Where the Wild Things Are

After the not-so-terrible Moyale Road, we knew we were counting down our final days in Africa. A stopover in Nairobi meant a requisite return visit to the David Sheldrick Foundation. Since the foundation opens the doors at night for a private viewing only for foster parents, we got to see the sweet elephants hustle back in time for their nightcap (and almost got run over in the process!). A lovely way to say goodbye to beautiful Kenya.

After a quick 2 days and a hassle-free border crossing, we were back to where it all started. After a cool night in Arusha, Tanzania, we drove on to the famous Ngorongoro Crater, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest inactive caldera on Earth. We had the special campsite completely to ourselves, unfenced from the wildlife and unearthly quiet. To celebrate what would be our last safari, we clinked a Tusker beer.

Unwinding after a long drive!

Unwinding after a long drive! The pink spots on the water are hundreds of flamingos

In what would be our most exciting morning, I woke up at 5am to make breakfast in time for the drive down. It was pitch black outside, and soft shrieking noises rose from the surrounding bushes. As our eggs cooked, the disturbing sounds increased in frequency and volume. It became obvious that something was amiss. Still enveloped in darkness, we slowly came to the realization that we were surrounded by hyenas.

Terrified, I spent the remaining 20 minutes of darkness swinging the brightest flashlight we owned around us. Eugene managed to nonchalantly continue to cook and eat Magi noodles… And when the sun finally crested over the mountain top, the hyenas left. We climbed into the PPE to begin the journey down.

The drive down into the Crater at sunrise

The drive down into the Crater at sunrise

The Crater is absolutely teeming with wildlife. Everywhere we looked, herds of zebras, buffalo, wildebeest, and various antelope roamed.



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While resting the car and scouting for lions, Eugene noticed a troupe of elephants strolling over to our car…


…that within minutes sauntered across the road inches from our car.



And with that, our last safari in Africa was over!


The Whirling Dervishes, Khartoum, Sudan

Any tour of Sudan should have going to Omdurman on a Friday night on its to-do list, where every week hundreds gather at Hamed al-Nil Tomb to witness the dervishes.

Doughnut balls sprinkled with sugar -- delicious!

We arrived at 5pm, when the crowds were scarce. In front of the mosque was a huge cleared area, littered on the sides with tea stalls and trinket shops. With the festivities not starting for a few hours, we sat down amongst locals and imbibed on Sudanese tea (which is incredibly sweet) and these amazing home-made donut balls that were made on the spot.

Around 6pm, a group of men, cloaked in green and white, strode in carrying the green banner of the tariqa (the Qadiriyah order in Sufism) to the mosque steps. Turning to the quickly growing crowd, they begin to march in a wide arc, chanting alongside drums and music. And with the banner raised and the large open space cleared, the ritual began!


Religious leaders guide the crowd in chanting


As the night goes on, more join the march in the middle

The idea of a “whirling dervish” is a bit misplaced. A handful do spin, but the majority clap and chant and dance. And as the evening goes on, the sounds pick up in volume and speed. Incense and smoke fill the air completely, and the continuous chanting heightens–“La illaha illallah,” which translates to “There is no God but Allah.” And as the fervor peaks, more adherents step into the circle to spin and dance. It’s a hypnotic experience, a rare glimpse into an active religious community so different from anything else we’ve seen. And despite sometimes feeling like I’ve stumbled upon a very private and reverent ritual, the locals could not have been more welcoming to tourists, as long as the respect was mutual.

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Northern State, Sudan

An unflinchingly barren landscape of sand, wind, and heat welcomed us into the north. Unable to enter Egypt, we wanted a taste of what our end destination could have been. And so in search of Sudan’s ancient treasures, we journeyed northward into the vastness of the Sahara desert.

Musawwarat es Sufra

Our first historical site was Musawwarat, an enormous pile of ruins of which no one knows the purpose of, and of which is only accessible via private vehicle. Pulling up to the Lion Temple, we didn’t have to search far for the ghaffir. A man in a billowing white tunic and sporting Einstein hair greeted us in Arabic, and after a meager Arabinglish conversation, we were allowed access to one of the finest Kushite temples.

Ghaffir in front of the Lion Temple

The Lion Temple

Unfortunately, we completely missed the informational board (which, in our defense, was facing the wrong way). Thus most of the time, we were unsure exactly what we were looking at. But nonetheless, it was awe-inspiring.


In the same vicinity is the Great Enclosure, a complex dating from Kushite history. From the ruins it’s easy to see how expansive this plaza must have been. As the sun set, we wandered the ancient hallways in silence,  trying to conjure up who would have walked upon these floors.

The Great Enclosure

The Great Enclosure

Ruins in the setting sun

Ruins in the setting sun

The Royal Cemeteries of Meroe

For an archaeologically significant site with over 200 pyramids, the Meroe pyramids are surprisingly accessible. The north cluster pyramids, clearly visible from the main highway, are dwarfed by Egypt’s. But there’s a tranquility to these Sudanese treasures. Almost no touts heckle you, and on most days, you’ll have the 8th century B.C. pyramids completely to yourself.

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A little history we picked up: Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, these Nubian pyramids are built on top of the buried. As a result, there is no labyrinth inside, but only a simple funerary chapel where offerings were made. But that didn’t stop an Italian explorer, who lopped off the top of each pyramid in the hopes of treasure. Besides some jewelry in the Tomb of Queen Amanishakheto, he walked away with nothing. And Sudan was left with a field of decapitated pyramids.

Camping under the desert sky, watching the sun set over the pyramids

Camping under the desert sky, watching the sun set over the pyramids


Possibly the best preserved Kushite site in Sudan, the Naqa ruins showcase Sudan’s classic architecture and artwork.





An imitation of art!


Roman temple

A strange apparition — the Roman Kiosk

And so concludes our tour through Sudanese history. With one last pit-stop in Khartoum, we were off back to Ethiopia!

The sun sets on the Sahara, and on our tour of Sudan

The sun sets on the Sahara, and on our tour of Sudan


The Historical Route, Ethiopia

Given the Internet struggles, here is a belated post on our tour through historical Ethiopia — Lalibela, Tigrai, Axum, and Gondar.

1st Stop: Lalibela

High in the Lasta mountains sits the ancient holy town of Lalibela. To get there is no easy task. The road from the closest town, Woldia, required slow driving on craggy terrain, and we had to stop our car every few hours to cool down the shocks. Once we arrived at this tucked away town, we searched around for a dinner and camp spot. After a few turns in town, we saw this magical place presiding over a cliff.

Ben Abeba

Not only does Ben Abeba serve some great fare (shepherd’s pie was a nice change from shiro), but the setting is surreal. Designed and built by 2 local Ethiopian architects, it’s at once modern and also uniquely local, and looks akin to a “witch’s hat.” And the roof view over the Ethiopian highlands was the perfect backdrop for a celebratory beer at sunset.


Partly because of the isolation, and partly because of a large devout following, the famous churches here are still active. Each morning, white robed worshippers glide into the chapels. When you enter the church sites, you can’t help but lower your voice down to a whisper amongst the praying priests and nuns.

13 churches are spread around Lalibela, each unique in shape and style. Some monolithic, some carved into caves. Some tower above you — Bet Giyorgis is close to 15m in height. Others are small, compact, and reachable only via a pitch-black underground tunnel 50m in length. (They say it’s symbolic as the journey through hell…)

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2nd Stop: Rock-hewn Tigrai

After Lalibela, we set our sights on Mekele, the northern Afar city from where all Danakil Depression tours are based. Sadly, the tour company we confirmed with showed up at our hotel, hands in pockets, to say our tour was cancelled. With Margot leaving just a few days later, we sought a back-up plan. The rock-hewn churches in remote Tigrai sounded intriguing, and a day later we jetted off to Hawzien!

The first church on our itinerary was Debre Maryam Korkor, a reputedly 4th century monastic church 2,480m high and an hour’s hike away from the ground. One notable part of the journey: a 60 degree rock face, where you scramble up with footholds and handgrips. Special thanks for my guide, Alex, who essentially hauled me up.



A short walk away from Debre Maryam Korkor is Debre Daniel Korkor, a small cave church with only two rooms with stunning views of the valley below.

The real gem of the trip, however, was Abuna Yemata Guh. As Bradt guide describes, “the most spectacularly situated rock-hewn church anywhere.” The church is carved into the top of a rock pillar, maybe 2,000m high. After hiking for the better part of an hour, we reached a sheer rock face. 90 degrees straight up, and in some small parts, even more. The footholds and handgrips into the rock are irregular, and at times, bigger than my arm span. No ropes, no safety net, just the knowledge that if you freeze or slip, it’s straight down onto hard rock.

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But the rewards were more than worth the effort. A rarely visited 4th century church, dangerously high and reachably only via a small crack in the rock pillar, Abuna Yemata is undoubtedly a highlight of our trip.

3rd Stop: Axum

For the most ancient Ethiopian capital, and a holy city for the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Axum is a bit underwhelming at first glance. But the city is rich in history and steeped with legends of the Holy Grail.

The Axum Museum is probably the best museum we’ve seen since South Africa, and houses a 700-year-old leather Bible, numerous rock tablets inscribed with Egyptian, Greek, and Ge’ez, and partially excavated tombs.

The main stelae field, unmissable upon passing, consists of roughly 75 stelae erected over the tombs of kings and nobility. The highest, which would have been 33m high, lies where it fell soon after erected.


We were also free to explore the tombs and their underground vaults and burial chambers below.

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4th Stop: Gondar

Given Eugene and I have spent time in Gondar last year on our trek through Simien Mountains, we didn’t stay long. After a quick pit stop for a bite and fuel fill-up, we were officially on our way to Sudan!


Funny enough, it was exactly one year after we had joked about “turning right” at this sign when we visited the Simien Mountains in 2012, that we really did end up turning right.


Immigration Hoopla in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

We reached Addis! After picking up Margot, a friend from San Francisco, we dropped our bags at Wimms Holland House. Notorious as the overland camping site, the place has fallen a bit in amenities and hygiene. But it’s right in the middle of the city, which was perfect, given we needed to extend our Ethiopian visas immediately a few blocks away.

Getting your visa extended is actually a simple process, if you know how. But given Amharic is the language used, I couldn’t help but feel bad for all the foreigners figuring it out by trial and error. Not to mention the 1,000+ Somali/Yemen/Sudanese refugees lined up outside. After shuttling around a few rooms getting our information verified, we finally reached the photo stop in Room 77. The woman in charge saw my Chinese passport. “Sorry, 15 days from today.” My current visa expires in 14. “Come back when expire.” That was definitely not an option.

She notices Eugene’s Australian passport. “30 days for you.” When asked why, she pushed my passport away and said to stop wasting her time. She motioned for the next person in line. We had waited an entire morning (including Ethiopian lunch) in line; given our travel plans in Northern Ethiopia, returning back to Addis for another 2 week visa was not feasible. We continued to explain the situation, and exasperated, she sent us to her boss in Room 89.

Off we went, and clearly the boss had better things to do. Without hesitation, he gave us 60 days each. Victory!!



However, our immigration issues weren’t over. After sussing out the Somaliland route at Wimms, we decided to turn our compasses further north — to Sudan.

The problem, as with most hasty route decisions, is the visa. We turned up at the Sudan embassy hoping for the best. After waiting for an hour, Eugene joined the line to speak to the boss. We got nervous when the 20 girls in front of us got sent off crying, some being pulled away by two security goons. Finally, it was our turn.

“Tourist visa please.”

“You need a letter from the Ministry in Khartoum.”

“But… how do we get to Khartoum without a Sudan visa?”


Confounded, we got in line again to talk to the ambassador. Attempt number two: Change the type of visa.

“Transit visa please.”

“Where are you going?”


“You need an Egyptian visa first. NEXT.”

While Eugene tried to find a workaround, I was crippled in the waiting room with a stomach bug. A friendly Sudanese expat felt sorry for us, and gave some advice: the less information you give, the better.

So off Eugene goes, back to the ambassador. Attempt #3.

“Visa please.”

“After, where do you go?”

“I’m… going back to Australia.”

“Not Egypt?”?”

“No. Back to Australia.”

“And her?”

“She’s my cousin. She’s going back to China.”

“OK. Only Australia and China?”


“Come back tomorrow for visa.”

And just like that, we got our ticket to Sudan.


Addis was tough going. After 4 stomach bugs between us, endless diesel fumes, and incessant pickpockets, we rushed to leave. Now pushing to Lalibela, the holy town of the Orthodox Christian church, with Margot in tow. Til next time!