“Woah!” I exclaimed as I caught site of the Blue Nile gorge far off in the distance.
I couldn’t believe it. Right off the highway was the very view that made Ethiopia’s Abyssinian highlands infamous. I had convinced my couchsurfing host, Hailu, to hitch hike with me on this camping venture organised at the couchsurfing event held two days earlier in Addis Ababa.
We’d be 13 people all up and about 10 of the group had never camped before. I love nothing more than breaking in fresh fish.
Addis Ababa (meaning, ‘New Flower’) is a huge, sprawled-out city, the third highest capital city in the world sitting at 2,400 meters above the sea. To reach the outskirts of it for a good hitch hiking corner would not be easy without a few city buses involved.
Ethiopia is unlike any of the 12 African countries I’ve been to. First of all, it’s the only country on the continent that was never colonised (the Italians made an attempt back in the late 20s but were humiliated by the Ethiopian Army. During WWII they came back with a vengeance and mustard gas to submit defeat on the proud African nation which they occupied for five years before being expelled. Occupied – not colonised.).
The word ‘Ethiopia’ is from the ancient Greek, Athiopia, meaning, ‘Burnt Face’. The last king, Emperor Halie Salassie (assassinated in the ’74 revolution), regarded as the founding father of the Rasta movement, was claimed to be the 237th descendant of King Solomon.
Back in the day, the revered Queen Sheba had travelled to Jerusalem where Solomon welcomed her with open arms. She returned to her land having converted to Judaism and carrying one of Solomon’s many seeds, boring an Ibn-al-Malik (Son of the King) who was later named Menelik.
When he hit 22, Meneklik travelled back to Jerusalem to get to know his pops who took him in for three years and even offered him to be his direct heir and rule over the Israelites. Menelike politely refused and returned to rule his own people, supported by his father.
It was during this period that, according to legend, the Ark of the Covenant was presented as a gift to the king’s son who brought it back with him from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. To this day the Ark is supposedly locked away in the Church of St Mary Zion in the ancient capital, Axum, where no one is allowed to view it except for a handful of scholars.
Whether the room in St Mary is actually occupied by the ark or just an old box with ‘Fragile’ stamped on its side is something we might never know in our lifetime. Indeed, Ethiopia’s ancient history is one of the least known about. There are more new archaeology sites being discovered than there are studies of the current ones.
Addis is highly polluted and full of beggars with various deformities. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of limbs protruding in unnatural directions. Or lepers begging with fingerless hands.
There were worse but why ruin the surprise for you?
But I find Ethiopia to be a land of irony. It’s a Greek orthodox religious country. Church songs are not allowed to be played on modern instruments (like the electric guitar or piano) yet they are blasted over the radio. The majority of the old generation believe that everything was created 5,000 years ago (as the Good Book dictates) but it was here that the oldest fossils traced to our existence were found.
Like Lucy (named after The Beatles song, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ that was playing when the fossil was discovered in the Danakil region back in ’64) is dated back 3.8 million years while an older fossil was recently discovered, dated 4.4 million years (not sure what song was played when that one was found).
Religion dictates that we have to accept and love everyone – the rich, the poor, the weak, the disabled – everyone. Yet the streets of Addis have more beggars than I’ve seen anywhere in my African ventures.
The air outside Addis was fresh, crisp and inviting. I was bit apprehensive about hitching in Ethiopia. I’d read a few travel tales of folk that had been stoned by small children as they stood by the roadside. My method of hitching is to walk until a car stops. My theory is that a driver will have more sympathy seeing a traveller loaded with packs walking down a lonely stretch of highway, trying to wave down a vehicle.
And a moving target is harder to hit.
I didn’t know whether in Ethiopia the classic ‘thumb’s up’ would work or would it be the traditional ‘wave down’ I’ve come to adopt. I tried the thumb’s up and received, as I predicted, a thumb’s up in return by a driver.
“I guess here it’s the ‘wave down’ method too,” I grinned at Hailu.
We hiked through a small village, waving at the locals who paused their chores in the fields to stare at us. As soon as I waved they broke into smiles and waved back. A little ways past a chemical factory, which could be scented from a mile away, Abraham pulled over.
In his Nissan Patrol sat Mohammed who offered us ghat (pronounced, ‘sha-at’), the leaf that all Ethiopians chew. It raises your concentration levels and also gives you a bit of a high (after about an hour of chewing that is).
I wasn’t new to chewing. In Kenya, mira is the equivalent but instead of the leaves, they peel the stem and chew the peeled skin whilst chewing chewing gum as the taste is extremely bitter. I didn’t like it but the ghat leaves are awesome.
Hailu’s neighbour had me try it my first night at his place, in the housing commission block of Ayat, on the outskirts of Addis. The surge of energy that ghat produces gets me a bit hyper (as I discovered that Saturday night upon my arrival) so I chewed slow.
Abraham was a tour guide but today he was hired as a driver to take Mohammed and Mirku to Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake and the source of the Blue Nile.
“I can take you to the next town,” he offered when I explained that we survive without money.
As we conversed and told travel stories, cracking them up with laughter, we passed the next town and Abraham said,
“I’ve changed my mind. I’ll take you to Debre Libanos,” where the Blue Nile Gorge rests, about 110 K’s north of Addis.
The first thing that grabbed me was how the roads here were so smooth. Not a single pot hole. In Kenya and, indeed, the rest of the African nations I’ve hitched through (with the exception of Namibia and South Africa), you’d think the roads were used as artillery target practice.
But the amount of speed bumps more than made up for the lack of potholes.
At the halfway mark smoke began to pour from the hood of the car. Abraham immediately pulled over, jumped out and popped the bonnet to expose the flickering flame that had ignited right by the battery. Grabbing an old rag he put out the fire as we all evacuated the car.
The battery cables had melted, caused by bad wiring and that had created a hole in the fuel filter next to it which is what caught fire. Within an hour Abraham had rewired the cable using spare wires he had in the back and re-routed the fuel filter to go directly into the engine.
We were back on the road with our driver sustaining minor burns.
“Here,” I offered him some toothpaste to put on his injuries. “It’ll hurt but by the end of the day you’ll forget that you burned your hand.”
We arrived an hour later in the town of Debre Libanos which means, ‘Monastary’. Thanking Abraham and the crew we parted ways, the driver a little surprised that the toothpaste was working.
“Told ya,” I grinned. “Amsegnilmahu,” I attempted a ‘thank you’ (Amharic is a ridiculously tongue twisting language to wrap your tongue around).
In the 16th century the Portuguese sent 400 troops to help the Christians fight the Muslims in the war that raged between the two religions in Ethiopia. The Muslims were slaughtering Christians in a cave facing the Blue Nile Gorge.
Their bones still line the cave floor.
During their stay here, the Portuguese built a bridge to cross the Jamma River, a tributary of the Blue Nile, using ostrich egg yolk and limestone as mortar.
The bridge stands to this day, 500 years later, and is still used to cross the river, now dry due to the lack of rain.
“It is only in recent years that the river has completely dried up,” explained Yonas, one of the scouts that would accompany us. “Only when it rains does it flow.”
Taking a break to eat rice and Shiro, a hot, orange sauce traditionally Ethiopian, the ghat Mohammed had given me to chew was getting me restless. I needed to unleash some energy so I whipped out the guitar and jammed out some tunes to the amusement of the ladies serving us coffee.
The rest of the group were arriving by car and were only leaving Addis at around 15:00. Having arrived at 13:00, Hailu and I went off to explore the highlands of the gorge after our lunch. As we hiked along the cliff edge, I heard shrieking and identified the familiar sounds of baboons.
Having survived a too-close-for-comfort encounter with an alpha male baboon on Maaze island in Zambia, I was weary of these primates. We trekked a little further before I suddenly stopped. Hanging around on the cliff edge was the largest troop of baboons I had ever seen.
Geladas are a unique, endemic species found in Ethiopia’s highlands. They eat grass and are the only baboons to live on cliff sides (easier to escape predators). They’re attributed to being the species that lead to the evolution of the drills of West Africa and the Savannah baboons found throughout the rest of the sub-Sahara. The male sports a golden mane that would make any big-hair band from the 80s jealous (heck, even I was envious) and they sport a bright red heart-shaped patch in the centre of their chest to attract the female.
A slightly more welcoming sight than the swollen red arses of the Savannah females.
Geladas live in a harem-based society of up to 500 individuals and are the only mammal that aren’t on the endangered list in Ethiopia (numbers are based at over half a million nationwide). I crept up as close and as quietly as I could. It was downwind so I had the advantage even though they had seen me they seemed oblivious to my presence. To the point where the male waltzed right up behind a female and doggy-styled with her (or should I say, monkey-styled?). She seemed unmoved by his actions which lasted a few seconds.
Respecting their territory (and intimate moment) I backed off and Hailu and I returned to sit with Yonas and the other scouts watching large vultures circle overhead, as though waiting for us to drop dead.
By sunset the rest of the group finally arrived and, together with the scouts, pitched our tents on the cliff edges.Hailu headed off with the scouts to gather fire wood while I found an ideal space to put together a fire pit.
“Let’s collect some rocks to make a fire circle,” I suggested, the others pitching in. Hailu came back with the scouts, firewood and a large pot in which we boiled water for the pasta dinner. Ghat was handed out and everybody drank beer, arak and other various alcohols.
Having recently quit drinking due to health reasons (surviving on drinks in exchange for playing music can take it out on one’s system) I was happy to smoke some Shisha Mani, the awesome local ganja made famous by the Rasta town it hails from of the same name.
Just before dinner was served we witnessed the moon rising over the Abyssinian highlands. I pointed it out to the group who stood in awe. The lunar light was still a pale yellow so the Milky Way was out in full glory. Staring up at Orion’s Belt, I was the only one who saw the meteorite shoot across the night sky.
Jana, a German girl, had organised the game of Murder, which I’ve never played. My killing method was to get my victims to sing. How appropriate. Unfortunately, I was ‘murdered’ before I had even brought Ol’ Red out. Cause when I did, had I been part of the game still, it would have been a genocide and I’d have won in one fell swoop, possibly collecting a new world record.
At 2 AM I retired to my tent. I fell asleep to the laughter of hyena nearby. Suddenly, someone around the fire decided to plug in a speaker to their phone and destroyed the whole concept of camping in nature by playing loud, poppy shite into the morning.
How do folk not understand the concept of getting away? A few in the group had been on Facebook around the fire. I mean, before our very feet lay the Blue Nile Gorge and a view that not many on this planet have witnessed and these folks were scrolling their page feeds.
I’d hate to think what the next generation will be like.
The next morning I diced and mashed up some avocado and mango while Lucas chopped up some tomatoes and Jana sliced up an onion. Mixing it together with some lime juice a guacamole breakfast was served. Hailu had gone off to bring back some coffee and by mid-afternoon, under the baking hot sun, we packed up our camp and hit the road back to the hustle and bustle of Addis Abba – the rains hitting us just as we hit the city.