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.
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.