Ethiopia … at last

Following on from my last blog, Ethiopia without a map One thing I learned pretty quickly about Ethiopia is that I’d underestimated it. Instead of the parched, desolate country I’d envisaged from heartbreaking TV footage of the 1980s famine, I arrived in the north to torrential rain, ear-splitting thunder-and-lightning storms, rich red and chocolate-brown mud, vibrant green landscapes and fields carpeted in beautifully fragile yellow daisies – the Meskel Abeba.

DSC_0032And, while I knew the Ethiopians had a lot to recommend them, I hadn’t expected them to be so kind and proud – or that I would miss their good humour when I left.

The really great news, however, was the discovery that I was now seven years younger because on 11 September they’d just celebrated the arrival of 2006. In fact, everything was topsy-turvy – the Ethiopian year has 13 months, of which 12 have 30 days and one has five, and as for their baffling time system – frankly, I gave up wrestling with it. I think it starts at dawn and runs for 12 hours until dusk, so when you get up in the morning it’s about 1o’clock … but don’t quote me on that.

This blog is a jumble of anecdotes and experiences…

The trek

With news of the Kenyan shopping mall massacre still fresh and Ethiopia’s proximity to sabre-rattling borders such as Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan, I was a tad concerned that we might disturb a cave full of Al-Shabab terrorists on our trek. I was reassured by the fact that Bereket – our chilled and knowledgeable guide, fixer and friend – looked at me as if I were utterly mad when I broached it.

Nevertheless, I discovered I wasn’t the only one who was apprehensive about this adventure. It seems all six of us had last-minute nerves, not helped by Lucie’s discovery that Australian citizens are advised to “reconsider” their need to travel. At Bahir Dar we poured over contour-lines on sketchy maps and tried to convince ourselves that it was possible to cross the Simien Mountains and pick up uncharted trails to the Tekeze Dam. None of the paths or villages were marked, but we were told we’d find local scouts en route who’d know the way.

Bereket seemed laid back about it all, so that was good enough for me. He works as a freelance guide and we’d found him via a contact in a safari company in Kenya… who had put is in touch with Red Jackal Tours in Addis… who had persuaded him to wander off the map with us. “Us” being Bertie, Douggie, Marina, Stathis, Lucie and me – a melting pot of architects, artists, scientists, Greeks, Germans and Brits – and we’re friends to boot.

DSC_0219You might well ask why we were doing it. No-one can quite remember. I think the plan came about initially because we wanted to avoid spending too much time in jeeps or driving close to the hazardous border zones. So, instead, of doing a predictable circuit in the Simien National Park, the idea was to walk from base camp at Chenek to Hambiqo, creep over Ras Dashen (Ethiopia’s highest mountain), leave the national park and trek to tiny settlements such as Mebruq, Telba Medir and then cross into Tigray, making the final push from the Avera River to the Tekeze Dam where we’d got security clearance for the 4x4s to pick us up and whisk us to hot showers in Gheralta. But nothing ever goes quite to plan…does it?

The trek begins – Arrived late in Chenek deep in the Simien Mountains, where we’ve hooked up with our mule train and local guide to start our trek tomorrow. It’s driving rain again and to get here the drivers of our two 4x4s performed the sort of hair-raising manoevers along treacherous mudslide precipices that you pay mega-bucks for at Mercedes World in Brooklands.

The bad news is that the tents, mattresses and sleeping bags are now soaked. The good news is that the park’s scouts have sweetly bunked up so that we can squeeze into their hut. Some of us are suffering the effects of the injera and local honey wine, and we’re not going to see running water for another six days, but morale is… fine. We huddle around a smoky fire and eat delicious vegetable soup and pasta washed down with ginger tea. Then, cocooned in gloves, scarves and thermals, I spend the first of many freezing nights counting the hours until dawn.

Day one – Chenek to Hambiqo (8 hours) – We’re high as kites. We’ve climbed to 3,600 metres, discovering giant lobelias, fields of red-hot pokers, lavender, oregano, aloe vera, mint, as well as soaring lammergeyers, whole cities of placid gelada baboons, a couple of rare walia ibex on a distant crag and the most breathtaking mountain scenery with whipped cream clouds. Child-shepherds wrapped in ragged blankets or sheepskins come out of nowhere, playing flutes, shaking hands and sometimes asking for empty water bottles to recycle. At the moment we’ve plenty to give them as we’ve each got to carry two litres a day.

As for the call of nature, Bertie’s thoughts of “going like a bear in the woods” were scuppered by the fact there were often no bushes, never mind woods.

We’re quite a band – there’s the six of us plus Bereket; then there’s our trusty national park guide; a craggy featured chap with a scarf wrapped round his head clutching an ancient-looking AK47 gun; a lively cook and his lad; and a baggage train of about six mules with their plastic-sandal-wearing muleteers. We feel slightly overdressed in our walking boots.

Day two Hambiqo to Matbar village (11 hours). The Bradt guidebook says there are wolves in these parts, which to me explains the blood-chilling howling all night. The guide and Mr AK47 dismissed them as wild dogs… either way, something was making an evil snorting sound on the other side of our tiny, flimsy tent.

Frankly, it was a relief to get up at 3.45am. Apparently, we had to start early to avoid the “strong sun” – although that never materialised. Clutching feeble torches and wearing as many clothes as possible, we began the freezing march up Ras Dashen, which at 4,533 metres is Ethiopia’s highest mountain. It was dark, cold, the terrain was tough and rocky and as the altitude increased my head ached and it became harder to breathe. My responses slowed, too – even simple things like zipping up my jacket were a problem.

While the über-fit Douggie strode ahead and bafflingly managed to sneak 40 winks in a cave, the rest of us toiled like snails up to the clouds, struggled with our personal demons and wondered aloud why the hell we were walking up a bleak, grey mountain in the middle of Ethiopia. It seems, altitude can make you emotional.

At about 11am, as I clutched feebly to a rock, while Stathis and Lucie nibbled some life-saving Kendal Mint Cake, our string of well-laden mules trotted past, with the muleteers wrapped in thin blankets running gamely alongside.

Half-an-hour later, we bumped into them again sheltering cheerfully under a cliff just out of the biting wind. It was lunchtime. Miraculously, the cook produced a pot of warmish pasta and vegetables, cooked at last night’s camp and we all cheered up a bit.

DSC_0281By now, we’d all bonded with the national park guide and grown fond of Mr AK47, who’d been using all manner of basic psychology to nudge us ever-upward. But, alarmingly, just as they’d morphed into twin Tenzing Norgays, they announced we were at the national park border, gave us the traditional Ethiopian shoulder-biff goodbye and swiftly disappeared back to Chenek.

The cook said he knew the trail for the next two days… so our lives were now in his hands. He also mentioned that he’d been “a military” during the war. As he set off at a running trot, we knew this trek was not going to get any easier.

After 11 gruelling, muscle-burning hours, we picked our way down a slope of magnificent giant lobelias and collapsed into our camp perched above one of the most dramatic, lush valleys I’ve ever seen. The agony of the day wiped away by the sheer beauty of Ethiopia and the fact we were now well off the beaten path.

BC cracked open his stash of Armagnac, Stathis broke into the nuclear-strength Ethiopian Araq and we partied until at least 8.30pm before collapsing onto our clammy mattresses.

We had to face reality, though. There’s no way we could keep walking 11 hours a day on this sort of terrain, so we’ll need at least one more day of trekking to get to the dam. This seems daunting.

The rest of the trek… We’ve all fallen totally in love with Ethiopia and its people. One of blessings of travelling rough rather than holidaying is that you get a chance to scrape the surface of a country and learn about yourself, too. Ethiopia is hardly set up for mainstream tourism, but we’re even more off-piste than most who venture here. Many children in the villages we’ve walked through haven’t seen white people before, but they aren’t afraid. They rub my pale skin. Everyone shakes hands. Priests walk by draped in white blankets, wearing tub-shaped hats and carrying crosses. We say salaam a hundred times a day. These incredible mountains and precipices are alive with farmers. On first glance you see nothing, and then as your eyes strain you see the thatched rooves of round wooden huts sitting at-one in the landscape.

Lots of things have gone well. We’ve unearthed a roll of Gaffa Tape to patch the holes in our tiny tents. This is good news because not only does it keep the rain out, but also the insects. One of our new scouts is a bit deaf and, as far as we can understand him, it’s because an insect crawled into his ear one night and burrowed rather deeply. I’m now using my earplugs.

None of us gets the same sleeping bag twice, but on a positive note this means we all get a chance to use the one without a zip – and I guess to share our fleas.

DSC_0278And there really is no running water anywhere so we haven’t washed at all, apart from wading across icy rivers in bare feet. Nevertheless, I’m getting used to the smell of us and wild herbs, earth and sweat. The only aroma that’s slightly difficult to deal with is the rancid butter that lots of women rub into their hair.

One of the villages we passed through came out in force, wanting us to give them medicine. One woman had weeping leprosy or possibly just impetigo on her chin. Lucie put eye drops into a child’s weeping eye and we gave the odd headache tablet away, but we’re conscious that it would be dangerous to leave them with supplies that they don’t know how to use.

Another guy had ringworm. Marina had some antifungal cream, but it had trotted past on one of our mules long ago and we wouldn’t see it again until evening. They guy was unperturbed. It took us another six hours to get to camp but he was already waiting for us – apparently he’d taken a short cut down a cliff face. He’d also delivered the bag full of eggs, unbroken, that we’d bought from a farmer. Then he turned round and went back to his village in the dark.

Talking of worms, on one of our many rambling talks, a guide told me the reason why Ethiopians eat raw lamb. Apparently, you get a certain type of worm that then eats all the other parasites, such as tape worm. Before it starts to feel at home you can take a local powder and whoosh – the new worm goes. Can’t find anything on the Internet about this, so not sure I’d recommend it.

Oh, and did you know that Ethiopia has 54 species of Acacia.  They are everywhere, like giant brooding umbrellas, some with the most beautiful yellow-scented fur-ball flowers.

The last days of the trek The catchphrase for Marina and Stathis has become “In Greece we also have this…” They say it in relation to Ethiopian landscape, religion, art and even architecture. It’s mystifying. Clearly, I need to see more of mainland Greece, as Ethiopia so-far bears no relation to the sun-baked islands I’ve been to.

Still, I’ll grant them that the Ethiopian landscape takes you around the world. Today, as we walked out of the Amhara region into Tigray, it was like leaving the green terraces of Thailand and entering a parched red-rock Arizona.

Tigray, Tigray, Tigray. It’s a loaded word conjuring up images of the recent civil war. Strange to think this deserted land echoed to rebel gunfire. Today, it’s just the six of us, plus Bereket, standing in a massive canyon looking up at the mountains where in hidden caves the rebels plotted their new government and the overthrow of the Derg. It gives you goosebumps.

More pressingly, we’ve run out of bottled water. The last few hours of our roasting hot walk is down an empty riverbed, strewn with sharp rocks and bolders. We huddle together under a cliff face to find shade and then stumble on again, thirsty and silent. Bereket and Lucie break open a melon they find, but it’s hard and dry.

That evening we pull out Lucie’s pump and take turns purifying the river water. In fact, we also jump into the river with our soap – a bit further down from where the cattle and mules cross – and have our first wash in a week. There’s a vague discussion about the possibility of worms and things, but we’re past caring. The water is warm and delicious down here and we dry off just before the sun sets.

The next day, to stave off more thirst, we arrange for one of the mules to meet us with a jerrycan of river water midmorning so we can do more pumping and replenish our bottles. It’s our last push to the Tekeze dam – a long, hot, white-dust walk that takes us up one false summit after another…

The climb to Abuna Yemata church near Gheralta Marina and I are stunned. We’ve just climbed up a sheer cliff face to the rock-hewn church of Abuna Yemata, also described by Bereket as the church of “no rope, no hope”. I’m really not sure what we didn’t register about that when we were asked to take off our shoes to start the ascent.

DSC_0160Let me back-track. Abuna Yemata is a sixth-century church carved into a cave way up a mountain. To get there, the foolhardy have to scale a vertical rock face with only rough hand and footholds to cling on to. I gather the Ethiopians rely on their strong orthodox Christian faith to keep them safe. I had to rely on my ignorance of how bad it would get and a soft-spoken local man called Tensay, who gently coaxed me to put a hand here or a foot there.

It was exhilarating and shocking; I am prone to vertigo even when inside a high building.

Having scaled to the sanctuary of a small cave, Marina and I discovered we and the guides were the only ones rash enough to try it. Our four pals were sensibly waiting for us at the bottom… We also discovered we weren’t there yet – we were only in the baptism chapel. To get to the church, we had to leap over a few chasms while grabbing onto some alarmingly brittle bits of root and negotiate a narrow sloping sandstone ledge that on one side fell away into a 200-metre void below. I expect the view was staggering, but I didn’t dare look. By the time we got to the church door I was high on adrenalin – and very amenable to God.

We crowded in – Marina, Bereket, our driver Mokie, Tensay, the very young-looking priest and our local mountain-goat-guides. I know I for one was glad to still be alive.

The church was tiny, simple and awe-inspiring. Carved by hand out of the rock, the interior was decorated with saints, horses and patterns painted in vegetable dye, charcoal and blood. The only furnishings were olive-wood cleft sticks for the priests to lean on and a slightly bigger one used as a lecturn. Piled below it were goatskin boxes holding illustrated copies of the scriptures, handwritten in the ancient religious language of Ge’ez.

I didn’t want to leave – mainly because I was putting off the descent. I even said a prayer to make sure we got back down safely and I’m glad I did. It was much more terrifying than climbing up. At some point I cried. Despite the calming influence of Tensay – and Marina who was somewhere above me – I felt sure I was about to plunge to my death. Somehow, he guided my hands and steadied me while managing to cling on to a tiny handhold himself.

Of course, once you’re down, you want to do the whole thing again…

The children We were on the long drive from Mekelle to Lalibela and had stopped to stretch our legs. As always a raggle-taggle group of children emerged out of nowhere, smiling. I gave them some of my pencils, but they didn’t seem as pleased as usual.

“What are they saying?” I asked our driver.

“They say they need clotheses,” said Mokie.

The three little boys had scrappy t-shirts and no trousers, and somehow that got me more than the other sad sights I’d seen. I had no kiddie clothes, but Mokie helped me get my bag out onto the back seat and I rummaged for some big T-shirts.

“Er, Ros. Time to go I think,” said Douggie.

“Ok, give me a minute,” I said, doling out my three or four t-shirts.

“No, we need to go now,” he said more urgently.

Woah! I looked over my shoulder and saw an entire village-full of children swarming down the road towards us. All wanting clothes.

We simply didn’t have enough. There was nothing for it but to go. A sad moment. You can’t help everyone.


About Rosalind Mullen

I'm a writer and freelance journalist with a passion for independent travel. In latter years, my young son joined me on my backpacking adventures ...
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1 Response to Ethiopia … at last

  1. Tonya says:

    This is great…seems like there is more to tell?

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