Ethiopia; mesmerizing landscapes, churches and an accident
The border between Sudan and Ethiopia is an artificial line of only 500 meter but the countries at both sides are completely different. The dry dessert is suddenly replaced by green hills with cool winds. In Sudan the streets are relaxed with just a few men in white robes chatting or answering to the mosque’s cal for prayer. In Ethiopia the streets are chaos with running children in colorful old western clothes and christian priest chanting on every corner. Even the people look different; less Arabic and more African. We found that this border is not just a border between countries, but also a border between the disciplined and strict Arabic world and the wild unruly Africa of expressive colors, tribes, Ethiopian cuisine and malaria.
Our first stop was at ‘Tim & Kim’s place’ for a few days of well earned rest after rushing through Sudan. It is a Dutch run campsite well managed by Kim. Tim had left with a Kenian woman. Here we met Thiemo and Farina, a german couple who are doing the same trip as us. We got along very well and decided to travel together for a while. We planned a trip to the Simien mountains together, but then Farina was tested positive on Malaria. Which was obviously very sad for her and also a good reminder for us that we should take the malaria risk seriously. Especially since we do not take any preventative medicine. So all in all we left for the mountains by ourself, but only after agreeing we would meet them again later in Addis Abeba.
Arriving at the Simien Mountains we picked up a local scout (with rifle) and went up to our campsite on 3500 meter. The tough road up took us along waterfalls, baboons and amazing views! The camp was very basic and the night was cold. While we were settling in the tent with 2 blankets, 2 trouser, 4 shirts and a hat, our guide was planning to sleep outside on the ground under the sky at 0 degrees! Which is apparently ‘normal’ for the locals. Along the route up we already noticed in what harsh conditions the people lived. They farm at >2000 meter above sea level in a stoney and barren landscape with only basic tools and sometimes a donkey. Most do not have shoes or even proper clothes and we experienced the people begging for clothes rather than for money. We handed out some clothes we didn’t use and invited our guide to sleep that night in our car. Though that night we went to sleep knowing that this hardly makes a difference on the long run.
Havingextreme poverty around us is an inherent part of our journey and therefore also how we deal with it. At first we gave some money here and there, to children or elderly in the hope it would help, but also to address our own sense of guilt. The guilt that comes from being so outrageously rich in terms of money, opportunities and safety in comparison to many people in Africa. This is also so painfully clear when we drive our fancy Land Cruiser with fridge, clothes and a waterproof tent through villages of sticks, stones and mud. However our attitude towards giving changed during our journey in Ethiopia when we saw the devastating effects of a society being used to, and depended on, gifts by individuals and NGOs. Ethiopia is full of NGOs which are competing with big billboards along the road for your attention on the great projects they are doing. We experienced a society that is used to holding their hand up, literarily. Even in the most rural and remote areas there was always at least one English expression the people could speak. Gimme gimme (give me give me) along with holding their hand up and the expectations that you as a white person should take responsibility to solve their (government) problems. These experiences underpin the conclusionsof the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo in her popular book ‘Death aid’ namely that aid makes African leaders lazy, destroys local markets and keeps kids out of school. (Why study, when you earn more money with begging than with work?) So now we try more to help by not giving.
After the cold night in mountains we drove the next day up to 4500 meter. Rafiki was struggling to get air in the engine, but in the end we made it to the second highest mountain of Ethiopia. We planned to stay longer in the mountains for hiking, but one night of mountain cold and altitude headaches convinced us otherwise, so we decided to drive to Axum and Tigray next. The road was a mountain gravel road and the 200km route took over 6 hours, but the views where amazing! It turned out that this type of road was the new standard in mountainous Ethiopia and we would soon mis the Sudan roads which are all tarred, flat and straight. When we nearly arrived at our destination a local bus rammed us into the side of our car! Luckily nobody was hurt, but the side of our car was ravished! Once we got out of the car we where immediately surrounded by 20 or 30 shouting Ethiopians. A very unpleasant and even threatening situation. By chance there was one guy who spoke a bit of English and managed to explain us that we had two options. Either call for the traffic police, or settle it on spot with the other driver. Even though it was clearly the fault of the other driver we decided to take our loss as we had little trust in the local law enforcement and the situation was becoming increasingly unpleasant. So we shook the other driver’s hand and got away from the mob as soon as possible. Later we heard we made the right decision as the traffic police is (of course) corrupt and will confiscate foreigners’ car, regardless of who’s fault it is, and will only release after a big fat bribe.
Luckily soon after the accident we found a very nice place to camp namely on the grounds of the Korkor lodge. A luxury lodge very wel managed by Luigi, a 70+ year old Italian who divides his time between Swiss and Ethiopia. He let us set up camp aslong as we promised not to tell other overlanders as this was an exception – other guest where paying 150 dollar a day! The money we saved on accommodation we spend on the Lodge’s nice breakfast and the three course communal dinner which we daily enjoyed together with Luigi and the other guests. During these dinners we learned a lot about Ethiopia as many of the other guest where expats working and living in Ethiopia. Because Korkor was such a great place we spend here nearly a week relaxing and enjoying the free and super fast WiFi. This is very unique in Africa, and it was costing the lodge 350 dollar a month! During this week we made a few day trips to the Tigray rock churches. These are 7th century churches carved out in the rocks and caves on the most unaccessible places to prevent raiders to steal the church’s treasures. To reach one of the churches we had to do a 7 meter vertical climb! Also we visited the Danakil depression, which is one of the hottest and lowest points on earth with 100m below sea level. It is a unique area as the result of the tectonics plates of Africa and Arab moving apart from each other. The landscapes where otherworldly with boiling sulfur lakes, salt mountains and salt plains. Check out the pictures and movies on our instagram!
After a week at Korkor we where happy to hit the road again. We stayed away from the asfalt and took an amazing dirt track through the mountains and remote villages towards Lalibela. Here we visited the famous complex of 11 churches, a UNESCO world heritage site. These churches where built at command of King Lalibela in the 13th century, though not towards the sky, but build downwards, hewn out of one single rock! After a vist to Jeruzalem the king decided that all his subjects should be able to make this Christian pilgrimage without all the hazards of such a journey. So he decided to built a symbolic representation of Jeruzalem including Bethlehem (a rock church), the Jordan river (a mountain creek) and the tombe of king David (a hole in the ground). Nowadays it is still Ethiopia’s most holiest city and still very much in use. It was incredible to marvel at the huge churches and their building method, while the the white robed priests and believers where performing the masses, prayers and ceremonies. For many Ethiopians (we spoke to) Lalibela is the center of global Christianity. Unparalleled in grandness, artifacts and architectural wonder. Unparalleled even by Rome or the original pilgrimage sites which it ought to symbolize. This hind of nationalistic megalomania we also experienced at other moments. For example when a guide explained to us that other African countries with the same colors in their flag as Ethiopia, did so to the honor of Ethiopia. Or when it is argued that all humans are partly Ethiopian (and therefore we all should know their history), because the oldest human remains, about 4,2 million year old, have been found in the south east of nowadays Ethiopia. Or when they proudly proclaim that Ethiopia is the only African country which is never colonized, and therefore proclaim all the ‘greatness’ is their own, thereby simply ignoring the 11 years of occupation by Italy. We often chuckled when an Ethiopian rambled on about the greatness of their country, though in their defense we have to recognize that their nationalistic government for decades controlled information and that only recently they have access to uncensored internet.
Next stop Addis Abeba, the capital of Ethiopia and the African Union. In the Korkor Lodge we met Velten, a German expat who is living in Addis. He planned a holiday back to Germany and for this time he generously offered his house to us! Experiencing such kindness is what make travel so special and having a real house after being so many weeks on the road was amazing! We enjoyed all the sudden available luxuries to the fullest, such as having a couch! The first thing we did was having home delivery of Indian food and watching Game of Thrones. Also we re-met with Farina and Thiemo and they ended up pitching up their tent in the garden. Together we enjoyed the house with home cooking and playing board games.
Also we used the living room to discuss the route towards Kenya. The south of Ethiopia had become increasingly restless and just now new shootings and killings had been reported at the Kenyan border crossing. When we entered Ethiopia we already had been lucky – as a day after we crossed attacks took place at this crossing and the whole area was closed down as a no-go area. So we decided to not push our luck and chose a different route towards Kenya. We decided to head for the Omorate border crossing in the far south-west of the Omo valley. This area is very remote and is largely off grid in terms of electricity, water and general civilization. It is still largely run by different tribes which are, more often than not, at war with each other. So for this ‘safer’ route we had to prepare ourselves properly by stocking up fuel, water & food, checking up the car and getting the paperwork in order. Since this is Africa this took us nearly a week.
The more south we got the more rural and wild the people became, and for the first time we did not feel safe on the streets. We aimed to wild camp at a site near the beautiful ‘10000 flamingo’ lake for which we took a gravel path and speed was limited. As the path took us further from the main road the more children and teenagers came at us for wanting something from us. At some point they where climbing up our car while we were still driving and they became more and more aggressive. In our attempt to get away we accidentally turned into a small village square. Here more teenagers came at us up to being fully surrounded by a mob of people yelling for money and banging on our car. At this point we felt pretty uncomfortable and Timo had his food at the peddle and had decided that if need be he would just push it, regardless the people in front of us. Luckily it did not came that far as a few sensible adults chased the teenagers away with sticks and stones and hitting more than a few of them. Though this was the most extreme, it was sadly not a standalone incident. We have had stones thrown at us, a shovel swung at our car when we spurred through a road block of angry teenagers, and we had been pickpocketed in Addis. This might be explained by 75% of the population being below 20 and therefore there are bored and unemployed children/teenagers everywhere. After a month we were done and ready to leave the country.
Our last stop in Ethiopia was Turmi. A remote village consisting of a few dusty roads, beat down people and a generale vibe of hopelessness. The only reason tourists come to this place is to visit indigenous tribes which are known for there body painting or having plates in their lips. We also visited one tribe, the Karo people, and it turned out to be a first hand experience of the devastating effect of toursim on indigenous communities. Though the tribe’s village is situated very remote in the middle of the bush, tourist minivans are arriving here daily. The tribe has anticipated to this and the result is a human zoo like experience. The members of the tribe line-up fully dressed for a photo. But not before you pay an entrance fee to the town, a fee for the local guide and a fee per photo you make. This last fee you pay directly to the person you take a photo of, which results in a weird kind om competition between the tribe people. They do everything they can to convince you of taking a photo; the warriors flex their muscles, the mothers present their babies and the teenage girls use their sexuality. All are fully dressed in their ceremonial outfits, which we heard later, they don’t use anymore as their traditions are not actively being practiced. The most heartbreaking was not this nor the price of a young girl, namely 125 sheep, but the alcoholism.. As the men have their children farm the land, their wives running the household and the tourist bringing in the money, they had nothing other to do than to spent their days drinking. A fate similar to other indigenous tribes in the area who work with tourists, and for many of them it is the beginning of the end of their traditions and traditional lifestyle.
In the end we spend a week in Turmi. Not because we liked it so much not being able to shower, but because on the way back from the tribe Thiemo and Farina’s car broke down. Since we were in the middle of nowhere it took us a few days to repair it. It took so long since we had to get the right part from the the closest city, which was a day driving to reach it. Eventually the car was fixed and after spending a month in Ethiopia we where finally heading towards Kenya.
We already posted some impressions check here, or have a look on our instagramaccount.