Turning for home

Sudan would end up being the northern most country we would visit on our African odyssey. With time and declining bank balances, restrictive Egyptian import laws, and the Syrian conflict staring back at us, we made the difficult decision to turn the PPE around and head back for Tanzania. Kathmandu it wasn’t; nor was it Istanbul, nor Cairo. But a 32,000 km, 10 month trip across Africa it was, and what an adventure we had had.

We drove the barely believable 4,000 km back to Tanzania in around three weeks.

Completing the final segment of the northern historical route in Ethiopia, we spent a half day exploring the Blue Nile waterfall in Bahir Dar. Having criss-crossed the Nile all the way up to the Sahara in Northern Sudan, we were blown away by the sight of the droplets escaping Lake Tana through the impressive Blue Nile waterfalls. These very droplets would eventually snake over 6,600 km to Cairo, blessing desert communities with their life-giving force before joining the azure waters of the Mediterranean.

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Lake Tana flowing into the Blue Nile Fall

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The Blue Nile Falls

The tarmac would take us back through Addis, but we waited until Karkaro Beach at Lake Longano, on the main road south, before indulging in a couple of days of R&R. Despite appearances, the murky waters were great for swimming. The cool waters of Longano after the searing 50 degree temperatures of Sudan were an absolute treat.

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Camping

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Storm over Lake Langano

Two days later, we would find ourselves in the notorious ‘Moyale’ Ethiopia / Kenya border town. On the way there we would experience some unexpected highs and lows:

  • In Hawassa, roughly 400km from Addis there was a superb Italian restaurant called Venezia with some incredible Italian fare, served by an Italian who speaks no English. We don’t know how or why it exists, but highly recommend stopping by!
  • Dilla is a popular overnight spot on the road from Addis to Moyale. Avoid the Tourist Pension Hotel.  Despite all our travels and hardiness experienced travelling throughout the continent, this was one of the rare times yours truly got really squeamish. I had tucked in the mosquito net to shelter from the swarms of mosquitoes circling above. A small cockroach emerges on the bed – better sweep that away before Christine sees. Shortly after, a couple more emerge. Suddenly the wooden frame is covered in cockroaches. I flip out and back away from the cockroach infestation. Totally Gross. I run out screaming for my life.
  • Instead of Dilla, we booked it out of there and drove a couple more hours to Hagere Maryam. We found  a very new hotel that we think is in Hagere Maryam – the Mahlet Hotel. Unmissable on the main strip, modern and extremely comfortable.

In Moyale we met fellow adventurers Espen and Malin who had just made it through the infamous Marsabit – Moyale road. We had come across articles on the ‘road from hell’ countless numbers of times, and had feared it since planning for the trip had first started. “How was it?” I asked. “Muddy’. Unseasonal rains had resulted in flash flooding across all of Northern Kenya. Weeks before, a Lancruiser crossing a flash flood river had been washed away. Cars had been stuck in mud on the Marsabit-Moyale road for days. “Do you have rear diff lock?” “Nope.” “Ok, well you should be ok.”

Thankfully, the road had dried up considerably for a lack of recent rain, and I was slightly disappointed by the lack of mud as we trundled our way through. Drama, however, was only just around the corner.

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Stuck in the mud

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Deep mud ditch

Another 2 hours in we were caught by a locking left rear brake that completely immobilised the PPE. Luckily, a following World Vision driver helped us fashion an ‘African fix’ and we were once again on our way.

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Underway on the Marsabit – Moyale

Far from the devastation we had expected, the Marsabit-Moyale drive was among the most spectacular of the entire trip. The flora and fauna were thriving from the recent rains and the green, blue, and dirt red contrasts will remain with us forever.

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Beautiful

In Marsabit we stayed at the Nomads Trail Hotel (nothing to write home about, but a decent breakfast after the peculiarities of Ethiopian breakfasts!) The new Chinese asphalt road from Nairobi is well and truly on its way North, and we stumbled upon it just outside of Isiolo.

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Rejoice!

And just like that, another day later, we arrived back at our old haunt – Jungle Junction in Nairobi! It didn’t take us long, however, to hear about a recent robbery attempt only a week earlier, in which a wayward bullet grazed the eye of one of the dogs. The assailants fled after firing their only 3 bullets. A sobering welcome back to the dangers of the big city.

-Eugene

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To the Red Sea!

Crossing over to North Sudan

Driving down from Gondar in Ethiopia to the Sudanese border takes you from a very cool elevation of 2,100m down to just 600m. Upon arriving at the border town of Metema, we were completely dumbfounded by the intensity of the Sudanese desert heat. “Only 38 degrees today!” the locals cheerfully replied. “In Khartoum, it’s 46!”

We picked up a local ‘helper’ who pointed us in the direction of the customs and immigration offices and we later followed him to get some money exchanged. Advice we’d received beforehand was that money would have to be exchanged in Ethiopia prior to entering, as there were no facilities across the border. This proved to be completely false: plenty of Sudanese will happily exchange both Birr and USD for Sudanese pounds, and at vastly better rates. We learned that the hard way.

With my pockets stuffed with Sudanese pounds (for the record, we changed at 4.6 pounds to the dollar compared to Khartoum’s 6) we crossed into what would turn out to be a completely different world. Having experienced the frightful presence of the Sudanese consul in Addis, we were not completely sure what to expect, and entered immigration with trepidation.

“Welcome to Sudan!” a gentleman boomed. “Salaam alekum!” greeted another. And it continued. After the near constant harassment we received throughout Ethiopia, the contrast with the genuine friendliness of the Sudanese was astounding.

The administration however, is intense, and we ping-ponged between immigration, customs, and the local police for about another hour, leaving the border town to look for a bush camp just as the sun was coming down.

Fuel Fools

It was approximately 600kms from our camp to Khartoum and on the way, we turned into a fuel stop for a much needed top up. At the pump, Christine spotted the diesel price. 22 pounds per litre, roughly $4/L!! Surely it wasn’t correct, but we were desperate and I reasoned that they were pounds per gallon, not litre. As the totals climbed to 700 pounds for what appeared to be 15L of fuel, I started waving my hands frantically to stop the serviceman. We were about to burn through all the money we had!

I gleefully extracted my wad and handed over 700 pounds to the serviceman, and now it was his turn to start waving his hands. Laughing, he promptly returned the money and then carefully extracted just a 50 and a 20 from my hand. It turns out much of the country still quotes prices in dinars, which are a tenth of today’s pound. Hence, 700 dinars was only 70 pounds, equating to 40c/L for diesel. I was loving this country already!! It turns out that 40c/L was indeed steep for Sudan – in Khartoum we regularly filled up for around 24c/L. Incredible!

Khartoum

Accommodation in Khartoum is aimed mostly at the NGO crowd and hence, very expensive. After scouting unsuccessfully a number of supposed camp sites outside Khartoum listed in our GPS and Bradt guide, we headed into town to try our luck. We found the local YHA hostel, thanks to our good friends Linda and Juergen and lo and behold, they had a camp site going cheap. Whilst the shared facilities are not the best, we’ve heard they are much better than the traditional Blue Nile sailing club and would certainly recommend.

In Khartoum we had a chance encounter with Abdelsalaam, owner of Farbest Auto, after needing to do our regular servicing on the PPE. Abdelsalaam would turn into one of those super memorable guys along the likes of Paul de Witt (Henties Bay, Namibia – best calamari in the world!) and Laurence Lindley (overlander extraordinaire) who simply went out of his way to help us out in anyway he could. After we met Abdelsalaam there wasn’t a day we were in Khartoum that we didn’t stop by to say hello and we came across some incredibly interesting people just hanging out at his workshop.

The Sudanese were the kindest people we have come across on our entire trip, and I couldn’t help but feel we were experiencing Islamic culture at its very best. I think of Abdelsalaam as a great friend and would encourage anyone coming through Khartoum to drop in on him +249 912 304 675. Leave us a message if you need GPS coordinates.

Cheers Abdel!

Cheers Abdel!

Al-Shifa Pharmaceuticals Bombing Site

In 1998, the US ordered a cruise missile bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the middle of Khartoum, in retaliation against Bin Laden’s bombing of US Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. We visited the site through a nondescript door which opens right onto the bomb site, which has been left pretty much ‘as is’.

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The US bombed the site based on a single piece of evidence – a single soil sample containing chemical traces used in the production of VX gas. No traces of any weapons were ever found following the attack. The factory produced over 90% of anti-malarial and tuberculosis treatments within the country.      

Port Sudan and the Red Sea

We had decided that at The Red Sea, we would turn the PPE around and head back for Tanzania. Funds were running low and there was no way we would ever be able to sell the car in Egypt. Going for a swim in the Red Sea after driving through the Sahara would be a great way to cap off the African adventure.

It was another 800km from Khartoum to the Red Sea, and we crossed in roughly 2 days. In between, it is flat, endless desert, until you reach some unexpected mountains just before reaching the coast. We bush camped in the Sahara under the African stars along the way, and those nights camping were certainly some of our most memorable nights.

Our intention had been to dive in the Red Sea, however, the only options available were liveaboard week long trips. Operators doing day trips were in their infancy, and we decided not to go with any of the inexperienced operators.

The Red Sea Resort is the only real accommodation you can find on the shores of the Red Sea, about 60km north of Port Sudan. It was still under construction when we arrived and was way over priced (camping was 20 euro pp) , with poor service and unreasonable management, so we decided to try our luck bush camping.

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Sunrise

Sunrise at our own private beach

This turned out to be one of the best calls of the trip – our beautiful spot, right by the water was literally 5min down the road from the Red Sea Resort. I would suggest anyone going out this way do the same – I bet there are hundreds of spots just like this little gem we found. We stayed 3 days!

– Eugene

The Toughest Place on Earth | Danakil Depression

The Danakil Depression

Sulfuric acid is bubbling up through the salt-encrusted ground. The daytime heat soars over 46 degrees Celsius and the Gara (Fire Wind) is blowing incessantly.

We’re in the Danakil Depression: -116m below sea level and officially, the hottest place on Earth. The Danakil straddles the Northern Ethiopian border with Eritrea, and sits atop the junction of the Arabian, African and Somali tectonic plates – all of which are pulling away from each other to form one of the world’s most volcanically active regions.

Getting here is an ordeal in itself. The area’s remoteness and rugged terrain requires a troupe of LandCruisers and a decent chunk of cash ($400-$600 depending on group size and bargaining ability) for a bare bones bush-camp tour (all that’s on offer). The roads are being built by the Ethiopian military to service the hostile border with Eritrea and are not complete. The workhorse Landcruisers are in their element; the tourist-grade personnel are not. We arrive battered and bruised at our first camp, wondering if anything we see over the next few days could have made it possibly worth it.

Our first night we sleep completely unsheltered, under the stars. Our guides have rented some local Afar beds for us to sleep on, and for the first time in my life I watch the stars on their journeys throughout the night sky. The Fire Wind continues to blow and Christine attempts to block the wind by taking cover in her -7 degrees sleeping bag, only to find her back searing in insulated heat. I chuckle from my silk sleeping bag liner, gambling that the desert heat will not relent. I am wrong and wake frigidly cold.

Our guides have us up early in a race to be back in our air-conditioned oases before the heat returns. Over breakfast, we are notified that unseasonal rains have completely flooded some roads to Dollol. It might be tricky.

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Driving to Dollol

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Even after seeing others’ pictures, nothing prepares you for the mind blowing spectacle that is Dollol, the lowest point in the Danakil Depression. Sulfuric acid is bubbling up through the ground, creating stalagmite-like formations against a fluroescent yellow, green, and red back drop. It doesn’t even feel like Mars; perhaps somewhere even more inhospitable. It is stunning.

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Erta Ale

The roads on the alternate route to Erta Ale from Mekele are more of the same brain shattering bumps that we have had over the last two days. What awaits is a midnight ascent to one of the world’s five active lava lakes – lying in Erta Ale’s crater. A relatively young volcano (having formed within the last 10,000 years), Erta Ale has been constantly active since records started in the 1960s.

As the hours tick slowly by and we begin nearing our destination, the affects of the recent rains start to become evident as soft sands slowly turn into mud.

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In rapidly fading light, vehicles in the group get caught by the mud one after another. We begin to wonder if we will make it to the volcano after all.

At 7pm we are through the mud – and on to the toughest section of ‘road’ yet. The Landcruisers are hurtling over volcanic boulders as we hold on for dear life.  At 7:15pm I glance up at the car’s clock praying for the end. At least another hour to go.

After an 11 hour driving day, we reach base camp at Erta Ale and are prepared a quick dinner by the tour chef. At 10pm we begin our ascent.

It feels fantastic to be finally out hiking in the open. Despite the late start time it is still extremely hot. Our guide follows a supposed ‘path’ in the moonlight and us faranjis struggle along with headlamps and hiking poles up the rocky volcanic path.

At midnight we rest and are told another two hours to go. The group is struggling from exhaustion and the heat. It is certainly well past my bedtime – my eyes are getting heavy with sleep and I entertain the notion of a sleep walk. I decide against it.

And just like that, out of nowhere, we enter a little thatched village. I peer out onto the horizon and our goal is in sight. I see a giant volcanic crater with an ominous red glow hovering over it. We are giddy with excitement and instantaneously re-energised for the final push to greet Erta Ale’s heart.

We reach the lip of the crater and for the 2nd time in two days, my mind is completely blown. I stare down into the lava lake as the liquid Earth bubbles over and over itself, with frequent eruptions. My skin is reeling from the 1800 degree Celsius heat as I contemplate the most ominous looking sight I have ever encountered. It is pure, unadulterated, 100% evil. We are staring into the Earth’s core. We are staring into Hell.

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We stand mesmerised by the incredible sight for over two hours. With every eruption, we watch the lava lake’s level rise and fall. Two years ago the magma boiled completely over the crater, forming what we currently standing on. At 3am we head for our volcano top camp site for whatever sleep we can manage. We must be up at 530am to begin our ascent down.

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Sunrise at the crater

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From base camp, the group stumbles back into the cars, utterly exhausted after the last 4 days on the road. We brace ourselves for Erta Ale’s final assault on our bodies as we are thrown around once more like rag dolls for another 4hrs.

As we enter the mountains, climbing from Danakil’s Depths back up to Ethiopia’s Plateau, ominous clouds tell us this adventure is not quite over yet. Thundering rains begin to hammer our car, and the road is turning into a muddy abyss. We round a corner only to be met with a savage flood river cutting off the road completely. Dead trees, caught in the tumult flash past our eyes. Our chef, in our lead car, decides to check the depth of the river and comes within inches of his life as he is swept straight through. The guides burst out in nervous laughter. We are not in a good place.

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Our only option is to wait it out and eventually, the river slows enough for the drivers to attempt a crossing. It will not be our last.

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We arrive back into Mekele, shattered with exhaustion at 9pm. An incredible 4 days in the Danakil Depression.

– Eugene