Ethiopia Again

I’d finally come to understand what it had been: a yearning for a way out, when actually what I had wanted to find was a way in.
— Cheryl Strayed

I first travelled to Ethiopia April of 2018 to learn more about this proud nation and take part in the Orthodox Easter celebrations. I fell head over heels with the culture, particularly the Tigray region, due to the welcoming locals, delicious food, strong coffee and lively music paired with outstanding shoulder-shaking dance moves. I made a promise to myself that I would return to the country before leaving East Africa. I am happy to say that I have now seen some of the most exquisite wonders of Habesha, and still have future plants to return and explore the Omo Valley in the South. This time around I visited Gheralta, climbing steep cliffs of red rock churches underneath crisp blue skies, made my way to the hottest and lowest point on Earth in the Danakil Depression, and finished the journey in Harar, just in time to join in the celebration of Prophet Mohammed’s birthday. This was another unforgettable trip, and Ethiopia keeps its title of my favourite country in East Africa. I highly recommend visiting to see for yourself that there is so much more to this land than the one we’ve heard of in the West.


Gheralta

My trip to Ethiopia began with a lay-over in Addis to see a dear friend of mine. This was my second time in Addis so I didn’t do any sight-seeing or touring, other than stocking up on coffee. I took an early morning flight from Addis to Mek’ele which is the capital of the Tigray Region. After landing in Mek’ele and ferociously bargaining with taxi drivers, I convinced one to drive me to the Bajaj (tuk-tuk) station. From there they took me to the local bus station where after about an hour long wait (buses in Africa don’t leave till their full) I was on my way to Hawzen. This was the closest village from where I could take another Bajaj to Korkor Lodge. I had to save up my money on transit as the Korkor Lodge cost me a pretty penny, but it was worth it. The vibe was delicately ordained by the the owner Luigi from the Italian part of Switzerland who runs this lodge with his Ethiopian wife. They have been flying between Switzerland and Ethiopia for the past 25 years, until 5 years ago when they chose to make the permanent move and build their dream-lodge in the homeland. There is only room for 8 guests with meals served at set times to encourage guests to share travel stories rather than sitting on their phones and tablets. I met a cool couple from Germany and together we went on a couple of day-hikes to visit the centuries old churches with their famous rock-wall paintings. After a lunch of mushroom risotto we headed out for our first hike, the journey to Maryam and Daniel Korkor. The Korkor lodge is named after these churches as you can access them within 2-hours, but note the hike is quite steep and should not be attempted in the middle of the day as the sun is scorching at this time. The climb was definitely worth it though, not only are you rewarded with ancient biblical rock paintings, you also have prime sunset views of the entire Tigray region. Upon returning, Luigi showed us his book, The Ancient Churches of Ethiopia, which he supplied majority of the photos for. The publication of the book cost $300,000 and was privately funded by a historian enthusiast. There are thousands of churches in Ethiopia so this book focuses primarily on those with wall paintings (frescoes). Luigi pointed out that although the tour guides claim the churches and paintings are from the 4th century, experts have proven that the paintings likely come from the 14-16th century. This is somewhat attune to the proud culture of Ethiopian’s, and the paintings are still worth seeing, regardless of which century they are from.

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After a delicious breakfast of freshly baked bread with cheese and butter and homemade jam, we headed to Abuna Gebre Mikael. This was a recommendation from Luigi as most tourists head only to Abuna Yemata-Guh. This rewarding site of preserved vibrant yellow and blue frescoes also came with a significant climb, offering stunning views of the horizon and glimpses of Aksum in the distance. We admired these frescoes, enjoying the sanctuary for some time before retreating back down the mountain. We noticed that the paintings were only on the pillars of the church, our guide explained this was because the wall paintings have been worn down over time from locals touching the walls while praying, that or rather there may have been a spiritual reason unknown to us. Each church has three rooms, representing the holy trinity, guiding who is allowed to sit in that space.

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Abuna Yemata-Guh is the most famous Church, primarily due to the iconic priest who cares over these rocky pews. I barely made it up to the top as rock-climbing has never really been my thing and some parts require a complete free climb. You can get a harness at an additional price, or rely on the 4-6 local men who guide your every step, making sure you don’t fall to a rocky death, for a tip of course. I was absolutely in awe of the priest who does this climb twice daily and is at least twice my age. This church was monolithic, meaning it was carved directly into the rock face and depicted Biblical frescoes,, well preserved in the dark musky essence of this cave.

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I could only afford 1-night at the Korkor Lodge so I headed straight back to Mek’ele after this day of climbing rock churches. I was exhausted and really lucked out when my tour guide helped me find a direct ride back into the city rather than taking local transport. The driver and I shared delicious mixed-meat injeera in Mek’ele that night and washed it down with a couple Ethiopian beers. My tour guide Teddy from Zion Tours also took me out to a local club to get a taste of the night life. I was surprised to see so many people partying on my Tuesday - these people love to dance!


Danakil Depression

This 3-day excursion with Teddy Zion Tours was definitely the highlight of my trip, and likely the most exotic place I have ever travelled to. The Danakil Depression has been registered as an unsafe travel destination due to tense relations in the past with the Afar people living in the region. However in recent years there have been no incidents as tour operators take the safety of their clients very seriously. I got lucky as Teddy gave me the front seat in the car, and there were 3 American guys my age so we had some fun chats (the classic making fun of Canadian’s, South Park style - I was outnumbered). It’s definitely important to be in a car with people you can tolerate as the hours driving are long and condensed. There is considerable distance to cover in 3-days, and some of the roads are quite precarious (especially driving up to the volcano Mount Ert Ale). Being that this is the hottest, driest place on earth (average on a yearly basis), it is not an easy or comfortable trip, so I was quite impressed with all the older couples I saw persevering in these conditions.

We had our first stop over in a local village. Child waiters served us our beers which was an odd feeling coming from a place where children can’t even sit in a bar accompanied by their parents. The goat roaming between the tables added a nice touch too. We had a long day of driving, accompanied by stark cliffs bearing the Afar region.

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We would spend the night at the iconic salt flats. This is the second salt flat I have seen, the first being the Salar d Uyuni in Bolivia. To be honest I thought the one in Bolivia had a more visually-appealing landscape, but this region was more exotic given harsh conditions that the Afar people must survive in daily. Not only is the region hot and dry, but it is also arid meaning that nothing grows here. Camels are the vehicles of the Afar people. The government had built a highway in order for trucks to replace the 7-day camel tour to transport salt blocks from the flats to Addis. The locals were outraged that their traditional ways of life were imposed on and risked extinction, so they fought (physically) with the government and rebelled until their traditional way of life was honoured.

After watching the sunset over the horizon of the watery-salt flat (the water rises from an aquifer connecting the Red Sea) and having a celebratory drink with our Afar comrades protecting us with their rifles, we headed back to camp. We spent the night in the open air, definitely a testament of our wills. It was extremely windy that night so we tried to find cover behind some of the wooden shelters until we were chased away by heavy rains at 1AM. The Danakil Depression only gets rain 10 days of the year so that made us quite un-lucky (or lucky depending on how you look at it). We huddled under a tin roof of a rickety shack, listening to the peaceful snoring of the guards clutching their rifles as they slept. This made me a bit uneasy but at least we were certainly protected from any outside danger should it arise. Due to the hot temperatures we woke up at 4AM to get an early start. This wasn’t easy after the turbulent night we experienced but we somehow managed to pack up our vehicle and head to our next stop.

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Day 2 was the highlight of this tour. The Sulphur Flats are like no place I’ve ever seen, it truly looks like an alien planet. The diverse colours come from the raw minerals are other worldly: green is a mix of copper, zinc and manganese; red comes from the potassium; yellow from the sulfur and white from the salt. We only had an hour to spend here as we had a long drive ahead to the volcano Mount Ert Ale. I could have spent an entire day here taking in the colours, although the smell I could have done without. Here’s some of my favourite photos of the hundreds I took in that short hour.

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The drive to the volcano was long and tumultuous. We spent about 10 hours in the car that day, with the last 1.5 hours driving over extremely bumpy black volcanic rock. The Chinese have most of the infrastructure projects in East Africa and they are building a road to the volcano to make this trip less turbulent for future travel. As soon as we got to the camp we ate dinner while our guides packed up our sleeping mattresses on the camels so we could set out just after dark. It took about 3 hours to get to the top of the volcano. The last quarter of the hike was quite difficult. A large rock had fallen into the crate a couple months before, causing red plumes of smoke to billow from the fiery depths - known to locals as the “opening to hell”. Unfortunately the smoke prevented us from seeing the lava flow, and forcing us to make-shift gas masks out of our Afari scarves. We tried to sleep on top of this volcano, with scarves tightly wrapped around our heads and blankets wrapped tightly around our bodies in fear of getting nipped by the rats and beetles sharing the space with us. We woke up again the next morning at 4AM to try one-last attempt at seeing the lava and revelling in delight when we finally made out a little bubble of lava amidst the gray smoke.

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After making our way back from the volcano and devouring delicious banana pancakes for breakfast, we drove to our final stop, the salt lake. I have an affinity for swimming in large bodies of water. This lake was just perfect as the high density salt contents bobbed you to the surface (just like the Dead Sea) and the minerals left an oily residue doing wonders for softening your skin. The natural hot spring nearby made for a relaxing moment after all the hiking before heading back into the car for the long drive back to Mek’ele. I flew back to Addis that night in order to see my friend Ele one last time. Her friends took part in ‘The Great Ethiopian Run’ the next day, an annual half-marathon that takes place in Addis with close to 50,000 participants! I didn’t join them for the run as all the tickets were sold out, but did enjoy the post run beers and energy of the crowd.

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Harar

Out of all the cities I visited in Ethiopia, Harar definitely ticks all the boxes when it comes to culture, food and experiences. This visit began with a journey on the new train line developed and operated by the Chinese last year. The train station was quite the site and apparently looks identical to the train stations in China. It took about 6.5 hours to travel from Addis to Dire Dawa. The train passes by villages, through mountains, beside lakes, all the while overlooking green landscapes. The local pastoralists in the area however, are not the biggest fans of the train. Some of the windows on the train were smashed as proof and we almost saw another get broken as local threw rocks at the passing train. The dislike of the train comes from instances of it hitting their livestock (camels and cows). When this occurs, the government pays out fines to the communities so they do do their best to avoid it, but slowing down a train is not the same as braking a vehicle. Now, they drive the train at slower speeds to begin with in order to preventatively avoid any incidents. We had to stop twice along the route to avoid hitting an animal. I traveled to Harar with a group of Ele’s friends from the UK. I was the Canadian odd-ball as they had all been travelling together for a couple weeks but it was nice to have some company. It’s also a bit tricky travelling to Harar on your own as you need to find transport from Dire Dawa to Harar. The local minibuses are a bit chaotic and since there were 5 of us we could order a private car to pick us up at the train station and take us directly to our guesthouse. We stayed at the Rowda Guesthouse in Harar which was traditionally adorned with decorative plates and religious artifacts galore. We spent a day with our tour guide traversing the stone streets of this walled city, visiting all the 5 holy entrance ways, taking in the sights, sounds and smells, chewing khat leaves and drinking coffee. A visit to Harar isn’t complete without feeding the hyenas. This was even featured in Planet Earth’s episode on ‘Cities’, a showing of how old traditions create a co-existence between animals and human beings. It is a long known custom of Harar and there is a deep respect for these animals. Trusting I was in safe hands took a bit of courage as my heart nearly stopped when the hyena mowed down the piece of meat placed just over my head.

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To my dear friends of Habesha, this has been a treat. Until we meet again.