Friday, July 20, 2007

Ethiopia: in a time all of its own

Ethiopia: Has a calendar of 13 months: 12 of 30 days and 1 of five days.

Ethiopia: While the rest of the world celebrated the turn of the millennium seven years ago, Ethiopia will mark the year 2000 on September 12. Ethiopia is the only country in the world that has preserved the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox faith-based Julian calendar, which is seven years behind the Gregorian calendar that is commonly used by the rest of the world. We entered, and had passports stamped 17-07-2007, but all the entries in the immigration joker's books were 09-11-1999. Our bus tickets were written up the same way.

Ethiopia: Where clocks are six hours different than ours. But it's pretty easy to work out. Just have to confirm 'European or Ethiopian time?' when making bookings.

Ethiopia: From bullets to ballots only in the last 14-15 years. Tank wrecks on roadside hint at past troubles.

Ethiopia: Named after Ethiopic: grand son of Noah.

Ethiopia: a.k.a. Abyssinia, but haven't yet got to the bottom of the who, when, how, why of that one yet.

Ethiopia: we are no longer muzungu, but now ferang.

Ethiopia. The naivety of Westerners associates the country with famine and drought. Wrong. It does suffer major drought every 10 years, there about. It does have deserts that experience erratic rain. But these are thinly populated, and reading Martin Meredith you learn even this is politically based: send politically dissenting tribes to these areas. Then experience the one particularly big famine (1984), and the world thinks 'that's Ethiopia'. What's more, when the famine/drought kicks in, Mengistu and his Derg government keeps it real quiet as it was preparing its big celebrations and world press releases on how wonderful they have done in the 10 years since the 'revolution'.

Foreign governments, NGOs, the big name charities, and churches are in Ethiopia in force. People get dependant upon the aid and won't budge from the drought prone areas. Yet there are aid organisations established in fertile areas, probably because when the world found out Mengistu just picked up a lot from the famine area and dumped them in the south (also helps lessen the numbers of resistance in the area). We saw them on our trip from the border to Addis Ababa, through what is the most extensive area of fertile land in East Africa. The fertile areas cover more than half of the country's area, and are where the vast majority lives. Interesting trying to find out the real picture.

All through Africa I have seen things I thought 'odd' about aid agencies. (Got to say MSF - medicines sans frontiers does great stuff). I actually had a rant written, but spared you. I mention Graham Hancock in my reading list later, but a book of his I will chase when finished this trip is Lords of Poverty: the power, prestige, and corruption of the international aid business (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989). I've also spotted a more academic book, Post War Thinking on Developmental Studies (or similiar). Then again, Vic. Uni. Wellington offers a Masters in Development Studies. Hmmmmm. Nah.

I've already been stunned by the majestic landscape and farming abundance, which commenced as soon as we crossed the border. Way different to my expectations. Every night we have had a cracker thunderstorm - wicked lightning, massive thunder, and torrential downpours. A conversation with a joker on the bus: "Ethiopia has a good rain season, almost too good." Now there's an irony for you. I'm sure my good friend, Feetay, has a theory.

But the country, even from what we have seen so far and there's still the magical north, is culturally, historically, and socially a wonderland. Its history is back to the first century AD stuff. Orthodox Christianity everywhere.

We are in a different Africa.

I've spoken of flexible honesty before, but Ethiopia is a kalaedescope of information, misinformation, and outright fantasy.

The trip from the border northwards was spent feeling battered and bruised from the Kenya truck trip. The Moyale-Addis bus stopped overnight in Awassa, and we found probably the nicest hotel room of the whole trip. By the time we reached Addis the bus floor was awash with the stems of qat (pronounced chat) leaves. Might have been a bus, but our fellow passengers were all flying high.

Addis Ababa: Third highest altitude capital city in the world: we've been to all top three.

Addis Ababa: prononced locally as one word: Adisaba.

Addis Ababa: Oh boy.

What an only-just-organised state of chaos. Grubby as all hell. Lepers, the blind, the amputated, and every known affliction - you name it, beg in rows on the streets. Homeless sleep on traffic islands, footpaths, everywhere. This is where the charities are needed. Some truely desperate scenes. The closet thing to India you can get.

Everything is in a state of dishevelment. Nice restaurants have a street front you wouldn't ordinarily dream of entering. Good shops have little street appeal. Rain turns the bitumen streets into a quagmire. But there is a growing middle class as well, living quite nicely, thank you.

But it feels very safe. Though the many pick-pocket attempts focus your attention.

It captures you some how, not in nice way, not in a bad way. I don't know. But, we crack it.

Addis is home to the Ethiopian National Museum, highlight of which has got to be 'Lucy'. Known as Dinknesh (wonderful) to the Ethiopians, she is the 3.3 million year old fossilised skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis , an upright walking hominoid found in 1974. She is a contemporary of the 'folk' that left the footprints behind at Laetoli, Serengeti. The oldest hominid fossil found at the time.

She is called Lucy because the Beatles song Lucy in the sky with diamonds was popular amongst the team at the time of discovery.

Since 2004 (European!) an Australopithecus afarensis child fossil, 'Selam' - 150,000 years older than Lucy, has carefully been uncovered in Ethiopia, and is now being prepared for showing at the museum.

Since Lucy's discovery, two older species have been found, both in 1995. Australopithecus aramensis (4 million years old), in Kenya, and Ardipithecus ramidus (4.5 mill year old), again in Ethiopia.

During our stay in Addis, news broke of a find of a fossilised jaw bone that may provide a link between aramensis (4.2 to 3.9 mil years ago) and Lucy's afarensis 'tribe' (3.0 to 3.6 million years ago).

Yep, cradle of civilisation stuff.

Ethiopia: What an unbelievable number of beer brands. One beer, Dashen (named after Ethiopia's highest mountain, 4th in Africa) has a label which highlights a missed opportunity by our brewer's marketers at home. Not in fine print, but scrolled across the label is 'Dashen: ISO14000 Certified Brewery'. I don't think you can imagine how re-assuring it is drinking your beer in the knowledge it is ISO certified.

Ethiopia: Coffee. Hasn't Ethiopia and Starbucks recently engaged in a branding wrangle? But, whacko, can you ever get a good coffee. It's an art form. And the lingering Italian presence means good espresso machines (and pasta, pizza, and pastries. The local spicy stews and Wetex-sponge bread, injera, wears thin. ) Have even found out the bean types: Siadamo, Limu, Kaffa, Gimbi, Harar, and Yerga-Cheffe. Specialty cafes (small, crowded, nothing flash establishments) allow you to choose your type.

English language newspapers are hard to come by, and not much chop. But a couple of articles from The Reporter, 21 July 2007:

A feature article 'Of tour guides and tourists' (p.25) tells of the ploys and traps, and money made by tourist guides, touts and cons in tales of crass gullibility. Crooks? Or entrepreneurs exploiting a business opportunity in a market of stupidity?

Different country, same African problem. Editorial (p.3) 'Fighting corruption with corruption': 'Presently, corruption figures among the topical subject of discussion in Ethiopia. Sadly, not everyone is seen doing what he can to combat it. ...'

And on a better note, The Daily Monitor, (Friday, July 20) Sports (p.9) 'Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru has had his time of 58 mns 33 secs set on March 7 in The Hague confirmed as a new world record for the Half Marathon, by IAAF.'

Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes, those that can be bothered or not chasing money at European events, are doing head to head battle at the All African Games in Algiers.

Sorting out visas has required staying in Addis a few days. But we have done some side excursions. We celebrated our wedding anniversary with a 'weekend away'. Hang the expense, we booked the suite, with bath, DSTV, at a 'resort' at the hot pools town, Ambo. Transport, accommodation, meals, drinks, cost an outrageous 70 bucks Kiwi! What a treat. TV consisted of Aljazeera news, Dubai One movie channel, and ETV - Ethiopian TV, 'nuff said. Aljazeera broadcast news: All Blacks 26 Wallabies 12. Not such a surprise, but the stranglehold grip the All Blacks looked like they had on the World Cup six months ago, doesn't look so strong now. But a hold is a hold, it's enough.

We've also traveled the 520km east, ten and a half hour (if you're lucky) bus trip to Harar. Across arid, camel-scatterd, plains and then up and along fertile, oxen-ploughed, (peasant landholds; subsistence farming) mountains. 320km to Djibouti, 120km to Somalia border: We are now in the Horn of Africa. Harar, built 13th-16th century, is the fourth holiest city of Islam (Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem), has 82 mosques - three date from the 10th century, and sits inside a three and a half kilometer-long wall. It's a criss-crossed maze of, they say, 362 alleys. It's a time warp. An 'attraction' is a nutter called the 'Hyena Man', he feeds them, somtimes with food held in his mouth. The country is 30% moslem, and I reckon most live out in these parts. But it also has Christian churches inside. The town prides itself on it's tolerence, understanding, and living together of all peoples. It's a laid back moslem feel.

We visted a fantastic 'museum'. An original house, that Haile Sallase once owned, being renovated by one Abdallah Ali Shariff and his family to house their personal collection of artifacts. Deb and I were actually allowed to touch (we felt obliged to do so very carefully) 500 year old copies of the Koran. He showed us the trick of how they hand wrote the Koran with ink quills, dead straight, with no lines on the page. Not telling.

Over a Harar Beer, one night I met an Ethiopian soldier, Captain Zerihun Tessema Haila. Interesting. Had spent seven months on duty in Somalia, an experience I think that left him lierally 'shell shocked'. He just couldn't fathom the Somalians - crazy! always fighting! Don't know what peace is, don't want peace. Shakes his head, looks into his beer deeply. "Just crazy." He was convinced the Eritrians are supplying weapons to 'the terrorists' in Somalia. Later, a story in The Reporter, 28 July says the UN confirms Zerihun's belief.

The return trip to Addis was another of those African wonders. Have to be on bus at 5:00am, for 6:00am departure (don't ask me!), travel 20 minutes, bus breaks down, sit on side of road for four hours (chat to an Addis local who has done his MBA in the Netherlands. He was interested in the book I was reading, conversation followed. Neat.), replacement bus found, head off, briefest of lunch stop (bus stop retaurants and their dunnies - you don't want to know), dark falls, bus only has very dim low beam, drive very slowly, arrive Addis 10:30 pm, Addis closes at dark and there's few lights, thankfully find a taxi quickly, get to hotel, has given away our room booking, full, phone others - full, now 11:00pm, tired, hungry, and just a tad pissed. Hey! it's been 18 hours. Lovely lady at hotel kitchen cooks a meal, we grab our sleeping bags, a couch on the verandah and go to sleep. About 3:00am hugh thunderstorm, we are under cover. At 6:00 awoken for an emptied room, sleep to 9:00am. Feel a million dollars. Truely. TIA - this is Africa.

For visas, we need a 'letter of introduction', and wanted to get in touch with the British Embassy. A woman from our hotel, trying to help, says "why you not use Australian and New Zealand Embassy?", "There isn't one." "Yes, I ring for you." "Hello, Austrian Embassy" "Good Morning, Embassy of the Netherlands" Arggggggh.

I find out that as an Australian I am not supposed to use the British Embassy. Apparently the Canadians are Aussies' contact overseas in lieu of their own embassy. Poms must really be taking the Ashes loss to heart. But, for a payment, the Poms will do it.

I thought I might have a crack at forging a letter - it's only passport details after all. But I'd have never been up to this job:
Her Britannic Majesty's Embassy present their compliments to the Embassy of
the Republic of the Sudan and have the honour to state that the British
authorities have no objections to the following person traveling to Sudan.

[Name] [Date of Birth] [A lot less detail than I would have provided]

Her Britannic Majesty's Embassy avail themselves of the opportunity to
renew to the Embassy of the Republic of the Sudan the assurance of their highest

[signed] [stamped] [all on embossed, headed paper]

Wow! So there.

Yep. Another change of plan. With an Egyptian visa as well, we are heading north up through the Sudan. It's OK, honestly. Our goal looks good. Travel bottom to top of Africa overland, under our own steam. That will be something. The visa application was straight forward enough, considering all the tribulations we had been told, but the hoop jumping was a bit of a thrash. Just keep your cool.

I've made a misjudgment. I thought I was stocked up on books, but have had to buy, and read a few more to keep up supply. Have read: Paul Stewart's Trek (Jonathan Cape, 1991), a story of a bumbling attempt to drive across the Sahara. Then Joseph Conrad's 1902 classic Heart of Darkness (Penguin Popular Classics, 1994). I wanted to read this one as Paul Theroux reckons he read it twelve times on his Cairo to Cape Town trip. Intense, philosophical. It's only a short read, but once will do me - for now. Then getting into the Ethiopian mood, I read Phillip Marsden's The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian romance. (Harper Perennial, 2005). A travelogue with heaps of info. He walked Lalibela to Axum with pack mules. Nice read. Now, at last, I'm into John Reader's Africa: a biography of the continent (Penguin, 1998). I've looked forward to this one. Deb has told me about it. I also spotted a photo of John Reader, one of the team uncovering the Laetoli footprints, at the Oldavai Museum, Serengeti. Remember Alan Paton's Cry, the beloved country? Well, Reader won the Alan Paton Award 1998 for Africa. As a back up, there's also Graham Hancock's The Sign and The Seal: A quest for the Ark of the Covenant (Arrow Books, 1992), in waiting.

We have the north of Ethiopia to do next: A land of history, magic, mystery, legend, mysticism, faith to do first. Blue Nile source; Gondor: site of five 17th century castles; Lalibela: rock-hewn churches from medieval times; thousands of years old monasteries:, still used, dotted all over; Axum centre of the 1st-7th century AD empire, and where I might just have to do a Harrison Ford/Indianna Jones and try to get a look at the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly housed there. Well, millions belive it!

Caught up with news that Tour de France has turned into a mess, again. Shame. Thank god for BBC on the shortwave. But no AFL news, bugger.

Ethiopia: were there are power outages at least once a day, no matter where you are - usually internet cafes.

Ethiopia: Country of the worst internet response possible. At least you can have a coffee while you wait, and wait ...

'When you drink a cup of coffee,
ideas come in, marching like an army.' Balzac.

aka Mad

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Nairobi to the border: Last attack was elephants, this time ...

I previously wrote that getting there would be half the fun ...


But before the jouney unfolds, let me tidy up a couple of items from Nairobi.

Somewhere, I have tucked away a photo from my first trip to England in the seventies of a grave headstone in the cemetry of Salisbury Cathederal. I'd need to refind the photo for the name of the interned, but the message was clear: 'died of drinking warm beer'. If you don't specify with your order of Tusker in Nairobi, more often than not, you will be asked "cold or warm?". Strewth, are they trying to kill me or something?

Deb continues to receive lovely backhanders. A joker at the Post Office reads her name and informs her that "it sounds like a wrestler's name" !! Don't ask me!

And another in the you-won't-read-this-at-home series: (Daily Nation, 13 July 2007, p.9) 'The government will soon pay higher rates of compensations to families whose members are killed by wild animals.'

Anyway, we're headed for Ethiopia.

Directions for finding the bus are vague. The first warning being why does this bus not leave from the major bus depot in the city where buses to just about everywhere else in Kenya leave? Instead we taxi to a suburb in the northern outskirts, Eastleigh. Its streets are mud and stone; mosques abound, mostley moslem people, some Ethiopians, lots of Somalians. We learn Eastleigh is nicknamed 'Little Mogadishu'. Charming. It's the end of the tourist trail.

We're off. Transport in Kenya has been good on one account. Buses, and matatus, are licensed to carry a certain number. That's it. No jamming to the max. A couple of times when catching a matatu, but not at the route start, we had to wait until one came with two vacant seats. Then, of course, it would have stacks free.

The first leg is Nairobi to Isiolo. And what's more it's a good road - in Kenya! This is through the 'white highlands' - some of Kenya's prime farmland, that blacks were chased from and whites farmed. Big horticulture enterprises still operate.

Whenever Deb and I travel, we always seem to hear on bus stereos or radios that old Toto number Africa. It's become our travel anthem. Heard it two or three times already this trip. In fact, on returning home after one trip we bought the CD for fun. Some of the lyrics make it particularly appropriate for this trip.

I know that I must do what's right
Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti

The song is kind of our good omen.

By the time the tape of six or so other crap songs has played four or five times, Toto is wearing thin. Somebody has realised this, and starts the on-board video of Bollywood produced song-and-dance numbers. Our lucky day. How long was this trip?

We rip through to Isiolo. With no fanfare, or photo stop, we cross the Equator yet again. We arrive about 5:30 pm. At journey's end, there's a crowd of wheeler-dealers, all wanting tips to take your bag out of the luggage compartment, to show you to the restaurant just across the road, or to where the next bus leaves from - 25 meters away. They all chew qat, the herbal narcotic. Basically, they are all stoned. Anyway, time to get a beef stew (probably goat) and rice across the street. The bus for Marsabit leaves at seven. We're humming.

But not till 7:45 did the bus start . Revs his engine a few times, proceeds very slowly for a short distance, stops and loads more people. Starts again, revs again. Crawls down the road, to the petrol filling station. Fills ups, starts up, revs up again. This time , crawls across the road to a vacant lot. No lights. We are all off and sit around. Nice stars to look at, the Maggelenic Cloud.

She's coming in twelve-thirty flight
Her moonlight wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation

Lots of clanking and banging underneath. Eventually a joker crawls out with the alternator in hand, and walks off. It's about 11:00 now, Deb and I, like most others get back on the bus, and try for sleep. They are fairly narrow seats, and leg room is tight. To move in sleep requires a wake up, and untangle each other. You can imagine how it was. Cuddling up into the unrolled sleeping bag helped.

I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation

At six next morning, just on daylight, the bus starts up. The decision has been made, daytime trip - won't need lights.

The lovey bitumen road ended there in Isiolo. Immediately the corrugations begin. And the dust. But no big potholes, so the bus scoots along at a fair clip. Just shaking the daylights out of us. And the rattle! Mi dios!

Twenty minutes in - KABOOM! Puncture. All off. 45 minutes and we're back on the road. It's becoming very arid. We fang past the famous Archer's Post - it marks desert start/end, depending upon your direction.

After a couple of hours, out of nowhere appears Serevidu. A nothing village.

We stop, again. The driver and on-board mechanic want to repar the puncture. We are there for about four hours! One story was : 'don't drive middle of day - too hot', but another, and supported by the heavy banging underneat, was: 'had to straighten springs'. Don't ask me.

But what a stop. Deb and I had a good old chat, some chaptis and chai with a small roadside stall owner. A nice chap. But we also experienced our first Semburu people here. Colourful beads over the men's heads,bare chested, togas, bucket loads of necklaces around the women's necks all across their shoulders. The 'Nairobi Kenyans' on board treat them with some distain. The men all carry menacing looking , sharp, steel, blade-like, tiped spears. They have macheetes (pangas) in scabbards on the hip, and a couple carry what looks like old 303s strapped across their shoulders.

Our stall owner tells us that there has been rain, but no rainy season for three years.
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had

We're off, again. After some time we stop at a town that is not on either of our maps. No, no - not two, it's just that we have reached the cross over of our two maps and this is the overlap strip. Apparently, it's Laisamis.

Despite the earlier stop, this is the designated meal stop. Hey, it's the rules. But we have just arrived in a National Geogaphic photo shoot. This is full on Semburu country. Bare-breasted women covered in colourful necklaces. More older jokers, rifles over shoulders. Moran, young men who have just completed initiation rituals wear distinctive mauve togas. This is no tourist trick. This is for real. These people steadfastedly, pig-headedly, refuse to accept modern ways. Just picture their dwellings. They will have lived this ways for ... yonks. But tradition doesn't preclude some using the bus, complete with old rifles.

The murmed concern now is that we might not reach Marsabit by dark. And we have no lights. Ah well. The landscape is turning magnificantly, stunningly, harsh and brutal.

Good-bye the game animals of the south, this is camel country.

We arrive in Marsabit at dusk. A football game is finishing up in a paddock. The Jeyjey guesthouse has written across the front: 'Good Food. Accommodation with showers'. Beauty. We're covered in dust, little do we know. There's more.

Showers? Sorry, no showers - water restriction. But two big tubs of lovely warm water are produced for a good old, Asian style, dip-dip. We're happy.

It's predominently a Moslem town, but we find the Mountain Bar, complete with pool table. Shithole is the expression, I believe. We order two, COLD, Tuskers and take a seat, off to the side. Apart from having to say 'hello' to each new entrant, we are pretty much left alone. After one beer, it's eight o'clock and we're ready for bed. Catch BBC World: AllBlacks have beaten the Srinkboks. Good show. Jeyjey's beds are comfy ...
The wild dogs cry out in the night
As they grow restless longing for some solitary company

Morning Marsabit. An end of the world, desolate place. Dust squalls blow down the empty space used as main strret, the highway. Plastic bags, rubbish, tumbleweed along. Crows peck at a pile of trash off to the side. Woman with decrepit wheelburrows with water containers trundle past on their way to the well pump (lucky! Most we've seen sling them across their foreheads or strap to back - in remote areas away from wells, they use donkey trains.) Herds of cattle and goats use the street as route to grazing - on what?

And guess what? There's no bus to Moyale. It's cattle trucks or the off chance of hitching a ride with a 4WD. We found out that even the Isiolo-Marsabit Hawad Bus Service has only been running a week. And already has broken down before.

We begin the wait. The lorry convoy will come '10 to 11 o'clock', 'two o'clock', 'early afternoon', 'late afternoon', 'this evening from Nairobi', 'not today is Sunday'. Who knows. The consensus is that the 'convoy' will leave at 4:00pm.

I flag down a couple of 4WDs, they all stop but they are just local driving. A Catholic priest and a nun drive up in a large 4WD, but strangly find some invisible object out in the paddock, that passed as a football pitch, to stare at and therefore able to ignore me. They drive on through and out of town.

We speak with a quietly spoken, gorgeously accented Scots men ( didn't think there was such a speciman) named Andrew - of course, in the same situation, but going the other way. We tell him of the bus we came up on. We exchange tales, experiences.

To either: have a cup of tea; have lunch, seek shade, or all of these, we seek the shelter of Mum's Kitchen. Which involves many 'converstaions'. One joker shared our table and proceeded to read a newspaper. I'm not sure if he actually read or put on a performannce for our benefit. Always keen for a bit of news I glanced at the date, expecting it to be one from the day we left Nairobi. Brace yourself: November 10, 2005!!!!! I kid you not. He didn't quite understand my decline when he offered it to me. He he.

Four o'clock arrives. The convoy gathers. Trucks had been arriving the past hour. These are cattle trucks, but used for all purpose transport. One I saw being cleaned out earlier had undoubtedly been used to carry cattle. Are you with me? But some are loaded to the tops , and then passengers sit on top. The one we were 'loaded' into had only a bit of a load, guys up top riding the rails, and about a doazen 'downstairs' in the back of the truck, where we were directed, taking up positions comfortably sitting on our packs.

One thousand shillings (NZ$20) each, asks the man. You're joking, bucko. I haven't spent all day in Marsabit without learning a thing or two. Here's 400 shillings each - keep the change.

And then on hopped the two armed soldiers. They sat opposite us. I can't tell you how nervous I was when one of the machine guns lay on the truck tray, with forthcoming corrugations, pointed directly up my crotch.

From our position we could only see through some narrow slats, up towards the cabin. Our section was tarpaulined over. But all there appeared to be was sand, dirt, and rocks. The occasional stunted flat-topped acacia, thorn trees. And camels.

And talk about rough. My jawbone socket ached with the shaking, shuddering of corrugations and monster bumps.

Lucky we were prepared: hats pulled own to ears, sunglasses on (even when it turned dark), bandanna up over mouth and nose, long sleeved shirt rolled down. The colour of our clothing quickly became indistinguishable. I don't think I've seen dust like it.

We ploughed our way across the Chulbie Desert, arriving an hour and a half after dark at Turbic, our night stop. I had been mistaken: Marsabit had looked like Las Vegas.

We climbed down from the truck (an operation that first takes climbing up and over the high rails. And there's your pack.) and walked straight into our hotel room. Hard to notice the differance: acroos the sand into our sand floor room, mud walls, unlined corrugated iron roof, and a whole punched into the back wall for a window. That's what you get for 200 shillings (NZ$4) double. Ain't no other choice.

A cup of chai over a candle in the 'restaurant', talking with a male district nurse who was called away for a childbirth. Then to a young guy who told us all the gorie details of the Borena (over from Ethiopia) massacre of the local Gebras. It was the second (yes!) anniversary only three days earlier. 80 people were killed, mostly the elderly and children. Some pregnant women were cut open. Our man, maybe 17, had been woken by screaming and fled into the bush. Oh boy.

No chance of a wash here. It was a three-wet-wipes clean of the forehead - the only exposed bit.

Morning. 5:00 am. Time for a change. We want to see some of the landscape. We grab positions up on the rails, above and behind the cabin. There's a change of guard as well, we only have one soldier this time, sitting up top near us, riding 'shotgun' position. I think last night's two were transport to the army camp - literally, half a dozen tents - at Turbic.

The convoy, five trucks, awaits clearance at the army gate. When cleared, our boy whizzes to the front - best position, no dust from front trucks. We still get covered. Off we head across the Kaisut Desert, all part of the greater Dila Galgula. Chai stop at Sololo - god knows what makes people live in places like this, 10 mud huts in the desert. When we restart, our soldier decides to ride with his mate on another truck.

Our driver takes up front running. As we come across a rise, and onto the downhill slope, our driver hits the brakes. I cannot begin to describe the sinking feeling in my stomach.

There in the next dip, lined across the road were six men. 100 meters up the road, on the next crest, were five more.

Everything became still framed.

The other men riding up top all ducked down. A commotion broke out. The people down, in the back, who couldn't see all went into panic. There was just one word Deb and I could understand.

Shifta! Shifta! Shifta!

A shifta is a nototious Somalian bandit, with a history of raiding this route. But not recently.

I grasped Deb's hand.
It's gonna take a lot to drag me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do

In what seemed like a split second, our truck was doing a multi-point reverse turn, high tailing it out of there. Rear ambush was all I could think.Where was our soldier now?

Back at the top of the rise, the next truck arrived. It stopped alongside. The two soldiers (one was ours!) checked things out through binoculars. Next thing, the other truck gunned it, all passengers down, soldiers up with guns at the ready. They sped straight at the men who lept from the road.

Turning, we followed. As we passed, I caught sight of men waving spears and machetes. A couple had rifles, but none raised. We sped through. Nobody on the truck could explain who they were, and we obviously did not stop to inquire. Sometimes the English as a second language only goes so far, not easy at times like this.

Got to tell you, Deb and I were rather reflective for the last hour or so. We travel with valuables well hidden, but... As an ice breaker, everybody was pretty quiet, one joker says to Deb in jilted English: "I understand (no he doesn't, can't, probably never will) is your tradition this man get you for free. No dowry." "No dowry?", splutters the joker next to him. "For free?!!" chokes I.

Passing through large herds of camels, we arrived at the surpringly large, sprawling twin town - Moyale, both sides of the Kenyan-Ethiopian border. In a billowing cloud of dust we stomp into immigration.

We had expected three days to complete this leg. But it took four. 749 kilometers. Only four days: and hell, I've gone and made it sound like an adventure. Funny that.

Truth is, I feel like I've only scratched the surface. What an experience. The intensity of the interactions, the Orthodox Christian with the wierdest hat I've seen who climbed on the truck at a village, the conversations in Mum's Kitchen, the toughness of the travel, the uncertainties on so many fronts. A bit of a shakedown after the comforts of Nairobi.
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say: "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"

We now continue to Addis Ababa ... in a bus, on smooth bitumen highway, all the way.
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become

aka Mad

PS: you've got the technology. The band is Toto, the song Africa. Download.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Ngorogoro Crater: chased from our tent by elephants

Pictures & Story

Sometimes an event happens in front of your very eyes. You have no control over happenings. You just watched transfixed, always in the back of your mind a little voice asks 'how is this going to turn out?'.

Arriving at Simba Camp from the Serengeti, on the Ngorogoro Crater rim, we were still excited to see two elephants at the edge of camp, perhaps 250-300 meters away.

We chose a nice piece of grassy, flat land, under a very large, spreading tree, to pitch our tent. Simba had hot showers and we were quickly into them.

As we returned to tent, Deb and I both acknowledged that it looked as if the two elephants were making their way towards our tent, very slowly.

But next thing, they picked up the pace and were definitely making a bee line towards us. To be precise, to the tree under which we were camped. We felt we had no option but to stay in the tent, as they were now not five meters away.

There we stayed while these two delinquents stretched for, and pulled down, branches laden with leaves they strip and feast on. Intermittently they tossled with each other as they jealously eyed the other's rewards.

This was now happening three meters from us, with branches crashing to the ground in front of our tent as the ripping and pulling continued. We hoped like hell they didn't stumble back on top of us.

We had front row seats. The camera ... it just go klazy.

The agility was amazing. Such dexterity in big beasts. Trunks outstretched, every sinew stretched to the limit, lifting a leg off the ground to aid the effort. And it seemed, a steely eye never ceased staring at us. The rest of the campers had all gathered in a semi-circle , a safe distance behind our tent.

We were really only concerned by one thing. The juiciest looking, lowest hanging branch was dead smack above our tent. But the presence of our tent seemed to keep them at bay.

Were we shitting ourselves? Just a little.

When they decided to move and reach for some branches on the far side of the tree, we saw our opportunity. We sprung from the tent, and scampered back to the safety of the other campers. The elephants got a slight start, stepped towards us, swung their trunks about menacingly, giving a quick trumpet blast.

The Ngorogoro Crater rim is at 2,400 meters altitude. It had clouded over, and was getting qite cool, with a breeze. (I think we are in the middle of East Africa's two week winter.) Having just got back from the showers we weren't dressed for the cooling down. We only had thongs/jandals on - no warm shoes or socks. We were getting cold. It was getting dark. People reckoned rangers would turn up and chase them off, yeah right. The elephants continued feeding, and in a case of bad manners, depositing rather large poohs outside our tent. There was nothing much else for us to do either, so we went to the dinning tent and had dinner also.

After what must have been two hours at least, the elephants moved off. We could return to our tent and get warm clothes on.

Never a dull day.

aka Mad.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Masai Mara and Serengeti: Rarking around in the Rift Valley

Masai Mara, Kenya and the Serengeti, Tanzania: a colonially drawn border runs straight through. And divides a Maasai nation.Travel would be so much easier if you could pass from one to the other.

Instead travellers must go the long way. Back to Nairobi, then through the Namaga border crossing (we've been here before) to Arusha.

Tanazania insists on this arrangement: They don't want Kenyan travel guides taking people through to Serengeti on the impression they are still in Kenya; They want to charge for visas; They want people using the tourism infrastructure of Arusha. They charge like wounded buffalo for park admittance fees - and they have a double header: Ngorogoro and the Serengeti.

The cross border nigling has interesting sides. In the Masai Mara we spotted grass fires. If he can be believed, our guide reckons the Tanzanian park people light fires to create smoke to hold the wilderbeast as long as possible before the migration.

I have a little difficulty with Ngorogoro. I want to say Orongorongo, as in the hills east of Wellington.

Masi Mara and Serengeti are all about big, open, sun-baked, African spaces (like Australia, it makes you realise how confining NZ geography is) ... and animals. Most well known af all being the wilderbeast migration. At the last river crossing for the wilderbeast, the Mara, crocodles were gathering in 'crowds' at the crossing point in expectation.

One for the books. We witnessed at close quarters, two hippos mating in the river. The male had a big smile on his face ... and there were stacks of crocs nearby! I thought he was supposed to never ...

Like clockwork the 6:00pm thunderstorm rolls in across the Masai Mara. Firstly, the sky goes dark over the yellow grasslands lending a wonderfull light. Animals make a delightfull contrast against this darkening setting. Then down it pours. Again like clockwork - for an hour. It clears to allow the witnessing of a magnificent full-moon rise. Stars burst out a-twinkle in the dark west.

The rain adds a bit of interest to the four-wheel driving next day.

During that night we heard drums and chanting coming from the nearby village as the Maasi dance to the full moon.

The road from Nairobi to Masi Mara is truely a shocker. Nicknamed locally as the 'Masai Massage'. But when we again enter Tanzania the roads are good. Roads in Kenya really are crap. Admittedly there are lots of roadworks in progress, which will be good in the long run - operative word being 'long'.

I have written earlier about the tourist trail Dar to Nairobi. Back in Arusha again, 5-6 weeks later, and now peak northern hemisphere holiday time, it's a three-ringed circus. And as of 1 July, all prices and park fees go up. The tooth ended costing more than just the dentist.

On both safaris, as fate would have it, we are again landed with some intersting people to share the 4WDs with. In Masai Mara, it's two young English people, Fi and Jim; Yahtzee novices - but now hooked. And in the Serengeti, a Norweigan couple Aslaug (an occupational psychologist completing her PhD with a thesis on Change Management) and Bjorn, a civil engineer. Both Yahtzee devils.

Animals. Animals. Animals. Big Five. In Masai, a large lion pride devoured a wilderbeast. In the 'geti, lion cubs bounce after their mum. Fabulous leopard and cheetah experiences. Still, after some time, just fantastic.

There's lots of great potential mountain bike tracks. So long as you back yourself to out ride big cats, dodge buffalo, rhino, and elephants etc.

But an interesting side visit which fitted in perfectly with some of our reading. Serengeti features the Olduvai gorge and not far away Laetoli. At Laetoli were found fossilised footprints (3.6 million years old) of Australopithecus afarensis, the earliest-known incontrovertible evidence of humanity's existence. We're talking the craddle of civilisation. No hominid fossils exist from this period (yet found anyway), but these footprints have almost concluded argument on which came first in human development: the upright and striding bipedal gait or the large brain. The brain appears to have lost. We walked first, then our brain developed, then we invented tools. But Olduvai does have fossilised skulls, from a later period, of earliest hominids, and findings of some of man's earliest tools. Way cool. What an interesting place.

Back to Arusha, with a cool and lucky spotting of a leopard at Lake Manyara on the way. We make a visit, just to complete the full picture, to the UN Rwanda Genocide Trials to sit in on a court hearing for a brief time. Not to hear gorrie details or anything, but just to observe the process. Interesting.

Picked up a couple of interesting news snippets:

The June figures for the Kenyan police clampdown on the Mungiki sect reached 112 dead (including 11 policemen). It continues in July.

A Mexican, Carlos Slim - who looks anything but - has overtaken Bill Gates as the world's richest man, making his fortune primarily in cell phones. Not surprising. Third world/developing nations can leapfrog generations of technological advancements. There never would have been copper to the shacks, roundels, huts, bandas here in Africa, but cellphones are everywhere. Makes you wonder about pricing models at home. There's plenty of broadband about (internet cafes in remote places have wi/fi, broadband satellite.

And, after not hearing a sausage about it, the NZ team missed winning back the America's Cup. I'd like to think they are now over that folly and just let it go.

I've (often) written about corruption and nepotism in Africa. Well I never, I read George W. has commuted a two and a half year prison sentence for a former vice-presidential aide buddy. Ah, you gotta luv it.

Back to Nairobi, for the fifth time. We have now 'done' East Africa. A couple of days to sort out some business and then the push north. Next stop Ethiopia for some culture and history.Getting there will be half the fun. Until very recently the only way was to climb aboard an armed cattle truck convoy, risking attack by shifta - Somalian bandits. There's now a bus, safer - though apparently still armed, to get us across the Dida Galgula desert to Moyale, the border post. From there to Addis Ababa is a piece of ...

Pinch me, I'm dreaming.

aka Mad