Entry 7 - Ethiopia: Part 1

November 14, 2010 - Aswan, Egypt

We drove across the 200m stretch of no-man’s land between Kenya and Ethiopia just before noon on Wednesday the 20th of October. Our truck stopped right outside the Ethiopian immigration office and one of the members of our group collected the group’s passports so that the immigration officials could stamp us into the country. The entire group was advised by the tour company to arrange their Ethiopian visas before embarking on the trip, so we felt confident that checking into the country would be a painless affair.

We waited on the truck in the scorching heat for about fifteen minutes before one of our group members came back with our passports, handing seventeen officially stamped and cleared passports back to the group. Unfortunately, we handed in nineteen passports – Robert and I were the only ones who hadn’t received our passports back…

We got out of the truck and went into the immigration office to see what the problem was. Before leaving South Africa my brother and I had successfully organized our visas from the Ethiopian embassy in Pretoria. The endeavour proved to be an accomplishment by itself, requiring copious amounts of documentation, numerous trips to the bank for depositing money and obtaining official letters from the bank, hours spent on the phone trying to get hold of the sparsely available embassy officials and several drives between Johannesburg and Pretoria. We thought we had successfully won the war against the Ethiopian visa before we left home, so when we heard about the problem, we felt defeated…

One of the officials pointed out the problem to us - both of our visas read, “Issue Date – 17 August 2010; Expiry Date – 17 February 2010”. When we saw this we felt nauseous – we double checked all our visas before we left South Africa to ensure that there were no mistakes, but the simple error must have eluded us in the same way it eluded the embassy officials who authorized the visas. The official asked us to wait outside his office while he phoned around trying to get to the heart of the problem. After fifteen minutes of waiting like naughty schoolboys anticipating punishment from our headmaster, the official called us back into his office and informed us that he could stamp us in, yet before we could leave the country we would have to pay a visit to the Ethiopian Department of Immigration in Addis Ababa to rectify the mistake. We thanked him for allowing us into the country and made our way back to the truck to join the group – we were officially in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia has a very unique history in comparison to her African counterparts - after merely traveling 200 metres from Kenya, it felt as if we were on a different continent altogether. Except for a brief period of occupation by Mussolini’s Italy from 1936 to 1942, Ethiopia is the only African country to successfully fight off any form of European colonization. The country is also one of the world’s oldest civilizations – evidence has been found suggesting antique civilizations were already established at about 1500 BC. As early as 400 BC, an ancient civilization based in Northern Ethiopia and known as the Aksumite kingdom started its rise to prominence – by the 6th century AD it had established itself as one of the most powerful, sophisticated and technologically advanced the ancient world ever saw.

The people also look different from those we had encountered on our trip so far – even though they still have dark skin, their facial features and build take on more definite Arabic traits. There are eighty-four languages spoken in Ethiopia, with the most widely spoken being Amharic. Amharic has its own unique alphabet and sounds similar - but by no means the same - to Arabic. We would no longer be called Mzungus – in Ethiopia, we would be known as Foranjis(foreigners)…

It was with a touch of sadness that we bid farewell to being known as Mzungus wherever we went so far. The term is merely used as a reference to a person with light skin and is by no means used as a racist one. In a way, it is used as a term of endearment and to show respect, like calling someone sir or madam if you do not know their name. After being known as Mzungu for two months, it started to feel like a playful nickname given to us by our East African friends – now, we were merely foranjis

We left the border and started to make our way to Addis Ababa. Our driver, Mark, informed us that from the Ethiopian-Kenyan border onwards the entire road was tarred, and the 780km drive to the capital would take us about a day and a half.

Beyond the border, we were met with unfarmed green plains stretching out for hundreds of miles into the horizon, dramatically covered with countless ant hills punctuating the landscape like statues, some of them short and stout and unimpressive, with others standing tall and proud and stretched out to about as high as two. It was fascinating driving past all these unique and impressive ant creations, but after about 100km, the ant hills started fading away as the landscape underwent a change. We were now met with African bushveld growing wildly over a hilly landscape, left lush and green and beautiful from recent rains.

Just before the sun set we pulled over, parked the truck and set up camp. A handful of local farmers were intrigued by our presence and came over to come check what we were getting up to as we set up camp. I went and fetched the soccer ball we had on the truck and before long a few of us were kicking the ball around with a few local children. I honestly believe that these ultra-rural Ethiopians must have thought we were some alien species – it was very clear from the way the children played with the soccer ball that even the ball was a major peculiarity to them.

We left early the following morning to continue our journey towards Addis Ababa. Next to the road signs of civilisation started appearing, as we passed colourful little villages and small plantations and subsistence farms amongst the hills. In every village we passed the locals greeted us like they had been expecting us, with children running next to the truck, waving and shouting, “Jo! Jo! Jo! Jo! Jo!”

The tropical hillside vegetation started fading away and a drier landscape took over as the land reached a plateau. Reminiscent of the areas around Clanwilliam in the Western Cape, the land was now covered with vast expanses of farmlands, overgrown with light green, still-maturing wheat fields. Sprinkled all across these wheat fields were patches of flower plantations, yellow and white and purple squares adding colour to the landscape, making an already beautiful scene an exquisite one. With a hot sun in the sky and a cool breeze in the air, my brother and I commented that the area seemed to be perfect for producing wine.

We stopped over in Awasa for lunch. Awasa is a town on the shores of Lake Awasa, and we were immediately impressed by it - it was clean, tidy and looked after and there was a casual buzz on the streets. We parked the truck and walked into the nearest restaurant we could find.

We were excited to try the local food and drink, especially the drink. The beer in Ethiopia has a reputation that preceeds it – we had heard that it was both delicious and cheap. We ordered ourselves a round of the local brew – a draught of St. George’s set us back 6 Ethiopian Birr (R3) each. In Ethiopia, all traditional food is accompanied by injera, a flat, circular, bread-like delicacy about half a metre in diameter – it feels spongy between your fingers and tastes like eating a wet cloth. By itself injera is almost inedible, but alongside the usual Ethiopian cuisine it acts as a good counterbalance to the overspiced food.

Before we got back onto the truck we stopped by a vegetable stall and bought ourselves a kilogram of Khat. After our disappointing Khat experience in Northern Kenya, we were hoping the Ethiopian strain of Khat would be stronger and give us the high that the locals rave about. We broke off the leaves and started chewing away, once again hoping we would feel some sort of buzz to justify chewing away at the unpleasant leaves. After about fourty minutes of furiously chewing away at foul-tasting leaf after foul-tasting leaf, we were once again left with merely a headache and the buzz that half a cigarette gives you.

Ethiopia is often described as a land of myths and legends, and on our way to Addis Ababa we passed a town that has one of these fascinating tales to tell – a nondescript, uninteresting little town called Shashamene…

In the 1920’s, a Jamaican black nationalist named Marcus Garvey started a “Back to Africa” movement. He taught that Africans are the true Israelites and have been exiled to Jamaica and other parts of the world as Divine punishment, and encouraged black people in Northern America to return to Africa. In 1927, Garvey prophesied, “Look to Africa, for there a King shall be crowned.” Three years later, in 1930, Haile Selaisse was crowned emperor of Ethiopia. A bunch of stoners in Jamaica sat up and took notice, seeing his rise as a fulfillment of Garvey’s prophecy.

Before his coronation, Haile Selaisse was known as Ras Tafari Makonnen. Followers of Garvey were so moved by the rise of the king that a new religion was established – Rastafarianism. Rasta’s regard Africa - especially Ethiopia - as the promised land and regard Haile Selaisse as a human incarnation of God, referring to him as Jah Rastafari (Jah means God).

Selaisse himself was a staunch Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and was quite embarrassed by these strange stoners who worshipped him as their God. In 1955, he offered 500 acres of his personal land to Rastas wishing to return to Africa – the small town called Shashamene, just south of the Addis Ababa. Ethiopians - most of them very dedicated Christians or Muslims themselves - resent these Rastas, regarding them as a source of crime and drugs. We were thinking of maybe stopping over at this Mecca for Rastafarianism, but from merely driving through the town it was evident that there was nothing special about it except for its history. Apparently it is one of the most dangerous towns in Ethiopia.

We finally arrived at our hotel in Addis Ababa at around seven in the evening. Throughout our whole trip, we have found that the last stretch of any journey is always the most painful – it always feels as if some unnecessary obstacle has to pop up when your patience is already exhausted. True to form, the final sixty kilometers to the capital was through peak-hour traffic on a single laned road - it took us two hours to drive the sixty kilometers into Addis. When we reached the city, we got lost in the city centre for half an hour trying to find our hotel.

When one hears the word hotel, one tends to think of a Protea hotel or a Holiday Inn. The place we were staying at was a hotel in name only – there was a rectangular patch of lawn where we could pitch our tents and a bar, but that was that. There were bathrooms and a shower, but both of these looked like they hadn’t seen a good clean in about five years’ time. The Ethiopian food and beers we had for lunch disagreed with Robert and the final two and a half hours into the city really tested his patience. When we finally arrived at the hotel, he was the first to hop off the truck and ran into the bathroom, only to run out again immediately, left scared by what he had seen in the bathrooms. He looked at me, his face suggesting whatever he had seen had disturbed him, turned back to the bathroom, dropped his head and slowly walked back into the bathrooms – if you want clean, tidy, pleasant toilets rather go traveling in Europe…

We went to the hotel’s bar and had a few drinks. To celebrate the fact that we had finally arrived in the capital we bought a few guys the first round – six draughts and a fanta cost us 42 Birr (R21).

The Friday morning my brother and I woke up early to go and sort out our visas at the Ethiopian department of immigration. Thankfully, it only took us about fourty minutes and proved to be a relatively painless expedition, and afterwards we made our way to one of Addis’ hippest areas – the Piazza. Why the area is called the Piazza is a mystery – there is no square, merely a series of streets filled with hotels, cafes, restaurants and all sorts of stores.

It was pleasant to walk around the streets of the Piazza, but we were searching for something that we were both in desperate need of – a shower. We hadn’t showered since we left Nairobi six days earlier, and driving through the scorching hot desert on gravel roads and sleeping in the bush isn’t exactly a recipe for staying clean. By that time we were so dirty that we were both verging on the brink of looking like the stereotypical impoverished African child, wearing dirty clothes and constantly surrounded by flies.

The hotel we were staying at had showers, but these were in the sort of state that would of have left us even dirtier if we were brave enough to use them. We probably visited about ten hotels and backpackers in total, either directly asking them if we could use their showers or unsuccessfully trying to sneak into them. We eventually found a place that allowed us to use one of their showers, but only if we paid the cost of hiring a single room for the evening. We hesitated, but eventually decided to fork out the 105 Birr (R52) between the two of us. Never before has a hot shower been so enjoyable – we saw the lavish expenditure as our Ethiopian Spa Experience.

The Friday night we all went out to go and celebrate one of our group member’s birthdays. A local recommended a place to go to, and when we arrived we immediately realised that he had sent us to a tourist trap – a beer cost 35 Birr (R17). The place was Ethiopia’s answer to Moyo – due to how expensive it was we merely had one beer, but it gave us the opportunity to witness some traditional Ethiopian dancing. Ethiopians have a very unique style of dancing – whereas Western dances usually focuses on the movement of the hips, Ethiopian dancing is all about the movement of the shoulders.

After our beer at the fancy restaurant, we went and found a place where we could get more value for money, and ended up eating at a real local place where a large portion of local fare and a beer set us back about 20 Birr(R10) per person. We ended up at a club called Club Jubilee, but the whole night was almost ruined due to us having a major fall-out with local taxi drivers who were unashamedly trying to rip us off on the way to the club.

Sleeping in a tent after a night of drinking inevitably leads to you to wake up too early in the morning, sweating and swearing profusely – the claustrophobic heat amplifies any hangover and makes it impossible to have a lie-in. Our hotel offered us no comforts to alleviate our suffering, so we decided we would go into town to go find some tender loving care…

We wanted to try one of the clichéd hangover cures – “a hair of the dog that bit you.” That Saturday morning, we believed the only thing that could possibly help us would be the hair of a very expensive dog. We caught a taxi from the place we were staying at (the sewer disguised as a hotel) and made our way to go have a beer at the most expensive hotel in Addis Ababa – The Sheraton. We had spent a fair amount of time roughing it, and we wanted to experience the luxury of Addis’s most sophisticated hotel.

As soon as we entered the hotel it felt as if we were transported into another universe. It is a stunning hotel, with all the niceties and luxuries that one would expect from one of the world’s leading hotel chains. Immediately after we arrived at the hotel we did what any self-respecting young males do when arriving at a fancy hotel – we headed straight to the bathroom.

I do not enjoy toilet humour or any tales relating to bathroom mishaps, but our encounters with the various toilets throughout Africa have definitely been some of our more noteworthy misadventures and do deserve a mention in our blog entries. The bathrooms at The Sheraton were no exception – for a few moments on that Saturday morning, we found our little corner of The Promised Land in Ethiopia. The spacious cubicles were exquisitely tiled with black marble, and finely crafted, attractive wooden doors locked you into your little corner of paradise. The bathrooms looked like they were cleaned a few seconds before we arrived there, with not one but two triple-ply toilet rolls neatly folded over, cordially inviting you to use them. To top it all off, flute renditions of Celine Dion favourites were played over the bathroom’s speakers. We stayed in the bathroom for half an hour, not because we needed to, just merely because we wanted to. It was a beautiful experience.

We walked to the hotel trying to find a place to have a drink and chill out. We went to the pool area but realized that paradise comes at a price – for non-guests there was an admission fee for the pool, and merely having a single beer at the bar overlooking the pool would cost you 70 Birr (R35). We eventually found a lounge area in the hotel where a small beer only put you 30 Birr (R15) out of pocket. The lounge had wonderfully comfortable chairs, piano concertos softly playing in the background and, best of all, free peanuts and olives. The atmosphere was so relaxing that both us nearly fell asleep. As the cliché goes, all good things come to an end, so we finished our beers, asked the waiter if we could get some peanuts and olives in a doggy-bag (he didn’t understand and seemed very confused by the question), greeted the Sheraton and made our way back to our “hotel”.

The harsher realities of Life Outside The Sheraton punched us in the face as soon as we left the gate and were greeted by the source of all of Africa’s problems – taxi drivers. They saw two big dollar signs walking out of the Sheraton and appropriately treated us as such, proceeding to try charge us extortionate rates to find our way back to our “hotel”.

After a brief unpleasant moment of arguing we eventually managed to get a lift back home to our “hotel”, where we were greeted by the biggest heap of onions we had ever seen in our life. We were set to leave early the next morning and it turned out the “hotel” would be used to host a wedding on the Sunday afternoon. One of the girls on our trip approached the “hotel” staff and asked them if we could try out some of the food they were preparing for the wedding. The cleanliness (or rather, lack thereof) of the bathrooms had left me skeptical about the hygienic standards of the kitchen, so I was skeptical about whatever they were preparing for us. They put forward a buffet of the wedding fare for our group for supper - it ended up being the best meal we had had throughout Africa.

We left our “hotel” in Ethiopia’s capital first thing on Sunday morning. We were heading North toward Bahir Dar. Before leaving Mark spoke us to about the drive that lay ahead. We would cover the 500km in about a day and a half and take us through the Blue Nile Gorge. During one particular stretch of the drive we would descend a thousand metres in altitude, before ascending a thousand metres again – all over a distance of 37km.

Driving through the streets of Addis Ababa at seven o’clock in the morning on Sunday was very enjoyable. Cafés were opening up to serve early morning clients, street markets were setting up their stalls and starting up their trade. Churches were calling the faithful to Sunday mass in the same way mosques call the Muslims to prayer, filling the streets with people on their way to worship. The traditional church attire of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians is quite similar to the robes and headscarves the Islamic faithful wear, with the entire body covered except for the hands and face.

Just to the North of Addis Ababa the landscape immediately becomes rural again. The scenery was picturesque - endless green fields liberally sprinkled with colourful patches of flowers took over the landscape once again. Along the roads there were scores of Ethiopians taking an early morning jog, indulging in one of the pastimes Ethiopians are probably the most famous for.

We sat back, put some music on and stared out the window. With scenery like this we knew we were in for a very pleasant drive…


Hendrik and Robert


Lifting the trophy
Celebratory dances
The winning team
Locals posing for a photo


November 15, 2010
Klink moer lekekr ouens, laat dit juig, geniet die blogs verskriklik baie, veral op so maandag oggend, dit laat dam die tyd lekekr vinnig verby gaan op kantoor, Sien uit na jul Egipte Blog, dis amper tyd vir huistoe kom, waar Biere R25 kos, maar daar is dam kos en warm water by die huis. Hahaha
November 15, 2010
Dit was weereens awesome om te hoor van julle stories! Geniet die blog verskriklik baie..

Sien julle amper weer...
November 18, 2010
hi guys!!
your trip sounds incredible!
ive only recently discovered your blog and it has been a great escape reading it while i sit in the office in front of my computer wishing i could be somewhere else!
good luck out there! looking forward to the next update!
November 22, 2010
That Sheraton is amazing. Enjoy that trip though the nile valley. it 37km but takes a good 4 hours to drive. epic view though. look for the taxis carrying the sheep and cows, quite a lag!
Enjoy you headin into the best part of ethiopia
November 29, 2010
Dit klink net rerig waar mal!
Joof, jy moet jou debut maak op die leterere veld as jy terug kom. Kan bietjie skaaf op die hoeke, maar die res klink puik!

KOM NOU HUISTOE! ek soek bietjie surgeon bloed!
December 3, 2010
sho only read this one now, dam i wouldn't be able to handle the uncleanliness, korea is bad enough! I think i'll save and stick to teh nice hotels.hehe, enjoy you last few days in africa
Sally & Sarah:
December 4, 2010
Well done to you! Ama Zing
January 9, 2011
I assume you god-damn lame-asses have given up on your blog?
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