The History Trail - 2007

14/15 December - Fly to Addis Ababa
My car and air trip from Kendal was largely uneventful. True, a spurious fire alarm at Manchester Airport had shut down security and stopped passengers getting to their planes for 40 minutes making many of the flights late; and the baggage handling mechanism at Heathrow broke down causing a further delay of 30 minutes; but that constitutes largely uneventful these days. I still managed to check in on time for my next flight at 18:00.

The Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 757-200 was looking its age I noticed as we sat on the tarmac for over an hour. However, by 22:15 we were winging our way to Addis Ababa and I was eating a meal of white fish, pak choi and fragrant rice that would have put many airlines to shame. Several other members of the party were sitting nearby so we had some opportunity to chat and break the ice. It was a long overnight flight and I hardly slept at all.

It was a warm sunny morning when we arrived in Addis. We collected our baggage, got through passport control with reasonable ease, found our tour leader and were soon in our hotel, the government-owned Ghion, having an al fresco lunch. In the afternoon we visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral (exterior), (interior) and the Ethnographical Museum. I confess that as I was almost asleep on my feet I didn't get anything like as much enjoyment out of the visits as I might.

I ate in the hotel restaurant that evening. We had to be up early the next morning for our next flight - breakfast was booked for 4:30 - so I booked an early morning call for 3:45. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow at 20:30 and all too soon there was a knock on my door and a voice saying, "Mr Dawson". I called out to say I was awake, got up quickly and checked my watch. It said 21:20! Why do watch batteries have to go wrong at the most inconvenient moments?

Again there was a knock at the door and the voice, "Mr Dawson". I peered through the peephole and saw the man, in his hotel uniform, still waiting. I opened the door slightly and he pushed his way in, carrying a tray, and walked round the corner of the L-shaped bedroom to lay down plate and cutlery on the writing desk. I was hiding, stark naked, behind the bedroom door, feeling in no fit condition to check what was going on. When he left I examined the food, an evening meal, and started to realize my watch was correct and I'd been delivered someone else's room service dinner.

I dressed and went downstairs. All my party had retired to their rooms, and I was left to explain to hotel staff, who spoke little English, what had happened. Eventually someone came up to the bedroom with me to retrieve the wrongly delivered dinner. I never found out whose it was. I slept very badly after all the excitement and was somewhat zombie-like when the phone rang with my morning call. I slung all my belongings into my kitbag and rucksack, staggered down to the hotel lobby and joined the others for breakfast. It was an inauspicious start to the trip.

16 December - Fly to Lalibela
Before long we were back at Addis Ababa Airport. Our extremely well-organised team leader checked in our baggage so we had little to do before boarding our Ethiopian Airlines turbo-prop driven Fokker 50 bound for Lalibela via Bahar Dar. We flew over Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile on the way. When we landed at Bahar Dar I noticed an overall-clad figure bearing down on a wheel assembly armed with a can of WD-40. He sprayed it into the centre of the assembly but soon he and another who had joined him were shaking their heads in unison. Shortly afterwards we were asked to change planes. WD-40 isn't the cure-all some people think!

Once again we were in the air flying over the weather-scarred Ethiopian Highlands. We arrived in Lalibela in time for lunch at our hotel, the Yemereha owned by Green Land, a modern and progressive Ethiopian company. For the first time I tried injera, a thin bread like rolled-out pastry but full of bubbles and a bit like foam rubber. It is useful for picking up sauces with the fingers. I had it in firfir; shredded injera with meat, vegetables and spices.

In the afternoon we set out on foot to visit some of Lalibela's famed churches, carved out of solid rock. We had been warned of fleas in these churches so I had sprayed my feet and legs, arms and neck, with 100% DEET, and tucked my trouser leg bottoms into my socks. No one is allowed to wear shoes in the churches, they were left outside, and we trod gingerly on the loose-carpeted floors. This is the entrance to Bet Maryam (photo), which is purely monolithic and thought to be the first church built in Lalibela. The highlight however was the Bet Giyorgis, a church cruciform in plan, in its own pit and separated from the rock apart from the base. The roof (photo) is remarkably striking. The sides of the church are shown in three views (photo 1), (photo 2) and (photo 3)

Children in Ethiopia learn English at school from an early age and walking through Lalibela we always had a crowd of them surrounding us. A few were begging for money, pens, dictionaries, clothes or long-term sponsorship. Most, however, were simply interested in us as visitors, and they were honing their English conversational skills and finding out about us.

After our visit to the churches we went to a bar where the speciality was tej, pronounced tedge, a honey-based wine. I don't drink so I can't describe the taste, but some of our party liked it and some didn't. As we were sitting a man got up to play the masenqo, a single-stringed bowed lute with a rather bulbous resonance box. His partner got up to dance in traditional Ethiopian fashion, which involves a lot of shoulder-shaking and neck-jerking. There is a sample, of very poor quality, on YouTube, which has the masenqo playing in the background. I hope to find a better example in the future. Soon she wasn't satisfied dancing on her own, she wanted to dance with us, and one by one we succumbed. I must say I thoroughly enjoyed it when my turn came round. Time passed and eventually we returned to the hotel, had dinner, and retired to bed. I had my first decent sleep of the trip.

17 December - Visits in Lalibela
We set off quite early the next morning for the Ashatan Maryam church, managing to avoid the crowds of children who would otherwise have followed us all the way. The church is high up in the mountains surrounding Lalibela (photo), cut into the rock. It contains a number of relics (photo) and there's a viewpoint above it (photo). A little girl, aged about six, and from a local remote village joined us and followed us in her bare feet, we were all wearing boots, up to the church. The women in the party made a great fuss of her, and I heard discussion about buying her a pair of shoes. That didn't happen and I suspect her parents might have had other priorities.

On the way down we stopped for coffee in a local house (photo), hosted by its owner, a young farmer, and his wife (photo). Our tour leader had arranged this knowing that the quality of coffee would be good. All the coffee I had in Ethiopia was of a high standard. The only poor coffee I had on the whole trip was from two of the coffee shop chains at Heathrow. I took photographs in the house and outside and asked our host if it was OK to put them on my website. He agreed and we exchanged email addresses so I can tell him where they are when I upload them. There are lots of Internet cafes in the Ethiopian towns, and lots of people use them and have email addresses, but I understand speed of access is lacking.

As we got closer to the town a young man latched onto me. It was obvious from the start he was on the make. He wanted money for his studies, wanted me to email his headmaster to prove he was a good student, wanted new clothes for Christmas, but what annoyed me most was his insistance that as I was from England I must support Manchester United. He forced his address and email on me but I shan't be contacting him. Another student had spoken to me the day before and he turned up several times while we were there, always polite and never asking for anything. I have his email address, too, and may well get in touch with him, to what end I don't know.

After lunch at the hotel we went off to look at the remaining monolithic churches including Bet Abba Libanos (photo) and ended our afternoon at a local school where we were introduced to some classes and shown how they are dealing with blind, deaf and dumb students. Some of us left donations for school materials. This appears much fairer than singling out individuals for sponsorship. There is clearly widespread poverty there but also an enthusiastic determination to make the best of what opportunites present themselves.

In the evening we went to The Seven Olives restaurant where I tried Arabian firfir (vegetarian with dates). Our tour leader had arranged a local group to perform music, dances and folk plays. Again we were persuaded to get up and practise our shoulder-shaking skills. Then it was back to the hotel for a well-earned rest. We had crammed a lot into our first three days and we had an early flight to catch in the morning.

18 December - Fly to Axum
Off we went for another flight, this time to Axum. After lunch at out hotel, the government-owned Yeha hotel, soon nicknamed the Rebel Yell hotel, we started on a tour of archaeological sites. There is a huge area enclosing famous stelae (obelisks) (photo). One, which may have fallen and broken at the time of its erection, lies there still some 33 metres in length. Another, still standing but with (temporary?) bracing is 24 metres high and was commissioned by King Ezana in around 350 AD (photo). Tombs have been found there recently which are still being excavated, an exciting development for the archaeologists working there. There were more tombs high on a hill near the town from which we could see the Eritrean border. Next we visited the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion which is said to have housed the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This was said to have been brought to Ethiopia by King Menelik I, son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, after visiting his father in Jerusalem. The Ark now resides in the nearby Chapel of the Tablet (photo). Only the guardian monk is allowed to see it. The guardian is appointed by his predecessor, or otherwise by ballot of the monks, and spends the rest of his life in the chapel. Finally we visited the Queen of Sheba's Bath (photo), in reality a reservoir, before returning to our hotel for a meal and the final briefing on our forthcoming trek.

19 December - Fly to Gondar and enter Simien National Park
We mad a brief visit to Sheba's Palace outside Axum where we saw her throne (photo) and the palace oven (photo) before heading for the airport. Details of our travel to, and trek in, the Simien Mountains appear here

27 December - Bus to Gondar
In the morning we packed up our belongings and boarded our bus for the journey back to Gondar. The road this far into the Park was poor but we didn't get as much dust as on our journey in, and I settled back to enjoy the ride. As we got further into the lowlands the land became more lush and there was ample evidence of cultivation. In the villages we passed through there were notices saying "Send Your Children to School not to Work". We stopped again at Debark for drinks and a toilet break. This reminded me we were returning to civilisation, with comfortable beds, warm rooms, and the best of all luxuries, sit-down toilets.

Once back in Gondar we settled into the government-owned Goha Hotel, freshened up, had lunch, and were taken off to see the sights. The Royal Enclosure is surrounded by fortified walls and boasts Fasilides castle (photo), Iyasu's Palace (photo), Dawit's Hall - a banqueting hall, chancellery (photo), Mentewab's Castle, and lots more, mostly 17th century. We went to see Fasilides Bath, a hugh pool with a three-storey building inside it, and then off to see the church of Debre Birhan Selasie (photo), full of old frescoes and a ceiling of angelic faces. After dinner we got our briefing for the next day, our return to Addis.

28 December - Fly to Addis Ababa
We got to the airport quite early but our plane was very late. By the time we got to Addis it was mid-aftenoon. I had a snack in the Ghion Hotel bar and started writing my journal. Some of the others went out to the Sheraton Hotel for cocktails. Our tour leader had booked tables for the evening at the Habesha restaurant in Bole Road. It was pretty full when we got there, the only free seats being the ones booked for us. They were placed round mesobs, traditional Ethiopian basketwork tables. Most of the clientele seemed to be local so we could tell we were in for an authentic Ethiopian meal. Staff came round with kettles of warm water and bowls to collect it as we washed our hands in the flow. Then our meal arrived on large flat plates about a metre diameter which filled snugly into the tops of the mesobs. The dishes were covered in injera, their flat foam-rubber type of bread and there were samples of about 15 different types of wat, their stews (vegetarian at our table). There was more injera, in rolls, from which we tore off bits and scooped up our choice of wat and popped them in our mouths. They were delicious.

A band struck up on the stage. I recognised a masenqo, the one-string bowed lute, a krar, the six-string lyre, drums and something else I don't remember. The masenqo and lyre were "electrified" and played through a loudspeaker. We had a song first but then out came the dancers, two men and two women. I'd seen Ethiopian dancing before but not of this class. They were amazing. Put them on Strictly Come Dancing and they'd bring the house down. They performed several set-pieces during the evening and must have been incredibly fit. The day had seemed anticlimactic until now but this was one of the highlights of the trip. Back in the hotel I wound down and thought about the next day, our last before flying home. We'd booked a bus to take us to the Mercato, the largest market in Africa. I anticipated a relaxing day where little could go wrong. I was in for a rude awakening.

29/30 December - Day in Addis Ababa/Fly back to England
Those of us going to the Mercato collected in the hotel lobby at 9:00, and waited, and waited, and waited. There was a Green Land rep at the hotel who kept using the phone and telling us the bus was almost here but eventually she disappeared. Our tour leader had been to the airport to collect his new party and arrived back at the hotel at 9:45 amazed to see us still there. He rang the Green Land office and told us to get on the bus his new party had just vacated. So, off we went to the Mercato. Well, we didn't. The driver started taking us the wrong way and we soon noticed our tour leader trying to attract his attention from a taxi. The driver stopped for fuel, our hero nabbed him and explained we wanted to go to the Mercato and he should take us. The driver's body language spoke volumes. He didn't want to go. We set off again, still in the wrong direction and ended up at the Green Land office. We were now expecting our tour leader to parachute in, with or without a box of chocolates, but he didn't. He did turn up in the taxi though. There were more remonstrations and we gained a guide to help us and the driver. "The Mercato isn't safe for you." he stated baldly, which drew hoots of derision. Between us we had been in markets across the globe, were aware of the dangers and that is why we booked the bus and planned to stick together. We'd had excellent service from Green Land up to this point and I'd rather remember them for their earlier performance than from this one bad example. Well, we got to the Mercato, despite the objections of our graceless guide and driver, gained something from the experience, bought spices and other goods, and set off back to the hotel.

Three of us wanted to visit the National Museum hoping to see Lucy, though there were rumours she was on holiday in the United States, and the bus driver let us off there. We had a pleasant meal at the Museum cafe nearby and went into the Museum. I headed for the fossil area which had examples of several of our extinct relatives. I did find what appeared to be Lucy in a glass case but I now believe this to have been a replica. The museum is remarkably small but well worth a visit for a couple of hours. We returned to the hotel to pack our bags, we had to be out of our rooms by 18:00, and make arrangements to eat before leaving for the airport at 21:00.

One of our party had decided to go off on his own in the morning to visit a church. As he got to the bottom of the drive to the hotel he met one of the hotel porters, now off duty and out of his uniform. The porter mentioned he was going to the same church and they set off together. On the way the porter said he was going to a coffee ceremony, which wouldn't take long and our friend agreed to go as well. Eventually they found themselves in the front room of a house with the hostess and several young women in traditional costume. They had their coffee and our friend was asked if he'd like to buy himself and the girls drinks, to which he agreed. Time passed and the girls danced, and he danced, but it was only when he was asked which of the girls he'd like to go with that he realized what sort of establishment he'd got into. He tried to beat a hasty retreat but was presented with a bill for 700 birr, about forty pounds, for the drinks. He didn't have that much money with him so he was escorted back to the hotel where he got money from his room and paid them off. We quizzed him about the porter but he had just taken the man's word and it appeared the man wasn't an hotel employee at all, and he had to admit that was a very expensive cup of coffee!

We went to Castelli's, an Italian restaurant, for our evening meal. The food was of a very high standard but we were in something of a rush and hadn't the time to do it justice. Soon we were back at the airport, boarding the Ethiopian Airways 757-200 for a long trip back to Heathrow via Rome. We left just after midnight and got back about 7:30. I had a flight back to Manchester and my car at the airport to get me home at about 14:00. It was cold and overcast and I longed for the warm sunshine again. I'd left a fortnight before, for a land I knew little about, hoping for some good walking in warm weather. I came back with memories to cherish, never to be forgotten.

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