Trying new routes into and out of Egypt

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Egypt >> 18 – 29 Sep >> 1,697 km

We’re neither pioneering voyagers nor daredevil globetrotters but perhaps you could describe us as cautiously adventurous wanderers. We enjoy experimenting a little, whether it’s being part of one of the first crossings of Myanmar in recent times, or the first to cross from Turkana into Ethiopia after border crossing problems for other overlanders, exploring routes that are not recorded anywhere in Mongolia, and generally going off the beaten track. We even find a certain satisfaction in finding a unique spot for the night, like in a castle overlooking the sea in Montenegro.

From Sudan to Egypt this is no exception, though it’s only taking a new, not particularly adventurous route. In the old days the crossing between the two countries was one of the typical overlander trials that brought travellers together, each with a tale to tell and involved a ferry trip from Wadi Halfa in Sudan across Lake Nasser to Aswan in Egypt, while your vehicle followed on a separate boat, arriving sometimes a week later. You can still take a ferry, these days with your car, but just a short hop across to Abu Simbel.

We decided to cross slightly differently and followed an idea posted by a motorbiker on one of our preferred forums. We still took a 3-minute ferry ride across the Nile, but a tiny one that fitted 4 cars and a few people and I wondered it didn’t sink with the weight of us all. Then after the night in Soleb we found a brand new, smoothly tarred, un-potholed, little driven road straight to the border post at Argeen. A huge entrance way greeted us, several two-storey blocks, shaded by towering, metal canopies. But there’s not much going on, no hustle and bustle of a normal border, just about 20 people lounging around, no officers in uniform no queues of people, no hum of activity. We wonder whether it’s actually open for business today. After a little investigation we learn the electricity is off and they have no diesel to power their generators! Would 150 litres siphoned out of Bruce’s tanks help?! Expected opening time 2pm. It’s only 10am. A moneychanger befriends us and we chat with him for a while, otherwise it’s frustrated thumb-twiddling. Sure enough at 2.10pm the power comes back on. How did they know it would be like that?! We spend the next 6 hours exiting Sudan and entering Egypt, being issued with permits by a credit card-like machine (at a border station that suffers from a lack of electricity!), processed in a bedroom-cum-office, looking like teenager’s experiment meets spy station, by a man in jogging bottoms and flip-flops to handing out bits of cash for services we don’t particularly want, insurance we don’t need, ‘fixers’ who organise the process for you (or not in our case) and get all the paperwork done, lounging around waiting for our turn, answering Yes to most questions, questioning why an extra sheet was removed from our Carnet des Passages (car passport) and getting number plates made and affixed. One of those pieces of information is important later! After a long day, we’re into our final non-European country. The thought makes our hearts sink a little.

Abu Simbel is one of the few sites we didn’t visit on a holiday in Egypt 10 years ago and it’s as impressive as the photos or Indiana Jones film make it look. It is generally considered the grandest and most beautiful of the temples commissioned during the reign of Rameses II (ca. 1264 BC), and one of the most stunning in Egypt. Heightening its magnificence is the fact that the complex now stands 65 meters higher and 200 meters further back from the river and its original location. For four years from 1964, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history,1 a multinational team of archaeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner, on a project costing some USD $40 million at the time (equal to $300 million in 2017 dollars), carefully cut the temples into large blocks (up to 30 tons, averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled them in their new location. (Info from Wikipedia).

But our appetite for sight-seeing has otherwise waned considerably. We are nervous about the shipping procedures, we’re behind on our blog and outside it remains desert-hot. Visiting historical temples we’ve already seen, in searing sunny temperatures is not as attractive as renting an apartment in Luxor for a couple of days and getting organised. We do manage smart drinks in the luxurious Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, appreciating the worlds of Churchill or Agatha Christie in the warm evening air in elegant, modernised Victorian surroundings.

As well as the excellent Nubian museum in Aswan and this temple here:

Then it’s the desert highway shortcut to our very last stop, Alexandria. Here we witness the modern colliding with the traditional, in the clothes, the food, the restaurants and the bureaucracy.

Leaving the county, as entering, we opt for a lesser-used procedure. The route is mundane, between Egypt and Greece, but the operator, Neptune Lines relatively new for overlanders. As we can’t travel on the ship with Bruce, and he’s not in a nicely-secured container, like sailing down to Cape Town from Iran, we want to make sure nothing is stolen or damaged on the crossing: horrific tales among the travelling community abound! Our old-school, and actually old, ‘fixer’ huffs and puffs us around the harbour and offices for 3 half days. The number of stops far exceeds those at the Kazakh border on the Caspian Sea and there is no way you could get through it all without him, paying the fees and the bribes under and over the table, every step of the way. We also invest in some thick steel chains and heavy-duty padlocks and Jens’ plan and estimates work an absolute dream in making everything secure and tamper-proof. We meet the modern, professional manager for Neptune Lines and sign the various papers and everything seems to be settled. We kiss Bruce goodbye in the harbour, hoping to be reunited in about a week. Imagine our utter shock and despair, when 3 hours later and just 5 hours before departure, we receive an email entitled, “TOP TOP URGENT”:

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 09.43.38What?!?! Our fixer tells us he’s never had this before and presumes a bribe will help. We’ve already cottoned on that that won’t help and go about placating and convincing the Line through inventory lists, photos and signing waivers that Bruce is a trustworthy, legal ‘passenger.’ It’s an enormous relief to be accepted in the end and hear next morning that the M/V Okeanis is under steam with Bruce on board.

But that’s not even the end of the story. We’ve got a couple more short posts on our trip, coming soon, and now we are back in Europe, we have another little story to tell: having returned our Carnets to the ADAC (German Automobile Association) and expecting a prompt repayment of our not insubstantial deposit, we were recently informed that the customs officer at Argeen had indeed made a “grave mistake,” the cynical may even say extortion attempt. Until our Carnet expires in August 2018, we will not receive our deposit, nor can our Carnet be annulled, despite Bruce having been inspected by German customs officers: the nice Egyptian may well wish to declare that the car is now in his country and the ADAC would need to pay him the deposit after 6 months or so at the latest, considering our car “imported!” if we can not prove in return that the car is in fact not in Egypt – hope Bruce doesn’t get stolen in the meantime!

 

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Bye Bye!
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In the deserts of Sudan – “Hit me!”

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Sudan >> 10-18 Sep >> 2,296km

We’re essentially in a hurry now, virtually dashing for home, time is pressing and we’re pre-occupied with complicated, at least for the uninitiated, shipping arrangements for Bruce. But we’ve heard so much about Sudan and its wonderful people that we still want to at least make a first acquaintance with them, in our penultimate African country of this tour.

The recent heart-wrenching, inner sadness we’ve been experiencing, as we slowly try to extricate ourselves from our love affair with Africa, begins to lessen and the “hole in your stomach,” gaping emptiness recedes a little, as we cross another natural border from the high green peaks of Ethiopia down to the almost flat countryside, first with green fields very soon superseded by the white deserts of Sudan and the atmosphere is at once a different Africa, a desert Africa, an Arabian Africa.

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Still mud huts close to Ethiopia

For much of our 10 days here, we follow the course of the Nile. First the Blue Nile brings us from Ethiopia, where it originates in Lake Tana, our lovely camping spot at Tim&Kim Village, and shows us the way to Khartoum. On the edge of the capital city, we stayed at the German Guesthouse run by the very affable Norbert and his unendingly helpful staff. The Blue Nile here converges with the White Nile, which originates in Lake Victoria and we had last seen while camping on its banks at The Haven in Jinja to celebrate Alina’s birthday 4 weeks ago.

Don’t forget to click on the first photo in each gallery for better viewing:

From here, the Nile now more or less guides us across Sudan and all the way through Egypt to our departure point for Europe. We don’t always stay on its banks, but it’s always apparent where it is, palm trees waving in the breeze and green fields close by, marking the oasis it creates in the otherwise harsh desert conditions. Our first night after Khartoum is at the 6th cataract, though the water levels are really too high to see too many rocks or short rapids. The sun has heated the ground to the temperature of glowing embers and we feel ourselves cooking on the almost sizzlingly hot black rocks.

Wild camping is very easy again and we try to enjoy the vastness surrounding us and the shimmering diamonds overhead. In reality it’s windy and with open windows next to the bed we wake up blanketed in tawny dust and even when the wind abates on other nights, the stars are difficult to discern through the gritty cloak in the sky.

The Nubian pyramids at Meroe, part of the Kingdom of Kush and older than the Egyptian ones we all know, present an archetypical desert scene. The structures are clearly eroding, literal witnesses to the blowing sands of time, evidence that nothing will stay forever. We sleep in solitude but awaken to three enterprising young boys, slender with tousled hair, their little ornaments laid out carefully on the sands, their big brown eyes imploring you to part with some small change.

In Karima we celebrate into our wedding anniversary. It’s off-season, our favourite season in any touristy places, and the beautiful and thoughtfully constructed Nubian Guesthouse may not have any guests that night, but they still have a full shift of employees and we linger over dinner on a candle-lit terrace, all to ourselves, quite blissful! Next morning we are invited to sit with the staff as they tuck into their elevenses of chickpea puree, dunked with fresh flatbread, accompanied by lemon juice, tomatoes and cucumber. We trade experiences of our home countries and lives and we see a hankering in two of the youngsters to get to Germany where the roads are obviously paved with gold. It’s a memorable feast and we have to laugh as we realise the manager was the nicest Ethiopian we had met, we just had to leave his country to find him!

Don’t be fooled into thinking Sudan is a completely undeveloped country. While cruising along an unfrequented, tarred road, we still manage to have 3G network on our phones and can buy tickets for a The The concert in London next year online while chatting via WhatsApp with the friends joining us!

These days it’s the roads that are the death centres, not the pyramids, and we count the number of dead animals fringing the highway: one afternoon it’s 8 donkeys, 2 camels and handful of goats.

 

One well-driven truck route becomes our downfall. Jens had just commented on the amount of tyre remnants lying by the roadside along this stretch, when suddenly there’s a “BANG” followed by du-du-du-du as our tyre explodes and a long ribbon of rubber hammers against the car. Gripping the steering wheel with rigid arms, he prevents us careering down onto the sand and possibly overturning. We wobble to a stop and are surprised at the state of the tyre. It’s hot outside our air-conditioned ‘cruise ship.’ Very hot. 54°C hot! To compound matters, we’re missing the end piece on our jack lever and have to work very hard by hand, or with a spanner, to raise the car. We’re finally using the spare tyre that’s never been used in 11 years: we might be hesitant, but we don’t have much choice. The sweat gushes down our backs but evaporates instantly in the torrid heat. We leave the tarmac to follow the sandy track to our next historical site, but don’t get more than 50 metres when we hear ‘hissssssssssss.’ A quick about turn, while maintaining speed so as not to dig into the sand, we head quickly back to the petrol station where we’d spotted a wheel changer, who must be making a mint with all these damaged tyres around. The valve needs replacing and we have some with us. Thankfully we’ve been keeping one of the old tyres replaced in Zambia and Jens didn’t dispose of it in Uganda as he’d intended. As changing the rims is a manual job here in the desert, we had originally decided to wait to swap them with the better machines in Egypt or Europe but now with no ready spare tyre we go to this local who, with a long jemmy, his body weight plus that of his slim assistant’s they manage to grapple the damaged tyre off and the used one on.

Our final stop, before trying a brand new border post, was in Soleb, across sandy stony, road-less desert. Fortunate enough to arrive just as the sun was beginning to set, the scene of the ruined temple was tremendously evocative and simply picture-perfect at that time of day. While wandering through the rubble, we were greeted by Hamid, dressed like the majority of men outside Khartoum in his ankle-length, light jalabiya robe, a tagia or skullcap hugging his head.  It might look like nightwear to a foreign Westerner but it is perfectly adapted to the climate here. I wonder if men of yesteryear picked up the style through trade in the region in the past and adapted it for themselves to keep warm at night? Hamid absolutely insists, without any English at all, that we camp in his yard that night. What a pleasure! We are immediately welcomed and a little while later not only provided with dinner as travelling visitors, but we share the meal with him and a neighbour as guests. We learn via hands, feet and props, he was seemingly a well-travelled archaeologist and he showed us his old visa stamps in his long-expired passport to Libya, Egypt, Saudia Arabia and so forth and some old photos of himself at excavations. This balmy, final evening in the desert of Sudan was a classic and quietly momentous end to our short cross-country trip here.

 

Western Defuffa at Kerma. The central structure is over 3,500 years old and possibly the largest man-made structure in sub-Saharan Africa:

 

The Lion Temple at Naqa:

Footnote: for those who don’t understand the title: we sang Ian Dury & the Blockhead’s chart-topping hit throughout the country:

In the deserts of Sudan
And the gardens of Japan
From Milan to Yucatán
Every woman, every man

Hit me with your rhythm stick
Hit me! Hit me!
Je t’adore, ich liebe dich
Hit me! Hit me! Hit me!
Hit me with your rhythm stick
Hit me slowly, hit me quick
Hit me! Hit me! Hit me!

You can find the rest of the lyrics here

 

Culture Vultures in Ethiopia

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Ethiopia >> 22 Aug – 10 Sep >> 3,090 km

Ethiopia had developed into the great unknown for us. Before setting off we’d seen picture of “The Roof of Africa,” with green mountains cracked by deep fissures and ravines and inhabited by strange-looking monkeys. As we talked to more travellers and read some blogs, it degenerated into a stone-throwing, tourist-tired, xenophobic place to be careful in. We were particularly perturbed by Peter’s report that in his estimation after three trips over the years, it fell from top dog to absolutely bottom of the pile, dead and buried.

After the wonders of Omo Valley and then driving more of the Rift Valley everything subtly changes and we’ve entered a different Africa. Apart from the road to Tim & Kim Village, where everyone was much more outgoing and chatty, most other people from Addis northwards and into the mountains, seem more serious and scowl a lot, not even the kids smile or wave. The majority look different too, with an Arabic influence and even an Indian one. This isn’t limited to their facial features either: the roads are full, people and cattle roam around as if the tar doesn’t exist, or anyone on it, with seemingly no concept of the danger they are putting everyone in.  This is different to the overflowing roads in Rwanda and Tanzania, where everyone hears a vehicle and jumps to the side. Needless to say, wild camping seems too difficult and the hotel car parks we sleep on have such dire facilities that we don’t wash for days! Thankfully, Kim & Tim Village (particularly Kim herself) and Sora Lodge in Lalibela are notable exceptions.

Many have long learned that tourism is a huge industry they could gain from, and why shouldn’t they, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 174th out of 188 in the most recent Human Development Report. But its continued to the extreme and now you’re confronted with too many claiming to be guides, pestering you well past the point of enjoyment, and in some cases using downright trickery to make a fast buck. It’s hard to differentiate between those who actually would like to communicate with you and those who see you as a money machine. Until you realise that the latter probably make up 90% of those you talk to. So you stop talking to anyone and the opportunity for exchange is gone, and we miss it.

Often within seconds after we stop at the roadside, children, and even some grown ups, will appear out of nowhere and the only word they say again and again is: Birrrrrrr! Birrrrrr! Birrrrrr!… (Birr is the local currency). To emphasise to everyone how ridiculous this reaction is, we started a competition trying to be even quicker at doing the same thing to the kids before they even can start their show: Birrrrr! Birrrrr! Birrrrr! we growl and hold open our hand to them. They look really surprised and can’t really figure out what to do next? Some manage to say Money! Money! in response – we respond with the same and so on. Maybe this gets to them a little and maybe they even realise how weird it feels to get these words thrown at you just like that. In the youngsters this is a language thing, but in general, aid has bred laziness, and everyone wants money from tourists, because that’s what tourists and foreigners are there for: to give money but receive no work or services in return, no input on their side necessary. But ask them why they beg and their pride is severely hurt: “Begging? I’m not begging!”

Occasionally there are the funny exceptions though: these kids here were doing funny dances and jives to any car coming towards them, in the hope of earning a penny or two.

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If there’s one epithet we’d apply to Ethiopians, it’s about pride, and its loss. They are rightly proud of never having been colonised (if you overlook a short-lived Italian attempt). They’re proud of their cultural heritage, though they need to be careful they don’t sell-out for short-term profit. They could be proud of their natural resources, instead the exploitation and outflow of money to foreign investors has contributed to their poverty and created their xenophobia. Aid has streamed in over the years, but the country possibly serves as a clear example of both good and bad solutions in aid and support. These days there is little motivation to plant their own food or consider ways of utilising their land best to reap the future fruits. Chatting to Holly, setting up an NGO in Omo Valley, was enlightening, as she explained the people there have no sense of the future, no concept of planning and they are a generation and more away from being business-astute. Questions she often asks them are: If you had money, what would you do with it? How can you best sustain yourself and your family for this season, the next and the one after? What would be the worst thing to happen to you tomorrow? (Response: If the food aid packs stopped arriving).  There’s a long way to go to restore pride and independence here.

The thin animals, rib cages pitifully clear, are roughly manhandled, abused, whipped and stoned. I wonder if this is related to pride? Robbed of any real power and independence, they have little to be proud of inside themselves. The power they can exert over an animal, by thrashing it into obedience seems like it might improve their self-esteem and makes them proud of their dominance.

But you know what? We enjoyed Ethiopia a lot more than we thought we would, and we are glad we didn’t curtail our stay. This was the cultural highlight of the African tour!

The Ethiopians have a beautiful way of greeting each other, taking each other’s right hand as usual but then leaning your right shoulders towards each other, until they (almost) touch, left hand coming up to the right shoulder as well if you like, hinting at a European hug.  And if your hand is dirty or wet, you can still extend your right arm, but with the back or your hand showing, and touch the other’s back of the hand.

 

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The food is fantastic. Thick ‘injeera’ pancakes, made with teff, slightly sour and cold. On top, your meat and veg, often spicy, maybe made of lentils or chickpeas, perhaps like an Indian thali, with a dollop of several things on the one pancake. Tear off bits of pancake, gather or one-handedly roll some of the main dish into it and pop it into your mouth. The spongy pancake soaks up the sauces quickly, it’s just a shame that licking your fingers is rude!

We continue along the Great Rift Valley along its string of milky lakes and gain altitude constantly.

Bruce got a service in the biggest Toyota garage we’ve ever seen: 60 active workstations! The diesel is of such poor quality here that for an engine oil change they wash the inside of the engine first by filling it with a special cleaning oil (11 litres for 6 Euros), let it run for 30 minutes before emptying it again and filling it up with proper engine oil! Toyota advises to have an oil change every 5,000km here! As importing parts and new vehicles are expensive, the place also has excellent specialists for rebuilding damaged vehicles: where anywhere else would scrap them, here they are painstakingly reconstructed, to probably better galvan before!

Lalibela was the architectural highlight, and the track to get there absolutely stunning in its views and intense greens – one of the best!

The striking churches are hewn out of rocks (not into rocks like in Cappadocia or Georgia). Only UNESCO messed it up a bit with their unsightly protective measures over a couple of them.

In Addis we visited the former palace of the final Emperor Heile Selassie with an interesting, though neglected ethnological section and some interesting royal exhibits, including an incredible bathroom in baby blue, replete with mirrors and a recessed, spotlit bath: it must have been very de rigeur in its day!  Though the real historical highlight was Gonder, with ancient castles in the middle of the town.

The grande finale and scenic highlight were the Simien mountains. They were exactly as we’d imagined, only taller, greener and with more rifts and clefts. It’s more inspiring than the Jurassic Park of Kauai, Hawaii!

Here we have an obligatory scout in our car, complete with rifle, which he parks between our feet, butt on the floor, muzzle pointing straight at his head!

We didn’t see much on our arrival afternoon: the clouds engulfed us, the mountains and the views. He told us to pull over and stop, this would be our camp for the night. Errr, OK…. after an hour there was a break in the clouds and we could see a couple of houses and a steep-drop-view down the mountainside. This is our the highest camp on our whole African trip and the next day we drive on a little further to our altitude highlight of the trip: 4,294 m and you can feel it in some breathlessness when you walk around. You can also feel it in the biting cold! No sitting outside tonight, not even for a minute.. inside for a video and a hot soup!

Our scout took his job very seriously and he crouched down with his thick blanket and guarded us from wolves, while we toasted inside. Unbearable! We warmed him up with some soup and pretended to go to bed early so he could go to the hut with the locals: he would otherwise have frozen to death!

Click the photo to see the flight over the Simiens:


We saw at most a third of the things we’d have liked to have seen or done here. Despite it being a difficult country to visit in some senses, it wasn’t even half as bad as we thought it might be and we’d definitely like to return some day and experience the rest!

 

The Tribal Kaleidoscope: Omo Valley, Ethiopia

Omo Valley is like no other place you’ll ever have visited! Home to several, distinct indigenous tribes living in their still, more or less, traditional ways, attired in not an awful lot except multicoloured, beaded jewellery, silver earrings, lip plates and maybe even some body painting, either of the temporary, wash-off variety or lifetime tattoos and scarifications. Appearance is everything, indicating might, wealth, marital status and maybe some personal pride or vanity. It’s not only the ladies who decorate their hair with colour, braids or accessories.

Make sure you click on the first photo for a larger format: and take your time: there’s a lot of detail in these ones!

All our lives we’ve bypassed visits to tribes and remote clans: from islands in Indonesia, to around the Amazon, to northern Namibia, as it raises such difficult questions of tourism impacting traditions, so it goes against the grain to visit here and the decision doesn’t always sit comfortably with us.

As a tourist you are never going to blend in well here!

There is such an inimitable beauty all around, it’s almost “the most colourful place on earth:” every day we’re filled with amazement, surprise, curiosity and delight. It is so completely different to anything we’ve previously encountered. We only witnessed the minimum and know there is so much more to experience.

The Karo: one village beautifully set on a hill over the Omo river, with a commanding view of their surroundings. They’re experts at body painting, particularly when preparing for a festival rather than a tourist visit! This was both our most uncomfortable visit in regards to the impact of tourism mentioned above, and yet, I also had the nicest conversation with Michael, who was rightly, incredibly proud of himself for working up to 6th grade in school, saving for the books and fees himself. If I wanted to support anyone, it would be him, but that only dawned on me later.

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The Mursi: renowned aggressors, masters of fierce combat with sticks, ladies with lip plates. They are also the tribe most damaged by tourism, alcoholism is rife, bought with those lovely tourist dollars and the whole ‘tour’ is apparently humiliating and demeaning for all parties. We pass.

 

The Ari are less traditional dressers these days but we do spot the swishing stripey skirts, with a little frill around the hips, as they sashay along the roadside.

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The Banna: extravagant hair accessories. The colourful, plastic hair-clips are a modern-day novelty!  (There may be Hamer photos here, not always easy to differentiate).

Finally for us, the Hamer: women wear iron coils around their necks and arms, colourful bead wristbands, long bead necklaces and skirts of hides adorned with small cowrie shells, all with special meanings as regards marital status and rank. Their coppery-coloured plaits are caked in ochre and sticky stuff and twisted over and over again. Some other organic mix is used to smear onto their bodies too, creating a reddish brown hue to the skin.

The men stand tall and walk upright with ramrod straight backs, almost aloof. It’s quite a contrast to the women, who now carry all their goods on their backs, not their heads, as we have photographed so often in Africa. The firewood bundles look like tonne weights and when you see the elderly ladies, they are permanently bent double.

 

Our lovely guide-in-training arranged for us to observe a little harvest festival in a very small village: beginning at dark with the men in a line. As more young ladies joined in, it felt like being a teenager at a dance course, choosing partners. Flirting is integrated into the ritualised steps of jumping in front of the man you fancy, then quickly retreating to your line of ladies before he can ‘catch’ you as he jumps out at you.

Some little ones tried to join in, obviously picking up tips for later in life.

The dance continued until one of the men asked if they can stop and have supper, he’s hungry!

The markets continue to fascinate, as everywhere in the world! All of them, bar a little side section, provide for themselves, not tourists. They’re awash with vibrant colour and activity with people from various tribes mingling and loafing. Wherever in the world you come from, no market is complete without a watering hole and in Jinka there are enough to do a whole pub crawl. To the initiated: they’re recognisable by the pole stuck in the ground outside and an upside down plastic bottle balancing on top. For a change we give the home-made, very strong alcohol a miss. It’s phenomenal to observe all these people, going about their habitual chores and routines, with hardly a flicker of recognition or adaptation for the tourists.

Key Afer Market

 

Key Afer Cattle Market

Jinka Market

 

It’s a truly magnificent visit to the region and we felt it an absolute privilege to witness the people ‘at home’ firsthand.

By the time we left we were brimming over with enthusiasm and admiration for this area, babbling non-stop, trying to digest what we’d seen and heard.

This is one astounding, living world: legendary!

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The windiest place on earth : Lake Turkana, Kenya

Kenya >> 16-22 Aug >> 1,100 km

The eastern banks of Lake Turkana in Kenya, and onto the tribe-inhabited Omo Valley in Ethiopia, have been calling us like sirens since we met Peter & Leonie on the Turkish-Iranian border in August 2016 and they billed it as one of their favourite trips in all Africa.

Wir haben noch keine deutsche Übersetzung: Wir geben Bescheid, sobald sie fertig ist!

But these new customs rules for entering Ethiopia look like they might be putting a stop to our dreams. Another round of emails are again all but ignored; I even write to all the consuls listed on the Ethiopian Embassy website in Germany and finally one warm response encourages us to actually call Berlin.  After a couple of failed attempts, Jens is eventually connected to someone with an open ear, the day before Malina depart Uganda. We should call back in 3 days, after the weekend.

From Monday, Jens dedicatedly educates Mr. A as to the current situation of (about-to-be-) stranded overlanders, the fallout this will have in the future and the need to resolve the matter with customs. Mr. A is keen to ensure Ethiopia remains a tourist destination.  Three calls to him and 2 calls to Mr T. in Addis Abeba and against all hopes and expectations, we finally hear we can cross the border with no unaffordable deposits to pay! The only snag is that we have to cross at the Moyale border, hundreds of miles out of our way through some potentially monotonous landscape. It’s tough to swallow, but we are so grateful for the effort they’ve all quickly invested and it’s a huge success to actually be able to continue our journey, we meekly accept the restriction.

Fortunately, one of our favourite internet travel communities recommends our visiting a particular guesthouse not far over the border into Kenya. Richard Barnley comes up with the goods not only for suggesting a superb paragliding spot for our next night, but also playing out various scenarios at each border. We’re galvanised into calling Addis Abeba again. We’re directed to a third person, Mr C, who we call a couple of times, until we are finally given the full go ahead to cross at whichever border we please!

We’re ecstatic! The paragliding spot at Kerio Valley provides us with our first truly impressive view of the Great Rift Valley: we goggle down to the valley floor almost a thousand metres below, along the steep escarpment stretching off into the haze, which will be perfect thermal flying with the paraglider, as well as across to the green valley wall on the other side. The panorama is endless and neither our eyes or the camera can process it, so we just sit back and enjoy it as the light casts shadows and dims the colours after the sun has set.

Click on the first photo in each set to see the larger format

We might be overjoyed at the news, but we’re still a little nervous about the reality of getting into Ethiopia.  We’re in high spirits for the trip up the lake, but at the same time we’ve crossed a line. There’s to be no hanging around in Kenya and it looks like there’s no happy reunion with our friends and Lotta in Cape Town.

We’ve begun our journey home.

Richard also serves as our ”man in the know” for safe routes through Kenya. The last elections were officially concluded a week ago, but the opposition leader has already announced his dissatisfaction. (Actually, since leaving Kenya, before writing this blog, the whole election has been annulled and will be re-run at the end of October 2017. An absolute first for Africa, well done Kenya for this huge step!) But back to our time: with some uncertainty in election results the mood could quickly destabilise and we’d like to be far away from hotspots should that happen.

The last couple of years has seen critical water shortages, not only in Kenya, but here it is compounding the problems experienced, and in part, environmentally-speaking, caused by the pastoralists and their cattle. This in turn heightens already present tensions between tribes and between them and landowners. The situation earlier this year wavered between precarious to dangerous. Richard expertly picks out our potential routes and alternatives.

We set off brimming with excitement. There is a certain, almost legendary, magic involved in reaching Lake Turkana, of which we were previously, blissfully ignorant, but now we’re hyped up and almost bursting with eagerness to take on this isolated, track less-travelled. We prepare unusually meticulously, evidence of the remoteness of the route. We  read detailed accounts of previous travellers, ask advice on internet groups, calculate worst-case scenarios for food, water and diesel and fill up on everything.

Finally we get going. Will it be the dream we anticipated? Are we going to have to be rescued from this lonely part of the planet? Are we going to get into Ethiopia? Are we going to get out of Kenya? I mean there isn’t even a border post on the Kenyan side: we have to prepare our official exit hundreds of miles south. Thankfully I’ve already been in contact with the Head of the Revenue Authority and a bit of honest name-dropping goes a long way in getting or carnet (car passport) stamped relatively quickly.

Leaving the milky waters of Lake Baringo, we soon pass the rifle-toting shepherds we’d read about.  We wave and smile before they have chance to wonder if we’re an enemy and they all wave back enthusiastically. We don’t feel too unperturbed, knowing any bullet action would seldom be directed at a tourist, the shepherds have other worries in this area. A sea of acacias appear soft and fluffy around us, though beneath their green and their blossoms, which surprise us, their thorns can be deadly to your tyres.

Still some 200km before the lake, we encounter our first ladies adorned with the traditional, decorative jewellery of the Samburu tribe. It’s a surreal episode watching them going about their daily business so exotically!  The ladies’ faces are lined by experience and sunlight, but not weary and they wear their wide, plate-like, brightly-coloured collar necklaces as unpretentiously as we might wear a polo-neck jumper. If we hadn’t wished to appear rude  we would have happily stopped openly gawped for many minutes.  And had we not felt intrusive, we would have taken many more photos. Now we know we made the right decision on the routing, this is going to be unforgettable and unique!

Internet photo, click to direct to site

World’s End viewpoint is this evening’s camp and we arrive just in time to fill up on more inspiring Rift Valley vistas while we’re almost blown away, literally and figuratively! It is incredibly windy, and at this altitude, as soon as the sun goes down, cold. It’s not going to be a night round the campfire tonight! The wind is howling so strongly we take our ’emergency’ set up in the car and sleep ‘downstairs’ with the roof still down. We’re as excited (change) as kids on a first camping adventure, climbing into the 90cm wide bed and snuggling up closely and under two blankets. We romanticise everything to the hilt, if it weren’t for the thermal underwear we’ve just retrieved from our rooftop box. The wind shakes Bruce like he weighs 3 pounds rather than 3 tonnes and we’re rocked to sleep like babies in a crib.

The clouds are swirling like dervishes around us when we wake and there’s no chance of enjoying the spectacular view again next morning. We’re expecting this to be the most demanding day of the tour, with poor tracks, ill-maintained and demanding on the car.

As the sun rises higher, the clouds are burnt away to nothing and we enjoy bumping along our way, though it’s thankfully not half as bad as expected. In the early afternoon we arrive in South Horr, hereafter known to us as “Africa’s Most Beautiful Village.”  With hindsight, it was a mistake not to stop and at least wander around a little – for some unknown reason, we felt we ought to push on and reach the lake today. The setting, below huge, shady, leafy trees, arid hills to either side, crossing a couple of wide, sandy dry riverbeds, passing bleating sheep, schoolkids tumbling out of a minibus, men in their jeans and t-shirts, girls in dresses, but also the traditionally dressed, again brightly bejewelled with colourful, beaded, multi-hooped neck adornments, was simply idyllic. We will both regret the decision to carry on for a long time to come.

We overcome our shyness a little and stop to greet some of the passers-by. The kids are a treat, all smiles and curiosity, the women of all generations polite and patient as we try to converse. No external hint of the hunger that must be rumbling through their whole bodies; one of them refuses a biscuit: though, he only wants money, which we can’t offer.

 

Blowing at 11 metres per second, we’re not the only ones who  consider Lake Turkana to be one of the windiest places on the planet! The 5  partners and an unknown number of financiers participating in building the wind generation plant, due to start some time this year, seem to think so, too, with a project cost of between €623m to €742m (US$ 745.5m-900m) according to Wikipedia. 365 wind turbines are standing to attention waiting for the green light to illuminate for the project to begin generating power, though it looks as though there are still many km of cables to be strung between the poles.

We’re rapidly approaching the lake and the huts of the local people appear so flimsy we’re surprised they stay in place. Old plastic bags and hessian sacks form the outside layer and if not well secured they flap loudly and incessantly in the gales. The last 16km over boulders and through meadows of dark lava take never seem to end, but the views of the lake are bewitching. The colours are true to the alternative name for the waters, The Jade Sea. After almost 8 hours we roll into our next camp at Loiyangalani, an oasis of palm fronds and rubbish.

The wind hasn’t diminished in force and we treat ourselves to another night downstairs in Bruce – but it’s far from the romance of yesterday. It’s stiflingly hot and we clamber into bed with the doors wide open, not noticing the place is buzzing with mosquitos. The wind might as well be coming from a fan oven and we are the chickens roasting nicely inside. It’s hot and sweaty and it’s all we can do to try and stay as far apart from each other as possible. Poor Jens is tortured by the insects and ends up with the sheet almost mummifying him, mosquito repellent not bringing any relief at all. Jens is fortunately my human mosquito spray and I only suffer from the heat and the shaking car, not the bites.

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The ensuing scenery offers no end of variety: along the lakeshore, white sand, emerald waters, diverting inland up hill and down dale, across swathes of green-tinged desert: the rains have been heavy this season, yellow blossoms just like we had in Namibia. We see occasional figures in the distance, wind swept and dusty, donkeys lugging water canisters for mile after sandy mile, cattle camouflaged in the intense light. This is not a place you would choose to live.

At the entrance to Sibiloi National Park, the Cradle of Mankind, in the early afternoon, we are greeted by a gently, well-spoken, higher-ranking Parks officer. It turns out he’s the Park head and has some business to deal with regarding encroaching villagers and cattle and two lions outside the park boundaries, intimidating both people and livestock. We chat pleasantly while the formalities are taken care of, he recommends the trip to the petrified forest and he explains a detour we need to take (or a track we need to avoid) to arrive safely: there has been so much rain this year the washaways are too difficult to get around. We are assured there’ll be no animals to see in this part of the park. And we’re unlikely to see other vehicles or tourists. Jens is in seventh heaven: this was so far, the most fun driving day on the continent!

We  remain alone until arriving at the lakeside campsite and two friendly researchers welcome us to the Koobi Fora research station and the Land Rover graveyard (we always knew Bruce the Toyota is the best!) A building forms a windbreak providing a  reprieve from the buffeting if the previous nights and and we can sit under the colonnade to avoid the snakes and scorpions!

Another rattly night but we’re back upstairs with the wind blowing though our mosquito nets. The lake remains green with white caps of waves from the wind. There’s a belittlingly expansive, black but starry sky and we see a shooting star. We’re loving the trip and only sorry it’ll be over too soon.

The final day promises to be the day of sandy riverbed crossings, testing our new, African driving skills and we’re relishing the bit of adventure. We just want to make sure we get the right track and not the washed away one.

Less than 45 minutes on the ‘road,’ we round a bend and see the widest riverbed crossing in front of us. And a Toyota stuck in the middle of it! We stop and I get out, a tree is now blocking my view. When I do see the vehicle a second later, I see several men getting out, some of them in sandy camouflage, a number of them with rifles and a couple with balaclava type coverings over their faces.

I suddenly don’t feel quite so comfortable. This isn’t a poor tourist rescue situation. In a millisecond I’ve gone through being kidnapped, held to ransom, robbed and even killed. But one of them is coming over with his had outstretched, “Hi, it’s me, Robert, from the camp yesterday!” So it is, and his colleague. And all these other big, burly men! They’re delighted and relieved to see us, having set off at 6.30am. I wonder they haven’t radioed for help.

They’ve managed to dig themselves into the sand and say they don’t have 4WD, though I see a gear stick indicating they do. I can only hope and presume it’s broken. They want us to tow them. Jens isn’t so keen, knowing the pressure it puts on the clutch and the gears, especially in the deep sand. In addition, the other side is steep and there doesn’t seem to be an alternative approach.

Jens starts to let air out of our tyres: they’re too hard for this soft terrain. He suddenly stops and walks back to their car with his pressure gauge. They look on inquiringly. 4.5 bar left back, 2.1 bar right back. He lets them down to 0.9 bar.

The driver’s raring to go and revs up like he’s going to attempt the landspeed record. Until Jens is standing in front of the bonnet screaming STOP!! He hasn’t realised he needs a run-up to manage the climb over the other side, first they walk together to the other side, to see what the plan is, then they all push the car forward a metre or two, then back as far as he can go. Again, he’s fully revved up and shoots off on his mission, across the sand over to the other side, he launches up the bank, front wheels in the air like something from the A Team and bounces back down, slaloming through the soft sand until he hits a firmer patch and everyone clambers in, though not before cheering and whooping as if they’d been stranded for days, and big handshakes and thank yous all round for Jens.

We continue on, savouring our last glimpses of the lake, and arrive at the final outpost of Kenya, Ileret. As we’re chatting to Christopher, the officer in charge at the police station, the Park head from yesterday shows up and comes immediately over to us, arm extended and thanking us for rescuing his men! He’s charming! We feel quite honoured that he knew already and that he remembered who we were!

Now we’re free to head up to Omorate. There are a lot of tracks to choose from and could have scuttled through the sand for ages, gingerly picking our way to the road, but we have a local hitchhiker on board who points us in the right direction.

In the middle of this dry, sandy desert, we actually pass two checkpoints, complete with rope barring our way and someone coming out to check our passports with tattoos and scarifications on his bare chest and face!

Finally we arrive at the immigration office, warmly greeted and allowed into Ethiopia after 45 minutes of form filling. No question of paying deposits or the like!

What a relief! And to think we’d be the rescuers not the rescued just tops it all!

Lake Turkana has to be one of the highlights of any trip we’ve done! With the added exoticism of the tribes of Omo valley which followed (impressions to follow here very soon), we now have a lifetime of colourful, happy memories and are so pleased we forged ahead with our plan!

Continue reading “The windiest place on earth : Lake Turkana, Kenya”

Equatorial celebrations in Uganda

Uganda >> 25 Jul – 16 Aug >> 2,499 km

Waiting for Max and Alina (Malina) to arrive was almost unbearable, we were so super excited. Jens gave up 12 hours early and celebrated a little one-man pre-party the night before, enthusiastically anticipating everything we’d be doing together over the next two-and-a-half weeks. Meeting up at Leopard Camp was hopefully auspicious as wild animals appear high on our list of activities. Along with lively evenings, that have been few and far between since leaving Leanne and Winnie in Zambia, and exotic Africa fever for Malina’s first time in the southern hemisphere. We also have two birthdays to celebrate!

Noch keine deutsche Version: wir geben Bescheid, wenn es soweit ist.

From the outset, the animals didn’t disappoint too much at all – we heard zebras and waterbuck tearing the grass around our camp the first night and saw the striped beauties the next morning – this is one of only two places in Uganda where you can see them… Good start!
First stop: chimp tracking in Kalinzu Forest. The camp was crawling with baboons and Colobus monkeys and we became optimistic for our 6am trek next morning. Sure enough, after 15 minutes of humid huffing and puffing along the red soil path, up the first small hill, through the bushy undergrowth, our guide, Franklin, asked us to stop and listen. She wasn’t mistaken: 30 seconds later there was a deafening screech and a series of “ooh, ooh, oohs” like you heard from Cheeta in the Tarzan films. Alina and I turned to look at each other, both wide-eyed and open-jawed. I may even have grabbed her arm: in fear or excitement or both. The pattern of the sounds was expected, but certainly not this decibel level! Just ahead of us in the grey dawn we see the lolloping shape of our first chimpanzee: squat and long-armed but standing about hip height.

Calls bounced to and fro as we scrambled further up the hill trying to follow him, but he quickly shook us off his trail. We stopped at the top to crane our necks skyward, straining to pick out the primate silhouettes in the canopy of umbrella tress. These aren’t the pretty house plants we have at home, these are huge jungle trees over 10 metres tall. And that’s where the chimps lunge and lurch, from branch to branch, arms and legs stretched forwards and backwards, landing nimbly on the target and swinging for a second before coming to rest.

While gazing up until our necks ached, Alina’s and Jens’s ankles and legs began to itch. Looking down to the ground, the pair of them had come to a stop in a red, safari ant autobahn and now literally had ants in their pants! Stripping off was the only solution!

As if that wasn’t enough excitement before breakfast, after our permitted one hour with the chimps, on a circular route back to the camp, we thought the trucks on the road were lumbering by rather loudly. How disorientating being in the forest, we hadn’t realised the road was already so close? Then drops of water fell from the trees around us and the puddles rippled with movement. An earthquake not lorries!

Best to click on the photos and view them in larger format!

After breakfast we backtracked south and cross country to end up at the Ishasha sector of the Queen Elizabeth National Park: the area legendary for its tree-climbing lions! We even hire a guide for the next day to increase our chances of finding them. As we’re setting up camp we hear the cracking of breaking branches and the rustling of betrampled grass.. “Elephants!” Jens and I declare independently of each other, before we even see any – true safari specialists already! Lo and behold, across the narrow, winding river are 6 large elephants grazing their way towards the water’s edge. Another first for Malina. What an incredible day!
We’re glad Malina chose to hire a car with space for all of us to sit: it’s great being in the same vehicle on safari and at $150 entrance fee for Bruce, as a foreign car, we wouldn’t have done half of what we did. Despite the efforts of our guide, there were no lions to be seen in the trees. Nor on the ground. The lack of big cats was made up for in huge numbers of Ugandan kob (a new antelope variety for us), mud-bathing hyena within spitting distance and the whole range of regular park-goers: warthogs, marabou storks, baboons, another close elephant crossing ahead of us and hippos grunting away on the Congolese border, just 2 hops across the river. The hilltop viewpoint offered the savannah and acacia “Out of Africa” scenery we had hope Malina would get to see. They soaked it all up like sponges. What a wonderful day!

Later in the holiday we arrive at Murchison Falls NP, billed to us by a family friend as the best park in Uganda. I think we have to concur. We spent the day in absolute awe at the beautiful, hilly countryside, palms swaying in the breeze, gazing on many families of elephants, literally hundreds of giraffes wherever you looked, along with the usual companions of warthogs, buffalo, kob, Mr Tumnus-cute-horned dik-diks and some newcomers: Jackson’s hartebeest. The giraffes entranced us all the most, followed by the congenial elephants and we have a lifetime of memories of green, lush countryside, in such contrast to the yellowy-brown straw-like ground cover in Queen Elizabeth NP.

At our designated “time to turn back” point, directly on the Nile River, Alina announced so unexpectedly and calmly, that we all jumped out of our skins, “Lion!” What?! Jens hit the brakes and we stopped instantly. The prettiest of young lionesses was sitting upright at the edge of some long grass, golden fur gleaming in the bright sunshine. She was so close we initially hesitated to open the windows. Slightly less in fear of her jumping in, more afraid the noise would disturb her. But she seemed quite content and continued to sniff the air imperiously and bask in the warmth before settling down further into the green. Just then an open-roofed minibus of tourists arrived, cooing loudly, sending the lioness shooting off into the undergrowth, never to be seen again. By this time we’re a little out on our time schedule and we’re suddenly on a “rally-safari.” Still under the park speed limit, the sun’s rays lengthening by the minute, the SatNav predicts arriving at the gate shortly before it closes at 7pm. We still have time to stop for breathtaking scenes and the giraffes and elephants remain too enticing to ignore. After flirting with such moments a few times, however, we agreed it would be better to only stop for lions, the elusive shoebill, which unfortunately remained true to its reputation, and anything new. But then the inevitable happened: “Guinea Foul ALARM!!!” – they strike again, come shooting out from where they’d been hiding, ambushing us completely and stopping only a few metres in front of our car with mad panic in their eyes, willing to face death if we don’t hit the brakes in time! In every country in Africa we’ve experienced this craziness time and again – there seem to be a few vital brain cells missing in these little creatures’ heads, but it always brings on a short adrenaline shock in our bodies followed by great laughter! Sandra and Tom will remember it well from Namibia, too.

 

Huge black clouds were brewing overhead, the horizon standing out clearly and the sky darkened to menacing. We flew past the herds of elephants, waved goodbye to the sentinel giraffes, crossed the tsetse fly forest before they could wake themselves enough to give us sleeping sickness, before the first streaks of lightning turned the sky momentarily lilac and the first drops of rain hit the earth. Within seconds it was pelting down and within minutes Jens had splashed us through some puddles to arrive at the seemingly abandoned gate at 18.58. Talk about German punctuality! The solitary gateman came out in his ankle-length, hooded poncho, wellies and rifle and opened up with a smile and a wave. What an amazing day!

We didn’t stop the animal hunting, visiting another part of QENP on Jens’s birthday. Breakfast in a birthday hat accompanied by the usual song. Crossing the equator, I think we knew from the start we were unlikely to be lucky with lions, as we pimped the Toyota Surf into a Party-Safari-Mobil, a ribbon of Happy Birthday the inside length of the car, Jens swamped under balloons and some reggae (Damien Marley: soundtrack of our Uganda tour) entertaining us on the sound system. The park rangers weren’t at all stern and they, along with any tour guides we met, all chortled with laughter at our get-up and wished Jens all the best. The day began well with rumours of 2 male lions close to the gate: off we sped. Two or three cars stopped together were a good sign, but we saw… nothing at all. And so it continued throughout the morning. We broke the animal-free monotony at a viewpoint over a saltmine in a crater lake, tinged with pink flamingos, with a no-expense-spared bottle of almost cool Freixenet cava, discovered in a local supermarket, with a birthday cake from another across the road, topped with a gaudy, light-turquoise icing hard enough to break your teeth: probably the only way to keep the cake fresh-ish on the warm, African shelves. We kept our eyes peeled for the lions into the early afternoon before leaving for an upmarket lodge, where Jens wanted to share a special sundowner and dinner with us on his big day. As we left the park, I looked to the left and realised I hadn’t needed to go hunting at all, my (Leo the) Lion was sitting right next to me all the time!

Alina’s birthday 10 days later was much more sensible, with no great designs on lions at all. In another beautiful lodge on the Nile River, one of the nicest of the whole Africa trip, we dedicatedly celebrated into her birthday with too many various drinks, Malawi ‘tea’, fireworks at midnight and lots of other nonsense round the campfire, until an unheard of 2.30am. The dark clouds and threat of rain did not bode well for her day. If there are two things she can’t stand, especially on her birthday, it’s sitting in the car all day, and rain. But she dutifully got out of bed at the aroma of freshly-brewed coffee and grinned on command as she donned her birthday cap and didn’t grimace too much when the trumpets were blown. A bottle of bubbly with the luxurious birthday brunch was a suitable tonic for the hangovers around the table as the sun burnt the clouds away. We perked up enough to take a boat tour on the Nile, fortunately with a skipper, and another bottle of bubbly. We didn’t let her win at croquet or badminton though, despite it being her birthday and the pink cake in the afternoon was just as bad as Jens’s! What great celebrations!

The Ugandans rank among the friendliest of the whole trip: witty, intelligent, interested and informative; they added the human touch to our animal escapades, except perhaps for our annoying guide at Sipi Falls, who insisted on calling me “Grandmother” in all seriousness. TWICE!!

 

And then we arrived in the east and the land of the Karamajong. This is the first encounter, for all of us, with traditional pastoralists, who have barely arrived in the 19th century, save their mobile phones. They amble jauntily along the roadside, wooden stools in one hand, their multi-funtional sticks, which might be called dolas resting on the shoulders like a yok, arms bent backwards over them, and often a colourful Cat in the Hat Dr Seuss style hat on his head. The very traditional also pierce long feathers in their lobes, sport tattoos on their arms and adorn their faces with scarifications. A tartan cloth in muted tones is wrapped around their loins while the girls often wear kilt-like pleated skirts. Is this the origin of Scottish attire?! The shepherds seem to start their career at the age of about 6 and they drive the cattle far from their grass-roofed, clay hut villages, fortified with rickety fencing.

A local guide later gives us a demonstration, along with a cowtail-haired fly swatter. Joseph would still be tending his cattle if he hadn’t had a child and discovered the financial opportunities offered by working in tourism – much to our benefit: his comic talent would be totally wasted on the cows.
Modernisation is coming to the country in patches. Malina stop at one rural petrol station with two state of the art-looking pumps and ask for a full tank. The attendant comes and starts winding the pump by hand! After five, slow turns, 1 litre has been pumped. “OK, we’ll just take 10 litres please!” Later we see a public toilet on one of the main highways. An otherwise unheard of facility, beautifully signed, “Nature Call Centre!” But it’s all for nought as the kamikaze bus driver we’d been following, parks pointedly on the other side of the road and all the men pile out to one side and pee into the bushes!

It’s in Uganda where we buy our first Rolex. Not the time-telling variety, the edible one! A fresh omelette wrapped in an often greasy chapati, giving you rolled eggs – Rolex – get it?! Jens and I also sampled some bean stew with rice and gritty spinach at one dingy, dirty, fish-reeking restaurant. It was actually really tasty and without consequences. Max, on the other hand, went on hunger strike for that meal.
And it’s in Uganda where we perfect our smiles. It’s not enough here to smile, lips closed, no teeth showing. It doesn’t count and the people don’t smile back. But if you grin, from ear to ear, all your front teeth showing as much as possible, just short of an open-mouthed laugh, everyone smiles and waves back wholeheartedly. In fact, the toddlers are so enthusiastic in their waving, they wiggle their whole bodies, hands, arms, legs and bums. SO cute! What a country and a great distraction from our Ethiopian routing worries!

Thanks to Malina for selected photos, marked, and the team effort on the blog – And of course for helping making Uganda so special, while creating an excellent diversion from our continued travel worries.

 

Two weeks in Limbo

Everything’s going so swimmingly. No problems with Bruce, except maybe  the broken windscreen in Botswana. No major illnesses except maybe a 2-day bout of malaria for Jens after Mozambique. No thefts. No dangers of any sort. Great! And tomorrow Max & Alina arrive! We’re really excited! 

27 July: WhatsApp message from Jose (ahead of us on the route north): Any news about the Ethiopian customs? Some people reported problems at the Moyale border 😦

[Moyale is one of the border crossings from Kenya to Ethiopia. It’s not the one we want to use, so I ignore this text for a while.]

1 August: Facebook group “Overlanding Africa” – I’m actually researching something else, when I read this:

27 July: MB in Nairobi: “Just at Jungle Junction in Nairobi. Hearing rumours about the Ethiopian border. New rules within the last 5 days? 300% carnet? Anyone been that way recently? I’ll be giving it a go in a couple of days”.

27 July: AE location unknown: “Yes, been informed that two bikers were told to pay $4,000 each at Moyale border.”

29 July: DB at Djibouti border: “I’m currently stuck at the Djibouti/Ethiopia border and my car can’t enter… the new rules are very real and apparently changed 2 days ago… They accept cash (although they admitted they have no way of processing this, even if I had $20k in my pocket because the rule is so new).”

31 July: MB at Moyale border: “Just been turned around at Moyale… Plan B sit here and phone embassy in Addis Ababa.”

31 July: DB at Djibouti border: “Things aren’t going much better here at the Djibouti border either. They won’t even tell me how much “guarantee” I must pay and say I must first drive, under escort, 112 km to Semera where their office can then calculate…. Unbelievable.”

And so the comments ran back and forth 170 times.

 

Zwei Wochen in der Schwebe!

Alles klappt wie am Schnürchen: Bruce läuft problemlos – außer vielleicht die Windschutzscheibe, die wir in Botswana austauschen mussten; keine schlimmen Krankheiten – außer vielleicht die 2 Tage mit leichtem Malariafieber, das Jens sich in Mosambik eingefangen hatte; keinen Diebstahl; keine Gefahren jeglichen Art – alles läuft bisher hervorragend!  

Und morgen kommen Max und Alina an – wir sind schon total aufgeregt vor Freude!

27. Juli: WhatsApp-Meldung von Jose (der weiter vor uns die Nord-Route fährt): Gibt es was Neues bzgl. des Äthiopischen Zolls? Manche Leute haben Probleme an der Moyale Grenze gemeldet 😦

[Moyale ist eine der Grenzübergangsmöglichkeiten von Kenia nach Äthiopien. Ich beachte die Meldung nicht besonders, da es nicht der Grenzübergang ist, den wir nehmen wollen.]

1. August: Facebook-Gruppe “Overlanding Africa” (“Überland durch Afrika”) – Ich lese während anderer Recherche folgendes:

27. Juli: MB in Nairobi: “Bin gerade in Jungle Junction in Nairobi. Höre Gerüchte wg Äthiopischer Grenze. Neue Vorschriften in den letzten 5 Tagen? 300% Zollcarnet? Hat jemand in letzter Zeit diesen Weg eingeschlagen? Ich werde es in ein paar Tagen versuchen.”

27. Juli: AE Ort unbekannt: “Ja, ich wurde informiert, dass zwei Motorradfahrern gesagt wurde, sie müssten jeder $4,000 am Moyale Grenzübergang bezahlen.”

29. Juli: DB an der Djibouti Grenze: “Ich sitze an der Djibouti-Äthiopien Grenze fest, und mein Auto hat Einfahrt-Verbot… Die neuen Grenzvorschriften sind sehr echt und wurden anscheinend vor zwei Tagen eingeführt… Bargeld wird angenommen (allerdings ist alles so neu, dass sie nicht mal wüssten, wie sie die $20,000 abwickeln würden, wenn ich tatsächlich soviel Bargeld herumliegen hätte).”

31. Juli: MB an der Moyale Grenze: “Bin gerade bei Moyale zurückgewiesen worden… Plan B ist, hier rumzuhocken und die Botschaft in Addis Ababa anzurufen.”

31. Juli: DB an der Djibouti Grenze: “Hier an der Djibouti Grenze sind Dinge auch nicht viel besser. Sie sind nicht mal bereit, mir zu sagen, wie viel ‘Geldpfand’ ich zahlen muss und sie haben mir erklärt, dass ich erst die 112 Km nach Semera mit Polizei-Eskorte fahren muss, wo sich ihr Büro befindet und dann alles berechnet werden kann… Unglaublich.”

Und so ging es weiter, 170 Meldungen zum selben Thema.

 

The wonders of modern technology! Our old days of backpacking and waiting to get to a major city to collect 6-week-old letters at the Poste Restante desk are long gone, as are booking phone calls via operators with enough money for a 2-minute, “I’m alive!” call. These days you get blogs with photos from us at regular intervals, we receive messages with pictures and videos from home, we can make nearly free phone calls via the internet, I can work remotely. And travellers in a particular community, stuck at different borders to the same country, but over 1,000km away from each other, are having a conversation about how it’s all not going in almost real-time!

Is our trip to Ethiopia off?! Our brains are whirring. Within half a day, we’ve sent emails to the ADAC in Munich, who organise the Carnet de Passage for the temporary import of vehicles for some countries; the German embassies in Addis Ababa and Nairobi, and the Ethiopian embassies in Berlin and London (I’m still British as well, after all).

If Ethiopia really is out of reach for overlanders, then our whole drive home via Sudan and Egypt is also off – there is no realistic alternative except through no-go zones like South Sudan or Somalia!

By the end of the day we have 3 alternatives:

Plan A: Wait and see if it’s going to work out and we’ll continue north. This, though, might mean a major delay, and we’re already on a tight schedule to get back home for me to work on my WOOD & Co conference.

Or, Ethiopia is really closed for everyone, then: 

Plan B: we shoot off southwards asap, stopping at some select sights we’d had to skip on the way up. Via Zambia and Botswana all the way back to Cape Town to have another great stay with Philipp, Miriam, Leo and Lotta. 6,000km in 6 weeks. But then that’s the same distance trekking north homeward bound. In the Cape for 3 further weeks, we could get Bruce’s tent renewed, organise a hassle-free shipment back to Europe with Econo Trans and not only have fun with Family von Bodenhausen again, but also one of Jens’s and Philipp’s other best friends, Thomas, who’ll be there on a short family holiday, to boot.

Plan C: Take it easy in Uganda and Kenya and maybe even Tanzania and ship from Mombasa or Dar es Salaam. However, it’s the Kenyan election in one week: in 2007 the result led to violent clashes and 1,500 people being killed. We’re not entirely sure we want to spend much time in Kenya in such circumstances.

 Are we in Limbo or Uganda for the next 2.5 weeks?!

 

Das Wunder der heutigen Technologie! Die alten Sitten, die wir noch vom Backpacking in den 90er Jahren gewohnt waren, sind längst überholt – damals mussten wir noch zum Hauptpostamt jeder größeren Stadt fahren, um 6-Wochen alte Briefe bei der Poste Restante abzuholen; oder wir mussten uns ab und an ein sehr teures 2-Minuten-Telefonat über die Vermittlung leisten, nur um kurz sagen zu können, dass wir noch leben.  

Heutzutage erscheint unser Blog mit Fotos in regelmäßigen Abständen; wir erhalten Nachrichten mit Bildern und Videos von zuhause; wir können fast umsonst über das Netz telefonieren – ich kann sogar in der Ferne arbeiten! Und Reisende an verschiedenen Grenzen zum selben Land und mehr als 1,000 Km voneinander entfernt, können fast in Echtzeit miteinander diskutieren, wie alles gerade NICHT so läuft!

Ist unsere Weiterreise durch Äthiopien jetzt für uns versperrt?! Unsere Gedanken fangen mächtig an zu rotieren. Innerhalb eines halben Tages haben wir etliche Emails geschickt: an den ADAC in München, der für die Ausstellung des Carnet de Passage für Bruce zuständig ist (Dokument für den temporären Import von Fahrzeugen in vielen Ländern), an die Deutschen Botschaften in Addis Ababa und Nairobi, und an die Äthiopischen Botschaften in Berlin und London (ich habe ja schließlich auch immer noch meine Britische Staatsangehörigkeit).

Sollte Äthiopien nun wirklich für Overlander “geschlossen” sein, dann ist unsere ganze Heimreise durch den Sudan und Ägypten im Eimer – es gibt keine realistische Alternative nach Norden – nur Länder, die wir sicher nicht durchqueren wollen, wie Süd Sudan oder Somalia! 

Am Ende des Tages haben wir 3 Optionen für uns gelistet:

 Plan A: Innehalten und abwarten, ob es vielleicht doch noch klappt, und dann nördlich wie geplant weiterfahren. Dies könnte jedoch eine heftige Verspätung mit sich bringen, wo wir doch so und so schon einen ziemlich engen Zeitplan haben, um mich pünktlich zuhause abzuliefern damit ich meine Arbeit für die WOOD & Co Konferenz starten kann.

Plan B: Ab die Post Richtung Süden, unterwegs manche Sehenswürdigkeiten mitnehmen, die wir auf dem Hinweg verpasst haben. Durch Tansania, Sambia und Botswana, den ganzen Weg zurück nach Kapstadt, um Philipp, Miriam, Leo und Lotta noch einmal zu besuchen. 6,000 Km in 6 Wochen… Dieselbe Entfernung, die wir nordwärts Richtung Heimat fahren müssten. Während der 3 Wochen in Kapstadt könnten wir das Dachzelt von Bruce erneuern zu lassen und die unkomplizierte Verschiffung nach Europa mit Econo Trans organisieren. Während dieser unerwarteten Zeit könnten wir nicht nur viel Spaß mit Familie von Bodenhausen haben, sondern auch mit Thomas, einer der besten Freunde von Jens und Philipp, der zufällig genau zu diesem Zeitpunkt einen kurzen Familienurlaub in der Kapstadtregion macht.

Plan C: Uganda und Kenia in Ruhe bereisen, vielleicht sogar auch Tansania weiter erkunden; dann Bruce von Mombasa oder Dar es Salaam nach Europa verschiffen. In einer Woche finden allerdings in Kenia die Regierungswahlen statt: in 2007 führte das Wahlergebnis zu Gewaltausschreitungen mit über 1,500 Toten. Wir sind uns nicht sicher, ob wir wirklich unter solchen Umständen viel Zeit in Kenia verbringen wollen?

Sind wir in den nächsten 2 1/2 Wochen in der Schwebe oder in Uganda?