Border Crossing: Sudan to Ethiopia

Out of 22 passengers on the Sudan Loop, we would say goodbye to all but two in Khartoum. George, an older, quite proper, stodgy gentlemen from the UK with a wry smile and sense of humor to match, and yours truly would be the only two passengers to continue the two day journey from Khartoum, across the Ethiopian border to Gondar, where we would pick up 11 new passengers. Until then, George and I would have all 24 seats in Amelia between us. We joked about fighting over who would get the window seat.

I must be candid in saying the Sudan loop had been a bit physically taxing, starting with the fact that I saw the sunrise four out of the seven days…likely more than I have seen in the past year. The long driving days on average of over 400 kms (about 250 miles) the late nights sitting by the fire, the fitful sleeps that can come from sleeping in a tent flapping in the wind, breaking camp and packing up every day, and climbing in and out of the steep truck steps 20 times per day had me feeling a bit weary. I was looking forward to a couple of quiet driving days, followed by a rest day in a clean, comfortable hotel in Gondar before heading off on the next adventure.

Leaving Khartoum with only the two of us as passengers immediately felt like a more casual atmosphere. Louise asked, “Want to come up front and ride in the cab with me?” I thought she would never ask. 😉 There is no better view from “Amelia” than the passenger seat of the cab. To make it even more entertaining, it’s extremely rare to see a woman driving in Sudan, much less a giant truck. When we would pass people along the way, you could see them do a double take at not one woman, but two in the cab! But the best looks came from the young girls, I could imagine smiling at the promise of possibility that one day maybe they would be driving too.

The Dragoman fleet has an “integrated cab,” with a pass-through that enables communication between passengers and crew.

While James is an excellent driver, riding with Louise at the wheel is a smoother ride. 😉

Amelia is pretty quiet now with just George and me.

Since Amelia is fitted in the UK, the steering wheel is on the right side. Here is my selfie attempt in the passenger-side mirrors.

Here you can see what I mentioned in my first post about the litter in Sudan. While the people themselves seemed clean (probably as a result of all those Islamic ablutions,) I never saw more trash in the streets!

Lots going on along the roadside. If ;you look in the distance, you will see a camel carcass. This is very common in Sudan, as they seem to drag dead animals beside the roadway to let the desert reclaim the carcass.

Modern day camels. 😉

Frequently found along the roadside are these little huts with women selling tea and coffee.

The tray is always accompanied by a small incense burner

James, Louise, and George on coffee break.

The key difference between Ethiopian food and Sudanese food is the “implement.” Sudanese food is served with pita bread, while Ethiopian food is served with “injera,” which is more like a sour-dough pancake. Otherwise, the “ful” (beans) and lentils are similar.

You never know what you may encounter on the road, that is why vigilance is vital.

One thing for certain, there will always be livestock.

Getting closer to the border crossing, time to put the camera away.

The border crossing into Ethiopia at Metema was easy for us individuals. We four were done in minutes. However getting “Amelia,” the truck signed in turned out to be a pain. Immigration’s computer was down, and every time they went to enter the vehicle registration documentation, it crashed. What should have only taken an hour took four.

While waiting on Amelia’s paperwork to be processed, we all went for lunch on the Sudanese side of “the rope” (border crossing) in what amounted to little more than a shack with a dirt floor. It was beyond marginal, and I had that feeling of dread upon entering that I was headed for doom. “Listen to your gut, Suzanne!” But I was hungry, and James ordered up four plates of their beans and falafel with a great deal of confidence, then tucked right in. I would have probably been okay, except that I also accepted the boiled egg that was offered, whereas the others did not eat the egg. It may be some time before I can eat a boiled egg again.

We didn’t get out of customs and on our way until 4:30pm. As the sun started to go down, the road became very sinuous and narrow, and it was evident we were climbing into the mountains, growing darker by the minute. At dusk, we passed through a small village east of the border about an hour into Ethiopia where we came upon a tree log lying across the road…..a makeshift road block. “Too dangerous” we were told, the extent of communication in their broken English and our inability to understand Amharic.  Who knew what that meant, “too dangerous?” Was it too dangerous because it was getting dark and like Mexico, there were potential banditos in the hills? Or was it too dangerous because the road was treacherous after dark with its steep curves and drop offs. Didn’t matter, we weren’t going anywhere.

I was just about to tease James by saying “Push on through, James! Amelia can take that tree!” when I saw him….the non-uniformed militia man with the Kalashnikov hanging over his shoulder. GULP! Louise got out to try and talk her way past the road block. Louise has a saying that I watched her put into action many times, “Keep ‘em sweet” as she smiles and kids her way out of challenging situations.  But they were having none of it. As she became more forceful, so did he, and watching nervously through the windows, I saw him grab her arm and shove her. That’s when I got nervous. Really nervous!

They wanted us to drive up a narrow dirt path and park for the night, putting us deep into the village. We had no choice. They wouldn’t let us remain on the side of the road, and there was no turning back, as it was now dark. Finally, we got parked into position, and they allowed James to turn the truck around so we were at least pointing outbound. I had to get out to go to the toilet, at which time Louise and I agreed all trips out of the truck should likely be undertaken together.

I have a weird habit when I get nervous. I start to sing.  Often times I am not even cognizant it’s happening until someone points it out. Like turrets syndrome, only lyrical.  Sitting in the stairwell of the truck, now surrounded by the local militia, I start to sing to myself…. “Don’ worry ‘bout a ting, cause every little ting gonna be alright.” Then James chimes in.  “Woke up dis mornin; wit the risin; sun…three little birds…upon my doorstep.”  There we were, the only white people in the village, doing our best Bob Marley while the militia stared back at us like we were nuts. But then the smiles began to break out. Next came the case of beer. That’s when I knew…every little ting gonna be alright.

I would have loved a beer, but at this point was trying not to drink anything, because the village toilet was a shack of dilapidated tin walls filled with garbage, and nothing but a small hole dug in the ground, surrounded by rocks. No real place to stand and keep your balance, let alone see what you are doing where, nor was there any place to hold on. Best keep my wits about me.

As my fellow RVers know, one benefit of traveling with a full kitchen is you never go hungry. Louise got out the cereal boxes, and everyone but me had a bowl of cereal, eaten nervously as the town militia watched through the windows. Best I could manage was a banana, because I was starting to feel the “rumblings” from my lunch.

We would be spending the night in the truck, while our nice clean, comfortable hotel rooms in Gondar went empty for the night.  We worked out the sleeping arrangements….Louise and James would sleep cross-ways on the floor in the front, with George and me in the back in a “T” formation on our sleeping pads on the floor. I had no cell signal, so I asked Louise if she would please send GPS coordinates to their home office so at least my family would know where to look for the body. (Always thinking of you, Mom! LOL!)

We all went down to sleep, but it wasn’t long before I woke up sometime in the middle of the night feeling like my intestines had been inflated to 70psi. I managed to step over George by walking on the seats, and raced to find the tin shack in the dark. I would visit there five more times before daybreak. . At the risk of sharing “TMI,” have you ever tried “aiming” when you have severe intestinal distress? Definitely one of the more challenging fetes I have attempted in my lifetime, and one of the worst nights I can recall in all my travels.

Never was I so relieved to hear the banging on the side of the truck at daybreak, telling us the road was now open and we were free to continue on! Was the “danger” they were preventing us from encountering banditos in the nearby mountains? The perilous curves of the road with no guardrail? Or the overturned truck in the middle of the road on a blind curve? We will never know.

We arrived into Gondar at the Lammergeyer Hotel around noon, with just six hours to get rested up, cleaned up, and ready for the pre-trip briefing where we would meet our new travel companions and begin the adventure all over again.

Lammergyer Hotel, I hardly knew ye.

Gondar was my first introduction to Ethiopia. A very colorful town compared to the muted tones of Sudan.

Gondar previously served as the capital of the Ethiopian Empire, and holds the remains of several royal castles earning it the name, “Camelot of Africa”.

We had a half day city tour here to explore the 17th century castles within the Royal Enclosure, (Fasil Ghebbi,) a fortress-city in Gondor, founded in the 17th century by Emperor Fasilides. In 1979, it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Herigage site. The complex includes six castles, a palace, a couple of banquet halls, stables, a chancellery, library and three churches, and a steam room with animal horns for a clothing rack.

The Castle of Emperor Iyassu the Great (1682-1706)

The ceiling of Iyasu I’s castle collapsed under British bombardment in 1941.

These young students are here rehearsing for the upcoming Timkat celebration.

Funniest scene of the day was watching these young boys coming through the security gate, being searched while carrying their swords in their hands.

Also on the half day tour, we visited the 18th Century Debre Berhan Selassie church. The church is behind a stone wall which contains 12 towers such as this one at the entrance to represent the 12 apostles.

The Debre Berhan Selassie church with its double-thatched roof is considered to be one of the most beautifully painted churches in Ethiopia.

Many Ethiopian churches share similar characteristics, including ornately decorated drums. However, the Debre Berhan Selassie church is known for its painted walls, particularly the 135 wide-eyed cherubs on the ceiling.

Having sex with your spouse yesterday gets you a pass out of church apparently. No wonder there are so many Ethiopian children! LOL!

Nearby complex contains Fasilada’s Bath, this two storey structure surrounded by a pool. It was once thought to be a vacation home for royalty. The pool is now filled only once per year, for the Timkat celebration. After the water is blessed by the bishop, it is considered “Holy water,” to be splashed, collected, sprayed, etc.

The Timkat celebration is coming up, the second largest celebration among Coptic Christians, whereby the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan is re-enacted. They are cleaning and preparing to fill the baths for this celebration.

Next Up: Simien Mountains National Park

15 thoughts on “Border Crossing: Sudan to Ethiopia

  1. Well life is too short for me to get to all the tempting places you visit. I didn’t expect to enjoy these Sudan/Ethiopia posts as much as I have. However I was imagining the distressful night you had after the boiled egg! How awful to be in SUCH a foreign primitive setting on a night like that! Looking forward to seeing and reading about more of Ethiopia!

  2. Yowza! Ethiopia sounds almost as threatening as going to Wally World over here. Glad you fared well. Maybe not well, after the egg, but good. 🙂

  3. I have enjoyed your journey so much! I can’t imagine doing it myself, so I am grateful for the window into a world so unlike mine that you have provided. Thank you for sharing!

  4. We continue to be in awe of where you are and what experiences you are having.
    We giggled when reading of your winning over the villagers with your singing, it is an universal language, but neither Deede nor I can carry a tune so we would have had to find another friend maker. Sorry about the egg, one of my favorite sayings fits here, but I shall not write it. The four person part of the trip was unique and sounded as fun. Looking forward. peace
    allen and deede

  5. No, I won’t be going to the Sudan. What a crazy night for you. I would probably have ended in a puddle of tears. Again…you are one brave woman!! Boy Ethiopia sure looks different. Love all the color.

    • Thanks for the comment, Pam, but I must add the “little night of horrors” happened in Ethiopia, not Sudan….about an hour after we had crossed the border. I always felt completely safe in Sudan. Ethiopia, not so much. So don’t cross Sudan off your bucket list just yet. LOL!

  6. That would be my biggest concern and why I will probably never travel abroad. No, not the threats, the food. I just could not do it! Glad to hear everything went okay. Hope the rest of your travels are less adventurous.

  7. Wow, you’ve written so well about your emotional and physical experiences in a strange land! So very interesting! Did Louise and James encounter this border-crossing issue (unknown dangerous road) in their previous crossings? And then when you finally got to your destination, such beauty! I guess y’all quickly forgot the previous 24 hours of stress . . . thank you Suzanne for taking us all along on your fascinating journey!

    • Hi, Terri, thanks for the question. This was James’ first trip through Africa. He was previously working for Dragoman driving down in South America from Bolivia to Argentina. But no, Louise had never encountered this issue before. We all four remain puzzled over from what “danger” they were protecting us. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

  8. That night in Ethiopia…..OMG. One bad egg is all it takes. How awful. You are one tough traveler. Listening to Bob Marley and sending you good energy.

  9. WHOAAAA! What a nail biter that night must have been…beginning with the military tanks at the border crossing. You had me at “dark” “dangerous” “sinuous” and “narrow”! And with the armed guard shoving Louise after her “keep ’em sweet” approach (sometimes you can catch your flies with honey and sometimes not)…Yikes! Thank God “Three Little Birds” came to the rescue along with the case of beer. 🙂 Tummy rumblings or no, after all that, I would have sucked down three beers before anyone else could open theirs! Maybe four or five. And smoke signals sending out GPS coordinates so your fam could find your cold, dead body….hahaha. OMG! To the too oft visited tin shack in the middle of the night…girrrrl, I’m *still* feeling sorry for ya!

    Gonda looks pretty so far…love that shot of the stone wall with the balcony, trees in the background. For sure, I have newfound appreciation for UNESCO designating World Heritage sites with this beautiful church in mind.

    That’s what I love about your blog, Suzanne, from frightening experiences to calming ones, your adventures never fail to entertain me. I appreciate your writing style more than I can say. 🙂

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