Ethiopia Part 2, Bahir Da to Aksum

Basket Market under the Fig Tree, Aksum, Ethiopia 2018

From Bahir Da we continue north on the historic circuit toward the royal city of Gonder but on our way we make a detour to the northern edge of Lake Tana and the tiny village of Gorgora. There are very few camp grounds in Ethiopia and so far we have stayed in cheap hotels but a Dutch couple run some cottages and a camp site on the lakeshore so we decide to take the opportunity to camp while we can. Hotels can be fine but our roof top tent is our own bed and while we are enjoying Ethiopian food it will be good to cook for ourselves from time to time. The camp area is pretty with heaps of shade and a pleasant outlook and our planned two night stay stretches to four before we are ready to go back to the well-trodden tourist trails.

We are travelling after the rainy season and there are crops being grown on every bit of flat ground and mountain sides except for the very steepest and highest rocky slopes. Most of the slopes are covered in terraces full of crops with all work done by hand. In the valleys there are flatter areas and more water so fields are larger and cattle are used to plow the fields ready to plant the new crops. Donkeys are often used to haul loads but if a cart or buggy is needed to haul goods or people they often use ponies.

We reach Gonder in the early afternoon and after our rest on the lakeshore we are keen to begin our sight seeing in this historic town. In the 17th and 18th centuries Gonder was the capital under Emperor Fasiladas and the population of the town grew to more than 65,000. Its wealth and splendour had become legendary with castles, banqueting halls and lavish gardens. It gradually declined and then later was looted by Sudanese Dervishes and finally bombed by the British in the mid 20th century. 

The Royal Enclosure will take hours to explore so we’ll save that for the morning but this afternoon we have time for a visit to Debre Berhan Selassi, one of Ethiopia’s most beautiful churches. Most of Gonder’s churches were destroyed by the Sudanese but Debre Berhan Selassi survived when a giant swarm of bees surged out of the compound and chased the invaders away. It is situated on a hill top and enclosed in a walled garden with a grand entry. Paul enters the church through the front door and I cover my head and enter through the female’s door at the side. Its a grand building with fascinating old paintings including a ceiling covered with angels. The priest giving a tour shows how the drum is played and in very limited English explains the bible stories illustrated on the walls.

The painting at the lower right shows St. George killing the dragon. St. George features heavily all around Ethiopia, most often depicted as an Ethiopian which we enjoyed.

The Royal Enclosure is a ten minute walk from our hotel and we make our way there the next morning. The old Gonder city is a World Heritage site and the 70,000 sq m compound has been restored with the assistance of UNESCO. The are several palaces including the grand palace of Fasiladas and a smaller but fascinating palace of his son Iyasu I. We wander around these and other palaces, banqueting halls, churches and other buildings in varying states of ruin imagining life here when the walls were draped in gold cloths and adorned with paintings and mirrors and sumptuous furniture filled the rooms.

Not far north of Gonder are the Simien Mountains which have several peaks above 4,000 metres. We are keen to visit the National Park for the dramatic scenery and also for the chance to see Gelada monkeys and Walia ibex and perhaps the Ethiopian Wolves. Unfortunately a ‘scout’ who is an armed park ranger is compulsory in the park and while, over short distances, we can manage to carry a third person either sitting on the roof rack or squashed between us on the console, the distance we need to travel from the headquarters to the camping area is just too far. Very disappointed we continue on, we’ll have to make sure we visit some high country elsewhere in Ethiopia. 

As we descend from the foothills surrounding the Simien Mountain Range we are treated to some wonderful views over the valley below with a waterfall cascading down from the heights. 

Disappointed at not being able to stay in the mountains we end up travelling on to the next town on the historic circuit, Aksum, arriving after dark. In the morning we set out to explore and find Aksum to be a charming town. The streets are wide and clean, the people friendly and there are things which catch our eyes everywhere we look in both the old town and the newer sections.

There are many mysteries and legends about the history of Aksum. According to some the Queen of Sheba lived here and the Ark of the Covenant which holds Moses’ 10 Commandments is kept here in a small chapel. Maybe those Knights of the Round Table were looking in the wrong place all that time. Whether those facts are correct or not, Aksum was certainly an important place from around 400BC and continuing for at least 1000 years.

Ancient obelisks are scattered all around the area and one of the most important groups in the Northern Stelae field. Here there are three enormous standing rock needles, an even larger collapsed one and several other smaller obelisks. As well there are underground mausoleums and other smaller stelae to see and far more underground tombs and treasures which have not yet been excavated. The fallen stele, also known locally as King Ramhai’s Stele,  is a massive 33m and is believed to be the largest single block of stone that humans have ever attempted to erect. At 24.6m high and 170 tonnes, the Rome Stele is the second-largest stele ever produced at Aksum. In 1937 the stele was shipped to Italy on Mussolini’s personal orders. On arrival it was reassembled and raised once more in Rome’s Piazza di Porta Capena, where it was known as the Aksum Obelisk. It remained in Rome until 2005, when decades of negotiations were finally victorious and was returned to Aksum that year and Unesco raised it in 2007, just in time for the Ethiopian millennium celebration

Behind the stelae field is a small but very impressive archeological museum. We spend quite a while wandering through it absorbing the tales of the kings and seeing items recovered from tombs. Videos are playing in one section and as well as providing us with a cool place to sit on a very hot day we enjoy seeing some of the impressive scenery in the north of the country and hearing about the rich history.

We pass up visits to the old (men only) and the new (women allowed) Churches of St Mary of Zion and the Ark of the Covenant Chapel. No-one is actually allowed to see the Ark and only one guardian is allowed to even enter the chapel. Instead we admire the buildings from the outside and spend our time wandering around the streets in the Old town and also the newer areas of Aksum. 

Buildings are frequently made from rocks but newer ones have been rendered and often painted in bright colours. There isn’t a lot of traffic in the side streets and when kids playing in the streets see Paul wandering around with his camera they like to pose and then see themselves in his view finder.

Several markets are held regularly in Aksum and the most colourful is the Saturday Basket market where people come to stock up on high quality Tigrayan workmanship. If space allowed I would love to have purchased a good range of baskets.

The Basket market is held under a huge fig tree so its a great place to spend time and enjoy a coffee.

Late one afternoon we walk up to the Yeha Hotel which is perched on a bluff overlooking the Stelae field and the Mary of Zion churches. Its a great place to enjoy sunset drinks and while we are there we hear the bells calling worshippers to prayer. On our way back to town we pass the old church and see many of the female worshippers lining the fence and listening to the service broadcast over speakers.

 We loved our stay in Aksum and are tempted to stay longer but after three nights we need to move on and continue our journey around the historic sites.

Entering East Africa

The Great Mosque, Kilwa Kisiwani

Heading north from Ilha de Mocambique we follow the bitumen north toward Tanzania. Although we would like to see more of the coast the highway curves inland and there are significant detours involved if we want to visit the coast. We narrow our options down and decide to make a side trip to Pemba. The trip is easy and the roads are much better here than in central Mozambique. The land around us is green and as we travel further into the tropics there are more and more people around. Certainly more than in the drier parts of the country.

We take the turn east toward Pemba and shortly before we reach the main part of the town we follow our map and turn toward the camp site we have chosen. After following a dirt road for a while we take a left turn onto a smaller track which gets progressively narrower as we go. Soon we are following tyre tracks which don’t exactly follow the tracks we have on either of the maps we are using. We see some locals and they happily point us in the right direction and we arrive safe and sound at Ilala Lodge. None of our mapping apps seems to handle some of these small, remote towns. George, the French owner, tells us that there isn’t officially any camping allowed here as only Mozambique nationals are allowed to set up camp grounds but we are welcome to stay for free and just pay for wifi if we need it. What a nice guy and what a lovely spot to stay! He shows us an area just at the back of the beach and a little away from the chalets used for other guests and we settle in for a few days. George says we can stay as long as we like. Very tempting!

The tides here are large and the sea is quite shallow as far out as the edge of the reef about 1 km away and there are gentle sand banks before that. Swimming is good at high tide and the water is very warm. Otherwise the main activity is watching the activity of the locals. When the men return to shore after fishing in their dhows they sit on the shore and clean their catch and later the women arrive and wade through the shallows with nets to capture the small fish.

Early morning light at low tide at Pemba in Northern Mozambique

We follow George’s directions that takes us along a much simpler track to return to the highway and we follow the bitumen as far north as it goes. It runs out at Palma and we then have just a short distance on a good dirt road to reach our final stop in Mozambique in the village of Quionga. Here we camp in the yard of a South African missionary, Andreas. There is no fee but a donation is welcomed and we have a peaceful night camping under a huge tree. Andreas is able to give us valuable information about the track north to the Ruvuma River and what time we should leave to catch the ferry as it only operates once per day near the high tide. We don’t need to make an early start and Paul is out taking photos of the village in the morning. He soon attracts a following of young children keen to get into the photos.

We set out in plenty of time to go through the Mozambique border post and then travel a few more kilometres to reach to the ferry. We know the road will be rough and we figure we can have lunch while we wait on the bank of the Ruvuma River.

Rough road on the way to the Ruvuma River, border of Mozambique and Tanzania

Well that plan didn’t work out to well. The road as far as the border post was rough and not muddy but after the border post we descend toward the river and the track becomes more treacherous. We successfully get through a couple of muddy patches then are confronted by a huge mud hole. There appears to be a track on the left side but it looks a little narrow and if we don’t fit along there we could tip over. Next to it is a smallish mud hole and we try it and get stuck but manage to reverse back out. The mud hole on the right is way too soft so we don’t even consider it. By now a couple of locals have stopped to watch the action and one appears to suggest the middle large hole is the way to go and we decide to give it a go.

North Mozambique 08

Hmm, which way?

Not the right choice as it turns out. While we are still unsuccessfully trying to extract our vehicle a small crowd of local guys has gathered and they offer to push us out for $50USD. We try to negotiate but they don’t budge and when we agree they try to raise the price to $100 but we manage to avoid agreeing to that. They decide the water is too deep and bail it out laboriously then dig soft mud out from under the diff.

North Mozambique 09

#*#^! Not This Way #*#^!

A couple of attempts have been made to push us out and they don’t even look like succeeding and I’m starting to envisage a night trying to camp in the middle of the mud hole when oncoming traffic heralds the arrival of the ferry from Tanzania. The first vehicle is a 4WD with some American guys who are working in the area, possibly also missionaries. They were stuck here a while back and are happy to help us out so we attach our winch to the front of their land cruiser and we pull ourselves out. Thank goodness!

While we are doing this we see the rest of the traffic, including some 2WD vehicles, take the high side of the track and pass the mud without any problems. We sure got that decision wrong. Even though the local guys didn’t manage to get us out of the hole they have worked extremely hard in trying to help us so we hand over the cash we had agreed on. We’re now not sure we’ll make the ferry but apparently one of the them has rung ahead and the ferry is waiting for us. It is a great relief to get on to it. This wasn’t the type of exit from southern Africa than we had planned on but it is all part of the adventure.

The river is wide and the crossing takes about twenty minutes after which we head for the nearest town of Mtwara. Its a rough road but much better than the road on the southern side of the river. We go through the Tanzanian border post with no problems but it still takes about two hours. It is late afternoon before we reach town. There’s no camping in town and we’re too weary to go further to find a camp so we find a place to stay out of the centre of town opposite the beach. The Cliff and Garden Resort is quite run down but still charming. The owner is an elderly Dutch lady who appears unable to get around much and it appears that things have been let go a little but it suits us. We have a big chalet with a dining room/kitchen as well as bedroom and bathroom and we can park directly outside. Most of the kitchen equipment, ie fridge and stove, doesn’t work but we can bring our own inside and at least we have power, water, a sink and somewhere to prepare and eat food. We order a meal from the restaurant on our first night and are offered a choice of fish and chips or chicken and chips except they don’t have any fish. The serve of chicken is a half a chicken so we decide to share just one meal and it proves to be ample. We want to get a service on the car and have a few ongoing electrical issues looked at so we end up staying three nights.

As well as getting the work done on the car we get a Tanzanian SIM card and data, eat at a great Indian restaurant and visit the local market. Because we don’t have our car for much of the time our travel is a mixture of walking in the hot and humid weather and catching a bijaji. These cost between two and five thousand shillings per trip ($1-3) and are similar to the south east asian tuk tuks.

Our next stop is to be the village of Kilwa Masoko as we want to visit the Arab ruins on the island of Kilwa Kisiwani which is just a couple of kilometres off shore. There are lots of villages along the way and we need to slow to 50kph going through them. The maximum between the villages is 80kph and sometimes the gap between the villages is only a matter of a few kilometres or less so its a slow trip. As well as trucks there are lots of large and small buses on the road and it is a relief to leave the highway and head for the coast.

After a quick look around the village we find a spot to camp at a lodge on the beachfront. We have a nice shady tree to camp beside and although we are just in front of the restaurant there is noone else around so it is very quiet. The owner is very hospitable and makes sure we are comfortable and the restaurant has great reviews so we decide we will dine in it at least once.

The reef here is a kilometre or two off the coast and the tides are huge. We have great views of the activities of the locals as they follow their daily fishing routines.

Kilwa Kisiwani translates as “Kilwa on the Island” to distinguish it from Kilwa Masoku, which is a small town on the mainland, and the largely abandoned Kilwa Kivengi which is about twenty kilometres north and is where the Germans built their “boma” during their brief tenure of the colony of German East Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century.

To visit Kilwa Kisiwani we pay for a permit at the antiquities office and also for a guide and a boat to take us the three kilometres across the bay from Kilwa Masoku. We leave camp in the cool of the early morning because we know that we will be walking for several hours on the island. We clamber over rocks beside the wharf and step onto our boat which takes about twenty minutes to convey us to the island. Our guide, a young Swahili woman named Jamili, describes our rough itinerary during the trip.

A small village of Swahili people still live on the island and they make a living by fishing and growing what they need to eat. Apart from a primary school, a couple of very small shops and the villagers huts  there remains the extensive ruins which have been partially excavated and are all that is left of the chequered history of the sometimes prosperous town of Kilwa over the last eleven hundred years.

Dhows are used for travel and to bring supplies to and from the mainland as well as for fishing. At low tide they are marooned on the mud flats.

The earliest ruins, some of which were simple walled encampments, date back to the 10th and 11th centuries. They, like all the other buildings, were built from coral rock, which was almost certainly taken from quarries on the island. The walls are one to two feet thick and the later buildings were rendered with lime. Where the rock is exposed it is easy to find places where the patterns of the coral organisms are discernable. The same method of building was used in Zanzibar which was also settled by the Omani Arabs and came to prominence after Kilwa’s decline.

While the earliest ruins in Kilwa were quite simple later buildings were very elaborate and with the latter ones being quite luxurious. Gereza, Kilwa’s Fort is the most complete structure. It was originally built by the Portuguese but most of the existing structure was rebuilt by the Omani Arabs.

We visit the remains of three mosques, the Great Mosque, as its name implies, is the most impressive but the small mosque which was mainly used by the Sultan and his family has a wonderful atmosphere as well.

At one end of the island is Makutani, “the palace of the big walls”, where a very large palace and the remains of other buildings are enclosed within a defensive wall.

The final structures we visit is Husuni Kubwa, a magnificent 14th century palace. It is huge and very complex, a splendid royal residence which was only occupied by one Sultan. After exploring it and marvelling at the lavish life style which would have been enjoyed by the regal family we descend the stairs to the mangrove flats and pick our way out to the boat for our return to the mainland.

We are enjoying the relaxed atmosphere at our camp at Kilwa Masoko so we decide to stay an extra day. After we make our decision our host informs us there is a group coming in later and they are likely to be noisy. She sure was right. An extended Indian family occupy most of the chalets and after a communal dinner they sing and dance. It is nice to listen to and it would be great to be a part of their festivities. They aren’t too late with their songs though so we still get a good nights sleep.

We are now just a days drive from Dar Es Salaam. We are planning a week long visit to the island of Zanzibar so we need to find a place to stay for one night then a place to safely leave the car for the week. The electrical work we had done in Mtwara doesn’t seem to have fixed everything so we look for an auto electrician and find one who says they can do the work and will be happy to store the car for the week. The city is big and busy and has a reputation for being a tough place to stay so we are happy to find a place on the internet which is on the outskirts of the city and looks very laid back.

So much for plans. We are using two apps to help us navigate but neither help and we end up at a loss as to how to get there. We ring and follow the hosts suggestion of asking a bijaji driver to lead us to the right road and eventually, after crossing a river and climbing up and down some very basic tracks, we find the place. It doesn’t live up to expectations though because we can’t get our car off the road and the facilities are way more basic than we expected. We decide to go for plan B and head back to the main road and before long we reach the Safari Lodge in a suburb north of the city. Here we find secure parking with an overnight guard, a comfortable room and very pleasant staff. They offer to let us leave our car here for our week on Zanzibar and, after checking out the auto electrician and deciding they look less than reliable, we take them up on their offer. It sure shows that when things don’t work out the way you expect they can work out even better.

Looking forward to our time on Zanzibar.

Ilha De Moçambique

IlhadeMocambique 27

Stone Town, Ilha de Moçambique

Ilha De Moçambique (Mozambique Island) is small in size at less than 3.5 km long and 500m wide but it is packed with history and has lots of fascinating buildings so we are looking forward to exploring it. We travel across the 3.5km one lane bridge which joins the island to the mainland. Luckily there are passing points along the way. The water beneath the bridge is shallow and remarkably clear. There are lots of people living in this area and the water is dotted with fishing dhows, people netting fish and others wading across toward the island.

There is no camping on the island so our first task is to find a place to stay for our visit. We have picked out a number of possibilities and we are soon joined by a throng of young boys offering to guard our car, for a small fee of course, as we make our way from place to place. The main streets are narrow and often one way and the side streets are often alley ways too narrow to drive through so it is slow going and the boys run behind us and sometimes jump onto the back of the vehicle.

The first few are not suitable either because they are too expensive or not available for the whole time we want and we are just working out how to reach the next place when a young man on a bicycle offers to lead us. Mohamed takes us to several more places, a couple would be OK but we’re hoping to find something better and then the final place he takes us to is delightful. O Escondidinho is a grand old building and there is just one room left for the five nights we are planning to stay. It’s in the courtyard just next to the swimming pool and there is plenty of space for Paul to bring his computer inside to work on his photos. We can’t self cater but breakfast is included and we can easily make our own lunch in the room so we will only need to buy one meal each day. Perfect!

Most of the historic buildings are in Stone Town which occupies the northern section of the island. They were constructed between the early 16th and late 19th centuries when the Portuguese occupied the island and locals were banished to the mainland. The local people now live in Makuti Town in the southern part of the island and Stone Town buildings are mainly used for tourism or are in varying states of decay. Each day we wander around the quiet streets always finding new alleys or revisiting others we enjoy.

The details are in the buildings are fascinating, especially the doorways and windows.

At the north end of the island is the Fort of São Sebastião which was built in the 16th century. It is huge and we spend several hours wandering around and Paul returns in the late afternoon just before they close for the day so he can take even more photos.

Behind the fort, right at the very tip of the island is the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte. Built in 1522, it is considered to be the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.

Another place well worth a visit is the Palace & Chapel of São Paulo, the former governors residence. The residence has been completely restored and we wander around the many rooms with our guide explaining the history. The restoration has been extremely well done and it is easy to imagine the grand life the Portuguese rulers led, at the expense of all of the local people and of the slaves being trafficked through the island. No photography is allowed inside the residence but we were able to take photos in the chapel.

Mohammed led us through Makuti town and it is a bustling lively place, very different from the quiet streets in Stone Town and the splendour of the old buildings. Narrow walkways thread between shacks with the occasional wider thoroughfare.

The main road which runs through the centre of Makuti Town is bustling and it becomes much quieter as we approach Stone Town. A street side shoe stall intrigues me and Paul enjoys watching a pick up game of soccer. An unused church stands at the southern end of the island.

The Memorial Slave Garden is a reminder of the dreadful history of the island and the lives of the many slaves who passed through here or died on the way here.

As it is a small island you are never far from the water and it is always interesting to watch the numerous dhows and the general ‘goings on’.

The sun sets quite early and we try to find a nice spot for sundowners so we can enjoy the changing colours. Later we try out various restaurants and enjoy reflecting on our day.