352 km, 9288 km from Cape Town
THE START OF THE HEAT
Today was our last day in Ethiopia, and leaving Gondor you could sense the change in landscape as we descended from the foothils of the Simian mountains of Ethiopia down to the flat desert plains of Sudan. The previous day we had had a smattering of rain on the road to Gondor, today the temperature started to rise, and we eventually took off our jackets, not realising that we would not be putting them back on for the next two weeks! We approached the border crossing with some trepidation as we’d heard lots of horror stories, however, despite it taking a coupld of hours to get through both sides, we had no issues at all, and in fact we were invited to partake in some tea with the immigration officials on the Sudanese side. The official was also polite enough to point out to Sierra that his ethiopian scarf was being worn on the wrong side (not sure the significance of getting it wrong, but we took a few guesses). The town of Gederef and the hotel there set the standard for both Sudanese hotels (terrible) and hospitality and food (delightful). We were wandering around looking like our usual lost selves, when a friendly local offered to drop us at the best eating place in town, which turned out to be a street cafe with superb cheap food. There we were welcomed by the curious locals who then insisted on taking us for coffees at a coffee house and refused to let us pay.
358 km, 8936 km from Cape Town
We left Lalibela the following day, a Tuesday which is clearly market day in Ethipoia. All along the winding mountain passes we would pass a constant stream of villagers walking miles to the next town, taking their chickens (live and dead), goats, back breaking loads of timber, skins and cattle to market. The road itself is spectacular, it’s a rough dirt road that winds it’s way up and down valleys, descending down to a tributary of the nile, then winding it’s way back up 1000m up to the highlands, where it becomes a winding tar road through one mountain vista after another, until it eventually descends to lake Tana and Gondor.
8578 km from from Cape Town
ROCK HEWN CHURCHES
Woke up to the most amazing view today, looking over the valleys far below Lalibela, so high that you can watch the hawks and eagles soaring beneath you, and everywhere in the village you are surrounded by breathtaking mountain panoramas reminiscent of the drakensberg.
With only one day at hand to view the churches, we opted for a guide to show us the best sites. We set off through the village by foot, trailed by the usual street kids, and soon arrived at the historical site. We’d heard so much about the churches, but despite the buildup we were unprepared for the sheer scale of the buildings, and standing inside the quiet chambers of Biete Maryam (House of Mary), it’s almost impossible to get your head around the enormity of work required to carve them out. We sat there imagining the ringing out of thousands of chisels chipping away at the hard stone. Our guide for the day was excellent, a humble and devout man who spends most days walking around those reflective places, and when we asked him whether they carved out the insides by starting at the doors at the base, or through the tiny windows at the top, he replied that he often sits inside the churches and ponders the same problem but confesses in his humble way that the question just becomes too much for him. We were particularly impressed by Biete Giyorgis, one of the finest preserved churches.
Inside the rock hewn churches
311 km, 8578 km from Cape Town
Leaving Bahir Dar, we crossed the Blue Nile via bridge. Several hippos were spotted by
296 km, 8012 km from Cape Town
A steep hilly climb out of Addis brought us into eucalyptus plantations interspersed by villages. Donkey carts were common along the way. Buses, taxis, cars and bikers give them full right of way. We always felt sorry for the donkeys, overburdened and clearly pushed beyond donkey limits by humans. Without vehicles, donkeys are the burden carriers of Ethiopia. Tough little critters and fully deserving of our biker respect. Our bikes are pretty loaded and we call them ‘mules’ so we could empathise fully with the donkeys. There were a lot of donkey foals which, though very endearing, were very skittish and easily prone to scaring by 650cc engines, causing them to spronk into the road without warning. I guess time and overburden makes donkeys wise and breaks their spirit as they plod, plod, plod to market or wherever. There were hadidas and vultures. Any sign of something dead brought the scavengers circling. No one has to remove animal carcases, the vultures clean up and the dogs get rid of the bones. A perfect solution to the problem. The vultures were huge and sat by their latest finds at the side of the road ignored by the humans.
A slight diversion from animals. Ethiopian villagers seem unknowingly energy efficient, using dried cow pats for fuel, which they stack in beehive-shaped heaps to dry, and eucalyptus for charcoal burning cookers. Totally self sustaining and renewable resources. We debated the eucalyptus planting and concluded it was a bad thing for the native flora, being an introduced alien invader. However, the Ethiopians seem to have embraced the problem by using the wood, bark and leaves. The wood is used for fires and charcoal, the fresh leafy twigs for fencing livestock. We were amazed at how multistorey buildings were constructed using eucalyptus pole scaffolding. So, although it appears to be here to stay, Ethiopians are at least finding a use for it and keeping it in check to some extent at the same time.
Ethiopians also seem to like their honey. Beehives consisted of long shaped reed baskets suspended in the trees by ropes. Bees attacked the sugary cinnamon on the rims of our tea cups at one welcome village stop. They look different to SA bees. Slightly smaller abdomen and paler in colour. We wondered if they sting as badly but didn’t test this out. We also heard that the monks make meade or honey wine and this may have been what locals were selling in bottles on the side of the road but we did not stop to check. The cattle are fed from huge drying haystacks of either corn or wheat stalks left over from the harvest. The stacks are munched all around the middle at cow head height, leaving them looking like giant mushrooms.
At a breathtaking stop on the incredible Blue Nile gorge, enterprising young hustlers brought out handfuls of fossil shells to bargain. Mostly consisting of clam and small spiral shell fossils, they bore evidence of sea life that must have existed prehistorically in the silt and mud layers of the area long before the Blue Nile carved its way down through the layers.
From the bridge spanning the gorge, we heard and saw baboons, barking and coughing at us from the rocks. We crawled our way down the rocky path to the bottom disturbing their otherwise idyllic baboon games and business.Two cream and brown marked geese viewed our Nile mudlarking nervously, leaving their tracks across the virgin mud and slime. We debated whether there were any crocodiles but decided there didn’t appear to be based on the lack of traces in the mud and sand.
The Blue Nile selfie
7716 km from from Cape Town
We set out today with a mission and found a taxi and secured it for the day.
First was the experience of coffee at Tobocca – a famous coffee house and we enjoyed a cup of the strong stuff, then we were driven to a pleasant market where we all bought some local goods for those back home. Our obliging driver then took us across town to the National museum – a rundown affair but it does house Lucy and so we enjoyed that. Back across town and we went to more modern museum ‘The Red Terror Museum’ which was a very interesting if sometimes a little harrowing account of the terrible rein of the military Derg that overthrew Emporer Haille Selassie in the early seventies and ruled brutally for three decades.
A little disturbed by the exhibits we took off once again across town to collect our passports from the friendly Sudanese embassy people
Famous Tomoca coffee house in Addis Ababa
7716 km from from Cape Town
Our reason for riding so hard to get to Addis was that the Sudanese Embasy only does visa applications on certain days of the week. Today being such a day. So we left the guesthouse and found a taxi. All the taxis here are painted dark blue and white and are 80’s vintage Ladas, Fiats or Toyotas in rattle trap-condition, but they are numerous and cheap enough. Our driver named his price and we set off across town.
Addis is a city of four million souls and plenty of traffic. It has a twisted spaghetti-like road system and a real problem in that they are constructing an overhead rail transport system – and the massive pillars march across the city with excavation and cranes and rubble and water more or less everywhere but the traffic moves along and the most drivers are slick but curteous and it all works with a minimum of hooting.
Locating the Sudanese embassy we filed in and filled out the forms and paid the money and as expected were advised to come back to fetch our passports tomorrow afternoon. That left the rest of the day open and I decided to look for a camera. The one I bought just brfore leaving Cape Town, curiously failed after a few days and it has been frustrating without one. Our driver took us to a street with every shop and stall selling cell phones, TV’s fridges etc. I found a camers but at twice the price back home, so have thought to look further. The route to the street took us past a shanty town area where the street has been excavated for the overhead rail system, leaving the residents precariously perched on the edge but carrying on regardless with their daily lives.
Addis is a nice city, very friendly people, urbanised and on the move and we were all impressed.
Day one in the city saw goats on ropes being dragged through the dust and traffic madness. Again, the large brown raptors, black kites, circling slowly in spirals above the city, higher and higher, riding city thermals then swooping suddenly to snatch street morsels left by humans whilst still in flight. Despite the rubbish, not a single rat, roach or bedbug in sight. Where were these creatures of city slum dwelling? An unsolved mystery indeed. At the Sudanese embassy a black kite gave several sharp chirrup noises in the eucalyptus branches above the waiting visa queue. Oblivious to our presence and completely in context, since the Sudanese emblem has a phoenix, almost hawk like emblem as a symbol. A good omen for us waiting expectantly to be let in. Down the narrow alleys in the street trading parts of town, dogs and pied crows battle to scratch out an existence.
It was only on leaving Addis that the donkeys, cattle and goats became the norm. In the city, only their flayed carcases, hung on vicious meat hooks on the walls of tiny shops, existed. Food for the human machine and daily nyama appetites of Africans and perhaps the odd hungry biker.
Addis Ababa, local taxis
466 km, 7716 km from Cape Town
Setting off early, we thought we could make the capital in good time despite the mileage but one thing we have discovered is that you cannot travel swiftly in Ethiopia
The scrub changed to lush green sub-tropical vegetation just north of Yabello and so the population density inrceased – ultmately it is like riding through a two hundred kilometer long village – 90 odd million people in Ethiopia and I think we passed at leatst 89 million of them today!
The roadside teems with donkey carts, goats, cattle, dogs, horses and people – walking, standing, sitting and the road belongs to everybody, so speed is impossible.
The fertile lusness gave way rather suddenly to a hot and windswept plain as we apraoched the capital and the population thinned a little, but the truck traffic increased and we took a long time to negotiate the last thirty or so kilometers into the city, arriving in ethe dark again.
Descending from winding hills to the flat scrub plains of Ethiopia, hornbills swooped across the road into acacias. Purple starling chattered to each other at one stopping point, shining brightly in he sun, beady eyed. When a small, pouch like nest was spotted in a low acacia bush, I peeked inside. Unexpectedly, two small cream brown flecked eggs neatly laid and softly cocooned. A small treasure from what small bird I couldn’t identify in such harsh, dry, dusty conditions. Everything survives by some miracle or lives off something else in Africa’s perfect cycles. In the words of poet/songwriter Syd Kitchen, ‘Africa’s not for sissies’. Leaving Ager Maryam, we saw large baboons with huge manes on the verge, right in the middle of town. Scavengers off the town pickings and looking uncomfortably humanoid and swaggering. No one seemed to mind them and life carried on as if this is how it is supposed to be. We were warned, and for once it proved to be right. Beware of the livestock and humans crossing the road. No road sensibility existed and we constantly had to be on our guard to dodge these hazards or pay the penalty.
Biking Ethiopian style
302 km, 7250 km from Cape Town
We headed back to the border for the formalaties which, although we were the only border crossers does take a long time, but with the usual cheer that immigration officials seem to reserve for curteous and friendly travellers we headed back into Moyale. I mention the immigration situation because in our reseach for this trip we read countless ride and drive reports of others who have been this way and so many of them had problems at borders – it is our experience, thus far mind, that immigration and customs officers are friendly, curteous, sometimes talkative and usually interested in our mission – and this has made them as much fun as any other part of the whole experience.
So into Moyale we rode and into the first petrol station. Fuel was being pumped into vehicles but quite suddenly we were informed that there was no more. A bit unnerved, we tried another garage but they shook their heads too – so our introduction to the chronically short of fuel Ethiopia. A man beckoned us and waved a plastic two liter bottle at us and we rode over and stopped in the dusty edge of the road while two hundred people crowded around us – all talking at once, all waving cans of black market fuel. So the system is; the tanker arrives at the garage and fills the tanks – all available vehicles descend and fill up – mostly bakkies and tuk-tuks and then vendors come and squat down and fill countless yellow, plastic 20 liter drums, which they pay Birr 20 per liter for. Then they go and fill countless 2 liter bottles and hawk these in little stalls at the roadside at Birr 30 per liter -supply and demand. We bought 4 liters for each bike and turned north along a tarred but pitted road through scrubby and poor villages in much the same brush as northern Kenya to the town of Yebello. Stopping for a bite after finding the petrol station empty of fuel, we enquired if anybody knew of any about. None was the reply untill further north but the proprietor of the motel where we were eating said he had some and would share it with us. Off we we went into the back streets of the town and he duly shared some of his stash with us at Birr 50 a liter – supply and demand! We took what he could spare and headed north, getting to the town of Agar Maryam just as it started to rain and get dark at the same time.
With the priority of fuel we finally found a garage with supply and filled up and then only sought out and found a reasonable travellers hotel and settled in with clothing drying everywhere.
After an early morning call to prayers mosque greeting, fine riding weather through lush countryside. Small villages in such profusion that they blurred into one long winding village. An interesting wildlife phenomenon. Unidentified raptors were prolific around every village, circling lazily and swooping low, which at close opportunity had light brown marking and large vicious curved beaks and talons. Symbiotic or opportunistic existence with humans, picking through easy accessible village garbage dumps was the theory. Probably also keeping the rodent populations in check or preying on other small species of furry mammal. Elegant forest birds flew out from the trees front of us and through the bananas. Donkey carts, cattle, sheep and goats were staples. In order of sensible road sense, worst to best were goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys. Two silver-white horses, wearied by village life, were skirted by the bikes without even flinching. Standing nose-to-nose in the centre line of the village road, we agreed they were discussing their day and the madness of the village life humans swirling around them day to day.
Southern Ethiopia, you’re never alone in the densly populated country
255 km, 8267 km from Cape Town
Donkeys and donkey cart after donkey cart were passed by. Black hawks and vultures were common. A hornbill was spotted. Glossy blue starlings flew in arrow formation. At Lake Tana we caught a boat to see the source of the Blue Nile. Sitting gutting a fish on a papyrus boat we saw a magnificent African fish eagle which gave its unmistakable cry. Several other fish eagles also flew out over us near the papyrus beds calling to ea ch other, the cries which tell one they are unmistakably in Africa. Eyes, forhead and nostrils of hippos were also spotted in the shallow lake right near the exit to the Blue Nile. Their kind must have seen thousands of humans on papyrus boats bobbing by on fishing and lake trafficking business. Our guide told us Tilapia, Nile perch and cat fish exist in the lake. At a tour site of a lakeside village we found ‘touch me not’ acacia, which closed their leaves at the most sensitive touch. Swallows swarmed out of the trees and papyrus at the landing whilst a small blue kingfisher sat commandingly on a bare branch. Our guide pointed out a small, brown, stiff legged hammerkop in the reeds near the water. At our accommodation, some species of black loeries were squawking noisily in the palms whilst mousebirds, with their long pointed tails, hustled between fruit trees. There were mangos and coffe bushes growing side by side in the compound area where we parked our bikes.Tomorrow we may be surprised again by wild and domestic life in Ethiopia.