Kate Turkington journeys through Ethiopia and falls in love with the biblical landscape that reveals hidden treasures around every corner.
Imagine rocky canyons, sharp escarpments and towering mountains stretching into infinity. Imagine a lake so big that you can sail across it for days. Imagine tiny, centuries-old monasteries on secret islands, where no woman has put foot for hundreds of years. Imagine glowing, brilliantly coloured medieval frescoes on ancient church walls, depicting saints, sinners, sloe-eyed angels, complacent Madonnas, pious prelates and screaming peasants being dragged off to hell by black demons. Imagine a rest house, once the former haunt of decadent fascist Italian generals, with elegant wrought-iron garden chairs and flowering plants in shaggy profusion, which later became a communist HQ complete with a 70s brown velveteen lounge suite and plastic flowers, where the waitress is called Revolution.
Imagine a 17th-Century Royal Enclosure with a 32m-high rose-red castle with turrets, towers and ramparts. Imagine churches, one as big as an Egyptian temple, buried deep beneath the earth’s surface, hewn out of a single rock. Imagine a country where time has stood still since its mighty queen gave birth to King Solomon’s son, and founded a royal dynasty. Imagine deep valleys, black folded rocks like frozen glaciers dipping to the valley floor. Imagine a tiny hominid, called Lucy, our common ancestor, who roamed this place 3.3-million years ago. Welcome to Ethiopia…
If your image of Ethiopia is harsh desert, desolation, famine and starving children, think again. Ethiopia is a land of giddy contrasts such as I’ve found almost nowhere else on Earth. Yes, there is desert, but it’s much more a land of water and mountains – the Ethiopian Highlands supply over 80% of the water in the Nile Basin, and in the Semien Mountains there are consistently dramatic, spectacular scenery, unique botanical phenomena and some of the rarest animals in the world.
My journey begins in Addis Ababa, which, at 2 400m, is the third-highest capital city in the world. The thin air catches my breath as my travelling companion Carel and I meet Daniel, our Amharic guide, a former history teacher, and his brother, Mr Fix-It Midexa, who will be our driver, cook, and general factotum. We set off northwards on the long road to Bahir Dar on the banks of Lake Tana, where the Blue Nile rises before snaking its way to join the White Nile at Khartoum in neighbouring Sudan. The weather is temperate, lovely, like a European spring day, as we drive through scenery reminiscent of the Free State, with flat, wide fields of grain stretching to the horizon.
There’s a never-ending train of roadside animals – donkeys, mules, traditionally garbed riders on horses with embroidered saddles, sheep, and goats. The road climbs up and down and through the awesomely spectacular Blue Nile Gorge, often likened to America’s Grand Canyon, and over an elegant bridge built by the Italians in 1948, when Ethiopia was still called Abyssinia.
As we walk round the vibey little town of Bahir Dar that night, people keep asking us the time, shouting with laughter at our replies, because Ethiopia has a 12-hour clock, and what is 8pm to us is only 4pm to them. And we find out that it’s only 1999 because the Julian calendar of 13 months is used. So, if you missed out on the turn of the millennium, you’ll get a second chance when the century turns in Ethiopia this coming September 11.
At dinner that night, we find out that you certainly don’t go to Ethiopia for a gastronomic experience. The standard food is injera, a large pancake made of tef that looks and tastes like thin foam rubber. Interestingly enough, tef is one of the most nutritious grains in the world. Unique to Ethiopia, it’s full of iron, calcium and fibre-rich bran and comprises mostly protein and complex carbohydrates. I’m served my first injera with muddy bean sauce and smoked goat. It never got any better…. We spent the next day on Lake Tana cruising from one lake island to another, marvelling at the thatched roofed, round, tiny stone churches, built in the style of traditional huts. The 14th-Century Kidan Mehret is lovely, but even more so is the Church of Margo Selassie – a haven of peace and tranquillity. Young men in papyrus canoes watch us as we climb the hill up to the church. Standing on its steps is a serene, smiling old priest, with a lookalike monk by his side, who wafts his old cross over our heads in greeting.
He tells us we will be blessed because we ‘came from afar to visit our church’. ‘Will you go to heaven when you die?’ I ask him. ‘Only HE knows,’ the monk replies, pointing heavenwards, but with a certain air of confidence. Monks and priests have lived here for centuries, their way of life never changing. An aura of wood smoke and ancient sanctity pervades the interior, adorned with bright wall paintings of biblical scenes. St George is a hot favourite – his roguish image with flashing dark eyes riding a splendidly caparisoned white horse as he spears a rather anaemic looking dragon is to be found all over Ethiopia.
Ancient musty, once-glittery roof-length curtains are pulled aside to show us the paintings, and through the dancing dust motes we see – in almost comic book style – solemn angels with black eyes and curly black hair, purse-lipped saints, leering demons, bewildered looking lions and tigers, and calm-faced Madonnas. Stout wooden 12m-high doors groan and creak like a Gothic horror movie as the priest opens them to let light in to expose martyrs writhing on beds of flames, sinners in chains, stern patriarchs, more bible stories and a saint riding a distinctly grumpy lion.
Eastern grey plantain-eaters (like tarted-up grey louries) cackle and call as we walk down the steps back towards the jetty. The surrounding indigenous forest is full of birdsong. Carel and I debate questions of life and death, existence versus eternity, as we cruise the lake and the day slips away. It’s evening when we arrive at Gorgora, on the northern shore of the lake, and we still haven’t decided. Are the priests and monks cursed or blessed? They know nothing of the world save these tiny islands. Is it a spiritual idyll or a living hell? We finally agree that it’s all-relative, but certainly for those holy men it is fulfillment.
The night spent at Gorgora on the northern shore of Lake Tana is a highlight. We feel as if we are taking part in a Frederico Fellini movie. Our once-splendid lodgings are in a former Italian fascist villa (the Italians were here from 1936-1941) perched on the lakeshore with once beautiful gardens. Water laps around the verandah as mosquitoes whine and bite. It’s easy to picture the jackbooted, riding-breeched fascist general, cigar in mouth, stomping about this villa in its heyday, as his blonde mistress with finger curls and half-open silken kimono trails along behind him with a long cigarette holder between her ruby bow lips. But then the communists came and imprinted their particular brand of distinctive ugliness. A shoddy bedside table beside my creaking bed and its unspeakable mattress is labelled No.703 3/4/70.
When the Dergue – the communist regime that murdered Emperor Haile Selassie in the early 70s – came to power, they turned husband against wife, child against parent, and friend against friend. The notorious General Mengistu Neway (now living in luxury in Zimbabwe) had hundreds of thousands summarily shot, tortured and more thousands simply vanished. It doesn’t take much imagination in such an atmospheric place as this villa to imagine, first, the parties here in the 30s – the silk dresses, the Brilliantined hair, the jazz musicians, the smell of pasta and fine old brandy – to be followed years later by joyless party officials, ranting speeches, loudspeakers blaring propaganda and intermittent rifle shots. Our waitress’s name is Revolution, a grim reminder of a grim chapter of Ethiopia’s recent history.
These early experiences in our first few days underlined and reinforced the conclusion that most visitors come to – Ethiopia is totally uncategorisable. You think you’ve got a handle on the country and its people, and then something will happen that immediately defies your perceptions. On our way to Gondar – the Camelot of Africa – we stop and chat to peasants beside the road. Two men and their wives and babies have been visiting relatives in the next village for a few days and are now on their way home. The thin women, men and children (you never see a fat person in Ethiopia) are laden with baskets, silver jewellery and a woven straw ceremonial table, on which they’ve shared food with the in-laws. Family life is very strong, and there is little or no stealing, because, as Daniel explains, ‘If you steal, you are cast out of your family forever. And that is the worst punishment of all.’
In the Royal Compound at Gondar, you could be in Ireland, Scotland or any country where medieval castles are the norm. The main castle, built in 1632, is the quintessential castle of all romantic legends – here the Sleeping Beauty could have slumbered for 100 years, here Braveheart could have scaled the walls, and from the highest turrets, Rapunzel could have let down her long golden hair. There are no other castles to match Gondar in Africa – not one comes even close.
Another long, uncomfortable road journey – but it’s imperative to travel by road to capture the essence of Ethiopia – takes us up nearly 3 000m into the Semien Mountains, a World Heritage Site, where bearded vultures soar, giant St John’s wort (Hypericum revolutum) grows to a height of 4m, and there’s a forest of giant heath (Erica arborea). But by far the most spectacular plant that greets our eyes is the giant lobelia (Lobelia rhynchopetalum) with flower stalks up to 8m high.
The alpine tundra around us is strewn with carpets of wild flowers as the high altitude nips our lungs, and before the thick early morning mist swirls away to reveal peak upon sunlit peak, canyons and ravines, stretching as far as the eye can see, we see thick-coated ponies munching on the springy turf – this could be Lorna Doone country. Gelada baboons, unique to Ethiopia, with long golden silky manes and flowing golden tails ending in golden tufts, look for all the world like lions as they canter shrieking across the spongy mountain meadows.
But most visitors (and there are still only a handful compared to other better-known destinations) come to Ethiopia for the 12th-Century rock-hewn churches at Lalibela. If these incredible churches were anywhere else, they would be touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and for sheer spectacle and cultural significance they rank easily with Peru’s Machu Picchu or Egypt’s pyramids. All are carved, mostly out of single blocks of stone, and are sited below ground. Their roofs are at ground surface, and then you climb down tunnels and rocky passages to where their entrances stand 12m below ground. For over 800 years, these have been active Christian shrines with a continuum of priests and worshippers that has changed little over the centuries.
We attend an early morning service where people crouch, sit, prostrate themselves before holy icons, and pray, while a bank of lugubrious-looking priests chants monotonously from the Ethiopian version of the Bible as drums sound and ancient religious musical instruments tinkle. In numerous tiny holes in the walls of all the churches live little hermits and anchorites, who spend their lives here reading the Bible and praying. It’s an uncomfortable and bizarre sight, although the holy men themselves seem quite content, if a bit raddled, wizened, and understandably very bent and worn.
And then, for the most amazing experience of all – Hadar and the Great Rift Valley! I’m sitting on the rim of the Rift Valley at sunset. It all seems so familiar – the mountains, valleys, ridges, rocks, all touched by the setting sun. My overwhelming sensation is that I’m home – I have been here before. An ancestral gene is stirring in me… this is where our ancestors scrambled and the race for survival and dominance began. Doves call as doves always do, flat-topped acacias glint, a slight breeze swirls round my ears, yellow grasses sway. It’s a scene of amazing, unique beauty, the more amazing and beautiful because we know that this is where we began. Darkness falls as Daniel and Medixa make camp on the other side of the hill.
Suddenly the silence is broken by the sound of marching feet – slap, slap, slap against the rocks. The next moment 14 Afar tribesmen, with wild hair, stony implacable eyes, traditional robes, spears and Kalashnikovs, surround us. They take their rifles off their shoulders and clutch them purposefully. Carel and I sit immobile. I decide to try the inimitable irresistible Turkington smile at the one who seems to be the leader. Wrong. An even more implacable stare confronts me. And so we sit and they stand – face-off – until they finally decide to move off into the darkness. A very dramatic moment. “Lucky they weren’t Isas (warring Somali warriors),” hisses Daniel. “And a very good thing you sat still and didn’t panic.” Just another day in Africa…
The Best Way To Travel In Ethiopia
- Hire your own guide to tailor-make an itinerary for you, as Daniel Tesfaye at Praise Adventure Tour did for us. Contact 251-11 270 81 44/45 firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.
- Don’t leave without The Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs – it’s superb, compulsory reading, before, during and after your trip.
- Expect accommodation to be sometimes funky, often a bit bleak but always interesting. You’ll find out that cleanliness in Ethiopia doesn’t go hand in hand with godliness, and often there’s no or little running water.
- Take lots of biltong, trail mix and energy bars if goat and other local delicacies are not for you.
- Insect deterrent and Ethiopian money – birr – are a must. The beer is good, the roads are rough and the people are charming and friendly. But Ethiopia, although wonderful beyond belief, is definitely not for sissies.
Image by: Deposit Photos