Adventures on the roof of Africa
The image of Ethiopia many people conjure up in their minds is a far cry from the real thing. Before I went there I had always thought of Ethiopia as a barren, dry, flat desert with millions of starving people and a certain amount of banditry and despair thrown in – a view which largely stems from the images of famine from the late 1980’s. What we found when we arrived in Ethiopia was a country unlike any other in Africa, and certainly very different to what we had envisaged. You could call it a mountain kingdom, the roof of Africa as much of the country is mountainous and it has some incredible mountain ranges, the highest peak being Ras Dashen at 4543m. The topography made driving rather interesting as the roads often follow torturous routes up relentless switchbacks, only to descend dramatically to the valley floor again.
The other thing that struck us about Ethiopia was its incredibly rich history and culture. It reminded me of Tibet in many ways –the distinct style of dress; the devoutness of the people; a high altitude landscape dotted with places of worship often in obscure or remote locations; a proud people with their own language, script and distinct form of religion; a rich history with legends abound. They use their own calendar system with a thirteen month year and the clocks are six hours behind – definitely a bonus of visiting the country as when we crossed the border we were instantly 8 years younger, transported back in time to the heady university days of 2003.
We got our first taste of faranji frenzy on the drive from Scorpion Camp to Gondor. In the north where there aren’t so many tourists the kids would see our truck and come sprinting out of their homes, eyes wide with excitement, big grin on their grubby wee faces, both hands outstretched waving furiously, and yodelling at the top of their lungs “YOUYOUYOUYOUYOUYOUYOUYOUYOU!!!” It’s fair to say it was a pretty gentle introduction to a phenomenon that would gradually build until its climax in the Omo Valley where we were chased down the road by about 100 kids all screaming and singing “Giiiiiive meeee… ONE PEN!!” I had a new and important role in Ethiopia – chief waver! It was a full time position, and at times I would have to tie my hand to the handrail and wave continuously to keep the fans happy. In Amharic the word “you” is used to say hello which is why people say it. Nevertheless it still grates the nerves a bit when everywhere you go people say “YOU give me one pen! YOU give me one Birr! YOU give me smoke.” We quickly learned a few words of Amharic to offer some retorts to these seemingly rude demands.. Firstly, if people called us farangi – foreigner – we would say back at them habasha, which simply means Ethiopian! That usually got a laugh. When people asked for money or pens we would say Yeullem, which means I don’t have any. Whoever came to Africa doling out pens and money has a lot to answer for!!
One of the best things about Ethiopia is its beer. Especially for us travellers coming from the Muslim countries to the North. It was only fitting that the first thing we did when we arrived in Gondor was to visit the Dashen brewery. They have a fantastic open air bar where they serve up pints of the delicious amber brew for the paltry price of 7 Birr – the equivalent of 25p!!! It was unbelievable, and we definitely made the most of it during our time in Ethiopia.
We spent a few days at Tim and Kim’s Community Camp on the north side of Lake Tana relaxing, drinking beer, eating good food, swimming in the lake, and chatting to Kim. It was nice to recharge the batteries, and to be surrounded by grass, trees, lakes and wildlife again! It was actually cold when we were there and rained a lot, a big change from the last few months of sun, heat and humidity. When we first arrived in the village we asked some wee kids where Tim and Kim’s was, to our surprise they all started yodelling TIMKIMTIMKIMTIMKIMTIMKIM. Kim later told us that the locals thought TimKim meant “you” due to some confusion still lingering from when they first set up the camp and it was their way of saying hello to us.
Back in Gondor we bumped into some other overlanders, Andrew and Tina at Belegez Guest House. We all went out for dinner, along with Andrew’s mum who was a real hard case, and had a fantastic evening drinking, eating Ethiopia’s national dish, injera and swapping tales from the road. Injera is a large, grey, spongy, sour pancake which is served with a curry sauce, called wat. It’s pretty hit and miss whether you get a good one or not and we got our fair share of both. Tina and Andrew were great fun and had a fantastic energy about them. They had driven from the UK down the west coast of Africa and were now heading back up the east, a journey that had taken them 18 months to date. They had loads of great stories and it was really nice talking to them about the road ahead. Check out theirwebsite www.sandlover.org – they’ve got some mint photos!
We did the historical northern circuit which took us to Debark where we spent a few days in the Simien Mountains (see separate post – Monkeying around in the Simiens) then took a rollercoaster road through (and over) the mountains to Axum. The road was spectacular! Although it was only a few hundred km from Debark the road was incredibly rough and windy, and it took us the best part of a day to get there. We arrived in the dark and checked into the Africa Hotel which was phenomenally good value for money with an en-suite room costing £5.45 and meals for 60p!! Ethiopia is a pretty cheap place! Axum is famous for being the home of the Queen of Sheba, but there’s really not much to see there so we did a drive-by of some inscribed stellae, said our goodbyes to our Australian hitch hiker, Murray then gapped it out of town. The scenery in Northern Ethiopia is stunning, with green fertile fields backed by towers of red rock, and fantastically smooth, brand-new tarmac roads. Rodders was lapping it up! We stopped off in a small town for lunch, and randomly bumped into the Swiss guys in their Landrover! We joined them for a feed and a catch-up then hit the road again down to Tigray region, famed for its rock-hewn churches. We arrived just on dusk, the sky an eerie pink colour with dark rain clouds building overhead and lightening striking all around us. There were many people on the road and we had nowhere to stay, making the only option to wild camp – easier said than done in Ethiopia!! With the light fading fast and options thin on the ground we finally found a small track that looked fairly uninhabited and pulled onto the grass to quickly set up camp before the heavens opened and drenched us. We got the tent up just in time with the rain pounding on the roof and the electrical storm really firing up. After a team vote, we decided to forgo dinner and go straight to bed – the first and only time on our trip (hopefully)!
In the morning we woke up to an incredible view, and a flat tyre… Rodders was resting on his rim with a screw through the tread, so we quickly got to work to change the tyre and fix the puncture, amassing a small crowd of onlookers keen to help out. Once that was done we turned our attention to the surrounding scenery which was simply spectacular – a patchwork of terraced fields lining the valley floor fringed by red cliffs and rock towers, amazingly, with churches carved into them – the object of our days pursuits!
Religion is a big part of people’s lives here and is evident practically everywhere you go. Nearly everybody wears a cross around their neck, and many people even have crosses tattooed onto their foreheads. It’s quite common to see priests walking down the road, elegantly cloaked in long robes and skullcaps, clutching large, rather ostentatious golden crosses which they would use to bless people. There are churches everywhere, usually brightly painted with a big silver cross on the roof. The extent to which people went to to pray was illustrated very poignantly in Tigray where nearly every mountain has a church carved into its upper reaches – closer to god I suppose. Local villagers would hike some distance up there, sometimes up vertical cliffs with footholds hewn into the rock, just to pray.
We hired a local guide who took us on a walking / climbing tour of two sites (three churches), the first of which was called Abuna Yemata Church. This church is renowned for its approach which involves some free climbing up a well worn route to gain the dizzying heights of the church. The climbing obviously appealed to us but turned out to be a lot shorter than expected. Nevertheless we found ourselves on some very exposed ledges overlooking fantastic views of the valley and surrounding mountains. Unfortunately the priest was absent when we arrived so we missed the opportunity to enter that church but weren’t overly bothered by the loss as there were more to come and the climb had been the main appeal on this occasion. In a small cave nearby the remains of thousands of pious pilgrims had been interred, many of the limbs were semi-mummified and you could make out dried feet and hands amongst the pile of bones and skulls, the skin all shrivelled and dry.
The next church on the agenda, called Mariam Korkor was about an hours walk up a steep hill. The wizened old priest lives up there by himself, and has a small garden and some goats to sustain himself. The church was carved into the rock face and had columns and carvings, all hewn from the original bed rock. The walls were adorned with colourful religious frescos of various saints. The religious aspect of the visit was slightly lost on us as we were expected to draw comparisons between European forms of Christianity and the orthodox Ethiopian church – needless to say our knowledge of Christianity is somewhat lacking, and our guide was rather appalled! After a quick tour we made our way around to the opposite side of the towering rock feature we had scaled and were met with an amazing view of the area from the edge of a very high cliff face, and the entrance to our third rock hewn church for the day located in a small grotto that had again been excavated from the bedrock.
After a very chilled out spell overlooking the valley floor below, we made our way back down to Rodders. We were hoping to check out the climbing at the bottom of the cliff but the heavens opened and it started to rain heavily, so we headed to Hawsien instead to check out the weekly market and grabbed some injera and a beer at a local restaurant.
It was by this stage that we were coming to grips with the scale of the route we had chosen – we had arranged to meet this English chap Sam in Addis on the 20th, so we only had a few days to cover over 900 miles of hilly terrain. Lalibela is a fairly tricky place to get to (if you’re backpacking we’d definitely recommend flying there!). We chose to take the shorter, but rougher route – you could say the road less travelled… The rainy season had started in earnest now and we had some pretty wild weather to go with the wild road and wild scenery. We looked onwards in despair as the kilometres ticked over painfully slowly as we wound our way over the numerous mountain passes on our remote route to Lalibela. The scenery was amazing with green hills and small, primitive villages perched on the top of ridges, the locals cloaked in capes of thick grey wool to keep the cold wind and rain at bay. We even encountered areas which were relatively unpopulated (by Ethiopian standards) which was a bonus as we ended up blatantly camping right on the side of the road the next evening near the top of one of the mountain passes, with range upon range of mountains fading into the distance.
Lalibela is one of Ethiopia’s holiest sites, with eleven monolithic churches, each literally carved entirely into a single block of granite with their roofs at ground level. The churches have been in continuous use since they were carved into the rock in the 12th century, and are an important pilgrimage site for Orthodox Ethiopians. We happened to arrive at Lalibela on a holy day and were met by a hoard of local worshippers who were also visiting the churches that morning. The pilgrims wore a white shaba, the traditional Ethiopian shawl wrapped around their head and shoulders and went around the churches kissing walls, praying and getting blessed by the priests. Apparently out of the 10,000 people that live in Lalibela town, an incredible 1000 of them are priests!! Later on in the morning we came across a gathering of pilgrims, all praying wailing and crying together – it was pretty intense! It was special seeing the intensity of religion, and again I was reminded of similar scenes in Tibet.
Moving on from Lalibela we again decided to take a “short-cut” route, which turned out to be in a fairly sorry state of maintenance but passed through lots of little villages and terraced farmland so was pretty interesting. We stopped in one of the villages to buy some bread and Rodders was instantly surrounded by 50 villagers, their faces right up to the windows, all gaping at me. I got talking to one of them who had excellent English, and he said they very rarely get faranji through so when one does show up it’s a real treat and they all come down to have a look! It took us four hours to go the 100 km to get back onto the tarmac, and another day and a half of vertiginous driving – through verdant terraced fields and lush valleys, getting chased down the switchbacks by young men clutching intensely bright orange carrots – to get to Addis. I would never have guessed Ethiopia would be so green – another land of surprises!
Check out our photos of Northern Ethiopia on our photos page.