Monthly Archives: May 2011

Simien Mountains and Gondar (ET)

The past two nights we bushcamped in the beautiful Simien Mountains. At night it got so cold that even my thermals had a rough time keeping me warm. In the first night we also had a loud thunderstorm right above us which went on for hours, dumped tons of freezing rainwater on the tents and lit up the sky constantly. After that and the ongoing rain on Sunday I never really got warm again until after the shower I just took.

Tents in the mist

 

In the mountains we saw jackals, bush buck, ravens and ibex, heard wild pigs and hyenas at night and made friends with the funny looking Gelada baboons. They are fairly tame and let you approach them as they sit on the ground and pick up grass with their long black hands. They look like regular baboons with a fur coat on but they are actually not even baboons.

Simien fox

 

We took a hike on Sunday morning which confirmed how horribly unfit I’ve become. My solution to this is that I will book a hiking trip in Morocco at the end of July. One could say that at 3,500 meters elevation everyone would huff and puff like a steam engine but I know better.
We were literally in the middle of nowhere but it was again a National Park which means we had to take a guide and two armed guards with us. At night when I went for a pee one of them followed me to make sure I wouldn’t get eaten by a leopard. These guys didn’t even sleep, they sat by the fire and talked all night. I always wonder what they have to say all day, at each camp people talk nonstop.

 

We saw a spectacular waterfall, spectacular because of its 600 meter drop. It floors me that so many beautiful places in nature are not better known.

 

This morning we packed up the camp and drove the 100km to Gondar. A nice hotel that just had to refill their water tank because I was doing my laundry in the bathtub (which is not allowed). It’s still a bit rainy but it’s probably nice to be a bit colder before we hit the Sudan…

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Debark (ET)

As I said before Ethiopia surprises me every day. Here in Debark in the Simien Mountains people are so friendly that you instantly wait for them to ask for money and they never do. I was a bit desperate to find internet to get my ongoing trip organized. At this point I would have settled for a quick email check just to see if a particular trip was available. Yesterday on our beautiful driving day again up and down mountains we stopped in a small village on top of a mountain and surprise surprise they had power and internet! Unfortunately it was too slow… but still!
When we arrived in Debark at 9pm a number of guys hung out by the hotel and immediately welcomed us to town. On the road we continuously heard the ‘you you you’ and ‘farengi’ and ‘give me money’ by kids that came out of nowhere to run along the truck. Here in Debark, a small place that doesn’t see many tourists, there was none of that. I asked if there was internet and two guys immediately ran off to have the cafe owner re-open his shop for me. One guy offered me his cell phone which evidently came with a reliable internet connection (unheard of in Ethiopia). Another guy wanted to talk to me in German but his whole concern was that I got everything I needed immediately. No talk of ‘you will remember me later, right’ or similar stuff. At the restaurant the waiter even ran off to another place to get us food and beer. Even the rooms were nice despite the lack of water or power sockets.

Last night it rained again and the entire place turned into a big mud castle. We had a lazy morning so the tour leaders could organize our guides for the Simien Mountains National Park (you can’t go anywhere without a guide in a NP) and I finally got to use the internet at the cafe when the power came back on at last. Before that I had already taken the offer of my new friend’s phone – again no money changed hands here. The net was superfast and although I still hadn’t heard back from the tour company about the next steps I finally got some stuff done. Basically they lost my business to a competitor.

There was a celebration in town, 20 years since something either related to a water dam or the conflict with Italy, nobody could explain this properly. A parade of kids and young people in sports or school uniforms holding banners were on their way along with guys on horses that wore frilly stuff around their heads and saddles. It was also market day and everyone seemed to be on their way there. Friendly faces and hellos all around.

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Aksum (ET)

Internet is still not working and tomorrow we will have a full day of driving, so if I can use it again it will be at the weekend when I can’t reach anyone I need to reach. Arggghh!

 

Today is the day that it occurred to me that going forward we will cramp in so much history that I may get historical mind overload. So far Africa hasn’t shown me much in terms of old buildings and the likes, the southern half of the continent primarily has beautiful landscapes and wildlife. Now it’s on and I wonder by when I will be sick of churches and Jesus talk. Maybe it’s not so bad that my Middle Eastern part of the trip will be canceled after all?! I had issues concentrating on what the guide said today as he was explaining the significance of the following sights (and I’m freely quoting from the Lonely Planet for a general summary):
We started at the Northern Stelae field which holds a bunch of huge monoliths that were used as gravestones over 1,800 years ago. They were sculpted from single pieces of granite and they are in pristine condition. Some have windows, doors and even doorknobs carved into them. When visiting the field you only see about 10 standing stelae, and a bunch of broken ones that are lying down, but supposedly there are over 120 of them here and 90% of them and their accompanying tombs have not been uncovered yet. They range from 1 to 33 meters in height, the three largest and most famous ones are Great Stele, King Ezana’s Stele and Rome Stele. Across the street is the St. Mary of Zion church which I skipped on this visit.

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We checked out the museum and the Enda Iyesus church next to the Stelae, the latter has colorful paintings on all four walls telling the story of Jesus and other bible stuff.


Also closeby is the Queen of Sheba’s Bath, a large rock hewn water reservoir with rock steps leading to it and cows drinking from it next to women doing their laundry in the brown water. The Lonely Planet says that the Bath was built a millenium after the Queen of Sheba.


Yet another few yards up there is a shack that was built to protect the King Ezana’s inscription; a pillar inscribed in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Greek from 330 AD. It records the king’s Christian military campaigns in Ethiopia and southern Arabia, as well as his quest to return the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum from Lake Tana.


A bit further up from there are the Tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel. Kaleb ruled in the 6th century, he brought Arabia under Aksumite rule, and Meskel was his son. Both tombs are accessed via a long straight stairway, the Gebre Meskel tomb has one chamber and five rooms, finely carved portals, and three sarcophagi.


From this location you can see the hills of Adwa that we drove across in the pouring rain yesterday, and in the far distance you can also see Eritrea.

 

The Queen of Sheba’s palace, aka Dungur, is a bit further out in the middle of nowhere. These ruins also postdate the Queen by over 1,500 years or so. They are well preserved and fully excavated, a large structure with many rooms including a kitchen that still shows two large brick ovens.

 

This afternoon it is raining for the first time at a time I could use to walk around and do things. Whenever we had rain on this trip in the past it was in convenient times, i.e. at night or while we were driving. There are a million other ancient things to see here but I have to say that I’m not overly sad to miss them today.

 

Aksum was not as I expected it to be. This country surprises me every day. Aksum is historically so important that I expected plenty of tourists and therefore a fairly modern city. Neither was the case. It almost seemed as if the place hasn’t changed in the past century. Nobody yelled ‘farengi’ or asked for money, but unfortunately nobody spoke English either. At the internet cafe when I asked when they expect a connection the answer was ‘avocado or mango’. Huh. Thanks for nothing.

 

Acocado and mango juices are consumed everywhere here and the mix of both is delicious. They must use at least 10 of each to make it, it’s very rich and it has no additional ingredients. To replicate it at home I would have to spend a fortune but of course here the fruit costs nothing. Unfortunately it’s also the only fresh fruit you get along with bananas and limes. Available vegetables are tomatoes, onions and chili peppers, sometimes a cabbage.

Wukro, Yeha (ET)

It’s 8.30am now and we have only just managed to escape the breakfast table at the hotel after two hours. Another priceless example in Ethiopian customer service.
The menu consisted of a full breakfast – juice, coffee, eggs, toast and cake (but juice and cake were not available), continental breakfast – more expensive with even less items, and a la carte selections such as eggs in various forms, omelets, pancakes and injera.
Learning from my earlier mistake that ‘egg’ probably means 3 total I asked how many eggs would come with the ‘poached egg’ order. One, supposedly. I ordered an omelet with it which arrived within the first hour, and received 4 unpeeled boiled eggs in a cup another hour later (but not before my tea). I also received toast and jam for some reason.
Cat ordered pancake and received toast and jam because pancakes were out. She learned that after having checked in four times to be reassured it would still be coming.
The waiter made a big deal about how Annie (but nobody else) wanted her fried eggs, she said “one side” and got ‘over easy’ naturally.
The ham omelet for Cameron and Dave didn’t have ham in it and the waiter didn’t comprehend the nature of our complaint. Only one coffee arrived and Johnny never received his breakfast at all. It could have been a two hour comedy program. The waiter said yes to everything and never wrote anything down, he disappeared the minute someone asked a question or ordered something without waiting for others to order, and he wouldn’t return for ages. We have long learned to consolidate our orders and have one person speaking only so to not confuse anyone, we also started to make the waiter repeat the order back to us but it’s a frustrating farce every single time. Then again, how can we (the only customers) expect breakfast off their menu at a four star hotel, how dare we?
As of now I’m sitting on the truck writing this while Cat is trying to sort out the bill…I heard she also just received her pancake.

Another hotel later (hot water but no toilet flush, pretty much nothing on dinner menu available) we are now in Aksum, the cradle of life. We drove through dry canyonous landscape and experienced massive thunderstorms just as we were descending the hills. The roads were either perfect or a complete disaster. The Chinese build the roads here but there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to where and when. You can drive for hours on smooth tarmacked road only to be suddenly switching to gravel for a few meters and back on tarmac again but this repeatedly for the next few miles. As it is custom for construction sites you can also then observe two people doing all the work with a minimum of ten others standing by to watch.

 

For lunch we stopped in Adigrat, very close to the border to Eritrea and technically not far from Yemen and Saudi Arabia if it wasn’t for the Red Sea. Skipping the restaurant named ‘Arse’ we opted for something that looked like a total whole in the wall but turned out to be a traditional restaurant with beautiful decor, top service and even better food. A shame that I chose this day to eat bland spaghetti of all things…

 

On the road to Aksum, the Tigray area, there are apparently over 100 rock hewn churches which range from easily accessible to forbidden for women to enter. We only stopped at one, Wukro Chirkos, the most accessible and also the biggest one. It was a whopping 100 birr per person to get in and a half hour of trying to get rid of the various non-English speaking guides. The church as such was only mildly interesting from the inside in my opinion but I’m not a church admirer and the whole religious stuff is lost on me anyway. It’s amazing to think that the churches here date back to the 4th to 8th century and were handcarved from rock but inside they only have a number of thick rugs, curtains hiding an altar and a whole bunch of very colorful Jesus and Mary paintings. Nice but I don’t have to see all 100 of them and luckily we aren’t planning on it.

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We did however stop in Yeha, the supposed birthplace of Ethiopia’s earliest civilization nearly 3 millennia ago. The temple dates back to the fifth century, it now only consists of walls but they’re interesting because no mortar was used to build them and they’re very precisely cut, i.e. symmetrically perfect. There was also a graveyard and a small museum but usually what you see in museums are old hymn books, more colorful paintings of Jesus or the apostles and coptic crosses.

The locals didn’t get any more money than another 100 birr entrance fee out of us but we did give two old guys a lift to Adwa 50 km away because a grandkid needed stitches on the chin in the hospital. Obviously we broke down and added bus money for the journey back as well. They were very grateful for the lift and kissed hands and blessed us all individually but they had no shame in begging for more either.

 

So now it’s late and we’re in Aksum and I just took advantage of the hot shower before the water runs out again. As with every hotel bathroom there was no shower curtain and the water on the floor doesn’t drain properly unless you count the bedroom floor as a success. Given that bathroom cleaning in hotels is rare and is certainly not going to happen during our stay (2 nights) we’ll have to wade through the water which I guess is appropriate for this historical location…
Internet is not working in town (“maybe tomorrow?”) which is frustrating because I need to get my trips after Egypt sorted. Those are the moments I could care less for Ethiopia, though overall I must say this is the African experience I was after.

Mekele (ET)

We had no intention to stay at the unfortunate bush camp any longer so we simply packed up and left and had breakfast in a town an hour away. And yes, I ate injera for breakfast (with scrambled eggs). Bland/sour as it may be I still prefer it to bread. Though I have to say that most bread here is really good because there are no preservatives in it and that seems to make all the difference.

 

At lunchtime we pulled up in Mekele, a bigger town with a really good vibe. Electronics and fashion shops everywhere, pool halls and high speed internet. The hotel we wanted was not available and we ended up staying at the more expensive four star Milano hotel that looked great but lacked the usual…power only from the one socket that dangerously hung out of the wall and no water until ‘later’ which could be 6pm, 10pm or never. This wouldn’t have been so bad had we not just bushcamped with no toilet privacy whatsoever and our water reserves on the truck had been full. Now we couldn’t even flush a toilet with rainwater as none was provided.

For lunch we headed straight into the “chicken house” which unfortunately didn’t satisfy the chicken craving I have. The roasted chicken I ordered consisted of the neck, a meatless wing and something resembling a breast with very rubbery meat. The service was less than inspiring, it was almost as if we were a nuisance.

There was an outdoor handball game on at the courtyard behind the hotel and we had great views from the 3rd floor balcony. The Simien mountain rangers wiped out the Mekele team in an exciting though short game, fun to watch, certainly with the crowd reaction (no women and only one vuvuzuela). I think I made it onto local tv again when I cheered for the Simien team from up high.

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Winners conga line

 

Dinner was exceptional, freshly made stone oven pizza that took forever but was well worth the wait and unnecessary modern decor of the restaurant. The waitress looked like one of the prostitutes we see hanging in and around bars and hotels, very pretty but overly skimpy and not able to walk in her high heels.

Korem (ET)

We had a driving day today that only got exciting in the afternoon when we set up a bushcamp next to a small lake by Korem. Korem is the area that was made famous in 1984 when a British news report picked up the story about the current drought and consequent famine. Soon those pictures ran world wide and the big Ethiopian charity effort set in.
These days the area is doing fine, it’s green and fertile here again and there are no signs of extreme poverty as such.

 

Whenever we stop for a toilet break, to shop or to set up meals we quickly attract a crowd. We can be in the middle of nowhere with nobody in sight and yet seconds later entire families appear to stare and watch at close distance. This is often followed by begging for money if not aggressively. We usually give away plastic or glass bottles or empty cans, the locals use everything they can put their hands on.

This time however the crowd grew much faster and bigger and we had to enforce some crowd control by putting tent poles down as a barrier not to be crossed. This was only successful in theory as the tent poles kept wandering closer all the time and a bunch of older men had taken on the task of telling the younger people off but not actually staying behind the poles themselves. We suspected that they wanted money for this effort and politely tried to make clear that we wouldn’t pay for anything. We also put up a bunch of folding chairs to mark our territory and those were promptly taken up by the locals who now sat there looking at us as if we were putting on a show specifically for them.

Peaceful and empty – until we arrive

A crowd within minutes

We’re setting up my tent but nobody helps

View from inside my tent

In the meantime I wandered off to the woods for a pee and for the first time ever in Africa I had people following me. I figured they would get the hint but the next time I looked back there were at least 30 giggling kids behind me and I yelled at them in Amharic to get lost which had no effect. A rock throwing adult tried his best to chase them away but immediately demanded money for this while I was still pulling up my pants.

Mid squat picture of my audience

For the next three hours we set up tents and prepared our dinner under the nosy eyes of at least 100 people. In the background their cattle was roaming free and unguided, they had forgotten about it. I had to chase a calf away that tried to inspect my tent.

Cattle? What cattle?

The Farengi Show!

Initially the crowd fascination and some interaction from a few kids who spoke English was quite entertaining despite the chaos. It’s definitely weird to be stared at at such a close distance and you can’t get much done with folks all over. To me it also seemed wrong to set up a kitchen and cook a gourmet meal, then polish it off right in front of people who probably often go hungry. I wondered if some of them thought that we had come out to cook specifically for them. Some tried to get food when we were eating but we had no leftovers and we couldn’t have given them to one or two people only anyway as there would have been a riot.

Finally when it got dark the first round of folks disappeared with the cattle and we began cleaning up. At this point it must have really become obvious that we were not handing out anything and the older guys demanded money. When we declined some people started taking things. The entire time we had been able to leave everything out on the open without a fear of it disapearing but now that it was dark and they were frustrated it was on. Johnny and Nick had to get loud and chase people away and in return they got rocks thrown at them. Unfortunately the experience had turned sour.
Five chairs went missing, I saw a washing up bowl being nicked and the tent bag with some pegs was taken out of my zipped up tent.
We locked up the truck and made a fire. At this point only three kids were still hanging around, freezing in their blankets a few yards away. One of them spoke fairly good English and eventually we asked them to join us at the fire. We took pictures with them and learned some Amharic. We learned that God is responsible for making you fart but that it is rather rude to do it in public in Africa – a sentiment I wished all of the guys in our group would share! They never seemed to want to go home and when we finally went into our tents they stayed at the fire and talked for a few more hours.
I had a rough night. After the tent bag had been stolen my tent had been moved closer to the truck but nobody had checked the floor for rocks first. And there were plenty. I didn’t sleep much and certainly not well. After midnight it started to rain and my rain cover had not been pegged down yet so I did that. Later on we had a huge thunderstorm that dumped gallons of water on us and even the best pegged down flysheet couldn’t save my tent from letting in some water. (I was still doing well, others were swimming in their tents). I heard noises all night and often listened to hear if the kids were trying to steal stuff out of tents. Every hour or so someone from the group got up to peg down a tent, get onto the truck or do whatever. I couldn’t see the three boys either time I left the tent and figured that they had finally gone home when in reality they had slept under the truck and had ceased their moment: At 4am Nick left his wet tent for the truck and 10 minutes later his tent had wandered off into the pouring rain. Everybody was up but nobody noticed it because of the constant shuffle at our camp.
In the morning we unexpectedly only had six people watching us leaving the camp, the others had probably gotten the word from the kids to better not show their faces again. It was a frustrating end to an otherwise fairly enjoyable experience.

Lalibela pt 2 (ET)

An intense power breakfast! Yesterday the egg order at our hotel left me unimpressed as often fried eggs are scrambled up first making the egg a yellowy mix with no particular flavor. So today we crossed the road and had breakfast at the ‘farengi approved Unique restaurant’ where we ordered two fried eggs each. The incredulous look on the waitresses’s face should have given away that the singular word ‘egg’ on the menu should not have been taken at face value. Three perfect eggs arrived per plate making us wonder if she threw a bonus in because we appeared hungry. Three more eggs each appeared a few minutes later. I’ve had my cholesterol share for the week with one breakfast and it was delicious!

The what?

The rest of the day was very lazy. I managed to dodge the guide after all. We were supposed to hike up to a monastery but upon hearing the price and the proposed time only two people went in the end and I wasn’t one of them. He was very disappointed, even sent our leader to knock on the door but I had no interest.