Bosman's Bush Telegraph - 10 October 2000
Greetings from Addis Ababa! Yes we are now well and truly into the northern hemisphere now and there is no turning back. After our initial equator crossing in Kenya we zigzagged back and forward between hemispheres at least five more times before starting the final push north! The last week or so has been an inordinately slow slog northwards and has not been without its difficulties. I am almost at the point where I can look back at all that's happened in the last week and laugh about it - well, maybe not laugh, but at least bang off a flippant email. It all started last Tuesday when we waved goodbye to Kampala and set off back to Kenya en route to Ethiopia. The Michelin map is infuriatingly deceptive and has a knack of making distances look manageable when in fact they are impossible. Also, a lot of its descriptions of road surfaces are just down right wrong! Add to that a copy of the Lonely Planet's Africa on a Shoestring which has not been updated in five or six years (despite the fact that they advertise it as the latest edition), and even then the information contained in it was dangerously sparse - and you have a recipe for disaster! Or at the very least some very angry and frustrated days. We knew that our journey through northern Kenya and into Ethiopia would probably be the most difficult we would have to do on our trip, with the obvious exclusion of a possible Sahara crossing. Those in the know had told us that the road between Marsabit (Kenya) and Moyale (Kenyan/Ethiopian border) was diabolical and some had gone as far as rating it the worst road on the continent.
The road starts or rather ends at the town of Isiolo just north on Nanyuki. The tar road peters out dramatically just outside Isiolo and we did not see tar again until we hit the Ethiopian border some 500 kilometres north. Isiolo is one of those dreadful frontier towns full of leering youths, con artists and beggars. The whole area is dusty and dry and the people are desperately poor. We had been told that it is not possible to travel between Isiolo and Moyale without joining a convoy or taking an armed soldier as an escort. The reason for this is that the road is exceptionally bad and there have been incidents of banditry along this stretch. We had agonized over the decision and had weighed up the pro's and con's of a convoy versus an escort. The problem with the convoy is that it doesn't seem to work - the faster cars and trucks race ahead the minute the boom is lowered and the slower vehicles get left to their own devices. The slower vehicles in turn end up eating the dust of the trucks. We also did not have space (our car is overloaded with useless clobber) for an armed guard and although they volunteered some sucker to sit on our roof we thought that this could not possibly be safe over 500 kilometres of bad road. In the end the decision was made for us - when we arrived in Isiolo the convoy had already left and the soldiers saw our point about the dangers inherent in having someone on our roof so we set off on our own hoping that we would make it to Moyale without incident. The road was as bad (or worse) as everyone had told us. Its dry, dusty, badly corrugated and littered with sharp rocks. We trundled along at between 20 and 30 kilometres an hour and even at that speed the road threatened to rattle us limb from limb. We thanked our lucky stars however that we had not hit it in the rainy season as we had been told that the road literally dissolves into sludge, trapping cars and trucks for days. We knew we had 250 kilometres to cover before we reached our overnight stop in Marsabit and our GPS ominously estimated that this could take us between 10 and 12 hours. All we could do was to crank up the air conditioning and turn up the volume on the stereo and hope for the best. Six hours into the journey we decided that there was a greater risk of being shaken to death (or dying of boredom) than dying at the hands of any Somali (or other) bandits. We had exhausted all our good CD's and were left with a motley crew of 70's music, David Kramer and Pavarotti still to go. With Nev driving and me cheer leading we started our cultural diplomacy project which basically involved copious waving at the locals, dispensing water to thirsty truck drivers and treating everyone to a rousing rendition of Gloria Gainer's "I will survive" interspersed with Barry White and a bit of Luciano Pavarotti for variety. On my cheer leading breaks I acted as chief reconnaissance officer and scanned the horizon for bandits - nothing - just a few depressed looking camels and some emaciated cattle.
We finally reached Marsabit at eight in the evening after 10 hours of bone rattling roads. Of course the Lonely Planet did not have anything useful to contribute on the accommodation side but by sheer chance we discovered a beautiful campsite in the Marsabit Forest. Nev set about surveying the damage that the road had done to our car. To our utter disgust, the suspension bushes that we had had replaced at great cost in Kampala had shifted - which explained the clunking noises that had started mid afternoon and could only be drowned out by Gloria at full volume. Also, the bracket that supports our spare wheel on the bonnet had detached itself. Nev wearily set about fixing the problems. He managed to bang the bushes back in to their places and with some expert drilling and riveting managed to reattach the spare wheel support. Marsabit can hardly be called a one horse town - more like a one goat or half donkey town. Its a hundred times worse than Isiolo and is even more dusty and dispirited. We got an early start but once again not early enough to catch the convoy. The Marsabit soldiers were not so keen to let us go without a soldier despite our protestations about the safety of anyone they might post on the roof. The main dude (a swarthy Kenyan with bloodshot eyes) kept asking us what we had brought him from South Africa - I suspect he was after a bribe but we just played dumb and told him that all we had brought was our goodwill. That had him stumped for a while as he couldn't actually come out and ask us for anything. Eventually it was decided that we should go and try and catch the convoy which had left 30 minutes before us.On balance, the road between Marsabit and Moyale is better than that between Isiolo and Marsabit although it was more of the same rattles and rocks. We made better time on day two and the 250 km stretch just over 7 hours and we reached the border just after lunch. Once again the drive was uneventful and downright dull - no bandits, very few cars and not even the usual livestock to dodge on the road.
As we crossed out of Kenya and into Ethiopia we noticed the differences immediately. The first, and most obvious (aside from the fact that the road was thankfully tarred), was that in Ethiopia people drive on the right hand side of the road. Other differences were not clear immediately but we noticed them as soon as we presented our passports to the immigration officer. Ethiopia runs on a completely different calendar system - we arrived on what the rest of the world considers to be 29 September 2000 - in Ethiopia the date was 19 September 1993. They are between six and seven years behind the rest of the world and have a new year starting in September and another in January. Time was also topsey turvey. The Ethiopians have two twelve hour cycles which start at 6 am and 6 pm respectively - so 9 am our time is in fact 3 am their time. They also do not count minutes in less than intervals of 5. Curiouser and Curiouser..... It was lucky that we had arrived in Ethiopia with a few hours to spare as that's about how long it took for us to get our car through customs. The Ethiopian officials were painfully correct and had to make sure that all the formalities were completed to the last letter. We had to declare our currency (something we had not had to do before), they cross checked all the engine and chassis numbers to those on our Carnet and they looked at all our kit. They also do not recognise Carnets so we had to complete another declaration (in quadruplicate) and pay the princely sum of one dollar for the privilege. The official was dumbfounded when we showed him our cell phone. Never seen one of those. Eventually after three hours of checking, cross checking, stamping, inspecting and general backwardsing and forwardsing they let us go. It was too late to drive further so we checked ourselves into the smartest looking hotel in town - camping is a complete mystery to Ethiopians - and were immediately struck by how cheap accommodation and food is in Ethiopia. A self contained bungalow with en suite bathroom and running water cost 80 birr which is less than R70 per night and a huge meal which was much more than we could eat cost around R6. Diesel is unbelievable cheap and costs less than R2 per litre. We had been warned by everyone who had travelled through Ethiopia that the locals were mind numbingly irritating. They apparently hate foreigners or faranji, as they call us, and think nothing of surrounding the car, pointing and staring. We had been told that Ethiopian children only know three words in English - "you", "give" and "money". Luckily we did not have to deal with this faranji hysteria on our first day in the country (although we have encountered too much of it since then) as we could retreat behind the gates of our hotel and put our feet up. Dinner was an interesting affair. We decided to try the local delicacies and were served injera and meat. Injera is foul - its a huge great pancake approximately the size of a bicycle tyre circumference. Its VERY sour and we found out that they ferment the dough for approximately three days before cooking it. Its usually served with wat (just what you may ask?) which is a spicy sauce although on our first night we had it with cooked meat. All I can say is that if you intend to eat much injera make sure you have a healthy stock of antacid tablets and a couple of immodiums for good measure. We dined with Tim the UN official who tempted us to join him for a bottle of Ethiopian wine (the less said about that the better). Tim was most impressed that we had dared to drive the Marsabit/Moyale road on our own and told us very condescendingly that the UN had classified that road as a security class three road (we never quite figured out what that meant) and he went on to tell us that the UN paid him an extra US$30 per day as danger pay just for being in Moyale. We tried to look suitably impressed but it really didn't look all that dangerous - I mean, him sitting there with us scoffing injera and drinking beer. In fact, to us it seemed that the biggest danger was the hangover induced by the cheap and cheery Ethiopian red wine. The whole evening turned into a bit of a celebration as we patted ourselves on the back for having slayed the Marsabit/Moyale beast - it looked like the worst was over. Boy were we wrong!
We set of the next morning for Addis Ababa and although we knew we would not get there by nightfall thought that we break the journey at Sheshamenee. Just outside yet another in the long line of one goat towns (this one was called Dilla and was a tiny bit bigger than the rest) we hit a bump which we hadn't seen in the road. As we came down to land Nev realized that we (the car that is) had no gears. The car would not go forward or backwards and every time he tried to get it into gear it made a sickening grating noise. Something was seriously wrong. We managed to get ourselves onto the verge and Nev got out to have a look but couldn't spot the problem. We tried the gears again. No dice. By this time we had attracted quite a crowd who were all trying out the three english words that they knew - "you", "give" and "money" (some of them knew a couple of other unmentionable words that they were using with great glee but they aren't polite enough for inclusion in this mail!) Eventually another car stopped and a very well dressed Ethiopian gent got out to come and have a look. He was very swauve and introduced himself as Aermon but was no car fundi and had no idea what the problem was so he agreed that he would tow us into town. As it turned out, we could not have picked a better good samaritan (as if we had a choice). Aermon worked for an NGO and was well connected in Addis and he had a brother called Fish (short for something unpronounceable) who was a civil engineer in Dilla. Aermon towed us to a nearby hotel which was ominously called the Get Smart hotel and appeared to be one of those establishments that rented rooms by the hour (one of those euphemistic "hotels for men" that everyone had warned us about). Within minutes Fish had arrived and was on the case and before the hour was up a mechanic had had a look at the car and confirmed our worst suspicions - the clutch was broken. Ethiopia is the land of Japanese manufactured cars and there isn't a single Land Rover spare to be found anywhere outside Addis - least of all in the metropolis of Dilla. To make matters worse it was a Saturday and it looked like we would be stuck there for the weekend.
Replacing the clutch is no easy task (or so it seems to me as a lay(wo)man) and the mechanics seemed to have to strip out the entire interior of the car including the floorboards and seats to get to the offending part and our Landi looked quite forlorn, perched out on the forecourt of the Get Smart with its innards ripped out. Aermon, it appeared, was in his element when he was bossing people around so he made some elaborate arrangements for a part to be ordered in Addis and to be brought to Dilla on the bus by one of his NGO lackeys. The only snag in this plan was that it could only be purchased on Monday and would take the better part of two days for the part to arrive. We spent the next five days and four agonizing nights cooling our heels in Dilla. Our hosts were very generous. Every evening Fish and his buddy who we dubbed "the pyjama guy" (because his name was unpronounceable and he wore flowing pyjama type robes) would arrive and treat us to dinner and drinks. They would not allow us to pay for a thing. We were pathetically grateful and were not quite sure how we would ever repay their kindness. They seemed to brush off our thanks saying that survival in Ethiopia was difficult so it was important for people to do what they could to help others (even if we were dreaded faranji). Secretly I think they were enjoying having to look after us and enjoying showing us off as a novelty around town. We drank copious amounts of gut wrenchingly strong Ethiopian coffee and tottered around in a virtual twilight zone with our eyes bulging from all the caffeine. In between coffee ceremonies we strolled around town (a town which rates only two lines in our guidebook and which is described as "unremarkable" and "of little tourist value"), played games, read, dodged the ladies of the night and tried to ignore the ear splitting Ethiopian music that blared from the hotel bar virtually 24 hours a day. On the up side we were here to watch Ethiopia take the gold and bronze medals in the Olympic marathon last Sunday which was an absolutely huge event and which had even the most hardy Ethiopians in tears of joy and jubilation. (Ethiopian TV has subsequently showed the victory at least a dozen times since then).
The new clutch finally arrived on Tuesday evening and the mechanics spent Wednesday installing it under Nev's very sharp watchful eye. We waved goodbye to our Ethiopian saviours and thanked them for their efforts and their exceptional generosity and kindness. It was so good to be back on the road again. A journey which should have taken two days had taken nearly six!! Despite being in Addis we are not free of beaurocratic schlep. We are now scheduled for round two of our battle with the Sudanese authorities on the whole visa question. I can't wait (said sarcastically)!
Anyway, that's more than enough for now.
I hope that you are all well.
Will keep you posted on the next step of the adventure.
p & n