Saturday 14 Feb - Addis Ababa
Landed at 9:15am. Checked into the Wutmu Hotel and was met by a guide and travel agent, Daniel, who ended up showing me around Merkato, East Africa's largest market. Today was market day so it was buzzing with people who had come from all over the country. Here they sold almost everything including spices, cheeses and injera baskets. I booked my tour for tomorrow then visited the National Museum, famous for housing Lucy's remains. There was also ancient pottery, tools, weapons and clothing on display. In the evening I was taken to Kara Mara, a traditional restaurant with live music and dance. Here I got to sample injera, which is the staple in Ethiopia.
Sunday 15 Feb - Drive to Arba Minch
It was a long drive to Arba Minch, more than 500km. The road that goes south to the Kenya border is probably the best in the country, but at Shashemene we turned off this road and onto one which varied from a dirt road to an OK one with potholes. After we left the capital, I saw that the road was used more by people (and their cows, mules and goats) then vehicles. I was amazed at the distances people travelled on foot, in the heat and often in bare feet. We stopped off at Ziway for a break then at Alaba for lunch, and reached Arba Minch in the evening. As we travelled further south it became more and more green and tropical, with sugar cane and especially banana plantations becoming common. I dined at the famous Soma restaurant where the fish goulash was highly recommended. The fish dishes are the best meals in Ethiopia and whenever I was in a town near a lake, it was all I would eat!
Monday 16 Feb - Nechisar national park and Chencha and Dorze villages
In the morning we drove to Nechisar national park, said to be one of the most beautiful in Africa, but little visited. The first part was a long and steep drive but once we reached the plain it was easy to see why. There were plenty of animals too. I saw greater kudu (I was told I was lucky to see them), grant's gazelles, swayne's hartebeests (from a distance), zebras, dik diks and I got a brief glimpse of some baboons. At lake Chamo, there were crocodiles on the water's edge and on the shore there were leopard and hippo prints. Back to Arba Minch for lunch and in the afternoon we drove up to the mountain villages of Chencha and Dorze. It was very pretty up here and the people were friendly and full of smiles. It was market day at Dorze and some boys showed me around (for a small fee of course). Children would surround me when I walked through the village, wanted to talk to me, practice their English, shake my hand, wave or just say hello. Very common in these parts were child acrobats or contortionists. They would perform their act on the street as soon as they saw me, one did a long series of flips and some less talented kids would just dance. It was very funny. The rest just waved or shouted excitedly. One man showed me into his new house which was being built. All houses in rural areas tended to have walls of wood and mud, with thatched roofs.
Tuesday 17 Feb - Drive to Addis Ababa, via lakes
On the way back we stopped at Langano lake where I was able to relax for the first time and have some time to myself. Then to Ziway lake, where there was lots of birdlife. Pelicans and maribu storks were feeding off the fishermen's cast-offs. Watched them for a while then went on a boat ride to see the hippo pods which should have taken 15 minutes but took more than an hour because the hippos were too far. Got back to Addis at 7:30, exhausted.
Wednesday 18 Feb - Gondar
Up at 4:30 to catch the early flight to Gondar. Despite my taxi crashing on the way to the airport I made it on time and arrived in Gondar just after 8am. Checked into the Fasil hotel which turned out to be the worst of the trip. I had become sick so today was not a good day. I spent the morning trying to arrange an organised tour to the Simien Mountains but there were none leaving tomorrow, so I had to organise it myself. After resting in my room, walked very slowly to Debre Berhan Selassie church, with its famous paintings of cherubs on the ceiling and impressive paintings on the walls. I walked back to the town and bought food for the trek. I took it easy for the rest of the day and got an early night.
Thursday 19 Feb - Debark
Got the early bus to Debark. This was one of the most gruelling bus rides I've ever been on. Four hours on a very bumpy dirt road (and I was right at the back) with the bus full of dust and my backpack on my lap for part of the journey. At Debark I checked into a very basic hotel (with mud walls and a corrugated metal roof) and arranged my trek at the park headquarters. It was all very straightforward. As well as a scout, mule and muler, I decided to take a guide. I could have started today and trekked to Sankaber camp but I decided to relax and see have a wonder round the town. A local boy helped me buy some more food and equipment (such as fuel and a container) for the trek from the local market which was interesting and a nice place for a walk.
Friday 20 Feb - Debark to Sankaber
The four of us (five with the mule) set off at 8am. Walked out of the village and into hilly farmland, past many villagers walking in both directions, herding their livestock or carrying firewood or food supplies, either on their backs or on the backs of donkeys. Before long there was a steep climb which took all the energy out of me. The heat, the altitude and my general lack of hiking experience left me out of breath whenever I walked up a slope. The remainder of the trek that day was tough but it did became easier and flatter. Soon we came across our first group of gelada baboons and I was happy to sit down and watch them for a while, the sight perfected with the backdrop of the spectacular canyons (or 'lowlands' as they're called) of the Simien Mountain. Reached Sankaber camp after 6½ hours. We had lunch at the hut of the lodge owner and I watched a coffee ceremony for the first time, something most Ethiopians do three times a day. It was interesting to see coffee being made, from the roasting of the beans to the pouring. I hadn't even seen unroasted coffee beans before. After pitching my tent, we made dinner, which was spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Saturday 21 Feb - Sankaber to Geech to Imet Gogo
After a breakfast of hot milk and corn flakes and tea, we set off for Geech camp. The views of the mountains soon disappeared and gave way to rolling hills of yellow grasses. As we rose above 3500m, giant lobelias became more and more common, large plants that look almost prehistoric. It was very scenic up here, and it illustrated the diversity of the Simien Mountains. We reached Geech village at 11:30 and after a rest and lunch, we set off for the destination of the trek, the lookout at Imet Gogo. We got there at 3:30 and although I was impressed by the panoramic mountain views, I was a bit disappointed that the views were obscured by a prominent blue haze. It was a shame because the views could have rivalled those of the Grand Canyon, which is very similar (in form but not in colour). Even more spectacular was the view from Saha, a more narrow view down a canyon leading to tall grass covered outcrop. I saw a lammergeyer briefly as it flew over us and another troop of geladas as we made our way back to Geech. Dinner that night was spaghetti (this time with beans) and tinned pineapple for dessert, which we ate around a fire in the hut. It was really cold that night.
Sunday 22 Feb - Geech to Sankaber to Buyit Ras
We set off at 8am and headed back to Sankaber. I was now fitter and able to enjoy the views more than before. A lot of the trek was along the dirt road that links Debark to Sankaber. Stopped off at one point at the roadside where a woman was selling a home made beer made from barley as we overlooked the canyons below. We reached Sankaber after three hours, had lunch (soup with bread) then set off for the campsite at Buyit Ras, walking mainly downhill on grassy slopes. We saw some klipspringers and a bushbuck on the way and reached the camp early at 2:45; just under six hours walking today. Dinner tonight was spaghetti with tuna, and an orange for dessert.
Monday 23 Feb - Buyit Ras to Debark
Left at 7:45 and walked through yellow fields lined with trees, scattered around were small round huts. It was a nice easy walk back to Debark. On the way we passed a school and within seconds I was surrounded by what must have been more than a hundred kids. When I stopped to take my camera out my bag I stood up to find I was completely surrounded! We reached Debark 3½ hours later and it felt odd to be in a town with so many people. In the afternoon I went for a slow walk through the town . My guide had invited me for dinner and it was nice to sit inside his home and get a glimpse of the everyday life of the local people, and I felt privileged to be there.
Tuesday 24 Feb - Gondar
Took the early bus back to Gondar. This time it wasn't so bad as I had someone reserve me the seat at the front of the bus. The journey was quicker too - only three hours. Checked into the Belagaz Pension (a complete contrast to the fleapit that is the Fasil Hotel) and rested for a while before heading to the Royal Enclosure. I really enjoyed it there. It was a pleasant and quiet retreat from the noisy town. It was a nice place to relax for a few hours and the views from the top of Fasiladas' Palace was amazing. The architecture of the old ruins and the atmosphere reminded me a bit of Rajasthan. Back in town I went to a juice 'beat' and had a mixed juice (three layers of papaya, avocado and guava) before having dinner.
Wednesday 25 Feb - Lalibela
Boarded the 8am flight to Lalibela, arriving at about an hour later. Checked into the Private Roha hotel, which was basic but adequate. My first impressions of the town were not good; it was dirty, dusty with steep black dirt roads and the flies were unrelenting, but it grew on me slightly during my time there. That afternoon I visited the churches, thought by many to be the eighth wonder of the world. These churches, dating from the 12th or 13th century, are hewn from the volcanic red rock and even more special because they are freed completely from it. They're impressive but as a non-religious person I didn't appreciate them as much as others would have. I liked the atmosphere in and around the churches. Here and there people were chanting, and almost everywhere you looked, someone would be crouched in a corner reading aloud from the bible, the smell of incense emanating from within the churches. Ethiopians were definitely the most religious people I've come across on my travels. More than any other place I visited in Ethiopia, the kids in Lalibela were the most expectant in terms of financial assistance. Countless children approached me asking for money for a football, sponsorship for their education or just money for nothing. It's difficult to deal with so many requests and there's also the moral issue of responsible tourism. I had made friends with two twelve year old boys but the sad thing was that if it wasn't for the prospect of getting any money from me they wouldn't have been interested.
Thursday 26 Feb - Lalibela
Lalibela isn't the sort of place you can relax in, there's nowhere you can sit and watch the world go by (you'd be surrounded by kids in minutes!) but there are several churches out of town where you can escape to. One of them, Ashetan Maryam, at a height of 500m above the town, offers nice views and takes you through some pretty countryside, such as the scenic village of Ashetan, on the way. Several kids offered to be my guide for the hour long hike up to the monastery, but instead I asked a 42 year old guy to take me. Birara had spent 20 years looking for work and a life in various countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. After entering Britain illegally he eventually found work but endured a lot of hardship including interrogation and physical abuse from the police. It was interesting hearing his story, but sad that he had now returned to his home town with no family and no job, feeling envious of his peers who had both. The monastery itself was not nice, but I enjoyed the tranquillity on the mountain looking down on the town and the distant mountains. I stayed there about three hours. It was very dry and yellow down below and Birara told me that 20 years ago, at this time of year, it was all green, the river was flowing and there was even wildlife. A sad reflection of the effects of overpopulation and excessive cultivation. Back in Lalibela, I spent the afternoon at the churches, with most time sat by the most famous, St George's.
Friday 27 Feb - Lalibela and Bahar Dar
Went for a morning walk though the more remote parts of the town, walking past huts, people going about their everyday business; women washing their clothes or tossing grain on a pan. Most had a look that said 'what are you doing here' and I felt a bit like an intruder. I passed some people working in the road (mainly women) and before long I had attracted a lot of attention, especially after paying someone for taking their photo. A commotion ensued and I was asked to move on. I passed people herding their livestock and kids playing football with stuffed socks. Briefly visited the churches again and went back to town for some tea. Then it was time to leave Lalibela and I caught the late afternoon flight to the lakeside town of Bahar Dar. The contrast between the two towns couldn't have been any greater. Here, palm trees lined wide asphalt roads which are polluted by noise and smoke from traffic. I checked into the Ghion hotel which was probably the nicest I stayed in, it certainly had the best location right on the shore of Lake Tana, Ethiopia's largest. I went for a walk, had a nice fish goulash for dinner and another one of those juices at a bar where country music was blaring from the stereo.
Saturday 28 Feb - Bahar Dar
I sat at the lake enjoying the view of the sun rising over it, the fishermen in their papyrus boats and the pelicans on the water. I was planning to catch the early bus to the village of Tis Isat for the Blue Nile Falls but the people at the hotel told me there was a tour leaving at 8am. So I waited until 8:30 at which point they told me the tour was cancelled. Annoyed, I walked to the bus station to find that the bus was full, but I paid some boys extra and they got me a seat. It was an hour along a dusty dirt road to the village (slightly longer because the bus broke down and had to be pushed) then another half hour walk to the falls. It was the dry season, plus the dam was closed so the falls weren't as spectacular as they could be, but it was still an impressive sight and a scenic sort of place. At 2pm I was back in Bahar Dar and one of the students had arranged a boat trip for me to two of the monasteries. One of which, Kebran Gabriel which dates from the 12th century, was on an island. Here, the resident priest showed me the old crowns, various crosses and bibles and then went to look at the old paintings inside. The second monastery, Debre Maryam, was near the one outlet of the Blue Nile. Both were in peaceful and scenic locations. As I rode back to the town, the lake was more calm and it was a much nicer ride as the sun sank below the horizon.