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May 19th, 2010 | Africa

Into Ethiopia…

A rusty welcome to Ethiopia...

Things are done a little differently here. My first experience of this was the fact that although the Kenyan border opened at 6.00am, the Ethiopian Border, less than 100 metres away, only opens at 8.00am… In Kenya, like any other place in the modern world, it is the year 2010. In Ethiopia, it is 2002… And don’t get me trying to explain the time here… From what I can understand, “twelve o’clock” means something closer to “six o’clock”…!!!

I was told to expect a long delay at the border, but this was not the case… I was the only one passing through that needed my passport stamped… Moyale is a town that straddles the border, and people on foot, bicycles and scooters, pass between the two countries without any documentation at all… It is only if they try to pass out of Moyale and deeper into Ethiopia, that they require “proper documentation”…

I was also told that Carnets are not accepted or used here, but this has also changed and mine was stamped without any problem. I had to declare my laptop and cameras and thereafter was free to enter the country… The border officials were very precise in their dealings with me, making sure my name was spelt correctly in their “Big Book”… Although the Kenyans I had spoken to did not hold their northern neighbours in high regard, telling me that they were arrogant, short tempered and rude, I did not find this to be the case at all. I was warmly greeted by many passersby and asked where I was going by most of them… Without being asked, two soldiers at the border post came over to me, and indicated the procedures I needed to follow, which saved me time and effort…

Outside the Customs Offices, Big Fella eyes the local opposition and sniggers quietly to himself...

I think the fact that I am on my own, people tend to open up and are unafraid to approach and strike up a conversation. They often take it upon themselves to try and reassure me that all will be well in their country, what to look out for, what to avoid, and which would be the best route to take with the bike…

The road to Mega was under repair, and the thin layer of sand on it's surface made it a bit tricky...

The section of road leading out to the checkpoint just north of town and for the next 50 kms, was badly potholed, but not with the deep craters that I had experienced in countries further south, but rather the shallow plate-sized variety, that you ride straight over with minimal fuss. I did however try to avoid as many as possible, mindful of the fact that I no longer carried a spare rear shock with me! I was able to ride at a steady 100 km/h and ate up the ground on the way to Mega, the first little town en route to Dilla.

The town of Mega lay in the mountains ahead, as we cruise through the Ethiopian countryside...

Remains of the Italian Fort above the town of Mega...

The countryside was covered in thorny scrubland, and thousands of huge termite mounds as far as the eye can see… Wooden houses will not last too long in these parts…!! The road climbed steadily the deeper we got into Ethiopia and just north of Mega, I stopped to take a few photos of an old Italian fort, which must have dominated the town in the past. A light mist covered the hills here and it reminded me of areas around Lydenburg and Dullstroom back home, with their rolling green hills…

Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never colonized by a European nation. The Eyeties had made an attempt at colonization, and had occupied a portion of it for a time, but had been rebuffed by the Ethiopians, and later sent packing by the British, who assisted by getting roads and bridges built and other forms of infrastructure in place. There is still however a strong Italian influence in Ethiopia…Pasta is enjoyed by all, and available on every menu… (Hooray!!) Italian wines and many other imported goods, bear the “Made in Italy” label…

I stopped in Yabello, a further 110 kms north of Mega and refueled. I added a third of the bottle of Octane Booster that I had bought from Chris at the Jungle Junction, as he had advised that unleaded fuel would not be available in Ethiopia and Sudan. The Big Fella’s engine had not been performing at its best since re-entering Kenya from Uganda, and there was a loss of power that until now I could not explain… Once I added the Octane Booster, I felt an immediate change in the bike; the power was there again and the engine ran quieter than before…

Ethiopian countryside with a bit of "weather" building in the background...

The road surface improved and I picked up the speed, wanting to ensure that I got to Dilla with plenty of daylight to spare… I passed small herds of Camels, grazing on the thorny trees next to the road… They were unperturbed when I stopped close to them to watch them feed. The countryside was a lot greener the closer I got to Dilla and I began passing through patches of thickly wooded forest. The road passed through a series of hills and then wound its way from up on the plateau that we had been riding on and down a steep escarpment into the valley below. It had drizzled steadily for the past hour, but not heavily enough to warrant rain gear.

Camels browse contentedly along the road to Yabello...

The coming “big rains” of June, July and August, were nearly upon us, and in many open areas, subsistence farming were out with their ploughs, pulled by a pair of oxen and in one unbelievable instance, a large Camel!! I wished they were closer to the roadside so that I could get a photo of this weird scene, but “Camel and Plougher” were moving directly away from me and were already a few hundred metres from the roadside when I came across them…

Southern Ethiopia is extremely economical with its road signage… There are no signs to tell you how far from the next town you are, but more importantly, no signs to warn you of sharp corners or dangerous descents… I almost came unstuck on a long sharp right-hander, running onto the opposite side of the road and narrowly avoided careening off into the bush… I was thankful that this part of the country was almost devoid of any traffic…

Mist closes in as we ride up into the mountains outside Dilla...

Mud brought onto the road by trucks and buses that park on its edges, had turned to sludge in a few of the villages just short of Dilla, and in no time at all, my nice clean bike was covered in mud… The roads in Dilla were no better, but the town was a bustle of activity… Three wheeled scooters clogged the main road as I searched for the Lalibela Pension, a hotel recommended by many who use this town as a stopover on the way up to Addis Ababa… A friendly policeman commandeered a passing motorcyclist and guided me down a muddy little road in what was now pouring rain… The hotel looked great and I was keen to get out of the rain and into a dry room, but unfortunately, as they say in the classics, “the inn was full”…

“There is another one close by. You must follow me!” the policeman said, and we went back onto the main road and a few minutes later turned off onto another muddy side street and came to the “Get Smart Hotel”… There were plenty of rooms available here, and I was to find out why later that evening… It was hidden behind high walls and a heavily barred gate ensured that the Big Fella would be safe, something that I had been warned was essential in Ethiopia… The policeman shook my hand, wished me good luck and went away without asking for any compensation of any sort… The fact that he was sopping wet seemed to make no difference to him… I was astounded by this act of kindness, recalling how I had been ripped off in Kigali by another “well meaning” policeman…

Tuk-Tuk in Dilla... Hundreds of them buzz about the town...

English is not widely spoken here it would seem, and I had difficulty explaining what I needed to both the young manager and any other member of staff I came into contact with… I could see that Ethiopia was going to test my patience, despite the friendliness of its people…

Luckily for me, there was a young guy and his girlfriend sitting nearby, and he jumped off his chair when he saw that I wasn’t getting through to anybody around me, and came over offering to translate…

“My name is Muluken, and I can help you,” he said… Turns out he is an English teacher at a local primary school… Finally a lucky break in Dilla…

“I need to get a Sim card for my cell phone and these guys don’t seem to understand what I mean!” I replied in exasperation.

Within a few minutes I was sitting in a little 3-wheeled Tuk-Tuk, and on my way up the road to get my communications sorted out… More problems here… In order to get a Sim card, you need to produce a photocopy of your driver’s license and two passport photos… Back to the hotel to get those, and then after getting stuck in the mud, and having to push the Tuk-tuk out of it, I finally got back to the shop, filled in more forms and obtained my Sim card… What a palaver…!!

Dinner in Dilla...

Back at the hotel, I struggled to make them understand that I wanted something to eat… Clearly Ethiopians did not subscribe to the same sign language manual that every other country did!

“You have Spaghetti?” I asked…

“No Spaghetti…”

“Soup?”

“No Soup…”

“Meat?” I tried, using two fingers to indicate horns of a goat on my head….

With a look of concern that made it clear he thought my mental health was suspect, the waiter finally replied “Maybe have meat…”

“Hallelujah!” I cried… “Bring me meat then, you exasperating little creature!”

After half an hour of waiting, I finally had a plate of goat chunks, a few pieces of bread and later, as an afterthought, a chunk of Injera on a plate in front of me… The Injera is an Ethiopian speciality….for which I will forever be thankful… It has the consistency of a Shammy Cloth, tastes like sour yoghurt, and comes rolled up like a pancake… It is made from Teff… Yeah, the same stuff we feed our horses and cattle with…

The bathroom in my room was easily the dirtiest I had experienced thus far on my trip… There was no hot water available, the toilet wouldn’t flush (despite the maintenance fellow spending half an hour fiddling with it…) and then after standing under the shower for just a minute or so, there was no water at all… When I finally did get into bed, the mosquito net was so small and full of holes, that I had to choose between covering up my head and torso, and leaving my feet hanging out, or covering my lower body and keeping my head under the covers… Neither method worked very well…

Breakfast in Dilla...

In the morning, I awoke to discover that I had not been alone in the bed… I had a series of little bite marks on my legs, and back… These were complimented by a fine collection of mosquito bites as well…

Final score: Insects Forty +; Visitors Nil…

I couldn’t wait to see what marvels they would be conjuring up for breakfast….

“We have omelette!” cried the waiter excitedly when I wandered into the dining area…

“Jolly good, and please bring me some of the famous Ethiopian coffee I have heard so much about, as well…” I replied…

Ethiopian coffee…. Best used as follows…

Pour contents of cup over those stubborn stains on your cylinder head covers and exhaust manifold…

Allow to soak for a few minutes and then wash off…

Do not repeat process more than once a day or metal bits will begin falling off your bike…

And that’s all I have to say about that…

Kenyan biscuits and a glass of Stain Remover, masquerading as coffee...

Before leaving, I suggested to the manager that I had taken the name of his establishment, “Get Smart Hotel” to heart, and had “gotten smart”… I would not be returning there anytime this century…

That is exactly what the management of the hotel need to do...

I’m afraid that Dilla would not be found in my file of favourite places to spend the night…

©GBWT 2010

1 comment to Into Ethiopia…

  • Mark Behr

    Brave man – I would not have lasted the night with those bugs. Hope it gets better from here on.

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