It’s been over two months now since I flew out of Cairo, the first time I’ve left Africa without a return ticket for over two years, and I’ve been meaning to write this ever since.
So why didn’t I?
Laziness? It plays it’s part. Not having Guilherme writing his blog and making me feel bad about not writing mine was also a factor.
A new routine? Partly, for three months everything was about that. Getting to Cairo. Getting to the next town, then the next and the next. Cairo. Will we make it? Won’t we make it? Writing about that was easy. The daily struggles, the things we saw, the moments we shared with the people we met along the way.
But once it’s over? It gets more difficult. A new routine and travelling from Cape Town to Cairo becomes almost as difficult to imagine as it was before we set off. A jumble of events and experiences, memories, some vivid, some already fading, the mundane already gone in part.
It was a mammoth trip, an endurance expedition where the longest we stayed in one place was five nights, and that only because we were stuck waiting for visas. After so many miles, so many countries and such an assault of experiences my delay in writing this at least partly comes from my own incomprehension of what we did. My inability to successfully summarise all those moments that made the trip so wonderful yet so difficult, so predictable yet so unexpected. And to answer all those questions people ask for which there really is no answer.
Despite all that, I’m finally ready to give it a try!
……and that’s as far as I got. I’ve come back to this a month later (now over three months since flying out of Cairo) and it’s impossible. I can’t even understand the thing myself now, never mind try to explain it to others. I know it was hard, it was intense, and at times I wanted to be anywhere but where we were. By the end I was ready to leave, more than ready, to be in one place, to stop packing and unpacking and constantly battling to get anything, to do anything, to go anywhere. I didn’t find myself. Although at times I was worried I had and didn’t like what I found.
Since getting back I’ve realised I’m actually not the terrible person I worried I was at times on the road. There are places where it’s a battle to survive and to survive we joined the fight. And, although I struggled to see it at the time, this was part of the beauty of travelling on public transport. We didn’t just look on from a comfy seat in an air conditioned tour bus, we got involved, we interacted, we got bitten and we bit back. We had some spectacular highs and some pretty low lows, we fought like the locals and we survived, after 81 days (a fifth of which were spent on public transport) and over 10,000 miles through 12 African countries we made it to Cairo. And that’s enough of an achievement for me. The end.
After travelling almost the entire length of Africa on buses Guilherme and I were both looking forward to a change of conveyance for our final day of travel. So we were disappointed when we turned up at the station an hour early (after being told the previous day at the ticket office that we could only by tickets the day of travel, and to arrive an hour early) to find that there was no availability and that we should have booked in advance. Classic Egypt.
Next stop, the tourist office where they advised us to try the local bus companies. Ticket bought, then a forced refund as the driver decided he couldn’t/didn’t want to take non-Egyptians. Battling touts trying to sell us train tickets supposedly for the next train to Cairo, and others trying to force us onto empty buses that were apparently just about to depart (two hours later the same busses were still imminently departing), we worked our way back to our hotel, finally remembering to collect the change that was never forthcoming. Walking back toward the buses we encountered plenty more hassle, including lots of false information in an attempt to deflect us from reaching the only bus company with any amount of transparency. Thankfully we were by now well versed in the art of Egyptian con artists and ignored all the supposedly helpful advice. Generally, if you listen to an Egyptians recommendations, then do the opposite, you won’t go far wrong. Trust no one here!
Finally on our way, we spent a few hours winding through the green fields, palm trees and dirty villages of the Nile valley, watching the rats playing in the ubiquitous heaps of roadside rubbish each time we stopped. Once out of civilisation and onto the straight, fast, desert road north it was a few short hours of dunes and rocky crags in the setting sun before we arrived in a dark and traffic choked Cairo, ecstatic to have finally made it after so long on the road. No more waking up at 4.00am to board a cramped and dirty bus, squashed in for 12hrs, 24hrs, days. No more packing and unpacking. No more hassle, arguing, fighting for basic goods and services. In a few short days we would be flying out, our African odyssey at an end. But first there were some loose ends to tie up. A few pyramids a big stone statue and a final city to explore.
First, the city. After so long on the road, and after seeing and doing so much we weren’t going to go hard, but Guilherme wanted to get some souvenirs as Christmas presents, so we headed over to Islamic Cairo to check out the bazaar, Khan al-Khalili. After a cursory look around the standard Egyptian tourist tat and household goods for sale, I left Guilherme to his shopping and headed deeper into the Islamic area, past the Al-Azhar Mosque to the Bab Zuweila. Built in 1095AD, this is the only surviving gate of medieval Cairo. Although interesting in itself, the main reason to visit is to climb one of the minarets on top, later additions from a time when the gate was encompassed by a neighbouring mosque, for a 360 degree view of the city. A forest of minarets above the rubbish strewn rooftops showing through the thick city smog.
A chill day followed in which I had a mammoth lie in, lunched, chilled and had a quick wander round the Egyptian Museum. There is very little information about any of the thousands of exhibits and without a guide this place felt more like an Egyptian second hand shop, or warehouse for unwanted household items, than a museum.
With the advent of my last morning in Africa I still hadn’t got a proper look at that big statue, or those pyramids. So I took a circuitous route to the airport in the morning and stopped off to see the last standing wonder of the ancient world, the Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza. A fittingly spectacular end to what was a spectacular journey, the adventure of a lifetime, and one I’ll never forget. Goodbye Africa, and thank you!
Wadi Halfa, the last town in Sudan before the Egyptian border, isn’t a place you would choose to linger. A dead end town of squat, one story buildings, dirty eateries serving dirty food, and even dirtier hotels, amongst the dust and sand of the Sahara desert. Unfortunately for us, Sudanese bureaucracy is incredibly slow, so, to ensure we had enough time to jump through all their hoops before leaving on the weekly ferry to Egypt, we had to arrive in town a day early.
We spent most of our time safely ensconced in our hotel room, venturing out intermittently to eat diarrhoea inducing fuul or falafel. And so it was with relief that, after multiple hours in the police station trying to get a departure card, and even more time in the ferry terminal checking passports, luggage and other documents, we finally boarded the ferry. There aren’t many places in the world where a first class ticket gets you a closet of a room and a shared hole in the floor for a toilet, but it turns out Sudan is one of the few. Oh, and as an added bonus if you wanted a shower you had to stand over the hole-in-the-floor toilet as if about to take a shit! With very little to do on board and unpleasant aromas lurking around every corner, I spent the majority of the nineteen hour journey reading in the top bunk of our closet-cabin.
The ferry travels the full length of Lake Nasser, from Wadi Halfa in the south to Aswan High Dam, the blockage of the Nile which produced the lake in 1970, in the north. On arrival in the south we made our way to the town of Aswan ready for a relaxing three day felucca ride down the Nile the following day.
Relaxing, however, it was not. After agreeing a price, a destination and a menu we gradually realised as time went on that nothing we had agreed on was going to happen. No meat and no attempt to reach our desired destination, actually only half way there. Spending three days with the people who are ripping you off and repeatedly lying to you isn’t the most enjoyable excursion, especially when you’re stuck on a boat with no chance of escape. In the end they dumped us on the side of the river 10km short even of their revised destination, with not so much as a hint of an apology. Not a great introduction to Egypt or its people, but one that was to be indicative of the majority of our future interactions with Egyptians.
We never did see the Temples of Kom Ombo or Edfu, both part of the original itinerary, but after an afternoon on the buses, and in the back of pickup trucks, we did make it to Luxor, and a hotel where we could hide from the locals. Luxor is famous for its temples and proximity to the west bank Valley of the Kings, an elaborate graveyard for the Pharaohs of the middle kigdom, the capital of which was Luxor.
So the following day, the last before the final leg of our journey, I headed out on a tour of the west bank (of the Nile). And that’s when I realised why so many people visit this country. In the valley of the Kings we went into three different Pharaohs’ tombs, tunnels carved deep into the rock leading to great chambers and giant stone coffins, every wall covered in 3000+ year old paintings and hieroglyphics. A mind boggling display of ancient craftsmanship that has stood the test of time.
Unfortunately there was no photography allowed at all in the valley of the Kings but at our next stop, Queen Hatshepsuts Temple, we could snap to our hearts content. A policy that the hundreds of schoolkids made the most of as soon as they saw a white guy amongst them, and at times I felt like more of an attraction than the temple itself. The temple had been sympathetically restored in more recent times and was very impressive beneath imposing limestone cliffs on the sandy plain.
Our final stop before returning to Luxor was the Temple of Habu. A Goliath of a structure and still standing after three millenia it was simply superb. My words are not able to describe the grandeur of the place and the photos don’t even come close to portraying its majesty. The combination of the size, age, and detail of the paintings and wall carvings left me in total wonderment. You simply have to go.
After an evening walk along Luxors Nile-side Corniche past the city centre Luxor Temple, watching the sunset over the languid waters of the Nile, we were finally ready to finish our journey. Next stop Cairo!
Sudan, north of Khartoum, is where the real desert starts. The Sahara desert, and the next stage of our journey would take us right into the middle of it. Roughly following the river Nile, and stopping off at a series of temples, tombs and pyramids leftover from the Nubian Pharaohs, we would make our way from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, on a plethora of buses, minibuses and pickup trucks through the sand.
I’m not great with history but it seems the Nubian Pharaohs came after the Egyptian ones, conquered them from the south for a time, and copied much of their pyramid and temple building. Present day Sudan encompasses much of ancient Nubia and many people still speak Nubian alongside Arabic.
Our first stop after leaving Khartoum was the Royal Cemetery of Meroe, more commonly known as the pyramids of Meroe, built between roughly 300BC and 350AD. Our approach was surreal, the sun was setting by the time the bus dumped us in the desert, and the pyramids were lit up in the distance by a golden glow. As we traipsed through the desert towards them the sun gradually set, and we pitched our tent in the dark on a small hill just next to the pyramids, in anticipation of a spectacular sunrise view from the tent. Unfortunately the wind picked up in the night, the tent blew down, and we had to make an emergency 3am relocation to a more sheltered spot! After all the excitement we overslept the sunrise but our morning spent exploring the enchantingly dilapidated pyramids, amongst the golden dunes, was still a gem, and one of the highlights of the whole trip. It definitely helped that we had the whole place almost entirely to ourselves.
In the afternoon we slowly made our way north to Karima, a dusty Nile side town surrounded by more Nubian monuments. At one point I was almost convinced we were going to be kidnapped and I nearly left the minibus to find another. Luckily I didn’t and we weren’t kidnapped. I think a bit of the current terrorism hysteria had got under my skin.
With a whole day to spend in Karima we enjoyed a healthy lie in before exploring the temples of Amun and Mut and having a look at some more pyramids. The Temple of Mut was especially interesting as it had been totally carved out of the rock at the base of Jebel Barkal, and we were lucky to coincide our visit with a visiting team of archeologists uncovering the beautiful wall paintings. They helpfully explained a bit about the history of the temple for us. Still, don’t ask me who Mut is or why he has a temple, I just liked the pictures!
History done, we hiked up Jebel Barkal to take in the spectacular views of desert, Nile, pyramids, temples and the town of Karima from above. The temples were especially rewarding to view from above because we got a much clearer sense of the layout of these large, ancient structures.
Our last stop before Wadi Halfa was the village of Wawa and a boat trip across the Nile to the Temple of Soleb. Soleb was actually built by the Egyptians in the 14th century BC and the design and carvings were very impressive, even more so knowing the age. The best bit for us however was the fact that there was no one else there, only a few locals in their Nile side fields. If the temple was in any other country there would be hotels, restaurants, bars. But not in Sudan. Wawa has a roadside cafeteria, serving fuul (stewed broad beens), fuul and fuul, and a ‘hotel house’ (someone’s house tourists stay in), and not one person who spoke English. Quite the ‘off the beaten track’ experience.
And for another ‘off the beaten track’ experience we headed north on the final leg of our Sudanese journey. To the grotty little town of Wadi Halfa to wait for the Monday ferry to Egypt, in a grotty little hotel where the toilets were constantly filled with shit.
Into the fire? Not at all. As soon as we crossed the border into Sudan it was like we were on a different planet. No hassle, helpful people, a nice bus conductor giving us a fair price. Not at all like the hell into which our Ethiopian money changer would have us believe we were descending. And not the scary place most westerners would imagine. Sudan tends to be synonymous with war, genocide and extremism. After all they did spend a time hosting Osama bin Laden. But your average Sudanese Joe, or more often Mo, is just like any other normal person, and a lot nicer than most of the Ethiopians we met in our final few days!
After an evening bus ride through the arid plains south of Khartoum, the capital, watching camels grazing in the setting sun, we arrived in Khartoum and met up with our Sudanese couchsurfing host, Mohammed. On our first night we went to a shisha bar with Mo and his friends, there’s no alcohol allowed in the whole country (sharia law) so shisha takes its place. When we got to the bar we were surprised to be introduced to a very flamboyant group of obviously gay men. Very tired after a 4.30am start, we were more than ready to leave at 1am when Mo finally decided to say goodbye to his friends, still talking of their latest shopping trips to London and Paris.
The next day, our only full day in Khartoum, we wanted to see some of the sights. But first we had to go through the tedious process of registering as aliens at the ministry of foreign affairs. The rest of the day was spent running errands with Mo and visiting his university, the oldest in Khartoum, and surprisingly beautiful. In the evening we managed to escape and had a nice walk along the banks of the Blue Nile to the point where the two Niles, White and Blue, meet. Neither was white or blue but it was nice to see after visiting the sources of both (Lake Victoria and Lake Tana, sources of the White and Blue Niles respectively) earlier in our travels.
We still had our travel and photography permits to collect from the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife the following day but once that box was ticked we hopped on a bus and headed north. Next stop, the Sahara desert.
How does the saying go? Out of the frying pan and into the fire? Well, by the time our departure from Ethiopia was drawing near, we were starting to burn. As a result, and despite its poor reputation in the west, Sudan became a promised land for us, full of nice, helpful people who didn’t try to rob you at any opportunity. ‘It will be better in Sudan’ ‘it won’t be like this in Sudan’ ‘the people will be nicer in Sudan’ ‘they can’t be any worse’ was our usual refrain.
Don’t get me wrong, our time in Ethiopia started very positively, we met so many nice, generous and welcoming people. But as we gradually worked our way north, and then round in a loop to Lalibela and back to Gonder, the sights became more interesting on an inverse scale to the decency of the people we encountered.
And we cracked. Big time. Here’s the how and why.
It was common for people to try to charge us more for everyday things, like a bottle of water or a roll of toilet paper, all over the north. But the real issues began once our driver dropped us in Mekele after our tour of Tigrai. It was late in the day and we boarded what was probably the last minibus heading south to Alamata that day. As almost the first passengers we found some seats with a little leg room and waited for the bus to fill. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to agree with everyone in the bus station, and as more passengers arrived there was much arguing, shouting and pulling of potential passengers this way and that. Some were forcefully loaded onto another minibus, but eventually they were all transfered to ours. Finally full, we were expecting to leave when everyone suddenly got out and ran to the other minibus, a smaller bus, and once we had removed our bags from the roof of the first, no space for us. ‘You’ll have to wait for the next one’. Well, after waiting for almost an hour for the first one this just wouldn’t do. We played them at their own game, shouting, pushing, I even softly punched the conductor, until they moved two passengers and gave us their seats. It’s dog eat dog in Ethiopia and we weren’t just going to get eaten.
The next day it got worse. From Alamata we headed to Woldia where, at the bus station, no one would tell us where the next bus to Lalibela or Gashena (en route to Lalibela) was, and just kept trying to get us into empty minibuses for a private fare. In the end we had to get someone from the local tourism office to help us. After finding the minibus to Gashena the conductor tried to charge us double. Again lots of shouting and swearing and forcing them to give us a receipt (all pre-written) before we got the correct price.
In Gashena things got worse still. The price for white people on the bus to Lailbela? Five times the price for locals. After so much hassle on the previous buses (it’s difficult to explain how much shouting and arguing we had to do to get a fair price) we were already pretty over Ethiopia. But this really was the icing on the cake. And nobody helps, a bus full of people, everyone understands we’re being robbed, but nobody helps. After prying the receipt out of the hand of the man next to me, and finding the real price there inscribed, we had something to go on. The conductor wouldn’t budge, said he would remove our bags from the roof if we didn’t pay, I demanded to be taken to the police, he left and I followed. But just before I did I gave Ethiopia, or more precisely our fellow passengers, who were all too happy to watch us be robbed, a piece of my mind. While they sat there with their religious headscarves and their crosses round their necks I gave them a quick lecture on common decency and Christian values, and thanked them for their help (sarcasm) before singling out the priest in the front row for particular ire. ‘And you’re a priest and you just sit there and watch while people get robbed right in front of your face, what kind of priest is that?’ etc, etc. It seems to me that for most Ethiopians, Christianity is a big show. They wear their crosses and headscarves and go to church but it seems to have no bearing on their everyday life whatsoever. It is a religion I have developed a deep lack of respect for. Even priests pester for money in the churches.
Anyway, when we finally reached the ‘police station’ (I’m dubious) the price dropped to double the local price and when the ‘police man’ (when I asked to see his badge he showed me two weird pieces of plastic stuck together) laughed as I explained the situation, and the bus conductor continued to remove our bags from the roof, we grudgingly agreed to pay. After a final lecture on Christianity for the passengers, from Guilherme this time, we were on our way along the very hot, very bumby and very dusty road to Lalibela.
Lalibela is hailed as the jewel in Ethiopias tourism crown. Eleven subterranean churches chiseled out of the bedrock in the 11th century, with countless rock hewn outhouses and cubby holes, all linked by rock cut passages and winding tunnels. While the churches were undoubtedly impressive we couldn’t help but be a little underwhelmed, especially after the distinctly less touristy rock hewn churches of Tigrai. Nevertheless we were happy to tick off Ethiopias main sight and after a day exploring we set off for the bus station to buy our tickets for the following day.
After nearly three weeks of hassle by almost every street vendor and child we came across, since leaving Tigray we had given up all attempts at being nice. Shouting ‘NOWHERE’ in the face of a child who asked me where I was going probably wasn’t my finest hour, and after the churches we decided to try to be a bit nicer for out final two nights in the country.
So on our walk to the bus station we ended up with a child each, showing us the shortcuts and trying to sell us handmade wooden crosses. And that’s when it happened. After crossing a road, and waving back to some particularly cute kids as I went, I heard an almighty crash. When I turned round there was a small girl lying in the road and an autorickshaw in the ditch. As I ran back some women picked up the limp child, Guilherme had some cuts and a torn t-shirt, from the autorickshaw as it swerved and tipped over, but was basically okay. I tried to get the women to put the girl down so I could assess her (she was at least unconscious but I fear it was much worse) but instead they ran away with her before running back, the child dangling by the arms, and shoving her in the back of another autorickshaw bound for the hospital. The driver and passengers appeared not too badly injured and were taken to hospital once the ambulance arrived. Guilherme saw the whole thing. The girl was running to him when the autorickshaw hit her. It’s common in Ethiopia, lots of tourists give out pens or sweets and the first thing we heard from most of the kids was ‘give me pen’. So maybe she wanted a pen, or a sweet, or maybe she just wanted to touch Guilhermes hand (also common). We’ll never know. The whole thing was so sudden and over so quickly it was difficult to process. We don’t know if the girl lived or died. Guilherme got his cuts bandaged at a local private clinic.
As if we weren’t already, we were now desperate to get out of this god forsaken land. An all day bus to Gonder the next day, followed the day after by a few minibuses from there to the border and (after the customary hassle, attempted overcharging (for the first time a fellow passenger actually helped us) the refusal of the first minibus to go to its agreed destination, arguing for some money back and then repeating the argument for the correct price of the next) we were finally out of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia had given us some of our best experiences of the whole journey but also the very worst. We met the most generous people and also the most obnoxious. It is a poor country developing fast. A land of contrasts. And a challenging place for independent travel. We managed it but at times our conduct wasn’t the best. Maybe it was travel fatigue after so long on the move. Maybe it was the longer amount of time we devoted to Ethiopia. But writing this from Sudan, with a bit more perspective, I still feel like it was the people of Northern Ethiopia. And maybe they act the way they do because the place is so poor, but in the rest of Africa we never experienced such aggression, such hassle and such deceitful, immoral people as we did in Northern Ethiopia. In a way we became like them in an effort to survive. Ethiopia destroyed us. And as I told anyone who asked in our final few days, I was glad to leave. I will never be back.
Tigrai is a region in the north of Ethiopia. Dry, hot and dusty, Tigrai is best known for its rock hewn churches, chiseled out of the copious limestone cliff faces in its precipitous mountains. We had originally planned an attempt on public transport to see some of these churches but, with the remoteness and potential difficulty of finding the priests with the keys, in the end we signed up for a two day private tour. We left from our hotel in Aksum to visit a monastery on a cliff top, followed by four rock hewn churches and ending on the second day in Mekele, the capital of Tigrai region.
Our first stop outside of Aksum was Debre Damo, a monastery built on a mountain top and completely surrounded by cliffs. Debre Damo is said to be the first monastery ever built in Ethiopia, by one of the original nine Syrians who brought Christianity to Ethiopia from the holy lands, in the 5th century AD. Legend has it that a giant serpent dropped its tail down the cliff face to lift the monk to the top. Apparently the serpent left long ago because our only choice of conveyance was a handmade leather rope to haul ourselves up, with two monks pulling from above on another strip of leather tied round our waists. Once up we found a whole village of monks’ houses and explored the beautiful old church with its tilting ceilings and worn stone floors. Getting back down was the scariest part but scaling cliffs definitely makes going to church a lot more exciting!
MEDHAME ALEM KESHO
The next stop was much easier to access, and after an easy ten minute walk we arrived at the front of the church of Medhame Alem Kesho with our very friendly and helpful priest-guide, whom we picked up on the way. Carved entirely out of the sandstone cliff face our first impressions of the church were quite awe inspiring. Inside however, once our eyes adjusted to the dark, the true intricacy of the carving became apparent as the priest helpfully used a long stick with a flame on the end to illuminate the carved rock ceiling. The priest here was the nicest we have encountered on our whole trip and the visit was a pleasure, he even gave us a demonstration of the original church lock of wooden sticks on strings (still in use today).
ABUNA YEMATA GUH
After a night in Hawzien we set off early for this, the jewel in the Crown of the Tigrai churches, Abuna Yemata Guh. A bit too early as it turns out, the priest still not back from his trip to market the previous day. Eventually he did appear, along with the church key to let us in. But first we had to reach the door. No mean feat. Abuna Yemata Guh is the most inaccessible of all the Tigrai churches, with the entrance located part way up a sheer cliff on the side of a rock pinacle. First a steep hike, then some bare foot free climbing (no rope this time) using some very polished holds cut into the cliff face. Some scrambling, a bit more climbing and then you reach the main cliff. The next stage is a vertigo inducing traverse of a narrow ledge, hundreds of feet up the rock face, until you reach the safety of the church entrance chamber, and relief. The interior of the church was almost as impressive as the access route, with the original paintings covering the ceiling and walls. With such spectacular views, some exercise, adrenaline, and culture, we both felt this was the best thing we had done on the whole trip so far.
MARYAM KORKOR and DANIEL KORKOR
At the top of the adjacent mountainside to the one housing Abuna Yemata Guh these two churches are within a two minute walk of each other. The hike up was spectacular, starting with a steep pull up inside a large crack in the rock face, followed by clambering up some slabby rock and along some more narrow ledges until we reached the church. The views were unbelievable and, although the churches themselves were interesting, it was definitely the best thing about visiting these churches. The big let down was the money grabbing priest and his accomplices who wanted money for turning a key despite the already steep entrance fee paid.
Two days with a private driver was pure bliss after so long on public transport, and it was with a heavy heart that we said goodbye to our driver and boarded a public minibus headed towards Lalibela, our last stop in Ethiopia before Sudan.