Saturday, January 28, 2006
Do I stay or do I go now?
On the eve of my much anticipated trip to Ethiopia I was working late trying to finish off all of those last minute tasks before disappearing for three weeks when I received a call from my tour company. I knew something from wrong as soon as soon as I got the call. I don’t even recall having given them my office number… but I must have. Anyway, he was ringing to let me know, in case I hadn’t already heard (which I hadn’t) that there had been some riots in Addis Ababa and some people had been killed earlier in the week…and that the Foreign Office were advising against travel to Ethiopia…
My worst fears were realised. This was exactly what I had been concerned about before booking the trip. I had been dreaming of this trip for a couple of years since I first saw it advertised, and then this year I decided that there might be a possibility to go. I had some extra holidays I wanted to use up, and a group trip like this would be perfect. But then there were the demonstrations in May and June after the disputed elections and people were killed. Was it safe to go? I watched the news carefully checking out the situation online and eventually in September decided it had quietened down enough to go. Now it had flared up again! …”Some of the tour party are already there and we have decided to continue with the trip”, he said. “We are comfortable at this stage that the trip can be run safely, though you will need to lay low in Addis”.The local tour operator in Addis said we'd probably be fine so long as we took things easy around the hotel. After that we would be up in the mountains, and out of the trouble areas, should they flare up again!
So this is a great way to start a trip, I thought! Whilst the day had started well, the afternoon had gone downhill with one problem after another coming up at work, and then finally this call! My excitement about the trip was now totally consumed by nervousness… and Tom was out for the night at his cricket club dinner!
Sunday 6 November 2005
After a day spent trying to make the decision about whether I should cancel or not, I boarded my plane, not really knowing whether I was doing the right thing. If I cancelled I would lose my money and miss out on a potentially great trip and chances were that nothing would have gone wrong anyway… but if I went and anything went wrong, then well I could fly home again couldn’t I? And after all, there were riots going on in Paris too at the same time, and London was bombed a couple if months ago. What could be so bad in Ethiopia? At least the weather would be better.
On boarding my flight I was surprised at how full it was, but then I recalled that it also stopped in Alexandria on the way. As it turned out, 90% of the passengers left the flight at Alexandria, and no one new joined the flight! Is that a message?
This gets me thinking about the most frequent question people had asked me over the last few weeks ...“why on earth are you going to Ethiopia?” And these people didn’t even know about the political issues and the riots! I realised that most people know very little about Ethiopia, so I thought I’d try to list the top 12 things that people seem to know about!
- The famine (through the eyes of Live Aid)
- The war with Eritrea…and clashes with Somalia and the Sudan etc
- The birthplace of Christianity at Axum
- Haile Gebreselassie (the runner)
- Haile Selassie (the Emperor)
- St George’s church at Lalibela
- The historical city of Gondar
- The Blue Nile and Tisisat Falls
- Lake Tana
- The Simien Fox (or Ethiopian Wolf)
- The Walia Ibex
- The Simien Mountains
I landed in Addis at about 0100 hrs to an all but deserted airport, found the shuttle bus to my hotel and took the eerily quiet (was there a curfew or something?) 10 minute ride up the Bole Road to the hotel. First thing on the agenda was to get some sleep. The next day was to be a relaxing day, my main task being to find the other members of my tour party before we left Addis early on Tuesday morning!
Tuesday 8 November 2005
Richard & Fearon from BC, Canada
Mari & Shari from California
Garth from Sydney
Stewart from Canberra
Alex from Colorado
Then the next morning I met Pam from San Francisco and Melody our tour leader from Perth, both of whom had flown in overnight.
Just as we were trying to leave the hotel in the morning the hotel stopped us due to an unpaid bar bill. Someone called Glenn Thomas (apparently a member of our party) had taken a drink at the café yesterday and had not yet paid. We couldn’t leave until he paid. But none of us had met anyone called Glenn. Was there another person we hadn’t met yet? Where was he? Why wasn’t he here with us? We had a flight to catch in one hour, and we were already late leaving for the airport!
As it turned out, Glenn from Sydney was joining our trip. After a mad trip in a taxi to get to the airport, we finally met him… and actually I had met him yesterday when he asked if I knew the directions to the National Museum. Why hadn’t I picked him as a member of our party? I should have picked his Australian accent. That would have saved a lot of hassle!
Anyway, now we were all together and were ready to commence the first leg of our trip.
So how did the actual situation stack up against everyone’s expectations? Well there were many pleasant surprises, and for me in any case, no disappointments… well at least not any that I can remember now after being back for a few weeks.
The country is visually stunning, particularly in the time of year we were there, so there is perhaps a small tourist industry to come (indeed, this is why I was there!), but this will not solve Ethiopia’s problems. I don’t know what will solve them, but I am glad to have been and understand a little more about their problems. I also learnt about some of the targeted charities that are doing great work in Ethiopia. THET is a charity based in UK that provide support to local Health services in Ethiopia (and some other countries in Africa), helping them to develop plans for improving local health services and putting them in touch with partner hospitals in UK. Our trek guide Getenet was also involved in a lot of charity work – he set up the school at Mekarebya that we visited, and just as we left him he had just received approval for another school!
The war with Eritrea…and clashes with Somalia and the Sudan etc
Whilst I was in Ethiopia I read Peter Moore’s travel novel Swahili for the Broken Hearted. He did go to some of these more dangerous parts of Ethiopia, and strangely experienced student riots in Addis, taking shelter in a Coffin shop during his 2000/2001 trip!
Lake Tana was the first real experience of Ethiopia that I had. It was the first place we travelled to after leaving Addis Ababa, and once there we felt safe. It was, however in the only malarial zone that we were to encounter on the trip (altitude was only about 1800m), so insect repellent was a must! Our hotel was on a lovely site on the shores of Lake Tana with simple (but clean) rooms and a lovely view over the lake.
Once we’d arrived, almost straight away we went on a boat trip of the lake. The aim of the journey was to see one of the Monasteries on the peninsula partway across the lake (see comments on “The birthplace of Christianity at Axum”), but along the way we saw a few other things of interest. Once we were well away from the shore (Lake Tana is about 65km long and 45 km wide), having realised that we had no life jackets, we noticed something moving on the horizon. As we approached, we realised they were two papyrus reed rafts being paddled by a couple of fit looking Ethiopian men. The rafts apparently take about 4 hours to make and last for about 4 months before they have to make a new one. Further along we saw some bigger rafts carrying cargo (or several rafts strapped together to be precise). Also along the way we saw many birds including white Pelicans and Fish Eagles. The shores of the lake are lined with Papyrus reeds and we saw several groups of people along the way harvesting the reeds, probably to build boats.
Once back at the hotel Alex, Pam & I went for a walk into town – mainly to stretch the legs, but also to see what interesting goods the market had to offer. Unfortunately most of the shops were closed (owing to the disturbances in the previous week) though Alex did manage to change some money (it took about half an hour for $10) and we did make a friend who persisted in showing us the sights of Bahir Dar… I think he was rather impressed with Alex!
Back at the hotel it was time for a beer and to read my book in the gardens just before sunset. A couple of kingfishers were diving for fish in the lake. It was picture postcard stuff!
The Blue Nile & the Tisisat Falls
To say that the Blue Nile River (called the Abbai at it’s source) is a large river is somewhat of an understatement. It is roughly 4400km from its source to the Mediterranean Sea. According to some accounts, 90% of the water from the Nile in Egypt is sourced from the Blue Nile and its tributaries in the highlands of Ethiopia. The source of the river is reputedly in the southern corner of Lake Tana, slightly east of the city of Bahir Dar, though according to Alan Moorhead’s book, The Blue Nile (1972) there is an alternate theory (in fact described as an accepted belief more than an argument).
…that the river really rises in a swamp called Ghish Abbai, some seventy miles
away to the south. From this swamp the Little Abbai river courses down through
the Ethiopian plateau to the south west corner of the lake, and its waters are
said to proceed through the lake itself to the opening near Bahardar…1
I don’t know if this is true or not but anyway, our boat trip on Lake Tana took us to the outlet from the lake known as the source of the Blue Nile. Like the lake, papyrus reeds bordered the edge of the river and locals worked by its banks collecting reeds and building canoes. The water still had the same silty hue as the lake. The flow from the lake was barely perceptible and a world apart from the torrent further downstream. But for the narrowing of the channel, we could still have been on the lake itself!
We traveled about thirty or forty kilometers downstream by road to the first major landmark on the river after the source… the Tisisat (or Blue Nile) Falls. Once upon a time these falls were said to be spectacular.
…it is an extraordinary thing that they should be so little known, for they are,These days I would doubt that they can be compared with the Victoria Falls; since 2000 there has been a hydro scheme on the Blue Nile River, and the Tisisat Falls are robbed of some of the flow of water owing to the greater need for electricity production. With the slower flow, the microclimate around the base of the falls has also changed. The misty spray of water is gone, as is the small rainforest.
by some way, the grandest spectacle that either the Blue or the White Nile has
to offer; in all Africa they are only to be compared with the Victoria Falls on
That said the falls are still pretty good…better than your average falls. They are still 45m high, and during the wet season when the dam is full, the water flow is quite fast and the falls are wider than when we saw them.
- Goats up a tree… maybe they got a better view up there? And one of the local kids was trying to get money from me after taking a photo of them stating that “Those goats belong to my family”!
- A bridge built in the 1600s by the Portuguese. This was another of the Da Gama family’s explorations (Vasco’s son this time). The bridge has stood the test of time and stands firmly crossing one of the offshoots from the Blue Nile hydro scheme.
- Blacksmith shop in one of the village huts. Being early in the trip we were very keen on taking photographs of anything “cultural”. We all paid the going rate of 1 Birr (about 12 US cents) per photograph and the blacksmith could have stopped work for the rest of the day (or week or month) after we left!
1 Alan Moorhead, The Blue Nile, NEL, November 1972, pg 10-12
The Birthplace of Christianity at Axum
Allegedly Axum (or Aksum) is the birthplace of Christianity and the Ark of the Covenant is held there in the inner sanctum of one of the churches. We did not go to Axum (very close to one of the borders we were advised to keep well away from). We did however experience the Ethiopian Orthodox or Coptic Christianity throughout our trip. We visited churches at Lake Tana, Gondar and Lalibela (see below), and sighted them in almost every village we passed through. Many of the churches are circular buildings built of reeds with a thatched roof. There are generally 3 areas within the church, the innermost sanctum only being open to the orthodox priests. The walls inside many of the churches are painted with murals depicting the Ethiopian version of the gospels. My favourite picture was one at Azwa Mariam monastery on Lake Tana which depicted a cannibal (along with pictures of decapitated feet and heads) who went to heaven because he helped a stranger who asked for his help “in the name of Mary”. Because he had done something in the name of Mary, he was forgiven. Also St George defeating the dragon was depicted in almost every church we visited.
The St George Church at Lalibela
The churches (11 of them in all) were built over a 25 year period in the 13th century by King Lalibela. The churches are located in an area within the town centre and it is only a few hundred metres at most to go from church to church. There are 3 types of churches built into the red sandstone:
Churches made of stone and built inside a natural cave (Makina Medhane Alem and Yemrehanna Krestos), Churches cut from a near vertical cliff face and using a natural cave (Abba Libanos in Lalibela).Churches cut in one piece from the rock and separated from it all round by a trench (Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam. Bet Giorgis, and others).
The churches are all still used today, and whilst we were there we caught the tail end of one of the services. The church was crowded and we headed for the only space we could see. As it turns out, this was right in the middle of the church and we were thrust into the middle of the service, elbow to elbow with the priest incanting the lessons rather than up the back with the locals leaning on their sticks (in Orthodox churches there is no room for laziness as there are no seats and most remain standing for the two or three hour service with only a shoulder height stick to lean on). The churches have music and the beat of the drum throughout the service, with the prayers spoken in Amharic language. Burning frankinsense adds to the atmosphere. At the end of the service we move through to the other end of the church to have a look in the next room, but we were quickly blocked from entering… no women were allowed in that church.
One of the amazing things that I found was that the so-called historical artifacts were so little preserved. On one hand you were’nt allowed to take photographs with a flash so as not to damage the frescos, and on the other there were fluorescent lights shining on the same said frescos 24 hours a day! Not to mention the apparently 900 year old painting in St George’s church that had a chair and an umbrella leaning against it, and the wooden trunk with a modern metal lock that had just been fitted. Were these really the original artifacts?
As we explored around Lalibela, we quickly realised that we had the company of our fellow countrymen in another party around town. Ernie Dingo and his The Great Outdoors crew were also filming a new episode in Lalibela at the same time we were there, and we seemed to follow them from site to site (even the airport on the day we left!). “They’re probably staying at our hotel…” I said … and sure enough they were. Ernie was in the room right next to us! Watch out for their Ethiopia episode in 2006!
The culture also plays a part. Most people do not have a car, and since many people have little access or funds to catch buses, in the main people get about by foot. It’s not uncommon for a 10 year old child (they all said they were 10 years old… why was that?) living in the mountains to walk 10 km to and from school each day. When the children are not at school, then they are working in the fields or carrying goods to or from the market. And with a diet free from western junk food, this all seems to add up to good potential runners… if they’re given the opportunity.
And after the trip, how was our running style? Well a number of my companions were already very good runners, clocking up 15 km training sessions in the gym in Addis before we started on the trek. Some even did some extra miles after our day's effort on the trail. My own running is a little more amateurish. My “regular” training sessions involved a roughly 5km trot around Richmond Park 2-3 (2 if I’m, honest) times a week, with the running time interrupted by a short walk for 2 out of every 12 minutes. And how did I go after getting back… well obviously I was much improved. I must admit though, I did struggle a bit the first day I went running again in London - I put this down to the very low temperatures (barely 5C in London vs 25C in Ethiopia) and the high percentage of oxygen in the air – I felt like I was choking there was so much! But the second run was much better, and I can keep going for considerably longer than before I went away, even though I’m still slow. Is this the altitude, or is it just that we spent 6-8 hours per day walking? Whatever, I’m pleased with the outcome!
One item of reading material that I reviewed before the trip was Evelyn Waugh’s “The Conronation of Haile Selassie” (Pocket Penguin, 2005). An interesting read, but must go through it again now after I’ve been there – I’m sure it will mean more!
The historical city of Gondar
The second time we stayed at Gondar, there was a wedding party at the hotel. They arrived precisely at the time we got off our bus, tired from a long drive and grubby (to say the least) from 10 days without a shower and trekking in the dust. This wedding seemed to be a society wedding. The dresses of both the guests and the bridal party were exquisite. As the bridal party arrived, before they were allowed out of the car the guests formed a circle around the car and were singing and dancing around it for at least 15 minutes. Then they got out of the car and all went out to the terrace of the hotel and continued with the singing and dancing. By 730pm, after we had washed and found some clean clothes (heaven!) and started our dinner, the party was over and all was quiet again.
As for the palace, well I don’t remember a lot of the history, but a few bits sunk in. They started to uild the palace in the 1600s and there was a lot of Portuguese influence. The buildings look quite European. Each successive Emporer built a new castle in the grounds of the palace and a couple of them have been quite well preserved. As we were walking through the grounds, hundreds of birds of prey were continually circling above our heads – mostly Black Kites, but there were Vultures too.
The Simien Mountains
This is what I came to see! It was a few years ago now that I first saw some pictures of the Simien Mountains in the Work Expeditions brochure, and since then I have always wondered what they would be like in real life. I found them no disappointment at all, in fact quite the opposite – they were amazing. Some compare them to “half the Grand Canyon” and I can see the resemblance. The cliffs of the escarpment are 800-1000m+ above “the lowlands” and we had many specatcular views over the edge.
Our trek started not far from the border of the National Park and on the afternoon of the first day, after the drive from Gondar, we walked for an hour or so along the escarpment to Sankabar Camp to stretch the legs and acclimatise a little. From this point onwards until the second last day of the trek we were almost always above 3500m altitude, so acclimatisation was crucial…for me I even struggled with this conservative approach, so just as well we did or it would have been worse! At Sankabar camp there was still plenty of daylight, so reading my book whilst sitting in the sun was the order of the afternoon, only briefly interrupted by the Broad-beaked Raven stealing the soap only 5 minutes after it was set down next to the washing water!
From Sankabar we then moved on to Geech Camp (2 nights), summiting Imet Gogo (3926m) on our “rest day” in between. These days were filled with wildlife sightings, not to mention the Sheep, Goats & Cows that we found everywhere. First we came across Gelada Baboon, also called the “Bleeding Heart Baboon”, owing to the red patch on their chest. We were able to get very close to them before they started to show signs that we should come no closer (baring very large teeth, snarling at us etc) and they were very photogenic. When we were too close they would disappear over the edge of the cliff… a terrain that was a little too steep for us. The Gelada mainly eat grasses and roots and unfortunately these can be in short supply in some parts…hence the National Park’s efforts to restrict certain activities (such as paragliding, but that’s another story!) in he park. As well we saw fleeting views of Klippspringer (type of antelope), Walya Ibex down on some of the vegetated parts of the escarpment and Lammergeyers, birds of prey with a huge 3m wingspan. On the native flora side there were many exquisite wildflowers over these couple of days, plus the very strange Giant Lobelia (Lobelia rhynchopetalum) which measures up to 10m in height. It can take up to 20 years before the Lobelia first flowers, and then dies after that!
After Sankabar we made our way up, then down, then “up up”, then “down down” (climbing Inatye 4070m on the way) to Chennek camp. We ended up at the same altitude after all that! Chennek camp came complete with Beer supplier…”How many birr for a beer?” was the frequent question on arriving in a new camp. After Chennek camp we moved on out of the national park and climbed the second highest peak of the trip, Bwahit (4430m). As it turned out, this was the highest point for me. I suffered from some mild altitude sickness and with such an energy sapping day, with a “down down down” section in the afternoon of more than 1600m, not arriving to camp until after 6pm. I decided to take a day off the next day whilst the rest of the group climbed Ras Dejen. After this day of doing not much except washing my socks and reading a book, I was fighting fit then to move on. It was a little disappointing not to have been able to climb Ras Dejen, but it was not to be, and anyway, it was not the reason for me going on the trek in the first place – much better that I enjoy the remainder.
After we left Ambiko, the village at the base of Ras Dejen we crossed through the high altitude farmland of the Simien mountains on the way to Arkiwasiye, back on the edge of the escarpment. It was an interesting day’s journey with a number of local children joining us for part of the journey. That night it rained!!! Not very much, but enough to be annoying, and we found that the mess tent was not waterproof. We had dinner dressed in Gortex jackets, gloves & beanies (it was cold too, as it was at all of our high altitude camps!). Next morning Glenn got out his camera to take a few photos of the children surrounding the camp, and then more children cam from everywhere, wanting all of us to take their photos. Eventually we escaped onto the trail, and after a lovely walk through the farmland we began the huge descent down into the lowlands - the Ansiya Wenz valley in particular. On the way down the farming didn’t stop with various grasses being harvested from the very steep hillsides, not to mention the odd sheep, goat, mule…and Gelada. After a couple of hours descent (for us anyway – I think the group at the front completed it much more quickly) we made it to the river for lunch. It was a lovely flowing section of the river with conveniently placed boulders to sun ourselves on and large pools for washing ourselves. I felt much fresher after that!
That night was spent at Mekerebya where we camped in the school grounds. There were great views of the cliffs above us and the volcanic plugs that we were heading for. In the morning we visited the school and met the teachers. Some threehundred or more children of primary school age attended this school which consisted of only 3 classrooms. We left Mekarebya that morning for a walk along the river valley to our last campsite for the trip at Mulit, near Adi Arkay. The day was hot – it was much warmer in the lowlands. Even last night it was relatively warm and we ate dinner under the stars and I barely covered myself with my sleeping bag. By lunchtime after passing a very refreshing looking waterhole it was 31 degrees celcius in the shade, and much hotter in the sun… quite hot for walking in. And the afternoon got worse because it was all a steep uphill. Those of us at the back of the group (Mel, Garth, Glenn, Stewart, Getinet, Tikaba & myself) took it easy and rested every time we got to some shade for a minute or two. At Hawaza we visited the teahouse for that Pepsi I had been craving for the last few days…I felt I deserved it well & truly by now.
The last camp at Mulit was a stunning setting with great views of the volcanic rock formations and we had a fabulous sunset. There was drama when we first got there as the dog living across the road from the camp had taken a chicken and was protecting it by hiding it in a bush and barking at everything and everyone that came within a 30m radius. The dog was only a pup and was bearing some resemblance to the Ethiopian wolf pictures that we had seen. It was certainly not popular with it’s owner since chickens are valuable possessions…I wonder how long that dog will last! That night we didn’t sleep well, though it was nothing to do with the comfort of the tents (being well used to the hard ground by now!). It had been market day, and our camp was located on the equivalent of the M1 it seemed. Endless streams of people with their animals and other purchases were heading back to their villages throughout the night, continuing well into the morning. It seemed that not all of the activity in the market was related to buying and selling either… I think drinking had quite a bit to do with it and the travellers we quite “happy” on their journey. Next morning all that remained of our trek was a short walk down the hill to Adi Arkay, and to board our bus back to Gondar.
The Simien Fox
The Walia Ibex
What else is there to know?
Petrol stations range from the extremely modern to the very basic and in the rural towns we saw many of these…and much to the amusement I think of my companions I photographed many of them – research I called it. There were two memorable sites – one had a dirt forecourt with a donkey & cart parked at the pump (unfortunately I missed that photo opportunity) and a modern one in Addis where they were selling wedding dresses in the Shell Shop.
Injera is often compared to a dishcloth in the mostly disparaging reviews in the guide books. However on the trip we became great fans of the nation dish and staple food throughout the country. Personally I liked the vegetarian versions with the spicy lentils, but the meat wat was pretty good too!
As for the fitness… well I have been trying hard and with a moderate level of success I have been keeping active and trying to retain my form. It is hard though to make up for walking 8 hours a day at altitude during a London winter! We keep trying!