March 31, 2010 GMT
Isiolo - Part 1
We have arrived in Isiolo, northern Kenya, after five entertaining days on The Great North Highway.
And a lot has happened since sitting in an email café in Awasa, Ethiopia.
Beau learned that his elderly grandmother had sadly died, launching him and Caroline into two feverish days checking the feasibility of riding all the way back to Addis Ababa and finding flights to Vancouver. It looked possible, but with a huge number of 'ifs' of the African variety, as well as doubts about flight connections and seats onwards to Vancouver. After much deliberation Beau decided it all looked only barely achievable and we continued south.
However, second thoughts arose the next night in Yabello, and a huge number of phone calls from a hotel next to the campsite revealed it was still possible. But still all the pieces didn't line up reliably, least of all the long ride back to Addis and organising storage for the bikes and luggage.
So the next day found us further south in Moyale on the Kenyan border.
The ride south from Awasa took us out of the Lincolnshire Wolds and into the Dales of Yorkshire, followed by the Southern Highlands of Scotland, all with the addition of the hot tropical climate. But all very green and verdant.
And with far fewer people around, and much more livestock. All over the place.
After a night under canvas in Moyale we crossed into Kenya, on the last day of our customs permits for the bikes.
A few hours later we headed north again back into Ethiopia.
There was no petrol to be found on the Kenyan side of the border for the long ride to Marsabit. Some was available on the black market but at a pretty high price.
Locals told us it was a straightforward job to just ride back into Ethiopia and buy some there. That looked to be the case as there was very little formality on either side of the border with hardly anyone checking people wandering between the two countries. But we had already tried to buy petrol over there on the previous day, unsuccessfully.
"Go back to the NOK station or Total, everybody here buys their petrol over there, they always have some."
So off we went, towards the tiny bridge where the road crosses between Kenya and Ethiopia. A wave and a nod seemed to be sufficient formalities for passport control and visa check, and we tried the three petrol stations, unsuccessfully. Visions of a three-day wait loomed, but at the third station we were told to go back to the second and ask again, 'properly'.
But the answer was the same, "Only diesel!"
We asked again, if there was petrol hidden in the dozens of oil drums stacked up against the office.
Then someone else came out the office, looked us up and down, and said "possibly;" - special supply, special price.
Which led to a second slight problem, we had no Ethiopian money. The price in US dollars was one per litre, half the black market price on the Kenyan side, so we filled up quickly. The petrol, by the way, wasn't in cans or oil drums, but in the pump on the forecourt where all the petrol was sold from. That's Africa for you.
We hurried back into Kenya, met up with two German overlanding couples who had very kindly offered to carry some of our luggage, and entered onto the worst road in East Africa, otherwise known as The Trans East-African Highway, The Great North Highway, or The Five Hundred and Twenty-six Kilometre Moyale to Isiolo Bone-breaker.
Our first sight of traditional Kenyan tribal costumes, on the way out of Moyale.
It's difficult to describe this road objectively. It's hard dirt, dirt and stones, dirt, stones and rocks, mud plus all of the above, pot holes, and long long ruts full of railway chippings with high ridges of deep railway chippings between. And the piece de resistance: two hundred miles or more of corrugations constructed from all of the afore-mentioned materials. These corrugations fill the ruts, are on the tops of the ridges, in the hard sand, under the soft sand, in the stones and rocks, on the hard mud, everywhere.
The early part of the road - pretty simple so far.
The two trucks of our German travelling companions, Jonathon and Kathy, and Bodo and Sabine, arrive as we take a break.
The corrugations here in the hard mud are, errr, 'bearable'.
Beau searches for a smoother run on the far edge.
First night on 'the road' near Sololo. Bodo and Sabine's truck behind.
Kathy and Jonathon's truck.
Things get trickier the next day.
We encounter tiny roadside villages.
And the railway chippings start.
Like riding the rail-bed of the Kings Cross to York line - slowly.
And still we have to wave........
Dirt replaces the stone chippings and a herd of camels blocks the line.
Camels gone, chippings return, and it looks like a race is on.
Chips with everything.
We are generally faster than the heavy trucks. Kathy and Jonathon catch up with us as we take a break.
Another herd of camels gathers and we hit the road again.
And a bike hits the road. Something to do with going faster than the trucks maybe.
But it's soon righted - rubber side down again.
A closer look at this road we're riding on.......
Caroline needs a break from the incessant bone-shaking corrugations and Bodo is tempted to have a go.
He has a moto-cross Husqvarna back home and has been secretly itching to tackle this road since we started. So his wife Sabine takes over the truck driving and Caroline takes the passenger seat.
But it doesn't work out. The luggage still strapped to Caroline's bike makes it about three times heavier than Bodo's bike back home and too difficult to handle. He's amazed that we've been able to ride this road at all with all this weight still on board. With no messing about he orders all three of us to strip down to the bare essentials and put all our stuff in his truck.
Then he zooms straight off into the distance on the Serow.
Back in convoy again.
Bodo leads as Beau practises his footing.
With tons of stone chippings everywhere we expect the Flying Scotsman to come round the bend at any moment. But, no, we have to beware of the Isiolo Express Bus, going even faster.
The track ahead is clear and Beau gets his feet on the footrests.
Sunset at our camp that night.
Breaking camp the next morning. Next stop should be Marsabit.
Scenes from the road on our third day.
The corrugations grow worse and worse and worse.......
But it's still a thumbs up from Beau.
......... and worse and worse.......
Bodo rode Caroline's bike again for part of that day to give her a rest from these teeth-loosening corrugations. He really got into it, leading most of the way, but the extra power of McCrankpin's TTR won through over the last ten miles or so before Marsabit.
Witnessing all this excitment from his truck, Jonathon decided to get into the act:
Jonathon tries out Caroline's Serow when we reach the campsite in Marsabit.
To be continued - Part 2 - Marsabit to Isiolo - when internet next available........
Posted by Ken Thomas at 11:57 AM
March 20, 2010 GMT
South From Addis Ababa
We obtained Kenyan visas in Addis, the three-month variety, so that will be helpful.
We also have three-month visas for here in Ethiopia. But at the border we could only get one-month customs permits for our bikes so we have to move on.
And there are reports of rain further south.
Just before we left, a British rider, Ron, on an elderly BMW heading north gave us some very useful information on places to stay, and some encouraging advice on the dreaded Moyale-Isiolo road.
"It's not that bad," he said. "Take it easy and you'll be fine. And sometimes there are some smooth bits you can ride on with a bike if you look for them."
But he was delayed in Marsabit, about halfway along the road, for two days because of rain.
"Even that has it's advantages - once the rain stops and drains away and dries a bit, bikes can get going before the big trucks, so you don't have them to contend with!"
So we continue hopefully (But check the weather here in Awasa - below).
Ron had some entertaining stories about his round-the-world trip - Europe, Russia, the 'Stans', China, S.E. Asia, Australia, and now Cape Town to England. But he had taken only eight months for that, against our six months for London to Addis.
"I need to be home in two months," he said. "Have a living to earn!"
"And wait a minute!" he exclaimed. "The Chinese have started tarmacking that road from Isiolo. If you continue at your present speed it'll all be done (300km) by the time you get there!"
We'd heard about the rate of roads being covered with tarmac by the Chinese throughout East Africa, and seen some of it across the Sudanese deserts. So we'll see.
The owner of the campsite in Addis, Wim, is Dutch and knows a Dutch flower-grower with extensive grounds in Koka, about two hours south.
"Anyone who stays here is welcome to stay there for free!" Wim tells us. So as we still had things to do on our departure day and didn't leave until about 3:00pm that was useful. The owner of the farm was away at the time but his manager looked after us very well, with beers and teas all round.
We departed for lake Langano the following day.
Campsite at Lake Langano.
Local fishermen in a little canoe catch a lot of Tilapia here, so we bought a kilo for 50p which went down well. About half an hour from lake to plate!
We continued yesterday and arrived here in Awasa in a spectacular thunder storm late in the afternoon.
And that seems to be the pattern now.
We were rained on a little leaving Addis in the afternoon, somewhat more so yesterday, and the black clouds are gathering now at 6:00pm.
Between Addis and here we have dropped about 3000ft, so the weather is much warmer and pretty humid. But the bikes run much better.
There is also a considerable change in the landscape. Imagine the Wolds of Lincolnshire with a little help from some tropical weather. Regular visitors to Cadwell Park might get the idea. Not quite so green, but lush vegetation on the rolling hills everywhere. And where there are gaps in the trees, animals also everywhere.
Donkeys, chickens, goats, sheep, cattle, oxen pulling ploughs, camels (some even kept as pets!), horses, all crossing the road whenever the fancy takes. No fences. Anywhere.
To complete the picture, there are the extensive flower-growing farms scattered all around the town of Koka.
But outside of the many towns, not so many people!
Or so it seems, until you look closely into the shadows beneath the trees.
Which here have dense leafy branches in a flat horizontal canopy spreading out maybe twenty feet creating a large circle of dark shade below.
That's where the people are! Resting and socialising and taking not much notice of us. Except the children who run quickly up to the road, so the waving continues.
The plan now is to continue tomorrow to Yabello and do an oil change. Then to Moyale the next day, crossing into Kenya the day after.
The standard advice then is to do just 80km of 'the dreaded road' as practice, stopping the night at a popular campsite, in preparation for the long haul to Marsabit the next day. We have been, off and on, in the company of three groups of travellers in 4X4s, and met one of them in the supermarket this morning. In fact, Caroline has off-loaded some of her luggage ('the library') onto a large ex-military truck carrying a couple of German charity workers that we first met in Luxor (I think). And we are all juggling timetables to maybe traverse 'the road' together, or as together as possible.
(Footnote - have just found the 'Notification button' - well, the internet is soooo slow here! Will try to remember to press it now and again. But maybe not till Nairobi now).
Posted by Ken Thomas at 03:23 PM
March 14, 2010 GMT
We are in Addis Ababa, after a ride through the ever-changing scenery from Bahir Dar, and an overnight stop at a pretty smart hotel in Debre Markos.
View of Lake Tana from hotel room in Bahir Dar.
Many birds of a colour were pecking around in the hotel gardens. And fairly tame at that.
On the way to Debre Markos we stopped briefly at Zengena Crater Lake, a picnic spot just a little way off the road.
Village just below the lake.
At the invitation of the local warden we took a ride round the two-mile track that encircles the lake.
There were quite a few sections of loose gravel road in the mountains where the steep twisty sections were being repaired. Not the least, a tricky part where the steep tarmac road had fallen away into the Blue Nile Gorge far below, (south of Debre Markos) with a temporary gravel-and-stone road cut into the cliff side around the missing piece. And to complete the obstacle, a double-trailer fuel tanker had toppled over onto its side on a sharp bend on the temporary section, with just enough room between tanker and cliff face for a single line of traffic to pass amongst the rocks and boulders.
Further on, another double-tanker had recently fallen into a drainage ditch on the outside of a bend and caught fire. Diesel, petrol, oil or molten tar, or all four, had run all over the tarmac making for a sudden increase in concentration. If such a thing were possible.
For concentration is the most consumed item on these roads.
There is not a single kilometre where the road is clear of pedestrians, donkeys, cattle, sheep and goats, and herdsmen rounding up the wandering livestock in their care.
The density of foot and animal traffic increases sharply through the many towns and villages, with the addition of huge groups of schoolchildren, taking up half the road's width, on their way to or from classes. Around them weave dozens of buzzing tuk-tuks, working like swarming bees.
For this is the most populated region of Ethiopia, the fertile northern highlands.
And wherever there are children, which is everywhere, there is waving to be done as we ride along. Which leads to an interesting, for us, observation. I generally ride at the rear and can see fairly clearly the actions and reactions of the children and adults ahead as Caroline and Beau ride past. Particularly when sometimes it's just not possible through safety considerations for them to wave to the bystanders. Too much going on ahead; goats about to cross the road, a minibus about to pull away from the kerb, farmers shouldering their long wooden ploughs which extend a good way across the road into our path. So when a toddler or very young child waves at the first of us to pass, and there's no reciprocation, the waver just turns to the next of us and waves more enthusiastically. If Beau's attention is also focussed on something else the child just turns to me bringing up the rear and with even more enthusiasm waves again. I reply if I can, but any lack of response seems no big issue to the child.
With older children a lack of response brings a concerned and disappointed look to their face. Even more so with older teenagers.
With adults, only a few of whom will wave, a lack of response often brings a distinct look of concern or anger to the face. In Africa we have learnt that between adults it's the required and expected thing that every greeting is responded to properly. Including when adults wave to us from the roadside. So waving while riding between donkey carts, hurrying buses, and sheep or oxen clearly contemplating a sudden move to the opposite side of the road, is a serious and continuous business.
Thus, despite it not being a great distance from Bahir Dar to Debre Markos, we were shattered by the time we found a hotel there and could do no more than eat in the hotel's restaurant and retire.
In contrast to the level of population in these highlands, it's noticeable that there are no fences to be seen, in town, village or countryside between. People and animals walk and wander everywhere. I don't know what the culture of land ownership is here but it looks very different to the West.
After Debre Markos: the Blue Nile Gorge where the south-flowing river performs a U-turn on falling into the African Rift Valley and heads north for the Mediterranean.
Crossing the Nile at the bottom of the Blue Nile Gorge.
The old bridge from the new bridge.
Halfway between Debre Markos and Addis Ababa the hilly highlands flatten out into a high plateau, almost alpine-like, but not quite so green.
Whenever we stop for a much-needed break, away from herding animals and people if possible, children always gather.
These highlands reached over 10,000ft, at which height all three of our bikes were suffering from altitude-sickness to a greater or lesser extent.
Caroline's bike had just a small misfiring problem, the smaller jet seeming to be about right, or maybe the next size down would have been better.
Beau's bike ditto, on completely unknown carburettor jetting, maybe standard, we don't know.
Mine was a problem. As standard, this model of TTR is known to run lean because of the modern emissions-control arrangements. Everyone fits a larger main jet, I went one size up on mine.
But at over 10,000ft it was a bit tricky. The engine would only pull at one or two hard-to-find throttle positions. And the road was steep in many places. So on a few occasions I was down to first gear and getting slower before finding the elusive spot where the engine would pull once again. The tricky bit being that, with an accelerator pump in the carburettor, and throttle slide controlled directly by twistgrip (unlike the Serow), closing or opening the throttle the smallest amount enriches the mixture even further for a couple of seconds, making it pretty impossible at times to find that 'lean spot' where the engine would pull once more.
Just to add to the interest, every petrol station we stopped at had only diesel, no petrol. Memories of the two crashed fuel tankers back up the road sprung to mind.
But Beau had two extra cans strapped on, so not a big problem. Until Caroline's bike stopped, and we found that her petrol tap had started to leak the reserve into the main supply, and she was right out of fuel.
Luckily we had a couple of litres still in one of Beau's cans, and that just got us OK to the next station with petrol in stock.
So we made it to Addis Ababa, usually called the most African of cities, and now have the impossible task of describing Africa, or just this African capital.
So I won't bother, it's a vain task, other than to say it's exotic and colourful, as you'd expect.
I'll borrow from another book instead, which says that, in terms relevant to our world, Africa is not a continent, but a planet, another cosmos.
And there you find two peoples, Africans, and visiting westerners, and they are not only instantly identifiable by their colour.
Africans live with nature, follow nature, live off of the earth and are of the earth.
Westerners, by even our smallest of actions and body language, try to bend and alter nature, twist it to fit our acquired culture, to achieve our material (and often financial) gratifications.
So to that I'll add my own small observation.
Further north, particularly in Egypt, there are no menus in most restaurants. The waiter tells you what there is, and you decide.
But here, restaurant menus seem to have caught on, which doesn't seem very logical.
Because Africa is a place where people live with nature and consequently eat whatever nature provides at the time.
Menus (or even shopping lists) on the other hand are an attempt to force nature into providing what you want, which just doesn't happen here, so menus don't work. They don't fit into the African culture of eating for a meal only what there is. (Big western chain hotels an exception).
And that I think explains why we've found that where there is a menu, you rarely get what you order from it. And that's a very common observation related by most travellers in Africa, and many travel writers.
Order what you like, you'll be served whatever's available at the time.
At some restaurants the waiter's main job, sometimes, seems to be to tell you what isn't available from the printed menu. Usually quite a list!
As they say, that's Africa for you!
Back to practicalities, we've heard that Kenyan visas may be more expensive to buy at the border than here in Addis Ababa. And the three-month version available here may not be on offer at the border. So on Monday we'll go to the Kenyan embassy before continuing south.
We've also heard today from two German riders who are about five days ahead of us. They've been stranded for two days at Yabello, the last town 80 miles before the Kenyan border, waiting for petrol to be delivered to the petrol station there. Their advice is to carry as much as possible so we'll review the balance between carrying petrol and water.
Hope the tanker arrives soon!
Latest Financial Report from Addis.
I erroneously thought I was a bit of an expert on arranging cash for overseas trips to out-of-the-way places with doubtful ATMs. For visits to Russia I had followed good advice to take low-denomination US dollar bills that were brand-new, or as good as. Including plenty of $1s for when something had to be paid for in US dollars and you could be sure that the seller would have no change.
In Central America I once had a brand new $10 bill turned down at a bank simply for having a single dog-eared corner.
I reasoned that Africa would be the same so obtained a large quantity of brand new $1 and $5 dollar bills (as well as a few 10s and 20s), thinking it the smart thing to do. The phrase 'doorstep sandwich' springs to mind - a few of them.
But, as they say, in all things, Africa is different. Very different.
In Cairo we met a Dutch couple travelling in the opposite direction to us who gave us lots of useful info about the route ahead. Including the advice that we should carry new dollar bills, "in large denominations, $100s are good. The further south you go the lower the rate you get for small notes when you change money. Ones are pretty useless!"
The phrase "Oh dear!" springs to mind.
So in Bahir Dar I found out why - why they don't like small notes.
In Khartoum, and other places, I had previously changed money on the streets with no problem, except the money-changers frowned a bit seriously at the twenty $1 bills I included each time. But I always asked the rate before showing my money and the small notes were always accepted. But as I said before, in Sudan the people are very nice.
In Bahir Dar I went to the bank with $60 in tens and $10 in ones.
I'll try to keep it short:
The 'Receiving Teller' didn't even blink when seeing all the ones. Just counted it all about three times, filled in a form and handed it all, including my passport, to an elderly gentleman in the back office.
(Average life expectancy in Ethiopia is 45, so there are very few 'elderly gentlemen' and even fewer of my age. Distinctly different to being in my local Waitrose. It gives you a funny feeling. You get a certain type of wave and tip of the head from Ethiopian elderly gentlemen out in the streets).
The said gent clears a large space on the table next to the photocopier behind the cashiers, looks a bit bewildered at the seventy dollars, spreads it all out on the table and proceeds to photocopy the form. Followed by my passport, and all of my sixteen banknotes. Four per A4 sheet.
"So THAT's why they don't like small notes," I said to myself.
The elderly gent now collects all the photocopies and the form together, staples them up, and hands the lot, cash and all, to the next official along the counter. He fills in another form which requires the name of the hotel where I'm staying, my occupation, my nationality ('United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' being just a source of great confusion to him), and my signature. He then directs me to "Window number two", hands the huge file to the 'Paying Teller' and requests I wait five minutes at the window.
After ten minutes the Paying Teller calls my name, counts out 945 Ethiopian Birr at least four times (100 Birr is the largest note in circulation, about £5), fills out a receipt and hands it, my passport and Ethiopian cash through the window.
Job done! And only about 40 minutes for the whole transaction.
But the best, I found, was yet to come.
We are staying at the only campsite in Addis Ababa, right next to the huge 19th-century defunct French-built railway station, 'Chemin de Fer Djibouto Addis Ababa', but with its hotel, restaurant, platform café, buffet and newspaper stand all still functioning. When we arrived Hiula and Eva were already here ahead of us. They still had trouble with Hiula's bicycle gears and had thumbed a lift all the way with another truck, and found, as planned, that their new parts had arrived for them at the post office. Also, as an example of Ethiopian hospitality, the truck driver who brought them here stopped by the other day just to see how their repairs had gone.
Anyway, Eva had gone to the local bank to change a single $50 bill. They had been smarter than me and carried big bills so I asked what happened at the bank.
"Well, it's a funny thing," said Eva.
"It took four people to change the note. The first counted it a couple of times, filled out a form and handed the note and form to a second cashier. He put the fifty dollar bill all on its own in one of those banknote counting machines. But the machine jammed so he had to extract it, reset the machine and try again. It counted the note correctly the second time and printed out a docket confirming it was one single note, which the official stapled to the form and handed the whole lot on. It took about half an hour to complete the whole thing and get my Ethiopian money."
So there you have it. In all things, Africa is DIFFERENT, in ways you cannot imagine! And having large banknotes and a counting machine saves ten minutes when changing your money.
Now please don't ask what using a counting machine to count a single banknote has to do with living with, and following, nature. Because no, I don't know either.
So now, I'm plucking up the courage to go into the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia with seventy dollars in ones under my arm, just to see what happens.......
Posted by Ken Thomas at 06:05 PM
March 06, 2010 GMT
Time Of Life
It must be a time of life thing, leading to all those philosophical meanderings.
For here I am, riding my bike round Ethiopia, and today reaching the age that my dad was when he died. Makes you think.
Is it a significant day or not? I don't know.
Anyway, quite a while ago I wrote a piece about him, for the sake of it and for a bike magazine. So in view of the day today, I've added it to this blog, but up the front so as not to be in the flow of the journey's updates.
Or under 'archives', May 5th, 2009.
It's a bit of a long-term work-in-progress, and I just realised I don't have the full-length version here with me. So it'll be updated when I return home, and maybe at other random times as well.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 03:19 PM
Gonder To Bahir Dar - A Ramble
After Gonder we stuck our toes in the water of the Lalibela road by taking the turn-off at Werota. We expected to find a gravel road under major repairs but found new tarmac instead, and learned that it extends about two-thirds of the way.
Roadside scenes on the way to the village of Werota
So we went five miles as planned and then took the 2km track for the Awramba weaving cooperative. That was a track and a half - rocks large and small, stones, ruts and high ridges, and plenty of waving children. Quite a test for our fully-laden bikes, about nine litres of additional water on mine at the time.
The track to Awramba, pictured as we departed.
The co-op is a self-contained village of over a hundred homes, over four hundred people, surviving on the sale of an extensive range of clothes and textiles woven on site. There is no running water yet (almost completed, funded by the government), only part-time electricity, a shop and cafeteria, and a building housing twelve guest rooms where we were welcome to stay the night. So we did.
But the commune's main feature is that it is entirely secular, founded about twenty-five years ago to demonstrate in an extensively religious country, that poverty can be eradicated by education and work and an atheistic way of life.
Income is also earned through charging vistors like us for meals and rooms. One pound for a single room, 15p to 60p for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So it was very pleasant to spend a while there watching the weavers, being shown round the school, library and other parts of the village and watching life go on in general. Including the construction of a new home near the village centre. The buildings are all of mud on frames of tree-branches, with tin or thatch roofs.
Beau contemplates the school room.
And ponders what books to borrow from the library.
Centre of the village, cafeteria to the right behind bikes.
Start of the school day.
Grain storage vessels with thatch roofs.
Views inside the weaving shed.
Carrying water through the village.
Marshalling the donkeys in the morning for the day's work.
New mud and timber family home nearing completion.
This was all in stark contrast to the next couple of days.
We decided against visiting Lalibela. Even with a lot of new tarmac it would have been a total of six days for us, and the main access for tourists now is by air to the relatively new landing strip. Yet it is a functioning Orthodox centre of worship full of churches with a large population of priests and monks. Largely isolated from the rest of the country until relatively recently, we read that it is besieged now by tourists brought in by air and tarmac and "must see" phrases in the guide books. So the question arises as it often does on a journey of this sort: Do we want to be a part of that?
We continued on to Bahir Dar on Lake Tana instead, after leaving Awramba.
There are a number of islands scattered around the lake housing isolated Orthodox monasteries, and a selection of organised excursions from Bahir Dar for tourists to see/besiege them.
One of which we took.
The first stop on our little boat with six passengers was a tiny island with tiny monastic community and museum, the entrance fee for which I could not help but notice was double the cost to live for a whole day (and night) at the weaving commune.
Another boat with a dozen passengers arrived so we all squeezed in to the compact museum where we were proudly shown the island's prize exhibit, a large 700-year-old manuscript prayer book. The curator enthusiastically thumbed through it to show each of us the elaborate illustrations inside, pages visibly loosening as he flicked them. And I wondered, after its 700 years of 'normal use', how much more of that sort of treatment would be meted out for the benefit of paying tourists before the community's prized relic disintegrates in front of an array of clicking cameras.
Ah well! Onwards and upwards.
A low-flying military jet screamed overhead towards some distant shore, the noise tearing around the lake's surface unimpeded by trees or hills.
We moored at a second island where the monastery seemed to be closed but there was still a charge to see a 'museum' which we declined.
Three or four more military jets screamed and roared around above the lake's waters as we chugged towards a third island and another Orthodox community. Our route took us close to a flotilla of papyrus kayaks, a common form of transport for those living and working on the lake. This convoy was carrying firewood between lakeshore and islands, each kayak paddled by two oarsmen.
A couple more jets roared around - I remembered that there are national elections here in eight weeks.
My head was starting to fill with those 'follow the money' questions:
How did this country pay for those planes?
Where did the money come from, what did the people of this country pay?
Where did that money go? (UK? I don't know. US? Maybe neither of the above - it doesn't matter)
To whom in that country(s) did all that money go?
How much to the politicians of that country?
How much finds its way back to the politicians of the purchasing country?
- You get the idea - maybe. Maybe not.
Then, from the helmsman of our boat, "It's a seven-hour journey for these papyrus boats, to deliver the firewood to the island."
Followed by one of those 'moments of truth', piercing the stark contrast between papyrus boats on the water and wailing jets above, a question from a fellow passenger: "Do they paddle all the way back the same day or stay overnight?" "Do they return on the same boat?"
Somehow, the thought of the boatmen returning in the comfort of one of the military jets entered my head - they had after all helped to buy them from the people of some 'western' country. I knew that the 'moment of truth' was complete. The truth was, I had inadvertently boarded completely the wrong boat in Bahir Dar.
How did that happen?
But there was no way back, as we arrived at the jetty of the largest religious community of our tour. And being the largest, the fee for the guide to show us the monastic buildings and relics was now three times the cost of living for one day at the weaving cooperative. So I declined their offer and waited for our final stop-off at a lakeside tea and fruit stall, enabling things to get back into perspective.
Colourful red bird outside the final monastery.
Schoolgirl arrives home by papyrus kayak at the tea and fruit kiosk.
Children at the lakeside tea stall bring things back into perspective.
So maybe I'll steer my handlebars clear of politics for now and stick to the highways and byways on my map - if I haven't yet given it away.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 12:26 PM
March 02, 2010 GMT
On Burning Your Boats
Another country - another map.
And another decision - what to do with the map for the previous country?
It's been like this since Turkey.
It's a serious question.
You can't continue to carry all the maps for past countries, you'll need a travelling library for them all.
But there's something chillingly final about disposing of the map for the last country.
How will you return home??
If you burn your boat, you can always make another. But throwing away, or giving away, a map??
That definitely destroys all possibility of finding a passage back to Whyteleafe - despite it having three railway stations, two bus services and Gatwick Airport.
It was the same a few years ago, walking to Knivskjellodden, near North Cape, Norway, in the middle of June, after leaving my old Yamaha Serow in the deserted roadside car park. I set off on the three-hour wilderness trek at ten in the evening, wanting to arrive for the midnight sun at one the following morning. But after an hour, 11:00pm by then, I realised it would be impossible to ever find my way back across peat moors, snow fields and rock plateau when it got dark. Only over a few small areas of scrubby grass was a worn path discernible, the rest of the route was marked solely by occasional upright rocks with a splodge of red paint. Some already hidden in the long dark shadows.
And I had no torch.
And it was now past eleven o'clock - it would surely be dark soon!
I found it all but impossible to convince myself that it wasn't going to get dark. At all.
Not until late July.
Five weeks away.
It's the same with the maps - all but impossible to convince myself that I'll ever find the way home after disposing of my maps for Sudan and Egypt. I'll just have to keep them!
So much riding (9,000 miles now) - so much time for crazy thoughts.
Must write a new essay - 'On Dealing With The Paranoia'.
The plan is to leave Gonder tomorrow for Bahir Dar on Lake Tana (source of the Blue Nile).
We'll look at the road to Lalibela on the way (gravel road under re-construction), visit a co-operative village about five miles along it, and decide whether to attempt the two days to Lalibela instead.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 11:58 AM
On Having Your Boots Shined
I've had my shoes polished by shoe-shine boys in a few 'third-world' parts of the globe, but have avoided it so far on this journey.
You see, the boots I'm wearing are supposed to be of high-quality leather, water resistant, in addition to the water-proof membrane included. So far that has proved to be the case (unlike some of the other 'high quality', 'rugged expedition' apparel I bought for the voyage). And as I understand it, such leather needs to be cleaned properly otherwise the dirt impregnates the leather reducing its water-resistance, and ditto the stitching, reducing the strength and water-resistance of that. Now my boots have been permanently covered with African and Middle Eastern dirt, dust, sand and even mud on this journey, except for the three or four occasions I've washed them before applying some leather dubbin. Consequently, whenever I cross some pavement corner wearing these grubby boots I hear a chorus of shoe-shine boys imploring me to stop for a quick polish.
So until now I've resisted, not wanting someone to slap polish on top of the dirt and sand and rub the whole lot into the leather.
But here in Gonder, a town with a goodly supply of shoe-shiners on the pavement corners, I noticed that a couple of them, outside a very nice pastry café, have tubs of water next to their cleaning paraphernalia.
I asked if that's for washing the shoes first.
"Of course, washed clean before polish. Sit down, I get fresh water straightaway!"
So he did, and I did, and I proceeded to partake of the best shoe-shine ever.
Then I noticed a certain embarrassment. As he enthusiastically washed all the dirt off with water and brush, my laces came into full view. They have both broken twice so far, and each time I just knotted the broken ends together in-situ and re-tied them. So with all the dirt washed off, all the knotted and frayed ends became prominently visible.
The guide books for Africa all say the same about dress - to be taken seriously you have to wear clean clothes in reasonable condition, whatever style they are. And it's true. Everyone you see on the streets wears sparkling clean brightly-coloured clothes and shoes. Even the white top-to-toe robes of the Sudanese men are always whiter-than-white, despite the air, pavements and roads being heavily laden with dust and sand. The consumption of washing powder across Africa must be the highest in the world.
And this shoe-shine executive was the same; smart clean shirt and trousers and of course shiny shoes.
Now my broken frayed and knotted laces looked a bit of a mess. So I hatched a cunning plan.
By the time my boots had been washed, waxed and polished they looked as-new again, truly for the first time since I bought them. But the frayed knots in the laces completely ruined all the fine work and flamboyant polishing of the smart shoe-shine boy. So I paid (fifty pence for shoes, one pound for boots, probably more than the locals pay) and explained carefully I would be back shortly with another task. He nodded and smiled but I wasn't very sure he understood me.
My plan was to nip back to the hotel, retrieve a spare pair of laces from my luggage (as they are well over six-foot long and not easily obtainable I have a few spares but haven't bothered to use any), and return to the shoe-shiner. Then thread them in so he could see the proper results of his labour with decent laces fitted, and leave him the old ones and a small tip. I had noticed that his equipment was tied into bundles, and his boxes tied up, with old shoe laces. Like all of Africa, nothing is ever thrown away, everything is re-used for some new purpose (except, of course, plastic bags).
On my return he ordered me to sit down again when I showed him the new laces. He brushed my hands away when I attempted to remove the old ones, insisting on doing the job himself. With old laces gone, he opened out the uppers completely, revealing a whole load of caked and compressed dirt and sand around the tongue. So he started again with water and brush, cleaned it all out, applied leather cream and polish, brushed and buffed until each complete and unlaced boot gleamed in the sun.
And with a final flourish, threaded up the new laces to complete the job properly and refused any further payment.
They say, back home, if you want a proper job done you have to do it yourself. I'll try to remember that doesn't apply to shoe cleaning in Africa.
(Nor, from what I saw in Khartoum, car cleaning).
Posted by Ken Thomas at 11:40 AM
Sudan To Gonder GPS
You never know, someone may be reading this to research their own overland journey, so I'll try to remember to log GPS info of useful places hereon. I think everything up to now is logged elsewhere on the HUBB.
I've lost the GPS to this first one, so some simple directions. Camping near the Nuri pyramids. Camping not permitted at the pyramids (so we were told by local police).
So return down the tarmac road (the 'Dam Road') and take the right turn towards Merowe. (Still tarmac). After a few km, on the outskirts of a village there's a large expanse of open land on the right, sandy and covered with bushes and paths, extensively used by locals on foot and donkeys. Beyond are large palm plantations.
Go onto the land and find a space amongst the bushes for a tent. Someone will approach, ask if it's OK to camp.
Two approached us, both said OK, one returned later with tea for us.
Many locals stopped by in the morning for a chat.
A large 4X4 with us camped within sight of the tarmac road, no problem.
Camping at Meroe pyramids between Atbara and Khartoum. OK to camp here, let the on-site wardens know your intentions. Word is that if you say you're on a tight budget with not much money, you can camp for free.
Bakri's garden. 50 miles from Khartoum on road to Gedaref.
N15deg 9.364' E33deg 6.688'
Go along good dirt driveway towards location, ask anyone you see about camping. If no one around peer through gate or fence, someone will turn up.
Be prepared for late-ish departure next day. (See previous posting).
Halfway between Wad Madani and Gedaref.
N14deg 7.441' E34deg 23.398'
Ridge enclosing a lake on left of road with easy access behind. Out of sight of road if at the right place tucked behind the ridge.
Close to Gallabat and border.
N13deg 3.353' E36deg 2.279'
Dirt track leading to water hole away from road. Likely to be muddy in rainy season but possibly good place for wildlife.
Between Sudan border and Gonder.
N12deg 37.687' E36deg 39.111'
Dirt track leading to large open area when dry. Likely to be muddy in rainy season and cultivated, with maybe little space to camp. Greet the children when they arrive.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 11:16 AM
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!"
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 06:40 PM