Installment 6 – Ethiopia part1 – Ch Ch Ch Channnnges!

Route: Metama-Gonder-SimienMountains-Axum-Hawzien-Mekele-Lalibella-Addis

Ben – A quick note to finish our Sudan tales…..  We did take a little (400km ish) excursion to Kassala on our way out of Sudan, we’d read it was in the foothills of the mountains, and wondered if we might find a small part of Northern Sudan that didn’t feel like a dusty dessert, we didn’t!  We found a town not dissimilar to some others, but next to some huge dry looking granite cliffs.  The people were very friendly, and we spent most of the afternoon sat at the old mud brick mosque with a proud local man and all the female members of his family (all the men were busy working it seemed).  He insisted we have the traditional 3 cups of strong Sudanesse coffee, and tried to get 3 of his wives homemade donuts down us too, they were a lovely family and seemed to find us very funny indeed.

We left them to enjoy their lazy family afternoon and spent ages trying to find somewhere to stay, it seemed that post-Eid festival (as it was) many Sudanese marry and head off on Honeymoon to Kassala, leaving only the grottiest of visitor beds to weary overlanders.  We had to park the Disco in the street which I hate, but we were opposite a kind of bank, and I asked the man with a gun sat outside it (guarding it, not planning to raid it) if he’d watch our car overnight for a few Sudanese pounds, he did, and in the morning I gave him 30, he gave me 10 back saying it was too much, and we headed on our way, this would be the last time someone would refuse cash for a long time

ETHIOPIA – What a change, we’d heard that EVERYTHING changes as you cross the border, and it really does:

–          The long empty dessert roads containing us and speeding local buses instantly became us, the pedestrian masses of the countryside constantly on the move, and a never ending farm yard of cows, donkeys, sheep, goats, camels and an occasional pig, in never ending twisting mountain roads.  It was slow going.

Jen –After a few weeks we’ve become accustomed to the kamikaze donkeys and sheep that like to scare the s&*% out of you as they suddenly change direction at the last second as you’re driving past

–          The Mountains dropped the temp from 45C at the border to about 25C in half an hour or so, we had to stop and find fleeces and socks.  Then it started to poor with rain!

–          Islam become Christianity

–          The Sudanese greeting of “Hello, welcome to Sudan” became endless kids (and some adults) screaming

  • “Money” or “Money Money Money” or “Give me money” or
  • “Pen” or “Pen Pen Pen” or “Give me pen” or
  • “You” or “You You You” or
  • “Faranjie”  (Foreigner) or
  • (my favourite) “Give me”

That said, it’s friendly shouting, not menacing or desperate. I guess it’s just been so many years that Faranjie has turned up with aid here, that the association is simply a white face brings gifts (I cant work out why its so much worse her than in other similarly aid dependent places though).

Jen: We’re also now in the habit of surveying every last bit of the road before pulling up to try and avoid a gaggle of locals surrounding our vehicle asking for things or trying to sell us their local crafts and produce, this can prove quite tricky in such a densely populated country. We had one amusing moment on our drive down to Addis, we passed some hat sellers at a bend in the road, drove what we thought was sufficiently far enough before Ben stopped for a call of nature. From the second we stopped we could see the hat sellers literally sprinting the 6-800 metres down the road to meet us, they managed to greet Ben (still mid way through his call of nature) and offer to sell him hats and oregano. It was quite funny watching as he politely refused saying he was “a bit busy” and therefore not interested in any oregano

Most of where we’ve been in Ethiopia in the 3 weeks since has been 2000 to 4000m above sea level, so cool and in places really cold at night.  From the Border we headed for the town of Gonder for our first fix of Ethiopia’s many unique Churches and sites & a well earned beer (Sudan is completely alcohol free).  Christianity came to Ethiopia in about 400AD and has developed in its own colourful way.  During the time we spent in Lallibella (Ethiopia’s no 1 tourist attraction) we were lucky enough to see a fairly major service in one of the ancient churches cut into the rock.  The huge drums, glittering ceremonial umbrellas & clergy outfits are so different to anything I’d seen in a church before, and the endless chanting reminded me of Tibet, not home at all.  It was a fantastic hour or so.

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibella take a bit of effort to navigate, there are 11 of them in 3 clusters, linked with steps walkways and in one area a series of tunnels.  Navigating this was nothing on our earlier adventure, a bit off the beaten-track near a town called Hawzien.  We climbed to the cliff top church of Abuna Yemata Guh, and I mean climbed, it was an hour of scrambling over rocks and at times clinging to the rock face to reach the tiny church, but the view from the top, and the paintings inside took our breath away.

Jen: As Ben put it – in any other place this would be called rock climbing as we scrambled up near vertical cliffs with some self appointed local guides enthusiastically showing us where to put “left hand”, “right hand” before grabbing my bum to give me some extra support, that said the view from the top was amazing, the vertical drops off the ledges only slightly worrying – hopefully the picture below gives you enough of an idea.


From Gonder we headed north to Debark and organised a couple of days trekking in the Simien mountains.  We collected our scout (man with gun to show you the way, you’re not allowed in the park without one!) and drove to a camp called Sankabar, on the edge of the national park.  We camped there for a night with some other walkers and climbers, and managed to make it till about 8pm before the cold drove us to our thermals, sleeping bags and tent.  Then in the next 2 days we walked to a very basic but recommended “lodge” (hut) at Gich, before heading up to the highest point of our walk (just shy of 4000m), the view-point at Imet Gogo  The view was astounding, between the flurrys of cloud that blew below the villages and rockscape looked beautiful.


From the Simiens the plan was to take the rough rough road to Axum, about 140km of dirt road / road under construction that twists its way up and down the edges of the Simens (as featured on the BBC Program the Worlds most Dangerous Roads). We ended up in the same Hotel as the Dragoman truck we’d seen back in Sudan the night before we were due to head this way (as were they), and sat together chatting, swigging some lovely Ethiopian beer, eating delicious Injera (Ethiopian food staple a bit like sour pancakes serves with spicy meat if you’re lucky), and listening to the rain hammer down and the electrical generator in full flow.  In the morning the building site that was the main road outside the hotel was a river.  We watched buses wading through and getting stuck, but 4x4s racing through seemingly being OK.  After deliberation we decided to just head out and see how it was, we agreed to text news of road conditions to the Drago team, as they weren’t so sure having seen the bus fiasco.  As it happened the muddy mess cleared up not far from town, and we were just left with rough road and stunning views that greets travellers along this route most days.  After a few hours a load banging let us know a rear shock absorber mount had sheared, so the shock came off and we carried on more carefully to Axum where a lovely bloke welded it back up for us (that bracket ain’t coming off again, but its not a pretty job!!).

Axum was great, we loved it there not really because of the religious sites but more the laid back atmosphere in the town with minimal faranji hassle.  We treated ourselves to a room in nice little Pension, and enjoyed the chilled-out nature of the place, a couple of interesting markets, and a nice temperature.  It has some interesting sites, most notable, The Stelae Fields, a collection of stone columns built by various Axumite kings.  It’s church is also said to contain the original Ark of the Covenant, but given that only 2 “outsiders” have ever been allowed to see it, its hard to know the truth of the matter.

Jen: From Lalibella we headed South towards Addis, stopping off at Lake Hayk (a camping spot recommended by a fellow overlander) where the views and birdlife were meant to be stunning. On arriving it wasn’t quite what we expected (but then it never is, is it). The views were indeed stunning but the sound system the 2 competing lodges had set up made it all a little strange.  There were also quite a lot of well off Ethiopians all dressed up in suits, and a couple with mortar boards who splashed around in the lake before insisting their reluctant 2 year old daughter had her photo taken with the faranjis which led to a few tears.

On arriving in Addis we headed for Wims Holland House, a little overland retreat near the centre of Addis. Wim welcomed us and said “you are in Holland now” before we enjoyed a treat of a lovely meal which was totally injerra free. It also gave us chance to chat away to a lovely Dutch couple. They were upping sticks from their home in the Netherlands and had bought a beachside lodge in Mozambique to set up a new life, complete with two small children. They had clearly done a lot of travelling before and it was inspiring to not only hear about their future plans but also details of how previously they had driven to Tibet in a Ford Transit van and also done a 16 month tour of the African continent with their 2 and 4 year old children.

Tomorrow we will head slowly South towards the Kenyan border with some mountain and lake stops on the way.

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One Response to

  1. Anonymous says:

    sounds fantastic cant waite to hit the road anf follow in your tracks some time next year

    The constant sound of give me give me sound familiar but in Malawi it is usualy give me Dollar.

    All the best Ian

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