Return to Abbysinia

Bulletin: We have finally decided upon a name for our Land Rover. Tess, short for Temeraire. Named after the Turner painting of the old warship being dragged in for scrap at the end of its days, temeraire (where we get the word temerarious) is French for foolhardy bravery. We felt all these things summed the expedition up.

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Like each city before us, the map of Khartoum gradually gained meaning. We painted the birds-eye roads and rivers with minds-eye pictures, adding personal landmarks. The GPS stayed locked in our central console now, as we instinctively navigated to the best coffee in the leafy diplomatic quarter or to the reliable mechanic in the ramshackle industrial district (dust being the operative syllable).

Moving on left a nagging question as to the futility of all this knowledge, should I never return to this particularly welcoming of cities. We had a grounding not only in the geography but in the language, the mannerisms and customs; all essential for turning survival into enjoyment. We had friends here. Was all this now to be reduced down to a few choice anecdotes or an occasional feeling evoked by a mood or smell? This is a question that has, for a long time, harassed me. We accumulate so much experience that we will probably never have the chance to use. However, in an uncertain future, you can never appraise the key piece of information you will need. Also, it’s amazing what comes in unexpectedly useful. So for the meantime I will continue to assimilate everything memorable enough to remember. And – as if to affirm this decision – here I was, returning to Ethiopia after two years, equipped with little useful knowledge remaining, but with a constant sense of Déjà-vu.

At Khartoum, The Blue and White Nile meet (although the two great waters travel onward for several miles in the same bed, coyly eyeing each-other up before finally merging). The team had decided that for continuing upstream, the smart money was on Blue. The source of our chosen river lay far away (and up) in the mountainous enigma that is Ethiopia. Incidentally, the team was now down to the original three. Our Swiss support car had driven on ahead, Bob had cycled off into the desert with 500ml of water and a bag of dried pasta and our French hostesses had chosen continued employment over the romantic life of an African Overlander.

Light and efficient, the expedition struck South-East. Each day’s drive saw the Sahara gradually change into scrubland, then savannah. The land filled up with huts, tracks and people.

The grassy bush was far overhead as we steered off for our final camp in the remote borderland. The dense vegetation was thick with nature and the suggestion of human activity. We hid in a dry river bed. As the sun set, I snuck off alone, using the riverbed as a path through the imposing grass and vicious thorns. I left the safety of the riverbed to photograph a pair of Hornbills, buoyant in the cooling air. Keeping a vague eye on the route I climbed up a hill to watch the sun-set.

As I sat under a flat-topped tree, the hills reddened with the scything clouds. A flash of improbable cyan caught my eye. An Abyssinian roller glided between trees. I followed it in the tunnel vision of my binoculars, followed it across a smudge of dark trees and past the wide-eyed shock of a human face. I was being watched with a transfixed but unsure grin. Nearby, there were other dark figures in the gathering shadows. No stranger to trespassing in the English countryside, the sensible, mature thing to do at this point would have been to casually wave, acknowledging discovery and then begin an exaggerated act of looking for a footpath or disobedient spaniel. However in my short spell of African solitude, I had lost perspective. I legged it over the brow of the hill. Diving into a beastly thorn-thicket, I hid, scanning the horizon. I was not obviously followed.

Back at camp, Dan and Rich were sitting on the roof serenely sipping coffee, trying to ignore the frequent kamikaze cricket face-strikes. I rolled out of the bush, wide eyed and grazed, much to their mirth. If we were watched that night, we were blissfully unaware. I like to think that back in a village in a forgotten corner of Sudan, a similar story is being told about our brief encounter.

Stamping the chassis  (Photo: RWH)

Stamping the chassis (Photo: RWH)

The following morning, still hidden below ground level, Rich became acquainted with the dark and delicate art of chassis stamping. Not having a chassis number in Africa is not an option as our time in Egyptian captivity had demonstrated. Nobody in Khartoum was prepared to stamp us without a letter from the police, who would certainly confiscate our contraband car, so we were forced to take matters into our own hands.

Many African borders are arbitrary, difficult to define lines, representing a gradual merging of cultures or a post-colonial carve-up, dividing kinsfolk. This is not the case for Sudan-Ethiopia. The tapering straight road was covered with people, carts and livestock. In the distance the border stood like the finish-line to a chaotic race. Beyond it rose the highlands. As usual, crossing it involved a convoluted precession of customs checks, stamps and above all, waiting. Our new chassis number was inspected, passed without a second glance and we were through to Ethiopia.

In an instant, we had traded semi-desert for fiercely undulating stacks of fertile earth, the long straight asphalt for a road that climbed and wound for hours before shearing away, and a sparse and easy Islam for a teeming and ancient Christianity. The last time I had visited the country, studying in a remote hospital, it had been in rainy season when all the mountains were butcher’s-grass-green and heavy with clouds. Now the fields that covered all the available flat ground were bare and flaxen, the mountains were naked and striped in blood reds, volcanic blacks and sandy yellows.

The switchback turns slithered under escarpments and over passes. Villages were frequent, wooden houses and thatched huts that lined a road used more as a common space for people and livestock than a conduit for vehicles. Rural Ethiopians (95% of the 90,000,000 population) have little to no concept of road safety or even how traffic functions. We braced ourselves for each village, donkeys, cattle and goats lurched across the road, docile until realising the car was behind them, then stood rigid in terror or bolted unpredictably. The people behaved in a similar way. Watched by the entire town with neutral stares, the innumerable children chased us with the cries of ‘You! You!’, ‘Faranji!’ (a slightly derogatory cross between foreigner and stranger) or just threw stones. Women, a species we dimly remembered from before Egypt and Sudan, were as confident as the men. Each time we stopped the car, a crowd would grow and the windows would be darkened by staring faces and touching hands. Each interaction was a blank canvas, smiles and frowns being quickly reciprocated. One theme was consistent, everyone expected a handout of money.

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That night we tried to camp in a hillside forest. Driving off a troop of unwelcoming monkeys, we sat on the roof of the car, gazing over the evening vista and had a beer, an actual, legal beer. However our the peaceful solitude we had become accustomed to in the Sahara was soon interrupted by people emerging out of the forest. We mistook one man who was particularly keen to meet us as the owner of the land. In a drawn out misunderstanding we fed and watered this hermit who slept by our fire before wandering off in the morning, taking my towel with him.

To gain some understanding of the people who inhabit these highlands, they need to be put n historical context. Civilisation may well have begun here, tracking up the Nile. Judaism and then Christianity took root here before most of the world. Islam surrounded, but never significantly penetrated the mountain plateau. Cut-off and surrounded by enemies, the kingdom of Ethiopia forgot the world and in turn was forgotten. The outside was denied a story of centuries of holy emperors and warring dynasties. When they were rediscovered, a feudal system of Nobles, priests and endless peasants was still fully intact.

In fact the Empire remained un-colonised and resistant to change until events overtook it with the Italian invasion of 1936. Liberation followed soon after with the enthralling Emperor Haile Selassie returning from exile in Jamaica (where he had inadvertently founded Rastafarianism).  Despite his international appeal he failed to spot the need for reform and was unceremoniously ousted by the sinister ‘Derg’. This communist military council was highly oppressive, mismanaged the economy and diverting the much of the international aid Ethiopia is famous for receiving, into the military.

The bloody civil war that removed the Derg created a crudely democratic federation of states who struggle to see eye-to-eye. Throughout this time Ethiopia has been at the sharp end of international aid: large short-sighted projects doomed to fail, food handouts, and money which disappeared into the beurocratic ether. As a result of this complicated history, the Ethiopians are themselves complicated. Much of the country remains ‘feudal’, the educated classes and the clergy sit atop an expanse of semi-subsistence farmers living as their ancestors did. Probably a hangover from the Derg, there are layers of government officials, entitled and stifling change. Fiercely proud of their isolated history, they are prone to xenophobia and anger over the wealth discrepancy between them and the ‘Farangi’. The malignant effects of last century’s blind aid are all too apparent. Tourists, who no doubt have contributed to the problem, are expectantly mobbed in every village. Cyclists, as our friend Bob found out, are stoned.

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All this said, when befriended, Ethiopians are sharp, subtly humorous and take hospitality very seriously. This depth of character takes time to break through to, a big problem for our fast moving expedition. This is why the city of Gondar, where we would spend over a week, was a nice break from our constant migration.

Gondar is the old capital and holy city of emperor Tewodros. Centred round a grand castle, its cobbled hillside streets link the countless churches. We had arrived here in time for the greatest show in Ethiopia: the festival of the Epithany, or Timkat. Here, during four days of celebration the tablets bearing the commandments from each church are baptised in the pool and moved in an enormous procession back to their churches. Here we were also expecting to do two other things: visit the Gondar (Ethiopia) Eye Surgery (GEES) project to which we have been donating half our sponsorship money and to join up with Megan, a good friend who was bravely coming to visit from Cornwall.

We set up camp in the shady, lush gardens of the grand but decaying Terrana hotel. Before the festivities began we were able to meet up with Dr Asamere, consultant eye surgeon. Over lunch we talked at length about the state and aspirations of the project but also about history, culture and football. He offered not only to take us around the eye hospital but also to show us the highlights of Timkat.

GEES was set up by a British eye surgeon, Sandy Holt Wilson, who identified the need for the project whilst working in the region. Starting small, GEES has supported a new eye hospital, providing a consultant ophthalmologist and equipment. It is also now training ophthalmologists and specialist eye nurses setting up a new teaching facility and library. The burden of disease (largely blindness from cataracts, infection, deficiency, injury and diabetes) and the area covered is huge. However the project is growing slowly but realistically toward making Gondar a centre of excellence for eye care. There is a real feeling of progress at the hospital.

The excitement had been building like a thunderstorm when the first parade broke. In the main square, hundreds of pilgrims clad in pure white shawls followed a blaring procession of music, archaic guns, swords, jangling umbrellas, cracking whips, intricate hairstyles and harlequin uniforms of outrageous silk. Every village, church or civic institution seemed to be putting on a show.

The following morning, we met Dr Asamare down at the Fasilidas baths, a fascinating, fortified swimming pool like structure build in the 1600s. The first tablets had been baptised and the waters blessed. The sun-dappled waters writhed with hundreds of bronzed bodies, merrily splashing in this holiest of leisure facilities. We followed in the path of the tablets in a procession of thousands that dwarfed the day before. Carnival floats, co-ordinated dances and bearded holy men carrying staffs and ornate crosses were now added to the mix. Unfortunately, Megan’s plane was grounded in snow back in Bristol, a concept that was difficult to fathom as we sought refuge in all available shade. However, she was touching down the next morning for another big day of festivities.

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