We survive the hardest road in Africa
December 5, 2001

Hello all.

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.

The second 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 broken rock!

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 journey.

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 reputations.

Journal archive