Ethiopia Part 1, Addis Ababa to Bahir Da


Celebrating Meskel in Bahir Da, Ethiopia 2018

Ethiopia is a large and fascinating country and we easily spent more than 8 weeks touring around different regions. Highlights of our journey include the ever changing, magnificent scenery, the rich cultural heritage and its impact on current day life, the traditional methods of farming and the use of animals in many aspects of every day life, the delicious food and the friendliness and diversity and sheer numbers of the people. We have so many memories and photos we will share them in instalments.

The people of Ethiopia are diverse, there are nine broad groups and within those groups, in some areas in particular, there are distinctive tribes who still dress and live their very traditional way. Some reasonably large cities and towns are scattered around the country and there is a good network of roads connecting them. In between are innumerable small villages and while buildings in the cities and towns tend to be constructed from concrete the homes in the villages are made from whatever materials are locally available. 

Like its people, the topography of Ethiopia is remarkably diverse. The vast central plateau has an average elevation of between 1,800 m and 2,400 m but there are also 20 mountain peaks which are more than 4,000 m high. It sure brings home to us just how flat Australia is; our highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko is a mere 2,228 m high. Surrounding the cool highlands are the much hotter lowlands. These include the northern section of the Rift Valley. The Rift Valley begins in Mozambique, runs through Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda before entering Ethiopia in the south west and running through the country finally finishing in the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest, hottest, driest and most inhospitable points on the Earth’s surface, which in parts lies almost 125m below sea level and sprawls into neighbouring Eritrea and Djibouti. 

Paul entered Ethiopia from Kenya at Moyale in the south of the country and spent a couple of days travelling north to Addis Ababa up past several of the Rift Valley Lakes. I joined Paul in Addis Ababa after a two week trip to Australia. The second week of my stay was spent on the southern Gold Coast so while Paul was making the long trip from Nairobi to Addis Ababa and coming to grips with this chaotic city I was taking long walks along a quiet beach, loving my swims in the clear ocean water and enjoying meals with family and friends.

My introduction to Ethiopia was flying into the capital of Addis Ababa at the end of a very long flight from Australia. The fourth and final leg of my flight (I said it was a very long flight) was from Dubai and the plane carefully avoided airspace over Saudi Arabia and Yemen and we travelled up the Gulf of Aden. We like desert travel but even if it were safe and there were roads in Yemen the landscape looked way to harsh to tempt me to travel there. Addis Ababa is on the central plateau at an altitude of more than 2,000 metres and is surrounded by green hills, a sharp contrast to Yemen. 

It is a sprawling, chaotic city with millions of people. Traffic can be dreadful so we limited our sightseeing and took taxis on the few occasions we ventured out and about while we were waiting for some work to done on our car. Just to add variety to the traffic snarls there are also donkeys or ponies pulling carts or buggies transporting goods and people around the narrow streets or even along the highways. Ethiopia has more than 100 million people but between 70 and 80% of the people are involved in agriculture and there are less than 3.5 million in Addis, it just feels at times as though they are all trying to get to the same place you are. 

One excursion is to the Ethnological Museum located in the gardens of the Addis Ababa University. It is inside Haille Selassie’s former palace and gives us a good introduction to the cultural and social history of the country. Tribal tales are used to illustrate many aspects of the culture. The museum also includes the preserved bedroom, bathroom and changing room of the Emperor, an art gallery filled with samples of religious art across the centuries and an area dedicated to traditional musical instruments.

While we are at the museum I sample my first Ethiopian meal, a simple and cheap meal with Shiro and Injera. Injera is the national staple and the base of almost every meal. It is a thin pancake made from fermented Tef, the indigenous Ethiopian cereal. It’s slightly sour taste grows on you and over our stay we become almost addicted to it. Shiro is a simple chickpea puree but spices are added and the flavour and freshness vary with each serve we have, and they are many. Traditional Ethiopian coffee follows, black and strong. Most locals add sugar but we find it delicious without and although the cups are small at an average price of 25 cents per cup we can have two or even three if we need the extra caffeine.

Once the repairs to the Landcruiser are finished we are more than ready to continue our journey. The first section of our travels out of Addis follows a loop to the historical sites in the north of the country. In the first part of this loop we are travelling in the highlands with many descents to river valleys and then the corresponding ascents to the next ridge. On our first day out of the capital we cross the Blue Nile Valley dropping more than 1 km to the floor of the valley then rising to the plateau on the other side. Slopes of wildflowers and rocky escarpments punctuate the terraces and fields full of crops and mountains stretch away into the haze. We hadn’t really planned to stop yet but figure its worth an overnight stop in the next village so Paul can take some photos in the soft morning light. 

The next day we easily reach Bahir Da, a busy city on the banks of Lake Tana. As well as being Ethiopia’s largest lake and the source of the Blue Nile, the islands and peninsula’s of Lake Tana contain 20 or more centuries old monasteries. The number of islands and the number of monasteries, and their age varies according to who you ask but some date from the 13th and 14th centuries and we will be quite content to visit just a few. We organise a boat and driver to reach the monasteries and we need to organise a guide when we get there.

Ethiopia 2018

Heading out to the Monasteries on Lake Tana, Ethiopia 2018

On our first island stop we climb moss covered stone stairs to the Entos Eyesu Monastery. Its a much newer monastery than we were expecting and while the building is of less interest the paintings are vivid and the monk who welcomes us is very helpful. 

On the next island we visit Kebran Gabriel, a beautiful 17th century monastery where Paul makes the long climb to visit the men only museum and to wander around the monastery.

On the Zege Peninsula we enjoy a coffee while smelling the incense and then have a look at the stalls where local people are making and selling souvenirs. 

A short walk past more stalls and village huts leads us to the 14th century monastery of Ura Kidane Meret. This is far more impressive and the large building has art works dating back many centuries.

Back in Bahir Da we are comfortable in our hotel and extend our stay so we are here for Meskel, an important religious day. In the meantime we enjoy more delicious food, and coffee of course, and take in the every day sights. Bajaj are East Africa’s version of South East Asia’s tuk tuks and they can be seen everywhere.

Meskel is a celebration of the finding of the true cross and is held throughout Ethiopia. According to tradition, in 326 AD, Helena had prayed for guidance to find the cross on which Jesus was crucified and was directed by smoke from a burning fire to the location. Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe she lit torches to celebrate. In Bahir Da believers gathered in a square for prayers and during the evening crosses which had been erected throughout the city were burned.

From Bahir Da we continue our journey north on the historic circuit toward then royal city of Gonder.

Exotic Zanzibar


Laying out the Fabrics, Zanzibar

Zanzibar! The name conjures up visions of fascinating architecture, Swahili Princes and Omani Arab Sultans, narrow alleys and lane ways and exotic spices. We are looking forward to a week in Stone Town and, although it is technically possible to take your vehicle across to the island on a ferry, it is not practical so we have booked a room in an apartment and we catch the passenger ferry from Dar es Salaam.

Our vehicle is left safely locked up at the Safari Lodge where we stayed before our trip. We catch an Uber to the ferry terminal which makes negotiating the heavy traffic on the trip into town easy and when our driver drops us off we arrange for him to pick us up on our return. We had read and heard about problems with the ferry trip, particularly with managing luggage and avoiding overly pushy ‘helpers’. We firmly respond ‘no thank you’ to all offers of assistance and we upgrade our seats and only carry hand luggage so we avoid the crowds and luggage hassles. The trip takes a couple of hours but the sea is calm and the seats are comfortable. Too easy!

Our home for the week is in a three bedroom apartment on the first floor of a building in a small lane near the port. It is owned by a couple of young guys who rent the rooms out through Air BnB. We ring when we arrive on the island and we are met by Abdul outside a hotel near the port. He leads us down the narrow alleys to our new abode for the next week … it is far too difficult to give directions in these un-named alleys. We get the tour of the apartment and we have the use of a lounge and dining room and a kitchen so we can easily make meals when we want and use the Wi-Fi. We have the main bedroom with an ensuite and the other two rooms are occupied by a couple of young guys both here for a month or two. One is learning Swahili while waiting to commence his PhD work on forest management in Tanzanian communities and the other is a scientist and is working on his business of making videos to teach science.

Most Zanzibar residents are Muslim and it is Ramadan so food and drink cannot be consumed at all by Muslims between sunrise and sunset and many restaurants are closed during those times. The ones which are open have screens or other barriers so people who are eating or drinking cannot be seen from the street. We generally find it easiest to make our own breakfast then, after a morning walk, we return to the apartment for lunch and try out different restaurants for our evening meals.

The lanes and alleys are a maze and we frequently walk in circles and cover three times as much ground as we expect to get from one place to another. It’s not a problem though as we enjoy wandering around looking at the buildings and people.

We also love visiting the market. As well as plenty of fruit and vegetables there are lots of spices. Zanzibar is, after all, known as the Spice Island. The fresh fish market is bustling and the narrow aisle is crowded as locals bargain for their choice of freshly caught fish. There is also a meat market next door. Outside the main market are stalls selling all manner of goods and produce. The fresh dates which come from Oman are our pick.

We have signed up for a cooking class with Shara from Tangawizi Restaurant and we meet her at the market one afternoon. First she offers us some options for our class and then we visit several stalls to buy some fresh fish, some vegetables and some spices and rice.

We take a taxi to her house in a suburb of Zanzibar City where we meet her daughter Lutfia and very cute two year old grand daughter. Over the next few hours we help prepare a fish curry and a vegetable curry accompanied by rice and red beans and chapati. The most laborious task is the grating of coconuts to make coconut milk, I think I’ll stick to the cans. After the call to prayer signalling the end of the day we eat our meal and finish it off with a little candied coconut.

On another day we visit the Anglican Cathedral which was built on the site of the old slave market, the altar reputedly marking the spot of the whipping tree where slaves were lashed with a stinging branch. Slave chambers are located beneath the building and have been retained as part of the memorial. Each chamber held up to 65 slaves awaiting sale. There is also a moving slave memorial in the gardens and a very detailed explanation of the history of the area and the slave trade.

Our dinner one evening is a Zanzibar feast in the rooftop restaurant of the hotel Emerson on Hurumzi. It’s a wonderful evening starting with a drink while we watch the sunset. A waiter comes with a menu and describes the range of Persian and Omani dishes we will be tasting in our meal and while we are waiting for the first selection of dishes a local group begin playing Taarab music which fuses African, Arabic and Indian music. The food throughout the evening is delicious and there is lots of variety with several small dishes in each course. It’s a memorable evening.

Our other meals range from barbecue meats and flat bread at the night market to curries or seafood from local restaurants. A favourite spot to stop for coffee or a cold drink or light lunch is the Emerson Spice Hotel. The interior courtyard has a fascinating mix of rough stone and coral, worn timber, green plants and lots of nooks and crannies. On Paul’s birthday we have sunset drinks by the ocean then dine at another rooftop restaurant. Tis a tough life on the road.

The days pass easily with long rambling walks after which we relax at the apartment during the heat of the day before venturing out again.

After an enjoyable week it is time to return to the mainland so we can continue our adventures in Northern Tanzania.

Zanzibar is exotic and fascinating … well worth a visit.


Tha Ton

Early morning mist in Tha Ton

From Chiang Mai we headed for the hills on a big orange bus. There were a few tourists on board but it was mainly used by locals travelling to the large town of Fang while a few up-country locals and one other westerner were travelling like us to its final destination of Tha Ton. Seats which we thought the right size for two were actually meant for three but we were lucky, or looked too big, and had one to ourselves. Those trying to fit three to a seat often ended up sitting on the edge of a seat or standing in the narrow walkway. Apart from that it was fine with open windows and fans to keep us cool and rural scenery to watch which kept us occupied through the four hour trip.

Tha Ton is a small country town near the border of Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and is a huge change of pace from Chiang Mai. It has one main road and straddles the Kok River.  We stayed in a comfortable guest house beside the river for a couple nights and soon had our favourite places to visit for our meals and for coffee, revisiting a few of them several times. We loved the atmosphere of the town and the friendliness of the local people. It was a peaceful stay except for the evening Karaoke across the river from our guest house. Paul enjoyed the early morning mist for some atmospheric photography.

Worth a visit is Wat Tha Ton, a temple which stretches up the hill beside the town. It is set over ten levels and we huffed and puffed our way right up to the top. We had plenty of reasons to stop along the way to look at amazing buildings and the statues at various levels as well as the fabulous views to the valleys and river below. We could even see the Thai army emplacement on distant hill tops which looked out over the border with Myanmar. The many coloured temple at the top contained an eclectic collection of statues.

From Tha Ton we headed further into the hills and into the area previously known as the infamous Golden Triangle, the area near the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos which used to be the major opium trafficking route but is now a great area for tea and coffee.


Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Flower Festival

Chiang Mai, the capital of northern Thailand, is a fascinating city with lots to see and experience. With only three days in the city we barely scratched the surface but we arrived in time to catch the annual flower festival, visited some of the seemingly unending temples in the city, explored up and down busy streets and quiet laneways in the old town, wandered through a bustling night market and also much quieter local fresh food markets, took an excellent cooking class and ate lots and lots of delicious food. Hopefully the many kilometres we walked balanced out the calories we ate.

We missed the grand parade of flowers but the displays in the gardens were fantastic and although the flowers on the floats lined up nearby were starting to wilt they were still very impressive.

The main streets in the old town are busy and have lots of cars to dodge but the lane ways are delightful to walk along and the motor bike riders are not too numerous to become a problem. The red songthaews ferry people around the city for 30 baht ($1.20) provided you are heading in the same direction they are. There are new hotels going up in any available space and quite a lot of the temples are being renovated using the typical asian style of scaffolding.

We did a cooking class with the delightful Yui, a fount of information and practical advice and the dishes we prepared were delicious. After a visit to the market with Yui we left with a cook book so hopefully we can reproduce the tastes.

Chiang Mai is particularly noted for its dish of Khao Soi and one of the places which had the best review for the dish was a tiny open area on the northern edge of the old town. The reviews were right, it was excellent and it is no wonder all the tables were filled and people were lining up.

We couldn’t possibly count the temples in the old city and didn’t get to see any of the interesting sounding temples in the surrounding areas. The old temples which are often at the side of the new bright and fancy temples were fascinating. To properly see most of the temples and to avoid overload we would need to stay weeks and visit just one or two a day.

There are night markets every night but Saturday and Sunday have their own special night markets and we arrived in time for the Sunday session. The market covered at least two kilometres in the old town and all of it was packed with visitors, both local and international. Lots of craft work was offered and some delicious food. Some of the stalls and eating areas were even in temple grounds, a good way to see the temples lit up at night.

The fresh food markets were more our speed, we always try to visit them even if we can’t buy the produce. We even caught a performance in one morning market, an elderly lady singing with her husband accompanying her to the delight of the stall holders nearby.

Chiang Mai was a great introduction to northern Thailand but now we are headed for smaller places so we can get away from the crowds, see more of the country and visit some of the hill tribes.