Ethiopia: Debark to Bahir Dar

20 – 30 December 2012

Whilst sitting at the border waiting to cross over into Ethiopia, two things were immediately apparent: there were far fewer women with their hair covered and practically the first establishment once across is a bar (Sudan being a dry country). At 9am it was a little early for us to take advantage of the latter, but it gave us something to look forward to that evening!

Our first destination was Debark, just outside the Simien Mountain National Park. The drive there took us up into the Highlands and the change in the terrain was very noticeable with far more vegetation and numerous settlements of varying sizes of traditional mud and wooden thatched huts. It is noticeable how much more populated Ethiopia is in comparison to the parts of Egypt and Sudan we drove through. We’d been a little apprehensive about what it was going to be like driving in Ethiopia as we’d heard lots of stories from other travellers of kids throwing stones at your car and people pushing their donkeys/cows/children in front of you so, if you hit them, you will have to pay the family damages. However we were relieved when what we encountered were mainly smiling, waving children. There are a lot of goats/sheep/donkeys/cows being walked along the roads that are likely to just wander out in front of you at any given moment though, so you do have to keep your wits about you!

We got to Debark late afternoon and went to the park office to arrange our permit and obligatory scout for the following day. After this we went back to our hotel for our first Ethiopian beer and experience of injera. This is part of the staple diet in Ethiopia and is a bit like a slightly sour pancake and is made from a grain called tef which is unique to the country. It’s either served with a kind of spicy meat stew or with different vegetable/lentil pastes. It was surprisingly tasty and we enjoyed getting stuck in with our hands, although we were far messier than the locals!

We’d decided to take a day trip with Charlie into the Simiens rather than trek as our time was limited and we’d read you can get a good flavour of the area in that time. As well as the beautiful scenery, the Simien Mountains are famous for the Gelada baboons and Lammergeyer vultures and we were looking forward to seeing both. We weren’t disappointed. Not long after we’d entered the park we saw our first troop of baboons. Throughout the day we saw several separate troops and they were amazing to watch. The males in particular with their golden manes and red chests are quite something and they make the most unusual array of sounds. One of the troops we encountered was huge, with a few hundred baboons and it was incredible how close you could get to them without them really batting an eyelid. As well as grooming one another, they spend most of their time scratching around for roots which, despite having huge canines, is their main diet. As for the Lammergeyer, unfortunately we didn’t see them doing their trick of dropping bones to get to the marrow, but seeing these huge birds gliding and hunting was still impressive.

Our scout, apparently there to protect us from the wild animals, was fantastic at taking us to the best viewpoints. (The only protection we may have needed was from the ravens stealing our sandwiches!) The mountain range is beautiful and within the park it was remarkable to see how the vegetation would change on the turn of a corner. For long stretches there is farmland, with wheat being grown at over 3,700m(!), then suddenly yukka/palm-type plants along with “red hot pokers”. It’s certainly different from the image that many people must have of what Ethiopia is like.

The next day we headed to Gonder, which is famous for its castles. It all sounded very Lord of the Rings, so we couldn’t miss it out! There are six castles set within a stone-wall enclosure within the town and it feels quite surreal wandering around such European-style castles in a country where huts are the norm. We also visited the Debre Birhan Selassie church just outside town. It’s fairly small in size, but the entire interior is decorated with Ethiopian ecclesiastical paintings. As well as how colourful it all was, one thing that particularly stood out was a painting of the devil – we don’t think there are many countries where the devil is depicted in their churches.

In the evening we went met up with a couple we’d been chatting to earlier in the day at the Four Sisters Restaurant. It had been recommended to us and we would definitely recommend it to others. The setting is lovely, the food very good and the four sisters themselves not only greet and serve at the restaurant, but they also put on a show of traditional dancing later in the evening. This comprises of a slightly strange, but quite entertaining array of shoulder and chest wiggling.

From Gonder we drove about 60km south to Gorgora on the north shore of Lake Tana to Tim and Kim Village Campsite, another place that had been recommended by various travellers along the way. We wanted to be somewhere nice for Christmas, so this seemed like the perfect choice. As we made our way along through the villages we were getting very used to the familiar cries of “you, you, you”, “money, money, money”, “hello pen”, “hello plastic” and would have a laugh with the children by shouting the same thing back to them. We didn’t find it to be this way everywhere, for example, in Gonder we had children cross the street just to come and shake our hand and say hello. There are also many children along the roads that just want to wave and say hello and for others it’s obvious by their enthusiasm that “hello pen” is all they know to say. However you can’t get away from the feeling that everyone sees you as a walking bank. True, we are far richer and live a completely different lifestyle to the locals, but to just give money or pens out willy nilly is, unfortunately, not going to solve anything and will only make things harder for the next travellers. We’ve heard that it’s only really got that way over the last five to ten years and we guess it’s hard for the local people to differentiate between aid workers and plain old travellers.

When we got to Tim and Kim’s it was the oasis of calm we’d been hoping for. At first we were the only guests, so thought that Christmas would be very quiet. However during Christmas Eve and then Christmas day itself, more people started to arrive, including the Dutch couple and James and Anna (with their mate Ali who had joined them for a week or so) who we’d originally met in Egypt. It was a very different Christmas for us being away from our family and for Karen experiencing her first hot festive season. We couldn’t have picked anywhere better to spend it though and we had a lovely day chilling in the beautiful surroundings and enjoyed the barbequed goat that Tim and Kim prepared for everyone.

After a few days of rest and catching up on washing etc, we hit the road again, this time to the south of Lake Tana and to Bahir Dar. Soon after we’d arrived at our camping spot we saw the big yellow Oasis truck pull in – we’d bumped into them briefly in the Simiens and had thought we’d probably do so again along the way. It was nice to catch up with them all and hear about some of the places they’d been since we’d gone our separate ways in Sudan, getting a few tips on Lalibela where we were heading to next.

Our first full day in Bahir Dah we joined forces with the Oasis guys and in the morning took a boat trip out to some of the monasteries the area is known for. In the end we only went inside one of them, but it was another beautiful example of Ethiopian ecclesiastical painting. On the way back we were fortunate enough to catch a few glimpses of a hippo by the reeds, getting us excited about all the wildlife that lies ahead of us, as well as the resident pelicans.

In the afternoon we got to experience life on the Oasis truck itself, taking a trip out to the Blue Nile Falls with them. It was bumpier and dustier than in Charlie but fun nonetheless – especially when Steve, the driver, stopped to pull a bus out of a ditch! The Blue Nile Falls have definitely suffered since the dam was built, reducing the flow of water going over the falls – you can see how big they must have once been. Whilst they’re no Victoria Falls, we’re still glad we took the time to visit them. A big thank you to Team Oasis for letting us hitch a lift with you – we look forward to catching up with you again on route.

Then after a day of stocking up from the market (obligatory small child in tow) and suchlike we set off for Lalibela, home of the rock-hewn churches, where we’d decided to spend New Year. We were now on a very similar timescale to Anna, James and Ali as well as the Dutch couple, so we were looking forward to spending the evening with them. It was somewhat hard to believe that the New Year would mark six months of being on the road. How time flies when you’re having fun …!

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