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Monday, 10 December 2012

Ethiopia 1

Day 1 – 9/11/12
Almost as soon as you cross the border the vegetation gets greener and the trees taller. Along the way, we noticed rivers with water and other signs that we were in a country that has rain. Unfortunately we were back to the typical, aggressive and selfish African driving standards. 
The road standard and condition also deteriorated badly; at one point there was a burnt out petrol tanker and trailer in the middle of the road. It had been there long enough to have its own garden complete with shrubs and grass. There were also a number of very bad rock falls blocking the road. The compensating factor was the wonderful and dramatic Ethiopian scenery. Great mountains and lush valleys.
As we were driving near dusk, the local herders were bringing their stock (donkeys, cattle and goats) home. They paid no attention to the vehicle traffic and occupied most of the road. In Ethiopia there are always a line of people walking along the edge of the road and the combination of people and livestock makes for difficult and slow driving.
Unfortunately we did not make it to Lake Tana but camped at the Belegez Pension in Gondor. We arrived slightly after dark and for us it is always a bit foreboding to arrive in an African town at night. There were no street lights, the road condition was terrible (lots of potholes etc), the local taxis and mini buses pay absolutely no heed to other vehicles and can stop or pull into traffic at any time and then there are the great number of people all close to the car.
The good news was the restaurant across the road from the camp area had nice food AND BEER!

Avril driving; 765 km; 12.5 hrs; N 120 36’ 37.8’’ E 0370 28’ 19.7’’

Day 2 – 10/11/12
As we had visited Gondor before, we did not bother to go to the local attractions. We changed some money and got a SIM card. The telecom company here is owned by the government and an application needs to be accompanied by a copy of your passport and 2 passport photos.
We started out for Barhar Dar on a good road. Then, along the way we saw another overlander vehicle and we flashed our lights and they did the same. Great excitement… it was Luke and Shelly who we had met in Ghana. We pulled off the road and Luke put out his awning and we chatted, swapped stories and way-points, had lunch etc for 3 + hours. So nice to see “old” friends”. We were the object of curiosity for the locals and they gathered  in a large mob to stare, beg etc. We chased them away a few times, but as soon as one lot disappeared, another mob would form. Even the police could not disperse the crowd.
The roads in Ethiopia are not only for vehicles. There are always people walking along the edges in both directions. Then there is live-stock being driven from spot to another, donkey carts carrying goods, bicycles, commercial trucks, buses and mini buses etc. The cattle wander along the middle of the road, the passenger transport (buses and mini buses) stop on the road to drop off and pick up passengers – they do not pull off  the road, for this. No one really pays attention to the vehicles; they assume that the vehicles will slow, stop or take any or all evasive action to miss them. All this means the driving is more like an obstacle course than a leisurely drive.
We arrived at a decent time at the Ghion Hotel. Ray changed some tyres - to put the better tyres at the rear.
We had some beer and G&Ts and watched an EPL match.

Ray driving; 172 km; N 110 35’ 50.5’’ E 0370 23’ 09.8’’

Day 3 – 11/11/12
Almost the night from hell. Apparently Saturday night is the big religious night in Ethiopia. So, they commenced chanting at ~ 00.00 and did not stop all night. Chanting was via loud speakers and from multiple locations. It was so loud and incessant that even Avril could not sleep in, so we set out early for Addis Ababa. The road as far as Debra Markos is OK to fair. After that to the Blue Nile Gorge it is very bad. The surface is badly deformed, there are potholes and ditches and stretches where the road has completely deteriorated to rough stones. Last time we were in Ethiopia the new bridge over the Blue Nile was being constructed. The bridge opened in 2008. The approaches are now totally deteriorated. The surface is very badly deformed with some drops in the surface over 2’. This in less than 4 years. What hope!
The road from the Blue Nile Gorge to Addis is fine.
We arrived at Wim Holland House mid-afternoon. 

Avril driving; 547 km; 8 hrs; N 90 00’ 36.0’’ E 0380 45’ 19.0’’

Day 4 – 12/11/12
After a bit of a noisy night, we had a lie-in. We did a few chores and then Ray asked Wim about leaving the vehicle in Ethiopia whilst we went back to Oz. There was a bit of a misunderstanding when we crossed the border. Long story, short, we had to get our Temporary Vehicle Permit extended to match our visa. Ray went to the customs office and they were quite efficient at getting the paperwork done.
Later in the day, we went to check out the Djibouti & Somaliland embassies for visas. Again, Lonely Planet was wrong and they were both closed.
Brian & Anna and Rick showed up later in the day. So another reunion. They had unfortunately had a bad time in Ethiopia thus far. They had stones thrown at their vehicle, were spat at and  their vehicle was hit with a stick (a lot of the local men carry ~ 1.5 m wooden poles). In addition, their shock absorber bushes gave way on the (apparently) dreadful road to Tim & Kims. One of the bikers hit a donkey and whilst he was repairing the damage, his tools were stolen and his panniers riffled.

Day 5 – 13/11/12
A successful day. We managed to get both the Djibouti and Somaliland visas. The staff at both embassies were super helpful and went out of their way to assist us. The Somaliland embassy was in the process of moving but still issued us a visa on the spot.
Otherwise, a slow day.

Day 6 – 14/11/12
Ray had more administrative duties. The Temporary Vehicle Import document had to be altered again to reflect a departure to Djibouti. Then he had to arrange insurance – fortunately this will cover us all the way to RSA, with a couple of small exceptions
We then needed to go to the airport to fly back to Oz for a brief visit.

We spent from 15/11/2012 to 28/11/2012 on some business in Oz.

Day 7 – 30/11/12
After a frustrating trip from Oz (airline delays and late arrivals, spoilt brats and screaming infants) we finally got back to Addis. After some supermarket shopping we returned to Wim Holland House and were greeted like old friends. Very nice. The vehicle had been looked after but was quite dirty.
After sorting out packing etc, we had a meal at Wims and an early night.

Day 8 – 1/12/12
A poor night’s sleep; religious chanting over microphones all night. We tried to make an early start, but needed to have the vehicle cleaned and fill the water tank. So, we were only on the road by 08:30, in time for the morning traffic jam. It took ~ 90 mins to get out of the city.
We were treated to a really great drive. The scenery was stunning for most of the day, dramatic mountains and deep valleys together with some very long vistas. Lonely Planet: “off the Guassa Plateau and down the dramatic Mezozo escarpment is unforgettable”.
At the bottom of the escarpment, the vegetation and culture changed almost immediately. It was a lot drier, evidenced by the camels.
According to the GPS we reached our highest point of the trip thus far – 3277 m, at times we were literally above the clouds. We then very quickly lost > 1,700 m.
The road was excellent quality tar.
On arrival at the hotel we found that the external plastic water pipe had deteriorated and cracked. We tried to repair it without shifting the accommodation module but the work area was too narrow, so we had to lift the module for the 1st time on the trip. Fortunately it worked easily – let’s hope the repair holds.
We stayed at the Sunny Side Hotel – expensive for Ethiopia and very average.    

Avril driving; 372 km; 7 hrs; N 110 05’ 21.9’’ E 0390 43’ 03.5’’

Day 9 – 2/12/12
Another very poor night’s sleep – are we getting obsessive about this?? The other guests at the hotel were intent on partying etc and then the 1st departures were at 04:30am.
Again we had a stunning drive over a number of mountain passes and across some very small valleys. Awesome scenery.
The driving was quite intense. The tight mountain bends coupled with the activity on the road meant that great concentration and even greater patience was needed. The roads in Ethiopia are not solely for the use of wheeled traffic. Much greater use of the roads is made by pedestrians and livestock. The herders make little (read no) attempt to clear the road for vehicles, so we had to stop often to inch our way past stationary livestock. The urban myth here is that the locals want you to hit their stock, as the vehicle is always responsible for the damages. There is almost full time pedestrian traffic along the road. Very often we were subjected to the aggressive, some-what frenetic chant “you, you, you” accompanied by the reflex begging that seems to be the norm when Ethiopians see white people. The bad news of the day was that we were spat at as we drove along.
The road was good tar, however on a lot of the mountain pin-head turns it has deteriorated, with the corners now being gravel and the heavy-duty truck breaking has pushed the approach tar into waves.

We arrived in Mekele in the late afternoon and were greeted by Barbara & John – friends of friends who had offered to “put us up” for a couple of nights.
It is very chilly at nights now and when we went out for dinner, jumpers were needed.

Avril  driving; 403 km; 8 hrs; N 130 29’ 40.9’’ E 0390 28’ 51.7’’

Day 10 – 3/12/12
A good night’s sleep, despite being woken at 04:00 for more religious chanting. This stopped at ~ 07:00, but went on intermittently all day.
After a lazy start to the day we went to the travel company running the tour to the Danakil Depression. We found out that there is a made/asphalt  road south out of the depression. So, we decided to change plans (aimless) and take a 4 night/5 day trip and to finish up on the main road to Djibouti. Given the history of this area, it is compulsory to go with a tour company, guides, army, police, local Afar tribe guide etc.
After a pleasant lunch, we had a relaxing afternoon and an evening walk with Barbara & John.

Day 11 – 4/12/12
After a pleasant breakfast with Barbara & John we went down town to start our Danakil tour. Our group consisted of 4 vehicles including ours. 3 young men doing an experimental arts degree in Berlin (German, Danish & Norwegian), 4 Americans and a Belgian.
After a slightly late start we drove north out of Mekele. We then branched east through some hills. We stopped for lunch at a village “restaurant” (we both selected the eggs) where we picked up some of our protection team – Afar police. There was no let-up in the incessant/aggressive begging and pestering and Avril was spat at as she sat in the car.
We dropped from the Tigray region to the Afar region. We descended 1,400 m down the Rift Valley escarpment into the Danakil Depression in just a few kilometres. As you can imagine, this was very spectacular. Then, a little more sedately, we then descended another ~ 1,100m to our camp area at – 110 m. Along the way we saw a number of salt caravans transporting salt from Lake Assale to the village where we had had lunch. Apparently this is a 2 day/1 night trip and they only sleep ~ 4 hours on the way.
The track we drove along is basically the one on T4A. There is a lot of road work going on and in a few years this will probably all be asphalt.
We camped at the village of Hamadella. Ray made the mistake of giving some children some clothes. Soon, we were mobbed by local children all begging or rather demanding shirts. There was no gratitude; one girl even pouted and demanded a different colour.

Avril  driving; 164 km; 7 hrs; N 140 05’ 07.7’’ E 0400 16’ 45.5’’

Day 12 – 5/12/12
A poor start to the day. As soon as we left our accommodation module we were assailed by children demanding pens, shirts and anything else. Things got a little out of hand and a child threw a stone at Ray. AND, he responded by giving a couple a whack. Then our guides got the local Afar police to settle things down.
We made a reasonably early start to the day in an effort to miss the worst of the heat. We  drove off into the Dallol Depression. This area is geologically very active and we were treated to some amazing sights. Sulphur structures, acid lakes, geysers etc. A kaleidoscope of colours; brilliant yellow, deep orange, white and black. One of the chaps doing the experimental arts degree, stripped off and painted himself purple and his mates took pictures of him with this unique back drop. Even we could see that this would be great art – and also took a few pictures. We also went to have a look at where the salt was being cut and loaded onto the caravans and an area that had a salt lake. You must be on the internet to read this, so use your favourite search engine to look up some pictures.
It was quite hot, 40oC in the vehicle and probably a few more out in the open with the reflection of the white salt all around. In addition to the local Afar police and a town guide, we had a military escort. The soldiers were professional and when we stopped, went out to form a protective perimeter.
We were back at Hamadella around 14:00 and camped there again. It is worth mentioning that there are NO ablutions in the town, so everyone uses what the Army used to call “cat sanitation”, but there is no digging here. So, everyone has to go into the rock area around the town; I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Avril reminded Ray that very few of her friends would put up with this!!

Avril  driving; 34 km

Day 13 – 6/12/12
We elected to camp closer to the rest of our group and we not bothered by kids again. We drove along mud flats and sand to get to the base camp for the trek to the caldera of the Erta Ale volcano. The driving required concentration, but Avril got through with no issues.
We needed to stop at a village to get permits, local police etc. We decided to give out some lollies and pens to the local kids. And tried to educate them to not say “give me” but rather “please” – but with no success. One of the kids then drew on the vehicle in a permanent marker we have given him. Great.
The final 12 km of the journey was across the lava plains and took more than 2 hours, often we were in 1st low.
After dinner (the chef had done a great job on the trip) we set off for a night time walk to the caldera. This took about 3 hours and it was a little tricky with head torches. We had camels to carry any gear. There were about 4 different groups doing the tour, however it was not crowded and we did not run into other groups. At the summit there are a number of huts where, in theory, one can get some shut eye. But with all the guides, army, police, camel drivers etc together with the ability of Africans to talk non-stop, sleep was difficult. Added to this, were the different time schedules of the various groups. I think our tour had the best schedule, setting off at 18:00 and leaving just after sun rise. But, others left at 04:00.
The lava lake is totally awesome, astounding, fantastic - well worth all the effort to get there. The crater is almost circular and the time we were there it seemed to be some way down the vertical sides – the level varies a lot. The impact at night is stunning, with fissures in the lava forming changing patterns across the lake. One point on the perimeter seemed to be in a state of permanent eruption. Then, other sites around the lake and sometimes in the middle, would erupt as well.
We looked on in awe for ~ 3 hours and then tried to get some sleep. Others slept, or rather kept watch at the rim for the entire night – but they were all younger than us!

Avril  driving; 106 km; 6 hrs; N 130 34’ 22.2’’ E 0400 35’ 39.0’’

Day 14 – 7/12/12
We awoke early to get a final glimpse of the lava lake and watch the sunrise. The lake is a lot less impressive in the daylight – basically a grey surface with some fiery cracks. We then walked down to the base camp for breakfast.
As mentioned we had decided to drive south rather than to return to Mekele. After crossing the lava flow, the drive was relatively straight forward, but very dusty. As Avril says, “that horrible powder dust that coats everything”. We used the dust as an excuse to run the air conditioner. After about 1.5 – 2 hrs of the dust we hit the tar road.
We then drove onto Lake Afrera (but we still kept the a/c on!). The Lonely Planet guide raves about this, but we found it a bit ho-hum after Lake Asale and the volcano. It is greenish and very salty - Ray had a dip and floated like he was in the Dead Sea. But, it did not have the geographic attraction of the others sights. Ray also had a quick bath in the very hot, sweet water spring beside the lake. As it was early (ish) and there was little attraction in camping beside the lake in the very hot temperature, we decided to push on.
We then drove onto Semara. After a bit of a search, we found the Aramis Pension, a new, clean hotel. We had dinner at the Oasis Café – only “fasting food” as it was Friday - spaghetti with tomato, onion & chilli + importantly, cold beer.
The best news was that this is a Muslim area, so no all-night religious chanting.

Avril  driving; 214 km; 8 hrs; N 110 47’ 03.9’’ E 0410 00’ 23.5’’

Day 15 – 8/12/12
We set off at a reasonable hour to Djibouti. The road links Djibouti, the “only” port for Ethiopia to the road system in Ethiopia. So, there was a huge amount of truck traffic. The drivers show little regard for the smaller vehicles on the road and many seem to think their trucks are Formula 1 vehicles – they do not have the skills to challenge Mark Weber.
Fortunately the road is in very good nick to the border. As a by the by, this shows that the Ethiopians can construct a decent road that lasts, when they want to.
The border formalities are ~ 1.5 km before the border and we missed them (no flags or official buildings etc). Some of the truck drivers queuing to go into Ethiopia pointed out our error and we turned around. Formalities were completed quickly, with no hint of corruption. In fact, it seemed that there were officials dedicated to tourists and they were very helpful.

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