A Travellerspoint blog

April 2012

Day 213 – Temples and Starlit Camps

22nd April 2012

Mazir was a man we’d never met. His job title was fixer and he lived in Wadi Halfa a town at the southern end of Lake Nasser in Northern most Sudan not far from the border with Egypt. He would have to be a nice guy because we knew we’d be leaving on a ferry three days before Redvers. Mazir would be given our car keys and in it our lives; he’d better be a bloody nice man. We called him, arranged tickets for the ferry for ourselves and a spot on ‘the barge’ for Redvers and revelled in our luxury for five more minutes before it was time to go.

Our dinner invites beckoned and we’d set aside an afternoon of visiting hosts for coffees but alas our phone calls made no gains, with our moral high ground intact but our afternoons coffee prospects diminished we stopped by Ozone for one last lunch before attempting to procure some more Sudanese Pounds from our friendly dealer. He had no money, we had enough to survive on for the next week and so we turned tail and set sail for our first culture stop; the temples of the Lion and Amun at Naqa.

We turned off the tar road and for thirty kilometres we raced across the desert. The road was inconsistent in both surface and existence but eventually with the unwavering support of the sat nav we pulled up outside the Lion Temple. Amidst the desert we had found ancient temples dating back to the third century BC. They had been built by the Nubians during the Meroitic Period in the 1st Century AD and subsequently excavated by Europeans in the twentieth century. They were stunning. The carving and inscriptions that adorned their walls were as clearly visible to us as they had been when they were first carved, the Gods with their Rams and Lions heads and even a snake emerging from a lotus with the head of a lion, adorned the walls. We were awestruck. The second temple had two lines each of six huge stone rams sat on plinths leading up to it. In the warm glow of the late sun the temples appeared magical.

We left at dusk, aiming to drive to our next destination, the Pyramids at Meroe to camp and observe the pyramids at daybreak. Our journey led us back to the tar and north for another eighty kilometres. We once more pulled off the main road and following a set of co-ordinates we’d received earlier in our trip we drove over dunes and deep sand to find a little spot in the desert and beneath the stars where we could change the shocks by torchlight and call it a day. Our camp was more than a bush garage, it was heaven. Beneath a canopy of diamonds set in deep, deep blue silk we sat. The dunes surrounded us, the heavens looked down upon us and somewhere nearby the pyramids watched over us.

Posted by ibeamish 01:58 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

Day 212 – The Sudanese Are The Nicest Nation On The Planet

21st April 2012

The artificial darkness of the heavily woven curtains combined with the perfectly cooled room extended our slumber almost indefinitely. Sadly we had a few tasks to undertake including the procurement of a sim-card and some new shock absorbers. The holiday was fast becoming a monologue in the pursuit of shock absorption devices throughout Africa.

We visited the parts dealer and rejoiced in the thrills of our black market money. Three new shocks cost us sixty federal dollars. The Sudanese parts dealer had no intentions other than the honest intent of providing us with what we desired, his prices were honest to start with and we brokenly discussed the merits and disadvantages of the different brands he stocked. The Sudanese are a brutally and unfalteringly honest, unremittingly helpful and kind nation.

With shocks and sim sorted we went for a mouth watering lunch at a cafe called Ozone before it was back to the hotel and, complaining about the relentless heat, we jumped into the swimming pool and then into the sauna. As complete hypocrites we retired to our room and ordered room service.

After dinner, Somers decided that a hot bath would be both beneficial and curative in aiding her digestion and easing her ailments. But, shock horror, only luke warm water emerged from her marble bath tub’s tap. Almost in complete disgust that such a felony be allowed to happen in that great bastion of sensibility I telephoned reception who concernedly told us they would send an engineer immediately. As the phone receiver was replaced a knock on the door signalled the engineer’s arrival. He walked into the bathroom. He looked at the tap. He scratched his head; and then he swung its shiny polished handle to its other extremity. I looked on as hot steaming water gushed forth from that luxurious appendage and could only apologise as I saw him out before turning to Somers and silently shaking my head. Five minutes in a fancy hotel and we’d already changed.

Posted by ibeamish 01:57 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

Day 211 - The Dancing Dervishes

20th April 2012

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We were making exceptional time. The previous evening we’d pulled up in the dark outside of a small village 180km’s from Khartoum. The night had been awful. Hot winds had hounded us. The tent walls had performed a night-long round of applause as the dust and heat found every opportunity to clog our airways.

However, for the first time on our entire journey we were amazed when we woke and spotted a man walking across the field. He didn’t stop or deviate to investigate these strange white folk from afar, he didn’t come to see if we had food or money or clothes for him, he just carried on about his business.

Khartoum was a mini Dubai; a haven for all things modern in the middle of a desert country. But for all it looked to offer, it was Friday in a Muslim worlds and it was very quiet. Running short on ideas we but knowing we wanted luxury, we stopped by the Blue Nile Sailing Club thinking we might find someone who could lend a hand or at least give us some ideas.

The Blue Nile Sailing Club was a place that offered camping in the Heart of Khartoum. It was also home to one of Kitchener’s gun boats now ‘moored,’ or rather beached, and used as offices. We sat in an empty open seating area and started to read our guidebook. There was no-one around. And then a tall bespectacled man in his late fifties and wearing a long pristine white jelbab appeared and joined us. He ordered coffee and tea for us and began to talk. He was a Sudanese air accident investigator who was also secretary of the Sailing Club. He added that they had a race that morning and they were short on crew members, we’d be in the race.

As we sat drinking, a motley drew of would be sailors appeared. Russians, Brits, Dutch and of course Sudanese appeared and formed nine or ten crews of two. Another round of coffees ensued before we met our skippers, Mohammed would take Laura and Bart would be saddled with me. There was a gusting breeze as we opened the jib and raised the main sail. I was getting a crash course in sailing as the minute gongs were being turned leading up to the start of the race.

As the klaxon sounded Bart and I were still taxiing to the start; forgive the lack of sailing parlance. Somers had made a better start but for my race at least that would be the closest I ever got to the remaining boats. The course took us two bridges up the Blue Nile, back to the start, back up to the first bridge and then back to the start which doubled as the finish. No sooner had we started than the wind dropped. It was to be a slow motion race for Nile supremacy. As Bart and I sauntered upstream, we waved at the other crews already returning, discussing working life in Sudan as well as money changing and where to eat. Somers was mid pack and seemed to be deep in conversation with her skipper.

Surreal doesn’t begin to describe the affair. By the time I had finished the other boats had moored, packed their sails away and nearly finished lunch. A small ovation received the ‘better-luck-next-timers’ and I found Somers getting stuck into Ful (beans) and Injera, with bread, a lamb dish and a ginormous water melon. There had been a huge brunch spread laid out for the sailors and spectators all traditional Sudanese fare.

With an unexpected box ticked on our ‘life experiences’ list we’d spoken to a Dutch guy named Dawa who agreed to show us where his money changer hung out. A ten minute drive across town led us to a corner chop supermarket on an estate in Khartoum. We knew the owner was doing business as we watched men walk out holding fistfuls of notes. As I walked in I giggled at the row of NGO vehicles parked surreptitiously outside and smiled even more broadly when I saw their owners pretending to look at tinned anchovies whilst waiting to ‘do a deal.’ I waited, in line, and eventually got 5.75 to the dollar. That was more than double our money. Nice work if you can get it.

With money on our minds and bursting out of our pockets (it came in bricks of cash) we found ourselves a place to stay that included pristine cleanliness, air-conditioning, swimming pools, fresh fruit delivered hourly and a concierge service in its list of basic requirements. We’d finally succumbed and found five star luxury in the heart of Khartoum.

We weren’t completely splurging as Dawa had told us that they had a special weekend rate. We stepped from the car park into a marble and granite lined lobby, air conditioning chilled the sweat that covered us and we suddenly realised that wearing ripped and dirty shirts, with flip-flopped feet so dirty that we looked like street urchins, made us stand out a little. We marched to the desk like we owned the place, through our bags on the brass luggage trolley and then on asking for a room had to remind our receptionist that they had a weekend rate was significantly lower than the $300 a night he was suggesting. Furthermore our newly acquired Sudanese pounds were not welcome. Foreigners must spend foreign currency we were told and so we handed over a few dollars more as our dust riddled bags and our dustier selves were escorted through the marble and granite foyer, across the plush carpets and upstairs to our feather and cotton lined, pleasantly chilled nest. How easy we found it to slip from the dusty tent to the five star room.

Friday afternoons however were special in Khartoum, or rather, in Omdurman. Sheik Hamid Al Nil was a 19th century Sufi leader whose tomb lies in Omdurman. Every Friday afternoon the Dervishes dance and worship in front of the tomb; a spectacle of immense marvel. We arrived an hour early and within ten minutes we were sat drinking coffee and hibiscus tea, the latter in Somers’ hand, with a new found friend named Abdul. He insisted that it was his duty to pay for our drinks and escorted us on an impromptu tour of the tomb before talking us through the dancing.

The dancing dervishes were a sight to behold. They were stunning to watch, a delight in fact. As we watched for over two hours we were repeatedly greeted and questioned as to our time in Africa, in Sudan and in Khartoum. We were offered places to stay, dinner and had a couple of coffees all as a direct result of a hospitality and national pride that the nations of the world would do well to acknowledge. We drank coffee with a man named Mohammed whose degree and masters was in English and was planning a trip to South Africa to study the Zulu language. After a sensational evening we chose to retire to our new found accommodation.

It was dark by the time we left the Hamid Al Nil tomb but the streets had come alive. Whilst many seem to shirk the persecuting hours at the height of the suns power it seemed they were now making up for lost time. Bazaars, stalls, shops and cafes were all doing boisterous business. But something more was going on. There were an unprecedented number of Sudan flags flying, youngsters were running in groups along the streets, flags billowing in a startling show of patriotism for a normal Friday evening. Redvers was being slapped in joy as we crawled our way through crowds that congested a road system whose floutable rules were bent beyond recognition. Laura was still having a time of it. Hot and cold, weak and heady, the night air was still thick and warm and the crowds were tingeing a sweaty fight home with claustrophobia. Since businesses seemed busier than ever we’d decided that now was an ideal time to find a pharmacy with a malaria test kit for Laura. Lucky on our third attempt we found a pharmacist who spoke excellent English and suggested that rather than wasting our money on an ineffective kit, Laura could visit the lab over the road for a blood test and malaria screen, all for ten Sudanese pounds (US$2.) A needle whose freshly broken packet lay before her, broke her skin and Laura smeared her fresh blood onto a slide; twenty minutes later, the lab technician told Laura that she was negative for malaria. I explained to her that she was a hypochondriac, and with her ‘Negative Test Result’ in her hand she was feeling better.

Laura was also told that the excitement on the streets was in celebration that the Sudanese had just reclaimed the border and oil town of Heglig from their newly formed South Sudanese neighbours. The passion and patriotism was scary and it would seem that these new states will have to resolve their oil differences quickly if they are to avert a protracted conflict. Our car was slapped and inspected as we sluggishly fought our way through streets overwhelmed with people. A twenty minute drive took nearly two hours as we inched our way home, feigning cheers and excitement in what our Sudanese ‘friends’ had achieved. Eventually after a long, hot and humid drive home we arrived at the hotel. We’d never been unsafe, but it had been bloody hard driving.

As we lay down on our triple bed beneath a feather duvet, our heads cradled in feather pillows whilst the air conditioning silently cooled the deep pile carpet and the wide screen television sat in quiet expectation we revelled in the sanctuary of a world a thousand miles from the one we’d just spent two hours crawling through on our hands and knees.

Posted by ibeamish 11:19 Archived in Sudan Comments (0)

Day 210–The ‘Missing Link’ Works For Ethiopia Border Service

19th April 2012

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A morning coffee reinvigorated our senses as we posted our cards home and complained to yet another cafe owner about his frank racism and the need for a more philanthropic attitude to cafe ownership in Ethiopia. We had his Habesha menu and we had his English menu and no two prices were the same. He swore the Amharic prices were old, we told him he was a racist thief and he had zero chance of us paying what he asked. He’d need to call the police first. Our bill should have been 24 Birr; he wanted 84. He conceded to a degree eventually, and we paid 39 reiterating that he was a scumbag.

The word on the street was that the money changers of Sudan were offering unbeatable rates of 6 Sudanese Pounds to the US Dollar. The bank rate was 2.7. We’d been offered 4.5 by a guy in Gonder, but the bugger kept disappearing and, in the end, we left with our fistful of US dollars untouched.

The British had been to Sudan twice before the arrival of this latest convoy of, well, one battered Defender and a couple of ill equipped vets. Back in the early 1880’s we puppeteered Egypt who, in turn ran Sudan. When things went awry and the Mahdist Regime took Khartoum we sent Charles Gordon to restore some order. He ended up stuck in Khartoum holding out whilst a relief expedition came to rescue him. The relief expedition turned up late; Gordon was dead.

The second entrance was ten years later. Amidst the ‘Scramble for Africa’ Britain wanted the Nile from top to bottom, from beginning to end, source to sea. Since both the Belgians and the French had started to snoop around, it was time to make a real entrance. General Kitchener was sent to do the dirty work and he did it well. The British army first ‘recruited’ the locals to build a desert railway and eventually, with a resupply chain in place they came upon the Mahdist army outside Omdurman in 1898. The British guns prevailed as the angel of death caressed 10,000 Sudanese bodies on the battle field. Sudanese control was restored to the Egyptians. We were in charge again. Gordon’s son blew up the Mahdis tomb, and apparently Kitchener requested the Mahdi’s skull for an inkstand. Ah to be British.

The third entry to Sudan was made by General Sir Redvers Buller (deceased – now a Land Rover Defender) and involved none of the great swagger of the previous invasions. At the border we were rushed to customs before they stopped for a long lunch. In the process we were first led to a Swiss couple, encamped at the border, waiting patiently for their orders to advance; typical of the Swiss to be waiting for an invite. They’d been travelling for three years, and when they’d entered Ethiopia they hadn’t listed one of their cameras on the customs form. The money grabbing Ethiopians were now detaining them whilst they waited for clearance for the item, or until duties were paid. They’d been at the border for three days.

We’d been anal gits at the border, we’d listed everything. We entered the office, met the man who would rifle through our electrics bags looking for anything he could confiscate. He was extremely keen and I took to slapping his wrist every time he manhandled my delicate equipment. A short conversation with regards to Joseph followed. “What is he?” “A hippo.” “What is he made of?” “Wood.” “Is he hollow?” “No.” “Does he have anything inside him.” “Yes.” “What?” “Wood.” “I don’t understand.” “Well don’t worry. Customs liked him. Would you like to see the engine number?” Of all the problems we foresaw with Joe, turning border officials into blithering idiots was not one. But with customs finished we’d only dealt with one of the two idiots we’d need to in order to escape.

For some reason immigration was coming after customs. Had I been exporting anything I’d have had to pay for its export before I’d been granted permission to enter the other country. A country ensuring it’s paid for before we even know that we can leave? That’ll be Ethiopia.

Across the dusty road and a few doors up was immigration. Staffed by men who prioritise lunch and phone calls ahead of the humans sat before them. My Neanderthal was all but banging the screen in confusion but soon acquiesced when his phone rang and he forgot about processing my exit. Laura was having more success, but her guy was so efficient he was done in minutes. However, he didn’t have an all important stamp. The first thing you’re taught at border school is that you need a stamp. The second is that an obstructive nature is essential. The stamp was in my guy’s desk and after half an hour of phone calls my large browed dim wit discovered he had lost the key to his own desk. A full ten minutes was spent watching him try to pull the drawer open only to find that it was definitely locked. Thirty seconds later he’d check it was still definitely locked before shrugging at us like we’d just have to live in his office until our visas ran out and they could charge us some more.

What was making us so impatient was the fact that Laura was feeling rough. A beaded brow from a fever was sapping her strength and the heat and border theatrics were not helping. Finally Laura’s guy noticed our pacing up and down, the tapping of our imaginary watches and my voice saying “Do you need a hand?” Not to mention Miss Somers hushed expletives. Her guy turned up with a dagger and jimmied the drawer open. Hurrah, two rubber stamps, but, oh no. We’d taken too long. The computer had timed out and reset the exit visas. We sat for another half hour whilst our challenged officer worked through his disabilities.

Down the road was Sudan. There we found an immigration office staffed by a mountain of a man who reminded us of the guy from the movie The Green Mile, we felt like we’d come across him somewhere before. He was a hero, but his government too wanted their share of our foreign currency. It had already cost us US$100 each for our miserable two week transit visas but now we needed to pay US$70 each to register as foreigners. Every other country calls the latter process ‘passport control’ but we had signs on our derrieres reading ‘insert hand and withdraw.’

The customs office was a bit more of a saga. Fifteen minutes in the first office, ten in the second. Then back to the first office before going off to the security office and then back to the first office and then back to the security office before we were able to leave. In a country rammed full of Muslims I was going to enjoy saying ‘Good God!’

We high fived our entrance to country number twelve and also celebrated that we’d just smuggled one bottle of gin, two bottles of wine and a pack of ciders into a country that was dry in at least two ways.

We hit another couple of road blocks on our way to Gedaref where our passports were taken and the details recorded. We’d lost count of police road blocks in Africa, mostly thanks to Malawi and Tanzania, but these were uncannily polite. “Do you mind... Can I... I just need to go over to my office and record your details; I’ll be back shortly...” The police were polite. As one officer took our passports the other would step in to ask where we were from, where were we going and what football team we supported.

Sudan was flat; flat, flat, flat. But for a mound here and there, it was flat; except for the road. Sudan had tarmac’d its main roads which was great news. Except for the fact that on the road we were driving it was as if the tarmac had come in one giant sized economy carpet roll which had just been laid out across every bump, stone and crease in the earth’s surface. Sudan was also oven baked, the blue sky was sky blue over our heads but its brother that guarded the horizon was grey with dirt. The dirt shroud was everywhere; the atmosphere was full of dust, and grey. Grey like the dead and unforgiving earth all around us, grey like the desiccated trees and shrubs; grey. The road side was littered with blown out tyres and the corpses of cattle and donkeys. In one afternoon’s drive we lost count of the animal bodies somewhere after one hundred.

We made the town of Gedaref, our planned first night’s location, with plenty of daylight remaining and so we put our foot down and burnt and bounced another hundred kilometres before pulling off the tarmac and driving into the grey to sleep in the bush.

Posted by ibeamish 01:32 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Day 209 - Ironwork and Funerals

18th April 2012

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To say we woke to our alarm at 5am would be a lie. We hadn’t really slept. We had a long day in the making and it would likely get longer. It had been a freezing night and even then, as we climbed out of bed, we were shivering. My numb fingers were dead claws as I pawed at the tent trying to pack it away. The sky above us was crystal clear and a million bright twinkles helped illuminate our early morning fumblings. Crisp acidic curses broke a crisper ice riddled air. The back door lock was playing up again, we’d, or rather I’d, already broken the window once and as I cursed the lock I tried to close it without jeopardising our hard found replacement glass. Bang, thud, smash and the twinkling explosion of a thousand shards of glass all dancing around each other towards the floor as my heart broke and our itinerary had a new item; replace back window.

We taped a sack over the empty frame and Gazpacho rocked up looking awkward when he saw our new air conditioning solution. I had a scarf under my hooded sweater, hood up, and was huddled over the steering wheel as we bumped back towards town. Somers was still dressed for the slopes of Val D’Isere and was keenly looking out of the windows for the moguls. Mr Soup-soup was back on his perch, cuddling his gun. The circus was indeed on its way to town and our sack billowed out of the back window and our car, broken shock and all, um-pah-pah’d and tinkled its way back out of the mountains as the sun finally rose to ask why we were leaving so soon.

Entering Debark two hours later, we passed yet another funeral cortege with yet another undersized body on its wooden frame. We dropped Gazpacho off and dropped in at the tourism office to see if they knew where we could buy sheet metal for the window. The chap pointed us to the petrol station where another chap pointed us to what appeared to be a cafe. From the cafe a chap emerged with a drum of diesel and a metal pouring jug. Something had been lost in translation. We found the nearest piece of metal, on a neighbouring cafes fence, and frantically drew rectangles with our fingers and then pointed at the rear window.

The local metal worker wanted 500Birr for a piece of tinfoil. That wouldn’t work and it was shame as it appeared he was bullied into overcharging by the now ten or so hangers on that all wanted to profit. Ethiopians could make Jews look generous. So, leaving our metal worker we decided it was time to move on. Gonder was the destination and was a far bigger town than Debark. We’d find our metal there. But, the new ‘man in charge of the hangers-on’ had one more idea. He guided us to a hardware store that had thick sheets of steel for sale. Fantastic we thought, until we realised that, for a reason that completely evaded us, the shop owner could only apologise and reiterate that he couldn’t sell it to us; a shop that wouldn’t sell its wares. In the confusion we were led a little further along the road to what appeared to be a disused house.

Inside the shack our man looked around and eventually came up with a steel tray. It wasn’t big enough, but, amidst the noise and cries of some women in the cafe next door, he mimed that we could bash the edges down and unfold the lip and it would measure 59 centimetres. A perfect fit. The background wailing was still going on and getting a little rowdy, as our team found a lump hammer and a chisel and began panel beating the tray into a new back window. The twelve year old hanger on was a bit of a metal working prodigy as he showed the leaders easier ways of achieving their end. We emerged from the building and into the sunlight ready to begin measuring and cutting. It was only then that I looked to my left to see what the noise and crying was all about. The group of women were dressed in white, tears flowing down their cheeks and wailing like banshees, all were crouched over something that was obscured form my vision due to the low dividing fence. Two steps closer and the top line of a muslin wrapped corpse came into view. The same corpse we’d passed on the way in. I was just about to feel awful for all the noise we’d been making when the recommencement of the hammering began and I almost jumped out of my skin. It appeared that we all had things to do that morning.

With some carful measurements I drew and outline for the cut on the now flattened sheet of metal. The guy cut it fairly coarsely using what was essentially a ground anchored guillotine and then he whipped out the angle grinder. If the banging had been unnecessary for the funeral rites then the grinder was going to be a joy.

The window was fitted and then removed and re-ground a little here and then a little there before finally, fitting like a fine leather glove we thanked the team, handed over some Birr and departed for Gonder. The women still wailed; it was time for us to leave.

The road to Gonder was 100 kilomtres long. It was tarred and then it wasn’t, it was diverted and then it was restored. We reminded ourselves that some tar was better than none as we were suddenly distracted by a small boy spitting at Redvers as we passed. Things all appeared a little slow motion as we stared at him in the wing mirrors and the sudden realisation hit us. We stopped and turned, the boy had cattle, he couldn’t go far; I was going to brain him. I slipped the flip-flops off and popped the runners on and jumped out of the car sprinting across the ploughed field in pursuit of a small child. His screams of terror were joy to my ears as suddenly I realised some facts about the situation: the first was that I’d been sat in a car for the previous six months and was horrifically unfit, the second came moments later as I started wheezing, we were still at 2700 metres. The third and final nail in my already slowing coffin was that Ethiopians are born runners; I was out of my league.

Still he ran, still he squealed and still I slowed. As I reached the huts I was at a walk, hoping I appeared stately and composed rather than sweaty and screwed. I marched from bright daylight into the first pitch black hut, my initiative was lost as I was forced to say “Hello, is anyone there?” as my eyes adjusted and I saw a family staring at a crazed and sweaty Faranji. The boy must have run through the village, no one there understood English, and my mimes of stone throwing and spitting rendered only confused looks on the faces of my audience. I jogged back to the car, trying to look fit, and we sped away.

We arrived in Gonder and washed the filth from our bodies, fitted our new rear window and cleaned out seventeen kilograms of dust from the car locks. The castles of Gonder were our afternoon objective and we wandered over, acquired a guide and were shown around some very impressive castles that had been damaged first by the Italian invaders who on using them a s war rooms replastered them all and secondly by the British who decided to bomb the aforementioned Italians whilst they carried out their maintenance during the Second World War. It turned into a very relaxed afternoon, and we ate a kilo of shakla tibbs, (fried beef) a couple of cakes, a couple of freshly pressed juices, a pizza and a salad as well as having another Faranji/Habesha price discussion with our waitress. It was late when we returned but we’d need a good night’s rest, the following day we’d be entering Sudan.

Posted by ibeamish 00:43 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

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

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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)

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