Part 6: Adieu Abyssinia!

Welcome back (faithful) reader(s)! It is finally time to write this final installment of the Road to Africa, and what a journey it has been. The day we finally got into Ethiopia was a day of suffering, sitting in mini buses while tearing through Shantaram and generally not trying to think of my bowels and the fact that I hadn’t had food for two days. Having finally acquired visas, the border crossing went smooth enough. Late in the day we arrived in Gonder, a city that shows so many similarities with Tolkien’s Gondor, it defies belief in coincidence. It has a massive fortress on a hill in the middle of the town, it is set in the highlands and there are massive eagles busying all around the city. Acting as the capital of a proud Christian kingdom for centuries, it lost its role as capital city only when the last ruler turned on the population, tried to sack the town and eventually committed suicide in a high tower. Creepy resemblance. I spent some days recovering in the hotel, Edu did a lot of drinking, we both ate a lot. What a relief after Sudan: all the clubs, stylishly dressed Ethiopians, the music, the flirting, the food, the beer and even the other foreigners.

My former travel buddy Marcus the Ozzie (with whom I hitchhiked through the Balkans a few years back) has been in Africa for about a year now, cycling from South Africa upwards. We had been in contact throughout our journeys and our paths finally crossed in Bahir Dar, about 200km onwards. If Gonder corresponds to Tolkien’s Minas Tirith, this is definitely Lake Town, with its piers, boats and island churches. Among other things, Marcus told us about trekking in the Simien mountains, and how to do it without booking at a travel agency. You just bring all your own food and equipment, pay a guy with a gun to trudge along (mandatory, unfortunately) and off you go. Sounded good, and who were we to refuse a challenge and splurge hundreds of dollars on petty luxuries anyway? Two days later we haggled our way through the market place, eventually refusing the primitive stoves for rent and deciding to go with just a teapot, cutlery and some bags of fruits and canned food. Three hours into the first days’ trek and about an hour from the first camp, we realized we had failed to realize the rain season starts a bit earlier up high. The sky broke open, rain flooded down like an avalanche while we tried to keep climbing the now muddy, water whirling path. Soaked to the bone, we made it to the camp where we shared our rations with a couple of french guys while trying to coax feeling back into our frozen limbs. In hindsight I realize the start of the torrents marked the last time I had warm feet on this hike. We slept at eight in our tents with everything we had on. See, we had packed for the desert, so we had dismissed gear like hiking shoes, sleeping bags (Edu) and air mattresses (me).

So for four days we saw amazing wildlife, incredible mountain views (the highest point was 4070 meters), plenty of rain in between the sunshine, poorly cooked noodles with canned tuna, crackers with Nutella and the bottle of local moonshine we had procured in Gonder. That would have been fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that we shared the camp with the hikers who had opted to pay for the experience. They did not carry their own backpacks and when they arrived at the camp their tents were already set up and dinner was almost ready. Great people, we had a lot of fun with them on these cold mountain evenings although I definitely felt like Gollum when they were eating dinner in a hut, the delicious smells of a plethora of good dishes wafting out onto the mountain and occasional cries of “no please, no more, can’t swallow another bite” and “oh god there’s even dessert” disturbing the nightly silence. This was a serene silence otherwise punctuated by our occasional growling and drooling as we attempted to gather enough dry firewood to cook our noodles. We learned a lot, though. I learned that cardboard provides about halfway decent isolation as a air mattress substitute, Edu learned one can wear one’s own backpack as if it were a very small sleeping bag, providing extra heat to the legs about up to the knees. On the fourth day we hitched a ride back on an open truck (for an extortionate amount of money. Ethiopians are very friendly, liberated, interested people, but they will fuck you over without a moment’s hesitation), which took us to the nearest town. Took three hours while standing up and, together with about thirty other people, continually getting rained on.

First thing we did back in civilisation was eat, sleep, repeat for a while. We took a bus the day after to Axum, a 200km ride that took a whopping nine hours. Axum is the old capital of the mythical Axumite empire, which was undoubtedly impressive back in the day but which left very little to actually go and see. A couple of stelae and some awkwardly reconstructed pillars is about it. Good food though and a nice place to celebrate King’s Day abroad, starting the day with lots of beer as, of course, is tradition. As far back as Cairo we had heard stories about the Afar region in Ethiopia (heard about it from afar hehe), a depression more than a hundred meters below sea level with temperatures easily reaching 50 degrees. Problem is, it is hard to reach and rather unsafe, located near the Eritrean border amidst volcanoes and other rather inhospitable terrain, and illegal to venture to without supervision. Unwilling to miss out on it, we drove to Mekelle (the nearest sizable city) to haggle down the price. Which failed. No tour operator was the least bit interested in us going straight to the competition or threatening not to go at all. It is rather overcharged but what can you do? Miss out on the world’s only permanent lava lake and a sweltering salt plain a hundred meters below sea level?

You basically sit in a jeep for three days chewing chat (The local narcotic. You just chew the leaves off the twigs and you get chatty and energetic after a lot of it), hike up a volcano after dinner in the dark, try to check out the lava lake in the caldera while dodging the toxic fumes (Really nasty stuff. All the tour guides do is advise you to bring a scarf but if this was in Holland you’d need a gas mask) and then camp out on the volcano rim for a few hours. Go back for sunrise, hike the three hours back as soon as possible cause the temperature starts soaring once the sun comes up. Get a couple of buckets of water thrown at you to cool off, eat and go swim in a salt lake, baking all the way cause its about 45 degrees by then. Camp out, eat dinner and drink if you brought some. Next day get up at sunrise (four in the morning) again to drive across a huge, sweltering salt plain, overtaking the endless camel caravans trekking towards the salt miners, who hack blocks of salt out of the painfully white, flat, sun-scorched plain all day. I couldn’t do it for an hour but it seems they are used to it. Around eight you’ll reach a small elevated section of the plain which is volcanically active. As evidenced by the fumes, sulphur and salt formations. The environment basically looks like Venus and at a crushing fifty degrees your are allowed to roam around for less than an hour. Perfect place for a guitar video of course, as long as you do only one take: I recorded this one as quickly as possible and it shows, but it was simply too hot to play any longer.

After spending a day at the pool to recuperate we took the bus to the capital, Addis Ababa. Even though the distance is less than 800km, the terrain is mountainous enough to assure a very long drive. Specialised bus companies drive the distance in one day, but barely: you board at 3:30 at night and it reaches the Addis bus station around 20:00. We spent the first night drinking and rejoicing at Wim’s Holland House. Wim has unfortunately passed away but his widow runs the place amiably. It is populated by overlanders and other long-distance travelers, expats and occasional locals who enjoy a foreign chat. The last days of this trip were spent in the capital trying not to get robbed. I was stupid enough to walk alone to the bar area at ten in the evening: only with the greatest effort did I manage to escape the roaming duos of glue-sniffing adolescents who pretend to come up to you to talk, before flanking you. At this point, one grabs your arm and the other dives for your pocket. With a lot of kicking, dodging, running and shouting did I manage to get out of these two encounters with all my stuff still on me, but I was definitely rattled, and pretty paranoid after that. I looked over my shoulder constantly and didn’t feel safe until I reached a busier part of town about ten minutes later. After consulting with a couple of ice cold local beers I decided to walk on, after which my faith was rewarded. I met a great local guy and we spent the rest of the night drinking and looking for jazz bars. A word of advise (in hindsight, should have heeded it myself): just take a taxi after sundown. Two days later I said goodbye to Edu and to Africa and boarded a plane to Dubai, ate the most expensive shitty burger menu ever and flew to Amsterdam, finally ending this fascinating, immersing and invigorating journey. Overland to Africa, consider yourself crossed off the mental bucket list!

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