Travelling Hopefully

14 and 15 January

My flight wasn’t until 8.15pm from Heathrow, so I had a relaxed morning at home. As always happens, I threw a few last minute items into my suitcase. For once, I wasn’t that worried about the weight. The check in rules for Ethiopian Airlines allowed me two cases of up to 23kg each. I had only packed the one case, but I had a foldaway second case should I need to remove weight from the one.

A taxi took me to the train station, and then I went by train and London Underground to Heathrow. The Underground is not made for anyone with luggage. Many stations only offer steps, not a lift or escalator. I do wonder how disabled people cope.

So, as usually happens with me, I was at the check in counter three hours before the flight was due to depart. My check in case was only 21.7kg. I had a small meal at the airport before going to my boarding gate. I’m not certain whether airline food has become worse over the years, or whether I’ve become more picky, but I find what is offered to be nearly inedible. So I usually have a meal at the airport.

The flight was direct to Addis Ababa and only took 7 1/2 hours. I was unable to sleep, although we left at 8pm. I read a book on my iPhone, and started a ‘Doctor Who’ episode which I’d downloaded to same iPhone before leaving the UK.

We landed at 6.20am Ethiopian time—three hours ahead of UK time. Ethiopian currency cannot be obtained outside of the country, so I exchanged dollars for Birr at the airport. I was unprepared for the huge pile of notes which were handed to me. All were 100Brr, which is around £3.16 at current exchange rates.

I’d obtained my eVisa in advance, so joined that queue. Immigration was quite straightforward. I collected my case, and found the guide at Arrivals. Four of us had been on the flight, and a minibus took us to the hotel. After checking in, my roommate and I went to our room, and went to bed.

At noon, the group met for an initial briefing. Then several of us went to a local restaurant for a very nice lunch. The Italians occupied Ethiopia in modern times, and the restaurant offered pizzas, pasta, and various grilled meat dishes. I had beef ribs with spinach. The beer looked tempting, but I was half asleep anyway so alcohol seemed like a very bad idea.

After lunch, we boarded the minibus to visit several sites in the city. The run down nature of the capital caught us by surprise. Most shops were still operating out of shacks. The new high rises use wooden poles as scaffolding. 

Our first stop was the mausoleum of Menelik II. Cameras were strictly forbidden. We had to leave them on the minibus, and men guarding the entrance asked if we had cameras on us. 

We walked up a pathway which smelled of eucalyptus and soil. Birds flitted between the trees. I’m certain the very small ones were some type of flycatchers. But the most wonderful creatures were near the mausoleum itself. Giant tortoises, native to the country, who have take up residence in the grounds. I snuck a quick photo with my iPhone.

We had to leave our shoes outside the church entrance. The church was rather plain, walls featuring modern paintings of various saints and biblical scenes. The air smelled of incense. We first visited the outer area, then the inner. We went down a set of stone stairs to visit the burial place of Menelik II. The air was thick with smoke, so I assume the tombs are regularly censed. Our guide, Gabre, had told us that 60% of Ethiopians are Christians, and the majority of those are Ethiopian Orthodox. The country follows the Orthodox calendar, so the day to them was actually January 9.

We emerged back to fresh air. A couple of tortoises were slouching around the entrance gates. We boarded the mini bus, and went to our next stop, the Holy Trinity Church. Today, we were told, was Trinity Day. A number of people were visiting the church to pray, holding up lit objects which were more like tapers than candles. Many of the women, in particular, wore white shawls which they draped over their heads and across their backs. 

Again, shoes off before entering the church. During services, we were told, women sit on the right side, men on the left, and the centre is kept clear. But we wandered freely. 

A man came up to me to ask, ‘Where from?’ I replied, ‘Near Coventry, England.’ He asked hopefully, ‘Manchester?’ When I held up two fingers to tell him, ‘Two people in our group are from Manchester’ he grinned and held out his fist for a fist bump. Probably a Manchester United supporter. I came across a MU supporter when I was in South Africa.

Last stop was the National Museum of Ethiopia. The major attraction is the hominid exhibit and, in particular, the bones of ‘Lucy.’ So much has been learnt about human evolution from discoveries in Ethiopia. I was thrilled to see the fossils, and I had my photo taken standing next to a mockup of Lucy’s full skeleton. 

Considering how important these finds are, I thought the museum was rather dingy. Not so much fallen onto hard times as never having had much attention paid to it in the first place.

Back to the hotel. I decided to snack in my room on the dried fruit and oatcakes I’d brought from England. Then to bed at 8pm.

16 January

Woke several times during the night, and then stifled a groan when the alarm went off at 4.30am. Bag was packed and in the hotel lobby at 5am as instructed. I had coffee and warm vegetables from the buffet breakfast. At 5.40am we headed off to the airport. 

Chaos. We had to undergo a full security check just inside the building. The scanner for which we were queuing stopped working. Our guide told us to simply shift over to the next one. The single woman operating said scanner was not pleased. She wanted us to go outside the building and come in by the door nearer her belt. Rather than process the bags, she and our guide had a major row. Finally she went back to work.

The guide had us take our bags to check in, where he handled it on a group basis (no individual weighing of bags). We went through security again, before boarding a bus to take us to the rather small prop plane which would fly us to Bahar Dar. 

The flight was only 40 minutes long. A short drive brought us to our hotel, which has lovely views of the lake but could use several licks of paint and a thorough cleaning of the bathroom. We had thirty minutes to sort ourselves out before going back to the minibus for a trip to the Blue Nile Falls.

The drive itself was fascinating. We went down dirt roads past farming communities. Men were ploughing with oxen, donkeys pulled carts piled high with hay or logs. Small stores were set next to farming compounds. 

We stopped to obtain the ticket for the Blue Niles Falls, then disembarked at the start of what sounded like a straightforward walk. However, the walk turned out to be more challenging for those of us who find scree slippery and up down rocky paths difficult. Farmers with donkeys or cows passed us from time to time, and women or children determined to sell us a scarf or a hat. 

As it’s the dry season, the falls are in a reduced state. Still nice to see, and we gained new view points as we walked around. A short break in a shelter, in which we had either small cups of thick black coffee or soft drinks, helped. It was still another long walk out (it was a circular walk), although this was on the flat. At one point, we boarded a small boat to take us across the river. More children appeared, begging for money and shouting at us if we refused.

Some time later, we finally reached the mini bus, and returned to the city for a rather nice fish lunch. Our guide took us to the market, and we kept close behind him through the maze of stalls. The mixed smells of herbs and spices filled the air, and I was amazed at all the onions and garlic for sale. One stall had everything you needed to make your own beer—malted barley and hops.

Our final destination was a viewpoint over the city. Back at the hotel, a fellow traveller and I bought beers and sat in the hotel grounds near the lake to watch the sun go down. Only when it was dark and mosquitoes came calling did we go back inside.

17 January

Slept poorly. Ethiopia is three hours ahead of the UK, so my body couldn’t work out why I was in bed so early. There was also the charming sound of a mosquito whine to wake me.

We had an early start. After a decent breakfast of egg on toast, along with strong coffee and an avocado smoothie, we left the hotel at 7.30am for the short drive to the boat. The boat had been chartered for our group only, so there was plenty of room to spread out and no worries about personal belongings. 

We started out across Lake Tana. I heard a loud snorting, like a pig, and turned to see a hippo nearby. Good start!

Both birds and fishermen were active in the early light. Cormorants landed alongside the boat at regular intervals—it seems that fish are stirred up by a boat’s passage. Fishermen were out in small boats constructed out of reeds, and most of them had one or two pelicans in attendance. Most of the fishermen were at a distance, but we did pass quite near one man, who looked unimpressed by the experience.

We travelled for three hours, enjoying the sight of green islands in the sunshine. The boat offered the small cups of thick, black Ethiopian coffee, and a toilet which left something to be desired. I balanced the desire for one against the need for the other.

Our first stop was the Narga Selassie Monastery, based on an island. We walked through a stone gatehouse to the small church. A man carrying a rifle hovered in the grounds, offering small replicas of reed boats for the grand price of 100 Birr. 

The priest came to join our guide as we went inside to view the paintings. The illustrations were a mixture of biblical stories and those of saints. Gabre explained everything through the lens of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, much of which is not in the biblical record. For example, he said that Mary had been raised in the Temple, that Joseph had been her guardian, not her husband. The depictions of the Flight into Egypt showed events along the journey, mostly of people who had either helped or hindered the holy family. All this was rather confusing to some of us, who compared notes as to what was and was not in the Bible.

Bird life and giant spiders distracted the naturists amongst us. We also enjoyed the sight of a pied kingfisher. The priest also opened up the church treasury, and brought out various silver crosses and illustrated Bibles. The man with the rifle was on the island to help guard these valuable items.

Once back on the boat, we had lunch and some of us washed our sandwiches down with a beer. Birds and fishermen had disappeared. I amused myself by trying to photographer a large insect which was flying around the boat. Gabre said it was a cricket, which I doubt, but he did confirm that it was carnivorous. Small white insects also flew around the boat, and I saw the bigger bug catch them in his mandibles.

We headed back across the lake, calling in to URA Kidane Mehret monastery about two hours later. This one is much more visited, as was evident by the large number of stalls set up to sell souvenirs. The owners were quite persistent at trying to sell their offerings of scarves, coffee, silver crosses, and paintings. I ignored them on the way up, but was distracted by a troop of Vervet monkeys.

The church was similar to the previous one. The walls had been built out of mud and straw on a brick base. The paintings were of a similar style, but had some new stories to offer us. I enjoyed the one of saints on horses, symbolically destroying the older, pagan religions under their mounts’ hooves. Another painting depicted the Council of Nicea, and Arian as suffering digestive difficulties for daring to preach his heresy.

I bought a few items on the way back down. Haggling would usually bring the price down to at least half of the originally quoted amount, although sometimes the original amount was so small that I couldn’t be bothered. Of course, once you bought one thing, the other sellers would try to sell you more of the same.

The captain of the boat (young and dreadlocked) took us to the head of the Blue Nile, which flows from the lake. We came across a group of hippos, and smaller boats which came to view the same. Then, as a last treat, we saw a fisherman surrounded by a mob of pelicans.

We arrived back at our hotel just after 6pm, and had an hour before going out to dinner at a local restaurant. There was no hot water anywhere in the hotel, which continued for the rest of our stay. This upset some people more than others. At the restaurant, we had traditional Ethiopian food. Meat comes in a sauce, and you use the local floppy bread, rolled up like large pancakes, to scoop up the food. No utensils. I shared half a bottle of Ethiopian red wine with a fellow traveller. It was drinkable, but not memorable.

18 January

Another early start. We left the hotel at 7.30am, stopping only once on our four hour journey to Gondar. Today was the eve of Timkat, and Gabre wanted us to arrive before roads were shut off for the procession. The drive took us through rural countryside and small towns. We had to be careful when donkeys or sheep were on the road, and once had to come to a complete stop due to a suddenly suicidal chicken.

We arrived at our cliff top hotel (wonderful views!) around 11.30am. After a lunch with very slow service (nearly 45 minutes to get our food), we headed down into town. 

Timkat is one of the biggest festivals for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. It is the celebration of the baptism of Jesus though, for reasons I haven’t yet worked out, they also celebrate the Ark of the Covenant. (One Ethiopian myth is that the Ark was preserved in the country for many years.) Various churches in many towns, including Gondar, parade through the streets, bringing out their copies of the Ten Commandments. 

We went to a square where the procession was supposedly going to enter. After a half hour, Gabre found out that the procession had actually taken a different route. As we were missing a couple of people, he sent the rest us off in the right direction whilst he looked for the other two. We followed the sounds of drums and singing to find the procession, entering the crowds near the end.

Over the course of the next couple of hours, I slowly made my way to the front. (Our group had quickly become split up by the crowds.) The back end consisted of what I assumed were the different church groups. Each had people in similar costume at the edges of the road, single file, singing and clapping their hands. The middle was left clear for the drummers and the main singer, who walked behind a slow moving vehicle equipped with loudspeakers and a microphone. Incense was burning in a large brazier on wheels. The onlookers walked on the kerb alongside. Men in high visibility waistcoats were friendly but firm about insisting that the crowds walked on the (often uneven) pavement to keep the roads clear.

The section before this held priests. They walked on red carpets which were rolled up behind them and unrolled in front of them. A structure, about waist high and set on wheels, surrounded the priests and was pushed along by other men. The priests walked under umbrellas, and wore some extraordinary outfits. The talbot, the replica of the Ten Commandments, was worn on the head of some of the priests, covered by decorated cloths.

Ahead of them were several floats, one of which carried a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. 

All along the route, young men in similar coloured clothing would run around, burst into song, and whack their long sticks together. I soon learnt that, when they made a charge, it was best to scramble out of their way. 

The crowd would thin out, then thicken again. Sometimes I could move quite freely and take photographs, other times I was shuffling along in the midst of warm bodies. Fortunately we had some cloud cover, which kept temperatures down. 

The procession ended up in the small outdoor stadium, meeting another float coming the other way. The priests emerged from their structures, and the replica Ten Commandments were carried down to the castle and baths. I was nearly trampled by a couple of horses at the front of one of the processions, and also had to scramble out of the way as a group of the young men made a charge through the crowd. However, I found this rather exciting rather than frightening. 

I made my way into the walled enclosure which surrounds the castle and baths. The priests were chanting, but it was hard to see exactly what they were doing. After awhile, I left the area to look for our pick up point. When it became apparent that I simply couldn’t remember where the mini bus was supposed to come, I boarded a tuc tuc (small taxi) and paid to be taken back up to the hotel. I was just in time to admire the views, and the sunset, before dinner and a return to the room. 

A video from the procession can be viewed by clicking here. 

19 January

Five of our group took up the option of leaving the hotel at 3am to go and watch the Timkat celebrations at the baths. I decided that bed was the better option! Those who did attend told us that there was a lot of chanting and processing until around 6am, when the priests blessed the water and young men jumped in to renew their baptisms.

We didn’t leave the hotel until 11am. Our first stop was Debre Berhan Selassie church, known for the beautiful wall paintings. The ceiling is full of angels, depicted as large heads surrounded by wings. The crucifixion scene showed a skull belong the cross, following the tradition that Jesus died over Adam’s grave. Some vultures sat in the trees outside, and I managed to photograph a hawk as he launched into flight.

The mini bus took us back down into town, just in time to see the procession. This time, I had a prime viewing space. One of the guards actually invited me to stand near the front. The floats went past, and the priests, and then for some time I watched the dancers and drummers. 

We headed off to the castle complex, our bus carefully navigating through the crowds of people on the roads. The castles have been built over several centuries, by various kings. Many locals were wandering through the area, some dressed in costume and enjoying themselves, others with less noble intentions. One young man hovered around our group for awhile before trying to steal from one woman’s handbag. He also took a photo of me, which made me feel uncomfortable. Gabre made a phone call, and five minutes later guards arrived and escorted the man away.

Our last stop was the baths. The area was much less crowded than yesterday. People were swimming and splashing in the baths, most of them wearing some form of bathing costume. I angled my camera away from the young boys who were nude. They were obviously enjoying themselves. Less enjoyable were the young children who came up and asked ‘Money, food.’ I tell them a firm ‘No’ and walk away.

Back at the hotel, I enjoyed a couple of drinks with people until an early dinner. The hotel was crowded, and one group sang and danced on the terrace. 

20 January

We left at 7.30am, stopping briefly to visit Felasha village. Jews have lived in Ethiopia for centuries, but have faced much prejudice. Various handicrafts were on offer, and pressed upon us by eager children. 

Afterwards we settled into the minibus for the two hour drive into the Simien Mountains. We passed agricultural land and small villages, the land varying between vaguely green and dry. For the first time horses were very much in evidence, in addition to the usual donkeys. As today was Sunday, we also saw a couple of outdoor church services, attended by hundreds dressed in white.

We dropped our luggage off at the hotel and headed into the national park. Three men referred to as ‘scouts’ came with us, each carrying a rifle. A bumpy ride on dirt roads brought us to the start of our first walk. The path led along the edge of the mountain, providing lovely views of the landscape below. The route was mostly downhill, but when going uphill, the altitude of 3000 metres made breathing a bit difficult. I furthermore hamper myself by carrying two large cameras with lenses, around 8kg in weight.

The sun was out, but the path went under trees and an occasional breeze kept us from becoming too hot. We made our way to the bus, and were taken to another area to have some lunch. Gabre provided bananas and bread, which many of us supplemented with snacks of our own. Walking across thyme released a wonderful herby scent into the air.

The second walk was a bit more tricky. In particular, one section was a steep downhill, with packed earth covered with loose soil. I accepted the helping hand of a guide a couple of times, as that was preferable to going into a disastrous slide. The long set of stone steps tired my mind almost as much as my body, as I had to judge each drop carefully.

It was a relief to board the bus, particularly as my left knee was complaining after a heavy landing from a steep drop. The sun was blocked by the tall mountains as we headed to an area known to home baboons. I started out after the others on the steep hill, then took a reckoning of my tired legs, the slippery ground, and the growing darkness. Plus the fact that I have little interest in primates. I went back to the bus to wait. My fellow travellers were back thirty minutes later, joyous that they had seen a whole troop of baboons.

We headed back down the gravel road to town. The driver allowed us a brief stop to photograph the setting sun. I’d never seen the sun blocked so much by dust so that it appeared as a red orb. 

It was around 7.15pm that we reached our hotel. We ordered our food, then went to our rooms to clean up. I had a quick shower before returning to the cafe for roast lamb with vegetables, washed down by a beer.

21 January

The sound of Muslims being called to prayer woke me up at 2.30am. The same call went out around 6am, when I was getting up anyway. 

Off at 7.30am for the long drive further north. The mountain road gave us views of mountains, the distant ones obscured by haze. Our journey was slow, due to the switchbacks, vehicles coming the other way, and animals on the road. 

We had a toilet and coffee break mid morning. The coffee was good, the toilets less so. Children came up when we’d boarded the minibus to beg for money, which we steadfastly ignored. 

The hotel at which we had a pizza lunch had better toilet facilities, and no beggars. We pushed on, and reached our accommodation in Axum at 4pm. I did some washing, then headed up to the hotel’s terrace with camera backpack and laptop. A short walk to the back of the hotel resulted in a sighting—and photographing—of lovebirds. 

The hotel has seen better days. The rooms are just about clean, the hotel lobby needs redecoration, and the place smells faintly of mould. More annoying is the lack of hot water or decent wifi. Dinner was also disappointing, and we’ve already made plans to eat out tomorrow night. 

22 January 

A lie in until 7am! After breakfast (black coffee, toast, eggs), many of us were distracted by the Vervet monkeys and sunbirds in the trees on the property. The location is certainly excellent, with lots of wildlife and views over the stelae.

We left at 8.30am, and slowly drove through groups of people leaving church. We stopped briefly to look at a large pool of water, which by tradition was the baths of the Queen of Sheba. The locals visit the pool to draw water for washing and cleaning.

We drove a short distance out of the town visit the tombs of Axumite kings. These tombs date back to the 6th century and were our first reminder that a powerful kingdom once ruled this area. They controlled trade across a region which included part of the Red Sea. Not much attention has been paid, archaeologically, but that is slowly changing. Germans, in particular, are doing digs and investigations.

We went down stone steps into the large tombs. The walls were made of large stones, lying flush one on top of the other. I was reminded of the stone work in Machu Picchu and one of the platforms on Easter Island. There was some artificial light inside, but we’d also brought small torches to illuminate our way.

The drive to our next stop was a couple of miles downhill. Several of the young boys who had unsuccessfully tried to tell us souvenirs at the tombs ran down the road alongside us. To my amazement (and some envy), they were seemed to still be breathing easily when we emerged from the mini bus at the next site.

A few decades ago, a farmer came across a tall stone slab which has been nicknamed ‘The Rosetta Stone of Ethiopia’. The engravings are in three languages, including Greek, and boast of the military exploits of King Ezana. He ruled from 330 to 356 AD. The slab is taller than a human being, and has been stood upright where it was found. A shelter now protects it from the elements.

We returned to Axum, and visited the stele park. These tall monoliths were erected in the fourth century AD as tomb markers. I was distracted from our guide’s explanations by large lizards sporting blue bellies and tails, and later one by bird life in the trees. We walked around the stele, and into the tomb complex underneath. Robbers have long since removed everything inside, but archeologists tell us that the bodies were entombed on one side, and supplies for the afterlife on the other.

It was around this time that my body decided to rebel. Those of a squeamish nature might wish to skip this paragraph. I’m at the age when my periods are unpredictable and very unpleasant. As I stood in the museum, I experienced the worst flooding I’ve ever suffered. The museum itself had no toilets, but outside a woman looked after a couple of squat toilets. I was able to change my pad, but I realised that I needed a change of clothing. Gabre arranged for all of us to go back to the hotel, which was only a ten minute drive away. I was able to quickly wash my trousers and I went back out in my warmer ones. Fortunately, although I had one more episode over lunch, this wasn’t as bad, and then I was okay for the rest of the day.

After lunch, which was in an outdoor cafe which offered fast food, we went to the ruins of what is traditionally regarded as the palace of the Queen of Sheba. Archaeologists have cast down on this legend. We were distracted on route by a herd of at least 200 camels, gathered at the side of the road. Whilst we were at the site, the camel train went past, and was thoroughly photographed.

Final stop was St Mary of Zion church. The ruins of the original church, which date back to 330 AD, are near the modern building. Again, birds proved to be a distraction. A nearby tree was full of various types of sunbirds. Sunbirds look like hummingbirds,  with their long beaks and iridescent feathers, but they grip branches to drink the nectar from flowers.

The church’s museum insisted that cameras were placed in outdoor lockers. Several of us decided we would not risk our equipment, so we went back to the tree until the museum visitors had finished. As ever, we took off our shoes to enter the church. I didn’t take to the interior decorations. I felt that the paintings had none of the charm of those we’d seen in churches we’ve visited earlier in our trip.

We returned to the hotel. I spent some time stalking the birds around the property before having a beer, eating some of my snack food, and downloading photos. 

A video of the camel train can be watched by clicking here.

23 January

The usual departure time of 7.30am. We were kept amused at breakfast by the appearance of monkeys and hornbills. 

Our first stop was to view the valley which had featured the Battle of Adwa in 1896, at which the Ethiopians defeated the Italians. The amount of Italian type food freely available (pizza, pasta) is due to the lingering influence of the years in which Ethiopia was controlled by the Italians.

A bumpy road brought us to the 500BC Temple of Yeha. Although stone bricks from the structure were used to build the nearby church, still an impressive amount remain. The structure was used as a church, which is why it wasn’t fully torn down. We were shown where the altar for animal sacrifices had stood. The main animal ritualistically killed was ibex.

Although we didn’t go into the church, we were taken into a small building which was called ‘the treasury.’ Bits of stone from the temple were spread across a table, and the priest brought out highly decorated books.

After lunch, we headed down another very bumpy dirt track to the church of Methane-Alem Adi Kesho. We’d had mixed reports about the climb up to the church, one guidebook describing it as ‘steep but easy’. Well, easy perhaps if you have a good head for heights. I had left my backpack behind and packed only one camera and lens. Just as well. The climb was a steep rock face, which did have footholds which were sometimes more dangerous than just the rock itself. Local lads turned out in force to offer their help (the going rate of payment is around 100 Birr, so just over £3.00). I accepted one man’s help quite happily. 

Caught my breath at the top. One of our party had the help of the priest himself, which was a mixed blessing as he went very fast. ‘I need to unlock the church!’ he told her.

The church was dug out of the rock of the cliff face. Inside was very dark. Although we saw lightbulbs, the light was not turned on. The walls featured some carvings but no paintings. The priest showed us the clever contraption of wood and string which enabled the door to be locked and unlocked. 

Then back down. Two young lads hurried to help me. In fact, the number of young lads was almost a hindrance, as they all wanted to help in order to earn some money. At Gabre’s advice, I gave the two lads 100 Birr to divide between them. And then I sat on the bus and felt my legs tremble in a delayed reaction.

We drove on to our overnight stop. This hotel was one of the more basic. Shower was a tray and shower head next to the toilet, but at least there was an independent boiler so I was able to summon hot water. The meal was delicious. Roast goat with vegetables and rice. The cuts were a mixture of ribs, vertebrae, and leg. The only way to eat it was with your hands.

A video of a farmer threshing grain by using his cattle can be viewed by clicking here.

24 January

A shorter day. We headed down a very bumpy road to the first of two churches, Abreha Wo Atsebeha. Children surrounded us as we exited the mini bus, offering small shell fossils for sale. They didn’t follow us through the gates which led to the climb up to the church. We paused to catch breath and admire the views before going up to the church proper. As ever, we left our shoes outside.

The church was one of those carved into the rock. The paintings were added only around a hundred years ago, and are created on canvas before being applied to the walls. We were talked through the usual mixture of scenes from the Bible and from Ethiopian church tradition. The church, as many of these type, has three sections. We were in the public area. Beyond is the area for the priests and deacons, and past that is the Holy of Holies which holds the replica of the Ark of the Covenant (replica Ten Commandments).

I was amused by a depiction of the Fall. Adam and Eve are initially shown as fully clothed, with the snake hovering in the background. Then, after they’ve eaten from the fruit, they are naked. 

We drove back up the dusty road and to our second church, Wukro Cherkos. This one was far less decorated. Our local guide played the drum for us and the local priest accompanied him on the rattle which they use as a church instrument.

We then drove on to Mekele, one of Ethiopia’s larger cities. The usual mix of run down shops, roads with pot holes, and animals wandering around the streets was overlooked by new developments. We stopped at a so called ‘supermarket’ (in actuality a mini store) to buy snacks for the long drive day tomorrow. Then on to our hotel.

The hotel boasts of being ‘A World of Its Own’ (occasionally with an incorrect apostrophe) and looks impressive. But the carpet in our room was wet (from being recently cleaned?), the bathroom stunk, the toilet seat was broken, and the beer in the mini bar was several years out of date (and had mould growing around the cap). 

The city didn’t appeal to me, so I stayed in and worked on photos. We had a meal out, where pizza seemed to be the best option. Then to bed at 9.30pm due to early rise the next morning.

A video of the church singing is here. 

25 January

Fortunately I was able to get to sleep. The alarm going off at 4.30am could have been a worse awakening. Breakfast was the best yet on offer, and the coffee very black and strong. We pulled away from the hotel at 6am.

We’d been warned that the drive to Lalibela would take over 12 hours, but would include breaks. We had coffee in one rather nice hotel at 9am, then lunch at another at 1pm. 

The mini bus carried us up a dirt and gravel road, higher and higher into the mountains. At one point in the early afternoon, we got out for a short walk, the mini bus going on ahead of us. I darted into the bushes to relieve myself, which meant I became separated from the rest of the group. As I trudged up the road to catch up with them, a half dozen young Ethiopian men surrounded me and the oldest one demanded, ‘Pay me 100 Birr.’ I told him firmly, ‘No.’ When they continued to hassle me, I turned around and shouted, ‘Go away!’ 

I think it didn’t help that a woman standing near her house merely laughed at all this. She didn’t seem to think it was in any way amiss.

I lengthened my strides and caught up with my group. The mini bus was nearby, and I decided I’d had enough and climbed in. Other women in our party had also been harassed, so they’d already taken refuge in our vehicle. It was a rather unpleasant encounter.

What also become unpleasant, as time went on, was the state of my bladder. The driver and guide decided to push on to our destination, so there were no further loo stops. We reached our hotel at 7pm, and most of us charged for the toilets. 

The hotel is nice enough, with pleasing decor. I decided to eat from my own supplies in my room rather than join the group at dinner. 

26 January

We weren’t leaving the hotel until 8.30am, so a bit of a lie in. The church celebrations for St George carried on all night just outside the hotel, but I was able to ignore the continuous singing (a solitary male voice) and sleep. Others in the party found ignoring the noise far more difficult.

Our first stop was to the extraordinary church of St George. The church is a monolith, carved out of the surrounding rock in the shape of a cross. We stared in awe from above, then went through a narrow sloping gully to visit in from the ground floor. A local woman had been hired as our shoe keeper, so as we took off our shoes to enter (carefully tucking trousers into socks due to the risk of fleas), she gathered our shoes and watched over them. I’m not certain whether this is due to a risk of theft or simply some scheme for local employment.

Inside was dark, as we’ve come to expect from these churches. We were able to visit the outer area. Heavy drapes hid the inner sanctum reserved for the priests and deacons. The walls had various carvings.

We climbed back out and up the hill to board the mini bus for the next set of churches. Metal covers have been placed over the tops of the churches to preserve them from further erosion. These are not monoliths, rather extensions from the nearby rock hill. Some have had pillars added as their roofs were falling in. We went down and inside, progressing through the main church and several smaller chapels (which, at one time, were probably inhabited by solitary monks). 

Time for lunch. We visited a nice restaurant, with good food but very slow service. Two hours later we headed out to the next set of churches, but found ourselves at tail end of the religious procession. We joined the crowd for a short time. Only when we were off the mini bus did Gabre think to tell us to meet ‘where the road bends left, by the big tree’. Of course, not everyone received this message. Two of our party were missing after the procession passed us by. We waited for twenty minutes or so, harassed by children asking for money, before heading up the hill to the churches. Both members of our party turned up shortly thereafter.

Visiting this last set of churches was a real ‘Indiana Jones’ adventure. We climbed down steep steps (well, I slid down on my bottom) to go through various tunnels before confronting a steep set of steps to the church entrance. Then more up and down steep sets, and through gullies and dark passageways, before coming to another church. One of the churches only allowed men into the second section, which annoyed us of the obviously inferior gender!

We returned to the hotel to wash the dust out of ourselves and our clothing. Dinner was at a restaurant of intriguing architectural style—reminded me of Gaudi. Sadly, goat burgers were not available, so I settled for beef instead. And a very nice glass of Ethiopian Cabernet Sauvignon. One of our party was celebrating his 77th birthday, so the restaurant provided a banana crepe and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to him.

27 January

I decided not to take the optional mule ride and stiff trek up to another church today. As soon as Gabre mentioned ‘downhill and slippery’ I decided not to risk knees and ankles. Most of the group did go, leaving at 7am on mules from the hotel. A number of us ate breakfast much later, admiring the antics of the hornbills and the monkeys just outside the large windows.

At 9am four of us left to go souvenir shopping. We did gain a number of children along the way, who wanted us to go to the nearest supermarket and buy them sweets. Of course we declined. The young men who came up to us would first ask where we came from and our names before asking us for money to help them pay for school. Again, based on the advice we’d been given, we declined.

The shops had the same items, replicated in slight variations. Silver (or nickel?) crosses, wooden crosses, bright icons, baskets woven from grass or material, scarves. Very little negotiation was tolerated. I bought gifts as I went along. After about two hours, we’d exhausted our interest, and money, and we headed back to the hotel.

The trekkers were back around noon, tired and dusty, but very pleased with themselves. We had lunch at the hotel. I ordered ‘cheese on a plate’, which was exactly as described, but with the welcome addition of tomatoes.

I spent the afternoon working on photos and packing. In the evening, we went out to a very unsatisfactory restaurant. The steak on my ‘steak sandwich’ was no more than a couple of millimetres thick, engulfed by cheese and bread. At least I was able to drown my disappointment with a couple of beers.

28 January

A restless night—I don’t sleep well when I’m too hot. Got up at 7am to have some breakfast and do some last bird and monkey photography.

We left the hotel at 10.45am for the bumpy trip to Lalibela Airport. When we boarded the plane, we sat on the runway for about 30 minutes. Finally, the prop plane took off for the hour long flight to Addis Ababa.

For those of us leaving in the early hours of tomorrow morning (midnight and 1am), day rooms were made available at the hotel. We reached our rooms around 4pm, and my bag was finally delivered around 40 minutes later. I stayed in and worked on photos.

At 7pm, most of us met up in the hotel lobby and went to a nearby restaurant for traditional Ethiopian food. A band played Ethiopian music and four men and four women performed dances drawn from around the country. 

We returned to the hotel, and at 10pm four of us on the same flight were taken to the airport. By 11.30pm we’d dropped off our bags, gone through immigration, and were browsing the shops. 

A video of the traditional dancing is here.

29 January

Our flight was meant to take off at 1.20am. However, there was a delay, due either to problems with the plane or because someone had died on the flight over. Rumours abounded, and official news was not offered. The airline did bring out water and muffins to help tide us over. We finally took off at 4.40am.

I tried and failed to fall asleep. Fortunately my return train journey to Northampton wasn’t until 12.13pm, so our late arrival at Heathrow (9am) didn’t concern me very much. 

By 1.30pm I was home, having navigated the Underground, train, and a taxi to my front door. Then it was just a matter of unpacking and noting the number of insect bites I’d brought home as unwelcome souvenirs!

No photos from today.

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