Ethiopia I

Ethiopia

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Ethiopia – first impresion

Border Crossing

On the Ethiopian side we spent around 2 hours. Immigration office outside looked like some brick-clay hut, but inside the first thing we noticed was a row of computers with some very professional-looking devices plugged into them (and not a single immigration official in sight). One of these devices looked like a passport-sized open flatbed scanner, the other one like a cyclops-eye mounted on a single chicken leg, to those with less imagination it might have looked like a webcam… Having waited good 10 minutes for someone to show up and then another 15 for their computers to start, we were then told these devices were ther to scan our fingers and eyes (yup folks, fingerprint scanners and Logitech-branded iris scanners in a small hut in the middle of the African bush-land!) . Anyway, the processing of the passport + visa and the scans were easy enough and took around half and hour.

Visa to Ethiopia: We got our visas in Berlin – and it was a multiple entry visa valid for 6 months, for which we paid 35 Euros. Charlie explained in the Embassy that we would be travelling through Africa overland, hence it was impossible to say when we would get to Ethiopia and with visias for tourists being valid only 3 months from the issue date they would be useless for us. He also explained that from the information gathered by us it was impossible for Polish citzens to obtain their visa anywhere else than 1) at Addis Abeba airport or 2) Berlin. Somehow they were nice enough to issue us (within 1 hour!) visas exclusive to foreign nationals of Ethiopian origins which offered extended validity. We were officialy declared Ethiopians 🙂

Customs – Well, we arrived at wrong time as they had lunch and they said we needed to wait till they finish their break. Terri asked them politely whether they could do an exception as we had long way to go and she really didn’t want to drive after dark. That didn’t quite work – Lunch is lunch. Finally, someone started checking our car papers and the cars (Carnet de passage is essential in Ethiopia) Additionally, for a first time we needed to declare what kind of electronic devices we had. So all laptops, cameras and gps’es had to be signed into the Ethiopian carnet-slip!

Ethiopia – first impression!

Here you have Ethiopia in 4 minutes:) It shows what you can really expect from that country:)

Ethiopian border is like a gate to the totally different world! And I seriously mean it:D Suddenly, everything has changed

1) The Weather

After the dry and arid lowland desertswith their extreme climate (Egypt in excess of 50°C/120°F in the shade,  Sudan 45°C/110°F) it was so nice to enter this mountainous land with it’s soothing, refreshing, cool climate! It was a bit of a shock for our bodies as the temperatures rapidly changed from down to 20°C/70°F in the daytime, and sometimes less than 10°C/50°F when it rained in the night time.

2) The landscape

After more or less 20 km from the border the landscape rapidly changed. For nearly two months mostly what we had been seeing was desert, sand, rocks…In Ethiopia just after border crossing you are welcomed by highland and lush green landscape, which is seriously amazing

3)Roads

In Sudan, there was almost no people walking on the roads. Ethiopia – roads are full of people and their herds of cattle. Like in Egypt we needed to be careful of other cars and drivers,  in Ethiopia we really had to watch out not to run somebody over. It looks that lots of people cannot afford to buy a car or even a bicycle, therefore tarmac roads are used for just walking.

Our first destination in Ethiopia was Gondar, and before we left the border we had checked on GPS the distance and estimated time to that city. It was less than 200 km and sort of 3 hours of driving. Unfortunately it was just a prediction!  Shame, that GPS doesn’t have an option of taking into consideration all road obstacles while calculates the route. As I wrote: the roads were full of people, cows, donkeys, kids shouting to you or at your car…We were stopping more or less every 500 meters, and that caused lots of delays in our drive. Although we needed to be seriously careful on the road, we were enjoining beautiful scenery of Ethiopian mountains. Unfortunately the sun went down sooner than we expected and we had to drive in the dark. Driving in Ethiopia in the darkness is very challenging and not really recommended as there is no streets lights, lot of pot holes and the closer to the city, the greater amount of people on the streets (You need to be extra careful)

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Gondar – centuries – old castles, machiatto and note of indian cuisine

Gondar is an ancient historical and royal city of Ethiopia. It is also known as the „Camelot of Africa” due to presence of several classical, centuries-old, stone castles and palaces. Gondar was a home or many emperors and princesses from the 12th century to the last decade of the 20th century.

We arrived to Gondar after dark. We have read that the best place to overnight in town was Belegez Pension (quite famous among overlanders). We couldn’t find the place, however some local boy jumped on Terri’s car and he was pointing directions to that guest house. When we reached Belegez Pension, it turned out to be the tourist hot spot. It didn’t have a camping site, but enough space on the courtyard to just park and go to sleep. We paid around 100 birrs per car, per night. In the evening we had first beer since, probably Hungary and we were chatting with travellers and backpackers, who were staying there. We have met many awesome people!

Next morning the weather was very nice, so we went for a walk around the town. And the fun just started…Lots of kids were walking behind/next/in front of us and they were shouting „Birr,Birr, Birr”, „You, you,you”, „Pen,pen,pen” or „You, Farangi”(you,foreigner!) and asking for things like: „ Give me money”, „give me sweets”, „t-shirt”, „buy me shoes”or ”buy me food”. We were sort of beset by kids! We also noticed that Ethiopians love buying fresh chickens, but fresh chicken in Ethiopian style means: hang poor, still alive chicken upside down, tie its legs to a stick and walk around the town! (It looked sort of like walking shops with livestock).

The weather in the morning was beautiful, but in the afternoon it changed and it started to rain heavily. We were lucky as we were sitting on the roof top of one of the restaurants and drinking one of the best machiatto’s in the world, which cost us only 0.30 USD

Historical curiosity:

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa and one of the oldest in the world. The country held onto its freedom from colonial rule with the exception of the Italian occupation from 1936 through 1941. Moreover, lots of people believed that Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. According to some experts the indigenous coffee trees (which are the only native coffee tree in the world) firstly grew in ancient Abyssinia – present Ethiopia. „These trees blossomed in an area called “Kaffa” and the trees were called “Kafa,” which may as well be the root word for coffee. In the tenth century, coffee was considered a food” (Ethiopia Coffee and Trade, 1997). As a result of Italian influence, machiattos and cappuccinos  are very popular in the whole country and they are amazingly  delicious. To us one of the best coffees we have ever tasted.

Regarding food, in Gondar we tried for a first time SAMOSA – fried pastry with lentils and also donaughts , which were very similar to these traditional from Poland, but without icing.

In Gondar we were also told that there was a really good car mechanic, who can mend everything. Terri went there to ask whether they could do something to fix the damage on their Cruiser. Charlie decided to accompany her and, since we agreed to wait with her anyway, asked if they were able to correct Rusty’s wheel alignment as he noticed that Rusty wasn’t driving very straight any more and our tyres were getting excessively worn on their sides. Having had a really good experience so far with recommended garages and since our „friend from the guest house” was with us and helping translate, Charlie made the mistake which we were warned never to make in Africa. We didn’t agree the price beforehand…   It took them less than an hour and we were fairly impressed as all they used was a couple of spanners, a piece of a string and some elbow grease. All was well until the time came to pay for the services. We knew the issue was easy to fix, anywhere in Europe it’d have cost max 20USD and would have been done correctly using laser-sensors and a computer. Seemingly, in a country where a full plate of food costs you 2USD, a roof over your head 5USD and a „female companion” probably no more than 10USD, as soon as one gets a spanner he can ask 80USD for a simple and only roughly-good repair… Suddenly the guy who brought us there turned out not to know the mechanic so well any more, then suddenly didn’t even know English well enough to mediate in negotiations either. Settling on a smaller, yet still high enough to pi** you off, sum we were off again. It was not the first, nor the last time in Africa that Charlie thought to himself that he would tatoo „TiA” on his forehead before our journey’s end. THIS IS AFRICA.

On the other hand when I was waiting with Terri till her car would be done a little girl appeared (the daughter of the head mechanic) and started to chat with Terri and me. She was so cute and polite. Plus, her English was very good. At the end of our talk she gave me her bracelet saying: „I give you this bracelet you always remember me and never forget my country. These are colours of Ethiopia yellow red and green…”. I never took photo of her, but meeting her was really something unbelievably great. She was a brilliant exception from the rest of kids in town who were chasing us at every occasion

Shoes cleaning services – This sort of street job in Ethiopia is very common. I needed to clean my shoes after getting stuck in Sudan, as they were covered by dried up mud, sticky and stinky. I paid 50 birrs and I  received very clean, shiny and white speakers back .

In Gondar as well we managed to organise 6 months insurance valid for most of African countries, we were planning to visit. We got a really great price deal for COMESA INSURANCE, which is commonly accepted. You pay once (We paid 60USD for half a year) and you don’t have to worry about insurance till you reach The Southern African Customs Union (SACU) countries.

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Green, Green and… Green – The Simien Mountains, Kossoye and baboons

We left Gondar and we headed north as we wanted to visit the magnificent Simien Mountains National Park, which is the best place in Ethiopia for trekking, admiring stunning panoramas (plateaus and peaks reaching over 4000m) and also it is home of the intriguing gelada baboons, which we really wanted to see.

The road leading north was sort of difficult (no wonder that tourists prefer fly from Addis to Axum). Almost as soon as we left Gondar the tar run out. As we followed the ever ascending dusty track it was winding and twisting through the hills. The worst parts were the curves, and we must have gone through thousands of these there! There was no straight bit in sight for the whole drive and each curve had its surface washed out from the torrential downpours so it was like going through an old-school washing board made out of kerb stones… all this driving in 2nd gear max 40km/h. As we ascended higher and higher the air was getting thinner and thinner and Rusty was getting ever fewer oxygen delivered to the engine so it was no point in stressing the engine to go any faster. Sometimes we passed eminent signs of oncoming development of these remote areas… as well as the Chinese expansion in Africa – teams of local road builders lead by Chinese and utilising Chinese machinery. And for some reason our Chinese „friends” didn’t like to have their photos taken… As we neared our destination, well above 3000m above sea level (3 times the height of Ben Nevis!) we encountered packets of thick fog. As we descended into the grey darkness  of their fluffiness and suddenly one of them was simply blown away by the not-so-strong wind we realised something – we were driving in the clouds!

We finally never reached Siemens Mountains National Park as the weather was getting worse and we were worried about our Rusty. We stopped in Kossoye – really small village on the mountain edge. We camped in Kossoye Eco Lodge, which was absolutely beautiful and seriously eco and environmentally friendly. We were sleeping in the small mud field in front of luxurious rooms, which we paid 10 USD for, per car (after half an hour price negotiating over the phone with the manager, who wanted to charge us much more for only parking our cars in the mire). People who were working there were very nice. They made a fire to warm us up. It was pleasant evening, although it was cold and raining .

The weather next morning was absolutely beautiful, so we decided to do half a day trekking in the mountains (It wasn’t the National Park, but it was still in the Siemien Mountains, where views were incredible amazing). Anyway, the walk was great – spectacular scenery and plenty of gelada baboons, which kept safe distance between us.

Short video from trekking – lots of gelada baboons

In the afternoon the weather changed again and it was cloudy and rainy later on. We decided to turn around and head back toward our  next destination Bahir Dar and Lake Tana

Photos from the road

The road full of winding curves

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Bahir Dar – Ethiopian Riviera

Bahir Dar (meaning: sea shore) is one of the leading tourist destination in Ethiopia, with diverse attractions in the Lake Tana and Blue Nile river. Due to the fact that Ethiopia doesn’t have an access to the sea, Bahir Dar is known as the Ethiopian Riviera.

We were camping at the Ghion Hotel, which is actually located on the shore of the Lake Tana. We paid 100 Birrs per car/per night and we got a nice spot to stay overnight. Additionally, we were given a key to a room, where we could take a HOT shower. The Ghion Hotel is definitely recommended to stay!

We didn’t spend much time in Bahir Dar itself, but in our opinion it is quite pleasant town. We went on the local market, where we bought plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (and we weren’t ripped off). Moreover, we discovered different kind of samosas: with rice and potatoes mixed with veggies (Potatoes samosas – the best)

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Where the Nile falls down – The Blue Nile Falls

The  Blue Nile Falls –  an amazing waterfall on the Blue Nile River.  The impressive plums of mist bellowing from the depths of falls led Ethiopians to name it Tis Abay, which in Amharic means „smoking water”.  The path to the falls starts west of the ticket office. After couple of rocky footpaths there is a 17th-centurury Portuguese bridge, which I am mentioning about as it was the first stone bridge constructed in Ethiopia and it is really beautiful.

Blue Nile Falls are around 30 km from Bahir Dar (10 km on tarred road and 20 km on gravel, muddy, bumpy/corrugated road) The scenery around is really beautiful, but the road itself horrible. One way drive to the Falls took us more than 2 hours! Yeap, We did 20 km in 2 hours!!! Even kids who were running behind or along our Rusty, sometimes were faster than us and they were overtaking our van! Seriously!! Although, driving was frustrating we were enjoying landscapes and villages. Kids were rather nice and except shouting: „pen, pen, pen”, „you, you, you”, „give me money”,„give me cold water” or „bon, bon (give me some sweets)” they mostly were friendly waving towards us”. There was only one bizarre child, who was throwing some animal poo into our and Terri’s car. His throwing was really well-aimed as later on we noticed animal dung splattered on the back of our vehicles. Not nice!!

After bumpy drive we finally reached the ticket office. We paid entrance fee (it didn’t cost much, 30 Birrs or so) and 10 Birrs to a guy for watching our car. And of course we got surrounded by local kids and teenagers who were offering themselves as our tour guides. We refused any kind of guidance and help, but it didn’t really matter to them as  they anyway walked with us.  There were two kids who spoke English quite well; one of them was walking with Terri and one with Charlie. Due to the rainy season, the whole place was very slippery and muddy. My shoes unfortunately were not gripped enough and all the time I was being left behind. Because of that I also needed to deal with rest of the kids, who were nice but persistent as well. One girl was really cute and asked me if I could take her to my country and adopt her as my child or sister. Adorable:)

One of the attraction to us was walking through a suspension bridge (sort of new construction over there). While I was looking down, someone told us that recently a donkey fell into the river and drowned. Really sad story!

We spent around 1,5 hours at the Blue Nile Falls. Because of the rainy season the waterfall was very full of waters and looked very powerful – amazing views! When we got back to our cars, my „not that long ago clean shoes” were covered by mud again.  A group of teenagers came to us and one of the boys asked whether he could clean my shoes. I answered that because of that bad weather it was pointless as they would get dirty again very soon. Then he said that actually he really liked my speakers and asked me if I could give them to him, because he never had proper shoes and he want to become a professional Olympic runner. It was really sad to refuse– but on the other hand they were not able to understand that I didn’t have any spare pair of proper shoes with me.

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Boat trip on the Lake Tana and its island monasteries

After the long, day trip to the Blue Nile Falls, we decided to leave Rusty at the campsite and take a boat trip on the Lake Tana and visit some of the Monasteries which were built on the lake islands. Because we have heard that there is plenty of tourists hustlers offering the cheapest and the best boat services, we finally arranged our trip at the Ghion Hotel. We paid 200 birrs each and that included the boat, stops at 4 islands and visiting one of the monasteries inside.

Lake Tana – the largest lake in Ethiopia and also the source of the Blue Nile, which flows over 5200 km north to the Mediterranean Sea. During the rainy season the waters are not really blue, but the lake still looks beautiful and its shores are even greener and lusher than in dry season.

Many monasteries on Lake Tana islands are dated from from 16th/17th centuries and remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and treasures of the Ethiopian Churches are still kept there. Woman can only visit certain monasteries and the priests really obey that rule (On one of the islands Terri and  me were politely asked to stay at the shore, we were not allowed to go further). We stopped at the four different islands, but we explored only one church – Ura Kidane Mehret (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) located on the Zege Peninsula.We were told that this is the most popular and very beautifully painted monastery, and this is true – it is a compendium of Ethiopian religious iconography.

On the rest of the islands we stopped on, we were only walking and we were only able to see churches outside (Not that  interesting, but  islands themselves were amazing – proper jungle which we really enjoyed even it was raining)

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