Violent Riots in Ethiopia

October 29, 2017

Narrated Audio Blog

Ethiopia proved to be unique amongst african nations from the get go. At the border crossing we were invited to have tea with the officials while they worked out how to import our bikes without us having a Carnet. The process was easy in the end, they just completed a customs declaration form, which included all our electronics (phones, laptops etc.) and added the bikes to this. There was no fee, we just had to show the items on the way out inorder to get our passport exit stamp.

Ethiopians are a proud people, most people would bring up the fact that Ethiopia had not been conquered by a European nation at the start of any conversation. We thought the people smiled naturally instead of having a downcast look that so many African's and other ex-colonials have from the poverty and gross class division forced on them. Ethiopian culture was warm and inviting and their food was an absolute delight. As part of their very unique take on Christianity, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has over 180 days a year, including every Wednesday and Friday, that are fasting days or days where no animal products are consumed. Being pescatarian we found this culture most pleasing.

Our first few days in Ethiopia were slow going due to a deluge of rain. The day we entered we called off early hoping the next day would be better, but it was actually much worse. We pushed on and made some good ground in challenging conditions with traffic congestion. But as the rain got heavier and our wet weather gear started to leak we decided to start looking for a place to stop for the night. We were drenched and walking into hotels asking if they would allow us to bring dogs into the room, not easy to convince the manager that the room will be left clean afterwards. The assumption was always that the dogs would make a mess of the room but Weeti and Shadow were closed up in their Pillion Pooch, dry and cosy, unlike us who were muddy and wet.

After being rejected from a few places we pulled up at a very fancy looking hotel. Janell said not to bother but Stu relished the challenge and tried in the rain to make himself as presentable as possible. He walked in and asked the usual questions, price first, then parking, then when they were ready to seal the deal he mentioned our two small and well behaved dogs that would stay on their bed in the room. The receptionist sought out the manager who wasn't too happy and asked if he could see the dogs. Stu returned to the bike and grabbed Shadow, very strategic to show our tiny Miniature Pinscher. As soon as the manager saw Shadow he gave his approval. When we unloaded our stuff into the hotel room we confidently walked in with Weeti and not a word was said.

The room was pristine, we'd spoiled ourselves with a little bit of luxury but the price wasn't at all over the top. The next morning we woke to sunshine, keen to get to Addis that day we grabbed breakfast and packed up quickly.

As we approached the town of Shashamane we started seeing gatherings of people, for the most part it looked like a peaceful protest. We'd been caught up in protests many times before and we were usually left alone as we were not the target. To start with this was looking much the same. We passed police riot trucks so it was obviously not a surprise to authorities that something was about to happen. Protesters were climbing on buses as they drove down the street but again it was not violent in any way. People were cheering and smiled as we passed. Further up the road protesters had blocked the road with any obstacle they could get their hands on including boulders, scaffolding, pulled down billboards and alike. We passed police and military personnel who just watched as we travelled through and did not warn us at all not to proceed.

We thought we'd passed the epicenter of the protest and decided to move quickly to get away from it just in case. A little further on we passed more barriers on the road and then saw a mob carrying wood or steel beams and scaffolding bars they'd scavenged from building sites. Some warned us not to proceed, but others said to continue. We didn't know what to do; going back didn't seem any safer and we wanted out as quickly as possible. We followed a guy who was recording everything on his phone and indicated to skirt around the outside of the mob, so we proceeded, first Stu then Janell. Most of the mob were calm, knowing that we were tourists and just innocently passing through. Others seemed to be there just for a fight and we were as good as anyone else. The troublemakers were mostly kept back but we did get the odd jab from a beam and received a few hits to the bikes. Our dogs were zipped away so remained safe. After Stu passed through the mob's attention was drawn to Janell and they were more persistent to stop her. As Janell rode past they swarmed her and knocked her off her bike. She dropped the clutch and the bike spun around on the spot clearing the mob from her immediate proximity. Janell screamed as she went down and they realised she was a female. Stu jumped off his bike and ran over to try and calm the mob. They were mostly not interested in causing us harm particularly now they had realised Janell was not a man. The more aggressive amongst them were held back by the majority and we were asked to leave immediately. The mob got Janell's bike upright and she got on. Stu got back to his bike and we rode away. This wasn't the end though. Just before reaching the end of the town, we came across 4 or 5 other people armed in a similar fashion. Janell was now riding up front but concentrating on Stu in her rearview mirror. Stu yelled to stop, Janell was confused but did it. A man was standing in the middle of the road with a thick wooden pole and had wound up ready to whack Janell as she rode past. Janell was oblivious. At the same time a pickup truck came from behind us and drew the attention of the group. They thumped the truck with their poles and threw fist sized rocks at the vehicle. The truck stopped and they ran to the drivers door and started throwing punches. The driver took off and we followed quickly. Nearing the end of the protest we saw a police blockade set up with a queue of traffic held up from the opposite direction. We were almost out of the woods when Janell was lucky to escape a few large rocks that passed just behind her, clearly seen by Stu.

The whole experience was extremely scary and we were running on adrenaline the whole time. As soon as we could relax the shock hit us and we pulled into a very safe cafe to have a sugary drink and calm down. We later learnt that 11 people were killed in the riots over the three days. We were there just as it was ramping up which possibly helped us but honestly believe that had we been two male riders, the mob wouldn't have been so kind and the troublemakers would have been given more freedom.

We travelled very slowly from Shashamane, regularly stopping to rest our nerves. But we had a booking in Addis and wanted to make it that night. We decided to take a slightly longer route which included a 100km stretch of toll road, we really weren't in the mood for a slow ride into Addis. As we reached the on ramp for the motorway, we read a sign that said no motorbikes, surely not! We rode up to the gate and said we'd pay the car toll but please just let us through. It was starting to get dark at this point and we really didn't want to ride the slow road that paralleled the motorway. The attendant said he couldn't let us through but we pleaded and said we weren't going anywhere until he asked someone more senior. He asked for his supervisor who came out and explained that he couldn't let motorbikes on under any circumstances. We could have gone around the boomgate and the thought went through our heads but we decided to behave.

What would have taken an hour on the motorway took over two on the slow road as it passed through the sprawling suburbs of Addis with what seemed like speed bumps every kilometer. It was well after dark and we were exhausted when we arrived at the pinpoint we'd marked for our hotel. We'd booked through AirBnB but couldn't see any signs that matched the name or any building that looked like the photo in the listing. We rode back to the main street where we'd seen a big international hotel which we knew would have good internet. We walked into their bar, ordered a drink and casually asked for the WiFi password. Our hotel responded quickly to our message and sent someone out to the road to meet us. The hotel was located back from the main road along a dirt track. There was a hand written sign which we had seen but the name didn't match the AirBnB listing. It didn't matter, we had found it and could finally rest.

The hotel had just been built, we were one of the very first guests and it seemed a little rudimentary. There was no water pressure or hot water, no WiFi and a few other little oddities. The staff were, however, very attentive, as soon as we mentioned issues they went about getting them fixed so by the time we left everything was working as it should have.

We needed to get our Sudan visa in Addis Ababa. It wasn't a difficult visa to obtain but did require a few visits to the Embassy. On one of our visits we ran into a New Zealand father/son team, Mike and Solomon, also making their way north on motorbikes. We of course had to spend time with these guys and hear all about their adventures in Africa so we invited them over for drinks at our hotel. The temperature in Addis was really pleasant and our hotel had a great view from the rooftop. When we told the staff we wanted to have some friends over for drinks on the roof they arranged moving tables and chairs from the restaurant for us to use. It was a great night just relaxing and chatting with a beautiful sunset.

Another task we needed to achieve while in Addis was to restock on dog food. It's usually easy in the major cities and so we make sure to have enough to cover the travel until the next big city. However, Ethiopia was different, we went to a few different supermarkets and none had dog food. Eventually one of the supermarket owners told us that it wasn't possible to get dog food in Ethiopia, it had been banned. Apparently because humans were eating it, but this didn't make sense, dog food was way more expensive than even prepared food on the streets, and with the quality of the food in Ethiopia who would eat dog food. But it seemed to be true enough. The result would be that we'd have to buy fresh meat from a butcher every other day. Seemed easy enough but we had to allow for the fasting days, when all butchers were closed.

When it came time to leave Addis Janell was not feeling very well but wanted to hit the road. So we got up and out in our normal timely fashion, well maybe more leisurely then we let on. On the ride out Janell needed to stop and sit for a moment on the side of the road. We'd only made it a few kilometers and could have turned back. We sat for a bit then she started vomiting. Stu got her some water and some locals passing by gave her an orange. She felt a bit better and insisted on riding but Stu knew it wasn't safe to do a big day like this and started looking for a hotel.

A little further up the road we stopped at a cafe for a drink, there was also a hotel attached but it looked rough. Stu had a look at the rooms but thought that with Janell the way she was he should try and find something nicer. He decided to ride ahead alone and look while Janell sat and rested. Stu rode up 20km but no hotels were found and so returned. When he got back Janell said she'd be ok to ride a little further. And so we rode on. Just a little past the point Stu had turned around we rode through a town with a few hotels. Stu followed a gravel road to one hotel which was signposted from the main road but Janell wasn't hopeful, it was very nice looking and unlikely to allow dogs. Stu found the owner and asked about the rooms and if dogs would be allowed, the lady owner said "of course your babies are welcome." It's lovely when you meet a hotel owner who just gets it.

Janell got some much needed rest in a comfortable hotel with lovely surroundings. The next morning she was back to her energetic self and ready to ride. There was so much we wanted to see in Ethiopia and so little time because we also wanted to get back to Europe for Christmas so we had to prioritise our time. Highest on our list was Lalibela, the site of Ethiopia's ancient churches and mountainside monastery.

Stu entered the coordinates into the GPS on the day we rode to Lalibela. It was only a little over 200km so a nice easy day. We stopped a couple of times enroute for coffee but were making really good time, we'd get in well before dark and have plenty of time to put the tent up. When we arrived at the pin point we were a little surprised. We were in more of a large rural shanty town rather than a tourist destination. Stu checked the coordinates. Oh no, he'd set the wrong destination somehow and we'd taken a wrong turn around 110km back which made him very unpopular with the rest of the pack. Luckily there was a track through to Lalibela which was only 60km, it would have to be better than going back and around.

The "short cut" wasn't bad but it certainly wasn't good. It was unsealed and corrugated for the most part. But the worst part was when the road forked with no indication of which way we should be going, sometimes leading us to dead ends and other times leading us away from the route. Luckily we did still arrive before dark and were able to find a nice pitch in the daylight. Stu won the girls around with a bag of bones and Janell with an icy cold beer.

We spent a few days exploring the many ancient sites that Lalibela had to offer. We were really busy exploring the town itself which was very interesting and climbing to a mountain monastery with a guide. Everywhere we went we learnt more about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The night before we left to continue on to Sudan we bumped into Mike and Solomon again. From Addis Ababa they had travelled directly North exploring the mountain off road riding and couldn't have been happier with their experiences. We took the opportunity to discuss the Sudan visa with them. They had also read about an In/Out Permit for Sudan which granted you 48 hours to cross the country but could possibly be extended to 96 hours on request. Mike and Solomon had Carnets for their motorbikes so were not facing the same dilemma as us. If we took this option it would have us travel 1,600km in 4 days which was very possible but we'd have to be organised if we wanted to visit any of the sites. It should be noted that the In/Out permit did not seem to be available to tourists or at least we were not given the option, even after hours of arguing with the General and reaching out to the Sudanese Automotive Club.

With this fast paced transit through Sudan in mind, we decided to spend a couple of days relaxing before attempting the Sudanese border. We found a campsite on Lake Tana which turned out to be an ideal place to unwind, if only for a day. There wasn't much to do but that was what made it so perfect. The temperature was pleasant being by the lake and there was food and drink on hand as well as some local markets a short walk away.

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