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Overlanding through Ethiopia

5 February 2014

Gorgeous, surprising but sometimes also maddening. Ethiopia is inimitable, never boring and very different from the rest of Africa. For overlanders who are tough enough, it’s a must see. Andrea Dijkstra and Jeroen van Loon were tough enough. This is their story…

“Stooooooooop!” With slipping tyres we come to a halt, our faces squashed against the windscreen. Less than two metres from our bumper, a fluffy donkey looks at us with its big Bambi eyes. Then it skips on, as if this happens all the time. And indeed, in Ethiopia it does happen a lot.

We thought traffic in countries like Lebanon, Libya or Egypt was difficult, but we have now concluded that, with a hundred million inhabitants and at least as many animals, overcrowded Ethiopia really is a challenge. Not only do you have to watch out for trucks, mini-vans and NGO cars driving around like maniacs. There are also hundreds of women moving about with firewood and jerry cans on their heads, men who still don’t seem to have mastered the herding of their cattle, and children who smile and wave but also try to throw stones at your rear window.

Most of your focus is on the fields, meadows and grasslands along the roadside, trying to spot another suicidal animal about to run in front of your car. Because of these recurring emergency stops, you seldom get beyond 10km/h, despite the thousands of kilometres of newly laid Chinese tarmac. But it doesn’t get boring. Ethiopia just never gets boring. 

Slimy monster

To escape this ceaseless cacophony of human and animal madness, we settle down at Tim and Kim Village, a campsite in western Ethiopia named after the Dutch couple who run it. After opening our rooftop tent under an immensely big tree and taking a moment to enjoy the beautiful view over the huge Lake Tana, our attention is drawn to the many red, green and blue birds that continuously touch down on the perches.

While reading a book, I suddenly feel drops falling. Surprised, I look up, straight into something bloody that sweeps down and ends up on my neck. I jump up screaming while the slimy monster glides off my back, landing on the chair. It turns out to be a gnawed fish over which two huge birds are still having a fierce battle in the tree above me.

During a walk along Lake Tana, we notice how gender roles are structured in Ethiopia. While smiling, stark-naked boys push each other off papyrus boats, their sisters walk, carrying heavy jerry cans of water back to their village, Gorgora.

Almost immediately we are surrounded by dozens of children dressed in rags, trying to put their dusty little hands into ours. To escape the crowd, we slip into the local pub, which appears to be no more than a dark hut with two wooden benches, a closet, the owner’s bed and a curious chicken running around. The female manager, wearing a blue flowered dress, doesn’t sell beer and because her wooden china cabinet only shows bottles with suspicious coloured spirits, we play it safe and take a glass of Ouzo. At least we know that one from the Greek restaurant in the Netherlands.

The smiling lady gives us a triple portion and turns on extremely loud Ethiopian music. She begs me to put on a similar dress, which I reluctantly end up doing. Within five minutes the 12 square metre room is filled with dozens of hot bodies rhythmically moving their shoulders and necks. The crowd cheers in exultation when we order a bottle of Araki for the people who have just entered.

The local booze tastes awful, but we bite the bullet and after taking another nip, we start dancing as well. As Ethiopian dance isn’t exactly our cup of tea, we breathe a sigh of relief when, after 15 minutes, we are saved by Ethiopia’s best known phenomenon – a power cut.

We wave goodbye to everyone and walk back to the campsite, where we plunge into the unique Ethiopian silence again.

Holy place

The following days we head further north, through the breathtaking Simien Mountains where the sandy roads have changed into small rivers because of the rain. The temperature drops below 10C and our ears keep popping as we rise and fall between altitudes of 1000m and 3000m.

Our Land Rover, starting to emit pitch-black smoke, is making us a bit anxious. But other overlanders have told us that this is normal when you drive at such heights. Moreover, the Ethiopian fuel is not of good quality.

In Axum we try to catch a glimpse of the chapel where the Ark of the Covenant should be. According to the Old Testament, the golden case containing the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them were originally located in Jerusalem. But according to the Ethiopians, the son of King Solomon and Ethiopia’s Queen Sheba took the ark to Axum.

No historian or archaeologist can verify this because only a high priest is allowed to enter the chapel. Foreigners aren’t even allowed through the fence around the sanctuary and we are even less fortunate. Because of a ceremony in the adjacent church, the guard tells us we have to wait for three hours before we can enter the terrain.

So we head to the local, remarkably cosy pub. We indulge ourselves with an always tasty and cheap injera, the national Ethiopian dish, which among less positive travellers is also known as the “damp bath rug”.

After the rain and cold it’s a peculiar experience to see the temperature rise to 50ºC only a few hundred kilometres from Axum. We descend for five hours over a tough track full of sharp rocks to the Danakil Depression, said to be the hottest place on earth.

After getting our left rear tyre punctured, we get the chance to experience what it’s like to change a wheel in a convection oven! While being sandblasted, we burn ourselves on the red-hot tools. Exhausted and covered in sweat, we jump back into our car, extremely happy with the air conditioning.

At night we stay in a village called Hamed Ela, a collection of huts made of branches covered with plastic. The nomadic Afar people live here, calling the sweltering Depression their home. With a temperature of 37ºC at night, we find it difficult to fall asleep in our roof-top tent.

Bubbling lakes

When we get up at 05:00, we first have to collect three armed soldiers for the ride out. Because of the lack of space, two of them have to sit on the roof.

The Danakil Depression, largely a salt lake located close to the border with Eritrea, is still a hotbed of simmering conflict. Since five tourists were abducted and killed in this area in January 2012, the Ethiopian government has increased security significantly.

Driving over the salt plain, we are amazed when we see a trail of hundreds of camels passing by. We are told it took seven days for these camel caravans to walk from the Ethiopian highlands to the Depression. Munching and blinking their eyes with long lashes, the animals seem to stare at us.

A few kilometres further away, the caravans stop. Hundreds of Afar men are cutting salt blocks from the plain and loading them on the grumbling animals. The heat is unbearable and some of the unloaded camels are lying around with their heads resting on the salt.

We continue to Dalol, which is 130m below sea level. One of the soldiers stays to protect our car while we explore the mushroom shaped salt rocks. A landscape of ochre coloured cliffs holding bubbling green-yellow sulphur lakes stretches out behind them.

Together with our guide, we carefully walk between the lakes. One wrong move and your foot will crack through the crunchy crust and you will be cooked. Everything bubbles and simmers, and in some places white steam comes out of the ground.

Because of three tectonic plates slowly moving apart, “the inside of the earth is coming out”. Although we cover our mouths and noses with scarves, the penetrating sulphur smell makes us gasp for air. At the same time, the spectacular scenery is amazing and it feels as though we are standing at the end of the world.

Vertical climb

A few days later we gasp for air again, but this time because of the altitude. In the canyon-like Tigray Mountains that house 120 Orthodox Christian rock churches, we are planning to visit the church called Abune Yemata. But this is easier said than done.

First, we have to find the priest who has the key. Fortunately, we bump into the man, dressed in a white robe and turban, at the nearby river where his cows are drinking. While his fellow villagers passionately kiss the wooden key he wears on a cord around his neck, it takes nearly half-an-hour of negotiating before he agrees to a modest entrance fee.

Together with the priest and three “assistants”, we start the climb, but ten minutes later we are faced with a vertical cliff and I squeak, “Is this really where we have to go up?”

We take off our shoes and I put my hands and feet in the time-worn holes in the wall, as directed by the assistants. Unsecured, without ropes, I slowly climb, but when a hand slips from one of the holes, my legs start trembling. I catch my breath and see the headline, “Dutch traveller falls to death”. However, one of the helpers pulls my hand to another hole, I find my grip and after a deep breath I can continue to climb.

Upon reaching the top I’m astonished to find the 70-year-old priest patiently waiting for us. With adrenaline still pumping, the stunning view from the top of the tiny plateau takes my breath away. Surprised, I look right into a cavity filled with skulls and bones, which appears to be the honourable resting place of the predecessors of our priest.

He beckons us to follow him on a narrow ledge right beside a staggering, gaping depth, but smilingly he tries to keep us from looking down.

Once at a wooden door, which again is abundantly kissed by the assistants, the priest claims another 50 birr (2.50 euros) before he will open the door for us. We agree, while sighing, and step inside the dark room right after him.

When our eyes adjust to the gloom, we realise the walls and ceilings are covered in colourful frescoes. We are very impressed by the good condition of these ancient paintings, and even more so by the way believers have carved churches out of the rock in these inaccessible places. And that even at an old age, they climb to the churches.

Mystical journey

The churches in the remote Lalibela are just as special as the cliff churches, and reachable only by a beautiful dirt track running alongside mountains and across the grasslands.

Once in the mountain village, you won’t see anything of the cathedral-like structures. This is because the buildings are completely underground, carved out of rock and yet still free standing because they are surrounded by slots.

Because it’s a Sunday, we get the chance not only to admire the unimaginable structures but also the thousands of Ethiopian worshippers, dressed in typical white shawls. Dozens of people ecstatically kiss the doorsteps, floors and doorways of the churches and some constantly bend forwards while reading small faded Bibles. One man holds his cheek against a wall for more than five minutes.

A priest, dressed in a robe stitched with golden thread, recites solemnly from a Bible placed on a stand.

Strolling through the corridors linking these churches, we imagine ourselves centuries back in time.

Bush camping, unfortunately, isn’t easy in the overcrowded Ethiopia. We manage several times to find a nice spot by searching for one at dusk. But just when we’ve opened our rooftop tent in a valley behind some saplings, two warriors of the Oromo tribe notice us. The suspicious men, dressed in loincloths and armed with Kalashnikovs, slowly come closer to have a better look. But as soon as they see that we are two innocent faranjis – whites – they relax, and 30 minutes later they even offer to sleep at our campsite to protect us from hyenas. They sleep the whole night, lying side by side on a small blanket next to our car.

Next morning they take us for a glass of fresh milk from one of their cows. On our way to the herd, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of an exciting hunting scene. One of the warriors sneaks through the tall grass and points his Kalashnikov at something invisible. However, after a few seconds he lowers his weapon. Instead of a suspected hyena, the animal appears to be a wild boar, which these Muslims don’t eat.

A few days later, when we camp under an old tree, we are not received in the same hospitable way. It turns out that we’re camping on the route to a local school and in the morning at least 50 children gather around our car begging for a pen, book, plastic bottle or T-shirt.

We’ve previously visited many poor countries, but the way children demand a pen and how even grown men, while carrying a bag of flour on their shoulders, hold up their hands for alms, is new to us.

The thousands of Western development organisations, whose signboards can be seen next to the road at each village, probably play a role in this. And passing through the endless green grasslands and fields, we wonder how it can be that this country is short of food.

Hyena Boy

A couple of days later we stand face to face with a hyena, but this time for real. Harar, a city close to the border with Somalia, has a remarkable, centuries-old tradition. Every night on the outskirts of town, people feed the hyenas so they won’t attack the citizens.

Strolling through the picturesque alleys, we soon find the so-called Hyena Boy, who attracts the timid animals with his high-pitched cry.

When the spotted animals come closer, we remark on how relaxed the people are in the presence of the predators. We also get the chance to feed the hyenas, which proves a thrilling experience. They seem very big when you are on your knees, and they abruptly pull and tear the meat from your small stick.

At the Awash National Park, we get to understand the expression, “monkey business”. As we set out on foot in the afternoon to have a quick look at one of the camping spots, a baboon family appears to have taken up the spot. In no time, a male leans against our car door. Luckily we were clever enough to close the windows.

But next morning we are less focused. During breakfast, all of a sudden more than 30 squirrel monkeys gather around us. A mother with a baby stuck to her belly grabs our expensive Dutch cheese and climbs into a tree. They try to steal everything. There is no option but to continue breakfast inside the car, while the monkeys sit on the bonnet giving us dirty looks.

In the capital, Addis Ababa, we get some rest and enjoy a couple of nice tasty beers and snacks at the campsite of Wim’s Holland House. Then we drive hundreds of kilometres south, where steep mountains and grasslands evolve into fresh palm tree forests.

On the side of the road, more and more children show up with baskets full of mangos, pineapples and bananas for sale.

Traditional living

We take a dirt road towards the famous Omo Valley, where dozens of indigenous tribes still live a traditional life. Best known and most commercially minded among them are the Mursi, famous for their women wearing stone plates in their lower lips. But as we don’t like having to donate dozens of euros, or paying for each picture, we drive towards the region of the slightly less tourist savvy Hamer people.

In this area we meet a boy who works for a local school. He offers to show us around and translate for us. In the first village, a Hamer woman immediately starts checking her red clay haircut in one of our side mirrors. When she says she’s hungry, we give her a piece of bread. But she gazes at it, clearly not having seen this before. After we take a small bite, she carefully starts tasting it as well.

A little farther on we bump into a woman with shiny breasts, carrying yellow jerry cans. She tells us she’s going to brew sorghum beer for a wedding a few villages away.

The woman wears thick metal bracelets around her muscular upper arms and a goatskin decorated with beads. Her whole back is full of scars, probably caused by the controversial floggings during the traditional cow jumping ritual. This involves boys having to jump over cows, lined up in a row. When the boys succeed they are recognised as men, and women beg to be whipped by them, to show their love for the men.

Although it’s interesting to see the people living in their two-floors huts, where the only way of entering is by crawling in, it feels a bit like going to a circus. In the end we do pay a few dollars in thanks for our visit.

Then we drive to Omorate, the muddy border town where we are the first that day to get our passports stamped. After crossing many dried up riverbeds for half-an-hour, we reach the Kenyan border, and show our exit stamps to the Ethiopian border police housed in a rickety building. There are no flags or barriers – nothing to indicate we are now entering Kenya.

The immense Lake Turkana looms in the distance. We are just in time to see the beautiful orange sunset. While enjoying a silence we have missed so much during the previous few weeks, it is with fond memories that we say goodbye to the crowded but ever so beautiful Ethiopia.