Journal 8

Which Way?

December 05

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Thanks Updated 15.03.06 Virtual Tour of Mel Please join us - added 20.02.06

We had at last stopped procrastinating and had decided on the route we would head for. We had decided it was best to just carry on with our original plan along the east of Africa. The journey across the Congo river would be fantastic, but we were still too worried about rogue men wandering around with guns and the roads are supposed to be terrible. We spoke to one lady who had been there before the war and she described pot holes so big that six trucks could be stuck in it and so deep that as you approached the pothole, you wouldn't see the trucks!! As for the West coast we really didn't want to drive back south when we were supposed to heading north, maybe one day we will drive back down to South Africa that way!

So finally we left Lake Naivasha, saying goodbye and good luck to Jo and Dave. We briefly stopped at the gates of the campsite for the toilet. Jumping back in the car to put our plan into action, Andy tried to start the car, but the starter motor was not working. Mmm, maybe we won't be going anywhere. After hitting the starter motor with a spanner and then getting a push jump start we were off and heading north.

We opted for the scenic route past Abardare National Park and then joined the main road just south of Mount Kenya and then kept heading north towards Ethiopia. We stopped at Thomsons Falls, the highest in Kenya. The road was lonely and rural, so when we stumbled on the Trout Tree Restaurant, it was a random but good place to stop for lunch. It was in fact a tree house-like structure looking over the trout farm, with tree hyraxes climbing around us. (Look a bit like large guinea pigs, but are actually related to the elephant.) The drink bottles were kept cool by lowering them into the trout pools, and hoisting them up with a pulley system, ingenious if somewhat unhygienic.

Jo & Dave Camels on road to Isiolo
Jo and Dave Camels on the road to Isiolo Laisamies Mission Station Trout Tree Restaurant

As we drove north the landscape became gradually less and less green and more and more desert like. This was confirmed when we spotted the first herd of camels feeding by the road. The frontier town of Isiolo signalled the end of the tarmac and the start of a rough gravel road. The scenery was captivating with some spectacular mountains and lots of the beautiful umbrella-like acacia trees. Along the road were tribesmen herding their animals, draped in blankets and carrying spears, some with feathers in their hair. In the dusty villages we passed through, there were women completely laden with beads around their necks, I wondered at the strength their necks must have to be able to keep upright with so many beads around them. Other women flowed down the streets in brightly coloured dresses and veils, giggling to each other at the sight of Mel and us foreigners. We had heard that it was possible to stay at mission stations along this road if you need to and there was no way we would get to the next town with a hotel before sunset, so we drove to the Laisamies mission and asked if we could camp in their grounds. They were very nice and showed us where we could use the toilet and shower and then left us to it. They did not ask for any money, but we gave them a donation. It is a good thing to know that missions will help travellers, but we didn't want to take advantage. We have heard of cases where travellers have abused the mission's hospitality and this means they might stop helping travellers in the future. We left early to carry on the gravel road that is rather ambitiously called the East Trans Highway. This notorious road has some of the worst corrugations of the whole trip, we are told. There are two ways of dealing with it, either very slowly or if you can bare the discomfort of getting up to speed, very fast so that you skip over the bumps. We tried slowly first but it still felt terrible and so we tried fast. It felt like we were attached to a bucking bronco that had gone haywire, the bones in our bodies jarring with each vibration. The problem with going fast is that the gravel makes the car skid on the road and so Andy has to concentrate very hard, while I concentrated very hard on trying NOT to look at the road. After 200 km or so we noticed that the car did not feel right and looking at the car it was all unaligned. Andy went to have a closer inspection and he appeared with a look on his face that I have learnt means that it's not good news. He had found a large crack along part of the chassis. We opted for the very very slow method for the next 25 km, until we got to Marsabit town, where there was a small garage. It took the whole day for the mechanics to weld on a splint to the chassis to keep it from falling apart. Poor Mel. We had to stay in the town at a hotel called the Jey Jey centre. There was secure parking and we could sleep in the car, but the view was not very inspiring, with an African market place next door and a rubbish dump in the corner.

Hard Day at the Garage
Hard day at the Garage. Garage in Kerma Mountains in the desert of N. Kenya

Again we left early, hoping to get to the Ethiopian border that day. Marsabit was very surreal to drive through, as it is a mountain in the middle of the desert that forms an island of vegetation. Mist sweeps over the roads, and trees once more cover the landscape. But the lush vegetation only lasts about 50 km and then it is back to desert. And this is real featureless desert, with only a few desiccated-looking shrubs in between blackened rocks. Suddenly in the distance we could see a large dust cloud and as far as the eye could see was a line of cattle coming from somewhere off on the horizon.

At one small town we were stopped at a police stop-check, and a guard with a rather large gun asked us to take him to the next town. We had been warned that this might happen and thought it was best not to have some stranger with a weapon in our car, so we politely declined saying we weren't going there. He looked confused, since there was only one road and there was nowhere else to go, but as convincingly as we could we pointed at somewhere on the map. Begrudgingly he let us go.

We had met an English motor biker at the hotel in Marsabit who had just come from the north and he said the road got better and better as you drove towards Ethiopia. He lied. Well, actually I presume it just didn't rain on the day he drove down it, because within minutes of the downpour starting the road turned into one huge mud bath. Andy did an excellent job of keeping the car on the road and correcting it before it swerved. He had just finished explaining to me how to steer into swerves, when we passed an oncoming truck and for a split second Andy lost concentration and we were sliding into the ditch. There wasn't anything I could do, other than cling on tight until we came to a stop. Since we were going slowly we didn't go far, but now we had to get her out again. As I walked outside to help with the car extraction my flip-flops got stuck in the mud and snapped, so I was stood at the side of the road with only one shoe, the rain pelting down on me, looking at our car hanging at a 45degree angle in the ditch. This was defiantly NOT one of the highlights of the trip. As we worked the rain got heavier and heavier until we were both soaked to the skin. It was too slippery for even the four-wheel drive to work, so we used the winch to pull us out. It worked well though and quite soon Mel was back on the road, if somewhat muddy. We changed into dry clothes and felt great relief as we drove even more slowly down the road.

Fixing chassis Marsabit. Marsabit Leopard tortoise
Fixing the chassis in Marsabit. Marsabit NR North Kenya Saving the leopard tortoise

The landscape was depressing with heavy dark clouds, rivers along both sides of the road and a looming misty escarpment in the distance, where we were heading. The rain stopped for a while and we narrowly missed a small leopard tortoise that was in the road. Worried that it might get run over we stopped and carefully picked it up and placed it in the bush, its little legs dangling out from its shell as we carried it to safety.

We reached the border at Moyale and rather excitingly found ourselves back on tar, hurrah!! We quickly finished the paperwork on the Kenyan side. From all the reports we had heard of Ethiopia I was expecting hundreds of people to suddenly leap on us, begging as we passed through the gates into Ethiopia. But the border post was relatively sedate and the customs officials friendly enough. They had a quick look at our car to make sure all the serial numbers were correct and that was it. There was one Rastafarian who seemed a bit out of it who welcomed us to Ethiopia and tried to sell us some Ethiopian birr (money), we politely declined and went to the bank instead. As we drove out of the border post a mini bus taxi came bearing down on us, I flashed my lights and accelerated using my who dares wins philosophy. Just as we were about to crash I noticed the driver was on the left of the car and then I realised that they drive on the wrong side of the road here so I swerved to the other side narrowly avoiding him. Andy went in to change money, he was searched before he was allowed into the bank and then had to see about five different people before he was allowed to change 200 dollars. Meanwhile Cheryl watched as a small child scouted around the car, looking as if he was trying to find something he could detach from it. He eventually got bored and wandered off. Then three older boys appeared and started gesturing and saying "You, you, you". This we had also been warned about, that Ethiopians like to get foreigners attention with this rather unflattering phrase. Thankfully Andy noticed from inside the bank, stormed out and roughly shooed them away. The hotel we camped at was the best of the rather limited choice. A lady ushered me to a bathroom repeating several times "Water". It was slightly depressing and there was a definite lack of any water in either the toilet, shower or sink. But at least we were away from the prying eyes of the locals.

We had another early start, as we wanted to get up to Awassa, which was 500km away. It was the first time Cheryl drove on the right side of the road and it took a while to get used to. We drove past lots of giant termite hills, the ruins of an Italian castle and gradually more and more people as we got further north. The roads in towns were covered in brightly dressed men and women, who waited until the last second before dashing out of Mel's way. We wondered if this was a nation of deaf people? They over-zealously herded cows and goats, while bow-legged donkeys struggled to pull way-too-heavy carts along the road. It seemed that they treated their poor beasts of burden with just that bit more aggression than was necessary. We arrived at the pretty campsite with aching bums and relaxed our weary bodies.

Termite hills in Southern Ethiopia Donkey Cart Rift Valley Lake Awassa
Termite hill Donkey cart near Addis Ababa Rift Valley Lake Awassa  

Andy took the car to a local garage to fix a few bits and bobs that had been knocked by the terrible road in Kenya. Cheryl sat at the campsite writing the diary and being distracted by a tortoise that was munching its way through piles of pink hibiscus flowers. We watched the sun go down at Lake Awassa, a Rift Valley lake, where there were Egyptian geese, storks and many other water birds. Vervet and colobus monkeys swung around in the trees overhead and climbed all over our car, one spending a good couple of minutes puzzling over its reflection in the side mirror. We headed off to Addis Ababa, the capital city. Still the roads became even denser with small towns and people, animals and carts. There were often horses and donkeys hobbling around with a rope tied between their neck and back leg, presumably to stop them wandering off. As soon as anyone noticed us they would shout their national welcome at us "you!" along with their out stretched hand asking for money, food, pens or anything really, usually meanwhile the other hand would be beating some poor donkey or cow with a stick.

We arrived at Addis and got horribly lost, our tempers also getting misplaced for a while. After driving up and down the same road about five times we managed to find the hotel where there was a small courtyard in which we could camp. Having been recommended to us, the hotel was somewhat disappointing, but it was good to be able to rest. In the restaurant a small cat was quietly sitting under our table when the waiter walked past and booted the poor thing so hard it flew out of the door. Horrified Andy furiously shouted at the waiter jumped up and grabbed him by the neck, but he looked at us if we were mad, made no apologies for his behaviour and just shrugged it off by saying "in our culture it is normal". We retired to bed feeling very disappointed with their culture.

Down into Blue Nile Gorge
Horse and Carriage, Ethiopia. Down into Blue Nile Gorge N Ethiopia Disused Tank North Ethiopia

We now had to get our visa for Sudan, which by all accounts is not easy. In Cairo they issue it within a few hours, so easy. However in countries south of Sudan it takes at least a week, more usually 3-6 plus weeks and even then, after paying one hundred dollars each they might refuse your application, then you have to try again. You might be able to get a transit visa more quickly, except you would be hard pushed to drive through the largest country in Africa in seven days. We didn't want to wait in Ethiopia for so long, so we decided to leave the car in Addis, fly to Cairo and get our visa there and then fly back to Ethiopia and carry on again. We booked the flights and then had a day to waste until we were to leave for Cairo.

Andy took Mel to the Toyota garage, which was huge, cheap and the mechanics actually knew which way to turn a spanner. Unfortunately they were also very busy. Our fridge had also given up, so we asked someone at the hotel if there was somewhere that could fix a gas leak. Andy dropped it off, and was told to come back at four. We arrived at the small shop to find our fridge in many pieces and now not only did it not have any gas but the motor had also stopped working and the seal at the top of the fridge had been ripped off. I urged Andy to take the fridge away from them before they did any more damage, but ever the optimist he was still confident they could fix it. There was not room in the shop for more than three people, so I stood outside, where I watched an old man weaving his way down the street. The ragged man was shouting and waving a stick and he managed to hit a young man with. Two dogs ran in circles around him, barking and he tried to hit them too, but missed. The dogs grew bored and the old man headed towards us and proceeded to whirl his blanket in a wide arc around himself, still shouting. I hid behind one of the fridge guys, a human body shield being all he was good for. The crazy person carried on down the dusty street, still waving his blanket around. Meanwhile our fridge was having more bits cut off it, the gas filter now also being broken. It seemed it might be the mains power in the shop causing one of the problems, so we put it back in our car and plugged the fridge in. It still didn't work, the compressor kept cutting out. Then the idiots were in the back of our car. Passers-by stopped to gawk inside our car, it felt like my home was in a freak show. Then suddenly a gas bottle appeared with a welding?? tool.

"No, not in the car!" I was convinced it would explode or something. But as usual I was ignored and suddenly the tool was turned on and 15cm long flame shot out of the end of it. "Be careful!" He turned, swinging the flame-thrower in a large arc, narrowly missing our towels that were hanging up. He didn't seem to notice and when he burnt a hole in our seat just laughed. "Andy, get him out of our car and AWAY from the fridge!!!!" By this time my nerves were almost shot, and so I did not welcome the sight of crazy blanket man coming back towards us. Another even larger gas bottle was rolled out and I decided it was time to take cover behind a car, I had images of Mel going up in a ball of flames. Thankfully the fridge was taken out of the car again, but there was still a leak. Another worker appeared, inspected it and he then told us that they had used the wrong gas to fill our fridge with. "Can we take the fridge away from them yet?" Then an old woman appeared and started harassing me for food and started reeling off Arabic to me, I said no but she followed me around until eventually I asked the fridge man to tell her to leave me alone. After two hours of watching my fridge being slowly but efficiently destroyed I could take no more, "We are going!!!!" We retrieved our poor decrepit fridge and got in the car to leave. "But what about our money?" the fridge guy asked. I was really not impressed and did not take this question well. "You want money? You completely destroy our fridge and burn my car and you want money? You should give us money for all the damage you have caused!" We then left, seething. Later, in Khartoum we found another fridge engineer. He even had a voltmeter and straight away worked out the problem. He knew before we told him that they had put the wrong gas in the compressor and said it was lucky that it hadn't been damaged. He also found a screw that they had pushed up one of the pipes and then glued in… even the engineer didn't know why! Also he charged half of what the Addis guys wanted, but had fixed three times as many things. AND he gave us a cup of tea!

Back in Addis after we had managed to escape the fridge idiots we went for dinner and left the car in the Hilton hotel, while we flew to Cairo. We stayed at a hotel right in central Cairo, which overlooked Tahir Square. The noise of traffic and people drifted up into our room, but we were so tired we barely noticed. We rested for a while until the Sudan embassy was open. An Egyptian woman was waiting with us for the old-style lift, but she told us it could only take two people. Suddenly the hotel owner appeared and said no, three was ok. Then all hell broke loose as they started shouting at each other. Andy took the stairs whilst Cheryl politely waited in the lift for the woman to stop arguing. Eventually the women got in and down we went, but then she changed her mind half way down and made the lift go back up so she could have another go and the landlord. We later found out that the lift had severed a cable and luckily been caught on the safety brakes the day earlier, so this may have something to do with the little tiff.

The application for the Sudan visa was a little slow and we had to keep running around Cairo to get photocopies and a letter of recommendation from the British Embassy. The British Embassy would only give us a snotty letter, which cost us $20, saying that they don't give recommendation letters since British passports were good enough and does not restrict the movements of their citizens. Thankfully the Sudan Embassy didn't read it and after a few hours wait we were granted our visa, which included a holographic sticker - very snazzy! Well worth the 100 dollars each. Happily clutching our passports we returned to the hotel and had a good nights sleep.

Lift in Cairo Begging Children
The lift in Cairo Begging Children

The flight back to Addis was uneventful and we retrieved our car in the early hours of the morning and headed down the road. Being tired we were going to just get away from Addis and then find somewhere to rest. However, everywhere we stopped we had people begging or music blaring and so we just kept on driving. We stopped at the petrol station and I was talking to Andy when I turned round to have a face separated from mine by mere centimetres, and thankfully, the window. I nearly jumped out of my skin at the sight of the ghostly figure unblinkingly staring at me, wrapped in a bright green blanket, I thought it was the green reaper coming to get me! I nervously laughed when I realised it was just someone begging, but he still just kept staring at me with an expressionless face… weird.

So we kept driving and driving. The scenery was stunning as we descended and then ascended the Blue Nile gorge. On the down hill stint children would run after our car shouting and screaming more "you's". They would literally follow for minutes, but we felt it is irresponsible to just hand out things to people because they come to expect it, and sadly some even dependant on it. On the uphill they would shout but it wasn't worth them running after our car as it took too much energy.

We spent a night in Gondar, where there is a large castle, which is quite a bizarre sight to come across in Africa. The guy who did the prayer call in the local mosque obviously liked the sound of his own voice as we were kept awake all night as he blared across the town. We decided not to visit the churches in northern Ethiopia as the roads were terrible and to be honest we didn't like the people there, so we headed to Sudan.

The road was gravel but not too bad to the border, where we gladly left Ethiopia behind (especially since we had a couple kids throw stones at the car). The immigration office was literally a mud hut, but it was quick. The Sudan side was a lot more quiet, but much slower. We had to pay more money to register into the country and then we had to give a list of things like cameras etc and their serial numbers. Then we went to security where we had another form to fill in and give thumb prints. All that done and we were free to explore Sudan!

  Lilly covered Lake Naivasha Destroyed tyre

The road became a lot bumpier and it took about three hours to get to the town of Gaderef and more importantly, tar! The main highway has hundreds of huge trucks trudging along, so there are a lot of over taking manoeuvres. We had another two punctures, which takes us up to 16 so far. One of our tyres has become completely destroyed so we got rid of it, we're down to one spare.

Whilst the countryside is pretty monotonous, the people are very nice, with hardly any begging and always saying hello and welcoming us to Sudan. Khartoum, the capital is on the confluence of the Blue and White Niles. We booked ourselves on a diving trip from Port Sudan and had a few days to kill in Khartoum before the boat was to leave. By the time we were to go diving we were bored silly and it got so bad we spent over an hour walking around the country's only supermarket, even though we didn't need anything.

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