Tuesday 18th August
Woke up early in bushcamp, everything was damp again due to the rain overnight, pleasant.
We had breakfast and were packing up our tents when Ann screamed really loudly followed by ‘Scorpion,’ we all thought she had been stung but no! There was a centipede under her tent when she rolled it up! Bit of melodrama for early morning!
We loaded the truck and left the camp heading to the Ethiopian Border. It took hours to drive to the border and a couple of hours to get through. We all had to jump out at the Sudan exit border, fill out a form, get stamped out then find a black market money man to change our Sudanese Pounds into Ethiopian Birr. Once everyone had got their filthy Ethiopian money we jumped in the truck and drove to the Ethiopian Border. We all had to pile out again and sit in a tin school classroom looking building whilst they processed our visas.
One by one they called us up to check nationality and job title before stamping us in! Hurrah!
Once stamped in we drove for 7 or so hours to Gonder, arriving in darkness. The town is high up in the Ethiopian highlands and looks like Nepal. Little corrugated buildings, stalls, donkeys laden down with wares plodding along, goat and sheep being herded through town, the smell of wood burning in the air along with a cold damp chill.
We had a palaver trying to reverse the truck into the hotel front gates, held up the traffic in town so much so that the truck became notorious and everyone would ask us later that night if we were on the truck!
Mikkel did a very good job of reversing a huge truck across a busy road, missing 2 large oil barrels, a ditch, 2 huge metal gates, goats, sheep, donkeys, horse carts, tuktuks, pedestrians and low power lines! After about 10 minutes we were part way in but millimetres from the gate on the left hand side and millimetres from the power cables at the back with nothing to spare on the right either. So we pulled back out onto the road and unloaded the bags their, with Mikkel finally parking the truck up over the road.
We checked into the hotel which is interestingly called the L shape hotel! It is not L shaped unless you adopt lower case alphabet then it could be!
Wilma, Ann and I got put in a triple room, so we dragged all our stuff up to the room and had showers and a good sort out of all our stuff and bags.
Then about 9ish we headed down to the bar for dinner, I had a cheeky pizza as its supposed to be excellent quality! It was edible so depends if that is excellent in comparison to normal Ethiopian food!
We finally crashed out at 11.30pm ready for a good nights sleep in a cooler climate in a bed!
Wednesday 19th August
Got woken at 3am by what sounded like a call to prayer but was christian and went on from 3am all day as it turns out! So sleep was fitful at best due to the loudspeaker across the road with some religious dude banging on in a variety of noise forms, singing, chanting, talking and preaching. Absolutely awful, not a relaxing romantic sound at all, I have nicknamed it Ethiopian torture!
So we gave up on sleep about 6am and got up and got ready. We met in reception at 8.45am (well about 12 of us) and we headed to the Royal Enclosure which is a UNESCO world heritage site and the main thing to see in Gonder.
Paid for the ticket in, then negotiated with a guide so he could walk around the enclosure and 3 other related sites with us explaining the history behind the buildings. We spend an hour or so in the Royal Enclosure taking in palaces when our guide said ‘lets head to the next site’ which was a church. He asked if we had a car or vehicle, to which we replied that we didn’t, we had walked. He said the church was over 2km away and closed in half an hours time! So we promptly got him to russle up some tuktuks and we all squeezed in 3 per tuktuk. I think Wilma, Tony and I got the crap tuktuk as the gears kept sticking and it blatantly refused to go uphill. Tony and I had to leap out and push the tuktuk up a hill at one point, much to the amusement of Wilma who sat inside filming it all!
Anyway after that eventful trip we got to the church which was full of people praying and chanting to some heady religious music. The church was very small with dark beautifully painted ceilings and walls depicting Jesus’s life story. I think most people were glad to leave due to the chanting and music but I found it quite therapeutic and sure it could have induced a religious trance-like state if you stayed long enough.
We crept out mid chant and then jumped in the tuktuks again down to an ancient swimming pool used by the kings that resided at the Royal Enclosure. It had a very Cambodian feel to it with lots of banyan trees around the pool and central building. Very peaceful setting with just the rustle of the wind in the trees and the birds singing. Apparently the central building was once the home of the Ark of the Covenant when it was on its way to Aksum.
After 10 minutes sitting in the tranquility we headed to the last site which was the kings horse’s tomb, which I believe was called Zobel.
After the tomb we jumped back in the tuktuks and headed back to the hotel. Tony, Wilma, Nicole, Malcolm and myself then headed out to lunch at a popular restaurant called Masterchef. Had an amazing fish curry with rice and veg, was so full by the end Wilma and I waddled back to the hotel for chill time and a nap.
I then spent half an hour sorting out bank cards as it appears cash machines in Ethiopia only take Mastercard and all mine were Visa. I did, however, bring my new replacement Global Traveller card which they had sent out just before I left the UK, which happened to be a Mastercard, so after a slow half hour activating it on-line and switching balance from the now defunct Visa one I was ready to hit the ATMs for some cash!
We all met downstairs at 6.30pm for a group meeting about the following few days trekking in the simien mountains, after which the group headed out for an Ethiopian meal but still full from lunch Wilma and I headed to a juice bar for an Avocado and Mango juice. We then wandered round Gonder before popping back to the hotel and ordering a small plate of chips to share to get some well-needed salt into our system.
After that we headed to bed to make the most of the quiet before the religious dude with the microphone started again!
Thursday 20th August
Got woken up at 6am by the dude with the microphone again, lay in bed for a bit chatting to Wilma before getting up, getting showered and packed for the cold wet mountains.
I helped Wilma and Tony sweep the truck out before everyone piled on.
We started by driving about 25 yards down the road then stopping for shopping for the camp and snack shopping for anyone that wanted snacks. As we soon found out everyone was fasting or at church so the shops were closed.
We all jumped back in the truck and headed across Gonder to an area with fruit and vegetable markets so we could source camp food for next few days.
About 10ish we finally got going into the mountains, driving up the windy road laden with donkeys, goats, sheep, horse carts, tuktuks and other vehicles.
The scenery turned into a weird mix of english countryside, swiss mountains with Ethiopian people and houses. Lots of green fields and fields full of yellow crops/flowers, horses in all the fields and some swiss- looking tree covered mountains!
We pulled up in a field for lunch, which was full of cows, horses, goats and sheep. Within seconds we have loads of children rushing to come and see us. They were dressed in an array of holey clothing, some with sticks and some with tarpaulin hats, it was like a scene out of lord of the flies!
After lunch we headed to the Simien Mountain National Park office to get tickets/permits and pick up our 2 guides and 4 armed scouts. After an hour sorting out admin and money we all jumped on the bus, the scouts sitting in the aisle on crates of beer. We drove for a couple of hours into the national park, passing the occasional waving child and goat. We wound up and up into the clouds until we reached our campsite.
It wasn’t much of a campsite really, more of a bush camp! There were a few other tents there, a corrugated shack that was supposedly a kitchen and a 5 minute walk would take you to the toilets which were holes in the ground.
We set up tents and camp for the night and proceeded to dig all our warm clothes out as the temperature had plummeted to not much above freezing. We got a fire going and sat around waiting for cook group to knock up dinner, lamb and mashed potatoes.
After dinner we were so cold we all got into our tents and got under the liners and sleeping bags trying to stay warm. The scouts stayed on guard duty through the night to protect us from baboons, wolves, hyenas, leopards and other wildlife.
About midnight I needed a wee so had to get out of the tent, shoved flip-flops on with socks on and tried to find a suitable ‘toilet’ as I was certainly not walking 5 minutes into the national park to use the toilet.
I was greeted with 2 torches shining at me as the scouts were checking I wasn’t a wolf, I waved and flashed my torch to show I was human then had a quick pee.
Not long after that the heavens opened and the wind and rain came, along with another thunder and lightning storm. I think camping should be banned in this weather, it’s even more unpleasant than normal!
In the early hours of the morning I needed a wee again (the joys of altitude apparently) and found my flip-flops, fought my way out of the zips and velcro on the door of the tent to find the ground wet and muddy. Managed to get soaking wet and muddy socks on way to pee spot so was getting grumpier by the second.
Got back to the tent, left my shoes outside hoping the baboons wouldn’t steal them and took my wet muddy socks off which had by this point made my feet cold.
Went back to sleep grumpy and wondering why people camp for fun!
Friday 21st August
Woke at 6.15am when most people were up having breakfast already! We waded around in the mud, rain, cloud and cold dining on cereals before getting sorted for the days trekking. Just under half the group were going on a 3 day/2 night trek in the mountains, so they were busy packing food and kit to put on the mules. The rest of us were doing an easy 8km trek to see a waterfall.
So we all set off together on this ‘easy’ couple of hour trek to the waterfall, with the more serious trekkers splitting off from us after the waterfall. Well the pace was blistering so within 5 minutes Alison and I had dropped to the back and just wandered along taking pictures of the world beneath us. Ethiopia appeared to fall away beneath our feet into the clouds. We plodded along stone trackways that were barely wide enough for one foot at a time, let alone two. Either side of the path was trees, prickly bushes, rocks or just a sheer drop of 3000m! So not a place to trip, fall or come down with a sudden bout of vertigo!
It took us 3 hours to get to the waterfall, a long slog up rocky slippery steps and down rocky, slippery steps! Still eventually we made it to the viewpoint, only to have the clouds roll in and partially cover the view!
We rested at the viewpoint for 10 minutes with our scout, taking pics before we began the descent back to the camp. We wandered part of the way back long the rocky, slippery paths before cutting up onto a mountain road which we walked all the way back on. It was hill climb after hill climb for 3 hours back, at an altitude of 3200m. About 20 minutes from camp it started to rain and then it started to hail stone! Delightful, gave me the major grumps!
When we returned to camp, within minutes the heavens opened and we had sleety freezing downpour rain. We ran into the truck and all sat eating soup and a sandwich in the relative shelter of the truck. Everyone was asleep or reading with not much else to do on top of a freezing mountain in the rain.
After a couple of hours the rain cleared and it was then just cold. A 4×4 appeared that was dropping some people down to the nearest lodge as they had given up camping on the muddy mountain.
It was at that point I had the bright idea to ask if the 4×4 could take me and Nicole back to Gonder as they would be going that way anyway. I ran the idea past Nicole and we both decided if they could take us back we would go and spend 2 extra days and 3 extra nights in Gonder rather than wading around in cold, wet, muddy mountains.
As luck would have it we negotiated a price with the guys and an hour later they re-appeared and we threw all our stuff into the boot and waved our way out of camp!
We had a hilarious journey back, navigating the mountain roads in a 4×4, the guy wasn’t slowing for anything and we did a fair few corner slides around the mountain. Bloody good fun!
When we got down on to the road the heavens opened again and we had more torrential rain and thunder and lightning. The driver was doing 80km/hr but couldn’t see a thing due to the sheet rain, cloud cover and the fact he had a huge crack in the windscreen which was also totally misted up. I had to lend him a top of mine to wipe the window down. The heater was on full but barely clearing the screen! So the lack of ability to see anything coupled with the sheet rain, flashes of lightning and people and animals dashing across the road mad for a fun journey!
Still we arrived in Gonder safe and sound, checked back into the L shaped hotel and had a hot shower and dinner. We were warm, dry and smug when we settled down into bed that night thinking of the rest of the group freezing and soaking and covered in mud in the mountains.
Saturday 22nd August
Woke up early, the religious dude was still banging on over the loudspeaker! Dammit!
We pottered around, put all our clothes into the laundry, headed out for the morning. First stop was the shoe clean boys to get our trainers cleaned. They did a good job of removing half the campsite mud from the simiens off our shoes. Then we hit the juice bar for breakfast.
We chilled out in the hotel using the wifi for a bit and read a bit before heading out to the sister restaurant for a traditional Ethiopian lunch of tegabino shero. This is grey njera bread and a paste made of pureéd beans and pulses.
After lunch we wandered back, had a nap, read our books and generally chilled out for the rest of the day before dining at the hotel in the evening.
Sunday 23rd August
Had a lie in, although the religious dude was still banging on. We did the same as yesterday really, juice bar, mooch, read, chill,nap and eat.
About mid afternoon the remainder of the group returned and usual service was resumed! They all looked worn out, filthy and in need of showers and rest whereas Nicole and I were clean, freshly laundered clothes, clean shoes, painted nails and totally refreshed and ready to be on the move again!
Monday 24th August
Left 7am for the long drive to Lalibela. The drive took all day as we meandered along windy mountain roads, having to slow down regularly for huge pot holes, floods, eroded roads, huge boulders from rockfall down the mountain and dancing and groups of kids that blocked the road and would dance and sing and demand money. They were totally fearless and wouldn’t move when you drove towards them, they would skip backwards in front of the truck or try to jump on the back of the truck for a hitched lift along! A few of the group threw some coins out of the window to the kids and some would dive for the coins narrowly missing being squashed under the wheels…totally mental!
The first few groups were cute and funny but after a while it became a nuisance. There was a group on every turn of the road, which made the going even slower and more perilous and once we had run out of coins the kids started getting more violent eventually throwing rocks at the back of the truck and windows!
It was at this point a few of us thought sacrificing one child might deter the rest but Em would not hear of it! She refused to deliberately mow down a child!
Eventually late evening we arrived at the hotel, checked in triple room with Nicole and Jacqueline then headed down to restaurant for dinner. Nicole and I shared a fasting plate which is basically the njera grey bread with lentils, curry sauce and some cabbage and onion. Cheap and tasty and easy to share.
After dinner we headed up for showers and bed ready for the next day when we would be visiting the rock churches.