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ABOUT THIS BLOG

In the summer of 2009, Nicolas Rapp decided to take a break from his Art Director job at The Associated Press to attempt a one-year overland travel around the world in a 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser. He was back in New York in February 2011 after traveling 15 months and 37,000 miles.

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THE ROUTE

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  • Not exactly a land of milk and honey

    Posted on June 20th, 2010 Nicolas No comments
    Not much gas stations in the desert between Ethiopia and Djibouti.

    Not much gas stations in the desert between Ethiopia and Djibouti.

    The last week has been one of the most difficult since I arrived in Africa. Once again, what was supposed to be a straight forward affair – going from Ethiopia to Djibouti – turned out into a nightmare.

    Every afternoon, rain starts in Addis, to stop in the evening.

    Every afternoon, rain starts in Addis, to stop in the evening.

    The road going to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, was an easy road, if you let on the side the perpetual danger of animals and human in the middle of the road. Ethiopians, like Kenyans, are driving like there is no tomorrow, and you have to be extra vigilant while driving.

    Wim’s campsite, in the center of the city.

    Wim’s campsite, in the center of the city.

    In Addis, I had a very pleasant time at Wim’s Holland House, a campsite located in the center of the city. The place serves as a meeting point for all the overlanders using the east road to cross Africa. A bunch of people, mostly Europeans, spend time here waiting for visas, spare parts for their vehicles, or just to rest, drink beer and watch the World Cup. I watch the disappointing performance of the French, and I am the only one on the American side while they play, with many British bikers around. Addis is an OK place, and you can easily walk in the city, if you don’t mind people constantly asking you for money.
    After a couple of days here, I decided to leave and get to Djibouti. Under the impression that French citizens don’t need a visa to go there, I didn’t bother stopping by the embassy.

    There is always something on the road. You have to be extra cautious.

    There is always something on the road. You have to be extra cautious.

    It is a two-day journey across the desert to get to the border. Two roads are going to Djibouti. One of them is very good and used by many trucks. The other one is a terrible gravel road. Of course I did choose the first option, and left Addis happy, not suspecting I will end up not only taking the first road, but also the second, with no success whatsoever in getting to Djibouti.

    There are just accidents everywhere. I consider myself lucky until now.

    There are just accidents everywhere. I consider myself lucky until now.

    I thought I knew bout hot weather. I didn’t. It was horrible to cross the desert. The temperature was horribly high, at around 45C, the air hazy, no shade anywhere, and a strong wind was blowing boiling air. The sky was gray, and the sun seemed huge.

    A city in the middle of the desert where I chose to open my tent behind a restaurant.

    A city in the middle of the desert where I chose to open my tent behind a restaurant.

    I traveled with my head wrapped in a towel, and windows closed to avoid the hot wind. I have no AC in the truck, and doubt it would have helped. The temperature didn’t go down at night, and the wind shook the tent endlessly, making sleep impossible.

    The flat landscape let you battle with strong winds.

    The flat landscape let you battle with strong winds.

    The following day I made it to the border, barely alive. I drove for about 600 miles (1,000 km), and you can imagine my disappointment to learn from the immigration officer that I would not be allowed in the country. If you do fly into the country, you automatically get a visa, but it is another story when traveling by road.

    Some area of the world were never meant for human presence, and I wonder why I am here.

    Some area of the world were never meant for human presence, and I wonder why I am here.

    Of course, as you can imagine, I did everything I could to have the officials let me get into the country. I begged them for hours, spent 24 hours lobbying them, even sleeping in front of the immigration building. I tried everything with no success. I had no more Ethiopian money, and had to pay US$10 to place two calls to the French embassy in Djibouti, only to have to hear that they didn’t care about my case.

    A night at the border crossing.

    A night at the border crossing.

    So this horrible trip was done for nothing. I was suffering now from heat exhaustion, and had to keep moving. The immigration officer mentioned to me that there may be a way to Djibouti through tracks in the desert. After going back south 200 km (125 mi), I tried the track, shown on no maps.

    The road close to the Djibouti.

    The road close to the Djibouti border.

    I have to admit, I was really afraid to take this direction. If I had any mechanical problem, I would be in the middle of nowhere, risking the worst in the extremely hostile environment. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the track finished with a collapsed bridge after 60 km (38 mi). Once again I had to backtrack.
    The next solution was to try to drive back south-east and go to Dire Dawa to get a Djibouti visa at the consulate there. Another two-day trip.

    Back in colder temperatures.

    Back in colder temperatures.

    After one day of driving, I was back in a colder area, a hilly region where tea and coffee grow. I had a nice fresh night, unfortunately just on the side of the road, as I could not find a proper area to camp. A shower would be a dream after all these days.
    Late morning, I was showing up happy at the Djibouti consulate in Dire Dawa, taking for granted I would have no problem getting my visa. “But”, I was told, “the consul is in Djibouti, and will only be back in a week”.

    Donuts in the mountain.

    Donuts in the mountain.

    Of course he was the only one who could sign for the visa. Another lost fight. The consulate employee advised me to go to the border, and explain the immigration officials my situation. Surely, she told me they will let me through. At this effect, I had to get to the second border crossing at the end of a terrible 250 km gravel road.
    It took six hours to complete this road. The heat was terrible again, and the gravel on the road was so sharp it took a real toll on my tires. I was able to fix two puncture, but one of the back tire exploded, making necessary the use of my spare wheel. No there was no space for mistakes. If another tire blew, I will be stuck there forever. In addition, the area was not very safe, and as I was changing the tire, a group of Somali illegal immigrants, roaming the desert, took an interest in my possessions and gather around the truck, trying to put their hand on anything they could. I was constantly locking and unlocking the doors to grab tools and work under the truck. This episode I will remember as being one of the few times I felt in danger since the beginning of the trip.

    Another day, another desert.

    Another day, another desert.

    But I made it to the border alive, driving as slow as 30 km/h (20 mph) to avoid a will be catastrophic tire blow up.
    Of course I was decidedly in no luck, and this time Ethiopians officials kicked me out of the border area, in no gentle way, asking me to please get lost. They would no let me speak to the Djibouti officers, arguing I had no visa and had to go back.
    In rage, and in the middle of the night, I decided to turn back and drive the entire dirt road back to Dire Dawa. There was anyway no way of sleeping anywhere in the desert where I would have been exposed to Somali gangs.
    At 4 a.m. I was back in the city. The trip going back was slow, as I just went easy and slow, listening to an audio book, smoking Yemeni cigarettes and trying to not let the adventures of the week get to me. When you are alone and face all these difficulties, it is hard to not be down and suffer for the lack of luck. I know that failing is not an option, but this week, for the first time, I did wonder at times why in the world I would have left the comfort of my life to end up in such place and situation…
    Exhausted, I slept few hours behind the wheel and woke up at 8:30 a.m., surrounded by people looking at me.

    Once again across the mountains to get back to Addis.

    Once again across the mountains to get back to Addis.

    I started the truck, and drove back all the way to Addis where I arrived at 5 p.m. I will have to buy new tires there, as mine are in poor shape. My shock absorbers look like they are gone as well, with oil leaking out of them. Because of the heat, one of my car batteries is dead for good I believe, and some other electronic equipment like the GPS or even my iPod suffered greatly as well. I am in poor shape myself, feeling sick in the last two days, probably another consequence of the unsupportable temperatures. I had to unplug the fridge, which couldn’t make it anymore. In addition, I wasted hundred of dollars in fuel trying to get to Djibouti.

    Back in Addis for a busy week.

    Back in Addis for a busy week.

    I imagine I will be pretty busy this next week. I plan to get the most urgent things fixed on the truck, and get few visas. The ideal will be to get Djibouti, Yemen and Saudi Arabia visa, so I will not have to worry about it later on.
    So as you may have understand, the last week has not been easy. I will need a little bit of luck and some good news soon to overcome all the difficulties and do more than just try to survive.

    I have been going down last week, looking forward to good news now...

    I have been going down last week, looking forward to good news now...

  • Life on Mars… or Ethiopia

    Posted on June 11th, 2010 Nicolas No comments
    In Northern Kenya, Samburu walk their herds of camels.

    In Northern Kenya, Samburu walk their herds of camels.

    The precious Ethiopian visa.

    The precious Ethiopian visa.

    I came back in Nairobi on Sunday, and went straight back to the Upper Hill camping where I spent time previously. On Monday morning, waiting for the DHL guy, I changed my oil with expensive synthetic fluid I bought in South Africa.

    Nairobi city center at dusk.

    Nairobi city center at dusk.

    Also, I had to amputate the truck of its emergency brake, ate by rust and broken in pieces by the bad dirt roads. This stopped the terrible noise annoying me since Tanzania. I am ready to go, and have plenty of groceries I got the previous day. Finally, I go to the DHL depot to get my passport, and leave the city by 1 p.m.

    Let’s hope it will be true for the rest of my trip.

    Let’s hope it will be true for the rest of my trip.

    The first part of my travel brings me to Isiolo, 250 km (156 mi) from Nairobi. The hard part is to leave the city, and the traffic is hectic. I am sorry to say the following about Kenyans, but I don’t think that the king of bad drivers is Italian.

    Getting closer to Isiolo.

    Getting closer to Isiolo.

    Isiolo is the last place with decent facilities. It marks the frontier with the wilderness of the northern part of the country, and has a Wild West feel. There, I go to the Jabal-Nur hotel, where I get a room for US$ 3.5.

    Me and my truck get a last night of sleep before attacking the northern road, the worst in Kenya.Me and my truck get a last night of sleep before attacking the northern road, the worst in Kenya.

    Me and my truck get a last night of sleep before attacking the northern road, the worst in Kenya.

    I spend the evening speaking with Kenyans and go to my room to take some rest. The following day I am up by 4:30 a.m., and getting ready for the next step. Marsabit is 8 hours north of here, and there is no town in between.

    Isiolo mosque.

    Isiolo mosque.

    As usual before a trip of this kind, I go to the gas station, and fill my tank as well as my three jerry cans which guarantee me that I will not get stuck somewhere. There’s actually only one place you can get gas in the 500 km (313 mi) between Isiolo and Moyale, at the Ethiopian border. And sometimes pumping stations are dry, which can force you to wait for fuel delivery.

    The first 100 km (60 mi) is a tar road.

    The first 100 km (60 mi) is a tar road.

    The last convoy, going straight to the Ethiopian border, left at midnight, and I didn’t feel like driving for 20 hours straight on dirt roads, which means I am leaving alone. I have the good surprise to see that some work has been done recently on the first 100 km (60 mi) of the track, and there is now a tar road.

    The end of the tar road.

    The end of the tar road.

    Kids on the road.

    Kids on the road.

    But soon, the dirt road begins. The road is made of corrugated dirt, rocks and sand, and shakes the guts out of me and my car. This is the worst drive since Bolivia. And like Bolivia, the trip is very rewarding as well. I see the nomads in the desert, proud camels, and birds follow my car for several minutes at a time. There’s not much traffic, just a truck every few hours coming the other way. Once in a while, there are some shady characters with machine guns making signs to stop, which I don’t.

    House in the desert.

    House in the desert.

    The dust is the worst. It goes everywhere in the truck, in my hairs and mouth. The dashboard and my luggage are covered by a thick layer.

    The traveler takes a break in the middle of the desert.

    The traveler takes a break in the middle of the desert.

    There are huge rocks everywhere, of the volcanic kind. Sometimes, tracks in the sand follow the road, and are easier on the truck than the gravel. But I have to be careful to not get lost…

    Northern Kenya landscape.

    Northern Kenya landscape.

    Around 2p.m., I arrive in Marsabit, and go to Henry’s rest camp where I spend the rest of the afternoon cooking, reading and having beers. Marsabit is located on a mountain in the middle of the desert. Because of this situation, I get a lot of wind during the night, and don’t have great night of sleep.

    The road gets worst as I advance north.

    The road gets worst as I advance north.

    Regardless, I am back on the road the following day. The landscape is less interesting now, and the track is getting worst.

    I share the road with camels.

    I share the road with camels.

    The heat is intense as well, and there is no shadowy place where I could take a break, so I keep driving and driving. Once in a while, I stop to inspect the truck, and make sure I don’t have a flat.

    Rocks on the road eat the rubber of my tires.

    Rocks on the road eat the rubber of my tires.

    I have to fix the attachment of one of my battery which broke, and I also notice my radiator is leaking, but not enough to be an immediate problem. Some other pieces need to be fastened harder, and I am surprised the truck just doesn’t fall in pieces. I read the previous day in the guest book of the camp that previous travelers had scary experiences with this road, including wheels flying off the car, or frames breaking.

    Animals have hard time finding shadow in the desert.

    Animals have hard time finding shadow in the desert.

    But I make it OK, and around 3 p.m., I am at the border. In Moyale, it doesn’t cost me more than the 30 US$ I had to pay in Paris for the visa. I don’t have one shilling left of Kenyan money, and was expecting to find an ATM close to the border.

    Village on the Kenyan side.

    Village on the Kenyan side.

    Dangerous travel.

    Dangerous travel.

    Unfortunately, I am told the closest ATM is more than 300 miles (480 km) from the border. And I don’t have enough gas to make it down there. As a result, I drive 220 km (138 mi) to Yabello, where I expect to find a bank where I can change some green bills.
    It is night when I arrive there, and the bank is closed. Since I don’t have cash, I ask guards in a school if they can let me sleep there, and they are fine with the idea.
    I just arrived in Ethiopia, but everything sounds like Mars to me. First of all, the country use the Julian solar calendar, made up of thirteen months. I believe we are in 2003 or something here, which make me younger by a few years. It also follows a different time system. That means for example that when I am told the bank open at 2 p.m., it actually means it opens at 8 a.m. whenever I cross a village, everybody screams “youyouyouyou” which seems charming at first, but is kind of tiresome at the end. it is also time to switch back to drive on the right side of the road.

    Giant anthills in the Ethiopian countryside.

    Giant anthills in the Ethiopian countryside.

    Later in the evening, I also have the visit of a professor of the school, and share a beer with him. I have the strangest experience. The discussion is really mysterious, and he keeps making mentions about who I really am. He also refuses to answer some questions I ask him. Eventually, I understand what he is thinking of. He believes I am some CIA spy. It may sound funny, but it I am actually kind of worry about possible outcomes of such suspicion. He mention that the American vice-president is in Kenya, which make me laugh at the idea that I could just work for him, and he would ask me to go with my U.S. truck across the border and camp in a school to try to get some secrets.
    Eventually I go to bed, and take some rest after this long day.

    After the Ethiopian border, the tarmac starts again.

    After the Ethiopian border, the tarmac starts again.

    On Thursday, I go to the bank and change US$100. I figure I will get some more cash at the first ATM. I am now able to get some gas (US$ 4 a gallon) and leave. Unfortunately, after few hours of driving, and as I arrive at Awasa, famous for being the first town with ATM north of the border, I figure this precious piece of equipment is not working. So I have to go again through the lengthy wait at the bank to get some more cash. After that, I get some gas and continue north.

    Lake Langano.

    Lake Langano.

    In the evening, I stop at Lake Langano, which is famous for its brown color, to spend the night (US$4). The next stop should be Addis Ababa. In a week from now, I should be in Djibouti.