The Historic North and The Wild Lower Omo
For years we had considered expanding our Africa program to include Ethiopia and, finally, in April I got the opportunity to spend several weeks exploring the country (North to South), inspecting hotels, meeting guides and researching for program development. I left the States wary of the political and social issues in the Horn of Africa, unsure of what to expect in a country that I grew up watching starve to death on TV, but my sense of adventure and passion for Africa took over when I touched ground. Then, within hours of arriving, I knew that my (and the world's) perceptions were wrong. While Ethiopia is indeed a poor country, occasionally ridden by famine and drought, those factors don't define it--the tranquility, significance and beauty of the place and its people do. No where else in Africa do so many spellbinding experiences converge in one nation, making the line between past and present blur and allowing the traveler to cross a threshold and step into a place where few others have been. Welcome to Ethiopia; this is my journey and I look forward to help creating yours.
Departing Seattle, I boarded a Washington-Dulles bound plane for my trans-Atlantic flight on Ethiopia Airlines to Addis Ababa. The plane was quite comfortable and, much to the dismay of the flight attendants, I slept most of the way there and missed three of the four meals! On arrival in Addis our group was promptly met by our smiling (and very put-together) guide, Muluken or Mole as we came to know him, and whisked away to our hotel for the evening. Our hotel in Addis was clean, comfortable and provided the basic amenities that most travelers require-it was also the nicest hotel of our trip.
After an early morning flight to the city of Bahir Dar, we set out by boat on Lake Tana to visit the remote island monasteries famous for their brightly colored wall paintings. Dating to the 16th and 17th centuries, the monasteries rest on 20 of the lake's 37 islands and are still used for religious ceremonies. For centuries the monasteries have sheltered invaluable religious relics and it's rumored that the Ark of the Covenant was hidden at the Tana Cherkos monastery for 800 years. Controversy aside, it is difficult to deny that these sanctuaries are places of respite and peace. While wandering the grounds of Beta Mariam we happened upon a funeral procession. It's not uncommon to see Ethiopians cloaked in the traditional white gabi, but at the procession each attendant was decked out in their best gabi and priests were recognizable by their caps. Even with the hustle and bustle of the procession, there was still an underlying tranquility to the event--a feeling that we would encounter again and again throughout our journey.
From hot and humid Bahir Dar we drove four hours overland, gaining significant elevation, before reaching the City of Castles Gondar. At over 7,200 feet above sea level, Gondar's climate is pleasant compared to Bahir Dar. The mornings and evenings are cool with afternoon thunderstorms lighting up the sky. Long known as Africa's Camelot, Gondar boasts an impressive collection of castles, churches and ceremonial baths. Due to its prime location, Emperor Fasiladas made Gondar his capital in 1636 and began constructing many of the landmark castles. A highlight of any visit to Gondar is getting lost in the Royal Enclosure with its high stone walls, castles, bathing pools and turrets.
In the afternoon, we headed a few kilometers outside of town to visit the breathtaking baths of King Fasiladas. It was easy to imagine the centuries old ceremony of Timkat being performed--the expansive pool filled with holy water and, as priests look on from the tower in the middle of the pool, pilgrims jumping in to commemorate Christ's baptism in the River Jordan. This special ceremony still takes place each January for during the Epiphany (Timkat) celebration.
In the afternoon we paid a visit to one of Ethiopia's most famous churches: Debre Berhan Selassie. The walls and ceiling are covered with brightly colored, well-preserved paintings dating from the 17th century. The heads of 80 Ethiopian cherubs, donning trademark Afros, stared down at me as I studied each slightly varying face. The pictographs on the walls tell the story of the Ethiopian saints and the life and times of Christ. Our day ended atop a mountain looking down at Gondar, Dashen beer in hand toasting another unexpected day.
Departing Gondar, we headed north to the arid mountain village of Lalibela. Home to the incredible rock-hewn churches, Lalibela is still surprisingly off world travelers radar. Only a few other faranji (foreigners) graced the sites and the hotel, and we had many of the churches to ourselves. It remains to be seen how time and tourism will change this UNESCO site, but keen travelers should make their journey soon before much of the magic and serenity of this place begins fading away. The town of Lalibela (formerly Roha) rests high in the Lasta Mountains at over 8,500 ft. and remains quite undeveloped. Electricity is a relatively new amenity and water shortages are still common. When we arrived at our hotel, we found a water ration bucket in our bathroom for hand washing and flushing the toilet. The water came on later in the evening and a quick shower was welcome after a dusty day in the churches. Lalibela was not only a peek into the rich and mysterious history of Ethiopia, but it was also an incredible cultural exchange. Priests and nuns were welcoming and eager to answer questions about their places of worship and and show off their relics, and no one seemed to take much note that we were strolling through their sacred site. The few Ethiopian-Americans (who came to the States and are financially able to return to their homeland and tour the sites they never saw in their youth) we encountered were passionate about their motherland and overjoyed that we had come to visit Ethiopia.
The next morning three of us awoke before sunrise and ventured into the churches for one last walk in this sacred place. The images of white-clothed nuns floating through the churches, golden light hitting rose-colored stone and the faces of devotion that surrounded me will stay in my mind for years to come.
In Axum, the ancient treasures of Ethiopian civilization were revealed. A mixture of folklore and documented history, the civilization at Axum has survived for millennia in one form or another. Around 400 BC, Axum was home of the powerful Axumite Kingdom and an important trading center between Southern Europe, Alexandria and the Byzantine Empire. It is thought that the Christian kingdom began its decline in the 7th century when access to trading routes was hampered by Arab traders. Now, Axum looks to be a shell--an impressive one at that--of this once powerful kingdom with only relics and empty tombs left behind. Our first stop was the North Stelae Park with over 120 obelisks, the stelae are a nod to the ancient Ethiopians as they stand there in their massive glory. As we strolled through the site, the UNESCO team of archeologist and engineers were working to re-erect the tallest stelae just recently returned from Italy (Mussolini had it "removed" from Ethiopia and erected in Italy during his rule).
Axum has an intensity to it that I have felt before in places of pilgrimage and significant religious importance. As we approached St. Mary of Zion, I sensed a weight in the air--it almost visibly settled on ones' shoulders. The sick, crippled and old surround the church praying and chanting. It was a sight to behold and several members of our group returned to the vehicle because it was so overwhelming. I likened it to my experience in India on the banks of the Ganges River, funeral pyres burning and pilgrims bathing. Inside St. Mary's (the new church that Haile Selassie had erected during his reign) the mood is considerably lighter and our guide, Mole, begins to explain the history of the church and its compound. The soaring ceilings and mod-colored carpet seem most alien compared to the original church buildings outside in the courtyard--the first Christian churches in Africa. Stepping back out into the light, we look across the church yard to get a fleeting glimpse of the priest who guards the Ark of the Covenant, before entering the subterranean museum that houses many of Ethiopia's most priceless relics. While accommodations throughout our trip were basic (all had en suite bathrooms, but sometimes lacked hot water or toilets that flushed properly), they were clean, the staff was friendly and the verandahs were always an ideal spot to end the day with sundowners overlooking lakes, cities or in Axum, the Stelae Park.
From Axum, we flew back to Addis, which now seemed like the world's most modern and sprawling metropolis. I'm not sure I've ever experienced such culture shock within one country, and I knew that what lay ahead in the Lower Omo Valley would be even more extreme. After a celebratory dinner with traditional cuisine and regional dance, we settled in for the night and I dreamed of the expedition that was in store for us in the Lower Omo.
From the first time I visited Africa over a decade ago and each year that I've returned since, I still get giddy at the sight of a geared-up Land Cruiser. It's the sign of an adventure, and in Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley, it's the only way to get where you need to go. Our group consisted of travel professionals with 30-50 countries each under our belts, a professional photographer with passport stamps even I envied and a Canadian travel writer with a portfolio that included Borneo, Burma, Kilimanjaro, Patagonia and more. Even with travel resumes like ours, adventures in the Lower Omo are tough. Roads are rough or non-existent, hotels are poor and cultural interactions are a delicate balance of cultural exchange with the people you encounter and swapping 1 birr notes for photos. All those things considered, the Lower Omo is a wild place waiting to be explored.
We spent our first night in the Omo Valley in the town of Arba Minch; we were dusty and exhausted from the 12-hour drive from Addis Ababa. Not only does Arba Minch sound like it should be the setting for a J.R.R. Tolkien novel, but it actually looks like it is--the town rests on a picturesque lake overlooking the "Bridge to Heaven," a narrow land-bridge connecting two forested peaks. The Bele Mola Hotel sits overlooking the otherworldly scenery, its verandah stretched out facing the lake and draped with Jacarandas and hibiscus. While the setting is amazing, the hotel leaves a bit to be desired (we did have private baths with hot water showers, though!) but that disappointment can be temporarily remedied by sitting on the verandah watching the sun set over the lakes. I was lucky enough to spend my birthday on that verandah, watching huge thunderclouds build before breaking free into a fit of thunder and lightning--all of this followed by a clear, crisp rainbow. There's nothing like a birthday in Africa.
During our 8-day tour of the Lower Omo Valley, we visited many tribes--the Hamer, Mursi, Dorze and Ari among others. Each tribe greeted us, eager to pose for photos, with varying degrees of interest. I have to say that the Hamer won me over. After an arduous 6-hour, 4-wheel adventure, we reached our tent camp near the village of Turmi, home of the Hamer people. Our group was tired and several settled into their tents for an afternoon nap, while the rest of us elected to walk into the town. Immediately after setting out down the dirt road, we were surrounded by kids of all ages eager to talk about football and the upcoming Manchester United game. The youngest reached out for my hand--and didn't let go for an hour. As we walked down the road, the littlest ones simply stared and the older ones asked us about life in America. They were all clad in typical hand-me-down Western clothing, but spoke their mother tongue, as well as Amharic and basic English. After each small crest in the road a new encounter awaited. The women were coming home from a day at the market, hair carefully encased in a butter-ochre mixture, animal skins around their waists and bundles on their backs. They smiled and laughed at our gaggle--the tribes people have excellent senses of humor and were refreshingly sarcastic and witty after the somber atmosphere of the North. The men were coming in from the bush, a few sporting fancy, clay hair buns, an honor bestowed on a warrior when he kills an enemy or dangerous animal. Here we were in the middle of nowhere in the African bush walking with true warriors and little children in tow.
Finally, we visited the Mursi tribe, who reside within the Mago National Park near Jinka. The Mursi are the most photographed and famous tribe of the Lower Omo and not without reason. The women are painted, really white-washed, in a thin layer of clay and dramatically adorned with lip plates and various piercings. We'd heard rumors that our visit with the Mursi could be intense and even physical; the women often grab at travelers and pull on hands and arms to be sure that they will be chosen for a photograph. The rumors were true. Contrasting our long stroll alongside the Hamer people, with our hour-long visit with the Mursi was like night and day. Interaction with the Mursi was limited to photography and very brief exchanges with the help of our guide. I was followed by one determined mother, baby on her chest, as she grabbed at my wrists making motions for me to take her photograph. Finally I did, and the flood gates opened--they all wanted their pictures taken in exchange for 3 birr (about 30 cents). As we drove back through Mago National Park to our hotel in Jinka, I pondered what we could do to facilitate a real exchange of ideas, stories, laughter--anything more than just photos and money. It will take time to develop sustainable and culturally sensitive tourism practices in the Lower Omo Valley, especially with the Mursi, and we are working to facilitate this in collaboration with our associates in Ethiopia. There are ways to foster real interactions, while still preserving local traditions and culture. The Maasai of East Africa are a similar success story, and I am eager to be involved with the future of sustainable tourism in the Lower Omo Valley.
After another 12-hour drive we arrived back in Addis, once again trying to process where we had been. After an overnight in Addis, I continued on to Kenya to visit my friends from university leaving me with lots of time to ponder my adventure. My time in Ethiopia was enlightening, exciting, tiring and remarkable. I'd ventured into some of the most remote areas in Africa, and possibly the world, and I felt like it! Ethiopia is a destination that leaves images imprinted in your mind--vibrant and impossible to erase. It is also beautifully lonely, in a way that true adventure travelers seek. The traditions are rich, the cultures entact and the people friendly, diverse and captivating. I hope I can return soon, and again and again for years to come.