Monday, 21 January 2013

Hitting the Highlands

It was a minor miracle, when travel weary after a hard 5 days crossing Sudan, we rolled into a small hostel in the mountain town of Gondar to found that Ali had managed to meet us there. So vague and unconfirmed were our plans, I had had my doubts, but on his own adventure via Addis, Ali had checked into our trip for a couple of weeks, and thankfully bought Christmas with him, in the shape of a stocking, and Cadbury's Celebrations. They never tasted so sweet!

We saw in Christmas day, in a traditional Ethiopian nightclub, where the locals show off their trademark shoulder dancing, which often includes a dance off between two same sex parties, with everyone winning in the end (see video for example)

Dancing has been a theme of our trip around Ethiopia. As we've moved through the different provinces, each has produced a new dance from the local children, which they use to impress you enough to give them a dollar or two (special mention to the group of kids near Arba Minch doing headstands whilst completely naked). Unfortunately, this sort of behaviour keeps the kids out of school, so its important not to reward their endeavours.

After a tour of Gondar's hilltop castle, we hit the road with the aim of spending Christmas at Tim and Kim's place on Lake Turkana. There a warm welcome, many of our friends from the road, and an amazing Christmas dinner awaited us. Tim's goat BBQ was tastier than you could ever imagine!

The video I wish I could put here is of one of the dogs at Tim and Kim's running straight at Ali's legs and sending him flying, but you'll have to use your imagination for that one!

It was from there that we headed north into the Simien Mountains for 2 days of trekking. For me this was one of the bits of the trip I'd looked forward to the most when planning at home.

Most of Ethiopia is at altitude, but instead of the mountains rising up from the plains, the plains are at the top, where everyone lives, and the height is made stark by plunging gulleys and valleys which drop for thousands of meters and make for some incredible scenery.

They did not disappoint. I will never forget turning the first corner into the park and feeling goosebumps as the valley dropped away in front of us and the craggy rocks created a stunning backdrop to our drive. Truly epic.

Ali getting involved in time for some trekking

At the 4,000m altitude the car started producing some weird white smoke because it wasn't getting oxygen, it was also very cold!

Nice views

Baboons all over the place!

The other highlight of our northern circuit was a visit to Lalibela, Ethiopia's answer to Jerusalem  where a former emperor carved 11 churches into solid rock. (Ethiopia is big on religious sights, also claiming to house the original ark of the covenant)

Ethiopia has its own brand of orthodox Christianity, and its own calendar to fit. On the 6th Jan 2013, it was celebrating Christmas 2005, and when we visited on New Years Eve, the pilgrims were flocking to the site pre-Christmas having walked for days or even weeks to get there (and they smelt like it!)

Churches carved into the rock

One of the real highlights of the trip to Lalibela though was the road. An off road gravel track along a mountainside very hairy to drive, but with incredible views both sides. This driving does tend to make the car very dirty though, so we stopped to get the car washed in the river in Bahrir Dar. Those guys have some real skills with a bucket!

Reversing into the river ready for our car wash

From there, it was on to Addis, where Ali would say goodbye, and we would descend into the admin vortex that seems to take over whenever we reach a big capital city. The car got a full service, and some extra insurance, and now we're off to start our trip on the wild route through western Ethiopia and into Kenya. We did however managed to spare the time in Addis to visit Bob Geldof's favourite Italian restaurant, called Castelli's. The fresh pasta is highly recommended!

1 comment:

  1. So, having singularly failed to produce my blog (I’ll blame adverse weather conditions, as that seems to cover a multitude of sins), I’ll add my addendum to this.

    It was indeed a miraculous star that led Jimmy and Anna to meet me in a random hostel in north western Ethiopia on Christmas Eve, and a first for me on Christmas morn to play the part of Santa (luckily, it wasn’t my first Christmas away from my poor mother, who at least conceded when I asked permission to take the opportunity of joining Jimmy and Anna that it was less dangerous a place than where I wintered last year). The Celebrations did seem a welcome taste of home, and the Wine Gums had the secondary effect of settling the sole argument that had brewed between Jimmy and Anna in the preceding months (fact: Wine Gums don’t contain wine; fiction: you can’t get drunk on them). Go team.

    Christmas Day also brought me a gift – the first spin in The Beast. Needless to say, Jimmy is a protective parent, but letting me loose on his car must have felt like the equivalent of leaving your daughter alone at home for the weekend with a Facebook party advertised… We survived mostly intact, fortunately, after I got the hang of driving a 3.2 tonne vehicle that’s mildly top-heavy on roads heaving with cows, donkeys, goats, potholes, children, goats, sheep, cows, camels, potholes, baby goats (cute), children and – for variety – a peppering of the occasional overturned minibus.

    It was also most distracting to drive through what Jimmy correctly described as an astonishing landscape, as it too easy to keep gazing out of the window when supposed to be concentrating (and it did require fearsome concentration) on the road. I did at least keep my eyes open when navigating the tricky gravelly switchbacks in the mountains (which would be unforgiving if you made a mistake and took a swallow dive at that landscape) – although Anna, understandably, did not.

    These mountains were the highlight for me too – breathtaking for many reasons other than the lung-bursting altitude, and definitely worthy of the sobriquet of ‘the best scenery in Africa’ (my sample size is small, but I’ll side with the guide book on this one). It was bloody cold, so how our local guide survived sleeping in a bush when I was snugly double-bagged in my tent, remains a mystery.

    All in, a tremendous 10 days with the crew, and I even got to briefly feel the urge of the Overlander and get tempted to do it all myself (although I never did quite enter the conservations regarding various mechanical failings or bureaucratic misgivings with as much vigour as the true Overlanders). They’ve not got that long left, so I’d definitely go and tag in to that surprisingly cosy back seat for a couple of weeks again…

    Thanks guys!