Right, so although I only promised to try getting to the internet in Addis, we have been fortunate enough to find ourselves in the delightful ‘city’ (more like a town) of Gondar, in Ethiopia, where we have chosen to spend an extra day just to give ourselves something of a break, and also to enjoy the local sites which include a few fantastic castles. More on these in a minute. First, I have to sing the praises of this beautiful country. We left Khartoum on Tuesday morning at 7:20, in what already felt like baking heat. I gather it had been 42C the day before, when we were sweltering in the confines of Khartoum’s ‘alien registration office’. This heat, and the heavy trucks that make their way from Port Sudan to Khartoum, is what I guess is responsible for the rather mangled roads – they look all melty and weird, and make overtaking something of a hazard, as you not only have to check for vehicles coming the other way, but also to see if the road is flat enough to avoid being knocked off by lumpy tarmac!
This last word is something I’m afraid, even as a conscientious environmentalist, I have come to love. Indeed I was composing an ode to tarmac as we left Dongola a few days ago, only to find to my dismay that it fizzled out, leaving us with sandy tracks – my heart fell, ‘cos I thought this would be what we’d ride on all the way to Khartoum. Thankfully, we’d just missed the main road, and soon rejoined it. The locals describe it as asphalt, and boy is it good after 3 days off-road riding!
Anyway, I digress. The landscape south of Khartoum is a bit nondescript really. We started to see cattle, which hadn’t really been along the roads before. Occasionally the Nile would reappear around a bend, only to disappear into the distant horizon again. And then, as we turned off the main ‘highway’ to Port Sudan, at a town called Gedaref, it all changed. Suddenly we were in a land of greens, yellows and blues – not the orange and blue to which we’d become accustomed. And there were clouds! Little fluffy white ones, and stripy cirrus ones too! Amazing. The stark contrast was really tangible, and as we headed for the border, we couldn’t have known just how striking it would continue to be the next day.
We hadn’t planned to cross the border that evening, and indeed at one point we pulled over hoping to bush camp for the night, but as everywhere was either fields of crops or near to villages, we were a bit dubious. We were also craving another of our many, many pepsi stops! So we pressed on, assuming that we could find somewhere to sleep at the border town of Gallabat. No such luck. Not that it mattered! The border was still open, even at 5:30pm. So, with some help from a fixer whose assistance we didn’t need or want, we got through the Sudanese customs, crossed a bridge (no barriers, sign posts or anything), and arrived in Ethiopia! It was the least difficult border crossing I’ve ever experienced. The customs official sat outside on his plastic chair, waved various papers about at his minions, who ran about sorting them out, while we drank cold pepsi and made small talk with him about our bikes. It couldn’t have been further from our experiences elsewhere in Sudan, and set a nice tone for our departure.
Luckily there was a hotel on this side of the border, as by now it was pitch black. Hotel, as always, is a generous description. But we were able to securely store the bikes in a courtyard around the back, just outside our room, which meant we slept better. The next morning we rose early, nervous that the road now continued as gravel, not tarmac. But we needn’t have worried. It was dusty, and gravelly, but not nearly as bad as the road south of Wadi Halfa. It was also incredibly scenic. Wide vistas of mountainscape opened up before us as we rode, winding our way up and down some very steep bits, with a fair number of hair-raising hairpin bends. The road was lined by wispy pink grasses, and we passed several fields of yellow flowers, bright in the morning sunshine. I can’t tell you just how much this lifted my spirits. We made very good time, and got in to Gondar around 2:30, which is early for us. This was in itself a good thing, as it gave us time to find a place that would allow us to camp in their compound for 50 Birr. We even got to put the tent up in daylight with plenty of time to spare! A few minutes later a huge, sandy-coloured overland truck arrived, and also negotiated a stay at the motel-like place we were at. This was fun, because the Dutch and Belgian couple it contained were full of information about where they’d come from – having driven north from Jo’burg. So we swapped stories over a good meal of injera (the local pancake-like staple) and spicy meat. They had a tale of woe, though. They’d had the unfortunate experience of having a child run out in front of them as they drove at about 60kph. Not surprisingly, the child died. This is really dreadful, and they were clearly shaken by the experience, especially since it meant spending a few nights in jail while the police sorted things out with the embassy. They’ve now paid compensation to the family, and because the court determined it was an accident they are free to go. But it’s a horrible thing to happen, and we’re both very wary of that kind of thing happening to us.
On a much lighter note, we have spent today doing touristy things, like visiting the Royal Enclosure in Gondar. This is a large area in the centre of town where the many castles built by a series of kings about 400 years ago are located. They are really quite enthralling. And we both wondered if Tolkien not only borrowed the name of the place but possibly even drew inspiration from these castles for his trilogy. It’s just weird seeing what is often associated with Europe sitting in the middle of Africa! And not only that, but it smells and sounds African. There’s incense being burned everywhere you go, which mingles with the smell of roasting coffee beans. And the local churches, of which there are 44 in total, are constantly playing very loud, jubilant music. So, all in all, it’s an assault on the senses – but a very nice one!
Last night we also enjoyed a bit of local African music and dance at one of the local pubs. I do believe we were somewhat fleeced, as tourists, but it was fun. The sign above the door promised ‘mincing minstrels and traditional music’, and so there were! And boy, were they mincing! They made us get up and dance too, but none of us whiteys have the flexibility or rhythm to do what these lovely African ladies can do with their bodies.