by Ann, Roger and Clare Bradley

What a start to 2009! In the early hours of Jan. 2nd we watched the sun rise over the beautiful Simien Mountains and the tin roofs of Ethiopian villages sparkled as we began our descent to Addis Ababa airport after our night flight from London.

Why Ethiopia ?
Not an African destination that most British travellers consider, us included. However our daughter was due to finish a period of voluntary work in the small hospital in Alem Ketema, north of Addis, and we were persuaded to meet up with her to tour the Northern Highlands for 2 weeks.

Eskinder and Ann BradleyThrough we found Eskinder and his small company Highway Tours based in Addis.

We put our trust in him and together we assembled a trip to match our criteria.

His e-mail communications were prompt, he considered our needs and he suggested adjustments to our plans which would enhance our experience.

Once agreed he organised transport, guides and accommodation.

Guides were friendly and knowlegeable and hotels were very comfortable with good service and facilities. But be prepared for occasional interruptions to water or electricity supplies. All ran smoothly, which is more than you can say of many of the roads!

Be prepared for some white- knuckle rides! Some times part of the usually smooth asphalt road is under ‘re-construction’ and comes to an abrupt end with a 12 foot drop.

If you turn off the main routes the hardened rubble roads were likely to be uneven where they had been damaged during the rainy season.

View on the road to Alem KeteOn the way to Alem Ketema we wound our way around escarpment sides twisting and turning around precipitous hair-pin bends with spectacular views across valleys and mountains.

We attracted waves and ‘Hello’s’ from excited children as we passed through the many villages and small towns along the way.

We found that the Ethiopians tend to drive faster than we would on such surfaces.

We bounced about a bit as seat belts were not available in the 4-wheel drive mini buses that we were using! However our friendly driver was amenable to being asked to slow down, a message easier to get through to him because we had an Ethiopian friend with us who could speak to him in Amharic.

Lalibela Rock ChurchOur adventure took us from Alem Ketema, above the Jemma Valley, to Debre Markos for an overnight stay and then to Bahir-dar and Gonder.

From here we flew to Lalibela where we met up with our TESFA guide to begin a wonderful 5 day trek on the nearby plateau region.

We then returned to Lalibela to explore the amazing rock churches before flying back to Addis.

There are so many highlights to recall, the beautifully painted pictures in the monasteries on the Zege peninsula at Bahir-dar, sharing a taxi with a bewildered sheep, the small papyrus fishing boats laying out their nets as the sun set on on Lake Tana.

Blue Nile FallsThere was also the spectacular ride through the Blue Nile Gorge and the welcome cool spray from the Blue Nile Falls as it roared over the escarpment.

The Royal Palaces and the intricate paintings in the church of Debre Birhan Selassie in Gonder. This is an amazing feat of excavation 800 years ago when intricate churches were carved into the red volcanic rocks of Lalibela.

We will remember children walking for miles to go to school for 4 hours a day and the provocative smell of frankincense which pervades homes and coffee ceremonies.

Addis Ababa
Of Addis we remember the Ethnological Museum, the bustle of small shops and shoe shiners. The goat or sheep herders weaving between pedestrians trying to avoid the potholes on their way to work and the sad sights of homeless people settling down for the night on any spare piece of waste ground.

Then there were the corrugated iron homes bundled together between new concrete office blocks and hotels, the fun ride in the dilapidated taxi to Ambassador Park and the incomprehensible rules of driving in Addis, are there any ?

A Real Feel of Ethiopia
To get a real feel of rural Ethiopia try a TESFA trek organised from Lalibela.

View over the Mountains 5 nights in Tukul houses, having tasty meals cooked by the local villagers and watching the sun set over the mountains was for us the highlight of our trip.

We were so lucky to be guided by Kidane our TESFA guide. He was patient and able to give us a wonderful insight to his locality and the people who worked hard to eke out a living on this stoney windswept plateau.

He, like all the locals we met, greeted us with a friendly handshake, had a good sense of humour and was happy to talk to us about their way of life. Children appeared from the most remote piece of land, rushing over to shake our hands and giggling at the photos we took of them!

View form the Loo !Every Tukul camp was on the edge of the escarpment with a breath-taking view, especially from the toilet, all of which had a window cut so you could admire the view!

A tasty meal by firelight, a beer, G&T or whisky followed by coffee, traditionally served, and at Yadukulay we were lucky to be treated to some singing, dancing and tales from our 80 year old ‘guard’ which made for a very pleasant evening.

The terrain was largely level and followed the escarpment, at first the altitude slowed some of us down even on small slopes but after 2 days we had become acclimatised.

It was quite manageable for 2 newish pensioners who walk a bit in the UK but are not as fit as we should be! Good walking shoes or boots are safer and more comfortable for the uneven rocky ground, particularly the descent to Yadukulay Tukul camp.

Occasionally villagers would ask for help with an injury or sickness, they know most trekkers carry first-aid equipment with them and we helped when we could. We were told that rural people had some access to medical care through a system of health extension workers.

The health workers served many of the outlying communities at health posts or clinics, and there are district hospitals, but they could be a 2 day trek away in some cases. Despite the difficulties that exist it was clear from people we spoke to that Ethiopia is working hard to develop it’s health care system.

Family, Friendly Helpful People
We were struck by the strong sense of family support that exists and by the desire to ensure that children have a good education. We were surprised to find that subject lessons for the older children were taught in English.

We were impressed that most spoke English so well, even to the point where we were tested to see if we could answer the English questions in their text books!

Children with Origami BirdsThroughout our trip we met friendly, helpful people who had a wonderful sense of fun.

Although life was hard for most of them they kept smiling, were happy to show us how they lived, were generally optomistic about their economic progress, and the positive contribution that tourism was making.

They laughed at our endeavours to ‘shoulder’ dance, were encouraging when we tried to pronounce Amharic words, patiently answered our many questions and were knowledgeable about their culture and natural world.

They are proud of their country and their country should be proud of them because it is the people of Ethiopia that the visitor will always remember.

We were made to feel so welcome and and feel we have made many friends in Ethiopia. One day we hope to return and we now know we will feel at home!

Eskinder Hailu - Manager, Highway Tours

Eskinder Hailu
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