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  1. #1
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    Sep 2007
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    Default A Quick few Ethiopia Notes

    A quick few Ethiopia notes:

    We travelled this in December 2010.

    For the full story of our travels, you’re welcome to have a look at the Blog on or The purpose of this thread is to mention the places we stayed Ethiopia, how much we paid and how we found it. I’ll also mention the annoyances of the area to hopefully prepare future travellers a little better.

    The currency is Birr and the notes are FILTHY! Dashen Bank, with ATM’s all over the country accepts both VISA and MasterCard with a transaction limit of 4 000 Birr ($240). However, there did not seem to be a limit to the amount of times you can re-use the same card. Be aware that you can not buy US$ of any other currency in the country. They will gladly relieve you of your $’s though. Also, in the Omo valley, or places far away from banks, no one will accept really dirty or torn notes. It is still legal tender though and you can change them for new ones at a bank, but its fun to refuse to accept torn notes from the same people who insist on getting newer ones. As you have a white skin, every person in Ethiopia will see you as a walking $ sign and believe that you owe them money… I call that racist, but I’m sure they will have another justification for it.

    In many places guides are compulsory and in most places guides are available, they are a good idea. There are local “guide associations” in all the key places and the registered guides all charge the same money and have official identification. They should cost around 150 Birr ($9) a day, but in Harar and Lalibela they charged double that. Guides will definitely, without a doubt, enhance your experience of the country and keep the bulk of the hassling public away from you. The priceless ones we had were: Tesfe in Jinka with only one eye, Abdul in Harar with cell no: 0915 740864 and Hailek (0914 263799) showing us the churches of Tigre around Hawsien.

    Local food is fantastic and very cheap! Injera and things on it will cost about 25 to 30 Birr per person, but vegetables seemed to be in very short supply. I could buy a goat for 150 Birr ($9), but it took a week in the country before finding a single tomato to buy. Tibs is fried goat meat on Injera was my favourite. Shiro is chick peas on Injera and a good vegetarian option and Fasting Injera has no meat, so will have whatever vegetables you the area have. Mahaberawi, or something like that, is almost like a mixed grill type deal on Injera with vegetables, meat and beans. It’s enough to share between two and should cost about 50 Birr at the most. Most food is spicy and sometimes it is so full of chilly that I could not eat it at all. You will also find the best and fanciest coffee machines in the world in Ethiopia and every little tin shack seems to have one. Macchiatos cost on average 5 Birr ($0.30) a pop and are fantastic! Cooking for yourself is almost as challenging as having a balanced diet, but in Addis Ababa you will find phenomenal Italian restaurants that cost next to nothing. The price of vegetables and fruit vary incredibly much and is pretty much dependant on how much the seller wants to take you for a ride. As a guideline: Tomatoes should cost 6 Birr per kilogram, oranges 10 to 12 Birr, bananas 10 Birr, Potatoes 8 Birr, cabbage 6 Birr, onions 6 Birr and so on. Important to keep in mind that the average wage in Ethiopia is about $1 a day per person, so when someone wants $2 for something, you know you’re getting ripped off.

    Anyone who has tried to order breakfast in America will know how many questions you get asked before you get the right eggs, bread etc. In Ethiopia you will learn how many questions, and which ones yo9u need to ask to not be disappointed in the product or service you want. For a room as an example you need to ask: Do you have a room? Do you have water? Is there water now? Is the water hot? Is the water hot now? Is there electricity to make the water hot now? And then… often… there will be something that you did not think of preventing your hot shower, or any shower for that matter. He same with services you want. The best way, I found, is to sit with a pen and paper when discussing price for services and write down absolutely everything. When you are done, look at the person across the table and explain that you will not, under any circumstances, pay for anything that is not written down on your piece of paper. That just avoids misunderstandings.

    Begging is a huge issue in the country and every person from the smallest child to the policeman to the elderly will ask you for money. I firm “NO” or “Yeulleum” (Not available) usually does the trick and if you’re feeling humorous, begging right back at them is always quite fun. The relentlessness does get to you though, but we did not hand out a single penny to a single beggar, setting an example for what we believe the world, including DAMN NGO’s should follow.

    Rock throwing:
    Ethiopians have a culture of throwing rocks at anything, everything and each other. So sadly, cars are part of the targets. Don’t feel persecuted though; it’s not just foreign cars. They through stuff at busses, trucks and taxis and even Tuk-Tuks when they have a chance. The perpetrators however are usually toddlers who don’t have the strength or aim to cause damage. In the 5 weeks we were in Ethiopia we suffered two direct hits. One was a piece of sugar cane and the other a rotten mango. No damage though. The trick is not, as many will tell you, to wave at everyone in a condescending and false friendly way. The trick is to keep your eyes open and if you suspect anyone of lobbing a projectile your way, open your window, make eye contact and show them the NO finger in a head master sort of way.

    There are one or two words in Amharic which will help you incredibly much: “Salaam” is “hallo” and “ameuseuganallo” is thank you. Then, every time you are called “Farenji” (white person) a handy response is “Habasha” (Ethiopian). That usually gets the adults laughing and leaves the children speechless. “Yeulleum” can mean either “no” or “not available” which is very handy when someone wants something from you. Lastly, my favourite is “baka” which can mean “done” or a harsh “finished” and it rolls off the tongue really easily. So you when you are tired of explaining something you can say “BAKA”.

    Places we stayed:
    Buske Lodge and Campsite. Turmi (T4A N4 58.384 E36 30.952)
    We arrived at Mago Camp site, which was recommended, without any local currency. We had just entered Ethiopia via Lake Turkana and had not managed to change money. They told us the fee was 70 Birr per person, which was about $4 but when we asked to pay in $ they wanted $50 instead of $16. We went to the Buske, right next door instead. It was classic car park camping at $15 per tent. The lodge itself was obviously the best of the best in the area, but as it still had shared ablutions, we had the benefit of fantastic showers and brightly clean toilets. The restaurant was pricy, but good and the beer was cold. The place was littered with tour vehicles, so getting information or following them to local attractions would have been the best and cheapest way to go. The only downside was that they started leaving at 6am, so sleeping late was not possible.

    Jinka Resort Hotel/Camping. Jinka. (T4A N5 46.783 E36 33.966)
    There was also a Jinka Rocky Camp site with cold showers, dirty toilets and high prices without a level area to park when using a roof top tent. The Jinka Resort however was a fairly upmarket hotel. We found a nice quiet place to park and pitch our tents. The restaurant was cheap and good, the toilets nice and clean and although we used the staff shower with ice cold water, it was good enough for the price tag of 50 Birr per tent. ($3) The best part was that the reception lady knew the local guides and recommended one for the Mursi Tribe.

    Tesfe was his name and he was absolutely brilliant and highly recommended. He was easily identified as he had only one eye. Our visit to the tribe was phenomenal! We were more people than we could fit into our car, so pitched together and hired a Land Cruiser, guide and driver. The total cost of the morning was $200 and we split it 4 ways. If I had to do it over, I would change nothing!

    Strawberry Fields Permaculture with camping. Konso. (N5 20.797 E37 26.307)
    It was a bizarre little place right next to a road, but surprisingly quiet. There was a guard to keep the natives at bay and the magnificently friendly manager’s answer to everything was “it is possible” As Permaculture places go they had clean and functional composting toilets and cold showers. The tank was right in the sun though, so afternoon showers were actually fairly warm. It was another prime example of car park camping and the Muslim owner does not allow the sale of alcohol. However, the town is a two minute walk away and cold beer is easily obtainable there. They had rooms available, but we camped at 63 Birr per tent. ($4) There was also a man from the town (Konso) that was willing to exchange our Kenya Shillings to Ethiopian Birr at a fair exchange rate.

    Paradise Lodge Camping. Arba Minch (T4A N6 00.569 E37 33.330)
    We went to the recommended Bekele Molle hotel which was part of a chain all over Ethiopia. Not showering and shitting on the patio would have left you cleaner than using their facilities and they wanted 80 Birr per tent. So we left…. Paradise Lodge is in the same chain as Buske and although at the bottom of the hill, still had an absolutely magnificent view over the lakes. They had a designated camp site and we did manage to find a flat grassy place that fitted two vehicles. We used the toilets at the restaurant that were fantastic and the showers at the massage parlour. They often turn the parlour into another room when they are aver booked, so best shower in the morning after check out. The restaurant had fantastic food for reasonable prices and even local wine for not a lot of money! Best of all, they had unprotected wifi with a signal strong enough to reach the camp site. That more than made up for the 120 Birr per tent price tag.

    Dorze Compound and Camping. Dorze. (N6 12.204 E37 34.271)
    Again, we went to the Dorze lodge first. They had a fantastic view and very interesting rooms for 200 Birr ($12) a room. We asked about camping and after taking forty minutes to make a cup of coffee we were told that camping in our tent would also be 200 Birr. The facilities were not working at all and they were actually far out of town, so we decided to move on. We found a guide who referred us to a traditional village that offered accommodation. They had a few rooms, but also offered camping at 50 Birr ($3) per tent. They had a clean long drop toilet and cold shower which we did not use and offered a fantastic buffet dinner of local dishes for 50 Birr ($3) per person. We were also invited to a traditional dance ceremony at night at 100 Birr ($6) each and it was worth every cent! It was without a shadow of the doubt the best possible place to stay in the area.

    Tourist Hotel. Sodo. N6 50.480 E37 45.543
    We had travelled the amazingly scenic route through the mountains from Dorze to Sodo which took most of the day. It was nothing more than a stop over for us, so we were not really prepared to pay top $ for things we did not need. The Tourist Hotel, right on the main street had a quiet courtyard with security where we could park our cars. The rooms were massive and the beds comfortable. The showers were cold and the electricity and water were only turned on certain times of day. Communication was challenging and the restaurant boasted an impressive menu of which they only had two dishes available. However, for 150 Birr per room it was all we needed. We did go to the Bakele Mole hotel in town for dinner though. That would have been a better choice, but I never asked the rates.

    Abyssinian Pension with camping. Wondo Washa. (N7 05.102 E38 36.884)
    The only reason we travelled to the area was to go to the Wondo genet Mountain Resort and chill in the hot springs. However, the resort wanted to charge us 115 Birr ($7) per person to camp with facilities not fir for humans. The manager insisted that the sight of excrement and smell of urine was normal and that they were actually clean. Entrance to the hot springs, which reminded heavily of a water treatment plant and boasting a whiff of the same stuff that was in the ablutions, would have cost us 25 birr per person extra. That was at least 300 meters from the proposed camp site and the only possibility of having a shower… which was a pipe with holes in right out in the open. So we left….

    The Abyssinian Pension was only 3km away and ticked into a beautiful courtyard. The friendly owner thumb sucked a price of 50 Birr ($3) per tent for camping, but we still had to pay another 150 Birr ($9) for a room to be able to have facilities. Between four of us we deemed it fair and he even helped us to obtain some cold beer and bottled water from the local bar. I don’t really see any reason apart from the filthy hot spring to go to the area though.

    Bale Mountains Np campsite (T4A N7 05.758 E39 47.540)
    Entrance into the park was 90 Birr ($5.50) per person, 20 Birr ($1.20) per vehicle and camping was 40 Birr ($2.45) per tent. So ad it all up and for two people in one car, sharing a tent the cost per day is 240 Birr ($9.15). The campsite itself is on the top of Dinsho Hill and has absolutely breathtaking views! There are some facilities at the lodge at the bottom of the hill. The toilets were functional but dirty and the showers never worked for us. We still stayed for three days, doing guided walks, fly fishing for wild Trout in the rivers close by and visiting the Sanetti Plateau, home to the largest population of Ethiopian wolves and the highest all weather pass in Africa at 4 378meters. Guides are compulsory and cost 170 Birr ($10.50) per day and a fishing permit, valid for three days costs 200 Birr ($12) per rod. We did have fresh trout for dinner for three days though. One word of warning: It gets ridiculously cold up there, so if you’re not geared up for minus temperatures you will have a hard time!

    Wim's Holland House. Addis Ababa (T4A N9 00.593 E38 45.314)
    We heard and read some horror stories about Wim’s, but when we arrived in Addis we needed a mechanic, who happened to be within five minutes of Wim’s so we decided to brave it. It is important to know that in Addis, as in the rest of Ethiopia, power and water supply can best be described as erratic. However, Wim has big water tanks and a generator. He has 3 properties where camping is possible and finding a level spot for your vehicle is easy. The shower we used was hot as hell with fantastic water pressure and that was with a full house of campers. The restaurant had fantastic food and cold beer and no one minded us hanging out there without ordering anything during the day. The cost was 110 Birr ($6.60) per tent per night for a Toyota Land Cruiser. Motorbikes are cheaper and trucks are more expensive. I can see that arriving in Addis fresh from the 1st world, you will be in for a shock, but for us, arriving from a week the south of Ethiopia, Wim’s got a big thumbs up.

    Zubeyda Waber Harari Cultural Guest House. Harar. (T4A) N9 18.610 E42 08.013
    This family owned and run place inside of the old city of Harar could not have been more pleasant. The rooms were spacious and the facilities clean and functi9nal. The ladies who ran it was friendly and accommodating and the 300 Birr ($18) per room per night including a simple breakfast and coffee. Our local guide, Abdul (Cell: 0915 740864) was absolutely fantastic in organizing the accommodation for us, taking us to the Hyena Feeding (100 Birr per person) and taking us on a guided tour the next day. His fee was 300 Birr ($18) total.

    Ghion Hotel. Bahir Dar. (T4A N11 35.852 E37 23.146)
    That seemed to be the only reasonable place to stay in the city. It was nothing more than a stop over for us and we paid 100 Birr ($6) per tent for the night. We had shared toilets and could use a room’s shower in the morning. It was safe and secure, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit it again.

    Blulal Hotel. Lalibela. (T4A N12 02.139 E39 02.877)
    Lalibela is split into two parts. Uptown, where we were had two hotels of note: The Seven Olives, charging in US$ and offering car park camping at 100 Birr per tent and the Blulal charging 150 Birr ($9) per room with en suite facilities and hot showers. The two are less than 100 meters apart. The Bulal room and bed was comfortable enough and we even had safe parking for our Land Cruiser at a neighbouring house. It had a restaurant serving traditional meals and coffee. Downside was that it was nestled in between two bars. Our first night was a Friday and I saw much hardship. However, the loud music stopped at midnight and Saturday night was even calmer. Downtown also has many hotels, but we did not investigate.

    The Churches of Lalibela is the main attraction. We paid 350 Birr ($24) per person for a ticket covering all 11 churches. Guides are not compulsory and if you have a Lonely Planet, and can read, I wouldn’t bother with a guide. Their fee was 300 Birr ($18) and ours worked for half a day. Saturday in Lalibela is market day and that had the most interesting and impressive market I saw in the whole of the country.

    Hill Top Hotel. Mekele. (N13 30.126 E39 29.196)
    There was some conference in the city when we were there and all the hotels were pretty fully booked. We found the Hill Top, on the outskirts of town and they only had a suite left over. We paid 380 Birr ($22.80) for it. It had a massive double bed, a phone, a fridge and a TV. It boasted two full bathrooms and an 11 seater lounge suite in a separate room. It was far beyond any of our expectations! Their double rooms cost 250 birr ($15) and are of the same quality. They have ample safe parking and a reasonable restaurant on site.

    Tourist Hotel. Hawsien. (N13 58.820 E39 25.922)
    Tigre’s rock-hewn churches are basically concentrated between Wukro and Hawsien. Megab, the village closest to Hawsien has a local guide association, but no hotels. The nearby Gheralto Lodge looked fantastic, but at $50 per room we moved on swiftly. The Tourist Hotel in Hawsien had functional rooms with clean en suite facilities and an on site coffee shop. The cost was 150 Birr ($9) per room and they had safe and level parking. Although they do not have a restaurant, the nearby Lalibela Hotel had a nice one, serving local food.

    The churches of Tigray were fantastic and I much preferred them to Lalibela. They don’t have ugly metal roofs over them and you work for your experience a little. We climbed for one, hiked an hour and a half for another two and visited another couple next to the road we could drive on. You will not find them without a guide and ours was great. He cost 150 Birr ($9) for the day and worked very hard for it. Be aware that every church has its own entrance fee and every priest expects a tip. I made them pose for photos to earn their tips and they did not mind that. We spent a total of $50 for the two of us that day. We started at 7:30, ended at 16:30 and visited 5 churches in total.

    Africa Hotel. Aksum. (T4A N14 07.498 E38 43.978)
    We did not stay at the Kaleb Hotel, although they did offer the possibility of camping in their extensive grounds. The Africa hotel had en suite rooms for 150 Birr ($9) with hot running water and they had a restaurant. The restaurant, it has to be said, was by far the worse restaurant I have ever been to in my life and the food was just not edible! Right across the road is an internet Café which lets you plug your own laptop into their network and the speed is OK… for Ethiopia. Contrary to what the guidebooks may tell you, Aksum is quite a hole and all things touristy could be completed in half a day, if you so wish.

    Simien Park Hotel. Debark. (T4A N13 09.159 E37 53.906)
    Big rooms, good facilities, nice bar and restaurant as well as safe parking. You don’t really need to look any further than them, but they do get full all the time, so phoning ahead may be a good idea. The staff were friendly and helpful and although the prices were a little steep at 200 Birr ($12) for the room, it was by far the best deal in town.

    However…. Debark as a town was a complete dump where I felt like I was a walking $ sign and every single person wanted to extort more money from me. The Simien Mountains National Park was a joke as well and I could live a happy life never visiting there again. It was as populated as the rest of the country and the hill sides were completely covered in crops. We did see Gelada Baboons and the almost extinct Walia Ibex, but the experience was tainted by the honourless people in the area. We did not do a multi day trek, and I think that would be different. You are not allowed in the park without an armed guard and a guide is advisable, but not compulsory. Costs for the park are 90 Birr per person and 20 Birr for the car and 40 Birr for the scout, making it 240 Birr ($14.40) per day per couple. Guides cost 200 Birr per day.

    Belegez Pension. Gondar. (T4A N12 36.634 E37 28.316)
    This quaint little pension seems to attract the bulk of Farenji business. Camping is possible in the concrete courtyard with shared, functional facilities and rooms are basic, but clean. Camping cost was 75 Birr ($4.50) for a Land Cruiser. Room with shared facilities was 100 Birr ($6) and en suite was 150 Birr ($9). The location could not be beat and the staff was helpful and friendly. Gondar as a town suffers greatly from water and power cuts, so don’t expect to have a shower every day.

    Gondar town I found to be even worse than Debark. It would be a good idea to know how much things are supposed to cost in the country before opening your wallet in that town. The guys at the Pension will help in that regard. Two examples: Someone we met was charged $300 in labour by a mechanic who did less work than we paid 900 Birr ($45) to an Italian Mechanic in Addis Ababa to. Another guy helped me to find a bottle store and told me the local wine would cost 120 Birr ($7.20) per bottle when I fortunately knew that the local restaurant charged double of super market rates at 60 Birr ($3.60). I found another supermarket and paid 27 Birr a bottle. Generally speaking I found the people of debark and Gondar to be without pride, without honour and totally dishonest.

    Central Gondar Hotel. Gondar. (N12 36.626 E37 28.181)
    I wanted to keep staying at Belegez, but the city decided to re-build the road in from of their gate and we had to move the car before they closed the road. With promises of hot water showers and free Wifi we moved to the Central Gondar Hotel with restaurant and bar. Parking was on the street, but they do have 24 hour security. The rooms were nice and neat and facilities clean and functional. They are also plagued by power and water cuts, but do have a water tank on the roof which normally does not run out. They also have free Wifi with reasonable speed and if you like spicy food, you’ll be in heaven. The rooms do cost 250 Birr ($15) a night, but the wifi is unsecured and uncapped. Bring on the photo uploads!

    Tim and Kim’s. Gorgoro. (T4A N12 13.745 E37 17.932)
    Along the eastern route of Africa you will occasionally find a place where every overlander will end up. In Kenya it was Jungle Junction and in Ethiopia it was Tim and Kim’s. This peaceful place with great atmosphere sits on the northern shores of Lake Tana and is run by a Dutch couple… Tim and Kim. The restaurant and bar is expensive, but functional and the camping is fair at 45 Birr ($2.75) per person per night. The showers are cold and the toilets flush by bucket, but the temperatures in December (winter) was hot enough during the day so that it was all good. There is no electricity of drinking water, although they have solar panels and inverter if you really need it.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    Cape Town
    Thanked: 3707


    Great info Dawie. To help other travellers wanting to do Ethiopia, I'm going to add two fairly long pieces here that I wrote about Ethiopia in general, and the irritations in particular, Gondar is singled out. I'll do it in two posts.


    Out There Magazine

    "AFRICA'S not for sissies." How many times haven't we heard that refrain from the boeties who go gung-ho into any offroad situation and usually end up dying of malaria ("because my friend's friend said you shouldn't take prophylaxis") or dribbling out their life-blood under the wreckage of a rolled four by four? Africa may not be for sissies, but that's no reason to go into it with an attitude problem.

    And travelling overland through Africa has a helluva lot to do with attitude -and with fine preparation and a good deal of knowledge about continental politics and military developments. Africa has never been a safe continent through which to travel. Right now it is probably the most dangerous continent on earth in which to travel.

    For instance, nobody in their right minds would travel through parts of Mauritania unless they're a French land yacht surfer sponsored by Medicin Sans Frontiers, Sector Watches and Gauloises Blondes and living off grand pere's trust fund. Travel in the Congo is only for ambitious young American journalism school graduates trying to win a Pulitzer Prize and land a job with CNN. That's just the very short list, the "just for example" list.

    So is there a dangerous place in Africa in which it is safe to travel? No, but Ethiopia is a safer dangerous place than most. That's part of the attraction. It's a great dinner party conversation stopper: "When we were in Ethiopia," you say, and a deathly hush falls over the table. "You've BEEN to Ethiopia," someone shrieks. "Weren't you scared?" You look around at the triple locked multi-barred magnetic crash doors and the alarm system that costs more than your Land Rover and reach for the bottle of Scotch. The Rottweilers and Dobermans barking outside and the sirens of the armed response companies drown out your reply.

    Everything I write in this article will be out of date by the time it's published, but what the hell.

    Ethiopia. A friend was going there the other day and asked for some advice. What could I say? "Don't drink the water; watch out for the you-yous; don't drive after sunset; be polite to the military; always find a place to stay long before dark; fill up with petrol whenever you can; the local beer is brilliant; the people are charming and beautiful; don't bush camp; carry lots of spares; carry lots of tinned food; always check in major towns about the security situation up ahead; if you're driving into an area of which you are unsure, link up with a couple of truck and bus drivers, make friends with them, tell them what you're doing, they will talk you through the road blocks."

    Shoo, broer, heavy.

    When we left Nairobi, a British expatriate who had last been in Abyssinia just after "the war" (the other war, the one that ended in 1945), looked us steelily in the eye, clenched our hands and said "good luck! Jolly good luck!"

    The way north from Nairobi to Ethiopia is across one of the worst highways in Africa. On the maps it is called the A2. The road winds north from Nairobi, passing through Thika on the way down to Isiolo and Archer's Post. It skirts the base of Mount Kenya, then the tar highway swoops down into the hot desert blast of Isiolo, and 500km of badlands lie ahead. It degenerates into a bowel-clenching, chassis-destroying, suspension-smashing, madness-inducing, dust-filled swine of a road.

    You join the military convoy anywhere between Isiolo and Torbi, depending on the level of bandit activity. Soldiers armed with grenade launchers and automatic rifles race up and down. They have manic stares and frantic bursts of energy, leaping onto the back of a truck, then leaping off again, cocking and uncocking their rifles. They all chew miraa, chat, a wild plant with the kick of a pocketful of barbiturates mixed with tequila if you eat a bush of the stuff.

    A fat Kenyan army officer came up and gave us a pile of grubby forms listing next of kin, indemnifying the Kenyan government, swearing we were not drug smugglers. He said "these shifta are murdering bastards. They will kill you for nothing, they come across from Ethiopia and Somalia, and they just shoot. It is like an accident, it can happen anytime." Very confidence boosting.

    It was a wild, dust-filled, adrenaline-inducing ride but we made it through in one piece, although a few shattered nerves lay in the potholes behind us.

    The next morning we crossed the border and met the dreaded You-yous. Ask anybody who's ever been to Ethiopia what the most irritating thing about the country is and they will give one of two answers: "the You-yous" or "the stone throwers" (they're usually one and the same thing).

    In every village or town, large groups of kids follow you around shouting and clamouring for your attention. They're called You-yous because that seems to be the only English most of them know. Charitably, we decided it's a shortened form of "you, how are you." Most of them are war orphans.

    You-you could also be a short form of the formal Amharic for foreigner, "yewichager sew". We encountered a variety of other shouts: "You f**k you," "you teacher", "you spaghetti", "you, give me pen", "you commando", and "you Cuban". They can drive you nuts if you allow them to - but there's an easier way: Speak to the kids -- all they want is some attention. Single out an older one, make them your guide, even if they speak no English.

    Once enlisted, your guide will quickly initiate you into the next Ethiopian national sport, stone-throwing. Kids throw stones at each other, at goats, cattle, trucks, faranjees. And they're deadly accurate.

    The next major hazard is s**t. For some reason, Ethiopians s**t anywhere that happens to be available when they're caught short. While in Addis Ababa, we stayed in a delightful suburban pension cum brothel that was snuggled away in a relatively upmarket suburb. Relatively, because the sprawling suburbs of Addis are really just a series of interconnected rural villages, livestock grazes in the muddy lanes, there are very few toilets, so at night people come out and on the pavements and streets. The United Nations Centre for Human Settlements says Addis is the worst city in the world for housing - 79% of its inhabitants are either homeless, or live in "unfit accommodation".

    It's even worse in towns like Gondar and Dessie, so tread warily and keep your eyes on the ground, except when you're watching out for flying rocks.

    Then there are the shiftas, the bandits. This is another national, and fairly honourable, Ethiopian pastime. Shifta have an odd position in society, being both feared and admired, they have "guabaz" - the quality so admired by male Amhara, embodying bravery, ferocity, toughness and general male competence, ie, they've got balls. Banditry is a form of upward social mobility, a bit like being a fast track achiever in the West: The most famous upwardly mobile bandit was Ras Kassa of Quara, who rose to become Emperor Teodros, ruling Abyssinia from 1855 to 1868.

    Substantial chunks of the country are no-go areas for travellers because of shiftas. Most of the lowland, desert areas in the east are unsafe. The Danakil people from the desert of the same name have a nasty habit of cutting off the penises of unwanted guests. We were never able to work out whether or not the shifta situation is as bad as people make it out to be, because educated, urban Ethiopians have an almost irrational fear of travelling in the countryside - perhaps because of a combination of years of war and xenophobia.

    In Addis, we were told that every journey we were going to do out of the capital was "very, very dangerous". And certainly, in every region, truck and bus drivers rush to get to the next town before dark. Hotel compounds become high security fortresses, and are inevitably patrolled by guards armed with AK47s. AK47s are another Ethiopian national sport. Every second man in the countryside carries one, they're like cellphones in South Africa.

    So why would any traveller in their right mind want to go to Ethiopia? Because, frankly, it is probably the most beautiful, mind-boggling, culturally rich, exciting, challenging and friendly country in Africa - once you've dodged the stones, the s**t and made friends with the You-yous. I'm going back as soon as possible. You you mark my words.



    The small rains are from late February to April, and the big rains from late June to early September. The small rains are an irritation, the big rains are hazardous and a problem.


    Never travel before 8 in the morning or after 5 in the afternoon, never bush camp, unless you are in a national park or are absolutely certain you are unobserved. Every village has a hotel -- use them.


    Take a comprehensive medical kit and carry a double supply of antibiotics for intestinal disease. There is no malaria in the highland areas, but in the lowlands it is rife, especially in the Awash National Park area and in the Omo area. Faecally borne disease is rampant. Make sure your hepatitis shots are up to date. Almost every village has a hand pump delivering safe water.


    Warm clothing is essential. The only vehicle spares freely available are for Land Rovers, Toyota Land Cruisers and Mitsubishi Pajeros.

    Carry supplies of dried goods, tinned goods (including veggies), instant coffee and of sweets, sugar, brown rice, flour etc. Vegetables are virtually unobtainable outside of Addis Ababa.

    Locally brewed spirits, wine and beer are very cheap and range from very good to dreadful. Highly recommended is Gouder Export red wine, Awash Cristal white wine, Harar, Bedele and Addis beer. The local gin is cheap and good. Mineral water, Ambo, is cheap.

    Ethiopian food is fiery and not for the gastronomically timid, but delicious. The base of all meals is injera, large, pancake type bread which looks and feels like dirty sponge rubber. Injera is served with various sauces, called wat, made with meat, veg, chicken, fish or lentils, and fistsful of red pepper and ladles of oil.


    There are very few formal campsites in Ethiopia. However, every village has at least one hotel, and they are ridiculously cheap, usually clean, and many have secure parking lots with room for a tent.


    Major rural roads are murram and generally in excellent condition. Almost all minor roads are four wheel drive tracks. Many of the minor roads shown on the maps no longer exist. Don't plan on high speeds and high average distances anywhere in Ethiopia.


    The Michelin 954, Africa North East/Arabia map is generally good, but has some errors. Try to get hold of the very accurate Ethiopia 1:2 000 000 Tourist Map, published by the Ethiopian Tourism Commission.


    Petrol is called Benzine, and Diesel Gasoil. Never pass a fuel pump without filling up. Petrol can be very low grade, and diesel has a high sulphur content. High performance petrol vehicles will encounter problems, so carry octane boosting additives. Much of the travelling is at over 2 000m above sea level, adding to performance problems.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    Cape Town
    Thanked: 3707


    This article also gives you a clue as to why the people in Gonder/Gondar are so messed up. We were in Gonder just three years after the massacre I write about.

    By Tony Weaver, Living Africa magazine

    Check this out.

    King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba had a major fling.

    This was around 1 000 BC. Out of their union was borne Menelik, progenitor of the Royal House of Ethiopia.

    But Solomon was also bedding the handmaiden of the Queen of Sheba, a simple peasant beauty from Tigray. The son from this union was the founder of the Royal House of Zagwe.

    The two half-brothers and their begats were not on very good terms. Luckily they were separated from each other by some of the most vicious rivers, highest mountains, deepest forests and wildest beasts in the then world.

    Two thousand years, a drop of spit in the ocean of history, passed in relatively minor slaughter. One big event happened. Around 431 AD, the local Christian church split from the rest of mainspring worship over a theological dispute about the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. Treaties were withdrawn, some blood was spilt, and the modern Orthodox Ethiopian Coptic Church was born.

    The 2 000 year drop of historical spit ended abruptly in the tenth Century AD. Queen Judith, a wild woman warrior from the mists of the Imet Gogo peaklands of Simien led her plundering hordes down through the Tecezze Valley to destroy the Kingdom of Axum, ancestral home of the Solomon-Sheba alliance.

    Thus came the Zagwe Dynasty to power.

    Maybe it was these stories, or that we were getting short of oxygen at 4 000 metres above sea level, or that the track to our right dropped a sheer 1 000 metres into the gorge of a tributary of the Blue Nile. Maybe it’s just that Ethiopia is an enchanted land, and we felt we were on an enchanted journey through the plains of Wollo to the Peak of Mount Abune Yusef past the cliffs of Kulmesk into the mythical kingdom of Zagwe.

    But yea, did we fear no evil.

    Last night we reached the desert town of Kobbo. Two burnt out Soviet T52 tanks slouched in the main street, past the broken down Agip petrol pumps, tumbleweeds rolled in the evening breeze, camels and zebra sniffed the air in the wadis on the outskirts of town.

    At the Micheal (sic) Hotel, we sat cooking in the back yard, drinking Ethiopian red wine with the hotel owner and the local mechanic, talking wine, war, politics and crossing the mountains in our 1969 Land Rover. The mechanic was a tank fixer in the army of Mengistu Haille Mariam. There are no truly accurate figures, but when Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in May 1991, his 17-year dictatorship left behind the bodies of around one million Ethiopians, victims of torture, massacres, forced famine, executions, assassinations, disease and chemical warfare.

    They're still digging up mass graves in the forests outside Addis Abeba.

    The mechanic liked Kobbo and stayed on after the town was liberated by the rebel forces of the Tigrayan Peoples' Liberation Front. His friend, the hotel owner, was a rebel. In his home town of Hausen, on the way to Asmara, on June 22, 1988, Mengistu's air force attacked the market place. It was Wednesday, market day, and there were perhaps 10 000 peasants in Hausen, trading at the weekly market. Two helicopter gunships sealed off all exits from the mercato, hovering, machine gunning.

    Then the MiGs moved in. For five hours, in relays, they purged Hausen. High explosives, cluster bombs, rockets, machine gun fire and napalm or phosphorous bombs were systematically dumped on the open square.

    How many dead? "You can't count grains of sand ... six months later we are still finding bodies ... bits of bodies, heads and limbs," said one survivor. As many as two thousand peasants died in the murderous assault.

    We talk cautiously of these things, the war is still a running sore in the side of the Ethiopian national psyche. It has only been over three years, and the war trials have just begun.

    We are chasing a legend, the legend of King Kidus of Lalibela, and we have heard there is a road to this legend from Kobbo.

    In the Kingdom of Zagwe, 800 years ago, uneasy sat the crown. The King of Zagwe was very insecure. He feared his younger brother, Kidus of Lalibela, because the bees foretold greatness for the prince. So King Zagwe poisoned kid-brother Kidus, who fell into a deep trance. While in the trance, an angel of the Lord came down and bore him off to heaven. There God anointed him and showed him virtual-reality visions of churches God wanted built on earth. Then Christ ordered the King of Zagwe to abdicate, God found Kidus a wife, Kidus went to meditate in the wilderness, and then, with the help of the angels and backup from a team of fundis from Jerusalem and Egypt, King Kidus Lalibela built 11 churches.

    "The road to Lalibela is very bad," said the mechanic. "You should rather go back one hundred kilometres through Weldiya and Dilb to the new road."

    "I do not know this road," said the former rebel.

    After much discussion, much wine and much coffee, the mechanic finally agreed the road was maybe passable in a Land Rover. "But leave Kobbo before first light, the road is long."

    We left for the Kingdom of Zagwe two hours after first light, it was only 140km according to the maps, and even Indiana Jones needs breakfast.

    Five hours later, we were also seeing visions. The Land Rover, nicknamed Mzee Kobe -- Old Man Tortoise -- by a Kenyan passenger, was gasping for breath. At 3 800 metres there's not much air for a 25-year-old, heavy-smoker-since-birth Land Rover. Rocks the size of soccer balls surfaced the road, and even in low range, first gear, the Old Man crawled two steps forward, one step backward. The summit still lay ahead, higher and steeper. We considered inspanning a team of peasant oxen for the final assault, but finally, a combination of clutch juggling, carbuerettor tweaking, tyre deflating, mothballs in the fuel tank and sweating got us over the top.

    The Kingdom of Zagwe lay below.

    It took us 10 hours to cover the 140km. Halfway there, we realized we were part of a pilgrimage, with streams of peasants barefooting it over the granite and quartz trails, all heading for distant Lalibela for the Festival of Kebere Beale, the feast of St Michael, honouring the death of King Kidus Lalibela.

    We descended the peaks and Himalayan valleys to a red desert. Everything is red. The earth, the rocks, the water in the rivers, the skins of the people, the sky. We travelled in a cloud of red dust, we crawled into Lalibela in a red sunset, a red village carved out of red rock.

    We pitched camp in the yard of the Asheten Hotel, next to the tree where the goat was tethered ready to be slaughtered for breakfast. Soon a crowd of small children had gathered at the palisade fence, peering through, whispering "faranjee, faranjee", foreigners, foreigners, the ancient warning signal that invaders are near.

    Nothing, no legends, no descriptions, no photographs, nothing can prepare you for Lalibela. In the morning we went in search of the churches with our guide, Mesfin Sebsibe, who spent the war in the mountains, ducking conscription into Mengistu's murderous armies, running messages for the rebels and spying on government troop movements.

    We were expecting tall silhouettes outlined on the horizon, stately, soaring monuments to the visions of King Lalibela. "This is the first group of churches," said Mesfin. What, where? We are standing on rock, the same rock on which the town of Lalibela is built.

    "There," says Mesfin, pointing down, to a hole in the ground. It’s a chasm, a giddy drop into the earth, and three stories down is the base of the church. The fundis from Jerusalem and Alexandria, with the help of the angels, began their carving on the roofs -- then just a flat piece of desert rock -- and slowly worked their way downward, until a church emerged from the rock, monolithic, freestanding, solid pillars of rock carved into Gothic cathedrals. We can only stand in awe.

    Many writers have tried to describe Lalibela. In 1520, the Portuguese explorer, Francisco Alvarez, wrote: "It wearies me to write more of these works, because it seems to me that they will not believe me if I write more."

    The Teuton, Hiob Ludolf, in 1684, wrote "by vast expence and hideous pain, the Rock a Church became."

    And that most taciturn of all writers, the British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, wrote of his 1959 visit: "I stood amazed at the vision of the man who had conceived these churches, and had then been able to instigate what must have seemed an impossible task ... perhaps no other place in the world has so profoundly impressed me."

    As we wandered through the labyrinths carved from stone, I wondered how to describe this scene. I found my pen would not move, my normal copious note-taking seized up. One wall of a church has tiny caverns carved from the rock. Nuns and monks live in there, never leaving except to urinate or defecate, they sit in silence, reading Amharic Bibles, contemplating and meditating. Desperately poor peasants bring them food and water and are blessed. Pilgrims who have walked for days prostrate themselves before the churches, kiss the rocks from which they are carved, trace with reverence the ancient chisel marks.

    Looking up from the gloom of the bottom passageways to the narrow strip of sky three storeys above, we see lines of peasants gazing down into the churches, silent, as awestruck as we are. Priests in purple robes ghost through the alleyways, reciting the Bible in ancient Ge'ez, the language of King Lalibela.

    At midday, the Pope emerged, peasants prostrated themselves at his feet, kissed the hem of his robe, ecstatically embraced his Coptic cross. We left the gloom of the churches, where ancient cloth paintings of Biblical scenes stood side by side with battery powered, neon images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, all icons are revered, a thin line separates the pagan from the pious.

    Up in the streets of Lalibela, thousands of peasants teemed the streets. Some had walked for two days to come to the Saturday market and to celebrate Sunday's Festival of St Michael. It must have been on a day like this in Hausen when the gunships and jets of Mengistu moved in for the kill.

    I sat on a low wall in an alleyway leading to and overlooking the market, my pen finally unfrozen, taking notes.

    "Raw, uncured goatskins, great sacks of grain, cloth, mules, onions, all are borne to market on a seething tide of humanity," my notebook records.

    "The men are wild warriors with fighting sticks, curved daggers, some with AK 47s. In front of and below me, a grain sack which must weigh 50kg breaks, everybody tries to help, I am above the man, and grab the hole, stemming the tide of grain. The sweating man grins at me, other peasants grab my hand and kiss it, someone kisses my foot, a priest comes forward and blesses me.

    "I watch the market, higher up a line of old men sit and watch me, discussing me, debating. Its Biblical, mediaeval. This is a place out of time, the smell of rancid goat fat hangs over everything, and the smell of the desert sage. Below us spreads the desert vastness.

    "Moses could come striding through here, or King Solomon, or Jesus, or King Lalibela himself. The peasants would kneel for a blessing, then continue their toil. Do they think the whole world is like this? That all humanity lives the way they do?"

    Through the night the drums throbbed in the Church of Bet Golgota, where the priests say lies the body of Kidus Lalibela. Peasants and priests crowded into the stone chambers to worship his memory, burning incense and reciting in Ge'ez from the ancient Bible. We joined them at first light as ancient treasures, silver crowns, delicate tapestries and filigree incense holders were brought into the open for the final ceremonies of the day.

    The huge crowd listened solemnly as the Pope talked of the fables and legends of Lalibela, legends which are as intrinsically woven into the fabric of their religion as the Bible is into mainstream Christianity.

    A bureaucrat from the Ministry of Antiquities delivered a stinging rebuke to some of the priests who were guilty of selling off ancient treasures to foreigners: "The faranjees here today take pictures and nothing else, and they are good, but beware the rich Arabs who come with dollars and try to steal our heritage, they say they want souvenirs, but they come because they wish to destroy our culture and our religion. Don't let them steal our icons, the priests must not be tempted."

    As the speeches ended, the drums started. The crowd launched into hours of ecstatic dancing and chanting under the hot desert sun. We retired to a local hotel, where a goat was strung up from the eaves for the slaughter. Lunch was fresh.

    The road out was a newly-built, well-surfaced track which serpentined its way out over dizzying heights to the mountains of Dilb. There we camped the night in the shelter of a bulldozer to cut the icy winds. We were with friends who came down in a Bedford truck, we sat around the fire, trying to talk about what we had seen, but everybody, it seemed, was lost for words. We stayed silent and absorbed the wind and the mist and the mountain sounds. How could we speak of things we couldn't even begin to comprehend?

    Our road now leads to Gondar, over the highlands of Mount Guna to the shores of Lake Tana. We pass giant pillars of stone, monasteries carved from clifftops, the silhouettes of mediaeval castles ruined on the skyline, a line of 60 horsemen dressed in white robes firing guns in the air, honouring a bride; after a while in Ethiopia you simply have to suspend belief and realize that the extraordinary is normal, the fantastic merely unusual.

    Gondar, ancient capital of Abyssinia, where Emperor Fasil built a series of family castles in the years following 1636. In 1704, an earthquake destroyed much of the area, in 1881, the Sudanese Dervishes under the Mahdi sacked the city, in World War ll, it was bombed by the British trying to oust the Italian occupiers.

    And in February, 1991, the rebel Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, launched a final assault on Gondar, a major government military outpost. Desperate government officials began the systematic execution of prisoners, believed to be rebel sympathizers, held in Gondar's gaols. In three days, 300 detainees were executed by firing squad, their bodies dumped in the streets for the hyenas to feed on. In three years of military occupation, 3 400 government opponents were executed in Gondar.

    In the town square, a mural shows a peasant mother throttling Major Melaku, the beast of Gondar, while behind lies the bones of her son. Major Melaku is said to have personally overseen and carried out most of the executions.

    The scars of war are everywhere, in the faces of the children, the war orphans, who run behind you begging money, in the cripples and amputees who wander aimlessly through the streets, in the tank graveyard on the outskirts of town, where the rusting skeletons of hundreds of Soviet tanks lie rotting.

    Its hard to enjoy beauty in this kind of setting, but we wander through the spectacular castle compound built by Emperor Fasil, and his sons and grandsons, and marvel that in the heart of Africa, mediaeval churches which would not look out of place on the moors of Scotland, came into being.

    In the church of Debre Birhan Haille Selassie, built in 1682, we lie on our backs to marvel at the famous ceiling paintings of the black angels of Ethiopia. And at Gorgora, 60km away on Lake Tana, at the Monastery of Debre Sina, built in 1335, we struggle to make out the ancient paintings -- in perfect condition until the mid-1970s, when health inspectors sprayed DDT on the frescoes to control malaria...

    Lake Tana is dotted with islands, each with its own monastery or convent, and in Bahir Dar, we discover that one can be reached by Land Rover, as the lake level has dropped.

    We lurch there, through flooded rivers and swampland, to the monastery of Uhre Kidane Mehret, a 14th century stone and thatch temple snugged into dense tropical forest. A guard armed with an AK47 lets us in, the sight within is dazzling: Entire walls covered in holy paintings, depictions of Biblical scenes, legends and fables. Every saint, emperor, prophet and war through the ages is depicted in graphic detail. In another room, gold crowns, 15th century manuscripts, silver jewellery, museum treasures of incalculable value are kept.

    We had wanted to journey to Axum, where Menelik, son of Solomon and Sheba founded his empire. Here giant stone columns, stelae, the imaginary abodes of the spirits of the dead, tower skyward. The highest, now fallen, is 33,3 metres tall, and earlier accounts record 58 stelae in and around Axum. Elaborate obelisks, each stelae is carved to represent a multi-storey building. The highest still standing, 23 metres tall, has 10 storeys, and they are believed to date from the 3rd century AD.

    But a resurgence of bandit attacks in the Tecezze valley between Gondar and Axum had made travel dangerous. In the time we were there, two bus drivers were shot dead and a truck driver died in a landmine blast. Then a local internal flight was hijacked to the Sudan. Venturing down into the Tecezze Valley on a recce with a local guide, nervous soldiers told us the road was "not safe".

    Perhaps it was as well we never completed the tour. We were already boggled by myth, legend, history and horror. We returned to Addis Abeba through the gorge of the Blue Nile, over the plains of Dejen as the rainy season, on time for once, broke.

    Roads were washed away, bridges collapsed, streams became raging rivers, the spirit of Queen Judith from the peaklands of Imet Gogo descended and Ethiopia again turned its back on the world.

    We were left to wonder how it is that a civilization so advanced, so sophisticated, so intricate in its rituals and symbolism, a people so gentle, cultured and noble, could produce mass-murderers who unleashed the kinds of fiends who napalmed Hausen, and deliberately starved hundreds of thousands of peasants to death in the name of ideology.

    Perhaps the answer came from an old friend in Addis Abeba. In the Mercato, the market, that morning, he averted his eyes and hurried past a line of 10 begging soldiers, some blind, some maimed, all crippled in one way or another, one playing a mournful tune on a wood flute, the others staring blankly at the passing crowds.

    "The dogs of Mengistu," our friend said, "show them no pity." But later, pondering his country over a bottle of gin, he relented, and said "we must begin to forgive. This is a bloodyful country, and when someone comes who tries to change us, our people eat them up like ants. All we ask for now, from our rulers, is not that they be angels. We don't ask for angels.

    "We just want better devils."

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Aug 2008
    Florida, USA
    Thanked: 25


    So why would any traveller in their right mind want to go to Ethiopia? Because, frankly, it is probably the most beautiful, mind-boggling, culturally rich, exciting, challenging and friendly country in Africa
    So true...
    I am strong, because I've been weak.
    I am fearless, because I've been afraid.
    I am wise, because I've been foolish.

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