14 August 2016

UNEARTHING ETHIOPIA’S ENCHANTMENT

On 21 July I stepped into a time machine of the Ten Commandments with a seven-day, flash-in-the-pan trip to Northern Ethiopia’s historic route. If you were anything like me, your knowledge of this undervalued country would probably be limited to conversations with friends, David Attenborough’s documentary of the Gelada Baboons; it’s rural setting and its emerging economy. 

My experience was simply sublime! Blown away by the deep-rooted history and mystical wonder, it was as though I had stepped into a chapter of the Old Testament. After all, it is here that Christianity dates back to the 1st century, where the Ark of the Covenant lies, where adventure is paramount and where your notion of luxury is left behind. Graced with rock-hewn churches, misty images of Gelada Baboons and in the magnificent Simien Mountains, Ethiopia is the only African nation not to be formally colonized by western power!

We touched down in the central hub of Addis Ababa where we began our historic journey north. Sadly we didn’t manage to cover all the regions due to weather interference! Flights are frequent, yet security checks are time consuming so I would recommend that you pack patience, a thick novel and a sense of humour! And if all else fails, order an attitude-adjusting Ethiopian coffee!

From there we travelled up to Bahir Dar - a great way to become acquainted with your rural existence for the next few days! Located in the highlands on the southern shore of Lake Tana, this mecca provides the perfect location to explore the monastery islands. We didn’t, but you could conceivably visit the Blue Nile Falls – nowadays controversially diminished by the hydro dam installation.

Our next stop was Gonda – modestly tucked away at the foot of the Simien Mountains, this is considered this country’s Camelot! Here you would explore the Royal Enclosure and Royal Bathing Pool Heritage Sites, followed by a trip up the Simien Mountains. One of my major highlights was our afternoon with a band of a hundred Gelada baboons, which are in fact, technically monkeys! If I were you I’d give yourself two days in this region to maximize on the baboons, the hikes and the birding!

It doesn’t much to figure out that you wouldn’t come here for luxury accommodation, however the Milamilo Lodge in the Simien National Park, due to open in a few months time, looks pretty comfy and the views are fantastic!

From the Simien region you’d typically head up to Axum – the start of the ancient historic route and the cradle of Ethiopia’s civilisation, dating back to the bloodline of King Solomon and Queen Sheeba! Sadly, the weather got in our way so we didn’t experience it, but our guide’s illustration was so powerful I felt as though I’d actually been there! It is here that the alleged Ark of the Covenant lies beneath the Church of St Mary’s! The Axumite architecture is incredibly unique and quite clearly aesthetically influenced the rock-hewn churches in the Lalibela region, which we did in fact visit!

The pinnacle of our trip was undoubtedly the town of Lalibela, famed for it’s medieval monolithic cave churches. Eleven orthodox rock-cut churches carved out of the hillside by King Lalibela in the 13th century, were among the first to be designated world heritage sites by Unesco in 1978. We lunched at Ben Abeba, a new, nearby restaurant offering traditional Ethiopian food with spectacular views from a choice of dining areas. Interestingly it’s owned by a Scot, Susan Aitchison, who went into partnership with Lalibelian local Habtamu Bay. Together they support local farmers by buying produce for the restaurants, and they are building adjacent accommodation.

In summary, Ethiopia is for well-travelled individuals who are happy to forfeit luxury for long-winded road transfers and flight connections and language barriers to experience this entrancement! You’d be hard pressed to find a better historical experience. I left there with a sense of reverence, twenty bags of coffee and their out-of-this-world organic honey!

Ask me and I’d say, add it to your list, but make sure you have a local, private guide – preferably ours. Apart from anything you would need help interpreting Amharic language!

 

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