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Published: March 14th 2009
The main tourist trail in Ethiopia, although not particularly well trodden, is the so called historical circuit, which consists of a loop to the north of Addis Ababa. Due to limitations in both time and enthusiasm for historical sites, we chose to carry out a truncated version of the circuit. Our first port-of-call was the town of Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana. Here we organised a boat trip, taking in some of the many monasteries populating the islands of the lake. The monasteries were adorned with some impressive, centuries old paintings and the resident monks took great pride in showing us some equally old, beautifully decorated religious texts with pages made from goat skin parchment.
Our next stop was Gonder, which has been dubbed the “African Camelot” and although the Ethiopian Tourist Board are over-egging things a little, it is home to a well preserved 17th century castle. Especially visiting on an overcast day, we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were in Africa, as it looked as though it would have been more at home in North Wales.
Our final stop on our tour of ancient Ethiopia was by far the most impressive. Lalibela
is home to eleven churches hewn out of solid rock and connected by a labyrinth of tunnels and passageways. This has to rate as one of the most impressive historical sites we have ever visited, a truly mind boggling feat of masonry. It is incredible to think that such huge, complex and ornate structures were carved out of one piece of solid rock, rather than constructed from individual bricks, especially given that they are something like a thousand years old.
Even covering this shortened version of the circuit involved a good deal of road travel, which has to be the most frustrating aspect of our visit to Ethiopia. On the few sections of sealed road, routes are plied by efficient private minibus companies. Save for the ungodly departure times (the most ridiculous we encountered being 2:30am!) these are generally excellent. As for the rest of the country, roads are bumpy gravel affairs and public buses and trucks are relied on for transport.
For some reason, presumably safety related, Ethiopian buses are forbidden to travel during the hours of darkness and therefore only operate between 6am and 6pm (that’s 12am and 12pm if you’re Ethiopian!). If the journey is
to be longer than 12 hours (which is entirely probable given average speeds of around 30 kmph!) then all the passengers alight and the bus overnights in a suitably located town en route. Frustratingly, even when covering short distances, this rule leads to nearly all buses leaving at 6am. In order to get a seat on bus (even if you’ve bought a ticket in advance) you need to arrive at the bus station before the gates open at 5am, to be able to join the scramble. In pursuit of bus seats Ethiopian’s take no prisoners, with elbows, luggage and sticks the weapons of choice. Women, children and the elderly are spared no mercy and are often the worst perpetrators. At the appointed hour of 6am, maybe forty buses all try to leave through one small gate, which needless to say takes some time.
The buses themselves are buses in the truest sense of the word, with bench seats and little in the way of comfort. Despite the stifling heat, if one thing unites the people of Ethiopia, it is a passionate hatred for having windows open on buses and for that matter anyone who dares open them. This lack
of ventilation serves to make journeys even more unpleasant, especially given that the air is often heavy with the stench of passengers whose stomachs are unaccustomed to travelling on winding mountain roads. The only saving grace of Ethiopian buses is that they are incredibly cheap, although it is still easy to see why most tourists choose to fly!
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