A Travellerspoint blog


Enjoying Ethiopia's Capital

A few days in Addis Ababa and Lake Langano

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

After our whistlestop tour of northern Ethiopia, we were glad to get back "home" to Susanna's place in Addis. We enjoyed a few days in the capital and also a weekend trip with Susanna to Lake Langano, which lies a few hours drive south of Addis.

Home from home in Addis

Susanna and her awesome car

Lake Langano

At the weekend, we did what well-heeled Addis residents do and escaped the city for the tranquility of a nearby lake. Susanna drove us in her imposing Ford 4x4 south out of the city and we soon found ourselves in beautiful lush savannah. It was our first glimpse of Rift Valley and it really felt more like Africa than the scenery of the north of the country. 

Beautiful savannah scenery as we approach Lake Langano, south of Addis

The explorers

This pack of vultures was devouring a cow carcass at the side of the road

We stayed a night in the very nice Sabana Lodge by the lake, where we ate well, relaxed and even managed a swim in the suspiciously slimy water - reassured that it is apparently bilharzia-free.

Enjoying Sabana Lodge

Swimming in Lake Langano. That's us, honest

Addis Ababa

Just the name Addis Ababa is exciting. It sounds so exotic. The reality is not quite so exotic but it's a fairly nice city. We found the place a bit overwhelming and hard to get your bearings in: the wide streets all look very similar and there are few visible landmarks to orientate yourself around. Addis sprawls over several hills at a height of around 2,400 metres - something we only truly appreciated when we went out for a breathless run one afternoon in Susanna's neighbourhood!

We headed on Friday to the Museum of Ethiopia in the heart of the city, where you can check out Emperor Haile Selassie's crowns and throne.

Helena and Emperor Haile Selassie's throne

The highlight, however, was the Lucy display. Lucy is a pre-human skeleton of around three million years in age, found in Ethiopia's Rift Valley forty years ago. Her discovery was hailed as revealing a "missing link" between apes and humans. In fact, the museum shows the evolution of different types of pre-humans over ten million years through skeletons found in Ethiopia. Lucy was not the oldest but was one of the first to regularly walk on its hind legs, splitting her time between living in trees and walking in the emerging savannah. Lucy is thought to be a distant "cousin" of modern man. It really puts us into context when you look at these specimens that led up to the emergence of homo sapiens only around 200,000 years ago.

Grant and Lucy strike a pose

We found ourselves in Addis at an interesting time as it was the six monthly African Union council meeting. It felt like being back in Brussels as traffic came to a standstill for cavalcades in the centre of the city. However, there the similarities ended: instead of relatively approachable Belgian police, AK-47-wielding blue camouflaged Ethiopian soldiers stood every twenty metres or so in the centre of town. Apparently security was stepped up after a failed assassination attempt on Egypt's former president Mubarrack in Addis at a previous summit.  We also found ourselves at the brand new Radisson Blu a couple of times (amazingly fast wifi), which has become the destination of choice for all the AU delegates. In the lobby, it felt like the cream of African politics was in town as middle aged African political types in sharp suits sat around gossiping, glued to their mobiles and/or ordering cheeseburgers and club sandwiches from the bar. Outside stood their private executive cars - invariably Mercedes or other expensive marks that one never sees around Addis otherwise - and drivers, with signs glued to the windshields such as "VVIP, Gabon Delegate".  

The opulence of the African political class is all the more shocking when it is assembled and on display in the middle of a typically run-down African city like Addis.  Ordinary Ethiopians are doing very well if they can afford to buy a 20 year old Toyota Corolla, which seems to be the car of choice on the streets. One of these will cost around USD 13,000 (including the 100 per cent sales tax the government adds) our driver, Baye, told us. A sales tax that high ensures people cannot buy modern cars and struggle to afford even old cars. Even well-to-do Addis residents drive Range Rovers that date from the early 1990s. It really makes you feel that this is the continent of cast-offs: in Europe we drive cars into the ground and then ship them off to Africa where they are sold on to run for several more decades. The same is true of everything you see in Ethiopia: mobile phones, computers, TVs.  The sales tax undoubtedly keeps Ethiopia's leaders' palaces well maintained and their cavalcades well stocked, however.

Another source of goods supply for Ethiopia these days is China. You don't need to go far in Addis until you see the influence of the People's Republic here: many roads are Chinese-built, you regularly see Chinese minibuses and even cars on the roads, and the grandest building in Addis - the African Union Tower - was recently gifted by Beijing. Having a white face in Ethiopia will often lead to you being called "Chinese" as they are some of the most prominent foreigners here. A number of Ethiopians we spoke to bemoaned Chinese interference and low quality products, and seemed suspicious of the superpower's intentions. What are they doing in Ethiopia? Investing heavily but presumably looking for returns in the form of contracts for Chinese companies and access to Ethiopian resources. This is a trend occurring across the African continent, and it is interesting to witness firsthand the expansion of Chinese influence through economic power.

This dramatic monument in the centre of Addis pre-dates the rise of China's influence in the country, recalling the years when Ethiopia was officially a communist state

We had an interesting tour of the Mercato on Monday, Africa's biggest market, in the centre of Addis. We went along with a guide, Haile, and driver, Baye, and felt some reassurance from having them both with us as we cruised the streets and alleys of the Mercato area. This place is legendary for thieving, and Baye warned us that Nigerians use black magic to numb your body while they leisurely steal your valuables. Luckily we made it around a small section of the area without any losses and even managed to take some photos of what we saw. At one point Grant almost tripped over a heap covered in polythene in the middle of the pavement. Baye laughed and pointed out that there was a man sleeping under that polythene. After that we noticed a lot of people sleeping in nooks and crannies on the street with at most a plastic sheet or wheat bag to protect themselves from the daily rain this time of year.

In the Mercato of Addis

Butter shop

Shoe shine boys are everywhere

Religious tension is an unfortunate feature of Addis, and it comes to a head in the Mercato where the main church backs into the main mosque. Turn a street and suddenly you no longer see priests dishing out blessings but rather veiled women and men in Islamic robes and headgear. Even the sounds from the music shops in the Muslim area are different.

The Mercato's main church...

...and it's main mosque, right behind it

After the Mercato tour, we hit the famous local coffee shop, Tomoca. This place is an Addis institution and a popular local hangout. Ethiopians certainly know how to make coffee and we have become especially keen on the Macchiatos.

In Tomoca coffee shop

A real highlight of our time in Addis was dinner on the Monday night at Yod Abyssinia "cultural restaurant". Ethiopians love song and dance and these cultural restaurants serve traditional Ethiopian Njira together with a three hour stage show of traditional music and dance. The food was really good and we were joined by colleagues and friends of Susanna's, all of whom had a connection to Brussels, giving us plenty to discuss. 

Excellent Njira dinner at Yod Abyssinia

The best bit was that tourists were hugely outnumbered in the place by Ethiopians, who were there to enjoy a night of their own culture. It's not often you see that at "tourist" events. The stage show was interactive and audience members were encouraged to get on stage to try "dance-offs" with the performers. No problem if you don't want to get up on stage; the performers will come to your table, as Grant found out!

Grant was dragged up for a shoulder shaking dance-off, Ethiopian style

Addis Ababa is a big African city and you can't expect too much from it. However, we found a lot to keep us amused and most of all enjoyed spending time with Susanna, who was a brilliant (and tolerant!) host for our several days  in Addis; so good in fact, that we're already planning our trip to Morocco, Susanna and Mathieu's next home!

Posted by Grantandhelena 21:02 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (2)

A Steep Climb to Heaven


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When we got into the car in Axum, we were brazing ourselves for a bumpy ride through nothingness on our way to Gheralta. Nothing had prepared us for the scenery along the dirt road. The road meanders between cliffs and peaks of the most spectacular shapes which rise up from the plain, coloured red by the red sand. The mountains are flat on top, as if someone had taken an iron to even out any extremities. Why have we not heard of this? we think. Why are we the only tourists here?  It's the kind of scenery we  would expect to see in the South West US (without having been there), but not in Ethiopia. The big difference from the US, even from China and India, is that there is no tourist infrastructure here. Nobody's selling ice cream or soft drinks or tacky souvenirs at the most beautiful viewpoints. There is nothing. Only land, farmers and us in our car. 

Along the road between Axum and Gheralta Lodge

The land looks almost barren at times. There are small rocks everywhere and water appears scarce. Still, every plot of land is claimed and farmed. We see the same scene here as elsewhere in Ethiopia: men with their cows and plough, tending to their small patch of land. Children looking after cattle and goats. We are reminded that the school holidays back home traditionally were timed so children could help with the harvest; it was not a time for leisure but for physical labour. Here, children are still put to work as soon as they can be of any use.  If they are not guarding the life stock, they are collecting fire wood or water. We see them everywhere along the road, working, being useful. If they can, they combine it with play. A group of boys sit on the road playing marbles with their respective groups of goats lurking nearby. Our driver honks his horn to make them leave the road, which they do, quickly.

Despite their duties, the children always stop and come closer to the road to look at the car when they hear it approaching. When we are close, they smile and start waiving eagerly. We wave and smile back. At one point, some children appear to throw rocks towards the car, but none come close and it is only this once. From the 30 seconds we've got to observe passers-by, from the car, most of them seem happy.

This is proper countryside, and we think that life here must be tough. We see people with big white bags  marked with "USAID" and outside the small and few villages we pass, there are signs with the USAID logo, telling us that the area is subject to development aid.

After around 3.5 hours we arrive in Hawzen, the village next to our lodge. It's a proper backwater but apparently with an old history. A single dirt road street, lined by a mix of sheds and simple buildings. We pass a huge group of people, standing around a truck, which seems to be the source of the USAID bags. We will come back to that later.

Hawzien. Not a happening place

Gheralta Lodge is the kind of place you dream of when backpacking. It's a beautiful and clean lodge in an amazing setting and, not to forget, far away from any kind of morning prayers that will wake you up early in the morning. The place is run by Italians, who were in their homeland for the summer when we were there. Luckily they had left the most important thing behind - the knowledge of cooking good pasta. We arrived just in time for lunch and the pasta was so good, nothing like the overcooked stuff we have had in the last three or for countries we have travelled in. 

Gheralta Lodge

After lunch we went for a walk to have a closer look at Hawzien. Our first impression turned out to be correct. There is not much of interest in the town itself, it is the surroundings that are spectacular. We nonetheless continued our walk, curious about the crowds of people we had driven past earlier. We could see from afar that there still were lots of people there and on the way there we met people carrying white bags in their arms, on their heads and on carts. When we got there, a truck with people handing out the bags was still there. We were closer to the "source" but still didn't have any answers. Why here and why now? Do the people here really need bags of wheat? We had the same day been driving through endless stretches of farmed land and harvest is approaching. Still there were endless rows for USAID bags there. A little girl came up, curious. Through signals we asked if she wanted to be in a photo. She seemed to find the idea exhilarating and scary and laughed with delight when we showed her the photo. This in turn attracted some older girls who also wanted a photo. Sensing that we were getting more and more attention from the large crowd, we quickly decided to get out of there, otherwise we would never end taking photos.

Girls in Hawzien

Wheat deliveries

The goods

People waiting

Another church, actually, the best one

It won't come as a surprise to anyone that the Tigray region we were in is famous for - its churches. They are unique for several reasons. They are some of the oldest in the Ethiopia, though the exact age is difficult to determine. The local legends speak of 4th century AD, but nobody knows for sure. Many of them were "discovered", i.e.Westerners have been taken to them by locals, as recently as the 1960s and 70s. There are many of them in the Gheralta region, even within the vicinity of our lodge.

We started chatting to two American guys, John and Joe, staying in the same lodge. The lodge's price for a car with a driver was quite steep and we were interested to see whether they had similar plans to ours. The next morning they had organised a local, cheaper car and offered us to come along - they were also going where we wanted to go: the Abuna Yemata Guh church.

John was visiting Joe who is working in Mekele, a town a few hours south of Gheralta. Just like John, he's a former McKinsey employee and  is managing a business - basically a poultry farm, where they hatch chickens and sell them on to farmers. These chickens have, from the Ethiopian farmer's perspective, a number of benefits: they need less feed and they lay more eggs, giving the farmers who buy them a bigger source of income. Moreover, the poultry farm itself is a source of employment in Mekele and the business is now expanding. It is a remarkable story and Joe told us about the positive response from local politicians, showing that it is possible for foreign investors to run a business in Ethiopia. It's a different and more positive type of development project (as opposed to "give us aid!") and the type of project development agencies and investment funds increasingly are encouraging and supporting. We found it massively impressive and reckoned that there is only a matter of time before Joe and team feature in The Economist.

We were driving towards the imposing mountain south of our lodge where we knew the Abuna Yemata Guh church was to be found. Considering this is set out to be one of the best churches in the region, if not the country, the non-existent signposting and terrible dirt road leading there, is remarkable. Or maybe it isn't. This country is not set out for tourists. Not yet at least. In this case, it turned out to be more of a blessing for us, as we had the place all to ourselves.

Joe, who had been several times before, had asked us if we were ok with heights, and also our guide book as well as the hotel manager had said that it's a bit of a trek and a climb to the church. We got out of the van together with the guides and fixers and as we were walking towards the mountain, the group seemed to multiply. Out of nothingness emerged more and more people who would accompany us up on the mountain, some being helpful, others not, some deserving a tip, others not.

Before we knew what awaited us!

The mountain

After a pretty steep trek we sat down on a ledge for a quick rest. Joe told us we should take off our shoes and we did, same thing we have done before entering all the other churches we've visited in Ethiopia. Expecting to turn a corner and find the church there, we stood up. Our guide then began to climb up the mountain. We looked up and took in the steep wall, indented with marks where centuries of ascents and descents of priests and their parish had left small imprints. Bare feet was not a mark of respect for the holy site but a necessity to be able to grip the cliff face on the way up. The questions about how we coped with height suddenly made much more sense. The church really was up there on the mountain and we really needed to climb to get there.

The wall

During our climb up, some of the guys who magically appeared would prove very helpful. They would point us to various grips and we slowly but steadily climbed up and at last reached the tunnel next to the church, after negotiating a 15 metre ledge on the side of the cliff, wide enough for one at a time to walk along, gripping the cliff face as we went. We all agreed that it was good that our parents couldn't see us now, first climbing up and now walking, centimetres away from the edge and the sheer drop to the plain 200 metres below. We decided that the best way to handle it was not to look down. 

One the way up

Enjoying the view and...

...gathering courage...

...before heading up there!

The climb and the view were themselves worth the excursion. The church turned out to be something extra as well with beautiful and intricate paintings covering every inch of the wall. The paintings are by far the most beautiful church paintings we have seen in Ethiopia and our guide told us that they are all original, they haven't been altered or "improved" over the years. When asking him why they built churches so high up in the first place, he mentioned a number of reasons. It is safer, as nobody except the locals will be able to find the church. Secondly, it is quiet and a good place for worship and contemplation. Thirdly, the climb up is tiring, and it is good to be a bit exhausted before praying. Fourthly and lastly, having the church up on the mountain, makes it closer to heaven.

Inside Abuna Yemata Guh

The view from the church

Time to get down

This church is still in use today and people will climb the wall be it dark, wet or both. Rather them than us.

Going back to our hotel, we were trying to digest what we had just experienced. The exercise, the fear, the fun, the beautiful church, the dramatic scenery, the craziness of it all - it was amazing and definitely the highlight of our sightseeing around Ethiopia so far! 

On the way back. The minute you stop, a crowd of kids emerges

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed some beers and more of the delicious pasta. In the evening, more people had arrived at the lodge, including a Canadian university professor specialised in African conflicts with his wife, a lawyer, and a German art conservationist, doing a project with Ethiopian students from Mekele University, training them on how to preserve church paintings. Needless to say it made for interesting conversation. Ethiopia definitely attracts interesting and friendly travellers.

The next day, we took a bus to Mekele and stayed at hotel Axum where the 1970s never ended. The following day, it was time to catch another flight back to Addis and Susanna!

Posted by Grantandhelena 06:31 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (2)

Did The Queen of Sheba Really Cook?!


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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Sometimes a great deal of fascination for ruins and old tombs are needed to fully appreciate a place. In hindsight, we probably didn't have what it takes in Axum. All these Ethiopian churches and monasteries are taking their toll!

Knowing we had little time, we got to our hotel - the originally named Hotel Africa - and started negotiating the price for a guide for the afternoon. After quite a bit of bargaining, we were ready to set off to see the Axum sights our guide in a tuk-tuk (having been reassured that the roads were ok, our spines still remembering the bumpy ride to the Blue Nile Falls).

Axum was the first capital of Ethiopia - before Lalibela, Gonder and Addis Ababa and it was during its time as capital that Ethiopia started to convert to Christianity. It is allegedly home to the Ark of Coventant, which Menelik I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought with him from Jerusalem (surprisingly the access is limited to one monk so we cannot confirm or deny whether it's here!) and it is the holiest site for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Seeing it today, it is difficult to grasp the fact that it once was a place of great importance, the centre of the Aksumite empire, mentioned in contemporary Greek sources. It is now medium sized city, with old sights, trying to convince visitors like us of its former greatness. Axum does feel different to the other places we have been in Ethiopia so far, though. It is the capital of Tigray, a region whose Tigrinya language has the same tones and guttural exclamations as Arabic - a different sound, even to the casual listener, to the Amharic we have heard elsewhere.  People up here also have more of a Somali look in general. We are travelling in a small corner of Ethiopia, and even in this limited area the diversity of the country is on full display.

"Axum's history is 90 per cent legend and 10 per cent facts" our guide tells us as we stand looking at the first sight of the day, the Stelae of Axum. This is the very first photo in our guidebook, presented as something very special. The Stelae are indeed high and old and we find the story of how the "Italian fascists" took one of them back to Rome during the war, but returned in 1997 to Axum and Ethiopia, interesting.  How the Ethiopians defeated the Italians is, understandably, a source of great pride for Ethiopians. It meant that it is the only African country which has not been colonised (it was occupied but did not become a colony).

The Stelae Field of Axum - this is the Stela the Italians stole and then returned sixty years later

"Just push a little bit harder!"This one most likely fell over shortly after having been erected, due to a bad foundation

The Stelae were raised to mark the kings' graves and it remains a mystery today why and how they were quarried, transported and erected. The practice stopped when Christianity took over. The ancient Ethiopians obviously had skills that we lack today: The stelae are each made of one single piece of local granite, and perfectly symmetrically carved, apparently without accurate measuring instruments. How they were raised into place - where to find the force and how to avoid splitting them under their own weight in the process? - is a mystery. Even when the Italians returned the stolen 20 metre stela in 1997 they could not do so without splitting it into three pieces for transporting. Furthermore, when they put the stela back in place, the operation so affected the ground around it that the neighbouring stela had to be secured with permanent scaffolding. How did ancient Ethiopians manage these complex engineering feats centuries ago without incurring the same problems?

These days, some of the pillars need extra support

There are also a couple of tombs you can enter. There is not a whole lot to see in there but our guide insists on us entering both of them. We also enter the nearby museum which is  informative but does little to increase our enthusiasm. 

Inside the tomb

Coming out of the tombs was more fun than entering them

The biggest Stela - 30 metres in length - has fallen down. According to legend it was pushed down by Queen Judith, but archaeologists say that it probably fell over at the same time it was put up as its foundation was badly prepared. One of many examples of the "90 percent legend, 10 percent facts" in Axum. This brings us to two of the other sights, both claiming use by the Queen of Sheba. There is no archaeological evidence of the Queen of Sheba having lived in Ethiopia - in fact, Yemen makes the same claim. Still, we are visiting the muddy pool where the Queen of Sheba used to go for swim, allegedly 3000 years old, and the palace where she used to live. The kitchen is the best preserved part. Grant tries to joke, asking "Did the Queen of Sheba really cook?". The joke is lost one our guide, who responds with a solemn "Yes.". 

The Queen of Sheba's Swimming Pool

Grant looking after some sheep

Queen of Sheba's palace

Among the other sights we visited, was the Ezana Stone, a trilingual tablet, which was discovered only in the 1980s by some farmers in their field. It has inscriptions in three languages: Ge'ez (the ancient Ethiopian language), Sabaean (South Arabian) and Greek, praising God for King Ezana's victories. Just like an Ethiopian Rosetta Stone! The stone is on display in a shed at the exact place where it was found. The fact that the stone was found so recently, is an indication of how much there is still much to discover in Axum - hopefully the ratio between myths and facts will improve over time. 

Ezana Stone

In addition to a couple of more tombs, we didn't visit more in Axum. There is so much history in this town but it is so ancient that it needs really good explanations and museums to do it justice - unfortunately that just doesn't exist in Ethiopia right now. We left in a bus the next morning and will probably not be back any time soon...

Posted by Grantandhelena 06:06 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Bahir Dar and Gonder

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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

From the mountainous setting of Lalibela, our next stop was the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, which sits at the source of the Blue Nile on Lake Tana. We flew to Gonder and then hopped on a local minibus along with a healthy number of other travellers for the three hour ride to Bahir Dar. The scenery was lush green, fertile farming land and the road was surprisingly good. We made it to Bahir Dar by late afternoon and checked into our hotel right by the lake. With hindsight, staying beside a lake during rainy season is perhaps not the best decision we have made: a layer of green slime seemed to cover everything at the hotel and our room had a constant dampness to it.

Bahir Dar has become a pretty sizeable town in recent years and is now the regional capital. The big tourist draw here is the lake and the island monasteries that are dotted around it, as well as the Blue Nile Falls. We took a boat tour from our hotel on our first morning to check them out. We landed on the Zege Peninsula and visited first Bet Maryam and then Ura Kidane Mihret. The latter was founded as a Monastry in the 14th century and the circular church we visited was built in the 16th century, with its impressive and bizarre murals dating from 100 to 250 years ago. It is worth noting that only few of the monasteries are open to women. Our Bradt guide book quotes a brochure from the Daga Istafanos trying to explain this:

"The reason why women and all domestic animals are not allowed in is the thinking that creatures of the opposite sex could be bad examples for the monks, especially those young at age. These young virgin hermits should subdue their body to the service of their God, and the devil should not attack them with the spear of adultery, like the Apostle Saint Paul said:"Younger widows may not be placed on the roll." 

In fairness, some Scottish golf clubs have similar thinking...

Bet Maryam

Lake Tana

Inside Ura Kidane Mihret

Look closely at these murals, and they depict some truly disturbing things

We dodged around the touts and stall owners that lined the route to each of the churches and enjoyed an Ethiopian coffee break before getting back into the boat.

Coffee drinking has a ritual in Ethiopia including an ornate pot heated over hot coals, the waft of incense, and finally the pouring of the thick, rich coffee into a small bowl. It's heady stuff!

The guys running our boat tour - yes, there were more of them than there were tourists on the trip - seemed in no rush and enjoyed taking us on the longest possible trip back to the mainland. They were keen to show us the local wildlife, and kindly drove the boat straight through a large flock of pelicans so we could get some action shots.

The guys on our boat

These pelicans look comfortable relaxing on the water...

... Let's drive a boat through the middle of them and get them flying for the tourists

The final treat of the boat tour was to see the source of the Blue Nile - a river leading off from the side of Lake Tana - and to admire the hippos that loiter there. 

Hippos at the source of the Blue Nile

That evening we had dinner with some South African sisters, Caroline and Andrea, who had been on our boat tour. We seemed to find Bahir Dar's party spot; a place by the lake playing loud East African pop music where stacks of multi-coloured plastic chairs were outnumbered by empty beer bottles sitting amidst large groups of animated local people.

Having dinner at Bahir Dar's party spot

Next day we hit the Blue Nile Falls in the afternoon. We made the school boy error of taking a tuk-tuk to get there as the local buses had stopped running by the time we wanted to go. How bad can a 30 km trip in a tuk-tuk be? Well, on a road that it transpired was no more than a muddy track strewn with rocks, pretty awful. It took us well over an hour of bumping along the dirt road to get to the falls. By the time we got there, it felt like our spines had been turned to pulp. And we had another 30km to do on the way back! 

One of the best things about coming to the Falls was simply getting out into proper countryside. Out here, people dress differently and live close to their crops or animals. You see them watching herds of cattle, walking them along the road to fresh pastures, or working in the fields - often using antiquated ploughing equipment dragged by cattle they direct with a whip. Our driver even looked out of place here in his jeans and denim waistcoat, with his big city swagger. When he stopped to ask directions here and there it seemed like people did not understand quite what he was saying, or else were just slightly awestruck by the novelty of a tuk tuk from Bahir Dar carrying two white people being all the way out in their neck of the woods. 

The village in which the Falls is situated consisted of mud and wood huts, one main street and a maze of muddy alleyways.  When we stopped, crowds of kids surrounded the tuk tuk immediately and even older villagers stood around staring at the new arrivals. Clearly, even though the Falls is a major tourist site it does not get too many visitors. We quickly paid for entry, picked up a guide and set off. When we left our driver, he asked us for a 50 birr (EUR 2.50) advance on what we owed him so he could get some food: even this guy, who is doing relatively well, seemed to be living hand-to-mouth.

We enjoyed the hike to the falls as a way of getting rid of the tuk tuk-induced aches. Our guide led us on an hour long loop to the falls, over a suspension bridge and back via a local boat to cross the river above the falls. On the way we passed countless local people selling the usual Ethiopian shawls, crosses and semi-precious stones. There were even women who had hauled a crate of soft drinks a couple of kilometres from town to the spot overlooking the Falls and were brewing coffee there for passers by. Since we were the only passers by, we made sure to buy something from them. The lengths to which people go to make a little bit of money here is incredible, but understandable.

The Blue Nile Falls is the second biggest waterfall in Africa and it was very impressive even if a lot of the water that used to flow over it has now been diverted to a hydroelectric power plant. We were shocked to learn that an American guy staying in our hotel had decided to commit suicide here earlier on the day we visited by jumping from the suspension bridge: all the local people were chattering about it and the police were on the scene.

Blue Nile Falls

Scenery around the Falls area

Suspension bridge to get across the gorge - the scene of a suicide earlier that day

To get back to the tuk tuk we had to take a lift in a boat across the river above the Falls. As we waited for the motorised tourist boat, a rowing boat full of local farmers docked on the bank next to us. The farmers with their long cloaks, shorts, bare feet and walking staffs enjoyed some friendly banter with our tour guide and the novelty of seeing white faces in their neighbourhood. One of them had an AK47 casually slung over his shoulder - apparently to protect his animals, so our guide said. But he also said that the local tradition is "very bad", which seemed to suggest problems related to guns. One thing is sure: an AK47 is a significant investment for a farmer here to protect his flock. Our guide quoted 30,000 Bir - or EUR 1,500 - to buy one.

A local boat ferrying local farmers, one of whom was casually carrying an AK47 assault rifle

Grant and a local farmer in the typical dress of this region

Our ride back to the car park, bracing ourselves for the bumpy ride home

Darkness fell as we were driving back to Bahir Dar, obscuring the bumps in the road and adding even more excitement to the tortuous tuk tuk ride. 

Next day we took a minibus to Gonder. It was supposed to pick us up at 7 but we weren't too concerned when 15, 20 and then 30 minutes went by, thinking that the driver probably was collecting other passengers. When it finally picked us up from our hotel at half seven, we saw that it was empty and quickly realised what awaited us. We spent the next two hours circling the local market while the conductor gathered customers and loaded them in. When we finally left we were full to capacity with assorted locals.  The road was quiet and the driving quick.  We only stopped a couple of times in nameless towns where kids selling chewing gum, bottled water and charred corn on the cob crowded around the windows to try to get a sale. 

We made it to Gonder for a late brunch and then took a guide to show us the sights. It has to be said, although Gonder is quite a nice looking town and an ancient capital of Ethiopia, its sights were not great. We took in the Royal Enclosure first, a collection of ruined palaces built in the seventeenth century by several generations of Ethiopian kings who seemed to have a nasty habit of poisoning each other. It reminded us a lot of ruined Scottish castles.

The Royal Enclosure of ruined palaces in Gonder

Next stop was King Fasilidas' Pool, a 30m x 50m outdoor pool built 400 years ago. It sounded like a great place for a dip but unfortunately these days  it is only ever filled for a religious festival in January and the rest of the time it sits empty. Which is a shame, because we could do with the exercise.

King Fasilidas' Pool - it would be great to swim in here if there was any water...

Our last Gonder sight was the Debre Birhan Selassie Church, which is renowned for its wall and ceiling paintings. 

Debre Birhan Selassie Church

The rules - women had better enter only through the special side door

Inside and around the church

The church was nice and kept us busy for fifteen minutes before we retreated for a beer to the nicest hotel in town, overlooking Gonder. We met a couple of friendly Belgian guys (Flemish) who every year organise a mountain biking trip for around 20 people, to somewhere exotic - in November it is time for Ethiopia. Every year they make sure that the tour and accommodation suggested by the local operator is ok and so far Ethiopia seemed to be getting thumbs up.

View of Gonder from the Goha Hotel

The highlight of the day was dinner, where we tracked down the Four Sisters restaurant and enjoyed brilliant injera and local music from a musician playing a kind of single stringed violin and singing. A couple of locals would shout out lines for him to incorporate into his songs and then clap along as he made a song with them. Soon the Four Sisters themselves were up dancing with the music, along with the musician and one of the punters who had been shouting out lines. Before she knew what was going on, Helena had been dragged up on to the floor as well and was being taught the Ethiopian "shoulder twitch" dance. The local honey wine helped. Grant stayed put simply because someone had to take photos of the event.

Tasty Ethiopian food and honey wine (Tej) at Four Sisters

Live music

Helena joining in the dancing

We packed a lot into our afternoon and evening in Gonder, and the next day we would fly north to Axum.

Posted by Grantandhelena 12:08 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

These churches rock!


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View Grant and Helena's world tour on Grantandhelena's travel map.

Perhaps it's a sign of our ignorance, but at first there weren't many obvious stops for our tour around Ethiopia. But, if there was one place we knew we wanted to see, it was the rock churches of Lalibela, allegedly one of the most impressive sights in the country. To get there, we could choose between an uncomfortable and lengthy two day bus ride or a quick and inexpensive flight with Ethiopian Airlines. We quickly decided on the latter option.

At Lalibela airport. In the background the type of propeller plane that would take us around Ethiopia

The rural town of Lalibela has the most beautiful setting, surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. The town itself is quite typical,  with dirt roads, simple houses and lots of cafes and movement. There is a constant accompaniment of Ethiopian pop hits being blasted out from the local music shop.


Tourists come to Lalibela to see its rock churches which date from the 11th century. According to legend, King Lalibela had the help of angels in making at least one of the rock churches in "the new Jerusalem" (established to avoid Muslim/Christian clashes along the pilgrimage route to the actual Jerusalem in those days). Angels or not, the work put into making these churches is just astonishing. They are not built but rather carved straight out of rocks in the ground. In other words - where there once were huge rocks, there are now churches. You can see all over the constructions the marks of the hand tools used to scrape the rock away.

Our guide Sata - a.k.a. "The Deacon" - and in the background, Bet Medhane Alem, the first church we entered and the biggest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world

Inside Bet Medhane Alem

With us we had our "deacon-turned-tour guide" Sata, a nice and knowledgeable man with a sometimes challenging accent (we believe we got around 60% of what he said). In addition to having the various sights explained to us, another benefit of having a guide is that he could phone and find absent priests to have them unlock the doors to the churches. No priest, no entry here! Over two days, we visited the 13 churches within Lalibela, as well as hiking up to a monastery on a mountain next to the town.

It is impossible to describe Lalibela without getting into the history of the place and well as that of Ethiopia. The history of Christianity is very old in Ethiopia. It was one of the first countries to convert to the new religion in the fourth century AD (that's earlier than Scotland and Sweden for example!). The Queen of Sheba, who is mentioned in the Old Testament, was from Cush, the old Ethiopian kingdom. She apparently got on so well with Salomon the Wise that they had a son,  who became the first emperor of a dynasty which ended only (according to legend) with Haile Selassie and his death in 1975. 

Today's Christian Orthodox Church has changed little since 400 AD. It is interesting to see the similarities and inevitable differences from the types of Christianity we know from Europe: Jesus has dark skin in all the pictures you see in churches here; priests can marry here, but only once; women cannot be ordained in Ethiopia and are banned from various religious sites; homosexuality is deeply taboo and homophobia abbounds. It is also interesting to see the obvious similarities with muslim practices: the call to prayer is a feature of Ethiopian christianity, only that it lasts considerably longer than the Muslim equivalent and hence keeps you up for longer early in the morning; the chanting you hear in Ethiopian churches sounds closer to Islamic chanting than European hymns; many Christian Ethiopian women wear headscarfs. The similarities with Islam are hardly surprising given the proximity to the Muslim region and the relative isolation from Christianity in Europe.

Jesus and Mary as depicted by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church

Different types of crosses

Women wearing headscarves

Priests chanting

When we walked around these impressive sights we couldn't believe that we practically had them all to ourselves. As we were thinking what a luxury it was, our guide said: "you're probably happy that you're alone here. Tourists like when there aren't other tourists around." We briefly contemplated the possibility of Sata being a mind reader, but quickly discarded that option. Truth be told, we're just typical tourists, i.e. people who do touristy stuff but want to feel like explorers. Despite us enjoying the quietness of the place, however,  we still couldn't help feeling sorry that more tourists do not make it here. It is an incredible sight and if people make it to the Pyramids, Petra, and Angkor Wat, they should make it here, even during low season.  God knows the Ethiopians could do with the money.

The interior of the churches is very simple and not what we would call beautiful. If Islamic architecture is all about symmetry, this Christian architecture is the opposite: squint walls, uneven pillars and uneven surfaces that show the hand carving work of 900 years ago. They are dark and cramped, often with only a single shaft of sunlight to illuminate the interior (most have had tasteless strip lights added in recent years as well!) Still, they are full of ambiance and once you can get your head around the fact that you are standing inside what used to be a solid rock, truly impressive. The different priests often took pride in showing us their particular church's icons gladly posed for photos!

Inside the rock churches of Lalibela

Priest with the pride of his church

As you will see from the photos, there are no benches in these churches. People attend two hour long services standing up. At best they have a prayer stick which they can lean on, or if they are really smart, they make sure to stand next to a pillar so they can lean on that.

There are also sights around the churches. Infertile women jump into this pool at Christmas and should have a baby within a year

The one church which perhaps more than any other has come to feature in stories about Lalibela, is the Bet Giyorgis (we know him as St George). The church is carved in shape of a cross and is 15 metres high.  

Bet Giyorgis

The construction of the church started with carving it from above straight into the ground, then the windows were made and all the rock from inside the church was emptied out through these windows. It was by far the most impressive of the sights we saw in Lalibela.  You have to see it to believe it! 

A recurring feature of these churches is that there are no fences between you and a 15 metre drop - you better just not walk to close to the edge!

This close, but no closer

Leaving the church, we made a quick stop the deacon school where young boys loudly recited parts from the Miracle Book, supervised by their priest/teacher who immediately  picked on any mistakes even though there were lots of boys reading different texts at the same time (and the fact that the priest was painting pictures while listening!). Incidentally, this was another clear similarity to Islam - reciting scripture repeatedly in order to learn whole passages by heart.

The deacon school next to Bet Giyorgis

No mistakes escaped this priest

On the second day we started early with a hike up the mountain Abuna Yoseph to visit the monastery Asheton Maryam. It was more the hike and the views rather than a visit to the monastery that appealed to us. Our guide Sata was with us here as well, as it apparently was "impossible" to hike it ourselves. 

On the hike up, we kept meeting people on the way to the Lalibela market with their goods. If they were lucky they had a mule to help them, if not, they carried everything on their back. Several times we would meet groups of men and women, where women did all the carrying. Not very impressive.

These ladies were on their way to the market

We also saw lots of people working in the fields, ploughing with the help of cows. The plough equipment was a couple of planks with a single ploughshare - medieval equipment. Not a tractor in sight. Also here, we were sometimes followed by children asking us for money and school pens, but the benefit of having a local guide is that the hassle was much smaller than it otherwise would have been.

Hard work in Ethiopian agriculture

The views were every bit as good as we had hoped. The rolling hills and the mountains, lush and green, makes this one of the most beautiful place we have been to. 

Quick break on the way up

Some of the views

The monastery itself turned out to be quite an impressive spot. In order to enter, we had to pass through an almost impossible opening in the cliff wall. On the other side was the monastery, extremely simple but with a great view. The priest proudly showed us all the artefacts of the monastery, expecting us to take a photo of each. We could nothing but oblige!

The view from the monastery

The priest of Asheton Maryam Monastery and his artefacts

The walk with Sata gave us lots of time to chat as well and it was interesting to hear his views in Ethiopia and its place in the world. For the most part, we sympathised with what he said, but admittedly it became a bit awkward when he told us that he and Ethiopians don't like Obama anymore after his stand on gay marriage. We could only say that we disagreed but realised that a discussion most likely wouldn't change the views of either of us, so we let the discussion end there and then. There are considerable cultural differences here, which don't manifest themselves only in the views of homosexuality. The most obvious and prevalent difference is in the views and treatment of women. One of the lures of travelling the world is to experience different cultures, but just as often as it can be fascinating and rewarding, it is frustrating and a source of helplessness. 

Back in Lalibela, it was time to visit the last churches in the town. Several of these are believed to have been secular in origin, and only made into churches later. To enter one of these churches, we had to walk through a pitch dark tunnel under ground. When asking Sata whether we should use our torches he just smiled and said no. The tunnel was around 70 metres and pitch black, walking with eyes closed or open didn't matter. The idea is that you should walk through darkness, or "hell" and then arrive at the church. It was a little bit scary, but mostly a cool experience and we were glad that we hadn't used the torches when we arrived.

Entering the cave...

...and coming out of the cave

More views of Lalibela churches

On our way back to our hotel from the churches we were caught in a heavy rain  storm and with our guide we sought shelter in a family's hut. They were extremely welcoming, insisting on us taking the good seats and together we could only sit and wait. We watched the lady of the house spinning a cotton thread as we were listening to the rain and watching the hens seeking shelter in the doorway. This is probably one of the most relaxing moments of our trip. 

Just like the chicks, we were caught in the rain - luckily a kind family let us sit in their hut to wait it out

We left Lalibela thinking that it is an incredible place. Not only is it situated in the most beautiful surroundings, it is also full of awesome sights and it is astonishing that the place is not more famous. Hopefully that will change. 

Posted by Grantandhelena 01:44 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (3)

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