So this was it, the end of the road for me. It had begun on the Nile in dusty Khartoum and finished here in a small corner of chaotic Addis Ababa in a gracious home with a sheltered jasmine scented garden alive with honey birds that once had belonged to an Ethiopian Princess. My motto, “live the moment, plan but don’t project” was failing me. I could hardly bare to think that the times I had just lived and shared between these two burgeoning African cities, averaging 80km an hour over 2500km, were already memories. But what extraordinary memories they are and never will I forget how we hugged and laughed and marvelled in disbelief at finding ourselves in a hotel lobby in the right place at the right time just as we had planned so long ago from the cushy comfort of home in Chantilly. It seemed insanely improbable and I have to admit to looking braver than I felt when constantly told I was crazy to let Tristan and Emma drive down Africa and even crazier to fly alone to such a dangerous country as the Sudan and drive with them to Ethiopia, that is if they ever got out of Egypt alive.
“Why? Pourquoi?” came the constant mantra.” Well if you can’t beat them join them,” I chanted back with a frisson of excitement knowing I’d never get the chance again and I could count myself lucky to be accepted on board. So, diligently ignoring the constant scary vibes from all and sundry - the French Government included - here I was thrilled as a teenager on her first trip abroad, sitting bolt upright for six hours in probably the only seat on Ethiopian Airlines than didn’t tilt backwards. I missed breakfast and, parched as a camel I wandered through the small town airport with international ambitions seeking something to slake my thirst and a screen that might indicate my departure gate to the unknown. Unsure of how things would pan out, I had taken the precaution of calling the hotel I had found on Internet then but had received neither confirmation nor prices or instructions on how I could get there from the airport. Inshallah, God works in mysterious ways.
On the short connecting flight to Khartoum I got chatting to young Ahmed, a Sudanese businessman on his way home from a team building trip sporting a red cap with Beacon, embroidered on it. This became his nickname. Below, the panorama of tributaries meandering like satin ribbons through lush wetlands gave way to hectares of husbanded squares and rectangles of agriculture, Sudan’s main export since losing its petrol in the South. Then the patchwork frayed and faded and my pulse started to race when I spotted the somnolent serpentine body of the Nile uncoiling nonchalantly out of the desert haze. It had ample time to steady again as, slow as Nile mud, we inched towards boarder control. Having stood naively in a queue marked “For Non Sudanese”, unaware that the officer had volatilized never to return, I side-shuffled self consciously into one of three parallel queues all destined for the same passport stamper. A tedious two hours later my beacon was waiting to help me reclaim my suitcases from the unclaimed baggage pile, change my money, buy my local SIM card and have me driven in the company minibus to my quaintly old, colonial hotel on Nile Avenue by a jovial looking chap with a beard, whom he described with a grin as a terrorist who wouldn’t shake hands with him let alone a female. Reception had no recollection of my booking but reassured us that there were two rooms available. Beacon took his leave promising to meet up later and miraculously soon afterwards the dust coated overlanders stumbled into the lobby exhausted but jubilant after three days crossing the Nubian desert since leaving Aswan.
Never had a hotel lunch, a vast comfortable air conditioned room, hot shower and crisp clean sheets seemed such an overwhelming treat so it was more miraculous that I managed to coax them out that evening. Mulungu deserved respite so we clamboured into a tuk tuk direction a “peoples” open air pavement restaurant for dinner. Emma and I were the only women - white at that - sticking out like sore thumbs yet annoying barely turning heads. Baffled as to how to proceed we were rescued by a well dressed young student who approached Tristan asking if we were French. Delighted with the affirmative reply he found us a table and ordered us ful (beans), soup with a sheep foot afloat in it like Kitchener’s steam boat – the closest we ever got to finding it – and a plain roast chicken. Midnight found us on a brightly lit Nile ferry with Beacon and his well healed young cousins sipping ginger flavoured Ethiopian coffee. Never before had they socialized with visiting foreigners but like most typical city boys from any given metropolis, they struck us as being more interested in enhancing their own careers than caring much about the affairs, past or present, of their country. Television, they said, had brought progress and change both good and bad. Local dialects were being forgotten but not the custom to entrust finding a wife to their mothers. “You ask for them to be intelligent and pretty?” Emma suggested. “Oh no, we don’t care at all!” Next morning while in the throws of convincing reception to bend the rules (about which no one warns you) and take my credit card, a message came in from Beacon to Tristan saying he hoped that one day they might work on a project together in Sudan. Waiting for us at the gates of Khartoum University, as agreed the previous evening over supper, was Mohammed and his Francophone friends negotiating with the guards to allow us to visit. The unsuccessful process gave us time to observe the passing students and oddly it was in this place of learning that we saw the blackest burkas.
Once out on the road the stately, strikingly beautiful women wrapped in long gaudy cotton shawls swayed elegantly like exotic flowers on fine ebony-black stalks. The schoolgirls, dressed in white, clutching tatty pieces of cardboard to write on, resembled banks of delicate desert lilies while the men, attired in white djellabas and waistcoats, a quite surprisingly active part of the work force nonetheless enjoyed the privilege of string beds judiciously close at hand in case of sudden fatigue. Heading East to “Soupia” as the Sudanese call it, we passed through check point after check point, with a wave and a grin and if we were stopped it was usually out of curiosity and for a chat to while away the time. Royally ensconced in the back of Mulungu in my comfortably be-cushioned space , admittedly somewhat reduced by my twice 23 kilos of bags (thanks Ethiopian) I observed with satisfaction the non invasive curiosity aroused by Emma’s fresh beauty and natural smile and Tristan’s bush of red hair, confidence and easy authority.
A random stop at a roadside market intrigued us with the quality and fine display of its fruit and vegetables, you have to ask yourself who buys it all, also the willingness of old and young, men and women alike to be photographed asking nothing in return. It also provided us with an excellent supper cooked with aplomb under the light of the Milky Way. Not wanting to push through to Gallabat, the pronunciation of which we never mastered as it changed each time we asked directions, we chose to bump down a dirt track through flat green fields of sorghum and verbena escorted by drone-like squadrons of dragon flies to a spot among thorn trees we felt safe to free camp. Safe that is until the orange sun plopped down behind a nearby hill of round, russet coloured rocks piled high as heaps of elephants and bright bobbing lights encircled us causing Emma a jelly-leg anguish attack until Tristan proclaimed with authority that they were giant fire flies! An uneasy sleep ensued, not helped by my blow up mattress arched over the hump in the road. I emerged at dawn feeling crumpled as my kikoi to be greeted by hornbills and a grinning Moussa, who having spotted us from his firefly tractor the night before had come to pay his salaams, share a glass of water and inspect my tent with awe and wonder as did his old father whose wrist flapped like the legs of so many donkeys we’d seen disabled from un-splinted injuries.
Trundling on eastward after a sticky porridge breakfast we felt nostalgic for the barren lands and straight roads littered with macabre milestones of sheep, goat and cattle carcasses with few scavengers to enjoy the pickings. The border crossing demanded patience and good humour but was hassle free and ably handled by our now experienced and well organized overlanders. At a leisurely pace we trailed behind self appointed guides through muddy puddles and discouraging heaps of plastic detritus until all the necessary forms had been filled and passports stamped in dilapidated offices increasingly devoid of light bulbs. These formalities apparently applied only to foreigners, the locals traversing the porous frontier constantly and freely often with important herds of fine Ethiopian cattle much prized by the Sudanese. But it was the squalor, the filthy European clothes ,the in your face prostitution twinned with challenging attitudes of out work youngsters which shocked us after the harsh, brutal beauty of Sudan and its people who had gone out of their way to be welcoming and friendly.
Going up to the Gonder plateau
Climbing and winding steadily up into the heavily forested Simien mountains it was Mulungu who was now challenged and when the fog engulfed us he got grumpy and overheated forcing us to make a pit stop. The side of a steep road in the dark was an improbable place to dine but the table was duly laid, dinner cooked, enjoyed and washed up under the curious stares of villagers passing by silent as spectres. Strange people these ferengi (foreigners) we guessed they were shouting down the valley. Hours later we were hugely relieved to spy the glow of lights of Gonder but we were equally despondent to drive into a hideous concrete conglomeration, a feeling exacerbated by the tuk tuk taxi driver who guided us to a fully booked hotel and then ripped us off. It was here that Emma’s spoonerism ,” landing feet up” became part of our vocabulary as we quickly found another that was cheaper, cleaner with cheerful and helpful staff. Ethiopians have in common with the North Sudanese an undemonstrative and un-boisterous disposition giving with grace only what you ask of them. Having never been colonized they are naturally arrogant and beholden to no one. Delicious local meals of Injira (teff flour pancakes ) ful, chick peas, split peas, lentils, chillies and vegetables in turn regaled and revolted my stomach. Imodium became my new best friend.
Gondar, the Camelot of Africa
Refreshed by a good nights sleep, big breakfast and internet catch up we walked under the watchful eyes of circling hawks and Lammergeier vultures the17th century ramparts of Emperor Fassil’s crusader like castle which the Portuguese Jesuits helped him design and build to ward off the Sudanese Dervishes. To thank them he briefly converted from Christian Orthodox to Catholic. His reign endured 200 years ending with the twenty year regency of Queen… Romantic gardens, baths still used annually for religious ceremonies, ebony floored banqueting halls and double sided fire places built to heat two rooms at once must have been truly glorious in their day. Occupied by the Italians under much hated Mussolini, the castle was bombed by the British and spoils, including priceless manuscripts from the library, carried back to London. Also only one astounding round church out of 44 has survived intact, the others having been destroyed 300 years earlier by marauding Muslims despite it being written in the Coran that they should never attack the Ethiopians, God’s own people. The rich murals and painted ceilings tell New Testament stories depicting horrendously gory scenes of smiling saints being hewn asunder, impaled or boiled alive have been declared intangible treasures by Unesco.
Tree people at the Gondar public baths
XVII century church, the last of 44 destroyed
Women go through the West door and cover their heads
The relatively short four hour drive to overrated, overpriced Bahir Dar on lake Tana, (jumping off point for visiting the blue Nile falls and the island monasteries) was a bucolic eyeful of bullocks laboring through chocolate dark earth and ancient terraces of rippling lime green teff fields treacled over with lashings of golden yellow Meskel flowers, the sign of the end of the rainy season. Here summer and winter don’t exist, only the wet and dry season. Ethiopians are known to be incredible runners but their well fed, independently minded donkeys incredibly also run, usually with their owners behind them. These free spirits when not on their own mission spend their leisure time in the middle of the road or on roundabouts in the company of the odd sheep, cow or camel. Luckily for them only 10 million of the 90 million population (a frightening 40% of them under 16) own cars and the high speed taxis and buses tend to give way to this mixed bag of jay walkers. It was in Bahir Dar that we stopped to question a man as to a cheap hotel where we could camp. He was peeing but quite unfazed he indicated directions with a wide and constant arc of urine illuminated by the last rays of the sun.
Driving to Lalibela, named by the King of the same name in the 12th century is like climbing up to heaven. Round stone huts are replaced by chalet type wattle and daub buildings with stabling for the animals underneath. Imported eucalyptus trees are blight to the eye but a blessing for fire wood and cheap building material. Hillsides were dotted white with egret like gatherings of people swathed in traditional hand woven white gabbies crouching around priests in bright robes standing under hand held orange, green, red and gold umbrellas. The last 64 kilometers on a bone shaking dirt road between rocky fields ,thorn trees and flowering aloes was slow but “feet up” salvation came fast in the form of “7 Olives Hotel”, the towns first, originally owned by the Royal Family and now by a fairly corrupt priesthood.
7000 members of the clergy in Lalibela
but taking photos of the Ferengi is far more entertaining…
At 6.00 am accompanied by the obligatory guide, we tumbled down the hill to be absorbed into the cacophony of beating drums, blowing horns and chanting priests that had gone on all night . How lucky to be there for the Meskel ceremony of the Finding of the True Cross perpetuated since the 14th century by setting light to a huge pyre around which the religious dignitaries circled. Lucky too that the Chinese have not yet completed the road which will render one of the world’s last unspoiled wonders more easily accessible, for few were the tourists visiting the 11 totally impressive monolithic churches carved out of red volcanic tuff. By the end of the day we were churched out, out of breath, our leg muscles were aching and we were being pestered for money by the young boys who had so sweetly offered us wooden Ethiopian crosses that morning. Dollars too easily parted with lure them from school but if caught by the police they are jailed.
Up to the nines for the Meskel festival
not a painting
The monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela
10th out of 11 churches in Lalibela
… entirely carved out of the rock
Our return trip on the same dirt road through the rocky valley of desolation where undernourished, trapezoid headed children with demented eyes leapt in front of us shouting, “you, you ,you!!” and shaking their shoulders demonically. Others, living scarecrows posted in nests, slung their shots at us instead of at the birds, Mulungu over heated 4 times in 4 hours. At each stop the dirty urchins, victims of extreme poverty, surged out of the bushes smelly and begging for clothes yet the gift of just one T-shirt was like throwing one bone to a pack of vicious dogs. A disturbing experience. A jollier one by far was our final unplanned ” feet up” at Haike an untouched lake, birders paradise , where unwittingly we became part of 3 wedding celebrations, were offered leaves of the too popular mild narcotic khât to chew, ate fish freshly caught and slept like babies in a circular bamboo hut guarded by men with rifles.
Breakfast at dawn on Lake Lake
So tonight I fly back to Paris crammed with stories to tell of the scent of frankincense, sandalwood and myrrh floating over a country of women blue tea pots in hand and goats on leads, dignified old men on ponies in full panoply, pelicans and reed canoes, ” technicians” with free advise to crowding under Mulungu’s steaming bonnet, parrot green plastic sandals on every foot from Metema to Addis where concrete and glass glitter high above unspeakable shanties and roads so potholed that a small car could be swallowed up, garbage dealt with by a thousand hyenas, lions and cheetahs at the Born Free Institute saved from life imprisonment in potentate’s cages, coffee ceremonies, smart and interesting EU dinner parties. Tristan you can be rightly proud. I have dreamed so long of Ethiopia .Travel on well Lindikhaya, looking forward to hugging you both again in Cape Town. You’ll have driven from tip to tip of our extraordinary continent but I guess you’ll still be wanting more. Count me in please.
The team, good of you to open your eyes Emma…