Ethiopia is like no other place I have visited, it couldn’t be more different than Sudan. The flat scortching open land of Sudan has been replaced by high green mountains, but it isn’t just the landscape that has changed, the people are also very different.
My first memory of hearing about Ethiopia was Michael Burk on BBC Blue Peter – talking about the famine in the country in the 1980s. I remember the pictures of the starving children and what looked to be the good white western charities handing out food. I studied these pictures and videos more closely at University. It was interesting to see how the viewer had been manipulated so much – with only half the story. There was no mention in the interviews of the war that Ethiopia was fighting in the northern Tigray region. It was the start of the reliance of much of the population on western food aid. In 2009 there are more people in Ethiopia receiving food aid, then there was when Michael Burk did his Blue Peter appeal.
Now in Ethiopia, Ferengies (local word for foreigner) are often seen as people that should give there money (or food, pencil, pen etc) every time a child asks. Giving without question creates reliance – which means people cannot fend for themselves (and potentially creates a higher populations than can really be supported). Charities can make a difference though; “If you give a man a fish you feed him for the day, if you teach him how to fish you can feed him for life!” This is why I like the work or SolarAid – which creates self supporting business.
Ethiopia roughly is half the size of Sudan, but has over double the population – there are people everywhere. These people are intrigued by you, watching your every move from changing tyres to waking up in the more and eating (something which is frowned upon in the Koran). Gone are the are the conservative ideals of Islamic Sudan to be replaced by beer and HIV. Ethiopian vices are much more apparent, where in Islamic Africa they are hidden from view. We had been warned by other overland travelers about the Ethiopian national sport of rock throwing. We actually didn’t have a problem with it, I can’t help thinking that driving slowly through villages and towns with the windows open, waving and smiling helped no end with this. We saw other overland vehicles with metal mesh over the glass driving aggressively though towns – even in Europe this would anger people. There are lots of stones to throw in Ethiopia and they get used to get animals off the road or in jest to your friends while swimming in the lake!
You can never judge a country by its border town or reputation (Metama is full up of beer houses and girls selling themselves) and only 10km down (or UP!) the road the countryside takes your breath away. While the road from Metama to Gondor is tarmac -it took me by surprise. In Sudan with temperatures over 45c the landcruiser kept its cooling fine – surely here with temperatures only around 30c it would be OK as well. I
didn’t take in to account the road climbing 2000 meters quickly and the it got a bit hot! All was fine after a cooling stop and a chance to taste some “interesting” home made beer.
Our first real stop was to be Bahr Dar – on lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Due to Ethiopia high population we had be told that it was almost impossible to camp wild (like we did practically all the time in Sudan). Ryan had previously been making contacts on the website couchsurfing – staying with Kyle would be our first experience. So far in this trip meeting people who had good local knowledge has made it so much more interesting. Kyle, and America Peace Corps volunteer had been living in Bahr Dar for about 1 year. We stayed in Bahr Dar for a few days, taking in the beautiful tree lined streets, the avocado juices and stunning macchiatos. Our last night (or so we thought) in Bahr Dar was the last night before the fasting for lent. In Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity on Wednesdays and Fridays people do not eat any products from animals (meat / dairy / eggs) during lent this is extended for 55 days – only starting to eat at lunch time. The last night before lent was a bit of a meat fest, with “tibs” (grilled cubes on lamb in a clay pot) on every table. 4 of us ate and drank for the price of one beer in central London…
We were planning to drive south to Addis to meet a friend, but her plans had changed so we headed back to Gondor, with the aim to visit the highlands and go on the historical route via Axum, Adrigate and potentially the Danakal depression.
Gondor is a bustling touristy town, with “ferengies” (White people) everywhere. It has some impressive castles, churches and temples which are well worth the look. We met with Nigisti (or “Nigisti the great”) as the locals seem to call her. While at school Nigisti, wanted to help the orphan street children in the Town – she started to find ways to help them. She set up the charity, Yengetesfa – hope for tomorrow Now at university, Nigisti has encourage the charity to grow and it now has a girls and a boys dormitory – where the children can concentrate on education rather than cleaning masters houses, or worse. The charity also has set up a number of ways in which the charity can enable the kids to help themselves.
Photo credit ^ Carlos Garcia Quinoy
We were staying in small Belegez pension in Gondor – where we met Stephan, a German motorcyclist who had been on the road on his Yamaha for 5 months. Stephan had been travelling with Hugo and Isabella in Sudan, a British couple who I had been in contact for some time via Internet – but I had never actually met!
After a few days in Gondor we decided to travel north, 2 landcruiser and a motorbike. Leaving Gondor all the vehicles where in good condition – but literally 100 meters out of the town the roads turned to a track. Our two original rear tyres had been running inner tubes since Sudan after being slightly cut up in Dinder national park and the Nuba mountains – they didn’t like the sharp rocks. One of the new spare tyres also got some impressive rips in it (this tyre had only done 4000miles at the most!). We decided to fix and repair are way to Dabark, the base of the Simein mountains where Hugo and Isabella had gone on ahead. We arrived – 4 punctures later, hoping to find some tyres that would take us further on. After a fruitless search, where we were shown pretty horrific secondhand tyres for ridiculous prices we decided to go and try some wild camping and patch the tyres up as best we could.
How to repair a puncture on the side of the road in Ethiopia;
1) Notice you have a puncture!
2) Make Tea
3) Break the bead of the tyre with the high lift jack. I think this is much better for the tyre / rim than the local way of hitting it with a big hammer…
Using tyre levers lift the tyre off the rim
Take your shoes off
Find the hole, clean and repair.
Put the tube back in and dance (barefooted) on the tyre until the bead is seated correctly. Pump! (obviously use solar powered compressor!) until the bead is on the rim (Two big bangs)
Re-fitted the tyre to the car,
Hope that local bus drivers haven’t nicked your warning triangles, if they do send a German motorcyclists after them (yes we did get it back!)
Wild camping in the highlands in Ethiopia is interesting – going to sleep with a crowd and waking up with a crowd is a little tyring (especially when you are trying to patch up tyres..) But it is an experience I will never forget.
We decided to drive back to Gondor as we had heard we could not buy tyres until the other side of the highlands (miles away!)
In the 70 or so miles back to Gondor we had 5 punctures (one literally next to the pension we would be staying in!). While we hadn’t seen the highlands like we wanted to we had had a different – perhaps more challenging experience. Changing tubes in the middle of villages, or on steep hills in the dark (hoping the landcruiser doesn’t fall over!) always with a crowd was mentally and physically tyring. People would watch us do our work ( I got taking a wheel off, tyre off, changing and patching a tube and putting it all back down to about 40mins) then ask us for money / pencil etc etc. I found this slightly unfair as we had been entertaining them for 40 minutes or so! We decided we needed a sign (in Americ) explaining that if people wished to watch they had to pay 1 birr each, photos would be 20 birr and 50 birr for video – based on rates that Ethiopians would expect! People where amused by this when we tried to explain – but we never got any money!
Searching for decent tyres…
The tyres that where available in Gondor were not of high quality and also very expensive – so we decided to limp onto Bahir Dar again (that bit closer to Addis) and the promise of better tyres at lower prices. We drove the relatively short distance (all on tarmac) at under 50km all the way. We arrived only getting two punctures!Kyle was out of town so we stayed with another couchsurfer Yardi the floor of her wine house (one of the more interesting places we have stayed at on the trip!) The wine was also good, made with Organic fruit and no chemicals. (Worth a visit if you are ever in Bahir Dar)
With new shoes fitted to the landcruiser (nice big tubed off road tyres, which make the landcruiser even higher!) we headed for Addis.
The road to Addis is spectacular, dropping up and down from 3000 meters to below 600 in some places. The Blue Nile Gorge where the road drops over 2300 meters, then climbs it straight back up is a bit notorious for overland vehicles. On the way down peoples brakes often fail / overheat, and on the way up the engines over heat! We heard of a one vehicle who had destroyed their engine after the brakes had failed and the driver rammed it into second gear, breaking the crankshaft! I decided the slow was going to be the best policy, not really going above 40km/h and everything was fine.
We camped near Debra Markos and were not disturbed or watched at all! It is possible to camp wild in Ethiopia!
Arriving in Addis is was time to meet up with some couch surfers – this time it was Corrine, who lived close to the South African embassy (if you ever ask for directions in Addis you will be told which embassy it is close too, due to the Africa Union being based here most African nations have a presence).
I quite liked Addis, it has a charm that can’t really describe, the mixture between ancient and modern is everywhere, it has great places to socialise. I also really like towns that are in mountains – it keeps them contained so it is quick and easy to get out of town!
In Addis we also met Nigisti (from Gondor) who wanted to travel with us for a time, so after a few days of town life we headed South. Stephans bike was left in Addis supposedly have a front rim repaired (which didn’t really happen) so we were 4 in the landcruiser again!
Our new tyres had blown our budget for Ethiopia and the punctures had taken extra time (not a waste of time though as we learnt a lot!) this meant that we did visit Lalibela or the highlands / Danakal depression – which is a shame but they will always be there and perfectly possible to visit without our own vehicle.
We aimed for the South East of Ethiopia – towards the Omo valley. It is an area that is less touristy and somewhere which is a previlage to visit. I also felt that it an area that over time will change, modern society is changing the amazing local tribes so now was the time to visit.
On the way to the Omo we visited a number of Lakes; Asela, Langano and Awasa. Each with their own amazing views.
We stopped off in Shashemene, the home of rastafarians in Ethiopia – the land had been given to rastas from Jamaica by the emperor Heili Selassie to encourage the rasta religion home to Africa. Nigisti was born here and still had some contacts so we were greeted and shown the community (and given some amazing caribbean inspired food!)
After Shashemene we travelled west and south to Arba Minch before heading into Nechisar National Park (a rain forest area between Lake Abaye and Chamo. After camping next to hippos and crocodiles we took tracks to Konso.
After lunch in Konso we headed to Jinka. From Jinka it is possible to take tours to villages and see cattle jumping etc. This felt a bit human Zoo to me and meeting up with people in the local markets was far more rewording. The locals actively encourage Nigisti to take pictures of them (most ferengi tourists get asked for money or abuse)
We headed back to Konso staying in the wonderful strawberry fields eco lodge (with Solar Power!) before heading back to Addis on the main road from Yavello. From Yavello almost to Addis there is “ribbon development” all the way, small villages and lots and lots of people! It is also much more Islamic than other parts, with a large number of refugees from Somalia.
Ethiopia is changing quickly, soon all the roads will be tarmac it is relatively stable politically (hopefully this will continue after the next elections). Aid agencies say that the food crisis is getting better in the country and the Government plans to turn the country into an electricity power house. The Ethiopian government sees its many rivers in the same way that the Sudanese government see its oil; as a great potential for making large amounts of money. The government has massive plans not only to supply Ethiopia with plenty of electricity (power cuts are common, even in the posher areas of Addis) but also to export to the rest of Africa, the Middle east and potentially Europe. Dams on the face of it seem like a good option, low in carbon, have 50-100 year life spans (if built properly), flexible (can be controlled to produce power when it is needed) but the negatives are truly catastrophic. There are two more dams to be built on the Omo River (Gibe 3 and 4) expect to be as large as the Aswan dam and a gigantic one – which is planned to be the largest in Africa on the blue Nile near Gondor. While it is unfair that so much of the population does not have access to electricity (and also water which often needs electricity to be pumped) dams can completely destroy lively hoods, farmland, nomadic culture and traditions. Being close to the equator Ethiopia, like much of Africa is suitable for Solar, which has far less damaging impacts – this is why I am supporting the stop Gibe 3 campaign. To find our more visit http://www.stopgibe3.org/