Go West Young Man

Blog 54 by Mick: Go West Young Man

We weren’t even on the outskirts of Bure when the road turned to dirt, not the way we were going out of town anyway. For most overlanders, Bure would be a non-descript tiny town on the highway between Sudan and Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, to the southeast. We, however, were heading due south on a nearly 1200km journey to the very southwestern corner of the country bordering Kenya and South Sudan. While the first ~800km were simple enough, the last 400km of the route was based on local knowledge and we would be following a list of town names with no maps or gpx tracks to follow. To the best of our knowledge this is the first time it has been documented.

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The route we followed and the towns of interest to us. This post goes from Bure in the north down to Tulegit, about 930kms all up. Brown is gravel (~750kms) and Green is tar (~180kms). Next post has the real interesting stuff from Tulegit down the west side of the Omo River to Omorate.

Soon out of Bure, we were on some good gravel

The days riding was pretty easy apart from a few potholes and some wet road in addition to the usual array of animals on the country roads. It was slow going and we managed only 260km in 6hrs or so. We pulled up in the afternoon in the town of Nekemte, the only decent looking town in the region, and were blown away by the prices of hotels. In all the towns we stayed, dodgy local hotels could be had for as little as 60-80 birr (USD3-4) while pretty decent rooms (with a bathroom, and if you’re really lucky the toilet might even have a seat, and maybe even water) were generally 200 to 300 birr (USD10-15) at the most, even in the capital Addis and tourist mecca Lalibela. However here most hotels were really quite luxurious and in the 500-700 birr range (USD25-35); real bloody expensive for Ethiopia. We eventually found somewhere for 440 birr (USD22) and just in time too as a decent storm rolled in.

Heading south towards Nekemte

The bridge over the Blue Nile. Nearly every bridge in Ethiopia has some sleepy guard on it and they don’t like it if you take photos.

When sitting down to dinner we noticed there was a different feel about the place. People walked down the street purposefully, the idleness of other parts of Ethiopia just wasn’t here. It was a definite sense of relative affluence in addition to a perceptible cultural change. This western region of Ethiopia is Oromo, a different ethnic group to the Tigrayans in the north or the Amharic in the centre of the country including Addis. The people had a darker complexion and definitely reminded us more of the southern countries we had been in. Which is definitely a good thing, people were friendlier and far less demanding.

Nearing Nekemte and the weather was brewing. It started hammering rain about an hour after we arrived.

It was about then we realised we had just ridden a whole day and neither of us had anything thrown at us or swung at us as we rode by, the first time that had happened since leaving the Omo Valley about 5 weeks earlier. An undeniable bit of evidence that we had changed regions. Also turns out the sense of wealth was because we were at the centre of country’s sugar cane production. Apparently there is also a significant amount of agricultural and infrastructure investment in progress.

Some roadworks on the edge of town.

We got away at a decent time the following morning, and had a quick ride down the gravel to Bedele where we got some fuel. At Bedele we turned west on a crappy tar road which sufficiently bad, full of decent sized potholes and poorly driven trucks, our pace slowed from what we were achieving on the gravel roads we had been riding earlier in the morning.

Some wet road heading south of Nekemte towards Bedele

The road south of Gore, it was fun riding on what should have been fast gravel. Just a shame about the rain. This was the start of it; it got quite heavy as we headed further south.

At Gore we headed south again on the gravel through lush green jungle as the wet weather rolled in. The rain started softly but progressively intensified as we went south, and after an hour or so in the wet we stumbled across a tiny little town with no name we could find. We rode up and down the main street and found only one hotel, a particularly dodgy looking place that we got a particularly dodgy room. But at 50birr, USD2.50, at least the price was right and they had beer.

Our cheap hotel, we hadn’t had these sorts of prices since Tanzania. This one was pretty grimy though.

Parked up getting some breakfast and as always we attract a crowd.

Some kids with their creative toys

We were lazy getting away the next morning; there is something about getting into wet clothes which is just not appealing in any way. But we did get away after a few strong local coffees, sweet tea and some bread. It was only 140km down to Mizan Teferi, the last proper town on our route, and we arrived at lunch time. After looking around a bit we decided to spend the night as we weren’t sure what food and accommodation options we get south of here, plus we had moved every day since leaving Axum 7 days beforehand and we were in need of an easy day.

The road south to Mizan Teferi. A group of guys came by on horseback during a fluids stop.

Fast winding gravel through the jungle. This is a great ride this one from Gore to Mizan Teferi.

With awesome views…

Beers at lunch in our cheap hotel.

A local wedding from our hotel. 4 cars door to door in a suburban street? No problem!

We were lucky the next morning to find petrol. It looked like we would be forced onto the generally hideously expensive black market when the two main servos in town gave the “no petrol head shake”, but we got some directions to backtrack to the west and found a service station a few kilometres away on the edge of town with some fuel. So we started off positively and with some tar, but that soon disappeared as we turned south asking for the town of “Tum”. Everyone we spoke to was friendly and pointed us in the right direction, and the road slowly narrowed and deteriorated with reduced use and maintenance as the distance from Mizan Teferi increased.

The power supply in Ethiopia sucks. It’s far more often out than not, so most places have a solar circuit to just run lights. We needed to charge our gear so I tapped into some bare wires…

What a bathroom in a cheap hotel in Ethiopia often looks like. Ok, maybe that’s unfair, this one was particularly bad.

Leaving Mizan Teferi. It was about here a kid through a coconut at me as I rode by. It was quite notable as the projectile was unique, and (although we didn’t know it at the time) it was the last thing thrown at us in Ethiopia! What an occasion!

Views. Hard to beat.

Tan at an “enjoy the view” stop.

We were heading south and out of the mountains so we made sure to enjoy our time.

The smoke is from charcoaling stacks. There is plenty of clearing going on with the timber all being charcoaled.

Fun riding. As fun as it looks.

We got some bread and tea in Tum, in addition to a huge array of onlookers. Not many foreigners come through this part of the world. We got some positive pointing to our next town, “Tulegit”, and we motored off to the West. The road conditions deteriorated from ‘road’ to ‘track’ with a few little creek crossings and the odd bit of mud from the previous day’s rain.

Our lunch stop in Tum. Doesn’t look like much (and it wasn’t really) but it had tea and coffee and some bread.

The neck braces always get lots of attention.

Heading out of Tum.

Road conditions degrading.

Easy but for some slimy rocks.

Some mud from all the rain about.

Fun trails.

We came into a few villages and it struck us very quickly that we had obviously change ethnicities again. The people were darker, dressed in sheets of fabric wrapped around their bodies, there was lots of ritual scarring, ear plates and lip plates all around us. My first thought was ‘Mursi’ but we were on the wrong side of the Omo River for them. But they looked like Mursi… We stopped and found one kid who surprisingly spoke a few words of English but our communication was limited to the most basic, certainly not anywhere to the extent I wanted “So who are you guys? You look Mursi but you can’t be… what’s the go?” That level of communication certainly wasn’t on the agenda…

We didn’t see anyone on this part of the trail, the first time that had happened in a long time.

Another small creek crossing.

This guy was a surprise… Everyone to date had been Oromo or Highlander, now we realised we were in the Southern Nations Omo Valley region. Check the keloid scaring! They rub dirt or manure into the wound to get it infected and make it scar like that.

After the first Suri town we came onto a better road and continued to the south.

We soldiered on south and rolled into a town we thought must be Tulegit, and got talking to two young guys who very surprisingly spoke really quite decent English. Out here! We asked about the next town of “Kibish Surma” and they confirmed it wasn’t far away. We had been thinking of spending the night there or maybe even pushing on to Kangaten but the two young guys said there was a guesthouse in the mission we could use. “A mission? Out here?” we asked. “Yes, run by two American missionaries but they aren’t here at the moment, but you can still stay in the guesthouse”. It was all too intriguing so even though it was still mid afternoon, we parked up the bikes and unpacked.

In Tulegit chatting to Thabu (left) and Baka (right)

Tan went and met a lot of the local people while I gave the bikes a once over. Checked oil levels and tyre pressures and the like.

Everyone wanted a photo, this guy was especially proud of his phone.

Tan taught a local lad how to use the camera

The Suri are big into stick fighting, it is their sport. Shame this photo is a bit out of focus…

Thabu and Baka had just finished grade 11 and were waiting for the grades to be released to see if they could go to grade 12. Every afternoon they would climb the local hill (which was decent) with a mobile phone to get some 3G to check. They had been schooling in Mizan Teferi, however if they got accepted to grade 12 they would likely have to move further away again, probably Jima or Sodo, either way it was a good days drive away from their home.

Local guy with an old elephant skull in the background. There are no elephants in this part of the world anymore.

They love their sticks.

All the young girls all had children. This one has only just started to stretch her ears.

Her child…

This young girl was quite reserved.

Yet still had obligatory child.

We got chatting about their tribe. They were Suri people, who had a lot in common with the Mursi tribe who we had visited near Jinka but had some differences in addition to the obvious geographical one. We talked about their neighbours and cattle rustling which is a huge problem in this part of the world. The tribe to the south, the Bume (also called Nyungertum) had recently raided the region and had stolen 500 cows, which the police mostly retrieved with significant blood shed. They spoke about the Bume in quiet tones, they were considered monsters and the mortal enemy of the Suri. We figured it couldn’t be all that bad. Later talking about this with Dick and Donna they confirmed that similar things are spoken about all the Omo Valley tribes, the Suri included (maybe even especially so).

One of the youngest looking girls with a kid.

How else would you carry a log?

The boys were off somewhere for the afternoon meaning only the girls were about.

Young Suri girl. She hasn’t started ear stretching yet.

I asked them about the missionaries who lived here. Thabu mentioned they were back in the states as they had an “accident”. When I had first heard that there was a mission here, a bell had rung with a story Dick had told me down at Omorate about some missionary friends of theirs, and this “accident” story set the alarm well and truly off. Thabu said “they had an accident in their car”, to which I carefully asked “we had heard there were some missionaries somewhere out here who got shot by a man with an AK47?”

“Ah yes, it was them”

These two look like sisters.

Shy like her older sister.

The ritual scarring was sometimes very intense.

It was a bloody sad story. The two missionaries had lived with these people for about 20 years and were loved; they educated the children and provide basic medical care. Thabu and Baka who were only about 17 had known them all their lives. They were driving near the South Sudan border looking for a new site to establish a new station when they were shot when crossing a dry riverbed. I wont go into the gory details but to say they were both extraordinarily lucky to survive. Miraculously, John stayed conscious and was somehow able to drive the vehicle back to Tulegit with significant facial injuries with his wife in the passenger seat unconscious and in a very very bad way. They were both able to get sufficient medical care and then were airlifted first to Addis, then the states where they had been for about a year receiving ongoing treatment.

The boys turned up with these little pellet guns.

Pretty cool little device. Magazine on top, with a piston through the barrel to load it.

The little green seeds it shot.

Where the magazine sits in the barrel. The handle was a maize cob and that actuated a piston that would pick up a seed from the magazine, push forward and pressurize the barrel, forcing the seed that was sitting at the end on the barrel from the previous loading to fire. The seed picked up from the magazine would then sit in the end of the barrel to be fired as the next round.

Dick had told me this story and Thabu slowly confirmed it, more or less anyway. We asked if the man who shot the missionaries had been caught, which Thabu said no. He thought the shooter was a neighbouring tribesman, probably Bume (the tribe to the south between the Suri and the Daasanach). We knew that this wasn’t actually the case; the shooter was a Suri man and soon after the incident he was hunted down by the police and shot dead. But we didn’t mention this, as it seemed like a sensitive subject. The missionaries were loved here and the thought they were shot by someone of their tribe seemed like a lot to bear.

Some of the young boys. The serious one in the middle was very keen for a photo and excited until he got in front of the camera, then we would pull his serious face.

Leaving the next morning. People had heard that some foreigners were in town and came to gawk. Sadly, some had also come for medical care we couldn’t administer. The afternoon previous tan had cleaned up a very sore looking open wound on the ankle of a local boy. We gave him some antibiotics and latter learned it was probably an anthrax infection. The next morning there were people with Malaria and other maladies, which we simply were not set up to treat.

We asked Baka if there were might be local lady with a really big lip plate we could meet. He said “sure, my mum”. This is Baka’s mum roasting coffee. She has amazing scarring on her chest and arms.

The coffee smelt AWESOME!

We had been having problems with our InReach for months and were getting nothing but terrible service from the South African distributer and also the American parent company. Our device was coming up with error messages and Delorme didn’t want to hear about it, because we were outside our country of purchase we were on our own, even though we initially reported the problem when we were in the country of purchase. We had our emails reporting the issue, but were ignored then given poor advice; hence the stand off. So we decided we were going to start social media shaming them “here is you malfunctioning device in the Omo Valley”. Thankfully we came to an agreement with them and we got a replacement device before we had to go through with our plan, but the photo is interesting nonetheless. One lesson though, don’t expect help from DeLorme if you are outside your home country.

This is Thabu’s dad. He was a super interesting fella to talk to. He spoke wonderful English and that made a lot of sense when he revealed he was originally from Uganda. During the nineties during the war between Museveni and the Lords Resistance Army, he fled to Sudan to escape the violence. He nearly died of dehydration but headed north towards the mountains where he saw clouds and rain forming. He figured, where there is rain there are people. So he crossed the mountains and ended up with the Suri, married a Suri woman and stayed.

We asked if there was food we could buy and Baka came back with some scrambled eggs and fresh baked bread that his mum had cooked for us. She wouldn’t take any money, which was very humbling. I was simple but very tasty and we went to bed swimming in thoughts yet very contented.

Cool hairdoo…

Check it out, might take off in Europe one day.

Saying good bye to Thabu and Baka. That keloid scar on Baka’s left arm – he did it himself…

A quick note on safety in the West Omo Valley:

This is a pretty unstable part of the world. In addition to local tribes being in a pretty continuous state of war with their neighbours, with skirmishes a regular occurrence (especially related to cattle rustling), there is a real war going on just over the border in South Sudan.

In April 2016 (about 7 months after our ride), an armed incursion from South Sudan by the Murle people resulted in over 200 deaths near Gambella, which is about 100kms west of our route (see map). Tribal war is real, its not just a few chat chewing dudes shooting at each other with worn out weapons over a couple scrawny cows. Serious sporadic violence in this region is ongoing, especially near the South Sudan border.

An incident like the one with the missionaries being shot is unlikely, but very possible in this environment. Gun ownership here is huge, they are everywhere (even though we don’t post photos as such, the fact is mostly we don’t take photos of men with weapons to avoid any sort confrontation), and it only takes one disaffected local to result in an event like this one. Thankfully both survived, but it was a close run thing.

We were aware of all these facts and decided to do the route as we had reliable and up to date local knowledge from Dick. When we did it, the route was perfectly safe. At the time of reading, it may not be. Africa changes on a dime. This region especially so. If you’re reading this and thinking it looks like fun and you might just go, get up to date security info from someone local and reliable before you depart. This is a crazy and amazingly interesting part of the world but not a place to just “go explore”.

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