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Archive for the ‘Ethiopia’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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