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

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!

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Religious leaders guide the crowd in chanting

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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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-Christine

Pyramids, Temples, and Gods — 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. We longed to see the gods we knew by heart from elementary school, to stare upon Isis and Horus and Amun, and to touch the timeworn hieroglyphics of the Book of the Dead. And so in search of Sudan’s ancient treasures, we journeyed northward into the vastness and quiet stillness 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. Especially as the carvings look remarkably fresh for 230 B.C. and we had the whole place to ourselves!

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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 collapsed hallways in silence,  trying to conjure up who would have walked upon these floors, our fingers tracing some of the ancient carvings.

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 charm and 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

Naqa

Possibly the best preserved Kushite site in Sudan, the Naqa ruins showcase Sudan’s classic architecture and artwork. The Temple of Amun, erected in the 1st century A.D., is proceeded by a fleet of rams. With some columns re-erected by German archaeologists and delicate stone carvings, it’s an impressive glimpse into what you’d see walking these hallways thousands of years ago.

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An even better preserved site is right across the alley. The Lion Temple is dedicated to the lion-headed Kushite god Apedemak. The portal is flanked by enormous relief carvings of the King Natakamani and his queen Amnitore in victorious poses. With one hand armed with weapons and the other holding prisoners by the hair, both royals tower over lions who feast on the defeated.

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An imitation of art!

On the Lion Temple’s doorstep is a Romanesque kiosk, with a row of Egyptian sacred cobras lining the top—-a clear portrayal of other cultures’ influences on Sudan.

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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

-Christine

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 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.

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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, hands clutching knotted wooden staffs and tattered Bibles. 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.

 

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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. These solid blocks of granite up to 23m high, carved with doors and windows, date back to the 3rd-4th century A.D. and are miraculously well-preserved given their age. The highest, which would have been 33m high, lies where it fell soon after erected.

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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!

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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.

-Christine