SATURDAY, DECEMBER 6
We arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at 6AM, got a visa (very quick and costs $20), went through immigration and changed money. We ran to the domestic terminal next door with 45 minutes to go before our plane was to depart, only to find that it was delayed for 2 hours. Bummer! The airport was basic but nice and breakfast was good, the first of many scrambled egg or omelete meals.
We arrived in Bahir Dar at about 11AM and were shuttled to the Summerland Hotel by Solomon, the young man who would help us make arrangements in town. Our first stop was Blue Nile Falls. We were taken to a point upriver of the falls where we crossed the river to begin our hike to the top of the falls, which was not far. The waterfall is not as large in width as it used to be as 75% of the water is routed through a power plant, nonetheless the 40m waterfall was beautiful. Along the way I bought some fabric and we bought some sugar cane to try. I had a hard time eating it but Bob and Jonathan munched away at the sticky sweet treat. We crossed the river downstream of the falls and had a captivating view from a point above the falls and continued to hike towards where our car would pick us up. We crossed the river on a bridge built be the Portuguese in the early 17th century. Very nice. I like bridges!
Sunday we woke up early, ate breakfast and set out at 7:30AM on a boat to see the monasteries on Lake Tana. Our first stop was the Narge Selassie monastery on Dek Island which we reached via a slow boat ride at 10:20AM. Greeting us were fishermen in papyrus boats. The monastery was a circular structure with timber beam construction and large wood doors. The interior was vibrantly painted with scenes depicting stories of the bible. St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, can be found painted inside all churches and is depicted slaying the dragon.
Other monasteries visited are Ura Kidane Mihret and Azua Maryam, two circular churches, Kibram Gabriel (typically closed to women and Bob and Jonathan found out it was closed for renovation when they got there), and Debra Maryam (constructed of stones brought from Jeruselum and all paintings have been ruined).
All churches have a sacred area reserved only for the priests called the Holy of Holies and typically hold a replica of the Arc of the Covenant.
The boat ride took us to the start of the Blue Nile River, where it exits Lake Tana, which meets up with the White Nile in Khartoun, Sudan (headwaters of Lake Victoria), then flows into Egypt to empty into the Mediterranean Sea. The Blue Nile Gorge, which we saw from the plane, is the Grand Canyon of Ethiopia.
We asked our guide Abeba where he would like to go if he could go anywhere. He said he wanted to see the Taj Mahal and the Serengeti desert.
It was amazing to see the amount of Obama paraphernalia in Ethiopia. We had dinner at the Obama Restaurant where Bob had really good pizza. We tried an Ethiopian chicken dish (doro wat) but decided from there on out to rely on the pasta typically available due to the Italian influence.
MONDAY, DECEMBER 8
Early we met up with our driver Johnnie and hopped in our 1994 Toyota Land Cruiser enroute to Gondar. We were promised a newer model but could do nothing as it came from Addis Ababa. It worked out just fine. Along the way we saw lots of people walking, many of them with sticks that I assumed were used to prod and guide the cattle or umbrellas to protect from the heat. We saw numerous Italian tanks from the late 1930’s invasion, and a few sick people being carried on stretchers to the nearest town with a hospital. The Guzara Castle, located on a hilltop overlooking Lake Tana, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the late 16th century, and was partially restored with US funds in 2004. I noticed a sign as we were driving past so we asked Johnnie to turn around so we could visit the church. As we were driving there we saw kids running toward the car and they greeted us when we got to the parking area. One man first told us that we could not visit but we told him we were American and paid for the restoration so he had to let us see it. He let us see it after negotiating a price.
Upon arriving in Gondar, we went straight to the Royal Enclosure and took a tour to hear the history of the many castles. Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia for 200 years beginning in the late 17th century. Emperor Fasiladas’ Castle was the grandest and has had significant renovation and the upper level (of three levels) was being restored when we visited. Many castles that I have seen typically only have the walls remaining but this castle had the floors restored so you could get a feel for how grand the rooms were. Other buildings include Iyasu’s, Bakafa’s and Menteweb’s (a woman) castle. We then went to the famous Debra Birhan Selassie but we could not visit as mass was taking place and we did not have time to wait given our itinerary. I was bummed as this is the church that some of the Lake Tana churches are modeled after and was the most important church in 18th century Gondar and was the site of several royal burials. We wanted to go to the Royal Bath next but Johnnie said he spoke to a friend in town who said there were riots near the bath. The riots/stoning were between Muslims and Christians because the Christians were upset the Muslims wanted to build a mosque near their church. This day was a Muslim holiday to observe Eid-ul-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice). We drove to the hilltop Goha Hotel to get a view of town and decided to try going to the Royal Bath before heading out of town. It was very quiet when we got there. The building in the center of the bath was under renovation and surrounded by scaffolding. It is the thought to be the second home of King Fasiladas and is the location of an annual Epiphany ceremony that takes place in Gondar in late January.
A beautiful drive took us to Debark, the town is at an elevation of about 2800m (9200ft) at the base of the Simien Mountains, where we stayed for two nights. The Simien Park Hotel where we stayed had new rooms and was only $18/night with a hot shower. It was cold when we arrived (5PM) and we went for a walk to get a beer in a local bar, then grabbed dinner. Most people walk, ride bikes or get around using horse- or mule-drawn carts. Very few vehicles are used. Debark was relatively clean and had no piles of trash, like Lagos does.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 9
Today we went hiking in the Simien Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site. If we had more time, we would have loved to camp. The hiking trail, which leads to Ras Dashen the highest peak in Ethiopia at 4543m (~14,900ft), parallels the road and is right along the edge of a 1000m (~3300ft) escarpment. The scenery was stunning! I wish the visibility was a little better.
Our guide was Bini and he was smart and funny. He said he wanted to go to Mt. Kenya, Baltimore, Maryland (to see the beaches he said - I told him of CA beaches), and the Grand Canyon. Our scout (armed guide) was Kidani, a 52 year-old man who looked MUCH older.
Early in the hike we saw the endemic gelada baboons documented in the DVD series Planet Earth (see Mountains DVD). At one point we saw about 100 of them and they allowed us to get up close. We ate lunch at Sankaber Camp then hiked to the Jinbar waterfall (400m/1300ft) in Gich Abyss and saw some klipspringer and more baboons. Our hike ended there due to time limitations but we decided to drive as far as we could go, to Chenneck Camp, thick with giant lobelias and gorgeous views in all directions.
Back in Debark after a 2 hour drive from Chenneck, we had a candle lit dinner as the power went out for about 3 hours, the first power outage experienced in Ethiopia.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 10
We departed Debark early enroute for Axum. Along the way we saw baobab trees along the banks of the Tagane River, ate lunch in Shire, stopped to see teff threshing, and arrived in Axum at 3PM.
We checked into the Ark Hotel, another $18/night hotel (smelled like sewage, annoying mosquitoes and a loud road), ate dinner with candle light again, and went to bed.
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 11
In Axum we visited the Mary of Zion church, built in 1965 by Haile Selassie so that women could worship. Our tour guide was Deacon Michael and he explained all of the buildings on the compound. The chandelier was donated by Queen Elizabeth and in the church was the oldest book (so they say) in Ethiopia (goat skin used as paper). The museum displayed many old crowns, traditional clothing worn by the king, umbrellas and musical instruments. Bob and Jonathan visited the oldest functioning church in the compound (women forbidden), built by King Fasiladas in 1665 on the site of sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest church (destroyed). In a chapel on the grounds built by the queen in 1950, resides the Ark of the Covenant (so they say), to be seen by only one monk.
From there we saw King Basen’s tomb (empty, of course) and Queen of Sheba’s pool which is now the local water reservoir. We then stopped at a juice place to drink thick mango, papaya and avocado juice. It was a meal.
Our next stop was Yeha, the oldest standing church (or the walls anyway) dating back 2500 years ago, and the center of a monastic Christian community in the 6th century. Adjacent to the ruins was a newer monastery, that we could not enter, and a museum. This part of Ethiopia really looks like the southwestern US, with the many buttes.
On to Debre Damo, a 6th century monastery where visitation by women – while they are alive – is forbidden. This was one of the sites that Bob and Jonathan really looked forward to because it required effort to get there. The monastery is perched on a 2300m(~7500ft) high butte. To get to the monastery one has to climb up a 15m high wall, with the aid of a leather rope. All food, supplies and building materials must go up this cliff. I waited at the bottom and showed all my photos to the local kids while Bob and Jonathan got the tour. On the cliff top (~0.5km2) is the main church, built of layers of wood and whitewashed stone, a secondary church, rock-hewn tombs, 150 houses, 150 monks, 200 students, and 150 water reservoirs. Recently electricity was extended up onto the cliff top. Along the cliff face are many hermit caves where the hermits stay 24/7. They are lowered bread and water and when they no longer accept the food they are assumed dead and someone is sent to retrieve the body and then another hermit moves into the cave. Such dedication!
The main road between Bizet and Adigrat was closed due to construction but luckily the bypass road was the one we had taken to get to Debre Damo, so we continued on that road and gave a local student a ride to town. He said he travels 35km from school to the monastery every day to pray. When we arrived in Agridat, we noticed a significant military presence (more than normal according to our driver) as we were ~8km from the disputed Eritrea border. We stayed at the Hohona Hotel for about $20/night and had another night with a candlelit dinner.
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 12
We were all excited (I was nervous) to get to make the precarious climb to Abuna Yemata Guh, by far the most spectacular church we visited, primarily due to its location. This is a rock-hewn church that takes some nerve to get to (45 minute hike up). The description in the Lonely Planet and the Bradt guide was such that I thought there was a good chance I would not be making it to see the church. My fear of heights is growing over time but I can get over it if I feel secure (roped in) but in this case we were not. One point of the climb was a 30ft vertical wall that we had to climb, for the most part using good hand holds but it was nerve racking not being roped in as the wall was vertical. A shorter vertical stretch followed which took us to a small flat area with 200m drop on both sides. From there we had to walk along the rock face and a 4 foot ledge along the 200m drop off. The church was carved into the rocks with carved pillars and beautifully painted ceilings. Many of the photos did not turn out too well as we were not allowed to use a flash and failed to bring a tripod. On the way down, the guides pointed out the tomb with mummified remains. Thanks to Bob and Jonathan for putting up with my whining and I would not have made it without your support.
Hopefully these pictures capture the vertical climb and show that once you are near the top, there are 200m sheer drops on one or two sides. Yikes!
From the base of the cliffs we, based on incorrect info from the local kids, hiked to two more rock-hewn churches, Debre Maryam Khorkor and Daniel Khorkor, on the adjacent hilltop. The kids told us the hike to the next churches would be shorter but it was twice as long (1.5 hours) with one long jump (or stretch for me as I was too chicken to jump) and no water.
Debre Maryam Khorkor
Tired and thirsty, we waited for the priest to open the church.
The hike from Debre Maryam Khorkor to Daniel KhorkorOn the ledge outside Daniel Khorkor church... one wrong step and see ya!
The hike to/from the Khorkor churches We headed to Machew, stopping quickly to visit Abreha we Atsbeha church, and stayed at the seediest hotel yet, The Lemelem Hotel, for a whopping $8/night. We both slept in out sleeping bags at this place, partly because it was freezing but mostly because it was nasty. Initially ther toilet was not plumbed and three was no toilet seat. They had to fix this for us to stay!
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 13
We departed early for Lalibela (via Sekota), one of the main attractions in Ethiopia, and another UNESCO World Heritage site. The drive took 9 hours but we did stop at a small village along the way to see what life was like there (rough! – many flies as they focused on breeding livestock, some of the kids eyes were covered with crust and flies) and took a detour to see the Yemrehanna Kristos monastery built in a cave. The monastery was constructed of limestone from Jerusalem and wood from Egypt and in the cave was 5000+ mummies of pilgrims that came from Egypt, Syria and Jeruslaem to worship in mediaeval times. We were asked to take the priest to Lalibela so we abliged and stopped at Arbuta Insesa along the way, a basic sunken semi-monolith church surrounded by scaffolding.
Yemrehanna KristosWe arrived in Lalibela at 4:30PM, checked out a few hotels and decided to stay in the Tukul Village hotel for a spendy $45/night including breakfast. We had a good dinner and headed out to partake in local taj (honey wine) and Ethiopian shoulder dancing at the Torpedo House (aka Askelach Taj House) which ended up being more of a stand-up act with audience participation (faranji (foreigner) participation). It was the Ethiopian Sonny and Cher show. I was a little bothered because they spoke in the local Amharic language so we heard the translated version and I am not so sure I believed the translation. That aside, the dancing they did do was great. We all had our chance to try while in the spotlight and I must say that it is hard to move your upper body without moving your lower body! Here is a link to a video on YouTube by the artist Kebebush. The name of the song is Eyale Megalo. Check out the dancing. SUNDAY, DECEMBER 14
The 11 rock-hewn churces of Lalibela were said to have been built over a period of 23 years from 1157-1189, with help from the angels according to legend. Our guide Tadesse was a bright guy and taught us lots! At the time the churches were built, Lalibela was called Rohan. We first visited the Northern Cluster with the largest monolith church Bet Medhane Alem built 11.5m high with 72 pillars (36 on the inside, 36 on the outside), representing the disciples, and Axum and Latin cross windows. Carved into the surrounding walls are tombs or hermits caves. In this church was the 800 year old 7kg cross made of gold, which is only brought out on Sundays so we were lucky to see it. This cross was stolen in 1997 and sold to a Belgium art collector. Though there are inconsistencies in the story details, it was returned 1n 1999 and still used in the church.
Bet Maryam, the House of St. Mary, is another monolith with detailed paintings and carvings on the ceiling. All other churches are semi-monoliths or connected to the rock wall by at least one side. The House of Cross (Bet Meskel), a narrow church, has 10 arches, representing the 10 commandments. Also visited were the House of Virgin (Bet Danaghel), the Twin Churches of St. Michael and Golagotha (no women allowed), and a dedication to Mt. Calvary, the tomb of Adam and Eve.
The Southeast Cluster of rock-hewn churches consisted of the:
Twin churches Bet Gabriel & Bet Rafael – basic, functional semi-monolith churches
Bet Lehem – a primitive structure, thought to be the home of King Lalibela’s horse
Bet Mercurios was reached via a 35m dark tunnel (the tunnel from Hell to Heaven) and was the second largest church prior to its partial collapse more than 400 years ago.
Bet Emanuel is a 12m high monolith with 3 stories. Nine rooms symbolize the 9 saints and 4 pillars represent the 4 evangelists. There are many cracks and pockmarks (bullet holes?) in the church exterior. This is one of the most photographed churches.
Bet Abba Libanos is separated from the rock on all four sides but connected at the roof.
Sunglasses to protect from the flash! As of 9 months ago, these churches are covered to protect them from the elements. While it may be protecting them, the scaffolding really takes away from the photos!
We ended the evening with some sunset beers overlooking the nearby valley then some rug shopping which may have been a mistake as they smell like a barn!
MONDAY, DECEMBER 15
The morning was short; we had breakfast and Jonathan and I walked to the post office so I could mail some post cards. We then went to the airport where we sat for hours as our flight was delayed. To get to Addis Ababa, our flight was supposed to have gone from Lalibela, to Gondar, to Bahir Dar and then to Addis. Since there were plane problems, Ethiopian airlines rerouted those with international flights. Our flight went from Lalibela to Gondar and then to Addis. We had hoped we would have a decent amount of time in Addis to go the market but we only had time to go to Makush, an Italian restaurant/art gallery. It was good. Our flight departed late and arrived in Lagos at about 6AM Tuesday morning. Jonathan went to work while Bob and I relaxed at home.
I would recommend Ethiopia highly. The people are very nice. The weather when were there was perfect. In the highlands it was cold at night (no hotels or restaurants had heat) but sunny and dry (~75 degrees). The maps of Ethiopia are deceiving when trying to estimate time to the next destination. You really need a topo map, which we had thanks to Jonathan, to get an idea of the mountainous terrain we would be covering. There is also an art to dodging the many goats and cows on the road. Many people fly from Bahir Dar to Gondar to Axum to Lalibela but we chose to drive to see the country and we are glad we did. The roads are well maintained and zig zag up and over the mountains dissected by the many rivers.
Amharic Language Basics:
Hello - Selam
Thank You - Ameseganalow
OK - ishee
Goodbye - Ciao!
Much of this info came from tour guides or from the Bradt Ethiopia book (4th Ed.).
We met a Canadian photographer at one of the churches and look forward to seeing his pictures.