Green grass, the sound of birds, beautiful flowers and a nice morning sun. By closing the eyes, this could be Ethiopia. But it’s not. It’s the Netherlands. 5,5 months after we’ve left our jobs, sold our house and said goodbye, we’re back. The world is turning upside down and we are whirling with it.
2,5 weeks ago we were still in Ethiopia, relaxing at a nice camp spot in the North at Lake Tana. We’ve heard many stories about this country: the most beautiful nature in Africa, special tribes and stunning offroad tracks. But also: civil unrest, kids that throw rocks to your car and overwhelming busyness. So while making plans we’re curious and aware at the same time: where to go and which area’s to avoid. On our 3rd day at the camp site a Dutch couple joins, Coen and Floortje. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve met fellow overlanders so it’s nice to share drinks & stories. After a few days we decide to travel together trough Ethiopia; starting with a beautiful multiple day track in the Simien mountains.
But while making these plans, there is a word that increasingly joins our discussions: Corona. It’s vague, but it’s there. We see some news flashes from Europe, we read about increasing numbers of affected people, we hear about friends that need to work from home. But everyone we know back home is healthy so no need to get restless. And Africa seems to be ok. So we continue to plan our journey: a few weeks of exploring Ethiopia, finishing with a well known beautiful off road border crossing to Kenya.
But then Kenya closes its borders. The first Covid-19 measure that directly hits our travel plans. We re-discuss our plans, pro’s, cons, and for the first time the option of going home to the Netherlands finds our discussion. But we don’t see the need. Ethiopia is safe, we can travel around and we decide to enjoy Ethiopia on a very slow pace, waiting until Kenya opens its borders again. In the meanwhile, messages from back home get surreal: empty super markets, friends do not know whether they can have a drink in a bar or not, people get angry when someone coughs, etcetera. Scenes from a movie, not from real life. But it is really happening. Though we still decide to stay. Better enjoy the beautiful Ethiopian nature than sitting at home in the cold Netherlands. And we don’t even have a home anymore. It’s Sunday night and we decide to start driving to the mountains on Tuesday morning.
But things develop fast. On Monday, the Dutch prime minister speaks to the Dutch people. We are aware of the fact that this is a historic moment; the last time this happened was in the seventies. The message is clear: the Netherlands (together with so many other countries) is facing big challenges. Schools close, restaurants close, working from home as much as needed and keep distance. While reading articles we get introduced by new terms like social distancing and vital professions. We have phone calls with family and re discuss our plans. In the meanwhile, two Greek overlanders, Dimitris and Vasilis, have joined our group, so we’re now with 6. We again weigh all the pros and cons. Borders in Africa seem to close fast, health care is far from sufficient in most African countries, how long will this all last and are we still able to fly to the Netherlands when needed? But also: we are in good health, Ethiopia is a huge country so fine for weeks of exploring and we can always return to this safe camp site. So we decide to stay: we will drive the next morning.
But then there is other news: our Greek friends just arrived at the campsite, and encountered some negative emotions towards white people. Ethiopian people yelled ‘Corona Corona’ to them and it felt tens. And we hear similar stories from Sudan. This changes the discussion: so maybe we are not afraid for our own health, but what if civil unrest gets worse and we are the ‘ones to blame’? In ‘their’ eyes, we as white people bring the Covid-19 virus to Africa. So we are to blame when things get bad. When people get sick. Or even worse, when people die. Economic decline. And so one.
The next morning our Greek friends have decided they want to drive to the capital Addis Ababa, and take a flight home from there. We are confused, not knowing what to do anymore. We decide to make coffee and have a final discussion with the 6 of us. It’s difficult; we’ve all been dreaming about this travel for a long time, invested lot’s of time, love and money, left our home and job, and we are so not ready to go home. There are so many African countries still to explore. But we cannot decide different than to drive to Addis as well- mainly because of the expected unrest. We know it’s a long drive; at least 1,5 day. So we pack and go. The moment we leave the campsite, we receive an informal message from the Dutch embassy in Ethiopia; travelers should leave the country as soon as possible. There is our confirmation.
And then our journey begins. We’re a bit tens, not knowing (after a week on the campsite) what to expect from daily life in Ethiopia. Already in the first village people start yelling ‘Corona Corona’. Ok, it’s real. Actually we are happy when kids yell “money money” in stead of “Corona Corona”. And in the meantime we receive many updates with one clear message: leave the country before the airport will shut down. We decide to not only drive to Addis, but also to book a flight back home as soon as possible. The drive is exhausting and beautiful at the same time. We drive through many busy villages, there are always people, animals or trucks driving like crazy on the street, and in the meanwhile we see stunning nature: mountains full of green, enormous trees, flowers and animals. The road is (mainly) in good condition and meanders through this magical landscape. We definitely want t come back to explore this country when things settle down.
At the end of the first driving day we park our cars at a local hotel. Immediately many locals stand around our cars, laughing, saying corona corona and trying to touch us (it seems like you are cool when you dare to touch a white person). We see the conditions of the rooms and facilities and decide to sleep in our cars. We book 3 rooms anyway which allows us to park our care safe in the backyard, have dinner, drink a beer and relax a bit. In the meanwhile, friends and family help us out by booking flights.
The night is short- we go to sleep around 11PM and wake up at 4:00AM. We decide to drive in the dark: not only to be on time in Addis, but also to avoid crowded villages (and with that, the corona yelling). The first 1,5 hour is difficult: it’s fully dark, truck drivers drive (again) like crazy, people and donkeys on the road without any light and the road is good but with potholes and many curves. We are glad when we see the sunrise- not only for safer driving but also for the incredible views on the landscape. Along the road we pick up 2 Americans on bikes- they don’t feel safe anymore and we give them a ride to Addis. Along the road, many people hold their clothes for their mouth when they see us. We also notice that beggars and police man don’t come to our cars anymore while standing still in traffic. Is that a coincidence, or are they afraid of us?
Our feeling is ambiguous; we would like to go home now with all these recent developments, but in the meanwhile we see this insanely beautiful country, and – besides the corona yellers- often nice locals who smile or even shout ‘welcome to Ethiopia’. We really hope we can go back to create new memories here.
In Addis we are lucky to be able to park our car at the Dutch embassy- the safest place we can think of. The people at the embassy are super kind and even give us 2 suitcases- of course we did not bring any ourselves. We feel emotional and tired while packing our stuff and while preparing our car/home to stay there for – probably- at least a few months. To close our journey we enjoy a meal in a hotel with the 6 of us. We’re glad we could share this journey together and make plans to visit each other in Europe- whenever possible.
After dinner we head to the Airport. We’re with the 2 of us again and fly from Addis to Londen, and from London to Amsterdam. 2,5 days after we decided to go back, we arrive in Amsterdam. We see the first Corona contours: lines at the toilet for washing your hands and shops that are closed. Merle’s sister Rachel (who helped us incredibly with booking our flights) picks us up and brings us to our new home. We are lucky: a good friend owns a house in Culemborg (center of Holland) which he does not use. It’s a lovely villa, surrounded by green and a good place to catch our breath and understand what just has happened. We left Africa. And we left our car.
At the moment of writing, we are back now for 2 weeks. We slowly get used to the Dutch cold weather (but luckily are treated with a lot of sun as well!) and we have made our home a nice cosy place with the help of neighbors and family. It feels super weird to walk in the Albert Heijn, Hema or other Dutch shops. It’s such a difference with the past 6 months. We even forgot to bring our payment cards the first time; we only had African cash money in our wallets. But of course at the moment everything is weird for everyone. So we’re kind of part of that weird bubble now. And we’re happy to be close to friends and family- we don’t see them in real life but the feeling of being close is nice in these times. And obviously, we’re happy that we and the people around us are healthy, that we have this nice home, with great nature for hiking around and that we collected already so many nice memories in the last 6 months.
From here we’ll see. We try to help around where needed, we started online courses and we walk around. It’s a nice bubble in weird times. We do not plan further than today or tomorrow. And of course, we hope to continue our travel as soon as possible. But when that is, we’ll see. Let’s first beat this virus. We really hope that the African countries and their people will be ok, because with their fragile systems this could turn into a disaster. We deeply hope that scenario will not occur.
Take care of yourself and the people around you! And thanks for following our journey together with us; we’ll hope to be back soon with an update!