Ethiopia Part 3, The Tigray Region

Stunning Succulents, Gheralta Area, Tigray, Ethiopia 2018

After we leave Aksum we continue our journey east passing through the town of Adwa. It was in this region that Emperor Menelik II inflicted the biggest defeat ever on a colonial army in Africa, thus saving Ethiopia from colonisation by Italy. Before we reach the next big town of Adrigat we begin our detours to see some of the amazing landscapes in northern Tigray. Scattered sharp peaks rise into the sky out of a sandy, rolling semidesert and perched amongst these peaks are 120-odd churches. These are carved from cliff faces, built into pre-existing caves or constructed high atop some improbable perch. 

Many of the churches are open to tourists, provided you have a guide to find the church and pay an entry fee. Often you also need to pay somebody to find the priest to open the door, you may also need to tip the priest as well as paying the entry fee and you are frequently surrounded by kids begging for money or sweets or pens. On top of that many are very hard to reach and can involve climbing sheer rock faces with or without the aid of ropes. With all that in mind we have decided to take in as much of the scenery as we can by driving around the area and to visit just a few churches which we can find on our own.

The road to Debre Damo Monastery is reputed to be a contender for Ethiopia’s most beautiful drive so we take the detour to the north of the main road. Here we are close to the border with Eritrea and as far north as we are going to be on this part of journey. The scenery is every bit as good as we hoped and we have a lovely few hours wandering along the dusty road stopping frequently to take in the views and to take photos. The monastery is perched high on a rocky mesa and we’re sure there would be even more amazing views from there but we give it a miss. For a start it is for men only and then there is the ascent which includes scaling a sheer 15m cliff. Even with a rope to pull yourself up and a rope around your torso so the priests can help haul you up it would still be an extremely strenuous and nerve wracking climb.

Debre Damo Monastery, Northern Tigray Region, Ethiopia 2018

The land is dry and dusty with rocks scattered everywhere. Houses are constructed from carefully selected and laid rocks and the roof is covered in soil and grass, great insulation. Slopes are terraced and ripe yellow wheat creates patterns between the dusty brown rocks and scattered green shrubs. The road winds through the hills and we pass deep gorges, scattered settlements, haystacks perched on bare rocky slopes and churches on top of rocky hills surveying the scene below.

After hours driving around that magical area we finally reach the town of Adrigat. Its not a very interesting town but 4km south of the town there is a nice lodge on a hill top and they allow camping out the back of the rooms. We enjoy a sunset drink looking across the valley to the next ridge where there is yet another church with a commanding view.

Adrigat Sunset, Northern Tigray Region, Ethiopia 2018

South from here are hundreds of churches and a couple of choices on which road we take to continue. The scenery south of Megab sounds particularly interesting and there are a couple of reasonable sounding accommodation options in that area so we are headed that way but first we want to visit the Medhane Alem Kesho Church. Its not far south of the turn we want to take and is fairly easily accessible so we think we can find it without a guide. Once we leave the main road we pass stone huts, some with goats grazing on the roof, flat pastures and terraced slopes. After a couple of wrong turns on the rocky side roads and several offers of help from local ‘guides’ we find the 4WD track which leads close to the church.

At the top of the track there are Orthodox Christians wearing their traditional white robes streaming down the hill from the church and joining more than one hundred others sitting below a large tree or gathering in groups to chat. We find out a funeral has just finished and that is the reason for the big turn out on a Monday morning.

The path to the church is very clear and with the service just completed we know the priest will be around and the church open but that doesn’t stop several young guys very insistently offering their services as a guide and following us all the way in the hope we will give them a fee. After a ten minute walk up the hill we pause to admire the view over the country below us then walk the remaining few minutes to the church which is hewn out of the rocky hilltop.

After we pay our fee we are allowed to enter the church. Daylight shines through the doorway and windows to a narrow entrance hall but once through the inner door there is very little light apart from our torch. The interior is also roughly hewn but there is an elaborately carved coffered ceiling.

 Back on the main road we make our way through Hawzien and Megab to the Gheralta area. Here we find another lodge who will allow us to camp and best of all they are perched on a hill with awesome views. Paul will be able to take sunrise photos and I won’t even have to get out of bed!

 

Pre-sunrise colours from Korkor Lodge, Gheralta Area, Tigray, Ethiopia 2018

Later in the afternoon we head out for some exploring. We find a small track leading into the heart of a range of hills and we follow it to see what we can see. We are more than happy with the wonderful scenery and views of rural life.

We tour around the area extensively the next day capturing more views.

Naturally Paul finds the light and colours best in the late afternoon and just after the sun has set so we are late returning to the lodge. As often happens we can stop the car and there is nobody around but within a very short time there are people clustered around the car or intently watching Paul while he is taking photos. 

Luckily we had arranged to have dinner in the lodge so we join the other guests and the owners at the table and share stories of travels and sights in Ethiopia. As we are leaving very early in the morning we say our farewells to the hosts after dinner, they didn’t charge us for staying so we just need to settle up for our meal and drinks. We see the sun rise as we are leaving and just a short distance down the road we reach a spot Paul has seated for an early morning panorama.

Early Morning Panorama, Gheralta Area, Tigray, Ethiopia 2018

It is still early and we don’t have far to go today so we backtrack to Hawzien as they have their weekly market today. Its a bustling place with lots of colour and activity.

Back on the road south we pass the white painted church of Dugem Selassie before we reach the last of the Tigray churches we plan to visit, the 10th century church of Abraha We Atsheha. Its a large cruciform shaped church with cruciform pillars and well preserved 17th and 18th century murals as well as a wonderful wooden door.

There will be more churches further on in our journey but in the meantime we are heading for the Mekele, the capital of the Tigray area and a busy university town. We, and many others, are here to arrange a tour to the Danakil Depression, our next adventure.

Ethiopia Part 2, Bahir Da to Aksum

Basket Market under the Fig Tree, Aksum, Ethiopia 2018

From Bahir Da we continue north on the historic circuit toward the royal city of Gonder but on our way we make a detour to the northern edge of Lake Tana and the tiny village of Gorgora. There are very few camp grounds in Ethiopia and so far we have stayed in cheap hotels but a Dutch couple run some cottages and a camp site on the lakeshore so we decide to take the opportunity to camp while we can. Hotels can be fine but our roof top tent is our own bed and while we are enjoying Ethiopian food it will be good to cook for ourselves from time to time. The camp area is pretty with heaps of shade and a pleasant outlook and our planned two night stay stretches to four before we are ready to go back to the well-trodden tourist trails.

We are travelling after the rainy season and there are crops being grown on every bit of flat ground and mountain sides except for the very steepest and highest rocky slopes. Most of the slopes are covered in terraces full of crops with all work done by hand. In the valleys there are flatter areas and more water so fields are larger and cattle are used to plow the fields ready to plant the new crops. Donkeys are often used to haul loads but if a cart or buggy is needed to haul goods or people they often use ponies.

We reach Gonder in the early afternoon and after our rest on the lakeshore we are keen to begin our sight seeing in this historic town. In the 17th and 18th centuries Gonder was the capital under Emperor Fasiladas and the population of the town grew to more than 65,000. Its wealth and splendour had become legendary with castles, banqueting halls and lavish gardens. It gradually declined and then later was looted by Sudanese Dervishes and finally bombed by the British in the mid 20th century. 

The Royal Enclosure will take hours to explore so we’ll save that for the morning but this afternoon we have time for a visit to Debre Berhan Selassi, one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful churches. Most of Gonder’s churches were destroyed by the Sudanese but Debre Berhan Selassi survived when a giant swarm of bees surged out of the compound and chased the invaders away. It is situated on a hill top and enclosed in a walled garden with a grand entry. Paul enters the church through the front door and I cover my head and enter through the female’s door at the side. Its a grand building with fascinating old paintings including a ceiling covered with angels. The priest giving a tour shows how the drum is played and in very limited English explains the bible stories illustrated on the walls.

The painting at the lower right shows St. George killing the dragon. St. George features heavily all around Ethiopia, most often depicted as an Ethiopian which we enjoyed.

The Royal Enclosure is a ten minute walk from our hotel and we make our way there the next morning. The old Gonder city is a World Heritage site and the 70,000 sq m compound has been restored with the assistance of UNESCO. The are several palaces including the grand palace of Fasiladas and a smaller but fascinating palace of his son Iyasu I. We wander around these and other palaces, banqueting halls, churches and other buildings in varying states of ruin imagining life here when the walls were draped in gold cloths and adorned with paintings and mirrors and sumptuous furniture filled the rooms.

Not far north of Gonder are the Simien Mountains which have several peaks above 4,000 metres. We are keen to visit the National Park for the dramatic scenery and also for the chance to see Gelada monkeys and Walia ibex and perhaps the Ethiopian Wolves. Unfortunately a ‘scout’ who is an armed park ranger is compulsory in the park and while, over short distances, we can manage to carry a third person either sitting on the roof rack or squashed between us on the console, the distance we need to travel from the headquarters to the camping area is just too far. Very disappointed we continue on, we’ll have to make sure we visit some high country elsewhere in Ethiopia. 

As we descend from the foothills surrounding the Simien Mountain Range we are treated to some wonderful views over the valley below with a waterfall cascading down from the heights. 

Disappointed at not being able to stay in the mountains we end up travelling on to the next town on the historic circuit, Aksum, arriving after dark. In the morning we set out to explore and find Aksum to be a charming town. The streets are wide and clean, the people friendly and there are things which catch our eyes everywhere we look in both the old town and the newer sections.

There are many mysteries and legends about the history of Aksum. According to some the Queen of Sheba lived here and the Ark of the Covenant which holds Moses’ 10 Commandments is kept here in a small chapel. Maybe those Knights of the Round Table were looking in the wrong place all that time. Whether those facts are correct or not, Aksum was certainly an important place from around 400BC and continuing for at least 1000 years.

Ancient obelisks are scattered all around the area and one of the most important groups in the Northern Stelae field. Here there are three enormous standing rock needles, an even larger collapsed one and several other smaller obelisks. As well there are underground mausoleums and other smaller stelae to see and far more underground tombs and treasures which have not yet been excavated. The fallen stele, also known locally as King Ramhai’s Stele,  is a massive 33m and is believed to be the largest single block of stone that humans have ever attempted to erect. At 24.6m high and 170 tonnes, the Rome Stele is the second-largest stele ever produced at Aksum. In 1937 the stele was shipped to Italy on Mussolini’s personal orders. On arrival it was reassembled and raised once more in Rome’s Piazza di Porta Capena, where it was known as the Aksum Obelisk. It remained in Rome until 2005, when decades of negotiations were finally victorious and was returned to Aksum that year and Unesco raised it in 2007, just in time for the Ethiopian millennium celebration

Behind the stelae field is a small but very impressive archeological museum. We spend quite a while wandering through it absorbing the tales of the kings and seeing items recovered from tombs. Videos are playing in one section and as well as providing us with a cool place to sit on a very hot day we enjoy seeing some of the impressive scenery in the north of the country and hearing about the rich history.

We pass up visits to the old (men only) and the new (women allowed) Churches of St Mary of Zion and the Ark of the Covenant Chapel. No-one is actually allowed to see the Ark and only one guardian is allowed to even enter the chapel. Instead we admire the buildings from the outside and spend our time wandering around the streets in the Old town and also the newer areas of Aksum. 

Buildings are frequently made from rocks but newer ones have been rendered and often painted in bright colours. There isn’t a lot of traffic in the side streets and when kids playing in the streets see Paul wandering around with his camera they like to pose and then see themselves in his view finder.

Several markets are held regularly in Aksum and the most colourful is the Saturday Basket market where people come to stock up on high quality Tigrayan workmanship. If space allowed I would love to have purchased a good range of baskets.

The Basket market is held under a huge fig tree so its a great place to spend time and enjoy a coffee.

Late one afternoon we walk up to the Yeha Hotel which is perched on a bluff overlooking the Stelae field and the Mary of Zion churches. Its a great place to enjoy sunset drinks and while we are there we hear the bells calling worshippers to prayer. On our way back to town we pass the old church and see many of the female worshippers lining the fence and listening to the service broadcast over speakers.

 We loved our stay in Aksum and are tempted to stay longer but after three nights we need to move on and continue our journey around the historic sites.

Ethiopia Part 1, Addis Ababa to Bahir Da

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Celebrating Meskel in Bahir Da, Ethiopia 2018

Ethiopia is a large and fascinating country and we easily spent more than 8 weeks touring around different regions. Highlights of our journey include the ever changing, magnificent scenery, the rich cultural heritage and its impact on current day life, the traditional methods of farming and the use of animals in many aspects of every day life, the delicious food and the friendliness and diversity and sheer numbers of the people. We have so many memories and photos we will share them in instalments.

The people of Ethiopia are diverse, there are nine broad groups and within those groups, in some areas in particular, there are distinctive tribes who still dress and live their very traditional way. Some reasonably large cities and towns are scattered around the country and there is a good network of roads connecting them. In between are innumerable small villages and while buildings in the cities and towns tend to be constructed from concrete the homes in the villages are made from whatever materials are locally available. 

Like its people, the topography of Ethiopia is remarkably diverse. The vast central plateau has an average elevation of between 1,800 m and 2,400 m but there are also 20 mountain peaks which are more than 4,000 m high. It sure brings home to us just how flat Australia is; our highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko is a mere 2,228 m high. Surrounding the cool highlands are the much hotter lowlands. These include the northern section of the Rift Valley. The Rift Valley begins in Mozambique, runs through Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda before entering Ethiopia in the south west and running through the country finally finishing in the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest, hottest, driest and most inhospitable points on the Earth’s surface, which in parts lies almost 125m below sea level and sprawls into neighbouring Eritrea and Djibouti. 

Paul entered Ethiopia from Kenya at Moyale in the south of the country and spent a couple of days travelling north to Addis Ababa up past several of the Rift Valley Lakes. I joined Paul in Addis Ababa after a two week trip to Australia. The second week of my stay was spent on the southern Gold Coast so while Paul was making the long trip from Nairobi to Addis Ababa and coming to grips with this chaotic city I was taking long walks along a quiet beach, loving my swims in the clear ocean water and enjoying meals with family and friends.

My introduction to Ethiopia was flying into the capital of Addis Ababa at the end of a very long flight from Australia. The fourth and final leg of my flight (I said it was a very long flight) was from Dubai and the plane carefully avoided airspace over Saudi Arabia and Yemen and we travelled up the Gulf of Aden. We like desert travel but even if it were safe and there were roads in Yemen the landscape looked way to harsh to tempt me to travel there. Addis Ababa is on the central plateau at an altitude of more than 2,000 metres and is surrounded by green hills, a sharp contrast to Yemen. 

It is a sprawling, chaotic city with millions of people. Traffic can be dreadful so we limited our sightseeing and took taxis on the few occasions we ventured out and about while we were waiting for some work to done on our car. Just to add variety to the traffic snarls there are also donkeys or ponies pulling carts or buggies transporting goods and people around the narrow streets or even along the highways. Ethiopia has more than 100 million people but between 70 and 80% of the people are involved in agriculture and there are less than 3.5 million in Addis, it just feels at times as though they are all trying to get to the same place you are. 

One excursion is to the Ethnological Museum located in the gardens of the Addis Ababa University. It is inside Haille Selassie’s former palace and gives us a good introduction to the cultural and social history of the country. Tribal tales are used to illustrate many aspects of the culture. The museum also includes the preserved bedroom, bathroom and changing room of the Emperor, an art gallery filled with samples of religious art across the centuries and an area dedicated to traditional musical instruments.

While we are at the museum I sample my first Ethiopian meal, a simple and cheap meal with Shiro and Injera. Injera is the national staple and the base of almost every meal. It is a thin pancake made from fermented Tef, the indigenous Ethiopian cereal. It’s slightly sour taste grows on you and over our stay we become almost addicted to it. Shiro is a simple chickpea puree but spices are added and the flavour and freshness vary with each serve we have, and they are many. Traditional Ethiopian coffee follows, black and strong. Most locals add sugar but we find it delicious without and although the cups are small at an average price of 25 cents per cup we can have two or even three if we need the extra caffeine.

Once the repairs to the Landcruiser are finished we are more than ready to continue our journey. The first section of our travels out of Addis follows a loop to the historical sites in the north of the country. In the first part of this loop we are travelling in the highlands with many descents to river valleys and then the corresponding ascents to the next ridge. On our first day out of the capital we cross the Blue Nile Valley dropping more than 1 km to the floor of the valley then rising to the plateau on the other side. Slopes of wildflowers and rocky escarpments punctuate the terraces and fields full of crops and mountains stretch away into the haze. We hadn’t really planned to stop yet but figure its worth an overnight stop in the next village so Paul can take some photos in the soft morning light. 

The next day we easily reach Bahir Da, a busy city on the banks of Lake Tana. As well as being Ethiopia’s largest lake and the source of the Blue Nile, the islands and peninsula’s of Lake Tana contain 20 or more centuries old monasteries. The number of islands and the number of monasteries, and their age varies according to who you ask but some date from the 13th and 14th centuries and we will be quite content to visit just a few. We organise a boat and driver to reach the monasteries and we need to organise a guide when we get there.

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Heading out to the Monasteries on Lake Tana, Ethiopia 2018

On our first island stop we climb moss covered stone stairs to the Entos Eyesu Monastery. Its a much newer monastery than we were expecting and while the building is of less interest the paintings are vivid and the monk who welcomes us is very helpful. 

On the next island we visit Kebran Gabriel, a beautiful 17th century monastery where Paul makes the long climb to visit the men only museum and to wander around the monastery.

On the Zege Peninsula we enjoy a coffee while smelling the incense and then have a look at the stalls where local people are making and selling souvenirs. 

A short walk past more stalls and village huts leads us to the 14th century monastery of Ura Kidane Meret. This is far more impressive and the large building has art works dating back many centuries.

Back in Bahir Da we are comfortable in our hotel and extend our stay so we are here for Meskel, an important religious day. In the meantime we enjoy more delicious food, and coffee of course, and take in the every day sights. Bajaj are East Africa’s version of South East Asia’s tuk tuks and they can be seen everywhere.

Meskel is a celebration of the finding of the true cross and is held throughout Ethiopia. According to tradition, in 326 AD, Helena had prayed for guidance to find the cross on which Jesus was crucified and was directed by smoke from a burning fire to the location. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe she lit torches to celebrate. In Bahir Da believers gathered in a square for prayers and during the evening crosses which had been erected throughout the city were burned.

From Bahir Da we continue our journey north on the historic circuit toward then royal city of Gonder.

Entebbe to Addis Ababa

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Delicious!

After a flying two week trip to South Africa to visit my 92 year old mum in hospital after she had a heart attack I am on a plane back to Uganda on my own. Julie flew back to Australia from Johannesburg the day before yesterday for a short visit, but I need to get back to Uganda.

We left our car at a hotel in Entebbe and when we left we promised the Security Officer at Uganda Customs that we would be back in two weeks to pick up the extension for our temporary import permit so I need to get back there.

The flight takes me via Nairobi and, as we fly past northern Tanzania, I have the good luck to see the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro surrounded by a sea of clouds and lit up by the afternoon sun.

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Mt. Kilimanjaro from the plane

During the three hour stop in Nairobi airport I discover that if I had organised a longer stopover there I could have had a free trip to Nairobi National Park. Something to remember! It is dark by the time I land at Entebbe airport on the shores of Lake Victoria. Before I left Johannesburg I sent an email to the hotel to let them know when I was arriving and my flight has been slightly delayed so I expect them to be waiting for me.

When I get out into the concourse I find it filled with people and outside on the driveway it is, if anything, even more crowded and the road is chock full of cars. I wait by the gate and it isn’t long before I see the receptionist from the hotel. She says we have a little way to walk to get to the car and we find it after a few minutes, still on the approach to the airport terminal. We climb in but we aren’t really moving so the driver decides to mount the divide and turn back onto the road heading away from the airport. A policemen shakes his finger at us but that is all.

We are still moving at snail’s pace and I learn that I have arrived at the same time as a plane-full of Muslims returning from their pilgrimage to Mecca. Everyone around is in good spirits but a drive back to the hotel that normally takes five minutes takes us about forty minutes instead.

The next morning I check out and pack up the car. The hotel very kindly let us leave the car plugged into power for the two weeks that I was away and the guard watered our herbs for us. I hit the road and head for Entebbe to pick up the extension for our temporary import permit. This ends up taking several hours because the security officer isn’t there but by late afternoon I finally get the paper work and head for “The Haven” a wonderful camp site beside the Nile River just north of Lake Victoria. We camped there for a few days when we first arrived in Uganda so I have no trouble finding it.

I can’t hang around though so the next morning I get on the road and head for the Kenyan border at Busia. The border formalities take a little time but I don’t have to pay for a visa because the one I have is still valid but I only get a temporary import permit for the car for seven days. That should be enough though as I will be heading for Ethiopia as soon as possible.

I still have a few hours of daylight left and I plan to spend the night in Kakamega Forest on my way to Nairobi. There’s a bit of rain around and it pours down heavily when I stop at a road side bar for some Nyama Choma. “Nyama Choma” is bbq meat and it is sold throughout Kenya at bars, restaurants and roadside bbq stands, typically outside butcher shops. I wonder what this rain will do to the dirt roads in the Kakamega Forest.

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Nyama Choma calls

It is after dark when I get to the edge of the forest but it isn’t too far to the camp site marked on my map. I ask a policeman and he assures me that I will have no problems getting through the forest as the road is still in good condition. The road is fine but when I turn off to the camp ground it quickly turns to a muddy, rutted track. There’s nothing else to do so I change into low range, four wheel drive and try to keep rolling. There’s one tricky stretch but it’s no trouble. However, when I find some of the forestry workers and ask them about camping they tell me that the camp ground is closed … long pause at this juncture … they know that I don’t have any other options so they agree that I can stay the night and one of them leads me down a small track. We are in the middle of the forest and the rain clouds are still around so it is very dark. It isn’t long before I am in bed and if it rains during the night I have no idea because I am dead-tired.

Next morning the weather seems to have cleared up a bit. There are a few colobus and blue monkeys around looking for food in the trees. I take a few photos, then pay for the camping and head off deeper into the forest on my way east to Nairobi.

It’s a beautiful drive and there is only one patch of mud where the dirt has washed down to the approaches to a bridge. There are workers busy clearing it but there is still a short stretch of mud to negotiate. No problem!

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Kakamega Forest

It isn’t long before I am out of the forest and approaching the western escarpment of the Great Rift Valley. The road climbs and the temperature drops. I stop on the side of the road to enjoy the view and have a quick chat with a local farmer and his family.

I arrive in Nairobi at Jungle Junction, the same camp ground we have used several times before. I’ll be here for a few days while the car is serviced and the wheel bearings are redone. We want the car to be in good shape before we head into Ethiopia. Christoph, the owner, is a mechanic and he gets a couple of his staff onto the job the next day. Not surprisingly the work takes longer than anticipated and only the front wheel bearings are done before I run out of time. I need at least three nights on the road to get from Nairobi to Moyale in far north east Kenya on the border with Ethiopia.

In addition there is a new problem. The front prop-shaft has too much play in it and I will need to get it fixed in Addis Ababa while I wait for Julie to arrive back from Australia. Christoph assures me that there are plenty of Toyota mechanics in Ethiopia and I do some research into Toyota workshops in Addis Ababa.

It is midday before I leave the camp ground, do some shopping and head north out of Nairobi. I decide to head up past the east side of Mt. Kenya as we have travelled the western route a few times before. It will be slower but very scenic. Unfortunately it gets dark before I find a place to camp for the night about 40km south of Meru. I’m on the road again early the next morning and I catch some fleeting glimpses of Mt. Kenya. The valleys and ridges that form the eastern flanks of Mt. Kenya are green and fertile. The soil is a rich red colour which contrasts with the deep green of the banana trees and the tea plantations. They get a lot of rain in these parts and there are large numbers of people living on farms and in the cities here.

I am heading to “Henry’s” in Marsabit, another camp ground we have used before. I arrive half way through the afternoon and get to relax for the first time in a week. In the evening a group of Dutch people arrive from the north. They have just come through Moyale and inform me that the day after tomorrow, the day I plan to cross the border, is a public holiday in Ethiopia; their New Years Day. They are pretty certain that there will be no Ethiopian staff on duty that day at the border crossing. My Ethiopian visa isn’t valid until then so I may just have to take my time so that I don’t have to wait in Moyale itself which has a bit of a reputation.

Around mid-morning I head north and take my time. I stop to take some photos of a crater just north of Marsabit and then head down into the large swathe of arid country that used to be called the Northern Frontier District.

Meteor Crater

It is hot and dry for the most part with very little water. The few tribes that live out here include the Boran, the Turkana and the Gabra, all nomad peoples who run herds of goats, cattle and camels. The Shifta (bandits from Somalia) used to come over the border and raid the country for livestock. The local people are no pushovers and reports of these clashes would drift back to Nairobi from time to time.

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Tough Country

These days there are plenty of police patrolling the roads and it is usually peaceful. There are still the odd fights over water rights but these don’t really affect tourists and travellers as long as you stay clear of anything that looks threatening.

I have been driving north for a few hours already so I am well and truly out in the flat, dry country of northern Kenya now and the sun is starting to get really hot. The colours of the landscape are washed out under the harsh light of the sun and I am squinting against the glare. Distant hills and trees float above the horizon on shimmering lakes that are mere mirages.

My map shows a pattern of old volcanoes dotted all over this country. Most are very old and worn down to rounded hills. A few larger ones remain. I spotted a large hill, possibly an old volcano, on the northern horizon in front of me a little while ago but I don’t seem to be getting any closer. Off to the sides of the road I see the odd herd of cows and camels and sometimes a couple of ostrich.

Water is hard to come by out here. The land is a light brown colour and the stunted thorn trees are widely spaced around fields of rocks with a few tufts of straw-coloured grass here and there.

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Big Horizons in a parched country

Fortunately I have some water in the fridge to drink. I stop for lunch under a rare shady tree on the edge of a dry river bed. There’s nobody around. In this heat it takes effort to move very far and most people, like the animals and birds, rest up in the middle of the day. Early morning and the evening are the best times to do anything physical.

Back on the road I can still see the same hill in the north. I take another look at the map. There aren’t many turns in the road but it looks like the road will take me to the hill and then turn east just after it. The map shows that there is a small town just south of the hill. Eventually I start to make out some details. There is a large hill with some massive rocks surrounded by some smaller hills littered with large boulders. The road will pass the town and leads over a saddle between the large hill and another to the west.

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The Hill

I drive slowly through the town and then the road rises into the hills and curves gently to the east. I spot a tower on the hill and a dirt track that leads up to it. I’m ready for a break so I turn onto the track and pretty soon I am out of sight of the main road and parked in some shade. It is quiet apart from some hornbills and starlings that come along to check me out. It has taken me half a day to reach this hill from the time I first saw it.

A little while later and I still haven’t seen anyone so I decide to camp the night. It’s too far to reach the Ethiopian border at Moyale and I have a good view to watch the sunset from up here.

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Sunset on the Rocks

The next morning I continue driving east. The thorn bush is thicker here and fairly green. To the north is a range of hills that lie along the border with Ethiopia and I surmise that this is the source of the water that was missing from the country further south. I’m driving slowly because it’s not that far to Moyale and I’m not sure where I will camp for the night so that I can hit the border crossing as early as possible the next morning.

At one of the police road blocks two police ask for a lift. They both squeeze into the front passenger seat, good thing they are both quite skinny. We start talking and I ask them about the border crossing. One of them gets on the phone and calls someone in Moyale. We hear that another traveller successfully crossed into Ethiopia this morning so the there must be some staff on duty. Knowing this I am keen to get there and we drive into town around lunchtime.

The Kenyan border formalities are done with fairly quickly and I drive across to the Ethiopian side where things stall right away. There’s hardly anyone around, just a few guys sitting around outside and the vast car park is almost empty. There are no other travellers around at all. One of the guys turns out to work for immigration and I show him my e-visa. He says that’s fine but he has to phone and double check with someone in Addis Ababa. As today is a national holiday, New Year’s Day, it may take a while to reach someone. Also the phone network is down so I will have to wait. Another chap tells me that the Customs people won’t be coming in until tomorrow. They were here earlier but they have gone home. It looks like I’m stuck here overnight and the only place to stay is at a lodge within the border post on the Kenyan side.

At this point one of the guys who just seems to be hanging around asked me if he could have a lift to Addis Ababa. In return he says he knows the head of the Customs Department in Moyale and he will give him a call. Of course I say that’s great and he makes a call. Even so, I’m there for several hours and it is mid afternoon before my new friend and I head north into Ethiopia. For the first kilometre the road is littered with stones and corrugated iron and lined with broken down shacks. Terefe explains that thousands of refugees from Somalia live on the right with Ethiopians on the left. Many of the Somalis have been there for ten years and they are frustrated that they have not been granted Ethiopian citizenship. At the end of the kilometre we see a line of taxis and tuk-tuks. Terefe says they won’t go any further than this because of the off and on fighting that breaks out near the border.

Since Ethiopia is the home of coffee I let Terefe know that I’m interested in sampling the local brew as soon as possible and he says that there is a village a short distance away where we can make a stop.

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Typical Ethiopian Town

We soon get there and stop at a typical roadside coffee shop. The floor is strewn with green grass and yellow flowers, partly a celebration of the New Year and partly a reminder of life in the villages and farms which is where the vast majority of Ethiopians are born and raised. The coffee is very good and Terefe gives me the run down on the coffee ceremony and explains that many Ethiopians drink three cups at one sitting, and that the third cup is the “Blessing Cup”.

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First Coffee Stop

Due to the late departure from Moyale we only make it as far as Yabello that night. Terefe is my guide again at dinner and I have my first meal of Tibbs and Injera, the first of many while we are in Ethiopia. I spend the night in the roof-top tent in the hotel car park and we hit the road again at about 7am the next day.

Ethiopia, Day 2

What a day of contrasts! Started out in the thorn bush country of the nomadic Oromo people in southern Ethiopia under wonderful blue skies.

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Thorn Trees and Ant hills

Headed north west from Yabello and stopped at a stock dam to take photos of the Borana cattle watering there as well as the two young herders.

Then the road climbed through a narrow pass in a small mountain range to the town of Konso where they have been terracing the hills for over 400 years to collect water and control erosion. On the approach to the town the dry hill sides are covered with old terraces. (Click here for more info)

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Konso from the air (image from the Internet)

I stop in a narrow valley under a large shady tree to empty the diesel from the jerry cans into the tankand to have a bite to eat. It’s not long before the car is surrounded by about twenty excited kids. From where I stand I can see some of the bigger dry stone walls that are part of the town defences.

From Konso the road turns north up the western side of Lake Chamo to the large town of Arba Minch set up on a hill looking over Lake Abaya. Approaching the lakes the banana plantations line the road and sweep down to the lake shore. Arba Minch itself is very busy and crowded with a large university. North of the town are extensive orchards of large mango trees … not in season for another month. The soil is a rich red colour and the banana plants and mango trees are a vivid green.

Lake Abaya is pretty long and there are many opportunities to stop and take in the amazing grey pink colour of the water, a reflection of the colour of the mountains that provide the backdrop along the eastern side of the lake.

Driving further north the road starts climbing, first through forests and then into an area of steep-sided hills intensively planted with well-tended crops. There are very few gaps between the villages here. The road is pot-holed and there is plenty of traffic, mainly buses, taxis, bajajs (tuk-tuks) and trucks loaded up with bananas to take to Addis Ababa.

The road seems to climb forever and eventually I stop to take some photos. At 2,800 metres it is pretty chilly, especially after the warmer country to the south. A farmer and two young boys walk up the hill from their fields to see what I am about. The clouds are low and grey and every now and then a crack of thunder rolls around the hills and there is some far off lightning. I feel close to the sky up here.

Looking south from this height, many miles away, I can still see the sunlit plains beside the lakes.

The style of buildings changes as I pass through the different regions. This is a good indicator of the many and varied ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

Driving further the weather worsens and the rain is bucketing down by the time I find a place to stay in the next big town, Hosanna. It’s dark and grey, water is flowing down the streets, the town electricity has failed and every vehicle is driving around with their hazard lights switched on. It seems that every where you look there are blinking red and orange lights against the dark grey and drenched streets. Hail bounces off the car as I drive the last few hundred metres to a hotel. No camping in this weather. What a day!

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The morning after the storm

Another early start the next day and we reach Addis Ababa around lunchtime. I take Terefe to a church because he wants to buy some holy oil for his wife and children who he is on his way to see. He works in Moyale for an NGO which tracks refugees as they move around. That’s as much as I can work out anyway. He still has about 100km to go to get to his family.

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Entering Addis Ababa

I locate the hotel I am staying at and pay a quick visit to the Toyota workshop and get the car booked in for the next day. I set myself up in the hotel room so I can process photos while I wait for the car and for Julie to arrive from Australia in about a weeks time. Luckily the hotel is close to the airport and to Toyota which I visit regularly to keep an eye on things. Addis Ababa is busy, dirty and not blessed with many street lights. Just like the villages in the country side, cattle, goats, donkeys and horses roam the streets and often just stand still in the middle of the road forcing people to drive around them. Luckily I have plenty of photos to keep me busy.