I’m not sure if it was the copious amounts of thick, strong, black buna (coffee) that sent my pulse racing to that of a smack addict, or whether it was the rush of adrenaline from having my heart pulled in so many directions, but Ethiopia stirred something inside me.
Swaziland – Addis Ababa 29-30 September
After a rapid 3.5 hour bus ride to Jo’burg (I didn’t think that was possible) and 13 hours flying (indirectly via Dubai), I arrived in Addis Ababa. The first thing that struck me was how beautiful the Ethiopians were, with their long Arabian eyelashes, bright African smiles, tall thin frames, and soft hair. The second thing that struck me was that Ethiopia seemed to be in a permanent state of deconstruction, particularly on long stretches of road and phonelines. This provided a challenge in getting in touch with fellow Australian volunteer, Sandra, but through African luck we got there in the end, just in time to tuck into mixed juice and enough Yemeni food to end hunger in Africa.
Addis Ababa – Lalibela 1 October
In the early morning I was back at the airport to catch my flight to Lalibela. This one-hour bird’s eye view of Ethiopia set my heart aflutter. Starting out on the plains around Addis, the scenery started as a patchwork of greens with bright pink, blue and orange multistorey estates sprouting out intermittently, changing into a series of steep mountains and valleys, before merging together into a 3D green kaleidoscope. What I didn’t realise was that I would be spending the next 10 days driving up, down, around and through this spectacular kaleidoscope.
At Lalibela I was met by my guide and local football celebrity, Joseph. Oh, and a flat tyre. Lalibela is famous for its many monolithic and semi-monolithic rock-hewn churches. While the architecture of the churches is amazing, the wall paintings really took my breath away (helped by my religious background to understand the paintings). Yet it was the people that really drew my attention. Shrouded in white shawls, they contrasted against the rock structures, while their creased faces blended with the churches’ cracks. I was fortunate to be there on St Mary’s day, to see and hear the chants from a group of priests, the sound of the drums and sistrums. It seemed that every single element of the church had some level of symbolism. For example, the unevenly chiselled, pitch black tunnel that one must walk through to get a sense of hell before reaching the light at the end, heaven.
Lalibela – Yirminha Kristos – Lalibela 2 October
The following day I joined up with Gedion, my driver for the remainder of the trip, and headed out of town to Yirminha Kristos. Unlike other rock hewn churches, this church was built inside a cave, complete with waterfall flowing over the top and approximately 5000 bodies (read: bones) stashed in the back. The drive itself was spectacular, passing through fields of tef grass dotted with sunflowers, watching locals harvest lentils, and stopping to buy some picked-to-order bushes of beans off a local farmer. Driving through these lush green hills, it was so hard to imagine Ethiopia in drought. That is, of course, until you get to riverbeds with barely a trickle…and this is just the start of the dry season. Some things were as imagined, though, such as the group of waving kids with faces covered in flies.
Upon our return to Lalibela, I asked Joseph to show me some local sights, so the afternoon was spent in the local Chat room (not the cyber variety). Chat houses are so named because it is here you chew on Chat, a pile of bitter leaves that leave your mouth dry and your head high….supposedly. It did nothing for me. The Chat house is also aptly named because it is a place where politics rules conversation, at least until they get high, at which point all conversation dries out. It is usually accompanied by cigarettes and shisha but, surprisingly, rarely alcohol. So, to get my fill of alcohol, I set forth in the evening on a mini pub-crawl with Joseph as my guide. All bars looked the same to me: minimal lighting, loud traditional Ethiopian music, seats lined up around the outer walls and floors covered in carpet or mats replete with fleas.
Lalibela – Mekele 3 October
Immediately outside major towns, Ethiopia slows down to a monotonous yet beautiful pattern. There’s no obvious economic disparity here – everyone is poor, living in the same mud and stuck two-storey rondavel houses, spending their days herding goats and cows or harvesting tef. The only cars on the road are public buses, tourists and aid agencies – everyone else walks. Women wear a “uniform” of worn-out dresses, cross necklace and a scarf tied around the waist, while men fashion a simple pair of shorts and shirt. Young boys (and sometimes girls) sport different variations of mohawk thanks to a fashion set by a popular footballer. Yet all are barefoot and shrouded in a white shawl. I quickly learnt that the essential items for any Ethiopian’s existence are a shawl (or two), a herding stick, an umbrella and a nice shady tree.
Leaving Lalibela, we also left the Amhara region and entered Tigray, where Orthodox Christianity makes way for Islam. Flat land re-emerged from a backdrop of mountains, and opened into a tropical paradise with eucalypts, banana trees, maize, sorghum, and tuk tuks buzzing by. We lunched at Woldiya, and while I was engrossed in watching the camels casually walking past my plastic table, I caused multiple injuries to passing school kids who were so mesmerised by me that they forgot about the parked car in front of them. From there it was up, up, up and down, down, down to the bustling metropolis and University town of Mekele.
Mekele – Geralta Mountains 4 October
This morning I woke up to the sounds of sweeping and the sight of the sweeper carrying a rifle. Cleaning must be dangerous work in Mekele. The day started off with a drive to spectacular Geralta Mountains, shooting up from the plains of tef fields and houses that are now built of rock to match the rocky ground. We stopped at Abreha Asbeha rock hewn church on the way, then was dropped at Geralta Lodge for lunch – a fancy Italian-owned lodge with a five-course Western menu. If anyone knows me, they know I don’t do fancy, so in my rebellious fashion, I wandered off and jumped the back fence to see what lay on the other side.
As I sat watching Hyrax scampering through the rocky escarpments, I was approached by a local woman and her toddler. With the only words I know in Tigray being Selam (peace) and buna (coffee), it was inevitable that I would end up at her house for coffee. Here, I got to enjoy the true Ethiopian experience, watching the coffee beans being roasted, eyes stinging from the smoke, smelling the roasted beans as they’re passed around, hearing the sound of them being ground, then finally tasting the strong, sugary goodness. Naturally, buna turned into a lunch of injera and pumpkin puree, as children started returning from school and getting the shock of their lives at having a farenji (whitey) in their house. After three hours of attempted multicultural charades, it was time to meet up with my driver and eat the Western lunch that had been prepared for me in my absence.
Fortunately, I got to work the double lunch off in the afternoon, as we climbed up one of the Geraltan cliffs to reach Abune Yemata rock hewn church. The views, and rockclimbing potential, were amazing. Back down on flat ground, I provided much entertainment to some local women as I took up their offer to grab a sickle and help cut tef, although in reality, the grass was so dry it simply snapped off. The night was spent in the homestead of my guide, enjoying injera with curry and sour milk, before bedding down among the tef fields and listening to the sounds of hyenas nearby.
Geralta Mountains – Axum 5 October
We left early in the morning as the rising sun was striking the Geralta mountains, but was shortly struck down with a mechanical breakdown that was fixed with typical (temporary) African flair. The car held together long enough to get over the rocky road to the Yeha Temple, built in 6th Century BC, and then finally to Axum. I had never heard of Axum before, and hence had never heard of the Axumite Kingdom that ruled from 400 BC to 10th Century AD, but as I wandered past the stellaes, observed the early printed coins used for international trade, walked through Queen Sheba’s 3000 year old palace, and saw the building that houses the Ark of the Covenant (10 Commandments), it became clear that Ethiopia really was the home of one of the world’s first great civilisations. The question is, what happened?
Axum – Debark 6 October
Re-entering the Amhara region, we passed by the Eritrean border and refugee camp before heading upwards into lush rainforest where misty water cascaded over cliffs, before finally opening out onto a plateau of green pastures and Debark, a tiny hilltop village. Although the trip was only 100-odd kilometres, it took a solid day, demonstrating why 4WD is so necessary in Ethiopia. The entire stretch (rather than a single section) was in deconstruction mode to make way for an upgrade. The works commenced 2 years ago, and are due for completion in 222 years (at a guess).
Saturdays are market days in Ethiopia, which means every man and his donkey were taking to the streets. At the tiny village of our lunchtime stopover, I headed into the markets, which were everything I expected and more: crowded, dusty, full of flies and umbrellas, donkeys tied to trees, circles of people bargaining. I repeated the market tour at Debark, which was slightly bigger but no less appealing. On both occasions, I was accompanied by a dozen enamoured kids jostling to hold my hand and a dozen enamoured teenage boys jostling to get my email address. Despite having my bling camera hanging around my neck and my (empty) wallet staring temptingly from my bag, no-one made any attempt to even touch them. Such is the honesty of Ethiopians.
My quiet evening was rudely disrupted by a football game of Arsenal vs (someone irrelevant). With a dining room packed full of supporters, it was inevitable that I also watch and join in the celebration of Arsenal’s 3-1 win.
Debark – Simien Mountains – Gonder 7 October
A UNESCO protected site, the Simien Mountains national park is home to a range of endemic animals, including the Walia Ibex and Ethiopian Fox. At 3200m, even this short walk left me short of breath, but it also left me wanting more of the fantastic views, green fields, mossy trees, and time to observe my nit-picking cousins, the gelada baboons. The walk also made it clear why every second man in Debark walks around with a rifle: leopards and hyenas are resident and not afraid to bite.
Back in the car, our drive for the day continued along the roadworks and ended at Gonder, where I finally got to break away from my Ethiopian diet of red meat and treat myself to a meal of fish.
Gonder – Bahir-Dar 8 October
Clearly the fish was not a winner. For the first time ever during my travels, my bowels reacted in an explosive and frequent way. As fascinating as Fasilidas’ castle and Debrebrehan Selasse Church were, I was unable to fully appreciate it for fear of leaving a modern mark on the UNESCO-protected 16th Century banquet hall. Why is it that in moments of sickness the nearest toilets are always the worst? Once again, Ethiopians proved their kindness, with one of the priests dedicating prayers from his Book of Miracles to me, while Ammanuel, my guide, gave me the bed in his apartment and offered to wash my feet (to which I declined) before feeding me fresh bread with organic honey harvested from traditional tree hives.
Whether it was a miracle, the rest, the honey, or the Loperamide, my bowels were firmly blocked for the next three days. That evening in Bahir-dar, I even managed to force down some Tej – home-brewed honey wine – to celebrate my final night with driver Gedion. The Tej was as much an acquired taste as the Tej house decor – floral sofas, fluorescent yellow doilies, fake flowers, stuffed pink toys and family pictures on every square inch of flat surface.
Bahir-Dar 9 October
Bahir-Dar could almost qualify as my perfect town: streets are lined with trees, bicycles are a favoured mode of transport, ipads and technology abound, and my guide was smokin’ hot (although, unfortunately, married to an Australian). With surrounding mountains, a huge lake and rapidly flowing river, the potential for adventure sports is huge, but noticeably absent.
The morning was spent out on Lake Tana visiting monasteries and churches on two of the nearby coffee-filled islands. When I asked my guide about the monastery on an island forbidden to women, he replied, “Very peaceful. Good for meditation. No woman, no cry”. Touché. The boat dropped me at a fancy lakeside restaurant for lunch where I tempted fate with a delicious fish dish, knowing, at least, that the fish was fresh.
Then it was out of town to the Blue Nile Falls. I think labelling them as “Blue” was a stretch of the brown truth, but the guidebook’s comments that the falls were merely a trickle following the construction of a hydroelectric plant were also inaccurate. Sure, they may not have been the 400m wide falls that they once were, but there was still a damn lot of water and spray passing over those cliffs and conjuring up great images of whitewater rafting fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to stretch my legs, to which my guide commented “Normally, tourists have tomato face, but not you. You’re strong”. Thanks Zeno! I think.
While the fish of the day settled nicely in my stomach, I can’t say the same for my last Ethiopian meal of injera and shiro, which helped me lose about 3kg of vomiting weight during the night.
Bahir-dar – Addis Ababa – Dubai 10 October
Before I knew it, I was back on the plane headed for Addis Ababa. With time for a short city tour, I headed to the Museum to see the fascinating ‘Lucy’ and other ancient ancestors, before making a visit to world-famous Tomoca coffee shop, and haggling my heart out at some local souvenir stalls.
Thanks to Buska Tours, I left Ethiopia happy, safe and sound. It may not have been the sleekest of operations, but it was a very African one: The old 4WD with side mirrors held in place by electrical tape and rubber bands; local hotels where electrical sockets dangled freely and bathroom basins were propped up against walls; restaurants where waiters didn’t speak English yet menus were written in English, meaning that what you ordered was rarely what you received; waiters who struggled to accept a lone diner; and a hotel concierge who asked every time they saw me if I’d showered (did I smell that much?).
Perhaps one of my fondest memories of Ethiopia, though, will be the constant comments on my rasta hair. Much like Nepal, where my nose ring elevated me to a caste of my own, my dreadlocks seemed to win me friends and admirers all over Ethiopia. Never before have I heard my hair be repeatedly described as “beautiful”, nor have I been asked so often if I’ve been to Jamaica, or if I’m a fan of Haile Selassie (5 points to those who can figure out the connection). While they fell in love with my hair, I fell in love with their country. When it comes to Ethiopia, beauty was definitely in the eyes of this buna-holder.