Two action packed weeks exploring Ethiopia's historical route
23 May 2018
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If you've read my article 'For The Eye's OF Ben Morison Only' you'll know that I've recently met my father, who is Ethiopian, for the first time. Having done that, I simply had to visit Ethiopia as quickly as I could, both to see the country - and to meet my Aunt Gennet and Uncle Molla. Flights booked, bags packed, a map of Ethiopia in my pocket, and I was off... and as my guide I took my mum who's last visit was in the mid 1970's!
First stop and my first true experience of Ethiopia was Bahir Dar, home of Laka Tana, Ethiopias largest lake, and the source of the Blue Nile. Bahir Dar is a vibrant town, with pleasant tree-lined avenues and stunning lake views.
Most of the hotels in Bahir Dar look out over Lake Tana... and the lake itself is a pleasant inland sea containing 30 or so islands, many of which are home to spectacular churches and monasteries. The lake is best explored by boat - which we did - visiting the Ura Kidane Mehret on the Zege Peninsula and passing the Island monastery of Kibran Gebriel.
The Blue Nile falls are also a short distance away from Bahir Dar, so Mum and I took an early morning trip to see them before heading to Gondar...
We ventured north to Gondar a city dominated by the great walled Fasil Ghebbi fortress and imperial compound... a very impressive place to walk around. It is so important to have a guide with you throughout Ethiopia... the historical sights are impressive on their own, but you really need to understand the context and their places in history to really get the most from them.
Gondar is also the gateway to what ended up being a surprise trip favourite... The Simien Mountains!
Driving north from Gondar for a couple of hours, we visited the Simien Mountains National Park, and I was quite unprepared for quite how spectacular the landscape would be. A landscape of high altitude plateaus, mountain grasses and woodland, and breathless drops - it is no surprise that the park is a UNESCO world heritage site.
I'd have been happy with just the views, but the chance to sit amongst the semi habituated population of Gelada Baboons* was another of the trip highlights. You can sit down on the grass around them and, completely impervious to your presence, they just continue going about their business... mainly eating, fighting and posing from what I saw. (*Apparently they are actually monkeys, not baboons - don't ask me the difference - and the only primates in the world to graze!).
No trip to Ethiopia would be complete without visiting Lalibela to see the extra-ordinary stone churches. It was the one place I'd seen lots of photographs, so it had a big red circle on my map...
And the stone churches did not disappoint. They are remarkable. Both for their scale, and more simply for how beautiful they are. Built around the 12th Century, we visited eight of these rock hewn churches, all of which are connected by various stone staircases, and underground tunnels. Highlights were the ornate Biet Medhane Alem - a giant rectangular church and Biet Giorgis - the cross shaped church in the photo below. Both have been carved out of the surrounding stone hillside - monumental feats of engineering that must have taken many years, many stone masons and a great deal of skill.
A short distance from Lalibela we also visited Yemrehanna Christos, one of Ethiopia's best-preserved late Axumite churches... another experience that warrants its own separate article (which I'll link to from here once I've written it).
Axum was the final stop on our Ethiopia heritage tour. We had a full day to explore Axum (and if we'd had had more time we'd have had a second full day here, as there was plenty more to see).
The Axum historical sites all date from a much earlier period (around 300AD) and the best known of them are the Axum Stelae Feild. This is an open site containing a number of enormous stone oblelisks some measuring as high as 25 metres, and weighing over 150 tonnes. The Stelae were carved from a single piece of granite at a quarry site 5 kilometres from Axum and it is unknown how they were transported to their current site. But there is a lot more to Axum than just the Stelae... churches, cathedrals, Queen of Shebas Baths, monasteries & tombs... we didn't see them all... but there'll be there for the next time.
With the Ethiopia 'holiday of discovery' at an end - I sat at a restaurant in Addis with our Far and Wild ground agent and immediately started to plan two further trips. One to Danakil region of in north eastern Ethiopia, and the other to visit the Bale Mountains and the remote Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. I'll be back!!