Addis Abeba, Ethiopia – April 12th, 2017
Mileage: 12.371 km
»I think we are done,« I conclude as I wipe my hands of dirt, stare at my father and wait for his judgement. My father double checks the bag’s numerous straps and fasteners. »What about your tripod?«
»Tripod, yes or no?« I hesitate as I stare back and forth between tripod and my overweight backpack. It is apparent that I will crumble under the substantial weight of my personal belongings. My photography gear accounts for most of my ‘unnecessary’ weight but I can’t resist leaving my hobby behind and so my tripod, my lenses, my filters come along.
Finally, Florian and I succeeded to obtain two bus tickets leaving the day after from Addis Abeba’s main bus terminal. Easter was coming up and contacting multiple bus and airline companies for tickets to Lalibela proved to be in vain. If it weren’t for a couple that had cancelled minutes before, our desperate enquiry for two tickets northbound would have been hopeless. The tickets would get us to Bahir Dar, a city at Lake Tana, the origin of the Blue Nile and approximately half way between Addis and Lalibela. We didn’t think twice and gambled that we would find a way to Lalibela from there.
Florian and I said our farewells to my father as we left for the bus terminal at 4 a.m. the next morning. An immoral hour and I could clearly feel the weight of my backpack as the shoulder straps dug deeper into my skin. The bus was completely full. We sat in the penultimate row, rather speechless, observing other passengers stuff their personal belongings, groceries, furniture and anything else for that matter, over, under, in front, behind and next to their seats. Every inch of space found its purpose. The day had come where I stopped judging African public transport from the outside and started facing the inside.
Eventually, we departed the chaos-ridden capital of Ethiopia and headed north on the same road that my father and I had entrusted Henry to that fateful day. Much to my apprehensive expectation, I got thrown out of my seat and smashed my sleepy head against the window pane each time we zoomed across speed bumps at dizzying speeds or veered off from the road to avoid collision with yet another sleepwalking livestock. For the remaining parts of the road, we were subject to a perpetual duel between acceleration and brake paddle accompanied by never-ending Ethiopian background music from overhead speakers. I would have been too happy to smash in that speaker if it hadn‘t been for two dozen other spread across the bus. I ultimately gave up on finding my valuable sleep, took my headphones out of my pocket and listened to my personal music library while I stared into the eerie night sky. I shivered at the thought that we hadn’t yet passed the dangerous gorge, the place of our accident.
The first shimmering rays of dawn evenly replaced a charcoal curtain of a cold starry night and illuminated Ethiopia’s placid highlands. A magnificent sight that lastly allowed me to ignore the harsh drive and my anxiety as I soaked in the warm sunshine ambitiously lightening each crevice of the vast land. We reached the top of the gorge in the early morning hours and to my relief, the driver decided to take a break. Refreshed from his break, however, our driver didn’t seem to make much of his responsibility as we descended towards the Nile at an unimaginable pace overtaking others and almost transforming our bus into a two-wheeler at hairpin turns. Surprisingly, I didn’t seem to care all that much. After all, this place had already once tried to take everything from me. I got rather distracted in reconstructing the events of our devastating crash. Death really lurks at every corner in this place as I counted the many oil tankers and other passenger buses that had failed to cross the gorge – a staggering count smashed to pieces in the vast abyss of the gorge.
Luckily we reached the valley in no time and the sight of noble stone walls carved by nature demonstrated the jaw-dropping depth of this water-cut canyon. The bus, however, came to an abrupt halt. Intoxicating fumes of burned rubber suddenly surrounded it. I opened my window. The smell got stronger. Fire! The driver and others quickly attended to the problem and disappeared underneath the truck. I knew exactly what had happened and yet couldn’t believe it. My utter discontent with the reckless driver and this clearly doomed canyon hit my personal peak of frustration as I was ready to scream my lungs out: »What else do you want from me?« I forced myself to remain calm. The driver dug out from underneath the bus and was frantically waving his hands at other people. Without understanding a word what he was yelling I dropped my 2l water bottle from the window. He happily accepted my motion, others followed and he attended the source of the fire which originated from overheated breaks. The water helped. The fire was stopped. Florian who was standing outside with half the bus‘ passenger load following the fire rescue mission raised his eyebrows in an inquisitive manner as we got ordered to return to our seats. We both lifted our shoulders in a surprising yet careless manner as we were relieved to leave this place in our crippled bus rather than waiting yet for another bus that must master this canyon in one piece. As we left the gorge behind us I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and said to myself »Finally… I am heading north again!«
Lalibela, Ethiopia – April 14th, 2017
Mileage: 13.241 km
I think there is no place on earth other than the northern highlands of Ethiopia where Christianity is so deeply rooted in the soul of the people. Eager to witness the cultural heritage and the mythological ties between Jerusalem’s and Ethiopia’s Christian faiths I departed from Bahir Dar with Florian and Sol (a Canadian backpacker that we had met in our hostel). We managed to obtain “seats” in a minibus that would take us to Lalibela as we sat down in the last row of the bus. Minutes later the back opened and a fourth passenger climbed into the bus from behind squeezing himself between me and Sol. A minivan clearly doesn’t fit four in a row and so the stranger had to lift his arms in order to fit in and a disturbing smell surrounded my face. »Lovely!« as I turned my face in disgust and hoped for the best. We soon reached the famous heights of Ethiopia’s summits and endless rock ridges. The sight was overwhelming and for a moment I was glad that I had decided to travel by bus. We zoomed across winding roads through the mountains. With a loud bang, however, I got ripped out of my wondering mind, once more that I didn’t even realise what had happened. Fortunately, the skilful driver hit the breaks almost simultaneously and if it weren’t for humans surrounding me I probably would have become airborne. Believe it or not, Ethiopia had pulled of hattrick on me. Three consecutive road incidences. It just blows my mind. A crash into rocks, breaks on fire and a tire burst. I wonder what Ethiopia had in store for me next. Florian and I shook our heads as we patiently waited on the side of the road. At least we were rewarded with a remarkable view in the early morning hours.
Lalibela consists of monolithic and semi-monolithic churches holding strong symbolic connections with Jerusalem. The complex is divided into a north-western cluster, representing earthly Jerusalem, and a south-eastern cluster, representing heavenly Jerusalem, separated by the river Jordan. Bet Giyorgis, a cross-shaped church, probably the most famous of the stone-hewn churches lies apart from the others and symbolises the Ark of Noah.
On Holy Saturday there wasn’t much going on during the day, with villagers flooding the local market in anticipation of Easter. Florian, Sol and I decided to escape the town and visit a church hewn into the face of a mountain. We hiked along a scar-looking path carved by countless pilgrims before us. I pulled hard on my legs as I felt my lungs fight for every oxygen molecule. I clearly sat too much in a car for the past months. The churches were like a labyrinth to me, an 800-year-old labyrinth that leaves you speechless the more you wander through the system of tunnels and trenches connecting one chamber to the other. The secret pathways, the smell of candles, the light passing through the cross-shaped windows and the white-robed priest lend these buildings a special aura and a solemn atmosphere.
The churches came back to life at midnight for the most important of the celebrations: the resurrection of Christ. We waited until midnight. Candles were lit everywhere. In a fever of excitement, pressed by the crowd that was now filling every corner, I saw a light emerging from the sanctuary breaking the night. “Christ has risen”, was heard everywhere with hundreds of people waving their candles. People began walking along the sides of the church and the flames leapt from candle to candle, lighting the most remote corners of the sanctuary. We sat down next to the pilgrims and were stunned by the spiritual aura around us.
Easter marks the end of fasting and the town rapidly got back to its routine the day after. In fact, the people are said to eat as much as they can as soon as the ceremony ends. However, we were too tired to stay up until 3 a.m. and returned to our humble Hotel. Instead, I had time to rationalise what had happened during that Easter night. It is unquestionable that Lalibela is a spiritual place, possibly the holiest place in Ethiopia for Orthodox Christians. With the end of the Easter celebrations, a very long drive took Florian and me back on the road to Gondar. My final and perhaps most rewarding memory of Ethiopia was still to come: the Simien Mountains!
Simien Mountains, Ethiopia – April 19th, 2017
Mileage: 13.748 km
At the busy national park gate, an entourage of a dozen curious children followed me past small roadside shacks selling everything from soft drinks, blankets to sandals. Some jostled to bargain with me as I followed my group into the park office to register. Others stared at me as if I was the first white, blond, blue-eyed man ever seen. There were plenty of “firsts” even for me as I embarked on a three-day hike in Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains. The Simiens are majestic: a vast cauldron of deep ravines and gorges, towering pinnacles and rock spires, and fascinating wildlife unlike anywhere else on this planet.
Florian and I joined a group of enthusiastic trekkers from all over the world and we were driven by our guides to the starting point some 3,000m above sea-level deep inside the mountains. Driving through the National Park, we passed Gelada monkeys sitting calmly by the roadside, with golden manes like lions billowing in the breeze.
Our first day of hiking was taken lightly by our guides as we all needed to acclimatise to the height. The fact that Florian and I had spent a week in the mountains already, however, helped tremendously. I was rather worried that I would have to face more injera for three meals a day, Ethiopia’s No. 1 dish. Injera consists of a doughy, sour sponge-like pancake. I unavoidably ate injera for the past three weeks. More than I would have liked to and to my relief our mountain chef worked wonders. Warm vegetable soup, beef stew and other delicious, warm, high-energy meals. Our group got along splendidly which only enriched this remarkable experience. That night, however, we set quietly at the dinner table eagerly consuming our food after a long exhausting day.
I woke up at dawn the following day to catch the early light. The mist rested softly on the mountain peaks like a cloth draped over a pillow. Looking down at tiny highland villages dotting the valley on one side, vast dry farmlands on the other, volcanic mountains surrounding me, and thick-billed white-headed ravens flying above. »I’m on the roof of Africa«, I thought to myself as I watched the mist roll in; after dreaming about this part of the world for so long, I’m finally here. This is the ancient land of the Ethiopians and you can feel their presence in the very earth beneath your feet. It’s amazing how insignificant you feel in the presence of this breathtaking expanse. I stood at the edge of a cliff hundreds of meters above layers of mountains. My eyes wandered across a hazy horizon as vibrant crepuscular rays broke through the thick layer of clouds. The image before me was reminiscent of one of my favourite paintings: Casper David Friedrich’s »Wanderer above the Sea of Fog« and standing in the painting itself was unlike anything I had experienced before.
A new chapter began as Florian and I left a captivating experience behind us. We descended towards Sudan’s Galebat border post. The landscape changed dramatically. The majestic highlands sloped into the dry lowlands of Sudan and the temperature continually increased. In fact, the state-of-emergency, the drought, takes place in this area. Here the soil has grown wan and weird, defertilised, dehumanised, neither green nor brown. Colours of death reflected from the land as every remaining living organism desperately hid under the sparse shade of parched trees. 46°C it was that day. Looking up, I saw the sun shine brighter than I had ever seen before. Beating down, it’s one malevolent eye unblinking, and the sky was its co-conspirator with not even a wisp of cloud to soften the harsh rays.
We bade Ethiopia farewell as we passed its neglected border post. Stamps were missing, goats were in the queue ahead, a single guy operating four computers in a boiling shipping container. It came at no surprise that electricity was once again not working and so we were waved through the Ethiopian border and crossed a dry river bed into Sudan. Each step towards the border sunk into the searing sand, the air was thick and hazy, each breath like drowning in lava. The Sudanese border, however, was professional, orderly, systematic, soldiers in proper uniform and saluting each other. The Sudanese could handle the heat. One could tell. The guards saw our desperate need for shade burnt into our faces. They quickly opened the gate and welcomed us inside:
I have entered my very first fully Arabic country.