March 01, 2010 GMT
Khartoum to Ethiopia

At the dusty Ethiopian border crossing the customs man holds my passport in his hand:
"Welcome! What country you from?"
"Ahh, Paula Radcliffe!"

What a refreshing change from "Wayne Rooney," or "David Beckham."
But I couldn't for the life of me remember the name of the Ethiopian Olympic champion, even though his photo was on the wall of the immigration building in this border town of Metema. (I say 'building', actually a two-room mud-brick hut).
"Haile Gebreselassie!" my questioner rescued me.

As an aside, in my experience at overland borders around the world, there are two possible responses when the officials have my passport in their hands.
"Ahh, Irish! Welcome!"
"What nationality??"
Well, what do you expect when the front is embossed with, "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" in gold on a red background, and the "Britain" bit is all thumbed and faded?

When Beau hands over his passport, it's easy. They say exactly what it says on the cover.
"Ahh! Canada! Welcome!"

So now I'll remember the name of their gold medallist, Haile Gebreselassie, unlike the Ethiopian for "Thankyou," which is a real mouthful. The customs man seemed quite pleased when I volunteered that I live near Crystal Palace where his hero had run on one or two occasions.

We departed Khartoum on 22nd February after three weeks in its grip. Beau had been running to and fro investigating the possibilities of musical research or work in the college, and Caroline had found that the British Council was looking for English teachers and examiners. They both left with useful contacts and the possibility of work later in the year, Caroline even having an interview on the morning of our departure.

Last drum roll at the Blue Nile Sailing Club.

And a last look at the river moorings from the terrace.

So we didn't ride far that day, and stopped at a likely-looking dirt-track leading away from the road and out of sight, just past the village of Takala, fifty miles from Khartoum.
We ventured a short way along it and met a man in typical white robes walking towards us. We asked about camping.
"Of course. Continue to the gate on the right where you'll find a huge garden, you can camp anywhere."
And so we did. It was a large farmyard with cattle and goat enclosures dotted around and a few adobe out-houses.
An older man also in white robes greeted us and introduced himself as Bakri, the owner of the garden.
We spent the evening with him, his son-in-law and his herdsmen who shuffled goats and cows between various enclosures in preparation for the night.

Herding the cattle into Bakri's garden.

Bakri with friends and relatives in his garden.

He also phoned for cheese and bottles of the local soft drink to be brought to us to go with the dinner that Caroline and Beau cooked and everyone sampled. And he made us promise to visit him in Takala, where he lived, the next morning. Which we did.

Children in the market square of Takala.

A corner of Bakri's other smallholding on the banks of the Blue Nile.

Bakri and friends in the smallholding.



That following evening we found a high man-made ridge next to the road halfway between Wad Madani and Gedaref, which we camped behind. It turned out not to be a ridge but a circular embankment containing an artificial irrigation lake. Various wild donkeys milled around at the water's edge for a while before wandering off, and we camped there the night. No one came along to visit so we were able to leave early the next morning.

Setting up camp next to the artificial lake.



Morning at our overnight camp next to the lake.

But still the distance to Gonder, in Ethiopia, the first town with good hotels, was too far for one day and all the advice we had seen had counselled against camping in Ethiopia. The danger of attracting too much attention from local people was reckoned to be too great. (Later proved to be completely unfounded).
We had one day left on our visas so decided to camp again in Sudan before the border, which we did with ten miles left to go.
We stopped beforehand for supplies and water and found a cattle market in full swing.

Cattle market in small Sudanese village near the Ethiopian border.



Supermarket where we stocked up.

The next customer arrives.

Again the advice in guide books was not to camp within forty miles of the border as it's a military zone, but we found an open and deserted area by a dried-up watering hole down an easy track away from the road. There, a few people came by on donkeys and carts, said, "Hello!" and continued on their way, so we stayed the night, alone again, and departed early for the border the next morning.

Setting up at our Ethiopian Border Base Camp.


So that morning found us arriving at Gallabat, the tiny border town full of hustle and bustle, donkeys, carts, and huge trucks and trailers. We progressed through customs and immigration without too much delay, except that breakfast for the officials was served during the process adding about an hour to the whole thing.
A tiny narrow bridge separates Gallabat from Metema on the Ethiopian side, with an adobe hut housing Ethiopian immigration at the end of the bridge. That was a quick process but, alas, customs had just closed for lunch!

The general advice in this sort of situation is to hold your ground, don't leave the office, work will start again earlier than if you wander off until the 'official' reopening time. Which was three pm, a break of two-and-a-half hours. (But the afternoon Sudanese heat lingers here even at the elevated altitude of the border).
So we set up a mini camp at the door of the customs office and made tea and lunch, against the suggestions of the locals to visit various nearby restaurants, "Very good food, owned by my brother!"

Just before 2pm a huge 11-axle truck arrived from the other direction, heading into Sudan.
"What? Closed till three! Typical African system!" The driver was Sudanese, bound for Port Sudan. He too held his ground and sure enough the customs office shortly reopened.

We finally entered Ethiopia and the road to Gonder, wondering what we would find after all the stories of troublesome children.
Ethiopia is indeed a country where there is no countryside that is not populated. People are everywhere, in towns and villages and everywhere in-between. And everyone waves and calls out and wants a wave back. We saw nothing but waves and smiles.
But time was running short to reach Gonder so we remembered advice that there are other hotels on the road, but none with water. That wasn't a problem as, with my tyre changed and the old one disposed of, I now had a water carrier in its place, plus two large bottles attached to panniers giving about eleven litres in all, and about nine litres between Caroline's and Beau's bikes.
Twenty litres sounds a lot for three people, but in the Sudanese heat that was just sufficient for one overnight stop.

But then, what was this up ahead, partly obscured by the shimmering heat, about a third of the way to Gonder??
Something in the road weaving with a rhythmic movement.

A caravan of two laden bicycles!
We had caught up with Hiula and Eva!
Happy greetings all round, and we talked about what to do for an overnight stop.
Thoughts of camping were dismissed as we saw monkeys gathering in the distant thorn trees. Monkeys, food and tents don't go together, and there was also the guide book advice not to camp.
So we decided us three bikers would go ahead about 20 kms to see if there was a hotel, and return to wherever Hiula and Eva had reached.
But there was no hotel. In a small village we were surrounded by children wanting to say hello and shake hands, and a few adults one of whom was a teacher and a handy interpreter as he spoke English. The next hotel was another 15 kms, too far for Hiula and Eva to reach.
So we stocked up on water and supplies, shook about 30 children's hands, and returned the way we had come.
We found the pair looking at a dirt track that led into the distance away from the road, but they hadn't found where it met the tarmac. We found that and investigated but it crossed a steep dry and rocky river bed that was best not attempted with our laden bikes. Another track also led away from the road so we went down there. It was hard mud dry and cracked into crazy paving with the remains of a crop of straw all around, amongst straggly thorn trees. Obviously this was a pretty wet area in the rainy season but was all dry now. We wandered around for a while, saw no people nor monkeys, but lots of firewood, so decided to stay there the night.
And sure enough, as soon as we started erecting the tents, children wandered up, said "Hello," and stayed to watch. And contrary to the stories we had been told about difficulties with children, they were actually quite shy and reticent but eventually tried their standard English phrases of "How are you?" and "My name is ....."
As it became dark they all said "Bye," and left.
Later a solitary adult came by and asked in good English if there was anything we needed. There wasn't.

Morning at our first Ethiopian camp; cattle and goats arrive for the grazing.

Hiula and Eva contemplate the visitors.


In the morning, children gathered again to watch the process, and all said "Bye," when we left for Gonder. We soon caught up with Hiula and Eva in the next village buying supplies.

Surrounded by all the local children. No problem as long as you entertain them!

The road climbed to over 7000 ft in places, comprising steep gravel sections where it was being re-made. And it was good to find out that Caroline's Serow was running fine on the new smaller main-jet, although struggling with the steepness of some of the climbs.
But we made it to Gonder where we are settled in at the moment.
The next morning one of the many 'hotel agents', who are impossible to avoid as you arrive in Gonder by road as a stranger, came to tell us that 'our friends from Mexico and Germany have arrived', and were at a nearby hotel. They had had trouble with the chainwheel on Hiula's bike on the first of the hills after our camp (they have a replacement waiting for them in Addis Ababa), so a passing truck had brought them all the way to Gonder, about three day's cycling otherwise.

The day before yesterday all five of us took a minibus ride up into the foothills of the Simien Mountains for a half-day trek.

Margin comment: Keeping track of dates and times in Ethiopia isn't straightforward. We can see already it's a very colourful country full of different cultures and flavours. The meeting point of Muslim, Orthodox Christian and African animist traditions. So the calendar and the clock are unique. Ethiopia never adopted the western calendar, so we are currently in 2002. They celebrated their millennium two years ago. And the day starts at what we call 6:00am. So the middle of the day is six o'clock by Ethiopian clocks, and six in the evening is twelve o'clock! So 'The day before yesterday' will have to do!

Serious travellers and trekkers take a five-day hike across the Simien peaks to Axum, the old capital of Ethiopia. There's not a tarmac road there and we are saving our little bikes for northern Kenya.
But we may visit the unique stone-carved town of Lalibela about three days from here on steep and twisty gravel roads. These are reportedly under 'major repairs'. So we'll dip our toes in the water and have a look at what 'major repairs' to Ethiopian gravel roads actually means before deciding.

In the meantime some photos from our visit to the foothills:

The black dots are baboons racing up the slopes. Perhaps they're late for something, confused by Ethiopian time.
Quite a few 'Bleeding Heart' monkeys were also on view in the distance. (Large red blotch of colour on the chest).



Some of the children who walked with us.



Posted by Ken Thomas at March 01, 2010 06:40 PM GMT

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