The Elephant of Surprise

(grammatical note: It is considered poor form in the veld, to pronounce the ‘s’ when referring to any plural of game. For example a herd of elephant not elephants. The reason for this practice has been lost but it is thought to be aesthetic rather than practical).

Hwange national Park is the Zimbabwean slice of a much larger wilderness that rolls across northeast Botswana, all the way to the lush Okavango Delta and the Kalahari Desert beyond. It is divided into various parks and reserves spanning thousands of hectares but there is rarely a fence, road or settlement to mark the divide. The main national parks have a reasonable track network, often a flash headquarters and a string of game lodges and hotels. However these pockets of civilisation seemed few and far between as we meandered around in our self-sufficient land ship. Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe had a wilder, less developed feel to Safari industry that suited us fine and we were able to avoid most of the tourism (and more importantly the tourist prices) whilst being able to live in the way we had become accustomed.

Standing tall  (Photo: RWH)

Standing tall (Photo: RWH)

The sun rose as we slowly trundled on to the next water hole; one spotter with binoculars, clinging to the roof at all times. It was the dry season and the animals were concentrated in an improbably close proximity to water. Zebra merged together and divided across the grassy clearings. Impala waited, coiled and twitching with tension, ready to explode away from predators (or more often false alarms). Giraffe stood hesitantly, away from the action like awkward teenagers at a party. Giraffe and antelope were my favourites; giraffe because they were a photographer’s best friend, always around, posing elegantly (albeit awkwardly) to complement the landscape; antelope because of their great variety and beautiful variations. One thing that struck us however, was how many elephant there were.

Two things you need to know about the African Elephant:

  1. Even if you think they are big, they are bigger than you think.
  2. They startle easily especially at night, which must be a hangover from when they were prey. They are however quick to overcome this ancient instinct and remember how big they are. They can then become quite aggressive in order to save face.

Each day we would gradually re-acclimatise to these leviathans only to be re-amazed the following morning upon sighting the herd. Apart from the odd trumpet and crash, they were remarkably quiet, their great feet padding softly into the dust as they strode through the bush. More than once we found ourselves waiting static as the herd moved around us, or worse backing away frantically when our proximity was challenged by a raised trunk and a feigned charge.

I had been brought up to think of these intelligent, family-focussed creatures as on the brink of extinction from mankind’s insatiable desire for piano keys. However since the Ivory ban, the population in the Zimbabwe/Botswana region has skyrocketed to over 100,000 in the area. Elephants’ second biggest killer after gun (note no ‘s’) used to be thirst. However the game reserves now keep the watering holes artificially full throughout the drought. Unlike Rhino horns that still support a thriving black market, the demand for Ivory has dried up. Dead elephant tusks are still collected however, stacked in huge warehouses.

Elephant are incredibly destructive, ripping apart trees to meet their food requirements. Whilst this is seen as a natural process of forest regeneration the increasingly arid landscape is showing signs of strain, with the prey base of other herbivores diminishing. The herds are no longer so prone to migrate in search of water and give certain areas a rest. It has been suggested that a measured return of the Ivory trade might be beneficial. Admittedly the problem is more one of elephant distribution. Many parts of Africa such as Mozambique have lush forests but no elephants, civil war and the ivory trade wiping them out entirely. Past attempts to re-locate young elephant has lead to problems in the complex structure of the herd. The relocated youths become delinquent, over-aggressive or depressed and cannot function as a herd without good role models.


Among the elephant, we also encountered one of the cruellest and undefeatable scourges of the bushveld: The Tsetse fly. We had already encountered the ‘sleeping sickness’ that they spread during our time in Uganda and had heard how cattle tribes throughout Africa actually plan their nomadic migrations to avoid the summer swarms. My first encounter with this armoured daemon, capable of penetrating elephant hide, was as I sat as lookout on the roof. I felt a sharp, lightening sting between the shoulder blades. I struck wildly and repeatedly at the site of the pain, only to watch the assailant cruise off into the dusk. Another flash of pain on the thigh signalled that we were under attack. Underneath me the car lurched as Dan, our driver sustained multiple bites. You can keep tsetse flies at bay if you are vigilant and don’t let them land. When they get into the car however, you get a real problem. Hitting them with a book just won’t do it and once trapped in the car with you they will continue to render you with bruising bites until crushed between two hard surfaces.

Despite the occasional airborne assault, we were able to explore the park with little hindrance. We were very lucky in one particular gamble, to abandon the elephant and tourist infested watering holes and go for an evening cruise to a far flung corner of the park. As we drove along a disused track we were met by a pack of the elusive African wild or ‘painted’ dog. The rarest of Africa’s predators, Hwange is one of their last refuges. Built for distance, they skipped past our car, stopping only briefly as if to ask which way their chase had run. I realised how much I missed my dogs back at home.

Painted dogs, the rarest mammal in the world (Photo: SW)

Painted dogs, the rarest mammal in the world (Photo: SW)

As night fell, we were also lucky to follow an extremely large, male leopard who peered out of the long grass and sauntered along the road. Much to our annoyance he was startled by another vehicle that came careering around the corner beeping its horn at us. In a second he had vanished into the long grass. This breach of ‘Leopard Etiquette’ was unforgivable.

Our greatest spot however had been lazing out on the grassland earlier that day, by a water hole, sitting in a Land Rover Defender. Leo, a French Zoology postgraduate, was peacefully filming a herd of Zebra in order to test the evolving hypothesis that their stripe patterns are associated with different behavioural characteristics. We pulled up alongside him and introduced ourselves as the herd scattered. Over a coffee in the observation platform, he invited us to come to the research complex for a Braai and some beers after our safari.

That night we turned up at a small gathering outside the researcher quarters. There must have been about twenty people living in something between student accommodation and a safari camp. We sat around the fire outside and introduced ourselves. Apart from living in a commune in the heart of Africa, these exciting characters all had great projects. We heard detailed accounts of recent Water-buffalo migration habits and watched the position of all the electronically tagged Lion on a Laptop screen.

“You see this one, a young Male without a pride,” Stephen, a tall and easy gamekeeper explained. He sat with a beer in one hand and his two year old son in the other.

“It follows a road and then stops, static for a whole day. Probably following a laid down scent trail. I think a hunter has had him.”

Big game hunting, including lion is still legal in Zimbabwe, albeit in a regulated fashion. It costs about $60,000 to go on a lion hunt. Local Guides try to follow strict rules on which lion can be killed so as not to disrupt the complex social order of the pride. Older males who have been driven out by rivals, or younger males yet to prove themselves are the main target. However, f somebody has forked out $60,000 to kill a lion, they expect to kill a lion.

“You see the Rhodesians were far from perfect,” He explained, “They used to Kill tens of Lion in a single day. But they didn’t have much of an impact in the long-term numbers. They kept the prey base large. Now the lion don’t have that abundance of prey so hunting has a much bigger impact.”

Descended from generations of white Zimabweans, Stephen was from another world. He knew the movements and behaviour of every animal in the park and had a story for each. Any gamekeeper in Zimbabwe still has to demonstrate that they can effectively cull an elephant for their CV to be accepted. When we first arrived he was telling an amusing tale of how one of the gamekeepers had been surprised when a lion badly mauled the hunter he was guiding. He had neglected to load is gun and in the panic of loading fell over and fired the gun into the air. Fortunately, the hunter survived.

“There is far too much hunting of the prey, regardless of its effect. Everything is for short term gain over here. A lot of people have got their land in the reforms and don’t know how long they ill hold onto it, so they’re trying to make what they can whilst they have it. This isn’t a good country for long term investments.”

We stayed up late and added a few of our own stories to the mix. Leo was living in a circular hut and we all eventually piled into it. Huge spiders crawled out of the thatch and across every surface. We were so exhausted however, that we sought refuge in sleep. We simply lay still and tried not to think about what would crawl over us in our most vulnerable state. This fatalistic approach to sleeping was becoming a common theme.

Circle of Life! (Photo: RWH)

Circle of Life! (Photo: RWH)

The next morning we left for Victoria Falls, only half a day’s drive away on good roads. We arrived in time for lunch in this tourist honey spot. For the first time since Malawi, we were back in a carnival of backpackers and bus tours. The Zimbabwean side of the falls certainly has the most classic views of this thundering, misty spectacle with regular rainbows and unpredictable showers of spray to drench the unsuspecting. A thousand miles upstream in Angola the rains had put the falls into spate and the noise was incredible. A statue of Livingstone, stern and sure, looked out over the rocks and churning water that stretched to the distant borders of Zambia.

Despite the deafening rumble, we decided to record a song (more accurately a music video). Finding a clear backdrop in between tour-groups was a challenge. We decided to go with ‘down by the riverside’ and set up the camera and microphone. After a few re-takes, we managed to belt out the song. A crowd of Japanese tourists gathered to film us, assuming we were part of the tour. We sheepishly accepted their applause. For the rest of the day, as we explored the slippery cliff-side of the great gorge, we were continually photographed and congratulated.

Saccharin Victoria Falls (Photo: RWH)

Saccharin Victoria Falls (Photo: RWH)

This was to be our last day in Zimbabwe, a country that had given us far more to behold and far less trouble than we had anticipated. We spent the evening, as is often the case in traveler hotspots, with that day’s passing friends and the following morning departed with the increasingly unfamiliar feeling of a hangover.  It was to be the beginning of the last wild and changing run through Botswana, Namibia and down to Cape Town.

Photography Exhibition!

We’re pretty excited that the Royal Cornwall Hospital have asked us to exhibit photos from the trip in the hospital. We’ll be exhibiting a small selection of shots from Monday 6th October for 3 months, with a full selection of over twenty images being displayed in January. The photos will be on sale, with all proceeds going to our partner charities.

Stay away!  (Photo: RWH)

Stay away! (Photo: RWH)

Entering Zimbabwe

Wild camping in the North (Photo: RWH)

Wild camping in the North (Photo: RWH)

Across Mozambique, we had shifted back into a feral state. Almost every night had been spent hidden in the dense woodland or on deserted beaches. Both our cookers had simultaneously expired meaning wood fires were how we now prepared our meals. When our head-torch batteries failed, we were surprised by how we could set up camp, start a fire, move around the car and prepare a meal by memory alone; reading the familiar contents like brail. Our threshold rose markedly for things that scuttled and crawled over us as we lay in the tall elephant grass.

We reached the town of Manica, near the Zimbabwean border. Our car was still without a working clutch, although drivable. Every traffic light became a spectacle of pushing and grinding until Tess jumped into gear. Every hill became a tense ordeal, teasing the gearstick to engage as we lost momentum. To make matters worse, our diesel tank was leaking when filled to over 20 litres. This meant we had to climb onto the roof and retrieve another Jerry can for the tank every 140 miles. One particular incident brought untold mirth to the town onlookers when Dan and I, having pushed Tess along the busy high street, ran to jump into the accelerating vehicle. Perfectly in time, I tripped over my flip-flops and Dan leapt for the door, bouncing his head off the top doorframe. We both tumbled into the dusty street as our car sped off.

Mozambique is not a Land Rover friendly country and we were advised to try our luck over the border in Zimbabwe. The problem was that the border was atop a steep hill with a perpetual traffic queue leading up to it. We had to have momentum to change gear. If we stopped on a hill, we would have to roll back down to the flat and try again. Such antics were unlikely to amuse the border officials.

We tried to learn more about the road ahead. The currency of information in Africa is traded differently. Back home, knowledge is cheap and available. The location of an amenity, the state of a road or the situation in a region are all a button click, or at least a phone call, away. Across Africa, we had learned to appraise and amalgamate the spectrum of conflicting opinions on any one question. Everyone is an ‘expert’, each has their version of the truth and many have an interest in skewing the reality. Zimbabwe appeared to be enigmatic even to those a few miles from the border.

“The elections are coming and the trouble is building,” our hostess at the flamboyantly named ‘Pink Papaya Hostel’ told us.

“We’re advising our guests not to go in. A Spanish couple came through a few weeks ago. They had been arrested there and were fed up with the place.”

“Its calmed down a bit since the power sharing with the MDC.” Another reported. “but everyone is waiting for something to happen to break the gridlock. ZANU PF are going nowhere without a big fight.”


Zim was one place for which we certainly held preconceptions. The last decade had provided ample images of the infamous land reforms, the hyperinflation and the seemingly runaway violence to all opposition. My dad had visited during the closing stages of the war of independence, during the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. The stories had captured my imagination. He had helped his friend campus for the Bishop Muzorewa in the 1981 election that bought Mugabe to power. He would reminisce on how beautiful the country was.

We had met scattered Zimbabweans along our journey: displaced white farmers, economic refugees and former soldiers, all with their stories. The more we found out, the stranger and sadder the history became. We picked up an old guidebook for Zimbabwe published in 1998, before the country had seemingly imploded. It cautiously praised Mugabe for developing the county’s economy and for his moderate treatment of the white minority. Although it was certainly a one-party state and rumours of well concealed brutality were beginning to filter through, it seemed Zimbabwe was (by African standards) on an even keel. What had gone so wrong?

We heard theories: How Mugabe had been challenged in his role as ‘benevolent dictator’, how ZANU PF were losing influence and lashing out, or simply how a party with a sense of entitlement and ‘history’, having fought for independence had degenerated into a disorganised kleptocracy.

Unlike the opportunism and banditry, which we had singed our hands on so far, the danger ahead seemed more targeted and sinister; less easy to prepare for. The spectacle we caused, pushing our rickety car through the streets of Mozambique could draw unnecessary attention from an authority with a particular dislike toward the British. All these fears were checked however, by our lack of an alternative. We had to push on.

On a quiet, sunny afternoon we found ourselves beneath the border-post. We regarded the line of freight queuing up and spotted the distant barrier at the top. We had one chance. We rolled the car forward and she lurched into gear. There was no stopping as we weaved through the beeping lorries. Up ahead, a gap was closing. We snuck through just in time and pulled up on the flat, inches from the barrier.

The usual crowd of touts, pretending to be officials, gathered around to force their help upon us. They were scattered by an armed guard. He looked the car up and down with a neutral expression before breaking into a smile. Dan and Rich went to arrange Visas and I stayed with he guard. I offered him a couple of our European Marlborough Reds which he smoked with relish. Conversation sparked up as the touts re-formed. There was no menace and our story was met with a measured consideration. These men seemed smart, educated and comfortable with discussing the world outside. They were also quick to joke, with a fatalistic sarcasm and a sense of the ridiculous that reminded me of home. Their English was rich in outdated words and aphorisms.

“The supervisor is having lunch, so I suggest you make hay whilst the sun is shining,” the security guard beamed.

The people behind the glass were equally as friendly and insincere. Apart from having to pay an extra-expensive Visa for being British we were through with no problems.

Team communication!?  (Photo: RWH)

Team communication!? (Photo: RWH)

Nestled in the eastern hills, under pink granite mountains, lies the city of Mutare, Zimbabwe’s most beautiful city. Unfortunately much of the scenery was lost on us as we pushed our car through a frustratingly western system of traffic lights. The streets looked faded but functioning. Shops were open and cars lined the streets. The cities had been protected from the worst of the economic turmoil and violence that had raked the countryside. Furthermore there was now a large wealth divide. There was still money to be had and some people had found it. A large part of the new elite were associated with the ruling party. During the hyperinflation crisis many Zanu PF men had actually made fortunes by buying dollars at falsely low government rates and selling them on the black market for their actual price. Then there was the diamond rush.

We heard about this a few days later. We had settled in Mutare for a week to sort out our car. We had caused a predictable spectacle and most people seemed to know of us.

“How is the Defender?” two sharply-dressed, unfamiliar men enquired from their table.

We had just walked into a cafe for lunch and sat with them whilst we ate. They were -or rather, had been- diamond traders. They told the story of how a British company had been sitting on the place for decades before the government seized it. They were unable to control the resource however and soon an entire black economy had sprung up. All the shady characters from across Africa arrived in town. The army had been forcing locals to dig, with the extracted wealth dispersing up the ranks. The desperate locals would also break in to dig the fields at night, selling their findings for tiny fractions of their value. Young opportunists from the town became rich as middle men. Mutare had its boom when the rest of Zimbabwe was sinking. When the party found out its response (operation ‘No Return’) was typically brutal. Our new friends wouldn’t talk much on that. They were much keener to reminisce on the glory days. We found out later from a white petrol station owner who we befriended, that helicopter gunships had been called in to clear all the land of people. The myths of the death count vary wildly and in Zimbabwe, where so much is kept secret, myths are all they become.

As it turned out, Mutare was a haven for a Land Rover in need of some TLC. We were referred to ‘Quests’ an old and respected garage who clearly knew their way around a Landy. We frantically waved our way through a barrier, unable to stop and pulled up onto the large forecourt. A great bear of a man named Joseph greeted us with a smiling team. He was quick to learn our first names and had a playful air of authority. We spent many an hour in his office talking on the state of the country, life in the UK and the nuances of Mashona culture (his tribe and the current dominant tribe of Zanu PF).

“This place,” he orated, “used to have a reputation, before Zanu PF went and made such a mess of things.”

He patted a sheepish mechanic on the back. “Now we have to employ people like Jason. Ha!” -Jason was, in reality very capable.

They fixed our mangled clutch, finding and negotiating cheap spare parts. Nearby was a breaker’s yard that Dan and I went to investigate. What we found took our breath away. It was like walking into some sacred Landrover Graveyard. They were piled high in various states of decay. We had everything we could need. All those days scouring the cities of north and east Africa for spare parts seemed so barren and arduous. We decided to replace all of our remaining original doors. For this we selected one Zimbabwe Police (Birchenough post) door and one Zimbabwe Electrical Company door. This would give our ramshackle steed its signature appearance.

Serious business  (Photo: RWH)

Serious business (Photo: RWH)

On the day we left Mutare, I was walking down the high-street when I noticed that there was police officer stationed at each corner. A crowd gathered on the pavement as the first cavalcade of motorbikes in slow formation passed us by. ‘His Excellency’, Robert Mugabe was arriving. Next to follow was a troop pickup with six gold-helmeted gunmen, then two ambulances, a firengine, a further twenty of so motorbikes and more gold-headed troopers. In the middle were a cluster of black SUVs and one garish, gold Range Rover. We later found out that the president was in town to announce the date of the national elections; July 31st 2013.

There was much anticipation for this oncoming event. We made a habit of not asking people about their political affiliations but there seemed to be a strong trend amongst the people we talked to that the country was tired of the regime. They were also dreading a repeat of the unspeakable and unspoken violence of 2008.

The hills above Mutare were lit with a golden sunlight as we left. It was a light never seen nearer the equator where the sun is either ‘bright’ or ‘off’. We were moving out of the tropics again. The reasonable roads were surrounded by bush and ramshackle smallholdings; apparently once productive, commercial farms.

Before our journey to Harare we had one last call. As the sun drew low we turned off the main road to Drifter’s, once a well-known backpacker retreat and the scene of one of Zimbabwe’s greatest recent stories. We drove up the dirt drive, through houses nestled in the trees. We we’re greeted by an old man who introduced himself as John Muranda. I didn’t tell him that I had read all about him.

Back in Ethiopia Claire, our solo, overland motorcyclist friend, had given me a tattered copy of ‘The Last Resort, a Memoir of Zimbabwe’ by Douglas Rogers. The patient and humanistic story of how the Rogers, their employees and lodgers had survived the chaotic events of the last decade had captured my imagination. It was amazing to visit the place and meet the people I had read about. Lyn and Ros Rogers were still on their land having evaded, negotiated and adapted under constant threat and turmoil. The were at home and came down to have a drink with in the hostel bar. We watched the sun set through the dense hillside trees and talked about the South West UK, The various over-landers who had come before us and the coming elections.

“In a mad way, I feel slightly sorry for the poor old man,” remarked Lyn to my surprise. We were talking about Mugabe.

“He tried to resign last election but the Generals and party leaders weren’t having it. It was essentially a coup.”

“There are too many crimes to be held to account and if he goes down, they all do.”

After all ZANU PF had done, both to the country and to the Rogers, it was surprising to hear these understanding tones. Of course, Zimbabwe’s decline was more complicated then the actions and mistakes of one man.

We left under darkness to begin our long journey to Harare, driving through the night to avoid the police road blocks.

The Road to Botswana (Photo DN)

The Road to Botswana (Photo DN)

Episode 15: Uganda. Where Alki arrives, a mad Dan runs off to the Congo and the boys find gainful employment…

Part 3:

A gentleman is defined, not by the distance he keeps from his own, internal wildness, but by his ability to scrub up afterwards.

Iconic  (Photo: RWH)

Iconic (Photo: RWH)

Having left all chance of contact with the outside, Dan and Alki dropped off the edge of our map and headed to the border of the Congo. Here are some of the stories that eventually filtered back…

Many years later, as he faced the interview panel, Dr Daniel Nuth would recall that distant evening when he and Alkisti were taken to speak with spirits. They had travelled for several days, beyond the large roads and up into volcanoes, asleep in the clouds. These rolling rainmakers lay stacked in a ridge, under a blanket of jungle, climbing to snow. They held back a great spreading unknown; an immense, roadless, lawless canopy. Only rumours came back across the border, where endless river basins absorbed hidden villages, rival armies and fire capped mountains.

The people of the Rwenzori Mountains had an easy relationship with the overgrown slopes. Houses and farms were woven amongst the trees and any surprise intruder would be innocent to the scrutiny given them from the safety of the bush. The memory of the rebel raiding parties, wanton and brutal, lingered heavily.

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

They chanced upon a village school. A heavy set teacher, sweating into his shirt stood square to his blackboard. He struck out at a chalked word as he barked it.


The packed classroom of seven-year-olds fixed their determined eyes on the word and repeated with the staccato severity of a military drill.


Without pause the teacher moved on.


At the end of the lesson they were welcomed in. The children shuffled away uneasily as they sat among them.

“Hello,” Alki hazarded

Silent stares;

She remembered the importance of personal inquiries in Ugandan greetings.

“How are you?”

“WE ARE FINE!” came the kneejerk response. All children in the area were well trained in this exchange from the age of five.

The adjectives of the day were ‘sad’ and ‘shabby’.


Failing to find passage into the mystery beyond, Dan and Alki tracked south into Rwanda. Expecting to find a country reeling from its tortured past, they instead found a cosy utopia. Crisp, new roads crested over the wooded hills; uniformed police officers, bins, busses and traffic rules tidied the landscape. Among other acts of benevolence from the outside world, Irish cows were being airlifted in for their superior milk.

In the western mountains they made their way on foot through the thick rainforest. They joined a party on a trek destined for a bottomless crater lake. Exhausted at the humid summit they sought to wash themselves in the silver water. A terrified guide flung himself into their path, pleading for them to stop. They saw the fear in his eyes and hesitated. Why was the lake out of bounds?

“Nobody ever swims in the lake,” he warned “As we do not know how deep it is.”

He told them of the still, dark water that ran through the rock to the very heart of the earth. He told them about the magnets and about the Ox, which had jumped into the steep sides and had sunk without a trace.

“Can Oxen swim?” enquired Dan curiously.

An ominous glare sufficed for an answer.

They continued west through the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest; named from the scholarly belief that when the young earth froze, this was the only rainforest to keep the ice at bay. Finally they arrived at a wide river, where Rwanda ended and the Congo began.

A small town had grown up along the banks. A wooden bridge spanned the calm waters. They left Rwanda and crossed the frontier to try their luck. All the trucks were coming from the Congo, creaking over the mossy planks. They were laden with people.

A week ago the leader of M83, one of the larger rebel armies in eastern Congo, had turned himself in – voluntarily. Few were to greet the warlord’s resignation with optimism however. Something had driven him from his power base. These shifts in power usually spelled turbulent times ahead. Sure enough, the trucks brought news of renewed fighting.

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

They sat in the Spartan immigration office as the hours ticked by and it began to rain. Hurricane lamps were lit and the officials remained silent. The AK-47 is a sleek and arrogant tool that has spread to every corner of Africa and dan was familiar with their snarling barrels. However, they are usually slung lazy and unused, on the loose strap of a security guard of or policeman; their dormant barrels long since fired. These weapons seemed as veteran as their humourless owners; kept tight on the strap or brandished in ready hands. Eventually they were turned away and instructed to wait for approval from the immigration office in Kinshasa. They crossed back over the bridge in the dark. It was here they met the spirits at work.

A rhythmic chanting pounded the air and through a gap in the plank fence, plumes of white mist unfolded. A single spotlight dimly illuminated the scene. Kasava flour; mountains of it were piled up in the courtyard. Animated figures moved in and out of the cloud like pistons, wiry and bone white. As they moved closer they could see the porcelain faces. Cracks followed the lines of exertion around their dark, stony eyes. The flour golems moved in unison, shovelling their loads into sacks, held open by steady hands. Along the top of the heap of kasava roots, silhouettes climbed; sorting and pounding the edible roots.

Dan knelt down to take a photograph. A misfired flash broke the spell; stopped the scene dead. The sacks were dropped and everything was engulfed in clouds. Three faces emerged ahead and fixed the pair in their gaze.

“You do not take our pictures.” A voice announced with deep, flattened vowels.

“Who are you? Where are you going?”

Alki explained to the faces, which drifted in and out of sight in the fluctuant light. There was a pause and the clatter of work seemed to resume behind the interrogators.

“The land will never allow you in.” came a reply.

With that a pair of hands grabbed Dan’s shoulders and pulled him out of the settling dust. Back under a streetlight of the main track, a small, muscular man revealed himself.

“My name is Julius, you said you would go to Goma? I am from there. It is a very bad place.” He swung between French and English as he told them of his decision to flee the town. Many of his family had been brutally murdered or scattered in recent years. Goma, Dan and Alki’s chosen destination 100 miles downriver, was worse than ever. The strong preyed on the weak and the authorities extorted or robbed as much as the rebels. The fighting had also intensified in recent months.

“I can help you with the border posts, and you can bribe them,” he explained, “but any good guard would send you back.”

Two days later, they were indeed let across the border and into the Congo. Julius seemed to have a positive effect on the grim officials. However, after an afternoon’s drive into the interior, they were stopped at a road block and sent back. The border guard was a good man and it was too dangerous. They agreed it was time to head back to Uganda and re-join the expedition.


These were the shreds off stories that Rich and I, working in central Uganda, later heard. We would of course be reunited later as a group. Meanwhile, away from the hospital, we were trying to find some adventure of our own. When we weren’t on the wards, or rebuilding Tess, we would peruse the many street-side stalls of Iganga. Rows of kiosks and trays sold spiced kebabs and tender sweetmeats to the passing traffic. The ‘Rolex’ (omelette rolled in chapatti) became a staple. On the balcony of Sol bar, the trendy NGO worker hangout, we planned our weekends. Kat, Keeley and Morgan joined in our planning.

Our first weekend was spent on the banks of the White Nile as she left Lake Victoria, young and fresh, on her long journey north. We had last seen these wayfaring waters at Khartoum and had a lot to catch up on. If only she knew the changing lands and distant people she would meet. There was not much time for anthropomorphising however.

In the campsite we saw a familiar Landrover and motorbike. It was our old nemeses the ‘Cruising to Cape town’ boys and Claire (also overlanding to Cape Town). We had last seen them in Addis Ababa, as they set off before us on the Lake Turkana road. The stage was set for an eventful weekend. By day we would swim and rope swing on the riverbank. By night we would cook, eat and sample the delights of ‘David Beckham Gin’ (with the reassuring slogan: Clear Mornings Guaranteed). At the campsite bar we met a large NGO group called ‘One Acre’. They had called-in their volunteers for the upcoming Kenyan election and were having a bit of a party. The scene was set for merriment.

One lasting memory was of the Sunday night. There had been a slight misunderstanding over supper. We had been casually invited to eat at the One Acre buffet. However the restaurateur took issue with our apparent freeloading and demanded payment. He issued a warning in rounded South African syllables.

“You’re taking the piss guys. This is Africa. People disappear out here.”

We calmly explained that we were unable to pay but were prepared to sing for our supper. This seemed to diffuse the situation. Before we knew it, we had a concert on our hands. The word spread over the following day and another act signed up: A guitar-fiddle duo of legendary reputation. That evening a great fire was lit and an intimidating crowd gathered. Both acts gave it their all, taking it in turns to play and sing. The two chaps we were supporting were magnificent and our novelty seemed to be holding the crowd. We almost exhausted our entire repertoire. At 3am the crowd had thinned out and the adrenalin worn off. We returned to our tent, exhausted.

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

Tess was now looking healthier and was ready for the road. We took her up for a rainy weekend at Mount Elgon, on the Kenyan border. The car was loaded with fine food and drink and the camping gear prepared. An afternoons driving through the lush eastern farmland brought us to the foot of yet another Great Rift Valley volcano. As we wound up the switchback roads, a typically almighty storm broke. It was to last all night.

This however only increased the fun. Rich and I raised a great tarpaulin shelter and walled the sides. Hurricane lamps were lit and we clustered into a cosy circle. We were determined to show off how camping for us was an art that we had perfected. Pots, pans and spices clattered out and a great chilli-con-carne prepared over our single petrol stove. The glasses were charged with beer and stiff G+Ts to drive out the cold. The guitar was handed around and a fuzzy glow descended onto the evening’s memories.

The storm broke that night and in the clear morning we awoke to find that we had pitched camp on an immense cliff. Waterfalls in spate, crashed down to the flatlands below us. We spent the weekend exploring the caves and raging watercourses on the mountainside. We also met Jasper, a Danish ex-pat, African adventurer and former coach of the Ugandan Olympic cycling team. He had come to train for an upcoming road-bike event on the mountainside. We bonded over music and stories of Africa. We arranged to meet up in Kampala.

We arrived in the Capital for the following bank holiday weekend ready for a much needed break from work. Kampala is a fun, easy going city, that doesn’t seem to sleep. Like many capitals the traffic system renders the roads unusable for most of the day. We saw in Friday, mingling in restaurants and bars, an experience we had almost forgotten on our long road through North-eastern Africa.

We met up with Jasper, who we found to be a bottomless well of knowledge on Africa and seemingly friends with everyone in Uganda. He recommended the restaurant of a good friend and some good bars. Rich, Kat, Keeley and I expressed our desires to push on west to the Rwenzori Mountains, jealous of the stories filtering back from Dan and Alki. Jasper put us in contact with his friend Benjamin, who lived out by the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on one of the crater lakes. We left Kampala the following morning.


It was a long day’s drive after a long night but the Ugandan roads were of excellent quality. Benjamin had to arrange a friend to meet us at Fort Portal, the Rwenzori frontier town. It was dark and we had driven the length of the country. We were pushing ourselves hard. An hour’s drive on forest tracks made it clear that we would not have found him ourselves.

Spotlights glaring, we slipped and climbed along a muddy off-road track and met him outside his house. With the engine off, the jungle closed in. Benjamin was warm and welcoming with dreadlocks and a smooth French accent. He had worked for the Red Cross in most of the trouble spots of Africa over the last decade and had settled in this remote but peaceful corner of Uganda. He had a small wooden house and a few acres of land sloping down to the lake. Here he was creating his own Eden; nurturing hundreds of species of rare trees, plants and flowers, which in turn had attracted an array of bird and animal life from the forest. Monkeys, Forest elephants and even Chimpanzees had been sighted around the house.  As well as the local people for company, a lone male Hippo had recently appeared in the lake and was a regular visitor onto his land, although only cautious attempts had been made at befriending it.

A night time tour of the forest was abandoned when we were driven out by army ants so we retreated back to the candle lit cabin. We listened to Benjamin’s stories of life in Somalia and the Congo and ate cheese, bread and forest fruits. We then retired to pitch our tents by the lake. Nobody was trampled by a Hippo that night.

In the morning we realised why Benjamin had chosen this place. The morning sun glowed through the High buttress root trees and in the canopy monkeys, hornbills and great blue torracos hopped between branches. Flowers exploded out of the undergrowth and everything was wet and earthy. The lake was still and, apart from the bank where we had camped, walled by mossy granite. Benjamin came down to join us for a swim (true to form in tight, French Speedos). We checked the water for Hippos and dived in.

Another day’s drive brought us into the mountains, where Dan and Alki had traversed before us. Rainclouds obscured the snowy caps and the sheer, forested sides looked like they might rise up forever. We celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day with a Guinness sitting on the west side of the range, the great Congo basin spanning before us. We trekked up into the hills, soaked in rain. The paths were slicked in red mud and the sparse inhabitants vanished into the elephant grass as we approached. When the clouds closed in, it was easy to get lost.

We camped down in the thin strip of forest between the Rwenzoris and the Congo border, where we were allowed to stay in the ranger’s compound for free. The extra shelter proved invaluable against the ensuing downpour. It remains the most violent deluge I have ever seen.


The long drive back to Iganga began the following day at 6am and finished at 9pm. Our way was guided by the steady flashes of lightning in the eastern horizon. We were fatigued to our absolute limit but had managed to see a good deal of the country without sacrificing much time from our work.

A week later we were reunited with Dan and Alki and it was time to say our goodbyes to a country that had given us an unconditional welcome and so many stories.

Episode 15: Uganda. Where Alki arrives, a mad Dan runs off to the Congo and the boys find gainful employment…

Part 2:

Iganga Hospital is a 200-bed district general hospital run, and largely funded by the government. It has male, female, paediatric and maternity wards, an outpatients department, pharmacy, laboratory, x-ray, ultrasound and an operating theatre. The gate opened straight out onto the main road and once inside there was always a great crowd shifting around the white buildings. Clusters of outpatients, families preparing food and mothers strapped to their infants would sit in the shade of the avocado trees.


If there was a rota, or system of job allocation, we never found it. However our day-to-day-role in the hospital was quickly established. We did a brief spell in the humdrum of outpatients with the cheerful Senior Clinical Officer. This acquainted us with the disease burden, the tests and the limited array of treatments available. However, the outpatient conveyor belt was reasonably well staffed and it became quickly apparent that we would be most useful on the wards.

A pay dispute with the ministry of health had shifted the attention of many doctors toward their private clinics. Appearances were limited to sporadic, fly-by reviews for the sickest patients and a weekly ward round. Specialist teams from the bigger hospitals would occasionally appear, friendly and unannounced. Despite finding written evidence in the notes from mysterious evening visits, it was three days before we met another doctor.

Running the wards were ward sisters dressed in nightingale-era uniforms, commanding a milling shoal of nursing students. White-coated Clinical Officers were appointed to each ward. The ‘C.O.’ is a great African compromise. They train for only three years with a more practical slant and gain their experience on the job. They admit, diagnose, prescribe and make decisions in lieu of the doctors input. They cost a fraction of a doctor’s salary. We found them to be excellent for treating the common, uncomplicated conditions such as malaria. The problem was that they didn’t have enough doctor contact for feedback on the decisions they had made. This usually meant that anyone without a clear diagnosis would tend to get all the bases covered with a combination of antibiotics, high-dose steroids, anti-malarials and various other contradicting combinations. In a job that relied on practical experience, nobody was taking the time to provide feedback or explain the clinical reasoning for management. In short, whilst their moments of good practice were repeated, so were the mistakes.


Both with some experience of Hospitals in Africa, Rich and I were prepared for a fewer clinical options, a less systematic approach and general inertia. We were also very mindful of our brief intrusion into hospital and how minimal our impact would probably be. We had to pick our battles. A daily, systematic ward round seemed like a good place to start. Initial management was usually as optimal as the resources would allow. However even post-surgical patients could then sit and get better or worse without being regularly reviewed.

The male and female wards were long squat buildings with corrugated iron roofs, crowded with patients in closely packed iron beds, usually surrounded by their families sitting and sleeping on mats (who were cleared out for drugs/ ward rounds). There were no cubicles or curtains, although there was one set of screens. Despite this, there was always a calm, easy atmosphere. Every morning we would arrive to a welcome of protracted handshakes and somewhat undeserved congratulations. Everyone was doing what they could. The patients would lie stoically as they improved or deteriorated with treatment and nature took its course.

If there had not been a senior visit that day, Rich and I would divide up the ward into two rounds. The clinical officers would often join us but if they were too busy, there were usually five or six attentive nursing students each, competitively keen to learn, translate and run errands. Our ward rounds would often include quite a lot of bedside teaching. When the senior doctor did their weekly ward round, we would follow in the throng, presenting the patients we had become familiar with. These were always lengthy, slightly jovial affairs with lots of academic discussions in English and difficult questions fired at the petrified nursing students.

By mid-morning, the sun beat down on the thin roof and the humidity was asphyxiating. At 2pm, we would walk the short distance home and quickly change into shorts. Here, the worries of the day would be overshadowed (quite literally) by an enormous and extravagant lunch. Mountains of rice, matoke (mashed Plantain) or poshe (mashed millet) piled with rich beef of ground-nut stews. We were spoiled. By this time, the afternoon heat would have built to a sweltering climax in anticipation of the evening storm. We usually needed a siesta before heading back in.

Rich and I both pride ourselves on our ability to befriend the ward sisters, which I maintain is the single most important skill a young doctor can possess. However it was the Clinical Officers whose toes we were treading on. They were essential to our integration on the ward; they knew the patients and were able to turn requests into actions. Every morning it was them who would take us to review the patients they were worried about. We were careful to maintain a dynamic of working together as equals and remain magnanimous. It was important to explain the changes we suggested and agree on them together. It wasn’t always easy. One particular patient caused a tense but cordial debate between me and the clinical officer who was determined for me to drain the fluid out of a certain patient’s abdomen with a tap. I thought that this was dangerous and largely unnecessary but despite the protracted courtesies, neither of us would change our stance.  The patient left of their own accord before the matter was settled.


Although the ward rounds were largely harmonious, turning the plan in the patient’s notes into action was a greater challenge. There was no formal ward list, no jobs list and a very casual system of delegation. Any tests had to be pushed-for relentlessly or done oneself. Furthermore any progress could hit a brick wall if the equipment or drugs were not available that day. Needles and gloves for example, were at a premium and guarded by the ward sister. Cost to patient was another common show-stopper. Save for critical emergencies, all equipment, medication and tests had to be paid for by the patient’s family who often would struggle with the bill. The ‘disappearing patient’ became an expected phenomenon. The tense, swollen belly of a patient with ‘nephrotic syndrome’, a fever who’s origin remained hidden from all tests or an HIV positive man stable but in a coma; we would ponder, discuss, research and plan, only to find another patient in their bed the next morning. It was hard to get a straight answer as to where they had gone. Whilst some had been taken to a bigger hospital, died or recovered, it is likely that many simply returned home when their families to fight their illness without our help.

We were doctors by day and mechanics by night. In our spare time we were had a lot of work to undo the ravages the journey had inflicted on our car. The first half of Africa, especially the endless rocks and corrugations of the Lake Turkana road, had shredded our tyres, and left our suspension a sorry state. We were also dripping from several points. We replaced a lesion of bushes, gaskets oils seals and wheel bearings, serviced the engine and installed new tubeless all-terrain tyres. The age of the puncture was over. Every morning, we would furiously scour our fingers to remove the oil, dirt and grease ready for the wards.

The case-load differed wildly from the UK. The prevalent infectious diseases which we became familiar with were once in a lifetime diagnoses back at home. Brucellosis, bilharzia, and typhoid were endemic, as were tuberculosis, syphilis and HIV in their countless manifestations. Sleeping sickness, virtually eradicated a decade ago had made a steady comeback owing to the fact that the expensive anti-microbial needed to treat it, became unprofitable to manufacture as the demand waned. At any one time, malaria took up a third of the beds. In fact, most unwell patients, no matter what their underlying diagnosis, probably had malaria compounding the problem.

Forgot to put the hand brake on?  (Photo: DN)

Forgot to put the hand brake on? (Photo: DN)

Trauma cases were also very common and had the power to spring all staff into action. The majority came from the country’s primary road, which ran outside the hospital. Children were often the victims and whilst the hospital could manage simple fractures, we were limited beyond that. Once stable, we would try and refer these patients to Jinja, the nearest city, four hours away. This was usually a problem as the family were expected to pay for the ambulance. We had two paediatric head injuries in the space of a week. One had fallen from a mango tree, sustaining a deep depression skull fracture. He was conscious but with a weak leg, corresponding to the area of brain injury. The second was unconscious and seizuring, having been hit by a truck. Their right pupil was blown out; a bad sign. We controlled the seizures and the patient’s level of consciousness improved. We also managed to persuade the x- ray department to take a ‘trauma series’ free of charge (a set of x-rays surveying neck, ribs; pelvis etc). With both cases there was a long delay whilst the family dashed around borrowing money for an ambulance. Although the ambulance had been donated by the UK government, there were no funds available for diesel or a driver. Patients would sometimes decide to take crowded public transport instead.

The patients were, on average a much younger demographic then the U, if they could get good early management it was amazing how they could bounce back into good health. However they would only come in when they were really unwell. Severe malaria was often a positive example. Children especially would come in profoundly unwell. Fluids, Anti-malarials, antibiotics and not to forget glucose (malaria causes hypoglycaemia) and they could be sitting up and eating in a 24 hours. HIV patients were of course an exception to this; the end-stage of the disease being a slow loss of ground to recurrent infections.

As our time there lengthened, we learned how to play the game. Even in the hyper-systemised NHS, every hospital has its knacks, shortcuts and magic words; its go-to people, favours and trusted professional relationships. Iganga wasno different. A good example was with a man who was brought in unconscious, although breathing slowly and seemingly stable. The only other history we were able to illicit, was is his positive HIV status. We did what we could, but he needed referring. We had learned that research projects often funded patient treatment, so we made an urgent referral to the Cryptococcal Meningitis Research Programme in Kampala. He was accepted the following day as a possible diagnosis. Unfortunately we don’t know what happened after that.

Of course we didn’t spend all our time at work. Also in the hospital, we met Kat, a medical student from Boston who would often join us for a ward round and escape with us for coffee. In the Sol café, a bar popular with NGO workers and Peace Core volunteers we also met Keeley and Morgan, who were working on projects nearby. Together we began to plan a few trips away to see a bit of Uganda.

I was finishing a ward round with Rich and Kat one morning when I received a text message. It was from a Rwandan number I didn’t recognise. It read:

Crossing_the_DRC_border_today._Back_in_six_days._If_not_back_send_condolences_to relevant_loved_ones._Dan_and_Alki.

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

Episode 15: Uganda. Where Alki arrives, a mad Dan runs off to the Congo and the boys find gainful employment…

Part 1:


Children on the DRC border March 13 2013


Six feet in a drumroll

syncopate with the downpour,

rasping on broad-leaf snares.


In an instant, we meet

under haphazard semaphore,

tumbling shrieks cut short.


Each of us receiving a face;

a frozen, flash photograph;

glossy and sleek, panting clouds.


 Charging steep, you lead the game.

Mouth set in mirth,

faster eyes widened, alarmed.


The jerk of a knee,

the blade of a foot

slid sharp into slick, scarlet mud.


Darting, they dive like sunbirds,

rippling over the edge, free-

falling through elephant grass.


Crashing to a crouch,

enveloped in bush,

the rain’s chattering fuzz.


Bold with invisibility,

a chorus of greeting.

The intruders are tested.


“How are YOU?”

“We are fine.”

“We are FINE.”


Screeches of relief, of

novelty, of connection

are echoed from below

                              and above

                                     and ahead

                                            and behind.

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

  The Lake Turkana crossing had provided a spark of adventure to which none of us could compare. With our Swiss friends, we had become a close convoy, moving through a wild, lawless and occasionally hostile landscape; making and breaking camp; guiding our vehicles over a thousand empty miles of rock, sand and bush.

 Blinking and bewildered we hit the smooth tarmac of South/central Kenya, one of the most developed belts on the continent. Amazed, we watched our average speed jump from 14mph to 55mph. There were people, shops, lorries, noise and lights all around. Was this really the same country where remote police outposts were perpetually battling tribal bandits to bring law?

Tess rolls over the rocks in the midday heat (Photo: RWH)

Tess rolls over the rocks in the midday heat (Photo: RWH)

Once on proper roads, we sped to the Ugandan border, leapfrogging the freight. The rain clouds gathered. We were late for our placement at Iganga hospital where we were to spend the next months. We were also late to meet Alkisti (Alki), Dan’s girlfriend who had flown out from Australia to meet us.

 At the border, we were subject to many questions whilst trying to stamp out of Kenya. The way we had arrived from Ethiopia, there were no border posts for hundreds of miles. We had never been stamped in. Our first contact with Kenyan immigration was trying to leave. There was a good chance we would have to iron out this bureaucratic glitch in Nairobi. Fortunately, an understanding senior stamped us through just as the clouds broke.

  Uganda was two weeks into its rainy season, defined by slow-building pressure and humidity, preceding earth-shattering thunderstorms. At night you could sometimes drive by the flashes of lightening alone. The heavy greens and flooded fields were a world away from the barren scrubland and dry bush we had recently been living in. Barefooted men and women worked the fields under rounded hills where the last shreds of jungle still clung.

 The postcolonial history of Uganda is well know for its brutality and harrowing atrocities. Civil war, Idi Amin and child soldiers all spring to mind. Joseph Koni, the paranoid leader of the Lords Resistance Army, famous for child abduction, mutilation and inflicting bizarre punishments for breaking the Ten Commandments, is still at large in the Congo and fresh in the memory of the northern states. Musavene, the president, is hardly a democratic leader and also has a warlike past. All this said, Uganda was probably the easiest and most pleasant country we had visited so far. The people were witty, cheerful and polite with fantastic, slightly old-world English. Everything, from farms to roads, gave the impression that things were working. The rain, left hand driving and roundabouts gave the place a homely feel.

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

 The entrepreneurial spirit was taking root in this nation. Advertising billboards, a concept we had almost forgotten in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somaliland. Competed like rainforest trees for all available space. Mass advertising (as much as we hate it in the UK) is a reliable sign of an affluent middle class, meaning a smaller Rich-Poor divide and a more stable country. The Ugandan Passion and hyperbole came out in the many of these signs, plastered on the numerous vehicles and small businesses.. They made British advertising seem drab and understated. A few favourites included:

‘Winning beer for winning men’

Doctor Millionaire’s Hotel,

Hero’s Stopover (and booze den)

Maganatu tea ‘I take things personally’

‘Choose ‘A’ for abstinence’

Sandolin paint ‘Trust no one else!’

Mzuzu coffee ‘Through research, we discovered our coffee gives more health benefits than pleasure.’

‘What a Pilsner drinker wants, a pilsner drinker gets’

Metro Signs ‘A business without a sign is a sign of no business’

‘This bus is drenched in the blood of Jesus’

and the winner… ‘The King of Love, Vampire Clan Unisex Hair Salon and Barbers (the clan is for both whites and blacks, one blood)’.

(Photo: DN)

(Photo: DN)

 For the first time on the continent, we even found real-life westerners in large numbers. Uganda, as well as being a growing holiday destination, is Africa’s biggest NGO worker honey-pot, diffusing them out to the farthest villages. Everyone in Africa has their opinions on the effectiveness of NGOs, from the positive to the disillusioned. Staying out of this argument, it’s worth contributing the point that the NGO workers, drinking in local cafes, bars and eating in small restaurants create a huge amount of business. They also integrate far better than fly-by tourists. It was certainly nice for us to have a captive audience for our stories.

 Halfway along the main road from Kenya to Kampala, lay the bustling truck stop-town of Iganga. We arrived at dusk to a riot of lumbering freight, packed minivans, noisy bars and a thousand smoking food stalls. We let Dan go up to the hotel bar first to meet Alki before we followed.

 Alki had last seen Dan in Istanbul three months ago. Since then Dan had undergone a change. His stylish coiffured look had been overgrown by a thicket of beard and hair. Only a tiny portion of his face remained. He perpetually wore a headband made of two socks with Cargo shorts and a vest top. The real changes, however, had happened underneath the tangle of hair.  As he had writhed in and out of consciousness in the Ethiopian bush, wrestling with a fever, something had called him. Adrift on the dark ocean of delirium, he had held on to this alluring force, a distant drumming in time with his pulse, an atavistic summons from the heart of the jungle. When his illness was driven out, his wide-eyed, distant stare remained. Some mornings, we would find him awake before us, staring South over the horizon, as if drawn to something.

 “I’m not coming to work with you in the hospital.” He announced at the reunion supper.

 “I’m going into the Congo.” He paused, seemingly entranced.

“and I’m taking Alki with me.

That night, the background strobe of far-away lightning heralded an almighty deluge that washed away the last memories of the dust and the desert. In the morning, Dan and Alki were gone.

Much needed coffee stop  (Photo: RWH)

Much needed coffee stop (Photo: RWH)

 On that same crisp, wet morning Rich and I met David. David was a head-teacher turned governor of the local school and a tireless community leader.  After the Hospital had accepted our CVs, he offered to look after us and to put us up. It didn’t take us long to realise how lucky we were to have him as a host. David lived with his family in a quiet corner of the town, next to the hospital. We creaked our car into his compound and piled our dusty luggage into the guest annex. We met the household who were equally welcoming: Prossie, his wife; Paula, Caroline and Susan, who would continuously help us out, laugh at our poor clothes washing technique and prepare us lavish meals; and the three present children, who were to become enthusiastic helpers with the work on the car.

  It is difficult to describe how worn by the road we had become but Tess (the car) is more quantifiable. The tyres were cracked and bald and the suspension sagging. The transfer box, front and rear differential had joined in a trio to drip on the floor. It was going to need some serious work. David kindly said that we were welcome to use the compound as our garage.

  Our plan was to work on the car and find new parts, in our free-time out of hospital. We were also hopeful to see the country on our weekends and catch up with all the reading and writing projects we had neglected. Surely there would be plenty of time in the following month…

Ethiopia III The return of the Abyssinian

  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.  

Switchback Number 373

Switchback Number 373

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.

Rudely reading over the shoulder (Dan)

Rudely reading over the shoulder (Dan)

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.

The Dawn of A New (Puncture Prone) Age

 We had developed a bad habit of Samosas. These little bundles of food poisoning sit for an unknown length of time in shops, quietly incubating before a hungry traveller, looking for instant gratification decides to take a chance. Rich had taken ill. After a long, draining day of Timkat festivities, Rich was put to bed in the tent whilst Dan and I hit the town. We met our Swiss overland companions then picked up Bob. He had managed not only to cycle the long, mountainous journey from Khartoum, recover from the exhaustion, heat-stroke, injuries and illness but also to befriend half the Rastafarian community of Gondar.

The streets of the city were alive and merry. We had found a local place, which sold beer at a negligible price and a popular dance bar. Ethiopia has opted out of the cultural influences of Europe and America that so much of Africa aspires to. Instead they have their own music, films and dances.* We made the bad decision of ordering food at the dance bar. During our two-hour wait for food, what had been a peaceful, sit-down restaurant erupted into a heaving nightclub. A live band blared out the ubiquitous rocksteady beat with wandering Casio trumpets and vocals that leapt across scales. The room filled with a blur of flamboyant uniforms and traditional dresses straight from the festival. All around, shoulders bobbed at a speed we were unable to replicate. The Ethiopian dance style represents courting birds of paradise, with men bouncing and puffing around women who shake their hair and shoulders. Through the maelstrom came a determined waiter with bowls of pasta held high. Squatting low on stools, we ate what we could beneath a thrusting canopy of dancers before a man dressed as a lime-green silk matador drunkenly flung himself across our table, scattering what was left. We abandoned our supper and entered the fray.


The following morning, Rich awoke fully recovered from the grip of the Samosa bug. However Dan was now suffering the combined onslaught of food poisoning and a fiendish hangover. He wouldn’t leave the tent for several days. I was somewhere in between, hungover and tired from having spent most of the small hours explaining to a girl that a dance, regardless of its talented execution, does not mean marriage is inevitable. I was not exempt from driving to pick up our friend Megan, bright and early, from Gondar airport.

Megan is so far the only person to brave the African leg of the expedition. An old school friend, Cornish resident and fellow Perraner, not only was she coming out to Africa but enduring two weeks with the expedition. I was a little worried at what she would find.

She would be a new species in an ecosystem that had taken a long time to evolve and equilibrate. The three core members of the expedition had been on the road since the beginning of October. We were into our twentieth country, un-separated from our vehicle or each other. Those clean cut, Cornish doctors had become a tangle of uncut hair, moustaches, running jokes and complex systems. Every position and aspect of the car had evolved a name; we practically spoke a different language when driving or packing. We were probably a little too comfortable with crowded, dusty streets, the intensity of arriving in every village as a celebrity and day after day of bush camping.

I had time to down a couple of superbly strong Ethiopian coffees before we drove to the airport. I managed to fit a dramatic passport loosing-finding fiasco into the hour we had to wait for the internal flight. Megan arrived. During the excited greeting, she disguised her reaction to the state of Tess and us expertly. She was able to catch the last big day of processions and celebrations.

The following days were spent preparing for our onward journey and waiting for Megan’s bags to arrive. They had probably gone through more countries then the expedition. In her luggage however was an Aladdin’s trove of marmalade, marmite, letters from loved ones and single malt without which the expedition would have certainly ground to a demoralised halt.

The city returned to relative normality, Dan stayed in his tent in a shady spot in the garden, exhausted by his malady. He would only whisper faint acknowledgments of our presence during the day. By night, he would babble, laugh or cry-out in primal terror at whatever fever-fueled illusion taunted him. Meanwhile, I had by the skin of my teeth avoided betrothal to a daughter of a powerful Gondar family. Just as the situation was really escalating – having met the mother, brother, sisters and stern, three-piece-suit wearing father – I was dumped, apparently due to my unpredictable future plans and non-committal behaviour. It was time to leave.

As I have said before, the Great Rift Valley, that runs the spine of east Africa, has some pretty serious geography going on. The Simien Mountains are where the Rift Valley is at its riftiest/most-rifted/riftigenous; the bigger brothers of all the other Ethiopian mountains; ‘The Playground of The Gods’. Most amazing is how the land here plunges in great folds down to bellow sea level in the volcanic Danakil depression.

Our venture into this lofty playground had a few ill-fated turns. As we had our own car, we thought we could keep costs down and only hire a scout, without taking a guide. All of the scouts are old war veterans who fought against the Derg and were allowed to keep their guns. The scout we picked up was an ancient, arthritic soldier who spoke no English.

We spent a chilly night in Debark, the last town, before setting off early the next day. Our car was a modest six with the scout, Megan and Bob, whose bike we strapped to the roof. A few miles out of town we took a steep track that fell off the edge of the range. Although we had started above 3000m, we all had a nagging feeling about heading down several monumental cliffs, rather than up into mountains. However there didn’t seem to be another road and our scout sat peacefully in the front, as one would expect from a man going along his usual route.


After four hours winding down rocky paths only really fit for mules, we had a puncture. As the countless, would-be assistants melted out of the landscape to stare at us changing the wheel, I craned my head up at the wall we had dropped down. I thought I’d better just check with our guide. He tried to escape the conversation when I asked for the name of our destination but I noticed him flinch in realisation at ‘Sambikir’ the name of the first camp. He shrugged his shoulders and made an elaborate show of shooing away the locals with a pointed AK47, as if to highlight that he was a guard, not a guide. This façade of ignorance was fooling no one. He caved under further interrogation to reveal that despite being only a few miles as the crow flies from our ultimate destination, a couple of those miles were vertical. We would have to go back to the beginning. This marked the start of a time I would like to call ‘the flat tyre era’. The rest of the day was spent with the five of us (plus gloomy scout) crammed inside Tess, climbing back up to the start.

It was dark when we limped into camp. We had salvaged some of the day by finding and following a thousand strong troop of Gadella baboons, the largest and most peaceful of their kind. We had also endured a further puncture, using up our second spare. We found the Swiss camped in a grassy clearing overlooking a sheer valley. Over supper they told us that they wanted to leave their car hidden in the mountains in order to trek away from the road. They asked us whether we could find it and drive it on to the third campsite, where they would pick it up a day later. We readily agreed. The plan seemed flawless.

The following morning we awoke to find golden sunlight kissing the peaks and Tess listing over a third flat. Our Toyo all terrains that we had bought second hand on e-bay had held up well until now, but seemed to be failing on the rough mountain roads. Rich decided to attempt fixing the tyres in the bush and look after Dan. Meanwhile I would take a trekking party of Megan, Bob our confused scout to see the waterfalls. We would try and locate the Swiss’ car (a day’s walk ahead) then await the Landie before heading in convoy deeper into the range. Over breakfast, as if to mark an omen, a Black Kite circled, then dive-bombed Megan as she prepared breakfast, making off in a hiss of feathers with a doughnut in its talons.


The morning’s trekking was deifying; worthy of a power ballad. We walked along the edge of oblivion, tumbles of highland, tiny farms, houses and soaring eagles all miles beneath us. By lunchtime we were at the waterfall, a great granite cleft, disappearing into the shadows of the mountain it had hewn. Tiny, we peered into empty air. The sun caught the backs of rising vultures. Neither sight nor sound could be glimpsed of the bottom. We trekked on to the road to wait for the support vehicle and eat a modest lunch of Samosa roulette.

By three, we were faced with difficult decision. The car had not arrived and was probably back at first camp. The Swiss-mobile was hopefully a few hours up the road. Our bag only had a few jumpers and a coup of water bottles. We decided to take a gamble on the support being close behind and to push on and up to find the car. As long as we stayed on the road, we couldn’t miss Dan and Rich.

We trudged for a further two hours along a high plateaux and past a village, gaining altitude all the way. There was still no sign of the car. Our guide, who seemed to be suffering, was becoming very anxious as the shadows grew longer and a sparse mountain chill began to bite our sunburnt cheeks. It wasn’t really possible to explain our complicated plan to the scout, only keep repeating the name of the point Dario had hopefully left the car. Worryingly, his directions kept changing. We had to keep going.

By six, we were tired and hungry. I was silent with worry. Over each horizon we would scan with binoculars for the silver of a hidden vehicle before heading to the next viewpoint. There was no sign or word from Rich, Dan and Tess. Finally, as the temperature was really dropping, we spied the car.

The group of locals who had been paid to watch it were alarmed when a trio of farangis marched across their field and fell upon the car, ravenously ransacking the vehicle for food and warm clothes. We had no choice but to drive the final ten miles to Debark (the third camp). The road was extremely treacherous and it was my first time in a left hand drive car. Our poor scout wisely did not release his white-knuckled grip of the handrail for the whole journey.

After navigating several precipices we rolled into the final camp. The low light was electric pink. Ravens and vast Lamergiers swooped and crowed around the cluster of buildings. Otherwise the thin air was silent. We watched sunset with an eagles’-nest panorama. The high mountain moors were wild and cold above us. The song of the Simien wolves drifted just beyond recognition. That night we spent our meagre funds on a hot meal. We had no warm clothes and no sleeping bags. The car had a roof tent, a towel and a thin blanket. Temperature dropped to around minus five as we huddled together for scraps of sleep.


Meanwhile, Rich had been thwarted by a series of cheap Chinese pumps, which broke in quick succession. He was forced to hitchhike back to the town, rolling two wheels to be repaired. He salvaged his situation somewhat by infiltrating the dinner of a Belgian tour group and charming their daughters. Dan spent the night alone in the wilderness with just his delirious nightmares for company.

Our delivery complete Bob, Megan and our broken scout were forced to hike back until we could flag down a vehicle. We eventually jumped into a road builder’s truck filled with the mountain’s commuters. In the trailer we held on to wherever we could as the driver accelerated around sheer-sided corners with complete disregard for potholes or his suspension. Megan, Bob and the scout kept their heads wisely inside the trailer bed. We had all seen the skeletons of trucks and holes in the barriers that mark out the Ethiopian roads like milestones. Bob had even witnessed the last expressions of a mini-van full of passengers as they left the mountainside on two wheels. I remained standing and planned how to jump out and roll, were we to go over.

Today the driver had prayed sufficiently and we arrived back at Tess to be reunited with the complete team. We headed back to Gondar to recover.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Been through the desert in a car with no name…

We decided to drive the Oasis road, looping for 800 miles west, away from the Nile, rejoining it at ancient Luxor. Diesel was a big problem. The country was virtually dry due to the conflict inhibiting trade. To avoid the day-long queues of lorries, one had to turn to the black market. Fortunately, Sam had a contact, Badri, a local Bedouin, in the oasis of Baharia, who would arrange for onward fuel. The fact that diesel was three times the price on the black market vexed us little as this brought it up to 33p a litre.

Before we left Cairo we were able to have lunch with Enrique, a Spanish journalist fresh from the pre-referendum interviews. The country was poised to vote on a new constitution. Essentially it would decide if the country’s laws would be based on the Holy Qur’an and whether the judiciary would be able to overrule the president. Divisions were running deep in a country fresh to democracy and there seemed no question of compromise. More organised and with the mosques as a platform, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood looked poised for a successful ‘yes’ vote.

Thus began our days driving the dot-to-dot of oases. We crossed the sharp border away from the dense, living Nile. We crossed over to where the only sign that anything lives, or has ever lived, is the shimmering asphalt. That evening we killed the engine to make camp. Our ears rang with silence.

The Western (Libyan) desert is impossibly dry but deep beneath lies a fossil sea, ‘the aquifer’. Water can be tapped where the land recedes below sea level. Today diesel-powered pumps provide ‘unlimited’ water for the networks of villages and farms in each basin. Nobody knows the origin or limits of this mysterious underground sea and the oasis people are not the only ones pumping. A thousand miles west in Libya, ‘Gadaffi’s Underground River’ pipes untold gallons away to the coastal settlements, on a much larger scale. It is no surprise that many believe the future wars of Africa, will be fought over water.

A night’s camp and a day’s drive on a good road brought us down into the flat basin of Baharia. Here we met Badri, friendly and serene, for a late lunch. Sure enough he had arranged for 100 litres of diesel. We filtered it into our car and jerry cans to remove the water, which is often added by Egypt’s ‘businessmen’, to bulk out the sale. This time, we found it to be of excellent quality. Pressing on, we made it out, over the lip of the depression and were once more alone to watch the sun set. That night’s camp was a particularly jovial one as we sat around a roaring fire under an appropriate crescent moon drinking Saqara lager and singing.

The next day we reached the White Desert, miles of wind-cut, blinding chalk. Stacks of rock had been preened by a titanic topagiarist into mushrooms, rabbits and other shapes that, were we all not so pure of thought, could be interpreted in a suggestive manner. We left the car and wandered like liliputians in a madman’s garden until the heat drove us back.

The White Desert

The White Desert

The Oasis of Farafra, where we headed next, is the remotest bead on the bracelet, perched on the edge of the Great Sand Sea. Here another friendly face awaited our arrival. Juan, a friend of my uncle, had moved from Spain a few years ago to set up a hotel on the peaceful frontier. The mud-brick hotel was not yet ready and the situation back in Cairo meant few people were passing through. We pulled up at the gateway and were warmly received.

The hotel was the last building before the great sea. We had lunch in a shady, blooming garden. Supply lines were unpredictable and Juan received most of his food freshly grown and local from the Bedouin. We talked about the easy, interdependent community he had been welcomed into, of water pumps and of the summer when everyone lives and works at night to avoid the deadly heat. Our voices were pure in the silence, the void behind us absorbing all sound. Beyond the tended garden we walked out, barefoot in the late afternoon sun. The Oasis seemed like a raft, temporarily granted life on a calm ocean, serenely bobbing near an unfathomable shelf.

The Great Sand Sea

The Great Sand Sea

We spent a further two days in the desert, driving, climbing to vantage points and charging down the dunes. Other cars or people were rare enough to warrant comment whenever they occurred. We finished each other’s sentences, chuckled over long-running jokes and argued bitterly over which way north was or how best to divide the remaining jam. I feel sorry for the next people to travel with us.

Our struggle with the Egyptian institutions continued as we drove through overstaffed, isolated checkpoints. As early as the Old Kingdom, Egypt had developed a centrally organised system that could accurately forecast crop yields, co-ordinate labour and calculate taxation. In short, the Egyptians invented bureaucracy. The hundreds of lavish tombs of scribes with titles such as ‘overseer of the harvest’ or ‘commissioner of art’ implied that taking advantage of an official position was not a new concept. Even now an entire section of society still depends on checking, stamping and low-level backsheesh. This, coupled with the ‘Inshalla’ mentality (literally “if Allah wills it” but actually meaning anything from “possibly” to “yeah right”) means that everything in Egypt tends to take a long time.

Another two jerry cans of backstreet diesel brought us late one night into Luxor. We blinked, wide-eyed and dusty at the lights. Accustomed to the peace of the desert, we were overwhelmed by the milling street crowds in long robes and the stampeding traffic. We escaped into a hotel for a much needed shower.

Running away with it!

Running away with it!

Luxor is a whirling rush of living streets, merging under the great temples of the New Kingdom (relatively new, this cluster of dynasties is still over three thousand years old). A parade of markets and vendors vied for our custom as we walked to the centre. Here we were granted a glimpse of Ancient Egypt at its height. Again, there were almost no tourists. Before we left for Aswan, we crossed over the river to spend the day in the Valley of the Kings, once hidden, high in the escarpment. The tumbling necropolis and network of deep, painted tombs was preserved to the point of defying time completely.

The weekly ferry for Sudan was pressing us on. We left Luxor and headed on up the Nile for Aswan and the old Kingdom of Nubia.