Ethiopia: A journey back in time, literally…

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Why Ethiopia?

When I began planning my Africa trip the initial idea was to travel the famous Cairo to Cape Town route that brings you all the way from Egypt in the north to South Africa in the south, covering the entire length of the continent. However due to a combination of time constraints, Africa’s notoriously terrible road network and serious safety concerns in some north African countries I decided to bypass Egypt and Sudan and start my trip in Ethiopia from where I would work my way down to South Africa.

To be honest, Ethiopia was not a country that I knew much about before my visit. In the western world it’s probably best known for the famine that devastated the country in the 1980s and the Live Aid efforts to raise funds and awareness. On a more positive note I knew of Ethiopia as the home of coffee, the country that was apparently the first to discover coffee when a young goat herder noticed is goats acting a little bit crazy after eating the berries of the coffee plant. As a self confessed coffee addict, that was reason enough for me to visit!

Time Travel

From what I’d read online, Africa is not particularly well set up for independent travelling. Due to bad roads and poor public transport getting from A to B would be more difficult and time consuming than a similar journey in Europe, Asia or the Americas. My first experience of the famous “Africa time” came before I even left the airport in Addis Ababa.

My flight from Dubai pulled into the domestic terminal of the airport for some reason so when I entered the terminal there was nobody there to process my visa. I was told by a security guard to sit down and wait for the immigration queue to clear. That was going okay until another plane full of passengers arrived to join the queue. This happened a few more times until finally after an hour or so waiting one of the immigration officers came to the visa desk and processed my application.

The next problem was finding my airport pickup. I’d booked a guesthouse that offered free airport pickup but the guy was nowhere to be seen in the arrivals area. I took me a while to figure out that because we landed in the wrong terminal the guy was probably waiting for me at the international terminal. An airport employee showed me the way to the other other terminal where I eventually found my driver and so more than two hours after landing and I was able to leave the airport. Time to adjust my watch to Africa time, where everything takes longer than you expect!

Incidentally, while I joke about “Africa time”, Ethiopia actually operates off both a different clock and different calendar to the rest of the world. Their day begins at 6.00am so they call that time 00.00 (zero). So 12 noon becomes 6 and 3pm is called 9 which is good to know when you’re trying to catch a bus. Ethiopia also operates using different calendar to the rest of the world and according to their calculation this is the year 2007. Having recently turned 30 I never thought I’d get a chance to relive my 20’s!

Bahir Dar

Addis Ababa is not an attractive city and thankfully I only had one day to spend there before heading north. First stop was the city of Bahir Dar in the northwest of the country, a relaxing little city situated on lake Tana the source of the Blue Nile.

I spent one day exploring the islands dotted around the lake, many of which are home to Ethiopian orthodox churches and monistaries. Their religion is similar to Christianity in terms of most of their beliefs but they have additional saints (mostly African) to those referred to in the bible. Each island is home to different groups of monks and nuns although bizarrly one monestary had both living together! The lake is  also home to many hippos so after I had my fill of religion for one day we went hippo spotting.

I also took a trip to the less than impressive Blue Nile waterfall. Once upon a time it was a spectacular spectical but that all changed when the government build a damn directly upstream from the waterfall to harness the rivers power to generate electricity. While that’s all well and good they should probably stop advertising the waterfall as a serious tourist attraction, it looks more like a burst water mains than a famously large waterfall.

Once a great Waterfall!

Gondar and the Simien Mountains

On the northern side of lake Tana is the city of Gondar. It was quite an interesting city with a lot of historical significance, the highlight of which was the impressive Fasilides castle, dating back to early 17th century.
Fasilides castle
Gondar is also the base from which to explore the Simien mountains. I booked a three day hike through my guesthouse and set off the following morning with and English guy Tim, that I met the previous day. Hiking in Ethiopia requires a serious collection of support staff. You’re not allowed enter the national park without having a guide and an armed ranger (to protect you from wild animals & wild humans)! On top of that we had a chef, assistant chef and a porters. So in total we had five support staff for just two trekkers, a little unnecessary but I guess we helped create employment.
Simien Mountains

Despite the ridiculous number of support staff the trek itself was absolutely breathtaking. The landscape was unlike anything I’ve seen before. For one thing the landscape was greener and more fertile than anything I expected to see in Ethiopia. The range consists of numerous peaks, valleys and plateaus and is home to lots of wildlife as well as some extremely isolated village communities that are largely unchanged for over 1,000 years.

The highest peak in the range Ras Dashen is around 4,550m above sea level and takes about five days to reach. With only three days to hike we instead summited one of the smaller but no less spectacular peaks called Imet Gogo (3,940m).

Soaring Vulture
Our first day was a fairly modest hike, taking between three and four hours to reach our camp at Sankabar. On our second day we trekked for six/seven hours via the Jinbar waterfall to the village of Geech. The village made up of thatched mud huts remains largely unchanged to how it would have looked 1,000 years ago. It was here that we got to experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony where you are invited into one of village huts to watch the lady of the house wash coffee beans, roast them over an open fire before grinding them and brewing fresh coffee. It was a wonderful ritual to experience. When the coffee is finally ready (it takes quite some time to prepare) it’s given out to the guests in small cups. You must drink at least three cups so as not to insult the host. For fear of insulting anyone I drank four cups so I had quite a caffeine buzz by the time the ceremony was over.
Coffee Ceremony
The third day was an early start and after three hours trekking we reached the summit of Imet Gogo which gives a beautiful 360 degree view across the valleys.
Summit View
Imet Gogo

Lalibela

My final stop before leaving Ethiopia was the remote town of Lalibela, southeast of Gondar. The journey here was an absolute nightmare, the road network in Ethiopia is poor and the quality of public transport is even worse. It took three different buses to get there, the final leg of the journey consisting of a three hours drive on a bumpy dirt road in an a bus that must have been over 30 years old with no suspension to speak of. It wasn’t just me that felt uncomfortable as many of the locals got car sick along the way, a horrific experience.
Stone carved church

But I guess it was all worth it to see the rock hewn churches of Lalibela, a network of eleven churches built in the 12th century by being carved into solid rock. They’re a seriously impressive site, and most are still functioning churches with priests and monks buzzing around the place. I went down to the most famous church, St Georges, before sunrise one morning to watch people congregate for early morning mass. It was a beautiful thing to watch the sun appear on the horizon casting long shadows over the church as the locals, dressed all in white, prayed silently.

You can see the rest of my photos from Ethiopia here.

Church of St George
Church of St George

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