Bahir Dar, 25 May 2007
Fantastic as Sudan was in many ways, Ethiopia had been looming in front of us drawing us in as moths to the light with its promises of verdant pastures and cool mountain air. Despite forgoing the majority of attractions Khartoum has to offer (and actually that's not really many) we did manage to haul ourselves through the heat to see the weekly Friday evening Sufi ceremony at the tomb of Sheikh Hamad al-Neil. We'd been excited about this and it didn't disappoint. People begin to gather a couple of hours before sunset, a strange mix of onlookers and the devout. Some participants are deadly serious in expression, some are there for the party and there are a good number who are frankly completely out of it. The crowd forms into a large circle and the music begins. A few people come into the centre and start to fall into trances. Of these some spin round and round, one guy takes on glazed expression and starts biting his hand and one stands tranfixed on the spot dribbling and ranting. After a while they get the big base drums out and the music begins to get more intense. The whole scene begins to take on the air of a warped early 90's hippy-traveller free party. Then suddenly off goes the evening call to prayer and it all stops just like that and everyone drifts off home. It's kind of hard to put the whole event in words, but believe us it was an absolute highlight and if you ever find yourself in Khartoum with time to spare on a Friday evening make sure to visit....
Riding out from Khartoum we slowly, slowly gained height and the landscape began to change. Dwellings changed to circular straw built huts, there were trees and it was all begining to conform to our steotypes of Africa. For the first time in nearly four months we were not in a desert! Two days on and we reached the border. The entry to Ethiopia marked an immediate change, suddenly greenery was all around and every other shop seemed to be a bar or bordello, frequently both. Shortly up the road all manner of exotic birdlife appeared and monkeys sprinted across our path. Unfortunately slightly further up the road our German riding companion, Jason, having made it all the way through Sudan without dropping his bike, took a tumble on the fresh, deep gravel that had been laid along the road. We lost sight of him in the mirrors and doubled back to find him standing in the middle of the road looking dazed with his bike lying down the embankment. Damage to the shoulder was the diagnosis and there began a long saga to get him to hospital in the next big town, Gondar (180km away). The whole story doesn't warrant repeating but suffice to say it involved two trucks, much waiting and also much money but ten hours later Jason was experiencing the delights of Gondar University Hospital. A fractured collar bone was the verdict with two months recovery time needed so with this several days later Jason parted our company and flew home to Berlin to recuperate.
Despite the very inauspicious start to Ethiopia, as is often the way, there were magical moments to be had in the journey to Gondar. Sitting in the back of a cattle truck trying to stop an inadequately roped-down BMW and Royal Enfield from tipping over on a rough unmade road we slowly climbed altitude. The air got cooler and for the first time in a long time we did not feel too hot. This was a blissful ten minutes as quickly night drew in and the cool became downright cold. The mountains became greener and tighter and we passed simple villages with no electric lighting. In this complete cover of dark the stars were amazing and distant electric storms gave us a great light show. Dotted across the mountains were patches of fire where lightning had stuck and the flames slowly burned their course. Yes, it was all great for a short while but after 8 hours of being battered around in the back of a shitty cattle truck in the cold one begins to lose hope. If there was one thing that could have made the journey more miserable it would have been for one of the storms to pass overhead. Thankfully it didn't.
The next morning with Jason diagnosed and us well rested we were able to take stock of where we were. Ethiopia is truly a marvellous place. Defying sterotypes from it's recent long history of troubles it has an amazingly individual culture. It has its own calendar with 13 months in the year and this year is about to celebrate the milenium. Daily time starts at sunrise meaning that clcoks are about 6 hours out of kilter with the rest of the worlds time-keeping. The language, Amharic, has a unique script an ancient and individual form of Christianity is practised. There are even extra 'bible' stories like the picture below about the man who was a cannibal and ate everyone in his village, so in all he was a pretty bad guy. Then he met a leper and was going to eat him but decided he wouldn't be so tasty and then the leper asked him for a glass of water in the name of the virgin Mary, which he gave. Shortly after this the cannibal died and was sent to hell for his sins. However, everyone who gives a favour in the name of the Virgin Mary should go to Heaven; so up in Heaven Mary has an argument with Jesus and says that really the cannibal should be in Heaven for the favour he gave to the leper in her name. Jesus can't argue with that logic so up the cannibal is scooped from Hell and placed in Heaven. Go figure! and check out the monastery mural telling the story below....
A long stay in Gondar was split with a 5 day trek into the Simian Mountains. High altitudes, amazing scenery and hanging out with large troops of Gelada Baboons. These are unique to the Simians and hang around in large packs, eat grass and chatter to each other. They're not too shy and sitting in the middle of a couple of hundred of them gossiping away to each other was one of life's great experiences.
We loved Gondar, despite it seeming like a grotty part of Dickensian London. Beggars proliferated, street urchins abound and dodging gin-sopped raving lunatics was an integral part of a wander through town. All the same it had a character of its' own and amazing 'fairy-tale' 17th and 18th century castles. Seriously, the poverty there was quite something else and it really sets you wandering what can be done about it. There are already tons of projects going on here, seemingly without much coordination between them and people really need to be steered away from a charity mentality to a self-sufficient positive outlook. More on this in future blogs...
We've just heard that Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor have embarked on a 'Long Way Down' trip to Capetown. They've obviously been inspired by our blog but have chosen to do the trip on girls' bikes! Anyone we know at home who now says, 'oh you're doing the same trip as Ewan McGregor' will be slapped no questions asked.
Posted by Richard Miller at 12:37 PM
Khartoum, 2 May 2007
Arrived in Khartoum yesterday. After 400kms of desert road and 600kms off road in temperatures up to 50 degrees rarely have we been so happy to arrive somewhere! Not that the journey was so bad, just hard hard work and unrelenting heat. Plus after a week out in the desert the thought of a shower was a very nice one...
Here's a bit of a travelogue plus some hopefully helpful info for fellow travellers - we couldn't find much info about this route so thought we'd put some down.
Visas and tickets:
Getting the Sudanese visas from Cairo was a sinch in our case. Just drop your documents in in the morning when they open and pick them up one hour later. The cost was a bit more painful - 100 US each... Apparently you can get the visa a lot cheaper from your home country but then you have to wait a lot longer as well and it is only valid for three months from issue.
Tickets are a bit more of a pain. There are ticket offices in Cairo (by the main train station) and in Aswan. Snag is that you can only buy them max one week before departure (ferries leave Mondays). Seems to be that motorcycles can pretty much always be fitted on but it's not the same case for cars. You would think that getting the ticket and getting on the ferry would be pretty easy but you'd be wrong. It's a farcical process and takes a woefully long time! The chap in Aswan who controls all foreigner tickets is a Mr Salah. We heard that he'd been operating foreigner tickets for 15 years. Plenty of time to get some decent procedures and rules in place. No! This is Egypt, rules are fluid and procedures were left behind by the Byzantines. You can call him in advance to reserve a ticket and this seems to work. He'll reserve a place but not a cabin. A 2nd class seat is 262.50 Egyptian Pounds and a 2 birth cabin more (they weren't available so we didn't ask), this seems to be about 5 times Egyptian price. Tickets for bikes are 372 Egyptian.
Loading the bike:
This was the painful bit. As far as we could work out, how the bike travels depends on what other vehicles are going along. It's only foreigners' vehicles on board as the land border is easier to use but closed to foreigners so don't expect a lot of traffic. If there are less than a couple of cars plus bikes they go on a pontoon that follows the ferry and arrives a day after the ferry. If more then there is a separate pontoon leaving the Saturday before. This is the option we had to take as we had a lorry and four four wheel drives as companions.
The 'Day of Loading' started with everyone meeting at the Nile Navigation Company's office (next door to the Aswan Tourist Police hq on the Corniche) at 9am. There followed a briefing followed by an argument - the four wheel drivers wanted to sleep with their vehicles on the pontoon but weren't allowed to. This took a good hour, apparently you can do so if coming up from Sudan but not going the other way - someone fell off a few months ago. After this all drove to the Traffic Police office to give up our Egyptian number plates and get a clearance letter. This done it was on to the port just at the top of the High Dam on Lake Nasser.
First stage at the port was a police inspection (we thought it was customs but a customs one came later and customs told us that the revious check had been a police one!?) Next picking up and paying for the vehicle tickets from an office on the other side of the compound. Sounds simple enough but allow for a lot of time. Back to the other side of the port for getting carnets stamped out and then on to the pontoon. By about 2.30 all was finished (that's 5 and a half hours to get a bike on a fery folks!)
The ferry trip:
We were pretty much told to turn up at the ferry on Monday morning at 9 and ask for a long wait. We got it. After loading the pontoon that follows the ferry with unfeasible amounts of Egyptian produce we set sail at about 6.30. Best advice for the ferry is to do all you can to book a cabin. It is crowded and for some reason best known to themselves the ferry crew wash the second class compartment floors with diesel. Nice. Sleeping-wise it is every man for himself. We managed to find a nice-ish spot on the prow of the boat but the prow was mysteriously and rapidly flooded at about 2am promting a mass evacuation. Eventually we settled on the roof of the bridge and managed a few hours kip. Highlight of the trip was seeing the Abu Simbel collosal figures at about 7am making us very grateful that we hadn't bothered to get up early and make the long trip through the desert from Aswan to see them.
Arriving in Wadi Halfa:
Guess what? There were a few delays getting off too! Still it wasn't all bad, the boat arrived in at one-ish in the afternoon and we were unloaded and got the vehicles through customs by about 5.30 after being stung for a few dollars by a 'carnet fixer' in the customs office.
Great news for us was that as well as Jason the German BMW-ist there were four 4wds and a lorry and we all pretty much decided to do the route in convoy so that evening we exited Wadi Halfa for the first desert camp.
Having exited Wadi Halfa we entered once more and sorted out police registration. Three hours later we hit the road!
It's hot but not too bad as a North wind is blowing us along and keeping the temperature down a bit. First impressions are that the piste isn't too bad. Plenty of sand but all doable enough. Then us bikes take a wrong turn and manage to plow on through 10 kms of sand before we realise we've gone wrong... Back on the proper track things take a turn for the worse as the track turns to the most brutal corrugations with deep sand either side so no way of escape. This stretch of the road is pretty desolate, well away from the Nile, but stunning craggy, sandy desert. All in we manage 100kms down the road today.
An early start and off we go. After 50 or so kms we reach the first village of the route (Firka). From here on in petrol is avalable at most villages as is water (not bottled though!). The track today is a mix of sand and corrugations with the odd decent hard-packed section in between. The road has been away from the Nile for most of the day but we're back at it for tonights camp. Great to camp Nile-side but the night is blighted by an absolute plague of small black flies. We wake in the morning to the gentle patter of millions of flies headbutting our tent. Out here even some locals wear fly-nets over their heads. About 100kms covered again today. A quick check over the bike shows a broken rear shocker.
After 30kms or so we finally hit the Nile and stay there. The Nubian villages along the Nile were what really made the trip. Everyone waving and smiling, women in wonderful colouful clothes and fantastic mud-brick houses. The track takes a turn for the better though still pretty sandy in places. The North wind has left us and the temperature is up. Around 45 degrees most of the day. It's just about tolerable riding in this temperature but getting bogged in the sand and lifting out really wipes you out for a good while. We're getting through nearly 15 litres of water a day. This has been the great thing about riding with the 4wd-ers - they've made life easier for us and carried most of the bikes spare water and fuel. We stop for a long lunch under some palm trees Nile-Side and carry on again after a couple of hours. Everyone we've heard from who's done the route hs come off multiple times. We had been congratulating ourselves for a clean sheet so far but then disaster struck and we were bounced into a very deep and soft sand pit and came to a quick stop. No more serious injury than a slight squashing of the tackle against the petrol tank but the bikes forks are bent. With the wheel straight the 'bars are pointing about 25 degrees to the right. We dig out and catch up with the others. Once again the Land Rovers come in and give Sascha a lift and take the luggage of the bike. We bed down after nearly 150kms. The flies are still there but less.
Dongola or bust! The thought of a hotel room and a shower is spurring us on. Despite the wonky steering the bike is a lot easier to handle without passenger and luggage. They're building a new tarmac road to connect Khartoum with Wadi Halfa and from here on in there's a few sections rideable on a bike. Not many of them are tarred or go on for more than a couple of kms but it's still a lot more preferable to being shaken to pieces on the corrugations or digging into soft sand. When we can't take the bits of new road this section is tough as it's the sandiest of the route. Still we clear nearly 200kms today and take the ferry across the Nile to the long awaited town of Dongola. It's a bit of a let down. Very dodgy hotels and not a lot going on. Still the exhaustion and lure of a shower, at least when the water is working, make us stay 2 nights. Down here the nightime temperatures are higher and sleep is fitful.
We wake up to a heavy dust storm but decide to go anyway, in the end it keeps temperatures down a bit. There's black top stretching for 60kms South of Dongola. When you hit the sand again it seems like a cruel joke. Even the most intrepid off-roaders would be eager for some relief at this point. The new road building is continuing though and it's possible to get a bike up the embankment to ride along it. They really don't want you too though and stretches are like an obstacle course. It started off quite funny, we had oil drum slaloms, limbo poles and narrow gaps between rocks to negotiate but then as we went on it got crueler with hidden ditches, some fillled with soft sand and bridges with a sly section missing. About 120kms of this and we hit proper asphalt again (about 30kms North of Abu Junction). The road is smooth as a babys bottom and straight as you like. We give up the push for Khartoum about 220kms short and camp down in the desert.
Into Khartoum just after midday. Would have cracked open a bottle champagne is Sudan wasn't a dry country.
That's us then. In Khartoum, slowly roasting in 45 degrees. Sudan has been a great place, some amazing scenery and friendly people but the first thought now is leaving and heading for the lush highlands of Ethiopia, three days ride away. In this temperature everything you touch is hotter than you. Going to bed in the heat on a heated mattress and waking up in the morning to put on hot clothes is not a lot of fun. First though we're got to fix up a very battered and slightly bent bike, and that's not just us, even the BMW of Jason took a beating too with ignition problems, quickly detachable mirrors and panniers bouncing down the road..
Posted by Richard Miller at 11:37 AM