Mark Tanner - Adventurer, Writer and Amateur Beatboxer



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Green Ethiopia

18 August 2004


I left Sudan absolutely stuffed full of food. It was a fitting end to a fabulous stay with gorassa be dama for lunch (my favourite Sudanese delicacy), an Ethiopian dinner and Egyptian dessert with Katie, Daniel, Kamal and Hasam, followed by an almighty dust storm. 


An early rising and some extortionate prices to transport the rafts later, I was sitting in the front seat amongst the tasseled interior of the public bus thundering east to Ethiopia. The exhausting final run of sourcing permits for the Sudanese leg of the paddle, not helped by the early morning, meant I couldn't stay awake. Every now and then I would stir from my dozing, each time greeted by greener and more rugged landscape through the rain speckled windscreen as we etched closer to the border. 


The bus dropped me in Giddarif where I negotiated a lorry to take the boats and me the rest of the way to Ethiopia. Amongst stinky sacks of onions and 43 locals crammed into every bit of spare space on the back of the truck, we meandered along the thick mud track, stopping occasionally to push other trucks that were stuck (with most of the lorry's passengers lending a hand) and to pick up other stragglers whose transport had broken down. 


It wasn't long before I had befriended most of the lorry patrons with shallow chitchat in broken Arabic. I was invited to the most comfortable position on top of the cab where I played monkey until the downpour came. The remaining passengers and I huddled under the shelter of a tarp for the rest of the journey until we stopped for the night. Using the 3-metre raft oars as roof beams to hold up the tarp and the unrolled raft as a bed roll, we slept in the back of the truck as the rain pelted the canvas – a comforting sound for someone who had seen 15-minutes of rain in the past 6-months. 


The remainder of the journey to the border took just a few hours the following morning. Following the leaving formalities I hired some local kids with a donkey cart to carry the rafts over the bridge from the Sudan to Matema, Ethiopia. The friendly folk in the customs and immigration mud huts posed no problems and I was soon sitting with passport stamped in a small mud floor restaurant eating delicious enjerra with tibbs. 

Matema was like a frontier town from the gold rush days, a busy dirt main street lined with corrugated iron buildings with verandas and the odd straw hut. The obvious differences from the Sudan were the local fashion tastes (much more western and seemingly more grubby) and the yelling from the locals directed at my earshot – "you!" and "money" as opposed to "welcome Sudan" and "how are you?" – an indication of how things to come.


It wasn't in my best interests to spent the day being flippant around Matema as I had a lot of luggage that was proving to be a burden to shift, so I got on the first reasonably priced lorry I could find heading up the hill. As my cargo meant I had to pay more for transportation, I insisted on sitting in the cab and was squashed up front next to a beautiful local lass and a driver called Abi who steered with one hand and stuffed his face with the local herbal narcotic of chat for the journey to Gondor.


The trip was spectacular, winding through breathtaking mountainous country dotted with curious knobs and table mountains, carpeted with luminous green grass, covered with trees, cascading waterfalls and rainbows. The gravel road took us through countryside strewn with charming straw hut villages and frontier towns teeming with donkeys and residents, many carrying ample loads on their heads and hobo-styled sticks with pouches on shoulders.


The lorry ended its journey in Gondor, where I had to negotiate with another driver to take me the rest of the way to Bahir Dar. Gondor was beautiful, hilly cluttered streets ornamented with tall evergreens and dotted with the occasional medieval castle and bridge. 

Matema and Gondor in the western Ethiopian highlands

For the remaining daylight hours the spectacular-panorama carried on, with amazing skies and lightning shows complimenting the mountainous terrain and Ethiopian sing-a-long happening in the cab. It was late when we arrived in Bahir Dar, where I lay my head at the friendly Genet Pension, in a bright blue room with a bed, chair and red plastic bowl which was the substitute for the en suite.


While having a nightcap, I met another of the Genet residents, Grooma Shitaye (who I called by his last name as it was easier to remember), a student at the local University. We organised a meeting for the next morning and for the price of lunch and an Amharic flick at the local cinema, he spent the day with me teaching me Amharic, Ethiopian culture and showing me the sights of Bahir Dar on bicycle, pointing out attractions such as the telecommunications tower and 3-star hotels. It was Bahir Dar where I had my first local fruit juice cocktail, a ridiculously cheap, simply delicious layered drink made from the local produce.


Close to Bahir Dar is Tis Abbay (or Blue Nile Falls), part of our Nile route and once said to be the 2nd largest waterfalls in Africa after Victoria – now a trickle flows where a thundering torrent once fell as power generating dams require 75% of the water to be diverted. Regardless of the dribble, the area was still spectacular, emerald mountains, gorges, the historic Portuguese Bridge, straw huts and local peasants in traditional garb wandering around. After shaking off annoying kids wanting to guide I was befriended by Getachew and his two sisters, Bahir Darians out enjoying their weekend. We wandered together, wadding through rivers and over muddy fields to the bottom of the falls. It soon became obvious Getachew's younger sister was taking a shining to me. She was attractive with big beautiful eyes and a lovely complexion, but upon closer inspection, she was missing teeth and had facial hair that would leave most Sudanese men green with envy.


After some photographs with adorable peasant children at the top of the falls, I was invited back to one of their houses, a basic abode made of mud and sticks amongst maize and tef fields. Sitting on a cow hide, I entertained the local neighbourhood as I chugged back some local beer (a lumpy brew with a similar texture to Dijon mustard), enjera and horrible tasting milk that I couldn't stomach – offending my host but saving a week of the squirts.


Bahir Dar, Lake Tana and the Blue Nile Falls

5:30 in the morning and I was amongst the hordes of people who seemed to be unfazed by the thick carbon monoxide emissions from the idling buses. I managed to push my way onto an Addis Ababa bus that looked more like a barn due to the grass covering the metal floor. The 2-day journey passed through more spectacular green misty mountain scenery, included nail biting ping pong matches against local villagers at stop points and the winding trip down through the majestic Blue Nile Gorge past rocky farm paddocks clinging to the sides of cliffs and roads precariously hugging mountainsides before reaching the capital city.


Addis is in a basin surrounded by wooded mountains. Rusting rain-moistened tin roofs clutter the hilly shanty neighbourhoods as office buildings rise in the background. The city of 5 million people, apparently the 3rd largest in Africa, seemed much more 'metropolitan' than dusty, flat Khartoum and it was nice to see luxuries such as ATM machines and cafes. 


I managed the National Museum, a few other sites, some good food and a hilly run at altitude through some pretty poor neighbourhoods. Funnily enough, running is the only time when locals wanting money don't harass you, roaring encouraging chants of 'Haile Gebreselassie' (Ethiopia's running God) instead.


Last time I was back home I did some voluntary work looking after an Ethiopian refugee family. The family turned out to be terrific, with Messay the father becoming one of my closest friends. I always promised him when I came to Ethiopia I would visit his mother, so with his younger brother Nebu and a few photos, I made the trip down to Awassa where his family lives. 


The last time Messay had seen his family was 12-years ago, his sisters and brother were 6,7 and 8 when he last saw them. They had now grown into young adults, with his brother an intelligent and well-mannered young man and his two sisters distractingly beautiful and warm (not helped by my monk-like existence in the 6-months prior). His mother had a laugh and smile that lit up the room and she cooked up a storm, making me feel like the warm little house in Awassa was a second home. I had always sympathized with Messay about how hard it must have been for him to be separated from his family for such a long time under such conditions, but it really sank in when I was actually there and saw the other side of the story. 


Nebu played the perfect host in Awassa. In addition to many good meals, we played a good few close games of table tennis, danced up a storm, went to the lake, up the hill and to the bird colony where there were hundreds of really big, really weird looking birds. Although I was only there for 5-days, it was a special time that I will always remember, and the last opportunity I would have to relax before many months of paddling. 

Messay's family in Awassa, Ethiopia







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