Saturday, 25 October 2014

Ethiopia and Somaliland 2015


The (mis)adventures of the A-Team (Paul Stewart and Brent Hargreaves) in East Affffrica.
Some highlights of the positive and negative experiences

Surrounded by Predators

From the moment they spotted us they began circling, edging gradually closer, their eyes glinting, testing us for weakness. This, at a bus stop in the middle of town!
We're in the town of Harar in eastern Ethiopia, breaking our journey to Somaliland in an ancient place famous for its city walls and as the birthplace of the mass murderer Mengistu.
From the evidence before our eyes, the women of Ethiopia do all the work and the men either lounge around doing nothing all day or (and here they come) they prey on innocent visitors. In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates coined the phrase 'friction free capitalism', predicting that the newfangled internet, liberating information, would make purchase decisions easier. Scavengers with mobile phones, the street hucksters now surrounding us will, under the pretence of being helpful, attempt to exploit our ignorance and ensure that we pay top dollar for drinks, food, accommodation and onward transport. If we're dumb enough to let 'em, that is......

Harar is the furthest we could get from the capital, Addis Ababa, in a single hop. It was a ten-hour bus ride. From here to the border with Somaliland we need to find transport. But first, we need beer. Shaking off the gaggle of hucksters, and very alert to theft, we stroll off to find a bar. There's one down a sidestreet. Paul and I chill out, taking our time to orient ourselves (is there a bus station?) and hand out token gifts to children across the road.

Colourful women and timid children in Harar, Ethiopia

We decide to hire a private taxi for the remaining 100 miles to the border, and after much haggling agree on a price of $120, leaving tomorrow morning. Now, where are we to sleep? Shunning all advice, we decide to head off in a direction of our own choice in a dead straight line until we find a suitable campsite. Masters of our own fate, with iron resolve, we will not deviate to left or right until we can say: "This is a nice spot".

Our chosen direction takes us through the ancient walled city - through one gate, out the other side, laughing and joking with women heading in the same direction, some driving donkeys with the shopping on, some carrying baskets or sacks on their heads (haha, missus! D'you reckon this rucksack would be better on me head?). The crowds thin out. We pass the smelly municipal rubbish dump and, now very tired, find a nice spot. Suddenly there are dark clouds and lightning flashes. Double-quick, we pitch our tents but the expected downpour doesn't happen.

I go off in search of firewood. There are some funny looking trees. Underneath them one or two green spheres: haha! These are mango trees! and for the next day the song from Dr. No is stuck in my head - Underneath de Mango Tree. Also underneath de mango tree is a hyena: furtive, sly, shifty. It slinks off when I throw a mango at him. By the time I get back to camp he is tagging along behind. "Hey Paul, I've made a friend!" Paul rummages in his rucksack and comes out with the world's biggest Bowie knife to defend us.  

As dusk arrives, three or four other hyenas join the first one. We throw stones at them to no effect. They laugh at us! It's a filthy corrupt sound. When it's fully dark we don our headlamps and, from the reflections in their eyes, we realise that we are surrounded at all points of the compass by at least eight hyenas. It's time for a risk assessment. Can we just ignore them and hope they lack the courage to come through the canvas? Shall we take it in turns to sleep with one of us standing guard? Or must we accept that these are unpredictable wild animals; that we have no experience to guide us; that the only sensible course is to break camp and retreat to the town. We do the sensible thing and pack up. A horrible sweaty night follows, in a double bed, listening to barking dogs, swatting mosquitos (Paul is a brilliant shot) and discovering condoms on top of the wardrobe.
In the morning, the private taxi is just big enough for us and our packs. The huckster who arranged this thinks he is squeezing in with us. We politely tell him to go to hell. The trip to Togo Wuchale on the border is great fun, and we tell the driver to pull over when we spot baboons or Lot's Wife or giant phalli (is that the plural of phallus?) en route.
Baboons, Willy Canyon, Paul irrigating an acacia tree, Lot's Wife sheltering under an acacia tree.

Dumber and Dumber

Paul and I had long conversations on "openness", and figured that we would strike the best balance between the two extremes of (a) Being so cautious that it disbarred us from exchanges with genuine people and (b) Believing like gullible fools that everybody was our friend. Could we strike the "happy medium"? Why, shoor.
On a long walk through the diesel fumes of Addis Ababa, a couple of friendly guys fall into step with us. "Hello! How are you? Where are you guys from?" and so on. They tell us all about the bus station; about the new railway; about the sports stadium; about the embassies. And, as afternoon turns into night, they ask us if we would like to experience a Tej Bar. Tej is mead, or honey wine, flavoured with a unique local shrub, once reserved only for kings. It's an unmissable experience.
We confer, and decide that we can easily afford to treat a couple of ne'er-do-wells to a couple of rounds of drink. We think we are being "open".
They take us through dark rubble-strewn streets to a bustling place, with every seat taken. Grinning our stupid tourist grins at the many blank faces turned towards us, we are led through the throng, down a corridor, into a narrow back room where - pleasant surprise! - there is just enough room for the four of us at the end of this cul de sac.
The Tej is rather nice.  Another round? Yeah, sure! Oh, it's traditional to drink three times. Yeah, sure!
And then the bill comes. It's quite high. I forget just how much, but it's maybe twenty or thirty quid. We start to protest. The hard-faced barman, who has been filling these flasks from a big enamel kettle with great dexterity, is not batting an eyelid. He wants paying. We ask other drinkers what price they are paying per shot. They write down exactly the sum of money that our companions tell them - maybe two quid a shot. Paul and I confer. Have we fallen into a trap? Yes we have. Can we afford this? Yes we can. Can we extract ourselves from this without unpleasantness? I want my mummy.
When we get out into the fresh air, breathing sighs of relief, but cursing ourselves for letting our guard down, these two bastards are still at our sides. In an effort to salvage some self-respect, I thank the one of them for a useful, if expensive, education. They propose a meal. We say, "Great idea! How about this pizza place over the road. You're buying, then? It's your round!" They vanish at a speed which suggests teleportation or genies going back into a kettle of Tej.
There's a postscript. The following day, as he sits typing in an internet café, Paul looks up to see one of these petty criminals next to him. He's full of himself, gloating at his successful sting. He boasts to Paul that with the proceeds of the scam he has bought a set of new clothes and a pair of shoes. Paul tells him, vividly and vigorously, to go away.   
Another day, another dummy


Unusual in Africa, unsual in muslim countries, Somaliland is a democracy. They change government by election, with the outgoing President handing over without a fight.

Not to be confused with the dangerous Somalia, Somaliland was once a British colony. Thanks to us Brits, they write in a-b-c rather than wiggly squiggly. In 1960, we Brits and the colonial masters of Italian Somalia coordinated our departure and left 'em to it. After a period of calm and oppression, Somaliland broke away. There was terrible loss of life. Today, Somaliland is proudly independent. In the capital, Hargeisa, they celebrate this liberation every 18 May with much waving of their green-white-red national colours. This year was the 24th anniversary.  

Paul and I timed our visit to witness the big parade, hoping to see the famous lions. We were not disappointed.

Wrapped in the flag  - Hand-made Hatband - Hairstyle - Ladies join in 

Paul had a bout of food-poisoning, and was confined to the hotel room on the day before the Big Day. I went walkabout. Walking along Independence Road, I hear a song being played from Tannoys, sounding like Manca Manca Manca. Its tune strongly resembles the French song Alouette. I happen upon a Russian-made MiG bomber on a pedestal and, snapping away, draw a crowd of locals.

Independence from Britain, on 24 June 1960 (or 26th according to the above pedestal) (the guy with the hairstyle says it was the 24th) was then supplanted by the 18 May 1991 independence from Somalia.

Paul and I were dubious about the Mig having been shot down whilst bombing Hargeisa. It turns out that, having bombed civilians in 1991, later engine failure at takeoff left it stranded at Hargeisa airport, hence its good condition to this day.

I asked my crowd of locals about the song. A couple of them gave me the lyrics:

Manta manta manta
Wa ma'alin wee'le manta
Manta manta manta

Today today today
Today is a big day
Today today today.

This was a big hit for a lady called Halimo Khalif Mogol in 1960. On this Big Day in 2015, we sometimes attracted crowds of curious locals, snapping photos of us in our green-white-red, who were very pleased to hear us sing the song.

The temperatures were very high, and I was wearing shorts. The sight of legs attracted some dubious looks, but only when a tall austere guy in a muslim hat pushed through the crowd and accused me of a lack of respect did I change my wayward ways and skedaddle to the hotel room to re-attach the bottom half. When in Rome.....

Watching the procession on the Big Day, a policeman calls us forward. "Come with me", he says. We follow obediently. He makes his way to the steps of a bank where a bunch of top brass are receiving salutes from the passing military. Next thing we know, we are among the local dignitaries, being saluted at. Such fun!

Kalashnikovs. Don't like Kalashnikovs.
Did we see the lions? Yes we did!

Lion and hat. "Equal justice under the law"? I'll drink to that!

Not-so-smiley faces                                        Slootin sojers

Sadly, we failed to make contact with a former workmate, Mustafa, who was back home in Somaliland at the same time as us. It would have been great to have had an entrée into local society.

A word about the hat: one evening my adventurous hat with its lovely hatband was whipped off my head by a bunch of youths who yahoo'ed away into the darkness. I yelled, "Oh, no!", but declined to go rugby tackling 'em. Paul and I were immediately surrounded by apologetic adults, ashamed of the offence. One of them offered me the above trilby, which I gratefully accepted. And I got my hat back. Kids, eh?!

The Red Terror

It so happens that Ethiopia is Christian, with a history going back to the 4th century. It is the only African country to have escaped European colonialism. From 1930 its emperor was the famous Haile Selassie. Before becoming emperor his name was Tafari Makonnen, later "Ras" (head) Tafari. For reasons beyond me, a religious movement in Jamaica adopted him as a figure of respect (or higher), and called themselves the Rastafarians. 

Walking around Addis Ababa we would sometimes see a bewildered guy in dreadlocks muttering to himself or singing in a demented way. Go figure.

In 1973 I recall seeing a Sunday Times magazine item entitled "Ethiopia: the Lion Grows Old". The following year Haile Selassie was deposed in a military coup. For the next fifteen years a monster called Mengistu, with Soviet support, set about murdering hundreds of thousands of his opponents with special emphasis on the young. Today, a superb museum in Addis commemorates these dark days. The staff lived through those times. Mengistu lives on, given sanctuary by the lovely Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

I try to avoid political comment on my travels, but let the following photos give their own comment:

A street huckster had latched onto us as we walked around the streets looking for a bus station and also the Red Terror Museum. At a certain point, he was pounced upon by a young man who gave him a right pummelling, ending in a pebble the size of a conker being thrown at his head with an audible "thwock". It was only that evening that we discovered the identity of the attacker: he was a huckster from outside our hotel, some miles away from where the assault took place, by the name of Dawyd. Seconds before beating up the other fellow Dawydd had said to me, "OMG! Fancy meeting you here!", but he had clearly been tracking us every step of the way and considered us his turkeys ready for plucking.

This is not nice. With the benefit of hindsight, we should have made greater efforts to get out into the countryside; out of the big bad cities with their hard people.

Border Control Problems

Without wishing to dwell unduly on the problems Paul and I encountered, our unwitting errors caused us great anxiety. Firstly, upon crossing from Ethiopia to Somaliland at the land border, we appear to have strolled right past the Ethiopian exit point without noticing it.

Our second unwitting error was to lack understanding of the visa system. It seems that, unlike on trips to France, there are single-entry and multiple-entry visas. Upon flying back to Addis Ababa after Somaliland, and without the requisite exit stamp, we were attempting an illegal entry after an illegal exit (their words).

Quiz question: can you see my surname somewehere in the above mess?

They confiscated our passports and, in daily sessions at the Department of Immigration, we were subjected to severe questioning, with a silent fellow examining our body language. At one stage, questioned separately from Paul, my inquisitor put it to me that I had failed to spot the Border Control because I "didn't want to see it". (In fact, in their crappy country it's hard to tell the difference between a Border Control and a shithouse.) He went on to tell me that I would have to go on trial, and asked "do you have a lawyer?" I replied "I want the British Consul", which seemed to quieten him down. A later precautionary visit to the British Consulate yielded a phone call which may have helped.

During our daily visits to the Ministry we stayed in a nearby hotel. One evening a stranger sits near Paul and engages him in conversation. Paul is pretty sure that he was working for the Ministry, sent in to observe us up close. He told Paul a story about some Dutch tourists who had strayed into a conflict area and got imprisoned for five years. Gulp.

In the end, they let us off, although Paul had great anxiety at the airport. The passports were missing, and arrived only minutes before his flight closed.

I draw the following conclusion: Ethiopia has no concept of easing international travel; its officialdom, used to lording it over a cowed populace, feels entitled to lord it over visitors. It is a country best avoided by the tourist and probably by the business visitor as well. I for one will not be going back, and consider that I have had a lucky escape.

Last Minute Trouble

Paul flew home the day before I did. I used the  remaining day to walk up into the Entoto Mountains, north of Addis, reaching an altitude of 3000m (just 300m lower than the summit of Etna). Addis, at 2500m, is the third highest capital in the world. I became ill on the 2nd or 3rd day - we believe from altitude sickness. At 3000m (I am amazed to discover) a third of the air is missing!
The celebrated athlete Haile Gabreselassie should be renamed Very Highly Gabreselassie.

I stopped off at villages to play with the kiddies and give away some plastic spiders and bubbles and stuff.

Forever blowing bubbles. No unkind references to Michael Jackson, please.

In one of them, I later found, one of the taller boys had managed to unzip a side-pocket of my rucksack as I departed, stealing my torches, six or eight items in total. Upon discovering this, I went back down the slope and made a right old stink: "RIGHT, YOU LITTLE BASTARDS! ON PARADE! WHO HAS STOLEN MY STUFF?!" The adults of the village made an appearance, placated me, and organized the recovery of most of the stuff. Once honour was satisfied, the woman who kindly took the lead shook my hand, bumping shoulders in the Ethiopian manner.

Firewood-carrying women of the Dhorzay tribe. The men just watch...

At the top, not far from a village, I pitched my tent. The next morning, tribeswomen took an interest, and mentioned my presence to local soldiers who (no surprises any more) came along with their silly Kalashnikovs to annoy me. Eventually my "case" reached a high enough level in the chain of command and an officer let me go. Phew!

The Cradle of Humanity

Mankind originated in Ethiopia. A close cousin of Homo - Australopithecus Afarensis - walked upright. We know this from the discovery of a fossilised specimen, named Lucy. She was given this nickname because Richard Leakey's team of archeologists were playing a tape of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds when the great discovery was made.
Australopithecus Afarensis ("Lucy") and Homo Stewartis ("Paul")
Not far from the Somaliland capital Hargeisa we visited some ancient cave paintings, some dated as early as 3000BC. Whilst this is a long time after Lucy, it is still some of the earliest art known.
Las Geel ("Watering place of the camels")
Stop Press 28 May 2015 A 'new species' discovered in Ethiopia: Australopithecus deyiremeda (Hyperlink)


We met many people chewing the narcotic leaf called chat, khat or qat. Even in the very muslim city of Hargeisa it was very big business
Chat users and sellers.
Based on our very brief observations I would say that chat makes people cocky and insensitive, and boggle-eyed. It is also the most revolting sight to see inside the mouth of a man who has been chewing the stuff for a long time.

Chat user

In the minibus from the border to Hargeisa, a big guy sat next to me worked his way through a bunch of chat. He would pluck out the tenderest shoots, flick them with his middle finger and gleefully stuff them in his mouth. He seemed most amused at my disapproval, waving the stuff in front of me.
I wonder if the mullahs will declare this substance as bad as alcohol and ban it...

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Monday, 6 January 2014

Vesuvius and Etna 2004


A Pair of Volcanoes

Christmas 2004, unable to find a travelling companion and recently separated, I decide to indulge a long held but distant fascination for volcanoes. With a budget flight to Naples (a short distance from Mount Vesuvius), and then an overnight ferry trip on to the Sicilian port of Catania for an attempt on the much more challenging Etna, this was a two-volcano trip.
Approaching Etna
It may all sound rather rash - walking up mountains in midwinter - but there is a rationale underpinning my general approach to adventure. Firstly, the scale of ambition has over the years been growing in small incremental steps. One hears of silly people who buy their first boat Monday, set off across the Atlantic on Tuesday, and have to be rescued Wednesday. That approach is rash. Secondly, the enterprise has to promise rewards in the form of sights or events.
There's a happy medium between doing something so banal that it's pretend-adventure (the Bear Grylls approach - the contemptuous little tart with his cameraman and sound recordist sharing every "death-defying" experience) and something so risky that one ends up - what's the word I'm looking for? - oh yes, that's the one - dead. In short, it's a balance of risk and reward. The greater one's skill and experience the smaller the risk; from this it follows that with increasing capability comes the opportunity for more vivid and memorable adventures.
So one essential skill, which must be refined and honed, is sensitivity to danger. One has to be prepared to pull back; to acknowledge that whatever the steps leading to this dangerous moment every single one can be reversed if that's the right thing to do. In the case of this Italian trip the dangers were all natural, but the same applies to human dangers. One has to develop a nose for human threats; truth be told I cannot categorically say that I have acquired these antennae: it's hard to define. But in many a strange town with its exotic inhabitants I have edged away from the quiet alley, moved towards the more public places, and glanced around for any malevolent eye contact in order to avoid becoming a victim.
On that second category - human as opposed to natural danger - we Westerners have to contend with the coloured lens of what is "normal" to us. In exotic locations the locals have a very different sense of what is normal and familiar and, say, hygienic. By way of illustration (I hope I'm not labouring the point here), my stepson Charlie and I went walkabout in Luxor (Egypt) one afternoon. Some other guests in the hotel later said, "What? You went... outSIDE?!! Out walking in the STREET? How brave!" Their temerity may be comical, but for them the unknowns were greater than for Charlie and me; better safe than sorry certainly has its merits as a motto. The trouble is that in applying that motto too strictly, people disbar themselves from a range of experience and end up the poorer for it. (Incidentally, Chas said to me as we walked to a smelly smoky internet cafe twenty times cheaper than our hotel, and bought freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice from a street vendor, "Brent, let's get this straight. It's the hottest time of the day on the hottest day of the year in the hottest year in decades...." "Yeah? Your point?" "Well we're not behaving, er, normally!" Well said Charlie!

In the first stage of this Italy journey I had slept on the rim of Vesuvius, the volcano which destroyed Pompeii and which was still smoking slightly after its last eruption in 1944. An astonishing river of cold lava was created in that 1944 eruption, like scummy water swirling its way around the edge of the sink. If this is what they term a Caldera, the known eruptions of Vesuvius may one day be dwarfed by a big one.

 River of lava in the caldera below Vesuvius's summit
I reached the entrance to Vesuvius late afternoon, and was miffed to be turned away by the gatekeepers who were packing up to go home. You come-a back tomorrow. We closing now. After they'd cleared off I sneaked through a gap in the mesh fence and yomped up to the rim, tying my tent onto a vulcanologist's vent-pipe to ensure that rolling over in the night wouldn't end in tears. Here are a few little vids of the approach, the summit,  the fast descent.(Links to Youtube under construction)

Vesuvius. The smoke and rucksack help give an idea of scale.
The overnight trip to Catania was uneventful; I had hoped to see Stromboli in the night (an erupting volcanic dome which protrudes above the waves of the Med). Dawn arrival at Sicily, with Etna brooding above it, was quite atmospheric.

Approaching Sicily by sea: Etna pink above the horizon.

A brave - or more likely hungry - fox on Christmas Day, Etna foothills
A fox came to visit me on Christmas day, having tried to dig his way through the snow into my tent. (The photos above must be under a tree.) Here is a video showing what a pest he was.There was a heavy snowfall that night. This photo gives a better idea of the conditions:

Christmas Day on the footslopes of Etna
He (or is it she?) couldn't be coaxed to take that fig from my fingers. My Christmas treat was some chestnuts growing there (in England they've all gone by November), a vivid illustration of von Humboldt's discovery that environments exist in bands, with latitude and altitude (two independent variables) combining to replicate the same conditions in far-apart locations such as Everest and the Arctic.


 Chestnuts at Christmastime

The long haul upwards. Alarmed to find the snow melting from below.

The snow on Etna is melting from below. This made a direct ascent too risky, and so I had to follow the endless hairpins of the ski slopes - no skiers but a tracked vehicle was still driving up and down them. I only got as far as 2700m - the top cablecar station. It was perishing cold, with high winds, and I pitched my tent in the basement using ceramic tiles in place of tentpegs. A notice up there read "Any tourist found beyond this point will be forced to pay in full his mountain rescue costs". Even without this there was no question of attempting the 3350m summit. (Everest - for comparison - is 8850m high.) This was admittedly a hard slog - every sodding footstep! - but its nature was just hill-walking: a tougher Snowdon. No crampons pitons or futons. The white pall showing over Etna in the top photo is no illusion; I think it's wind whipping up ice crystals rather than volcanic activity. Disappointingly I was to see no lava except in the form of mile after boring mile of old stuff at Vesuvius, abrasive as hell and unforgiving in the event of a stumble on the horrible clinking pumice.
As I made my laborious way up the piste a tracked vehicle was coming down. Its purpose is to keep the ski slopes flat enough. He pulled over to advise me that I could take shelter under the top cablecar station. In his words there was basso temperaturo which even I can understand.
The winds on Etna clearly blow in the same direction for long periods. This causes ice crystals to grow unidirectionally, as on this crucifix:
A crucifix encrusted with ice crystals on Etna; volcanic sub-craters in the distance.


The tractor driver's advice was sound. When I got up to the top cablecar station the wind was outrageous. Any thoughts I had had about pitching a tent were unrealistic. The flysheet would have blown horizontal during setting up. And so I was grateful for the basement of the ski lift. It had filled with powder snow - microscopic crystals as fine as flour - which gave no purchase for my tentpegs. Invoking Hargreaves's Rule of Adventure - in case of doubt, difficulty or danger: adapt adapt adapt - I found a pile of gorgeous Italian floor tiles and they served to hold down my tent pegs.

Sleeping arrangements in the basement of the deserted ski station
As expected, the temperaturo was bloody basso and I was having to stop every few minutes to put my chilled hands down inside my trousers. When finally the tent was up, a bit of a wobble: the zip was stuck. It took several attempts, getting more and more chilled, but in the end I managed to hole up in my sleeping bag shivering like a shivery thing. Cooking involved lying half in the tent and half out: any temptation to cook inside must be resisted for fear of asphyxiation. In order to speed up the morning's cooking I took the stupid decision to sleep with a bottle of snow - a cold water bottle so to speak. After a miserable cold night, I tried to pour out the lovely liquid water only to find it was still solid snow. Duh!
The descent the next morning was other-worldly, with beautiful sunshine and the wind whipping ice crystals across the surface, deceiving the eye like the retreating waters at the seashore.
On the way back down, a scene of great beauty

 I went out of my way to find the tractor garage and pop my head around the door to show I was not stranded at altitude. I was grateful for the driver treating me like an adult capable of assessing his own risks rather than lecturing me for a fool.

Sulhuric gas vents

The sulphur vents were at neither volcano but at Naples. Here's a short vid taken just as my battery died.When the area had become fashionable in Byron's time the Brits constructed cubicles in which to inhale the health-giving fumes. Turns out that these fumes turn to sulphuric acid when inhaled. Not good.

Naples was full of household litter, piled high on street corners and also strewn for many miles on the hairpins up to Vesuvius. This is down to the Mafia, their theft of public funds and consequent failure to dispose of the litter properly there for all the world to see. Shameless; beyond the impotent law. For some reason I shot a vid in the woods below Vesuvius.

For some reason, Pompeii made little impression on me. I seem to have taken no photos, and barely remember walking its streets. Here are some stock photos of what I might have seen:

Vesuvius                                  A victim of Pompeii              A past eruption of Etna 
As adventures go this was not the most satisfying, but helped quench my thirst to sleep on the rim of volcanos. The unexpected didn't really happen, but once you've done everything to give 'im the opportunity to put in an appearance, well if he sniffs at that red carpet and stays sat in the limo well we're not going to drag him kicking and.... (this metaphor is now out of control and shall be terminated).

One minor footnote: Somewhere around Vesuvius I managed to lose my money belt with passport, cards and cash. I had to throw myself on the mercy of the British Consul, the gent in the middle below. I do believe that the Italian lady on the right was, er, flirting with me. It crossed my mind that, with me a penniless beggar, she might take pity on me. Before this team photo, with just me and her either side of the glass, she was, er, doing things to the microphone. Me being a shy boy, I was never to find out if...
The Consul, his gorgeous Italian ladies and... that microphone.