Ethiopia

Abyssinian Dreams

It’s been some months now since my visit to Ethiopia. The feeling I get every time I return to the UK after a trip, however long it may be, is a felling of “did that really happen?” Could it be the stark contrast between the heart of Africa and Northern England that makes the experience so surreal or the fact that I’d done so much in such a short space of time? So now that another African odyssey is in the horizon I’ve been reflecting on what Ethiopia was, or wasn’t like. 
 

Got the shirt, but did I go there and do that?

 

Rather than describe old Abyssinia for how it is, it would be easier to tell you how it is not. Far too many minds conjure up images of the 1985 famine – starvation, death, children with swollen bellies, deserts and dark spectres of Africa. Yes parts of Ethiopia are very poor and there are deserts, but the majority of the country is a fertile high altitude plain, a virtual mountain kingdom. 

Typical village scene in Western Ethiopia

Ethiopia emerged from the scrabble for Africa as one of the two nations on the continent to never be colonised by European powers, making it a truly unique place. There were two Italio-Ethiopian wars, but from what I saw the only influence the Italians left on the country is probably the worst spaghetti you’ll ever taste. Apart from that, Ethiopian food is delicious. Contra to popular belief Ethiopian cuisine does not consist of nothing, injera is the stable food – a sour pancake made from fermented teff (a grain grown unique to the plateau), this can be served with numerous sauces or meats varying in taste. Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days for orthodox Christians where meat and dairy products are forbidden, so you’re basically a vegan for two days of the week, which isn’t particularly a bad thing and helps the population maintain a very healthy and balanced diet. 

 

Locals sharing a Shiro with Injera

  

Shekla Tibs

 
In 1582 when the rest of the Christian world dropped the Julian calendar in favour of the revised Gregorian calendar, Ethiopia didn’t. As a result Ethiopia is seven years and eight months ‘behind’ the rest of the world. So it’s 2007, that explains the droves of young indie kids sporting tight black black jeans with £6.50 army surplus store trainers prancing around to the Fratellis. Just to confuse things there’s also 13 months to a year and the day starts at 6 instead of 12. Wouldn’t it be nice to start work at Ethiopian time? 

 

Waiting for a bus on Ethiopian time

 
Rastafarians worship Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia, as God incarnate. In fact, the name of the movement is a blend of two words, the Emperor’s pre-imperial name – Ras ( the equivalent of Duke in English) and his given name, Tafari Makonnen. Many Rastafarians throughout the world came to live in Ethiopia after the emperor’s death in 1975 and set up a commune on the outskirts of a town called Sheshamane. My visit to the commune was a very short and unpleasant one. Upon my arrival at the Twelve Tribes of Israel headquarters I was immediately surrounded by a hoard of pushy, fist pumping, plastic Ethiopian Rastas, trying to sell everything from Ethiopia’s best ganja to tacky Bob Marley wigs. I had a quick conversation with the commune’s elder but couldn’t really concentrate when at the same time the chancers outside were claiming that I was in debt to them for opening the commune’s gate. There was a bad vibe from the get go so my visit was cut abruptly short. I wonder if the hustler’s frosty reception had anything to do with the fact one of us was wearing a shirt saying ‘F*ck off! I’m Irish’…

  
I spent my final days in Ethiopia back in Addis Ababa a city I’d grown to love. My final weekend turned out to coincide with Bob Marley’s 70th birthday celebrations, they were unveiling a statue of the man himself in the city. I attended a massive Reggae party at Jams night club around the Bole-wood district of Addis, which seemed to be a fitting end to an incredible trip. As the horn hook from Jimmy Cliff’s classic ‘You can get it if you really want’ resonated throughout the small club, I had a sudden epiphany – this Ethiopian journey has been mind blowing and life changing for all the right reasons, and proved to me that you can get it if you really want. Even if the whole thing was just a dream. LTW. 

Harold Marcus’ History of Ethiopia was an exellent informative read before and during my visit

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Smell The Coffee 

Western Ethiopia is the corner of the country that is mostly ignored by travellers for a few reasons, its lack of well known sights, the proximity to South Sudan and our fear of the unknown. All these were good enough reasons for me to head out there. The nine hour bus journey takes you through a landscape that will abolish all preconceptions about Ethiopia being a land of desert and famine, as even during the dry season the Western Highlands are lush and green with a tropical feel that I’ve yet to experience in this country.

Jimma is the largest town and capital of the Kaffa region and has few sights, but there are some decent day trips out into the surrounding area. Lake Boye a few kilometres outside of the town isn’t exactly a lake but a bog, is a reliable place to see hippos. The Hippopotamus’ name derives from a Greek word for ‘river horse’, you would expect finding these huge beasts to be a simple task but you really need to know where to look around the river. Thankfully for a small fee you can hire some young boys who work as semi professional hippo locators to help you find the Hippopotamus amphibius.

  The Hippo Locators

Hippos are the deadliest animal in Africa and are responsible for 300+ human deaths per year. I did see one hippo behind a tree on the other side of the riverbank but decided to get a little closer in search of a National Geographic style photo. Hippos are extremely aggressive and easily frightened so by the time I got close enough it made a mad dash into the water. They can run as fast as 30mph on land so sadly even with the help of the hippo locators who threw stones at the beast I was unable to get that vital shot. But for those of you who are unsure of what a hippo looks like I have attached a photo anyway…

My wildlife hunting escapades continued when I’d heard about a reliable place to spot Hyenas on the outskirts of town. The Hyena belt as it’s known is no wildlife sanctuary, just a strip of garbage. The best time to catch the laughing mammals is around dusk, to the locals it must look funny seeing a Farenji wandering around in a sea of plastic bags repeating the word ‘Djibb’, which is Amharic for hyena. They never turned up, guess they got the last laugh.

Kaffa is the region where the Arabica strain of coffee originated. It’s thought to have been discovered by a young herdsman called Kaldi when his goats became hyperactive after eating the wild leaves and berries. Kaldi then integrated the coffee into the local monastery where the monks first laughed at the idea that anything growing on tree can give a stimulating effect, so threw all the berries into the fire. It was only then that the monks became seduced by the fumes from the fire that they decided to give it a go. The rest is history and now coffee accounts for 70% or Ethiopia’s annual foreign revenue.

In this famously coffee mad country I wanted to visit a coffee forest in the area. Sadly it’s not the right time of year so there were no berries in bloom, in fact I think we were more interest to the locals than the forest was to us. It did give me the chance to create an Ethiopian Abbey road though.

Come Together

Getting away from Jimma was the most psychologically demanding journey I’ve done in the country. What should have been a three hour bus ride took closer to seven. The public bus wasn’t full when leaving so stopped every couple of minutes to let people on or off and seen as it was a Friday, stopped for around 45 minutes for all the passengers to pray. This is generally the type of laid back, no urgency attitude I’ve come to expect from Africa and if anything this journey has taught me that getting annoyed or being impatient isn’t going to help and certainly isn’t going to make things different. Just sit back, things will happen when Africa decides it will happen.

The town of Weliso en route back to Addis was a suitable place to stop and recharge my brain after sitting on the never-ending bus all day. The church here, Weliso Maryam, attracts many sick, disabled and mentally ill pilgrims who are said to be cured from the holy water that flows into the church. As it happened my embarrassing case of piles that I had from sitting down too much on long Ethiopian bus journeys had miraculously disappeared. Now I’m a belieber!

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Up On The Downside

Possibly the singular most popular tourist attraction in Ethiopia are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Capital of the Zagwe dynasty which ruled Ethiopia from the 10th to 13th centuries, the town is named after King Lalibela himself.

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The dozen or so churches are carved into the rocks in the surrounding area by the world’s greatest craftsmen and artisans, and some supposedly by the help of angels in one day. Lalibela is a tourist town, and the downside of mainstream tourism is that it creates scams, overpricing and greed. Here all the kids ask for money, everyone wants to offer you some kind of service, and worst of all the entrance fee for these churches stands at a ridiculous $50 making them the world’s most expensive places of worship, why? Because people pay it.

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To put that into perspective, St.Paul’s cathedral costs £10 and Notre Dam is free. The deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church ordered the drastic price increase last year when he realised that all travellers have an endless pot of money. Promising to help the local area with the money, the only signs of change so far is now the deacon and his cronies drive around in Lamborghinis, wear Cartier watches and eat truffles for breakfast. There was no way I was ever going to pay £32 to see a church, but I did manage to sneak into the most impressive, Bet Giyorgis, by bathing myself in onions, then walking in with a hoard of rich French tourists. St.George as he is known to you and I, was apparently raging that King Lalibela never created a rock-hewn church dedicated to him so the pair had words. It was then that Lalibela said that the most majestic of churches would be carved into the mountain providing George picked his dummy up.

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Proof I was there

Accommodation in Lalibela is also expensive for Ethiopia, the upside is I did manage to find the biggest dive in town. Tena Adam hotel is situated right behind the bus station. To describe this place as a step up from the gutter would be very kind word and at just over two quid a night, I felt robbed. Maybe I should’ve slept in the bus station.

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After returning to Addis for a few days I decided to travel South to the city of Hawassa. Hawassa is the largest city in the Rift Valley and it’s name derives from a local Sidamo word meaning ‘wide plain suitable for grazing’. The city is nice and friendly in comparison to Lalibela but the downside is there’s not an awful lot to do here. Is that necessarily a bad thing? Sometimes the real beauty of a place lies within the people, the culture and the general vibe, not some massive tourist attraction. The Lake Hawassa offers an insane array of big bird life, here thousands of Marabou storks live by the waters, to the locals these lanky creatures are nothing more than pests just like pigeons and seagulls are elsewhere.

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Tabor hill offers some nice views of Hawassa and on a Sunday you will see hardcore church goers flamboyantly praying on its sacred earth. The upside of Hawassa is most of the kids won’t ask for money but just follow you along looking at you as they think it’s cool to hang out with Farenjis, harmless enough.

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Football is huge in Ethiopia. The English Premier League seems to be the competition most people follow. Almost everyone you speak to seems to support Manchester United or Arsenal, when I tell them I support Newcastle the reply is normally ‘Alan Shearer’ or ‘they used to be a good team’ or ‘hahahahahaha’. I happened to be in town when there was an Ethiopian Premier League game taking place between Hawassa City and Dedebit F.C.

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The quality of the match was decent enough as there were a few international players and a few thousand turned out. The downside is I was collared by a mute whose only way of communicating was by letting out a high pitched grunt and writing things down on a piece of paper. After 30 minutes I fathomed out he was actually the brother of one of the Dedebit players. Things started getting weird when he scribbled down on his scrap of paper that he loved me, making me wonder if he was actually a mute at all or if he’d just dropped a few E’s before the game.

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Hawassa City created plenty of chances but lacked that killer touch, they ended up losing 0-2 and remained in the relegation zone. The home fans went away unhappy with the result, but on the upside at least the ticket only cost 15p! Later that day I paid three times that to watch Arsenal on the TV.

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Life On Mars?

Danakil Depression sounds like a personality disorder that would likely get you some time off work, but it is actually a large area of Northeastern Ethiopian that straddles the Eritrean border. Many points drop below 100m making it the hottest place on earth (apparently), the lowest point in Africa and as they say, one of the most inhospitable regions in the world. Certainly Danakil claims many superlatives, but scientifically speaking it is one of the driest and most tectonically active regions on our planet and effectively a southerly terrestrial extension of the rifting process that formed the Red Sea. Visiting this place is a god awful small affair, but will I ever be in Northern Ethiopia again? Probably not.

Near the settlement of Hamed Ela are the vast salt pans which were created because of the low elevation and the Danakil’s proximity to the Red Sea. The nomadic people of the region and the oldest ethnic group in Ethiopia known as the Afar, mine salt from this area and ferry it to and from Mekele with their camel caravans, a round trip takes fourteen days. Workers here have struck for fame and are very high earners by Ethiopian standards, still doesn’t stop them demanding money for photos, how tight can you get!

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Blocks of salt are cut into perfect rectangular bars so it easier to load the camels

Salt Lake Asale is officially the lowest point in Africa at 116m below sea level and is thought to be haunted by the evil spirit Abo Labo. The only thing haunting about this experience is the chafing I’m getting between John Wayne’s hairy saddle bags.

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Doing a Gandhi

Dallol means colourful place in the Afar language. As you walk through this field of sulphurous hot springs not only does it smell like Ethiopian omelettes but you can also hear the bubbling chemical reactions taking place under your feet. The freakiest show in the Danakal wouldn’t look out of place under the sea as the zinc, potassium and sulphur deposits look strikingly like sea coral.

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When you go on a group excursion it’s very unfortunate to be lumbered with a ‘professional’ photographer. Not only do they make the rest of the party wait until they’ve taking at least 3000 photos of each subject, but they seem to think they’re entitled to the seat with the clearest view spoiling everybody else’s shots. #arsehole

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Salt mountain is a mixture of salt and other minerals which is why this is never mined by the Afar. I’d be very surprised if the area had never been used for a Hollywood film set as this reminds be of so many things – Planet of the Apes, Krypton…Mars?

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Look at those cavemen go!

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Bubbling potassium pool

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The main attraction, money shot and best selling show in the Danakil has to be the Erte Ale volcano. The easy three hour hike rises from below sea level to a summit of around 600m where at the top you’re rewarded with the world’s only permanent lava pit. It’s believed that the crater has a continuous link to a shallow magma chamber. The locals of course have got their own ideas and assume that Erte Ale is the gateway to Hell so many of them refuse to look into it, maybe these Afar men should have a walk around Hendon in Sunderland, then they’d know what Hell really looks like.

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Danakil is like a geologists sunken dream, I don’t think there is anywhere in the world where bubbling potassium pools, lunar landscapes, sulphurous springs and super active volcanoes lie within within the same relatively small vicinity. Here’s another superlative, the depression is the most bizarre place I’ve ever visited from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads! And to think that people actually exist here, it makes you wonder if there’s life here, is there life on Mars?

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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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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.

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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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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

Do You Know It’s Ethiopia Time?

So as the weeks became months, then the months had accumulated into a full year, a full year which has seemingly passed me by since I returned to the U.K. I thought it was time to have a break from the cycle of of living week in, week out, waiting for things to change, waiting for the weekend, waiting to give my liver a good kicking on a Saturday night, waiting for Christmas, waiting for derby day. And so I’ve decided to book a flight to….Ethiopia, yes Ethiopia.

Here’s a few examples of people’s reactions when I tell them I’m going to Ethiopia:-

Normally…

“Ethiopia?”

Proceeded by one of the following :-

“I hope you’re taking plenty of food”
“You taking your running trainers?”
“You going to stay in a mud hut?”
“Watch out for Ebola”
“You’re going to come back thin as a rake, covered in flies, sporting a pot belly”
“Don’t get a lip plate”
“What are you going to do there? ”

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Ebola tester at Addis Ababa airport

It’s interesting to hear many people’s stereotypes about a country that is all too famously associated with band aid and Bob Geldof. Now I’m going to be honest, what gave me the idea to come here was watching a BBC documentary on primates which showed a breed of baboon that only live in the Ethiopian highlands. I done some research and I realised that Ethiopia is a whole lot more than just war and famine. Here is where the roots of Ras Tafari spawn, it’s also where anthropologists have traced the beginning of mankind, one of only two African nations to have never been under a European rule..the more I researched, the more obsessed I became and I realised that independent budget travel would be entirely possible.

Getting a visa for Ethiopia is very straight forward. I just sent my passport with all the supporting documents to the Embassy in London along with a cheque for £22 and a three month multiple entry visa was issued and back in my hand within three days.

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I won’t be taking much food apart from my Christmas Chocolates, I’ll be taking some hiking boots but no running shoes, I probably will end up staying in a mud hut, I don’t want Eh-bo-la (try saying that with a Yorkshire accent) and to be fair, I don’t know what I’m going to do just yet, but I do know, it’s Ethiopia time.

Categories: Ethiopia, Useful Information | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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