Ethiopia Dreaming: Zilzil Alecha—Prime Beef in Green Pepper Sauce

Zilzil Alecha - Ethiopian Flavors Expressed Perfectly!

Though it’s been more than three years since I was cruising winding my way through Ethiopia and following the Nile River, exploring the ancient ruins of Lalibela and searching for the remains of Haile Selassie’s Lions and the tomb or memorial of Bob Marley.
Though the donkey dealer I whom I tried to purchase one of his finest specimens, strongly talked me out of it by reasoning that the Sudanese border and customs officers wouldn’t let me into their country with an Ethiopian donkey. To be sure, I wanted to try.
Though I never found out if I could’ve brought my new donkey into Sudan, I did have incredible experiences and discoveries while traveling through Ethiopia. As I’ve been deep into the production and writing of my new book, this evening I had the urge to cook Ethiopian food. So I pulled out my recipe of zizil alecha, a somewhat spicy dish (well, this is Ethiopian after all) of prime beef simmered in a green pepper sauce. So easy it is to prepare and so tasty it is on my palate, the only, and slightly, disappointment is that her in the USA we cannot, without great effort, grow injera, the almost spongy bread like meal accompaniment that the Ethiopians make from the grain “teff”. It’s ubiquitous in Ethiopia, yet so rare to find outside this part of Africa. I guess some combo of rice and flatbread will suffice as a poor substitute.
The flavors are complex, the spice tamed and the beef tender and rich. You need to try cooking this! Alas, while you can find recipes online, I’m confident, you should wait for the Tasting Adventure cookbook, as we’ve taken it up a notch and combined the recipe with more stories of donkeys and injera from Ethiopia and great photographs from my journey.
Meanwhile, enjoy a few snaps from my culinary crusade and adventure into Ethi0pia this evening.
core ingredients for zilzil alecha Ethiopia's best flavors

Trading Camels, Buying Benzine & Police Checkpoints: The Road To Khartoum, Sudan

At the customs and immigration office in Gallabat, Sudan I learned two things. First, nothing happens quickly in Sudan. Second, the Sudanese are in the running for the most hospitable and friendly people in Africa. The large uniformed man with a scary scar on his forehead took my papers, carnet and passport and asked if I’d like to sit down. Then asked if I would like coffee or tea. I obliged him for some tea.gondar2khartoum.jpg

I was nearly out of gas. Contrary to some traveler information, there was no petrol station in Gallabat. So I asked my stocky customs officer. He said come with me and I sat on the back of a 125cc China-made motorcycle and cruised up the road a bit. At a roadside shack a young boy unlocks a horizontal locker and pulls out a large couple plastic containers. “This gas,’ he says pointing to the red one, “this benzine,” he continued kicking his foot at the yellow one. I was confused. I needed gas. Or I needed benzine. There was a difference in the color coded containers. But was I willing to risk putting something unknown into my bike. I would not have enough to get me to Gederef where I’m sure a proper petrol station would have what I need. I pointed to a car in the street and asked what that used. He pointed to the red can. Then another. This was yellow. Shit. Then I pointed to the Chinese motorcycle and he held up the yellow container. I smelled the contents and figured this would be the right decision and closed the deal.

It took nearly an hour of sitting in the hot sun until the officers felt it was time to return the papers to me. In the immigration office they asked me if I’d like to register, informing me it would be the equivalent of about USD $30. Per the letter of the Sudan law, I knew I had three days to register. I also knew that I didn’t have the equivalent of $30 in Sudanese pounds. The immigration officer asked me to wait. Some discussions went on behind closed doors before he returned with my passport and let me go.

Not sure if the motorcycles came with the tarmac, but the road to Gederef was spanking new and beautiful blacktop, built by the Chinese. I blazed across the desert while watching the heat rise off the payment causing a hazy like blur to the horizon. At the first police check point I had to present my passport and an immigration slip. The question of registration came up again. I simply said “Khartoum.” At the points militants in uniform carrying automatic weapons milled about. But it was all very tame. Nothing and nobody looked threatening. Nor did I pose any threat to them. Later I ran into two nomads with a herd of more than 100 camels. I stopped to chat and shoot a couple pictures, but soon they were asking for my camera. My GPS. My bags. My gloves. Anything I had. They wanted. I sped on.

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Hundreds of camels disappeared to the horizon.

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The camel trader. He’d rather have anything I’m carrying.

At the gas station in Gederef, I bought a cold soft drink and some salty goods. The parking lot of the place looked like a tractor trailer graveyard. One truck had markings from Texas. Interesting. An elderly man asked if I could help him get to the United States. He said he’d tried three times but was rejected. He suggested that if he changed his religion to Christian he might be more successful. As a Muslim man he felt discriminated — rather profiled. I told him there was nothing I could do and that I doubted that changing religion would have any impact on his application. He admitted he wouldn’t mind. He’d be just as happy as Christian than as Muslim. Funny though, his perception was valid. I couldn’t argue with that, but I also said it was so untrue.IMG_8392_2.jpg

At the next gas stop still 150 miles outside of Khartoum, the attendant was eager to talk and learn about my trip and life in the United States. “I’ve never met an American before,” he said, offering me a cold soft drink. “You came from Gillabat? You must be tired.” In his stripped down “office” was a simple cot. I have to admit that the night before had been the worst night sleep I didn’t have in my whole trip. I took him up on his offer and took an hour long nap, afterwards spending time with the locals from the village who came to gawk at my motorcycle and see “an American.”

You know it’s funny. Since my days traveling in South America it was customary for me to answer the United States to questions of where I was from. But in Africa more often I was given blank stares or “where?” when answering this way. “Oh, you mean America,” they’d say in realization of where I was from. In these parts United and States have no meaning to local villagers. It’s simply America.

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The guy was kind enough to let me take a much needed nap. The day was long, windy and hot. With a huge fan and no worries that anyone would touch my bike. I took a chance to get sleep that I didn’t get the night before in Metema.

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He wanted to take the bike for a ride, and a friend in the three wheeled taxi, a common site in Sudan, was willing to trade it for my bike.

The entire ride to Khartoum, including stops at customs, immigration and chats roadside and with the gas station folks took the better part of a day. It was long and boring. And hot and dry. I managed to stop for a bowl of rice and soup — ironically enough – to fuel me which in addition to my nap got me into the mad traffic and the confluence of the White and Blue Nile rivers. I went by the Blue Nile Sailing Club which nearly everyone told me was the place to stay and camp. The guard at the gate said it was private. As I gazed over the grounds there was no one and not a bike or overland vehicle to be seen. The language barrier made it difficult to ask the questions I had and there was no one else on the grounds other than the guard. Strange. For a place that has this representation, I can’t believe the guy said “no camping”.

I had a referral to a small guest house outside the center of the city. But it would be impossible to find, so I eventually hired a taxi driver whom I followed to the Bougainvilla Guest House where I men the amazing Norwegian ex-pat owners Birthe and Trygve Overby. Trygve has had a colorful history of working and exploring Africa for most of his life while his lovely wife, Birthe, is an ex-nurse who I recruited immediately to check out the burns on my leg. While I had popped on of the large ugly blisters in Metema, Birthe suggested that I not pop the others. She went to a local pharmacy and picked me a up a bagful of antibiotic cream, bandages, antiseptic cleaning and more. In Khartoum, I cannot imagine a better place to stay and thankfully I was under the watchful eye of trained nurse. Last thing I need is infection to set in while I’m barreling through the Nubian desert.

My leg didn’t look pretty.

Once settled into the guest house I started sorting my stuff and making preparations. After today, I’ve got six days to get to Wadi Halfa.

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Sorry for the grotesque photo of my leg. But you can see the spot where I had popped the blister, plus all the big blister and ugly yellow junk. OUch.

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This is the bottle that split like the other. Now I figure the other didn’t split when I crashed. Rather the immense heat of the day somehow caused the gas in the can to expand eventually causing the can to burst? Is this possible? The bottle certainly wasn’t filled beyond the fill point. But I think this is rather dangerous as the containers is designed to contain compustible and flammable liquids.

I discovered that the second 1.5L SIGG bottle that I used to carry fuel had also split. This had my mind spinning. The split in the bottle looked exactly like the one I discovered back in Ethiopia. While there was no gas floating in a pool at the bottom of my left Aerostich tank pannier, the guide books I kept stashed her reeked of gas — rather — benzine. I don’t know exactly what happened, but a quick “smell check” revealed that the bottom of my Rallye2 riding pants also smelled of gas. Seems the gas leaked out while I was riding, got on my pants. But could have it gotten through my boot and onto my skin? Or did the heat from that very hot engine riding in the blazingly hot desert cause a reaction where the temperature rose to new heights causing the excessive heat to burn my leg? I’ve ridden through the hottest deserts and for nearly three years and never have seen anything like this. The blister lacked any puss but the floating bubble of putrid yellow skin not only looked scary but to the touch felt very bad. And the pain, safe to say wearing those boots causes a little too much friction and soreness for my liking.

Making Friends. Sick In Bed.

I think I’ve got malaria. I want to just sleep. I’m shivering. I can’t eat. At the Belegez Pension I’m curled up in my small cozy room while I can hear my new friends chatting, milling about and making phone calls. I guess bad news came to Gareth & Helen. Seems the brake caliper was never shipped. And they’ve been waiting here for more than a week. He’s thinking of putting the bike on a truck to Addis where the possibility of finding a part or getting one shipped more promptly might be better.

My bike is doing better. But I’m not sure by how much. The fork seal is still leaking and the bike is overheating at slow speeds and mid-RPMs. The road to the Sudan border is rock, gravel and dirt and winds around low elevation mountains and then through a fertile valley. There are no gas (benzine) stations for the entire journey and the customs office, where I need to clear my bike, is about 40km before the border. And I’m told it’s tough to find. One guy I met got a late start from Sudan border and took two days to get to Gonder. But Gareth and Helen say it’ll take a day.

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In Gondar most people get around in a mini bus where the side door is always open. I took a ride through town to hang with the locals.

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There’s something to be said about those Ethiopian women.

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I’m just not sure how, but in Gondar they must love their satellite TV. This building racks up a record count of 8 dishes. Hmmmm.

I really should stay another day here to let my fever run its course. Maybe get my blood checked. I hate to be a harbinger of doom, but if I don’t leave in the morning my whole schedule for Sudan is compromised. Why couldn’t they give me a normal transit visa? That’s right. I’m an American. With the lords of the desert on my side, I’m going to make that ferry to Egypt.

Then there are the other things to get in order:

1) book reservations for ferry
2) pick up FedEx package with new carnet de passage
3) get cash at Western Union
4) confirm with DHL that tire is en route to Cairo
5) within three days register with Sudanese Police
6) find overlanders going to Egypt via the Nile Route to follow and ask to carry extra water and fuel for me

I’m sure there are other things, but those are the most important.

Gareth and Helen had come down from Europe through the Middle East. Gareth shared tips and penciled out maps on how the best way to get into Israel and avoiding passport stamps so I could continue on through Syria. He also gave me a name of a competent mechanic and his friend in Cairo. I figured that would be where I’d change my tire and fix the fork seal if I didn’t have the time in Khartoum.

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Gareth actively demonstrates how to pick up a heavy motorcycle single-handedly.

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Gareth and Helen, two Kiwis who’d had enough of London and big business in the big city. They bought two motorcycles and headed back to New Zealand. A month before they left was the first time Helen rode a motorcycle. But the time I’d met here she’d ridden through the middle east, Egypt and The Sudan. Bravo Helen!

Then in the courtyard of our pension, Gareth illustrated what he felt was a sure-fire technic for picking up a heavy motorcycle single-handed, without any help. You see, I’m concerned about riding in the sand. Not so much about the sand, but about picking up Doc all loaded up. The bike is heavy. And I can’t pick it up without assistance. So getting stuck in the Nubian desert with limited water and the beating heat of midday didn’t sound appealing. This is why it’s important to rind someone riding or driving. In that desolate part of Sudan, you’d be better off with a companion — some one to help, or help me if needed.

But I needed rest. I rested and I worried — hoping that I just caught something on that cold boat ride on Lake Tana instead of the worse case: malaria.

If They Build It, They Will Come. The Amazing Churches of Lalibela.

Situated in the highlands of northwestern Ethiopia at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level in the Lasta Mountains is perhaps the most spectacular collection of buildings and architecture in all of Africa. To be sure when one thinks of the great shrines of Christianity and and its history, Jerusalem, Greece, Italy, the United Kingdom and others come to mind. But Ethiopia? Usually not top of mind for those planning a Christian pilgrimage. But here high in the mountains are a collection of 1,000 year old churches hewn out of red volcanic rock that will awe, inspire and leave you speechless.

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Wandering the streets of Lalibela. It seems nearly everyone finds time to pray or look to the gods.

How did they do it?

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Depending on which historian you believe or the story that offers the most drama, the true history of Lalibela, considered to be Africa’s Petra, is questionable. We’ve already established that Christianity appeared in Ethiopia at the time of the Apostles. But King Lalibela (1181-1221) a member of the Zagwe dynasty, purportedly exiled or fled to Jerusalem for fear of his jealous half-brother who tried to poison him. Amazed at what he saw in Jerusalem and when that city was captured by Muslim forces in 1187 preventing Ethiopian Pilgrims from visiting, now King, Lalibela declared the town (originally named Roha) to be a new Jerusalem.

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And somehow 11 rock-hewn churches of enormous proportions were carved from the top down, some lie nearly hidden in deep trenches, while others stand in open quarried caves. A dizzying labyrinth of tunnels and dark narrow passageways with creepy crypts, genuine grottos, and glorious galleries connect all of them.

But how were they built?

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UNESCO built a large canopy to protect this 1,000 year monolithic church.

Another legend suggests Lalibela was built by angels armed with masonry tools. To be sure, archaeologists say it would have required the work of 40,000 men to carve the labyrinths of grottoes, courtyards, caverns, and walls out of the hard red volcanic rock. To understand the scale and work required to build these churches can only be realized in person. Safe to say, that here where there was once rock are now eleven churches. These weren’t built. No rock, plaster or other materials were added. Only rock that was carved and hauled away revealing this impressive array of holy edifices.

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Everything was carved from top to bottom using primitive tools. Some say while the workers slept angels worked.

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The scope of this place is mind-blowing To stand atop and look down. To sit below and look up. To wander inside and realized this was one rock. it’t the top of a mountain. They just started digging. No possible mistakes. And the shape is perfect. A cross. Inside imaginging all of this is tiresome as my friend the priest takes a load of his mind while flanked on either side by mine (and yours) favorite saint: George on his white horse.

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There are 11 churches in this complex and two others in nearby villages. But you’ll find rock hewn churches and monasteries in many places in Ethiopia.

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Right inside the church they carved reliefs – on the walls, in the ceilings and sometimes on the ground.

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A maze of alleys, tunnels and walkways takes you through all 11 churches.

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Priests were happy to share their wares and their ancient artifacts. Many times you might find photos of these priests wearing sunglasses. They don’t do this to be cool. It’s because so many people use flash and it’s hard on the eyes. I did my best to hand hold the camera and capture the true essence of these holy men.

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It’s mandatory to take off footwear before wandering inside any of the churches. It’s also mandatory to hire an assistant to tend to your shoes. Mine was Endayene, who was markedly better than my dishonest guide.

It takes a full day to explore the churches and the maze of alleyways and tunnels that connect them. Beyond the admission to the complex, I hired a guide to walk me through their history and the mind-boggling maze. To be sure, the town surrounding Lalibela is a dusty village that through its daily pace of life seems hardly aware of the importance of these churches. But since they’ve been there for more than 1,000 years, I guess they’re just used to them. And so to offer the locals employment, it is mandatory that visitors hire an assistant, someone who will help you with your shoes as it’s also mandatory to take off your shoes before going inside these beautiful churches. So the assistant watches you shoes, will take them off, put them on and tie them, if you’d like. While Lalibela remains one of the highlight of the Ethiopian segment of my journey, my only regret is the guide I had chosen. I should’ve gone with my instincts. He was a weasel, stuck to me like glue and showered me with the accolades and certificates in tourism and English he’d earned.

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The drums are only used in holy ceremonies. I asked a priest to demonstrate. He told me to come back and he would during a ceremony. I’d like to return to Lalibela. It’s magical.

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Don’t hire this guide when you visit Lalibela. He overcharged and tried to steal my camera.

My guide? Let me explain why Mesfin Ali is perhaps the most awful and dishonest tour guide in all of Lalibela. He knew his history but when pressed for information on some of the Ethiopian Saints he made up answers, I verified this with a true historian later. Second, while I paid for a full day and started a bit late, he seemed to rush me through the churches. Always looking at his watch, I made him take me back for second views. He resented me for this. Third, he charged me too much. Had I chosen a guide referred from my hotel, I would have had better service and saved nearly 50%. He had an ego. This doesn’t bother me so much, but he liked to get in my photos. Worse, after I took a photo of my shoe “assistant” and his name badge, he kept asking me why. When I realized that I forgot to download photos from my DSLR and was running out of space on that camera, he was quick to point out that I should erase the photos of my assistant. Later when I allowed him to peruse the photos on the camera, he once again pointed out that I hadn’t erased the photo of the assistant. Now the clincher. At the last church we visited, Bet Medhane Alem, the largest monolithic church in the world, he asked if he could shoot some photos. I was preoccupied shooting with my DSLR, so I figured why not let him use my point and shoot. We went about exploring this massive edifice which stands 63 feet high, 45 feet wide and 24 feet deep, it resembles a Greek Temple and cut in the shape of a cross, it also reflects Ethiopia’s Jewish roots as the Star of David is carved high in the ceiling. I handed him the camera and he shot pictures as I took a moment and walked around. Then we entered the church. More pictures and more discussion of history and I chatted with the priest, which was a challenge as he didn’t speak any English and I caught him sleeping with a cross in his hand.

I wanted to sit under a tree and just gaze upon the church and figured I’d just walk back to my hotel alone. I asked my guide if there was any place I could buy water nearby. He suggested it was rather far but he’d be happy to go get me some. Well really, he just handed the Birr I gave him to my assistant and asked him to fetch the water. He then said he needed to get home and left. When my assistant, Endayene returned with a tall bottle of cold water I was in heaven. Church wandering in this heat dehydrates you fast.

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Later that evening, after a wonderful dinner and intense conversation with Mesfin, the owner of Seven Olives Hotel (recommended) and his friend Daniel whose brother lives near my home in Orange County, I was packing in preparation of an early morning departure I realized I couldn’t find my Canon PowerShot camera. I tore the place up and down. Nothing. I did it again. Nothing. I was sure I had it that day, but no. Nothing. I was staying in a different hotel, but at nearly midnight I woke up the owner of my hotel and suggested that my guide never returned my camera. The next morning over breakfast the owner spent some time on the IMG_5716.jpg phone. Then nearly an hour later Mesfin, the guide, shows up with my camera. I played the incident down as I didn’t want to create waves in this small town. But he obviously tried to walk away with my camera hoping I wouldn’t notice. And it almost worked. He knew I was leaving early in the morning and he knew he had the camera as after leaving me waiting for my water at the churches he shot a handful of photos walking home. What’s even more disturbing is I saw him at the excellent restaurant at Seven Olives Hotel that evening hours after our time in the churches. He never said anything about the camera. This incident is highly unusual and would rarely happen most anywhere in Africa. I’ve left things in restaurants or on the counters of tourist places and others and always had them returned. This guy is bad news. I hope my assistant, Endayene Derebe, whom I happily tipped, completes his studies and becomes a Lalibela guide.

I can’t emphasize enough how good the food and view is at Seven Olives Hotel. The owner took a genuine interest in me and explained he’s developing an ego-friendly natural hotel in the style of the traditional homes in the area. Set to open next fall, it’s worth checking out Seven Olives and its new project, which at the time hadn’t been officially named. Ask for Mesfin, the owner and tell him WorldRider sent you! We spoke of politics, Ethiopian history, Ethiopian food and the growth of Lalibela which soon will be on the international tourist map and attracting more than just adventurers. It’s so remote that I think the integrity of the town will remain intact. But it truly is a must see for anyone going to Africa.

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I walked home alone to my hotel along a small dirt path where I met many locals. This woman didn’t have a name for her Donkey. She laughed when I asked. I said let’s call her Lolly – like Lalibela. She giggled and continued along her way.

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This young girl walked about 2 miles with that blue container full of water (15-20 liters?) on her back. Her brother and I walked with her together to the main road. I asked all along why he didn’t help her. Then finally at the main road he took the pack of water from her and walked home. Sadly, there home was about 100 meters away. Nice brother!

I arrived the next morning back in Gonder and began preparing the bike for the journey to Sudan. That’s when it hit me. I as anxious to spend more time walking around Gonder, but I was hit with some sort of fever. I lied down and my body shook uncontrollably. I was bummed that the Irish pharmacists who I befriended earlier in the week had gone, secretly hoping they had the magic potion that could cure what’s ailing me. But I was seriously scared. I tried to remember when I stopped taking my malaria tablets, but the symptoms I was experiencing read like a text book description of malaria. Interestingly enough, a young medical intern took residence in the room next to me. My fever was high but it was too difficult to tell without a blood test. I thought maybe the cold and shivering boat ride on Lake Tana may be finally hitting me. All I knew was I was weak, shaking and sick to my stomach and nauseated. I tried to sleep.

Everyone at hotel I enquired with about my symptoms and malaria warned me against leaving on the bike across the desert the following morning. “Make sure you’re strong enough,” one nurse in training asserted. “We don’t want you to leave now,” my friends Gareth and Helen who just returned from Lake Tana and were still waiting for a shipment of a new brake caliper from the USA. I tried eating but could barely swallow a bite. I shut myself in the room and forced myself to sleep.

I gotta make it to the Sudan border tomorrow so I’ll have exactly a week in Sudan before the ferry to Egypt departs. If I’m not on that ferry, I’m a the whim of the Sudanese justice system — if there is such a thing.

Wandering Castles & Palaces Thinking Donkeys. Again.

While I love riding and experiencing through all my senses the sights, smells, changes in geography, geology, architecture, faces, landscapes and more when riding my motorcycle, perhaps the most fun is off the bike and walking through these small towns and villages. The good thing is that they’re usually small enough that hoofing it is easy and doesn’t impact time nor energy. But even more, without the burden of motorcycle gear and the apparel such as boots, heavy jackets and pants and the encumbrances that go along, one can better enjoy and immerse in the culture and the place. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no better way for traveling and seeing the world if you’ve got the time aren’t afraid of the machine or throwing yourself out there untethered by return tickets, reservations or other schedules.

But walking around Gonder to wander around castles, explore palaces built for emperors and waddling through age-old markets, it’s what seduces me into this nomadic journey through places I only dreamed of or never thought I’d see. And then to wake up, ride the bike to the next place and do it all over again. This is no weekend getaway nor two week hiatus from work. No. This is my work and this is what I love. I get paid by the smiles in the faces I meet, in the history I learn and in the faith in humanity that is reinforced over and over again.

Today I tried to buy a donkey. You might think I’m a bit crazy. But the donkeys here in Ethiopia have an alluring look and in parts considered holy from a biblical sense. Though the way that I see them sometimes treated make me wonder. They’ve earned my respect and they’re the hardest non-conditional (albeit some grass now and then) workers I’ve met along my journey. A youngster would cost me about USD $70. But when the donkey seller and I tried to figure how I’d get him on the back of Doc, we were both left scratching our heads. Then, as another local was quick to point out, there would be problems crossing the border into Sudan with the additional passenger. “A visa?” I asked jokingly. No there are strict laws and cultural norms that deal with trading livestock. And now wasn’t the time to learn about that. Instead, I got wrapped up and lost in the Royal Enclosure that houses Emperor Fasilades’ Palace and the Palace of Iyasu – the greatest ruler of Ethiopia’s colorful Gonderine period.

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The Gonder Donkey Kingpin. AT $70 it was a temptation for me. But where do I put a donkey, even a small one, on Doc?

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I opted to price a younger more youthful donkey.

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Another donkey dude would sell any of these, too.

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Faces tell a thousand stories.

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To understand Gonder and its importance and then fall in Ethiopian history is beyond the scope of my report from this enchanting town. To be sure, in this part of Ethiopia we find relics and records of Christianity, which according to some reached Ethiopia at the time of the Apostles. Keep in mind, that the week or so I spent in Addis I was amazed that like the Mosques I’ve seen from Uganda to Indonesia all with powerful sound systems and speakers pointing in every direction, I found Christian churches in unique grand design not unlike the shiny mosques of Islam, and also fitted with speakers where daily prayers are recited and sung by monks and priests. No where else have I ever seen churches broadcasting prayers over loudspeakers. It in Aksum, one of the most powerful ancient kingdoms just north of here where Christianity first arrived in Ethiopia followed hundreds of years later by Islam in the 7th or 8th century. Today the religions coexist peacefully and seemingly without conflict.

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This is the first time in Ethiopia I’ve seen a “litter” sign – BRAVO!

So back to the Palaces and Castles. I recruited the aid of a well spoken and educated guide and perhaps due to my luck or the lack of people touristing this part of Ethiopia I had the entire enclosure and guide almost to myself. A young couple meandering the grounds with their head buried in a guide book popped up now and then.

The Royal Enclosure dominates central Gonder with its high stone walls, and towering castles is also known as Fasil Ghebbi, a UNESCO Heritage Site since 1979. Walking around this enclosure I need to remind myself I’m in Ethiopia and not Italy or France wandering some medieval village. Most impressive is Fasilades’ Palace, the oldest and tallest of the structures in the enclosure it’s punctuated by a parapet and four domed towers and according to my guide it is said to been designed by an Indian architect and incorporates influences from Indian, Moors and Portuguese designs. In the main dining hall a Star of David is an indication of Fasilades relationship to the Solomonic dynasty. So impressive is the design that it included a cistern with a water distribution system throughout the complex carved in stone. Thanks to UNESCO the building is wonderfully restored and in some places features original beamed ceilings and untarnished frescoes. This is amazing because during the fall of Gonder in the mid-1800’s, the country fell back into the dark ages and the town was torn between a civil war, hostile visitors from Sudan and others eager to basque in the regions once great riches.

Elsewhere in the enclosure is a second palace build by Iyasu I. With vaulted ceilings and hints of its former grandeur, the palace didn’t survive both a massive earthquake in 1704 nor British bombing around World War II. Also on the palace are two Lion Houses, one built by Halai Selassie and until 1992 some of his lions were kept there, though the ex-emperor died in the late 1970’s. Also in the building are Turkish baths where some of the original hooks made from cow horns are still affixed to the walls, and a fire pit used to heat water to create the steam is at one end of the baths. Finally a third castle in the Enclosure is Menteweb’s Castle, a more subtle two story complex that houses a heritage center and a small shop where traditional handicrafts made in Gonder and nearby villages are on display and available for sale. I was impressed by the textile work, but sadly I just don’t have space for souvenirs.

After leaving the complex my guide took me to Fasilades’ Bath, also under UNESCO’s World Heritage Site the bath is currently in the final throws of restoration, but it’s massive and impressive. Even the tree roots which are nearly overtaking the stone roll surrounding the sunken pool and small adjacent building are a site to see.

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The Royal Enclosure at Gonder, Ethiopia.

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I also wondered the town and visited the local post office in search of a DHL office. Turns out there’s no DHL, FedEx nor UPS office in this town. A phone call to DHL in Addis turned out to be another lesson in frustration and patience. My tire is still in Addis awaiting direction from me. For fear that something might happen and with only a 7-day transit visa for Sudan, I made the decision to have DHL simply send the tire to Cairo, though it’ll probably be more than a month until I get there. My rear tire is still holding up so no urgent need here. The fork seals? We’ll see what happens when I get to Khartoum. There’s no way I won’t to embark on that project here in Gonder.

Tomorrow I’ll take a couple day trip to Lalibela, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and supposedly the “Petra” of Africa. But I’ll visit this historical site without a new donkey. Oh well.

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The roots of trees take over the walls at Fasilades Baths and Private Residence in Gonder, Ethiopia.

Staring At The Faces of 104 Angels – After A Lonely Ride To Gonder

It’s blissful riding through the heart of Amhara country toward Gonder and the Simien Mountains. In many ways, this is what I always dreamed sub-sahara Africa would be like outside the ubiquitous wildlife and roaming wildebeest of the south. Having yet been to Sudan and Egypt, but safe to say that Ethiopia is the ultimate African to Middle East segue. The culture is rich, terrain verdant in points, desolate and desert in others and the people as curious, friendly and helpful as anywhere. But here the language take a turn and the alphabet soon is unfamiliar. There’s been hardly European influence other than in some of the food. This is Africa somewhat virgin and raw. And I’ve been bitten.

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He tried to put his sticker on his dula (stick) but it wouldn’t work. So he found the next best place.

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The scars I’m told are from tatoo / body ornaments done in rights to passage ceremonies. She was tending goats with her sister when I stopped to say hi and offer a bite.

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The faces of Ethiopia never cease to tell stories. Most happy. Some sad.

There’s something serene and peaceful watching livestock graze in nearby fields. The herders with their canes or dulas sit patiently as the sun moves the day and each offering a huge wave and white-toothed smile as I slowly cruise by, often stopping just to share a smile, a small candy or a handshake. Riding alone means no need to worry if you’re holding someone up, nor if you just want to experience a zen moment and get lost in the smell of the environs, you just go. No worries. Often people ask me if I get lonely. My answer is no. There are so many faces and voices wherever I go that lonely is never an option. Do I feel alone? Oh sure. Experiencing such beauty, sights and the crux of humanity is wonderful. And when something makes me giddy, awes me or inspires sometimes I turn and look but come up empty when wishing to share that fleeting moment. Then again, that’s why I write these stories from the road. I’m sharing them with you. So thanks for riding along.

Gonder, and like many places in Ethiopia you’ll see it spelled in more than one way, some have referred to as “Africa’s Camelot” with ancient stone castles and palaces fit for kings. So it’s with much anticipation and expectation I made the ride through fertile lands to what at one point was the capital of Ethiopia under King Fasilades in the early 17th century. But before arriving to this mythical town in the mountains, I ran into two Russians on motorcycles who’d just left Gondar a few hours before.

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I met two Russian motorcyclists from Moscow on an adventure to Cape Town. Here Kubortian poses next to his V-Strom

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Alexey and his KTM loaded for Africa.

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We attracted the usual dose of curiosity seekers and small hands looking for Birr.

Alexey and Kubortian left Russia several months earlier and were headed to Cape Town. Curious about the Sudan portion of my journey and preoccupied with the limited time I had, they shared with me their experience and the road conditions all the way to Wadi Halfa. “You can do it in three days,” Alexey confided when speaking of the route from Khartoum to Wadi Halfa, but plan on four, especially if you’re doing it alone.” They suggested stopping at the Blue Nile Sailing Club in Khartoum to see if any 4×4 overlanders were headed that way. “It’s better to be with someone, it’s very remote and lots of sand and corrugation.” Music to my ears. The stretch they’re talking about goes about 500 miles from Khartoum to Lake Nassar. Four days going 500 miles didn’t sound appetizing. But everyone I’ve met who’d come down that route along the Nile said it was spectacular.

Soon we were surrounded by nomad sheep herders, and local villagers. Kubortian offered a similar trick that might stop my fork seal from leaking and suggested I keep a rag zip-tied to prevent more debris from getting in and possibly permanent damaging my forks. I hoped to get to Khartoum and find a decent workshop where I could replace the seal. If not, Luxor or Cairo might be my only option. I just hope it’ll last that it’ll hold that much longer.

In Gonder, which is a somewhat sprawling large village with a dense piazza in the center of town. Though for more than 100 years it served as the capital, today it’s little more than a trading center for the surrounding agriculture and livestock farms. It’s also home to a good-sized university and a couple important historical and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

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The man from Gondar I found outside the church.

I find the hostel that Gareth and Helen recommended and where I’d find their bikes securely sleeping and parked Doc next to them. With several hours of daylight left, I decided to walk to Debhran Berhan Selassie Church. Surrounded by a stone wall with twelve towers, each representing one of the apostles and a larger tower at the entrance gate representing Christ, the original church, whereby the foundation is competing with the grass, was circular and build in the late 1600’s, but was later reconstructed in a rectangular style was built in the 18th century. Interestingly, some historians believe that the Emperor designed the church with this symbolism in mind because he planned to move the Ark of the Covenant from Aksum to Gonder, though this never happened.

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The entire complex was surrounded by a stone wall with 12 towers (see one behind shadow of trees) representing the Twelve Apostles

While the paintings I was privy to check out at the monasteries on Lake Tana were magnificent, I wasn’t prepared for the beauty and the color and artwork of the massive murals covering all walls and ceilings of “The Trinity at the Mount of Light” which is what Debre Berhan Selassie means roughly translated. As it was late in the day the usual gathering of guides outside the front gate were missing in action, I was asked to join a group who entered just before me including a few students from London who were staying at my hotel. That’s why I know there are 104 cherub angels on the ceiling of this small but historically significant and artistically magical church. Not one of their faces shares the same expression. Without getting into the tiny details, safe to say the paintings in this church tell the many stories of Ethiopian Saints and Martyrs. I stayed much longer than the tour group just gazing at the ceiling and then mingling with the priests and the locals hanging around the complex.

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Here are some of the 104 Angels who looked down on me as I gazed in wonder.

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No church in Ethiopia wouldn’t be complete without a large painting of its patron saint – Saint George – here dutifully slaying a dragon to rescue yet another damsel distressed in a tree.

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Story telling through pictures.

Getting Wet On Lake Tana Exploring Monasteries.

Eager to explore some of the islands of Lake Tana and seek the source of the Blue Nile, I arranged a boat with the folks at my hotel and headed out over what looked to be a calm and blissful lake. The first mistake I made for this journey is not exploring more options. The tiny 15hp engine of the rickety craft made trips between the islands longer than they should be. The second mistake was not taking my fowl weather gear — that is my rain jacket.

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Locals pilot with ease unstable papyrus boats carrying mounds of firewood all over Lake Tana.

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There are about twenty islands that dot Lake Tana. Most of them with centuries old monasteries.

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Docking at the islands was sometimes simple other times a bit of a challenge.

All started out okay. The beautiful islands basque in the their lush green vegetation under the beating sun. Locals in hand-built papyrus boats ferry stacks of firewood from island to shore and back again. Fisherman pull in fresh tilapia while others bathe and wash clothes lakeside. The visit to the first island home of the Entos Eyesu Monastery was a breeze. Closest to the boat docks and my hotel and upon arrival met a group of local students from Addis who were as eager to learn about my journeys as I was about Ethiopia. Climbing up a short incline we explored a monastery, round and featuring a series of small caves that served as living quarters and chapels for priests. In the 15th century these islands were more remote and offered solace and peace for those looking to learn and get closer god. But what’s amazing is how well preserved the murals and paintings that illustrate the personalities and stories of Ethiopian saints — of which I think there are more in the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox religion than any other. After visiting churches in Addis and through the monasteries of Lake Tana, I can safely say that the overwhelming favorite could very well be Saint George who is the patron Saint of Ethiopia seemingly always slaying dragons upon his beautiful white horse.

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Above images from the Entos Eyesu Monastery.

It was on the way to Kibran St. Gabrael Monastery (Kebran Gabriel) that things took a turn for the worse. By now the lake had, in less than an hour, turned to stormy white caps while clouds dumped rain. Not only did I get soaked by the unleashing of the clouds, but with every slam of the hull over each three or four foot wave, buckets of water drenched me. Nowhere in the boat was I safe, nor dry. Doing my best to keep my camera gear from getting wet, I watched another tour boat cruise by with a bigger engine, elevated passenger area and smiling and dry passengers. Grrrrrr. Keep in mind, these are simple wooden boats. Nothing fancy not technologically advanced here. I was worried this boat could capsize or be damaged in the rough water. That’s when I looked around for the lifejackets. A little late I guess. Because there were none.

It was a bit frightening. Perhaps not as frightening as a ride from the Indonesia island of Flores to Komodo and then Lombok islands I took some years back — that was three days of rough riding. But this was rougher in that I set out for a day ride around the peaceful Lake Tana and now what looked like to be a day long journey through hell. At least I could pray for better weather at the next monastery.

It took about 40 minutes through the pounding waves and piercing rain. I had no interest in seeing the monastery when we landed. I just laid there dockside shivering and praying for the sun and trying to dry out. When I finally did roam the grounds of what was probably the highlight of my monastery tour here, the Kibran St. Gabrael (as they spelt in on the signage) only permits men from entering, is a dramatic 17th century building with a portico supported by a dozen columns. A tiny building adjacent to the building houses a small museum which the priest was happy to open and show artifacts including holy books made from goatskin and papyrus dating from the 16th and 17th century, illustrated colorfully. In the monastery the paintings here were vibrant and dramatic depictions of events including Iyasu presented in front of Christ.

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Graphics are well planned on signs leading to the monasteries. Here at Kebran Gabriel no woman should pass this point, and the rocky steep path is not for those with shaky ankles or missteps in foot work.

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Above all images from Kebran Gabriel on Lake Tana.

By the time we got to the Azwa Mariam Monastery the sun crept out and the waters much calmer. Blaming the bad weather and slow ride on our captain, I suggested strongly that I captain the boat to Azwa Mariam which had perhaps the most well preserved paintings and murals of the day. So I took the help while our former captain took to rest and took the helm IMG_5431_2.jpgof this pitifully slow boat.

We finished our journey by cruising to the outlet of the Blue Nile and then back at the hotel in time for dinner. While hanging my still wet clothes to dry I met Gareth and Helen, two Kiwi’s who after working the past several years in London decided to shove the rat race aside and hop upon bikes and head back to New Zealand – the long way around! But they were in Bahir Dar sans motorcycles. Turns out that Helen, who just learned to ride a few weeks before hopping on her classic BMW F650 (the older carburated model), was having problems with a caliper for her bike. They’ve been waiting a week for a part to be shipped from USA. They’re bikes are sitting at a hotel in Gondar, which is where I’m heading next, and they took the trip to Bahir Dar on a bus with a friend who flew in from London for a couple weeks. They’re not sure how long until they get the part, so they’re not wasting time just sitting around. We made plans to connect again in Gondar.

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Above all images including the patron saint of Ethiopia, Saint George ready to slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress (see girl in tree) are from the Azwa Mariam Monastery on Lake Tana.

Cash or Credit. In Sudan Both Are Problematic.

I haven’t had any decent amount of real crisp U.S. dollars in some time. Sure, I’ve had a stash that I had to tap into on a few occasions to pay for visas by countries who wouldn’t even accept their own currency for payment. Imagine that.

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But I’ve learned that in Sudan and Khartoum international VISA/MasterCards (Cirrus/Plus etc) aren’t accepted and won’t work in ATM machines there. Even worse, the Sudanese will not accept Ethiopian Birr in exchange as there is only a limited FOREX BUREAU in Khartoum. Even so, Sudan isn’t even accepting US dollars, though I’m told you can change good ole American greenbacks through the black market on the street. But that’s a problem as I don’t have much more than $50 US dollars.

So before leaving Addis I tried to solve this problem and prepare for my Sudanese adventure. To do so means having enough cash to pay for the ferry ride to Aswan, fuel (benzine as it’s referred to in these parts) and enough to pay for food and accommodation.

There are a handful of international ATMs in Ethiopia. All of them are in Addis. There’s one at the Sheraton Hotel, another at the Hilton and two or three downtown. That’s it. And they all accept different networks, if they accept any. Coming into Ethiopia I made sure to have plenty of Kenyan schillings which I easily converted to Ethiopian Birr at the border. Ethiopia is an inexpensive country to travel, so I’ve been doing well. Since I needed to figure a way to get Sudanese pounds, on the day before I left for Bahir Dar I made a trek to the tony Sheraton and withdrew about $400 worth of Birr with what I thought was an excellent plan:

Send a Western Union from Ethiopia using BIRR to my own attention in Khartoum, Sudan. Then in Khartoum I would simply pick up at a Western Union Location in Khartoum and I’d have Sudanese Pounds (they no longer deal in Dinar). I thought I was brilliant coming up with this plan. So I pulled the money out of the ATM and headed to Western Union, which also has an office at the bank in the Sheraton Hotel.

So I walk up to the window with my Western Union form completed and a wad of Ethiopian Birr and hand it to the man. “Wait, he says,” I’m wondering what’s wrong. “You cannot send money using Western Union. You can only receive funds” What? This is crazy. There’s no explanation. It’s just the way it is.

FUCK!!! I’m only going to be a week or so in Ethiopia and I certainly don’t need $400 worth of Ethiopian Birr, what was I going to do with this cash???

Ahhh. Not a problem. I’ll just convert it into US dollars at the bank here at the Sheraton. Then I could use the black market in Sudan to convert it into Sudanese Pounds. Simple enough.

A brilliant idea you’d think. Right? WRONG.

In Ethiopia Banks will not exchange local currency into foreign currency unless you have an outgoing “international” airline ticket valid one week or less from the date you wish to exchange funds. Otherwise you cannot exchange Birr for any foreign currency (read dollars) — though you can 200807281647.jpg petition the national bank for an exception, but this takes days or weeks. So I’m still stuck with all this Birr and thinking I need to find a way to spend this money before leaving the country. Okay. So maybe there’s some wine to buy.. uh oh… they inspect luggage at Sudan border as alcohol is illegal in Sudan. Shit. Sorry. No room for souvenirs. Too much Birr makes Allan an unhappy guy. So I accost a guy looking to exchange some Euros at the bank in the Sheraton. He roasts me on the exchange but now I’ve got 100 euros less of Birr. That still means about $250 worth of Birr. What to do? And I haven’t solved the problem of getting enough money to do what I need to in Sudan. The 100 euros will be easy to exchange. But I’m still short: I need to have local Sudan Pounds in Sudan. I must buy a ferry ticket, petrol, hotel rooms, food and everything but beer, booze or wine.

And I have no other currency and there’s no ATMs and banks don’t accept ATM/VISA credit cards.

Even though US dollars aren’t possible to exchange in Sudan and there’s a US-imposed embargo on US products coming into Sudan due to human rights violations in Darfur, it’s still possible to send money originating in the USA to Sudan via Western Union. So I think fast and contact my brother back in the states. He’s going to visit the Western Union and send me a few hundred dollars which I will receive in Sudanese Pounds in Khartoum. That way I’ll have the local currency and this problem is solved.

But enough dwelling on Sudan. There’s still so much more in Ethiopia to experience. Come on. Let’s go!

It’s All In The Details. And The Planning. Lake Tana, Ethiopia.

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There are a few things rattling my brain as I stroll the palm lined streets of Bahir Dar and gaze out at lovely Lake Tana. First, is I forgot to note the commotion that I and my new found Aussie friends riding toward Addis created in that small town yesterday. As the pictures illustrate we gathered the usual audience while performing roadside. But the performance was actually more dramatic from our point of view. With two narrow lanes of tarmac running through these small towns, the lorries and the traffic moving north from and south to the nations capital can be impeded by the mass of humanity standing and watching three white folk on big motorcycles. As the crowd bled onto the tarmac and man in a dirty brown uniform with a firm grip on his “dula” would raise the one meter thing stick and smack down on the backs and shoulders of those loitering in traffic’s way. With the lanes cleared one young boy I surmised to be seven or eight years stood a couple feet into the tarmac with his mouth gaped open and snot oozing from his nose was dumfounded as perhaps we were the only white man he’s seen in his life. Just gazing and staring with that running nose, the kind a mother wants to wipe and then take a little saliva on her thumb to clean the crud dried there. But our traffic obsessed transit cop raised his dula and with a force that would make Chuck Norris jealous whacked the poor kids straight on the top of his head. He went running away leaving a river of tears behind. Good god.

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“Squadron” of pelicans takes a break from flight hoping for handouts from the Lake Tana locals.

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Beautiful flowers in the courtyard of Ghion Hotel in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.

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Where’s Ronnie “B” when I need him. What kinda birds are they?
They flew freely and in colorful glory around the lake and my hotel.

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Laundry lakeside.

With digs set up lakeside at the Ghion Hotel it’s important to note that at 3,500 sq. km and as the source of the Blue Nile which flows nearly 3,600 miles to the Mediterranean Sea , Lake Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake. Even better, on 20 of the 37 islands that dot the lake sit monasteries most from the 16th or 17th century but some pre-dating Christianity. And while the lure of these monasteries can’t be understated, it’s concerns about Egypt that have weighed heavy since leaving Addis.

When embarking on my journey some two and a half years early, I had arranged for a carnet de passage — essentially a “passport” for my motorcycle. Not required in central and south America, the carnet is indispensable when making border crossing with a motor vehicle at most African and Asian countries. In America carnets, which are governed by international laws and treaties, are administered by the Canadian Automobile Association. Each country I bring Doc into wants to be sure that when I exit said country that Doc comes with me. If not, the motorcycle would be subject to duty and taxes. The carnet through entry and exit stamps is proof of exit of the country. Without an exit stamp the country would be eligible to receive the normal duty for a motor vehicle import. As such, to get a carnet I had to deposit with the CAA nearly the entire value of my motorcycle, because some countries the duty is 70 or 80 percent. The catch here is that every country you plan to temporarily import a vehicle must be identified. The country with the highest percentage of duty dictates the amount of the deposit. Should you try to enter a country in which you didn’t declare ahead of time it is likely that they either will prohibit the vehicle from entering or demand to hold a deposit of the duty amount while traveling in that country.

When I started this journey I had no plans to visit Egypt. Too bad. Because Egypt is notorious for the most backward and bureaucratic policies and processes for nearly everything — especially the importation of motor vehicles. I’ve met other travelers heading south who had to alter plans because they were refused entry into Egypt. Others have waited two weeks for paperwork and stamps while their vehicles sat in a customs holding tank. Still, others with their papers perfectly in order still waited more than a week before the vehicle was released.

I had no Egypt declaration on my carnet. And while I’ve noted that I’ve learned to be an extremely patient traveler, I didn’t look forward to Egypt’s bureaucracy. So while in Nairobi I contacted Suzanne at the CAA and discussed the problem. She too agreed it would better to be prepared rather than wing it when arriving at the Egyptian border. It would cost me $200 to update my carnet. And fortunately I would not have to advance any further funds as my deposit on file is sufficient to cover Egypt’s fiscal requirement. But would I get into Egypt. Back in Nairobi I was still unsure about the Sudan visa. So I asked her to prepare the carnet but before going through the motions of payment and shipping, I’d need to confirm that Egypt would be a reality.

With a Sudan visa in hand, I need to pull the trigger and get the new carnet. Where would it be shipped? IN order to keep moving it would have to be Khartoum, the capital of Sudan and the confluence of both the white and blue Nile rivers. For the first time since I can remember on this journey, I’d have to schedule and plan my travel carefully. With only a seven day transit visa, I had to make sure to be in Khartoum on a day Fed Ex would be open, plus I needed to enter Sudan on a Thursday. Why? Because my route would take me along the Nile River through the Nubian desert in northern Sudan to a tiny outpost on the banks of Lake Nassar called Wadi Halfa. Once each week a ferry boat crosses lake Nassar and takes almost 500 people to Aswan, Egypt. If I did not make that ferry, I would be shipped back to Khartoum, or put in a Sudanese holding tank for violation of visa privileges. Neither of these scenarios sounded good to me.

So I would have to cross the border on a Thursday or Friday at the latest. This would give me six or seven days to get my updated Carnet from the Fed Ex office in downtown Khartoum and get to Wadi Halfa to board that train. Frankly, I’m disappointed that I won’t have more time in Sudan, but happy that I’m one of the only Americans to have the opportunity to travel through the Sudan.

So I sit lakeside penciling potential dates, itineraries and options for my journey northward to Sudan and Egypt.

Oh. And there are a few things on my mind about Sudan, too! That’ll have wait for another post.

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Doc in a very secure parking space outside the door of my bungalow at Ghion.

The Dangerous Ride To Bahir Dar

With a visa allowing me seven whole days to visit The Sudan taking up a full page in my passport, it was time for me to make a move toward the Nile: this time the source of the Blue Nile, which sits in Ethiopia at Lake Tana, a good days ride from Addis. I stopped by the DHL office and was told that my package, the tire, would arrive the following day. It’s the second time DHL has dropped the proverbial ball. Further inquiry revealed that the tire was actually on a plane that would land this evening. Great. Then could they get it to me tonight? No, because it would have to clear customs. The tire I fitted in Dar es Salaam had plenty of miles left. I asked if they could get the tire to me by early the next morning. There were no guarantees. I told them I would be leaving before 10am and if they couldn’t get it to me by then, I suggested they ship it to Gondar, where I’d be in a few days. IMG_8203_2.jpg

The next morning my tire never arrived. Fearing a long and hot day, I left Addis just before 10am. The road out of town was slightly confusing then once I was northwest of the city the tarmac turned from poor and potholed to smooth and black. Winding around several decreasing radius turns as I headed down into a valley, I spotted a sign. Seems a joint project between Japan and Ethiopian resulted in a fine road that would take me to the Blue Nile Gorge. Passing through the crowded and pedestrian littered byways of small towns, I came upon another funeral and men in sarong like robes and white headdresses. I continued to spot hundreds of donkeys and the fertile valley seemed rich in vegetation.

Passing through one town I came upon two motorcyclists heading toward Addis. As is the dictum of riding motorcycles in faraway lands we pulled to the side of the road. And then the crowd thickened. Seems Ethiopia crowds might be the largest I’ve seen on my trip through Africa. Here in the middle of Ethiopia I met my first motorcycle travelers since meeting the Matteo, Tom and the others in Arusha, Tanzania nearly two months ago.

Billy Gibson and Trisha Cotton left Australia more than six months ago and were headed south to Cape Town. Billy rode a 1984 BMW Paris-Dakar (PD) and Trisha was on a small Kawasaki Super Sherpa – something I’d never seen but perhaps was a rev of the old KLR 250. We shared information about roads north and roads south and Trisha gave me a Lonely Planet Middle East book in spanking new condition. Because this trek through Ethiopia and toward Egypt was not in my original plan, I was running blind and without a guidebook. We examined each other’s bikes and talked about gear, maintenance and bikes. Billy is an accomplished mechanic and very in tune with his bike — he has to be because at 24 years old the bike has seen some miles, though he rebuilt the entire engine before embarking on this journey.

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Billy and Trisha in front of Billy’s ’84 PD and among friends roadside somewhere north of Addis in Ethiopia.

That’s when we noticed the fork oil spilling out of my left fork seal. Somewhere on the hot road today, the seal gave away. The opposite seal had failed in Zambia several months ago. I had a spare but it’d be some time before I would be in workshop where I could replace the seal. Billy shared a trick where using a thin feeler gauge sized strip of plastic such as cut from a plastic water bottle and slip it between the seal and the fork to clean any debris that might have caused the leak. He says this could give me a 500-1,000km extension before it becomes more of a problem.

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Trisha rides a later model Kawasaki 250cc Sherpa. First time I’d seen one. And she road it from Australia to Ethiopia! In this photo note the three wheeled enclosed motorcycle aka moto taxi in the left rear and the donkey cart just above Trisha… except this cart is not pulled by a donkey. It’s human powered.

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Trisha and I pose around Doc and the usual gathering of new found friends.

After about an hour we parted ways agreeing to catch up on each other’s adventures via email.

As I got closer to the Blue Nile Gorge the road deteriorated. Then it turned into a massive construction zone. The massive gorge with towering cliffs of granite appears deep below. Loose gravel and rocks make riding down into the gorge a bit tentative, but pulling over for a break and a quick photo an old man appears at of nowhere and shakes his finger indicating no photography. Strange. They’re building a new bridge that not only is wider but also softens the bend of the turn you must make to cross the river over the gorge. As I climb up Doc starts spitting and hesitating. Then the overheating light glares at me. There are construction trucks everywhere and I’m riding a 60 degree incline going up. Stop and hold. After a few minutes move again. All I want is to get to flat ground. It’s a bad dirt road that’s been beat up badly by construction trucks. When I get to a plateau and my light still piercing through the harsh midday sunlight, I pull over. The crowd appears and one young cut girl motions me to the other side of the road where trees overhand creating a bit of shade. I wait for about 30 minutes for Doc to cool down. It’s hot, and it’s been low gear, high revving over the dirt and gravel and up and down the mountains. I fear my fan isn’t working. I haven’t heard it come on with the its usual high pitch spin.

This is bad, I think. I’m heading into the Sudan and some of the harshest and hottest desert on the continent. And if my bike is overheating here, what’s going to happen there. I check my fuses. All good. Maybe it’s the relay. Perhaps I can bypass the thermostat control. But I’d burn out the fan. I could concoct a switch and manually trigger it at slow speeds when traversing sand or dirt or through city traffic. All this will have to wait. I’m making my way to Bahir Dar, a laid back town that sits on the shores of Lake Tana. Billy and Trisha were coming from there. They told me the stayed nearly a week with a Canadian named Jeremy who is a professor at the local university. I should look him up if possible.

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The Blue Nile River.

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A new bridge just near the gorge is under construction making riding the road challenging and hot.

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One of many stops and the ubiquitous beautiful donkeys of Ethiopia.

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Could used some shade and canopy on Doc this hot day.

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Worried about leaky fork seals and an overheating engine, I had to make several stops along the dirt road and construction laden parts of the route to let Doc cool. This friendly woman sports typical body ornament – tattoos — of the people in this region. Note her neck, chin and arm.

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Along the route from Addis to Bahir Dar there are dozens of abandoned military armor left over from the intense Ethiopian Civil War which lasted after the marxist Derg over through Halie Selassie in a coup d’etat in 1974 until 1991 when the Ethiopian People’s Revolution Front finally overthrew the Derg.

Until the tarmac I struggled with the overheating motorcycle. On tarmac the speed, breeze and low revs kept me and the bike cool. But all these distractions pinched my time, before I got to Bahir Dar the sun and its glorious display of colors and reflections on the clouds gave way to night. According to my best calculation and not the fairly useless GPS, I had about 50km to Bahir Dar. My PIAA lights were down to one and my high-beam blazed the train ahead. But it was black. I couldn’t see much. Then just cruising at a comfortable 80km/hour I was in a zone. Just cruising and thinking. Then immediately in front of me barely reflecting the halo of my headlight was a donkey cart. I was within 5 meters of the back of this thing when I saw the white eyes and teeth of the two kids craning their necks looking at me. My heart jumped and my eyes widened. I jerked to the left and nearly skimmed the side of the cart with my pannier. I looked for my heart as it was beating hard somewhere in my body it wasn’t used to. My mind played with the other possible outcomes of that close call. They all scared me.

Night riding is treacherous. No matter what continent you’re riding on. But Africa? Good god. I was a bit lazy. Tired. And just dreaming of Lake Tana, a room and a cold beer. I saw another five or six donkey carts before rolling into Bahir Dar, with its sad string of streetlights – less than half of which were working. But street lighting nonetheless. After sunset the donkey carts carry supplies, tools and crops harvested from the fields. I just didn’t see it. There was no reflective material, the passengers were dressed in dark clothes and there was no moon or ambient light coulda helped. Lucky.

I stopped in Bahir Dar at the first sign of civilization to thumb through the guide book. That’s when an older guy riding a chinese scooter pulled up next to me. It was Jeremy, the guy Billy and Trisha had met and stayed at his house. We shared a beer and stories of our mutual friends. He offered his home but suggested against it because there was no running water — wisdom of the city trying to improve conditions but failing miserably for the last two days. And there was a sewage problem. Didn’t sound pretty so he referred me to a local hotel at about $15 including breakfast and on the lake. Sold.

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While these cuties thought I was taking there picture, I was really checking out the “express lane” for donkeys and pedestrians. Why they didn’t have one on the road outside of Bahir Dar is anyone’s guess! Actually this was about 3 hours south of Bahir Dar and over a bridge crossing a small canyon. Donkey Carts!!!