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Travel Diary - 2003
5 January | Senegal
22 January |Gambia
18 January |Guinea
9 February | Mali
22 February | Burkina Faso
3 March | Ghana
19 March | Togo
20 March | Benin
25 March | Niger
12 April | Chad
15 April | Cameroon
16 April | Nigeria
30 April | Congo
24 May | RDC
31 May | Angola
5 June | Namibia
27 June | South Africa
30 August | Lesotho
10 September | Swaziland
9 October | Botswana
17 October | Namibia
19 October |
Zambia
29 October | Malawi
4 November |Mozambique
16 November | Tanzania
12 December | Rwanda
16 December | RDC
18 December | Uganda
24 December | Kenya

Travel Diary - 2004
9 January | Ethiopia
6 February | Sudan
21 February | Saudi Arabia
23 February | Jordan
3 March | Syria
5 March | Turkey
12 March | Greece
21 March | ...And Home

 

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17 months, 43 countries, and 2 vehicles

Ethiopia

Culture and Coffee

Ethiopia is pretty much the only African country that was never colonised, though the Italians had a go.

They waited until the scramble for Africa was pretty much over before getting in on the act, and in true Italian fashion made a complete arse of it. It must be great finding out that you colonising power is to be Italy. You get all the advantages of espresso machines and unfeasibly small cars along with the sure knowledge that at the first sigh of a few pointy sticks your average Italian infantryman is going to turn tail and run. I'm actually pretty surprised that they didn't actually cede Italy to Ethiopia, as that's pretty much what they did in the last two world wars... (they started off both wars on the German side and then switched shirts at half time.)

So where am I going with this? Well, here's a country that is in sub-Saharan Africa, has a minimal colonial influence, and yet manages to boast an incredibly rich cultural and history. This is both as a result of avoiding colonialism as well as the reason they were able to do so - they were far more organised than most of the countries colonised by the other powers.

 This all changed of course in the thirties when Mussolini unleashed the full horror of modern warfare on the population, modern bombers against breech-loaders, mustard gas against black powder. Any opposition to their rule was ruthlessly crushed in a wave of executions and reprisals, and all the while the 'civilised' world stood by and watched.

Ethiopia is the thirtieth country I've visited in Africa on this trip, and suddenly here's something completely different. A chance to have a dig at the Italians. No, seriously, as soon as you cross the border you realise that culturally Ethiopia is worlds apart from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

For starters there's an actual national cuisine that doesn't involve chucking a few peanuts in a stew. The coffee is superb - the smell of roasting coffee is everywhere - I can even smell it now as I write. Tea is sweet and aromatic -  a hint of cinnamon and spice. Walking through the streets you catch a whiff of frankincense that takes you back to your past life as a crusader...

The language - Ahmaric, is beautifully lyrical, and the people you meet have complex names that roll off their tongue like nothing you've ever heard. As for the written language - it's like nothing you've seen, unless you've been to Thailand or read Klingon. This makes getting around a tad tricky as there are precious few street signs, and they are in Amharic script anyway - but at least people are accepting of our ignorance, and a good few speak enough English for travellers to get by.

 
My first real experience of this difference was when the immigration officer pointed out that my visa was dated 2 January 2003, not 2004. This should have been a major problem, but as everybody knew it wasn't my mistake the problem disappeared. Likewise it was getting late, so the customs officer let me drive off on the promise that I would return the next morning to do the paperwork.

A lot of people talk about the level of hassle and hostility they experience in Ethiopia, but so far I've either been lucky, or am being treated differently - maybe because I often have an local in my passenger seat taking advantage of the free bus service I'm now apparently running.

Children wave at me a lot as I pass - some cry out "You, you, you, you" which seems to be the universal 'ferengi' greeting - it is shouted loudly, quickly and often - with the words running into each other until you hear almost an ululation - and I've no doubt that it can get a little wearing, but it is only a greeting, and as long as I remember this I will find it hard to get irritated.

I decided to make a direct line north along a great tarmac road, breaking the journey at Awaser, a pretty town on one of the Southern lakes. It's a beautiful drive through varied countryside - at times you could almost be driving through England. At one point the closely cropped green grass on either side of the road looked like a perfect garden lawn, and standing on this lawn were white termite mounds looking for all the world like marble statues - all very surreal.

Of course, this could have been a hallucination brought on by my first experience of chat, the local stimulant of choice, which my comely female hitchhiker was feeding me steadily. Chat is a green leaf that you pluck from the stem and once you've got a bunch together you pop it into the side of your cheek, and keep it there until at an indeterminate time later you swallow it down. It's slightly bitter but not unpleasant, and a pinch of sugar is optional. To be honest I was a little disappointed, but my theory is that it's used more as a food substitute (because it kills hunger) than as a drug per se.

Along the way I stopped at the Rastafarian centre at Shashemene where I met a group of colourful characters. Danny was part of the early Rastafarian movement which was founded with Haile Selassie as it's head and divine representative (His original name was Ras Tafari). I spent an hour or so chatting with the crowd about the religion, and listening to a very verbose gentleman called Brother Zion, who had been partaking in something a little more intoxicating than chat.

A far more acceptable intoxicant is tej, the honey mead that is popular here, and which I discovered in Addis. After a hard evening's research I can confirm that is entirely palatable, but beware of an almighty hangover the next morning.

Food centres on the enjera - a kind of slightly sour spongy pancake that is often likened to rubber. It comes in only one size - massive, and is laid over a large tray - together these act as you plate. It's still to big for the tray, of course, so it's folded in at the edges, and it's from here that you tear off pieces which you then use to pick up food from the centre of the enjera - these vary in flavour and spiciness, but are to my mind universally delicious. On Wednesdays and Fridays fasting is the order of the day, but this only means that you get the same enjera but without meat - and just as tasty.

 

15 January 2004

And another Land Rover garage, getting my bushes replaced, as well as sorting out a host of other minor issues which are the result of the punishing drive through North Kenya. Meanwhile my passport is with the Sudanese Embassy who are processing my visa (5 days, 2 photos, $62, and a letter of recommendation from my embassy (560 Birr, or about 35), as well as the bottom half of my carnet page which they need for the vehicle).

I'm thoroughly enjoying Addis despite my lack of Ahmaric. I've run into Luke and Valerie, Swissies, Rupert, an Aussie, and Mark, a Brit, all of whom are heading south in a variety of landies, and had a particularly late night of tej and enjera consumprion last night.

 
Addis, and Northwards...

The trouble with the Swedish mission where I was staying was that it was just too comfortable. In the end I waited until Jonas and Nina, the Swedes I'd met in Nairobi, arrived before heading North, but not before an exceptional night at the Hilton where I saw an American jazz ensemble called Either/Orchestra playing a series of Ethiopian-influenced numbers, along with a bunch of local guest stars.

Eventually I tore myself away and after a couple of days on deteriorating roads found myself in Lalibella, home of the rock hewn churches. Lalibella is a pretty ugly town, with more touts that I was used to, as well as a pervasive odour of human excreta. Electricity and all-weather roads have arrived in the last decade - I suppose a sewer system is next on the list.

The churches are impressive, especially as they are still in active use (and abuse) by the local monks and clergy. Our introduction to Orthodox rituals was a genuine exorcism - a pre-pubescent girl was being exorcised with the famous cross of Lalibella - normally kept hidden away. The MO seemed to be to press the cross against her chest while she screamed her heart out. Not one of the faint hearted, but it's pretty amazing to watch that sort of ritual in the 21st century.

I managed by luck to have timed my visit to coincide with Saint George's day - this meant that here was a festival of sort - including a religious parade that ended at the church - all very authentic.

Apart from the town there are a load of churches hidden away in the countryside around town - some are hardly ever visited, but are pretty impressive all the same. I found it was strange to be able to gaze across the desiccated remains of monks of ages past that lay scattered around some of the churches - it's a whole new experience to stub your bare toe on an exposed cranium protruding from the dirt beneath your feet.

Lalibella is known for it's lousy hotels, but I was amazed that the place I'd chosen, the Asheton, seemed to treat it's customers as hostages - your bill seemed designed to elicit dispute - and their response was simply to say that they wouldn't open the gates for your vehicle until you submitted to their extortion.  One dispute involved a Dutch couple who had left their vehicle in the car-park until 3:30pm and were then asked to pay for an extra night as they had over-stayed the 12:00pm check-out time. This seems to be an unfortunately common theme in town - what you agree when you arrive and what you are expected to pay at the end are different things - perhaps you should write down a contract... Anyway - avoid the Asheton - the Seven Olives offers better views anyway. Hopefully the locals may eventually get the idea...

Heading East then North again I made pretty good time to Mekele, a thriving town, where I camped at a posh hotel after which I looped to the West to visit some of the Tigray group of churches. I spent the night at Adigrat - a bit of a dump where I got into an argument with a tyre-moron (it's a profession unique to Ethiopia) who wanted to change his prices after finishing the job (badly). Tyres are now an issue once more. The new Goodyear Wranglers are hopeless - the two at the back are new yet both were punctured along the =centre-line by stones - it just shouldn't happen, but a t least the old Michelins I've been carrying since Namibia seem well built enough to handle the roads. Add to this the problem that nobody outside of Addis has the faintest idea about how to repair tubeless tyres (especially when they arrive on alloy rims) and I've got problems...

En route to Axum in Debre Damo, a spectacular monastery on a plateau with the most amazing views across to Eritrea. To get into the monastery you have to follow a winding road up into the mountains, then climb up a sheer cliff aided by a hide-rope that stinks of goat and fear. Worse still - the sweaty hands of ages past have made the rope particularly smooth and slippery at the difficult bits - a twenty meter fall awaits the weak-fingered. It's worth it though - the solitude of the place is a relief for weary travellers with shaking arms.

From there I continued North then West to Axum, the ancient centre of a long-spent civilisation, along roads that hug the cliffs and are very marvels of engineering. Therein lies a conundrum. These magnificent constructions were built without the aid of modern engineering, helicopters, and the like. Clearly the roads , which were supposedly built by the Italians in the thirties, are actually well beyond their organisational and engineering capabilities. There is a growing body of thought that suggests that the Italians were in fact assisted by extraterrestrials. I reserve my opinion.

Axum is a pleasant little town with pretty reserved and considerate people who won't hassle you to death. On the journey up I had picked up a deaf hitchhiker, and from Debre Damo I got myself a blind monk dressed in yellow (Don't know what happened to the third monkey). I arrived bearing the monk at the cathedral, and to the amazement of the local touts who had gathered I was made to kneel and receive a blessing from the monk - this seemed to impress the hell out of them, and after that they treated me with cautious respect.

The following day I spent wandering around the ruins with a very amenable guide by the name of Birhann Desta, who came free from the tourist information centre (tip expected of course). Birhann didn't seem to mind my meandering approach to the tour, which involved stopping often for fool, tea, coffee, incense, and later the local brew in some flea-ridden shebeen. I actually enjoyed Axum more than Lalibella - largely because I was able to park in the quiet and shady grass compound of the Kaleb hotel and get a little well-earned rest.

From Axum I set of West then South, passing through the Simien mountains. The road carries you from mountain pass to mountain pass, and winds in all directions - I found it easiest to use low ratio for the ascents - it seemed that I was losing power though at this point I put it down the poor fuel and altitude.

I sopped at the forgettable Debark for the night, and while I dearly wanted to go trekking to see the Gelada Baboons, time was pressing and I decided to try my monkey luck along the road - unfortunately without any success. 

Gonder

Known for it's medieval castes (actually most are later than that) Gonder is a sprawling city with nowhere that can repair tubeless tyres. Oh, and there are a few castes.

I actually quite enjoyed the town, but it wasn't really what I expected from a regional capital - too small, dusty, and too much hassle for tourists. The castle viewing was good for a few hours, but by now I think that Ethiopia, and the  Ethiopians) were beginning to wear thin for me. I found a hotel that had pretty clean showers and hot water, but it was expensive. It did however offer the welcome company of a few travellers that I'd met before - Steven the Swissie who I'd net in Namibia and who had travelled through Angola before me, and Dirk and Nanda, a Dutch couple who I'd met in Botswana.

I'd been trying to get hold of Steven as I knew he was somewhere in East Africa (and let's face it, it's a pretty small place), but I found him recumbent with a broken pelvis after getting squashed under his own bike the day before. Nanda is a doctor, so between us we managed to look after him pretty well (I was mostly used for the toilet trips) while we waited for the Swiss to organise his evacuation back home. Bummer, but knowing Steven it won't keep him down for long.

Nanda and Dirk were also heading on to Sudan - they were talking about skipping Egypt (the prices seem to have gone up again) and going through Saudi - we decided to travel in convoy anyway which as it turned out was just as well. the next morning at 6:30am we set of West for the border...