Kelbe Photography

Life In A Blink Of An Eye

Ethiopia for Beginners

Ethiopia is a unique country in Africa, rich in history, culture and natural beauty. Currently there is a population of nearly 100,000,000 more than half of which are below the age of 18 years. It is the second most populous country in Africa. There are more than 80 different population groups and more than 90 indigenous languages are spoken. There are many religious groups but Christianity and Islam are the most common. Christianity is dominantly the Ethiopian orthodox church, an oriental orthodox sect of Christianity, dating back to the first century AD and unique among sub Saharan African countries . This accounts for the religious persuasion of most of the highland areas in the north and west. Islam is practiced by 27% of the population in the lowlands to the east. Traditional pagan cultures predominate in the south around the Omo valley

Fertile green valleys dominate the northern areas of the country.

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Mystery, religion and mysticism define the rhythm of much of Ethiopian life. Religion is deeply ingrained in the fabric of society and the myths and stories of kings and saints are interwoven with accepted historical facts which define a unique and colourful reality. The Queen of Sheba is the matriarch of their identity. She is a myth shared by Christianity, Islam and Judaism but with uncertain historical facts leading to a variety of cross cultural interpretations. In the Ethiopian version Axom, an early capital, was founded by the great grandson of Noah, Axumawi. He was eaten by a great snake called Wainaba which then ruled for 400 years living off virgins and milk, popular staples in those days apparently! . A traveller, Anagbo , offered to kill the snake in exchange for the crown and the locals agreed. He killed the snake with a poisoned goat. He married and his daughter, Makeda , became the Queen of Sheba. Sheba valued knowledge above all things and decided she would travel to Jerusalem to meet the wisest man in all the world, Solomon. She bought him gifts and set him a series of riddles. When she left she was with child and he gave her a ring as a symbol of his esteem. She bore his son Menelik the first who became the next king of Ethiopia. He later returned to Jerusalem to visit his father with the ring and stole the Ark of the Covenent which was transported to Ethiopia on wings by the archangel Michael. This story was later recorded in the holy book Kebra Nagast which remains an important religious text today. Legend has it that the Ark is still in Ethiopia in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axom and there is a copy of the Ark in every church in Ethiopia each dedicated to a particular saint.

Typical window of a monastery in the north of Ethiopia, with a priests regalia sitting on the sill

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Many of our personal heroes have travelled to and adventured in Ethiopia.

The great explorer and linguist Richard Burton (no not the actor!) was the first non Muslim to travel to Harar. He was an amazing explorer and, after being thrown out of Oxford University, he mastered 28 languages and travelled the world. He describes his journey from Aden across the Somali Peninsula to the forbidden slave city of Harar and back again, in a book titled, First Footsteps In East Africa.

James Bruce, a Scottish Lord, travelled to the source of the Blue Nile and then followed the river down to Cairo. He was a 188 cm tall, mountain of a man, who spoke Arabic and had learnt Ge'ez, the religious language of Ethiopia. He was ship wrecked, imprisoned and returned with so many stories that no one believed him and he was ridiculed by the gentry and intelligentsia of London. He retired to his manor in Scotland very embittered. Despite this his descriptions of life in Ethiopia in the late 1700's are now considered to be the most comprehensive and complete documentation of life in Ethiopia at that time. He also brought back three of the Books of Enoch , the grandfather of Noah, and canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Nelson Mandela travelled to Ethiopia during his exile and received military training. He was even issued an Ethiopian passport under the alias of David Motsamayi. He wrote in his autobiography "Ethiopia always has a special place in my imagination and the prospect of visiting Ethiopia attracted me more strongly than a trip to France, England, and America combined. I felt I would be visiting my own genesis , unearthing the roots of what made me an African"

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Many others have toured, cycled, walked and travelled the breath of the country and we follow in big footsteps………….

The Beginning

The landing gear is down and we are descending into Addis airport. It's 9 o'clock at night after a very pleasant flight. I have had my reservations and fears about Ethiopia. Such an unknown. It has been a long held dream to come here because of the mystery and history but still it's out of the familiar comfort zone. When I tell people we are coming to Ethiopia for 5 weeks you can chase the expressions on their faces, envy and incredulity. Are they mad? Thoughts of Ebola and bandits and Somali pirates. Still the Ethiopian airlines airplane was modern and comfortable and the crew have been professional and attentive and the food fabulous. That must count for something.

The airport is cavernous and quiet. Passport control is quick and we hurry on to the deserted visa counter. There are several people lounging behind the counter in casual clothes and one lady who deigns to help us. We are going along so well it is hardly surprising that we are about to hit our first hitch. She issues the visas and we pay over our $20 but the visa is only for 1 month. We point out we are staying longer and plead with her to issue the 3 month visa but apparently this has just been withdrawn and no longer exists. Not an advertised fact but this is Africa. There is a man behind us from the UK who is working in Ethiopia and he tells us his visa was valid for 3 months but they cancelled it on his arrival and now he is queueing for a 1 month visa again. "What should we do ? " we ask her. "Get an extension at immigration in Addis" she says. "But we are not staying or even returning to Addis" we wail. Our itinerary is tight. She shrugs her shoulders. "Go home early" is the reply. Clearly we will have to make our own plan as sympathy is in short supply for our dilemma. Not feeling so confident now we move along dejectedly and make some currency exchange at a little kiosk. The rate is surprisingly good. Armed with the local money we move into the baggage hall. After all this we have been overtaken by every other passenger and we find ourselves in a big hall full of people and trolleys piled high with luggage. There is an alarming number of blankets and we begin to wonder if we are going to be cold. Or maybe they don't sell blankets in Ethiopia. Oh well. Our luggage is going round and round the nearly empty carousel and we claim it and get in line for customs. The queue is painfully slow because all the luggage is being x rayed. Finally and about 3 hours after arriving we make it through. We eagerly look around for our lift but no one steps forward. It is nearing midnight in Addis and we are on our own.

Meskel daisies
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There is a smallish crowd of people being met. Many have bunches of grass and yellow flowers in their hands. These are Meskel daisies in celebration of the festival of Meskel which began today. This is an important festival in Ethiopian orthodox church celebrating the finding of the true cross. There is sure to be celebration in the streets of Addis tonight.


A First Glimpse of Addis

The taxis are asking if we need a lift but we hold on hoping our driver will appear. The taxi operator has warned us not to go outside as they will not let us back in. We dig out the Satelite phone but there is no signal. I investigate a whole bank of pay phones only to find they are broken and defunct. Finally we power up the cell phone and find signal. We phone Osman , from whom we are hiring cars, and he tells us the driver is coming and to wait. So we wait, and wait.......... We phone Osman again and he tells us to go outside as the driver cannot get in. We are to meet him in the parking area 200 m away. We load up and set off into the warm night and sure enough as we approach the parking the Kettle Club sign is up. ( We call ourselves The Kettle Club after Dudleys precious 7L volcano kettle , which incidentally. we have schlepped all the way to Ethiopia in our luggage!). Relieved, we climb into a very comfortable minibus. Apparently you may not enter the airport building once you leave and the locals are not allowed in which is why we did not find him earlier. An important piece of local information for next time I'm thinking.


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The journey through Addis at night is interesting. The streets are in bad repair with potholes and rubble. There are many people and bars and coloured lights probably because of Meskel holiday. I see more of the Meskel flowers on the streets. There are many incomplete and broken down buildings. Indeed it seems like most multi-storey buildings are incomplete. The scaffolding is wooden and looks very rickety and insecure. In truth the city appears to be more of a bomb site than a capital city. Still maybe we are on the outskirts, we have not got our bearings yet. After about 30 minutes and a very rutted potholed side street we pull up to the Ag Palace, our hotel for the next 2 nights and tumble out of the car. The light blinking on top of the building is reflected in the puddles on the uneven street. The locals skip along gracefully, clearly long used to the uneven surfaces and hazardous road conditions. The faces inside were bright and cheery with a warm welcome. We paid the porter to slog the gear up 4 floors. No lifts. Why is that not a surprise? We repair to the bar for our first taste of local beer. We've arrived more or less intact!


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The first night was for sleeping the second night we went out to celebrate the arrival of the rest of the Kettle Club team. Vicky, Ian and Carmen from New Zealand. The evening was busy at the restaurant, Abbysinia 2004. The night out cost 83 birr ( about R50.00) each for the buffet but the wine was 420 birr per bottle. Ouch, a taste of things to come. Ethiopia is not for drinkers. The place was crowded by the locals who were still celebrating Meskel and the floor was strewn with the now familiar daisies. The story of Meskel is that the Roman Queen Helena had a dream that if she lit a bonfire the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. She did this and found the cross. A section of the cross was brought to Ethiopia and is said to be at Ambo Geshon, a mountain palace/prison in the north highlands. At Meskel bonfires are lit in celebration and future fortunes are predicted by how it burns and falls.


The tourists, Ian, Carmen, Vicki and Christine. The drivers Gedeyon and Joel with Osman in the middle. Locked and loaded!
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Next day we picked up our vehicles. In Ethiopia foreigners cannot drive hire cars outside of Addis but must hire drivers. Anyway it means we will be chauffeured on our adventure around the four corners of Ethiopia, a first for us. We have hired 2 4X4s and camping gear for $ 7500 for 5 weeks between the 5 of us and we hit the road with anticipation. The drivers Joel and Gedeyon are cheerful and speak good English They are experienced drivers and guides, Joel is often hired for birding parties but we will be forced to hire local guides as well everywhere we go. I am beginning to get the hang of job creation schemes in Ethiopia. It is a finely tuned process and you may as well give in now as it cannot be beaten. Well not often anyway.

Aber Minch

The Omo Valley lies in the south of Ethiopia where many of the Bantu tribes live This is an area rich in social and ethnic interest with distinct tribal customs, ritual scarification and body decoration and beloved of both photographers, social anthropologists and missionaries.



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We headed south on a 10 hour trip to Aber Minch, a university town on the lakes. The area was beautiful and green, a characteristic of Ethiopia we came to know and love. En route we passed fields of rock styles which are the headstones of an unknown people from about 1200 AD. The country is strewn with random remains of old civilizations and societies, little gems you fall over on your journey. The stones were marked to show how many kills in battle the warriors had made. It must have been a short life. We are accompanied by random locals nodding and smiling and trying to chat to us with more or less success. Begging and the ferangi song are about to become very familiar.



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Ferangi

We have been warned of the ferangi tradition but we are starting to experience this dubious ritual now with increasing frequency and energy. Ferengi is the Middle East term for foreigner, derived from the term Frank, when the Franks invaded the area during the crusades. In Ethiopia it is a habit, a chant, a greeting or an insult depending on who, what and where it is used. Everywhere you go there will be people calling ferangi after you in the streets and groups of children may follow on singing and chanting repetitively. It can be irritating to say the least but we learned to turn it around especially when there was implied hostility by referring to ourselves as ferangi with laughter and gesticulation or in a depreciating way, an excuse for ignorance or cultural gaffes Generally this worked but it remained, at times, a constant aggravation.

To put it into perspective, in modern times the term ferangi was used in Star Trek to classify an alien species whose male gender are greedy sexist pigs! Go figure. Clearly this is not really a term used with respect or affection.



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Lake Abaya and Lake Chamo are two adjacent lakes in the Nech Sar game reserve. This means white grass and contains many natural springs. In fact the name Arba Minch means 40 springs. The two lakes are a complete contrast, divided by a spit of land called the Bridge of God. Lake Abaya is a dirty reddish brown due to the high iron content and next to it Chamo glints blue and clear. This is mirrored in the fertility of the lake. Chamo is a paradise of birds, fish and game but Abaya appears desolate. We took a boat ride across Lake Chamo and marvelled at the bird life and hippos and some of the biggest crocodiles we have ever seen lazing in the shallows in rafts.



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The local fisherman use the old reed boats which are from biblical times. The boat is made of papyrus and reeds, the bow and stern turned up like a giant shoe. The draft is not big and these massive crocodiles must love fishermen as the sides barely clear the water. To fall in, must mean certain death. The Ethiopians are not great swimmers. They laugh at this comment however, clearly this has been part of life so long it does not faze them. In contrast they are very respectful of the crocodiles in Lake Abaya which are smaller but reputedly very vicious because there is so little fish in the iron stained waters that they are always hungry.




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The Tribes of the Omo Valley

The Dorze Tribe

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From Arba Minch we drove up into the hills for our first taste of tribal culture to visit the Dorze tribe. They live on top of cliffs overlooking the green valley below and run a small lodge. We had our first spat here as they charged us more than double the advertised rate and the drivers refused to intervene. Instead the drivers were given a cottage with the best view and inside bathroom and free honey mead. We were in damp rooms with an outside long drop 100 m away. Dodgy or what!,. There were some grumpy tourists after that. I missed most of the action because I got heat stroke on the lake. Still some humour was restored when the others toured the village and were shown the local crafts and made fermented bread. The bread is called Etw and is made from false banana leaves fermented underground for 3-6 months and made into a flat pizza like bread served with a chilli paste. The Dorze are well known for their traditional huts made of reeds like tall cones 5m high. They cut the bottom of the huts off over time as the termites invade and they eventually end up 1-2 m tall before they start the process again.

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They are also known for weaving and making hats but we refused to buy after the spat over lodge fees. Our loss I fear. A recurring theme in this beautiful land is the constant hustling of tourists for money. A thick skin and short memory are useful to prevent developing a combative and ultimately self defeating attitude. It's hard but you have to always consider the privilege of your life against the hardship of theirs and the energy, inventiveness and persistence they demonstrate clawing a living every day. In this process you are merely a resource and need to behave with grace and humour.

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Jinca and the Tsemay Tribe

Jinca is another 10 hours south of Dorze and is the gateway to the Omo tribes. The road is littered with cattle, goats, camels, horses, dogs, children and people. A feature of Ethiopia is the large numbers of people everywhere. It is not hard to believe this is the second most populated country in Africa. We begin to appreciate why they don't want foreigners driving here (apart from raising extra dollars!) as driving without causing genocide is definitely an art! The roads are additionally potholed and in bad repair and often crawl up mountain passes clinging to the edge of precipitous drops with no barriers. The fertility of the land is on generous display. Fields of maize, wheat, barley, millet and sorghum are expertly terraced. There are trees of mango, avocado and paw paws. Everything seems to grow in this fertile area. The sorghum was about to ripen and platforms atop felled tree stumps are dotted across the fields where young men stand and crack whips to drive off the birds. The fields resound to the sound of cracked whips.

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We pulled into a village in the Weyto valley to visit the Tsemay tribe. We have our first taste of photobirr, the birr being the Ethiopian unit of currency. Because of the photographic interest in this area then charging for photography has become a major source of income. The most common system is to insist on a guide for a fixed price and then reimburse all the photographic subjects per shutter click regardless of whether the picture is worth keeping. In this village the negotiations were done with the elders and the photographic subjects were clearly reluctant and frankly hostile. I left my camera shutter set to high speed by mistake and this caused an absolute uprising and tense negotiation after it erupted like a machine gun. The light was harsh, the subjects uncooperative and unhappy and the photographers found their pockets emptying at an alarming rate. An unpleasant experience all round and did not bode well for the 5 or 6 tribes we were still scheduled to visit.

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Mago game reserve and the Mursi Tribe

A visit to the Omo region is not complete without meeting the Mursi tribe. Most of the other tribes have friends and allies but not the Mursi. These are a warrior tribe with the reputation for violence and aggression and cattle rustling. They need cattle for their bride payments and readily steal from each other and their neighbours. Most arguments are settled with AK's. The other tribes steer clear. They are the Omo bad boys. They are generally heavily armed, indeed we saw few men without an AK 47 slung over their shoulders both in the village and walking in the bush. They practice ritual scarification and distinctive body painting. The scarification is said to toughen the skin for protection in fights and even the women do this. The men wear a blanket slung over their shoulders and not much else. Hand marks and stripes adorn the body in white paint. The women pierce the bottom lip at a young age and insert discs of increasing sizes. Eventually these can be the size of dinner plates. When removed the lip hangs down below the chin. This practice identifies them as being desirable brides, the bigger the disc the more attractive the bride.


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We set off to visit them on the far side of the Mago Park. It is a long and bumpy journey across stony river beds and scrub. They practice polygamy , the chief generally has up to 3 wives, and the American missionaries have long been trying to reform this practice with the result that they up sticks and move the village further away when they have had enough. Hence the long journey. We arrive in the heat of the day and there are other tourists ahead of us. Our guide advises us to relax and wait until everyone has left before we start running around with the cameras, a good piece of advice it turns out. We rest in the shade on cow skins provided by our hosts. They are welcoming and seem to be failing the fearsome reputation except for the proliferation of AKs. We have a chance to see the social structure. The men are sitting under trees in different age groups and the women and small children are by the huts. The older children are out herding the goats and cattle. Dudley is invited to play a traditional game with seeds in shallow cup shaped holes. Similar to the Mozambican game of Bao. Eventually they become restless and begin to signal us to take photographs.


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Photographing the Mursi is an expensive business. You must pick up a guide for 200 Birr in Jinca. You then pay 160 Birr per person and then 20 per car to get into the Mago game reserve. This cost us about 860 birr. We then had to pay 200 birr each to the village chief. The cost of the picture was 5 birr per person per camera. They are experts at photobombing and just as you frame the shot another 3 jump in and demand another 5 birr each. Carmen loves to photograph the children but eventually she has more than she can fit in frame! They all want to be paid. As you choose a subject his mates start to look glum and angry and demand to also be photographed. It is an insult not to be picked. If a man with an AK 47 wants his picture taken it seems best to do it. The atmosphere begins to change and becomes a little tense. The youth are fidgeting with the guns. The chiefs brother, a mountain of a man, walked in with an aloof appeal. He had the status to keep the young men in check but we decided to make our escape before things turned ugly. The guide tells us they start to drink at lunch time , probably with the proceeds of the photobirr, which has a predictable effect on their volatility.



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We drove back through the park. The reserve seems to have little protection. A sugar mill is ripping roads through the bush. They say there are lion and elephant and wild dog but I suspect , with the proliferation of AK's in the area , poaching is common and the game may only survive in pockets. We saw only dwarf mongooses and a duiker but the hills were heavily wooded and lush after the rains and the bird life beautiful.

Mingi

We left Jinca via the Omo Childrens Home. This was set up as an NGO by an American as a refuge for children subject to ritual murder, or Mingi, by their clans. Children who are born out of wedlock, twins and children whose upper teeth erupt before the lower teeth have a large stone put into their mouths and are then thrown into a river to drown. Although it seems this is accepted as inevitable punishment in the tribes some of the mothers will bring the children to the home to save them. After a pleasant hour chatting and playing with the kids we left to continue our journey. Hopefully some ideas and customs are changing.

The Hari Tribe

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Next stop was the Hari village. The Hari are a happy and welcoming clan and they proudly take you to tour the village and all their local crafts. They allowed us to help to make injera from a batter made of fermented teff. The grain is fermented for 2 days before it is used which gives the characteristic sour flavour. Injera is a staple of every meal. Indeed our drivers became glum if they did not get the daily injera fix. The rubbery sour pancake is used to pick up food from the communal plate in place of eating utensils.

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Teff is a grass like grain grown in the highlands. It comes in red, white and mixed colors. The best injera is pale and the darker breads of poorer quality. Walking around the village we visited the potter and watched the girls styling their hair. There was a hut where Amrit was being made. This is a foul and potent local brew which is sold to the Mursi to make them even more bad tempered.

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Lastly we visited the blacksmith in his forge and watched him with hand bellows and a 5 kg hammer making knives from reinforcing rods. An industrious and multitalented people indeed.

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Keyafred Market

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Market trading plays a central role in Ethiopian life. There is a market every day but in different villages. The roads are thronged with people walking to market with their goods and cattle. As motorised transport is a luxury many will walk all day or all night to reach the market and back the next day. The favoured few have a camel, bike or donkey to ride. We headed for the Thursday market at Keyafred. The market had two sections set up on open land. The livestock with cows and goats attended by the men and a general market with cloth , grain, vegetables and curios where the women ply their wares. The different tribes are distinctive by dress and decoration, the Hamar tribe with ochred complexions are particularly distinctive, similar to the Himba of Namibia. One group sells local honey, a delicacy of their village. The lithesome Bena tribe wear a very short loin cloth sound around their waist and are very muscular and well proportioned.

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Photography remains challenging. The people are unhappy with even general shots, some because of a genuine dislike for the attention turn their heads away and look angry. Others are fixated on photobirr and when none is offered will throw insults or even sticks. I concentrate on inanimate subjects and cattle and livestock but the owners feel this is also a chargeable offence. The process becomes exhausting. Dudley buys a small wooden stool which doubles as their pillow at night. The stool is only 25 to 30 cms high and carried by the men to rest on journeys. It is no bigger than the pommel on a saddle and looks about as comfortable. Dudley says it is comfortable. It must be his bony backside speaking.

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It was time to move on to the cool of the local hotel veranda and a well earned lunch

Turmi and the Kara Tribe

We set up camp at the Mango camp site in a grove of mango. A pretty spot by the river. Run down certainly but the first actual campsite we had found in our travels. As we had planned this as a camping trip it was a relief to be finally on script after a series of rather damp smelly and depressing small hotels . We had hired camping gear at €7 per person per day and were carrying R2000 worth of food which we had yet to get an opportunity to cook. Indeed we had jettisoned the meat long ago. I think the issue is that Ethiopia is not set up for camping and essentially there is no campsite network or ethos. However, and we experienced this a lot with our drivers as well, it is not in the Ethiopian vocabulary to say no to requests. If you ask for something they say yes even if it is impractical and so it was with the camp gear. The rental company did not want to tell us it would be largely useless to us. The cars overflowed with mismatched tents and utensils which we were rarely able to use making the hire a redundant expense and the gear unnecessary extra luggage. Still for 3 days at least we were able to return to our natural habitat. The bird life was fantastic and plentiful including flocks of the white morph of the paradise flycatcher.

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Our next stop was the Kara village on cliffs over looking the Omo river and Kenya to the south. The road is long through rocky thornveld dotted with slim termite mounds. On each mound perches beautiful red and yellow barbets. Game was sparse with occasional duiker and goats. The Kara are pastoralists and keep animals , especially goats, and grow sorghum which is stored in small huts as grin stores. Their dug out mokoros are anchored on the banks and the younger men are keen fishermen. They are a proud and handsome race and welcome us. It is a surprise to see so much plastic and old water bottles around the village. Litter has not been a big element in Ethiopia until now. It seems this is left by the tourists bringing plastic wrapped toys and gifts and food and drink. The negative side of this cultural interaction as we are far from anywhere and there is no waste disposal. Take it with you guys.

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We spent a happy few hours with the Kara chatting and taking photographs. The photobirr was again flowing freely and we no longer had the small denominations we needed. What to do, there is no where to make change. Then one of the women with a straw headdress came up to us and took off the hat to reveal a fortune in small notes. The local bank it seems. It is logical that the photobirr must end up somewhere. The light is harsh and the sun hot as we wave them goodbye and good luck. Photographic light is an issue so far. All destinations are far and we rarely arrive in good light but must make do with the harsh midday conditions. This photography is not for the faint hearted.

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The Hamar Tribe and The Jumping Of The Bulls Ceremony

The coming of age ceremony of the Hamar is the Jumping Of The Bulls . This is a well known and iconic event in the Omo Valley but it occurs irregularly and so it can be difficult to plan for. As we rested in the camp site the day after visiting the Kara, our driver came to tell us there was a ceremony planned for that afternoon on the river bank opposite the camp site. It could not be better and we were excited for the opportunity.


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The Hamar tribe are distinctive in appearance and dress. They stain their skin a dark red with ochre rather like the Himba people. Their dress is decorated with beads. They are tall with fine features and a fierce and proud demeanour. Up until now we had seen them only in the markets and they had been hostile to photography. For this event we were told we would be allowed to observe and photograph in return for a fee paid to the village. The planning for the ceremony starts with a young man carrying a small wooden stick from house to house notifying the village that he wishes to be allowed to pass into manhood. Often more than one boy will be initiated on the same day but each will perform the ceremony in their own demarcated areas. The elders decide the date. The young men's relatives gather on the banks of the river at selected spots and the girls gather thin sticks. Many of these sticks litter the river bank as they were used in previous ceremonies. These sticks are used to beat the girls from the boys family prior to the bull jumping. It signifies their love for the boy. We get ready to walk across the river in the early afternoon. Gedeyon, our driver, pulls me to one side. You won't like it he says anxiously. Clearly he has formed some opinion of my reactions I was unaware of. I smiled to reassure him but left him looking anxiously after us from the bank. We made our way to a clearing next to the river. There were many tribe members around, old men in the shade and women of all ages clearly dressed in their best with beaded headdresses and skirts. Slowly a few younger men arrived , their heads decorated with ostrich feathers, who sat apart on a hillock observing the gathering.


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The women started to dance and chant, they had bells on their feet and horns to blow which accompanied the rhythmic stamping. They danced in snaking lines and tight circles. They brandished thin sticks and periodically one of them would run up to one of the young men brandishing the stick and demand to be whipped. These young men are the Maze, they are bachelors who have successfully jumped the bulls and it is their job to administer the beatings. This they did with varying enthusiasm, always egged on by the girls. The more handsome boys were popular and if the beating was not to her satisfaction the girl became vocal and abusive. Occasionally they had to be restrained from attacking the beaters. All demand to be beaten, young and old but clearly they go easy on the younger or more vulnerable. After a while the whips leave wheals and blood. The older women have keloid scarring from multiple beatings. They wear these with pride and they do not flinch as time after time they demand more punishment. Occasional fights seem to break out between the women over rivalry for the same Maze. This is controlled by the male elders who sit near by.


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This is clearly what Geyedon feels would offend me and on paper it does but in the heat of the process it is hypnotic and fascinating. The girls clearly are in charge and the beaters often reluctant so it is hard to categorise it as abuse. The energy and intensity is mesmeric, indeed the dancing and chanting seems to create an almost trace like state. Around the clearing the Maze are being decorated with face and body paint.


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After several hours of the chanting snaking dance punctuated by the crack of the sticks there is a sudden movement towards a clearing in a field about 500 m away where more men wait with a group of bulls. The initiate is surrounded by the elders and stripped of his clothes. The girls sing and dance around the bulls and make them nervous.


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The Maze then collect 5 or 6 bulls by their horns and tails and line them up next to each other. The initiate must run across the clearing and jump on the bulls backs, running across them and jumping down on the far side without slipping or falling. He must turn and repeat this four times. The girls heckle and goad and will be relentless in their scorn if he slips or falls but he is sure footed and completes the task. He is greeted by the elders who wrap him in a cowskin to signify his passage to manhood.



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After a final song the group wends its way to the river and disperses. Within a few minutes there is no evidence of the ceremony remaining in the empty clearing in the African veld except for the wind ruffling the trampled grass. As we wade back across the river to the camp we feel privileged to have been witness to such an ancient and intensely personal rite of passage. The light remains harsh in the mid afternoon but for once our photographic efforts were not treated with any hostility, indeed they treated us as largely invisible and we were grateful for the tolerance.

Feeling we had reached a high point in our anthropological journey we decided it was time to leave the Omo Valley and move on to pastures new. The tribal journey had been fascinating but hard work in heat and dust and harsh light trying to keep the balance between cultural sensitivity and insolvency. We were done.


Yabelo and the Stresemanns Bushcrow

Birds and Birding

We are heading north and east towards the Bale mountains but en route we plan to stay at Yabelo to visit the bird park there. Ethiopia is a big birding destination and part of this is the huge variety of birds found but also the fact that some birds are extremely restricted in range to parts of this country making them unique to the area. We are in search of Stresemann's bushcrow who lives in mature acacia savanna within a restricted 2000 sq mile range around Yabelo.

Our journey takes us through scrub valleys and across dry and stony river beds. Baboon are playing by the road. We arrive at a small hotel which advertises camping. What they mean by this is that you can pitch your tent in the flower bed with one overflowing outside toilet, no shower or other facilities. We have become resigned to using the hotels. They remain expensive for the quality. In Ian and Carmens room the tap falls off the wall flooding the room in 6 inches of water. We are alerted to this by sounds of great hilarity through the wall. The management is put out that they want to move rooms. Apparently a little water on the floor should not be cause for complaint. Indeed it could be considered a bonus. That's Ethiopia for you.

Next day we head for the park. The rule, once again, is we must take a local guide as well as pay park fees. We are reluctant and eventually manage to persuade the guard to let us in to wander on our own. I think we exhausted him. The park looks over grazed and there are cattle inside. We see the bushcrow easily, they are numerous in the straggly acacia and commiphora thorn. Some are building nests of sticks. He looks more like a starling in size and behaviour. For many years it was unknown why the species could be completely absent from areas of suitable habitat near seemingly identical but inhabited land. Recent research has revealed that the bird appears to inhabit an area with a very precise average temperature extreme, all of the seemingly suitable but uninhabited surrounding land actually has a slightly higher average temperature that appears to prevent the birds from successfully colonising. Hence it's rather odd and localised range. The guide eventually finds us. We continue to wander on foot through the park and also see the black billed wood hoopoe, black buffalo weaver, white headed buffalo weaver, superb starling, nubian woodpecker and cardinal woodpecker . That's just the ones we could identify!

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We leave as the heat begins to build and roll through small towns and villages. We are climbing into a highland region, cool and windy. There are many opportunities to stop on the road side for delicious fresh brewed coffee and local bread. We have an unusual brew of sweet smoked milk which Dudley loves but the jury is out for the rest of us. Ethiopia is certainly a place for unusual flavours. They smoke the milk in a hollow calabash. I am pretty sure they have been doing this since way before Masterchef!

In the town of Surpo we come across a camel market . A large camel will set you back 25000 birr, thats about R15000 to you and me, quite an investment. Camels are much more common in the east which is predominantly Muslim and definitely drier.

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The roads become increasingly pocked with massive potholes slowing progress. This is another country where a days drive is measured in hours and not kilometers. The average speed, even on the open road, is 40 kilometers/hour. It makes dodging the constant flow of people, donkeys and camels a little easier. Spinach seems to be the main crop here , mules piled high weave in and out of the traffic but there is also an abundance of vegetables and fruit.

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We arrive in the late afternoon at Yerga Allem lodge, a pleasant surprise with luxurious rooms, great gardens and colobus monkeys and hyenas calling at dusk. It costs $ 70 per room which is the same as the flooded disaster at Yabelo. The tariffs are hard to understand and rather random. Ferangi prices I suspect.

The Bale Mountains

Bale Mountains

The next morning we continue our journey into the highlands of the Bale mountain range. It gets misty and damp as we climb and now it is not just cool but cold in icy biting winds. The Bale mountains rise to over 4000m and contain the second highest mountain in Ethiopia. They are an important source of water for the country. The national park encompasses over 2200 sq and holds 27% of endemic species, some found no where else which testifies to the unique ecosystem. A large part of the fauna are rodents and it is said that Bale has the greatest concentration of rodents anywhere. This is an important factor in the food chain and accounts for the high density of raptors as well as the presence of the Ethiopian wolf, a rodent eater. We are here to get a chance to see this rare creature, critically endangered with a world population of just 400 , the most endangered canine in Africa and the most endangered canid in the world. Although protected it is threatened by habitat loss and disease including rabies and distemper, and so perhaps this really is "last chance to see"

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The area has 5 different ecosystems ranging between the stark mountain plateaus dotted with giant lobelias and lush Havana forest hung with moss and lichen and there are dramatic temperature changes through these habitats from an average of 25C in the forests to 10C on the mountaintops. The plateau is almost continually cloaked in mist and cloud and drizzle, a bigger contrast to the African bushveld we have just left is difficult to imagine. As we rumble up the potholed roads the scenic changes are mirrored in a change in the people and dwellings. The mountain people are tough wiry specimens jogging along on heavily laden donkeys and swathed in blankets. Cold boiled potatoes from the side of the road make a surprisingly tasty lunch.

Lodge With a View

We roll into the Bale Lodge. After agitating the drivers to find us camping we are assured the lodge has both camping and rooms. As the weather becomes colder and more inclement we may want to rethink this strategy but we bounce out of the car willing to give it a try. However when they show us the camp site under 6 inches of water we give in to the inevitable and take a dorm room. This is more like a youth hostel than a lodge and the facilities are basic to say the least. Our first fight comes when we put all our cooking gear in the kitchen which is 50 m from the lodge on top of a hill. A bit of a slog in the wet slippery conditions only to be told we have to pay extra to use the kitchen. Well we are a bit fed up with the extra extra tradition of Ethiopian hospitality and so we stomp out and remove our gear and tell them to keep the kitchen. Dudley sets up a fire under the eves of the lodge and we announce we will cook there and keep the food and utensils in the outside room shared by our drivers. The manager circles us wringing his hands. The rest of our stay, as a response to the rain and damp, we gradually moved our kitchen into the lounge. By the end they were begging us to use the kitchen free of charge. Ha too little, too late.

Well despite the rather poor conditions, we had to use our own wood for the communal fire and the beds were alive with bed bugs and fleas, the setting was magnificent. Nestled in the forest on the slopes of the Bale mountains with wildlife all around , mountain nyala, bigger and more handsome than the home grown ones, Meneliks bushbuck and warthogs. The birds were amazing and again some new and rare finds like Rougets rail, thick billed raven and Abyssinian pigeon. As night fell and temperatures dropped and the drizzle continued to fall softly the infested bunk beds began to look not so bad and we drank gin and played cards by the fire.

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Sanetti Plateau

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For the next 2 days we toured the Sanetti plateau. When entering the park, in keeping with the pro employment policies of Ethiopia, you must hire a guide. The guide does not like to get up early and quite frankly is minimally useful and we had some negotiating to try and get up to the top for the morning light. The cold is biting and we enter a mist belt which makes the landscape ghostly, pierced by the 2-3 m giant lobelia and carpeted in white heather like snow. The ground is in constant movement from rodents darting from rock to burrow and the Augur and mountain buzzards perch on each lobelia like sentries. In rocky wetlands we see the blue winged goose . The black headed Siskin flies in flocks of 100 or more and we see the burglar finch, the Thelma lark, Somali starling, wattled crane, alpine larks and other birds better known to us. It is birding heaven. We drove to Tutu Dimtu, the second highest peak but the mist is so dense we cannot see beyond our noses.

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As we rove we are ever alert for the wolf and our vigilance is soon rewarded when we spot his shifty shape in the mist amongst the rocks. He is larger than a jackal and a beautiful chestnut brown. He moves like a jackal exploring rocks and crannies with his nose searching out the tiny mice. We are in awe of this precious sighting, our first but not our last as we found him each day briefly but always special.

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Our First Waterfall

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Next day we head for the forest, dripping with moss and old mans beard. The drizzle remains relentless and we stop at the village of Hamanan, a popular trekking spot, for a lunch of spinach potatoes and fresh flat bread washed down with sweet tea. This is served in a warm smoky hut with black rafters and no chimney. The stale peanut butter packed lunch is consigned to the birds and beasts. We are off to trek to a waterfall through the forested valley. We slip and slide down grassy slopes past grazing cows and goats and through a bamboo forest to the Guza waterfall bathed in glittering spray. On the way home we glimpse the black and white colobus monkey. Eagles and a hooded vulture perch in the trees. It is truly a remarkable and enchanted place. It's off to the petrol station for an injeera fix before heading home.

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Awash at Awash

Awash at Awash

Next day we set out for the Awash National Park and the Awash falls. The descent down the mountain was mirrored by an increase in temperature. We stop for coffee at a road side cafe in Berkoji, the town where all the Ethiopian runners come from. Training in the mountain air and running everywhere from the time they first walk is good practice! We are traveling through fields of wheat and barley and maize, beautifully terraced and ripe for harvest. They terrace the hills to the very tip of the mountains, into all the nooks and crannies and the patchwork landscape is a work of art.The road is busy, donkeys mules and horses are hobbled and grazing on the verge. The men are often riding, the women on foot wearing colourful dresses and scarves and occasional burkas carrying wood and children. The cars are slow and stop start and the burned out vehicles on the side of the road bear testimony to the frustrations of driving here. I am becoming less resentful of the chauffeur system.

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In the Awash National Park we are assured we can camp in riverside sites. We find the entrance and pay the fees. We manage to dodge the compulsory guide as the guards at the gate are too lazy to insist and we drive into the game reserve. The terrain is scrub savannah and grassland with dense forest bordering the river. Game is sparse, some dik dik, an oryx, baboons and plenty of birds. This is another birding destination and we pass a few vehicles hosting birding tours. We hoped to see some of the endemic animals like the Lesser Kudu and the East African Oryx ( which looks very like a Roan) but we are not in luck today. Again with the pressures of population and the lax security I think poaching is rife and the animal numbers may be under threat. Apart from baboons we never see wildlife outside the parks.

We drive direct to the camp site to find it, yep you guessed it, under water. The river is down in flood. We can see the top of the roof of the toilet block. So it's back to the lodge and the camping gear stays in the car.

A Glorious Waterfall on the River to Nowhere


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We drive on to the water fall. It is spectacular and in full flow because of the rain and floods.



The Awash river is a large river but is unusual in that it never reaches the sea. Instead it flows into the thirsty desert of the Danekil depression and ends in the highly saline Lake Abbe, gradually losing its water to evaporation. In the park the river runs through the deep gorge of the Awash valley which forms the impressive cataract of the Awash falls.


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The lodge is well situated overlooking the falls. We take some pictures and scrabble around the falls as the afternoon wanes. It's slippy and you definitely don't want to end up in that river. We can spot crocs on the banks downstream from the lodge lookout where a cold beer is waiting. We were keen to take photos from the lookout as the sun sets but it was getting late and we needed to check in. Our shared cottage was right at the end of the accommodation but the boys start to unload the bags at the gate and a string of porters appear to carry it down. All they needed to do was drive the cars down and unload at the cottage. I am miffed as time is ticking and the light is going and now we must organise all these porters (and of course pay them) and walk back and forwards to the cottage. I think I lost it a bit. At least that was Ian's diagnosis! Everyone starts to treat me with care. Eventually one car drives down and Vicky gets the porters organised and we make it to the look out and a beer just before the sun goes down. I am still a bit grumpy. Golden light photography has been in short supply so far but I recognise it is, in part, that I am hot and tired after a very long day in the car. Long days in the car are inevitable. It looks good on paper, 200 or 300 km, how long can it take? But in reality we are rarely less than 8 hours in the car and often close to 10. Beautiful but draining.


The place is beautiful with benches and tables set up under the stars for supper and a graceful coffee ceremony performed next to us. So it is time to relax and forget the frustrations and appreciate the incredible beauty and diversity that is Ethiopia. Cold beer helps.

Harar


Today we head north and east towards Harar. We are excited. Harar has long been a dreamed of destination, steeped in history and legend.

Coffee and Khat

The drive towards Harar shows a change of scenery. It remains fertile and with undulating hills but the terraces of maize and barley are interspersed with low green bushes that we are told is the psychoactive drug khat. This is now a major product of this area and has become the most lucrative cash crop. It used to be coffee but they changed to khat because they get more for it. The exploitation of small coffee growers by big cooperatives controlling coffee prices is a familiar issue that has threatened the viability of small coffee growers all over the world. The khat is sold locally and is also a major export especially to Djibouti and Somalia, we are after all close to both borders. In the small towns we pass through we see big bales of khat being sold in the markets and many men and boys are sitting around and chewing the leaves. It is apparently a mild narcotic and mood elevator but when it wears off there is depression and aggression. The roads become more winding and in bad repair in places and we see a lot of accidents and old car wrecks. More than we have ever seen in Ethiopia elsewhere. We joke this is from driving on khat but, in fact, this turns out to be prophetic. The drivers are reckless and faster and we meet a Dutch couple in Harar who took public transport from Dire Darwa. The driver was chewing khat and informed them he could drive the road with his eyes closed. He was keen to demonstrate but they managed to talk him out of it!

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Historic Harar

Harar is a historic Muslim walled city, the fourth most holy city in Islam. It used to be closed to non Muslims and Sir Richard Burton, all round victorian explorer and adventurer was the first non Muslim to travel there in 1854. This was on the first leg of his first ill fated expedition to discover the source of the Nile with John Hanning Speke. This initial expedition ended in disaster after a vicious attack by Somalis in which he suffered a javelin injury through his face which left him scarred for the rest of his life, dramatically reenacted in the movie The Mountains of the Moon. The city was taken by the Italians during their rather abortive efforts to colonize Ethiopia in the 1930's. they established a garrison there which later became a military academy and Nelson Mandela trained there during some of his exile years.

As we approach the city it is initially a disappointment. Instead of an aged scenic walled site we find the usual sprawling mass of urban jumble and chaos but as we slowly push through the new town we finally enter the walls of the old town. This is more like it . Narrow streets lined with tailors shops. The tailors are sitting on the side walk with old peddle singer machines running up garments. It is a city renowned for weaving, basketry, coffee and book binding. We have secured a room at an old Harari guest house but as we plunge deeper into the cobbled alleys we are brought to a halt in a courtyard. This really is the old town and the roads are too narrow for cars testifying to its ancient lineage. A young deaf boy runs up to escort us to the house and we follow him down winding alleys with our gear. There are people sitting on the street corners all chewing Khat. They appear to be in a daze and you often have to step over them in the narrow passages. Chewing the khat eventually cause the teeth to fall out and the old men can be seen pounding the leaves with pestle and mortar when they can no longer chew. The road and their clothes are spattered with dried green spittle. It is legal but not tempting and does not look good for community productivity.

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Our guesthouse is through a narrow door which opens onto a charming courtyard. The house surrounds the courtyard and is a traditional Harari house built of timber, mud and straw, over 240 years old. The walls are 50 cm thick keeping the rooms cool and constant in temperature. Leaving our shoes outside we enter the main living room which consists of a mosaic of broad steps covered in carpets and cushions which represent the seating hierarchy of the household. The head of the house at the top and, surprise, surprise, the females and servants at the bottom. There is a honeymoon bed in a curtained alcove but we are lucky to get a proper bedroom in a more modern annex. Vicky gets the love suite. There is a screen with a slot where food was posted through during the honeymoon when the bride and groom stayed confined to bed for days! Privacy was a bit sketchy though as the inlaws were never far away! The wall is decorated with baskets , many of these are mother in law baskets woven by the bride to be for the good opinion of her future mother in law. Weaving and basketry are traditional Harari crafts.The girls must learn how to do the intricate weaving before they marry. Many of the bowls in this house are generations old. There are small niches in the wall for crockery and a rack over the door where carpets are stored. This shows how many girls of marriageable age are in the house as they will each take a carpet as part of the dowry. There is a spear near the door which can be easily reached to protect the household in case of threat.

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We head out with a guide into the streets and tour the radial architecture of the city. The old town is laid out with 5 main streets radiating from a central square and then winding alleys between. Some are so narrow it is necessary to walk single file. The market at the eastern gate is rambling and packed with every spice you can imagine. Frankincense paprika Danekil salt, cumin and many herb teas. The air is heavy with the intoxicating scents. Photography is again challenging. The people are not happy to be photographed and often will hide their faces or turn away, especially the older women. Even general shots are frowned upon. If there was ever a place for a secret camera it is here and Dudley tries some surreptitious unframed shots from the hip but the shutter sounds like a pistol shot and so it is hardly inconspicuous. We are trailed by the children calling the ferangi song. Usually in good humour but occasionally with some hostility, they are certainly persistent.

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From there we visit the governors house, now a museum, with dusty but interesting exhibits. There are many old books including an early copy of Richard Burtons Footsteps in East Africa. Scholars can come here to study. There is an extensive coin collection. Harar was one of the few places which minted its own coins and much of the history can be traced through them. They have been found as far away as China.

We enjoy a coffee ceremony by the side of the road, observing the process from roasting to grinding to brewing and helping the young barista with pounding the beans. A deceptively heavy job. To enjoy your coffee in Ethiopia you need to be patient for the full ceremony and wait for the brew to be heated and reheated to optimal infusion. This takes at least 30 minutes but is a welcome break from the heat and sore feet.

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Next on our tour is the house of Arnold Rimbaud. He was a French poet who lived in Harar for 11 years in the late 19 th Century trading in coffee. He brought one of the first cameras to Harar and there is an exhibition of old photos of the town and people which was really fascinating. There is a great view over the city from the second floor and we saw millions of black kites perched on the roofs and ariels. Walking back to the guesthouse we passed the meat market where, for 10 birr, the butcher gave us meat offel to feed the kites who swooped to take it from our hands. . They seem to be an efficient waste disposal system. When we stopped for a meal at a courtyard restaurant the waiters had to physically fight the kites and vultures off to deliver the food. Any lapse in attention and your dinner is airborne.

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Hyenas

One of the iconic customs in Harar is the feeding of the hyena every day at dusk. The legend has it that the custom originated during a famine when the starving hyena began to attack livestock and people and so feeding of the hyenas began to protect cattle and children. In one version of the story, a pure-hearted man dreamed of how the Hararis could placate the hyenas by feeding while another credits the revelation to the town's Muslim saints convening on a mountaintop. The anniversary of this pact is celebrated every year on the Day of Ashura, when the hyenas are provided with porridge prepared with pure butter. It is believed that the hyenas' clan leaders will taste the porridge before the others. Should the porridge not be to their liking, the other hyenas will not eat it, and those in charge of feeding them make the requested improvements. How the hyenas eat the porridge is believed to have oracular significance; if the hyena eats more than half the porridge, then it is seen as portending a prosperous new year. Should the hyena refuse to eat the porridge then the people will gather in shrines to pray, in order to avert famine. Anyway, whenever the practice started it has been going on for over five centuries and is documented in Sir Richard Burtons journals.

2 families are currently responsible for this task and it is said that it is passed down the generations. There are 2 feeding points just outside the old walls. Every night they take meat offel and feed the hyenas by hand. When we arrived for the ceremony there were only four hyenas. Apparently there had been a big Muslim festival with a lot of meat slaughtered over the last few days and so the packs had eaten well and scattered. The hyenas looked softer than our wild hyenas and they were fed with meat by hand or at the end of a stick and took it quite gently. The feeder even put the stick in his mouth and he guided tourists to do the same. Not us I may add. I don't want my face bitten off. He called and talked to them continually with a high pitched keening which they seemed to recognise.

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There are many hyenas in and around Harar , both inside and outside the city and when you walk at night you may see shifty shapes slinking down the alleyways especially by the restaurants. They are also heard to call through the evening. They provide an excellent organic refuse removal system and , together with the kites and vultures, keep the city clean. The downside of this domestic relationship is that we saw quite a few hyena carcasses on the roads where they had been hit by cars at night. As we were leaving and arriving in Harar they were the most common road kill.

Addis Revisited

Of Visas and Bureaucracy

Our next stop is an unscheduled return to Addis for the immigration visas. We added this to the itinerary rather abruptly after the visa fiasco on arrival and it has tragically cut a day from Harar and from Axom. Still we must do what we must do and we head back to the big smoke.

An early starts gets us back on the road for the long drive. We head to Addis via a lake we have been assured holds flocks of flamingos but after meandering rather aimlessly through fields and villages it is clear our drivers don't know where we are headed. There are a string of crater lakes down the Rift Valley and it seems they have no clue which one we want. Well ,to be fair, neither do we. Eventually we reach a farming cooperative close to a lake but cannot get close to the water. There are no flamingos but a line of white can be seen bordering the far bank and through the binoculars we see a huge collection of Maribou storks, easily the most we have ever seen in one place, perhaps a 1000 or more. We can get no closer and so we cut our losses and turn for Addis.

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Although only 40 km it takes another 2 hours on congested roads with maybe 5 lanes of traffic manoeuvring for space on a 2 lane highway. It is back into people, fumes, rickety scaffolding and incomplete high rises. We find a hotel close to the immigration department ready for an early start. Walking there next day we run the gamut of pickpockets and over familiarity. The department of immigration lives up to expectation, it is a chaos of offices, stamps, fees, and queues. Predictably the serious nature of the business is reflected in the time it takes to achieve the goal. In our case, despite endless patience, we are told we may only receive our new visas in two days. It seems it takes time to stick stickers in passports. Pity they would not let us go back to the airport where it only takes 30 minutes. The itinerary is pushed further back and the sights of Addis call.

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The ethnological museum is a must see. Housed in the old palace of Haile Selassie it offers a tour of the emperors old rooms with echoes of his lavish lifestyle, albeit a somewhat faded glory, It also houses a fairly comprehensive historical and cultural tour of the melting pot that is Ethiopia. Well worth the entrance. The palace complex is now part of the university gifted by Haile Selassie although the students subsequently led the revolt against him. The 20 th century version of fees must fall perhaps.

Finally in possession of valid visas we stop only to stock up on food before heading thankfully out of town. Our next destination is the most exciting but also the most potentially dangerous. The Danekil depression, the hottest place on earth. This area is close to the Eritrean border and has a reputation for bandits. Murder and kidnapping of tourists has occurred and so the Ethiopian government has put strict regulations in place for any tourist incursion in terms of the cavalcade that must accompany us. An extra car, cooks, guides, armed guards must all be added to the party. Before the day is over our little party of 5 will have swollen to 16 and they all need to be fed.

The Danekil Desert

The Danekil desert lies in the north east corner of the Afar region of Ethiopia on the border or Eritrea. It is an area of volcanos and stark beauty with unique archeological, geological and geographical interest. There is little rainfall here and the Awash river pours into the sandy expanse ending in a string of salt lakes. It lies on the junction of three tectonic plates and was formed when Asia and Africa moved away from each other. The Danekil depression is 100 m below sea level and is claimed to be the hottest place on earth with temperatures regularly reaching over 50C. No problems for Zululanders then, just another day in paradise! It is also claimed to be the site of the origin of hominids with the discovery in 1974 of the fossil remains of Lucy. She must have died of heat stroke!


Motel with Attitude

We leave Addis and travel down the new express way , a toll road with new tar and a decent speed limit for once. Here, unique to all Ethiopia , anyone allowing animals to stray by the road will have them confiscated which is a strange reversal to elsewhere where drivers are fined for any livestock loss. Still it means we make good time for the first part of our journey which is a relief as this will be a long long day to our destination, a two day journey must be telescoped into one because of the delays in Addis. As the sun sets with glorious red and orange hues we are still bowling along. The landscape is now very bleak with little signs of habitation. 2 hours after sunset we wearily pull into a truck stop. At least that's what it looks like. It is however what passes for a hotel in this place. A field lined with parked trucks, we are after all on the main route to Eritrea. In the middle of the field is a long line of beds in a row, perhaps 50, with blue mosquito nets over each bed and a pillow and blanket. Many are already occupied. We head for the office and secure 7 beds at the end of the row and join the weary truck drivers. The sheets are a bit dubious and the mosquito nets have holes big enough to fit your head through but we were tired and lying in a field looking at the stars while being serenaded by the snoring, giggling cacophony of strangers, dogs and working girls was priceless. I slept like a bomb, the others not so much! The ablutions were long drops serviced by a little old man who threw a bucket of water in after you. You needed to move smartish to avoid an unscheduled shower. He took a shine to me and opened up a little shower cubicle for me to use at the other side of the camp. What a sweety or maybe I looked very dirty indeed!

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Breakfast was fresh and hot , egg and coffee and our third car carrying cooks, guide and driver joined us to continue the journey. During the course of the day we continued to collect guards with guns from random spots along the road until we were sandwiched into the cars bristling with rifles through every window. Clearly we were now reaching the serious stuff.



Climbing Erta Ale

This is the land of the Afar people, a fearsome tribe living in this inhospitable region and not surprisingly renowned for their tough and fierce characters. The men wear a long sarong with a curved knife in the belt and the rumour has it they would use this to cut off the scrotum and penis of defeated enemies. The modern version also sports an AK 47 slung over his shoulder so clearly not someone to mess with. They run the salt mining in the Danekil , driving caravans of camels into the desert but more of that later.

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We were scheduled for our first adventure, climbing Erta Ale, one of the active volcanos in the region. Carmen and I have decided on a camel for the journey as I for one would not be able to manage this on foot. We stop at the village to arrange the camels and camel drivers and pick up yet another armed guard before continuing on bone jarring roads to the base of the volcano at El Dom. The wind is baking hot making each breath unpleasant, burning your chest. The locals call the wind the Gara or fire wind. The landscape is bleak, stony and dry with mirages shimmering in the heat. Yep it's getting hot. For this reason the plan is to climb the volcano after sundown. It would be suicide to do it in the heat of day. There is not a scrap of shade anywhere. We wait patiently for the camels to arrive. They are walking from the previous village. The chefs get to work and provide us with an evening meal. Pity it is too hot to eat. The entourage, and the rest of the village, enjoyed a happy feast however. Now I know why they needed so much food! Finally at 830 the camels are here and after an excruciatingly hot and exhausting day we set out to scale the volcano. Our caravan consists of 5 camels, 2 policemen, 2 scouts, 1 driver, 3 military okes, 5 camels herders and the 5 of us. Carmen and I are perched precariously on top of camels with saddles made of sticks lashed together with twine. Comfy it is not . Within 10 minutes I am wondering if this was a good idea. Within 30 I know it was not. It will take only 2 hours we are assured but it is nearly 1.00 am before we crest the top of the volcano. Numb with pain I am convinced my lady parts will never work again. The walkers are stoical but clearly exhausted. Next we must climb down a steep rocky slope about 80 m to the volcano crater and stumble forward. The rock gets hot under foot and we reach the rim of a crater of boiling larva. It is red hot, incandescent, erupting, bubbling and shifting , belching flame and sparks and mesmeric to watch. Tripods are set and cameras click furiously. I hope we get a good images. 2.00 am we crawl onto mattresses in a roofless hut under a magnificent canopy of stars and into exhausted slumber. 3 hours later we must wake to get down the mountain before the sun heats the day. The journey down is quicker, about 3 hours but when we tumble into camp we make short work of 20 L of water and the breakfast provided by the chefs. Bonus!

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Nearly a Disaster


We move out after breakfast and a makeshift wash behind the hut. At least we feel clean and cool insulated from the baking heat by the air con and all the extra passengers in the car. One guard has taken a fancy to Vicky, our blonde amazon, and continually sings to her. Ian calls him Chirpy. He combs his hair and cleans his teeth while gazing longingly at Vicky. Most definitely unrequited. About 30 km down the track the boys decide on a short cut off road. It is soon clear they have no clue about off roading. The first car digs into soft sand and is stuck. The second car turns round to help although we scream for him to stop. He soon shares our fate and now both cars are dug in to the axles. There is no safety equipment, no jack, winch, rope, sand ladders or even a shovel. The phones have no signal. The sand is scorching hot and burns the hair on your legs when you walk out of the shade. We have 25 liters of water for 10 people and suddenly I can see us dying in the Danekil. Dudley and Ian climb out and take charge, dropping the tyre pressures and digging out the wheels while we search for sticks and stones to give traction. The heat makes movement unpleasant and soon we are all covered in dirt and sand and sweat. Chirpy sits under a bush cradling his rifle and singing softly! Digging is apparently not in his job description. With a bit more effort we free both cars and set off again giving the drivers directions to stay away from hazards and we eventually bump onto tar. We are back in our familiar place, dirty and hot! The rest of the day passes in a sleepy coma. As we travel we slowly shed armed guards and the crush in the vehicles is a bit better. We cross deserts and wind down mountain passes. The Chinese are busy building roads all over, apparently for the mining. The roads do not look like they will last long. There is a rock fall already on one open less then six months. There are many trucks and much dust. The driver has only had 2 hours sleep so we are a little worried. Oh for the resilience of youth!



Dallol

We arrive at the village of Daloll just after dark. It is on the edge of the Denekil depression over looking the salt plains and our drivers have secured a kitchen, an animal shelter and a collection of outdoor beds and mattresses for us to use. There is one communal toilet in a broken down hut largely open to the elements. You really have to get tough or go home in this place. The village is a staging post for the camel trains winding in and out of the salt mines in the depression. It is rustic but from here we are within driving distance of the salt and sulphur mines, our next destination.

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Yet another wonderful night under the stars and we are refreshed and ready to go. Chirpy slept in the animal shelter cradling his gun. He never puts it down so some training seems to have stuck! The cars roll out reinforced by another large group of military personnel. These guys look like they mean business, automatic rifles at the ready, eagle eyed 10000 yard stares and grim expressions. The sulphur mines and the volcano have been the site of previous tourist attacks. Apparently it is the Eritrean Afar that were responsible in cross border raids and now the military have a strong presence in both locations. Every time we stop the boys leap out of the car first and find themselves sniper vantage points until we reload to carry on. I feel like a filmstar.

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Salt and Sulphur


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The pans are amazing, white crystalline surface as far as the eye can see to the distant mountains and we see the salt caravans on the horizon. This is an area rich in mineral deposits and under the salt there are lakes of acid. Some areas the acid lakes sit on the surface, belching the bad eggs smell. We drive to the old sulphur mine and climb up to the top of a small mountain. The heat makes this an almost superhuman task and I take strain but it is worth the pain as the mine is laid out before us as a landscape of vivid yellows, brown, orange and ochre. Rock formations swirl and flow like an impressionist painting. Breathtaking. The surrounding rocky areas look like castles and turrets and there are caves and overhangs but it is too hot to explore.

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We move onto the salt mine. In the middle of a vast open plain there are perhaps 100 camels and men sitting in the heat hewing salt blocks from the ground. They use small hand held axes and make perfectly symmetrical and equal blocks which are stacked ready for loading. The camels look on disdainfully . The men have walked for 2 days with their camels to get here and then spend 1-2 days mining and loading the salt before starting the trek home and to market. They get 15 birr per block and each camel carries 24. Not surprisingly they are bronzed and wiry specimens . They need to be tough to tolerate this heat. You can be forgiven for wondering why they have not mechanised with trucks and diggers but the acid lakes just below the surface will not take the weight of big trucks and if you fall through the crust there is no getting back. So the ages old tradition is safe, for now.


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We return to the village and lie in the animal shelter. The heat is intense and insane. We lie on the beds, our clothes drenched with water from the nearby well where water is pumped from a subterranean river. As the clothes dry your skin is on fire and the water must be added every 30 minutes or so. The evaporation is cooling and the only respite. As we lie there moaning you cannot help but think of the salt miners toiling on through the heat. Well that is if you can think at all as the heat scrambles your brain and sucks out all energy. Visions of showers and cool beers dance through your head but they are far away. The flies buzz but the effort to swat them is too much. The Gara wind springs up , like a blast from a furnace, whipping up small twirlies which carry spare mattresses tumbling over the road. We don't care and have no energy to go and fetch them.


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Yet eventually the heat begins to fade. Then it is time to watch the camel trains plod through the village on their way to market. Sensibly they prefer to travel at night. Iconic images.


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So next day it is time to leave this amazing and challenging place. We return along the mountain track. In the light it is scenic with beautiful mountains and valleys and within 2 hours we are up in fertile valleys and fields. It is hard looking at this to believe that anyone chooses to live in the barren salt plains. We are now in Tigray which is the area renowned for rock hewn churches perched on cliffs The bee eaters and birds have returned to the landscape and we are firmly back into Coptic Christian Ethiopia.


Tigray

Travellers Tummy

As we leave Danekil it is clear Carmen is a casualty of the chefs best efforts and has developed a really upset stomach. Ethiopia , with its lack of sanitation and privacy , is not a good place to experience explosive travellers diarrhoea and Carmen is looking very fragile not to mention dehydrated. We loaded her with Lomotil and Maxolon and gave her IV fluids with some minimal improvement but clearly she is not feeling too good and we need a room with a loo rather than a room with a view. We stop in Wukro to find a suitable standard of room. Easier said than done. Here there are many hotels but enter the flashy looking doors and lo and behold the rooms have not been built, it is an empty shell. We find a hotel with a reasonable restaurant but it's rooms are under construction and there is no water. We try a couple more. Surprise surprise they look good on the outside but inside there is washing hanging in reception and they look like they have never had a guest. Eventually we find a complete building. It is not exactly the Ritz but it has rooms, beds and water with working toilets and we are in like greased badgers.

The Churches of Tigray

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We leave Carmen to recuperate and head off the explore this mountainous and verdant area. Tigrey is in the north of Ethiopia bordering Eretria and Sudan and is most famous for its rock hewn churches and monasteries, many at the top of steep cliffs. The monastery at Debra Damo is only accessible by climbing a 25 m rope up a sheer cliff. Happily this one is for men only! The churches date back to the 8 th century and are richly decorated with vivid wall art depicting biblical stories. Each church is looked after by a monk clad in orange, white or brown robes. These men are not necessarily life long clerics but are drawn from the local community, farmers mostly, and will serve for 2 years before returning to their families and livestock and so the role rotates around the village. They are the guardians of the treasures of the churches, art, ancient manuscripts , gilded robes, reliquaries and gold and silver ornaments. They are also the gatekeepers to levy the tourist birr! There is a standard entry fee but the priest also expects a handsome tip to show you his really precious hidden treasures or to read from the holy book in Ge'ez. The road up to the church quickly fills with the elderly and disabled and generally needy parishioners looking for support so passing from church to church quickly empties the pocket. Each church is different, some are reputed to have secret passages to Axom. Perhaps a quick route out to avoid all the beggars! Some paintings are bright and fresh and some dull and aged. The floors are usually covered in dusty and threadbare Persian carpets. Cleaning is not a strength and a variety of buckets and paraphernalia litter the dark and dusty corners.



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Church with a View

After a few of the more easily accessible churches we begin to find the circus a little tiresome and decide we will find one really inaccessible and challenging church to visit. Abuna Yemata Guh Is described in the guide book as a challenging climb and requiring nerve of steel so seemed to meet our requirements. It is on the top of a pinnacle. When faced with the reality Vicky and I decide to sit it out and Dudley and Ian, compete with guide set off gamely. We watch their figures recede up the mountain. Shortly after a South African group come down and tell us how amazing it was. They look really amped and they unload safety harnesses and climbing ropes. Oh dear! Ian and Dudley took a piece of blue string dug out of the car boot. About 2 1/2 hours later the boys reappear down the mountain, also elated but mainly with hysteria. After about a 30 minute walk they were faced with a sheer rock wall with carved hand holds. The locals were there and managed to sell their advice on where the best hand holds and toe holds were. At the top of the cliff there was a ledge with a 200 m drop and a cave where the remains of the priests who did not make it down the mountain were laid out. Maybe a few tourists in there as well. From there it was a 20m walk along a 20 cm ledge also with a sheer drop. There was much nerve steeling required before making it to the church carved out of the mountain. It was worth the effort because it is one of the best preserved churches. Many of the others were desecrated by the Jews in the tug of war which litters the Ethiopian historical scene. Still, this one was clearly inaccessible and survived in tact. The locals climb up and down like mountain goats and 200 - 300 climb up at Easter and crowd the ledge. While Ian and Dudley were glued to the rock face the locals would just jump over them without any qualms. Once there the priest was demanding of a particularly large tip to ensure their safe descent. Needless to say they returned to the bottom penniless. Oh well they did it and we were all duly impressed, even to a rather desperate celebration with too much beer that night.



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Happily Carmen was looking a little better next day and we pushed onto the next part of our itinerary, the legendary city of Axum, the site of the Ark of the Covenant. Indiana Jones here we come.


Axum

The Victory at Adwa

Axum is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Africa dating back to 400 BC when it was the capital of the Aksumite kingdom, a trading and naval power. The route there is over hilly terrain with hair pin bends and across the Adwa mountains. This was famously the site of an epic battle in 1896 between Italy and Ethiopia. At the end of the 19 th century much of Africa had been carved up and colonised by Britain and Europe with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia. Italy had its sights set on Ethiopia to complement its territories in Eretria and Somalia and invaded. The Ethiopians rallied all their tribes to combat this invasion and routed the Italians at Adwa . This set the scene for Ethiopia remaining under its own sovereignty and, although Italy tried again in the 1930's and occupied some areas for a while, Ethiopia was never formally colonised. This is a large part of its unique attraction. It is essentially self determined if a little confused.

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The Stellae of Axum

The history of Axum can be traced through its coinage. Gold, silver and bronze coins were produced and bore the head of the king when minted. Chrisitanity arrived in 400 AD after two Christian boys were ship wrecked and brought to Axum. They converted King Ezana to Christianity. His coinage bears the Christian cross whereas the prior coinage were minted bearing the pagan symbols of the moon and the sun. The Bible was translated from Greek into Ge'ez , an Ethiopian religious language, about 500 AD after the nine saints arrived.

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Axum is an important historical site with massive mausoleums built by the Axumite kings and their dignitaries during the height of the kingdom. These are marked with massive granite pylons or stellae. Some of the stones are said to date from 1400 BC . The Axumite dysnasty started with the Queen of Sheba and her son Menelik the first and continued until around 700 AD. At its height the kingdom stretched almost to India. The stellae were quarried 5 km away in one block. The largest is 540 tons and 33 m high. Each one seems to have been erected higher than the last suggesting some degree of one upmanship. Some have fallen but many are still standing tall. They are ornately carved with doors and windows. The graves are mostly underground, below the stellae, and have up to 10 chambers, rather like the warren of chambers in Egyptian burial sites. The body was buried with its treasures but most were plundered long ago. After Christianity took over the stellae seem to have stopped, presumably different burial rites were adopted.

The Ark of the Covenant?

Across the road from the stellae park is the church of Mary of Zion. There have been churches on this site since the beginning of Christianity. The present one was built in 1960's by Haile Selassie. Adjacent is the museum, a dark and dingy place but stuffed with treasures, gold and silver crowns and crosses, robes , bibles and other holy books. I think a little restoration and cleaning could be in order. It must be worth millions but you would not give it a second look at the church jumble sale!

We carried on into the church, a large impressive domed building with reverberating acoustics amplifying the cooing of the doves in the roof and the chanting of the priests.

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The legend has it the Ark of the Covenant rests in the Chapel of the Tablet in the church of Mary of Zion. In 2009 the patriarch of the Ethiopian church announced to the world that he would unveil the ark but then rescinded this gesture and merely attested to its presence in the church. It has never been publicly displayed or verified.


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Axum was a short but fascinating insight into Christian Ethiopia. The area appears somewhat more westernised than the south and east. The people are tall and fine featured and men and women all wear white prayer shawls, often edged with beautiful colourful braiding and embroidery. This is daily wear but the finery is even more impressive on Sundays. The churches become crowded and many congregants cannot even fit into the churches. The children and elderly are allowed inside as they are considered spiritually more pure and the rest listen to the service wherever they stand. There are so many saints there are saints days several times a week, also associated with religious services. The Ethiopian christians fast over 200 days of the year for religious reasons and clearly they are, in the majority, devout and observant.



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The Simian Mountains

Our next destination is the Simian mountains, highlands in the northwest of the country and the scene of iconic waterfalls cascading down sheer cliffs into the Sud swamps. We cross the plains and down into the Teseke Valley a large tributary to the Nile. Baobabs are all around as we drop beneath 1000 meters. As we wind up into the highlands the scenery is stunning, Mescal daisies are still in bloom providing splashes of yellow sweeping across the mountainous landscape. The roads wind through green forests and cascading waterfalls. The road is precipitous, and life feels cheap. Any miscalculation will spell death on the rocky slopes. Eagles keep pace with the car. Donkeys compete for space on the road. This is one of the greatest scenic roads we have ever been on. Truly spectacular .

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Wildflowers are everywhere. Fields of barley have been skilfully terraced down steep mountainsides. We arrive at the park gate and enter into tricky negotiations. I have a rather loud and impassioned argument about not wanting a guide and eventually win. The rule is you must take a guide if you are on an organised tour but it is optional if you are self drive. We don't want to fill the cars with extra bodies any more. It is uncomfortable and makes the photography difficult. The armed scout is compulsory and as far as we are concerned he is enough. Our drivers know where to go. They argue we should be contributing to the community by using the guide. I argue we have done nothing but contribute to the community since we set foot in Ethiopia! I may be losing it again, the opinion is mixed but it is with relief we find local gin for sale in the village. Purely medicinal you understand.



Gelada Baboons

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We eventually leave with the necessary permits. We enter the park just as the light is getting good. It is spectacular. Steep mountain escarpments with waterfalls, rolling hills, aloes and red hot pokers carpeting whole slopes. We have our first sight of the Gelada baboons. A big troop moving on their bottoms across a grassy slope picking grass and leaves as they go and chattering and squeaking. This magnificent creature roams in large groups across the Simian range. It is the only grass eating baboon and is only found in the Ethiopian highlands. The males have a large red patch on the chest, hence their other name the bleeding heart monkey. They are large with beautiful long grey hair and they are social and sociable. They chatter and play and seem to be hypersexual, mating with anything which stays still long enough. Grooming is a busy pastime, they must be carrying many little friends in that luxurious fur. The youngsters frolic and play and the moms carry the babies, girls on the back and boys on the front to protect them from other jealous males. They are incredibly sure footed, running up and down the sheer cliffs when startled. They move around shuffling on their bottoms while foraging. The low sound of munching is a background to the squeaking and chattering and during our trip they are commonly found by the side of the road and in the fields. They run away from the Ethiopians but ignore the foreigners although they will usually turn their backs to the camera in distain.

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What is a surprise is even in the national park many people still live here and there are a lot of domestic animals sheep donkeys cows and horses and some agricultural cultivation especially small terraces of barley on the steep slopes. Apparently the government is trying to move them out and plan to relocate them with compensation. I'm not sure I would if I were them. They live in such a beautiful and fertile area. For now they form the backbone of the trekking infrastructure providing animals for the trekkers to carry luggage and food. This is a popular spot for over night hiking trails.

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As the sun sets the wind becomes icy and we move into cloudy and overcast weather as we climb higher. It is getting dark and camping is beginning to lose its appeal. We hire a bunkhouse belonging to a local family and all pile in including the drivers. The symphonic snoring is something to behold.

We wake early at 530 to get some early landscapes and scramble up the hill behind the bunkhouse. The armed guard shadows us everywhere. I am not sure why we need a guy with a gun in this reserve where the most ferocious animal we may encounter is a grass eating monkey but he takes his job seriously and is rather sweet. If we get out of the car, he does, if we walk he does and he carries his gun all the time at the ready even when eating or to the bathroom. He speaks no English but he has taken to helping me to scramble up and down the hills with solemn concern. What he thinks of an overweight, unfit white woman running around his country is anyones guess but he displays the understated kindness I have come to recognise in many of our encounters with the Ethiopian people and every so often I surprise a small smile out of him.


Little Goat With Big Horns

We head out to explore the mountains. It is even more impressive in the morning light. The wind is icy but it's bright and sunny. The mountains are really breathtaking. We spot a lammergeier. soaring. They are endemic here. We are roving the hills looking for the Walia Ibex. This is a sure footed mountain goat with magnificent curved horns. He is also only found here in northern Ethiopia and is critically endangered, perhaps 500 left in the wild. Eventually our patience is rewarded and we spot a group on a nearby hillside. We climb to get closer but it is tough going. The guard sticks close to me in his self imposed guardian mode. The iconic image of this ibex is standing on a sheer ledge holding on nonchalantly with his toenails.

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The day draws to a close. We sit with the baboons in the golden light of sunset. It is a magical place. Perhaps one of the most beautiful in a country that is generously gifted with beauty.


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Gondar


We set off early for the fortress and castles of Gondor, another amazing historical gem. En route we pass through a town the boys tell us famous for its yogurt and stop for breakfast. We must try this. The yogurt is unflavoured, thick and sour and served with a generous sprinkling of chilli powder. The boys eat with relish but we put it down to another slightly weird Ethiopian culinary experience not to be repeated! We continued on through Felasha. The Felasha are Ethiopian Jews and when Israel was proclaimed they encouraged this sect to move to Israel, indeed large numbers were airlifted out by the Israeli government. It is said they are discriminated against in Israel and treated as a lower class so I am not sure they got a good deal. We had coffee with the few remaining stragglers.

Finally we reach Gondar. The new town is dominated by a statue of Theodorus. He came to power in the 19 th century and united large parts of Ethiopia. He is depicted as a Robin Hood type character. His life was mainly spent on campaign. In 1868 he wrote to queen Victoria to help him against the Turks. The reply arrived only 2 years later and this so incensed him that he imprisoned British citizens in retaliation. The British sent a force to free them and Theodorus was defeated and committed suicide.

Murder and Intrigue and a Ruined City

Gondar is the site of an interesting ruined city dating back to the 17 th Century. Before that time the royal courts would move around but had no fixed abode but in the early 17 th century they settled in Gondar which then became the capital and an important cultural centre for over 2 centuries. Many rulers built their own castles and this has led to a compound of multiple ruined but impressive dwellings including lion enclosures The emperors of Ethiopia have always kept lions as a symbol of power going back to the time of King David. This was interestingly one of the facts which led to the downfall of Haile Selassie as he kept lions in this tradition but it was a press picture of his lions being fed meat during a particularly bad famine in the country during the 1970's that contributed massively to his unpopularity.

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Anyway it seems that the time of Gondar was a period of rich history, intrigue and murder. Some emperors lived only for days after they were proclaimed, usually murdered by the next in line. The successive emperors were patrons of the arts, building dance halls, libraries, stables and baths, there is even a sauna. The last ruler of Gondor was an empress. Her castle is one of the most complete in the complex. Bruce, in his travels to Ethiopia, met with her and was impressed by her beauty. Gondar fell into decline and was subsequently sacked and destroyed by a series of Muslim invaders and, as the Italians used it as a military base, was bombed by the British in the Second World War.

The compound itself is on a hill with views of the surrounding plains, presumably a good tactical advantage. The ruined buildings are surrounded by grassy lawns and winding paths through crumbling arches and overgrown gardens offering scenic photographic opportunities.

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Outside the compound, on the other side of the new town is the great baths built by the Felassie. They are a very impressive feat of engineering with sluice gates connecting the baths to the river allowing them to be filled and emptied. The baths are over 50 m long in a walled enclosure with fig trees entangled in the brickwork. They used to be used after horse races through the town. Now they are filled only once a year at the Festival of Timkat on Jan 17 th when the water is blessed and people come in their thousands in their white robes to bathe and be baptised in celebration of the baptism at the river Jordan. A great place for courting we are told! If the boy sees a girl he likes he will throw her a lemon. If she likes him she will use it to bathe.

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The Monasteries of Lake Tana and the Source of the Blue Nile

The Monasteries at Lake Tana

Lake Tana is in the northwest highlands , the largest lake in Ethiopia at 84 km long and 66 km wide and 15 m deep. It is famous for the many monasteries on small islands across the lake and for being the origin of the Blue Nile. There are still many active monasteries on the lake today, built on ancient sites and the repositories of many of the treasures of the Ethiopian church. Fish from the Nile basin are found in the lake as well as many water birds including pelicans , flamingo and fish eagles. Fishing is an important industry here and many small papyrus canoes or tankwa can be seen plying their trade. They look unstable and insubstantial so I hope the crocs are small and friendly.

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We stay at a small hotel on the edge of the lake with lush, if rather untended, gardens and lots of birds in the trees. The black winged love bird, Abyssinian wood hoopoe and white cheeked turaco to name but a few. At supper that night wine is on the menu and, overcome with excitement at the opportunity, we indulge in a bottle of Boschendaal white. What a pleasure, at least until the bill for $60.00 arrived.


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We organised a boat to visit some of the monasteries and the next morning we set off for the Zege peninsular and Bête Maryam Monastery. We pass many islands on the way some no bigger than a rocky outcrop. Many have monasteries nestled in the bush with round green roofs peeping through the foliage. We disembark at a rickety jetty and wend our way through a forested path past wild coffee and hops. The monastery is set in a clearing. The building is set out in concentric circles built around the holy of holies. There are three doors, one for men, one for women and one for the clergy, all 3 meters high. At the gate a wizened monk in bright saffron robes obligingly poses for photographs for photobirr. Inside the walls are covered in colourful murals of biblical stories and legends. This is how the Bible was , and is, taught to illiterate parishioners. George slaying the dragon is a prominent theme. A priest in white robes glides past dodging the shutter click.

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After leaving the monastery our guide takes us along a rocky path to the museum. This seems to be the place where they store extra paintings and artifacts but looks more like a garden shed. The guide flips a switch and a small generator wheezes into life and powers two small incandescent bulbs. There are old books again on goat or cow skin and they say there are 5000 in the cellar. Amazing. They have crowns of gold and silver as well as ceremonial crosses, umbrellas and robes. A skinny guy with an AK on his shoulder hovers outside, the only concession to the priceless value housed under this roof.

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The Source of the Blue Nile

In the afternoon we leave for the source of the Blue Nile. In town we encounter a wedding where the bride and groom are traveling in the back of a car with the doors open. Everyone hoots and claps and the traffic comes to a standstill as they make several laps of the roundabout. I think they should close the doors before they get knocked off! A 40 minute drive to a small colourful village and then a boulder strewn track. A small ferry takes us over the river and we meander between maize and cane and khat until we reach an open area on the top of a small cliff. A group of boys are playing football. This is the origin of the Blue Nile, a spot of legends and myths. It is the holiest of holy places in Ethiopian Christianity as this is where Adam and Eve frolicked before the fall from grace. A modest waterfall ends in spray and mist. the local name is Gish Abay and the water is considered holy with healing properties up to 70 generations. The water volume is significantly reduced by a neighbouring hydroelectric plant which diverts up to 4/5 of the water. The sun is getting low and the light badly positioned but we manage some shots over the top of the falls, angled down, before starting back down the track.

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On the walk home there is a young girl with a crucifix tattooed on her forehead. This is not an uncommon Coptic practice. In the 13 th century newborns were branded with crosses. In the 19 th century ,during conflict with the Muslims ,King Johannes had the Christians tattoo crosses on their foreheads to distinguish them from Muslims when the the soldiers were carrying out raids and purges. Christian -Muslim conflict has been a recurring refrain in Ethiopian history with loss of life, culture, architecture and treasures along the way.

Awra Amba

Zumba Nuru, a man before his time

We are heading to one of the most iconic destinations in Ethiopia, Lalibela and the sunken churches. It is a long drive and late morning we roll into the Awra Amba Ambassador village for a visit. We were delivered here by our drivers and had no real concept what we were brought to visit but it turns out to be very unique. This is a model village I guess you could say and a true commune in every sense of the word. It was founded in 1976 by Zumra Nuru. He was born a Muslim but from an early age questioned the social norms of his community, especially the way women and the elderly and disabled were treated. He felt that this was unfair . He could not understand why he was not allowed to eat with his Christian friends. Or why, after a day in the fields working side by side, his parents would return home and his mother would then serve his father and family., thereby doing double work. He developed a set of principals he felt should be central to peaceful and cordial society. These included sexual equality, respecting children's rights, helping people who are elderly or disabled or in need, avoiding bad speech and bad deeds, essentially do unto others as you would have done unto you, and lastly regarding all human beings as brothers and sisters regardless of race colour, class or religion. He was born Muslim but his religious position now seems non denominational. The village believes in 1 creator and therefore see no difference in their religion from any other monotheistic religion where there is a similar concept be it Judaism Islam or Christianity.

It seems his ideas were not readily received in his community. He was treated as mentally ill by his family. He left home traveling to find like minded people to no avail and only in 1976 did he find people who agreed with him and set up a community. The community was persecuted and their land taken and they lived in exile for some years, foraging in the forests, but eventually under the new government they were given a small amount of land and set up a village. They did not have enough land to farm and started handicrafts to bring in extra money and now they are known for their weaving. The members of the community work towards the community benefit according to their abilities. They have one day a week when all work for the community fund which is used for helping those in need. They have a kindergarten and schooling is strongly encouraged. There is a home for elderly or disabled and a small sick bay and they have big sheds where they work the weaving looms and spin thread. Each family has their own home and kitchen house.

Overall the village was clean and neat and everyone looked very relaxed and industrious. The children were well behaved and playing happily. No one asked for money or gifts and the quality of the cloth was so good we all bought tons!

Although Zumba Nuru looked comical when he greeted us with droopy eyes, a round benevolent face and wearing what looked like a green tea cosy on his head, he had a big heart and a strong and selfless soul. It felt a bit like meeting Mother Theresa or Madiba. A man before his time. Perhaps a man before any time. A thought provoking visit.

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Lalibela



Lalibela is the site of one of the most remarkable collections of rock hewn churches. There are 11 churches in the complex, all built under King Lalibela in the 12 th century. The story we were told is that Lalibela was poisoned by his brother shortly after he ascended the throne ( a familiar theme by now). Instead of dying he remained in a coma for three days and when he woke he said he had seen a vision and had been transported to Jerusalem on the wings of angels and that he would build Jerusalem in Ethiopia so his people would more easily be able to complete the holy pilgrimage. Even in those times the religious pinnacle was to visit Jerusalem but, not surprisingly, few could afford this journey. The churches were dug out of igneous rock. Most are square or cross shaped. They took just 12 years to complete. Lalibela is now a much revered Ethiopian saint, and went into retreat and lived in a cave as a hermit after the completion of his project. Priests who lived in the complex are mummified and buried within the confines of the complex

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He left behind this most amazing architectural legacy. At their inception many were used for other civic functions such as palaces but now all have been consecrated as churches. Of the 8000 people who live in Lalibela 1000 are priests. In the courtyards of the churches small chambers have been excavated in the rock walls where hermits may come and live sometimes for many years and sometimes die there. In one or two we were shown the bones!

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The courtyards are always in use with those praying or reading religious texts, wearing white robes. Some are friendly and others suitably aloof. Some serving girls scurry around doing chores, grinding grain and hanging washing.



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Some of the churches have underground passages between them , rocky and quite steep in places. Many are named after religious landmarks, Bethlehem and the river Jordan. In each church there are dusty Persian carpets and religious artifacts. Some have colourful murals. We leave our shoes at the door and venture in the cool dark interiors. Many of the churches have baptismal ponds . The Mary compound is the biggest and is said to cure infertility.

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With our trusty guide we walk around the complexes , only stopping for lunch when the sun is hot and, much to our surprise, by the end of the day we have seen them all. It is no wonder this is one of the most sacred pilgrimages in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and well worth a visit to feel the immense weight of history and faith surround you. The town is friendly, built on wooded hills with cobbled winding roads bright and smiling people swathed in their white prayer shawls. A fitting end to an Ethiopian cultural and historical adventure.

The Last Goodbye

This reflection would not be complete without mention of our awesome travelling partners; Ian, get a grip, Gordon, Dudley's rock climbing buddy and partner in crime. His wife Carmen, a pocket rocket and pancake whiz when she is not being force-fed fluids and Vicky, The Vickster, Nuttall, our blonde amazon and risk manager and the object of Chirpy's unrequited love. A more stoical bunch you could not ask for, finding humour in the unlikeliest of places and pleasure in the small things. You guys rock, we feel so blessed to have met you and to have shared so many amazing adventures together. Cant wait for the next one.

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Any journey to Ethiopia begins and ends in the chaos that is Addis and we are no exception. Another long 2 day drive brings us back to the smog and rubble of this very unprepossessing capital city. I know it is described as vibrant and colourful and multiethnic but for me it is just dirty and exhausting. So we find ourselves a very dilapidated hotel close to the airport to say our goodbyes and wait for our flight. The hotel looked quite promising on the outside but it does not disappoint. We are the only occupants and they have rented the first floor to an all night disco. After no sleep at all it becomes easier to turn our faces to home.


Priest sitting outside his monastery

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At the end we were exhausted and tired of the long days in the car, the constant hassle and unplanned expenses but these emotions passed quickly and what has remained is an incredible awe at the diversity and beauty of this country and respect for the people who have managed to remain in charge of their own destinies. They may be subsistence farmers but they are inventive, effective and industrious. They are fit and appear overall a healthy population. They are ethnically diverse but seem to rub along together peacefully, at least for now. Our rainbow nation could learn something from their rainbow nation on steroids. They have built some amazing architectural testaments to their culture and civilisation, not something you find in many African countries.

The Holy Book, the Nebra Negast written in Ge'ez an ancient language,

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Their lives are simple but devout and they seem to hold strong and solid values which have yet to be visibly corrupted by western consumerism. So they exploit tourists a little but really their lives have been so hard they need to be resourceful to scrape out a living and you cannot really blame them for asking you to pay for the privilege of a glimpse into their colourful world. My enduring memory is of weatherbeaten, handsome and dignified people with a smile in their eyes and a flair for understated kindness. Would we go back again? For sure! In fact the main regret of this epic journey was that it was too short to do justice to many of the places we visited. All would have been better served by more days to take our time and savour the sights and sounds. For this reason many people will just visit select areas and not attempt a whistle stop tour of the whole country like we did. Perhaps we were over ambitious but at least we left with a sense of the breadth and scope of the country. Next time we plan to drive there in The Beast! Ethiopia here we come.

The fertile plateau

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