Ethiopia Northern Circuit and Bale Mountains 2009


Ethiopia has something mythical. It sounds like a country from long long ago (Abyssinia). Almost as from a fairy tale – but a very realistic one, because the old Abyssinia is often mentioned in the Bible. Despite that, the country suffers from a very dubious image...

That is caused by its rulers. First there was Haile Selassie, who at the end of his reign completely lost his sanity and as a result his people suffered big time. After him Mengistu came to power, who tried to stay in power with force and as a result most of the country entered a period of famine because of his mismanagement. He did not want to show this to the world, but an English gentleman by the name of Bob Geldof made a difference. While Mengistu and his generals were enjoying pure wealth, the rest of the world tried to save the poor Ethiopian people. It only helped a bit, because many of thousands of Ethiopians died of hunger.

These horrible events did take place decennia ago, but many people are still thinking about it when they hear the name Ethiopia. But what many forget is that the country has made progress and developed very positively, that it has a very rich culture and interesting nature and on top of that has a great history?

Addis Abeba

That history goes all the way back to the beginning of mankind. Because it was in Ethiopia where the remains of the oldest human known on earth were found. A researcher found her millions-of-years-old-remains while he was listening to "Lucy in the sky with diamonds" on his walkman. So he called her Lucy and now Lucy is the oldest human on earth.

Therefore we paid Lucy a visit on our first day in Ethiopia. If we had to spend a day in Addis Abeba anyway, we might as well go and see Lucy. Dave of Yared Travel took us right through town to the National Museum, where besides the thrown of Haile Selassie also Lucy was on display. Unbelievable: in the west we would probably build a whole museum because of Lucy alone; here she was put away in the cellar. Nevertheless the museum was quite interesting and Kiora played hide-and-seek with Dave.

Addis is a big city with a lot of business being conducted. There were many small shops (I wish there was as much choice in Zambia%) and lots of people in the streets with a purpose. I thought it was quite an acceptable city for African standards.

After a lunch in an Italian ice cream parlor (Italy has tried for years to conquer Ethiopia but always failed) which was quite decadent (ah, why not) we visited one of Ethiopia’s many orthodox Christian churches. This one was called Entoto Maryam and was located on a hill with a nice view of Addis Abeba. The church was not one that left us in awe, but then again, we were not allowed inside (there was a service at the time) so maybe we missed the best part. The little museum next to the church was interesting with lots of century old books and dresses. We were also shown the very old house of Emperor Menelik.

My golden rule while travelling is to try the local dishes, because they are usually the safest. Once you try international menus it often goes wrong. So that evening we had our first injera, a kind of a sour pancake which we first mistook for dirty table linen. On the injera one can order all kinds of meat and vegetables and we loved it. From that evening on Kiora did not want to eat anything else!

Lake Tana

At 4 in the morning we had to wake up to catch our flight of 7AM to Bahir Dar, right next to the biggest lake of Ethiopia, Lake Tana. This lake is most famous for being the source of the Nile, the same source Dr Livingstone looked for all of his life but never managed to find it.

On the airport of Bahir Dar we were welcomed by Miki our driver, and we liked each other from that first moment. Kiora and him were best friends and he was very switched on and, most importantly, he was a very good driver. First he brought us to the old palace of Selassie. Not so much because of the old and ugly palace itself, but more because of the nice view of the Blue Nile. We even saw some hippos which is quite special, since not too many are left in the Nile.

The Tana Hotel was located directly at the unattractive, brown colored lake and clearly had its best times behind it. That fact could not spoil the fun for us – in the afternoon we went fr a boat ride on the lake. Lake Tana has some islands on which some century old monasteries are built with brilliant wall paintings. With a little boat and captain e.g. guide we headed for the Zeg peninsula where the biggest and most impressive monastery was built, the Ura Kidane Mehret. The building is a huge circle shaped structure with a wide hallway on the outside and the "Holy of Holiest" on the inside, which is a square room only accessible for priests, and beautifully decorated with wall paintings. Some of these paintings are ancient en clearly depict the orthodox character of the Ethiopian church. Most of them are extremely colorful and even for the most atheist soul out there many paintings will be recognizable.

The road leading up to the monastery has many vendors selling all kinds of souvenirs, especially the so-called Ethiopian crosses. The peninsula has many monks living there who totally rely of what its inhabitants give them. In other words, this is really orthodox: God decides and there is nothing we can do about it. This was very striking on another island we visited where there was a nunnery. We were meant to visit another monastery but since no women were allowed there and I was a minority (Marieke and Kiora), we decided to head for the nunnery. The nuns were living according to a very strict regime and did not see their families for years. The whole day was spent with praying and meditating which was implemented from a very young age. Priests only came on the island for services, which was the only time men would come on the island. It was a bit of a sad affair…

The Blue Nile also forms the Blue Nile Falls (how creative). We were already warned it might be disappointing… A nice hike led us to a viewpoint of the falls, but for somebody with The Mighty Victoria Falls in their back garden this was very disappointing. The trickle of water was mainly the result of two hydro-plants upstream. Kiora was not impressed. "Our Falls are bigger, he papa?". But then – a bit more water came – and more – the plant opened up a bit and now we had something similar to a small waterfall…but was it worth it? Well, we are of course very very spoiled…

Gondar en Simien Mountains

After a 2 hour drive through a hilly landscape with lots of agriculture we arrived in Gondar. Our hotel was located on a ridge with a perfect view of the city, very beautiful. Gondar itself is famous for its castles. Yes, right, castles in Africa. And real castles, like the ones in Europe.  A kind of a legacy of the Templers, the European knights defending Christianity in Moslem territory, and the Ethiopian Emperors liked it. Of course as a European one is quite spoiled if it comes to castles and castles in Africa are not really the first things that comes in mind when visiting Ethiopia. Anyway, we saw it as well as Fasilida pool but it must be much more impressive when the famous processions are taking place.

After all the cultural stuff it was time for the natural stuff. We were ready for it. After half a day driving on reasonable gravel roads we reached (via Debark) the Simien Mountains, a mgnificent mountain range which is quite famous for some very rare animals. We stayed at the Simien Mountain Lodge, which proudly claims to be the highest lodge in Africa (3270m).

That same afternoon we hiked with a guide and an armed scout for the first time in the mountains. The Simien are quite old and eroded so basically we were walking on a massive plateau which is quite easy, even with kids. A large part is National Park although there are still plenty of people who live there and are growing crops. As a result the wild animals are under a lot of pressure.

One of the easiest endemic animals to be found are the Gelada baboons. These are very beautiful and docile baboons, although they look very frightening at first. Especially the males have manes like a lion and a blood-red colored chest and on top of that a set of teeth which would make a leopard jealous. They live in large groups of up to 500 animals and they only eat grass. They are so used to people that we were surrounded by them before we even realised. They were not the slightest bit interested in us. Kiora just loved it, the animals came as close as 2 meters and were just busy plucking the grass. They made funny sounds (grunting, sighing) which were extremely funny.

The next day we drove further up the plateau. With the landcruiser we passed viewpoint after viewpoint. Via Sankaber we drove to Chennek, a beautiful area with giant lobelias and lots of Gelada Baboons who were obviously busy eating grass. We even spotted a small herd of Walia Ibex, some sort of giant European Steenbok, of which only about 200 still exist. It was a sunny day and the whole day we walked from baboon to lobelia to ibex. By the way, both baboon as ibex sleep on the steep cliffs, because only there they are safe from hyena and leopard. Furthermore, most of the plateau is inhabited by humans for agricultural purposes. Just imagine: you are sleeping on your own little cliff and are just turning around in your sleep...


After a last morning of Geladas we drove back to Gondar from where we took an internal flight to Lalibela the next day. Lalibela is also referred to as the 8th world wonder: here you can find the incredible rock hewn churches. This was really bizarre: some of these churches were just IN a mountain!

Just picture this: you walk around a massive rock plateau with a hammer. You decide to hammer in the rocks. After one hour you will have a hole of 20 by 20cm. Now imagine you will have to make a “hole” of 30 by 50 by 30 meters deep, but you do it in a way that a church remains with pilars and windows and everything else what makes a church a church. The more you think about it, the more impressive it is getting.

Lalibela is basically in the middle of nowhere and without a doubt a flight is to be preferred over a 16hrs drive. The village itself is OK but nothing special; it is just there because of the churches. Unfortunately the sun and rains have an eroding effect on the churches. So Unesco wanted to prevent that from happening and proclaimed it a World Heritage site and spent some millions of dollars on the most unattractive protection shields which should protect the churches for damaging natural forces.

Of course I know it’s the only way to protect what is left, but it does take away a lot of the romance and atmosphere. We did wander around the churches together with an extremely bored guide, and like most others we are the most impressed by the photogenic Bet Gyorgis, a cross-shaped church hewn in a giant rock and…without protection shield!!

Lake Langano and Bale Mountains

From Lalibela we flew in one hour back to Addis Abeba where Miki was waiting for us and we headed straight for Lake Langano, south of Addis. We had to drive through the suburbs of Addis and it was clear that this part was less attractive: lots of traffic, polluted etc.

All of a sudden the landscape changes. Up until then it has been quite green and with trees, now it is sandy and dry with no bush – most likely similar to the Ethiopia we know from the TV images of the 80s. It resembles kenya much more – which makes sense, because Ethiopia borders Kenya in the south.

After a couple of hours driving we reach Lake Langano, a popular tourist retreat in the weekends with the locals. The lake has a brown unattractive color which doesn’t invite to swim at all. That’s my opinion but not Kioras – she’s in the water straight away – and papa has to come as well. Gee, this water is COLD! The Ethiopians just loved it, a little white girl in the water. And there are enough Ethiopians around, since it is weekend and they came in herds to the lake

After this R&R days it was time for some more action. Bale Mountains were next, a mountain range which does not attract the number of visitors as the Simien Mountains, but it defintely is not less interesting. Via Sashamene, the cradle of the rasta-religion (and according to many the least safe town of Ethiopia), we continue to Dodola, a village at the base of the mountains. We drive through a hilly landscape which is sometimes fairy tale-like – like we went back in time for about 200yrs.

In Dodola we arrange a 2 days trekking with horses which will only take place in a couple of days. First we continue with Miki through the mountains, getting he=igher and higher. In Dinsho we enter Bale Mountain National Park and in theory this is the best place to see the extremely rare Mountain Nyala and Meneliks Bushbuck. With a very silent guide we hike into the humid forest – and after only 5 minutes we have seen both species already. Funny, never have seen such rare animals so quickly. The Nyala is not as pretty as her South African cousin, but is still worth seeing – it actually resembles a kudu. The bushbuck may be a Menelik’s – it is just a bushbuck.

The highlight was still to follow. The Bale Mountains are the last serious home range of the Simien Wolf, the rarest predator in the world. One estimates there are only  150-450 left in Ethiopia –it is endemic- and most of them are in the Bale Mountains. From Goba we drove through a beautiful landscape to the Sanetti Plateau, a high plateau with lots of giant Lobelias and beautiful little pools. The weather was just great – which according to Miki is usually not so great; 9 out of 10 times it is very cold and misty. But now the skies were blue and the sun was out. And also the wolves seemed to like that…

We saw 16 all together that day!! Even for Miki that was an absolute record. Especially since the animal is so rare it made this day a special one. The animal itself is not so special – it resembles a bit European Fox. But they seem to enjoy the sun and were very easy to see, and despite their solitary character we even saw two together. It was one of the best days in Ethiopia – and we enjoyed lunch on the second highest peak of Ethiopia, the Tullo Deemtu (4377m) . That was only short because Kiora suffered from altitude sickness but it disappeared 100 meters lower and she started singing again.

After that we started our 2 days trekking in Bale Mountains with one night in the Angafu hut. We would climb about 800 meter which would be a little too much for Kiora, so we arranged a horse for her. We did have our doubts: a 4yr old alone on a horse, 800 meter up on steep slopes? So we asked if Marieke could join on the horse if needed. No problem, the guides said – or at least, that’s what we thought, their English was very rudimentary.

So there our brave little daughter went on her big horse – up and down, very steep sometimes – and not a problem at all! She was like a little amazone sitting high up on her horse, babbling away with to the guides. Marieke did good too up until 100 meter before the top – then she wanted to join Kiora on the horse. Of course the guides promised the almost impossible – Marieke got on the horse but I think the poor animal is still remembering it up until the day of today.

Angafu hut was located on a mountain ridge surrounded by beautiful mountain flora like giant lobelias and giant ferns. The hut was very basic but fine – the weather was good and we made our own pasta. There was another guest and he said he had seen a lion – well, his guide has said it was a lion – which sounded very impossible. After a bit of talking I found out it had been a leopard% So the guides were not very impressive; let’s face it, if you are eaten by a big cat, at least you’d like to know if it is a lion or a leopard?

After all the hiking we finished at the Aregash lodge east of Yirgalem for a little R&R. It indeed was a nice lodge with Tukul-style rooms, and in the late afternoons they made coffee the traditional way while trying to attract hyenas from the forests with left-over meat. That was a bit hilarious – the animals couldn’t be much bothered. We saw once a vague shadow in the distance. The vultures however came in big groups and were ready an hour before the party started, armed with forks and knives. What do you mean, conditioned? Every day groups of people came to watch this. Although most of them were staring at us, which was not quite relaxed. A group of nuns were the worst of all. They started throwing stones at the vultures because “it is so nice to see them fly!” I went to ask them if they were aware that vultures are also created by God…

And with that we finished a very interesting and beautiful trip in Ethiopia. I would most definitely want to return to the country. The south is swarming with the most bizarre nilotic tribes. I thought it was a bit of a circus there, but now I know the circus can be avoided. So sometime this story will be continued…

Our special thanks go to Miki, a great person and friend of children with a great sense of humor and big fan of Manchester United. For all of us the goodbye at the airport was quite emotional – Thanks a lot Miki. You are a good friend and we definitely will see each other again!


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