Adventures In Africa 18 May-6 July

I’m way behind in blog writing, so this is a long one……

I flew into Alexandria, Egypt. in the middle of the night. I paid $25 for the visa on arrival and I got through the airport without any hassles. Everyone’s bag was scanned as they left the airport. Only passengers are allowed inside the terminal for security reasons.

I took a taxi into Alexandria, about 50kms away. It felt a bit like Need For Speed in a 1978 Renault 600. The driver could really push it. I arrived at the hotel at about 3am.

I headed to the freight agent, Consolidated Freight Services, the next morning. I was greeted by Fathy, a stocky guy, who looked like someone not to be messed with. Unsurprisingly, he had been in the military for a while. We did some paperwork and then went to a few government offices to get my passport stamped to show I had residency for one month, and get a translation done. It was all very chaotic and the person who needed to stamp my translation wouldn’t because he said he was the wrong person and we would have to come back the next day. Often arguments would break out and usually whoever shouted the loudest, won. Systems are not very ordered in Egypt.

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I spent the rest of the day looking around Alexandria. What a feast for the senses! Something was always going on. It’s an incredibly busy place: lots of markets, street stalls, cars honking and general chaos. One thing which really stood out was the amount of rubbish on the streets. This isn’t a problem unique to Egypt, but I certainly noticed it after coming from Europe.

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I had a tasty early dinner at a fish restaurant by the sea and walked to the Citadel of Qaitbay, a very impressive and beautifully restored fortress at the entrance to the harbour. Many families were out and about enjoying the evening.

I walked through the backstreets to the hotel. It feels very safe and I had no issues with walking around by myself.

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I went back to the government department to get the translation stamped the next day. It was all done in around an hour, so I went to check out the famous Alexandria library. Just before I entered, Fathy called me and said that the Egypt Car Club weren’t accepting my carnet because I was from New Zealand and the truck from Australia. This was fairly big news as it would mean I couldn’t enter Egypt. I went straight to their office and we decided to go to the Car Club the next day.

I changed hotels that night to a very cheap one, only US$8 a night. That night I plugged in the hot water cylinder to have a shower. I went back later to see if it was warm and got quite an electric shock from the tap. It was a nice wake-up call. I decided I’d move to another hotel the next day.

We took quite a drive to the other side of Alexandria to the car club the next morning. We discussed things for an hour before realising that it was all a big misunderstanding. They thought the truck was registered in New Zealand and the carnet, (the passport for the truck which I must have to enter Egypt) was from Australia. On the truck’s registration certificate, it only says Queensland, it doesn’t mention anything about Australia, so they assumed Queensland was in New Zealand.

Once this was established, they said they would approve it and the process of importation could carry on.

On the way back to the office, Fathy got a call from the Car Club to say that they called their boss in Cairo and he still wasn’t going to accept it unless I get an official letter from the Australian Automobile Association, (AAA). I was pretty annoyed at this stage. I sent an email to the AAA and they were very helpful and sent me an email that night to confirm the carnet and he registration of the truck. They also thought the whole thing was ridiculous and made an official complaint to the International Car Club, who govern the car clubs and manage the carnets.

The new hotel I moved into had a beautiful view, and was a bargain for only $11 a night. It wasn’t very quiet though. From 6am until past midnight, you could hear cars honking their horns constantly; Just a part of Egyptian life.

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The next day, the Egyptian Car Club finally approved to guarantee my carnet. It was quite a relief.
I went to look at the very impressive Alexandria Library. It can hold 8 million books, has 4 museums and a conference centre.

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I went to the port later to sign a few things, before Customs went over the truck, (which I wasn’t present for). While I was waiting at the port, one of the top port Generals came through with a media crew in tow. A couple of the fans weren’t on, so he yelled at someone asking them why they weren’t turned on, (I assume, as he was speaking Arabic) and very quickly the fans were plugged in and humming away.

I checked out of the hotel and caught a taxi to the freight agent’s office the next day. I was taken to the port by another staff member to do the final clearance on the truck. After quite a bit of waiting and more offices to visit at the port, I was finally taken to the truck. It was great to see it had arrived in one piece. I drove the truck to the traffic police to get an Egyptian number plate and get it registered. More waiting was involved while they took a scratching of the chassis number and all sorts of other things. While I was waiting for my agent to finish, I got talking to an Egyptian guy who had been living in Italy for most of his life. He said he’d been trying to get his Italian registered car out of the port for days and even he was exasperated by the Egyptian system.

Also while I was there I looked through my truck to see if anything had been stolen. Sure enough, quite a few things had been taken: tools, an air hose, a water hose, even an umbrella. I was warned about it before I shipped it. Everyone blames everyone else and it isn’t worth complaining about. They had gone through the whole truck. Luckily nothing of great importance had been taken, but it was more than $1000 worth of stuff to buy later in Cairo.

At the 11th hour, I was finally free to go, just a bit more waiting at the port exit and I was free at last. The next day was the start of Ramadan, and I was extremely lucky to get it out before then. During Ramadan, office hours are shortened and people generally work slower.

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I fuelled up and headed for Cairo. I argued at the toll booth just outside of Alexandria about the ridiculously expensive cost of the toll, around $30 or so. I had no idea how many more toll stations there were going to be, so I went and spoke to the boss. He spoke a bit of English and said that it would get me down to Luxor. I thought it was reasonable, so paid it.

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I managed to get to 6th of October City that night, just before Cairo. I found a hotel to stay in. It was too hot to stay in the truck and I wasn’t sure how secure things were there.

I headed across Cairo the next morning to stay in another hotel. To my surprise, the pyramids were close to the main road heading into the city. They are an impressive sight.

Coming from the west side of Cairo, you are greeted by many, many poorly constructed empty buildings. It’s common for buildings to collapse in Egypt as there are many illegally built ones. I’m not sure what the story was with all the empty buildings though.

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The hotel I stayed in was owned by the military, so security was high. Guys with machine guns were at the front and everything was inspected going in. It was a very safe place to park the truck and stay for a few days.

In the evening, I met up with a pilot friend of mine, Hatem. He took me to New Cairo City, which is very nice and well organised and planned. Both Cairo and Alexandria suffer from overcrowding. They are wanting to build a huge, new city to the east of Cairo to try to alleviate some of this pressure.
We had a typical Egyptian dinner and it was nice to talk about old times when we used to work together in Turkey.

I went to the Sudan Consulate the next morning. I was told it opened at 9am during Ramadan, but it opened at 10am, and didn’t actually open until closer to 10.30am. It was complete chaos. No order and lots of yelling. Luckily a lady from South Sudan who had emigrated to Australia after being granted asylum, helped me out. When I finally got to the front of the so-called line, I was told I needed to get a letter from the NZ Embassy to verify my passport.

I caught a taxi to central Cairo to the NZ embassy. I was the only one there, it was very quiet. The complete opposite of the Sudanese one. They wrote me a letter on the spot and I quickly headed back to the Sudanese Consulate. I was finally given the application form, filled it in, gave it back, they looked at it, called me back, I paid for it at a separate booth, then went back to the original person to show the receipt. Finally, after a wait for 2 hours, the visa was issued. I was happy it could be issued on the same day.

Most of the people there were from Sudan and Egypt and were getting business related things done. Only a few people actually wanted visas. I had an interesting chat with the Australian lady, her friend, and a couple of other South Sudanese people.

The Australian lady’s friend was a man called Joseph. He was a refugee with a UNHCR passport waiting to be accepted as a refugee in another country. He’d been waiting in Cairo for 4 years all ready. He said when the fighting broke out and the government collapsed in South Sudan, he had to leave as quickly as possible, or else be killed. He had to leave his Parents behind, as they were not mobile enough to escape. They were subsequently killed as the rebels move through. He walked to Khartoum and was then moved to Cairo. It’s unimaginable what they had been through.
He had helped to set up a school for South Sudanese refugees and invited me to visit the next day.

With much relief, I received my visa at the end of the day and caught the metro back to the hotel. The metro works very well in Cairo. I caught it again in the evening to catch up with a friend of a friend who had started intercultural children’s workshop programmes in schools in Cairo. I also met the youngest person to have walked around the world. Needless to say, it was an interesting evening.

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I headed to Tahrir Square the following morning and checked out the very impressive Egyptian National Museum. I’m not a museum person, but it was impressive. Full of ancient artifacts. The highlight was seeing Tutankhamen’s mask and other items he had been buried with. It was worth visiting just for that.

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I also caught a taxi to the citadel and went inside the huge mosque where Mustafa Pasa is buried. The view from the Citadel is spectacular. You can see the whole way across the city, to the Pyramids.

The walk through the backstreets to the metro gave a good insight of how local life is.

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I met up with Joseph at the school in the early evening. The kids were on holiday, but I was introduced to some staff members. A few kids were there preparing decorations for their graduation, which was a few days later. I was taken on a tour. The school is located in a modified apartment block. The rooms are very small, and I was amazed that there were up to 50 kids in a class. I’m sure learning conditions were challenging. They have high demand for their school, as there are a large number of South Sudanese refugees. Sometimes teachers go without salaries as not everyone can pay the school fees. All in all, it is a very difficult situation. I hope to be able to help them somehow after travelling through Africa. The school survives on the bare minimum.

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That evening I travelled across Cairo, closer to the Pyramids, which I would visit the next morning. The good thing about Ramadan is that when the sun goes down, everyone goes to eat for about one hour. This leaves the streets virtually empty. I cruised across Cairo without any issues at all.

The pyramids were more than impressive. I took a horse and cart around them and got a great view. There weren’t so many people, which made it nice. The only downfall is that you are constantly asked by local hawkers to buy things, so you can’t experience it in peace. The police are going around all the time, and even took some guys away who they saw were trying to sell me something.

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After the Pyramids, I made the long drive south towards Luxor, through the heart of Egypt. I really enjoyed the wide, open spaces of the desert. I decided to stay in Egypt’s old capital, Sohag for the night. I found a cheap hotel on the edge of the city.

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Leaving the next morning, it was amazing to see the difference between the Nile River valley and the desert. It’s like two different worlds, lush and green in the valley, and arid and lifeless outside. You can see how much of a lifeline the river is for everyone living along it.

I continued up the Nile, and then into the desert to Luxor, arriving there in the middle of the afternoon. The only problem with travelling on the road along the Nile are the speed bumps. They are everywhere and not clearly marked at all. It is hard to take in the scenery when you’re constantly on the lookout for huge suspension destroying speed bumps.

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After arriving at the hotel, I called my friend, Mahmoud. a local balloon pilot. He took a taxi boat over to pick me up to go to the West Bank. He took me to a restaurant for lunch, even though he was doing Ramadan. He insisted on me eating though, which was very nice of him. It was scorching hot, around 45deg. To do Ramadan in that heat is quite something.

I went for a tour of the incredible Luxor and Karnak Temples at night. It’s completely mind-boggling to think how they built them and the history behind it.

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It was an early start the next morning to catch a balloon flight with one of the local commercial balloon companies. The plan was for me to fly there, but we ran out of time as we were still waiting for military approval. UNICEF Egypt and I had fought hard to get the permission, but unfortunately it was not to be.

I enjoyed the balloon flight over Luxor, looking towards the Valley of the Kings, across the city and the sunrise over the Nile. I’m not often a passenger, so it was nice to take in the sights.

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After the flight I was taken for a tour around the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Kings. The artwork inside the tombs was impressive. It was also interesting to see where Tutankhamen had been found.

We were finished early. The sun was blazing by the time we’d finished, so it was an easy day for the rest of the day. Mahmoud invited me in the evening to his place for a delicious Egyptian traditional dinner with his Family.

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I headed south to Aswan the next day. I thought it would be an easy drive through the desert, but I was stopped at a police checkpoint for more than 30mins, and then asked to backtrack 30kms to take another road. The police said there were no police on that 250km stretch of road, so they didn’t want to risk my safety.

The road was very scenic along the Nile, but I couldn’t enjoy it much because of the ridiculous number of nearly invisible speed bumps. There were literally speed bumps every kilometre, or sometimes less.

The valley along the Nile is fertile, with all sorts of fruit and vegetables growing. Life is basic and people work the fields by hand.

I arrived into Aswan in the late afternoon and found a cheap, but nice hotel to stay in.

I caught a taxi to the Traffic Court the next morning. In order to leave Egypt you must have a document from the Aswan Traffic Court stating that you have no fines. If you don’t have it at the border, you’ll be sent all the way back to Aswan, a 400km drive.

I was told the court opened at 9am during Ramadan, but it actually opened at 10. Just before 10, I asked someone where I had to go. The guy happened to be the guy I needed to see, so he took me into their air conditioned office, while everyone had to go around and wait out in the heat. He was extremely helpful and arranged everything for me. It took 30mins, most of that time was spent waiting for the final person to sign off to show up.

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I refueled and headed out into the desert. There isn’t much to see, a lot of sand, and in one area, a whole lot of piles of rocks. I would like to know what had formed them. It was 45deg and was hoping not to break down. The road is perfect and it was easy driving.

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I decided to take the new border crossing, which opened earlier this year. The other way involves taking a ferry across the Nile and going through Abu Simbel and Wadi Halfa.

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I arrived at the border in the late afternoon. I thought the border would be closed for the day, but it turns out it’s open 24hrs, which I was very pleased about.

I entered the border with a Sudanese guy, (the only car I had seen on the road for 200kms). He was very nice and we went around the myriad of offices together. If you want to see bureaucracy to the extreme, you should try to take a foreign car across an Egyptian border crossing. There are no computers and everything has to be done with lots of papers and stamps. They love stamps there.

I was surprised Customs only took a two minute look through the truck as I had heard they usually go through everything with a fine-toothed comb. I handed the Egyptian number plates back and got the necessary paperwork done.

The border was closed for three hours during Iftar, (the breaking of the fast at night), so there wasn’t much to do but wait around and talk to people.

When the guards came back, it took one more hour just to get my passport stamped at Immigration. I hung out with the Sudanese guy and the border guards inspecting all the bags as people came off the bus. All the bags are unloaded and guards looked through all the luggage. I asked why they had to look through every bag. The guard replied, “Because we don’t have an X-ray machine”.

We had a good laugh with them while we waited.

I was finally allowed through the Egyptian side of the border. I was very wrong to think that the Sudanese side would be easier, in fact it was worse. They didn’t even let me in for at least 45mins because they had no idea how to treat the truck, as a passenger car, bus, or foreign truck. Eventually they treated me as a passenger car. I was assigned a fixer and we went from office to office.

The head of the traffic police was particularly helpful. A lot of the guys don’t even wear a uniform, so you don’t know who is who. He was just wearing a football shirt.

There was another two hour break for eating. I talked to one of the police for some of that time. A lot of people had warned me about security in that area, so I asked him about it. He said that it was very rare to have problems and in general it was quite safe around there. This was echoed by nearly everyone I spoke to. I was even told that people are so hospitable there, that you can stop by anyone’s house and they are obliged to look after and welcome you.

The border is chaotic. Again, everyone has to take their bags out of the bus. Many of the passengers are traders, so buses are packed to the brim. I asked another of the Customs officers why they had to take everything out. He replied, “To calculate the items for duty tax”.

My truck was hardly looked at once again, which I was happy about.

My fixer was having a very difficult time getting a crucial stamp from one of the top officials. When the helpful Head of Traffic Police saw that I was still there, he asked why things were taking so long. The fixer explained the situation, so he went in to bat for us and basically told the official to stop making life so difficult for us and stamp the document. Thank goodness for friends in high places.

The fixer did an amazing job and had the patience of a saint. He was going round and round in circles for hours. I couldn’t have done it without him. Apparently the problem was that they wouldn’t accept my carnet de passage for the truck, they wanted their own temporary import form filled in also. This somehow caused complications. They said that they hadn’t had any overland travellers like me as the border was still knew. I knew a motorcyclist from the UK had passed through that border a few weeks before though.

I had heard of horror stories of people paying hundreds of dollars at the Sudan border, but I only paid around $30 for the fixer and all the fees.

I finally left at 4am, a marathon 11 hours to get through the Egyptian and Sudanese sides. I drove for a bit thinking there might be a safe place for me to park, but there was nothing. After almost falling asleep at the wheel, I decided to park in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road to sleep.

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I slept for about 6 hours and continued on my way.

The newly built road is perfect, and almost no one uses it. There are no shops, fuel stations or many signs of civilisation, except for the odd quarry here and there. I saw about 10 cars in 300kms.

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You meet civilisation again at the town of Dongola, but even then it is pretty sparse. It’s amazing that people can even live there. The Nile provides the life source again, though there is nowhere near the same amount of agriculture than in Egypt. They are still suffering from a drought and you can see quite a number of dead camels and livestock around.

The United Arab Emirates have some irrigation projects. A huge one was being built in southern Egypt. Some have failed all ready though. The environment is so harsh and people generally live in mud brick houses.

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I arrived into Khartoum at the end of the day. It was strange to see such a built up area again after crossing hundreds of kilometres of small, basic towns. My map wasn’t good and I had to ask for directions. I definitely discovered more of Khartoum than what I was bargaining on. It was good that Iftar coincided again. The streets were packed just before, but when you hear the prayer call, nearly everyone leaves the streets and goes to pray and eat. I crossed Khartoum with ease. Along the way, people stop you on the street and hand out water and food. You are obliged to take it. It’s a very nice gesture of sharing.

I found a hotel, (after searching for quite some time) by the airport.

I went to the Ethiopian Embassy the next morning to get a visa. Things were very ordered and calm there. It was issued a couple of hours later without too many difficulties.

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I got a sim card and called a cousin of a friend of mine there. We caught up at a cafe for late lunch and was taken to his friend’s place, where I parked up for the night. We had a great traditional dinner, had a very interesting chat about life in Sudan, and they took me on a tour around Khartoum in the evening. After, we went to a popular tea bar for men only. Everyone sits around in groups, smokes sheesha and drinks tea, coffee, etc.

Sudan is a conservative country and Sharia Law exists there. Nightclubs and alcohol are forbidden. Over 5 million live in Khartoum, famous for where the Blue and Whilte Nile Rivers meet. Khartoum is relatively organised compared to some of the other cities in the area. The new part of Khartoum has some beautiful, modern buildings. One of the most interesting shaped buildings is a hotel/office building built by Gadaffi.

I went to register the following morning, (all foreigners must register withing three days of arriving into Sudan). More chaos ensued, but I managed to get registered in about 45mins. Many, many people were there getting various legal things done. I was surprised to see many more women than men there. Generally, men have priority over women while waiting in a line.

I left Khartoum and headed for the Ethiopian border. I was warned not to buy any food or drink off the streets along the way as there was a Cholera epidemic, which especially runs rife through the South Sudanese refugee camps. An article came out about it in the BBC the next day.

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The road to the Ethiopian border wasn’t too bad, except for about 50kms of terrible road just before the border. People seem to live a difficult life in the villages dotted around. Not made easier by the influx of South Sudanese refugees and the pressure on the limited infrastructure that that brings, not to mention medical problems. Two of the main jobs I saw were people tending to herds of goats or camels, the other was collecting water from streams or wells.

I was surprised to pass through a heavy shower close to Ethiopia, after being in such dry, hot conditions for thousands of kilometres.

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I arrived at the border just after dark. The border was closed, but the Customs officers kindly let me stay in their compound so I would be safe for the night. The officers usually sleep outside on stretchers, but there were impressive thunderstorms around, so they took shelter in a nearby building. I had a surprisingly good sleep considering there were two electric generators whirring away on each side of the truck.

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Amazingly, I was through Customs and immigration in less than 30 minutes. Considering the horror entry procedures, it was a pleasant surprise.

An Ethiopian border fixer had attached himself to me. I let him do his thing and gave him a few dollars at the end. It does speed up the process and he helped me get a sim card also. I was through the Ethiopian side in 45 minutes.

From the relative flat of Sudan, you head straight into hills and mountains in Ethiopia. Things are suddenly more green and there are people everywhere. You almost always see someone wherever you are. They drive stock up the roads, so you are constantly avoiding people and stock. Ethiopians seem to be industrious workers. Everyone was out in the fields ploughing and tending to them. Everything is done by hand, or with the use of Oxen. Not a tractor or machine was in sight. It was also the first time I had seen wood and grass-roofed huts rather than mudbrick houses.

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I was warned of kids throwing rocks at passing vehicles, but it never happened.

The road climbs a fair way onto a large plateau. The scenery is stunning: mountains, greenery, and a very traditional way of life. People wave out as you drive past.

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I stopped in Bahir Dar that night, on the shores of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. It was quite amazing to think I had driven the length of the Blue Nile.

I had freshly caught fish for dinner in a restaurant on the shore of the lake that evening. It was a nice way to end a long day of driving.

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I arranged a boat trip the next morning to a few islands with monasteries on. They are some of the oldest in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is mainly Coptic Orthodox and has a very long tradition, since the 4th Century.

It was nice to go out on the boat and experience the lake and islands. We stopped off at three islands and marvelled at some of the amazing paintings which decorate the churches. One of the churches dated back to the 13th century.

After the islands, we visited the source of Lake Tana and had fresh fish on the shores close by.

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After an enjoyable morning, I drove to the town of Debre Markos. The main roads are almost all asphalted in Ethiopia. I had to stop for a time along the way as they cleared a truck which had gone off the road earlier in the day. The road is windy and hilly for a good part of the trip.

I passed through a massive thunderstorm just before reaching Debre Markos. I had never drive in such wild weather. Visibility was almost zero and the wind and torrential rain was something to behold. The road flooded in parts and one village I passed had become a river. It was a relief to get through.

I parked in a hotel’s carpark that night.

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The last stretch to Addis Ababa the next day traversed the Great African Rift, an amazing valley which runs from Israel to Mozambique. I went from 8000ft, down to 3500 ft, then back up to 8000ft again. The road was amazing, though the surface was rough and in need of repair. Some of the road was slowly subsiding. It was a slow 1.5hr drive down, and then up.

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I arrived into Addis Ababa late in the day and checked into Louvre Hotel. They had kindly offered me a few night’s stay for free, arranged by Bram, the owner of Abyssinia Ballooning.

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I caught up with Bram in the evening. I had got in touch a few months before asking for help with flight permission. He is a balloon pilot from The Netherlands, and has the only balloon company in Ethiopia. I had never met him before, so it was good to finally meet after so many emails. He’d helped a lot with arranging my logistics in Ethiopia.

I was feeling worse and worse that night. Very lethargic and some stomach problems, so the next day I took it easy before my flight the day after.

I left with Bram’s crew at 4.15am to cross Addis to go to Cheshire Services, a home for disabled children, just outside of the city. Around 50 children came out to watch us prepare the balloon and fly. It was great to see the smile on their faces. They wouldn’t often get the opportunity to see different things in their own facility.

I floated out of the facility and into the countryside, crossing huts and small farms. The flying was easygoing, though I had to be careful where I landed. There aren’t many roads around the place, and the phone service was out for some reason that morning, so I had no communications with my ground crew.

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I landed less than 10kms away next to a track, and was wondering how the crew would find me with no communications and rolling hills around. Some of the locals came over and I was happy that one of them could speak English. It is never sure that you will be welcome or not, and that area is not a common one for Bram to fly over during his tourist flight operations. The locals were very good though.

They helped me pack the balloon, which was appreciated as I still wasn’t feeling the best.

I was trying to get them to arrange a donkey and cart to take the balloon out to the main road, when I heard a vehicle coming down the road. It was the crew. I was very impressed.

We loaded the balloon and headed back to the hotel.

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The rest of the day was a quiet one as I was still low on energy and not feeling 100%.

With the help from a couple of Bram’s team, I went shopping the next morning for a few things I needed, and got a refueling adapter made up at a workshop. I also got the truck cleaned and had a final dinner with Bram. It was nice to be based in Addis for a few days to catch up on things. I’d driven 4000km in the previous 10 days, which was quite heavy going.

I departed the hotel in the middle of the next morning.

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Just on the outskirts of Addis, I suddenly saw the truck’s temperature gauge go shooting up. An old foe had returned: my radiator. I stopped and saw coolant squirting out the side. Luckily for me it happened in an industrial area and two mechanics who saw me stop were more than happy to help me. They probably thought they had hit the jackpot with a foreigner in need of repairs. They got the radiator out and we walked about a kilometre to get it repaired. They put it in again. A couple of Bram’s crew stopped by to make sure all was OK and negotiated with the guys for payment. I only got slightly ripped off.

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All done in 3.5hrs, I was on the road again, and still managed to get to my intended destination of Awasa that night. Driving in the dark in Ethiopia is not fun though. There are no reflectors and almost no road markings. People and stock can pop out at anytime.

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I found a cheap hotel and had a very good sleep that night. I was feeling much better also.

I looked around town and bought a few things the next morning, then made my way towards the Kenyan border. Just outside of Awasa, the road turned from nice asphalt to a trail of destruction. The road was completely ripped up, for it to be asphalted one day. It was 200kms and 8 hours of driving hell. Because I had to travel so slowly, I could really get a taste of local life. People live with no running water or electricity. It was quite populated all down the mountainous road. Kids especially were yelling at me “You, You, You, You, money, money”. I was just hoping that the radiator repair would hold, as I was really in the middle of nowhere and I would’ve been mobbed by people I’ve I’d broken down. Aid is not always a good thing, especially if you are onto the second or third generation of aid recipients.

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I finally caught up with the road sealing crew close to the town of Finchawa. It was then on to perfect, sealed roads. What a dream. It must make a huge difference to the villages when they suddenly have a sealed road running through. Everything becomes much closer. Not so many years ago, there were not many good, sealed roads, so I was counting myself lucky to be coming through Africa now when you can drive almost the whole way from Egypt to South Africa on a sealed road.

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I looked for a place to stop just before Finchawa. I saw a perfect spot just off the road on top of a hill with a beautiful view to the valley below. I pulled in. It was all ready dark at that stage and I waited outside a few minutes to see if anyone would turn up. Sure enough, a group came from out of nowhere. The head guy could speak English. He was very kind and said it was no problem for me to stay. Luckily I saw only as they were leaving that they were carrying huge machetes.

A few stayed behind a bit longer and we spoke by hand gestures. It was very funny.

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I left early the next morning. The landscape became more open and the roads more straight, (and in perfect condition). I made good time to Moyale, the Ethiopian/Kenyan border.

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The border crossing was relatively easy. A fixer helped me out. They are about to open new border facilities any day now. The old one is a bit disorganised, but manageable, especially on the Ethiopian side. There were no issues and I was through to Kenya, along with many trucks and trailers carrying maize, also crossing at the same time.

I got an East African Visa in Kenya, ($100 for Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda). Customs was easy. They even waived the $40 fee after hearing I’d only be in Kenya for 10 days. They treated me more as a transit vehicle.

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I headed into Kenya, and was finally driving on the left side of the road again. It was the first time the truck had driven on the left side since Thailand. Very nice it was.

The road in Kenya was excellent and more or less straight. The easiest I had had it since Sudan. 30Kms out of my destination of Marsabit, I noticed the truck’s temperature going up again. I got out and had a look. Sure enough, the radiator had a slow leak. I was happy it hadn’t happened on the terrible road the day before. I nursed the truck to Marsabit and found a secure hotel. The area is well known bandit country. A couple of weeks before, a truck had been highjacked close to Marsabit.

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Luckily for me, there was a mechanic right next to the hotel. The mechanic was very good and got the radiator out in no time at all the next morning. We went down the road to get it repaired. The guy who repaired it was very old, and his equipment was just as old. It was very interesting to watch him work.

When the radiator was back in, I drove to the other side of town to a famous overlander’s campsite, Henry’s Camp. I was the only one there, but I was quite happy to spend a relaxing evening in the quiet location. They cooked me up a delicious home cooked dinner too.

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I made the 550km trip south to Rongai the next day. An elephant right next to the road caught me by surprise just outside of Marsabit, along with a large number of Baboons.

Many people are nomadic in the area, so you see them herding their camels, cows, or goats. You also see more traditional clothes. The women especially have some very ornate clothes.

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One of the most common things you see is people collecting water. It’s a daily activity for most.

The road was relatively flat and easy all the way to Isiolo, not much traffic either. The last bit of sealing was only finished a few months ago I was happy to hear. It used to be a terrible road apparently.

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After Isiolo, there’s quite a climb and the area becomes more green. It’s more inhabited too. Various crops are grown, including quite a number of tea plantations.

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I took a supposed shortcut, but I don’t think it turned out to be much of one. The road was unsealed and in pretty bad shape, so it was slow going.

The highlight of the trip was crossing the equator. In fact I crossed it three times as I zig-zagged along it.

I stopped at Nakuru to buy a few things, before continuing on to Rongai.

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I was met by the owner of the 4000 acre farm, Hamish. He had dinner prepared when I arrived. My flight was planned to fly from a school which they had supported, (they help 7 schools in the area). I got the contact from a supporter of the Flying High For Kids Project, Henri. I had flown him in France a couple of years ago. He liked what I was doing, and his company based in Paris, Alma Capital, donated some money to the project to help with some of the running costs. Alma Capital had also donated money to one of the schools in Rongai, Vanessa Grant Girls’ School, a semi private school for girls. The school has a big emphasis on striving for excellence, and is well known for it.

I was put up in some accommodation on the farm, rooms usually for overseas volunteers who help at the schools.

I spent a quiet couple of days catching up on planning work and looking around Rongai and the farm. The most urgent thing that had to be organised was the flight permission. After 4 months of communication, it came down to the last hours to get the permission. I even had to find someone in Nairobi to pay for the permit and receive it on my behalf. He received it literally in the last few minutes. Having a good network of people is crucial to the project. A big thanks to Cor at the East African Aeroclub and Willy Potgeiter for helping me pull it together.

The weather was perfect on the morning of the flight. Three Schools and just under 1000 kids came to watch the balloon take off. There was lots of yells and screams from the kids as I took off with one of my ground crew from Dubai, Isaac. He is from Kenya and made a special trip from his town to help out.

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Winds were light and we slowly crossed the town. Rongai is right in the Rift Valley and the surroundings are beautiful and green.

Many people waved out and were amazed by the balloon as we flew over.

I landed on the other side of town in a huge field. A large number of people followed us from Rongai and greeted us at the landing. I was asked many questions, and one father even gave me his baby to hold, Everyone was very excited.

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A driver from the farm came with his Landrover, and we managed to fit the balloon on it to go back to the truck.

There was quite a buzz around town as we drove back to the truck parked at the school. Lots of people were even calling me by name.

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After loading the balloon, I had a couple of hours rest before heading to Gogar Primary, and then Vanessa Grant Girl’s School, for a talk.

About 100 kids, (2 classes) packed into a classroom at the primary school. They were very enthusiastic and asked lots of questions after I discussed with them my story and encouraged them to follow their dreams.

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I headed down the road to the Girls’ school and spoke to all 400 girls in their newly built auditorium. The official opening will be in a couple of months. They also asked lots of questions, and I think many of them have a bright future ahead. They are some of the lucky few who are able to have a top quality education. The entry standard to the school is high.

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I had dinner with Johnny and his Family, (who live on the farm) that night. Johnny is the main driver behind the development of the 7 schools in securing funding and planning. He helped to arrange my visit also.

7 families live on the farm, and around 800 workers work there in different industries, including flyfish construction, plant rearing, dairy production, and stock breeding. All the white people living on the farm were born in Kenya and go out of their way to contribute to the community. They are the main employer in Rongai.

Johnny also had friends visiting from the east who own a huge tea plantation, which employs around 8000 workers.

We had a very nice meal and a good chat.

After packing up the next morning, I went to the girls’ school to pick up some postcards which the girls had made. I also said goodbye to Johnny, who was there for a meeting.

Just as I was leaving the farm, I needed to drop a USB key off to Willy, the one who had helped with the flight permission a couple of days earlier. Willy lives with his Wife, Nicola, on the farm. I had a look around the truck before I went in and noticed a few drips coming from the radiator.

I mentioned to Willy that I’d be heading into Nakuru to get the radiator fixed again. He was having none of it, and got his mechanic to take out the radiator while we had lunch together. Talk about good luck and great hospitality. Their nephew, Stan, was also visiting.

The radiator had just come out when we finished lunch. I went in with the mechanic, Edward, to Nakuru in one of Willy’s Land Rovers. I was sick of fixing the radiator, so we searched for a replacement. Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t find one, so we went to a workshop which made them from scratch and ordered one. They said it would take 5 hours to build; very fast I thought.

Because it was the end of the day, they said it would be ready by the following midday. The owner of the shop was a woman, and she really knew what she was talking about. It was great to see she was right into it when every other place was run by men. She ran a very successful business.

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We went back to Willy’s and had a great dinner. They put me up for the night in one of their guest houses. They often have guests, so it was no drama for them. The room was amazing, all made of mud brick and very comfortable.

I went back into Nakuru with Edward the next day and picked up the new radiator. The design was much better. They also fixed my old one to be used as a spare. I was very happy to open a new chapter with a new radiator, hopefully a much more positive one than the last.

We installed it back at Willy’s, with the help of Stan and Willy. A couple of modifications had to be made for it to work, but it fit in the end.

The day was getting on, so Willy invited me to stay another night. It was a quiet night in, in preparation for a long driving day the following day.

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I left at round 9am. The road to the border was hilly, and there was a bit of traffic. I was stopped at one of the police checkpoints. The policeman said I was driving too fast, though I refuted it. He said, “What do you have for me?” I replied, ‘Happiness and a smile”. He seemed to like that response and let me go.

I travelled up the beautiful Rift Valley for some of the way. Michael Jackson songs were being played on the radio as it was the anniversary of his death. ‘Heal the World’ seems to have more meaning when you are actually driving through Africa and watching children collecting water and carting it on their heads.

I arrived at the border in the middle of the afternoon. The border crossing was quite ordered and relatively new. Quite a stark difference to the commotion just a couple of kilometres back where rallies for the upcoming elections were being held.

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I was through in 1.5hrs. I had to pay $180 for COMESA insurance. I did have insurance, but just not that one. I wasn’t sure if I was being ripped off or not. The fee seemed reasonable for the size of my truck.

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I was surprised at how quiet the Ugandan roads were, almost no one on them, and in good condition, except for the vicious speed bumps in every town.

Uganda is generally flat, so driving was easy. I made it to Mbale that night and was happy to see a huge field especially for parking trucks, and parked there the night.

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I travelled the last few hundred kilometres to Gulu, in northern Uganda, arriving there in the middle of the afternoon. The road was good and I was surprised at how swampy Uganda is. It also explains why they have some of the highest cases of Malaria in the world. There is a noticeable lack of large scale farming. It’s possible they are still trying to get back on their feet after the war with the LRA, which ended in 2009.

I met up with a friend of a friend, and we did some errands that afternoon. It had also been arranged that I would park at his compound. My friend, and fellow New Zealander, Geoff, arrived from Kampala that evening. I met his Fiance, Miriam, and her daughter, Blessing.

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Geoff has been doing some great work helping Miriam’s village and surrounding districts. He tries to get involved with many projects, and raises awareness for causes like Nodding Syndrome, a mysterious disease, mainly found only in that part of the world.

The following day was spent organising our event. We had an interview with the local radio station at 8am, and then spent a good part of the day on the phone and writing emails. The Uganda Civil Aviation Authority kept wanting more and more documents for the flight permission, some of them quite pointless. Even though they had been notified 4 months earlier, they left everything to the last minute. We met with the Regional Police Chief, and his Deputy that afternoon. They were really nice guys and were very supportive of what we were doing. They had just finished a meeting with many of the top military and police representatives in the region, brokering a peace deal after a fight had broken out between 2 tribes a little further west, resulting in a few fatalities.

We tried to gather all the last documents for the permission the following day, but we ran out of time. We had to delay our event by one day. Everyone was very understanding though. We visited the regional military commander and his deputy at their headquarters in the afternoon. They were also very supportive. There were many conflicting requests from the CAA, the UCC, the military and the Principal Air Traffic Controller at Entebbe Airport. In the end, the Principal Controller and the Deputy Regional Military Commander went into bat for us to cut all the ridiculous bureaucracy. It was so good to get the permission after so much effort.

I also picked up a gas fitting which I had made at a workshop on the side of the road. I am gaining quite a collection gas re-fueling fittings for all sorts of connections.

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Once we heard we received the permission, we headed for Te Got, around 70kms from Gulu. The road was quite bad for the first 20kms, but after that the dirt smoothed and it was pretty easy going.

We arrived just on dark and checked out the school where the launch site was.

The tiny village where Miriam comes from was just up the road. There is no running water or electricity. The huts are made out of mudbrick with woven grass roofs. They are comfortable and are naturally well insulated.

Dinner was served and we talked around the fire under the stars.

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It was an early start to go for the flight. We set up the balloon with the help of some locals. More and more kids and people from the village turned up as we inflated. Weather conditions were perfect, with a light fog.

I flew Francis, a relation of Miriam’s. It was good to have someone who knew the area, spoke the language, and was fit enough to help me out when I landed. (Afternote:  Around six weeks later, Francis caught Hepatitis and died. He was only 27).

The flight was amazing, over the wild, seemingly untouched countryside. We flew over a number of small villages. Some ran away from the balloon as they had no idea what it was, (Later in the day we met someone who ran away. They thought it was a bomb!)

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We flew over one of the few hills in the area. It was really magical with the light fog around.

One of the issues was access to landing places. There weren’t many tracks around. Luckily I spotted one, and a field with very long grass was right next to it. Francis asked a farmer if it was OK to and there. He was more than happy.

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A number of villagers came over to see this strange object which came from the sky. We had a lot of laughs as we packed up. My crew turned up. I borrowed their Toyota Hilux for the retrieve. They were from Hope for Humanity, and did an excellent job in getting to the balloon and helping out.

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The track was quite rough in parts in the way out, but the driver knew what he was doing. He had been a professional driver for 10 years and I’m sure he had had some challenges in his time.

We headed back to Awere Primary School and shifted the balloon into the truck.

I then went with Geoff, Miriam and Francis to speak to a couple of classes in the school. We spoke to the kids about following their dreams and asking about what they would like for Uganda.

We did the same at Awere Secondary School and Odek Primary School. It was great to speak to so many kids and see how life was for them.

Odek Primary is where the infamous leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, went to. He is from Odek. They still haven’t found him, even after the huge global appeal a few years ago.

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After Awere Primary, we went to a facility for children with Nodding Syndrome. It was sad to hear how some of them were mistreated by their family and communities. Their health and symptoms improve significantly once they are in the facility’s care. Some come in not mobile, and leave walking. Most are in their care for one year. Like most health and education facilities in Uganda, it is severely underfunded. It doesn’t get any support from the Government and is largely funded by a doctor from the USA.

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Just behind Miriam’s family’s land, is the rock where Kony went during the war to get his ‘power’. He is regarded as superhuman in the area, and is said to have special powers, and could even make water flow from the rocks at the top of the hill.

We climbed to the top just before sunset. It’s a steep, but short climb.

It’s an amazing place. I could definitely see why Kony went up there. We spent a good while enjoying the views of the surrounding area, and the sunset.

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A goat was killed earlier in the day, and we had a very nice meal that night. Miriam told us some hair-raising stories of the time during the war with the LRA, which lasted until she was 16. If they saw something strange moving at night while they were having dinner for example, they would abandon their huts and run into the bush and sleep in the grass for the night. It seemed that happened on many occasions.

She also said that fighter planes flew so low, that the grass would move from their wake. They would cover their toenails and fingernails with grass because they were told that the pilots can see the light reflecting off them in the dark as they slept in the grass, and they risked being attacked.

She even had to flee with her sister after an LRA member came across them sleeping in the grass. They weren’t shot, because the soldier was going to attack a nearby army camp. If he killed them, he would be found out. Thousands were kidnapped during the war and they were lucky to get way.

They were incredible and terrifying stories which I couldn’t even begin to comprehend, made even more real as we sat in the open under the fire, right at the place where it all happened.

We headed back to Gulu the next morning. I re-fueled the balloon from a 45kg tank, with a bit of backyard mechanics involved.

Straight after that, we went to a school and orphanage, 24kms out of Gulu. We were invited to go there by a man from Denmark, Jesper, now living in Gulu. He has been supporting the school, which was started last year by an ex-LRA soldier. The kids gave us a great singing and dancing performance, and Geoff and I spoke to them after.

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I was taken on a tour of their very basic facilities. They need at least another $3000 to make the facility better. Some of the classroom floors are just dirt with no desks or chairs.

We headed back to Gulu on motorbike taxis after, and had a last dinner with Geoff and Family.

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I set off the next morning, for the 825km drive to Kigali, Rwanda. The drive to Kampala was easy, with little traffic. I took some dirt roads to bypass Kampala, which weren’t too bad. After the bypass, there was a lot more traffic, and it became more hilly. There were quite a number of passing lanes thank goodness, as there were a lot of slow trucks.

I reached Lyantonde that night and stayed in the carpark of a nice hotel. I only paid about $6 to park.

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I departed at 9am and headed for the border. I filled up with diesel before the border, as it’s more expensive in Rwanda. The area became much more mountainous, with a few good climbs. There was also less vegetation and the ground was much more dry, even drought-like.

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Border procedures were easy. The Customs officer on the Ugandan side was amazed by my ‘house on wheels’. It took just over an hour to clear both sides.

The road follows a valley full of tea plants on the Rwandan side. The road is in perfect condition, and there’s not much traffic. I only hit traffic close to Kigali, and it was quite heavy heading through the city. I headed for the airport to see if I could meet with the Civil Aviation Authority, and get a sim card. It turns out it was a national holiday, but I spoke to the duty manager and they gave me the persons mobile number I was looking for.

I was also recommened a hotel carpark to stay in. I went there, and the security guards kindly let me stay there for the night, (without telling the management).

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It’s been a quiet cuple of days; a good opportunity to catch up on blog writing and planning. I had a constructive meeting with the CAA today, and I will have a decision by tomorrow about flight approval. Fingers crossed……

About the author: Andrew Parker

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