As the plane banked for its final descent into Addis Ababa, we looked down at the dry arid landscape below, with a mixture of excitement and apprehension at what might greet us on the other side of the immigration queue. What we found was a country bustling with a sense of eager anticipation about what might lay ahead. Friendly people with big smiles, whether you’re wandering into a shop, attempting (badly) to dance the local dance, or attempting to squeeze into a minibus meant for 12, but has double that, (naturally, everyone will know your name by the end of the journey). Open and inquisitive locals who want nothing in return other than to say hello while you sip on your aromatic coffee, freshly brewed before your eyes. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its challenges, but would we come back? In a heartbeat. Welcome to Ethiopia!
Addis is the home of the African union, has UN offices so one may expect a fairly modern city, but it’s dry and dusty and apart from a couple of museums, one in particular that house’s our first known bi-pedal ancestor “Lucy” and earlier humanoid “Ardi” there isn’t so much to do. So after we’d had our fill we headed up to Bahir Dar, the start of the Blue Nile. We expected a beautiful lakeside city, and made a walk around the lake “promenade”, and were quickly convinced we didn’t want to hang around for sunset. Thankfully, we stayed with a wonderful Couchsurfer, Addis, who gave us some tips, and got us out on the lake where we saw some hippos wading around along with monkeys swinging in the trees on the shore. With Addis’ best friend Semi we checked out a cultural house with incredible dancing and Tej, a wine made from honey, where we were both hauled up to perform an almost insultingly bad rendition of the traditional dance, but the locals seemed entertained, or perhaps embarrassed for us, either way they laughed.
Addis also helped out with one of our favorite parts of our trip, to the Blue Nile falls. Getting out there by local transport was an interesting experience in and of itself, with a few people lugging around their various types of rifles or shotguns, waving the barrel around like it ain’t no thing, goats being tied to roofs and chickens flapping about under seats, all things we would become desensitised to over the next few weeks. After a little walk through the “national geographic” and a boat ride across the great river itself you arrive at one of the most idyllic camp spots we’ve stayed at. Situated at the top of the falls, Blue Nile Camping is a perfect spot to swing in a hammock and watch the birds, or if you’re lucky (apparently), leopards. The 3 leopards are very “friendly” according to Temesgen, one of the owners, this is however cold comfort as you stumble your way through the dark to the outhouse, especially with 2 dogs that brush past you on your way, almost negating any need to get all the way to the bathroom. In the morning we got to see the surrounds wake up before any tourists make their way in. Locals moving stock, kids playing before school with one small lad taking particular interest in how our cameras worked and really got a kick out of pushing the shutter button repeatedly. In hindsight, we would have loved to stay longer, but we’d already committed to hiking in the Simien Mountains National Park, so we headed up to Gondar, via equally interesting local transport, although probably even more cramped, if at all possible.
Heading out the next morning we met the crew we would be hiking with, a mixture of people on short trips and long, younger and older, all within the 8 of us. Of particular interest was a lovely young Chinese girl, who apparently had no knowledge she was going to be hiking, with her rolling white hello kitty suitcase full or everything besides appropriate footwear and clothes for the great outdoors, though to her credit she didn’t complain once. Also along for the trip Nick, a young at heart ‘Manx’ (from the Isle of Man), who would become a constant fixture along the way, bumping into him at every other stop along the way. We had already met and re-found him at Lake Tana before on a boat ride, when he’d managed to get lost along the well marked path.
The Simiens are beautiful, even during dry season with everything browned off, with huge gorges created over millennia, leaving flat top mountains with steep 500m cliffs towering over the valleys below. Along with the scenery, the starry nights we spent in tents, and the wildlife were highlights. The Gelada baboons which are endemic to the area number around 4000 and can only be found in the highlands of Ethiopia were our personal favourite highlight, but the huge eagles and vultures that circle overhead (perhaps waiting for Una, our Chinese girl to drop) were also impressive. The baboons are incredibly placid, and only focus on devouring grass roots while they communicate in high pitch mumbles, when you creep up, they shoot a glance, turn their back on you and get back to stuffing their faces. We were lucky enough to spend an hour with a group in front of the campsite. It’s a truly impressive park, even if the rates charged seemed high, and inconsistent among the group, we felt it was worth it.
From Gondar, which has a nice old citadel worth a visit, we headed north, for a punishing 8 hour ride, for the 216km to Aksum. The ancient city in the north, famous for carved obelisks and for the St. Mary of Zion church is said to have housed the biblical Ark of the covenant. These thing are nice of course, but there is also a huge tree where you can get cheap freshly roasted coffee and amazing fruit juices in the lovely relaxed cobbled street, one is unsure which was better, but we do like coffee and juice, so. After chilling in Aksum, we headed to Mek’ele, a city of not much note (though they also had good avocado-mango juice), other than being close to the rock hewn churches of Tigray, and a truly terrible hotel. After making a bit of a failed effort to Wukro to see the church there, which was indeed made of rock, but we were unable to get inside, and then got followed by the most annoying kid we’ve come across, we set course for Hawzien. From here, after nearly getting thrown out of a local minibus we made our to see Abune Yemata. It’s a fairly arduous climb, at times having to scale rock faces, without safety apparatus. As with many things here, the locals try their hardest to monetise the experience regardless of safety concerns, but we did get to the top. The views were stunning, and reminiscent of Arizona. From here is where it became truly scary. Around a ledge, not more than a metre wide, 5m long but with a hair raising 200m drop to get to the inside of the church, Mark (somewhat sensibly some might say) elected to hold the fort on the perch and really drink in the view, while Martina and our French friend Pauline had a peek inside the church proper. We then scaled down, past the men trying to make money out of regular safety protocol and headed back to Mek’ele, before a long 14hr bus ride back to Addis.
Some of the notable things are what we didn’t do. We have quickly come to realise we will need to think carefully about which activities and sights we chose to afford. In Ethiopia, accommodations can be a bit pricey, but manageable, transport fine, food very cheap, and for the best part pretty good, but certain sights attract crazy entrance fees, tours have seemingly out of proportion price tags. The Lalibela rock churches, the most visited site in Ethiopia stings a whooping $50USD! not including getting there and accommodation. But we have really loved our time here and the people we’ve met, local and foreign alike and have felt very safe, even in the bigger cities. Unfortunately, our desire to get to Cape Town entirely overland has been scuppered at the first hurdle, with multiple governments warning about the land border between Ethiopia-Kenya, with credible threats of violence/kidnappings against westerners. It’s unfortunate, but flexibility is key, so as we fly into Kenya we hope you’ll join us for the adventures to come.
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