We survive the hardest road in Africa
December 5, 2001
Here is an update to to let you all know that we are still
alive. Gisela and I are in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is a wild and beautiful country populated by very
wild people. Nothing like what I had expected.
We have been issued our Sudanese visas and we are leaving
Addis tomrrow for Bahir Dar and Gondar, and from there into
Sudan, which I'm relly looking forward to.
Ethiopia has been a real treasure on our journey, and has
been well worth the effort of getting here. And what an
effort. Driving here entailed the dreaded crossing of
northern Kenya, from Isiolo through Marsabit to Moyale on
the ironically named Trans East African Highway. That has to
be the hardest road in Africa. More than 500km of compacted
corrugations and broken volcanic rock that shake a car to
pieces and shred tyres. We averaged around 25km/h over the
whole distance. The road is in an area where banditry is
rife, and we had to travel in convoy, while on the stretch
from Marsabit to Moyale the Kenyan police would not let us
pass without an armed escort in the car.
The ZebraBus handled the "Trans East African Highway" with
aplomb, and thumbed her nose at all the doubters who said we
wouldn't get through that road. We did have to stop every
hour and walk round the car retightening things and checking
to see what had fallen off. The exhaust tailpipe fell off,
we had to repair an oil leak caused by vibration, we had to
refasten the rear bumper after it came adrift, the wing
mirror vibrated loose, as did the starter motor solenoid and
a few other bits. The bodywork around the rear hatch hinge
also began cracking up, and a large crack appeared under the
fuel tank mountings, and the roofrack also suffered cracks
to two of its legs. Amazingly, we didn't have any punctures
or blow-outs (our sponsored Goodyear tyres have really
passed the test of African roads), though there are some
nice big chunks out of the treads from the volcanic rocks
that surface much of the stretch from Marsabit to Moyale.
We had to spend a day in Marsabit welding up the body and
roofrack legs before subjecting the car to the second half
and seeing what else we could break. That day stretched into
two as it started raining the night we arrived and continued
pissing torrents the whole of the next day, turning a little
dustbowl of a village into a sea of sticky red mud.
We have heard varying opinions of whether the road is worse
from Isiolo to Marsabit or from Marsabit to Moyale. All I
will say is that the two stretches are different. The first
270km section is just plain HARD, with merciless
corrugations that find a car's resonance frequency at any
speed and then proceed to shake it to pieces; quite
literally vibrating it into dismantling itself.
stretch is over 250km of razor-sharp broken volcanic rock,
punctuated every kilometre by a shredded tyre carcass. The
middle hump is truck height and the "road" surface is a
hodge-podge of broken stones ranging in size from rough
gravel to large rocks big enough to knock a hole through any
exposed bits under the car. The road to hell is paved with
Arriving in Ethiopia and finding a tarred road again was
pure luxury. OK, so it was rough and potholed and patched,
but it had a finished surface. I promise never to complain
about South African roads ever again.
Ethiopia is a fascinating place. It is a country that time
has passed by, and most people live like they did in
biblical times. The dominant mode of private transportation
is donkeys and there are almost no tourists or tourist
facilities. In some of the villages we went through, we were
the first white people the children had ever seen!
But although surprisingly beautiful, this is also a very
wild country and the people are very wild, and not all of
them are friendly to "farangi", and many are openly hostile.
But we have also met very many friendly and open Ethiopians
who have been very interested in us and our ways and our
We had the good sense to hire a guide at the border. We had
a stroke of good fortune. At every border post one is set
upon by a bunch of con artists and small-time hustlers
looking to make a quick buck, and we usually just wade
through them all and ignore their propositions, occasionally
laughing back at the more outrageous offers.
We got the
usual crowd when we crossed into Ethiopia at Moyale, but one
of them, a rastafarian, struck us as being different to the
usual shit artists, and we allowed him to show us where to
change money at the best rate, and to eat some local food at
a backstreet restaurant. The next thing we knew we had hired
Antehenahe (Tony) as our guide through southern Ethiopia and
he became one of the ZebraSafari's travelling companions for
the next 10 days.
It certainly made things easier having a
translator in a country where little English is spoken, and
we saved a lot of energy by not having to haggle over the
price of everything, as Tony always got us the local price,
which we discovered is usually about a tenth of what they
ask farangi to pay.
We discovered a few things about Ethiopia very quickly. The
first is that it is cheap; the first African country since
we left home that is cheaper than South Africa. And the
second is that Ethiopian food and drink is delicious (and
cheap). Ethiopians like to boast that they make the world's
best coffee and I think they have a point. "Ethiopian"
coffee is pretty much just espresso, but always served as a
double, for the standard price of one birr. That's about a
rand, or 10 US cents. But as good as the coffee undoubtedly
is, it pales against Ethiopia's best-kept culinary secret:
avocado juice. It may not sound very appetising, but it
comes out something like a non-dairy double-thick whip, and
it's absolute heaven doll. Coming soon to the health food
joint at your local mall.
We should have guessed that things were going to get a bit
more affordable when they let us cross the border after only
making us pay one dollar.
Something else about Ethiopia is that they have piped safe
drinking water in nearly all the villages, yet toilet
facilities in restaurants and hotels (and even homes) are
primitive to say the least.
As we got to know Tony over the next 10 days we realised we
had made a good choice. We both felt he was trustworthy as
soon as we met him, and he displayed a remarkable attitude
to life and had friends everywhere we went. He took us to
all sorts of places not in the guide books, and we always
slept and ate at local places, where we met Ethiopians and
not other overland travellers.
Addis has been a pleasant surprise for being full of old
Volkswagens. There are Beetles everywhere, most of them
dating from the 1960s, and I spotted several oval-window
Beetles from the 1950s. There are also a lot of old VW
buses, and I saw several split-windscreen buses dating from
the 1960s every day in Addis. I photographed several
interesting buses, including one being used as a hearse, and
a former Brazilian taxi, with two separate, front-hinged
rear doors on each side of the bus. All the old cars on the
roads here are hard at work, and most are pretty decrepit.
We said goodbye to Tony today and we head north again
tomorrow. We will see some of the sights around Bahir Dar
(Lake Tana, Blue Nile Falls, ancient monasteries) and Gondar
before crossing to Sudan, probably around the weekend.
The roads from here northwards deteriorate somewhat, but we
hear that the formerly notorious Gondar road has recently
been rebuilt and apparently now has a good gravel surface.
We shall see. Many of the Ethiopian backroads we have driven
on are no more than donkey tracks, and I hear some of the
major routes rival Isiolo-Moyale for their car-breaking