Metema (border crossing), Wadi Mahadi, Khartoum, Old Dongola, Soleb, Karima, Khartoum, Port Sudan and Suakin.
Modern Sudan is situated on the site of the ancient civilisation of Nubia, which predates Pharaonic Egypt. For centuries sovereignty was shuttled back and forth between the Egyptians, indigenous empires such as Kush, and a succession of independent Christian kingdoms. In 1821 the viceroy of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, conquered northern Sudan and opened the south to trade. Within a few decades British interests were also directed towards Sudan, aiming to control the Nile, contain French expansion from the west and draw the south into a British–East African federation. The European intrusion, and in particular the Christian missionary zeal that accompanied it, was resented by many Muslim Sudanese.
The revolution came in 1881, when one Mo- hammed Ahmed proclaimed himself to be the Mahdi, the person who, according to Muslim tradition, would rid the world of evil. Four years later he rid Khartoum of General Gordon, the British-appointed governor, and the Mahdists ruled Sudan until 1898, when they were defeated outside Omdurman by Lord Kitchener and his Anglo-Egyptian army. Sudan then effectively became a British colony. Although nowadays not many Sudanese people actually speak English…unlike other British colonies we travelled.
Sudan achieved independence in 1956, but in a forerunner of things to come, General Ibrahim Abboud, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Sudanese army, summarily dismissed the winners of the first post-independence elections and made himself president. Ever since, flirtations with democracy and multiple military coups have been regular features of the Sudanese political landscape.
In 1983 Nimeiri scrapped the autonomy accord and imposed sharia (Islamic law) over the whole country. Hostilities between north and south recommenced almost immediately. Army commander John Garang deserted to form the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which quickly took control of much of the south. Some believe it to be the start of the fight for independence for South Sudan.
And finally in January 2011 the South Sudanese went to the polls and voted overwhelmingly for independence and in July 2011 Sudan found itself with a new neighbour, an independent South Sudan. Almost before the new flag was raised in Juba, capital of South Sudan, the new neighbours were at each other’s throats over the oil-rich territory of Abyei, which both nations claimed as theirs. In April 2012 they came to the very brink of war over the issue. But the bad news didn’t stop there, and rebellions have broken out in the Nuba Mountains and other parts of South Kordofan as well as in Blue Nile state.
So Sudan is entering new territory and its future has never been so unpredictable. Most Sudanese consider South Sudan’s independence something of a disaster for the future of this now shrunken nation. The loss of the oil revenue since the south obtained independence has sent the Sudanese economy on a sharp downward spiral and the cost of basic daily goods has skyrocketed. We noticed this when changing Euro’s into Sudanese pounds…most the economy is run by the black market exchange.
Border crossing, Khartoum, Old Dongola, Soleb en Karima
March 27th was the day we left Tim-Kim village early in the morning to get to the border crossing before the Ethiopian immigration and customs go on their ‘French’ lunch break. We arrived at 11.30am and soon we both receive our exit stamp at the immigration desk. After came the tricky part with customs… as we gave one hard disk to Nienke and cannot find our GPS. The young man helping Wilfred wanted to see all electronic devices, so we showed him one hard disk and one memory card as the second one…he seemed to accept that. And so the list continued…our satellite messenger and Judith showed it to him and placed it next to her. Then the iPhone, iPad and laptop, all ‘check in the box’. After that he asked for the GPS and Judith picked up the satellite messenger (yes, again) and showed it to him…he just checked the box and did not even notice that she showed him the same item twice. So the last thing was to check everything in the back of our campervan. He climbed in and looked around. He checked our kitchen, but than he noticed all the storage space in our truck and noon was approaching fast… so without checking anything else he just mumbled: ‘Looks good; I am going for lunch now’.
Relieved it when so smooth (we expected we had to pay either a fine or a bribe to customs…) we drove to our next stop; the immigration office on the Sudanese side. Within ten minutes they made a copy of our passports, stamped the entry date in our passports and processed the arrival cards. Just one more stamp and signature for the truck left to collect. We were the only ones at the customs office, but it seemed to take forever...the customs officer needed to type up a document, but was very very very slow in typing… Finally after forty-five minutes (just as long as it took us to collect all other stamps) we were good to go.
En route to Khartoum.
Since we only have a transit visa for 15 days we wanted to drive as far as we could towards Khartoum before it got dark. We stayed overnight at Wadi Mahadi, a rather large town on the shore of the Blue Nile. As we did not exchange money at the border with one of the guys that approached us, we had to find a place. After searching for a while for a private exchange office (where you get better much rates than at the bank), we got help from a friendly Sudanese man we met on the side of the street. He made some calls and we followed him through town to an exchange office. With the money in the pocket, the next task on the list was getting diesel and a new supply of biscuits and soda’s for the next day. It was a long time ago that Wilfred had a huge smile on his face when filling up the tank…a litre diesel cost S£4,50 (not even €0,25 J).
After a good nights sleep in the parking lot of the run down Imperial Hotel (only the name still sounds ‘royal’...) we had some coffee in the gardens and continued our drive to Khartoum. Early afternoon we arrived at the International Guesthouse (formerly known as the German Guesthouse). Since our main purpose for staying in Khartoum is to get our visa for Saudi-Arabia, we made a phone call to a fixer recommend by another Dutch couple who used him a couple of months ago. At the beginning of the evening he stopped by at the guesthouse to collect all our papers. He asked Judith what Wilfred’s profession is and mentioned that he already knew hers: ’wife’. So…it begins…Judith’s profession is wife and she needs to wear an abaca and is not allowed to drive during our transit of 1700kms through the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia. Naturally, she is really looking forward to this…
The next day we handed in our laundry for a proper washing in a machine. Something that had not happened since we left Nairobi almost seven weeks ago. When it was returned all our t-shirts and polo shirts were even ironed. We will look really smart in our very clean and ironed cloths ! We were also pleased that the guesthouse offered to arrange our ‘alien’ registration and travel & photo permit as we heard from other overlanders that this can sometimes take up to four hours to arrange. All foreigners/aliens need to register in Khartoum within three days of arrival. Omar went to the airport with our passports and returned them with some additional stamps and a nice sticker that stated that we were registered.
In the afternoon we visited the National Museum of Sudan. This museum, said to be the best in the country, has some really nice exhibits. The ground floor covers the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Kerma, Kush and Meroe. It has some stunning royal statues and perfectly preserved 3500-year-old artefacts from Kerma. We were reminded of our holiday to Egypt and saw how much of the history of Sudan is linked to Egypt and its rulers. After we leave Khartoum we will visit these areas and are looking forward to see the old temples and forts.
Upstairs was an exhibition with plenty of medieval Christian frescos that were removed from the ruined churches of Old Dongola. Last but not least we walked around the grounds of the museum where they had rebuild some of the temples ‘Abu Simbel–style’. These temples were rescued from the rising waters of Lake Nasser and moved to the museum in Khartoum.
We also drove to the bridge from where you can see the Blue and White Nile ‘merge’ together. People say that you can actually see the different colours of each Nile flowing side by side before blending further downstream – although neither are blue or white! The first time we passed the crossing, we hardly noticed any difference in colour, however the next morning - on our way out of Khartoum- it was obvious that the White Nile was brownish and the Blue Nile greenish in the colour. In Sudan there are some restrictions to what you are allowed to take pictures of, and bridges are not allowed. We heard many stories of tourist taking pictures at this point that have been arrested, so we refrained from taking any photos.
Before leaving Khartoum the next morning, we stopped at the Khalifa’s House Museum and Mahdi’s Tomb next door and tried to get to the Omdurman Souq. But the roads was so crowded with tuktuks, people and cars we just drove to our next destination…
Old Dongola, Soleb and Karima.
Our aim for the day was Old Dongola, an abandoned city that has both a Christian as well as an Islamic history. We passed through the desert on a very nice tarmac road and shortly before five, we arrived at the site. We looked for the ticket office, but had almost seen the whole place before we found something that could pass for a ticket office…however we found no one there and continued our visit. After seeing the ruins of the churches, palace and cemetery, we went back to a place next to the abandoned city and parked the car on an elevation overlooking the Nile. Apart from the thousand of sand flies, it was the perfect camping spot…luckily, the flies disappeared after sunset allowing us to enjoy the evening and fresh air.
When morning came, so did the flies… L After a quick coffee, we left for Soleb, about 250km further North. On the way (read: with a detour of approx. 150km, as the ferry did not seem to be operational), we also visited Western Deffufa (ruins of several, likely religious, buildings of which they had rebuild their ground plans and Tombus (where the head of the only/last black Pharaoh would lie amongst large builders next to the road…we only found a small building that was locked L). As planned, we arrived around sunset at the area of Soleb and first visited the recently found (~5-7 years ago) pyramid ruins of Sedeinga and the Temple of Tiyi. Again we were joined by a growing number of flies… By the time we got to the Temple of Soleb, their numbers were far from funny and they even showed up on our pictures as blurry stains…not wanting to wait in the car till they were gone, we decided to drive back south till it was dark before finding a spot to camp. As a result, we ended us about 40km south of Soleb in the midst of several hills. The area where we stayed the night was covered with man-made heaps of stones as if people had been looking for something. Although the place was perfect for a camp, we did not sleep much. From the moment we stopped till the next day there was a (very) strong wind… On the road, this was not so bad, but trying to sleep when the tent is hit by the wind and the car is rocked like a rocking chair was far from ideal.
After an early breakfast, we drove back towards the city of Dongona and bought ourselves proper ‘Arabic’ scarfs (against wind, sun and -hopefully- the flies) and some bread for lunch at the bakery we had found the other day. Afterwards, we continued another 200km through the desert towards Karima; a town with several historic sites from the Pharaoh periods. We first visited the temple of Amun and Mut and the - almost in tact - pyramids of Jebel Barkal next to it and succeedingly went to the pyramids of Nuri to see the largest pyramids of Sudan. The latter were a bit disappointing as they were not in such a good state (although indeed larger in size).
With some hours left before diner (which we planned in the luxury lodge next to the Jebel Barkal site), we already went to the lodge to escape the heat and relax a bit. With the quotes for the ferry to Saudi-Arabia in the pocket and a good idea which agent to go with, we really wanted to know if our KSA visa got approved…unfortunately - but likely due to the weekend - we were not able to get in contact with our fixer.
KM’s driven : 4384km
Total liters of fuel : 712lt
Fuel consumption : 7,0km per litre
Average diesel price : 16,09ETB
Nights Camping : 25 nights
Nights B&B/Hotel : 2 nights
Fines : 0
Bribes : 0
Theft : 1 (head torch by the scout in Siemien Mountains)
Highlight : Climbing the Erta Ale volcano (Wilfred), wandering the ruins of the Royal Enclosure in Gondar (Judith)
KM’s driven : 4848km
Total liters of fuel : 697,62lt
Fuel consumption : 6,6km per litre
Average diesel price : 90,92KSH
Nights Camping : 17 nights
Nights B&B/Hotel : 8 nights (of which 4 nights with friends in Nairobi)
Fines : 0
Bribes : 0
Theft : 0
Highlight : Seeing seven lion cups in the Masai Mara (Wilfred), sleeping a really comfortable bed at our friends house (Judith)
Lalibela and Gorgora
We arrived early evening in Lalibela after a seven hour drive (of 309 kilometres). We thought it would only be a five hour drive or so, since 210 kilometres were smooth tar, but we were wrong… The last 110 km’s consisted of a climb to 3700 metres followed by a 1200 metres descent on a dirt road. During our climb it started raining heavily making the road slippery. A few times we even felt the truck loose its grip on the road. For safety reasons, Wilfred put the car in “4x4 low” to cross the peak. All together, our average speed dropped to 10-15 kilometres per hour… After 3 hours we started our descent and luckily the rain also stopped when we were half way down.
In Lalibela we camped at Tukul Village, a Dutch owned lodge with a small place for camping. Using the iOverlander app we found a new restaurant mentioned by a Dutch overlander couple and decided to give it a try…we ordered lamb tibbs and fasting food (no dairy, blood and meat, but just vegetarian). It was so good, that we ordered a special chicken dish for the next evening. It was probably the best Ethiopian food we had.
The next morning we met our guide at eight and he took us to visit the different rock hewn churches of Lalibela. It was very easy to visit these churches and luckily for Judith no steep climbs were required (contrary to the visits to the churches in the Tigray region). We started with a visit to the north-western cluster existing of seven churches. This cluster was build by King (and priest) Lalibela, with the intent to copy Jeruzalem and make it an easier accessible alternative for (Ethiopian) pilgrims. The first difference with the rock hewn churches of the Tigray region is that most churches are carved from the top of the mountain down as free standing monolite buildings.
In the morning we visited six of the churches with Bet Giyorgis (church of St. George) being the most impressive and the last church built by King Lalibela and is often referred to his masterpiece (another reason that made it the most impressive, was that it was not covered with preservation covers against sun and rain like the other churches). Representing the apogee of the rock-hewn tradition, the Bet Giyorgis is the most visually perfect church of all; it is 15m-high three-tiered plinth in the shape of a Greek cross; a shape that required no internal pillars. According to our guide, it represents the Ark of Noah based on several indicators (e.g. the windows on the ground floor are closed to protect against the flood). From a small hill next to the church, we had an excellent view of the ‘cross-roof’ and the remaining rock that hides it from sight. The cross itself, is also the drainage system (and is still original).
After lunch, which we enjoyed at a Scottish run restaurant on a hilltop on the other side of Lalibela, we visited the South-Eastern cluster. Both clusters are actually divided by ‘the (dry) river Jordan’ that has an actual baptism spot marked with a cross. The first church we visited; Bet Abba Libanos, was different from the others as it is a hypogeous church meaning one can still walk around it and only the roof and floor remain attached to the rock it is hewn from. The next one on the list was the Bet Amanuel church, a freestanding and monolithic church and Lalibela’s most finely carved church. Some suggested it was the royal family’s private chapel. It perfectly replicates the style of Aksumite buildings, with its projecting and recessed walls mimicking alternating layers of wood and stone.
The churches from both clusters are all connected with tunnels and/or man made trenches. The only tunnel, open to the public, runs from the half collapsed church Bet Markorius (based on the ankle shackles found there, it might have been used as a prison in stead of church) to the Old Bethlehem cave (a room used to make bread and wine) connected to Bet Gabriel-Rufael.
Bet Gabriel-Rufael is a twin-church and marks the main entrance to the South Eastern group (however we started at the last church to avoid the large tour groups…). Unlike the other Lalibela churches its entrance is at the top and it’s accessed by a small walkway (a newly build one), high over the moat-like trench below. This, along with its curious, irregular floor plan and non-east-west orientation, has led archaeologists to propose that Bet Gabriel-Rufael may have been a fortified palace for Aksumite royalty (in the 7th century). In the region there are more rock hewn churches, but after a full day of visiting eleven churches in Lalibela we were all ‘churched out’ and decided to drive to Lake Tana the next day.
Gorgora (Lake Tana)
Early morning we started our long drive, at least in kilometres, 404 km to Gogora on the shore of Lake Tana. One of the longest distances we drove in Ethiopia on one day as our average speed was mostly around 35-40km per hour due to bad road conditions or heavy congestion. In other words, we were prepared for a long day in the car… To our surprise however, the last 65 kilometres were also tarred (a milestone that was completed the beginning of this year).
Our campsite, Tim-Kim village, is run by a Dutch woman and her Ethiopian husband Mebratu (although initially built by her and Tim). It is a tranquil spot on the shores of Lake Tana and a perfect location to relax and look back on our four weeks of travel through Ethiopia (and doing the necessary chores, like laundry, cleaning the truck and preparing all paperwork for the border crossing from Ethiopia into Sudan).
Our main preparation was to put all electronic devices into a backpack that were written on the temporary import permit when we entered Ethiopia…but there is a small glitch…we gave a harddisk to Nienke with a back up of all our pictures so far and we seemed to have misplaced our GPS (while on the Danakil Depression tour)…but these two were also written down on our permit. Ah, well we will see what will happen at the customs office…
Axum and rock hewn churches of Tigray
Axum was the first capital of Ethiopia and used to be a rich farming and trade area with the Middle East and is only 60km from the red sea making it an important corridor.
On our way to the Tomb’s of King Kaleb and Gebre Meskel we passed a little shack…what could we possibly see here…to our surprise it contained a remarkable find which three farmers stumbled upon in 1988; an Ethiopian version of the Rosetta Stone. The pillar, inscribed in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Greek, dates from between AD 330 and AD 350 and records the honorary titles and military victories of the king over his ‘enemies and rebels (i.e. people whom refused to pay him taxes)’. The stone was placed next to the main road into Axum from the Red sea to ensure no one could miss it.
A 15 minute walk up hill, we visited the -never used- tombs of King Kaleb and his son, King Gebre Meskel. The Gebre Meskel tomb was the most refined. The precision of the joints between its stones was at a level unseen anywhere else in Aksum. The tomb consisted of one chamber and five rooms, with one boasting an exceptionally finely carved portal leading into it. Inside that room were three sarcophagi, one adorned with a cross similar to Christian crosses found on Aksumite coins. According to our guide the tomb was never used and Meskel was buried at Debre Damo monastery. Like Meskel’s tomb, King Kaleb’s was also accessed via a long straight stairway. But it was less sophisticated; the stones were larger, more angular and less precisely joined. Also for this tomb it is believed that he was not actually buried here. The story is that his body is buried at Abba Pentalewon Monastery, where he lived after abdicating his throne. The tomb’s unfinished state fits with this story. Local rumour has it that there’s a secret tunnel leading from here to the Red Sea, but we have not seen any evidence of this. Both of the monasteries where the Kings are buried, can be visited, but are ‘men only’. Abba Pentalewon is one of the richest monasteries (even today) and still in use by about 150 monks. The Debra Damo is en route to our next destination, but to visit men need to climb up a 15m high rope, not something Wilfred was very keen on…
Next we visited Queen Sheba’s bath; our guide told us that despite the colourful legends, this large reservoir wasn’t where Queen Sheba played with her rubber duck, but that it was an important reservoir rather than a swimming pool or gargantuan bath. Nobody is totally sure of its age, but it’s certainly been used as a water source for millennia. Its large size (17m deep) is even more impressive considering it’s hewn out of solid rock. It’s also known as Mai Shum, which translates to ‘Chief’s Water’. Sadly, the outer portion of the bowl was coated with concrete in the 1960s, giving it a ore modern look than an ancient relic. Nowadays it’s used for Timkat celebrations every January, just like Fasiladas’ Bath in Gondar and on a daily basis locals use it for washing cloths and drinking water for animals
Our last stop of the morning were the ruins of the Dungar (Queen Sheba’s) palace just outside of the old town. though historians think it’s the mansion of a nobleman. It’s fully excavated an from the viewing platform we could make out enough of the 44-room layout of the palace. The most interesting features were the stones and walls recessed at intervals and unusually tapering with height and the kitchen, where a large brick oven can still be seen. Nobody is certain of the complex’s age, but our guide told us it probably dates to around the 6th century AD.
Reunited with Nienke in the afternoon, we visited the St Mary of Zion Churches and a tiny, carefully guarded chapel that houses what most Ethiopians believe is the legendary Ark of the Covenant. The legend tells that the Ark of Convenant is guarded by a monk, who lives in solitary in the chapel, as all doors are cemented. Interestingly a new keep is being built next to it, to temporarily store the Ark of Convenant as the current keep needs to be maintained as its roof started leaking. As a result of an incident some years ago, when an Israeli tourist climbed over the fence to get to the keep (and was shot in his leg by the guards), no tourist is allowed to approach the fence. A rule that is still strictly followed, Wilfred experienced, when he walked to the fence for a picture together with two locals and was called back by the guide. As it was fasting time, there was a daily procession walking three times around the new St Mary of Zion church before every mass. The museum between the ruins of the old and the new church held several interesting items like robes and crowns of kings and bishops and other ancient religious artefacts.
Our guide arranged for us to visit the inside of the new St Mary of Zion church, a build in 1965 and we saw an ancient bible with marvellous pictures of amongst others St. George and the dragon, although we believed it looked too nice to be an ancient bible... The church itself also had some beautiful paintings on the wall most being replica’s from the old bible.
As the old church area may only be visited by men, Wilfred went alone to make some pictures. The most interesting in there was the painting of a ‘dark’ Mary (not covered by a blanket and always visible) next to a ‘white’ Mary. Unfortunately the priest did not speak English and we have no idea what the meaning behind it is, although normally only the paintings that have a special meaning to a church are covered… The old bible in this old church, really looked old and many of the paintings were similar to the book in the new church, confirming our feeling that the other one we saw was a replica (although the guide of the new church kept saying it was ancient and original…).
To conclude our visit to Aksum, we visited the Northern Stelae Field Tombs and the archaeological museum. Despite the dizzying grandeur of the numerous rock needles (stelea) reaching for the stars, our guide told us ‘It’s what’s under your feet here that’s most important’. He mentioned that about 90% of the field hasn’t yet been dug, so no matter where we walked, there’s a good chance there’s an undiscovered tomb with untold treasures under our feet. All of the tombs excavated so far, have been pillaged by robbers, so very little is known about Aksumite burial customs or the identities of those buried on the site.
The most impressive stelae we saw is named the Great Stelae, but unfortunately is not erected anymore…as it toppled it collided with the massive 360-tonne stone sheltering the central chamber of Nefas Mawcha’s tomb. This shattered the upper portion of the stele and collapsed the tomb’s central chamber, scattering the massive roof supports like tooth-picks. Seeing that no other stele was ever raised here, it’s obvious the collapse sounded the death knell on the long tradition of obelisk erection in Aksum. Our guide told us that some people have suggested that this disaster may have actually contributed to the people’s conversion to Christianity. More controversially, some people propose it may have been sabotaged deliberately to feign a sign of God. Whatever the origin of its downfall, the stele remains exactly where it tumbled 1600 years ago, a permanent reminder of the defeat of paganism by Christianity.
Next we walked down some steps to visit Nefas Mawcha’s tomb. The megalithic Tomb of Nefas Mawcha consists of a large rectangular central chamber surrounded on three sides by a passage. The tomb is unusual for its large size, the sophistication of the structure and the size of the stones used for its construction (the stone that roofs the central chamber measures 17.3m by 6.4m and weighs some 360 tonnes!). As mentioned above the force of the Great Stele crashing into its roof caused the tomb’s spectacular collapse.
In the archaeological museum we saw an interesting variety of objects found in the tombs, ranging from ordinary household objects, such as coins, crosses, lamps and incense burners. However the most interesting thing we saw was a scale model of what the Dungar (Queen Sheba’s) palace would have looked like, but unfortunately it was not allowed to make any pictures inside.
Rock hewn churches of Tigray region
The next two days we spent in the Tigray region to visit some excellent examples of rock hewn churches. Our guide drove with us in our truck to Gheralta and on the way we visited the temple complex of Yeha, the Petros we Paulos church and the Medhane Alem Kesho church.
The temple complex of Yeha, now in the midst of a major restoration, was impressive for its sheer age and stunning construction. The 7th century BC Great Temple’s limestone building blocks, measuring up to 3m in length, are perfectly dressed and fitted together without a trace of mortar. So the whole temple is a grid of perfect lines and geometry.
The first rock hewn church we visited was the Petros we Paulos church. This church is only partly hewn and is built on a steep ledge. It’s a five-minute climb up a rickety ladder, but as the key-man is nowhere to be found we just viewed the church from the outside. The second (and last church of the day) was the Medhane Alem Kesho church and is said to be one of Tigray’s oldest (perhaps even the oldest), tallest and finest rock-hewn churches. Its exterior and interior walls are roughly hewn, which only makes the elaborately carved coffered ceiling special. We asked if we could watch the priest unlock the door from the inside of the church; a rather ingenious locking system indeed ! We arrived at the Gheralto lodge, just before sunset and were shown to a nicely decorated triple room (build in a circle; probably the nicest room we stayed during our trip in Ethiopia). Wilfred wanted to enjoy the sunset at a higher viewpoint, while Nienke and Judith indulged in a nice massage.
Some of the churches in the Tigray region are a long and/or rather steep climb before you reach the church. And since we are also climbing the Erta Ale Volcano in a couple of days we chose three churches to visit; the Maryam Korkor and Daniel Kokor churches (same location) and the Abraha We Atsbeha church (no hiking needed to visit)
In the morning we started our one hour hike to Maryam Korkor, an rather easy, but steep climb according to the lonely planet…don’t believe everything they write! The first part was indeed a rather easy, but steep climb through a small gorge, but the mid section was serious scramble using our hands and feet for about 15 to 20 metres high ! Nienke was very reluctant to climb this part, but as we were already more than halfway, she gave it a try and we all continued the last part of the climb. When we almost reached the top we saw a group of women hiking down the path and our guide told us that earlier that morning a baby was baptised there and some of them had their baby and their back whilst climbing down…not something we would ever do !
After one and a half hour we were glad to finally reach the top of the mountain and we could visit the two churches there. Maryam Korkor is an impressive, cross- shaped church and is known for its architectural features, (such as cruciform pillars, arches and cupolas), fine 17th century frescoes and some church treasures (although we did not see those). It’s also one of the largest churches in the area. Just a couple of minutes’ walk from Maryam Korkor is the seldom-used church of Daniel Korkor, which sits atop a paralysing precipice and offers astounding views. The door opening of Daniel Korkor church was so tiny that we had difficulty getting in. Nienke decided not to visit this church due to the walk on a small ledge to the church, but our guide convinced her to go anyway… Inside the church were some fine frescos dating from the 17th century.
The last church we visited is called Abraha We Atsbeha, a 10th century church and is architecturally speaking one of Tigray’s finest. It’s large and cruciform in shape, with cruciform pillars and well-preserved 17th and 18th century murals. Some of the church treasures such as procession crosses and a pair of golden shoes, believed to be King Atsbeha’s, are displayed a small museum next to the church.
The end of the afternoon we met up with the tour operator in Me’kele ,with whom we booked our Danakil Depression tour. He explained to us the itinerary for the next four days. After that we found a nice hotel to enjoy our last hot shower and proper toilet for the next couple of days and to securely park the truck while we are in Danakil.
Danakil depression and Me'kele
We booked a four day trip to the Danakil Depression and the next couple of days we will visit the Erta Ale Volcano, Dallol, Lake Asale and Lake Afdera.
We left our hotel at 09.30am in the morning and met the rest of the group with whom we would travel for the duration of the tour. Our first destination is Erta Ale and it was a nice drive on tarmac through the mountains and the last 70 kilometres or so we drove some rougher terrain, mostly sand and (sharp) lava rocks. We arrived early afternoon at base camp, where we could rest a bit, before embarking on our climb to the volcano later that evening. After dinner we started our climb up the volcano with the intention to visit the new and the old crater. The new crater is only two months old, since the last ‘active’ eruption of the volcano on January 12th of this year, however the volcano has been in a state of continuously eruption since 1967. But the pace of the walk is too fast for Judith to follow due to her knee injury and two Estonian’s in our group were having difficulties with the heat (they just arrived from Estonia two days before where it was still freezing…). Since the last eruption visitors are only allowed to visit the new crater from a distance of 250 metres, due to safety reasons. But our guide bribed the military guards and we were ‘allowed’ to visit the old crater where you can walk to edge of the rim, only 2 metres from the edge and look into the lava lake.
After four hours of walking we finally arrived at the top of Erta Ale, but unfortunately Nienke fell ill, just before reaching the top and she needed to rest there, while we continued to the edge of the rim. We walked over softer lava for the last 15 minutes and we heard the lava crack under our soles of our shoes, almost the same sound as when you walk on fresh snow. The view of the bubbling lava below us was unbelievable ! We stayed about 45 minutes enjoying the views before we headed back the camp where we would spent the night. As Nienke did not join us at the rim of the volcano our guide took her there after a couple of hours of sleep. So in the end she got a private viewing of the lava lake of Erta Ale. After only 3 hours of sleep we started our hike down to base camp at 03.30am to ensure we would be there before it became too hot…
After breakfast we drove to the next camp at Hamedela in the Dallol region, where we would stay for two nights. When we arrived and saw the place where we would camp for the next two days we looked at each other in astonishment…the whole place was full of garbage (plastic water bottles, cans, toilet paper, etc.…), a real dump ! This was when Danakil Depression became ‘depressing Danakil’…the base camp at Erta Ale was very similar with garbage everywhere…what happened to ‘just leaving footprints’ when you visit such nice places !
At lunch time Judith had asked our guide what had happened to the goat the was in the truck with supplies. He told us that the other group had goat for dinner. Judith asked if we could have goat that evening and he said he would try. And later Judith saw a goat pulled into the kitchen and out guide said ‘that’s our dinner’ and it was very tasty !
The night sleeping under the stars was a little bit difficult due to the wind blowing the entire evening, but we all got a couple of hours of sleep. After breakfast we drove over the salt lake to Dallol where great warts of twisted sulphur and iron oxide paint a yellow and orange landscape that looked more like a coral reef than anything we have ever seen above the waterline. The base of the hill is the lowest place in Ethiopia at 125 metres below sea level and is said to be the hottest place on Earth with a year-round average temperature of 34.4°C. As it is very close to Eritrea we are escorted by a group of at least 20 soldiers. It felt really weird walking on ‘coral reef’, because we thought it would crack under pressure, but it didn’t. Fortunately for us the weather is not too hot and we were able to enjoy the views for more than an hour where normally group only stay for about 30 minutes due to the heat.
After that we passed some Salt Mountains on the way to Lake Asale. These are high mountains, or at least much higher than the only mountain in the Netherlands, the Cauberg. At lake Asale we walked the dry, cracked lakebed for 10 minutes or so to where the Afar people hack blocks of salt out of the ground. The blocks of salt are then loaded onto camels. These famous camel caravans head to Me’kele, where the salt is sold on the local market. It takes the camel caravan seven days to reach the market. The Afar people sell the blocks of salt for 7-10 birr per block to the camel owners, after transport the camel owners sell it on the market for about 30-40 birr per block. And after processing by the local salt factories it is sold for export.
As Nienke is not feeling well and Wilfred & Judith were not looking forward to spent another night in the midst of garbage…we decided to cut our trip one night short and returned to Me’kele.
All in all Danakil Depression has much to offer to tourists with the active volcano, sulphur lakes, etc. But we do hope that sustainable tourism will be introduced, such as educating the local communities how to properly dispose of garbage, tour operators will start some local projects to improve the living condition in the villages, and that they will start with leaving only footprints on tours (i.e. taking al you garbage and dispose of it properly) as we haven’t seen so much garbage lying around anywhere else in Ethiopia !
When we returned late afternoon in Me’kele we checked in (again) at the Hatsey Yohannes hotel, where we had left our truck during the Danakil Depression tour. Since we were all very tired of the trip we spent the evening watching a couple of episodes of the tv-series the Blacklist and eating pizza…just a relaxing evening in the hotel. The following morning we visited the Yohannes IV museum, just across the road from the hotel. The palace has been nicely restored in the last four years, but unfortunately it was not allowed to take pictures. For lunch we went to a traditional restaurant with a butcher on premise. The house speciality is Zilzil tibbs (lamb) with awazi sauce (a mustard chilli sauce). The best tibbs we had so far during our trip in Ethiopia ! In the afternoon we updated our travelblog and started uploading pictures. Our last evening with Nienke we spent (again) eating pizza and watching some episodes of the Blacklist. The next morning we said goodbye to Nienke at Me’kele airport and we started our (long) drive to Lalibela, a town famous for its lovely rock hewn churches.
Addis Ababa - Sudanese Embassy and picking up Nienke
When we arrived at the Sudanese embassy, we were stunned…before when we visited embassies for visa applications we were practically alone. This morning, we were greeted by about 100 mainly young Ethiopians that were being served from a table, where four Sudanese employees filled in papers for them. On our question what the process was, the friendly Sudanese officer, explained us to wait at the counter. Okay, the Ethiopians are here for something else we thought hopefully…when nothing happened for five minutes, he called us again, asked for our papers and took them to the back…a couple of minutes later, he returned and told us to make copies of our Egyptian visa’s. Luckily there is a small shop selling drinks with a large copy machine on the corner of the street. Although a copy was only 1 Birr (€0,04), he seemed to run a profitable business with thanks to the embassy. Once back, we gave the copies to the officer and he started filling in the same forms as they were completing for everyone else. So, they were all there for a visa (by now around 150 persons and barely fitting the room). With mixed feelings, we were let to the front of the line by the Sudanese officer and presented our new form and copies to the officer behind the counter. The counter only opened five minutes before and he was helping the (first) Ethiopians. After a quick review and putting our papers on a pile, he told us to wait…after fifteen minutes, we carefully tried to ask (again) what the next step is. Although far from clear, we concluded that we were waiting to pay for the visa’s and could collect the passports tomorrow. Indeed, after approx. one hour and half, we were directed to a small room for payment (as the first in line as it turned out when we walked out of the building…).
With three hours to spare before we had to pick up Nienke at the airport, we returned to Wim’s to properly fix the bed in the car after one of the corners came loose -after 8 months- under the pressure of the gas cylinders and the bumpy roads).
Just in time, we headed off to the airport and after picking up Nienke, we went for a restaurant to have a late (Ethiopian) lunch. During lunch, Nienke got the unfortunate news that her electronic US visa is declined as a result of her stay in Somaliland. As a result, we dropped Nienke off at the US embassy the next morning while we picked up our passports at the Sudanese Embassy. After being re-united at the St. George Cathedral and museum, we went lunch at the Lucy Restaurant next to the National History museum. While we ordered lunch, Nienke visited the museum. After lunch, our next stop was the Ethnological museum on the premises of the University of Addis Ababa. The museum is in the former royal palace buildings that Haile Selassie had turned into the first University of Ethiopia. During our visit, Nienke was called back by the embassy and learned that she would need to apply for a (ten year) visa and that included an interview on the US Embassy in Addis…
We finished the day with dinner at restaurant ‘Le Mandoline’ for by far the best dinner we had in Ethiopia.
Bahir Dar, Gondar and the Simien Mountains
The next morning we left Wim’s Holland House for the last time and headed for Bahir Dar. To our relief the road is mostly in a good condition. It took us about eight hours to complete the 575 kilometres through mainly farm land, rolling hills and one deep canyon that has been formed by the Blue Nile. As planned, we arrived in time at the bank, where Nienke could make her payment to the US Embassy. However Murphy’s law concluded differently; the receiving bank in Addis had already closed for the day…
After a nice meal at the lakeshore with the hostel manager, we went back to the hostel. Here we met other travellers, sat around the campfire and spent the night chatting away whilst enjoying local ‘tej’ (honey wine).
The next morning we had a nice breakfast at Wude Coffee and at exactly ten o’clock we were back at the bank where Murphy’s law takes control once more; there is no electricity in city centre and the payment cannot be done. Luckily there is another office in town and they drove us there, accompanied by the clerk that has the right authorizations to process the payment.
We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon on and around lake Tana, which is famous for its monasteries on the small islands dotted on the lake. This lake is Ethiopia’s largest, covering over 3500 square kilometres, and its waters are the source of the Blue Nile, which flows 5223km north to the Mediterranean Sea. After an hours boat ride towards the tip of the Zege peninsular, where we visited the nicest monastery according tour operators: Ura Kidane Meret. Although the roof had been replaced with iron plates for security reasons, the rest of the main building looks genuinely old. Most of the paintings inside are from the 14th century, however several of the lower paintings had been restored late 20th century. The museum next to the main building holds crowns from kings that had visited the monastery as well as very old bibles in different languages and different types of crosses.
Back on the boat, we rode towards the Blue Nile. In the rainy season, the water in that area has a very distinct different colour than the lake. The reason for us the visit it, was the family of hippo’s that lives here and we also saw some pelicans and other water birds.
From Bahir Dar, we continued our trip the next morning towards Gondar, the capital of Ethiopia before Addis Ababa. Succeeding Gondar as capital were Lailibela and the initial capital Axum. After settling in at the guesthouse where we would camp that night, we visited the Debre Berhan Selassie Church. If it weren’t for a swarm of bees, this beautiful church would have probably been destroyed like most of Gondar’s other churches by the marauding Sudanese Dervishes in the 1880s. When the Dervishes showed up outside the gates of the church, a giant swarm of bees surged out of the compound and chased the invaders away. This was a lucky intervention: with its stone walls, arched doors, two-tiered thatch roof and well-preserved paintings, this church is said to be one of the most beautiful churches in Ethiopia. From the outside the building looked very tired, but paintings inside the main building however still looked very nice. The church has a wall around the grounds with twelve towers; each of these towers represents one of the twelve apostles.
Next on our list was a visit to the Royal Enclosure; The Gondar of yesteryear was a city of extreme brutality and immense wealth. Today the wealth and brutality are gone, but the memories linger in this amazing World Heritage Site. The entire 70,000-sq-metre compound containing numerous castles and palaces has been restored with the aid of Unesco. Especially Fasiladas’ Palace is very impressive ! It stands 32m tall, has a crenulated parapet and four domed towers. It is aade of roughly hewn stones, it’s reputedly the work of an Indian architect and shows an unusual synthesis of Indian, Portuguese, Moorish and Aksumite influences. Other buildings at the royal enclosure were more castles (of Iyasu I and Yohannes IV), stables, a lion house (where Abyssinian lions were kept until 1990) and a huge banquet hall.
Included in the ticket was also the entry to Fasiladas’ Bath, about 2km northwest of the piazza, which has been attributed to both Fasiladas and Iyasu I. The large rectangular pool is overlooking by a charming building, thought by some to be a vacation home. It’s a beautiful and peaceful spot, where snakelike tree roots digest sections of the stonewalls. Although the complex was used for swimming (royalty used to don inflated goatskin lifejackets for their refreshing dips!), it was likely to have been constructed for religious celebrations, the likes of which still go on today. Once a year, it’s filled with water for the Timkat celebration. After the water is blessed by the bishop, the pool becomes a riot of splashing water, shouts and laughter as a crowd of hundreds jumps in. The ceremony replicates Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River and is seen as an important renewal of faith.
This massive plateau, riven with gullies and pinnacles, offers tough but immensely rewarding trekking along the ridge that falls sheer to the plains far below. But our time is limited, so we didn’t trek through the mountains, but drove instead. It’s not just the scenery (and altitude) that provided us with amazing views, but also the excitement of sitting among a group of gelada monkeys during breakfast at Chennek camp. The only down side to the park is that everyone needs to take a scout (man with AK-47) with them. Even they do not know what they need to protect us from, but the park authority has concluded it as a necessity…call it the Ethiopian ‘Melkert’ jobs. At first we thought we were lucky; the guy appointed as our scout laughed a bit and according to the administration manager everything had been taken care off (our scout would bring along his own food and had a place to stay the night…unfortunately it turned out to be a huge disappointment ! Nothing was arranged for him…and someone at the campsite asked us ‘where does your scout sleep?’…well, definitely not with us in our truck ! There was just enough room in the truck for the three of us. The next morning when we wanted to walk around in the meadows, he kept shouting ‘no, no, no, …’. After 30 minutes or so we got so sick of him that we seriously thought about leaving him at the site ! A few days later we really wished we had left him there as we found out during packing for our trip to Danakil Depression that he had stolen one of our headlights that we needed for our night walk up the volcano.
The night was close to freezing, but as soon as the sun was up, the temperature rose quickly. During breakfast we were joined by a family of gelada baboons that quietly came closer and closer while eating grass. Aside the fact they are beautiful, these baboons are truly peaceful, unlike the olive baboons. It is strange that in most (guide)books, they are shown with their teeth showing as if they are aggressive. At one point, Wilfred was completely surrounded by the group that hardly paid attention to him whilst making photos.
After one very cold night, no toilet and no shower, we decided to treat ourselves to some luxury (truth be told, there were not too many alternative according to our searches without horror stories of bedbugs). The lodge, built and ran by a former guide and his British wife, is located high on a mountain with incredible views over the Siemien Mountains and the escarpment we had driven during the past two days. The other guests that night turned out to be Dutch as well and we had a nice chat before dinner at the campfire. It soon came out, that he worked for Heineken and was actually a colleague and friend of Sander (the former colleague of Judith and Nienke) whom we met in Rwanda.
The next morning we left early towards Aksum to ensure we could drop Nienke in time at the airport for her flight to Addis Ababa for her visa interview and was told during the interview she was granted her ten years visa for the US. The drive from Debark to Aksum, was probably one of the nicest so far. It started of with a 30km serious descent on a dirt road with lovely views over the Siemien Mountains. The rest of the journey was brand new tarmac and crossed several mountain passes from which we every now and then looked back at the Siemen Escarpment. We arrived in Aksum with enough time to spare for a fresh juice before we had to drop Nienke off at the airport. The afternoon we used for laundry and arranging a guide for the coming days to see Aksum and some of the Tigray rock hewn churches.