Yo Yo Yo homies! (sorry, been watching too many episodes of The Wire)
Herewith Dave’s second and (I am guessing) final guest blog entry from Ethiopia. It’s a good one 😊
Remember – you too can take advantage of Al & Sara Tours Ethiopia Inc. and make a guest blog entry…
On the move
Our plan, or ‘programme’, is to do a week of tourism with Al n Sara, so it’s back to our friendly Fokker for the flight to Addis.
Not many airports offer shoeshine service in the departure lounge, but Assosa does. I call it the lounge; in fact it’s a plank of wood, outside the corrugated iron security hut. My sandals, and toes, are washed and buffed whilst the women are called through for a security check. I am warned not to crack jokes with the young gun-toting guards. Hoots and giggles come from behind the screen as ALL body parts are squeezed and poked.
“Escuse me while a feel your buns, madam!”
Me? I’m just asked do I support United or Arsenal.
Addis Ababa is alive. It’s the eve of Easter. 50 days of fasting is nearly over. Tethered goats and sheep can’t understand what all the fuss is about and why all the mint…
Hundreds of stalls line the rubble strewn footpaths. You’d need to be a goat to walk these paths, no second thought, maybe not a goat.
White tailor’s dummies look blankly out of place in this sea of smiling black faces.
We’re having a western Sunday, starting with brunch on a roof-top terrace restaurant. It’s all very civilised and Al orders his favourite cheese croissant sandwich and recommends it to a couple of mates, who arrive later. Two chocolate topped cheesy croissants arrive. It could catch on and after all it’s the nearest they’ll get to an Easter egg.
We hop onto a ‘line bus’. It’s a fixed charge local taxi service and we are squeezed into every available space. It’s like Tokyo rush hour and probably comes as part of the Toyota spec. Licensed to carry an excess of 7 people, 12 bags and a goat. Sorry the goat’s been eaten by now.
Our next stops a German beer garden where we are served beer by the metre. That’s about two and a half litres. I’ll let you work out the pints. It’s fun and fizzy and we share tables with African families.
We have an appointment at a ‘tej’ house, traditional hooch, where we are to meet up with local ex-pats. Is that correct? The tej-house is a beautiful garden, smelling of orchards and class. Palm fronds shade cheerful groups and we are soon settled and served what looks like a large bottle of orange juice. The tej is poured into individual tapered flasks last seen in the science lab and we are encouraged to sip this amber nectar. It’s a honey based mead like drink and melts your cares away. Freshly roasted coffee is brought, and mingles with smouldering incense and heaven is not far away.
We’re on the road south, from Addis, towards Wondo Genet. Our transport’s a 4 x 4 Land Cruiser in the capable hands of Solomon, our hired driver. After 4 hours we site the great lakes of the Rift Valley and as if the Euro funding has run out, so does the road surface.
These roads are the arteries of life and as such conduct the movement of man, beast and burden, to and from markets, clean water, food, crops and employment. There are no cars, except ours. 4 x 4’s are only owned by NGO’s (that’s non government offices or foreign contractors). In the rural area of Ethiopia, about 95%, people walk and walk and walk. They carry incredibly heavy loads, children, grannies and of course donkeys. As we approach, every head turns and a huge smile touches you, accompanied by a cheery wave.
We have no rights on this highway and give way to goats, cows, donkey carts and school kids. There are no school buses nor parent prams here. The road surface is more like an assault course and we bounce and lurch like a pinball.
A long long hill defeats an exhausted donkey as it lies beneath a broken cart, pinned down under a ridiculous load. A banana truck is similarly upended, its slippery yellow cargo baking under the mid-day sun.
We pass what looks like the ploughing championship but no it’s the college of further furrowing where locals are taught to guide a pair of oxen pulling a metal tipped eucalyptus plough. Tricky.
Suddenly we’re driving through a herd of camels and I can’t resist a photo. The shepherd, sorry camherd, takes the hump and waves his stick at me. Probably a bad hair day. We are passing through a strong Muslim area that may explain the reaction. Of the hundreds of photos I took, this was the only time I got a negative reaction.
We stay the night in Wondo, a tropical paradise, and meet our first vervet monkeys who charm the pants off us. Silky Colobus monkeys,with long flowing coats of silver and ebony, swoop through the trees, under the watchful beaks of hunched vultures.
Another lumpy, bumpy day takes to the lakeside town of Arba Minch where we book into our own individual African thatched hut, overlooking the Rift Valley, at the Paradise Hotel. We enjoy a cool beer and are soon joined by a friendly boar who leans into me. We have dogs so I automatically scratch his neck and with a grunt he rolls over, then with a huff and a puff snuffles his snout down into my pocket.
He’s getting a bit to close to my truffles so I ease him away and notice a large sheep eating the bristles of a cleaning brush. I feel like I have stepped through Alice’s looking glass, or the St George beer is stronger than I thought!
Today is safari day, and we are to visit the Nechisar National Park, a 514 sq km piece of protected savanna grassland and bush. It’s home to huge herds of zebra and deer and we’re very excited. The park is newly developed, and as yet attracts only a few visitors. Our hired guide tells maybe 1500 annually, which is only about 30 a week.
The trail is primitive at best and our 4 x 4 earns it’s keep ploughing axle deep through canals, startling millions of butterflies before clawing up impossibly steeps dry stone roads. Like a Disney experience we witness monkey picnics, startle doe eyed bambis and see aquarian hulks rise and fall in liquid caramel. We are to see more of these lippy hippos later.
We emerge from the forest and look out over a huge savanna plain, and soon catch sight of grazing zebra and see the proverbal deer and antelope at play. This is not a zoo, and we respect the scale and size of the region.
3 huge birds, like early aviators, stumble airborne, wings pushing clumsily to catch a bit of lift before finding a thermal and spiral to infinity. A left-over zebskin reminds us that not only goats were on the recent menu. The guide whispers lions, and we check our doors are secure, but this zebra is long dead.
We return and startle a puzzled deer, mickey mouse like, with sticky up ears, who stands defiantly before springing into the bush.
We take lunch overlooking the valley shaded by purple blossom. The owner shepherds us inside, warning us the baboons smell the food and will join you for lunch and spare you none.
We meet up with a new guide, or captain, who is going to take us on Lake Chamo to see the nips and lips or crocs and hips. Our vessel is a canopied,welded sheet steel flat bottomed punt, propelled by several horse power of Japanese technology. We strap on life vests and hop onto our ‘African Queen’. A huge white headed eagle swoops silently down, the sun catching wings lined with indigo, it settles on a bough to watch the fun.
We soon see reptilian crocs lounging on the shoreline, with little to do, till now. They are huge, and our captain, minder, my new mate, keeps a respectable distance off shore. There must be 20 or more though wait a minute one his just launched itself and is now only a pair of nostrils and all hands are kept well in. The metal hull slaps the waves and spray washes away our fear.
We glide up to the hippo hug. An island of hippos lie together like a basket of pups watched over by twig legged herons. Neither hips nor crocs seem to have any interest in the birds. I suppose there’s not a lot of meat on a heron leg. Individual hippos rise and fall like basking whales, Mick Jagger like yawns displaying fine sets of molars. We cruise on, lulled by the slap of the hull, warm sunshine and a misty spray.
We circle an island, that reminds me of ‘LOST’. A causeway of beach reaches out into the lake and it is covered in old waterlogged trees. We drift in closer, the engine stops, and the trees yawn. Captain Hook’s clock stops, as we are that close to dozens of crocs, each the length of our boat. One croc fills my frame, then it’s head, now I’m looking down it’s throat. They make no noise when they enter the water. My hero’ the captain pulls the starter chord, cough cough, come on baby, cough cough, brummm, we power away, leaving crocodile tears behind.
This magical journey ends as we pass a fisherman, astride two bound logs, a simple paddle for power. He stands and hurls a gossamer net before him watched over by a pelican, as the heat of the day settles.
We’re back in Addis and driving westwards and things are very civilised. The roads are good and we make good time on our journey to Wenchi crater a huge fertile bowl. We take a guide and drive down a spiralling dust track to a beautiful lake . Each homestead is corralled with well ordered fencing and children rush to doorways offering smiles, waves and friendship.
We hire a boat to ferry us across to an island monastery, reminiscent of a Japanese temple, complete with prayer bell. Our plan is to journey on foot, with our guide, through the crater bottom, then climb the perimeter wall, to rejoin our 4 x4 and driver.
We skirt a dugout canoe being unloaded of wood by 2 native women. Wild boys gallop up on majestic ponies, and offer to sell horse. They mean hire a ride, but none of us having an equestrian bone in us, decline for fear of showing ourselves up and breaking our non equest bones!
The land is like another world. Crystal clear streams, cows graze like pets, flowers and birdsong. We come across an old mill by the stream…still working, and stumble into a bathroom. Well it’s a large steamy pool, fed by hot springs, and home to a family of smiling heads. A man and his son in a smaller pool try and tempt me in, and were it not for our time schedule and climb, I’d have loved to. We pass women washing clothes in waterfalls and begin the accent. It’s a well worn pass and would cause little difficulty.
Within minutes we are gasping for air and our legs feel like lead. We’d forgotten it’s 3220 metres above sea level, which is exactly where we live at Loop Head. It’s small wonder the athletes we’d seen cruising along the highway outside Addis do so well in the distance events. Oxygen is thin here. We huff and puff up the mountain and rue the rejection of pony power.
We stroll along the mountain road towards our mighty horse powered vehicle. Two young women, herding donkeys, pass us, shy smiles, they tap me on the shoulder, daringly and giggle.
We take our final journey back towards Addis and see some of the future Ethiopia. Huge investment has gone into blooms. Acres of polly tunnels, financed by foreign investment have created one of the biggest rose gardens in the world, all for our loved ones. The air is heavy with the perfume of a million rose petals but cannot compare to the sweet smiles and land of Ethiopia.