It is a long way from the tranquil rolling hills of Kergunyah to isolated tribal villages in Ethiopia where few white people venture.
But Jan and Rod Waddington love getting off the beaten tourist track.
The intrepid travellers, who close the doors of their popular country restaurant Waddingtons in August most years, enjoy heading to global hotspots that often make headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Their passion to venture to these edgy destinations that you won’t find in mainstream travel brochures, dates back to 1972, when they first loaded their backpacks and headed to South America and Morocco, well before the tourist hoards arrived.
“We have always loved travelling to different countries and have a fascination for other cultures and it’s exciting to head off where you rarely see another tourist,” Rod says.
Although adventurous, with a love of what Rod describes as “adrenalin-inducing” travel, they are extremely careful and don’t take unnecessary risks.
The couple have visited many countries, including Afghanistan twice, and spent their holidays over the past three years exploring Ethiopia, which is a country they have fallen in love with.
Rod admits there have been several unnerving moments, but it’s all been worth it.
“Most people associate Ethiopia with the famine and unrest but it is an amazing country and the people are just so friendly,” Jan says.
Ethiopia, located on the horn of Africa, is the most populous landlocked country in the world with more than 80 ethnic groups.
With a population of more than 91 million people, it is the second most populated nation on the African continent.
“We have made lots of friends in Ethiopia and are welcomed into their simple homes and sleep on rugs on the floor,” Jan says.
“It is so extremely different to what we are used to and that’s what we like about our holidays.”
It’s the sense of freedom and the change from the mundane that’s so appealing, according to Jan.
“We lead such a regimented life back here with our restaurant business it’s so nice to get away from it all,” she says.
Jan and Rod spent two months in Ethiopia last year and hired an armed guide and a driver before setting off in a 4WD to explore the south.
“We did get close to the border and at one stage we were about 20 kilometres from the war zone in South Sudan — we saw one white woman who said ‘what are you doing here don’t you know there’s a war on’,” Rod says.
“We didn’t purposely get that close to the war zone but a river had flooded and there were no bridges so we had to go the long way around.”
The area known as Bandit Road is between Dimma and Tulgit and is 65 kilometres of dirt road.
Little did Rod and Jan know that a few days before two Ethiopians whose vehicle got bogged had been shot and their bodies thrown into the river.
“We got bogged in the same spot and knew nothing about what had happened but the army turned up and protected us and we ended up camping in the police compound for the night,” Jan says.
Jan says their family is used to them heading off and know they are confident travellers.
“You have to be able to handle tricky situations and accept the way of other cultures,” Rod says.
“Once a man did something seriously wrong and was whipped for an hour and we had to listen to his wailing, but that’s just their way of life and part of frontier justice,” he says.
“It’s not like going to Europe for a holiday, there’s a lot to think about.”
On their first night at Tulgit there was a gun fight with machine guns going off but the couple took it in their stride.
Jan who grew up on the historic Kergunyah cattle property that has been in the family for 140 years, says travelling is inherent in her family and rubbed off on her.
While Rod, who grew up in Lavington, couldn’t wait to pack his bags and head off.
The couple also travelled extensively when their children, Aysha, Rhy, Lael and Eamon were growing up.
“We even named Aysha after a young girl in Morocco we met carrying water,” Jan says.
“It was easy travelling with three children but four was a bit harder, still we went all over the US and Scandinavia when they were young.”
Photography is Rod’s great love and his passion is snapping portraits whenever someone catches his eye.
He got his first SLR camera in 1976 and hasn’t stopped taking photographs since.
Many of his poignant photographs have ended up in Lonely Planet guide books and he has won Yahoo Travel photo of the day several times.
His beautiful images capture tribal members going about their every day life and reflect the harsh landscape they live in.
“I love capturing portraits of different tribes and they are usually keen to have their photos taken after you start talking to them and they see you are genuinely interested in their culture,” Rod says.
His huge portfolio of photographs include the ritual of scarification which is done with razor blades and dirt to form lumps which they consider to be of beauty.
The varied landscape from desert plains to grasslands are also well documented in Rod’s photos.
Communication is not difficult with many of the tribes speaking English and both Jan and Rod are good with languages.
One thing the Waddingtons are reluctant to do is provide direct financial aid as they have seen where much of the funds end up and often that’s not with those who need it.
They prefer to finance small projects to help the people they befriend.
“Last trip we helped two people set up businesses which helps their families and communities,” Jan says.
The projects include establishing a juice bar in Tigray and buying a van to take tours in the Omo Valley.
“We would much rather do small projects like that to help than donate money to charities,” Rod says.
Jan says she doesn’t miss the comforts of home when she is away but insists on a very thick mattress when they camp.
Stock cubes and a few cooking products are brought from home to spice up the meals she cooks along the way.
They travel lightly with a backpack each with three pairs of pants, four T-shirts, underwear, socks, shoes and a coat.
“Our luggage is often just 20 kilograms between us which is mainly clothes to give away to people we meet,” says Jan.
The couple hope to introduce others to the historical circuit of Ethiopia next year and plan to organise a small tour group.
So how do they settle down when they return home?
“We find it very difficult but we both get out into the garden and keep busy,” Rod says.
“When we do feel bored we just think back to life in Ethiopia sleeping in a little rock house on a raised platform and being woken by a donkey poking his head in the window,” Rod says.
“Life’s never boring over there, but we often think we have had more scary moments and brushes with our lives with cars on the Kiewa Valley Highway than our days in Ethiopia.
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