Ethiopia is an amazing country. With a history so deep in time, it’s the cradle of mankind, while 3.5 million years ago the oldest of our ancestor, the Australopithecus Lucy was walking around these grounds. The captivating story of Abyssinia goes back into centuries, at the era of Queen Shiva, to the medieval emperors and wondrous monuments, until the last emperor Haile Selassie, the mythical “messiah” of the religion of Rastafarianism.
Ethiopia, the second most populous state of Africa is a rapidly developing country that has left behind the humanitarian crisis of the 80s, while the modernization has not yet exhausted its remarkable authenticity. My two trips there was for me overwhelming, so rich in images and Experiences! I definitely hope to be there again.
Ethiopia is composed of many heterogeneous population groups. The basic population is characterized by dark-skinned, light-colored African features and amber eyes. People are handsome, proud and above all, kind and hospitable. Poverty, unlike other African countries haven’t led these people to crime, resulting in Ethiopia as a very safe place for visitors, regardless of their color. The majority of population are Christian Coptics and Muslims. In the remote border points of the country one will encounter many more races and tribes.
In the south, on the border with Kenya and South Sudan, the famous valley of the Omo river, the anthropological interest is unique. Here they live since ages, at least eight sub-Saharan tribes numbering around 200,000 souls. This unique African tribes are resisting modernization, keeping their -weird for us- traditions while their primitive appearance is characterized from striking to shocking. The government refuses to grant them legal citizenship and their environment, the future of their existence is threatened by the construction of a giant dam on the river, intended to be the biggest in Africa. The tribes are plagued by shortages of goods and survival often involves hostilities in claiming land and animals.
In the southeast, on the border with Somalia, the Muslim Somali People, indigenous or expats, are more closed to themselves, more distant and sometimes more irritable.
To the east lies the land of Afar. The Danakil depression, one of the hottest and most inhospitable places on earth hosts this tough, unruly people, who survive by breeding animals in an area that almost no vegetation exists and the land spews from her wounds sulfur and lava. As outcasts of this world, Afars collect mineral salt, carried by camel caravans forming an endless line in the desert.
Addis Ababa. The capital, with a population of 3.5 million, is a fast growing African city. Do not imagine skyscrapers and impressive buildings, at least for the moment. The city is a jumble of dust, dirt roads, houses with sheet-metal roof and ugly concrete buildings of colonial influence reminiscent of earlier decades. Despite the suffocating traffic and the few attractions, Addis emits a fascination. It’s a must to visit the Merkato, the largest open market in Africa, enjoy local or international cuisine in Piazza and make a visit to the National Museum to see face to face… the skeleton of humanoid Lucy. Transportation is done with old and dirty taxis or squeezed and dirty as well minibusses. A brand new overground train system, the only in sub-Saharan Africa, was launched in September 2015. I look forward to popping back in Addis and try it. The Chinese investment on large projects in Africa, here are particularly booming.
Arba Minch is a city built near the shores of Lake Chamo and one should not miss a ride on motorized canoe, to have the chance to see from a close distance, numerous crocodiles, hippos and the scavengers marabou.
Konso is a beautiful village with huts made of stone and roofs made of grass or sheet-metal. Christian and local customs mix uniquely with featuring anthropomorphic wooden totem called wagas, dedicated to the memory of the dead. You will see some scattered across the village, at least those escaped by the tempting dollars of tourists. Women and young children sell their wares on the street, tropical fruit, bananas, guava and passion fruit.
After two days of a dusty trek, you arrive in Jinka, the starting point for the tribes of the south. It’s a small town consisting of scattered houses, dirt roads and a grassy airstrip which is occupied by cows, stray dogs and young People enjoying a walk surrounded by a cloud of dust. From here routes lead to the tribes Mursi and Surma in the west, to the national parks Mago and Omo and the homonym river till the remote border of South Sudan. More southern towards Kenya and Lake Turkana, there are many more tribes like Hamar, Arbore , Bana etc, each with unique characteristics.
Bahir Dar. A city built on the shore of Lake Tana offers beautiful Places to stroll. Bahir Dar is famous for its monasteries that are built on the lake”s islands. They not alike European monasteries but more like big wooden huts with very beautiful paintings in bright colors. At one spot of the lake, the water feeds a river, the longest in the world. It’s the Blue Nile, starting here a long journey, joining the White Nile in Sudan and continuing it’s flow to the Mediterranean sea. Near the sources of the Nile hippos gaping, a stone’s throw from the busy city
Gondar is the old capital of the Ethiopian empire, the city of castles, the “Camelot of Africa”! The fact is that in a continent absent of human monuments, (with the exception of the Egyptian marvels) in Gondar one revives the mythical era of black emperors. The castles are kept in very good condition and are now a world heritage site, reminding the flourishing of arts; music, literature and painting from the past.
Simien mountains. Offering vast, stunning views, a mountain range that stretches to rugged mountain peaks fading in the horizon, they’re quite popular for one-day to multi-day hiking excursions.
Lalibela is the most famous destination of Ethiopia and one of the sacred cities. The marvelous site full of monolithic churches will leave visitors impressed. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 by Muslims, King Lalibela envisioned ambitious project of setting up a new Jerusalem. Each one of the 11 churches are rock hewed in a huge scale but with geometric precision from a single piece of rock. Biblical figures of priests and pilgrims in white costumes one encounters at the churches, mentally transferred to the era of Jesus. The religiousness is so intense that outlandish rituals are practiced.
The walled city of Harar is mainly Islamic, considered the fourth holiest city for Muslims.A unique tradition happens every afternoon here… Feeding wild hyenas. The regular daily feeding of the notorious carnivorous started in the 1960s by a farmer who tried to prevent attacks to his livestock. Now only two old men are still practicing this, offering visitors the opportunity to dare this experience. The jaws of the dotted hyenas are among the strongest in nature, much stronger than the lion and regardless it’s actually coward animal, if in a herd they can become quite dangerous. Harar is full of colors, smells People. In the “Christian bazaar”, a countless number of women selling their goods scattered on the ground. In “Muslim bazaar” shops selling from fabrics to Chinese Radios. At butcher shops you can buy camel meat but you have to supply it on your own to the restaurants if you wish to taste it. Workshops of coffee are scenting the city’s air.
Jijiga is the capital of Somali region and the starting point of a cramped minibus to the border with Somaliland.
The Danakil depression, 300 meters below sea level is one of the warmest and most inhospitable Places on earth. Here ends the Rift Valley, the great volcanic arc that stretches across much of eastern Africa. Unfortunately my two visits in Ethiopia were lacking enough time to visit this amazingly unique landscape that doesn’t remind at all planet earth. Vast salt lakes, landscapes with bizarre colors because of volcanic chemical elements and the highlight… the unearthly Erta Ale volcano. One of the just four active volcanoes on earth where you can stand by the edge of a crater filled with a permanent lake of liquid lava. Getting here is not easy, nor absolutely safe as they have been deadly attacks, even on the guarded caravans of tourists. Rebels from Eritrea but also from separatist organization of Afar are still active here.
On the steps of the fist human
If you have an experience of typical African capital cities, Addis will not look very different to you. Crowds, dust, traffic, crammed mini buses.
The difference is in the safety conditions as in Addis and Ethiopia in general you can wander around even at night, carrying big bricks of old local banknotes. Ethiopia’s growth rate is evident in the capital that changes year after year, and recently acquired the first underground urban rail in Sub-Saharan Africa. Let’s start our journey to the far south. Dust would become an integral part of the experience. The roads are in a much better condition than in the past but don’t resemble to even the worst Europe’s road networks. Even though we have very bad roads in Greece, the path to the south would feed us with lot of African dust.
The landscape was beautiful, with sparse green that had changed color, as it was covered with red dust too, while scattered huts with grassy rooftops were sporadically seen. But more strange was the absence of private cars. Donkeys and carts were the vehicles that dominated, and more rarely a truck or a scrawled mini bus was going to disturb the serenity and fill the air with smoke.
After several hours, a stop at Arba Minch town. It’s built near the shores of Lake Chamo and one should not miss a boat ride there. It is not any common lake, but a real African one. Proof of this, fiery crocodiles swim in the waters and on small scattered islands. The untrained eye has difficulty to spot them. Still and camouflaged, are suddenly unveiled and you are surprised that you have not perceived such a massive creature. A little further we see hippos, irritating and insidious. The boatman approaches at a safe distance, silently with an off engine. But the enormous jaws of an annoyed hippo pop up near the boat, and we escapes in fear. It is known that it is the beast responsible for most of deaths in Africa because of its unpredictable behavior and its living environment near human settlements. On the way, another strange creature appears. And not just one, but a group of marabous, big and ugly with a bald head and throat, but valuable African scavengers. A fisherman feeded them with fish, and they swallowed them filling their throats.
The route continues to Soddo where our overnight will take place. The city does not have any particular beauty, just a typical African town. At a local restaurant I try Ethiopian cuisine. The menu consists of the famous injera, a foamy sour dough made from local teff flour, which forms the basis of the national dish of the country, mixed with hard as rubber meat. This dough is also used as fork.
Next day starts the painful part of the road until Jinka, the springboard for the southern tribes.
Making a small stop for relaxing in Konso, where women and young children sell their goods on the road, juicy tropical fruits like bananas, guavas and passion fruits. The local school had a break and my photographic curiosity led me to it. Even bigger was the children’s curiosity about the faranji, as they call the “white guys” in Amharic, the language of Ethiopia.
The route continues and at the Key Afar highland I see a vast African valley beneath. The dirt road turns into a brown cloud behind the car, but that does not prevent the countless kids from running behind shouting “haylaaa”. Highland was the first brand of bottled water in the country, and empty bottles are valuable there as they are sold and used to carry water. All the way, little kids were appearing out of nowhere and running behind the car. And I would tear my dusty teeth, trying to control my emotion. Children and women collect water and wash in muddy ponds. Sunset finally finds us in Jinka. The search for accommodation was somewhat disappointing regarding comfort and cleanliness one can find. If this was not enough, an electricity blackout and water supply cutout, forced us after the next two days to take care of our hygiene with bottled water. Darkness dwindled into town and the attempt the evening excursion was pointless.
Early wake up. The day is dedicated to the tribes. After necessary registration and escort of armed guard, direction to the Mago National Park. The first visit to the camps of the famous Mursi tribe. Both Mursi and Surma are well-known because of the barbarous custom of women who pierce their lower lip at an early age and place a clay or wooden disk. The process of placing an ever larger disk is often accompanied by removing the front lower teeth. The bigger the “plate” and wider the lip hole, the more recherche the bride is and the higher amount of animals paid by the groom. Men often armed with AK-47 engage in violent competitions for their social position. The half-nude tribe is “wild”, irritable and mood is easily revolted. Unfortunately tourism has already intervened in the authenticity of the tribe that poses for photos demanding little money, like in a zoo where the exhibits are human beings.
The presence of the armed guards is essential as Mursi tramples everywhere by yelling at your ears … brrr, brrr (where birr is the currency of the country). If you make the mistake and take a photo of the village, then you have to carry many dozens of small banknotes, because everyone will ask you to pay. Apart from the lip plates, members of the tribe wear bizarre ornaments on their heads, made of animal horns and skulls, tied together by ropes. Children paint their face and body with elaborate white patterns, making them look like ghosts.
In the area there is hardly any accommodation and the lodge we found was very luxurious for our budget. But it had beautiful two-person tents with beds at a relatively good price. The electric generator operated for only a few hours in the evening and after three days without electricity, the camera’s batteries would be completely empty a few hours later.
The weekly open market took place at Dimeka. There you have the opportunity to get closer to the indigenous people and their everyday life. At Turmi you will meet other tribes too, mostly Hamar with their sleek, calm presences. The Hamar women wear goatskin skirts and their often naked chest was decorated with numerous necklaces made of white shells. Various decorative accessories adorned costumes, such as beads and necklaces of beads and human hair, all of which are exchanged in the market.
More characteristic, however, is women’s hair. A mixture of clay and butter gives the hair a strong red color and plastic texture. Their body is also covered with this mixture, while their backs are strongly marked by whips, part of their harsh customs. After this surreal market, we visit a Hamar village. The custom of adulthood, where the young boy has to run naked on the backs of aligned bulls, was held the previous day and I did not have the opportunity to see it. But today was a wedding day! Barefooted youngsters, boys and girls rhythmically beat the pace of the drums facing each other, looking for their future mate. The sun sank into the Hamar valley casting silhouettes of the people attending the feast. In the evening at the lodge, in this remote corner of Africa, I met two Greeks. Vangelis and George are from Thessaloniki and are also passionate travelers. Together we exchanged experiences and stayed in touch for future travel plans.
Another day on the poor, dusty roads start. With an eastward route, we move alongside the Kenyan border. Next stop at Arbore and the homonymous tribe. Exotic half-naked young women loaded with countless necklaces of colorful beads and a characteristic black veil on the head or shoulders. Their shiny black bodies are sculptured under the mercilessly hot sun. The members of the tribe are also asking for money for the pictures, but they are much calmer and more cooperative than Mursi. We agree to make a group payment, much more practical as it is not easy to carry a lot of small-value banknotes. The number of “clicks” is noted on the surface of a… flip flop!
After many hours of dust on a bad dirt road, we reach again and make a stop in the village of Konso. The village is quite “civilized”. There are stone huts, with a roofs of grass or metal sheets and also a church. The primitive tribes of the South give their place to a mix of Christian and local customs. Characteristic are the wooden anthropomorphic totem called wagas, dedicated to the memory of the dead. The road to return to Addis Ababa is long but fortunately tarred. We stop at Shashemene, the village of Rastafaris. Emperor Haile Selassie had offered this land to the religious followers who await coming of the Messiah from the royal lands of Africa, while some identified him in Selassie’s face. Today, the village is of little interest. The residents are locked in their homes and avoid contact with annoying tourists, there is a shop with visual art creations on banana leaf papyrus while teenagers approach you trying to sell marijuana. Another stop at Arba Minch as the church of Archangel Gabriel had celebrations. A crowd of people bowed in and out of space, while in the interior a devious ceremony took place, with aloft chanting accompanied by drums, with pilgrims and priests dressed in whitish mantles and turbans.
At night in the capital and we say goodbye to the driver and head to the Greek club of Addis, called Olympiakos. Unfortunately we did not find any Greeks there, but we ate a delicious and expensive pizza. The time had passed and we didn’t care of a hotel while our flight to Bahir Dar was early in the morning. Next to the Greek club there was a hotel but its price was outrageous in relation to what we were used to. The decision was taken and the overnight stay was at the inconveniently cold airport room, under the tolerance of the employees.
Flight and arrival at Bahir Dar. The city is built on the shores of Lake Tana and offers beautiful walking areas. Hotels were pretty and very cheap. Bahir Dar is famous for its monasteries built on the islands of the lake. They do not look like our big European monasteries as they are just wooden huts with very beautiful paintings in bold colors. At one point in the lake, water supplies a river, the longest of the world. It is the blue Nile, which starts from here for a long journey, joins with the tributary of white Nile in Khartoum, Sudan and continues till the Mediterranean Sea. At the sources of Nile, hippos are yawning just a step away from the modern city of Bahir Dar. Overlooking the magnificent view of the lake from “Lake Shore” restaurant we enjoy by the best and cheapest fish.
On the next morning the coffee loving travel buddies were looking for a take away solution. But the coffee in Ethiopia, the place where coffee was discovered, is a full ritual. It is prepared by women on a typical portable bench in which they burn fragrant incense, while on the ground around freshly cut grass is spread for the visitor to sit. We continue on to Gondar with a wrecked mini bus we booked on spot.
Gondar or Gonder is the old capital of the Ethiopian Empire, the city of castles, the “Camelot of Africa”! And indeed, in this continent with the exception of the majestic pharaonic civilisation, the human monuments are almost absent. Though Gondar revives the mythical era of black emperors. The castles, preserved in a very good condition present a world heritage monument today, were the arts of music, literature and painting flourished in the past. With the help of one of the guys offering to show you some accommodation we found a really clean family hotel at an extremely low price. In the comfortable and economical stay, we enjoy a New Year’s dinner in the comfortable open air lounge free of charge! The friendliness of the owners and the whole experience gives lot of value to the kid’s suggestion. In addition to the castles, the city has one of the well-known dusty markets where, among other things, desperate livestock are leg tied. Several churches are of interest in the city and I was fortunate to attend an afternoon sermon in the courtyard with a crowd of women sitting in white veils, creating a harmonious look. In the evening we found another great restaurant. The “four sisters”, which, according to the name, belongs to 4 sisters who, with their personal taste and a necessary bank loan, made a beautiful area with very good cuisine. Live music accompanied the warm, honey wine tasting with the drummers revolving around the long central table. If you ever find yourself in Gondar, it is worth visiting and enjoy the four-sisters’ gourmet hospitality. The younger sister speaks fluent English with American accent. She is self taught, exclusively from television!
The area is a springboard for hiking trips to the famous Simien Mountains. Time limit allowed us for a one-day trekking only. After a car ride on a very rugged mountain road and after a short stop in a Jewish village in the area, we followed a delightful hike to a vast, imposing view of the mountain range stretching with steep mountain peaks as far as the eye reaches.
The next flight offers yet another spectacular view of the Simien until landing on the Lalibela highlands. Lalibela is the most famous destination of Ethiopia and one of its holy cities. The monolithic churches, unique in the world will leave the visitor speechless. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187 by the Muslims, King Lalibela envisioned the ambitious plan of establishing a new Jerusalem. Each of the 11 churches is sculpted in imposing dimensions but with geometric precision in a sole piece of rock. Biblical figures of priests and pilgrims in white costumes come in and out of the temples that transfer your senses back to the years of Jesus. The religiousness is so strong that the pilgrims follow bizarre rituals. Like lying inside a ground hole, holding a piece of bread, while others screaming, begging, kissing the stones of the temple.
The end of the trip finds me back in Addis Ababa full of images, experiences and several souvenirs. A walk in the city shows me again the unique mix of the modern element with that of abandonment. Small shopping centers, restaurants and bars attract young people and tourists while dirt roads, dust, slums and poverty coexist. And as a finale, another blackout dipped the city in the dark, and the following water cutout deprived me of a relief bath. The next day I would go straight to work, still “wearing” the African dust.
2nd trip. December 2014
A flight with SudanAir, one of the world’s most dangerous airlines, takes us from Khartoum to Addis Ababa. The flight was cheap but adventurous as the plane was full of repatriated illegal immigrants. In the front seat one mentally ill person was sitting, ribbed and barefoot, forcingly strapped on his seat while screaming and begging almost all way long. After arrival and waiting for luggage, some were trying in the crowd to steal others’ luggage, while the demented person was freed and started teasing the passengers. As the time was already 3am it was futile to search for a hotel. So, the inconvenient Addis airport would be hosting me once more. At 8 o’clock in the morning, crammed and sleepless I wake up my traveling buddy. In a state of dissolution we are looking for a taxi to the Embassy of Somaliland. We are ultimately opposed to a building with a blue flag with a white star, which I recognise well as the Somalian flag and not to the unrecognized state we want to visit. After searching, we find the right embassy that was a simple, poor house and did not remind the other embassies even of the African standards. The process is simple but pricey at $ 50. Luckily, the Ethiopian visa cost me relatively cheap as I had the opportunity to issue it in Rome (a multi-entry visa for $ 30 instead of €50 single entry at the airport).
We planned to travel on the same day for Harar. But the buses had already set off and other transportation was fruitless despite the search in many parts of the city. Loaded with backpacks, we moved into the dusty polluted and hot city to search for a budget hotel near the bus station so we will be on time at 5:30am next day for departure. Travel fatigue was exaggerated by a three-hour waiting at the state-owned telecoms company to bureaucratically get a simple SIM card. After some short rest to prevented fainting, we continue walking in the city, looking for food and cold beers. Moving around with mini buses is unbelievably uncomfortable. Scrawny cars with a capacity of 10 people are stacked with twice the number. We will use them more in our trip.
Early on the next day, we get in a relatively comfortable bus to Harar, where each passenger has a seat. I was so sleepy but did not prevail over the images behind the glass that kept my interest. The bus stopped for a toilet. Men and women were running behind the bushes to claim their own sanitary space. The bus also made a stop in a village called Hirna. They almost forgot me there as I was excited about photographing and discussing with the locals.
We arrived in Harar in the afternoon and with a local helper, we found accommodation in a beautiful traditional house within the city walls. The room was paved with carpets so we had to take off shoes while the old hostess refused to take a photo of her. The fortified city of Harar is Islamic and is considered the fourth most sacred city for Muslims. We will discover the city on the next day and our goal was to experience the unique… hyena feeding. The custom of daily feeding of the terrible carnivores began back in the ’60s by a farmer who found this way to prevent the damage to his flocks. Now only 2 old men continue the custom. The jaws of the dotted hyena are of the strongest in nature, much stronger than the lion, and although they are cowardly, the combined dare of the herd makes it quite dangerous. After my previous face-to-face experience outside my tent in Zimbabwe, I now had the opportunity to feed them in mouth! The next day at Harar was full of colors and smells. In the “Christian bazaar,” women was filling up with the merchandise on ground. At the “Muslim Bazaar” shops were selling from textiles to Chinese radios. In the butcher shops you find camel meat but you had to get it cooked in the restaurants. In the coffee workshops, the scents filled the nose with the intense aroma.
Reaching the Somaliland border was not a simple matter. Although the distance was not great, we had to change three mini buses. Conditions overwhelmed Africa in all its paranoia. The buses were hard to distinguish and you had to make a conclusion about the destination. The “helpers” were many but you had to drive them away to avoid extra fees. You had to raise your sack on the roof by yourself cause they were asking for money even for that. Last and wiser, we had to buy at least two seats for each of us, to avoid travelling on top of each other with people that never had a shower. Even so, the conditions were tricky and difficult. At some point the passenger sitting in front of me sputtered on the seats. The rest of them were chewing qat all the time. Qat or chat is a plant that grows in the horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It has psychotropic activity and is a mild drug and at the same time a social habit. And while it is banned in the rest of the world, Yemen, Somalia and Somali Province of Ethiopia is a fanatical everyday habit. This herb has different varieties and prices and you must keep a quantity of this grass pulp inside your cheek for many hours to feel some effect. Arrival in Jijiga, the capital of the Somali region and we change for the last cramped buss for the border. Apart from the four seats for both of us, we offered the ticket to a young Muslim girl named Estahil. The girl is from Somaliland and studies engineering in Jijiga. Her dream is to go to Europe and specifically to Sweden. As her twin sister lives there, she will avoid the dangerous sea crossing of the Mediterranean and will travel… with her sister’s passport. Returning from Somaliland, I had the opportunity to see more of Jijiga, but it was of little interest as a city and no tourist infrastructure except for a hotel of good price.
My future plans are definitely a third visit to Ethiopia, namely Danakil and the Erta Ale volcano. Danakil is one of the most inhospitable and warmest places on the planet. A desert with altitudes lower than sea level, with salt and sulfur ponds, an alien scenery that culminates in the volcano, one of the four in the world with a permanent lava lake. In a life-threatening area, the tribe of Afar nomads resides. Cautious and unfriendly to strangers. Traveling here is not easy. There are no accommodation, no food or water. The trip takes place on a convoy of 4X4 vehicles with armed escorts. A few days after my previous trip, in January 2012 a bloody attack left dead tourists and their escorts. It’s still not clear if the attacks were from Eritrean rebels or Afar separatists. Whatever it is, I expect my next trip to this very special country.