Monday, 21 January 2013

Crossing into Kenya

How best to get between Kenya and Ethiopia is a subject of constant debate amongst overlanders.  The traditional route has been via Moyale and Marsabit in north eastern Kenya.  The main advantage is that it’s a proper border, an actual road and is pretty direct.  The disadvantages include a horrendous corrugated road surface and bandits – potentially needing to take an armed escort isn’t exactly a draw.  The other option is to continue south from Omo alongside Lake Turkana (world’s largest desert lake and more shoreline than Kenya’s coast).  The route seems to be safer and while it’s often tracks rather than roads they don’t quite have the bone jarring qualities of a heavily corrugated highway.  Disadvantages include no fuel for nearly 1,000 miles and your mother reading the Wikipedia entry.  “Nile crocodiles are found in great abundance on the flats. The rocky shores are home to scorpions and carpet vipers.”  Still, off-road seemed preferable to bandits, and James wanted to feel rugged, so Turkana it was.  We joined up with a couple of other cars (South African/English and Dutch) as if we got stuck or broke down or ran out of fuel, some back up was going to be pretty essential.  This was demonstrated nicely on the first day when a muddy riverbank separated our wheel arch from the rest of the car and it ended up on Karen and Marcello’s car roof for the rest of the journey.

Ready to go
Grrrr - James feels manly
These guys are pretty nuts trying to do it on a bike - but good beard
 We got stamped out of Omorate in Ethiopia and then headed for the border – stopping at what were definitely the most naked checkpoints we’ve come across so far.  

Not your standard passport control

The road was just a track, winding through the bush and past the odd tiny village, but we were really lucky with the weather and didn’t end up in any mud traps or difficult river crossings.  Apart from the lost wheel arch we were all intact as we rolled out of Ethiopia...

Last Ethiopian flag

...and into Kenya.  At least the GPS told us it was Kenya – we’d have had no idea otherwise!

It's the border into Kenya - you'll have to trust us

There wasn’t really any noticeable difference between the two countries so far north, as I think the tribes are pretty much the same.  We made a quick stop to register with some jolly policemen and one handcuffed miscreant in the small town of Illeret and then made for the lake.
It didn’t really seem to be living up to its ‘Jade Sea’ nickname that evening, being a very clear shade of blue, but we found a lovely spot to camp and the only visitors we had were lots of birds and some of the local kids and fishermen – no crocodiles or vipers.  We all had a good stare at each other and admired the cars (them) and the feathered headdresses (us).  I think they were Daasanach people because of the hairstyle that some of the guys had (lots of little curls making a hairband shape) but not sure.  The Daasanach live right up in the north of Turkana but have lost a lot of land and suffered badly from droughts.  Things are only likely to get worse if the Ethiopian government starts using the Omo River that feeds the lake to irrigate the growing sugar cane plantations in the south east of the country.  According to some guys we met there is a risk the lake could be pretty much drained in 20 years.

Lake Turkana is famous for:
  1. Being very big
  2. Being green
  3. Being windy
  4. Being incredibly remote
  5. Cool tribes
  6. Being one of the contenders for the cradle of humanity – it’s where Richard Leakey (of anti-poaching / Kenya Wildlife Service fame) found a 2 million year old skull

Can’t really vouch for number 6 but in the the three days it took us to drive down in through Sibiloi National Park the first 5 were very much in evidence.

Really not much around!
Amazing bush camps

Mainly camels for company

And our first zebras
Definitely jade coloured...

...but seriously, would you live here?  The wind gets up to 60 kph on a regular basis.  This is an El Molo tribe fisherman's hunt - there's only about 250 of them left as it turns out eating mainly fish and crocodiles isn't really a balanced diet.

On the plus side, the wind means that there is huge potential for wind power.  Near South Horr we met a couple of guys in the middle of setting up a wind farm - apparently it would be the biggest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally, after our days in the wilderness and some tough driving over lava fields we reached Loyangalani – our first real Kenyan town.  The area around is dominated by Turkana people.  The women wear hundreds of beaded necklaces and the men wear blood red cloaks and funky hats.  Quite a few of them came over to where we were camping to say hello and have a look at our cars but chats were pretty limited given we had zero Turkana and they had zero English.

Turkana ladies (thanks to Flores-Jan for the photo)

We said goodbye to the Jade Sea there and headed inland.  The countryside suddenly became much wetter and more green as we headed towards South Horr, into Samburu country.
Actual rain and clouds and mountains!

The Samburu women still wear loads of necklaces but low on their shoulders instead of on their necks.

The men's headgear was amazing, but we don't have any very good photos I'm afraid.  These guys were out cattle herding and came to have some lunch with us.  Because they're working they have all their braids up in a brown hairnet, but the young men in town had hairbands with feathers on and huge silver jangly headresses.

The final stretch took us east to the main North/South road (the one we’d avoided further north).  Our first 20km on it were probably the worst of the whole journey as the surface was so bad, and we were so glad we hadn’t taken it all the way.  But then – bliss – absolutely perfect tar with lines and even metal barriers.  And then – even better – our first elephants right by the roadside!

Our final campsite in Isiolo made a pretty surreal end to such a wild journey.  It’s just at the start of the fertile central highlands and pretty much felt like we’d arrived in England.  Not quite what we were expecting, having spent most of the day driving past herds of camels!

950km after the last fuel station - we finally made it

Tribe Time

We had pretty high expectations going into Ethiopia, as various friends had been there and raved about it, but throughout all of our trip we really weren’t disappointed.  As we headed south from Addis, every drive continued to be absolutely stunning – which was fortunate as we had quite a long distance to cover to get down to the Kenyan border.

Our first leg was following the Rift Valley down to Arba Minch.  The roads were the usual challenge of livestock and child dodging, but the landscape really changed from highlands, to savannah, up into rainforested hills and then down into the classic red soil African valleys.

Rift Valley south of Addis

Forest and red soil

Arba Minch itself is in a pretty amazing location.  We stayed at a campsite overlooking ‘The Bridge of God’, a thin strip of land between two Rift Valley lakes.  Not sure if it’s obvious from the photo, but the two lakes are totally different colours as the northern one has a reddish tinge from the mineral rich mountains that feed it.

It really is pretty red in real life

We shared our campsite with a lot of Ethiopian Christmas revellers and three fairly friendly warthogs.

Definitely not nervous

Heading up into the mountains we visited the villages of the Dorze, highlanders famous for weaving.  We had a really fun day seeing how they build their huts (very tall but shrinking over the years as the termites gradually eat them) and learning how to make the local bread (fake banana plant buried in the ground and left to ferment for several weeks – fairly ‘interesting’ taste).

Bread fermented underground - nicer than it sounds

The last area of Ethiopia we visited was the Omo Valley, which is famous for its distinctive tribes, partly due to Don McCullin’s photos of them.

The remoteness of the area has preserved a lot of local traditions and distinctive dress - although the all pervasive football shirt was definitely being incorporated into a lot of the traditional outfits!  Some customs sounded pretty entertaining (running along the backs of bulls before you’re allowed to get married), some less so (whipping your female relatives), but we put on our cultural relativity hats and headed off.

We’d heard the experience of travelling the area could be a bit weird and ‘human zoo’ because of all the tourism, and while that was definitely the case in some places it really wasn’t in others. 
We drove into the valley past the usual stunning landscapes and stopped in a town called Key Afer as it was market day the next day.  Having spent most of the evening playing with the kids from our campsite, we ended up with several tiny (and very serious) tour guides for our visit. 

First stop was the livestock market.  It’s just getting warmed up, in these photos but the guys rocking mini skirts, headbands and utility vests are from the Banna tribe, who we think are probably the coolest.

The main market was for fruit and veg (although the electronics stall was attracting the most attention).  In the market and on all the road approaching it were masses of people from different tribes – more Banna, Ari in grass skirts, Hamer ladies with ochre coloured hair and calabashes on their heads – it really was like walking into a different world.

Next day however, we came up against some of the grimmer impacts of tourism in the valley.  We had driven into the Mago National Park and camped for the night right in the forest.  The local elephants stayed away, but we had visits from Colobus monkeys and a troop of baboons.

Road to the park
Some visitors

We decided to visit some of the villages of the Mursi in the park – famous for the lip plates that a lot of the women wear.  It was a pretty depressing experience though, as the guides from the nearest big town (Jinja) just seem to bus tourists out and stick them in front of the locals to take photos, with zero effort to translate or create any exchange between the visitors and the villagers.  Everyone just stands there demanding money and a lot of the guys seemed to be high/drunk.  Probably a great case study of how it can all go wrong, but left us feeling pretty sad.
Cool photo but generally feeling a lot of tourist guilt!

We definitely preferred just driving across the region and meeting everybody in the towns or on the roads – that really was unforgettable and it was amazing to see so many places that were 
just totally alien to anything we were used to.
Ari (I think) women on the way to market
Mursi mum

Mago National Park in the rain

Hitting the Highlands

It was a minor miracle, when travel weary after a hard 5 days crossing Sudan, we rolled into a small hostel in the mountain town of Gondar to found that Ali had managed to meet us there. So vague and unconfirmed were our plans, I had had my doubts, but on his own adventure via Addis, Ali had checked into our trip for a couple of weeks, and thankfully bought Christmas with him, in the shape of a stocking, and Cadbury's Celebrations. They never tasted so sweet!

We saw in Christmas day, in a traditional Ethiopian nightclub, where the locals show off their trademark shoulder dancing, which often includes a dance off between two same sex parties, with everyone winning in the end (see video for example)

Dancing has been a theme of our trip around Ethiopia. As we've moved through the different provinces, each has produced a new dance from the local children, which they use to impress you enough to give them a dollar or two (special mention to the group of kids near Arba Minch doing headstands whilst completely naked). Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour keeps the kids out of school, so its important not to reward their endeavours.

After a tour of Gondar's hilltop castle, we hit the road with the aim of spending Christmas at Tim and Kim's place on Lake Turkana. There a warm welcome, many of our friends from the road, and an amazing Christmas dinner awaited us. Tim's goat BBQ was tastier than you could ever imagine!

The video I wish I could put here is of one of the dogs at Tim and Kim's running straight at Ali's legs and sending him flying, but you'll have to use your imagination for that one!

It was from there that we headed north into the Simien Mountains for 2 days of trekking. For me this was one of the bits of the trip I'd looked forward to the most when planning at home.

Most of Ethiopia is at altitude, but instead of the mountains rising up from the plains, the plains are at the top, where everyone lives, and the height is made stark by plunging gulleys and valleys which drop for thousands of meters and make for some incredible scenery.

They did not disappoint. I will never forget turning the first corner into the park and feeling goosebumps as the valley dropped away in front of us and the craggy rocks created a stunning backdrop to our drive. Truly epic.

Ali getting involved in time for some trekking

At the 4,000m altitude the car started producing some weird white smoke because it wasn't getting oxygen, it was also very cold!

Nice views

Baboons all over the place!

The other highlight of our northern circuit was a visit to Lalibela, Ethiopia's answer to Jerusalem  where a former emperor carved 11 churches into solid rock. (Ethiopia is big on religious sights, also claiming to house the original ark of the covenant)

Ethiopia has its own brand of orthodox Christianity, and its own calendar to fit. On the 6th Jan 2013, it was celebrating Christmas 2005, and when we visited on New Years Eve, the pilgrims were flocking to the site pre-Christmas having walked for days or even weeks to get there (and they smelt like it!)

Churches carved into the rock

One of the real highlights of the trip to Lalibela though was the road. An off road gravel track along a mountainside very hairy to drive, but with incredible views both sides. This driving does tend to make the car very dirty though, so we stopped to get the car washed in the river in Bahrir Dar. Those guys have some real skills with a bucket!

Reversing into the river ready for our car wash

From there, it was on to Addis, where Ali would say goodbye, and we would descend into the admin vortex that seems to take over whenever we reach a big capital city. The car got a full service, and some extra insurance, and now we're off to start our trip on the wild route through western Ethiopia and into Kenya. We did however managed to spare the time in Addis to visit Bob Geldof's favourite Italian restaurant, called Castelli's. The fresh pasta is highly recommended!