Okay, Ethiopia is a bit of a wildcard. We originally planned to go to Mali today, to visit Timbuktu, but all the travel warnings – even the virtual ones – said no, no, no. And then the more we read about Ethiopia, the more we wondered why we hadn’t included it in our original plans. So, here we are in East Africa.
Not only is it spectacular; it’s Africa’s oldest independent country and, apart from a five-year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy, it’s never been colonised. Religion is big (it’s home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church), severe droughts and famines have left their mark and, being surrounded by six other countries and with no access to the sea, various wars have been fought. Things are still a little dicey in the south, so we’re sticking to the north.
This morning we went for a short hike in the stunning Simien Mountains National Park in the hope of seeing Gelada baboons (we did) and Walia ibex (nope). Given that the mountains are 3600m+ above sea level, we were a little worried about altitude sickness but a friend’s ‘green lollies’ tip from Peru seems to have saved the day.
We’re currently eating an early lunch in a small restaurant in Gondar – injera (fermented pancakes) and wat (a spicy stew of meat and lentils). Gondar is known as the ‘Camelot of Africa’ because of its medieval castles and churches but, unlike Camelot, this is the real thing. The old capital of a magnificent royal empire, with easy access to gold, civet, ivory and slaves.
Next we’re heading directly to Lalibela (literally ‘eat honey’), saving ourselves a perilous six hour road trip through hairpin bends. The town is famous for its 11 hand-hewn stone churches that were carved out of solid volcanic rock from about 800AD onward. They’re an amazing feat of engineering given that they’re created out of negative space. More sculpture than architecture, I guess. Lalibela is a significant pilgrimage site, and now it’s the dry season we can probably expect to be mingling with hundreds of white-clad pilgrims when we arrive.