Welcome to the moon
We leave Marsabit in Kenya early morning, after we have managed to finally get our car fixed. The spare parts arrive with Helga & Rinus, travel fiends we met back in Tanzania, and we decide to travel together into Ethiopia.
As we start the drive through the north Kenyan desert early morning, we hear Helga over the radio: “welcome to the moon”. The landscape indeed looks like the surface of our stellular neighbour and colours beautifully red in the early morning sun. After two hours we reach the Ethiopian border and exit Kenya quickly before we set foot in another new country: Ethiopia. And it is chaos, straight from the start.
You would imagine a border to have an office at the actual border, but in Ethiopia they decided to build the office in the middle of the chaos of a suburb, a few hundred meters away from the actual border crossing. It actually takes us about 10 minutes to find the office. Once we walk in, we see a large line-up of people waiting to get the same stamps as we need. “sorry, no power, computer doesn’t work, we can’t let you in just now. Come back in 2 hours”. Ok, welcome to Ethiopia. No other option than trying the famous Ethiopian coffee for the first time. After the coffee, an hour later, we tell the official a sad (but untrue) story that we have to drive all the way to Addis Ababa today, and really don’t have two hours to spare, he finally gives in and processes our entry manually. We are in.
Next stop is the customs office to get the car imported, and also this office is hard to find. It however only takes a short time to get the paperwork finished and off we go.
After a few hours drive through the southern part of Ethiopia, we decide it has been enough for today and start looking for a camp spot. It is our first experience with camping in this country, a country that is not set-up for tourism at all. There are (except for 2) no official campsites, so today we take a sharp left turn and drive straight into the bush for 10 minutes to find a quiet open area where we can set up camp. The biggest problem with camping in Ethiopia is the enormous amount (one hundred million) of people that live here. It is physically impossible to find an area without people, and even though we think we have found one, we are surrounded by 6 young men within minutes.
People in Ethiopia don’t speak English and they love to walk up to you and start staring. And today is no difference. Since it doesn’t look like they are planning to leave soon, Rinus grabs his jeu-de-boule set and we start teaching them how to play the game. This breaks the ice and we have a lot of fun for the two hours to come. We even manage to sneak out ourselves and let them play for themselves. If it wasn’t for their wives to call them for dinner, they would have played all night long. We finally have the privacy to cook, make a fire and spent the night watching the stars and making further travel plans.
Just when we are having a leisurely breakfast in the bush, we are joined by the same group as last night, but now accompanied by large jerrycans: they want our water. Unfortunately we don’t have enough to fill a jerrycan, so a glass is the best we can offer. Whilst the boys are drinking, they give us the most funny facial expressions ever: not because of the water they’re drinking, but because we have started brushing our teeth: they have never seen a toothbrush before! Later we learn people in Ethiopia brush their teeth by chewing on small sticks of the eucalyptus tree: they literally walk around with a stick in their mouth all day long, and most of them have the most beautiful white teeth.
Omo valley: authentic or spoiled by tourism?
Destination for today is Konso, a regional town on the base of the Omo valley. This part of Ethiopia is also called the “cradle of mankind”, since the oldest human like remains have been found here. Researcher have called her Lucy, and she roamed this area on two legs around 4 million years ago. Nowadays this valley is home to some of the most authentic tribes that still live in Africa.
The biggest problem with the Omo valley: tourism. Yes we know, we are tourists as well, but tourism has resulted in the people of the valley becoming almost reliable on money tourists pay for pictures they take, and that spoils the entire experience. This is why we are contemplating whether we would visit the tribes or not, but we decide to give it a shot now we are here anyway. And besides that, it remains extremely special that we have the possibility to visit tribes that have maintained their traditions, habits and way they dress for thousands of years. And this area is not set up for tourism, it is as authentic as you can get it, tourists just changed the behaviour of people towards tourists by over-visiting the area.
Injera & coffee with goatfat
Whilst eating our first injera (the Ethiopian staple food, a sour fermented pancake served with pieces of meat, different stews, cabbage, tomato etc.) we meet a local guy who speaks perfectly English, and turned out to be a tour guide. We negotiate a fair price for two days and brief him on the fact that want to visit the valley off the beaten track. Fortunately Helga & Rinus have a spare seat for the guide, and off we go.
Unfortunately what we expected turns out to be true: the moment you enter a market or village, people start running towards us and line up to have their photo taken for a donation. Because of this habit, it is really hard to experience their real lifestyle. “You, you, you You, you, YOU!” is the way we are greeted on every corner of the street, and many times followed by “you China”. For some reason they call all foreigners “China”, maybe because of the many Chinese people working on the roads? We don’t know… When we arrive in the village where we will camp for the night, we only get to see the real way of living after walking around for about 2 hours. It is only then that people leave us for what we are and start living their day-to-day lives again: people wash themselves at the water pump, ladies direct their herds of goats back to the kraal, people return from a wedding fully dressed up, babies are breastfed by their mums whilst they walk around the village and boys are shooting with their bow-and-arrow.
We set-up our rooftop tents next to the home of the chief, where we are served local coffee in a large wooden bowl to share. Linde gets a piece of goatskin to sit on, and Krijn a wooden stool. The coffee tastes horrible, since it is made of coffee husks and goatfat. Out of respect we take a few sips, but it definitely is one of the worst tasting things we’ve had during our trip so far.
On a “little” side-note: only two weeks ago there was a tribal war in this village, between the local and neighbouring tribe. Because of the drought, tribes try to find the most fertile pieces of land for their cattle, even when the fertile land is owned by their neighbours. This results in fights in which the AK47 machine gun is heavily used. Many people die during these “wars”, and they only stop when the invading tribe returns to their own land. It is bizarre to realise that the atmosphere can turn in such a short time over something like this. However, in the current drought, every piece of green grass can mean the difference between life and death for their animals. Driving around we see the decomposing bodies of many cows on the side of the road. If you think a cow is worth around $500, you will understand how important it is to keep the cattle alive.
The real experience
After we leave the next morning to drive deeper into the valley, we decide to stop under a gigantic fig tree to have some coffee. From far in the field we see two teenage kids from the Hamer tribe running towards us, but surprisingly they do not ask us for anything and would just like to chat. We use our guide to translate, share our coffee with them and learn more about their tribe. Compared to yesterday we have a very relax experience and really enjoy this moment.
On our way out we visit one other tribe, learn the official local handshake and drive through the beautiful mountain ranges back to Konso.
Hygiene or no hygiene, that’s the question
The next morning we drive to Arba Minch, the first big town where we do some vegetable shopping at the local market. We have lunch at a local butchery where ‘’Tibs’’ is served, small pieces of roasted beef or lamb served on a small coal stove with bread, injera and a very spicy sauce. We have not had meat for a while and enjoy this local dish to the fullest. It’s funny that our bellies can handle the local dishes so well, because when Linde asks for the toilet, she is guided through the kitchen to the house of the owner. The restaurant doesn’t have a toilet, and the looks of kitchen doesn’t actually make you wanna eat here. The hygiene situation in Ethiopia is by far the worst we have seen anywhere in Africa, but we never had any stomach issues in the 4 weeks we spent in the country whilst we had local food almost every day.
Tonight we set up camp next to a lake and enjoy watching some cheeky Colobus monkeys using our car as an inflatable jumping castle. They climb on the tent, watch themselves in the mirror and jump up and down on the bonnet. They even use the antenna of Rinus & Helga’s car to play Tarzan & Jane and break it straight away. This is the moment we think it is enough and we chase them away.
The giant slalom to Bale mountains
Animals in Ethiopia have right of way, and it is this knowledge that makes us realise our trip through this country is going to take much longer than planned. The roads are flocked with donkey, goats, sheep and cows, and they cross without giving much attention to us approaching, resulting in a giant slalom and many emergency stops to avoid collisions.
Today we make our way towards the Bale Mountains, a seldom visited nature park in south-east Ethiopia, but known for the presence of the highly endangered Ethiopian wolf. Arriving at the foot of the mountains we want to stock up on some food for the coming days in a remote area. It however can be quite challenging to find shops in areas like this, so we decide to ask a local who speaks ok-ish English to help us. He organises fire wood and some beers for us, but when we ask him for some lamb meat, he arrives back after 10 minutes with 4 living sheep! “here is your lamb”. He looks extremely disappointed when we say this is not really what we meant!
We drive a rough 4×4 path up to an altitude of 3600meters where we pitch our tents in the middle of nowhere. With stunning vistas from our campsite we enjoy an amazing sunset and prepare ourselves for a cold night. We however didn’t expect it to become this cold. 5 layers of clothes, a big bonfire and hot chocolate with rum keep us reasonably warm, but when we wake up the next morning we have icicles on the inside of our tent. It had become -8 degrees Celsius, freezing!! We go for a nice hike and enjoy the fabulous nature.
When we wake up early (5am) the next morning to start our drive towards Addis Ababa to pick up our friend Kim from the airport, we are treated to an unpleasant surprise. It is impossible to start the motor of our car, since it is completely frozen. Apparently the coolant in the system is not anti-freeze, so the entire engine is turned into a block of ice. It takes 3 full hours for it to defrost, which puts us under a bit of time pressure, since it still is about 8 hours drive to the capital. We say goodbye to Helga & Rinus after 7 great days together and start the journey towards travelling with another good friend.
Arriving in Addis Ababa, we are treated to another surprise. Almost the entire city is under lock-down since the AU (Africa Union) summit is happening these days. This means all African presidents and other people that mean something in Africa are present, with enormous security measures as a result. Since we had a delay with our frozen engine we only arrive in Addis after sunset and can’t drive our preferred route. The GPS gives us an alternative route through many tiny unpaved streets and eventually tells us to turn left on the main road leading to the Hilton. What it didn’t tell us, is the fact that this road is one-way traffic. The police officers are flabbergasted when they see us driving down on the wrong side of the road. Luckily we are not fined but sent away with a warning towards the correct direction.
Arriving in the luxury of the Hilton, where most of the presidents stay the coming days, we have a bath, a huge and delicious Hilton burger and a quick nap before we head to the airport to pick up Kim.
This is the first part of our very special experience here in Ethiopia. Because of the many experiences and the size of this country, we will post another blog with the rest of our experiences in the days to follow. To be continued!