If you didn’t know already, spending 3 days trekking 40km of mountains and peaking at over 4000 metres high is quite the experience. Absolutely knackering but one of those things that you’re very glad to say you’ve done.
Tagging along with Biniam’s crew – Danny, Fasika, Mitta, Mathias, Bruk and David the driver – we set off at 5am on Wednesday on our way north to the Simien Mountains, home to many peaks over 4000 metres and the most stunning views of Ethiopia. The mountains were formed after a volcanic eruption; layer upon layer of lava spread for miles and miles, forming what seems to be endless mountains. But they do end eventually, falling in to desert in Sudan and in to Eritrea the other direction.
After a day driving and a night in Bahir Dar, which in Amharic means ‘by the body of water’, we set off for Debark, the last town before the mountains really begin. Debark houses the Simien Mountains offices where you pay your entrance fees and meet your guide, scout and cooks. The locals run tings rahnd ‘ere – all of them trained by a team of Austrians apparently but essentially they are freelancers. Their job is looking after groups of people, often tourists, and trekking the triumphant mountains for days on end.
We’d left at 5am on Wednesday morning and finally reached our first campsite at 7pm on Thursday night. Hours of car journey ground to a halt when David’s car couldn’t make it up the mountain, so a little group of us got out and walked up to a mountain village and mingled with the locals whilst another van was fetched. They were very friendly and the kids spent the entire two hours staring at me. They see people that look like me all the time but only as they facelessly drive past on their way to and from the mountains. The word here is ‘Forenje’, pronounced ‘For-en-jee’, and it simply means foreigner. Forenjees don’t ever come and sit in the village. Because Ethiopians consider themselves the best, anyone not from here is given that moniker. We were offered this drink called Corafee, which I think was their attempt at making beer. It had barley in it but the others didn’t know the English translation of the other ingredients. It tasted a bit like what I imagine those £30 home brew kits sold in Wilkinson would taste like.
David went back to Debark as the 7 of us were picked up in a van and taken to the first campsite. During the day, with no wind, it’s probably about 30°c in the sun. It’s certainly shorts and t-shirt weather anyway. As soon as the sun sets, the temperature plummets by about 20°c and is bloody freezing in no time at all. You can be sunning yourself in just your boxer shorts and 5 minutes later be shivering under a blanket.
As promised, I froze my nuts off for 3 nights running.
The first proper day trekking took in stunning views and about 14 kilometres of trekking up and down. It feels like a lot more on the legs because of the effort it takes going up and down hill all the time. I haven’t worked out if going down or up is the more difficult. We had lunch by a gorgeous mountain river before another peak and the next campsite. Our guide was called Teddy and he was such a lovely presence. He has been invited to England by a South African who climbed the mountains and lives in London. He’s sent a Letter of Invitation for Teddy to try and get a Visa. He needs to go to Addis to get it and he has never even left the Ethiopian countryside, so his visit to Addis is his first visit to a big city. I so want him to come to London. It would blow his head off. I gave him my details.
The Simien Mountains were declared a National Park by Haile Sellassie, who visited the enormous rocky expanse and inmediately wanted to not only protect it but to ensure this special part of Ethiopia was declared as such. It really is unique and I’ve never even seen anything like it on the telly, although to be fair I only really watch Snooker and Neighbours.
The people I went with are such a lovely bunch. They’re all great friends and once we were all comfortable with each other after a day or so, it was great. They all had their independence within the group and know each other through various things. Danny was the group leader and Fasika (which means Easter in Amharic) had the notepad and money. Biniam fascinates me. He’s a softly spoken, highly intelligent person. He’s an architect for a living with a passion for the world and who physically looks like a fart would blow him over, yet he was bombing around the mountains like nobody’s business. I reckon he can be divided in to 4 parts – 1 part little old man, 1 part 9 year old girl, 1 part bohemian artist and 1 part Professor Yaffle from Bagpuss. He’s really independent and seems to be both in the room and in his own world at the same time. One evening, when he was dressed in baggy Spanish trousers, scarf and cardigan, Teddy said to me “I have never seen anything like that before”.
The second proper trekking day took in 20km, 3 peaks and legs stiffer than rigor mortis. Mathias had injured himself so took to riding a mule for the whole day. He looked like a Monarch so I called him Ras Mathi, Mule of Judah. It’s a name that stuck. The lad that owned the mule must have only been about 11 and had the most tragic story. His father sold his sister in to marriage when she was 8 years old. She ran away from her husband and came back home, where the angry husband found her and lobbed a grenade in to the house, killing her and her father and badly injuring her Mum. The lad with the mule still ‘lives’ at home but not really; he lives in the mountains now with his mule, helping trekkers. He spent the whole time smiling.
The chef did us a selection of straightforward vegetarian things every evening. The dialect up there is a very quick, high pitched Amharic where everyone sounds in a constant state of cartoon indignation. Biniam says the equivalent in the U.K would be a very thick, high Scottish accent. The facilities are incredibly basic. There is no electricity and just two circular huts that the chefs cook in on their gas canister. Tents line up in the grass around the huts and the toilets were just a concrete hole in the ground. It was absolutely freezing at night and the frost spread over the grass. The Ethiopians working here don’t bring tents – they sleep either under a blanket outside or if there is a lodge, in there. The stamina and endurance of Ethiopians amazes me. The scouts, blanket draped over them at all times and carrying a rifle, hardly slept at all. At night they sit under their blanket next to the tents in the freezing cold, watching over things. Every time one of us stirred or undid the tent zip, they’d flash their torch so we could see. I honestly don’t know when they slept. There are no showers or anything like that and it’s too cold to take any layers off so we all wore all of our clothes all of the time.
I was grappling with the idea of what it would be like to modernise the campsites. Ethiopians are incredibly suspicious of modernism and change, considering it ‘un-Ethiopian’. They like to keep things the way that they’ve always been. Dozens of investors have offered to build modern lodges at the campsites but locals don’t want to know. A bunch of solar panels could be used for lights and for heating rooms and warm water for showers. Actual toilets, larger cooking facilities, a common room – it would change things entirely. After 20km of trekking, a hot shower and sleeping inside on a bed where it’s a bit warmer would be perfect. But then that wouldn’t be an authentic experience of the Ethiopian mountains. They’d probably have a lot more people trekking if they knew they’d be warm at night though. I don’t know what to think.
The last day up there was Christmas Day. I opted out of climbing the last peak of 4300 metres, Chennak, because I was completely stiff from trekking and from 3 nights freezing my proverbials off. It’s amazing how much the body can do with very little sleep though. Mathias stayed back too so the conquering mule had a day off. He and I still went for a walk for a couple of hours so we didn’t exactly laze around for the morning. I like Mathi a lot. He’s got a great sense of humour.
I have been carrying a Christmas present around with me since I set off – a mysterious little package given to me by Tessa. I opened it excitedly in the tent. It was the stuff of dreams – two tea bags and 3 Choco Leibniz biscuits. What more could a growing lad need? Thanks ever so much Tessa.
The guys that went up made their way back from the last peak, broken and shattered, in the early afternoon. I was glad I’d stayed back. They did the sweetest thing – they’d bought me a Christmas present on the peak. It was a model of a Walia Ibex, native to the mountains, and made by a child that lives round there. What a lovely gesture. There’s a whole economy run by kids around the Simien Mountains. You can buy bottles of Coke, little baskets made of sheep hair, models of animals, all made by the hands of the children that live in the mountains. There are people dotted about all over the place, including a Masinqo player singing songs about the trekkers.
Bruk took hundreds of pictures and a couple of videos, including one of two kids singing and dancing. I hope to get them off him and link to it here.
The native wildlife includes Walias, Gelado Babboons and the Simien red Fox, and we saw all of them. There are strict rules about the feeding of animals and of what you can take in to the park. The authorities want to keep it as indigenous as possible, so even the dropping of orange seeds is frowned upon.
As incredible as the views are though, vast open spaces just don’t do it for me as much as views over a city. Walks up mountains also don’t do it for me as much as walking round London either. I’m so glad I’ve done the Simien Mountains but give me Hampstead Heath any day of the week.
As Christmas afternoon carried on, and as the U.K started to tuck in to its beer and crackers and turkey, we packed up and headed back to Gondar for a night in a hotel. The plan was to spend a night and the following morning in Gondar, and then the same in Bahir Dar. Outside of Addis, there are tuktuks everywhere. I spoke about them before in Nigeria, where they are called marwas. You don’t see them in Addis because they are banned and eventually they’ll be banned in Gonder and Bahir Dar too, being replaced by minibuses. There’s really loads of them so a lot of people are going to have to find a new job.
After Axum, Lalibela was capital of Ethiopia. After that it was Gondar’s turn and the first castle in Africa was built in Gondar, called Fasil Ghebbi. The grounds are very impressive and rather un-African. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, it was founded by Emporer Fasilides (a Greek name to my ears) and housed the Ethiopian Monarchy, with various monarchs adding to it over the years. It has been looted by the Sudanese, Italians and British at various points and was badly damaged in WWII when the Allies bombed it to get the Italians out. But what still stands looms over the city as a significant piece of history.
This is the music hall.
Lions are a symbol of power and pride all over Ethiopia and Haile Sellassie built lion cages here. Lions were kept here until 1993 when money to keep them ran out. There are plans to restore them however.
With all those previous capitals in that part of the country, Ethiopian history mainly presides in the North. After Gondar, Addis became the capital city with Menelik II moving everything there in 1887. Addis is basically right in the middle of the country so it makes sense to have a capital there.
We then went to a 17th century Church, Debre Birhan Sellassie, and it’s the final one from that period still standing. In 1888, when the Sudanese came to Gondar and burnt everything down, 22 of the 23 Churches were lost. This one only remains because a swarm of bees attacked the Sudanese dervishes and killed some of them.
Churches are often circular in Ethiopia. People eat in a circle and food is served on a circle of enjera. Circles are spiritually important here and symbolise the cyclical nature of life. This church used to be circular until lightening damaged it, and it was rebuilt as a rectangle.
The most incredible 17th century paintings line the walls and ceiling of the inside of the church.
As usual, the Church has 3 sections with the copy of the Arc of the Covenant in the holiest of the holy section, the holy ghost. The paintings depict biblical scenes in the classic, gorgeous Ethiopian style and there is only 1 Italian influence – the portrayal of a snake. There are 3 types of faces depicted. Front on for the most holy, side on with 1 ear to show beauty and profile with 1 eye for non-believers. The ceiling is covered with 135 winged cherubs to show the omnipotence of God. Services are still carried out there. I also found out that the three colours of the Ethiopian flag, red, yellow and green, are spiritually symbolic. Red is to die for your country, yellow is peace and green is prosperity.
After Gondar we headed 3 hours down the country to Bahir Dar again. By now it was just David, Fasika, Ras Mathi and I and we had a lovely time. There’s a huge lake in Bahir Dar, hence the name of the place being ‘by the body of water’, called Lake Tanahike. It’s so big as you look out on it, it could be the sea.
Bahir Dar is a perfectly planned city with trees lining the roads and everything ordered. In the 1960s Haile Sellassie even considered relocating there. The others told me that it was famous for having beautiful women everywhere and I can confirm this categorically. There’s not a lamppost left without a dent in it from me walking in to it.
We saw some traditional music and dancing, much like in Fendika the other day. Some of the dance moves looked like Beyonce and some of them looked like Bez. I kept getting invited to dance. I just couldn’t do it though. I’ve never had the confidence for things like that. I’m scared of looking like an idiot and confirming what I already think about myself. What’s worse is that I know I have nothing to lose and nobody cares and yet I still stop myself. One day though, one day.
We set off for Addis at 6am Tuesday and morning fires lined the roads, as freezing Ethiopians warmed themselves up before the sun came up. Ethiopia, never colonised, has its own clock and calendar. I’ve been racking my brains as to why the clock is 6 hours behind and how it works. Then Ras Mathi told me – the sun comes up, so that’s 1 o’clock. The first thing in the day has the first number. That makes so much sense.
Ethiopians also basically live the 2-5 diet. Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days and restaurants only serve vegetarian options, usually in the form of a beyeanatu. Anybody who has been to Andu Cafe in Dalston with me will know what that dish is.
I’ve been gone 10 and a bit weeks and in the car journey back I experienced my first pangs of homesickness. I popped my headphones in and sunk in to tune after tune, taking in everything from Robert Vaughn Williams to Tony Allen, from David Bowie to Arvo Part, and it worked. I made an ‘Obsessions 2016’ playlist – all the tunes I have obsessed over this year at various points. I can’t put it in an order of flow on my phone but it probably works listened to on shuffle. The first tune is my favourite Wham song, Everything She Wants. I first heard it when I was in Glasgow with Beatrix watching Limmy Live and loved it immediately. It’s a massive tune. I was sad to hear of George Michael going. He was a super talent; a really great British pop star. Everything She Wants was a double A-side with Last Christmas, which famously only got to number 2 because it was released in 1984, the year of Band Aid. Band Aid and Live Aid of course raised millions for Ethiopian famine, but I didn’t know George Michael also donated the proceeds of Last Christmas to Ethiopian famine as well. Top man.