Lost passport, friendship, volcanos and other planets! (Ethiopia to Sudan)
A stranger is a friend you've never met before
That stranger attitude proved mighty efficient in what should have been described throughout last weeks blog. And by the way: Sorry for not posting a blog last week. Life on the Saga has been quite hectic for a while which you're soon about to see. And when you combine that with near hopeless internet connections and a lack of sleep...well...
So if you're not up to date on the Saga then we had reached 124 countries all without flying or returning home. No cheating here. It has been quite an adventure and last week I had just left Djibouti in Eastern Africa and entered Ethiopia once again. Ethiopia was country number 122 before we entered Somalia and Djibouti. Now Ethiopia was basically a transit country in order for us to reach Sudan. But something went wrong!
Sharing fresh groundnuts with the guy next to me in the bus.
I reached Addis Ababa...well tired after a very long journey from Djibouti! I somehow summoned the strength to head over to the booking offices where I secured a ticket for onward travel to Mekele in the north of Ethiopia. After I paid for the ticket I checked my pocket and noticed that my passport was MISSING?!? I then immediately checked EVERYTHING! You know how you don't panic immediately, while you just hope that whatever you've lost for some odd reason is in another pocket or on the floor behind you? It wasn't with me!!! This was a first for the Saga!! Something which had never happened before! I have never ever lost my passport! Horrific!
The idyllic sight of corn being harvested was visible for several hours. I hear that khat is replacing corn for more and more farmers.
Where could I have lost it? I had no idea? Come on Thor! Think about it. Wake up. Rational thinking: My passport had to be in Ethiopia or else I wouldn't have been! I remembered taking it out of my pocket at a checkpoint between the Djibouti border and Dire Dawa in East Ethiopia. I also remember showing it to a guy in the bus. His name was Said. Said is from Djibouti and was traveling with his mother, planing to stay 2 weeks in Dire Dawa. When the bus reached Dire Dawa Said and I had already become friends and he showed me a hotel nearby the terminal. I was so tired that I could barely stand. I then said farewell to Said and checked in. That night I barely managed to get something to eat and brush my teeth before the alarm rang and it was 03:30am. Time to get up...I left the hotel after checking my room for forgotten items. That is a routine I have developed long ago. It was dark outside. A tuctuc (Bajaj) got me to the bus and 11 hours later I was in Addis Ababa...
I don't like coffee. But in Ethiopia I do.
Was there any way my passport could have been at the hotel in Dire Dawa? What was the name of the hotel? I had no receipt? But really?!? I don't remember giving the hotel my passport? It was more likely that it would be in the bus!! Oh no? I hope not! If that was the case then I would never see it again. My brain was in pain and I'm sure smoke was rising from my head. I could find a way to manage without the passport. There's a Danish diplomatic mission in Ethiopia, which can issue a new passport for me. It would be difficult, but possible. However I could not do without the SUDANESE VISA in my passport! I felt like crying. Why this? Why now?!?
Njera is the stable food of Ethiopians.
In Addis Ababa a guy named Mitiku was trying to help me at the booking office, where I had just bought my onward ticket for Mekele. Mituku thought I might have lost the passport in the bus from Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa. I didn't believe that was plausible, but he worked on that for 45 minutes until he confirmed it wasn't the case. Then he helped me for about an hour as we tried to work out which hotel it could have stayed at? We googled photos of hotels. Mission impossible! Dire Dawa has tons of hotels. Meanwhile I was trying to contact Said! Said and I had exchanged contact details, but knowing he was from Djibouti he might not be reachable for the 2 weeks he was going to be in Ethiopia? I tried to add him on FB, I sent him a WhatsApp message and I called his Djibouti number several times. COME ON SAID!! I finally decided to return my ticket to Mekele and bought another one to return to Dire Dawa - 11 hours in the wrong direction! And with no real lead other than "hopefully I could find the hotel"? That was a heavy decision, but it also had to be the right one.
(There are 2 daily flights from Addis to and from Dire Dawa - just to add to the pain).
While in the metro, on my way to my host family in Addis Ababa, my phone suddenly rang. IT WAS SAID!! I told him what was going on and he gave me the name of the hotel (Garany). But furthermore he quickly made his way to the hotel and soon called me back: "I've got your passport!" YES!! Way to go Said! We then tried to decide what was better: 1) send it to Addis Ababa? or 2) I would return and collect it? Although far less elegant we decided I should return. After all, it's my passport and too valuable.
I'm not fond of extra transportation. Backtracking falls into that category in a very real and uninteresting way. At this point of the Saga we have covered more than 160,000km (100,000mi) which at times feels like enough. But here I was adding another 11 hour bus ride to the fun. When I reached Dire Dawa I was told that all the busses back to Addis Ababa were booked out for the following day. "Sorry, do you want a ticket for Tuesday?" No I did not want a ticket for Tuesday thank you very much. I wanted to get my passport, go to sleep and leave the next day. So this nice guy behind the counter told me to come by the terminal around 04:30am the next morning and we would try to sort something out... I have friends with children. These friends are severely sleep deprived. I wonder if there is any comparison?
Hoping to get a seat in the bus.
I got up at 04:00am and it all worked out. I think I got the stewards seat? It went for the same rate as a normal ticket and 12 hours later the bus rolled into Addis Ababa again. As tired as I could be I still headed over to secure an onward ticket to Mekele. But I had arrived too late - the offices were all closed. I then met up with Michele whom I had first met in Djibouti. Michele is quite the adventurous Italian who takes great photos and had an encounter with a bear (yes!) in his small hometown village. This is how he found himself in the Swiss newspaper "20min", which just so happened to be the same issue as the Saga was featured in. Small world? Anyway, we had a good time in Djibouti and since we were both in Addis Ababa now, we met up again and enjoyed some well deserved Ethiopian beer!
Then I got on the metro again. An hour later I had returned to my "Ethiopian family" just outside Addis. I was well received like the many times before, I was well fed like every other time and I slept like a baby...until 03:45am when the alarm rang. A taxi brought me to Meskel Square where the busses leave from - I secured a last minute ticket to Mekele and then an 18 hour bus ride began.
I cannot describe how amazing these 2 are. It is extraordinary!!
The bus broke down twice which surprised me. In Western Africa every vehicle broke down at least once during transport. But I honestly can't remember the last time a bus broke down? Africa is a vast continent and I cannot stress enough how much diversity it contains. There is very little resemblance from one area to the next. And development would surprise most people I think. But we did break down...twice.
I had this fellow staring at me for a good time.
Mekele looks like a very fine town and I would have loved to explore it further. But I arrived late and had book a 4 day tour through http://www.ethiotravelandtours.com (E.T.T). It's highly recommendable! Prices for the 4 days start at $600 but can be negotiated. It's way out of my $20/day budget, but I had to see this! Erta Ale is a highly active volcano which you can walk straight up to and see the bubbling lava lake. Then there were the salt flats, the Afar tribes, the Danakil Depression and the other worldly sulphuric lakes. This isn't your average stuff! My visa for Ethiopia was running on its last few days before it would expire - but I had time for this (however not the money). Ethiopia holds so many mysterious and wonderful sights. I didn't get to go to Axum, to Lalibella or to a number of other places. But I did get this 4 day tour. As I mentioned it was late when I reached Mekele. I found a cheap bed, some street food and went to bed.
The next morning I met up with E.T.T. and they teamed me up with Mike and Sara from Ireland. They both quit their jobs to go and travel the world and I might actually run into them later on in Asia? We were also teamed up with Tim from the Netherlands, a scientist who specializes in nutrition. Our driver was Bela from Ethiopia who used to work for the UN and together the 5 of us formed team 6. This was the best team out of 10 vehicles. It's true! The best. Really amazing and with a YUUUGE impact. But no walls what so ever.
I see why so many people fall in love with Ethiopia. It truly is an extraordinary country which has an abundance to offer all its visitors. And I believe I'll return some day with my future family - because they need to know. Team 6 and the other 9 vehicles were a bit unlucky with Erta Ale. Now, Ethiopia isn't the only place in the world where you can stare into an active volcano. Hawaii, Nicaragua and DR Congo are in the same category. But that wasn't where we were. Erta Ale was erupting which made it more dangerous. Not really dangerous though. But we couldn't go to the edge, because the sides had collapsed and fallen into the fierce volcano. Interestingly enough a completely new lava lake had formed not far away. So new that it is yet to be given a name.
Not really my style. But if you're first out of the vehicle you can get a photo without people in it.
We drove on a superb road from Mekele towards the Danakil. Then we turned off onto some less favorable roads and finally ended up walking for several hours in the dark across lava stone.
The brittle fresh lava stone was sharp as a razor blade.
Eventually we reached only 6 day old lava stone which is rather brittle and "crunches" when you walk on it. It very much feels like you could break through at any time. And sometimes we would. But we never dropped more than knee deep. At one point we were completely engulfed in toxic fumes which had us all coughing, our eyes running and our throats sore. That went in for ours. Tim reminded me of a story he had heard, where entire groups died from volcanic fumes. Thank you Tim ;) We had police and military escort along with the group. They advised us to stop about 500m (1,500ft) from the lava lake.
It was a little more clear with the naked eye.
So we did get to see it, but from quite a distance. 40 minutes later we were walking again and went to sleep on the volcano around 2am. Fortunately with less fumes and with a lot of harsh wind. A few hours later we woke up to make our way back down again. It was quite the adventure - but debatable worthwhile the hassle.
Michele felt sorry for me so he edited me in on his own photo from weeks before :)
The days went on and we saw "it all". It's a rather good tour and E.T.T. do a great job out of coordinating it. The volcano part of the trip will fall into place again once Erta Ale settles down a bit.
An Afar village. Nomadic people.
Mining for salt. You won't believe the heat!!
On our 4th day team 6 and everyone else returned to Mekele. We had a good nights rest and the next morning Tim and I were on our way again. Sara and Mike stayed behind in Mekele for a few more days. Tim and I had secured a ride with one of E.T.T.'s vehicles, which was on its way to Lalibella presumably to pick up some guests. That would bring me almost halfway to Gondar from where I could reach the Sudanese border. When we reached the turnoff to Lalibella Tim and I parted. But I think we'll meet again someday in the Netherlands.
I continued in another 4WD until I got in a minibus which lead me to another minibus and 15 hours later I was in Gondar. Gondar is famously known for several sights including its castle. But I was out of time. I had a sandwich from the street, found a place to sleep and the next morning I was with another minibus heading to the Sudanese border.
One of these cuties is the daughter of the immigration officer.
It had been a bit of a hassle to obtain the Sudanese visa, but now that I had it crossing the border was easy. Farewell Ethiopia and hello Sudan. Out of Eastern Africa and back into Northern Africa. We haven't been in Northern Africa since April 2015 and now we are coming full circle.
I couldn't believe the heat in Sudan!! The cool breeze of Ethiopian mountain air stood in contrast to the Sudanese lowlands. And it's winter in Sudan right now!! Once in Sudan I immediately continued towards Al Qadarif to spend the night there. I minibus brought me and if you are ever to copy that then make sure you bring plenty of water. I was dehydrating rapidly. Looking through the window I could see the landscape passing by. It was mostly farmland with endless fields of dry looking crops. It looked like corn. Truly endless on both sides of the road. This must surely be able to feed a lot of people? Once in a while I would spot a green John Deere harvester. I wish I had a photo of the modern harvester I saw parked next to a group of traditional round huts. The world is truly contrasted...
That was a rather long blog. I hope you enjoyed it. We are now facing some serious challenges regarding our next country, which is Eritrea. It's a rather secluded country which is notorious for keeping its visas close to the body. But frequently travelers obtain their visas and fly in. Going overland adds to the difficulty so this will be interesting.
I'll leave you with this: No matter where I have gone or whom I have met, I have gathered no evidence which contradicts that; people are just people. And here we are inside country number 125. Welcome to Sudan.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - feeling the progress
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga