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.