Rapid Rwanda

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Leaving Bwindi felt like waking up from a dream, and I expected it to be more like falling out of my bed. Rwandan authorities are notorious for almost strip-searching you looking for plastic bags (illegal in the country), forcing you to unpack everything you own. Ahead of the game, I’d put all of them into our bin, ready to drop it all off outside the boundaries of the national park and make friends with Rwandan officials for being such a good boy.

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It was an uneventful drive retracing our steps to Kabale from where we followed trucks with Rwandan number plates to Katuna. And Congolese plates! Clearing Ugandan formalities was easy as pie, same old, immigration, police clearance in three different offices to be allowed to drive the car over the rope, customs where the carnet was duly stamped and off we went into no-man’s land. Well I walked as Emma thought it was an appropriate moment to pull the age old trick of driving off as I reached for the door. I proceeded to walking at stalling pace in front of Mulungu preventing her from speeding through the border. We were really looking forward to saving some dollars as UK and SA citizens don’t have to pay for a visa in Rwanda, or so we thought. Mug’s Law predicted that the rule changed 6 days before we got there! Nonetheless, all was going smoothly and before we knew it we were handing our ‘Gate Pass’ to the policeman at the barrier asking if our luggage had been checked… Here it comes, I thought. And I’ve still got the bin!

‘No? Ah. They should have checked you, but I trust you, welcome to Rwanda!’ Off we went with our kilo of plastic bags!

 

The Genocide Memorial is a stern place. Beautiful gardens at the top of one of Kigali’s hills surround the building, where detailed explanations on the causes and consequences of the ’94 massacres are given. Although I tasted a bitter political flavour in the explanatory texts, the mix of global and local symbolism and proverbs offers a peaceful resting place to the thousands of people buried there, still being brought in to this day.

 

We had a chance encounter with Julien, a young Rwandan educated in Canada who’s come back to be part of the rebuilding of his country. He claims that the diaspora has kept strong links with home and families all speak kiyarwanda abroad; the government now offers tax breaks to whomever would like to return. Kagame is no flawless leader, but upon taking over the country he had no natural resources and no tourism industry to pick the country back up. All was bet on human resources Julien claims, and today Kigali is a buzzing capital with a certain financial and diplomatic leadership in the region. Having ditched French in 2008, they’re slowly back-pedalling as their markets reach into francophone Africa and specifically their huge Congolese neighbour.

 

We’d seen the gorillas, and Rwanda doesn’t have a huge amount else to offer, but we couldn’t just leave! Off we went to Lake Kivu on a stunning road winding through impeccably terraced hills – the country of a Thousand Hills should definitely be that of a Million Hills. Kibuye isn’t on the tourist map due to its particularly dark history during the days of the genocide, but it is a stunning place. Shooting stars flying through half your field of vision, whilst over Mordor (Democratic Republic of the Congo) lighting never stopped, flashing through the night. We had a real rest day, reading, writing, eating, doing old fashioned laundry scrubbing, a real treat. Little did we know that would be our last real rest for a while…

 

 

TFD

(aka Tuff, no one can pronounce my name around here)

PS: Erratic internet is proving a barrier to uploading more photos, will try and put them up somehow soon!
PPS: Can you believe we’ve raised 1400GBP?! Follow the links below to make it to 2000!

Nuance Communications, Inc.

 

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Getting back in the Groove with the Gorillas

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It’s amazing how easy it is to become complacent when you travel for long periods of time, particularly when you get ‘out of your groove’. Having stayed with family in Kampala we found ourselves slipping back into European ways; a restaurant for lunch followed by popcorn and the cinema. Pierce Brosnan even makes it to Kampala! This, although really VERY welcoming at first soon begins to create a block in your mind. What on earth are we doing?!

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Ugandan family

‘I think we have got a bit complacent’ – WHAM. Yes, and it was time to move on, feeling enormously grateful for the western comforts and therefore, the reality check that we didn’t come all the way to Africa to watch Pierce Brosnan wooing a beautiful woman.

Once we had realised this simple little fact we booked our spot for Gorilla Tracking in 2 days time and left Kampala. The first night we stayed in beautiful Mburo Lake, here we found a tiny little community run campsite where we slept back in our comfy tent in the bush listening to the noises around us. I happily spouted the name of the animal to match the noise heard:

“That is a warthog” – ESS

“No, that is an impala” – TFD

“Ok that is an impala too” – ESS

“No … that is a zebra” – TFD

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Fine Scot at Lake Mburo (the whisky)

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Other local animals: Anchole cattle

This left me feeling thoroughly un-bush-educated! The next morning we opened up the tent to see all the noisy culprits (including Zebra) from the night before surrounding us. The following night we spent on the dreamlike Lake Bunyoni. This meant paddling our way in a dugout canoe to one of its 29 islands, Itambera. On the way we took shelter at one of the many tiny jetties so as not to be engulfed by the waves under the torrential rains. Our ‘Geodome’ hut was open fronted and made of thatch, this made for the most STUNNING morning wake up which included more self identification of birds, this as you can imagine was very successful. However the open-frontedness did not help with warming up after the coldest shower you can imagine. Pay more for a hot shower…? NOPE I’m a Scot.

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Not standing on the branch you’re sawing

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Bilharzia free Bunyony

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John’s very fresh crayfish for cheap

Now for Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the gorillas. It is hard to explain the excitement that we felt. When you enter the park having driven up into the mountains you cross over a very definite border; one side small subsistence farming patchwork fields, the other (with no fence in between) thick tropical rainforest. Before people this rainforest spread from Lake Edward to Tanganyika, now it has been cut back into much smaller individual forests. On the day scheduled you arrive at the registration office at 7.30 am to sign in and be split into groups for the briefing and then your journey into the forest. Each group consists of no more than 8 paying customers, 2 armed guards (for the unfriendly wild animals they say), a guide, ours named Augustine, and the 2 trackers you meet later. Our motley crew was driven for 20 minutes, there we parked and climbed over the edge of the road and began our descent down the side of a very steep mountain. Your feet often slip from beneath you and you find yourself sliding on your bum until you can catch yourself on a hanging vine, which hopefully does not have thorns in. The forest is filled with all the stereotypes you imagine, humid, damp, sweet smelling, the earth below made up with layers of decaying plants and trees from above that didn’t make it up to find the light. This makes for spongy, slippy, hot walking! Some people have to walk up to 5 hours to find the gorillas, we found them within just 15 minutes, a bit of a relief for some…

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Unfenced but Impenetrable

We were sent to find a family of 22 gorillas, including 2 silverbacks and 4 babies known as the Oruzogo Group. For one hour you observe quietly the goings on of what feels like very private family time. Toddlers playing together as they hang upside down in the tree, silverbacks watching quietly over the group grunting noises of disapproval when someone steps out of line or irritates them. Mothers sitting peacefully watching their babies play, whilst they nibble on plants and us less hairy gorillas gaze in awe. Technically the guides will not let you get closer than 7 metres, this seems to be forgotten straight away as you could, if you wanted, put out your hand and touch the Mumma walking past you. The guide and wonderful trackers push and pull you further into the group until you are literally right in the middle. The size of the frighteningly human group is surprising. The babies are roughly the same as humans but the silverbacks shoulderwidth gets up to around a meter. Pretty much like us, the mothers are pregnant for 8 and a half months then breastfeeding their little ones until they slowly begin to wean them on to plants. The constant communication between the group and then also with us was incredible, the trackers replying with what needed to be heard clearly, as there was never anything more than a bit of chest thumping and grunting.

Sitting with this extended family was such a treat and it will definitely be a highlight of the entire trip. I couldn’t believe it when the guide told us we had only 7 minutes left, I would have loved nothing more than to sit as an observer in that family all day. Then return again the next day. As it stands they believe there to be about 800 mountain gorillas which can be found in only 2 places, Bwindi in Uganda and the Vuringa mountains shared between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Amazingly the gorillas are one of the only endangered species to be increasing in numbers, so much so that they believe that if it continues the way it is they are going to have to start replanting more forest as there will not be enough space for them all. What a happy change it is to hear that!

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Wowed

Now we are back in our campsite on the edge of the park, getting ready for leaving and crossing the border into Rwanda tomorrow. We have just done all our washing, hung it up and surprise surprise the rains have started. Nothing however, not even rain filled laundry, will make me feel miserable today. We saw the gorillas and if you ever have the chance you must go too!

P.S. We have now raised over £1000, thank you to everyone who has donated… I wonder if we will make it to £2000?!

P.P.S. Tristan can now tie his hair up…

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Lively Minds

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Our border crossing day was one of those uneventful ones with only minor incidents too easily forgotten such as Emma locking the keys in the car… And subsequently finding out how easy it is to get back inside with the help of the local ‘mechanic’ (with dodgy hobbies). Of the two land border posts, we were closest to Busia, which happens to be the busiest one. An interminable line of trucks supplying the whole great lakes region with goods from Mombasa queues up for days at a time before being let through. We thought Mulungu was a big vehicle, but he felt positively minute amongst those crowds! Soon enough, the wazungu (us whites) are spotted by some ‘official international clearing recognised customs clearing agent’ who will help us if we buy him lunch… The paperwork was no big deal, we’re almost getting good at it now, but we must admit we would never have found our way through the traffic as he shouted at truckers to make a tiny path for us to the government buildings!

 

Uganda was never a colony, only a protectorate, maybe a reason for the inane African sense of hospitality flagrant once across the border. We felt hugely welcome. Within a couple of hours we had reached Jinja, where we camped by the Nile which we had last seen a few thousand kilometres ago! No time for bungee jumping or white water rafting to Emma’s dismay as we had a morning appointment at the Lively Minds Uganda HQ.

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Lively Minds Team

 

The Ultimate Travel Company – our generous sponsor – supports this charity here, focusing on early childhood education and thus falling directly in our own awareness goals. Josh and Grace, two of the eight members of the organisation, were going to take us to visit one of their new centres that afternoon.

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The Ultimate Travel Company sponsored play centre

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Half the group plays outside…

 

Just another charity building schools in Africa I hear you say? Get out. Lively Minds goes deep into rural areas, at the request of local chiefs, and sets up voluntary teams of women holding play groups once a week with children under the age of 5. Fifty children out of their mothers’ hair, playing (weirdly Montessori-like) educational games, getting their young minds going at that age when all skills are sponged up!

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… while the other half works hard

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Five groups of four

 

Community spirit takes on a whole new dimension in these relatively unspoilt African villages, greetings have far more importance than in the West. They aren’t vague polite enquiries, no one will take offence if you don’t enquire about the whole family, but these mothers will certainly want to know that you are well, that the weather has treated you well and that you have eaten well. No one is ever welcomed with bad news either, only good news can be given when meeting someone, and when addressing a group, these age-old exchanges are sung communally, punctuated with those wonderful deep African hums.

 

Having observed the gentle way these women have with others’ children, how they ever so softly guide them towards the solution to a game or to the next workshop, Grace and Josh took over. The children went to chase the chickens in the maize crops while the grace and courtesies were performed. With the same gentle manners expected for the children, Grace gave constructive feedback on the running of the day – we had no idea it had only been their second time in charge! As a teacher, Emma’s praise was even more appreciated – countless ‘ASANTE SANAS’ and shrieked blessing were given in chorus after that! They probably thought we were The Ultimate Travel Company and had funded their centre and it was hard to explain that we were actually also recipients of TUTC’s generosity but their humility was touching.

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Uganda

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Spectators

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Whilst others have other duties

 

What that day showed me is how a little goes a long way, how easy it is to get the small things right and make a difference. A smile and a caring enquiry will show respect, giving an afternoon to these play centres has given women a voice and dignity, Lively Minds has given time to training them and see rewarding results and The Ultimate Travel Company shared their resources to enable such projects to take place. Weirdly we have also benefited from this, but we are learning to do the same in exchange. Keep an eye out for Lively Minds, and support our own cause for similar ends.

 

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Volunteer mothers sponsored by The Ultimate Travel Company

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and trained by Lively Minds

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The writer on a well deserved retreat

TFD

PS: We have raised over £1000 everyone, thank you so much. Please keep donating on the link below to continue supporting the amazing work we are witnessing and sharing with you, can we get to £2000?

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Corner of Hope

 

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Our time has come to an end in Kenya. We have stayed in the most wonderful places, with thanks to the Henleys, Andrews and Brooks for allowing us to be part of their lives and see sunsets in different and beautiful places. Not only have we seen incredible sunsets, we have sat and observed snippets of life from the animal kingdom. Elephants bathing in dust, buffalo grazing, giraffes picking the best leaves from the acacia trees and most excitingly so far, a leopard on his way to find supper. What a treat it has been to experience this example of Kenyan life.

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Climbing Mount Longonot

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Longonot Crater, highest point in the Rift Valley.

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Colobus Monkey at Naivasha

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Tea plantations near the Aberdares

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El Karama Ranch Waterfall

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… with the leeches!

 

Before we left there was another example of life we went to visit. Corner of Hope Montessori. Situated in ‘Pipeline’ Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp on the outskirts of Nakuru is a community of 600 families. Having left their homes after the troubles of the 2007 general elections, they have begun creating a new life. The families have formed a co-operative and now own their land inside ‘Pipeline’, visiting small patches of farmland every now and again to try to create a small amount of food for themselves and possibly to sell with the hope of being able to earn a modest income. Too frightened to return back to where they belong in fear of more ethnic violence, the 600 families have made this new camp home. Many of the children, and certainly the 120 we met, have grown up thinking of ‘Pipeline’ as home.

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From the age of two and a half until they reach about 7 they are welcomed into a very special community. A place where they long to come to school, somewhere they care more about – possibly – than most of us care about our homes. It is amazing to see the difference in children who have none of the usual toys or TV’s when it comes to how much they want to be there, compared to the average child in the West. The day starts as early as 7, as the first child comes to the gate. They take part in the dusting and cleaning, taking great pride in making sure the 6 classrooms and the surrounding area is ready for the day to begin. From there, slowly the classes fill up until all 120 pupils are there by 8.30.

I’ve explained the basics of Montessori before here for those still confused (CLICK HERE).

To the children however, it is clearly very easy to comprehend. The room has a calmness you would find in most yoga studios with the addition of an underlying air of busyness. Lots of little people, doing their own work, with what seems to be a total understanding of where they are going next. Some were so enthralled with a particular piece of maths, for example, they didn’t even notice us walk in. The children here, help each other, rush back to pick up something they accidentally knocked over, become absorbed in an activity for long periods of time and take enormous amounts of care with everything they lay their hands on. Tristan, having never been in a Montessori school, could not believe his eyes and sat grinning like the Cheshire Cat. I am extremely lucky to have witnessed this Montessori phenomenon before, HOWEVER to see this level of understanding of Montessori in the setting of an IDP camp was pretty unbelievable to me too.

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Milcah and Emma

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Maths before 6

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… and loving it!

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Working together

The women who work there are supported and trained by Association Montessori Internationale (AMI). Over 2 years they grapple with the theory, read books, write out essays and all the hundreds of presentations and make every single piece of material needed in a classroom, by hand. This is all done in English, and for most of the women, English is probably their 3rd language. In London we make 4 of the hundreds of pieces of material needed and we find that challenging enough! The 60 women training this year will then take what they have learned and their prized, premade classrooms to their local communities and set up shop, as they say. Mentorship continues with the help of wonderful Sister Veronica, who trained with me, to make sure that the women feel supported and the children are getting the best possible Montessori practise.

This is a project that supports and empowers whole communities. Steps are being put in place to give the families of the children at Corner of Hope opportunities to earn a living. Using the skills they learnt and put in practise when building the school for their own children, they will look forward to creating and selling crafts. This will therefore give them back a chance to be able to support their families once again.

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Sister V welcoming us at the training college

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The next generation of teachers making their own material to bring to the schools where they will work

I asked Sister V – as she was known at college – what happens when the children have to leave the school when they have become too old.

“It’s hard, they join a government school and get very frustrated because they are being taught things they learnt years before”

For exactly that reason it has been decided to begin the Montessori teacher training for 6 – 12 year olds. The next step being, to look at opening a school for 6 – 12s in January 2016 with the first set of newly trained teachers. Forward thinking and working towards solving the challenges that continue to present themselves, is what comes to mind.

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Hoping for a Montessori elementary

So this is the point where I say to you, please do donate a small amount of your money to help support this charity. They really are self sufficient, using AMI money only to get them to the next step and then continuing to do a large amount themselves. This is not a project that is ‘sponging’ off foreign aid. They care, the staff care, the children care, it is part of their life and they definitely don’t want to lose it or compromise on the quality. Go on, give up a fiver to help them continue to support women going back into the community giving back to their own children and villages.

(click on the Virgin Money Giving link below to donate)

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Absorbing Shocks

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In French we say that only idiots don’t change their minds, so Emma and I must be this generation’s Einsteins because not one of our plans has lasted more than 6 hours recently…

In Addis, we were strongly advised not to go to Kenya via Turkana as it was deemed unsafe in the UN’s latest security report. Bureaucratic judgements like these aren’t my cup of tea but I was a victim of our own little referendum on the matter. ‘No’ won by 66.6%, so off to Moyale we went.

To appease my frustration Emma suggested we went to a beautiful crater 3 hours from Addis, where she will one day build a community run eco-lodge funded by her yoga retreats. The old volcano stands at 3000m (this is a metric expedition) and Lake Wenchi is totally isolated from the world, another little corner of paradise.

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Wenchi Crater

Mulungu’s offroad abilities were put to the test on the way out though, with the last mile covered in an adrenaline filled 45 minutes. Video to come soon.

Born Free hyena pup, Ethiopia

Born Free hyena pup, Ethiopia

Having scrapped Turkana from the itinerary, our second best option was the Bale Mountains. Once in view, they were so thick in cloud that we decided the Ethiopian wolf on his Sanetti Plateau could wait for a sunnier day, we weren’t going to go trekking for days in the rain!

On we went South, watching the green mountains turn to red dust, avoiding pot holes. Actually, that would imply there was more road than pot holes, but I think we were trying to avoid the bits of road and staying in the holes. Thin nosed highland ‘habeshas’ gave way to festive Oromos in their beaded head-pieces and then finally to the Southern tribes, far more Kenyan than Ethiopian.

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The Lion King setting in Southern Ethiopia

 

Moyale is just another one of the plastic covered schizophrenic border towns where children cross the imaginary line daily to go to school. Ethiopia is the last African empire, and lines were really drawn on a map by greedy Europeans sharing the big African cake.

We ended up in jail on our way to dinner. Motive: not standing to attention for the lowering of the flag 100m further down, thus “not respecting Kenya’s sovereignty”. I wasn’t going to pay a bribe, and they didn’t want to look after us for the night so we were released on the grounds that we hadn’t finished “reading the Kenyan laws in the two hours we had spent in Kenya”.

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Emma can now fall asleep anywhere anytime, breakdowns preferred

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Our Hercules technicien hitch hiker, Julian

The Moyale road is known to be horribly corrugated, but we didn’t think it would unscrew our pot of honey or burst our fire extinguisher… Or snap our break pipes! Luckily we had a Kiwi Airforce technician on board who got (very) dirty, and did some quick repairs to get us out of the Chalbi Desert. A Defender isn’t much different to a Hercules he assured us. Julian, thanks again for getting us out of that rut!

I suppose the corrugation has preserved this region from donated lycra trackies and the herders in the North of Kenya still wear beautifully coloured bead work around their arms, necks and chests. The Chinese road having made it 150km further North than we thought was a great surprise for our shaken bodies, but I do wonder what the tarmac will bring. Schools and health care? The Samburu and Galla people’s traditional values will have to withstand yet another wave of globalisation.

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Timau River

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We had to do it!

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Mount Kenya

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Taming birds

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Sangari Reserve

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Kenya Highlands

 

 

We have been on the road a month and finally covered enough ground to really slow down. We have two weeks in Kenya to recover, have hot showers, eat three meals a day, drink Tuskers, and spot some wildlife. Next up is Corner of Hope, where we will tell you how our endorsed projects are faring. Please continue to donate for us to approach these people with a helping hand and not just words:
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A Lindikhaya Clandestine

 

 

 

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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Tree people at the Gondar public baths

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XVII century church, the last of 44 destroyed

 

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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.

 

 

Homing donkeys

Homing donkeys

 

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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.

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7000 members of the clergy in Lalibela

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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.

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Up to the nines for the Meskel festival

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not a painting

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The monolithic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

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10th out of 11 churches in Lalibela

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… 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.

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Breakfast at dawn on Lake Lake

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Ornithologist’s paradise

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.

EADoumen

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The team, good of you to open your eyes Emma…

 

 

 

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The old new road to Sudan

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Scorched, arid, barren, there aren’t enough words in the thesaurus to describe the Nubian desert. It’s very hot, very hot, and there aren’t many trees to hide under. If there is a tree, it’s usually already occupied by a camel. This never ending sand surface has two arteries, one of tarmac and one of water. The new road is unbelievably straight, like a motorway through Mars, every time you come over a crest it starts all over again, more sand and rocks. And then suddenly a corridor of vegetation: the Nile. The Mighty Nile really is mighty, unperturbed by the searing heat around, it supports the only human life visible. There you meet the real wonder of the Sudan: the Sudanese! These people are about as welcoming as their environment is hostile, always inviting you for tea and grinning their huge smiles as their white robes and ‘shesh’ blow in the wind.

The new old road

The new old road

 

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Wadi Halfa

 

We’d heard many a horror story about the Sudanese bureaucracy and the infamous week long ferry down Lake Nasser. Luckily we had two very eccentric but efficient fixers to guide us through the new border posts, as the new road to Abu Simbel seems to confuse most people, especially the border officials. I must have spelt out my name and passport number at least 20 times to very curious customs officers wondering where this white man was going in his white car. Who knows what happens to those tiny pieces of paper… Three hours of taking off Egyptian number plates and shaking lots of hands, then you’re waved through to no man’s land where an over-excited Mazar jumps around like the overgrown child that he is, welcoming you to Sudan. Here, more stickers and happy stamping before heading off into the wilderness.

 

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The new old ferry

The new old ferry

 

Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel

“Are you married?”

“No, just friends…”

“Ah, so can I marry her?”

“Uh no.”

“Ah, you try before you buy then?”

 

Readily armed with your 52 official documents in case of police check-points, head off into the desert. Once you’re out of sight of civilisation, turn off the road and hide behind the nearest hill. There, unpack your camp chairs and enjoy your gin-free G&T– alcohol is strongly prohibited here – and watch the sun set. Now cook some dinner, set up your tent on the roof and lie flat on your back to look at the stars. Optional: count shooting stars instead of sheep to go to sleep. Now you know what isolation and silence really is.

 

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Totally unspoiled, there isn’t much else but to enjoy the road and the view in the Sudan, however I will be sad to leave this place. The Meroe pyramids – reputed oldest in the world – suddenly rise from the dunes and you know this is where it all started.

Although we haven’t visited their projects yet, please remember that we are doing this drive in support of two charities: Tusk and Corner of Hope. Any donations are hugely appreciated.

From Khartoum, over and out.

TFD

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A very dangerous photo of the border

A very dangerous photo of the border

 

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You did what?!

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And so at 5.30am we dutifully began eating our cinnamon breadsticks with creamed feta as our hosts grinned at us waiting for our response. Put on the goat pastrami they gesture next… YUM, that I can tell you, is JUST what I felt like after 1 hour of sleep.

What was going on?! WELL. Having picked up the car at 4pm on Saturday we quickly realised something was very wrong. Thankfully we happened to be in the mechanic district of Alexandria. It only took us 5 minutes to find someone to help us, he became my new best friend. Mohammed. Mohammed the Mechanic. This is where our 12 hour game of charades began.

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Mulungu clearly had had an accident between getting off the ship and being delivered to Fathy the Fixer’s office. What actually happened we won’t know, and probably don’t really want to either! However what we saw was this; the wheel was pushed 30cm out of alignment, there was a totally bent and squashed brand new shock absorber, a bent wheel rim and a broken tyre wall.

We were told Land Rovers are like a mechano set, you can just take it apart and put it back together. Well this is exactly what Mohammed and his team did over the next 7 hours. They welded, replaced and put back together the bits, under the watchful eyes of helpful neighbours. Whilst I kept a watchful eye on the Land Rover, Tristan went on a wild goose chase with another Mohammed to find a replacement tyre (difficult as ours are huge!) and get the rim sorted. When he returned 2 hours later everything was sorted. All for the HUGE cost of 80 Pounds. Although we initially felt a little nervous, many people throughout the night assured us Mohamed was the best man for the job. How lucky we were to find ourselves in his hands! With our car fixed we just needed a bed to get some sleep before driving on to Cairo.

 

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Mohammed insisted that we must stay with him. This all seemed like a great idea until the moment when we were sitting, still playing small talk charades as no one speaks English, at 4.30am. Did you know people in Egypt don’t sleep? Like ever. Tristan stopped being polite at the moment we were invited to go to the beach in the dark, at 4.35am, with the whole family, to buy an ice cream. Queue lots of sleep motions. Eventually we were allowed to sleep for an hour, this we did on the children’s bed with everyone practically staring at us. We drifted in and out of sleep between the call to prayer and the strong smell of Mohammed smoking something that was definitely not a cigarette… They woke us at 5.30 and then promptly decided it was time to eat. We managed a few mouthfuls and said our thank yous and goodbyes. It was time to go before the traffic got too busy.

 

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3 hours to Cairo, through the desert. After taking the ring road the wrong way (have a look on the GAPTRAC, which is now working), we arrived at Heliopolis War Cemetry where my Great Grandfather is buried. What a beautiful, beautiful place. A manicured spot in what felt like a very stressful city. Run by the most lovely men, it is kept in pristine condition, a place we would all love to be buried! Excitingly we were invited in to go to the loo, have some cold water and stand in the air conditioning, which having not slept, washed or eaten and driven through 3 hours of dust in 40 degrees was exciting! It’s the little things that count. Having grabbed an extra 20 minutes sleep under the trees and then cooked some pasta quickly on the street (yep on the street, it’s amazing what you will do when you are starving) we were ready to drive again.

 

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We got lost, we went round and round, up and down, coming to the decision that Cairo is not easy to drive around. Finally getting on the right road we began the longest drive in the history of ever. 18 hours to Beni Suef. Those last few hours of driving in the dark consist of lots of horn hooting, light flashing, trucks on the wrong side of the road, vehicles with no lights, pot holes and speed bumps. Having arrived, we slept for 5 hours in a dirty truckers’ hotel…. delightful. Up at 6 we began to drive to Aswan, we were told would take 12 hours. The first police check point we came to at 8am, we were stopped and given an escort. We didn’t know why, so we just bumbled on with sirens blaring in front of us. At the next check point the same thing happened, we were stopped, asked where we were going and following the gestures we realised they wanted us to go in convoy behind a 6 gun wielding, police pick-up truck. Well that was the first 2 of a following 16 escorts over 12 hours.

We went through towns, and like when Moses parted the Red Sea, the police parted the crowds. Unlucky for you if you got in the way, lots of Arabic shouting would come your way, much to our embarrassment. Tristan charged through one city feeling like he was in a car chase, being shouted at because they said he was too slow. Next we screamed our way through another town following a group of boys setting off fireworks on top of their moving tuk-tuk. Other towns we would pass old men on donkeys arms and legs flapping rushing off somewhere important.

Apart from the check points, we were not allowed to stop. So we ate what we had in the car – 6 bananas, 2 packets of Egyptian Oreo’s, originally named Borrio’s, and a packet of Percy Pigs and tried not to need the loo. I did work out that they thought it was quite a privilege for me to go to the loo in their check points so luckily there was plenty of those of which I took advantage!

We drove further and further down the impressive Nile, boggled by its size, and how quickly it turned from lush, date laden palm trees to arid, harsh, high sided valleys. It is incredibly over populated in the north, slowly becoming less so as you get further south, there isn’t less rubbish though. The banks of the river are literally like a rubbish tip and the smell of burning is horrendous. The sun began to set and it was clear that we were definitely not going to take 12 hours to get to Aswan with all the stopping at check points we were doing.

By the time it got dark they got fed up of coming with us instead they held us a little longer at each check point. Amazingly not once were we asked for a bribe of any kind, just lots of hand shaking and smiling instead! Having now arrived we have asked opinions on why the police journeyed with us, and the answer seems to be that since the Revolution they are wary of foreigners travelling on some roads on their own. Who knows?!

In the last 48 hours we have had 6 hours sleep, driven 36 hours, 1 meal, 16 escorts, 45 check points, 24 litres of water and this, we are hoping is Purgatory before we head on into Sudanese Heaven.

Touch base next in Khartoum.

XXX

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The might Nile, Aswan

ESS

 

 

 

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Alexandria

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They say the English invented bureaucracy, and Egyptians perfected it. Luckily, the latter are also extremely helpful, as the meander of government buildings and bureaus, translators and happy stampings are as complex as their ancient hieroglyphics… Thank Allah for fixers who literally hold your hand through the whole process, as us mere Westerners would never be able to climb that pyramid alone…

                ‘What’s South of the border of Egypt?’ The first of many great Emma quotes.

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                Alexandria is a very impressive concrete jungle if I have ever seen one. Standing on the water front, the whole bay seems to be held back by tower blocks. No one hassles you, or the few chancers who do at least take ‘no thank you’ for an answer. Taxi drivers try and get dollars out of you rather than Egyptian pounds, and will have no remorse about charging five times the price. Thus you know that you know nothing.

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Few beggars and bikes, many cars and needles in gutters. Few tourists, cheap and delicious street food, generous smiles but no haggling prices, Egyptians are a proud nation. Our fixer Fathy studied political science before being conscripted to the special forces for three years. His analysis of Syria is a bloody stalemate fed by Russia and Libyans are simply dismissed as warring tribes; he says there will never be more than relatively non-violent uprisings in Egypt as most people would rather go about their every day lives than pick up arms.

We have four days to decipher this city, before learning how to drive by ear as Egyptians use their horns to greet each other, courteously let you cross the road or angrily try and move a donkey off the road. Four days before going down the Nile to Aswan, where a very enthusiastic overlanding community seems to think the road into the Sudan is now open, we may be among the first few to ever drive into the Sudan instead of taking the infamous ferry down Lake Nasser!

TFD

From the Bibliotheca Alexandrina

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