A Travellerspoint blog

Mekele

Just a taster.

sunny 30 °C

With a slight sense of remorse we left Aksum on the ever reliable 6am bus, fearing a return to the trials of the everyday ethiopian experience. Expecting a full day on the road we settled in for another bum numbing ride. So we were wrapped to arrive mid-afternoon giving us a chance to explore the city. We checked into a 40 birr hotel and set off to explore Mekele. Two things were prodominantly on our minds, the cheapest internet in Ethiopia and a refreshing juice. We soon determined that the cheapest internet was also the most unreliable and dropped that idea like a stone. Desperate for a 50% success rate we headed in search of some juice. Not hard to find considering every second shop was a juice bar, once we had started down the culinary trail there was no turning back.

The food in Ethiopia consists of meat, injera and not much else. Until this point I had been very happy as I generally like my meals to be meat heavy but day in day out it can become tiresome and I was ready for a change. Di had looked up a pizza place in the L.P. which looked like just the ticket so we chowed down on some good old western food. It was so good that I knew my local food intake was to be permanantly reduced.

The next morning we resumed the hunt for internet and were again defeated. The problem being that the only ISP in Ethiopia is the government so when that goes down the shows over, all over. With another defeat on our backs we decided to visit the town's museum. We weren't expecting much and at first, that's all we got. Everything closes from 12-2 in Ethiopia and we arrived at about 12:15. So we settled down under the shade of a nearby tree and passed the time. When the museum reopened the curator came to meet us at the gates. We had him and the museum to ourselves. The museum was actually an old castle of the royal family and as such it housed mostly royal possesions. It was actually quite a rewarding attraction. To put the icing on the cake, half way through I got a call from my parents, reconnecting me with home.

With little more to do in town we expected another kick backed afternoon. On our way back to our hotel we saw another internet establishment, with not much else on we thought we might aswell give it one more try and we hit the jackpot. So I passed the rest of the day, bum firmly in chair, catching up on emails and this blog. Not far into my epic internet session a very loud and colourful parade hit the street outside and it continued for much of the afternoon, thousands of people singing and dancing, marching bands and just general cheerfulness. Then we remembered, it was Timkat. The 19th of January is a massive Ethiopian Orthodox Catholic celebration day. So we enjoyed the parades and captured a few frames and photos to remember it.

Happy to have had a surprisingly interesting day we walked briskly home to our jumpers. On arrival Di realised she didn't have her wallet on her, so we walked even faster back to the internet cafe, no surprises, it was gone. The good news was now that neither of us had a wallet we couldn't lose them again. I ventured back to Ethiopian cuisine for dinner, it was cold and disgusting, reaffirming my renewed invigour for faranji food.

Early the next morning we caught a mini-van to the nearby town of Wukro. Our launching point to the rock-hewn churches of Tigray. We were forgetting the day after Timkat is a public holiday so facilities were limited. None the less we hired a van to take us around for 400 birr. The first church we visited was not known for its architecture but rather its dazzlind position, carved into a rock face separated by several hundred metres from the ground below. Even the route up was a little hairy, a grade 5 for those who know australian climbing grades. It was truly scenic and well worth the hike, the church itself was tiny and cost 50 birr each for entry so we decended without ever going in. The second and last church was supposedly the most impressive and I could see why. The whole thing was hewn out of one rock and the roof was carved carefully with intricate patterns. Not wanting to over do the churches before we got to Lalibela we went back to town. The buses had stopped running because of the public holiday but we luckily found a ride in a car. The route to Lalibela was long so we filled up on pizza and ice cream and went to bed early.

Posted by jaredlking 23:43 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Aksum

Doing a dollar down the highway.

sunny 27 °C

We had allowed six days for the Simiens and had only used four, leaving us ahead of our schedule, impressive seeing we didn't really have an itinerary. With the extra time up our sleeves we decided to slow it down a notch.

Despite being two tourist hotspots there are no busses from Debark to Aksum, probably because next to no tourists bother with local busses. There is a bus from Gonder to Shire (near Aksum) which goes through Debark but by the time it gets to Debark the seats are all taken. Due to dilligent planning we were prepared for this and had found a guy who we paid to go back to Gonder the day before we were due to leave, stay the night and in the morning buy two tickets and reserve two seats on the bus, we paid him 10 USD including his expenses (hotel, food, bus fares). We met him in the Debark bus station at 9am, got our seats and left for Shire. We arrived in Shire later than we hoped but grateful to be alive. I know I said the blue nile crossing was steep but it looked like a bowling green in comparison to this, add to that the bus driver from hell and even the locals were crossing themselves and sweating in fear. Despite our worst thoughts we arrived in Shire before 6pm and caught a mini-van the final hour and a half to Aksum. Di had stomach cramps when we arrived so we got the nearest hotel. He was asking 175 birr for the room but with due stubborness and my lack of compasion for Di we chiseled him down to 100. It was more than we wanted to pay but we dealt with it for one night.

The first thing we did the next morning was to find a cheaper hotel, we got one for 40 birr which we made home for another two nights. Farenji fever was a little less prominent in Aksum and we took full advantage of it. Aksum is most famous for its stelae which are essentially giant obelisks. The biggest standing one is 23m and the biggest one full stop is around 33m. The giant one fell during its ressurection in the 4th century, it broke through a near by tomb and is believed to be the last stelae ever made. We explored the local tombs and admired the intricacies, precision and engineering involved in the stelae for just over an hour, ate our bakery rolls and hired some bikes. We rode the bikes out to the stelae quarry some 4km out of town. The rode was rough and the bikes in disrepair, we never actually found the quarry but we did come across some 4th century palace ruins and another stelae field.

It was only 2 o'clock when we returned but as I mentioned before we were in cruising mode so we spent the rest of the afternoon drinking fruit juice, beer and playing cards. In the process we were approached by a local guy who runs a free english school for local teenagers. He asked us if we would attend the class to give the kids some english exposure through a question and answer format. We cautiously agreed after establishing no money was to change hands. The class was interesting and beneficial to the kids despite the less than perfect english being taught and the embedded moral lessons.

Our second day in Aksum was similar to the first, a morning of sights and an afternoon relaxing. Our first stop was to see a stone in a 'park' in the centre of town. It is a kind of Rosetta stone which has the same message engraved in three different languages. The second point of interest was the so called queen of sheeba's baths which had been concreted and as such looked like any old resevoir and thirdly we visited two king's tombs on a nearby hill. We were prepared with head torches but we were not prepared for the bats. They gave me a fright when I entered their 'lair' and they launched into the air around me but it was not as frightening as when Di pointed out the threat of rabies. The other tomb was lit, both were interesting and worth the visit.

For the afternoon we sat on the decking of a ritzy hotel overlooking town and had a few quiet beers as we watched raptors glide effortlesly on the thermals. Aksum had been just what the doctor ordered and we both felt refreshed and rejuvinated.

Posted by jaredlking 07:25 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Simien Mountains

A cure for Farenji Fever

sunny 16 °C

If you're all a little bit sick of my 'we did this, we did that' blogging then take a break while I fill you in on the life of a foreigner in Ethiopia. There is a phenomena here which the Lonely Planet describes as 'Faranji Fever', just one day of it gives you a taste of the celebrity life. You have more money than anyone around you, you never cook or clean but more than anything else you are constantly flocked by civilians. In case that was too cryptic for you, everyone on the street calls out "hello" (not once but for the entire period you are in view), the curious rural folk follow you around and the young kids constantly beg for money, biscuits and even pens. There are no exceptions to this and it can become a little over whelming.

Di and I hoped we knew the cure, a trip to the Simien mountains. So once again we got up before 5am and walked to the local bus station, we organised a bus to Debark, the launching pad for the Simiens. By nightfall we had organised our compulsory scout (complete with AK-47) and our guide. We even got a 4WD which skips the first 'mundane' day of the walk for 30 USD, usually priced at 75. We retired early for another early rise.

After the usual morning preceedings we met our driver and the rest of the team and headed for Sankaber. Here we organised a muleteer and a mule to carry the teams gear (each cost 2 USD a day). Within 15 minutes of walking we were navigating along a several hundred metre high escarpment, no more than a metre from the edge. Its a difficult decision to chose between looking at the view and making sure your feet land at the right place. By an hour we had already seen Gelada baboons and a Klipspringer. In another hour Di was wrecked, to her credit she trudged on to our lunchtime recovery point. The day was filled with many beautiful views and some good wildlife spotting including birds of prey numbering in what seemed like the hundreds, most impressive of all was the Lammergeyer vulture.

We arrived at Geech camp mid afternoon and after setting up our tent Di took full advantage of it while some of the local kids coaxed me into a game of soccer. It started of well, I was a bit of a star if I don't say so myself. But when you live at sea level, soccer at 3600m is quite a task and in 15 minutes my lungs were screaming at me, in another 15 minutes I retired to the amusement of the locals. Still enjoying the experience I sat down to watch the rest of the game. One of the goals was situated within 5m of a steep hill and as you would expect the ball was lost over it not long into the game. I joined the search party looking for the ball and as we were proceeding down the hill Nur, our guide said "Shhhhh, look a big cat" my eyes followed his finger to the creek in the base of the valley and to my surprise I saw a leopard. Sounds of excitement from everyone in the search party startled the cat and it took off. It was the first time our guide had seen one and the other guide at camp had never seen one either. I counted myself very lucky. For those of you who are interested the ball was also found and soccer resumed.

Di and I cooked ourselves a rather ordinary pasta for dinner on our newly purchased $10, overpriced, chinese camp stove, from there Di went to bed and I joined the locals and team members around a eucalypt fed camp fire. For my benefit those who could speak english did so on occasions but in the end the conversations transgressed until they were 100% Amharic. It didn't take long to register that they were all telling campfire stories and as much as I desparetely wanted to understand I still felt privileged just to hear their family stories.

The following morning we had a late-ish start because were were only doing a half-day hike. On our way to a near by peak of around 4000m we came accross a troop of Geldada baboons. They had no fear of humans and we got within 10 metres of them. It was a magical experience; the youngsters played in the trees and the older ones mulled around eating the grass (Gelada baboons are the only vegetarian baboons in the world). We could have sat there all day but we didn't have lunch with us so after an hour we pushed on to the 'summit'. The peak itself did not really stand out as it wasn't much higher than its surrounding plateau, on the other hand the views were astounding, with a lack of words to describe it check out the attached photos (when I upload them). We took a different path home via yet another view point, as we sat staring down to the valley below Nur spotted some Walia Ibex an endangered endemic species of goat, although common in other areas of the mountains we were very lucky to see them where we were.

Back at camp we cooked some Mi Gorengs which have never tasted so good. As we were finishing up the local school kids were let out and with it came the offers to buy beer, eggs and chickens. I declined all three but I secretly longed for a beer. I started asking one of the boys sitting near me about school and soon enough the teacher in me came out and I started giving him a few maths problems to do. In no time I had about a dozen kids gathered around all furiously at work trying to solve the tasks I set. By the end of it all I was confident a few of the locals would remember order of operations, at least for a little while. A pasta dinner later, we were in bed and out of the cold.

Unfortunately the only way out of the mountains in the time we had set was to retrace our steps. So as we rewound the familiar path to Sankaber camp I sadly reflected on how quickly people become complacent, the views though no less spectacular didn't take my breath away. We encountered some more baboons, this time from afar, I still could have watched them all day. There was trouble in paradise as a few of the bachaelor baboons were challenging the older males for a place in the troop. They were fighting on hills that approached 75 degrees at points yet somehow none of them ended up falling off the cliffs at the bottom. When it was all settled one of the bachelors carried his sorry self away for some more alone time.

With the help of a shortcut we arrived at Sankaber early and to our surprise the place was heavily burdened with tents. Some tour groups were coming through and there were no shortage of old german, french, italian etc hikers. We were unceremoniously sent to the kiddies table, or rather the poor peoples thatched cooking hut where we were accompanied by three other people in our age bracket and the staff from the other groups. We drooled over the oldies prepared meals as we made yet another spaghetti dish. Its not that our cooking is so bad its just that the ethiopians have very little in the way of fresh produce available. I shared a nip of ouzo with a british guy, got some good info on the rest of africa and went to bed.

The trudge down from Sankaber to Debark was steep and slippery. Di and I were both very grateful that we had taken the cheap ride up. The views of the fourth day were meagre in comparison to the other days and it really did just seem like the way out. Our scout, Getatcho was leading as our guide caught the car back with most of our gear. He had a different opinion of a walking track to our guide and pointed his imaginary compass to Debark and made a straight line to it. So through grass, dirt, creeks and errosion channels we made a hay line for Debark. We knew we were near town when we heard the first, "Hello, give me money" I think it's the only time we have ever enjoyed that sound and it was still grating. We arrived in good time, and luckily we got a room in the same hotel as before.

After some recovery time and food we headed to our guides house and watched the end of a really ordinary movie with him. Di bought a local item called a gavvy (jumper/blanket/snot rag) which no local would be without. We said good bye to Nur and followed the usual dinner, teeth bed procedure.

Posted by jaredlking 05:14 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Gonder

The swing of things

sunny 30 °C

With fear of repeating the epic Addis to Bahir Dar trip we found a few fellow faranjis (foreigners) who had there own van. They were touring through Europe, Africa, Middle East, Asia and Australia. Luckily for us, of all their possible destinations, the next was Gonder. We offered them the cost of a bus ticket to ride in the back of the van and to our delight they accepted. The ride was bliss, the chairs were padded, we had leg room, it took half the time of the bus and they dropped us at the door, yet somehow the whole thing seemed a little unsatisfying, we were in a cocoon separated from the things we had come to see.

It was still reasonably early when we left our 60 Birr (6 USD) room with the intentions of exploring Gonder, commonly known as Africa's camelot. The first site was an obvious choice; The Royal Enclosure. Gonder was the capital of Ethiopia in the 17th century and as such it was filled with ruins from the time. The Royal Enclosure housed a majority of them including palaces, banquet halls, stables, a library and more. Some of them had been rebuilt, some were still in pieces, one had even been rendered by the italians. Di and I got a little bit excited exploring Fasilada's palace; we had the place to ourselves and we got a little lost in time. After exploring the entire enclosure with Lonely Planet as a guide we headed to the Piazza to catch a local mini-van/shared taxi to Fasilada's Bath. The bath was a place of swimming for the royals of the time but its real purpose was for religious ceremonies. Before I launch into an explanation you'll need a bit of background. Ethiopia is commonly believed to house the Ark of the Covenant, this is incredibly important for Orthodox Christians and as such every church in Ethiopia has an inner sanctum which contains a replica of the Ark. On the 19th of January every year a celabration called Timkat takes place, the Ark replicas are taken to the water and dunked, a renewal of faith for the faithful. In Gonder, in 1636 the Timkat celebration was performed at Fasilada's bath, and it still is. It all sounds very grand and the bath was quite impressive but as per most sites in Ethiopia they were being restored, a worthy visit none the less.

With a wiff of seeing every thing we wanted to see in Gonder in one day and the ability to recover the day we lost on the bus we marched for a church on the other side of town, the Debre Berhan Selassie church. Although we were prepared for a "church overdose" in Ethiopia this was still one that we wanted to see. The ceiling had over 100 cherubs painted on it, each with a slightly different facial expression , a very artistic concept for someone painting over 300 or 400 years ago.

Posted by jaredlking 04:42 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Bahir Dar

So happy you could cry

sunny 32 °C

The name says it all. After being stuck in holels with no water, no or intermittent electricity and being covered in dirt from head to toe and arguing with yet another driver about the price (gesticulation arguing is an art form unto itself) we arrived at a place called Ghion Hotel or as Di and I liked to call it "Heaven". We organised a room for just under $15 AUD. It had hot water, a mosquito net, comfy beds and a beautiful view of lake Tana. It was a steep price but at the time we didn't care. First off we took advantage of the hot water and threw a little shower party before heading out for a few cool beers and some overcrowded plates of food. As I said "Heaven". We organised a lake tour for the next day and had a long sleep.

For the first time since we left Thailand (not that long) the sun beat us up. We enjoyed another huge meal for breakfast before being rushed off to the boat. The lake tour comprised of a few visits to some island based monastries, the oldest of which was made in 1313AD. Some of the priests were so old they looked like they may have been involved in the construction. I won't go into too much detail, just check out the pictures when they have been uploaded. It was a worthwhile day but not a raving point.

We spoilt ourselves at dinner again before doing a budget check, a rude reminder that expensive hotels and three cooked meals a day are not affordable. Oh well it was fun while it lasted.

Posted by jaredlking 06:33 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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