Ethiopia, Part 9: Off-Road Convoy thru Omo Valley

26 – 31 July 2011

My time in Ethiopia was coming to an end and I had a fantastic route planned to make the exit grand. Currently, while traveling overland through Eastern Africa, there is only one area where the riding gets rough and that’s the crossing between Ethiopia and Kenya. There are two options with the first one following the main highway south of Addis Ababa to the border town of Moyale and crossing into Kenya there, after which lies a road that destroys suspensions and invites trouble from warring tribes. I was glad that I was taking the second option, which crosses Southwestern Ethiopia, through the Omo Valley and enters Kenya at Lake Turkana. This route is also rough but much more scenic and epic because of the colorful tribes in the area and the vast wilderness in this faraway corner of the globe.

The remoteness of traveling through the Omo Valley and down along Lake Turkana translates into 900 kms (560 mi) between petrol stations. Even with my huge Aqualine Safari fuel tank, I would need to carry extra reserves. I had been planning this stretch of the route ever since I entered Ethiopia and made friends with overlanding vehicles so that we could convoy together on this route with them carrying extra petrol and supplies for me. In return, I offered to cook for them.

The convoy was initially going to be just me and the VW Syncro motorhome couple of Ferdinand and Katie, from Germany, but word spreads in the overlanding circle about convoys and pretty soon our convoy grew to five traveling parties. The others in our convoy would be: Peter and Jill, a retired British couple who were moving from the UK to South Africa in their home-built Land Rover Defender-based motorhome; Guy and Louise, a younger British couple, traveling around Africa in a baby blue Defender; and Carlos, a biker from Spain on a KTM 640.

We all met and came to know of each other at Tim and Kim’s overlanding junction in Gorgora and set a date and a location to meet up after our tours through northern Ethiopia. We met up in Awasa and then our route took us through Sodo, then Konso, where we filled up all our petrol and diesel reserves and then the off-road started to Turmi, deep in the Omo Valley. After checking out at the immigration outpost of Omorate, and buying some chickens for a curry, we crossed into the barren land along the eastern shores of Lake Turkana and entered Kenya where the border only existed in our GPS.

Come along for the ride and enjoy the diverse peoples and landscapes of the Omo Valley.

Continue reading “Ethiopia, Part 9: Off-Road Convoy thru Omo Valley”

Ethiopia, Part 8: Addis Ababa, Lucy and Shashamane

17 – 25 July 2011

After spending four weeks in northern Ethiopia, I arrived in the capital, Addis Ababa. I had a few things to take care of such as renewing my Ethiopian visa and getting my visa for Kenya. sanDRina was also long overdue for some maintenance, such as a new chain and oil change, which I did at the overland junction of Wim’s Holland House.

Besides the above tasks, I also took some time to just relax and do nothing as a very long off-road leg of the journey was coming up south of here. In the evenings, I met up with new and recent friends and enjoyed the night life of the city. The one touristy and very interesting thing I did during my stay was to pay a visit to Lucy, a very famous and important hominin skeleton that was discovered in Ethiopia in the 1970s and dates back to 3.2 million years ago.

Heading south of Addis, I visited the Melka Kunture archeological site where more human remains and tools were on display and then spent a few days in the Rastafari headquarters of Shashamane, where I was lucky to be there for a reggae concert, that too in celebration of their central figure, Haile Selassie.

Sights of Addis Ababa: looking up Churchill Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the city, which is located at 2,350 m (7,700 ft).

I gave sanDRina a break and walked around and took public transport and in doing so got a look into regular street life. Passing by a busy shoe shine area and noting the huge construction crane as the city booms along.

At the north end of Churchill Avenue, which was a part of my daily route as I lived at the southern end. Nice leather jacket.
Continue reading “Ethiopia, Part 8: Addis Ababa, Lucy and Shashamane”

Ethiopia, Part 7: Lalibela and its Rock-Hewn Churches

15 – 17 July 2011

I made my pilgrimage through the mud of Ethiopia and arrived in the small town of Lalibela, perched on top of a plateau and housing several rock-hewn churches. Built in the 12th century CE, these churches are a marvel, being carved out of solid rock. The story goes that King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela either had a heavenly vision to build the churches or was inspired after spending time in Jerusalem and wanted to recreate that holiest of cities for Christians.

I spent two days there and met up again with Mitch to explore the churches and soak in this architectural marvel of Ethiopia.

I stayed at Helen Hotel for 100 Birr ($5.90) a night and woke up to the sound of construction as a new wing was being built.

The sun was out and I had to dry all my gear from riding in the rain all through the previous day.

Having breakfast of fir-fir, which is chopped up injera with berbere spice, served on injera.

I met up again with Mitch, who was traveling around the Historical Circuit of northern Ethiopia at the same time as me and this was the third city that we regrouped in, after meeting in Gondar and Axum. As we walked up the steep slopes of Lalibela to where the churches were, we came across this group of donkeys, taking back food aid from USAID.

It was interesting to realize the journey that this bag of surplus, subsidized, American wheat has traveled to finally end up on a donkey in Lalibela, being taken to the home of these Ethiopians.

A game of table tennis on the streets of Lalibela.

The grande facade of Lalibela’s biggest church, Bet Medhane Alem…

…the largest monolithic church in the world. These churches have been cut straight into this red volcanic rock.

Pillars of stone of Bet Medhane Alem, towering 11.5 m (38 ft) and surrounding this church of rock.

The serene interior of Bet Medhane Alem, all carved from one solid piece of rock. It is understood that the builders would have started at the roof and worked their way down to the floor, so that rocks wouldn’t be falling on their heads.

The tunnel connecting Bet Medhane Alem to the next church in this group…

…Bet Maryam, considered to be the first rock-hewn church to be built at Lalibela. The steel scaffolding and roof are recent additions by UNESCO to protect some of the churches from water damage. This church highlights what makes the rock-hewn structures of Lalibela so remarkable, in that they are not simply carved into rock, but almost completely freed from it.

Three windows on the eastern wall of Bet Maryam, said to represent the crucifixion of Jesus and the two sinners. Interesting to see that left-facing swastikas have been used to represent the sinners. The swastika, a symmetric cross with bent ends, is an old symbol that has been used by many civilizations and is a prominent symbol in Hinduism. The image of the swastika has been tarnished in the West after Hitler decided to use a right-facing, half-rotated version to represent Nazism.

The deep facade of Bet Gabriel-Rufael (‘Bet’ meaning ‘house of’). Besides the marvel of being rock-hewn, the churches at Lalibela are impressive due to their association with water. Note the small well at the bottom of the trench. The area is very hilly and far away from a river source, but there are water tanks next to each church that fill up naturally from artesian aquifers and rain water. This hydrological system is said to have been designed by a certain Abba Libanos.

Walking through tunnels in the rock around Bet Gabriel-Rufael and marveling at the work done by Ethiopian artisans in the 12th century. The legend says that all the churches were built during the decades-long reign of King Lalibela. Modern construction engineers doubt the time frame and say it must have taken over a century, at least, but believers invoke divine intervention and say that angels came down to help with the rapid construction.

The walkway across the moat at Bet Gabriel-Rufael. The straight sheer face cut in the rock is very impressive.

Another hole in the wall in the rock at Lalibela, leading to another church.

Separate from the other group of churches is the masterpiece of Lalibela, Bete Giyorgis (the Church of St. George). It is a 15 m (50 ft) deep structure in the shape of a Greek cross.

Enjoying the view of Bete Giyorgis and marveling at how it was constructed, about 700 years ago on this hillside in Ethiopia.

The Church of St. George, liberated from solid rock.

The interior of Bete Giyorgis, with its simple structure of a symmetric cross.

A priest inside Bete Giyorgis, which has been continually staffed since its opening. Lalibela is still an important religious site for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.

Levitating (sort of) in the corner of the cross of Bete Giyorgis.

Mitch, feeling the energy from Bete Giyorgis.

The impressive church of Bete Giyorgis in its rock trench. The legend goes that just as King Lalibela was finishing up all the other churches, he was paid a visit by Ethiopia’s patron saint, George, who was quite upset that not a single church was dedicated to him. King Lalibela was very apologetic and promised to build St. George the most beautiful of churches in his honor, resulting in this masterpiece of architecture.

The remains of a mummified corpse in one of the many holes in Bete Giyorgis’ pit.

At St. George’s church, Mitch and I met Nicola and invited her to join us for dinner at the Seven Olives restaurant. Good chats. Nicola is a medical student from Halifax, Canada and was on her last long vacation for the next few years as she was about to enter residency. Crazy girl, she was traveling through northern Somalia and Djibouti, crossing unmarked borders and taking it all in stride. She also enjoys spending time living with tribes and had a great experience with the Hamer people in Namibia and was looking forward to spending time with the Mursi people in southern Ethiopia.

We went out to Askalech Tej House, a traditional tavern where they serve Tej, a honey wine (mead) that’s the popular drink of choice in Ethiopia. It’s served in these glass flasks, a berele, and is really quite sweet, which masks its alcohol content. There are different strengths of alcohol and we got the strongest on offer, a 6%. These tej houses also feature traditional music and the entertainers encouraged the guests to dance with them by getting low and rolling the shoulders to the beat.

The next morning, I headed out of Lalibela and with the bright sunshine, I could see the mountains that I has descended from in the rain. Lalibela is at 2,400 m (7,875 ft) and those mountains top up around 3,500 m (11,480 ft).

As I got closer and started to climb my way back up, I could sense how steep these mountains were and these cathedrals of stone were just as impressive to me as those in Lalibela that man had put his mark on and given significance to.

I took a different route back up the mountain from the one I had taken down to Lalibela and now I saw why the villager had warned me against this route; it was covered in soft mud that was deep and thick enough to mire trucks. This was the shorter route and I hoped the sun would dry out the mud, but nope.

sanDRina and I struggling through the thick mud as we climbed past 3,210 m (10,531 ft). The end of this tough stretch was in sight; less than a kilometer to go, but we were taking frequent breaks as sanDRina’s air-cooled engine was heating up in the slow-going first gear uphill crawl. In tough moments like this, I always say, “at least it’s not raining.” And if it’s raining, then I’m thankful just to be alive…

A look back at the thick mud that we had just crawled through. I’m glad I didn’t go down this way in the rain.

I love riding off-road but after struggling through all that mud, I was relieved to be on pavement again. From here, I was heading south to the capital, Addis Ababa.

I stopped for the night in the small highway town of Komblocoha and got a basic room at Sunrise Pension for 35 Birr ($2). That satellite dish is just for decoration.

Taking a walk through Komblocoha and coming across this horse buggy. These guys were moving along a good clip through town.

Enjoying an Ethiopian Macchiato for 3 Birr ($0.18), one of the delights left behind from the brief Italian occupation. It’s different from a caffè macchiato, where the espresso is marked with a little milk, because here it’s steamed milk that’s marked with an espresso. I’m not a big coffee drinker but the taste of these macchiatoes were heavenly. I later learned the secret to their slightly caramelized flavor when a waitress told me that they add a bit of Ethiopian peanut butter (which is less sweet than western peanut butter) to the espresso. Mmm, I love food fusion.

On the last leg into Addis Ababa, nearly a month after entering Ethiopia.

Not an encouraging sight for users of public transportation in Ethiopia. These mini buses are the main form of public transport and their drivers are really quite mad, overtaking big trucks around blind corners and driving way too fast on all these brand new curvy roads. Many people say traveling by motorcycle is dangerous because even if I’m a careful rider, other dangerous drivers could cause me to crash. But I’d rather be in control of my own machine, slowing down and stopping when I feel it unsafe rather than take public transport where the drivers don’t prioritize your safety.

Taking one last break before heading into Addis and noting this butterfly that got caught in my wheel.

Lalibela is the biggest tourist site in Ethiopia and it’s definitely worth a visit. I had good timing as I could be there with only a few other people around, which gave me the space and time to absorb the grandeur of those monolithic churches. It was amazing to be there in person and marvel at how the designers had to visualize the whole church in their heads and devise their plan for carving it out and not being allowed even a single mistake. Lalibela is a fine example of the impressive capacity of human beings to execute on an idea once we decide we’re going to do it. Even if it seems impossible to the cynics, the rational optimists see the way forward and make it a reality.

Next: Ethiopia, Part 8: Addis Ababa, Lucy and Shashamane

Previous: Ethiopia, Part 6: Historical Axum and Mountainous Twisties

Ethiopia, Part 6: Historical Axum and Mountainous Twisties

12 – 14 July 2011

My ride north through the highlands of Ethiopia lead me to the historical city of Axum. It was here that the Kingdom of Axum flourished from 100 to 940 CE, as they were aware of their strategic location in the trade route between the Roman Empire and India. Axum’s glory days were built on the fact that they had access to African products (ivory, gold, salt) that could be transported via waterways, namely the Red Sea just north of here through Eritrea and the Nile River. Axum is a small, remote, inland city these days, faded from its past glory, but water and riches featured prominently during its golden years.

I met up with Mitch, who I met in Gondar, and together we explored some of the ancient sites in and around Axum. After two days there, I turned south and headed down the eastern side of the Ethiopian Highlands towards Lalibela.


Entrance to the historical city of Axum, in the far north of Ethiopia, once the capital of a great kingdom but today faded to a regional city.

But camel caravans still cross the streets in Axum, just as they did during the millennia-long rule of this kingdom.

I met up with Mitch and we went on a hike with some local friends he made up this hill outside Axum. In the foreground are the rocky fields that teff is grown on with the modern city of Axum down below.

The hike lead to this monastery perched on top of the hill. From here south is old-hard-to-reach-monastery land in Ethiopia, an area dotted with similar sites, a testament to the strong Christian tradition here. In the 4th century CE (AD), King Ezana II introduced Christianity to his kingdom after being converted and baptized by Saint Frumentius, who was made a bishop by the Coptic Church in Alexandria in order to spread the faith.

A photo with Mitch and his two Habesha (Ethiopian) friends. Mitch’s grandfather worked in the banking sector of Addis in the 1970s and was traveling around the country this summer to get to know the land that his recent ancestor lived in. He hitched a rough ride in a delivery truck from Gondar to Axum and was jealous of my transportation. A nice connection with Mitch is that his father works for a top team in Formula 1 and that’s the only sport that I follow, so I heard lots of inside stories during our hike.

After days of eating Ethiopian vegetarian food, which is delicious, we splurged and got some grilled goat tips, which is had with some berbere spice mixed with oil. Mmm, mmm, good.

In the afternoon we visited the prime historical site in Axum, the Northern Stelae Field; a site where many tall obelisks stand. Just like the pyramids of Egypt and Sudan, these stelae mark the location of the tombs of royalty and other important people of their time. The stele on the left is called the Obelisk of Axum and it stands 24 m (78 ft) tall and the stele on the right, with the supports, is King Ezana’s Stele, at 21 m (70 ft). Axum is a seismically-active zone and most stelae have fallen, except King Ezana’s, which has been standing since it was built in 4 CE. That was also the last time that Axumities made obelisks, because the new Christian order forbade this pagan practice.

The Obelisk of Axum, thought to have fallen and broken a few years after it was made in 4 CE. During the brief Italian occupation of Ethiopia (1936 – 1941), Mussolini ordered this broken stele to be brought back and erected in Rome, as a spoil of war and as a symbol of his new Italian Empire, which only lasted those five years. After much wrangling by Ethiopia’s rulers over the next few decades and with the UN pushing, Italy finally accepted to return this obelisk to the Ethiopians in 2003. But transporting such huge stones were an issue for the now land-locked Ethiopia and only after the runway at Axum was reinforced could an Antonov An-124 cargo plane land and return the stele in pieces. The obelisk was rebuilt and opened to the public in 2008 and at the same time, they reinforced King Ezana’s Stele.

The Obelisk of Axum with its rounded-top that was originally covered in polished metal. Below the top are false windows in the granite obelisk for the royal spirits to look over their subjects.

At the base of the obelisks in Axum are two false doors to symbolize the entrance to the underworld.

The Northern Stelae Field of Axum with many broken stelae lying around, with the Great Stele in the center. The history of the site is interesting but the actual area was a bit disappointing as there are electric power lines running through the site along with the area looking quite disorganized.

The Great Stele, lying broken on the ground, supposedly to have fallen during construction in the years around 4 CE. If it was standing, it would be the tallest stele at 33 m (108 ft). My guess is that the stele designers of Axum decided to make subsequent stelae shorter in height so that they would actually stand, like the other two royal stelae, sort of.

Nearby to the stelae field is this giant water reservoir, which Ethiopians believe is Queen of Sheba’s Bath. She is a prominent figure in Ethiopian history and from whom all Ethiopian emperors claimed direct descent, from the first, Menelik I in the 10th century BCE to the last, Haile Selaisse in 1974. Her importance is largely due to the Ethiopian story that she was tricked into sleeping with King Solomon during a visit and conceived Menelik I who was given the revered Ark of the Covenant to take to Ethiopia for safe-keeping. The ark is said to contain the original stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and to this day, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that they sit in a special church in Axum, but nobody is allowed to see it.

The outer edges of modern Axum…

…harking back to the old days. As my friend Scott would say here, “Waddup, cow!”

The Lioness of Gobedra, a large relief carved on this rock on the outskirts of Axum. Not much is known about its significance except a local story that says Archangel Michael was attacked by a lion here and he repelled the lion with such a strong force that it left an impression on this rock.

Walking back into town on Italy Street, which is paved with cobble-stones, much like the rest of the city.

Getting a huge glass of fresh mango juice, which was delicious with a hint of lime. Two glasses, for Mitch and I, cost just 10 Birr ($0.60).

Passing by and taking a look at these beef carcasses hanging with their friendly butcher welcoming us in. Most Ethiopians fast about half the year by not eating meat on those days, but they do love their meat. There is a special Ethiopian dish called kifto, which is minced raw beef mixed with mitmita, a spice mix, and niter kibbeh, a spiced clarified butter.

Back on the road, heading east from Axum to the junction town of Addigrat, where turning north leads to Eritrea and south to Addis Ababa.

The road was in excellent condition and the scenery was epic, with numerous volcano-shaped mountains covering the landscape. The overcast day added to the ominous feeling that I had, riding alone in this giant landscape. Just beyond those mountains lay Eritrea, a country that shares much of its cultural history with Ethiopia, but today, due to politics, these brothers consider each other enemies, much like the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan.

Enjoying the wonderful twisties of northern Ethiopia and longing for a sport bike to truly enjoy these undulating curves…

…but sanDRina is a good compromise bike in that she can ride well through mud and sand and still be a joy on twisty pavement, even while loaded down with all my worldly possessions. The DR650, a fine example of a dual-sport motorcycle. Yeah, I’m cutting the corner, but this is an open corner and there was really no traffic, almost.

The mountains flowing their energy into sanDRina, who’s showing off her past travels in a distant continent. The big sticker on the bottom is from the city of Brazilian city of Sao Luis, where I spent three weeks, followed by a timeline map of the Universe from the Big Bang to the present and the X-bar sticker is from the Long Now Foundation, a group dedicated to raising awareness about long-term thinking, instead of our current short-term and end-times preoccupation.

Climbing some serious grade as I crossed a mountain range that rose from the 2,100 m (7,050 ft) elevation around Axum up past 3,050 m (10,000 ft) before descending to Addigrat.

I came flying around this corner and was greeted by a group of Ethiopian children, all running out to sell me some prickly pears, which were in season now. I really wanted to stop as I was hungry and enjoy this fruit, but there was no safe place to stop and I knew I would be mobbed if I did, so I kept on, knowing I would find it again. Like this, there were many times where people would run out onto the road pushing some fruit or vegetable for drivers to buy.

sanDRina was running in top form, climbing and descending these mountainous twisties when after rounding out a hairpin turn, I lost all drive and the engine quit on an uphill incline. I first checked to see if there was fuel in the tank and there was. She started up but if I opened the throttle, the engine died. I figured something was up with the carburetor and found the culprit when I opened the bottom of the carb and saw that this jet needle came out with my main jet. Hmmm…

The jet needle is supposed to be attached to the black slider, which is attached to my throttle cable and the jet needle goes in and out of a hole in the main jet, which determines how much fuel and consequently, air to allow into the engine to combust into power. The jet needle is secured to the slider by a small cir-clip, which worked itself loose and dropped the jet needle into the main jet and starved the engine of fuel and air when the throttle was opened. Followers of the journey will remember that I had an on-going issue with the jet needle during my time in Brazil, which was finally sorted when my sister and Gus, my mechanic friend in Chicago, shipped me a new jet needle. That was installed 26,018 kms (16,170 mi) ago in Buenos Aires and has been running fine since then until now, which is not bad for a mean time between failure (MTBF) of this system.

I put the cir-clip back on the jet needle and reassembled everything and sanDRina was running fine again. Of course, by this time, there was an audience to my road-side repairs of nearby villagers, who were very polite and just let me get on with diagnosing and fixing the issue. If there had been just kids around, I’m sure I would’ve been hassled a lot to give money, pens or sweets. There really was very little traffic on this road, evident by everyone just standing in the middle of the road.

sanDRina was running great once again and I hoped the fix would hold as I was riding the technical mountainous pass before Addigrat, which was non-stop switch-backs on roads with no guard rails. To add to the technicality of the road, I had to anticipate trailer trucks cutting the corners, such as this guy around the upcoming switch-back.

Climbing high and capturing the terrace farming of these mountainous people.

At the summit of the pass, 3,057 m (10,027 ft), I encountered heavy fog, which at times reduced visibility to a few meters. But that soon cleared up as I descended down the other side to Addigrat, from where I turned right and started heading south once again.

A little past Addigrat, I found a lone prickly pear seller by the roadside and stopped to enjoy a lunch of 10 of these delicious fruits. They’re also known as opuntia or cactus fruit, as they grow on the ends of cactus leaves. They have to be peeled carefully to avoid the small thorns, called glochids, that are very hard to remove once lodged in the skin. She would peel them and then I would pick the exposed fruit flesh and pop it in my mouth, where it just melted. It’s really sweet and I couldn’t get enough. They’re native to the Western Hemisphere and were introduced to Eritrea and Ethiopia during Italy’s brief East African sojourn.

Riding into the afternoon and capturing these hardy donkeys as they trudged along on the road with their makeshift goods carrier, which was an oil drum, split in half and then bent to form across the spine.

It threatened to rain just as I got near Mekele, but I made it to a hotel before the daily onslaught of falling water.

Stopping for the night in Mekele and enjoying secured parking at Dallas Hotel for 50 Birr ($3), near the bus station. By nightfall, the courtyard was filled with pickup trucks and vans from workers on the road and in the field.

There wasn’t much to Mekele, so after a stroll through town and buying some dried fruit and nuts for the ride ahead, I ordered some dinner from the hotel’s restaurant. This lovely lady is preparing some tasty tagabino, made the proper way over a charcoal fire, for that added flavor.

Enjoying a quiet night in with dinner in bed of injera with goat tips for 30 Birr ($1.80) and a Planet Earth episode on my laptop. I enjoy being social just as much as I enjoy being on my own.

Waking up the next day to overcast skies and a constant drizzle as I headed towards Lalibela, 445 kms (277 mi) away.

It was going to be a long day as those 400 plus kilometers were all on twisty mountainous roads, which were wet. The air was moist, increasing the humidity and making the reduced temperatures, due to the high altitude, even more pronounced. I was wearing my maximum number of layers, six, and felt comfortable as the temperatures dropped near freezing. My six layers for really cold riding are made up of a natural silk base layer against the skin, then a synthetic base layer, then thermals, then windproof liners, then the Kevlar mesh riding suit and on top of that rain pants and rain jacket. I don’t have heated gear, but this works fine for me and got me through chilly Patagonia and rain riding in Ethiopia.

sanDRina looking clean and fresh after some rain riding on asphalt. Who needs a bike wash? All that mud got cleaned away.

Cactus with blooming prickly pears. They now grow wild all along the roadside, allowing many rural people to pick the harvest and try and sell it while the season lasted.

The roads were seriously ‘this’ steep. At the junction town of Woldia, I turned west to climb the eastern flank of the highlands as I headed towards Lalibela. The road climbed and peaked at 3,548 m (11,640 ft) before dropping down to 1,900 m (6,234 ft) and finishing off in Lalibela at 2,400 m (7,874 ft).

There are two roads that lead to Lalibela and I was told not to take the first one as it was very muddy with the recent rains, so I continued on the high plateau asphalt road that heads west to Bahir Dar and turned off at the second route, which was also dirt but a much improved road, with hard-packed mud. This dirt road descended sharply from the high plateau with lots of muddy switch-backs.

It was a cold day and my rain gear was breached in places, leaving me feeling wet, but all that was worth it for the moment the rain stopped and the lush landscape breathed out its low-hanging clouds into the clear air.

A panorama stitch of the road to Lalibela as it descended down these lush, terraced mountainsides.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Farmers growing teff on the mountainsides of the Ethiopian Highlands.

Riding the last stretch into the architectural wonders of Lalibela.

I moved from one historical wonder of Ethiopia, Axum, to another, Lalibela and the interesting part of traveling with a motorcycle is seeing and enjoying all that’s in-between the sightseeing. With the mountainous landscape of Ethiopia, the in-between stuff is actually more awe-inspiring to me than the historical monuments, at times. It was the rainy season, so I couldn’t fully enjoy all the curves and endless twisties but that only gives me another reason to come back and enjoy the riding paradise that Ethiopia is.

Next: Ethiopia, Part 7: Lalibela and its Rock-Hewn Churches

Previous: Ethiopia, Part 5: Off-roading in the Highlands

Video: Jammin thru Ethiopia | Off-roading in the Simien Mountains

10 – 12 July 2011

Here’s the latest release from Jammin Vidds Production > a video of my off-road ride through the Ethiopian Highlands. I rode the Simien Mountains from Debark, north to Shire, gaining and dropping lots of elevation. It was the rainy season and there was ongoing construction, so lots of muddy crossings. The video starts off with some cliff riding on the beautifully built road near Debark and then slows down for some soupy mud before picking up the pace towards the end. sanDRina was running in top form.

We be Jammin, so turn up the volume and enjoy some funky Afro Beats from Femi Kuti 🙂

Click here for more Videos.

Ethiopia, Part 5: Off-roading in the Highlands

10 -12 July 2011

North of the Semien Mountains National Park in Ethiopia, it gets remote. Most tourists turn south and head back or fly over to Axum to view its historical stelae. But since I have my own rugged transportation, I am free to wander remote paths through less-visited areas. With sanDRina chugging along in fine form, I set off to cross the Ethiopian Highlands from Debark to Shire and into Axum.

This stretch of the northern loop is the last bit to get paved over and I was glad to experience it before asphalt tames the ride. Construction was on-going and that meant there were a few diversions and loose rocks and sandy stretches to cross. The rainy season had properly started and I was bit hesitant about tackling the muddy tracks, but my mud-riding skills were up to par.

I stayed in small towns and was treated to epic landscapes, especially around Adi Arkay where I saw Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia in all its glory on a clear day.

Fueling up in Debark with black market petrol, since there’s no regular petrol station around. Regular petrol price in Ethiopia is Birr 22/L ($5/gal) and I paid Birr 32/L ($7.32/gal) here. The last regular station was in Gondar and the next one is in Shire, 300 kms (186 mi) away. I could easily do that stretch with my massive Safari Aqualine tank, but there was lots of elevation change coming up and I knew there’d be lots of first and second gear off-road riding, which greatly reduces fuel efficiency, so best to top up.

My route through northern Ethiopia. From Debark, I spent the first night in Adi Arkay, then the second night in Indabaguna before rolling into Axum. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

I was in for a treat. This road was constructed by the Italians in the 1940s, during their brief occupation and the grades, switch-backs and routing was excellent.
Continue reading “Ethiopia, Part 5: Off-roading in the Highlands”

Ethiopia, Part 4: The Semien Mountains, The Roof of Africa

9 – 10 July 2011

North of Gondar lies the impressive natural landscape of the Semien Mountains, a large expanse of volcanic origin. This rugged area is a part of the Ethiopian Highlands, which began to rise up 75 million years ago and subsequently got eroded as the East African Rift opened up along with the natural erosive forces of wind, snow and water. The landscape is dotted with the exposed cores of old volcanoes that make for epic vistas.

Surrounding the Semiens are savannah and deserts, so this unique environment has many endemic species of wildlife, like the Gelada Baboon, Walia Ibex and the Ethiopian Wolf. As this landscape rises so dramatically from the depths of the Afar region and the Sahara to the highest peaks past 4,500 m (14,760 ft) the Ethiopian Highlands have been dubbed the Roof of Africa.

Showcasing the best of the highlands is the Semien Mountains National Park, accessed from the town of Debark. I over-nighted in the park on my way around the northern loop through Ethiopia and got to see lots of Gelada Baboons, Lammergeyers (vultures), some deer, bear tracks and lots of impressive views from the steep escarpments that define the park.


I had breakfast at the outskirts of Gondar and enjoyed watching people streaming past with their livestock and other goods to sell in town, as it was Saturday, which is a major market day in Gondar. The road was packed with cows, goats, shepherds, villagers carrying grain and donkeys carrying firewood. It felt like the road wasn’t really for motorized traffic, but more for hoofed traffic.

A few kilometers north of Gondar the asphalt ended and I smiled when I lowered the air pressure in my tires and stood on my pegs.

The Ethiopian Highlands. The landscape is jagged and endless. I was salivating for the views that I was told about further north.

The route climbed up from the 2,100 m (6,890 ft) at Gondar past 3,050 m (10,000 ft) with lots of elevation change in-between. The Tracks4Africa mapset contained the dirt road that I was on and even the major towns along the way, which helped me in my day-to-day route planning.

Running into Laurens and Emma, whom I met at Tim and Kim’s a few days ago. They were on their 90 day honeymoon from London to Capetown. They are both management consultants, working in New York and bought this fully-equipped Land Rover Discovery from Footloose expeditions. They were coming back from the Semien Mountain National Park and told me they were side-swiped by a local bus on a narrow road.

Passing through the busy town of Debark, from where the turn off to the national park is. I’m sure I look like an alien to the locals with all my gear, but hey, safety first.

Picking up an armed scout at the entrance to the Semien Mountain National Park. It’s park regulations because the animals (namely the baboons) could possibly attack, which I don’t think really happens. I had to leave behind my back rest to create space for him.

Within a few kilometers of entering the park, I was greeted by the sight of numerous Gelada Baboons or simply Geladas.

Geladas are unique to the Ethiopian Highlands and can be identified by the bright-red patch on their chest.

An adult male gelada and a youngster sneaking into the photo. Elevation was around 3,200 m (10,500 ft) and the winds were cold and strong, but the gelada is well-suited to this environment with its shaggy coat.

A gelada patrolling his territory, unfazed by the strong winds of the Semien Mountains.

A close-up of the unique mane of the gelada.

They forage on the tops of the plateaux during the day and retreat to the cliffs at night where they sleep. Since there aren’t that many trees or abundant food sources, geladas are unique among primates in that grass makes up more than 90% of their diet. This means they spend a majority of their day picking and chewing grass.

A male gelada showing off his pink chest, necklace and his exposed penis.

Riding on further into the park, I came across this dramatic U-shaped drop in the escarpment. Just like the Grand Canyon, the layers of rocks from different eras are visible due to erosion. The layers at the bottom are older basaltic lava flows, which are covered by more recent flows. Standing on the edge of the cliff, I felt a rush of air rising up the steep sides down from the valley below.

The dirt track that winds its way along the escarpment deeper and deeper into the Semien Mountains National Park.

A boulder, sitting on the edge of the cliff, with great views of the valley below.

Trees clinging on to the steep sides of the Semiens. The dirt track is visible in the distance as it rides the ridge towards the first encampment of Sankaber, where I would be spending the night.

The national park is inhabited by locals and children came running up to my bike whenever I stopped.

My armed scout in the Semien Mountains National Park. He was very friendly and told me where to stop for good views.

My lodge at Sankaber, where I got a bed for 80 Birr ($5).

My bed for the night, which came with lots of warm blankets.

I asked the scout if I could take a bath somewhere and he directed me to this open shower. Using development funds from Austria, they’ve built a small tank and tap system using the nearby stream.

I got my loofa and camp towel out and…

…prepared for a cold, cold shower in the forests of the Semien Mountains. I enjoyed it and thought about the cold showers I took when I was riding through the Andes in Peru. Even if it’s freezing cold, splashing water on my body at the end of the day has become a required ritual.

The views from Sankaber as heavy clouds rolled in over the Semiens.

Deep valleys cut by water and ice. During the last Ice Age (which ended around 12,000 years ago), the Ethiopian Highlands were covered in glaciers that left their mark on the land in the form of U-shaped valleys.

That evening, the heavy rains came with hail, but I was warm in the blankets.

Sunrise over the Semien Mountains.

Silhouettes of flora as the sun rose over the eastern edge of the Semiens.

My scout took me for a walk just after sunrise and we came across some bear tracks.

Beautifully captured paw prints in the soft mud near my lodge.

I felt like my scout could’ve taken me to the animal whose prints these were. He was connected with his landscape and felt at home in the Semiens.

An epic vista that my scout brought me to, just as the sunlight was slowly working its way down into the valley.

I sat on the edge and enjoyed the rush of air up my pants.

Sitting on the edge of the escarpment in the Semien Mountains National Park. I felt like a bird and wished for a hang-gliding wing to jump off and soar like…

…a Lammergeyer. These Bearded Vultures soar the thermals that come rushing up the steep sides of the escarpment. They are scavengers like other vultures, but their diet consists mainly of bone marrow, which requires them to drop big bones from height onto stones, exposing the nutritious marrow.

A Lammergeyer coasting on the thermals with its wings at full span, reaching around 2.5 m (8.2 ft). Its raised left wing tip aides it by reducing lift-induced drag and smoothening the vortex energies that form at the edge of the wing. This feature has been adapted to newer airplanes to reduce fuel consumption, among other benefits. When people question what’s the point in conserving habitat for some random bird, they should be reminded of the lessons that nature can teach our technically-advanced society. And hopefully that will also instill some humility towards our place in nature.

Enjoying the steep cliffs of the escarpment in Semien Mountain National Park.

The exposed cores of volcanoes that define the landscape of the Semien Mountains.

Walking back with my scout, who blends in with his natural camouflage.

A small antelope among the grasses on the plateau of the Semiens.

A sign board requesting respect of nature.

On my way out of the park, I came across more geladas grazing in the morning sun.

The morning time is for socializing and foraging.

Since they primarily eat grass, geladas have developed the grasp needed to clump grass together and pull it.

Aww, who’s got a mouthful of good eats?

Grooming is also part of their morning routine. Since geladas sit on their bottom for much of their day, it’s become hard and callus, unlike other baboons who have a colorful bottom.

As geladas graze on open ground, they need a sentinel to keep guard of swooping lammergeyers and other predators.

The sentinel sounded the alarm and everyone looked to him.

But this little bugger isn’t bothered by some false alarm. He’s scratching and enjoying a good rub.

He looked like he was up to something, so I kept an eye on him.

He climbed up this rock and when he picked out his victim…

…pounced and grabbed his buddy. Score!

He might be cool on the playground but mom needs to groom him now.

A shepherd and his sheep in the national park. Many locals live within the park, as they have for generations, but now there’s conflict between conservation of the fauna and flora in the park and the livelihood of the local inhabitants. They complain that the geladas come and destroy their crops and harass their livestock. And the conservationists complain that diseases spread from livestock to the wildlife. A compromise is needed to keep this situation sustainable.

Horses grazing right next to geladas in the Semien Mountains.

I only had a short visit to the Semien Mountains National Park but managed to get an appreciation for this unique landscape, the Roof of Africa. Steep escarpments with grazing gelada baboons and soaring vultures – the park showcases the Ethiopian Highlands in all its glory. Next up was a few days of riding north of here through similar landscape that could all be a national park.

Next: Ethiopia, Part 5: Off-roading in the Highlands

Previous: Ethiopia, Part 3: Gondar and its Castles

Ethiopia, Part 3: Gondar and its Castles

7 – 9 July 2011

I had a wonderful two weeks break in Gorgora and now I was back on the road for a two week loop through northern Ethiopia. The biggest city in this area is Gondar, known for its castles. The city is also the gateway into the remote northern parts of the country with the majestic Simien Mountains nearby.


The central piazza of Gondar. The city was established in the 17th century but the influence of the short Italian occupation around the late 1930s is still evident today in the buildings around the city center. They have a simplified Italian Moderne style.

On the streets of Gondar. Being an Indian, I’m always proud to see Bajaj’s Auto Rickshaws (tuktuks) in foreign countries. They’re noisy but fill the gap between two-wheel and four-wheel transport.

I had been sleeping in my tent for the two weeks at Gorgora before this, so I was more than happy to pitch up again. I happened to be in town during the graduation weekend of Gondar University and thus, most of the hotel rooms were booked. Tarara Hotel, up above town, is known as being friendly to overlanders and they let me camp in their garden.

I walked down from my encampment and found a small tea stall.

Hot tea and a samosa before taking a walk around town.

Walking along the wall of Gondar’s castle towards one of the entrance gates.

The grand Fasilides Castle in the Royal Enclosure at Gondar. Up till the 17th century, the rulers of Ethiopia generally did not have a permanent capital but moved around their kingdom with their entourage in fortified encampments. Emperor Fasilides broke with tradition and decided to make Gondar his capital around 1635.

The castle is set in beautiful grounds and the cool weather at 2,150 m (7,000 ft) makes for a pleasant visit.

The castle is surrounded by the modern city but it’s future has been protected as it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.

Grand arches leading to grand empty halls. All the rooms of the castle are open to walk through.

The architecture has influences from the Portuguese, Arabs and Indians, indicating the peoples that traded with Ethiopia around the time of Fasilides.

Cages for lions that Fasilides kept to project his power.

Ruins of Turkish baths at Fasilides Castle.

Having dinner with Randy and Dr. Doug. I met Randy in Gorgora after he crossed Lake Tana from Bahir Dar and I met him again on the streets of Gondar that day. He’s from Vancouver and was backpacking around East Africa for a few months and we connected over discussions on his philosophy research. He met Doug, from Minneapolis, who’s a neurologist on assignment in Gondar from his research base in Malawi.

The next day, Randy and I accompanied Doug on his visit to the local hospital, which was set on a lush campus.

Doug’s research is focused on neurological conditions in children and he was here to conduct some workshops and took us for a tour through the wards. I didn’t feel comfortable photographing the sick children, but here’s one of the wards.

Randy introduced me to this delicious dish that consists of crunchy bread on the bottom with heaps of plain yogurt on top and garnished with scrambled eggs, berere spice in oil and onions and chilies. The clash in temperature, texture and spice was fantastic.

In the afternoon, Doug had some free time and offered to take me around Gondar. We walked up to the last surviving church from the 18th century, Debre Berhan Selassie. The exterior is quite simple but…

…the church is known for its exquisite interiors. All surfaces, from the walls to the ceiling, are covered in biblical artwork from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s traditions. The crucifixion of Jesus takes center stage with a symbol of the Holy Trinity above.

The walls depict many stories from the bible in a style that is distinctly Ethiopian. Here, there’s a saint killing a dragon, the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael who reportedly defended the church from being destroyed by the Mahdist Dervishes of the Sudan when they sacked Gondar in 1888. The Madhists burned down all the churches in town except this one.

A striking feature of the Debre Berhan Selassie Church are the 104 faces of angels painted on the roof. Each one is slightly different.

Artifacts that the priests of the church use in their worship at Debre Berhan Selassie.

Looking up at the bamboo roof structure at Debre Berhan Selassie Church.

Outside the walls of the church compound lies an old cemetery overgrown with vegetation.

An ancient grave marker outside the walls of Debre Berhan Selassie Church.

After the cultural tour, Doug took me for a nature walk outside town that he discovered recently.

Walking along a path in the valleys surrounding Gondar.

A path forcing its way across this stone wall, leading to…

…a small maize field and its owner’s hut.

Two ladies carrying some farm produce to sell up in town.

Cultural sights are interesting, but being surrounded by nature is far more pleasing to me.

I was glad I met Doug who showed me this little nature walk. We had good talks but he wasn’t enjoying the people of Ethiopia at the moment and told me to be aware of the growing frustrations that develop after a few weeks there. I could glimpse what he was talking about as all the local children constantly ask any foreigner they see for money or gifts or a pen. I was looking forward to my route north from here into more remote areas.

Walking back into town and passing this Walia Ibex statue. It’s endemic to Ethiopia and particularly the Simien Mountains, where I was headed next.

On my second and last night at Tarara Hotel, a room opened up and they upgraded me from camping in the garden. I wanted to make an early start the next day and didn’t want to have wet camping gear to pack up as the rainy season brought nightly rains.

I enjoyed my short visit to Gondar and was happy to have met some other travelers who showed me some off-the-beaten path sights around Gondar. I got my cultural fix and next up was an immersion in nature.

Next: Ethiopia, Part 4: The Semien Mountains, The Roof of Africa

Previous: Ethiopia, Part 2: Life in Gorgora and Downtime at TimKim Village

Ethiopia, Part 2: Life in Gorgora and Downtime at TimKim Village

1 – 7 July 2011

After being on the move since Cairo, I was enjoying my two weeks of downtime at Tim & Kim Village on the shores of Lake Tana, near the village of Gorgora. I spent the days working on construction projects and other miscellaneous tasks that Tim & Kim needed to get done at their eco-village. I also tagged along with Tim and went for a development board meeting that his foundation runs in the village and got a lunch invite to a professional gardener’s house.


Sunrise from Tim & Kim Village on the shores of Lake Tana. It rained almost every night and the mornings were beautiful.

An old Italian ship, chugging along on Lake Tana. Ethiopia has the claim of never being colonized by a European power, except for a brief occupation by Italy from 1936 – 1941. It was a poor move by Fascist Italy and one reason for this occupation was revenge for Italy’s loss at a previous war with Ethiopia in 1896. Both countries were members of the League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations) and Italy’s aggression against a member country brought sanctions on them and drove Mussolini to seek alliance with Hitler, thereby setting the stage for World War II’s Axis and Ally countries.

Tim and Kim’s has become a waypoint for overland travelers and in my two weeks there, I met quite a few of them going in either direction (north to Sudan or south to Kenya). This is Jen and Don from Holland who are close to finishing up a 3 year round-the-world journey in their Land Rover Defender. They went from Europe down to India, SE Asia, then over to Australia where they took a 6 month break to work and redo their Landie, then shipped to South Africa and are heading north to home. We discussed some of the common issues amongst long-term travelers, such as keeping in touch with old friends and the anxiety about re-integration into society at the trip’s end.

Jen and Don getting back on the road and climbing out of the valley that Tim and Kim’s sits in. Most travelers used the time here to clean out their vehicle, sort through their belongings and just enjoy the space, which is quite rare actually when you’re wild camping or staying in small hotels as you can’t spread out all your belongings in those situations.

Yanou and Mariea continuing work on this school building that Tim had a vision for. Most of the cottages were complete and this would be the last building. Tim and Kim wanted to use this school as a place for holding classes for the villagers and also creating a museum of sorts to display artifacts and handicrafts from the area.

Mariea focusing on the water level to get the pillar as straight as possible. He was looking forward to the day when he wouldn’t have cement encrusted fingers and would instead be managing the front desk and bar.

Life in Gorgora: girls fetching water from the lake.

On a walk through the village one day, Tim ran into this old friend of his. He must’ve been born before or during the Italian occupation and I can only imagine the stories he has to tell.

A block of new store fronts going up, supported by a government initiative. Most of the buildings here are constructed with timber and then covered over in mud. The high use of timber for construction and rapid population growth has lead to a deforestation crisis in Ethiopia, where 98% of its forest cover has been removed in the past 50 years.

A wonderful smile from a beautiful girl in the village of Gorgora. She was balancing a reed basket on her head and couldn’t help giggling when we came across her and asked to take her photo.

Tim and I were on a photo-walk around Gorgora and we saw these children taking shelter from the sun under this big tree. I wonder if the heart carved in the tree belongs to these two…

A pair of Marabou Storks up in the tree.

A herd of cattle grazing just outside Gorgora…

…being watched over by these young cattle herders.

They use a whip to keep the cows in line and this boy enthusiastically demonstrated how to get the gun-shot like sound from the crack of the whip. It was quite hard to achieve but both Tim and I managed. It takes a big swing and a snap of the wrist to produce that sharp sound that travels far.

Walking towards the main entrance into Gorgora. ‘Watch for kids crossing’ and look, there’s a kid.

A signboard for a campaign to stop domestic beatings towards children. There might be a real issue of domestic violence but coming from India, where hard discipline (i.e. beatings) from your parents were the norm as a child, I would hope cultural norms were considered before implementing the program.

Coming across the weekly street market in Gorgora where ladies were selling all sort of items along the main road.

Dried fish (anchovies) and red chilies. Sounds like a good meal.

These two men were welding iron rods on the main street of Gorgora. The man on the right is using two bellows to direct compressed air into a chamber with fuel (charcoal) that has high-enough temperatures to melt steel. The Iron Age (1200 BC – 200 AD) didn’t get going around the world until the invention of the bellows and clearly it’s proven technology and still has a place in the 21st century. These men seem quite content in their methods and while I’m sure they’d appreciate a modern TIG welder, I don’t know if it’d be “appropriate” for the situation.

Having a drink in a bar on main street Gorgora with Yanou and Tim. Beers are fancy drinks, so they only had Pepsis, which was interesting considering the ubiquity of Coca-cola in Africa.

Wall decoration of a skinned rodent.

The hostess cutting up some potatoes in the back, preparing for the evening dinner rush.

I guess it’s progress that the restaurant has piped delivery of water from the village water tanks, but couldn’t the placement be a bit better, like back in the kitchen instead of right in the middle of the main dining room?

The bar doesn’t discriminate against the species of its patrons. These chickens looked like they were done with their drinks and time to get going.

A local religious elder who had quite a look. He was friendly but serious.

On one of the evenings, I was requested to make a curry at Tim and Kim’s and I gladly obliged. This is the kitchen with a great view of the lake.

Happy in my place by the stove.

There was no more goat, so I made a potato curry.

Dinner with Tim and Kim and two pairs of overland travelers. On my right are Peter and Jill, who are emigrating from the UK to South Africa and after shipping all their belongings, they’re making a 3 month trek in an old Defender down to their new home. Since they were heading to Nairobi, they agreed to carry a few heavy spare parts (chain and sprockets) that I didn’t need for now. Next to Tim are Arno and Andre from Holland who are overlanding in a Citroën 2CV variant (deux-chevaux).

The roof structure under the restaurant building that Tim designed and built himself.

Tim was invited for a Sunday lunch at Toklu’s house, who is a professional gardener and the source of all the plants at Tim and Kim’s. I tagged along and Toklu’s family has just served us some huge injera and a bowl of Doro Wat.

A bowl of delicious Doro Wat (chicken stew) served with a boiled egg. This is considered the most popular traditional food that is eaten with injera on special occasions or simply if you can afford it. Ethiopian wat is unique from other stews and curries because the onions are first slow cooked without any oil and only after most of the moisture is gone is oil added along with spices and the chicken.

After the meal, Toklu’s wife performed the coffee ceremony and is roasting fresh coffee beans with its aroma filling the room.

Being a gardener and an outdoors man, Toklu comes across wildlife and is showing Tim the pelt of a wild cat, probably a small leopard.

Toklu showing us the long, rolled-up skin of a python.

After lunch and the pelt showing, we went out back to check out Toklu’s garden and passed his curious cow.

Toklu in his garden and nursery from where he supplies all of Gorgora and its surroundings with plants.

A purple-spotted plant in Toklu’s collection.

A cactus-like plant, but without the thorns.

An old leaning garden chair where perhaps Toklu takes in his pride and joy.

Walking around Gorgora and I came across this old water tanker, showing Ethiopian vehicle plates. Note the chain holding the bonnet down on this old Bedford.

This is one of Tim’s development projects in Gorgora that was recently completed, where a water tank was laid in the ground to collect water from a small stream so that villagers had access to fresh water during the dry season. The tank acted as a small dam. There is piped water in the village, but it runs dry from time to time, so this acts as a back up.

A bunch of smiley Gorgora girls next to the water tank.

Tim holding a meeting of the Gorgora Development Board that he setup through the Tim and Kim Foundation that decides on how to spend the funds allocated to development projects here. The mayor is sitting at the desk with Yanou next to me, then a woman representative and a teacher from the local school. The mayor was pushing for an ambulance service, because the nearest hospital is in Gonder, which is at least an hour away by private car or longer by public means, but it would be too expensive to run and maintain. The board decided on creating a learning center for the youth to entice them to stick with education and see the opportunities it brings.

Back at Tim and Kim’s and Andre and I are doing some servicing on Tim’s classic Land Cruiser. They were going to make a trip to Addis and we rotated the tires, cleaned the air filter and adjusted the brakes. It was good to have greasy hands again and a nice change from cement in my skin.

Tim shot a portrait of me and sanDRina as I prepared to get going soon.

It was time for Arno and Andre to leave in their Deux Chevaux. Definitely an unconventional choice for overlanding through Africa. The car has only a 600 cc engine and it’s pulling two huge Dutch guys and their scant gear. They removed the rear seats and set the front seats back a bit to accommodate their long legs on their long journey to South Africa. They had met up and were traveling with Juren, also from Holland, on a KTM 990 Adventure. An odd couple.

They had quite a few pets on the compound and this here is Killey, who just gave birth to a litter of kittens in this nook in the roof. She was friendly most of the time, but I guess didn’t like her picture being taken now or privacy being invaded.

The Sultans of Gorgora, Tim and Kim’s 4 huge dogs who loved sleeping in the den of the restaurant. They would sleep on each other and on anybody that was sitting in their favorite spot. I’m more a dog-person than a cat-person and I enjoyed playing with these four during my time here. Tim and Kim tried to be cute by naming them all with B-names, from left to right are Butch, Blow, Bluff and Barry. It took a long time to learn all their names.

The youngest mutt, Blow, who can’t see in his left eye and thus just follows what the others in the pack are doing: sleeping, running, barking, etc.

If they weren’t lounging in the den, they were all perched on the restaurant wall, looking for any stray cows or locals who wandered onto the property. If that happened, a series of howls and barking ensued and maybe some chasing. The simple and fun lives of dogs.

A lamp shade that Kim made out of a huge calabash that they found by the lake with the bar in the background.

The evenings were spent sharing tall tales from travelers or dwelling into topics that ranged from development in Africa to the best tasting beers. The other couple here are Ferdi and Katie, from Germany, who’re traveling around Africa in a VW Syncro camper van. I was looking for a vehicle to convoy with on the Turkana route into Kenya as I need them to carry extra fuel for me and after preparing my chicken curry, Ferdi and Katie easily accepted my request. Plus, they were also looking for at least one other traveler for that section of the route, due to its remoteness.

Katie showing a huge, green insect that was calmly perched on her hand.

The wonderful setting of the den and its lighting by the calabash lantern.

The view, just before sunrise, from Tim and Kim’s cottage out across Lake Tana.

Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile and the largest lake in Ethiopia with an average depth of only 8 m (26 ft). It provides most of the water to the Nile that flows through Sudan and into Egypt. The fertile sediments that have nutured the desert people through the eons all flow from this lake.

The quartet of Butch, Barry, Bluff and Blow barking at something on the water’s edge.

Like that island out there, there are many such islands out on the lake with old Portuguese monasteries on them, which are a major tourist draw. However, tourism here is a far cry from that of Egypt or Kenya. Those rocks on the right were where Tim and I jumped in for our daily skinny dip. Most lakes in Africa are considered not safe for swimming due to the chance of getting Bilharzia (schistosomiasis), but Tim told me that the chance of getting it is greatly reduced if you swim only in deep areas (such as near those rocks) and if you are in and out and dry under 10 minutes, as it takes time for the parasitic worm to work its way under your skin. I believed him and I haven’t contracted the disease, so it’s a good plan for prevention while taking dips in Africa.

My last day there was also the day that Tim and Kim were leaving for Addis and a month off back in Holland, for fundraising and a small holiday meeting friends and family. The local staff were very emotional about their leaving and Kim said the girls in the kitchen fear that they won’t return, leaving them without jobs, but they always come back as this project is their baby. I thanked Tim and Kim for taking me in and giving me the chance to get to know one place better.

One last Dutch meal at Tim and Kim’s of a pancake with oranges and honey. From now on, it was going to be injera and more injera.

All ready to roll out and saying good-bye to Mariea and wishing him all the best with the future of Tim and Kim’s.

I was thankful for these two weeks at Tim and Kim’s for the chance to stay in one place for a long while as it allows time for relationships to develop. I got to know Tim by working with him and going on walks through the village and he also got to know more of this Indian on a motorcycle. I got to know Mariea and Yanou and the psyche of two driven rural Ethiopians. While I didn’t get to know any more of the villagers personally, walking through a few times made me a familiar face and allowed me to take photos of their lives, which I find difficult to do if I’m just in a place for a short time.

Next: Ethiopia, Part 3: Gondar and its Castles

Previous: Ethiopia, Part 1: Riding into Gorgora and TimKim Village

Ethiopia, Part 1: Riding into Gorgora and TimKim Village

22 – 30 June 2011

Welcome to the land of coffee, mountains and injera. Ethiopia sits in the Horn of Africa with the Great Rift Valley running through the whole country and defining its hugely varied landscape. This beautiful land, which is half fertile and half desolate, has nurtured the people of Ethiopia through the ages. It is an ancient land, with powerful kingdoms that have survived longer than their neighbors due to their natural defenses and riches.

It is a land full of interesting facets, such as being the place where the coffee bean was discovered and where midnight corresponds to 6 am. Ethiopia is considered to be part of the ‘cradle of humanity,’ referring to an area that has brought up many of the earliest human remains, such as the famous skeleton of Lucy (3.2 million years old) that helps us understand where we Homo sapiens come from. In more modern times, Ethiopia is the only African country (besides Liberia) that wasn’t colonized during the Scramble for Africa. When other African countries started gaining independence after World War II, most of them modeled their flag colors based on Ethiopia’s, with the result that the red, yellow and green livery has come to symbolize all of Africa.

I spent six weeks in Ethiopia and had a full tour of the country, seeing the majestic Simien Mountains, admiring the might of the Axum Empire, marveling at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, taking in our ancient human history and exiting through the dry lands of the south into Kenya.

As soon as I crossed over from Sudan, I took some downtime at the overland campsite of Tim and Kim’s near the village of Gorgora and the first two photostories cover my two weeks spent there.


From the Ethiopian customs compound looking at the border town of Metema, just beyond those gates. I was currently in no-man’s land as I had spent the night in the customs compound.

Due to my late arrival at the border, the previous evening, I managed to get myself through immigration but the customs office had closed and that meant sanDRina was checked out of Sudan but not checked into Ethiopia. The customs officers told me it was no problem and that I could camp there for the night and they would take care of stamping my carnet in the morning.

I had setup my tent next to sanDRina but a busted zip on my tent’s rain-fly made me seek shelter from the nightly heavy rains in the hut of a customs officer. I had planned to just camp on the porch, but Officer Shimel invited me to bring my tent into his hut. How very nice of him. We chatted a bit and he told me he had just been posted here from the Djibouti border. Ethiopia has the unfortunate stance of being the most populous land-locked country in the world, so most everything is imported through the ports in Djibouti and Sudan. Officer Shimel told me that electronics and cars come through Djibouti and oil and gas comes through Sudan.

In the morning, before I could even brush my teeth or wash my face, I was told the customs office was open and quickly got my carnet stamped. With the documents all stashed safely, it was time to enjoy Ethiopia. Officer Shimel invited me for breakfast and I was so happy to smell spicy food cooking. The rich, red color comes from the spice mixture of Berbere, unique to Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine.

Officer Shimel in the customs dining room with a hot plate of fir-fir, which is chopped up injera mixed with the spicy berbere sauce that was cooking outside, served on top of injera. The staple carbohydrate in Ethiopian cuisine is the uniquely-tasting injera, which is a slightly sour, spongy, flat bread made with teff, a cereal that is native to the Ethiopian Highlands.

After a hearty and spicy breakfast, I rolled out of Metema and into the exciting mountainous landscape of Ethiopia that I heard so much about from passing travelers. After riding in the desert for the past six weeks, I welcomed the rise in altitude. It was about 760 m (2,500 ft) at the border and I would soon climb higher. Note the yellow line on the outside of the road – must be the same Chinese company that built the roads in Sudan.

My route through Ethiopia. I entered from Sudan, went north to Axum, then south through the whole country, exiting at Lake Turkana. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

Hello, donkey. I’m extremely weary of animals on the road or by the roadside. Most motorcyclists are, but the message was driven deep in our community after the tragic story of Ozymandis on ADVrider. I slow down, acknowledge the animal and proceed around its back, because it’s not wise to cross in front of an animal, in case they decide to bolt straight into you.

Ahh, mountains, greenery, twisting tarmac, come to me!

Passing an ominous sight: a burnt-out oil tanker. Interesting that it caught fire, but didn’t explode. With the tires burnt away and the rims ground into the tarmac, it doesn’t look like it’ll be moved for a while.

A welcome sign – inclines for the next 5 kms.

It was quickly apparent that Ethiopian roads were crowded with livestock and people. I couldn’t commit to these beautiful corners because Mr. Moo might be crossing. This road is just under a year old and was paved to increase commercial links with Sudan, but this route has been used for ages by the locals to move their animals through the mountains.

A taste of the Ethiopian Highlands. The 200 km (124 mi) stretch from Metema to the junction town of Gonder peaked at 2,265 m (7,430 ft) and I felt chilly for the first time since riding in Africa and welcomed the feeling.

The road from Metema joins the northern loop around Ethiopia, that starts in Addis Ababa and rounds off at Axum. The town of Gonder is a few kilometers north of here, but I was heading south to the village of Gorgora on the shores of Lake Tana. The script on top of the English is Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, which is a semitic language, like Arabic and Hebrew.

Happy to be back on dirt roads; on the way to Gorgora and looking forward to a break in the trip.

The rainy season had started in Ethiopia and that rain cell was in the direction I was headed. While I wasn’t looking forward to mud-riding, just yet, I’m sure all the farmers were happy for their rain-fed crops. There is an abdundance of fertile land in Ethiopia and it is a sad reality that so much of the population still suffers from food insecurity.

After a 50 km (31 mi) ride from the highway, I arrived on the shores of Lake Tana and the overland site of Tim and Kim Village, near the village of Gorgora. Tim and Kim are from Holland and they’ve slowly been building this collection of campsites and cottages with the aim of leaving a positive impact on the inhabitants of nearby Gorgora.

They backpacked around India and Africa and after being moved by their experiences, they decided to give back by training rural Ethiopians to get a foothold in the growing tourism industry. They acquired this gorgeous piece of land on the northern shores of Lake Tana and setup a foundation in The Netherlands to raise funds to help with the construction of their eco-village. Any profits from guests are used for development projects in Gorgora.

Tim and Kim started here in 2007 and most of the construction has been by their own hands and a few dedicated local hires. Construction was still on-going and I asked them if I could stay for an extended period and help-out in exchange for accommodation and they agreed.

They let me camp under this shelter, which became my home for the next two weeks and I was happy to find a beautiful, tranquil place to rest for a while, after the heat of the desert.

Tim and his right-hand man, Yanou from Gorgora, taking a break while setting up the supports for a beam.

Yanou was a hard worker and Tim was grooming him to take over when all the construction would be done. He worked on road construction projects for the Chinese and although the pay was higher, he said the quality of life and work wasn’t worth being away from home for and thus returned to Gorgora and was now happy to have a position of responsibility with future growth in the cards.

I got down and dirty with the cement and am working with Mariea (Maa-ri-yay) here to build up a wall between the windows. Tim was quickly impressed with my efficient work ethic and made me foreman-in-charge when he was attending to other tasks. And I guess with me having an engineering background, he could easily trust me to make wise decisions on the site. Yanou and Mariea worked well on their own, but most of the other local hires (daily laborers) needed supervision and motivation to keep going. I enjoyed these two weeks of hard work and got a good insight into the mindset of rural Ethiopians and an expat Dutch couple.

Life was good at Tim and Kim’s. Work started at 7:30 every morning, with a break for some Dutch pancakes after an hour. A few hours of labor in and then it was time for our mid-day skinny dip in Lake Tana. The evenings and mornings were cold here at 1,830 m (6,000 ft), so a cold shower or dunk in the lake at the hottest time of day was wise. And why skinny dip? Well, there was no time to change into swim trunks, so simply just take it off, jump in the lake, soap, rinse, dry, put clothes back on and head for a slow lunch. Every few days or when other guests would arrive, a goat or sheep would be slaughtered and Kim would prepare a delicious meal.

One of Kim’s scrumptious meals of mutton fry with chapatti, beans, mashed potatoes and salad. I ate well during these two weeks.

It would rain almost without fail every evening and with the rains came lots of insects, like this yellow butterfly.

Enjoying beautiful sunsets from Tim and Kim Village. Some days that tree resembled a burning bush.

It was Mariea’s birthday on the 26th and he invited us for a celebration in the village. Washing hands at the table and then starting off with some local brew, which tasted like chicha in Peru.

Mariea serving up hot injera. He had just turned 19 and being the sharp kid that he is, I think he has a bright future.

Injera served with a wat (stew) of boiled eggs. This food closely resembles my home food from South India, namely of dosa with egg curry, but it tastes so different.

After the main meal, a large ceremonial bread was cut and passed around.

The roasting of coffee beans for the traditional coffee ceremony. At the end of the meal, fresh coffee berries are roasted and inhaling the smoke is a sign of bringing goodwill into your life.

The roasted beans are then boiled with water in this beautiful pot to produce the black elixir. Note the freshly-cut grass strewn all over the floor, signifying abundance.

The Coffee Ceremony Lady pouring the first of three rounds of coffee, with each round slightly weaker than the previous one. There is a setup that resembles an altar around the coffee ceremony with offerings of fruit and popcorn.

After the celebration, Tim took me for a photo walk around the village of Gorgora.

Since he was known and respected by the villagers, I was free to take photos of everything. Here, a woman is preparing injera with a large metal lid as a cover.

A cover for injera made with reeds from the lake and getting a sealing of cow dung. Once it dries, there’s no smell and it works as a great insulator.

Inside a villager’s home and capturing the colorful variations of injera covers.

A bedroom in the village of Gorgora with a Christian saint placed prominently. Christianity was established as the state religion back in 4 AD and thus the evolution of Christianity in Ethiopia is different from the dominant sects around the world today.

A collection of calabashes hanging on the wall, used as storage containers. They originated in southern Africa and they’re considered to be one of the first cultivated plants by humans, mainly for their ability to store water.

Two beautiful children outside their home with their mother looking on and the family cat by the door. Everyone was very friendly and also photogenic.

The main water source in Gorgora with 20 L jerry cans waiting for the water to turn on.

An outbreak of pandemonia.

The texture of the walls in Gorgora. The majority of homes were constructed with thin tree limbs that were filled in with mud. With the bi-annual heavy rains, there was lots of reconstruction going on.

A beautiful Ethiopian boy caught in a moment of attention in the village of Gorgora. Besides being amazed by his tolerance to all the flies on him, I was drawn to the high symmetry of his facial structure, which triggers a good-looking face in our brains. I am thankful to his ancestors passing down those good genes, as they are also my ancestors, since humankind emerged from this part of Africa.

A doorway in Gorgora.

A villager posing in her doorway, almost blending in with all the browns in her life.

A portrait of a villager in Gorgora, who looks like he’s got some stories to tell.

Happy children in front of their house.

A smile from a villager in Gorgora.

A leaning house that is slowly succumbing to the erosive power of rain on these mud and timber structures.

A child absorbed with the razzle of technology.

This woman was preparing some injera and let me into her open-air kitchen. The thick pan is cleaned, lightly oiled…

…and then the injera dough is spread in concentric circles, from the center to the outside, filling the whole pan…

…which is then covered and allowed to bake until the dough is cooked. This cover has been sealed with cow dung and its long use is evident by the black charring.

Freshly-made injera in Gorgora. There’s good injera and poorly-made injera and this looks like the good kind.

A complex stare from this girl in Gorgora.

Sun-drying fish caught from Lake Tana.

Red chilies drying in the sun. They are the main ingredient in the berbere spice mix, which also includes dried garlic, ginger, basil, fenugreek and a few other indigenous ingredients that give it its unique flavor.

The natural beauty of Ethiopians showing through in these children, as their mother watches from their doorway.

A portrait of an Ethiopian mother and homemaker in the village of Gorgora.

I enjoyed my first week at Tim and Kim’s and relished the ability to stay put in a place for more than a few days. It allowed me to get to know a community and become a part of it during my short time in Gorgora. The villagers were all very welcoming and beautiful and their cuisine and culture reminded me of village life in my parents’ villages outside Madras, India.

Next: Ethiopia, Part 2: Life in Gorgora and Downtime at TimKim Village

Previous: Sudan, Part 6: Across the Sahel and to the Border