Day 34 - Lalibela

Trip Start Aug 07, 2007
Trip End Nov 07, 2007

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Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Sunday, September 9, 2007

Hair: Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber
Beard: Caveman
Distance Travelled: 5100km
Frame of Mind: Forward Looking
Falls: 2
Broken Frames: 1

So I was planning on going to Axum, right in the north of Ethiopia, and skipping Lalibela, over to the east.  However the consensus amongst fellow travellers was that Axum was missable and had terrible roads whereas Lalibela was special and had terrible roads.  So I went with the crowd.  Baaaa.

From Bahar Dar it is around 320km.  The first 60 is on good tarmac, then you cut across the country on one of those red dotted roads that are so unpredictable.  Just as an indication, the buses take 12 hours to do the trip - so an average of about 25kmph.  Not fantastic.  But I had a motorbike so it would be either much easier or much more difficult. 

It turned out to be much easier to drive on the roads but that didn't stop it being a thoroughly unpleasant experience.  A series of unfortunate events:

1) 10km into the bad road section one of my bungee cords holding my luggage snapped and my gerry can of petrol fell off and smashed.  This was due to poor packing on my part.  A passing minibus sold me a new (very leaky) gerry can, which I put into my backpack to keep it slightly more secure and to liberally soak all of my belongings in petrol.

2) I was making excellent time (averaging 50/6kmph) until just before half way it started to rain.  Hard.  The road swiftly became a river and I couldn't see more than 10m ahead of me.  A friend commented yesterday that it doesn't sound like much fun at all.  I really couldn't say much against this rather astute comment.  The leit motif of my Ethiopian travels does seem to be coldness and wetness.

3) There was a ray of sunshine, literally, ahead of me.  I could see the end of the rain storm and could almost feel the warmth of the late afternoon sun...a tantalising kilometre ahead of me.  So I was chasing the sun, which is not like chasing a rainbow, as if you keep going faster than the clouds then you will make it

I was concentrating more on the horizon than the road, hit a large skidpan of mud and had my second proper fall of the trip so far (I am not counting any falls at less than 5kmph, for example the time I effectively just dropped my bike into a large pool of mud whilst crawling at a snail's pace - which entertained the construction workers no end).  Again I fell to my left and again the hand covers did nothing to protect my clutch lever.  This time it was the holder that smashed. 

So I spent 40 mins in the driving rain fixing on my spare.  The sunshine was no more than 500m away.  This is definitely the low point of the trip so far.  Entirely down to my poor driving.

4) The dark: having wasted so much time with 1-3 the rest of the journey was an attempt to get to my stopover point of Gaushena before dark.  I failed so drove a slippery, slow, dark 40km into Gaushena, arriving at about half seven. 

The hotel was reasonable and they even gave me a charcoal brazier (I always get mixed up with that one) to warm/dry myself.  Had a bit of shiro (pureed chickpeas) and injera, a cup of tea and went to bed.  Not before an interesting conversation with the hotel owner's daughter....

She was taking quite a liking to me and was practising her English (which was v basic).  She then got out her school books (although she claimed she was 21) and showed me that she could write English:

Ok...Sally...unlikely but fine.
Oh!  Right, have a vocabulary of two dozen words and one of themis 'sober'.  Are you asking me for a drink?  Cos there isn't any here.  You should's your dad's hotel.  So I made some gesticulations about beer and araki and not being any here and she looked confused.  I pointed at her text and made drinking gestures.  No...I'd got it wrong.  She re-wrote:
ME = 50 BER
I am 50 Birr (Ethiopian currency).  Ahhhh...without drawing too much attention to it I declined her kind offer (her father presumably has a Kalashnikov under the counter...mind you he probably encourages her). 

Day 35 -  The Final Leg
The last 64km is a beautiful drive up to 3600m on reasonable dirt/rock roads.  The clouds are below you for most of it (presumably raining on some poor low-land pikipiki rider) and the journey is full of exhiliratingly twisty roads...that San Francisco street has nothing on these babies!

Lalibela is a lovely little town with cobbled/paved streets, lots of nice little cafes, and 11 rock hewn churches.  A what?  Indeed.  Allegedly to hide from heathen marauders the churches were built below ground level.  I'd have found a hole and then built a church.  These guys decided it would be much better just to carve the churches out of the granite.  One huge piece of granite.  No bricks.  No mortar.  Just slowly carve a church out of the ground rock.  Actually, sod it, let's carve a dozen.  Admittedly they did have the help of angels.

Needless to say they are pretty incredible structures, which are still used to this day (closed for prayers between 12 and 2 each day).

It was a glorious day and I spent most of it exploring the churches with their multitudinous rooms, caverns, tunnels and pathways.  V good indeed.  Got back home just in time for a short rain shower then headed out for some dinner and a movie (Jaws II) and some overpriced tej (honey beer, that tasted more like a student party punch than the mead it was reported to taste like). 

I liked Lalibela.

The next day I rose v early and left for Gonder, where I would be spending the (Ethiopian) millennium...if I got there in time.  It is 380km but 120 of that is tarmac.  I had to retrace my steps of the last leg of my journey on those bad roads.  I'd be ok as long as it didn't rain.  And it didn't (well, until I was 20km from my destination and well shot of the dangerous roads).  The problem on this leg was more basic: petrol.

Gaushena is the main cross roads and a stopping point for buses.  It has a petrol station.  It just doesn't have any petrol.  Neither did anyone in the village.  I estimated I had a litre left.  The next big town was 160km away.  Oh dear.  The next village was 30km away...perhaps there'd be a man with a gerry can there?  Nope.  The next was 15km away.  I cruised in on fumes.  No petrol.  Bugger.  Bugger.  Bugger.  The man suggested trying the next town...45km away.  I knocked my tank.  It made an ominous echoing sound.  Not a chance.  So he suggested going to the government offices.  They may have some petrol.

I was dubious but what could I do?  So I toddled off and asked the guard at the gate if they had any 'benzene' spare.  He directed me to another man to whom I explained my situation again, who took me to what I believe to be the big boss of the town (region?), explaining myself again, saying I only need 1 or 2 litres to get me to the nest town.  He looked suspicious...perhaps he thought I was begging or something? Trying it on?  I told him that, of course, I would be happy to pay.  To which he replied that this was a government office and they couldn't take any money here.  A good policy I guess but I thought I was scuppered.  But he told a lady to give me 5 litres of petrol.  No charge.  I was well chuffed.  My millennium was saved and it hadn't destroyed my wallet.  What a fantastic country!

So with my petrol worries out of the way I had a clear run to Gonder.  The roads were dry, I was making great time, and it was still early.  Except there was a bigger problem lurking round the corner...or rather under my seat.

All this bumping up and down had snapped my frame.  It was broken in two places and the luggage was grating on the rear tyre.  Bad news.  I unpacked eveything, put as much as possible in my backpack - now must be 50kg, leaned very far forward and went very slowly for 100km.

Once on to the tarmac it was better and I hooned it to Gonder...trying to make it before 4pm when the banks shut (I had 4 dollars worth of Birr to my name by this point).  The next day was a public holiday too so I'd be stuck.  However Ethiopia has a healthy and very good value black market so I needn't have worried when the road got very up-y and down-y and it started pouring 20 km before I got to Gonder.  10 hours of driving in good conditions to be soaked 10 mins before my destination.  Sod's law.
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