Gonder was once the capital of an Ethiopian kingdom and is renowned as the Camelot of Africa. Its prime attraction is its Royal Enclosure with a series of castles built by successive kings. Our hotel, the Terara, occupied a fantastic position on a hill just above the Enclosure.
The hotel was built by the Italians when they were here in the late 1930s. It looks like a Tuscan villa, and since it appears nothing has been done to it in the intervening years, you are able to imagine what hotels were like back then. It was probably very swish, but time has given it a decrepit air! The kitchen still has a huge wood stove, still in use, and the reception area still has those little pigeonholes for your room key!
We camped in the carpark, and were joined every night by trucks parking there for security. So the 4.30 in the morning wake-up calls from the mosques had rivals in the trucks who chose to rev their engines and take off at any time from 3. In addition, for the first time we had the Christians, the monks, who started their chanting over loudspeakers at 3am as well.
As you have no doubt already read, the water was off when we arrived. This is apparently common in Ethiopia - services are not reliable and this was further proved the next day ... the water came back on but the power went off. Both things happened again in turn over the next couple of days so we adjusted routines to get through!
The town though is delightful. At 8100 feet, it is the highest place we have stayed in, and we really noticed some breathlessness when climbing even a short flight of steps. There is a big local market in the old part of town and we wandered there for hours, buying a little fruit and a few souvenirs. We could also, now we were out of Sudan, buy booze, and so we went looking for a liquor store. We found one, but no vodka for yours truly. By this time, a young man named Alex had started chatting to us, and he offered to show us where we could buy some. Egypt makes one a little wary of people offering to help you, but it turned out that he genuinely wanted to help and the only reward he wanted, he said, was to practise his English. And so, it was. A while later we took him to a bar to buy him a drink to thank him for his help. The bar was a movie set of a place! It was a scene out of the 50s - lino floor, mirror walls, chrome furniture. We were joined by a friend of his, Richard, and we talked with them about Ethiopia over a beer or two. Then they invited us out for an evening of traditional singing and dancing, along with a coffee ceremony.
So after dinner back at camp, we wandered down the hill with Fred, Hans and Jenny and were taken to a small local bar. The bar was a small room about 6 by 10 metres with a bar at one end and some seating around the walls. The ceiling was decorated with plaited rush and hanging gourds, the walls were painted with murals of an early King, a traditional hut and the Aksum Stele. The floor was strewn with fresh cut grass, of the type we had seen for sale in the market and which we had seen people cutting by hand sickle in the fields. We were offered local home made honey wine, which had a strange taste but which we managed to consume nonetheless. Then the music started - a girl on a drum, a man on a one stringed instrument called a masinko, and a girl singer/dancer in traditional dress. She had each of us up dancing trying to follow her - the moves consisted of a lot of wobbling her breasts up and down, while not moving very much else!
The traditional coffee ceremony was performed as well with incense wafted our way, making the room fill with white smoke. The coffee, in tiny cups, was thick and syrupy and sweet. It was beautiful, like thick liquid chocolate.
And so a chance meeting with a local gave us an experience of Ethiopia and Gonder that we won't forget in a hurry.
The Royal Enclosure is an amazing place. In any other country, there would be hordes of tourists crowding the place out, lots of souvenir "opportunities" and everything would be roped off. Instead, there would have been less than a dozen tourists in the whole place and just one little souvenir shop. Our guide showed us around the whole site and then piled us into the local version of tuk-tuks to see another site that was included in our ticket. UNESCO is restoring the monuments and is doing a remarkable job, though of course there is still much to do.
We rested for a few days in Gonder, while one of the Landies had some work done at a local garage. One day stretched into two, into three, but we were not concerned - we were enjoying not packing the tent up every night.