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)
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.
Bale Mountains and Addis Ababa (again)
After leaving our passports at the Embassy of Egypt for a visa and a quick lunch at Wim’s, we made our way to Bale Mountains for the weekend. Knowing that we could not make it all the way, we stopped in Hawassa for the night at a hotel where we could sleep safely on the parking. The next morning we left not too early as our aim was to be at the Sanetti plateau around 15:00. Although still a long drive, already the way towards Bale Moutains was a treat. We drove through a hilly area with lots of small farming villages. Apparently it was the time to get the hay from the land, as we pass many donkey carts packed with hay. The road was completely tarred (with of course several potholes on places where you least expect them). About an hour before Dinsho where we can get the entry tickets for the park, the scenery becomes mountainous and the road starts to climb towards 3700 meters above sea-level. Knowing that the high altitude would have an effect on the engines performance, we were not surprised that the colour of the smoke turned from pitch black into white (indicating an incomplete ignition).
After getting our park entry ticket, we continued towards Gobe, where we would enter the highest (all weather) road of Africa towards the Sanetti plateau, where the Ethiopian wolfs are frequently sighted. With the altitude also the incredible views change for the better (although we agreed not to take any photo’s on our way up as it was noticeable that the truck was not really liking the climb too much). It was our idea to spend the night in Harenne Forest on the other side of the plateau and about 1000 metre lower than the plateau… However, when we arrived at the campsite, it turned out that it had been changed into a luxury lodge (with incredible views). The lodge was fully booked and unfortunately we were not allowed to spend the night on their premise. As a result, we drove back to the campsite on the plateau at 4116 metre J. Next to the road and the Sanetti campsite was a small lake and we stopped to make some pictures from the birds when we noticed a Ethiopian wolf strolling by. Although it is family of the wolf, we immediately understood why some call it the red jackal as it has much resemblance with them as well (maybe even more…).
When we arrived at the campsite, three Spanish walkers also arrived with their guides and entourage (many horses had carried their food and camping equipment the past three days). They explained that they had walked for three days through the area each day sleeping at a higher altitude… They already predicted that we might not sleep too well. In the morning we had to admit to them that they were very right… Wilfred had a headache starting around 22:00 that only disappeared around nine the next morning and Judith woke up with one. During the night the temperature dropped to about 5 degrees below zero and we needed all our blankets to keep ourselves warm (even after having pre-heated the car with our webasto diesel heater before we went to sleep).
The next morning we woke up with the sun and the temperature slowly climbed from 1,5 to a much more comfortable 18 degree around 10:00am. After breakfast, we came to talk again with the Spanish hikers and learned that they would fly back home the next day and that they had only an easy walk to the highest point left. Still in search for a walking stick for Judith, we asked if we could buy one from them…with a proper walking stick in hand, we immediately gave it a shot and did a short hike around the campsite through the dessert like environment. Admittedly, we would have done so as well without the stick, which will serve its purpose in the harsher environment of the Danakil depression. Once back at the campsite, we came eye to eye with a wolf that walked right past the campsite in search of its breakfast. After our hike, we took up the challenge of driving towards the highest point of the area and second highest point in Ethiopia 4377 metres (although we measured it at 4389 metres with our Delorme). Mostly climbing very slowly in first gear, we made it all the way J
Back to Addis Ababa
Around 12:00pm we left this highest point and descended following the same way we came towards the hotel in Hawassa where we arrived just before sundown. The next morning we drove back towards Addis Ababa. In Addis, we decided to drive through ‘Mexico’ the area where most ‘car shops’ are located in search of ‘lock nuts for the wheels’ and a new ‘cup holder’. After the first shop, the truck decided not start any more… We had noticed before the weekend that the remote for the ‘engine blocker’ was giving some hiccups and we had bought new batteries for it. Changing the batteries did however make no difference… Not wanting to stay there for the night, we called Rahel from Wim’s Holland House and she was so kind to arrange a tow truck and picked us up. Luckily we were close to a Total fuel station (the only recognisable landmark around), it however turned out not to be the only Total fuel station along the very long road… Although it was just a 3 km drive, it was an eventful one. The Nissan tow truck was barely able to tow us uphill and was even struggling in 4x4 low gear. Once the car was in its place at Wim’s Holland House, we were very relieved and decided to go for a beer and dinner and leave the problem for the next day… Since none of the regular ‘ignition lights’ on the dashboards were showing, we were hopeful that it was just a fuse. If it really is something with the ‘engine blocker’, we might be in Addis Ababa longer than planned as it is designed and built in, in such a way that it could be (very) difficult to bypass…
Next morning Wilfred checked all the fuses in the truck and all were just fine. After that we did a reset of the engine blocker, got the truck started by using the emergency procedure and synchronized the remotes (again…as we had tried that yesterday as well). And all got sorted out, so fortunately we can still pick up Nienke with our own car from Bole Airport on March 8th.
We also picked up our passports at the Egyptian Embassy and are now ready to apply for our transit visa for Sudan. As we are reluctant to drive around in Addis and park our car in public places (as we heard plenty of stories that something is stolen from your car or they purposely sabotage it… after which, suddenly someone appears to help you…yeah, right!), we booked a taxi to drive us to the Sudanese Embassy.
Moyale, Arba Minch, Awassa, Addis Ababa, Bale Mountains National Park, Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar/Lake Tana, Gondar, Sankober (Simien Mountains), Axum, Tigray (or near), Mekele, Danakil Depression, Mekele, Lalibella, Gondar/Gorgora, Metema (border crossing).
Ethiopia is the only country of our trip in Africa that has not been colonized by a European country. Since the Middle Ages it was ruled by an emperor until in 1974 ‘the Derg’, supported by the Soviet Union came to power. After years of growing discontent and increasing street protests, the last emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, is unceremoniously deposed as emperor on 12 September. The Derg declare a socialist state on 20 December. Early in 1975 Haile Selassie dies while in custody and the cause of death is unknown, but many believe he was smothered with a pillow by Mengistu (leader of the Derg). During Mengistu’s rule up to 500,000 people were killed as a result of the Red Terror, from forced deportations, or from the use of hunger as a weapon. The Red Terror was carried out in response to what the government termed the "White Terror", a supposed chain of violent events, assassinations, and killings attributed to the opposition.
The 1983–85 famine in Ethiopia affected around eight million people, resulting in one million dead. Insurrections against Communist rule sprang up, particularly in the northern regions of Tigray and Eritrea. In 1989, the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) merged with other ethnically based opposition movements to form the coalition known as the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Concurrently, the Soviet Union began to retreat from building world communism under Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies, marking a dramatic reduction in aid to Ethiopia from Socialist Bloc countries. This resulted in more economic hardship and the collapse of the military in the face of determined onslaughts by guerrilla forces in the north. The collapse of socialism in general, and in Eastern Europe during the revolutions of 1989, coincided with the Soviet Union stopping aid to Ethiopia altogether in 1990. The strategic outlook for Mengistu quickly deteriorated. In May 1991, EPRDF forces advanced on Addis Ababa and the Soviet Union did not intervene to save the government side. Mengistu fled the country to asylum in Zimbabwe, where he still resides. In 2006 he was finally convicted by the `Ethiopian court for genocide’.
In July 1991 a transitional charter was endorsed, which gave the EPRDF-dominated legislature a four-year, interim rule under the executive of the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi. First and foremost, Mengistu’s failed socialist policies were abandoned, and de facto independence was granted to Eritrea. In August 1995 the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was proclaimed, a series of elections followed, and the constitution of the second republic was inaugurated. Meles Zenawi formed a new government. He became prime minister of Ethiopia. In comparison to other African countries the position of President of Ethiopia, is the head of state of Ethiopia and is mostly a ceremonial one, with executive power effectively being exercised by the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. The current president is Mulatu Teshome, who took office on 7 October 2013. Presidents are not chosen by the people but elected by the House of Peoples' Representatives for six years, with a two-term limit.
Despite being friends and having fought against the Derg side by side for more than a decade, Meles Zenawi and Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, soon clashed. The cause? Eritrea’s introduction of the nakfa currency to replace the Ethiopian birr in November 1997. In February 1999 a full-scale military conflict broke out that left tens of thousands dead on both sides before it finally ceased for good in mid- 2000. During this time there were mass exportations of Eritreans from Ethiopia and Ethiopians from Eritrea. Although Ethiopia had agreed to peace earlier, it wasn’t until Ethiopia recaptured all territory and went on to occupy parts of central and western Eritrea that Eritrea finally agreed to a ceasefire. In December 2000 a formal peace settlement was signed in Algiers.
The elections of 2010 saw Zenawi and the EPRDF returned to power. This time there was none of the violence that marked the 2005 election but international observers criticised the elections saying they fell short of international standards. Human Rights Watch claimed the government had a strategy of systematically closing down space for political dissent and independent criticism. In July 2012 rumours began to circulate that Zenawi, who hadn’t been seen in public for some weeks, had died. The government denied these rumours but admitted that Zenawi had been hospitalised, but that his condition was not serious. On 20 August 2012 it was announced that after 21 years of leading Ethiopia, Zenawi had died of an infection contracted after an operation to remove a brain tumour.
His political party the EPRDF have won all elections held since Ethiopia became a republic. But since august of this year protest against the government have become more vocal and violent. On 5 August 2016 protests broke out across the country and dozens of protesters were subsequently shot and killed by police. The protesters demanded an end to human rights abuses, the release of political prisoners, a fairer redistribution of the wealth generated by over a decade of economic growth, and a return of Wolqayt District to the Amhara Region. The events were the most violent crackdown against protesters in Sub-Saharan Africa since the Ethiopian regime killed at least 75 people during protests in the Oromia Region in November and December 2015. Following the protests, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency in October 2016.
Our first reaction was that this will make our plans so much more difficult and we might need to ship the truck from Mombasa to Rotterdam. However, all reports from fellow overlanders were that they had not been impacted negatively by the state of emergency. So with our visa for Ethiopia in hand we continued our initial route via Ethiopia to Sudan, leaving Africa by car ferry to Saudi Arabia and continue through the Middle East via Turkey to Europe.
It is, however, the country that we looked the least forward to of all because of the attitude of the people (from hear say). On the other hand we were really looking forward to our visit to the Danakil Depression; the hottest place on earth.
Border crossing and driving towards Addis Ababa
Moyale Border crossing
Early morning we left Henry’s camp in Marsabit and headed for Moyale. The road from Nairobi to Moyale was notoriously bad until a year ago. It used to be a dirt road and would take at least 12-15 hours to drive. Fortunately for us it was completely tarred till the border. Maybe less adventurous, but it saved us a lot of time. After 3 hours we arrived at the Kenyan border, where formalities were swift. We drove to the Ethiopian side of Moyale (the town is divided in the middle by the border of the two countries). Chaos on the other side…road and construction work…no sign posts…and officials without a proper attire or visible ID…but we found the immigration office quickly and 15 minutes later we were legally in Ethiopia...the next mission was to get the carnet stamped for the car. Luckily we found the coordinates for the customs building in the iOverlander app (otherwise not so easy to find…) and Wilfred went in to get the paperwork done. After two minutes he was back at the truck, complaining that the office was closed for lunch an would not open again till 20.00 (and it was now noon)!? Judith started laughing as Wilfred was unaware of the different time schedule in Ethiopia. Their day starts at 06.00 instead of 00.00, meaning that they would open again at 14.00. A little bit annoyed with this two hours delay, we went to a small hotel for some refreshments and waited until the customs officers were back from their lunch break. Wilfred went back inside and 30 minutes later the carnet was stamped and we got our temporary import permit for our electronic equipment.
Driving through the Rift valley and its crater lakes
Our first focus in Ethiopia was to get our visa for (Egypt and) Sudan. Indeed, we don’t want to travel to Egypt, but need this visa to get our 15-day transit visa for Sudan (as a regular tourist visa is extremely difficult to get and takes about three weeks).
After clearing the truck at customs it was 14.30 and we decided to drive another 200km north on the Nairobi-Addis Ababa highway following a very smooth tarmac road trough the hillside. Having read about the draught in Ethiopia, we were really surprised that after only 10 kilometres, the car got a proper shower and we found several water pools along the roadside had the rain arrived with us?
We arrived late afternoon and found a room for use of shower and toilet at a small guesthouse and slept in the truck at the parking (mainly cause our own bed is sooo much better than in any guesthouse or hotel).
The next morning we got up at 6.30 and were back on the road towards Addis at 7.00 with the expectation to reach the capital (550km away) late afternoon/early evening…oh boy, were we wrong!!! The highway turned into the most atrocious road we had ever driven with people walking on the road, deep potholes, dirt tracks for 180km and so much livestock (donkeys, camels, goat, ect.) on the road. Okay you right, to be totally honest the 60km from Moremi to Savuti in Botswana were worse! It took us 8,5 hours to drive 350km and decided to stay at Lake Langana, one of the crater lakes in the most Northern part of the Rift Valley. Our campsite had a lovely view over the lake, which we enjoyed whilst drinking a local beer.
Back on the road again at 7.00 we arrived in Addis at 11.00. So even with the last 90km on a perfect expressway that reminded us of the Route du Soleil in France it still took us 4 hours to drive the last 250km.
As March 2nd was a public holiday in Ethiopia (and all Embassies are closed) we went to the National Museum that has a nice palaeontology exhibit containing fossilised evidence of some amazing extinct creatures, like the massive sabre-toothed feline Homotherium and the gargantuan savannah pig Notochoerus. However, for us the stars of the exhibit are two remarkable casts of ‘Lucy’, a fossilised hominid (dated to about 3.2 million years ago) discovered in 1974. One lays prone with 40% of the bones recovered, while the other stands much like she did some 3.2 million years ago, truly hitting home how small our ancient ancestors were, as Lucy is only 1.10metre tall. ‘Lucy’ acquired her name from the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ by the Beatles, which was played loudly and repeatedly in the expedition camp all evening after the excavation team's first day of work on the recovery site.
After the museum, we went to Wim’s Holland House, a Dutch owned restaurant and small campsite for overlanders, close to the centre of town. We enjoyed a healthy lunch existing ‘patat met mayo’ with ‘bitterballen’ on the side.
Tomorrow we will go the Embassy of Egypt and make our way to Bale Mountains, where we hope to see an Ethiopian Wolf. We will be back in Addis next week to collect our visa's and pick up a friend from the airport, who will travel with us for two weeks in Ethiopia.