Posts Tagged ‘Ethiopia’

Russell writes, pics by Darren, 6/10/11:

Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Usual traffic

Mekele was our first stop after escaping the Afar and it was a sight for saw eyes and empty bellies; we headed straight for a café and energized ourselves with burgers and coke. We stayed a couple of nights allowing ourselves to catch up on the rugby and sort out the parts we needed and place an order. After all our suffering in the Depression I can tell you it was a refreshing couple of days resting and recovering. Next on our route was Axum, however, while enjoying the local cuisine and honey wine in Adigrat we decided on a detour to Debre Damo, a remote Orthodox monastery. Northern Ethiopia was completely different to what we’d seen before with its dramatic valleys and verdant slopes, and as we twisted our way toward the monastery we stopped frequently to take in the beauty.

The family cow, right

Distant Debre Damo

View from our barn

The next morning we made our visit to the monastery which was built in the 4thcentury high on a sheer sided table top mountain. The only access was via a 20m climb up a leather rope on a vertical cliff face, and only men are allowed to make the ascent. It’s not a rope climbing macho thing; it’s an Orthodox monastery thing. But with all the wall kissing, pictures of saints and focus on the tourist Birr, the best thing about this site was the panoramic views from the top.

Living on the top

This photo cost a pen

Viewing Eritrea

The road to Axum was lovely tar that twisted and turned through more amazing hills and valleys, but we had to restrain ourselves as donkeys and cows could pop out at any moment and the bends often has some loose gravel on them.

Its a man thing

The Ge'ez translation

We took a day to do the tourist thing and hired a guide to take us round some of the ancient sites of Axum, once the heart of a large and powerful empire in the 4th century BC and home to the Queen of Sheba and the Arc of the Covenant (as legend has it). We saw some impressive stelae, a granite obelisk erected above the tomb of a king, predating the arrival of Christianity. On the arrival of Christianity in the 4th Century AD the king suddenly stopped building himself a grand burial chamber and started building churches, monasteries and removed pagan symbols from coins. Really though, for us, all of this was a little boring compared to the awe inspiring natural beauty of the area and in particular the Simien mountains.

Stelae in Axum

It was a tough but rewarding day’s ride from Axum to Gonder over 350km on mostly rough track through the Simien mountains. Rewarding not only because we made our destination but because of the sheer wonder of the mountains we’d passed through. For me, this was the most amazing scenery I’d seen from my motorcycle the whole trip.

The wonder of the Simiens

Our mountain road

At one point we were riding along a road carved into a steep verdant slope, and glancing right was like looking out of an airplane window to the valley floor some 1000m below. Here you can use words like ‘wonder’ and ‘amazing’ and you won’t ever have to worry about missing the true sense of the word! However, it was a tough day because it was all day concentrating on keeping the bike upright as we descended and ascended gravel mountain roads. Add to that the 60km at the end we had to do in fog and darkness with only one headlight between us, we arrived quite tired. More stress the next day though as England played Scotland in the rugby world cup, but with a few pints of St George on board the losing position soon improved and England grabbed the victory. We seem to arrive at town just in time for the sport, strange that.

Lovely northern Ethiopia

Following the obligatory lunch stop on the Blue Nile we have made it to Khartoum, where your coffee never cools. In the morning its 30 degrees, in the afternoon its 50! We have a few monetary issues to sort out as there are no ATM’s linked to the international Visa system and the few US dollars we have we need for buying visas and use in Saudi. And we have quite a bit of business to attend to with 3 visas to acquire, a shipment to wrestle from customs and parts to fit to the crashed bike. Not to mention the rugby of course.

 

Cold, lazy monks

Darren Writes 30/09/11. Pics by Darren

It was just after 5 pm or 11 o’clock, Ethiopian time. An hour and a half before dark and 6km lay between us and a camp from where we could climb Arta Ale, or more importantly a place to get water, shelter and rest. With little more energy than before that which we had before we had stopped to rest beneath our bikes and with the heat radiating from the volcanic rocks, maintaining mid 40 degree winds, it was hard to get up, pack and traverse the final stretch of the former volcanic flow. Out of breath before even sitting atop our bikes, the next 6 km took us an hour of determined battle. But determined we were and our battle bought us to our base camp.

The Afar dont carry mobile phones...

We were greeted by the few locals there and then crashed (not with the motorbike this time) in a stone walled, grass roofed hut. Well water from 25km away, or camel water, as they called it, was gladly received and gulped down but more was needed and more wasn’t available and so we slept. The following morning was spent negotiating the cost for a camel and a guide and as time passed, so did the rising sun. We then made the decision to climb the 12 km in the late afternoon and rested through until then. Unfortuatly, we had food enough, that day, for one meal and so Russ heated a tin of beans which was mixed up with some ‘rock’ bread and back to our rest mats we laid.

Fuming Arta ale

With guide, camel and camel driver, we were set to climb up to the lake of magma. I found myself dizzy after just a few steps and was aware I hadn’t recovered from the heat exhaustion. I was even concerned of something more serious, but with what the goal was before us, no matter the struggle, I had nothing else but determination to achieve the experience of looking down into an active volcano.  With frequent rests, we continued on and then Russ found himself in difficulty as his energy had also depleted. Just 12 Km took us an incredible 5 hours to climb. Nether the less, we made it. We made it to the top and to a place to camp for the night and from there we could see the red vapours of Arta Ale. An hour of further rest and then the last short trek to the crater, we ventured. All of the exhaustion and hard work, our risk of travelling thorough the Danakil without armed escorts and permits were forgotten as we peered down intoa bubbling mass of Lava just meters beneath us. Black crusts of solidifying rock were pierced and stretched by the supper heated molten rock that belonged to the depths of the earth. Bubbling, spitting and swirling of masses of red were certainly a sight like no other and to be so close, feeling the burning heat and smelling the noxious sulphur, was a spectacular assault to our senses and an experience unlikely to be easily equalled. We had made it! And it was worth it!

Inside a volcanoe! wish the pic was as impressive as the experience

A few hours of sleep and then our decent as the sun rose. We packed up and left before we would again become valuable to the heat. Our return across the lava rocks again exhausted us underthe burning sun and by 11am and only 6km travelled, we made shelter between our bikes and rested through till the following morning. The morning was given to finding the well we had heard of and after acquiring 2bottles of life saver; some Afar men came and demanded ridiculous amounts of money for the muddy water. We refused for what we had already got but had to leave without more. We knew, we were in no condition to progress north and so headed, south, towards the town of Lake Afrera where we could find food and water.

It was late morning and the sand plains were reasonably negotiable despite the heat and things were going well. I explained in the first part of this chapter that the Afar people were somewhat a hardened race. They are in fact, in general, a dislikeable, aggressive people and not hospitable towards tourists or even each other. Money, of course, can make persuasion, but cash was now something we had also become short of after our tour toArta Ale and was also going to be an issue with our next encounter.

West out of Danakil.. first village for 0ver 100 KM

Riding through the lonely plains we saw a pick up speeding towards us. It came to a stop and man carrying an Ak47 jumped out and stopped us. Then half a dozen men similarly equipped piled out of the back. Some were uniformed, so we understood it to be the police/ military, but they weren’t there for our support. ‘Permits?!’‘Where’s your escort? The first man barked. ‘Passports. Give me your passports!’ he continued to shout. We showed copies and despite his demands for our originals, we refused knowing how helpless we would be with them in his hands. He demanded that we were to go with them, north, to a military point but to his demands, I refused on the basis of insufficient fuel. It was a very uncomfortable moment as I knew that large sums of cash were the only out and that we had very little. We stood our ground not to go with them despite their aggressive persistence. Then a solution was made for one of the soldiers to escort us, south to Lake Afrera on the back of a truck that was passing. We were to follow. We followed but as it passed through some more difficult sections we would find alternative routes, at the same time allowing some space to lengthen between us. The soldier would at these times show us his gun and the truck would stop for us to catch up. Our plan was to make a break for it but our opportunity would be near to where we knew there to be a dirt road due west out of the Danakil. This break was about 30km away and gave us some time to allow the soldier to relax a little as we played the game of lagging behind and catching up. There were two things we didn’t want. One was to end up being detained by these aggressive Afar and secondly we wanted to avoid being shot at. We came to a rocky section near the point which we were planning to make our great escape.

The truck had stopped on a small hill and we started to creep by. The soldier beckoned us to stop but slowly we continued over the rocks as I illustrated it was difficult for us to stop there but we would at the brow. We slipped over the brow and were now out of sight. This was our chance. We knew the truck wouldn’t be able to match our speed and so we opened up and sped through the rocky section and found our track, west. We rode as fast as we could before we were reported and our worry of road blocks ahead eased as we realised how much of a back water route we were taking. As we rode as hard as we could we knew that weren’t quite ‘out of the woods’ (wish there were some woods though.. anything for some respite in the shade). Low on water and energy, the heat, exasperated by our work rate, continued to make us venerable to lapses in concentration and of course, worsening heat exhaustion. I couldn’t help thinking, though, it was still all worth it and that some of the greatest adventures do require hard work, discomfort and sometimes a risk of danger. Russ agreed Arta Ale was worth it and hard work had been something we had become accustomed to.

Afar wommen

We started to climb a rocky mountain range. Our route took us past a mining camp at which we stopped. We asked for water and were given ice cold bottles of the stuff by the Chinese manager. He also feed us which was defiantly a need met, almost as much as the replenishing liquid. Like a super charge pit stop, we felt fit to continue and though we never made it out of the mountains that night, we did find a beautiful little place to sleep under the stars and awake to stunning views. We also felt out of danger and were able to marvel as we reminisced our journey through Afar.

Wakey wakey Russ

Wakey wakey Russ

I’d like to say, had we haveknown of the difficulty and danger, we wouldn’t have undergone such a challenge unsupported but actually, we think that moment of peering into a breathing volcano was defiantly worth it. However, in respect, maybe if things had of gone wrong then it wouldn’t have been a good idea at all. In the end it was a fantastic adventure and an experience that will forever stay with us and, of course, one to be shared with our grandchildren. (If we ever have any)

Darren writes 19/29th September (Sorry.. No pics as internet connection too slow)

Into Afra.

Addis had given us rains daily. We had been at Wims restaurant and bar, lodging for almost 3 weeks because of the latest mechanical issues but on the 18th September we woke early to warm sunshine and packed motorcycles. It was time to continue our journey. We had planned a ride into and through the Danakil Depression to see its geological wonders and the last couple of days had mostly been given to preparation for this trip. We were told about the Afar people and the volatile tribal conflicts within their region and of course the area, north, in the Danakil, has remained sensitive since Ethiopia’s war with Eretria. However, at the present time, there’s ‘peace’ within the whole region and so we planned to travel trough from the south, heeding the warnings to avoid photography, gatherings of people and riding after dark.

A couple of hours of crazy congested traffic, descending south from Addis, gradually thinned as we turned North-eastwards and approached the infamous Afar region. We stopped at a small town called Awash, ate some enjura and rested from the rising heat. No real issues here but as soon as we tried to drive out of town a man started shaking an automatic weapon at us. We sped past! As we descended a hill, on coming trucks flashed their lights at us prompting us of something ahead. Before us was a military guarded bridge. They couldn’t speak English but made it quite clear that we couldn’t pass over the bridge that spanned a deep, narrow gorge. We were confused and they were insistent. Other vehicles passed one at a time and eventually someone who did speak enough English for us to understand, explained that motorcycles were legally prohibited from crossing the bridge for security reasons and we should turn back. Even trucks and cars were only allowed to pass one at a time and if they were to stop they would be fired upon. No way had we come this far just to turn back so we found another option was to courier our bikes, one by one, atop of a pickup. Eventually a man called Abdela Mohammed came to our rescue. First he wanted payment but then agreed he would transport our bikes free of charge. It was the first time we had found our bikes lashed atop a vehicle when they were in perfect working order and we were still bemused to the notion of this motorcycle ban. I went first and after being dropped the other side and awaiting Russell, I discovered that the bridge was venerable to strategic strike by the warring factions of the Afar people. The last bombing was by motorbike, hence the 2 wheel ban! Russ arrived and Mr Mohammed kindly warned us to arrive to a village 2 hours north to sleep before sunset as the road became more unsafe to banditry after nightfall.

We became more and more aware of just how volatile the region was as men, young and old, armed themselves with Kalashnikovs and knives. The Pastoralists here are a tall and thin race and though beautifully dressed, appeared a hardened people as was the environment they inhabited. The highway was sporadically peppered with military protecting this logistical route and as we passed we would stand and salute them which was normally reciprocated with respect and surprise. This was the road from Addis to Djibouti and because of its status was protected. Soon we would have to turn off north into the Danakil and into the geographic depression of below 100m.

Samara was the last town and the last chance for fuel before turning off the main highway and into the Danakil. We had to buy it on the black market at 150% of its value and probably 80% in quality. We filled our tanks and our 24litres of containers. The next stop would be Lake Afrera, just over a 100miles away through a scorched volcanic landscape that as we continued to follow dropped in altitude and rose in temperature. This part of road was new tar and could have been an awesome winding ride with sweeping curves and a smooth surface but with temperatures in their 40s we kept our speed to a maximum of 50mph in order to protect our bikes from overheating. 50mph soon was found to be just a little too fast though. The heat on the tyres/ inner tubes was too great and without warning my front tyre burst. I lost all control and after a short fight against the inevitable, I smashed into the rocks that lined the sides of the road. Another dent for my helmet, a few cuts and bruises but by God’s grace, I could stand. The bike, however, looked a bit of a mess! Russ and I dragged it on the road and started the task of making it rideable. Most of the front, around the head light had been smashed beyond repair and various parts were consequently left as a monument at the crash site. With inner tube replaced and my dials taped to the mud guard, we rode on.

The heat was unbearable and the winds were like a million hairdryers, sapping our energy but the rugged beauty of the region and the fascinating tiny villages with their colourfully dressed women and gun clad men kept our attention eased away from the need to drench ourselves in freezing water. We had a hundred more miles to ride before a town where we could sleep. We knew we couldn’t stop and as the sun was falling we agreed to ride side by side by the single beam of Russell’s bike. After an hour of riding by night and only 30 miles to a bed in the town of Lake Afrera , a rope stretched across the road brought us to an abrupt halt. A heavily armed roadblock was our next obstacle and the military and police there forbade us to continue. Not because I was without a headlight but for our own security. They provided us, instead with a patch of ground on which to sleep and a few of the young soldiers made for some interesting conversation.

In Samara, 100 miles south, we were supposed to have bought permits to enter the Danakil but as we knew we were also expected to have a guide and a military escort we had spared the expense. It would have been impossible to carry a guide and 2 soldiers on our bikes and so our plan was simply to try our luck without. To have an adventure under our own steam, though, was soon going to prove to be something more of a challenge and difficulty than almost any part of our whole African adventure so far.

Sandy plains and rocky tracks led us to our final 12.7km to a camp from where we could climb up to Arta Ale, the magma filled creator and highlight of the Danakil Depression. By the beginning of this track were already suffering heat exhaustion and had become low on water which incidentally may have been tea. It was about 11am and the temperature had already been in the mid-40s for a while and the altitude had also been 100m below sea level since Lake Afrera. ‘12k.. we can get there and rest’ ..so we thought! The track had other plans for us! It was a tormenting rocky pass over an old lava flow and required concentration and endurance which was beyond us under the severe sun. With our energy levels at minimum and our continuing struggles to simply to breath, we were forced to seek shade. But there is no shade in this burnt desert. We made shade by sheet tied to the two bikes that stood parallel to each other and under sheet we laid exhausted and breathless! The hot wind was no relief but our motorbike clothing was protection from it.

5 or 6 hours passed, some of which had been slept through and the others were spent wondering what we were putting ourselves through! By 5pm the heat hadn’t eased and our rest hadn’t replenished our energy by much. We contemplated if we could ride the last 6Km or to sleep the night where we laid.

Food, water and morale were low!

To be continued….

Russell writes, pics by Darren 14/9/11:

My preconception of Ethiopia was of the images of parched landscapes and starving millions, however, that was in the far south east. They surly have their millions, 85 million, and the sizable population can mainly be seen from the road, or so it seems. Travelling from Moyale in the south to Addis Ababa right in the centre of Ethiopia it was clear we were in their wet season with lush highlands, swollen streams and muddy side streets. The road was tar which meant the 800 km to Addis could be done in 2 days, however, you had to keep your wits about you. Cattle, goats, donkeys, horses and dogs lurking on the side of the road could step out at any moment, and very often did as one poor dog tried, to his demise on my pannier. Add to that large numbers of people who needed constant reminding not to walk out in front of us, random knackered old horses standing still in the middle of the traffic and crazy drivers who indicate one way and turn the other. I nearly came unstuck with the latter, locking up the rear in an emergency stop avoiding a deceptive lorry.

Sharing a meal by the fire with the lovely Holland staff

At the end of the first day from the border, we had achieved a first for our bikes (despite leaking water pumps and no shock absorber): 250 miles before the reserve light, which equates to 88 mpg, one of the reasons we chose this bike. To most bikers this isn’t particularly cool or something to blog about, but when you’ve done 20,000 miles living atop a single cylinder, it is! Once we’d finally pulled over, relieved after fighting through the dark on these roads, we were guided to a pension by a nice lad called Seaside. Yes, we had to double check we heard him right! We enjoyed a drink with him that evening celebrating fuel consumption and our 25th African country.

Coffee princess

Addis Ababa; not a holiday destination with its belching busses, uncontrolled emissions, crazy drivers, run down grey buildings, and daily rains. But we found a haven in the nice little Dutch place called Holland House with lovely staff, hot showers and cold beer. The building we stayed in was soon overtaken as we utilized rooms as a kitchen, drying room and workshop, all at no extra charge. It was really handy to have a dry place to work on Darren’s bike and to keep it while waiting for a new suspension to arrive from the UK. Being stuck again with break downs and waiting around for parts with nothing to do was really beginning to wear us down, and after the first week, I was finding it quite depressing. There were a few things to enjoy as we waited; the smiles of the staff here who make us very welcome,amazing coffee, finding a good pizza, finding a gym (running on these polluted streets was not an option) and a place to watch the opening games of the rugby world cup. The thing that really lifted me though, was realizing that this is another trial, it has a weight I have to endure, however, there is one who’s weight or presence is immeasurably greater than any weight or trial that we could be under. This makes a trial bearable and even allows a little joy to lift a heavy brow.

Coffee ceremony at Holland House

We have now received the parts from the UK and Darren’s bike is up and running. The week is peppered with world cup games, so preparations to leave could take some time. But preparations for the next section must be thorough as we travel through the Danakil Depression with scarce fuel and water, lava lakes and 50 degree C temperatures. If we can slip pass the traffic cops, who we’ve been annoying for the last 2 weeks, then we will be off early Friday morning, possibly before dawn judging by today’s run in!