Thursday, October 27

Ethiopia: Addis, Lalibela, Tigray and Axum

Brett: Finding Wims Holland House ($7 per tent) in Addis Ababa is not easy – Wim’s is in some kind of old industrial estate next to the train station and bus terminal. We missed the turnoff which is behind an obscure boom at the SE corner of the bus terminal next to the main train station building, and ended up in a maze of tiny alleys. Eventually we got there with the help of a few locals who are obviously used to lost faranjis wandering around the area! The campsite is quite unusual, as it is divided into 3 separate small plots, with narrow public roads in between, and the whole place has a kind of cheerful suburban slum feel (but in a nice way). The restaurant is good, if a little pricy by Ethiopian standards, but this was more than made up for by the draft St Georges from the Dutch style bar. Unusually for an overlander meeting point, Wim’s doesn’t have Wi-Fi and the 3G (actually EDGE) connection throughout Ethiopia is frustratingly slow (even in Addis).
We bumped into Ruedi & Suzi who we had met at JJs – they had been having some problems with one of the axles of their Australian OKA truck so were spending quality time at Wim’s pit fixing things. We had a few beers and chatted to a few other overlanders, but almost everybody we met is heading South (or travelling North but much faster than us). We had hoped to meet up with the Richards, Mo and Casper, who we travelled with through Omo Valley, but they were nowhere to be found – hopefully just taking their time rather than stuck somewhere! After a lazy afternoon (the first in a while) we wandered back to the train station to a great local restaurant, Buffet de la Gare. Addis is such a relaxed city that even walking around a grubby train/bus station in the dark in not the greatest neighbourhood, we felt totally safe.
In the morning, we began the chores in earnest, having built up a massive amount of washing and tidying. The Beast got a proper bath and all her bolts checked and tightened. We decided to take a walk into town to see the sights – Wim’s is quite near some of the popular tourist sights. Mary had caught a cold so the walk ended up as more of a short stroll, and even though we were being lazy it didn’t feel like there was terribly much to see, but the hassle factor was low and we enjoyed just soaking up the atmosphere.
Mary: The distances in Ethiopia are massive - heading north to Lalibela is a 2 day drive (16 hours). The first day was along good tar roads through beautiful green mountain passes and recently built tunnels. We got to Hayk Lake Campsite ($6.50 per tent negotiated down to $4.50) in the dark, finding our way down the steep road through the town which was absolutely chockers with cars and taxis coming back from a wedding at the restaurant attached to the campsite. They had some wedding food left over so we had a good dinner of  Tilapia, chips and salad. We camped right next to the lake as there is really not much space, just a strip of grass about the width of 2 cars between the lake and the restaurant. In the morning we got to sample the facilities, as we headed up through the restaurant, past the open air kitchen/butchery (chunks of meat were lying on the ground covered by a tarpaulin to protected it from the flies and circling eagles) where we were cheerfully greeted by a lady cutting up what looked like pieces of dog fur, and up to what have to be the worst latrines of the trip so far. Large turds had been deposited like mines all round the latrine holes (presumably by the wedding guests?), so after negotiating the puddles to get in position we were faced with the problem of having to squat to get comfortable, but not so much as to put yourself in too close a proximity to the existing deposits! I am usually quite blasé about grotty latrines, but I was severely traumatised by the experience.
We got an early start, taking the popular route via the Woldia and Dilbe (tar up to Gashena) to reach Lalibela. On the way, a bee flew in the window and stung me on the arm – my first bee sting in about 17 years! my arm puffed up quite a lot and I was worried about being a bit allergic, but it turned out to be cellulitis instead. We stayed at the Serkie Campsite ($3.50) in Lalibela, (the only campsite in town), camping in their parking lot, which was fine given the price. We found an official guide to take us round the churches – they charge a fixed $20, which seemed a little steep considering his English wasn’t the best and his accent was very strong, so we struggled a bit to understand what he was saying, but he was a friendly chap and we would definitely have missed out on some of the cooler features (eg an underground tunnel between two of the churches) that we just wouldn’t have noticed if we had been by ourselves. Aside from the guide there is also a Shoe Guy who collects your shoes from the entrance of the church and brings them round to whichever door you exit through, and then gets in the way and tries to put your shoes on and tie your laces for you while you desperately try to get them on by yourself. There is no fixed fee for this service but a small tip is required. Entrance to the churches is $20pp and includes all 11 churches - it is worth going to all of them as each one has something different to offer. Our favourites were the famous St George’s church shown in all Lalibela photos, as well as Saint Gabriel & Rafael, which have a bridge over a deep moat-type-thing (and friendly priests who seemed happy to pose at the door looking like they were studying their bibles thoughtfully - see photos below). Some of the other churches featured beautiful carvings or ancient paintings, and some had plastic flowers or kitsch plastic cuckoo clocks! All of them had fleas – it’s a good idea to wear long pants and tuck them into your socks if you don’t want to get chowed.
We finished the day with a few more photos of St George’s church just as the sun was starting to set. At this point my arm was swollen up and tight like a big pink polony and we had drawn lines around the swollen bits to see if if was growing or shrinking (growing) so we headed back to Serkie’s for a freezing shower and some antibiotics. We treated ourselves to dinner at the Seven Olives Restaurant, probably one of the fanciest restaurants in town and a really lovely location up on the hill. We sat outside in front of a roaring fire of old bamboo chairs (not kidding – but it was great) and had some fantastic sizzling Tibbs (fried meat served in a clay bowl with charcoal underneath to make a hot-rock type effect) and chicken. The feast set us back about $14, by far our most expensive meal in Ethiopia Smile - you can really eat so well and so cheaply here!
Brett: We headed north from Lalibela along a good dirt road through Sekota, Abergete and Samre to Makele. It was another long driving day (8hrs), so rather than stopping to eat lunch, Mary made us cheese provitas, tinned pineapple slices and lumps of tinned salmon which she fed me while we bumped down the rough, windy mountain passes. It was rather like that Top Gear where Jamie Oliver has to make lunch in the back of a speeding van, and by the end of it we were both a bit of a mess but canning ourselves laughing. The scenery was fantastic, with several really spectacular passes, and we hardly saw any other cars all day. We got to Mekele just after dark and checked in to the Atse Yohannes Hotel ($13 for a twin room), looking at a few rooms before we found one which was both quiet and had a functioning geyser (hot water showers were really not optional at that point) and pigged out on delicious spaghetti bolognaise and burgers in the blingin’ 80s style restaurant.
From Makele you can organise expensive tours out to Danakil (about $1,200pp), the hottest place on earth, so we wanted to investigate if there was any way we could go independently. We suspected it would be impossible without a convoy, as foreigners are forced to take a guide and several policemen/armed guards, and this was confirmed by the friendly guy in the Tigrai Tourism Office (which has moved to near the Axum Hotel). We would have had to hire another 4x4 to carry all the hangers-on as well as to pull us out if we got stuck, and the whole thing would have been just one big expensive hassle (various permits are needed and apparently you have to pay bribes at some of the villages) unless we could find some other overlanders to go in convoy with. This was really Depressing (Smile with tongue out) because Dallol, the salt mines and Erta Ale look incredible – hopefully we will get to go one day.
We headed on through Wukro to Megab (T4A doesn’t have the tracks, but OSM does) where we picked up a local guide and drove along the 4x4 track to the start of the trail for Abuna Yemata Guh, one of the Tigray churches. Mary wasn’t feeling well, so stayed in the car. We didn’t have much time, so we covered the 1.5km hike to the church (with 500m altitude gain) in 35 minutes at a very fast pace. The last section includes a 40m almost vertical free climb, that isn’t too difficult/dangerous provided you have done some climbing and are steady on ledges with big drops (Mary: that’s bollocks, I’ve seen the photos and it looks very dangerous – the Elf of Safety* would not have been happy with you). The setting of the church is fantastic, between 2 buttresses and very well hidden. The church is still in weekly use and the paintings inside the cave are very well preserved (you need to take a torch). It was a great experience, but I was quite annoyed by their scam:  the entry fee is 100 Birr pp and the local guides charge 250 Birr (with “everything included and no hidden costs or surprises and will would only be 2 of us walking up, no other hangers on” - in the guide’s own words). Even still, when we reached the top, there was suddenly another fee for the priest’s son who had carried the key to the church and refused to unlock the door without getting paid. And then on the downward leg of the climb, the scout who had tagged along started getting in the way and saying he wanted money for his services as well. When we got to the bottom I just told him to speak to the guide if he wanted money. The guide’s excellent English became conveniently poor, but when I told him I would tell others about the hidden costs he suddenly looked quite embarassed. The churches around Megab are the only ones in Tigray where you can get a local guide – for the rest you have to take an official Tigray Tourist Comission guide from Makele or Wukro (ie you have to have space in your car and give them a lift back afterwards). If we had opted to take a guide from Makele, the Abba Yohanni church near Abi Aday looked really good, with a similar setting on the cliff, and an easy walk in to the church rather than a climb. After the hike, we headed to the Tourist Hotel in Hawzien, which was full, but they let us camp in the parking lot for $4.50. We ate at the Lalibela Hotel’s restaurant for $3.50 (for food and drinks) – excellent food and very popular with the locals.
(*Elf of Safety: a mythical figure similar to a Fairy Godmother, responsible for keeping us safe on this trip – ie. ‘elf ‘n safety)
Mary: We continued on the dirt road (following our nose as the roads aren’t on T4A or OSM yet) through Adwa to Axum. We stayed at the lovely Africa Hotel ($10 per double) which has electric showers, ie unlimited hot water assuming the electricity is on – brilliant. We went out for lunch to the Tsega Cafe which was great, and then headed off to see some of the sights. Tickets covering most of the sights in town are $3pp and are sold at Tourist Office, which has moved to Denver Street, North West of King Ezanas Park. The main stelae field has ancient carved pillars and is interesting but the rest of the sights less so – maybe we are just history peasants. In any case we had seen enough churches to skip the Tsion Maryam church which you have to pay for separately ($12pp) – although the Ark of the Covenant is supposedly kept here we figured they weren’t going to let us see it anyway. Axum town itself has a nice relaxed feel, with the only minor hassle being when we pulled up at the hotel and a bunch of guys came up to the car wanting to take us in to the hotel, thereby getting commission. This has happened in a couple of different towns and now we just tell them we already have a reservation, which seems to work.

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