Monday, October 09, 2006

Aswan to Cairo, Egypt . . . "Looking is for free!"

Ever since reading Asterix and Cleopatra as a child I have wanted to visit Egypt. When we arrived, I couldn’t wait to see ancient temples, tombs, pyramids and the sphinx. Phil, who had been to Egypt before, was slightly more interested at first in getting a drink. After braving an alcohol free Sudan he could almost smell the beer as we crossed the border into Egypt.

Imagine our horror to find that mere days after our arrival in Egypt the month long fast of Ramadan began. During Ramadan all healthy adult Muslims are required to abstain from all food, drink, gum chewing, any kind of tobacco use, and any kind of sexual contact between dawn and sunset for 29 or 30 days, depending on the sighting of the moon during this month. . . We soon found that the restaurants that usually served alcohol were not doing so during Ramadan.

We decided to make the most of it and Phil suggested that we also fast. I lasted until breakfast the following day when I couldn’t stop myself from having eggs on toast. Phil, whose will power (where food is concerned) is far superior to mine, lasted until mid-afternoon when he had to have a Coke. He quickly descended the slippery slope and desperately searched for the few places that still served alcohol in the Egyptian towns we visited. Unfortunately, he was rarely successful and has – although he may deny it – developed a taste for ‘Birrel’ a non-alcoholic beer which is apparently “not too bad”.

On the positive side, the lack of alcohol made it easier to get up at the crack of dawn, or before when Phil could talk me into it, and visit the many tourist attractions. We started in Aswan. The highlight was Abu Simbel where we saw the Great Temple of Ramses II, carved out of a mountain on the bank of the Nile between 1274 and 1244BC. After Aswan we went to Luxor and saw more temples and also visited the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

After Sudan, one thing that struck us immediately in these tourist ‘hot spots’ were the huge number of other tourists and the number of locals whose whole existence appeared to be focused around separating the tourists from their tourist dollars. It was almost impossible to walk a few steps without being called into a shop (‘looking is for free', 'come in-no hassle shop’, 'enjoy your eyes'), asked to buy some papyrus, offered a felucca ride on the Nile or a ride in a horse-drawn carriage around the corner. ‘Polite refusal’ was our tactic and it nearly always worked.

It was a bit of relief when we left all that and arrived in Cairo- where you are still asked to ‘look for free’ when visiting the Khan al-Khalili market or the pyramids, but when you are simply walking around town people have got far better things to do than harass random tourists.

Visiting the pyramids and the sphinx in Giza, Cairo was definitely a highlight for me. Our exploration of Giza was made even better by the discovery of a small budget hotel overlooking the pyramids and a few hundred metres from the sphinx. It looked like a flea pit from the outside but on the inside it was remarkably flea–free and I would go far as to say quite pleasant. So we were lucky enough to wake up next to the pyramids one morning for a very small fee.

Although Cairo was technically the end of our trip, we found ourselves with a few days to kill before our flight to London. We decided to head off to Siwa via Alexandria. Siwa is a desert oasis west of Cairo. It bills itself as the ‘world’s first tourist destination’. While the same claim is made far more convincingly in relation to the pyramids at Giza, there is no doubt that Siwa has been receiving visitors for thousands of years- Alexander the Great visited Siwa in 331BC for a consultation with the Oracle of Amun. Not sure what the news was, but Alexander died in India shortly after this.

Siwa is a cute little town - a real oasis . . . clean fresh water springs, date palms, olive trees and orchards in the middle of the desert - with an interesting history and temple ruins. However, as the ruins could also be accurately described as primarily rubble, we spent most of our time riding around Siwa and surrounding villages on hired bicycles to the various natural springs for a swim. Well, Phil swam and I watched. The springs are also used by male locals to bathe and we were warned they would be quite horrified if a woman hopped in. After a couple of days of that we were ready to leave Siwa.

We’re now back in Cairo – our final destination – and we’ll be flying to London on Wednesday night.

It has been quite a trip. We have zigzagged up the continent for exactly ten months – four months longer than planned – and have traveled about 35,000 km in trains, sail boats, buses, trucks, ferries, bikes, canoes, kayaks and carts.

After we arrived in Cape Town, despite almost being turned away at the ticket counter in London, we've managed to:

- cross the border on foot into Lesotho
- fend off queries about my sex life
- brave numerous trips in combis/minibuses
- survive the slow but tortuous change from South African wine to cask wine to Ethiopian wine to no wine
- fall off a horse (me)
- fall of a cliff (me)
- see the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, Namibia
- entertain a good offer (20-30 cows) to buy me
- learn to escape from crocodile attack (your best line of defence is to stab the crocodile in its eyes with anything sharp that you have)
- look for the ‘big 5’ (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) in Namibia, Kenya and Tanzania
- climb Africa’s highest mountain (well, almost – don’t mention it to Phil – he is still upset)
- run aground in a ferry in Lake Malawi
- celebrate Phil’s 40th
- see Victoria Falls
- sail up the coast of Mozambique
- relax in Zanzibar
- survive 12 hours in the back of a truck sitting on a pile of coconuts
- almost get lost at the Ugandan border (Phil)
- see some gorillas
- attend a Bull Jumping Ceremony in Ethiopia
- safely escape a burning train in Sudan

. . . and make it to Cairo.

I hope you have enjoyed following our trip on this site and looking at Phil’s Cape Town to Cairo Photos

He should have the photos from Sudan and Egypt up in about a week.

We will be in London in a few days. After a few weeks there we’ll be heading back to Australia for Christmas via a couple of destinations to be determined . . .

Please keep in touch with us via email and we’ll give you our details when we finally settle somewhere next year.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Surprised in Sudan . . . "Salaam a leykum"

For me, the trip to Sudan was always going to be difficult. Our problems started before we left. We couldn't get a tourist visa. I threw up in the Sudanese embassy. (Note to self: Do not eat a donut that tastes like it has been deep fried in motor oil before visiting an embassy official.) Then the visa we did get was only for 7 days- barely enough time to get through the Sudan into Egypt.

I didn't expect to have a good time in Sudan and, in fact, anticipated problems. Why? A few reasons - not in order of importance:

(1) Alcohol is illegal.
(2) Ongoing genocide in Darfur, despite peace agreement.
(3) Ongoing strife in the South, despite peace agreement.
(4) Australian government travel warning updated just before we left - 'Do not go to Sudan unless you are completely insane'.
(5) Alcohol is illegal.

However, unlike the UN peacekeepers, the Sudanese government had allowed us to enter Sudan. So, Phil and I (operating under a fragile peace agreement regarding the Sudanese portion of our trip) finally left Addis and made for the Ethiopian/Sudanese border via Gonder.

It took us a few days to get to the border town of Metemma on the Ethiopian side. We spent as little time there as possible. Metemma is essentially a village that has turned itself into a large brothel providing alcohol and other services to Sudanese crossing the border for the day to experience a more relaxed lifestyle.

We crossed the border on 13 September - giving us until 20 September to travel up to Wadi Halfa in the north and cross the border into Egypt. I thought this might be tricky given that Sudan is the largest country in Africa. Sudan is about 1/4 the size of the US, 1/5 the side of Europe and 1/3 the size of Australia. But we worked out that the distance through the north to the Egyptian border could be covered in a week - as long as nothing went wrong.

The first thing that struck us about Sudan was the kindness of the people we met. The Sudanese people are probably the most hospitable people we have met in Africa (excluding Ghana of course) and the most unlikely to attempt to earn some easy cash from unsuspecting tourists. When we arrived in Khartoum our scooter taxi driver, who spoke no English and couldn't understand our feeble attempts at Arabic, dropped us off at his friend's office. His friend, a computer technician, spoke a little English and insisted on driving us through the early afternoon heat (40+ degrees) for half an hour to our hotel. When we tried to offer him some money he just said "why?", smiled and left us in shock. We found that this kind of behaviour was typical in Sudan. Everyone one genuinely wanted to help us.

Many people we met were troubled about the image of Sudanese people in other countries. "How do you feel about Sudan?" or "what do people think of Sudan?" were frequent questions. We found that generally they were well informed about the problems in Sudan despite issues of government censorship and concerned about the future of the country as well as their own future. We lost count of the number of people asking us how they could immigrate to Australia.

As a result of the general friendliness of the people, travelling through the country was a surprisingly pleasant and easy experience. Although the ease of travel is definitely hindered by the constant need for a foreigner to report at every police stop – of which there were many especially between the Ethiopian border and Khartoum – and provide your name, nationality, passport number and profession. Luckily, the other people on the bus didn't seem to be annoyed by the frequent stops and we didn't have any problems at the police stops except for my slight panic when Phil announced his nationality as "Australian" and a policeman looked at him in confusion and said "Israeli?" Israelis aren't exactly welcome in Sudan. Still, I may have seemed like a bit of a lunatic yelling "No! He's Australian! Australian!!"

The administrative demands on the tourist in Sudan are definitely over the top. In addition to reporting at police stops, you are required to register your presence in Sudan within three days of arrival and you have to get a permit to take photos – without one you could be arrested. Sudan even has 'Tourist Police' in addition to the regular police.

Thankfully, we managed to get all the papers we needed in Khartoum and still had time for some tourist activities, so we went off to see the 'whirling' dervishes in the ritual called 'dhkir', which is central to Sufi practices. The dervishes form a circle and as their chanting increases in intensity, they start to turn in circles in the centre of the circle. Apparently the dhikr creates a state of ecstatic abandon in which the participant can communicate directly with God.

Phil also went to visit the supposedly well known camel market. Or at least he tried to do so, but after about 4 hours in the heat on several different buses and taxis he only managed to find a haggard camel whose owner offered him a camel ride. Despsite the disappointment, he at least managed to make a few friends through the experience who were trying to help a hopelessly lost 'khawaja'. 'Khawaja' is the Sudanese term for foreigner and with the 'k' is almost silent and sounds a bit like a very friendly 'how are ya?'

I didn't get called 'khwaja' much at all. With an ankle length skirt, long sleeved loose top and a head scarf, even I thought I looked Sudanese. Unfortunately, my modest outfit did not put off a group of Malaysian tourists staying at our hotel who had decided I was a prostitute and knocked on our hotel room twice when Phil was out to find out if they could 'join me' in bed. I declined their proposition and later, bumping into a few of them in the lobby, gave them a good telling off and received a few sheepish apologies. Hopefully they will think twice before doing that again.

After a few days in Khartoum it was time to head north. Our plan was to catch a bus to Atbara so we could stop on the way and visit the remains of the Meroitic temples of Naqa and Musawwarat es-Sufra and also visit the pyramids at Meroe. Sadly, misunderstandings due to our still shabby grasp of basic Arabic meant that we missed Naqa and the pyramids.

From Atbara we picked up the train that was going to take us to Wadi Halfa and from Wadi Halfa the plan was to get a ferry to Aswan in Egypt.

It was an overnight train journey but there are no 'sleeper' carriages so a first class ticket gets you one seat in a compartment seating six. Second class compartments seat eight. They separate men and women, even if you are married, so Phil and I were in different compartments. This was not really a bad thing as, after one night on the train, we had both managed to make friends with our fellow travellers.

I had a particularly good time talking to one young girl who told me that next year she was going to marry her uncle's son. She said he was 'ok' but didn't really want to marry him. When I told her that in Australia you aren't allowed to marry your cousin she decided that Australia was a wonderful place and said she would like to move there. We were chatting about the man she did like (as opposed to the one she was engaged to) when the train stopped fairly suddenly. There was some commotion and my new friend suddenly said to me, with more than a hint of alarm- "There is a problem! We must get off the train!"

As a train crisis veteran (New York, September 11: stuck in subway under the Wall Street station), you may think that I would have remained calm. I did not. After keeping my cool in New York in September 2001, I felt quite panicked in Sudan five years later. Passengers were streaming off the train and there was some hysteria in the air (besides my own) as babies were passed out of windows to passegers already outside. Assuming (correctly) that Phil would not share my sense of urgency, I went to his compartment and attempted to instil a sense of fear into him. I failed.

However, I did manage to instil in him a sense of horror that unless he left the train immediately I would continue screeching "Pheeel! Pheeeel! We have to get OFF THE TRAIN NOW!" for all eternity. As a man who values his sanity he decided to leave the train.

Once off, we discovered what the problem was - the train was on fire.

I could only state the obvious. "The train is on fire." "We are in the middle of the desert." "This is ridiculous."

Then, later a bit more helpfully . . . "Do we have enough water?"

As the fire was slowly being extinguished with the plentiful supply of sand as far as the eye could see, we found out that it was the engine that was burning. We were told that we would be stuck until a replacement engine was sent which could take anywhere between one to two more nights. This was not good news as our visas expired the at the end following day by which time we were supposed to be on board a ferry for Egypt. However, there wasn't anything we could do to improve our situation so, like the other passengers, we attempted to go to sleep in the sand.

We woke about six hours later to the sound of a new engine coming to rescue us. We were very lucky they managed to get the engine to the train in hours rather than days and with the new engine they got us to Wadi Halfa by noon on Wednesday 20 September. About 18 hours late but still in time to get the ferry to Egypt (leaving at 5pm) before our visas expired. We even had time to shower, or more accurately pour a bucket of water over our heads.

We stumbled through the immigration procedures confused but content with the knowledge that no matter how many wrong doors we opened we couldn't stuff up so badly that we would miss the ferry. The process was sped up somewhat when I was informed that, as a woman, I didn't have to stand in line. I was able to go straight to the front of long lines for stamps and forms etc with both my passport and Phil's. Nice to know that being a woman in Sudan has at least one perk.

Finally on the ferry we selected good spots on deck so we could sleep under the stars and said goodbye to Sudan as the boat motored for Egypt.

So, Sudan was certainly not what I had anticipated. The people were unexpectedly nice and the problems that we encountered were completely unrelated to a terrorist attack or arrest for alleged espionage- two of the several scenarios I had tortured myself with before the visit.

Phil loved it and was upset that we could only stay for seven days. He is already talking about the next trip . . .

We have been in Aswan for a few days now and we are heading north along the Nile to Luxor tomorrow. Next entry in about two weeks. Phil has posted all the photos from Ethiopia and will put up the photos from Sudan [and the south of Egypt] soon. Click here for the latest.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Update: Speeding through Sudan

As promised, this is a quick update to let you know that we got a transit visa to Sudan. We have to be in and out of the country within a week so by the time you read this we are probably already in Egypt.

I’ll post the next entry in a few weeks.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Northern Ethiopia . . . “You are an Ethiopian”

Growing up in Australia I associated Ethiopia with images of living skeletons on World Vision’s TV fund raising advertisements and the mid-80’s hit songs: 'We are the World' and 'Do they know it’s Christmas?' As a result, the expectation was that Ethiopia would be, in the words of the latter, “a world of dread and fear, where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears . . . where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow”.

So, it was somewhat of a surprise to visit northern Ethiopia, an area hard hit by famine in the 80s, and find wide, fast flowing rivers, pouring rain, green grass, crops and healthy livestock. That's not to say that Ethiopia's problems are over. There is a lot of on-going aid work here (which some claim is part of the problem), including food distribution. But in case there is anyone else out there who has been overly influenced by 80s pop music; I thought I should mention that the Christmas bells that ring in Ethiopia are not the “clanging chimes of doom.”

If anyone knows when it’s Christmas – it is an Ethiopian. There are several differing estimates of the percentage of Christians vs Muslims in Ethiopia, but it is generally accepted that the majority of Ethiopians are Christian. And Ethiopian Christians, particularly the Orthodox Christians, are some of the most religious you are likely to come across.

Northern Ethiopia is famous for, among other things, its ‘rock-hewn’ churches. These are churches that have been chiseled by hand out of huge chunks of rock. Our first stop in northern Ethiopia was a small town called Lalibela, home of several rock-hewn churches. We were shown around by our guide, Abeje, whose approach was to explain the history of the churches, the paintings on the walls and other decorations in the form of a Q&A session. “That is a picture of the Angel Gabriel. You know the story of Gabriel?” “And over here is a painting of a cock crowing. What did Peter do before the cock crowed?”

Phil, immersed in his quest for the perfect photo, wasn’t much help and it seemed that my answers (except perhaps on the Adam/Eve/Garden/Serpent/Apple story) were not quite to Abeje’s satisfaction as he soon asked suspiciously, “What religion are you?”

“Christian”, I responded feebly with the knowledge that I have seldom entered a church for reasons unrelated to a wedding, christening or funeral.

“Orthodox?” he asked with a mixture of skepticism and hope.

“No, just Christian.”

To which Abeje’s response was a look that I would have perhaps expected if I had admitted to drinking the blood of young children.

Eventually, Abeje got over the disappointment of leading ungodly tourists through several churches and we all managed to get through the day.

After Lalibela we visited more rock-hewn churches in the Tigray area on the way to Axum. Some of the Tigray churches could only be reached by hours of hiking that included scrambling up a cliff faces in what appeared to be an attempt to turn inaccessibility into an art form.

Even getting to the towns that were near these rock-hewn churches in the north was hard work, requiring several consecutive days on buses that only stopped once for food and perhaps for "urine" (as one bus driver enthusiastically announced). Luckily the scenery is spectacular enough to distract your attention for hours on end, despite the fact that the rolling hills of the north are dotted with rusty tanks - I assume left over from Ethiopia’s war with Eritrea.

Axum is the old capital of the Axumite kingdom - which from 4th century BC to 1st century AD, included Somalia, Eritria, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and parts of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. There are several tombs, palaces and 'stelae' - huge obelisks that they erected to mark graves (one of which was recently returned by the Italians after being looted from Axum by Mussolini in 1937). Axum also claims to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

Other than the ancient sights, Axum was much like any other town in Ethiopia. Like the others, it contained an inordinate number of shoe-shiners per capita. Ethiopians are obsessed with the quality and cleanliness of footwear. Perhaps it is the Italian influence?

Children not enterprising enough to set themselves up as shoe shiners followed us around Axum with makeshift drums and tambourines, clapping and singing. At first this was a welcome change from the cry of 'one Bir!' and 'give me money' but we soon realized that the children’s scam was to serenade you so loudly and for so long that you will pay them to go away.

Phil had to put up with these hassles on a much more regular basis than I did. In Ethiopia, if I am not walking with Phil and I keep my mouth shut, people assume that I am Ethiopian. In fact, one thing that has been consistent throughout our time in Ethiopia – north or south - is the absolute insistence of some Ethiopians that I am an Ethiopian.

People here generally take one look at me and speak to me in Amharic on the assumption that I know what they are talking about. I have even offended people by starting a conversation in English when I am “obviously Ethiopian”.

When this first happened I launched into a detailed description of my background “My father is from Ghana, West Africa. My mother is from Australia. I was born in Australia . . . blah blah blah.” This soon devolved into “Father-Ghana. Mother-Australia” or, a personal favourite that I picked up in Kenya and which seems to be generally understood in Africa: “vanilla-chocolate” or the Ethiopian equivalent "macchiato".

Light skin seems to be much prized in Ethiopia – perhaps more so than in the rest of Africa, if you use as your measure the number of advertisements for Fair and Lovely, a “skin lightening” cream’. Fair and Lovely, according to the ads can lighten your skin so that any difficulties you have getting a job and/or a boyfriend will be miraculously removed as your skin pales. While the western world tans some Africans 'lighten'.

Despite being mistaken for an Ethiopian, I haven’t (unfortunately for Phil) picked up the ability to be as agreeable as most Ethiopians. Ethiopians would have to be the most eager-to-please people we have ever met and ‘yes’ is generally answer to any question . . .

Phil: So there is no bus from Axum to Gonder?
Local: Yes
Phil: Yes, there is a bus?
Local: Yes
Phil: Where is the bus station?
Local: Yes
Phil: This bus here, is it to Gonder or Shire?
Local: Yes

Trouble finding the right bus in Ethiopia is not helped by the fact that Ethiopia has its own time based on 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness starting at 6am and 6pm respectively eg. our 7am is 1.00 o’clock Ethiopian time. While the Ethiopian clock took a bit of getting used to, I was quick to embrace the Ethiopian calendar, currently in 1998 putting me back in my 20s. I will be using this calendar exclusively forthwith.

Despite the general feeling of confusion which didn’t often leave us, we made it around the tourist loop in the north of Ethiopia back to Addis Ababa via Bahir Dar, where the main attractions were monasteries and the Blue Nile waterfall.

We are now back in Addis waiting for our Sudanese visas – notoriously difficult to obtain. After several “discussions” about whether we should (Phil) or should not (me) go to Sudan we reached a compromise and (if we get the visas) we have decided to travel straight through the north of Sudan to Egypt. Phil thinks Sudan will be one of the best African countries we visit. But Phil also thinks that “now would be a great time to visit Lebanon” so one has to question his sanity.

I'll post a brief update in a few days when we know whether the Sudanese government will let us in.

In the meantime, Phil managed to upload the rest of his photos from Kenya and the photos from Uganda including the gorillas. He is now in the process of loading some of his photos from Ethiopia. The connection isn’t great but he has managed to post some. Click on the 'Cape to Cairo Photos' link for the latest.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The long road to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia . . . “You! You!”

I was a bit apprehensive about our journey through the north of Kenya to the Ethiopian border. There is no scheduled bus service and the only way to get there is by private car or to hitch a ride on a transport truck. I overcame my fears of potential bandit attack, which Phil convinced me were groundless, and we hopped on a truck full of mattresses for the long journey to the border.

Phil was right, we travelled for 36 hours in the truck through desolate landscape – no bandits and hardly any people except the odd village populated by northern Kenyans and Somali refugees. Unfortunately, our poor driver, Abdubar, had to pay for this privilege at each of the fifteen police stops between Nairobi and the border. “No bandits – but the police are the same” he commented dejectedly as he shelled out another few Kenyan shillings.

I didn’t get much sleep on the journey as I was attempting to stay awake and (very discreetly) stare at Abdubar to make sure he did the same. Abdubar miraculously remained alert for the whole journey despite only stopping for three hours sleep in two nights – unlike a friend of his who recently crashed into a tree when he fell asleep at the wheel.

We made it to Ethiopia without any problems and began another long journey to the South Omo region. After turning down the opportunity to see dancing pygmies in Uganda because of the ‘human-safari’ factor, the first thing we did when we got to Ethiopia was to sign up for a human-safari. Ignoring our inconsistency, we were pretty excited that we had the opportunity to see some of the tribes in South Omo whose lifestyles, we were informed, had not changed much in the last few hundred years.

So, that is how we came to spend several days in dusty vehicles over several hundred kilometers and shell out a large amount of money . . . to find tribes practicing the purest form of capitalism imaginable. We wanted to take their photos and they wanted money. As a result our interaction with the villagers mainly consisted of them yelling “Photo, 2 Bir” and us trying to bargain for a better price. Nothing wrong with them getting money for their images, but the end result is a fairly soulless experience for us and, no doubt, for them too. One lump sum payment from tourists would have been more lucrative for them and more enjoyable for us, but that is not the way these visits are organized.

Despite being somewhat disillusioned with South Omo there were certainly some interesting moments that made the trip worthwhile. We won’t forget our visit to the Karo people where topless women with roof nails through the bottom of their lips were visibly shocked and horrified at my pierced belly-button. And I certainly won’t forget the two elderly Karo men who, while I was negotiating to take a photo of them, decided to use the opportunity to give my breasts a good squeeze before I yelped and scared them off.

Breasts were a bit of an obsession. When we visited a Mursi village a few days later I had several women (famous for their large lip plates) peeking down my top - I assume for comparative purposes but who knows.

Probably the most memorable occasion was our visit to the Hamer people, where we were lucky enough to see a ‘Bull Jumping’ ceremony. I was suspicious that the Hamer were putting on the ceremony for the benefit of tourists, but as soon as we arrived it was clear that was not the case.

The ceremony is an initiation ceremony performed by men before they marry. The star of the occasion is the ‘jumper’ who can be identified by his hairstyle. His afro is frizzed up so it appears something like a halo around his head. The main event of the day is when the jumper, stark naked, attempts to run over several bulls lined up in a row, while the people of the village yell in support.

The jumper is successful and is permitted to marry if he manages to run over the bulls four times without falling off. A fairly impressive feat given that the bulls often have butter smeared on their backs to make it all the more difficult. Although our jumper stumbled once, he was deemed a success and then I am sure the real celebrations began as we were herded out with the other tourists at lightening speed.

Prior to the jumping, the other ‘event’ is the whipping of women. And I don’t mean a tongue lashing, I mean actual whipping with long, thin, flexible branches. Although the thorns are removed before the whipping takes place, by the end of the day backs are severely slashed and bloody.

The meaning of all this was explained to us as follows . . . The men doing the whipping are previous successful ‘jumpers’ who have, therefore, graduated to be to be ‘beaters’. The women being whipped are not randomly chosen, they are the female relatives of the jumper (sisters, nieces, cousins, aunts, mother). The more they are whipped, the more pain they suffer for him and the more he feels their pain. The jumper will never forget the whipping of his female relatives and so he will never forget them, particularly those who were whipped until they bled and will carry the scars for the rest of their lives. For the Hamer woman - the more she is whipped, the more she shows her love for the ‘jumper’.

We saw women begging men to whip them and crying when the men refused or did not whip them hard enough to draw blood. The whipping was brutal and not easy to watch.

As I said, we certainly won’t forget South Omo.

After South Omo we started the long journey to Addis Ababa, stopping at Arba Minch on the way to see a couple of lakes. It was amazing to see how the country changed from visiting the tribes in Omo to our arrival in the city of Addis. We went from desert tribes to Italian food and wine in two days. Even the weather is different. It was hot and dry in Omo, but is raining daily here in Addis. The only constant was the greeting we got from the Ethiopian children.

Throughout Africa children have called out various things to us. They have chanted: “How are you? I am fine. How are you? I am fine.” They have yelled: “Mzungu! Mzungu!” They have demanded: “Give me money/pen/book.” They have asked: “What is my name?” (How the hell should I know, I thought, until I realized they meant: “What is your name?”) The Ethiopian children were truly unique, although perhaps not creative, and we were followed by the chant: “You! You!” . . . everywhere we went. This was sometimes interspersed with the odd “faranji” which is ‘foreigner’ in Amharic.

Despite the abrupt greeting from the kids, and some of the adults, we have found the Ethiopians to be some of the nicest most helpful people we have encountered on this trip. So, it is perhaps ironic, as well as really really annoying, that Ethiopia (specifically the market in Addis Ababa) is where Phil’s backpack was slashed and we were robbed of the tanzanite and diamond ring we bought in Tanzania.

We have spent some time at the police station reporting the theft to police. These visits have been very interesting. The police have been very helpful to us but not particularly kind to those they apprehend. One tip for travellers: If you don’t want a beating, don’t get arrested in Ethiopia.

That about gets you up to date. Sorry for the delay in posting but internet services in Ethiopia aren’t quite what they were in the rest of Africa. Phone services leave a bit to be desired as well and we haven’t been able to get an Ethiopian cell number. We are using Phil’s UK number again: +44 7733 268 304. Text is probably best.

We’re heading north tomorrow to Lalibela, Ethiopia’s ‘must see’ destination. I’m not sure when the next installment will be – it depends whether we can find a computer that allows us to post entries on the website. Phil is currently trying to post more photos without much success so it might not be for a while . . .

Friday, July 21, 2006

Forests and Gorillas, Uganda . . . "She is too fat!"

After paddling around Lake Bunyoni for a few days in canoes we decided that it was time for us to leave. Not a moment too soon, I thought, after that morning’s experience with our canoe hire. I had a few problems getting the most African part of my anatomy into the canoe, much to the amusement of the man hiring it to us.

Ohh Philip, what are you feeding her? She is too fat!” (Laughter) “She is too fat!” (Even more laughter)

Phil, wisely, remained silent while the man chuckled to himself and I attempted maintain both my dignity and a stony silence as I angled myself into the canoe.

That was the last we saw of Lake Bunyoni.

Our next stop was Kisoro. After days on water we decided to go for a walk up to the peak of one of the nearby volcanoes (inactive) in Mgahinga Forest. We were lucky enough to stumble across another Australian couple (Bruce and Kate) who planned to do the same thing so the four of us set off early one morning to conquer Gahinga peak. In addition to a guide we were assigned two escorts armed with AK47s. They weren't tagging along to protect us from guerrillas (as I suspected) but to protect us from wild animals.

The fact that people kill people does not surprise me, but I am not quite used to the risk, common in some parts of Africa, that animals can do you serious harm. I still find headlines such as yesterday's - Goat Killer Pythons Shot Dead Near Nursery Class – somewhat disturbing. So, I wasn’t happy to hear that, a few days before our walk at Mgahinga, a herd of buffaloes left the forest and went on a bit of a rampage in a nearby town killing one person and injuring a few others.

The guide was amused at my concern and reassured me that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. So I didn’t worry.

I didn’t worry when we heard some noises in the bushes and the guide whispered “buffaloes” as the escorts pulled their rifles from their shoulders. I didn’t worry when the buffaloes retreated into the forest and then were heard again minutes later ahead of us. I didn’t worry when the guide explained, “they have come to get us”. And I didn’t worry when one escort fired a warning shot to scare the buffaloes away.

Our guide was completely unconcerned and quite amused by the whole experience. Phil was very upset . . . that the buffaloes had not come close enough for him to get a photo. As for me, it was just another worry free day in Africa . . .

Leaving the buffaloes far behind we continued up to Gahinga peak, which included a great walk through a thick bamboo forest. The border between Uganda and Rwanda runs over Gahinga peak so once we got to the top we were able to step over into Rwanda.

We were not finished with forests after Mgahinga. Our next stop was "Bwindi Impenetrable Forest", also in southern Uganda. We spent a few days walking through Bwindi before we were booked in to "track" the gorillas. As with Mgahinga, during all walks in Bwindi we were accompanied by a guide and a couple of armed escorts.

Returning from a walk to the river our guide and escorts were just as surprised as we were when about thirty women came screaming towards us. They had come from the market on the path that lies within the National Park and had dropped the heavy sacks and baskets they were carrying on their heads in order to flee from some gorillas blocking the path. Apparently, the silverback had 'rushed' one of them. We continued along the path - we were following the guide and the women were following us.

It costs a small fortune to see the gorillas and we considered it a 'once in a lifetime' thing, so we were very excited about the prospect a bonus viewing. A few minutes later we found them relaxing on the path, a silverback, a few females and some baby gorillas. We were lucky enough to see them for about 15 minutes before they disappeared into the forest.

The following day was our scheduled gorilla tracking. It requires an early start and it is possible that you and the others in the group (limited to 8 so as not to disturb the gorillas too much) could track them for hours before they are found. In fact, some fellow travellers a few days earlier had the unheard of experience of tracking the gorillas all day but never seeing one. We were much luckier. About an hour after we began to bash our way through the jungle we found the gorilla group we were tracking.

After locating the gorillas, Park Rules permitted our group to stay with them for an hour. It was a really amazing experience. When we first saw the silverback he pounded his chest with his fists to let us know who was boss and then relaxed as we settled ourselves near his little harem. A couple of the younger "babies" imitated the cheast beating exercise, but it just didn't have the same effect. The young gorillas were swinging from branches, playing and fighting with each other while the women sat back with pensive looks watching us watching them. The behaviour and expressions of the gorillas are so like human beings it is remarkable. There were a few who resembled people I know- but I’m not going to name names. Our hour was up quickly and although we would have liked to have spent the day with our new hairy friends, we had to leave.

We left the gorillas, the forests and Uganda - crossing the border back into Kenya. Since we returned to Kenya on 18 July we have not been able to use our Ugandan mobile number. Apologies to anyone who has tried to contact us on that number.

We are now back in Nairobi but we are off to Ethiopia in the next day or two. I will post our Ethiopian contact number as soon as we have it, provided we have internet access. I am not sure how soon we will have access to the internet in Ethiopia as we may take a detour or two on the way to Addis Ababa. So, the next entry might not be for a few weeks.

In the meantime, Phil has posted his photos from Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania and Lamu in Kenya and hopes to post photos from the rest of Kenya and Uganda in about a week. Click here to see the latest.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

From Lake to Lake to Lake, Kenya & Uganda . . . "Where is your husband?"

A few weeks ago we turned our backs on the Indian Ocean and went inland. However, it seemed that we were destined to follow the water wherever we went. Leaving Nairobi we first found ourselves at Lake Naivasha, then Lake Nakuru (both in Kenya’s Rift Valley) and finally at Lake Bunyoni in Uganda.

It sounds like a repetitive choice of destinations but about the only thing these three Lakes had in common was water. Lake Naivasha was a bit murky and we avoided it altogether, instead opting to mountain bike through the nearby Hell’s Gate National Park. I am not sure where the name came from. It was nothing like Hell – unless your idea of Hell is a place heavily populated by birdwatchers and the odd zebra. We had a very pleasant ride, until Phil got a puncture. Faced with a 16km walk back to our camp in the early afternoon heat we decided the best idea would be to hitch.

The first vehicle that stopped for us was a minibus full of people. “Can we fit on the bus with both our bikes? Is it possible?” I sceptically asked the man attempting to usher us into the bus. He looked at me as if not quite understanding why anyone would ask such a stupid question and replied as if it stating the obvious, “This is Africa, anything is possible.” As immediate proof he managed to get us and our bikes in/on the bus and we were on our way.

Northwest of Lake Naivasha is Lake Nakuru, another lake that is not geared towards water sports. Lake Nakuru forms part of a National Park and is covered by thousands of flamingos and surrounded by buffalo, antelope, rhinos, lions and other animals. Another safari drive was in order. You know when you have been on one safari drive too many when you start telling the guide about the gestation period of an elephant. I think that will be our last safari for some time.

Leaving Lake Nakuru we stopped briefly at a Kenyan town called Eldoret. Eldoret’s primary merit from our point of view was its cheese factory. Somewhat over excited we purchased about a kilogram of different cheeses and attempted to finish it all in one day. This was a mistake, but we had no time to recover from our error and hopped on the next bus to Kampala, Uganda.

Another country. Another border crossing. This crossing went very smoothly with immigration officials stamping passports and processing visas very quickly. All was well until the bus pulled out of the car park. I stood up somewhat confused. “Ummm . . . Errhh . . .” I said as looked around randomly for some help. The bus driver turned his head at the disturbance. My face must have clearly portrayed my predicament . . .

Bus driver (yelling): Where is your husband? Where is your husband? Where is he?

Interesting question. I had seen Phil outside the bus looking vaguely around him just minutes before but he had since disappeared.

Bus driver (still yelling): Where is your husband?!

I fought the urge to yell back - “He is not my husband!” – realizing that, at this stage, it was mere semantics. Instead I concentrated my efforts on trying to convince the bus driver to wait for Phil to reappear. He was not impressed.

Driver (more yelling): We are leaving this place. We are going now!

This was a clear challenge. I was somewhat torn between (a) the desire to congratulate him on his effort at punctuality in a continent where that virtue is sadly lacking and (b) the need to stop the bus and find Phil.

Luckily, I was not forced to make a decision. Phil returned. He had been “looking around.” The bus took off and we were on our way into Idi Amin’s former domain – now known as one of the friendliest countries in Africa, if you avoid the rebels (Lord’s Resistance Army) in the north.

We decided to avoid the LRA and went south to Lake Bunyoni. Finally, a lake we could swim in. We spent a few days swimming and canoeing around the various islands on the Lake, one of which was known as Punishment Island. Punishment Island is a tiny island with one tree. Unmarried pregnant women used to be left there to die as punishment for engaging in premarital sex. They had one hope of rescue – if a man could not afford an 'untainted' bride he was permitted to pick one up from Punishment Island. Nice.

To take a bit of a break from island hopping we went to a nearby market on a speed boat. Unfortunately the market was virtually non-existent. In an effort to salvage the afternoon our driver/guide asked whether we "would like to go and see the short people". We took this as a suggestion that we visit a pygmy (Batwa) village. During our travels we have generally avoided the oohh-look-how-the-Africans-live type activities. However, we really enjoyed visiting a Himba village in Namibia so we asked the driver what this Batwa village visit would entail. We were informed that the Batwa people would put on an impromptu dance for tourists for a small fee.

Dancing pygmies seemed a bit too human-safari-ish to us so we declined, much to the disappointment of the local Batwa chief who beckoned us over tastefully dressed in a dusty pinstriped suit and a red Santa hat with white trim. As they say, in Africa – anything is possible.

Forests, gorillas and more of Uganda in the next entry which will be in about a week. Phil has some more safari shots on his photos website so click on the 'Cape Town to Cairo Photos' link to see the latest.