Riders of the Lost Ark
Posted on December 14, 2014
As expected, arrival in Ethiopia’s capital city of Addis Ababa was a chaotic affair. But at least it is a gentle chaos, with everyone launching into intersections, creating an auto-quagmire, but then slowly and carefully nudging forward or finally giving way when inches away from the fender panel of a larger vehicle.
Our primary objective in Addis was to obtain a transit visa for Sudan, as we’d already been denied in both Nairobi and Kampala due to our citizenship in the good old US of A. The embassy in Addis was our final hope for a visa.
Our hopes deflated when upon arrival at the overlander-frequented Wim’s Holland House, a Dutchman told us that the last two Americans seeking a visa to Sudan were summarily thrown out of the embassy. While we managed not be restrained by the ambassador’s goons, we were denied all the same, informed that they required an approval from the foreign ministry in Khartoum to give us a transit visa. We contacted tour agents and hotels in Khartoum who seemed to be willing to apply for an approval on our behalf, which may have been helpful, but it would take two weeks cost us $300 on top of the $200 each it was going to cost to apply for the Sudanese visa. In Nairobi we had been denied approval from Khartoum after a two-week wait, so we weren’t anxious to go down a similar path here. We visited the embassy 4 more times in the next three days, each time waiting patiently for hours and respectfully requesting an audience with the Consul to present our case, but were turned away each time.
Things were looking grim. We started making inquiries on getting a boat from Djibouti up the Red Sea. The waters were said to be thick with Somali pirates, but our options were narrowing, as there is no land route for us around Sudan. Then we got in touch with a ‘fixer’ and tour operator in Khartoum called Midhat Mahir, who told us that he knew the Consul well and that he could vouch for us. Unfortunately we never managed to get past first line of defense to get this information to the Consul.
On the fifth day at the embassy I enlisted the help of a Sudanese guy waiting with us who helped convince the embassy front-window staffer that our plight was worth interrupting the Consul for a moment. Within minutes of sending the staffer back with Midhat’s card, he returned and agreed to process a transit visa for us. It was amazing. A minute before a transit visa was simply not possible, even armed with a sworn affidavit from the United States Consul in Nairobi, a letter of invitation from a hotel in Khartoum, and a valid Egyptian visa already in our passports. And an instant later it was no problem. I suppose that’s what a fixer does; he fixes stuff. I couldn’t believe that after a week in Addis, half a dozen trips to the embassy, and copious hours on the internet researching options, we finally had our ticket north.
Ethiopia has it’s own language (Amharic) with its own alphabet, its own calendar, and its own time keeping system, all of which are unique in the world. It all can seem a bit mad to travelers; the time is 6 hours ahead of what the rest of the world would suppose, and the date is about 7 years behind the current Gregorian calendar year. It’s 2007 again. I feel younger already.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of riding a motorbike in Ethiopia is the omnipresence of animals and people occupying most of the road. Riding a motorized vehicle, we felt an interloper more often than not, interrupting the endless drive of goats, sheep, steer, camels, and donkeys. Usually, I ride nearly in the center of the road to avoid the throngs along the side and one time I was nearly clotheslined by a gang of camels walking abreast who were roped together. The animals are always going somewhere. I was under the impression that they mostly keep their faces in the grass eating all day, but these animals seem to keep very busy schedules. It’s hard to be in Ethiopia for a month and not want to own a Donkey. Camels not so much.
For all of its idiosyncrasies, Ethiopia is a great place for independent travelers, with incredibly affordable accommodation and tasty food. In the town of Wereta, we found the cheapest hotel yet – deluxe accommodation at the Hotel Obama goes for just 14 Birr or $0.70 USD. We decided to splurge at a hotel up the road for a whopping 60 Birr ($3 USD), but unfortunately found later that night that the hotel was also the local brothel and dudes were in the mood for love.
On the way north, we hit a long stretch with plenty of petrol stations, but no petrol. There isn’t much traffic on the road here and most of the vehicles are big trucks and buses that burn diesel.
We ran on the reserve tank for only a few miles before finding fuel, but that was enough to suck whatever gunk in from the last petrol I’d gotten out of dodgy barrel in a village into the carb and clog the inlet filter. Dyna was bogging under any more than a quarter throttle as we limped into a guest house for the night where I could clean her out.
The dramatic landscape of Ethiopia seems to stretch on and on, with steep valleys and mesas undulating to the horizon. Swiftly flowing rivers are strewn with cobbles and boulders, with hardly a grain of sand or silt to be seen, indicating a channel most accustomed to powerful high flows.
We made our way along 40 miles of gravel road to the town of Lalibela to find the churches that we’d heard so much about. It’s one of those places that everyone says you must go. After so much time on the road, I don’t readily take such recommendations to heart, but we blown away by what we found there.
Walking out onto the volcanic rock that flanks the town, we found the massive, ornately decorated structures hewn straight from the rock.
It was incredible to think that all of the space that we walked through, both adjacent to and inside the buildings was once occupied by solid rock. It’s hard to imagine having the notion to start carving these things out from a plain mound of basaltic rock on a hill.
The churches were constructed during the 12th century during the reign of King Lalibela (or at least partly so). One historical legend holds that king Lalibella wanted to create another Jerusalem so that pilgrims wouldn’t need to make long dangerous journey to the holy city.
We wound our way through the networks of subsurface tunnels connect more the 15 buildings in the area. These aren’t just relics, but functional churches, still regularly occupied by priests and worshipers of the village and a destination for thousands of pilgrims for centuries.
The churches of Lalibela were truly awe inspiring and it’s no wonder that this place was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Gondar not Gondor
On the way out of Lalibela, we met with more of the fantastic landscape of the region, reminiscent of the canyon lands of the American southwest.
When we stopped to admire the view, Jamie quickly made some friends eager to practice their few words of English and invariable ask for a pen.
Similar in name to a certain city of Middle Earth, Gondar also has fantastic castles of old, but seems to be ruled by tourist guides rather than horse lords. The Ethiopian Emperor Falicidades made Gondar his seat of power in 1636, constructing magnificent palaces, beautiful gardens, and grand churches. We wandered through the ruins back into the 17th century and tried to imagine what life would have been like for those dwelling within the castle walls.
It was a fantastical place and we seemed to have it all to ourselves as we tried to find stairways up to the tallest towers of the different castles. It was fun. Jamie gave a smirk of approval.
Some of the castles were built centuries apart from one another and were in various states of ruin or preservation.
We had big plans to hunt down the legendary Ark of the Covenant that supposedly lies just to the north of Lalibela in the town of Aksum. What better way to spend the holidays than laying eyes on a physical piece of biblical history, right? The Old Testament says that the Ark of the Covenant was built by Moses on Mt Sinai and contains the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. The Ark lived in King Solomon’s Great Temple, which was sacked in 587 BC, when the Ark disappears from mention in the Old Testament. Ethiopian tradition holds that it was brought to Ethiopia sometime in the 1st millennia AC by Menelic, son of Solomon and Sheba and now sits in the inner sanctuary (the holiest of hollies) Aksum’s St. Mary of Zion Church.
Unfortunately the holiest of hollies turned out to be too holy for us. We learned that they keepers of the Ark don’t even let foreigners in to the parking lot of the church ever since some tourist tried to rush the gates in their zeal to set eyes on the relic. Sorry to disappoint, but these riders can’t weigh in on the authenticity of the ark in question, let alone its ability to melt the faces off of would be raiders.
We retreated to Dutch owned enclave called Tim and Kim’s Place on the shore of Lake Tana (the source of the Blue fork of the Nile) at the end of a long dirt track. Jamie did some washing and I did a bit of work on the bike to prepare for our launch into the Sudan. Dyna Rae got some new shoes for the back brake, her cables lubed, and a few seized bolts liberated with lots of patience and persuasion on my part. If ever I spend so much time on a motorbike in the rain again I will surely be more generous with the WD-40 to preemptively combat corrosion.
We already had our Sudan visa in hand, but the problem was securing passage for the bike since my Carnet de Passages is now expired and also out of pages. We’d managed getting into Ethiopia on the expired Carnet (probably because the Ethiopian calendar says it’s 2007), but greater proximity to Europe means more stringent customs regulations. By all accounts the Sudan bureaucracy has the immovability of an ill-tempered camel.
I used a scanned copy of one of the last blank Carnet pages to create some new ones that I edited to read Nov 2015 as the expiration date and obscured the date on the front cover. I carefully folded the printed pages along the lines of where the perforations of the genuine document would be and Jamie meticulously unbound the Carnet to insert the new pages.
After all of our careful work we had a forgery that was laughably easy to detect. With southbound overlanders invariably reporting a Carnet was required to enter Sudan with their vehicle, our options were few, so we figured it’s was a shot.