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Africa Tour August 2011 - August 2012

18/01/2012 Ethiopia

Ethiopia did not make it easy for us. But it is worth every bit of effort that you put in there. At least of what we have seen now we can say Ethiopia is beautiful.
When we came across the border in Moyale our usual priorities kicked in again: money, food, petrol. We knew there are not many ATM outside Addis Ababa so we had to exchange some US$ cash for Ethiopian Birr at the bank in Moyale. Just to be able to survive till we get to a bigger city and have a chance to withdraw money at an ATM. We don't like using our US$ for everydays money because it is like an emergency cash reserve for us which is hard to replenish once it is gone.

However, the real challenge that met us a bit later was petrol. Coming along the Marsabit - Moyale route we both saved weight as much as we could and only had minimal petrol with us to reach Moyale. And in Moyale, both Kenyan side and Ethiopian side of the border, there are petrol stations. But no petrol. Sorry finished, try next town. One hundret km away. Good luck. So we bought extremely expensive petrol at the black market to reach the next town. A town called 'Mega' and pretty big on the map. But same problem. Petrol station yes. Petrol no. Try next town. One hundred km away. So again we used the expensive services of the black market to just make it to the next town, Yabello. Getting there, two petrol stations, no petrol. Sorry, try next town, eighty five km away. But, in a major change of luck, even the black market was sold out. Also, asking a Police man, there would not be petrol in the next town or the one after. That's the sort of problem we tryed to avoid by not going to Malawi. But now it caught up with us in Ethiopia.
But when you are on holidays you are in good spirit and problems don't exist. The big towns with their empty petrol stations are not on our route anyway, we wanted to turn west into the Omo Valley. So, lucky as we were we could buy some petrol from the local Tuk Tuk taxi company, enough to take us the 100km to Konso, the first place of any size in the Omo Valley region. And cool thing is, in Konso there was petrol available at the petrol station. In strange twists and turns first there wasn't, then some local people discussing the matter and suddenly, 10min later petrol was flowing out of the pump with the 'Kerosene' label. To the normal pump price. And yes, it was petrol, not kerosene. So we both filled up every corner of our tanks and the reserve jerry cans and should now be fine to travel freely through the Omo Valley and into Arba Minch, a big town where apparently petrol is available again.
The Omo Valley is famous for it's colourful people. There is so many little tribes, just occupying a village or two. And being distinctively different from the tribe in the neighbouring villages. And all living peacefully together. There is people decorating themselves with feathers, others with layers of colourful necklaces covering their entire neck. Others decorate their bodies with scars, often thousand little dots forming lines and other patterns on the skin. Some like rasta hair, others short hair, others have whole designs woven and cut into their hair. Really beautiful people. It is the first such big area we travel through where people don't usually wear western style clothes.
But everyone also understands the value of tourism and that spoiled the charm of the area. To visit one of the old traditional villages you need to pay for your permit, a parking fee and take a guide with you who of course costs money. To take photos of people you don't usually just ask and snap but here ask and pay and snap. Tourists even need to pay to visit the market. But even the area outside these 'traditional' villages is still worth a visit and really interesting to see. We didn't see any of the 'payable' villages.

And then we had another flat tyre day. For Martin's back wheel. The perpetrator being a big fat rusty nail. In the peak of mid day heat. But in Africa, even in the middle of nowhere you are not alone and soon we had a few local hands helping us while many tourist cars just went past. The tyre was quickly fixed. But 15min later flat again. The patch just came loose. Probably too hot here. But again, within minutes a whole heap of helping hands around. Tyre fixed. Air pumped in. Flat again. Tube removed. Patch came loose again. Don't know why, but I heard from others too that there is trouble patching tyres in extreme outside temperatures. These bloody patches just wouldn't stay on! Fortunately we carried a spare tube which finally solved the problem and prevented it from becoming a heat stroke problem for us. There was no shade whatsoever on that road.
The next day we spent entirely in the Omo Valley and with it's colourful people. Already in the morning we were greeted by a whole bunch of them. We spent our night bushcamping, just somewhere far from anywhere. Yet there they were in the morning. Some topless, others covered in goatskins and some in colourful woven blankets. Just there watching our every move. Trying our every thing. And if they like it asking if they could have it. Even my motorbike jacket was deemed so useful that they asked to have it. But really good people too. You say no and they give it all back to you without discussion.
The rest of the day we spent riding through beautiful environments. In the Omo Valley you are almost alone on the road. No other traffic. One one side there is always the mountains. Green and lush and close. The other side is usually flat. And green too. And in between it's just you and your motorbike. Zooming along a perfectly graded dirtroad. A little white dustcloud following you. Warm wind blowing in your face through the open visor. Every now and then you see people walking along or just standing there, getting to new heights of happines by just seeing you. Kids running after you. Others dancing on the spot. Adults waiving their hands. Shouting something towards you. Often also asking for money or food or water. There is just too many of them. As soon as you stop a happy crowd will form around you. Trying and testing everything they can get their hands on. Pushing the buttons on your bike. Saving strange points into your GPS. Playing around with straps and zippers of your luggage. All at the same time. You want to check a lot before you start going again. Like me going many km with my lights on high beam. Who pushed that button again?
There are many good reasons to stop. People are certainly one reason to make every stop memorable. Food is another one. There is this typical sour dough pancake called Enschela which is just fantastic. Or freshly baked bread in the morning. And really really aromatic tea. Lots of good stuff for someone like me who is always hungry.
Tomorrow we will leave the Omo Valley and make our way further North towards Arba Minch. Where we hopefully find an ATM. And also my little Suzuki will need some fresh oil. To stay happy for many thousands of more km.

21/01/2012 South Ethiopia

Another good day has passed. We are currently discovering Ethiopia. And enjoying this country a lot.
After the Omo Valley we headed North to Arba Minch and then towards Shashemene via the little mountain village of Dorse. It is a really stunning landscape, particularly the mountains near Arba Minch. We made it up to the highest point my little Suzuki has ever been, just over the 3000m mark on the road. You can imagine the view from up there over the flat landscape with the Rift Valley lakes, really cool.
The roads we travelled on are mostly tarmac of decent quality. Other than the countries we travelled through previously there are no speed humps in Ethiopia. Which is something we both like heaps. I still remember the little 'hills' that some towns in Kenya put on the street to slow down traffic to less than walking speed.
The road up the mountains to Dorse and back down on the other side was not tarmac. But seriously one of the most scenic routes we've been riding for a long time. The road itself was really rocky, lots of loose stuff that makes you go sideways. But going slowly has the advantage that we could really enjoy the scenery. Other than in the Omo Valley people up here are not constantly shouting 'You you you!!!' or 'Give me one Birr'. No, up there they are greeting friendly when you go past. And that's it. Also, because it is so high and quite cold there, people wear blankets and hats made of wool. And these are so colourful, most with a striped pattern of all colours of the rainbow. With red and orange dominating. This follows through to their huts. Up there they are made of a mixture of straw and mud. And doors and window frames are painted in all colours.
Similar to the changing scenery we also noticed some stark differences in the people. And the way they interact with us. In the Omo Valley, a very touristy area with lots of 4WD vehicles full of visitors, local people often ask for money. When you are riding or when you are stopping. Children often shout it straight into our face 'YOU YOU YOU!' - the constant soundtrack of the Omo Valley. It sounds pretty rude when you first encounter it. But when you see the mostly smiling faces of the kids or when you take your time to stop and make some fun with them, they are really cool. And obviously do not mean to be rude. Stopping, pointing at them with your finger and shouting back 'you you you!!!' usually leads to a lot of laughter on both sides. That's the cool thing of having time. You can wait and go past the initial 'you you you' or the compulsary asking for money. Once you are past that and they finished their 'routine' you meet some genuinely friendly people.
Whenever we stop somewhere people literally start running towards us, kids and adults. And in no time we are surrounded by a huge crowd. A crowd that often stops the traffic on the road. Out of that crowd there are always a few people who speak English and who lead the conversation. If you ever feared public speaking, come to Ethiopia and you will find your perfect training ground. How to entertain a whole village? Just stand there and unpack your water bottle. That is seriously the most interesting thing they must have witnessed all week. You want to walk around your motorbike? Well, you can't. There is no room to walk. And the coolest part of your motorbike? Beyond doubt it's the mirrors. They are the big favorites for the girls in the crowd. Every time you keep going again you need to adjust the mirrors. And check your switches and buttons. Fortunately my little Suzuki has not too many buttons. So all I need to do is to switch off the high beam and the indicators. It can get a bit stressful but if you take it with humor you get over it. Just part of life here.
We also find if you are friendly to them they are friendly to you. Many people make a huge effort on the road to greet us when riding past. They run towards us waiving both hands. Some kids are dancing. Adults jumping up and down with thumps up. And we always greet back. Waiving hands or with thumps up or something similar. And this seems to give them a feeling of success because we can see them laughing and shaking each others hands and high-fiving each other in the rear mirror. Or they just jump up and down in joy as soon as we waive back. Often Martin rides some 100m ahead and kids start running towards him but are to slow. Standing on the road and disappointedly looking after Martin they change their expression completely when they realise that there is another one. And when I start greeting them they smile and laugh as if they've seen Santa Claus. No one has so far thrown any stone at us. As it seems such a common experience for many other travellers in Ethiopia. But maybe we are just lucky and will get into the stone throwing areas later.
Last night we camped very safely. Looking for a school to camp (they usually make great camping spots and can be found in every village) we were shown behind the school and camped in front of the Ethiopian Federal Police building. And these police guys made good company. They all spoke really good English, they let us camp there for free, they let us charge our electronics on their power plugs. And we sat and talked into the evening together with them and a teacher from the school.
Tonight we camp at Lake Shalla, a beautiful lake in the Abiata Shalla Lakes NP. As far as we can tell we are the only tourists in the NP. The guard at the front got really excited when he saw us and even left his office to come down the street for 200m (where we stopped to decide what to do) to greet us and tell us about the NP. In all his excitement he was happy to only charge us the NP entrance fee and not the fee for our bikes or for camping as it was written on the big signboard at the entrance. And also the compulsary guide to accompany us was not so compulsary any more if only we stay. And so we stayed. The NP features two lakes and a lot of barren dusty landscape full of Acacia trees. It gives you a bit of an outworldly feeling. You ride along the sandy tracks, through creeks of volcanic hot water. There is a lot of dust in the air. There is an Ostrich next to you, looking down on you. And there is these two volcanic lakes showing different colours. The one we camp on is a mix of reddish brown and orange water colour.
Other than in National Parks in Australia here there are people living. With their livestock. So it is not unusual to see cows and donkeys. Or huts and schools. Consequently there is not much 'wildlife' around, mostly birds. The spectacular ones like Ostriches. Or the big ones like Flamingoes and Pelicans. Or heaps and heaps of little ones, diving into the lake. Whole flocks of them. And the only people here are some local families. Covered in blankets and sheets, black faces watching us out of dusty layers of woven clothes. And white teeth smiling. People here in the NP don't talk much. They communicate in gestures. For example when pitching my tent two kids, maybe 8 and 10 years old silently helped me getting the pegs in, passed me some rocks to use as hammer. No words, just smiles. When parking my little Suzuki on the sandy terrain, before I could say or do anything they already brought a big flat rock to put underneath the sidestand. And as quickly as they came they disappeared again. So here we are, just Martin and me and our bikes on the shores of Lake Shalla. The setting sun paints the dusty sky in many shades of red and orange. Everything is shown in an awesome light. A few Pelicans paddle noislessly along. Really cool.
My little Suzuki has had quite a hard time again. To make her happy I treated her with some fresh golden oil in Arba Minch. But the terrain is quite demanding. After the 500km shock busting rough road in Kenya to Moyale here in Ethiopia it is the condition of the tarmac road. Our problem, I think, is that people are to poor to have cars or motorbikes. There is no traffic on the road. Only a few buses and trucks. And some big diesel 4WD with tourists inside. Consequently, if there is no traffic, the road is used for other purposes. I have never seen so many cows, donkeys, sheep or goats on the road before. No one seems to care and they hardly make room for you. We sometimes have to fight our way through a big herd of cows with big threatening horns. And worst of all, these guys keep dropping stuff. Which you unexpectedly keep hitting. So to no surprise the underside of both our brave bikes are literally covered in shit. It brakes my heart to see my little Suzuki in so much shit but what can you do?
The other tough thing is dust. If there is no demand on the road there is no maintenance either. So often there are long sections of road with the tarmac missing. Washed away or just broken away. And in there it's deep fine dust. And due to the constant stampede of cows the dust keeps forming long brown clouds, carried along the road. Even worsened by the occasional bus or truck. This dust penetrates everything. My camera, packed in it's case, wrapped in a waterproof bag and being inside my backpack still had dust on it. I don't even dare to look at my little Suzuki's air filter.
However, she is running really fine. The petrol you get here seems to be awesome. She is much quiter, seems to have more power and also consumes less fuel than usual. But petrol is still hard to come by. There is just no demand for it. We went past many service stations and all their pumps just had diesel written on it. And it's true, all vehicles we meet use diesel. We never heard of anyone having such a petrol problem in Ethiopia. So we hope it only affects the area qe are currently in. But here in Ethiopia, more than in any other country before, I am really really glad to have my 30l long range tank.

It seems like escaping the Congo does not end our security concerns. Just two days ago apparently six tourists got shot and killed in North Eastern Ethiopia. Many others got seriously injured, some kidnapped. We actually planned to visit that same spot in a few weeks time. It is an active volcano with a constantly boiling lava lake, something I have never seen before. Let's hope the situation is getting back in control quickly up there.
24/01/2012 First pics from Ethiopia

Martin riding alongside the mountains in the Omo Valley

Making our way through a bunch of cattle

Mirinda and Coca Cola in Armaric alphabet

The combination of the atmosphere saturated with dust and the setting sun presents the environment in some unreal light show.

The rocky mountain road near Arba Minch

24/01/2012 Ethiopia

Hello again from beautiful Ethiopia. We are still travelling in the Southwest of the country. And will reach the town of Nekempte tomorrow. And the capital Addis Ababa soon after.
If you would ask me right now what the first thing in my mind is when thinking about Ethiopia I would say it's dust. Dust seems to be a defining element for this country. It is omnipresent. Huge clouds of it are everywhere. It looks amazing when we ride up the hills and see this huge dustcloud down in the valley below. A brownish orange cloud which is set alight from the top by the sun. The sun never sets at the horizon, it always disappears way above it in the layer of dense dust. And for us, dust is everywhere. While typing this I am sitting at a beautiful camping spot next to a coffee plantation, probably 200m away from the main (dirt) road. Everytime a vehicle comes past, 3 minutes later a dustcloud penetrates the tent. It's just incredible.
And you should have seen my airfilter lately. My little Suzuki's airfilter is a foam element, soaked in some motoroil. I put an extra filter layer around it, like a sock completely covering the foam filter. That way it is easier to keep clean. And this sock had literally an almost one mm thick cake of dust, sticking together with soaked up motoroil, around it. I would bend it and whole pieces would brake up and fall down. All that must have happened since Nairobi where I last cleaned it. Maybe 10 days ago. Most of the distance travelled since then was in Ethiopia.

However, don't get me wrong. I am not complaining. Because Ethiopia is really beautiful. Riding through Ethiopia is like watching a movie in which identical scenes keep being repeated in various awesome combinations. These scenes that go past you would be: a road filled with donkeys. Or a road filled with cows. Or a road filles with donkeys and cows. Just standing on the road. Doing their donkey thing. Or cow thing. While we are fighting our way through, often only centimetres to spare. But these beasts do not move. Another typical scene would be smiling people in tattered clothes running towards the road frantically waiving both arms at us and shouting something in Amharic language. Another one a colourful ancient Isuzu bus standing on the road side and people loading or unloading numerous big rice bags full of things. Or another one a typical small town with the road completely clogged with blue 'Bajaj' Tuk Tuks and donkeys and cows and people. All going on both sides of the road and in all directions. Or some are not moving at all, just standing there, enjoying the scenery.
Or the most typical picture, of course, one of these ancient colourful Isuzu buses driving in front uf us. And we see nothing. Our whole world then is just a brown and orange haze of impenetrable dust. Until we finally can catch up and overtake.
This is Africa at it's best and I love it. Again, seeing the same little Suzuki I used for commuting just over six months ago surrounded by donkeys on a dusty road in Southern Ethiopia is something unreal. And the same little Suzuki will commute with me again to our office in North Sydney in some seven months from now. That will be just as unreal. No more donkeys then.

Ethiopia is pretty densely populated, particularly along the roads. So it is often impossible to find a good bush camping spot. Most of the time we retreat to camping in school compounds instead. This is really easy here. There is a security guard all night. So there is someone to ask for permission. Which is usually granted. And schools here feature a big grassy common area, perfect for camping. And the kids seem to love us as their early morning surprise when they get to school.

However, last night was different. Let me just tell you a story about the ups and downs and how quickly things can change.
In the afternoon we arrived at a town called Jima. Jima is famous (at least locally) as the town where coffee was 'discovered' and started it's success story around the world all the way to Starbucks centuries later. So we had a coffee in Jima in recognition of the importance of this place for the world. The other thing Jima is famous for is the old royal palace of the ruler Abar Jifah some 10km out of town on a hill. So we decided to visit that one too. Which proved a bit more difficult because nothing here is signposted and this palace is also not found on any map. So it took a while to find it. When we came close we met another group of tourists. And they recommended us to ask the security guard at the palace to camp there, it would be a 'really beautyful camping spot'. Perfect! We knew that by now the palace would be closed for the day but having the prospect of 'palace camping' we rode up there anyway. And found it. And the security guard. As soon as we stopped the bikes outside he started running and was never seen again that evening. No security guard, no access, no camping. So we asked people there, forming the typical crowd around us, for other places to camp. And achieved nothing. There was one unfriendly fellow in a suit who barked at us that we should go back to town and stay in a hotel. So we went back just a few metres and noticed a school on our left. Perfect! People around us assured us, it was no problem to camp at that school. Perfect again! All we needed to make sure was to ask the security guard of that school. We would find him in the nearby school administration compound. One guy out of that crowd really stood out in excellent English and stayed with us as our friendly translator.
Arriving at the administration compound we met the security guard. It was the unfriendly guy with the suit. And now also with a big gun hanging lazily over his shoulder. Not perfect! He barked at us again why we rich tourists don't stay in a hotel in town. And we need to call the headmaster of the school and ask for permission. He also barked the headmasters phone number at us. So we left the administration compound. And called the headmaster. Our translator doing his best to talk to him. But mobile phone networks in Ethiopia are not the same as in Australia. Even he could not understand the headmaster in this broken phone connection. It was now starting to get dark. And Martin and me, we gave up on that school. We rather try to find some other place before it was completely dark. We just did not seem to get anywhere by trying it any longer here. So we went down the hill towards the town again. And down the hill it went from there. When we reached the school administration compound the unfriendly suit guy jumped out of the shadow of a tree. And demanded us to stop, his gun pointed directly at Martin. So we stopped. But not fast enough. So angrily, with the gun still pointed at Martin he lectured us that 'Stop means Stop'. He also called Police and we would have to wait for them to arrive. This even shocked our friendly translator. Who bravely stayed with us to calm us down.
Some 15min later the local Police chief arrived. No uniform. But accompanied by another guy with a big gun. Also no uniform. But our translator assured us it was indeed the local Police chief. Who probably had to leave his Sunday evening behind to attend our matter. Not a happy man. Also, whenever our friendly translator tried to talk to the Police guys he was promptly pushed aside by the unfriendly suit guy who instead talked to the them, looking extraordinarily important. Soon the Police demanded to see our letter of introduction from our government. We of course did not have one. Because we did not need one. Big problem! Having a passport with a valid visa did not seem to count for him, our important looking Police chief did not even spare a look at our visa. He instead called the Federal Police to come here and take over the matter. Until their arrival we need to wait there. It was now very very dark. But our friendly translator stayed with us all the time, assuring us that everything was 'no problem'. Everything that happened only happened the way it did due to the 'uneducated village people'. Which, to us, was even more reason to concern. Because it were these 'uneducated village people' who had the guns here. However, the real village people stayed around to, reassuring us, being really really friendly. But powerless.
Much later another car arrived. That's a lot of action for this place on a Sunday night! It was a marked Police car, full with uniformed people. The unfriendly suit guy jumping straight to them. But this new Police rather talking to the crowd around us. Completely ignoring us. After 5 minutes of this I lost patience and went to them too. The new Policeman now asking me, in perfect English, what was going on. So I told him. That we just asked if we could camp at the school. And starting with that question everything else started to happen automatically. Culminating in his arrival. Which made him laugh. He was obviously not of the 'uneducated village' type. Also the unfriendly suit guy had by now disappeared. He was probably not taken serious enough to honour this scene with his ongoing presence. So our Federal Police friend quickly let us know that everything is fine, we are free to go. But we cannot camp at this school. At which time, instantly, the people of the village invited us to camp on their little grassy public village green. Or even to stay in one of their houses. Police had no arguments against that and went off.
So we stayed one late night camping on the village green. Had friendly company till late. Sharing stories. It ended up being a really cool night. This is Africa!

24/01/2012 Pics from Southern Ethiopia

Little Suzuki and donkey cart

A crowd curiously watching us whenever we stop.

The United States of Africa

Creek near Lake Shalla


Sunset over Lake Shalla

24/01/2012 More pics

We have fantastic connection speed here in Nekempte. So let's show some more pictures:

Little Suzuki with an Ostrich

Yes, this is actually the road!

Salty beach near Lake Abiata

Flamingoes in Lake Abiata

View across a valley near Nekempte

26/01/2012 Addis Ababa

Just a short one today. After a long dusty ride since Nekempte we are now in Addis Ababa. The big lively capital of Ethiopia.
To get here from Nekempte our map showed us a big fat red line, representing a sealed major road. Reality presented us with a 200km construction site. Featuring some of the worst sections of road we have done so far in Ethiopia. Rough, rocky and unbelievably dusty. Often the surface was covered in deep layers of superfine dust. The bikes just dived in and somehow floated across. With big clouds behind them. But when a bus just flies through this with some 80km/h the resulting dust clouds are just spectacular. There are no words for it. It's huge. It's like the perfect dust storm. For many hundred metres you see nothing. You ride blindly through an impenetrable curtain of orangeness.
However rough the road was though, our bikes did an excellent job through it. Here in Addis I just got the airfilter out again. Just two days after I cleaned it it was again completely covered in a thick brownish layer of hardened dust. It's good to have some hot water here. Apart from that the bikes are still happy.
Also, after half a year of daily use, the Pacsafe meshes around my side panniers start showing some signs of fatigue. Little bits of steel wire start to brake and then stick out as sharp little needles. One such worn area already ripped a few minor holes into the canvas of the panniers. So I decided to take the Pacsafes off. They are a real pain anyway if you need to quickly access stuff inside your panniers. After all these months in Africa I believe we can trust people enough and even without Pacsafe protection nothing will be stolen from the panniers. We shall see.

Addis Ababa is a surprisingly nice city for it's size. I guess again it is the fact that most people cannot afford a private car which keeps the traffic flowing nicely and the air relatively clean. The mix of old russian cars and east german trucks in perfect condition and also the many communist style concrete buildings can make you think you are some years back somewhere in eastern Europe. If it wasn't for the Ethiopian locals. Even in the city they are more than friendly, often just shouting a 'Welcome' towards us or simply wishing us a 'Good journey'.
We plan to stay here for a couple of days. Undusting ourselves. And deciding which countries to go to next. Depending on paperwork. Eritrea currently is really hard to travel through. Of what we heard you are very restricted, need hard to get travel permits for every little area outside the capital. And an exit permit if you want to leave the country. Which takes some time to get. And then our preferred exit point, the border to Sudan, is mostly closed. So we consider visiting Djibouti and instead of continuing to Eritrea we would come back to Ethiopia. Issue here is that we need a new Ethiopia visa. For our current visa we had so send our passports to our home countries to get it. It's expensive and we don't want to do that again. So if we are lucky, Ethiopia Immigration might change our single entry visa to a multiple entry visa and we will go to Djibouti. If they don't then our next country will be Sudan. We shall see.

Not to forget, today is our national holiday back in Australia. So to everyone who follows us from back home, have a Happy Australia Day!!!


Long distance public transport in Ethiopia - these Isuzu buses are the workhorse of it

In Nekempte town centre

Typical scene for rural Ethiopia.

Dust is everywhere.

Private transport is mostly done using these donkey carts or horse carts. Private vehicles are very rare in Ethiopia. Often the streets in towns are clogged with these donkey driven carts instead.


One of the kids of a family where we camped next door to.

Dog watching the cattle

Similar to the Masai in Tanzania big herds of cattle are often only controlled by one or two kids.

Farmer proudly showing off his cows

Again, whenever we stop a big crowd forms instantly around us. Martin once counted more than a hundret people. They might be hard to see but our motorbikes are in the centre of all this.

Look down at the camera!

01/02/2012 Still in Ethiopia

Hi again from Ethiopia. Since the last update we have left Addis Ababa and are now back in counry Ethiopia. Heading North towards Gondar.
We spent three nights in Addis Ababa, enjoying city life and trying to organise things. Enjoying city life is easy. There is loads of good food available in Addis. Not just the typical Ingera (something like a sourdough pancake). In Addis there is also pizza, pasta, salads... There is fresh stuff like youghurt. And fruit. Bananas, mangoes, pawpaws, even cherries. And they sell fantastic fresh fruit juices. So yeah, we really enjoyed city life in Addis.
Organising things is not that easy though. I don't even know where to start here. But seemingly easy things are being made so so incredibly complicated. It's unbelievable.
I thought it might be a good idea to have some more cash US$ for when we go to Sudan. What I had in mind was an easy transaction - withdrawing Ethiopian currency from the ATM, take it to the bank and exchange it for US$.
Well, I soon learned that there is a procedure to follow. Some banks simply do not hand out hard currency to non citizens. Full stop. However, the 'Commercial Bank Of Ethiopia', which I understand is government owned opened up a chance if I would go to their head office. There, at the foreign exchange counter I was friendly told that I can only receive dollars if I have a visa and a flight ticket to a country which uses dollars. Well, I had a visa to Sudan but obviously no flight ticket. So motorbike riders will never get Dollars? The poor guy at the counter never had to deal with such an unusual case. So I was promptly sent behind the counters to talk to the supervisor. Within the office section of the bank. I could just walk in. The administration section of the head office of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, a huge room with many desks and people working hard on them. No one seemed to have a problem with me walking around there aimlessly trying to find some 'Abraham'. No security, no questions, nothing. Once I found Abraham he listened carefully to my story, asked to see my passport and as so often, said 'no problem but I have to ask my boss'. Of course the boss was not around right then. Might be back in one hour. Maybe. So one hour and I was back too. Walking straight into the bank's back rooms as if it was the normal thing to do. No one seemed to be unhappy with me walking around there. And now the big boss was there too. So I could file an 'application to exchange Ethiopian Birr to US$'. It looked like a form for a visa application. Complete with passport number, visa number, full address, purpose of journey etc. And a field for 'ticket number'. Which I left blank. Big boss filled in that I was travelling by motorbike. The completed application had now to be handed in to be approved, signed and stamped by someone important somewhere else. Which took a while. But it was approved! So happily I received my copy of the stamped form. To take it with me out to the counter. To be able to exchange my money. And soon I was the proud owner of some fresh US$ notes and a declaration to explain the origin of my foreign currency. Which I am supposed to keep till I leave Ethiopia. Just as a matter of comparison: changing Dollars to Birr takes 5 minutes. Changing Birr to Dollars 3 hours.
Patience is certainly a commodity of great use in Africa. Sometimes we can't help it but there is not enough patience in us for the procedures here. Just one more example: we wanted to visit Djibouti. Sounds easy. Visa for Djibouti is also easy to get, no problem. However, since Eritrea is closed for overland travellers from Djibouti we would need to come back to Ethiopia. If you remember, to get our Ethiopia visa we needed to send our passports to our home countries so that the local Ethiopian Embassy could stamp a visa in it. Which is expensive and a lot of trouble. Entering Djibouti would void our current single entry visa for Ethiopia and we would then need to send the passports to our home country again to receive a new visa to return to Ethiopia. We did not like that idea. Alternatively, since we were already in Addis Ababa, we could (maybe) change our single entry visa into a multiple entry visa. Not sure if that was possible, opinions about that vary a lot. But we could ask at Immigration. So we thought. Go there, ask them, change visa - all good. Maybe one hour? So we went there. Immigration in Addis Ababa is a compound of multiple huge buildings. And there's a million people in there. Once we made it through the metal detector at the main gate we could read a huge signboard telling you where to go for which purpose. We narrowed our choices down to an office for 'foreigner reception', a 'visa office' and a 'general information'. The 'visa office' sounds good, right? Arriving there we found a queue all along the aisle and back. Lots of patient people. We waited for 15 minutes, there was no movement whatsoever. We tried to jump the queue just to ask if this visa change is possible. Or if this would be the right office for our inquiry. But we got pushed out of the room again without reply.
Befor we wait here forever for nothing, let's ask at the 'foreigner reception'! Over there, in a queue of probably a hundred people there were no more than five foreigners. Instead Ethiopians extended their ID card or did all sorts of other domestic stuff. Why was it called 'Foreigner Reception' again? The queue was just huge. Should we really wait here for hours just to find out if or if not our visas can be changed? No thanks. So we started our walk across the compound to the 'General Information'. Which was a big hall in a separate building near the main entrance. In there again, a hundred people formed a big impenetrable crowd around the information desk. There was one (!) lady, all by herself, working on that desk. Well, that was one busy job. She however did not seem to be too stressed. We could see it would take hours before we would get anywhere near that desk. Just to ask for information? By now both, Martin and me, were beyond the limits of our patience. I admire people who can sit there in a chaos like this, sit there with patience beaming from their face. Sitting there watching a non-moving queue for hours. But for us, there and then, we just couldn't do it. We just couldn't. I though we are patient people. I guess we're not. We would have waited if we knew they would change our visa. But what a gamble! Waiting many hours just to ask and then waiting many more hours to get it done?
So, consequently, we will not be able to visit Djibouti. But at least we keep our wits together. And keep enjoying Ethiopia.
I am mow sitting in my tent, hidden behind a Eucalypt plantation some 500km north west of Addis Ababa. Close to a little dirt road just west of Lake Tana. There is clear sky with millions of stars above us. Martin is writing his diary in his tent while I am typing this report. It's cold, really cold here at night. Our elevation is close to 2500m and we have winter. From the distance the wind carries the howling of dogs and the voices of people across to us. From a village somewhere north of here. The half moon is illuminating the landscape outside the tent to a degree that contours of our surroundings remain visible. Mostly Eucalypt trees, stockpiles of straw and lots of rocks. Some cold black shadows of mountains in the distance.
Since Addis Ababa we mainly travelled on tarmac roads. In Addis I installed the cheap Vee Rubber knobbly rear tyre. I wonder for how long it will last. But right now I am very happy with it. The old Pirelli Scorpion was completely bold after the 18000 exciting km it carried the bike around. All the way from Perth to Addis Ababa.

We travelled through the Blue Nile Gorge, a big canyon carved by the Blue Nile, overshadowed by two big bridges. The Blue Nile will now be our companion for many km, we will meet it again and again. Until it flows together with the White Nile in Karthoum, forming the Nile river. Which will stay our companion for many thousand more km through Sudan and Egypt. As for now, it was the first meeting with any of the Niles. And we met an already impressive river.
The same Blue Nile Gorge was the scene of a horrific accident less than a week ago. An overland bus overshot one of the many bents down towards the gorge. And rolled down the steep embankment. Until a tree stopped it in it's path many meters below the road where it caught fire. 42 people died here. Less than a week ago. The burnt out wreckage was still there. As was the gap in the concrete barrier. Not far from the wreck in a clearing next to the road we found dozens of used rubber gloves and wrappings for emergency medication on the ground. A very sobering sight.

The landscape here appears much dryer than down in Etiopia's south. Everything now shines with a golden touch, a reflection from the neverending fields of cut straw. During the day it gets very hot. It was probably that heat which has molten the tarmac. The road is filled with deep ruts, molten into the bitumen. Often there are subsidences, the tarmac not broken but continuing smoothly into a hole. Or forming wave patterns. In many sections the white centre line forms a snakeline, weirdly offsetting to the left and to the right.

People here look among fhe poorest people we have met anywhere on this journey. Clothes are dirty and ripped. Most walk barefeet, dusty black feet on the hot rocky ground. People are very thin, skin and bones really. They are of a different kind up here in Amhara region. Still greeting us friendly along the roadside, they no longer crowd us or our bikes when we stop. Nor did they come to our tents tonight or last night. Just watching us from the distance for a while and then continueing their things.

Similar to other areas in Ethiopia people stick closely together. We often see men holding hands. Or walking along with their hands on each others shoulder. There's always groups of people. Groups of men, groups of women. And groups lf kids. Who greet us the loudest.
For us, the petrol problem has re-occured since leaving Addis Ababa. In average only one out of ten petrol stations has any petrol for sale. At the moment we survive thanks to my big long range tank and Martin's two 10 litre jerry cans. But we don't know what the situation further North will be like, even further away from the capital. We heard even on the Sudan side of the border there will be no petrol for some hundred km. A southbound overlander told us that the closest petrol stations to either side of the border who sell petrol are still some 750km away from each other. We might have a real problem there and might need to fill some Coke bottles to take with us.


Snapshot from Addis Ababa

St George's church in Addis Ababa

My freshly installed cheap VeeRubber tyre. How long might it last for? I will get a proper rear tyre in around two weeks. The VeeRubber should hopefully make it that long.

Our first glimpse at the Blue Nile

The road West of Lake Tana is pretty rocky.

We camped here in the backyard of a local Police station for one night. The Police building is made of timber, mud and dried cow droppings. Helped with some corrugated iron sheets.

05/02/2012 On the road to Axum - Part 1

Another 'Hello' from Ethiopia. I am sitting here by myself just outside my tent halfway between Gondar and Axum in Ethiopia's North. The moon reached it's three quaters full stage and is brightly illuminating the landscape around me. Down South the grey walls of the mighty Simian Mountains are visible as a dark shade in the moonlight. Somewhere up there, looking down, is Martin.
Two day ago we left Gondar, one of the old capitals of an ancient Ethiopian empire. Back then, in the 15th century, it was emperor Fasilada who transformed Gondor into a beautiful wealthy city, an envy of it's time. With mighty castles, beautiful churches, and big baths. Most of it is still visible today, some in ruins, others still in use. For it's contribution to the history of Ethopia Gondar even achieved Unesco World Heritage listing. We spent three days there, exploring all the treasures and enjoying city life once more.
Unfortunately Martin's motorbike is in some trouble. Has been for some time but it is now escalating. The old typical problem with Africa Twin bikes struck him when his petrol pump stopped working. Well, that happened some weeks back. Back then he was still able to get 300km out of a tank by force of gravity alone, without petrol pump. For some reason the range decreased dramatically over time though and is now only less then 200km, sometimes the bike already stops after just over 100km. There is still a lot more petrol in the tank but gravity alone is not enough make it flow to the carburator. Combined with the problems in sourcing petrol in Ethiopia this is not good. For our next stage in this trip, the 'historic circuit' from Gondar to the Simian Mountains, Axum and Lalibela, our route leads us through very remote areas with reputedly bad roads and an uncertain fuel situation. So Martin better left his bike in Gondar for the time being and is travelling by bus. Whereas I don't like buses (I mean old dirty slow overcrowded Isuzus without aircon for days on end) and keep travelling with my little Suzuki. Along the way we will catch up every now and then until we complete our circuit back in Gondar. Currently there is a parcel somewhere on it's way to us from Germany. Containing the new fuel pump, some fuel hose and other spare parts for the Honda. And a new front tyre for Martin and a new rear tyre for me. Until the parcel's arrival I will travel on my cheap Thai made Vee Rubber tyre. Which, I must admit, is surprisingly good. Particularly for the gravel and dust roads around here. My little Suzuki is handling that stuff perfectly thanks to the new tyre. It's a big improvement from my worn out to boldness old Pirelli tyre. You don't read too many positive opionions in the HUBB concerning Vee Rubber tyres. But I really can't complain.

So today was my second day riding alone. I met Martin yesterday in Debark and started from there towards Axum this morning. I was also able to source three water bottles full of dirty petrol in Debark. The only petrol available after engaging the whole town to find some for me. Leaving it for one night made most of the flakes settle and the water content accumulate at the bottom so that I had some four litres of clean good petrol to use this morning. It should take me beyond Axum and I hope somewhere along the way there would be more petrol to buy. I really hope. Petrol is currently my headache number one.
The road North of Debark today was stunning. I can honestly say it was the most scenic road I ever took my little Suzuki on. Just past Debark the road descends down from the mountains. Offering views into a huge valley of the Simian Mountain range. The world here shows all shades of brown, it is incredibly dry and apart from some scattered green Acacia trees you see only golden brown grass on dark brown soil. For the rest of the day the road continued along the edge of the mighty Simians, meandering down into the valley and up again along a cliff into of the mountains. You don't know where to look first. The Simian Mountains are basically a plateau at an elevation of around 3500 - 4500m. From the outside they appear as a huge wall of steep grey rock. When they road traverses a valley it's elevation is only around 1500m. At the edge of the Simians it looks like some little mountains did brake away. There is tall pinacles and big dome shaped mountains rising high from the valley floor. And there is one little gravel road winding it's way through this. And one little Suzuki with it's lone rider disappearing in the shear vastness of the landscape. Going up into a fresh cold breeze and going down again into a dry and hot oven. There's eagles and vultures circling above, monkeys playing on the road. There is waterfalls right next to the road. Where I could clean the dust off my visor. I really loved riding this road, absolutely loved it. Every metre of it. Even if it was slow going. It's rocky, dusty and very steep. Steep in inclines and steep in corners. But slowly and steadily my little Suzuki and me, we travelled along, climbed up, rolled down and held our breath with every new vista around the corner. Neverending smiles inside my dusty helmet.
Part of the road are still construction site. And in these we travelled litterally within the construction area. Around the working bulldozers. In between the trucks. And beside the excavators digging up dirt into the tray of a waiting truck. Some parts of this are truly hair rasing. E.g. if a bulldozer is halfway through bulldozing an area he will simply revers out and make room for you to pass. But you need to pass beyond his halfway-through mark and then climb a wall of rock to continue along soft dirt till, some fifty metres on, the road resumes. This is a particularly cool adventures when the soft ground has been soaked in water to avoid dust. But my little Suzuki made it through all this, slowly but steadily as usual. I am very happy to have an off-road capable bike like her in these circumstances. It's an awesome bike.
Dust remains our companion in Ethiopia. It is everywhere. It stopped accumulating on the bike because there is no room for more dust. Fortunately along this route there is not much traffic so the dense dust clouds from buses and trucks are not too numerous. For the many 180 degree corners though I kept catching my own dust clouds. And when these clouds hit you they do it properly. I just cleaned my airfilter sock again this evening, fully covered in thick brown dirt. And this is only half way to Axum. And the map shows the dust road continuing many more km beyond Axum.
For the beauty of the road today I made only 100km. Took me all day. Because I took a million pictures. It's hard not to. And again, when I stopped I met friendly people and time just flew by. At one stop a group of people sitting on the ground waived to me and pointed into their big metal cups. So I curiously turned around to see what they had in there. Well, they called it . But I would not call it so. It was a mustard coloured liquid which profusely smelled like vinegar. And tasted like vinegar mixed with alcohol. And they drank it out of half litre cups. In order to not ride after drinking and not to upset my poor empty stomach with stuff like this I better stayed away from it and had a Pepsi instead. But I must have been sitting there for over an hour, they played Etbiopian music for me from their little chinese mobile phones speakers, one guy even danced, we shared some tomatoes with chilli and tried to communicate without speaking each others language. A nice and welcome break during the mid day heat.
For camping I found a pretty good spot as well. I turned into a small road signposted as a Farmers Cooperative. It turned a bit bumpy and crossed a small river but after a while I found a building with some people working in the green corn fields around it. They agreed to me camping there for one night. It is really cool because here is a river to wash the dust off myself. There is a view towards the big rock walls of the Simian Mountains. And there is good company. It is almost embarassing how friendly these people are. Most went home after finishing their field work for the day. But some stayed. And they insist on sleeping here, in the field, with me. So I will sleep in my tent and three others promised to return after dinner to sleep in the open on the dirt around my tent. Even though they have a home with a bed, a wife and children. Just to keep me company. My repeated assurances that it was not necessary did not help. So I will see if they really return. Turning them back would be rude and not polite, so what can I do? I still feel bad though.

05/02/2012 On the road to Axum - Part 2

Another day, another town. I am now in Shire (say 'Sheere'), a town that was previously known as Inda Silase. It is quite big and offers a lot of comfort for dusty travellers like me. First of all, and most importantly, the service station sells petrol! I took no chances and immediately filled up the tank of my little Suzuki until it overflowed. Also, there is a tar road! And this will continue almost all the way to Lalibela, 750km south of here. My map still shows the dusty gravel road continuing some 200km further. Which now means no more dust! To celebrate these two happy events I booked into a cheap hotel (AU$ 2.80) overlooking my new favourite OilLibya petrol station (to make sure it was not just a dream). And also let the hotel wash all my clothes. Which returned probably a kg lighter for having all their dust removed. Happy times!
From where I camped last night it was only a 85km ride along a much better quality dirt road. The construction along this section was much more advanced. So I found a perfectly smooth and nicely graded and compacted gravel surface, ready to have the tarmac put on it.
Last night, by the way, the three guys came back as promised. And slept next to my tent. Unbelievable. And people here get up so early! Just before sunset, some 6:30am they already showed signs of anxiety why I was still sleeping. So I had no chance but getting up too. But still, it was nice. One of my new friends there gave me a long tour around the irrigation area. It is quite a smart system, built by UN people three years back. Basically some water is diverted out of a river along a half meter wide concrete channel. Which ends up back in the river maybe 2km further. In it's side wall the concrete channel has some openings every few hundred metres which can be opened and closed. If they are open, some water will flow out and into little dug out channels in the soil. Where it feeds a whole network of small channels within the corn or tomato or onion fields. Where exactly the water goes is controlled by people blocking these little dirt channels with little mounds of soil. Simple but very effective. At the end of the tour I was even given a big paw paw to take with me and eat later!

Now, that I am here in Shire I will probably stay for a day or two and then continue to Axum, another ancient World Heritage listed former capital of a powerful Ethiopian empire. I am travelling the 'Historic Circuit' after all, so bring on the ruins!

05/02/2012 On the road to Axum - pics

Gondar, Royal Enclosure

This little Suzuki did an awesome job up and down the rough serpentine road north of Debark

It easily one of the most scenic routes you can ride your motorcycle along!

The scale of the landscape is such that you feel really small. Everything is drenched in shades of brown. Partly by the light reflecting from the dry vegetation, partly by the layer of dust covering everything.

Rock domes at the edge of the Simian Mountains and small rivers down in the valleys provide a spectacular sight.

The UN sponsored irrigation project where I could camp for one night.

Just imagine the sense of freedom you have when you ride your favourite motorbike along the edge of the world. The wind at this elevation is cold which gives you goose bumps, yet the sun burns your skin. The same cold wind carries the dust and the smell of dry grass to you. Every bit of you is covered in dry dust. You hear your bike's engine as you slowly move along the dusty road while this sound combines with the sound of crickets and some donkeys and cows in the distance. Every now and then you meet people, covered in dusty blankets for warmth walking along the road, raising their hand and bowing their head to greet you. You have this for days. The only bike rider in an endless landscape. You're happy. You feel free!

Old remnants of war on the road side. I guess these parts of a tank have been resting here since the Eritrea - Ethiopia war in the nineties

The road meandering up and down. What you can't see is the rocky surface of the road or the sometimes 100mm deep dust layer hiding the sharp rocks underneath.


The first six months of this trip are now completed. Which means we are beyond the half way mark. I thought it's time for a little half way statistic:

Countries travelled: 11

Km since leaving Sydney: 24000

Flat tyres: 1 (near Mpika, Zambia)

number of times of having the bike dropped: stopped counting long time ago

Number of oil changes: 4 (Perth, Kasane, Mwanza and Arba Minch)

Bike parts replaced: chain, sprockets, tyres, brake pads and spark plugs in Perth before leaving Australia at 5000km
left mirror and speedo light bulb after it arrived damaged in South Africa after the flight at 5000km
fuel hose in Nairobi (started to rip open alongs it's seam) at 19800km
rear tyre in Addis Ababa at 23000km
That's all!

Highest Elevation: 3500m (Dorse, Ethiopia)

Lowest elevation: sea level (Indian Ocean beaches in Western Australia, Mocambique and Tanzania)

Number of serious river crossings: 1 (Luangwa River, Zambia)

Visited capital cities: 8 (Pretoria, Mbabane, Maputo, Lusaka, Dar Es Salaam, Kigali, Nairobi and Addis Ababa)

Countries having their National holidays during our visit: 5 (Swaziland, Mocambique, Botswana, Tanzania, Ethiopia)

Photos taken: 1430

And some personal stats:

Most favorite country: Zambia

Most favourite city: Mwanza, Tanzania

Most impressive natural sight: Serengeti NP, Tanzania

Most impressive man made sight: Gikongoro Genocide Memorial, Rwanda

Most scenic road: between Debark and Maitsebri, Ethiopia

Favourite local food: chips mayai, Tanzania (omelette of chips, eggs and veggies)

Least favourite local food: some local fruit similar to custard apple, never remembered the name, giving me the worst diarreah on this trip, Ethiopia

Top three things I miss from home: 1. friends and
2. clean toilets
3. clean drinkable tap water

Thanks again everyone for following our adventure for this long! Your interest keeps us going even further!

08/02/2012 Axum, Ethiopia

My last day in Shire (or Inda Silase, still unsure about that town's real name) turned out to be a pretty cool day. In a surprising turn of events I run into two fellow Aussies who were also stuck there for a day, waiting for their bus South. Lea and Andrew from Melbourne principally travel by bicycle, however, the road between Gondar and Axum is steep and rough enough for them to decide to catch a bus instead. All three of us having nothing really to do in Shire we spent a great day together having juice and coffee and dinner. The first Aussies on this trip since Zambia! It's been nice hearing the homely accent again.

Continuing the 60km to Axum I had to remind myself how awesome everything around me actually is. It's weird, after all those months in Africa you get so used to things. Really cool things. Like the line of people in traditional dress you're passing along the road. Or how you switch down to first gear to negotiate your way through a group of donkeys and cows on the road. How you park your bike next to a Camel at the petrol station. Or how you overtake an ancient colourful Isuzu bus with local music blasting from a speaker outside. Or how you compete for road space with the blue Bajaj Tuktuks in towns. Pretty cool feeling to be right in there with my little Suzuki.

The road to Axum has taken me finally to my destination, I am now comfortably camping at a nice hotel in the old royal city. And Axum is awesome. Not at first sight. To be honest, I passed through without even noticing I was there. 15km later I asked someone and promptly had to turn back. Back in the 1st century AD Axum was the centre of the universe for northern Africa, the mighty capital of a huge empire ranging from Egypt to the Middle East and covering much of modern day Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia and bits of the Arabian peninsula. Apparently a flourishing rich city full of palaces and grandeur.
Today it is a small town, almost forgotten by the world. Although for orthodox Ethiopians Axum still is the centre of their world. Or better the 'Mariamtsion', a huge church which is said to house the Arc of the Covenant. For non-historians like me: the Arc of the Covenant is the box which contains the original stones which Moses received on Sinai Mountain inscribed with the ten commandments. Not surprisingly there is a constant pilgrimage going to this church, people from all over Ethiopia come here to visit and to buy their 'icons' for home. These 'icons' are really cool little things. Cheap ones are made of timber, expensive ones of brass or even silver and gold. They are small, like a matchbox or a packet of tissues. Some are shaped like a cross, some like a book and some like the legendary 'Arc of the Covenant'. What they have in common is, that they are all handmade in a monastery near Axum (so I was told). And all have one or two little 'doors' behind which colourful scenes of the orthodox belief are painted. Hand painted. Each one is unique. They sell for between AU$ 5 and 25. Like a little antique shrine to take home with you.
Whatever the legend says, no one actually knows if the Arc of the Covenant really is in Axum. The church does not let anyone near that shrine. Apparently if you come to close you go up in flames.

However, the whole pilgrimage story pushes the grand history of Axum in a far corner where it is easily forgotten. There are fields of obelisks, there are tombs to rival the ones of the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. Old palaces in ruins. But no one there. In most of the sites I was one of only a handful of visitors or completely by myself. Which makes the whole thing really awesome. Axum is Indiana Jones Central.
My personal favorite is the tomb of King Kaleb, some 2km outside the city. It's actually two tombs, maybe even more. No one bothered to check yet. On arrival I showed my ticket to the guard, an old man who spoke next to no English. Since I was the only visitor he accompanied me to show me the highlights. Tombs underground are pretty dark so he brought a candle as well. To explore an ancient tomb by candlelight is pretty special. I brought my torch but left it in my pack, candlelight has so much more flair. Like in the Indiana Jones movies my grand-dad-guard walked in front, the candlelight flickering. He held it close to a wall when there was something to see, an hieroglyphic inscription or a little cross. Only visible with the candle right next to the wall. There are pictures of animals hewn in stone. Or arrows pointing down. Pitch black around us. Only the little candle light and the white teeth of my volunteer guide visible in the darkness. When there was an old ancient arrow pointing down my guide hammered against the floor with a little rock. And it sounded hollow. What's underneath? No one knows. Again no one bothered to check yet. But it makes you feel like an explorer. You start checking the walls for inscriptions and actually find some. You knock along the walls with a rock in search of a secret doorway. In Axum you can. Nothing is shielded from you, no barriers, no ladders, no walkways. It's all really exciting. You climb and crawl and discover things along the way in the flickering light of a candle. As I've said, Indiana Jones Central.
On a completely different site, a km or so away, there was the probably most significant bit of stone for Ethiopian history. A big rock, maybe 2m high and 1m wide, inscribed with a story of victory of the old Aksumite Emperor. The cool thing is, this story is inscribed in Sabean language, in Greek and in the ancient Aksumite language. So with the help of this stone the old Aksumite language could be put up next to the known Greek language and be decoded. Significant as this stone might be, it is housed in a tiny ugly shed with corrugated iron roof, there is no signpost anywhere around this shed, nothing that even remotely makes you aware that you are at an historic site. In contrary, once you are lucky enough to identify that this is the shed you want, you need to walk around and find the guard to unlock it for you.
That's the thing that I don't get in Axum. Historic monuments which would be regarded as being sensational in the western world seem to be completely forgotten here in Ethiopia. Archeologists know there are numerous tombs underneath a field of obelisks, tombs of rulers or other wealthy Aksumites, probably unopened for two millenia and full of treasures. But no one checks them out. Outside the fenced obelisk fields you find obelisks everywhere, some standing, some leaning, some broken on the ground. Thousands of years old. Now on some private farmland with cows grazing around them. The more spectacular sites are almost impossible to find. Nothing is signposted. And the official map of the Tourist Information shows some of them in completely the wrong location. And does not show any street names anyway, so it's just useless. On a second thought - streets have actually no names here. Consequently you often rely on little street kids to show you around. Or an expensive tour guide.
Apart from the ancient monuments modern Axum is a very pleasant town. People are friendly (often shouting a 'Welcome to Axum' across the street). There are many kids who try to sell you little Amethyst rocks or icons but they are really playful and make your walk between the monuments very entertaining. Most tourists drive from site to site. So someone like me, who is walking, assures the full undivided attention of these kids. I don't know why but I really enjoyed walking with them crowding around me, they are unbelievably inventive why I would urgently need a $1 Amethyst right now. We ended up all laughing and they did not seem to mind me not buying anything.

Axum is pleasant enough to hang around for a while. So I guess I'll wait here for Martin to finish his Simian Mountains trekking and to get here by bus. There is still no news about the parcel with Martin's new fuel pump. We just hope it will get to Ethiopia soon.
Martin will continue by bus till then and me with my little Suzuki. After Axum I plan to see the Tigray Rock Churches, churches hewn into rocks not dissimilar to their famous counterparts in Lalibela. Just older. And much more low key. They are in pretty remote locations and will be hard to find. Something like stopping at the right place along the road and then go bushbashing for some km. Again, the map of the Tourist Information is pretty useless, showing neither any distances or names on it. So it's gonna be a lucky exploration again!

08/02/2012 Axum pics

Axum is an old place and the main reason for visiting the town is to see it's ancient monuments. So we have to go through a couple of pics with old stuff.

An area of obelisks in Axum. Each obelisk typically stands for a tomb underneath. Hardly any of those tombs have been explored yet.

The entrance of one of the tombs you can visit.

The famous stone with inscriptions in Sabean, Greek and Aksumite language. It's hidden in a tiny shack without any signposting. If you find the guy with the key to the shack you can visit the stone.

The 'Lioness of Gobedra'. This ancient picture of a lion is hidden in a field of big rocks halfway up a mountain. There is no chance you find it without any help. I found this friendly guy who led me there in return for a Coca Cola and a paper copy of this picture.

The 'Palace of the Queen of Sheba'. All that is known about these ruins is that they have no connection to the Queen of Sheba.

No joke, I was surprised how many people here know about Australia. When I ask them where they know all these bizarre things from, they state that movie. $0.45 from the local DVD store.

Camels are just part of the streetscape in Axum.

15/02/2012 Tigrai, Ethiopia

Sometimes you get more than you bargained for. And friendliness can change your day. So it happened to me today.

Currently I am sitting in a cheap hotel in Wukro. AU$1.80 per night in a clean room with electricity is not too bad, is it? The area I am travelling in at the moment is in Tigray Region in North-Eastern Ethiopia. It is an area full of churches hewn deep into the rocks. These churches are old, almost as old as Christianity in Ethiopia. According to unofficial counts there are 140 churches around here. The most fascinating feature for most is their locations.
The Tigray area is basically a dry desert plateau of 2000m elevation above sea level. Rising out of this plateau are huge red sandstone rocks in their elevation beyond 3000m. It is not a mountain range, just some big singular high peaks. And it is there where almost 2000 years ago keen monks or even saints chiselled churches into the sand stone rock. In the most remote locations high above the plateau or often right on top of the mountains. Even today it is not easy to visit some of these churches. They are masterfully camouflaged into the rock, often all you see is a door on the rockface. Completely invisible from the ground. They are also very hard to find. Far away from any road, hardly ever signposted. Once you found the best stopping location on the road the real adventure begins. Getting to the church involves long walks through rough terrain, sometimes climbs up onto the cliff face or even someone to pull you up on a rope.
While Martin is still travelling by bus (we're still waiting for his new fuel pump to arrive) I used the freedom of having my motorcycle to visit a few of these remote churches during the past few days. Locations like the Debre Damo monastery, a big monastery of 150 monks living up on a mountain top. The only access being an old weathered leather rope. Or Maryam Biznan, one of the rock hewn churches far from any civilisation. Maryam Biznan is a 23km ride from Hawzien, the nearest town. A ride along a lonely sandy road. And then a more than one hour climb up a mountain, traversing a tunnel through a rock wall up on the mountain top and more climbing on the other side. The scenery here is just breathtaking. The whole scale of the landscape is massive. A flat plateau with red mountains sticking out of it. From up there you can see the mountains around Axum and Adwa, more than 100km away. And everything in between. What's best is that I usually book into some cheap hotel before going to those churches. And leave all my luggage there, all but my small backpack for camera and water. So I can ride these awesome lonely dirtroads without luggage. That is so much fun! Even my old enemy sand is now heaps cool to ride through. Incredible what a difference in the fun factor it makes to have no luggage! I just love riding here, every minute of it. And my little Suzuki seems to enjoy this part of Ethiopia just as much. The two of us. Searching an endless landscape for tiny churches hidden up in the mountains.

However, today was my most remarkable day in this area. As so often if you have time for people it will change the course of the day.
I was to visit the Abuna Yemata church today, a church described as one of the hardest to get to and one to be located in the most impressive setting. It is pretty expensive to get there, it's usually a 100Birr entrance fee plus a 250Birr for a compulsory guide plus tips for the priest and the guy to watch your vehicle etc, much more money than I was prepared to pay. My strategy in these cases is to overwhelm the others with friendlyness and play the poor guy at the same time. Playing the poor guy is not even that hard. Because after all this travelling without having any job the money drains away much too easily. So when people ask me for ridiculous amounts of money I tell them exactly this story. That I am travelling for one year without earning anything. And I am here to learn about THEIR country. Ethiopians are very proud of their country and when you show interest in them and their place they really appreciate it. And it changes the mood very quickly into them trying to help you to get the most out of your visit without having to pay high tourist prices. Win-win for all.
So this morning I just showed up at the end of the road to climb up Abuna Yemata. Right there a couple of people already waiting, happy to see a tourist. And offering me to guide me up to the church. Me telling the usual (true) story and showing the empty pockets of my dusty pants had an unexpected effect. These guides no longer asked for money but explained me the way. One guy tasked to guard my little Suzuki with all the luggage said he would be happy with whatever amount I would be happy to give him. So I left my little Suzuki there and started making my way up. One of the guides walking with me saying he is happy to come with me. 'Money no problem'. Just like that. And I was happy to have some company too, why not.
Shortly after we run into the priest of the church. Usually you give him a 100Birr tip and he goes with you to unlock the church. The priest looked pretty old. Later I learned he was only 55. Orthodox priests enjoy a lot of respect from everyone here. My guide kissing his golden cross and his hand and bowing down for him many times. The priest apologised that he could not come with us today because he had a strong headache. He did not speak English but in his gestures he was a very friendly guy, calm and concious of his status in the society. At this stage part 2 of my strategy came into effect, 'overwhelm them with friendliness'. After respectfully greeting him I offered to give him some painkillers. After completing more than half of my journey I still have not used any of my Panadols. So I have heaps in my panniers. And these are incredibly hard to come by here in rural Ethiopia. I unpacked my old cup and filled it with fresh water for him to flush down the big tablets. So needless to say that the priest was heaps happy, thanking me many times and promptly halving the money to receive the key for the church. Instead of him the dean would climb up with us. So the three of us, the guide, the dean and me made our way up. And what a path it was. One hour to reach the church from where my little Suzuki was happily parked in the shade. One section, probably 10-20m high involved climbing up a perpendicular cliff face. With a 200m drop underneath. All there was where tiny little recesses to put your toes or fingers in. No shoes here. So all three of us climbed up there barefeet to maximise control. If you ever needed an adrenalin rush, hanging on your toes and fingers above a 200m void is a sure way to get one. No ropes, no security. All I was assured of was 'god's blessing'. Maybe I am exaggerating here but I am not a climber. Never was one. Never interested in being one. And this was way out of my depth and easily the scariest thing I've done in Ethiopia so far. And at this stage I surely was very happy for my two helpers guiding me up that cliff wall. They patiently showed me where to put my toes and fingers. I must say just me, by myself, I would not have made it. But determination brings you further. Now I WANTED to see this church. Hanging on that rock wall I really wanted to. And slowly but steadily we achieved new hights. Up there, on a tiny V-shaped section was the centre of this area's orthodox world. First we came past a cave full with bones. Bones of the priests who devoted their life to this church many centuries before we could climb up there. Since the fourth century AD. Some white sun bleached skulls curiously watching us from their cave. The rock walls up here had many writings and orthodox crosses chiselled in. There was another cave used as a baptising chamber (How the hell do they get these babies up here?). And then there was the main church. Just a door in the rock wall which noisily swung open. It opened a large man made cave to us. Three rockpillars left standing to support the remaining 200m of rock above the ceiling. The floor was covered with straw mats. And the walls were covered with incredibly colourful paintings. These paintings were done in the fifteenth century. But they still look as if they've been done last week. An amazing display of colours showing saints and other important persons linked to the long history of Abuna Yemata. The atmosphere in there was truly intense. My guide explained every bit of painting. Slowly and calmly and obviously with a lot of respect. This is the place where, for centuries until now, the village would meet to pray. The priest, hidden behind a curtain of colourful cotton would preach in the ancient language of Geez. In front of the curtain the dean would translate to the village people. In the dim light of a church hewn deep inside the rock. Watched over by the colourful faces of all saints of importance, looking down from the ceiling or the walls. A procedure unchanged for centuries.
Back then churches were built far away from villages on purpose. High up in the mountains to make the journey to them as tiring as possible. Because when you arrive there after a long hard journey your mind would be clean and free for focussing on religious matters. Also these remote locations protect from any disturbance. In fact, deep inside the rock of Abuna Yemata it was absolutely silent. The rock shielded us from all outside sounds. And every word we spoke inside could be spoken quitely and calmly and was distributed through the entire church by the echoing from the rockwalls. An atmosphere of calmness I rarely felt anywhere else. Truly a place to relax.
Every Sunday midnight (!!!) and on many other occasions people from the surrounding villages come up here to attend a three hour service. Old people and young people. One apparently 85 years old. Decades of weekly climbs kept him fit enough to continue to climb up there in the dark midnight hours in his high age. The devotion of these people to their church is really incredible. But it is also this belief, this church, which keeps the village together. As I would soon learn. The village of around 50 people sticks together like one family.
During our climb up and the even scarier climb down I could really well connect to my guide. So once back at my little Suzuki he was happy with the little money I could afford to give him and even invited me to his place to eat lunch together.
Let me tell you a little side story here. In orthodox tradition, if you marry, you celebrate for 4 months and 2 weeks. There is usually a large room in the house of the husband's parents reserved for this. During these 4 months and 2 weeks the husband and wife together with the five best friends of the husband will live together in that room. Other friends and family will occasionally drop by for some slice of this 'celebration'. 'Celebration' here means eating together, drinking together and playing music and dancing and also playing traditional games together.
Well, destiny had it that my guide was one of those five best friends of one newly wed husband. So he did not live in his home but in a 'celebration room' some three km away. Unable to take passengers and luggage on the bike we parked my little Suzuki safely at someone's house near the church and walked through the harvested millet fields to his temporary 'home'. A long walk through a sunburnt countryside. Once there the celebrants started celebrating us. Ethiopians are very hospitable. And having a guest from far far away is seen as a big honour. Which naturally made me feel a little bit awkward. When they started thanking me for 'sacrificing my time to visit' them I was really puzzled because it was actually me feeling thankful for being invited to their home. There were many people. Also the priest, now free from headache and smiling. What followed were many hours of celebrating together. The traditional way. Someone always explained the tradition to me and asked if I was okay with it. Who am I to decide anyway? Of course I was okay by default. So we ate Injera together. The traditional way. Using our fingers to feed each other Injera into their mouth. Strange feeling to feed the beautiful bride next to me with my hands. Then we played games. Games involving four small carved timber sticks and hitting each other with them. Or card games. We played the drum. And we danced around a timber pole. Dancing around a timber pole to the beats of a goat skin drum really hypes you up and feels good. My skills in traditional Ethiopian dance (lots of shaking your shoulders to very repetative music) are, quite frankly, not so awesome. But they provided good entertainment for sure. So we really had a fun time. And I learned a lot, really a lot, about Ethiopia in these hours. Feeling incredibly grateful for this opportunity I couldn't believe the guide thanking me on our way back to my little Suzuki. For showing interest and making time.

Cool hey? Starting with competing for my business to hire a tour guide. Diverting through a friendly talk and walk. Ending up celebrating the wedding of a best friend together. And all people involved getting much more out of it than just doing business for money. These are the days I live for here in Africa.

Again it was one day full of emotions. Unsure expectation, will I struck a deal to visit? Deep fear when nervously looking down from that rock wall. A sense of achievment upon reaching the top filled with adrenalin. Calm relaxation and sheer astonishment inside that beautiful church. Forming friendship on the way back down. Happyness when sharing the fun of the wedding celebration. And a really good feeling going to bed after such a great day. Again, memories which will last on for a long long time to come

I suppose this experience at Abuna Yemata church would be hard to repeat at the other churches. Again, it's people much more than places to provide the memorable moments. So I am very reluctant to visit other similar churches in the area. And might just see the most impressive ones from the outside. It's the location, the walk and climb to get there in this huge environment, that impresses the most anyway.

15/02/2012 Tigrai pics

Maryam Bisnan, a rock hewn church high up in the mountains. It took me more than one hour to get here from the road. All you can see from the outside is this.

The sandstone rocks in the vicinity of Maryam Bisnan are decorated with religious symbols.

The view from Maryam Bisnan down into the endless landscape of northern Ethiopia.

Leaving tyre tracks on a typical gravel road. Near Hawzien.

15/02/2012 Abuna Yemata

The view while walking up to Abuna Yemata. We have not even reached the steep cliff face yet.

Up there we have to go. No rope. No security. God's blessing alone helped in this case.

That's me at the top, happy to be alive.

The inside of the Abuna Yemata is incredibly colourful. These paintings are almost 600 years old, on the walls and ceiling of a 1600 year old church. The entire church is chiselled deep inside the rock. The cavelike flair, being surrounded by paintings of faces looking down on you and the total silence make for a really intense atmosphere.

The dean who climbed up with us to open the church. During the hairy bit of climbing up the rock face he helped me a lot guiding my hands and feet and by taking my backpack.

Trust is everything. Underneath this 'bridge' is 250m of nothing.

Safely back at the bike. You can't see it but Abuna Yemata is high up inside the right rock finger in the foreground of the big mountain.

15/02/2012  More rock churches

Long shadows in the evening twilight. The church of Abraha Atsbha in the background. The actual church is dug inside the rock behind the building on that hill.

View from Abraha Atsbha down into the valley.

It is a very pleasant change to be able to ride without luggage. The dirt roads in this area are heaps fun.

Mikael Imba church. It is hard to believe but the entire church was carved out of one monolithic rock. The church building is one with the surrounding sandstone, the interior was simply hollowed out.

Inside Mikael Imba church.

The orthodox church has earned a huge importance in the village life. Procedures are strictly followed and people highly respected.

Villages in this part of Tigrai Region consist of houses quite far apart from each other. Houses are built as closed circles with all windows and doors towards the inner courtyard. Almost like medieval castles. Each of these circles consists of many houses, one for each generation of the same family. Building material is usually bare rocks, put together without the use of any mortar.

24/02/2012 Sekota

Time is flying by and so are my km. I am still in Ethiopia, currently in a small town called Sekota. Martin is still travelling by bus and we should meet again in Lalibela tomorrow or the day after.
There were not too many highlights to write about since leaving the area of the rock churches. First I stayed in Wukro for three days. There was no particular reason for staying for three days except that I really liked it there. There was a cheap hotel, cheap but clean and good. I sort of became part of the family who owned it. We shared our meals, they let me take part in their coffee ceremony every evening. There was satellite TV. But for some reason everyone in Ethiopia loves to watch Wrestling. So that's what was shown on TV all the time. However, there were two small but lovely dogs as well. Really playful ones. So it was fun to stay there.
When I arrived in Wukro I had no idea about the place. So when I asked a random person for advice on a cheap hotel I met a young guy called Alex. He showed me the beautiful hotel I quickly learned to love. And he also showed me around town. He had no family, no mum or dad, but earned a little money from washing cars to afford his own room (AU$1.75 rent per month) and his own simple but happy life. We became good mates during these three days and I met many of his friends and girlfriends as well. And took part in the local Tshat chewing session. And shared cheap food with them. So it were three days of a simple life but three really cool days.
Tshat is quite interesting stuff. Strictly speaking it's a drug. But not a powerful one. It's green leaves which you chew and chew and chew for hours. People say it makes you happy and keeps you focussed and awake. To be honest, I could not feel any effect apart from it making me a bit less tired, similar to a cup of coffee.
But the procedure to consume it is pretty cool. Because it's really social. You sit together in a group of friends. And while you're chewing you talk about the world, the universe and everything. A typical share of Tshat lasts for around two hours of chewing. So plenty of time to talk.

After three good days in Wukro I moved on to new places. Going South the road was just fantastic again. Beautiful tarmac meandering up and down the mountains. With views that just make you stop and say 'Wow!'. The road takes you up to elevations of beyond 3000m. Whereas my little Suzuki seems to have no issues with this height (I thought carburator engines have trouble at heights???) I certainly have my problems with it. Because it's freezing up there. I mean, I'm in Africa! I don't want to wear four layers of clothes. But I had to. Man was it cold.
That night after a happy day of great riding I stopped tired and cold in a town called Maychew. Still at an elevation of more than 2500m it was cold, so cold. So first priority was to find a place selling hot coffee. And from that moment on things took their own turns.
What I did not know was that right at this time Maychew hosted the Tigray Region Athletic Championships. So the whole town was filled up with over 5000 young hyped up athletes from all over the state in party mood. Before I even had a chance to order my coffee I was surrounded by a big group of them. Three of them automatically took over my case and before I knew I had my coffee. And a cheap room. And dinner. And personal guides for the town. No one asked for anything in return, people here are genuinly, honestly friendly. And that is a really cool feeling. Funnily enough the three guys 'adopting' me are part of the team representing Wukro. Of course they also knew Alex. So in the evening we sat together and watched a few of my many photos. Photos from Ethiopia, places of their country they have never seen. And photos of Australia.
After a freezing cold night I went for breakfast the next morning, keen for something warm. At the time my three friends were competing in the 100m sprint race. But anyway, I entered the restaurant and immediately was invited to sit on the table of a group of maybe 5 other athletes. Chairs shuffled aside to make room. From somehwere a clean spoon appeared and I was invited to share all their food on the table before I even had a chance to order my own. Man, that stuff had a lot of carbs and protein. But hey, they were athletes. As I learned their speciality was martial arts. Better take care with these guys. But we had a lot of fun on this table, communicating with broken English and a lot of excitement while drinking cheap but hot tea. One even offered me his sister to marry! On the photo she looked really cool. But however, I decided it was time to go. So I left Maychew, buying some black market petrol in plastic bottles on the way out.

The beautiful road continued South. Now mostly downhill into much warmer elevations. Really cosy actually. Past Lake Ashange and into Korem town. From there I opted for going West onto a dirtroad to Lalibela. Lonely Planet decribed that road as 'rough and dusty'. But to my surprise it wasn't. It was a wide and perfectly graded smooth gravel road. Once more winding it's way through a stunning landscape of brown mountains, high and cold mountain passroads, deep valleys and far horizons. I just kept shouting 'wow wow wow!!!' into my helmet, really awesome to ride along there. Every now and then I found a small village to enjoy one of the excellent Ethiopian coffees before riding on again, riding west towards Sekota, shouting 'wow wow WOW' at every corner that opened a new view deep down into another valley.
Arriving in Sekota I was really surprised that out of all places it was here that petrol was available for normal prices at a petrol station! Quickly I had two new friends as well. Two young guys in clothes I would describe as 'rotten'. But really friendly again. They helped me finding a room. Although most places were booked out ('rooms finished') we finally found one for me. Which made them almost more happy than me.
Guest houses in Sekota don't have water. Water is a really rare commodity here. So when my two friends decided that I need a shower (if two people in dirty rotten clothes advise you to take a shower it surely means something...) we tried to find water. There are 'shower houses' in town where you can go with your soap and towel, pay two Birr ($0.30) and take a shower. But nothing is easy in Ethiopia. Most shower houses had 'water finished'. Soon I was frustrated enough to give up but my friends insisted I need a shower (can't imagine it was so bad). And finally we found a shower house with water. Finally. And I must admit that shower felt really good.
Afterwards my friends showed me a good place for dinner. But refused to let me buy a dinner for them. Instead, while I was eating a fantastic Enjera they started scavanging food scraps and unfinished meals from the other tables. But would not accept anything from me. Them being more happy than me for finding me accommodation, shower and food we went back to my room together and chatted for a while longer.
My two friends were 16 and 25 years old. The 25 year old going to school in grade 9. The 16 year old never went to school. They make some tiny amount of money by washing cars and helping out in a restaurant as waiter to earn some food scraps.
After a while they said good bye and got ready to leave. When I asked them how long they have to walk home they said they don't know. With some obvious embarrassment. I soon learned they were on their way to sleep on the footpath. Their parents are divorced and both only have a mother to go back to. But the mothers live in a rural area far from here and in such poverty that they can not support the family. So these two sons went out to town to support themselves.
Quite frankly I was shocked. These guys, super friendly and helpful all day long. Happily laughing, chatting with me while showing me around town. Now leaving the hotel room which they organised for me. To sleep on the cold footpath. They would not accept anything from me. No food. No money. Not sleeping in my room. Nothing. The only thing they asked for I did not have: exercise books for school. What can I do? What a weird twist of things?

I decided to stay one extra day in Sekota and to spend one full day with these kids. And there are more of them. I instantly met two more. One badly limping. It's an injury on the sole of his right foot that happened seven months ago. Hoping I could do something using my little first aid skills I had alook at his foot. Removing the old bandage there was this stench of old puss. And what a horrible picture it was. The underside of his foot was wet, dirty, black and full of puss. It's a miracle he could walk at all. I really felt the pain by just looking at it. Not much we could do here apart from thoroughly washing the foot clean and put a new bandage on.

Out of the four kids three never went to school.

Finally at least they accepted that I buy some cheap dinner and share it with them. As bad as their state might look, these kids are really proud people. They would not accept any food for lunch from me. And even dinner was hard work of convincing them.

Africa keeps shocking me. In positive and negative ways. Quite often it is a world I truly do not understand. Full of processes that make no sense. Until someone explains the background and opens my eyes to give the 'Oh sh...t, of course!!!' effect. I guess that is one major reason why I still, above all else, find the most impressive thing in Africa to be the African people. Their sense of community, of belonging, their friendship and hospitality, their way of looking after each other. If you make time to learn to know them you will often be shaken in your foundations for how they live. And for how happy they are. I feel now how learning their stories changes me. And it changes my view of life. I don't know into what. But, I guess, this is what will be the longest lasting heritage out of this journey.

25/02/2012 More pics

One of my new favourite dogs guarding my little Suzuki at the guest house in Wukro.

My new friend Alex and me in Wukro.

The perfect road. Serpentine section between Wukro and Maychew.

Riding at elevations over 3000m. Bloody cold up there.

My little Suzuki being truly 'little' in this environment of giant valleys.

My two street kid friends and me in Sekota.

25/02/2012 Lalibela

One of the must-do destinations in Ethiopia is undoubtedly Lalibela. A small town high up in the mountains which is known in the world for it's rock churches. It is only a 128km ride along a beautiful gravel road to get to Lalibela from Sekota. At first I was a bit hesitant. After the good times I had in the local towns during the last few weeks Lalibela would be the Mekka for tourists.
But when I arrived there, I was surprised. Instead of the expected touts following me around or people begging for money or inflated prices Lalibela offered many 'Welcome to Lalibela' greetings. Most restaurants served local food for local prices. And kids were more interested in me playing soccer with them then in money. Who would have thought?
I arrived in Lalibela just after lunch on a beautiful sunny day. From other travellers back in Addis Ababa we got the good advice that there is a cool restaurant with amazing views into the valleys around and they would accept campers. And to my surprise they did. The 'Ben Abeba' is a real upmarket restaurant offering good quality food for a pretty upmarket price. It's design is amazing, very modern. You could compare it to a space station out of the Star Trek movies. And it's location high on a hilltop (elevation 2500m) offering 360 degree views around is even better. Ben Abeba is co-owned by an Ethiopian guy and a Scottish lady. Both are really friendly and welcoming and allowed me to camp for free anywhere on the property. And also for Martin who was still stuck in Sekota waiting for transport.
To visit the famous rock churches you need to buy a rather expensive ticket. Which is valid for five days. So I bought one straight the next morning and started visiting some churches by myself (no bus on Sundays for Martin between Sekota and Lalibela). There is eleven of them in Lalibela. And they are all awesome. If you imagine you find a big rock. Then you start from the top, digging a deep hole into it but leave a big cube standing in the centre. So looking from the top you see a rock cube with a deep trench around it. And then you start hollowing out that cube. Like a cave. But inside you leave pillars, arcs, steps, walls. Into the walls you carve doors and windows. And into the pillars and ceiling you carve beautiful ornaments and crosses. You don't build anything, don't add anything. Just take away the rock. And what's left standing is a church. Made of massive rock. Which is one with the rock around it. A church that will last forever. And this is Lalibela. Times eleven. And one thousand years old. In short: it's awesome.
For the fact that it is number one tourist destination in Ethiopia these churches give you heaps freedom for discoveries. There is no railings, no prohibited signs. So you can climb up onto the roof, explore some dark tunnels and see where some paths carved deep into the surrounding rock will lead you. There is absolutly no signposting. And the tourist information run out of maps long time ago. So it's all up to you and your imagination.
On my first day of church exploration I found a great place to relax during mid day. Up on the rock edge, right next to where the churches had been carved out. And by coincidence this was also the favorite lunch spot of one of the security guards for the churches. An 80 year old skinny man whose main task was to check tickets of visitors. He was joined by his 18 year old grandson and two other family members. Ethiopians are friendly people and the old man insisted I share his lunch with him, some Enjera with goat meat. So I had to. And we sat there together with his family during his entire two hour lunch break chatting. His grandson translating. We connected so well there that I was even invited to come to their home for dinner later on.
When people invite me I usually accept. And either leave them a tip afterwards or a little present. I find this way you can experience local life as genuine as possible.
That evening I met a big family of uncles, aunts and many many happy kids. We had fantastic Enjera and great coffee. The grandson then offered me to show me another rock hewn church high up in the mountains the next day. Which I gladly accepted.
Funnily enough Martin sent me a SMS that he managed to secure a ride in the tray of a truck from Sekota and would also arrive in Lalibela that evening. So after dinner I waited at the Ben Abeba restaurant. There is literally no traffic around Lalibela at dark and from the high location of the restaurant we could see Martin's truck slowly moving through the night from kilometres away. Finally, for the first time since leaving Axum we managed to see each other again!
Martin and two other traveller friends now also camped at the restaurant and joined us to climb up to the Asheton monastry the next morning. After one and a half hours of climbing, up at a breathtaking elevation of 3300m, we found a church even older than the famous ones down in Lalibela. But it was the view which was the most impressive thing. I guess we could see for hundrets of km into the valleys. Down towards Lalibela, the river Jordan and the mountains around us.

There is alot of history in Lalibela. But it's also the people who make you want to stay for longer. I ended up staying for five days. While Martin started his journey to Addis Ababa in order to pick up the parcel containing his new fuel pump, my new back tyre and other spares for us. During these days people literally competed against each other as to who will invite me for coffee and who for dinner. And with whom I spend the morning and with whom the evening. It's a really welcoming folks up there. Consequently during these five days I drunk as much coffee as I normally would in two years. And had a lot of good food. And made many new friends. And we had long nights of drinking Tej (some strong local honey wine) or , we tried traditional Ethiopian dancing (mainly moving your shoulders and neck), listened to traditional music in small local bars and played a lot of Pool.
It was a fantastic time and I really loved Lalibela. For it's churches. But even more for it's people. The old guard and his grandson. The crew from Ben Abeba. And the people from the street who made me feel so welcome to their town.

Now I am in Debre Tabor, a big town along the road between Lalibela and Gondar. Still at an elevation of 2700m it is pretty cold here. Debre Tabor is not famous for anything but seems to be a nice place to stay for a day. On my first night I was already shown to some local traditional music place and had a lot of fun trying to dance Ethiopian style. And was invited to more good coffee.
Tomorrow night Martin will (hopefully with the local bus system) get to Gondar where his Africa Twin is still parked, waiting for the new fuel pump. We will meet there again, install all the spares from the parcel and then continue our journey together towards Sudan. Once again two friends on two motorcycles.

25/02/2012 Lalibela pics

One of the eleven rock churches in Lalibela. It is hard to imagine but the whole thing is carved into a huge rock. First a hole was chisseled into the rock with a big cube left standing. And then a church was carved into that cube. The original rock is still there as steep walls surrounding the curch.

Meeting people while relaxing on the rock next to the churches. The old man works as security guard in the church compound, his grandson (on the right side) would later be guiding us around Lalibela.

St George Church is one of the most beautiful ones. Also carved deep inside a rock.

We were very lucky to be allowed to camp at the Ben Abeba restaurant, a pretty high standard restaurant on a hilltop. The setting is just beautiful and the views are amazing. You can see the rather modern building of Ben Abeba in the distance.

People in Lalibela are very friendly and we got many invites for coffee or enjera into people's homes. This picture was taken inside the livingroom of a family. Standards are pretty poor, walls are bare and the floor is usually just dirt. But hospitality is rich and these people happily welcome you to their home.

St Gabriel, another church carved out of the rock.

Inside these churches you find a pretty intense atmosphere. It is dark, cold. You smell the burnt incense. And it is usually very quite. Except when a big group of tourists arrive with their guide.

Me with some new friends.

Ben Abeba has a very special design. When we arrived the restaurant was still in construction but already open for business. It provided one of the best campgrounds we have had in Ethiopia so far.

25/02/2012 Bad luck

Unfortunately it looks like these will be the last pics for a while. It's hard to believe but in the security guarded campground of our hotel in Gondar my backpack and my old motorbike pants got stolen out of the tent. Unfortunately my camera was in the backpack. And my passport and Visa card in the motorbike pants.
Police is confident they will find the perpetrator soon. But this confidence might not mean much in Africa. So I might be stuck in Ethiopia for a while longer.
I keep you posted..


On another positive note - even the thiefs here are nice persons. One day after the theft a plastic bag mysteriously found its way back to my tent. Inside the bag my passport, motorbike keys, credit card, driver licence ...

The camera is gone though. But I still have a small little point and shoot. So dont worry, there will be more pics!!!!

28/02/2012 Update

Okay, after the recent two short posts it is time to let you know the full story about stuff disappearing and reappearing in Gondar.
As many travellers know, touring Africa can be a risky business. We were very lucky so far, more than most people spending so much time on this continent. Up to now the theft of my ugly old mobile phone in Rwanda was the peak of negative experiences in Africa for me. This time in Gondar though it was much more serious.
When I arrived here Friday night I just pitched my tent, put all my stuff in there and was very hungry for dinner. Same as last time in Gondar I camped at the Tarera Hotel. It is relatively cheap but has a fenced compound and security guards. Sofia and Jordi, two overlanders we keep meeting along the way were here and keen for dinner too. Martin would arrive the next morning by bus from Addis Ababa with the parcel from Germany.
Quickly I got out of my dirty rotten motorbike pants, grabbed all the money out of them and put on my (rather) clean pants. And the three of us went for dinner.
Coming back an hour later I found my tent open and pretty messy inside. My two bike panniers stood next to the tent outside. Easy to realise that someone has been messing around in the tent. Oh sh...t, now it has finally happened! I guess the thief was in a hurry, all they grabbed was my motorbike pants and my little green daypack. The big motorcycle panniers remained unopened, just pushed aside to make room. They are definitely too heavy to run away with.

Problem was that inside my motorbike pants was my passport with the Ethiopia and Sudan visa, my driver licence, my motorbike keys and my credit card. Inside my backpack was the spare keys for my little Suzuki, my camera, my head torch, my Swiss army knife, my toilet paper and most importantly my banana bisquits. Banana bisquits are hard to find and they are awesome.
However, we quickly rounded up the hotel manager and the security guards and discussed the situation. They did not seem to be much surprised and asked why I don't keep my stuff at reception. But why? What do I pay for? What are the security guards doing here? However, too late now.
So a big group of us including Sofia and a hotel manager went straight to Police. On a Friday night you can't expect much from Police. But at least they wrote down my details and a list of what's been stolen. The list of stolen things in much less detail than the list about me. Strange questions. Why was it important which religion I am? Or what will the do with the name of my grandfather? Which grandfather anyway? Or does it help to know at which grade I left school? But only cooperation brings you further and I calmly answered all the questions. 'The next morning' they said I would meet someone from the Tourist Police. Case finished for Friday night.

And surely the next morning at 8am two guys waited at the Tarera Hotel for me. One from Tourist Police and one from Tourist Information. And both were really helpful. And appeared to take the whole thing very serious, particularly my stolen passport. They promised to do whatever they can and said it was likely I will get my things back.

In Gondar there are a lot of dodgy people, particularly around dirty cheap hotels like Tarera. They keep whispering to you that they can change money for you on the black market. Or can help to find a bike mechanic. Or can help you in whatever else.
A stolen passport is a serious thing. I had only one week left to enter Sudan otherwise my Sudan visa would expire. No chance to make it back to Addis Ababa in time and get a new passport from my embassy. And from here a new Sudan visa would be much more difficult to obtain than in Nairobi. My lost passport would be a certain split up between Martin and me for the long term of this journey. No good. So I decided to not just leave it to Police but also talked to two of the dodgy people, hoping they know more dodgy people who know dodgy people and finally can find my stuff with someone. They promised to use their dodgy connections to help and disappeared. As dodgy people do.

Less than two hours later hotel staff found a strange plastic bag next to the dry swimming pool. Containing my passport, my driver licence, my motorbike key and spare key and my credit card. But no banana bisquits.
How did that happen? Of course no one knows for sure. I called my two dodgy helpers and the helpful guy from the Tourist Police to let them know. They all seemed to be very pleased. The Police man came straight to the hotel to inspect the findings and was all smiles. So was I. He told me that after we met this morning he sent out a message through some sort of forum for bad guys (not the HUBB!!!) that the thief please may return all the documents important for me but useless for them. No idea if it was this message or the stirring action of my other two helpers. But as friendly as Ethiopian thieves are they brought me back my most important things.
All being in a good mood I also asked the Police man if he could send out another message through the same dodgy forum. That the tourist would be keen to get his camera back also and would pay some good dollars for it. He liked the idea and promised to do so. And my two other helpers started now focussing on the black markets spreading the same message. That was Saturday morning.
The rest of Saturday we spent installing all the spare parts from Martin's parcel from Germany. And my new Mitas E07 rear tyre. Martin's Africa Twin is back in perfect shape now. Installing my new rear tyre proved very stressfull though. I thought I get it done in a tyre shop. Bad idea.
I should have run away when they asked me if I had tools.
A shop to repair tyres??? BYO tools? However, I gave them the tools and immediately 10 people were around my poor little Suzuki trying violently with my tools and their big hammer to get the wheel out. Once it was out the same violence was used to get the tyre off the rim. 10 people at the same time manhandling their sharp edged metal bars to be abused as tyre levers.
When it comes to my little Suzuki I can get aggressive very quickly. Can't remember how often I had to call stop and push people away from the wheel. And to remind them to use our rim protection. And take care with the tube. And to not throw everything in the dirt. And to keep the brake disc on the top, not on the bottom. And to not step onto the brake disc. To notice the rotation direction of the new tyre. Etc. When they started to reinstall the rear axle with a huge hammer they finally crossed the line. I told them to back off and I finished off myself. Usually I'm not like that. But sorry, it was just too much to bear. After all it's about my beautiful little Suzuki! The whole thing took 2 hours. I grew older by two years during those.

Sure enough I found my little Suzuki the next morning with a flat rear tyre...

Sunday one of my 'dodgy' helpers and me, we chombed the black market spots for my camera. Incredible how many Ipods and mobile phones change hands here. We also discretely searched foto studios, they would be the most likely buyers of my camera. But no trace. There is also an association of people who take scenic photos for and with tourists. These guys claim they usually are approached first when a good camera looks for a new owner. Because they can actually use it. But no trace.
My helper and me, we continued investigating and spreading the message on Monday. It's kind of cool to be part of this and have a look into the dodgy side of Ethiopia. I think I like the idea to become a Police investigator, it's kind of thrilling. But all to no avail. So I guess the camera is lost. If I was the smart thief I would wait too before letting the camera resurface.

Tourist Police promised to keep investigating. My two dodgy helpers promised to keep their eyes and ears open and to contact me if they find a trace. The tourist photographers too. And also the people in the photo studios. How serious they are in their promises, I don't know. The reward I offered might increase their seriousness. But I guess for me the camera is lost. And somewhere some bad guy will take good photos while chewing on awesome banana bisquits.

Fortunately I backed up my pics just before. So not many photos are lost. Most importantly, I have my passport and can continue to Sudan with Martin. Which I shall do tomorrow, on Tuesday. Using my spare small pocket camera with the broken display from now on.

The rest of today I spent with one of my dodgy but friendly helpers, chewing some Tchat to relax and drinking some tea. To forget about the frustrating last few days. And to enjoy Africa once more. It worked.

I also bought some Strawberry bisquits. 'Banana bisquits finished' the shopkeeper said.

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