To travel by plane is to step through a portal. As immersed as you become in your new surroundings, no matter how real it all seems, you can always step back, blinking and surprised at how easily you fall back into your old routine. Sitting in the same seat that I left the pinpoint familiarity of my parents’ driveway, the world has changed gradually around us. The scale of the ground we have covered makes the differences more understandable. Our car, our home has come with us. It is both a vessel for exploration and a retreat. After the hectic African towns and cities, to return secretly to the bush and set up a thorough, comfortable camp is the closest feeling I have to home.
Back in Gondar, we met a few of our local friends to watch Ethiopia in the first round of the African Nations Cup. A screen was erected in the town centre and a large crowd gathered to watch Ethiopia’s first league appearance in thirty-one years. The opposition was Zambia, last year’s winners. I predicted a whitewash. The tense crowd seemed like the entire fate of the nation rested on the game. Ethiopia put on a good show against the favorites, getting them on the back foot with an early goal. However, Zambia fought back a draw. The crowd seemed disappointed at this bold debut. The game seemed to represent the optimism of this country, whose economy has grown at a rather unsustainable 10% in the last five years. It also seemed to represent its slightly unrealistic expectations.
We wanted to cram in as much as possible whilst Megan was around, so we headed on to lake Tana and the city of Bahir Dar. Here, we would find the source of the Blue Nile. After fixing another puncture we had a goodbye lunch with Dr Asamere and set off on good roads. I remembered the highways being terrible only two years ago. Now the Chinese had moved in, leaving a network of smooth, thin tarmac in exchange for long-term mineral rights. These un-maintainable roads seemed destined to wash away in a few rainy seasons.
We were three hours into a beautiful mountain cruise. I was driving around 50mph (any faster being unwise on the unpredictable roads). The midday sun had made the whole car sleepy as we listened to DJ Bob’s reggae selections.
We were all awoken by a very loud bang.
The car jumped and shuddered. I hit the brakes and slammed in a low gear but as I tested a left turn I felt the back of the car slide out. We had a rear left blow out. I stopped breaking and let the screaming engine slow us, before guiding us into the verge. Fortunately we had just finished a run of switchbacks and were on a gentler bend.
When I eventually prized my hands from the wheel, they were shaking. We were on the edge of a village and crowd was already gathering. The tire was red-hot and shredded. A combination of rock-wear, heat and altitude had exploded it. We quickly changed the wheel and tenuously drove on. Any further tight corners were driven slowly, with the uneasy feeling that Tess might fail us.
It was about time for a much-needed evening beer as we arrived under a canopy of grand trees, by a cool lake, in a place I vaguely remembered. I had been doing a bit of overland networking in the preceding days and there was, at an outdoor table, a group of six awaiting our arrival. Among them was Chris, a well spoken, ‘Our Man in Africa’ sort who was leaving the independent election monitor business and looking for prospects in Ethiopia. He had gone ahead of us from Gondar and, true to character, arranged a full social itinerary, ready and waiting. At the table we met Claire, who was following a similar route down to Cape Town, only solo and on a motorbike. We were bound to overlap each other on the road. We also met Pooja, an Indian fashion professor at the University of Bahir Dar. Over a boozy supper it was suggested that we all stay at hers, complete with a fridge full of beer, wine and a campfire.
The following days were passed in ease at Pooja’s house. During the day we explored lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and the ancient island monasteries, each night we would sit up late, sing, drink and play the guitar. Indeed, romance may or may not have blossomed over those balmy nights but the protagonists (if they even exist) wish to remain anonymous.
When it was finally time to go and our tires were fixed, we drove on to Lallibella, the Unesco site of the monolithic churches. We arrived just in time for a massive entry-fee price hike and another puncture, the cause this time being a nail.
The churches, still active with hermits and holy men who largely go about their business, were built throughout the (European) middle ages. Dug out from existing caves or hewn from solid rock, they stand embellished with symbolism and filled with holy treasures. Rich, Dan and Megan explored the twenty odd churches the following day. Bob, who couldn’t justify the $50 entry and I, who had seen them before, had the fun of finding another tire repairman.
Bob and I picked up the rest of the team, awe-struck and exhausted that afternoon and belted off toward Addis. Rich was serving his term as navigator, the most important decision making role in the car. He decided to cut a large corner off our route along a winding road that showed up on St’ Nav’ (full title: his all seeing, holiness St Navier of Slough). This way proved to be one of the most challenging pieces of off-roading in Ethiopia. With rock scrambles and riverbed crossings all the way up to join the mountain road. We averaged 12mph over 25 miles. One positive was that or Perspex rear window held its own as a well-aimed rock, hurled by a disgruntled villager upon realizing we hadn’t arrived to dole out money. The missile bounced inches from my face.
The following days were road heavy. Megan, who had now assimilated seamlessly into the group as chief finder of un-findable things, had a flight to catch. We took the eastern road along the floor of the Great Rift Valley. Here in the shadow of the escarpment, Arabic culture had penetrated. Camels sloped alongside the road and minarets once again marked the towns.
On the final day before Addis we made camp in a wild, hilly spot. Hidden in the thorns and blonde grass, the stars came out and we made merry (albeit quietly as you are never truly alone in Ethiopia). The Southern Cross was now making a regular appearance in the sky as we headed for the equator. Strangely though, clouds were beginning to obscure the night sky.
The next morning something amazing happened; something that we had not witnessed since three months ago in Turkey. It rained. A cold air rushed up with the scent of damp earth. We watched the modest drops gather on our windscreen. It seemed strange and unfamiliar. We had accustomed ourselves to a dry and rainless world.
We climbed back up to the mountain plateau, following the migrating clouds as they rushed up through the trees. Back at altitude the sun was still bright over gently rolling farmland and hills.
Addis Abeba is not an ancient city like many in Ethiopia. In fact, it isn’t much like the rest of the country at all. It is almost as if somebody has dumped all the components of a modern city, tower blocks and all, haphazardly atop the fields surrounding a palace. That said, there are clusters of excellent bars and restaurants. It is also relatively safe. The young middle classes are really prominent in this fast-growing building site with the nightlife and live music scene is exceptional for Africa.
We smashed through the gates of the Taitu hotel and made a show of parking up, for the tourists on the terrace. We had time for a shower, change of clothes before we headed out to a restaurant for Megan’s send-off meal. After a delicious if slightly rushed meal, we bundled her in to a taxi and waited for the phone call to say that she had missed her flight. It never came.
The following days were a long slog around the spread-out conurbation, sorting out all the things we had been saving up. There were western travelers and ex-pats in an abundance that we had not experienced thus far. We met back up with Claire who was preparing to cross the treacherous Lake Turkano road into Kenya. This mammoth slog of tribe-land and empty wilderness would be madness alone, so she had recruited a convoy. They were heading off the next day to avoid the rains and the Kenyan elections. We were unable to travel with them, deciding to wait for the Swiss and chance the same route ten days later.
Over lunch we met the other overlanders. In a younger Defender, were two younger Brits, Walter and Freddy who were in the midst of a blown head-gasket fiasco. We also met three Germans in an immaculate Land Cruiser. On of them decided to travel in our car for a while before she headed back to Cairo. Her name was Estella.
In an outdoor café where the live reggae blared out, we met Colin, a friend of the Khartoum French girls, world-class saxophonist and all round hero. We moved in with him. It was in Colin’s house that the newly formed group hatched a plan to visit the unrecognized republic of Somaliland.