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.


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.



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.




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.


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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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?