“yes yes nice smiling man with the gun, nice smiles, nice friendly man…”
Is what I heard through the intercom today in a bit of a manic tone as we passed another village full of guys with automatic weapons, who smiled and waved us through.
It’s been quite a day.
It started normally enough in a standard crappy hotel (all of which we now call “hotel Paradiso”, breakfast of egg something and coffee from a stall across the street.
Then we did about 90km with the now normalised northern Ethiopian rock throwing by small angry children as we pass, the odd whip cracked across the bike (and one that got me in the helmet) and some wooden canes swung at us for good measure.
(It’s pretty wild up here, and the kids tending cattle between villages don’t like it if you don’t stop and give them candy or something, no kidding!)
The scenery is really pretty though, rolling hills, cultivated by hand with cows pulling wooden ploughs through the mud, people tending small herds of cows, sheep or goats, donkeys loaded with water or pulling carts, life playing out on the roadway. The houses are made from tree limbs lined up and caked in mud and straw, there’s is no electricity or running water, hence all the donkeys, and not really any shops or industry, just small plot farming. It feels kind of quaint (except for the rock throwing!), a bit like the hobbit town in lord of the rings 🙂 The villages are usually less than a few hundred metres from start to finish, and seperated by several kilometers.
We stopped in one large village to compare bruises and to drink another coffee when some guys at the coffee stall told us the only road to Gondar (get it?? Gondor????) anyway… they said it was closed (and the only road out of the country), and that we’d have to stay there in Shitsville until the trouble passed, something about a guy who died in Addis and the people from Gondar being very angry.
Undeterred, and unwilling to stay the night there we pushed on.
The first road block was in a village 20km down the road where a group of people were standing in the road and had a rope pulled across it behind them.
They seemed pretty angry about something, Sal jumped off the bike and went marching down the street to find some police while Matias tried to convince them to let us pass, telling some story about our visas expiring, and appealing to their humanity 🙂
I wasn’t sure who was more crazy! I tried to remain calm while yelling for Sal to some back, but she was long gone. I tried to inch forwards, but this got people really angry and they started physically pushing me backwards. This was not good.
In an unexpected twist Matias was somehow successful! One of the locals decided we didn’t have anything to do with their blockade, so we shook hands with the now starkly friendly mob, and they lowered the rope so we could pass. A hundred metres on I picked up Sal and we continued.
“I don’t think that’s the last of it…”
We dodged through a few half assed road blocks made by putting large rocks on the road before meeting another angry mob.
This time someone came over who spoke english and told the rest of the guys to back off and let us through, which they did. We smiled and said “amasuckinello” (thankyou) and continued.
A hundred metres later someone threatened us with a rock the size of a brick, I feigned riding straight at him and he stepped back, only to throw the rock at Matias instead.
“Guys we need to go straight to the border, not go to Mordor, this is very dangerous situation”
“yes the road to Mordor is very dangerous”
I had earlier suggested to Matias that the town was called Mordor (instead of Gondar), so it was quite hard to keep a straight face at this point (more Lord of the Rings humor. Yes I am a nerd.)
Matias takes these situations very seriously so we listened to his concerns before explaining that we really wanted to see Gondar and we really thought it would be fine.
“Let’s just go slowly, if it gets serious or we are actually stopped we will make another plan”
The next road block was made from big logs laid across the road, 4 or 5 of them to cross, each about a foot high.
Sal slid off the back and went looking for a way around it while we talked to the mob who seemed more interested in the bikes than the road block.
Sensing some way through (or just ignoring the risks and moving, I’m not sure!), Matias went for it and bounced his way across the logs one by one, sending them rolling back down the road towards me as his rear wheel skidded over them.
The crowd cheered, Matias pumped the air and did a bit of a wheelie before returning to see me come over.
“This is a bad idea”
“Be careful babe!”
And over went Betsy, somewhat to my amazement without much fuss, although the previously ordered road block was now scattered about the place as the logs were shot out the back of the motorbike one by one. This pissed off a couple of guys (who probably put the logs there in the first place), but impressed everyone else, and we rode away with people mostly cheering and smiling.
Gondar was only another 15km so we pushed on, thinking we could get a room there and hang out for a couple of days while all this fuss blew over.
That didn’t quite work out.
The roads actually in Gondar were completely devoid of traffic, and it all had this really weird tense feeling with the streets full of staring people and literally no other cars or trucks. The smiling village people were gone, replaced by staring angry looking city dwellers. Every few km we had to dodge a field of rocks put on the road, but no one protested us doing this, they just stared at us passing. Then approaching town centre we came to a sea of angry people, some carrying makeshift weapons like bits of concrete reinforcing rod or wooden bats, and we realised we weren’t going to make it to the hotel.
“Please you go now, leave here now, very dangerous here now” said one man pleading with us to go.
Matias at this point wasn’t taking no for an answer, and was already going the other way when we agreed to turn back. We backtracked our way out of town through crowds of people and rock debris on the road until we reach the outskirts of Gondar and took the main road to the border, unsure whether there would be more trouble.
There were no road blocks going the other way out of town, and it quickly settled back into the normal looking flow of villages, but it was really eerie traveling on a main road without any other traffic at all. Literally no one. Like some sort of post apocalyptic movie where all the cars are gone and everyone lives in strange round mud houses and donkeys do all the heavy work. I’m not doing it justice but anyway…
30km further and we started to see people on the road carrying guns, mostly rifles and AK47’s. The ones not carrying guns were carrying knives, picks or some other wooden implement, which is probably what they carry every day of the year, but when you add all the guns it made things feel pretty sketchy.
We waved, they mostly waved back, and we stopped briefly for some food where more armed people came to say hello… one actually let Matias hold his AK for a photo! Now it’s not everyday someone offers you an AK, the weapon of choice for militants all over the world, as a photo prop, so I had to get one with Sally too 🙂
To make it all even more surreal, we were now following a storm which had left the road wet, but now it was full sun on the damp road so there was this weird fog rising from the tar, the scene complete with a road full of armed men, donkeys, cows, goats and wild lawless sneering children sometimes throwing rocks and whipping at us as we passed.
We passed one of the larger villages (where the rock throwing would usually stop), and stopped in front of a roadside restaurant to see if they were serving food. The men there looked at us as though we were totally insane and shook their heads, pointing us further on with their weapons.
Further on more guns, odd looks and some smiles.
“Yes yes keep smiling for the nice man with the gun, hello nice man!”
“What the fuck is going on here?!” we were starting to get wigged out.
Another ten kilometres and we reached a long line of oil tankers on the road, ending with a military blockade, complete with an anti aircraft gun mounted to the roof of a Toyota pickup truck!
“Documents, what is in the bags”
We went through the usual questions of where we were going and where we’d been, showed our passports, and asked our own questions like…
“Why are the men in the last village carrying guns?”
“You are safe now, you have passed the fighting”
It turns out that there were actually TWO different bits of civil unrest going on simultaneously in neighbouring areas here in Northern Ethiopia.
The first was centred on some politician from Gondar who died (or was killed by Europeans we were told at a petrol station…), so the Gondarians decided to block all the roads into and out of Gondar, as you do… (I’m finding it hard not to make more Lord of the Rings jokes here!)
Then a little way down the road from Gondar there was a tribal dispute that had spilled over and both tribes took to the streets armed with all kinds of weapons… and we’d just ridden unawares from one side of the conflict to the other! They were all very nice to us at least! (except for the rock throwing children, little fuckers.)
We ended the day 180km from Gondar, 30km from the Sudan border, and just past the tribal conflict in a town called Shitsville, with local people quizzing us about the situation down the road, asking us whether we thought they could safely leave town?!
Turns out we were the only three people to have made it through that area for the last few days!!
I’m writing this from a particularly “Paradise” hotel in a city in Sudan, about 175km from the Ethiopian border. Happy to be out of Ethiopia. Unhappy that beer is forbidden in Sudan.
Love to all back home xxoo