Nairobi to Addis Ababa (10) The border and beyond
From Marsabit we travelled by bus north to Moyale and the Ethiopian border. It was difficult to enjoy the rock moonscape flatness of the scenery because of the dust pouring through the ill fitted window that spent the whole 9 hours rattling like a power drill inches away from my head. On top of that (literally, here) my rucksack tied onto the roof did exactly what I’ve been terrified it might do countless times on bus journeys like this – it fell off. If it hadn’t been for the eagle eyed old woman at the back who spotted it come down then it would have been quite spectacularly marooned by the side of the track in one of the most desolate landscapes I’ve ever travelled across.
In Moyale we missed the border opening hours and spent the night on the Kenyan side, drinking in the Prison Canteen. It was a rather swanky establishment, actually, and we shared a good few Tuskers in the company of off duty prison officers on a Friday night.
At the border bright and early the next day the standard border formalities were made a little more interesting by the little white worms emerging from Shan Boqol’s foot (and, by this point, I thought my foot was bad!) Nothing like the old ‘is it pus/is it a foreign organism?’ game at 6 in the morning on an international frontier… Nothing however would have been worse than the predicament of the Scandinavian girl who rolled up at the same time as we did with no visa, and was told that she had to go back to Nairobi to get one. The serenity with which she accepted this fate was remarkable and, quite frankly, bizarre – Nairobi feels very far away from Moyale and nothing would make we want to do that bus trip again…
Usually border towns fill me with little more than an urgent desire to get out of them but the Ethiopian side of Moyale was wonderful. It’s amazing sometimes how crossing a quite artificial frontier can bring with it such a shift of place and identity. The other side of Moyale really did feel like Ethiopia – the taxis, the goods in the shops, the coffee makers and macchiatos in the cafes – and there was a tangible sense of crossing over into a very different country.
Forget cultural identity – from here on in there were sealed roads all the way to Addis. Fabulous. By this alone Moyale feels a lot closer to the Ethiopian Capital than it does to Nairobi, though the distances involved are relatively comparable.
We continued on as far as we could that day to the small town of Yabelo. Yabelo is situated on the junction that links the main Addis bound road with the Omo valley and, as such, is a major pit stop for that particular breed of tourist (white European and middle-aged) who enjoy taking landrover tours to photograph and ‘experience’ the ethnic/tribal character(s) of that particular part of the country. This diversity is indeed remarkable but it’s arguably something that may now only primarily exist to serve the tourist market. I reserve judgement as I haven’t made it out there but I’ve heard a lot of people express disappointment and discomfort with the tourist set-up and the depressing artificiality of these ethnographic showcases… But, as I haven’t been there, I’m not going to comment. For us, we were just looking for a ride the next morning. There didn’t seem to be any buses going through that were heading north so we tried to hitch with the tourists in their landrovers. I predicted that we wouldn’t have much luck and this was borne out by our first hour or so squatting at the roadside. But (well done, Mr Boqol!) perseverance paid off and not only did we get a ride but also a free lunch and some very interesting company from an Italian couple, both with long background in the Horn. Hearing about Mogadishu back in the 70s was particularly interesting – an era of decadence, cosmopolitanism and fashion (albeit under the backdrop of Bare’s repressive military regime) that is almost unimaginable today.
We checked out some pretty impressive neo-lithic phalli in what was, essentially, some guy’s back garden, before arriving in Awasa, a pleasant university town. We drank beer by the lake (we’d been following the rift valley chain of lakes from Baringo and Turkana) and planned our trip up into the Bale mountains to the East.
We started our trek from Dodola – golden fields of corn giving way to undulating hills and eventually afro-alpine forests and peaks. Stunningly beautiful and another excursion for me into the Ethiopian highlands: I’d trekked in the Simien mountains before and whilst the scenery was perhaps more dramatic up there in the north, the Bale mountains are no less beautiful and the trekking set-up is perhaps even better. There’s a good network of lodges up in the hills and you pay the service providers (guides, hut-keepers, horsemen) individually as opposed to tour or trekking operators in the towns. It’s low impact tourism and seems to be a good supplementary income for the people who live still live up in the mountains. The logistics of mountain life were brought home when we came across a team of local men shifting boulders the old fashioned way (tree trunk levers and elbow grease) for an expansion of the trail.
After a few days trekking in the mountains we got back on a bus for the journey up to Addis. From Addis there was still a long trip to go but for me it was ground I’d travelled several times before and had no time then to stop to savour it again. Addis essentially marked the end of the trip for me as I had to hurry back across Eastern Ethiopia to Somaliland and Hargeisa.