Friday, September 30, 2011

Breath-taking Ethiopia

 After all the rain during our time in Addis, we weren’t surprised to leave the city in a light shower.  There has been quite a bit of development of the roads in Addis which caused some confusion with our GPS, but we managed to navigate our way out of the city and onto the open road.  We had planned to travel through to a town called Dessie, and the going was good for the first 200km.  The number of “YOU-YOU-YOU’S” had somewhat decreased and we enjoyed waving at the people on the side of the road.  The landscape was amazing as we climbed up towards the Ethiopian highlands passing through small villages packed with donkeys, goats and people.  We stopped for lamb tibs and injeera at a small restaurant and met a friendly local who suggested that pushing to Dessie would be too far, and we should rather stay in a town called Robit.  He mentioned something about us having to travel through a tunnel through the mountains, and we were quite excited as this would be our first tunnel of the trip! With full bellies we set off again still amazed that we hadn’t had any rain the whole day, and that the weather was much warmer than at Addis.

At one village there was a barrel in the middle of the road with two logs resting on either side of it, which looked almost like a police stop but unmanned. It was only when we reached the big construction works on the tunnel that we realised the barrel was to indicate that the road was closed and you needed to take a detour over the mountain.  Just another example of great signage in Africa…but instead we had a rude Chinese man shout an emphatic NO! and point towards the way we had just come.  So, we headed back to the village, and as there were no sign posts, asked the locals where we should go to get to Dessie/Robit.  Enthusiastically they showed us where to go after shoving origanum tea and touristy, handwoven woollen hats in our faces.  We started the trek up the mountain over washboard road and had a flashback of our trip through to Moyale.  The views were spectacular, and as we passed round the bend and started descending the road deteriorated quite badly.  With the oncoming trucks and landcruisers we ‘pole pole’ made our way down thankful that there was no rain which could have made the pass more difficult.  After the 60km detour we hit the tar road again and headed for Robit.
Start of the 60km detour

We arrived early afternoon and found a cheap hotel for the night.    We took a walk along the streets and found a great little pub close to our hotel and drank beers chatting to some funny locals, and watched music videos with traditional dancing on the TV.  On our return we realised we were quite lucky to have got a room as this seemed to be a stopover town for the local busses heading north, and the quiet hotel had become a bustle of activity.  We settled in our room and started the game of killing off about 30 flies that had gathered during the day…hmmm cockroaches in Dilla and now flies in Robit – welcome to budget accommodation in Ethiopia!

In the early hours of the morning we heard the rain pelting down on the corrugated iron roof, and knew that it was very possible one of our bikes would fall over as the soil softened from the downpour.  Luckily Nick went outside moments before Teeny’s bike fell over, so it wasn’t lying on its side for too long!  We went back to sleep for a few more hours and couldn’t believe that the skies had cleared when we woke up later and by 9am happily set off towards Dessie.  The rolling green fields and hills were so beautiful, and the road was quite quiet along this stretch, making it possible to lap up the fantastic countryside without stressing too much about children, goats and donkeys.  

Road to Dessie

 We hadn’t found a petrol station at Robit that morning, and knew that we were cutting it a bit fine to get to Dessie so every village we drove through we hoped there would be a petrol station or somewhere to buy a few litres just to make sure we could get all the way.  Just our luck most of the villages were too small and had no petrol stations, and the few we did find were out of benzene!  So we pushed on trying not to think about the adventure of running out of fuel.  Eventually we arrived at Kombolcha (where we had been told there would definitely be fuel!) Relieved we pulled into the first petrol station and started filling Nick’s bike.  2 litres later and the machine stopped pumping – they had run out of fuel! A small moment of panic set in as we were still another 50km from Dessie and knew we couldn’t get that far! The petrol attendant told us we could get fuel from the other petrol station just up the road, but on arrival they just shook their head and pointed further up the road.  This happened at one other petrol station and then we spotted where all the Chinese bikes were being refuelled…what a relief!
Switchbacks climbing the Ethiopian highlands

 Dessie turned out to be quite a big, interesting town.  Our first priority was to get food and we found a great restaurant which was very busy with locals watching Olympics on TV.  As we enjoyed our brunch the atmosphere got more and more excitable as the 10 000m race was coming to an end and the Ethiopian athlete was running 3rd in the race with another 200m to go! Out of nowhere he seemed to extend his legs and sprinted past the other two contestants finishing the race in first place!!  Loud shouts, cheers and clapping erupted in the restaurant and big smiles could be seen on everyone’s faces.  It really was so exciting for us too!
We then went searching for a place to stay.  There were a few hotels in the town, but we managed to find a comfortable budget hotel parallel to the main road called Lalibella Hotel.  The staff were really friendly and we got settled in just as the afternoon storm came through.  
The bar inside the hotel

The next morning we went out to explore more of the town and have breakfast.  We found a restaurant on the second floor of a building and watched the bustle of the town from the balcony sipping on tea/coffee and munching cakes.  
Those are chickens and roosters on his back!

Typical morning activity - goats, donkeys and people selling things...
Main road through Dessie

The next morning we went out to explore more of the town and have breakfast.  We found a restaurant on the second floor of a building and watched the bustle of the town from the balcony sipping on tea/coffee and munching cakes.  We headed off by 10am excited that today we would reach Lalibella, home to the rock hewn churches we had heard so much about.  The morning ride was glorious, but we noticed that as we climbed it got chillier and chillier and in the distance we could see very dark clouds building. We knew that at some point during the day we were likely to have rain.  

Enjoying spectacular views before the rains started

Just as we passed through the town of Woldia it started raining, so put on our rain gear and made it about 200m down the road before the heavens opened and the wind howled.  We turned around and found a more sheltered spot where we stood in torrential rain with strong winds and even had some hail!! As we waited on the side of the road for 45 min all we could do was laugh at the fact that we had decided to travel through Ethiopia during the rainy season. Each time we thought the storm had let up, we waited 5 min to be sure and then it would start pouring again.  Drenched and cold we eventually headed off.  About 5km from where we had been waiting we came to a bridge that was flooded (due to poor drainage) with a raging river beneath it, we watched a few cars go through and realised that we can definitely make it across without a problem.  In the village the rain had washed so much mud onto the road that we slipped and slid our way out of the village. The rain continued (albeit much lighter than before) and as we climbed the mountains we became colder and colder.  We travelled slowly, shivering and were relieved that we only had another 80km or so to go.  At the junction to Lalibella we stopped and asked some locals if the dirt road was the correct route to Lalibella.  After much confusion we realised that they were warning us not to take the 65km dirt road to Lalibella due to the very bad road conditions, and suggested we rather travel 140km to Gashena and from there take a much better dirt road.  We deliberated this for a while, wondering if the locals were making the road out to be much worse than what it actually was.  Next thing a truck arrived off that road and it was the police, they reiterated how bad the road was saying there were large mud pools scattered along the way. Quite disappointed by the extra kms we would have to travel we set off again on another major detour (but only after Nick had been asked by the police officer for his gloves!). The rain never gave up, and we climbed up to 3000km above sea level.  It was so cold that by the time we reached Gashena all we wanted was a cup of tea and to get out of our wet riding gear! We spotted Tsegays Hotel and didn’t have to think too hard about whether or not to stop for the day!  That night we sat around a small fire with the people at the hotel listening to other guests playing billiards and the TV blaring music videos followed by America’s funniest home videos! 

Nick crossing the flooded bridge

Our simple yet comfy room
The sun was bright the next morning, and as we laid out our wet gear to dry we enjoyed hot sweet tea and bread for breakfast.  It was a good dirt road to Lalibella and the clear skies meant we had fantastic views of the countryside.  We passed through a small section of forest and then onto more open cultivated fields.  It was along this road that we really learnt what people meant about children throwing stones! It was quite scary to watch boulders being thrown towards us, while in other cases children lined themselves across the road only moving once we were nearly on top of them, and then proceeded to pick up rocks to throw at us now that we had slowed down! Unfortunately this ruined the drive for us as we were constantly looking out for the next rock coming our way! We arrived in the very touristy Lalibella town quite happy to have ridden this stretch during the day rather than late afternoon the day before!  The prices of some of the hotels were crazy, but we eventually found the budget Asheton Hotel with very nice rooms! We settled in and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon enjoying the fact that we had finally arrived in Lalibella!

Main road in Lalibella
Asheton Hotel
We were up early the next morning and left the hotel in search of the rock hewn churches.  We had been told that we should hire a tour guide to help us see all the churches in one day, but decided it was too expensive and wanted to enjoy the churches at our own pace.  We bought our tickets and were instantly amazed at how the churches are located right in the centre of the town.  For 2 hours we wandered the amazing structures in awe of how big and impressive they are.  All throughout the churches and surrounding them there are people chanting prayers, and priests wait in small rooms excited to show off their clothes and rooms and have their picture taken (for a fee).  Unfortunately even in these sacred places money is king, and we were shocked to have a kid following us around asking for “1 birr” or “give me money”. 

The roofs are so high inside the churches that it echoes. In this church a woman was being healed but it sounded like an exorcism!!

Only one church had beautiful paintings on the roof, the rest were just stone with intricate carvings

They have built canopy's over most of the churches to protect them from the weather

The entrance to the right took you up this steep staircase into a priests room filled with pictures of saints. He wanted money so we only looked from the outside...
This old man was reading his bible out loud and looked so quaint in his little house.
This picture shows just how close the village is to the churches

The moss on the walls added to the beauty of the churches

After touring the first 4 churches we bumped onto Ken and Landen and they invited us to join them for lunch during the time the churches are closed.  We had a great meal and then a fun afternoon wandering the rest of the churches with these two entertaining guys from America.  It is really fascinating that people live in walls surrounding the churches.  Spaces and caves have been carved out of the rock, and you can see blankets or cardboard inside used by the people that live there.  At one stage we went into one of the empty caves, but moments later were shouted at by the security guard telling us that we must leave making interesting hand signals as if to say we are stupid for what we had just done!  That night we enjoyed a delicious Ethiopian meal known as ‘fasting food’ which is basically a large silver platter with injeera covered in all different vegetarian foods.
St George church

This picture gives a bit of perspective of how big this church is!!

The pathway down to St George's church

Someones home...

St George slaying the dragon

Climbing out of the dark 20m tunnel - thank goodness we had our headlamps

The empty hole/home that we got shouted at for climbing into!

The 'poo-hole' hehe with Ken and Landen

Nick and Landen with our feast!
 Our boots were still a bit wet the next morning so we decided to stay another day in Lalibella.  Lucky we did because for nearly the whole day the rain bucketed down.  We relaxed watching movies and enjoyed the comfortable clean beds we had! During the day we were contacted by Abeba, our contact for the Danakil Depression, and were informed that it was impossible to visit the Danakil Depression due to all the rain.  She advised us that we should only arrive there 3 weeks later as tours would be starting again at that time.  Unfortunately this was impossible with our visa for Sudan, so we decided that we would skip the northern route to Mekele and Aksum and rather head straight to Gonder and then on to Sudan.

The next morning we said goodbye to Landed and Ken and headed off west instead of north towards Mekele.  This meant we had to ride the dirt road back to Gashena, a 40km ride that neither Nick nor I were looking forward to doing again!  Thank goodness it seemed a little better this time round (maybe they were bored of us this time?!) and we reached the tar road in good time.  Little did we know that the next 150km would be the most challenging for us.  The roads were covered in people and livestock, and the children were rude and throwing stones at us.  Before when we waved they waved back, but along this short stretch we didn’t seem to get the warm welcoming we had had before.  Thank goodness that did not last the whole drive, and we assume that maybe they were just grumpy because it was rainy and cold at the time?! 
This drive was spectacular; we passed amazing viewpoints and descended on hair-bend turns with sheer drops on one side. We reached the main road heading north early afternoon and enjoyed the sunshine that had come out after our descent from the high plateaus.  We hadn’t planned to push through to Gonder, but there was nowhere nice to stay along this road and we had been told that Belegez Pension was a comfortable place to stay.  We had a fantastic dinner at the Four Sisters Restaurant before jumping into bed for a good night’s rest!

Filling up with benzene before leaving Lalibella

Baboons across the road
Amazing geological features!

 The next morning we went out to explore Gonder.  It’s a relatively big town and located close to where we were staying was the Castle. After waiting out the midday storm we paid our entrance into the castle.  Buildings from the 1600’s are still standing, and it was lots of fun wandering around imagining what each of the rooms were used for in them days! 

Castle in Gonder

 We had an early dinner at the Four Sisters restaurant again and tried the delicious honey wine and our hand at Ethiopian dancing.  Nick got lots of thumbs up for his dancing and the four sisters were all amazed that he had never done this dancing before!

Honey wine
Sweet and delicious

Coffee ceremony: frying the coffee beans, crushing them all while burning incense

Being taught how to do Ethiopian traditional dancing
Our last stop in Ethiopia before heading into Sudan was at a place called ‘Tim and Kim’s Village’, an amazing spot located on the shores of Lake Tana (the source of the Blue Nile).  Tim and Kim are a dutch couple that came to Ethiopia in 2005 to fulfil their dream: to move to Africa to set up a development project.  They have developed a number of self-contained rooms and campsite together with a fantastic restaurant/bar area and use the funds they receive in donations and profit from the lodge to build community projects to help the community of Gorgora.  For more information go to  We arrived at Tim and Kims early afternoon and were greeted with big smiles and a delicious pancake! This was the start of 2 super relaxing days spending time getting to know about Tim and Kim Village. 
Major storm at Tim and Kims - thank goodness we had arrived already

Lake Tana
Our swimming spot

Our luxurious accomodation
Great home-cooked meals! Nice break from the Ethiopian dishes

Bar/restaurant area

The views of Lake Tana, there are islands on this lake with interesting monastaries to visit - but we missed it!

Surrounding hills and landscape
On the third day we decided to leave and head for Sudan, unfortunately Teeny’s bike did not think that was a good idea at all and decided to cut out every time she tried to put it into first gear.  After about an hour we had the problem figured out and cut and taped some wires together and headed off! Our drive out of Ethiopia was in the rain, but this did not deter from the absolute beauty of the landscape.  The rain was also a bit of a blessing because it kept the children away from the roads and allowed us to enjoy our drive out of the country. 
We arrived at the border just before 4pm and decided to push through customs into Sudan.  
The spot where Teeny's bike decided to quit on us!
Tim, Nick and Kim
Green, green everywhere!!