20.04.23 (on our way)
Today we were flying from Heathrow Terminal 2 to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa on a late 9.30 pm flight so for once we could afford to wake at a reasonable hour and complete any necessary preparations for departing at our leisure. We prefer to be at the airport early when catching a flight, especially when the journey entails the M25 and London traffic, so after having a substantial lunch (to charge the batteries) and afterward watching ‘Bargain Hunt’ on the TV we set off.
We needn’t have worried as in just under two hours we were parked in the King William pub in Sipson, just 2.8 miles from Short Stay car park next to the terminal. In the past, we have used this pub to while away an hour or so, safe in the knowledge that we are just 8 minutes away from the airport. The last time we did this the Village was littered with signs protesting ‘No Third Runway!’ as if it had been given the go-ahead, Sipson would have been no more and now lie underneath tons of very flat concrete. Luckily for the residents and us, the decision went against the planners and we wasted a couple of hours having drinks watching IPL cricket on a large screen TV.
By 5.30 pm we had left the car in ‘Meet and Greet’ and were in a very long queue shuffling towards check-in and dropping off our suitcases. By 6.30 pm we had navigated enhanced security and were sat in departures with a £4.99 ‘Meal Deal’ waiting for our gate to be displayed. In readiness for new measures, Security was testing a new biometric scanning system for some travelers and I was unlucky enough to be selected as one of the guinea pigs. It entailed having a full body scan, and then a scan of the hands and feet on separate machines, followed by a manual body search and wand search to check if the machines had operated properly. It did delay my progress but if the system is implemented it should mean that bags shoes belts coats, liquids, electrical items, etc. won’t have to be separated and placed in a tray and scanned.
Our packed flight left on time and the seven-hour forty-five-minute flight went reasonably well. Food and drinks were tasty and plentiful and the seats allowed a modicum of sleep. We both manage to watch one film and I had a lengthy conversation with a gentleman from Eritrea who sat next to me. He was returning home briefly to his wife and four children after working in London.
21.04.23 (6.30 am, Addis Ababa)
It was misty as we landed, the surrounding city was cloaked in whisps of early morning cloud. The aircraft had been uncomfortably warm and it was nice to step into the cool fresh air. Despite another long snaking queue to get through Immigration Control, we moved quickly and we were soon facing an officer with passports and troublesome Ethiopean Visas. I was quite prepared for our visas to be rejected and for ourselves to be placed on the next plane home, but to our relief, the paperwork was approved and stamped and we made our way to baggage reclaim to discover our suitcases already there.
Exiting the building we were immediately met by a young man holding a sign identifying our group. We were the first, but soon afterward three other group members arrived: Pat, Carol, and Kim. As we boarded the minibus to take us to our hotel for the night we were informed that seven more would join us later tonight and tomorrow. The ‘Triple E Hotel and Spa’ was only a short drive away through busy city traffic and it wasn’t long before we had checked in and negotiated a city tour with the other group members.
The day was rapidly turning much warmer, after changing out of our travel clothes we met up with the group at 10 am in the hotel foyer. Boarding the minibus we set off through frenetic traffic to the National Museum of Ethiopia. The museum was founded in 1944 and its collection was formed during the 20th century, mainly based on artifacts from northern Israel and Eritrea, most of which were discovered by French archaeologists. The museum’s most famous exhibit is a model of “Lucy“, a fossilised skeleton of a hominid about 3.2 million years old and belonging to the species Australopithecus Australopithecus afarensis. The skeleton, about one meter high and weighing an estimated 30 kg, was discovered on November 24, 1974, at an archaeological site located in the valley of the lower Awash River. The displays are exhibited over four floors and are well described, our guide was very knowledgeable and contributed usefully to our understanding as we wandered from artifact to artifact. The building was originally a palace belonging to Emperor Haile Selassie, who after visiting Europe, changed its use into developing the education of the population.
The next stop was at a small city restaurant where we had a meal and refreshments. I chose an authentic Ethiopian breakfast dish called Firfir. It was delicious and very filling, I washed it down with an acceptable Ethiopian beer.
We moved on to take in the sights of Unity Park located on the premises of the Grand Palace. It is a very beautiful 40 acres of peaceful flower gardens. The lake has a stunning backdrop of the skyline of modern Addis Ababa. The park is well-used by the locals and we spotted several wedding parties posing for photographs to add to their wedding day collection. The security to get into the park is very stiff, probably because the Prime Minister’s palace is part of the grounds and we were searched and our cameras temporarily confusingly confiscated, yet we were allowed to keep our phones. It’s well worth a visit.
The next stop was to visit the city’s huge and famous market area, though unfortunately, this was Ramadan and the market is closed in the afternoons. However, we did stop for a short, threatening to walk through the recycling area of the market. Here, every type of thrown-away rubbish is further broken down and made use of. The streets and sidewalk were full of men of all ages either sitting or engaged in the business of recycling and many of them were hostile to a small group of European tourists with cameras and shouted or gestured for us to go away. We complied with their wishes and reboarded our bus.
Returning to the hotel, Sue and I topped up our batteries with an hour of sleep, before changing for an excellent evening meal in the hotel restaurant. Tomorrow we fly again to Lalibel, also known as the ‘New Jerusalem’ for its renowned rock-hewn churches.
We had a disturbed night’s sleep. There was no aircon unit in the room, but with Addis Ababa being at an elevation of 2600 metres above sea level we thought mistakenly there was no danger of being bitten by mosquitoes, especially as we were on the third floor and there were no tell-tale signs of little spots of dried blood from squished bugs on the pristine white walls. We opened the window to cool down the room. I was awoken at 2.30 am by the high-pitched whir of a thirsty mozzy. After lights on and a search of the room, five of the biting devils met their fate with a well-aimed thrown hand towel. Half an hour later, two more bit the wall, and again two more half an hour later, but unfortunately one was splattered feeding on Sue’s arm.
We managed some sleep until 6.30 am when the crash of thunder and the din of a torrential downpour hammering on the tin roofs of the surrounding shacks woke us. We were showered (ironic) and enjoying an eclectic breakfast by 7.30 am.
Three new members of our party arrived at around 2 am and we met them in the hotel foyer at 9 am before boarding the bus to the airport. They were American, another couple from the USA had missed one of their connections and we were to meet them at the airport, which we duly did.
Security everywhere in Ethiopia is very strict and I fell foul of their regulations at the airport. Everything is scanned upon entering the building and then again after check-in. During the first scan, I was pulled out of the queue to open my suitcase, as one other in our group also was, we had sinned having binoculars in our suitcases. The authorities are very wary that they might be used to monitor their military installations or government buildings. It seemed I needed a permit. After a while and a little discussion on the phone with a supervisor, we were waved through with the binoculars relocated to my rucksack and without a permit, only to fall foul at the second scan. Again I was pulled out of the line to show the binoculars, and again, after another phone call, I was waved through.
The rest of the journey to the aircraft went without incident. Despite our worries about the early morning storm causing turbulence, the one-hour turbo-prop flight to Lalibela left just 20 minutes late and went surprisingly smoothly. We were even provided with a sandwich and drink during the flight.
Our guide was born in Lalibela and was greeted enthusiastically by many of the airport staff as we entered the small airport terminal to collect our suitcases. Boarding our transit mini-bus we left the airport along a pot-holed dirt road until eventually reaching a tarmac surface. The 20 km journey entailed dodging numerous groups of locals shepherding small flocks of goats, donkeys, or oxen presumably to market as this was a Saturday and set aside for that purpose.
Our hotel the Panoramic View Hotel was located off the main thoroughfare on the edge of Lalibela down a rutted lane, which the mini-bus bottomed on as we turned into the small parking area in front of the hotel. After check-in, we discovered that the view from our room and balcony had stunning views of the valley towards the distant arid mountains. Quickly changing into something cooler we made our way down into the hotel restaurant for a very Ethiopian lunch.
Boarding the bus again, we made the short journey through the very busy town to visit the first two ancient rock-hewn churches that we have come all this way to see built by King Lalibela over 900 years ago and still used today. Biete Medhane Alem and Biete Maryam
They were carved from a volcanic rock hill and as a testament to the hardness of the rock, despite 9 centuries of wear, they show little erosion. The structures are protected today by a roof that efficiently wards off the harsh elements in this part of the country. We circumnavigated the larger Biete Medhane Alem church, taking photos and listening to its history from our well-informed guide. Taking off our footwear we proceeded into its dim interior.
The church is still used frequently by locals and tourists alike and is carpeted and contains benches and wall hangings. Again we listened to our guide describe how the building was used in the act of worship. We were informed that the most important artifact in the church was a gold cross, usually kept locked away and out of sight, but was taken out to be seen once a week on a Sunday. We shall return tomorrow to view its magnificence.
Leaving the churches we stopped awhile in the square outside to listen to some rustic Ethiopean music blast out from a large speaker set high in the branches of a tree. The music is played on an instrument that has just one string and sounded very similar to that heard during Chinese folk concerts on past holidays.
Returning to the hotel, we met as a group for the evening meal (same menu as lunch) before we all retired to our rooms and had a fairly early night.
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