Ethiopia, the ‘cradle of civilisation’, legendary birthplace of the Queen of Sheba, and the words of veteran Irish adventurer, Dervla Murphy, ‘synonymous with beauty, danger, solitude and mystery’… could there be a better reason to go?
I recently turned my attention from India for three weeks in the Horn of East Africa, in the company of Ethiopia afficionado, photographer Glen Bosman.
Day 16: Gondar to Lalibela
It’s definitely worth taking a flight at some stage when one is travelling through these highlands, because it’s probably only from an aerial perspective that the truly awesome nature of the landscape becomes completely apparent. Wow!
This must be to Africa what Ladakh or Tibet is to the Subcontinent. The secretive history and development of this region becomes so geographically obvious. This is the very region that Dervla Murphy, that intrepid Irishwoman, took herself off to in 1963 when she travelled the Abyssinian highlands on a donkey. These seems to be no way to rush here.
And apart from the single winding road which snakes between one historic centre and the next, there are essentially no other roads… which explains why there are no vehicles, everyone is walking, and the only means of transporting a great agricultural load is on the back of a wife or a beast.
Day 15: Bahir Dar to Gondar
As someone said to me when I announced that I was on my way to Gondar: “sounds like a place in Middle Earth”. Well, almost … it is a uniquely Baroque moment in Ethiopia’s architectural and art history, and home to the first and only castle in Africa.
Exiting Bahir Dar, I’m amused as we cross the Blue Nile, that photography is prohibited – clearly relations between Ethiopia and Egypt are strained!
Day 14: Addis Ababa to Bahir Dar : A Blissful Day on the southern shores of Lake Tana
Flying north is the way to go! 6960 km, or an hour’s flight north of Addis and the regional charm of Bahir Dar immediately envelops one in its low rise, quietly industrious energy. Wide streets, big shady trees … and, compared to Addis, a very organised sense of development. Checked into my little BnB, the charming ‘Annexe’, with its cool courtyard and lovely staff who immediately want to address me by my name as many times as possible.. but no time to lose, as its immediately off to the shores of lake Tana with a driver and car I’ve organised from Addis.
For such a beautiful location, there’s surprisingly little development on the edges of the lake, and my canopied launch leaves from a dock near the only resort hotel, and knowing that I have it all to myself for the next hour, I stretch out and catch up on the sleep I missed for my dawn flight. It’s cool and wonderfully uneventful on this, Africa’s 3rd largest lake; the source of the Blue Nile.
“Discovered” in 1770 by James Bruce, but according to Ethiopian history, he simply ”writes about” it, it is in fact referred to as early as Biblical times (Gen.2).There are no crocodiles here but hippos are visible and birds are plentiful.
Day 13: ‘Goodbye’ to the South – Jinka to Addis
Oh, today was a long one … next time I’m going to fly back from Arba Minch. Some very beautiful landscape, relieved an increasingly busy road into South Addis, and all the signs of city life started to aggregate.
Strangely, perhaps more noticeable after so much nakedness, headscarves are more apparent, often concentrated in certain villages, where apparently, the women have travelled en masse to Arab countries to work as house maids. Returning as Muslim converts, they bring with them the odd combination of shiny textiles and a proliferation of mosques – often rapidly erected with nothing more than a cylinder of rolled up corrugated iron serving as the muezzin’s tower.
Day 12: A short walk in Chida Chechera National Park en route to Jinka
Well, unfortunately I didn’t have t use my newly-acquired Hamar trumpet to alert my fellow campers to the presence of water buffalo or ‘ele’ last night, but I certainly used it to greet the day!
The professionals were already packed and on the move by the time we breakfasted on scrambled eggs and lots of yesterday’s no longer quite so fluffy white bread. Boots on and time to walk.
It’s a bit humid, and the recent rain has left the ground muddy, but that makes for good tracking, and our 4 guides are keen to spot elephants and buffalo. I’m not sure it we look like a ragtag army of khaki-clad renegades or runaways, but I guess their pink plastic sandals kind of give the game away!
Day 11: Arba Minch to Chida, and overnight camping in the nature reserve of Chebera Churchura
After a blissful rest in the relatively luxurious Paradise Lodge, an early start for Sodo and the prospect of a camping experience in one of Ethiopia’s most remote National Parks is exciting!
Ethiopia has come to promote itself as an alternative wildlife destination for the ‘big 5’, and indeed it has many of its own species, particularly in the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Semien Mountains, (included on my group tour September/ October 2016).
Day 10: Turmi to Arba Minch – a long drive and a surprising destination
It’s 132km from Buska lodge via the gravel road, toward the hills we left some days ago, and today, without its market, Dimeka is empty , vacant , with no reason to stop – it’s suddenly poignant to recall our arrival there 3 days ago for the weekly market – important to get one’s days right in the Omo!
The road is populated with men and women walking herds of cattle, often 8 or so head of cattle and 20 plus goats, men carrying their headrest, women often wearing their coffee kalabash as a helmet. Heading away from the deep Omo Valley, people are generally clothed and much less adorned, although more modern fashion items are worn with distinct pride – like sunglasses worn backwards on the head – and as we cross the valley toward the Wayto region a heavy haze covers the valley ad lends an ethereal quality to the landscape. The land is sparsely populated, the bush scrubby on yellow sandy soil. It’s the Stefani reserve, a huge privately owned expanse for hunters to exercise their bloodlust amongst gazelle and zebra, and not far away a huge cotton farm grows in the newly- marshy region where papyrus and lotus have sprung up around the pumping station. It’s verdant. Kids, cattle, happily grazing and playing near a caravanserai of wattle and daub huts for shepherds.
Day 9: A Day in Turmi –coffee in a Hamar hut and treasure hunting at the Turmi markets
As dawn breaks on a somewhat overcast day, we are already on the road to visit a small Hamar village, as it stars its day. Perhaps hamlet is better. There are only a handful of dwellings, and against the early light, a woman is repairing her roof – for it is the woman who must build her own hut once she become a wife- each successive wife building further away from her husband’s hut . (I I’m wondering if this might be because she’ll likely have the most recent crying baby?)
Day 8: Omo Valley: The Dassenech Tribe at the edge of Lake Turkana and the Hamar celebrate a Betrothal
The impression of being silent in the African bush is a false one. Awakening to the warm breeze as it already gathers a dusty momentum brings that ‘silent’ summer sound of crickets which only becomes apparent when one focusses. By 7, and already on the road for the hour’s drive to Omorate towards a tribe on the far side of the Omo River … just 20 km north of the border with Kenya, near the northern end of Lake Turkana into which the Omo empties.
The town itself is barely a few corrugated iron huts around a wide main street, the biggest and most important building being the border police where we initially check in, before meeting our local scout, ‘Barekat’. Tall, with perfect teeth and those distinctive vertical dreadlocks which lend these young Ethiopian guys the most contemporary of street cred good looks. His excellent English, with a lovely voice, the result of 7 years in a Kenyan Protestant missionary school – one of the very few urbanised Dassenach people (in the 2007 census, 1500 out of 48,000).
Day 7: Turmi, Omo Valley: The Karo of KORJO, the DIMEKA MARKET and BULL JUMPING – all in a day!
Already the day promises heat, and a 7.15 am start for the village of Korjo, 80 km and 2 hrs’ drive away heralds a long day. The Karo tribe who today number only about 3000 are in a tiny minority next to their Mursi neighbours, whose 60,000 members dominate this remote area where already change is very visible.
Day 6: Into the Omo Valley at last! Arba Minch to Turmi via Konso
Dawn across Lake Chamo from the verandah of the Paradise Lodge. Exceptional. A diluting recession of blue hills stretches interminably and in the foreground puffs of night time fog linger above the Arba Minch – “40 Springs”.
By 7.45 am, setting out in a small boat, the sun already feels high, and huge, quite beautiful, tsetse flies gather beneath the canopy seeking the cool which will soon be impossible to find. It’s an utterly delightful ride for a couple of hours. Cruising over smooth water, occasionally interrupted by bathing hippo, the clear sky’s enlivened by cascading arcs of pelicans whose sheer beauty reminds one of simply nothing else except the magic of Nature. But all eyes are trained on the banks as we head for the famous ’crocodile market’.
Day 5: Addis Ababa to Arba Minch
There’s only one ‘first time’. My first day in rural Africa, and 505 kms later, and 1500 metres closer to sea level than the 2700m I started with in Addis this morning, and I can truly say I have had an unforgettable day!…cruising through the African countryside after August rains, a provident earth rich with crops, Julio Iglesias crooning away in French (only 2CDs in the car!).
Africa with Anna Day 4: Addis Ababa – The Birthplace of Coffee
“When you drink a cup of coffee Ideas come in marching like an army,” Balzac.
We’re used to hearing that an army marches on its stomach, but this coffee is something else!
Addis’ oldest coffee house is TO.MO.CA, opened in 1953, and as its glossy brochure says “signified Ethiopia’s first coffee roasting company in meticulously roasting the highland-grown, best Ethiopian coffee originating from Kaffa”, the birthplace of its eponymously-named coffee.
Day 3:First Impressions
I wasn’t sure if my first day in Sub-Saharan Africa would begin with the sound of muezzins – there are some 80 mosques in Addis Ababa – but my first impression of this surprisingly low-rise city of 3 million was unexpected. I just missed Ethiopia’s New Year celebrations which were last Saturday, but unlike other places where I’d expect to see the tattering remnants of gaudy bunting, Addis looks sober and quietly industrious. Early Spring sunshine made everything look fresh and eager – which matched my feeling of just itching to get out and onto the streets.
Day 2: Arrival in Addis Ababa
It’s a surprisingly long haul to arrive in Ethiopia from Australia. 24 hours in fact. ‘Water lapping at front doors’, took on a metaphorical significance as news that Australia had a new prime minister intercepted my first impressions as the extraordinarily exotic immigration line inched me closer to my destination. But standing there, only 1 of 2 non-African women in the airy, but dingy hall, my mind was alive to less significant issues, focussing instead on what for so many years of living in London and Italy had remained inscrutable: where did those handbags with everything-but-the kitchen-sink accoutrement that I’d seen for years on street stands actually end up?
Day 1: Why Ethiopia?
“This lady is the Princess of the Hamar tribes. Photographed by Glen Bosman in the Omo Valley, Southern Ethiopia.”
It’s difficult to say where my fascination for this legendary country arose … I was given a book as a teenager entitled ‘The Abyssinians’ by David Buxton, but even earlier was the spectre of the terrible famine of Biafra which dominated what seems like much of my early childhood – with well-meaning parental threats arising from my uneaten meals.
Synonymous with the Queen of Sheba, Ethiopia came into an almost breathless focus as I discovered the works of the last great British eccentric explorer Wilfred Thesiger, with his love of the wilderness and nomads.