Monday 3 November
Once the customs guy was up we were first in the queue, due to the fact that Bob was parked directly outside his office door and we got all our necessary bits of paper stamped in record time and unusually with no entry fees to pay! Thousands of people were now crossing between the border towns again to cut deals; many with donkeys, some with wheelbarrows and many with a bag of all their belongings trying to find work.
The road to Gonder was very rough, apart from a couple of short sections, and Bob once again got everything shaken to pieces. It was a really beautiful drive as we climbed through the hills; incredibly green and lush after the rains and a striking contrast to the dryness of Sudan. The animals also got fatter and healthier looking too, which we were both pleased about, obviously from an animal welfare perspective, but also as we were craving a steak!
We arrived in Gonder around lunch time and driving through town, many young boys run at the car shouting ‘I have a message from your friends’ and try and take you to a hotel, so that they can get a small commission from the owners for taking you there. One guy jumped on the side of the car and took us to Belegez Pension where we could camp for the night. It was a very clean and friendly place and in a good central location. We wandered into town surrounded by our new found ‘friends’. Obviously, they are all keen to make a little commission on whatever they may be able to assist you with, but knowing this we quickly found them to be a great bunch of guys, who would look out for you and were very helpful.
We headed to the office to meet our new project partners in Ethiopia and begin the ‘work’ part of our trip.
Tuesday 4 November
We took the road north today to the Simien Mountains National Park a couple of hours from Gonder. It is compulsory to be accompanied by an armed scout in the park, who has a good knowledge of the mountains and to offer protection from hyenas or any other dangers! Ours spoke no English (which is usual), seemingly had had even fewer showers than we had in the last few months, but turned out to be a very dedicated and kind guy! We also took a guide called Yirga with us, despite our reservations after Libya.
The Simien Mountains was breathtaking, not only because of the amazing views, but also due to the altitude. It is one of those places that cannot really be captured on photos, or video, but which you need to see for yourself. We parked up at Sankaber and our guide took us on a 3 hour walk to a waterfall and to see the Gelada baboons. It was a fantastic hike and very welcome after so many days sat in the car driving with little exercise. On the hike we came across several troops of baboons. These were good looking baboons compared with the better known red sore-bottomed varieties. Their long flowing hair and relaxed and non-aggressive temperaments meant you could sit in the middle of a group, totally surrounded, as they just carried on feeding on the grass. Our guide was brilliant and shared Marc’s enthusiasm for bird watching!
During the day in the mountains the weather is beautiful. However, particularly at this time of year, as soon as the sun goes in, the temperature suddenly drops to just above freezing. We had a nice evening with a beautiful view, but retired to the warmer shelter of our tent nice and early. There was a shelter where the guides and scouts could sleep, but ours, ever loyal, decided that he would sleep in the most uncomfortable looking bush that he could find near to our car. We tried to tell him he should sleep with the others, but he seemed set on the bush he had found!
Wednesday 5 November
We were up early and drove about an hour further up the mountains to Chenek campsite. We think the rough roads may have taken their toll on Bob, as he was having trouble getting up the hills and kept losing power when we started out. We made it to Chenek and began our 6 hour hike to the second highest point in the park (4430m). The altitude was really telling and every step you took you were out of breath, heart pounding to get the little oxygen around your body. As we climbed up we saw more baboons and Ibex too. It was well worth it when we finally got to the top and rewarding, as it was challenging to keep going in the altitude, as we neared the peak. However, Felicity’s turned a bit white, due to the lack of oxygen, and her desire to be sick meant we headed back down fairly quickly to get some oxygen back in her!
Back close to the car we sat again with a group of baboons and watched the young ones playing and jumping up on a ridge and pulling each other off by their tails. We returned to the camp and wrapped up warm for another chilly evening. Our scout indicated to us he was a bit cold and wanted something to wrap himself in. We gave him our groundsheet and once again instead of going to the warmer area where the others were, he crawled into his favourite uncomfortable bush. About an hour later and after much rustling of the tarpaulin he had made himself quite a cosy little den, tying the groundsheet up with vines and was settled for the night.
Thursday 6 November
We set off early, as today and Friday we were visiting many schools and community projects around Gonder.
We sat in on a secondary school lesson with 60-80 kids in one class and bizarrely enough a huge plasma screen at the front of the classroom began to the play the lesson. We were really shocked by this method of teaching. All the lessons for secondary school kids in Ethiopia have been recorded by South African teachers and are then broadcast from Addis Ababa to large satellite dishes installed at each school and played on Japanese plasma screens at set times. It was such an awful way to teach – firstly the transmission was down initially, so we missed the start of the lesson, then the remote control for the screen had been lost, so the volume could not be adjusted and we could not hear; there is not stop, rewind, or fastforward! The timing of the voice and the speakers lips were about a minute out of synch, so making it even more difficult to follow. Every now and then the plasma teacher would tell the actual teacher to ensure the students discuss certain things, or give answers, and a clock would appear in the corner of the screen and start to count down, 60, 59, 58, 57….. The human teacher appeared not to really understand the plasma teacher either and so this resulted in the kids just watching the screen and the clock counting down. Apparently this system was put in place to ensure that all pupils received the same standard of teaching, but it certainly seemed to have a few short fallings to us!
Friday evening, after a long day, we heard our biker friends, who we had travelled with a bit in Egypt and Sudan were in town, so we headed out for dinner and a few drinks to catch up on everyone’s stories and events in Sudan.
Monday 10 November
We drove to Bahir Dar on Saturday and spent the weekend camped at Hotel Ghion on the edge of Lake Tana. On Sunday we took a half-day boat tour, mainly for the boat tour itself and the possibility of seeing hippos, which we did see. However, there was the additional attraction of visiting five of the monasteries on the lake’s islands and shores. We paid the additional fee to enter one of these, which was enough for us to get the gist. It was apparently the most famous and best example of a mud rondavel, with a corrugated tin roof dating back to the fourteenth century and complete with ancient chandeliers. To be fair the paintings on the walls on the inside were quite impressive, but when we got to the last monastery it looked a little more like a school project.
Today we spent visiting some local schools, which had a striking and slightly sad contrast in standard, numbers and funding.
Wednesday 12 November
The scenery as you drive across Ethiopia changes considerably, although always surprisingly green, and we enjoyed this on our drive to Addis yesterday, but the Blue Nile Gorge was by far the most dramatic part of the journey. This was not so much due to the scenery, as we wound our way down the long snaking road to the base of the gorge, but more our brakes failing about half way down, as Marc’s foot suddenly went flat to the floor with no response. Pumping frantically on the brakes, throwing it into first and Felicity jamming on the hand brake resulted in a wildly veering recovery, not far from the cliff edge.
Regaining some composure, the decision was taken to try to make a very slow descent to the bridge at the bottom, with Felicity holding the stick in first and ready with the hand brake (as Bob likes to jump out of first gear on hills) and Marc constantly pumping the brakes to some effect. Those who have seen Marc play Olympics on games consoles will appreciate the kind of effort and sweat that went into this!
We made the bottom though and after a couple of calls on the sat phone and vague communication with the armed guards we had located a mechanic for the company that was working on construction of a new bridge, who did enough to get us on our way to Addis.
Realising that 12,000km and the bad roads in Ethiopia was starting to take its toll on Bob we spent today getting a full service done and replacing the km clock cable, as we now had no counter, or speedometer.
Thursday 13 November
We had hoped to leave Addis today and head for the Bale Mountains, but Bob was still sick and struggled to get up the fairly gentle slope out of the hotel carpark, coughing up huge clouds of black smoke. The whole day was spent trying to get the injectors cleaned; the only positive being that the work only cost about £3.50!
Friday 15 November
We knew that it would be a long day’s drive from Addis to Bale Mountains NP, but we hadn’t accounted for the last 150km being by far the worst road we had yet driven. After Sheshemene, Rasta capital of Ethiopia, where the local touts have adopted Jamaican accents and try to sell you gange man, we turned off the tar and took a further 5 hours on this relatively short stretch! Oh, if we’d only bought some of that gange man, things may have been so sweet!
The state of the road is probably not what will stay with us longest though. As we passed through one of the quite pretty little villages we approached a man with his donkey, stood on an open grassy area, close to the road and not that far from a small group of children. As we got closer he did seem extremely close to his donkey and then we realised, in total disbelief, that he was actually trousers down and quite literally WITH his donkey!! We would like to draw some of you a more vivid picture, so you are left with a similarly disturbing mental image as we have, but it is probably not appropriate for some of the younger readers. However, as he watched us pass there was absolutely no change in his work, or stroke, rate!
Sunday 16 November
We spent the first night in Bale camping behind the park headquarters in Dinsho, as we arrived after dark. On Saturday we headed up to the Senetti Plateau in the mountains to do some hiking and look for the Ethiopian Wolf; Africa’s most endangered predator.
We enjoyed some slightly more relaxed hiking than in the Simiens, although overall the Bale Mountains are set at a little higher altitude and you can still feel it when you are walking. Over the two days we had a few really good wolf sightings, saw other game and also some of the endemic birds, which Felicity was particularly thrilled about!
It was extremely cold in the mountains and we woke today to find everything covered in a thick white blanket of frost, which felt very unlike we were in Ethiopia.
Monday 17 November
We set off early from Dinsho with the intention of making it to the border town of Moyale, but after a quick lunch stop at the edge of the lake in Awasa and the usual slow progress on the better tarred road, due to the constant breaking or swerving for people, donkeys, goats, or potholes, we gave up the idea, stopping 200 km short at the Labello Motel.
Ethiopia is a very different country to that which most people would imagine and even if you are prepared for this, whatever your expectations, you are still likely to be at least a little surprised. Yes, it can be hard work at times, but we found the effort it takes to explore Ethiopia very worthwhile.