The road to, and from, Lalibela

As I type this now, sitting in the comfort of a fake leather chair in an internet cafe in Addis Ababa, it seems a world away from the ups and downs of this past week, which saw us travel to Lalibela to visit the famous rock hewn churches, and then leave again via an unmade road which was nearly our undoing.

Let me start at the beginning …

Leaving Gondar, the road wound its way through some of the most fantastic mountain scenery I have every encountered. As I rode, I decided to start the next blog I wrote with ‘I know where Enid Blyton’s faraway tree is!’ because I was enthralled by the number of huge, gnarly trees standing along the side of the road looking exactly as my childhood imagination had conjured this fantastic escape from reality. That’s really how it felt, like an unreal dream, and a very pleasant one at that. This sensation, however, came to an abrupt end as we reached the junction for the road to Lalibela. Marked in the same way on our Michelin map, we had, however, been warned that this road was difficult. At first, my thoughts ran along the lines of ‘OK, difficult, but not as bad as the Wadi Halfa road’, but very quickly I was questioning this assessment. For several reasons. The main one was the construction of the road, which was basically a wide cobbled pathway made from very sharp rocks embedded in the soil – no nicely rounded stones in sight, just jagged edges which made my bones rattle and caused the bike to lose more than one bolt and screw. Indeed, my rear mud-guard lost several of these, and shortly after stopping to fix this it gave up the ghost all together, snapping right off. The reconstruction works which the Chinese are kindly helping Ethiopia with were another negative aspect of this journey. The detours were something to behold, as was the bad traffic management. At one point, we were both facing head-to-head with a large lorry load of mud. We squeezed to the side, and it’s a lucky thing that my left mirror broke off in Libya, and wasn’t replaced, as I do believe my heart might have failed if I’d seen how close the lorry came to my left pannier. And last, but certainly not least, there was the incident which, when I first arrived, I was expecting; but not having encountered any stone-wielding youngsters since we arrived, I was now definitely NOT expecting it – I was stung between the shoulder blades by a stone thrown by one of the many kids that line these rural roads. Initially a dull pain, the blow very quickly sharpened and I slowly became aware of what had happened. Stopping the bike to look around and see ‘who dunnit’, I saw 3 kids who I’d just passed, and – irony of ironies – waved to, running like the clappers across the grassland. Well, fury gripped my very being and I let rip a tirade of choice words which, I am ashamed to say, would have properly educated any English-speaking locals, had there been any. I was not a happy camper, and I let them know it in no uncertain terms, threatening death upon capture should I ever lay my hands on them. I doubt they understood the content of my words, but the import was – I believe – pretty clear. Restarting the bike, I then realised that the offending item had become lodged behind my back and, having retrieved it, I have kept it as a sardonic reminder of the incident.

There were other incidents too, along the way, which included what might be described in understatement as something of a tiff between me and Glyn. Again, I’m sure the locals were probably surprised by how white people can behave; although this didn’t stop them asking me for money or clothes as I switched on my engine again in a bid to catch up with my fast disappearing travelling companion! To be sure, the condition of the road was one reason for our erratic behaviour. Combined with stress and the time it was taking to get anywhere, I think we were both well worn out at this point. So it is a lucky thing that we met Sam, a fellow biker who was coming in the opposite direction to us and was also on his way to Lalibela. It was from him that we learned that we’d just missed the turnoff – one we weren’t expecting, as it wasn’t on our maps, but which we later discovered is a The untarmac piece of road out of Lalibela!newer, far better road to the famous village.

And so it was that we finally arrived and found ourselves a room at the Seven Olives Hotel; exhausted and incredibly dirty but thankful to have made it, even if the last half hour was in the dark. Sam, who had been planning to stop on the way, joined us not long after, reporting that there had not been anywhere to sleep where he’d been hoping. This was definitely to our advantage, as he was wonderful company at dinner, and helped ease the tensions that had been growing all day. Having travelled the world for 2 years on his KTM motorbike, he was full of stories, and told them in such an entertaining way that we were in stitches all the way through our meal of traditional injera and local steak.

We spent the following day sorting out our bikes (checking for any other loose screws, monitoring fluid levels and tyre pressures etc.) in the morning and then visiting some of the famous churches in the afternoon. Sam joined us, and we had a fabulous time exploring the amazing The nice priest at Lalibelastructures. Some of them are being covered in scaffolding by a European Union funded project to protect them, presumably from the elements. This rather detracts from the experience; as does constantly being asked by kids along the way for either money or pens, or both. The one jewel in the crown, however, and I think the most famous of them all, was really worth all the pain and trauma to get there. Called St George’s church, it is a cross-shaped church which has literally been carved downwards into what was a huge lump of rock. Standing at the edge of the rock it was carved out of, it is virtually impossible to imagine how this feat of engineering has been achieved, but it has and it’s wonderful. Inside wasn’t quite as impressive, partly because the priest wasn’t around, and his stand-in was more interested in getting me to commit to emailing him a picture of himself. However, even had the priest been around, I doubt he would have added much – indeed, I was dismayed by an encounter with one in another church, where having taken his picture, we were then asked to donate money (to his wallet, I believe, not the church). We did so, but when he saw our note, which was smaller than Sam’s (who afterwards said he’d had nothing smaller, and was about to suggest that we share the ‘tip’), the priest picked up our money, gave it back to us, and demanded more! I was shocked and horrified; and in such a state one seldom resists. So we paid the same extortionate amount and left, somewhat bemused that a priest should be so determined to exploit visitors in this way, especially as the one in the previous church had been so polite and accommodating, without demanding anything.

We ended our tour with St George’s, as it was closing time, and returned to the hotel to be treated by the local circus group to an excellent display of acrobatics in honour of a white eighteen-year-old chap who had been teaching English locally and was now on his way home. The group evidently formed of its own accord, in an effort to get kids off the streets, and from the looks of things does an excellent job. It had definitely been an eventful day, and when our heads finally hit the pillows we were asleep within seconds.

We left the following day, shortly after dawn broke, knowing that we had a long day’s ride. And boy, it was. In fact, we didn’t make it to our destination. We’d made the decision to take an alternative route out of Lalibela, the one that was actually marked on our map, and to visit one of the more isolated churches along the way. In hindsight, we both lived to rue this decision. Shortly after taking the turn towards Dilbe, where our chosen route met up with the ‘main’ road, I fell and my bike landed on top of me because I’d not been standing up on the footpegs. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was an omen of things to come. The road was, however, beguiling – partly because it looked like a shortcut, and partly because of the appeal of an outlying church where we wouldn’t be hassled to death. Neither turned out to be a reality. It took us 4 hours to complete the 23 miles of boulder-strewn track that Michelin consider a road, but which felt more like riding up a dry river bed. I fell off countless times, resorting to Glyn riding some stretches (mostly only after I fell off) and, in one particularly gruesome fall, not far from the main road, I managed – in Glyn parlance – to demolish my right pannier. Reshape is a far nicer description, but suffice to say that it now needs some serious work done if it is to function as a rainproof, secure storage box for our travel items! To make matters worse, the church wasn’t actually even worth visiting. That may be a bit harsh, but we were hassled by everyone we encountered – the kids who showed us the way, the people who watched the bikes, a woman at the entrance who was really mad about something and made it known to all, the guard who wanted money for watching our boots (you have to take your shoes off before entering any church compound), and even the priest who, surprise surprise, wanted money. They just didn’t give us the chance to properly enjoy what we’d come to see. I was incredibly glad when we finally made it to the ‘main’ gravel road which I’d been cursing two days before, and I vowed never again to complain about roads which actually have been constructed with a view to allowing traffic to pass without hinder across their surfaces!

Funny signs

Along the way, we’ve seen some funny signs, not all of which we’ve managed to photograph. We’ve mentioned some already. Here’re a few more:

  • A tour company name: One way tours

  • Welcome to Luxor. Say no to drugs, unless they’re very good ones

  • Intensive Suit Therapy (never did establish what, exactly, this might involve, but put us both in mind of a peculiar psychotherapy involving repeated exposure to men in pinstripe suits!)

  • Asda PriceAnd my favourite so far, seen in a souk in Luxor: ‘Asda price!’

Seen in Khartoum, a lovely blue and white sign: ‘Police Guest House’ – we both laughed.

  • Bank names: Amen Bank, Awash International Bank

  • Tossa Tours and Car RentTossa Tours - classic! – ’nuff said!

The glories of Ethiopia – so far anyway

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. The “hotel” in Metema, border town of EthiopiaBut 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 wiOne of many castles in Gondarth 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.