The Simian Mountains

EthiopiaPosted by Espen Wed, June 26, 2013 13:45:59

The Simian Mountains was one of the first must-see places on our list when we started planning for Africa. Many overlanders have discussed back and forth if this area is safe to visit, but apparently all are believe this is a magical place. For a long time, however, it has been recommended not to travel the “historical loop” in Northern Ethiopia, but lately this has changed. Most tourist fly in to the nearest town to the main attractions, but we met some traveling over land as well.

From the begging priests in Tigray and the tall stelaes of Axum, we head east and then south towards Gonder. The road to Sudan go west from Gonder, and this is the northern most bordercrossing between Ethiopia and Sudan open to tourists. There are roads further to the north, but the border area here is not considered safe due to the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Many people in these areas have been forced to move from their homes, and there are refugee camps on both sides of the border. It seems quiet and safe along the main roads, but it is not a very long time ago that conditions were very different. Along the main road just south of Shire is one of the refugee camps in the area.

It is a strange feeling to travel through and area where you know there was a terrible war just over ten years ago.

Most travelers going to the Simian Mountains drive north from Gonder and then the same way back out. We came south from Axum and crossed the mountains on our way to Gonder. And of course we stopped for a few days to take in the scenery.

In the Simian National Park it is mandatory to bring an armed guard. Some travelers tried to get in without, but this is not possible at the time. We do not believe it is necessary though, but it is more money for the locals who are trained as “scouts”. We suspect that this park has changed a lot the last few years, and there is now a good gravel road going all the way through the park. In and around this park there are about 20 000 people farming the land. Our plan was to stay a few days in the mountains for hiking, but we ended up driving more than hiking. The scenery is great, but we found the area to be a little too crowded and developed for the good mountaineering feeling.

According to our scout is Bwahit Mountain the second highest in Ethiopia with its 4430 meters (14535 ft). We parked the Patrol at 4130 meters and walked the rest. Not exactly what we had in mind when we talked about the Simians months before, but hiking along a gravel road wasn’t in our plans either. And I like to drive…

The mountains ARE beautiful, but we were a little disappointed when it came to the possibilities for hiking.

The Simians are also known for the Gelada Baboons. This is a baboon with a thick fur that protects it from the cold weather in the high mountains. Those living close to the camps were relatively comfortable with people, so we had to keep windows and doors closed at all times…

Gonder has a castle. A real medieval castle. We weren’t prepared to find anything like this in Africa, but there it was. It was built by an emperor called Fasiladas in sixteen-hundred-and-something.

Our last stop in Ethiopia we talked about as “the decompression stop”. I think we were both tired and a little worn out after more than six weeks travels in a fantastic country. There is more than 90 million people living in Ethiopia, and there are people everywhere. Because of this traveling here can be quite intense, but we had no problems of any kind. People are very friendly. Still, it was good to drive in to Tim and Kim’s Camp by Lake Tana. This is a Dutch couple running a great camp site (and they have cabins as well), and every overlander coming up the east coast stops here (and you should!). There are no people around trying to sell you stuff or begging for money. As Norwegians we are used to a bit of “space”, and it was good to have a little break here. We stayed six days reading and relaxing.

There wasn’t many other overlanders in camp, and according to Tim and Kim this was the quiet time of year. The Sahara is too hot in the north, and Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda has rainy season in the south. Fortunately, we had excellent entertainment…

And the GPS was loaded with maps for Sudan!


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Northern Ethiopia

EthiopiaPosted by Malin Mon, June 24, 2013 00:46:53
Before I start writing this blog I would like to write short about the Ethiopian salaries and also the cost level in Ethiopia. During our stay this is level of salaries we have been told about: a small scale farmer maybe make 500 birr (26 USD) a month, a security guard at a hotel makes 1000-1300 birr (55 – 72 USD) a month and a truck driver that drives all over Northern Ethiopia makes 2000 birr (110 USD) a month. In Debark area a sheep costs about 600 birr (33 USD) and a draft pint in a local bar costs 10 birr (50 cents USD), but of course everything that gets close to tourists costs a bit more. I think we tourists should have the local price level in mind when we travel and trade with locals, and especially when it comes to tipping. Even if we think a tip is small compared to the price level we are used to at home we have to remember that a tip of 50 birr (2,5 USD) is 8 % the cost of a sheep or 5 beers in a local bar. Norwegian price level is pretty high, but if someone gave me a tip of 5 beers in Norway it would be equal to a tip of more than 50 USD.

Ok, then it is time for the blog. After a beautiful drive north from Lalibela we reached the Tigray region of Ethiopia. On the drive north the landscape and building techniques changed.

Close to Lalibela most people lived in round mud huts, while up in Tigray most of the houses were square and built of rocks.

The landscape in Tigray is also amazing, and what makes this an even more fascinating area to visit, are the rock-hewn churches that are cut into the red rock in the area.
After reading about these churches, we found some that we wanted to visit. First stop was the 10th century Abraha Atsbeha church. It was carved out of a small cliff face and was only free from the rock on three sides, only attached to the rock on the back side. On the front of the church, the Italians (back in the days) had attached a newer section to the church to show the locals they were not Muslims. From the outside it looked really strange.

To enter the churches in Tigray costs 150 birr per person per church (so for the two of us it is equal to half a sheep in Debark) and this price was posted on the entrance of the Abraha Atsbeha church. When we arrived the priest was sleeping outside the church in the shade of a tree, and a local boy woke him up for us. As we were looking around in the church he fell asleep on a chair. After visiting the church we were going to pay for the ticket, and he seemed really upset that we would like a recipe. We do not know if that was because he could then not take the money himself or if it made him embarrassed because it turned out that he could not write. Fair enough. Espen wrote the recipe. After paying our fee the priest asked if he could have some money too. We replied “no”, as we had paid our fee to the church, and we assumed that he, as a priest, will be paid from the church. It could be that this assumption is wrong, of course, and maybe the Ethiopian church takes the whole entry fee and does not pay their priests at all?

In Hawsien we spent the night in a local hotel and eat dinner at Gheralta restaurant in town. The restaurant was owned by a young local man who used to work as a cook in a hotel in Lailibela until he started his own restaurant in his home town. It is a quiet town, and he hoped for some more tourists to come to visit this area of Ethiopia. Please do if you’re there. It’s the best restaurant in town. To get to the Abuna Yemata Guh church we had to drive through the small town of Megab where we stopped in the city center to buy some bread. While we were parked there, we were approached by some young men who said they worked for the local guide association, and they asked if we would like to hire them as guides for the day. We kindly declined the offer.

As we got to the end of the road close to the church we had to park somewhere, and a local old man said we could park on his property under a small tree. Together with the old man was another local farmer in worn out clothes and they told us he could be our scout. We did not really know where the path went up to the church and thought it would be nice to give this man a job for 2-3 hours and we agreed on a price of 50 birr witch is not too bad, but less than the 280 birr that the guide association would charge.

The path went through some plowed fields, over a dry river, and then it started to climb up the hill. We got to a tree where we could see there was an empty seat. Our “scout” got a bit stressed, and he started to call down to someone at one of the farms. The ticket man had left his seat and was not to be found. The “scout” knew a few English words, and we asked if it would be possible to pay on the way back down because we would like to do the walk up the hill before the sun got too high in the sky and the temperature too high for Norwegians. He agreed and we walked on, but every now and then he stopped and shouted something down to the small village where someone replied to him. Then we got to another tree where three men were resting in the shade, and our “scout” stopped for a chat. After a few minutes a young priest came up the path to the tree and he spoke better English and explained that the man with the tickets was on his way. Some minutes after the priest, the ticket man arrived and we could pay our two tickets, a total of 300 birr (or half a sheep).

As we continued the walk up the hill, the priest came along with us, and also two of the “scout’s” friends. We thought they might come along up to the church to pray. When we got to a section of the path that turned into rock climbing, the priest, our scout, and the two other men explained where we should put our feet and hands (which wasn’t very complicated). Then we should probably have realized that the two last members of the group where not going up to pray, but also wanted something from us. We should have told them to turn around, but we did not say anything.

After a bit of climbing we came up to a lower stage of the church were there was a small cave turned into a tomb for monks and priests that deserved to be buried in such a holy place. From just outside the cave you could see the remains of human bones, and on the skeletons on top there was still some dried and cracked skin. Really, really strange to see as the graves I am used to see are covered with grass, and in front of the burial stone, the family plant flowers. Here it was just a pile of skeletons where the “latest arrival” is piled on top of the others.

The Abuna Yemata Guh church is carved into the red sandstone rock pinnacles that stand out as huge towers, and when we got to the top of the crack you could see how far down it was on the other side. When I get too much “air” around me, like up by this church, with a free fall of 100 meters, and we are 300 meters over the valley floor, I kind of freeze. So I did not go the last meters up where you have to walk a few meters on a one meter wide ledge over this 100 meter free fall to get to the entrance door of the church.

Espen and the rest of our group of one priest and by now three “scout’s” walked up the last bit while I was sitting and enjoying the silence and the incredible view.

How anyone come up with the idea to build a church in a place like this I don’t know, and what did it take to carve it into the rock in such surroundings about a 1000 years ago? They could handle the height a lot better than me for sure.

Espen was fascinated about how they were able to build (or carve) this church, and when asking, the reply from the priest was that God made the church and put it in this location. From an Orthodox Christian point of view that is how this church is made, but to an engineer from Northern Europe this is not much of an explanation. Would explain the tolerance for heights, though...

On the walk back down our group stopped again at the second tree. The priest told us this is a holly olive tree and therefore we had to take a rest. That is what people do at holy trees. While obeying the local traditions and we had our rest, the priest took up the question about payment once more. We explained that we had agreed a price with our one “scout” at the parking before we started our hike. The priest said we had tree “scout’s”, and we should pay them all. We said we had never made a deal with the two last “scout’s”, they had just tagged along without even asking or making an agreement with us. And why would the two of us need three “scout’s” to walk up a hill? After all we are still able to walk on our two legs and use our eyes to look for places to put our feet and hands. Then the priest asked for a tip for himself since he had unlocked the church for us. Our reply was that we had already paid 300 birr to see the church, and we thought that he as a priest would get his salary from the church. He then continued to tell us about his family and how poor they were, and he had a wife and children to take care of. I know we have more money than this priest, and compared to us, he is poor. But compared to the local farmer we had hired as a “scout” in the first place, he had new sneakers, nice pants with no holes or patches on them, a nice shirt, a jacket, and a mobile phone. Since he had been a nice guy, explained things and translated for us, until he started asking for money, we thought we could give him 10 birr as that was the smallest change we had. He looked really disappointed and as he was holding up the 10 birr he said in English that other tourists would pay him 50-100 birr in tip. The questions about money continued and we tried to explain to the priest and made him translate to the “scout’s” that the way they were dealing with tourists is not the way to go. When we first got up to the church the priest said he hoped we would tell our friends about the churches in Tigray so more tourists would visit them. We now told him we would tell about all the hassle and greedy priests. And if the “scout’s” want to do business with tourist they have to agree on a price first, not just tag along and demand to be paid.

Our first “scout” followed us back to the car to get his payment for his 3 hours of work. As we were walking, he asked Espen if he could have Espen’s trousers, and when Espen said no he asked if he could have Espen’s shoes. You could see he really needed them, but Espen also needs his shoes. By now we had enough of questions about giving money and giving things. We paid him the money we had agreed on, said thanks for his help and left.

Back at the Gheralta Resturant we needed a cold drink and a coffee to digest all the hassle and appreciate a local running an honest business. In the restaurant we meet a German couple, and it turned out they had visited Abuna Yemata Guh the day before and they had also got in a discussion about money with the priest and the number of “scout’s” they had to pay for. He had also told them about his poor family. A week after leaving Tigray we meet another overlander that visited the church after us, and he had had the same discussion with the priest about the number of “scout’s” and giving tip when you already paid a pretty steep entry fee according to Ethiopian standards. When we meet other travelers and talked about these churches it is sad that what we remember most vividly is hassle and begging priests.

After visiting two churches in Tigray we had enough of the greedy priests and left this beautiful area and headed to Aksum. We would have liked to visited more sights in the area, but it was just too much hassle. We hope that one day the church and the priests realize that the way they behave is bad for their reputation. If they do not like to show their churches to tourists, it is better to say so, but if they want tourist’s money they should also have to behave in a better way. I do understand that people in Ethiopia beg for money from tourists because we have so much more than them. But I expect a different behavior from a priest, maybe that is my mistake. In my opinion they do not behave as a priest should. The priests in Tigray behave worse than the beggars on the street. Axum, considered the holiest city in Ethiopia, was our next stop. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is said to house the biblical Ark of the Covenant and is an important destination for pilgrimage. We, however, visited Axum because we were more interested in its earlier history. From about 400 BC to 10th century AD, Axum was a trading power and ruled the region.

The kings of Axum had some incredible obelisks made to put on top of their tombs. The Great Stelae is 33 meter tall and weighs 520 tons, but now it lay broken in pieces on the ground.

It is believed the stelae fell and broke under construction. Beside the stelaes, tombs, and some palace ruins, we also saw the Axum Rosetta stones. The Ezana stone is from around 350 AD inscribed in three languages; Sabaean, Ge’ez and Ancient Greek. Beside a few people that wanted to be our guides or sell us something, but respected our “no”. There was no hassle in Axum and that was great after visiting the churches in Tigray. After a couple of interesting days in Axum it was time to leave northern Ethiopia and drive south towards Simien Mountains.


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Lalibela and the road north

EthiopiaPosted by Malin Mon, June 10, 2013 07:36:05

Our first stop going north from Addis Ababa was Lalibela. In Lalibela you find one of those rare historical sites in the world that you struggle to believe even if you are staring right at it. The roch hewn churches in Lalibela are carved out of solid rock, and there are eleven of them!

The local history explains that the kingdom of Lalibela got help from God to make the churches. Some archeologists on the other hand, have estimated that it took about 40 000 men to build these over a period of about 80 years. Anyway, they are IMPRESSIVE!

Fortunately, it was market day when we arrived, and for the first time in Ethiopia we could walk around without being followed by begging kids. We got the impression that the kids in Lalibela had been thought in school to welcome tourists and not ask for money or pens. It was a great experience to see daily life and not being the center of attention which is often the case if we stop along the way somewhere.

An interesting thing we found was that lots of bags from USAID were sold on the market. Further north we saw more warehouses filled with bags of rice, maize, and flour. This is actually the first time in Africa we’ve seen food aid for poor areas.

From Lalibela we drove straight north over the mountains, and this is along with Turkana some of the most beautiful landscapes we’ve seen in Africa. The road takes you up to about 4000 meters, the hills are terraced for farming, and in the valleys below are canyons and rivers. Amazing!

More soon!


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Visa waiting in Addis Ababa

EthiopiaPosted by Espen Wed, June 05, 2013 12:10:23

Our stay in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, turned out to last a little bit longer than we had planned. The visa we were told could just be “collected” at the embassy actually took us 10 days to process. Good thing we’re not on a two weeks holiday…

Fortunately, Addis Ababa is a very nice city. Because we were only staying for a couple of days we splurged and checked in to a nice room in a mid-range hotel, the Itegue Taitu Hotel.

The standards for electrical Appliances are a bit different than what we are used to in Europe though...

Around the corner we stumbled upon Café Oslo, and of course this became our favorite breakfast and coffee place. Here digging into a Fetira with egg and honey. Delicious!

One of the most famous Africans in the whole world can be visited in Addis Ababa. Lucky for us, she was just back in town from a world tour, and the museum arranged for a special exhibition: “Lucy comes home”.

Lucy is one of the earliest humans (Australopitechus afarensis) we know about, and she walked around in Ethiopia about 3,2 million years ago.

We were not the only ones looking for visas to Sudan in Addis Ababa. The days of waiting was actually quite social, and we had a lot of fun together with other overlanders.

For one American it took four weeks to arrange for the visa! It turned out to be easier for us though, and soon we were on the road again on our way to see the churches of Lalibela. If we can navigate our way out of town, that is.... Traffic laws are totaly ignored!

More soon!

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Southern Ethiopia

EthiopiaPosted by Malin Wed, May 15, 2013 18:03:48

After a long day on the Marsabit Moyale road and then doing the border crossing from Kenya to Ethiopia it was time to call it a day. Our first night in Ethiopia was spent in a hotel 1, 5 km from the border. There we were also served out first Ethiopian meal, grilled goat meat with the traditional injera, bread, rice with vegetables, and a local beer. It tasted really good after a long day on the road.

The next day we followed the main road north until Yabello where we took off towards Konso. Konso people are farmers and have built some amazing terraces to be able to grow their crops in the hills. This area is also the eastern end of the Lower Omo Vally which is famous for its many different tribes. As we found camping for the night just outside Konso town, it did not take long before we were asked if we wanted to take a tour to one of the tribes. It would be really fascinating to see some of these tribes and learn more about their culture, but reading the blogs from people we have meet on the road that did visit the Mursi tribe, it does not sound like tourism have done anything good to this people. You can read more about Taniya and Clive’s experience in Mursi here, quite a bit down in the blog post [url]http://catsitchyfeetcom.ipage.com/CaTs_Itchy_Feet/Blog/Entries/2013/2/18_Awassa_-_Ethiopia.html[/url]

On our drive from Moyale to Konso you could also notice a difference in the children’s and some adult’s behavior. The people from Moyale and northwards didn’t pay us too much attention, but the closer we got to Konso, more and more people were begging when we passed them on the road. Kids where shouting for sweets, pens and plastic bottles. We have had the same in other areas where people and tribes are exposed to tourism, like the Himba people in northwestern Namibia, children in the southern part of Mozambique, and in the Turkana area. We decided to skip the rest of the Omo valley and the tribes.

Andreas blog (for those speaking German or use Google Translate) [url]http://www.toyotours.com/Weltreise/BlogBilder/afrika/AethiopienBericht.html[/url]
During the night it had rained, and as we were leaving Konso a man flagged us down and told us that the road was closed 30 km further ahead. Trucks and cars would have to turn around. We decided to have a look for ourselves and see if the conditions would change since it had stopped raining. There were some muddy parts and a bit of water in some small river crossings. The crux was a part where the water was digging away the road and it had made a rather sharp curve in the road. We saw some trucks with long trailers that had parked because they would not be able to get around the curve without the trailer falling in and there was no place to turn as it was wet and muddy. Other 4x4 and small trucks got around and so did we without a problem. There was quite a few locals hanging around and this was probably todays happening and entertainment.

Along the road from Konso to Arba Minch, children did a dance as we drove past them, and then they were holding out their hand and asked for money. This dance is not just performed for us tourists, but for most vehicles on the road.

Driving in Ethiopia you really have to pay attention. In some areas it seems like the whole village is herding their cattle and flocks of sheep along and on the road. Maybe this is the only place for communal grazing as most of the land around the road is farm land?? Then there are ox and donkey carts that you have to navigate around. Beside dancing children there are lots of other people too. When you drive through a small town you really have to pay attention as the road through the village works like the local plaza and meeting area. It seems like some people are not used to cars at all, or even to consider that cars can do them any harm. People that want to cross the road does not look around to see if there are cars coming, they will just walk straight into the road looking the opposite way.

While we traveled the Americas we meet Janet and Tom. Before the Americas they had several overland trips in Africa and as they talked about their experiences, showed us photos and videos from Africa, we really felt inspired to go there. But one of their stories made a bigger impression than any other. Janet told us that one day as she was driving slowly through a small town in Ethiopia a group of people on the road split into two groups, one on each side of the road. One small boy decided to change side and ran a cross the road just in front of the car. Janet was not able to stop and she hit him and he fell on the ground. She waited for him to get up, but he did not. The boy had hit is head and was injured. Janet is a nurse so she did what she could for him there and then brought the boy and his father to the closest clinic, but the boy died on his way there. In their blog ([url]http://www.adventurouspirits.com/africa-2005-06/ethiopia.php[/url]) they write more about this terrible accident that is one of the worst that you can experience as an overlander. While driving through villages and small towns where the road is full of people Janet’s story run through our minds. It is just to take it slow and pay attention.

We had heard that in Dorze it was possible to do a good cultural tour in the village and that this is one area where they have managed to handle the influx of tourists well. From Lake Abaya it went up and up to Dorze Lodge at 2300 meters, and from up there it was incredible views over the Rift Valley and the lakes.

From the lodge we booked a tour through the village and we visited a Dorze family. The family showed us their home and they prepared some traditional food made from the false banana tree. Dorze is famous in Ethiopia for their weaving. The women are spinning from cotton that they buy from the lowland and the men are weaving. Here, the son in the family is demonstrating the weaving technique for us.

It was really interesting to see and meet the Dorze people, but we still do not know if this is the right way to do it. It could be that it is just us, but we don’t feel totally comfortable visiting people this way. It feels strange to pay people money to see their houses and a little bit of their life. But it is also an opportunity for this family to make some money from tourists coming to their area. To turn it around, if you wanted to learn about the Norwegian culture, national costumes, and the Norwegian way of living, you would visit a museum. In Africa there are not so many museums that display this, so the only way to learn some is to meet the people in their daily life. Would you allow a tour group into your home to show them how you live and how you prepare dinner?

Before going in to Addis Ababa and starting the visa process we wanted a few relaxing days. We found the perfect place at Lake Langano where we could camp on the beach by a red lake. Most rivers and lakes in Eastern Africa have the bilharzia parasite, but Langano do not and is therefore safe for swimming. So for the first time since Zanzibar we had some relaxing days on the beach.

Next stop Addis Ababa.

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