It would be completely wrong for me to claim that I am no stranger to danger. I’ve not really been in particularly dangerous situations. Perhaps the most dangerous was trying to cross the main road in Cairo to get to the train station, which took Lindsey and I twenty minutes and a lot of running and dodging.
I once got on a bus going overnight to Sa Phan Sarasin. Before we set off from the bus station, some official came on board and photographed each passenger in turn, and then got off. I pondered this for a long time, but couldn’t figure out the reason. In the middle of the night the bus stopped at a cafe somewhere in the jungle and I got speaking to another passenger. “Why do you think they took our photos?” I asked. I was told that there had recently been terrorist attacks on our route, so the bus company was required to photograph everyone travelling south so that, in the event of an ‘event’, they would know who had been abducted/whatever. My bus trip was uneventful.
A few years later I was on another bus, going north from Malindi to Lamu, which had two armed guards on it, as defense against the Somali shifta. They soon fell asleep, which I took as a good sign. I reckon that nowadays, as the situation has worsened in that area, they would stay awake. I was more concerned at the time about the report that a lion had been seen swimming to Lamu Island, but we didn’t see it.
Talking about lions, we’ve heard them roar near our tent, and we’ve had to walk back from the bar at Hwange to our tent across the patch of ground where we saw four of them earlier, and we’ve had a hyena sniff round our tent in Amboseli, and an elephant feed from the branches above our tent (twice, once in Luangwa and once at Oddballs Camp in the Okavango), but nothing too serious or anything resulting in any damage.
We had an armed guard on the train going south from Wadi Halfa, but I’m not sure why.
The biggest security I’ve ever seen was more recently, in Colombo, a couple of months after the double-suicide air attack on the city. The security was oppressive. We were stopped and checked several times, there were soldiers everywhere and various barricades. But there was no trouble.
I’ve been told, in no uncertain terms, not to step outside the hotel grounds in Johannesburg that I was staying in at the time. And I didn’t. Driving around Joburg was fine, though.
I was attacked, once, in the toilets of the bus station in downtown LA, in the days when it was a violent area. My assailant was in poor shape, and I went for him with fists raised when he wasn’t expecting it, and he then backed off.
On a trip from Essaouira to Marrakesh which was stopped at a roadblock, Lindsey and I were ushered off the bus by two policemen and told to stand by the side of the road in the heat, whilst the rest of the passengers looked down from the bus windows. Nothing happened. After checking our passports the police eventually told us to get back on board.
I’ve been walking in downtown Chicago at night, but nothing happened. I didn’t even hear a single police siren.
We were burgled in Kalimbuka, one night, when we were in bed. Thank goodness I didn’t hear them at it.
All of the above incidents have happened when I’ve been on holiday, or working, abroad.
Oh, nearer to home I was on the scene during the Black Eck situation, and had a narrow escape from the Cromdale Mob, but both times got off unscathed. I was once walking along Warrender Park Terrace late at night and saw two thugs beating up a chap further up the road. They left off kicking him when they saw me, and I heard one of them say “Let’s get this one, now.” But I ducked down the steps to number 10A where I was staying at the time, before they got to me.
And that’s about it, sum total of dangerous or potentially dangerous situations that I can think of, in 65 years. In fact, I reckon that I’ve lived a pretty charmed life, with few dangers, so far. Many, many people have fared a lot worse.
I’ve thought of a few more. I was in a car accident in 1968, when Jimmy was driving myself, Fats Vernal and Ian Mac to Leicester overnight to see some girls. About forty miles out of Newcastle we came to a turn in the road and, Vernal, who was navigating, said “Jimmy, take the left…no, I mean the right!”. Jimmy swerved to the right, the car skidded and did a 180 and ended up against the wall by the side of the road. Not a great deal of damage except to one wheel, but the motor wouldn’t restart. During the 180 Skid I remember taking my specs off in case we turned over.
And once, when Lindsey and I were in Paris before we got married, we walked down a street and heard a bomb go off half a mile away. It exploded on the road we’d walked along, twenty minutes previously.
But the above doesn’t amount to much. Think about how much danger someone living in, say, Aleppo just now, faces every day. During WWII every now and then my Mum did fire duty for the bank she worked at. This involved sleeping on the roof of the bank, watching the German bombers go over to Coventry, and keeping an eye out in case one of them went off course and dropped bombs on Newark. My Dad was meantime fighting in France, until he turned a corner and realised he was facing a German tank.
Of course, nowadays there are armed guards even at Edinburgh Airport.
Even though there are various ongoing conflicts in the world, the vast majority of us, nowadays, lead mostly calm and peaceful lives.
So I sat up and paid attention when I saw the following, in the knowledge that Lindsey and I are soon to travel to the destination in question:
EXTREMELY IMPORTANT WARNING TO ALL FOREIGNERS
The entire Oromia region is engulfed with uprising. We anticipate the
situation to further intensify in the coming hours and days. We
strongly advise you NOT to travel at all. We have credible information
local government officials uprooted from villages and town are ordered
to target foreigners
Hmm. That post was on Facebook. You can’t believe everything you read on Facebook, of course. But it does sort of grab your attention.
There is currently unrest in some parts of Ethiopia. Ethiopia has a history of conflict between various groups, but has been peaceful for a few years. Recently there have been protests in the Oromia region which surrounds the capital Addis Ababa, and there have also been some issues in the Amhara province.
So I dug deeper to find out the present situation.
Where do you go, nowadays, for up-to-the-minute accurate travel information about potentially dangerous destinations? I’m supposed to be an ex-information professional, so I should know, right?
The most obvious place is the gov.uk Foreign travel advice: Ethiopia, which currently has a: Latest update:
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office now advise against all but essential travel to the East Shewa, West Shewa, North Shewa, Southwest Shewa, Arsi and West Arsi zones in Oromia region
And also: “There is a general threat from terrorism. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places visited by foreigners.” That site has an RSS feed, which is useful.
That was enough for me to contact the travel guiding service I’ve been dealing with in Addis, to tell them that we now intend to fly from Addis to Arba Minch and then on to the Omo valley, where the security situation is OK. Ethiopia is a large country, some parts are completely without protests, and not going there would be similar to someone seeing problems in, say, Rome, and then saying that they did not want to go to London.
There are various subscription-based online security and safety travel services. Normally they are not aimed at individuals. Our son Jamie, based in Addis just now, seems to have occasional access to a couple of such services.
One of them recently reported: “In light of the violent events reported during the week and the general environment of unrest in the country, staff are strongly advised not to take any unnecessary risks by conducting private road travel from Addis to the Oromia region.”
And another reported: “Clients are advised against all non-essential travel to the Oromia region due to general insecurity, including an elevated threat of unrest.”
On previous travels in the past, we would have relied on word-of-mouth from other tourists. On our overland trip from Cairo to Malawi in late ’82 we had intended to go south from Khartoum to Juba, but bumped into a couple who had tried to do exactly that, and had been turned back and told that their travel permit was no longer valid due to renewed fighting in the south of the country. So we didn’t bother even trying, and flew to Nairobi instead.
In those days, the noticeboard at the Thorn Tree Café in Nairobi was a good source of first-hand travel information. Nowadays it has been replaced by the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree online forums.
I’ve been posting to the Thorn Tree Ethiopia forum recently to try to get information from other travellers, and there have been several responses. The best ones are from people who have just returned from somewhere relevant.
TripAdvisor has similar information, which I’ve been monitoring. The Ethiopia Travel Forum contains reports from folk on the ground, plus people wanting to know about the current situaion. TripAdvisor travel forums are busier than the Thorn Tree forums, but one thing I’ve noticed is that guides and travel services also often post there, and the guides, especially, tend to post that most things are safe. I’m not sure whether their reports can be completely trusted.
On Twitter there is a lot of information, but one issue is that there are variations on spelling town names in Ethiopia, so it can take a lot of time checking them all out. Sometimes the tweets can be disturbing, e.g.
Oct 4 Confirmed:- Heavy gunfire in #BahirDar Kebele 16 aka
Tana Kebele. #AmharaProtests #Ethiopia
There is no way of knowing whether this sort of thing is accurate, and it does seem to disagree with most other bits of information. BahirDar is on our list of destinations in two weeks time, and someone else has just posted on the Thorn Tree that it was completely peaceful yesterday. If we decide to go there, we will fly rather than the original plan which was to go by road.
Most tweets seem to repost the same few photos of protests. Instagram is similar in that way.
One thing which is making things difficult to keep up-to-date is that the Internet frequently goes down in Addis and elsewhere – probably because the government tries to stop reports from getting out.
The latest news is that a state of emergency has been declared in Ethiopia. Someone in the Oromia opposition said, “These are peaceful protesters who have been demanding that soldiers are pulled out. This could intensify anger”
So, we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, it is very reassuring to occasionally hear from Jamie, who says everything is quiet in Addis.