Day 45 – Day 51: Out of the frying pan and into the flora

After the intense heat of Sudan it feels strange to be writing my next blog curled up in the our roof tent, 4,400 metres above sea level, craving a hot chocolate and freezing!

We left Khartoum after an interesting few days, the most memorable experience being a visit to the Whirling Dervishes, a sect of the Muslim culture that partake in dancing and chanting every Friday. It was a great experience to see and even nicer to be made welcome to watch this tradition even through it is not our religion. We joined several locals for tea – unsure what they put in the brew but Wynand ended up creating his own version of the local dance much to the tearooms amusement – even more so when some of the woman joined him for a dance off!

After finally getting the Zeb back with a clean bill of health it was time to head south and cross into Ethiopia. Whilst we both loved Sudan we were looking forward to escaping the dust and heat, however neither of us really anticipated how truly different the two countries are from each other.

Arrival Ethiopia and some much needed Dutch courage

Like many people I’ve spoken to – my initial perception of Ethiopia is about 20 years out of date, starving children and dry, barren land. After a simple border crossing (finally!) these views were quickly proved wrong -. Ethiopia is so surprising lush and green that you will find yourself taking 100’s of photos of hills and mountains within your first few hours of arriving. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – when a kiwi says somewhere is green, it’s pretty freaking green!

Our first stop was Tim & Kim’s campsite on the shore of Lake Tana. Tim and Kim are a Dutch couple who founded the site 6 years ago and have since worked at turning the land into a combination of campsite pitches and chalet styled housing. The property employs 19 people form the local village so is beneficial for tourists as well as the local community.

T&K have many things going for them at their property, great views, amazing food, location on the lake….however after over a week in Sudan our initial interest was in one thing and one thing only, a nice cold beer! We spent the afternoon chatting with them over some drinks about both our trip so far and what had brought them to settle on Lake Tana.

We spent 2 nights here relaxing as well as exploring the village and meeting some locals (Wynand upsetting many by beating them in a game of foosball, which they seem to play all day everyday outside the local shop), we also took a tour of the church that was built in the 1300’s and has all the original features and artwork – it was nice to compare this style of Christian structure to what we have seen in Europe. Tim & Kim’s Village is for a great spot to relax and enjoy some local culture for anyone overlanding through this part of Africa.

It’s not always the destination – it’s the journey

Following a few days of chilling it was time to get back on the road, we continued our drive through the Ethiopian Highlands towards Lalibela.

They say its not the destination – it’s the journey and that is absolutely true for driving in the Highlands. On the road to Lalibela we reached heights of 3500m with the most incredible vistas imaginable. Earlier on in our trip we drove through the Swiss Alps, which at a measly 1900m above sea level seems to pale in comparison.

Along the way we had groups of children and families waving and greeting us, as well of hundreds of donkeys, camels, goats and cattle to contend with for road space.

Eventually we arrived in beautiful Lalibela where we met Suzy, the Scottish owner of Ben Abeba restaurant – literally plonked on top of a hill and offering 360 views of the valleys below. We enjoyed an evening of local cuisine while chatting to a lovely British guy and his two Ethiopian friends who all got to know each other via a love of Ethiopian cuisine and Facebook.

Suzy was kind enough to let us camp on her property so we woke in the morning to even more amazing views and fresh mountain air.

Bale Mountains

After a quick rest in Addis Ababa we headed south The Bale Mountains where we would spend two nights in different locations.

The first day we arrived at the Dinsho Lodge camp site to pouring rain and hail, after searching long and hard and getting absolutely saturated we established that we have misplaced our waterproof ponchos so decided to drive back to the town to wait out the weather.

Finally the weather came right and we could return to camp, I left Wynand to do the manly things like set up the tent and make a fire while I went off to make friends with the local wildlife.

The next morning we were up early to go for a hike, we were lucky enough to see a large group of Nyala, a family of Warthogs (Pumba’s!!), Klipspringer, Eagles and Vultures.

Then it was off to the next campsite, en route we stopped at a local garage where we got chatting to a guy called Milion, an Ethiopian who spends his time between Bale and Addis, he invited us to lunch where we were served beef two ways – raw and cooked. The raw came out first, I’m a huge fan of Carpaccio however seeing beef in huge raw chunks is not something I’m used to – putting all my western ways to one side I ate it along with the accompanying dressing and found it really enjoyable (if a little chewy). I did prefer the second course of cooked meat over coals more – but it was nice to have a local share a traditional meal with us.

Having had our protein fix for the day it was on to our second stop in Bale National Park – the Bale Plateau. The Zeb climbed and climbed until we reached out current height of 4,400m above sea level. The landscape is surreal – wide open veld with tiny white flowers that makes it look like snow has fallen. It feels like we are on top of the world and is an incredible (and incredibly cold) place to camp. In the morning we hope to catch a glimpse of the Ethiopian fox but in the meantime its time for a self heating emergency dinner and a read of my book as I get ready to sleep on top of the middle of nowhere!

What I have learnt so far:

1)      Be open to foods – when people from another culture try and explain a dish to you it can be lost in translation leaving you ordering a spag bol ‘on the safe side’. Be brave and simply walk into a restaurant and ask the staff to prepare you a meal. You’re bound to be blown away by the flavours. All the meals we ate we had no idea what was coming, and they were some of the most delicious dishes I have tasted.

2)      Always keep the car doors locked – as we were stopped in a village someone opened our rear passenger door and stole a shirt of mine. I didn’t write this in the main body of the blog as it certainly isn’t a reflection on Ethiopia – more an opportunist child. But it taught us a lesson in security going forward.

3)      Don’t be fooled by its ‘Africa’ status…parts of Ethiopia are FREEZING (have I mentioned that already?!)

4)      Cutlery is a foreign concept – get ready have messy hands as you eat.Image

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Day 37 – Day 44: T.I.A

Although we officially landed on African soil when we crossed the Suez Canal, it has only been in the last week that The Middle East has become a distant memory and the mantra of T.I.A (This is Africa) has become real.

After waving goodbye to The Zeb we had a few days waiting for the passenger ferry that would take us down to Wadi Halfa in northern Sudan. While it was nice to unwind – we both found you can’t really relax in Egypt, this is a country on the brink of exploding and the tension is apparent everywhere, for obvious reasons tourism is low and every time we stepped out to explore we were constantly hounded for money, touched and yelled at to see if we wanted a felucca/taxi/tour guide…it was draining.

The day the passenger ship left for Sudan we had a quick stop at the embassy to pick up our visas. It was slightly risky sending the car ahead without these but because we only had 6 weeks to plan the trip in London we couldn’t get these before we set off. Once we were sorted it was off to Aswan Port where journey from Egypt to Sudan would begin.

Culture Shock and Claustrophobia

Boarding the ferry to Sudan was an adventure in itself – these boats run purely on the schedule set by the notorious owner of the ferry route. After our boat sailed there was at least a 2 week wait until the next one departed. Because of this uncertainly the boats are absolutely packed to the rafters – not just with locals but with what seems like every item from their home as well (If you think I’m exaggerating there were fridges and microwaves being carted on board!!). We luckily met some wonderful fellow overlanders so at least could stick together through the madness – however all of us got separated as soon as we walked on board and into a barrage of items being tossed above our heads, people pushing us and yelling in our faces. We started by looking for a place to sit downstairs but after being told not so politely and very firmly by some Egyptian mamas we were moved to the outside decks.

This started out as a great experience; warm air, sailing along the Nile and watching the sunset – however as the night came it became obvious why none of the locals were in the same spot as us – the wind came of the desert and was relentless and cold. Needless to say none of us slept very well that night. Poor Wynand finally manged to doze off on the empty bow of the boat when at 4am a local man decided that he wanted to pray in the exact spot he was sleeping, words were said rather loudly in Afrikaans (which is when you know he’s not happy) and that was our wake up call for the day!

Getting off the boat proved just as interesting, after a quick meeting with the security police we were able to disembark – again this was easier said than done. With my heavy pack on I was a target for people pushing past me, one old man was very determined that he was going to get past and with an almighty shove I ended up on my bag, arms and legs flailing like a turtle while people went about their business stepping over me to get off.

So after much yelling, elbowing and pushing we had done it…survived the night and arrived in Sudan, ready and excited to see what this country had to offer.

Sudan – land of smiles

After a relatively pain free wait it customs the zeb was ready to go, we joined the lovely Gita and Cornelius, who we met in Aswan and decided to set up camp on the outskirts of Wadi Halfa along with their Mitsubishi ‘Bushie’.

One first attempt to camp off road saw the zeb get stuck – with a bit of digging, revving and pushing we managed to get her out – Bushie 1, Zeb 0! We continued on, set up camp and enjoyed a lovely meal of food brought at the Wadi Halfa market under the stars.

The next day it was back to Wadi Halfa for a few hours of admin (quick oil check along with registering at the local police station – which needs to be done within 3 days of arriving in the country) Then it was off to find our next camp site, we found a beautiful village about 170km north of Dongola on the Nile. After checking with the locals we set up camp, throughout the afternoon we had a steady stream of local villagers coming to say hello see our cars and to bring us copious amounts of fresh dates. They were so friendly and genuine and it was an amazing experience to meet a group of Sudanese people who normally wouldn’t see western over landers coming through their small part of the world.

The next day Wynand and I set off early and drove to the Nubian Pyramids of Meroe. The site contains over 200 pyramids in 3 groups and the site was the capital of the Kingdom of Kush for several centuries. Nowadays the area is empty and we were fortunate enough to be the only people around so could enjoy such historical ruins with no one in sight.

We camped over at the base of the pyramids and in the morning as we packed up we were greeted by a local man on his camel, who was more than happy for us to go for a ride on ‘Abdul’. An amazing way to start any day!

After the quiet of the past few days we drove to Khartoum, capital of Sudan. Here we are taking great pleasure in enjoying the simple things in life – showers, food and constant water supply. We’ll remain here until our car gets services on Saturday and then its south to Ethiopia.

Sudan has proved to be a surprizing experience. Throughout the country we have met people that have a genuine warmth and kindness to them. They don’t ask for money or expect anything from us – all they want is for people visiting their country to have an incredible time, which we have done so far.

What I have learnt so far:

1)      You really can depend on the kindness of stranger. Along the way we have had some minor car issues, all of which quickly resolved by locals you are more than happy to direct us to a local mechanic and translate to ensure we get things sorted out smoothly.

2)      Running naked in the desert is a liberating experience – and I recommend it to anyone who finds themselves suddenly in the middle of nowhere!

3)      A smile and a handshake goes a long way when language won’t suffice.

4)      Sudan is beautiful and well worth visiting. Image

Day 29 – 36: Just call us professional border crossers!

ImageTouchdown Middle East! After a month in Europe and 3 days on a cargo ship we had arrived…the Promised Land, birthplace of civilisation and where most religion was founded, now our only challenge was getting into the place. You would think it would be easy…..

Israel:

Arrival Haifa, Israel. Always on my ‘to-do’ list I was excited that our sudden change of plans meant that we got some time in Israel. Visions of a leisurely afternoon spent at Jerusalem Beach in Tel Aviv  were quickly washed away when it transpired that it would take time to get our car out of customs….in fact eight long, hot, unfed hours. The process sounds simple on paper – unload vehicle, we clear immigration and the car clears customs, all well and good until you realise that no one realllllyyyy knows what should be happening and you spend a lot of your time being sent to queues only to find out you don’t need to be there, I guess this was our first true experience of a language barrier – which as an English speaker in a non-English speaking country can’t really complain about, it just took some time to get used to after the ease of Europe. Luckily there were no export/import issues, only frustrations with the process and we were finally set free from the port around 3.30 after having arrived at 8am.

We headed straight to hotel Maxim in the heart of Tel Aviv (aka – one of the coolest places I have ever been to) the combination of Tel Aviv city and the old town of Jaffa gives TA a Marrakech-meets-Auckland-meets-London vibe. The clash between The Middle East and Western culture is immediately obvious – that mixed with a bit of water front living and fine dining meant that we quickly relaxed into an evening of amazing sights, culture and food.

While dining in Jaffa we both had a bit of excitement – I met another Talia, a first for me – however I’ve since discovered this is an extremely common Israeli name, and Wynand met a fellow South African…they were part of the same large group and we spent the evening chatting, dancing and being made to feel welcome.

The following morning we woke to the news that the majority of Israeli citizens were rushing out to buys gas masks due to the conflict in Syria and the possibility of a counter attack against Israel as it is an ally of America.  It’s hard to comprehend that the beautiful city I spent the previous evening in is under constant threat from its neighbouring countries. Not being from a land locked country, I’m always surprised how one neighbours business can affect your daily living so quickly and so much.

Israel to Jordan…..and back again

After leaving Tel Aviv we drove to the Sheik Hussein Bridge, on the northern border between Jordan and Israel. We managed to clear Israeli customs with no hassle and no stamps (you can’t enter Sudan with a stamp from Israel in your passport….politics eh?!) then it was onto the Jordan.
After waiting and completing the Jordanian visa and passport requirements, the customs officials started on the Zeb. Every item in and on the vehicle was removed and sent through an x-ray before being repacked, the process takes a couple of hours…whilst frustrating both of us understood the need for security at crossings – especially with how things are at the moment in that part of the world.

Everything was well and good until one of the customs officials found our satellite phone. Wynand was instantly removed and taken to an office while I continued working on the car. An hour later when he still hadn’t returned I started to panic, no-one around me spoke English or could even point towards where he was so I lost my cool, and completely broke down. Luckily one of the guards took pity on me being a blubbering mess and went to find out what was going on.

Instead of realising that this was a simple civilian satellite phone for use in emergencies…we were accused of trying to bring in a device that could tune in and tamper with the military’s signals. All but one man realized that they were wrong; however the one man we couldn’t convince was the chief of staff. It turns out that GPS items are not allowed into Jordan (although my Samsung Galaxy and Garmin were seen and deemed fine). After 3 hours of arguing, pleading and phone calls were still being told it wasn’t possible to enter. We had to make a decision, turn back or lose the sat phone…..we decided to turn back, with 4 months of travel through Africa still awaiting us we really can’t risk being without emergency communication in case something goes wrong.

So it was back to Israel, and as we had officially left the country we had to go through the whole unpack, x-ray, and repack process again…at least the Israelis have a great sense of humour and the 2 hour process wasn’t too painful.

By the time we finished we had spent basically an entire working day at one border crossing, we quickly had to change plans and decided to do the Dead Sea from the Israel side so drove down to Ein Gedin where we spent two days relaxing…we needed it!

The Dead Sea

I’ve always wanted to visit the Dead Sea for the personal reason that my granddad went there during his time in Africa in WWII and absolute loved it, he even had a photo taken where he was reading a newspaper in the sea so my number one mission was to recreate it.

We went to the beach quite early, it the most bizarre landscape for swimming. You are in the middle of the desert with huge sand dunes all around you and the ground is a mix of sand and salt. Walking into the Dead Sea feels like you are wading through soup, but the oddest thing is of course the floating sensation, as soon as you lie you your body is immediately held up by the heavily concentrated salt in the water, if you stand up and slightly lift your toes your body floats to the lying position against your control, a very weird feeling.

After our first dip we went to the mud pools and slathered ourselves in the mineral rich mud, after baking ourselves until it was dry we went for another swim. Both of us instabtly saw the benefits to our skin, I’ve been affected by a heat rash since our trip began and it all but disappeared in my time here. Ladies – save money on the spa treatments and come to Israel to roll around in mud instead, it works wonders I promise!

Two nights at the Dead Sea was the perfect way to unwind, we surely needed that time to relax in order to prepare for what was to come….

‘Welcome to Egypt – please use the side door’

With the best of intentions we left Ein Gedin around 6am, hell bent on getting through the Taba border crossing as early and as quickly as possible. The border lies between Eilat (Israel) and Taba (Egypt) and was the most logical choice of crossing for us.

Again, getting out of Israel was fine.

Getting into Egypt….well, both of us gained a few grey hairs in this experience!
We managed to clear customs without any issue, again the car was subject to full scrutiny with every item removed and x-rayed (understandable given the countries current turmoil) this process took a couple of hours in the midday heat.
Next, it was onto customs where the Zeb’s paperwork was studied approved and stamped, we were then told to sit and wait. So we waited…and waited…and waited. 5 hours later we were told that the Zeb could not come into Egypt at the Taba Border crossing as it is a 4×4. Anyone who has seen our car instantly knows that it’s an overlanding 4×4 vehicle, after begging, pleading and questioning the basic mechanical knowledge that it took them so long to pick up on this we were given a firm and final answer – we could enter at Taba, but the Zeb couldn’t.

Deflated we left the car at the border crossing and went to the nearest hotel on the Egyptian side to make a Plan B (or Plan F if you want to get technical). While 4×4’s are not welcome to cross into Egypt from Israel, there is no problem bringing them in from Jordan. So the next morning we left our sat phone and Garmin at the Hilton and set about trying to get into Jordan for a second time.

We got stamped out of Egypt and took the Zeb back to Israel, again this meant the scrutiny of another full examination of the vehicle. Once finally completed it was a quick 20min drive the Yitzak Rabin Border Crossing between Israel and Jordan.

Despite our previous issues getting into Jordan, this crossing was a breeze, we were searched, insured and visa’ed up within an hour…and no mention of GPS was made.

After arriving in Jordan we drove straight to Aqaba, a port city in the south. Here we purchased tickets for ourselves and the Zeb to Nuweiba in Egypt. The ferry left at 2am so we drove to the port and waited.

Finally we arrived at Nuweiba and after a couple of hours in customs the Zeb was deemed fit, ready and welcome to drive it Egypt. After 2 days of trying – we had arrived!!!

From Nuweba we had to drive and hour back to Taba to collect our sat phone and Garmin GPS that we didn’t want to risk taking into Jordan. The most ridiculous thing of this while story is while we went into the hotel, the Zeb was parked less than 50m from the border control where we were told we couldn’t get her in. We felt mix of satisfaction and pure anger as we sat waving at the guards that instantly recognized our vehicle.

Egypt

Of all the places we are travelling to – Egypt was always the main concern. 1) The country is in a state of political upheaval and civil unrest 2) it is officially the hardest place on the planet to bring a foreign vehicle into. Having conquered the latter, we nervously set out on our drive from South Sinai to Aswan via The Suez Canal.

Sinai was rife with tension, in our first day we were stopped at military check points no less than 25 times. The roads were deserted, dirty and completely in disrepair – it was a far cry from the tourist trail of Egypt I encountered when I toured the country in 2011.

We drove Ras Sudr where we set up camp for the night (campsite – filthy, view of the Red Sea and Sunset – gorgeous) we went into town to buy supplies for the evening. It was only then that I realized there were zero females around, and that we hadn’t seen any all day – as a very outspoken female it made me sad to notice that girls were not present at cafes/restaurants in the evening. One thing I love to do is catch up with my girlfriends over a coffee and seeing an absolute lack of that was very sad.

The following day we prepared from a long drive – Ras Sudr to Aswan via the Suez Canal. Once we got to Suez we were stopped and searched by the military, after much discussion we were told that we could not carry our Campingaz canisters under the tunnel. These canisters are literally our lifesourse for cooking in Africa and we were not leaving without it. Wynands line of ‘I’m African just like you – who don’t you want to help an African’ was enough to make them hang their heads and for the army colonel to decide that if he drove though with us – the canisters would not be a safety risk. He even paid for our toll to apologize for the inconvenience.

The western side of Egypt is a totally different world to the Sinai, the road we took to Aswan (via Hugarda and Luxor) had a much lessor military presence and people seemed to be going about their daily life without fear and with a smile on their faces…we even saw females!

Come Hugarda we committed the ultimate traveller sin, but after 3 days with very little food our poor deprived bodies deserved it – K.F.C, pure fatty goodness and I have to say it perked us right up.

After our pit stop in Hugarda we were back on the road to Aswan, we drove through a village on the outskirt of Luxor that raised our spirits completely; smiles, children playing, adults laughing and everyone shouting ‘welcome welcome’, it was so wonderful to see after all the bloodshed and grief shown in the media regarding Egypt.

Finally we arrived at Aswan and were greeted by Mo at ‘Adam’s Home’ a typical Nubian Home favoured by overlanders – too tired to set up camp we broke the bank and spend an extra 20 Egyptian Pounds (£2) and took one of the rooms, 4 post bed and a sandpit floor – where else but Egypt?!. Early the next day we met with our Egyptian fixer Kamal who had miraculously got the Zeb a spot on the car ferry to Sudan, with us to follow behind 4 days later. We took her down to the port where Wynand carried out the craziest piece of driving he has ever accomplished. The ‘car ferry’ down to Sudan is little more than a raft boat the width of the Hilux’s length, so after a bit of manuervoring she was in place and will hopefully remain in place until we are reunited with her in a few days.

As the passenger ferry doesn’t leave Aswan for Wadi Halfa for a few more days we have time to kill in Aswan. We left Adam’s Home and moved to a hotel due to conveinece as we no longer have a car. We spent this morning sailing along a Nile before visiting a Nubian village and riding camels, after arriving back we ate far too many falafels and lazed by the pool making the most of some down time.

Really looking forward to the next few days chilling in Aswan, and of course the next chapter of our adventure – SUDAN!

What I’ve learnt:

1)      Security is par for the course in the Middle East, everything you have on you will be scanned, scrutinised and questioned. Try not to take it personally.

2)      Eat when you can. After 26 hours in border crossings in a week and a few mini ‘hangry’ breakdowns, we’re learning the importance of making sure your blood sugar doesn’t get too low. It doesn’t help you and certainly doesn’t help a stressful situation.

3)      When in doubt – go back to Israel, we went through Israel 3 times and encountered 6 border controls in and out. Each time relatively pain free (in comparison) and the people are absolutely lovely.

Next stop Sudan….the adventure continues!

T xxx