05/01/2017 Gondar, Ethiopia
We are finding Ethiopian life very different. The Ethiopians have not only their own languages but also their own Alphabet, Calendar and Time systems. This makes it interesting when trying to answer where we are going next and how long we have been here!
So for instance the phase “Welcome to Ethiopia” would appear in Amharic Dialect as
“ እኔ ወደ ኢትዮጵያ”
The pronunciation is completely beyond me as there are several “Glottal Sounds” and clicks that I cannot reproduce.
According to the Ethiopian calendar (Pre Julian) I am still only 43 – so I can live with that.
The time starts at 6 AM as Zero, at 7 AM it would be 1, at 11 AM it would be 5 and so on until 18:00 (6 PM) where it starts as 0 again, 19:00 is 1 pm etc. Luckily we dont need to catch busses.
After the noting the contrast between certain Egyptian hustlers (We also met many, many lovely Egyptian people but unfortunately the few can taint the memory of the many) & the Polite, respectful Sudanese we wondered what we would find in Ethiopia. Our first impressions of the border Customs/Immigration process was very positive. The offices did not close for lunch & although we were behind a Tour group on motorbikes (who were a friendly group of Aussies and Americans) which took a while to process. The wait was nothing compared to Egypt or Sudan. The customs official started by apologising for the delay & was efficient in getting Cobar and all of our stuff through. As we drove from the border post we were mindful of dire warnings about suicidal animals and kids along the roads and also of some stone throwing individuals who don’t appreciate travellers (After 2 weeks of driving through rural Ethiopia we have yet to meet any of them… apart from one suicidal donkey)!
The actuality was people calling out hello and waving in a friendly stone-free manner.
Then we arrived in Gondar.
There is a particular type of individual who makes his living out of “helping”tourists. Naturally all negotiations will include his commission and he may well ask for a tip afterwards. He will show you the “best” restuarants and then eat with you at your expense. he can arrange a local SIM card for you but it will cost 100 Birr for the card, another 30 Birr to get it cut down to fit a smartphone and even then it still wont work as it hasnt been registered yet that would cost even more – the quotes ranging up to 650 Birr (although he could negotiate on your behalf). I wised up before getting completely fleeced and pulled out of the whole debacle without a working SIM. I later learnt that the only telecom provider is govt. owned and they charge just 15 Birr !! These individuals are usually charming and buttonhole you when you first arrive tired and your guard is down. They then ‘camp outside’ your hotel and latch on every time you emerge from your room. For this reason they are known as “Sticky Boys”. Ours was known as Mohammed and whilst consuming the beers I had purchased for him & his friends took the trouble to tell me how hard life is in Ethiopia and how he had struggled during the revolution etc. In return I told him how hard my life had been when I lost my marraige, my child, and my house but told him to be positive and keep believing that things will get better. It appears that he didnt want advice, he wanted a sponsor – unlucky Mohammed!
There are those in Ethiopia who struggle daily against poverty but the sticky boys arent amongst them. As we will encounter many more of them I have decided to make them an entertainment. When someone stands in front of me and says “where you go” I try to come up with the least useful response possible. A typical conversation may go like this:
“Hey, Hey! Where you go?”
“Me? I go here”
“No where you go”
“Yess, yess I go here. Where you go?”
“I can help you. I know where to go”
“Oh jolly good, well off you go then”
By this point most will have given up.
8/02/2017 Gorgora, Ethiopia
Having had our early favourable impressions challenged in Gondar we were only too glad to move on. We travelled South to a campsite next to Lake Tana Called ‘Tim & Kim Village’. This oasis of calm is just what we needed to recover from our recent experiences. Run by Kim (originally from the Nederlands) and her Ethiopian husband Mabrato. This is a site of over 3 hectares of trees and grass that provide a draw for many birds and other wildlife. The toilets are kept spotless and the 2 pet dogs were very welcoming and became firm friends during our stay.
They even joined us on a day walk in the surrounding countryside and although we couldn’t match their pace they would wait for us every time they found a shady tree and then welcome us into the shade. Kim was delightful company and has trained her staff to cook delicious meals. She also trained them to speak clear English. The site is set up to help the local population offering them employment and training in the Tourist Industry. The profits are also used to finance projects that benefit the locals.
This little slice of Eden can be found at:
Tim & Kim Village
Tel: +251 (0) 920336671
GPS: N12 13.740 E37 17.930
10/02/2017 Chenek Camp 12,000 ft
As I write this it feels as if a steel band is being tightened around my head.
We managed to tear ourselves away from Tim & Kim Village (not easy as we could have happily settled there but we are still Overlanders) and feeling refreshed, drove North again through Gondar.
After a wild camp enroute we arrived in Debark and found the National park office for the Simian Mountains NP. Fending off many offers to arrange a whole trip for us (this usually involves up to 7 days trekking, Donkeys to carry your food and camp gear, guides, Donkey drivers, etc etc) for about $600 – only a little of which goes to the park. We went straight into the main office and were recieved with polite attention. we explained that we couldn’t afford a week long hike or camping gear hire and wanted to drive our self-contained 4×4 camper up into the mountains, make camp and do day hikes from there. No problem they said. An armed National Park Scout is mandatory but the rest is just permit costs. 2x Adults, 1x 4×4 vehicle, 2x nights camping. The total came to the princely sum of $85.
Our scout was about my age (I think) and as he didnt speak English (and I dont speak Amharic) Introduced himself as ‘Scout‘ I tried to ask his name again but he wisely stuck to Scout. We squeezed him into the purpose built seat in Cobar and set off for the mountains.
The ‘Road’ from Debark is steep, broken and winds its way ever upwards into what the Welsh Author & Adventurer C.W.Nicol called “The Roof of Africa”. C.W.Nicol was the main person responsible for the creation of the National Park & Game reserve that is now the ‘Simian Mountains National Park’. His adventures are legendary, we determined to have a few of our own. As we climbed with The Cobar mostly in ‘Low Box’ Second or Third (roughly just below normal First) we watched the huge Lammergeyer soar overhead – that seemed preferable to to looking down the 1KM drops to one side of the track! We ground steadily all the way up to Chennek, the highest camp, at 12,000 ft. with both Cobar and I feeling the altitude.Onroute we stopped to watch Gelada Baboons feeding at the side of the road and Scout indicated that it was OK to leave the car. We got out and I started photographing the baboons at close range. Some of them turned away so I moved very slowly along the road to where their grazing path would take them. I started to film them coming towards me. I crouched low imitating their grazing and the whole troop big males, females & their babies flowed past me like a river around a rock.The camera beeped and clicked but most of the Gelada ignored the sound and just stared at me the foreigner in their group. I have never been in the centre of 50 -60 baboons before but these were not tainted by human feeding and posed no real threat – in fact Gelada are the only baboons that eat purely grass. I will treasure those photos for life.
Some parts of the road dipped downhill briefly before climbing back up and it was at the top of one of theses places that I stopped to allow a supply truck an unobstructed run up the slope. With the Cobar squeezed as close to the broken edge as I dared, I had to look down the tumbling mountainside. I am so glad I did as a movement caught my eye and I realised that I was seeing one of the incredibly rare Ethiopian Wolves (approx 250 pairs left in existance) about 300 meters below. I hissed at Sally to pass the camera NOW and managed to fire off a couple of shots before it dissapeared. Sadly we only had the short lens fitted so I now have some photos of beautiful mountainside with a tiny dot in the middle that is the incredibly rare Ethiopian Wolf – honest!
Our arrival at Chennek created some interest for the people that live at the camp. We must have seemed like visiting Spacemen with previously unimagined kit. We created quite a stir when we set up our ground tent for Scout. He posed very proudly in front of the tent for photographs. These are very hardy mountain dwellers and accustomed to sleeping rough with just a blanket that serves as overcoat, rucksack & bedding. For our Scout the tent was 5-star accomodation, he was also impressed that it allowed him to fulfill his brief to watch the clients at all times – including all night long. He actually sat up in the vestibule with his AK47 facing our vehicle all night. Having created a stir with a ground tent you can imagine the reaction when we extended our rooftent. That afternoon a trekking group arrived at camp and we met a couple from the Yukon, Joanne and Mikin (Jiri) who were also impressed with our camp set up. Later that evening people were peering at a rare Walia Ibex on a distant mountainside and we shared our binoculars around although it was too far for our camera. Scout took us on a walk around the Ibex haunts but we were too slow and suffering too much from the altitude (our own fault for driving straight up to 12,000 ft in one hit) to cover much ground so did not see any.
The following morning I joked with Mikin about getting up in the night to visit the restroom and having to say Hi to Scout who was still watching our tent. Mikin explained that they were in the tin bungalows and, although the beds were comfortable they also had steel doorframes with ill fitting tin doors. This meant that if anyone got up in the night it woke the whole room – Hi everybody!
Other groups had started off early to ‘hunt’ for the Walia Ibex these are a prized sighting & the emblem of the park as there are estimated to be only about 500 of them left. Sally and I , still aclimatising, had started to make coffee and prepare breakfast when a guide shouted to Scout ‘Walia, Walia’! Scout pointed towards the man and said Go! I ran towards the spotter who started to give hand signals to move us on a curved path towards him. As I got within 10m he put up a hand to stop, I froze on the spot. His hand made a sideways pointing gesture towards a slight rise on my left. There were Gelada grazing through so I once again dropped to a crouch and they moved past me giving cover unconcerned. I slowly raised my head to look in the direction the spotter had indicated and saw directly ahead the horns of a male Walia Ibex cresting the rise about 7m in front. He was coming slowly straight at me. Hardly daring to breathe, I slowly raised the binoculars (wishing they were the camera as the short lens would have been perfect for this range) to gaze directly into the eyes of this elusive beast.
The Ibex, although slightly surprised to see me there assumed I must be a misshapen Baboon (how well these animals judge me) and moved around me. I heard the camera clicking away behind me and for a moment selfishly hoped Sally would have me in shot, this close to such a shy, beautiful creature (Eat your heart out David Attenborough). Then I remembered it was not about me but about the wildlife and hoped instead that she was zoomed in tight to capture the breathtaking beauty of this endangered species. What an amazing encounter before breakfast. I sincerely hope the other groups got to see some Walia as well.
We returned to camp to pack up hurriedly and moved off, still uphill. This was not easy going but Scout was patient and allowed us to go at our own pace – dead slow with breaks. I was feeling a little better this morning as the previous evening I had suffered tingling lips, bloated hands, pinpricks of light in my eyes and a headache like a steel band around my head. This time the altitude was affecting Sally. My wife is not one to give up however and she was determined to reach the high pass today. I was carrying the large rucksack mostly full of water, waterproofs and binoculars, so Scout gently took Sally’s daysack with the camera to ease her load. After enduring Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy Sally was left with only 70% of her original lung capacity but of course the reason she is still with us after cancer is determination. Sally is not one to allow other people to place limits on her life & will acheive despite the odds. During one of our frequent rests Scout got very excited and pointed into the river valley below us. Three Ethiopian Wolves were making their way up the slope opposite us.
The Ethiopian Wolf looks very like a large Red Fox and is about the size of a Coyote. There are estimated to be only about 250 pairs remaining on the planet. Here we were looking at 3 of them approximately 30m away! We collapsed gratefully into the cover of the bushes and watched them with a sense of priveledge. Two were playing chase and scampered up the grassy bank into the sloped meadow beyond.The Third seemed to be tugging at something below it. Despite nearly falling head-over-heels it kept shifting its footing and yanking with its teeth. Eventually it applied its intelligence over the laws of physics and moved below its burden. The wolf sank its teeth in again and flipped the load across its shoulders. Now it could climb the slope normally with the load across its back -smart. As it moved upwards I could make out that the load was a carcass, and judging from the white leg with black shin pads it was once a Walia Ibex. Nature is brutally without favourites. Presently a mountain local strode down the path and the Wolves noticed us and moved away into thicker cover. Two amazing encounters in one day!
As we crested 13,500 ft I was struggling. Not just with the altitude but also with convincing Sally to turn back. As I urged her to make discretion the better part of valour Scout suddenly shot up the slope calling us to follow quickly. Sally thrust the camera at me and said breathlessly “Get some good shots”. I managed to pump my legs up to the cliff edge and sank down dizzily. Scout pointed across a short gap in the cliff and there before us were Walia Ibex. Two large males and Two females. Now after our breakfast excitement we had forgotten to pack the long lens again, a fact that had become only too apparent when trying to photograph the Wolves. This meant thatI could take landscape pictures but detailed animal shots were unlikely. I clicked away cursing my ommission. Armed with the short lens – and feeling so close to the Ibex I crept forwards. Scout hissed at me and grabbed my pack to stop me going closer. I had to make do with panoramic shots of the cliffs with some Ibex-shaped dots in the middle. Fair enough, its their home not mine.
By now Sally had climbed to join us and got to see the Walia there were now about Eleven of them making their way down the impossibly steep cliffs. Quite a sight – I wish I could climb that well. Sally was visibly suffering now so we agreed that descent was the best option and we started down. Every step brought us more oxygen and it is always easier to work with gravity rather than against it. Some 10m below us was the mountain service road over the pass. There had been a lorry broken down on it for some days. The lorry was being guarded by some local lads who were camped out at 13,000 ft without tents. They saw Sally’s condition and came up the slope to assist Sally down. Scout called to them to start a fire (there is a lot of shed palm husk in this area) he also produced from under his blanket a large metal bowl ful of Enjeera (a sort of sourdough pancake) with chillies. We all ended up sat around a campfire sharing fresh Grapefruit, Chocolate Eclair sweets & Chillie Enjeera until Sally felt a little better.
Whilst we ate the lads were fascinated with our binoculars so we let them view their familiar landscape 10x closer. One of the lads had obviously never seen anything like it and joked with his mates about the image being out of focus. His mate showed him the focus knob and said a sentence containing the word ‘Microscope’. I took the binoculars, turned them around the wrong way and handed them back joking that this was more like a microscope with very tiny things in the image. This caused a whole new streamof hilarity with all the lads looking at each other ‘So far away’through the back-to-front binoculars, until Scout said something cautionary and the first lad made an exagerated show of putting on the neck strap and walking carefully back to me to hand over the binoculars with great reverance. Although I would not have wanted them broken, I was very happy to see the amount of pleasure they had generated for 15 minutes. Its these sorts of interactions that make this trip.
12/02/2017 Simian Mountains
We drove Scout all the way back down to Debark. On the way we stopped for a short hike (revelling in the copious amounts of Oxygen available) where he proudly pointed out his village 4-5000ft below. He had been taking regular calls on an old mobile during our trip which we guessed were from his family. We suspected that he spends many days away from his family and the mobile was his only link to home. I guess we know how that feels!
So when his ‘phone ran out of charge he was delighted that we were able to recharge it from our onboard mains inverter. He will probably go straight off on another trek without much downtime. At least ours was chauffer driven & not 7 days of hiking – not that it would bring him out in a sweat anyway. We wrote him a glowing reference and handed it into the park authorities which also delighted him. He insisted on exchanging mobile numbers (although how useful that will be if his SIM doesn’t allow International calls and we don’t share a common language I dont know). At any rate he was a really sweet guy who displayed a serious professionalism along with a genuine concern for both his clients and the animals in his care. He also showed a real appreciation of any little kindness we showed him and he is a credit to his people. I feel that C.W.Nicol would have approved.
His name? Aaah yes, er… I think it was something like: Tusfulagesa
18/02/2017 Lalibela, Ethiopia
My earlier post about the Sticky Boys of Gonder has generated some interest and I feel it necesary to apply some balance in my writing. There are indeed some in Ethiopia who view western tourists as an easy target that does not command respect. we are to be milked like a cash cow and acts of generosity are seen as riscible weakness, but thankfully they form a noticeable minority. There are of course many decent people in Ethiopia. Some are educated and have visited or lived in The West but many have not. One such individual was Desale Mamo.
We met Desale when we visited the alternate Museum in Lalibela – The Lalibela Cultural Centre. There is also an official museum next to the ticket office for the Rock-hewn churches (see another post about their magnificence) in the compound on the other side of town. According to our Bradt guide that museum is a little chaotic and could do with some additional curation. To quote from the Bradt Ethiopia site:
“The Lalibela Cultural Centre, across from the Lal Hotel and beside the Tukul Village, is a fascinating and well-presented exhibition, outlining the development and aspects of the church complex. It also has a terrific exhibition of sacred and ethnographic material, much better exhibited than the ‘official’ church museum in the compound.”
We were fortunate to have the alternate museum to ourselves. The staff opened it specially for us and Desale oversaw the payment of the correct fee (30 Birr) and the issue of the reciept. He then led us upstairs, explained the museum was in Two halves, the first about the churches and the second about the people and culture, and suggested a direction to view the exhibits. He offered his services to answer any questions and – gasp – left us alone to enjoy. As we wandered and read the texts, if we paused longer at any exhibit he would politly offer additional insight into its context. Then he would back off and leave us to view again. As we engaged further with him and his encyclopediac knowledge we felt the first signs of friendship. By the time we moved from the church exhibits to the Cultural ones he was accompanying us around giving constand insights. During this time he was also apologising as his mobile phone kept ringing. he explained that his friends were calling him to lunch but he stayed with us until we had finished. He wished us well and bid us goodbye. I made sure he had the means to grab a taxi to the otherside of town to make lunch with his friends.
The following day as we were wearily returning from our ‘last church’ we bumped into him on the return to downtown Lalibela. As we walked together he told us his story. He had been born into a simple farming family and started life herding goats just like the rest of his village. Thanks to Ethiopias forward-looking policy of ensuring education for all Junior pupils (we have indeed seen many schools here and loads of pupils walking to and fro school in every village) he had learned some English and showed his potential. By his own efforts he had then managed to progress all the way to University where he wrote his dissertation on “Conflict resolution between the Amharic and Oromic peoples.” Now he was finishing his initial year working in the Tourist trade before hopefully going on to qualify as an Official Guide which would enable him to earn some decent wages. We bid him farewell outside our hotel where he told us he felt a bond and was our ‘Ethiopian son’. We wished him success with his plans for the future and I gave him one of my Shirts (which may possibly have doubled his total) not because he asked but because I felt he deserved it.
I am going to stick my neck out here and pen a few thoughts about low-impact tourism and aid.
It would be easy to travel through any African country and see need. The Knee-Jerk response is to give what ever you have to hand to temporarily alleviate that need. We have seen the downside of this behaviour. Whole villages of kids whose only English consists of “You, You, You give me a Chocolate/Money/Pen. I would suggest that acceeding to such demands on the spot can be counter-productive. Many of these villages dont have access to dental healthcare so sweets will generate poor dental condition. Giving out money to youngsters (who dont have bills to pay) may foster a culture of dependancy (The “Why work to succeed when someone else will provide” mentality so often seen in countries – including Britain). Even the humble pen can cause issues. Its place is in school where there is paper to write on. Biros dont write on dusty surfaces such as those in rural villages, a pen that doesnt write gets discarded on the ground and then livestock can ingest it. Thoughtful donations made in the right place are a different matter.
Now first let me make it clear that I acknowledge the excellent work done by the Agency USAID. They fight poverty in many countries around the world. A wealthy nation acknowledging its good fortune and striving to foster sustainable development and advance human dignity globally. To quote from their mission statement & values:
“USAID’s efforts directly enhance American—and global—security and prosperity. The United States is safer and stronger when fewer people face destitution, when our trading partners are flourishing, when nations around the world can withstand crisis, and when societies are freer, more democratic, and more inclusive, protecting the basic rights and human dignity of all citizens. By focusing on these two goals, together, we position ourselves to meet the challenges of today while mitigating the risks of tomorrow.”
That is fine with me, but here is my observation: I have travelled thro’ villages emblazoned with signage proclaiming the local projects carried out thanks to European and/or US funding (the same observation applies to both but the USAID is easier to identify as a single body). It is only in these villages that I expect, to be beseiged by kids demanding gifts of candy or money or, to see locals dropping whatever they are doing to stand with their hand out in a begging posture. There seems to be a direct corrolation between the involvement of westerners and the dependancy expectations of the local populace. I am not saying dont run Aid projects – just the contrary. However I am wondering whether the Aid Agency Staff need further guidance on how to continue making a positive impact (sanitation, education, land stabilisation etc) without inadvertantly creating a negative one (distributing random gifts for no specific reward). I suspect many will disagree with me so I say travel here and see if you feel the same.
Ethiopia – Summing Up
Although I am very tired leaving Ethiopia, it has been a country that has really opened my eyes. Before arriving here I really had no idea what kind of place I could expect to find. I had subjected my pupils to my National Geographic video on Hadar, the Afar People, the paleolithic rock paintings and the discovery of the “Lucy” skull to get them interested in Evolution and my trek leader in Nepal had told me about taking trekking groups to Ethiopia. I watched the Planet Earth video which featured the Geladas and Walias of the Simien Mountains and the Danakil Depression. As with most visual material you do not really take in what you are seeing until you experience it yourself and so it was with Ethiopia.
We’ve spent 6 weeks in Ethiopia and experienced all kinds of terrains, regions and peoples. Ethiopia is an immense medley. You find a lot of roads that traverse altitude without even a comment on how high you are. One dirt road we traversed North of Lalibela had a dizzying array of altitudes – one moment you were at 5,000 feet, the next 12,000 feet. The roads were astonishing, views around every hair-pin bend that fill the mind with a dizzying sense of beauty. The Simien Mountains with their volcanic heritage jut upwards and fill the horizon with sheer cliff faces and distinctive peaks. On the other side of the country the Bale Mountains offer similar altitudes but this time with an ericaceous flora which seems quite akin to the Brecon Beacons where I hale from.
Many animals are unique to Ethiopia, endemic, I was finding more by the moment. The Walia Ibex, the Gelada and Bale Monkeys, the Ethiopian Wolf, the Wattled Ibis and the Ethiopian Boubou (I kid you not)! I could well understand birders making special tours of the country since there are so many birds here it is impossible to see elsewhere on the planet. As a keen observer of the natural world, there was always something cropping up, some bird, mammal, flower or tree which grabbed your attention. It is a land teaming with life. No campsite we stayed on was silent for long, filling as it did with the calls of the night – birds, the whoop of hyenas and even the splash of crocodiles in Awash National Park.
It is a place where special encounters often crop up. The Agu Edu hyena cave at dusk spilling out its residents who had slept away the day, the hot springs of Filwoha, where you can swim and bathe in the clear blue water and watch the camels amass as their herders bring them in for watering, the giant Forest Hog in Menegasha running into the undergrowth with his circle-shaped tusks, the Ethiopian wolves near the Web River coming back in playful mood from their successful morning hunting foray. All such pristine, clear memories. All making me feel that I have to visit again because I have only touched the surface.