Tuesday, September 30, 1997

Ethiopia: Africa's enigma

Hello everyone

When we last wrote we were in the sumptuous surrounds of a turkey farm overlooking the majestic Lake Naivasha. After this brief respite we were thrust headlong into the rigours of african travel, namely a two day truck ride through the forbidding north Kenyan desert, home to ruthless shifta bandits and an inordinate amount of dust.

After an extremely tiring journey we finally arrived in the border town of Moyale. Driving through its dusty streets with the sounds of "I'm sitting on the top of Kilimanjaro" and residents waving from their houses we felt slightly regal on our perch at the top of our DAV truck. We also felt slightly relieved at the fact that we had managed to conquer the long desert stretch and were now left with the prospect of Ethiopia and all its mysterious charms.

The road to Ethiopia (see a bottom of this post for photo three months later)

The first thing that struck us upon arrival was the sense of difference from the rest of Africa which Ethiopia exuded. Firstly, the people look completely different with their straight hair and sharp features. Unlike the rest of East Africa, Ethiopia also has an outstanding cuisine both in terms of its food and variety of drinks. In the food section, the staple diet proves to be a pancake form of sour bread called "injera" which is served with different kinds of meat and sauces. Although it doesn't sound very appetising its certainly better than maize meal and four pieces of fried meat.

Dave and crew eating injera

Throughout our time in Ethiopia we have been confronted with more and more bizarre things that completely challenged our sense of reality. The first of these was in Moyale itself, where we met a rastafarian from Nigeria. Actually, he referred to his place of birth as "across the river Niger", and when we asked him his name he said that he had no need of social constructs and would prefer simply to relate to us man to man. He left Nigeria about two years ago and has since been travelling around africa through Cameroun, Chad, Sudan and Ethiopia. He has however chosen to do all these travels with the philosophy that an African doesn't need a passport to travel in Africa. Unfortunately the authorities of these countries didn't agree with him, and, except for Ethiopia, he has spent time in jail in all of them. In Sudan for instance, he spent one year in jail before they released him and permitted him to merrily march to Ethiopia. After passing through Ethiopia he arrived at the Kenyan border only to be refused entry. Ethiopia then suddenly got wise as well and refused to allow him to re-enter this country. He now sleeps on the bridge between the two countries where he's been for the last three months. People from Moyale bring him food and he has a little ganja garden from which he gets his inspiration. Far from being a doped up rasta though, he's an extremely intelligent person who believes a solution will be found as "we are dealing with man and with man there's always a solution."

We left Moyale the next day simply brimming over with enthusiasm for this strange country. About 200km into the trip north all our preconceptions of Ethiopia were shattered. We entered into an extremely green area with the land supporting a wide variety of fruits. It turns out that a large portion of the central region is lush and green in extreme contrast to those previous images of the 1984 famine. In the town of Dilla we met up with our Israeli friends from Zanzibar and, re-united, proceeded on to the junction town of Shashamene. It was here that we first truly discovered the extent of Ethiopia's culinary delights. At a little shop called Fasika Pastry we indulged ourselves in the wide variety of cakes and fresh fruit juices for less than $0.15 and $0.30 respectively. We also discovered Ethiopia's greatest virtue namely its simply fantastic coffee. It is quite easily the best coffee we've ever tasted, putting the old favourites Columbia and Kenya to shame. This is not surprising though since it was in Ethiopia where coffee was first used and the universal name of "coffee" derives from the Ethiopian Kaffe region where it is grown. In true Ethiopian style though, they choose to reject the name they've given the world and instead call it "buna".

The coffee culture is enhanced by the preponderance of cappuccino machines probably a legacy of the Italian occupation. One is therefore able to enjoy a wide variety of coffee drinks, our favourite being buna bowatet, hot frothy milk mixed with strong coffee.

It was also in Shashamene where Lance (or "Lion" as he was renamed by a Zanzibarian) discovered the virtues of an Ethiopian barber who gave him an outstanding haircut and shave for under a dollar. The fact that the owner was trying to marry off his two daughters to us, and they were doing their best to woo us with an Ethiopian coffee ceremony added to the whole mood. An Ethiopian coffee ceremony involves an hour long process, whereby the beans are roasted, ground and then intricately mixed with water to give you a superb cup of coffee. All of this is done amidst burning frankincense, and one is constantly being invited to partake in these ceremonies throughout Ethiopia.

Shashamene is home to a group of Jamaican Rastafarians who were offered land by the late emperor Haile Selassie. A considerable community has since formed there and we decided to go and visit them. Fortunately for us, our two Israeli friends had spent a year in Jamaica and could therefore speak the Patois dialect. This immediately enamoured us to the Rastas and allowed us to enter into their context. Our friend was so good at Patois in fact, that upon leaving, one of the Rastas remarked "Hey, dem man speak like black man."

The following day we all proceeded to the hot springs in Wondo Genet, 17km away. This is a magical place, filled with rolling green hills and luxuriant hot spring pools which enhanced our earlier feelings of absolute decadence. The fact that we were enjoying all these sights of Ethiopia and still coming in under $7 per day fascinated us as to why this country hasn't been discovered by more tourists. It is quite simply the best kept secret of the tourism market. All these pronouncements were made before we had even discovered the diversity of this country, and after a month of travel we can still only say that we've just scratched the surface.

The Ethiopia not seen on CNN (Waka, Ethiopia)

From Wonder Genet we proceeded back to Shashamene and then on to Addis Ababa for the important Olympic announcement. On the way to the embassy we were confronted by the spectre of a run-away bull which had obviously smelt its fate in the rotting bones of the abbatoir and summarily decided to take its chances on the streets of Addis. Its presence in the street created absolute pandemonium with cars having to veer out the way and people running behind fences to escape its horns. The would-be captors eventually cornered it in a deserted parking lot and attempted to lasso it. This proved to be an exciting task as the bull would constantly charge its antagonists. Eventually, after an hour long struggle, they managed to recapture it and we proceeded on to the embassy, amazed at what we had just witnessed. This is Africa after all.

After feasting on the latest SA newspapers in the embassy, we were invited by the ambassador, Dr Sandy Shaw, to join him and his wife for dinner and to await the big announcement. The superb dinner atmosphere (a traditional South African braai) was marred by learning of Diana and Mother Theresa's deaths and then shattered by the IOC's appalling Eurocentric decision.

We spent four days in Addis enjoying all this modern city has to offer. We visited the Merkato, Africa's biggest market, where anything and everything can be bought at prices so low that one has to question the source of the goods. We spent a whole Sunday lounging in a coffee bar, reading our novels as we consumed copious cups of superb coffee. At night we visited the local T'ej house, partying the night away on this golden alcoholic drink made from honey and eucalyptus. Delicious.

After we had thoroughly explored Addis we headed down South again to Shashamene and then South West to Arba Minch for new year. Ethiopia, naturally, chooses to work with a totally different perspective of time, using the Julian calendar of thirteen months. We were about to enter 1990. On new year we headed up into the cool, green mountain town of Chencha about two hours away, where we celebrated with a local family who had thrown a party for all their neighbours. After enjoying various traditional drinks and foods we headed to the local bar where Lance impressed all with his farangi dancing (in Ethiopia the term "mzungu" has now given way to "farangi"). That night, back in Arba Minch, the local restaurant proprietor handed us a jerrycan of T'ej which he demanded we finish. We obliged.

The next morning, far too early for our liking, we caught a bus into the heart of the Western desert region. After 11 torturous, hot hours in the most inhospitable land imaginable we arrived in the mountain oasis of Jinka. This region is populated with ancient tribes who have maintained the same primitive lifestyles since time immemorial. The first tribe we planned to visit were the infamously aggressive Mursi people, famous for the giant disks worn in their lower lips.

The fact that there's virtually no transport in the area forced us to walk for three days to be able to visit these enigmatic people. We first walked 15km to Berka, a beautiful tiny village high in the mountains where we camped at the police station, much to all the local kids' delight. The next morning we set off early with a local guide who spoke no English but who knew where to find the nomadic mursi. After three hours we had completed our rapid descent of the steep escarpment and found ourselves in the arid countryside we had first experienced on the ride to Jinka. After another hour's walk we reached a gathering of mursi men listening intently to an Australian missionary who has been working with the tribe for the last seven years. After introducing ourselves we were invited to a delicious lunch where we learnt of Jonathan and his family's amazing relationship with one of the most difficult tribes imaginable.

After lunch we visited and photographed the nearby mursi village. The men stand giant and naked bearing Kalushnikov machine guns used to fight the neighbouring Bodi tribe. Intermittent gun shots could be heard throughout our visit. The women wear animal skins but by far their most striking feature are the giant clay disks inserted in the lower lip and ears. This tribe is notoriously aggressive and we were harassed by the armed men, drunk on the local firewater, for money regularly.

Mursi woman, South West Ethiopia

After a tough walk up that same mountain, we finally arrived in Berka and the following day we hiked back to Jinka. After a welcome rest, we caught a rather overloaded truck to Omorate, 10 hours away. Omorate is on the banks of the Omo River and is quite possible one of the most inhospitable places in the world. It is a dusty desert town close to the Sudan and Kenya borders and has average temperatures of over 40 degrees centigrade. It is home to the Galeb people who seemed more accommodating than the mursi. We later found out though, they had in fact recently marched across the Kenyan border, killed 500 Turkana people and stolen their cattle. We learnt this from a Belgian anthropologist, Ivan, who had lived with these people for over a year.

The lack of transport in this area, meant that we were stranded here for a couple days. On the last day, at our wits end, we went to seek Ivan's company, only to find him engaged in a traditional chat ceremony. Chat is a legal stimulant comprising foul tasting leaves which one chews with sugar. The effect is quite astounding in that it doesn't have mind altering properties but increases your awareness and mental lucidity. Apparently school children use it while studying for exams. In this instance we used it as catalyst for wide ranging, in-depth talks about the intricate customs of the Galeb people and the significance these hold for the meaning of life.

Eventually we escaped the grips of Omorate on a truck to Turmi, two hours away. Although Turmi doesn't differ much in its layout, it was certainly a bit cooler. Turmi is home to the Hamer people and we were fortunate to witness the rare bull-jumping ceremony.

Hamer woman about to be whipped, Turmi, Ethiopia

Beautifully decorated women challenge the young men to beat them brutally with whips. Although reluctant, the men eventually give in to the women's constant taunting and deep gashes are gouged in the smiling women's backs. The boy who is being initiated, the Jumper, is required to run across the backs of ten bulls stark naked with his hair frissed into a giant afro. He has to do this four times, and if successful, then enters into manhood.
The Boy jumping his way into manhood, Turmi, Ethiopia

After being stuck in Turmi for another two days we hitched a lift to Keyafar, got stuck for to more days with the Bana people, and then eventually got a truck "home" to Arba Minch.

From Arba Minch we hitched a lift to Sodo where we met up with representatives of ActionAid. They took us to their project in the stunningly beautiful Waka area, 2400m above sea-level. After spending two days visiting their various projects we headed off to Addis to witness the Meskel ceremony.

This gigantic ceremony celebrates finding the remains of Jesus' cross 1600 years ago. It was watched by over 50 000 people, and all the various Orthodox churches turned out in full ceremonial garb. In the centre of the square, sat the dignatries who watched the proceedings under the cover of a huge marquee. This was summarily blown over though when a helicopter landed nearby, creating havoc. The climax of the ceremony consisted of the high priest setting fire to the huge wooden cross erect in the centre of Meskel Square lighting up the night's sky.

We are now about to head north to discover the treasures that await us there.

We plan to be in Lamu on the 22nd of December and we hope to see many of you there. (For those going to Zanzibar or Malawi, Lamu is now easily accessible by bus and is just 9 hours away from Dar. You've gotta go to Mombasa first, which is experiencing problems now, but we expect all will be quiet by the end of the year. When we were there we saw no evidence of any problems and we have no fear of going to Lamu.)

Keep sending those messages.


The African Wanderers

Dave and Lance

12 November 1997

Hi All

We said it before and we will say it again, this country is truly amazing. When we last wrote we had just come back from discovering the completely bizarre Southern region of Ethiopia, complete with its strange collection of different tribes. The defining characteristic of Ethiopia is, however, its orthodox Christian religion, and the way it is manifested in the various monasteries scattered throughout the Northern region. We therefore prepared ourselves for another mind-blowing experience, and promptly set off to discover the North.

We were fortunate in that we were able to hook up with another South African who had his own Land Rover. Anton was naturally from Cape Town and had in fact left South Africa at the same time as us. The three of us therefore set off in high spirits jiving to the sounds of Mango Groove and Johnny Clegg. Feeling intensely patriotic we made our way through this mysterious countryside of mountains and monasteries and crossing the mighty Blue Nile en route to the town of Bahir Dar.

Arriving in Bahir Dar, we connected up with an Israeli couple who we had first met in Zanzibar, and had since then travelled with them at various intervals on the trip. Meeting them again was always a joyous occasion, and this time proved no different. The five of us then set about discovering the attractions of Bahir Dar. The town itself is on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. This lake is responsible for 90% of the water that flows into the combined Blue and White Nile riverway. In typical Ethiopian style, a collection of monasteries have been built on the islands which stand in the middle of this Lake. It was, however, going to prove too expensive to organise boat transport out to them, and as we were sure to see other churches on our sojourn through the North, we decided to go and discover the other attraction at Bahir Dar, namely the spectacular Blue Nile Falls. After our customary morning ritual of buna bowatet (coffee with milk), scrambled eggs and freshly squeezed fruit juice, we decided to first see what bargains could be had at the market. The markets in Ethiopia are particularly good for clothes, as many people from Europe and America donate their old second-hand clothes to various aid organisations. These organisations then sell these clothes to traders at a very low cost. The ultimate result is that one can pick up really nice clothes at a fraction of the price that you would normally pay for them. The Israeli girl, Tali, had in fact managed to procure three pairs of original Benetton jeans in various funky colours for less than two dollars each. Needless to say, shopping in these markets was an enjoyable but time consuming process.

We therefore set off to see the falls rather late in the afternoon. As the rains had just come, the falls were very full and provided a magical scene of cascading water which almost matched the beauty of the more famous Victoria Falls. The Blue Nile falls however, has one feature which seems to distinguish it from all the other Falls, namely that you can swim directly under its cascade. To get there we had to walk for an hour, but feeling that water pounding straight onto your head was well worth it. It was also possible to stand on the rocks directly opposite it, and allow the shower of its spray to complete energize you. After about an hour of frolicking in this veritable playground, we decided to head back. It was getting rather late though, and we decided to take a short cut whereby we would catch a small boat across the river that flows above the falls. When we reached the place where the boat was supposed to be though, we found it decidedly absent. The Israeli, Ron, was therefore forced to swim across this river, with the current continually threatening to pull him over the falls. Thankfully he made it to the other side where he was able to arrange for a small papyrus boat to come and pick us all up. It was then our chance to feel the threat of the waterfall as the current continually pulled us towards the precipice. The boatmen proved to be up to the task though, and we all made it safely to the other side.
Swimming below the Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia

After such an exhilarating day, we decided to head for the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Getting to Lalibela necessitated us driving over some extremely high and beautiful mountain passes. Ethiopia, contrary to some people's perceptions, is not a desert country. Quite to the contrary, it is in fact spanned with a whole series of mountains - the slopes of which are a colourful patchwork of green, brown and yellow cultivated fields - all providing one with some of the most majestic views that you can ever hope to see anywhere. Our general mood of festivity in the Land Rover meant that the journey to Lalibela took longer than expected, and we were forced to camp on the side of the road, with one of those majestic views spread out before us. Being high in the mountains though, meant that we had to endure an extremely cold night. We saw this experience as a good preparation for what we were sure to encounter on the Semien mountains.
Ron & Tali and ourselves on the road to Lalibela, Ethiopia

We finally arrived in Lalibela and put ourselves up in one of its cheap hotels. The following morning we hiked for three hours up to one of the monasteries which had been carved straight into the cliff-face of the surrounding mountain. As we found out later, there are in fact 200 such monasteries and churches scattered throughout Ethiopia. Ethiopia certainly embodies a unique culture, one that has done more with the Christian religion than any other country in the world. Its elaborate ceremonies and ancient churches stand as a living testimony to this fact. In Lalibela we were to see one of the greatest examples of this, namely its famous rock-hewn churches. These churches were built under the order of King Lalibela in the 13th century, and they have simply been carved straight out of a single monolithic rock. The builders had to first dig straight down into the solid rock for about 20 metres, before they were able to then carve the door and then hollow out the interior of these absolutely amazing structures. There are 11 churches built in such manner, with many of them connected by a maze of underground tunnels, once again, carved straight out of the rock. As we wandered around this strange laberynthian structure, we felt ourselves agreeing with the Ethiopian guidebook that describes this as one of the unrecognised wonders of the world.

The next day saw the sad departure of Anton, as he had to rush off and meet a friend who had flown up to Nairobi in Kenya to meet him. He therefore dropped the four of us off in the small town of Woldiyia, where we spent the night before heading off to Gondar the following day.

Gondar has got its own collection of attractions, including the huge structure of King Fasil's castle and his enormous swimming pool. The old Ethiopian kings certainly knew how to live it up. In customary North Ethiopian style, Gondar has its own special church called Debre Birhan Selassie. What makes this church stand out is its roof mural of a hundred angels' faces each looking in a different direction. The effect is quite mesmerizing.

Gondar also proved to have one of the best second-hand clothes markets in Ethiopia, and we were able to acquire a number of articles for our forthcoming trek into the Semien mountains. After spending three leisurely days in Gondar we made our way to the tiny town of Debark, the gateway to the majestic Semiens. Hiking in these mountains is enhanced by the fact that for a measly one and a half dollars a day you are able to rent a horse to carry all your luggage. The activity therefore becomes one of simply walking through the mountains and taking in the spectacular views you are confronted with at every turn. The first day, however, did prove to be a bit long, demanding about 7 hours walking time. The walk took us through some beautiful Ethiopian countryside with tiny villages dotted all around. These villages allowed us the opportunity of breaking the walk with a number of stops for some spicy tea.

After a long day's hiking we finally arrived in the first camp of Sankaber. The encroaching night brought with it some extremely cold weather, and under the cover of three sweaters and two pairs of pants each, we proceeded to make ourselves a sumptuous dinner. Besides the other two Israelis in our party, we also had an American peace corps worker who had just finished her three year stint in Niger. The five of us had jointly hired three horses for our luggage, a scout with a gun who couldn't speak any English, and lastly, two very strange local mulemen. For the fixed price of only one and a half dollars each a day these mulemen were invested with the task of packing and taking care of the horses, fetching water in the freezing cold night, and by their own volition, washing our pots and plates. Most of this is done barefoot, and when they finally lie down to sleep, their only cover is a sheet-like cloth which is tightly wrapped around them. This was one of the many times in Ethiopia where we just couldn't help remarking, "These Ethiopians are mal !" (For the benefit of our international subscribers, "mal" is Afrikaans for "mad").

The second day proved to be an easier one, with us arriving at Gitch camp in the early afternoon. As night began to fall, we watched the sun gently fall behind the horizon, while on the opposite side of the sky a full moon rose. All of this played itself out within the confines of the imposing Semien mountains. It was simply awesome, but it was in fact the next morning that we got to experience the greatest scene yet. In order to get the best view we had to wake up at half past five in the morning (11:30 Ethiopian time) and hike for two hours to the viewpoint of Imet Gogo. We sat here gazing upon this majestic view for at least three hours. This was nature at its most beautiful, with the rising sun illuminating a scene of craggy mountain peaks piercing the velvet sky and eagles in a somnambulistic reverie to the early morning, allowing themselves to be gently taken up in the wind spirals. On the valley floor far, far below, we noticed a patchwork of different settlements each displaying their own particular hue of green foliage. At the risk of soundly completely New Age, it was almost as though we could feel the Semien Mountains pushing out their energy at us. After three hours of this, we headed back to the camp and proceeded to vacillate between sleep and a game of rummy.

That night we finished our dinner early, only to be confronted with the extremely dismal arrival of a rain storm. As our tent is not the most hardy we had to endure a night of extreme cold exacerbated considerably by a huge pool of water that carpeted the entire floor of our tent. It was then that we vowed to get ourselves a new tent before our confrontation with the Congo forest. [If any of our loyal subscribers knows how we can procure a cheap but extremely good and waterproof tent, we would really appreciate you letting us know. Commercial finished, now back to the movie.]

The next morning in an extremely disheveled shape, we made our way back to the first camp and braced ourselves for another bout of rain. Luckily it abated before we went to sleep, and we were spared another night of being wet and miserable. The next day we made our way back to Debark, encountering a whole troop of endemic Gelada baboons on the way. Unfortunately Debark was to now prove to be the parting point for us and the Israelis, as they were going back to Gondar, and we were proceeding on to Axum. We agreed to meet in Harer in two week's time, and with a sad farewell we went our separate ways.

Axum is a strange town, as it is fairly large by Ethiopian standards, and yet it still manages to project an extremely laid back ambience. In ancient times it was the seat of Queen Sheba's kingdom, and in its inauspicious museum one can find two beautiful glass goblets evidence of the famous glass industry dating back to her reign in 1000 BC. Perhaps the most eerie thing about this town though, was its field of Stellae, which are basically huge rock structures standing perpendicular to the ground and engraved with various esoteric symbols. We couldn't help wondering as we gazed transfixed by their enormity, how such gigantic stone structures, weighing over 500 tons, could have possibly been carried up from the valley 5km away to their current position during the 3rd century.

'Stairway to the Sky', Giant stellae, Axum, Ethiopia

Axum is also supposedly the town where the Ark of the Covenant is hidden according not only to Ethiopian legend but to Graham Hancock's book The Sign and the Seal. We found the church where it's supposedly kept but unfortunately weren't able to enter.

After three days of admiring Axum's historical attractions we made our way to the 6th century Debre Damos, which lies between the towns of Adigrat and Axum. This monastery is built on top of a flat mountain which is ringed by steep cliffs on all sides. The only way one can reach this "name of the rose"-like place is too climb up this cliff with the aid of a 20m rope the priests throw down for you. If that sounds crazy, then picture this. By sheer fluke, or for the New Age among us, the mysterious energy of travel, we landed ourselves here on the exact day that the yearly festival of this church was being held. This meant that there were literally three thousand people all clamoring to get up this rope. It was the most crazy thing that we have ever witnessed, and saying that after spending over a month in Ethiopia, means that this was truly a "mal" scene. At any one time there would be 10 people on the rope, with some coming down and some going up. David in a show of bravado, grabbed hold of this rope, and with a determined look on his face proceeded to work his way up it. About half way up, after fighting for his space on the rope, he was forced to seek solace on a precarious ledge. With the aid of a rope tied round his waist, he finally made it to the top. Lance followed him, this time aided all the way with a rope harness. The scene on top is truly holy, with sweeping views of the surrounding desert-like landscape being offered from all sides. Besides the church, there is also a stone village housing all the priests and monks who live here. As it was a festival, the holy ambience was enhanced by colourfully robed priests complete with velvet umbrellas and huge silver crosses, preaching to the hundreds of men who had fought to get up the rope. Only men are in fact allowed up here, a gender bias which the priests extend to absolutely every living thing. The chickens, sheep, and every other animal they possess are strictly only male. Bizarre!!!!

'A mad rush to the top', Climbing up to the Debre Damos monastery, Ethiopia

While wandering around spellbound by its beauty, a monk invited us and two other Ethiopians into his house for lunch. For the first time in Africa, we were to witness a man preparing all the food and drink. Sadly no women will ever get to meet this liberated male.

After spending a couple of hours on the top, we decided to confront the prospect of the ropes again, this time allowing ourselves to be let down by means of a leather rope held by five men on the top. In an abseil fashion we descended only to be confronted with an extremely festive atmosphere at the foot of the cliffs. On the grass patch below, a number of tents had been erected, each offering their own form of loud music, good food and Ethiopian beer. To the right of this scene stood a church complete with a priest who was preaching to the scores of women left behind at the base of the mountain. This co-existence of drunken revelry and religious solemnity carried on throughout the night, and we wandered around this mysterious place sampling both elements.

The following morning after witnessing the final grand and colourful service on top of the mountain, we hiked about six kilometers back along the road to Adigrat until we were finally able to hitch a lift on top of a truck. We spent a night in Adigrat and then made our way down to the tiny Tigrayan town of Hawzen.

Colourful procession watched by the crowds below, Debre Damos, Ethiopia

This town is in the middle of an extremely eerie landscape, where a flat desert-like landscape is sporadically broken by a series of craggy mountains and sheer cliffs. As we had come to expect from the Ethiopians, these cliffs each contained their own rock-hewn church reached by clambering up steps and footholds carved into the cliffs over the centuries by the priests who worship there. After hiking for three hours we finally reached the spectacular Debre Mariam Korkor church carved once again, straight into the rock face. From our vantage point on top of this mountain, we were also offered the added attraction of one of the most spectacular views we have ever seen. Sheer cliffs and strange rock formations dotted the landscape creating a scene of extreme beauty.
Magnificent view from Debre Mariam Korkor, Ethiopia

The following day we made our way down to Tekatisfaye, a small town on the main road, which has a collection of rock hewn churches nearby. Although these weren't in as spectacular a setting as the churches the day before, their size and colourful murals painted on the inside made them particularly attractive.
A rock-hewn church, Ethiopia

Having finished with the churches, we made our way South to Mekelle. This is the capital of Tigray province, and we were fortunate in being able to visit the impressive Tigray Development Association. The Northern province of Tigray is an extremely determined one, as evidenced by the fact that it was their army of only 80 000 men and women which ultimately brought down the previous Dergue regime complete with its army of 1.2 million soldiers. This determination now manifests itself in their desire to develop their region as best as possible.

After enjoying the delights of Mekelle's pastry and coffee shops, one of which even had waiters wearing shower caps in an ill-fated attempt to make themselves look smart, we headed back to Addis Ababa. On the bus ride back we got to witness the ridiculously humorous event of pepper being spilt on the bus. Ethiopians still cling on to this highly annoying belief that air flowing in through the windows of a bus somehow possesses dangerous germs which are sure to make you sick. On every bus ride we have taken in Ethiopia, we had to suffer the suffocating effects of having every single window on the bus being tightly shut. The release of pepper into the air therefore led to everyone spluttering and wheezing, but still demanding that no window be opened. These Ethiopians are really Mal!!

We didn't stay long in Addis Ababa, as we wanted to meet up with our two Israeli friends in Harer. We therefore jumped on the next bus out of there and after 13 hours finally arrived in the strange town of Harer.

This town is supposed to be the fourth most holy city in the Muslim world, although the preponderance of bars and Ethiopian nightclubs certainly subverts this image. Harer is also one of the cheapest places to buy goods, as the majority of it comes from Dubai without any import duties being levied on it. This is due to the goods being transported first to Mogadishu in government-less Somalia and then on the backs of camels through the desert border of Ethiopia to Harer.

The defining element of Harer though, is the incessant chewing of chat which almost every resident engages in. As stated in our last e-mail, chat is a plant whose leaves possess a stimulant that allows one to think more clearly and to voice those thoughts for many an hour on end. We therefore decided that when in Harer, we should do as these mal people do, and chew this strange plant. Needless to say, we ended up whiling way the hours discussing everything of meaning in life.

After four days in Harer we were beginning to give up on our Israeli friends ever arriving, as we knew they were flying out soon, making it almost impossible for them to make it to Harer in time. In typical Israeli style though, they made a plan and ended up flying to Harer so that they could spend the last three days of their trip with us. The four of us ended up raving the night away in a bar situated in the fourth most holy city in the Muslim world. This continent is most definitely a strange place.

On one of our last evenings in Harer, we set off to see the Hyena Man of Harer.

On the outskirts of the wall that surrounds the town, protecting it during the ancient wars, we found a desolate field. There, as our eyes became accustomed to the moonlight, we gradually made out the forms of a dozen or so hyenas skulking in the gloom. After about half an hour a man appeared carrying meat and bones which he used to tempt the hyenas closer. Eventually the hyenas were bold enough to take meat from his hands and then, amazingly, from his mouth. After watching this for about an hour, we plucked up enough courage to successfully feed them by hand ourselves. Face to face with these animals we were grateful that we weren't around a few decades ago when during the famine, Ethiopians fed them in a much more unwilling and direct fashion...

After a week in Harer we headed back to Addis Ababa, but this time we were able to enhance the journey with a bit of Ethiopian chat chewing. On Sunday we had to sadly bid farewell to our Israeli friends, who it must be said we had become strangely accustomed to meeting at various intervals on our travels.

We and two other backpacker friends hit the town in a big way for Dave's birthday on the 10th celebrating with copious quantities of T'ej well into the 11th which also happened to be our one friend's birthday.

Anyway, we are now back on our own again, although it seems like we have already been able to replace our two Israeli friends with another two Israeli's who we are going to meet up with in the Western border town of Gambela.

Anyway we need to rush off now and partake in a few more adventures, but as always we will keep you informed of our various travails.

For those who have not yet confirmed their tickets, we'll be in Lamu by the 22nd of December for the biggest Christmas and New Year's parties ever to hit the Southern Hemisphere.


The African Wanderers

Lance and Dave

14 January 1998

Hi everyone

After almost two months we've finally managed to escape the internet abyss. When we last wrote we had just returned from Harer in Eastern Ethiopia: the city of 99 Mosques and the Hyena Man.

A few days later we left Addis Ababa with two Israeli friends, Udi and Keren, heading Westwards on a circular route. The first town we stopped at was Ambo, the site of a naturally sparkling hot spring. Swimming in this water was like swimming in hot Coke: bubbles everywhere. After another two days travelling through what one Ethiopian described as a "lowland desert" - even though it just happened to be a tropically vegetated area 1600m above sea-level - we arrived at the remote, fascinating town of Gimbi. This tiny town is in the heart of Ethiopia's coffee growing area and the people here didn't display the same abrasive manner we had become familiar with throughout the rest of Ethiopia. That night while wandering around the sandy streets, we came across a jubilant wedding celebration. The best man spotted us and invited us in as guests of honour to have our photo's taken with the bridal couple and to enjoy the festivities. A few hours of dancing and T'ej drinking later, we stumbled home to bed.

Two days later we reached our ultimate destination, the steamy river port called Gambela. This place is unlike any other in Ethiopia. Its population consists entirely of the pitch black Nuer people, easily the tallest tribe we've come across, dwarfing the legendary Maasai people. They originate from Sudan which is only a few kilometers West of Gambela and due to the town being colonised by the British at the beginning of the century, they speak perfect English. The town itself is situated on the mighty Baro river and in the past it used to be the departure point for river steamers making their way to Khartoum via the Nile. This setting as well as its steamy climate gives Gambela a distinctly Conradian feel, making us feel as if we'd stepped right into the heart of darkness.

After a few days in Gambela we decided to explore some even more remote areas closer to the border and to the strangely named town of Gog. After a 2 hour bus trip we were summarily dropped off at a tiny gravel junction from where we walked to the stunningly beautiful, yet unknown Tata Lake. There, after meeting with the local chief, we camped in the tiny Anuak fishing village on the water's edge. We spent the day exploring the lake and its surrounds and frolicking in the warm water.

With the belief that all Africans have an inherent rhythm, Dave enquired whether there was likely to be any drumming or dancing that evening. That evening we were treated to the most ludicrous musical performance with inebriated men and women cavorting about in the strangest attire of leaves and pieces of cloth all to the beat of a distinctly untalented drummer. Needless to say, Dave's belief was proved horribly wrong.

Sunset over Lake Tata, Ethiopia

The following day, on the information of locals, we hiked back to the junction where we waited for the 1pm bus that never came. Eventually we managed to hitch a lift to the tiny town of Pungnido, primarily a Sudanese refugee centre. Fortunately we managed to get transport from here back to Gambela the following day and five days later after making our way through the towns of Metu and Jima we reached Addis Ababa.

After savouring the delights of Addis for the last time we bade a sad farewell to this city that in many respects had become our surrogate home. The two of us and Keren (now more than merely Lance's "friend") made our way down to the town of Tiya where we visited some less than inspiring stone stellae. We proceeded on to Lake Ziway where we organised a boat to take us to the island monastery that contrary to the guide book's information proved to be non-existent. We then headed South to another lakeside town called Awasa. Situated on beautiful Lake Awasa we relaxed in its beautiful ambience and explored its numerous culinary delights.

Ancient burial stones of Tiya, Ethiopia

The following day we said a sad goodbye to Keren as we headed to the Bale Mountains. After hitching a lift to Robe, we decided to try and make our way to the legendary Sof Omar caves. For the first time on our trip, that ever-present Travelling Spirit deserted us as we found ourselves stranded in the tiny town of Goro, 40km from the caves. Dejected we had to return to Robe. The following day the Travelling Spirit, as a form of appeasement for its previous day's misdemeanors, directed us on a totally unplanned diversion. While sitting in a truck waiting to go to Shek Husen, we suddenly got the impulse to change our destination to Goba. After getting our tickets refunded, we took a bus to Goba where, on finding nothing of interest, we decided to hitch a lift to tiny Dolla Mene. We got a lift on a truck that took us through the Bale Mountains National Park along Africa's highest all-weather road, 4000m above sea-level. For about an hour we were the highest vehicle in Africa! Along the way we were fortunate to spot not one but two Semien Foxes, the world's rarest canid. We then descended into a recently discovered medieval-like forest filled with gnarled trees dripping with moss and lichens. All of this was accompanied by the sounds of Deep Forest's pygmy lullaby. Only once in Dolla Mene were we informed by a Red Cross official that this forest road was the scene of brutal hijack killings by the rebel army a few months before. Ignorance is bliss.

Dolla Mene was the first place where El Nino began to impact on our travel plans. The road to the next town of Bidre had been closed for a month by the flooded Gobele River. Amazingly though (that Travel Spirit again) we found a landrover that was going to make an attempt to traverse the river the very next day. After a 3 hour drive we reached the side of the flooded river and, with a complete disrespect for its power, our driver launched the landrover straight through the surging water. To everyone's delight the gamble paid off.

As is usual in Ethiopia this region has an element to it that is completely different from the rest of the country. Its distinctive nature is heavily influenced by the strong Somali culture of the area. The land is more arid than the rest of Ethiopia with camels the main means of transporting goods and people. The food is primarily Somalian with the most popular dish being a spicy meat stew called Spestino. The people, all Muslim, are incredibly colourful with the women looking particularly beautiful.

From Bidre we caught a truck to Negelle Borena situated on the road to Mogadishu. This colourful town possesses a magnificent market filled with goods which are brought from Dubai via Mogadishu with no import duties and are thus ridiculously cheap. After spending a few days shopping in the markets and absorbing the vibrant culture of the town we finally managed to find a truck on its way South along the rarely used road to Moyale. From this point onwards El Nino, the cause of the disastrous floods in Somalia and Northern Kenya, began to impact heavily on our travels. Our journey to Moyale became a nightmare with the road becoming a swamp in parts requiring us to push and pull our landrover out of mud holes every few hours. The comforting sounds of Dave's walkman came to an abrupt and absurd ending when, at high speed, a branch hooked onto his earphones and ripped them out of the walkman to be lost forever!

Chewing chat on the way to Moyale, Ethiopia

Eventually, after two muddy days, we reached the border town of Moyale only to find that the road to Nairobi had been completely destroyed and that no trucks had made it through in 3 months. We were informed that our only option was to fly to Nairobi at a cost of $100!

At the border we met up with 7 kiwis and a Briton and together we approached an overland truck in Kenya offering our free labour to dig it through the mud in exchange for a free lift to Nairobi. The night before we left we introduced the kiwis to the joys of T'ej on the Ethiopian side and got absolutely smashed, stumbling back across the border after midnight.

The following day we said goodbye to Ethiopia, a country we had come to know intimately over the past three and a half months. We boarded the giant overland truck, laden with chat, and prepared to dig our way through the treacherous road down to Nairobi. Fortunately the Travel Spirit was good to us, and we were one of only 7 trucks to successfully make it through. En route we came across a truck that had been stuck in the mud since October with its load of beans being the only sustenance for the driver for the last two months!

The muddy road back to Nairobi (how it looked three months before)

After resting for a day in Nairobi we rushed down to Mombasa and then Malindi to make sure we could reach Lamu by Christmas. El Nino attempted to frustrate our plans again, having destroyed the road to Lamu. We were therefore forced to spend a night in Malindi devising a plan. We decided to stay in the same hotel as the one we stayed in three years ago. When we were there last time we met an Mzungu (white person) who told us that the World Health Organisation had just released news that AIDS is in fact transmitted by mosquitoes, and that Malindi was enjoying an infection rate of 98%. We obviously dismissed that information then, but now three years later we came to find that same person at the same hotel attempting to scare travellers with the identical story. Africa just seems to be a magnet for mallies.

After speaking to locals we finally worked out that we needed to get ourselves to the tiny port of Ngomeni, from where we could catch a motorboat to Lamu. Unfortunately being Christmas, this form of transport was overloaded with goods with hardly any space being left for passengers. David's unique powers of persuasion, however, convinced the captain to offload some of the goods to make space for us and the Kiwi's. On the morning of Christmas eve we set off for Lamu, enduring the clanging noise of the motorboat for eight hours before reaching this veritable island paradise.

Being eight of us we were able to rent out an entire house at a cost of only U$1.90 per person per day. The house was designed in typical Lamu style, with big rooftop patios offering views of Lamu's unique Swahili skyline. After spending 6 debaucherous days soaking up the laid-back island ambience, we prepared ourselves for the prospect of New Year's Eve. The party was due to be held at the other end of the island, at the site of an exclusive hotel with an adjoining stretch of pristine beach. After consuming copious amounts of alcohol we made our way across to the hotel, engaging in a multitude of seemingly meaningless exchanges with the scores of people that had congregated there. The alcohol had proved too much for Lance, however, and he found himself laid out on one of the hotel benches before New Year had even come round. In a style reflecting South Africa's will to win though, he managed to bring himself round at two O'clock in the morning and proceeded to march to the other end of the beach where he found Dave and a band that was jiving up the party that had congregated around the sand dunes. Putting the Kiwi's to shame, and demonstrating why we won the world cup, we both completely raved it up until the sun came up the next morning. The party proved to be truly superb, with its collection of rave, African and trance music providing the necessary sustenance for our display of completely liberated dance moves. After seven months of travelling through Africa, we couldn't think of a better way to see the new year in. It was quite simply the best new year we have ever had.
Dave and Lance shouting the praises of South Africa, New Year '98, Lamu, Kenya

Having met our final deadline of being in Lamu for Christmas and New Year, we found ourselves in the unique position of not being limited in any way by time constraints. This meant that we could quite easily spend the next few days in Lamu recovering, without worrying about the time we were wasting. Finally on the 6th of January we left the island and made our way back to Mombasa. It was here that we said a sad farewell to our Kiwi friends, with them going off to Dar Es Salaam and us returning to Nairobi.

In Nairobi we met up with two South Africans who have been travelling up in a Landcruiser from Cape Town. As coincidence would have it, or perhaps that ever faithful Travelling Spirit, Phil and Francis turned out to be the brother and cousin of a friend, Josie, in Cape Town. Dave had met them in Cape Town before we left and after a bit of dazed introduction we set off with Francis to Naivasha for the weekend where we visited the home of Joy Adamson.

We also met an American named Joe, who has been travelling around South and East Africa for the past year. After hearing about our tales, he decided that he would like to travel through Zaire with us, and the three of us should be setting off for that enigmatic country at the end of the week. As it turns out, Joe has a small digital video camera with him, which we will be using to shoot an amateurish video of our journey down the vast Congo river. Who knows, we just might be able to make some form of a documentary out of this!!!!

So don't expect e-mails for a while as we'll have limited internet access in the Congo jungle. You should hear from us again within two months.

Have a wicked 1998.

Love the african wanderers

Dave and Lance