Ethiopia: Part 1
The more we learned about Ethiopia, the easier it was to make it our first stop in Africa.
Ethiopia was one of only two countries not colonized during the “Scramble for Africa” and still did its own thing, maintaining a thirteen month calendar, a unique language, and a branch of Christianity not found anywhere else. Plus, it was inexpensive and safe and everyone who had been there had raved about it.
We flew into the capital Addis Ababa with a planned two week itinerary of several cities in the north and east. Ethiopia is a large country; had we covered our route overland we would have needed another week, but because domestic flights were less than $50 each, we opted to fly.
Addis Ababa was busy, yet lacked much to see or do.
We did the requisite sightseeing, traveling within the city for pennies on shared minibuses.
There are a handful of historic churches including the Kiddist Selassie Cathedral, built by the last emperor of Ethiopia, Halie Selassie, and now houses his tomb.
Ethiopia’s national museum featured an impressive evolutionary exhibition, highly appropriate given that some of the oldest human fossils have been discovered in the country. The bones of Lucy – the 3.5 million year old hominid found in 1974 and one of the most significant archeological finds ever – were displayed in a glass box with incredibly lax security. (I later found out it was a replica, although nothing in the museum labeled it as such.)
More interesting than the city’s sites was our introduction to authentic Ethiopian food. Injera, a large thin sour pancake, is the staple of all meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – and is accompanied by meat or vegetables. As many Ethiopians don’t eat meat on Mondays and Wednesdays for religious purposes, menus list several vegetarian “fasting foods”. Ethiopian coffee was served very strong in small cups and often accompanied, strangely enough, by lit incense and a bowl of popcorn. Portions were huge and cheap – $3 would pay for a meal for both of us.
We only spent a day in Addis before flying north to Bahir Dar, a city on the shore of Lake Tana. This region was the center of the country’s Christian empire for four hundred years beginning in the 13th century and several monasteries built on and around the lake are still in use. We shared a boat with a dozen others to visit three of them: Ura Kidane Mihret, Bet Maryam, and Kibran Gebriel. All were small round buildings surrounded by a thatched wall.
Women weren’t allowed to see the Kibran Gebriel…
…but I and the other males in our group were shown its collection of ancient books by the local monk.
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile River, which, as a tributary to the Nile River, connects Ethiopia to Northern Africa. About twenty miles from Bahir Dar, the river plunges over a 150 foot cliff at the very impressive Blue Nile Falls. A recently built dam can slow the falls to a trickle – but after making sure the falls were running we made the journey out of town. Walking to the falls we were mobbed by a flock of kids shouting “mister, mister, mister!” and asking for pens, water bottles, and money, but reaching the top of the falls made up for their presence.
As the empire in the Tana region began to decline in the 17th century, the newly crowned King Fasil established the country’s capital a hundred miles north at Gonder in 1636.
Sarah and I, accompanied by two Belgians we met in Bahir Dar, Gunther and Lieven, took a four hour minibus from Lake Tana to Gonder to continue our tour of the historical circuit.
The ruins of King Fasil’s Royal Enclosure still stand. The complex is surrounded by high walls and contains several castles and facades of buildings.
All but one of the churches built by King Fasil were destroyed by Sudanese invaders a century ago. The church that was spared, the Debre Birhan Selassie, is now best known for its interior paintings that represent the most iconic images of Ethiopia.
One painting shows the Ethiopian rendition of Saint George slaying a dragon.
The ceiling displays eighty angel faces.
From Gonder, the four of us organized a trip to the Simean Mountains, Ethiopia’s largest mountain range and home to three native animals: the gelada baboon, the Walia ibex, and the Ethiopian wolf. Gunther and Lieven were planning on hiking for a week but we convinced them to join us on a four day, three night trek. After some negotiations, we arranged our entire expedition including transportation to and from the mountains, a guide, an armed scout, mules and mule handlers, a cook, and all of our food and camping equipment. The guide and scout stayed with us during the day – everyone else took a different path and met us each evening.
The trek started at 10,000 feet elevation and progressed to 14,000 on our last day. We took it easy early on so that we could acclimate; neither Sarah nor I had any problems with the altitude. But even on the first day the views of the plateau were spectacular.
We were at the same elevation as the clouds and they rolled in and out on a moments notice.
Gelada baboons were everywhere – often in packs of over a hundred. Small groups of them would be minding their own business, eating or grooming themselves…
…and not react to us standing a few feet away taking pictures.
Fixed campsites were at villages of Sankabar, Gilch, and Chennek, but lacked electricity or running water. While we mostly hiked alone, these areas were shared by several other trekkers. By the time we reached each one in the afternoon, our tents had been set up and our cook had prepared our food.
The temperature dropped as the sun went down – it was cold in the tents even wearing jackets in a sleeping bag. It rained on our second and third nights and while our tent stayed dry, Gunther and Lieven’s unfortunately did not.
Throughout our trek we attracted groups of kids who silently watched us as we had watched the baboons. We tried speaking with them with little success until they all broke out of their shell to sing and dance.
On our last day we set out to summit Bwahit Peak – but on the way we were distracted by a few Walia ibex. Not having seen any previously we followed them for a bit too long before deciding to have lunch at call it a day. (We never did see a wolf though.)
After lunch, our scout even let each of us hold his gun…
…although he wouldn’t let me shoot it.
We descended to Chennek camp, left our entourage at the park’s entrance, and settled in for our drive back Gonder, passing through small villages on the way, and waving at all the children who came out to run along the side of our car.