Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013





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    Default Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    I have been asked by the king of travel reports, Stan Weakley, if I would post some excerpts from our (private) blog of our travels from the UK to Cape Town and back up to Kenya. We did this trip from August 2013 to December 2014.


    Ethiopia: The Land of Thirteen Months
    Ethiopia, 1-10 November 2013

    When we were in deep planning for this trip, we said we wanted to be in Ethiopia on 1 November and, despite the delays en route, we entered Ethiopia right on target. How about that for precision planning?

    We have had a wonderful week cleaning mounds of sand and dust out the Land Rover, doing maintenance checks, and having a relaxing time at the lovely “Tim and Kim’s Village” on the edge of Lake Tana. We went canoeing on the lake, visited monasteries and churches, and walked around the village and up a hill to Mussolini’s Tower. Tim and Kim are a lovely Dutch couple in their 40s who set up this gorgeous lodge cum campsite six years ago. We admire their hard work and commitment to this project which benefits the local villagers. In addition to camping, they have six lovely en suite rondavels, and are in the process of building some mud houses. Kim is a wonderful cook and she manages to conjure up delicious meals despite being 65 kms on a dirt road from the nearest town (Gondar). In Gondar the best supermarket is called Best Supermarket and its shelves are pretty well empty. We treated ourselves to Kim’s cooking and enjoyed meeting their Dutch friends and sponsors staying in the rondavels, a South African water engineer who is working on a nearby canal project, some weekend guests from the UK working in Gondar, and a few other overlanders.

    On Friday, we packed up camp and said farewell to Tim and Kim and drove down to Bahir Dar to meet up with family who had flown in from London. On Saturday, we all drove back up to Gondar where we are now ensconced in the Faisil Lodge awaiting the arrival of the rest of the family and friends.

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Trekking the Roof of Africa
    Ethiopia, 8-21 November 2013

    How to describe the Simien Mountains? Breathtaking, crazy, dramatic, strenuous, cold… pick your cliché. On Friday 8 November, we met up with my sister and cousin in Bahir Dar, and drove them up to Gondar on the Saturday, and the following day the rest of the party arrived on the plane from Addis. After a quick day’s sightseeing in Gondar, we set off early on the Monday up the hill to Debark. There we secured the Land Rover in a hotel carpark, and we all crammed into a (large) minibus for a two-hour bumpy drive to the start of the walk. This started at 3168 metres (about 10,500 ft to the uninitiated), and the altitude was noticeable, but that first afternoon was just a mild two-hour stroll to help us get acclimatised.

    We had a guide, Desalegn, and a scout, Dejen, and behind the scenes was a strong party headed up by the cook, Asfao, two assistants, a chap in charge of tentage and five muleteers. Good tents were provided for all, and a rather senior mess tent with tables and stools. The mess tent was massively welcome as the highland campsites, all above 3000m, were very cold at night and often windy. We felt sorry for other groups huddling around tables in the open. The campsites for the first three days were all fairly busy, with several parties, predominantly on 3-5 day trips. Once over the Bwahit pass (4214m/14,000 ft) and engaged on our attempt at Ras Dejen, the numbers dropped off sharply. As might be expected the ‘facilities’ at the campsites, certainly the busier ones, varied from grim to downright repellent – we were glad we had taken our own loo tent.

    On our second day’s walk, Archie felt grim from the altitude, and he and Muriel took a break on Day 3, when we did a fairly unstrenuous circular walk to Imet Gogo. This is a peak sticking out from the main plateau, with 270 degree views of the Simiens’ towering cliffs and pinnacles on either side and, in front, down to the lowlands where our walk was due to finish a week later. Two further days took us over a 4214m pass to Ambiko, a village below Ras Dejen, where five of us set off at 4 in the morning to see if we could get up Ethiopia’s highest peak. And most of us could. Hugh sadly fell by the wayside about half a kilometre short of the main summit, feeling grim with the altitude and not fancying the final scramble. However, Lucy, Donald, Chris and Archie all summited successfully.

    The next day was an 18 km slog to a bitterly cold camp North of the main range, and the following day we plunged with great delight down into the lowlands, dropping from 3400m to 1800m down a precipitous hillside with beautiful flowers. At the bottom, we were able to bathe in the river and enjoy a good lunch before pottering along the valleyside to a warm friendly village. Our final full day was a delight: along a river valley with wonderful birds, and then round the corner to a stunning swimming hole below a waterfall – a perfect setting for a Bounty bar advert. Then a steep climb up took us to a small village where we were given a proper Ethiopian coffee ceremony, and then a short donder to an idyllic campsite in an orchard. There in the evening, our staff all treated to us a display of ‘shoulder dancing’, to which we were all individually pressed to join in. Not to be outdone, the eight of us gave a display of an eightsome reel (not easy to drumming on a plastic jerrycan). A final short walk in the morning took us to Adi Arkay where we met up with the minibus again, who conveyed us up a precipitous road, with endless roadworks, back to Debark. Much to our relief, the Land Rover was still there, and the following day, we were back on the road heading for Axum.

    What an incredible ten-day trek with the most stunning scenery.

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Tigray, Tigray burning bright!
    Ethiopia, 22-25 November 2013

    We got to Axum in good order after a ten-hour drive despite a minor crisis about the driver for the second vehicle carrying the family. Axum is the reputed home of the Queen of Sheba and, the Ethiopians would have us believe, the location of the original Ark of the Covenant. We stayed in a potentially lovely hotel overlooking the main stelae field and the compound containing said Ark of the Covenant. Like much else in Ethiopia, it was badly run and very redolent of Eastern Europe. However, it did have hot water – something we have seen little of since Cairo. We spent a day sightseeing in and around Axum, and the following day we set off across country via Adwa (Google it for those interested in battles) to Hawzien in the Gheralta area of Tigray. Here we fell into the arms of one of the few competently run hotels in Ethiopia (Italian owned) and basked in hot water and fluffy white towels.

    But there was so much sightseeing to do and we were up and out early in the morning. Tigray is famed for the numerous churches and monasteries perched perilously on cliff tops and some actually in a cliff face – there are over 230 such churches in Tigray, but we only managed to see six in the Gheralta cluster in the two days we spent there. Most of them involved a walk/climb of about an hour from where we left the vehicles after some serious off-roading on mule tracks. Archie and Hugh climbed up to one of the most famous and most perilously perched churches – Abuna Yamata Guh. Getting to this church involved the last 50 metres rock-climbing with bare feet which is the reason that the rest of us waited at the bottom of the cliff with bated breath. What we hadn’t appreciated about Tigray before is how beautiful the countryside is – attractive stone built farmsteads (with flat grass roofs on top of which were haystacks) in walled compounds dotted the landscape; think Tuscany in an African setting. The harvest was being brought in, and threshing is done in the Biblical way with oxen walking in circles. All in all, the three nights and two days we spent in Gheralta were idyllic.
    Last edited by Wazungu Wawili; 2017/07/07 at 05:19 PM.

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Ups and Downs on the Road South
    Ethiopia, 26 November - 1 December 2013

    After Tigray, it was back on the road again heading south to Lalibela. Of course, we took the road less travelled which involved ten hours on gravel roads. Driving in Ethiopia is challenging and nerve-wracking; the gravel roads wind up numerous hairpin bends on to plateaus, then down to a river valley, then up again, then down again, then up again… The scenery was spectacular, and we eventually wound our way into Lalibela.

    We have seen the incredible rock-hewn churches in Lalibela before so we left the sightseeing to the others whilst we cleaned the Land Rover of the copious amounts of fine volcanic dust, and did a resupply. For those who have never experienced the joys of volcanic dust, it is hard to convey its penetrating properties: it gets everywhere, pours into the vehicle, and one can touch nothing without getting coated. It is also, of course, hard to remove. Food shopping in Lalibela is a challenge with a very limited stock in random kiosks; we did marvel how a 63 year old lady from Motherwell, Glasgow managed to run a bizarre space-ship lookalike hill-top restaurant with such a dearth of fresh meat and vegetables in the local area.

    At dawn the following day, we waved goodbye to the family who were flying back to Addis Ababa later that morning, and we and our friends drove off southwards. Again, the route we chose was off the beaten track; we wound our way up on to the Meket Plateau, down a precipitous narrow gravel road to a river, then up again and down again to the Black Nile (bet you have never heard of that Nile), and then up again to a small town called Tenta. From here we had a fine view of Magdala. For those not battlefield buffs, this was the scene of Lord Napier’s destruction of Emperor Theodore’s army and of Theodore’s suicide. Onward to Gimba where we joined a good new tar road which took us west to a place called Mekane Salem. The only problem was endless herds of sheep and cattle being driven down the road from market.

    At Mekane Salem we went into the park headquarters of a newly created national park; obviously no tourists have ever visited it and the HQ staff were totally nonplussed by our arrival, but they agreed that we could go up the mountain and camp there. Up on the mountain we were met by two rangers one of whom gave a splendid “Present Arms”. Neither spoke English and seemed surprised but agreeable to us camping. A ranger with some English who arrived later was not so amenable at first, insisting we needed a letter from the HQ. However, by this stage we had set up our tents and were starting to cook. The three rangers went into conference and our two original pals persuaded the English speaker that we should be allowed to camp; so No 3 ranger came round and explained to us that Ethiopia was a desperately poor country and clearly they were going to have to guard us overnight which might be worth some consideration. Message received and understood. We had a good but bitterly cold night and the stars were sensational.

    Early next morning, we packed up the frosty camp and set off down the mountain and headed west again on the new tar road (with very little traffic). This took us across the Blue Nile and around to join the old main road between Bahir Dar and Addis. This gravel road headed south until we met tar again and crossed back over the famed Blue Nile Gorge (our last sighting of the Blue Nile, and of any bit of the Nile until we meet the Victoria Nile at Jinja). Time was getting on and we sped down this good tar road to stay with a Dutch ex-colleague of Archie’s on a flower farm about 40 kms north of Addis; we arrived at the farm just before dusk after another 10-hour drive.

    The Dutch were wonderfully hospitable and in the morning showed us around the farm (hypericum and veronica) and estate – a lovely unspoilt corner of the country, complete with some indigenous bush, gorges and waterfalls, and a splendid old ruined farmhouse which once belonged to a British Colonel Sandford, who had been given the land by a grateful Haile Selassie for services rendered in the war (need to look this up – there is apparently a book called The Incurable Optimist about him). From there it was an easy one hour drive into Addis where we ensconced ourselves at an odd little establishment called Wim’s Holland House which caters for overlanders. At this stage, you might be thinking that the Dutch appear to be a bit of a leitmotif of this trip: we agree. Not sure how many Dutch there are left in the Netherlands – they seem to be everywhere in Ethiopia.

    That evening, we bade farewell to Archie and Muriel who headed back to the Scottish winter. We are now on our own again and have spent the last two days cleaning (yes – more dust) and giving the Land Rover a full service. We are catching up on the blog and other internet matters, and plan to resupply and have haircuts before heading off for Awash, Harar and points south on Wednesday 4 December. We are not sure when blogging will next be possible – perhaps not until Nairobi. Until then…

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Off to Harar
    Ethiopia, 4-6 December 2013

    We got away from Addis Ababa as planned on 4 December on what must be the busiest road in Ethiopia. This is the main road to Djibouti, and is Ethiopia’s lifeline to the world, so unsurprisingly it was crammed with trucks. So it was with relief that we turned into Awash National Park for a night’s camping by the river there. As we trundled into the park, it became clear that not all was well with the Land Rover, with a suspicious clanking noise coming from the left rear wheel. We managed to trace this to a shock absorber mounting, which had lost a nut and bolt and was hanging loose. We tightened up the remaining two nuts and bolts in the camp-site, and that seemed to provide a short-term fix. We took the repair for a short game drive to the impressive Awash falls, a couple of kilometres down-river, and for a circuit on the plains (oryx and kudu). The campsites there are well beset with vervet monkeys and baboons so, when a ranger appeared assuring us that we had to hire him as a guard for the night, we did not demur. Belai was a nice chap, with good English, and found the Land Rover set up “unbelievable”. We found the price he quoted for his services equally unbelievable, and we agreed to allow the Park HQ to adjudicate in the morning, which they did to our mutual dissatisfaction.

    Thereupon we headed for Harar, via a short stop in the town of Awash to buy a replacement bolt and nut. The road to Harar was enchanting, winding up and along a ridge, with great views down and across the Afar. The area was quite different from the highlands we had experienced before: fertile rolling hills, with a lot of indigenous trees, and many fields of Khat (the mild narcotic beloved by the Somalis also known as miraa). In Harar, our hotel of choice was fully booked, and we ended up in the Rewda Hotel, basic but adequate, and set out for an initial recce. Harar is rather more sophisticated than we had expected, with an extensive and reasonably gracious new town outside the old city walls, with some fine boulevards and Italian administrative buildings.

    The following day, we actually took a local guide, Binyamin, to show us the town properly. This was very satisfying, and Binyamin proved intelligent and knowledgeable. The old city is still a functioning and lively place, with streams of people and endless little shops tucked into a maze of tiny alleys. By the gates sat masses of women from the countryside selling their produce. Just outside the walls was an extensive market with sections specialising in different areas: machinery, spices, clothing, cereals, etc. I was salivating in the machinery section – a good mechanic could probably settle in there and build a car from scratch.

    That evening, we watched one of Harar’s better known sights: feeding the hyenas. This is rather surreal to those who have come across these creatures before. Although they live wild in the woods and fields around the town, Harar’s hyenas appear to be half tame, and a chap brings bones and meat scraps out for them each evening as they gather outside the old walls. The hyenas happily take the scraps from his hands, even climbing on the backs of some brave volunteers (not us) in order to get a scrap held deliberately high. Although the practice of feeding them like this has only been running for about 50 years, the relationship with the hyenas is more historic. The walls have ‘hyena gates’ about 2-3 feet high in them at intervals, and the hyenas are seen as performing a valuable cleaning service as they scavenge the streets. People meet them quite happily when roaming around at night, and we are assured there has never been an incident.

    After our hyena experience and a quick bite, we managed to meet up with Mark Chapman, who had organised much of our earlier trip with the family in Ethiopia, and was the founder of TESFA, which had given us such a memorable trekking trip on the Mekat Plateau seven years previously. He had just completed what sounded like a great road trip with his father (who was out on a visit), and was able to give us some great tips on routes and stopping places for the next stage of our journey.

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    Into White Space
    Ethiopia, 7-10 December 2013

    After a fascinating two nights in Harar, we set track for Kenya. Of course, we again took the roads less travelled – but in this case, the first two days’ drive was driving into the complete unknown either on a map or on the GPS. In fact, our GPS registered complete white space. We wound back along the ridge from Harar and then before the road dropped into the Rift Valley, we turned south on to a gravel road and descended into the Oromo heartlands.

    One of the most notable features of this area was the very genuine friendliness of the people, without the slightly predatory air of many of those in areas more frequented by tourists (particularly the children). We stopped for a delicious lunch at a little butchers cum bar/restaurant recommended by Mark, and then headed off across increasingly arid areas of thorn scrub. Soon we came to some gorges, and returned to the melodramatic scenery we had seen in the North. At the bottom of the second gorge, Mark had recommended a wild camp site, and this proved to be a corker: acres of level grass in a scattered acacia grove strung along the banks of a clear river. We bathed, we had a fire and we entertained some local cattle herders who were securing their herd overnight there.

    The following morning we climbed out of the gorge, across another and then slowly wound our way up towards the Bale Mountains. Again, the landscape changed entirely, with a few miles of lovely indigenous forest reserve (complete with Turacos) before popping out onto a broad highland plateau. Here the locals, particularly the women, were clad in the most brilliant, vivid and potentially clashing colours. With the clear highland air, green fields, blue skies and the colourful people on horses and horse carts, it was an enchanting drive (despite the rough gravel road) with tantalising glimpses of the sheer drop off the plateau. From an altitude of under 1,000 metres at our previous night’s camp spot with the cattle herders, we eventually climbed to over 3,600 metres in the Bale Mountains. Here we were back in the afro-montane belt with giant heathers, moorland and craggy mountain tops. We had originally intended on spending a night or two in the Bale Mountains, but scrapped that plan; we were conscious that time was getting on and there was still a long way to go to Nairobi and Christmas was a-coming. With a new tar road through the Bale Mountains, we did “speed tourism” and vowed to come back to explore these remote mountains on another visit. We had, after all, done a lot of camping at high altitudes in the frost in the Simiens.

    From the Bale Mountains, we sped back down into the Rift Valley to a dusty eccentric town called Shashemene and arrived after another 10-hour drive. Shashemene is home to a Rastafarian community. Apparently, a slightly embarrassed Haile Selassie gave some land to some Jamaican Rastas in 1970 and some of the descendants still live there. We camped in a Rastafarian commune/smallholding, which was rather bizarre considering the previous night we camped with cattle herders. The commune was run by a white French lady and her slightly younger black French speaking Rasta; they had a white girl of about 14 and a mixed-race boy of about 8. What a peculiar life. Having driven for 10 hours, we decided to have a meal at the commune which had a reasonably extensive menu – after all, she was French and they do know a thing or two about food. However, the power (and water) had gone out and, I am sorry to say, it was the worst meal we have had on the whole trip – cold spaghetti surrounded by a few tepid vegetables.

    Early the next morning, we escaped from the Rasta commune and headed to Arba Minch. This was potentially (and turned out to be in practice) the last place to get fuel (and cash) for over 1,000kms. So, we stocked up with fuel, money and some basic supplies, and had lunch overlooking Lake Abaya. A further two hours’ drive took us to Konso where we had been recommended a campsite charmingly called Strawberry Fields. The camping on offer, however, was in a small carpark. The place was run by a rather sad case from Wandsworth, who, clearly full of ideals, had set it up as a centre for sustainable farming seven years previously. By now, he sounds like an old colonial, rather bitter about the locals and their technological inability and disinterest. His Ethiopian wife is living 100 miles away with her tribe, and he is muttering about selling up. Oh dear, we both felt that Wandsworth was beckoning…

    The next day we headed into the Omo Valley, another utterly different part of Ethiopia, with a variety of different tribes. It has become a bit of a ‘human zoo’ for tourists, and we opted out of that aspect. But it was nice to see graceful bare-breasted ladies going about their business. It was exciting to leave the tarmac, knowing that we would not see it again until we got into Central Kenya. We stayed overnight in a lovely campsite at Turmi, locally owned and well run. We set up our tent overlooking the dry river bed in the shade of laden mango trees. We had a lovely afternoon in camp doing domestic stuff and watching the local children bathing in a waterhole in the riverbed, and wondering how long the bureaucracy was going to take us the next day when we crossed the border into Kenya.

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Thanks so much. Just important to have them on record and accessible. This forum has become such an important resource on self-drive travel in the whole of Africa, not just the southern bits. I see the 4x4community being referred to on so many other internet sites, Facebook etc by those still traveling deeply in Africa.
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    “Great journeys are memorable not so much for what you saw, but for where you camped”.

    At least "Once a year go someplace you have never been before" Delai Lama.

    Trans East Africa 2015/2016 Trip report http://www.4x4community.co.za/forum/...e16?highlight= from post 315.

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Thank you, Stan, but everyone must remember that things change. This is what we did in November 2013. We also had good contacts in Ethiopia who gave us off-the-beaten-track routes and advice. The route from Lalibela to Mekane Salem was not on T4A or any other dataset, but we have put it on T4A. The route from Mekane Salem west to join the Bahir Dar-Addis road had only recently been possible as a new bridge was being built over the Blue Nile. Mark Chapman gave us written notes on this route. It was a great adventure.

    The route from near Harar through Oromia was not on T4A, but we have put it on. It was another great adventure, but is very much off-the-beaten-track and far from help.

    People should travel Africa informed and not just blindly put in a destination in their GPS and follow the computer. Paper maps are essential too for seeing the art of the possible, although many maps, particularly in Ethiopia, are not infallible and with many fictional roads marked.

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Out of interest, what would the approximate cost be for such a trip?
    Thanks for the write-up (or copy\paste) !!

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Quote Originally Posted by Rustie View Post
    Out of interest, what would the approximate cost be for such a trip?
    Thanks for the write-up (or copy\paste) !!
    Well, Rustie, it depends on whether you cost in:

    • The vehicle
    • Kitting out the vehicle
    • Camping gear
    • Spare parts and tools
    • Carnet de Passage for the vehicle
    • Visas
    • Fuel
    • etc etc etc


    All of which are only a few of the large costs involved.

    Do you mean what were the costs in Ethiopia discounting our set-up costs for doing the whole overland trip?

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Are you referring to the costs for a self-drive trip through Africa via the eastern route?

    It depends greatly on what your priorities are. Visiting and camping in the reserves and national parks add to the cost as do any luxury breaks in more upmarket accommodation. Not included in my estimate are unexpected major vehicle repairs. I think a fair estimate is somewhere between US$ 50- 100 per day for two people.

    The costs for camping are somewhere between US$ 10- 20 per person per day.
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    Trans East Africa 2015/2016 Trip report http://www.4x4community.co.za/forum/...e16?highlight= from post 315.

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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Quote Originally Posted by Stan Weakley View Post
    Are you referring to the costs for a self-drive trip through Africa via the eastern route?

    It depends greatly on what your priorities are. Visiting and camping in the reserves and national parks add to the cost as do any luxury breaks in more upmarket accommodation. Not included in my estimate are unexpected major vehicle repairs. I think a fair estimate is somewhere between US$ 50- 100 per day for two people.

    The costs for camping are somewhere between US$ 10- 20 per person per day.
    We spent USD68 per day for 2.5 people (me, my wife and 5 y/o daughter over 7 months from JHB-Axum and back. This excluded equipping costs (vehicle, equipment, visas) but included insurance, travel insurance, meds etc. This would have been higher if we'd done more East Africa National Parks (with a 5 yo we limited this) but we did splurge on $50 hotels in places like Zanzibar, Mombasa, and when we were sick. We traveled for a bit with some German friends who managed a $20 pd budget, but they were in a fancy camper-truck and completely secure and self-contained even in cities. Also they had Teutonic discipline. We didn't ;-)

    Ethiopia itself was probably one of the cheaper countries ( i didn't calculate per country), although a little less camping and more (cheap) hotels.

    That number includes vehicle fixes (services, shocks, shocks, shock housings and did I mentions shocks), but like Stan, not catastrophic problems (gearbox, transfer boxes resulting in a terrifying 3000km through Mozambique on trailer towed by a 10t truck co-driving through many nights,...)
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    Default Re: Ethiopia: Excerpts from our blog November 2013

    Thank you, Matthew, for responding to Rustie's post. It is useful for others on this forum.

    It would be lovely if you could help on questions on the Horn of Africa. We too did the route from Yabello to the Bale Mountains in January this year which I know you drove on your trip. What an adventure it was and such an interesting route. I posted a trip report on the forum which you may not have seen.

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