Thursday 13th October, 2016
Newcastle to Sydney
It’s Elkie’s 3rd birthday! ‘I a big girl. I fwee” she says. Little darling! Lauren is at work and Mark takes Abi to school so I’ve got our baby all to myself. She’s already had two different birthday parties and cakes and she’ll have another cake with Daddy tonight. I still have last minute packing to do and it’s raining anyway, so we’ll just have a nice morning at home.
Chris Mostyn brings Issy over for a play with a present from Kylie so Elkie’s birthday is still happening. Mark is home by 2.30pm and Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station for the 3.17pm train to Sydney. I sleep for an hour so it seems no time till we pull into Central. Another train to St James and a walk across Hyde Park to Jillian’s.
Michael is here but isn’t staying tonight as he has to drive to Newcastle early in the morning to take his mum to an appointment. He’ll come with us for dinner then drive home to Turramurra to save time tomorrow.
So now the four of us head down to the East Sydney for a pub meal in the little dining room then Michael drops us at the Gaelic Club in Surry Hills. Jillian’s friend, Gita, is singing tonight. She’s vivacious and tiny with a great stage presence and a great voice. A few other women sing as well – all talented!
A taxi home then Mark and Jillian have more wine – I’ve run out of Bacardi, thank God!
Friday 14th October, 2016
Sydney to Dubai
Our flight doesn’t leave till late this afternoon so we all sleep in. Mark works on his computer after breakfast while Jillian and I talk for hours. At eleven o’clock we all walk up to the Art Gallery for lunch. We sit outside in the courtyard to make the most of the gorgeous day.
At 12.30 Mark and I catch the airport train to the international terminal feeling super excited about this trip. Ethiopia will definitely be an adventure – our favourite way to travel!
Booking in our bags with Qantas is quick and the new Smart Gates at Immigration means we’re through in no time. The only problem is with Mark’s new insulin pump which the staff won’t touch in case it’s a bomb – Mark the suicide bomber!! Ha ha. He has to be scanned for explosives but we’ve both been through that process before.
Pass the time checking out watches and other things we can’t afford and don’t want anyway then seek out the massage chairs – our new favourite airport thing! Mark calls Lauren and the dollies while I Viber Jackie and Den in Thailand. Then after stocking up on magazines and junk food, we board on time for our 4.50pm take off.
As we’ve managed many times before, we have three seats for the long flight which will make a heap of difference. I try to sleep but not feeling tired for some reason. Mark watches five episodes of Game of Thrones so he’s very happy. He’ll finish the season on the flight back home in a few weeks time.
Saturday 15th October, 2016
Dubai to Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa to Harar
After fourteen hours we land at midnight at Dubai’s International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. For a long time now, Dubai has been a major airline hub but Mark and I have never been here before. Most people don’t seem to like it but we want to check it out so we’ve planned to have two nights here on our way home. Now, though, we only have a four-hour layover before flying out for Ethiopia at a quarter to five this morning.
The terminal is huuuge and very impressive – all shiny with glass and mirrors plus full sized palm trees amongst white fluted columns. It’s not surprising given Dubai’s over-the-top reputation. Arab women in black burqas and men in long white robes and ghutras make for exciting people watching – we are in the Persian Gulf after all!
Through immigration we catch the fast-train to baggage pickup then a shuttle bus to Terminal 1 which is the original old airport still used by the crappy airlines – what???!! Actually, Ethiopian Airlines has a good reputation. Really, truly, it does!
And yes, Terminal 1 is a far cry from the very glamorous Terminal 2 – but heaps more interesting! I think it has a lot to do with the passengers as well – no wealthy package tourists on their way to Europe here. Instead it’s packed with African people having a great time pushing trolleys towering with luggage as well as more burqas and ‘towel heads’ as Dad used to say – ha ha.
After booking in our packs we eat McDonalds then try to grab a quick nap on the floor in the boarding area. Again we have three seats on the plane and we both manage to sleep for an hour. I pass the rest of the time doing a sudoku while Mark reads the Lonely Planet then breakfast is served. Ethiopian Airlines is surprisingly good – a stylish new plane, gorgeous hostesses and nice food.
Even though it’s still dark outside it’s exciting to be flying over Oman and Yemen. The sun rises as we cross the waters of the Gulf of Aden before reaching the Horn of Africa made up of Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and, of course, Ethiopia. Now we look down on the spectacular Great Rift Valley that stretches six thousand kilometres from Lebanon to Mozambique then later the wild terrain of Ethiopia’s Ahmar Mountains as we head towards the capital, Addis Ababa.
Now just a bit of interesting guide book info. Besides being the capital, Addis (see, a local already) is also the country’s biggest city of almost four million people and is the third highest capital city in the world. Addis’ other claim to fame is that it’s often called the ‘African Capital’ because of its historical and political significance for the whole continent.
Landing at Bole International Airport we pay $52 each for our visas then look out for a guy called Omara who should be holding up an ETT sign. I’d arranged this over the net through emails to a woman called Sunight at a local travel agency. The story is that because we’re on a tight schedule and because we plan to visit far flung places in different directions we really need to fly in between towns. Booking online the flights added up to around $1,600AUD although booking within Ethiopia itself is about half the price. The problem is that we don’t have days up our sleeves to wait around in case any of the flights are booked out.
But that was until I lucked on a traveller’s blog about booking domestic flights through ETT. The deal is that if our international flights in and out of Ethiopia are with Ethiopian Airlines, we can get the domestic flights for only $700AUD – saving $900AUD!! We’ll see if it actually happens.
A good start is that Omara is actually here waiting outside in the warm sunshine. We follow him to a car with an Asian man but we can’t leave until someone called Juan turns up. He doesn’t so Omara sends us off with another guy who is actually a tour guide which means we get the sight seeing rundown on the way into the city.
It appears that monuments are very popular here – in every public square or within the many large roundabouts. A lot of the bigger buildings were built by the Italians who invaded Ethiopia in 1936 but were then booted out by the British and the Ethiopian army in 1941. Actually, Ethiopia has the distinction of being the only country in Africa to defeat an invading European power and so escaping colonization. The best thing about this is that the culture remains strong.
We pass museums, Orthodox cathedrals and busy markets as well as featureless modern office blocks. There seems to be a lot of construction going on and our driver proudly tells us that the economy is booming!
In twenty minutes we pull up at a tall building which houses the ETT office on the fifth floor according to emails from Sunight who also said that she’d meet us here at 9 o’clock. Well it’s now ten o’clock and the office is locked! But this is Africa and we don’t stress but call her mobile number – ‘Hello, you already there?’ (why is she surprised?). ‘I come in five minutes!’
I sit on the stairs to wait and a young woman walking past says ‘cold’ then asks one of the security guards to give me a piece of cardboard to sit on – kind. Soon a cheery lady called Maria turns up and lets us in. Sunight soon arrives and orders us small cups of cinnamon tea to drink while she sorts out the paperwork and Mark withdraws cash from an ATM downstairs. The local currency is the Ethiopian birr with an exchange rate of $1AUD to16.33 Birr.
Amazingly all is soon sorted and we leave with our super cheap air tickets. Downstairs we’re about to withdraw more money but decide to wait till we get to the airport – big mistake!
Out on the street we easily find a taxi. The driver is friendly but has serious road rage abusing anyone in his path so we reach Bole International in record time for our one o’clock flight to Dire Dawa.
Checking in we’re told that the flight has been put back an hour so we head back outside which looks much more appealing than sitting inside the terminal. Here in a grassy garden area are lots of small stalls and shops surrounded by tables and chairs shaded from the hot sun by bright yellow umbrellas. An eager young waiter rushes towards us to guide us to one of ‘his’ tables.
Mark orders his first Ethiopian coffee – super strong – while I order another cinnamon tea. We share an excellent egg roll then spend a lovely hour watching the locals especially the cutest of babies. Back inside we find there aren’t any ATMs in the whole airport – wtf??? We do have a bit of money left after paying the travel agent so we’ll just have to hope we can get some cash in Dire Dawa.
To pass the time, we lie around on lounges in the basic but appealing waiting area filled with souvenir stalls and a simple restaurant. Mark then says, ‘look down there’ – a ‘massage’ sign! I make a bee-line for it and we spend a pampered hour having neck massages and foot massages all for only $23!
By now the plane has been delayed for another two hours and won’t leave till 4.40pm! So more reading and dosing till four o’clock when we decide we’d better head for the gate. Oh shit, there’s no-one around and the staff say ‘you be fast’ as we race towards Gate 17 and across the tarmac. ‘Where you be?’ ask the frazzled stewardess as we make it to the plane just as they’re about to pull up the stairs. Ha ha – don’t you hate those arseholes who hold up your flight!!!
Of course, we think it’s hilarious – did we sleep through the announcements or could we just not understand what they were saying? Anyway, we’re on our way with only one hour flying time to reach Dire Dawa. From there we’ll make our way to the ancient, fortified, desert city of Harar which apparently is only an hour’s drive. We don’t know how we’ll there which is exciting and, because of the delays, it’ll be dark when we do arrive which is even more exciting.
Flying west, the area around Addis Ababa is cultivated and green until we cross over the deep arid canyons of the Great Rift Valley. For some reason, it’s a rocky ride and we scream to a halt on the tarmac! The airport is tiny so we have our bags in no time and drag them along a garden-lined path to an area outside the terminal busy with touts in waiting tuktuks and taxis. We agree to go with an old man to the bus station. His car is falling to bit with rust, broken seats and missing door handles – we couldn’t be happier!
Speeding into town we really like Dire Dawa. Past the now-closed railway station since the line from Addis to Djibouti ceased running a few years ago, our driver finds an ATM and we have money at last!! Horse-drawn carts, roadside stalls and tree-lined streets look pretty in the fading light.
We soon drive into the grandly named bus station which is just a few rundown vans milling around. Mark bargains one of the drivers down to a 400Birr fare at which time he drags everyone else out of the van and tells us to get in! Oh no, we don’t want to do this but no-one seems to mind and we’re shoved in anyway with other touts yelling at our driver for money.
One says he saw us first so he wants a share of the fare then someone else says he put our bags on the roof so he wants his share as well. They won’t give in so our driver finally chucks money at them then off we roar with a few hangers on squashed into the front seat. It’s all pretty funny and just part of the Africa experience.
By now it’s almost dark and we really enjoy the first half hour of the journey as we cross the mountainous roads in the soft evening light. In some spots the road is lined with mud brick homes while cows, camels, goats and donkeys wander past. But for the most part, the countryside is just empty space with long vistas of mountains and deep valleys.
Later we’re held up by trucks and more trucks that slow to a snail’s pace on the steep uphill climbs and we can see headlights far into the distance crawling up even steeper climbs. Small towns here and there are jam packed with people coming and going to busy markets especially the hectic chat market in the village of Adequay. Again, we’re slowed down as we inch our way through the chaos. This means that our one-hour trip becomes two hours – who’d have thought??!!
Finally, we reach the outskirts of Harar – the newer, uninteresting bit that sprung up at the beginning of the 19th century – so not so ‘new’ – and then through into the ancient walled city of Jugal. This UNESCO World Heritage site was once a prosperous, independent kingdom and now lives a strangely insular existence – why we’ve come all this way!
Six gates penetrate the thick stone wall that runs for almost four kilometers around the Old City. Five are16th-century originals with one car-friendly Harar Gate.
Through the crumbling city wall we stop in a dark, potholed yard surrounded by a few dimly lit stalls and tuktuks jammed in amongst old vans. Touts rush out of the darkness and our bags are spirited off the roof and onto the shoulders of the luckiest ones. We say ‘Zabedas’ and off they race with us scurrying to keep up.
Down dark, narrow alleyways we just hope they know where they’re taking us. The guy in the lead finally knocks at a tin gate and a young girl lets us into the guesthouse courtyard. There isn’t a sign outside so we’d have no chance of finding it on our own.
The young girl, whose name is Effor, takes us to an old crone dressed in a white sarong thing and veil – this is Zabeda, the grandma. ‘You have room?’ we ask – blank stares and no answer. She can’t understand a word of English but, wtf, can’t she guess what we mean?
She eyes us suspiciously then yells something to Effor who rushes out the gate. Effor soon returns with a young woman called Rashida who we find out later comes from a nearby guesthouse. She can speak English and Zabeda wants to use her as an interpreter. The whole issue is that Zabeda won’t let us stay unless we’re married!
Finally, Zabeda is grudgingly satisfied except to sternly warn us not to take photos of her – I deliberately do behind her back – ha ha. Now we follow her from the courtyard to two tall carved doors which are ceremoniously opened to reveal a sort of Aladdin’s Cave.
Leaving our shoes at the door, we enter the nedeba or living room. The niched walls are covered in colorful plates and baskets and multicolored glassware. I’ve read that the series of platforms are painted red in memory of those who died at some ancient battle and each level is covered in reclining pillows. Where you sit depends on who you are. The male head of the family sits on the highest platform, usually in one corner where he can see the entrance to the compound then the lesser beings, like us, sit on the lower platforms
The horrible Zabeda points to a tiny steep staircase which apparently leads up to our room. We’re to find out later that this is the honeymoon chamber – the newly weds would hold up here for a week, never leaving. Food would be passed in through a latticed sliding screen that is still here but then what about wee wees and poopedys?
But I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that tonight. We’ve been shown the outside toilet which looks okay but will still be a mission to descend the ladder-like stairs in the middle of the night. Anyway, we’re definitely not going to bed just yet – too much to explore and we want to find somewhere to eat and, of course, to have a drink.
Outside, we set off along what seems to be the main alleyway and where we soon see Shoa Gate sitting magical at the top of the hill. Passing people on the way, it’s nice to see that everyone is friendly but we do stick out like two western people in a remote Islamic town. The women are eye-catching in colourful head scarves worn over long patterned dresses or skirts while most of the men dress in red, purple, and black.
Through Shoa Gate we find the remnants of the daily market with a few locals still squatting on the ground hoping to sell the last of their vegetables. Looking back at the gate, a full moon sheds a soft pale light over the scene which now looks almost biblical – like something out of one of those old Easter movies. I can’t believe we’re in this dream-like place only two days after leaving home – this is another world, this bizarre, fairy-tale town.
Back down the hill through the winding alleyways we walk past the entrance to Zabedas and make sure we memorise where it is. From the Lonely Planet, we have the name of a bar and ask a couple of teenage boys for directions. We follow one through more alleyways then pop out on the main street but still within the old walls. A few prostitutes are pacing around – poor girls – then our new friend points to a doorway across the road. No sign again so we’re glad we’d asked. It looks dingy and very local – just what we’d hoped for!
Near the doorway a pretty young woman is actually cooking chips so we order a bag then head inside for a drink. The interior is almost pitch black until our eyes become accustomed to the dark. Now we can see that there is a bare cement floor with the cement walls painted a bright blue. Both men and women are in here drinking with a few couples hiding in corners or in the adjacent small room. We assume they’re having illicit affairs but I don’t know if that can happen in such a full-on Muslim town.
A friendly man points to a fridge and we nod for beers and cokes. Arabic music is playing to add to the wonderful atmosphere and we share our hot chips. And how nice is it to finally relax??
After forty hours traveling, we can finally sit down and not get on any sort of transport for another thirty-six hours – luxury! We only have a couple of drinks though – just too tired so we walk back home in the dark and collapse into bed.
During the night, I do have to descend the dreaded stairs to use the loo, we’re kept awake for hours by mosque music and the call to prayer blares at us from all directions. Love it here!
Sunday 16th October, 2016
Jolted awake at six o’clock by the muezzins once again calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. Oh well, time for an early morning ‘snuggle’ before showers then breakfast in the sun-filled courtyard.
The house looks even better in the daylight. As a traditional Harari home, Zabedas looks inward – the rooms surround the inner courtyard with the bathroom to one side and to the other the tall ornately carved wooden doors that lead into the main building. With thick stone walls and small windows, these traditional homes stay cool even in the scorching heat of the day.
While we wait for our food, little Effu is washing the ground with a bucket of water and a dirty rag while Zabeda is being her usual grumpy self. That’s until she and another old woman beckon me into a dark room opposite. All smiles and gushy, they have woven baskets for sale. I say okay I’ll buy one for 100Birrr. I don’t want it but say I do anyway just to make them happy.
The warm, sunny day is a nice surprise. We were expecting much cooler weather but without a cloud in the sky, we’ll hopefully miss out on the expected rain as well. Breakfast is a flat crispy pancake thing served on a metal plate and covered with a colourful woven lid plus cinnamon tea for me and thick black coffee for Mark – he’ll be bouncing off the walls!
Now we set off in search of Rewdas Guesthouse as we’ve had enough of Zabeda. Because we know there won’t be a sign, we ask directions and find Rewdas only a stones’ throw away. Our knock on the gate is answered by Rashida, the tall beauty who we met at Zabedas last night. Luckily, they have a room and when we ask about a guide for the day, she calls ‘Ayisha!!’.
Out comes a teenage girl still half asleep. She has a gorgeous smile and speaks English amazingly well. We plan to meet her back here in an hour after we check out the market at Shoa Gate.
The laneway outside is lined with colourful façades of turquoise, pink, mauve. We pass groups of pretty women sitting on the ground selling cabbages, potatoes and tiny tomatoes then we stop to watch a guy cooking scrambled eggs in an over-sized pan. Women walk past carrying all sorts of things on their heads and we see lots of cute babies.
Through Shoa Gate the market is just starting with all sorts of fruits and vegetables for sale – chillis, limes, red onions, carrots, beans, leeks and heaps more. Fresh bread rolls are piled high in cane baskets – hope to have one later. With all the women wearing bright head scarves, it’s a colourful scene. Apparently, it’s at its busiest after three o’clock so we’ll be back later.
Meeting Ayisha again at Rewdas, we all walk around to Zabedas to check out. ‘Grandma not happy’ Ayisha says – ha ha. Zabeda is so pissed off that she now is charging us 500 Birr for our room (100 Birr extra) and she wants 200 Birr for the basket that I promised to buy. Keep it – I wave it away. Ayisha keeps saying ‘she not happy’ and I say ‘that’s why we’re leaving. She’s never happy!’
Such a relief to move into Rewdas where Ayisha introduces us to a friendly middle-aged woman with a beautiful face. I wonder if she’s Rashida’s mother. The guesthouse is much the same set-up but this time our room is just off the nebeda which looks exactly like the exotic living room at Zabedas – the same split-level seating and the same plates and baskets on the wall.
Our room is much bigger here plus we have our own sunny bathroom. I open the window the let in the air as well as the sounds from the laneway just outside – nice.
Now we agree to pay Ayisha 500 Birr to show us around the old city. She seems very happy although it doesn’t seem much – $32 probably goes a long way here, though. Our first stop is a weaving shop to show us the traditional styles that are unique to Harar. I guess we’re supposed to buy something but, no, the family is squatting on the floor and all seem more interested in eating than making a sale.
As we follow Ayisha through the spaghetti-like maze of lanes and alleyways, she points to a small, simple building that looks like any other around here. ‘Mosque’ she says. Actually, Harar is said to be Islam’s fourth holiest city on account of its eighty-two mosques – it’s the largest concentration of mosques in the world! But only a few are very impressive with most of them like this little non-descript place.
Up into the main street, we come across Oromo women walking in from the surrounding rural areas leading donkeys laden with firewood and sugar-cane. These they’ll sell then spend their earnings in the Jugal markets on food and household goods to take back home.
Every shop or house is painted in the brightest colours and even the nearby Cathedral is a brilliant blue. Because she’s a Muslim, Ayisha can’t go inside. We’re very lucky to have come across a ceremony happening right at this moment. About a hundred young women wrapped in white robes are sitting on the ground shaded by spreading trees just outside the main chapel listening to prayers given by a line of men also dressed all in white.
In the centre of the square outside the cathedral is a weird looking monument called Feres Megala. It honours the seven hundred Harari Martyrs who were slaughtered here in the 1887 Battle of Chelenko when Moslem forces lost to the Christians led by Menelik II. He later became Emperor of Ethiopia – more guide book info.
Close by we stop to watch groups of old men playing board games while cheeky little boys play up for the camera. In fact, all morning we’ve been the attraction for lots of excited kids calling out ‘faranjo! faranjo!’ (‘foreigner’) or sometimes just ‘you! you!’.
Now Ayisha leads us down another cobbled laneway to Mekina Girgir – a narrow, atmospheric street packed with tailors’ workshops where old men bend over sewing machines. Apparently only the males do the sewing in Ethiopia. From here we zigzag among more pastel-colored alleyways with me having to stop now and again to click my knee back into place – been having trouble with this for months now. Ayisha says ‘I bring old woman’ to fix it – I can’t wait for this!
But first she wants to take us to Ras Tafari’s House. Along more sun-filled alleyways we enter an arched gateway into a pretty garden in front of the lovely old home which is now a museum. We love the architecture which looks very Eastern. It was built by an Indian trader which explains the Ganesh carving above the door. But it’s actually closed just now so we’ll come back later.
Setting off along the main laneway we stop to talk to men who look very red-eyed and spaced out – a common sight here in Harar. They’re chewing chat! Chat is king here and an obvious social problem – like alcohol or ice at home. Young men and even some women are high on the natural stimulant that comes from the fresh foul-tasting leaves. Whole markets are dedicated to selling it!
So now we check out Arthur Rimbauld’s House which is also closed but will be open later this afternoon. Around here are more Oromo women and their donkeys looking like something straight out of a Charlton Heston movie. These people are seriously dirt poor!
At the camel-meat market Ayisha asks if we’d like to hand-feed the falcons which are a common sight in Ethiopia. For 10 birr (.50 cents), one of the camel-meat vendors will let us feed scraps to the hawks, who are patiently waiting for any opportunity. Some glare down from rooftops while others circle creepily above us. Their eyesight and accuracy is pretty amazing – just missing our heads by a few centimeters as they swoop down towards the small chunk of camel meat we hold in our hands. Ayisha goes first then Mark. I’m last and I don’t know if my meat is too fatty or I’m just too scary but they won’t take it – fun anyway!
From here Ayisha leads us to a church which is also closed but we hear music from a neighbouring building and find a group of children dancing and singing with an older girl playing a simple piano type of instrument.
Nearby is the Tomb of Sheikh Abadir, the patron saint of Harar. Non-Muslims are usually refused entry but there’s no-one around so we step into this very important pilgrimage site. For something so special it’s very simple but then again most Muslim places of worship usually are. The actual tomb is a tall rounded blob painted a vivid blue and white and still attracts worshippers hoping for solutions to their daily struggles. If their prayers are answered they return with gifts of rugs, incense or even the very expensive sandalwood. Nice.
Next Ayisha wants to show us ‘the view. Very beautiful’. We’re not convinced but we cram into a bajaj (tuktuk) anyway and head off out of the old city and up a long steep road to a half-built mosque that’s bellowing out what sounds like a constant call-to-prayer. Our driver and his companion (there’s always at least one extra person squashed in the front) get out as well to admire the view. What?? It’s pathetic but Ayisha seems very proud so we try to look impressed for her sake and pretend to take lots of photos. On the way back into Jugal we stop to inspect two of the other ancient gates then jump out to take pictures of the busy Harar Gate. Here a topless old woman is sitting on the ground completely stoned on chat, poor lady.
We’re dropped just outside the gate at a restaurant from the Lonely Planet called Fresh – we have visions of ‘freshly’ squeezed fruit juices and salads. No such luck but the open-air terrace is a great people-watching spot and the menu looks good anyway. Mark orders goat (blah!) while I devour the best hamburger I’ve had for a long time.
But Ayisha’s meal is the most interesting – it’s Ethiopia’s national dish called wat – a hot spicy stew accompanied by injera. Haven’t heard of wat but I saw Joanna Lumley eating injera on her ‘Nile’ documentary (more about that later). It’s a large spongy pancake made of teff, flour and water. We’ll definitely try it but I must say it looks pretty disgusting. Joanna said ‘Mmmmmm…’ so for that reason alone I’ll give it a go.
But the best part of Fresh is seeing a guy dressed in a traditional red costume tear past on a very short white horse. Apparently he’s the groom who’s followed by the bride and the wedding party in speeding tuktuks. Close behind are the guests, also in speeding tuktuks, all blowing their horns and trailing bunches of balloons – it’s the funniest thing we’ve seen for ages!
Back now in another bajaj to Ras Tafari’s House. Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s most famous emperor, spent his honeymoon here so the house bears his pre-coronation name. The garden now is filled with men and women busily dying leather for the covers of the Koran. A guide takes us through each room explaining all the weaponry, coins, jewellery, household tools, old manuscripts, cultural dress and finally portraits of Haile Selassie and his family – phew!
All very interesting but by this stage we’re feeling overly hot and tired – jet lag catching up, I think. We tell Ayisha that we’ll head back to Rewda’s for a rest then continue with the tour in a couple of hours. We crash out on the bed stripping down to our undies – I take photos of Mark – ha ha.
At 4.30pm we’re showered and changed. Ayisha returns after visiting a family of ‘man dead today. He very old so he dead’. A bit hard not to laugh. She’s still concerned about my knee so she brings ‘old woman’ who will apparently fix it. And she’s seriously old – 102 we’re told. Not too sure about this as the Ethiopian calendar is different to our Gregorian calendar and has thirteen months instead of twelve. This means that Ethiopian year is almost eight years behind ours – good in a way because it means that I’m only 56 and Mark is only 41! But then does that mean that the old woman is 110?
Anyway, she roughly inspects my leg from all angles then rubs oil behind my knee and gives me a gouging massage – fuuuck!! The finale is spitting saliva on either side of my knee cap then she sticks her head back through the curtain as she’s leaving to spit twice more onto my chest – wtf? I give her 50 Birr.
I ask Ayisha if she can take me to a beauty salon as I want to have my hair washed. I always do this in Asia – a wash and a blow-dry for next to nothing and saves me doing it myself. The hairdresser in the tiny rough-walled salon is brutal and with a cold water wash it’s not really a pleasant experience. Add to that the fastest blow-dry in history and I don’t come out looking too special.
But now we sit in Rewdas courtyard with a group of pretty little ones. One older girl teases Ayisha by trying to rip off her veil – can’t understand what they’re saying but we can tell it’s all in good fun.
By now it’s late afternoon so we want to revisit Shoa Gate market which should be in full swing. It’s teeming with women busily gossiping, bartering, buying grain, choosing colourful fabrics or stocking up on aromatic spices. They’re all dressed in extravagant colours, although the flowing styles differ according to each ethnic group – Oromo, Argobba, Somali or Adares. They squat beside neat piles of onions, tomatoes, green peppers and bananas, some cooking samosas on small stoves while the sweet smell of incense wafts about us adding to the mood.
Just on nightfall as we pass people chewing chat. Ayisha asks ‘you want to try?’ – yes, definitely! She takes us to her aunty’s place which is another old Harari house with the same setup as the guesthouses but not as dramatic – we like it better in a way because it’s the real thing.
Ayisha’s sister is here and the old grandma who owns the house is sitting cheerfully stoned on the floor smoking chat in a sort of shesha thing. We both have turns before chewing the foul-tasting chat leaves as well – bitter! We love this experience and something we’d never have done if we hadn’t met Ayisha – of course, I want to give her more money.
But now it’s time to seek out the hyena-feeding man. We find a bajaj to take us outside the walls to experience Harar’s strangest custom. We bump our way along rutted tracks to pull into a very dark space where a few people are watching a lone man sitting beside two large baskets of meat scraps and bones. Apparently, the custom started when villagers began feeding oatmeal to the hyenas so they wouldn’t bother to attack their cattle.
This actual Hyena Man is the sixth generation of a Harari family to have done this every night. He calls them individually – yes they all have names – in a strange throaty sound. Soon we see a movement in the darkness and here is the first to materialise. Then two more of the creepy dog-like creatures slink out of the darkness. He holds out a piece of meat on the end of a stick for each one to inch forward and snatch it in their deadly jaws.
Ayisha is the first to have a turn then Mark and I are next – not scared at all – much too excited to think about it. Probably should be – they are wild animals after all!
On a real high now, we take the bajaj to the Hirut Restaurant on the other side of town. From what I’d read, I expected something a bit upmarket but instead we turn onto a dimly lit dirt street to find the Hirut also dimly lit and full of local character. We can sit in the little garden alcoves or in the cozy area inside. We choose the dark interior decorated with weathered wooden furniture and traditional woven baskets. This is our first real chance to try traditional Ethiopian food so we ask Ayisha to order for us.
On a large flat tray we’re given a selection of wat (a spicy vegetables stew), tibs (meat with vegetables) and kwanta firfir (dried strips of beef rubbed in chilli) all eaten with the spongy injera bread. The custom is to tear off a piece of injera with our fingers then mop up the rest of the food with it. Mark of course loves it all!
Bajaj home to bed at 9.30pm – an amazing day and all thanks to Ayisha.
Monday 17th October, 2016
Harar to Dire Dawa to Addis Ababa to Gondar
Up at 6.30am to shower and pack. We’re leaving Harar this morning – we’ll catch an early bus to Dire Dawa where we’ve booked a 10 o’clock flight back to Addis Ababa then an afternoon flight from Addis to Gondar. Again the day is warm and sunny – so lucky with the weather so far!
Rashida cooks us the same breakfast that we had at Zabeda’s yesterday. We want Ayisha to come with us to the bus station but she rushes out the door saying, ‘I be back soon’. We can’t wait for her, though, so Rashida leads us through the hectic alleyway up to Shoa Gate then across the busy road to the where the vans and buses are congregating in the usual chaotic mess.
I feel sad that we can’t say goodbye to Ayisha and can’t understand why she isn’t here to wave us off. But she suddenly appears, out of breath and with a ‘present’ for us. The dear little one had spent part of the money we’d promised her to buy us a woven basket – ‘I love you’ she says. She didn’t have to do this and I feel a bit teary-eyed. We give her 500 Birr plus another 100 Birr for Rashida.
Meanwhile time is marching on and we’re still not moving. It’s already eight o’clock and even if the trip is the promised one hour we’ll only arrive in Dire Dawa an hour before our ten o’clock takeoff – and then we’ll have to get to the airport from the bus station as well! Oh shit!
As usual the driver won’t leave till all the seats are full so Mark is trying to tell him that we’ll pay for the extra fares – let’s just get the fuck out of here! And finally we’re off!
Leaving this magical old town, the drive to Dire Dawa is much easier this morning with none of the dreaded trucks to slow us down – they must only travel at night. We pass through the chat market village and see lots of women walking along the roadside leading donkeys carrying all sorts of provisions. Through more villages we love the buzz of the local markets then we’re crossing the barren mountains before descending into Dire Dawa.
Even though the trip has been quick we’re still running seriously late. To make things worse, the bus station is a nightmare with crazy people throwing themselves onto the top of the van before we even stop. Mark almost ends up in a tug-of-war with our bags but manages to stuff them into a bajaj while we both jump in afterward.
But one tout won’t let our driver leave until he pays him for ‘helping’, then as we roar off two more lunatics leap onto the side and won’t get off till we give them something as well. They yell at our driver threatening him that they’ll follow us if we don’t pay them. He eventually stops and chucks them a few coins – these guys are either seriously poor or seriously arse-holes!
With all the drama, it’s 9.15 by the time we reach the airport but because it’s so small we can still check in our bags and we fly off into a clear, blue sky at ten o’clock. By 11am we’re back in the same departure area at Addis’s domestic, waiting for our flight to Gondar – very deja vous! The flight is supposed to leave at 2.20pm but this time we have no expectations – better that way.
To pass the time we have another head and neck massage from the same lovely girls from two days ago. I splurge on a hand and foot massage as well while Mark sets himself up with his Kindle at the café.
Later we both attempt to order lunch – I say ‘attempt’ because we can’t seem to get anyone to even hand us a menu because all the waitresses are standing around chatting and laughing. Then, when we finally do order, the food takes forever – again lots of ladies in the kitchen but weirdly no-one seems to be cooking! Our soup finally arrives but the vegetables are still raw – bloody hopeless!
All morning we’ve experienced constant blackouts and now as we’re ready to go through the x-ray machine for our surprisingly ‘on time’ plane, another blackout knocks out the whole system. Two flights are leaving at the same time so a big crowd is waiting at the doors. We meet four very short and very cute Columbian ladies who are also on their way to Gondar so we hope to see them there.
We also talk to three handsome diplomats from England who’ve obviously been in Ethiopia for a while. Shaking his head at all the locals trying to cram themselves into the doorway, one of them says ‘they see a nice orderly line and they just want to destroy it!’ – ha ha!
It’s amazing to watch people doing everything they can to sneak into the x-ray room – the machines aren’t working anyway, you idiots! One nutcase is especially manic and when the power does finally come back on he’s first through. Later, at the departure lounge we find him waiting to board like everyone else.
But back at the x-ray machine, we just wait till the end with the diplomats and the Columbian ladies. Now one of the diplomats is stopped taking a parcel through even though it has official stamps all over it. They want him to go back downstairs and sort it out with someone else – good luck with that mate!
More confusion once we board, an hour and a half late by now. A smelly, old man in long white robes is sitting in my seat. When I show him my boarding pass he gives me a disgusted look and shoos me away with his hand then waves to another seat – like, ‘you sit there!’ – what??
A young, local guy in front of us looks at the old fart’s boarding pass and points to a seat across the aisle where, not surprisingly, another old fart has already planted his fat arse. Soon the young guy sorts it out and we’re ready to go. The one-hour flight is smooth in a clear, blue sky and the scenery is very green compared to the barren west.
I must say that all this greenery and cultivation isn’t something we expected. I think we all still remember Ethiopia’s terrible famine of 1983-1985 when over four hundred thousand people died and imagine the whole country to be a dustbowl.
Gondar itself is nestled in the lush foothills of the Simien Mountains and was once Ethiopia’s rich and powerful capital during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas in the seventeenth century. It was Fasilida who built the first of five castle-like palaces which has given Gondar its nick-name of the ‘Camelot of Africa’. But we’ll learn more about that later because that’s why we’ve come here!
But back to the plane – as we all stand in the aisle waiting for the front doors to be opened, the first smelly old fart is just behind me. He now shoves me backwards where I bang my head on the overhead locker so he and his ugly wife can push past us all to get to the front of the plane – bizarre how these people are so desperate to get on and off anything that moves! Maybe it’s a cultural thing but this guy is a serious arse-wipe!
Outside the touts are here in force and we agree to go with a guy in a van until we see the arse-wipe and his wife already parked in the back seat – goodbye! We notice a bajaj driver and much prefer to ride in a tuktuk anyway. But, of course, the van driver goes nuts and is yelling at the bajaj driver for stealing his fare – let’s get out of here!
The airport is in a rural area with lots to see on the thirty minute drive into town especially children herding sheep, goats and cattle alongside the road. We putput through a few small villages where the only type of transport seems to be horses pulling carts – this is amazing! On the outskirts of Gondar we pass Fasilada’s Bath which is definitely on our to-do list.
We haven’t booked accommodation as usual but we’ve picked a cheap place out of the Lonely Planet. It’s on the busy main street but I hate it on sight. We ask our driver to take us to Lodge Fasil which is more expensive but totally worth it – in a quiet dirt laneway right behind the castle wall with a leafy entrance and an outdoor café. Market stalls, people leading donkeys and kids playing ball games are just outside the tall gates. We do notice a guy guarding the gate carrying a large gun (rifle?) – good security, we suppose.
Inside we find lovely gardens and spreading trees with lots of little sitting areas. The very helpful Daniel books us into our comfortable room with a wide verandah, our own bathroom and a view over the garden. At US$60 it’s a lot more than we wanted to pay so maybe we’ll look for a cheaper place tomorrow.
We ask him about wifi but he tells us that the government has shut down the internet over the whole country because of political unrest. This means no Facebook so we’ll just have to ring Lauren – heaps more expensive, though.
We knew there’d been some sort of unrest before we came. A few weeks ago it was reported that a stampede killed dozens of people at a religious festival after police threw tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. The violence was triggered when some of them crossed their wrists above their heads, which is a symbol of the anti-government movement. But witnesses began posting the truth on social media that there were actually hundreds who died and that the police started the whole thing in the first place so the government decided to cut the internet altogether.
After that happened, on the 8th October a state of emergency was declared in Gondar as well, so schools and businesses were shut down but most were re-opened just this week. And Gondar has the added problem of territorial disputes that have been simmering for a long time between the elites here in the Amhara region and those in neighbouring Tigray.
This is from an internet article. Tigrayans have been accused by opponents of wielding undue influence over Ethiopia’s government and security agencies since 1991. In recent months, these and other grievances have led to protests, strikes, vandalism and killings in Gondar, causing a drastic reduction in foreign visitors to the tourism-dependent city and an exodus of fearful Tigrayans.
Gondar’s predicament is a microcosm of Ethiopia’s: a toxic brew of uneven development, polarized debate amid a virtual media vacuum, contested history, ethnic tensions, a fragmented opposition and an authoritarian government. Ethiopia’s rulers show few signs of being able to solve the morass of problems, which many believe the government itself caused.
Anyway, at least the problems are internal and not directed at westerners for a change. But now it’s time for a drink so we set up in Lodge Fasil’s thatched café. Mark orders Dashen beer which is brewed right here in Gondar and I order Ambo, Ethiopia’s equivalent of soda water.
On dark, we dress for our night out at Four Sisters Restaurant. This has received great reviews on Tripadvisor so, like last night in Harar, we’re surprised to be bumping along a rutted track in the pitch dark – are we lost? But no, here is Four Sisters, a little glowing oasis in the darkness.
As they do here every night, the staff and the four sisters – Tena, Helen and Senait and Eden Atenafu – greet us at the door wearing long white embroidered dresses – the traditional costume of Gondar. We can’t sit in the main restaurant building because it’s already full but we like the outdoor garden area better anyway. I wear one of the coloured ponchos that they provide for everyone to get in the mood.
No diet coke so I’ll have to go for the full-on sugary shit to drink with my smuggled-in Bacardi. If I have to drink this full strength coke for the whole trip I’ll go home a big fatty boomba! We also have to try Tej, a honey wine still made here by Mama Seraw – the family matriarch. The waiter shows us how to swig it backwards from a small glass flask. Mark goes first and gags! That’s it for me then!
The food, though, makes up for it – a spicy soup for Mark and a tuna salad for me. Meanwhile the dancing has been going off inside – women clap and jump up and down, Masaii-like, and make that funny high-pitched trilling sound called ululation. The style of dance in this Amhara region is called “Eskesta” which has weird jerky movements of the neck and shoulders. At one stage the dancers crowd around a scared looking European woman who’s celebrating her birthday.
Time for bed now after a busy day. Someone calls us a tuktuk and off we fly through the dark laneways back to Fasil Lodge where the guy with the gun lets us in.
We’re staying here in Gondar tomorrow with lots of things on our list including markets, churches and especially the magical castles. Loving this country!
Tuesday 18th October, 2016
Up for breakfast at seven in the hotel’s dining room. It looks out onto the garden and the food is good. Now we set off for the castles.
The laneway is busy already with locals going about their daily life – people leading donkeys, ladies toting babies on their backs, other ladies with colourful shopping bags, a few bajajs and a guy carrying a chicken. Small hole-in-the-wall shops sell buns and doughy things we don’t recognize as well as coffee cooked over coals with tables made of crates set up on the footpath.
We follow the tall stone walls of the Royal Enclosure which holds the so-called Ethiopian Camelot, Gondar Castle. But the ‘Castle’ isn’t just a single castle – it’s the name given to the entire complex of five castles and palaces built by a succession of kings beginning in the early 17th century.
Inside we pay a small entrance fee then pick up a guide so we’ll understand what we’re looking at. The grounds aren’t perfectly manicured but covered in tall grasses with beaten paths winding between the castles. Lots of tall trees create a ‘foresty’ atmosphere – I think I’m getting the ‘Camelot’ thing.
Our smiley guide is knowledgeable and explains the history – Gondar became Ethiopia’s capital during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas (1632-1667), who built the first of the palaces here. The next four kings did the same but none are as big or elaborate as the first.
Walking through the banqueting halls and looking down from the balconies, it’s easy to imagine what it was like during the time of emperors and warlords and courtiers and kings. We spend two peaceful hours visiting all the castles then decide to look for the market.
Outside we find a bajaj driver to take us to Kidame Market – the biggest and oldest in Gondar. The streets are alive with people, goats, sheep and donkeys and becoming more congested the closer we get.
But, what the hell, it looks like a rubbish dump with piles of rubble everywhere. Something serious has happened here and we later find out that a fire completely destroyed all four hundred and twenty stalls that made up the market about six weeks ago. People are convinced that the fire was caused by arson and the government is behind it all!
So now these poor people are trying to rebuild their stalls with rows of ugly concrete shops – at least they won’t burn down but it will never be the same. We leave this tragic place to hightail it back to our hotel.
Some very interesting sights on the way – the outskirts are remnants of the original marketplace with women selling piles of chilies and spices on the ground and men herd goats and sheep along side streets all heading towards the saleyards.
But now we just want to make our way back to our little laneway where we hope to find a cheaper place to stay for tonight. We ask our bajaj driver to stop at Lodge du Chateau where the price will be a lot cheaper and the photos on Tripadvisor look very appealing. But it’s cramped and unkept so we decide to stay where we are at Lodge Fasil.
I’m very happy to be back at this lovely guesthouse for two reasons – it’s the best place in Gondar and I also need to kabumbah, fast!!
We tell Daniel that we’ll be staying again tonight which makes him very happy even though he’s not the owner. I ask him about the wall clock that reads 6pm because I’ve noticed this in a few other places – are they all broken? He tells us that, like the weird calendar, Ethiopia also has different time cycles. The 12-hour clock cycles don’t begin at midnight and noon, but are offset six hours. So Ethiopians refer to midnight (or noon) as 6 o’clock. Very confusing!
Now we set off in search of an ATM as we need money for today and for the next few days as well. We walk down the path to the main street where we easily find a bank. Mark manages to withdraw some cash while I wait outside on the main street.
Our plan now is to visit some of the other major sights of Gondar but we’re not sure where to go first. While checking out the Lonely Planet, a young local boy approaches us. He introduces himself as Yusf – we love him immediately!
He asks ‘where you want to go?’, then announces ‘I take you!’. Okay, we’ll just follow you, you little cutie! He hails a bajaj and the three of us manage to squeeze inside. Under Yusf’s instructions, we speed off to the church of Debre Birhan Selassie. On the northern side of town we climb up cobbled streets to find it set behind a tall stone wall with circular turrets at both ends. The church, also called the ‘Light of the Trinity’, is a rectangular structure set on raised ground.
Because Yusf is a Moslem he says he’ll wait for us in the tuktuk. Just inside the gate we run into the lovely Columbian ladies we met at Addis airport yesterday. Their hotel was booked by a travel agent and I don’t think they’re very happy with it – too far out of town and probably expensive – never trust a travel agent!
The church itself is relatively small and fairly plain except for a columned stone verandah on three sides. Here women dressed in all-white are praying while an old priest in a black kufi cap and wrapped in thick yellow robes reads from an ancient book. – another scripture moment!
If the outside of the church is simple, the interior makes up for it. Every inch of the walls and ceiling is covered with painted images. The beamed ceiling has the faces of over a hundred winged cherubs representing the omnipresence of God while the walls show biblical scenes and saints.
And besides the paintings, above the two doors are icons of the Holy Trinity and the Crucifixion. But, wait there’s more! At one end of the chapel, two curtain-covered doors lead to the Holy of Holies where the church’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant is locked away! Bloody hell!
All very impressive but being atheists we don’t hang around long especially after I’m chased by the priest for wearing my shoes inside – settle, mate!
Back out on the road we’re met by a beaming Yusf. ‘You like it?’, he asks, bursting with pride. ‘Now we go to Fasilada’s Bath’.
This is another of Gondar’s ancient attractions and, like the Castle, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But we’re the only ones here – this political unrest has really fucked up Gondar’s tourist industry. Yusf leads us through a grassy field to the huge two-storeyed deep pool with a battlemented palace sitting smack in the centre. For health reasons it’s empty most of the time, like now, but can be filled via a canal from the river.
This happens on January 19th every year when the pool is flooded for the re-enactment of Timket which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Yusf borrows a picture from the tuktuk driver to show us how it looks during the celebration. Amazing! If only we could have been here!
We all crawl around the walls that are continually being strangled by the roots of trees from the surrounding forest – just like Ta Phrom near Angkor Wat. We walk around the palace but can’t get inside for some reason.
No worries because we’re starving and Yusf wants to take us to ‘the best restaurant in Gondar’. We’re a bit dubious because when a local wants to take you to a restaurant it’s usually a boring modern place that they think is what westerners like – not this time! It sits in a laneway not far from our guesthouse with a hand-written sign – ‘Master Chef Kitchen’ – and made from bamboo and woven grass walls.
And considering the amount of people here, the food truly must be good. Mark orders a local dish while I have meat with spaghetti. Yusf orders injera with a fish dish and asks for the left-overs to be wrapped up so he can take them home to his Mum.
He asks if we’d visit his home this afternoon to meet his family. Oh yes, we’d love to! His house is nearby so he races off excitedly to tell his Mum and give her the food.
Apparently she’s very happy to have guests and we arrange to visit her at two o’clock. Now Yusf wants to take us to a village on the outskirts of Gondar. The village women weave and make pottery to sell to tourists and we can watch them at work.
All day we’ve seen soldiers carrying big guns around the town and as we leave the city we’re stopped by more soldiers who check us out while the driver has to hand over his papers. No problems and we’re soon at the pottery village.
On the roadside, a wonky hand painted sign reads, WELL COME TO FILASI SINAG VILLAGE and a couple of rough shacks sell gourds and hand-made shawls plus the woven baskets that we’d seen everywhere in Harar.
At first we’re greeted by a young woman and her son but in seconds we’re swarmed with little girls all holding up white pottery chickens decorated with coloured dots. We don’t want any of them but try to be nice. They won’t give up though and follow us up through the trees to the village. Yusf nicely tells them to leave us alone but they don’t listen to him. One very pretty girl about thirteen introduces herself as Hannah and is an expert saleswoman. Of course we end up with four of the bloody things. Yusf is very impressed with Hannah and I say ‘maybe she could be your girl friend’.
We visit a very old round hut with a thatched roof and the inside walls painted in crude designs. A village lady shows us ancient cooking pots and other kitchen implements while the crowd of girls selling the pottery animals wait patiently outside. Back down the track, we’re swarmed again – had enough and can’t wait to escape.
Across the road we visit a centre that’s been set up for local woman to learn pottery-making (something besides the chickens would be good) as well as weaving with wooden looms.
Back in the tuktuk we’re stopped again by soldiers as we reach Gondar. We’re not really worried but we hear later that a young English woman had been mistakedly shot and killed right here a few weeks ago. Then not far from Yusf’s house we pass the shell of a burnt-out coach torched during the unrest in August. So, maybe we shouldn’t be so blasé about this whole political thing?
Finally back in Gondar, we pull up at the side of a dirt road where we climb over a little fence made from tree branches to scramble down a short slope to land at the front door of Yusf’s house. ‘House’ is rather a grand name for this little shed made of bits and pieces of iron. Inside is very dark – no windows – with an earthen floor partly covered with off-cuts of lino and rattan mats.
But Yusf is as proud as punch especially when he introduces his Mum and his sister. They’re squatting on the floor wearing striped shawls that cover their heads and coloured dresses underneath. Yusf’s sister is picking out the bad bits from a tray of peanuts that they’ve just roasted. These ones are for us but this is how his Mum looks after her five kids. The dad ran off with another woman years ago so this poor little lady has to do it all on her own.
We find that Yusf is actually eighteen years old although he looks about twelve. He’s the youngest in the family with two sisters and two brothers. The second sister comes to the door to say hello and his brother, Adem, sits with us. The ‘house’ is just one room with a lounge and two chairs jammed together and the ‘kitchen’ at one end. Here a metal kettle is boiling over hot coals so the mum can make us coffee. This is more than humbling especially when Yusf proudly hands her all the money we gave him earlier – about $30. She’s thrilled!
I ask Yusf if his Mum would like the sarong I have with me – she’s thrilled again and wraps it around her head for everyone to admire. I have a similar one in my luggage so I’ll give it to Yusf later.
Hugs all round as we leave then I tell Yusf how lovely he is for giving his Mum all the money he’d made. ‘I don’t need money. Maybe she make me something nice to eat’, he says rubbing his tummy. What a darling!
We make plans to return to our guesthouse now for a rest then see him later for dinner. On the way one of his friends walks along with us. His name is Mickey and he and Mark chat about soccer – his passion. Mark asks him if he plays – ‘yes but our team have no ball. Three weeks. Ball broken.’ Now their training sessions are just running around to keep fit.
Of course, Mark asks where he can buy a ball for his team and in one of the little market stalls near our hotel we find one. Mickey is very excited and wants to take us to his coach’s house tonight so we can see the trophy they won last year. So now the plan is to meet Yusf and Mickey in the laneway at six o’clock.
For the next couple of hours we shower, sleep, read and pack ready for an early start tomorrow. We’d asked Daniel about buses to Gorgora which apparently leave around five o’clock in the morning.
At 6pm, we’re ready and meet the boys just outside the gate. The light is fading and it feels lovely walking around at this time of night – always with the smoke of wood fires hanging in the air as families cook their evening meals. At the coach’s house we follow Mickey and Yusf inside where a display cabinet holds crochery and the prized soccer trophies – under 16s and under 17s. We peer closely to show them how impressed we are.
After taking photos of the boys posing proudly in front of the trophies, I visit Mickey’s house. It’s a lot flasher than Yusf’s but still very basic with sagging wooden floors. He shows me photos of his four brothers, his grandmothers, his parents and his beloved sister. She was married in May this year which seems to be a big deal. Soon, Mickey’s Mum rushes in from the yard and wants us to stay for coffee – it’s the thing to do here.
Outside we watch one of the local ladies making injera on an open fire. A lot of neighbours are hanging around – not sure if it’s to watch her or because of us. They’re all friendly with gorgeous white smiles. That’s one thing we’ve noticed – everyone has beautiful teeth – no money for junk food I suppose.
We watch the injera making for a while then Mark asks if he can have a try. The lady gives him a demonstration – he’s not bad but the crowd thinks it’s hilarious!
Dark by now, we head off with the boys back to Master Chef for dinner. Yusf wants to sit inside this time where it’s a bit ‘posher’. Again, it’s packed with lots of families then after ordering we ask the boys about Facebook. They have a friend called Imeral who works in an internet place and thinks he might be able to help. They give him a call and he turns up in fifteen minutes. He tries all sorts of ways to hack into Facebook but apparently it can only be done with Samsung phones, not our iphones. Nice try anyway and we give him a tip. Imeral’s phone is working so we borrow it to put up a couple of photos onto my Facebook page.
The food is excellent – I have tuna salad, Mark an Ethiopian meal while Mickey and Yusf both order chicken curry with injera. Now we move next door to what they call a draught place which is a sort of very basic pub. We sit on benches in a dark room painted deep blue and chat with a few local men. They tell us that they come here every night – just like the locals at home. We show them pictures of Lauren and the dollies then have photos taken with all of us. One even gives me his email address. The boys don’t drink at all but Mark has draught beer while I drink my Bacardi and coke – love it here!!
On the way home, we talk to Mickey and Yusf about coming with us for a couple of days. We’ll all think about it overnight and meet them at 3.30am – love those early starts!
Wednesday 19th October, 2016
Gondar to Gorgora
The alarm on Mark’s phone wakes us at 3am so we shower and do the last minute packing before meeting Yusf and Mickey out front. The boys haven’t brought anything with them but without even saying anything, we all seem to have assumed that the four of us will be leaving for Gorgora today. What will happen after that we don’t know!
This very early morning walk through the dark laneways and streets is one of those travel experiences we always love. The moon is full and the air still and calm although Mark thinks he sees lightning on the horizon.
Outside the bus station is busy with people milling around the gate and a few makeshift stalls selling over-ripe bananas and thorny skinned oranges – looks awful but we do buy a bag of oranges for the bus. Later we’re to wish we’d bought the spotty bananas as well.
At 5.30am the gate is opened and, not surprisingly, the crowd charges through. If the passengers appear frantic the touts are much worse. We can’t find the Gorgora bus and we’re told by a very aggressive tout that it’s not running and we’ll have to buy tickets for his mini-van. He abuses Yusf who is trying to sort things out for us then comes back a few minutes later to abuse him again – poor little Yusf.
We hate the nasty prick but have to swallow our pride when we realise that the Gorgora bus really isn’t happening. So Mark buys tickets for the boys who sit in the front seat next to the driver while he buys four seats for us so we’re not jammed in like sardines which will definitely happen. The van naturally can’t leave until it’s full so we wait for half an hour while the driver bullies anyone he can find to take his van.
Meanwhile the man sitting behind us is wrapped in white robes with a white headscarf and blows his foul breath all over us. And, the poor little lady next to me stinks so it’s going to be an interesting drive.
Outside our driver is becoming more agitated trying to fill the van while other touts lie in wait for customers at the gate and a few fights break out – this isn’t a nice place to be. Finally we have enough passengers and pull out of the bus station just as the sun rises.
For some reason, we stop for fifteen minutes on the edge of town where we see people living in ‘houses’ seriously not much bigger than a dog’s kennel. At seven o’clock we’re on our way and it’s a relief to be out of the city.
As usual people walk along the edge of the road sheperding cows and sheep while donkeys are laden down with fire-wood. Men carry wooden staffs or crooks depending on the animals they’re herding. The countryside is a green patchwork of cultivated fields growing corn and tef which is the grain used to make the much loved injera. We pass through small villages where people live in houses made from rough tree branches with grass and mud shoved into the cracks.
As the temperature rises the smell inside the van is reaching rank proportions and Poo Breath is still on board. Somehow we’ve also been invaded by flies and pick up more at every stop. In one village, a lady with a baby strapped to her back squeezes in and the poor little thing has them all over his face.
At first the road had been optimistically good but has now deteriorated into a pot-holed dirt track – is this a road at all? After bouncing around for another hour we’re relieved to see the blue waters of Lake Tana in the distance. We’re excited to reach Gorgora where we’ll spend the night before catching the boat in the morning. That’s the plan anyway.
Sadly, while Gorgora looked a tropical haven from a distance it’s a shit-hole up close. Can this be the place I’d read about? We’re dumped in the main street which is actually the only street – a dusty stretch of road lined with shacks – no cafes, no shops, no nothing – maybe there’s another bit.
Anyway we ask a young man for directions, then the four of us set off down the road towards the water where we hope to find rooms at the Gorgora Port Hotel. This is described by Lonely Planet as ‘an old, rather than historic, hotel … tired and the epitome of government-hotel neglect’ – in other words, a dump!
But we feel hopeful that things might not be too bad when we reach the gates that lead into the Lake Tana Transport Authority compound which is where we’ll find the hotel. The gates are impressive stone structures flanked by tall trees and clipped hedges. A wide path winds through flowered gardens all shaded by spreading trees with glimpses of the lake close by.
But finally, here is the hotel – yes, a real dump! Inside is in a similar state of disrepair with grubby walls, filthy windows and cheap spindly furniture. The building itself still has some remnants of a more prosperous past and Mark and I sort of like its seediness but we feel a bit sorry for Mickey and Yusf.
Neither of them has ever been outside their own city of Gondar. Of course, this means that they’ve never stayed in a hotel but this place must be a disappointment – we’ll stay somewhere nice in Bahir Dah to make up for it.
Reception is an old-fashioned box-like structure with the female receptionist sitting importantly up high behind a glass screen with a hole in the bottom to stick your hand through. She takes her own sweet time taking our details – a taste of things to come – then orders an old man to show us the rooms – he grudgingly drags himself up out of a chair to lead us down a path near the lake for what is supposedly the ‘piece-de-resistance’ – the Family Suite!
It’s a dark bungalow that stinks of mould and is literally falling to pieces – no thanks! He unhappily trudges back up the path to show us rooms in a long building with cracked cement verandahs off musty double rooms. They do have attached bathrooms but, holy shit, it’s the stuff of nightmares – cold, smelly, dark, dank cement cells with cold-water showers and suss looking toilets. Welcome to hell!
But with no other options, we head back to reception to spend another eternity booking in – our room is $7 and the boys’ room is $5 – they should be free! Now we all walk down to the water which is a special experience for Mickey and Yusf as they’ve never seen a lake before! We take lots of photos of them posing on the water’s edge before heading for the port office.
While a young man ambles past with a couple of donkeys, we buy tickets for tomorrow’s boat – $12 each for me and Mark and only $5 each for the boys. We’ve noted that there are two sets of prices in Ethiopia – one for the locals and one for us faranji. But I don’t think anything is going to break the bank.
The plan is to catch the MV Tananich which is the weekly ferry that runs between Bahir Dar and Gorgora. It makes a few stops en route dropping off and picking up passengers, animals and goods with an overnight stay in the small village of Konzula. I’m super excited about this part of our trip – in fact, I’d organized our whole itinerary around the boat’s timetable. It’s definitely off the tourist trail – a real adventure!
But back on the wharf there’s more posing for photographs before we watch tankwa boats being hand-woven from papyrus the traditional way by three old men – nothing touristy here, mainly because there aren’t any tourists! We’re not even sure if anyone else is staying at the hotel.
It’s eleven o’clock by now so we head for the dining room for brunch. Again the staff members are very unhappy to have customers and the waitress shuffles over to take our order. With no menu, we’re told we can have eggs, injera and bread (stale, of course) – all hideous.
A television is playing in the room off reception and here is the same Turkish movie that we’ve seen in a few different places. Mickey tells us that Ethiopian people love this film so it’s played constantly. He wants to stay and watch it.
But I just want to have a read and a nap in our room because I’m really hating this place. Mark and the boys head up to the village to seek out food for the boat. I knew from travelers’ blogs that we needed to buy provisions before we left Gondar but stupidly I forgot. Hopefully they can find a shop but I don’t hold out much hope. I do have a packet of Scotch Finger biscuits that Graz gave me last week so at least we won’t starve.
Not surprisingly, Mark and the boys return empty handed – fucking nothing to buy! My fault!
On dark, we meet in the dining room to find four other guests here for dinner. This looks promising until we receive the same bored/slack treatment from our new waitress – it’s like we’re ruining her night! I order spag Bolognese (can’t stomach injera), Mark orders goat tibs (with injera) while the boys order fish curry with, guess what, fucking injera! All disgusting!
And what’s more disgusting is that I end up with food poisoning – hate people who claim to have food poisoning but I become violently ill so quickly that there can’t be any other explanation.
I spend the night spewing and shitting in our bathroom – the black-hole-of-Calcutta – where the toilet has decided not to work so I need to fill a bucket under the cold shower to pour down the loo to wash away the poopedys and vomit – not a good night!
Thursday 20th October, 2016
Gorgora to Konzula
The day begins with stomach cramps and nausea but the pooing and spewing have stopped for the moment – nothing left! I take an Imodeon anyway then Panadol to help a filthy headache – will be better soon.
Worse still, Mark then discovers that our precious biscuits are being devoured by a million ants so it looks like we’re going to starve as well.
But on the bright side, the boys are super-excited and Yusf has a smile from ear to ear. We all walk down through the gardens to the lake as the first light of day breaks across the water in front of us. Luckily, I’ve had no romantic notions of a luxury ferry because the MV Tananich is anything but. It’s obviously more about transporting cargo than passengers but despite its ugly exterior, it looks sturdy enough.
The lower deck is loaded up with sacks, mud bricks and reed boats while we find a small, enclosed cabin at the bow. No other passengers so far so Mark piles our packs on top of each other at the end of a bench seat to make me a sort of bed. He covers the hard, wooden bench with one of our blankets and with our bed pillows that we take on all our travels, I’m surprisingly cosy.
A few locals take up seats outside on tall raised platforms on either side of the deck and I hope to hang out there later. Meanwhile Mark and the boys play cards with the crew crouching on sacks on the bottom level. We seem to be the only farangis (foreigners) on board but there still seems to be something of a community feel on the boat. Everyone is friendly including the captain.
At seven o’clock we set off from Gorgora for our two-day trip across the lake to Bahir Dar. Lake Tana is super special as it’s the source of the Nile, the world’s longest river, and Bahir Dah is where the river begins on the lake’s southern shore. And yes, Joanna Lumley came here on her ‘Nile’ documentary so I’ll be trying to sniff out anywhere she went.
The first few hours pass pleasantly and I’m feeling a lot better although I couldn’t eat even if we did have any food. I share the cabin with a few local ladies who stare at me for a while then smile when I give them a wave from my ‘sick bed’.
Our first stop is Delghi, a small settlement rich in agriculture and fishing, where cattle are loaded on board before we set off again for a few more hours.
At Ereydbir, we disembark at a small, wooden wharf then follow some of the other passengers up to the village. It’s as basic as all the other towns we passed through yesterday with roughly made homes of coarse tree branches strapped together for walls and rusted corrugated iron roofs. The homes line either side of a hot, dusty street although there isn’t a vehicle in sight. Cows and goats are tied to posts with long ropes so they can chew on a few sad blades of grass while chickens scratch around between the buildings.
Ladies are doing chores outside their homes and some walk past with mountains of freshly cut grasses on their heads. Others balance big metal bowls filled with wet washing and all seem to have a child in tow. Most have their head covered in a veil or a wrap and all wear long colourful dresses or sarongs
As soon as we start taking photos we have a large audience of kids and women with babies strapped to their backs. They’re so lovely and don’t ask for anything except to have their photos taken. The girls are shy but the boys play up for the camera and I even get a few hugs from the ladies.
Meanwhile Mark, Yusf and Mickey have found a ‘restaurant’ which is a miniscule green painted room with an earthen floor and wooden benches. They’re all wolfing down injera – I can’t even stand the smell of it so I take a chair outside to sit in the sun and talk to the ladies. Actually, even saying the word ‘injera’ makes me want to throw up!
Back on the boat, the cabin is almost full but Mark still manages to make me up a bed. I dose for the next few hours because everyone in unashamedly staring at me. One young girl in the seat directly in front has turned fully around so she can check me out for the rest of the trip!
All afternoon Mark and the boys play cards again with the crew until we arrive at Konzola about three o’clock. This is where we’re to spend the night and apparently the hotel isn’t the best. Surely it can’t be as horrible as last night.
Anyway, we trudge up a long stony path past herds of cows to the village which looks almost identical to Ereydbir except that there are a few trucks and rusty cars around. We pass women sifting grains in wide flat cane baskets then laying them out to dry in the sun as well as the usual wandering cows, goats and chickens.
Here too, are ladies with babies on their backs peeping out of brightly patterned pappose-style wraps while others balance baskets of heavy washing on their heads. Woodsmoke from evening fires hangs in the air as we walk past the tatty row of dwellings – very harsh living conditions here.
We have no idea where the hotel is supposed to be so we ask more staring locals. With no signage we find it behind a mud hut that has a sports game blaring from an old tv in the room off the street. And, yes, it’s much worse than Gorgora but it’s not a huge surprise and we’re only here for the night anyway. Our room is a cell with a corrugated-metal door, filthy walls and a filthy tiled floor – at least it isn’t dirt – and furnishings consisting of a bed and a grimy plastic chair. Oh, and there’s a cow at the door.
I head straight for the bed not caring if it’s filthy as well while Mark and the boys hang out outside. Even though they don’t sell water, Mark is actually able to buy a few beers so he’s happy. We’ve decided to dump the last day on the boat and get a bus directly to Bahir Dah – I just want to get there as fast as we can in case I still feel sick tomorrow.
Mark makes arrangements with the ‘hotel’ owner who tells us that the bus driver will meet us here at 5.45 in the morning. Mark has also found the toilet which is a hole in the ground inside a shack that looks like it’s about to fall over – and it stinks like all hell! Of course, there aren’t any bathrooms at all, just a tap in the yard.
Amazingly we both sleep ok.
Friday 21st October, 2016
Konzula to Bahir Dah
Up at 5.15 am and no need to dress as we both went to bed in our clothes. Mark uses the toilet first then I’m next – I miss the hole and poop on the dirt next to it – oh God, I’m sorry.
Mark wakes Mickey and Yusf who also don’t need to get dressed because they only have one set of clothes. Yusf then wakes the owner so Mark can pay for last night’s drinks. It’s lucky he did because the bus driver doesn’t turn up so the owner walks us to the bus in the dark.
This is sitting in the middle of an empty field and, predictably, is an old rust bucket but we love it. Crawling inside it’s just about full but the four of us manage to get the long back seat. It’s surprisingly a bit chilly so everyone is wrapped up in shawls and head wraps.
Before long, the bus splutters to life and we’re soon heading out of town. As the sun rises over Lake Tanna, we bounce our way along rutted roads stopping to pick up passengers until soon there’s standing room only. We’ve also acquired crates of chickens to make things even better.
Driving through small villages, we see the same, same dung and wood houses while kids run outside to wave frantically at us. Donkey carts plod on the edge of the road while women struggle past balancing massive bundles of sticks on their heads. At one point we cross a wide brown river then rumble through fields of corn, sunflower and tef.
Despite passing no other traffic at all, it’s still a slow trip as we inch past deep potholes and dodge cows, goats and donkeys. I love watching women drawing water from wells but feel sorry for others working in the fields.
For some reason, maybe the dust, all the windows are kept closed so the body odour is starting to take hold but we must be getting closer to Bahir Dah as the road has turned to tar and we start passing trucks. No point in getting too excited, though, as we now have a flat tyre. Most of the men get out including Mark and the boys while I stay inside to be stared at by the rest of the passengers who don’t smile back this time.
About ten o’clock we reach the outskirts of Bahir Dah. It’s described as a pleasant lake-side town on the edge of Lake Tanna and where we would have arrived later this afternoon if we’d stayed on the boat.
Already it appears to be very different to Harar and Gondar – a laid-back place of wide avenues lined with palm trees and a popular holiday destination for Ethiopian tourists. It’s main attractions are some outlying monasteries and the Blue Nile Falls. Since we’d need to take a boat excursion out onto Lake Tana to reach the monasteries we might give it a miss because we’ve experienced the lake already – been there, done that. But we’ll definitely visit the Blue Nile Falls because, guess what, dear Joanna went there!
Anyway, before we get to enjoy all this loveliness, we experience another mental bus station with more mental touts. After tug of wars with our bags, Mark and the boys shove them into a bajajj with the four of us squeezing in as well. Mark agreed on a fare with the driver but some of the touts are hanging onto the outside and won’t get off even when we take off up the street. They want money for ‘helping’ get our bags off the roof which they didn’t do anyway. It seems that even if they just touch someone’s bag they think they can lay claim to it. The argument gets even nastier until our poor driver finally throws them some money and we’re free at last. Not a great first impression of a place.
From the bus-station we ask to be driven to BB The Annex, a guesthouse I’d seen on Tripadvisor. It seems to be away from the main shopping area and the lake but we have a look anyway. It’s behind a tall vine covered fence in a dusty side street of a residential area. So we’re not too disappointed when we can’t find anyone inside who can speak English and we’re not even sure if it’s still a guesthouse at all.
Back in the bajajj we head for the next choice – the Summerland Hotel out of Lonely Planet. It turns out to be a modernish high rise which we don’t usually like but it’s in the middle of town near the water. Besides that, we think the boys really like it.
Booking in, we’re happy with our rooms – clean with hot water, a television and big windows. It’s a far cry from our accommodation of the last two nights. Mickey and Yusf are very excited – they’ve never stayed in anything like this before.
We all meet in the dining room for a late breakfast/early lunch. The menu is great and we can’t wait to get stuck into decent food for a change. But – why are we surprised? – the clueless waiter tells us that there is no steak, cheese, milk or any fruit! Well, go outside and get some, you idiots!!! Don’t say it but, seriously, what the fuck?
So once again the boys order a fish curry with injera (please don’t let me throw up) while Mark has an omelette with toast and I have a chicken salad with two slices of bread an inch thick. I can’t eat any of it!
Now while Mickey and Yusf go off to find a friend who lives here, Mark and I head back to the room to clean up. After showers, Mark washes our clothes while I search for the tv remote which is nowhere to be found. Down at reception, I ask the guy on the desk who says, ‘I will look for them’. What???
The boys still haven’t come back so Mark and I walk up to the 12th century St. George Church on the next corner. It’s an interesting place busy with Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims, who all wear white. It’s one of the monolithic churches in this Amhara region, this one carved from a volcanic tuff. We’ll see many more even spectacular monolithic churches when we get to Lalibela in a few days time.
From the church, we wander past market stalls lining the track down to the water. Here we find bench seats built in tiers under spreading trees, all facing the lake. Apparently, this is a popular spot for local families, teenagers and courting couples who come to sit on the shore of Lake Tanna. The benches are all taken as well as the rickety old chairs lined up behind them.
Following the water’s edge, we pass more market stalls and even see the MV Tananich ferry docked and already emptied of its cargo. Further on we find a few interesting restaurants built in a sort of elevated circle. Mark orders a beer while I make friends with a tiny girl and her mum sitting next to us.
While we’re here a guy approaches us about trips to the Blue Nile Falls where we plan to go tomorrow. We may as well book now and get it organized while we can – easy! We’ll be leaving at two o’clock from a pick-up point nearby.
From here, we set off in search of the Kuriftu Resort & Spa which we’d noticed on the way in on the bus. It looks very ‘tropical island’ with lots of stone, thatched rooftops and palm trees. Inside we have lunch in the big dining room overlooking the lake then ask the price of rooms – too expensive but we decide to bring Mickey and Yusf back here for dinner tonight.
Now we head back to our room as Mark is feeling a bit off and wants to lie down for a while. We now have our remote and the television is reporting the latest ISAL atrocities as well as the upcoming US election – both fucked!.
Mickey and Yusf are here by now so, while Mark sleeps, the rest of us catch a bajaj outside to visit the beginning of the Blue Nile as it leaves Lake Tanna. From here it will hook up with the White Nile, which itself started its journey in the mountains of Rwanda, near Khartoum in Sudan.
So only a few kilometres through town, we come to the spot where the famous river flows out of the lake. This is predictably called the Blue Nile Bridge, and is underwhelming to say the least. No photos are allowed from the bridge for security reasons – don’t know what that could be about.
On dusk we all walk to the Kuriftu Resort where we have dinner in the posh dining room. It’s an atmospheric space with rough stone walls and a soaring ceiling lined with bamboo. The tables are covered in white cloths and we have linen serviettes and lots of cutlery which I don’t know what to do with let alone Mickey and Yusf.
The boys order injera and curries because that’s all they know really. We thought they might want to try something different but they’re happy and that’s all that matters.
From here we walk back towards our hotel then find a traditional bar/nightclub in the backstreet behind. Here we sit in the dark while local dancers and singers perform. It’s the second time we’ve experienced this strange long-established way of singing called Ululation since the Three Sisters in Gondar. This is a long, wavering, high-pitched vocal sound resembling a howl with a trilling quality commonly used by women to give praises at weddings and other celebrations.
Meanwhile, the dancers specialise in energetic shoulder and neck movements and I’m pulled up for a go. Why does this always happen to me? I’m hopeless and it’s not just a ‘whitey’ thing because the western guy next to us is doing okay.
Race back to the hotel in the rain!
Saturday 22nd October, 2016
The skies are clear and blue this morning so we’re blessed again with great weather. We don’t bother with the hotel restaurant for breakfast because they won’t have anything we want anyway.
Yusf and Mickey want to visit the market to buy presents for their Mums so we give them spending money. Meanwhile Mark and I wander up to the Church of St George. It’s busy as usual. Inside the domed gateway, the yard is crowded with women and men segregated to separate sides. The women cover their heads and shoulders with thin white scarves while the men are all wrapped in long white robes. Even the kids are draped in white and look especially cute. On the ground outside, people sit cross-legged in rows – not sure if they’re begging or it’s a religious thing.
Later at the hotel we say goodbye to the boys as they’re going to the Blue Nile Falls before catching a bus back home to Gondar. We hope they’ve enjoyed their little trip with us.
Now Mark and I check out of the Summerland and into a cheaper place just up the street. It’s weirdly elaborate inside with red velvet seating and carved furniture and the most unusual ceiling we’ve ever seen – paneled in polished wood with inserts of painted faces like you’d see in a church – love it. Our room is small but sunny so we like it better.
We’d seen a Massage sign at the front entrance so we ask at the desk if we can book in. But first we want to have something to eat so we wander up to the main street where it seems that the main thing to do is have a shoe-shine.
One thing we’ve noticed since we arrived in Ethiopia is that males hold hands or walk with arms around each other’s shoulders. This is common in lots of Asian countries as well – wouldn’t happen in macho Australia. It’s nice and so is the way men greet each other by shaking hands then touching opposite shoulders.
Back towards our hotel we stop for pineapple shakes at a small shop that also sells Ethiopian coffee. Like everywhere that sells traditional coffee, it has freshly cut grass spread all over the floor – haven’t got to the bottom of this yet.
Now it’s time for our massage. At the hotel’s front desk we’re introduced to a man who takes us out the back to a sort of carpark with cheaper rooms on the opposite side. A lady soon turns up and tells us to undress and lie on the raised massage beds which are covered in what were once white sheets but are now a sort of yellowy-grey and almost dripping in oil. They’ve obviously never been washed – a bit grossed out but what the hell and the massages are pretty good!
About one o’clock we decide to do a bit more sightseeing but as soon as we walk out of the hotel, the guy we’d booked the Blue Nile tour with yesterday rushes up to us in relief. Apparently, they’ve decided to leave an hour early so we would have missed out – what?
So off we go with four friendly American guys for the thirty-five kilometre trip south. The road deteriorates even before we leave Bahir Dah. For the next hour, we bounce from one pot-hole to the other over a bumpy rock-covered road. But there’s never a dull moment as we pass a continuous line of people walking past – men herding cows, young girls slapping the rumps of donkeys with long sticks to shoo them along and people farming in fields of sorghum and teff.
Our destination is Tis Abay town, a market settlement of the Amhara people, and the closest village to the Falls. By the way, I’m still tragically walking in the footsteps of Joanna Lumley who visited here as part of her search for the origin of the Blue Nile. She’s fucking heaps older than me but she was once a model in the 1960’s and is still stunning with fabulous blonde hair and a great jawline! Smart, intelligent and charismatic – every woman’s fantasy!!
So okay, enough about Joanna! At Tis Abay, will quickly find ourselves surrounded by a retinue of enthusiastic young guides who, for a small fee, will lead us to the Falls. We follow them along a slippery, muddy path between village houses then across open fields till we reach a pretty river bank. A small open-sided boat with a faded canvas canopy is tied up on the shore with a crowd of locals hanging around. We all crawl on board and chug downstream to be soon deposited on the opposite bank.
From here another long, hot walk leads us to the famous Blue Nile Falls which is also called Tis Abay (means Smoke of the Nile). We’re quite impressed although, apparently, it’s not a patch on what it was before the installation of a hydro-electric plant. Most of the water is now being diverted, and appears again a little further downstream, from a massive pipe system.
Anyway, Mark makes his way down to the bottom of the Falls which throw up a continuous spray of water. And, by the way, there aren’t blue at all but a very dark brown! So, why…..?
Meanwhile I sit on a rock in the shade at the top and fend off local kids trying to sell me the usual souvenirs. I buy a couple but can’t please everyone. On the way back to the river, we pass tiny children herding goats with long sticks then wait in the shade of a tree for the others to turn up to fill the boat before heading back to the village.
Another long, bumpy ride back to Bahir Dah, we’re happy to rest in our room before heading out for the night. We find a strange place with the usual grasses spread all over the stairs to find a table in a sort of semi-upmarket restaurant. It’s very dark inside with candles on each table. I don’t want to drink again tonight but we still have fun bagging out the whole Ethiopian scene – God love them! Mark has a few beers before an early night.
Sunday 23rd October, 2016
Bahir Dah to Lalibela
Today we leave for Lalibela which we expect to be the highlight of the trip although we’ve loved so many places already. The guy where we bought our tickets said that it’s only about three hours to a place called Ganesha and then another hour to Lalibela – sounds good.
At six o’clock we’re awake for a snuggle, showers and last-minute packing. Downstairs to the dining room for breakfast, we find that it’s just as elaborate as the bar but we also find that the food and the service is just as bad as everywhere else – a shuffling waitress, no menu, no eggs and no tea or coffee – ‘barista not here’! We buy bottles of water instead.
From the verandah we watch an endless stream of people wrapped in white shawls heading for the church while the early morning sun is rising through the date palms opposite. Another clear sunny day seems to be on its way.
On the bus at 7am I find a window seat and Mark manages to nab the whole back seat. The bus isn’t too decrepit and only about half of the twenty-five seats are taken by the time we leave Bahir Dah. The inside is decorated with Jesus pictures and a large wooden cross hangs from the rear mirror. The Christian theme will continue for the rest of the trip.
Another nice surprise is that the road is flat and well maintained so we have a much smoother ride than we’ve had in the last few days. After passing Lake Tana we speed past green fields, then notice the unusual sight of cows, donkeys, goats and sheep all grazing together in the same paddock.
Farmers holding long staffs tend their animals and we feel sad for donkeys carrying loads that are obviously much too heavy for them. We cross wide muddy rivers and ponds covered in flowering water lilies.
After a police checkpoint, we stop on the edge of the road in a small village for everyone to pile out to buy red onions – seems to be a big deal here. Back on the bus people talk on their phones at the top of their lungs and music is blaring but luckily we find a way to kill off the speaker next to us.
In the small town of Wereta, an argument breaks out between the driver and a guy who wants commission for getting people on the bus – he’s going off so the driver throws him out the door.
Turning right off the Gondar road, we stop just past the junction to let on two young girls dressed in traditional white costumes who collect money from the locals for their church. After giving a donation, each passenger takes some corn from a bowl and eats it.
This road is very scenic with mountains on our left and the opposite side a patchwork of dark ploughed fields, bright green vegetable fields and bright yellow fields of flowers. The road is windier here and one poor lady has her head out the window throwing up. The body odour is also increasing as the temperature rises.
After a non-existent breakfast we’re feeling extra hungry but have to do with the cheese and bickies we always bring with us. We’re also not game to drink too much water as there isn’t a toilet on board. By this stage, our bus is travelling unspectacularly up the mountains and slowed down even more by animals wandering all over the road.
A pretty lady gets on with a baby strapped to her back and Mark has to share his seat with some stinky men who stare at us. We smile and say hello but they just stare.
At another police checkpoint, all the male passengers are told to get off while the police search the bus – under seats and bags in the overhead racks. The men are allowed back on board after being frisked and off we go again with them still staring at us.
We’re trying to work out how long we have to go and decide we must arrive in Ganesha soon where we need to get another bus to Lalibela. We’re not happy when we pull into Debre Tabor at 9.15am because we realise that we still must have another three hours till we reach Ganesha! Those arsewipes in Bahir Dah told us it was only three to four hours to Lalibela itself let alone half a day to reach the turnoff.
But nothing we can do and it’s not a huge problem anyway – love the adventure. In Debre Tabor town we notice a lot of police armed with machine guns so we’re happy when we keep sailing through. From here the landscape is dominated by circular thatched huts built up on mounds of rocks, grains laid out to dry in the sun, people carrying bundles on their heads as tall as they are plus long views as we climb higher and higher.
Later we pass forests of eucalyptus trees introduced from Australia in the 1890’s due to massive deforestation around Addis Ababa caused by a growing appetite for fire wood. The great advantage of the eucalypts is that they’re fast growing and are now used all over the country for building houses.
Further on we overtake a man galloping along the road at top speed. He’s completely dressed in white and riding a white, stocky horse decorated with red tassles and pompoms. He’s also brandishing a long spear. We soon find out where he’s going because up ahead is an amazing sight. Spread out in the countryside, we come across hundreds of people – also wearing white – congregated in groups around white teepee looking tents with a big red cross on each one.
At eleven o’clock we arrive in another town which we again expect to be Ganesha but, no, this is Nefas Meewcha where we’re stopping for something to eat. We pull off the road into a grubby, muddy area where we all get out. Here are more people in white just standing around in groups. A friendly man from the bus tells us to follow him up a narrow laneway to a ‘restaurant’ but it’s filthy and we only manage a few mouthfuls of scrambled eggs each. Naturally everyone else is tucking into injera – bluhhhhh!
I need to use the toilet, a horrific experience that will probably scar me for life – ha ha – so we’re glad to get back on the bus and get the hell out of this dump. Now we’re driving downwards through deep valleys cut through with brown rivers. Scary steep drops appear on either side of the road – Mark’s nightmare and I’m not too happy either. Funnily we see Donkey Crossing signs, something you don’t see too often at home.
Later, three men wave us down. They’re straight off the fields wearing rags for clothes and carrying long sticks and sacks of something on their backs. One of them turns around to stare at us for the next hour.
Another town ahead and another disappointment when Mark see the town’s name – Flikat, not Ganesha! Still a long way to go. Oh, and now it’s starting to rain.
Finally, at 1pm we arrive in Ganesha – six hours instead of the promised three. The place is a shithole, busy with trucks and cars and we’re not sure how to get to Lalibela. The friendly man from breakfast is headed there as well so we follow him to a row of little shops. A bus is parked nearby and we ask if it’s heading for Lalibela.
Apparently not, but just then a mini-van roars up the street and screams to a halt right in front of us. Very cool guys are hanging out the windows and the driver is too cool for school as well. This is supposed be our transport but I say ‘no, you drive crazy’. ‘I drive slow’ he laughs, ‘bus not go’. Bloody hell, we’ll just have to go with this weirdo. We drive around town looking for more passengers then end up back where we started. Now he gets out and starts a loud argument with another guy who turns out to be the driver of the bus which really is going to Lalibela. A debacle, as Jack would say.
We jump out and Mark pulls our packs off the roof. We wait in a tiny open-sided café with grass all over the floor and talk to a lady breast-feeding her little boy – he must be about five years old! Anyway, we’re told that the bus will leave in ten minutes which is great news as we just want to get out of here.
We manage to grab the whole back seat again mainly because, for some unknown reason, everyone else sits as close as possible to the front. The bus does stink of urine but it has to be a better option than going with the crazy mini-van driver. But we haven’t seen the last of him yet. Now he’s pissed off that the bus driver ‘stole’ his passengers – us – and they’re at it again in the middle of the street.
It takes an hour to get everyone on board, fill up with petrol and load a mountain of sacks onto the roof. At last we’re ready to go but then one of the sacks falls off and bursts open on the road spilling the precious grain that they try to scoop up by hand.
Finally, after two horrible hours in Ganesha we’re on our way. At first the road is horrendous but then becomes even more horrendous. This is going to be a long rough ride. We bounce through large corrugations and crawl at a lumbering pace around endless road works. It seems that the road between Ganesha and Lalibela will be much better in the future.
But right now we jolt from one crater to the next. But it’s not all bad. We’re surrounded by lovely families and cute kids. One little boy comes to stand in front of us babbling away and his little sister is adorable with little pompom pigtails all over her head. Opposite is a grandmother and grandfather with four older kids – all very bedraggled (my new favourite word that describes most things in Ethiopia). We give toy koalas to all the little ones. A very weird looking person in the seat right in front of us stares and asks questions for two hours. We give him/her a koala to shut him/her up.
Meanwhile we’re still limping along at 20kph, going even slower as we crawl up the mountains. We pass through occasional sleepy villages and even see tree-climbing goats!
Inevitably we now have a flat tyre – everybody out! It doesn’t take too long to change and we pass the time talking to a man who lives in Lalibela. Back on the road, late afternoon shadows create an other-worldly sight in this dry, bare landscape.
We’re now in the Lasta Mountains in the eastern highlands so we wind up and up with terrifying drops on either side – Mark hates me! – especially when darkness falls and we’re still rumbling upwards. After eleven hours on the road, we finally pull into the little isolated town of Lalibela.
The township sits on a mountain ridge at 2,600 metres and with a population of only fifteen thousand it’s very appealing. What’s also appealing is that we have three whole days here to soak up the culture and the history of this UNESCO World Heritage site – the eighth wonder of the world according to some.
The reason for all this are the eleven rock-hewn churches built over nine hundred years ago. But lots more about that tomorrow. Right now we want to find somewhere to stay and then somewhere to eat. We’re dumped on the side of the road where we’re typically swarmed by touts but quickly jump in a bajaj to take us to the Asheton Hotel. One of the American guys we met on the Blue Nile Falls trip yesterday said he’d stayed here a few days ago and it’s okay.
The hotel is just off the main square in a quiet, wide street so we’re happy with the location. Mark stays with the bags while I go inside to see if they have anything available. The owner shows me a nice white-washed room and gushes – ‘all other guests pay 450 but for you, only 400” – bullshit, but we take it anyway.
Mark is happy with the room as well – clean with local art on the walls, hot water in our own bathroom – but not so happy with single beds. We can change tomorrow. In the dining room, Mark downs two Dashen beers while we wait an hour for my macaroni with meat sauce and his vegetable soup – it’s all horrible!
We decide to wander around outside and find the wonderful Unique Café just across the road – if only we’d come here first! It’s a basic little place down off the street with rough mud walls and a cement floor. The faded sign out front reads ‘Recommended by Farangi’ and it’s even in the Lonely Planet. The warm-hearted owner is Sisco who welcomes everyone into her house which is what it looks like – a series of little rooms with bench seats and low tables all covered with cloths of different patterns. Colourful ethnic weavings hang on the walls as well as a few animal hides.
And the food is great even though we’ve only ordered salad and chips. Mark has two more beers while I stick with water – my liver and kidneys must be virginial by now.
Bed at nine o’clock – Mark sleeps while I watch an episode of Scott and Bailey on our ipad. Another great day!
Monday 24th October, 2016
Not surprisingly, we both sleep soundly and don’t wake till seven o’clock. We text back and forth to Lauren. While Abi is at kindy she took Elkie to Revolution – ‘me go there’. Good news is that she had drinks with Jordan last night – a huge relief she’s gotten rid of that fuckwit Gino.
We plan to visit the churches this morning so I shower and get our day pack ready while Mark showers then rings Steve at JSA sitting in the garden just outside our room (Mark not Steve). Then in the sunny dining room, he checks his work emails and orders pancakes and coffee. I don’t feel like anything and have a toothache. I wish I’d seen the dentist about it again before we left home but it comes and goes so hopefully it won’t last long. Apparently there’s nothing wrong with the tooth itself – so why does it ache?
We tell the sleazy owner that we’re going to the churches so he rings a guide for us. Soon a nice man called Joseph turns up and will charge us 700Bir for the whole day. Sounds good!
Last night we were happy with the area around our hotel but seeing it in the daylight is even better than we expected. Under a perfect blue sky, red-flowering poinsettias and pink bougainvillea hang over fences all along the cobbled road and ladies walk past in groups, all carrying sacks on their backs. Further up the hill we pass teenage boys playing hand-soccer on those old machines you used to see in pinball places.
We notice that in this area of town there aren’t any cars at all, just a few bajajs – quiet and easy to walk around. From the square we follow Joseph downhill past market stalls and local shops to a church near the bottom where hundreds of people have congregated under trees. Apparently, this is a funeral so everyone is once again dressed in white. Most are carrying wooden staffs with metal curly bits on the end – amazing stuff.
Nearby is the ticket office for the ancient churches where we pay $50US each plus 300 Bir for the video camera. There are eleven rock-cut churches here, the complex being made up of the Northern Division and the Eastern Division plus Bet Giorgis also called the Church of St George. The plan is to visit the Northern Division and St George this morning then come back this afternoon to see the rest.
Joseph leads us to the first church, Bete Medhane Alem, and while we’re looking around he explains the amazing history of Lalibela. During the 12th century, King Lalibela wanted to create a new Jerusalem for people who couldn’t make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land so he began the construction of the rock-hewn churches. Local legend has it that while he and hundreds of labourers worked during the day the angels worked at night helping him complete the project. After laboring for twenty years, he abdicated his throne to become a hermit, living in a cave and eating only roots and vegetables. Even now, Ethiopian Christians regard King Lalibela as one of their greatest saints.
From Beta Medhane Alem we walk through an underground tunnel to Beta Maryam (St. Mary’s). This is the oldest of the churches and contains a stone pillar on which King Lalibela wrote the secrets of the buildings’ construction.
To be accurate the churches weren’t constructed but actually excavated from pink volcanic rock. Each church was created by first carving out a wide trench on all four sides of the rock, then painstakingly gouging out the interior. All the work was done with only hammers and chisels!
Because the churches have been built from the top down rather than from the ground up, the roofs of all the churches are level with the ground and are reached by stairs descending into narrow trenches. The inside of the churches is equally impressively carved out of the rock with fragile-looking windows, moldings, crosses, swastikas and columns.
What’s different here compared to other religious places like Angkor Wat and Petra, is that the churches of Lalibela are alive – they’re used by the local people and pilgrims all day every day. They’ve been in continuous use since they were built in the 12th century.
We see people kissing the stone steps or just sitting quietly in prayer. Each church has its own resident monk who appears in the doorway in colorful brocade robes usually holding a silver cross and a prayer staff. Some are reading ancient books giving the place a timeless, almost biblical atmosphere.
Next to Beta Maryam is Beta Golgotha which houses the tomb of King Lalibela and life-sized carvings of saints on the walls. The next church is much the same but just as impressive.
But it’s the last church in this Northern Group that we experience a true Ethiopian Orthodox ceremony. We can hear chanting and music coming from deep inside and find a group of about twenty priests wrapped in white from head to toe. Some are beating big drums that hang from their necks while other are playing traditional stringed instruments.