Addis, and Northwards...
The trouble with the Swedish mission where I
was staying was that it was just too comfortable. In the end I waited until
Jonas and Nina, the Swedes I'd met in Nairobi, arrived before heading North,
but not before an exceptional night at the Hilton where I saw an American
jazz ensemble called Either/Orchestra playing a series of
Ethiopian-influenced numbers, along with a bunch of local guest stars.
Eventually I tore myself away and after a
couple of days on deteriorating roads found myself in Lalibella, home of the
rock hewn churches. Lalibella is a pretty ugly town, with more touts that I
was used to, as well as a pervasive odour of human excreta. Electricity and
all-weather roads have arrived in the last decade - I suppose a sewer system
is next on the list.
The churches are impressive, especially as
they are still in active use (and abuse) by the local monks and clergy. Our
introduction to Orthodox rituals was a genuine exorcism - a pre-pubescent
girl was being exorcised with the famous cross of Lalibella - normally kept
hidden away. The MO seemed to be to press the cross against her chest while
she screamed her heart out. Not one of the faint hearted, but it's pretty
amazing to watch that sort of ritual in the 21st century.
I managed by luck to have timed my visit to
coincide with Saint George's day - this meant that here was a festival of
sort - including a religious parade that ended at the church - all very
Apart from the town there are a load of
churches hidden away in the countryside around town - some are hardly ever
visited, but are pretty impressive all the same. I found it was strange to
be able to gaze across the desiccated remains of monks of ages past that lay
scattered around some of the churches - it's a whole new experience to stub
your bare toe on an exposed cranium protruding from the dirt beneath your
Lalibella is known for it's lousy hotels,
but I was amazed that the place I'd chosen, the Asheton, seemed to treat
it's customers as hostages - your bill seemed designed to elicit dispute -
and their response was simply to say that they wouldn't open the gates for
your vehicle until you submitted to their extortion. One dispute
involved a Dutch couple who had left their vehicle in the car-park until
3:30pm and were then asked to pay for an extra night as they had over-stayed
the 12:00pm check-out time. This seems to be an unfortunately common theme
in town - what you agree when you arrive and what you are expected to pay at
the end are different things - perhaps you should write down a contract...
Anyway - avoid the Asheton - the Seven Olives offers better views anyway.
Hopefully the locals may eventually get the idea...
Heading East then North again I made pretty
good time to Mekele, a thriving town, where I camped at a posh hotel after
which I looped to the West to visit some of the Tigray group of churches. I
spent the night at Adigrat - a bit of a dump where I got into an argument
with a tyre-moron (it's a profession unique to Ethiopia) who wanted to
change his prices after finishing the job (badly). Tyres are now an issue
once more. The new Goodyear Wranglers are hopeless - the two at the back are
new yet both were punctured along the =centre-line by stones - it just
shouldn't happen, but a t least the old Michelins I've been carrying since
Namibia seem well built enough to handle the roads. Add to this the problem
that nobody outside of Addis has the faintest idea about how to repair
tubeless tyres (especially when they arrive on alloy rims) and I've got
En route to Axum in Debre Damo, a
spectacular monastery on a plateau with the most amazing views across to
Eritrea. To get into the monastery you have to follow a winding road up into
the mountains, then climb up a sheer cliff aided by a hide-rope that stinks
of goat and fear. Worse still - the sweaty hands of ages past have made the
rope particularly smooth and slippery at the difficult bits - a twenty meter
fall awaits the weak-fingered. It's worth it though - the solitude of the
place is a relief for weary travellers with shaking arms.
From there I continued North then West to
Axum, the ancient centre of a long-spent civilisation, along roads that hug
the cliffs and are very marvels of engineering. Therein lies a conundrum.
These magnificent constructions were built without the aid of modern
engineering, helicopters, and the like. Clearly the roads , which were
supposedly built by the Italians in the thirties, are actually well beyond
their organisational and engineering capabilities. There is a growing body
of thought that suggests that the Italians were in fact assisted by
extraterrestrials. I reserve my opinion.
Axum is a pleasant little town with pretty
reserved and considerate people who won't hassle you to death. On the
journey up I had picked up a deaf hitchhiker, and from Debre Damo I got
myself a blind monk dressed in yellow (Don't know what happened to the third
monkey). I arrived bearing the monk at the cathedral, and to the amazement
of the local touts who had gathered I was made to kneel and receive a
blessing from the monk - this seemed to impress the hell out of them, and
after that they treated me with cautious respect.
The following day I spent wandering around
the ruins with a very amenable guide by the name of Birhann Desta, who came
free from the tourist information centre (tip expected of course). Birhann
didn't seem to mind my meandering approach to the tour, which involved
stopping often for fool, tea, coffee, incense, and later the local brew in
some flea-ridden shebeen. I actually enjoyed Axum more than Lalibella -
largely because I was able to park in the quiet and shady grass compound of
the Kaleb hotel and get a little well-earned rest.
From Axum I set of West then South, passing
through the Simien mountains. The road carries you from mountain pass to
mountain pass, and winds in all directions - I found it easiest to use low
ratio for the ascents - it seemed that I was losing power though at this
point I put it down the poor fuel and altitude.
I sopped at the forgettable Debark for the
night, and while I dearly wanted to go trekking to see the Gelada Baboons,
time was pressing and I decided to try my monkey luck along the road -
unfortunately without any success.
Known for it's medieval castes (actually
most are later than that) Gonder is a sprawling city with nowhere that can
repair tubeless tyres. Oh, and there are a few castes.
I actually quite enjoyed the town, but it
wasn't really what I expected from a regional capital - too small, dusty,
and too much hassle for tourists. The castle viewing was good for a few
hours, but by now I think that Ethiopia, and the Ethiopians) were
beginning to wear thin for me. I found a hotel that had pretty clean showers
and hot water, but it was expensive. It did however offer the welcome
company of a few travellers that I'd met before - Steven the Swissie who I'd
net in Namibia and who had travelled through Angola before me, and
Dirk and Nanda, a Dutch couple who I'd met in Botswana.
I'd been trying to get hold of Steven as I
knew he was somewhere in East Africa (and let's face it, it's a pretty small
place), but I found him recumbent with a broken pelvis after getting
squashed under his own bike the day before. Nanda is a doctor, so between us
we managed to look after him pretty well (I was mostly used for the toilet
trips) while we waited for the Swiss to organise his evacuation back home.
Bummer, but knowing Steven it won't keep him down for long.
Nanda and Dirk were also heading on to
Sudan - they were talking about skipping Egypt (the prices seem to have gone
up again) and going through Saudi - we decided to travel in convoy anyway
which as it turned out was just as well. the next morning at 6:30am we set
of West for the border...