On a bullshit management course I went on a couple of years ago we were told about delivering difficult news with a Bad News Sandwich – if you want to tell somebody that they’re effectively ineffective you start with a slice of something good, throw in the negative filling and finish off with another positive slice. “Nice haircut. You’re fired. I really liked the picture of your wife in her bikini on your Facebook page.” Please excuse the broad generalisation, and there have been many exceptions, but what we have experienced of the people of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia so far has been a Good News Sandwich. Egyptians will try everything in their power to take money from you – a slice of Bad News. The Sudanese will do everything in their power to make you feel welcome and shower you with gifts – a helping of Good News, with some cheese and pickles. Ethiopians make you feel guilty about being richer than if Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck pooled their money and then won the lottery – another mouldy slice of Bad News!
Within 5 minutes of driving across the border we heard a scream of “FAAAARRRRAAAANNNNNJJJJJIIIII” followed by 50 children rushing out from wherever they had been hiding to shout in high-pitched voices – “You you you, give me money”. Further on we were greeted to “You you you, give me pen” and then even the “You you you” became less frequent and we had “Hello Money” or “Hello Pen” as we went past each village. We had been warned about children throwing stones at the car and as we want to be able to pass it off as a little old lady’s run-around one day we have been driving really slowly with the windows open smiling and waving until our hands want to fall off. We watch children bend down to pick stones up as we approach and then drop them when we smile and wave, kind of forcing them to wave back even though I’m sure they would far rather be throwing stones – I know I would!
Ethiopia brings new meaning to begging with about 60% of the people waving and as we get closer their hand immediately changes to either beg for money or food. Sometimes we don’t even get a “Hello”, just a “Money”. Life is extremely difficult for people over here, and I don’t think watching or commentating from the window of a fancy 4×4 gives us any idea of just how hard it is. There seems to be a hell of a lot of sitting down doing nothing, but mainly there is bloody hard manual work going on, and it doesn’t discriminate on age or gender. Children younger than 5 are out all day either fetching firewood, looking after goats or cattle, or fetching water. My nephews, the lazy buggers, just go to school and play in their rooms full of toys while getting cuddles from Mom.
Still in convoy with Ray and Wendy we went to Lake Tana to stay at a place called Tim and Kim’s. Tim and Kim have created a great site, with space for overland vehicles, as well as huts for backpackers and chalets. They have a stocked bar and restaurant offering whatever is available at the time, but it was all superb. The toilets are spotless and the showers are refreshing (marketing speak for cold) and this is a great place to spend a few days doing absolutely nothing. Like the rest of what we have seen of Ethiopia, the scenery is breathtakingly beautiful. Serious birdwatching is a religion of sorts, and I imagine that instead of getting 7 virgins in heaven, dying from a twitching jihad sends you to heaven in Ethiopia, based around Lake Tana. Where else in the world do you hear the words “Another Bloody Fish Eagle”?
We took a kayak out onto the lake and went around some islands with some Monasteries. Fishermen came past with their catches in papyrus canoes – White Fish, Catfish (Barbel) and Tilapia. The locals don’t eat fish, and the catch is mainly dried and sold to Sudanese farmers for cattle feed, although we picked some up for dinner – Barbel is surprisingly tasty! We saw some hippos with a calf, as well as plenty of birds with names we know and plenty more with names we don’t. In theory you’ll be able to see around 70 different species in a morning. The Big Breasted Bed Thrasher still eludes us though.
One thing I have found difficult to accept is the large number of guns floating around – masses of people walk around with AK-47s or old hunting rifles. Apparently there was no money for people who fought in a war in the past, so they were given guns as payment because there were plenty of those lying around. These are now passed down to the oldest son, obviously with relevant training and permits and they are never carried under the influence of alcohol or chat.
From Tim and Kim we went to the Simien Mountains, still travelling with Ray and Wendy. We went via a town called Gonder, with an old castle and a lovely old church with exquisite pictures on the roof and walls, and a strange rule banning ladies who have had nookie the night before or who are having their monthly visit from Auntie Flo from entering (I’m not sure how else to say this without sounding crude or embarrassing grannies, but still keeping some juvenile humour!)
Gonder has a shop called “Best Supermarket”. In a town where most shops are little corrugated iron stalls with a window relativity comes into play again and we were treated to a cornucopia of 2 Minute Noodle Flavours (Beef, Chicken or Vegetable), biscuits (Digestives or Digestives) and some homemade peanut butter. Fully loaded with supplies we continued on our way, waving, smiling and “Salamnoing” (Salamno is hello) our way down the highway, averaging about 25km/h because of all the people, cows, goats and suicidal donkeys.
Outside the Simien Mountains in a town called Debark we stayed in the parking lot of a hotel called the “Semen Hotel”. Using the word “Relatively” again, the loos were “Relatively” clean. The kitchen was a different story altogether, and having survived playing Russian Roulette throughout Turkey, Egypt and Sudan I had one more go with the Injera (local sour pancake that looks and tastes a bit like grey rubber with bubbles) and Meat Stew. Gory stories aside, the guy who invented Ciprofloxacin will get a Sudanese welcome from me if he ever decides to visit South Africa, followed by an Egyptian kiss on the shoulders, and if he is a bird watcher, when he dies he will go to Lake Tana.
Fortunately Ray and Wendy had some space in their car as you can only enter the Simien Park with a scout, a man with an AK-47 and very little English. He was very helpful and a bastion of male chivalry. At the campsite in the park he went to help a lady who was trying to lift an incredibly heavy load onto her shoulders. Instead of carrying it for her, he helped her lift it onto her back, then walked back to the hut with her while she carried it. You might be wondering where I was and why I hadn’t helped her with my own good manners. Cast your mind back to the previous paragraph and then take your pick between sitting feeling like death in the car, lying feeling like death in the tent, or squatting feeling like death hovering over a long drop.
The Simien Mountains are a bit like the Drakensburg in South Africa, but on a grander scale, with incredible views stretching for miles, beautiful flora, and Gelada Baboons, the coolest animals we have ever seen. The baboons are the most chilled, docile and spectacular animals in the world, and we spent ages sitting right beside them watching them groom each other, eat and generally muck about. They are also obsessed with their penises, which was hysterical. The baboons alone are a reason to visit this country.
We were also really lucky to see an Ethiopian Wolf, although fleetingly (according to the Bradt Guide to Ethiopia it is the most rare of the world’s 37 canid species and listed as critically endangered on the 2000 IUCN Red List. I imagine 13 years on the outlook for it probably hasn’t improved much so we were extremely lucky). The next day we carried on up the mountains to find the Ibex. Up until this point the central diff lock had been behaving, but in the mountains with rain, hail, muddy roads, and steep drops on the side of the road leading to cliffs below it decided to get stuck again, so we had no 4×4. At just under 4,000 metres above sea level we were getting out of breath when walking, and the same altitude problems started to affect the beast. We had hardly any power and at one point were unable to go above 1500 RPM in first gear. Foot flat on the accelerator and no forward movement is not a good place to be when you are in the middle of nowhere on a steep hill with nothing but some 2 minute noodles and digestives and are still weak from vomiting out both ends. Fortunately there were Ibexes right near where we were stuck, so we were able to have a quick look at them, then leave Ray and Wendy snapping away with their camera while I fixed the spring again. Problem solved and we were able to use low range again.
After the Simien trip we said our goodbyes to Ray and Wendy, with tentative plans to meet up again in Addis, and went back to Gonder on our way to Bahir Dar, a town south of Lake Tana. In Gonder we went to the Dashun Brewery and had a couple of beers in a great beer garden. Driving into the brewery parking lot meant we first had to be searched. Jules was searched by a lady and I was searched by a man who gave me the current quote of the trip. He said he needed to frisk me so I said “as long as you don’t touch my penis”. His response was “I won’t – it is very bad for a man, but women must always touch it because it is gifted”. They then had a quick look in the cubby hole of the car, leaving the one or two other places a person searching it might want to look alone before letting us through.
That night we stayed in the parking lot of another classy establishment called the Belegez Pension, with toilets full of fortunately flushable floaters and plumbing and wiring that would make a health and safety official in the UK add a few floaters of his own out of sheer terror.
We had a really tasty meal across the road at a restaurant called “Master Chef” and then bedded down for the night. And then the chanting began. Please can somebody bring back “Allah Akbar” at 4 in the morning! It was like having Tarzan sitting next to your ear playing a Jew’s Harp through a Vuvuzela from 10 at night until 6 the next morning with the odd didgeridoo being swung around wildly and hitting you on the back of your head . The only advantage of this was that the odd hour of sleep I got had some colour as the combination of ghastly noise and Larium had me dreaming of Buddhist monks doing “Real Magic” – chanting and making flowers grow out of the ground instantly and turning them into fireworks and then people doing spectacular acrobatics started shrinking before my eyes. In my dream I told Jules about the “Real Magic” and then felt really foolish when she said “Don’t be stupid, it’s just an illusion – we see stuff like that in Covent Garden all the time”.
The next day we hot-footed it out of Gonder, stopping to fill up with diesel and give the beast a much needed clean for the vast sum of 50 Birr (about R25).