A Ferenj I am

Incredible how quickly unusual things have become usual. Incredible how certain daily routines have developed. Loading the Husky, withdrawing / exchanging cash, finding fuel, scouting water & food, enjoying several km of riding, talking to numerous people, organizing an acceptable place to stay for the night, unloading the Husky, planning next day’s route, doing maintenance work, laundering clothes, eating dinner, staying in touch with family & friends, sleeping. New day, similar routine, different setting, new experience.

Never am I bored. In contrary, by no means is this a relaxing holiday. An enriching experience it is however. The urge for a few days off in a row is developing though. I will need to re-energize. I wish to ensure I get the fullest out of my travels, maintain my curiosity and ability to process all impressions.

The fuel shortage is a real thing in Sudan. 8/10 gas stations down South are deserted. If operating, usually an endless queue of vehicles is waiting. We decide to take our chances and pass a few gas stations when exiting Al-Qadarif. We’re lucky and find a gas station with a shorter queue. The military officer waves us past the queue and within minutes we’re back on the road approaching Ethiopia.

On the road towards Ethiopia

Sand turns into fertile ground. The desert turns into plantations as far as the eye can see. Dark clouds come up and it looks like it’s raining ahead of us. It is now cooler. We welcome all these developments. It has been long enough in the desert.

One last stop in Sudan. A town of shacks along the road. The usual Pepsi stop; dead, bottled water all-day just won’t do. Surrounded by kids we take a break. These kids are great. To their amusement I pronounce absolutely everything wrong in Arabic and my helmet & gloves are the toys of choice. Give in on one and 20 more will want a go. Curious, though very respectful. A yes is a yes and a no is a no. If one disobeys, the others will realign him/her. I’m fascinated by how mischievous and playful, though well behaved these children are.

Stop in Southern part of Sudan
My helmet becomes the toy of choice

The last 100km to Metema Ethiopia are riddled with potholes. Up to an estimated 1m in diameter and 0.3m in depth, some serious damage could be caused. It is now raining heavily and the potholes are more difficult to detect. Two tactics: Ride a slow but safe slalom around all potholes or go fast and fly over them. I try both. Both work with the Husky’s low weight, long suspension and 21” front wheel. The second is more of a high-risk approach though and I don’t feel like repairing the tube in the rain. A reasonably slow slalom it is.

A check of papers and we’re admitted into the border zone. The Husky won’t start; check-engine and temperature lights are on. Ideal timing. I push her into the border zone and roll down a long hill in an alley of trucks loaded with onions. We roll in front of the Sudanese customs office and I start trouble shooting. A check of thermostat, detaching of battery and ECU. She’s back to life as if nothing has happened.

These border stretches are always strange places. Gloomy, dirty, plenty of traffic, fixers, vendors and currency exchangers. However, the procedure is straight forward. Sudanese customs & immigration. Ethiopian immigration and customs. Although one wouldn’t recognize these officers as officers, as they are wearing shorts & flip flops, they are truly diligent and efficient with the means they have. Never have I seen so much carbon paper in use.

We enter a different world and rapidly ascend from +/- sea level to over 2’000m. We have traveled in time and are set back 8 years and 6 hours. According to the Ethiopian calendar it is the year 2011 and 6 hours earlier.

I have read and heard many things about Ethiopia. Many have said that the offensive begging is unbearable and that children throw stones at those passing by. Apparently, foreigners are called “Ferenj”; Amharic for foreigner. Many have recommended to pass through as quickly as possible. I wish to form my own opinion and enter w/o prejudice.

We ride through many small villages following Metema. The experience is one of a kind. In every town children run up to the road, wave and shout. The most touching ones are those that can barely walk and stumble to the road, waving with both hands. They make you feel like a “Tour-De-France” participant. I ride out of every village with a big smile on my face. I will never forget these impressions.

Due to the Husky’s fit at the border, we are delayed. It is now dark and we have to make it to Gondar. Potholed pass roads with donkeys, cows, sheep, goats and people wandering on them. Second time we ignore the golden rule. Approaching Gondar it rains and there is mud on smooth tarmac. Almost as bad as ice. We end up picking up the GS 1200. She weighs 360kg fully fueled and loaded. Comparatively the Husky is a lightweight at around 200kg.

Fasil lodge is a peaceful oasis in buzzing Gondar. We’re treated with superb Ethiopian food and beer. In Sudan any type of alcohol is illegal and it has been a while since we’ve had an after ride beer. In the morning at pancakes and Ethiopian coffee, Efrem (manager) asks if we would like to join him on a visit to his home village. Yearly festivities are taking place. Every household must invite everyone. Those that don’t are deemed stingy. We decide to extend our stay and tag along.

A 45min ride to the country side, crossing rocks and gravel to the village. A village of log & tin huts with one brick & mortar house. Efrem’s parents live in this house and we are greeted with Tella, an alcoholic herb drink, fermented in clay pots and served in cow horns. An introduction to Injera with Tibs, a sour dough flat bread with meat on it follows. This shared dish is eaten by hand and meat (Tibs) is picked up by using pieces of flat bread (Injera). We’re fully engaged in Ethiopian countryside village life.

Arrival in the village
A dirty biker is welcome here
Traditional Ethiopian clothing
Roasting coffee beans
When the party has started and you’re not ready yet
What a smile
The village priests
The Tella experience
The man who made us drink more Tella than we wanted
Traditional Ethiopian house
The tough guys in town

We decide to head North instead of taking the short route to Addis Ababa. In the Simien Mountains gas stations are closed due to the lack of gasoline. Black market prices are more than double, but we really have no alternative. We end up paying CHF 1.89 per liter, though the price has been negotiated down from CHF 2.75. No fixed prices on the black market.

Black market fueling
Gentleman on the way to Adi Arkay
Crossing the Simien Mountains
Some great riding along the mountains

A basic hotel in Adi Arkay allows us to park the bikes in the restaurant over night. This is key; leaving the bikes on the road is not an option. Cho & Sam organize everything for us. There are usually some lads around, wanting to earn some pocket money. Arriving late, we’re thankful for their services.

Hotel in Adi Arkay

Cho is very eager to learn and seems to be a great student at school. He asks me many questions. Some I can answer, some I simply can’t. Incredible how much knowledge he has accumulated at a young age. What impresses me most are his thirst for knowledge and his aspirations. What Cho doesn’t know is that I learnt much from him then he could from me. I’m sure this young man’s name will be known someday in Ethiopia.

In the morning we’re invited to Cho‘s mothers house for a coffee ceremony. World famous for a reason, we very much enjoy the Ethiopian coffee. Beans are freshly roasted, grinded by hand and cooked up. Served with some burning incense, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony is a treat.

Cho’s mom preparing the coffee ceremony
Sam & Cho (l.t.r)

We ride up through the Tigray region, stopping at Axum and crossing to Mekele the next day. Here Armin’s and my paths will part. I will spend two days on a trip to the Danakil Depression and Armin will head South to Addis Ababa. The Husky and I are riding solo again.

Motorcycling paradise

The Danakil Desert is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Sometimes above 50 degrees and composed of sand, salt, sulfur and oil. But beautiful it is. Feels like on another planet. A swim in water with a higher density of salt than the dead sea, a night in the open desert and a view of the most exotic landscape.

Aregawi, the trusted guide

3 days down to Addis Ababa. Mengistu, the local Tuctuc mechanic in Weldiya invites me for beers, the best Injera so far and I visit his workshop before heading off to Shoa Robit. He is very proud of his workshop. Rightfully so; they have a hydraulic press and produce most of the parts themselves. Apparently once replacing a clutch on a GS 1200 of an Italian traveler this way. Mengistu thanks me several times for the time I’ve taken. I couldn’t be more thankful myself.

Mengistu (3rd f.l.) and his team

The stretch to Addis Ababa goes 3’300m above sea level. A fantastic pass road it is. Steering around monkey families, the Husky and I commence the descend. I stop for coffee at a tin shack in a small mountain town. Two men are eating Injera. The first time I’m given the honor of Gursha. These men make little lumps of Injera with Wat (Vegetarian topping) and shove them into my mouth. This is a sign of honor and respect. No way of refusing.

Heading South in Ethiopia

2h later I take a second stop and am immediately invited by a bunch of truckers to their table. They’re having Injera with Tere-Sega (raw meat topping). I’m honored again with Gursha. I leave the restaurant stuffed; the gentlemen having insisted on inviting me for food and drinks. They currently have little work, little money but have maintained a great sense of hospitality.

I’ve arrived in Addis Ababa and settle in at “Wims Holland House”. Usually a hotspot for Overlanders, there aren’t many people around now. It’s rain season and accordingly cold at 15-20 degrees. The food is good and accommodation cheap. I decide to stay for a few days and take a break. It’s easy to settle in here; the atmosphere is relaxed.

My stay in Addis Ababa

A miserably failed attempt to find a place to service the Husky in Addis Ababa. The moment I leave it pours down. 3 garages are closed and I can’t find the last one, although asking around town. I give up and head back towards the guesthouse. While riding down the road an elderly gentleman jumps out on the other side of the street, waves and smiles. I swing the Husky around and head back. The man couldn’t be happier and says he would like to invite me for coffee. Teshome and I talk motorcycles, European and African politics. A worldly man he is this mechanic. I promise to get in touch if I return to Addis and head on. The previous hassle is forgotten.

4 days in Addis, spending pleasant days and evenings with Jo&Jack, an English couple heading north, and Aida and Nathan, two Ethiopian students regularly studying at the restaurant. Albeit the great company, it is time to leave the comfort zone again and head South towards Kenya.

Ethiopia is a divided country. A complex cluster of ethnicities and tribes. I have come to understand that when a news anchor reports about immigrants, he may be talking about Ethiopian citizens moving from one region to another. Land and cattle robbery are frequent and often result in violent disputes between tribes.

The South of Ethiopia as well as North of Kenya are notorious for these tribal disputes. Occasional banditry has happened in the past, as weapons are widely spread. Most people I meet tell me to be careful in the area. I’m sure a bit of common sense and reasonable route planning will do.

The Husky and I charge down through Hawassa towards Yabelo. It’s been two weeks in Ethiopia and there is a good reason I have stayed much longer than I had initially planned. I’ve very much enjoyed the experience and it would have been a major shortcoming to blast through this country.

Nonetheless, internet connectivity and electricity have not been a given. Nationwide rationing of electricity has led to power shortages of >10h per day and the internet is regularly reserved for government use. When available, the internet is gruelingly slow. I am looking forward to having these luxuries again, at least at one or the other stopover.

I have accounted for the road construction work down to Yabelo but not for the rain. It’s raining cats & dogs. The usually easily passable construction sections are now long tracks of incredibly slippery mud. I have failed to decrease tire pressure before entering and am now sliding around, feeling the Husky’s rear wheel slip left & right permanently. She’s not enjoying it; neither am I. Progress is meter by meter. An involuntary 180° slide causes a lot of laughter in a small village. Not my day.

On route to Yabelo (drying stretch)

Now in a bad mood I am annoyed by the “Ferenj!” shouting in villages and the gestures. Nothing seems to be right today. I take a break and contemplate. I reduce the tire pressure and continue. I’m determined to maintain my calm. The Husky and I easily roar across the rest of the stretch, regain our joy of riding and find a perfect tarmac road ahead. The sun comes out and gives us an enjoyable 100km to Yabelo. A bad mood really doesn’t help. Especially in this terrain.

A golden Husky

210km down to Moyale, one of the only border crossings between Ethiopia and Kenya. I’m leaving Ethiopia and I will miss it. No rock throwing. Hardly any offensive begging. Little Ferenj shouting. Plenty of smart, welcoming and humorous people. Not bad being a Ferenj in Ethiopia.

The most impressive border crossing so far. New, spacious and well organized. I’m the only one here. Emigration takes 10min. The customs officer is on lunch break, but they call him in saying “a Ferenj is waiting”. Daniel shows up immediately and gets my CdP stamped, excusing himself for the wait. I’m sorry I’ve interrupted his lunch break. Officers show me the way and I cross towards Kenya.

I obtain my East African Visa (Kenya, Uganda & Rwanda) within 15min and pass on to the Kenyan customs office. The official apologizes for the time it is taking him. He is new to the job. I help him through the process and chat with another officer. They recommend I head through to Marsabit directly, as the area in between is apparently less safe. It’s another 250km and I hesitate, it already being afternoon. They ask how long I believe it will take me. I answer approximately 2.5-3h at the speed limit of 100km/h. They say I shouldn’t mind the speed limit. The roads are good and the police doesn’t care. I believe them.

No check of luggage, no showing of papers. A friendly smile, the gates are opened and we enter Kenya. Many things change immediately. We are now riding on the left-hand side. The language is Swahili. The currency is the Kenyan Shilling. The landscape becomes a rocky desert.

The Husky is quite thirsty at these speeds and I gradually have to take the speed below the limit to make it to Marsabit. We stay for the night and I decide to tackle the 560km stretch to Nairobi the next day. The Husky still hasn’t been serviced and it’s the first priority to take care of her before we head North again and do more off-road riding in remote areas.

Most check points I just roll past and wave; all is fine. One major military check-point, in the middle of nowhere, I’m asked to show my passport. I’m asked if I have any weapons with me. I answer “no” and they get a dog to sniff my luggage. He barks at the Husky and I end up laying out my belongings on the road in no-man’s-land. I love dogs. I don’t like this little English Springer Spaniel.

One last fuel-stop in Isiolo before Nairobi. The usual question: “Where are you from?”. The unusual question: “Which tribe are you from?”. I reply: “The Zurich tribe” with a smirk on my face. I wasn’t lying.

Stretches of perfectly tidy farmlands followed by little towns of wood huts covered with tarps. Hilly, partially mountainous, dark green, cold & foggy. Some stretches remind me of home.

So here we are at Jungle Junction in Nairobi. An Overlanders’ haven. A place to recover, meet other Overlanders and prepare for the continuation of the adventure. The Husky is being serviced, my clothes are being washed and I’m planning the next steps.

Jungle Junction Nairobi
Relaxing at Jungle Junction

Rough tracks, little infrastructure and true remoteness expected ahead. The Husky is made for this terrain. I’ll find out if I am too.

2 thoughts on “A Ferenj I am

  1. I love that part! Up and down and up and up 😉
    Just wandering how you got rid of the salt after taking the swim at Danakil! Did you wash it of with your reserve-fuel? 😉


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