Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for June, 2013

No country for old dogs

We have lingered in Ethiopia as long as we can. It’s a heartbreaking decision to leave but we are already weeks behind our original schedule. If we are to reach Pakistan by early to mid-August we must be on the ferry from Wadi Halfa, Sudan to Aswan, Egypt on the 18th of June. If we miss it, we shall be stuck in northern Sudan for another whole week; time we can’t afford to lose. Occupying our thoughts is the success of obtaining a Chinese visa in Cairo. If we are rejected again, we will be forced to send our passports back to Australia and wait for their return.

Early morning gloom reveals that there are no mini busses going to Woldia. We are directed instead to a level 2 bus that is currently being filled with passengers and bags of grain. I examine its lethargic bulk with disappointment.  The bus will arrive into Woldia too late to make onward connections to Bahir Dar. I feel frustrated and helpless but start to canvas the depot in order to reach some consensus.

Head shakes and puzzlement are broken by a man who can speak English. As it turns out there is a mini bus heading south to Alamata where we  can make onward connections to Woldia. I try to reserve two seats; which is never as easy as it sounds. By the time I make my way back with our bags the seats are occupied. Luckily no money has changed hands. I refuse the back seats and go looking for another bus. The conductor unleashes verbal abuse at the current occupants and they are forced into the back recesses of the bus. Sometimes I feel guilty but not this morning. The road ahead coils like a snake and I don’t fancy being sick in the back of our van.

It is a beautiful day. The rains have commenced since our time in the Danakil and the air is now clear. The bleached hills are turning more vibrant shades of green.

2

Our driver is pushing the van to its limits on the tight corners. We pass a truck that has overturned and rolled down the mountain, but this serves as no warning to our man behind the wheel. He uses every inch of the road available and sometimes a little bit more. I feel strangely calm this morning and more pleased by our rate of progress. He accelerates beyond 120km on a steep downhill straight but my pulse remains steady, my palms remain dry. I am in a state of African transport Zen.

North Ethiopia

Behind us the regurgitation of morning injera has started. Plastic bags are passed to the unfortunates in the back row. One lady who works for Mum’s for Mothers is particularly ill. Emma despatches some Travel Calm tablets, which she thankfully consumes. The scenery along with our fellow passenger’s stomachs continues to improve. The bus relay is working well. We are passed to the third and final van around midday. The last leg is the longest and will take just over 6 hours.

Bahir Dar is now only a few hours away. The land around us is foreign and beautiful. Giant stone fingers erupt from the green mountains. We are speeding along a ridge with splendid views on both sides. In the distance is Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. The sun shimmers golden on its surface. Indeed it’s a golden afternoon of transcontinental travel.

Finger mountain

We reach Bahir Dar just before dark. We are let off at a busy corner in the middle of town. The Mum for Mothers gives Emma a huge hug. The journey has taken just over 13 hours. We are both too tired to resist the touts on the street and allow them to walk with us. Laziness overcomes thrift and we arrange to be collected at the hotel in the morning. The price for an extra hours sleep is 30 birr or around $2USD, I must be getting soft.

It’s the second day of our big push to Cairo. Its distance is still too far to conceive so I concentrate instead on Gonder which only 4 hours up the road. Beside me is a woman who is not able to sit straight. She curls her legs to one side which twists her body and forces her weight against me. I hate her.

We duck and dodge the usual goats, cattle and donkeys that litter the road. Ahead I see two yellow dogs. We pass one dog who is walking by the side of the road, his companion is seated on the other side with his back to the van. The driver quietly drifts over to the right side of the road. He is careful not to use the accelerator, we are doing no more than 30km. At first I am completely clueless as to his intention but before I realise he deliberately runs the dog over.

It becomes wedged under the van. I can feel it scraping along the road like a cardboard box. It momentarily dislodges only to become stuck again. I can hear it screaming and yelping. I can feel bones braking. The young butcher is amused by his brutality and starts to laugh as he turns the wheel left and right. It’s all too much. The early mornings, the lack of sleep, being ripped off and now this, I simply react. I punch the back of his seat as hard as I can and scream foul four letter obscenities at him. I know he won’t understand English but I’m betting he knows most of the words I am using now. He speeds up and the now silent dog is finally dislodged for good. It’s a horrific experience. The bus erupts into laughter and excited conversation. Our 12 fellow passengers ranging from young girls to old men are all entranced. The conductor is speaking and clearly making fun of us as the other passengers respond with chuckling. To them a dog has no monetary value so killing it means nothing. The lady who leans is laughing the loudest.

It’s a horrible situation. I find myself hating them all. I find myself hating Ethiopia. I have listened to others traveller’s stories with scepticism but right now I hate them all and I just want to leave. It’s an emotional and immature reaction for which I am somewhat ashamed but it feels comforting. Emma and I start to plan the demise of the butcher and his assistant who sells tickets to the mobile horror show. The woman who leans is still cackling and using the word Farangis in most of her sentences. I fantasise about opening the side door and pushing her out of the speeding van but my thoughts keep coming back to the driver who I am now staring at in the rear view mirror. Emma is engaged in own visual battle with the conductor.

Gonder can’t come soon enough but it fortunately comes after we have calmed down. I push my hatred aside and think about the good people we have met. To take any further action would be stupid and futile. I am confused as I don’t want to feel this way. I want to love where we go and rejoice in the countries we visit but this afternoon that is simply not possible. Tomorrow we cross the border into Sudan, and for that I am grateful.

Its 5am again and we are standing out the front of the hotel waiting for the manager’s brother to collect us. The border is about 3 to 4 hours away. Again we are lazy and have opted for a pick up. I know we have paid more but as long as we get there I really don’t care. We get a call and the brother can’t make it, I sense a scam. A young man who has an American accent finally turns up with a mini bus filled with people. We have just paid 300 birr for a regular mini bus. I curse myself for being lazy but it’s my own fault. I take solace in knowing that in about 4 hours I will be warm and safe in the Islamic hospitality and honesty of Sudan.

Our bus is about an hour out of Gonder when mechanical failure reduces us to a crawl. We are crippled by the side of the road. Our driver flags down other mini busses but he will only pay as little as he can and the other drivers speed off.

I ask for my money back so I can do my own negotiating but am ignored. The other passengers are also becoming agitated. The driver refuses to hand over the money we have given insisting the hotel only paid him 80 of the 300 birr we gave to Sammy. More rage, I have spent the last of our birr and have nothing left to negotiate with. Eventually we are given seats in another van but I am left ironically sitting on a stool having paid nearly four times the price of the other passengers in seats. The stool actually turns out to offer some degree of comfort and soon I am admiring the green Ethiopian mountain around me. I wonder how in only a couple of hours we shall pass from this visual paradise to dry desolate dessert.

4

There is time for one more transport argument and Ethiopia does not disappoint. Our tuk tuk driver who has taken us the final kilometre to the border wants 30 birr. He is handed 5 instead, which is about double what he should receive but still manages to fake deep disgust. I watch his performance with amusement and some gratification. Other bystanders join the protest but their collective efforts are fruitless.

Ahead is Sudan stripped bare and devoid of any vegetation. Behind us is Ethiopia green and mountainous. The contrast between the two countries is not limited to geography. The Customs official in Sudan sports a neat haircut, crisp white uniform and a welcoming smile. By the time we have cleared both sides of immigration it has just gone midday which in Sudan is 12 like the rest of the world.

Ethiopia had been the country we were most looking forward to seeing in Africa and now that I have left I feel a little empty. It is not a challenging country but it has been the most challenging so far on our journey. The early morning starts, long distances and limited time have not helped. It has also been one of the most beautiful and by far the most cultural country in Africa we have visited. I feel like I have been on a bad date but Ethiopia is so beautiful you want to see her again.

The sun beats down on us, ahead is an old bus that sits empty. Our next destination is Gedaref. The contradictions between the two countries comes to an end; the bus will depart when full. It’s difficult to decide whether the shade in the stuffy motionless bus offers a better climatic relief than the hot wind and direct sun outside. I manage to find icy cold coca cola for 2 Sudanese pounds each. The value in US Dollars is still a little unclear. The official rate is 4.4 but there are money changers on the street offering 5. A Japanese couple coming the other way impart their wisdom. The black market rate is at least 6.5 and possibly 6.85 is you haggle well. I change a small amount for 6.5 and look forward to better rates when we are less vulnerable.

The Bus stirs to life after 30 minutes. We are headed north again. Every mile that passes is a step in the right direction. Not long after departure our bad luck continues. A large section of tread has been ripped loose on the baking hot road. The driver pulls over and uses a bar to wedge it free and bends the rear mud flap back up. We continue on with bare rubber on the back right wheel. Our speed has been cut down to 40km. Another large bang, more rubber is ripped away. The driver continues, our fellow passengers seem unperturbed. One large man with silver hair and a grey hounds tooth jacket chuckles. This is Sudan. He is returning from Ethiopia and also on his way to Khartoum. I wonder how he manages to look so cool in a hot suit.

Our reduced speed is a double blow as the air is no longer moving fast enough to provide any comfort. I am wishing that I had purchased a few more cokes. We stop at a small settlement for no apparent reason, the tyre is certainly not being fixed. I run to a small shop and find some apple juice and water. The quenching of thirst is truly a beautiful feeling.

5

We arrive into Gedaref in late afternoon. The man in the hounds tooth jacket takes us with him in a tuk tuk to the Bus station on the other side of town. We try to pay the fare but he refuses. The big modern air conditioned busses we have been counting on all day have already left for Khartoum, it’s a crushing blow. Hot thirsty and exhausted we go looking in the mini bus compound with hounds tooth. A fare of 70 SDP is negotiated. It’s just gone 5pm and Khartoum is still another 6 hours away.

Hounds Tooth and the Tuk Tuk ride

Hounds Tooth and the Tuk Tuk ride

Darkness falls on the open desert. The green hills we passed through this morning feel like weeks ago. Grateful to have left I am now missing the cooling altitude of Ethiopia already. The passengers must also be tired and weary as we don’t pull over for evening prayers. Destination replaces devotion.

7

The lights of Khartoum shine on the horizon like some tired travellers dream. It’s now nearly 11pm and we still need to locate a hotel in this huge foreign city. Hounds tooth must have mental telepathy as he enquires to where we are going. The only hotel of reputation below $25.00 USD is the YHA hotel in Khartoum 2, wherever that is? Hounds tooth and two other men stop the bus and help us out with our bags. They hail a taxi and explain to him the area to which we should go and what the price should be. They have been very kind to us. We shake hands and say good bye, I will never see him again.

somewhere south of Khartoum

somewhere south of Khartoum

Khartoum is a massive sprawl of dim yellow lights. It is gridded like a hot, low rise version of Manhattan. Our driver comes to a corner and has gone as far as he can. He asks men standing on the street the whereabouts of the YHA hotel or Yaha as it calls it. No one has any idea. We are close but yet so far. We drive around in circles or more accurately squares. Emma goes into another hotel but they too are none the wiser. Their rooms are large, air conditioned and tempting at $70 USD.

We stop in at Pizza corner. Cool air and a menu board filled with ice cold drinks smacks us in the face. I become momentarily distracted but return to the task at hand. A waiter sends us down the road and to the left. We vow to return to this oasis.

Driving around in the dark but no YHA. We do find the embassy of the Netherlands. A security guard abandons is post and helps in the search. Behind a shrub in 10 point print is a small obscure sign for the YHA. I enter feeling relieved, it is now close to midnight.

The office is unattended so I go in search of help. I come across local guests wondering the compound like ghosts but all are unable to help. I return to the taxi. Emma looks at me with hope. There is no one here. It’s too much for her. She emits a small scream and physically stamps her feet on the ground.

After another 10 minutes an indifferent receptionist emerges from the shadows. The hotel is full. It’s a knockout blow. We have been up and travelling since 5am. We surrender to the $70 USD a night hotel next door. We have no fight left. The AC is turned up high. The hot water tap is never considered. Cold water runs down my face and over my shoulders.

We have covered over 2000 km across northern Africa is three days. Surely now our hardest days are behind us. I lie in bed and take comfort knowing that for the first time in weeks I don’t have to wake before the sun rises.

Read Full Post »

We leave our room in complete darkness. There is not even a trace of light to the east. The hour is ridiculous and I am very tired.

Ahead is a 10 hour bus ride to the capital Addis Ababa. The depot, in contrast to myself is thriving this morning. A crowd is gathered outside the gates, pushing and shoving, they hope to be one of the lucky few to be allowed in. We are among the lucky few. We have been told to come 1 hour prior to departure despite having confirmed seats?

At 6am about 30 busses all start their engines together. Musical horns yelp and squawk as each driver tries to clear the station ahead of his rivals. There is no mercy for the weak and generally as nature so often intended the larger busses have right of way.

An hour up the road and we are stopped.  A large truck is blocking our way. The driver tries to go around but the edge of the road is slippery and the incline is too steep. The wheels spin with futile efforts. Everyone alights the bus and men gather at the back to provide a helping hand. The bus surges again but the wheels continue to spin on the wet clay. Branches and sticks are gathered and laid under the wheels to provide traction. A rope is tied to the bumper and all but mother and baby take up the slack. The bus roars again like some great metal beast stuck in the mud. The passengers heave on the rope and slowly the bus crawls up the incline and over the crest.

We speed northward dodging donkeys and goats. As the sun climbs higher so too does the mood and conversation within the bus. The driver responds by turning the volume of the music up to an ear splitting level. Qat is chewed, friendships are forged and sweat is profused.

The rule of the bus depot being in the ugliest part of town is particularity strong when we arrive into Addis. A taxi journey across the city indicates there must be hidden depots everywhere. Only the green hills that surround the city offer any redemption. There appears to be no structure or town planning aside from some typical communist squares constructed when Ethiopia briefly dabbled in socialism.

We head for the Department of Immigration as we need to extend our visa. Having carefully calculated the number of days required to take in Ethiopia’s northern treasures we simply will not have enough time. We arrive early in the day. Already there are queues forming that break my heart and dampen my spirits. A bureaucratic nightmare of forms, photocopies and futility awaits. Room 85, Room 88, then room 89. Lunch is taken then its room 90 and room 2. Finally the anguish is over and our visas are renewed.

We leave the Department of Rooms and catch out the corner of our eye a young man crying against a brick wall. His body is crumpled. He holds an arm over his eyes and his entire figure is shaking. He is deeply distressed. I kneel down next to him and place and arm on his shoulder. He is totally inconsolable and not responding, he just continues to sob and hides his face from the world. We ask a few people gathered what has happened. He has been selling some pens and pencils and other items too close to the Department of Rooms and the police have taken his little shop away from him. Without these he has no way of making back the money he paid for them in the first place.

We ask a bystander to take us to the police who are around the corner. We are polite and simply want to know if they will give them back at some later stage. They have no intention of returning his items and become very defensive as is so often the case when people know they are in the wrong. He should have known that while littering the streets, chewing Qat and driving and riding in the back of trucks without seatbelts is perfectly fine, selling pens outside the Department of Rooms is punishable by a beating and confiscation of one’s livelihood.

We return to the man still sobbing against the wall. I begin to wonder if this might be some sort of scam, but he has not even seen us. He was here before we even left the building. His tears are real. He looks completely broken.

I wonder what it must be like to hope that you can sell pens to people in the street as they pass by. I wonder about that battle and how he is trying so hard to make an honest living. Then I think about how he must feel when the Police come and beat him and take away his things, because he was trying to sell them too close to a government building.

I don’t think it’s about the money, or the pens. I think he is crying because it’s so unfair and no one cares and it’s not going to change. It is a realisation that his life here means nothing to them. I see a man who cries because he has lost hope.

An aid worker walks past and tells us there is nothing we can do. The irony is crushing. With the help of some others we pick him up. He has trouble standing at first and looks embarrassed by the crowd that has gathered. We take him away far from the police and the others and give him some money to replace his items that were stolen.

We are normally not prone to dolling out money like this but it’s not so much about the dollars which at first he is reluctant to take. It is more about restoring hope. He manages a small smile and nods his head. I just don’t like seeing someone that upset and I can only go by instinct that it felt like the right thing to do. Why his plight stood out from others is difficult to say.

Mass

Lalibela could be considered Ethiopia’s premier tourist destination but more importantly it is the religious epicentre of the country. Its most famous monument is the Church of St George. When I arrive in Lalibela I am a little underwhelmed. The church is by all accounts an engineering marvel but 2 long days in a bus and 4am starts have dented my appreciation. I can see under the right circumstances this could be a beautiful site but sadly those are missing. Lalibela is being choked by dust. We are fortunate to see a mass inside one of the other churches. The instruments and chanting are from a distant time and this proves to be a highlight.

Lalibella St George

Northern Ethiopia is in the grip of drought. The land is dry and thirsty. The once lush green mountains are now brown and olive and obscured by wind and dust. The people by the side of the road carry umbrellas but they are not for rain.

The heat builds as we descend towards Mekelle. I am feeling anxious as I know in a few days it will be much worse. The Danakil depression is known as the cruellest place on earth. It is the hottest place on the planet with day time temperatures in summer reaching 60 degrees Celsius; it is summer.

The dry landscape in June

The dry landscape in June

Our driver Bekele, is I think bipolar. His voice is high pitched and could break glass. He shouts and laughs loudly at mild jokes, then slips into quiet and sullen moments and complains about the price of the car hire that he already agreed to. It is hard work keeping him entertained. I am concerned he may renege on his word and leave us by the side of the road so I try to distract him with light hearted conversation.

We make the journey from Lalibela to Mekelle in 9 hours. I make the mistake of expecting change when I pay Bekele, which sends him into a rant. I suppose I should have let him have the 50 birr, but we can’t keep letting locals keep our change on such a long journey.

It is now the 8th of June and weighing heavily on our minds is our 9 August deadline for reaching Pakistan. I look at our position on the globe and the path we must take. It is a long distance to cover in 9 weeks and we still need to obtain another 7 visas. Balanced against this is the opportunity to sleep on the rim of an active volcano in possibly one of the harshest places on earth. By going we are committing ourselves to 4 long continuous days of travel afterwards if we are to make the once weekly ferry from Sudan to Egypt across Lake Nasser on the 18th. Missing this would seriously place our overland journey in jeopardy but we decide to risk it.

Tours to the Danakil will only run if there are enough tourists to warrant the armed escorts that must accompany them. It was only 18 months ago that 5 tourists were killed during a raid on the rim of the Volcano during the night. Ethiopia blamed Eritrea who in turn blamed Ethiopian bandits. As a result tours are strictly regulated and protected with soldiers.

We climb out of Mekelle before running downhill into the depression. Parts of the Danakil are more than 150m below sea level. The inhabitants are the Afar who make a living from mining salt and carry it long distances to be sold at market. The first community we pass through is like a living hell. The second and our base for the next few days is far worse. This is without doubt the cruellest place on earth.

Ali from the Afar

Ali from the Afar

The town is a splatter of stick huts lined with hessian sacks and sheets of tin. A hot dry relentless wind torments the town all day and most of the night. The metal sheets squeak and bang in the gusts. It is the sound of torture. The air is thick with heat. The sky is white and the distant mountains are shades of grey. It is a monochrome nightmare.

Mono

We sleep on beds exposed to the stars, or those at least we can see through the haze that envelops us. The sun was not able to set, rather it just grew faint and disappeared before it had a chance to reach the horizon. It will be the same case tomorrow at sun rise.

During the night the temperature plummets to 38. I am woken by a goat who is staring me in the face while scratching his body against the side of my bed. He leans against the frame walking back and forth all the time looking in me in the eyes. The wind has dropped a little and I can see a faint glow in the east. The cook has already started preparing breakfast, the goat is now under my bed.

We eat our breakfast in grey light. The tormentor is building in strength again as the sun appears faint through the dust. I gaze into that red disc marvelling at its size knowing how far from earth it is. Within 15 minutes it is too powerful to look at. We drive for 8 hours across the white inferno and reach the start of the lava fields. Our jeep climbs over the dark frozen lava for another 20km before reaching our base camp. No one is keen exit the vehicles and they thankfully leave the engines running while we lean into the air conditioning.

The Soldiers assigned to protect us

The Soldiers assigned to protect us

It is an 8km hike from the base camp to the rim of the volcano. We depart just after the sun has faded in the west. With us are two camels carrying water and some thin dusty mattresses to sleep on. The gradient is easy but the heat ensures a tiring trek. We are now in complete darkness save our headlights and a shaft of light coming from the summit of the volcano. We gain height and the wind for the first time in 2 days offers some relief. I douse myself in water and turn into the breeze.

The shaft of light flickers and glows brighter as we near the summit. The camels are tired and protest loudly. Their feet are soft and meant for sand, not sharp volcanic rock. We leave them behind and walk across the last 100 meters to the edge of the rim. Already we can see glowing rocks erupting above the lip. Everyone is transfixed and stops for a moment.

We crest the last few meters and there before us is a black and red soup of rock. The surface is dark and lined with bright scars. It creeps and moves across the red liquid that lies just beneath. It gathers at the far end in folds and ripples with the sound of breaking glass. Massive bubbles break through the scum and splash white hot lava onto the surrounding rocks. They glow white, yellow then red for several minutes before cooling to an ugly dark solid. The movement of the molten rock is mesmerizing.

The Lava lake of Erta Ale

The Lava lake of Erta Ale

Our trance is broken by a sudden upsurge of lava from the middle of the lake. It grows in height and volume. The heat from the plume forces us back. It is a small eruption probably 20 meters in height. It grows bigger and our guide beckons us a back. My face is burning and I have to turn away for a few seconds. The entire lake is now transformed into a white hot cauldron. It subsides for 10 minutes and is followed by a second eruption of similar size.

We retreat back to the upper rim and take a mattress each to collapse upon. The dust has cleared and the sky is now littered with starts. We lie in complete darkness with a cool wind blowing across our bodies. My eyes stay open long enough to see a shooting star streak across the sky.

We rise early just as the sky is turning dark blue and walk to the crater once more. In the morning gloom we can see the landscape surrounding us. Waves and ripples are frozen in time. The lava once so beautiful and bright for only a few moments freezes into an ugly dark grey. It’s as though the land met the gaze of some giant medusa.

Barren landscape that surrounds Erta Ale

Barren landscape that surrounds Erta Ale

We have stayed on the rim longer than intended. Its 3 hours back to the vehicles and soon the sun will be baking down on us. We are grateful to be back in camp, the last hour was telling but we have only experienced a fraction of what the Afar endure on a daily basis. They have no air conditioned jeeps waiting for them, there resilience is humbling. We are taken to the salt flats to watch them work. A small army of men, camels and donkeys are assembled. The dust has cleared and the sky is blue for the first time in several days. They work in teams breaking the up the salt bed and carving it into smaller blocks. All in temperatures exceeding 50c. As if this were not hard enough they then transport the salt bricks back to Mekelle, a week each way by camel. But this is not an unhappy place, they work together laughing and sharing jokes.

The Afar working on the salt flats

The Afar working on the salt flats

In the distance I can see what appears to be water. It must be a mirage the desert in playing tricks on me. We drive closer and soon we approach the shore of a shallow inland sea. It is beautiful ice blue water surrounded by pristine white shores. The water is cool and clear but its taste is poisoned by salt that burns your mouth. It stretches for many miles. It is hard to distinguish any horizon. I want to lie down and cover myself in its cool beauty but I know that it will coat me in burning salt once the water evaporates in seconds when I stand up.

The shallow inland sea of the Danakil

The shallow inland sea of the Danakil

We pass by an alien world of sulphur and iron oxide on our way home. The landscape is streaked with yellow and red. This is an alien world or how I imagine earth to be before life formed. The sulphur stings your eyes and burns your throat. It’s a beautiful and eerie place.

Sulphur world

Sulphur world

We have spent four days in the Danakil and I want to go home. I feel privileged to have seen a remarkable harsh and unique part of earth but I don’t want to stay here. That is why it is called the cruellest place on earth I guess. Mere mortals are not supposed to live here which makes the Afar super human.

Returning to Mekelle we are anguished by not wanting to leave Ethiopia so soon. There is still so much to see but we must push on if we are to make the Wadi Halfa ferry in Sudan on the 18th. It is going to be a long 4 days of travel with yet more pre-dawn starts.

Read Full Post »

Welcome to Ethiopia

There are no redeeming features to be found in Moyale. This is a terrible place. The streets are filled with degraded plastic bags and bottles bleached grey from the years they have spent in the sun. There is a sense of community but it does not extend itself to mass cleanliness.

As we walk to the border we are called Muzungu for the last time. I can’t help but to feel sad. So many times a part of our day and now no more. When we walk across that imaginary line and into Ethiopia we will become Farangis.

The sign says it all

The sign says it all

A narrow dry river bed separates Kenya from Ethiopia. We have somehow acquired Alex who is a local tout. Alex has no passport but claims dual nationality. His claims must be true as he walks from one nation to the other unimpeded. Shillings are exchanged for Birr and we are directed to the local bus station. This is essentially an open field with a gate.

We are trying to get to Jinka in the Omo valley. The south western corner of Ethiopia is home to traditional tribal people who have resisted modern life. Possibly the most famous are the Mursi, who wear large lip plates. The next town to the north is Yabello where we are told we can pick up onward transport to Jinka. We pay 80 birr per ticket including our bags which in Ethiopia (despite our protests) attracts an extra fee. The bus takes about 90 minutes to fill up. Alex is given 20 birr, about $1.00 USD. He is unhappy but we send him on his way.

The sealed road is only for town decoration and soon we are back on gravel. The journey to Yabello takes 5 hours and by the time we arrive it about 5pm or is it? When I enquire about the time I am told it is 11; this man must have poor English.

We are dropped by the side of the road conveniently near the overpriced Yabello hotel. Exhausted from three continuous days of travel with very little sleep, we offer very little protest to the $40.00 USD price!

I notice a clock on the wall that also reads 11, what is going on here? Then I remember. The day in Ethiopia starts at sunrise or 6am. So 6am becomes 12 and 12 midday is actually 6. As if that is not confusing enough we have now gone back to the year 2005 and it is not even the 23rd May, as Ethiopia adopted the Julian calendar and has 13 months in a year! One must always enquire carefully as to whether times quoted are Ethiopia time or Europe time, especially when catching busses.

Emma and I sit down for dinner and order The Chicken Burst which we assume is chicken breast. Richard orders the pasta with tomato sauce. Richard has chosen wisely. Our meal arrives and chicken burst is actually an accurate description for what sits on our plate. It is the worst food by far we have experienced in Africa. We despatch most of it to the hungry cats now gathered around our legs. They must have known what was coming. Stupid Farangis have ordered the chicken burst again, here comes a free feed.

The next morning we are up early or what we think is early. We head 5km off the main road to the bus station; it is about 8am Europe time. All but one bus sits in a dirty field. The others all left 2 hours ago at 12 Ethiopia time. A few men sit on the ground chewing qat leaves pronounced chat. This is the same plant as the mira in Kenya but rather here they chew the leaves instead of the stems. The bus won’t leave for another 3 hours. We must first travel to Konso where we can connect to Jinka. This delay is now seriously putting that objective in jeopardy. It will mean losing another day; we simply can’t afford these mistakes.

Our bus awaits

Our bus awaits

We depart at 11am or 5 Ethiopia time (getting the hang of it now?) and the 110km journey takes about 3 hours. Ethiopia is very different from the East African countries we have left behind. The passengers on the bus look like extras from a Mad Max movie. A very thin elderly man wears white robes and has a red and white scarf wrapped around his head. A young man next to him wears a pink Burberry hat. The women behind me looks like the lead singer from Men at Work. Richard who has a spare seat next to him attracts a particularly interesting chap. An old man who is clearly insane strikes up a conversation that is mostly one way. The conductor though is not pleased as the old man has no money. Despite his insanity, he is clearly better at negotiating than us, because he rides for free while we have to pay 80 birr. A small girl sitting in front of us has 6 fingers on her hand. I glance at her left hand, it also has 6 fingers.

By the time we arrive in Konso the floor of our bus is covered with discarded qat leaves. Konso sits on a ridge, with Arba Minch to the north and Jinka to the west. We look for a mini bus going to Jinka but there are none to be found. At best we think there may be one leaving in an hour. We walk up the hill to a small hotel to get a drink. Inside two police officers are enjoying a couple of St George beers, on the job. They beckon me over and greet me with an Ethiopian handshake, pulling my shoulder into their own three times. After a cold Miranda, (no cokes are available) I go looking for a bus to Jinka.

I am led to a van and placed in the front seat. There are about 5 Ethiopians already in the back. They start negotiations with 150 birr per person. I feign shock, smile and wag my finger. The 5 in the back laugh. 120 birr, I try to open the door and leave but the conductor who is standing outside pushes the door closed again. This is not an act of aggression or threat, it is simply there way of showing they want you to continue negotiating. I have seen conductors pulling men by the arm towards vans. I get back in, the driver says okay 100 birr, this is a good price. I am sure it is about 30 birr over, but its close enough.

The drive from Konso to Jinka proves spectacular as we once again connect with the Great Rift Valley. This section in southern Ethiopia is possibly the most impressive we have seen so far. The walls on both side tower above the wide valley floor. We make Jinka in just over 4 hours. The driver and his conductor can speak a little English and are good company.

It has just gone dark when we arrive into Jinka and we find a room at the Goh Hotel for 250 birr. We are feeling relieved to have made Jinka in a day especially after such a slow start. An hour later and a local guide Lalo turns up at our hotel; news travels fast in Jinka that Farangis have arrived. We are keen to depart tomorrow and Lalo is available, so we take a chance and settle on a price for a 2 day tour.

The Omo Valley has been described as a Human Safari. This is a description which worries me. It’s almost like saying it’s a human zoo. Lions and Zebra don’t mind being looked at or certainly can’t complain but when it comes to people any interaction becomes far more complex. Sadly the Omo has a bad reputation for being hostile, mercenary and disappointing. The issue stems from tourists paying big dollars to tour companies in Addis Ababa who in turn up and pass very little into the tribes people themselves. They have no relationship at all with any of the villages. In the high season small communities are often swamped by dozens of tourists with no prior warning. No attempts are made to communicate or interact, all that is wanted are some photos. The locals have not helped the situation either. They compete against each other, desperate to get a few birr per picture and are very aggressive and demanding in doing so.

Hamar lady at Key Afar market

Hamar lady at Key Afar market

With this in mind our approach is to keep our cameras away and try to actually connect with some of the people and learn about their way of life before taking photos. At first the Hamar seem perplexed as to why we are not taking any pictures, some even a little irritated. Our local scout who is a member of the village explains to them that we want to learn about their culture first before we take photos. Emma meets a charming lady called Desne. She seems pleased to see us and in particular forms a bond with Emma who is fantastic at light hearted conversations.

Emma and Desne

Emma and Desne

We are invited into her home. The floor is covered in skins, the walls are of wattle and daub construction. It is well ventilated when compared to the Masai home we visited in Tanzania. With the aid of the scout we talk about life in Australia and how it compares to their own. After talking for a while we step outside and take some photos. It is a little challenging as you are required to pay 2-3 birr per photo to each person. For that reason you have to be prepared to accept that it becomes a transaction, but our experience has been a good one over all.

The next morning we drive further south to the Karo tribe, where we once again leave our cameras in our bags. We are taken to a ladies home. Emma once again takes control and leads the conversation. A dried pumpkin shell is passed to Emma who passes it to Richard who in turn passes it to me. I have no one to pass it to. I look down into the black water with trepidation. There is something floating in the dark mix. I feel awkward and don’t want to offend our hosts. I drink from the shell, it is steaming hot coffee made from the husks as opposed to the beans. I can only hope the water has been boiling for a long time! Richard and Emma are passed more coffee, there is no escape. I feel a collective sense of relief that we can all contract dysentery together.

Coffee with the Karo Tribe

Coffee with the Karo Tribe

Our visit to the Omo tribes has been a rewarding experience, but there were challenges and it did feel very mercenary at times. Ultimately we are more interested in their lives than they are in ours. Some people even feel we treat them like monkeys in a zoo. It’s a comparison that leaves me feeling cold. We try to reassure them that we come to visit and take photos as we find them very attractive and unique but I can only speak for ourselves.

Southern End of the Omo near the Karo people

Southern End of the Omo near the Karo people

We leave the tribes of the Omo valley behind and as always keep heading north to Cairo. Two tribe visits have been enough and the Mursi have even a worse reputation for aggression when visited. We are keen to leave feeling positive and don’t want to offend anyone. I can only hope we have tried to be culturally sensitive to the people of the Omo.

Read Full Post »

Isiolo is a dry and windswept town in northern Kenya. From its main street we can just make out the summit of Mt Kenya now 100km to the south. It is the last town of size before heading north 500 km through the desert to Moyale and the Ethiopian border. Marsabit lies almost halfway and offers some reprieve for those wishing to break the journey.

Isiolo Kenya

Isiolo Kenya

We are keen to keep moving as our days in Africa are now limited. The locals are dressed in torn jeans and faded football tops. Their eyes are red from chewing mira stems, a natural but powerful amphetamine. All of the 4WD’s have left but there is a bus that passes through around midnight that may have room on it. We are not keen on taking the bus and pursue the 4WD option instead.

Details are sketchy and mira induced men stumble over their words offering conflicting advice. Kala who handles his mira better than the others seems reliable. Basically we will have to be on the street tomorrow at 6am and wait for vehicles to come through. Nothing is certain but the only other option is to wait by the road tonight and hope there is room on the slow moving bus.

We register our plans with the local police. The way north is for now calm. Only a few years ago vehicles were required to travel in convoys with soldiers to protect them from armed bandits known as shifta. The situation can change at any moment but the officer is not overly concerned by our crossing and takes down our details.

I walk back to the hotel and pass by Sleek Cutz. One of the men sees my beard and beckons me inside. I could do with a cut and trim and there isn’t much else to do in Isiolo. I see on the table in front of me a pair of scissors, might I actually have found an African barber who cuts hair with scissors? Before I find out we need to establish the price. He starts off with 250 shillings about $3.00 USD but even I know this is too much. I offer 100 and he feigns deep disgust. He points to a sign on the wall but without realising, it indicates 80 shillings for a cut and beard trim. I quickly leap on this. He clasps his hand to his face embarrassed; his colleagues are much amused. Strict instructions are given I don’t want a repeat episode of my butchering in Arusha. He reaches for the clippers and delicately trims my sides leaving the top at a longer length. It turns out that the scissors are for cleaning his fingernails.

Only the best work in "Sleek Cutz"

Only the best work in “Sleek Cutz”

That evening we are kept awake by the local nightclub for most of the night. The music blares until 5am giving us a 30 minute window for sleep. There is no polite way to put it, we both feel like shit as we walk out to the main road alongside the prostitutes that have kept us awake. We wait for an hour but no vehicles come through. More brokers approach us but Kala is quick to see them off. Rumours of a man departing at 9am filter back to us. Our hotel has also told us that a guest is leaving for Marsabit in an hour but this is only halfway. We allow him to leave and wait instead for the car going to Moyale. His vehicle is parked outside our hotel but he seems more interested in a late breakfast and rounding up other passengers. The sun is starting to get high in the sky and still no departure. At this rate we won’t reach Moyale by nightfall.

Emma

Rick returns looking deflated, apparently we are not leaving until 10am, now we sit and wait. You certainly get opportunity to measure how calm and collected you can be for extended periods of time. I sit and wait and stare at the green jobko tel shop across the road. Studying the suitcases in the window I wonder which one I would buy. Distracted I watch dirty plastic bags blow down the street. Blaring music begins as the local nightclub re-opens. Greg speaks to Jeremy; the hotel manager about the delay. He sums it up perfectly, be patient he will come.

I start to think about the sleep I might have had when Kala excitedly runs through the door. There is a 4WD at the petrol station filling up and it has space for three. He is leaving now. We are in doubt as to what to do. We have a man who we have been waiting for all morning. Now we are being rushed off to another car on the other side of town. We have waited long enough, our patience has run out. We agree on a price of 2500 shillings about $32.00 USD.

Kala our broker in Isiolo

Kala our broker in Isiolo

The 4WD is an extended wheel base. It has 4 rows of seats in the back, 3 people per row. The leg room is ridiculous but we manage to squeeze in. Kala bids us farewell and we pay him 500 shillings for his services; he has worked hard to find us a ride.

The road north starts well and lures us into a false sense of security but after 80km the asphalt abruptly ends. The sun is now high in the sky. The pale dirt road ahead stings your eyes. Ripples of heat rise from the horizon. A Samburu women drags a reluctant mule. Her arms and face are black as the night sky and wrinkled from years in the sun.

Heading north from Isiolo

Heading north from Isiolo

We stop to fix our second flat tyre, we only have 1 left and we are still over 300km from Moyale. The scenery outside is beautiful. Large mountains rise out of the desert but it is a harsh beauty, lonely and desolate. I admire the toughness of the Samburu people. We are so soft compared to them.

11 Flat tyre

The road is heavily rutted and we are slowly being shaken to death; provided the dust does not choke us first. My legs are going to sleep and I have little room to move them. The shadows are now getting longer but still no Marsabit? We come into a small town but a local informs me that this is not Marsabit, I feel dejected.

Samburu and mule

Samburu and mule

We start to climb up and over a pass. As we gain height we leave the intense heat of the desert behind. We pass through some forests of large tress and shortly before dinner we reach Marsabit. It has taken 10 hours to get here. The thought of knowing we are only halfway is crushing. Our driver has both spares repaired while we look for something edible in the tumble down town.

13 passing land

30 minutes later and we are back on the road. The sun is now setting, I admire the colours to my left. Sunset in the west we are heading north; good.

We pull over near a huge hole in the ground. It is over a kilometre across. Three million years ago a meteor hit here leaving this vast depression. Now we are here looking at it. The men in our car start their prayers for the evening. It’s a tranquil moment. Light crimson on the horizon, cool wind blowing and listening to the soft prayers.

Sunset prayers

Sunset prayers

We push through the night, there are no lights, and no markers not even a track to follow. We are driving across sand. I wonder how the driver knows where to go. We stop and turn around, he has become lost. I wonder how far ago it happened. The damage is small just a couple of kilometres. I have no watch and I do not want to know the time. It must be very late. There are shouts inside the car, and debate breaks out. The driver veers to the right and soon we drive up an embankment and onto an asphalt road. Beautiful smooth black asphalt, like an oasis in the desert. Our speed picks up as does my excitement.

The driver pulls over and lets one of the passengers drive for a while. He has been awake for three days and now not even the mira can keep him going. The asphalt runs out after 20km. I cannot understand why this section in the middle of nowhere has been built, I assume it’s to give people hope.

I start to drift off and have micro dreams. I can see the lights of Moyale ahead but every time I open my eyes there is just darkness. Please let me see lights. The bag on my lap now feels like a small car. I have no where I can put it. My legs are tingling, my back aches and I am exhausted.

Finally we see lights ahead. We drive through littered streets lined with corrugated iron. We approach a gate that is locked. The driver blares his horn. A sleepy man in a dirty singlet opens the gate. This is where we will sleep tonight. We are in Moyale. The room is basic and dusty, and costs us 200 shillings for all three about $2.50USD. It must be the cheapest triple in the world. We lock the door and lay down, it is 2.30am. It has taken us 17 hours but we have made it.

Tomorrow we cross into Ethiopia.

Dirty from the Journey

Dirty from the Journey

Read Full Post »

Leaving Nairobi for the last time we make our way north along the rim of the Great Rift Valley to Lake Nakuru. The township is around 4 hours away in a mini bus that is thankfully not over loaded. One seat per person is a surprising and blessed relief.

Matatu departing Nairobi

Matatu departing Nairobi

Arriving just after midday we take lunch in a Chinese restaurant of all places. There is still a few hours of daylight left so we decide to try and organise a driver to take us into Lake Nakuru national park tonight and pull back one precious day. We find a small agency down a side street and up a flight of stairs. Negotiations are swift and within an hour we are in a 4WD van and headed into the park which is only 10 mins away.

Heading along the Rift Valley

Heading along the Rift Valley

Our plan is to take in a short drive tonight and then get dropped at a remote camp site near the southern end of the park before being picked up again the following morning. Nakuru is famous for its rhinos and it’s not long before we spot two white rhinos by the side of the road. The white rhino is larger and more sociable than its black cousin that we worked so hard to see in Tanzania.

White Rhino Lake Nakuru

White Rhino Lake Nakuru

James (who looks like Spike Lee) takes us next to the aptly named baboon cliffs. It’s a splendid view of Lake Nakuru. For Emma it is a special moment. Her grandfather was stationed in Kenya for many years after world war two with the British army. Her father grew up in Kenya and both have told Emma of stories about living here around Lake Nakuru and Mt Kenya.

4 emma nakuru

We make our way to the campsite as dusk descends on the park. We work quickly to set up the tents in the fading light. A fire is lit with some difficulty but eventually we are seated around flames alone in the park. There are no fences, no Masai guards like we had in the Serengeti, just us and our tents for protection. We consume a meal of tomato and chutney sandwiches and drink a bottle of water. It’s a simple dinner completed with a chocolate bar.

An hour after dinner as we are chatting we hear some hyenas, they are close. We try to scan the woods with our low powered torch but it is useless. I am not entirely sure I want to see eyes reflected in the woods tonight anyway. Feeling a little excited and nervous we hear a sound to our right about 50 to 100m away. It is a deep growl. We all freeze for a second and then in military precision we huddle around tightly with the fire between us and the direction of the sound. What the hell was that? We are all in shock, the power and closeness of the noise has really put us on edge. It definitely sounded cat like. It takes a good hour before our pulses return to normal and we retire to our tents with the embers of fire still going.

Scary night of camping on our own

Scary night of camping on our own

James collects us the next morning. He is fairly certain that it was not a lion, as there is only one pride in Nakuru and they are located about 10km away on the other side of the lake. Leopards however are common around this part of the park! That was not mentioned last night when we were dropped off!

Nakuru is sadly not the lake it used to be when Emma’s grandfather was stationed here. The millions of Flamingos that once called it home have moved away due to the water becoming too fresh and no longer supporting the algae they feed on. Still we manage to find a small flock and using ones imagination we peel back the years to her grandfather’s time.

Flamingos Lake Nakuru

Flamingos Lake Nakuru

After resting for the night in Nakuru, we are up early again and headed for the Matatu stand. Breakfast is enjoyed by watching a music video played repeatedly over and over, no one seems to notice or care. The street outside our hotel is cracked and muddy and filled with large puddles from last night’s rain. I looks for all purposes like a model of the rift valley we have been following for so long.

Today we are headed for Nanyuki. The town affords close views of Mt Kenya and is also only 2km north of the equator. There are two matatus headed for Nanyuki this morning. The conductors both malign the each other vans viciously. He will take 5 hours. He will take longer to leave. This man is a thief. It’s like watching insult tennis. One van affords more room in the back. We are keen not to have our bags shoved under seats among motor oil containers, so we go with Nanyuki Express. Richard assists the conductor by walking the streets with him to help drum up business. The pitch is simple and racist; see even Muzungus are coming with us, come now this is a VIP bus!

Nanyuki Express Ticket Office

Nanyuki Express Ticket Office

We head north to Thomson Falls along a C road that is heavily crevassed. From there we turn east along a D road for disaster before finally crossing an F Road for field. We cross the equator back and forth 5 times before finally coming to rest in Nanyuki.

It’s the same procedure, mobbed by touts we retreat to some shade and sit down to relax. No we are not climbing Mt Kenya; they have heard it all before but this time it’s true. Richard and Emma go looking for a room while I chat with the local guides. I really do feel sorry for them sometimes as they try so hard to scratch out a living. I wish I could give them all some business but it’s simply not possible. We try to give them respect at least but after long journeys that too is not always the case.

The equator is for the overland traveller an important milestone. We crossed the tropic of Capricorn in Namibia now three months later we are on the equator. A man with highly sensitive instruments; a match and a bucket of water with a hole in it, demonstrates the coriolis effect. Water flowing down a hole spins clockwise while the water in the southern hemisphere spins anti clockwise. The doctor walks 30 meters either side of the line and sure enough the affect is working. When the water bucket is placed right on the equator the match does not spin at all. I am dubious as to whether the coriolis effect is that sensitive but I decide to enjoy the show and leave my cynicism in check. We pay the doctor 200 shillings for his polished performance.

Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line

Mt Kenya is shrouded in cloud currently but we take a risk and head 10km east by motorbike to the Fairmont My Kenya safari club established by the actor William Holden in the early 1950’s. The lodge is set on manicured lawns in front of an Alice in wonderland style hedge maze. We stroll through the gardens. Tomorrow we must move onto to Isiolo to prepare for the crossing to Moyale and the Ethiopian border. We really only have tonight and early tomorrow morning to see the mountain exposed. Shortly before sunset we are granted our wish. The clouds part and the summit of Mt Kenya is revealed. It is a very different mountain to Kilimanjaro. The summit is a cracked and exposed volcanic plug that is technically very difficult to climb. Most people only trek to the third highest peak. We are much relieved to have seen the summit and count our good fortune.

My Kenya Africa's 2nd highest mountain

My Kenya Africa’s 2nd highest mountain

Tomorrow we head for Isiolo the Wild West town of the north. The crossing to Moyale is possibly going to be the hardest and most dangerous part of our journey through Africa.

Adventure awaits.

 

Read Full Post »

There is excitement in the air this morning as we depart Nairobi. Our immediate concerns with visas are resolved and we are heading to Amboseli National Park. It has been many weeks since we last saw Kilimanjaro in Moshi Tanzania.We round a bend on a ridge and catch a view of the snow-capped summit in the clouds. The great loop around Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya is closed, it is an electrifying moment.

Kilimanjaro is even more magnificent when viewed from the north in Kenya. Even from 80km away her long sweeping shoulders fill the horizon. The Massai in southern Kenya also seem to surpass their Tanzanian neighbours. The men have fine long braids dyed red. They wear bright white head pieces and metal jewellery. They are a striking race of people, tall and elegant.

Masai lady selling jewelry just outside the park

Masai lady selling jewellry just outside the park

The Tawi lodge sits in a forest of acacia tress and has uninterrupted views of Kilimanjaro. It is located in its own conservancy just outside the main gates to the National Park. This is actually an advantage as for every 24 hours you spend in the park the fee is $80.00 USD!

Our Bungalow under African stars

Our Bungalow under African stars

We enter the park around 4pm for a quick 2 hour sunset game drive. Amboseli is famous for its elephants. It is almost the quintessential Africa. Elephants, acacia studded savannah and the snows of Kilimanjaro. What it is not renowned for is big cats, so it comes as a surprise when only 30 minutes into the park we spot a cheetah sitting upright in the long golden grass about 80 meters from the road. We stop the car and sit and watch. With her are two playful half grown cubs.

The Cheetah mother

The Cheetah mother

The light is fading and the mother starts to move. To our left about 100 meters away is a small group of Thomson gazelle. Her shoulders stiffen and she sinks lower to the ground. The cubs instinctively stop playing and hide below the grass. The mother closes in inch by inch. The spectator is forced to choose sides. Twenty minutes later she is now only 40-50 meters away. The snows on the summit of kili have turned golden. The savannah is now in gloom. The mother charges. Her acceleration is remarkable. The gazelle skittle in all directions like tan ten pins. It all happens so quickly it’s hard to keep focus on. The cheetah darts left then right then stops. She has failed. We watch her panting and out of breath. After five minutes she starts the long and disappointing walk back to the cubs. They see her coming and sprint towards her with amazing speed themselves. They are excited to be with her again despite there being no food on the table. The park is closing and it’s time to leave tonight but this is has been a much unexpected bonus.

Sunrise over Amboseli

Sunrise over Amboseli

Morning breaks and we are up early to catch the sunrise. It seems such a shame to be leaving the crisp white sheets of the lodge so early, especially as we are so acquainted with budget hovels. The colours in the morning are soft and delicate. A light mist hangs over the plains. The weaver birds are singing loudly, it’s a magical time and soon the warmth of our beds are forgotten.  The stars of the park have alluded us so far but it’s not long before we see them gathered around the swamps in the eastern part of the park. A family numbering around 10 slowly trudge towards us. We park and wait. They cross the road just behind our car. They are covered in white powder and they seem larger than the elephants we saw in the Serengeti.

DSC07372

The babies look a little uncertain for a moment then follow behind their massive mothers.  They walk one behind the other in perfectly straight lines. Only the big males are on their own. We watch in amazement. Kilimanjaro huge and still has seen days like this for 2 million years.

Zebras and Kili

Zebras and Kili

Our last morning and we opt for a lie in. After taking breakfast we retire again to our villas to soak up our last views of the White Mountain. Richard who is about 50 meters to our right is staring into the bush with the same concentration of the cheetah we saw on the first night. Remaining silent he amusingly imitates an elephant by placing an arm to his nose. We walk towards his villa and then spot a huge bull drifting through the brush. How such a huge animal can be so quiet is puzzling.

Sucking up the views one last time

Sucking up the views one last time

He makes his way past us to the water hole. We close in slowly to watch him drink. It is an entirely different experience to watch a fully grown male elephant from the ground with no vehicle. He is now only 30 meters away. He paws at the water with his huge legs. Flaps his ears and trumpets loudly. He turns and sees us. He stares at us for 10 seconds then lurches up out of the water. All that stand between us is 30 meters, a low voltage wire two feet off the ground and stupidity. We freeze unable to move as we wait for his next movement. Pulses are rising and we turn to look for an escape route should he charge. After a long stare he turns away and walks to the other side of the waterhole where he resumes playing in the mud. It’s a great way to end our time in Amboseli.

The male elephant turns to look at us

The male elephant turns to look at us

We now head north towards the equator and Africa’s second highest mountain, Mt Kenya.

Read Full Post »

Nairobi

The journey time from Kampala to Nairobi is 12 hours but we somehow manage it in 16. It has been a night of musical horns, high beam lights, pot holes and very little sleep. We crossed the Uganda Kenya border sometime around midnight. Emma was nearly arrested for public urination behind a bus in a very dark corner.

Bus from Kampala to Nairobi

Bus from Kampala to Nairobi

It is nearly lunch as our bus negotiates the tight dirty streets of east Nairobi.I am not entirely sure why but the rule that bus depots shall be located in the filthiest and most run down part of town seems universal in African cities. For this reason I try to wait before I declare Nairobi a dump.

Downtown Nairobi

Downtown Nairobi

We make our way out of the automotive spare parts section of the city and into more attractive streets lined with trees. To our left are the skyscrapers of downtown Nairobi, the first we have seen since leaving Cape Town. Our ride to The Upper Hill Guest House is about 10-15 minutes from the CBD. It is a lovely compound shaded by vast eucalyptus trees and is conveniently close to most of the embassies; which means it is in the nice part of town. It is run by Jesse an American who is both talkative and likable and eager to share her deep knowledge of Kenya with anyone.

Jesse and Jenny at the upper hill camp site Nairobi

Jesse and Jenny at the upper hill camp site Nairobi

Weighing heavily on our minds is an Ethiopian visa. We have been rejected in Uganda and the internet is littered with stories of those that were declined in Nairobi. Without this visa our way north is blocked. We will be forced to send our passports back to Australia and wait for their return. Time which we can ill afford if we are to make it to Pakistan by the 9th August. This date is our only deadline on the journey. Our Pakistan visa will expire on the 10th. There is little point extending as we are already at the end of the trekking season in Northern Pakistan and are meeting friends from the UK in Skardu on the 16th.

Emma shows the way to the Ethiopian embassy

Emma shows the way to the Ethiopian embassy

Beyond Ethiopia more problems and red tape await. We still need to cross Northern Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China. It is a bureaucratic transport and visa nightmare. The Stans are among some of the most difficult visas to get in the world.

We could enter Pakistan directly from Iran; a journey we did in 2009, but recent well planned and organised kidnappings of a Swiss couple and then two Czech girls in the last 6 months on the bus from Taftan to Quetta have convinced us not attempt this crossing. Besides central Asia is an unexplored region of the world we are keen to see.

We make our way to the Ethiopian consulate armed with Passports, Photos, US Dollars and well-rehearsed sob stories. We are first questioned by an office clerk, who depending on one’s circumstances will allow you to proceed to stage two. Discouragingly we watch a few Muzungus get turned away in front of us. My palms are sweating as it is our turn to approach the counter.  We explain that we have been travelling continuously for longer than three months since leaving Australia and that we were not able to apply for a visa in our home country as it would have expired before reaching Ethiopia. He stares at us without comment, flicking through our passport pages he hands us a form each to fill in and informs us his superior will need to see us first. A sigh of relief this looks promising. Rick who is standing next to us is rejected. He has not been travelling for more than three months and advised he should have obtained a visa before departing. A young South African is also rejected for the same reason.

We fill in our forms and wait to be called. We take Rick with us in an attempt to have him reconsidered. For anyone familiar with Seinfeld this is a Soup Nazi moment. We enter with straight backs and clasped hands looking grateful for this audience. The lady behind the desk has a cross tattooed on her forehead and Amharic writing on her neck. I try not to stare.

We are given opportunity to plead our case. I explain that we are on an overland journey and have been travelling for longer than three months. I am then required to show her all our stamps and dates as proof we have been making the journey. She informs us she will give us a visa but only for 30 days; a date will cost us later but that is for another story.

Her gaze turns to Rick who has no form and she seems a little perplexed as to why he is here. I explain that Rick is my nephew and we are travelling together, his circumstances are not the same as ours but we would be grateful if we could continue our journey together. Just as Rick’s non requirement for a visa in Rwanda helped us, so our situation now helps him. She agrees to give Rick a 30 day visa as well.

The Nairobi Java House

The Nairobi Java House

We rush to the bank to make a deposit for $30.00 USD each then bring the receipts back to the consulate. Once submitted we are told to return at 4pm to collect. Time to celebrate we all go for a milkshake in one of Nairobi’s upmarket cafés. The relief is overwhelming, no need to send our passports back to Australia and now we can concentrate on travelling again; for now anyway.

Visited the baby elephant orphanage in Nairobi

Visited the baby elephant orphanage in Nairobi

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »