By Martin Roberts and Naylah Hamour

Sema and MartinFinally I have got round to writing my review of our trip, and I got a bit carried away.

That was partly because I started thinking I would like to write something down for Naylah and myself to help us remember.

We had been intending to go to Ethiopia for a long time, and we were delighted that we finally got round to doing it, and even more delighted that we happened upon Eskinder of Highway Tours.

He came up with an itinerary for us which turned out to be the ideal amount of time in each place. We were also pleased to be able to spend some time with him in Addis  showing us the sights there. Eskinder also came on the final leg of our trip, to Harar, enduring a 12-hour coach journey both ways just so he could check on the driver there, who he had not met before.

On every leg of our trip, we found extremely pleasant, knowledgeable guides and excellent drivers who could not have done more to make our stay a pleasurable one. Our guide in the Simien Mountains, Sema, even invited us into his house for a coffee ceremony, which was a fascinating experience in itself, as well as wonderful hospitality.

And all the time we were travelling round, our guides were fielding phone calls from the ever vigilant Eskinder, making sure everything was running smoothly.

It all did run smoothly… apart from a little trouble with the airlines. First of all, Kenya Airways did not put our bags on the connecting flight from Nairobi to Addis, meaning we spent much of the first day shuttling between the Kenya Airways office at the Hilton Hotel and the airport.

We did, however, manage to fit in a visit to the National Museum, in a building formerly occupied by Haile Selassie and which features his state apartments, throne, selection of crowns, and some outstanding works by Ethiopia’s greatest living artist, Afewerk Tekle.

The museum also has a fascinating archaeological section, based on the multiple discoveries of early human fossils in Ethiopia. The best known is Lucy, the oldest hominid ever found, though the bones on display are a replica, with the real, delicate Lucy locked away in a safe in the museum.

Bahirdar and Lake Tana

We moved on to Bahir Dar the next day, first flying over Lake Tana, and then setting out by boat to explore some of the many monasteries on the shores and islands.

They feature some beautifully decorated frescoes of biblical themes, with St George, the patron saint of Ethiopia and England, featuring prominently.

There are some quite startlingly graphic renditions of the cruel ends of the saints as well as Jesus’ life and plenty of lovingly rendered portraits of Mary.

The priests are more than happy to show tourists the various ancient crosses and holy books, and will turn the goatskin pages of 600-year old bibles to show the marvellous illustrations and calligraphy.

A side trip from Bahir Dar took us to the Blue Nile Falls which were somewhat depleted due to the dry season, and the fact that most of the main stream is divered to the hydro-electric plant above the falls.

It didn’t look anywhere near as impressive as it did a few years ago – check out the one birr note to see – but it was still well worth a visit. It is instructive to remember that European explorers expended so much time and energy trying to reach this point and ‘discover’ where the Nile, or at least one branch of it, started out.

Awra Amba village and Gonder

We went on by road to Gondar, which enabled us to see some of the country, intensively farmed but looking dry with the main rains still a couple of months away.

On the way, we stopped at the village of Awra Amba, a community of about 400 people founded in 1980 ‘with the goal of solving socio-economic problems through helping one another in an environment of egalitarianism’.

The community struggled to establish itself and was ostracised for a long time, partly due to their refusal to insist on religious participation, but they have persevered and are now thriving, with the authorities having softened their stance enough to be in the process of constructing a new secondary school next to the village.

Men do a lot of the weaving, share in the cooking, and the village takes in orphans and cares for the elderly – what’s not to like?

Gondar itself, in the cooler hills to the north of Lake Tana, was the imperial capital from the 16th century to the 19th. It was built up into a major city by the unifying King Fasilides, who constructed a fairytale castle with the help of Iberian mercenaries, and a bath complex where the huge pool is flooded once a year for the festival of Epiphany.

Fasilides’ original castle was added to on the same site by his successors building their own fortifications until the dynasty was brought down by a welter of court intrigue and untimely deaths which would have put the Borgias to shame.

Sadly, the Italians chose to base themselves here during their occupation, and they were duly bombed by Allied planes, causing plenty of damage to the buildings.

Also worth a visit is the church of Debre Berhan Selassie, the only one left standing when the Mahdists invaded from Sudan 120 years ago, and filled with more beautiful examples of church art – check out the enigmatic angels covering the roof.

Simien Mountains

Next we headed up to the Simien Mountains, staying at Africa’s highest hotel, the Simien Lodge, at nearlySimien Mountains Scenery 3,300 metres.

The stunning landscapes would be a reason enough to visit this area. The other worldly shapes of the mountains in the distance with the weird as well as convoluted shapes of the formerly volcanic peaks shimmer in the distance of the foggy air.

The scenery is truly spectacular, particularly as the Lodge is located on a long ridge which plunges down to the valley, almost vertically in places.

These are the cliffs where the Gelada or bleeding heart baboons, the only grass-eating monkeys in the world, spend their nights to escape the predations of hyenas.

The Geladas roam in large packs, and the bands sometimes join up together for safety as they spend their days munching through the landscape.

Endemic Gelada BaboonsThey seem quite happy for people to wander amongst them, as the exceptionally hairy dominant males keep an eye on their harem and the frolicking youngsters.

They are the only pack members who don’t seem to spend their entire time eating or grooming. It is exciting to watch them whatever they do.

It’s easy to while away a couple of hours watching the antics of these hairy fellas. We were also lucky enough to see a variety of antelopes – klipspringers, bush bucks and duikers, and a solitary walia ibex thanks to the sharp eyes of our gun-toting guard.

The sense of adventure was added to by the frequent but short black-outs at the Lodge, more than compensated for by the friendly and attentive staff.

We concluded our Simien Mountains trip and drove back to Gonder for a night stay and the next morning flew to Lalibela, where Ethiopia’s best-known historical treasure, the rock-hewn churches, are located.

We had great days at Lalibela, Axum, and Harer which I will share with you in Part II of this story.

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

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