It was a slightly drunken promise but none the less it was an invitation to Africa. Taking advantage of an absent boss, stretching one weeks leave into two and just enough time to get jabbed, insured and booted. I was off to Ethiopia to meet the ramshackle doctors on their travels.
When I met them in Gondar it was the height of Timkat and the Festival of St Michael and they, along with the rest of the Ethiopians, were relishing the fact they could booze; a month or so in Sudan had apparently left them pretty thirsty. So minus a rucksack and two days late I was hugged by a mightily moustached Rich, a hung-over Baz who’d just found his recently pickpocketed passport and an in-and-out of consciousness Dan, sweating away in a tiny tent while affectionately being injected at regular intervals. We were camping in a grove where lovebirds chattered above, the sound of the festival was everywhere and all we had was water from the well…
What an introduction, the Ethiopian Orthodox epiphany, where clerics and priests paraded, carrying enormous brass crosses, walking on carpets that are laid out in front of them and rolled up behind them as they passed. Where the girls tried to out do each other with amazing hair styles; three domes, big ‘fros or braids like tiaras over their foreheads, and where sewing white buttons on your shirt, skirts and hat seems to be a status symbol of sorts. Everyone was in the streets, floats depicting bible stories and groups chanting, clapping, singing and stick waving, bounding up the street in what to me seemed like unimaginable heat.
Beautiful umbrellas, coffee that stretched your eyeballs, goats running riot, amazing birdlife and the beginning of a fried donut diet had started and all with people who’d left the UK months before. As an outsider from the core trio the Land Rover had become their home and as with any English or Welsh man it certainly was their castle. For me it was a holiday, two weeks to see, taste and walk things never seen before but for the Drs it was life, daily life in a different place every day, with always a bigger task at hand, not merely exploring but surviving and progressing towards Cape Town.
Sleeping on wooden boards in the back of the Landy, seeing the African Cup on the big screen – Ethiopia drew with Zambia! Visiting Gondar’s castle and experiencing some awesome Ethiopian shoulder dancing – a pretty tricky dance move that feels a lot like a parading cockerel – and then off, heading towards the mountains!
The Simien Mountains, worn by rivers the drops are enormous, huge plateaus between Jurassic looking mountains with level square summits unlike our European pointy peaks. Eagles flew overhead as we happily picked up our scout complete with AKA and trundled an hour and a half in the wrong direction. I will let Rich explain the intricacies of the punctures but needless to say with a woman on board the Landy started to sink, repeatedly, destroying many inner tubes and one tyre in spectacular fashion.
Following a long day in the mountains, where five of us had been squashed in the land rover (3 in the party cabin, drives, navs and DJ), we had a bit of poetry, some warm beer and more stories of Bob’s bicycle travels. Joining up with the Swiss in the mountains for a starlit camp, peanut rice, guitar and harmonica twiddling and while our scout bundled himself under a bush for the night we had the luxury of a camp and early rise to watch the sun come over the valley.
It gets pretty chilly in the mountains, and during a bit of an adventure Baz, myself and Rob ended up at 3800 meters with no coats, money or blankets for the night. Jaw dropingly beautiful we were on a ridge of mountains overlooking Ras Dashen, Ethiopia’s highest peak, amongst talkative ravens, campfire food we couldn’t afford and a sunset highlighting the harvest on the plateau below. Raiding the Swiss’ 4×4 we whiled the evening away listening to interesting techno and exploiting their car heating and
meeting some other Cornish adventurers.
One advantage of travelling in a land rover and sporting excessive facial hair is that word of the Drs travels seemed to be preceding them, specifically through Chris an ex-pat who hadn’t left Africa for the last 5 years. Setting up accommodation, slap-up meals and interesting people to meet along the way Chris paved the way for 3 nights free accommodation on the chilled out shores of Lake Tana in Bahir Dar. More wheel fixing, puncher repairing, an amazing market and trip out onto the lake with pelicans nonchalantly rising over our boat, we saw incredibly beautifully painted monasteri
es, updated to include gun wielding prophets and fire enveloped devils.
I turned the ripe old age of 27 and it was time for a singsong, bringing the Perraners to Ethiopia with shanties by candlelight and a spot of gin with malaria fighting tonic.
I won’t hog all the stories as we travelled onwards on a whistle stop tour to one of Ethiopia’s ‘must see highlights’ Lalibela. A few more bedbugs, stale bread and expedition marmalade helped us along our way as we viewed the largest rock hewn church in the world. Not wanting to build upwards Lalibela is famous for its churches carved down into the rock, so their roofs are at ground level and you descend in through Indiana Jones style tunnels, steps and nifty alleyways. It was hot, it was dusty and they’d just put the price up to European standards but you can’t really say no to the enormous St George’s cross church hewn into a hill and the cave like rooms where services were going on; humming with people, chanting, drums and frankincense.
Despite our haste, we were still miles from Addis Ababa. They were having none of me travelling back to the capital without them so two days solid driving ensued through beautiful plains with African cattle, round huts and seas of green teff following along the rivers. We even crept away from civilisation for a sneaky hillside camp, lit only by one head-torch to avoid discovery, it was the most incredible starlit night I have ever seen, from the southern cross to the plough and the sharpest camel thorns I’ve ever had the misfortune to stand on.
Then on to Addis and a cosmopolitan change, for the first hot shower of the fortnight and a bit more Italian inspired cuisine. The Orthodox Ethiopians have a lot of fasting, apparently to calm the high spirited highlanders and while no meat or fish twice a week was a bonus for vegi me, some may agree when choosing between spaghetti or traditional injera (fermented flour pancake), there may have been some advantages of the Italian invasions in the past.
So enough of my ramblings, back in the UK for over a month the memory of the Landy and the bruises she inflicted seems too far away. Amazing, green, bouncy, dusty, hot, birdy, surrounding, bloody inquisitive, pen-demanding Ethiopia!