Looking at a map of Ethiopia it looks like the road from Gonder to Aksum is one of the main north-south arteries of the country. Maybe it is, but the road definitely didn’t conform to our western notions of a national trunk road. I boarded in Debark and met up with Guilherme again on the bus after a whole week apart while his girlfriend was visiting. As we slowly pulled out of town we soon realised that besides being the starting point for treks in the Simien Mountains, Debark also marks the end of the tarred road north.
On what was quite possibly the oldest, most decrepit bus we’ve travelled on so far we soon began our hair raising descent from the plateau. After a few hairpin bends we found ourselves traversing a narrow dirt track a few hundred metres up a sheer cliff face with palpitation inducing views straight over the edge to the farmland way below. The state of the road would have been bad enough in a new bus but in an ancient bus that tipped and rolled, creaked and groaned at the slightest opportunity, the experience was actually quite terrifying, especially on the steep switchback turns.
After a cheeky tire change at the bottom we lumbered on, the surface intermittently changing from dirt to tar and back again until we reached Shire for a vehicle change before finally arriving in Aksum in the late afternoon.
Aksum is famous for the great stelae that litter the town and surrounding area. Built by the Aksumite empire shortly after the birth of Christ, these giant stone monoliths were erected to mark the tombs of important citizens. No one is quite sure how they got the giant stone structures in place, each one made out of a single piece of rock, but some suggest elephants could have been used, with men and ropes to haul them into an upright position.
Through a happy coincidence it happened that our two days in Aksum coincided exactly with the biggest festival of the year in town, the Festival of Maryam Zion. We spent two days, well, more like half days, at the festival but I’m not going to pretend to have any idea what it’s really about. Lots of people in white, praying in the church, dancing, singing and clapping outside, camel rides, lots of drinking and dancing at night, someone said they bring the ‘church treasure’ out for a jaunt, but we didn’t see it. All I know is it’s something to do with Mary. It was interesting, but pretty unfathomable, and not one person managed to give us a clear explanation of what it was all about.
Travelling in Ethiopia tends to involve looking at a lot of churches and monasteries. Nice as they are, after Addis Ababa and Bahir Dar, I was already starting to feel like I’d had my fill of these for a while. Time to escape to the mountains. The Simien Mountains that is, and a six day trek to the top of the highest peak in Ethiopia, Ras Dashen.
Ethiopia, and more precisely the Simien Mountains, are often referred to as the roof of Africa and our guide, Gimby, helpfully explained that where Tanzania and Kenya just have one big mountain each, Ethiopia has a whole range. On the whole trek we barely, if at all, dropped below 3,000m and at such altitude the nights were cold (tent covered in ice), and the hiking hard (constantly out of breath).
On my trek it was just me and one other person, and with such a large entourage, guide, scout, cook, two mules and three mule handlers, it felt quite extravagant at first. I soon got used to it however and particularly enjoyed the fresh popcorn and tea we received on our arrival in camp each day.
With four full days and two short days either end of the trek we passed through some beautiful scenery with great cliffs dropping away to the farmland far below and Gelada Baboons frolicking as we passed. The Simien Mountains are home to some of the rarest mammals on the planet, including the Ethiopian wolf and and the Walia Ibex, both of which we managed to spot during the trek.
After the first three days we were heading out of the park and over the second highest mountain, down to the farmland far below. The last full day we set off in the moonlight at 4.30am for our attempt on Ras Dashen and after a long, breathless four hours, with a cheeky scramble onto the summit to finish, we made it. A few minutes to catch our breath in the cold morning air and some time to take in the panoramic views and we were ready to head back the way we had come.
On the final day we again got an early start and hiked back to our pickup point to finally leave the mountains, excited about the prospect of a bed and shower in the nearest town, Debark. The man who organised our trek was called Dezy and he had promised to pick us up at 7am on the final day to take Lucy, my trekking buddy to Lalibela before her flight the following day. Unfortunately, it turned out the guy was not to be trusted and after hours sat on the side of the road, waiting for his arrival, we finally got on our way sometime past midday. As if that wasn’t bad enough he was incredibly rude when we complained about the poor service. After he called us stupid, mother****ers and racists I was almost ready to get out and walk the remaining 30km or so back to Debark. As he pulled away he suddenly stopped, jumped out of the van and punched one of the mule handlers in the face before attempting to throw a brick at him. The icing on the cake. Dezy, a guide in the Simien Mountains, is possibly the most obnoxious person I’ve ever met! I hope that comes up on a Google search….
But the trek was amazing, that’s the take home message really!
Addis Ababa. We spent 6 nights in the Ethiopian capital getting visas (Sudanese and Egyptian) for our onward travel. Addis is a big, sprawling city and without an obvious centre it’s not the easiest city to navigate. Thankfully we had Hailu and his friends to help us. We connected with Hailu through couchsurfing and he graciously offered to host us for our entire time in the city. He, his mum and his friends and neighbours really made our time there memorable.
Hailu and most of the people in his neighbourhood, on the very edge on Addis Ababa, came originally from the slums in the centre of the city but were moved to the new neighbourhood of Hyat when their homes were cleared for new development (Addis is developing fast with new buildings shooting up all over town). They were quite possibly the most generous people I’ve ever met and every day his neighbours would drop by with food or coffee for us to try or invite us round for lunch and more coffee. Hailus mum, whom he lives with, kept us so well fed that I even started to gain some of the weight I’d lost on the rest of the trip. After watching my pitiful attempt she even hand washed all our dirty travel clothes. Not an enviable task!
And then there was more coffee, three cups before bed was the usual routine, thick, dark, rich Ethiopian coffee, in tiny cups. In Ethiopia making coffee is a ritual, it requires time, can’t be rushed. Start by roasting the coffee beans over your charcoal burner on the living room floor, once complete waft the fragrant beans under the noses of your guests as tradition dictates. Next, grind the beans, the standard way is with a mortar and pestle but if you’re fancy, like Hailus family, you can use an electric grinder. The last stage is the heating of the water, addition of the ground coffee and boiling, again over the charcoal. And repeat. Two more times.
Despite the copious amounts of food and coffee to keep us in Hyat we did manage to tear ourselves away and venture into the city for some sightseeing. Mercato, supposedly the biggest market in Africa, the museums, Lucy, the famous pre-human skeleton found in Ethiopia and on display in the national museum, the cloth market and Mount Entoto for great views of the city and a peek in our first Ethiopian Orthodox church (the first of many I expect).
On our final night at Hailus flat we experienced the rather surreal experience of being fed, by hand, by his mother. A sign of respect, we were flattered but probably felt more comfortable once we got to the butchery/restaurant for our thank you meal. I was more sad to leave Hyat than any place we’ve been to so far and I will always think fondly of the week we spent there amongst such wonderful, welcoming, and generous people. But leave I did, and this time on my own as Guilherme was staying in Addis an extra night to meet up with his girlfriend for a week. After sitting on a bus for 11hrs next to a puking three year old I arrived in Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile.
Only one problem. A big government celebration in town. No hotel rooms available. Luckily, a saviour appeared. Ambelu. ‘Captain might be easier for you to remember’. After trying for hours to find me a hotel room for the night Ambelu offered to host me himself. He explained there wasn’t much space and during our wanderings around town I discovered that Ambelu was putting himself through school and living on his own after his parents died when he was still young, working at the bus station after school to make ends meet.
Ambelu was the perfect host, giving me the bed whilst he slept on the floor (I did protest) and showing me his National Spelling Bee trophy (entitling him to a free trip to D.C., if only he could get a visa) and pictures of his recent trip to Rwanda as part of a young African leaders programme. This guy will go far I’m sure!
After a boat trip on Lake Tana the following day, organised by Ambelu, we said our goodbyes as I checked into a hotel in town, found by Ambelu, for my final night before heading into the mountains.
The next leg our the journey would take us from Nairobi, in Kenya, to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. The road from Nairobi north to Moyale, on the border with Ethiopia, was the section of the trip we were most worried about. We had read of bandits (shiftas as they’re known locally) attacking buses and our guidebook tells us that the border is frequently closed due to unrest. With the recent Al-Shabaab terrorist attacks in Kenya and horror stories online of days spent on cramped buses on terrible, unpaved roads, we got in the taxi for the bus station with a certain amount of trepidation.
The start of our journey wasn’t exactly auspicious. The buses to Moyale depart from Eastleigh, a mostly Somali populated area of Nairobi, rather than the main bus terminal, and driving through the dark, rubbish strewn streets, with intermittent fires burning on the sides of the roads, I wasn’t terribly inclined to leave the safety of our taxi for the ankle deep mud of the side street where the bus departs. With the foreign office advising against all but essential travel to Eastleigh we moved promptly from the taxi to the interior of the waiting bus.
The north of Kenya is sparsely populated by a multitude of tribal people, many semi-nomadic, and towns are few and far between. As such, the government has only recently begun to turn the gravel track, that once led north of Isiolo all the way to the border, into a tarred road. We soon discovered that the horror stories now come from a bygone era, and although there were some pretty rough sections between the tar, we managed to sleep reasonably soundly up until our arrival in Moyale around 11am the following morning.
Crossing international borders it’s obviously common to change time zone but rarely does this extend to more than an hour or two. Crossing into Ethiopia, however, not only does the time change (by six hours) but the day, month and year also change. We reached the border at 11.30am faranji (foreigners) time on 13/11/15 and entered Ethiopia around an hour later at 6.30am on 03/03/08. This is because Ethiopia still runs on its own ancient calendar, which begins at the end of August (as we know it) and has thirteen months, all with 30 days except one which has 5 or 6 depending on the year. The time of day is measured in a surprisingly logical way based on sunrise and sunset. 1am is 1 hour after sunrise, 1pm an hour after sunset, that’s our 7am and 7pm respectively.
After the tediously dysfunctional border crossing (waiting for the power to come back so the Ethiopians could process our passports) we had a day to relax in Moyale before the 6am (faranji time) bus to Addis the following day. Moyale is in the back end of nowhere and it seems few foreigners are crazy enough to end up there, so we caused quite a stir walking repeatedly up and down the main street, with so many handshakes and greetings from random strangers I started to feel like a minor celebrity. Once we finally found a decent enough hotel we had our first taste of Ethiopian food and fresh Ethiopian coffee. What a delight after so much maize meal, samosas and chapattis, our staples for the preceeding 6 weeks of the trip.
After reading so much about the horrors of the Kenyan road, and being pleasantly surprised, we were expecting the remainder of our journey to Addis Ababa to be a walk in the park. Not so. It started with the bus station. 5am and it seems half of Moyale is trying to catch a bus, there’s no ticket office, no lights, some form of order, maybe, but we sure don’t understand it. A helpful guy spots the helpless faranjis and finally, with a lot of help, we find the bus for Addis. A mass of people surround the bus in the dark, shouting, pushing, jostling for position. This is the only bus heading for Addis today and we don’t have a ticket. After being yelled at repeatedly by multiple people then standing in a queue that never moved we somehow found ourselves on the bus. The most cramped so far but at least our seats still had their padding.
As the time for the bus to depart got closer the crowd outside got more excited, the conductor more irate. Bags being thrown through any open windows (including mine until I was hit in the face), people trying to climb through the same. The conductor kicking, pushing, chasing, anything to stop the masses overwhelming the vehicle. Once he deemed further resistance futile the bus began to pull away, not in the usual slow crawl (a warning for any stragglers to get on board), but fast, as fast as we could. Our pursuers chasing on foot, motorbike, auto-rickshaw, frantically trying to throw the last items through the few remaining open windows.
An early morning departure usually means a quiet bus, at least for a few hours. Not this time. No sooner had we escaped the clutches of the pursuing mob than the back of the bus erupted in a frenzy, emptying bags, refilling bags, squirreling shoes away in the overhead luggage rack, swapping clothes with the other passengers, hiding bags under seats. Shouting, clambering, pushing their way to and fro with their treasures, making sure they’re well hidden. Someone, their leader maybe, collecting money, 100Birr each (around $5). A bribe it turns out, as we reach a police check point. Customs, explains our new friend Ayalew across the aisle. Everybody off the bus, five minutes waiting in the frigid morning air, back on board, depart.
And repeat. Three more customs points before lunch. Every time, as the bus approaches, the back of the bus (where we happen to have chosen to sit) erupts into a frenzy of moving and shouting, collecting money and re-shuffling, as if their previous hiding places might not be good enough this time. Every time we re-board the bus a frantic rush for the doors, a stampede to be the first, as if the bus would otherwise leave you behind or there may not be space for everyone. It never does. There always is. Between each customs stop our old bus rattles onwards over the rough dirt road north, the worst road we’ve travelled in 10,000km, and a real bone shaker.
Due to the state of the road (and also, possibly, that of the bus) the journey to Addis can’t be completed in a single day, so as the sun gradually set we began our approach to Awasa, our stop for the night. This was heralded by the most frantic reshuffling of goods so far, people collecting their carefully secreted bounty and packing into large sacks to transfer to motorbikes, stopping the bus repeatedly to unload. Ayalew says these motorbikes ferry the goods through the forest and around the customs post. No money is collected this time, Ayalew tells us these guys can’t be bribed, it’s the final check and also the most thorough, the others were just a warm up. The girl in front of us puts on four dresses, all the same pattern, another woman is wearing multiple pairs of shinny leggings, handbags full of hats, scarves, socks, bras, are spread around the bus, hung from seats, placed in the luggage rack. Trying to make everything appear normal. As if these people didn’t just cross into Kenya, to buy cheap Chinese products to resell in Awasa and Addis for a big mark up.
At the customs post in the dark a few mobile phones are confiscated (it seems everyone has at least two, protective stickers still on the screens) but then returned. Back on the bus and everyone seems happy, the loot is through and profit awaits. In Awasa the contraband is removed from the hiding places for the last time, the smugglers disperse into the darkness.
The next morning there is no signs of the drama from the day before. No crowds, no pushing or throwing of baggage through the windows, just an orderly procession, slowly boarding the bus, a change of faces. Awasa, apparently, the destination, the market for our smuggling friends. And so, the final day of our journey from Nairobi to Addis, through the wilds of northern Kenya and the wild west of southern Ethiopia, was a relaxed one on good tarred roads, sleep came easy.
It was a god job it did too, because after taking the new city rail line to Hyat on the edge of Addis we met up with our couchsurfing host, Hailu, for and afternoon of drinking and dancing to celebrate his cousins first wedding anniversary, in true Ethiopia style.
Post gorilla experience I was exhausted, ill (4hrs on a motorbike in the cold didn’t help) and my legs were in pain from the bumpy ride back but somehow we decided the night bus to Kampala, capital of Uganda, was a good idea. It wasn’t. The coach was one of the most cramped so far, with three seats one side, two seats the other side of the aisle and virtually no leg room. With that, and my nose acting like a waterfall, sleep was elusive. So on arrival at Guilhermes friends flat in Kampala I spent the morning trying to catch up on the sleep I failed to get on the bus.
Kampala is what I had always imagined African cities to be like. Chaotic and dirty with poeple, buses, motorbikes and trucks everywhere. So many people in one place. Colourful and hectic, a little intimidating. In the afternoon we battled our way through the Kampala traffic to the shore of Lake Victoria. First, the local experience, a tumble down market right to the waters edge, muddy dirty streets, smells, good and bad.
Next, a fancy resort and an expensive restaurant in the torrential rain. Once the rains stopped we were able to get out to the Ugandan Indian Society event that was being held in the hotel grounds. It seemed like half the Indians in Uganda were there, wading through the ankle deep mud to feast on Pani Puri and sugar cane juice along with the myriad other Indian treats on offer.
The next day we spent way too much time sat on the back of boda bodas (motorcycle taxis) in the rain trying to find a cinema playing the new James Bond film. Bodas are the quickest way to get around this constantly congested city but with no helmet for their passengers, and some pretty ambitious under- and overtaking, possibly not the safest. Thankfully we made it despite the risks and after just about drying out during the film we journeyed back to the flat to pack our stuff for our departure the following day.
This time we eschewed the luxury option and instead plumbed for the cheapest bus to Nairobi, over night with Kalita coaches. On boarding, our surprise was palpable at the sight of the large reclining seats and luxurious leg room, it took a few times of asking before we could believe the water they were handing out was free and we could barely believe it when the bus left only 40 minutes late (unheard of since Windhoek). An auspicious start to what turned out to be a pretty sweet nights sleep and probably the nicest bus journey since we left Windhoek so many weeks ago.
Arriving in Nairobi we headed straight to our hosts apartment in Jamhuri, our connections with our hosts getting more tenuous as we move further north. Our hosts in Nairobi? Friends of Guilhermes brothers ex-girlfriend. A reasonably large degree of separation I’d agree but Lilian and Rosemary were the perfect hosts and great people to get to know, I only wish we could’ve stayed longer than the one night the bus schedules allowed!
Nairobi doesn’t always have the best reputation and is often synonymous with crime and disorder. As such it was with some amount of trepidation that we headed out on the bus for the town centre on our first day. Our first impressions, especially after three days in Kampala, were of an orderly, clean and reasonably functional city. Cosmopolitan and clean. We headed back to the apartment separately and my opinions changed somewhat after two men tried to rob me on a bus, I failed to navigate the chaotic public transport system (despite help from two very helpful local students) and then spent an hour in a taxi stuck in traffic travelling the 7km home.
Luckily, Nairobi redeemed itself on our final day and we had a great time exploring Uhuru Park and marvelling at the view from the top of the KICC building in the city centre. We even managed to navigate the buses back to the apartment with very little hassle. That evening we cooked for the girls before taxiing into the Eastleigh area of the city for the night bus to Moyale and our third and final crossing of the equator.
With gorilla tracking booked for Saturday in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda, we left the comforts of Kigali and hit the road again. In stages, and with a brief encounter with the police over questionable bus fares, we made it to Kisoro.
Kisoro is beautifully situated amongst the lush rolling hills of south western Uganda with the Virunga volcanoes of Rwanda/Congo towering over the town. So far it has been low season almost everywhere we’ve been and Kisoro was no exception. With only us staying at the guesthouse we managed to barter a pretty decent discount and we duly pitched our tent for an early night.
Feeling refreshed the next morning and after a rolex for breakfast (omelette rolled up in a chapatti, classically Ugandan) I put shoes on for the first time in weeks and we headed off over the hills towards Lake Mutanda. The views were spectacular, with one side of the hill looking out over Kisoro and the Virungas and the other looking down to the lake with its little islands and hillsides of patchwork fields. On the lake side of the hill there is no paved road and the little paths we were using wound from homestead to homestead, and branched endlessly, making navigation tricky. Luckily the locals were super helpful and eventually we found ourselves at a community run lodge, Mutanda Ecocommunity Centre, where we had beers and lunch (more rolex) overlooking the lake.
After the afternoon rains had passed and the sun returned we headed down to the shore for a cheeky swim in the cool waters. Very refreshing. By the time we were heading back to Kisoro schools were out and we built up quite a following of young children. A few decided Guilherme, my travel buddy, looked like Jesus and from that point halfway back to Kisoro his disciples followed singing ‘Jesus we love you, yes we do, do, do’.
The next day was the big one and we were up at 4.40am, way before dawn, for the 2hr journey to Rushaga, the starting point for our gorilla trek. Rushaga is only 35km from Kisoro but after the first kilometre the road turns to dirt and gradually gets more potholed and more muddy the further into the mountains you get. In a bid to save some cash after splashing out the $350 for gorilla tracking we decided to hire a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) each for the journey, so by the time we reached Rushaga I was cold and hungry and could barely walk. Luckily the pre-trek briefing gave us time to recover before the 2hr hike through the jungle, to the spot where the Busingye family were hanging out for the day.
Once there we spent an hour with the gorillas and at times we were totally surrounded, with gorillas chilling in the trees and wandering around in the undergrowth, all the time munching on the leaves that are their stable diet. We saw baby gorillas playing in the branches and spent a long time with the alpha male after he had demolished a tree to get at the juicy leaves on top. Having a stare off with a giant silverback gorilla is not something I will quickly forget.
After the long bottom-shaking ride back to Kisoro we had a bit of time to chill, read and munch on a snack of freshly fried grasshoppers (luckily they’re in season at the moment) before the night bus to kampala.
If you mention Rwanda to anyone with a faint knowledge of current affairs the first thing that comes to mind tends to be genocide. With good reason. In the space of 100 days, starting in April 1994 over 800,000 men, women and children were brutally murdered by their fellow countrymen, neighbors, even family members. Such things obviously leave scars, but in Rwanda those scars are buried deep.
Our first impressions were of happy people, smiling children waving from the roadside ‘mzungu, mzungu’ (white man, white man) and hills, the greenest of hills, rolling on for what appeared eternity in this most fertile of lands. Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills and as we wound up and down, through valleys and over ridges to Kigali it was apparent why.
We spent our first night in Kigali catching up with another of our good friends from Swaziland and generally recuperating from the mammoth trip from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The next day, after a much needed lie in, we set off for the main ‘attraction’ in Kigali, the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Built on the site where roughly 250,000 genocide victims are buried, the memorial is a poignant reminder of the brutality that man is capable of and how a society can suddenly turn on itself.
The memorial takes you from pre-colonial days through colonial times, up to the preparation and execution of the genocide by the Hutu extremists. Rwanda has one language and, before colonial days, one people. Tutsis were rich, Hutus poorer and a person could change from Hutu to Tutsi or vice versa depending on how successful they were. During the German and then Belgian colonial times, in a quest to devide and rule, these names were turned into a form of ethnicity which was then passed on through the generations. This was done in a classically arbitrary way, ten cows or more, Tutsi, less, Hutu.
These ethnicities stuck and led to intermittent violence and massacres of Tutsis post-independence, culminating in the genocide of 1994. The memorial takes you right through the 100 days of murder starting with the shooting down of the presidents plane to the moment the RPF entered Kigali and liberated Rwanda from the perpetrators. I’m not going to describe all the awful things I read about in the memorial but there were a few things that stood out,
The priest who’s congregation came to shelter in his church for safety. He ordered the church to be bulldozed with his congregants inside.
The failure of the international community to act despite the presence of UN peacekeepers in Rwanda, ‘The world withdrew and watched as a million people were slaughtered’. It seems we still haven’t learnt that lesson.
The room full of family photographs of the deceased. Normal people in happier times.
The children’s room, a photograph, name, age at death, favourite toy, way they died. Killed by machete, stabbed in the eyes and head, smashed against a wall, burnt in the church. The last room, tears.
And this final quote, ‘they killed one and then another, then another….genocide is not a single act of murder, it is millions of acts of murder.’
The memorial is a window into the dark history of Africa, outside, in the present, Rwanda has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. Kigali is the most ordered, well run city we’ve visited since Windhoek and a far cry from the chaos of Dar. A pleasant city of rolling hills, manicured parks and ordered traffic. The motorcycle taxis even have helmets for their passangers!
After the trauma of the genocide museum we made our way through town to the Hotel Des Mille Collines for a drink by the pool. This is the hotel made famous by the film Hotel Rwanda, where a Hutu man saved over a thousand Tutsis by sheltering them in the hotel rooms during the genocide. During our visit the hotel was hosting a large Interpol conference with delegates from across the globe, a sign of how much Rwanda has changed in the last twenty years.
Without a doubt the scars of genocide are still carried deep within the people of Rwanda. But they really have managed to build something beautiful from the ashes.