We left behind the relative familiarity of Kenya and crossed into Ethiopia – harder than we thought it would be as there was no sign indicating that we had in fact left Kenya, or that we were due to switch to the right hand side of the road. So after a short foray headlong into oncoming traffic, before the penny finally dropped, we went to sort out the paperwork. They gave us our customs paper, on which they had listed all of our electronics, checked the chassis number and documented every part of the country that we intended to visit. They do seem to love paperwork. Our first impressions were pretty poor, but I think that had more to do with someone’s septic tank being pumped out next to us as we waited for the 2 hours for their lunch break to finish so we could do our paperwork. We always try to draw a line under borders, as I am yet to find a border that I would like to spend more than the minimum required time at, and we pottered off into Ethiopia.
We drove north to a town called Yobelo, where someone had marked there was a good motel you could camp at. We arrived and found a disgusting parking lot, with a urinal in the corner, and the lady asked for 20 dollars to camp – we politely declined and went to the other hotels in town. After a few better options, we found the main hotel of the town where we got a room for 10 dollars, with our own bathroom, with minimal running water and electricity – much better. The real perk to the hotel was አማልክት ስራ, which means God’s Work, who helped us through our first food order. Food in Ethiopia is the pinnacle to their culture, and is nothing like we’ve ever seen before. Gone are the days of never ending variants of maize, cassava or wheat as the pride of the country. We ordered goat wot – a type of stew that is eaten with your right hand, using injera – a bread substitute which resembles the warmed hand towels you get on planes. Gods work told us his sister was the cook, and high on the good Harar beer, tasty wot and injera we ordered kitfu. We asked for a taste and got a whole dish, and despite the power cut we quickly realised our mistake – it was raw beef, to be eaten with false banana bread. After having been proudly told his sister was the chef and this was one of the countries specialities, James and I fell out as he refused to eat it. I did my best, munching through very spicy raw meat in order to maintain face with this lovely man who had been so kind to us. I haven’t quite managed to order it again.
The next morning it was time for tea and coffee, all done in the hotel grounds at a small stall run by two ladies. They brew the coffee and then serve it to you with your own charcoal burner filled with incense, pouring it in front of you from frightening heights. The tea is filled with sugar and cardamom, and makes me think I’ll be getting withdrawal symptoms from all the sugar I’ve been consuming since I got here. It is, however, delicious.
We went up to Awassa, after several false starts including no fuel as there was a power cut, and then falling down every pot hole you could dream of on the road north. There we stayed in a nice guesthouse for a few days, in order to finish off James’s work. From here, we made it to the Bale Mountains National Park. This is made up of 3 distinct ecosystems, the Gaysay Grasslands, the Sanetti Plateau and the Harenna forests. The first thing to say about all of them is they are very high. We drove through the grasslands on the way to the National Park Head Office, and one of the baboons ran head on into our car, and after our last experience we were barely slowing down. He jumped up on the bonnet and stared at us through the windscreen. He must have heard what we did to his friends in Kenya…The first night in the park, we camped alone in a clearing above the park entrance, with warthog and mountain nyala circling our camp through the evening, at around 3000m. We made a big fire, after collecting firewood, both of us hugely out of breath and needing to sit down often – it did take a while to get used to the altitude.
We ascended the plateau the next day, and the terrain changed drastically. As we hit 4000m all the trees and plants disappeared, except the everlasting wildflowers and giant lobelia. And then we got a glimpse of the rarest carnivore in Africa – the Ethiopian wolf, loping across the plateau in search of rodents. He is much smaller than other wolves, about the size of a dog, and there are approximately 500 left in the world, most up in Bale. It was freezing on the plateau, and we had planned to camp at the campsite, at 4100m, however, we both quickly changed our minds as the winds battered us at midday. On the plateau, there is the second highest mountain in Ethiopia – Tallu Deemtu, at 4377m. Neither James or I had either been this high, and the fact that they have the highest all weather road, and we could take Stanley, meant it had to be done. Some would say taking a 17 year old car with a dodgy radiator to 4377m is a silly idea, especially as we have had our fill of terrible diesel, and Stanley was puffing out black smoke, but not us, so off we went.
We descended from the plateau, through the cloud line. As you drove toward the edge, it looked like we were about to drive off the edge of the world. We broke through the clouds, into the forests with twisted trees, covered in lichen and cloud cover. It’s called a cloud forest, and really seems like a magical place.
We found another campsite in the forest – campsites a bit of a grand word, more of a clearing, but the track to it was quite wet and muddy, but seemed not too hard for Stan. We made a fire, and then just as it was getting going, the heavens opened, and didn’t stop for most of the night. We got in the car, and ended up watching a World War 2 movie (why James??) and eating crackers and cheese. We then ran up to bed, and I spent the entire night worrying about the state of the track would be in next morning. Well, we’ll just say we made it but were spectacularly muddy.
We had our last visa run to do in Addis, where we needed both an Egyptian and a Sudanese visa. Addis is a huge city, which just like Ethiopia, seems to be the meeting of worlds. The restaurants there reflect the varied population, and we tried Ethiopian, Yemeni, Italian and Middle Eastern, whilst waiting for the paperwork. Our favourite was an Ethiopian bar which served beer and meat (cooked this time), and that was all. You buy your kilogram of meat from the butchers outside, and then the restaurant barbeques it up, with spices and serves it with injera, and more beer.
THE thing to do in Addis, is to visit Lucy. She is the oldest, most intact hominid in the world at 3.3 million years old, and she lives at the National Museum. Well, it’s only right to pay your respects to someone that old. She is tiny, and when they say most intact, it shows you quite how unintact the other specimens must be! But you can clearly see differences in her skeleton to our own, and can understand the excitement she caused when they thought she might be “the missing link.”
Ethiopia is the second most populated country in Africa, after Nigeria, and to our minds has certainly been one of the most unique. They have their own alphabet and language, Amharic, a semetic language, and their own clock. The day starts when the sun rises, at 6am, so 7am is known as 1 o’clock (this led to much confusion when trying to work out what time happy hour was), as well as their own calendar which makes it 2010. The people, at first glance, wore us down, with constant cries of “Farengi” and “You! You! You!” everywhere you go, but as soon as you spoke to people, they were exceptionally kind and welcoming, making themselves the polar opposites of the people you meet on the street. There is also an inordinate amount of begging. Of course, as in every other city, there are people down on their luck, disabled or homeless, who use begging as a way to make enough money to eat, and this is obviously not my complaint. What drove me mad, was grown men, wearing clothes far smarter than mine, with fashionable accessories and phones, begging for my sunglasses or men with bellies the size of Buddha begging for food. Men would come over to beg, and then start preening themselves in Stanley’s mirror. It was all a bit strange, especially in a country with so much pride, and independence, having been the only country in Africa not to be colonised.
Ethiopians are mostly Orthodox Christian, with a smaller proportion of muslims, and their most impressive set of churches was next on the list. Lalibela is made up of 11 churches in the town, which were built by King Lalibela in 1150AD. Among them is the largest rock hewn church in the world as well as the infamous St Georges church, built underground into the rock, in the shape of a Greek cross. We spent a day walking around all 11 churches, through the underground tunnels that connect them and marvelling at the time and effort it must have taken to dig each of these out of the rock. They were stunning, and I have never seen anything quite like it.
Our last few days in Ethiopia were spent in Gondar, a town in the north-west of the country, which is famed for its castle. As we set ourself up for heading into the desert, we bought fruit and vegetables in the market, once we’d found it. Our normal methods of navigating were down, as maps.me is pretty poor in Ethiopia and the internet is substantially poorer. Instead we resorted to the oldest method of finding the market - following the donkeys. Normally, either James or I will have enough of the language to ask for fruit and veg, and a grasp on the numbers. This was not the case in Amharic, so complete hysterics ensued from the ladies behind the stalls, as we tried to exchange money for onions, tomatoes and limes. We ended up with 10 bulbs of garlic somewhere in the mix (luckily we’ll be alone for the next 1500km) and people nearly fell off their chairs when we said thank you.
Throughout our time in Ethiopia, the 3g was turned off. The reasoning behind this is that one year ago, during the secondary school exams, some of the papers were leaked before the exam, so the government turned off the entire countries internet. This seemed like the definition of biting off your nose to spite your face, as surely the economic impact of having no internet for a week must be catastrophic. We needed the internet to send of some of James’s work, as it’s seems unprofessional to drop off the map for that long, so we dressed ourselves up, washed and everything and went to some of the posh hotels, however, even the Sheraton hadn’t seemed to work out how to get through the governments protection. We heard the Hilton had managed it, so headed over to find hundreds of businessmen and women in their suits, lying of the floor, clutching their electronic devices as the room filled with beeps . It looked pretty desperate, but the Hilton staff were wandering around serving gin and tonics throughout the carnage. I suppose they’re trained for this sort of disaster. Throughout this whole week, not one Ethiopian we spoke to thought this was unreasonable – making it clear there was no other way a country could possibly deal with cheating in school exams without imploding its entire economy. It was all quite odd.
Liz Jarman & James Nunan
Our trip from Essex to Cape Town & back again
Km travelled : 50818km
Countries visited: 30