Friday, August 24, 2007

Leaving Sudan

On the eve of leaving Khartoum, a furious electrical storm struck with a brief downpour. Enough to turn the streets into a nauseous mess of mud - difficult and treacherous to navigate, and with a real pong. Time to leave.

The Sudan we have been in, is the Sudan the government is prepared to let you see: that is, the arab, islamic Sudan with its sharia law. There are two Sudans, possibly three with the Darfur situation. South Sudan, black and with a seperate government, was nearly joined to Kenya or Uganda at independence, and is near impossible and way too dangerous to visit. Years of war since independence in 1956, have left landmines, bandits, and armed tribes. (Mind you, stacks of people still walk the streets of Ethiopia with a Kalashnikov slung over the shoulder.)

There has been a peace agreement in place since 2005, and a referendum is planned (2011, I think) on self determination for South Sudan. The government is currently letting stacks of Chad refugees in to the South to help stack islam numbers prior to the vote. Most of Sudan's oil comes fom the south, which the North Sudan won't be keen on giving up. It is currently all piped to refineries in the north. It's all pretty messy, not easily sorted. The opposition press, South sympathisers, generally refer to the government as fascists, oppressors, and such rhetoric. They are regularly banned, popping up under a new name.

Sudan has had a colourful past. It has supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War; offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden; hosted Carlos the Jackal and the Palestinian group Humas. In 1993, the USA put Sudan on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then in the mid 1990s they started their war with Eritrea; got involved with the Ugandan resistance movement; tried to assinate Egypt's president Mubarik; and then in 1998 Clinton ordered a misile attack of Khartoum, of a supposed chemical weapons factory, that turned out to be producing veterinary drugs. The goverment through this period was vehemently fundamentalist Islamic. But by 1999 oil production came into full swing: a new wealth was found, things settled. Post September 11, 2001, Sudan gained some creditability turning over to the US all its files on al-Qaeda and Iraq. They then started negotions, taking years, and not quite finished, with the South.

Everything, from what we were allowed to see, on the suface, seems settled. What lurks beneath, who knows?

The salubrious sleeper carriage

The train , Khartoum - Wadi Halfa is 930km and took 35 hours. It's done in, kind of, three stages: Khartoum to Atbara, then to Abu Hamed, and the last to Wadi Halfa. Each stage is about 12 hours, and 300km. There's a break of about an hour at each leg end.

The first leg is along the Nile. To the left you see the river, palm trees, and some farming. Green. To the right, desert. Second leg, more of the same I guess - don't know, it was dark. The third leg is the stark, harsh, slighty spooky, Nubian Desert. On this leg we stopped for three-quarters of an hour at Station 6 (there's 10 on this leg including start-finish, Abu Hamed and Wadi Halfa). Station 6 has a well,and as a result, 4 or 5 trees - and a small vilage, in the middle of the desert! The other stations just have a couple of railway workers huts. Bleak. It had to be 50 degrees at least at Six.

left side of train: Nubian Desert

right side of train: Nubian Desert

Station 4. Bleak. There are some dismal workers huts on the other side

The train is the most dirty, grotty, broken down specimen I have seen. It has Classes I, II, and III and a sleeper carriage - which we scored with help of our station master cobber Yasir. Then there's the peope who travel for free, by sitting on the roof, through the desert - poor bastards.

They pull their beanies down over their face when the train moves, and that's it for protection.

Our Swedish friend, Sara, got on at Atbara - without a ticket. She couldn't buy one for trying. They are sold in Khartoum! While we walked the station looking for her, she had quickly seen that classes I to III were just zoos. No free seats, every bit of floor space slept on, and luggage and 'cargo' stacked to the ceilings. Dirty as all hell. It was crazy. We spotted her sitting in the cafeteria carriage, looking a little concerned.

We spirited her into our sleeper compartment, and set her up on one of our camping sleeping mats on the floor. She was quite comfy, and way grateful. Next day she sat with us in our compartment and nobody said boo. About 40 kms from journey end and they came and collected tickets (they do check them regularly in other classes, but after first check left us alone in the sleepers). She paid for a third class seater ticket and got away with it.Good stuff.

A very few trucks and 4WDs cross the desert by driving next to the rail tracks. We saw only the two truck-buses, both laden with people and stacked to the sky on luggage racks. We had to stop and pick up people on the train; one truck was bogged in sand to the axles.

Going nowhere fast; passengers have boarded the train and the dig out will commence in the heat.

Man it was hot. And dusty, sandy. The toughest travel of the whole trip. Maybe. Kenyan trucks across the desert was tough alright, but this took so long. You could have made tea with our drinking-bottle water stored in the shade. The hot wind blowing through the window was like a blow torch. Literally inches of sand covered us, the beds, the floor. The train creates its on dust - lucky our carriage was up front, and we also traveled through big dust storms. Man it was tough. And we were traveling the 'comfort' class. The people we met in Khartoum who had come down by train had gone first class and were still in shock. Mind you, they also had an 11-hour derailment.

A local joker in another sleeping compartment chatted with us, telling us he last travelled on the train in 1966. It was air-conditioned, had a buffet dining car, and served cold beer! Alcohol was banned in Sudan in 1983.

We spent the night at Wadi Halfa at the Nile Hotel. All accommodation is quickly snapped up - there's the train from the south, and the ferry from the north all in town at the same time. It was full - we were offered 'outside', which is a sandy, courtyard come garden arrangement. Beds are dragged out, a mattress thrown down, a clean sheet and a pilow. You sleep under the stars. Wonderful.

To our surprise, there was about 20 foreigners there.The most foreigners we had seen in months. An overland truck, four 4WDs, and us three heading north, and a German motorcyclist and a German lass heading south into Sudan.

Wadi Halfa isn't much more than a hell hole. Again, it had to be 50 degrees, just wicked. The highlight, while sitting out our three hour breakfast in the shade, was watching an Indian made tuk-tuk get manually off loaded from the top of a bus it had been transported up on.

We had bought tickets for the ferry to Aswan, Egypt, with our rail tickets in Khartoum. Others take what they can get. You've guessed it - we hosted Sara again, in out roomy, air-conditioned cabin. The overland truck people all hosted the 4WD people on their floors as well. There was quite a comraderie between us all. But it was no secret. It became quickly well known amongst the staff that I had two blonde women with me in my room - very good for my reputation. But it was all too much for one Egyptian joker,who, all cliche tourist jokes apart, sideled up next to me at breakfast last morning, having done his research and knowing us white-ies have just the one wife, and in all seriousness pointed at Sara and says "This one, not wife?" "No, friend," I reply. "I not a rich man, but I can get two camels. OK? But I have a party, a very big party for you. My friend, he have a lot of Riki Martin music. Yes? We do?" I had to say no, I'm sure Sara's father would not have been happy had I not got at least three camels.

Offloading the boat was diabolical. When boarding we all had to throw passports in a box. During the trip they sorted the honkies out, and did our visa requirements. The rest, bloody hundreds if not more, of locals they listed alphabetically. Everyone queued in every corridor and accessway to get off as the officals called individually from the list and let people off one-at-a-time. Thankfully, somebody thought the foreigners should be allowed go as we had been through the visa stuff, and we were let off.

We stepped ashore. In Egypt. Our last country on the trip north.

aka Mad

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Farewell Khartoum: and with a new pair of sunglasses

I've replaced the shonky sunglasses. I've paid NZ$2.50. Alright, more expensive than the NZ$1.40 Ethiopian pair. But wait! The Ethiopians were 'no names'. My new ones are Ray Bans! What a bargain, huh? The Chinglish on the tag only has two spelling mistakes.

Essential to getting out of The Sudan, overland, northbound is getting a train ticket. There's a weekly train to Wadi Halfa. You can try and truck it through the desert along the Nile. But it can get over 50 degrees. Back in Kenya, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman's "Long Way Down" crew told us of 40km in 24 hours, in flash , new, tricked up Land Cruisers. Max, the German, came down that way, took 48 hours to do 70 kms, and said: "Don't. Catch the train." Besides we enjoy train travel, but this one is supposed to be a doozie.

On our second day in Khartoum, we went to get tickets having read to book early. We were lead to an office and met Yasir Yaseen. But no, they don't go on sale until the Saturday before travel: Mondays. He gave us pricing and after a bit of a chat, a list of useful placenames in Khartoum, like the station, the bus stations, our hotel district, all written in Arabic. Very useful for getting around. Not a complete waste of time.

We asked if he could take down our names, and maybe ... you know ... kind of 'reserve' seats for us. He said yes, but we didn't feel comfortable about it all. Especially when he used say "8:30am in the night, or 2:00pm in the morning." We left with no real idea of what time the train leaves. "Come back Saturday, 8:00pm in the morning. Tickets on sale."

We tried to do some planning. We wanted to see the Dervishes on Friday evening, pick up the tickets 8:00am Saturday morning(?), and catch the train 8:30pm Monday. We went to Sudan Airways to try to book flights to Port Sudan, to see the Red Sea, for midday Saturday and maybe comeback midday Monday.

Well. All (one a day) flights booked until Tuesday, the day after the train leaves. Return flights aren't until 6:30 pm. - too late. And, a new rule a month old, travel permits required for flying into Port Sudan. Bugger that, not going there. I've had enough of permits and registrations. What is with this government? So that trip wasn't going to happen. And a good thing as it turns out.

Anyway back to the station, 8:00am Saturday (in the morning), and back to what we thought was the ticket sales office. There was a large crowd thronging in the main hall. We find Yasir. Much greetings, hand shaking: old friends. "Yes. Of course. I have booked you a cabin, a two person sleeper." (Wacko! This train is notoriously a zoo.) "Come to ticket office." We are lead behind the 'sales window', introduced to another joker, who confirms our booking, but come back 1:00pm. (Lucky we hadn't got a midday flight to Port Sudan, eh?)

Yasir leads us back to his office. He calls out a request to some joker, soon a woman appears with coffee. Shortly a shoe shine boy stops by, then another boy drops a newspaer on his desk. It turns out that Yasir is the station master! And he has taken us under his wing and looked after us.

He explains, they can't issue a ticket yet. The carriage numbers of the train coming back from Wadi Halfa haven't been phoned through yet. He can't look this info up on his PC - he doesn't have one. But he does have a big office, and a big desk befitting a station master. And it's a tough job. He has to manage operations of one train a week to Wadi Halfa, one to Port Sudan, one passenger and two goods trains to Atbara ("very busy, Atbara."), and one train a fortnight to Nyala, in the West. No wonder he has time for a chat and coffee with us, not to mention look after our booking.

He took particular delight in looking at the photos in our Bradt Sudan Travel Guide. "Very beautiful book." (I like this Guide. It's a first edition, and its approach is: we'll get you started, but you've found your way to Sudan, you're big kids - you work it out. Much more refreshing than some that act as bibles, telling you how, when, where, why on every step of a trip - ones that people spend so much time traveling and looking at they don't see the country, or the same one millions of others see also.)

But we now have sleeper compartment tickets in our back pocket for a train that leaves at 8:00am Monday morning! Lucky we hadn't got a midday flight return from Port Sudan, eh?). Train to Wadi Halfa, then the ferry (tickets we got on first visit to station) to Aswan, Egypt. Fortunately the ferry doesn't leave until the train arrives. It's known for derailments, delays, and sand over tracks. On time, it should take 36 hours. Could be interesting.

Sudan, mostly Khartoum, really has been a wonderful experience - bureaucracy apart. There's some really sweet guys who work the juice bar on the corner near our hotel, that we have made a regular. They have become very familiar. Topping up our glasses when two-thirds drunk, giving Deb oranges as we leave, and taking photos of us with their cell phones.

A charming chai seller operating from a seat in the alley allows us to take our glasses (yep, glasses of tea) on a silver tray up to our hotel room and take back later. Oh yeah, spiced and minted tea, and herb and ginger coffee are not bad.

I'm not that naive. Sure there's nice people, but people being people there's bound to be the dislikable as well. Like anywhere. Just haven't met too many here.

I'm still plugging away with John Reader Africa: A biography of the continent but spotted in a market a book Season of the Migration to the North (1969, Heinemann) by Tayeb Salih, born in Sudan, university educated in Khartoum and London and served as Head of Drama at BBC's Arabic Services. It looks a nastily photocopied, cheap production, but an interesting read.

It all started big, open-ended and timeless. We will now be entering the last country of the African trip. It feels odd. But then, there's Spain and a brother and his family to look forward to.

I think I always wanted something like this to happen. Never dreamt of it. Never planned it. It's just happened. And it's pretty cool.

aka Mad

Friday, August 17, 2007

Khartoum: I've seen the Whirling Dervishes

I'd heard the term 'whirling dervishes' and never paid much attention. Some spaced out, whirling jokers or something, I guess. I wasn't even sure if they weren't some hippy thing, like a hurdy gurdy man or something.

Oh how I have learnt.

Before full proceeding got underway, there was a procession of drum beating, cymbols bashing and flag waving.

Forming a big circle, adherents of the tariqa, an order of the Sufi sect of Islam, chant and clap and whip up a frenzy. They chant 'La illaha illaha', loud, fast and repetitively: 'There is no god but Allah.'

Most Sudanese wear restrained white robes, jallabiyas. But the jokers who dance and prance in the middle wear an array of green and red, often patched; multi-coloured harlequin like outfits; leopard skin, chunky beads and dreadlocks appeared popular.

Then after a while they start breaking off into one-legged spinning. Spurred on by the circle of clapping and chanting adherents. They go into a dizzy frenzy. Some collapse. But a 'good dancer' is one who can reach dizzy state, recover, and restart.

Central to Sufi belief is reaching a state of ecstasy by the constant repetition of God's name. Then, the believers heart can communicate directly with God. It is as important to the chanting circle to help dervishes reach this state.

Not surprisingly, at the beginning of proceedings I struck up a conversation with one Shazali Hamed AL-Amin Elesid (lucky he gave me a business card), M.A. in Geography, with heavily accented but wonderful English. His thesis was 'The effects of the Sufi culture on the communities of The Sudanese northern Nile'. So, he knew his Sufi stuff. He stuck with me most of the ceremony (some women had collared Deb),for one and a half hours giving me all the low down I've described. He introduced me to stacks of people. It was easy to tell he was well respected. All the people I met, went out of their way to tell that not all Islamic people are violent - terrorists, one said. At this ceremony that was obvious.

The ceromony ends with burning incense (I think) being taken around the crowd, for a quick inhale. That's my mate Shazali standing immediately behind the joker in the patchwork outfit.

A real treat to the senses.

So now I know. Not much, but at least something about the whirling dervishes.

aka Mad

Sudan: Desert ruins - a test for sunglasses

Bad News.

The NZ$1.40 sunglasses didn't last a week. They broke. Surely there's an Ethiopian government authority I can write to about this? Sticky-tape has work for a couple of days. Replacement is inevitable. I'll keep you posted.

We took a break from Khartoum for a couple of days. Heading 300kms, there abouts, north along the Nile to the Royal Cemetery ruins. A set of pyramids in the desert, just short of Meroe. Barreling along the highway in the bus you spot them, call to stop , and get dumped on the roadside. The smallest collection of low-set mud huts (four or five), nearly sand covered, apparently a 'village' called Bajarawiya (that rolls of the tongue) stands a short way off. By the time we gather our bags, two camels and a donkey and cart, and their handlers, have appeared from nowhere to assist us make the half kilometre walk to the gate. It's not required.

But the sufsuf (beats me?) bus is like no other we have ridden since South Africa. Air conditioned, comfortable, and constant supply of water (we stick to our bottles), soft drinks, sweets, and cakes are handed out.But stepping off, we are near flattened by the intense heat.

Swedish Sara has made the trip with us. The ruins are fantastic. Two sets of pyramids, mostly in ruin but German teams have done some nice restoration work on some. We are alone. In the desert. It's just great, in a late afternoon softening sunlight. We mooch, and discover for a couple of hours.

The Nile is where mankid began one of their earliest attempts to lodge 'signposts of permance', and continued doing so ever since. Pyramids, monumental public architecture, extravagant burials, tablets recording the greatness of kings and queens. I guess, that means, where class societies also began. But argument rages (as told by Theroux Dark Star Safari, and Reader Africa: a biography of the continent) about Egyptian and Nubian (the former Sudan) reigns. For a long time, the Egyptian rulers were actually Nubians, but driven out by Assyrians they returned to present-day Sudan and set up all the ways now recognised as ancient Egytian culture. Present day Egyptians reflecting in the glory pisses Sudanese, they reckon after all that the Egyption royalty were Sudanese. Kind of. Anyway, that's why there are ruins at Meroe, and some others you need a 4WD, and GPS navigation. They are out in the desert.

Sara says her good-byes. She's off to Atbara, further north. We'll catch up again on the train, north and out in a couple of days. Deb and I stay the night. The gate man checks we'll be OK, tells us we will be safe, at least that's what we think he has said, packs up his donkey and heads off ... to where? We settle in. We decide not to use the tent. It would be too hot. We try to sleep on our mats, but lie there sweating like hell. A gentle breeze is warm and makes us feel fan-forced, oven baked. The breeze gets up a wee bit, and we get covered in sand. A tough night's sleep. But we wake up, in the desert, with pyramid ruins nearby. It's just something else.

We tromp back to the highway. In about 10-15 minutes a big truck from GOHI Construction & Contracting (Chinese, I think - a monument down the road a bit near something big and industrial has Chinese and Arabic writing over it) stops and offers a ride, 70-80 km to the turn off to Shendi. Picking up a mini-bus back to Khartoum from there was easy. Khartoum has settled around 40 degrees.

We never actually travelled alongside the Nile. They've built the road a distance off, because of annual flooding. But it is close by, standing out in the dry desert as a green strip for 50 metres either side. The Nile has been a bit of a feature of our travels. White Water rafting the source of the Victoria Nile, which turns into the White Nile, in Uganda. From Addis to Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, we dropped 1,500 metres down into a gorge where the Blue Nile, anything but with silt laden red-brown water, raged along. Closer to Bahir Dar we passed a small town with a sign next to a 'creek' that read 'Source of the Blue Nile'. This ran into Lake Tana, where on a boat trip checking out monastrues we were taken to the outlet that is the Blue Nile proper.

Now in Khartoum we see the confluence, where the White and Blue meet and continue their journeys as The Nile up through to Egypt.

We will be on it in a week.

aka Mad

Meltdown in Khartoum

Khartoum is a mess. Rubbish litters the streets. Unformed, open drains cut across footpaths. Formed drains, many open, stink in the heat.

The streets are crowded with people, the traffic crawls through them. The road code appears based on 'nudging'. There isn't a car on the road, no matter how new, or old, that hasn't a dent or scrape, or many. Away from the city centre, and moving, a vehile could be, on any trip, either 'nudger' or 'nudgee', or on some trips even both. Twice our taxis have even 'nudged' people - one, more of a bump.

Come afternoon, and the streets and footpaths have metre square mats layed out and every item of junk and clothing imaginable is spread out for sale. Along footpaths, you duck under the rows of football shirts on sale.

A month or two back, while somewhere sown south, we read the Nile had broken it's banks and flooded Khartoum. It's all the rain from Ethiopia. There's now a layer of silt in all the streets, along with the sand blown in from the desert, dried out, and now the heat sears through a dusty, gritty cloud.

But, I really like this place. It's got a buzz. People cool, fascinating to observe. The streets are a grid pattern making navigation easier(ish). But then there's the alleys and lanes! Locating your hotel isn't always that easy. But a couple of days sorts that. Lots of appeal in this town.

We spent the first couple of days on the permits trail, chasing rail tickets (fruitlessly), and taking a chance of visting the National Museum - how would you say? very Sudanese, but really interesting. Like a low key Egypt. We've moved into a totally differant culture, past and present. Now, very arabic.

The National Museum

We've changed hotels three times. Each time getting better, and cheaper. Work that out. The latest, and we'll stay put, is Al Nakhil, and is quite nice. Only days ago it seems, hot showers were a priority, whereas now they can't be cold enough. We're staying in the travellers 'district' of Souq Al Arabi. A couple of days of permit chasing means you meet and cross paths with the other travellers in town, who come in waves from the ferry/train from the north, or dribs and drabs, like us, from the South east. Not quite true, everyone times their arrival around the train/ferry out. There is seven of us in town when we arrived. We met for dinner, exchange hints for short-cutting bureaucracy, identifying best hotels and so on. There was the two of us, Sara the Swede, Yenneck and another Max both German, Andrew a Pom, and French Canadian Bruno. A pleasant team.

Bruno is an interesting guy. For three years he has travelled, weekly submitting a story to a newspaer back home in Canada. The things you can do, eh?

It's got hotter! Day Three reached 46 degrees! We spend as much on water, buying stacks of 1.5 litre bottles, as on about anything else. Except, maybe, mango juice - terribly yum. No beer - a dry country, alcohol strictly banned. Probably a good thing, imagine the dehydration of a couple of beers in these temperatures! Don't think I've ever experienced such temperatures, it's really something else. You try not to do much during the middle of the day, except find a food place or juice bar for shade and where you can get blasted by a fan. At night you also sleep under the fan. All the fellow travellers walk around with glowing pink faces - and we're no different.

But we are a bit limited in what we can do. Access is limited to lots of areas, and other just so damned hard to get to - for nothing really. The South and Darfur for the obvious reasons, and because of the war with Eretria, and because many towns are centres for refugee camps which they don't want us seeing, and I'm not keen anyway.

Everything takes ages. As you'd expect, everything is written in Arabic, there's miniscule English spoken, and you grind in the heat. What kind of picture do I paint? But, I'm liking it, a lot.

Khartoum is really three cities: Khartoum , Khartoum North, and Omdurman. Each of two to three million people. Each thinking of themselves as quite seperate. Omdurman has its own real identity. The Blue and White Nile rivers meet, go off as the Nile. Imagine the Y-shape this creates, and each city at a junction corner, are you with me? K North serves mainly as a transport hub for the traveller coming/going north.

The group of us knocking around together (sharing company, and making light of the task of working out how to get around - just like travel in the good old days) made a couple of trips to Omdurman for some great experiences. Souqs (markets), day and night - crowded, noisy, and where you choke on the ever-so-strong smell of spices and herbs; a visit to the camel market - our little mini-van (those tiny Suzuki things) got lost and ran out of petrol, prompting having to hire a boy with a donkey and cart to take six of us the last couple of kilometres - to find out it was the wrong day for camel sales. There were quite a few camels still in a yard, but there was a great sheep sale going on. All the people at the sales were just great with us.

Technology is all around, internet and cell phones everywhere, but digital photography and the ability to show the older guys the photos taken of them just went down a treat. We were all under great demand to take photos of the guys with their prized sheep. Great experience.

Our hotel has BBC and Aljazeera, but I'm really missing a good newspaper read. Internet, here, is the fastest we have had all trip including South Africa, but web news sites just aren't the same. There's also comment, editorials etc etc for gaining an insight into the local psyche that I miss. There's two or three English local papers, but they are just political posturing, written in shocker English. They all seem very pro-South Sudan and get banned and closed down regularly, apparently popping up again registered in the South. Interesting, for their badness, first day, but then ... But I have heard on the BBC my old mate, Zambian ex-president Chiluba, is now facing trial for corruption. Beauty.
I don't mean to paint the wrong picture. I'm enjoying the Khartoum experience, and had some real fun, some cool experiences, and seen wonderful things. Besides, I recall Maclom Fraser telling me, what thirty five years ago? - Life was not meant to be easy.

aka Mad

Monday, August 13, 2007

Welcome to The Sudan

One, if not the best, thing about travel is how it smashes you pre-(mis)-conceptions.

Here we are in the big boogey monster of The Sudan. And it's fine. But the bureaucracy is mind boggling. I don't think The Sudanese government wants tourists. They do everything they can to make it as difficult as possible.

As if visas weren't hard enough to get, once entering, you visit four offices - immigration, customs, alien registration (where you can't register anymore) and then security control to have your fingerprints taken.

Leaving The Sudanese side border town, Gellabet, you climb an ever so gentle rise. Then, it's dead flat 550km to Khartoum. Dead flat.Initially, you enter the Sahel, the curve across the continent from the Senegal River, on the Atlantic Coast, to Sudan's shores on the Red Sea - 6,000km long and 200km wide - of pastoral land. But by Gederaf it's becoming dry, by Khartoum desert.

The other thing about travel is how quickly time can make mockery of travel guides. We were expecting a two day slog to Gedaref, on the Khartoum-Port Sudan highway, then bitumen all the way to the capital. Instead, it was bitumen all the way. Smooth enough for the bus conductor to regularly climb out the window of the 100km/hr travelling bus, onto the roof to check on the four goat kids tied to our packs!

Another thing: Sudan has changed its monetry unit from dinah to pound in the past year, and devalued at the same time. Guides are useless for pricing.

We planned to stop overnight in Gedaref, but four Ethiopians and one or two Sudanese, who all had smidgin English, advocated we should continue to Khartoum. The Khartoum-Port Sudan road is bumper with road trains, mostly containers but some car transporters and cattle trucks. Some of the containers are white, and painted up UN. The Sudan is currently not without its share of problems. We shouldn't be anywhere near that.

Between Gellabet and Gedaref, 150km of border district, we had to stop and show our passports and be entered into registers eight times. I think this pissed the locals on board, who didn't have to, just as much as us. This section of road is patroled by soldiers in Land Rover utes, with big machine guns mounted on tripods on the back. Just like the warlords in Mogadishu, Somalia that I have seen on news clips.

Later, on the Khartoum section, the checks only happened three times. Though on a couple of occassions we had an 'official' shine a torch in our eyes. On one late night stop we were taken into the usual, dirt floored tent, with a couple of beds, and the huka water pipe, where you sit on one bed - the official on another and agonisingly go through the phoenetics of telling your name, country, etc. They can't read your passport. I'd love an Arabic reader to read back to me what has been recorded as our names.

One (unusually) bolshy joker holds Deb's passport and booms: "What my name? What my country?" Interpreting, Deb replies "Deborah O'K; New Zealand." "Good! Good! Bus! GO!" waiving his hands dismissively. My turn. All this nonsense bureaucracy makes me frivilous - hard as you might find that. Deb got it right, I'll play the game. "What my name? What my country?" "Deborah O'K; New Zealand." I reply. He looks at my passport: "Good! Good! Bus! GO!" Thanks Deb. I'd hate to be stuck there because I gave the wrong response. Fancy that. We turn up and strike the one immigration/security/alien registration/travel permisions (who knows?) man in The Sudan who has the same name as Deb, and comes from New Zealand!!!

Anway, the people who told us to stay on the bus reckoned it would take four hours, making it 8:30-9:00pm. A bit late for arriving we thought. But we relented. Tiredness, and the increasing heat meant we slept a few hours on the bus. We arrived in Khartoum at 12:30am, without a hotel booking! Khartoum was surprisingly still awake.

In the morning, there was a TV behind reception of the hotel we stayed at. It showed the weather forecast, in Arabic - but a weather map is a weather map. Khartoum's prediction: 40 degrees!

Your first priority when reaching Khartoum, you have only three days from entry, is to 'alien register'. What a nightmare.

You have to have all the right forms, they have to be stamped and signed by your hotel. We're in luck. At The Sudanese embassey, in Addis Ababa, we met a lovely young Swedish girl (aren't they all?), Sara, applying also. There she is again, at our hotel (the second - we moved in the morning). She has already been to the office, returned for the forms, having found out all this.

Once into the process you find you have to go out and get photocopies of nearly all forms, plus the entry stamp in your passport.

You go from one window to another, back to the first, back again. Do you need a stamp, do you not need a stamp? How much? No English is spoken, at all. There are locals there doing the process on behalf of NGOs and people on business (mainly Chinese, lots of Chinese) who look every bit as baffled.

The process is conducted in a quadrangle, little shade, no breeze, at least 40 degrees. You fight loosing your rag. Then, of course, they stop for lunch. All we have achieved is having our forms stapled together and signed, acknowledging all the correct paperwork. Sara, and Yenneck, a German (we've teamed up to figure out the system) go seek shade, a cold drink, and some lunch. Two o'clock was the restart time, we understood. The pidgin English of Ethiopia now seems like a dream.

Back at two. "No, 2:30." Hmmmm. Three-thirty and the 'money taking' ladies return. We're frazzled, it's way too hot. All we have to do, it seems, is pay money, take the passports back to another window, have a stamp placed in them. Four-thirty, and we're out of there. A process like this at home and 10 minutes you'd become impatient, 15 minutes and you'd implode. Later, the time/temperature digital clock in the street of our hotel (handy later, for locating the hotel and knowing how hot it was!)showed 5:30pm - 39 degrees. It was bloody hot earlier.

Permits are required to visit many areas of The Sudan, archaeological permits to visit sites, photography permits to use your camera (didn't bother, I'd had enough - they can shot me.) All require forms, passport copies, photos, etc etc. And payments of course. There's bugger all tourists, so I think this is a way to make more money out of NGOs and business visitors.

The Sudan is more expensive than the wickedly cheap Ethiopia. Hotels are really grotty, and the most expensive in the Africa we've stayed. It's not tourist friendly. The people, though, would have to be the nicest we've meet. Travel guides, with their 'nicest, lovely people' drivel drive me spare. But people here smile at you. Nod. With bugger all English they genuinely try to help you. Those that can speak a bit of English, step in and try all they can to asist. They are wonderful. We've had enough to compare against now.

Constantly, as we pass people their only remark (and probably only English) is "Welcome to The Sudan." You know, I believe they mean it.

aka Mad

Ethiopia: A sting in the tail (tale?).

I just know that my kind hearted buddy, Feetay, would be thinking 'I'll nip to the $2 Shop and get a replacement set of sunglasses for Mad, and send them over.' Thanks cobber. But Gonder provided the opportunity for me to relieve you of such pressure, mate.

A street vendor on the way to the bus station, had an enticing range of crass goods. "How much?" pointing at a pair of sunglasses. "25 birr." (surprised me, not such an outragoeus first bid.) "Ten" "OK, fifteen." "No, I said ten." "OK" "I can't believe it, Max. You just bought a pair of sunglasses for $1.40!" says Deb. "Nah, he gave in too easily. I've probably been ripped off." Hoping you're proud of me Feetay.

From Gonder, and the Ethiopian Highlands, to the border, you drop altitude. Ethiopia, on the western escarpment of the Rift Valley, although not 4% of African land surface, has 50% of the continent's land above 2,000 metres, and 80% of the land above 3,000 metres. So, therefore with the rain season it's also been a tad cooler. Even though it's in Northern Hemisphere, they call it winter.

But as we head down and west, it starts warming. There are signs it has been raining, but nowhere as wet.

Just after the start of the first big descent, the bus puts a stone through its radiator. All off. We sit on the side of the road, watching fuel tankers labourisly crawl the climb, for two hours. And read our books. The driver has caught a bus going the other way, back to 'somewhere', and sent out a repacement. It arrives just as the conductor cum mechanic, drops out the radiator. It's thrown onto a truck. Back to 'somewhere' again for repairs I guess.

Although it's the same passengers, still going to the same place, we have the ticket exchange routine again. I reckon this is the way they audit for paying the replacement.

With about 50km to the border town of Mehemet, we are all piled off and onto another bus at Shehedie. Probably because we are now a bit late for the buses return. The new conductor tries to hit us up for another fare. No, no. I know how this replacement ticket sytems works. Locals aren't paying. He can get stuffed.

By no means are we trail blazers, but the stop and staring of people in Mehemet, and confirmed by a bar owner, tells us very few foreigners pass this way. We are not hounded at all. Hardly spoken to, just stared at.

Having booked into a basic, no - make that very basic, hotel we go for a stroll. Surprisingly, Mehemet has all you need for a forced stopover. A couple of hotels (some, purely brothels), restaurants, cafes, bars. All road side, dirt floor, canvassed wall and roof establishments. Arabs come across from The Sudan to have a beer, and avail of the working girls.

We stopped for chai, and a woman was making injera. Deb showed interest in the process, and allowed a try. The whole cafe (all men, of course) stared and laughed. A crowd gathered in the street and stared at proceedings as well.

Over late lunch, a joker intoduces himself. Harmless. A practice his English session. Later when walking the street he waves us into his bar/hotel. Gives us a Pepsi, bottle of water, gets his two sisters to boil up a coffee ceremony, make some injera and beans (fasting), and pop some corn. We are joined by some friends. All very nice. Offer some money as we leave. They are all shocked, absolutely refuse payment. Is this still Ethiopia?

It apeared not to have rained for a few days. It was dry and dusty. But a downpour that night turns mainstreet into a mudbog. Out boots are clogged with mud as we tromp into immigration (a reed shack). In the no-man's land we conduct negotiations of Ethiopian/Sudanese money exchange.

We're walking into Sudan.

This should be different. What do you reckon?

aka Mad

Northern Ethiopia Part 5: Lalibela - saving best for last

Lalibela: What a wonderful sounding name. Laa-lee-bell-a. Phoenetically, just splendid. And always pronounced with a musical lilt.

Lalibela: To Ethiopians Axum is the holy one; to the western visitor, saving Lalibela to last is just a highlight.

Lalibela: it could be explained as rock-hewn churches, and that would never catch the majesty of the place.

The modern town offers little, but set in striking surrounds at over 2,600 meters on a rock escarpment with wild, craggy mountains. But, there, carved into the red volcanic tuff, below ground level are two clusters of two storey, fully hewn, churches. The buildings complete with windows, arches, internal pillars, kings thrones, the 'holy-of-holies' sanctum, everthing. The churches are big and connected by a maze of tunnels and passages. Both sites are joined by a carved river, called Jordan. There is a site marking the baptism place of Christ.

Each church is unique. There is one cave church, clear on all sides, but still connected at the roof. Design or unfinished? Looks like design.

I've recently heard that a new seven wonders of the world have been voted on. Lalibela didn't make it. Firstly, I don't think people know of it. And, secondly, perversly, because it is in Ethiopia, I guess.

Apart from the two sets of churches stands an independent church, St. George., but its isolation makes it stunning.

Lalibela, was the younger brother of the King. One day Lalibela was covered in a swarm of bees, which his mother took as a prophecy he would be King. His older brother wasn't too pleased, so tried to poison him. It didn't work, instead putting him to sleep for three days, during which an angel took him to heaven and he was shown rock-hewn churches. By wonderful coincidence, at the same time, his brother, the King, had a vision of Christ suggesting he should abdicate for his actions. Wonderful.

St. George was a bit pissed none of the churches was dedicated to him. He visited the King, who promised to set it right. He built the free-standing, 15m high, cruciform church as a stand alone, promising it to be the finest. And it's a stunner. Built in the shape of the St. George cross.

So pleased with the result was St. George, he rode over the steep walls, and through the tunnel, right up to the entrance. The holes in the stone walls and tunnel floor are his horse's hoofprints. So thet tell you, and they believe it, what's more.

I can't describe these fantastic, fantastic structure adequately. I've never seen the likes. I know you probably won't, but I suggest getting to your library, any decent picture book on Ethiopia should cover them - maybe there's a book specifically on them, and having a look. I guess Google Images might also have pictures.

Do yourself a favour, check them out.

aka Mad

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Northern Ethiopia Part 4: This is getting tough

Adwa to Lalibela: A true test of our travelling mettle.

Adwa to Lalibela: 380km, but we expect a challenge.

Adwa To Lalibela: Our guide book says posible in three days. Bus to Adi Abay, another to Sekota, and on the third day arrange a ride or hitch with a truck. Tough roads, remote, but possible.

We're up early, as usual, in Adwa. At bus station by six. Bus leaves at nine, after waiting to fill up with passengers and a couple of loops of town looking for extras. The rain from previous day had disappeared. Streams ran dry, fields wet but not flooded, a couple of rivers raged but metres below the day before. Sun shone. Skies blue.

I've run out of superlatives for describing this countryside. Yeah, I know, there's fantastic landscapes the world over. But usually its ringed off, and called a National Park. Here, we've been driving through it for six or seven days without let up.

This is remote territory. Tiny villages of people are housed, they cultivate, and use beasts of burden in exactly the same manner as time immemorial.

We arrive Adi Abay and locate a tidy enough hotel. Our standards have taken further re-adjustment. We seek lunch. Find a nice firfir - kind of a fondue: grilled beef served in a little dish with a charcoal burner, topped with sliced boiled egg, tomato, onion, chilli and peppers. Yummy. With injera - I've changed my mind: not so much Weetex sponge but carpet underlay.

Back to our hotel room and we spot a tell tale sign some one has been in there. Our packs are locked, check day packs to discover Deb's oldish cell phone and my cheapish sunglasses bought at the Billabong factory shop in J-Bay, South Africa are gone. Travellers are easy targets - they may not discover their loss until moved on, and then wonder where they have 'lost' them. So we confront the hotel, and go to the police. Despite language difficulties they do all the 'right' police procedural things.

The afternoon storm rages a little off in the distance. We receive, by Ethiopian standards, a light sprinkle. But, of course, lose power for a couple of hours. Dinner over candle light, kaewot and dabo (yes, bread). Not bad, firey little number. I hope that when I use the term 'cafe' and 'restaurant' you are not visualising Lambton Cafe or Noosa Beach type establishments. You'd be way wrong.

Early morning wake up, whate else. As we leave for the bus station, the doorman tells us the police arrested a boy from the hotel for stealing our stuff. But language difficulties mean our questions about the phone and sunglasses just cause confusion. An unfinished story.

At every buss station there are about four or five 'tricks' we have learnt to be mindful of to not either be fleeced outright or relieved of an amount that is euphemistically called 'tips', for as you've guessed absolutely no service rendered. Today we are in for a whole new lesson. We ask around for the Sekota bus and are steered to a lad calling 'Yechillay! Yechillay!' This is a small town 25km away. "Sekota?" "Yes, Yechillay then go Ambegele. Then other bus to Sekota."

We're off. Arriving at Yechillay everyone gets off, the mini-bus is unloaded. "Do we go to Ambegele?" "No bus Ambegele." "How do we get to Sekota then?" (All this in bodgie English). "Contract. Contract. Their way of saying you can contract the mini-bus to take you. Bastards! Options: back to Abi Aday, go back out the long way down the 'eastern side', adding days, several bus trips, accommodation stops.

"One thousand birr." "Get out of here!" Discussion follows. We settle for an outrageous five hundred birr. There's seven birr to NZ$1. Thirty Five Kiwi for a trip like this might not be bad in NZ, but this is Ethiopia. "On one condition. If we pick up anyone along the way, I get the fare." Agreed. Of course, if this isn't a bus route, there won't be any other passengers. But as we near Sekota we do pick up six or seven - I get 20 birr! Not only paying for the mini-bus but subsidising locals as well.

Sekota is probably about the lowest level town you'd ever want to have to stay in. While getting our bearings a 4WD negotiated the roundabout and heads for Lalibela. I flag it down. No, not Lalibela but some place about 40km away. I can't recall its name, and its not on our map, nor in the guide. We've seen these nothing little villages along the way. No thanks.

I ask lads where is the driver of another parked 4WD. They point me to a cafe acroos the road. It belongs to an Italian NGO outfit. There are a couple of locals with the NGO, and a young Italian guy working with them having lunch. They might be able to organise a ride in the morning. "Have some lunch."

A fortnight of fasting has began. They fast every Wednesday and Friday as well. This means no meat products. The meals have become very interesting. Beans, bean mash, scant vegies. The NGO guys talk to a joker who says he can take us to the 'no name' town, where we can spend the night at his 'place' , and he will take us to Lalibela in the morning. Sounds Ok-ish.

We load up, as we take off we realise we haven't confirmed a price. Number one rule. He asks, as you'd expect, another outrageous price. We'd only just consider it for the whole trip to Lalibela. Half now, half when we get to Lalibela. He doesn't like the price, and also says he may not be going to Lalibela tomorrow. Stop! Let us out.

The Italians (three or four) at the NGO are surprised to see us when we drop in to see their outfit. They agree the price was crazy. They say 1,000 birr is their usual to Lalibela. They were keen for us to join them that evening.

However, we find ourselves sitting at the filling station petrol pumps negotiating with what must be the whole of bloody Sekota town. Every one considers themselves a 'broker', with a fee of course. Opening gambit is 2,000 birr. Ethiopians have the oddest negotiation style. They open with the most outrageous , ridiculous bid, will come back with a nonsensely small reduction, and then let you walk rather than 'lose face'. In shops, what they do is to let another person take over the negotiation, in that way saving the first person's esteem.

We eventually work it down to the 1,000 birr, with a 4Wd. A two and a half hour drive usually. But we leave mid afternoon and drive into the afternoon thunderstorm. The road winds up treacherous mountain paths, with scary drop offs.

The storm is a beauty. The lightning and thunder is something else. We crawl in the pouring rain. Then stop. Dead smack in the middle of the road for 15 minutes to let the worst pass. It's ever so dark. This is quite terrifying.

We arrive in Lalibela after four hours, still pouring with rain. Our built in pack covers do a reasonable job of protecting the packs, sitting on the back of the Landcruiser ute.

What a couple of days. Robbed, cheated, lied to, thrilled, terrified, wonderful experiences and ones you'd prefer to do without. But, I guess, we've made it.

Next day: We have looked forward to Lalibela. (another story), but inquire about forward buses to Gonder. "No buses - road broke" Oh yeah, we think. "only 4WD, 2500 birr" We've near had a gutsfull. It turns out a bus has rolled in a river crossing, blocking the road except for 4WDs. A crane coming from Addis has broken down. There has been no buses in/out Lalibela for three days. We think, we think.

What about flying! Ethiopian Airways will fly us for 600 birr each! See what I mean about ridiculous prices that are asked. The hotel man wants to drop his price for hire of the 4WD. Too late.

At Ethiopian Airways we meet a frazzled looking English couple who were so pleased to hear our story. That it was happening to some one else, they wondered what they were doing wrong. They were surprised and impressed to learn we had got down the 'centre road'. They had gone the long way, the way of public transort, with difficulties. They'd had a gutsfull of Ethiopians. "I've travelled a bit in Africa, " says the guy, " but this is incredibly tough." Maybe, he's right.

Bus would have been two days (with an overnight stop), a 4WD one day, but the plane with mucking around - half a day. Thirty minutes into the thirty-five minute flight and we start circling. Thunderstorm in Gonder. The hillsides are pouring down, the roads awash. The old Fokker Friendship slews sideways as it lands on the awash runway. It's been bucketing down.

Ethiopia is a love/hate relationship. You are constantly hounded, but keeping your sense of humour and trying to make fun of it helps. In some ways Ethiopia has been the most fantastic experience, in some ways the worst. We have seen some shocking sights. There are amazing sights. Some lovely people, astonishing history and culture, but always off-set agaist, I'll be frank, the dis-shevelled mess that is Ethiopia.

So, we are back in Gonder where we started our 'northern loop; back onto our bottom-to-top African trail. We've probably 'stored' a day or two. This will be handy for our timing of our Sudan entry. We've only got a 14-day transit visa and you have to get out on Wednesdays - that's the day the Wadi Haifa ferry leaves for Aswan, Egypt. So now we are off to The Sudan border. Will it be any easier? Doubt it.

aka Mad

Northern Ethiopia Part 3: Debre Damo - a real adventure

In Axum, we teamed up with a sister/brother duo, originally from Melbourne, from our hotel to hire a 4WD for a trip to Yeha (800BC ruins) and the awesome Debre Dama Monastry. Jo, a schoolteacher now resident in London, and Steve, the Northern Territory Crown Prosecutor in Darwin. Nice people with one social flaw: Essendon supporters.

Debre Damo is only about one kilometre from the Eritrean border. Eritreans used bomb Ethiopian towns in this district. The cease fire was only signed December 2000. Consequently, a common sight are the white 4WDs flying light blue flags and emblazoned 'UN Military Observer'. A white helicopter flew over head one day.

I don't think any of us truely appreciated what sort of day was to unfold. The road out had stretches of new bitumen. The in-betweens were a wild ride of bogs, weaving for best traction.

This area has stupendous landscape and spectacular panoramas that match anywhere. Thousand metre high rock outcrops. Cliff sided mountains. The road winds, climbs, hairpins, dips, and spirals through some sensational route findings to mountain plateaus, and down into deep valleys. Red rock, read soil, verdant growth.

We stop at Yeha (pronounced yeh-haw, not as you might expect Yee-Haa!) The old site was a pagan temple, 2500 years old. An awesome piece of masonry. A large open air mass (it was Sunday) was taking place outside the church next to the old ruins. It finished during our visit. The whole congregation then sat around and dished out tella - a home brew beer, in green plastic mugs, that looked like muddy water and tasted like ... oh my god! Yep. They were keen for us to sample.

A sense of concern sinks in as you approach the cliff sided mountain that hosts Debre Damo. Firstly, you notice the steep road ascending. Secondly, we know access involves a climb up the cliffs. I have never been up such a steep road. Thirty years ago, with a few mates, when rarking around the Snowy Mountains out from Canberra, we had to hand winch our car up a steep climb. But that was in a tricked-up for off-road 1960s Holden pano, not a contemporary 4WD. Not only steep, but boulders and deep rain gutters blocked the way. On the third attempt on the steepest section, the driver got us up. We bounced, lurched and leaned - and over the side was a sheer drop away cliff. Call me a girl, but I admit a wee bit of the scared. We were all pleased to reach the village at the base of the cliff. The top of the mountain is circled by 50 metre high cliffs. Acces to the monastry and monks' settlement up top is reached by climbing a leather rope. There is track from the top down to the top of the rope, but it's still a 15-20 metre vertical climb.

Women aren't allowed up. In fact, females of any species, animals included, aren't allowed. You never know what those lonesome monks might get up to!

Steve and I look at the cliff. We look at each other. At the cliff again. Take a large gulp of air. Right, let's do it!

You climb using the thick, plated, leather rope. Another strip of leather is lowered, tied around your waist, and pulled as you climb. You arrive at the top panting and a-quiver, It's 3,000 metres above sea level - that's our excuse. The top edge of the stone cliff has a deep, worn, U-shape from the centuries of wear from the leather ropes.

Steve and I high-five and head off for a look. The old monastry is astonishing. Built from layers of hugh stone blocks and massive timber beams. Holding up the ceiling are one-piece 2.5 - 3 metre high stone pillars. The books are, of course, fantastic as usual.

First reaction on sighting the monastry has to be: 'How did they ever build this? How did they get this stuff up here?' Mystery solved: The founder of the monastry, Abba Are (another of the nine Ethiopian saints) reached the top, carrying stones, aided by a flying serpent - of course! A disciple, Tekle Haymanot sprouted wings to escape when the Devil tried cutting away the rope he was climbing up - after which he could make flying visits to Jerusalum - again, of course! So there you have it. Thanks to Phillip Briggs (Ethiopia, 2005, Bradt Travel Guides). You have to say: it was all so simple back then (sixth century).

Some hermit monks live in caves on the cliff faces. There are other rock outcrops up top with caves also. We are shown inside. Stacked up are coffins. It's an Ethiopian Orthodox holiest thing to do - have your coffin left up here. Many coffins look new. We gag at the smell of death. Seeing our reaction, we are told the coffins are left below for 6-12 months to stop smell. Well, let me tell you, that hasn't worked too well. In other caves, skeletons lie about. A skull guards one entrance.

Again, a monster storm brews. We have to get off. At the top of the rope, Deb yells from below "What was it like?" "Can't tell you. We've sworn to secrecy," I call back. "Did you?" "Yep, but for two or three Bati beers, I could ..."

Going back down the rope is slightly more unnerving: We've now seen the skinny, old monk on the end of the safety rope!

Back down safely, Steve and I feel pretty chuffed. Shame to have been rushed by the impending storm. No sooner are we down and back to the 4WD then the heavens open. And we have to get back down that road. Water now pours down the gutters. The vehicle slips, slides: it's white knuckle stuff. I don't think I'm too much of a whimp, but this was bloody scarey.

Down, and in one piece, with only one concern: the river at the bottom. In no time it has risen and now its starting to rage. Another heart stopper, but we are through. But the road, bad enough before, is now treacherous. We have only experienced the edge of the storm. It's been a real beauty, a real downpour. Flash flooding occurs in streams, paddocks, rivers. The storm is all over in half an hour. One river has drawn a crowd to squat and watch the few vehicles try and get through (there 's only been some trucks, and a few NGO and UN Peace Corp 4WDs all day). A little unnerving. Our driver edges up, takes a look, backs up, edges up again, waits. Goes for it. We wash slightly sideways towards the edge of a drop away torrent tumbling down.

All getting a wee bit too much excitement for one day.

The road now requires locked 4X4. We spend time sliding, slipping, making our way sideways down the road. Holy Kamoly.

Anyway, we're getting out at Adwa. Jo and Steve go back to Axum, maybe 25 km. We say our farewells. They have been great company. A nice couple of people.

We check into a hotel The bar downstairs is jam packed, chocker with jokers. Chelsea are playing Man U in the season opener Charity Cup. A couple of St. George Lagers go down a treat after today's action. Young boys crean to look around the doors at the TV. Deb pops a little one on her lap for a prime view of the penalty shoot-out. What a shocker. Chelsea couldn't put one in the net.

We retire to the 'restaurant' for tibs and injera. This local tucker gets better all the time. More likely, I'm getting used to it and I'm hungry!

Happy or what. I want for nothing.

Maybe a dose of local home news, a dictionary, and a chat with Ing and Pete.

aka Mad

Northern Ethiopia Part 2: Axum - myth or metaphor?

What a discovery: Tigray wild honey. Uh-ummmmm. Terribly yum.

5:30am at the bus station and chaos, mayhem, and bedlam are de rigeur. Gonder went one better. The rabble as passengers on our bus route (there's stacks of differant buses) fought over exchanging tickets. The physical bus was changed, the tickets display the bus's number, you have to get a new ticket with correct bus number on it. Don't ask me!

The bus trip to Shire went without organisational hitch. There you change to mini-bus for Axum. The driver refuses to leave until he has another passenger or two. After 45 minutes passengers start to revolt, scream and yell, pile off and start throttling the conductor demanding fare refund. (Luckily a joker we met on the earlier bus translates for us. Our usual way of finding out what goes on.) The police arrive. More screaming and yelling. The driver concedes. We're off. Only to pick up another three who have been waiting just down the road!

The delay means we arrive in Axum in the dark and in the middle of another wicked thunderstorm. Luckily I convince the conductor to drop us outside our hotel as they pass. We are drencehed as we run across the street. Africa Hotel. You little beauty. A comfy room, ensuite with HOT shower. A restaurant. A bar. And NZ$7 a night.

The Goner-Axum trip was about 350km, on dirt road - but we have become well accustomed. The last 300km (!) is on a simply stunning road that winds up, down, and across the most stunning, steep, set of mountain ranges. Just past Debark, the road drops over 2000 vertical meters. The hairpins and drops were near vertical as well. As a downhill mountain bike route I reckon it would every bit rival Bolivia's 'Death Road' we once rode. Then you start winding and climbing all the way back up again. The outside of the windows had a decent covering in spew by the end.

Axum (the modern name, Aksum the ancient). History plus. The Ark of the Covenant.

Courtesy of Philip Marsden (The Chains of Heaven, 2005, Harper Perennial), let me explain:
Aksumawi was the son of Ethiopis, great-grandson of Noah. He established the kingdom of Aksum, the ancestor of modern Ethiopia. Unfortunately a snake took power in Aksum and ruled for 400 years. The snake was 170 cubits in length, has teeth a whole cubit long, and the people of Aksum had constantly to supply it with milk and ... (wait for it) ... virgins. One day a stranger came and slaughterd the snake. The stranger was called Angabo, he in turn became ruler of Aksum.

Angabo married the Queen of Sheba (probably from Yemen), and after he died she left the city with 797 camels to visit Solomon in Jerusalem. There, with Solomonic guile, he suduced her. Back in Aksum she gave birth to a boy named Menelik David), and when he came of age he journeyed to Jerusalem to see his father. When he left Jerusalem he took with him the Ark of the Covenant. With the Ark, the blessing of the Lord was transferred from Jerusalem to Aksum, from the people of Israel to the people of Ethiopia.

And to this day, millions and millions (the population of Ethiopia is 70 million plus, and something like 75% Christian) believe the Ark is still in Axum. But belief (faith) is a powerful thing. True, no explanation has ever been forthcoming as to the Ark's disappearance. The Bible gives no clues. Call me kill joy, but not a cynic, however ... According to Reader, Sheba is a myth apparantly, Aksum did not exist in Solomon times, and was founded several centuries after the Ark's supposed journey from Jerusalem

The Ark, if you are a believer, is at the Axum Cathedral of Tsion Maryam (St. Mary of Zion). Every church in the country has a copy in its inner sanctum. where only monks dare tread. Only one living person at a time has seen the Ark, and he's keping its contents 'mum'. Of course, the belief is that it contains the tablets, the 10 commandments given to Moses. However at big festivals, many of the copies are brought to Axum and paraded along with the real McCoy - and no one knows which one it is. We glimpsed a view of the High Priest who looks after the Ark. I was allowed into the old church, but not Deb. She wasn't even allowed close to the enclosure that fences off St. Mary's. I was allowed to walk around it.

Axum also has stallae fields. We climbed down and walked around the tombs of Kings. The Aksumite kingdom was a true leader. Reader suggests it was one of the first places to use oxen ploughing and that it developed its own language annd written form There's a kind of link: Their earliest writing used be boustrophedon style - that is, ploughing like: acroos one way and next line back the other way.

We found our way, hiking into the countryside, to a monastry on top of a hill where the monk collared us, sat us on a cane mat, and proceeded to read the Bible to us in Ge'ez, the ancient liturgy language, for the next twenty minutes. Emphasising points he considered important. This bible was probably 800-900 years old. Escape was not easy. We, of course, understood Jack, but politely nodded.

The climb to the church of St. Pantaleon (one of Ethiopia's nine saints) atop a rock outcrop was way cool. The ususl thousand year old books - bibles with beautifull full colour, hand painted illustrations, crosses, crowns. A nice little church Deb can visit, but only I can make the climb up the rock to the sixth century church which contains the graves of five kings/saints. Way cool. But Deb doesn't miss much - the ususl guys' stuff: Sky Sport TV, cold beers, dancing girls!

Next day: market day. Camel and donkey trains arrive in town for the commotion that was set up in the mud squalor that was the market. We take a respite in a back-street hole-in-the-wall cafe, incongruiously named 'Paradiso'. It's mid-morning, but the wall clock shows 4:15 (Ethiopian). Its never-never time. A man walks by burdened by the onerous task of carrying an umbrella. His wife walks alongside carrying an obviously heavy, knee buckling sack of something on her head. The coffee tastes beaut.

We visit what is supposedly the remains of Queen Shieba's castle. But there's a fair bit of doubt. Well, not among Ethiopians, but scholars doubt she even existed. Perhaps, she was from Yemen, maybe ...
The term that has to be used is 'living treasures'. Seven, Eight hundred year old paintings are mounted by proping up on the back of a chair. People kneel and kiss them. Up to thousand year old copies of the gospels, church histories, whilst stored in very battered old leather cases, are kissed and leafed through regularly. Hunreds of years old crosses and crowns are piled in church corners. We are regular encouraged to handle the 'oldest books' we wil ever touch - mind you, Deb and I can't help ourselves we treat these things as carefully as possible. It's all so typically Ethiopian, so third world, that this stuff is 'used', not having the historical value we'd place on it.

This is all just becoming mind boggling.

The Reader read (I've been dying to write that) Africa: a biography of the continent (Penguin, 1998) has a vast and extensive content, yet always remains tight and concise. Stunningly informative.

aka Mad

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Northern Ethiopia Part 1: History, mystery, myth and faith.

Filling in the afternoon before leaving Addis, we visit St. George Cathedral. Looking around we bumped into two young jokers, both strategists with the British Conservative Party. Matt, an Englishman, and James, Aussie who has lived in London five and a half years,. Nice guys. We went for a beer and a graze. "So where in Oz are you from, James?" "Queensland." "Me too, where abouts?" "You probably won't know it, a small place on the Sunshine Coast." "Try me!" "Bli Bli." "Get out of here, the family beach house was in Mudjimba." "We owned a cane farm on the Maroochy River, below Dunethin Rock." "Crikey. We used to go swimming there." We talk fishing at North Shore, crabbing and water skiing the Maroochy River, Nambour, etc. This will all mean a lot more to my family. Small world.

Apparently, a British TV programme, 'Off the Beaten Track' is one driver behind tourists visiting Northern Ethiopia. Does anyone else see the irony - watch a show about off the beaten track and get your pointers for heading off on mass? Another driver for visitors, it seems, are the readers of 'The Da Vinci Code' of on their search for the Ark. For us: it was was the next place on the map north. Pleased we've 'found' it. Our reading along the way has made us want to visit.

Traveling the 'northern loop' has been a bit of a thrash, but not too bad. Roads have improved heaps under the new government (and foreign aid - a lot from China, and now some from Japan). This district was previously known for its 'The Devil's Roads'. The 'Off the beaten track' should be renamed 'off the beaten Flight Path'. Nearly all the Europeans/Brit visitors seem to fly the route, centre to centre, on the Ethiopian Airines hopper. We haven't seen other ferang on the buses.

Roads are very windy, many switch backs. Unnervingly, there are many trucks and buses wrecks a-plenty on the corners. They overtake like crazy. Many tank and armoured personnel carriers litter the highway-side as well. The top end of the 'loop' is Tigray, and it was the TPLF - Tigray People's Liberation Front that spear headed the rebel ousting of Mengistu and The Derg, so remnants of the war are not so surprising. Did you know that when the rebels stormed Addis they did so with an enlarged photocopy of the map of Addis Ababa, from the Lonely Plant Africa: On a shoestring travel guide? I know this having read Aidan Hartley's The Zanzibar Chest (Harper Perennial). Hartley was a journalist and rode in with the rebels on one of the first tanks to storm the Palace. He supplied the Lonely Planet. From my experience with the Lonely Braincell, it was lucky they arrived at the right place.

First leg of our travel (Addis to Bahia Dar) and the public transport was 4WD Landcruiser. A good thing: flooding, washouts, bogs. This was a private enterprise, yet there were USAID stickers on the side doors, and across the dashboard. Don't ask me!

A converstaion with one 'off the beaten track-er' was interesting. She was saying that after the 'northern loop' she had another week and a half in Ethiopia, but unsure of what to do. "Harar," I suggested. "But that's an Islamic city, isn't it?" "Yes, but ... " "God (which one?), I wouldn't go there! So, a 'little bit off the beaten track' is it?

In Bahir Dar, we hired a boat to take us around Lake Tana, visiting Christian Orthodox monastries. The full-wall murals of colourfully painted biblical stories are just fantastic. We shared the boat with a couple, she Irish, he German - rather unusual (almost as odd as Australian and New Zealander perhaps?), who are both PhDs, both atomic physicists. How is it that all trip, intelligent and educated people have sought our company?

Walking to the bus station (at 8:00am for once!), a wild-eyed, crazed, wreck of a human being dressed solely in rags of a pair of shorts leapt in front of me and grabbed at my pack. I wanted to yell something like "Please go away", but it came out as just two words! I took a wild swing at him, missed, and he shot of like a robber's dog. Kind of unnerving. Locals looked equally surprised - probably at my performance.

In Gondor (Amarhic to English translation means you get Gonder, Gondor, Gondar all in equal representation), a really nice town - by Ethiopian standards (!), I got a haircut for one dollar fifty kiwi. That's capitalist greed. Shocking.

But checking into our budget hotel in Gonder, we were surprised to discover a TV in the room. Switch on to see what was available. Stone the crows! Highlights of Tour de France, on Super Sports from South Africa. Just finishes of all the stages, and updates on all the doping scandals. But, hey, if that's all I've seen ... I could have stayed a long time in Gondar (There! see I've used all three versions myself now).

Picked up a Tourist Map of Gondor. You know the type, we have them in Oz and NZ as well - map with a couple of pictures of highlight sites and around the border advertisements for restaurants, bars, the like. But I just have to share with you some of the 'better' ads. This is all verbatim, fair dinkum:

Habesha Kitho Cafe.
Habesha Kitho Cafe has atypical Ethiopian traditional style in the interior
decoration. It also serves Ethiopian traditional cuisine. However, prices are
double for foreigners. (appealing)

Childa Bar.
This bar has good atmosphere with its interior. A variety of alcohol is available here. Staff are usually friendly and speak English very good.

Terara Hotel.
Terara Hotel is difficult to find because it is in a forrest. The hotel has a good open air cafeteria with a beautiful garden. Draft beer is available. Meat and fish dishes are available during fasting. You can also play table tennis. (nice)

Seleam Restaurant
Seleam Restaurant is located near to Castle and Ethiopian Airlines Office. If you are tired, enjoy Draft Beer here. (Reads well, don't you think?)

and this beauty...
Tajjo Bet Restaurant.
Tajjo is a local honey wine. It is sweet and a good taste. However, it is hard to find the Tajjo Bet. If you have Gondar mania (don't ask me!), try to find it. Foods are not available here. (At a restaurant! Just like a pub with no beer, I guess.)

A hotel with satellite sports TV, restaurants like these, you might never see me again.

Gondor, though, was Ethiopia's capital for 250 years, founded 1635 (Ethiopian). Hence the Fasil Ghebr Royal enclosure containing six castles (fascinating) and the lovely Debre Birham Selassie church.

As we came to Ethiopia, we read and were told that it is the worst for being harassed. But like all countries, the people that latch onto you can be fun, charming, at the same time as crafty, beguiling. Some are horrible, some nasty, some obnoxious. An interesting question we are often asked is "Are you government or charity?" Our response, tourist on the bus, sets many aback. But it told us something, an insight. But there are constant calls of "ferang! ferang! ferang" "you! you! you!" "give me birr! give me pen!" (they are leaning through the internet cafe door trying it now!). It's got a little worse here in the north. But it's a little like water off a duck's back, that or we have become hard bastards.

It's the rain season in Ethiopia. You probably can't do a six month trip bottom to top of the continent and hope to avoid it. We had maybe 4-5 days of the end of the Tanzanian season, which didn't amount to much. But here, it's mostly been thunderstorms at late afternoon or night. And heavy. But with some beaut days. The dust of the south has now turned to mud, and makes for some interesting roads.

Axum calls.

a.k.a Max.