Day 1,432: Badlands

Sun 02.12.12:

The ‘badlands’ of northern Kenyan are not so called because they are full of bandits (although there are probably a few still knocking about), but because they’re no good for farming: dry, arid, dusty – you’d struggle to grow a moustache here (speaking of which, mine has gone, Movember is over). I’ll tell you what they’d be great for, Kenya: building a goddamn road. A nice straight road, made of tarmac, from here to the border with Ethiopia. You know, given that the entire expanse is remarkably flat and devoid of mountains/rivers/cities that may otherwise get in your way. If you ever do the drive down from Cairo to Cape Town, this is the *only* major section of dirt track you’ll come across (I can’t say the same for Casablanca to Cape Town, but that’s another story).

But like this time three years ago, all we have is an exceptionally dusty, potholed, bone-juddering ride up to Ethiopia. Ack, I’ve given up blaming the government. I’ve found something else to blame and it’s not even the UN… it’s the entire system of Presidencies. I swear they are designed to encourage corruption, nepotism and criminality on a global scale. If you don’t believe me, read my upcoming book ‘Machiavelli’s The President’ for a clear-cut examination of everything that is utterly insane about having one guy who is at once Head of State, Head of Government AND Head of The Military. Oh, and the fact that they all get magic immunity from prosecution for anything they do, either from the UN (Robert Mugabe) or the own legal system (Mitterrand) or by way of being pardoned for all crimes by their best mate who magically (and undemocratically) becomes Fuhrer, sorry President upon the former’s resignation (Nixon).

What have I learnt from visiting 201 countries? That the presidential model of government is flawed: epically, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed. But this is a discourse for another day.

We bumped and grinded our way to the bordertown of Moyale, arriving at around 4pm, which was good as this isn’t a 24 hour border crossing. I was stamped out of Kenya without any fuss, walked across the bridge (there’s ALWAYS a bridge!) and entered Ethiopia. It was nice not to have to surrender any more US dollars. I swear, the last couple of weeks have cost me more in visas than I spent travelling over the last few months.

$50 for Zimbabwe, $50 for Zambia, $50 for Tanzania, $20 for Tanzania (first time), $50 for Uganda (first time), $100 for South Sudan (no joke), $50 for Uganda (second time), $20 for Kenya (second time, although I had to argue my way out of not having to pay for a full $50 visa).

My heart goes out to the poor dears working tourism in these parts. $390!! I could have had a family holiday to Disneyland for that (only because we’d sneak in, mind). AND I still have visas to purchase for Sudan, Egypt and Turkey.

Oh Europe (excluding paranoid spoilsports Russia and Belarus) how I love thee! Let me count the Schengen ways!!

Like Mozambique and Tanzania, it is illegal for Ethiopian buses to run at night, so I checked into a little hotel on the Ethiopian side of town, downed a couple of St. George’s while checking my emails and retiring to my room around 9pm. Moyale is currently undergoing a water shortage, so it was a warm bucket bath before bed to rid me of the red Kenyan dust (which was EVERYWHERE). I set my alarm for 4am, exchanged sweet nothings with the lovely Casey who called me on my new Ethiopian number and then got myself some much-needed shuteye.

Day 1,433: Same Same, But Different

Mon 03.12.12:

Yet another early start and by 6am we were hurling north towards Addis Ababa on a brand spanking new commuter bus, travelling along Ethiopia’s impressively smooth asphalt roads. The last time I did this run I was crammed into a minibus with Matt the Lonely Planet guy while he continued his quest to find the only bottle of Diet Coke in Ethiopia (it’s Ethiopia Matt, who do you think is going to be on a diet?), this time was somewhat more comfortable. With nothing left to read, the guy next to me speaking no English and the crappy battery on my laptop only lasting an hour or so, I spent most of the day playing a game of shutty-window with the guy behind me (every time I opened the window, he’d shut it) and observing the beautiful Ethiopian countryside.

Miles away from the images ingrained in the collective subconscious of Starvin’ Marvins living in dust tents, flies all over their malnourished faces, modern Ethiopia is, despite having way too many child workers (the highest number in the world, fact-fans!), coming on in leaps and bounds, with infrastructure, irrigation, sanitation, schools and hospitals popping up all over the country and some of the best roads outside South Africa in Sub-Saharan Africa. The people are epic friendly and aside from the odd pick-pocket, crime is mercifully low. But the countryside: WOW. Most of Ethiopia is up in the mountains, unspoilt hills of rolling green, trees and the occasional terraced farm – it reminds me of Colombia, especially as the bus winds through the narrow mountain roads.

Addis itself is one of the highest capital cities in the world, sitting at an elevation of 2,300 metres above sea level. Like Quito in Ecuador it belies its position slap bang in the middle of the tropics with cool fresh nights and what can only be only described as a permanent state of springtime.

But we wouldn’t be getting to Addis today. As I said yesterday, buses don’t run at night here, and by dusk we had only got as far as the magnificently-named town of Awasa! (bang optional), which sits on the lake of the same name, just a couple of hundred kilometres south of the capital in a north-south belt I’m going to call Ethiopia’s Lake District (maybe people call it that already, I dunno, they should). I had paid for the bus to take me right through to Addis, so I’d be getting it again at 6am the next day. But a guy on the bus whose name was Azmara (his nickname was ‘Isit?’) told me there would be a faster way to get there – a minibus would be leaving at 4am and would get us into Addis for 9am tomorrow morning. As I needed to get an Egyptian visa as well as the aforementioned Sudanese visa (for reasons I will go into tomorrow), this sounded like a good plan – in my experience, most embassies only accept visa applications in the morning.

Isit? said he’d meet me in the morning, bringing the minibus to my hotel. Sweeeeeeet.

After that I found a place to spend the night, ate some spicy roast lamb for din-dins and, after getting online for a couple of hours to deal with some more Qs an’ As (hey! I can get paid for this! Who knew?!!), I dived into bed to get a few hours shut-eye.

Day 1,434: The New Flower

Tue 04.12.12:

I got a phone call at 4am – it was Isit? calling to tell me that the bus was waiting outside. Crikey: when he said 4am I didn’t think he actually meant 4am. I grabbed my things, dropped the key at the front desk and then spent a good ten minutes trying to suss out how to escape this damn hotel – the front exits were locked (good job there wasn’t a fire eh?). Eventually I exited through a back door and hopped on the minibus. We drove around Awasa for a bit picking up passengers and when we were full, we hit the road.

The downside of having decent roads in an African country is that the crashes become more spectacular and infinitely more deadly. The first death of the morning was a hyena, splayed out in the middle of the road, a tyre track through its belly, guts spilled out all over the ground. A second hyena (a living on, possibly feasting on the first) was narrowly avoided through some evasive manoeuvres, but a dog a little further down the line was not so lucky, our minibus crunching over the poor beast, a muffled yelp before eternal silence.

But what I really, really didn’t want to see was the dead human a few miles later. Hit by a car or a truck not more than a few minutes before, his body lay face down, motionless in the middle of the road, brains dashed out across the white dividing lines. The women on board gasped, the men tutted (very similar to the tuts emitted when we ran over the dog), but the minibus did not stop. I asked the driver to pull up, but Isit? said not to worry, the police will come. I asked him how they will know to come if nobody calls them. He didn’t answer. I took out my phone. Even if I knew the number for the emergency services or Medicine Sans Frontiers, I had no damn reception.

‘He is dead,’ said Isit?, ‘it would make no difference.’ I objected to this notion on the grounds that a dead body in the middle of the road is likely to cause another crash further down the line as people either rubberneck or swerve to avoid. Isit? did nothing to allay my fears. He just shrugged and said ‘This is Africa.’ I was uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the trip to Addis.

We arrived, as promised, at 9 on the knocker. Isit? put me in a taxi and I hurtled off to the Egyptian Embassy.

Back when I was in the London for the Olympic Parade, the day before I met Casey, I went to the Sudanese Embassy to ask about getting a visa. They said they could issue me one on the spot, but there was only one problem: it would only be valid for two months. It was September 11, meaning I’d have to enter Sudan before November 11. Even in my wildest imaginings I didn’t think I could get off the Costa neoRomantica (at this point still unconfirmed) on October 28 and make it to Sudan via South Sudan in this timeframe.

This left the option of either getting the visa in my second passport that I was leaving in London with Lindsey or else getting the visa in Addis. After one too many horror stories about getting a Sudanese visa in Ethiopia, I decided to get the visa in London.

To do this without me being there in person required a Letter of Invitation from a company in Sudan. I wrote to the tour agent recommended in the Lonely Planet, Mr Midhat Mahir. He wrote back saying not to worry, I didn’t need to get a full visa, all I needed was a transit visa. This would give me two weeks to waddle from the eastern bordertown of Gallabat to the northern bordertown of Wadi Halfa and the visa only took a day or two to get through. To get a transit visa all I needed was a visa for Egypt as ‘proof of onward travel.’

Now, if I’m to be back in the UK in time for Christmas (it’ll be my first one with my family in Liverpool since 2008) one thing HAS to happen. I *must* be in Wadi Halfa, north North Sudan in eight days time. As it is Tuesday today and it takes at least three days to get from Addis to Halfa, I have just four days to get my Sudanese visa. Monday morning will be too late.

To my shock and dismay, when I arrived at the Egyptian embassy I discovered that to be issued with an Egyptian visa takes three days. THREE DAYS? Are you kidding me? This is the visa that costs US$15 and is instantly available on arrival at all land borders, sea ports and airports. THREE DAYS?!! Even if I got it on Friday morning (any the sign said they only return passports on

I left the embassy, head in my hands. Okay, Plan B: forget about the transit visa, just go for broke Graham: you’ve got four days… get a full one. I had been told that it would speed things up if I had a letter of introduction from my own embassy, so I jumped in another taxi and headed to the other side of town to go ingratiate myself with my fellow Brits. HA! You didn’t think it would be THAT easy did you? For some (quite frankly insane) reason, the British embassy only issues such letters after 1,30pm – you know, after the window of opportunity for submitting visa applications that day is over.

For the love of—

Okay, Plan C: head to the Sudan embassy and have a chat, see if we can come to some sort of arrangement. After all, I’ve been to Sudan before, caused no trouble and I don’t have an Israeli stamp in my passport or even a visa for South Sudan (shh! it’s in my my other one). I queued up and spoke to a nice chap behind the window called Sidir. He told me that if I can get my Egypt visa for Friday morning, they could issue me a same day visa for Sudan. Perfecto!

It was now 11am – Addis is a big city and the embassies are (tremendously unhelpfully) spread out like you would not believe.

I jumped in a taxi. Take me to the Egypt embassy. He didn’t speak hardly any English so I attempted to gesticulate ‘Egypt’ with hand movements, but didn’t get very far, he must have just thought I was a big fan of The Bangles. I roped in a hapless bystander who translated for me, and off we toodily-pipped. Halfway there I remember something the lady told me a couple of hours earlier – that they only accept payment in local currency, the birr and you had to provide a receipt proving how you got the birr.

As there were NO official exchange places on the border with Moyale, this rule seemed as arbitrary as it was retarded: wouldn’t nearly all overlanders needing to get a Egypt visa in order to get a Sudanese transit visa have come up from Kenya? Wouldn’t they have all had to change their money on the border and therefore not got a receipt?? It’s not like we’re talking Brewster’s here – the visa fee was about US$18. But still I needed a receipt. So I asked the driver to take me to an ATM on the way. He took me to a bank out of the way. We got to the bank at 11:35am – the deadline for visa submissions at the Egypt embassy was noon.

I queued up at the cash machine for what felt like an age (I think the woman in front of me was negotiating a business loan with the damn thing), and asked for 500 birr, thinking I’d get a receipt. Normally, if no receipts are available you get a little notice saying ‘No Receipt Available – Do You Wish To Proceed?’ Not this one. Yep, despite the government seemingly demanding proof that your $15 worth of birr wasn’t handed to you by the waterlogged corpse of Osama Bin Laden himself, the Bank of Ethiopia thinks its alright to not even warn you that no receipts will be forthcoming until after your money has popped out.

The number of times I’ve got a receipt from a cash machine and instantly crumbled it up and thrown it in the bin and now, just as I need one…

Urgh. Looking around, I spied a branch of Western Union up the road. To the taxi drivers chagrin I ran up to it. I had dollars I could change: which would mean a receipt.

Now you’d think changing $20 would be a doddle, considering the whole process on the border takes all of – ooooh – 30 seconds?

NOT SO!!

As the minutes closed in on midday, the guys at Western Union needed copies of my passport, a full set of fingerprints, an iris scan, a sample of my brain tissue, my gerbil’s maiden name, my inside leg measurement, a twenty-seven page form signed in triplicate, stamped with a variety of loops, squiggles and logos which must be garnered from the headquarters of the intergalactic bureaucratic federation four systems down from the Seventh House of Were.

TO CHANGE TWENTY F—ING DOLLARS!

Christ these people must love their jobs. ‘What did you do today, my love?’ ‘Oh, I merely crushed the hopes and dreams of at least a dozen people using the slow grinding wheels of insufferable bureaucracy.’

‘My Hero!’ *hugs*

By the time I left Western Union it was 11.51am. The last thing I needed was a traffic jam.

That’s when we hit a traffic jam.

Luckily for me, my driver knew some back-alley routes across town. We bumped our way down the dirt tracks that connect the main drags and arrived at the embassy at 11.59am.

I practically threw my bags at security – ‘keep ‘em!!’ and charged over to the visa office just in the NICK of time.

I threw down my passport, passport photos, money, receipt for money and my pre-filled form. The lady smiled and told me that the visa would be ready for Thursday afternoon. Fantastic! (The ‘three days’ includes the day of application.)

I thought I might as well push my luck. Any chance I can get it in the morning? I’m a *ahem* famous traveller and I always say my favourite country is Egypt, come on – you guys owe me!

Call on Thursday at 9am and we’ll see what we can do.

THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.

I stepped out of the embassy a morning well spent. If everybody kept their word I *would* be home for Christmas.

I headed back to Mexico Square (near the Sudanese Embassy) to meet my CouchSurf host, Tadesse. My lovely girlfriend Casey has been sending out requests on my behalf while I’ve been on the road. With Case on the case, I can’t lose. Tadesse is a local lad who works at the Ministry of Roads. We met in the restaurant of the Wabe Shebelle hotel and sat down for a spot of lunch. I had the spicy lamb (I think I’m getting a little obsessed), while Tadesse opted for a vegetarian option, Ethiopians, being a breed of Orthodox Christians all of their own, fast before both Easter and Christmas. Poor guy, having to go veggie for a month – it’s enough to turn anyone to the Dawk side…

After lunch we headed back to Tadi’s gaff in the Kazanchis area of town. We stopped at a pub on the way and I got chatting with an old guy who remembers when the population of Ethiopia was 8 million. It’s now pushing 90 million. You’d think considering the strain all these damn rug-rats are putting on the planet, parents (in general) would be a little less smug, but hey, I don’t have kids (thank God), what do I know? After beer I met with Tadi’s flatmate, a Brit from the New Forest called Catherine. Tadi was staying with his mum that night, so Catherine and I went out for drinkies with her Ethiopian mates. Ah: St George’s, 37p a bottle: that’ll do nicely! Later in the evening we went to a nightclub where I almost got into my first fight of this journey (also millennium) after some guy tried to pick-pocket me. I was more insulted by his ineptitude than anything else. His friends held me back. After that I wanted to call it a night, more out of sheer tiredness than anything else. It had been a long day.

Day 1,435: Lucy

Wed 05.12.12:

Ethiopia is a remarkable place, not least because it was the only African country not to suffer the indignity of colonisation, and not only for its immensely strong cultural identity: a country which boasts not only its own unique alphabet, but also its own unique was of telling the time (“three in the morning” means “three hours after the sun rises”). It, like Kenya and Tanzania, has pretty good shot at being the birthplace of modern humans. The discovery in the early 70s of ‘Lucy’, for a long time regarded as the so-called ‘missing link’ between apes and mankind, in the Afar Valley cemented Ethiopia as the physical anthropology, primatology, archaeology, linguistics, embryology and genetics Mecca for anybody with the slightest interest in evolutionary biology. Any dimwits who honestly believe the world to be 6,000 years old, look away now: Lucy (or, to give her full name: Australopithecus Afarensis), the first early ape we found that walked upright is 3.2 MILLION years old.

Presuming Lucy is you decent ancestor (she’s more likely a cousin, but we’ll come to that later), there are at least 160,000 generations separating you and her. That’s an EPIC number of births, marriages and deaths.

Today I was up bright and early. I met with Tadi’s other CouchSurfer, a softly-spoken Kenyan doctor who called Dan. Dan had been in town for a medical conference and was flying back to Nairobi tonight, so before he left and with no visa shenanigans to be had today, we decided to team up and go see the sights of Addis Ababa. Top of the agenda: The National Museum… home of a certain Australopithecus Afarensis that I may have just been talking about.

The museum was interesting, but Lucy and her friends were definitely the stars of the show… there’s so many of them!

It’s almost a miracle that any fossils survive at all, so to see this many early hominids all in one place (some were replicas, but Lucy was definitely the real McCoy) was, for me, a treat beyond measure. It was also great getting Doctor Dan’s take on the morphology of dem bones dem bones dem dry bones: although our cranial volume is now ten times what Lucy’s was (a result of runaway sexual selection is the word on the street) the structure of our arms, hands, legs and feet has remained remarkably consistent over the past 3,000,000 years.

It one of the iron laws of evolution: things don’t evolve unless they are forced to: by the pressures of either natural selection or sexual selection. If you’re sitting pretty at the top of the food chain and there’s no advantage to be had by having a slightly bigger brain or brighter feathers than the other males, you ain’t going to see much in the way of evolution for millions of years. It’s the reason sharks and crocodiles have barely changed since the late Cretaceous.

Doctor Dan is currently training to be a neurosurgeon. When he qualifies, he’ll be one of just ten in the entire nation of Kenya: that’s one brain surgeon for every FIVE MILLION people. It’s a wonder they get time to sleep. He’ll enjoy a lifetime of being able to patronise any other living being (with the possible exception of rocket scientists) with the line “well, it’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”

Rather thinking I may have missed my calling there…

After the national museum, we walked up to the Ethnological Museum (don’t bother asking for directions, the word ‘Ethnological’ isn’t even in my lexicon, never mind the pretty basic English you’ll find in Ethiopia).

The setting of the museum kinda stole the show I little bit: it’s the site of Ras Tafari’s former palace. Ras Tafari… sound familiar? Yes, that’s right: it’s where we get the name ‘Rastafarian’ from. Now put down the bong and listen to Uncle Graham. Back in the 1950s, some (presumably) dreadlocked black dudes in Jamaica were (understandably) bummed out at the concept of preying to the White Man’s God who almost definitely doesn’t exist. As the late great Christopher Hitchens once said: anything that can be stated without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Now at the time there was a (Godspeed You) Black Emperor walking the Earth: Haile Selassie the Once and Future King of Abyssinia. Born Ras Tafari, Selassie had ruled Abyssinia since 1930. And, possibly because he abolished the Ethiopian slave trade, got Ethiopia admitted to the League of Nations in 1923 and ruled over a country that was the only one in the whole of Africa to survive Europe’s colonial scramble intact, he become a cult figure amongst the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora, soon being elevated to the status of a god.

The Ethiopians were a bit nonplussed by this turn of events. Many Ethiopians didn’t even like Selassie, never mind think he was some kind of god. In the wake of the 1972-74 famine, Selassie was deposed, thrown into the back of a Volkswagen and driven away to prison where he died under ‘mysterious circumstances’ a few years later (nah… he was murdered by his successor, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam). Some Rastas saw Ethiopia’s woes in the 1980s as divine retribution for killing their god. You know what though? At least Haile Selassie actually damn well existed, which is more than I can say for at least the 100 gods I can name and the millions that us foolish mortals pray to every day…

Not that he exists any more, you know, since he’s dead. But he definitely *did* exist at some point in history, and in my book that’s one up on Jesus…

Selassie’s palace grounds are now the location of the University of Ethiopia, and his former royal chambers, sitting rooms and the like have been converted into libraries, laboratories and lecture halls. The museum was a dimly lit (actually, there was a power cut, so it was pretty much unlit, good job I brought my video light eh?) collection of Ethiopian stuff: clothing, musical instruments, rather cartoonish murals depicting heart-warming stories from the Bible. Like this one: http://www.thebricktestament.com/judges/gang_rape_and_dismemberment/jg19_01.html. Well, maybe not.

All cultured out, we headed to the Piazza side of town (it’s amazing considering they were only here for a few years, how much legacy the Italians left here – honestly, best place in Africa for a decent pizza) and went for a coffee at the Tomoca Café. Ethiopia is the home of coffee, your daily cup of Joe was discovered here a good few eons ago, possibly by a goat farmer, nobody knows. One thing is for sure: when coffee was introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages, we went crazy for it – so much so that Pope Clement VIII’s minions tried to ban it, saying it tasted too good and therefore it must be the work of the Satan himself.

Yes, even in the Middle Ages, the devil had all the best tunes.

Tomoca is a bit of an Addis institution and while we were quaffing our quoffee, Doctor Dan and I got chatting with the owner who invited us to the grand opening of a second Tomoca tomorrow night – there’d be music, dancing, talks… and free coffee! I grabbed as many invites as I could. With any luck, by tomorrow morning I should have my visa for Egypt and by the afternoon I should be set to leave for Sudan early the next morning. An evening of coffee heaven to top it off? Just what the Doctor (Dan) ordered…

Day 1,436: See You Tomorrow, Indiana Hughes…

Thu 06.12.12:

Day 7 of my epic journey home from Juba began incredibly well. I called the Egyptian embassy and the nice lady told me that they were going to let me collect my passport with the visa in it this morning rather than this afternoon. I didn’t have to be told twice. Jumping in a taxi, by 10am I was triumphantly marching out of the Egyptian embassy, passport in hand. Even if the Sudan embassy decided to drag its heels and not give me my transit visa until tomorrow afternoon, I’d still easily hit my target of crossing from Wadi Halfa to Aswan in Egypt on Wednesday morning.

So it was with a sense of triumph that I arrived at the Sudanese embassy. I know now that that sense of triumph was greatly premature. After all, This Is Africa.

After filling out the required forms I handed in my passport together with all the other junk required of me. They had kept me waiting for quite some time, so by now it was approaching midday.

‘And the hundred dollar fee…?’

Crikey. $100 for a frikkin’ TRANSIT visa? No wonder Sudan gets less tourists than Chernobyl. Oh well, cheaper than flying. I suppose. I had over my emergency Franklin and am told to come back that afternoon. If the guy’s boss gives the approval…

What? Approval?? Since when? The guy shuts the window. Why leave it at that? A tense few hours are going to follow. What if I don’t get approval? My scheme comes undone. I won’t be home for Christmas. All my meticulous planning would have been for nowt. And Casey.. I made a promise, goddamnit.

I trudged to the minibuses going back to Kazanchis and clambered aboard. It was beginning to spit with rain and damn it was cold. Given the clear blue skies that greeted me from my slumbers this morning, I didn’t bring my jumper. I sat shivering on the bus thinking of other ways to get to Egypt… the only other viable option being a ship from Djibouti. Then my phone rang. It was the embassy. They wanted me to come back.

This could be a good sign. I hoped it was a good sign.

Not wanting to prolong the agony, I opted to take a taxi back to the embassy. I walked inside, went to the window and was promptly handed back my passport, photos and $100 bill.

‘The boss says you need a Letter of Invitation from Khartoum.’

I argued my case, but it was to no avail. I stepped outside the embassy and let loose the loudest expletive since Brian Blessed accidently slammed a supernova on his thumb.

Okay Graham, think think think…

I texted Casey and Dino and ask them to start looking for ships from Djibouti. Dino’s going on his honeymoon on Sunday, so he only had a little bit of time. He wrote to our friends at Dioryx Shipping to see if they were still doing the Djibouti > Jeddah > Suez run that I hitched a ride on three years ago.

The answer came back almost immediately: no they were not. Casey had about the same amount of luck: CMA-CGM, Maersk, MSC, PIL, Hamburg-Sud: nothin’. If anything I’d have to transfer in Jeddah, which, considering last time it took me 6 weeks to get a visa for Saudi, was completely out of the question.

It truly would be Sudan or bust.

I called my mum and got from her the number for Midhat, the tour operator in Khartoum who I had contacted back in September – the one who told me that getting a transit visa would be ‘straight forward.’ I rang Midhat and explained the situation, could he get me a Letter of Invitation for tomorrow…?

No chance. Being a Muslim country, Sudan’s weekend is Friday-Saturday, not Saturday-Sunday. It would be Sunday before Midhat could even put in the application (all Letters of Invitation must be approved by Sudan’s Ministry of Silly Walks) and then it ‘could take a few days’ to come through. This was not good. A fourth Christmas in a row spent not in Liverpool with my family and friends. I should also let you know that Casey and I haven’t even kissed yet, if that gives you some more of an inkling as to why I’m so desperate to get home as soon as humanly possible.

I could use a good kiss.

Midhat then told me something that stirred hope in my forlorn little ginger heart: he had a friend in the embassy. He’d make a call on my behalf.

I headed over to the Wabe Shebelle for what felt like the longest lunch of my life. Sadly, even the food was against me: the lamb was as chewy as an old boot. At 2pm I made my way back to the embassy at Midhat’s behest, with instructions to talk only to Mr Mohammed Al-Watiq and nobody else. I got within a hundred metres when it started to teem down with rain. I ran into an abandoned building (which turned out just to look abandoned) to take shelter, thinking it would go off in a short while. At 2.45pm I couldn’t wait any longer and did the 100m dash in Addis in the rain. Given the pavement was like a river and as broken as full of unexpected pitfalls as any African sidewalk you’d care to mention, I arrived back at the embassy in sopping wet shoes (my shoes fell apart 3 months ago, it’s only dental floss keeping them together) and shirt soaked through to the skin.

I asked to speak to Mr. Al-Watiq and was told to wait. So I waited.

At 5pm I was asked to the window. Mr. Al-Watiq (I think) came over, asked me some questions and then went away. One of the embassy girls popped up and asked me to write my name down on a piece of paper. I did so and was then asked to come back at 11am the next day.

Ah, but was that the end of my stress?

Nah.

I jumped the minibus back to Kazanchis and logged-on at the local internet joint. I double-checked all the shipping timetables, but there really is *nothing* going from Djibouti to Europe these days.

Then my phone rang. It was Midhat.

Are you in your own car?

No.

Then you have to fly. Fly to Khartoum and take the bus up to Wadi Halfa.

No, You don’t understand: I can’t fly.

They won’t issue you with a visa.

Sorry, so if I buy a car in Addis, I can drive it to Khartoum, but if I want to take the bus I’m not welcome?

That is correct. They think you might write bad things about Sudan on the internet.

*Graham thinks damn right I’ll write bad things… IF they don’t issue me with this visa!*

Midhat, you’ve been to my website, check my blog. I’ve written nothing bad about Sudan at all.*

I’m sorry, then you have to get a Letter of Invitation…

After I hung up, I put my head in my hands and started to think. THINK. Like when I was a kid, playing all of those LucasArts adventure games… there’s always a solution… always a way… you just have to THINK.

Then it came to me. Midhat is a tour agent, right? My remit is to take public transport where available. In this instance, it is not available. I said I’d get back to the UK without flying. Okay, I’ve made it this far without taking private transport over major distances but the reason for the ‘no private transport’ rule is that Guinness can’t be seen condoning or even acknowledging road races – it’s one thing risking your own life to set a GWR, it’s quite another to put others (hapless pedestrians for instance) in harm’s way. The thinking is that if I’m using private transport I might be tempted to pay the driver a bung to break the speed limit (the irony here being that when I was in Nigeria I was desperately trying to bribe the driver to slow the f— down). In this instance it really doesn’t matter whether I take public or private transport – it’s not going to speed things up at all, I’ll have a day spare to get to Wadi Halfa either way.

So then. Last roll of the dice. Can Midhat send a driver to the border to pick me up, make sure I don’t take any pictures/videos/girl’s virginity that I shouldn’t, take me to Khartoum on Sunday… and I’ll get the bus to Wadi Halfa the following Tuesday?

I called Midhat and put the proposition to him. He said he’d pass it on to Mr. Al-Watiq.

Exhausted, physically and mentally, I trudged back to Tadi’s place in wet socks. I missed the opening of that coffee joint.

*this may not be strictly true

Day 1,437: Now Let’s Blow This Thing And Go Home

Fri 07.12.12:

And? Okay. Here’s what happened. Arrived at the Sudanese Embassy at 10.30am, a little early, but I figured it could do no harm. Was told to sit. So I sat. And waited. By 12.30pm they wanted to close for lunch. Told me to come back at 2.30pm. I met Tadesse’s mate Tsegaye for lunch and we returned to the embassy at 2.30 sharp to sit and wait. Tsegaye left after the first half an hour. I didn’t blame him. I remained, sitting and waiting.

As the minutes ebbed away, so did my belief that I would make it home for Christmas

Then, at 5pm, the embassy closed for the weekend. There was a commotion behind the desk. I was called up and handed a new application form. The lady sitting at the desk in the waiting room filled it out for me. Religion? ‘Christian’ I lied, no time for theological discussions here, I just need that damn visa. I hand it in, with my photos, passport and $100 bill.

‘I will now start the visa process. Maybe we can get it finished today.’

‘Maybe.’

It was now 5.22pm. They wanted to lock up the waiting area and so I was shepherded through to the office side and told to sit. It was an experience not unlike waiting outside the headmaster’s office. I sat, trying to look relaxed, but my insides were twisting. Come on, come on, come on…

The guy comes over to me.

‘You have been to Sudan before?’

It was all I could do not to roll my eyes. I had told him this the day before and shown him my old visa. I showed him again, smiled politely and sat back down. He went back to his desk and continued shuffling paper. Come on, come on, come on…

At 5.42pm he came back over to me, holding my passport open on page 16.

‘Here… your visa for Sudan.’

I have never had to stifle the urge punch the air and scream F— YEAH! so much in my life.

I thanked the guy profusely and ran out of the embassy (via the back door – the front door was closed and locked). Between me, my mum, Midhat and some canny planning, I had snatched the last tricky visa of The Odyssey Expedition from the jaws of defeat. I called Tsegaye and arranged to meet him over at the Piazza area of town – where I could get purchase the bus ticket for tomorrow morning’s bus up to Gonder near the Sudanese border. We met at Tomoca and walked around to the ticket office, arriving at 6.31pm. The cleaning lady was mopping the floor. We tip-toed over the moistened tiles to the ticket lady who was just packing up for the night. The office closes at 6.30pm. Again, I had inadvertently made it by the skin of my teeth. After one speedy financial transaction, Tsegaye and I were down the road enjoying a (rather quite delicious) pizza of VICTORY!

Later, Tsegaye and I shared a beer or two whilst watching some traditional Ethiopian dancing at the Yod Abyssinia restaurant. I got an early(ish) night: I had to be up for 4am, I had a bus to catch and a promise to keep.

It was over. I won.

I *will* be back for Christmas.

2.45pm on Saturday 22 December 2012 @ The Pier Head, Liverpool. Be there.

Day 1,438: The Camelot of Africa

Sat 08.12.12:

Before Addis Ababa was founded around 100 years ago (Addis meaning ‘New’ and Ababa meaning ‘Flower’), the capital of what we now call Ethiopia had a tendency to move around a lot, much in the manner of the baddie’s castle in Krull. In fact, from around 1270 to 1636, the capital was wherever the king rested his weary head, much to the chagrin of the hapless locals who would have to stump up the readies to look after him and his extensive court should he turn up unannounced on a otherwise unremarkable Thursday afternoon.

Then in 1636 Emperor Fasiladas decided to break with the old ways an established Gonder as the new permanent capital of Ethiopia. The two hundred years that followed were ones of great architectural, culture and artistic endeavour, while also being a time of Machiavellian plotting, court conspiracies and some rather brutal assassinations that make Game of Thrones look a bit tame. Maybe Harry Lime had a point after all…

This morning I was up for 4am and heading over to the bus station to catch my ride north. Gonder awaits! The journey was great – spectacular scenery as we weaved our way through the northern highlands. I sat at the very front of the bus for much of the journey, chatting with the driver’s mate and gathering footage that I wished looked as good as what I was seeing with my eyes (I’m so getting a couple of wireless CCDs put in my eyes one day).

We arrived at sunset, which was a shame as I didn’t get to have a look around The Royal Enclosure; a walled collection of castles, temples and churches from when the kingdom of Gonder was at the height of its powers. It’s a well deserved UNESCO world heritage site and the fact I didn’t have time to go exploring gives me a great excuse to return to Ethiopia some day. Not that I really needed a excuse: Ethiopia has, without a shadow of a doubt, muscled into my top ten favourite countries, which, at current standings (and excluding the UK, for the sake of fair play, I mean, come on, the UK) are:

1. Palau
2. Egypt
3. Thailand
4. Bolivia
5. Madagascar
6. Iran
7. Ethiopia
8. South Korea
9. Nepal
10. Colombia

I arranged to be picked up by a minibus to the border at 8am the next morning, checked into the Belegez Pension (Birr115 for a single), found somewhere that was showing the footy (everywhere was showing the footy… the cinema was showing the footy) and settled in for the evening with a bottle of St George’s Ethiopian beer.

Day 1,439: The Invasion of Khartoum

Sun 09.12.12:

Odyssey rules state that I’m not allowed to use private transport over large distances, and so far I haven’t. But there has to be exceptions made here. Of course, I’ve already successfully completed The Odyssey Expedition, so in a way the rules don’t apply, but I still want to keep to them as best I can so if I decide in a few years (when, say, Greenland or Bougainville achieves independence) to re-active The Odyssey and travel to those countries from the UK without flying. The rule is there to stop me (or any who come after) intentionally breaking the law by speeding.

But here’s the Catch-22: in this situation I can’t take public transport without breaking the law. I am mandated by the Sudanese authorities to be ‘escorted’ in a private vehicle to Khartoum. Never mind, this journey is about taking public transport where available, in this case (for me) it’s not available and I’m not missing yet another Christmas with my family for the sake of a technicality. Bear in mind this will not speed up the journey at all: I would get to Khartoum with a day to spare whether I took the chicken bus or drove a Ferrari. The ferry over Lake Nasser from Sudan to Egypt leaves once a week on Wednesdays and nothing can change that fact.

So it was a minibus ride to the border, of course we got a flat tyre and of course the spare was flat as well (I love the way the bus boys always act surprised at this painfully predictable chain of events), so we didn’t get to the border until 1pm, but that was no problem. Nazar, a colleague of Midhat, was waiting for me on the other side and once I was stamped in I was introduced to his driver, Asir, and we began the journey to Khatoum, which took about 6 hours, stopping on the way for a bite to eat in one of the collections of concrete hovels that constitute human habitation here in the desert.

You simply couldn’t have imagined the difference in terrain, landscape and temperature compared with this morning. I went from a pleasant spring morning up in the rolling green hills of northern Ethiopia to a hot, arid, dusty afternoon along a flat, straight road through the litter-strewn desert. I saw some men praying at the side of the road and wondered what they might be praying for. ‘To get out of here’ would be a reasonable response.

It was dark before we arrived in Khartoum. Once there, Nazar helped me get a local SIM card and we set off to find my CouchSurf hosts. Casey had sorted me with a place to stay with the family of Ahmed, a Khartoum CSer who is currently in Germany. I was met by Ahmed’s brothers Yahia and Hamed, and after saying my goodbyes to Nazar and Asir, we grabbed a shwarma on the way back to the family home. There I met Mr. Mohammed, the kindly patriarch of the household, and after explaining (over a nice hot cup of tea) that I wanted to go and see the Meroe Pyramids tomorrow – the southernmost reach of the great Egyptian Empire. We formulated a cunning plan…