Friday, January 16, 2015

Finishing in Style in Djibouti



10 to 17 January, 2015 - Djibouti, Moucha Island, Lac Abbe, Lac Assal - (Djibouti)

Our final week is here. Feeling a bit worn out, as the travel is hard going in this part of the world. We just realised we miscalculated our return date by a day, so will have no days to do nothing between returning to Melbourne and returning to work. Just as well we had not too much planned for Djibouti. Eight days. Three at the Sheraton. Two at Moucha Island for some beach time, and a two day trip to Lac Abbé and Lac Assal.

The two day trip began well enough. Our over-enthusiastic driver got the 4WD stuck in deep soft sand and he had to pay someone to pull us out. He insisted he took us in to the deep dunes to give us the "better experience", implying therefore it was our fault. "My boss says, why do you go and drive inside there? I said it was for you! To give you the experience you want." Which was total bull, as if he had asked us I would have said we were just as comfortable on the track with all the other vehicles. Finally, upon our return, there were hints about paying more, the tip not being enough, and the not uncommon arguments about money that really detract from the enjoyment these sorts of excursions should bring.

Beach Time, Moucha Island, Djibouti
Beach Time, Moucha Island, Djibouti

Rock Formation, Lac Abbé
Rock Formation, Lac Abbé
Lac Abbé, in southern Djibouti, right on the border with Ethiopia.


Late Afternoon
Late Afternoon
Donkeys wander from the shores of Lac Abbé, amongst the stark rock formations, heading back to the night time safety of their villages. There are predators here at night - we heard them while at the nearby camp overnight.


Sunrise at Lac Abbé
Sunrise at Lac Abbé
Morning light adds a beautiful glow to the formations.


Lac Abbé
Lac Abbé
The lake itself is behind the formations. We did not come for the lake. The formations are "chimneys" formed by mineral rich boiling waters and steam. Walking around in the area can be dangerous, with super heated outlets hidden just beneath the crusty surface, and hot rivulets of water snaking here and there.


Lowest Place in Africa
Lowest Place in Africa
165 metres below sea level, on the shores of Lac Assal, Djibouti.


Weeding Anniversary
Weeding Anniversary
For our last couple of nights in Africa, and to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we booked ourselves in at the Sheraton Djibouti. After dinner, back at our room, there was a knock. Two staff members came in with this beautiful cake, singing "Happy Wedding to You, 25 Years, Happy Wedding Anniversary to You...". It was a little unfortunate about the minor spelling mistake, but the wonderful thoughtfulness and sweet execution outweighs this by a lot. Major kudos for Sheraton Djibouti.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Standing Out in Somaliland



4 to 9 January, 2015 - Hargeisa, Las Geel, Berbera - (Somaliland)

Our time in Somaliland was far more about meeting and interacting with Somali people than sight-seeing. So, it is appropriate, then, that the blog is more about our observations than about what we did.

Let's start with the big plus. Somalis are welcoming. Somalilanders in particular are happy to include comments about how safe Somaliland is. The level of English spoken, particularly in Hargeisa, is reasonable. So many people stop us for a three or four sentence conversation. Many. At least every two or three minutes. And not just people walking. Drivers too. They stop, wind down the window, and commence a conversation, while traffic builds up, until finally a few toots from the other cars cause them to wave good-bye and drive on. "Hello. Where are you from? What is your name? Are you tourists? How is Somaliland? How long are you visiting Somaliland? Is this your wife/husband?" Choose from these questions, and add one or two extras, and these are how the conversations go.

While on the topic of cars and drivers, Somalilanders drive on the right hand side of the road, like most countries in this part of the world, but until two years ago, they drove on the left like many former British colonies. So, the large majority of cars are still right hand drive, and the buses all have doors requiring passengers to go to the middle of the road to get on.

Travelling far from Hargeisa is not possible without permits and military escort. Thankfully, these are not prohibitively expensive, but proportionally they throw the expenditure up quite a bit. I was disappointed our soldier for Las Geel wasn't a bit more interactive. He sat in the front, machine gun across his knee, while the driver talked (yelled) in Somali, and he nodded along with "Ha, Ha". "Ha" seems to be a fairly common note of agreement when talking. Interestingly, when the Somali men talk amongst themselves, it almost always appears hostile. Voices are raised, hands are waved, and it borders on aggresive. The driver assured us that this did not mean it was not a friendly conversation taking place, but it did make us wonder how they reacted when they had an argument.

When we arrived in Somaliland, at the land border from Ethiopia, we had to take a taxi from Wajaale (Togo-Wuchale on the Ethiopian side) to Hargeisa. We squeezed in - four adults across the three seats, for the 2-3 hour ride, which ended up taking much longer. He drove around town picking up bags of who-knows-what for delivery to the capital, then, once on our way, we had to show our passports and papers at about four different military check points. He stopped for petrol. We went through a car wash! Yes, all 11 of us sat in the van while it was washed! He had the tyre pressure checked, including the spare. He even had an express oil change and air filter clean. We got out while the service was done! We thought it quite odd to do these tasks while paying passengers were being transported, but nobody else seemed to think it unusual.

One major negative in Somaliland - the rubbish. Plastic bags everywhere. Piling up in ditches. Along roads and rivers. Caught in trees. We started calling them the "Somaliland Plastic-Bag-Fruit Trees". The attitude to throwing rubbish around was not great in Ehiopia - it is way worse in Somaliland. It was almost distressing to look out from bridges and see river beds choked with refuse.

When we came in to Somaliland, we brought loads of cash, US dollars more specifically. We tried two ATMs that claimed to handle foreign cards, but we always got the same message about communication failure. Maybe they do accept foreign cards sometimes, but not when we needed it. And why did we need it if we brought so much cash? Because we decided a flight to Djibouti would be far more comfortable than 20 hours in a 4WD taxi. We were not too short, but we were short. Finally, we managed to find a website that allowed us to make the payment for the flight with credit card - without that, we would have been in strife.

Money changers abound on the streets. Huge volumes of cash are piled high. The photo below has more about that.

Antelope Wants a Hand-out
Antelope Wants a Hand-out
We were at a garden setting restaurant in Hargeisa, and there were a few animals roaming; an old and wizened sheep, and a couple of antelopes. The animals obviously get occasional tit-bits from the kitchen, and when you want a hand-out, you make sure you are seen!


Money Changer - Hargeisa
Money Changer - Hargeisa
A money changer sitting on a shipping palette with bricks of notes. Somaliland Shillings come in denominations of 100, 500, 1000, and 5000. Well, at least what we deal with. There are denominations smaller than 100 Shillings, but since the conversion rate is about 7000 to the US Dollar, smaller than 500 is rarely handed to us. Anyway, the point is, the largest note is worth around 80 cents, so large sums of money require huge bundles of notes.


Ancient Rock Paintings - Las Geel
Ancient Rock Paintings - Las Geel
A magnificent prehistoric rock canvas covered in ancient paintings. Created by pastoralists some 5000 years ago, they mainly show cows, men, and dogs. There are some other themes in the eight or so caves, including some wild animals and a couple of hunting scenes, but bovines well and truly dominate.


A Man Milking his Cow
A Man Milking his Cow
A 5000 year old depiction of a man milking a cow. We never received a good explanation of what the colours and patterns at the neck represent, but we gather they may have wrapped some sort of cloth on their cows, or at least their important ones.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Leaving Ethiopia - A Last Harar



31 December, 2014 to 4 January, 2015 - Addis Ababa, Harar - (Ethiopia)

We celebrated New Year's Eve in Addis. Largely a non-event, due to Ethiopia using it's own calendar. Ethiopia's New Year is in September on the Gregorian Calendar.

While in Addis, it was great to catch up with Kristal, a friend from Melbourne. She is in Ethiopia with a couple of her friends doing volunteer work in the south. Nice to have enjira with friends.

Our main reason for stopping in Addis was to sort out an onward visa for Somaliland. It actually came together a lot easier than expected, giving us a chance to do a couple of things we missed first time through. It was not all cheery, though.

Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, Addis Ababa
Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum, Addis Ababa
Some of the identified remains of victims killed by the Derg during the Red Terror of the 1970's and 1980's. Also on display were piles of bones from unidentified victims. Somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 people were killed or went missing during Mengistu's time as ruler. Yet another place where you can stand and ponder how incomprehensible it is what some people are capable of doing. And again, as we have seen at similar memorials in a number of places around the world remembering victims of various horrible regimes, people write in hope "Never Again!"


The ten hour bus ride to Harar was not the worst we've had. Relatively comfortable, and one of the first to not exceed the forecast travel time.

While we enjoyed many aspects of Harar, I don't mind confessing it did not live up to my high expectations. The old town, markets, and laneways lacked the anticipated romance. Overall, the vibe was not as pleasant as elsewhere in Ethiopia. The scenes were not as picturesque as described. So we stayed a day shorter than originally planned.

Don't get me wrong. It was worth coming to see, particularly for the hyenas. I was just over-enthused on what it would offer.

A Swooping Kite in Gidir Magala, Harar
A Swooping Kite in Gidir Magala, Harar
Gidir Magala is a market in the old town of Harar. There are a number of butchers in the market, mainly selling goat and camel meat. Kites sit around the market and swoop down whenever there are scraps and offcuts thrown in to the street. Sometimes they swoop at people who are carrying meat!


At a Well, Gidir Magala, Harar
At a Well, Gidir Magala, Harar
Kites look down from the walls, waiting for scraps of meat from the butchers. In the foreground, some women take their donkeys for water.


Donkey Parking
Donkey Parking
Outside Erer Gate, Harar. About 5 or 6 donkeys were tied to the pole, and the others were then tied to one of those. I'm not sure how anybody identifies their own donkey when they come back out!


In the Lanes of Old Harar (Jegol)
In the Lanes of Old Harar (Jegol)
A typical scene in one of the warren-like laneways within the walls of Harar's Old Town.


And those hyenas. What an amazing sight. Apparently, after "feeding", they wander the streets and lanes of the old town. I do believe, though, you have to be out very late to risk encountering one. Locals assured us that they pose no danger.

Hyena Feeding, Harar
Hyena Feeding, Harar
A hyena takes a strip of meat off a stick that I hold in my mouth. As night comes, the Hyena Men of Harar call the hyenas in from outside the city. At first, they skulk and dart in the shadows, snatching a few scraps of meat. But eventually, they come up to the man and begin to eat from his hand. I was asked if I wanted to give it a go, and seeing how healthy they looked, and how gentle they were with the man feeding them, I did not hesitate. First a scrap of meat on a stick hand held, and then he gestured for me to hold the stick in my mouth. It was a truly beautiful moment and I never thought I would see such a gentle and careful nature in an animal with such a horrible reputation. She gently grabbed the meat and lifted it off the stick.


A Hyena Climbs on my Back
A Hyena Climbs on my Back
There were no claws. I felt the big padded paws as the young hyena climbed on my back to take a piece of meat offered by the Hyena Man. Harar.



Thursday, January 1, 2015

Completing the Historic North



24 to 30 December, 2014 - Tigray, Aksum, Gonder - (Ethiopia)

We've come to love the Ethiopian handshake. A firm grasp with the right hands, pull each other close, and bump shoulders. Usually it is a single bump. There appear to be ocassions, though, where one does not appear to suffice. Sometimes, two or three bumps occur, accompanied by a smile, a laugh, or even an embrace. I have discovered it the perfect way to conclude a transaction, particularly where there has been some arguments. It instantly diffuses the situation and acknowledges that everything is fine. The Ethiopians who I have thusly shoulder bumped have always indicated that it was the perfect way to conclude our dealings.

So this blog entry is to describe the rest of our journey through the historic north of Ethiopia.

From Mekele we headed in to the region of Tigray. Well over 100 cave churches are found in this region, varying in style, age, and quality. While they were beautiful, and worth the effort to get to, there is a major problem. We were well and truly ready to move on after visiting three. Each charges a separate and hefty admission. Then the priests want tips. Then the kids who ran up the hill with you want tips, and where tips are deserved and given, they are never enough. And every person anywhere near the church wants to get in on the action and asks for money, it is all draining. It was certainly a major detraction from the experience, and something I would tell prospective visitors to take in to account.

A Church in Tigray
A Church in Tigray
Around Tigray, there are hundreds of churches cut in to rock. We only visited 3, and each felt very different. This is Medhane Alem Kesho in the cluster of churches called Takatisfi.


Medhane Alem Kesho
Medhane Alem Kesho
A priest unlocks the door to the main church chamer at Medhane Alem Kesho, Tigray.


Aksum, the holy city of Ethiopia. We celebrated our Christmas there. Our Christmas? Well, it's not Ethiopia's Christmas. "Do they know it's Christmas time at all?", Band Aid asked. No! Because they celebrate Christmas in January. They have a different calendar, and different New Year, and so on. It's only 2007 here. "Come to Ethiopia and travel seven years younger" one slogan suggested. Anyway, there was some tinsel and a few trees around, but no Turkey. Lamb "tibs" and enjira for our Christmas meal.

Turned out to be a good time to stop for a few days. Christmas. A nice town with a number of walkable sights. Liked our stay in Aksum.

Great Stele at Aksum
Great Stele at Aksum
Believed to be the largest single piece of stone that humans ever attempted to erect, the Great Stele apparently never quite made it. Somewhere in the 4th century, while being put in to place, it seems it came crashing down and caused the collapse of other nearby monuments and tombs. Quite spectacular, I'm sure.


One of the Oldest Books in Ethiopia
One of the Oldest Books in Ethiopia
Reputedly over 1,000 years old, this bible was on display in St Mary of Zion Old Church in Aksum.


Is the Ark Really Here?
Is the Ark Really Here?
Most of us have seen Raiders of the Lost Ark with Indiana Jones and the Nazis digging lots of holes in the sands of Egypt. Well, most Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant has resided in Ethiopia since about one or two generations after the time of Solomon. Whatever they have, it is here, in Aksum. Most people will never get to lay eyes directly on the alleged Ark, although a replica is paraded through the streets at important religious times. The front building is where it is, but the room there is leaking, and the new building at the back will be ready soon. Whether it is the genuine article or not, the mystery and controversy is all part of the charm that is Aksum.


Arbatu Ensessa Church
Arbatu Ensessa Church
Some of the lovely decorations in one of the churches of Aksum.


No, it's NOT a Butcher Shop
No, it's NOT a Butcher Shop
This is a restaurant that specialises in tere sega, raw meat. Quite the delicacy, here in Ethiopia, and very tasty with various spices and presentations. We enjoyed kitfo again (raw mince, like steak tartar), and gored gored which was delightfully tender raw cubes lathered in spices.


And, then a couple of nights in Gonder before returning to Addis.

Moon Over Debre Berhan Selassie Church
Moon Over Debre Berhan Selassie Church
Gonder


Beautiful Fasiladas Palace
Beautiful Fasiladas Palace
Fasiladas Palace inside the Royal Enclosure of Gonder. It dates from the mid 17th century.