THE LIGHTS OF NUWEIBA CAME into view at 6pm, and the chief purser brought our passports to us already stamped into Egypt. By the time we docked it was 6:30pm and a port official boarded, somehow found all eight foreigners in the rabble, and escorted us off the ship and through the port area.
We passed through customs without fuss, “Do you have a… video recorder?”. “No”. “Okay…”.
Outside the gates of the port all was very quiet. A service taxi was found for us, then rudely snavelled up by a pair of obnoxious Hungarians mid-way through our negotiations. We wished them a safe journey, then eventually found another taxi with the help of a local Korean guy who was friends with Han and Ung-Keong. We were a group of five and for 25 Egyptian Pounds each the taxi would take us to Dahab, eighty kilometres down the coast. We distracted ourselves from our chauffeurs driving habits with conversation, finally arriving in Dahab after 9pm to begin our search en masse for a place to sleep.
WE walked in a daze through what was like an upmarket Khao San Road, the place was full of foreigners chilling out in tourist town. It was pretty uninspiring.
We crashed in a beachfront room at Dolphin Camp and woke the next morning to decide that it didn’t look any better in the light of day. A limp search didn’t reveal any hidden accommodation gems, so we moved just a short way down Mashraba Beach to El-Salam Camp. Our fifteen Pound seafront room was quite good, and there was a nice garden and lounge on the beach. In fact our search didn’t turn up even a town, there was no market, no houses, no soul…
We got by on Ramsee’s meagre supply of fruits, and lunching in the back street at ‘Koshary House’ where three Pounds bought a huge plate of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas and crispy fried onions with tomato and chilli sauces. Dinner was always had at ‘King Chicken’, there Abdul served roast chicken, delicious kebabs or clay pot beef with a table full of side dishes for ten Pounds. Because the waters of the Gulf of Aqaba were protected for our diving pleasure, fish were trucked in from the Meditteranean Sea and not in our budget’s league.
Although it wasn’t a very good cultural introduction to Egypt, we had come to see the marine life and take refuge from the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, and for that it was good. When the holiday came around it made little difference to life in Dahab, some Egyptian families turned up, a couple of paddle boats appeared on Masbat Beach, and everyone was certainly happy that Ramadan was over.
After talking around, Dave settled on the Sphinx Dive Centre, and because it had been nine years since his last dive he spent a day refreshing himself with a textbook and a check dive at the busy ‘Lighthouse’ site. His first excursion was to ‘The Islands’, a site to the south of Mashraba. The windy and choppy conditions were okay for diving, but kept me high and dry for almost a week before we got some calm conditions.
When I finally got to have a look it was worth the wait, I simply snorkelled straight out from the dive centre to the edge of the reef, and it took my breath away. The first thing I saw near the twenty metre drop-off was a large school of sailfin tang, the visibility was excellent and the corals prolific and colourful. There were clams, clown coris, gigantic red sea urchins, unicorn, box and angel fish, black and white chromis, and colourful little Klunzingers wrasse.
In the afternoons we snorkelled together around the point in front of our camp, and added lion fish and christmas tree worms to my visual kitty. Further north, past Assalah, Dave led me to ‘The Eel Garden’, a site that he had dived that morning. The coral was excellent, we saw lion fish and fire urchins, but best was the hundreds of sand eels swaying like tendrils out of the sandy sea bottom.
That day we farewelled the last of our travel buddies – Roger was long gone, Georgia and Phil had left the day before, Pek had cleared out in the morning, we met Kerry and Craig before their afternoon bus to Luxor (!), and spent a really pleasant evening with Rosemaree ahead of her flight to Salzburg the next day. It was a clear windless night, and we lounged Bedouin-style on Mashraba Point, sipping tea and fruit drinks while the sea lapped softly beside us and the lights of villages in Saudi Arabia twinkled across the gulf.
The following day was calm again, and Dave went off to dive ‘Abu Helal’ where he was lucky enough to see a sea turtle while I finished exploring our home reef. The sailfins were there again, as well as a large school of blue fusiliers. I saw a masked and white spotted puffer, yellowtail tang, bannerfish, lyretail anthias, lots of orange-spine unicorn fish, a fluorescent dottyback, a metre-long bicolour parrot fish, and a juvenile black snapper which seemed to follow me.
In the afternoon Dave took me to ‘The Islands’ and around the coral pinnacles we saw all of the regulars plus double-bar bream, six-stripe soapfish, cute little three-bar dascyllus, bird wrasse, menacing-looking needle fish, a lizard fish, and hundreds of sulphur damsels. Before the sun got too low we also managed to take a look off the point at the ‘Lighthouse’ where we enjoyed another good snorkel. It seemed that wherever we went the reef and fishlife were great.
Already we had seen such amazing aquatic scenery, but the best was yet to come. For our last day in the water Dave went on a double dive to ‘The Canyon’ and ‘The Blue Hole’, and there was space in the jeep for me to tag along.
At their first site their group of five dived down to 32 metres where they entered an underwater cavern and swam up through it for thirty metres or so. From the surface I watched them disappear into the depths and also spotted a nice pair of Picasso fish and a lovely blue throat trigger.
Their second dive was down through a crack in the reef, a vertical shaft exited through an archway 27 metres under, into the wide blue yonder. Meanwhile, I enjoyed the greatest snorkelling ever, puttering around the edge of ‘The Blue Hole’, an eighty metre deep pool crusted with fabulous corals and fishes. On the outer edge was a seven metre deep saddle, and beyond that a vertical wall dropping to a breathtaking 700 metres. To swim out over the edge and be enveloped by the blue was mind-blowing. Around the rim I saw just about every kind of coral and fish represented, a tassled scorpion fish being the highlight, but also Arabian and blue streak wrasse, humbug dascyllus, cowries, a toxic finger sponge, threadfin butterfly fish, clown fish in beautiful anemones, and huge schools of black and white chromis and lyretail anthias – at one stage I was in the blue abyss of the hole, completely surrounded by these small orange fish and it was the most sensational experience.
We ended up staying on for an extra day to catch up on some chores and enjoy a bit of a rest before we left. We said goodbye to Shaun, Dave’s divemaster, over a meal at ‘King Chicken’, and caught up with two of his buddies, Rudd and Olef, before we all went our separate ways.
After ten days in Dahab it was a big effort to pack up our things and walk the few kilometres out to the bus station, especially when we got there and were told that the bus was broken in Nuweiba and maybe it would come tomorrow. We went back to our room at El-Salam (noting that our sheet hadn’t even been changed for the next punter!), and went about wasting the day.
We took a long walk to the end of the sand spit at the lagoon where the seascapes were beautiful and we were lucky to spot a rare osprey.
The next morning we re-traced our steps to the bus station and were relieved to be able to climb onto the East Delta bus heading for Saint Katherine. We drove north, then west into the Sinai’s mountainous interior for two hours, finally reaching the village of al-Milga at 1500 metres, where the temperature was alarmingly cool.
There we topped up our supplies, took our bag to the Desert Fox Camp, selected a few essentials to take with us for the night, and headed off along the path to Mount Sinai.
ALL WAS QUIET AS WE passed the monastery of Saint Katherine. Camels lolled about after a busy morning, and we followed their pathway up the valley and across the mountain to reach the summit at 2285 metres, after just one and a half hours hiking. The view from the top was wonderful, especially as the colours of sunset lit the landscape and almost everybody left.
As darkness descended the sky was fringed with orange, and the cold silence was eerie. There was only us, a small walking group from Quebec, another lone traveller, and the local Bedouins renting blankets and selling tea. The moon was half waxing, and the stars were brilliant, there were so many meteorites streaking across the sky that I ran out of wishes! It was the first time we had ever slept in a million-star hotel!
At the first hint of dawn we climbed onto an isolated rock and watched the entertainment begin. A group of young Aussies were the first to arrive, then a small number of Kenyans, and many Christian pilgrims from Indonesia who made the morning special with their emotional arrival and then praying and singing. They were the last to leave us in peace, then the summit of Mount Sinai belonged again to it’s native creatures. The little mice and birds (Tristian’s grackle, Sinai rose finch, and wheatear) came creeping out to eat the morsels inadvertently left for them, and to drink from their bath which had semi-frozen overnight.
We stayed for another hour or so, then headed down the four thousand steps laid in penance by a single monk 1600 years ago. We met nobody along this route except a couple of Nubian ibex and a pheasant echoing out across the steep narrow canyon which we descended through.
It was Sunday morning and the monastery was closed, so again all was quiet, just the last few Indonesians straggled toward their bus as we made our way back to the Desert Fox Camp for a day of rest.
We investigated the possibility of some desert hiking but Sheikh Musa’s prices bordered on the ridiculous, and it was much colder, even during the day, than we anticipated. So we lounged around the camp sending love messages to Tunisia on Hamdeh’s mobile phone, and went for dinner with Musa at the local chicken joint – our closest encounter with Moses on Mount Sinai!
The next morning we were up before dawn again to catch the 6am bus to Suez. We wound our way through Wadi Feiran, the mountains high around us like walls of stone, and the odd gnarled acacia the only vegetation except in the oasis of Feiran, which thrived with date palms spread along the sandy floor of a deep canyon.
We hummed along to Egyptian love songs barely noticing our gradual descent to sea level, the Gulf of Suez appearing suddenly like a mirage. We followed the coast northward, at one stage the clouds produced a few drops of rain, much to everyone’s surprise. The driver looked incredulous as he pointed to the droplets on the windscreen, and all on the bus looked confused confirming with each other that it was in fact raining. But it only lasted for a few minutes – no need for windscreen wipers.
Eventually we reached the end of the gulf, and Suez was visible across in the distance, the road continuing north to Tunnel through a sand sea which we could see the very top of ships sailing through along the canal. Security was tight at Tunnel, local men had to alight for a check while the bus was searched, then we continued through the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel beneath the Suez Canal.
When we reach the outskirts of Suez city we were unceremoniously dumped at an intersection. We said goodbye to our co-passengers Helen and John from Canberra, then looked about cluelessly wondering where the hell we were. The taxi drivers threatened to swallow us whole, but we spotted an East Delta bus company shed, and hopefully wandered through the traffic towards it.
“Port Said?… yes, five minutes…”. We couldn’t believe our luck. It turned out the bus didn’t come for another hour and a half, but that was okay. Dave found us some tammiya for lunch and we ate while watching the entertainment that the traffic provided. Between the donkey carts and road rage, it was time for us to go before we knew it, and we headed north following the route of the canal for three hours.
Halfway along, Ismailia was like a super-oasis, there were acres of mango trees and the rain came down as we drove through the strange lushness. Beyond Qantara the road was right beside the canal, and the sight of gigantic cargo vessels seemingly ploughing through the desert next to us was bizarre.
BY 3 o’CLOCK WE WERE IN Port Said. We took a taxi from the far-flung unserviced bus station into town, and found the Hotel Mereland in an alleyway near the souq. Port Said was a good place with friendly people, and we spent a day doing nothing more than aimlessly wandering the character-filled streets.
Colonial buildings were fronted with wooden balconies, tugs and ferries plied the canal, and the Mediterranean pounded angrily at the grey beach. The temperature was surprisingly cool and city food was good – date buns, fuul shamy with grilled eggplant and pickled chilli, and fruit desserts of pureed banana and mango layered with apple and guava and topped with a squirt of sweet whipped egg whites.
Moving on from Port Said, we made our way back to the bus station to find a bus going to Alexandria. For some reason buses were not labelled so verbally checking where each of the buses lined up for departure was going was mandatory for every passenger. Our choice was confirmed as our driver made a barely intelligible announcement as he roared the engine, “Al-Iskendariyya, inshallah, Al-Iskendariyya, inshallah!!”.
It turned out that god was willing, and we arrived in Alexandria in four hours after a scenic journey across the Nile delta. We traversed the sand spit separating Lake Manzala from the sea, then crossed the first branch of the river at Damietta. From there we saw date plantations and sand dunes backing the Mediterranean Sea. But the most beautiful sight was the many feluccas under sail on Lake Burullus just before we crossed the second branch of the Nile at Rosetta.
ALEXANDRIA WAS AN ENORMOUS bustling metropolis, and we walked away from the bus station grateful for Roger’s mud-map on how to find the tram stop. We waited almost an hour for a ‘number one’ to come rumbling along, and we rode toward the city centre wondering about the pious ‘third eye’ so many men seemed to have…
At Midan Ramla we fought our way off the tram and walked to the seafront where we found Hotel Welcome House. For thirty Pounds we got a fabulous double room on the fifth floor with French doors opening onto a balcony with a panoramic view of the Eastern Harbour – if the Pharos Lighthouse had still existed we would have had an uninterrupted view of it!
We stayed for several days, and found that the best thing to do in Alexandria was simply to wander aimlessly and enjoy whatever scenes we came across. Al-Corniche was a great place for promenading if the weather was favourable. And we sat for hours near Qaitby Fort where we found plenty of opportunity to meet young Alexandrians keen to practice their English. One group of girls even began an impromptu belly-dance for us, until the drumming and clapping attracted the attention of a party-pooping security guard.
In Nokrashi souq which ran to Anfushi we found everything from strawberries and juicy persimmons to a delicious fish dinner at Abou Ashraf’s – grilled trevally with rice, salad, pickled vegetables and grilled eggplant with a tomato sauce, all for forty Pounds.
In another corner of town we found Kon ash-Shuqqafa with the help of friendly locals who waved us knowingly in the right direction without us even needing to ask! The catacombs were impressive, hidden down a spiral stairway carved into the sandstone was a fantastic subterranean tomb system which the two of us explored in spooky solitude, and was a wonderful contrast to the colour of the streetscene outside.
Around city central we established some favourite haunts. Restaurant Amer did a good farekh dinner. Just around the corner fresh yoghurt could be had with a scoop of sugar and a smile. And we always inhaled deeply as we passed The Brazilian Coffee Stores, for atmosphere it was a great place to sip espresso, but the coffee was equally as good in the cafes of the souq.
Nonetheless, we couldn’t resist a day trip out of the city, and on a blustery Friday morning decided that we would go to Rosetta (better known as Rasheed!), and getting there was half the fun. First we took the tram back to Sidi Gaber, but in the ticket office we were told that no buses went to Rasheed. We tried the share-taxi rank, “Rasheed!” eyes narrowed, chins were scratched thoughtfully, and we were entrusted to a lady and her blind husband Abdul Fateeh, who were also going to Rasheed. So the blind led the blind as we followed them to a minibus heading for a place called al-Mouaf. This was a huge minibus station, and we shuffled along at Abdul’s pace to the furthest corner of it. Sixty kilometres later we were in Rasheed, waving goodbye as we were swallowed by the busy souq, dodging donkey carts and greeting fish mongers and fruit vendors as we squelched through the muddy laneways lined with unique eight hundred year old merchants houses.
Away from the chaos of the souq we sat on the banks of the Nile watching boats ferrying passengers back and forth, bidding ‘good morning’ to hundreds of excitable school children and creating havoc to their teachers!
We managed to find our way back to Alexandria via a surprise pit stop in Abu Qir, our final minibus ride taking us along the entire length of the city’s sea ravaged corniche. When we got back to our room it was exhilarating enough just to stand on our balcony in the tearing gale and watch the waves pounding across the traffic along the harbour front.
After four days it was time enough to move on, we said goodbye to the charmless Abdoul, and grabbed a few breakfast shamy of fuul and tammiyya on our way to the tram which painfully ground it’s way to Sidi Gaber station in time for us to catch an 8:30am bus to Marsa Matruh.
It was a four hour journey along the coast, the first hundred kilometres an unbroken line of condominiums all shuttered for the winter with not a soul to be seen. The battlefields of el-Alamein were preserved in their natural state, and beyond there the road stretched westward passing no major settlements until we reached Matruh.
WE FOUND OUR WAY FROM the bus stand into town on a public minibus, and Soliman made us feel welcome at the Hotel el-Ghazalla. Matruh was a tidy little town, it’s wide empty streets hinting that it’s summertime persona was quite different…
We went for a walk along the beach which lapped idyllic turquoise water on powder white sand, and found the wartime headquarters of Field Marshall Rommel on a sheltered bay to the east. It was a pleasant stopover on the long journey to Siwa, another three hundred kilometres on into the desert.
We left early the next morning, Soliman was still sleeping but we followed his careful door unlocking instruction to let ourselves out past a strategically placed chair, then walked the two kilometres back to the bus stand for a 7:30am departure.
The bus was full and we headed off from town zig-zagging through an unnecessarily complicated series of turn-offs before the road straightened away through the desert. Houses and vegetation gradually disappeared until we saw only sand and stones – a vast, flat expanse which stretched golden to the horizon where it merged with the sky in blue mirages.
AFTER FOUR HOURS THE OASIS materialised, first we saw the eroded hills and Lake Siwa shimmering to the west, then the olive gardens, date palms and mud houses huddled together in the middle of nowhere. It was twelve metres below sea level, the Libyan border lay fifty kilometres westward, and to the south was the Great Sand Sea of the Western Desert – Egypt’s corner of the Sahara.
Donkey carts were the number one form of transport, even the taxi rank was just a gathering of donkeys, and the only traffic noise was clicking ‘gee-up’ sounds and the occasional ‘ee-aw’.
We wandered across the market square to the Palm Trees Hotel where we got a nice room and constant beseeching from the relentless Ahmed who sprouted ideas for jeep safaris at any opportunity. He even hunted us down on his bicycle the following day with a 75 Pound proposition interesting enough that we decided to go along.
We finished our walk through the oasis which was extraordinarily beautiful, and took us to the Temple of the Oracle, famous from the sixth century BC and visited by the likes of Alexander the Great, then on past the Temple of Amun to Cleopatra Bath, a natural spring bubbling mineral water into a deep crystal-clear pool. Surrounded by date palms it was a beautiful spot and Dave enjoyed a refreshing swim before we walked back to prepare for our safari at 1pm. All day our every move was monitored by a phalanx of policemen who radioed our position to headquarters. The local captain was apparently still jittery after the recent Taba bombings, and police were stationed everywhere, outside each hotel, at the temples and springs, it was like we were a part of some strange covert operation!
The rest of our safari party were three Koreans, Yoon, Kalim and Mee-Yong, and Ali, our cheeky Korean-speaking driver. We drove across the lake of Zeitun with it’s wild colours and textures, salt pink water, baked russet mud, and our first distant sighting of flamingos. We then continued on to the spring of Abou Shrof, the pool was large and deep, and fish swam in the clear blue water. Dave also went for a swim, two swims actually, one for the pleasure of it, and one to rescue a drowning German. He threw aside our passports as he dived in fully clothed after watching the floundering non-swimmer take what could have been his last look at the world before succumbing to the beautiful waters – it was so quick and silent. He didn’t need resuscitation, “humdooleh”… Dave received adulation from the Koreans, sincere thanks from the local guides who were spared from getting their jalabiyas wet, and spent the rest of the afternoon desperately trying to dry his only pair of trousers on the bonnet of the jeep before the cold of nightfall. The German didn’t show any gratitude whatsoever…
We motored on into the desert, the Great Sand Sea was spectacular with it’s pale golden dunes rippled into slip-faced crescents and domed walls of sand. Ali had let the tyres down and obviously enjoyed his job with his headscarf flying in the breeze and the Koreans squealing in his ears!
We reached our camp in time to watch the mad colours of sunset from the top of a nearby dune then settled down to enjoy a quiet evening by a campfire. We were taken care of by a very amiable group of local Siwi Berber people, Lotfee was the cook and apprentice camp-maker to the desert-hardened Abdoullah who entertained us with yarns and was in charge of making the tea, which was the most amazing brew we’d ever tasted. A generous handful of unbroken leaves went into a tiny teapot with water and a mound of sugar and was brewed for half an hour on the coals of our fire. His knowing palate then decided another half a handful of leaves were necessary, and another mound of sugar was added before the mixture was blended by an elaborate pouring until a thick dark liquid had been achieved. We were each given a large thimbleful of this ‘Siwi shay’ and the taste promised to keep me awake for hours! He then began work on his second brew, “not so strong, but more sweet!”. He filled the teapot with fresh mint leaves, added more water and gave it another five minutes on the fire before adding so much sugar it became like syrup – so the second thimbleful of ‘Siwi nana shay’ was an even more memorable brew!
Dinner was good, a simple vegetable stew with rice, the odd grain of sand, and shooting stars! The waning moon rose cheesy yellow as we ate then whiled away the evening chatting and star-gazing… At midnight we went to sleep in a gigantic tent the size of a house, made from goat and camel hair, and warmed with coals from the fire.
Waking up there the next morning was wonderful, and we had time for a hike through the sand sea before Ali came to collect us at 8:30am. After a few more thrills and spills in the sand dunes we were delivered back to the Palm Trees Hotel, but seen as we’d packed up anyway, we decided to move to better lodgings at the Yousef Hotel on the market square recommended to us by Shawey, an Alexandrian whom we’d met around the desert campfire the night before.
We took it easy for the remainder of the day, we made ourselves a brunch of tammiyya, wholemeal pita, roasted eggplant and tomato, the ingredients procured from the appropriate sources around the village, then together with Shawey we climbed the hillock of Shali for a sensational view of the oasis and the crumbling old fortress town made from salt and mud, but unable to cope with the rain showers that came once every two or three years.
We stayed in Siwa for a couple of days more and hired bicycles so we could reach the furthest corners of the oasis under our own steam. We went back to enjoy the scenery of Lake Zeitun, and peddled (albeit with some difficulty) to the great dunes near where we had camped. We cycled to Fatnas Spring which was nestled in a palm grove on a small island in Lake Siwa, and put in a big effort to reach the village beneath ‘White Mountain’ at the far end of the lake.
Birdwatching along the way was excellent. Out by the desert we watched a local Siwi man also watching the ducks, but with a shotgun, and it was a beautiful sight seeing him stalking through the elephant grass in his jalabiya. But we also saw flamingos again. This sighting on Lake Siwa was great, four of them were close enough for us to get a good look at their pink plumage, and they took flight as we were leaving, flying over us so gracefully to join their flock out in the middle of the salty pink lake.
In between our long jaunts we tried out several of the small restaurants around the market square, and found the local dish shakshouka (vegetables cooked in a clay pot with egg) was bland and unimaginative no matter who prepared it. But a slimy plate of molokhiya was always good, despite it’s look and texture of green saliva. At Eastwest Restaurant the chocolate sahlab was delicious (a thick hot semolina drink sprinkled with coconut, peanuts and sultanas), and we snacked on succulent local dates stuffed with almonds…
We spent more time hanging out with Shawey who was enthusiastically seeking out premises for a restaurant venture, and some school teachers who we met one night in the market square and invited us back to their very humble lodgings for tea and a lively game of cards. Zeezu, Hamdi and Said’s lives were not good, their wives lived ten hours away in Tanta for the duration of their five year stint in Siwa, for which they earned just 400 Pounds per month…
We left Siwa on the 7am bus to Alexandria, and struck back across the desert to again be awed by how remote and fertile the oasis was. We listened to the customary Muslim prayer which blared from the overhead speakers for over an hour as we sped through the wilderness, seeing only a couple of camels to break the flat wide horizon. Sitting directly behind us were four uncooperative criminals being transported by an armed escort of plain-clothed police, and by the first rest stop tempers had flared to the point that we found ourselves surrounded by an all-in brawl which left one of the hand-cuffed trouble makers bloody and swollen, but at least quiet for the rest of the way to Matruh, where they all got off. The remainder of the nine hour journey was uneventful, and we arrived in Alexandria to find Shawey waiting for us when our bus pulled in!
IT WAS VERY NICE FOR us to be met by the smiling face of a friend, and we spent the rest of the afternoon together. First we found a place to spend the night, Normandie Hotel, in the same building as we’d stayed before had a less panoramic view of al-Corniche, but was friendlier and cheaper.
Next we went to meet two more of his friends, a couple of Slovenians that he’d met on the bus, then went off to find our favourite food haunts. We had a long-awaited farekh dinner, then were greeted by the milk vendor with such enthusiasm it made our zabaady and creme caramel taste even better!
The next morning we woke at our leisure, and made our way yet again to Sidi Gaber, this time for a bus to Cairo. It was a three hour ride, with Sean Connery entertaining us in-house, and a couple of hundred kilometres of desert passing by outside the window.
CAIRO ERUPTED SUDDENLY, THE LANDSCAPE changed from arid to fertile to unrendered outskirts within minutes, and before we knew it we were crossing the Nile in the chaos of downtown. The driver bellowed something about “Tahrir” and that sounded like somewhere we should be, so we jumped off into the thick of things.
After a few minutes we had figured out where we were and in which direction to head, and along the way stumbled upon a reasonably good place to stay. Vienna Pension was on the third floor of a building in Sharia Mahmoud Bassiouni just off Midan Talaat Harb, our room had a balcony, the beds were soft, and the manager, Moustafa, warned us to be careful of Cairene hustlers of which he himself and the owner of the pension, Ramadan, matched the description…
We ended up staying for over a week, but the city never really endeared itself to us. Even the food scene was disappointing, with no-one except our yoghurt supplier ‘au Petit Suisse’ seeing us return every day. Although there was a really good fuul joint on Sharia Gawdy Hosni, and down near Ramses Station we found nice fresh fruit drinks, guava juice with banana pieces and strawberry puree on top.
In between our sight-seeing and ramblings we dealt with the trials and tribulations of life in Cairo, and tried to make decisions and plans for the upcoming months. Our attempts to arm ourselves with student cards to counter the absurdly high admission fees to anything which might be of interest ended in failure. It wasn’t that we weren’t bonefide students, but that we looked to old to fool even a scammer! Other suspected scammers hunted us like game, some going to great lengths to try and gain our trust, but Cairene’s inexplicably repelled us, and any approach made to us instinctively put us off. They didn’t even seem to like each other, street-fights were common place and the police just let them go for gold! One group of people who did earn our respect however were the aish delivery men, on their heads they balanced two metre long bamboo trays precariously stacked with puffed up pita bread as they rode bicycles through the chaotic traffic like a circus act – watching them alight was like poetry in motion!
We narrowed down our future destinations and route possibilities to two after ruling out a return to Sydney for healthcare as alarmist. A visit to Cairo’s supposed best hospital didn’t instil confidence, even though I was told that there was nothing to worry about, I suspected that the doctor had probably never seen skin carcinoma. I wasn’t convinced, but a decision had to be made.
We began our explorations of Cairo in the Coptic quarter, four stops to the south of downtown on the Metro, and we crammed ourselves onto a train with the shifting masses to get there. The district looked more like a construction site than a place of great antiquity, but the historic churches contained beautiful interiors and icons, and we managed a peek inside the crypt in which Jesus and Mary supposedly sheltered when fleeing from King Herod. For a few minutes we escaped the tourist crowds by crossing the rail bridge to a real Cairene neighbourhood for koshary and sugar juice – the simple things in life are often the best.
Across town in the district of Khan al-Khalili we spent two days exploring the streets of what was the bustling heart of Cairo one thousand years ago. The beautiful old buildings which we really wanted to see were either closed for re-building or thoroughly renovated, carefully stripped of all character. But the markets teemed with life and goods – sheeshas, fireworks, blow-up santas, and lacy g-strings being held aloft for closer examination by women wearing chadors. There were candlestick makers, taboosh craftsmen and Bedouin tent designers. We bought a wrought copper candle holder, though pyramid paper weights and genuine mother-of-plastic inlayed boxes were more popular choices.
We also had our first breathtaking glimpse of the pyramids from the top of the Blue Mosque’s minaret, reached by climbing a spiral stair in pitch-black darkness and paying a few Pounds in baksheesh.
Our visit to the Pyramids of Giza was a full days entertainment. The compound containing the ancient wonders resembled a three ring circus, peaceful places to contemplate the monuments were hard to come by as literally thousands of Cairenes swarmed like ants, most more interested in us than any Cheops of Khafre. We were welcomed, photographed and kissed all day as teachers and police variously tried to control or shoo away the small excited crowds which gathered around us.
We lunched for a couple of hours beside Abu al-Hor, the Sphinx additional entry fee keeping out the masses, and walked far enough into the desert to get away from, “You want camel?” and “I have a horse!”. But they were never out of sight and the sound of people was like that of a football crowd humming around the main entry gate.
As the sun dipped toward the horizon behind the Pyramid of Menkaure everyone was ordered out and we got to enjoy a few precious moments of quiet awe as we wandered off slowly to find a bus back to the city.
The Egyptian Museum occupied another full day for us. We jockeyed with the tour groups at 9am for pole position at the turnstile, shuffling shoes on, packed lunch in hand as we gazed in awe at the treasures to behold. The golden death mask of Tutankhamun was truly a heart stopper, and the museums collections were never ending – there were mummies, gilded coffins, the preserved viscera of the mother of Cheops, Pharaonic wigs, diadems, sarcophagi, a three thousand year old mummified baboon… after six hours we couldn’t take in another colossus and retired, mentally exhausted, to the front garden.
Our last few days were spent running around chasing documents and preparing a parcel for postage. The Sudanese embassy was suitably chaotic, housed in an unmarked derelict-looking building. The enterprising tea shop set up in a corner of the spare office was grander than the desk of the harried official who was so swamped under a scrum of applicants he could barely answer our questions.
By contrast, the Ethiopian embassy in the leafy suburb of Dokki was in a lovely old villa and the staff were gracious and welcoming. We left within half an hour, visa in hand…
The Australian embassy sold us the introduction letter demanded by the Sudanese for an outrageous fee of 145 Pounds. And at the parcel post office our two kilos was on it’s way after an hour of having it’s contents weighed and scrutinised by five different offices including a careful external examination of our photo discs (the computer was turned off!).
When we finally left Cairo we were pleased to be on our way. The next destination that we had in mind was the Western Oases, so we took ourselves to the Turgoman Station for the 8am bus to Bahariya.
Once we got out of the city and past the pyramids there was only desert. It took over five hours to cover the distance, and we only got cinematic entertainment for the final 150 kilometres – fat, middle aged men singing and dancing with nubile young beauties, and it wasn’t intended to be a comedy…
ARRIVING IN BAWITI WE WERE met at the bus stop by a jaw-snapping pack of touts ready to tear us limb from limb as we climbed down defenceless from the bus. We quickly scurried away down the road to find the misnamed Paradise Hotel, the only option not ramming a safari down our throats.
The town consisted of a bedraggled main street backed by some mud brick houses, and the oasis spread out below. Walking through the palm gardens was pleasant, we shook off a would-be ‘guide’ and followed the donkeys along the shady pathways where hot spring water flowed steaming beneath the palms.
In the evening we met some guys who were on our bus – Dan (a British medical student), Ray (an American aid worker), and Etan (an Israeli television sub-titler) at the Popular Restaurant, and compared impressions. They were later replaced by the safari crocodiles who unsolicitedly quoted us astronomical prices before finally giving up on us as a lost cause.
We only stayed for one night. We armed ourselves with a lunch of aish bought for five Piastres (one cent!) each from a pigeon-hole-sized slot in the wall of the bakery, then climbed aboard the bus from Cairo which rumbled through town at noon to take us southward to Farafra Oasis.
It was an incredibly scenic two hundred kilometres. First we drove through the Black Desert, the barren landscape dotted with conical hills of black rock dusted with golden sand. This gave way to small limestone rock formations stretching as far as the eye could see, then the bedrock turned chalk white and the shifting sands cloaked the White Desert until we reached Farafra.
This oasis looked sufficiently bleak that we decided to stay on the bus which was continuing to Dakhla. A desperate tout tried his best to convince us to stay, and I wavered but we stayed on the bus, with me regretting our spur-of-the-moment decision as we motored away through the stark landscape.
It was another three hundred kilometres to Dakhla, we passed a couple of sorry-looking transmigration settlements, but nothing else except desert. Most impressive was the depression of Abu Minqar, a vast bowl about one hundred kilometres across filled with a sea of sand which we drove through as the sun set like fire and the sky warmed then darkened around us. Contrary to popular Egyptian custom, our driver used the headlights on our vehicle – except when another vehicle was approaching, then both vehicles switched off their lights, just flashing periodically as they sped toward each other. At least we were sitting toward the back.
This journey of ‘itneen Australia‘ was tracked by the police via a series of checkposts. An officer would board, politely ask where we were from, have a surreptitious look around, then the Arabi war movie was switched back on and we would be on our way again…
IT WAS 7PM WHEN WE ARRIVED in Mut, the main town of Dakhla Oasis, a small and friendly place. Zakaria made us feel at home at the Hotel el-Forsan, and we ate a delicious chicken dinner at Restaurant al-Kalamony in the square near the bus stand as we enjoyed the atmosphere of daily life. Everyone welcomed us warmly, and in the adjacent tea shop old men smoked sheeshas while their younger counterparts watched a game of football…
The next day we spent relaxing around the towns environs. We strolled through the still partly inhabited mud brick citadel, and walked across the rural fringes where the fertile lushness of quaint farm plots was being dramatically swallowed by shifting sand dunes. In the afternoon we walked out to the hot spring at Solymar, the rich mineral water flowed rust coloured into a large pool shaded by trees frequented by hoopoes and egrets. Dave soaked for a couple of hours, emerging from the water to feel re-birthed.
Back at el-Forsan he found that healthy glow had to be rinsed off his skin before it stained russet everything he came into contact with!
The following morning we were up before daybreak to catch the 6am bus to Asyut. A man dispensed ‘fuul sandwich’ from a little wooden cart next to the bus, so we were well fortified for the six hour trip, but it would have been more pleasant if a previous occupant of my seat hadn’t vomited all over it…
Beyond the yellow crescent-shaped dunes before Kharga ‘itneen Australia’ picked up a police escort. Five cops in a squad car followed our bus until we were safely out of the precincts of al-Kharga, and the sword edged dunes of Ghard Abu Muhariq were behind us. We climbed up and then across to the Nile Valley reaching the town of Asyut for a whirlwind visit.
At the first checkpost of town ‘itneen Australia’ received another police escort, an officer boarded the bus to ride with us until we reached the bus station. There another officer took over, marching us across to the train station where a third escort shepherded us to the relevant platform. There was no chance to buy lunch, a train was due in ten minutes and he had to return to his flock of other foreigners whom he had marshalled on the platform. “Welcome to Asyut”, he smiled as we looked around desperately for a tammiyya vendor…
It was another six hour ride to Luxor, following the Nile all the way. It was like another world compared to the landscape just a few dozen kilometres away from the river valley. The rural scenes sweeping past us were beautiful, felaheen harvested abundant crops of sugar cane and vegetables, date palms grew in picturesque clumps, and donkey carts and camels ambled through the scene.
THE SUN SET JUST BEFORE we arrived in Luxor, and we made our way out of the station trailing a string of touts in our wake. We made our own way to the nearby Grand Hotel, another misnamed establishment, but at only twelve Pounds for a room it was comfortable enough for our needs, and everyone we met there was friendly.
Checking out the sights of Luxor, it was hard to know where to begin. We tried to be selective to avoid Pharaonic overload, and the hefty admission fees, and occasional bad feeling shown towards us by local business people kept our time in the town to a minimum.
On our first day we got up early, and after some difficulties managed to find breakfast and local transport to Karnak, the fabulous temple complex of Amun three kilometres down river. We were there early enough for a solitary(ish) experience, and spent most of the day marvelling at our first Egyptian temple. By lunchtime the tour groups had all but cleared out, and we spent several hours resting and contemplating the Great Hypostyle Hall with it’s forest of over one hundred gigantic bulbous-shaped stone pillars decorated with lavish sunken relief carvings.
The next day we chose just one sight on the west bank of the the Nile, to get our bearings and have an easy day. We took the ferry across the river, then a pick-up going to Gurna, which dropped us off at the ticket office. The Temple of Medinat Habu was nearby, and impressed us even more with it’s fine stone relief work still vibrant with the colours of ground topaz and other semi-precious stones applied well over three thousand years ago! We stood in the Window of Appearances imagining the pomp of being Pharoah, and studied the exquisite artwork in the Tomb Chapels of the Devine Adorers.
The day after was even more restful as I paid penance for our disloyalty to Taib at the ‘All Keek Restaurant’ where we ate the first night. An awful tagen filled with the mystery meat-of-the-day from some sinewy creature wasn’t appreciated by my stomach. Regular custom was never rewarded by an Egyptian restauranteur anyway, so we ended up eating somewhere different almost every night, although Abu al-Hassan did a good vegetable moussaka which bubbled in a clay pot.
On our last day in Luxor we visited the Valley of the Kings. We retraced our steps to Gurna village then walked from the Temple of Hatshepsut up over the ridge into the desolate and featureless valley which contained the tombs of most of the great Pharoahs. Unfortunately the tombs which we were most interested in seeing were closed, but fantastic was the tomb of Ramses VI. The length of the corridor and burial chamber was richly decorated with painted reliefs, and the ceiling above the splendid stone lid of the sarcophagus was painted with a beautiful depiction of the goddess Nut.
The tomb of Ramses III was not as glorious as his additions to to Medinat Habu, it was teeming with semi-naked Russian tourists, and badly flood damaged. Tutmosis IV’s tomb was the most impressive for us. It was reached by a long deep passage with a booby-trap well and fine paintings of Pharoah receiving life from his gods. In the uncompleted burial chamber a magnificent stone sarcophagus sat in dignified solitude, except for the gatekeeper loudly annoying us for baksheesh…
We walked back to the Gurna road via the Deir al-Medina route, and the afternoon sky had cleared to reveal great views of the Nile. It snaked it’s way northward hugged by a luxuriant green band of sugar cane and fertile black earth which ended abruptly and trailed off as desert to distant mountains.
Back in town we sat by the banks of the river watching becalmed feluccas, and in the evening we promenaded to see the Luxor Temple at it’s most impressive, the gigantic columns illuminated and visible from the waterfront corniche.
An early morning train to Aswan was our convenient onward transport. We said our goodbyes the night before, and caught the 996 ‘Nefertiti’ from Cairo en route to the southern reaches of the country. It was a three hour journey on through the rural belt along the banks of the river, and we arrived in Aswan relaxed and motivated to discover the region of Nubia…
OUTSIDE THE TRAIN STATION WE walked through the colourful streets of the souq to find the Nubian Oasis Hotel, it’s entrance ways buried in a tangle of shops and stalls, and our room overlooking the market action. It was a traveller’s hub, and among others we met Daryl, a National Geographic photographer from the US; Juris, a Belgian motorcyclist on his way to Capetown; and Lee, a Canadian whom we’d met in Luxor.
Aswan itself was very appealing, it’s riverfront outlook was beautiful and the souq was full of interesting merchandise. After some time spent talking with the merchants we were soon able to identify exotic commodities like dom (a large nut which tasted something like honeycomb), karkadai (rosella flowers), henna, alum, frankincense and myrrh, all brimming from baskets carefully displayed. We bought a wearable blanket and spice baskets, each transaction taking about an hour of good-natured negotiation and providing a forum for a nice relationship with George who invited us for a chat and a drink every time we passed by thereafter…
Other vendors we met were less hospitable, many of them would rather not make a sale than sell to us for their advertised price. Tiresome trial and error revealed a few honest places that we could rely on for meals and snacks.
Our search for a felucca captain led us to the Aswan Moon Restaurant where we met Sabrih, alias ‘Captain Washington’, a big black Nubian man wearing a jalibiyya, an enormous white turban and a wide smile. He owned and brokered for several boats and introduced us to Malcolm, a Canadian cyclist who we made arrangements to sail together with on a trip to Kom Ombo in a few days time.
Our two night trip cost 125 Pounds each, a little over the odds but we weren’t inclined to trust the non-Nubian Aswanites who sprung out with a “pssst” along the corniche offering 75 Pound packages. And the 150 Pound deal which we were offered in the village south of town, inclusive of beer and hashish, didn’t appeal either.
Christmas day started badly for us. A trip to the post office to send Home a parcel took over two hours and cost 150 Pounds more than it would have in Cairo. But in the afternoon we made a great escape from town to Elephantine, one of the countless islands in the river. The Nubian villages there were laid-back, the colourfully decorated houses set amid palm gardens, and the view across rocky islets to the sand dunes on the west bank was captivating, especially from ‘Nubian House’, a place to sit and relax with a glass of nana shay and rhythmic Nubian music. Ahmed even had some baby Nile crocodiles which he was nursing – and we got to smile at them!
That evening we ate Christmas dinner at Sayyida Nefissa where the stuffed pigeon was exceptionally good.
Our felucca trip began on Boxing Day at 10am, our group met at Sabrih’s riverside haunt and besides us and Malcolm, included our friend Lee, an 84 year old Dutch physician named Boris and his friend Hanika. The first mate, Mohamed, looked about twelve though he swore he was eighteen, and the skipper was Sabrih’s nephew Ibrahim.
The weather couldn’t really be anything but perfect, and we sailed off into a headwind, our felucca ‘Washington’ tacking back and forth across the width of the river for the entire journey. It was wonderful to be out on the water under the sail of a vessel designed in antiquity, and as we relaxed daily life on the Nile went on around us. The treed banks hid small villages set back from the water, other feluccas sailed by, and fishermen tried their luck in little row boats.
In the evening around sunset the mood and the light was magical, flocks of ibis and cormorants flew south in spectacular formation, a full moon rose, and we sailed on into the dusk to find a place to moor for the night near Ibrahim’s village. The going was so slow that Aswan was just barely out of sight! Dinner was a little scant, but Ibrahim came good with some blankets, even if they smelled of the donkey they were delivered on, and we had a very memorable night thanks to Lee and his guitar. In order to share the blankets our sleeping arrangements were cosy, but I was warm and comfortable sandwiched between Lee, Dave and Hanika.
The next day we continued on toward Kom Ombo, our meals deteriorating and us becoming so relaxed that we didn’t really care. With Mohamed and Ibrahim mellowed by ganja, our lunch and dinner breaks lasted many hours.
That night halt was by a grassy clearing, but in the morning we woke to find ourselves adrift. Our boat had worked loose from it’s mooring due to the bow waves of the cruise boats, and we were floating freely through the eerie morning mists as our crew slept soundly below deck! It was actually very beautiful and we all watched sunrise together once Boris had roused the skipper.
Breakfast was so bad it was laughable, but real food was on the horizon as four of us waved goodbye to our felucca in Kom Ombo, and set off in search of a train station. We lingered at the huge riverside temple, then found a pick-up going our way. At the train station we bid au revoir to Lee and Malcolm, and jumped on the ‘Nefertiti’ heading back to Aswan.
We were still finding our land legs as we settled back into the Nubian Oasis Hotel, our home again while we waited almost a week for the next boat to Wadi Halfa. But we had much to organise in the meantime…
We began stockpiling cash Dollars, a whopping two hundred of which we needed just for our Sudanese visa applications, and other caches procured in instalments for our estimated expenses to Addis Ababa. Our business at the Sudanese consulate took only a couple of hours and was much more civilised than expected, everyone was friendly and bid us welcome in their country.
We had several visits to the Nile Navigation office to enquire about our places on the over-patronised ship to the Sudan, until we finally claimed two second class tickets at 236 Pounds each.
In between our organising we spent some very leisurely days in Aswan. We took the ferry across to the west bank and spent a really enjoyable day traipsing through the desert, from a high vantage point to the ancient monastery of Saint Simeon, and back down to the shore of the Nile where we sat for many hours under the shade of an old acacia tree. We had the company of a Dutchman named Peter, the local camel drivers, and their camels who lazed in the sun eating greenery and having their ticks expertly removed by obliging egrets.
The walk back to the ferry along the shore took us through sand drifts where thorny acacia thrived and scarab beetles fossicked.
The year 2004 ended without fanfare. From the roof of our hotel we saw the sun set and the next morning we watched it rise, perfect and golden as if in auger of the coming year.
Our last day in Egypt was as relaxed and hassle-free as we could hope for in Aswan. We strolled and lazed by the river to a chorus of “hello, felucca?”, and we ate all our favourite Egyptian dishes – fuul for breakfast, tammiyye and fried liver sandwiches for lunch, and we even bought oranges and bananas without debate. For dinner it was a toss up between the fried Nile fish and farekh – the roast chicken at Dar el Salam was a good choice, with spicy potatoes and a bowl of slippery molokhia. And we finished the day at our favourite juice shop with a fresh fruit cocktail (chunks of guava, persimmon and melon suspended in layered purees of mango, strawberry and guava).
The morning of our departure we ambled down to the train station at 9am to wait for a train going to Saad al-Ali. We met Peter there, and while we waited Dave went off to spend our last few Pounds, returning wearing a colourful Nubian cap! The train rattled along half an hour late, then creaked and groaned it’s way down the final ten kilometres or so of line to the port near the dam wall of Lake Nasser.
We found our way to the immigration building and went through six passport checks to reach the unseaworthy-looking vessel pictured on our ticket stub.
M.S Sinai was at the centre of a hive of activity as trucks and taxis arrived with cargo, and passengers squeezed their way through the commotion to take their places on board. We opted for fresh air and a view on the upper deck, and there waited seven hours for the barge to be loaded. We passed the time watching the activity which was our first sense of being in Africa, and getting to know some of our fellow passengers – there was Peter, a Japanese woman named Maiko, Mathieus (an Austrian cyclist), a German who had converted to Islam, a Norwegian anthropology student, and Andre, a Moscovite who knew our friend Gleb!! The Sudanese passengers who spoke English were keen to befriend us and tell us about their country, so we had no shortage of interesting conversation…
Just before 6pm, twenty minutes ahead of the worst-case-scenario departure time, the captain blew his whistle and we set off, the prayer session going on around us shuffling confusedly as the devout tried to re-orient themselves toward Mecca as the ship came about.
We saw very little of our voyage before darkness fell, we found a dinner of beans and chicken in the galley, then gazed at a star-studded sky huddled in our sleeping bags until we fell asleep. We shivered all night on the steely cold deck, two lumps in a mass of people. At some stage we crossed the Tropic of Cancer and were woken by the call to prayer in time to watch the sun rise before trying to figure out exactly where we were.
From the bow I was the first to spot Abu Simbel, and as we approached the captain did some showboating, taking us as close as possible to the carved temple facade, a magnificent monument to tourism. Planes landed on the adjacent air strip, luxury cruise boats moored next to it, and the bus convoy delivered it’s rich cargo which swarmed beneath the statues like ants. It was the last hoorah of Egyptian mass tourism.
Further on the lake narrowed and the sandy shores changed from being Egypt to The Sudan. A black marketeer prowled the decks selling Dinars, and everybody milled about chatting or praying, and trying to figure out what that Dinar was worth exactly. It seemed that prices were still spoken of in Sudanese Pounds, a currency which no longer existed, so confusion was rife.
BY MIDDAY WE HAD ARRIVED at Wadi Halfa, and it looked just like a pier and a few buildings at the end of the lake, the shores of which were still only desert. We circled off shore for a couple of hours, then our passports were painstakingly returned to us with a good-natured interview for each foreign passenger. By that time we had docked but it was another hour until we were allowed to disembark.
In a large hangar we underwent a cursory customs check, then bypassed the pick-ups quoting inflated fares and began walking towards what looked like it might be a town. There was no road, we simply followed the most obvious tyre tracks through the sand until we came to a couple of basic hotels (no running water) and a few eateries – this was Wadi Halfa.
We settled on Deffintoad Hotel, sharing a room with Peter, then went out to forage for food and information. Food was easy, we sat al-fresco in a dusty side street eating stewed vegetables and bread with rhythmic African music playing around us. The contrast from Egypt was striking, the people around us were very dark skinned with fantastically curly hair, and it really felt as though we had arrived on a different continent. Information was harder to come by and we were not much the wiser after a visit to the bus and lorry stop, so we went to bed hoping that we’d work things out in the morning.
We had an unsatisfying breakfast of dumplings and nana shay dispensed by a woman squatting at a colourful table full of strange beverage ingredients, then went off to the police station to register our visas. This was an excruciating process which took two hours and involved shuffling back and forth eleven times between different offices for stamps, forms, receipts and payment of 6600 Dinars each!
At the bus stand the good news was that there was a bus to Dongola at 3pm, the bad news was that it cost four thousand Dinar each for a seat on it.
We dutifully returned to the ticket office on time and were taken aback when our chariot arrived precisely at 3pm! It was a truck which had been rudely converted into a bus. The seats had padding and there was a roof, but no glass in the windows. We loaded up quickly and were on our way within minutes, everyone gave us a smile and a wave and we left in a cloud of dust with lots of satisfying horn blowing noise. We didn’t know how long the four hundred kilometre journey would take.
It took an hour to collect the remainder of our passengers from around town, there were lots of teary-eyed women with scarred cheeks and long, colourful sari-like wraps saying goodbyes, and then we left Wadi Halfa behind on a dirt track which took us across the wintry dry wadi and on south through the desert.
It was hilly and beautiful, and we could enjoy the scenery until dusk when we stopped for a rest at a settlement where a camel, two donkeys and a herd of goats made up the majority of the population. After that we were in the dark cold of night, canvas flaps doing their best to keep out the icy wind.
We stopped for a plate of fuul somewhere near Aqasha, but otherwise drove solidly, covering the 180 kilometres to Abri by midnight. We passed only one other vehicle the entire way.
We said our heartfelt goodbyes to Matthius, who had opted not to cycle this arduous leg, and then it became apparent that this was our stop also. The bus wasn’t continuing on and our onward transport, a boksi, would leave in the morning. Elfagr Hotel was conveniently available and after some negotiation we, Matthius and Peter were allocated a room. Other occupants were ejected and four beds arranged on a dirt floor, there was a toilet down a narrow alleyway out the back, but no water, running or otherwise. We paid 500 Dinars each and slept like logs.
In the morning we repeated our heartfelt goodbyes with Matthius, then had plenty of time to check out Abri before we left. It was a small town of low mud brick buildings on the River Nile, there was a small fruit and vegetable market beneath a big acacia tree, and a few trucks and donkey carts.
We didn’t actually leave on the public boksi until after 10am, and then only after a bizarre search around town for Dave and Peter who went off to buy bananas and got abducted by the security police for registration…
The scenery was even more remarkable from Abri on, though the track was just as bad with it’s sand and corrugations, there were many villages and we closely followed the course of the Nile. The houses were made up of large compounds, rammed earth sometimes coloured yellow with contrasting trim and elaborately painted doorways often adorned with crocodile heads.
Along the way we shared our space with short distance passengers who smiled broadly at us, and met plenty of other interesting characters during our rest stops – most amazing were the old men out walking through the lunar like landscapes away from the river, miles from anywhere they herded their camels or cows.
It was dark when we reached the ferry point, and we had time for a long awaited bowl of fuul, the olive oil dispensed from a bottle labelled ‘transmission fluid’, before the river crossing which finally took us to Dongola ten hours after leaving Abri that morning.
WE STUMBLED INTO THE LORD Hotel thickly coated with two days worth of dust, and barely able to stand after the bone crunching ride. Filthy as we were, we couldn’t bare the cold water sluice on offer, and fell into our beds still choking with the smell of dirt.
In the morning our hotelier, Murburak, informed us that we would need to go to the police station to register. “REGISTER?!!”. He held up a hand at our exasperated expressions… “no money…”
We ate a breakfast of fuul and ginger spiced coffee then hopped into an auto-rickshaw for an expedition to the registration office. Actually it was quite painless and officer Abdul Bassed even gave us a few sight-seeing tips.
The town of Dongola was a very laid-back place with a main street lined with leafy trees and low buildings featuring plenty of corrugated iron. A conscientious policeman pulled over donkey carts for traffic infringements and teashops outnumbered any other kind of business venture.
On our second day we found our first meal in three days which didn’t involve fuul – chunks of Nile perch fried and served with chilli sauce and fasuliye. In the evenings we sat outside our hotel drinking shay, eating sweet basta, chatting with Peter and the local vet, Abdul, and watching the nightlife. The traffic cop donned a fluorescent vest and used a flashing red light sabre to keep the rickshaws and donkeys in check!
Besides simply wandering the broad dusty streets watching and participating in the provincial market activity, we made a day excursion back across the river on the ferry to Kawa, an ancient archaeological sight. We walked for a couple of hours upriver through several small villages and sandy desert to a mound containing a pharaonic temple. Only the upper outlines of the walls and columns were exposed, but after some digging Dave uncovered a hint of what lay buried beneath the sand – huge stone blocks with intact bas relief carvings!
From what would have been the main portico we looked out over the Nile completely alone except for an old felucca sailing in the distance. The villagers that we met working along the way were typically warm and friendly, with toothy white smiles shining from ebony faces hiding in the pea fields, and men riding donkeys were keen to confirm that we were heading in the right direction…
Leaving Dongola for Karima was relatively simple, first we jostled with the donkey carts loaded with green onions to cross the river on the ferry again. Amongst the sheds and lean-to’s we found the small ticket office for the boksis going to Karima, then ate a breakfast of fuul while we waited for other passengers to come along. As we sat in the mud and straw office the phone rang, Musa behind the desk answered then held the receiver out to Dave, “it’s for you!…”. Murburak from the hotel was calling to say goodbye!
In due course a roofless boksi was loaded up with fifteen passengers, luggage carefully tied to the running boards, and we headed off in an impressive cloud of dust. We took a cross country route through the desert away from the river, and fishtailed our way through the sands, the wheels covering us in dust as they tried to find purchase. It was a very long four hours.
It seemed miraculous that the driver could find his way, the only markers that we had to follow didn’t run the entire distance and even the other vehicle tracks were often obscured by shifting sand dunes. Our faces were barely recognisable under the dirt by the time we arrived in Karima, chunks of caked bull dust fell into our eyes as we extracted ourselves from the boksi and looked around wondering what kind of accommodation might be available.
SOME INDEPENDENT BYSTANDERS POINTED us in the right direction, and we got to utilise our limited Arabic language skills on old (and deaf) Mohamed at the El-Shamalia Hotel, a rudimentary lodging with a requisite shower. The water didn’t feel so shockingly cold as in Dongola, and there was a grand pedestal to stand on under the discoloured flow. Nishi and Hitomi, whom we had first met in Cairo, were already in residence.
Dave and Peter found the police registration office despite a recalcitrant rickshaw driver, then we ate a dinner of vegetable and lentil stew with a strange kind of tissue bread doused with gravy, and spent the evening with Bodr al-Din, a policeman who moonlighted with three other jobs simultaneously, including ‘entertainer’ – we were privileged!
The next day we explored Karima, first heading off to Jebel Barkel which we climbed for outstanding views of the surrounding countryside. To the east the Nile swept past in a long bend, it’s banks green with date palms. To the west was the desert which we had emerged from, dotted with flat-topped hills and the pyramids of Karima, smaller and more isosceles than their Egyptian cousins. In the distance to the north we could see the pyramids of Nouri, and the entire scene seemed timeless.
That night we added some goat meat to our diets and enjoyed a tall glass of hot sweet milk before meeting Bodr al-Din again. He was sad to hear that we would be leaving the next day, and gave us a gift of music – cassette tapes of Sidiq Ahmed and Tarek al-Aud.
We had bought our bus tickets from an office in the market, and somehow got our message across to old Mohamed that the bus would collect us at 6:30 the next morning. He indicated that he would wake us up.
Surely enough we were jolted out of bed before 6am by his equally deaf sidekick beating on our steel door with a stick loudly enough to wake the muezzin two blocks away who began screaming like Tarzan just a few minutes later…
Our minibus zoomed along at 6:25am, and within half an hour had collected all passengers and we were on our way to Khartoum. The ferry crossing south of town was time consuming, but once we’d made our fuel stop and bounced our way out of the village we hit a strip of bitumen which saw us zooming along for a good half hour, minus a few pit stops for things falling off the roof and picking up some extra passengers.
The bitumen was short lived and we were soon skidding in the dirt through villages prosperous with livestock. The new seasons camel calves were thriving. At noon we turned onto a paved road away from the river and stopped for fuul…
As we drove on towards the capital more and more vegetation appeared, with sparse acacia visible through the dust, suspended so thickly in the air that it obscured the sky.
IT WAS AFTER 4PM BY THE time we arrived in Khartoum. Our first impression was that it was a bigger dustier version of Karima and Dongola, but with traffic jams. Amidst the minibuses and transit vans donkeys placidly went about their duty, and we even saw one donkey towing a broken down auto-rickshaw!
Our bus delivered us to nowhere in particular, and finding a cheap hotel seemed an impossible task as we wandered off cluelessly in the direction that our bus driver had pointed us in when we asked “Khartoum?”.
We walked until it started to look more like a city, then changed our question to “funduq?” until we found a hotel. It was closed, but the proprietor was ready with helpful suggestions for us, and pointed us in the direction of Hotel Haramain, “ohh, veeeeery cheap!”. Many friendly bystanders kept us on the right track until we finally found our mark, it was 2000 Dinars for a room, but under the circumstances we thought that we had done pretty well.
The ‘el Haramain Hotels’ stood in the centre of a chaotic minibus station and marketplace, our balcony looked down over the mayhem in the street below – horns, whistles, music, the rabble of a thronging crowd. It was the most frenetic neighbourhood in the city, hawkers sat in the dirt selling everything from peanuts to perfume, or sung out the prices of their goods in unison with a rhythm and harmony that only Africans have. Cripples begged with resignation to their fate, and minibuses lined up in the gravel incongruously labelled in the Korean and Chinese script of their origins. The people were a colourful ethnic mix of not only Muslims in jalibiyyas and turbans, but others with scarified faces or bright kaftans, braided hair and beautifully hennaed hands and feet.
Stepping out into this situation perhaps should have been instinctively alarming, but we felt perfectly at ease, even at night when it was at it’s busiest.
We cleaned off a few more layers of road grit, and ate a good meal just a few paces from our front door, vegetable stew, stuffed eggplant and fried beef, then a thick milky sorghum drink called medideh, tasting vaguely of chocolate, which we slurped from a large silver bowl.
In the morning we started our day just a few doors along with dumplings and a tall glass of sweet milk flavoured with tea, dispensed by a man swinging his hips to the loud pulsing beat of African music – it was a breakfast with attitude!
Our quest for information consumed most of the day. A tourist office did exist but took great detective work to find, and only resulted in a few glossy brochures and a lot of smiling and handshaking with the staff who spoke absolutely no English. A travel agent was kind enough to offer us a map, and there we met Antoinette, a Zimbabwean who was leading tours in The Sudan for a few months. She was wonderful and helped us to find the information we needed as well as inviting us to her house to meet her wild husband Pierre.
On the surface, sight-seeing in Khartoum seemed improbable, but we spent a very enjoyable day walking along Sharia Jama to the confluence of the Blue and White Nile rivers, and then exploring every corner of the National Museum which was a mine of information about the sites we had already visited. We learnt that Jebel Barkel was the holy home of Amun and the temple at Kawa was built for him by Tutankhamun!
Our wanderings around the city took us to such obscure corners as Cunt Mukhlis Street and Silyman Street, and we found tasty Sudanese delicacies like kofta (tiny meatballs with chilli sauce wrapped in a thick grilled pancake), kahwa served by men squatting in the street with tiny cups and miniscule pots on trays, and fuul with the delicious addition of a kind of hard cheese. We also met many good and interesting people, but the one who affected us most was Joseph, who was also staying at our hotel. He worked for the World Food Programme, and while everybody else focused on the latest peace treaty, he told of the humanitarian disaster still unfolding in the Darfur region…
Our last day in Khartoum was extraordinary. By chance we had heard about Sufi dancing which took place on Friday afternoons, and armed with a little note written in Arabic which everyone found hilariously funny, we set off to find the place.
First we went to the gaggle of buses our hotelier Ishak had directed us to , and caught a transport across the river to a large cemetery at Omdurman. The ziqir dancing would take place after afternoon prayers and we were quite early, so we followed the dusty tracks through the graveyard where old bones lay in the piles of earth turned over for new residents, and sat under some trees next to the tomb of Hamedeh Nil to drink coffee with the colourful crowd already gathering. Over the next six hours we witnessed one of the most bizarre religious ceremonies…
Mystic ascetics arrived first, then holy men dressed in different colours according to their role in the proceedings. Some drumming and dancing began, and later the grand master arrived in a suitably decorated boksi. The dancers came in a lorry with flag bearers, and all assembled in a clearing in front of the tomb. Around a large circle slow rhythmic chanting and swaying began, and built to a fever pitch before suddenly stopping, resting for a few minutes and a new chant would begin. Meanwhile inside the circle wildly dressed men chanted and danced waving sticks around in a smaller group, and individuals wearing bright green robes and dreadlocks whirled in the dust.
It was Islam at it’s most passionate, and this African brand of Sufism was quite unique. We were certainly most welcome to watch, and some of the holy men took time to explain to us what was going on. We were invited to sit and drink coffee afterwards amongst the gravestones, and master Hamid’s words about enlightenment and mysticism made us think that his philosophies were on a higher plane – his young students hung off his every word.
It was late when we headed home on the bus, our heads spinning from the fervour of what we’d seen and the excessive amounts of coffee we’d drunk.
Unfortunately we had to get up early the next morning for a bus to Gedaref. Our dumpling and milk breakfast had less hip swinging attitude before 7am, and we re-traced our route to the bus terminal where we’d bought our tickets the previous morning.
The five hour journey was luxurious to the point that we were given a lunchbox and sweeties as we sped southeast on a sealed road. The terrain was flat and featureless except for the Blue Nile which we crossed on a bridge at Medani. Slowly the landscape became more treed with grasses and shrubs, and villages looked picturesque with circular mud huts and conical thatched roofs. All this as Rambo blasted his way through a blockbuster on the DVD, and our fellow passengers pointed out landmarks to us along the way.
MADIAN SAT BEHIND US AND when we reached Gedaref he waited while we registered then helped us find our way around town. We met Hitomi and two friends, Taiji and Tokiyo, also at the bus station so we made an interesting looking group and attracted much attention.
First we went to a hotel and after a quick inspection Madian kindly invited us to stay at his house. But first we took Hitomi and company to the lorry station to find their onward transport, then it was back to town and on to Madian’s place by rickshaw. His mother and sisters didn’t seem overly shocked to see two strangers entering their home, but the rest of the neighbourhood was blown away. Children peered over the gate all afternoon, and when it was cool enough to go out for a walk we got a chance to greet everyone. In the marketplace we were treated like visiting royalty and shook hands with everyone from the camel butcher to street pedlars – our welcome was overwhelming.
We found our way back to Madian’s house amongst the neat thatched huts, loaded down with fruits and sweets then spent the evening chatting with him and some of his family and friends. Interestingly, he had studied three years of medicine in Romania until the Sudanese government pulled the plug on scholarships, and so he spoke fluent Romanesti and was keen to hear our impressions of Romania!
I slept fitfully trying to swat the mosquitoes which buzzed menacingly, bearing in mind Madian’s casual remark that malaria was as common as headache in his household…
We were up early the next morning, but by the time we made it to the lorry station we’d missed the daily ‘bus’ to Shihedy, and had to settle for a boksi to Gallabat. We just had time for a glass of tea with Madian before being scolded for not climbing aboard to claim our ‘good seats’. We got to squat on the metal wheel arch!
We waved goodbye to our friend not knowing how long we would have to endure the ride. Estimates varied from two hours to ten hours, and within minutes we were covered in dirt. The landscape continued with dry grass plains, more villages, and cow and goat herds on the road on their way to their fate at the upcoming ‘Id il Adha’ celebration.
At one stage we stopped to retrieve a piece of our suspension which had sheered off, and one of our number took the opportunity to collect some resin from a nearby tree. He offered around the pieces from his giant palm and we followed the lead, putting a glob each into our mouths and watching to see what we should do with it next. It’s glue-like consistency seemed unwise to swallow but nobody spat so we allowed it to dissolve down our throats while slowly chewing…
We also stopped several times to have our details recorded at police checkposts, the last of which was at Gallabat almost five hours after we left Gedaref. The registration office also provided water for washing so we looked marginally less filthy for the customs and immigration pleasantries. Our last meal of fuul was disappointing, and we toyed with our unflavoursome beans whilst changing our Dinars for Birr with a hasty blackmarketeer.
WE CROSSED A SMALL BRIDGE which marked the border and were beckoned by two immigration officials sitting under a tree, “welcome to Ethiopia!”, they inspected our passports and pointed us on to a grass hut where we were stamped in by Asres Abebe, who also gave us forms to fill in for the ‘suggestion box’!
Ethiopia was instantly and profoundly different from The Sudan, “you,you,you, YOU, YOU!”, children and adults called out to us excitedly as we wandered down the dusty main drag then sat on a leather strung charpoy to wait for the bus to Shihedy. Any sense of Sudanese order was lost as the bus pulled in and we fought valiantly in the ensuing scrum. We managed to each get a seat, albeit with armpits in our faces and elbows in our backs, then focused on enduring another two hour ride. The Ethiopian countryside featured green trees and undulating hills.
The town of Shihedy was another dusty shock of a place and we stumbled down the main track to a chorus of “you, you, you…”, looking for anything resembling a hotel. Atse Yohannes Hotel was the best of a few undisguised brothels, and Hitomi and the boys had just arrived a few minutes before us! We opted for a ‘second class’ room, but it was really the shower that we were interested in…
After washing we enjoyed an icy cold Dashen beer while learning some Amharic from a bright young boy named Almo Sefu, then went for a walk around town. We shook hands with every child in Shihedy, “you, you..”, and ate our first Ethiopian meal in a very humble eatery. Our large sour injera pancake was served with meat and garlic in gravy and a spicy red sauce – it was absolutely delicious!
When we got back a television entertainment system had been set up outside our room, and we found that Seveda, the young manager, ran a popular business indeed…
We slept well once the electricity went off, and rose just after 5am for the early morning bus to Gonder. Gathering this bus information was complicated by the fact that Ethiopia ran on a different time system – “12 o’clock” meant 6am!
Uncannily, a bus was parked right outside our gate, and when the hotel boy roused the driver he promptly decided it was time to go. Passengers suddenly appeared from nowhere, all carrying a staff which made loading the bus somewhat hazardous, and within minutes we were on our way, driving off into the dark looking at our Southern Cross shining brightly in the sky.
Sunrise was beautiful as we climbed into the hills, we passed villages and crossed small streams while spotting hornbill and storks through the mist-like dust. After three hours we had climbed high into the mountains and stopped for a breakfast of doughy bread and sweet cinnamon shay outside a mud hut while a tyre was repaired. This provided an hours quality entertainment for the inquisitive locals.
WE HAD REACHED GONDER AFTER six hours, and began meeting unsavoury ‘guides’ before we even got off the bus. Finding a hotel was problematic not because rooms were scarce, but because lying nuisances were plentiful. Eventually we opted for a cavernous room for 30 Birr at the Ethiopia Hotel. The staff wore white lab coats, the stink of the toilet made our eyes water, and the shower flowed like a water torture device.
It was the festival time of ‘timkat’ in Gonder and the whole town was excited. We spent a relaxing afternoon acquainting ourselves with life in Ethiopia, resting our backsides which were bruised from the boksi ride, and taste testing a spris (mango, avocado and papaya juice with a squeeze of lime) in a cafe. There we were happy to see Jim and Grace, a couple from Korea whom we had met in Aswan!
The next morning was a designated sleep-in, and then we began the day with our first Ethiopian coffee. A guy named Damos treated us to a thimble-sized espresso which had us pumped for hours!
We went for a look at the Royal Enclosure and saw all kinds of new and wonderful birds around the seventeenth century castles and palaces. We re-charged ourselves with a meal of yesom megeb injera (dollops of various spicy lentil and vegetable dishes) at Yeshimebet Negash, then went to Saint Michael’s Church, an old circular building in a forested garden with a man blowing a trumpet at the four hundred year old gateway. Inside the priests were preparing the ‘Arc of the Covenant’ for it’s grand procession, and within half an hour of us socialising with the local churchgoers, it emerged and began making it’s way slowly through the streets. The priests wore brightly coloured capes and bore ornate silver crosses, groups of men brandishing sticks sung hymns hysterically, and the further the procession went the larger the ululating crowd became.
In the town centre it joined forces with other church processions until thousands of devotees paraded towards Fasilades Bath, a few kilometres outside town.
“Gonder is happy!“, we were told over and over again as people clapped together and sang with joy. One young woman licked the ground every three paces as she followed along in the crowd! At the bathing place the tabots were ceremoniously placed inside a tent, and with that everyone was free to focus their full attention on us. We were relieved to finally extract ourselves from the ensuing frenzy to enjoy a pleasant walk back to town with Jim and Grace.
Dave was disappointed to have to foil two pick-pocketing attempts during the afternoon – the first in eleven months of travel.
We had yet another great vegetarian injera dinner (for only four Birr) and a refreshment in the Ethiopia Bar before a drip torture shower and bed ahead of another early start the next morning…
We were off before 5am, re-tracing our steps to Fasilades Bath, walking with small groups of devotees clad in their finest white gabi shawls. When we arrived the priests were leading a chant which lasted several hours, before first light heralded the beginning of the epiphany ceremony. The bath compound looked extraordinary filled with singing worshippers. Everyone sat patiently for hours, some up high in the fig trees which draped their roots along the walls.
Finally the priests entered and prayed whilst painstakingly setting afloat a wooden candelabra, trumpets blew and the first bather was given the nod for a spectacular belly flop into the knee-deep water to retrieve the candles. All restrain immediately gave way to wanton fun as many in the crowd stripped and threw themselves into the blessed water or sung ‘Hallelujah’ in jubilation. No-one in the clapping crowd was forgotten as fetid water splashed everywhere in baptismal pandemonium.
It was an hour or more later when we began shuffling toward the exit gate as men, women, grannies and children (most stark naked) were still bathing away their sins. The procession of the tabots back to their respective churches took hours, and conveniently passed by our hotel, so we got a bird’s eye view of all the pomp, excitement and unbridled happiness.
Our afternoon was a complete change of pace. After a lunch of shira (spicy pureed chickpeas), we walked up to Debre Berhan Selassie Church for some peaceful respite in it’s forested grounds. Tall pine trees were a haven to scores of vultures, while pigeons and finches foraged on the grass around the four hundred year old stone church. Inside were divine murals of Habesha cherubs and biblical scenes featuring doe-eyed apostles looking like the Jackson Five!
We finished our day with an injera mechet abesh (berbere spiced ground meat) and an early night…
The next morning we were maddened by a room invasion, the culprit succeeding only in terrifying me before Dave apprehended him in a humiliating scene in the hallway. Then we were overcharged for our breakfast, an outrageous four Birr for bread and tea, so we took to the hills for some quiet walking time.
The ‘timkat’ festival was almost over, and when we returned to town the procession from Saint Mikael’s Church was making it’s climactic return through the streets. It was even more fantastic than the previous day, and we joined in the crush with the joyous masses unable to believe their continuing energy and passion.
That night Gonder was much subdued. We shared a spris with Jim and Grace, had a tasty kai wot (goat meat in berbere sauce), and slept with minimum disturbance, except of course from our resident rat…
We were at the bus station as instructed by 5:30am for a bus to Debark, and emerged from the confusion at 7am, bouncing out through the town in an old bus with Ethiopian folk music broadcasting from both an internal and external speaker system!
It was a beautiful ride through the mountains, gaining enough altitude to notice more of a chill in the air when we arrived in dirty dusty Debark.
ALL OF THE DECENT INNS were full, so we stayed in one of the brothels near the market. Berhane Lewath Hotel not only boasted a warm shower and clean sheets, but an atmospheric bar with music and a football channel. We took a pleasant walk for a couple of hours to the escarpment north of the village and were surprised to find the eucalyptus trees so dominant that the region looked and smelt like home – but with grass huts.
At the Simien Mountains National Park headquarters we were reprimanded like naughty children for straying so far without permission (!?!), before making arrangements for a two day hike into the park. Logistics and costs were difficult to work around, not least that it was compulsory for an armed scout to accompany us. The park didn’t appear to welcome foreigners. Park entry, lodging and a scout cost us a total of 240 Birr.
In the market we eked out some meagre supplies shadowed by price-inflating pests, then spent the evening relaxing in the bar. We ate an excellent vegetarian injera meal, then Dave held court over a large interested crowd of conversant admirers.
We slept well, but were shocked to hear the patter of a few raindrops through the night – it had been over two months since we had experienced rain!
WE WERE UP BEFORE DAWN to make the final arrangements for our hike. We managed to explain that we wanted to leave our bag behind; we bought a copious quantity of fresh dabo (bread) as our trekking staple, and then waited impatiently for our tardy scout to show up. Agennow also bought a few crusts, tied them into his gabi, slung his loaded Kalashnikov AK47 over his shoulder, and set off past the market at a cracking pace.
We hiked for three hours through rural countryside – wattle and daub huts, herds of cows and goats, dusty footpaths heavily trafficked by traditionally clad farmers on their way to the weekly market in Debark. Agennow knew many of them and greeted them the Ethiopian way with lots of handshaking and gentle head-butting.
Once we reached the national park proper, the scenery became magnificent and we saw only native flora. There were abundant wildflowers, yellow, red, purple and the beautiful white Abyssinian rose. There were pines with lichens hanging like tinsel, all kinds of thorny bushes and wind sculpted trees. The mountain paths were a pleasure to follow with wonderful views along the cliff edges. Birds were diverse and numerous, it was a great pity not to have a birding guidebook. Outstanding were the raptors and thick-billed crows.
But the undoubted wildlife highlight was the troupe of gelada baboons we happened across. There were about five hundred of them, and we were amongst them for over an hour! The males were magnificent creatures, strutting like lions with their long impeccably groomed manes of hair and tufted tails. They allowed us amazingly close, looking at us indifferently, their yawns revealing monstrous canines as they groomed one another and tended to their young. Troublesome bachelors sent the females screaming and the dominant males asserting themselves with shows of bravado in the trees – their social interactions were fascinating to watch.
We hiked on, and were surprisingly tired after seven hours on the trail when we reached Sankaber camp at 3300 metres. The camp was located on the narrow neck of a ridge, the escarpment dropping away spectacularly on both sides. On a short walk from the comfortable hut which was our lodging, we saw a pheasant, a few gelada baboons and two pairs of klipspringer bounding through the grass. All the while Agennow refused to let us out of his sight.
As darkness fell it wasn’t as cold as we’d expected, and we spent a comfortable night apart from the snoring and farting of the grotesquely ignorant English bus tourists who had been forced to share our space…
In the morning Agennow waited outside our door wrapped in his gabi, ready for the return journey. We were on our way by 7:30am, enjoying the early morning freshness of the walk along the edge of the escarpment, the wild sounds of birds and animals drifting up to us from the forests far below.
Within a couple of hours we stumbled upon another troupe of gelada baboons on the move along the escarpment. There were about two hundred of them, busy feeding on grass and roots amongst the villagers grazing their goats, horses and cows – a bucolic Simien Mountain scene.
We took a different route back, walking along with donkey herds and villagers, past tiny communities of grass huts connected by centuries old footpaths rutted by countless generations. On one of the few occasions that our path crossed the road Juris and Mice happened by on their motorcycle in another random coincidence of meeting! And we had passed only two other hikers on our entire two day trek…
We arrived safely back in Debark trailed by scores of urchins who Agennow shooed away when necessary. We shared a drink with him back at the Berhane Lewath Hotel, and he was thrilled with the ten Birr tip we offered him.
Getting out of Debark was only for the fortunate few. In the afternoon a few buses gathered next to the defunct petrol bowsers in front of our hotel, and we were told that they would leave for Gonder at 6:30am. If we were to have any hope of a place on one of them we should present ourselves at 5:30am. We sat all afternoon and watched hapless souls desperately chasing vehicles down the road in the hope of escape…
At 5:20am we stood forlornly beside the already full buses with a group of one hundred or so other disappointed would-be travellers. It was to be a long day. Bus travel was a sellers market, and when a truck came by at 5:45am we considered ourselves lucky to get a ride in the cab for 25 Birr each – almost double the bus fare. We roared off with people chasing the vehicle like dogs. Injuries were no doubt commonplace, and sure enough, about halfway back to Gonder we took aboard a casualty nursing a head injury.
It was still early when we reached Gonder, and the truck took us to the bus station so we decided to press on toward Bahar Dar. The direct buses had already left and the best we could do was to take one going to Wereta – we pinpointed it on our map and climbed aboard…
By the time we pulled out it was 10:30am, our driver had already had a heated argument with the bus inspector, and we hadn’t even crawled one hundred metres before we stopped at a spare parts shop. However, we were soon on our way, past the turn-off to Sudan and bouncing through the rolling countryside.
But, as anticipated, our bus had some deep-rooted mechanical problems. The engine spluttered to a stop not far into the journey and took some time to repair – we entertained ourselves watching carmine bee-eaters while local passersby watched two farangis in a broken down bus. When we finally got back on our way it was short lived and we endured four more breakdowns before the bus was declared to be cactus, and everyone mobbed the conductor for return of monies paid. We had taken four hours to cover sixty kilometres.
We were in the middle of nowhere of course, and were lucky to be picked up by a kindly road surveyor, and rode with thirteen people plus their luggage in his Landcruiser to the next section of road construction. From there we hiked to the nearest town attracting crowds of onlookers, and after a much-needed lunch of kitfo (lean meat warmed with oil and garlic), managed to hitch a ride on a semi-trailer with Tsegaye, a fellow passenger also going to Bahar Dar.
In the cab of a semi’ we were king of the road, and our young driver sped along chewing chat to keep him alert, as donkeys, cows and people scattered out of our horn-blasting way. “Do you need truck drivers in Australia?” he asked through narcotic-glazed eyes and a wide smile.
The road was in parts good bitumen, but mostly rough gravel with detours which we would have considered four-wheel-drive only. The scenery was great with mountains and patches of native forest interspersed with fields of tet.
WE FINALLY REACHED BAHAR DAR at 6pm and had to face the next challenge – finding a room. All the decent hotels were full and we almost came to blows with the sleazy touts who trailed us like remoras. A final menacing fist got rid of the last of them and we found a bed in a brothel called ‘Shooting Star’…
After a shower and a vegetarian injera we were feeling better, and spent the evening chatting over shai with a couple of young teachers, Getamar and Alex. “I think you must be staying at Ghion Hotel? – no? – Shooting Star? – that’s a … bar …”
We moved the next morning to more comfortable accommodations (for the same rate of 20 Birr) at Tana Hotel…
We spent two misadventurous days in Bahar Dar. It was a beautiful place and there was plenty to keep us occupied especially around the shore of nearby Lake Tana, where the people used flimsy little boats made from papyrus. Birdwatching was brilliant, there was even an antipodean pelican feeding place with inversely coloured pelicans.
We went to some trouble to find the point which was the source of the Blue Nile several kilometres from town. And as we sat resting, innocently looking out across the reed beds at the storks and jacanas, we were surprised by the appearance of an enraged soldier waving his gun at us like a madman. He idiotically confiscated our binoculars mistaking them for a video camera, and marched us back to his post where his off-sider was waiting. Together they studied our passports and the offending binoculars while a group of interested onlookers, including a donkey, served to make the situation look even more slapstick.
Our binoculars were duly returned and we were brusquely pointed back the way we’d came – past the sign welcoming us to Beher Genet recreation area! We then followed the river for several kilometres downsteam along a road lined with jacarandas, to the palace of Haile Selassie perched on a hill overlooking the Blue Nile. We ate a picnic lunch then bush-bashed our way down to the river looking for hippopotamus and crocodiles. A herd of cows and a monitor lizard was the best we could come up with – and plenty of hangers-on…
The towns main market was potentially a fantastic place to explore. We wandered around checking out the strange and varied merchandise – green coffee beans, lentils, grains, spices, shoes made of old car tyres, religious paraphernalia. But our every step was shadowed by a sleazy group of a dozen mafia men ready to cream off a commission from anything we might buy. Unable to shake them off we left in disgust.
In town our two favourite haunts were the injera eatery where we regularly met Getamar and Alex, and the tiny juice bar around the corner where a beautiful woman named Indahgada made delicious spris layered with cochineal for just two and a half Birr – my lasting memory…
Leaving Bahar Dar by bus was the same nightmarish routine. At 5:30am we stood at the locked gates of the bus station being singled out of a large crowd by the resident beggars who bravely stood their ground in the stampede that followed when the gates were thrown open. Once inside we had the disadvantage of not being able to read the destination boards of the scores of buses, but by 6am had taken our place on an old Italian bus bound for Dessie. It was almost 7 o’clock by the time we left.
Our route struck off across the mountains, stopping only once along the way to refuel the bus and the passengers. The petrol station was busy with twenty donkeys loaded up with jerry cans, and out of the two choices of lunch venue no-one opted for Semen Hotel.
After six and a half hours we reached Gashema and the turn-off to where we actually wanted to go. Lalibela was a tantalisingly close 64 kilometres away, but to get a place on any transport going there we frustratingly had to continue on for three hours to Woldia. At least it was a very scenic three hours, past groups of circular huts made of stone up on the plateau, and then dropping down dramatically through the clouds where red hot poker plants thrived on the cliff faces, to a river flat and valleys which led to Woldia.
CONVENIENTLY DEPOSITED AT THE bus stand we randomly selected one of the nameless hotels strung along the road opposite and were given a comfortable room by an enthusiastic young man named Amerykadesi. It was only 12 Birr and boasted a clean shower and toilet facility.
We found a likely restaurant in town and after lunching on kaiwot tried to order some vegetables for dinner. “Vegetable?”, “What?”… “Vegetable … okay!” A few minutes later our injera was lovingly served with a huge plate of wobbling kitfo (semi-raw meat). Oh well, it was good anyway, and we bought a pineapple on the way home. There Dave performed has latest party trick on the snack vendor girl, reciting all the names of the various roasted lentils and peas in Amharic – it was even better than watching us eat green chickpeas fresh from the bush for the first time…
In the morning the 5:30am call to prayer accompanied our ablutions, and we found our bus with comparatively minor confusion. Jim and Grace turned up after experiencing much greater confusion! The ticket seller was illiterate which really slowed down our departure, but we were gone by 7am, laboriously making our way back up the bone-crunching road to Gashema, and then on for another three hours through the mountains to Lalibela.
THE REWARD FOR OUR TROUBLES wasn’t immediately obvious. As our bus pulled in it was swamped by undesirables waiting to fleece us any way they could. A policeman stood inadequately with a baton, but as soon as we moved away from the bus we were on our own, cursing our way to the Private Roha Hotel, an unfriendly but comfortable lodging. The best thing about it was breakfast in the little thatched hut right next door where two ladies made fresh doughy bread served piping hot from the griddle with wonderful coffee. Grass was spread on the floor and incense burned as the buna was ceremonially poured from a blackened ceramic pot into tiny cups. A great start to the day!
But the real reason we had come to Lalibela was to check out the thousand year old rock hewn churches scattered around the village and surrounding countryside. Many were beginning to crumble, but some were absolute gems like Bet Giyorgis cut in the shape of a cross deep into the pink volcanic tuff; and the eastern group of churches connected by a complex series of tunnels which were fun to explore. Fumbling through a long passage from Arogi Bethlehem we came to a thin shaft of light and steps leading to a wooden trap door which the keeper above opened with a satisfying creak at the sound of our laughter.
The priests were friendly, no doubt our hundred Birr entry ticket contributed to this friendliness, and happily showed off their treasures to us – gold and bronze crosses, and wooden bound bibles with pages of goat leather hand scribed in Amharic. The priest of Bet Abba Libanos was engagingly drunk, rolling around posing for photographs in his colourful robes.
Sunday mass was well-attended and, seen as we were woken anyway by the loud speaker rantings, we went along to absorb the atmosphere. Inside the dark recesses of Bet Medhane Alem drummers kept beat to the chanting, and the solid gold Lalibela cross was used to bless each worshipper on the forehead.
We were also in town for the Saturday market, a meeting of great importance for everyone in the region. They came on donkeys from all around to trade their local goods and essentials. There was grain in sacks made of goat skin and honey carried in gourds thick enough to be measured out in sticky handfuls. Green coffee beans were carefully inspected for quality, and tef was constantly being winnowed and analysed into neat piles. Salt from Danakil was sawn into small blocks, and aid wheat from the USA was blatantly sold from sacks labelled ‘NOT TO BE SOLD OR EXCHANGED’. After two hours of searching we finally found a man squatting in the dirt with a small sack of bananas, apparently the only fruit available, and we eagerly bought two Birr worth. Otherwise our poor fruitless diets were only saved by the good vegetarian injera that we found at the far ends of the village which was strung down a steep hillside.
The only eating place near to our hotel was the Askalech Tej House where we shared a carafe of tasty honey mead for the first time. Our interaction with the local people was largely a negative experience. There were a few genuinely nice people, but we were mostly met by the ubiquitous upturned palm and demands for pens, money, and the shirts off our back – even from the magician in his technicolour dream coat. International charity seemed to have created a society of prideless beggars expecting handouts as their right. It was a sad situation.
The night before our departure Dave went up to the bus stop with our new pal Chad (a photographer who was living in Taipei) and Aila (a born again Jew) to wait for a bus to arrive so that we could buy tickets out of Lalibela. The buses were hours late, and the one we wanted didn’t arrive at all – so we ended up with tickets on a bus to Woldia which would leave at 5:30am.
We hauled ourselves up the hill still half asleep to find the vacant seats occupied by smart-arse non-passengers who would only move aside for a fee! Apparently this was a bone-fide career! The only space I could find was next to a man who stunk like he’d pissed himself, and Dave was snuggled beside a big-bosomed nursing mother with a cute dribbling baby. It took the same six bumpy hours to re-trace our steps to Woldia.
There we waited an hour for an onward connection, we had a medicinal Coke with our friends at the nameless hotel across the road and, like everyone else just off the bus from Lalibela, bought fruits. Our day was definitely improving.
The next ride on to Dessie was really good, our bus had music and the scenery was magnificent as we cruised on a sealed road across wide valleys. Although it did take five hours when we expected it would take three.
WHEN WE FINALLY ARRIVED IN Dessie the first thing we did was to buy our bus tickets out, then wandered off to find lodging for the night. It was easier to get rid of the slimy remoras with Chad around, his intimidatingly stocky frame and Jack Nicholson accent sent the stickiest of them packing, and we all found rooms at the nearby Nile Hotel.
Dinner was tibs injera and a macchiato at the lively Mazzagaja Restaurant, and spris at Addis Pastry. If only the hotel had a shower life would have been perfect…
At 2500 metres it was still quite cool in Dessie, especially at 5am when we bypassed the crowd waiting outside the gates of the bus station, confidently waltzing in without question – sometimes being a farangi had it’s privileges.
Everyone else was let in half an hour later, we watched the chaos from our seats, and the bus left at 6:30am. The scenery was just as beautiful as the previous day with mountains, streams, wide fields with haystacks, and grand old trees. Skinny camels sauntered through the scene and zebu cows held aloft gigantic sets of horns.
We made good time on the bitumen road, at our first rest stop we got out our morning snack while a fellow passenger saw to the toilet of her two year old with diarrhoea right outside our window. Lovingly she wiped his arse with a rock – we saved our bananas for a bit later on…
The journey ended up taking eleven hours to cover the four hundred kilometres, with only one other rest stop for a lunch of tibs.
SO WE HIT THE GROUND RUNNING in Addis Ababa. We climbed off the bus at a point recommended by the conductor as being close to the piazza, and followed Chad through the streets to the red light district like country yokels marvelling at the people wearing modern clothing and manicured ringlets. Beggars ranged from indescribably gnarled polio victims to well-dressed school children shaking cans and chanting “football mon-ey – foot-ball mon-ey”. In the late afternoon light Addis Ababa was instantly appealing.
We all went scouting together in the quest for accommodation, and ended up in the National Hotel, a very friendly but noisy bar and brothel. Our room had red curtains, a purple bedspread and a poster on the wall proclaiming ‘LOVE IS ENOUGH’. We found good spris, dispensed with a smile by Alamaya in a nearby juice shop, we had our first hot water shower in a month, and we ate kilkil injera (a buttery goat soup). The nice lady, Murbarat, pronounced the name of this dish as if there was something caught in her throat, and we went back to her for every meal from our breakfast fuul to delicious ‘fasting’ food.
Our first day in Addis Ababa was not hugely successful. At the post office (which we had to be frisked to enter and our camera was forbidden lest it was a bomb!) we learned that parcel postage prices were prohibitively expensive. Then we began a grand tour of every book store in the city looking for a bird guide. On Ras Makonnen Avenue we survived another amateurish thieving assault, and we rode in public minivans to eventually find the university campus bookshop after hours of searching, only to be told that they didn’t even have a leaflet on the birds of Ethiopia – ‘Communication Between Mothers and their Adolescent Daughters on Sexuality and HIV aids in Uganda’, yes, no problem, and ‘Principles and Problems of the Teaching Profession in Botswana’, of course. They even had no less than five copies of ‘Birds of North America’!
Addia Ababa was a place to enjoy a cosmopolitan highland atmosphere, filling in the time between coffee breaks with jaunts around the city. It was the commemoration of Bob Marley’s sixtieth birthday, and everywhere we went the man’s melodious strains could be heard – whilst spooning spris near Arat Kilo, whilst sipping macchiato at breakfast, while walking down the street, even while sitting in our coffee scented room. Rastafarians were all over town in anticipation of the big Marley tribute concert, and pictures of Bob were plastered everywhere.
The palace of Haile Selassie was a fine ethnographic museum filled with tribal treasures and the preserved chambers of the emperor. Next to his royal toilet I looked at my reflection in a mirror which he would have done the same. And the sound of ‘One Love’ drifted through the halls… We learned that the Ethiopian offspring of Solomon and Sheba stole the Arc of the Covenant before fleeing Jerusalem, so the Ethiopians had a long history of thievery. In the zoological museum we spent hours studying the stuffed creatures which we recognised from the field and were able to put names to the indigo bird, red-cheeked cordonbleu, and the Abyssinian ground hornbill, just to name a few.
Addis Ababa’s merkato was one of the largest markets in Africa, and one visit was inadequate for getting a grip on it’s scale. Best were the dusty back streets full of ladies selling acres of dried red chillies, my eyes watered and the shoppers coughed and sneezed out the overpowering fumes. Further into the spice market ladies sold coffee ceremony essentials from pot stoppers to frankincense. Highly perishable chat was rushed around with urgency packaged in banana leaves, and from the jumble of butter, enset, and pottery sellers I bought a traditional coffee pot, shortly after that we lost each other in a voluminous black cloud of exhaust fumes from an idling bus.
The forested garden of Saint George’s church seemed at first like a pleasant but rather dull place to sit, until the sudden unheralded arrival of a funeral procession. Priests followed the crowd of mourners who carried aloft a coffin which they roughly knocked against each door as they cried and beat their chests in anguished grief…
But it was the cafe culture which was the great joy of the city. In Cafe Chaud delicious Italian pastries could be had, and Tomoca, the Kaffa Coffee House was unbeatable for it’s fine buna, the beans roasted and ground in the shop, and the smell overpowering on top of the intoxicating taste of their macchiato. Even the pot plants were coffee shrubs, and who should we meet in such a place but Jim and Grace (who kept having to go outside for fresh air!)
Despite all the hype we were indifferent about attending the Marley celebration concert, and finally left on the morning of the big day. We stumbled out at 4:30am on a Sunday morning through the still partying crowds to a waiting taxi who charged us 20 Birr to take us to ‘auto terra’, the city’s ironically named bus terminal.
It actually wasn’t so bad, we siphoned with the crowd through the main gate then funnelled into the bus park finding our bus before the more practised local passengers! As was customary the buses then sat fully loaded for an hour and a half poisoning everyone with carbon monoxide gas before all making a break for the gate simultaneously at 6:30am.
The first four hours were great, the road was smooth, the passengers around us kept up a steady stream of humorous banter, and we passed beautiful savannah countryside with grass plains, flat-topped acacias and Rift Valley lakes. We stopped for a breakfast of Ethiopian style scrambled eggs just in the nick of time, as the two year old next to me started crying “poopoo” and I was wondering if that meant the same in Amharic as it does in English.
Near Sheshemene we turned off the paved road and there was a collective sigh of despondency as gravel and dust stretched ahead of us. The last 150 kilometres took another five hours with the windows stubbornly closed, sealing in the heat and the odour unique to mountain peoples.
As we approached Dinsho we entered the Bale Mountains’ Gaysay Valley, and to the wonderful scenery was added wildlife spotting – the driver excitedly pointed out the animals and the passengers were out of their seats checking out the mountain nyala and numerous wart hogs ugly with gigantic tusks. In the heathland we even spotted a cerval cat!
WE ALIGHTED IN THE VILLAGE of Dinsho at 3100 metres and staggered into the Tsahayi Hotel where a basic room for 20 Birr was given to us in the garden out the back. It was by this time quite late so we found our way straight to the park headquarters to try and arrange a trek to begin the next day.
Unfortunately this Ethiopian park was disorganised to a degree which we’d never experienced before. Official National Park staff were not in evidence so we had to rely on a sly-dog ‘co-ordinator’ who we distrusted on sight. He allocated our compulsory guide, Kemal, who served to add more confusion to the situation. The only thing that was clear was that their primary objective was to extract as much money from us as possible.
We made our arrangements out of the shambles assuming that things would be smoothed out in the morning when the ranger attended his office.
Our hopes evaporated when he was over an hour late and didn’t speak a word of English. We were at the mercy of our guide whose Babel language hadn’t improved overnight.
By the time our party was made ready for departure our enthusiasm had dramatically declined. We left at midday with a scout, Abdul, the guide, a horseman, Hassan, and two horses loaded up with supplies for four days – an unavoidable overkill which cost a grand total of 1160 Birr, not including the food shopping sortie that Dave and Kemal went on.
We walked off as a much larger procession and the hangers-on peeled away as we went, we even left some of our possessions in Abdul’s family tukul which we passed by. We made our way through rural grazing land little resembling national park except for the beautiful landscapes of savannah and lava cliffs.
Eventually the huts became fewer and we entered the region of the Web Valley, at the first river crossing we stopped to watch a troupe of about one hundred anubis baboons, and we rested again at the beautiful Finch Abera waterfall, a cascade freefalling from an overhang into a large pool.
We continued across fields of paper daisy bushes as small rodents scarpered into their burrows, to some low cliffs where we saw numerous rock hyrax and two of their arch enemies – the Ethiopian wolf. Abdul and Kemal were almost as thrilled as us to be able to watch this animal, the world’s rarest canid, stalking proudly at close range. We were only a few hundred metres from our camp, so we arrived after four hours hiking with wide smiles!
Sodota Camp (3400 metres) was a few grass huts and a cabin tucked into small gully filled with giant lobelia plants. Dinner was the old camping staple of spaghetti and tuna, huddled inside one of the smoke-filled A-frames, and the toilet was reached by negotiating a mine field of rodent holes. We spent a comfortable night there with two other groups of trekkers, one a party of biologists studying the wolf and trying in vain to protect it’s habitat.
We woke up surprisingly warm in our tent despite a heavy frost, and went for an early morning stroll to add some more wildlife to our list.. We spotted a couple more wolves which came to within fifty metres of us, many Starkes’ hare and a cerval cat bounding away from us also at close quarters.
We had set off by 9:30am, spotting two more wolves as we moved away from the camp, then following the line of lava cliffs to the Horgoba Valley which we hiked up through grassy marshland and blue heath before the climb to the Sanetti Plateau. Following a nice gully we spied two klipspringer jumping across the rocks with the same agility as the hyraxes.
Further along we stopped by at a couple of tukuls for a social chat then waited an hour an a half for our horses who we later found out had already passed by before us! The last part of our hike for the day was down a valley with a fantastic view of Mount Wosama and two more wolves spotted in the marshland.
It was just after 3 o’clock when we reached Wosama Camp, a cave in the cliff face was the primary shelter and we pitched our tent in a protected clearing surrounded by red hot poker plants. After a cup of tea in the cave our pleasure was to walk down to the tiny meandering stream at the bottom of the valley to have a wash and lie in the soft grass…
It wasn’t until after dinner that Hassan realised that the horses were missing, and he and Abdul searched fruitlessly in the dark for several hours before giving up.
At an altitude of 4000 metres it was cold outside our tent the next morning. The frost was a thick layer of ice which only melted as it was touched by the sun. The word from Hassan was not good, “horses yelum” and Abdul added a dejected “ma feesh“…
Kemal sent them further up the valley to look for one of the other trekking parties and they were gone for hours, eventually returning with a heavily pregnant mare which they had borrowed from the first tukul they came to. We saw two more wolves in the valley while we waited.
It was after 11 o’clock when our borrowed horse was finally loaded and we set off. Hassan was ordered back the way we had come to continue the search for the missing equines.
We walked up and over a saddle then beneath the impressive cliff face of Hajar before arriving at Worgona, the place where our horse came from – only an hour down the track. The lady wouldn’t allow her horse to continue with us (small wonder given our record of losing them) so we were stuck there, in a cave next to a pile of goat shit, for the night. The trip wasn’t going well.
Except for our campsite, which was the only spot protected from the icy wind, Worgona Valley was quite beautiful. Mineral springs bubbled orange coloured water into a stream which looped it’s way through the grassland, it’s narrow banks padded with everlasting paper daisy bushes. Giant mole rats inhabited the entire area and we watched them busily excavating, and wandered up and down the valley while Kemal went off to try and find a horse. He returned unsuccessful so we spent the evening in our cave wondering about the fate of Hassan. An owl hooted through the icy darkness on the far side of the valley.
Again we were warm in our tent despite the thick layer of ice that coated it in the morning. Kemal had mumbled something about leaving at 6am, but it was 8:30 by the time they had stashed one horseload of things inside the borrowed-horse-lady’s tukul, and we divided the other horseload between the four of us. We crossed the valley and climbed to a panoramic saddle before the drop down into the Denka Valley.
Halfway down we met Hassan with another new horse – it seemed our original horses were totally lost. A heated argument ensued and continued on and off all the way back. It was a scenic six hour hike to Dinsho and everybody was glad to be back…
We returned to Tsahayi Hotel and with our last reserves of energy went for a walk to Gaysay Valley – ALONE!!! We only spotted a few wart hogs but they looked pretty good up close, and there was a vegetarian injera waiting for us when we got back to Tsahayi. We washed our feet in a bucket of cold water, not daring to calculate how many days it had been since we’d had a shower.
We had a very early night and were out waiting by the roadside in time for the Robe-Dodola bus, which passed through at 7 o’clock. Squeezed in the back, we had little chance to enjoy the view, but we were there in three hours and smoothly changed to a Sheshemene bus for the bone-crunching ride back to the Rift Valley Highway.
The back seat was the worst place to be. Beside being regularly thrown into the air , the seat in front of us fell apart and sprung dangerously back and forth in our laps with the weight of four people on it. The steel curtain rod behind us came loose, whacking us in the head and exposing us to the midday sun, and spots of dirt rained down on us from a hole above. It was a miserable three and a half hour ride.
In Sheshemene we changed to a bus for Wondo Wosha and looked in despair at the last two places available – in the back seat.
It was a hot and uncomfortable ride, even more cramped than the last, with two old ladies at one stage having a physical fight over a seat, but we were there in about half an hour and climbed off the bus right outside the luxuriously comfortable Abyssinia Hotel.
OUT THE BACK IN A GARDEN our 35 Birr room had tiles on the floor, glass in the window, a bathroom with water, and it didn’t double as a brothel (that was the 15 Birr rooms on the other side of the garden). Shato, in the adjacent cafe was super friendly and for one Birr we could choose between macchiato, latte, or fresh hot frothy milk – though a cold beer was the first beverage we needed to sooth our lips blistered from the high altitude tropical sun.
Next to the hotel a shaded road lined with villagers selling fresh papaya, avocado and bananas led to the hot springs of Wondo Genet, and we spent a relaxing enjoyable day there. We arrived early enough to have the pool to ourselves, and watched it slowly fill with pleasure seekers from Addis Ababa and Rastafarians from Sheshemene.
We met some nice people, and soaked for hours to remove the accumulated grime that only hot water can lift. After a picnic in the garden we followed the steaming stream through the forest to the source of the hot spring, then continued walking for a few hours. Eventually we found peace once we’d shaken off several irksome ‘guides’, and wandered along foot tracks through a forest enchanted with wild coffee shrubs, colobus monkeys, hornbill and anubis baboons.
Dinner that night was tibs in a restaurant across the road. It was lively with the Marley festival football crowd and we joined in the fun, feeding each other fingerfuls of injera to entertain the papparazzi.
Over our macchiato the next morning we decided to move on to Awasa, so we packed and jumped into a minibus going to Sheshemene. There we changed to another, and followed the bitumen for half an hour south.
WE HAD SOME TROUBLE FINDING our bearings in Awasa and walked quite far in the relative lowland heat (1700 metres) to the National Hotel, a bar/brothel in the dusty main street. The manager, Seoman, was very friendly but his establishment left a lot to be desired with some truly disgusting stains on the wall behind the bed being the least of it’s discomforts.
Dave went off to register us, and the process covered the usual questions – name, passport number, occupation, as well as pistol number (!). “I don’t have a pistol”. – “No pistol?” Dave paid the 15 Birr price for our room, change was duly found, and Seoman reconfirmed almost incredulously, “… so, no pistol?…”
At Tadesse Cafe we had an early lunch of firfir (scrambled egg with green chilli and onion), spris, and cake then spent the rest of the day by the shore of Lake Awasa, sitting in the shade, actually enjoying the company of the local people, and watching the birds. From the African fishing eagle and maribou storks to jacanas and orange weaver birds we binoculared with a backdrop of reed beds and wrinkled mountains on the other side of the lake.
As the afternoon passed by dark clouds gathered and spluttered out rain, glorious rain…
Not since Alexandria, almost three months previously had we experienced rain!
Back at our hotel we ate our evening injera with a kaiwot spicy enough to blow our blistered lips off as sweet Amharic jazz played, and painted bar girls began circulating.
We were up at the crack of dawn, but by the time we’d walked to the bus station we had missed the Arba Minch bus and had to make the journey in stages – first to Wolaita, three hours along a paved but badly potholed road. Then we changed to a minibus, a twelve-seater which could fit approximately twenty-eight people rather uncomfortably, for a further two and a half hours to our destination.
ARBA MINCH WAS A DISAPPOINTINGLY unattractive place. Even the decent hotels, which were all full, were pretty grim and we ended up staying at Maskkafarra Hotel which couldn’t even boast any kind of water supply. Self-appointed ‘guides’ were like tarantulas, one even threatening that we may be robbed if we didn’t hire bicycles from him…
Without our own vehicle it was impractical for us to visit Nechisar National Park, so we went to the Water Supply Service to get a permit to visit the nearby natural springs the following day.
A five kilometre walk took us through beautiful ground water forest, thick with acacia, figs, lianas, and alive with baboons, birds and butterflies. The spring water was clear and drinkable, and the pool there would have been a great spot for a swim if it weren’t for the hundred or so local men bathing in their underpants (or worse…)
During the two afternoons we spent in Arba Minch we made plenty of visits to the Flamingo Pastry for spris, and for our evening meals we ate secondo misto injera (a mix of everything they had in the kitchen) at Kayro Hotel while making chit-chat with Genet, one of the friendly resident prostitutes.
Our second night in the miserable waterless Maskkafarra Hotel was made complete by a rampant bedbug who had grown in size from microscopic to monstrous by 4:30am when we had to get up for a bus to Key Afar. We got the last two seats just seconds before the bus was swamped by would-be travellers.
We left at 6am and rode for eight hours on a gravel road to our destination, even in stifflingly hot conditions our fellow passengers persisted with their closed window policy.
The further we travelled the more beautiful the landscape became with wide flat valleys and hills of acacia bushland beyond Weyto, and the more amazing the local people looked. The Banna and Tsemay wore little more than skirts and beads, and they watched from the fields as our bus passed, or offered items for sale when we slowed or stopped – balls of incense, wooden toys, beads…
The scenes were like something from the pages of National Geographic, and indeed when we arrived in Key Afar and found a hotel, Chad was in the next room.
ON ANY GIVEN DAY THE SMALL village of Key Afar was a wonderful place full of remarkable peoples, but the following day, Thursday, was market day and the scenes were absolutely amazing.
By noon the market was in full swing and they had come from miles around looking their best. The Banna people wore loincloths, long decorated leather skirts and elaborate hair-dos impregnated with red mud. The Tsemay were distinctive with their fuzzy shaved patches of hair. Jewellery, body paint and ear rings were common accessories, and every man carried a tiny wooden stool which also served as a pillow to preserve their coiffeur. The ladies toted their things in dried gourds and goatskin pouches.
Important commodities for sale included grains, clothing, jewellery, honey, coffee husks and cows. The assembled crowd looked sensational, with lots of bare black skin, long thin legs and naked torsos. Our interactions with these people was very warm and intimate, the tribal men especially came to us with extended hands and smiles, and the women gathered around to look at us with interest. The village children enjoyed touching our skin and hair, and if one was brave enough to tentatively remove my hat, hands came from everywhere to check the texture of my golden locks. There were several plaiting frenzies and I lost a lot of hair in the process, but the results were disappointing as the braids fell out immediately without that steel wool consistency to hold them in place.
Everywhere we went we were followed by a squad of children from toddlers to adolescents squabbling over whose turn it was to hold our sweaty and grubby hands. At the end of the day we were the proud owners of two of the tiny wooden stools and had consumed delicious mangoes and bananas purchased from an old woman wearing a goat leather loincloth decorated with cowrie shells. And a handsome Banna warrior with a fine clay cap dried into his hair (to indicate that he had recently killed something or someone) had offered to take me home to his village to live as his wife…
That evening there were plenty of revellers drunk on tej, but a village with no electricity went to sleep early, and in the morning the rooster symphony began before dawn with a backing chorus of ee-awing donkeys, and crickets chirping in the mango tree outside our room.
We ate a breakfast of dabo and shay in a mud hut across the road with a great looking group of Banna tribespeople. In the cool of morning they wore their loincloth as a gabi – we blinked and smiled at each other across the table, they perfectly groomed with beads and feathers, we unwashed and braced for another hard day on the road.
Key Afar was already further into the Omo region than we had intended to travel, so from there we continued back on our route south. At 7:30am a bus from Jinka rumbled through the village as promised, and we easily claimed a couple of seats on it. It was a pleasant ride back to Konso, bizarrely the bus wasn’t crowded, most of the windows were open, and we made the trip in just four hours.
IN KONSO WE BADE FAREWELL to Chad whose path we wouldn’t cross again, and ambled over to the Edget Hotel naively eyeing off the Yabelo road junction. There we ate a delicious Friday lunch of yesom megeb injera in the shade of a fig tree before learning the bad news that despite us arriving so early there was no hope of onward transport that day…
We sat in the shade of the fig monitoring the traffic hopefully, but to no avail. Nothing passed by, and eventually we gave up, found a room at St Mary’s Hotel across the road, washed ourselves and our clothes, then returned to the fig tree for another yesom megeb followed by a carefully prepared beverage of buna spris, a tiny glass cup of sweet tea with a thick layer of coffee suspended on top.
As instructed we were waiting by the Yabelo road at 6 o’clock the next morning, watching as trucks came and went down the Arba Minch and Weyto roads, expecting our transport to come along at any moment. At 10 o’clock we were still standing there in the blazing heat, munching sugar cane with some dishevelled Borena people, feeling the day slipping through our fingers.
We took up our position under the fig tree, and from our vantage point watched the empty road all day, the boredom only broken by an oily lunch of misto injera (beef and potatoes) and the chance to catch up with Juris and Mice who randomly appeared on their motorcycle.
At the end of the day we forlornly took a room again in the hotel and, when we thought all hope was surly gone a truck arrived in town being chased by a mob of desperate travellers – and we were two of them. He was going to Yabelo!
Quickly we threw our things together and ate a hasty meal of tibs before taking our place, for 25 Birr, in the cabin with the chat chewing driver, thankful that we wouldn’t have to spend another night in an airless sweatbox. We had waited 32 hours for a ride which took just two and a half hours, a high speed trip on rough gravel through the hills, spotting numerous dik-diks, owls and hares. It would have been a great night safari if we hadn’t killed so many of them…
WE ARRIVED IN YABELO AT 10pm, and fell into a bed in the hotel opposite the bus station. What time was there a bus to Moyale the next day? “Eleven o’clock” (5am). We turned off our alarm and went to sleep…
At 7am we stood outside the hotel looking across at the bus station. The gates were firmly locked, and the dust had already settled from the mornings departures. There wasn’t a bus in sight. We asked which way was Moyale and walked through the nice little town, stopping for a breakfast of fresh dabo and shay, then continuing on down the five kilometres of bitumen to the highway junction. “You, you, you, you, you…”, a chorus of happy voices greeted us as we went, and we were lucky to step straight onto a passing Moyale bus which had stopped for breakfast on the highway.
We endured the four hour ride sealed inside an airtight vehicle surrounded by smelly youths, while outside the window fresh air beckoned across an undulating landscape.
WE WERE IN MOYALE BY lunchtime, and first made a pitstop in a restaurant for yesom megeb and, trailed by a string of blackmarketeers, found fruit spris a few doors along. In between spoonfuls we changed our Birr for Shillings and proceeded down the long main street to Kenya.
We were still undecided about which country to spend the night in, but we were free to cross as we pleased, so we completed our Ethiopian immigration formalities, found a room at the conveniently located Tourist Hotel, had a shower and a rest, then moseyed on over to the Kenyan side where we bought a visa for fifty US Dollars and were stamped in with a smile, “welcome to Kenya!”
We went for a walk up into the Kenyan part of town and bought our onward bus tickets after some hard negotiation, then wandered back to Ethiopian Moyale which was the nicer and more lively part of town. It made a good final impression of the country for us – the people were only friendly, the children only called out “hello! Are you fine?” (and from one tiny tot, “Take me to America!”), there we no hasslers or hustlers (though we had our suspicions about Wondo, the customs man), and we were able to have one last vegetarian injera and spris in the evening. Maybe travel in Ethiopia wasn’t so hard after all…
In the morning we walked past the border post for the final time, had our passports checked with a wave and a “ciao“, had a strange conversation with the crazy Rastafarian who seemed to reside on the traffic cross-over island in no-mans-land, and were written into the entry book at the police check post on the Kenyan side.
It was a very leisurely start to the day, our bus wasn’t to leave until 9am, but it would drive non-stop all the way to Nairobi – a feat of discomfort that we could have done without.
Our vehicle sat in the main dusty square, a truck/bus painted lime green and emblazoned all over with bold lettering,’ SHAGAR’, ‘ARSENAL’ and ‘GOD’S MERCY’. It was riddled with bullet holes from previous shifta bandit attacks, and a single driver would perform the twenty-six hour driving stint…
There were a few obvious changes when we crossed into Kenya. The people in that part of the country were predominantly Muslim, so the women were wrapped up in colourful fabrics, they were also darker skinned with stronger features and their language was Swahili. In the main square we found fresh yoghurt made into a sweet smokey tasting drink, as well as bananas and matunda (passionfruit).
Before our departure we had some business to do at the mechanics workshop, and numerous stops at police check posts where we picked up our own gun-toting soldier for the journey. It was close to 11 o’clock when we hit the long, dusty, corrugated road to Nairobi.
The truck rattled with a deafening roar, the seats were rock hard, and the wind blowing through the window was hot, but we passed through a wonderful landscape. Sparsely populated bushland with the hills of Ethiopia to the north and plains stretching away to the south.
We stopped for lunch in a remote hut way beyond Sololo, a greasy chapati was our first Kenyan meal, and his excellency the honorable Mwai Kibaki watched over us from a framed picture on the wall.
Southward we spotted some wildlife by the roadside – oryx, dik-diks, a jackal and a bustard, as well as plenty of other birds. We had two flat tyres which took two eternities to change, and just before reaching Marsabit the earth had opened beside us in a fantastic ancient caldera which the road followed part way around the rim.
It was 7pm by the time we arrived in Marsabit and climbed from the truck for a long break. We found the telephone bureau to call our friend Dean, who lived in Nairobi, with an update on our progress, ate our second Kenyan meal of spaghetti in ‘Haisut Modern Hotel’, and drank ‘avocado and soda’, which turned out to be a cool and watery spris.
We drove on into the night. There were roadside rest stops for two more flat tyres, and a midnight snack of the worst chai we had ever tasted – grey, insipid and smokey. It was impossible to sleep, though I think I managed a power nap somewhere between the third and forth puncture stop, for which everyone vacated the bus and took the opportunity to sleep for an hour in the dirt by the roadside.
We reached Isiolo at 5am, and as we tried to pull ourselves together a strong and healthy-looking Ethiopian man told us through our window of our supposed responsibility to provide for his family – was there no escape? Dave sat and chatted with the driver, he was still alert thanks to a good supply of chat. The road was bitumen from Isiolo on to the capital, and it would take another six hours to reach it. Still trying to pinpoint our arrival location in the city, we texted Dean our latest sketchy update.
The landscape changed dramatically from there, we passed farmland, climbed past Mount Kenya, and crossed the equator at Nanyuki. All was colonial, prosperous, and the air was cool. In Karatina we stopped briefly for a mechanical problem and were swamped by fruit sellers – vitamin starved, we bought kilos of bananas, mangoes (at one Shilling each!) and two different varieties of delicious passionfruits. It felt like paradise.
ON THE BITUMEN ROAD NAIROBI came into view before too long. From the outskirts to the office of our bus company the cityscape deteriorated to a horrible tangle of filthy laneways in the Ethiopian quarter. Finding our old friend Dean in the horror was problematic.
While our bus crept up and down the laneway of Ten Street, I did the same on foot and Dave frantically sent text messages to Dean who had never experienced the wonders of that end of town. It didn’t feel unsafe, but we were acutely aware of ‘Nairobbery’s’ reputation, and when we finally found each other Dean was wide-eyed with alarm after just witnessing a mugging and subsequent lynching right next to his car.
We climbed in, relieved to be found and sped off, only pausing a couple of blocks away to dislodge a beggar boy who had stealthily attached himself to the rear bumper…
We looked and felt shocking after our journey, with bruised spines, stiff thrombosed legs, sleep deprivation and parched with thirst. Add the culture shock of being whisked away with an old friend to the leafy suburb of Hurlingham, and shown a gorgeous three bedroom apartment which was to be our home base for the next few weeks.
Dean and Mary were living the life, and we were delighted to be able to share it for a short time. While we chatted and began to get some ideas about how we might pass the time, Eva, their darling maid, came in to take care of the domestic duties and then we went out to do some shopping before collecting Mary from work.
Yaya Centre was the first modern shopping complex we had seen in almost five months. In the green grocers an attendant pushed our trolley and selected our fresh produce while Dean spoke of tennis and Spanish lessons. It was a world away from our recent experiences and we were reeling with shock.
The next few weeks passed by in a haze of highs and lows. We sipped G&T’s after a hard day of laundering our clothes, and did dinner at Osteria del Chianti where the king fish was grilled to perfection. We were robbed of our money purse containing 1500 Shillings to a smooth miscreant on our first downtown matutu ride.
Our business at the Indian High Commission began with an information scouting visit, then a visit to submit our details for telex approval, but that couldn’t be done until we had deposited 400 Shillings in the Bank of India on Kenyatta Street, for which we had no money because the kind office wallah the previous day had advised us that we would’t need to pay anything until we got to the second stage of actually applying for the visa. And so it went…
OUR FIRST SAFARI EXCURSION BEGAN on a Friday afternoon after some strategising and a morning of provision shopping. Mary finished work early, we loaded the car up, and headed off toward Naivasha down into the Rift Valley where zebra roamed, along a road which deteriorated in stages.
According to the GPS we were only eight kilometres from our mark when our engine stopped for no apparent reason and a storm closed in on us out of the blue. Incapacitated, we sat in the car thankful that the heavy passing traffic would probably deter any opportunistic shifta as huge drops of rain and hail stones beat down on us, and lightening and thunder clapped overhead. The whole scenario was as improbable as we could have imagined half an hour earlier.
Just before dark rescue arrived in the form of a couple of mechanics whom we had called for, in a hardy little Corolla which towed our Pajero on through the truck-swallowing pot holes to Burch’s Camp, our destination for the night.
The camp was beautiful, and Rhoda allotted us two mud and thatch bandas set on the lawn beneath giant acacia trees, as we ravenously set to work on our barbecue. At least if nothing else went right that day we ate a great meal of tender marinated beef steaks, pork sausages and crisp charcoal grilled vegetables.
The next day was much better, even though we were grounded while the car was repaired and we had to cancel our plan to go to Nakuru. We spent the morning birdwatching in the camp, and after lunch ventured off to Crescent Island for what turned out to be a wonderful walking safari.
As well as enough birds to fatigue even Dave and Mary, we walked amongst herds of wildebeest, zebra and impala, saw fresh hippopotamus tracks, and watched a family of conspicuous giraffe. All of these animals we were seeing for the first time, and to do so on foot at our own leisure was thrilling.
We camped that night on the lawn beneath the thorny acacia trees and headed back to Nairobi the following morning when I finally succumbed to the lurgy which the snotty-nosed kids of Key Afar had infected me with…
After three days of bed rest I was on the road to recovery in time to accompany Dave to Nairobi Hospital where he had a nasty and mysterious leg wound seen to with a pair of tweezers and some hydrogen peroxide…
By the end of the week we were back at the Indian High Commission with our telex receipts waiting for the announcement of the inevitable problem with our visa applications. First it was declared that we could only be granted a three month non-extendable multiple entry visa, but we renegotiated after a lot of smiling through clenched teeth, to a six month single entry visa. The next obstacle was an inane demand for a flight ticket to Bombay which, it was insisted, we would have to produce the next day before collection of our visas.
Of course, when we returned, a different babu was in attendance and our visas were handed over without question.
Now we were free to make plans for the rest of our stay in Kenya, so we organised a three day trip to the Masai Mara (US$210 each) with a local safari company and finalised our flight to Bombay in between dinner at The Cellar where the fresh butter fried tilapia was served on a block of wood, and lunch with Mary at the Red Cross compound. Dean left us all for Manilla, his regular work commute (!) on Saturday night, and we said our goodbyes hypothesising about where and when we would all meet again…
ON SUNDAY MORNING MARY WAS left alone when we were collected from home as promised, and taken into the city to meet the rest of our party at the ‘Planet Safari’ office in Moi Avenue.
Kohei was the Japanese contingent, there was Maree, Linda, Dave and James from the United Kingdom, Ian from Scotland, us and Charlie, the driver, in a two-wheel-drive bongo van with a big pop out lid – a very amiable group.
By 10:30am we were on our way out of the city, chatting excitedly, spotting the odd zebra and gazelle as we sped toward Narok where we stopped for lunch, before continuing on to the Masai Mara.
Our camp was on the edge of the park near Oloolaimutia Gate and, without even rustic charm on it’s side, wasn’t set to win any beauty awards. We were pointed to a tent with a couple of camp stretchers inside where we quickly stowed our gear before piling back into the bongo van. Black-faced monkeys were at work on the zipper of our tent as we zoomed off on our afternoon safari.
It was already 5:30pm so we didn’t really have time for the ticket fiasco that followed. Charlie had bought our park entry tickets from the Masai mafia who lived in the village near our camp, but the park officials on the gate wouldn’t have a bar of the suspect tickets and we had to return to hunt down the mafia. Everyone returned to the gate where a stand-off ensued, park officials stood by with their arsenal as Charlie enlisted the help of Dave to sort out the drama. Along with the zebra grazing nearby, we all looked on nervously as the mafia backed down and we were allowed to proceed with our game drive…
Immediately as we entered the park it was clear that wildlife was prolific. Gazelles and antelope abounded, giraffe sauntered along the horizon, and herds of elephant plodded across the hillsides. We drove to Keekorok, James’ accommodation, which he was not happy at being abandoned at. After talking amongst ourselves all day it was apparent that each of us had been told of different itineraries ranging from accurate (lucky us) to sketchy (they’d seen James coming!). Charlie copped the full brunt of his anger while everybody else either chipped in their two bobs worth, or smiled benignly trying to calm the situation. A compromise was reached, James huffed off dejectedly into the lodge, and we enjoyed a twilight drive back to camp. Wild elephants lumbered along the roadside, their bulk impressive in the half light, and we were all thrilled at the prospect of our full day safari.
We slept well after a rather unsavoury dinner of spaghetti and a couple of local stews, and departed camp the next morning at 6:30am, later than planned, but we were breakfasted and keen for our day of wildlife spotting.
I had the prime seat, in the middle behind the driver, so I became the chief spotter standing up on my seat like a periscope through the roof. It was a great vantage and I soon saw a pride of lions which we drove to for a closer look. Four bachelor males on the prowl made an exciting start to the day, and we stormed on from there.
Shortly after we collected James we came across another pride of five lions, the male sitting proudly, his mane resplendent in the breeze, the females busy stalking all-to-far-away antelope.
Our morning continued with more encounters with elephants, lions, giraffe and topi before we spotted one of our highlights – a pair of mating lions. They had apparently been on this particular patch of savannah near the Talek River for a week, mating every few minutes depending on their stamina. We found the couple exhausted from their efforts, both laying on their haunches panting breathlessly, the male with a tooth missing , salivating heavily, and not taking his eyes off the female. We waited only twenty minutes before he rose to his feet and approached his quest – with a roar the action was over in a few seconds and he went back to his vigil. We returned to the couple half an hour later to find them right by the roadside and the lioness promptly decided to use our vehicle to shield herself from his attentions. She nestled herself alongside us and her partner cosied in behind, looking at us as though we were hindering his ambitions. If any of us made a sound they would look directly at us, and to look into the eyes of two wild lions from a distance of only a metre or two was quite an adrenaline rush. After some time the lioness moved off with her panting suitor in hot pursuit and we proceeded to the other side of the park toward the Serengeti enjoying more sightings of lions, huge herds of giraffe, elephants, and a chance meeting with the Swiss couple that we’d last met having their vehicle repaired in Awasa!
At a dry river crossing Charlie had some trouble performing a manoeuvre which we would have considered possible only in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and we all had to get out to lighten the load. Two tuskers were visible a few hundred metres away and we stepped around gigantic piles of elephant dung as we nervously headed back to the security of the bongo van. Ten minutes down the track we spotted seven lionesses relaxing in the shade of a beautiful acacia tree…
During the midday heat there seemed to be an unspoken truce between the hunters and the hunted, even the gazelles rested, and we found a spotted hyena napping in a mud wallow just before our prize sighting of a black rhinoceros on an open incline not far from the track. We drove quite close before he got wind of us. Straining to see us through his beady little eyes he flared his nostrils and turned in fright, running as fast as he could toward some tree cover – a tonne of wild animal thundered away and kept running until he was a tiny speck in the distance as we drove off.
All this before lunch!
It was almost 3 o’clock when we stopped for our picnic lunch near the Mara River. We munched on chicken and salads a short stroll from where hippos bathed in a muddy pool…
Reports of cheetah sightings had us quickly back on the trail, but the big cats eluded us. Still we were thrilled to see more hippos, crocodiles, zebra and giraffe before turning back for camp. Our day had been a sensational exploration of the Masai Mara, a rolling landscape of savannah, greened here and there from the recent rain and threaded with streams weaving deeper shades of verdant colour. Our group had been great fun with plenty of stiff-upper-lip humour to keep us laughing – “Might just close the window” (as lioness looks inside licking her panting lips), “I got his come face!” (satisfied photographer viewing coupling lions), “No, it’s just another lion…” (disappointed answer to hopeful leopard spotter), and “It’s not REALLY called a dik-dik is it?”
James was deposited back at his lodge, stepping over a slumbering warthog in the luxurious entrance way, and after twelve hours on the trail we made our way back to our more humble bivouac spotting a twitchers delight in the trees along the way. Hundreds of white storks had arrived en-route to Europe for their annual migration. So we were seeing these birds at another important stage of their lives.
The next morning we were off by 7 o’clock to collect James. The warthog was asleep in the driveway when we arrived, and as we cruised around lion spotting we showed our prowess at speaking Swahili. “How do you say ‘lion’? – Simba?… “Yes that’s right!”
“And ‘warthog’ is … Pumba?” … “Yes,very good!”
Buy how do you say mongoose in Swahili? Even Charlie couldn’t remember!
On a grass plain we observed a pride of eight lions, including a one month old cub napping in the sun, and our final encounter of the trip was with a giraffe who curiously didn’t move off as we approached. He out-stared us so that his placid face would be our lasting final memory of the Masai Mara, he and the enormous herd of over fifty giraffe which we saw outside the park browsing low in a scrub of thorny acacia.
We made our way back to Nairobi with just a few stops for running repairs to our vehicle. We now had great respect for the much-maligned bongo van – it had taken us places we never could have imagined.
We had already said goodbye to James and Dave in the morning (they were staying on for another days safari), and we dropped Kohei off along the way (he was going to Nakuru). Back in Nairobi we were the last to be deposited home after a peak hour drive through the city which was more hair-raising than any game drive…
Our last couple of days in Kenya were spent preparing for our next destination. We communicated with Preetam, our welcoming Hospitality Club host in Bombay. We posted Home five kilograms of cool climate non-essentials and souvenirs. And cleaned everything else for a fresh start, Eva making her own unsolicited contribution to our efforts, pressing shirts which had never felt the heat of an iron, and even scrubbing our flip-flops which we’d casually kicked off at the front door!
On the afternoon of our departure Mary took an hour off work to drive us to the airport for our first flight in over twelve months.
Our stay in Kenya had been unique and relaxing, a break from the road which helped us to focus on the intensity of our next destination…