Our first few days in Addis were spent fruitlessly trying to organize rental cars and trips to southern Ethiopia. We wanted to go visit the people of the Omo Valley, one of the most isolated tribes left on earth, however, the area is almost inaccessible and costs a small fortune to arrange. However we got a good feeling for the city with Toms friend Seifu helping us get settled in. After much deliberation about the Omo Valley we decided to forego the trip to the south in favour of a trip to lake Tana and the North. To begin we endured a grueling 14 hr minibus ride with 16 people and a baby, in a vehicle comfortable for 6 people. Tom was in great discomfort as he was effectively cooked by the motor which it turned out he was sitting on top of. On the pleasantly scenic drive to Bahir Dar we were fortunate enough to witness the Blue Nile gorge complete with several overturned trucks. A fair number of burnt out tanks from the civil wars of the 80’s were visible on the side of the road, sadly we never got any pictures of. We arrived in the beautiful lake side town of Bahir Dar (meaning “beside the lake” in Amharic). Our hotel was like a Garden of Eden, complete with large fig trees that the hotel had built around and an impressive array of tropical birds. We had great views across Ethiopia’s largest lake which is teeming with hippos, crocodiles and 10-foot wingspan Pelicans. We spent our days walking around the lake, taking boat tours to the source of the Nile, (Lake Tana is one of two lakes in Africa that combine their waters to make the Nile River) watching hippo’s and gigantic pelicans, exploring some of the numerous monasteries in the lakeside area, as well as meeting all manner of folks from around the world. Our friend Bisrat (the owner of the hotel), introduced us to a semi-addictive, cocaine like stimulant leaf known as quat. It is extremely popular (and legal) in this area and is a cultural experience to behold. We spent several days chewing quat and chatting with our new found rag-tag local friends. The nightlife was spectacular; we must have done our hair properly, as we couldn’t shake off all the women with a stick. It was tempting, tantalizing and torturous. We had over 30 offers of marriage in as many minutes, well, not really, but had we understood Amharic that might have been what they were saying. We spent some quality time making new friends and exploring the local area, including the less than spectacular Blue Nile Falls, at one time the second largest waterfall in Africa, (after Victoria Falls in Zambia) it has now been reduced to two small flows, each only a few metres wide. It used to be almost 600 metres across before a large Hydro-Electric Dam reduced the flow down to what we saw, as well as the lack of rain-fall in Ethiopia over the last few years. All in all the day’s in Bahir Dar were thoroughly enjoyed, however, we eventually found it high time to leave with our new friends Daisy and Joyce.
The four of us had decided to take the road less traveled and we got spots on a local cargo ship across Laka Tana. As almost no faranji’s (tourists) take this boat, it gave us a great opportunity to see some parts of Ethiopia where the local populace had never seen outsiders. Stopping on islands and small little villages and markets along the way we were bombarded by children all fighting for a position next to us. As the trip was scheduled to be 2 days long, we had to spend a night in a small town called Konzula. After catching a soccer game with a troop of local fanatical children we retired to our “hotel” there. Although its difficult to complain after only paying $2/night, we felt we got ripped off. We also can’t complain that the toilets or showers didn’t work since these had been reduced to nothing more than a tumultuously sour pit dug out near the back of the hotel. However, the bathrooms weren’t too difficult to deal with, after realizing that the walls themselves were constructed from the excrement of local livestock. To punctuate it all off, as Tom swung shut the corrugated tin door to his room he was none too surprised to see both a stash of used condoms and a large contingent of near tarantula sized spiders nesting on the back of his door. Fortunately Dan only woke up with bed bug bites all over his body, whereas Tom was also subjected to spider bites to compliment his bed bug bites, including a clearly defined fang mark on his ear-lobe. The sound of the rats scurrying throughout the walls only added to the hilarity of the situation. The second day on the boat was no less eventful, but the sunstroke was borderline life threatening. Our day was spent chasing meager bastions of shade in a futile effort to avoid early-onset skin cancer. Another task on the boat was learning how to avoid the constant barrage of 3 and 5 word conversations with the locals. We were all too happy to arrive late that evening in Gorgora.
The only accommodations in Gorgora are the eerily vacant, yet beautiful government hotel where the local staff essentially kicked us out after indulging in the local alcoholic vinegar (wine) with Daisy and Joyce who we got along with famously. The next day we hitched a ride with a local black market tef dealer into the ancient capital city of Gonder. A slightly more impressive city than most, being dominated by a huge 16th century castle as well as the most famous church in the universe (amongst Ethiopians). The castle was among the more impressive of Ethiopians historical sites and the fact that nobody was there made it that much more intriguing. It was one of the most unique castles either of us had ever seen, with a style all its own as well as old lions cages and accessible dungeons and torture chambers. That night we went out with a bang, saying goodbye to our fellow explorer’s Daisy and Joyce whom we will always have a fond place in our hearts for. We departed Gonder in all too familiar circumstances; horrible local transportation. In a once again over crowded bus ride we endured a spine jarring 4 hour bus ride along roads that could be described as motocross tracks, capped off by a local superstition that open windows blow in diseases and sickness. This particular superstition was among the most frustrating and irrational beliefs to deal with in this kind of situation.
We arrived in Debark and organized our trip for the Simien Mountains the next day. Debark is the launching point for trekking into the Simien Mountains. It was to be a 5 day, 96km hike up to 4000m above sea level (which is 400m higher then the highest mountain peak in Alberta; Mount Columbia). Our trek included 1 guide, 1 local ak-47 wielding armed security-guard, 1 cook, 2 mules and their mulemen; for the price of $30/day each. Day 1 was a grueling 30km incline up to the first base camp. Starting out from the town of Debark with our 7 man contingent we made our way out through the villages and onto the steep incline up the face of the plateau. The gorges drop off on all sides around, and literally thousands of baboons abound in the area. The baboons are extremely approachable and you can literally walk amongst them. They are the Gelada Baboon and they only live in Ethiopia. The park also includes the very illusive Ethiopian Wolf (also endemic to Ethiopia), Hyena’s and the extremely rare Mountain Leopard (there are thought to be about 10 of them in the whole park). After an unbelievable rainstorm and a night of heavy drinking with a group of 22 Slovenians we bedded down in our dank and moist army-issue canvas tent. The next morning Tom had seen enough after witnessing scores of the baboons and seeing plenty of scenery the previous day, he chalked it up to a success after completing perhaps the most difficult hike in his life, in one of the most amazing places. Tom decided to spend the next 3 days back in Debark where he made quite a name for himself experimenting with multiple local beverages, including honey-wine and a Pennzoil flavored fermented ‘beer’ called Tala. The second day of Dan’s hike took him through amazing scenery including large mountain waterfalls, and groups of baboons 300 at a time. 13km later Dan arrived at the second base camp named Gich. It was a timely arrival as rain and hail continued to fall for the next 8 hours. The 3rd day took Dan to one of the most amazing sights he had ever seen; Imet Gogo. At 4000m above sea level and a direct cliff-like drop off, with all manner of large birds circling around Dan was in awe. The rest of the day was spent hiking back to Gich camp, where almost immediately after arrival the rains and hail started again. That night, Dan was visited by all manner of fleas and ticks, adding to the bed bug bites to give Dan’s skin a slightly small-pox-like look. The fourth day was a hellacious day of trekking. Instead of breaking the hike back to Debark into 2 days, Dan and his team decided to go 42km all the way back to Debark in a single day. Easily the most difficult hike in Dan’s life, upon reaching Debark he promptly collapsed into a shivering pile of cold flesh resembling a pile of dirty laundry.
After their reunion, Tom and Dan headed all the way back to Bahir Dar by bus the next day. Halfway into the 7 hour bus ride, our vehicle came to a herking-jerking halt. The human and material cargo was strewn out onto the baking highway in the hopes of tagging a ride with some local traffic. After hitching with some locals, we ended up back at our favourite hotel in Bahir Dar to much fanfare. It was great to be “home” where Bizrat took care of us again, and included a free night and meals voucher courtesy of Ethiopian airlines as they had screwed up our $40 flights organized for the next day. We were supposed to leave for the Rock hewn churches of Lalibela but al-hamd’allah we had to stay for another night. We spent a wonderful day with 4 cantankerous British individuals who were attempting to ride their bicycles from Cairo to Cape Town. The four of them had an awkward relationship with each other and were all to eager to break bread and swill gin with the two of us. It slowly turned into a raucous night of boozing after a few hours sipping gin in the gardens and listening to sweet, sweet melodies. Most unmemorable was the 5 am wake up call to catch our flight the next morning to Lalibella.
Despite methanol induced hangovers Lallibella was a quaint and quietly impressive town. Built around twelve ancient rock hewn churches (averaging 900 years old), carved out on all 4 sides from the bedrock in the area. The churches had a truly ancient feeling and more impressively was the monks who still attend to them. In the rocky walls were ancient hermits burrows, carved out to just fit a single monk who would sometimes spend a life-time being fed through a small hole, where he would study the bible endlessly. Still utilized daily as a Christian place of worship, the churches are a sight to behold. We boarded another $40/40min flight back to the place where it all began; the new flower (Addis Ababa). We decided to pamper ourselves with our first meal costing more than $10 at what some claim to be the most luxurious hotel in Africa; the Sheraton Addis. Parked out front was a $600,000 Maybach (one of the most expensive passenger vehicles available to man-kind). Tom started this sentence with a “T” and ended it with a period, as you can see here. And that’s as current as it gets.