dentist. I say I'll be there in 5 minutes, but can't find the one she mentioned. After walking down some dodgy looking street I turn back and see a sign for another dentist down some alleyway - but it looks a bit rough so ask if they know the one I'm looking for. A man appears and indicates to follow him and he leads me down the street, up some stairs, into a "shopping centre" and into a less rough looking dentist. The receptionist says it's not them I called. "Are you dentist?. "No, I'm a nurse. What do you want?". "I want to see a dentist". She calls someone and in walks a bloke seemingly off the street and he walks into one of the side rooms. I'm told to go in and now he looks professional behind his desk with a doctor's white coat on. Hmmmmm. "How can I help you?". "Are you a dentist?". "Yes". He checks out my teeth, asking questions while shoving things in my mouth so I can't answer. He says he can do the filling now. "What? Now? Can you do that?" I ask, with a hint of fear in my voice. "Don't be afraid", he says. "Will it hurt?". "No". "Will you give me a local anaesthetic?". "No, no need". He does the filling OK without any dental terror. While I'm paying $30 at the reception, he comes out of the side room, without his white coat on and disappears down the stairs, back out onto the street.
We're in a taxi going through the city and a very haunting mellow song is playing on the local radio - it sounds very sad and is quite fitting for the scenes unfolding before me - seeing typical Addis street life. I'm quite mesmerised and saddened as I see the very destitute everywhere: people sitting on the side of the road hoping for a few coins; men gathered around sitting in rubble; men selling mangoes off carts on the road; too many grown men shoe shining; dilapidated corrugated iron shacks selling wares; pot holed streets and more rubble; hundreds of people on the street; old women squatting down by the road, hand out; mothers with babes in arms; men huddled against a wall sleeping in sacks; glimpses of side streets and more squalor. It's very sobering. We will be out of Africa in a few weeks and the lasting impression burned on my mind will be this extreme poverty of the whole continent, for the majority of the population.
We've got our Egyptian Visa OK - very efficient embassy and pleasant staff. We've applied for the Sudanese Visa and will pick it up this afternoon. In the meantime, we tackle buying US$$ from somewhere. Ethiopia has restrictions on people buying US$$, apparently to help keep the economy stable. We need US$1500 in cash to get us through Sudan as we can't get cash out of ATMs there due to economic sanctions. We enrol the help of a taxi driver we've used already outside our hotel and first ask about the black market. He makes a few calls and tells us US$1 will cost us Birr28.1 on the blackmarket which is really expensive. He says we can buy $$ from the National Bank head office. We go there and it's quite a process to get $$: form filling; interview with the manager; proof of where you got your cash from you want to exchange; proof of onward travel; the reason you want the $$. The manager reluctantly agrees to allow us $500 each at a rate of Birr23.08, but we need our passports. So we have to collect them from the Sudan Embassy first. On the way we stop off at a small bottle shop down some back street to buy $500 in a tiny office at the back, on the black market. At least we limit the amount we lose with the expensive exchange rate with only buying $500. By the time we get back to the bank the manager has changed shift and we have to go through the process again, being treated with suspicion as it's been a few hours since we were in the bank last. Anyhow we eventually get our $$. I carry $500, and Jeff carries US$1000, along with Birr8000 (about $350), in a plastic pouch in his jacket pocket, zipped up.
By this time it's gone 3pm and we haven't had lunch. We try to find a taxi outside the bank but can't find one, so walk across the road. We walk up about 100-200 metres from the bank and some kids start circling around. Four of them about 10 years old, and an older one about 16. They start surrounding Jeff pulling at his arm, and before we know it, and in only a few seconds, they've snatched his plastic pouch with all the money in. We try to grab them but they wriggle out of their shirts and leg it down the road. They're too fast for us. We stand a bit stunned on the pathway and wonder what to do. It's a horrible feeling, and it's quite a lot of money for us to lose.
We should report it to the police, but can't find a police station close by. We call our taxi driver back and tell him what happened. He takes us to a local "police station" - it's a very run down building amid piles of rubble in a back street. A police man comes with us in the taxi to the scene of the crime and says its not his jurisdiction. We go to another "police station" in a worse state than the first. There's not a hint of any technology around - not even a telephone on the desk. They're still working with pen, paper and carbon paper. A policeman from here comes to see the scene of the crime. They all seem to want to pass the buck but he accepts that yes OK it's in his jurisdiction and we all go back to the station.
Well, what a palaver follows. All we want is a police report to say we've reported the robbery so we have documentary evidence for our insurance company. We don't expect them to investigate it, or expect them to find the boys and get our money back. We just want a report to say we've been here and reported the theft. No-one wants to write a report. We're there for about 2 hours as they argue amongst themselves (in Amharic). Our taxi driver translates for us and they are worried we want to make a full report which requires a lot of effort and paper shuffling, but we explain again what we want. I check our insurance policy while we're waiting and can see quite clearly that stolen cash isn't covered anyway. But then think about trying to get US$$ again - we still need them for Sudan. The managers at the bank were not friendly fellows so we will need a police report for them, I'm sure. So we persist with the police report. They say to come back tomorrow. We see a chief on the way out and he says to come back at 9:30 for a report.
We dutifully go back at 9:30 the next day and the chief is no-where to be seen. He's in a meeting and the policemen can't write a report as the rubber stamp is in the chief's office and it's locked. Come back this afternoon they say. Aaaaaaaarrrrgggghhh. We stop by the bank and tell the manager about the theft. He's very abrupt and says he needs a police report. No further discussion and dismisses us.
We go back to the police station in the afternoon. We wait for a bit, but eventually get to see a man with a few stars on his shoulders and he eventually hand writes a report for us, and gives his official rubber stamp. Hooray.
Back at the bank we go straight to the manager we spoke to this morning and show him the police report. He nods his approval and sends us to windows 69 for us to start the application process again for some US$$. By the time the clerk at window 69 does the preliminary processing he says our manager has gone to lunch and we must see another manager to get our application signed. Jeff's busy getting cash from the ATM, so I go alone. This other manager saw us yesterday and he's not very pleased to see me. "You had $1000 already, I'm not signing the application form again", he says, "I did that yesterday". I say the other manager had said it was OK. He waves at his desk and says he'll be back Friday. I explain about the robbery. "Where's the police report?". I want to cry at this point - you can only be very patient for so long. I don't know where the police report is - I think Clerk 69 has it. He doesn't. Eventually I find it with Jeff's documents and go back to the manager with the police report. He's reluctant, but after few more questions and outward signs of displeasure he signs the application forms after all. These managers behave as if it's their own money they're giving away and make you feel like a naughty child asking for more pocket money.
All this time our taxi driver has been at our side, coming to the police station a few times and acting on our behalf, coming with us to the bank a few times, and then escorting us safely back to our hotel.
It's upsetting losing that amount of money but we count our small blessing that it was 'only' money. It could have been worse as I was carrying all of our documentation and passports at the time - then it would be an even bigger bureaucratic headache and would mean having to stay in Addis until it was all sorted out. Then we would have missed our Visa window for Sudan. More importantly, we were not harmed - even young kids can wield a dangerous weapon or kick hard.
The hotel owner comes to say hello to us over dinner and we tell him of our ordeal. He's very sorry that's happened to us and says the dinner is on the house, to let us know not everyone is bad in Addis. We stay one more day to compose ourselves and plan the next week. We walk out for lunch just around the block, 650 metres in all, and I'm nervous and twitchy. I'm wary of any kids that come close to us. We go into a grocery shop and a young kid is waiting for us and staring at us by the doorway, I swear at him and tell him to get lost. I want to punch him. I want to cry. It's not a great feeling at all. Time to leave.
We leave Addis under a tainted bitter cloud and we can't wait to get out. Even without being robbed it's not a particularly nice city. It takes about an hour to get out - taking wrong turns and clearing the urban sprawl of busy suburban villages with crazy tuk tuks, people everywhere, pot holes galore, wandering goats, cows, donkeys and sheep.
We're heading for Lalibela in the north. It's only 700km but we're doing it over 3 days as the last 60kms is supposedly a bit rough on dirt roads, stopping over at Shewa Robit and Woldiya. Half way to Shewa Robit and the scenery opens up to some spectacular alpine mountains, green and scenic. It's very pleasant and soon we are seeing the appeal of Ethiopia again.
There's no getting away from the people though. Ethiopia seems to be one long village with people everywhere and there are always some people walking along the road. The further north we go, people, especially children on the roadside, seem to be getting a bit hostile towards us: shouting at us; throwing stones at us; trying to jam sticks through our spokes; throwing water at us (well, I hope it was water); jumping out at us; making hostile gestures towards us; along with the usual begging hands out as we pass. We wonder what we've done. We find out later it's the norm, but there's no clear understanding why.
It's difficult to find places just to stop for a five minute break. We think we've found a place for five minutes. Some kids appear and stare at us from the opposite side of the road. A man walks up and starts talking. Says he wanted to go to Australia and work once. We're waiting for the inevitable. Here it comes. "Can you give me a few dollars so I can get to Australia?". "No". The kids are encouraged. "Money", "Give us money", "Give us money". It gets very wearing.
We fill up with fuel before we leave Woldiya, and our emotional pendulum is thrown the other way when a truck driver says "Welcome to Ethiopia" and is genuine about it, and doesn't proceed to ask for anything. Our ride out towards Lalibela is pleasant riding (not too many pot holes), over a lovely mountain range. Still lots of villages and people. We need to stop to go to the loo, but there is no such luxury as public toilets or any petrol stations where they might have any. It takes us over an hour to find a suitably 'quiet' spot near some trees where we can go to a bush loo. Jeff stops ahead of me, but I can't get my stand down so ride up 200 metres on the left side, park up quick, go into the trees, do my business, come out and see Jeff with 3 kids around him down the road and he tells me later he gave them a few coins. He starts to ride off and the kids come legging it towards me. They're barefoot and dressed in dirty rags. They ask me for shoes and hold out some coins - wanting to pay for some shoes with the coins Jeff's just given them. It's pitiful, but I don't give them my shoes. I get my gear on and as I ride off, they're obviously upset and the older boy swings a bag at me.
The Old Road
We get to Gashina where we turn off the main road and start 60km of dirt road up to Lalibela. It's not too bad for most of the way apart from a few rough patches. I have heard the last 10kms or so is tarmac and I'm really looking forward to that. After about 50 kms there's a roundabout, with a sign in the middle saying welcome to Lalibela but doesn't say which way to go (and TomTom's useless here as it doesn't know this road). We bear left passed the airport, and into a village. They point down the road saying we can get to Lalibela that way - it's 9km. It's quite rough going through the village but we think it will get better when we get out of the village. Oh, how wrong. It's not much better than a goat track. It's completely worn down to the bedrock, large loose rocks, hair pin bends, washouts all along the way, and wandering cattle. It's the roughest road we've ever been on and is the most technically challenging we've encountered. Jeff gets stuck in a washout filled with rocks and can't get out. I ride passed on the upper edge and manage to stop just over the brow of the hill. By the time I walk back down the hill, Jeff's dropped his bike. Picking it up is OK (there happen to be some helpful youngsters around), but it's difficult to get it out of the ditch and it takes a bit of planning and a few goes to get it out. The kids help generously and freely - it's very refreshing when they don't put their hands out for payment.
There's another few hundred metres of hell to go through, but we finally make it and I've never been so happy to see a 'proper' road. So much for looking forward to that lovely tarmac road for the last 10kms!
I can't believe that's the only way into Lalibela - it can't be surely? - tour buses come here. I'm in denial - I can't bear the thought of going back out the same way in 2 days' time. I can only imagine the stomach churning and retching I will have to go through. Leaving Dila will seem like a walk in the park.
We eventually find our guesthouse - with the help of a local tour bus driver - who is another person who helps freely. We soon learn we took a wrong turn at the roundabout and came up the old road. They are quite amazed we made it. Thankfully, they reassure us we don't have to go back that way, the correct road is in much better condition and is tarmac all the way back to the roundabout. Phew, I can relax a bit.
A tour guide meets us who works with the guesthouse and we arrange to meet him later to discuss guiding us around the rock churches. It's apparently a lot better with a guide. We meet him at the Kana Restaurant just around the corner. It's got a fabulous view and we sit having a beer watching the sun go down on this pretty rough day.
The Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela
Lalibela is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, is almost completely Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, Ethiopia being one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity in the first half of the fourth century.
The reason we have come here is to see the churches which have been carved out of solid rock. After our trauma of getting here yesterday, they'd better be worth it! There are 11 churches of varying sizes, built in the 12th Century by King Lalibela as the 'New Jerusalem' - after Muslim conquests made travel to the Holy Land dangerous. They are an impressive piece of engineering.
Habtamu Gebeyaw of www.habtamutours.wordpress.com has been our guide and we can highly recommend him. He is very informative, speaks very good english and has a great sense of humour.
When we leave Lalibela, Habtamu enrols the help of a biker friend and insists on guiding us out of town to make sure we get on the right road. It's a much smoother ride back out to where we took a wrong turn on the way in. The Lalibela dirt road is mostly good grade dirt, with a few patches of quite rough bits, so it still takes about 2 hours to cover the 60km back to the main road.
We get back to the main road at Gashena and it's really good tarmac road all the way to Gondar, which is a relief as it's another 300kms from here twisting up and down mountain ranges. It's very scenic but slow going - not only because of the mountain passes, but the usual endless traffic of people and animals on the road and the seemingly endless village. But we have a friendly day today with lots of people waving, no-one throwing stones or trying to shove sticks in our spokes. Ethiopia has certainly recovered from the severe famine is suffered in 1984 - it now has 100 million people - obviously their Gen X have been doing their bit for king and country since then.
Eight hours of riding later, the light's fading and we get a bit lost in Gondar trying to find our accommodation, so we stop on the side of the road to check the navigator and to call the lodge. It doesn't take long for the usual kids to come running up to us. They keep leaning on my bike on the panniers and I tell them to move away as they're unbalancing me. They rabbit on, still getting close, "Give me money", "No, no money. Move away from my bike", "Give me money", "No, no money. Stop leaning on my bike", "Give me money", "No, no money". I notice they're interested in Elvis the teddy bear, but it's not until later I realise they've stolen the bangles I'd tied around his neck. Thieving little b@*!#^s.
While Elvis is getting robbed, Jeff has called the manager of the lodge and he has arranged to meet us on the main road, back about 10kms. He flags us down as we ride along - he's on foot and the lodge is a few kms away so asks if he can get on the back of Jeff's bike. There's no room on the seat, but that's never stopped an African piling on the back of a bike, and he hops on top of the roll bags.
Here follow some stills from the GroPro which give a small slice of what we see from the road riding through Ethiopia - taken over 2 hours riding through the mountains north to Woldiya.
Time to leave Ethiopia, and I can't say I'm sorry. It's a pity that a very few people can mar your opinion of the whole country. There have been plenty of nice people too, lots of waving, a few we've had closer contact with who have been genuinely caring. But the whole country looks a mess - it has some beautiful scenery, especially in the north with highland mountain ranges with an alpine feel - it seems the people do a great job of making it look like a refuse dump. Each village and town is an assault on my senses. We can hardly stop anywhere. I can't wait to leave.
After 4 months, I'm a bit Africa'd out and already I'm dreaming of Europe. I dream of petrol stations with tarmac forecourts; with a small supermarket where it's easy to buy lip salve or wet wipes; a cafe where we can stop for lunch; clean sit down toilets and toilet paper; where we can park the bikes easily without fear of dropping them or things getting stolen off them; where people don't look at you twice; where people don't throw things at you; where a small village is quaint and pretty.
But we're not there yet . . .
We have a long day ahead of us to cross into Sudan. We have a 360km ride (quite long for us) and a border crossing, which usually takes no less than 2 hours. We've been enjoying the Ethiopian Highland weather which has been quite cool, but as we ride down off the mountains the temperature increases and it's high 30's by the time we get to the border post at Metema. Already hot and sweaty. This border post is quite a hassle on a bike as we have to visit several offices riding our bike from one to the next - so it's a hot and bothered round of: park the bike; take riding gear off; unlock pannier to get documentation out; go to office to get processed; unlock pannier to put documentation away; put riding gear on; ride a very short distance to next office; park the bike; take riding gear off; etc, etc. But all goes as well as it possibly can and we're good to go in about 2 hours. In the meantime Jeff has dealt with a money changer to buy some Sudanese Pounds. We change US$200 and get nearly three times the official rate.
As soon as we cross into Sudan the contrast is immediate. It's always fascinating how things can change so much just crossing over a line. All the people have gone! All the goats and cows and donkeys have gone. The endless village has gone. In fact, 75 million people have gone!
It's another 2 hours ride to Al Qadarif with a few police check points on the way. The police are friendly enough, but the country is paranoid about foreigners and they want to see our passports. When we get to Al Qadarif we can't find the hotel we were aiming for, so we stop in the busy street but can't see anything that looks like a hotel or anything that looks like I'd want to put my head down and sleep. Within a minute or so people start coming up to us, but the huge difference here - people seem genuinely friendly and want nothing. Two guys on a motorbike lead us to a 'decent' hotel about 1km away - and are just being helpful, they don't expect anything. How nice.
This hotel seems quite expensive at first, The Al Motawkel Hotel. They quote their rack rate as US$90 / S£600 - which is ridiculous - it's quite a grubby hotel (although quite decent for Sudan standards from what we've heard), and they don't even give you a towel or breakfast! But S£600 at the rate we've bought S£, costs us US$34 so not so bad after all. They even throw in a few roaches for free. After such a long hot day, we're just glad to get a clean bed for the night. They have a restaurant and we order lamb koftas. It's the nicest food we've had for ages. No beer for us though - Sudan is a dry country. Apparently the punishment for drinking alcohol is fifty lashes, and I'm not talking about the very good brew by James Squire.
We're staying one night in Wad Madani, at the Imperial Hotel - a once grand hotel 'near' the banks of the Nile. It had seen better days and we couldn't see the river, but it was only S£400 / $25. I take a look at the room first and notice the toilet seat was broken (breaking news in Africa . . . not!). I point this out to the guy and ask if we can have a room without a broken toilet seat. He happily obliges me and we walk down the hall way a fair bit and he shows me another room. I check and see that this toilet seat is, in fact, broken in two places - just where my mid-thighs would land. I point this out and he gladly demonstrates, by sitting on the toilet, how to use the toilet without getting my mid-thighs pinched. Thanks very much for that, I say, but I think I'll take the first room with the slightly less broken toilet seat.
We're not supposed to take any photos yet as we need to register as an alien and get a Travel and Photo Permit when we get to Khartoum. There are strictly enforced regulations on what you can take photos of, and you can get arrested for taking photos of bridges across the Nile! So when we stop for a short break en-route to Khartoum we are a bit discreet taking a photo of a chap who has been chatting to us and gathering a small crowd of kids around the bikes.
We arrive in Khartoum and the city traffic is not bad at all. We find the German Guesthouse easy enough and settle in for 2 days while we get our Alien Registration and Travel/Photo Permits arranged. We can only stay a total of 2 weeks in Sudan as we only have a transit visa, and we've used 5 days already, so we need a get a move on to make it to the Egyptian border. We make 8 copies of our Transit/Photo permit - which is the suggested amount to give a copy at police checks.
It reaches 40℃ here at the moment so it's going to be a few very hot days riding until we get further north and it starts to cool down.
There are greater distances between towns where we can stay and its 350kms to Atbara, our next stop. We are now riding through the Sahara Desert following the Nile. We can't see the Nile - but we can see lines of green trees in the near distance. This is a very busy road with trucks and buses . . . and police checks. Before we get to Atbara we go through 7 police checks - 5 of whom want a copy of the Travel Permit - we're going to have to make more copies! With it being such a busy road there a few road side 'cafes' so we can stop for a bite to eat.
We have another long ride to Karima the next day, this time the road is very quiet and we're riding through nothing but desert. What's it like riding through the desert? We don't actually ride in the sand - that would be mental! The road is in really good condition and would make for easy riding if it wasn't for a perpetual northerly wind battering into the side of us. With that, comes sand blowing across the road, sometimes so much that visibility is poor and we can't see far in front. So much sand blows in places, that sand drifts cross onto the road and we have to watch out for otherwise we could take a sand stack. So it's hot, dusty and very windy - it doesn't let up. There are no signs of life, even the goats and camels have disappeared. It's hard going riding 300km in that. There's a road side 'cafe' half way - I only spot it as a truck and a Hilux are parked in front of a brick shack. We stop for a short break and have a cup of tea. It's good to get out of the wind and sand for a bit.
We were going to get an el-cheapo hotel in Karima, but can't bear the thought of it when we arrive all hot, sweaty and wind-battered. We know of a decent hotel but it's quite expensive. We manage to haggle the price down a bit and end up 'only' paying S£2000 / $115 for dinner, B&B. It's a very nice place and we lap up a bit of luxury for the night we're here.
Arriving in Dongola, we find a very cheap hotel for S£200 / $12. We have to jump through a few hoops first though. He doesn't speak any English but we manage to understand what he asks for. First he wants our passports and Travel Permit. Then he asks if we've got police permission. I've heard of this - that you have to have the permission from the local police to stay in a hotel. We say no. He asks if we want one room or two. We say one room, and that we are married and show him our wedding ring fingers. He asks for a marriage certificate. I go back outside for documentation from my pannier and fish out our Elvis-special marriage certificate. He now seems willing to give us a room. He hangs onto our passports and the marriage certificate as he indicates he wants them translated. When we get them back later, there's two new stamps over our alien registration sticker in our passports and we think he's taken our passports and marriage certificate to the police for the permission for us to stay.
The room's basic to say the least and quite grubby - it'll certainly go a long way to average out the cost of accommodation after last night's splurge.
We walk out across the road for some food and find this great cafe. We choose some fresh fish from his fridge and settle into one of the huts fringing the courtyard. Each little hut has its own AC unit. He brings a big tray of food with this fish - some bread, chilli pesto, fresh bread, rocket, onions and lime. It's delicious. I'm really enjoying the food in Sudan.
We survive the night in the $12 grubby hotel and head for Soleb on the banks of the Nile, only 150kms up the road. We will cross into Egypt tomorrow, but it is a remote border crossing with no accommodation there so it will be a long day so we get as close as we can to the border now. Soleb is a dusty little village with one guest house. We visit an ancient Egyptian Temple first dating back to 14th Century BC. The guesthouse is OK and friendly. This is also $12 - but you get what you pay for - it's a concrete room with 2 metal framed beds, a skinny mattress, one sheet and outside squat and drop loos. They are very welcoming even though they speak very little English and we don't speak any Arabic.
In the morning we find our way back onto the main tarmac road to the border. It's a beautiful morning - clear blue skies, sunny and not too hot. We make an early start as it's going to be a long day - 200km to the border; a notoriously long-winded, bureaucratic border control process with Sudan and Egypt; then 160kms to Abu Simbel where the nearest accommodation is.
All goes well for the first half an hour then we see a dusty haze coming up, then all of a sudden we're thrown into a sand storm. I thought conditions were difficult the other day when we were riding to Karima. The wind is very strong and gusty, and there's a cloud of sand whipping over and through us - getting everywhere - including in my eyes even though I have my helmet battened down as much as I can. It makes for very challenging and unpleasant riding.
We make it to the Sudan / Egypt border at Argeen by 12:30. We know it's going to take a long time to clear this border as the Egyptian border control process is notoriously bureaucratic. We just hope we can get away before 5pm to give us 2 hours of daylight to get to Abu Simbel - we don't want to ride this sand storm in the dark. Will we make it? I hope so - I'm dreaming of beer and bacon butties on the other side . . .