Monthly Archives: January 2015

Cliffhanger

Normally when you arrive in a new town in Ethiopia there’s someone on hand asking what you’re looking for or if you need any help. As of late, my response has been “I’m looking for a hotel, the cheapest shithole available”. Let me tell you, for £2.50 you get what you pay for in this country!

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Debre Damo monastery is notable for its Axumite stone church, but more so for its ridiculous cliff top position. As you approach the monastery it looks like nothing more than a giant rock that wouldn’t look out of place in Avatar.

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Abba Aregawi founded the monastery in the 10th or 11th centuries, legend has it that a flying serpent chauffeured Abba and his fellow monks along with bricks and mortar to the top. Nowadays to reach the summit of the 3000m high amba (flat topped hill) you must climb the 20m wall using a leather rope. Most people opt to use a safety harness, but myself being action man, went without.

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Once inside the monastery the place is completely deserted, bar one priest who opened the church and showed me a bible written in the ancient Ge’ez tongue and printed on goat skin. Over 70 monks live here but most of them pray solo in their own caves that can only be accessed by rope lowered down from the main monastery. Tough life being an Ethiopian monk…

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When I exited the church a monk appeared seemingly from out of nowhere and took it upon himself to pour us all a pint of home brewed beer. The beer tasted like dirty dish water and looked like one of those cockroach smoothies that they always have to drink on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. I politely declined a second helping, as I didn’t really fancy getting on it in this monastery. The clearly intoxicated, grunting monk pointed out a few paintings around the church then seemed to just vanish into thin air just like Abba Aregawi had at the end of his mortal life!

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Pissed on roach smoothie

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A nearby tomb

The Tigray region in Northern Ethiopia is the abode of over 20 medieval churches carved into the faces of sandstone cliffs. Abuna Yemata Guh, as well as sounding like a song from the Lion King is probably the most inaccessible of the lot and is often billed as the most inaccessible church anywhere in the world. Hewn into a roadrunner style cliff set in an Old Testament landscape, you first have to hike for about 45 mins from the main road to nowhere until you reach a vertical rock face.

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Here some ‘scouts’ will follow you and try to tell you where to put your hands and feet, then demand a few quid each for their so-called service. Sorry, but just because I don’t climb the wall dozens of times a day and in 6 seconds flat, doesn’t mean I need your help. I just climbed the 5 metre wall in about 4 seconds and wondered what everyone was on about when they spoke of this ‘terrifying’ wall. I threw some pocket dust down for the old men, I hope this is a sufficient enough tip for doing absolutely nothing.

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Once I clambered over some more boulders the priest showed me to the remains of some former religious bodies that once walked these very rocks. Some of the skeletons still had flesh clinging onto the bones, what the hell! I’m going to start calling this priest father dead…

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The final ascent to the top requires you to squeeze through a small gap in the rocks, then along a narrow ledge overlooking a sheer 200m drop, then through the hole and into the small church carved into the mountainside. Inside there is a collection of nice, well maintained wall and ceiling murals. No one knows why these churches were made like this, possibly for security or maybe just spiritual isolation.

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9 Apostles

The priest started acting himself up towards the end by asking for 100% tip on top of what I’d already payed to see the church, after the hassle I’d already dealt with from his cronies on the way up, I was disappointed by their behaviour and left slightly jaded by the experience. I’m sure some Ethiopians just see white men as walking ATM machines. If so, then I must be one of those that is constantly out of order and spits your plastic out. Never mind, free lift home on the back of a truck, got to take the rough with the smooth in Ethiopia!

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Categories: Ethiopia | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Axum Is Nice Good Place (sic)

Gonder is the best place to arrange treks to the Simien Highlands. It also served as the capital of the imperial empire for 250 years until its central monarchy lost its importance to other regional leaders. Built by Emperor Fasilidas in 1635 , the only still standing castle in Africa that was not erected by Europeans lies within the city’s royal enclosure. Avoid paying the steep £7.50 entrance fee by sneaking in the exit to the enclosure, which isn’t clearly signposted from the outside.

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The black-maned Abyssinian lion was an important royal symbol throughout the history of Ethiopia. Lions would’ve been kept in the enclosure for ceremonial purposes and their cages still stand within the grounds.

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Fasilidas pool just outside of Gondar town is said to be Fasilidas’ second residence. The pool is the centre stage for the annual Timkat festival in Gondar.

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Getting from Gondar to Axum is no walk in the park. You’re required to wake up at 4:30am and sit on a cramped, smelly, bone shaking public bus for 9 hours while it clashes its way along one of the worst roads imaginable. The views are nice, but that’s where the fun ends. The bus will stop a few times so you can buy double deep fried snacks and pay to piss into a filthy hole in the ground, in the meantime you just have to make do with a bus load of coughing and travel sick Ethiopians. Desperate times call for desperate measures…

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Axum is the place where the roots of modern Ethiopia lie. Not too much is known about the Axumite empire, but they say that it was one of the big players in world trade between the 1st and 7th centuries AD. For a city with such a high caliber, I expected its sights to be a lot more impressive or interesting. The main attraction is the stelae field, their main purpose has little scholarly basis but it’s presumed they were erected to accredit numerous kings and other important figures within the Axumite empire.

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The largest standing stelae at 23 metres high belongs to King Ezana. The standing of the obelisk is one of mankind’s great mysteries, but local legend believes that it was the work of the mysterious powers of the Ark of the Covenant situated over the road, which by the way you have to pay £7.50 to look a building from the outside which apparently holds the Tabot aka the original 10 commandments, great value for money. A more realistic idea of how the stelae was erected is that they were fetched 25km after being cut from a quarry and howked up using a few elephants and a lot of man power. The largest of Axum’s stelae, which would’ve being 33m high toppled over whilst it was being erected and has lay there shattered into pieces for the last 2000 years. If this was caught on camera it would be great footage to send into you’ve been framed.

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There’s a few tombs in the area, then some more stelae, then tombs, then stelae, stelae, and more stelae, yeah I’m finding it hard to get exited looking a load of knob shaped rocks. There’s an OK modern looking church that is strangely decorated with wacky comic book strip paintings. In my opinion Axum extremely boring and I’m quite disappointed considering the hype surrounding it. Most Ethiopians I’d asked about the city said that Axum is nice good place (sic). It is nice, if you like admiring droves of French tourists.

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Oh La La


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The Leaning Stelae of Axum

There’s another tall story around the corner about a dirty reservoir that was apparently created 3000 years ago for the Queen of Sheba to bathe in. You can even sit on the very rock where she unrobed to take a dip!

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Tired of looking a rocks and hearing tales with very little credibility, I was on the first bus out of Axum the next day. For some reason Ethiopians can’t seem to handle travelling and yet again the bus was full of people being violently sick. I guess the sick thing is something I’ll have to get used to, I must admit though that there seems to be a certain authentic charm about rolling over the Tigraian countryside in a minibus covered in regurgitated injera.

Categories: Ethiopia | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The Roof Of Africa

Ethiopia unknowingly to some, is set upon a giant plateau and about 50% of the country is over 1500m above sea level. The Simien Mountains is often referred to as ‘The Roof Of Africa’ and is the reason why I first came to Ethiopia to begin with. I’m doing a four day trek into the mountains to take in some of the highlights, I hope I’m not disappointed.

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It’s mandatory to hire an armed scout to take you into the national park, for reasons unknown. The guy I ended up with I’m fairly certain is not a trained scout at all, but just a villager who was approached and given a rifle when the park office was short staffed. I didn’t mind though as Haile only spoke about 3 words in four days and was a pretty cool guy to trek with. I also had a guide who had breath so bad it smelled like something had crawled into his oesophagus and died. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to ask him something without being sick but thankfully the highland air disguised the stench, to a certain extent.

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Day one of the trek was quite light and mainly followed the road but already the views were quite spectacular. We passed through a few villages with some token snotty nosed kids who like being photographed. It’s a shame the adults won’t smile for your photos unless you pay them…

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Endemic to Ethiopia is the Gelada Baboon. It’s estimated over 7000 of these beasts live in the Simien Highlands alone. The baboons hang around in herds of up to 400 and don’t mind their human counterparts getting up close one bit, last time I was surrounded by this many anthropoids must have been when I ended up nightclubbing in Sunderland on a Friday night.

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Some of the views from the Simiens look toward the vast valleys of Eritrea, which at one time were ancient hills but over millions of years have eroded into thousands of pinnacles.

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When doing a four day trek of this kind it’s very interesting to see the landscape change before your very eyes. The route leads you past the Gich Abyss and into a beautiful valley where the Jinbar river flows, then up and over a picturesque savannah which looks very African, well, that’s because it is…

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The twin peaks ‘mullets’ are quite iconic rocks and the image that will appear on a lot of Simien Highland post cards, why they’re named after a vile 80’s hairstyle is anyone’s guess. Imet Gogo at 3940 is possibly the most dramatic scenery in the mountains offering 360 degree views of the surrounding valleys, wake me up, for Imet Gogo! Inatye (4070m) about another 2 hours hike, isn’t too shabby either.

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The Walia Ibex is also endemic to the area but is a lot rarer than the Geladas. I was lucky enough to spot a few Walias near the end of the trek, I wasn’t that impressed by them as I though they just looked like a clumsy mountain goat, that’s probably why the Walias is also the nickname of the Ethiopian national football team.

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On the final morning we made our ascent to Bwahit peak, which at 4430m, like the Berlin song ‘took my breath away!’ So Bwahit may not be the highest peak in Africa, and only the second highest in Ethiopia for that matter, but the Simien mountains have blown away any topography I’ve ever seen before and exceeded all expectations. This calls for one thing…posing with Haile’s rifle!

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Categories: Ethiopia | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Ethiopia

From Finche I wanted to travel to Kosober, 300km North. First I would have to go Debre Markos, about half way, to catch a bus from there. The problem was there were no buses from Finche, so it meant having to flag down a deluxe skybus coming from Addis. The skybus conductor tried to take my eyes out with a ridiculous price so I politely declined and kept trying, hoping a mini bus with a spare seat would stop for me. On numerous occasions I was offered a ride to Debre Markos by some private jeeps if I paid 100Birr (£3.20). This was probably a fair price considering the distance, but part of me was thinking I was being exploited, but mostly through my own stubbornness (or tightness), I refused. After an hour with no success I decided to walk a few kilometres to a petrol station. It was here where three truckers in a heavy goods vehicle stopped and let me in.

It turned out the truckers were travelling all the way to Kosober, so I spent the next 9 hours stuffed in the front cab of the vehicle eating bag after bag of Ethiopian ‘Colo’ nuts and singing Whitney Houston songs, during which time we broke down twice and were pulled over by the police for overloading the vehicle. This pretty mental day ended with us getting drunk at our destination and Ethiopian shoulder dancing in the village discotheque. The journey didn’t cost me a single penny. Some experiences you just can’t buy.

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Kosober is a friendly town that sees very few white people, so every time I step out on the hotel balcony I have a dozen or so people coming to have a look, which made me feel a bit like Michael Jackson. Nobody speaks English and all the café’s menus are in Amharic. I’ve gotten a little sick of eating ‘shiro’, an Ethiopian dish made from beans so thought I’d try to order ‘Mesr’, a lentil based dish. When I walked into a restaurant waving a piece of paper shouting the word ‘Mesr’ I got the sort of looks that said “What is this white fool doing?” Shiro it is then. I found it so amusing that I couldn’t help but sit and laugh to myself while I waited for my food. The bloke across from me draped in white robes and looking like a ninja, found it absolutely hilarious.

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Lake Zengena, is about 6km outside of Kosober town. The walk along the road and through Agaw villages gave me an insight to local life, even if it was kids just covered in snots following me along and asking for pens. Zengena crater lake is the second deepest in Ethiopia, and walking around the 3.5km trail was as tranquil as it gets.

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Vervet Monkey

I made it to Bahir Dar three days after leaving Addis. The total cost on transport – 90Birr, compared to the 350Birr for the direct sky bus. Bahir Dar is a tourist town and the first main stop over on what is known as ‘the historical circuit’. The Blackpool of Ethiopia is clean and manageable enough, although it does have the odd hustler trying to start a conversation with a hidden agenda, I normally immediately tell them that I’m SAS – a Super Army Soldier, that normally gets rid of them. The town itself holds very little points of interest, the main sight being the Lake Tana monasteries.

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Lake Tana is the largest lake in Ethiopia measuring in at 65km in diameter, and is the source of the world’s longest river. Like most big Lakes, it was formed by a volcanic explosion about 20 million years ago. The lake houses over 20 monastic churches dotted about its dozen or so islands and peninsulas, many of which were founded during the 14th century rule of Amda Tsion. With the money I’d saved on transport I decided to take a boat trip out to the monasteries, I visited 5 monasteries but only decided to go in one when I realised it was 100Birr charge for each church, which for what they are, is ridiculous.

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The churches are all made from natural materials sourced from around Lake Tana, Beta Mariam (the stick of Mary) is covered from top to bottom with nice paintings which serve as a visual encyclopaedia of Ethiopian Orthodox Church concerns, while also giving a little insight on what it would probably be like going on a wild DMT trip.

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I’m pleased I didn’t go in every church as apparently, once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Visiting the monasteries was a decent enough day out but I somehow felt that the overall aura of the place has been somewhat ruined by the greed of the people there. The pushy souvenir sellers tell you looking is for free but they fail to mention that if you do show any interest whatsoever, that’s enough to warrant buying a piece of junk for 10x the local price. I must admit I did find it strangely amusing having to physically pull an old woman’s hand from my shorts as I was leaving the island at the end of this over priced boat trip. I guess some experiences you can buy…

Categories: Ethiopia, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

New Flower, New Church, New Year

On arrival in Ethiopia I spent a few days in the capital, the ‘New Flower’ Addis Ababa. The third highest capital city in the world didn’t automatically strike me as a particularly attractive city, it’s spread out and full of pick pockets, chancers and general weirdos. During my first walk out of the lodge I was approached by someone who shouted in my face “YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN JESUS CHRIST” and almost pick pocketed in a double pronged attacked. Little do they know I’d read the warnings on forums and in guide books so had nothing in my pockets but empty tab boxes filled with dog shit.

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Lion of Judah Park

One thing I was interested in seeing was the Museum of National History, it took me a while to find the place by foot, but I did ask for directions off a shoe shiner who told me to “walk forward 200 centimetres and it’s behind you”. The museum houses Lucy, a humanoid skeleton of the Australopithecus afarensis species, when Archaeologists discovered the oldest ever humanoid skull (3.5 millions years) it caused a complete rethink over human genealogy and proving that our ancestors were walking the earth 2.5 millions years earlier than originally presumed.

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Addis served its purpose for getting me settled in Ethiopia, but I was happy to get out, my first stop North is the medieval monastery of Debre Libanos.

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The 800 year old monastery was the head of the Ethiopian church for four centuries until the actual church was destroyed and hundreds of monks slaughtered by Italian fascists in the mid 19th century. The new church, built by Haile Selassie is far from impressive, but the monastery itself has a very special feel about it and after witnessing an exorcism, I can see why it remains an important pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians. Set in a 700m high canyon hundreds of monks live in the nearby caves.

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A cave on the other side of the river where Tekle Haymanot, the founder of this monastery, prayed until his death at the age of 98 is now a shrine where one can go and be blessed, providing you’ve not eaten that day. I was gullible enough to believe the priest when he said I should walk over to the cave with an armed guard for safety. Nothing bad was ever going to happen, as there were pilgrims everywhere, this is just a racket they have going on to earn the guard a bit on the side and if anything, having a babbling old man pointing out ‘trip hazards’ with the end of his rifle is rather annoying. I gave him 33p which he grumbled at and them grassed me up to the priest, so I made it 50p.

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Outside the cave

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Inside the cave

From Debre Libanos I hiked to Ras Darge’s bridge, built by Menelik II some 200 years ago using limestone sealant and crushed ostrich shell. The Portuguese bridge as it is communally known, arcs over the Gur River, which runs over the gorge and into the Jemma River, a tributary of the Nile. With the bridge and waterfall behind you, and the canyon in front, this really is a stunning setting. There’s a few fresh pools formed by the waterfall, seen as there was no one about I thought I may as well take all my clothes off and jump into the icy cold water, and I mean freezing!

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After climbing out and bursting into a fit of laughter, I remembered it was New Year’s Day, what a way to spend New Year’s Day!

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The view from the waterfall ‘Dog Valley’

I walked back to the main road and flagged a lift to the next town Finche, 15km North, to settle down for the night. Finche was nothing more than a stopover and a bed for the night, nondescript. I’ve no idea what Finche means but if I was to hazard a guess, I would say it could be an Amharic word for burning, as that is exactly what the town smelt like, Happy New Year folks!

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New Years Dip!

Categories: Ethiopia | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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