Northern Ethiopia

Coffee in Simiens 530 1

On The Road Again
I was ready. The bike was ready. And so, a few months after first arriving in Addis Abeba - having sorted out bike and health problems - geared up and fully loaded, I was ready to hit the road again. It felt good.

Herders 250 t1
Ahead of me lay the mountainous north of the country, then the drop down off the Ethiopian Highlands to the hot sandy plains of Sudan and the crossing of the Nubian Desert to Egypt. I couldn't shake the slight anxiety about the bike - and the neck's - reliability.

The first day's riding was just a matter of getting used again to distance and time spent in the saddle. The road was good and stretched across the fenceless rolling landscape, transformed by a green-tinged fuzz lightly blanketing the usual dusty pale earth. What they call 'the short rains' hadn't come yet this year, causing hardship among many of the subsistence farmers. Just as I left Addis however, the clouds that had been gathering during the week began to open and spill out huge downpours - good news I assumed for the many condemned by the lack of rains. But because they didn’t fall at the expected time of year - they were either late 'short rains' or early 'main rains' - couldn't be taken advantage of. Fields hadn't been adequately prepared.

I stopped to photograph a burned-out tank on the side of the road, a relic either of the Derg government troops from the eighties attempting to subdue local resistance, or from the hostilities with Eritrea. A young girl of about ten, minding her family's few scrawny, emaciated cattle, stood timidly nearby watching, as this stranger from outer space climbed off his loud machine and took off his helmet and gloves. She had a thin leather whip in her hand, and catapult tucked into her belt. I took her picture, and she very warily approached at my urging to look at the result. Seeing herself she smiled, her apprehension fading a little. When I took out a new pencil from my tank bag, sharpened one end with my knife and handed it to her, she shyly accepted it, relaxing more. On the road next to us a very old man with a calf on a leash was slowly walking past. His skull shaped face was an etched map of lines. Grinning a great big toothless grin, and with a little bow he shook my hand with both of his, before continuing.

Blue Nile Gorge
In a series of switchbacks the rough, dirt road descends one thousand metres into the Blue Nile gorge to an old Portuguese bridge over the great river. The change in air temperature was dramatic - from a fresh though comfortable twenty degrees at the rim to a hot mid thirties at the bottom - a hint of things to come further in the trip. Right now, it was a relief to climb back up the other side to the very pleasant temperature of the plateau.

Another relief was my bike. It hadn't really been tested since the little overheating problem across the North Kenya desert (and the resulting new cylinder head, gasket and radiator). Yet it managed the climb up - nearly an hour in the warm air in second gear - without any signs of distress. I was so relieved. One little niggle was the clutch slipping if I opened the accelerator too much in first gear. Hmmm. This didn't bode well with a lot of sand ahead of me. I just hoped it wouldn't deteriorate and promised I'd be gentle!

More and more of the land was given over to Eucalyptus tree cultivation. The evidence of its use was everywhere - most of the dwellings were constructed of timber with mud infill. I wondered how the communities fared before its introduction - a lot more mud huts I imagine.

Ghion garden 350 1
Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar is an attractive, large town set on the shore of Lake Tana. As well as being the source of the Blue Nile, the lake is also known for its centuries-old island monasteries. And the Ghion Hotel (pictured left) was a really pleasant spot, one of the nicest hotels I could remember, in a run down, faded-charm kind-of style. Set on the lakeside in gardens kept green, and massive trees fed, with lake water, the fragrance from its masses of purple and yellow decorative flowers in the evening lent a tropical air to the place. I knew things were quiet and managed to get a decent room for $8.

Blue Nile Falls 530 1

Portuguese Bridge 300 t1
The Blue Nile Falls
While in Bahir Dar I took two excursions. The first was a forty-minute minibus ride over heavy corrugations - the reason I’d decided to leave the bike behind - to the Blue Nile falls. Because of the recent rains, the lake level had risen with a resulting increased flow over the falls. An hour and a half walk across the top, then around the base of the falls, was a delight, the return back over a sixteenth century Portuguese bridge (pictured left) spanning the infant Blue Nile. And despite seventy five percent of the river being diverted to a hydroelectric project, the flow was adequately abundant to present an impressive show, the mass of water slowly pushed to the edge before cascading over, crashing in a boiling white spume on the rocks forty metres below. A vivid rainbow was suspended in fine mist hanging over the falls. The few acres of earth near the base of the falls were swathed in a luminous green moss. Before the Italians damned the water fifty years ago, the top of the falls stretched across a few hundred metres.

Monk in Yellow 300 t1
The Ethiopian Church

'In a historically isolated area where rhetoric and reasoning have become highly valued and practiced, where eloquent communication and sophisticated wordplay are considered an art form and where the ability to argue a case in point while effectively sitting on the fence is now aspired to, ambiguity and complexity are as much a part of the highland people's psyche as it is part of their religion.' - Matt Phillips, LP Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Christianity - Orthodox as it was to become when along with the Copts in Egypt, the Greeks, and the Russians, the Ethiopian hierarchy disagreed with Rome over doctrine and practice at the Council of Nicea in the fourth century - was introduced by the Aksumite kingdom back then and, repulsing the onslaught of Islam, has been the official state religion right up until Emperor Haile Selassie's reign was ended in 1974. As well as being a unifying force over the centuries, it is seen as a repository of ancient Ethiopian traditions, and one of the main factors in the strong sense of identity evident among the people. I have been informed so many times, with pride, that “Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never colonised.”

'The Chains of Heaven'
The monastic tradition continues. I had just finished a beautiful book, 'The Chains of Heaven' by Philip Marsden, an account of his walking pilgrimage through the mountains and semi-desert of the Tigray region of Ethiopia, from Lalibela to Axum, visiting many monasteries on the way. He learned Amharic, so we the readers are given access to conversations - with monks and hermits, rebels and farmers, esoteric discussions with abbots. It is at times magical, lyrical, insightful, yet written simply. I remembered first reading 'In Patagonia' by Bruce Chatwin and how it opened my mind to the wonder possible in travel. I felt Marsden too approached encounters with an engaging curiosity - about people's everyday lives, how it was experienced, and how that is expressed. There is little about his discomforts and privations, and no indication of judging people. Rather, skillful observation.

What also appealed to me was his apparent humility. I recall one passage. After seeking clarification, without success, from many sources on a particular theological issue, repeatedly feeling brushed off with obscure metaphors and no satisfactory answer, he eventually gets an audience in a monastery with one of the most respected abbots in the country. Yet he was met with seeming disinterest and similar vague responses. The abbot must have sensed his dissatisfaction. He says to Marsden if he stayed a week he could talk to him, a month he could begin to teach. "My frustration dissolved into shame." He writes.

One of my regrets was that because of the anxiety about my neck, I was unable to take the rougher route around Tigray, where the country’s famously inaccessible hilltop monasteries, and churches hewn out of hillsides, are found.

Papyrus raft 350 1
Island Monasteries on Lake Tana
My second excursion while in Bahir Dar was in a boat to visit some of the monasteries on Lake Tana. Before reaching the monastery of Debre Maryam we motored past the outlet of the Blue Nile, a gradually quickening flow sixty metres in width disappearing around a bend of papyrus reeds on the beginning of its 5,300 km journey to the Mediterranean. A fisherman on a papyrus raft (pictured right) poled past. The next time I would come across the river would be in Khartoum where it joined the White Nile, on its journey from Lake Victoria in Uganda.

Monastery bible 350 t1
On the boat was an Englishman working as a logistician with GOAL in Darfur, and two young French girls, volunteer teachers in neighbouring Djibouti. We visited three monasteries. At the monastery of Debre Maryam, an elderly white haired monk showed us a couple of six hundred year old bibles with wooden covers, the goatskin parchment stained dark at the edges. What were extraordinary were the illustrations, still holding so much colour after all this time. He urged us to touch the pale, off-white goatskin parchment. It was nearly translucent and felt a little rough, like a stiff plastic. I couldn't help but wonder at the damage that might be caused by the monk casually flicking from one page to the next, eagerly pointing at recognisable biblical scenes. How many years longer would they last?

No ladies 250 1
After seeing a couple of small monasteries with more recent vividly painted murals of Old Testament scenes - Noah, Abraham, Moses, St George slaying the dragon - we disembarked at the island monastery of Kebram Gabriel. At the base of the stony path up was a roughly hand-painted sign declaring “NO LADIES”. A ten minute walk up the path ascending the conical shaped island brought us past coffee bushes, banana and papaya trees, and past the monks' living quarters, glimpsed through a wooden palisade. Some were engaged in woodwork, others doing laundry, or praying, others studying what I presumed were religious texts.

At the top we were directed over to the museum where in an ancient timber building the deacon showed us the monastery’s valuables - ornately decorated brass crosses, shakers and candleholders. And a sword. When I asked did the monks used to fight, the deacon smiled and replied, “Monks fight with prayer.”

The monastery was a circular building, the outermost part of which was open to visitors. Within this was the area reserved for the monks, and within that again in the stone-built centre of the structure is where is housed the
'tabot', or replica of the Ark of the Covenant (the original of which the Ethiopians claim is kept in the holy city of Aksum to the north of here). This inner sanctum was opened on particular holy days when the tabot was taken out for display and veneration.

Lattice window 300 t1
What struck me, alone, save the young Englishman who soon tired and left, was an affecting sense of atmosphere. It was silent. Was it the height and obvious antiquity of the old post and beam timber structure; or the smell, a mustiness mixed with the smell of 'itan', the ubiquitous frankincense you get all over Ethiopia? A small latticed window threw a checkered beam across the passage, allowing some light onto the ancient faded tapestries hung on the inner walls. I moved slowly around. A couple of kebberos, large drums beaten in ceremonies, lay supported on cradles to the side. Alongside them a rough-hewn three legged stool, the seat smoothly polished by years of use. High above me, thick four hundred year-old timber joists spanned the room. I gazed at the old-style joinery, with dowels, following its design, how it did its job. A door twenty foot high, made from two lengths of heavy, darkened timber, stood slightly ajar. Dust motes floated weightlessly in the blade of sunlight cutting across the dirt floor.

Kebram Gabriel pier 530 1

Monk driver 350 1
Monk Driver
Back at the concrete pier, the three others were waiting on the boat. They had had enough (the girls had just been hanging out on the dock all this time) and were ready to return the half hour boat ride across the lake to Bahir Dar. We had had different experiences. The young Englishman and myself shared a laugh when he asked, in a sociable way, if, “anyone knows a good bar in town?” as we set off. He admitted to being bored at the monastery. We were giving a lift to one of the island's inhabitants, who took the outboard tiller in his hand. “Monk driver,” our boatman quipped.

Beyeinatu 350 1
This was the period of Lent, before the Ethiopian Easter, and because of the requirement to fast, available food in the country was restricted to non-animal products. This actually was not necessarily a bad thing. The dish 'beyainatu' was about all that was generally on offer, but is a tasty presentation of various vegetable preparations - lentils, yellow split peas, cabbage, beetroot, spinach - on injera (pictured). And as it was Lent, I was fortunate to find a delicious 'Asa Dhulet', pieces of fresh fish from the lake braised in a tomato based oil and berberi paste – an Ethiopian staple of various earthy spices and ground chillies - served on injera. This had to be the tastiest dish I had in a country of tasty food!


Gondar 530 1

Gondar, often described as the 'Camelot of Africa' because of its mediaeval castles, didn't quite live up to the image I had of it. Set on a hill, it was the usual dusty Ethiopian town with a sprawl of untidy concrete buildings, and a particularly noticeable presence of young hustlers trying to engage you - “What country? What is your name? How long you in Gondar?” - with the intention of selling something - a hotel room, a guide, or more lucratively a trekking package to the Simien Mountains.

Fasiladas Palace 265 1 Mentewabs Castle 265 1

The Simien Mountains
(For further pictures Click here)

It was my intention to do some trekking and I was fortunate to meet up with another solo traveller, Kathryn, on the road eight years (she is in the process of getting her book - '
21st Century Nomad' - published), and together we planned our own walk. Visiting the market we stocked up on provisions for six days and headed off the following day the couple of hours by dirt road to the town of Debark, jumping off point for the mountains. There we organised a mule to carry our gear including food and cooking equipment, a muleteer, and the obligatory armed scout. I was allowed to leave my bike at the Park office in town.

In the north of the country, the Simiens rise above the surrounding countryside to a mountainous plateau between 3,500 - 4,500 metres, with river valleys cutting through it. The walking, along tracks used over hundreds of years between settlements and grazing areas, is not particularly strenuous, but because it’s at altitude, can be tiring. It was possible to do a circuit, camping at or near villages.

Roasting wheat snackfood 530 t1
Woman pictured above roasting wheat as a snack food. Along with roasted barley, peas, and some bread, the scouts and muleteers survive on this while trekking in the Simiens. During Lent anyway.

Simien Paddy cowboy 300 t1
And what a memorable six days. To say it was dramatic scenery is severely understating it. It was breathtaking (sometimes literally – at that altitude I was sucking air with any exertion). After the first few days of peering over eight hundred metre cliffs in wonderment, and walking the edge of sheer escarpments dropping off to the valley below, it became difficult to manifest continuing awe.

It had been quite a long period of inactivity for me before this, and riding a motorbike, while exercising the upper body, doesn't really increase fitness levels. So it felt fantastic to be walking in this magnificent scenery. After a few days acclimatizing to the altitude I actually found I was becoming more energised!

Scout, view 530 1
Scout pictured during a break from walking, on the edge of 1,000 metre drop.

Because of the altitude, the daytime sun was dangerously severe, and after the first day my face and backs of my hands were bright red. Very quickly after sundown the temperature dropped, and if there was any breeze it was very cold, uncomfortably so. Before leaving Debark, on advice I had bought myself a 'gabbi', the white cotton shawl worn by Ethiopians, and was glad I did. Kathryn didn't, and suffered even more from the cold. Most nights I wore everything I possessed inside my sleeping bag and was still shivering. Waking up one morning to find ice crusted on the tent was not a surprise.

Night of the ice 530 1

At Chenek, we stopped for two nights, walking up to the nearby peak of Mt Bawhit during the day. We were joined by a German couple - employees of GTZ, the German NGO - with their retinue of attendants. Together with our muleteer and scout the other assistants would huddle around the fire squatting on stones, clad in
gabbis, long scarves wrapped like turbans around their heads, talking about… I wondered. In the flickering yellow firelight it was intriguing to watch these Ethiopian highlanders, probably very similar in appearance to their ancestors in centuries past. I imagined being a painter, able to catch something of the scene. There were hand gestures, exclamations, intent listening. Sometimes guffaws. Whenever one spoke, he was listened to, and not always a retort following.

Sunday Dinner and AK 47’s
Sunday dinner 265 t1
I had organised the purchase of a hen (use of the word 'chicken' would be incorrect) for the following day - Sunday dinner as it turned out. Our muleteer had expertly chosen it, indicating by the lack of little horns on its ankles it wasn't the oldest. He had offered to prepare and cook it, so took it off down to the river. Twenty minutes later the hen was ready, skinned, gutted and cut up into portions.

While this was going on the scouts were cleaning their guns with a small gallery of young men from the nearby settlement watching in apparent reverence. They looked so poor. Some were barefoot, others had cheap Chinese shoes patched and darned. Their pants and
gabbis were torn and dirty, little more than rags. The scouts were discussing what sounded like the merits of the “Kalash” - the AK47 - over the older British type rifle, of which I didn't get the name. They were basically local militia - two of them I met had fought for Meles against the Derg - given positions in the Park to legitimise things. It was pretty obvious the scouts were enjoying the attention and respect that came with the job.

Kalashnikov, a Russian, had introduced the AK47 in 1947, and it has since become the most widely used assault rifle in the world. Its popularity is mainly due to its reliability, ease of use and cost - in countries such as Somalia, Mozambique and Congo they sell for between $30-50 I was told by Urs the German. And at just over four kgs in weight, they are light enough to be carried by a child. The AK47 is featured on the flag of Mozambique.

The hen was hard work to eat, extremely tough. Unfortunately as we were still in Lent, the muleteer and scout couldn't share it.

The Most Spectacularly Sited Bench in Africa

Spectacular seat1 530 1

Spectacular seat 530 1

The first evening at Chenek, wandering over to the edge of the cliff for a view of the valley far below at sunset, I happened upon what has to be the most spectacularly sited bench in Africa on a promontory jutting out into the void, a dramatic four hundred metre drop on three sides. To complete the experience, a rare 'walia ibex' - remaining numbers estimated at 500 - with a huge set of horns, was grazing nearby. He was upwind from me so I was able to approach to within about ten metres of him before he bolted, disappearing over the edge of the cliff. I peered down and saw him with astonishing nimbleness making his way around the side out of sight.

ilea ibex 530 1

Gelada, bleeding heart baboon 265 t1
On the walk back to Debark, we encountered more troops of Gelada baboons. To quote the guide book... 'Of all the nonhuman primates, its by far the most dexterous, and is the only primate that feeds on grass and has its 'mating skin' on its chest and not on its bottom... The gelada also has the most complex system of communication of any nonhuman primate and the most sophisticated social system: the females decide who's the boss...' Due to this mating skin on the chest they are known as the 'Bleeding Heart Baboon'.

Across the valley, incredibly isolated villages were perched precariously on cliff edges; days walk from the nearest town, Debark. Others we passed on the descent were neatly laid out, with fenced off fields, enclosures for animals, the huts with a stone base, vertical wooden laths and thatch roofs. Groves of Eucalyptus trees dotted the way. I was beginning to question my negative reaction to the proliferation of this introduced tree. Typically it is seen as environmentally damaging as it sucks up water from the ground at a huge rate, lowering the water table. However, maybe it suits the conditions here. It soaks up the water in the rains, has a rapid growth, and provides building and fencing material and firewood. It has certainly changed living conditions in areas like this.

It was with a slight regret I approached Debark on our last day walking. The exercise had been good for me, and the scenery spectacular. And I had been most fortunate with the enjoyable company. Back in Gondar, I was touched to be given the following poem by Kathryn. (She reckoned I could make money with it when she becomes famous!)

Ethiopia Hotel 300 t1
Balmy air rests on my skin
Red wine lightly tugs my mind
Life slows down, releasing time

Dusk signals the close of day
Noise of the street ebbs away
As peace takes its rightful place

Wooden shutters open wide
Show a silhouetted sky
From this desk I sit and write

Winking sparks of light appear
The stars above I hold dear
Help to make it very clear

Stop, take note, never too grand
To feel rhythms of this land
To be at one, to understand

For further pictures Click here)

Farewell Ethiopia
I was about to leave Ethiopia, this country of which I was very fond. I recalled being told by an ex-pat in Addis Ababa that typically if a visitor had favourable first impressions of Ethiopia, they tended to persist. Similarly if he had negative ones, those didn't tend to change. I knew some folks didn't take to the country for one reason or another - the pressure of population, constant begging, some bikers having stones thrown at them, the tough travelling conditions and lack of comforts outside of the cities. Over the two months, mine had been a constantly positive experience. The intriguing culture and history, the magnificent scenery, Addis Ababa and its attractions, the Amharic language so different from anything I'd heard, the music, the friendliness, and a strong sense of pride evident. I felt comfortable talking with an Ethiopian whether he was a taxi driver or a big businessman. Unlike other sub Saharan countries in Africa, I found no sense of deference because of the colour of my skin. And of course - great coffee. I hoped I'd be back. And there was so much more to see.

Bringing in the cattle Simiens 530 1