Country number: 124
Territory number: 144
When? March 2015
How? Bus and local flights
Who? Group Tour
(N.B. Teeny Tiny the famous blogging bear now has an alter ego – Tiny Whiney. You won’t have much trouble working out which bits he writes).
‘Ethiopia confounds every expectation.’ You arrive expecting a vast featureless desert and instead find yourself overwhelmed by majestic landscapes and climatic abundance. You expect a land which has been ravaged to the point of ruin by years of civil war, and instead you find close to the best civil amenities in Africa and almost no obvious signs that a war ever took place. You arrive expecting to see human degradation and abject poverty, and instead find yourself immersed in a culture besotted with itself and its history, and marked by a sense of unforced pride that is positively infectious.
Ethiopia is a true revelation. It is the most welcoming, enjoyable and uplifting country I have ever visited.
Very pissed off. Bloody hairy Saturday. Alarm clock running slow so had to get ready in a hurry. Plane delayed and got checked out by men looking for would be jihadi wives. So half an hour to transit in Istanbul. They assured me my bag was on the plane with me and of course it wasn’t, and to cheer me up even more no one in Addis even knows where it is. All my beautifully packed things. All I have are jeans and my Ugg boots, which aren’t wildly suitable for tropical Africa. No shops open, it’s Sunday and I’ve got shampoo in my cough mixture. (Long story).
My trip operator bills itself as using the best available hotels. This hotel-the Intercontinental -is a carbon copy of the Rotana at Al Ain but nowhere near as well run. Pretty grubby, no hot water in my room, and a magnificent view of a building site. The Internet is so slow it would probably be quicker to post my correspondence. The hotel got an award for best luxury hotel last year. I shudder to think what the others are like.
Addis definitely won’t win any awards for prettiest town either. Lots of building work, sprawling shanty towns and the biggest open market in Africa. Which is closed today. The museum documents the cradle of civilisation – though all the paleontological remains displayed are copies. Pictures and statues of Haile Selassie abound, as apparently he was very highly thought of (sorry). I have discovered that Rastafarians are named after him- well his proper kingly name-he’s a great Jamaican hero.
The food is like mezze but served on floppy blankets of sour spongey bread called injera. You break a flap off and use it as a scoop to eat with. The mezze bit’s not bad but the bread is going to be an acquired taste. Dinner is a repeat of lunch and the bread isn’t tasting any better yet.
Today is a million times better. My bag has arrived. The group- of six others -all seem very nice and the half Italian half Ethiopian guide, Dario is great. We fly north to Gondar, seventeenth century capital of Ethiopia and marvel at its arid mountains, sandstone castles and wooden orthodox churches. One, smaller castle has a ‘swimming pool’ that is filled with water for the annual Timkat Festival. The people parade their copy of the Ark of the Covenant (under cover of course) and then all jump into the water. A thatched church covered with bright frescoes is the most prized and definitely the best.
Ethiopia is tropical but the north is mainly mountainous plateau so it’s just pleasantly warm, tee shirt weather, and we’re all a little out of breath. Lunch is Ethiopian mezze again but with pasta, rice and potato on offer, so injera is optional. I abstain.
The people on the whole are very friendly, very gentle and very handsome, high cheekbones, big brown eyes and long necks. Even the street hawkers don’t try too hard – well most of them don’t. The city streets are a melee of people, donkey carts and three wheeled tuk-tuk style taxis called Bajajs.
Now we’re ten thousand feet up and puffing more than a little. I have a hut shaped hotel chalet perched on the top of a mountain. Amazing stripy scenery that would give the Grand Canyon a run for its money and troupes of fascinating gelada baboons who are as gentle as the people. The large males are very cleverly disguised as small lions with halo type manes. They are herbivores and spend all day digging in the soil for roots to eat, or grooming each other. At night they scale down the escarpment to hide from the hyenas and leopards. We haven’t seen any of those.
Next day is a series of switchbacks through the mountains and across the gorges. This time the rock formations peering out the of the haze rival Monument Valley. The flatter dry pastures swarm with goats and turbaned locals drive donkeys laden with timber, floppy- eared sheep and cattle, to market. The shaggy baby donkeys are almost unbearably cute. There are prettily decorated horse carts with rectangular coloured blinkers, on occasion dangerously out of control and threatening to tip over. The odd camel train sashays past on its way back from Nubia. Most of the houses are little cubes. Except for the corrugated tin roofs it’s like driving through the Bible. We’ve descended seven thousand feet and gone from the decidedly nippy (at night) to baking hot.
I’m getting to know the group. Most are single travellers, three men, three other women. Two are Reuters reporters who live in Brussels – interesting-, one an IT teacher , one a master of hounds farmer from Sussex , one a German accountant who lives in London and one a high flying Yank from The Big Apple who has just done an MBA at LSE. Of the three guys two are gay and one definitely has Aspergers, so that rules out any possibility of romance. I will leave you to work out who is who, but it makes for witty and interesting company.
My room is a furnace. There is no fan, let alone air conditioning. And the water keeps shutting off. And there are power cuts every time I try and work on my computer. This is the best hotel in Axum.
Axum is a huge building site. They hope for big things from tourism here. It was the first capital city in what is now Ethiopia so we are talking seriously old- tenth century BC. This was the Queen of Sheba’s base – a fact we’re told was very recently given scholarly credibility by archaeologists. (Yemen was also laying claim). Ethiopia is the home of coffee and the streets (when you can get past the roadworks) are full of cafes, roasting beans and little braziers that waft frankincense into the second breeze.
Today we see the tallest obelisks in the ancient world and lots of smaller cousins too. We explore numerous tombs and the ruins of the palace that has been built on top of aforesaid Queen’s original palace.
However, the most exciting part is the visit to St Mary’s church and monastery. Crosses here are intricate and very important. The three main religious areas of Axum, Tigray and Lalibela all have their own specific design. Axum’s cross is surrounded by ostrich eggs. Here, in an annexe, is the original Ark of the Covenant, stolen away from the temple in Jerusalem by the illegitimate son of the Queen and King Solomon, on a return trip to see his father. The Ark has had several adventures and side trips and was used to help raise the huge stelae. I’m only passing on what I was told, of course; no one actually gets to see it, except the chosen hermit who guards it.
The area clearly isn’t as venerated as it should be by everyone. We have to remove our shoes to enter the church and when we emerge we find that one of the reporters’ sandals have been stolen.
Another scenic drive north to Tigray near the Eritrean border. An arid version of Tuscany as the scenery becomes ever rockier and huts give way to stone houses with slate roofs and spiky cactus hedging. En route, there is a diversion to the oldest known building in Ethiopia- Yeha Palace from a thousand years BC. In the Tigray area itself is the first of the many rock hewn churches that are lined up for our delectation. This one is shaped out of the fabric of the cliff and is situated at the end of a 45 degree stone incline. Apparently most of the churches are decorated with flea ridden carpets so our pre church visiting ritual is a dousing of DEET.
Our hotel today has impressive views down the valley and is modern. However, I’m off to check my bathroom. There have been two sightings of scorpions emerging from plug holes already. Just as well the bathroom is scorpion free as I spend most of the night in there. So the next morning I recuperate in bed while the group clamber up an even steeper mountain to an even more remote church.
I catch up with them in time to wander round a hectic little market and visit another rock church up only a few steps but with an obstacle course of children and monkeys laid on. All the churches have their own (or more than one) version of the stone tablets in the Ark called tabotat. But they are all hidden behind curtains, so we’re not allowed to see those either. A third scheduled church is now off the programme because the receipt writer has gone home, (the priest is there, but presumably he can’t cope with writing receipts), so it’s a fairly quiet day ending in Mekele, Ethiopia’s second city.
The Ethiopian Orthodox religion of the majority of the people here evolved from Judaism, but is a melange of symbols and rituals, reflecting the mixed population. The people commonly use the Moslem phrase ‘Inshallah ‘ in response to a request. I’m told it means manyana but without the sense of urgency. The calendar is a week behind our Roman one and the locals are building up to Easter with ritual chanting throughout the day and night that sounds indistinguishable from the Islamic muezzin, to my untutored ear. It’s Palm Sunday here, so we visit church in Mekele to see everyone queuing for their palm branches (which they can break off the nearest tree) and milling on the streets in their best clothes.
Then off to Lalibela. The road is dirt and gravel the whole 140 kilometres, switch backing over mountain ranges and along perilous ridges. It’s a long journey through a dozen different micro climates. There are a multiplicity of Arizona like gorges, an area of upside down baobab trees and another of giant flowering aloes. As we sweep through the villages round wooden huts take over from the rocky cuboids. Wherever we go children clamber excitedly to extend a palm and shout ‘pen’ ‘sweet’ or just ‘give me!’. Traffic is infrequent and farangis in land cruisers are still a novelty. In one district the etiquette is to perform a snatch of a tribal dance in the middle of the road before demanding recompense. It’s a bit like carol singing I suppose. Though the dancers have to beat a hasty retreat when it is clear that we are not going to stop. I refine my royal wave and smile but realise I’ve gone a little too far when I find myself practising on a group of cows.
There are other excitements too. A flat tyre- very efficiently dealt with by driver Saloman- and an over heated engine in one of the other cars, which necessitates an unplanned viewing stop. Huge Lammergeier vultures circle overhead hopefully. We, and all our belongings, are covered in dust when we arrive. Fortunately, our hotel has plenty of hot water and another great view of the mountains. It reeks of insecticide but that’s probably to get rid of all the fleas the tourists bring in.
Lalibela is the place for churches. Our first visit is to an eleventh century church built inside a cave. The cave is also full of skeletons, which probably accounts for the smell. It’s all pretty gruesome. Then there’s a free afternoon so I think I will catch up on my work and admire the view. Until there’s a power cut.
We are beset by flies on our second day of church visiting. They make a dive directly for our nostrils. Now I know why everyone carries palm fronds. Most of the dozen or so churches we admire today are monolithic, cut from the rock in the centre of the town, which has grown up around them. They are intricate and incredibly fascinating, some a myriad of smaller caves and altars. They are linked by a veritable assault course of tunnels and steep slippy steps and all heaving with Easter pilgrims prostrate on the floor or standing to join in as the priest chants from huge vellum volumes. Most carry wooden Moses staffs or iron crosses mounted on poles. It is unfortunate that one wrinkled old lady stumbles and impales Hugh’s bare foot with her cross. There is lively lunchtime discussion about incubation periods for tetanus. What a way to go!
The most renowned church, St George’s, is built in Greek cruciform shape and boasts the hoof prints left in the rock by the saint’s horse when St George came to inspect the work. One sensationalist author feels that the architecture is too advanced for the era and advocates the theory that they were designed by the Knights Templar as part of their quest for The Ark. By the end of the day I’m exhausted, black with dust again and pretty churched out.
I didn’t read the itinerary properly and now I discover there’s a three day trek of over 40 kilometres through mountain villages staying in little huts with no bathrooms and no electricity.
The walk is very scenic, along escarpments and through fields of sheep-now it’s a brown version of Wealden Sussex. There is the never ending escort of children waving and the perennial dust. Some stretches are vertiginous and rocky and Eva takes a tumble on the very first of these, spraining her ankle. Luckily we have a plumed and decorated little horse with us. There are also three donkeys who carry our overnight bags in US Aid sacks. The donkeys look angelic, but squabble like spoiled children when we are not looking. The giveaway is the sacking protruding from the mouth of one as bedding spills out of the bags on the back of another. The naughtiest donkey is especially frisky. At one point he tears off across a field in pursuit of two female donkeys, braying loudly. They kick and buck in retaliation and I am apprehensive that my luggage will disappear for the second time this trip. Toilet stops are called Obama Stops rather than Bush Stops as Bush is no longer there. (Ha Ha!)
The camp sites are perched on the top of the escarpments and have gorgeous views across the canyon but the phrase ‘basic facilities’ used to describe them is estate agents’ hyperbole. The loos have views indeed. They have stable doors, a very smelly box inside, and are right on the cliff edge. I have no intention of using them at night. In addition, there is a tree surrounded by a few sticks that is described as a shower. The huts are made of stone cemented with mud and straw. There are concrete beds with mattresses and as the sun sets the temperature plummets and the interminable flies disappear. (However hard I try I can’t get used to the tickling on my skin.)
The campfires are atmospheric. The rice and chick pea sauce is acceptable. The local gin and lemon firewater mixed together makes it all bearable and I sleep reasonably well, even taking into account the middle of the night reading by torchlight indulged in by my hut mate, Kate.
On Day Two the guides are all worse for wear (they had more local brew than we did) and are very quiet as we cover 20 kilometres in the dry heat. Eva has to walk again as her horse has been requisitioned for a funeral, and the drop outside the toilet is so steep that we are all banned from using it after dark.
Day Three is a gentle amble along the escarpment peering cautiously over the edge to watch loaded donkeys scramble up from the rocky depths below. Poor donkeys. Lucky us with stiff legs from the route march of the day before.
We then drive south west to relative civilisation, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana.
Lake Tana is the biggest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. We drive down the dustiest road in Ethiopia (which is some accolade), past the thronging market. Everyone brings their livestock for sale today as they get top prices for animals slaughtered for tomorrow’s Easter feast. They have all been daytime fasting for the last 45 days and only eating vegan in the evenings, so they are all eagerly looking forward to partaking of meat.
The Blue Nile cataract is disappointing. The falls have been reduced to a trickle by a hydroelectric dam just up the river.
The lake itself is sprinkled with islands, and pelicans are bobbing, but it is not wildly exciting. We take a boat out to one island to view our last painted church in a monastery. I see other boats loaded to the gunwales and wobbling in the water and am thankful that we have a large tourist motor boat to ourselves.
A flight back to Addis and another home via Istanbul again.
Not a single mosquito bite to report. Not one item lost in the end.