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!
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.
Farmer along the Rift Valley Escarpment
Farmer along the Rift Valley Escarpment
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.
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.
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.
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.
Young cattle herder
And her charges …
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.
Building in a field of Teff
Building in a field of Teff
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.