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Digging out the Truck

We left Addis Ababa at 8am. With us are our new travellers which are two Dutch guys in my age and two Norwegian twins in the age of nineteen. We drove towards Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo. Swimming in both lakes is not advisable since there is a high concentration of Hydroxide ions (OH-) which damage the skin.

We arrived at the gate of the Nechisar National Park at 12pm. Here we were supposed to meet our local Ethiopian guide which will accompany us during our whole stay in Ethiopia. Unfortunately he was delayed and so we just picked up a scout. Actually we don’t really need a scout but it’s a requirement to have one while being in the national park. This will also ensure employment in the region.

To kill time until the arrival of our Ethiopian guide we decided to drive closer to the lake and have lunch while waiting. As we drove towards the lake the ground suddenly became very soft and our truck got stuck. Our drivers Tom and Daniel were leading the initiative to dig out our truck and some local guys and three boys of our group were helping them. It actually took a total of three attempts and four hours to dig out the truck. During the first two attempts the back wheels went even deeper in the sand. We also tried to organize another truck or tractor to pull us out but there was none available since we were in a remote area of the National Park. The final strategy which got us out in the end was to lift both back wheels with a jack and put sand mats under both wheels.

Since our group is quite large it made no sense that everybody participated in the digging. Therefore, we first had lunch next to the truck and then played with the locals kids which showed up after a while. Some of us also took the opportunity to walk to the lake and watch the flamingos.

In the evening my cooking group was up for preparing dinner. We cooked some non-spicy chili since some people complained about the spicy food during the last days.

Relaxing Day in Addis Ababa

In the morning some people went to the National Museum of Ethiopia to see Lucy a skeleton which is over 3 million years old. Since I’m not very much interested in skeletons I decided not to go and have a relaxing day in the hotel instead following up on my blog for the past two weeks.

We are also leaving Addis Ababa tomorrow morning and my cooking group will be on duty for preparing lunch and dinner. Luckily, one of our two new Dutch travellers joint my cooking group and it turned out that he is a very skilled and passionate cook who is experienced in preparing meals for large amounts of people. These facts sounds like a lottery win to me. I therefore dropped my lead in cooking and gave him the responsibility for planning tomorrow’s lunch and dinner. He was also very much excited about food shopping and so there was no need for me to go to the food market today :-)

In the evening we went out for a group dinner to an Indian restaurant called “Jevel of India” which served very nice food. Unfortunately only seven of us came since most of the other people were either too exhausted or sick. I’m still full of energy and the only little pain I have is a runner’s toe I caught when walking downhill on a hike in the Semien Mountains a couple of weeks ago. My big toes look kind of funny and the blue colour could also be fancy nail polish.

During the next three weeks we will be mainly camping meaning I will not have access to the internet and updates to my blog might take a while…

Ethiopian Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa

After breakfast some of us went for a walk to the Ethiopian Ethnological Museum. On the way to the museum Michelle spotted a traditional Ethiopian dress which she really liked and purchased. Ellen also made a purchase of a colourful umbrella as we seen people using them in Ethiopian churches.

The museum is situated at the beautiful campus of the Addis Ababa university and we were positively surprised by the cheap entrance fee of 50 Birr (2.90 USD) and the high quality of the museum. It basically explains the different tribes living in Ethiopia and their life cycle from birth to death. Since the building of the museum used to be home of a monarch the exhibit also showed his bedroom and bathroom.

After lunch I had Skype conversations with some of my friends including Michael who just arrived back to Germany from a business school residency and a vacation in China.

In the evening we received a refund from the kitty for our journey from Gondar to Addis Ababa amounting 65 USD and 200 Birr (11.8 USD) per person. The principle of the kitty is simple to explain. For each piece of the journey every traveller puts in the same amount of money into a joint fund of money. For example the kitty payment for the 21 day travel between Gondar and Addis Ababa amounted to 400 USD. The kitty is then used to pay for hotels, camping fees, entrance fees, local guides and shopping for food done by the cocking groups. The amount of kitty to be paid is strongly related to local prices at the time of travel, e.g. if the price of a hotel rises more money is consumed. The money which wasn’t used doesn’t flow into the pockets of the tour operator but directly back to the travellers. Therefore, the system is very transparent and fair.

At 6pm we went out for a group dinner to a Mexican restaurant. We used the dinner to say goodbye to three travellers and welcome to two new ones from The Netherlands. Tomorrow we’re expecting two more travellers from Scandinavia joining us on our journey to Nairobi. In total the number of traveller is now rising from 18 to 19 people.

Arrival in Addis Ababa

We started driving at 8am and arrived at 3pm in our hotel in Addis Ababa. Compared what we usually spent for accommodation the hotel was quite pricy charging us 100 USD per room and night. Therefore, we were promised some fancy features such as a sauna and a gym. After arrival four of us went to check them out. The gym was actually a completely empty room. At least you have enough space to use your body weight to work out. The sauna was really existing but very small. We switched it on and an hour later the four of us were sweating. Since we are in Ethiopia every service has an additional cost and so we needed to pay 80 Birr (4.70 USD) per person for using the sauna for up to two hours.

In the evening six of us wanted to go out and have Sushi which was said to be very good in Addis Ababa. However, all restaurant guides were only listing one Japanese restaurant without supplying any address data and the staff of our hotel didn’t know the restaurant. Therefore, we changed our plans and went to another recommended place serving all kinds of chicken. When calling for a taxi we were shocked how expensive Addis Ababa is compared to the rural areas. The taxi driver requested 300 Birr (17.6 USD) for a 10 minutes taxi ride to the restaurant. We therefore stopped multiple taxis and negotiated prices. Finally, we ended up with six people squeezed into one taxi, two at the front next to the driver and four in the back for a fare of 100 Birr.

The food at the chicken place was very delicious. Only ordering food was a little pain. The menu had maybe 50 different items but it turned out that only two of the dishes were actually available. The waiter didn’t communicate this fact straight away but let us order what we want and came back ten minutes later that the food we ordered was actually not available. We repeated this order process three times until we figured out which dishes were actually available.

For the drive back to the hotel we used the same procedure of six people in one taxi. Since there were no fancy bars or nightclubs in the area of our hotel we purchased some beer and wine (for 40 Birr / 2.40 USD a bottle) and started a party in one of our hotel rooms. During the party we jointly were filling out one copy of the end of trip questionnaire for our journey from Gondar to Addis Ababa. This ended up in a very entertaining activity since we were making up funny facts to mess up the whole questionnaire and submitted it anonymously by slipping it under the door of our leader.

Truck Clean and Drive towards Dejen

Everybody met at 10am for a truck clean. This means that all the cooking equipment, the boxes with the bulk food and the inside of the truck required a proper cleaning. Since we are 18 people and everybody contributed the whole cleaning procedure took us only one hour.

We started driving after an early lunch at 12:30pm and spent the remaining day on the road towards Dejen and Addis Ababa. Driving days are always somewhat eventless since we do only sit in the truck and watch the outside world drive by. Therefore, there is not much to write about today.

In the evening we put up our bush camp on a meadow and only a few minutes later we were surrounded by local farmers and their cows watching us and our cooking. After dinner Norms and Liv invited Michelle and me to their tent where we watched two episodes of the TV show “24”.

Hiking at the Blue Nile Falls

Today we went for a short hike in the area of Bahir Dar leading us to the Blue Nile Falls. It felt really good to move again after sitting in the truck for multiple days. During the hike we also crossed a rope bridge which wasn’t scary at all since the construction was out of metal and very stable.

We were back at the hotel at noon and went for another lunch to the pizza / pasta place we discovered the day before. In the afternoon not much was going on. Only a few girls went to the spa next door to get a full body wax, a massage, manicure and pedicure. I don’t need these fancy things on an overland truck and so I was relaxing at our hotel.

It was also very entertaining to watch my fellow traveller Chris trying to get his camera back which was stolen from him in Axum. While I would have given up on my camera already Chris demonstrated lots of enthusiasm to get it back. He had approx. twenty phone calls every day since we left Axum. Also today, ten days after his camera got stolen, Chris spent half of his day with activities to get his camera back, e.g. sending fax messages to the police in Axum and talking to two kids in Axum supporting him on site.

Luckily, all efforts Chris has put into the situation paid out in the end. The police was able to identify the thief, get hold of the camera and send it via plane to Addis Ababa were Chris could pick it up in the next days. I also strongly recommend that you read the full story on the Blog of Chris providing you further interesting insides into the Police system in Ethiopia.

Boat Trip on Lake Tana

For this morning we had booked a boat trip on Lake Tana leading us to four monasteries / churches on the lakes islands and peninsulas. To our understanding the following was included in the tour: a speedboat ride, a local guide showing us around, the entry fee to one of the monasteries and the visit of the source of the Blue Nile. What we actually received was: a ride in an extremely slow boat (15 HP for carrying 19 people), a guide who spoke two sentences and then disappeared, no entrance fee included and a brief drive by at the source of the Blue Nile without even announcing the site. We were not surprised by the situation since we experienced this kind of rip-off in many places in Ethiopia and our leader Tom is continuously managing our expectations that this might happen and we should take care to not be charged twice for the same service.

Due to the slow boat the drive to the first monastery took us 1.5 hours. When we arrived there and found out that the entry fee is not included in the tour we called our leader Tom and the hotel manager with whom Tom has booked the tour and complained about the situation. It turned out that the hotel manager kept our money for the entrance fee in his pocket (approx. 5.90 USD per person) probably hoping that it doesn’t turn out and we simply pay twice.

Due to our slow boat we also decided to skip two of the monasteries / churches and only visit one more church. Actually the churches at Lake Tana look different than the rock churches we seen before in the area of Mekele and Lalibela. They are round buildings and some of them have very colourful paintings inside.

After we returned at 2:30pm we went for a late lunch to a local pizza place in Bahir Dar which was recommended to us by the travellers of another overland truck from African Trails we ran into at the hotel ground. African Trails is running similar trips than Dragoman but a bit more on the rough side, e.g. camping only.

I spent the remaining day relaxing on the beautiful garden terrace of the hotel and following up on my emails.

Driving Day to Bahir Dar

We were supposed to leave Lalibela at 8am. However, the truck didn’t start so that we needed to push it until the engine started. The whole procedure was pretty quick (four minutes) but it took another 25 minutes before the truck was ready for driving. Due to the delayed start of 29 minutes I claimed that I have won my bet against Daniel that the truck will break down for at least five minutes until we arrive in Nairobi (see blog entry from Oct 19 for details). Daniel obviously didn’t share my opinion and claimed when he wanted to start the truck at 7:30am my fellow traveller Pierre had asked him to not do so before 8am so that people don’t need to inhale the exhaust of the truck when loading their luggage into the truck.

We spent the majority of the day on the road and arrived around 4pm in Bahir Dar. The town is situated at Lake Tana the largest lake in Ethiopia. Unfortunately it’s not advisable to go swimming in the lake since there is a high risk of getting infected with Bilharzia. So I only went for a walk along the lakefront.

Speaking about diseases, our driver Daniel actually got infected with Malaria. After suffering from it during the past two days he saw a doctor in Bahir Dar who confirmed his infection. Probably Daniel got infected in Sudan since he didn’t take any Malaria prophylaxis. He simply doesn’t care since he got already infected with a different type of Malaria at an earlier stage. There are also a few other people on our truck who didn’t take Malaria prophylaxis since they either wanted to save the money for the tablets, they experienced side effects when taking the tablets and then stopped taking them or they thought because there is only low to medium risk to get infected with Malaria in Sudan they will not get infected. But luckily despite from Daniel nobody else got infected so far.

Other diseases include an upset stomach so that basically every day somebody else is sick. Luckily, I’m absolutely fine so far but I also take care of me as good as I can, meaning not drinking tab water and taking my Malaria prophylaxis. Smaller pains are bedbugs which some of us caught in dirty hotel beds. This time it was up to my fellow traveller Norms having bedbugs in his trousers and he needed to wash them with boiling water to make sure that all bugs are gone.

In Bahir Dar we were planning to camp for three nights on the ground of a nice hotel near the waterfront. Since the camping space was not very scenic many of us used the option to upgrade to a room which was just an additional 2 USD per night and person in a triple-share.

We were also happy to have WiFi connection which we didn’t have for the past two weeks. So I took the opportunity of a Skype video call with my parents.

School Visit in Lalibela

Our last day in Lalibela was very relaxing and some of us used it to recover from the Tej drinking event the night before. After a quiet morning and another tasty lunch at the little “Unique” restaurant we went to visit a local school.

At the school we had the opportunity to visit two different classes and the school’s library. First we went into the English class of a 8th grade. Since we had some native English speakers with us the teacher used the opportunity and involved our fellow traveller Andrew from Australia to teach for a few minutes. The kids were reading an English text and then they needed to extract the similarities and differences of the two leading characters from it. Andrew took the lead in moderating the collection of points and the resulting discussion.

Next we went into a science class where the kids were showing us some of the electrical devices they have built. One was a little airplane another one a globe rotating around the sun. In general I had the impression that the knowledge level of the kids was very much behind the level of knowledge kids of the Western civilization have at the same age. We also learned that school isn’t compulsory in Ethiopia and so it’s basically up to the parents if they sent their kids to school or not. We also saw lots of kids on the street during daytime fishing for western tourists to extract money from them (e.g. for cleaning their shoes). I wish they would understand that a good education is much more worth at some stage than the few pennies they are making from cleaning shoes.

In the evening we were relaxing in the hotel and I was close to kill my fellow traveller Marek in the room next to ours. Marek has the special talent of continuously speaking also when nobody replies to what he’s saying. This afternoon I had the impression that he was speaking loudly for four hours in a row which drove me crazy at some stage.

The Churches of Lalibela and Michelle’s Birthday

This day was dedicated to visit the churches of Lalibela. Our local guide picked us up in our hotel and we walked down to the church area of the city. Upon arrival our guide introduced us to two other guys who will watch our shoes while we are in church. You basically need to take off your shoes whenever you enter a church in Ethiopia and some people seem to care that they don’t get stolen. On the other side employing people to watch your shoes is another methods of extracting as much money out of western travellers as possible, meaning once you have agreed on a service (guided church visit in this case) and a price it turns out at a later stage that you need to pay additional money for services you have either not requested or they were to your understanding of the agreement included in the price. So basically in Ethiopia you always have to watch out for these additional charges.

We started our church visit at the Bete Medhane Alem Church which is said to be the world’s largest monolithic church. It’s very impressive to see a whole church hewn out of the rock surrounding it. The rock is basically the ground so that the churches are under the earth’s surface and the roof of the church is about even with it. Our guide provided us with tons of facts which I personally found quite boring especially because most of them seemed to be made up just to have something to talk about. I preferred more to walk around with a few people and discover the churches on our own instead of listen to him all morning. We very much enjoyed mingling with the locals covered in white cloth, singing, dancing and praying in one of the churches. Absorbing this spiritual atmosphere matters much more to me than thousands of historic facts our guide was bombarding us with.

We ended our morning tour at the Church of Saint George which is the most famous and last build church in the area of Lalibela. The roof of the church forms a cross which is the first thing you see when entering the area of the church.

Lunch was at the “Seven Olives” restaurant which was a much more touristy spot than the “Unique” restaurant the day before. We ended up paying three times as much for food which was less tasty. However, the restaurants terrace was quite a scenic spot overlooking the whole town which alone was worth the visit. In the afternoon we continued our tour going into a few more of the underground churches.

The evening was dedicated to Michelle’s birthday celebration. We kicked it off with a group dinner at the “Seven Olives” which only a part of the group attended since everyone wanted to have dinner at a different place. Afterwards we headed off to the Tej house we discovered the day before and had some cheap booze. Everyone was expected to be at the Tej house to celebrate Michelle’s birthday but not everybody came and some, including Michelle, came an hour later than agreed so that we started to worry that we are at the wrong place. However, Michelle and a few others showed up after a while but she was not able to deal with any more alcoholic drinks so that she was escorted back to the hotel.

We continued our tour in another Tej house which was much more touristy and much more pricy than the first place. While a “glass” of Tej was 3 Birr (0.18 USD) at the first place it costs 30 Birr (1.80 USD) here. However, there was some nice music and we could dance with a few other travellers and locals. The locals had a very interesting style of dance rolling their shoulders to the beat of the music. Some were better in it than others resulting in little dance competitions as you might know them from the 80ies street break-dancing.

I was one of the last ones exiting the Tej house leaving only three of the male hard-core drinkers behind. When I arrived back at my hotel room Michelle was surprisingly fine for here level of alcohol so that I decided to go to bed. About two hours later our fellow traveller Tom from Ireland showed up in our room. He mixed up his own room with ours and due to his level of alcohol I needed to remind him about ten times that this is not his room and he should leave it. The next morning we’ve been told that Tom ended up in another room lying down on the bed of our driver Daniel. As Daniel woke up he was very much confused but managed to find out Tom’s room number and to bring him into his own bed. Michelle and I also spent the night with the door of our hotel room being widely open since Tom didn’t manage to close it when he left our room…