Ethiopia – Tough love

Leaving Sudan and coming into Ethiopia was our first really easy border crossing. Although quite smooth and easy on the Sudanese side it just took much longer than it should – they guy we were gonna pay the border fees to hadn’t woken up yet… Once he had rubbed his eyes and given us the receipts we needed to have our carnets stamped, we could drive into Ethiopia where immigration and customs were easy procedures. Having a customs official taking some notes and asking a few questions, looking at the chassi number and then saying ”I’d like to see the electronic equipment that you’ve stated. Is it difficult for you to show me? Okay, you don’t have to, you can go” was quite a breeze compared to the Israeli, Jordanian and Egyptian inspections!

















We came into Ethiopia with mixed feelings. We were all excited to be moving on, coming into a new country, but we had heard a lot about how the kids throw rocks at you and that Ethiopia can be a bit tough to like. With this in mind we were relieved and happy when all the kids in every village we passed through were waving frantically, smiling at us. This wasn’t so bad at all! Our hands soon started cramping from all the waving. We felt like celebrities. As soon as a kid had spotted us they started calling out ”You! You! You!” with a loud shrieking and soon had all the other kids joining in to get our attention. This started getting to us, this constant yelling as soon as we passed. And then the rocks started flying through the air and the begging started. As soon as we did look at the screaming kids they would go from waving at us to gesticulating that they wanted something to eat or a gift. This just made me so sad. Because it wasn’t just a kid here and there. It was every kid. It was the way they have learnt to behave when they see a big 4×4 car with white people drive through their village. I don’t know why this is, if all the aid organisation and NGO workers throw lollipops around them when they travel through the country but it was pretty clear the kids knew that a big car means a chance of gifts. The guide book even mentioned this problem with a short paragraph, advising tourists from giving anything to the kids, whether it be money, food or empty water bottles. Normally I find it extremely hard to refrain from giving something to a beggar, especially a child. But here it was different. It was systemized, it was a product of years of aid, it was everyone whether they seemingly had needed aid or not. Sure, this can be debated. Maybe there is no harm in giving children some sweets or a pen when you pass through their home town. But if all of us do it? What does it teach these kids? What does it tell them about white people, about themselves, about the world? I felt that what we were experiencing along the roads of northern Ethiopia was a pretty clear example that humanitarian aid is obviously neccessary when there is a great need, but that a constant giving isn’t only good.

We moved on but realised we wouldn’t make it to our planned first stop but had to look for another campsite along the way. Studying the area around northern Lake Tana we found Tim and Kim’s village, another place known to overlanders, and decided to go there. It was already late afternoon and we wanted to get there before dark. But Rob’s Harley was struggling with the gravel road with lots of corrugation and bumps. At one stage we had to stop on the side of the dirt road for him to do some maintenance. Within a minute, the four people on the road had turned into about 50, most of them kids. Where they all came from we had no idea, there was only a few houses nearby. Most of them flocked curiously around Rob and his bike and the guys helping him, some of them came to check out the cruiser where I was sitting. A bunch of kids were standing outside my window, climbing up on the rock sliders, banging on the door and the window, shouting for my attention. Another group was climbing up on the driver’s side where the window was down. I quickly removed anything that would have been easy to grab and did my best to try and keep them off the car without being too harsh on them, but it soon became too overwhelming having all of them shouting and begging around me so I stepped out, locked the car up and went over to the guys and the bikes.

We could soon move on and by now it started getting dark. The gravel road leading to Tim and Kim’s was absolutely horrible. Full of pot holes and rocks that made it a challenge even for the cruiser, not to mention for Rob’s Harley. When we were finally almost there he fell and needed help getting his bike back up. That’s when he realised the people standing around his bike watching him doing maintenance on it had stolen not only the set of screw drivers he had been using but some stuff out of his zipped up side pouches as well. We were all really sad and angry to hear this, but there was nothing we could do about it then. We were surprised and offended by it and reminded that we need to keep a close eye on our belongings.

After a long, hard day on the road with a very frustrating end to it, we finally arrived at Tim and Kim’s, where the nice Dutch couple Tim and Kim greeted us and made us feel welcome. We had local beer and homemade curry and a few good laughs over the day’s events (it started off with Rob hitting a donkey in the morning!) and soon felt much better. Plus, there were six adorable puppies. Who can be angry with puppies around!

Tim and Kim’s village may be a bit rough to get to, but definitely worth it when you do. We enjoyed camping there and it would have been nice getting to spend more time – it’s a perfect place to just relax – but we wanted to push on towards Addis.

The next stop was in Bahir dar – this time our convoy decreasing even further as Rob and Rob decided to head north into the Simien mountains. So now it was just Brian and me and Rich on his motorbike heading south. In Bahir dar we camped in the backyard of Ghion hotel, a lush rainforest like garden with rooms to rent. Ironically, with Ethiopia seemingly having something against us I also seemed to have something against Ethiopia as my body went into an allergic reaction and there was no telling what the reason might be. I spent a few days with a horrible rash over most of my body, from a sleepless night to not being able to stay awake during the days in the car when on antihistamin medication, and it wasn’t fun.

Going to Addis we had a pretty long drive but figured we should make it in one day. Starting off in the morning all was well and having gone halfways we stopped for a snack and were very optimistic about reaching Addis in the early afternoon. But we didn’t know the road was going to get much worse from then on… And the roads in Ethiopia are just the transport stretches they are supposed to be - only problem is they’re not just used by trucks, cars and motorbikes but also by tuk-tuks, people, cows, donkeys, sheep, goats, donkey carts, horses and carriages and dogs. Driving on a country road at about 80-100 km per hour requires the same attention level as on a busy city street pretty much and the truth is you hardly ever average more than 50 km per hour because you constantly have to slow down, overtake something and swerve to avoid hitting a dog or a donkey.

So getting to Addis before dark was soon out of the option and we just pushed on as fast as we dared to get there. Finding Wim’s Holland House wasn’t easy but with some directions from locals we got there and were reunited with Rich, who got there earlier the same day, and Ray and Avril, who were in Addis waiting for their flight back to Australia. Wim was a great guy with lots of years in Ethiopia and there didn’t seem to be a question he couldn’t answer about where to find things in Addis. So the following morning, after Brian changing some bushes on the springs of the cruiser, we walked off to the nearest insurance company and got COMESA, a yellow card.

With those two things out of the way we could now head on but only left Addis early afternoon. We knew there weren’t too many options of accommodation on the way south and we really didn’t want to camp wild since people along the road had been a bit too intrusive whenever we stopped. But we found what seemed to be a hotel with camping possibilites further south and set direction there. Again, because we left Addis a bit late, it got dark before we arrived and finally seeing the place showing up on the gps we turned off the main road onto a gravel road. Having learnt not to expect too much at any time we knew this place could be anything from a proper hotel to… non existent.

But as we turned up at the gate the non English speaking men there did nod when we said the name of the hotel. It was all dark and we couldn’t see any buildings so we had no idea. And then the men started asking a lot of questions and asked Brian to step out of the car while they would call the chairman. We all thought it was a little weird that we couldn’t just go to the reception, wherever it might be, if this was a hotel. It seemed more like some sort of interrogation situation. After some time we were directed to go and see the chairman. We parked in the back of what looked like a privately owned house and down the stairs came this man. Slightly surprised at us turning up at his doorstep in the middle of the evening he asked, with an American accent, how he could help us. The three of us couldn’t help but wonder where we had ended up, why and how – and what was going to happen next. So Brian simply explained that we’re looking for a place to stay and that the gps had directed us there. And with no hesitation the man pointed to his garden and said ”Would it be alright if you camp down there? And come in for a beer later and tell us about what you’re doing!” A bit confused with the situation we asked how much he’d charge to have us camping there but he said no, no charge. So we happily put up camp in the backyard, cooked some noodles for dinner and then went back to the house.

And it turned out that this Ethiopian man, Elias, had lived for over 20 years in the US, working in the hotel business. And we were now on the premises of what used to be a big resort. The owner had died and his family lost the property to the bank. Elias, who had moved back to Ethiopia, heard about this and bought it and is now restoring all of it and it’s going to open in a few months. So we had actually been going to a hotel, not finding one but then finding one in the end after all! Elias and his friend Samy, who used to live in Germany, were great guys and we sat on the porch drinking a couple of beers.  It turned out that they had been talking about driving from Ethiopia to South Africa and they were very inspired by us so that was really cool.

After admiring the sunrise over Lake Langano we packed up camp and continued south. It was another long day’s driving and we only reached the border town Moyale just before dark. We quickly looked at the options of accommodation and after turning down a couple of ”hotels” that were a bit too shabby even for us, Rich luckily spotted one that seemed good. I guess you can say they decorated the place with anything that tickled their fancy, from golden lion statues at the gate to a fountain with disco lights. But hey, we had a good dinner with meat served in clay pots being held hot by burning coals underneath. And by sharing a room the three of us, it wasn’t too expensive. Well, hot water could have been included in the price, we all tought, but you can’t get both golden lions and hot water, hey!

After a rooster woke us up just before 07 and Rich had yelled at it through the window for a while, we headed for the border. Everything went alright and we were soon in Kenya, where we were only let in thanks to Rich lending us some cash since we were a bit unorganized in that aspect and couldn’t afford paying for our visas. (We had read that you can’t change your birr at the exit border and have to budget accordingly so as we ran out of cash we didn’t want to withdraw more.)

So, Ethiopia was tough love. We were blown away by the astonishingly beautiful landscape and scenery as we drove through the country, but sadly interacting with locals was never high on our list due to all the begging. As we are swiftly moving on, planning on maybe making it to Zimbabwe for Christmas, Ethiopia ended up being a country we just rushed through. I’m sure, or at least I hope, we would have felt differently about the country if we had given it more time.

Max - November 24, 2012 - 10:01 am

Sad to hear about the begging and shouting in Ethiopia, we experienced a similar situation while camping wild in a remote part of Uganda. I can only imagine what it must be like to face it constantly for days! But it really is up to us tourists and help/aid-organizations to educate and foster communication/trade rather than begging/stealing.

Was he really driving a Harley Davidson? Doesn’t seem like the brand that want to go pushing through the African outdoor!

I noticed that the other Land Cruiser that you teamed up with is built on a pick-up chassis, did you talk to the couple about that? Is there any benefits or drawbacks compared to your wagon-type vehicle? More cargo, less roomy interior I imagine, but how does that work out in the field?


Elias Assefa - November 24, 2012 - 5:09 pm

It was such a pleasure meeting with you and chatting with you at Langano, hope to hear more about your trip… have a safe one

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