Monday, March 8, 2010

Shot Down by the Yemenis

Djibouti, Mar. 9

I've just walked out of the travel agency that the Yemeni embassy uses to process tourist visa requests. After no news yesterday, the guillotine dropped this morning on my hopes of visiting Yemen this year. The foreign ministry said that given the security situation, they wouldn't issue me a tourist visa. Would have been nice to know that from the outset, saving me a couple of nights in grotty Djibouti!

So my travel plans are a bit up in the air. I think I will probably end up back in Ethiopia, cycling as planned to the north, trying not to murder any irritating stone-throwing kids. Part of me thinks I should fly up to Dubai, or even to Bahrain for the Grand Prix, but I can't really decide at the moment.

The trip to get here from Hargeisa was considerably longer and even less pleasant than I had feared. After three hours of pointless waiting around in Hargeisa, picking up passengers and cargo, our overloaded Land Cruiser bumped off around 7 pm on Saturday night. We drove through the night, crammed into every nook and cranny of the vehicle: the driver and two passengers up front, four passengers in the back seat (I was wedged next to the fattest woman in Somalia, so space was a serious issue) and five unfortunates in the cargo space in the back. The cargo on the roof rack stood a metre and a half tall, and on top of it rode the driver's assistant. There was no asphalt, and we followed vague cross-country tracks right out of Hargeisa. We stopped once for food, and at 3 am we came to a crossing of a pretty significant river so we stopped and waited three hours for daylight to come. I tried to sleep on the ground, but it was too cold. I was a sleep-deprived zombie with aching knees by the time we got to the Djibouti border post at Loyada at 12:30, only to find the frontier closed for siesta until 4 pm. It wasn't until 7 pm that I was trudging the streets of Djibouti with my pack, going from full hotel to full hotel.

Djibouti has an air of seedy tropical decadence that's enchanting for about 12 hours and then just gets annoying. As much garbage on the streets as Somaliland, and about 10 times as many beggars. Lots of soldiers of various nations, lots of seedy nightclubs and hookers, decaying colonial buildings in the downtown, everyone stoned on chat, the smell of broken drains and decaying garbage. However, it costs $35 a night in the cheapest hotel, so not someplace to linger if there is nothing keeping me here!

I will post more from wherever I end up next, most likely Addis (if I can figure out a way around the Great Firewall software).

Peace and Tailwinds


PS By the way, my travelling guru friend Kent Foster has just sent me a great link to a guy who makes a living from writing a travel blog (Nomadic Matt). Kent is all excited about trying to make some money from his excellent website, and now he's got me thinking about it too. It would be better than a real job!

PPS An interesting article on Somaliland's quest for recognition as an independent country.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

In Somaliland

Hargeisa, March 6, 2010

Greetings to everyone! My plan to update this blog regularly from the road in Ethiopia has foundered on the Scylla and Charybdis of Ethiopian internet access: incredibly slow dial-up connections (think your first internet modem back in about 1994) and government censorship (Blogger is blocked by the same Chinese Great Firewall software used by the Burmese, but the Ethiopians are sneaky about it; you don't get the red page of death saying "we've blocked this site; if you have a problem, come talk to us about it", but instead it just doesn't load). Now that I'm in a country that doesn't officially exist, part of a larger country (Somalia) that has had constant war and no government for 20 years, I have high-speed internet and less censorship, so I can bring my blog slightly up-to-date.

I arrived in Addis on Feb. 6th with my bike after a sleepless night on EgyptAir from Geneva. I stayed a few nights with a lovely couple of teachers at the International Community School; I was their first-ever Couch Surfer, and they were my first-ever Couch-Surfing hosts. They live in international-teacher style in a bungalow set in a nice garden near the school, and we had a great time trading stories, playing ultimate frisbee (I was pretty out of breath at 2300 metres above sea level) and meeting lots of other expats working in the vast NGO industry of Ethiopia.

After arranging visas for Somaliland and Djibouti, realizing that a Sudan visa was going to take too long, and buying my flight back to Ottawa (I will be back in Canada in late April), I set off southwards on my bike on Feb. 10th at lunchtime. I rode across the densely populated highlands to a prehistoric site called Melka Kunture, where anthropologists have uncovered thousands of hominid stone tools made from the obsidian glass which litters the soil of this volcanic country. While in Addis I had visited the famous skeleton of Lucy, the largely complete austrolopithecus from 3.3 million years ago, but this site was much more evocative. I could picture our distant ancestors picking their way through the stones exposed by the gash of the Awash river and then working the obsidian and other stones into spear points, scrapers and knives.

The next day I saw more cultural remains, this time from only 10 centuries ago, in the form of a field full of standing funerary stones marking the graves of warriors from an unknown culture. The setting, atop a grassy hill with the higher volcanic peaks near Addis behind, was spectacular. I spent the night in a muddy, bustling town called Butajira.

The next day I rode down into the Rift Valley, the long gash running from Djibouti to Malawi along which Africa is inexorably spreading apart. Here in Ethiopia, the drop off the edge is less dramatic than in Tanzania; the top of the escarpment is maybe 300 metres above the floor of the valley and its chain of volcanic lakes. I spent the night camped among the trees of a small resort beside Lake Langano, watching dozens of species of birds and wishing I had a proper field guide to the birds (there were none to be found in Addis). I particularly liked the various species of hornbills and the brilliantly-coloured superb starlings.

From Langano, I could look southwest towards my next big destination, the Bale Mountains. I rode an easy day the next day, fairly flat along the floor of the Rift Valley to the cross-roads town of Shashamene (the Rastafarian capital of Ethiopia) and on to the hot spring town of Wondo Genet. Again I camped in the grounds of a resort, with more hornbills, vultures and other birds to lull me to sleep. There were also colobus monkeys and vervet monkeys in the trees, the latter cheeky devils that keep an eye posted for anything edible and swoop down out of the trees to snatch it. I met an overland truck, headed from Cairo to Cape Town over the course of four months. There were some interesting characters aboard, including a couple of keen Canadian cycle tourists, but I was glad that I wasn't stuck aboard the truck for 4 months myself!

From Wondo Genet I turned east towards Dodola and the Bale Mountains. The road was better than I had been led to believe, with most of the paving work complete. This was just as well as it allowed me to outrun the irritating children that are such a feature of any cycling in the country. As soon as I get spotted (inevitable in a country of 90 million people, 65 million of them children, all of whom spend the day outdoors), a war-cry of "faranji! faranji!" starts up to alert everyone, and a flood of children and young adults heads to the road to beg. "Give me money! Money! Money! Give me one pen! Give me a T-shirt. I am hungry! Give! Give! Give!" The adults get into the act too, palms outstretched or miming eating. Twenty-five years of non-stop foreign aid has created an enormous culture of waiting for whitey to dispense the cash, and a whitey on a bike, moving slowly enough to run beside, is a dream come true. I have this image of what I look like to an Ethiopian child: an ATM on wheels, and if you chant the right mantra, the cash will flow. Tragic, stupid and intensely irritating, and something that Bob Geldof and Bono should come and experience for themselves to see the corrosive effects of Live Aid and its aftermath.

I got into Dodola and was happy to hop off the bike for some hiking. I spent four happy days walking from lodge to lodge in the remaining bits of dense forest that haven't been felled for firewood and charcoal. Ethiopia had 40% forest cover in 1950, and less than 3% now, and what little is left is highly endangered. Even this forest was looking pretty thin, but at least it more or less existed. Great views, lovely birds and then, at altitudes above 3000 metres, there was dense Erica heather and an entirely new set of birds to ogle.

I walked back to Dodola, paid off my guide and got on the bike for another day's riding over the mountains to Dinsho. What a nightmare! 90 kilometres of high altitude (up to 3600 metres), non-stop "construction" (a Chinese project that is going nowhere, but turns the road into a gigantic pile of mud and rock) and the worst kids yet, endlessly begging and throwing quite a lot of stones too. I had a stick by now, which worked to keep them at bay, and their throwing abilities were terrible, but it was no fun at all. I was glad to get to Dinsho and start hiking again.

This time the hiking was much more bureaucratic and expensive than in Dodola, but I met an Aussie woman to split the costs. The five days of walking were fantastic. We started at 3200 metres' elevation and slowly made our way up in elevation, crossing a vast plateau of Erica heather and then high-altitude treeless moorland straight out of Hound of the Baskervilles. Lots of birds, especially raptors, but also, most impressively, some Ethiopian wolves, the rarest canids on earth with only 600 estimated to survive. We saw 7 of them, busy hunting the giant molerats
who tunnel everywhere under the heather.

We lucked out with weather too, with no rain for the entire trip. We camped one night in a lava field that had cooled into a sea of frozen stone waves which showed up beautifully against the night sky.

From the end of the hike, a friendly truck driver gave me a lift back to my bike, waited for me to go fetch it, and then drove me all the way back to where I had entered the Rift Valley. From there, I made a four-and-a-half day dash to the ancient town of Harar, past the worst kids yet. Four days of being pursued by ululating hordes of half-dressed savages was no fun at all, completely obscuring the beauty of the rugged Chercher mountains. I spent the night in horrid mudhole towns, their streets dominated by uncontrollable mobs of feral children. I was relieved to get to Harar in one piece without having killed a child in rage.

In Harar, I wandered the streets, enjoying the history and feeling of culture and civilization that had been so absent along the road. I went to the famous hyena feeding, and ate like a pig to make up for the calories burned in the mountains. I also made a decision: to curtail cycling in Ethiopia and spend more time doing other, more enjoyable things. I feel stupid doing this just because lazy, stoned Ethiopian parents can't control their 13 children, but I have never enjoyed a cycling trip less. Instead, I am going to try to visit Yemen and Eritrea, do more hiking in Ethiopia, and do a bit of cycling and more riding in the safety of a bus.

The trip here to Somaliland was eventful. After a 2-hour bus trip from Harar to Jijiga past more fantastically shaped lava rocks, the bus descended onto an endless Tibet-like grassland at a surprisingly high altitude of 1700 metres. I changed buses in Jijiga and bounced across the grasslands to the muddiest border crossing on earth. The days of El Nino-fuelled rain that have been soaking me while riding have also turned the grasslands into a sea of ankle-deep mud that didn't do much for the beauty of the border. I got delayed there for two hours by a dense immigration officer and a grasping taxi driver, and would have cause to rue this delay. I finally left in an ancient Toyota Mark II station wagon loaded to the gills with 10 passengers, and spent 90 joyless minutes bumping along an apocalyptic mudpit of a track out to the paved road. Just as I relaxed and thought that we would easily make it to Hargeisa before dark, we encountered a queue of waiting vehicles. Up ahead, the reason was easy to see and hear: a flash flood had ripped down a dry watercourses and turned it into raging class III rapids. We waited for the water to drop a bit, and for other cars to show that it could be done, then nosed across, only to find the next ford under even more water, with standing waves a metre high and trees hurtling past in the flood. This one cost us three hours, and we didn't get into Hargeisa until nearly 11 pm.

Hargeisa is a paradoxical place: high-speed internet and reasonably stocked shops, lots of expensive 4WDs, but rubbish everywhere and its fair share of poor people. Overall, though, there is far more of an air of commerce than in most of Ethiopia, and I hardly get pestered at all for money; not one Somali kid has asked me for money, a pen or a T-shirt. There are no guns in evidence, and people wander around carrying plastic shopping bags stuffed with bundles of Somaliland shillings (1 US dollar gets you 13 500-shilling notes, the highest denomination).

I'm off to Djibouti tonight on what promises to be a completely hellacious all-night marathon drive with 11 other passengers in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Here's hoping for no more rain! The rain that's been hitting here has also been causing flooding and landslides in northern Kenya and eastern Uganda, and these folks don't need more watery misery. Plus, I'd like actually to make it to Djibouti by daybreak, rather than spending more time sitting beside flooded rivers!

Peace and Tailwinds (and an absence of Ethiopian feral children!)


Riding Day No.



From Start of Trip



Final Elevation









Daily Destination


Melka Awash




Lake Langano


Wondo Genet