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OCTOBER 22, 2007

Smugglers Run



Southern Ethiopia is famed for the rewards it offers to those who can endure the hard travelling to visit some of the last remote tribes left in Africa. We arrived at the dusty township of Moyale after sitting on the bus for the best part of the previous 48 hours. After a quick feed in a dinky little cafe overlooking the main square we grabbed our packs and traipsed down the dusty street towards the border.

2pm on a sunny Sunday afternoon we walked into the Kenyan post to find the official out to lunch, thankfully the security guard was a little more official than his boss and after making a few phone calls managed to track down said official to stamp us out of Kenya. Crossing the border the change was dramatic, immediately the dirt track improved to become a nice wide tar road. Where in Kenya everything was covered by an inch of dust - in Ethiopia there were shades of green - it looked almost like the people cared...

In Ethiopia we were met with relaxed indifference, being a Sunday and being 2pm we found the immigration office closed for a long lunch. The guards waved us through sending us up the hill to a restaurant for a cold drink - on the proviso we came back later in the afternoon to go through the formalities.

Sitting around the tourist hotel talking to Rastaman we managed to swap the remains of our Kenyan shillings for some local currency, and when the immigration office finally opened we were welcomed with a minimum of fuss. Oddly enough we were asked to go through the process of a customs check - thankfully with only a small bag of goodies each we were cleared in all of about two seconds.

After two dusty days on the bus we decided to forgo Moyale's cheaper options taking up residence instead in the Boran Moyale Hotel - with hot water, cold beer and ethiopian delicacies served up fresh - what more could you ask for.

After cleaning up I ducked into town for a quick trim at the Royal Barber shop. I was probably the only white person ever to get his hair cut there because the barber was right shocked, I had a parade of people coming into the shop and just standing their watching the process, plus no window, just a hold in the wall onto the main street and with the chair facing outwards I was on show for the whole town to see.

The next morning, with the pall of darkness still hanging over the town we moved through the streets to the bus stop where we tracked down a small bus heading from Moyale to Yabello. At 6 oclock on the dot all the buses pulled out together and headed down the road. At a police checkpoint they stopped and everyone got out. No sooner had everyone disembarked than we ran in to Saul, the Sudanese guy who came over for a chat. We only had time for about three words before an unseen signal was given to reboard the buses - this caused a mass scramble for the door - yet after all the pushing and shoving everybody was remarkably back in the same seat as before

An easy hour of motoring on smooth black top later and we were unceremoniously dropped on the side of the road at the Yabello Junction. We started walking to towards where we hoped the Yabello town was, keen to make it all the way to Konso that night, it was only after covering the first kilometre that we found out from a passing local town was in fact a good 8 km's away.

Thankfully a passing vehicle stopped and picked us up, running us the most of the way into town, dropping us close to where the buses to Konso might leave from. Now we had read a little about Ethiopia and what information we had from the guide book insinuated that Yabello in fact had no linking public transport and we would have to be lucky indeed to leave the town this week. Yutaka on the other hand was running on a bloody tight schedule and as soon as we had taken a quick drink he left us with his bags and set off into the town to solve our transport dilemma.

After an hour of sitting around chatting in pigeon English to the locals, a horse and cart arrived with a grinning Yutaka on board - he had tracked down a truck that was leaving right away on the far side of town. Donna and I grabbed our gear and a horse and cart and set off through town.

Moyale Bus Services - She's got a long way ahead of her Moyale Bus Services - She's got a long way ahead of her

On the far side of Yabello we were taken down a few back streets into someone's back yard. Aside from sensing something was not quite right about this situation, there was no truck, and a large pile of honey and soap. For two hours we sat around waiting, finally the truck pulled in and the load buys started filling it with grain, honey and ... soap. To complete the packing all the goods were covered with black plastic water tanks, a tarp pulled over the lot, and our bags and what not piled at the front just behind the cabin.

We asked the driver - who spoke only a little English, if he could take us al the way to Jinka which is where he was heading, unfortunately it turns out travelling on the Isuzu is not 100% legal and with several Traffic Police stops after Konso he was not up to taking the added risk. At least he would take us to Konso from there we would have no problem getting a bus in the morning onwards.

With Donna up front in the cabin, Yutaka and I got comfy up top and settled in for the ride...

Moyale Bus Services - She's got a long way ahead of her Moyale Bus Services - She's got a long way ahead of her

Ten minutes out of town the truck hit it's first traffic police road block. Now up top I could not see what was going on but I found out later from Donna that they were rather hesitant about an impending search and barrelled through the road block - much to the chagrin of the attending officer.

40 minutes along the road we were making terrific time when after crossing a smallish bridge we were forced to stop with a flat tyre. Midway through changing the tire a white 4x4 landcruiser pulled up and three officious looking guys got out. After ten minutes of yelling, with Donna still in the front seat of the truck asking me what's going on, the lead guy walked up to me and says: These guys are smugglers, and the truck is full of contraband - don't worry, your not in trouble". Yeah right.

For the next hour the truck was unloaded amongst much yelling and attempts by the truck driver and the owner of the goods to stop it. Several times the police came up to us and reassured us we were ok and not to worry. At one point, after the owner of the goods tried to bribe the copper, he was fully smacked in the head by the boss man. Things were definitely not looking good on us getting to Konso that day.

When the police had filled the 4x4 with contraband, the head policeman came up to me and said - "normally we impound the vehicle, but because we want to get you all through to Konso today we are letting them continue". The three cops then jumped back into their 4x4 and took off back to Yabello.

And so there we were on the side of a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere, a half empty truck full of smugglers and contraband, and no police...

After ten uncomfortable minutes, we were ushered back onto the track and without a word set off hopefully towards Konso. A further 30 minutes down the road they stopped and repacked the back taking inventory as they went, this was followed by more cursing and I though for sure we were going to get either mugged or dropped in the bush.

As the skies darkened overhead we pushed on and took what shelter we could under the tarp covering the back of the truck. The first rains came down and thankfully the driver took pity on us pulling over and getting the load boy to fully cover the rear. Ten minutes later we pulled into the St Mary's Hotel in Konso - a little damp but alive and in one piece.

Sitting around on the balcony that evening having a drink and bite to eat we were approached by a sheepish looking truck driver - trying to recoup some of his losses by taking a risk on us and offering to run us all the way through to Jinka that night if we wanted. Unfortunately we had already signed up to rooms and the Hotel owner would not be providing any refunds.

The next morning we were none to pleased when the Addis Ababa to Jinka bus arrived in town full to the hilt with no room to take us onboard. Strangely in Ethiopia the buses are not allowed to take on more passengers than fit in seats - this is strictly enforced by the traffic police and on more than one occasion we have had passengers thrown off the busses who were caught standing in the isles.

It took only an hour or so for the word to get out and replacement accommodation was found for us. This time around Donna declined the front seat preferring instead to join us up top on the back of the truck. From Konso we spent the next few hours motoring slowly towards Weito. The day was a scorcher and we along with the other passengers were none to pleased with the slow pace the driver set, nor his frequent stops along the way.

Just outside of Weito we were stopped for a customs check - this time around everything was legitimate and with some fresh bananas brought on board our grumbling bellies were sated. Driving through the densely treed countryside we were treated to the roadside antics of baboons and rare colobus monkeys. All to the backdrop of some amazing scenery.

About 1km out of Weito the truck stopped and in broken English we were all asked to get off the truck and walk into town. Riding the trucks is not legal, but accepted as long as the traffic police do not actually see you in the act. By walking into town we would avoid forcing them into action.

At Weito we enjoyed some delicious tibbs and a cold drink, before walking 1km to the other side of town. This time we had to walk straight past the traffic police (along with the other passengers) much to the amusement of the local population. Back on the truck we were all seated comfortably as we pushed onwards.

From Weito we had a few hours drive to Key Afer where the same happened again, this time we were dropped on the outskirts of town and had to walk a good 3-4 km's directly through town to the far side. Standing around chatting to the locals while the tr

At Jinka people power won out, the driver wanted everyone to get out at the customs post and walk into town - the passengers had other ideas however and after refusing to dismount the driver was forced to take us into the township.

We were stopped letting off some of the passengers when the Traffic appeared out of nowhere, silently we all crept off the far side of the truck getting our bags and slinking off into the shadows. Further down the road we climbed aboard a Tuk Tuk which ran us to our planned hotel for the evening.

Unfortunately the Goh hotel was full, so back in the Tuk Tuk we were moved on to a small little dive in the ass end of town called the GemJa.

We had managed to push through the remote wildness of the Southern Omo to Jinka, launching point for trips to visit the Mursi Tribes. Over a quick bite to eat we managed to tee ourselves up with a 4x4 to take us out on a day trip to visit this fascinating tribe in the morning - that however is another story...

     
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Bit nervous in the front eh Don!! Oh to be back home to a boring life and safety!

SB - 28 November, 2007

You always said the journey was part of the adventure. How true. This is amazing reading. Were you ever frightened or have you learnt how to pick the trustworthy people.

Anonymous - 27 November, 2007

 
     
     
 

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