A Travellerspoint blog

Day 208 – The Best Picnic Ever

17th April 2012

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The office of the Ethiopian National Parks was open when we arrived. Inside we asked how many different fees we would have to pay for two days entry. The young man’s answer was non committal but he did begin to write the fees out on a piece of paper. Two days multiplied by two people. One car multiplied by two days. One tent, multiplied by two days, and then incredulously by two people. One scout, armed, multiplied by two days. One guide, did we need two? Multiplied by... “Hang on a minute mate. We’ve got two seats in our car, your country is at peace and you have few beasties big enough to eat us, what do we need scouts and guides for?” “They can show you the way and take you hiking.” “We’ve got two days and one Sat Nav and it takes three hours driving each way, we won’t be going far.” He insisted on the scout and we insisted the scout could go on the roof.

Apparently though, scouts have feelings too and the roof was out of the question. He’d have to be inside, but he would be in considerable discomfort. We perched him on the cubby box, hugging his pea shooter automatic machine gun, his neck crooked against the roof of the car and occupying far too much space whilst he gently assaulted our nasal passages with the fragrance of man, unwashed. The hunt for the Gelada Baboons began. At least we now smelt like we’d been living with them.

Our guides name wasn’t memorable for the right reasons but from recollection it sounded a little like Gazpacho and so that became his name. Since our Amharic hadn’t taken off and his English was in a similar state it would be a charade based interaction from there on. We felt sorry for Mr Soup-soup as he was just doing his job, and only costing us three quid per day, but he really was in the bloody way. I’d lean out to take photos and he’d push and kick and move me trying to get a good look too. Laura and I were shielded from easy communication by the man sat one foot above us and directly in between us. Quite why anyone would want to pay for the burden of an individual you are not expected to look after, but conscience dictates you will, who speaks no English and generally just gets in your way, was beyond us.

The reason we’d come here soon became apparent. As we climbed and climbed to 3773 metres, and still driving, our jaws dropped and our hearts lifted; views so astounding that nothing seemed true. We were so high above all the other mountains it was practically impossible to discern them as real. The Gelada Baboons were to be a highlight of the mountains, with their long flowing hair and bright red ‘heart’ worn on their chests they were first beautiful and second numerous. We stopped to watch as they grazed, they’re predominantly highland grazer which is a little unusual; once more Attenborough’s narration was running through our minds. The other must-see species in the Simien mountains were the Walia Ibex whose numbers, should we believe the guide book, were only 200 at one point, the Lammergeyer Vulture, the huge bird that provides a link between eagle and vulture and the Ethiopian Wolf, which looks for all intents and purposes like a fox.

We arrived at Cheberk campsite and, after the rigours of the mountain passes, we were completely exhausted. Gazpacho was keen to observe the minutiae of everything we did. It was as if he felt that should he leave our side, he would have failed in his job. We told him we were going to have lunch. And we found a view that was stupendous. From on top of the world we sat and watched the Lammergeyers soar and the crows literally whistle past our heads as they reached breakneck speeds. Gazpacho, like a loyal warrior, was laid on the rock by our side.

As superlatives ran away with our mouths we stemmed the flow with a mixture of fresh bread and honey washed down with good old fashioned water. We tentatively broached the subject of walking and were both relieved to find that the other had no intentions of exerting any more energy than necessary. Instead, we retrieved the chairs, our books and a supply of bread and water to last the rest of the day and we sat at the end of a ridge of rock that had sheer drops of hundreds of metres on three sides. It was like a spit of sand on a vast sea of invisible atmosphere.

There we sat, for four hours, in the cool warmth of the mountain air, unknowingly burning, but intermittently astounding ourselves every time we looked up from our books.

Gaspacho, was of course always at hand. First he had lain by our bench and only after us insisting we would be fine alone did he retreat one hundred metres away just behind a thicket, waiting to be called into action.

As the sun drooped we made back to prpeare some chai and a little dinner. As we filled our water butts from the nearby well, we were joined by an extremely tame Walia Ibex, what a treat! Like a large and extremely stout goat he stood proud nibbling away at the undergrowth. His horns were majestic, the huge ridged horns arced back from his skull almost touching the centre of his back; the ibex needed a stout neck just to keep looking forward.

Redvers was the centre of the evening as Gazpacho invited over every other Ethiopian within seventeen miles to sit outside our car whilst we prepared dinner. They had surprisingly little interest in communicating with us, and, of the hundreds of hectares that surrounded us, the immediate ten square metres was obviously their favourite patch. They watched me repair the door locks, they watched Laura make tea, and they then watched as we sat. Don’t be confused; we did say hello, we did try to communicate, but these guys just wanted to sit and watch and stare. Laura had the bigger balls between the two of us and politely and firmly said goodnight to them once, twice and almost thrice as finally the switch clicked and they said goodnight and returned to their homes.

As the sun went the warmth disappeared with it. Three and a half kilometres above sea level is a cold spot. Somers broke out the salopettes, the source of much ridicule on a trans-Africa voyage, and put them to essential use. Even dressed for skiing we were about to endure a long and very cold night.

Posted by ibeamish 00:42 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 207 – The Italian Road

16th April 2012

We left Axum and the maybe we even left the holiest relic in all of Christianity in order to drive along an amazing road, built by the Italians some seventy years ago. First we stopped to visit an old palace and see some more stelae, as well as seeing where the stelae had been mined from. The road we traveled was superb for its location and the views it afforded but less so for its shockingly rough surface and the fine dust that by now coated absolutely everything, our faces and lungs included.

We were heading for Debark. The town that services the Simien Mountain Range; home to Gelada Baboons, Walia Ibex, Lammergeyer Vultures and the Ethiopian Mountain Wolf. The scenery once more was exhilarating and testing at once. We drove for eight hours, stopping near the end to watch the sun set over the two and three thousand metre high ‘foothills’ to the main Simien range. By now our one remaining shock was shaking like a cheap cymbal, the left rear brake disc was wearing away and give a shrill squeal with every depression of the pedal.

We entered Debark to find that every hotel was ridiculously overpriced and horrifically unclean. Eventually we found the Red Lion Hotel which offered us a camping spot for a significantly more reasonable price and then we ordered a bottle of wine and forgot all about eating whilst we danced a little with the locals.

Posted by ibeamish 23:32 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (2)

Day 206 – Axum and the Ark of the Covenant

15th April 2012

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We were in Axum, the ancient capital of the Axumite empire and currently a tourist destination famed for the stone stelae erected as tomb markers in the cities heyday 1300 to 1600 years ago. The stelae, some over twenty metres high and made of solid granite were substantial to say the least. Apparently they’d been carved from the rock and transported by teams of elephants to their final resting sites. One particular stele lay in state where it had fallen and smashed into several huge sections; at over 500 tonnes of rock it must have been an impressive team of elephants that moved it there.

It was Easter Sunday in Ethiopia and there was an air of expectation. We wandered the town visiting the main sites and enjoying more coffee and bombolinas in a local cafe. Children were a constant harassment and eventually we found respite in a beer house.

In a continuation of the Indiana Jones theme we’d begun two days earlier we were supposedly just metres away from the current resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. The stone box containing the tablets on which are written the Ten Commandments; a gift from God himself to Moses and obviously of immense religious significance were it true. Naturally, it is far too sacred and Holy for any mere mortal to set eyes upon and so we’ll never know the truth. Somers wasn’t even allowed anywhere near the small building that contained the Ark. A woman apparently attacked the church 1000 years ago and ever since females have been banned from the area, something the local religious sorts were all too quick to enforce.

We went for another beer and ate meat, woo hoo, returning to the hotel amidst noisy celebrations.

Posted by ibeamish 23:15 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 205 – Please, No More Churches

14th April 2012

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We visited more churches around that of Petros and Paulos and were led first to our saturation point with religious buildings, secondly to our limit of patience with children demanding to guard our car and thirdly north to Adigrat where we could drop off Hailey in time to spend the Easter celebrations with his family.

We’d discussed our suspension problems with Hailey and he had a friend who he reckoned could get us some shock absorbers in Adigrat. It was market day and as we sat waiting for the mechanic to appear we watched the town go by. Fifty five days of fasting meant that come Easter Sunday there was going to be a whole new level of animal slaughter happening, and we were sat watching those sheep, goats and cows being led, dragged, carried, beaten and driven from the market towards the fires on which they would be cooked. We all eat meat but it was strange seeing so many plates of food walking by.

The chap eventually returned with two Toyota shock absorbers that would cost seventy dollars each and all he had to do was blow torch them into separate pieces and re-weld the appropriate eye back on so that it would fit our car. He looked a little surprised and then a little annoyed when we explained that we didn’t want him to bodge a pair of Toyota shocks; let alone have us pay top dollar for both them and his time.

Shocks behind us we found a coffee shop so that we could stop and say goodbye to Hailey properly. We gave him a book about the British Empire to provide some light reading and drank the nicest macchiato ever created by man. From there we continued our adventure to Axum, to the Africa Hotel where we found clean toilets, clean showers and big semi-comfortable beds.

Posted by ibeamish 12:55 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 204 – Indiana Jones and the Temple of Abuna Yemata Guh

13th April 2012

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One guide, two Faranji’s, three churches and twelve hours of daylight. It was six thirty, our bed had had no bugs and we’d deftly skirted the pebble dashed and yellowed rim of toilet and shower. We were aiming for the second of the three churches by distance. The church of Debre Tsion Abuna Abraham was forty minutes of rock climbing and was home to some extremely pleasant priests who seemed genuinely happy to see us; their smiles were amplified by our own. We were relieved to find that the ‘crazy’ priest wasn’t at work that morning. The artwork inside the church was incredible but also provided a perfect example of the damage that the water seepage can create.

We’d gotten off to a great start, but we’d been looking forward to the church of Abuna Yemata Guh for some time. The guidebook informed as that not all who attempt to visit actually make it to the church. The sheer rock face three quarters of the way up creates a vertigo inducing obstacle in the pathway to God. But for us, the churches location was exactly why we’d chosen it. But, as is true all too often in Africa, good things come to those who pay. Despite us being in possession of one paid up guide, we’d need to wrangle with the local guides in order to explain why we didn’t want to pay for a second time and we’d also need to speak with local scouts and explain why we didn’t need them to accompany us and turn a day trip into a fully paid up colonial expedition. The explanation turned into us being forced into negotiations in order to ‘pay compensation’ to the aggrieved local guides. The scouts we would meet half way up the mountain.

We parked beneath a solitary tree in the middle of a ploughed field under another blazing midday sun. Again we discussed the safety requirements for Redvers, none then, and we began our walk. We crossed the fields and what little remained of a stream as the cattle herder scooped water from a shallow well and poured it out for his fairly young beasts to drink. We started up the hill and met an old man and his cartoonified stooge who resembled an overly cliched movie ‘redneck.’ We paid our fare, another 100Birr each and began the ascent proper. Our breath left us and no matter how much we drew in, it just didn’t seem to be quite as thick as the air we were used to. We perspired and slightly red, slightly sweaty and slightly out of breath we reached the vertical section of our climb. There was a back up as two Spanish ladies ahead of us waited to climb as the last of a Dutch group descended. The last lady had every right to be nervous during her descent. She would clearly be too heavy for any of her three scouts to hold should she have slipped, she probably wouldn’t have been able to support her own weight either, and, come to think of it, there was a very real danger she would bring the cliff face down with her. She melodramatically squawked about her fear of heights, every single movement was drawn out into a noise filled, attention grabbing, spectacle. A spectacle which, when viewed from below, was disturbingly explicit. We waited in the sun whilst she took an age to descend, her friends looking as tired as we were.

We joked about just bouncing her down the rocks but, eventually, she managed to get down herself. Next up were the Spaniards; two ladies, in their thirties, who appeared to have smoked and sunned and drunk their faces into premature maturity in spite of what I expect were weekly visits to some form of beauty salon. For the last five years they’d probably just been plastering over the cracks.

Either way, they too thought that the whole affair was a raucous adventure and they began their ascent with cackles of infectious laughter. We followed, in hushed British fashion we ascended without alarm and without too much narrative. It was very vertical, but fortunately there were some convenient hand and foot holds to aid our climb. As we neared the saddle in which the final climb lay Hailey had to hush the now raucous Spaniards, they were twenty metres from the church entrance and had caused such a commotion that the mass that had been taking place inside had been temporarily halted whilst the white men came, saw and hampered.

As we reached the saddle, our breath left us once more. As we looked out there was a vertical drop in front of us and a view out across the plains of Tigrai. A narrow ledge about two feet wide led around the side of the huge stone pinnacle in front of us. The ledge led to a carved hole in the rock inside which had been sculpted the church of Abuna Yemata Guh.

It felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie; all that was missing were the villains of the piece; someone to fight in order to gain entrance. Inside were the most pristine 900 year old paintings we’ve ever seen. The narrow entrance meant that little light could enter to damage the art and the churches location had protected it from marauding Muslims and crazy invaders for its entire existence. It was the most surreal church we’d visited and had superseded Bet Giyorgis in Lalibela as our favourite.

Inside we felt a little awkward. The small congregation was sat quietly and patiently in the shadows. In the doorway, the priest continued to read from the parchment. An unease had been created and we were definitely strangers in a local venue, but it didn’t change the fact that it was spectacular in the extreme.

We descended the cliff, the scouts pointing out hand and foot holds to us which was handy but somewhat unnecessary. We had to pay them all a small sum for their services. One scout was either particularly enamoured with us or spotted a sweet little earner, call us skeptical, and invited us around to his house for coffee. Hailey suggested that we had too little time, but Laura thought ‘why not?’ So there we were, sat with the scout’s wife and three young daughters, all beautiful. Not only were we given coffee but we were fed and Hailey explained that Ethiopian custom meant that when one is invited for coffee, it is a gesture of generosity and is entirely at the expense of the host. We thanked the family and as we left the wife’s broad smile turned into a grimace. The change of expression was as clear as it was disturbing. The grimace bore more than just disappointment, it bore malice and we suddenly felt very grateful that we were leaving. Hailey of course insisted that the family had not expected anything in return but weren’t so sure.

We visited one last church on our way home and arrived just as the mass was finishing. We had our backs ceremonially whipped with palm leaves as we entered a far more modern church than we’d seen previously. Apparently the convenient location combined with rich artwork has turned Abreha We Atsheba into a rich church. There was nothing 10th century about the strewn electrics and golden plastic clocks strung about the place, but its artwork and carving was a delight to observe. As we left Hailey told us that the village had won the world ‘green awards’ as a culmination of ten years of terracing, grazing restrictions and public education in order to turn what was a desert town into a lush green retreat amongst the barren hills. The village chief will be traveling to Rio De Janeiro in order to present his ‘gift’ at an international conference.

Posted by ibeamish 12:22 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 203 – Rock Hewn Dinner and Drinks

12th April 2012

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In the battle of us versus the bedbugs, we lost. Breakfast and a spot of unproductive tourism office ‘hunting’ led us to a noon departure for a little town called Wukro, the centre of the universe as far as rock hewn churches in Eastern Tigrai go. It wasn’t far and so before long we arrived, parking in the Top View Hotel which looked out over a dusty sports field and had a shockingly stained and delightfully disgusting toilet bowl, it was a wholly disgusting affair; at two quid a night we hadn’t expected much, but we would be crossing our legs for a few days.

It was after one. The sun was still high but the clouds were building as we walked into town on the hunt for another tourism office and the chance to find a guide that might ease our adventures in finding and appeasing both men with keys and priests who could respectively open doors and show us around the churches on our hit list.

In the office we greeted a man named Hailey who eventually agreed to be our guide for the next three days. Our schedule was tight and our chosen churches had quite a spread geographically and so we needed to press on and visit the first that afternoon. We marched back to the hotel, in part escorted by some more hand holding and ringworm ridden youngsters, and with Redvers roaring we immediately set back to collect our guide and venture forth.

The road to Mikael Imba Church was another rough affair on which we suffered another stone throwing incident. This time however we had Hailey with us. His job as a guide was secondary to his job with the Tigrai Tourism Council in promoting historical sites, tourism and educating locals and priests that the benefits (money) out-weigh the negatives (white men and cameras stealing the sanctity of a house of God.) He runs workshops throughout the region and a stone throwing incident was deeply irresponsible in his eyes and the culprits must be dealt with in accordance with the wishes of local elders. When he’d jumped out he’d not only clocked the boys’ faces but also the number and colour of the sheep and cattle they were herding. A boy was more easily identified by his stock than his face. We eventually found the church and took thirty seconds out of our schedule to explain to a group of young boys, while obtaining mug shots, that our car was perfectly capable of looking after himself. Our suddenly erstwhile racketeers lost their smiles and retreated to the shade of the nearby tree.

We climbed a few boulders and then made use of a seemingly ancient ladder to scale the not quite dizzying heights of the rocks on which Mikael Imba was carved. At the summit we were led to the gate, meeting the priest and key man as we arrived. Hailey was proving extremely useful and had sent a child ahead to seek the priest and let him know we required receiving.

The church was extremely pretty in the evening sun, the lines of sedimented sand stone clearly visible throughout its construct. We were lucky enough to see, and be forced to touch, a six hundred year old parchment that, had it existed in any European city, would have been in a museum whose name you’d heard of and encased in thick glass protected with alarms. Here we were touching six hundred year old goat skin with Ge’ez lettering that was as artistic as it was textual. We were shown the secret tunnel, so, not very secret then, and on leaving where invited to sit and eat with some of the priests as the sun sank and the sand stone rock glowed red-orange in the golden light.

Our cups were filled to the brim with sorghum beer and we were offered enough homemade bread to feed an ox. We attempted to be courteous, aware of our surroundings, and took only meagre portions, but it was not to be. The piled tray of bread was for us and it really would have been an insult had we left it. Whilst we sat two elders appeared to discuss the stone throwing with Hailey. We listened as they spoke, actions counting far more than the words which we didn’t understand. They seemed unhappy, but apparently they had been given a description by Hailey a little earlier and a ‘militia’ had been dispatched already to speak to the children and their parents. They were lucky then; I’d have brained them.

The bread and sorghum tasted better than ever. The warm rock beneath our bottoms, amongst friendly church people with blossoming cacti all around was an uplifting experience. It was an experience we’d been craving; we’d been invited to eat with the church elders in a spiritually and sensationally spectacular setting.

Back down with Redvers we were still sailing above the clouds as far as our minds were concerned. The ’car-security’ children were told to politely go away by Hailey and we pulled out on the drive home only just below a setting sun. The journey proved to be a memorable one as we passed caravans of camels, laden with salt as they travelled the final stages of a week long journey from the Afar Desert to the towns in which they could sell their salty wares. Apparently a rich man transports his salt in a fancy truck, but these men were no paupers given their camels fetch around nine hundred dollars a beast, the caravans we saw had been seventeen and fifteen camels long.

In town we found another local eatery who found us exceptionally entertaining despite the fact we were sat quietly minding our own business. Somers whispered to me that she needed the loo and, as is natural, she set off to find it. With no joy from her initial search she asked a lady who had no idea how to speak English and she couldn’t grasp Somer’s ‘curtsey’ charades either. Distended and unsuccessful, Somers returned to our table, still keen to spend her penny. As a man with a woman in need, I took over and despite getting laughter from both the lady and the entire restaurant, my ‘zip down, whip it out, slight lean back as the stream flows (and a perfunctory point at said stream)’ charade worked wonders. Somers was shown to the foul hole where she could find relief through a held breath.

Posted by ibeamish 07:16 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 202 – Throwing Stones, English Wives and Bed Bugs

11th April 2012

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The churches had been coming thick and fast, we’d seen twelve churches and two monasteries in three days but we hadn’t yet lost our hunger. It was time to leave Lalibela but in order to feed our apparently insatiable ecclesiastic hunger; we set our route so that we would pass one more church before traversing the mountains of northern Ethiopia.

The church was in fact a third monastery, Yemrehanna Christos. Set at an altitude of 2700 metres, Yemrehanna Christos was a monastery built inside a cave and it looked like a big layered cream cake.

It had apparently been a pilgrimage venue for thousands travelling from ‘...as far as Egypt, Syria and Jerusalem’ and at to the rear of the cave lay thousands of human skeletons some whose skin had cured in situ. It was a bizarre dance macabre, one that was difficult to really place in perspective. The skeletons became surreal rather than gruesome and the monasteries exterior provided an almost cartoon feel to the building. Whether the pilgrims died naturally is difficult to know, there were a few cracked skulls strewn about which gave the appearance of either a rough afterlife or a sorry end.

The remainder of the day was spent driving; yet more gruelling, stony, bumpy and incredibly dusty driving. (Imagine putting your head in a vacuum cleaner bag and shaking it around all whilst being sat on the handle bars of a pneumatic drill.) The scenery was sublime affording tremendous views for kilometre after kilometre. If the views seemed to be consistent then the hairstyles of the local ladies were providing our variation. As we left Lalibela, the close plaiting that travelled the full length of the natural hair, and often ventured further into the artificial, had now begun to stop at the back of the back of the head before ‘fro’ing out into a big bush from there. We also witnessed women with goitres so big that they appeared to be smuggling mangoes beneath the skin of their throat.

Our first stone throwing episode was suffered when a young boy using pebbles as his ammunition found us to be a suitable target. We stopped and I jumped out and shouted, but he’d legged it as soon as our brake lights had shone red and the locals, not privy to the incident, only appeared confused. Further along yet another shock absorber turned itself into nothing more than a cowbell despite the fact that we had reduced ourselves to driving like pensioners on the way to Sunday Mass. With no spare and no chance of a spares shop until Khartoum we’d just have to bounce along with the one remaining shock that had suffered in the loose wheel episode in Kenya.

We were extending ourselves in order to eat up the slow kilometres and to keep to our tightened schedule in Ethiopia. After an hour of night driving, dodging children, cattle and camels we arrived in Mekele.

Mekele was a big bustling town that we were able to see lots of as we did laps trying to navigate one way streets and a road system that seemed to have been designed by a blind man and an unwavering faith in one way systems. We eventually found our chosen abode, The Queen of Sheba Guesthouse, but since it was signed in Amharic and its owners spoke little English we couldn’t actually be sure we were in the correct place. It didn’t matter; we had a secure compound, a bedroom with no running water, a three quarter size bed which we would soon find out to be the home of a community of hungry bed bugs and a view over the street that offered no joy.

We were bloody starving and with that we set out on a mission for grub. We ended up just around the corner in a restaurant owned and run by a chap whose name meant ‘Mercy’ in English. He was a bit of a talker and sat with us whilst we ate, he ordered Laura a salad ‘on him’ and we enjoyed good food at honest prices. An honest Ethiopian is a man anyone could get along with. After a while and shortly after a suggestion that we might find him an English wife, a suggestion that was more serious than it should have been, we left.

Posted by ibeamish 06:51 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 201 - Monastic Mountains

10th April 2012

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We had seen Lalibela’s churches but the immediate surrounds held more for the discerning traveller. The hill top (4000 metre high mountain) behind our hotel was home to the monastery of Asheton Maryam. We were already comfortably above the three thousand metre mark and had decided upon a morning stroll to find out if the monks had a more comfortable spot in Asheton Maryam than we did in the Asheton Hotel.

Our intentions were to go it solo. There really was a limit to how much wittering and subservient pursuit of a guide’s words and directions that we could take. Tilahun was a gentleman of faith and a guide of note but Somers and I wanted a little ‘alone time.’ So with a lonesome walk in mind it was little surprise when we were joined, just one hundred metres out of the hotel, by a boy called Abi who insisted he would guide us up the mountain. An explanation that he would receive nothing but our company was given along with the terms that he was welcome to join us as long as he was back in time for school.

And so with our new, and quite useful, friend we scaled the heights of Mount Abuna Yosef passing two groups of men and wailing women, each group carrying the wrapped body of a child into town. At the monastery we found a fairly uncharismatic monk who first showed us his treasures and then showed us his donations tray. The monastery afforded some fantastic views but Abi insisted we could summit the nearby rock tower for even more special views at over four thousand metres up. We did and after scaling some vertigo inducing, but relatively straight forward (or upward), rock faces we sat on top of our immediate world watching time pass by. We couldn’t stay too long as Abi had to be back down by twelve and he wouldn’t leave without us; again the polite restrictions of being ‘guided.’ Back in town we took exception to our guide’s request for money, clothes and sponsorship and explained that he had joined us, on our walk and that we had repeatedly made it clear that it would be a ‘not for profit enterprise’ on his behalf. We conceded and gave him some of my old clothes as a reward, undecided as to whether that was a noble gesture or encouraging the rewards of persistence on his part. Back in town we took lunch in Johns Cafe eating pancakes and drinking fresh mango juice.

The afternoon was a second monastery, Nakuta La’ab. Part cut into a rock face, part built by bricks it was a pleasant end to the day and the highlight was the extremely nice priest showing us a crown of gold that had a peak not unlike a baseball cap. I couldn’t help but think that ‘If Scousers had a king...’

We drove back to Lalibela, Redvers being chased by smiling and squawking children before eating out in another of Lalibela’s ‘guidebook-celebrated’ restaurants, The Blue Lal; it shouldn’t have been so celebrated.

Posted by ibeamish 06:13 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 199-200 – The Wondrous Lalibela

8th- 9th April 2012

If the previous day’s driving had been scenic then the following morning’s drive would strike dumb the voices of angels: Endless mountain’s with their jagged peaks, parched rivers snaking along the depths of the valleys and stone huts standing solidly on the hills; the long and winding road threaded amongst those peaks; over saddles and down almost vertical slopes the crest of each mountain only succumbing to reveal yet more turrets kissed golden by the sun. We made the old capital city of Lalibela by early afternoon and headed straight to the ticket office to see what we would have to do to gain entrance to a cast iron certainty of a highlight for our entire trip.

We found eleven rock-hewn churches in Lalibela all dating back to the 11th century AD. Rock hewn is a term that meant the ornately carved, stunningly beautiful churches were literally carved from the rock; flake by painful flake each building was chiselled from the stone, ornate window arches, staircases and gutters included. But first we had to pay the not inconsiderable sum of 350 Birr (14 Pounds Stirling) per person to gain access. Thankfully we had no desire to go ‘All American’ on Lalibela as that would have attracted another 300 Birr ‘Video Camera Fee.’ We were British after all, though we were looking more Japanese by the day as our discomfort eased and photographing people with a bulky SLR camera in places we’d never dream of in the UK was becoming acceptable.

We decided on a quick trip to the museum and were immediately confronted by a burly ogre of an Ethiopian whose eyes looked in slightly different directions and teeth pointed in several more. We tactfully declined his offer of guide services for ’just 400Birr’ and saw some very pretty crowns, gowns and crucifixes in the museum.

Back outside we were really heading out of the complex to find a hotel when we were met by an immaculately dressed young man. Polished shoes led up to crisp, clean blue denim jeans and a pressed short sleeved shirt over which a fine muslin cloth, as white as a Californian’s teeth, was wrapped. He introduced himself as Tilahun, a deacon at Lalibela who would be delighted if he could be allowed to guide us around the churches for 300 Birr. We accepted his terms without question and our plans changed, we would visit the North West cluster of churches that afternoon and then meet Tilahun the following morning and visit the South East cluster.

For such skill and technology to have been utilised over 800 years ago in the heart of Africa was truly enlightening. Our first church, Bet Medhane Alem, was a monolith that stood proud surrounded by thirty six pillars with another thirty six on the inside. The building was once just solid rock and a chap named King Lalibela, who fortunately had angels on his construction team, dug down into the ground and excavated a church. It’s is entirely impossible to do these buildings justice in words but the detail and forward planning involved in producing a building with no seams and no joins, just one piece of rock, is incredible. Roofs slope to gutters which drain into wells; windows are precise and symbolic in both number and design, measurements are exact and there are even staircases leading to galleries inside the churches and hidden underground tunnels leading between buildings.

We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Lalibela cross, an eight hundred year old, seven kilogram solid gold crucifix in the Lalibela design which was stolen by a Belgian art dealer in 2001. It was discovered two years later in his luggage as he attempted to fly out of Ethiopia. It was, and still is supposedly ‘the most treasured artefact of the Ethiopian church, more Holy than anything in Jerusalem or Rome.’ We didn’t ask if we could hold it but we did take a picture.

We were led around five more churches, shown their fresco adorned walls and we marvelled at how UNESCO has managed to erect huge metal and canvas umbrellas over each of the churches to prevent the rain from damaging the artwork of the churches interiors; good old UNESCO, always keen to ruin the view in the name of preservation. We left the complex in awe. Westerners, us included, struggle to think of Africa as anything but a little backward. A continent for which the term ‘Third World’ was created. Ethiopia in particular inspires images of pot bellied children with flies around their eyes and snotty noses; images of Bob Geldof, first singing about Monday mornings and then pleading for money; images of drought and famine, pestilence and poverty. Yet Ethiopia was once Abyssinia and before that the Axumite Empire, an empire that controlled the trade on the Red Sea, an empire rich in gold, an empire advanced enough to build some of the world’s most impressive structures; structures still worthy of the description all these years later.

After a little price negotiation, with assistance from Tilahun, we checked into the Ashetun Hotel for 250 Birr a night. We nipped over to the Unique Restaurant, ‘favoured by Faranji’s,’ and enjoyed pizza’s, fasting food and free coffee. Our hostess was a breath of coffee scented fresh air charging us genuinely for what we ate rather than offering an inflated Faranji price.

We slept well and awoke to our two hundredth day on the road and what a wondrous place it was to spend it. An early start guaranteed us a view of the sun rising over what was arguably Lalibela’s finest church, Bet Giyorgis, the place of Saint George. Ladies dressed head to toe in white prayed from above the excavation as the sun rose over a sunken church, carved in the form of a cross some fifteen metres into the ground. Tilahun proved to be an excellent guide. As a deacon he was heavily involved in the churches of Lalibela, he had served in several of the churches and several times asked if we could stop whilst he read with the priests from the centuries old parchments written in the ancient language of Ge’ez. Naturally it was an absolute pleasure to stop, resting in the cool shadow of the rock churches watching and listening as Tilahun and the priests read out loud from the manuscripts. Regardless of one’s religious stance, it was difficult not to be somehow spiritually fulfilled by spending time amongst such special surroundings and with such dedicated people. Even the Agnostic Somers temporarily became a little bit Christian. As we walked around, men and women kissed the rock from which the churches were hewn. At head height the rock was worn smooth and had become slightly blackened by the hands and lips of innumerable worshippers. This was Orthodox Christian territory, the Muslims had been kicked out a long time ago.

Lalibela was a truly special place. In order to preserve the patience of the reader we’ll curtail any architectural description here. The city is becoming increasingly touristic but nevertheless it is and will remain a sight that should be seen by all.

As we wandered back along the road we were invited into a house for a ‘coffee ceremony.’ Naturally it would be free, but, if we liked, we could offer a gift (of money) at the end. It would be our first full ceremony and would involve roasting the fresh coffee beans, and then making a series of three coffees from them over a fairly protracted period of time. The first coffee, known as Abul, was strong and rich and powerful enough to caffeinate our heat dulled, and food deprived bodies. The second and third, Tona and Balaka respectively became a little weaker but not so much that we didn’t leave wide eyed and butterfly bellied. Our time was spent talking to our host and the six or seven children who had joined us. Laura had her hair braided by the eldest of the young girls and I was enlightened with the knowledge that braids are a hair dress for ladies of darker skin tones. We stopped to play table football against the local kids on the way back winning the first game and being systematically taken apart in the second and third.

We were in the midst of ‘fasting’ or Lent as we know it and the deprivation of meat had been irking me a little. In such tourist territory we could be certain that the fancy restaurants would be serving the demand created by the foreign visitors and so we headed to one such locale for a plate of cow and a bottle of wine.

Posted by ibeamish 05:26 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 198 – Hats and Hills

- 7th April 2012

overcast

I woke up dying. My head throbbed and my eyes hurt. With every heart beat my head pulsed and my vision momentarily pulsed with it, but that wasn’t the worst of it; I knew I was still drunk; the best was yet to come. Laura felt great, she had drunk in moderation and apart from being a little tired from a late night she was tip top.

We filled up the tank and set off on a six hour drive that traversed scenery stunning and magnificent in equal amounts. We hit a high point of 3275 metres, Redvers’ highest yet, and we stopped briefly to admire a view from high up over the valley below. It took ten hillside second before we were besieged with kids selling woolen hats and bags of oregano. A strange combination it would seem, but being that oregano plants and sheep both love hills it became clearer. I was in too much pain to argue as hat after hat was placed on my head, I begged Laura to choose one so we could end the onslaught; we eventually bought three, and a bag of Oregano.

The overnight stop was a town called Dessie and the Hikma Hotel; one plate of potatoes, carrots and beetroot for Laura, one bowl of Minestrone soup and an early night for me.

Posted by ibeamish 10:11 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 197 – Living to Excess

6th April 2012

sunny

Redvers had been suffering from a sore throat for a while and whilst his grumble was a s sound as ever, his parp had gone. After finding out where the horn in the car actually lives we discovered that he has two; one high and one low. A little dodgy rewiring later and he had a bi-tonal honk. Back on the streets we’d be armed again.

We took a boozy lunch in Castelli’s, an Italian restaurant where we drank wine, ate lasagne and scooped hazelnut ice cream whilst feeling remarkably civilised.

That morning we’d met two couples, one couple, Dave and Marni, where Dutch and were returning to complete an African adventure that had come off the rails when Dave had ridden his bike full speed into a cattle cart parked in the middle of the road on a dark Sudanese night. It had taken year for his fractured arm to repair but they were back and were busy getting their bikes ship shape again. The second couple were two Kiwis based in the UK who were the proud owners of a pimped G4 bright orange Land Rover Discovery 3 that had all the gear. We’d suggested a return trip, on our part, to Habesha 2000 and they’d been keen. The night went dangerously well. There was no holding back as this time we took on the dancers, one shoulder shake and head flick at a time. Another two plates of fasting and non-fasting food met their destinies and we shifted back to Wim’s for a drinking session like nothing of which we’d yet seen.

Posted by ibeamish 10:10 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 196 – DHL To The Rescue

5th April 2012

sunny

Our camera lens arrived in Addis at ten o’clock, East African Time. DHL had made up for being useless in Nairobi by getting a spurt on in Addis. It first needed clearing but we’d been told it’d be ready by the afternoon. George at the Acropole had e-mailed us back asking for our flight details and dates so that he could arrange transportation from the airport to his $200 per night hotel, we gulped before replying that we’d be driving there and we’d probably be enjoying a dinner date rather than a night of two hundred dollar passion.

Laura nipped out later on to find some alloy wheel nuts and enquire as to where the music had been coming from for the last three evenings. It was an indication of how safe we felt in the city and especially funny when Laura returned to say that she’d been told “I want sex with you... I love you...“ and eventually “Fuck you.” I was relieved by the latter as it clearly meant she hadn’t put out.

Whilst Laura was adventuring I was clearing the camera lens at Addis Airport. The import tax amounted to seventy percent of the lens’ value. I explained that the government were thieves as another clerk took a verbal hiding from an Ethiopian lady who felt similarly.

International electronic communication and commerce had saved the day:
Using the internet to convince an Englishman that we legitimately wanted to buy his wares whilst based in Ethiopia – £3, buying the camera lens on E-bay – £43, getting DHL to collect and ship said lens from London to Addis – £45, Ethiopian customs and excise duty – £30, taking photos of eight hundred year old rock hewn churches and people with unnatural holes in their faces... priceless.

Back at the camp Laura had discovered that the music had been coming from the ‘Expo’ taking place off Meskel Square. We ventured out, ate lentil samosas and had smoothies and then beer and tej while watching local pop acts went hell for leather on stage; the crowd bumping and shaking to every beat.

Posted by ibeamish 10:09 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 195 – Easy Visas

4th April 2012

sunny

The moment we’d entered Ethiopia, everything had changed. It wasn’t just skin colour and facial features that had transformed; it wasn’t that we were now driving on the right hand side of the road. We’d entered Ethiopia on the 26th March 2012, according to the Gregorian calendar so taken for granted in Europe. It had been around four o’clock in the afternoon. The second we crossed that border though, time had changed. The date was the 17th March 2004 and it was around ten o’clock. Ethiopia uses the Julian calendar with thirteen months; twelve of thirty days and the last month is one of five or six days depending upon the presence of a leap year. The clock starts at 6am every morning and undergoes a twelve hour cycle that resets to zero at our 6pm. Our seven is their one, our nine is their three and vice versa. The city seemed to keep us informed with European date and time but that was only because when we asked the time it was ‘translated’ for us.

The Ethiopians were indeed a beautiful race, if that is the correct term. Both men and women had a far higher ‘average beauty’ than say the English or the Germans. It was peculiar, to our eyes at least, to see individuals with such a wealth of beauty in such poverty. The city was a tale of two ‘haves.’ The haves’ had all they wanted, they ate in fine restaurants, drove flash cars (there are Mercedes and Land Cruisers galore in Addis, there are even limousines and a plethora of slightly cheaper old school VW Beetles) and they shop for laptops, SLR cameras, perfumes and croissants. The have-nots line the streets occupying fifty percent of the pavement wherever you walk. The blind, the old, the drunk, the weak, the sick, the malformed all stretch out a hand asking for a birr or two. Entrepreneurs line the other fifty percent of the pavement; shoe shines, watch fixers, sellers of airtime and scratch cards. You could buy shoes, clothes, food and books over any one kilometre stretch of pavement.

Our first impressions of the city had been of a relatively clean city free of rubbish, we’d jumped the gun using the word ‘clean.’ Addis Ababa was a city averagely littered in context with other African cities but it had a trump card that we smelt before we saw. Some streets just smelt of urine, others smelt of something one rung up the ladder of filth. If you need a wee in Addis you generally find a quieter street and just go, against a bush if possible but almost anywhere seemed to do. The bigger problem was that if you need a number two some people used the same logic. Whilst we missed out on seeing the action live we did spot a number of numbers as it were dotted around telephone boxes and street corners. We subsequently retracted ‘clean’ and replaced it with ‘averagely dirty and occasionally filthy.’

The mean streets of Addis however were not particularly mean. Shouts of ‘Farangi’ were limited, pestering was limited; we were more likely to told ‘Hello. Welcome,’ Than be told anything more sinister. Most kids wanted a to practise a bit of English and despite what we’d been told, we didn’t suffer a single ‘pick pocket’ incident. Most beggars targeted everyone and not just the foreigners and we felt very accepted in the city.

We were trying to make the most of Ethiopian cuisine and culture and so we nipped out to the now defunct Djibouti Railway Station to a cafe for coffee and pancakes before we started the day proper. It would appear that we belonged to the ‘have’s’ though this was not forgotten while we ate; even as the castor sugar stuck to our upper lips.

A quick e-mail inspection and the camera lens had been collected in England and was already at Heathrow. Better still, George at the Acropole Hotel in Khartoum had e-mailed us with our letters of invitation to Sudan. He’d been a hero stating our duration of stay; we hadn’t booked, and an itinerary for our stay. We were pleased as punch and printed off four copies to take with us to the Sudanese Embassy.

We made for the Egyptian Embassy and first visited the close by, and fantastic ,National Museum of Ethiopia and saw crowns, carvings and crania, in particular, the plastic skull and skeleton of ‘Lucy’ the 3.2 million year old hominid discovered in 1974 that, when alive, had been able to walk in an upright position. This was exciting at the time (1974 specifically but still just as exciting for us,) because Lucy had lived 2.5 million years before the previous known date upon which our hairy ancestors got bored of hunches and lower back pain.

Back outside we ate ‘tibs’ (meat, in this case beef) and on ordering juices were presented with two shot glasses, one containing strawberry presse and one containing mango. Laura’s face appeared shocked and mildly disgusted that for a dollar we’d received such small quantities of fresh nectar. Laura’s face clearly wasn’t lost on the waitress either as she hastened to explain that the small glasses were to taste before the large ones were presented.

We were allowed to collect our Egyptian Visas between three and four o’clock only and so we reached the gates as the clock struck three. Egyptian time would clearly be different to both European and Ethiopian time as it was another ten minutes before anyone appeared to hand out the passports. With on visa done acquired we jumped in a minibus taxi and hot wheeled it across the city to Mexico Square and on to the Sudanese Embassy. We’d done the donkey work two days earlier, we felt bombproof, but expected there to be something wrong. It was with bitter expectation that the chap at the desk told us that the letters of invitation had to be taken, b the writer, to the foreign affairs office in Khartoum so that they could be scanned and e-mailed to the embassy in Addis where they’d be presented to us not by us.

We were so close but our man was not one to budge. We questioned him and after some time he offered us his superior, we accepted gladly and five minutes later met the man who had told us to bring the letters with us. He was in good form and said that the letters would not only be fine but if we were prepared to wait he’d have them processed for us immediately. We smiled silently before folding in a fit of ‘Thank you’s.’

Two North African visas in three days was unbelievable. We stopped in a small shop on the walk home and spotted some Ethiopian red wine that we could celebrate with. Back at WIm’s we cracked it open and celebrated our success with the Japanese motor bike trio we’d met upon our arrival; Shin, the young solo traveller, and ‘The Sensai’ and his wife, a couple heading in the same direction as us. We quite liked what was an all too easily drinkable red and I was soon legging it back to the shop to get two more bottles. The Japs introduced a bottle of Korean rice wine that would double as cold sake and we were off. We finished the night in the bar.

Posted by ibeamish 10:07 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (1)

Day 194 – Habesha 2000

3rd April 2012

sunny 20 °C

With all our paperwork moving as fast as we could make it, it was time for us to get the car parts and take a breather. What should have been an easy day became very stressful as tensions rose for no apparent reason other than we were stuck in traffic and clearly not communicating very well. After a long detour we found our spare parts dealership and all the parts we needed bar for the alloy wheel nuts that caused our original problem.

We replaced the rear windscreen and Laura met a group of three Swedes and two Americans who invited us to join them for dinner at Habesha 2000. Habesha is Amharic for Ethiopian, the ‘2000’ suffix probably made it sound modern and trendy fifteen years ago, for now it sounded like we were going to the kebab house but we’d heard big things about Habesha. It was a place where traditional Ethiopian music and dance was combined on stage whilst you tucked into a little bite to eat.

Seven of us commandeered a minibus to take us across town, but unfortunately too many cooks, combined with a local lady who was going int the ‘same’ direction led to a back and forth journey across town searching first for an area called ‘Howlett’ and secondly for a road named ‘Howlett Road.’ The second proved more successful and tiptoeing across used tyre ‘stepping stones’ across a huge puddle of city filth we found Habesha 2000.

We ordered traditional food, one fasting and one non-fasting, and we tucked into the injera and spices. The dancers were something else. Beautiful men and women shaking shoulders, breasts bellies and hips at unbelievable frequencies. Singers supported by an on stage band of drums, tin whistle and three variations on string instruments, two plucked and one bowed. The dancers even ventured into the crowds to dance with the would-be spectators that had become, not always voluntarily, participants. It was an incredible evening, despite there being a number of white faces in the crowd, it was about fifty-fifty, tourists and locals and it was the locals who shone when a dance rquest was placed upon them. White men can’t dance, nor can white women it would seem as big nervous smiles made up for an awkwardness that would fundamentally prevent stylish dancing. The Ethiopians however, seemed to have been born to do this, they jerked their shoulders at rate that made focusing difficult, they shook their heads so fast that their long curly hair stood vertically on end as it flashed through the air and generally went one on one with the dancers for artistic supremacy. Like bashful Brits we avoided the disgrace of dancing like dropped jellies; we really didn’t want to spoil it for everyone else.

Posted by ibeamish 21:47 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 193 – Pay Like An Egyptian

2nd April 2012

sunny 20 °C

And so to business; we were in Addis Ababa. We needed two more visas to reach the Mediterranean; Sudan and Egypt. Wim, our Dutch landlord, had advised us that Sudanese visas are easier to obtain if you already have an Egyptian one. With that in mind, we were first out of the traps and made the Egyptian Consulate five minutes before it opened at nine o’clock. We were a little confused by the sign reading ‘Single Entry Tourist Visa - 310Birr’ in comparison to the ‘Single Entry Tourist Visa (British Citizen) - 1200Birr’ but, given that we weren’t very nice when we decided we liked the Suez Canal we decided it was probably to be expected.

We entered the office and discussed our requirements. The exceptionally nice lady informed us that the Ethiopian government needed to know where our money had come from to pay for our visas. Telling them it was HSBC Woolton and a day’s locuming I’d done in 1999 wasn’t going to suffice. We needed either a bank slip with each of our names on to the amount of 310birr, or we needed a bank receipt to show that we’d changed US dollars into Birr. We left the building, bewildered but resigned to a solving a complication. The first two banks couldn’t offer receipts with their cash withdrawals. Since Laura’s card and our dollars where in the car, some distance away, we decided to change our Birr into Dollars and then change the dollars back into Birr and get our all important receipt. We’d lose a dollar in the process but it was ten o’clock and we really just wanted to get a wriggle on.

The second bank had told us that they only accepted dollars; only their main branch could issue them. We hired a taxi and found the bank who said that it would be no problem; they just needed our passports and plane tickets. Since Redvers doesn’t issue tickets, let alone fly through the air at five hundred miles an hour the ladies behind the desk politely smiled and in essence advised us that we were done for. Three banks down, we bit the bullet went back across town to our car, obtained the dollars and then changed them into Birr and took our compulsory receipts back to the Egyptian Embassy. From there it took ten minutes for our passports to be accepted we could collect it on Wednesday afternoon. (Since they were only charging us 310Birr we decided not to draw the ladies attention to out Britishness.)

With bureaucratic wrangling underway, we could tend to our list of maintenance bits and pieces. We needed a sim card, a man who could fix expensive camera lenses and some wheel nuts, a rear windscreen and a solution to Redvers’ broken horn. The camera shop we’d been told about by the Egyptian lady and it wasn’t long before we’d been informed it was screwed and, no one sells Sony lenses in Ethiopia.

We found a little cafe called La Parisienne which served us Pain au Chocolat, Apple Strudel, freshly pressed fruit juices, a tea and a coffee all for a song. Car parts could wait until tomorrow, before that we suspected a dry-run at the Sudanese Embassy might help avoid unwanted obstacles on Wednesday afternoon.

It was an inspired idea. It turned out that we would not need a letter from Her Majesty’s Government to say that our passports were real, and further more we would require a letter of invitation from someone in Sudan. Between us we counted at least twenty eight friends, none of whom happened to be Sudanese. Hopefully we’d have rectified that in one month’s time but right now we needed new friends and fast.

We retired to Wims and over a few beers, and a few hours on the internet, we e-mailed eight of the fanciest hotels in Khartoum suggesting that they should be able to assist such discerning clients. We convinced a man in Hampshire that he could sell his camera lens on E-bay and we’d arrange DHL collection from his office the following day and take responsibility for customs in Addis and we arranged said DHL courier to collect the lens. The internet was wonderful.

Posted by ibeamish 21:46 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

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