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Arriving in Ethiopia, the change in scenery is dramatic. From the dry and dusty dirt roads of northern Kenya, we find ourselves driving through mountains and greenery. We also have a change in the temperature – with the mountains comes the colder weather and we are back to wearing the winter woolies in no time.
We are waved through the villages with lots of greetings of “you, you” - the common greeting for “farangi” (foreigners) in Ethiopia. We spend our first night in Ethiopia in Yabelo, where we get a long-awaited and (after the dusty roads of northern Kenya) much-needed shower. Cleaned up we get to sample our first taste of injera, a pancake-like substance which is the basis for most meals in Ethiopia (and in looks and texture is much like a bath mat).
Leaving Yabelo we head north, taking in the Rift Valley lakes of Awasa and Ziway. Sue and Chad row Lake Ziway in search of the famous island monasteries (one of which supposedly at one time housed the Ark of the Covenant) and take in some of the local birdlife. Dean, Willy, Rachel, Ches, Carrie and Jose head off to discover their inner cowboy/cowgirl and travel to Dodola, where they trek the Bale Mountains National Park on horseback.
Returning from horse riding a little sore and sorry, we leave for Addis Ababa for the next round of visas for Sudan and Egypt.
Unfortunately “Addis” puts on the rain for us for most of the week. While we wait for our visas to be processed, we keep dry by taking in some culture at the Ethnological and National Museums. We see the arts, crafts and history of the various tribes of Ethiopia on display at the Ethnological Museum, as well as stunning crosses, scrolls, triptychs and other religious icons. We discover the origins of humanity at the National Museum and meet “Lucy” the oldest and most complete upright skeleton unearthed to date.
Back at camp, we kick off a chess championship and teach the locals some new dance moves by creating our disco in the bar. Mark, Ches, Dean and Willy take advantage when the rain lets up, and hit the golf course and driving range. Willy channels his inner “Tiger Woods” is the winner of the day.
We trawl the streets and take in the atmosphere of Addis, rewarding ourselves with macchiatos (coffee having said to originate in Ethiopia) and pastries along the way.
Leaving Addis with visas in hand drive through the mountainous terrain of northern Ethiopia. With lots of ups and downs it’s slow going, but we get to take in more of the amazing scenery on offer, and adjust to an even colder climate.
Arriving in Bahir Dar we are lakeside once again, camping on the shores of Lake Tana. Famed for its palm-trees and relaxed ambience, as well as the century-old monasteries on its waters, Lake Tana does not disappoint. With a short boat-ride, Carrie, Jose, Sue, Rachel, and Chad stop at the the Zege Peninsula, to view the famous crowns and crosses of Ura Kidane Menet, Lake Tana’s most famous and frequently visited monastery. Mark and Ches stop off to see the “water that smokes“ at the Blue Nile Falls (Tis Isat) and spend some time chilling out by the lake.
The next morning the group leaves early for a tour of the historical route, braving the challenges of Africa’s famed public transport. Our first destination is Lalibela, famed as Africa’s “Petra” with its medieval rock-hewn churches, crypts and grottoes. After a day of driving we stop for a late lunch in Gashena (injera yet again!) and arrive late in the afternoon. With limited time here we wander the town, sampling fresh mango juice and souvenir shopping and stopping in at a Tej House, where the famed honey wine gets us buzzing!
Carved from the earth and resembling something from an Indiana Jones movie, the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela amaze. With freestanding monolithic, rock-hewn and cave-like structures we work our way through the warren of tunnels and clusters of churches, and absorb the religious treasures in the form of frescoes, murals, and the famed Lalibela cross.
After a quick local lunch, Dean begins some deft negotiations to secure a ride to our next stop, Woldia. With some wheeling and dealing we hire out an entire public bus, with an agreement to pick up other passengers on the way. It’s a fun way to travel and we meet many of the locals who are greatly amused at the “farangis” travelling local-style, and share some of their very sweet sugar cane with us.
We have a quick overnight stop in Woldia, and depart at 5am the next morning for the bus station. It’s another day on the local buses to get us to Aksum, and we are getting more used to this mode of travel - bumping around and navigating the challenges of Africa’s roads. We travel through Mekele and arrive in Aksum on schedule - so far all is going to plan and we are on track to see all the sights on the route.
Described as one of the most important and spectacular sites in sub-Saharan Africa, Aksum’s numerous attractions are based on legend, myth and fables. First up are the stellae (obelisk) fields, filled with towering monoliths, underground tombs, ruins and inscriptions. Standing at up to 33 metres the stelae are impressive and demonstrate the skill of the masons, with most being constructed from a single block of granite. We
We quench our thirst with shai and buna (tea and coffee) and stop for souvenir shopping where woven baskets, amethyst rocks and inscribed Amharic bibles top the list of purchases. Our money spent, we resume the tour visiting the Queen of Sheba’s bath and palace, the St Mary of Zion complex with its old and new churches, museum and chapel (said to house the very guarded and unseen Ark of the Covenant), and trek through the local crop fields to see the Lioness of Gobedra.
With the sights of Aksum covered, we are back on the bus heading for Shire. Unfortunately our luck with the African transport system has finally run its course, and about 20km out of Shire we grind to a halt – a landslide has blocked the road and with a tight schedule and night approaching, we decide to set out on foot. With lots of laughs along the way (and a number of flip-flop blow outs due to the mud) we walk for a couple of hours until the road is cleared and the traffic begins to filter through. With the first sign of a vehicle Sue, Rachel, Carrie and Jose squeeze on to a bus with about 30 people already crammed in, and arms, legs and other body parts in every available space. Willy, Dean, Chad and Rebecca get picked up down the road by a truck driver who squashes us into his cab and treats us to Amharic tunes all the way to Shire. After grab a quick dinner where Dean teaches the locals how to make 2-minute noodles, and bunk down for a few hours sleep before another early start the next day.
We leave Shire at 5am, back on the bus and heading for Gonder. We have breathtaking views as we drive through the Simian Mountains, reaching heights of 3250 metres. We arrive in Gonder late afternoon and are back on the truck in time for a very welcome dinner cooked by Chesley and Mark.
We spend a day in Gonder with a whirlwind tour of the sights. We visit the palaces and castles of Ethiopia’s rulers at the Royal Enclosure (with Dean and Chad locked in the lion cages), marveling at the intricacies of the 104 cherubs whose faces adorn the Debra Behrman Selassi Church, and stopping at Kuskuam, where the skeletons of Empress Mentewab, her son and grandson can be viewed in their glass-topped crypt.
Gonder also brings out the competitive side to some of the group, and a fierce game of Texas Hold’em Poker gets underway. Amidst much bluffing and heavy betting, Mark and Dean walk away with the fullest pockets of the night.
We leave Gonder the next day, with our final night in Ethiopia in sight. We are back to bush camping, and even on our last night the rain does not let up. We get washed out and nearly blown away, and leave early the next morning, saying goodbye to the rains of Ethiopia and welcome to the dry heat of Sudan.