Green And Pleasant Land

WHAT are your perceptions of Ethiopia?

Famine? Drought? Scorched earth and malnourished children? A mysterious land that avoided colonisation by European powers and evolved a different culture to the rest of Africa? A Christian stronghold that gave birth to the Rastafarian religion and provided a communist foothold in East Africa? Or a country of long-distance runners?

Hands up, that’s pretty much my knowledge of Ethiopia before arriving here. How wrong can you be?

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Regal Sight – One of the castle in the Royal Enclosure at Gondar.

Like most of this, at times, baffling continent, it is hard to make judgements, generalisations or sweeping statements without far more study – go round the corner and there is somebody waiting to disprove any theory – but this is a land that has enchanted and surprised at pretty much every turn.

For a start, it is beautiful. It is green. And, as we can testify, it is wet (at least it is at this time of year when the BBC World weather map, available in our Gondar hotel when the power is on, even has rain falling on the Sudanese desert which lies ahead – right next to a temperature of 42 degrees C).

All a far cry from the Ethiopia of popular perception which has been coloured by the images of starving children and rake-thin adults which ended with Bob Geldof swearing at us and demanding we send money.

The 30th anniversary of Live Aid coincided with our stay in Lalibela, home to a collection of churches hewn out of the rocks of the surrounding hillsides.

And for those of us of a certain generation, that is the abiding image of Ethiopia.

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Bridging The Mile – The view back down the Blue Nile Gorge

It has been a pleasure to have those preconceptions washed away (literally, given the almost daily deluges which have become a part of our stay).

Not that things are perfect here. Much of the country can hardly be described as affluent and is living hand to mouth, but on the whole, things here seem to work. Well, most of the time. And for large chunks of Africa, that’s quite a claim.

Driving through the countryside, the main impressions are that it is a land stuffed full of stunning vistas – especially when rolling through the mountains – and is surprisingly verdant. Any preconceptions about an arid land are washed away by green hillsides carefully cultivated to prevent repeats of those crippling droughts.

Not that it is without barren patches. There are certainly plenty of dry areas strewn with stones, which come in handy for another unique side of travelling through Ethiopia, a worrying side effect from the amount of handouts they have received over the last few decades.

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Calm After The Storm – Our tents lined up on the banks of Lake Tana. Not jumping over each over in the storm

We had been warned to be on the lookout for anyone throwing stones, the remedy for which is to wave enthusiastically at the potential thrower in the hope they forget what they are about to do, drop their missile and wave back.

But when dozing in the back of the truck on a long drive day, that sort of information rather slips your mind. Right up until a stone the size of a golf ball lands in your lap, thankfully just off to the side and missing anywhere that really would have hurt.

Witnesses suggest the person who threw it had been waving at us, right up to the moment we rolled past without showing some charity.

While the vast majority of people we have driven past over the past nine months have waved and smiled enthusiastically, they have been dotted with the occasional less than friendly gesture.

And the more than occasional request for a handout.

It is a rule not to give anything away off the truck, be it money, food or the oft-asked for pens, as it will merely encourage the culture of expecting westerners to act as travelling cash machines and food banks and exacerbate the problem for future trucks – something which is very hard when we pack (or worse, throw) away food at lunch with children standing yards away watching us.

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Drawing A Crowd – Just three of us watched the cricket. This lot turned out to watch a kickabout each morning in Gondar

Cries of ‘Cadeaux, Cadeaux’ and ‘Money, Money’ have been commonplace for much of the trip, but Ethiopia has taken it to a new level and if they do not get anything, the rocks are their form of payback.

Walking down the street can become a bit of a gauntlet and, as mentioned in a previous post, you become wary of anyone who wanders up to you.

Many will want something – like Matthias, the suspiciously old schoolboy who wanted me to buy him text books from the Gondar shop he just happened to be hanging around outside every day – and make you wary for others who seriously want to help, such as the woman Ale and I tried to shrug off when visiting Gondar’s Royal Enclosure, but who was actually explaining the prices for guides and what our admission fee got us.

But that (and the sudden appearance of ‘Faranji’ – foreigner – prices when it is time to pay a bill) should not overshadow what has been a fascinating, enjoyable stay amid a unique culture.

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History Boy – Some bearded bloke avoiding locals at the Royal Enclosure

Having settled into life in the capital Addis Ababa, where the Ethiopian cuisine went down well (especially the spicy tibs, albeit with some lingering repercussions for one or two of us) we headed out into the countryside and an afternoon and evening clinging to the side of the spectacular Blue Nile Gorge, where the thrill of navigating the winding mountain road was multiplied by herds of animals being walked up the slopes right in our path.

Having weathered the nightly storm at our bush camp, we had to dodge an even bigger one on the banks of Lake Tana at Bahir Dar – the Ethiopian Riviera – the next evening, although most of us (bar the unfortunate souls on cook group duty who saw their fire floating away at one point) rode this one out from the safety of the restaurant.

While the poor waiters had to brave the elements to keep us stocked with beer and replace the chairs we somehow managed to break, we eventually had to pull ourselves away from our drinks (briefly) when reports came in that some of our tents had not weathered the storm so well.

Pegging out was a rapid, necessary job to prevent any of our homes for the night disappearing into the lake, as was the post-deluge setting up of a spare tent once the rather large puddles in mine had been discovered. After it had been retrieved from where the wind had blown it.

Excuse, if any was needed, for a few more drinks at the bar, which continued on the truck as the onerous task of downing the remaining alcohol on board before reaching dry Sudan began in earnest.

Which all added up to a few sore heads for the next morning’s boat trip across Lake Tana – source of the Blue Nile – to one of the many monasteries which dot the islands and peninsulas.

Like the country, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has evolved without too much outside interference and the ancient paintings which illuminate the church provided a more than worthwhile outing.

There were more churches on offer in our next port of call, the ones at Lalibela having the distinction of being hewn out of the rock – rather more solid than the state of my stomach, which meant straying too far from camp was not that good an idea.

Our final, current, destination has seen most of us holed up in Gondar for the past few days – bar those who headed off to trek the Simien Mountains – where we were probably the only ones excited to find out we could sit in the hotel bar all day and watch the Ashes.

Mind you, watching it with an Aussie has been enough to send the rest of us diving into those drinks reserves.

Sudan beckons.

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Online On The Road

ONCE upon a time, in lands far, far away, overland travelling was a very different experience.

Roads on which we have sped along smooth asphalt in a matter of hours had a reputation as being mud-soaked traps waiting to snare trucks and cause hours of digging and slow progress to less than a crawl.

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Thirsty Work – Sampling the local brew in Jinka

Communication with home was restricted to the odd postcard and, maybe, just maybe, a phone call from a major city, while trying to keep up with the Ashes score or the latest from the Tour de France from the heart of Ethiopia took some serious digging.

But things are changing, the Chinese playing a major role in paving a smooth ride through large chunks of Africa.

What they are getting in return from countries rich in natural resources but not so rich in the means of making full use of them is one to mull over, but the invasion of Chinese civil engineers has been welcomed by those of us bounced around in the back of the truck on the still not insignificant stretches of virtual off-roading.

Possibly the clearest indication of the Chinese influence came as we crossed, eventually, from Nigeria into Cameroon onto a stretch which has become legendary on Trans Africa trips for the deep mud, slow progress and plenty of digging to keep the truck moving.

See any pictures from past Trans trips and they are likely to include at least one of travellers caked in mud around a stranded yellow truck. It will be from this road.

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Fascinating Country – So much so, it was hard to take it all in

Instead we whistled along the nice new road – so new, it was still being finished – bar a turn off to camp on the old road, where the heavens immediately opened and we discovered just how quickly it turns into a messy bog.

Thankfully, given the events of that night, there are no more pictures from this stretch.

But the biggest change in overland travelling has come with the digital revolution and the ease with which we are able to keep in touch with the real world.

Not always. One of the reasons bush camps are so popular is that we are far removed from internet access and instead of burying our heads in laptops and phones, we are (perish the thought) forced to talk to each other – although local SIM cards did enable Joe to give us the nightly reading of the scores and transfer gossip during the football season.

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Lush View – Not the archetypal view of Ethiopia

Certainly, on arriving anywhere remotely built-up, earlier tour leaders did not have to deal with the twin questions asked repeatedly and often before people had even left the truck – “Is there Wi-Fi?”, followed immediately with “What’s the password?”.

And so as everyone moans at everybody else for using the internet and slowing it to a crawl for them, everyone reaches for their array of appliances and conversation dies, bar somebody pointing out the latest ludicrous transfer news affecting their team, while we like and comment on the Facebook posts the person sat two yards away has just put up.

But since we turned north into Ethiopia to start our final leg of this epic journey, there has been a distinct shift in mood reflected in how we use our precious internet minutes – free access to which has provided a huge boost to the takings of one Addis Ababa bar round the corner from our hotel.

Instead of Facebook, sporting results, checking for any important e-mails from home among the piles of spam and attempting to load blog posts, there are, all of a sudden, practicalities to be dealt with as reality takes a stronger hold on our thoughts.

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Eco Freaks – Our base for the night at an Eco Lodge in Kenso. Eco meaning no chemicals to kill all the bugs

For those of us not continuing travels, flights home are being booked (with a new, slightly delayed arrival in Cairo prompting one or two worries among those who have opted for an earlier flight) and the search for jobs and arrangements to resume normal lives is underway.

And with it, thoughts have begun to drift to lives at home and while most of us are in no undue rush to board that flight home – via, in my case, a layover in Jordan that is not quite long enough to get out of the airport and chalk up another country – the countdown to the end of the trip (or anything which might be waiting for us at home) is under way in earnest.

Which is all a little bit unfair on Ethiopia, which deserves a lot more of our attention (certainly more than the handful of pictures which added to my collection since we crossed the border with Kenya, partly due to photo fatigue and partly due to the risk of losing hold of my phone as we bump along in the back of the truck and breaking a fourth camera on this trip).

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Cashing In – Vance did stump up for a few pictures of the Mursi tribe

It marries a fascinating history (which we will be sampling in the next week or so) with some beautiful scenery and, as the only African nation not to be colonised, retains some unique culture.

Our stay in Addis Ababa – prolonged by those visa delays which will see Joe left behind for 24 hours or so when we finally roll out in a couple of hours – has seen us spread over the city, searching out the things to see (lots of museums, evidently), buy, eat and drink (plenty of coffee for those who are that way inclined and some decent beer) and reliable internet. Some of us may have done a lot more of the last few things than the first two.

All with plenty of willing guides keen to show us places of interest. For a small fee, of course, whether you wanted them with you or not.

You get used to it, even when you tell them repeatedly that you know where you are going and have no money (quite easy when heading to the bank to retrieve the debit card swallowed by the ATM at the hotel, having waited in all the previous night for the bloke to arrive and empty it as promised).

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Pay Per Person – A potentially expensive shot

What is frustrating is that you give short shrift to people who are genuinely interested in chatting with you, practising their English or just finding out what you think of their city and country.

We had been warned about all this as we headed out of Kenya, but found few problems as we headed off to the Lower Omo Valley to get a closer look at some of the tribes which make up those unique cultures.

Given the early start to head out to visit the Mursi tribe in the Mago National Park – and the state of the roads en route – maybe it was not such a good idea to do a thorough investigation of the local brews the night before, but those of us who signed up did make it in one piece.

What greeted us was a scene from another world. Or at least another time.

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Beach Cooking – Boiling the kettles on the shore of Lake Labango

It was a fascinating, if short, trip. Especially for those who opted to contort themselves through the small door into a hut to hear the guide run through all we really needed to know. Those of us left outside were distracted by puppies.

And then it all went a bit weird as the tribes folk covered themselves in traditional attire – a lot of paint, spears, fancy headwear and large lip plates for the women – and posed for pictures. At a price.

Payment was per head, so the more people you got in the picture (singular, take more than one and that increased the price), the more you paid. Quite what the small children running around with their share of the bounty were going to spend it on was not clear, but they seemed keen for more.

Personally, it was all a bit unseemly and my camera stayed firmly in my pocket.

There were more tribes on view when we pulled up in the market town of Keyafer and proceeded to meander our way around what was on sale with a growing coterie of hangers-on and groups of small children, keen to follow us, hold our hands and, in one case, talk football in perfect English.

And collect any money on offer as soon as our cameras came out.

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Sticking It To The Man

CHANGE of plan. Forget journalism, my future lies in running a meat on a stick stand.

Not since Joe bounded on the truck and shouted  “Goats In Trees”* in southern Morocco has one phrase prompted so much excitement as “Meat On A Stick” (not even “free wi-fi”, although the use of the words hot and shower in close proximity can spark a near stampede).

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Fast Food – Meat on a stick. Exactly what it says on the tin

With a distinct lack of care for health and safety, men stand sizzling chunks of meat (often unidentifiable, but usually beef, chicken or goat) on wooden skewers over hot coals which, at a matter of pence each, the meat eaters on board snap up gleefully.

For the vegetarians – and those looking for an accompaniment to straightforward meat – there are chapatis, often filled with eggs, and no shortage of fizzy pop to wash it down.

Three sticks of beef, a chapati and a Coke for US$5. The ultimate fast food for less than a Big Mac.

Surely there’s a market for something like that back in Gloucester (may have to replace the chapatis with Focaccia when expanding to Cheltenham), although not sure they can match the colour, chaos and assault on the senses of the street food markets which peppered our route across Uganda and back towards Kenya after our brief loop out to Rwanda.

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Maribou and Coke – A stork waits for the scraps from the meat market

There may be less mud on the streets of a British city and doubt you will be accosted by so many people waving lumps of meat at you as soon as you step off the back of the truck. There certainly won’t be any giant maribou storks perched on the roof of the stores and snaffling up any scraps of meat thrown in their general direction.

It’s the perfect lunchtime snack for the hungry office worker – the transformation back into which is looming increasingly large on the horizon as we head out on the final leg of the trip, northwards through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

There has been a distinct feeling of a watershed in the trip over the past few days after that trek back through Uganda and Kenya before sweeping away from the much-travelled East Africa overland route and back onto the path less travelled.

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North South Divide – Crossing the equator (again) in Uganda

It has also prompted a return to bush camping – three nights out in the wilds of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia mixed with long days on the truck watching some superlative countryside roll past promoting a feeling of well-being and scrubbing away any lingering feeling of campsite-induced lethargy.

We have certainly waved farewell to our last bunch of fellow overlanders between now and Cairo.

They were given a crash course in life on the Trans Africa as we rolled into the car park next to them at Jinja, overlooking the River Nile fairly near its source at Lake Victoria.

Faced with a well-stocked bar with a spectacular view (showing almost non-stop rugby for those of us in need of a fix) and the prospect of a Booze Sunset Cruise, most of us did what came naturally – opened up a bar tab, cracked open a couple of cold ones and took our places on the boat.

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Room With A View – The Nile stretches away from our campsite

Details of what followed must remain hazy. Mainly because they are.

What is clear is that it was a very pleasant trip up the river and back, the beers rolled down very nicely, the food followed suit, it is quite difficult to get out of the River Nile after backstroking to shore, red sambucas and blood can be difficult to tell apart, at least three people needed carrying to bed (one of whom later failed to find the strategically-placed bucket, another choosing the wrong tent altogether), carrying people to bed can spell the end of your flip-flops, changing clothes will not help you avoid detection after breaking a toilet if you do it in front of the security guard and a Kiwi and a bloke from Gloucester will watch televised rugby until well after the bar was supposed to have shut.

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Watching The Sunset – Yep, that’s what we were doing…

Not surprisingly, things were a touch quieter the next day, bar a bout of using the slip and slide into the Nile, before large chunks of the group headed out on our final day to do what you would expect at a place called Nile Explorers and went off to explore the river. Often up very close, by means of a raft, canoe or body board.

Some of us just opted to run up that bar tab a little higher and get wet merely by walking out into the afternoon downpour which is so regular in these parts.

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…OK, maybe not

Fuelled by an early breakfast from the chapati stand outside the camp (there must be a market somewhere back home for that), we ate up the final few miles of Uganda and, sticking close to the banks of Lake Victoria, pulled up in Kisumu, Kenya.

Celebrations for Reto’s birthday would have been a touch rowdier than they were if the bar had stayed open beyond 9pm and we were not keeping one eye on the shore – just yards from the tents – for any stray hippos emerging from the water.

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Shower Curtain – One of the camp showers overlooking the Nile

The wildlife has played a huge role in this trip since we arrived in Namibia on our way down the west of Africa, but while we were short of too much hippo action – a few snorts and splashes rather than too much visual contact – there was one last chance to get out on safari as we rolled into Nakuru (via a quick stop-off to check out one of the huge tea plantations which line the roads through the hills).

Lake Nakuru National Park is famed for its huge flocks of flamingoes, which were distinctly reduced in size as the water level remains pretty high, and both black and white rhinos, the latter of which popped up after a relaxed lunch looking out over the magnificent landscape to complete my personal iSpy list of Africa’s major animals.

It would have been nice to spot a leopard a bit clearer than the amorous ones silhouetted in a tree in the Serengeti, while the rest of the big cats also kept a distinctly low profile, but with no pressure on to spot any creatures with time running out, it was a relaxed farewell to that side of this adventure.

IMG_0863And so, boosted by our final arrival Vance, but shorn of five passengers forced to fly ahead of us to Addis Ababa by the complexities of visas, we rolled out of Nakuru and out onto the final leg.

What lies ahead promises to be very different.

* Spotting goats anywhere unusual still provokes a strange surge of excitement around the truck. Our collection of pictures is such that the Trans Africa Goats On Things calendar will be available sometime after we get home.

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Fond Farewell – Scenes from our final real safari of the trip at Lake Nakuru
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