Our February 2015 holiday
Introduction: Why Go? Ethiopian History Ethiopia Today Addis Ababa Mekele And Northwards Axum Lalibela Simien Mountains Gondar Lake Tana Bahir Dar And The Blue Nile Falls Back To Addis Ababa Conclusion
INTRODUCTION: WHY GO?
"It's impossible to sit here and not catch a glimpse, out of your peripheral vision, of a line of ghosts stretching back 10,000 generations because we're all related to someone from here."
Professor Brian Cox on a visit to Ethiopia's Rift Valley (2014)
"Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion, the Aethiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten."
Edward Gibbon in "The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire" (1776-88)
Our latest trip - an organised tour with Cox & Kings [click here] - was to the African nation of Ethiopia and many of our family and friends have wondered why we would chose such an obscure country for a holiday. We must say that, after we had booked the trip and consulted our local surgery on any health matters we should address, we too wondered why we were going there as we had not anticipated the number of inoculations that would be necessary. We already had the required cover for hepatitis A and yellow fever, but needed a course of four injections (at a cost of £30 a time) for hepatitis B, a course of three injections (at a cost of £65 a time) for rabies, another injection to cover diphtheria, tetanus and polio, and a further injection to up-date our typhoid protection. In total that was nine injections each at a total cost of £630. As one nurse said: "You didn't expect that you would be a pin cushion, did you?" No - nor a cash dispenser. We will have to regard it as an investment - at our age, we should be done for life now. As well as the inoculations, we elected to take malaria tablets before, during and after the holiday (another £138 between us). Then there was the matter of visas: you need them to enter the country, the company recommended to handle the application of them charged us £82 each, and then they managed to return the passports with visas to a local tea packaging company. So inoculations, tablets, and visas added a grand total of £932 on top of the actual cost of the holiday (don't ask). Finally (!?!), there was the warning in our guide book that "figures suggest that at least half of all travellers will get diarrhoea at some stage". So why are we going to Ethiopia?
Well, besides the fact that we love to visit different countries and experience different cultures and we have already been to so many of the more popular destinations, Ethiopia has a long history, so mysterious as to be almost mystical:
So much for the ancient history of Ethiopia. What about modern times? The recent history of Ethiopia has involved the Derg socialist revolution and 'the red terror' (in 1974-75, between 100,000-500,000 were murdered), invasions (by Somalia in 1977 and of Somalia in 2006), famines (most infamously in 1984-85 when between 400,000-million died), and full scale war (with Eritrea in 1999-2000). So a model of stability, really.A few basic facts about the nation:
Day 1 (Saturday) of our trip was in fact essentially just a nighttime flight from London Heathrow airport to Addis Ababa Bole airport. All our flights - both external and internal - were with Ethiopian Airlines. It was the first airline outside Japan to operate the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and we were delighted to find that this new airliner was our craft for the flight from London to Addis Ababa.Take off was 8.30 pm. Roger has the remarkable facility of being able to sleep almost anywhere almost anytime, so he clocked up three and a half hours slumber. Meanwhile Vee, who can never sleep on flights, watched a couple of films: "The King's Speech" and "The Big Lie". It was a flight of just over six and a half hours and Ethiopia is three hours ahead of British time, so we landed at 6.05 am local time. We experienced a first when we were screened for Ebola with a handheld machine that checked the temperature of our forehead (something which later happened on all our internal flights too). Once through all the procedures, we met our local guide for the whole trip: Dawit Teferi (although Ethiopians do not have family names) of Kibran Tours [click here] who was ethnically half Amoro and half Oromo. At the same time, we met the other members of the Cox & Kings group: there were only ten of us - all very experienced and adventurous travellers, most of them our age or older (the oldest almost 86), all British except for one American and one Brazilian, and we were the only heterosexual couple. The journey from the airport to our hotel - the Radisson Blu [click here] - took less than a quarter of an hour but making rooms available to us took around an hour. Dawit made it clear that the first two days of our tour were going to be tough in terms of limited sleep. So we only had time for two and a half hours sleep in our room before we had to turn up for a buffet lunch. The afternoon of Day 2 (Sunday) was spent on a short tour of Addis Ababa: just three and a half hours visiting three locations. The name Addis Ababa means 'new flower'. The city was founded by Emperor Menelik in 1887 and today it is is the capital of modern Ethiopia and the political and commercial heart of the country with a population of 4 million. It is the fifth highest capital in the world at 2,355 metres or 7,726 feet (Roger & Vee had been to the highest which is La Paz in Bolivia). After weeks of near freezing weather with occasional snow flurries in London, it was wonderful to feel warm sun on bare arms on an afternoon with a temperature in the mid 20s C (around 80F). As we drove though a city that is clearly undergoing a construction boom, we saw no less than three weddings which involved dancing in the street. Our first stop was the Holy Trinity Cathedral which was built in 1944 to celebrate the country's liberation from the Italian occupation. One of the graves in front of the church is that of Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of the famous Emmeline Pankhurst, who campaigned in Britain in the 1930s against the Italian takeover of Ethiopia. As we would have to do for all the churches we visited in Ethiopia, we had to remove our shoes before entering - a practice we usually associate with mosques or temples. The church interior is fairly plain but it houses the tombs of the Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife. Also our study of the stained glass windows depicting various Biblical scenes, was the occasion for Dawit to narrate the colourful story of how King Solomon met and seduced the Queen of Sheba who subsequently gave birth to a son Menelik who allegedly brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.
Our second visit was to the Ethnographic Museum which is actually located in the grounds of the Addis Ababa University. It was originally the palace of the Emperor and then, during the Italian occupation, the home of the Viceroy Graziani (who was the subject of a failed assassination attempt). Outside the museum is an odd sight: a set of stone steps curving upwards and leading nowhere. The steps were erected by the Italians with one for each year of Mussolini's rule but, following liberation, the Ethiopians placed on top a Lion of Judah, the symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy. The rooms in the museum have lots of large panels with both Amharic and English text which explain the life and culture of the Ethiopian people - a mixture of races who speak no less than 83 languages and 200 dialects. As we were leaving the museum, on the museum steps, Roger made his first Ethiopian friend - the first of many who wanted to practice his English, someone willing to teach Roger some Amharic, and someone with wonderful hair.
topped by the Lion of Judah
an even bigger hair style
Our third and final venue was the National Museum, a rather utilitarian-looking building housing some fantastic artefacts representing the origins of humankind in this part of the world. Again, conveniently, all the descriptions were in Amharic and English.The most famous exhibit is the skeleton called Lucy [click here] - known in Ethiopia as Dinknesh ("You are wonderful") - which was discovered in 1974 by Donald Johnson in Hadar, part of the Great African Rift Valley. At some 3.18 million years old, it is the oldest complete hominid ever found. In fact, we only have 40% of the skeleton and she is only 105 cm tall and you could miss the plain case in which she is contained if it was not pointed out to you, Although Lucy is the most famous exhibit in the museum, there is an even older human skeleton called Ardi - another female, less complete, but 4.4 million years old.
The American in our group - a distinguished lady called Peggy from Boston - reminded us how many Americans cannot accept this version of human evolution. But we have seen some of the most vital pieces of evidence. Our evening meal was back at the Hotel Radisson and again was a selection from a wide choice of buffet.
MEKELE AND NORTHWARDS
Day 3 (Monday) actually began in the night when the alarm in our hotel room went off at the crazy time of 4.30 am. It was a case of wash, dress, pack and have a “grab and go” breakfast before the Cox & Kings group boarded our minibus at 5.30 am. We were soon at Addis Ababa’s Bole airport where security was very tight because of the constant threat of Al Shabab. We had our luggage – including jackets, shoes and belts – screened once as we entered the airport and then again when we had gone through passport control.It was a short flight of just 50 minutes from Addis north to Mekele on a Boeing 737. A different minibus and driver awaited us. The vehicle was barely large enough to take all our luggage on the back seats and all the members of the group in rather cramped seats and there was no air conditioning, but this was a hardy group and we managed fine. During the reign of Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889), Mekele was the capital city of Ethiopia. Today it is the regional capital of the Tigray province and one of the country's principal economic and educational centres with a population of around 140,000. It was the focal point for refugees and the relief effort during the 1984-85 famine and hosts the headquarters of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Our starting point as tourists today was a visit to the main market in Mekele where we spent half an hour wandering round with our guide Dawit. This is very much a local market and we were the only white people there. It is an open air market which has no roads or pathways but simply dusty earth or rocky spaces between stalls for locals to view and purchase mainly foodstuffs. Many of the women had their hair tightly braided in the Tigray style and several young men strode around with a pole across their shoulders from which hung a couple of dozen live chickens for sale.
From Mekele, we drove north to the town of Wukro and then took a dirt track out of town heading up to the hills. We came across a group which had been to a wedding and were waiting by the roadside for local transport and we gave a lift to four of the young women with their children slung in a cloth shawl on their back. Smiles were exchanged and photographs were taken. We dropped off our companions at their local village and headed to our destination - our first rock church of the trip.
In fact, from the time members of the British expedition of 1868 reported its existence until the early 20th century, this was the only rock-hewn church known to the outside world. The Church of Wukro Chirkos - which is probably at least 1,000 years old - was built of sandstone carved out of the high rock face. Like all such churches, it looks nondescript from the outside but magical on the inside. The most striking feature is the decorated 15th century pillar depicting pictures of saints and angels. Like all Ethiopian Orthodox churches, it contains something called a 'tabot' which is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant allegedly located in Axum but no guests are allowed to see it. We were excited to find that the white-clad, bearded priest of the church made an appearance for us, holding his prayer stick and shaking his prayer rattle or 'sistrum'.
- the first of the rock churches we visited
in the Ethiopian Orthodox church
After this visit, we returned to the little town of Wukro where we had lunch at the Lwam Hotel. We sat outside in warm sunshine at one long table located in the plain hotel courtyard.This meal was our introduction to the Ethiopian staple food known as 'injera'. This is a flat spongy bread made of a very fine grain called 'teff'. It has a rubbery feel and a slightly fermented tangy taste. Ethiopians have 'injera' spread thinly over a large plate and then pull off bits to scoop up the accompanying food. We had our 'injera' cut and rolled up with the other food on the side on a normal plate. The side dishes included chickpeas, lentils, split peas, spinach, tomato, and something called 'tibbs' (crusty fried steak). We coped well but one of the dishes was really spicy and the steak was very chewy. This is not a country for desserts (poor Roger) and at this lunch dessert was simply a third of a banana.
After the meal, we set off to visit a second rock church. This involved a rickety ride of 40 minutes up a winding unmade road which clung to the side of a low mountain and created a dust storm every time a lorry passed us. The absence of air-con meant that we opened windows but the approach of a lorry required that we quickly closed them. The rock-hewn Church of Abraha We Atsbeha was constructed in the 10th century and is dedicated to the twin kings of Axum. It is bigger and more nicely finished than the church we saw in the morning and includes pictures of Biblical scenes in 17th & 18th century murals.
Church of Abraha We Atsbeha
Church of Abraha We Atsbeha
On the road back from this church, we stopped to,observe and photograph a scene which could have come out of Biblical times. Five oxen were roped together and herded round and round in tight circles by a young child in order to thresh wheat underfoot of the animals. It was hot, dusty work but the boys had some 'injera' to keep them going.
Almost 12 hours after we had left our hotel in Addis Ababa, at 4.15 pm we arrived at our accommodation for this night. Located outside the town of Hawzien, the Gheralta Lodge [click here] consists of a series of rock-walled chalets or bungalows complete with en suite facilities. Although perfectly adequate, the bedrooms had minimal facilities, so we were pleased that we had brought along our travel kettle and tea & coffee.Our evening at the Gheralta Lodge - which is owned by an Italian but named after the nearby mountains - was rather special. First, we were given complimentary cocktails: Roger & Vee had the house cocktail which was honey wine with campari and a hint of something local like mint. Then we all had a four-course set meal: onion soup, spaghetti with pesto sauce, chicken in ginger sauce with salad, and fruit crêpe. On the way back to our chalet, Vee & Roger marvelled at the night sky. In London, we hardly see any stars because of the light pollution. Here we could see myriads of stars with the constellation of Orion directly above us and we could even make out faintly the Milky Way arching over our heads.
Day 4 (Tuesday) began with some interesting news. Dawit told Roger & Vee that their chalet (number 2) had been occupied by former US President George W Bush during a visit to the region last year to promote an aid project. Indeed, according to Dawit, Roger looks just like the younger Bush.It was a day of extensive travel which got off to an unfortunate start. One of our party was feeling so ill that, just minutes away from the lodge, we had to return and leave her. She subsequently hired a four by four and drove direct to our next hotel in Axum, but then was still so unwell that she went to the local hospital. At 9.15 am, the rest of us set off again, passing first through the nearby town of Hawzien. The town has a 3,000 year history: it was originally an old trading centre but today the area is exclusively agricultural. In 1988, the dictator Mengistu punished the local rebels by dropping napalm bombs which killed around 2,500 people. In the morning, as we preceded north, we had three looks at slices of local life, one of which was totally unexpected. First, at the town of Frewine, we stopped to visit a small milling operation. The milling machinery is privately owned and locals travel into town from miles around to pay to use the machine to grind the cereals that they have grown. A moderately-sized room was crowded with a couple of dozen people with their local produce - teff, wheat, barley, chilli pepper - waiting to use a noisy machine that created incredible volumes of dust. The chilli strung our eyes and we could not stay long. Next, just outside the town of Edagamus, we were able to visit a rural family that our guide Dawit had come to know. It was the home of a widower with three children who was helped with her land and animals by other members of the family. As we approached the building, we passed cow pats drying in the hot sun - they would be used for fuel in the wet season. There were goats in the fields and cows in the outhouse. We were invited into the family living room which is where everyone eats and sleeps. It had no windows - just an open door and a ventilation hole - so we could see nothing at first but then our eyes adjusted to the dim light. The widower took her time heating coffee beans and making coffee for us which was offered with flat bread called 'ambasha'. Her 11 year old son was keen to practice some English with us but the youngest child in the extended family cried because of the strange white faces. We felt very privileged to receive such hospitality from a family so poor.
A bit further, on the outskirts of a town called Adigrat, Dawit was surprised when our minibus was halted by streams of men, women and children in separate columns heading for a huge field. We were thrilled that he stopped and let us out to wander among the crowds. It turned out that it was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the formation of the Tygrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the main force that overthrew the Derg dictatorship and the principal member of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) which has since governed the country. It was a fabulous occasion. Line after line of people descending to the low field, some of them shuffling in a kind of dance as they chanted in unison, women ululating, clapping and dancing to the beat of large drums, young children shouting out slogans in unison while raising little fists, older men - some in tattered uniforms - shouldering AK-47 rifles and trying to march.
At this point, we stopped just on the other side of Adigrat at a place called the Agoro Lodge - a very new establishment which is community owned and provided us with a very satisfactory lunch. After this meal, our journey became a lot tougher. We turned west and headed up what our Cox & Kings notes called "one of the most winding roads in Ethiopia". They were not exaggerating. As we climbed higher and higher and higher, the twists and turns were amazing, sometimes 180 degree switchbacks. The good news is that the views of the huge gorge below were simply spectacular - like a local version of the Grand Canyon with red and brown rocks leavened with green vegetation. The bad news was that this road ran right next to utterly precipitous drops and we came to understand why our driver had a small crucifix attached to the middle of his windscreen.
Having crested the top of this long difficult road - built by the Italians during their brief occupation - we had a similar challenge going down. There were virtually no cars, but a succession of trucks, some hauling trailers. As we rounded one sharp bend, we found that a lorry and trailer had overturned and left the road, crashing into a low gulley. The driver's cab was crushed but we could not see the driver. At this point, several of our group decided that perhaps it might be a good idea to use the seat belts in our minibus, even though some of them did not work and those that did were only across the waist and not the shoulder. Our last destination of the day was a place called Yeha which could only be accessed by leaving the tarred road of the Italians and juddering along an unmade road of the Ethiopians. Some of us found the sights of Yeha rather underwhelming visually but what is impressive is the history of the place. It contains the rather plain limestone ruin - covered in scaffolding on our visit - of the 2,500 year old Temple of Yeha, the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia. Nobody knows what religion was originally practised in the temple, but appearances suggest links with the pagan faith of South Arabia's Sabaean civilisation. In a local outhouse and up some old wooden stairs, we called into a repository that the local guide called "the oldest and smallest museum in the world". Some of the artefacts were indeed very old (they came from the temple) and the place was indeed tiny (about the size of a single bedroom). We were shown a three century old biblical text which featured an illustration of the Three Kings, one of which was Ethiopian (Balthazar), and a bearded priest with white turban chanted one of the texts from another old book.
Back on the main road, we went through the town of Adwa. The Adwa mountains were the site of the famous battle where the Ethiopians defeated the Italians in 1896 and so managed to keep Ethiopia as the only independent country in Africa. At last, just after 5.30 pm, we rolled into the historic town of Axum where we were going to stay for two nights in the Sabean International Hotel [click here]. It was over eight hours since we had left our previous accommodation and, though we had seen some fascinating sights, we had covered some very challenging terrain on roads which simply do not have service stations or cafes for drinks and toilets. After all, this is still very much a developing country.
Day 5 (Wednesday) was a non-travelling day with all our time spent in Axum and environs, so it was much less challenging than the previous day - but now two of our group were too unwell to come out.The Kingdom of Axum arose in the 4th century BC, grew rapidly to be a power that vied with that of the Greece of Alexander and the Eastern Roman Empire, reached a peak in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, and then in mysterious circumstances declined in the 7th century AD and fragmented as other regional centres - like Lalibela - rose as local powers. So the Kingdom of Axum had nearly 800 years of glory and was the seat of an empire that extended across the Red Sea to Arabia, traded with India and China, and had its own alphabet and notational system. Today it is a dusty town of just 70,000. We left the hotel at 8.30 am which might have been to miss the other tourists (but there were hardly any) or to miss the hottest part of the day (but it heated up rapidly) or just to give us time to see as much as possible. We started with the nearby field of locally-sourced granite Axumite Stelae which is a UN World Heritage Site [click here]. Nobody is sure of the precise date and actual purpose of the stelae but they appear to be pre-Christian and their orientation facing south suggests a worship of the sun. They were brought to the attention of the wider world by the German archaeologist Enno Littman in 1906. The largest stela, known as the Great Stela, measures more than 33 metres (108 feet) tall and lies in gigantic pieces. It is believed to weigh an astonishing 520 tons and it was never actually erected. Two other large stelae are still standing next to the fallen one. The first, standing at 21 metres (69 feet), is called King Ezana's Stela and has been in place since its erection (although it now has support from a sling) and therefore has been a traditional feature of the site. The other, reaching 25 metres (82 feet), is called the Rome Stela and is a new element of the site, since the Italians returned it in 2007 (they found it in three pieces during the occupation and took it to Rome for reconstruction and erection there).
Altogether there are around 100 smaller stelae, most fallen but a good number still standing. As well as these imposing stelae, we visited a couple of tombs and the Archaeological Museum, before being served in an outside corner with a small cup of black, freshly-roasted coffee.
Opposite the field of stelae is the modern Church of St Mary of Zion. The oldest church in Africa was the first St Mary of Zion Church originally built around the 4th century. Emperor Fasilidas replaced it with a newer church in the mid 17th century and a much much newer church was built in 1965. We were all able to visit the modern church but only the men were allowed to look inside the 17th century Church of St Mary of Zion. In between the two is a modern chapel which allegedly houses the famous and sacred Ark of the Covenant. None of us were able to enter this chapel, let alone see the Ark, because absolutely nobody is permitted to see this ancient artefact except the very old monk and his designated younger successor who serve as the chapel's custodians. In fact, some of us have viewed the movie "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" in which a final scene suggests that actually the Ark is hidden in a secret huge American government warehouse.
Also in this complex of buildings is a small museum housing crowns, vestments and other possessions of various emperors and distinguished personages. It was time for lunch which was taken at the nearby Yeha Hotel in Axum. We sat outside on a large veranda and enjoyed fish (fried and tasty) and fruit (a yellow-skinned orange). After lunch, we drove past what the locals know as Mai Shum and others call the Bath of the Queen of Sheba. It is like a very small reservoir where people wash domestic items and of course it has nothing to do with the Queen but it is used once each year for a special ceremony to mark the baptism of Christ. A little further and protected in a small stone hut is something called King Ezana's Stone or Inscription. It was discovered by three farmers in 1988 and it is a stone block carrying a message from the 3rd century king in three languages (Greek, Ge'ez and Sabaean). Back in the minibus, Dawit gave Roger an English translation of the lengthy inscription and he had to read it aloud over the vehicle's microphone. We continued up the rockiest and roughest track in Christendom to our next destination: the Tombs of King Kaleb and his son Gebre Meskel. The first has three chambers and the second five, but grave robbers stripped out the contents long ago. As we drove up the track and as we returned down it, several young children ran alongside us in bare feet, somehow managing both to keep up with us and to avoid cutting themselves. They wanted to impress us - and they certainly did. Next stop - just outside town - was the Palace of the Queen of Sheba which can be viewed from a raised platform as well as at ground level. Like the bath, the palace actually has nothing to do with the Queen except an appealing name. In fact, the elaborate structure, which was only discovered in 1967, is believed to be the accommodation for a 7th century Axumite official. We had one more visit, partly because Dawit wanted to show us where the stone for the stelae came from and partly we suspect because he wanted to give us a bit more exercise up a rocky slope. The location was a quarry outside the town - one of five - where the granite (nepheline syenite) was found and somehow transported in huge blocks into the town. It was about 4.30 pm when we returned to our hotel after eight hours of fascinating study of different elements of Axumite life.
Day 6 (Thursday) saw the departure from Axum of nine of the group. The woman who was the first to be ill had chosen to fly home, while the second woman to be unwell had decided to press on with the trip.We left the hotel at 9 am and were soon at the airport where our luggage was checked twice for our second internal flight. This involved two new experiences for Vee & Roger at least: we flew In a Bombandier Q400 twin-turboprop aircraft (a first) and we left early (another first). The flight to Lalibela was only 30 minutes and the minibus journey to our hotel in the town took as long and drove us further uphill. We were now in Amhara province and the town - which is even smaller than Axum with a population of just 40,000 - is situated at a height of 2,600 metres (8,500 feet). Our hotel was something of a surprise. The Maribela Hotel [click here] only opened a year or so ago and is situated overlooking a low mountain range. The rooms were clean and spacious but all sorts of finishing touches were still necessary. We had lunch straightaway so that we could leave for our afternoon excursion at 2.30 pm. As the Kingdom of Axum fragmented, in the 12th century this highland territory was created as the 'new Jerusalem' by King Lalibela, who reigned from 1180-1220, allegedly with "the help of angels". The location was originally called Roha but renamed after the king (his name means 'the bees' and his mother gave him the name when she found a swarm of bees around his crib which she regarded as a fortuitous sign). The area is divided by a gorge that would once have had a river running through it, a representation of the River Jordan in the original Holy Land. On the north-west side is a recreation of the physical, terrestrial Holy Land with its churches; on the south-east side, we have the celestial, spiritual Holy Land with its own churches. It is estimated that the churches took some 40,000 workers around 24 years to construct and, for the kingdom to have kept such a large work force engaged in economically unproductive labour for so long, means that it must have been very wealthy. There are 11 rock-hewn churches which collectively have been designated as a UN World Heritage Site [click here]. These churches have been in continuous use by Orthodox priests since 12th and 13th centuries when the town was the capital of the important Zagwe Dynasty. Ten were made or at least remodelled by King Lalibela and an eleventh (St George) was created by his widow as a memorial to the king after his death in about 1220. Each building is unique in size, shape and execution and the purpose of each church is still unclear to historians. All are below grown level and they are ringed by courtyards and trenches that interconnect. The churches - all called Bet (House or Place ) 'something' - are located in two clusters. This afternoon, we visited the north-west cluster which comprises seven churches. In order, we viewed:
Although access to the cluster of churches is through a modern entrance, climbing down rocks to visit each church and across more rocks to move from church to church is not straightforward as the rocks are very uneven and sometimes steep. One of our group - a guy of almost 86 - found that he needed both of his sticks and some human support as well as staying outside some chambers.For all of us, there was the matter of taking off shoes and putting them back on every time we went into a new church and we were assigned a local "shoe manager" for this endeavour. Viewing these churches for around two and a half hours, one is simply astounded at the effort and skill that must have been involved in taking this volcanic ash rock and hewing out such large and grand structures that have survived so well for around seven centuries.
In the evening, our hotel meal was enlivened by a performance of traditional music and dancing by a troupe of five. Especially distinctive was a kind of one-string violin known as 'masengo'. Day 7 (Friday) proved to be the most strenuous of the entire holiday. The programme was a morning trip to a church on a local mountain top, so we were up at 6.15 am and off at 7.30 am. Our guide Dawit had given us three options: walk up and down, take a mule up and down, or take a minibus up and down. Four of us, including Roger, went for the walking option; three of us, including Vee, went for the mule option; and the other two went for the minibus. Roger (aged 66) was the youngest in his group, since he was with a woman of 72, a man of 76, and a woman of 82, but he struggled the most because he does so little walking while the others were experienced ramblers. The climb was very, very steep and very, very rocky and, walking into the sun, one had real difficulty seeing where to put one's feet. The pace was impressive, the heat rising and the flies annoying but, for Roger, the killer was the altitude. He has never had good lung capacity and he found this climb far, far harder than he had imagined. Every time there was a short rest stop, he was panting like a dog. Meanwhile Vee was on her mule and she was convinced that the animal had a death wish as it kept wandering far too close to the precipitous drops. She had the slowest mule of the pack so the owner had to keep giving the animal a whack. About two-thirds of the way up the mountain, the walkers and the riders met at a flat area. By this time, Roger was ready to give up, but Dawit explained that it was another 20 minutes walk - almost as strenuous as what had gone before - to the bus 'stop', so he struggled on and the walkers left him at the so-called stop. By this time, he was gasping for breath and feeling nauseous and faint, so he lay full-length on the ground, rested his head on his shoulder bag, and put his hat over his face as protection from the sun. Gradually his breathing and heart returned to something approaching normal. Twenty minutes later, the minibus turned up and shortly afterwards the walkers, the riders and those on the bus were united at another flat area further still up the mountain. Now everyone had to make the rest of the journey on foot. Nine of us set off, but very soon one dropped out for mobility reasons and then another dropped out because of vertigo. The problem was that the narrow path had a sheer rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other - it was like the final scenes from the film "The Last Of The Mohicans". Vee had an attentive young Ethiopian helper but he soon started to appeal for funding for his education. The last stretch of the climb was about as tough as anything earlier but, about three hours after setting off from the hotel, we reached the top of the mountain. We were now at a height of 3,150 metres which is 10,335 feet. As a comparison, the highest mountain in Britain is Ben Nevis which is only 1,344 metres or 4,435 feet. Now this journey was all about the travelling rather than the destination, so the magnificent views of the valley below were at least as splendid as the 13th century church we had come to visit: Ashetan Maryam. The church was carved out of sandstone rock but is plain in design. However, the priest showed us some of his "treasures": crosses, paintings and very old books. It would have been lovely to have a coffee and a cake but nowhere on the mountain were there any facilities whatsoever.
For the return journey, the intrepid seven had no choice but to retrace their steps for the first section until we reached the minibus. At this point, everyone, but everyone, decided enough was enough and took the bus back to the hotel. Not that this was a joy ride: it was 40 minutes of bone-rattling down a stony, unmade track.Vee decided to give the afternoon schedule a miss and instead chilled in the hotel. The rest of us set off after lunch to see the remaining Lalibela churches in the south-east cluster which we visited in this order:
As yesterday, we moved from church to church through rocky connecting passage ways and this time we even used a pitch-black tunnel at one point. Again as yesterday, we had to remove our shoes every time we went into a church, so we again used the service of a "shoe manager".The afternoon finished with a special treat: a visit to a Lalibela home. It was the house of a middle-class resident who works for Kibran Tours and is a colleague of Dawit. We were all treated to coffee made from freshly-roasted beans and Roger had fun playing with our host's very bright eight year old daughter Maryam.
playing some of the games that
he plays with his granddaughter
We returned to our hotel, after an excursion of another four hours, tired but content.Day 8 (Saturday) was always planned simply as a travelling day with no sightseeing at all but, when one is visiting more exotic countries, one has to be ready for things not always to go precisely to plan. So we left our hotel in Lalibela at 10 am and set off for the airport for our 12.15 pm flight to Gondar, but the driver had heard something about delays to flights, so we stopped at the airline office in town and checked the situation. Apparently an air display at Bahir Dar had led to the closure of local air space and so our flight would be delayed by two hours. Dawit quickly changed his plans and decided to take us to the Lalibela Saturday market. This proved to be a wonderful experience, even more developing world than the market we saw in Mekele. The location was rough ground on the edge of town with none of the permanent shops that we saw at Mekele. In the main, it was a food market with all sorts of grains and vegetables (some like rue totally unfamiliar to us), but little meat or fruit. One distinctive item for sale was salt which was piled pyramid-like on a cloth on the ground. There were lots of donkeys, many goats and some cows. The market was spread over a gently sloping hill that was packed with people, some of whom had walked for hours from surrounding villages to reach it. Many were just sitting, others were standing idly, many were milling around, and three soldiers stood guard. It was hot and many of the women carried large, colourful umbrellas to avoid the bright sun. As in so many places that we had been in Ethiopia, we were soon approached, and even followed, by youngsters declaring in accented English: "Hello ... Welcome ... How are you? ... Where are you from? ... What is your name? ... I am a student." If one allowed oneself to be engaged for more than a couple of sentences, very soon the conversation turned to money.
After three-quarters of an hour at the market, we still had time to kill and the sun was making us thirsty, so Dawit arranged for us to drop into the "Seven Olives Hotel" where we could have a cold drink and he could organise sandwiches for lunch. We reached Lalibela airport about 12.30 pm, about two hours later than was originally planned, only to find that our flight was further delayed. So we spent the next three and a half hours in a small, stuffy waiting area with no air conditioning eating our sandwich lunch, reading our chosen novels, and eventually having our luggage checked twice. At last, we took off in a Bombadier Q400 on our third internal flight. It was just after 4 pm and a little over four hours late. In fact, the flight to the north-west was a mere 25 minutes but the journey would have taken a full day by road.
We landed at Gondar but immediately boarded another minibus to take us north-east to the Simien Mountains. Now Gondar is already high but our destination was another 1,000 metres higher. It was a good road - another one built by the Chinese - but all the villages we travelled through were terribly poor. After two hours hard driving, we reached the town of Debark which is the entry point to the Simien Mountains National Park. Here, our minibus took on one park guide and two park rangers armed with AK-47 Kalashnikovs.It was now dark and the last hour of the journey was in pitch blackness up a completely unmade mountain road. Over three hours after we left Gondar, we reached our destination: Simien Lodge [click here]. This is located at a height of 3,260 metres or 10,700 feet which makes it the highest lodge in Africa and means that any effort often resulted in breathlessness. Accommodation at the lodge is in chalets and there are two solar systems: one to heat the rooms and the other to provide hot water for the showers. At this height, it is cold at night so, for the first time on the trip, we had to wear jumpers or jackets when we went to the main building for our buffet dinner and, as we left to return to our rooms, were offered filled hot water bottles. Much more seriously for Roger, there was no WiFi service at all, so he could not post his daily accounts to his blog. Day 9 (Sunday) was a nature day so Vee was absolutely in her element. We set off at 9 am to explore the Simien Mountains National Park and we were accompanied throughout by our park ranger and our two armed park guards.
The park is a UN World Heritage Site [click here] and has at least a dozen peaks over 4,000 metres. It is home to three endemic large mammals: the gelada monkey of which there are an estimated 7,000, the much rarer Walia ibex of which only 600 are surviving, and the even rarer Ethiopian wolf with a population of no more than 50. The gelada monkey is known as 'the monkey of the bleeding heart' due to the red skin patch on the chest and neck shaped like an hour glass. These monkeys are said to have 20-30 different vocalisations.The route took us north-east on the rocky road skirting the northern escarpment. Our park guide explained the local flora and fauna and, at one point, suggested that St John's Wort is used by local women for "manustration cycling". Also he helped us to spot and identify various wildlife. On four separate occasions during the day, we came across very large famiies of gelada monkeys who do not mind tourists - as opposed to locals - coming up close. We saw lots of new mothers with their babies hanging underneath or clinging on top and observed some much larger males behaving aggressively to other male members of their family.
On three occasions during the day, we were invited to go on walks taking around 30-45 minutes. Not everyone in the group went on every one of these walks, but Vee & Roger did, even though at one point he fell headlong to the rocky floor (he blamed the altitude). Before each walk, Dawit would explain what was involved and concluded with the words "but it is manageable". In truth, none of these walks was that easy but, in every case, the views were breathtaking, including on the last walk when we got to see the high Jinbar Waterfall (a breathtaking drop of some 500 metres or 1,640 feet), impressive even though in this dry season it was only really a trickle.
In between the second and third walks, we stopped for a sandwich lunch and, as we ate, we were circled by noisy kites and ravens who, if given the chance, would swoop down to catch food thrown in the air or left on the ground. During the day, as well as monkeys and birds, we spotted klipspringers and bushbucks. In the end, though, it was the scenery that was most spectacular. Before this trip, we would never have imagined that Ethiopia could display such stunning mountain scenery.
We returned to our lodge at 4.30 pm, having been out for seven and a half hours and having obtained yet another perspective on this fascinating country. After a couple of hours to relax, we were all invited to the lodge's main building to view a recording of a television programme by an Australian biologist Chadder Hunter who has been studying the gelada monkeys for seven years. Then Roger had the opportunity to speak to the owner of the lodge, the British Nick Crane, and the manager of the lodge, Ethiopian Seifu Desalegn.
Day 10 (Monday) and it was time to leave the Simien Mountains and head back to Gondar. We set off at 8.40 am on what was going to be our last long road journey of the holiday. The first 40 minutes of our ride was a bouncy time back down the unmade road to the national park entrance at Debark. Clearly we were not the only ones to find this section rough because, on a road with virtually no other vehicles, we passed an ambulance that had crashed. Debark was in high spirits as the previous day the Prime Minister had visited the town to lay the first stone for a new university.Our first stop was at a field which had a spring from which local people collected water for cleaning and washing but not drinking. Small women struggled to a carry 20 litre cans of water on their back. Nearby a flock of vultures was stripping the entrails from a dead donkey, identifiable only by his head. As always, we were soon surrounded by local kids crying out: "You! You! Money, money, money!"
After almost two and a half hours travelling, we halted for a bush toilet stop, for those who were desperate enough. Next we made a quick visit to a local primary school where we joined a class of seven year olds. They rehearsed for us some of their English language skills: the naming of the days of the week and the parts of the body. In turn, we were asked to sing them a song and gave them a rather hesitant rendition of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm". Before we left, we called in on the headmistress and donated pens and money.
The final stop before lunch was to a village called Wolleka. The claim to fame - or at least some kind of tourist attraction - was that this village used to be home to Falasha or Ethiopian Jews until 1985 and 1990 when all 150,000 Jews in the country were airlifted to a new life in Israel. The site was of some particular interest to the one American in a group, a Jewish woman from Boston. Once we reached the town of Gondar, we had lunch at the "Four Sisters Restaurant". It was the first time in three and a half hours that we had had access to a toilet. Suitably relieved and refreshed, we then had an afternoon tour of Gondar.
Located at an altitude of more than 2,300 metres (7,545 feet), Gondar was founded in 1636 by Emperor Fasilidas as Ethiopia's first capital and it remained the capital for 250 years. Even today, it is a sizeable town with a population of about 230,000. But we were here to dwell on the town's history. First, we viewed the famous castles which have been designated a UN World Heritage Site [click here]. Fasilidas constructed the first castle and the emperors who followed in the 17th & 18th centuries then built their own castles, creating a royal compound of six castles and a variety of other buildings. Today the Fasil Ghebbi or Royal Enclosure is a UN World Heritage Site. Ethiopia is the only African nation with such castles and Gondar is known as "the castle capital of Africa" or "the Camelot of Africa". The oldest castle, attributed to Emperor Fasilidas, was built in 1640 (and partially restored in the mid 20th century) and the newest was constructed in the mid 18th century. We looked at all of them (except the last which was closed) plus a Turkish bath and banqueting hall. All the time, we were assailed by the sounds of no less than three different churches broadcasting services to mark the first day of Lent.
After the castles, we drove over to see the Fasilidas Bath. This is a large rectangular pool (empty most of the time) overlooked by a charming building and surrounded by low walls overrun with the roots of banyan trees. It was used by royalty for swimming but also for religious purposes. Even today, once a year the baptism of Christ is celebrated here in a major event called Timkat.
Our final visit in Gondar was to a wonderful church. Many of Gondar's churches were destroyed by the Dervish or Mahdist invasion from Sudan in the 1880s, but one remained untouched: Debre Berhan Selassie. According to legend, this church - which was built in 1683 - was saved by the intervention of a swarm of bees. The roof is topped by a cross featuring ostrich eggs which represent God looking at each of us as an ostrich allegedly watches over its eggs. A particular feature of the church is the ceiling of paintings of some 120 angels, said to be the most famous example of ecclesiastical art in Ethiopia.
It was 4.50 pm, over eight hours since we had left the Simien Lodge, when we rolled up to our accommodation for the night: the all-new Mayleko Lodge [click here] on the outskirts of Gondar. It was at this point that an already challenging trip became truly interesting. In Axum, the town had lost all Internet connection for a while; in Lalibela, the town had lost electricity for a time; now, here at the Mayleko Lodge, we were met with the news that they had no running water. A vote was taken as to whether we should stay put or transfer to another hotel and by one vote it was decided to tough it out at Mayleko Lodge (it seemed that most were just too tired to travel further). So, once we were located in our respective chalets, staff brought round large plastic cans of water, followed by a couple of buckets and a jug, for us to use for washing and going to the toilet (showers were out of the question). This is, of course, how most Ethiopians live (although they have to fetch the water from some distance), so perhaps this incident was Cox & Kings' effort to bring us an authentic Ethiopian experience. That evening at the lodge, the group had a really good dinner with lots of free red wine to excuse the lack of running water.
Day 11 (Tuesday) was one lake and three churches. But to get to the lake - we left the lodge at 8.15 am - we had to take yet another unmade road south, so it was a case of more rattling and rolling over very rocky surfaces, more sharp pinging as loose rocks smashed into the underside of the minibus, and more of that ubiquitous dust. But it took us 'only' an hour and a half to reach the little town of Gogora on the north shore of Lake Tana.Before boarding our boat, we visited our first church: the 17th century Church of Debre Sina Maryam. Like all the churches we were visiting today, it was a circular structure reflecting the style of many rural Ethiopian homes. As with all the churches we viewed today, Dawit took us around the central inner sanctuary or 'maqdas' in the order west wall-south wall-east wall-north wall (for a service, men stand on the north side and women stand on the south side), explaining the iconography of the paintings representing various scenes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament in what is known as the first Gondar style.
At 10.50 am, we boarded our craft for the day: a boat called "Nigat" which was only for our group and provided refreshments and a toilet. And so we set set off to cross Lake Tana from north to south, a distance of around 70 km (43 miles). This lake is Ethiopia's largest covering over 3,500 sq kms and its waters are the source of the Blue Nile which flows 5,223 kms north to the Mediterranean Sea having joined up with the White Nile in Sudan. Our boat trip was such a sedate change of pace from the minibus, the waters were green-grey, there was the occasional sighting of pelicans, and the weather was glorious with a cloudless azure sky. There was plenty of time to chat, read and even sleep.
After about two and a half hours, we reached Dek Island where we viewed our second church: the 18th century Church of Narga Selassie. This is considered to be one of the most beautiful painted churches in Ethiopia. The paintings are more colourful and show more representations of contemporary life in what is called the second Gondar style.
Our cruise then took us another two hours to the Zege Peninsula on the south side of Lake Tana. Here we visited our third and last church of the day: the 19th century Church of Ura Kidane Meret. The pictures here are not just of stories from the Bible but stories from other sacred works said to narrate the early life of Jesus and Mary. So, for example, there was an illustration of the child Jesus sliding down a sunbeam rather than bannisters like an ordinary kid.
BAHIR DAR AND THE BLUE NILE FALLS
Seven hours after sending out from Gogora on the north shore of Lake Tana, we arrived at our final destination of Bahir Dar on the south shore of the lake. This is a largish town with a population of 170,000 and apparently some people have described it as the Ethiopian Riviera because of its wide streets shaded by palm streets with views across the lake.It was here that we had the seventh and last hotel of our trip: Kuriftu Resort & Spa [click here]. This proved to be the best of the holiday. Although - like other hotels on this trip - it had occasional (brief) power cuts, it had running water (!) plus a swimming pool and massage sessions. At the hotel restaurant, it was an al a carte menu with the widest choice of food yet and Roger even managed to have a banoffee pie for dessert. In fact, he was even more excited to have a WiFi connection for the first time in four days so that he could upload more reports of the holiday to his blog. Day 12 (Wednesday) was our penultimate day in Ethiopia. Our morning excursion was to the Blue Nile Falls. Leaving the hotel at 8.40 am, we were soon onto yet another unmade road all the way to the falls. Although the journey was only 30 km (19 miles), it took over an hour because it was so bumpy and rocky. Once again, there was all that damn dust. We pitied the drivers of the flat two-wheeled carts pulled by weary donkeys and the little children standing by the roadside looking at these white strangers. We only stopped once just outside Bahir Dar by the side of a large rubbish tip where a dead donkey was being devoured by dogs and dozens of vultures perched in a tree or wheeled overhead waiting for the dogs to give them their share of the creature. Once we left the vicinity of town, however, the landscape was greener than anything we had seen elsewhere in Ethiopia because the locals are able to use water diverted from the nearby Nile. The Blue Nile Falls is known locally as Tis Abay Falls or 'the water that smokes'. Once we reached the area, we made a short boat trip downstream and over to the other side accompanied by a local guide and an armed soldier.
Then it was a ten minute walk to view the falls themselves. Now these falls are at their most spectacular during and after the rainy season (from about June to January) so, this being mid February, we were not expecting much of a show - but we were in for a surprise.The local hydro-electric power station was closed because of a technical problem with one of the turbines, so much more water than usual for this time of year was pouring over the falls just now. There are two vantage points: one about the level of the top of the falls and another about two thirds down. Although the falls is only 42 metres (138 feet) high and it was not the rainy season, it was still an awesome sight: about a dozen streams of water coming over the rocks and one thunderous deluge thanks to the problem with the power station.
We returned to our hotel for lunch and then at 2.30 pm went out again for a mini excursion in town. Two of the group opted out of this trip to spend time in the hotel's swimming pool, but the rest of us - including Vee & Roger - wanted to see as much as possible. We drove past the Martyrs Memorial Monument which is dedicated to those who died fighting the Derg. Then we went up to the Bezawit Palace which was built in 1967 for the then Emperor Haile Selassie who only spent two nights there before he was overthrown. It is not open to the public and cannot be photographed. Nearby the palace is a viewpoint over the town of Bahir Dar and down in the river between us and the town we spotted a hippopotamus. The other stop was to visit the Main Market. This is large and lively and specialises in variety of grains, herbs and spices. Some of the group bought coriander, cumin and pepper. The locals were surprised to see us there but the youngsters were happy to greet us with their little English.
BACK TO ADDIS ABABA
Our last day in Ethiopia - day 13 (Thursday) - started early with the alarm at 5.45 am. Vee & Roger found that, in spite of mosquito nets in our four-poster bed, we had been bitten on face, arms and hands and, in Vee's case, all over her ankles.
The group left the hotel at 7.30 am and proceeded to the airport at Bahir Dar where we took our fourth and final internal flight on a Bombadier Q400. This was a return to Addis Ababa which only took 40 minutes, but the landing was so bumpy that the passenger next to Vee made the sign of the cross twice.The last time we were in the capital it was Sunday and it was very apparent now that this was a week day because the traffic was very heavy. Nevertheless we were driven around the Mercato which is said to be the largest open-air market in Africa. It was not just much larger than the three other markets we had seen, but more substantial with most shops located in permanent structures. One area concentrates on recycled materials, while another section is supplied by stolen goods. At this point, we returned to the hotel where we had started our holiday - the Radisson Blu [click here] - where, after lunch, we were allocated day rooms. At 3 pm, there was the final excursion of the trip but only five members - including Roger - took advantage of this. There was still more shopping to be done so we visited a textile factory & shop called Muya Ethiopia and then some other shops. Roger went to the first shop and bought a number of items but he skipped the other shops because, alone of the group, he was very keen to visit the Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum. This museum, which was opened in 2010, commemorates the murder of opponents of the communist Derg (the word means simply 'Committee'), mainly in 1977-78, in a bloody period known as the 'red terror' [click here]. All the exhibits in the museum - mainly photographs of political demonstrations and of victims of the atrocity - are labelled in Amaric and (poor) English and an English-speaking guide was available to provide further explanation. According to Amnesty International, up to half a million people were killed in the terror and a small room in the museum features glass cases full of skulls and bones of a selection of the victims. The guide told Roger: "This is our Holocaust".
Dawit explained that the museum does not provide some appropriate context. Initially the military Derg - who overthrew the Emperor Haile Selassie - were popular with most people because they reformed the land tenure system and controlled food prices. But clearly this was another case in history of a revolution devouring those it was originally intended to serve. Our flight back to London was an overnight one, so Dawit took us out for our first non-hotel meal. It was to a place called the "2000 Habesha Cultural Restaurant". In fact, it was not like a restaurant at all: a large rectangular room had buffet food at one of the narrow sides and a stage on one of the long sides. The food was divided into fasting and non fasting food, the difference being that fasting food uses no animal products and is consumed by those observing the Ethiopian version of Lent. The stage was the platform for a performing troupe which consisted of five musicians playing traditional instruments, two singers (one male and one female) and six dancers (three male and three female). The music was quite repetitive but the dancing was immensely energetic. Traditional Ethiopian dancing makes most use of the upper body with jerky movements of the shoulders especially. Naturally individual dancers came down among the audience and invited selected individuals to emulate their moves and naturally Roger had a go in the interests of international relations. It was a four hour wait in the middle of the night for our 2.10 am flight from Addis Ababa back to London on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The flight took over seven and a half hours and London time is three hours before Addis time, so we landed at 6.50 am local time.
Another trip abroad was over. How should we assess this one?Well, a holiday in Ethiopia is not for everyone. The country scores among the lowest on the globe in the World Development Index and in terms of GDP per capita. Outside of the cities, which is where the overwhelming majority of the population live, we saw virtually no private vehicles or even scooters or even bicycles. Everyone walks, often great distances, sometimes in bare feet. Village homes were typically one room with no windows, no electricity, no running water.
It was humbling to see such abject poverty and to appreciate just how privileged we are and it was a real pleasure to find how friendly people are and how much young people want to practice their English.
Ultimately, however, for the tourist who wants something different and is prepared for some challenges, Ethiopia is a great destination. The exotic names of places we visited were themselves magical: Addis Ababa, Axum, Lalibela ... But the history was so rich and fascinating, whether it was the skeleton of Lucy, the stelae of Axum, the rock churches of Lalibela, or the castles of Gondar and the terrain was awesome whether it was the mountains of the Simien National Park or the waters of Lake Tana. In fact, four of the locations we viewed are World Heritage Sites. Although this was only a trip of two weeks, it involved six flights and seven hotels, not to mention some long road journeys and some difficult walking. On the road, there are generally no service stations or cafes suitable for foreigners. A couple of the hotels were excellent, while the others were adequate but often lacking in the sort of services that are common in most countries, such as decent lighting, space to hang clothes, and Internet access which is not continuously absent or lost and that is not slower than we remember from dial up. At one level, we never had to worry about food and drink because breakfast, lunch and dinner for every day were included in the tour arrangements and price, the food was aimed at a western palate, and we were constantly supplied with bottled water. At another level, we were anxious about food because hygiene levels are low and two of the group had very serious diarrhoea. Vee never has stomach problems on holiday and Roger was fine until the last day. In fact, the food was much better than we expected, if unspectacular, but the service was invariably very slow and a bit hit and miss. One oddity of this particular holiday was the number of times that we had to take off our shoes. Roger - who likes counting things - reckoned that we took off our shoes no less than 31 times (once each for 21 churches and twice each for five flights). The holiday was made by our tour guide Dawit. He was immensely knowledgeable and resourceful and coped very well with some difficult individuals and situations. He has a great love for his country's history and culture and communicated this clearly and passionately. Although, for Roger & Vee, this was probably the most challenging holiday of our lives, we loved it and were inspired by it. We feel sure that Ethiopia has a real future as a tourist destination for the discerning traveller and we were delighted that we had visited before it becomes popular.