Monday, July 29, 2013

Nile blues and mountain highs

The source of the Blue Nile
It was a bitch getting out of Addis Ababa. Because it was the week of [Coptic] Easter all the buses were booked in literally every direction.

"Want to take a bus to Bahir Dar? Not til next Thursday."
"How about Harar?"
"Sorry, booked til Friday."
"Do you have buses that go anywhere in the country for tomorrow?"
"No." [smile]

Travel infrastructure in Ethiopia is... limited. In a country of 80 million people, there are literally only TWO private bus companies. In spite of the high demand for private transportation, these companies refuse to buy more buses, hence our problems finding a way out of the city.

Anyway, we opted to take a cheap domestic flight on Ethiopian Airlines (the only domestic airline in the nation) to ensure we actually got to our destination. We were on a mission to explore the northern highlands.

We started out in Bahir Dar, perched on the banks of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Bahir Dar was a laid back beach town and we really enjoyed the one night we stayed there. We took a boat out onto the lake and into the mouth of the Blue Nile, wondering at the prolific number of wetland bird species and water buffalo. We visited one of the ancient Coptic Christian churches that sit on the many islands scattered around the lake and we even had a dance battle, which we obviously lost, at a local wedding.

Blue Nile Falls
As we plied the waters out onto the lake we heard a scream from a passing boat. Our captain turned the boat around and we pulled up alongside. Turns out it was a happy scream! One of the passengers on the boat was a an absolutely wonderful woman we had met at a fruit juice place in Addis Ababa. She was in Bahir Dar for the weekend with her boyfriend and they insisted we join them that night for a traditional Ethiopian meal.

It turns out that the couple was actually staying in our very same guest house! They took us out to a local Ethiopian night club, beating back the tuk-tuk drivers who are always on the lookout to cheat foreigners on fares. The night club was a huge open space the size of a small warehouse. We arrived around seven and were a bit worried because it was nearly empty. We ordered food and waited. Before long, hundreds of people started to trickle in until the entire building was standing room only. As the food arrived, a troupe of music performers came up on stage and started belting out some traditional Ethiopian folk music. They were soon joined by a team of professional dancers. Ethiopian dancing is as unique as it is impressive. They move their shoulders in the way that salsa dancers move their hips. It's a sight to be seen and you can check it out here on Youtube.
The Simien Mountains

The next day we explored the Blue Nile Falls outside of Bahir Dar. It's a beautiful place and the water was impressive even in dry season. Then we piled onto a local minibus (a police officer was transporting a shackled prisoner on it too!) and made our way to Gondar, site of an ancient Ethiopian castle and jumping off point for our four-day trek in the Simien Mountains.

The mountains were absolutely fantastic. They were 110% different than the Himalayas. The Simiens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and they look like a raised plateau that towers thousands of meters above the surrounding foothills. The sides of the plateau are sheer cliffs but the top is undulating hills. Our trek took us along the edge of the cliffs, circumnavigating the plateau. It felt like another world. We were always on the edge of a multi-thousand-meter drop and the views were mind-blowing. We spotted rare endemic species like Ethiopian wolves, ibexes, cliffspringers and tons of baboons.

Ibex vs. Baboon
The only downside of the Simiens are that they're quite expensive to visit and we feel that we got ripped off big time. You're required to hire a guide and a scout through a local operator in addition to all the camping equipment etc. The upshot is that they are well protected and that we got a truly luxury camping experience. Our tents were already set up for us when we arrived at the campsite and there was hot coffee/tea waiting for us. Not a bad way to experience the outdoors. We summited the third highest peak in Ethiopia and then moved on to our next trekking destination: Lalibela.

Lalibela is one of the most touristy places in Ethiopia. It's famous for its surfeit of ancient churches carved from solid rock. These feats of engineering rival Petra and are a big draw in a country with little tourism. The only problem is that the local priesthood who manages the churches charges criminally high entrance fees and pockets the cash, none of it goes to the community and there's a lot of local tension because of it (what would Jesus do, right?).

Shepherd kids hard at work
Anyway, we weren't interested in the churches, we were interested in the mountains. Lalibela lies in a deep valley and is surrounded by a semicircular mountain range. We had arranged to trek these mountains with a unique organization called Tesfa Tours. Tesfa means 'hope' in Amharic and the organization works with remote local villages in the mountains to host trekkers who want to traverse the terrain. It's a fantastic system that generates local employment, promotes positive interaction and provides an amazing experience at the same time.

We stayed in local-style cliff top huts, munched injera and sipped fresh roasted coffee at the end of every day of trekking. There was no running water and no electricity -- we were definitely in the middle of nowhere. The mountains are gorgeous, alternating between village farmland, rocky wilderness and wide open views of the entire Lalibela valley.

The Lalibela range
The experience was amazing but, after nine days of it, Eliot was sick and we were both completely exhausted (although Drea took an awesome local cooking class in town). We realized we had been burning the midnight oil a bit too fast in Ethiopia. We had planned back-to-back excursions across the Northern Highlands with no room for rest in between. And this was in a country with the worst transportation infrastructure we had encountered.

We had plans to visit the south and explore the Bale Mountains as well but we realized we needed to switch it up before we burnt out. Beware of the over-crowded itinerary in any long-term travel plans you may have. This was our mistake and we were determined to fix it. So we made a game-time decision to escape to Zanzibar for ten days...

Time to go exploring
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