EAST AFRICA 2018-2019 – FIVE

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DAY 37. THURSDAY JANUARY 17th 2019. AZEZO, ETHIOPIA

Every day has its own stories… Today’s concerns that damned front sprocket again – but it all turned out well, thanks, as always, to the people I meet. I always maintain that 99.99% of the people of this world are good, kind, generous and friendly by nature. They certainly seem to be, around me.

****

By the time I had gatecrashed one of the better hotels in Bahar Dar (shamefully easy to do with a white skin) to steal their fast internet this morning to upload this journal, back up there on the seventh floor terrace, it was eleven before I rode north. But I had quite a short day to ride, just 100 miles or so. The little bike was going well after the attention, although I detected a bad rattle. It worries me so much, my vehicle! Why do I do it, I wonder? I’m an inept mechanic, with little idea what rattles and whines mean. I reckon this one is as simple as the horn (which now works again) vibrating against the lower side of the petrol tank. I am reminded of Kristos, the Estonian, and his worrying rattle that turned out to be a loose bolt rolling about in his bash plate under the engine! 

Anyway, all was going well, despite a rather boring road for the first fifty miles. At last, a high, dry mountain range appeared in front of me; a long, lovely road I was to climb over the next hour or two. A high pinnacle of rock rose from the slopes like a finger, very distinctive, with bird lime over its top. I was to see it three times…

The road was good, the views fine, the sun warm, the landscape green again. I was getting back to an area where people waved at me. I was enjoying myself. Then suddenly the rear wheel locked and I skidded to a wobbly halt on a sunny bend. I knew just what had happened: that sprocket had shot off again.

The sprocket was lodged beneath the swinging arm – actually, later it took a four foot crowbar to dislodge it! I quickly found the offending bolt and washer in the road, but I didn’t have a 10mm socket to remove the plastic cover. What to do..? I flagged down a couple of cars, but to no avail: no sockets. “There’s a monastery 200 metres back. Maybe they can help,” suggested one driver. Well, I wasn’t going to get it fixed where I was so I might as well just push it back to people. A huge crowd of completely unhelpful, but enthusiastic children gathered around me, ironically hiding the bike from the view of any potential help. I flagged down a few more vehicles, but it wasn’t until I spotted a small truck, with a tuk-tuk in the back, that I felt some hope. Biniyam and Tlahu were returning from a PR tour of the north, back to Addis. They have been publicising the horrid ‘cockroaches’ – the three-wheel tuk-tuks that make driving such hell in Ethiopia. They spoke quite good English. I must admit, I DO have all the luck! It’s often been said that if I fell in a drain, I’d come up covered in diamonds…

They didn’t have a socket set, but they did have just enough room on the back of their truck to lean the Mosquito on their sample tuk-tuk back to Addis Zemen, six or seven kilometres back down the mountain. And there were plenty of young muscles to lift my not very heavy machine aboard. We passed the high finger of rock again.

In the small town, we looked for a mechanic, me riding in the cab with Biniyan, Tlahu and their driver. The repair took ten minutes – and was done by my kind new friends, not even the mechanic. “We need to find a way to lock the bolt,” I said. “In Europe we’d use Locktite on the thread…” 

“Well, in Africa we have to improvise!” exclaimed Biniyan. “We use paint!” It was even blue paint, about the colour of the Mosquito. We lifted the bike down: we’d done the repair at eye level on the truck. “Try it! We won’t leave until you try it!” 

They waited to wave me off, helping me to purchase the mechanic’s socket in case of further difficulties. They would accept no recompense – I tried to suggest a coffee or even lunch, not money. I even had to force the cash for the socket (which subsequently turned out to uselessly rounded-out Chinese crap!) onto Biniyam. “No! You are our special guest! When you come back to Addis let’s meet for a beer.”

People are SO good. It’s why I love to travel. The majority of humankind is generous and helpful when you are in trouble. I meet so many kind people…

****

Riding back up the mountain, third time past the big finger of rock, a few youngsters waved. They’d been in the crowd by the monastery. They seemed happy to see me riding by again. I probably made their day.

The last forty kilometres were lovely. By now the light had softened into late afternoon, when the shadows begin to define the landscape and the harshness goes out of the bright sun. I passed fields of millet, dodged endless donkeys and cows, and people waved. It’s funny how this goes in regions. The scenery was very fine, a few painted churches punctuating the dry mountains and the waving eucalyptus. Trees closed in and I was entering Azezo. 

I even found a petrol station with a supply as I entered this odd town. I’ve now got a full tank and a heavy 12 litres strapped to the left side of the bike. It’s such a bore, this petrol business. 

Azezo is a strange place. It seems that every road is being rebuilt. There’s dust and potholes everywhere, yet in the area I find myself tonight are cobbles like southern Europe. This weekend is one of the busiest festivals here in the north, centred around Gondar, 20 kilometres north. I’d have stopped there, not this two-bit town, but I have been warned that accommodation would be fully booked and at a premium for the Epiphany celebrations, in which it has, in recent years, become the fashion for mass baptisms in the castle moat at Gondar. Even here, 12 miles away, most hotels are full already. I tried a few places, all of them charging more than usual, before accepting a fifteen pound room in a smart place, with balcony, hot water and a well appointed room. This, after seeing a couple of dingy pits for the same price. But I’ve had to promise to leave in the morning! I guess I will ride to the mountains the other side of Gondar, and return there after the holiday is over on Monday and everyone goes home. Many will be flying in for the weekend and leaving on Sunday or Monday – I hope.

****

Another full day, concentrating on the road hazards, sitting in the high sun, watching Ethiopia pass by and trying to assess it all. My timing’s bad for this very busy weekend. This hotel is full and noise reverberates in these concrete buildings. Normally, I’d probably have it to myself. The Mosquito is in the car park of the next hotel, 12 litres of petrol still strapped to the side. A tip of 30 pence to the watchman assures me of its security! By now that blue paint must be just about dry. I will check that damned bolt before I leave this time…

DAY 38. FRIDAY JANUARY 18th 2019. GONDAR, ETHIOPIA

From the best accommodation of my present trip to utterly the shittiest for many trips, in a few kilometres. This reminds me of my early journeys – 45 years ago… My room is squalid, the sheets from last night – at least – probably a lot older – (out of interest, I marked them to see if they’d be changed – they weren’t!) Oh well, on my journey across the Middle East and Asia in 1977, it was night 81 before I happened by chance on a hotel on the day the sheets were changed!  It’ll probably do me good… I’ve been getting soft in my old age. 

Sadly, my vile, drain-smelling accommodation coincides with me feeling like shit warmed up, with a sudden heavy cold, slight fever, congestion and feeling a bit grim. Sometimes travelling can be challenging; but as I’ve written so often, it’s overcoming these challenges that are the best confidence boosters. Not that I’ve got a lot to prove on the travel front…

NOISE pounds and vibrates all around me. The smell of drains and drying urine is pungent. This is travelling at its grittiest. The bathroom will be used cursorily tonight, with its half bucket of water. Tomorrow I will move on, but for today, beggars couldn’t be choosers as Gondar is heaving with visitors for its annual Epiphany festivities. Yesterday 17 Boeings flew in from Addis alone. I am paying the same for this shitty room as I paid last night for that very pleasant one, with balcony and large bathroom that didn’t smell. But I had to promise I would leave this morning.

****

Despite my congestion and cold, perhaps exacerbated by the heavy dust last night, for my nasal tubes are something of an Achille’s heel, I enjoyed my day, once again thanks to the generous warmth of people I met.

On the recommendation of the young receptionist at last night’s hotel, I rode into Gondar, directed by a boy on the back of the Mosquito. I’m not sure that I wasn’t in Gondar last night. I thought I was in Azezo, 15 kilometres away, but I reckon I was perhaps in a suburb of Gondar, a city that was the capital of Ethiopia for two or three hundred years in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are a series of fine, hefty stone castles on the hill not far from this ‘grotel’ to prove its importance. At least my grim hotel is central. It’s also unpleasantly close to a ********* mosque, although at the moment there’s no way I could hear the muezzin above the riotous amplified music from all quarters. I will at five a.m though. Thankfully, I bought some capsules to help settle my cold, and the Paracetamol seems to be calming me down artificially. Just as well. There are at least four different sources of incredibly loud music around me. My room has, unusually, a window, painted over with very grubby paint, that opens onto the rugged street above a barber’s shop. I’m not sure if it’s better to have the window with all the extra noise – but the possibility of lessening the drain smell, or to have one of the internal rooms, that are gloomy – and probably also smell of drains anyway.

****

Well, the Piassa Nile Hotel wasn’t a place to linger, so I set out pretty quickly for the castle complex, just up the hill. The castles were quiet and peaceful, most in ruins but impressively large, especially on this continent that has so little physical evidence of history. Many local tourists wandered about and I wondered at the extreme vanity that the iPhone (it’s even included in the name…) and phone photos has brought about. I watched thousands of selfies being taken, thousands. And almost all of them will be terrible, taken into the sun, a situation in which black skin just becomes a silhouette; most taken vertically – you look, next time you see people taking photos with their phones and you’ll see that the world is now recorded vertically – whereas we humans see the world in landscape format. Very odd indeed. What is this need for self-conscious posed photos of yourself everywhere? There’s a PhD thesis in this. I take a selfie about once a month, unless encouraged in it by Africans I meet…

As I wandered in the hot sun up on the castle hill, all the churches began a terrible tuneless groan – the sort of dirge they’d get if they asked ME to intone their prayers. This was the start of the religious celebrations, for there are 44 churches in Gondar, and they would all parade the streets in the afternoon, in this event that will last until Sunday. I positioned myself, about 2.00, in the busy streets to watch. My wallet and passport spent the day down my underpants, safe from pickpockets, although I never felt any threat at any time today, despite the crowds. A few floats were pushed through the streets, but mainly this was a chance for hundreds to dress in church finery, beat drums, chant and sing as they processed down and around the hills. I fought my way through the heavy crowds, watching the enjoyment of the participants. They sang and chanted, swayed and clapped. Most were dressed in traditional white cotton, the embroidery intricate. Others wore crowns and robes in white cloth. Some priests carried flat boards on their heads, draped in heavy velour cloths and tassels, as if they had a draped table on their heads. Culture can be a strange thing. Large Ethiopian crosses were paraded. It was noisy and colourful – and entirely good natured.

After a time, I walked on ahead to watch it all again further down the hill. I spotted a beer bar raised above the street by ten feet and decided to watch, beer in hand. I looked for a chair at the front of the yard, atop the wall by the street. Four young men called me to join them. It’s funny, watching the white tourists today, for this event attracts them from afar. Very few engage with the friendly, utterly unthreatening locals. They see the sights but seldom meet the people (except their drivers and guides – who ARE NOT representative of the people). The tinted windows of their hermetically sealed vans separate them so entirely from the smiles and greetings, laughter and hand shaking. Sometimes I even have to let go of my throttle to shake hands as I ride through crowds on the road, plentiful at this festival season. Happily, I sat down with the fellows at their table. One, Yared, spoke simple English. They called for another beer, meanwhile sustaining me with some of theirs. They were so delighted by my company – and I by theirs. They insisted on buying my three half-litre draft beers and then ordered injera and beans. Ethiopians are so extremely welcoming and friendly, it’s a complete delight. Out came the phones for selfies with the old white bloke – and there was such warmth, with much hand shaking and fist bumping and the very Ethiopian greeting of shaking hands while bumping right shoulders together. I had a great hour with them. When a chair became available at the front they signalled that I could move there. “No, it’s better with friends!” I exclaimed, to their rapture. And it was. I realised I wasn’t that interested in the parade, now I could engage with some friendly strangers. I’d done the parade. My amusing spell with the young men cost me my Ghana Football Cup of Nations cap, which I’ve been using to keep the sunburn from the top of my head. Asmamaw liked it so much it seemed selfish not to tell him I’d find another hat.

I walked back to relax around the castle compound, chatting to Samson from DC for a while. He won a lottery visa ten years ago. “Before Trump…” Then I came back to my grimly dingy, unpleasant room, sneezing, spluttering, feverish and groaning. This would have been more acceptable in last night’s rather more glamorous lodgings. Hopefully, the capsules will work and clear my head soon. I doubt if even ear plugs will keep out the appalling NOISE that thunders from the street, the hotel yard, bars and joyful celebrants, this holiday weekend. I will find a better billet tomorrow.

Right, earplugs in and see if I can get some rest. I’ll continue in the morning. Too full of snuffles and grimness now, although the fever has gone with the Paracetamol. Enough for tonight.

****

Continuing next morning, in the now peaceful hotel yard – relatively peaceful, of course. Peace is always relative in Africa. The noise continued until 3am, with me getting some fitful sleep. Around three I fell into a fretful sleep for a while. The mosque shattered the – relative – peace at 5.30. The bed itched, but from the blanket, not bugs, for there was a foam mattress, thank goodness. I feel just slightly alive. I need to ride north to places quieter in the mountains.

If I could only communicate better as I can in Anglophone East Africa, this would be one of the finest countries in Africa in which to travel. I am surrounded by goodwill, and everyone politely greets, and most return a smile. It’s just that without language we are often at a loss to communicate at all, and I am something different and unknown. This country is rightly proud of its total independence but it does put it rather outside our modern global culture. 

Three small cups of buna have improved my lot a bit. Time to get on the road and get some fresh air in my lungs. Mountains ahead, before I turn south again in this vast country. Mountains always make me happy.

DAY 39. SATURDAY JANUARY 19th 2019. DEBARK, ETHIOPIA

This was a good ride today. Only 75 miles or so, with some very fine scenery, little traffic, a good road and just the relief of shaking off Gondar and its noise and the smelly hotel. Sneezing and hacking northwards it was good just to be in fresh air again – trying to breathe. By good fortune, I was out of Gondar in minutes. It seemed my shitty hotel was right by the main road to the farthest north of the country, the road I needed, although I don’t think I will go to the very far north. This is such a vast country that I think I will content myself with Debark as my most northerly point. I’ve come here to see the Simien Mountains, the Roof of Africa, as the tourist blurb says – exactly the same description as used by Lesotho! It IS high here though. Cool enough for me to stop on the road and pull on my jumper, despite the noonday sun beating on my head and shoulders.

****

It’s often difficult to know if I am on the correct road. I can’t read the script and there are no road signs anyway. I rely on the Bank of Ethiopia, who write the branch name in script I can read. It was slightly easier today as I knew I would be travelling uphill to the north. Towns of sufficient size to register on my map are far between and I’m sometimes a bit nervous that I am going the right way until confirmed by a recognisable town.

The scenery today was handsome, high hills with eucalyptus and vistas of dry grasses dotted with grazing cattle. The views were big, but not as big as that which suddenly opened before me, not unlike the shock of the Blue Nile valley the other day. There was revealed a stupendous view of crumpled, creased, shadowed mountains stretching into the furthest distance. It was a breathtaking moment: it’s no figure of speech, for the exclamation that one makes is extravagant, involving a literal out-pouring of breath in whatever word you prefer to express the surprise. The huge view presented itself two or three more times, before being disguised by the mountains on which I was riding. I suppose this was, yet again, the Great Rift Valley that fell away at my feet when I stopped and walked down a short path, surrounded by a group pf children. 

Photos never do justice to the effect of being there, gazing into these extraordinary depths in reality. I could see tens of miles, maybe a hundred. Rippled and confused, folded and crushed, deep clefts shadowed far below; bizarre rocky lumps, the evidence of old volcanic cores, rose barren amongst the wrinkles. The ground just fell away at my feet, a dramatic chasm, thousands of feet deep and a thousand miles wide, it seemed. 

Traffic light, road good, people waving everywhere, bright sunlight, fresh air. What a delight. The smile’s back on my face.

****

Riding into Derback, I spotted the Simien Mountain rangers’ station. I needed information about how I can see the park. Well, it turned out to be expensive! I am obliged to take a ‘scout’ with me, even on my Mosquito. There’s really no way I could contemplate 150 kilometres on my small bike with a scout and his gun on the back – and I’ve only a single seat anyway… I wouldn’t really see much, being so concentrated on the dirt roads. 

However, I have ridden all this way – and it’s a long way – and it’s doubtful I’ll ever be back. I have had to hire a ‘scout’, driver’ and 4X4 for a day trip. It was that or a pillion for the whole day. I hope it turns out to be worth £165! Oh well, I’ll set it against a few hours’ work in USA and enjoy it! How my travels have changed. But, honestly, it’s been SUCH a ride to get here. I arranged it all with Get, short for something much longer and more complicated, and he assures me there’ll be no further hidden extras. I’ll have the vehicle and men at my beck and call from 8.30 until about 5. I’ll just make the most of it.

****

Finding a hotel was messy this afternoon. I checked out a few places – the bike’s just great for this. This town attracts tourists for the nearby park. The two slightly smarter hotels in the extremely scruffy town asked for high payment in dollars (which I always avoid) and the rest were pretty poor. Most tourists fly in, stay in one of the park ‘lodges’ for hundreds of dollars, see the mountain views, avoid seeing Ethiopians, and fly out again, unaware of much reality and meeting no one but their guides. 

I chose one of the poor selection of third rate hotels, because the sun was shining into the room. I moved in, and then realised that the bathroom was filthy, none of the taps worked, the doorhandles were missing, windows didn’t open and all the electrics were absolutely lethal – including the shower socket plugged in just above the shower, wires bare exposed. That didn’t concern me so much, it’s always thus in Africa. But there was no excuse for not cleaning the bathroom. None. I insisted that someone come to clean it. No, it was easier to change rooms! The next room was perhaps worse. Why is it that no one does any simple maintenance? I know I always say that good travellers should leave their standards at home and judge by the standards of the locals. But these people wanted to charge me as much as much rougher rooms down south and I didn’t think it unreasonable, by any standards, to insist on someone cleaning the bathroom. It became completely obvious that it wasn’t going to happen, so I upped sticks and moved right back out again. I had one night’s squalid accommodation yesterday; it was enough. I returned to a hotel up the street where most of the taps seem to work and the room even has a door handle. There’s not much else to recommend it, but even that’s better! For £3 extra, I get working lukewarm water, taps, handles – and the usual stained old paintwork and dirty windows. What is it about management? How long would it take for a manger to tour his rooms each morning, check they have water, taps that work, sockets that aren’t lethal, curtains clean, lavatories that flush (Oh, luxury!) windows washed and so forth? Twenty minutes? Trouble is, once you hit ‘management’ here on this continent you become far too grand to actually DO anything!

****

Finally settled into a sunny room, even if it is a bit basic, I rode the Mosquito a few kilometres north. My map suggested that there would be a drop from these impressive highlands that are somewhere between 2135m and 2745m high, according to my map (7000-odd feet to 9000). Just a few miles north came another of those views. The road suddenly turned a corner – a gravel road by now, which continues right round the north of the country – and a huge view burst upon me again. I love the visual drama of these moments, the landscape just dropping away into those contorted vistas. I do hope my £165 turns up one or two, or I’ll think I could have just stayed on the road for nothing!

As I stood and gazed into the lengthening shadows to the north, I found that there was total silence except for a few birds calling somewhere below. The scent of dog roses wafted about me, heavy on the still, late afternoon air. For once, in Africa, there seemed to be no one but me around.

Smell is an important stimulus for we motor-bikers. It becomes very much part of the journey. We can smell the crops, the charcoal burning, the hot tarmac, petrol, fumes, food, animals – sometimes people. There’s one unpleasant pervasive smell in Ethiopia: bad breath! I don’t know if it is qat chewing, cleaning the teeth with sticks or just lack of oral hygiene, but it is very noticeable whenever I get close! Horrid and distressingly common.

****

As I lay on my bed having moved to the Giant Lobelia Hotel, feeling, it must be said, a bit sorry for my hacking, sneezing, wheezing self, I heard another parade passing, lots of loud music from amplifiers, horns, whistles and chanting. I wandered down and out to join in for a bit. Much as in Gondar, the entire town must have come out to process noisily down the main street. Ten year old Samuel, attached himself. Very charming and extremely bright, he is already speaking pretty good English, good enough to act translator when I found a wall to sit on amongst the locals. His ambition? To become a guide for the Simien National Park – or a doctor. I encouraged him in the doctoring. A smart young lad, he could do it. But he’s from a poverty stricken family, father dead, mother probably uneducated. It’s such a shame to witness these missed opportunities. Sadly, it’s 100:1 he’ll end up as a tourist guide.

Right, I’m being picked up by my own vehicle, driver and ‘scout’ complete with gun, at 8.30. I’ve had quite enough of the blaring TV in the hotel lobby where I am (are ALL Africans deaf, or do they just have a greater tolerance for noise than me? The latter, I think, after 30 years of travelling on this continent). The bar in the next room plays ghastly whining music with a heavy base beat and the dirge churches are at it again. Time to retire to the third floor. I always go as high as possible to get away from the blaring entertainments in bars and restaurants! 

Eight o’clock. Bedtime. I need rest. I feel grimly full of cold. And I can’t stand the noise any more!

LATER. Whatever made me think the taps would work? Of COURSE they don’t, they were just resting on the pipes. I really think Ethiopia has the worst cheap hotels in Africa. Why not just bloody FIX things when they break?

DAY 40. SUNDAY JANUARY 20th 2019. DEBARK, ETHIOPIA

This is one of those entries written a day later. On Sunday evening I was in bed at 7.30, feeling my age for once, feverish, coughing blood, no appetite, utterly grim. Being ill on the road is one of the biggest challenges I face; fortunately it’s a pretty uncommon occurrence. In a listless search for pharmacies, I found little help. The men running these untidy lock-ups, a multitude of boxes and potions thrown in disarray into old cabinets, are not pharmacists; they are just shopkeepers, meddling in drugs. All offered me antibiotics – this for a viral infection for which they are totally useless. There is no hope, immunity will flourish. Mine will the first – and last – generation to  benefit from the wonder drug that has made surgery so successful, prescribed here for everything from malaria to the common cold and indigestion. 

Some offered me what turned out to be antihistamines, others an array of drugs ‘follow dosage of your physician’. Huh. In one scruffy shop I found hydrogen peroxide. Well, that couldn’t do harm like most of the others. In a brief internet connection I looked it up. It turns out to be pretty much the wonder cure – natural – for sore throats. Through the night I gargled four or five times and today, Monday, I feel almost human again, albeit without a lot of energy. 

Interestingly, a young woman, perhaps German, spoke to me on the stairs of this down at heel hotel (what had their tour company done to them?) and said she has the same complaint and had spent the entire day in bed. Somehow, it always makes me feel better to know that someone else has got what I have! Sorry for her, but glad to know it’s just an infection going round.

****

Going upstairs here at 8000 or 9000 feet or so makes you puff a trifle more than usual. Walking up the slightest hill at 11,000 feet, with lungs half clogged with gloop, swollen tonsils, three hours’ sleep last night and no energy at all, felt like a quick killer. I survived, but only through sheer obstinacy. My day tour of the National Park was the most expensive tourist day I ever spent, and you know me, I wasn’t going to waste it! Stupid bugger.

I had a whole minibus to myself, with a somewhat morose driver, who looked as though he’d rather be doing something else, and a ‘scout’, whose purpose I never really did discover, except that it makes employment for locals. I doubted his dirty old gun actually did anything and all he seemed to do was sit in the back of the van and doze. So the company wasn’t very interesting. Just as well the views of the mountains made up for it, although the free ones of the past couple of days were really just about as good; maybe not quite so dramatically framed by cliffs and walls of rock.

The Simien Mountains are one of the main scenic beauties of Ethiopia. They rise to something over 4000 metres and at Chennek, where we stopped, we were at 3620m, about 11,750 – not surprising I was puffing then, although without the cold I’d have probably coped fine as I have been acclimatised to high altitudes for three weeks. 

It’s not so much the mountains that are so beautiful, it’s the views across the vast abyss to their north that we all come to see. From the escarpment, and the road meets its edge a few times on its rocky, battering way, (my driver stopping at all the predestined views saying, “photo…” in his bored manner) the ground drops away into sun-parched, convoluted, weathered lands as far as the eye can see. It’s pretty powerful scenic drama, although I am becoming a bit blasé about it by now, three weeks into Ethiopia’s striking views of rumpled volcanic remains at huge scale. 

The scenery reminded me often of Lesotho; the high clear air, the rolling rural landscapes, the curling dirt road, the sense of space, freedom and altitude. The dramatic escarpment was very much like South Africa’s Drakensburg Mountains – which hold up Lesotho. But they are green at this time of year, while here everything is parched and dusty, yellow stubble and turned soil for the next sowing. At some time of year these high areas must be covered barley – some of it destined, I imagine, for the Dashen brewery in Gondar. It must be very beautiful up here after the rains. I sat for half an hour on a concrete bench on a precipitous rock promontory, my ‘scout’ silent behind me – was he guarding me? protecting me from bandits? being a witness in case I fell off the cliff? I couldn’t work it out, so I gazed at the stupendous view instead. This landscape has been forming for millions of years, since long before Lucy lived in the deserts to the east of here; it’s still forming now, a few grains of dust blown on the wind, a few grains washed downstream, a rock fall here and there. Relentless, unimaginable time, a bit frightening. All our concerns are tied up in those three score and ten (alarmingly close!). What’s half an hour of gazing in these terms? Nothing. Wrapped in total silence, just a few flies buzzing past; a dog barking on the edge of audibility, miles away; the whoosh of large raptors skimming past on the up-currents; I felt that wonderful calm of very high places. 

Being careful to stand up away from the edge, for the seat was within three feet of a staggering drop, about a thousand feet to the first bounce, and then a lot more, and a momentary black out from the altitude would be the last, I staggered back up the very small hill to the track and a buna at the nearby, strategically placed community cafe. The lack of safety rails was refreshing: I was obviously considered sensible enough to be responsible for myself. 

This, Chennek, was obviously as far as my regulated tour was going. I missed my independence and self will. It doesn’t suit me to go on even the least ‘guided’ tour. I want to do it myself. In the car I felt trapped and detached, even from the scenery, let alone the people we passed, for this national park is well inhabited and agricultural. It’s even on public roads for buses, but the authorities have it well sewn up that tourists, Ethiopian (who, as is the questionable way in much of Africa, pay about 10% of foreign rates) and foreigners, have to pay their extortionate entry fees. I’d have had a different experience and been ecstatic by the end of a day riding myself. But I knew quite soon that I’d not have been able to cope with a pillion passenger – a useless one at that, with a ridiculous gun – on that terrain. Especially in my condition. Fighting my bike on that loose rocky track at 12,000 feet would have spelled disaster. 75 miles of that and my strength gone, we’d have been off frequently. And I am always aware that even a twisted ankle would have huge implications on my journey. Imagine being stuck in that dingy hotel with its stained gloss yellow and pink walls, the curtains knotted since they don’t pull on the rail, the sockets hanging out, the (almost cold) shower with no head that splashed the entire bathroom, the (rather good thick cotton) sheets to small for the bed so they rumpled into a rope, the pillows like cement blocks, the relentlessly dull diet of lamb tibs (small bits of tough mutton, with a mere smell of onion as the only vegetable) and injera – no, I remain aware that a small injury would go beyond just the physical discomfort…

By the way, injera. The flat, usually cold thin pancake is made from teff flour, a seed almost unique to Ethiopia and this corner of Africa. It’s a nutritious grass seed and has for years been banned for export by the government, to preserve stocks of the vital foodstuff. It’s what most rural people live on and grow on their small fields, 85% of the country being employed in small scale, mainly subsistence farming. Land is owned by the state and rented; it can’t be bought or mortgaged – mind you, I’ve little doubt that this is highly open to corruption. So rural peasants have no space for land to lie fallow and recoup strength, so the soils are badly depleted, relying on the increasing use of chemicals by those who can afford it. Cattle dung is dried – in rather fine, shapely stooks in yards, with the haystacks around the stick and mud houses, and burned as fuel, thus not ploughed back in as fertiliser.

Teff, totally immorally, has been granted a ‘patent’ to some greedy corporation in Holland; about as morally defensible as the ‘Scramble for Africa’, in which white men divided up the spoils of this continent with ruler and pen and no reference to the actual land owners, cultures or tribes, an act of supreme arrogance still causing problems 150 years later. 

****

The dashboard clock read 7.30 when we turned back. As well as a different calendar, Ethiopia works on a different clock. It uses two 12 hours time periods, starting at six in the morning, nominally dawn, I suppose. So 7.30 is 1.30pm international time and midnight is 6.00. All very confusing, but, happily, the way I met Alice in Addis, for she had just arrived from Egypt and asked me the time. I thought today, that despite all the friendly people I have met these past three weeks, I haven’t had a single in depth conversation since I was with Alice. It DOES make travelling much more lonely and difficult – no one to compare notes, rationalise problems – just converse, which is, after all, our human condition. This hasn’t been such a lonely problem in most other African countries since so many speak English as second only to their local, tribal language, and I often have much more in depth conversation than, “you – from?” and “where go?”

Heart pumping noisily; it’s a long way down to my feet and back up at this altitude, we made one more obviously regulated stop to walk and look at, “waterfall…” – with a point. My totally non-speaking ‘scout’ led be down another path that I could easily follow for myself, offering no help or encouragement to the wheezing, coughing, suffering white man, to look at the non-waterfall. This is the dry season… There was a very large cleft in the ground and a group of very noisy Ethiopian tourists taking selfies. By now, I realised, I just wanted to go to bed. Even sitting and looking, on the two hour drive back was as much as I could handle. I haven’t felt like that in ages – even the Polish tooth surgery was easier! I was almost beyond thought. I even regretted that my room was on the second floor. 

Beyond a search for medicine and half a bowl of soup, my day was done. I staggered to bed at 7.30, groaning with despair and coughing blood. It had been the most arduous day of my journey – and all I’d had to do was sit and look. 

DAY 41. MONDAY JANUARY 21st 2019. AZEZO/ GONDAR, ETHIOPIA

It appears Azezo was Gondar all along. On my map they are ten miles apart, but it seems I’m in a suburb of this rather sprawling, growing city. It explains why I had difficulty finding accommodation the other evening. I managed to find my way back to the Embassy Hotel, the best place I stayed on this trip. I couldn’t hack the stained yellow paint of the Giant Lobelia Hotel in Debark for another night, and this was a quiet, short ride through pleasant high scenery, even for a mind not entirely itself from the amount of Paracetamol imbibed with those flu remedies! I just fancied a long afternoon in a clean room. I must be ill. 

Debark is a deeply scruffy, litter-filled town, peeling and falling apart through inattention as much as money, really very unattractive, even to the hail and hearty. It’s filled with pestering children whose international greeting is “money…?”. It’s been occasional but not common in other parts of the country. Around here, in Debark, it’s universal – and is irritating – probably because I am disappointed and take it personally, as showing that I am seen as no more than a person who might, just might, give them money, while I want to be an object of interest as I usually am in so much of Africa. 

****

Ethiopia has the most beautiful women I’ve seen in Africa, often with large amounts of flowing raven black hair. Many wear traditional white cotton dresses with embroidery and large silver jewellery, Ethiopian crosses particularly. Ethiopians are very distinct racially, longer, thinner faces, more Arabic or European lip and nose shapes and frequently a lovely, fairer skin colour. All have dark eyes, which with this paler brown skin and the rampant hair can look terrific. Of course, almost all in this country are sparely built; some, indeed, are tiny in stature. I feel a giant here – and graceless. It seems the buna stall holders are often beauties, maybe it attracts the customers. It certainly attracts me, to sit and drink my coffee looking at lovey features. One of the most enjoyable parts of these extremely long rides is to stop for a small bowl – or two – of buna. It’s the nearest I can get to mixing with the people. At today’s stop were two real beauty queens. The coffee wasn’t bad either. 

Still not as good as that first one, which will perhaps remain special, at Agere Maryam, on my first Ethiopian morning. 

****

I’ve returned, still hacking noisily, to the Embassy Hotel, which has functioning bathrooms and tidy rooms merely because it’s only a year old. I feel half way to health now, just listless. I arrived at 2.30, parked my bike in the hotel car park next door (same owner but looking very down at heel – he obviously just built a new one up the hill to avoid the cost of maintenance) and came to my room, where I have remained for some hours watching opera on my iPad. I might even consider another night.

****

Some statistics put Ethiopia into a different perspective. It’s amongst the fastest growing countries in the world, and is already 12th in population size. There are currently estimated to be over 109 million Ethiopians of whom a staggering 64% are aged under 25. The median age of this country is a mere 17.9 years old. Wow! That is a statistic to stop me in my tracks. I knew from the evidence of my own eyes that I see mainly young people, but two thirds of the population under 25… Needless to say then, it’s a country with very high poverty. Daily life is a struggle for most and 35% of households don’t even consume the WHO’s minimum level of nutrition. 

There’s a net increase in the population of one more person EVERY TWELVE SECONDS! 9078 births per day, but only 1936 deaths. The average woman gives birth 4.6 times (much less, actually, than Uganda’s 7.8) and a disproportionate number die in the process, attended only by traditional midwives and about 80% having been genitally mutilated. 

Way less than 3% make it to my age, life expectancy being about 61. In my lifetime, Ethiopia’s population has increased by six times, despite terrible famines, extreme poverty and huge hardships. The population’s doubled in the past twenty years. And this is going on and on. Where does the breaking point come? Or perhaps it has already but we don’t open our eyes to it. My travels in Africa, as you’ve read here in this year’s journal and before, gives me no hope for the long term existence of humankind on this straining planet. How can we go on exponentially increasing thus? The land, in this drought-ridden country, is depleted; resources strained; health provision appalling – one doctor for every 40,000 people, and they’ll mostly be in the cities; food supplies failing; education rates poor, literacy – the most basic literacy – at 49%. And one more mouth to feed, mind to educate every twelve seconds. 

Well, I’ve written it all before, so I’ll leave my depressing conclusions there. I suppose it puts into perspective the irritating, pestering children of Debark and surrounding area, seeing us, rich tourists, and for whom the greeting has become, “Money…?”

****

I WILL stay here for another day and recoup some strength and enthusiasm for my journey. The past few days have been hard going but I feel a change coming. A couple of night’s decent sleep and a few hours doing not a lot will build me up again for the next long rides, eastwards across the middle of the country now, until I turn south again back to Addis and the long ride back to Kenya. 

DAY 42. TUESDAY JANUARY 22nd 2019. AZEZO/ GONDAR, ETHIOPIA

Just the day of rest required. I feel 90% recovered, just a residual weariness and splutter. I had a long, quiet sleep in this pleasant hotel, and awoke to the gentle knocking of a hammer on stone, as I did last Saturday morning. I knew instantly what it was, and it reminded me that life can always be worse! On the corner of the dirty, litter filled dust alley below the back of the hotel, sits a man beside a huge heap of rocks: a lorry load. He sits and breaks those rocks into small stones for building purposes. He does it every day – well, I doubt he’s doing it for my attention, so I assume he does it day in day out – bang, bang, bang until the next lorry load is delivered…

The sun was on the sliding patio doors and I felt ready for another day in Ethiopia, whatever it may bring, and I decided one thing it would bring was a bike-less day. It’s important now and again to go on foot and not always be passing by. After a leisurely breakfast I set out on foot. 

They seem to be building half the roads in this rather sprawling city, which generally means they pile the earth on the pavements – if there were any to start with, so you end up walking on the edge of the broken tarmac, fighting with minibuses and tuk-tuks, or grovelling through dust, rubble and debris with all the other pedestrians, dodging loads on backs, bales of firewood, flocks of sheep, knackered old flea-bitten horses pulling carts and the odd cow that wanders across the city carriageways. It’s hazardous and you can’t hurry. Outside the large university gates I stopped at a cafe for my first buna, watching the customers and passers by as the pretty buna lady prepared her brew, an intricate operation involving fanning her brazier to just the right temperature to boil and boil the thick brew in her clay coffee pot, lifting out the wooden stopper now and again to test progress. I have no idea how it all works, but I love the reverence and symbolism it all seems to take on. 

A man at another table ordered ginger tea – I’d like to order it for my nasal tubes but I don’t know what it’s called. It’s strange that my universal sign language mixed with facial gestures and pointing, has almost no effect in Ethiopia. Even that is beyond most people’s comprehension. They really ARE an independent nation, and quite far off on terms of a world culture. Good for them, not yet culturally colonised by Hollywood and CNN, but it does make travelling here more difficult. Anyway, the fellow ordered ginger tea. When it came, in a small glass cup, he piled in four heaped teaspoons of sugar. He stirred and tasted it, then, to my fascinated horror, added three more heaped spoons of sugar! Buna is taken thus as well, except by me, who always stops the server at one level spoon, which I admit does add to the richness of the coffee, although I’d never add sugar to anything else as a rule. 

Fresh juices are one of the delicacies here. A sundae glass of mango, avocado, pawpaw – even in season strawberry, pineapple and others; always served with half a lime (the best food smell I know), the sadly inevitable plastic straw, and a long spoon, costs 70 pence. It’s my way of keeping up a vitamin intake as I haven’t seen a green vegetable for about four weeks.

****

On my way back this evening – I treated myself to the ‘luxury’ of a tuk-tuk – I was astonished how far I had walked, just observing street life. On my wandering I found a fine church built within a centuries old fortification. The central round church was younger and closed. Bunting in the national colours, green, yellow and red, flapped around the yard from the weekend’s celebrations, and later I found the extensive old complex at Facilidese, containing the large pool that was the centre of Gondar’s activity. Somewhat litter-strewn, as normal, with plastic bottles, to which most people appear completely blind, floating in the uninviting grey-green water. 

The scourge of the blue plastic bottle is terrible in Ethiopia. It’s said that access to clean water is poor in the country, but it is perfectly fine in most of the cities – where most of the population lives. These people, on the borders of poverty, are easy game for multinationals, and everyone carries bottled water and tosses the empty (non degradable) bottle into the nearest bit of environment. Trillions of discarded bottles line the highways. The other day I watched a young girl finish her bottle and toss it casually over the stair wall of the castle onto the dry grass below. This old grump made her pick it up and deposit it in the bin, twenty feet away! But I doubt the lesson will last. The irony is that I carry perfectly fine water from the hotel taps just about everywhere I go – and will probably keep my immunity longer than those around me who have such limited access to medical help. Bottled water, the cleverest con trick of the century.

****

Young men’s current fashions – and remember, that’s a third of the population – are for trousers with saggy bums, worn on the hips, baggy thighs and tapering to tight ankles. Over this they wear shirts, tails out and their hair is frequently shaved round the sides leaving a raised area on top, their curly short ‘rasta’ twists adding a couple of inches to their generally very small, slight stature. Fortunately, the girls – another third of the country – outshine them in long, high waisted dresses, with embroidery, or simple stitched decorations, falling just above the ankle, with various diaphanous veils and shawls flowing with them. Many of them have huge amounts of lustrously black hair, often naturally straight, commonly worn up, or plaited into intricate designs. Their taste in jewellery is fine, large silver Ethiopian crosses, metal necklaces and nothing tawdry. Elegant, shapely women. I’ve seen no fat people in Ethiopia. 

****

A quiet day, revelling in the comfort of a clean, well appointed £15 hotel. I’m not even sure I want to rush on, although chatting after breakfast with Mangeshu, a thickset fellow with a big black beard, and a big, deep laugh, who was a deacon in the Orthodox church for ten years but now works with Save the Children, he tells me I will love Lalibella, my next Ethiopian ‘destination’, a couple of days’ riding away. I’ll see how my energy is in the morning. I have about 17 or 18 days left on my visa, although it makes no sense in these countries to leave it until the last minute. In mere riding terms I am about 9 or 10 days from the border in this huge country. 

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