Archive for July, 2010

The Simien Mountains

Fogged in at the viewpoint

The last stop on our little tour of northern Ethiopia was the Simien Mountains National Park. We arrived in the small city of Debark the night before our scheduled trek, and took advantage of the hot showers and fresh coffee available there. The following morning we piled into our bus and began the slow, winding drive into the park itself. The roads were something else: being the rainy season, we were often driving axle-deep through puddles of mud and water, and we even pulled a couple of semi-controlled slide/drifts around some of the muddy switchback corners. That’s a little unnerving when the valley below you drops away a thousand feet sheer. Luckily we had a very good driver, and he successfully negotiated all of the dangers without incident.

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Ancient Axum

Inside the tombs of Axum

After reluctantly saying goodbye to Lalibela we made our way to Axum. The marathon journey took us a full day and a half to complete along winding switchback mountain roads. Once we finally arrived, Mark was relieved to lie down on a bed and recover from a stomach bug he picked up, while I ventured out with the others to see the sights.

I’m not much of a history buff to begin with, let alone Ethiopian history, so this was another place not on my radar. Axum, Axumite: these words sounded somewhat familiar. I probably read about Axumite kingdoms on a museum plaque once upon a time, not really registering their significance. Once again, I can thank my travels for enlightenment. This ancient kingdom was a truly significant civilizations for almost a thousand years, from around 200BC to 8th century AD, before outside religions took hold of Ethiopia. The Axumite were traders, thriving on the Red Sea. The city of Axum was the centre of their kingdom.

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Rock-hewn churches of Lalibela

We left the Oasis truck in Bahir Dar for a 6-night tour of Northern Ethiopia by bus. Although we left the truck, 20 of the 23 people on board opted to do the same tour, so it was the same crowd (mostly), but a different vehicle. We were in for a driving marathon, spending 43 hours on the bus and covering nearly 1200km in 7 days. We were on a mission to visit three significant destinations: Lalibela, home of the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia, Axum, the ancient centre of the Axumite Dynasty, and the Simien Mountains National Park. Lalibela was our first stop on the loop, and the one that I was looking forward to the most. We would be visiting 11 churches there, each one carved by hand into the solid rock of the surrounding landscape. According to one of the guidebooks we read, these rock-hewn churches would be one of the 7 Wonders of the World, if only they weren’t in Ethiopia. I suppose what they mean by this is that the churches simply aren’t that well known outside of the country, and had they been in, say, Egypt (perhaps alongside the pyramids), they would likely have attracted much more attention, along with much larger crowds of tourists. The hidden advantage of the situation is that the churches are not yet overrun with outsiders and sightseers, and many of the churches are still functioning as they always have. We felt like an extremely large and unwieldly group as we made our way through the small underground passageways that connected the buildings, but we felt (perhaps paradoxically) fortunate not to have to share the sites with any other large and unwieldly groups. Such is the joy of visiting a tourist attraction not yet discovered by tourists!

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One year. Three hundred and sixty-five days. From this end of it, it seems to have flown by, but when we think back on how much we’ve seen and done, I realize how long a year can be. It’s been without a doubt the best year of our lives. Check out the Breadcrumb page to see our latest routes. Here are a few of our latest stats:

Average speed over land: 44.2 km/h
Distance covered in Africa alone: 17,569 km
Number of hours spent in transit (excluding flight): 1581
Total distance covered (excluding flight): 62,678 km (1.57x around the equator)
Average time driving in the Oasis truck per day: 4.5 hrs.

After much delay, here’s the long-ago promised video of us sandboarding in Namibia! You can check out the original post here for all the details on our day on the dunes.

The source of the White Nile is near the town of Jinja, Uganda. A series of waterfalls and dams marks the start of the mightly river which runs from Lake Victoria all the way up to the Mediterranean. It is here, near Jinja, where some of the world’s best whitewater rafting exists. Since we missed out on the opportunity to raft on the Zambezi river near Vic Falls (because the water level was too high), we decided that rafting here would be a more than adequate consolation.

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So many village children happy to see us!

As we crossed back into Uganda after our gorilla adventure, we had an opportunity to take a boat across Lake Bunyonyi, the second deepest lake in Africa. On the way, we would make a stop at a small village to visit a community of Batwa pygmies. The pygmies are traditionally a forest-dwelling people, but in the past few decades they have been displaced by deforestation and by the creation of national parks. Unfortunately, they shared much of their habitat with the mountain gorillas, and although this wasn’t detrimental to either the gorillas or the pygmies, the government decreed that no people were to dwell in the gorilla’s protected lands, and the pygmies were relocated to small parcels of land throughout Uganda. This has had a very negative impact on them, since they’ve been forced to adopt a settled, agricultural lifestyle, after hundreds of years living as nomadic hunter-gatherers. The tour that we were taking was meant to raise awareness for their situation, as well as provide some monetary support to help with land purchases and other necessities.

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Awesome beasts

This is a post that I’ve been waiting to write for over a year now. When we made our booking with Oasis Overland back in the spring of 2009, we decided to pay the extra money to reserve our mountain gorilla trekking permits well in advance. It wasn’t an easy decision to make — the permits cost nearly $600 a piece, which is no small pocket change for travelers. However, ever since hearing Douglas Adams’ account of hiking through the cloud rainforests of the Virunga Volcanoes to find these incredible animals* I’ve been indescribably drawn to the prospect of having the experience myself. It would have been unbearable to be in the heart of Rwanda, so close to the gorillas, without a permit in hand. So we bit the bullet, paid the money (gulp), and started counting down the months. Finally, our planned trekking day was upon us: June 29th, 2010, almost 14 months after booking. This was it. We were going to meet the gorillas.

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The Kigali Memorial Centre

After a few more days of driving through Uganda, we finally crossed the border into Rwanda on June 27th. Rwanda has been a country that we’ve been looking forward to visiting for a very long time now, primarily because we’d booked our permits to go trekking with the mountain gorillas months before we even left Ottawa last July. With each passing day, Rwanda and our gorilla encounter was getting nearer and nearer, and it was foremost in my mind — so much so that the country’s very dark and recent past was not in my thoughts as we crossed the border. It was surprisingly easy to forget that we were heading into a country where over a million people died in the 1994 genocide. On our way to the gorillas we made a stop in Kigali for a half day visit to the Kigali Memorial Centre, dedicated to this genocide in Rwanda and the memory of the victims, both past and present. I have to admit that I had a certain na√Øvety about the specifics of Rwanda’s genocide before visiting the centre, but I left three hours later profoundly affected, and deeply saddened.

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News from Uganda

Watching the BBC in the lobby of our hotel in Addis this morning, we heard some shocking news of bombs going off last night in Kampala, Uganda. One of them went off in an Ethiopian restaurant, where people were watching the final World Cup game. Suspicions are on a Somali rebel group, but nothing is confirmed yet. It’s devastating news and our sympathies go out to the people of Kampala, where we so recently visited. We just wanted to post quickly to let everyone know that we were not affected: moms and dads: try not to worry, we’re ok.

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