The Smoke That Thunders

It was half past four in the afternoon and we’d just crossed the border into Zambia.  The cab of Delilah was filled with a warm evening breeze as we descended through expansive rain-forest into Mpulungu; a small fishing village nestled amidst the beautiful Lake Tanganyika.  As we arrived at the port we were greeted by the sight of the historic MV Liemba.

Photo courtesy of theroadrising as some of my photos have been stolen.

Photo courtesy of theroadrising as some of my photos have been stolen.

She is the last remaining vessel of the Kaiserliche marine, a relic of WW1 still plying her trade as a passenger/cargo vessel despite being scuttled twice.  After a quick round-up of the weekly football with the customs officials we took a quick tour to admire her fine lines and fantail stern.  A crowd of people buzzed around the vessel loading the last of an eclectic mix of cargo and saying their final farewells before she was to sail.

Mining

Back with Delilah, Richard had discovered yet another shock absorber had cracked under the stress of the road.  It was late and we still had a long drive to Lusaka so we found two rooms at a local inn: I set about doing general maintenance, Matt acquired some ice cold beers, and Richard went to find a welder for our shock absorber.  In the morning we awoke with the sun to load up and hit the road early.  It was incredibly straight disappearing over the horizon.  The road passed through several gigantic agricultural fields’ evidence of the government’s extensive farming program.  On the whole Zambia felt far more developed and relaxed compared to Tanzania.  The contrast was striking.

Zambia Road

Further on we joined the main motorway cutting across Zambia.  Trucks loaded with massive pieces of mining equipment appeared.  It was a quiet reminder of the enormous projects underway in the copper belt of Northern Zambia.  The afternoon brought a huge thunderstorm.  Through driving rain and lightning, we arrived late that night at Fringilla Farm run by Alex a friend of Matt and Charlie.  He very generously gave us beer, steak and warm beds for the night.  We were to leave Matt and Charlie here whilst we went on to Livingstone.

Bungee

Over Christmas we had seen some respite from the wet season; however the rains had returned with a vengeance throwing down a vast deluge of water.  Zambia’s parks are usually some of the best places to find illusive leopard but with most parks washed out we wouldn’t have the opportunity to find out.  In Livingstone, we had set up camp by the waterfront hotel with the express aim of finding a New Year party worthy of our expectations.  In the hotel bar we joined a motley crew of aid workers, two hilarious Zambian brothers and a big group of Capetonians who ensured the party got off to a flying start.  The drinks were flowing and by midnight everyone had been in the pool, by choice or not.

Vic falls

The next few days were slow, even after the haze of alcohol had cleared.  Richard was growing increasingly frustrated with the weather as the rain continued.  We moved base to Jolly boys’ backpackers; a slightly livelier location in the center of town.  Here we found ample distractions editing video, meeting fellow travelers at the bar, and readying Delilah for the next stage of the trip.

White water rafting

On the 4th of January the rains cleared and we threw off our shackles wasting no time in sampling all Livingstone had to offer.  If we weren’t admiring the mighty falls of Mosi-Oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) we were frenetically flinging ourselves off the railroad bridge, battling through the rapids of the mighty Zambezi, or eating crocodile.  We also tried the local delicacy, fried mopane worms, a dish better left to times of famine.  Despite the damp start our two weeks in Livingstone proved delightful making it hard to leave.

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Silver linings

It had been a nervous night waiting the outcome of Delilah’s electronic repairs.  An early wake up call heralded the arrival of Julius.  Within thirty minutes he’d worked his magic on Delilah fixing the starter motor and the electronic short.  We didn’t understand what he’d done but normal service had been resumed.  We thanked Julius and without any demands he disappeared into the morning mist.  Astounded by this show of generosity we set off for the hour drive to Katavi national park.  On the river crossing we pulled into Camp river side to admire their cluster of hippos amassed in the meander outside the camp site.  Katavi is famed for its hippo population.  There were a few hundred hippo is the pool before us, a long way off the record of 2,500.  Still they made an impressive sight snorting and chortling to one another.  Wanting to make the most of our twenty four hour park permit we set up camp before signing in at the gate.  Our first port of call was the Katisunga Mbunga plains where there were frequent lion sightings.  On the drive down we had our first encounter with the dreaded Tsetse fly.  A viscous, stubborn insect, with a bite that can penetrate jeans.  To our dismay they were drawn to Delilah’s blue and black colour scheme.  Soon the cab was full of them.  In a futile attempt to rid ourselves of the pest we wound up the windows and hot boxed the car with deet.  Fortunately they relented and we were able to resume our search for wildlife.
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The edge of the savannah was dotted with muddy pools full of wallowing hippo.  Topi, impala, giraffe and more hippos dotted the plains.  We stopped at Katuma Tented lodge to grab a drink and ask the staff about lions and cheetah.  They suggested we head over to Lake Chada for big cats and wild dog.  The drive took us around Ikuu ranger post and the Katuma river where crocodiles, warthog and fish eagles were added to the growing list of wildlife on show. Around lake chada a line squall blew in dramatically reducing the likelihood of any big cat sightings.  The area around Lake Chada was fairly devoid of anything worthwhile so we made our way back to the Katisunga Mbunga plains before nightfall forced us out of the park.  It was an early night as we wanted to make the most of an early start the next day.  Spirits high, we slipped our moorings at 5.30 am setting our sights on Katuma lodge.  Circling the plains again we encountered a pod of hippo stampeding beside the road in between mud pools.  They were surprisingly nimble for such large animals.  Images of the hippo ballet from Fantasia came to mind.  At Katuma lodge we’d missed a pride of lions with their cubs by a matter of hours!
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Disappointed with our early start we made our own decision to potter down around the airfield then across to the Eastern side of the park.  Near the Ikuu airfield large herds of buffalo roamed the grasslands, whereas along the Katuma river countless herds of giraffe filled the road, and groups of zebra flanked Delilah.  The explosion of wildlife re-ignited our enthusiasm.  Our permit expired at 11am but a chance encounter with Steve and Carolin persuaded us to buy another 24 hour pass.  Their verdict was Katavi was better than the Serengeti.  This time however we were to explore the northern reaches of the park around the Katavi plains.  Two hours were wasted chasing ghosts; as Steve and Carolin’s lion sighting had clearly moved on.  However, it brought us to the Katavi plains lined with a thick band of yellow flowers and an abundance of elephants.  The vastness of the plains alone was mesmerising, and we had it all to ourselves, no other tourists at all.  Returning to camp we were treated, quite by surprise, to some famous Arab hospitality.  Hamed, a Tanzanian Omani, and his family invited us to join their barbecue.  Frustratingly their afternoon had been full of lion sightings. Later we joined them near the river side to watch the hippos emerge from their pool for some night time grazing.
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That night the tent was surrounded by the chomping and grunting of hungry hippos.  One bold hippo gave Richard a midnight fright, as he emerged from the tent he was confronted by a large black mass staring back at him.  Needless to say, he survived his encounter and the next morning we joined Hamed and his family on the road to the Katavi plains.  They’d offered to help us find some lion so we set off in hot pursuit of their two land cruisers.  The herds of elephants in the plains appeared to have multiplied, now numbering in the hundreds with more pouring out of the tree line by the minute.  The elephants of Katavi are particularly timid so they were not impressed by our small convoy trundling down the road.  Suddenly we were inundated with elephants retreating back into the tree line.  Trumpeting as they went.  Around 11 pm we parted ways with Hamed and his family as they had to return to Mpanda.  He left us insisting we visit him in Sumbawanga.  We still had a few hours left on our permit so we decided to try our luck around Lake Katavi.  The road became increasingly boggy. We had been warned the rain had made the outer reaches of the park inaccessible.  The road soon got the better of us and we were stuck for the second time this trip.  Unfazed we hoped out of the car joking this wouldn’t be a good time to see our lion.  Within 20 minutes we had freed ourselves.  Covered in pungent mud the prospect of a cool swim in the crystal clear waters of Lake Tanganiyka was too much to resist.
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The drive to Kipili took three hours following a winding road down to the lake shore.  At lake shore lodge we were welcomed by Chris and Louise with cold beers.  Steve and Carolin had beaten us there and generously allowed us to share their campsite since all the camp sites were fully booked for Christmas.  We’d come here on the recommendation of our friends Jaap and Matt who had visited just a few weeks before.  A gorgeous location with sweeping views of the world’s second largest fresh water lake.  The mountains of the DRC sat mysteriously on the opposite shore.  With only a few days until Christmas we decided to stay put rather than push Delilah over 1,314 km of poor roads to Cape McClear in Malawi.  Besides this lake was as good as any.  Our decision was rewarded in full.  On Christmas eve Chris and Louise led us up to the ruins of an 18th century church overlooking the lake.  Here the local choir performed a series of Christmas carols for us and the other guests.  Thereafter a fantastic spread of food was laid on back at the lodge.  In the morning everyone awoke to stockings full of gifts from Santa who had dutifully done his rounds.  Gabriella, in particular, delighted in the sled trail on the beach.  The spirit of Christmas was alive and well at Lakeshore lodge.
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That afternoon Chris appeared with a mischievous grin on his face as he handed out tasters for his latest cocktail.  Soon a group of us had joined him around the bar offering various input for the evening cocktail.  A little later an English couple, Matt and Charlie managing another nearby lodge, joined us with their flask of mald wine.  Suitably lubricated, Chris and Louise piled us into the boats for the evening surprise.  They sped us all out onto the middle of the lake where we watched the sun set behind the misty mountains of the DRC. A fantastic evening followed back at the lodge with tequila omelettes and much more merry making.  Sporting hangovers from the night before, boxing day was somewhat more subdued.  In the afternoon we joined Steve, Carolin, Gabriella and  Madeline for some outstanding snorkelling in the waters of lake Tanganyika.  The lake holds 98% of the 250 species of cichlids giving it a phenomenal array of underwater fauna.  The prospect of a Lakeshore lodge new year was very tempting but we needed to get a move on if we were to remain on schedule so the next day we departed.  On the front gate of Lake shore lodge is written: “Arrive as guests, leave as friends”, which couldn’t be truer.
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With room to spare we offered Matt and Charlie a ride to Lusaka.  We had a large distance to cover that day so Richard sent a message ahead to Hamed thanking him for his hospitality but explaining we couldn’t stop for long in Sumbawanga.  As we pulled into the town for some fuel a police checkpoint stopped us.  Never a good sign.  The officer approached the window informing us: “someone wants to talk to you”.  He pointed across the road to where there stood a grinning Hamed.  In a fantastic show of generosity he’d taken time out of his friday prayers to take us for lunch at his house and show us around the town.  He even offered to give Delilah a free service at his bus depot.  The genuine kindness was so exceptionally selfless we felt guilty accepting the boxes of food he gave us when we left.  The Tanzanian-Zambian border was very quiet especially the Zambian side, which was marked by locked gate in the middle of green fields.  Perplexed by the lack of customs and immigration buildings we looked around until we spotted two lackadaisical immigration officers snoozing in the shade of a mango tree.  The customs official was on holiday so we had to drive to Mpulungu for customs clearance, which seemed a little pointless but ‘this is Africa’.  Our first taste of  Zambia.
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The road less travelled

With its jagged shoreline surrounded by stepped hills Lake Bunyoni provided the perfect getaway after the drama of the past day.  We spent one night relaxing along its edge before moving to a backpacker lodge called Byoona Amagara on Itambira Island.  By day we enjoyed the cool waters of the lake, the budding birdlife, and sweeping views of its misty waters.  In the evening we sampled the delights of the Byoona Amagara kitchen and sat around socialising with the other backpackers by the light of paraffin lamps.  Sadly in the morning we had to part ways with our new found friends, which included Eva and Linda who had a week before they flew out of Uganda from Entebbe.  Returning to Delilah the car felt somewhat empty without them.  It also heralded our departure from Uganda; a lovely country full of variety that has successfully emerged from a dark chapter in its history.  Our next stop was another country with a dark history, Rwanda.  We’d heard great things from passing overlanders about the country but really didn’t know what to expect.
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Flying down partly potholed tarmac the trip to the border took no time at all.  At the Ugandan customs there was another attempt to extort money from us.  Fortunately the officials returned our stamped papers before demanding money.  So shrugging my shoulders and pleading ignorance I slipped out of the office behind a large group of truck drivers.  The Rwandan side of the border sported a series of swanky new buildings, well organised, housing smartly dressed officials who were very welcoming and efficient.  Being an ex-Belgium colony we had to move back to the right hand side of the road before moving on.  The road wound along the valley floor next to large tea plantations occasionally climbing up to passes seated between the hills.  The skyscrapers of central Kigali soon appeared high on a series of hills before us.  The capital of Rwandan was like a well organised first world city with traffic lights that people abided by, brilliant motorways, shopping malls, and CCTV on a scale similar to London or Singapore.  Navigating our way around the rougher backroads of the city we finally found St Paul’s church.  With our limited french we were able to secure a room for the night.  Laying in bed the gentle lullaby of Christmas Carols resonated around the gardens.
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The next morning Richard decided to sleep in whilst I ventured into the city centre to change some money and visit the genocide museum.  To gain an appreciation of Rwanda today it was necessary to gain an insight into their history.  Since Belgian colonialism the Tutsi and Hutu had faced a turbulent existence.  When granted independence a Hutu government came to power abolishing the Tutsi monarchy, exiling thousands of Tutsi activists and making the remaining Tutsi second class citizens.  Cycles of confrontation between the two tribes followed fermenting hatred and distrust.  On April 6th 1994, this boiled over when president Habyarimana was shot down in the presidential plane and killed.  Within hours interhamwe militia began storming the streets of Kigali massacring Tutsi and moderate Hutu, beginning one of the worst genocides in recent history.  The violence spread across the country killing men, women and children in an ultimate show of barbarism.  It took one hundred days for the RPF (Rwandan peoples front) to sweep the incumbent MRND from power and end the genocide; in which time it is estimated 800,000 to 1.1 million Rwandans lost their lives. It was a macabre morning witnessing the true depths of human depravity.  The exhibition was fascinating but terribly depressing; an abyss of negativity I needed to escape.
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The sunlight atop the city centre was a welcome relief allowing some time to reflect.  Walking around the peaceful streets of present day Kigali it was impossible to imagine no less than twenty years ago this country was ostensibly dead.  Testament to Rwanda’s incredible transformation.  The present government have conducted a successful process of sweeping away tribalism, forging a national identity, and reconciling the huge injustice most of the population were involved with.  Whilst walking around I got talking to Joseph, one of the many magazine touts plying their trade.  Since joining the East African trade bloc all young Rwandans were being taught English rather than French at school.  He was the same age as me and was only six years old when he witnessed his neighbours murder his parents.  He told me that he had forgiven them but he still found it very difficult to wake up every day and wave good morning to them.  This outlined to me that the tranquil order of Rwanda belied deep and powerful social undercurrents that could easily re-surface.  I left Joseph at the gates to the Hotel des Milles Collines (The Hotel Rwanda) with these thoughts swilling around my head.  Inside I joined Richard for lunch where we did a little more planning for our onward journey.
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The following day Delilah had to go in for some repairs, most importantly to the fuel filter bracket.  Other repairs would have to wait as the spare parts were not available.  The work was finished some time in the afternoon too late to make any reasonable progress before nightfall.  We had spent longer in Rwanda than we had intended and time was running out if we wanted to avoid being stranded for Christmas.  We highlighted Lake Malawi as the best bet for Christmas.  Rather than going via the Tanzanian coast we decided that the spirit of adventure dictate we stick to the road less travelled.  On the morning of the 19th December we woke up early and set off for the border marked by a huge waterfall running along a vast plinth of rock.  The Tanzanian border wasn’t as welcoming as Rwanda but it was just as efficient.  By 1pm we had left the tarmac and were cruising down the B8 along the border with Burundi.  Sadly this meant missing out on Tabora.  The birth place of my grandfather and the historic centre of the East African slave trade.  Not that the two were related.
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We found a suitable speed of about 70 kph allowing us to fly over the light corrugations and through the sloped corners.  Enroute we gave two army officers a lift to the nearest town feeling they could be useful friends should we have any trouble.  They were delighted to hear Richard was also in the army.  Slightly further on we encountered a Canadian family trundling down the road in their land cruiser.  Steve, Carolin and their two daughters Gabriella and Madeline were also heading for Lake shore lodge in Kipili.  We stopped for the night in Kisulu, a sparse transit town on the road to Kisomo.  Here we learnt from the manager of the hostel it wasn’t safe to travel at night.  Refugees in the surrounding area from the conflicts in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo included bandits who plied their trade at night.  The next day we resumed our journey South along the B8 to Mpanda wary of this warning.
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On the Eastern edge of Tanzania the road carved its way through expansive forest weaving through large rock piles covered in moss and trees.  Most of East Africa had been in rainy season since we’d hit Addis so it wasn’t surprising to see thunderclouds on the horizon shortly after lunch.  Heavy rain soon followed causing the road to erupt into a muddy torrent of thick red mud.  Nonetheless Delilah had no trouble dealing with the conditions as she splashed through the mud covering herself in a glorious coat of African red.  Half-way between Mpanda and Kisulu the road became particularly bad.  Engaging high-diff we trucked on until we encountered a Toyota pick-up blocking our path.  A group of locals were busy trying to free the pick-up from the mud.  It was time to deploy the kinetic tow rope.  We swung Delilah through the bog and hooked the two cars together.  Effortlessly she dragged the pick-up to solid ground amid cheers from the locals.  They thanked us with a flurry of handshakes.
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One hundred metres up the road we found four large trucks stuck in deep muddy trenches either side of the road.  We deployed the tow rope once again in an attempt to free them.  Engine roaring, bouncing back and forth Delilah struggled to pull the stricken vehicle free from its boggy trench.  Another truck had arrived at the scene and the locals wanted to use that instead.  We had to balance precariously on the edge of the muddy one lane track to let them pass.  Unfortunately Delilah slid into thick bog joining the four other trucks.  It was a tense moment but I was joined by fifteen locals at the back of Delilah.  The extra man power gave Delilah enough of a nudge to free her.  It was a strange thing, we’d spent just one hour with these people but had formed a great sense of comraderie with them.  Being seasoned veterans of African roads they assured us it was best to leave them, but not before handing out some food and water.
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Twenty miles later the road dried out and conditions improved allowing us to make good progress. It looked like we were on the home stretch into Mpanda.  However, at twenty miles disaster struck.  An unfamiliar alarm from Delilah broke through afternoon air.  In a panic we turned off the engine and quickly opened the bonnet fearing it was fire.  An inspection of the engine and around the car revealed everything seemed to be okay.  Climbing back into Delilah we tried to restart the engine.  Nothing… No cough from the engine. No whir of the starter motor.  We were stranded twenty miles from anywhere with the sun dropping lower in the sky.  It was clearly an electric problem so we inspected the fuse box.  Lifting the seats we realised our puddle splashing antics had flooded the battery, ECU (engine computer unit) and secondary fuse box.  The result was the engine ignition fuse was shorting.  Needing some advice I called up Phil from APB, interrupting his Sunday afternoon.  He very graciously set about giving us advice and instructions from his workshop in Worcestershire.  We dismantled the dashboard and climbed all over Delilah trying to find the source of our short with little success.
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After two hours of pondering and speaking to Phil we heard the familiar rumble of a car engine from up the road.  From around the bend appeared our friends in the Toyota pick-up.  Julius, the driver was a mechanic and he immediately swept us to one side getting to work with phenomenal proficiency.  Within forty minutes he had demonstrated how to hot-wire a land rover and he’d re-wired the starter motor.  He trailed us into Mpanda as darkness was falling, dutifully leaving us at a hostel and assuring us he’d return to finish the repairs in the morning.
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At the front desk we conducted our usual negotiations with typical voracity trying to assure ourselves of a good deal.  At this particular establishment the argument revolved around two double rooms versus one double.  We implicitly argued: “we’ll both share a room, it’s no problem!”.  To be met by the rebuttal: “we cannot assign you both to one room as the risk is too great!”.  This dragged on for some time until the true extent of their argument came forth: “We cannot risk both your health.  If you both share  a room you may contract homosexuality.  A risk we cannot accept.”  In Tanzania homosexuality is punishable by the state so we concluded it was a point best avoided; besides it was clear they were beyond reason.  For dinner we settled into sandwiches of corned beef hash and HP sauce.  Near 10pm Steve, Carolin, Gabriella and Madeline appeared at the door of the hostel saving us from our unsavoury meal.  We spent the remainder of the evening swapping stories about the horrific road conditions before finally retiring to bed.  My night was restless as I nervously awaited the outcome of Delilah’s electronic repairs.
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Muzungus in the mist

After two weeks in Uganda I was starting to get itchy feet.  It was time to get back on the road and back to the trip.  Upon leaving Jinja, Delilah was full of a mixture of new friends.  Simon and Anna, an Australian couple who had a knack for duelling with shoes; along with Madi and Sam two girls doing volunteer work in Uganda.  The expansive sugar cane fields around Jinja soon gave way to the urban sprawl of Kampala and its traffic.  On the outskirts of the city we found the Red Chilli Hideaway a delightful backpacker hostel situated on a hill overlooking the swamps around Lake Victoria.  Here I was re-united with Richard who arrived with a bag of gifts for Delilah.  Sadly, due to the incompetence of the UK postal system a number of parts including the shock absorber hadn’t arrived in time.  We took a day around the hostel to prepare ourselves and finalise a plan for the rest of Uganda.  On the morning of the 10th December we set off early to get our permits for gorilla trekking from the Ugandan Wildlife Association.  Thereafter we set about using the back roads to escape early morning Kampala traffic as the main roads were completely gridlocked.  I was also determined to introduce Richard to the delights of Ugandan rolex.  Soon we found ourselves deepest darkest Kampala; where a perplexed street vender was confronted by two Muzungos demanding rolex and avocado.  He didn’t have the necessary ingredients for a rolex but this did not phase him. Disappearing into a nearby store he soon re-surfaced to conjure-up some variation of Rolex in a bag.

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Satisfied with our breakfast we found our way back to the ring road where we saw an albino perched upon the back of a Toyota pickup.  Throughout East Africa they still face a tough existence due to the prevalent culture of witch doctors.  Without meaning to sound derogatory, they do hold a very striking, mystical and somewhat frightening appearance.  Continuing on we headed off down the road to Fort Portal where we encountered the G-wagon (an overlander truck) that had left Red Chilli’s before us.  Other than that it was an uneventful drive through tea and sugar plantations dotted around the Ugandan countryside.  We arrived in Fort Portal at around 3pm to grab a quick lunch and supplies for camping over the next couple of days.  Our aim for the night was to meet up with Eva and Linda at Lake Nyamirima. Whom we’d met at Red Chilli’s through Simon and Anna.  However, our Sat-Nav decided to take us on a three thousand mile detour.  Thinking this was a simple glitch we set off south-west on the main road.  Just outside town the Rwenzori mountains, the tallest mountain range in Africa, rose before us marking the border with the DRC.  When our SatNav tried to take us through thick forest and a river we realised the error.  So we had to make an abrupt U-turn back to Fort Portal to a rough corrugated track that took us through small local villages.  At sundown we finally mounted the rim of the crater to set up camp and admire the peaceful surrounds of the lake.

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In the morning after a casual start we left with Linda and Eva going South down more rough track where we hoped a river crossing was still intact, allowing us to rejoin the main road.  After one particularly deep rut a gentle and familiar rolling bounce re-appeared.  The Monroe shock had suffered a similar fate to its sister.  Insufficient travel for two inch lift springs had simply pulled it apart.  In Kasese, whilst stopping for lunch and fuel, we were able to find a mechanic who welded the Old Man Emu shock we had broken in the Danakil depression back together for little more than five pounds.  During this time a large thunderstorm had rolled-in scattering bolts of lightning and heavy rain.  The quantity of water soon flooded the road.  Streaming across the tarmac in a muddy torrent.  Within thirty kilometres we’d cleared the storm and arrived at Simba camp on the edge of Queen Elizabeth National Park.  Anticipating another downpour we hastily set up our tents before bumping into the G-wagon again.  That evening the other overlanders introduced us to a game called ‘cards against humanity’ a highly inappropriate game for Africa, which strangely made it all the more enjoyable.

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An early start the following day brought us to the gates of Queen Elizabeth Park around sunrise.  Cloud from the rainy season left the park doused in a strange ethereal light for most of the morning.  Passing Antelope, Kudu, buffalo we headed out to the shores of Lake Edward.  Sadly instead of finding lions as we’d hoped we discovered a local settlement where groups of children chased us between mud huts yelling: “Muzungo, muzungo!”  Beating a hasty retreat we returned to the green plains of the park set against the distant silhouette of the Rwenzori mountains.  The North-Eastern part of the park felt empty so we headed South-West towards Lake Edward.  On the road along the Kazinga channel we were suddenly inundated with elephants emerging from the bush.  I immediately shut off the engine, slowly rolling to a stop in front of the matriarch.  She was not impressed and slowly started walking towards us making a deep, unnerving rumbling noise.  This was enough to kick us into gear, turning the engine on and backing away to a safe distance.   Satisfied we were not a threat, more elephants piled out of the bushes and across the road in front of us.  A large bull followed up the rear, sauntering along making a real show of his size.  Whilst the other elephants made their way down to the river he kept watch over us.  He suddenly trumpeted making fake charge before turning to disappear into the foliage.  As quickly as they’d arrived they had gone.

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Time was running out on our day pass and we still wanted time for the Southern tip of the park famous for tree climbing lions.  Driving south elephants began appearing everywhere whilst giraffe, Richards favourite animal, remained illusive.  A sharp eyed Linda suddenly spotted some lions hanging out in a tree..  All four completely comatose but frustratingly we couldn’t get any closer than a few hundred yards.  Around 2pm the call was made to stop for lunch at the Ishasha river camp.  This break allowed us to get out the high-lift jack and re-adjust a dislodged spring that had come loose due to the broken shock.  The manager of the lodge,  warned us about the condition of the road between Inshasha and Buhoma.  Concerned about our one remaining rear-shock absorber he was insistent about finding us a replacement so phoned around his friends to see what could be done.  The option to deviate to Rukungiri or Bushenyi was swiftly ruled out as we needed to be in Buhoma the following morning for Gorilla tracking; made all the more poignent by the ‘no-refund’ policy of the Ugandan Wildlife Authority.  Unfortunately no-one had a solution, which meant our one remaining rear shock-absorber had to last one hundred and forty one kilometres of terrible mud track until Kabale.  With four hours of daylight remaining we cut our tour of the park short and headed on towards Buhoma gate.

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As predicted the road deteriorated quickly and another looming thunderstorm threatened to make conditions worse.  The rain held off long enough to let us reach the gate shortly before sunset.  We retreated into our rooms before the storm broke showering lightening and booming thunder, which resonated throughout the surrounding hills.  We braved the sheets of rain and flooded streets to look for dinner. In the darkness flashes of sheet lightening lit up the Bwindi Impenetrable forest on the adjacent hillside giving it a dark and sinister appearance.  Shortly up the road we found a small corrugated house advertising food.  We dived into its dry confines settling around the candle light of one table to enjoy a fortifying meal of matoke and beans.  By four o’clock in the morning the rain had begun to subside.  In the light of day the forest still loomed large but held a very different appearance.  We were given our briefing and met the rest of our group before setting off up the hillside into the thick primary jungle.  The Gorilla group we had been allocated was the smaller Mubare group consisting of a young silver back, Kanyonyi, and eight other females.  The group had previously been led by Ruhondeza, Kanyonyi’s father, until a clash with another gorilla group caused them to lose a large number of females.  Out of frustration Ruhondeza volunteered for early retirement amongst the coffee and banana plantations around the edges of the forest leaving his son Kanyonyi to take control.  In order to regain the former glory of the group he’s taken to attacking other groups and taking their females.  The park rangers hold high hopes for the group predicting they will bear many baby gorilla by next year.

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A three hour trek brought us to a large sprawling plateau covered in thick vegetation.  Vast trees hung above us as we navigated our way through the maze of tall grass and bushes.  We soon came upon the trackers who’d been following the group throughout the morning.  This was it, a quick water break and they slowly started leading us through the tall grass.  The lead tracker pulled aside a large clump of grass to reveal a family of gorilla happily lounging about munching on vegetation.  Other than the frantic click of cameras there was silence.  Soon the hulking mass of the silverback appeared.  Haunched over on his fists he fixed Richard with a fearsome stare.  This was enough to make Richard take a few steps backwards.  With that Kanyonyi sat himself down and continued to keep an eye on us all.  Sometime later he began talking with the females around him by emitting a grumbling noise and pursing his lips.  It all seemed very sweet and innocent until our ranger informed us we might be so lucky as to see them mating.  After witnessing two very flatulant gorillas mating the last thing I felt was lucky.  This quickly erased any romantic sense of ‘gorillas in the mist’.  The remaining forty minutes was spent staring at the back of Kanyonyi as he went to hide in a large bush.  Sadly for something that had started off so promising we were generally disappointed by the encounter.  Seeing the wild mountain gorilla so close was definitely special but whether it was worth five hundred US dollars for just an hour was debatable.  Perhaps it would have been had we seen a larger group with baby-gorilla and more silverback.  Nevertheless we were happy we had done it and so we headed back down the hillside into the valley.

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We arrived back at Buhoma gate later than we’d hoped so we made a plan with Eva and Linda to delay our departure until the following morning.  This proved a wise decision as the road around the Bwindi Impenetrable forest was awful, making progress very slow.  The views through the mist and over the valleys below were stunning helping distract from the road.  An hour and a half into the drive and a large rocky section caused the rear of the car to begin bouncing uncontrollably.  This did not bode well at all.  The Old-man Emu shock that had outlasted the other two shocks and pulled us through northern Kenya and the Danakil depression had finally succumb to African roads.  This left forty-eight kilometres to cover without any rear shocks.  It had broken within its housing so we thought it best to leave it in place to provide at least a little shock-absorption.  To control the bounce driving became incredible tedious and frustrating.  With a huge sigh of relief we eventually made it through to the tarmac on the south side of the park.  It looked like we were home free, cruising down the last twenty-four kilometres of tarmac to Kabale.  However, a strong smell soon filled the cabin and looking in the side mirrors we realised we were dumping diesel all over the road.  Not removing the broken shock absorber had proven a major error as it had snapped off and speared the fuel line and filter.  A crowd soon gathered to witness our humiliating breakdown.  Fortunately the driver of a pick-up took pity on us and pulled over to try and help out.  A pack of cigarettes we’d bought for officials at borders proved useful in winning us friends.  Amusingly in true T.I.A. (This is Africa) fashion they all stood about smoking right next to the large quantity of diesel spread across the road.  The damage clearly needed the assistance of a mechanic so the driver offered to give me a lift into town for a nominal fee.  Without much choice I agreed and left Richard, Eva and Linda on the roadside to look after Delilah.

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With limited success, I tried to strike up a conversation with the driver.  “Is that an Ibis?” I enquired.  “No, that is a bird” he replied bringing our conversation to a close.  Thankfully the ride to town wasn’t very far and he dropped me outside a local garage.  Inside I met the brilliant and very understated Nico.  Even for Africa this was one of the most relaxed men I’d ever met.  He took the pummelled fuel filter with him and re-appeared an hour later having repaired it.  We jumped in a taxi and headed back to Delilah and the others.  Upon our return it appeared Richard and the girls had befriended half the village.  Nico set to work hooking up the repaired fuel filter to the car.  Initially the engine didn’t start resulting in some nervous waiting and tinkering by Nico.  Then…. with a huge roar the engine erupted into life.  Hugely relieved, we didn’t waste any time in getting the car back to Nico’s garage so he could affect more permanent repairs.  Richard, Linda and Eva grew tired of waiting so I agreed they should scout ahead for accommodation near lake Bunyoni and I’d come along once Delilah was fixed.  Supposedly no welding could be done the following day due to power cuts so Nico worked until 8pm on a Saturday.  Building us some custom made shock-absorbers that were a hybrid of our broken OME shocks and the standard Toyota shock absorbers.  Supremely thankful for his help and diligence in getting us back on the road, I paid him and slipped into the night to meet up with the others at the Bunyonyi overland camp.

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First impressions.

Leaving Nanyuki we took the road south looping around the Aberdares, through the Tea fields of Nakuru, and up to Kisumu where we encountered a mechanic furiously waving his arms at us yelling: “Your wheel is wobbling!”.  Co-incidentally we had just been discussing how the steering had felt a bit funny, so we pulled over into a hodge-podge of tinned roof garages.  In a jiffy they had our wheel removed and were inspecting our steering claiming it was too tight.  Next they turned their attention to our front right shock absorber highlighting a mysterious oil leak they claimed meant we needed a new front shock.  Whilst they were busy ‘repairing’ the bearings on our steering column we inspected the oil on our shock more closely.  The oil only appeared on one side of the shock moreover there was a curious amount of oil on the outside of the tire and on the ground around Delilah (not consistent with a broken shock).  A quick check of the shock confirmed it was still working so we surmised they must have sprayed oil on the shock whilst we weren’t looking.  Proudly returning, they presented our newly repaired steering bar to us.  All they had done was stuck on some grease and two new rubber stoppers.  Quoting a ludicrous price for the work they hadn’t done. meant an hour long negotiation ensued.  The only thing they had fixed were some bearings on the steering column for which we eventually agreed a fair price; allowing us to get back on the road.  This delay placed Jinja neatly out of reach for the night.  Arriving late at the border we found ‘no space left in the inn’ so were forced to sleep in the car after a cold baked bean dinner.
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Early the next morning, after a relatively sleepless night, we reached the border.  A Kenyan official prosaically informed us that all white men were rich leaving us slightly bewildered, but was reconfirmed on the Ugandan side where the border officials tried to charge us a stonking three-hundred-and-thirty U.S. dollars for our COMESA insurance in East Africa.  Dropping the price by fifty dollars within the first twenty seconds of negotiations gave the game away.  With some fantastic ‘phone-a-friend’ support from Kirsty and Julian we were able to establish a price to aim for.  Two hours after arriving they finally grew bored and accepted our ultimatum of one-hundred and fifty US dollars*.  By eleven we’d reached Jinja where we became entangled in yet another ludicrous discussion regarding parking tickets.  Within the first few hours of being in Uganda we were quickly growing tired of the place so we set off in search of Pikey’s house; Richard’s friend from Gloucester who now spends his time between Jinja and Juba.  His house was very well hidden down a long dirt track outside of Jinja leaving us to play twenty questions with the locals.  Prompting some frustratingly comical conversations that went somewhat like this:-
Richard:  “Do you know where Mr. Pikey’s house is?”
Local:  “Mr. Pikey’s house” (in an inverted tone)
Richard: “Yes, Mr Pikey, the Musungo”
Local: Yes.
Richard: “Can you tell us where it is?”
Local: Yes, I will show you.
Richard: Where?
Local: Do not worry, the bike shop has many bikes.
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As thunderclouds threatened overhead we found the gate to ‘Mr. Pikey’s house’ between two local huts and a banana field.  The house was lovely, styled like an English cottage with thatched roof, verandah and garden overlooking the Nile.  We spent the next two days enjoying its peaceful surrounds, swimming in the Nile and occasionally dipping into Jinja town to gather supplies and visit the source of the Nile gardens.  Late on Friday evening, after being treated to a fantastic lightening storm, Pikey returned with wine in tow.  The hours passed, the conversation and wine flowed before we made our way to bed.  The next day I was due to leave Richard as he was returning to the UK for two weeks whilst I met up with Isaac Nsrenko in Kampala to visit and volunteer at the Nserester Orphanage.  On the road before it was light, the car suddenly fell into a large hole.  Wheels spinning, Delilah was stuck so I decided to get out and inspect the damage.  To my horror I then fell into another hole tumbling through the air before coming to an abrupt stop on the cold hard ground.  In the pitch black, writhing in agony I made the slow agonising climb out of the hole.  At the top I heard a voice cut through the darkness: “Alex, what’s going on? Is everything all right?” I replied: “I’ve fallen into a hole, a really big hole”.  “Mate, what the hell are you talking about?”  With that Richard turned on the light to reveal I was still at Pikey’s house having travelled all of five feet from my bed before falling down the stairwell.
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The next day, my second attempt at reaching Kampala was far more fruitful, although I was very bruised, hungover and late to meet Isaac.  The Northern ring road saved me from the diabolical Kampala traffic.  On the West side of town I picked up Isaac and Louise Croxton, a charming retired liverpudlian nurse who had been supporting Nserester for the last couple of years along with her husband.  Around 2pm we reached the infant school at Nserester where the children laid-on an overwhelming welcome.  The rest of the day was filled with performances, speeches, competitions and a graduation.  As the sun set, Christmas presents from Louisa and cake was handed out to gleeful screams.  After dark we slipped away to drive up to the main complex where we’d be spending the night.  As we approached the rhythmic sound of beating drums rang out.  Driving through the gate we were pulled from the car and surrounded by a whirling sea of shadowy bodies dancing and singing.  Orphans of all ages enthusiastically welcomed us to Nserester.  When the drumming and singing subsided Isaac introduced us to the congregation of pupils before us.  Embarrassingly Isaac had taken to introducing me as the first man to drive in a motor vehicle from London to Uganda.  Trying to tell him otherwise amidst gasps and cheers from the orphans proved difficult so for the next week with a degree of guilt I adopted my new title.
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Over the next few days we spent time with the teachers and orphans learning about the orphanage and its inner workings.  Louise was impressed with all the progress that had been made since she last visited in 2008.    On Monday we travelled down to Mutukula on the Tanzanian border to watch Nserester play another Tanzanian school at football.  Despite the condition of the pitch the standard of football was very good.  Isaac proudly informed as some ex-students now played for the national team.  It seemed the entire village turned out for the game as the linesmen fought to keep people off the pitch.  A resounding 2-1 victory secured Nserester’s unbeaten season for the year.  In the last five minutes one of our players took a tumble and rolled his ankle.  Delilah filled in as the team ambulance and we drove him down to the medical centre on the Tanzanian side of town.  The next day we did a short tour of the farm, where food for the orphanage is grown and the pigs sold to help pay teacher’s wages.  Thereafter we headed back towards Kampala spending the night on the equator about an hour from the Capital.  The next morning we stopped by the ‘Voices of Peace’ an organisation dedicated to co-ordinating several of Isaac’s social projects.  Myself and Isaac took a short drive to look for a Land Rover mechanic to service Delilah.  During the drive he told me his 26 year old son had abruptly passed away in Kigale last night after falling into a coma.  Understandable this news weighed heavily on Isaac but he kept a stiff upper lip, if not for us then certainly for the rest of his family who slowly arrived at ‘voices of peace’ throughout the afternoon.  However, it soon became too much for even Isaac to hold back the tears.
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Feeling very sorry for their family but out of place.  Louise and I decided it was best to leave Isaac and his family to mourn so we drove into Kampala to look for some accommodation.  I had arranged to meet James Jacob, an old school friend from Teddy’s, at Bubble O’Leary’s Irish pub.  Whilst catching up over several beers it appeared the pub was hosting a night of Scottish dancing.  James launched into the fray with gusto leaving me to look on, until eventually I gathered enough courage to join him.  Whoever thought my  first ‘Scottish fling’ would be in Uganda.  My dance partner for the evening was an enchanting woman from the region of Irkutsk in Russia.  I had visited Irkutsk several years before so between dances we had a lot to talk about.  Eventually the night grew to a close.  I looked around for James but he had evidently shot off amidst the whirling and twirling to catch his flight.  In the morning we were re-united with Isaac for a brief day trip to Jinja to visit another of his projects.  Enroute we stopped in Jinja for lunch where Isaac introduced me to Tonny Nsoona, editor for the ‘New Vision’ newspaper in Uganda, who was very interested in the trip.  At the ‘Widows of Jinja’ we were met with another almighty welcome before they showed Louise the progress they’d made since her last visit.  Back in Kampala Isaac needed to go to Kigale to retrieve his sons body so we assured Isaac it would be okay to leave us.  I could take Louise down to Entebbe the following day to catch her flight and visit the zoo.
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The zoo at Entebbe didn’t prove any different from your typical sordid procession of caged animals, but the reason for our visit was to catch a glimpse of one of the rarest birds in the world, the ‘Shoe bill’.  That evening I said a good bye to Louise, although we were a pretty unorthodox pair she’d made a great travelling partner, a no-nonsense woman with a great sense of humour.  Over the next few days I casually took my time hanging around in Entebbe before returning to Kampala, where in disbelief I bumped into Masato and the other Japanese from Aswan.  With the school closed at Nserester for Christmas and only four days until Richard returned from the U.K. it didn’t make much sense to return to the farm.  As a result I decided to hang around the capital to get some maintenance on Delilah done and relax a little.  Soon I found myself back in the sleepy town of Jinja camping on the shores of the Nile at the Explorers riverside campsite and enjoying, arguably, the best ‘Rolex’ (a Spanish omelette wrapped in a chapati with Avocado) in Uganda.  Here I met several other travellers including a Dutchman called Michael doing a similar trip and who had travelled with the ‘Gentleman’s adventure club’ through Sudan.  Despite my first impressions of Uganda I had grown very fond of the place with its peaceful villages, lush scenery and friendly locals.
Plane from Operation Entebbe

Plane from Operation Entebbe

*Rujetour later informed us they paid just USD 80 for their COMESA for six months.  Although we do understand the price is negotiable and depends upon what country you are buying your COMESA in.
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The path to paradise begins in hell

Dark rain clouds greeted us on our arrival into Addis Ababa the capital of Ethiopia.  The roads here swelled with traffic, where the timid stood still and only the bold got through.  We found our way onto Chruchill avenue sidling North through muddled cross-roads in search of the Itegue Taitu hotel.  Dividing the East and West of Addis the road took us past a series of old soviet buildings and monuments topped with the soviet star; all remnants of the Derg’s reign and their terrifying campaign of ‘Red terror’.   At the Taitu we dropped our Australian compadre, Pete, and made our way to the local Overlander hangout near ‘Le Gare’ in the south.   We found whim’s holland house hidden down a small road behind the main bus station.  Whim, an old moustachioed Dutchman emerged from across the road to greet us.  Setting up base in his bar, a little slice of holland, we made a plan for our stay in Addis.  Teddy our friend from Mek’ele had put us in contact with his mechanics in Addis to get our shock repaired and we were due to meet them the following morning.  Whilm’s was a little empty and further out of town so we decided to meet up with Pete back at the Taitu hotel.  On our return we discovered the hotel was ‘sold-out’ of cheap rooms so we hatched a cunning plan to crash in Pete’s room with our camping gear.  The only problem was finding Pete who had vanished from the grounds of the hotel.  We successfully sneaked Delilah into the car park around back and began a stake out of Pete’s room in the budget accommodation block.  At around 8pm Pete appeared so we hit the streets of Addis to find some food and experience some of Addis’s reputed nightlife.
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After slow start the following morning we set off to meet the mechanics at the Black Lion Hospital optimistic we’d have our Old Man Emu shock fixed in the next few hours.  The mechanics piled into the back and we set off to scour the streets of Addis for shock absorbers.  The mechanics continued producing various brands of used shock absorber at extortionate prices.  Frustrated we kept turning them away insisting on finding a matching old man emu shock, however it became increasingly clear Addis was devoid of our shock so we resigned ourselves to buying two Monroe shocks.  Strangely both these shocks from a registered distributor were cheaper than a single used shock the mechanics were pushing at us earlier.  Down a back alley in a slum they fitted the shocks and fixed our steering shaft bearings that had come loose.  We took a short test drive with the mechanics to ensure the repairs were successful.  Throughout Africa we had grown increasingly tired of the premium prices all foreigners were made to pay.  Our mechanics were no exception and we were both horrified when they produced a 5000 birr invoice for work Teddy assured us should cost no more than 500 birr.  A long bitter negotiation ensued with Teddy helping us to make the mechanics see reason.  Eventually they accepted our reasonable offer of 1500 birr after Teddy threatened to send his ‘boys’ down.  We didn’t quite know what a group of chilled out Rastafarians would do but it worked and they left the vehicle visibly upset.  Fed up of the way we’d been treated but thankful of the help we’d had from our friends we headed back to the hotel.  That evening we took it easy and bid farewell to Pete who was flying back out to Kenya.
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The next morning we hit the road starting a two day drive down to Moyale and the Kenyan border enjoying a Jaffa cake breakfast on the road.  For lunch we stopped in the town of Shasheme, the home of Rastafarian’s, in the hope of witnessing some of this curious culture.  Alas, as Teddy later informed us, we’d visited the wrong part of town!  Needing to make headway we got back on the road aiming for Dila or Moyale depending on how we progressed.  Just passed Awasa the road began to deteriorate into a potholed mess.  I was too slow in reacting to a particularly deep pothole that gave Delilah a strong shake.  Thereafter a familiar bounce returned… We stopped to inspect the shocks finding that the washer and bolt had been torn from underneath one of our brand new shocks.  With the spares in the back we made a quick repair before continuing on but the rather hopeful target of Moyale for the night was now well out of reach.  Navigating the potholed road at night was out of the question so as darkness set in we stopped at a small hotel in Hagere Maryam, 304 kilometres from Moyale.
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A short drive the next day brought us into Moyale where we had to wait for two hours whilst immigration on both sides had lunch.  This allowed us some time to reflect on all we’d missed by rushing down our chosen route: the crocodile markets at Arba Minch,   the Omo valley and lake Turkana.  That afternoon we reached the Kenyan side of the Moyale, which seemed no different to the Ethiopian side except for the abundance of spoken English.  The only realistic accommodation on the Kenyan side of the border we could find was the National Wildlife services campsite sandwiched between the Prison and the High court.  Although there was still plenty of time left in the day, camping overnight along the Moyale-Marsabit was ruled out due to the notorious bandit situation in the region.  So we saved our energy in preparation for a gruelling drive along ‘Hell Road’.  At the campsite the accountant assured me that the USD 15 for their shoddy campsite was worth it as we could sue them if anything went wrong, apart from unforeseen circumstances.  I regret asking what qualified an unforeseen circumstance: “if your dragged from your tent by a Hyena in the night then that is an unforeseen circumstance”.
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Our early morning escape from the campsite was thwarted by our guard or worrying lack thereof.  Eventually we woke another member of staff with our honking who graciously opened the gate for us.  Ten kilometres into Hell’s road and we had our first incident.  A suspicious smell of oil filled the cabin and the characteristic bounce of broken shocks returned.  The rear driver side shock had torn clean in two sending oil everywhere.  With the state of the road ahead we had to fix the problem before continuing.  Fortunately we still had our spare old man emu shock, which we attached despite them being of different lengths.  Not a car passed us as we effected our repairs in the middle of bandit country, a prime target for a lucky cowboy.  Without further incidence we got back to the juddering road.  Everything I’d read about this road suggested a terrible road beset on both sides by arid desert.  However throughout our journey down from Addis there had been continuous rainstorms due to wet season.  As a result the countryside had exploded into a brilliant green colour mixed with yellow from the flowering Acacia.  Breaking our shock meant we had zero lives left in regards of shocks so we slowed our speed to an average of 12 mph meaning a very long 180 miles stood between us and Marsabit.
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A few Kilometres outside a small village called Turbi the road changed from hard red corrugations into a thick mud pit.  Three kilometres down the road and we met a large lorry heavily bogged down blocking the centre of the road.  Overladen and deep in mud it looked beyond help.  Ignoring the pleas from the stranded truck passengers two options presented themselves. Go left to what looked like dry virgin ground or follow another set of muddy tracks off to the right.  Richard recommended going left, I disagreed and so we went right but we didn’t get far.  In the deep truck tracks Delilah became beached on a ridge of mud at the bottom of a muddy gully.  We weren’t going anywhere.  Getting to work we got down the sand ladders and started digging out Delilah’s rear diff from the heavy mud.  With the help of one of the truck passengers and a lot of revs we freed her coming back around to where we were twenty minutes ago.  A line of rain tracking across the horizon made the pleas from the truck driver more frantic.  During the rainy season these trucks and buses can become stranded for days if not weeks.  After our lesson in Karma we thought it wouldn’t hurt to try and free them.  Delilah was lined up and the kinetic tow rope hooked up.  Engine roaring the blue and black monster started gently yo-yoing off the immovable hulk of the truck.  Miraculously the truck suddenly shifted and I spurned Richard on.  Accelerator to the floor Delilah slowly pulled the truck free, dragging it from its muddy prison.  Cheers of jubilation rang through the air as we stood in disbelief.  Quickly realising the photo opportunity we’d just missed we cursed our lack of foresight.  Scrapping what mud we could off ourselves and Delilah we switched into high-diff to set-off again ploughing through muddy puddles and passing two more stranded trucks that really were beyond help.
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Some way on the road conditions began to dry out returning to heavy corrugations and puddles.  Occasionally we’d get overtaken by land cruisers full of armed guards clearly patrolling the road for bandits.  Evidence of extensive road works taking place on the new Addis-Nairobi-Mombasa super highway, which should be finished in the next four years, was everywhere.  Ironically most of the ‘bandits’ were probably now employed on the road project.  Stretches of the near-complete highway teased us on the way down with the smell of fresh tarmac wafting through our windows.  About 50 miles from Marsabit we finally hit fresh flawless tarmac.  I could have kissed a China man!   Sailing down the road we stopped at the edge of Gof Redo, one of the huge Calderas that had covered the surrounding countryside in a blanket of small rocks.  Turning back to examine Delilah we couldn’t help but admire her new coat of red mud, looking like a true road warrior.  In the dying light we decided to beat it into town to find some accommodation for the night.  Wet and muddy we collapsed into the ‘Jey Jey Centre hotel’ to enjoy cold showers and a dodgy beef stew.  The next morning holding no affection for our hotel or Marsabit we disappeared into the early morning mist for the second stage of ‘Hell Road’.
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Whilst not as bad as Moyale-Marsabit the Marsabit-Isiolo road still has large sections of tarmac motorway missing.  The first 121 kilometres consisted of tough corrugations and dirt track.  At points it was easier and faster to leave the road diving down sand tracks winding alongside the original road.  At Merille our ordeal ended, ramping the river bridge back onto tarmac.  We were essentially on the home straight bound for Nanyuki three hours away.  Climbing onto the lower slopes of Mount Kenya the temperature became a lot cooler and large swathes of farmland appeared.  Pulling into Nanyuki the presence of the British army here was obvious with army land rovers and soldiers everywhere.  Hungry and in need of internet we decided to treat ourselves at the local Doorman’s.  Full of smoothie and steak baguette we set out to find Kirsty Smith, an old friend of mine from school in Singapore.,  at Barney’s bar and airfield.  It is a favourite hangout of the british army and Richard bumped into one of his army colleagues in the restaurant.  We went back to Kirsty and Julian’s house, a gorgeous old farmhouse nestled between the Aberdares and mount Kenya.  Their three dogs reminded of us of our own dogs back home and the garden played host to  passing groups of Colobus monkeys. Three days relaxing and recalibrating was just what we needed after the last couple of days.  Incredibly thankful for their hospitality we set out for Uganda feeling a lot more human than when we’d arrived.
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A short clip of the trip so far courtesy of BG:-

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Mad dogs and Englishmen

On the seventh of November we got up early to do our final few preparations before our departure.  De-dusting Delilah, checking tyre pressures and refuelling.  Throughout the morning the other drivers arrived: first Hennock the veteran in his Nissan pathfinder, two more land cruisers and lastly Teddy, the group Rasta, in his swanky new Land cruiser.  Everyone stood around outside the hotel weighing up the line of 4x4s outside the hotel, all the drivers were impressed with Delilah.  A group of spaniards also on our tour were slightly put out when they discovered they wouldn’t be riding in Delilah.  Abeba handed us our honorary ‘number 4’ tour tag before we all left the hotel in convoy.  The inside of Delilah was buzzing with excitement as we climbed out of Mek’ele and began our descent into the Danakil.  At two o’clock we stopped for lunch in Berhale to pick up the first contingent of armed guards.  We continued on, passing camel trains laden with hay as we emerged from the Ethiopian escarpment at around 100 metres below sea level.  The air blowing through the windows was akin to shoving once’s head in an oven.  As the sun was setting we arrived in Hamd Ela, the official ‘start’ to the Danakil depression.
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In the light of dusk we wandered around this strange village of open air stick houses scattered with donkeys and goats.  Since the breakaway of Djibouti and Eritrea separated Ethiopia from the sea the people of the Afar have been without employment for their camel trains.  To preserve their livelihood the government has outlawed the use of machinery in the harvest and transportation of salt from the pans.  Nevertheless the people of the region still rely heavily on subsidies and support from the government to survive out here.  Although the government is trying to educate and slowly re-locate future generations of the Afar into the cities.  Hamed Ela is the centre of salt mining in the region with scores of men descending on the salt flats to eek out a meagre living at ten cents per slab of salt.  In a dried out river bed behind the village the camel train Owners arrive to negotiate with the miners.  The village also houses one of the army bases protecting the potash and potassium mining industry of the area.  Later in the evening we stumbled through the dark past the shadow of an armed guard to enjoy a warm beer within the bar of the base.
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The next morning we set off into the vast sand pit that stood between us and the black volcanoes dotted along the horizon.  All the vehicles began kicking up huge plumes of dust dodging through dunes capped with green shrubs.   Occasionally the desert would open up to fields of sand where we’d try driving up-wind to avoid disappearing into the vast dust clouds of the other cars.  Four hours later we mounted a dried out river bank to find ourselves in the middle of a sand storm.  Lacking air conditioning, what followed was a juggling act of heat and dust.  Winding up the windows to sit in searing heat or exposing ourselves to the harsh windblown sand.  At Dodom, relieved and caked in dust we stopped for lunch seeking shelter from the sandstorm inside a wooden hut.  Hennok teased us that we were lucky as forty degrees celsius was cool weather for the Danakil.  A short way down the road we picked up our second contingent of armed guards at the local army base.
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Thereafter an hours drive brought us to the edge of the vast lava fields surrounding Erta Ale.  Our itinerary described the seventeen kilometre road over the lava as the worst road in the world.  Two hours over viscous rock outcrops  and violent drops fell right in line with their description although its status as a road was debatable.  We arrived at four o’clock and immediately sought shelter in a basic hut until the sun relented its gaze.  Sunset queued the start of a three hour trek over the lava field to the summit of Erta Ale.  Flanked by armed guards we made our way up the volcano over the martian landscape dowsed in moonlight.  Eventually we reached the rim of the crater where we were met by more armed guards.  From here we could see the red glow of lava in the pit of the crater.  Climbing down onto its crusty surface we eagerly made our way to the cauldron of lava known locally as ‘the gateway to hell’.  The lava bubbled and rolled like a restless beast, occasionally exploding as huge plumes rose to the surface.  Mesmerised by the lava we stood awe-struck by the sight before us ignoring the heat emanating through the ground.  Feeling the sleep in our eyes we climbed back up to the safety of the crater edge for a few hours rest.
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Early the next morning we rose with the sun to descend into the crater again.  The dawn light revealed the extent of the volcano and the flowing trails of solidified lava dominating its surface.  Keen to avoid the full punishment of the sun our guides hurried us back down the volcano.  We arrived back at the cars around ten o’clock and the mercury had already begun sharply rising confirming the wisdom in Negasi’s decision.   Re-united with Delilah we climbed back into her dusty cabin thoroughly satisfied with our exploits on the volcano.  So far Delilah had held her own against the other Japanese vehicles.  Hennok had even gone as far to dub her the Lion of the Danakil.  But our arrival back in Dodom to an uncharacteristic bounce and rattling noise revealed a broken shock.  The ‘world’s worst road’ had taken its toll.  After removing the shock with the help of the other drivers we drove on.  Back in the dunes the wind had settled and the sandstorm had cleared.  One particularly thick dune caught Teddy in thick sand so we came to the rescue with our kinetic tow road pulling him to safety before continuing on via a safer route.
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Our broken shock slowed us down, since the gentle bounce greatly increased our chances of rolling, so the other drivers steadily left us behind.  This freed us from the perpetual dust cloud of our convoy leaving us with sweeping views of the dunes, surprising green shrubland and the volcanoes in the distance.  We came across herds of camels chewing their cud unfazed by the rattling Delilah.  Some way off our port bow we noticed some Ostriches casually making their way through the dunes.  Surreal sights for such an inhospitable landscape.  Further on we caught up with the other drivers who had pulled over to wait for us.  Two hours later we found ourselves driving up the dusty track to Hamd Ela with the glazed salt lake off to our right.  In the village we escaped the dusty confines of Delilah to ride atop Teddy’s land cruiser to go explore Lake Assale.  Dipping our feet in the salty water and playing tricks with our cameras in the placid expanse of the lake.  As darkness was falling we made our way back to camp where, since arriving back in the desert, we had a pleasant return to sleeping under the stars in wooden thatched beds.
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The following day we took a ride in Hennok’s Nissan to visit the hydrothermal field of the Dallol volcano; to wander around the multi-colour sulphur fields; canyons of the salt mountains and stare into the deep mineral oil pools.  Sadly the Alana Potash mining company of Canada had drained the sulphur pools so they were lacking slightly from their usual splendour.  Behind the sulphur pools were the curious ruins of an Italian mining settlement left over from their failed attempt to conquer and colonise Ethiopia.  Negasi set about gathering everyone for our last stop in the Danakil.  His lack of Spannish and the lack of English of our Spannish compatriots made for a comical scene as Negasi chased them around the Sulphur fields yelling: “Spannish! Spannish! Come back!”  Returning to Lake Assal we witnessed scores of miners vigorously carving out slabs of salt from the lake amongst a sea of camels and donkeys.  Feeling very satisfied with the trip but longing for a warm shower and a cold beer we left the miners to make our way back to Mek’ele.  Climbing out of the Danakil was a huge relief from the heat as we gained altitude, greenery improved and the temperature dropped to a more bearable 25 celsius.  The drive was relatively uneventful apart from our spring which without the shock had came lose from its housing requiring a quick roadside fix.  The other drivers all piled in to help us once again and before long we were back on the road.  There was a great sense of jubilation as we pulled back into the car park of the hotel in Mek’ele.
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The next day, us and all the other drivers briefly reconvened back in the hotel parking lot as they were heading back into the Danakil and we were heading south.  It was sad to part ways with them as they had all been great company and we’d felt very much part of their driving team.   Hennok helped me with a quick search of the Mek’ele garages for a replacement shock absorber but unfortunately there were was nothing suitable in stock.  As a result, our plan was to stick to tarmac and head for Addis bypassing the gravel road to Lalibella to avoid damaging Delilah further.  It was a real pity to miss out on the Lalibella churches but we felt a pressing need to get Delilah fixed before we hit the notorious Moyale-Marsabit road.  Moreover I had an appointment with Isaac Nserenko to volunteer at the Nserester orphanage in Kampala, Uganda, starting on the 22nd November.  This left us with eleven days to cover 2,773 kilometres over some diabolic roads and fix our shock in Addis beforehand.
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With little time to lose we departed Mek’ele on ‘Route 1’ hoping to get as close to Addis before nightfall.  Winding through mountain passes we were treated to more splendid views of Ethiopia.  Finding ourselves a campsite on the shores of lake Hayk, halfway between Addis and Mek’ele, we collapsed into a somewhat more crowded tent with the addition of Pete.  An early start and another six hours on the road brought us into Addis.  The road into Ethiopia’s capital was a steep climb through mountains and forest shrouded in low cloud, mist and rain bringing us onto a large plateau.  A wet and cold contrast to where we were no less than forty eight hours ago.
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The accidental pilgrim

At the border we got up early to beat immigration with the understanding that the Sudanese went for lunch from 12pm to 2pm and the Ethiopian’s from 2pm until 4pm.  In the rush, we set off with our sleeping bags and mattresses unsecured on the roof.  Upon arriving at immigration we quickly realised our error but miraculously it was all still intact except for my sleeping bag which had found a new home along the Sudan-Ethiopian border.  Putting an unfortunate 24 hours behind us we cracked on with breezy hour in immigration.  An absolute dream after having dealt with Egyptian customs and immigration.  The Ethiopian customs officials proudly told us to ditch our ‘pigeon Arabic’ as this was Christian country with a different language, Amharic   The contrast between the Sudanese side of the border and the Ethiopian side was stark with people filling the street, sparse forest replaced scrubland, women dressed less conservatively, and beer adverts appeared.  Through the abundance of people it was clear we had moved from one of Africa’s least populated countries to one of its most populated.  Dodging donkeys and cattle we steadily began gaining altitude winding up dramatic hillsides above the green valleys and farms below.  Soon we were confronted by what appeared to be a large mountain range, which we needed to climb in order to continue.  However upon reaching the top we discovered a huge plateau littered with farms and fields resembling the ol’English countryside.  

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We left the main road to join a rough track leading to Gorgora on the shores of lake Tana.  Driving through the countryside we were greeted by scores of children enthusiastically waving, greeting us with genuine enthusiasm or as a walking pen dispensers.  Two hours later, tired from waving, we arrived at Tim and Kim’s.  A fantastic dutch couple who moved to Ethiopia seven years ago to set up this idyllic escape overlooking the lake.  After the unrelenting sun of Sudan this was the perfect oasis in which to recharge.  Two very dry weeks meant priority number one was a cold beer.  After triumphantly guzzling the cool gold nectar we went to explore our campsite situated under the eaves of a huge fig tree where we met two familiar faces.  Chris and a very hungover Bret (Bikers from Wadi Halfa) emerged from their tents equally surprised to see us again.  Laughing and joking, the next hour was spent catching up on one another’s adventures since we parted ways.  Later that evening we met our fellow guests: Richard a South African contractor overlooking a Chinese industrial project, newlyweds Jennifer and Matt, Tamara working at the hospital in Gonder, and her parents John and Kum Kum.  Talking to Matt and Jennifer over dinner, who were finishing up their tour of Ethiopia, gave us a fascinating insight into the history of the area.  On Lake Tana there are a series of Churches on small islands which can only be visited by men.  Supposedly it is because there was a queen who seduced the Kings of the region.  Upset and angry the Kings mutilated and banished her.  Seeking vengeance she returned to kill the Kings and burn their churches.  One of these churches also temporarily hid the Ark of the covenant before its final arrival in Axum.  Heads filled with Ethiopian legends we fell asleep under the fig tree to the soporific sound of drums from the local church. 

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Over the next day and a half we did some maintenance on Delilah, explored two of the churches on Lake Tana by kayak, and lazed around enjoying the views.  Making the most of Kim’s cooking we stayed for lunch before setting off for Gonder; sadly parting ways with Hugh and Morag our fellow Landy overlanders who had been great company.  We climbed above the plateau into another set of hills where nestled Gondar aptly described as the Camelot of Africa with its cobbled streets and stone citadels.  We set up camp in the concrete courtyard of Belegez pension fortuitously bumping into Mikael and Kaisha (also from Wadi Halfa).  The following morning on an excursion to find internet we came across a group of Israeli tourists all following the route of a lost group of Jews discovered in Ethiopia and extracted during a famine in the 1980s through ‘Operation Solomon’.  It was clear in Gonder we had stumbled across a secret tourist route associated with Ethiopia’s ancient connection with Israel.  Gondar’s history was a turbulent one being founded as the Capital of Ethiopia after defeating the Muslims that had invaded Ethiopia.  Although Ethiopia’s muslim population now lives a peaceful existence with their Christian counterparts the past conflict was clear, best represented by a mural on the roof of one church depicting Mohammed seated on a donkey led by the devil.  We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Royal enclosure.  A large complex of castles and buildings encircled by a large rampart overlooking Gondar and the adjacent hills.  It wasn’t like anything we had expected to find in Africa! 

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Inspired by Gondar we spent the rest of our day sampling the delights of the local culture.  Being the home of Arabica coffee, for a post lunch aperitif we tried the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  Drinking an expresso with incense, which initially seemed a bit lame until the coffee and incense collided at the back of our throats to create a delightfully mellow sensation.  For dinner we tried ‘National food’ an assortment of meat and vegetarian sauces seated upon a large spread of injera (a large sour pancake).    Finishing our day downing traditional honeyed wine with a couple of Ethiopian friends who had shown us around town.  Despite the glamorous name it reminded me of a dreadful fortified wine (Mad dog 20-20) we had to down at university rugby initiations.  It did help build enough courage to join in the local dance: shaking ones shoulders (rather like a chicken) to a drum and flute.  The next morning, amidst our hungover stupor we realised we had been fleeced by our hosts from the night before being made to pay an extortionate amount for a pretty poor bottle of wine.  A nice bottle of Chateauneuf du pap would have been cheaper and far more palatable.  To put last nights misfortune to rest we left Gonder and set off for the Simien mountains climbing up a series of steep ridges that provided a tantalising view of the Ethiopian highlands in the distance.  

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At Debark we had to stop to pay our park fees and pick up an armed scout called Marlin.  We left the tarmac driving onto a rough road leading through town and on into the mountains.  The road began climbing steeply giving us sweeping views of the valleys and plateaus below.  Our designated campsite for the night was Sankabar but our scout advised us of another campsite much better for Ibex and other animals.  So we travelled on along the coarse mountain road to Chenek.  Seated atop the large Simien mountain range felt like being on Mount Olympus staring down at the miniature villages and fields below.  Marlin dragged us away from the view to hunt for Ibex along the cliff side but they proved illusive.  I was quite happy admiring several of the mighty Lammergeier soaring high above our camp.  The moment the sun disappeared below the horizon the temperature plummeted.  Prior to leaving Gonder I had been warned about the cold and bought a large blanket to compensate for my missing sleeping bag.  Needless to say it was insufficient and what followed was a bitterly cold night.  In the morning we treaded out onto the frosted ground to pack up our tent and depart the Simien’s.  On the road we shortly stopped hanging ourselves over a cliff to catch a glimpse of the mysterious ibex quietly gliding through the misty forest below.  Further up the road atop a small plateau we encountered a large troop of Gelada baboons that were in the middle of ‘social hour’ having spent the night on the cliffs.  Being accustomed to the local research team we were able to wander through the group without bothering them.  It was an incredible experience watching within feet the baby baboons playing and adults grooming one another.  

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Our next destination was Axum which meant a long drive along a largely unfinished road so we had to depart the Simien mountains fairly hastily if we were to get there by night fall.  At the gates of the park we dropped Marlin then shot through town to where the tarmac ended.   A short distance later the road seemed to disappear, dropping into winding chicanes along a cliff edge granting stunning views of the countryside below.  Once we had plunged into the maze of valleys below the road deteriorated into a dusty mess of construction works.  At stages we were forced to run the gauntlet dodging heavy machinery, narrowly avoiding one half of a boulder dropping into our path and gorges prepped with dynamite.  The bevy of landscaping that was taking place made progress slow but we both agreed once this road was finished it would be one of the most stunning drives in Africa.  Eventually we finished our descent tumbling out of the valleys onto relatively flat terrain dotted with deep gorges. Rejoining tarmac we quickly made up the last eighty miles of the trip.  Arriving in Axum was deceptive as it only seemed like a couple of buildings along the main road.  Deviating down a backstreet revealed a sleepy town nestled under a large hill.  Outside our hotel Richard befriended a group of street children.  We took particularly to one charming, rotund business like seven year old called Thomas.  At around ten o’clock that evening we came across Thomas still pushing his box of chewing gum and tissues.  We told him he needed to go home but he replied diligently that he must work.  Sadly it was clear these street kids were probably answerable to a character similar to Fagan from Oliver Twist.

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The night before we had bumped into Mikael and Kaisha again and decided to make plans to travel on together.  We also met Pete an Australian bound for Mekele to who’m we offered a lift but he graciously declined opting for the local bus service.   We set aside the morning to explore the historical sites of Axum: the famous stelae and St Mary of Zion church.  Axum was the centre of the sprawling Axumite empire that at its height stretched from Mombasa, to north Sudan and into Yemen. Its power eroded firstly with the expansion of the Persian empire and then Arab empire that wrested control of the trade routes of the red sea from Axum.  The old city is also home to the legend of Queen Sheba who apparently resided here.  She travelled to Israel where she slept with King Solomon and conceived a son, Menelik the first.  He returned to Israel to meet his father and brought back the Ark of the Covenant to Axum to where it now rests in a small chapel and stands as a major foundation of the Ethiopian Orthodox church.  However, the major flaw in this story is that Queen Sheba and King Solomon lived one thousand years apart.  Nevertheless the legend still hangs strongly over the country so we tried to catch a glimpse of the small chapel through tall fences behind ‘The Church of our Lady Mary of Zion’.  Shortly after our brief tour a flustered Pete appeared at the window of Delilah needing a lift to Mekele having missed his bus.  Relieved at having found us he clambered into the back and we met up with the others to explore the Debre Damo monastery nestled atop a hill en-route to Mekele.  Upon our arrival we realised it would take at least an hour to climb up to the monastery and explore it.   

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Pete had a tour to the Danakil depression the following morning, which we were also interested to investigate it.  If we were to reach Mekele tonight we had to cut short our exploration of Debre Damo so we left Kaisha and Mikael disappearing down a rough dusty track.  Cruising through the countryside we were treated to another remarkable view of hilltop villages sitting above stepped gold and green fields.  We were only a few kilometres from Eritrea skipping along the border to Zalanabesa where the military presence and checkpoints was a gentle reminder of the lingering tension between the two countries.  Here we rejoined the main road south to Mekele, which we reached at sunset descending another huge cliff to reach the city.  The second largest city in Ethiopia was a busy place with a friendly progressive buzz lacking the usual chaos of other African cities we’d visited.  With an air of exited trepidation we joined Pete in a room with Ababa, a firm but welcoming women, who arranged tours to the Danakil.  Two previous incidents involving the kidnap of the British high commission along with their chief spy, and the shooting of a couple of German tourists meant we had played down the likelihood of visiting the Danakil depression.  We were concerned about how Delilah would handle the inhospitable conditions of the trip but were comforted by the use of armed guards and the improved security situation.  After much deliberation we emerged from that room having signed on the dotted line committing to a ten am departure for the Danakil depression.  This left us with only eleven hours to prep the vehicle so we eagerly set about gathering supplies for four days in one of the hottest places on earth!

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A horse with no name

If you consider Egypt part of the middle east rather than Africa, Sudan was to be the true start of our African adventure but to our frustration we had to wait a little longer.  Due to territorial disputes the land border between Sudan and Egypt remains shut unless your willing to fork out USD 3000 to have the Egyptians escort you to the border in convoy.  We were not, so we had to wait for a barge that could load Delilah and cross lake Aswan, which we hoped would happen on the Saturday after Eid.  However, our barge had been hired by Dragoman, the same Dragoman whose bus was still stuck in Damietta customs.  The situation with Dragoman became increasingly ridiculous as customs insisted their bus be trucked on a lorry to Aswan despite having a perfectly adequate engine.  Nevertheless there was time since we had to wait for Tuesday’s passenger ferry anyway.   After much palaver, we loaded up and headed to the port on Tuesday morning to go through the rigmarole of Egyptian customs.  We met our fixer Mr Abouda outside KFC before setting off in convoy; the Pols (Michal and Kaisha) in their Mitsubishi mini-van being escorted by two land rovers.  Already lifted by the prospect of our departure the feeling of travelling in convoy added a sense of confidence and power, as if nothing stood between us and Sudan. The vehicles were loading and Sudan was a go!

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Upon surrendering our Egyptian driving license and number plates we ramped the barge and left Delilah with the Captain.  The Dragoman truck was still scarce so we didn’t know if or when we’d be seeing Delilah again.  Last on the passenger ferry, we joined our ‘Guy Ritchie’esque’ cast of travelling companions: the Irish, Hugh and Morag, the bikers, the Brazilians, the Polish and the Japanese.  We had reserved a small area of deck next to the bridge where we dropped our belongings and waited in the searing afternoon sun for the ferry’s departure.  A series of blasts from the ships horn signalled it was time to leave, allowing the last stragglers to fling themselves on board before the ferry parted with the quay and set out onto the lake.  At sunset we were treated to a fantastic sky splashed red, pink and blue as the muslim contingent of the ferry assembled on deck for prayers.  In the growing darkness a stern-faced Captain told us all to keep quiet.  His concern soon became apparent as channel buoys and unlit vessels floated by.  In the blackness we drifted into a hazy sleep occasionally broken by murmurs from the bridge and shadowy figures climbing past us.  At 3am a cold wind whipped up over the lake forcing us deeper into our sleeping bags, making us long for the dawn.

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In the glow of the morning light we passed Abu Simbel guarded by its four giant statues of Ramses the II looking east to greet the rising sun.  Four hours later we steamed into Wadi Halfa passing immigration in the dining room before joining a sea of bodies vying to escape the maze of under-deck corridors.  Once a suitable squeeze of people had assembled immigration slowly began pushing people through the doorway and onto the dock.  A fleet of old land rovers greeted us outside the port insistent we pay twenty-five times the local price.  Disgusted by this breach of principle we set off on foot for the ten kilometre walk into town.  About one kilometre down the road the driver of an old Bedford truck took pity on us and granted us a lift.  Our home for the next five days was ‘the Cangan Hotel’ a far cry from the lush gardens and a swimming pool advertised at its entrance.  ‘The compound’, as it came to be affectionately called, comprised a dusty courtyard, windowless rooms, spartan furnishings and cold showers.  To its credit,  it was the hilton of Wadi Halfa!  The town of Wadi Halfa is a desolate dust bowl situated about a kilometre from the shores of lake Aswan.  The local shops, restaurant and bakery provided a daily excuse to escape our concrete prison talking to the  friendly locals who were keen to offer us cups of Chai and discover where we were from.  Strangely several people in Wadi Halfa insisted I was Chinese despite my attempts to correct them.  On one trip to town one of the older locals gave an insightful description of the old Wadi Halfa fondly reminiscing about its streets shaded by palm trees, train station and picturesque corniche all buried under the waters of lake Aswan.  A small group of families forcibly displaced by the lake decided to defy their government and remain, founding the new Wadi Halfa.  It seemed the town was still struggling to find its place in Sudan as farming had received mixed success along the barren shores of the lake..

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The Brazilians, the cyclists, and the bikers (except for Japp) had managed to escape Wadi Halfa by the third day leaving the rest of us to wait for our barge still lost on the waters North of us.  By day four cabin fever had begun setting in having exhausted every means of distraction.  Japp was in a a more depressive mood than the rest of us as the swiss issuers of his Carnet had issued the wrong document leaving his bike stranded in customs facing a return to the dreaded Egyptian border.  On day five we went to the port at nine o’clock to await the supposed arrival of our barge.  Eleven o’clock passed without any news of our barge and Mazar, our fixer, had been unable to reach the Captain on his mobile all morning although he reassured us the barge definitely hadn’t sunk because the Captain’s phone was still ringing.  Around 4pm we heaved a huge sigh of relief as our barge appeared in the distance with all vehicles intact.  Our luck seemed to be turning as Mazar had also been able to get Japp an African carnet.  A quick customs check ended our six-day transit from Aswan to Wadi Halfa. The next morning we set off before dawn, with Hugh and Morag, driving south towards Dongola along a beautiful new tarmac road cutting through the red sandstone mountains of the Nubian desert.

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Just north of Dongola we rejoined the green banks of the Nile with domed Nubian houses and courtyards hidden amongst palm trees along the river bank.  Three days prior we had rather foolishly bet the cyclists we would get to Dongola before they did.  So we stopped to have lunch, pay our debt, and re-unite them with Kyle and Sadbh who had been recovering for a few days in Wadi Halfa.  Thereafter we hit the road again for Karima where down a winding sandy road at the back of town we stumbled across a small group of ruined pyramids nestled underneath Jebel Barkal.  Small and mysterious without a grounds keeper or fence in sight we had the pyramids to ourselves.  When the brutal Saharan sun began wavering we decided to make camp across the river not far from the pyramids of Nuri Merowe.  Hugh led the way, dropping off the tarmac onto a rocky track instinctively finding a campsite seated in an old wadi surrounded by rocky hills.  Setting up camp was simple throwing our sleeping bags onto the ground and starting up the camp fire.  As the embers of the fire faded we climbed into bed to stare up at the milky way, a brilliant mosaic of stars and planets splayed across the sky.  The following day we started early to get to our campsite near the Pyramids of Meroe.  Two hours into our drive between Merowe and Atbara the desert unexpectedly gave wave to a stunning primitive savannah sparsely populated by herds of camel quietly munching on Acacia.  Seeing a good opportunity for a tea break we pulled off the road.  To our alarm a white Toyota full of men waving AK-47s followed us off-road.  They turned out to be the police who thought our off-roading was highly suspicious.  Satisfied our tea party didn’t involve the overthrow of the Bashir government they left us to our tea and mini-rolls.

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Giant cement factories greeted us upon our arrival into Atbara a place full of industry and heat.  Not wishing to stop we turned south along the main motorway full of trucks and buses.  We’d previously experienced Sudanese buses thundering passed us at 160kph overtaking at will and forcing all smaller traffic off the road.  But the addition of the slow-moving trucks made for a lethal mix as dangerous overtaking manoeuvres forced us off the road more than once.  Rounding a rocky outcrop we sighted the temples of Meroe seated atop of a large dune.  We beat a trail off-road once again to where the marauding buses and truckers couldn’t follow.  A look out near the pyramids provided a stunning view of these structures standing in stark contrast to the Great Pyramids of Giza.  Their Nubian architecture and situation on the east bank of the Nile was very different their counterparts in Cairo.  Whilst nowhere near as jaw dropping; abandoned and forgotten an essence of unsolved mystery still clung to their walls.  Leaving us feeling like the explorers of old who had stumbled across these ancient empires buried in the sand.  From the saddle of a hill we retreated into a cool shaded Wadi below.  Our sense of being lost in the desert was interrupted by a couple of camels and a boy selling trinkets.  Bizarrely it had seemed the small but very determined tourist shop had moved three kilometres due south to our campsite.  Eventually realising they had stumbled across a bunch of tight brits they melted back into the dunes, leaving us to enjoy omelets under another starry sky.

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At daybreak we hastily packed up camp and left Hugh and Morag to make for Khartoum where we had to organise our Ethiopian visas.  After a brief chase by an ever determined shopkeeper and his donkey through the dunes we hit the motorway going south.  Two hours later we arrived in the streets of Khartoum where the Mahdi had beheaded general Gordon and overthrown the British in the late 1800s.  After a quick stop at the Ethiopian embassy we headed to the blue Nile sailing club where Kitchener’s old gunboat now rests.  It had played a role at the battle of Omdurmann when Kitchener’s relief force finally arrived to avenge general Gordon, crush the Mahdi forces and re-conquer Sudan.  Sighting the blue waters of the Nile behind the rusting gunboat reminded us to pay a short visit to the confluence of the blue and white Nile.  Supposedly there is a difference in colour between the two but honestly they both looked pretty muddy.  To touch base with the ‘real world’ we went to seek internet in the  ‘Holiday inn’ similar in appearance to the Raffles hotel in Singapore.  Outside we met Aima a giant of a man with a warm smile and a big heart who struck up a conversation enquiring about our travels and what we thought of Sudan.  As we entered the hotel he ushered us into an office containing the head of media for Sudan.  A round of coffee was immediately conjured up and we were shown pictures of the head of media touring football games and rallys with president Bashir as Aima explained the two are very good friends.  It was a little unnerving sitting in a room with the best friend of a man wanted by the international criminal court for genocide.  Nevertheless they were both very friendly and were keen to make sure we had a good and safe experience of Sudan.  That evening we returned to camp at the blue Nile sailing club.  Unfortunately the only place one can legally consume alcohol in Sudan is ‘the Pickwick club’ at the British embassy, so with embassy attaché lacking we had to make do with soft drinks on the banks of the Nile.

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Wednesday morning we emerged from our tent in the car park to the sight of hundreds of birds of prey circling through the thermals of the morning air above Khartoum.  Today was to be a run for the border along the motorway through the green farmland south of Khartoum.  At Wadi Medani we parted ways with the Nile as we continued east towards Al Qadarif where farmland continued to flourish amid arid grassland.  At Al Qadarif we turned off on the road to Gallabat passing several UN refugee projects housing people displaced by the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict.    Along this road shrub-land and large rocky hills started to appear.  There was also an obvious change in architecture from mud compounds to thatched roofs and wooden walls.  This enlightening change in scenery distracted my attention from the road ahead.  A sharp yell from Richard brought things crashing back to reality as a loud screech and tyre smoke filled the air.  The weight of Delilah carried her through to collide with the back of Hugh and Morag’s land rover giving them a large shunt.  Thanks to Richards sharp warning only the front of Delilah was slightly damaged.  Hugh and Morag’s double swing away wheels had acted as amazing shock absorbers with the back of their land rover having sustained practically no damage at all.  Shaken but relieved everyone was alright we made camp fourteen miles from the border eager to see what Ethiopia would bring in the morning.

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Insha’Allah

The wind had dropped and the weather cleared so the passage to Damietta was relatively calm, which was re-assuring considering all twelve drivers on board were locked in a small section of the vessel.  It contained our bunk rooms and a mess room where a random collection of films continually played in Arabic.  I shared my room with a Turkish driver who was going to Saudi Arabia, didn’t speak any English and had a bizaare preference for sleeping on the small sofa rather than in his bed.  There were two other English drivers on board, Paul and Andy, also driving their trucks to Saudi Arabia who regaled me with their exploits throughout the middle east.  In the afternoon the third officer kindly invited me onto the bridge to have a look around.  It was a relief to get out of the cramped drivers quarters for a view and some fresh air.  That evening we arrived in Damietta but the wind had picked up again so the Captain decided to wait until the morning for berthing.  Despite doing a lot of reading on the situation in Egypt I didn’t know what to expect upon our arrival.  Paul and Andy had told me about their experiences in Port Said where bullets had a tendency to ring off containers around them.
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Berthing the next day was a torrid affair as the wind caused the ship to hit the berth snapping a mooring line that smashed into a car on the dock.  Hany Ismail from WORMS greeted me off the ship and I went to their offices to sort out paperwork over a cup of tea.  Eventually we began to disembark, driving Delilah into a private warehouse where she would sit until passing customs clearance.  Thereafter Mahmoud El Sisi took me to the small seaside town of Ras El Bar directly on the eastern confluence of the Nile and the Mediterranean sea.  A peaceful little town it was far from the image of Egypt that had been painted in the media.  Remarkably deserted during the day, it appeared solely populated by suspicious groups of cats sat around bins plotting the overthrow of their masters, snapping to attention when interrupted.  At night the town came to life as Egyptians emerged to fill the restaurants, coffee houses and shops lining the banks of the Nile.  The next two days were passed slipping in and out of these coffee houses, catching up on sleep, and swimming in the sea.  Since Friday was a day off customs wouldn’t resume until Saturday.  By the third day I was itching to get back on the road and keen to get cleared from customs before Eid began on the Monday.  Saturday and Sunday were spent camped out in a coffee house within the port as we waited for the final paperwork from customs.  Here I met Ben, a fellow overlander running a Dragoman truck down to Sudan, and Hisham Shalay my guide to Aswan.  Admittedly I was resistant to the idea of a guide paranoid it would ruin the essence of the trip by entering the realm of the bleating tourist, herded around monuments between meals.  My family concerned about the security situation in Egypt had offered to pay for a guide so it seemed wise to accept their offer albeit reluctantly.
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Previously the plan was to avoid Cairo and take the Western desert south via the White desert and Farafra Oasis to Luxor and Aswan.  However, Mr Shalay informed me the Western desert was too dangerous as 90% of the weapons in Egypt were being moved into the country through the western desert from Libya.  Instead we were to drive to Cairo and follow the populous Nile valley down through El Minya.  On Sunday we just made it through customs, shortly after which they closed up shop for Eid and went home.  Unfortunately Ben wasn’t as lucky, being left stranded for another five days so we left him and headed for Cairo.  Back in Damietta Delilah had her Egyptian license plates fitted to her bumper and a man offered to ‘fix my steering wheel’ (put it back on the left side of the car).  We set off down the motorway across the Manzala lake to follow the Suez canal under the  bridge to the Sinai peninsula.  The Egyptian army had closed half the motorway since an RPG attack on a ship a couple of weeks ago creating a five hundred metre no man’s land full of military hardware.  The first checkpoint felt like a scene out of ‘Apocalypse Now’ amidst soldiers and tanks, punctuated by a short flyby by three fighter jets.  Mr Shalay proved his worth immediately going to work charming the officials and getting us through with minimum hassle.  A couple of checkpoints later we merged into the melee of Cairo traffic slowly falling into it’s momentum, finding order in the chaos.  We were briefly accosted by some street kids whilst trying to grab some dinner but the Owner chased them off and we emerged an hour later to find her badly keyed (every panel scratched!) and the restaurant Owner engaged in a standoff with the same kids wielding bricks.  Mr Shalay advised me that much of the trouble in Cairo had been caused by street kids who were given weapons and money by the Muslim brotherhood to stir up trouble and create an image of unrest.
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The next day after a confused start and the very regrettable experience of a dog running under Delilah, we started our tour of Cairo at the  stepped pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara.  Built in the 27th century BC by Imhotep, vizier of Djoser, it stood in the desert on a hill overlooking the lush palms of the Nile valley below.  Afterwards we set off to the Great Pyramids of Giza,  shortly stopping in the middle of a four lane motorway arguing about reversing one hundred metres in the wrong direction to save five minutes.  The situation at Giza really highlighted the plight of the tourist industry in Egypt with desperate touts and guides shouting, yelling and hanging off the side of Delilah asking for business and then money.   Within the pyramid complex it wasn’t so bad but it wasn’t devoid of pushy Egyptians.  This experience couldn’t detracted from the grandeur of the pyramids that stood proud and timeless against the backdrop of the city.  We looked at going to see the mummies of the Egyptian museum but the whole of Tahir square was surrounded by the army so we abandoned our attempt to get in and went back to the hotel.  On the day of the big feast we departed Cairo which was a nightmare as the whole city was on lock-down with road blocks, tanks and barbed wire everywhere; finding ourselves sandwiched between the army and brewing muslim brotherhood protests.  Adding to this spectacle was the slaughter of cows and sheep along the roadside for the big feast.  Navigating through the backstreets finally brought us onto the southbound motorway.
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Between Cairo and Beni Suef we drove through another muslim brotherhood protest holding up their placards of Morsi and waving four fingers at us whilst shouting “welcome to Egypt”.  With Eid the roads were relatively clear however an abundance of invisible speed bumps seriously limited our progress to such a degree even Mr Shalay went against his own advice and we ventured onto the Eastern desert road.  Here, speed bumps melted away and Delilah came to life in the heat hitting speeds she’d previously struggled to achieve.  Adrenaline running high helped considerably with the sixteen hour drive and it was evident emotions were also running high with Hisham, who was very uneasy about the sparsely populated desert road.  The long time spent in customs had curtailed our time between Damietta and Aswan so a decision to skip Luxor was made and we pressed on for Aswan.  Asking for directions after dark from strangers was somewhat worrying but we eventually found the right motorway.  Leaving the last checkpoint before Aswan the police officer made the rather ominous comment that we would beyond help if anything happened to us between here and there, as we were supposed to wait until the morning for a convoy.  Anyway with just three hours to go we sped on, making good progress towards Aswan with Hisham pointing out Isna and Idfu as places where ‘bad men’ lived.  Reaching Aswan at 10pm we meandered through horse drawn carts and street boys for some koshari before hitting our beds.
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In the morning we did a brief tour of the unfinished obelisk, high Dam and Aswan Dam, where we were apprehended by the military for taking photos.  The army officers were very civilised despite their stern faces and we were released fifteen minutes later after being made to delete the photos.  Since the overthrow of Mubarak the police have regained the respect of the Egyptian people acting on their behalf rather than as president’s personal security attache.  That afternoon a relieved Mr Shalay confessed to me how worried he’d been about our trip with his friends and family calling him telling him not to do this trip.  The stress explained the tense atmosphere at times and the teasing comments about my ‘English driving’.  Nonetheless his companionship, help and insight into Egyptian politics over the last couple of days had proved invaluable.  We swapped contact details and I bid him farewell as he returned to Cairo and his family for the last day of Eid.   The next morning I picked up Richard from the airport struggling through the checkpoints, without any Arabic, to find him tea in hand happily immersed in conversation with the local taxi drivers.  Detaching ourselves, we set out to the Nubian side of Aswan in search of ‘Adam’s home’, a civilised Nubian courtyard run by the dynamic duo of Sammy and Mohammed.  Sheltering under the eaves from the intense midday sun we met three bikers (Chris, Bret and Ron), who had gone through Tunisia and Libya and a British couple (Morag and Hugh) who had spent the past few weeks in the Western desert much to my jealous dismay.  Shortly after sunset we re-convened for a couple of cold beers swapping stories of our latest exploits until a wedding party arrived and Mohammed invited us to join them.  Nubian music filled the courtyard with a throng of people dancing and waving their whips in front of a small stage.  Initially watching on, smoking our shisha, we slowly got up the courage to venture into the throng of bodies.  At about 2am a big scuffle broke out as someone got a little enthusiastic with their whip and once the commotion had died down things wound up at around 3am.
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Over the following days a group of four cyclists arrived (Kyle, Cidro, Niamh, and Sadhbh) who had traversed the Western desert and had a nasty run in with the “bad men” between Isna and Idfu.  In addition a Brazilian couple in the process of driving around the world arrived with their young son and daughter.  The preceding days were spent exploring the Prince’s tombs, sorting out our ferry to Sudan and looking around town, as Morag and Hugh directed beer supply.  One afternoon we decided to treat ourselves to lunch in the Cataract hotel which had a fabulous balcony overlooking the Nile and its little islets, incidentally the home of Agatha Christie’s ‘death on the Nile’.  Throughout our visit the Nile stood out as the crowning gem of Aswan with the green banks and golden sands of the surrounding desert starkly contrasting with the deep blue emanating from its depths.  At sunset the felluccas with their bowed sails silhouetted against sky mysteriously glided over its dark waters.  We’d settle down in the evenings to drink beer and enjoy the company of our fellow travellers and the jovial Mohammed biding our time before the ferry to Wadi Halfa.
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