The morning in Sodo was drowsy, one of the greatest advantages of the short bus trips is that they run all day, no 5am wake ups. We went back to the cafe at Di's request to get more of what she had dubbed "the best bread in Ethiopia". They were out. It turns out that bakers don't work night shift in Sodo. We wanted internet and we had read in the Lonely Planet that it was expensive in Arba Minch. It was a Sunday so all the shops in town were closed, at least for the morning. We even had a tout take us around but it was still no help.
We collected our bags and walked to the bus station. Once inside the compound of the bus station everything felt different, people yelling, go here, go there, and telling us they don't like Australians. We fought through the crowd and found the next bus to Arba Minch, I tied the bags to the roof and then untied them. The bus was full. The onslaught started again. They took us to a mini-van, it was too much and the owner was being an ass. Then we were led to a mini-bus, despite the yelling and abuse to the contrary I took the bags up and tied them down myself. We jumped on the bus and we were left alone. We sat for 5-10 minutes and no-one else got on. Both Di and I realised that this bus was going nowhere in the near future. So I got the bags down and we found a normal bus bound for Arba Minch. Again I lashed the bags to the roof racks and descended the ladder. Di claimed two seats on the back seat. Before I could board the bus two or three of the trouble makers came up to me. What now I thought, to my surprise they had come to shake my hand and give me a pat on the back. They had wanted to get our money from us but now that we had sorted it all out ourselves they were happy. It was all just business to them. I said thank you and stayed to chat with them for a while. The bus was starting to fill and I said good bye. We bought our tickets from the super friendly supervisor and smiled to our fellow passengers. In a matter of five minutes my mood had completely reversed and it only got better. The driver put on the normal show of bravado, revving the engine, muscling out the other buses, lurching forward, revving the engine again...and then we were free, cruising down the sealed road. In no time at all the ticket man was reaching into an esky and distributing ice cold soft drinks. Di and I couldn't resist. As we carefully sipped from the bottle trying to minimise the clothing casualties. Di decided we should call it the party bus and that's just how it felt. People were chatting, food was being passed around; everyone was laughing and smiling. The mood lasted for an hour or so but faded towards the end of the trip.
The party bus came to a complete stop and we were in the thick of it again. After retrieving our bags we hesitantly started chatting to a tout who said if we wanted to go to Nechisar National Park the next day he knew two people already going. At the best of times we resent touts so it was with hesitation that we agreed to follow him. He lead us to a hotel called Hallelujah Guest House. It was 70 birr a day, a good price considering what the guide book suggested we pay. We took a room, next door to the other couple who were going into Nechisar. We gave it a while before we knocked on their door. A fimilar face answered, they turned out to be two Italians that we had meet in the Simien Mountains. We discussed the arrangement with them and they were happy. We said we would see if we could arrange something cheaper and said good bye. We caught a mini-van to the other part of Arba Minch; Sechar. From there we walked around a k to a hotel called Bekele Mola. There we sat on a wide open terrace decking and gazed across the Nechisar National park and two of the Rift Valley Lakes, the view was beautiful and the drinks within our price range. We scraped our chairs along the tiles as we stood up. It caught the attention of a man sitting nearby, he stood up aswell. He asked if we wanted to go to Nechisar, after a brief discussion we determined that he could do the trip for 150 birr less than the other offer. We took his number and left without agreeing to anything. To cut a long story short we went back to Sikela (the part of Arba Minch we were staying in) and haggled with the two young men we originally talked with. They dropped the price by 100 birr but told us the car would not be as good.
In the morning we moved our bags to a hotel that cost half the price and went back to rendezvous with our driver. We were greeted with a beaten up shit box 60s series Land Cruiser. We got in the back seat and were soon joined by the italians. Two more people had joined the group and we went to pick them up. They didn't like the look of the car or the fact that due to the back seats malfunctioning we were going to be packed in like sardines, they got their money back and we let out a sigh of relief. It meant our trip would cost a little more but at least we could breath. Next stop was the ticket office where we purchased our park entries. Insufficient funds meant that we had to borrow from the Italians.
The driver turned and drove to the park entry and then he drove past it. We were a little confused until we saw him stop at a bakery for bread. Then despite the already crammed conditions in the car he stopped to pick up his son. At least now we were ready to go. As we passed through the park gates the landscape was unremarkable, slightly hilly, several trees and long dry grass. Within minutes we were stopped by a convoy of tourist vehicles blocking the way. They had been out walking and were just returning to their vehicles. I asked our guide what they might have been looking at and he said "I don't know, maybe something out there". As they began to move again so did we. Only 100m had passed and we realised what they had seen: Burchell's Zebras. We followed their movements and walked as close to them as we could. They were shy but not scared and we could get within 15 or 20m. They were at least as large as the average horse back home and they carried with them a certain appeal. Their stripes stood out against the backdrop of dead grass like a man in a powder room and I thought that they were beautiful but you could hardly call that camouflage. After taking a few photos and picking up some grass seeds we clambered back into the car and the driver ground it into first gear. Within 10 minutes our surroundings had completely transformed into a flat green forest with lush undergrowth and even greener grass. It had a calming affect and at the mention of wild dogs I scanned the passing scenery but we never saw any. In as little as another 10 minutes we were in steep hills driving along a road set 50m back from the lake Chamo shoreline. Only shrubs and long grass were prominent here which allowed us good views of the red waters to our right. The driver stopped at a few fixed locations along the way which had, for no particular reason been dubbed "viewpoints". It was at one of these that we saw our first pod of hippos. I had always wanted to see them but we were so far I couldn't make much out, it might as well have been t.v. but it did auger well for the afternoon and the boat trip.
We summited the hill with the help of a lot of clutch because the driver refused to use low range. As we did so a savannah panorama unfolded before us. We gazed out the window to the lake below, it was the best view point all day but the driver insisted that there was a better spot up ahead. When we got there it occured to me that better just meant higher, the view was far less scenic.
As we pretended to look at the view I noticed that a conversation was firing up between "the guide" and the driver. I asked what the problem was and the guide told me that there was no problem, then two minutes later he told us all that this was a good point to turn aroun and that we wouldn't see anything but more zebras. That's what we came to see we told him and he relayed the bad news to the driver. Apparently this is what the tiff had been about. So whilst another vehicle turned back we continued down the road. A few hundred metres further along the car stopped whilst we stalked some zebras through the grass. This time there were about a dozen of them, including a foal.
I sat and watched them for a while, actually I was watching the Italian guy stalk them through the semi dense foliage near by. It seemed a little bit comical, like an amateur hunter armed only with a camera. I chuckled at what I was seeing and the guide obviously considered this a good time to bring up the idea of turning back again. I new that the problem was the driver so I didn't really respond. When the hunt was over and we were heading back to the car I dropped behind and waited for the others to catch up. They were as unimpressed as Di and I with the idea and when we were back with the driver the italian, whose name was Leo, saved me the hassle and brought up the issue himself. The driver was complaining about a problem with the car and Leo told him that it had nothing to do with us. Only half the trip, only half the payment. This suited us quite well actually and I secretly hoped that that would be the outcome. It wasn't, we got back into the cruiser and headed further from town. For the next half hour we continued through savannah territories with several more groups of zebra and at least as many gazelles. We passed near to the gazelles which offered us a good opportunity to see them up close. They had very sleek bodies and when they did take flight their movements were fluid yet effortless. Every gazelle that we saw had the same body shape: lean and muscular. I wondered if there was ever a time, before processed foods and office jobs that people were the same.
We had come almost 270 degrees when Di noticed a light glowing under the console I didn't think much of it but Di had noticed it flickering, it was a fire, the car was on fire. We bailed straight away and took our bags with us. Another car pulled up, they battled the problem by first throwing water on the electrical fire and then hitting the battery with a ring spanner. Apparently this solvedeverything and we were ushered back into the car.
We completed the circuit section of the drive in no more than another 10 minutes. It seemed crazy all this talk of turning back earlier; it would have only cut 20 minutes to half an hour off the drive. We were back on familiar terrritory, retracing the route we had taken in the morning, only in reverse. When we returned to the forested area the driver pulled over, a small fire had started again. While he was waiting for it to put itself out the he tried to weasel a tip out of us. Unlikely. We gave him nothing and we left. The driver took us to the bank and we exchanged U.S. for birr, we paid back the italians and the car hire. We headed to the refuge of the tourist hotel for a beer and lunch. It's fountain and garden made the perfect retreat.
After lunch we met back up with the others: The italians and the two touts who had organised the trip. For the afternoon the tout with one blinded eye, as opposed to the tall one with the eyebrow piercing, was going to be our guide. We had a trip to the crocodile market planned, to get there we needed to first contract a taxi, we waited a short while before a silver bomb jazzed up with a completely unneccesary spoiler opened its doors. Again we packed in and the doors were closed around us. It was then dumped on us that the boat owner wanted a deposit. I was not really adversed to the idea but the italians were and bowing out of it, an argument insued. In the end the taxi driver decided he would spot the money. As we pulled away from the boat owners house the half blind guide asked how much we had agreed to pay for the boat. We all thought the same thing; damn, these are never a good sign. The italians had agreed on 450 for the boat and taxi combined, we had agreed to pay 450 for the boat and 150 for the car. The driver was asked to do a u-turn and the following conversations got a little heated. The tall tout had given the italians a bad price and his partner could see their profits flying out the window. He was furious at the situation to the point that he was screaming everything. He pointed what looked like an accusing finger at the italians and yelled "It's not your mistake, it's my friends mistake. He's on the toilet." It was too much, we all broke into pearls of laughter which didn't help our guide's temper, especially when the driver joined in. In the end a deal was struck which left the italians a little worse off but in a managable state.
By the time we were lakeside the sun was threatening to set. We waited a little impatiently for the boat to show up, it wasn't the waiting that was a problem but we were pretty sure that the boat's navigational lights wouldn't be functioning. In fact we could confidently say the "captain" would have never even heard of them.
Precariously close to our pullout time the boat came into view. We exchanged some meaningless banter with the disembarking tourists as we boarded. Wasting no time the captain revved the under powered outboard and we sat ourselves on the wooden bench seats. Only 5 minutes from the crocodile market one of the locals pointed to a small raft near by. "Illegal fisherman" he said, the waters were protected. Not a hugely safe profession on that vessel I joked with Di. The captain pointed the bow directly for the raft. Di and I were impressed, he was going to tell the fisherman off, obviously we were wrong, some Ethiopians do care about the environment, at least those that gain income directly from its protection. Our naevity was immediately obvious. The driver pulled out a 10'er and bought a fish. Some discouragement.
Now carrying the catch of the day, Nile Perch, we covered the last kilometre to the crocodile market. A nickname for an area in Lake Chomo that is packed full of crocs. In honesty I was more interested in the hippos than the crocs especially seeing as they were freshwater. We passed close to a few pods of hippos and I got excited but the others were there to see the reptiles and time was short so we couldn't stay long. The crocodiles were much larger than I had expected, they were close to the size of the salt water variety back home. One lay basking on the beach but the rest were semi-submerged in the water. Apperently due to the flurry of toursits that had visited just before us. We took ten minutes to take a few snapshots, hippos to the left, crocs to the right. Satisfied we turned for our landing zone. We were treated to a stunning sunset, reflected perfectly by the still waters around us. Dark silouhettes of fishermen on their makeshift rafts completed the foreground. It seemed like a just reward for suffereing the delays of the day.
The only person still in a bad mood was our guide, his day had thus far been relatively unprofitable. His spirits weren't brightened much when the driver said he couldn't take him into town because he was charged with taking the captain back. Our guide flew off the handle, the italians led the laughng again, I tried not too but it was contagious, everyone except the guide was laughing. The driver and captain flicked him a couple of birr to hitch a ride and we drove off. The laughter had several small revivals as we returned to our pension.
Another point of contention now aroused itself. Di and I had agreed to pay a fee to the touts for organising everything, the italians had not. The two touts spent hours trying to convince us that we should pay them, then giving up they went to town on the italians before returning to us. We were tired of the whole thing but they owed us some money, it was only a couple of dollars but for the principle we put up a fight. Our problem was that we were leaving town at 6am the next day. We didn't have much time to extract it. By the close of operations for the night we were still out of pocket.
Di and I had checked in to a budget option costing only 34 birr per night. They had also offered to do our washing cheap. When we went to pick it up it was not ready and the price had risen. Not this again we groaned. This one at leat, we had half anticipated, the price we had been offered was too low. It was a genuine mistake and tired I was happy to foot the still very reasonable bill. We waited up late for the washing to be delivered to our room but it never came. Around midnight we gave up and settled in for another day in Arba Minch.
The hotel we had chosen had been a mistake. The writing had been on the wall but we chose to ignore it. The hotel turned into some sort of offkey rave which carried through most of the night, the bugs were in plague proportions and the water didn't work. In the morning we picked up our washing, settled the bill and found a good value 40 birr room with private shower.
We whittled the day away by playing cards, eating, drinking and I updated the blog. We even managed to extract most of the money we were owed from the tout. In the process we gained some insight into the whole operation. The tall tout made money from the guiding/organising fee which he only recieved half of, our half. The shorter one took some money from the boat commission. To his dismay his partner sold him short by setting the boat price so low. He gained nothing from the day, well at least not much. It was a lesson in business for them and we were reminded why we hate touts.