Sunday, February 3, 2013

Trip Report: Simien Hike

We were able to see all of the sights in Gondar in just one afternoon so the next morning we had some time to spare.  We joined our tour guide from the previous day and he got a driver to take us north of Gondar to the foothills of the Simien Mountains.  We drove a short distance (about 40 minutes), parked on the side of the road, and started hiking off into the mountains.

We totally had not expected to have this opportunity so we were really excited to be getting to do this.  We hiked for a couple of hours, taking in spectacular scenery.  The pictures are nice, but they simply don't capture the beauty that surrounded us.

We had our guide, a scout and a guard hiking along with us.  From a high vantage point they spotted gelada baboons in the distance.  We headed in that direction and would stop periodically to take photos and watch them from our improved proximity.  Then we would hike a little closer.  Abebe kept telling us we were as close as we would go.  Then he would say "okay, let's go a little closer."

There were about 30 baboons in the group that we were watching.  We were close enough to see little babies jumping around and playing, and the adults showing their patterned chests.  Eventually the baboons started to move along and so we headed back.  We hiked for about 2.5 hours altogether and had a fantastic time.  As we neared the road we were joined by several kids that tagged along, congregating around Christie and holding her hands.  We were invited into the home of a woman that lived near the road.  She gave us each a glass of an alcoholic beverage made from sorghum.  We tried to decline since we don't like alcohol and everyone assured us it had not fermented long so there wasn't much alcohol.  It sure tasted strong though and we ended up giving our nearly full glasses to our guide when it was time to leave.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Trip Report: Gondar

We awoke early and took a flight from Lalibela to Gondar, stopping briefly in Axum.  Gondar is known as the "Camelot of Africa" thanks to a conglomeration of medieval castles that resemble those of Europe.  You can see the castle theme throughout town.  Even the airport has the appearance of a castle.  When we got to our hotel it was about lunch time.  After a snack lunch, we headed out to explore the sights.  The castle complex was just a short walk from our hotel.  We paid admission and got a guide, Abebe, who was our most memorable of the trip.  He told us all about the history of Gondar and its role as the 3rd major capital of Ethiopia (after Axum and Lalibela). 

The castles were built in succession by several different rulers in the 1700s, following the style of other castles built by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries.  The complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, just like the churches of Lalibela.  The main castle is still intact and in very good condition.  Many of the other castles and buildings were bombed by Britain during World War II in an attempt to expel the Italian invaders.  There are some really neat features to the castles, including a system of guttering leading to an underground cistern and a steam house.  Other buildings on the grounds include stables and lion cages.

Our admission also included access to Fasilidas's Bath.  This is a large pool with a castle/residence in the middle.  There is some debate about the original purpose of this pool.  Our tour guide told us that it was primarily for recreation for the royal family.  Now, the pool has become the venue for an annual celebration at Timket.  Timket is the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany, the time when Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River.  Every year on January 19 hundreds of Ethiopians travel to Gondar and come to this location to witness as priests bless the water.  Then everyone jumps in for a renewal of their baptism.  We were in Gondar just 2 weeks before Timket and they were beginning to fill the pool.  It takes about a month to fill and then it is drained about a week after the Timket celebration and is dry the rest of the year.

We hopped in a bajaj and rode over to the Debre Birhan Selassie church, famous for the ceiling painted with hundreds of angels.  The church is not large, but a good percentage of the Bible is represented in paintings covering the walls inside.  Abebe showed us each paiting and explained the stories to us.  It was really great to see this in person after having seen pictures of this ceiling so many times.

We finished our sightseeing for the day and headed back to the hotel where we got to enjoy a New Years Eve party with traditional Ethiopian music and dancing.  We were sitting right in front and had a great view of the action.