Day 81 - The Historic Route
Point of departure : Simien Mountains
Point of arrival : Gondar
Accommodation: rooftop tent @ Goha Hotel
Km travelled today: 167km Cum: 15 390km (gravel 167km cum 4 649km)
Countries so far: 7/16
Where to next? Khartoum, Sudan
Total number of photos taken: 81 (cum 3 693)
A really early start this morning (06h00) so that we could get through to Gondar in time to pick up our DHL parcel (the reamer sent to us from Addis by Graham), see some of the sites and witness the Epiphany celebrations. The 145km took us about 4 hours from the Simiens with once again some interesting and challenging mountain passes. When we arrived the celebrations were in full swing and the town was absolutely heaving. Getting to DHL was a challenge in itself but we were able to pick up the parcel in between the hordes of people.
Gondar founded by Emperor Fasilidas around 1635.It is famous for its medieval castles and the design and decoration of its churches. Most notably,Debra Berhan Selassie.
We then visited the Royal Enclosure (a World Heritage Site - 1979) which contains Fasilidas Palace and 6 castles (each castle built by an emperor who succeeded him). From there we visited Fasilidas Baths …packed with people and basically being used as a giant swimming pool.It's usually dry but filled with water for the Epiphany and Timkat celebrations by the priests.
Then on to the Debra Berhan Selassie church - the only rectangular church of the 44 churches in Gondar. It was built in the 16th century and is enclosed by a wall with 12 equidistant turrets (representing the 12 Disciples) and the 13th turret (the gateway) representing Christ. The church is famous for its ceiling (the Ethiopian Cistine Chapel) and wall paintings.While the paintings were very interesting, references to the Cistine Chapel are just a tad pretentious. See the pictures and judge for yourself.
And all this while there was still thousands of people moving through the town in various formal processions and informal (and apparently drunken) groups.
Ethiopians are not very car aware at the best of times but today they really did own the road.
Back to the Goha hotel to camp in the car park (we were one of about 12 overland vehicles - all Germans - we are convinced that there are more Germans travelling through Africa than there are in Germany itself).
The one group of four travelling south (led by Joachim and Renata Muller) invited us for a drink after supper to talk about our Ethiopian experiences and then to bed.
Ethiopia really is a land of contrast: beautiful mountains and flat plateau lands, lush tropical forests and dried desert conditions, the beauty as well as the squalor, Christian Orthodox and Muslim, a small middle class elite and the rest grindingly poor, backward tribal culture coupled with a halting move towards modernity in the cities.
Despite being a country of 85-90million people, statistics we were given were that there are about 300 000 vehicles (import duty is more than 100% of value) and no more than 2 million mobile phone connections. From what we have seen, most of the private vehicles are probably in Addis as the only we saw in the countryside were construction vehicles, buses/taxis and landcruisers owned by the UN or tour operators.
The pressure of the population is overwhelming.It's a country that is only a quarter bigger than Namibia (population of 2 million) with a population of 85 to 90 million.You feel this weight of people at every turn, from Addis Ababa with its huge traffic problems to the furthest rural settlement. Travel on any of the national roads and there seems to be a village very 10km with people walking, often carrying huge loads on their heads, donkey carts, herds of goats and cattle, children playing in the road… it just never stops. Then you get into the village and you are dealing with people just spilling into the road, standing having conversations, crossing without looking, animals crossing.As a driver you have to be on your toes the whole time.
The children… our patience eventually ran out with the kids. No matter where you stopped, whether for a nature break, to fix a snack, change a wheel, or take a photograph, the kids would materialise from everywhere as if a silent call has gone out that the "faranjis" are there.Their grubby little faces are pressed up against the car windows, they are testing the doors for a peak inside, their removing things that they can from the car, e.g. stickers or objects in our wheel cover pouch, begging and generally making a nuisance of themselves. They really invade one's space.Having said that, though, in the main part it is just curiosity and/or an opportunity to beg, although there were one or two bad apples who went a bit further.John tried to lecture a few of them on the merits of school results, getting a de cent job and generally helping themselves, but we don't think this message really got through. And, we did not have a single stone thrown at us... not one. (Maybe because the Beast is a white landcruiser and all the UN vehicles and most of the tour guide vehicles are white landcruisers?)
Oh, did we mention that in Ethiopia they drive on the right hand side… and on the left, and in the middle, and on the verges, sometimes with the flow, sometimes against the flow.In fact, if you prefer the look of the road on the other side, you just go there!
This is a country of extreme poverty but we cannot believe that this needs to explain the lack of cleanliness. In the villages there may be some justification due to lack of facilities, but even here the structures are randomly built, often dilapidated, spilling into the road with life happening between the rows of buildings on the street. If it is raining they are muddy, if it's dry they are dusty. And in the dry there seems to be a permanent pall of dust in the air.It's hard to imagine what it does to eyes and lungs! On a more micro level, toilet hygiene often seems to be totally non-existent. There were two places (one at a petrol station and one at a rural hotel) where, even allowing for the eastern squat type toilet, there was evidence that there was a flushing mechanism at one stage but this had long since disappeared from the wall and what was left was a stinking long drop (actually a short drop) that beggared belief. Things were somewhat better in the government hotels we experienced, but still not up to western standard.
Tourism to the remote tribal villages, especially in the Omo Valley, creates a ethical and cultural conundrum. The attraction of these tribes is their remoteness and their ancient tribal way of life and customs, often at odds with our western sensitivities. Yet by having tourists visit them, they are being exposed more and more to western ways, which ironically is impacting on the old tribal ways.Hence the dilemma … should we go or not. However, if you overlay on this the fact that the Ethiopian government is trying to wean these tribes of some of their more violent ways (from female lip mutilation among the Mursi to running gun battles for land and grazing among the Hamer), are trying to integrate them into the political system and are building tarred roads which will increase access, one has to say that the process of modernisation will come to these tribes.In Kenya, parts of the Maasai have accepted that change has to happen, and the same is probably true in Ethiopia. If anything,tourism may well be a positive agent for change and it's almost inevitable the agent tribal way will not remain unaffected.
And as we leave Ethiopia, we also reflect on a people who, in the main, have been very friendly and accommodating. Many of the establishments we stayed in/camped at, did not have much to offer us, but they always went out of their way to make us comfortable however they could, and to help us in other ways (such as a road construction manager who helped us with one of our punctures). The beauty of the country, especially at altitude in the Simiens,and the rich historic heritage in the northern province of Tigray, have left a lasting positive impression.
And lastly, but by no means least, our special thanks to Graham for all his assistance whilst we were in Addis, from providing accommodation (our "home"), laundry facilities and most importantly helping us sort out the Beast at Toyota and getting us to where we needed to be for restocking, banks, beauty salon for Marina and sourcing the replacement tyre repair kit to keep us going. We were also glad to have his company on our trip to the Omo Valley. Thanks also to Vivien Velthuis back in Johannesburg (Graham's boss) who made it all possible.