Lalibela to Gondor then onto Bahir Dar and a cruise on Lake Tana

(23.04.23)

Today did not start well for me, it should have been a day of visiting the northwestern cluster of rock-hewn churches, with an early impromptu visit to the church of yesterday to be blessed by its holy golden cross. However, I woke feeling ill and chose to sleep it off at the hotel. I suspected mild food poisoning from the fish of last night’s meal and it proved so. Sue left me sleeping and joined the group.

Because it was a Sunday the church was very busy with services, christening, and a wedding taking place all at the same time in different sections of the building. Ironically the couple being married were on the same flight from Heathrow as ourselves. The priest brought out the Holy Cross to bless in a very moving ceremony those in the congregation and those in our group that wished. On each blessing, the cross was passed over every part of the body, much as airport security does with their wand.

The group returned to the hotel for lunch and Sue popped into our room to check on me. I was feeling better but not well enough to travel by minibus to the Southeastern cluster of churches along very bumpy roads, so remained in bed.

The group visited the churches of Biete Gabriel-Rafael, Biete Merkorios, Biete Amanuel, Biete Abba Libanos, and the most famous of all Biete Giyorgis, a huge monolith in the shape of a cross. Some of the churches were entered via a series of long and dark tunnels. Sue reported that it was a very thought-provoking day.

They finished the day’s activity with a traditional Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony with a local family in one of the town’s coffee houses. It involved three cups, the first one is for pleasure, the second to provoke contemplation, and the third as a blessing to all drinkers.

When they returned I was feeling a lot better but chose to miss the evening meal and remain in bed

(24.04.23)

We were awake before 6 am and Sue was in breakfast for 6. 15 am, I chose to skip breakfast but had a coffee and collected some plain bread from the hotel kitchen to eat at lunchtime. We were on the road at 7.20 am bouncing along a road that for the most part was a reasonable surface, but when it wasn’t we could easily have broken an axle if the driver got it wrong. The main worry was random groups of unaccompanied goats and donkeys who seemed to be hell-bent on going somewhere and preferred the pot-holed road to the safer surrounding countryside to get there.

Every kilometre of the journey was fascinating, full of variety, and gave a great insight into the lives of the people. We saw children in blue or green outfits going to school, hundreds of piles of eucalyptus poles used for house building stacked alongside the road along with their vendors and villages with simple mud-walled housing with corrugated tin roofs. We saw people dressed in their finery walking to church and soldiers, lots of soldiers! This had recently been a war zone and every so often we would come across a checkpoint. So far, we have just slowed down and been waved through, but what was more concerning was the number of locals who carried rifles, the type used in combat and not hunting trips.

One memory that will last, was when descending into a valley we came across a large number of people mostly dressed in white, circling and marching, and some on horseback. Guns were being fired randomly in the air and one on horseback shouted slogans to which the crowd responded in kind. We stopped and our guide asked permission for us to go closer and take photos. This was a funeral for two young soldiers from the area that had been killed in the war with the rebels in the north of the country. There was a platoon of soldiers marching briskly alongside those on horseback and the mourners on foot. Despite the ferocity of the chanting and the regular crescendos of gunfire, people smiled and ushered us forward to the very front to get a good view. Those around us found our small party more fascinating than the ceremony and immediately crowded around to get a good view of the foreigners. On one lap of marching, I must have caught the eye of the platoon leader who rifle in hand marched up to me and began to shout at me in Ethiopian, then breaking into halting English it dawned on me that he was asking for my/our help, I nodded and instantly wished I could have responded with a way that I could, but I had not a clue what he wanted help with. It was later, on the walk back to the bus when we stopped to talk to a young 18-year-old soldier (he joined at 16 yrs) and were again surrounded by a large number of inquisitive locals that our guide explained.

When the whole country was at war with the rebels these young soldiers were sent to fight and die for their country, but now the rebels had been pushed back to small parts of the north, the government see these (surplus) soldiers as potentially dangerous and want to disarm them. The government’s solution is to secretly sponsor the rebels in the north and send these (surplus) soldiers to fight and die. The platoon leader was pleading with us to make this known and stop it. I truly feel for this emotional and desperate man, from what we have witnessed in just these few days, yes, there are too many guns in the country but this is a crazy and inhumane way of achieving that.

As is the norm for such long trips, stops for drinks, lunch, and photographs from spectacular viewpoints came along regularly until at last, early evening, we arrived at our hotel AG Gondar in the noisy center of Gondar. It had been a long and fascinating day, but tiring, so after the evening meal it was off to bed.

(25.04.23)

Sue slept well, I did not. Somewhere in the streets below, there was a party or a night club which blasted out rhythmic Ethiopean music until 2.55 am, vibrating our room which even ear plugs could not lessen. Then, at 4.45 am next door put on their TV which the paper-thin dividing walls treated as an external speaker. How  Sue could sleep through this was a mystery to me. Speaking to another couple in our party who had the same issue, we concluded that it must be a gender-specific thing, the husband got no sleep, while his wife was oblivious to the racket.

After breakfast, the group traveled a short distance to Gondar Castle, the city is known as the ‘Camelot of Africa’ and was once the capital for many centuries. We were conducted by a very knowledgeable castle guide around the various palaces and rooms within its wall. It had been used in later years as a military base by the Italians and parts of it were destroyed by the British under General Napier when we attacked them.

I wondered whether the Author Tolkien had ever visited this place and created the city of Gondar within the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy through its influence. The battlements and palaces within, certainly resemble those of the film.

The rest of the day began with a fairly long drive taking us through the now-familiar rural villages, offering more insights into the Amhara region’s culture and agricultural methods. The pole-built, tin-roofed, square housing was often accompanied by, or surrounded by the more traditional small, circular, thatched-roofed structures that I guess were just for sleeping or storage. Everywhere are goats, oxen, donkeys, and some horses, all accepting the will of their owners and docilely occupied with the business of working or looking for food, with or without nearby owners. I am constantly fascinated by these lone creatures ambling off on some task, laden with sacks, or standing nonchalantly waiting patiently for something to do. These are not animals that are mistreated, they seem contented with their lot.

More sinister was the increase of soldiers and checkpoints. Soi, far we had only seen the Amhara militia and they had been friendly and always waved us by, now we also met the Federal soldiers who are less friendly and much better armed with heavier caliber equipment. It soon became evident that the two armies do not like each other and there is great mistrust in their intentions.

As we neared our destination we passed over the River Nile and spotted a large group of hippos wallowing in the brown muddy waters close to the bank. We arrived around 1 pm in the modern city of Bahir Dar and had the best lunch so far of the trip in our hotel the Jacaranda Hotel. Next was a very short trip to Lake Tana where we boarded a boat for a 40-minute sail to visit the ancient island monasteries on the lake.

On disembarking at a small concrete pier, we would our way through the forest along a stone-strewn path towards the Ura Kidane Mihret and Kibran  Gabriel, significant for its spectacular paintings of religious scenes. Each one was explained as to its significance by a guide. On our return to the boat was passed by several stalls selling religious paints and trinkets that we had ignored on our earlier. We bought a painting on goat’s skin of the face of a local woman.

The afternoon was running out as we sailed back, the lake was calm and we had time to look at the various sea birds flying by, we were particularly impressed by a floating flock of pink-knecked pelicans.

Before returning to the hotel we detoured to Haile Selassi’s palace high on a hill above the city, but we were delayed by a road blocked through the construction of a new suspension bridge over the River Nile and missed the photo opportunity to snap the setting sun over the river, city and lake.

Frighteningly, we had a confrontation with the Federal army. Our driver chose to drive past the gates to the forbidden past king’s palace and was stopped by a small troop of soldiers who were not at all friendly. Thankfully, the one in charge was from the same town as our guide, and after lengthy discussions, we were eventually waved on.

Returning to the hotel we were shocked to see a heavy caliber machine gun mounted on the back of a  pick-up truck parked at the entrance with a very young Federal soldier sitting astride.  Alarmingly, inside were around fifty others queueing for a buffet meal. That evening we had a very pleasant dinner on the patio while the army ate theirs inside. Later some in our party chose to party at a local Ethiopian nightclub, but we 70-year-olds don’t do that now and went to bed.

 

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