10 January 2011
Total Distance: 12 345 km
Distance covered today:608km
Start: Molla Apartments, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Finish: Ghion Hotel, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
We left the city quite suddenly and there was not the typical suburban area like one normally gets. It was busy with shops and then suddenly nothing as we started to climb a hill north of Addis.
The landscape continued north as it was in the south. Soft rolling hills and the plains in between covered in the yellow stubs of harvested wheat. These plains continued into the horizon and for close to 500km it was wheat fields pock-marked with haystacks. Now, one would think that these massive lands would be harvested by machines. Not here. Everything is done by hand and I mean every square inch of miles and miles and miles of wheat fields is cut the traditional method of men, women and children sitting on their hunches in the baking sun using sickles. Then cattle is used to run over the cut wheat and then the straw gets thrown into the air for the wind to blow the stalks away from the wheat. Again the incredible hard work these people have to produce to make their daily living is astounding. The average income for the Ethiopians is US$1 per day, yes, that is R7 per day!
Some 250km north-west of Addis Ababa we come across one of the most unexpected yet jaw-dropping sight called the Blue Nile Gorge. Here is some statistics to put things in perspective because to describe this gorge is just not possible. We were driving on the plateau region since leaving Addis and that was 2550m above sea-level. Just outside a town called Goha Tsion, the land ends abruptly with the Blue Nile cutting over ions of years a deep gorge into the land. What is deep? Well, the Grand Canyon is apparently the deepest and unfortunately I do not have this info at hand but Fish River Canyon in Namibia is supposedly the second biggest canyon at 900m deep. Well, from the edge of the plateau to the river as the crow flies, is a mere 8km. We start driving down one of the most impressive road engineering which will make any Italian civil engineer's eyes wet from longing to build it and the road zigzagged downwards and then further down and then a bit more and then some more until we crossed the bridge spanning the banks of the Blue Nile and we stood at 1040m above sea-level. Yes, this ravine is 1510m deep! Read this again, the ravine is 1510m deep. Table Mountain will stand at the bottom on river level and it will not stick out above the plateau level. This means that the Fish River Canyon, Blyde River Canyon and all other canyons are but a midget compared to this gorge that I doubt few Westerners have ever heard of.
It is a shame that it was a bit hazy but trust us that it is a sight to behold. If you have Google Earth on your computer try to find this town of Goha Tsion and use the satellite imaging to see this gorge for yourself. The depth off course one can't see from the satellites but I am sure one will get a rough idea of the ruggedness of the land.
We got to Bahir Dar which is situated on Lake Tana. The Blue Nile flows in and out of this lake and shortly before the Nile gets to Lake Tana the famous Blue Nile Falls drop some 40 meters in a straight drop. Sadly though we are not able to see it as they built a hydro plant and the falls is a mere trickle.
As we were drinking our now favourite drink, fresh 100% fruit juice sitting on the banks of the lake, a guy Japie surprised us at the table. We met very briefly in a shop in Cape Town just before we left and he told me he is flying to London to join friends and they will be driving south. So we stayed in contact and knew our routes will meet somewhere in Africa and last night it did. Together with all his friends and those of another vehicle who joined them from Cairo south, we had a lovely evening chatting about what is waiting for us and for them on our opposite travels. Nice group of people and they again confirmed just how fantastic hospitable the Sudanese are. Make us all the more excited to get there.
11 January 2011
Staying at Ghion Hotel, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
This morning we joined a small boat cruise on the lake to visit some monasteries built on little islands on the lake. First we passed a flock of pelicans and a hippo and about 45 minutes later we got to the first monastery. It is basically built in the traditional hut style but much much bigger. I guess it is more than 20m in diameter with walls about 4meters in height. There are various parts of the monastery. First the outer fence where the people congregate, then one enters through massive doors at least 3 meters in height. There are about 4 doors on opposite sides entering the monastery. Inside the round hut another wall runs in a circle, so basically a circle inside a circle. The passage between these 2 circles is about 3 meters wide and covered in carpets. The inner wall is covered from the very top to the bottom in murals depicting Biblical scenes in the most vivid colours imaginable. These monasteries date back to the 14th century and it is actually still in use and thus in good condition. Some of the paintings had to be restored to its original colour as the worshippers would touch the saints and other holy people on the murals in the believe that it will give them strength. The inner circle is forbidden except to the priests and each monastery must have a copy of the arc of the covenant. According to the Ethiopians the original arc of the covenant is in a town called Axum further north.
Afterwards we had another cup of good coffee and the whole island is covered in coffee plantations. During the early hours of the afternoon we headed back to the town and witnessed people still using age-old methods of crossing the lake - using boats made of papyrus branches wrapped together. Looks very flimsy but this is how they get from one side to the other and taking goods like fire wood across.
Tomorrow we are heading for Lalibela a World Heritage Site with its rock-hewn churches and because I doubt we will have internet there, we will let you know that afterwards we head back to a place called Gonder, known as the Camelot of Ethiopia and then up to the famous Simien Mountains.
12 January 2011
Total Distance: 12 655 km
Distance covered today:310km
Start: Ghion Hotel, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
Finish: Alief Paradise Hotel, Lalibela, Ethiopia
Although we had only a relatively short distance to do, we knew the last 50km was gravel, that the landscape was apparently rather beautiful and that we needed to visit the rock-hewn churches today as tomorrow we are coming back to the west. Therefore we left at 7am and headed across the outlet of the Blue Nile just north of Bahir Dar. This means we have now seen the start of the White Nile at Jinga in Uganda where it comes out of Lake Victoria as well as the Blue Nile which starts at Lake Tana.
The road is brand new so made some good time and although the landscape has not changed dramatically the last few days, we could never in our wildest dreams see what we saw. On the way towards the town of Gonder (which we will visit tomorrow) we turned off heading east towards Lalibela. Soon after we started to climb one mountain pass after the other until we were over 3100 meters and the air became cool and crisp. However, it is not the climate which made our eyes pop, it was the views. On both sides of us a river cut a gorge just like the Blue Nile did which we witnessed the day before yesterday. This was even more dramatic though because only a sliver of the plateau was still in tact and we were driving along this ridge. At one point we crossed a VERY narrow bridge no more than 2 car widths and on BOTH sides the mountain was dropping at extremely sharp angles to the valleys over 900m below. The road engineering here is just spectacular to say the least and it offered us vistas which one just do not see broadcasted on TV. Again I hope you are able to look at Google Earth because I am sure this road we had today was even more dramatic than the Blue Nile Gorge on the satellite imaging. Find the town of Debre Tabor and move 40km east of that and then zoom in. Anyway, the photos are not able to give you the depth and height of the valleys and the mountains but we are trying to give you a sense of the layers upon layers upon layers of mountain ranges from the road all the way into the distant horizons. The colours are soft yellows to dark brown. A few kilometres further east, we had to turn off and travel north to Lalibela which meant travelling all the way down to the valley floor bed way down below on a good gravel road. Once we reached that the vegetation made yet again a 180 degree turnabout. It was a lot more arid and nearly desert with the omni-present stubby looking acacia trees dotting hundreds upon hundreds of hills. It reminded me a little of the Little Karoo just before entering Ladismith from the south. There were far less people on this road due to the fact that the land was drier and maybe not as fertile. Nevertheless this part of journey was as beautiful as the drive on the escarpment's ridge and we were glued to the windows drinking in the landscapes. Following us on the right side was a mountain range very much like the Drakensberg at Royal Natal National Park.
We just cannot imagine why more of this countryside has not been documented on TV because so few people know about it. Anyway, we reached Lalibela at lunch time and after a quick sandwich, we went to the rock-hewn churches. And you might wonder what is so special about these churches. Well, imagine a gentle rocky mountain slope and knocked into, yes into the solid rock a building. These churches are actually not touching the original rock's walls and often the gap between the original rock and the start of the church wall can be more than 5 meters. But that is not all. The inner part of the church has been knocked out again so that when you walk 'into' the rock, it feels as if you are standing in a normal building with a ceiling, floor and pillars holding up the ceiling. Therefore the church is not made up of individual bricks but has been carved out from the original rock face. King Lalibela of the Zagwe dynasty carved these out during the 12th century - that means more than 800 years ago. Legend has it that he was poisoned by his half-brother and while in a coma, he went on a journey to heaven (some say Jerusalem) where God instructed him to return to Ethiopia and re-create the holy city of Jerusalem there. How it was built and by how many people ranges from 40 000 men to unfold amount of angels. The masonry skills are superb and just like the marvels of Egypt, one can only wonder how these churches were carved. These churches are connected by tunnels through the bedrock and these create a labyrinth of pathways which spits one out into another court yard where one is once again mesmerized by another church. As an example, one of the bigger churches Bet Medhane Alem resembles a Greek Temple because it is surrounded by 34 large rectangular columns and it measures 33m x 23m and 11.5m high!
These churches are still in use and pilgrims come from all over to pray and listen to the priests' sermons. In fact in a few days thousands upon thousands Ethiopian Christians will descent onto Lalibela for the Timkat Festival which celebrates Jesus' christening. The hotels are solidly booked and according to the hotel manager it is a constant solid stream of people up and down the mountain all dressed in white linen.
The famous church called Bet Giyorgis is hundred times more impressive in real life than on pictures one sees. It is 15m high and when looking straight from the top, it looks like a Greek cross or a big plus (+) sign. One can only marvel at these creations and the ingenuity of mankind amongst a spectacular setting of never-ending mountains and we can only hope that our pictures and words can convey at least a fraction of the majesty of this country.