#7 - Bandit Country
Jeff Willner - 10 August 2001
(Addis Ababa, ETHIOPIA) Ė Do you remember the pictures
of starving Ethiopian children on TV in the 80ís, skeletal refugees staring
blankly at the camera, collapsed on the dusty ground? Ethiopia isnít
making the disaster news these days, but still in the back of my mind
I expected to see gaunt cattle and stick huts. The landscape we passed
through in northern Kenya confirmed the expectation, a barren volcanic
desert of rocks and sand. Nomadic Turkana tribesmen watched over small
cattle herds, finding meager nourishment from dry riverbeds. So I was
quite surprised when we crossed into Ethiopia. But first to the beginning
of the story...
The long drive north from Nairobi proved to be the latest in a series
of Land Rover infamies. After an overnight stay with an old friend in Nakuru
(and a six hour wait to see a specialist for a mysterious bite that had
swollen Jody's arm alarmingly) we headed north.
Lunch at the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri
was a bit of civilization before diving into the desert. We stopped at the
last major gas station in the country, filling the main tank, auxiliary tank,
and roof-mounted jerry cans to max out our 2,000km range.
escorts were supposed to be mandatory in northern Kenya due to occasional
Somali raiders. But at the military barrier we were told that the escort
was optional. Stanley, an off-duty soldier was returning to his base up north
and offered to ride with us for free. I think he enjoyed the ride, not something
that all my passengers will admit, and Jody's incessant pestering to see
his gun just made him laugh (the woman has a real gun thing - read on).
camped at the military post, a collection of tin huts guarding a small
village of cattle herders. There were so many cockroaches in the long-drop
outhouse that the women insisted on going in pairs - one armed with flashlight
and bug spray to do battle while the other took care of business. Our digital
cameras have been great amusement on the road. People always want to have
their picture taken, but when they can see the picture on the camera screen
afterward they start shouting and yelling, and a crowd forms in no time
and the posing begins. We are seldom able to get away without taking dozens
of pictures and showing them off. I explained to the soldiers what we were
doing, writing stories and posting them to the internet. "You see this
website on my laptop? In a few days, your picture will be here!"
The truck had held up well on the rough gravel road.
With only 450km to the border I even joked about clearing customs by
noon. It was not to be. An hour into the drive, while taking photos of
the Turkana herds, we were accosted by one of the warriors. The nomadic
tribes are considered the 'red-necks' of Kenya, concerned only with their
cattle, alcohol, and fightin'. Normally after taking photos you will
be pestered for cash. This can be solved with smiles, waves, and firmly
driving off. However, in this instance the herder was toting an AK-47,
didn't know Swahili, and seemed particularly focused on getting money.
We tried charm and a few pens but he kept a stubborn grip on Sally's
arm in the front seat. Finally seeing the entire box of pens he grabbed
at them, it was our chance, and we accelerated out of there.
Marsabit is the last decent sized town in Kenya and
we arrived around 11am. Rounding a final corner into town I slowed for
a herd of cows crossing to the left. Inexplicably, on seeing the truck
the herder whacked the herd back to the right - already committed, I
watched seemingly in slow motion as we slid on the gravel (feathering
the brake to maintain some steering) into the middle of the herd. One
tan cow looked up incredulously as the truck bore down. As Sally describes
it, first there was a head in the windscreen, then four hooves. The cow
got up, looking unhurt by the tumble - I think most of the damage was
to my pride. We were required to go to the District Commissioner's office
in Marsabit, and in the office of the colonel responsible for security,
were informed that space or no space we had to take two escorts with
us for the final 220km. So all three women squeezed into the back with
Michael, while Joseph sat up front - his machine gun at the ready.
On the road up to Marsabit, corrugations in the gravel road were bearable
if we accelerated to 80kph. But after leaving the town the road turned really
ugly. Boulders and fist-sized stones had been worn into an axle-deep track.
There was no smooth track, no perfect speed to lessen the pounding. It was
simply a case of going 40kph and absorbing the punishment. Half an hour out
of town the truck suddenly started cutting out, fleetingly at first, but
then for longer and longer gaps. Finally it just died. Bad diesel? There
was no dirt or water in the filter. Air filter was clean. Jody and Sally
translated the manual (it's in Spanish) - "If there are serious problems,
see an authorized dealer." Great. Fortunately we have the satellite phone.
With the help of Paul Foley, long distance from Zambia, we were able to diagnose
the problem (a hidden electrical fault) and a solution (run a direct circuit
to the injector pump). Though the fix worked, other electrical systems cut
on and off, also affected by the electrical fault - the gauges, windshield
wipers, and ignition. To turn the truck off we had to stall it in 5th gear.
Happy to have escaped disaster in the desert,
I groaned when the rear suspension suddenly went loose. A flat
tire I figured. Not so. The tires were in fine shape, but peering
behind them I spotted the problem - the right rear shock had
literally exploded. It was hanging in two pieces. We nursed
the truck into the next town and swapped out "the world's best
shock absorber" for one of the generic spares. And finally,
things went our way. The road turned nice again, Michael and
Joseph helped us find a good campsite in Moyale (the border
town), we pitched camp and finally relaxed with some camp cooked
pasta and fine grind coffee.
First impressions of Ethiopia confirmed it's socialist reputation, the border
formalities were long and involved. Customs took over an hour to complete,
a long double-sided declaration form in quintuplicate and additional currency
declaration forms. Despite his friendly demeanor, the inspector searched
the truck quite thoroughly, asking us to remove and unpack several cargo
boxes. Their idea of a 'quick search' was nerve wracking - I'd hate to
be subject to a thorough inspection.
But heading into southern Ethiopia unwound my preconceived notions.
The vegetation was immediately greener than northern Kenya. And
200km into the country the road ascended to a higher altitude,
into wet drizzle, clouds, and absolutely lush greenery. There are
no holes in the huts to let cooking smoke escape - instead the
smoke vents directly through the roof. It was a cozy sight as we
wound through the cold damp mist, clusters of huts oozing warmth.
Tourism has not yet returned to Ethiopia
and this has plusses and minuses. There are none of the internet
cafes or touristy restaurants that make life easy on the road.
But this forces you to search out local restaurants and go
through the awkward pantomime of relieving yourself to find
a bathroom. Embarrassing sometimes, and definitely time consuming,
but rewarding in the end because you have real contact with
the people. For lunch we stopped at a small town bisected by
a military checkpoint. The truck was an immediate source of
interest. "Where can we find lunch. Food." mime hand to mouth.
A man pointed to a series of three derelict straw huts.
Mud benches and a straw littered floor didn't inspire confidence.
And the bathroom was an outdoor affair, an open hole barely screened
by ragged mats. But inside, herbs smoldered under a charcoal brazier,
and the smell of ingera and tibs wot invaded our appetites. If
you haven't tried real Ethiopian food, you're missing out. And
if you have, take the best you've had, and imagine that flavor
multiplied - fresh ingredients only hours old and the expertise
of women who've cooked the dishes for generations. For $0.30 each
we gorged ourselves till we could eat no more. No tourist infrastructure?
Coffee originated in Ethiopia and has been
brewed here for thousands of years. The only place I could
find was a straw roofed awning with some benches and a few
battered thermoses of coffee. No matter, after going through
the trouble to find the place, having been led by a couple
of locals who understood my gestures, I figured it was only
polite to buy a cup. A small glass tumbler was produced and
a stream of hot black liquid sloshed inside. Sugar? Yes. I
tasted. Wow - strong, not bitter, an absolutely perfect double
espresso. Locals crowded into the shack trying out their bits
of English. At $0.06 per glass I could afford to buy a couple
of rounds. Sally, Gulin, and Jody managed to find me and we
all gave our digital cameras a workout.
Smooth paved road from the border all the way to the capital city!
What luxury. Unfortunately the locals don't have much practice
looking both ways before they cross the road and we had a few heart-stopping
moments. Gulin slalomed across the road and through a stack of
hay bales to avoid a man who stepped right in front of the truck
without looking. Later that day at dusk, a man watched us approach
and then figuring he could beat us dashed right into our path -
I stood on the brakes and we left six foot rubber tracks narrowly
missing him. Despite pedestrian hazards, the trip up finished without
incident. Addis Ababa traffic in the rain with no functioning windshield
wipers is a challenge, especially with cows who like to doze in
the center median of main roads. But we've managed to settle into
a decent hotel. Ethiopia was occupied by the Italians during the
second world war (Italy had an even longer presence in Eritria),
and though the occupation is long over the influence remains. In
the midst of crumbling sidewalks and filthy streets, pastry shops
and stores crammed with fine Italian suits abound.
We'll be stuck here for about a week wrangling
visas and vehicle permission for Sudan - in fact there's a
question whether Jody (US citizen) will be allowed in at all.
But in a city with great food, great coffee, and friendly faces,
it will be an easy rest.