Gondar to Axum: The 2nd Worst Bus Journey

The bus trip from Gondar to Axum was the kind of horror journey Martha Gellhorn would have appreciated.

We were up at 4:30 in the morning to get to the bus station for 5:30. Our bus route would take us North from Gondar to Shire and Shire to Axum. Axum, way up in the north of the Tigray region, was the first capital of Ethiopia. The ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s castle is there and the Ark of Covenant is allegedly hidden away in a small chapel (1).

The bus station, shrouded in darkness, was a cacophony of shuffling feet and disembodied shouting. We were directed towards a green and beige local bus with seats designed for children. It looked like it may have been one of the first school buses ever to exist. Aggressive luggage porters tugged at our bags and extracted a tidy fee to throw the bags up on to the top of the bus. We sat in the too-small, uncomfortable seats for close to an hour while the bus filled up; buses in Ethiopia don’t leave until they are full. The air was stale and smelled of khat. The man in front of us had several ropes of garlic and kept spitting on the floor. I spotted a young man bringing a live chicken on board, carrying it upside down by its feet, and more than one person had a rifle on them. Another man a few rows ahead was turned around in his seat and staring at us with wide unblinking eyes.

It was going to be a long day.

“We’re not heroic like the great travellers but all the same we amateurs are a pretty tough breed. No matter how horrendous the last journey we never give up hope for the next one, God knows why.”

– Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another

Finally, the bus was full enough and we got moving. The overflow passengers sat on buckets in the aisle. The sun rose up over the mountains as we drove away from Gondar. A man a couple rows back hummed, loudly and atonally like a wannabe Bob Dylan, the same tune for the first two hours of the journey. When the driver put the stereo on, he only got louder. The same CD played on a loop for the 10 hours it took to get from Gondar to Shire. The bus drove slowly through the mountains, carefully navigating past the usual farm animals and around switchbacks and potholes and fallen rocks. It was a beautiful road, even though the scenery was somewhat marred by the carcasses of other buses rolled over on their sides, windows blown out, in ravines beside the highway. It was dusty, hot and uncomfortable. It was impossible to sleep – the seats didn’t come up far enough to be able to rest our heads on. We didn’t stop for a break for hours; we avoided drinking any water for as long as we could and nibbled on cookies. A child soiled herself and her parents deftly cleaned her up with a scarf and dropped the mess out of the window.

The landscape began to change as we approached the Tigray region. The chiselled escarpments of the Simien range subsided into swaths of arid flatlands dotted with dusty red sandstone and limestone mountains. Camels appeared, loping along the highway and across parched fields.

We went through a military check-point when we crossed the official threshold into Tigray. Soldiers climbed on top of the bus and rifled through the luggage. Male passengers had to deboard and go into a small building to get their IDs checked. The old people, children, women and farenjis were allowed to stay on the bus. I took the opportunity to go for a swift bathroom break. There were four other farenjis on the bus; I made eye contact with the Dutch couple as they wordlessly followed me out to the side of the road. The scorching heat pressed down on us. Trash collected in the shallow ditch beside the road. Their faces mirrored my state of mind: faraway looks in their eyes, mouths set in a grim line.

As we got closer to Shire, we drove by the Mai Aini refugee camp, one of the largest refugee camps in the country that houses thousands of Eritreans. Despite the recent peace brokered between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Eritreans are in limbo and their safety, should they return to their country, is far from certain; the draconian political climate of ” repression, indefinite conscription and economic hardship”(2) remains the same. Along the flat desert highway lies evenly spaced rows of uniform buildings, with corrugated metal roofs and rocks placed on top. I could only see a handful of people. It was a glaring departure from the usual cheek by jowl, colourful and bustling Ethiopian houses.

In Shire, we were gratefully released from the bus and deposited into a dusty bus station with more shouting and corralling towards a minibus to Axum; another two hours of driving. After all that, it wasn’t even the worst bus trip we took in Ethiopia – that honour goes to the horror journey between Mekelle and Lalibela at Genna; a story for another day.

My first impression of Axum was of inviting, wide cobblestone streets lined with palm trees and sidewalk cafes. As the minibus pulled over, there was a woman standing on some concrete steps and screaming. The man she was screaming at tore off down the street. A group of men chased him, caught him and frog-marched him on the sidewalk towards wherever they were taking him. It was New Year’s Eve. We went for dinner and straight to bed.

 

 

 

 

Sources

(1) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/keepers-of-the-lost-ark-179998820/

(2) https://africanarguments.org/2019/01/15/ethiopia-border-open-why-eritrea-sudan-fleeing/ and https://www.newsdeeply.com/refugees/community/2018/08/16/fear-dampens-hope-among-eritrean-refugees-in-ethiopia

 

 

 

Simien Mountains and the Beast-Ape

Cool Facts about the Simien Mountains:

  • Also called the Roof of Africa, the highest peak is Ras Dejen at 4,533 m.
  • Simien means “north” in Amharic and “south” in Ge’ez. When Axum was the capital of Ethiopia, the range was to the south. When the capital moved and the language changed, so did the meaning of the name.
  • The range was created between 40 and 25 million years ago before the Rift Valley was a thing.
  • The majority of the Simien Mountains is the detritus of a shield volcano. Basaltic lava piled up over the existing sandstone and limestone, which was pushed up and around by volcanic activity and then eroded by the elements over time, carved out like so many marbled chess pieces.
  • Wildlife found in the Ethiopian highlands: Abyssinian wolf, Walia ibex, gelada or bleeding-heart monkey, and lots of terrifying, prehistoric-looking birds: giant pied crows, thick-billed ravens and creepy vultures.
  • Gelada monkeys only live in the Simien mountains. Often called baboons (but aren’t), they are the only living members of the genus Theropithecus, which comes from the Greek: beast-ape.
simien mountain park ethiopia
Simien Mountain escarpment

We hired a 4×4 jeep and a driver from our hotel for an excursion into the Simien Mountains. I have an injured knee, wonky arthritic joints and I don’t like hiking, so it was only a day trip for us. My joints were already in a state from being crammed on buses for so many hours, but I hoped a little bit of a nature walk might do me some good.

donkeys carrying wood on the way to market from Gondar

Bright and early in the morning, again, we set out in the jeep. It was Market Day so there were loads of donkeys plodding along, weighted down with all manner of things: teff, wood, huge sacks of grain and sugar cane. Getting out of Gondar was an obstacle course of donkeys, pedestrians, potholes, vans and trucks and cars and bajajs.

We stopped along the way a couple of times to take pictures and each time, children ran up to ask for money and say hi to the faranjis. Our driver made fun of me for being wrapped up in a hoodie and scarf, even though I’m Canadian and no one else was cold and it’s Sub-Saharan Africa. What can I say? I’m a bad Canadian.

It was a three-hour drive to Debark, where we paid the entrance fee and picked up a guide and a scout. The guide was young and brimming with energy. We learned later that it was his first day. The scout was our protective detail. He sat in the back of the jeep, rifle slung across his lap, chewing khat. The three men filled the jeep with chatter. Road conditions declined considerably when we entered the park; our driver called it the “African massage”.

Once in the park, we were dropped off to walk for a couple of hours along the table top of the escarpment, winding through the alpine forest, and looking out into the valley of dusty taupe and muted greens and blues. Bumblebees like tiny fuzzy 747s zoomed around in Acacia trees. White Abyssinian wild roses and indigo globe thistles were in full bloom. The scout walked behind us, and I spent all day trying to figure out a way to lose him so I could go pee in the bushes. In the end, I was in such a rush, I nearly sat down in a bramble of thistles. Do not recommend.

simien mountain valley vista
Simien valley

Gelada monkeys are the only monkeys I’ve ever met that aren’t jerks. We found two troupes and each time, they completely ignored us. They busied themselves, grunting and squealing, with digging around in and eating grass. They have little leathery faces, shaggy red-gold hair and diamond-shaped bald patches on their chests. For males, the patch denotes where they are in the pecking order with the alphas having bright red patches and low-status boys with light pink patches. In the females, the shade of red indicates where they are in their estrus cycle. The full-grown males looked like miniature lions.

After lunch, we went for a quick walk to a waterfall, down a rolling hill and over a terribly narrow stone bridge. We emerged into a little clearing on the lip of a bowl-shaped section of the scarp that looked like it had been scooped out with an ice cream scooper. A skinny waterfall shot out from the opposite side, glittering with rainbow spumes. A huge thick-billed raven waddled out from the underbrush and just about scared the pants off me. Aptly named, it had a tremendous beak, shiny obsidian feathers and a white patch on the back of its head. It shuffled around, found a good spot and then launched itself into the caldera, gliding in wide, lazy circles with the vultures, all dark smudges against the rock face.

thick-billed raven about to take flight off cliff side with waterfall in the background
“Nevermore”

two women posing with simien mountain valley in background

The Camelot of Africa

North of Bahir Dar at over 2000 meters above sea level, Gondar is the next stop on the historical circuit and the gateway to the Simien Mountains. According to Google Maps, it’s about a three-hour drive from Bahir Dar. Naturally, it took us over six hours by minibus. During which someone ate and threw up a bunch of bananas and a jerrycan of petrol spilled all over the back seats. It was one of the better bus journeys we had in Ethiopia.

The historical crux of Gondar is Fasil Ghebbi, the so-called Camelot of Africa, a walled-off compound of royal ruins that would not look out of place on a movie set or rolling European countryside. The wall is 900-metres long and contains the well-preserved outer structures of palaces, a banquet hall, a library, churches, lion cages and other ancillary royal buildings. The construction of which was heavily influenced by the Portuguese, who were hanging around Ethiopia at the time. One of the most delightful things about travelling through Ethiopia is that each place is completely different from the one before and it’s always a surprise.

Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia from 1636 to 1855 and home to a series of Solomonic Emperors and one Empress from Fasilides to Iyasu II. The Solomonic dynasty traces its ancestry back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. The dynasty ruled Ethiopia from 1270 until 1974 when Haile Selassie was deposed during a coup d’etat.

African camelot
Fasilides was Emperor from 1632 to 1667. He came to Gondar in 1636 and at first, camped underneath a sprawling tree while he scouted the area for the best spot to build his castle. He built his castle, established Gondar as the capital, and also started the construction of lots of churches; eventually, there would be forty-four churches in Gondar.

 

fasilides castle
Fasilides’ Castle

 

empress mentewab castle.jpg
Empress Mentewab’s castle. Mentewab was Queen regent for 30 years. She was crowned co-rulers with her young son Isayu II after her husband died in 1730. Our guide told us that she was shunned by the rest of the royal family for her “common” lineage and suspected Roman Catholic leanings. Also, he said, she did a lot to support and foster the education of Ethiopian women. She was one of the most powerful women in Ethiopian history.

 

old lion cages
Cages for the royal pet lions

 

church saved by bees
In 1888, the Sudanese army invaded the city and burned all of the churches in Gondar except for this one. Local lore holds that a colony of angry bees protected the church and warded off the marauders.

 

fasilides bath
Fasilides’ Bath. During Timkat (January 19th), it’s filled up with water and people jump into the pool in their clothes, to celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river.

 

banyan trees
Banyan trees invading Fasilides’ Bath

 

After a few hours of wandering around Fasil Ghebbi, taking a quick bajaj ride to Fasilides’ Bath and so much information pouring out of the guide that I couldn’t possibly absorb it all, we were done with the educational part of our day. We went for lunch at an open-air restaurant next to the tree that Fasilides used as a camp when he first arrived in Gonder. The guide had told us that the tree was used to hold court proceedings and convicted criminals were hung from its branches. Now, the tree provides dappled shade and a quiet place to sit.

gondar court tree
Law & Order Tree

 

 

Lost Luggage & The Missing Links

The Vancouver airport was seasonally festive. A man dressed as Santa was driven around in an airport trolley by a woman in an elf costume. He ho-ho-ho’ed at all the travellers, stopping for photos and hugging the children. A woman stood in front of a microphone crooning Christmas tunes. Most people were going to spend the holidays with family. Some were probably escaping the celebrations to go and relax on a beach somewhere, perhaps Hawaii or Mexico. I was going to spend three weeks in Ethiopia with my friend Kate. We were trading in our version of Christmas for Ethiopian Ganna. Leaving the cold and dark of the North for the sun and warmth of sub-Saharan Africa.

It is a very long flight from Vancouver to Addis Ababa. The first leg of the journey, Vancouver to Frankfurt, arches up and over the Arctic circle to reach Europe. During car trips through the Rocky Mountains when I was a child, I would imagine that I was a giant and I was running atop the mountain peaks alongside the car. I still do that on airplanes. I imagine that I’m running through British Columbia right up to the edge of the Northwest Territories; taking a big flying leap off the coast of Greenland to the shores of Norway; playing hopscotch over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

I arrived at the Addis Ababa airport late at night, a full 24 hours after I’d left Vancouver,  exhausted, discombobulated, excited. Stepping into the chaos of the arrivals hall felt like an odd sort of homecoming. The ghosts of trips past floated through my mind. Outside the airport doors, people were shivering and wearing bulky coats. It was a pleasantly cool evening, for someone who’d come from the city of freezing rain. The air was dry and heavy with dust.

Kate arrived early the next morning. Her luggage did not arrive with her. Another casualty of Ethiopian Airlines. They encourage you to fly into the country on Ethiopian Airlines with a substantial discount on domestic flights once you’re there. But they often lose your luggage. They assured her it would come in on the next flight.

Our hotel was in Bole, an affluent neighbourhood of Addis next to the airport; we could see the airport from one window of our room. A small children’s carnival twirled and twittered from another window. The first item on our agenda was to go see Lucy the Missing Link at the National Museum of Ethiopia. The city was overwhelming at first. It was hot and teeming with people and noise. I’d forgotten what it was like being in a place where you stick out from the crowd and attract a lot of stares and comments and attention. It reminded me of India: a kaleidoscope of humanity, loud and vibrant.

Mini carnival in Bole, Addis Ababa
Mini carnival in Bole, Addis Ababa

 

The National Museum of Ethiopia is quite unassuming for a place that houses the fossils of human ancestry. The basement, where the Lucy replicas are displayed, is dim and dusty and has a chill in the air. There are a collection of glass cases with various animal fossils, like pigs, monkeys, horses, rhinos and giraffes. Some of complete skulls or skeletons but most are just pieces, fragments of skulls, femurs and teeth. The detritus of millennia.

Lucy is presented with little fanfare, another glass case of fragments like all the others. There are two replicas: an upright completed skeleton in one case and another, replicas of the 40% of the skeleton that was recovered, lying there like an unfinished puzzle. The real fossils are safely tucked away in the recesses of the museum.

Lucy, so named for the song ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ that was playing in the camp during the dig, is also called Dinkinesh which means “you are marvellous” in Amharic. She was found in 1974 in the Awash Valley in the Afar Triangle, part of the Great Rift Valley in northern Ethiopia. The Afar Triangle is where the earliest hominin fossils were found, known as the cradle of human evolution. Lucy is 3.2 million years old, belonging to the species Australopithecus afarensis and one of the oldest known ancestors of the human species. There is evidence that she walked upright on her two feet; possibly, she lived in the trees. She is small, the size of a young child, and in the upright replica, her face is lifted upwards, as though when she died, she was looking up at the stars.

Standing Lucy skeleton in the National Museum of Ethiopia
Standing Lucy skeleton display in the National Museum of Ethiopia in Addis

There are other hominin fossils that I hadn’t heard of before. Selam (peace in Amharic), also called “Lucy’s baby” or “the first child”, is a three-year-old girl hominin of the species Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in the Afar Depression, a few miles from where Lucy was found. She is 3.3 million years old, older than Lucy.

And there is Ardi, of the species Ardipithecus ramidus; another tiny human-ish female. She is 4.4 million years old and was also found in the Awash Valley. She was found in 1994, but her significance wasn’t revealed in scientific literature until 2009. Her remains suggest that humans underwent another evolutionary stage more than a million years before Lucy existed. There is evidence that she was both bipedal and quadrupedal when in the trees. I don’t know much about archeology, but it’s interesting that Lucy is still the main evolutionary celebrity when Ardi and Selam are also clearly important links in our history.

*

The following day, when repeated phone calls to the lost luggage department of the airport proved to be fruitless, we went back to the airport to see if Kate would have more luck in person. Much easier than anticipated, we snaked through the airport into the baggage claim unnoticed. Kate’s bag was lying on the floor next to a pile of other person-less luggage. She picked up her bag, looked around to see if anyone would object or comment, and when no one did, we walked back out of the airport and into the chaos.