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Beer and Biryani :: The Travelling Adventures of Matt & Donna  
Cross (Meskal) Shaped window of one of the 11 Rock Hewn Churches at Lalibela, Ethiopia
NOVEMBER 14, 2007

The 'Short' Cut

Travelling for an extended period of time requires much tolerance and team work - what may be a simple issue at home is magnified ten fold on the road. As far as Donna and I are concerned, I have been chiefly in charge of the planning side of our adventure, while on day to day basis Donna is your go-to-girl for directions and general assistance from the locals.

I take full responsibility for the decision that found us heading North from Lalibela on a little used dirt track to Sekota. The locals had all told us it was easier to head back south to Gashena and Woldia, and get the bus from there North to Axum, I however had it in my thick skull that back tracking is bad, and while there was no public transport between Lalibela and Sekota, from there it would smooth sailing with mini-buses and trucks linking all the way to Axum.

So so wrong - so wrong in fact we came very very close to Donna snapping and getting on the first plane to Melbourne... I think I should go back to the beginning however.

With no busses heading North from Lalibela we hit the streets and started asking around the hotels and touts for anything heading north. Donna was more than happy to put the word out amongst the street kids who seemed eager to fulfil the task at hand. As it was we were sitting around having dinner at the Blue Lal hotel (spaghetti with meat sauce - a fasting staple in Ethiopia) when the Manager approached us having secured a ride the following morning in the back of 4x4 - too easy, this was going to be fun.

My Map for the trip North

Bright and early the Manager walked us through the still dark streets of Lalibela, past the nicely tarred sections tourists visit into the back lots to meet the 4x4. Things were looking better than ever when he advised us he had been approached during the evening with another ride where we could sit inside a twin cab rather than in the tray.

After standing around in the cold morning air for about 30 minutes our driver appeared and we set off. From Lalibela to Sekota is not far, in fact most of the distances we travelled in Northern Ethiopia were not overly challenging - it is simply a matter that on dirt tracks, winding through the extremely hilly terrain of the rift valley - even 20km's can take over an hour to cover. Leaving Lalibela the road is very very windy and picturesque, aside from a short breakfast break in an unknown little village on the side of the road (where the locals were all to happy to have a chat over some eggs and chai) we arrived in Sekota with a full day ahead of us to get onward travel.

The previous evening we had planned our route North (see map above). Aside from Lalibela to Sekota, we were confidently told by several people that if we could get as far as Finarwa or Yachilla, transport would not be a problem, there would be numerous busses and trucks leaving Sekota during the day as it was a market day - we should not have a problem....

In Sekota we were dropped in the centre of town and immediately headed towards a parked bus, that although was heading back to Lalibela, had enough people milling around it for one or two to race off in search of truck for us. Ten minutes later a boy raced up having found a truck heading in our direction that afternoon We met the driver and then sat down for a cuppa as he was not leaving until around midday.

Over some tea we got chatting with the local tout who we got to work for us, for the next two hours he searched out every opportunity constantly coming back with no option other than contract hire of a 4x4 for extortionate rates which we told him repeatedly we could not afford.

As midday ticked around the truck driver appeared only to inform us that he would take us but it would be contract hire as he was no longer going that way!

The short cut was turning into a nightmare as we realised we were stuck in small town in the absolute middle of nowhere. Donna was close to tears and a full mental breakdown as we sat on the side of the road, maybe 50 kids standing around us just staring.

Suffice to say there were numerous comments bandied around about my planning skills (which to date have been impeccable) until with the sun setting we were finally forced to find a bed for the night. This proved to be good luck as within minutes we got chatting with some locals in the hotel who informed us that while there were no buses heading in our direction tomorrow - there would be a bus heading kind of in the direction in which we wanted to travel, and for sure from where they dropped us we could get a car to at least take us as far as Finarwa. We were even given a letter to give to the local officials to help us with onward travel assistance.

The next morning we trekked down to the local bus station only to find about 200 people milling outside the locked gates. At 6:00 on the dot they opened up and in the ensuing stampede thankfully were grabbed by a local we briefly met yesterday who sent us towards a bus heading to a small village called Abregella - he reassures us that although from Abregella there are no busses there is a guy with a car who will take us onwards to the next town which definitely has busses!

From Sekota to Abregella was only an hour and half on the bus - this was slow travel at its best. We disembarked and seeing this small one horse town with a couple of ramshackle buildings lining the road for a hundred metres in each direction reassured us we had time for breakfast and would see any vehicles passing through with plenty of warning.

After chatting with a local guy we found out that the car in mention (that would be able to take us to the next town) had been involved in an accident and we were stuck until something randomly passed through - but do not worry - something would come past at some stage. We sat down to tibbs and bread slightly worried. After an hour of no action we decided to push on even if it cost us a bit more - so we hired the bus (which was heading back to Sekota that afternoon) to drive us 10km's further down the road to the next town, Finarwa, which at least was positioned at the main junction between Abi Aday, Mekele and Lalibela - for sure something would come through...

At Finarwa we settled into the local coffee shop for the wait ahead- and a long waits it was. The owner was great - he shepherded the kids away for hours, and hours, and hours. In Finarwa we experienced our first bout of Faranji stone throwing. We had read on the forums about tourists having stones thrown at them from the local kids but in the last month we have not experienced it. Twice while sitting in the cafe rocks came flying over the walls at us - both times missing. Now in my expert opinion I do not think this is especially odd, the restaurant owner was constantly throwing rocks at the kids to keep them away, the kids throw rocks at each other as some kind of sick game- it just seems to be something they do....

As the sun started to set on the day we finally picked ourselves up and moved up the road to the junction in the hope something, anything would go past. I refrained from talking to Donna who after yesterday's outburst had calmed somewhat into acceptance that we were stuck - and what would be would be.

Night time came and we gave up, we were not alone however, we had been joined in our road side vigil by two other guys also waiting for a lift onwards. Unfortunately they had both been here two days waiting for a ride...

After a slow walk back into town they enquired at the hotel for a bed, the four of us were informed there was only one bed, in the whole town - at least the other guys were kind enough to offer it to us.

We had just paid our nightly fee and settled our bags into the room when a truck came thundering up the road. In a cloud of dust we all waved it down to find it was heading to Mekele (back towards the main road and not where we wanted to go), after about half a seconds thought we gave up on the idea of sticking to the back roads on our route north, selling out for the major town with the promise of onward buses to everywhere. Grabbing our gear we had just managed to get in the back when a 4x4 drew up beside heading to Yachilla - our destination of choice.

As I mentioned above - I am nominally in charge of long term planning, on the ground however this was Donna's call, she made our first tough decision, we would forgo the 'short cut' and head to Mekele.

The truck drove steadily for about two hours before pulling into a little town where we were abruptly told the driver was tired and we were stopping for the night. After getting a refund we checked into the cheap Samre Hotel to get a couple of hours shut eye before the truck continued on it's way. Our heads had hardly hit the pillow when the 2:30 alarm went off and we were up and going again - cuddled in the tray of the truck under a gabay trying to keep warm in the chilly morning air.

At 5:30 we pulled into Mekele as the township was starting to awaken, we had a 15 minute foot through town to the bus stop where again we were greeted with hundreds of people milling for buses. No worries however as soon as the gates opened we easily found ourselves on the Axum bus.

In a fitting tribute to my superb if not somewhat flawed planning skills, after 30 minutes of travel I realised that the bus was heading back towards my original route. After a few hours we arrived for breakfast in Abi Aday, back en-route.

Nine dusty, cramped, tiring, hot hours later we pulled into the Axum bus stop. After three days on the road I all to curtly dismissed the bus boys and baggage handlers haggling for a few bucks, and 500 metres down the road we checked into the Africa Hotel and crashed. A shortcut it may not have been, adventurous it was.

At 3pm in the afternoon, as I climbed into bed for some precious sleep, I had the uneasy feeling of being very very cold...

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Have you kept a log of the number of hours and km's of bum-numbing travel you have covered in the nine months so far? Mind boggling!

Bill - 03 December, 2007


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