The accidental pilgrim

At the border we got up early to beat immigration with the understanding that the Sudanese went for lunch from 12pm to 2pm and the Ethiopian’s from 2pm until 4pm.  In the rush, we set off with our sleeping bags and mattresses unsecured on the roof.  Upon arriving at immigration we quickly realised our error but miraculously it was all still intact except for my sleeping bag which had found a new home along the Sudan-Ethiopian border.  Putting an unfortunate 24 hours behind us we cracked on with breezy hour in immigration.  An absolute dream after having dealt with Egyptian customs and immigration.  The Ethiopian customs officials proudly told us to ditch our ‘pigeon Arabic’ as this was Christian country with a different language, Amharic   The contrast between the Sudanese side of the border and the Ethiopian side was stark with people filling the street, sparse forest replaced scrubland, women dressed less conservatively, and beer adverts appeared.  Through the abundance of people it was clear we had moved from one of Africa’s least populated countries to one of its most populated.  Dodging donkeys and cattle we steadily began gaining altitude winding up dramatic hillsides above the green valleys and farms below.  Soon we were confronted by what appeared to be a large mountain range, which we needed to climb in order to continue.  However upon reaching the top we discovered a huge plateau littered with farms and fields resembling the ol’English countryside.  

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We left the main road to join a rough track leading to Gorgora on the shores of lake Tana.  Driving through the countryside we were greeted by scores of children enthusiastically waving, greeting us with genuine enthusiasm or as a walking pen dispensers.  Two hours later, tired from waving, we arrived at Tim and Kim’s.  A fantastic dutch couple who moved to Ethiopia seven years ago to set up this idyllic escape overlooking the lake.  After the unrelenting sun of Sudan this was the perfect oasis in which to recharge.  Two very dry weeks meant priority number one was a cold beer.  After triumphantly guzzling the cool gold nectar we went to explore our campsite situated under the eaves of a huge fig tree where we met two familiar faces.  Chris and a very hungover Bret (Bikers from Wadi Halfa) emerged from their tents equally surprised to see us again.  Laughing and joking, the next hour was spent catching up on one another’s adventures since we parted ways.  Later that evening we met our fellow guests: Richard a South African contractor overlooking a Chinese industrial project, newlyweds Jennifer and Matt, Tamara working at the hospital in Gonder, and her parents John and Kum Kum.  Talking to Matt and Jennifer over dinner, who were finishing up their tour of Ethiopia, gave us a fascinating insight into the history of the area.  On Lake Tana there are a series of Churches on small islands which can only be visited by men.  Supposedly it is because there was a queen who seduced the Kings of the region.  Upset and angry the Kings mutilated and banished her.  Seeking vengeance she returned to kill the Kings and burn their churches.  One of these churches also temporarily hid the Ark of the covenant before its final arrival in Axum.  Heads filled with Ethiopian legends we fell asleep under the fig tree to the soporific sound of drums from the local church. 

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Over the next day and a half we did some maintenance on Delilah, explored two of the churches on Lake Tana by kayak, and lazed around enjoying the views.  Making the most of Kim’s cooking we stayed for lunch before setting off for Gonder; sadly parting ways with Hugh and Morag our fellow Landy overlanders who had been great company.  We climbed above the plateau into another set of hills where nestled Gondar aptly described as the Camelot of Africa with its cobbled streets and stone citadels.  We set up camp in the concrete courtyard of Belegez pension fortuitously bumping into Mikael and Kaisha (also from Wadi Halfa).  The following morning on an excursion to find internet we came across a group of Israeli tourists all following the route of a lost group of Jews discovered in Ethiopia and extracted during a famine in the 1980s through ‘Operation Solomon’.  It was clear in Gonder we had stumbled across a secret tourist route associated with Ethiopia’s ancient connection with Israel.  Gondar’s history was a turbulent one being founded as the Capital of Ethiopia after defeating the Muslims that had invaded Ethiopia.  Although Ethiopia’s muslim population now lives a peaceful existence with their Christian counterparts the past conflict was clear, best represented by a mural on the roof of one church depicting Mohammed seated on a donkey led by the devil.  We spent the rest of the morning exploring the Royal enclosure.  A large complex of castles and buildings encircled by a large rampart overlooking Gondar and the adjacent hills.  It wasn’t like anything we had expected to find in Africa! 

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Inspired by Gondar we spent the rest of our day sampling the delights of the local culture.  Being the home of Arabica coffee, for a post lunch aperitif we tried the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  Drinking an expresso with incense, which initially seemed a bit lame until the coffee and incense collided at the back of our throats to create a delightfully mellow sensation.  For dinner we tried ‘National food’ an assortment of meat and vegetarian sauces seated upon a large spread of injera (a large sour pancake).    Finishing our day downing traditional honeyed wine with a couple of Ethiopian friends who had shown us around town.  Despite the glamorous name it reminded me of a dreadful fortified wine (Mad dog 20-20) we had to down at university rugby initiations.  It did help build enough courage to join in the local dance: shaking ones shoulders (rather like a chicken) to a drum and flute.  The next morning, amidst our hungover stupor we realised we had been fleeced by our hosts from the night before being made to pay an extortionate amount for a pretty poor bottle of wine.  A nice bottle of Chateauneuf du pap would have been cheaper and far more palatable.  To put last nights misfortune to rest we left Gonder and set off for the Simien mountains climbing up a series of steep ridges that provided a tantalising view of the Ethiopian highlands in the distance.  

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At Debark we had to stop to pay our park fees and pick up an armed scout called Marlin.  We left the tarmac driving onto a rough road leading through town and on into the mountains.  The road began climbing steeply giving us sweeping views of the valleys and plateaus below.  Our designated campsite for the night was Sankabar but our scout advised us of another campsite much better for Ibex and other animals.  So we travelled on along the coarse mountain road to Chenek.  Seated atop the large Simien mountain range felt like being on Mount Olympus staring down at the miniature villages and fields below.  Marlin dragged us away from the view to hunt for Ibex along the cliff side but they proved illusive.  I was quite happy admiring several of the mighty Lammergeier soaring high above our camp.  The moment the sun disappeared below the horizon the temperature plummeted.  Prior to leaving Gonder I had been warned about the cold and bought a large blanket to compensate for my missing sleeping bag.  Needless to say it was insufficient and what followed was a bitterly cold night.  In the morning we treaded out onto the frosted ground to pack up our tent and depart the Simien’s.  On the road we shortly stopped hanging ourselves over a cliff to catch a glimpse of the mysterious ibex quietly gliding through the misty forest below.  Further up the road atop a small plateau we encountered a large troop of Gelada baboons that were in the middle of ‘social hour’ having spent the night on the cliffs.  Being accustomed to the local research team we were able to wander through the group without bothering them.  It was an incredible experience watching within feet the baby baboons playing and adults grooming one another.  

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Our next destination was Axum which meant a long drive along a largely unfinished road so we had to depart the Simien mountains fairly hastily if we were to get there by night fall.  At the gates of the park we dropped Marlin then shot through town to where the tarmac ended.   A short distance later the road seemed to disappear, dropping into winding chicanes along a cliff edge granting stunning views of the countryside below.  Once we had plunged into the maze of valleys below the road deteriorated into a dusty mess of construction works.  At stages we were forced to run the gauntlet dodging heavy machinery, narrowly avoiding one half of a boulder dropping into our path and gorges prepped with dynamite.  The bevy of landscaping that was taking place made progress slow but we both agreed once this road was finished it would be one of the most stunning drives in Africa.  Eventually we finished our descent tumbling out of the valleys onto relatively flat terrain dotted with deep gorges. Rejoining tarmac we quickly made up the last eighty miles of the trip.  Arriving in Axum was deceptive as it only seemed like a couple of buildings along the main road.  Deviating down a backstreet revealed a sleepy town nestled under a large hill.  Outside our hotel Richard befriended a group of street children.  We took particularly to one charming, rotund business like seven year old called Thomas.  At around ten o’clock that evening we came across Thomas still pushing his box of chewing gum and tissues.  We told him he needed to go home but he replied diligently that he must work.  Sadly it was clear these street kids were probably answerable to a character similar to Fagan from Oliver Twist.

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The night before we had bumped into Mikael and Kaisha again and decided to make plans to travel on together.  We also met Pete an Australian bound for Mekele to who’m we offered a lift but he graciously declined opting for the local bus service.   We set aside the morning to explore the historical sites of Axum: the famous stelae and St Mary of Zion church.  Axum was the centre of the sprawling Axumite empire that at its height stretched from Mombasa, to north Sudan and into Yemen. Its power eroded firstly with the expansion of the Persian empire and then Arab empire that wrested control of the trade routes of the red sea from Axum.  The old city is also home to the legend of Queen Sheba who apparently resided here.  She travelled to Israel where she slept with King Solomon and conceived a son, Menelik the first.  He returned to Israel to meet his father and brought back the Ark of the Covenant to Axum to where it now rests in a small chapel and stands as a major foundation of the Ethiopian Orthodox church.  However, the major flaw in this story is that Queen Sheba and King Solomon lived one thousand years apart.  Nevertheless the legend still hangs strongly over the country so we tried to catch a glimpse of the small chapel through tall fences behind ‘The Church of our Lady Mary of Zion’.  Shortly after our brief tour a flustered Pete appeared at the window of Delilah needing a lift to Mekele having missed his bus.  Relieved at having found us he clambered into the back and we met up with the others to explore the Debre Damo monastery nestled atop a hill en-route to Mekele.  Upon our arrival we realised it would take at least an hour to climb up to the monastery and explore it.   

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Pete had a tour to the Danakil depression the following morning, which we were also interested to investigate it.  If we were to reach Mekele tonight we had to cut short our exploration of Debre Damo so we left Kaisha and Mikael disappearing down a rough dusty track.  Cruising through the countryside we were treated to another remarkable view of hilltop villages sitting above stepped gold and green fields.  We were only a few kilometres from Eritrea skipping along the border to Zalanabesa where the military presence and checkpoints was a gentle reminder of the lingering tension between the two countries.  Here we rejoined the main road south to Mekele, which we reached at sunset descending another huge cliff to reach the city.  The second largest city in Ethiopia was a busy place with a friendly progressive buzz lacking the usual chaos of other African cities we’d visited.  With an air of exited trepidation we joined Pete in a room with Ababa, a firm but welcoming women, who arranged tours to the Danakil.  Two previous incidents involving the kidnap of the British high commission along with their chief spy, and the shooting of a couple of German tourists meant we had played down the likelihood of visiting the Danakil depression.  We were concerned about how Delilah would handle the inhospitable conditions of the trip but were comforted by the use of armed guards and the improved security situation.  After much deliberation we emerged from that room having signed on the dotted line committing to a ten am departure for the Danakil depression.  This left us with only eleven hours to prep the vehicle so we eagerly set about gathering supplies for four days in one of the hottest places on earth!

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