Ethiopia Part 8, Tribes of Southeast Ethiopia

Mursi Woman and Children, Ethiopia 2018

In the south-east of Ethiopia, we find an entirely different aspect of the country. We leave behind the  Orthodox Christian Churches and Monasteries of the northern circuit, the hustle and bustle of crowded Addis Ababa and the extreme highs and lows of the Bale Mountains and the Danakil Depression and enter an area where tribes build huts in their unique traditional methods and the people live as they have done for hundreds of years.  

The first village we visit in this area is a Dorze Village in the Guze Mountains high above the Rift Valley city of Arba Minch. The Dorze people live in a cold and damp environment so they need huts which can withstand the weather and they are famous for their towering homes which are essentially massive upturned baskets. Its too high for banana trees to grow but perfect for Bamboo and Enset (false banana) and their homes are woven with bamboo and thatched with the enset leaves. They can be 12 metres high when first built (or woven) then as termites and damp slowly wear away the base is sliced off so over 60 to 80 years the huts become progressively shorter. They don’t use a central pillar for support and the hut can be picked up and moved to a new location when needed.

Inside there are partitioned areas on the sides for livestock and vents are set high in the roof to help clear out some of the smoke from the cooking fires. A small area at the front serves as a reception room and if you imagine this as the trunk and the upper vents as eyes, the homes are said to resemble massive elephant heads (maybe you need a good imagination).

There are numerous Enset plants in the adjoining garden patch and our hostess shows us how she makes and cooks kocho, a fermented, unleavened bread, from the plants. It is eaten with honey and data, a hot chilli sauce. 

We are also treated to glasses of a local hooch made in stills in the village and drunk with a loud ‘Hoy, Hoy, Hoy’ toast as you raise the glasses high then quickly swallow the lot. Pity our visit was in the morning as a few more of those would certainly be warming on a cold afternoon or evening.

We are staying just a short distance from the village in a lodge where each chalet is a modified Dorze hut. Instead of the partitioned area on the side housing livestock, we have an ensuite, and there is a dining area in the middle of the hut, instead of a cooking fire, with magnificent views over the lake below. The views and the peace are so magnificent it is easy to stay an extra night.

Not far south of Arba Minch live the Konso people who have taken an entirely different approach to building their villages. They are not as high in the mountains and the weather is milder but the country around is very hilly and covered in innumerable rocks. Through 400 years of very hard work they have transformed the hills into terraces for their crops and built their villages on the tops of the hills surrounded by walls of rocks for protection.

We visit a village with a guide who explains the customs and significance of what we are seeing. Once inside the outer wall the twisting stone-walled walkways connect family and clan compounds, each with a clutch of thatched-roof homes, communal mora (huts where young men sleep at night to serve as watchmen and community servants for the village) and public squares where generation poles (one pole is raised every 18 years) stand tall.

Children play in the walkways and around the generation pole in the public square.

From Konso we drive west into the Lower Omo Valley. This area is featured in many articles in National Geographic and it is an area we have been looking forward to visiting. There are over 20 different ethnic tribes with distinct differences in dress and culture and they still live largely traditional lives. The country is primarily indigenous bush with very few buildings using modern materials. This part of Ethiopia has been accessible to tourists for a relatively short time and west of the Omo River it is still very remote and requires planning and guides to visit the area.  

Jinka is the largest town in the area and will be our base for visiting the Mursi people. Even our drive to Jinka is fascinating as we pass through wonderful and varied landscapes and through towns like Kako and Key Afar where the local tribes include the Banna people with their distinctive hairstyles and decorations. It is market day in Kako as we pass through the area and for many miles either side of the village we see people driving their animals or carrying their produce for sale in the market.

Once in Jinka we find some accommodation and begin organising our trip through the Mago National Park and across the Mago River. A guide is required for the trip and we also need to collect an armed guard when we enter the national park. Fitting one extra person into our vehicle for a trip of that length is extremely difficult and uncomfortable, two is not even an option so we will have to go in our guide’s vehicle. While we are at our hotel we are greeted by two other travellers we had seen on our trip out from Konso. Igna and Thomas are from Lithuania and have been working in the US for the past few years. They are riding a tandem bicycle for two months in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania … it sure makes our travels seem very easy and comfortable by comparison. They are also planning to visit the Mursi people so we join forces to share the costs of the guide and guard.

We make an early start and the trip out to and through the national park takes us through more great landscapes as we cross a range of hills and the Mago valley. There are apparently quite a few animals in the park but the thick vegetation means spotting any is rare. It would appear the need to carry an armed guard is more to provide employment than any real danger. 

We visit two Mursi villages. The first is a permanent village and the people have some cattle but are also involved in agriculture. In the second village, they primarily raise cattle and move around their lands to provide them with new pastures. As they are nomadic so their huts are less substantial and are easily deconstructed then remade using larger branches they have carried with them plus local grasses and other materials from the new area.

The main source of cash income is from visiting tourists such as ourselves and although the clothing, or lack of it, is genuine, the face and body painting and elaborate headgear would traditionally only have been worn for battle or special occasions. It is now worn often in the hope we will pay for taking their photos and people eagerly line up to be included in the photo shoot.

The enormous lip-plates worn by some of the women can be up to 12 cm in diameter. They are made of clay and are inserted into a slit in their lower lip. Due to the obvious discomfort, women only wear the lip-plates occasionally, leaving their distended lips swaying below their jaw. The hole is cut around age 15 and stretched over many months. Now women can choose to wear plates in their ears instead, not an easy process but certainly easier than wearing the lip-plates. When asked why they did it we were told it was to show respect for their culture. Other people told us that it originally started to stop neighbouring tribes abducting their women.

In the second village the decorations used included cattle horns, gourds and local berries.

Mursi Woman, Ethiopia 2018

From Jinka we travel south to Turmi. One of the main reasons we are here is to witness a Hamer “Bull Jumping” ceremony. While we are waiting for that to happen we travel to the nearby town of Dimeka for their weekly market. It’s a very colourful and lively affair and well worth the visit while we are waiting for the “Bull Jumping” ceremony.

Back in Turmi we conclude arrangements to visit a “Bull Jumping” ceremony which turns out to be something quite special and warrants its own post so keep an eye out that.

Ethiopia Part 7, Bale Mountains

We are sitting in the mist and driving rain in the Bale Mountains in southern Ethiopia waiting for it to clear slightly so I can start taking photos. The wind is buffeting the car and it doesn’t look very inviting outside. But that’s not surprising. We are up at over 4,200m in altitude on one of the highest roads in Africa in the middle of the largest expanse of Afro-alpine climate zone on the continent. It is freezing cold, especially after the Danakil, and quite desolate up here. I’m loving it!

We stayed in a nearby town called Goba last night and got up in the dark before 6am to drive up into the mountains. Thankfully it didn’t rain too much during the night. Not far out of town the road turns to an all-weather dirt road and we were soon climbing up some steep hills. Not surprising because we climb over two thousand metres in less than fifty kilometres. We show our pass at the gate and we continue our journey.

On the left edge of the road a torrent of water rushes down the hill but we couldn’t see much else because of the thick mist. 

Before too long I get impatient and I’m out of the car, stepping carefully across the spongy ground. The wind is blowing and it is icy so my hands are freezing but I’m enjoying being outside the car. In this mist I can’t see further than about forty metres. 

As I walk off the road I see a narrow stream flowing slowly across the marsh, winding its way back and forth before it disappears into the thick mist. I’m often stepping in shallow water so I’m very grateful for my good hiking boots which keep my feet dry. I keep hearing the sound of bubbling water and I soon find the source; a water fountain on a very slightly raised mound is feeding the stream and there are other fountains spread about the place. The ground is sodden and carpeted with tiny plants that obviously thrive in the cold and wet. I love these wild places. 

In another spot I take photos of a couple of small waterfalls tumbling down from a raised marsh over a small natural wall of rocks. I climb up about two metres to the marsh and find more rocks around small hills as well as giant lobelias which can grow up to nine metres high. There are some small tarns amongst the rocks and every now and then a little more sunlight makes its way through the clouds and mist to add some reflections to the flat grey surface of the water. Apart from the soft sound of the wind and the swirling mist the place is eerily quiet and still. The cold seems to pervade everything. 

In some areas the ground is riddled with holes but for a long time I don’t see any animals. Then I spot a mole rat scurrying across the ground, and disappear into one of the holes. Later I see a hare running away with black and white tipped ears. 

I take shelter in the car a few times to catch my breath and warm my hands but eventually the temperature warms up enough so that I can stay outside. 

At one of our last stops I step outside the car and look behind us. I quickly and quietly call to Julie to look out of her side of the car where two rare Ethiopian wolves are crossing the road. One of them heads away from us but the other trots over to some rocks nearer us to investigate something. It sniffs around for a while before taking off after its mate. We are thrilled. There are perhaps only three hundred of these wolves left alive. We vaguely saw a couple in the shadows the night we climbed the volcano in the Danakil Depression so it was wonderful to see them so clearly up here.

Giant Lobelias, Bale Mountains, Ethiopia

We drive back to a place on the road above a wide area which has several larger tarns surrounded by larger hills and a rounded peak, all of which are swathed in rolling mist. After we eat we sit a while to see if the mist will clear. At the first opportunity I am out taking photos. When the mist rolls in again we start back down the track we came up on. 

We have one last stop to take photos when the sun comes out for a while showing us the fertile valley nearly two thousand metres below us. What a view! In the east we can see a massive line of cliffs. I climb up to a viewpoint and I look down into a narrow and very deep valley to the west that carves its way through the mountains. This is a truly dramatic landscape. 

We had considered camping the night up in the mountains but we both felt that it was too cold and wet to be at all comfortable and we couldn’t get to the official campground because the road was too muddy. Even so it’s a very special place and we are very glad to have spent the better part of a day up here.

Ethiopia Part 4, The Danakil Depression

Sulphur Springs, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Sulphur Springs, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

The Danakil Depression, a place you read about in magazines on a plane going somewhere else, or in brochures in an air-conditioned travel agency. The hottest place on earth and one of the lowest at over one hundred metres below sea level. Weird landscapes that have been transported from a different planet. A place where foreign interlopers are viewed at the same time with disdain, indifference and suspicion. Not just by the people but by the country itself. Not somewhere you are going to go out of your way to visit. A place that sounds like hell on earth.

Active volcanoes with the oldest permanent lava lake on earth with hundreds of thousands of acres of blackened lava beds that are hard on shoes and even harder on car tyres. Bubbling sulphur springs and pools of acid set in an alien, technicolour landscape of bright yellows, lime greens, and gaudy oranges. Dried lake beds of white salt stretching over the horizon, too bright to look at under the noon day sun but, at sunset in the middle of this vastness, a wondrous place to watch the reflected blues, pinks and purples and the yellowing rays of the sun. A sun that, day after day, bakes the earth and everything else around until every bit of moisture has evaporated leaving nothing but salt or desiccated husks.

The Danakil Depression is located at one end of the largest rupture in the surface of all the continents on this planet, the Great Rift Valley. A rupture that will one day, thankfully in the distant future, split the biggest continent in two and the Danakil Depression will disappear under the sea.

Temperatures here regularly reach 50 degrees Centigrade and the average, year round temperature is over 34 degrees. Nothing grows here, nothing! There are enormous, very shallow and very salty lakes but you cannot drink the water. The Danakil stretches west from the Red Sea in neighbouring Eritrea until it runs up against a barren range of mountains over 2,000 metres high. Every pebble, rock and gigantic fold on the eastern side of these mountains is exposed to the desert winds and sun. On the other side of the mountains sits a very different world of farms, villages and towns amongst valleys and mountain ranges that seem to rise and fall for ever into the distant blue haze.

The hills are getting drier as we head toward the Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

The Danakil, a desert of salt lakes, hot sulphur springs and volcanoes, is home to the Afar, a warrior people whose lives have changed very little in thousands of years. They live in small, rounded huts with rough walls of rocks covered over with thin sticks and fabrics. The rock walls fit loosely together leaving numerous gaps designed to let any little breeze through. There are no doors. 

Afar Village, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Most of the Afar live in small villages around the edge of the Danakil where there is some water and sparse desert grasses to feed their herds of camels, donkeys, goats and sheep.

These days they carry semi-automatic rifles and there is still a sense of tension although the long-running war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has now ended. There are one or two small towns where there are basic markets and some rough accommodation for travellers, typically a mattress on the floor of a large communal room.

Village, Afar Region, Ethiopia 2018

This is the place we have come to see and it turns out to be one of the highlights of our time in Ethiopia. With some trepidation we decide we want to go there in our own car but no private travellers are permitted in the Danakil. Village chiefs must be paid and armed escorts are compulsory. We eventually settle on World Sun, a tour company in Mekele, who are willing for us to tag along with one of their groups for less than half the price quoted on the web sites.

We leave Mekele just after 9am in convoy with one other vehicle which is carrying our terrific guide, Gere, Joachim from Germany, plus two other support staff. We will be meeting up with another vehicle in the small town of Abala situated below the mountains at the western edge of the Danakil. It looks like it will be a very small group which is great! It takes us a couple of hours to reach Abala and we arrive before the others so we sit and have a coffee in a roadside stall as is the custom in Ethiopia.

The car we are waiting to meet is carrying three tourists so it is a group of six including us, plus Gere, the cook and the drivers. 

We are back on the road before long and we have been given a radio so that we can communicate with the others. The country changes as we move from the foothills east where it levels out and stunted thorn bushes grow. We see the odd herd of goats and camels early on but after a while they are very few and far between.

Old Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

After another couple of hours of driving on the tar road which leads to Eritrea we turn north onto a sandy track which takes us to a village where our guide stops to find the local chief. We take the opportunity to let some air out of our tyres now that we are off the tar road.

Afar Village, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

It isn’t long before we are moving again and we are driving across a sandy plain. Plumes of dust rise high in the air behind each car and the tracks fan out so we each end up driving on different tracks keeping an eye on each others dust. Our vehicle is carrying more weight so we are a bit slower, especially when we hit softer patches of sand. We are in four-wheel drive so we make it across these patches quite easily.

Desert Driving, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

After about half an hour of this easy driving across the desert, the tracks converge and we come to the first of the lava fields we have to cross.

The remaining distance is quite short and we can see Erta Ale, the volcano we are here to see, but we are now moving at a much slower pace, between 5 and 10km per hour. The track is easily visible since the tour companies come out here nearly every day but the rocks are still rough and I begin to wonder whether we should have bought new tyres. We will definitely need them after this. After another hour and a half of driving we finally arrive at a roughly made village which seems to exist purely as a place to bring tourists to have dinner and prepare for the trek to the volcano. It is about 4pm when we arrive. We can see clouds of smoke coming from the top of the volcano in the distance.

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Old Lava, Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We rest in the shade until the day starts to cool a little and then I am up and about taking photos. There are several convoys of vehicles parked around the place and groups of tourists sorting our their gear ready for the walk to Erta Ale. In amongst all of this are lots of camels which will carry mattresses and extra water.

Around sunset we have our evening meal and soon after that we are ready to leave. We are each given two bottle of water for the walk to the volcano. We will need them for the 14km walk! The sun has set but there is still plenty of light for the moment. The first part of the walk is through a sandy gully and across a plain. The sand is a little soft but it is easy going.

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten so much food though! It isn’t long before the path rises a little as we cross a lava plain. Our pace slows a little and I am starting to feel the heat. Even though the sun has well and truly set it is still over thirty degrees and the air is extremely dry. We take small swallows of water and try to conserve it for later on.

The sky is now completely dark and we are using torches to pick our way across the lava fields which are getting higher. We are using a little water to wet some ‘special ‘cloths we carry so that we can cool our heads and drape around our necks. Gere is terrific and he starts to make the rest stops a little more frequent. I certainly need them. The rest of our group is much younger than us and they are very patient. Eventually Gere tells us that we are now starting to climb the volcano. Funny, I thought we were nearly there! I am really feeling the heat and I need more rests as we climb. The temperature doesn’t seem to have changed at all. We are wearing the good walking shoes we bought in Tasmania and we certainly need them on these rough and sharp volcanic rocks. It is the first time I have worn shoes in well over a year and my feet are not liking the confinement at all. My socks are soaked in sweat.

We reach the camp at the top of the volcano around 10:30pm and we are exhausted. Gere shows us where we will be sleeping and says that we can rest for a short while before we go down to the edge of the inner crater to see the molten lava which is another 10-15 minutes walk after climbing down some steep steps in the rocks. Julie decides to rest for longer and wait until the early hours of the morning. I’m afraid that if I don’t go now I won’t make it at all. Julie beds down on her mattress inside an enclosure surrounded by a low wall of rocks. 

I grab my tripod which came up on the back of a camel and the rest of us make our way down to the inner caldera and, on strict instructions, we follow in Gere’s footsteps across the brittle lava. Some of it is less than a year old and still brittle and honey-combed with hollow channels which wouldn’t bear our weight. It is fairly slow going but before long we reach the edge of the inner crater. The breeze is variable and every so often we have to cover our nose and mouth as the smoke comes over us. It is very dark and there is no moon so the only light comes from inside the volcano or from the distant stars. Gere peers over the edge and decides we should move around the lip a short distance which we do.

As I sit on a rock and rest I start to visualise some compositions which I can photograph. I love the red colour of the clouds reflecting the light from below. I take these shots at about 11:30pm. I’m glad I brought my tripod!

Erta Ale Volcano, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We wait for a short while but we don’t manage to see any trails of molten lava below us and we are all tired so we head back up to our camp. Gere says that he will wake us at 4:30am to try again to see the lava. I’m totally exhausted when we reach our camp and I bed down as quickly as I can. I need some sleep and I decide to forego the early rise which Julie makes with the others and guess what … they manage to see some of the molten lava. I have a good rest and I take some photos of the group walking back across the brittle lava of the inner caldera.

We start walking back down just before sunrise and our legs are getting more and more wobbly. Well mine are for sure. The walk up took us nearly four and a half hours. It will be a little less going down and we will only need one bottle of water. Nevertheless, we get back to the village a little after 9am and have some breakfast after a rest. 

Now it’s time to drive back to Abala for one night. I have had enough walking for a while. My feet are in a bad way and one toe nail is bruised and I lose another two toe nails a few weeks later. We repeat the slow drive back across the lava fields and then we reach the sandy plain. We have some fun with the three vehicles driving abreast across the sand with the dust billowing behind us. We reach the tar road and turn east towards Eritrea. It is not far to some hot springs and a salt lake where we get out and wade in the lake. In this temperature we are not really interested in the hot springs. After a bit we head back out to the road and we make it to Abala by early evening. We are in the trailing vehicle and we note how the other drivers are very careful when passing the herds of goats along the way. We wonder why the local people have to graze their animals so close to the road.

Back in Abala we find our lodging for the night and Julie and I decide to use our roof top tent. It will get any breeze there is and it is mosquito proof so we should get a better sleep than we might in a window-less communal room. Our group is down to three as the other vehicle has headed back to Mekele but before dark another group arrives that are on their way to Erta Ale. They all hail from Israel and we have a good chat about our travels. One of them is after a Coca Cola which isn’t available in town but I fetch one from our fridge for him. In the morning they return the favour and make us some Israeli coffee. Pretty good!

During the evening there are several people coming and going and we understand that the woman who owns the property is an elder and influential in the town. At some stage a policeman arrives in the compound and we realise that there are some serious discussions going on. I wander across to find out what is happening and Gere tells me that we have been accused of running over a goat on our way back to town. I immediately invite the policeman to inspect our car but he wants us to take it to the police station where it will be impounded. We have already set up our roof top tent and we intend going to bed fairly soon so we are not really interested in this. Eventually the policeman agrees that we can visit the police station in the morning to clear the matter up. We ask Gere what the price of a goat is and he tells us the (obviously inflated) price of a goat and a camel. Over a hundred dollars for a goat and over a thousand for a camel. Hah!

After breakfast the next morning we drive around to the police station with our host and Gere. We park in the street and get out and chat to a few of the policemen around about. We aren’t included in the discussions but we gather that another tour company was originally accused of running over the goat and they denied it and fingered us as the ‘ferengi’ that hit the goat. The discussions continue across the road at a nearby coffee shop. Nobody is bothering to look at the two vehicles that were allegedly involved. The owner of the dead goat is demanding justice. We decide that we need another coffee as well so we sit down across from another group of policemen and we start talking. Eventually they take some phones out and start taking selfies with us but we aren’t allowed to take any … so no photos, sorry.

We have to hand it to Gere. After about an hour the discussions are wrapped up and the two tour companies agree to pay half each for the ‘dead goat’ and we are grateful that, not only were we not involved in the discussions, but we haven’t been forced to pay either. 

We are now free to leave town and we head north along the base of the mountain range west of the Danakil on the road to Dalol where the sulphur springs and salt works are located. The drive through the foothills of the mountains is spectacular and we take some photos en-route.

Mountain Range, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We stop briefly in a village for lunch and continue towards our new camp which is a short distance from Dalol. 

After a quick stop there we move on out onto the salt pans which seem to be endless. Our first visit is to some sacred rocks which are about the only thing that rise out of the flats. They are brown and made of ancient salt. The local Afar people eat pieces of the rock when they are sick and apparently it helps with stomach problems.

Nearby is another small hot spring which a few people from another group take a dip in.

Our next stop is for a sunset view beside a salt lake which disappears over the horizon. We drive as close as possible before the salt becomes to wet and before the cars start sinking. We set up tables and chairs and get out the cold drinks and nibbles from our fridge which we are very glad to have with us! The colours are amazing and I have a lot of fun with my tripod, wading out into the shallow lake to get the reflections. 

Our small group is very relaxed and we take some photos of the group before we leave.

We drive back to camp for dinner, arriving a little after dark. It is still very hot and there is a strong wind blowing. The landscape is desolate with rocks covering low undulations and very little grass. We find some shelter behind one of the huts. Our cook is inside with the fire and that’s the last thing we want to get close to. After supper we make ourselves comfortable on some rough beds up against the shack.

Bed under the stars, Danakil Depression, Ethiopia 2018

We are protected from most of the wind but we get just enough to keep us relatively cool. Even so we only need a sheet and it isn’t long before we fall asleep gazing at the myriad of stars.

The next morning is another early one. we leave at 6am to get out to the sulphur springs before the other tour group which is much larger and tends to take over when they arrive anywhere. It isn’t far and it is only 10 minutes walk from the cars. This is the lowest point in the Danakil at around 140 metres below sea level.

What a sight! I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. 

I also get the drone out and take some shots which I am quite pleased with. Some of these have been posted on Whitefella Walkabout Photography on Facebook

Gere has warned us about the slippery rocks and we take care. One of the young women who who was also at Erta Ale, the volcano, slipped and her feet went into one of the pools and they were badly burned by the acid. She had both feet bandaged and couldn’t walk without help, but she made it up to the volcano on the back of a camel. 

We start heading back to the cars just as other people start arriving. We are glad we made it out so early. It is already over 40 degrees when we reach the cars at about 9am. We really want to get our of the sun now and drink some water!

We stop a short way away for breakfast in a small, muddy canyon where the salt encrusted walls provide some much needed shade.

Our next visit is to the salt works which the Afar people have been working for over a thousand years. It is hot, horrible work in temperatures around 50 degrees. The crust of the dry bed of the ancient salt lake is cracked using pieces of wood as levers and then salt blocks of 5kg are shaped by hand using primitive tools and tied into bundles to be loaded onto camels.

Camel caravans still carry the salt to distant markets taking two weeks to get to places like Lalibela.

A 5kg block of salt is worth about 9 Birr here. In Lalibela it sells for about 200 Birr. The salt miners are very loth to change their traditional methods though. They refuse to allow trucks to carry the salt away and refuse to change their mining methods as they fear losing control of the salt and their livelihood.

It is finally time to go and it is good to get back into an air-conditioned car for the drive back to Mekele. We stop again as we drive through the foothills to take some more photos.

Camel Caravan

After that the road starts climbing until we are at about 2,400m above seal level and it is much cooler. What a contrast from the sulphur springs about 2.5km below us and less than 100km away.

We cruise back into Mekele and say goodbye swapping contact details and expressing our gratitude for the care and professionalism of our guide and the tour company. We are very glad we made it there and back. Now if only our tyres will hold out until we get back to Kenya.

Ethiopia Part 6, A Quick Visit to Eastern Ethiopia

Colour, Harar Old Town, Ethiopia 2018

The northern historical circuit and our excursion to the Danakil Depression in northern Ethiopia have all been fabulous and now it is time to explore other parts of the country. We didn’t get to visit the Simien Mountains National Park but we would still like to spend some time in the high country and hopefully see some Ethiopian wolves and other wildlife. One place we could visit which might fit the bill is a bit off the beaten track in the Menz-Guassa Community Conservation Area, south of Lalibela. We’ll need to travel on some rocky seldom travelled  roads to reach it which could be very tricky after rain. The rain begins on our last night in Lalibela and is continuing intermittently so we’ll need to watch the weather and reassess later. It continues raining most of the day and it is slow travelling on winding roads and with lots of slow moving traffic.

We stop for the night in the town of Dessie and consider our options. The dirt roads up to the conservation area will be tricky and camping in the high country in the mud and rain is less than appealing so we decide we’ll skip it and instead visit the Bale Mountains National Park in the south east of the country later. Before that though we decide to travel into eastern Ethiopia and visit the old Islamic town of Harar. We take the road east from Dessie to the southern end of the Danakil Depression. If we continued east we would be heading toward northern Djbouti and Eritrea which both sound fascinating but not on this trip. Instead we take the Djbouti Road south into eastern Ethiopia. We had thought it might be a dirt road but there is brand new bitumen and the only other traffic on this road are some trucks which are heading for the coast. The borders to Eritrea have only recently been opened and the traffic is light and the road flat and straight so we make good progress. We are back in camel country and while there are signs of recent rain it becomes much less as we head south and the temperature rises once again.

Unusually wet for camel country, Ethiopia 2018

Our good road finishes at Awash and we turn east and are back on one of the main highways to Djibouti. Our progress is much slower. We are heading back into higher country so we have lots of winding roads and hills, the road conditions deteriorate and there are regular pot holes, and much more traffic. This is the main road east from Addis Ababa and there are lots of trucks. There are also lots of villages and local traffic and animals so we need drive carefully, not a bad thing as the views along the way are worth slowing for anyway. Numerous wrecked trucks show that they don’t always take the appropriate caution, I imagine there are other vehicles in accidents as well but as they are lighter they are easier to remove. One truck in the middle of a village has us wondering.

Your guess is as goods ours, Ethiopia 2018

After an overnight stop along the way we reach Harar. The old walled town is World Heritage-listed and has 368 alleys squeezed into its 1 sq km. We find a hotel just outside the old town and after lunch we wander inside. Like many other places in Ethiopia its history is imprecise. It was founded somewhere between the 7th and 13th centuries and in the 17th and 18th centuries it was an important centre of Islamic scholarship and was almost never visited by Europeans. 5m high walls surround the old town and there are 6 gates including one which admits vehicles which was added in 1889.

Entrance to Harar’s old walled town, Ethiopia 2018

As we walk in the old streets we are surrounded by people wanting to guide us or just wanting a hand out. It is immediately off-putting and we are reluctant take photos even if they are of the street and buildings and not of people. We wander down some lane ways, not as relaxed as we would like because of the continual attention we are getting. 

 Colourful robes and Peugot 404 cars catch our attention as do the frequent bhajaj. When Paul was growing up in Nairobi they had a Peugeot 404 station wagon for a while and they were popular at the time because they had won the East African Safari Rally three times in a row. They still seem to be popular here, perhaps because we are very close to Djibouti which was a French colony.

We visit the museum dedicated to Arthur Rimbaud, a famous French poet who lived in Harar for about 10 years. It is interesting to speculate about the life he led and what brought him to this place which must have seemed completely remote and cut off from his life in France.

Other alleys lead us past the tailors shops and small houses to the butchers area where black kites line the roof tops hoping for some meat. Tourists are encouraged to buy a little meat and hand feed the kites which swoop down to take it.

We had planned to stay at least two nights in Harar but in the morning we decide we are not really enjoying the atmosphere in Harar, the lane ways are not particularly scenic and the attention from the people is intrusive and sometimes aggressive.  There seems to be a different sense of personal space here and we feel crowded. Kids hold our hands or just hang on to our clothing, its sort of cute for a little while but then gets a bit much and we decide to continue our travels. We  return along the main road we came here, it is still busy and people still clamour around us whenever we stop so we just keep going.

Eastern Ethiopian Town, Ethiopia 2018

We make good time and reach Awash where we spend the night in a delightful old French colonial rest house which used to be the railway station which is run by an Italian-Ethiopian woman. We had two flat tyres on or way to Lalibela and had them repaired with plugs. One of the repaired tyres is flat again so we try again in the morning before we leave town and we also get a temporary fix to a leaking fuel pipe. We spend the day driving south along a minor road toward the main road which leads to the Bale Mountains. Once again the minor road gives us a much better run than highways. For the first time in Ethiopia we are travelling across fairly flat land which receives good rainfall and we see agriculture on a much bigger scale and the use of heavy machinery including large tractors and harvesters. It is such a contrast to the terraced slopes in the mountains where all work is done by hand.

Patchwork Fields, Southern Ethiopia 2018

The day begins hot and dry in Awash but as we continue south the clouds build and before we reach the end of this road it is fully overcast and rain is threatening.

We stop over night in the town of Dodola where we enjoy their take on ‘traditional tibbs and enjira’ then travel east to the Bale Mountains the next day. The road climbs and then travels along ridges providing great views to the valleys below. The land is green and there are lots of scattered villages throughout the valleys, it is a highly populated area. As the road climbs further we enter the clouds and are surrounded by mist and drizzle.

In the Clouds on the way to the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia 2018

Through clear patches the scenery is stunning, great escarpments are on one side of of the road and gentler hills on the other. The road takes us through a part of the national park, the Gaysay Grassland and we are slightly lower here and below the clouds. This is supposed to be a good spot for wildlife but we don’t expect to see any next to the road. We stop to adjust a latch on the car and to our surprise a large male kudu is grazing less than 20 metres from us. It is still early and we could continue up into the high section of the mountains today but at more then 4,000 metres high it will be very cold so we spend the afternoon and night in the town of Goba. We’ll leave very early in the morning and have our breakfast at the top of the mountains, hopefully watching Ethiopian wolves.

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


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.

Ethiopia 2018

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



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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.


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.


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)


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!


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.


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.