Ethiopia is one of the countries where you can’t get a visa on the border, only in your country of origin, like the crew in the Voetspore television programme found out and were forced to return to Nairobi and fly back to South Africa to apply for visas, which shows the value of doing your research before leaving. Thirty minutes later I was legally in the country, even without a number plate (I would have one made in Lalibela). Strange how they kept old calendars on the wall in the customs office, about four years old I think.
It was still early when I stopped to refuel and so I decided to push on to Yavello, 105km away. The tarmac was heavenly after the dirt road from hell. Although the resort next to the filling station in Yavello was full, the owner allowed me to camp out in the garden and showed me an outdoor shower and toilet. I couldn’t wait to wash off the sweat and grime of the past two days, one of the best showers of my life. Going to the toilet was a bit odd, there’s no toilet paper. I had read you don’t eat with your left hand, because that’s the hand you wash yourself with when you’re done. You also have to aim quite carefully to hit the small hole. It was rather strange at first, but I quickly became used to it and it must be said it’s washing with soap is much more sanitary than using toilet paper, but that’s enough about that.
In support of the owner, for allowing me to camp in the garden, I ate at the resort’s restaurant that night. A woman who had been living and working in Ethiopia for some years came over and told me of the rain that was expected for the coming day. Just after 02h00 that morning it started, so I had to pack up and continue on in the rain – Ethiopia and my many days.
about 15h00 that afternoon I hit Addis Ababa traffic and set the coordinates on the GPS for the very old hotel, named Taitu. Fortunately I had plenty of company and two black guides offered to show me the city the next day. Like everywhere in Africa The roads were in great condition and I regularly stopped at filling stations to warm myself up with coffee. At, you first have to negotiate a good price before accepting any offer. I had to take the day off anyway to do much needed laundry and hoped the weather would play along for both the laundry and exploring the city.
While heading into Addis Ababa with the two guides, the skies opened up again. Our first stops were the market and the clothing factory, where it once again struck me how neat the women kept themselves. The next sight was the statue of a previously leader, where I learned that Ethiopia was once ruled by the communist party for about eight years. The evening was spent in the company of other tourists, sharing a delicious meal
There are two routes to Lake Tana and I opted for the one to Weldiya, because I was headed to Lalibela and was also looking forward to ride through the highlands of Ethiopia. It was the best route yet, leafy green and the most scenic of roads I had ever rode with a bike. I climb to 3 750m above sea level and also managed to take a picture at 3125m. When I reached 3700m I tried to get a shot of the GPS, but misjudged the slant of the sun and you can’t see anything on the photo. Speed is not advisable in Ethiopia, because everything that lives and breathes is on the road and if you’re not careful, a child will jump out in front of you. This was fine with me, because the area is just so gloriously beautiful. I even came upon some army tanks from the war between Ethiopia and Eretria, two countries that still don’t get along.
My next overnight spot was in Kembotcha, both pretty and inexpensive, but once again I found myself alone. It was also the first day it didn’t rain. After breakfast the next morning I made my way to Lalibela, another highlight of my trip. I didn’t even mind the dirt road the final 60km, because there was less foot traffic and only the first part was still wet and muddy.
In Lalibela I headed to a hotel called Seven Olives, a place I learned about from my research. The town was full of locals offering their services, but I just kept on to the hotel where a guide was waiting on me. We struck up a conversation and negotiated a price. I became fast friends with this good and friendly man, with whom I still have contact to this day. His name is Mesfin Sebsi and his web address is www.shaddyethiopiatour.com.
Lalibela is a world heritage site and it is well worth looking up the rock churches of Lalibela on the Internet. Mesfin and I took the hour-long ride on the rocky road to a particular church in a 4X4 Toyota, which we parked at the bottom and hiked up the mountain to the church. Along the way we came across a number of blind people, the eyes of some of them were quite shocking. I couldn’t bring myself to record their disability on film. Upon asking Mesfin why there were so many blind here, he replied that he would tell me at the top. A cave was carved into the top of the mountain for a king’s palace and a church. It is hard to describe, but it is huge and to think it was created more than 1 000 years ago. Then Mesfin told me the story about the blind: Every millimetre of cave that the people carved out by day, God matched by night. A sight no one was permitted to witness. One night a priest caught a woman breaking this rule and she was promptly punished with blindness that would befall all the women and daughters in her family for the next 1 000 years. Question is why would God continue to punish people for a transgression committed more than 1 000 years ago.
According to church history in Ethiopia, the Ark of the Covenant is in the city of Axum. This cannot be verified, however, because only the high priest is permitted there. The cave contains a replica of the Ark, behind a curtain only accessible by the priest. It is filled with skeletons and I even touched one. Then my guide told me: Jerusalem had fallen and pilgrims trekked through the Sahara to this church and here they stayed until the day they died. It is this kind of experience that makes touring so great and my response to those who wonder why I journey to foreign countries when I haven’t even seen all my own country has to offer.
We returned to the town of Lalibela where another 14 churches, more than 1 000 years old, can be found. These churches were cut from rock and not built, truly a sight to see. Not only has the artwork carefully been preserved, but the churches themselves are still in use. I ended staying in Lalibela for three days, instead of two, fortunately I was ahead of schedule. The last night Mesfin took me to a local restaurant as a farewell gift. While listening to a woman sing and a man playing an Ethiopian guitar, I was pulled toward the stage by the woman and had no choice but to dance along, however badly. Before the meal a waitress brings a vat of water and watering can to wash your hands and again after the meal. It was here that a Rastafarian painted me a number plate and though I could see the number on the plate, it wasn’t the best of work and worth paying the artist much.
Just one more night and I would move on to the next country, Sudan. My bike was running very low on fuel, but couldn’t fill up in Weldiya without a permit (diesel is not a problem, because they get all their fuel from Susan and diesel is not in short supply). I wonder to this day about this permit story. The man at the filling station was no help at all, but another was friendly enough to take me by motorbike taxi to get a permit. Upon arrival we learned that all of the officials were attending a meeting in this big building and the soonest they could issue a permit would be the next day. We returned to the filling station, where it was explained to the manager about the problem with the permit and requested to sell me some fuel, but he still refused. An argument ensued and fists began to fly. I jumped in to separate the two and very nicely pled with the manager, who then reluctantly conceded. Though it was only 10 litres, I shook his hand in thanks and also thanked my friendly helper with a hug and shoved a token of appreciation into his hand. I spent my final night in Ethiopia in the small town of Shehedi close to the border. The owners of the resort welcomed me warmly especially since 11 September is not a date that Americans would like to remember, but in Ethiopia it’s an old year and a few years behind the calendar year, hence the outdated calendars at the border post. A woman served us tea and I had a lovely time meeting the locals. Ethiopia is the most beautiful of all the countries I toured in Africa.
Down I went to Sudan in a blinding rainstorm, slowing my pace to a crawl, and could hardly wait for the hot and dry desert. I would have to wash the mud and stench from everything I own, the four days I was to stay in Khartoum. The border came into sight just before 12h00 and I smoothly crossed into Sudan, after exchanging my Ethiopian currency into the Sudanese equivalent.