Omo Valley

Danakil Depression

Historical Route

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21.12.2010

Going where? Facing many dilemmas!

Ethiopia was very high on our “travelling list” for some years. Besides, we were craving to go back to Africa, a continent we both love to travel. For a while, we were even contemplating to dare Eritrea, but the hassle of getting permits for every town made it undoable in the 17 days we had. Naturally, our first plan was to do the Historic Circuit, visiting the countless churches and monasteries as well as discovering the glorious past of the Abyssinian Empire in Bahir Dar, Gonder, Lalibela and Axum. This route promised an intact...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

21.12.2010

Ethiopia - “Tierra Incognita”

We are used to our friends rolling their eyes when we spell out the next travel destination. “Colombia? But that is dangerous!” or “Mali? Where is that?” Ethiopia triggered remarks like “Why do you go there?”, “What is there to see?” or “But it is only a desert!” This country is still often associated with the horrible images of the great famine in 1985 - 1986 and the war against Eritrea. It required a lot of explanations about the great culture of the only country in Africa that was not colonized. The Omo Valley and the Danakil...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

22.12.2010

Travelling under the weather

The days previous to our departure for Ethiopia, we spent in Paris celebrating the 100th birthday of Gilles’ grandmother. As well covered by the media, this very weekend some European airports resembled disaster zones rather than first world transit hubs because of a few centimeters of snow. Going to Paris took us 10 hours, coming back to Vienna turned into a 35 hour journey with a night in Zurich! Only one day after this nerve-racking experience, our flight to Addis Abeba via Cairo took on similar epic dimensions. We felt safe...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

23.12.2010

Trading a day in Addis Abeba for the Pyramids

Instead of relaxing at least one day in Addis Abeba before heading towards the Omo Valley, we were determined to make the most of our day in Cairo. Even though this stop-over came as a total surprise, we did not have to think twice about what to do there. More challenging was to get a feeling for prices so quickly. We were constantly approached by cab drivers who offered to take us to the Great Pyramids, the Bazaar and the Archaeological Museum. Soon we figured that about 25 Euros was the going rate for newly arrived tourists to be...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

24.12.2010

Jingles bells in Arba Minch

Even in Egypt and Ethiopia we could not escape from these nerve-raking Xmas tunes we tread so much. “Holy Night Silent Night” was on the top charts at the hotel in Cairo and also the Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch figured that the Faranji cannot do without it. A decorated Christmas tree and fake presents wrapped in glossy paper dominated the dining room. Even so-called Christmas cookies were served. Of course we enjoyed the grand, very comfortable rooms and excellent restaurant but it took us some time to get used to being among tour...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

25.12.2010

Up hill to the Dorze village …

A day’s drive south of Addis and near the city of Arba Minch the road twists and winds up to a chilly 3.000 meters. This is where the Dorze live in tall beehive-shaped huts. These are made from organic material only, bamboo sticks for support and grass and false banana leaves woven in-between. They can be as high as 12 meters and are thus surprisingly spacious inside; a fireplace for cooking, room for people and livestock. The dome-like dwellings can be uplifted and moved if termites attack or the bottom is rotting away. Like in...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

25.12.2010

… and down to Lake Chamo

That afternoon a fisherman took us out on Lake Chamo, the more southerly of the two Riff Valley Lakes near Arba Minch. Matthew could not be convinced to leave later, at around 04:00 pm, when it was cooler and the light less aggressive. Nope, the crocodile and the hippos would be gone, he insisted. All in all it was a great trip. The small boat got us really close to amazing birds, crocodiles big and small, some lazily sleeping, others stomping around in peaceful coexistence with large colonies of pelicans. The hippos gave us a...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

26.12.2010

The gated communities of the Konso

The town of Karat-Konso is the gateway to the Lower Omo Valley. Its downtown is basically a giant roundabout, no kidding… There we picked up the permit to visit the nearby village of Mecheke, which sits on top of a little hill. It is not surrounded by one, but by several walls. Naturally the Konso, the local ethnic group of the same name, built these for defending themselves against attacks from other tribes. As the village grew, huts were built outside the walls, and at some point a new wall was built around the huts outside. By...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

26.12.2010

Being tested by the Arbore people

The road from Karat-Konso to Turmi runs through the territory of the Arbore people, who are famous for their colorful traditional clothes and their distinctive jewelry. One of the Arbore villages is close to the road, which has made it the very stop over for tourists marveling at this ethnic group. By now the villagers have become pros in extracting Birr for every click. Every click? They count them! For us this place was the true initiation rite for the Omo Valley “Ethno Circuit”. Once we stopped outside the village, hell broke...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

27.12.2010

One Photo? - 2 Birr!

Of course we had read about this “Birr for Photos” business that has evolved in the Omo Valley over the last couple of years. But no matter how well prepared you think you are, it is very challenging! Especially since it is never exactly the same, every village has its own rules. The only common denominator is Birr. Unfortunately, we did not manage to negotiate “flat rates”, as we had done in the past, for instance in Masai villages in Tanzania. There, for 20 US Dollars per person, we could visit the village and take as many...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

27.12.2010

Omo River Crossing

The hour long drive from Turmi to Omerate offers a bit of Safari feeling. Savannah with low growing shrubs is intercepted by the occasional termite mound pointing towards the sky like a chimney. Matthew stopped a few times to show us endemic birds, like the big Secretary bird, or Guinea fowls. Some shy Tik Tiks and mighty baboons turned this trip into a minor game drive. Although we spent almost an entire week in the Omo Valley, we got our first and only glimpse of the very river when we crossed it to visit the Dasanech people in...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

27.12.2010

Dasanech People - Across the Omo River

Once on the other side, the usual circus started. Everybody insisted to be photographed for 2 Birr. We truly mean everybody. Children were pulling our arms, legs, T-shirts, groups of girls were posing and elderly ladies simply shouted at us - the Arbore déjà vu… This time, hardened by our adventure in the Arbore village, we used our newly developed strategy. We picked the people that we wanted to photograph, but soon we were overwhelmed by the villagers big and small pleading for more photo-shooting. So much for our plan... The...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

28.12.2010

Questionsable Hamer traditions

There was not much to buy on the market in Turmi, mainly grain. Nevertheless hundreds of Hamer milled around, shopping, haggling and chatting, not particularly concerned with the few tourists stumbling around. They simply look stunning. Apart from their traditional customs, it is the hair-do of the women, who makes them stand out among the other tribes of the area. Ochre, water and resin is mixed together and rubbed into hair that is then twisted into what looks like coppery-colored dreadlocks. It is a sign of health and...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

28.12.2010

Bull - Jumping Ceremony

Rumors among the drivers spread quickly - a Bull - Jumping ceremony was taking place in the afternoon, near the dry river bed outside of the village. Matthew was all business, for no less than 25 US Dollars / 400 Birr per person, we could join, all photos included. This ceremony is so unique, only known in Hamer culture, that we swallowed hard and paid. Of course this included a guide, whose job it was to be at the very venue where Matthew took us. Basically he and Matthew were sharing the bounty. We wondered if any of this money...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

29.12.2010

Dimeka’s hidden secrets

There are not that many villages along the circular road that runs through the lower Omo Valley. Each of them, no matter how small, is exciting in its own way. Also Dimeka did not let us down. Hama women were squatting along the dusty road selling fire wood, watching every move we made. Such attention tempted Heidi. She wanted to return this interest and tried to pick up a bundle of wood, since we had often guessed how heavy these were. Women marching for hours with such a huge load on their back are an omnipresent sight in Africa....[more]

Category: Ethiopia

29.12.2010

Skillful Ari People

Around the town of Jinka is Ari territory. The village we visited late afternoon was just lovely, well kept with lots of fruits trees and very green. Of course a local guide joined us onsite, who had brought along an assistant, who had brought a traditional skirt made from small twigs. Quickly this was wrapped around Heidi hips and masqueraded like this we walked around escorted by throngs of children. Different to most other Omo tribes, these Ari do not dress in traditional clothes. They are extremely relaxed with foreigners,...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

29.12.2010

Down town Jinka

Jinka itself is a good size town whose center is dominated by an old grassy airstrip. Nowadays only small, private chartered plane land amid the small wooden stalls. There are a few hotels, standards are modest. Basically all tourists eat at the same restaurant. The museum up the hill must not be missed. It exhibits the work of young German and American PHD students. For their research they interviewed women of different ages from various ethnic groups. The topics all related to the every day lives of these women. The hard work they...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

30.12.2010

The Mursi - Lip Plates and Kalashnikovs

The most distinctive of all ethnic groups in the Omo Valley are the Mursi, famous for the huge Lip Plates the women are sporting. The bigger, the more beautiful… These disks made of wood or clay certainly are not comfortable to wear. So unless there is a special occasion women do without them. What is left then is a huge loop of shriveled lip dangling from the mouth, a rather irritating sight. Ear lobes are also stretched and scarification is highly desired, as with the Hamer. We had heard the wildest stories about the Mursi....[more]

Category: Ethiopia

30.12.2010

The Mursi’s love for Birr

Only at the second village things took their course. The Mursi stormed towards us when we got out of the cars, pulled and tugged, displayed scars, lips with and without plates, Kalashnikovs - Nobody wanted to be overlooked. Since all the Mursi from the area had gathered here, all tourists came here as well. After a while the village was sizzling with people. Money was passed around constantly. The Mursi must be sitting on thousands of single Birr, all new bills. They would not accept anything else. If one is a bit torn or an old...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

31.12.2010

Key Afar Market

A long procession of Banna people marching towards Key Afar was the first indication that it was market day in this tiny village. As always women were almost crushed under incredible heavy loads of firewood, maize and other produce, while men gingerly walked their goats to be sold like a pet. Actually there were two markets, one where only the animals were sold. This was a bit of a quiet affair - young Banna men were sitting under trees waiting for business. We watched a few of those sales, the goats are grouped all over, lifted,...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

31.12.2010

Ethiopian roads

The roads in the Omo Valley are typical for thousands of kilometers of roads in rural Ethiopia. The vehicles, mainly 4WD and a few public busses drive on a bumpy dirt road that runs along a brand new road under construction. All stages of roadwork can be seen. To prevent cars from driving on the unfinished road mid-sized stones are placed on the sandy surface. There must be millions of these of these “blocking stones” - How many hours it took to put them there and remove them we will never be able to guess! But the roads under...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

31.12.2010

New Year’s Eve in Addis Abeba

After the 9 hour long drive from Arba Minch, we felt more like sleeping it off, but firstly it was New Year’s and secondly, Yayehiyrad, the manager of Experience Ethiopia Travel, had invited us for a dinner with traditional dances to the Habesha 2000 Restaurant. We were a bit guarded expecting a tourist trap, but were pleasantly surprised to find a good mix of locals and tourists, a delicious Injera buffet and an outstanding dance show. A group of jolly business men from Sudan got the place rolling. Whenever the band would play...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

31.12.2010

Ethiopia - 8 days in the Omo Valley

There are not many places like this on this planet! Where do you find so many different cultures and ethnic groups in a relatively small area who still cling to their traditional way of life? This is absolutely unique, even the “Birr for Photo” business. The Omo Valley can only be travelled cheaply if you have lots of time and are willing to stay in very, very simple accommodations. Speaking Amharic helps if you expect more interaction than “eat - sleep - bus”. The bus service is still very infrequent and unreliable, and the few...[more]

Category: Ethiopia, Summaries

01.01.2011

Mekele - The Windy City

After the second attempt the plane managed to take off from Addis Abeba to Mekele, Ethiopia’s fifth largest city: the first attempt ended when the pilot abruptly interrupted the take off with engines already at full throttle. One engine failed, we learned later. From this chilly and windy city at 2.400 meters, we started our tour to the Danakil Depression. Our new travel companions, Stefan and Christina, had already checked out the town and introduced us to the best Italian restaurant there, a welcomed change after one week of...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

01.01.2011

Berahile - Police Station

The police station outside of the village was deserted. It was past 11:00 am and the heat had already brought life to a complete standstill. So Liza and Heidi went to look for the very chief to get our permit for the Danakil. The atmosphere in the village was not really pleasant. The jeep was soon surrounded by people and a kid grabbed a water bottle from inside the car. Hundreds of men just seemed to be hanging around, doing nothing in particular but staring at the two women, one of them driving a jeep! Besides issuing the permit,...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

01.01.2011

Hamed Ale - Living in the most hostile environment

Upon arrival in Hamed Ale, a simple hut made from branches was assigned to us by the village chief. Christos was furious. He had paid for something airier, a place with a shaded area outside. Shade is precious in the Danakil, there is none anywhere. Nevertheless, all the screaming and arguing did not get us a better place. That meant squeezing into our hut between late morning and late afternoon, when temperatures went way above 40 degrees Celsius (above 110 degrees Fahrenheit). There was no other way to be out of the sun. At night,...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

02.01.2011

Socialising in Hamed Ale

We loved staying in Hamed Ale. Liza knew lots of people and our little camp attracted children and village VIPs alike. Halima, an amazing and charming nine year old girl, had bewitched all of us. She was around from dawn to dusk, bringing along various friends. Also the village chief hung out there, showing off a small gun fastened to his hips. A souvenir from his pilgrimage to Jeddah / Saudi Arabia he bragged, only to add that at the age of 63 he will soon marry his fifth wife, somewhere in her early twenties. So within minutes we...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

02.01.2011

Halima’s Family

Another celebrity of Hamed Ale is Halima’s grandmother, Fatouma. She is one of the few Afar women who publicly have spoken out against female mutilation. She travelled all the way to Mekele to plea to the authorities. Afar women are subjected to the most violent form of Female Genital Mutilation, without exception: a frightening 97% of all women area subjected to this most cruel practice. She also prevented her only surviving daughter, Ayssa, Halima’s mother, to have her front teeth broken and filed into “Vs”, another common...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

02.01.2011

Dallol - Diabolically Beautiful

Surreal, out of this world, incredibly beautiful - none of these adjectives seems appropriate to describe this unique place: a landscape of multi-colored hot springs and bizarre formations. In the midst of a bubbling sulphurous lake floats a small conical island. Its shore is lined with what looks like bright yellow rippled rafts. Somehow it looks like a Coral Reef, just outside of the water. Add attributes like an altitude of 116 meters (509 feet) below sea level and an average temperature of 34.4 degrees Celsius (94 degrees...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

02.01.2011

Dallol - An ever changing experience

We got there at around 07:00 am when the light was perfect and the temperature still pleasant. On the way in, Christos could not resist but racing across the salt plain, driving around 100 km / h. A short walk takes you through an area that reminds of a field of corals of all possible colors. It is heartbreaking to watch the ever increasing number of tourists, plus soldiers, trot on these beautiful formations, mostly not caring where they step down. Of course Heidi immediately came up with a “let’s limit access to a one path only...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

02.01.2011

Black Water

The order of our Afar guide and the soldiers who escorted us was very clear when we approached this area, called Black Water. “Move only in single file and don’t walk anywhere but on this path”. With wobbly knees we followed suit. The surface made crunching noises and we wondered how deep we would fall if it broke. All the way down to the center of this planet? Well, we did not and eventually got to a small pond with pitch black water that was bubbling quietly. The soldiers held up dead birds, light as a feather. These poor...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

03.01.2011

Tea Time? Only while Camel Watching!

With nowhere to hide from the sun we had to spend a lot of time dozing inside our stuffy hut. In the afternoon we never had less than 42 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit) in this oven-like shelter. Once in a while the wind picked up and the whirling dust engulfed the entire village. But at least this gave a bit of relief from the heat. The daily excitement started right after our afternoon nap. Endless caravans were passing right by our hut: hundreds of camels, each carrying up to 240 kg of salt plates tied around their hump....[more]

Category: Ethiopia

03.01.2011

Afar Salt Mines

Young men slave away in these salt fields from dusk to dawn, an hour’s walk from the village. None of us would have dreamed doing this hike, but for the Afar and Tigrians, this is only the warm up for a long day of lifting, breaking and chiseling chunks of salt from the ground. The tools could not be simpler: long sticks to catapult large chunks off the ground and axes to break them into smaller pieces and finally into blocks of 30 by 40 cm. Here these blocks of salt sell for 2.5 Birr, once they arrive in Mekele they are worth 20...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

03.01.2011

Lake Asal

Actually we were on our way to the salt mines, but we got there so early in the morning that the workers and especially the caravans had not arrived yet. So we headed for Lake Asal, just in time for the sunrise. This amazing sight immediately brought back memories of the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. Lake Asal, 116 meters below sea level, lacks its vastness and enormity, but nevertheless it is extraordinary. The surrounding rock formations create a fortress-like setting and are even more intriguing when you approach from a certain...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

03.01.2011

The Djinn fights back - Dallol is burning!

The last afternoon, the usual dead silence in Hamed Ale was disrupted by yelling and shouting. A truck full of soldiers stopped, picked up villagers and off they drove towards the sulphur fields of Dallol. Eventually we understood what caused this disruption: an Italian tourist was somehow responsible for starting a smouldering fire in Dallol. It spread below the surface and could not be stopped. Speculation went wild until we met other tourists who were there at the same time: it was not a burning cigarette thrown into one of the...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

04.01.2011

A tough ride to Erta Ale

If you draw a straight line on the map, the distance between Hamed Ale and Erta Ale is peanuts, only 60 kilometers. But what a trip! There is no road in this part of the Danakil Depression, period. That is why we had brought a scout all the way from Berdahile, a skinny guy who got motion-sick all the time and who did not know the area at all. He kept asking our armed Afar police escort, so the latter eventually took over guiding us through the dusty, rough terrain. The jeeps had to stay far apart to allow the dust to settle,...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

04.01.2011

Afar life under the volcano

At the end of this lung-blowing journey waits Erta Ale. In Afar language this means “Smoking Mountain”, not a bad name for one of the most active volcanoes worldwide and one of five that has a permanent lava lake. Christos ploughed the jeep along sand dunes, shrubs & bushes and reached the village at the foot of the volcano in unbelievable six hours! At the tiny Afar village we had to buy a permit to visit Erta Ale. As soon as the engine stopped, nothing could be heard. Immediately we were ushered inside a hut to rest on carpets,...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

04.01.2011

Like a Cyclop’s eye high in the sky…

Getting out of the sun was all we wanted when we arrived at the little base camp at the foot of Erta Ale. So we hid in small shelters made from piled up stones. Only around 06:00 pm did the temperature allow the start of our slow ascent. This time, we were accompanied by four additional armed Afar scouts, their Kalashnikov casually slung around their shoulders. But their mood was foul, we figured it must have had something to do with the argument we watched in the village. All we carried was a bottle of water, the camel hauled the...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

04.01.2011

Looking at the gate to hell

In November 2010, the lava lake rose so high that it flooded large parts of the outer crater floor. It was actually still unusually high when we peeked into the noisily bubbling lava lake in January 2011. It might sound hard to believe, but we were quite exhausted from climbing the 650 meters to the rim of the caldron. And we had now to do so more climbing! An Afar guide took us down to the floor of the large outer crater. Due to the lava overflow in November, we often walked across new lava that cracked loudly under our feet and...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

05.01.2011

Sleeping on top of the volcano

The camp on the edge of the crater consists of a few simple huts made from piled up stones. We crawled into the most remote hut to be away from the Afar guides talking the night away while chain-smoking. At sunrise the view of the crater itself was much less impressive than during the night: a bit of smoke coming from a hole in the crater floor. Christos rushed us to start our hike down and luckily we did, because when we reached the camp at around 09:30 am, we could not imagine walking at even hotter temperatures. Liza fed us...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

06.01.2011

Lake Afdera on Ethiopia’s best road

Our senses sharpened after a while and we identified Afdera as what it is. A shantytown that exists for one reason only: to host the many businesses and migrant workers that flocked here recently to earn money in the salt industry. Lake Afdera is the second largest lake with salt water in the Afar region. A short swim in the emerald coloured lake seemed appropriate and felt like swimming in the Dead Sea. Naturally we tried to get the salty crust of our skin and for the split of a second we considered the little fresh water creek...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

06.01.2011

Awash National Park

Awash National Park is about midway between Addis Abeba and the edge of the Danakil Depression. That is why most tour operators stop here and so add an attraction to their Danakil itinerary. To be honest, there is not much to see: a few monkeys, crocodiles and if you are lucky one long horned animal. We had a long lunch in the airy restaurant overlooking the picturesque waterfall. This definitely was a welcome change after six days of desert and dust. We did not stay overnight in what looked like simple huts, although evenings are...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

07.01.2011

Two excellent but very different Tour Operators in Ethiopia

A few places and highlights in Ethiopia are difficult or time consuming to be travelled independently. This is definitely true for the Omo Valley and the Danakil Depression, both areas we visited over Christmas 2010. To get around the Omo Valley would have taken us several weeks travelling on the infrequent public busses. The Danakil simply cannot be visited without a tour operator, unless you have the survival skills of a local Afar and know how to extract the permits from local policemen. We contacted local Ethiopian agencies in...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

07.01.2011

Ethiopia - 6 days in the Danakil Depression

We had actually never heard of the Danakil Depression before we started reading the Lonely Planet, the Bradt Guide and the Thorn Tree Forum on Ethiopia. Either there was very little information (one single page in the Lonely Planet) or a focus on how expensive and difficult it was to travel there. The latter category was simply tempting us and off we went to the hottest place on earth. And believe us, it term is not some kind of marketing slogan! Hostile Climate Even during the “cold season” between November and February, we had...[more]

Category: Ethiopia, Summaries

15.04.2011

Leaving Vienna for the Hadj

The always extremely busy Turkish Airlines check-in at Vienna Airport underwent its ultimate test. A large group of pilgrims was heading for Jeddah. Putting this behind, we soon were in for new cultural experience. The restroom at the gate was packed with mostly elderly pilgrims. Skillfully, they lifted their feet into the washbasin, giving them a good scrub. Weirdly, none of this could be observed during our five hour stop over at Istanbul Airport. Arriving in Addis Abeba after midnight, we had two options: crashing five hours on a...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

16.04.2011

Ancient monasteries saying farewell to the Blue Nile

The picturesque town of Bahir Dar is the gateway to over 40 ancient monasteries that dot the shores and islands of Lake Tana. It is also the source of the Blue Nile, which fascinated ancient Egyptians and modern day explorers alike. Even 21st century tourists are still drawn in by the romanticizing tales and exotic flair. On our strolls through the city, we saw not a single tourist, not even at the Saturday market, a place usually not missed by any traveler. Isn’t this one of Ethiopia’s major tourist hubs? Only when we dropped in...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

17.04.2011

Monastery Crawl on Lake Tana

These 16th and 17th century monasteries do not look like anything we expect a monastery to look like. First of all, they are circular building. Straw maps shield the walkway that circles the very church. The top of the roof is adorned with a heavy iron cross, often decorated with ostrich eggs. The inside of these monasteries are decorated with the most spectacular colorful wall paintings, telling the story of the bible and many more legends. The many images of heads being chopped off, people being palled, devils burning disbelievers...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

17.04.2011

Blue Nile under military rule

The Blue Nile gently carried our small boat through its outlet from Lake Tana. Indeed a moving experience. We imagined weary explorers worn down by malaria and exhausted by their rough journey, finally reaching the very place people have fantasized about for thousands of years… To us it was just heavenly beautiful, so very peaceful. Its smooth waters glide past lush green shores and villages hidden behind high papyrus. At its source, nothing hints that the infant river becomes the life line for millions of people. An unbelievable...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

18.04.2011

Gonder - Ancient capital of Ethiopia versus Modern Times

Modern day Gonder we found a city of extremes - modern urbanites lives in stark contrast with those just surviving in heart breaking poverty. Every evening, the bar of our hotel was packed with cheerful locals eating well and guzzling down beer after beer. Outside, old men hid from the chilly nights under pieces of corrugated iron. Most likely Gonder’s glorious past was equally unjust, when King Fasilidas made it capital of his empire in the 17th century. He did so in the most perfect place: a large valley protected by the...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

18.04.2011

“Faranjis” do not walk

Walking the streets of Gonder all day we found them surprisingly void of foreigners. Like in Bahir Dar, we only encountered tourists at historic landmarks or at certain restaurants and hotels. In Gonder, the Faranji hangout was nice Hotel Quara, with its huge terrace overlooking the Piazza. This is basically a huge roundabout without hardly any traffic, Gonder’s very center. The rare sight of walking Faranjis must have brought Ethiopians to the conclusion that they only move around in cars. During our long walks around town, we...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

19.04.2011

A glimpse of the Simean Mountains for 100 USD

Most tourists travel Ethiopia through pre-arranged tours. The lack of infrastructure, like reliable public transport, good roads and often the sheer impossibility to make a reservation from abroad are real shortcomings. Add eMails that bounce back, incorrect phone numbers and few people who speak English! Tours do not come cheaply, but Gonder was pure extortion. Several companies asked for 100 dollars for the 40 kilometer ride to Koseye and a two hour hike through the outskirts of the Simean Mountains! We finally booked with Red...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

19.04.2011

The Falashas - Ethiopia’s Black Jews

Driving back to Gonder from the Siam Mountains, we passed through a former Falasha Village, a reminder of Ethiopia’s black Jews. Nowadays, only two of the Falashas live in the village. The old synagogue is mainly for the few tourists passing by, together with the many souvenir shops selling kitsch made from clay displaying King Solomon in love with the Queen of Sheba and the omnipresent Star of David. But these have to be covered by plastic sheets, otherwise they would become one with the dust carried from the nearby road. Most of...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

20.04.2011

Axum: Raiders of the Lost Ark?

Listen to Ethiopians and you come to believe that pretty much everything started and happened in Axum… • The capital city of the Queen of Sheba? Axum! • The present hiding place of the Ark of Covenant? Axum! Ethiopians do not express the slightest doubt about all this. So Indiana Jones must have been all wrong… Once, when looking at the remains of a church from the 4th century, our guide Gabril casually pointed at an elderly man in a short distance. He was leaning on a fence of a small compound surrounding what looked like a...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

20.04.2011

Axum’s Stelae

What has put Axum on the tourist radar goes beyond Christian times. Superbly carved Stelae from those times still point 35 meters into the sky. Then they marked the tombs of royalty and nobility. The biggest one toppled over, smashing some of the tombs dug into ground below. The broken pieces still lay there lined up, unmoved over all this time. What made it fall? Its base was too small to carry the 150 tons, but of course there is a local version of this disaster - Yodit, a vicious Jewish Queen, pushed it over after raiding...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

21.04.2011

Queen of Sheba’s Swimming Pool

One morning we hung out at the Queen of Sheba Swimming Pool. Not that the very queen ever did her laps here. The huge basin full of rain water has always served the locals for washing clothes and bodies, as an elderly woman perfectly described through gestures. At the end of the dry season the water was way down, making it even harder for the girls to carry it up the steep stairs. Once at the top, they tie the yellow canisters onto their backs with thin ropes or shawls and carry them home. What looks so effortless, makes you wince...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

21.04.2011

Following the Cattle via the Mill

Endless caravans of farmers with their goats, cows, sheep and what not were passing by the Queen of Sheba Pool. Some walking with only one animal, others had small herds. To control the goats more easily, many were tied together around one leg, making them to move rather awkwardly. We quickly figured that it must cattle market day and joined the procession. At one point, some tire-shaped stones leaning on a fence caught our attention. Our curiosity caused a small crowd of women gathering around us. One look at them and the puzzle...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

22.04.2011

Lalibela - Ethiopia’s Jerusalem

Our dream image of Lalibela on Easter Sunday? Swaying among white-clad worshippers and chanting priests. Reality hit hard! Worshippers, having fasted for three days, covered every inch of the churches’ floor, sleeping off their hunger and thirst. Wrapped into their large white shawls they looked like corpses. So Sunday evening there was no way to get in. The churches may look huge from the outside, the inside is very compartmentalized and some parts are strictly reserved for priests. The chanting priests did not let us down,...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

23.04.2011

Lalibela’s weekly market

Lalibela’s Friday market offered a nice break from churches spotting. Cramped with stalls selling vegetables, fruits and clothes - it was huge. Nearly everyone was selling red onions, some merchants only a handful, some seating next to a small hill, some skillfully stacking them, others just spilling them on the ground. The cattle market was cordoned off by a wooden fence, its only entrance controlled by an armed guard. His job was to check the receipt whether the farmers had paid the half Birr (3 USD Cents) to enter with their...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

23.04.2011

Crossing the River Jordan for Genata Maryam

Travelling to Genata Maryam took us through stunning landscape. Crossing the oasis-like River Jordan was only one of the highlights! Together with a German family, we rented a taxi to this rock-hewn church an hour’s drive outside Lalibela. Genata Maryam is famous for its 12th century old paintings. But after looking at so many churches, what we most enjoyed was being the only tourists in this place and chatting with relaxed priests and locals living on a nearby hill. One of the clerics was especially cool looking. His fake Ray Ban...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

24.04.2011

Wordly Lalibela

Ethiopia’s most visited tourist destination, we expected Lalibela to be a pretty developed place. Wrong again! We were taken aback by the squalor and slum like dwellings that line the road up to the “city center”. Only the two mile road that connects the hotels down the hill up to the “town center” is paved with large cobble stones. Everywhere else, only muddy trails! Between the wooden shacks, you find a few stalls selling textiles and men sewing raggedy clothes on ancient Singer machines. Children enjoy chasing each other around...[more]

Category: Ethiopia

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