We had some reservations about going to Ethiopia, but various friends have been there recently, and had favourable reports, so we decided it was now or never, as we’re not getting any younger. We’ve booked two back to back trips with Intrepid Travel – one week in the less-visited Lower Omo Valley with its various ethnic groups, and twelve days in Northern Ethiopia. We have also booked a couple of nights before the tour, and a couple after.
When we told people we were going to Ethiopia they were worried if there would be enough food and would it be safe. The main thing people seem to know about Ethiopia is there was a famine, and the LiveAid concert was organized to raise funds for the starving. What they forget is that the concert was in 1985 – 34 years ago!!
We didn’t know much more either, so did a bit of research on its history, and particularly to see if it was safe to go there.
This is a brief summary of what we found –
Ethiopia had a population of 22.2 million in 1960, and its current population is about 110 million – definitely a serious problem if population continues to increase at this rate. It has more than eighty ethnic groups.
In 1930 Prince Ras Tafari (where the name Rastafarian comes from!) was crowned as Emperor Haile Selassie, and the Ethiopian state was unambiguously unified, but Italy invaded in 1935, and in 1936 Selassie fled the country. British Commonwealth and Ethiopian forces liberated it in 1941-2 and Haile Selassie reclaimed his throne, and the country modernized rapidly.
In 1962 Haile Selassie annexed Eritrea, which launched a bitter guerilla war, and in 1972-4 there was a bad famine which further increased resentment towards the Emperor, which resulted in Haile Selassie being deposed as emperor in September 1974, and the Derg (officially the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987) declared it a socialist state. The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front was founded, and it began a protracted rebellion against the military government. In 1977 Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam emerged as leader of the Derg, and he appealed to the Soviet Union and Cuba among others for aid. In 1984-5 there was the bad famine (probably made worse by the collectivization of agriculture). In 1991-93 the Derg are defeated by the rebel EPRDF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front), Mengistu is deposed, the experiment with communism ends, and Meles Zenawi becomes prime minister and establishes stability and achieves considerable economic progress in his 19-year authoritarian rule. In 1993 Eritrea gets its long-sought independence, and things are excellent between the two neighbours, but things sour and they go to war between 1998 and 2000.
In 2006 Ethiopia invades Somalia in order to dislodge the Islamic Courts Union and becomes embroiled in a guerrilla war until it finally pulls out in 2009.
In 2012 Prime Minister Meles Zenawi dies and is succeeded by Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. This rough outline leaves out LOTS of tensions, disputed polls, and violent protests, including the Government declaring a state of emergency in 2016 following months of violent anti-government protests.
In February 2018, as anti-government protests continued, Prime Minister Desalegn resigned (maybe coerced to resign?) and Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo became prime minister, and launched a comprehensive programme of political reform at home and diplomatic bridge-building abroad. He released thousands of political prisoners and lifted the state of emergency. Parliament elected Sahle-Work Zewde as Ethiopia’s first woman president.
In September 2018 the Ethiopian-Eritrea border was opened for the first time in 20 years.
So far Abiy has done lots of good things, and the majority of people are happy with him, but the real test will be the 2020 elections. We decided it is a good time to visit while everything is relatively stable.
A$1 = 20 Ethiopian Birr
We arrive at Addis Ababa Bole airport at 12.40pm local time. The airport looks pretty ordinary, with a motley collection of parked planes including some old DC3’s which we hope have been retired from domestic service. There is an air bridge, and we are quickly past the infra-red camera health check. Find that in the arrivals hall there is a big lineup at the Visa-on-arrival section, which we don’t need as we’ve paid A$73 each to get them in advance so we don’t have this problem, so we’re put in the diplomatic line together with other Faringhi and a friendly, well-travelled elderly local. In spite of the line being short, the visa-on-arrivals are quickly processed, and get through about the same time as us.
Through customs, we are considering our options in a pretty deserted arrivals area, but are accosted by a man who directs us to the Global Hotel kiosk, where we are asked to wait for them to call in a shuttle. We were not expecting one, but cop it sweet, because, even if we do have to pay, at least we are sure the driver knows our destination. It takes forever, but we are directed out the front and down a driveway to the transport area, where we can see an ageing blue Toyota Coaster bus arriving. We lug our bags aboard and start a long trip to the hotel (though it is actually only 6kms) possibly made worse by road works, and get a cooks tour of the outer city before arriving at the hotel.
We were given the Global Hotel as the starting point for the Intrepid tour, so we booked it although we weren’t impressed with its position, or reviews. Turns out we weren’t the only ones, as the starting point for the tour has been changed, but we can’t change our booking as we booked with airline points (10,700 points per night).
The hotel is about seven stories, with a wide podium and terrace on the second floor. It has a certain amount of faded glory about it. We are welcomed and allowed to go straight to our room, which is always nice. The room is virtually a suite, with a large foyer, separate bathroom and a main bedroom twice the size of our Singapore room. The décor is definitely well-worn, and the lighting is very dim, but is generally OK.
After settling in, organizing internet, taking photos from our balcony of a very ordinary streetscape, and trying to sort out the safe with a backwards and forwards combination dial safe, similar to a locker padlock, and getting it to lock once, but never open again, we abandon the idea of using this safe, and head downstairs to use their downstairs safe.
We find the dining room, with a buffet we don’t really want, and very few other options, so end up with a plate of chips, with a beer and a glass of wine so ordinary that when Dianne sits down on the large table cloth and spills the wine, we aren’t too upset.
There is a double tram line down the main street across from the hotel, with a safety fence and no way to get across to the small shop on the far side. The tram system doesn’t feature on either the paper or electronic Lonely Planet (it was opened in September 2015 which gives you an idea of how up-to-date the latest Lonely Planet is!), so we have trouble finding out what we can and cannot do with it. Dianne fills in time by having a one-hour massage in the hotel, which was excellent, especially considering it was only A$12. With nothing to do and nowhere to go and pretty poor internet, we call it an early night in our large room, which is pretty quiet apart from the occasional dog chorus.
Monday 21 January 2019 Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
After an “interesting” breakfast with a combination of western basics and local cuisine, we take additional photos of the area, then head for what turns out to be the Temenja Yazh light rail station, a couple of hundred metres towards the town centre. After reading what information is available at the station (more like a tram-stop), and talking to two armed security men, we decide to give it a go, and cross back over the busy street to find a hole-in-the-wall ticket office, and buy tickets to Menelik Square the end station on Line 2 (there are two lines) where we hope to find the most interesting St George’s Orthodox Cathedral. (They seem to have a thing about dragons here, and the good Saint is a regular in the icon paintings).
Back on the platform, our bags are searched, and our water is confiscated. They are very aware of security, possibly from having Somalia one side, Sudan the other, and having just opened the border to Eritrea after a long war and uneasy peace. The fares are very cheap (4 birr or 20c each) and the service is well-patronised, to the extent of being packed cheek-by jowl with a wide selection of Addis residents, but no other tourists.
We have interesting conversations with the locals, quite a few of whom speak English. This modern, sparkling clean metro, which is the first light rail system in sub-Saharan Africa is in sharp contrast to everything else around here, which looks pretty jaded. We’re told the Chinese built it, and supplied most of the money by way of a loan, but, like a lot of other third-world countries we’ve visited where the Chinese have built infrastructure, the locals are not happy. They tell us that the Chinese come in, don’t mix with the locals, and use their own workers, and don’t teach the locals how to do anything, with the result that when it breaks down, someone has to come from China to fix it. They tell us that when the Europeans do something they treat them as friends, and are more collaborative and teach them how to do things.
We’ve heard this story before, and the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka we saw immediately springs to mind. Sri Lanka borrowed lots of money from China to have them build this port, though feasibility studies said it wouldn’t work. Sri Lanka couldn’t repay the loans, with the result that China now owns the Port. Anyone interested in reading more about this subject, a very interesting book we recently read is “The New Silk Roads – The present and future of the World” by Peter Frankopan.
The locals are friendly and helpful, but for some reason they think we need to change to the second line where the two meet, but we hang tough and stand all the way to the underground terminus station near St George Cathedral.
Exiting the station, we find ourselves at a large and busy roundabout, which is close to the major roundabout at St George, but maps.me gives no indication on which way to go, so we have to do the experimental walk until the programme can show us if we are going the right way. (This is a major bone of contention with Murray, as he is of the opinion that the map should be able to orient itself to the local geography, and this situation remains unsolved during the entire trip.)
With the direction sorted, we find the next roundabout, with an equestrian statue of a local hero, and the cathedral on a knoll above it. Traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, is pretty chaotic, but we reach the moral high-ground intact.
The Cathedral is a typical masonry octagonal structure, of three stories, including a domed cupola, set in spacious grounds with large eucalyptus trees around the perimeter. The church, completed in 1911, was built to celebrate Emperor Menelik II’s defeat of the Italians in 1896. Before we can take photos we are pinged by a guard, and told we have to pay a pretty steep entry fee of 100 birr to the church and associated museum if we want to take photos. We decide against paying at first, then relent to pay for entry, but no guide, and are allowed inside with our shoes off.
The church is a good introduction to Ethiopian Orthodox, with the outer walls of the octagonal holy-of-holies covered in frescoes, paintings and mosaics of religious subjects by the famous, and colourful, Afewerk Tekle. The sky-blue ceiling above has gilded stars. There are stained glass windows of intricate design, but not particularly beautiful.
From the church we take exterior photos of the church, the grounds and the museum and proceed to the museum, which is in a beautiful small stone building, and has a lot of interesting photos and artifacts, but suffers from a lack of electricity, something we find is common with Addis museums, and we have to use our iphone torch to see the exhibits.
At the church, we are on one of the highest parts of the city, and figure it is all downhill from here and can walk to our next objective, the National Museum, which is not all that far on the map. However we are yet to learn a lot about Ethiopia topography, as there is a deep ravine separating us from the museum. We follow maps.me downhill on a narrow, but well-populated road which takes us to the main road which skirts around the end of the ravine, then up a long series of wide stairways which are a sort of shortcut to the museum. The steps are a trial in the heat and high altitude of Addis (2,300 metres), but we take it easy, and make it to the top. It is becoming obvious that the route guide algorithm of maps.me does not take into account elevation, security and assault on the sense of smell, as the stairway seems to double as a public toilet. It also doesn’t sort out the entrance for notable sites, as the museum doesn’t look all that impressive from the street, until we realise we are entering the back of the museum, and have to be directed by a staff member to the front. It has taken 45 minutes, with numerous drink breaks and rests to reach the National Museum.
After St George, the 10 birr fee seems to be money well spent, and we have a good look over the ground floor and basement, which has as a main feature the re-assembled skeleton of Lucy, from plaster casts of the real bones, and fill-in pieces in a different colour. There is a prone and a standing exhibit, and the standing exhibit in particular shows how little they had to go on (40% intact) and how much imagination has been used. Lucy was found in 1974 at Hadar, in Eastern Ethiopia and dated to 3.2million years ago, and is classified as Australopithecus afarensis and suggests (by having long arms, short legs, and apelike chest and jaw, and a small brain but a relatively humanlike pelvis) that bipedal locomotion preceded the development of a larger (more humanlike) brain in hominin evolution. Lucy stood about 3 foot 7 inches (109cm) tall and weighed about 27kg.
The basement, with Lucy and other anthropological exhibits is the highlight (in spite of the poor lighting), but the other exhibits of historic artifacts and artwork, and the massive carved wooden throne of Haile Selassie are interesting. A lot of the museum is closed because of no electricity. We are getting somewhat peckish by now, and believe there is a café on the site, so we look around and find a very ordinary narrow door leading to the Lucy Restaurant.
Once inside we are impressed by the elegance of the indoor-outdoor restaurant (realizing we’ve once again entered by a back door) and settle in for a good meal of pizza and tasty three-coloured fruit juice drinks, with layers of papaya, avocado and strawberry. While we are waiting, Murray takes photos of the restaurant, gardens and an interesting red finch-like bird.
Having been turned and disoriented by our back-door entry to the National Museum, we are standing at a street map just outside when we are accosted by a “student” who wants to help, and to have a conversation with us in English. We are aware of the problems of such meetings being turned into guiding contracts, and are guarded in our responses. He walks and talks with us while we are sorting out our route, indicates an interesting church nearby, shows us onto the grounds, and suggests we make a visit. We resist, take a couple of photos, and carry on, having determined our route back to home. The conversation turns more and more towards our guide and his problems, and becomes quite boring, and we have to be quite firm in explaining that we do not want a guide, will not pay for one, and wish him to desist, which he eventually does.
We walk downhill on the wide, multi-lane King George VI street, looking for the National Ethnological Museum, which we don’t find, though we end up in the University grounds at once stage (later find that it was further North, and we’d been going further South). Find ourselves in an army base before noticing the substantial Trinity Cathedral on the left, and even though we are pretty tired, walk uphill to have a look, find we have to pay 100 birr even to take photos from the outside, so give it a miss, having already taken a photo from a distance. Further down the hill, we do find a museum which we think might be the one we are looking for, but it looks closed, and we have had enough museums for the day (and we later find it was the wrong one anyway).
We continue on Niger Street, which curves around the west side of the grounds of the Menelik Imperial Palace, and down along Africa Park. With the elevated palace grounds, with watch towers on the left, and a wasteland on the right, we are feeling pretty exposed in this fairly deserted area. Later there is a fairly fancy hotel down to the right (later find it was the Sheraton), and then we pass, without realizing, the grounds of the National Palace and the Ghion Hotel (where we stay on our return). However there are no signs or buildings to help orientate us, just parkland. Our problem is we can’t make sense of our map. Later turns out we thought the Menelik Imperial Palace was the National Palace, which is on the other side of the road and down a bit, plus we thought Africa Park was a zoo, when in fact it was just some greenery along the side of the road. By now we are exhausted, but we keep going till we reach the enormous Jomo Kenyatta Road. Here we decide to head East, away from of where our Line 2 had taken a turn to the West, as we know we can catch the Line 1 metro at the St Estfanos stop, which is closer. We find the metro station, and, after Dianne walks up a long flight of steps, Murray finds a ticket office on the ground level. Here we encounter the classic Irish situation –“you can’t get to there from here”. They do not seem to follow the concept of going a couple of stops to transfer, and we are advised to walk to the next station, half a kilometer away through peak-hour traffic – exactly what we DON’T want to do. After an interesting encounter with traffic as we cross the busy road, we handle the ground level ticket-buying better and take the lift to the elevated station, to find the right platform to take us back to our hotel, without incident.
We have another ordinary evening meal at the hotel, as the hotel is situated nowhere near a restaurant district or anywhere to buy food. Dianne has another excellent A$12 one-hour massage. The hotel is better than we expected – just the normal faded glory place we’re used to, but the location is really bad with no facilities whatsoever in the immediate area for travelers, apart from the metro. We are both nursing the colds we have picked up – either on the aircraft, freezing in the airport at Dubai, or in Singapore.
Day 1 of tour Tuesday 22nd January 2019 Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
Have another adequate breakfast at the hotel. We organise a taxi to take us to our next hotel, the Sheger Royal Hotel, where the tour starts. The taxi takes a more direct route to our new hotel than we were expecting, on a new road still under construction which does not appear on our maps. Maps.me keeps us informed that we are heading in the right direction, even though the final approach is along a very minor rough gravel/dirt street. The hotel is in a back street, but not far from a main road with restaurants, shops, ATMS, and all the things missing from around the Global Hotel. The hotel is quite new, and fairly Chinese-looking, with emphasis on large polished tiles in the foyer. We are allowed to check in immediately, and go up to a much more upmarket room than last night’s hotel. We have a newspaper in our room, in Chinese, which doesn’t surprise us.
After settling in, we head out on an expedition to go to the Ethnological Museum which we couldn’t find yesterday. We now know it is situated in the Addis Ababa University, so we set out walking North West on the main street, Ghana St. About a kilometre along we are hassled by some young kids trying to sell us tissues, and notice they have older youths following them (a known strategy for robbing tourists) so we figure either a scam or a mugging, so tell them to piss off in no uncertain terms, cross onto the more populated side of the street, and take delaying action to discourage them. This is successful, but we accumulate another would-be guide, who is helpful in keeping other urgers at bay, and in trying, without success, to buy gaffer tape from a variety of industrial suppliers. We tell him there is no way we need a guide, but he persists, and eventually we end up giving him some money to buy himself breakfast and leave us. In spite of some straight talk about not wanting or needing him, with him acting offended that we didn’t want his company even though he was now prepared to go with us for no extra money, eventually a stalemate was reached, and he continued with us, and did give us some useful advice, particularly when the wide straight street we are on scatters into minor streets.
We walk up a steep hill on the street of the computer and tech shops to join the ring road around the Menelik Imperial Palace, where we were yesterday. Our guide shows us a shortcut on the right edge of the palace compound where there is St Gbreale, another historic church, typically on its own little knoll. We take one photo, decline a visit to the interior, and continue on to a street which leads to the back of the Holy Trinity Cathedral and a shortcut through its grounds. We are able to pass through without getting pinged for admission, and find ourselves back on familiar ground at the roundabout on Niger Street.
At this stage, as we now know the Ethnological Museum is in the grounds of the Addis University, we are shepherded by our guide onto one of the minibuses which run up KGVI Street, and get to the university for a very reasonable price, and have an experience we wouldn’t have been game to try on our own as we didn’t know any of the routes.
At the entrance gate, we pay our 100 Birr each admission, while our guide manages to get in free. We are not sure if he really is a student here, as, although he knows some of the students hanging around, he seems to be on the outer. The grounds are spacious, and we walk from the main gate up a slope past the 13-step spiral staircase to heaven, placed by the Italians for the 13 year reign of Mussolini, but topped with a Lion of Judah Statue, symbol of Ethiopian monarchy, placed after the defeat of the Italians.
The main University building used to be the palace of Haile Selassie, and still has artifacts from his reign, including his bedroom, bathroom, and changing room on the first floor. The first floor also has windows giving enough light to allow visitors (once again there is no electricity working here) and has a good exhibition of the various cultures, particularly the southern primitive ones which we are about to visit. It also has a primitive toilet, used by us after the visit, and pretty dark. The ground floor is pretty dark, and we give it a miss.
Back out with our guide on the street, we contemplate using a taxi at great expense to get us back to the hotel, but our guide manages to get seats on one of the mostly full minibuses to take us back to the end of our main street. Unfortunately, this is the end of the route, and we have to pick up a taxi or another minibus to continue. There is a queue 100-metres long of commuters going home, so although now we’re hot and exhausted, we settle for the long one and a half kilometre walk, still accompanied by our guide. Back at the hotel, we settle up with him, and repair to our room to clean up for the 6pm meeting with our group and guide. As usual, this is counted as Day 1 of the tour, although it only starts at 6pm.
At the meeting we meet most of the group, with a few stragglers arriving late. There are twelve people (the maximum for an Intrepid trip). The youngest is Anthony (29) an American emergency doctor, Allie (38) an English lawyer, Mat & Francie (42) from Australia and Switzerland, then the older ones – David (62) from England, Jim (68) from California, Gwyneth (68) from Melbourne, John and Linda (both 68) from Canada, Suzanne (75) from Melbourne and Dianne (68) and Murray (76) from Sydney.
We are introduced to our guide, have drinks in the lobby, and end up all having dinner in the upstairs restaurant as it is easier than going out. After the dinner, a number of us go out to find an ATM, and we take out 8,000 Birr in two tranches (nearly A$400) , as there will be little access to cash in the South, then pack for an early morning trip to the Domestic Airport, and a flight to Arba Minch, some 500 km south of Addis.
Day 2 of Tour Wednesday 23rd January Addis Ababa-Arba Minch-Konso
We manage to have our first night when we sleep through without being awake from 4am, but we have an early start with a 6AM alarm. Have a reasonable breakfast, then off to catch a 9.30 plane at the domestic airport, which is right next to the new International Terminal. Security is reasonably tight, but we are allowed to keep our drinking water. The plane is a Bombardier turbo-prop, with no wing obstruction, but a good view of the port engine and propellor in most of the photos. The flight is reasonably smooth, and lower than the incoming Emirates flight, with correspondingly clearer views. We see intensive agriculture right up to the edges of the city, with small villages spaced at walking distance from the fields, and a number of shallow lakes and/or dams to the south of the city. Thirty minutes out, we see the first major changes in terrain away from the high plateau, and a major river with water in it leading to a large, brown lake. We follow the lake, flying over some large islands, all the way to the Arba Minch airport, right on the edge of the lake, surrounded by green grass and semi-tropical vegetation. The Ethiopian Rift Valley lakes occupy the floor of the rift valley between the two highlands. Most do not have an outlet, and most are alkaline, but support fish.
It is very hot and humid walking to the newish terminal, and through to the car park where a Toyota Coaster 20-seater bus is waiting. Arba Minch is at 1,285 metres altitude, about 1,000 metres lower than Addis, which helps explain the heat and humidity.
We’re now in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR). A lot of tourists to Ethiopia only go to the North, as the South is a lot more primitive, and unpredictable. A lot of the tribal people still live as they always have, in their villages, with the difference that they are now visited by quite a few tourists wanting to take photos. A culture of paying for these photos has developed, and some tourists think it has become a bit of a zoo, but nevertheless we decided to come and see for ourselves. This year Intrepid Travel have left out visiting the Mursi and Karo tribes (some of the most colourful) for this reason, and instead are going to the Ari and Daasanach tribes.
The Australian Government advisories said not to go to some areas near the border, and for other areas consider your need to travel. We looked closely at our itinerary, and we didn’t appear to go to those areas, though we did appear to go right up to them.
From the airport, we drive back north along the flood plain of the lake, through typical rural African scenery, with basic buildings of galvanized corrugated iron or wattle-and-daub housing which uses thin eucalypt saplings as the basic frame. Arba Minch is built on the side of a mountain, and we drive through the outskirts toward our first destination, a Dorze village high on the mountain top, reached by a rough and dusty winding road. There are good views back to the lake, but Murray is on the wrong side for most of the climb, and we don’t get many photos.
The Dorze village is quite traditional, with a high surrounding protective wall of basket weave split bamboo, and high houses with curved thatched walls of grey weathered palm leaves, which are meant to resemble elephants in colour and texture, and the impression is remarkable. The houses have twin vents over the entrance doors which resemble eyebrows, strikingly similar to the mammoths in the Ice Age films.
We go inside one of the houses to see how people live. One feature of the houses is portability. As the long, thin poles which form the curved framework eventually rot at ground level, they can be cut where there is firm timber and the whole thing can be picked up and carried to a new site if enough men get around it and lift. In the new position, the doorway can be cut higher if needed.
One of the staple foods for the Dorze is the false banana (Enset), which does not have fruit. It grows from suckers, and leaves can be harvested while the plant lives on. From the stem of leaves an edible pulp can be extracted with a special scraper. The pulp is fermented in the ground for three months. We are treated to a demonstration of scraping the leaves and making a large pancake (Kocho) out of the fermented pulp.
We are given a demonstration of spinning and are shown pottery and cloth items for sale, but there are few buyers.
They also made a powerful liquor called areke (which means liquor), and we gather in the communal area to force some of this down our necks and to have some of the pancake a woman has cooked while we watched. Some of the group front up for seconds.
Later we gather to watch cultural singing and dancing performance, with both men and women taking part, all fully clothed, some in traditional costume which includes leopard skins, some in western, probably second-hand, charity clothing.
On our return trip back down the mountain we note that the village, while a bit special, has houses which are quite similar to many in the villages along the road. However, the vast majority of houses are rectangular wattle-and-daub, with pitched galvanised iron roofs.
We return down the same road towards Arba Minch, getting better photos of villages, rock formations and the lake with the sun generally behind us. In the outskirts of Arba Minch, the photo record shows us driving past a tree full of marabou storks; past the lake; through villages with round, pointed roofs and rough barricades made of interwoven tree branches and trunks; African trees; trees with log or reed bee hives suspended in them; roadside crowds; reed stands in the lake shallows; cattle being watered in wide river beds with narrow streams of running water; square yellow plastic drums, possibly originally filled with something toxic lined up for filling by a well pump; other large groups of people filling the same yellow drums in a river bed; herds of cattle being driven home on dusty tracks in the late afternoon sun.
We finally arrive in Konso about 7PM, and make a steep climb to the fairly new and upmarket Konso Korebta Lodge, a sophisticated arrangement of circular stone buildings with steep thatched conical roofs. The larger main reception, bar and restaurant building has a terrace looking down over the city and valley beyond. The rooms are quite good, large (even when split in two with not a lot of separation between the bedrooms on opposite sides of a 4 metre stone wall), with a 6-metre conical roof above, and just a bamboo mat partition. As we both have colds and persistent coughs, this can’t be all that pleasant for the couple on the other side of the wall. The group is too tired to go into town looking for a restaurant and cop the pricey for here (A$33 for two), but adequate menu at the lodge.
Day 3 of Tour Thursday 24th January Konso-Turmi
Dianne has a terrible night’s sleep, and awake from 3am, and up 6am. Write diary till breakfast at 8AM, and on the road by 9AM. We have a change of plans brought on by the presence of a large Government Pastoralists conference in Jinka, and will have to reschedule, as they have taken all the accommodation in Jinka where we were planning to spend the night. This has resulted in a shortage of accommodation everywhere, as all the tour groups have to find alternative accommodation. We’ll have to spend 3 nights in the small town of Turmi and do day trips to Jinka and the Omo River village.
Konso is the gateway town for the Lower Omo Valley. The stone walls, terraced fields and ceremonial structures comprise such a unique lifestyle that the whole Konso Cultural Landscape was declared a Unesco World Heritage site. We head up into the mountains for 6kms to visit Gamole, one of the twelve villages.
This is placed on a hilltop, surrounded by terraces which date back over 400 years. The terraces are made of volcanic boulders, and they have enough left over to build dry stone walled villages with circular walls up to 5 metres high and up to six concentric rings for defense and status.
A feature of the terraces is the presence of numerous attractive white barked Moringa trees with bright green leaves. Not only are these trees attractive, but their leaves are edible and nutritious, and a good source of vitamins A, B, and C, and a form big part of the local diet.
Having a hired local guide, we are allowed to wander through the village, taking photos of everything but people in close-up, and can take people photos with permission and payment. We see a man sitting on the ground operating a loom, with the warp tensioned around a post in front of him and tied off on a stake within his reach. The cloth he is weaving is plain white, about 70 cm wide, with enough warp for a 6-metre length. Finished products have bright coloured bands near the ends.
We take a lot of photos of the circular houses, some with higher stone walls, and very neat curved conical roofs done in two tiers, possibly for smoke release, plus a topknot. There are houses with a mezzanine floor for the young men to sleep so they can be available in force for handling security issues, fires and other problems. Other houses are simpler with lower walls, straight conical roofs with one tier plus a topknot. Within the large circular stone walls, individual houses have their own low walls of stone or brush.
The Konso have carved wooden sculptures called “waga” that are raised in honour of Konso warriors after their death, and also depict his family as well, and the enemies and dangerous animals he has killed. We are led to believe that a lot of these carvings in the village are not authentic, but have been done for the tourists, as most of the originals have been stolen for sale.
In a central part of the village there is a clearing beside a high stone wall with a large round stone used as a coming-of-age strength test, and a flat truth stone, where parties of a dispute stand to tell the truth. Punishments for getting caught in a lie are harsh. Here we are pinged for taking an unauthorised photo of two old ladies, and are obliged to pay up. In another part of the village we find the old men’s club, where they are playing a complex game involving a board with two rows of twelve carved cups and beans which have to be collected in groups of four.
Leaving the village we get some good photos of terraces on the hill and across the valley on the other side, and photos of people working the terraces. We leave the high ground and travel through well-watered country, with running water in the rivers, and there are always people on the roads or in the fields looking colourful, and busy. People are washing clothes in the clear running streams in wide gravel river beds.
Along the road we see kids, either singly, or in groups doing the local traditional dance in the middle of the road, trying to get tourists to stop for photos or pen handouts. In this area the typical dance is jumping from a crouched position with the knees spread far apart, which is quite funny. We see women walking in groups carrying large bundles of hay, and looking like moving haystacks.
From higher ground we can see terracing continued all the way up hills to where the ground gets just too stony. Looking down, the terraces are covered with green growth, either crops or grass. A local feature is the placing of haystacks on top of the flat acacia trees to keep them away from stock until needed. Housing in the villages or farms is either traditional round huts with the two tier thatched roofs, or rectangular wattle-and-daub with a pitched metal roof.
We stop for a break at a lookout in dry country with scattered stunted trees and low bushes, overlooking a wide, flat valley. The valley is a lot dryer, with a thick covering of grey-looking acacia trees and scrub, and there are large bundles of firewood beside the road. We will see this trade in firewood going on all over the country. Here it appears to be cut from indigenous forest, but in other places, the firewood and charcoal come from introduced eucalypts.
Local transport here is by truck or minivan. We take a photo of a truck with 32 people trying to get on board with their bundles and sacks. In another place there is a group of 8 trying to board a mini-van which looks already full.
We come to a major river, with a substantial flow in the flat gravel bed. This is the border between two tribal groups, and there is a sign welcoming us to the South Omo Zone. Not far along there are irrigated river flats where there is a major planting of still-green cotton, so different from the previous countryside. Later we read that dams have been built on the Omo River (partly financed by the Chinese) which have stopped the annual flooding down river near the Kenyan border. The Omo River has also provided 90% of the fresh water flow into Lake Turkana, so, though this has greatly improved electricity generation and the agriculture here, it is at the expense of the tribal people further South.
On the road beside the cotton, there is heavy local traffic of people; walking; driving donkey carts loaded with long reeds; parked donkey carts; goats and cattle. In a few minutes we pass over 50 people on the road.
Where the valley is not irrigated, it is pretty dry, but fairly densely covered with dry, grey acacia scrub which might green up in the wet season. As we climb back into the hills, the trees get greener, but the ground is bare and rocky. At a ravine between the hills, we pass a water collection structure where scores of hump-backed zebu cattle are being watered. Along the roads we see large herds of these cattle moving long distances to or from watering and feeding areas, which probably explains the toughness of the local meat.
Our next stop of the day is at what we think is Key Afer, where the weekly market is in full swing. We stop the bus on the main road and walk down hill on a wide red dirt road toward the market grounds. This is a genuine local market, with only a few tourists, and a lot of the tribal people in their traditional costume, particularly the women. We have a paid local guide with us, and he is able to talk a couple of semi-traditionally dressed young girls into photos before we even reach the market. They are wearing the typical animal hide skirts decorated with shells, with Western clothing as well. According to a sign, we are in the district (woreda) of the Benna and Tsemay tribes (the spelling seems to be a bit optional – some information says they are Banna). The Benna are culturally closely related to the Hamer, who apparently also attend this market.
The market is pretty genuine and is really interesting, but there are still a lot of tourist directed carvings, pottery items, and decorated gourds among the second-hand western clothes, Chinese plastic ware, aluminium pots, and local produce such as onions, avocados and tomatoes. Near the market entrance we are taken into the market bar to find fifty or so local men, and some women, sitting on low stools and seats drinking the local home brew, which we are able to decline. We take a lot of photos, mainly wide shots of the general area, the crowds, market goods, with a couple of paid shots of two local bull jumpers. Apparently you can tell they have successfully done their initiation by their hairstyle. They have a unique initiation ritual that involves the initiate running across 15 castrated bulls lined up side-by-side. They have been rubbed with dung to make their backs slippery and he must run across the backs four times without falling. If he does fall it brings shame to him and his family, and he has to try again next year. If he does succeed, he is set to get married to a girl his family has chosen for him. We thought this was pretty dangerous until we saw pictures of it, and realized that someone is at the front and back of each bull, holding it in position.
However, in typical fashion, the women get the worst treatment. In the course of the initiation, the female relatives of the boy, including his mother and sisters, are flogged with canes. They beg the Mazas (the men that have undergone the bull leaping ritual) to whip them (after the women have consumed lots of sorghum beer and wine) and we see plenty of women with raised scars on their backs (!!!). During the whipping, the women seem to reach a sort of ecstasy or trance through their dance, songs and continual horn blowing, provoking and harassing the men to whip them. The whipping is used to create a form of debt. The loyalty the girls show is demanded back in times of need.
We’re also shown how you can tell if a man has killed someone – he has a tuft of hair at the top of his head (one represents one killed, two represents two……..). We saw a man with one tuft. Apparently cattle-raiding was (is?) part of the life and culture of the Benna and Hamer tribes, and you could increase your status in the community if you killed a man from another tribe on a raid. They also get scarified to show how many people they’ve killed. This is definitely discouraged now, though there are plenty of AK-47s around. We’re told the guns are more for show, and a lot don’t actually work, but they are still pretty scary and have replaced, to a certain extent, the stick that every man used to carry and still does. Both men and women get scarified as a sign of beauty.
After the market we find the bus parked in the grounds of a local bar/restaurant, and have drinks before setting off south toward Turmi, now on a gravel road through increasingly dry terrain. On arrival, Turmi doesn’t inspire too much confidence, set in sandy acacia scrub, with wide gravel streets, a central fountain with no water in the main intersection, and some nondescript buildings. At a small shop near the intersection we are able to buy cold drinks and water, and observe bundles of khat being marketed on the verandah. Matt, being a born risk-taker, buys a bundle, but it is hard to tell if he is affected or not, as he is over-the-top most of the time, in a generally entertaining way.
After questioning a lot of locals, we are able to follow a power line on a sandy track through the scrub to our home for the next three days, the Paradise Lodge. Paradise it may be one day, but we have to wait in the semi-finished main building for our rooms in the bungalows to be completed and cleaned and for the workmen to leave. It’s 4.30pm when we arrive, and there are plenty of unhappy travellers, knowing we’ll be here for three days, especially as there is no wifi.
The bungalows are large and spacious, with high pitched thatch roofs, real bathrooms, mostly complete fly screens, and good beds. The management would probably prefer to not have us, as the place is nearly complete, and we are a distraction, but they persevere, even putting on an acceptable evening meal in their incomplete kitchen, from what they have in the freezers.
Day 4 of Tour Friday 25th January Turmi-Daasanach Village-Turmi
Murray is on the road to recovery from his flu, but Dianne has another bad night, and is really sick in the morning. The hotel staff manage a good breakfast in their incomplete kitchen. We get some photos of the colourful starlings in the garden, and 24 of their construction workers arriving in a truck, before we set off back along the scrubby track to Turmi, and off south to Omorate and the Omo River bridge. On the way we stop to look at tall termite mounds in the acacia scrub, before proceeding south on the good bitumen road. Closer to the river the terrain changes to flat, irrigated agricultural land, with a green cotton crop, and a lot more people about. Dianne spends most of the trip asleep across the back seat of the van.
Because this is a sensitive area near both Kenya and South Sudan, there is a check post and we have to produce passports. At the post is a massive 8-wheel drive cross-country motor home called Bush Baby. It has one flat tyre, and looks like it has been there a while. We walk to the nearby river bank to find our transport awaiting us. The choice is two people to a dugout canoe, or a group on a motor boat. Murray chooses the motor boat, the better to take photos, while Dianne, who has recovered enough to do the walk to the village, teams up with Allie in a dugout.
It has been explained that the bus will probably cross the new steel bridge and meet us at the village, so the river crossing is only just a tourist trap, but does sweeten up the locals with the fees paid by the tour company. Murray gets some good photos of the intrepid (Intrepid?) canoeists on the way across, but misses the major incident where Anthony gets tangled up disembarking, ends up in the water, with his expensive camera held high and avoiding a bath.
What we don’t know about Watayake, the Daasanach village we are visiting, is that it is a couple of kilometres away, across the burning sands which will turn into crop land in the wet season, rains and flooding willing. It has come out very hot indeed, and Dianne does it pretty tough, but takes her time and makes it. On the way we get good photos of a finch type bird, some women carrying loads of greenery on their heads toward the village, and a pair of carmine bee eaters.
From a distance the village does not impress, with a surrounding barrier of dead thorn bush, and hemispherical huts made of flattened corrugated iron pulled with vines into a semi-waterproof shape. Some of the houses look like original brush shelters, but might just be the modern version covered with brush to ward off the savage sunlight.
Intrepid have paid 800 birr for this visit (A$39) and seven of us have paid a 200 Birr each fee to have unlimited photos, so we take full advantage, with single and group photos of people, mainly women and children, who are in traditional dress. Most of the men favour shirts and trousers. However, there are enough men in traditional dress to get representative photos. Traditional dress means tops are optional, so a lot of our photos have naked breasts in them, limiting what we can post on Facebook, which is not too good on cultural sensitivity.All the people in this village seem happy to have us there.
Because enough of us have paid the photography levy, the village has agreed to a dancing session, which we can video. The dancing is very similar to what we have seen in Kenya, which is only a few kilometres away, and features the typical jumping by the men and a few women. Matt joins in the dancing, and seems to be welcomed.
A man shows us his fresh scars from when he was whipped yesterday, apparently for stealing something.
There are a lot of photos of tour members surrounded by gangs of kids, typical housing, men preparing for the dance and videos of the actual dancing. The videos show some of the women joining in, but the jumping dance explains the invention of the sports-bra. We much prefer paying a set fee for photos, rather than haggling over each photo, deciding how many were in it etc etc but apparently most villages don’t like it done this way, as those that consider they are more attractive earn more the other way, plus the head man probably gets all the money this way, and the rest of the people get nothing.
A wind starts to blow and it is pretty uncomfortable in the dusty village, and we are glad the bus has made it across the bridge, and is only a short walk away. Crossing the bridge at 11.40 AM on the way back, we can see a similar village, with the same type of housing close to the northern side of the bridge. We are back in Turmi at the central roundabout by 12.50 PM. In order not to give our hosts too hard a time in the unfinished kitchen, lunch has been organized at a nearby more established lodge, and by 2 PM we head back to our lodge for a rest.
At 5pm we are off to see a nearby Hamer village. We couldn’t go any earlier because we were told most of the people would have been out in the fields with their cattle. This tribe has huts with low circular wooden stave walls and conical thatched roofs. The houses of family groups are surrounded by a barrier of interlinked heavy tree branches.
The Hamer take their body decoration very seriously, and hair grooming is paramount. Women roll their locks with fat and red ochre (assile) and then twist them into crimson-coloured dreds called goscha. Here the women are fully covered, and wear long beaded goatskin dresses. Married and engaged women wear two heavy iron rings around their necks called esente, but if they are the first wife of a man (they are polygamous) an additional torque with a phallic protrusion known as a binyere is worn. The men are bull jumpers, which we’ve already described previously. In this village the people are pretty surly and mercenary, possibly because it’s so close to a town, and they’ve seen plenty of tourists, so we don’t stay long and don’t take a lot of photos.
Back at Paradise Lodge, a bit more work has been done on the project, and they manage another miracle evening meal. Dianne has a bit better night as she stops coughing halfway through the night.
Day 5 of Tour Saturday 26th January Turmi-Jinka-Turmi
We’re up at 5.30am, and away at 6.30am as we have to drive to Jinka (about 120kms, and at least two hours away) and return tonight. We have to pick up our cut lunches at our lunch lodge and get on the road, stopping for photos just as the sun rises over the mountains to the east while we are heading north on the gravel road toward Jinka. A photo of a passing 4WD shows a large sticker on the window indicating they are not carrying guns. We see a lot of these, but it is hard to see to whom the message is directed -would-be robbers of guns, or, more likely, that people with guns are not allowed on board.
The general terrain is dry acacia woodland on low rolling country, but there are higher wooded mountains in the distance. In the more fertile areas we see ploughed ground, maize crops and banana trees, and rivers with running water. We have an interesting stop at a service station to fill the diesel tank and the spare fuel drums on the roof. There is a local man on a motor bike with a 20-litre yellow square plastic drum strapped on either side, who is filling up to deliver the fuel to somewhere else. This is part of a pattern we see developing where there is not enough fuel, particularly petrol, which is the backbone of local transport, both for motor bikes and tuk-tuks. Later we see a massive queue of motorbikes and tuk-tuks at a service station. There must either be fuel at the station, or the expectation of fuel arriving.
When we arrive in Jinka, our first stop is for drinks at a coffee shop, where we stick to soft drink, but the others go through the ritual of coffee preparation and the drinking of tiny cups of very strong coffee, which doesn’t do a lot for dehydration. From here we go to the South-Omo Museum and Research Centre on a hill high above the city. We get good photos from the terrace outside the museum, and an excellent coverage of tribal territories in the South, and similarities and differences between the tribes. There is good coverage off the role of women in the tribes. Some of the artwork is very similar to Aboriginal dot painting. There is a good display of blacksmithing, and a variety of head-rest designs, and examples of the lip and ear plates used by the Mursi, possibly originally designed to lower the desirability of women for the slave trade, but now a cultural imperative.
After the museum, we travel uphill to a parking area above an Ari village. All the way we pass people, carts, donkeys and tuk-tuks loaded with produce making their way towards the weekly Jinka market. People, including some “walking haystacks” are still climbing up the steep hill from the village to the main road with produce for the markets. In the village, one of the main occupations is blacksmithing, and we are able to watch the smiths using home-made bellows to fire up their forges and bring the steel up to temperature for forging into hoes, knives and machetes. The smiths use a variety of hammers and anvils, and do all their work squatting on the ground under conical thatched shelters.
Pottery is also a popular product, and we watch a woman produce a perfectly round plate from a ball of clay without any help from a potter’s wheel. In another part of the village, a large version of such a plate is used to cook one of the classic injera pancakes over a charcoal fire, with a shallow woven basket over the top to make sure it is cooked through.
In another part of the village a woman is distilling areke from a pottery flask with an inclined condensing tube and a screw topped collecting bottle immersed in water in a pottery dish. Thankfully we are not required to sample the product, although the woman running the still looks old enough to know what she is doing.
This village, though they are doing all the normal village things, has very little in the way of traditional clothing and decorations – it is near the town, and everyone wears Western clothing and no tribal adornments. This is probably how the rest of the Lower Omo will be before long, which is why it is special being here now.
Leaving the village, we follow more “walking haystacks” up the hill to our bus, and negotiate our way through groups still heading to the market. Back in Jinka, at the market our guide looks for examples of the Mursi women, and finds a couple in their traditional blue and yellow wraps who are willing to have their photos taken for a price. The mutilation of the lips is not a pretty sight, particularly without the pottery plates, and could have easily discouraged slavers in the past. None of the women are wearing the clay lip plates, but they show us the extended lips where they fit. One, however, is wearing the pottery plates in her ears, and you can also see the scarification on her upper arm.
On the way back from Jinka we stop at another weekly market, this time in Dimeka, which is 28km north of Turmi. The market is really good, with few tourist-oriented products, and we get some good photos, particularly one of a Hamer woman with tightly braided hair saturated with red ochre, sitting on the ground with the red ochre she was selling in front of her. This photo also shows the scarification on her upper arms, the two heavy iron rings around her neck, and the iron rings on her arms.
The absence of a photo record of the trip from Dimeka to Turmi could indicate that it has been a very long day, but we do get a nice sunset shot later.
Day 6 of Tour Sunday 27th January Turmi – Arba Minch
We are up at 5.30am, and on the road at 6.30am in preparation for a long drive to Arba Minch, with a break at the lake for a boat cruise. The early dawn pictures feature mauve to blue colour graduation, as we make our way slowly up the bush track towards Turmi town. We don’t quite make it, stopping just near the school to check for a possible front wheel puncture. We do, indeed have a puncture, and the guide and driver get out the jack and wheel wrench, and try to dislodge the spare from its stowed position under the rear seat, but accessible from outside.
Unfortunately this section of the bus was damaged earlier in one of many excursions off the made road onto tracks beside to find smoother going. The side track became very sandy just before it ended at a creek, and speed had to be kept up to get us up and onto the made road at the same time, so we were unable to dodge a fallen log which rose up under the bus with a loud bang. It wasn’t that big a deal at the time, as nothing seemed to be broken, but the frame must have been bent far enough to prevent the spare from coming out. After a lot of urging and levering, the spare comes out, but then the nuts are very reluctant, even with a long tube on the wheel wrench. Eventually the nuts come free and the not-so-new spare goes on. This leaves us with no spare, but we should be OK, as we will be on the main road all the way.
The spare time gives us a chance to look around, take photos of lots of birds just waking up, and four small local kids who see this as great entertainment.While Murray is “supervising” the tyre change, Dianne checks out a nearby compound which a steady stream of people are entering. Seeing it’s Sunday, she assumes it’s a church, but after speaking to one of the officials, finds it is actually a hostel as well as a Church, sponsored by people in Germany. Local children who don’t wish to live tribally can live here and go to school. She gets the impression that they can do this without the consent of their parents (??).
With the tyre fixed, we collect another cut lunch from the nearby lodge and are on our way, somewhat behind our schedule. We are retracing a previous route, but it always looks different on the way back. The overloaded trucks, groups of walking people, herds of cattle blocking the road, flat-topped trees, people washing motorbikes in the rivers, boys dancing on the road, are the same, but different, and worth a photo, particularly as Murray is now in the front seat, and can see what is coming.
We stop at 10.30 for a cup of traditional small, strong coffee at Konso, then carry on until we stop at a knot of vehicles on the main road. Apparently there is inter-tribal warfare going on ahead, affecting the main (and only) road, so we have to return to the town to talk to the police. A local on a motorbike says he knows a way around the trouble, but our guide and driver don’t want to take the risk. Back in town, the local police say it is not in their district, and, even though a policeman has been killed a couple of days ago, it is none of their business. We return to where we had our coffee to await further developments while our crew asks around to find out more information. We are advised to be ready for an instant departure, so pay for our drinks straight away, but are still caught out because Dianne has a refillable coke bottle which is precious around here, so we have to do some quick drinking when the call comes.
Back at the original road block, things are pretty quiet, so we proceed to the next town (possibly Mande) where there are no women on the street, and every man has some sort of weapon. Things look quiet, but tense, and we proceed slowly until we come to a row of boulders across the road. This is when we definitely feel a bit frightened, as there is nowhere for us to go, and there are lots of armed people everywhere. There is an alternative road up the hill, but no-one knows where it goes. Our crew talks to the locals, possibly gets a phone call, and we’re told we can go around the right side of the blockage, where the rocks are smaller. We get through and proceed slowly, noting groups of male locals coming towards the town, all armed. After about 20 km, we come to another group of vehicles coming our way, waiting for news, and we are able to tell them we got through OK. They take this as an all-clear, and get on their way. For obvious reasons, we have no photos of any of this! We later try to find out if this is a common occurrence, or quite rare. There is no mention of it in any English papers when we google, though we are told it was reported in local language paper. When questioning how often this happens, we are told this happens about once a year, but after all our reading about the tribal people and their customs, we’re not so sure it’s not more common. We are told it was between the Konso and Dersha, but we can’t find any information about a tribe called Dersha, so maybe we misunderstand the name.
Much relieved, we carry on as far as Chamo Lake, about 20km south of Arba Minch, and turn off on a bush track to a National Park with a ticket office. We walk to a boat dock to load into a motor boat for our lake excursion. We have to put on life jackets, and Murray ends up close to the front of the boat.
Soon after leaving the dock, we pass along the left shore, passing a variety of birds – sea eagles, Egyptian geese, Pelicans, Marabou storks, Goliath herons, sand piper types, lapwings, egrets and lesser flamingoes. Further on, close to the reeds we see a native fisherman on a log raft pulling in a net. Further on we can see almost-submerged hippos, and even further another native fisherman on the shore vigorously beating something with a long, thick stick, and a sea eagle looking on from a tree.
We cross the lake, heading for a stony point where Murray can see what look like crocodiles through the telephoto. Getting closer, we see not only that there are crocodiles, but that they are BIG crocodiles. We get quite close, and the big ones sunning themselves don’t take a lot of notice. There are at least a dozen on shore and in the water. Some of the ones in the water move away, others stay. On shore, a lapwing is having a noisy confrontation with a medium-size monitor lizard.
Leaving the crocodiles we head back for another look for more hippos – manage to see some up close, and get some ordinary shots, and also see a tree full of black and white stork types and some cormorants. Our fisherman is now wading on the shore, not all that far from the crocs and hippos.
Approaching the dock, we notice a large crowd, with many people dressed in all-white. It turns out to be a number of wedding parties, including one large and very noisy one. We stand around watching the fun, and taking photos. There is a man carrying a large boom box on his shoulders providing the music, and a large group following him, singing and dancing, including a cheer squad of girls in Jordan (basketball) fan tee-shirts. Some of our group joins in the dancing, and there’s lots of friendly interaction. Another wedding party arrives to add to the chaos as we make our way back to the bus. In the car park we find two mini-buses with live sheep tied on top, together with some sort of pedestal wrapped in plastic. What we were expecting to be a fairly uninteresting boat trip has turned into being a wonderful trip, both on the water and after.
Leaving the car park, we have to dodge an incoming mini-bus with people sitting on top, as well as lots of tuk-tuks with guests inside – Sunday is definitely a big wedding day, and this is definitely one of the spots to come. We’re told these are Gamo people.
We follow the main road up the escarpment, passing the tree full of Marabou storks that we saw nearly a week ago on the way down, and turn off towards the escarpment, and a large project under construction on the edge of the escarpment, with a curiously curved roof. We turn right again to stop at the Mora Heights Hotel, an aging resort with a main building right at the escarpment, and a terrace right along the edge about 4.30pm. From here we can look south over the lake where we took the boat cruise, and north past an isolated mountain to the north section of the lake. The view is good, but there is a lot of flat, scrubby, uninteresting land between us and the lake, and the air is pretty misty for good photography
We have to tip the driver and guide for this Southern Section tonight. We leave it up to others to decide what we should all tip as we hate deciding. The decision is US$15 each for the driver, and US$20 each for the guide, so we hand over our US$70. We have already paid for a communal kitty for tips for the other people who expect a tip.
We stay on the terrace till after sunset, have a meal at the hotel restaurant, talk for a long time to an English bloke who has come down through Sudan without a lot of trouble, and retire to our Garden View room about 11pm to set the alarm for 5.45am for another early start, as we drive all the way to Addis tomorrow. Another bad night’s sleep.
Day 7 of Tour Monday 28th January Arba Minch – Addis Ababa
We have an early start for the 500 km drive, manage to get some pre-dawn photos over the lakes from the terrace, and are off by 6am. We drive through the town which is just waking up, pass the Cathedral under construction for the third time, and head north along the margins of the lake. Students are walking to the University, the tuk-tuks are active, and people in white are heading for the church. We often see in the morning lots of people dressed in white standing outside the grounds of a church. We are told this is because if they go into the church they must stay for the whole service, which could be two hours, and they don’t have time to do this before work, so the alternative is to stay outside and say their prayers there.
With the lake on the right, mountains to the left, and bananas, sugar cane and semi-tropical vegetation leading to the lake, it is very similar to the north end of Lake Malawi in Malawi. The sun has risen over the lake, which is flat, but not mirror-smooth.
Murray is in the right hand, single seat, four rows back, getting good views to the lake, but can still see through the windscreen and take telephotos through it. The road is good asphalt, and we make good time. By 6.30am we still have the lake on our right, with banana plantations and sugar cane on the lake surrounds. By 7.30am we are still in fertile country with green fields, interspersed with acacia scrub land.
Features of the drive, as recorded through the front and side windows are motorbikes, donkey carts carrying yellow plastic water drums, a gravel quarry, fields of cotton, big-horned cattle walking on the road, bundles of cut firewood waiting for transport, and as the altitude increases to where the gum trees grow, big heaps of long eucalypt poles, and timber yards for house construction.
We are well into the mountains by 9 AM, reaching Sodo, where the altitude reads 2179 metres. It is a large town, set against a high range covered with eucalypt trees. Out of Sodo we come upon a service station with a long queue of tuk-tuks and motor bikes, with a large crowd of men standing around, indicating the fuel crisis we saw further south persists here. Even out in the countryside and in small villages, tuk-tuks are the primary public transport, and are seen carrying huge loads at times.
The rivers we cross here, while virtually dry, are quite different from those further south, with a curved, rock-based bed rather than flat gravel, but most appear to have running water in them.
We stop at 9.30am for morning tea at a rather flash hotel, with a garden courtyard, for restaurant quality coffee, still in tiny cups, and pastries, on an intersection with a service station not far away, where there is another large queue of motorbikes and tuk-tuks waiting for fuel.
Roadside sights in the town include a different style of low-slung gig pulled by mules or horses, street crowds on the way to market, men in colourful high-crowned straw hats, high-set flat deck carts pulled by mules, with the driver standing Ben Hur style.
Back on the road we cross a dry sandy river bed, see lots of people walking on the highway, take photos for our “overloaded transport” photo category, see a herd of 18 camels on the road, more men in high-crowned straw hats, small villages with plenty of people in the street.
The land becomes drier, but probably more fertile, and most of it shows stubble from a previous grain crop. Most houses in villages are of wattle-and-daub construction, with tin roofs. Some of the mud render over the timber frame carries closely spaced indentations, presumably to aid drying, and also to provide a key for cement render to be applied when cash is available. River beds continue to be eroded down to the rock base, and mostly pretty dry. We must now be in Moslem country, with a mosque with a large dome and twin minarets under construction. What trees there are are eucalypts, in groves and scattered around the hills, which are terraced when steep.
We pass through a village with a street market, and stop soon after in Butajira for lunch about 1pm in the garden of the Kasetch Fekadu Assore Hotel. There are some good birds in the garden and Murray manages a few photos of the birds and the view from the first floor.
The town is large, and the streets quite busy, but we are soon travelling through dry agricultural country, mostly flat near the road, but with sparsely wooded and cultivated foothills, heavily timbered mountains. We pass through another busy town, and alternating villages and agricultural land. At 2.50pm we pass a roadside market with about 50 people present, a pretty poor-looking affair, on a bare hillside, with a lot of fixed poles behind, which could be for a livestock market.
We pass a farm with an active threshing operation going on, using bullocks walking in a circle over the grain, see a lot of fresh haystacks from the harvesting season, the back ends of 8 mules loaded three metres high with hay, a small factory for processing used tyres into tree protection rings, and another group of donkey-driven mobile haystacks.
By 3.15pm we are entering Addis Ababa proper, through the ugly outer commercial area where high buildings have three commercial layers starting from workshops at street level, and offices higher up, all covered with advertising signage. We come to a major roundabout, with a very strange statue, which looks like it is dressed in an orange plastic skirt, a blue plastic shirt, orange plastic hood, and an outstretched arm carrying a whip, but in fact think it is a brand new statue which still has its protective covering on, which has torn a bit. Without the large dimensions, you might think it is a real person. We also see a class-winner in the overloaded transport category – a truck stacked 6 metres high with collapsed yellow plastic water drums, hopefully on their way to recycling. The photos show other outer-city traffic mayhem until 3.30pm.
We find ourselves back in the Shegar Royal Hotel, in a different, but good room, waiting for our 6pm meeting where we meet our guide for the northern tour, Kidron, and the new members of the team – Janacyn (36), Jason (47) and Julie (56). David, Matt and Francie leave the group.
We also hand over US$30 each for the communal tipping kitty for this second stage of our trip. This is for various local people, but doesn’t include our guide and driver, whom we tip at the end.
The second part of our trip is to Northern Ethiopia, which is quite different to the South. It’s known for its Historical Circuit with ancient treasures, giant obelisks, hidden tombs, castles, and LOTS of churches, and also some great scenery, especially the Simien Mountains. After the meeting we head out in a Toyota Coaster bus to our introductory dinner and cultural night. It is a bit strange that the people leaving our group are not included in this, so they don’t get to have a farewell dinner with us.
We drive a fair way to get to the Rasheashen restaurant, a dinner theatre featuring musicians and dancers, supposedly authentic local culture, but the origins of the dance routines and music are not explained. The music lacks the harmony and rhythms we are used to in African cultures and the dancing is a cross between Mexican and Bollywood- very strange indeed. The food is “interesting”, genuinely local, and good (in parts). The yeasty local injera bread, made from fermented teff flour, is a beige colour about 5mm thick, and, rolled up, looks like a serviette or face towel. It has a foamy structure, a bit like tripe, and a sour taste a bit like overdone sourdough bread. Some of the group members seem to think it tastes great, but we find it hard going. As this is the staple bread for all of Ethiopia, made from the local grain called teff, which refers to the tiny grain size, we could be in for slim pickings. Later when we try to google the restaurant to find out what the entertainment was all about, couldn’t find anything about it, which is not a surprise. We are home by 9.30pm as everyone is exhausted. Get some more money from ATM and to bed early as we have another early start to catch a plane to Bahir Dar. Set the alarm for 4.15am wakeup, breakfast at 4.30am departure at 5.00am, plane at 7.00am.
Day 8 of Tour Tuesday 29th January Addis Ababa – Bahir Dar
We have a crack of dawn start to the airport after breakfast at the hotel. It’s a short drive to the airport, and easy passage as there are not a lot of people about. There is a glitch when our guide is bumped off our flight, but he shepherds us through as far as the departure lounge. The plane is another Bombardier and we get seats further forward for a good look at the propeller and the engine pod, but still get pretty good views below. The flight is pretty short, as it’s only about 500kms, but we get typical views of villages surrounded by ploughed field and ravines splitting up the table-land. A lot of the villages are right on the edge of ravines. We can see mainly unpaved roads, some descending into the ravines, and note a large mining operation with a kilometers-long conveyor system.
Approaching Lake Tana, the terrain is noticeably greener, and we swing out over the lake around the city before landing close to the lake on the west side of the city. We pass over a couple of islands with monasteries on them on our landing leg. Transfer to the Hotel Homland (sic) is quick, with the hotel right on the main road to the airport, on the west side of the city and close to the lake.
In spite of the early hour of 8am, the hotel is expecting us, with a welcome drink, and immediate check-in, with Wi-Fi code. The room is large and well-appointed, but surprisingly cold, in spite of the AC being turned off. By 9am we have been dropped in the centre of town (population 348,000 elevation 1,880metres) on the same road as the hotel, and opposite the ubiquitous St George Cathedral. We know the market is somewhere inland from the lake, so set off up the main cross-street in a loose association with John and Linda.
The city is big and busy, with the sidewalks crowded and traffic thick on the street. We take a left turn as indicated by maps.me, and find ourselves in an open area which takes up most of the city block. We first come to the grain section, which has hundreds of large white and burnt orange sacks of grain standing upright with the tops open. There is a wide variety of grain available, in many colours, including the staple, teff. The grain is indeed quite fine, about the size of coarse river sand, and varying from pale beige to a medium brown colour.
Another section has the same sized sacks with more colourful displays of lentils, ranging from nearly black to green and a carrot orange. The sacks are bound together in groups 4 to 5 deep which keeps them upright, but makes it hard to inspect, sample and purchase product from the middle of a group. There are also lots of good bananas.
Elsewhere we meet a man carrying live chooks hanging from a stick across his shoulders, and we pay for a photo which doesn’t come out as good as we had hoped. We see a lot of people selling bunches of chickpeas, and buy some, but don’t eat a lot of them, as they are not particularly hygienic unless you have the knack of popping them out of the pod straight into your mouth. We emerge from the market into a main street, take a photo of a large stadium, and head back toward the cathedral. On the way, we meet others of the gang and try a fruit juice café. The others have great mango juices, but Murray settles on pineapple, which may have been a mistake, as he is the only one of the group who gets crook later.
Afterwards we walk to the Cathedral for exterior photos, and find two really big hornbills in one of the trees in the grounds. We get a lot of close-up photos from underneath, but with the deep shade under the tree, and sky light shining through, they are not particularly clear. We are surprised when the birds start to mate in the tree.
From the Cathedral, we walk to the lake, where the hire boats are moored. We will be using a boat to go to the monastery later, so check them out and take some photos of boats, a cormorant and the lake. We decide not to walk back through the lakeside park, as the security is not good, so get a tuk-tuk back to the hotel for 40 Birr (A$2). We have a look at the large swimming pool, which is pretty chilly, then lunch at the Hotel and have a short sleep before reporting for our boat trip at 2pm.
We are seen off on our 40-foot steel launch by a lone cormorant. This is Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, covering more than 3,500 sq kms, and the source of the Blue Nile, which flows 5,223 kms north to the Mediterranean Sea. Our trip will take us across a tiny fraction of it. There are 37 islands on the lake, twenty of which house centuries old monasteries full of paintings and treasures, and we’re off to see one of them.
We follow channel markers around to the east side of a long peninsula which has a large building on it which looks like an enormous hotel that was abandoned before it was finished. The course then swings to NNW and we head toward two islands about 12 km from our departure point. The lake is pretty smooth, and the breeze and wave action increase as we get further out, but neither becomes a problem.
On the way we see in the distance two canoeists, but on closer inspection, they are paddling the traditional papyrus reed rafts, with the bow tied to form a high prow. There are no sharks in the lake, but there are hippos and crocodiles, and what they are doing looks pretty intrepid. Further out we come close to a motorised steel fishing boat. It has all the signs of having been made in a sheet metal workshop, but it doesn’t look like sinking.
We pass the smaller of the two islands, Entos Eyesu, with a monastery for monks and nuns living together. It has a large circular building on its highest point, with a newish conical roof. We carry on past Kebran Gabriel, whose monastery is no longer open to the public.
We’re heading for the Ura-Kidane Mehret monastery on the Zege Peninsula, half an hour further on. From the dock, it is a long walk uphill through coffee plantations sheltering under higher rain forest trees. We have to run the gauntlet of many tourist traps on the way, and we pass a number of minor buildings before arriving at the entrance to the church complex with two timber gateways under an octagonal pyramid metal roof.
We walk past several buildings, including two with octagonal pyramid metal roofs, and a circular stone wall holding spread out leaves, which we think at first is a lily pond, and come to a second gatehouse, with twin timber gateways in a timber and stucco structure with a conical thatched roof.
Inside is the main church compound, with a large circular structure, with a conical metal roof and the traditional topknot with ostrich eggs, signifying protection. The church has an outer screen of vertical timber staves sheltering a circular corridor right around the building. There are number of heavy timber doorways built into the timber and stucco structure. They are painted green, as are most church doors we have seen. The outer walls of the structure are bare, showing the straw and cow dung ingredients of the stucco. There are paintings on the frames off some of the windows.
The internal structure of the circular and octagonal churches consists of three concentric rings. The innermost part is the Sanctuary, also known as the Holy of Holies, where the Tabot or Ark rests; only priests and deacons have access to it. The Tabot represents the Ark of the Covenant, believed to have been brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I, the son of King Solomon. It rests upon the Menbir, which corresponds to the altar in other Churches. The sanctity of a church depends upon the presence of the Tabot and without it services cannot be held.
The second chamber is the Keddist, which is reserved for communicants, who receive the Sacrament, the women segregated from the men. Only those who feel pure, have fasted regularly and have conducted themselves blamelessly receive Communion. For this reason communicants are usually babies, infants and the very old.
The third division is the outer ambulatory which is known as the place of the cantors. It is divided into three sections by curtains. The western part is occupied by the cantors who sing hymns and praise God to the accompaniment of musical instruments, drums, prayer-sticks and sistra. The other two sections are reserved one for women, and one for men.
Often there are as many people, if not more, in the churchyard as in the church. It should be noted that the church precincts and the surrounding wall are considered sacred; therefore those who remain outside the church during the service are considered to have attended church. Traditional Ethiopian churches contain no seats – only rush mats.
The doors and walls of the Holy-of-Holies in this church are completely covered with paintings of saints and biblical scenes. The paintings are brightly coloured, out of keeping with the 16th to 18th century church (some, including the sign, say 14th century) but apparently authentic. St George and the dragon get a run, as do a number of saints who suffered gory deaths. The direction people are looking with their dark irises and white eye balls is interesting. Only a few are looking straight ahead. The cartoon-like looks of anguish are also a lot more animated than most Orthodox icons we have seen.
The architecture is well done, using locally available materials – vertical staves for the outside screening, thin, curved timber poles for the conical ceiling of the outer gallery, nicely textured stucco on the outer walls (if you can forget that it is cow dung and clay), heavy timber doors and door frames, corrugated iron on the multi-faceted cone of the roof. Definitely an impressive building.
Leaving the complex, we find that our lily pond is empty, and the pile of dried leaves and vines beside it are actually hops, grown for local beer. On the way down the hill through the tourist traps, Murray pays good money to use an immaculately clean sit-down toilet hidden in the scrub. Back at the lake, we reflect on how similar this visit is to visiting Devil’s Island in French Guyana. While we are waiting for the three “shopaholics” we have on this trip, who do what they always do, we get a good telephoto of another pair of large, black and white hornbills. The trip back is smoother, as the wind has dropped, and we are surprised to find there is a second purpose for the trip, when we divert into the exit of the Blue Nile River (Abay River) from the lake. It meets up with the White Nile (we saw its source in Jinja, Uganda) in Khartoum, Sudan, but we don’t think we’ll be going to see that any time soon. We are treated to pretty views of the river and surrounding reed beds, cormorants, some close encounters with hippos, and get some good photos before we give up at 6pm and head back for the dock.
Back at the hotel we have dinner there, which is easier than venturing into the city for food of doubtful quality, but this does not prevent Murray coming down with bad diarrhea and cramps in the middle of the night. We are up every hour, and get very little sleep.
Day 9 of Tour Wednesday 30th January Bahir Dar – Blue Nile Falls-Bahir Dar
We start at 8.30am – Banker’s Hours, a relief for Murray who is not sure he has the strength or continence to handle a full day out, and a short walk to see the Blue Nile Falls, 28km southeast of Bahir Dar. He goes light on breakfast after having a fair bit of Hydralyte during the night. He decides against the big gun of Gastro-stop, which has been keeping Jim functioning, but is not feeling too powerful.
We follow the main road south, but quickly turn off onto a very rough gravel road through the poorer suburbs of Bahir Dar. The road leads directly toward the sun, so we cannot expect a lot of quality photos. The houses are typically wattle-and-daub construction, and a lot are yet to receive their first coat of clay and cow manure. The local builders have been doing this for hundreds of years, ever since eucalypts were introduced, but they still haven’t absorbed the concept of the diagonal brace, so some of the even new houses have some interesting leans. They seem to know about propping during construction, but take the props away without installing bracing. There might be something in the Old Testament about it.
The ground around here is quite flat, and the soil looks rich. With running water in the ditches, this is probably a food bowl, but it doesn’t reflect in the quality of the housing.
There are haystacks and piles of corn stalks around trees, and the ground looks ready for planting. We see green crops of cotton, khat plantations, and sugar cane. A man is ploughing with a long shanked wooden plough and a pair of oxen; others are working on an irrigation ditch with a similar plough, but possibly with a scoop instead of a ploughshare. We follow a four-metre diameter load of hay on a donkey cart, negotiate market-bound crowds, and finally get to the Tiss Abay/Blue Nile Falls Tourist Information Centre.
We pick up a guide and presumably pay an entrance fee, then get back in the bus to drive to the start of the “short, level” track to the falls. On the way, we pass a very large produce and stock market a couple of hundred metres off the road, and another village with a lot of very large hay stacks.
At the start of the track, we have a long, rough and steep descent to the “Portuguese Bridge”, built in 1620 and the only intact example of such bridges left over from the short occupation by the Portuguese. The descent is not made easier by the traffic in the opposite direction of people and animals on the way to market. The bridge is a multi-arched affair of selected but not squared volcanic rock, with side walls a metre and a half high, over what must have been a roaring cataract in the days before the diversion of the water above the falls for hydroelectric projects upstream, but now there is a very modest flow of water, especially now in the dry season. We get photos of the bridge, the general area, people with their goods and animals going to market, and, by chance, a classic red-headed woodpecker. The whole scene is excellent, and we could have sat and watched the comings and goings of the local people for a lot longer.
From the bridge, the track slants up the steep side of the ravine heading upstream, and it is pretty hard going for everyone, particularly Murray, feeling weak from lack of breakfast and everything else. Not far up the track, we get photos of a couple of dassies (rock hyrax), on a boulder down in the gorge. From this vantage point we can also see people coming from kilometres away to the market, and the river which widens out after passing under the bridge. From higher up, we can also see a substantial cascade coming in from the right, probably leakage or excess flow from the power station on that side of the river.
Higher up, we lose sight of the river in the thick belt of trees along the river, but can see the village and our bus on the other side. From even higher, we can see the power station electrical switchyard and the market grounds, and across the flat agricultural land to the hills beyond. Walking around the curve of the hill, the weir and flood gates which control the river height and send water to the power station can be seen. Looking upstream further to the right, we get our first glimpse of the falls, and they are better than we expect, even though we are in the depths of the dry season.
Above the falls, there is a flat bottomed valley, with green crops and trees, and drier land on the hills beyond. We get the usual blurry photo of a rainbow bee eater, and more of the escarpment where minor waterfalls are flowing into the gorge and green river. Further to the right, and well below, we can see the long pedestrian suspension bridge over the gorge of a separate river coming down the valley to the right. The bridge seems a bit of an overkill for the gorge and river in its current condition, but the wet season could justify it.
After crossing the bridge we have the opportunity to climb down to the base of the falls. Some do, some don’t. Murray decides that, in his condition, halfway is enough. From the falls, it is a long, hot walk to the river above a second, low weir, where boats are waiting to take us across to the bus.
On the way back to town in the bus, we get better photos, with the sun in the right place to see and photograph more markets, ploughing, lentil drying on sheets of iron, groups of women going to or from the market, and circular huts with conical thatched roofs.
In town, we see more market action from the bus before having a light lunch at the hotel and resting in our cold, supposedly non-air conditioned room. We basically rest for the rest of the day, marshalling our strength for tomorrow’s long drive around the lake to Gonder. During the night, Dianne has a cough which turns into an enormous chunder which sounds like she is flushing the toilet with a bucket (Murray’s description!). This is a once only event, and seems to sort out what ails her, and she manages 8 hours sleep. As they say, here today, Gonder morrer.
Day 10 of Tour Thursday 31st January Bahir Dar – Gonder
We both wake feeling much better, and are on the road, going through town by 8.30am, seeing the crowds of worshippers in their white outfits in the church yard, too sinful or busy to go into the church and stay the full three hours. Following the road which takes us across the Blue Nile Bridge and past the tall stainless steel Martyrs Memorial Monument, we get a good look at the river, which is flowing quite strongly, with a lot more water than we saw going over the falls, so the power station must be taking a lot of it. We pass the usual chaos of three story industrial/commercial street fronts, and are out in the countryside. We see such examples of rural life as massive timber yards full of skinny eucalyptus poles; men riding donkey carts Ben Hur style; donkey carts massively piled with hay; villages with dozens of people on the street (highway); rows of new wattle-and-daub houses with roofs, but yet to receive their outer coat of mud and dung; green fields of chick peas; a man carrying an enormous bundle of something light on his shoulders; houses and villages wherever you look. This is a fertile area, near the lake, with flowing rivers and some irrigation, so, naturally, it has a very high population.
Further out we get to gently rolling country with short stubble from the harvest and animals grazing, then a larger village market with hundreds of people at the market, or heading there on foot, in carts, trucks, tuk-tuks and mini-buses. Women with bundles and sacks on their heads line the road, and men carrying the traditional sticks drive small herds of cattle.
Terraced fields with scattered houses give way to broad acre farming on the flat land close to the lake. The crop looks like chick peas, but could be young cotton. There are many cattle grazing on harvested fields, and we see about 60 people back off the road with large heaps of what could be green tomatoes or small melons. It doesn’t look like a market; maybe they have just finished harvesting. In a nearby village, probably Jigna, the road is lined with rickety stands and posts carrying at least 50 baskets of tomatoes to sell to the passing trade. This area must be tomato central.
Just beyond the village is the large, slow-moving Gumara River with high earth banks and deep water, indicating we are close to the level of the lake, some 15 km away to the west. Here there are bright green crops, probably onions and rice, in irrigated fields, and more fields of harvested stubble. One large expanse of flat land has the green blush of a new crop between hundreds of haystacks and heaps of hay waiting to be stacked. There must be a market nearby, as the road is clogged by tuk-tuks picking up people with their bundles and bags of produce. We get a distant photo of a large flock of blue cranes cleaning up after the harvest.
We stop at the town of Wereta for a break and a walk around, as we are not too much into food at the time. It is a pretty desperate looking town, with no sidewalks to mention, a small street market run by women sitting on the ground in a rubbish-strewn vacant block, some basic high-rise commercial buildings, and a hotel/café where there is a basic toilet.
Back out in the flat broad acre agricultural area we get photos of another large flock of blue cranes, and a flock of black and brown birds about the same size and shape as the cranes. We have seen a lot of bird varieties, but it is the first day we have seen large flocks, apart from the pelicans at Lake Chomo.
We cross the Reb River, smaller than the Gumara, with not as much water, but still with high earth banks. Murray takes his usual photo of river crossings, and notices something unusual on the edge of the water. Closer inspection reveals it is an army tank, nose down at about 45 degrees with mud up to the turret. You can still see the open hatch and the open engine compartment. The engine is probably powering someone’s tractor. The style of tank looks reasonably new, and could be from the civil war, or a training accident.
We come to the end of the flat land, and can see a large volcanic plug protruding from the mountain range ahead. The road takes us past a colourful church or monastery on a peak, and quite close to the plug. As we get nearer, we can see a tour bus off the highway and down a steep slope, facing uphill about 70 metres below the highway. From this distance we cannot see that there are two large recovery vehicles on the highway winching it back up the hill. By the time we get there, the front of the bus is level with the edge of the highway, and the hard part has just started. A couple of cows are keeping an eye on the operation. The belly of the bus will be pretty well polished by the time they get it over the lip and onto the road but it looks in surprisingly good condition, from what we can see.
As we get near the plug, we descend from the bus for photos and to stretch the legs. Almost immediately some girls appear out of nowhere with souvenirs and requests for pens. There is a special place in hell devoted to tourists who think giving away pens will help third world children’s education.
We get photos of the plug, the surrounding terraced hills, and down onto the fertile flat lands extending to the lake, which could be visible in the haze from this distance. The local girls end up in some of the photos. These girls can manage to look elegant in rags. It must be the posture developed from carrying loads on their heads.
Travelling into the hills, we see most of the land is terraced. It is a bit like China – in a couple of thousand years you can get a fair bit of infrastructure built. There are scattered villages and farm houses with metal roofs, and broad valleys cultivated for grain. Some villages have markets and crowds of people. We chance upon an enormous crowd of people, mostly in white, and take a few photos before we’re told it’s a funeral, and it is not considered nice to photograph funeral crowds. Funerals are a big deal here, and people come from far and wide to attend.
We come to the outskirts of Gonder at 12.25pm. The town is located among the hills and is spread fairly wide. We are soon in heavy traffic of tuk-tuks, cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians. In heavy tuk-tuk traffic, we pass through the town centre near the castle at a roundabout with a local hero statue, turn to the left and head uphill to another left turnoff and take a very steep, narrow road through eucalypt woods to our Goha Hotel, perched high on a hill, with a terrace from where we can look down on the city and the castle.
The hotel is large and pretty flash, with large rooms of an interesting design, a wash basin outside the bathroom, and no aircon, which suits us fine. We go out on the terrace to check out the pool, which is pretty chilly, and the great view from the terrace over the city. We have a small lunch at the hotel, take photos from the terrace all around the panorama and down into the city where the location of the castle, hidden in a grove of tall trees, becomes obvious. We head out in the bus to look at the city at 3.30pm, being dropped near the main roundabout in the centre.
We walk to the large public square then a short way around the walls of the castle before trying some of the side streets and commercial areas, which have the usual chaotic mess of advertising signs and three story office and business tenancies, but we don’t find anything of interest. We take a break for drinks in one of the bars on the stairways above the public square with others in our group, but find it hardly relaxing with music turned up to pain threshold level.
Back at the hotel we take photos of the city, the late shadows on the mountain range, the swimming pool, various birds flying on the thermals, and sunbirds feeding on the flower spikes of sisal plants, then sunset photos before having dinner in the elegant hotel dining room. Most of us are not up to the rigors of a buffet, and there is nothing else, until Kidron, as a major customer, puts the hard word on the manager. Back in the room Murray starts a course of antibiotics, and Dianne’s cough is getting slowly better.
Day 11 of Tour Friday 1st February Gonder
In the early morning Murray takes photos of the city and birds feeding around the edge of the terrace. There are always kites and curious thick-billed crow types cruising around the updrafts on the hill, and it becomes obvious that they wouldn’t mind a feed of sunbird. The sunbirds suddenly stop feeding, and dive into the scrub below every time one of the predators comes past, but Murray manages some good shots.
Gonder has a population of about 323,000 and is at an elevation of 2,300 metres. It stands at the crossroads of three major historic caravan routes, and Emperor Fasiladas made it his capital in 1636. It flourished as a capital for well over a century, and some of the buildings still remain. Today we are doing the full conducted tour of Gonder, at $US 30 each, which has been subcontracted to Journeys Ethiopia. This gives us our bus, and guides, plus admissions, which are often not cheap. Probably a worthwhile deal, as we only have one day to see the lot.
After a good breakfast at the hotel we leave at 8.45am for the World Heritage site, the Royal Enclosure. The entire 70,000 sqare-metre compound contains numerous castles and palaces and has been restored with the aid of UNESCO. It looks pretty good from the outside, and doesn’t disappoint, with multiple buildings, each with its own history, and spacious, well-kept grounds.
It has a high stone wall all around with an oval shape. First stop is Fasiladas’ Palace, which is the largest and most impressive of the palaces, 32-metres tall, with a crenelated parapet and four corner towers with domed roofs. The construction is of minimally worked stone and mortar, with wooden floors and ceilings. Any paint or wash that might have been on the walls has long disappeared, but there are reliefs in the walls which include the Star of David referencing Fasiladas’ connection to the dynasty of Solomon. Behind the castle/palace is a water cistern with steps down into it, and kitchen and bathing facilities.
Our next palace is described on Lonely Planet as The Palace of Iyasu 1, but the nameplate reads more like Adlam Seghed Iyasus Castle – close enough. The building is a long rectangle, originally with a timber ceiling/first floor and a barrel vaulted roof. Most of the roof was bombed by the British dislodging the Italians toward the middle of WW2, but enough remains to get the picture.
There are castles, palaces, libraries, auditoriums and buildings from almost every period of Ethiopia’s long history. All are impressive, and we take a lot of photos. We also sneak in some bird photos taken in the gardens. After we exit at the northern gate, there is a break for coffee and shopping. As Murray does not feel ready for coffee, and Dianne doesn’t take coffee, or shop, we wander the interesting area, and find ourselves down at the public square where there is a volley-ball competition going on. The teams are large, and have brightly coloured uniforms. The teams not playing are warming up so vigorously they may not have enough energy to play when it is their turn. We find them worth recording on a video.
Back in the bus we head across town to Fasiladas’ Bath, part of the royal enclosure ticket. The bathing pool is Olympic size, at least two metres deep when full, but at present is only shallow with some very dubious-looking green/brown water, being only filled for the Timkat season when the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan is celebrated. The stonework around the pool is impressive, with fig tree roots attacking it like in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. There is a small pavilion in the middle, possibly a Summer Palace of sorts, supported on arched columns above the high water mark, and reachable by an arched stone bridge. Reachable through an archway in the stone surrounding wall is Zobel’s Mausoleum, named after Emperor Johannes’ famous horse. It is a circular structure with arched walls and a domed roof, now in disrepair. The area once had a paddock and stables.
We return past a street market on the hill to the hotel for lunch, and Dianne has a bracing swim in the pool, then lies and reads on one of the precariously disabled deck chairs, with a similarly disabled umbrella propped against the fencing. It is one of the most relaxing times of the trip, with the great view, the birds flying overhead, and nothing to do for a couple of hours. We get a photo of the ugly black and white Thick-Billed Raven from our hotel room. There are a few of these flying around, looking like black cockatoos in flight.
Our 3.45pm afternoon excursion is to the historic Debre Berhan Selassie, a church surrounded by a high stone wall with 12 domed towers on the corners, and an imposing asymmetric arched entrance vaguely resembling the Lion of Judah (couchant). The entrance and the towers represent Jesus and the apostles. The church is not unlike a Romanian Fortified Church. The church itself is rectangular, with a two-tiered thatched roof and stone walls. It has a columned porch at the front, and a narrow verandah all the way around, supported by stone pillars.
Inside the walls and ceiling are covered with paintings, not as bright as we saw at the island monastery, but probably more authentic. This church, like many in the country, was attacked by the Dervishes from Sudan in the 1880’s, but was saved by swarms of savage African bees which drove off the attackers.
There are hundreds of individual figures and paintings on the walls and ceiling, attributed to a 17th century artist, Haile Meskel, but the building only dates back to the 18th century, replacing an earlier round church destroyed by lightning. Act of God? All through Ethiopia we find this clash of stories – the local traditional stories don’t necessarily line up with the written documentation – a bit like doing family history! We take lots of photos of the biblical scenes on the walls, and the hundred or so cherubs on the ceiling keeping their beady eyes on the congregation. Outside we take more photos of the church, the walls and resident vultures in the old trees in the compound.
We take the bus back to the hotel, getting photos of shanties on the side of the road near our turnoff. At the hotel, get more bird photos, including sunbirds, the thick-billed raven, an eagle perched in a skinny gum tree, and small, robin-like birds with black backs and russet bellies. The kites are still cruising around on dusk.
We have dinner again at the hotel, and afterwards, Kibron gives an interesting talk to us about the past and present problems in Ethiopia.
Day 12 of Tour Saturday 2nd February Gonder to Debark & Simien Mountains
We are away from the hotel fairly early, after getting some more sunbird photos. Pass through an interesting area, with small villages, and a LOT of people on the road heading for market. See a new local design of compact donkey cart; villages with stalls on the side of the road; a village with Star of David signs. The Lost Tribes of Israel were the ten of the Twelve Tribes of Israel that were said to have been deported from the Kingdom of Israel after its conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire circa 722 BCE. The Beta Israel (“House of Israel”) are Ethiopian Jews, who were also called “Falashas” in the past. Some members of the Beta Israel, as well as several Jewish scholars, believe that they are descended from the lost Tribe of Dan, as opposed to the traditional story of their descent from the Queen of Sheba. Most have now gone to Israel, with only a few remaining here.
We see a massive building taking shape in the middle of no-where, not sure if it is a mosque or an orthodox church. The terrain is hilly, with both agriculture and forest, looking generally pretty productive in the right season. As we get higher into the mountains, the view to the west becomes increasingly rugged, with sharp peaks and severely eroded valleys. The cultivated fields beside the road have more rocks than soil where we stop on the edge of an escarpment for photos of the badlands to the west, and a chance for the local kids to give us a hard time. The views are harsh, but spectacular – real canyon country where we will be headed after our Simian Mountains Trek.
On the plateau near the edge of the escarpment, there are villages, reasonably green pastures, lots of livestock (mainly cattle), eucalyptus stands, and ploughed fields waiting for seed and rain. In places there are villages with dozens of new, closely spaced houses of wattle-and-daub with tin roofs. They are part of a Government programme. There is a particularly large example of this quite close to Debark.
On the outskirts of Debark, we stop at the ranger station to organise a guide and three armed rangers. We can see rangers sitting around with their guns of various sizes and ages, waiting for work. We then move on to our Hotel Sona, where we will spend the night, to organize our rooms and drop off the baggage. The room we get is pretty ordinary, tucked away on the ground floor, with the souvenir shop right outside our glass door, and a view of the utility area, but others are on the fourth floor with no lift, so we cop it sweet. The hotel has an interesting welcome sign in the lobby and a curious sign in the garden bar area written in the local language with a dozen exclamation marks. Whatever it is, we are not going to do it!
We have arrived at the hotel back entrance, which is pretty ordinary, but walk out the side onto a cobbled street which looks a lot more promising until we look towards the main street and see a gully full of rubbish including what is left of the severed head of a cow. Looking past this, across the main road, we see a market with a large crowd of people and vehicles. When we leave at 11am for the park, we get some good close-up photos of the big Saturday market from the bus.
We travel through similar rolling agricultural country with harvested grain crops and stands of timber to the start of the UNESCO Heritage Listed Simien Mountains National Park, and carry on along the escarpment past a flash lodge complex toward where we will start our walk (or trek), but our progress is interrupted by the presence of a troop of gelada monkeys (or baboons), on the side of the road, and it is decided we will stop for a look and photos.
The monkeys have long, brown fur which is often quite blonde, particularly with the sun shining through it. Unfortunately they are on a slope with the morning sun directly behind them, so the fur really shines, and photography is difficult. Other vehicles stop, and we spend 20 minutes watching the monkeys and taking photos. Interesting features of these monkeys are that they are very social and vocal, they are vegetarian, they spend their days on the grasslands and the nights in caves on inaccessible cliffs, and both the males and females have a red heart or triangle shaped patch of bare skin in the middle of their chest to indicate their attitude to mating, which results in some calling them the “bleeding heart baboon”. The females decide on the male who mates with their group. They travel in large troops, and there would be more than 100 in our particular troop.
The monkeys lose interest in the humans and wander off down the slope, and we carry on to where we will have lunch and start our walk. It is a long way down a spur to the overhang where we lunch. This tends to encourage people to carry on with the walk rather than go back to the bus, but a few are smart enough to do that. The lunch spot has good views down into the valley, and along the escarpment. About a thousand metres below us are cultivated fields and a small village, so the National Park is not all that exclusive. The grass around us is a similar colour and texture to the fur of the geladas. Nearby is a thorny bush covered in white roses, the Abyssinian rose. In the hazy distance we can see a group of remarkable rock formations, and are told we will be driving past them tomorrow. These rocks will actually be visible for most of tomorrow.
The views of the escarpment and down into the badlands of the valley are entrancing, but it is time to move, and we set off, ostensibly on a level track around the rim of the escarpment, but with a surprising amount of up and down. On the track we are ambushed by young people selling souvenirs, but we are told to ignore them, as they have been given a couple of set places to interact with the tourist, and are being discouraged from hassling the tourists all the time.
We see and photograph other interesting plants and flowers which are identified by the rangers or guide, including the Sodom Apple, like a yellow tomato, which is bitter and poisonous. We get a good photo of Dianne with two of our armed guards and our guide. We also meet up with our old friend, the thick-billed raven.
We reach the bus, take a break then front up for the second leg of the walk, and most of the group does the uphill walk along the edge of the escarpment to the next parking spot. End up walking for about two and a half hours.
On the way back to the hotel, we take a better look at the deep ravine which runs away from the escarpment to the east. This is just as spectacular in its own way as the escarpment we have walked, but is probably monkey-free.
Back in town, we walk around what is left of the authentic, but filthy, market, taking photos of the streets and buildings. There is more rubbish lying in the streets than most markets we have seen, and the buildings, both constructed and under construction are as rough as we have seen anywhere.
Back at the hotel we take a photo of the notice in the garden bar and get ready for the evening meal. By now, we aren’t feeling too bad, but Jim has been crook for a few days, and doesn’t seem to be getting better. Fortunately the lights in the souvenir shop are turned off, so we get a reasonable night’s sleep, despite it being quite cold, until we are woken by an unholy combination of Moslem call to prayer and Christian Sunday morning hymns.
Day 13 of Tour Sunday 3rd February Debark to Aksum
We are on the road by 7.15am. Never do find out what the forbidden thing in the garden bar was. Get a good photo of women in white and a little girl off to church, and see some spectacular scenery as we get to the escarpment road built by the Italians, but it is too early for good photographs from the bus. There are retaining walls still good since they were built in the 1930’s, holy-water springs, rainforest, views out into space and down the near-vertical escarpment walls. We get our first blurry photo at 7.32, but it is still pretty dark in the shadow of the escarpment.
By 7.47am we are getting enough sun on the foothills and spurs for decent photos, and soon after we stop at a turnout on a spur of the range for views down onto a shelf on the mountain where there are ploughed fields and we can hear roosters crowing. It is still too early for rainforest shots, but the sun has risen far enough to light up the gentler slopes of the escarpment behind us.
Toward the bottom of the descent, we cross a substantial river bed with a small flow of water and get to a small village with basic wattle and daub house construction. We are still a long way from the lowest point in the valley, and the terrain is a jumble of small, steep mountains and ravines. The road turns from rough gravel to tar for some of the steeper sections, and we have to applaud the skill of the Ethiopian road contractors. We haven’t noticed the worldwide incursion by Chinese road contractors here in Ethiopia. We stop the bus for photos at one of the high passes, and get the views we had been promised of the remarkable rock outcrops we saw yesterday. Unfortunately our camera isn’t good enough to pick up the pale blue images of distant mountains in the haze without making the foreground dark. There might be a message here, but Murray isn’t keen on carrying a 2 kg, $2000 camera into the third world. We still get some fabulous shots of serrated mountains, improbable plugs and mesas, convoluted mountain pass roads, and flat-topped African trees.
We stop at a small town for a drink and toilet break at 10.15, get some good photos of the mountains from down a side street, and see a dying mule lying in the street bleeding from a wound low on its stomach. We are told this is typical of a hyena attack. We take photos of half the divided main street closed off because a wedding ceremony tent had been erected on the other side. Salim Mehajer is alive and well and living in Ethiopia!
We get close up and personal with some of the peaks before getting to more open country on a plateau. This was followed by a deep plunge into the valley of a major river, the Takazze, which goes on to form the border with Eritrea. There is a lot of gold mining in this area which accounts for the relative prosperity of Shire, the next major town we will come to. After a long, winding descent we cross the river, about 100 metres wide, not particularly deep, but fast flowing with rapids. There is a check point at the far side of the bridge and a settlement as basic as any we have seen, with a few souvenir stalls and little else. From the bridge, we can see benching of the hard rock for the road up the far side, and it is quite a climb up to the plateau which extends all the way to Aksum. The plateau is quite level, and extensively farmed, but there are sharp-edged ravines running through it.
We see a massive refugee camp, Mai Aini, on the arid plain. This is for people from Eritrea, culturally and ethnically identical to Ethiopians, who have nowhere to go and very limited opportunities for work or business. The Ethiopian/Eritrean border, which only opened five months ago, after being closed for over twenty years, is quite close.
We arrive in Shire, the centre of gold production, and correspondingly wealthy, with smart high rise buildings in the main street, at 1.20pm for a well-earned break and lunch at a surprisingly sophisticated hotel with an outdoor restaurant. We are feeling well enough to try a meal, but stick to simple, avoiding local cuisine, but have some good fruit drinks.
Back on the road to Aksum, we take photos of large groups of people in their Sunday best going to some sort of function miles from anywhere. The skyline of the plain features large isolated mountains and volcanic plugs, and we can see them all the way across the plateau and into Aksum. Half an hour out of Aksum we see a large crowd under sun shelters. Most are clad in white, possibly for a wedding or a funeral.
Entering Aksum outskirts, we see a massive red brick building on the right with what looks like an auditorium roof 10 stories high. It is near the University on the map, but remains unexplained. Coming into the town proper, we pass the Stelae Field on the right, and Sheba’s Palace on the left. We are unimpressed with the stelae field, as we are expecting something monumental. Carrying directly on toward our hotel, we encounter earthen roadblocks making us detour onto the highway, and cut back toward our hotel too soon to find another roadblock. This one had been worn down a bit by traffic, so the driver decides to give it a go, but very nearly succeeded in stranding the bus on its belly. We detour again to find our hotel by coming in from the other direction. This isn’t a dead loss as we pass one very interesting monastery perched on the tip of a very steep peak, and another church on a lesser peak. We arrive at the Yared Zema Hotel just after 4pm after a very long day. We run a bath, do washing in the bath, then can’t get the plug out of the bath afterwards. Murray has to bail out the bath with the plastic bin used for the toilet paper, then, with the pressure taken off the plug, he manages to extract the plug with the knife on his leatherman. We have dinner at the hotel, now back to rude good health, or just rudeness.
Day 14 of Tour Monday 4th February Aksum
We’re in the state of Tigray, which is the northernmost of the nine regions of Ethiopia. Its capital is Mekele. It was an ancient kingdom, but was annexed as a province of Ethiopia in 1855. It engaged in a bitter guerilla war against the government of Ethiopia from 1975-1991.
We’re now in the town of Aksum (population approx 56,500) at an elevation of 2,130 metres. Like most of Ethiopian history, it is hard to know what is the truth about the early history of Aksum, and what is just legend. Legend says Aksum was the Queen of Sheba’s capital in the 10th century BC, but whether this is true or not, what is true is that a high civilisation developed here from as early as 400BC.
The Queen of Sheba is a figure first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. In the original story, she brings a caravan of valuable gifts to Jerusalem for King Solomon. Plenty of countries and religions have claimed her, though her existence has not been confirmed by historians. In the Ethiopian version, she has a son to Solomon on the way back to Ethiopia, and he was called Menilek. When he grew up he visited Jerusalem, and the priests’ sons with him stole the Ark of the Covenant and brought it to Aksum. Solomon placed a copy of the Ark in the Temple so that Israel would not lose its fame. The Ark of the Covenant is supposedly a gold-covered wooden chest, described in the Book of Exodus as containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. For close to a thousand years Aksum was a great city on the route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India, and it adopted Christianity around 320 AD.
Once again we’re all doing an optional Historical Site Tour for US$30 each. We take our bus down Denver Street to the northern stelae field. We walk past the Cathedral of St Mary of Zion, which we will see later, and across to the Northern Stelae Field. The stelae are entirely different to the ones we saw yesterday, and we’re blown away by how impressive they are, which is a complete surprise. The three largest are massive, and well-carved from single pieces of granite, the later ones complete with little windows and doors. They were transported 4km from the quarries, no mean feat when the Great Stele, the largest, weighed about 520 tonnes, and was 33 metres in height. The Great Stele is believed to be the largest single block of rock that humans have ever attempted to erect, and overshadows even the Egyptian obelisks. It certainly is impressive! They think it fell during its erection sometime early in the 4th century. As it toppled it collided with the massive 360-tonne stone sheltering the central chamber of Nefas Mawcha’s tomb. It remains exactly where it tumbled 1600 years ago.
King Ezana’s stelae is still standing, aided by a sling. The Rome stele (24.6 metres high and 170 tonnes) collapsed and broke into three pieces sometime between the 10th and 16th centuries, due to raiders. In 1937 Mussolini had it shipped to Rome, where it was known as the Aksum Obelisk. It was returned to Aksum in 2005, and UNESCO raised it in 2007.
We visit the Mausoleum, with a portal hewn from a single slab of granite, which leads into a passageway with ten chambers. We also look at the Tomb of the False Door, which was only discovered in 1972, and is thought to date from the 4th century AD. It is constructed of finely cut, mortar-less masonry. We see massive stones worked in three dimensions to include doorways and thresholds, iron keys joining massive masonry blocks, and what the guide insists is an ancient history measuring stick. We walk around marveling at the scale and quality of workmanship, take photos of the stelae and the repair systems used for the broken ones, take photos of some interesting birds, including red billed hornbills, superb starlings and a thrush type, plus a grey squirrel. We walk around taking more photos of the stelae and the cathedral dome across the street while the others have coffee and look at souvenirs (again).
In the museum, which is interesting, we are not allowed to take photos, so have very little recollection of the collection, apart from the fact it has various things found in the tombs such as lamps and incense burners, glassware etc.
Back in the bus we do the short drive to the Queen of Sheba’s Bath, a large, now fairly empty pool of rendered masonry constructed against a bare granite slope. Presumably the pool was filled in the wet season by water collected on the bare granite mountain. It was actually an important reservoir rather than a swimming pool.
We take photos and drive on for a couple of kilometres to a low ridge with sweeping views beyond. We are at the tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, another UNESCO listed site where a Dutch archaeologist accidently found cut stone and hollow ground while pitching a tent. The site is quite large, and has cut stone steps down to a burial chamber with three sarcophagi, and some interesting stonework in the monolithic doorway. Nearby there is a very deep pit with tunnels lined with cut stone leading to parts unknown.
We take photos of the surroundings and also of the bizarre wiring and workmanship on the transformer station for incoming power. On the return trip we stop at the gatehouse where there is a small hut sheltering a pillar that three farmers stumbled upon in 1988 – it’s a Ethiopian version of the Rosetta Stone, called King Ezana’s Inscription. The pillar is inscribed in Sabaen, Ge’ez (the ancient liturgical language of Ethiopia), and Greek, and dates from between AD330 and AD350 and records the honorary titles and military victories of the king over his enemies. One section thanks the God of War, thus placing the stone’s age before Ezana’s conversion to Christianity. It is quite dark in the shelter, so the messages are hard to read and photograph, but it is definitely impressive, especially when you consider just how much work has gone into the intricate carving of so much writing.
In the afternoon, we take the bus to the Gudit Stelae Field we passed yesterday, for a better look, and to visit what could possibly be the Queen of Sheba’s Palace across the road. The stelae aren’t much better close up than they were passing in the bus, but they are the real thing – uncut rocks of the right shape stood vertically and horizontally in a field. Some of them might have faint carvings on them.
Dungur is known locally as the Palace of the Queen of Sheba, but is probably more like a mansion, with very little in the way of carved large stone blocks, apart from a steppedplatform, but it does have a shape and structure which might actually be a palace on one storey with a lot of rooms. According to the plaque, the construction date is disputed to the tune of 17 centuries (7th century AD or 10th century BC!). It’s not that interesting. Possibly more interesting were a pair of hoopoes, a multi-coloured lizard and a nicely shaped euphorbia candelabrum tree in flower, commonly known as the candelabra tree.
Why did Aksum go from such fame to obscurity? No-one knows, but there are various theories. One reason was it lost its grip on the Red Sea trade due to the rise of the fortunes of the Islamic Arabs. According to tradition, Aksumite power was usurped around the 9th century by the warrior Queen Gudit (or Judit), a pagan or Jew, who killed the ruling king and burnt down the city. At least two documents written about that time support this.
We arrive at the St Mary of Zion church complex at 4pm, taking photos of the church, the bell tower, the minor buildings and the jacaranda trees around it. The sun is now in the right place and we get some good photos. The church is modern, basically a single main dome, with arches around the perimeter for access. The design is quite attractive and appropriate for a church where there is no seating. Our first visit is to the museum, which has a lot of historical items, vestments, texts, ceremonial crosses, etc, but does not permit photos, so we have only a hazy memory of what was there apart from rows of glass cases.
From the museum, we enter the main church to take photos of the interior, the paintings on the walls, illustrated bibles and the central chandelier. Nothing special. The holy-of-holies is presumably behind the curtains, although THE Ark of the Covenant is reputedly in the small chapel between the old and the new church, but as no-one is allowed to look at, it can’t be proved one way or the other (which is probably the point of the whole exercise).
From the new church the men visit the smaller and older church, passing the Throne Stone, looking like a square stone bollard, with a cap about 50cm square, where coronations of Aksumite kings took place. The remains, mainly foundations dating from 1535 AD, of an earlier church are nearby. The church is of a rectangular design, with external and internal arches, and barrel-vaulted roof. It has the usual paintings, the more valuable ones protected behind curtains. Some of the paintings have text on them, a bit like modern cartoons. The church is a men-only church, so only the men of the group get to look and take photos while the women amuse themselves elsewhere.
At this stage we are completely “churched” and “ruined” out, and call it a day, driving back toward the hotel, past the unusual geometry, in local stone, of a government building (think Federation Square, Melbourne), and dropping some of the party off in the shopping area.
Day 15 of Tour Tuesday 5th February Aksum-Mekele
We have an early start as we have a long way to go to Mekele, with a couple of side excursions. Away at 7.20am, with a couple of false starts, one from the guide leaving his information at the hotel, the other from someone not handing in a hotel key. Jason, who is now sick, added a bit of spice to our departure by having a massive chunder into a plastic bag on the bus after drinking dehydration fluid too quickly. One by one everyone is falling by the wayside.
We get parting shots of Abba Pentalewon, the monastery on the mountain, and our hotel, and photos of the jagged ranges of mountains not far from Aksum.
We pass through the town of Adwa, the scene of a comprehensive victory over the Italians in 1896, and take a photo of a tiny 4-door SUV, about the same size as a tuk-tuk. Further on we come to wooded mountainous country and the guide tells us the area is subject to a Government program to re-forest the area with native species. As we proceed the mountains get higher, with massive rock outcrops and volcanic plugs. The area is very photogenic, and lots of photos are taken from the bus.
We turn left off the main road onto a very rough gravel road for 5 kms toward the historic village of Yeha, located close to the base of one of the mountains with large rock outcrops at the top. It is market day in Yeha, and we pass many local people and donkeys heading for the village. Local ingenuity has simplified the loading of donkeys here. An oil drum is split vertically, then bent in the middle to form a V-shape which fits over the donkey’s back. The remaining halves of the top and bottom form an open-topped panier which can be loaded without tying the load to the donkey. We are unable to interview the donkeys, but it looks like a win-win.
Our objective is a major historical site which has been heavily reconstructed by archaeologists, but looks pretty good. We pick up a local guide, who explains the history of the main site, a cut stone building some 27 centuries old (built 7th century BC) known as the Great Temple of the Moon and now rebuilt 10-metres high and about 15-metres square. The walls were originally built without mortar, and the joints between the blocks, some 3-metres long are impressive. The reconstruction has continued without mortar, but there are complicated steel structures holding the building together, possibly against earthquakes. A lot of the limestone original floor is in place, with drains for blood from sacrifices, and a pool in the corner with steps down to the bottom.
From the Great Temple, we move to the Church of Abuna Aftse, built in the 1940’s over the 6th-century AD original, using some original stones from the site, including a relief of 6 ibex, a sacred animal. Abuna Aftse was one of the famous nine saints who came to Ethiopia in the 6th century from the east Roman Empire to teach the Gospel. Tourists are not allowed to enter.
We get some surreptitious photos of colourful locals around the church yard, and visit the museum, which is in a two-story building with a difficult staircase to the top floor where the interesting stuff is stored. We are shown goatskin parchment bibles and religious texts hundreds of years old, stored haphazardly in paper bags and glass-fronted cupboards. Also shown ceremonial crosses and carved stone artifacts. Quite impressive, though a worry about how they are being stored.
We move on to the second major site, the Grat Be’al Gebri, a large structure, possibly a palace constructed from a mixed lot of smaller stones held together with mortar, with some larger items of carved stone. The site is covered by a steel framed shelter, and is well reconstructed, but it is hard to see what they have achieved in terms of furthering knowledge. There are plaques which explain the history and conclusions reached by archaeologists.
At the restaurant near the palace we have drinks and take photos of pictures of the early stages of restoration, which show a lot of structure built up from very little indeed, which is what we usually find. If we come back in ten years’ time, there will be a complete temple.
From the palace we move on to the weekly market, which is pretty good as markets go, with little concession to tourism. The quantities on sale are relatively small, and there is no infrastructure, just an open area to lay out the produce on offer. An interesting product on sale is salt – home-made somewhere as it has large crystals and looks pretty grubby, but it is salt, sold by the jam-tin full. We take a lot of photos of the market, peopleon the road leaving it, and the rocky nature of the soil in the fields. There is a large four-storey school building under construction by the road, totally out of keeping with the primitive nature of the village.
Back on the highway, there are a lot of isolated rocky peaks, a river with a rock bed and a small flow of water, and the characteristic gold hemispheres of haystacks. There is a ragged range of mountains on the horizon, and as we get to Inticho, there is an escarpment in front of us with flat top mountains, bands of rocky cliffs and eroded valleys between. The valley we are in narrows and we are soon climbing up the escarpment under red sandstone cliffs. We see a monastery on an isolated mesa to the left, and stop at some road works. Teams of men are loading bar-fridge sized rocks into the back of tip-trucks with a minimum of equipment. We stop to take photos of the red cliffs, the convoluted road, down onto well-kept terraces fields, the dry river bed at the bottom of the valley, and terraces right up into the mountains.
The road continues to climb, up to 2750 metres, and we are still in terraced agriculture country. It is harvest season and we try to get photos of farmers driving oxen around in a circle to release the grain from the stalks. At the top of the climb we stop for photos down a valley on the other side leading to the large town of Adigrat, Tigray’s second-largest town with a population of approx 76,000, and at an altitude of 2,475metres. It is only 38 kilometres from the border of Eritrea. We have lunch at a specialist beef restaurant here, which is not cheap, but the beef tibs sheukla (sliced beef), served sizzling in a clay dish above hot coals, and shish kebabs are pretty good, even at 580 Birr (A$28) for two.
Back on the road by 2pm, we travel through dry agricultural country, with rolling hills and blue flat-topped mountains in the distance. We get a photo of a typically multi-coloured church on a rock outcrop above a terraced mountain; pass some unexpected water storage dams, then turn left off the highway onto a rough gravel road leading to our first rock-hewn church. The area is quite dry and rocky, but there are scattered farms, with stone walls and some circular stone structures incorporated into the walls. Many of the buildings have sod roofs supported by timber. Wells are enclosed with circular stone walls. The farm buildings are surrounded with barriers of cactus or euphorbia plants. The road gets increasingly rough but our sturdy Toyota handles it OK, and we arrive at the base of a low mountain, with a white scar and a church building above, and stop in a parking area with an ancient juniper tree.
This part of the state of Tigray is famous for its rock-hewn churches. There are about 120 of them, and they are carved from cliff faces, built into existing caves, or constructed high on some mountain-top. They are different to the more well-known churches of Lalibela (where we’re going tomorrow) which are created from huge single blocks of stone unearthed by the digging of enormous pits.
We’re here to see the rock-hewn church called Medhane Alem Kesho, one of the oldest, tallest and finest in the Tigray region. First of all we have to get to it. Photos tend to minimize slopes, but the climb to the church is at least 2 in 1, steep enough to roll to the bottom if you fall over, and the deep holes worn by visitors over hundreds of years are more of a trap for booted feet than an assistance. It is quite hot and sunny, so we have to take our time, and arrive at the top of the bare rock face in good shape. From here we get good views over the surrounding farmland and across to higher mountains, and can see the layout of farm houses and outbuildings.
We continue on a path uphill to the church, where there are local women sitting in a cleared area outside the building we could see from below, and further on there is a stone walled enclosure with a gatehouse and open gate. We shed our shoes and walk through into the enclosure, from where we can see the church built into the face of a low cliff, with a flat rock cap over it.
The church is impressive, with five whitewashed faces and four integral pillars. Three of the four faces have square openings, and the middle has an arched doorway and an opening above. There are faded frescoes either side of the opening, and there is a loudspeaker in the shadows above. There is gap at the top of each face to let in light and air, with enough overhang from the rock cap above to keep rain out.
We can enter the vestibule through the arched doorway, but inside is another doorway with a substantial timber frame painted the same green we have seen on other door frames. The door, which is thick timber, is painted a dirty red, as is the window frame above for the barred window. The door has what looks like a Maltese cross painted on it in green. The door has a keyhole, but no key, and phone calls are made to find out where the hell is the priest with the key. He eventually arrives, a bit the worse for drink, with a very unusual key, in the form of a thick dowel, about 40 cm long with a string on either end. He puts the dowel right through the hole and holds onto the two strings, maneuvering the dowel so he can use the outer end string to pull the dowel toward the door jamb and push back a peg which is holding the door closed. Hopefully he has a spare dowel at home for when he doesn’t hold onto the string.
Inside the second chamber, we see the roof has been carved into patterns and crosses, and is very black from soot. There are no paintings on the walls, but there are some reliefs and patterns. The only painting we see is a rather modern-looking Jesus behind a curtain.
Back outside there is an argument between the late priest, the local guide and our guide, but we don’t have to get involved. Back on the rock face we take more photos of the general area and the descent. A couple of the women in our group are nervous, and accept help from the hangers-on waiting for just such a chance, and hve to pay at the bottom of the descent. On the way back to the highway we take more photos of the unusual stone farm compounds with cactus hedges. It’s now 5pm.
Not far down the highway we take a telephoto of a green and white church on the top of a rock outcrop on a hill covered in eucalypts, then two photos of a mosque, then another photo of the same church on a much higher rock outcrop above a hill dotted with euphorbias.
On the way to Mekele, we see a strange quarrying operation on a hill of sloping limestone strata; some interesting overloaded transport; close calls with cars, utes, minibuses and tuk-tuks trying to share the same road space; and a damaged Toyota Ute 50 metres off the road from what looks like an accident site. The sun is just setting as we arrive in Mekele, and we get photos of the sunset and a strange Che Guevara lookalike on a giant lit-up billboard high above the city.
Mekele is the capital of Tigray state, and is a university city with a population of about 220,000. It takes a while to find our new, high-rise Genfel Hotel, and it’s 6.50pm by the time we arrive, exhausted. It has been a long day, and we retire to our rather flash rooms. The only possible problems are the internet is not all that flash, and the hotel has an atrium which extends all the way to the roof, which looks flash, but can be very noisy.
After settling in, we take a suggestion from the guide to go out for dinner at a rather fancy restaurant, the Karibu Kitchen and Bar, on the site of the Green Hotel, not realizing that it will be outdoors, and it will be very chilly. The cold is relieved a bit when the staff light up a nearby brazier, using regular generous amounts of diesel or used cooking oil, but Murray, in a short sleeved shirt, ends up in Dianne’s thin black jumper. The pizza we have is pretty good, but there is a mix-up with the order for other meals and the group end up with one extra (expensive) meal. Kibron has to pay for it and he ends up eating the meal, but it is not all that good and he leaves most of it. A few of us kick in to reimburse him. Back at the hotel we pack for another early start, as tomorrow is another long drive.
Day 16 of Tour Wednesday 6th February Mekele – Lalibela
We are up at 5.30am, and away by 6am after taking early morning photos from the roof restaurant of our hotel, using night mode on the camera as there is no sign of daylight.
The road out of Mekele is a divided 4-lane highway, pretty new and smooth, so we are making good time. By 6.50am we are passing an enormous, multi-domed Orthodox church under construction. The main dome is complete, with a cross on top, so we know it isn’t a mosque, but the minor domes have just the reinforcing rod inner and outer frame in place.
There are a lot of heavy trucks on the road, because this is the road to the coastal port in Djibouti, and the relatively new road is heavily indented by (probably) overloaded trucks. We pass a really big road construction camp, with lots of equipment and large heaps of gravel and stacks of bitumen drums. When we come to our first descent off the plateau, there are delays for road construction equipment as they lay hot-mix bitumen for what will be a 4-lane road. The descent brings us down to a wide, level plain, with green crops which could be cotton. In other places there are what look like rice paddies. The fertile land stretches right across the wide valley to the ranges on the far side.
We come to a small town with a large church with columns and arches around the outside, and a three-tiered roof close to the mountains. Our route takes us through the mountains which are pretty spectacular, but a lot greener than we expect, with terracinggoing up to near the mountain tops. There are green crops in a lot of the terraces, and there is water in the rivers. As we get further south, and lower down, the land gets drier, with cactus and acacia trees replacing eucalypts.
We get to Mehoni at 9am, and stop at a surprisingly flash hotel for drinks and a loo stop. We are still in fertile land, but there is a lot of cactus. We take the eastern of the two parallel roads here, which looks straighter than the alternative, as we’re hoping to visit the camel market at Woja.
Of interest in Mehoni are young boys in a group (plotting mischief?); wide loads of corn stalks on donkey carts; ubiquitous yellow drums on donkey carts; 4-wheel donkey carts; roadside sewing-machine men; and street markets.
Leaving Mehoni we notice a more Muslim flavour, with men in white gowns and skull caps, and women in head scarfs. We see our first herd of twelve camels, and soon see more camels and the big-horned cattle going to market.
We stop at Woja at 10.25am for the camel market, for a nominal 20 minute visit. We are always suckers for camel photos (you’d think we had enough after our time at the Pushkar camel fair!). We get photos of: lots of camels standing and sitting; big-horned cattle disturbingly close; goats; sheep; transport donkeys; the locals buying, selling, or just hanging around; occasionally our own and other foreign tourists. The Camel Market definitely added an interesting diversion to a long day’s drive.
The valley is flat, broad and fertile here, and a lot of it is irrigated, so we see green fields, the green zig-zag of streams and irrigation channels, healthy maize crops, and a lot of people. We see a large construction site with many workers, reinforcing rods for columns and a massive collection of water-worn boulders, with no clue as to what they are building.
At 11.15 we are in a large town, probably Alamata, with a divided main street and heavy traffic, and not long after, pass a bad accident on a bend in the town, with one vehicle on its side and the other minibus involved in the middle of the road with the driver’s side crushed well back past the windscreen and a sheet thrown over the driver. Out of respect, we have no photos.
Photos taken from the bus include: wide gravel river beds with no water; big-horned cattle near green fields; people washing clothes and curtains; sheep; tuk-tuks; motor bikes; cut and bagged greenery in the clear water of an irrigation ditch; a herd of camels with empty pack saddles made from bound crossed sticks; streets full of tuk-tuks; roadside shops and businesses; overloaded trucks; and a large funeral crowd we negotiate.
We are approaching the end of the valley, and see a large river off to the left with a line of bridge piers but no bridge. This is for the expanding railway system which will connect with the coast at Djibouti. We cross river beds with weirs and running water, and can see our road disappearing into a narrow gorge between high mountains. In the gorge we get stuck behind a line of loaded trucks, and it takes a while to sort them out, with our driver, thankfully, taking no risks. By 1pm we are in the main street of Weldiya, and stop at a resort hotel for lunch at a table in the garden.
An hour later we are on our way again, after tracking down some of our keen shoppers and continue through the large, busy, but not very pretty city, heading west into the mountains. Interesting things that happen on the road are :crossing a large river bed with a thin stream of water; seeing camels carrying immense loads of hay, using the pack saddles we had seen previously. We follow the river, past green river flats, tall trees and, later, terraced fields as the land rises. As the valley gets steeper and narrower, we can see a row of posts high up on the nearly vertical walls, and hope this is not our road, but it is. As we climb the mountain we see the other side of the valley is terraced farmland, and quite attractive, but it is hard to get a photo of it, as there are gum trees growing thickly beside the road for most of the way. Our side becomes steeper, and we can still see the fence posts high above us, so we know we will be going up and over the pass here. By 3.40pm we are through the pass, drive through a small village, but keep climbing on the left side of a new valley, this one sloping down the way we are going. The terrain changes, and we look down to terraced fields and small farms in the valley, and terraces up the far side higher than we are.
About 4pm, at a lookout high on the mountain, we make a loo stop at 3377 metres, and get really good views across the valley and down into the bottom of the valley where there are neatly terraced fields, small farms and a fair sized village. Carrying on up the side of the valley, we come to a plateau where, at the highest point, the altitude reads 3600 metres. The plateau is mainly covered in terraced fields or open harvested pastures. There are a lot of uncovered haystacks, and circular stone silos for additional storage. The rural scene is very pretty in the afternoon sun.
Further along we see a shallow green valley with lots of livestock, probably a common pasture area. We pass through a medium sized village about 5.30pm, where we turn right onto a very rough and steep gravel road over the side of the escarpment, and lose the village almost immediately. The road is very steep and has a lot of bull-dust on it. It winds down the hill, getting tangled in another road being built, and by the time we get to the bottom we are on a wide, well-surfaced gravel road. It becomes too dark for photos, and we continue on, finally arriving at the Roha Hotel in Lalibela at 7.45pm, all pretty shattered from a very long day (again). The hotel is really nice, by the same group who built the Goha Hotel in Gonder, with the same wash basin and bathroom arrangement, and a particularly attractive common area and restaurant downstairs from reception. We have a meal in the restaurant and hit the sack straight way.
Day 17 of Tour Thursday 7th February Lalibela
Lalibela, initially known as Roha, was the Zagwe dynasty’s capital in the 12th and 13th century, and the churches date from around the time of King Lalibela (1181-1221). All are built below ground level, created from huge single blocks of stone liberated by the digging of enormous pits. There are two main church clusters around town, and some more churches and monasteries outside of town. Lalibela is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Little is known about the Zagwe dynasty. It is said that Lalibela, King of Ethiopia, sought to recreate Jerusalem, and structured the churches’ landscape and religious sites in such a way as to achieve such a feat. “The churches at Lalibela are clustered in two major groups, one representing the earthly Jerusalem, and the other representing the heavenly Jerusalem. Located directly between them is a trench representing the River Jordan.
We have breakfast at 7.30am and take photos around the public area of the hotel, of birds outside in the garden, and from the room where we can see the weather protection structures over the main sites. We leave for the “Northern Churches” at 8.45am, stopping at the main ticket office for 3-day US$50 tickets, which are included in the tour price. However we are staying an extra day after the group leaves, but will have trouble using our ticket as everyone is on the one ticket.
The Northern Group contains seven churches, a tomb, a chapel and a sunken chapel. We start at Bet Medhane Alem, the largest of the churches, measuring 33.5 metres x 23.5 metres, and 11.5metres high, under the ugly steel shelter added by UNESCO to protect it. It looks like a Greek temple with columns mostly of cut stone all around the monolithic central structure. The structure is excised from the natural rock by narrow trenches on two sides, wider on the other. We walk all around the outside before entering. Inside is a barrel-vaulted nave and four aisles with 38 columns, supporting the gabled roof, all finely carved with architectural details, but generally not decorated or textured. There are the usual iconic style of paintings, but most are not painted on the structure, but loose paintings, and there are a lot of curtains with shiny gold patterns, probably from China, and a mish-mash of carpets, which detract from the overall appearance.
We walk through a tunnel to the next church group, visiting the small Bet Meskel, with its highly decorated stonework on the columns and ceilings, where we are shown a special Lalibela Cross by the presiding priest. We visit the nearby Bet Maryam, which is small, but beautifully decorated, with one of our favourite interiors, and another priest with another special cross. Also have a quick look at Bete Danaghel (House of the Virgins), built in honour of nuns killed in the 4th century. We pass through a labyrinth of tunnels and passages, and climb a steep, rocky outcrop to take photos of the roofs of the two major churches, and the rickety bridge across to the roof of Bet Medhane Alem, then come back down. Some of the group aren’t very happy with this climb, and wouldn’t have done it if they realized we came back down the same way. A trench at the southern end of the Bet Maryam courtyards connects us to the next churches – Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha (which is men only, and known for life-size depictions of the twelve apostles carved into the walls’ niches. Both have the only cruciform pillars in Lalibela. We walk along more trenches, passing Bet Uraiel and the Tomb of Adam, and emerge on the surface at a group of traditional thatched roof circular huts where a man in traditional dress is sitting at a desk selling postcards and religious pictures.
We’re now back in the open, and walk down, crossing the main road, to follow the track down to the lookout, complete with its UNESCO plaque, overlooking the most famous church in Lalibela, the iconic Bet Giyorgis, which stands on its own down here. We continue down to level with the roof of the church, and walk all around the top, taking photos, of the famous 15 metre-high three-tiered plinth in the shape of a Greek cross. This is a genuine monolith, with an integral roof, and currently doesn’t have an ugly weather cover, which makes a difference to the atmosphere of the whole place.
We access the church through a narrow sloping ramp cut into the rock, and a short tunnel at the bottom. We are shown through the church by a priest. It has the usual paintings and ceremonial crosses, but there is not much light for photos. The interior structure is well carved, with fine architectural detail, but is not patterned or textured, apart from a cross on one of the ceilings. Back outside we look at one of the corners of the excavation, which slopes down to the corner of the church, rather than being completely level with the floor. As a one-time excavator of hard sandstone, Murray knows that the corners are the hard part, as the rock is supported on two sides, and does not split off easily, and suspects the corner got too hard for the contractors, but the local story is that the slope is a biblical reference to the difficulty of getting to heaven, or something like that, but that was probably the story the contractors told to the supervisor. We walk back up the ramp and up to the main road to catch our bus back to the hotel for lunch.
After lunch, and a rest, we get the bus at 3pm, back to where the track to the Southeastern Group of churches branches off uphill from the main road. We take a photo of the cross carved from the bed of the “River Jordan”, which runs down into the gorge below St Giyorgis Church. It is a hard climb up to the church group, considering there is a road all the way which the bus could have handled without problems – at least we’re keeping fit.
This group is interesting because it incorporated more of the natural topography than the others, with deep trenches probably following natural faults. We climb up past a narrow sloping sliver of rock between two trenches, known as the “Way to Heaven”. Before we enter the twin churches of Bet Gabriel-Rufael, we take photos of the terrace with a long drop to the base level, and the multiple arches on the rock face into which the church is carved. We find this one of the more interesting looking features of the whole complex. We enter through a hole in the rock into a cave with roof support columns on the edge of the void, and a carved stone post and steel pipe balustrade. We cross a timber bridge over the moat to the main churches, and are shown by a priest the features such as large paintings, interesting furniture, and an old wooden door with a hand-made steel lock.
Outside on the edge of the void, we take photos of the deep trench beside the “Way to Heaven”, the arched façade of the church, and the bridge. We climb up to the top level for more photos down into another void, of the wooden trussed weather shed supported on timber pole trussed columns over another church and over the landscape. We walk through a deep trench and through a long, black tunnel, said to represent hell (no torches allowed) to Bet Merkorios the next church, for more icons, ceremonial crosses, shiny patterned curtains and priests. Take a great shot of the priest holding a cross, with the light filtering through a window. This church is different in having frescoes and reliefs on the walls (maybe 15th century), but also has colourful paintings of biblical characters and incidents. One of the paintings shows a horseman with a halo spearing a prone Roman soldier in the belly. Not unusual, but what is hanging below his toga is.
We move on to the Bet Amanuel (the second last church built – Bet Giyorgis was the last). It is a free-standing church finely carved with an exterior resembling masonry construction, after the Aksumite style. It has another ugly steel weather roof over it. The interior is intricately carved with arches, and architectural features, and the sort of embellishments on the columns you would find in a timber and stone building. There is an upper gallery in the building which is not accessible. The arches in the ceiling are showing substantial cracks in many places, possibly leading to future reinforcing of the structure.
After leaving the church, we find ourselves in a wide stone valley with two flights of stairs down to a narrowing trench which ends in a high, narrow tunnel. On the far side, we encounter Bet Abba Libanos, yet another church built into a cliff face, with a cut stone exterior wall, and a rough stone back and side walls in the interior, and a ceiling of naturally delaminated stone.
We exit the complex at 5pm, to take landscape photos, and return to the hotel, taking photos of hornbills and monkeys from our windows, and of Obama Gift Shop, across the street and the sunset at 6.15pm, after yet another exhausting day.
Day 18 of Tour Friday 8th February Lalibela
Today’s included activity is the walk to the rock church of Asheten Mariam, located at the far end of the mountain above Lalibela, just short of the peak. We can see the scar on the mountain just below the church, and it looks a long way up. At the church, the altitude is 3076 metres, while at the hotel it is only 2396 metres, leaving a mere 680 metres to climb. Only Jim, Jason, Jen, Murray, Dianne and Kibron are going (two fit young ones, Jim the same age as Dianne, and Murray). The other seven are shopping or staying in the town.
We have breakfast, take some hornbill and monkey photos, then leave the hotel at 7am, so that we can hopefully avoid the heat of the day. We had thought we would be taken to the start of the track, but no, we start walking from the hotel, through the city, and getting off the main road as soon as possible to walk on paths to pick up a rough gravel walking track. There are donkeys and mules for hire, but we resist the temptation, and keep walking, up past thatch-roofed huts. We walk on the main road for a while to a major intersection where the road passes through a deep cutting, downhill toward the airport, and we leave the road to climb upward on a rough walking path.
The path gets steeper and rougher for a while, worrying because, against the rules of the tour company, Dianne does not have walking boots, and the shoes she is using have little support, and not much tread. The altitude is starting to kick in, and we are having more breaks and drinks. The path is through an area where there are level areas and steep climbs between the steps. We accumulate young would-be helpers who want to help us over the rough patches, but we decline. Dianne is handling the rough patches ok, but slopes with pea-gravel are a real problem with her shoes. We reach a height where we can look down on the town, the churches and the closer round thatched huts of a resort. The thatch looks really good from above. From here we can look down into the valley to the north of Lalibela, which is terraced and has a large village.
After a steep slippery climb, up the narrow spine of a ridge, we reach a major shelf, with a large, shady tree, a farmhouse, and a woman selling cold soft drinks, so take a long break, then carry on up a gentler slope through eucalyptus woods and along an eroded creek bed with good, black soil exposed. We are surprised to cross a well-made gravel road, and walk through well-kept terraced fields, past farmhouses, then up the steep bare scar we could see from the hotel to find a loop in the same road. We follow the road past a car park with cars and buses. Another steep climb takes us to a small shelter and coffee shop. From here we can see a plateau below us with terraced fields extending to a point a kilometre away, and a narrow level path cut into the face of a cliff at our level to where we can see a round hut with a thatched roof, and a cliff face with a door in it. The last pinch up to the door is difficult, but we make it.
From the door, we climb stone steps in a very narrow cleft up to the church proper, where we take off our shoes and enter. The church is similar to many, with curtains, paintings, ceremonial crosses, and in this case, a large wooden crucified Christ figure. We are shown ancient illustrated bibles and texts, and a concertina collection of religious pictures. Afterwards, we climb to the top of the church, then upward to the end of the ridge, from where we can look back toward the path along the cliff, and the coffee shop. The point also gives 270 degree views around and down, taking in the terraced farms below, the airport in the distance, the city and a view of the peak and the auxiliary buildings above the church.
After our guide sorts out a problem with getting money refunded for Jim, who had gone ahead and had to pay separately, we head back, stopping at the coffee shop for coffee for some, soft drink for others. Dianne has found the steep descent from the church to the track a bit challenging in her shoes, and we are not looking forward to the even steeper and slipperier pinches on the return trip, especially as it is now 10am and starting to get hot, so we consider hitching a ride with tour buses at the car park, but have no luck. However, when we get back to where we first encountered the road, there is a tuk-tuk parked. On a whim, we ask how much for a trip back to the hotel, and get an offer of 300 Birr (A$15) which is a lot for a 10 km trip, but a bargain if it saves our life, or at the least, our energy. We bid the team goodbye, and set off with an extra youth as a passenger for a 10km kidney massage on very rough roads down through the northern valley to where we left the road for the track, and back to the hotel. We keep an eye up the mountain for the descending walkers, but don’t see them, and arrive back not long before them. On our tuk-tuk trip, we manage a few hurried photos out the side window, including shots of terraced fields and farms, villages to the north of the city, and the roadsides where they manufacture the cobble stones used historically in Lalibela (and a lot of Ethiopia). Others are disappointed when they find that they could have driven close to the church. As this was an included activity, they should have been given the choice.
Back at midday, we have lunch and a short sleep then all head out about 5pm to the other side of town for our farewell dinner at Ben Ababa, a restaurant part owned by a Scottish woman who is a real character, who comes and talks to us for a while. The building itself is quite strange, described by Lonely Planet as “Dali-esque jumble of walkways, platforms and fire pits perched on the edge of the ridge for 360 degree views”. Looks more like a fun park or water slide than a restaurant, brightly coloured, with spiral walkways leading up to cantilevered decks for drinks and down to terraces below for food. The restaurant is on the side of a steep hill with fantastic views to the western mountains and down to the valley with a twisting main road down into it. We get a shared platter of local and western food, prepared by young local chefs being mentored here. Most of the vegetables are grown here, and are pretty good. The only difficulty is finding out what you are eating, as it is dark before the food is delivered, and the light of the wood fired brazier is pretty dim. IPhone lights come in handy. Back at the hotel by 8.30pm we bid farewell to those leaving early in the morning, and retire to our beds, once again worn out.
Day 19 – Final Day of Tour Saturday 9th February Lalibela
Down to breakfast at 7am to say goodbye to everyone. We’re the only ones staying on for an extra day. We thought it was a good idea when we booked, but then had our doubts, as we are definitely all “churched” out, but were happy to hear that there is a big Saturday market in Lalibela. We have breakfast, then walk out through the town, looking for souvenirs for grandkids, then keep walking towards the market grounds. On the way, we pass the cross in the River Jordan, and take a photo of the plaque relevant to it. We turn down towards the Bet Giyorgis church as we can see people coming from the market down there.
This takes us into the back end of the market. From here we can see most of it spread out in a shallow valley. It is the biggest market we have seen in Ethiopia, and is wonderful, with hundreds of people, goats, sheep, donkeys and cattle; grain in sacks and spread out; lentils; green leaves, possibly khat; vegetables and chilies; bunches of reeds;tools and implements made in village forges, and almost as hot from the sun as the forge; grain weighing stations; honey in plastic bottles; second hand and new clothes and shoes; colourful blankets; and who knows what else. Definitely glad we stayed on an extra day. Murray climbs the hill where we found the circular stone huts to take some overall shots, then we find a cold drink, and then a tuk-tuk for 50 birr (Ä$2.45) to take us back to the hotel. We had a friend ride along with the driver, not sure if one was a driver and one a trainee. In the afternoon Murray climbs to the top of the annex and takes photos of the mountain and around the hotel, then sunset later.
Sunday 10th February Lalibela -Addis Ababa
After breakfast we arrange a shuttle for our 12.10pm flight to Addis. Walk around the grounds, taking photos of the town and historic sites maps in the lobby, views across the ravine to the now empty and surprisingly clean market grounds, the historic sites, the top of Bet Giyorgis, the ravine between us and Bet Giyorgis, the small village just outside our walls, green parrots nesting in voids in the walls of the annex, the five-star resort on a mesa across the valley, sunbirds in the jacaranda trees, the resident hornbills, and the mountain we climbed.
We are picked up early, but waste some time just up the road waiting for some born-to-rule local types to finish their leisurely breakfast, waste more time while the driver looks without success around their hotel yard for enough string to sort out a problem with the tailgate, as the existing string-pull on the lock is not long enough to get a decent grip on. He solved this problem with us by diving over the back seat and tripping the lock from inside, but this will be more difficult with baggage in the back. Our next pickup also has problems as, when we go to their hotel, two of the four are still down at Bet Giyorgis, as they were expecting a private pickup, so we have to return to Bet Giyorgis to pick them up, then back to the hotel for them and the other two to pack their gear and pile on board. One of the blokes is English, with an Ethiopian girlfriend/wife, and is currently working in Addis. The other couple doesn’t say a lot. We are running behind schedule, but if the conflicting reports about our plane departure follow the written record, we have plenty of time. Our route to the airport takes us to the top of the town, and down the big cutting we found on our way to the top of the mountain, then runs along the same mountain and round the end of it to descend the side of the eastern valley, and along the river at the bottom, to the airport. The road is relatively new, and though still gravel, pretty smooth. The airport is pretty new, and efficient for a rural airport, and we are subject to pretty tight security, but, again, are allowed to keep our water.
The flight south is pretty short, as we have come around in a big circle from Bahir Dar, and the distance is roughly similar. We cover similar terrain, but the air is a bit clearer, and the sun in a better place, so we get better photos from the air. We pass the same major mining and processing plant on the edge of an escarpment, and get better views of the ravines cutting up the plateau.
We have booked the Ghion Hotel (A$120) and arranged for a shuttle pickup, but there is no obvious parking area for shuttles at the domestic airport, so do the long walk along the edge of the construction zone to the International airport, where there is a defined area for shuttles. We have a look around, find a seat and wait. After a while one of the drivers waiting for clients asks what our story is, and he asks around, makes a few phone calls and nothing much happens. By the time it gets to 30 minutes after our arrival, Dianne decides to do something about it, goes to the International departures, through security, and talks her way into the International Arrivals where she knows there are booths for hotels and representatives. She can’t find a rep for the Ghion Hotel, but talks an agent into making a phone call, and comes back to the shuttle station. Again, nothing much happens, clients come and pick up shuttles, our helpful man picks up his client and leaves, and we are just about to go and get a taxi when the Ghion Shuttle arrives, about an hour and a half after we first arrived!
It is a fairly short trip to the hotel, past some serious security, with armed soldiers at all the intersections and on roof tops. Turns out they have been having the yearly Summit of the African Union, and today is the Assembly of all the Heads of State and Government of the African countries.
We have booked the Ghion Hotel because a couple of people have recommended it, and Julie and Jason are staying here. We have been warned it was once fancy, but is now pretty run-down, but it has enormous grounds with lots of greenery, which is pretty rare in Addis. As we are nearing the hotel, we suddenly recognize the area. We were on the edge of it when we had to walk from one metro line to the other when we arrived in Addis the first time – we certainly didn’t know we were so close to such a lovely area. The hotel is in the middle of a park, and we are suitably impressed. Give our last small change to the driver as a tip, so have nothing left for the porters. The reception area looks once-luxurious, now dated; the room is never-luxurious. The TV is a 20-inch CRT unit, possibly dating from the 1970’s. Not sure if it is a colour TV, as we never bother trying it, but use it as a preventer to keep the curtains closed. After settling in, we head out in search of food and drink and also to check out the grounds. We see an open-air restaurant area, but can’t work out how to access it, and end up going through a tunnel, and end up in the grounds where there is a regular fun-park atmosphere. The 50-metre pool is deserted for some reason, which is strange as it is only 5pm, and the weather isquite warm. The sign on the gate says the pool closes pretty early. The smaller pool next to it is getting cleaned, as it is pretty grubby. We walk into the outdoor restaurant in the pool area, fancy some fries, but there is a long queue, so keep going to the more crowded area where people are lining up to push kids on swings, roundabouts and slippery dips. Definitely has a Sunday feel about the place.
Leaving the fun-park area to the crowd, we find our way into the traditional Ethiopian Restaurant, which isn’t open, and walk through the general restaurant, which is located over the tunnel we walked through previously. It is not open, and won’t be till breakfast, so we go to the bar area for a drink, and see that people at the outdoor tables are eating snacks, though we had been told there was no food served at the bar. Having cracked the well-kept secret, we order an egg sandwich which is surprisingly good but not very filling. We see Jason, and all move to an outdoor table to talk to him, and Julie, when she turns up. They have been up to the Hilton to catch up with Julie’s friend, but the Hilton is locked down because of the African Union Conference, and they can’t meet as arranged, and have no way of getting in contact, so miss out on their night out. It is cold outside, but we sit out there eating and drinking till 9 PM, then give up and go to bed. Tomorrow morning we leave Ethiopia
Summary of Our Thoughts on Ethiopia
We’re certainly glad we went to Ethiopia. We were a bit worried beforehand, both health-wise and safety wise, but there were no more problems than lots of other countries. We are certainly glad we went to the tribal areas in the South. Seeing and learning about the different tribes and their cultures was certainly interesting, especially the Kurso, Banna, Dassanach, Hamar and Mursi. Their markets were also fascinating.
The boat trip on Chamo Lake was also really interesting, with much more bird and wildlife than we expected. We didn’t find anything particularly interesting in Addis Ababa, but at least we now know what it is like.
The main things in the North were churches and remarkable scenery. The Ura-Kidane Mehret monastery on Lake Tana out of Bahir Dar was definitely worth seeing.
The Blue Nile Falls weren’t as spectacular as they were in the past, due to the hydro-electrical dams, but seeing the village life around the area, especially the people and animals out walking along the tracks on the mountainside, was definitely worthwhile.
We thought Gonder itself was a pretty ordinary town, but the World Heritage Royal Enclosure site was pretty interesting, as was the Debre Berhan Selassie church, with its walls and ceilings covered with paintings. We loved the position of the Goha Hotel in Gonder, with its wonderful view, all the birds flying past, and relaxing on the deck after a swim.
We loved the Gelada baboons, with the red patch on their chest, at the Simien Mountains National Park. There were some great views of the mountains from the park, but the walking wasn’t as special as we were expecting, after all the write-ups we’d read. The special walking probably includes 1000 metre descents and climbs.
There was some magnificent scenery on the drive from Debark to Aksum. We were VERY impressed with the stelae in Aksum, made more so by the fact we were not expecting them to be so good. Another unexpected highlight in Aksum was the Ethiopian version of the Rosetta stone, with three different languages intricately carved on it.
The village of Yeha, between Aksum and Mekele was good to see as it was off the beaten track, had a great little market, and a good temple, though this lost a bit of its excitement when saw the photo of basically a pile of rocks before it was reconstructed. The museum had some fantastic goatskin parchment books, though not conserved very well. The rock-hewn Medhane Alem Kesho church in the Tigray region was interesting to see, as quite different to anything else we’d seen.
We loved the camel and cattle market at Woja.
Enjoyed exploring the Lalibela churches, though thought the atmosphere was ruined a bit by the large, ugly structures built to protect them. Loved the way you reached them by a labyrinth of narrow passages and tunnels made through the natural rock. Bet Giyorgis, carved in the shape of a Greek cross out of natural rock below ground level, was as spectacular as expected. Loved the churches of the Southeastern Group which used more of the natural topography, with more deep trenches and tunnels; and the interesting approach to Bet Gabriel-Rufael church.
We loved the Saturday market in Lalibela.
Another good thing about Ethiopia was just how many bird varieties we saw.
It’s a great time to go to Ethiopia at present, as things are relatively quiet after their tumultuous past. Hopefully this will continue but no-one knows what will happen after their next election in 2020, so go sooner rather than later.