Only about an hour after crossing the border with Sudan into Ethiopia the landscape changed dramatically. Instead of flat land and some green fields, we now drove through the Ethiopian highlands, with lush green fields, trees, huge mountains, and cliffs. Every new turn on the road surprised us with more amazing views than the last. The villages and people had also changed a lot in that short time. Most of the little houses in the villages we passed through were made out of wood. Just like in Sudan, the people were super excited to see us and waved and screamed as soon as they saw our bus.
After a short lunch stop with a bunch of kids and their cattle staring at us we drove for about 5 hours til we reached our first stop in Ethiopia: Gondar. The city is at about 2,133 meters in elevation and 220,000 people live there. The streets were small and full of bumps so it took a while til our huge bus was parked in front of our hotel, the L-Shape Hotel. We didn’t know what to expect from a hotel in Ethiopia, but it turned out to be very nice and clean, and after 6 days of camping we were super excited to sleep in a normal bed again.
We were all tired from the border crossing and the long drive so we decided to just grab a quick dinner at the hotel restaurant and head to bed early. We wanted to try some local Ethiopian food so we asked the waiter to explain what the different dishes were, but we couldn’t get more than a, “You dont know what that is,” out of him, so we gave it a try anyway. David got some typical Ethiopian grey bread called enjera with lamb and me bread with a spicy tomato sauce, that I didn’t enjoy too much. The bread looks more like a pancake and has a very distinct, sour taste to it, which it gets from fermentation. With our dinner we ordered our first bottles of beer and wine since we left Egypt and they tasted phenomenal.
At around 4am we were woken suddenly by loud singing and chanting. We were used to this by now from the Muslim countries and expected it to be over in a few minutes so we could go back to sleep, but this turned out to be something very different as the singing would go on til around lunchtime the next day with virtually no breaks. Blaming it on the Muslims first, we soon learned it was a christian fasting week, during which the priests sing and celebrate almost non-stop. After a rather sleepless morning we worked our blog, but before long we got hungry and headed out to find some breakfast. We ended up at the Gondar Ethiopia Hotel just down the road from our hotel, where we had the most amazing plate of honey and bread and some great tea and real Ethiopian coffee, which is strong and has a lot of taste.
After breakfast we walked about five minutes to the complex of Fasil Ghebbi, the remains of a fortress city within Gondar. The complex was founded in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Emperor Fasilides and became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1979. The entrance fee was $10 per person and a guide would have been another $18, so we decided to just wander around the complex on our own. The Fasilides castle was first and biggest of the castles on the complex and is almost in perfect condition and you can climb up a big stairway to see its massive halls inside.
When we left the castle we saw some people of our travel group, who were also visiting the complex and they had hired a guide and kindly invited us to join their group, we stayed with them for a while to explore some more parts of the castle complex. The complex includes the remains of various castles, dining halls, stables, a library and three churches, which were built by different Ethiopian rulers over the centuries. It covers about 70,000 square meters in total.
Most of the castles are in ruins, but they are still very impressive to look at. The whole complex is huge and it took us almost two hours to walk around and see everything, and we still might not have seen it all.
We moved on to our next stop, the Debre Berhan Selassie church. The church was built by Emperor Eyasu II in the 17th century and is the only church in Gondar that wasn’t destroyed during the invasion of the Mahdist Dervishes of Sudan in 1888. According to a local legend it was saved by a swarm of bees that drove the invaders away. We wanted to walk there, but some locals managed to convince us to take a tuk tuk up, and as the price was so cheap ($2) we hopped on. It was only a short, but uphill ride to the church. The entrance fee for the church was kind of high being $5 and we didn’t exchange a whole lot money before, so only one of us could go in. David was so sweet and let me go in. Woman and men have to use separate entrances to go inside the church and take their shoes off. The church itself was very dark, with only one open door letting light in and it was super small so we could barely move around. The paintings on the walls were pretty impressive, but what made it most special was a religious ceremony going on due to their fasting weeks. There were about 15 priests standing in one part of the church, singing and chanting like they were in a trance.
After this interesting experience we walked back to our hotel, not without being greeted and stared at by locals, but never harassed. We wanted to go on a tour of the local brewery, Dashen beer, with some people from our group but neither David nor I felt very well, so we spent most of the afternoon at the hotel resting. We went out to get some food later, and ended up getting a cake and some of the famous juice one of our travel companions had told us about at the Tele Café. We ordered two different very dry looking pastries, but they turned out to taste very good and both tasted the same. The juice had three layers, avocado, strawberry, and mango, and was almost as filling as a whole meal.
In the evening we met up with the rest of our group to go to a popular local restaurant, the Four Sisters, where we had a buffet of typical Ethiopian food along with some European food. The restaurant was very nicely decorated and all the waiters were wearing local clothing. With the dinner we tried the typical Ethiopian honey wine called tej. It is very sweet and tasty, but one glass of it was plenty. After dinner we were getting ready to leave, when suddenly some of the waiters started playing some local instruments. It stared slowly but then some of the other waitresses joined in and started singing and dancing a local dance. They danced for 15 minutes or so and then invited everyone in the room to join – it was a lot of fun.
We headed back to the hotel and to bed early as we would leave early in the next morning to drive to the Simien Mountains, where we would spend three nights.
We drove for about two hours til we reached a small town called Debark, which lays on the border to the national park of the Simien Mountains. We stopped there to pay the entrance fee to the Simien Mountains National Park ($2.50pp) and had to arrange all our equipment that we wanted to rent for our three day hike from there. Every group entering the park needs to be accompanied by local guides and scouts, who bring rifles for protection. It wasn’t entirely clear what they needed to protect us from, as there are no large predators in the national park. For our group of twenty three we hired two guides to accompany us on the hikes and four armed scouts. Only nine of us wanted to do overnight hiking so we rented two little gas stoves, bought some sacks to put all our stuff in and planned on hiring two mules to carry our food for three days. We wanted to rent some small tents as well, because the tents from our truck would have been way too heavy. After the guides told us that some of the tents weren’t really waterproof, and it was rain season, we decided to leave the tents and pay for beds in community lodges instead, which would cost us $6 per night per person. All together we ended up paying about $45 dollars per person for the three nights at the park and the trekking. After arranging all that we headed out to Debark in search for some snacks and a little more food for the hike, but ended up buying only some eggs and mayonnaise, as there wasn’t any supermarket or other kind of market to be found.
We drove with our truck on a rather bumpy road to the campsite Sankaber, where we would stay the first night with the rest of the group. It was only about 15 kilometres, but in the big truck it took us almost two hours to get there. The landscape we saw through the truck windows was already really amazing and we were getting really excited for the hiking in the park. We were enjoying the views when we suddenly saw a big group of Gelada baboons on the the cliffs of a mountain we passed. Gelada baboons are not really baboons but monkeys and only live in northern Ethiopia. We were all super excited and jumped out of the truck to get closer to them and take some pictures!
We were very reluctant to leave the Gelada baboons, but we had to move on before it would get dark. The campsite was on top of a little hill and some other tourists had already set up their tents there, so we squeezed all over our tents next to them and started cooking dinner. It was the first time on the trip were it was cold outside, so we all sat around the camp fire for a bit after dinner and then headed to our tents. The next morning we got up early to finish up the preparations for the overnight trekking. It turned out that there were no mules for us to rent so we ended up hiring porters, who would carry all our cooking equipment and food on the faster route to the community lodges.
Around 8am we headed out to start the trekking for the day. We moved on a narrow path along the ridge of the mountains through the local flora and fauna and enjoyed the amazing views over the Simien Mountains. It was rain season so the view was a little disturbed by some haze and fog moving between the ridges, but we were still lucky to see enough. We hiked for about 1.5 hours til we climbed over a small sort of natural stone bridge to reach an overlook where we could see Jinbar waterfall. The waterfall is over 500 meters tall and looked impressive.
We stopped for 20 minutes or so and couldn’t take our eyes of the waterfall, when one of the guides told us we had to move on to make it to our destination before the rain came. We said goodbye to the rest of our group, which wouldn’t come with us on the overnight trekking and moved on. So far the hike had been really easy, mostly going downhill or on flat grounds, but now it started to become a little more challenging as it was a lot of uphill and the thick fog clouded our views for the next two hours or so. We reached a river that we head to cross, which had been a concern to the guide in case it rained and swelled. Luckily it hadn’t rained so once we found a good spot to cross it was easy. We stopped for a well needed lunch break and to enjoy the sun, which had finally come out again.
We moved on to make the last stretch of our hike for this day, which was basically only uphill. After another two hours or so and almost wanting to give up, we reached the community lodge at Geech, where we would spent the first night. The lodge looked quite nice, with having real beds with thick blankets and being made out of concrete with metal siding. Next to the lodge we would sleep in was another little shed, where we were invited to do our cooking and to our great surprise could buy beer from some local women.
We made some tea to warm us up, because as soon as we stopped walking it started to get a little cold, and then started cooking. We were up at 3,600 meters so boiling the water for our pasta turned out to be a very long process. It was only pasta with a tomato-veggie sauce, but after that long and very exhausting day, it tasted like the best meal on earth! When we finished eating it was only about 6pm, but it was getting dark and really cold, also we didn’t bring any books or playing cards so we decided to go to bed real early. Six of us shared one room and the metal doors were super loud, so each time someone used the bathroom or when our scouts went in the other room and talked, we were woken up. Most of us weren’t very rested when we got up at six the next morning. Two of our group had already decided the night before that they wouldn’t be able to continue the two more days of hiking, so one of the scouts and them turned around after breakfast and would head back to the first campsite, where the rest of our group was still camping.
We packed up our things and moved on. The first hour or so into the hike was really hard as it was only uphill and I was still tired from not sleeping well and a tough day prior. All the exhaustion was worth it when we finally reached the lookout. We were really lucky as there was still not a cloud on the sky when we climbed the last meters up. The views were amazing, so we just sat there, enjoying it for a good while. When we moved down to where the scout was waiting we saw some more Gelada baboons. The next hour or so we moved on a steep downhill trail and could regain some of our strength before the next, very long uphill stretch. All this time we were accompanied by a local and his horse, who was hoping for one of us to be too tired to walk on, and I have to admit I was thinking about getting on that horse more than once. Nicely one of our friends offered to carry my backpack for a little while, so after another painful hour we made it up the highest point on our trekking, at 4,070 meters.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to see anything as the weather had turned pretty bad by now and everything was covered in a thick layer of fog. We prepared a quick lunch and then decided to move on, as it was getting very cold. The rest of the trail was mostly downhill and we got lucky to see some more baboons and beautiful landscapes. After two more hours we reached Chennek, where we would sleep at another community lodge. This one looked nicer than the last and after our experience with the cooking the night before we started preparing our dinner right away. While we were waiting on the food, David decided to follow some Gelada baboons that we saw when we got to the lodge up a little hill. This turned out to be a great idea, as the three males which seemed a little scared before were just sitting there picking grass with their hands and didn’t care about us being right next to them. One of them even came closer as we sat next to it, this was an amazing experience.
After dinner we got really cold so we decided to have another early night. Also we would have to get up at 5am to hike back on the road in order to go back to meet up with the rest of the group at the first campsite. We had a quick breakfast, packed our things and headed out. The first two hours we had to walk mostly uphill on a very muddy road and the rain was pouring down on us. We all were eager to arrive so we walked a lot faster than expected. Our guide told us we would need about 6-7 hours to get back to Sankaber, but we were walking so fast that we made it in 4.5 hours. Our porters were still faster and arrived a little before us so the group knew we were coming and had some hot drinks already prepared for us when we got there! We rested a bit and then hopped on the bus to drive back to Gondar, where we would spend another night before heading to our next destination in Ethiopia, Lalibela, a small town, known for its famous stone carved churches.