Ethiopia promises much. It’s big – the second most populous country in Africa. It lies in the Horn of Africa, and it is a vast highland complex of mountains and dissected plateaus divided by the Great Rift Valley. Because of the huge variations in altitude it has a huge diversity of terrain, ranging from the deserts (amongst the hottest places on earth) to tropical forests and many endemic species, notably the gelada, the walia ibex and the Ethiopian wolf ("Simien fox"). Lake Tana in the north is the source of the Blue Nile.
Ethiopia is thought to be the home of man's earliest ancestors. It’s claimed that the monarchy was established by descendants of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The peoples have adopted both Christianity and Islam in parallel. This is one of only two African countries to have evaded full colonialism. Jamaican veneration for Emperor Haile Selassie led to the founding of the Rastafari movement. Easter in Ethiopia is going to be fascinating.
(N.B. Teeny Tiny the famous blogging bear now has an alter ego - Tiny Whiney. You won't have much trouble working out which bits he writes).
Very pissed off. Bloody hairy Saturday. Alarm clock running slow so had to get ready in a hurry. Plane delayed and got checked out by men looking for would be jihadi wives. So half an hour to transit in Istanbul. They assured me my bag was on the second plane with me and of course it wasn't, and to cheer me up even more no one in Addis even knows where it is. All my beautifully packed things. All I have are jeans and my Ugg boots, which aren't wildly suitable for tropical Africa. No shops open, it’s Sunday and I've got shampoo in my cough mixture. (Long story).
My trip operator bills itself as using the best available hotels. This hotel - the Intercontinental - is a carbon copy of the Rotana at Al Ain but nowhere near as well run. Pretty grubby, no hot water in my room, and a magnificent view of a building site. The Internet is so slow it would probably be quicker to post my correspondence. The hotel got an award for best luxury hotel last year. I shudder to think what the others are like.
Addis Ababa (usually referred to as plain Addis) is a fairly young city, founded in the late nineteenth century. It's home to the headquarters of the African Union and the headquarters of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), as well as numerous other continental and international organisations. So, it's often referred to as "the political capital of Africa". Addis Ababa means New Flower, but it definitely won't win any awards for prettiest town . There are some Italianate buildings, dating from the Italian invasion in the 1930s, some imperial palaces (Jubilee Palace was allegedly modelled after Buckingham Palace), which are now the homes of the President and the Prime Minister, lots of building work, sprawling shanty towns and the biggest open market in Africa. Which is closed today.
The National Museum of Ethiopia documents the cradle of civilisation - though all the displayed palaeontological remains are copies. The most famous of these is Lucy, thought to be one of the oldest direct ancestors of man ever found. There's just 40% of her and she's named after the Beatles song.
There's a whole gallery of paintings. the most important shows the legend of King Solomon meeting the Queen of Sheba, known in Ethiopia as Makeda. Pictures and statues of ex-emperor Haile Selassie abound, as apparently he was very highly thought of (sorry). The term "Rastafari" derives from "Ras Tafari Makonnen", the pre-regnal title of Haile Selassie. The Rastafari movement developed after several Protestant Christian clergymen, most notably Leonard Howell, proclaimed that Haile Selassie's crowning as Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930 fulfilled a Biblical prophecy. There's also the Holy Trinity (Haile Selassie) Church which acts as the emperor's memorial and mausoleum.
Lunch is the usual Ethiopian fare. It's like mezze but all the items are served together on floppy blankets of sour spongey bread called injera. You break a flap off and use it as a scoop to eat with. The mezze bit's not bad but the bread is going to be an acquired taste. Dinner is a repeat of lunch and the bread isn't tasting any better yet.
The Ethiopian people on the whole are very friendly, very gentle and very handsome, high cheekbones, big brown eyes and long necks. Even the street hawkers don't try too hard - well most of them don't. The city streets are a melee of people, donkey carts and three wheeled tuk-tuk style taxis called Bajajs. Ethiopia is the home of coffee and the streets (when you can get past the roadworks) are full of cafes, roasting beans and little braziers that waft frankincense into the breeze.
Today is a million times better. My bag has arrived. The group - of six others - all seem very nice and the half Italian half Ethiopian guide, Dario is great. We fly north to Gondar, seventeenth century capital of Ethiopia. (Don't spell it wrong on Google or you'll find loads of information on Tolkien instead.) Time to marvel at its arid mountains, sandstone castles and wooden Orthodox churches.
The UNESCO listed Fasil Ghebbi fortress was founded in the seventeenth century by Emperor Fasilides as the home of the Ethiopian emperors. The jaw dropping complex of buildings includes a palace, two castles a hall, a banqueting hall, stables, a chancellery, library and three churches.
Outside the city the Fasilides Baths are a moat like pool that is filled with water for the annual Timkat Festival, celebrating Jesus' baptism. The people parade their copy of the Ark of the Covenant (under cover of course) and then all jump into the water. Nearby, the thatched Debre Birhan Selassie church has an ostrich egg 'medallion' on the roof of its misleadingly unassuming exterior. The inside is totally covered with bright frescoes, the celling rafters adorned with 123 cherubs. It's the most prized and definitely the most rewarding sight here. Check your dates carefully if you plan to come. Ethiopia operates its own calendar for events not shared with the west, alongside the Gregorian calendar. New Year here is usually September 11th.
Ethiopia is tropical, but the north is mainly mountainous plateau so it's just pleasantly warm, tee shirt weather, and we're all a little out of breath. Lunch is Ethiopian mezze again, but with pasta, rice and potato on offer, so injera is optional. I abstain.
I'm getting to know the group. Most are single travellers, three men, three other women. Two are Reuters reporters who live in Brussels - interesting, one an IT teacher, one a master of hounds farmer from Sussex, one a German accountant who lives in London and one a high flying Yank from The Big Apple who has just done an MBA at LSE. Of the three guys, two are gay and one definitely has Aspergers, so that rules out any possibility of romance. I will leave you to work out who is who, but it makes for witty and interesting company.
Dario continues to be a superb leader (he won a travel guides award last year) and driver Saloman is smiley, engaging and flamboyant. He wears a different colorful outfit each day.
Now we're ten thousand feet up and puffing more than a little. I have a hut shaped hotel chalet perched on the top of a mountain. Amazing stripy scenery that would give the Grand Canyon a run for its money and troupes of fascinating gelada baboons who are as gentle as the people. The large males are very cleverly disguised as small lions with halo type manes. They are herbivores and spend all day digging in the soil for roots to eat, or grooming each other. At night they scale down the escarpment to hide from the hyenas and leopards. We haven't seen any of those.
Next day is a series of switchbacks through the mountains and across the gorges. This time the rock formations peering out the of the haze rival Monument Valley. The flatter dry pastures swarm with goats and turbaned locals drive donkeys laden with timber, floppy-eared sheep and cattle, to market. The shaggy baby donkeys are almost unbearably cute. There are prettily decorated horse carts with rectangular coloured blinkers, on occasion dangerously out of control and threatening to tip over.
The odd camel train sashays past on its way back from Nubia. Most of the houses are little cubes. Except for the corrugated tin roofs it's like driving through the Bible. We've descended seven thousand feet and gone from the decidedly nippy (at night) to baking hot.
My room is a furnace. There is no fan, let alone air conditioning. And the water keeps shutting off. And there are power cuts every time I try and work on my laptop. This is the best hotel in Axum.
Axum is a huge building site. They hope for big things from tourism here. It was the first capital city in what is now Ethiopia, so we are talking seriously old - tenth century BC. This was the Queen of Sheba’s base - a fact we’re told was very recently given scholarly credibility by archaeologists. (Yemen was also laying claim and still does according to Wikipedia).
Today we see the tallest obelisks in the ancient world and lots of smaller cousins too. In 1937, one of the finest examples, the 24 metre high, 1,700-year-old Obelisk of Axum, was broken into five parts by the invading Italians and shipped to Rome to be re-erected. There was much prevarication and United Nations involvement before the obelisk was finally returned in 2005. UNESCO took over responsibility. We explore numerous tombs and the ruins of the palace that has been built on top of aforesaid Queen's original palace.
However, the most exciting part is the visit to St Mary’s Church and monastery. Crosses here are intricate and very important. The three main religious areas of Axum, Tigray and Lalibela all have their own specific design. Axum's cross is surrounded by ostrich eggs. Here, in an annexe, is the original Ark of the Covenant, stolen away from the temple in Jerusalem by the illegitimate son of the Queen and King Solomon, on a return trip to see his father. The Ark has had several adventures and side trips and was used to help raise the huge stelae. I'm only passing on what I was told, of course; no one actually gets to see it, except the chosen hermit who guards it.
The area clearly isn't as venerated as it should be by everyone. We have to remove our shoes to enter the church and when we emerge we find that one of the guides' sandals have been stolen.
Another scenic drive further north in Tigray Province, near the Eritrean border. An arid version of Tuscany as the scenery becomes ever rockier and huts give way to stone houses with slate roofs and spiky cactus hedging. En route, there is a diversion to the oldest known building in Ethiopia - Yeha Palace - from a thousand years BC. In the Tigray area itself is the first of the many rock hewn churches that are lined up for our delectation. This one is shaped out of the fabric of the cliff and is situated at the end of a 45 degree stone incline. Apparently most of the churches are decorated with flea ridden carpets so our pre church visiting ritual is a dousing of DEET.
Our hotel today has impressive views down the valley and is modern. However, I'm off to check my bathroom. There have been two sightings of scorpions emerging from plug holes already. Just as well the bathroom is scorpion free as I spend most of the night in there. So the next morning I recuperate in bed while the group clamber up an even steeper mountain to an even more remote church.
I catch up with them in time to wander round a hectic little market and visit another rock church up only a few steps, but with an obstacle course of children and monkeys laid on. All the churches have their own (or more than one) version of the stone tablets in the Ark called tabotat. But they are all hidden behind curtains, so we're not allowed to see those either. A third scheduled church is now off the programme because the receipt writer has gone home, (the priest is there, but presumably he can’t cope with writing receipts), so it's a fairly quiet day ending in Mekele, Ethiopia's second city.
The Ethiopian Orthodox religion of the majority of the people here evolved from Judaism, but is a melange of symbols and rituals, reflecting the mixed population. The people commonly use the Moslem phrase 'Inshallah' in response to a request. I'm told it means manyana, but without the sense of urgency. The Ethiopian calendar is a week behind the Roman one as far as Easter is concerned and the locals are building up to the festival with ritual chanting throughout the day and night that sounds indistinguishable from the Islamic muezzin, to my untutored ear. It's Palm Sunday here, so we visit the church in Mekele to see everyone queuing for their palm branches (which they can break off the nearest tree) and milling on the streets in their best clothes.
Then off to Lalibela. The road is dirt and gravel the whole 140 kilometres, switch backing over mountain ranges and along perilous ridges. It's a long journey through a dozen different micro climates. There are a multiplicity of Arizona like gorges, an area of upside down baobab trees and another of giant flowering aloes. The hayricks are upturned scoops of ice cream. As we sweep through the villages round wooden huts take over from the rocky cuboids.
Wherever we go children clamber excitedly to extend a palm and shout 'pen' 'sweet' or just 'give me!'. Traffic is infrequent and farangis in land cruisers are still a novelty. In one district the etiquette is to perform a snatch of a tribal dance in the middle of the road before demanding recompense. It's a bit like carol singing I suppose. Though the dancers have to beat a hasty retreat when it is clear that we are not going to stop. I refine my royal wave and smile but realise I've gone a little too far when I find myself practising on a group of cows.
There are other excitements too. A flat tyre - very efficiently dealt with by driver Saloman - and an over heated engine in one of the other cars, which necessitates an unplanned viewing stop. Huge Lammergeier vultures circle overhead hopefully. We, and all our belongings, are covered in dust when we arrive. Fortunately, our hotel has plenty of hot water and another great view of the mountains. It reeks of insecticide but that's probably to get rid of all the fleas the tourists bring in.
Lalibela is the place for churches.It is one of Ethiopia's holiest cities, second only to Axum, and a centre of pilgrimage. Our first visit is to an eleventh century church built inside a cave. The cave is also full of skeletons, which probably accounts for the smell. It's all pretty gruesome. Then there's a free afternoon so I think I will catch up on my work and admire the view. Until there's a power cut.
We are beset by flies on our second day of church visiting. They make a dive directly for our nostrils. Now I know why everyone carries palm fronds. Most of the dozen or so churches we admire today are monolithic, cut from the volcanic tuff, in the centre of the town, which has grown up around them. They are intricate and incredibly fascinating, some a myriad of smaller caves and altars.
The churches are linked by a veritable assault course of tunnels and steep slippy steps and all heaving with Easter pilgrims prostrate on the floor or standing to join in as the priest chants from huge vellum volumes. Most carry wooden Moses staffs or iron crosses mounted on poles. It is unfortunate that one wrinkled old lady stumbles and impales Hugh's bare foot with her cross. There is lively lunchtime discussion about incubation periods for tetanus. What a way to go!
The most renowned church, St George's, is built in Greek cruciform shape and boasts the hoof prints left in the rock by the saint's horse when St George came to inspect the work. One sensationalist author feels that the architecture is too advanced for the era and advocates the theory that they were designed by the Knights Templar as part of their quest for The Ark. By the end of the day I'm exhausted, black with dust again and pretty churched out.
I didn't read the itinerary properly and now I discover there's a three day trek of over 40 kilometres through mountain villages staying in little huts with no bathrooms and no electricity.
The walk is very scenic, along escarpments and through fields of sheep - now it's a brown version of Wealden Sussex. Our guide is Fentaw, who's possibly even more flamboyant than Salomon, though he only has one outfit with him. There is the never ending escort of children waving and the perennial dust. Some stretches are vertiginous and rocky and Eva takes a tumble on the very first of these, spraining her ankle. Luckily we have a plumed and decorated little horse with us.
There are also three donkeys who carry our overnight bags in US Aid sacks. The donkeys look angelic, but squabble like spoiled children when we are not looking. The giveaway is the sacking protruding from the mouth of one, as bedding spills out of the bags on the back of another. The naughtiest donkey is especially frisky. At one point he tears off across a field in pursuit of two female donkeys, braying loudly. They kick and buck in retaliation and I am apprehensive that my luggage will disappear for the second time this trip. Toilet stops are called Obama Stops rather than Bush Stops as Bush is no longer there. (Ha Ha!)
The camp sites are perched on the top of the escarpments and have gorgeous views across the canyon, but the phrase 'basic facilities' used to describe them is estate agents' hyperbole. The loos have views indeed. They have stable doors, a very smelly box inside, and are right on the cliff edge. I have no intention of using them at night. In addition, there is a tree surrounded by a few sticks that is described as a shower. The huts are made of stone cemented with mud and straw. There are concrete beds with mattresses and as the sun sets the temperature plummets and the interminable flies disappear.
The campfires are atmospheric. The rice and chick pea sauce is acceptable. The local gin and lemon firewater mixed together makes it all bearable and I sleep reasonably well, even taking into account the middle of the night reading by torchlight indulged in by my hut mate, Kate.
On Day Two the guides are all worse for wear (they had more local brew than we did) and are very quiet as we cover 20 kilometres in the dry heat. Eva has to walk again as her horse has been requisitioned for a funeral, and the drop outside the toilet is so steep that we are all banned from using it after dark.
Day Three is a gentle amble along the escarpment peering cautiously over the edge to watch loaded donkeys scramble up from the rocky depths below. Poor donkeys. Lucky us with stiff legs from the route march of the day before.
We then drive south west to relative civilisation, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana.
Lake Tana is the biggest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. We drive down the dustiest road in Ethiopia (which is some accolade), past the thronging market. Everyone brings their livestock for sale today as they get top prices for animals slaughtered for tomorrow's Easter feast. They have all been daytime fasting for the last 45 days and only eating vegan in the evenings, so they are all eagerly looking forward to partaking of meat.
The Blue Nile cataract is disappointing. The falls have been reduced to a trickle by a hydroelectric dam just up the river.
The lake itself is sprinkled with islands, and pelicans are bobbing, but it is not wildly exciting. We take a boat out to one island to view our last painted church in a monastery. I see other boats loaded to the gunwales and wobbling in the water and am thankful that we have a large tourist motor boat to ourselves.
A flight back to Addis and another home via Istanbul again.
Not a single mosquito bite to report. Not one item lost in the end.
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