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Africa » Ethiopia » Amhara Region » Simien Mountains
December 29th 2009
Published: December 29th 2009
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Nice bloke and turned out to be one of the main men. It would have been nice if I knew more Amharic than 'hello, thanks and coffee'
I don't know when I will be able to upload this post. We are currently in Debark in the Simien Highlands of Ethiopia and I am writing this on Boxing Day. There are internet cafes around but the few that have actually been located are well closed. I don't hold out a lot of hope of finding one this afternoon and, truth be known, I won't get this completed in time to upload today anyway.

No photos again. Connection just can't handle it I am afraid. A pity because some of these are ok I think.

A small apology. There are those, I believe, who find that I sometimes - perhaps all of the time - write more than can easily be read quickly at work when they are really being paid to do other things. So for you I will try to provide a precis at the beginning of each post. That way you can see what is covered, have a quick look at the photos, if I have been able to get them on, and then return at your leisure to read whatever you wish. I will try, however, to continue to write a reasonable account of what we have been doing to meet the other important goal of this blog, insurance against forgetfulness on our part.

This post: takes us out of Sudan, mentioning in passing the Blue Nile Sailing Club Camp Ground and its attitude to women; the Sufi Mosque in Khartoum (where we are assured that the whirling dervishes actually originated); the run into Ethiopia and the dramatic change in landscape as you head for and then cross the border; Gondar, a previous capital of Ethiopia; the magnificent Simien Highlands, baboons and balloons; and Christmas Day. OK, now back to work those of you with paid work.

The Blue Nile Sailing Club Camp Ground in Khartoum deserves a special mention. They provide a service. There is a patch of green grass and parking for vehicles. There is a little shop that dispenses soft drinks and some snack type items. You can hang your clothes on a line and change money, if you can find the 'man'. But as for toilets and showers, well there the service is hopeless. There are toilets, 2 for men and 1 for women - they don't need to go as often I suppose. There are showers in
One or Two SpinnersOne or Two SpinnersOne or Two Spinners

Better on video. Very impressive. If all church services were like this there would be more smiles
the toilet room, again 2 for men and 1 for women but whether they work or not, well that is problematic. The women found this difficult to cope with, particularly when the women's toilet and shower became blocked and remained blocked for more than 24 hours. My little sister is a very nice person but she has been known to stand up for herself on occasion. So she fronted the man in charge. He tried to fob her off. Up him again did she go. On an ordinary person it would have worked. Not here though. When we finally left the place the shower was still not working (and my sister was not the only one who asked for something to be done about the shower).

You will all probably have heard of the whirling dervishes and seen the images of men in long, normally white robes/dresses often with a fez on their head spinning wildly. The practice, as far as I know, originated in the methods of religious observance of the Sufi Moslems in the Sudan. On Friday a week ago we went to the Sufi Mosque in Khartoum to see the real thing. A crowd had gathered
More happy MenMore happy MenMore happy Men

Women don't get a look in.
near the Mosque with a smattering of foreign tourists, what seemed to be quite a lot of local tourists and what turned out to be a majority of Sufi adherents. All wandered about drinking tea and waiting, most of us with little idea of what would happen except than some men were likely to spin about.

Prior to things getting really mobile we experienced one of the only incidents of aggravation I have seen in our travels. A bloke walked up and stood in the middle of a group of us. The bloke carried on like a prawn for a while making a nuisance of himself and embarrassing many of the locals. He clearly did not want us there. Just as clearly, most others did. It was as silly as tipping out cups of tea that some had bought, grabbing and throwing change on the ground and generally carrying on. The locals called the police who dealt with him swiftly. The tea seller made a special point of coming over to the person who had paid for the tea and gave him back his money - which was promptly used to purchase more tea. And then, a little later, a couple of what turned out to be pretty senior men wandered around to some of us to have a chat and generally make us welcome, never once mentioning the mad bloke.

The celebration that took place could not be less like the images I have seen of whirling dervishes. The dancing and chanting we were told is actually the method used by the Sufi to give glory to God. And do they get into it. There was some whirling but frankly it was not the major part of the exercise. It all lasted for about and hour and a half. There is no way that I could describe it adequately. There are those who were clearly leaders or at least men of importance and seniority, others took a leadership role in the actual ceremony and there was a high level of participation by individuals. As the dancing progressed men would move in, dance for a while and then drop out, placing money in the hat as they did so. After a while, things became a little more organised and a large circle was formed. Chants were used to build up speed and then to back things off a little. Marshalls kept the circle in place continually pushing people back and, on one occasion at least, moving men to get them to stand in front of women. The overwhelming feeling of the occasion was one of joy and happiness. You might even have said they were a little like happy clappers but that would demean them I believe. And there was no suggestion of a charge or a request for donations. Amazing and exhilarating!

The run out of Sudan took us east and a little south but not into Darfur. The country changed from the standard high level of fertility along the river with sand taking over pretty quickly outside the river zone into increasingly large scale farming on land that clearly receives reasonable rainfall.As we moved closer to the Ethiopian border we passed through what appeared to be large, commercial grain farms with villages dotted among the fields. The scale was impressive as was some of the machinery used, although there was still plenty of work for the donkeys.

Into Ethiopia and it all changes. There are rivers here that are not the Nile. Increasingly fertile land that is farmed ever more intensively. We moved up into more mountainous areas and, while the road is pretty new and therefore pretty good, we wound up and around hills and mountains to get to Gondar, about 130 km from the border and at 2344 metres above sea level - I can be this precise because my Etrex is working like a charm (thanks again for that).

The hotel in Gondar - the Hotel Goha - is on the top of a hill overlooking the town. It is well and truly the flashest hotel that we have stayed at in Africa. Still had to wait until after 6 in the evening to get hot water and even then it was iffy but the place is well set up in a beautiful location and is prety well, if differently, run. Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia for many hundreds of years and there is a castle complex there which was constructed over time by a run of kings who reigned through pretty much until the mid 19th century. These kings are believed to have been the direct descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The last of the line to rule, of course, was Haile Selassie but
Mountains Mountains Mountains

The first for a while
by his time they were running the place from Addis Ababa. The castles were not as over the top as others we have seen but I am prepared to punt that these kings took plenty from their subjects.

Gondar is also the site of the Dashen Brewery. This is a major, modern and very important establishment. Ethiopia is a Christian country and abstinence is not the go here. We have sampled the local brew and its competitor. None mentioned that we have come to a consensus that the competitor, St George, shades Dashen a little while we were consuming the freebies at the end of our tour.

The Simien Highlands was always going to be a highlight of this particular trip. It lives up to the billing. The mountains and valleys are what takes your breath away but the people who live up there are up there with their environment in the impressive stakes for my money. Every square inch of the highlands and the area that sits officially outside the park is cultivated. This is not done with tractors or other machinery. Donkeys, horses and people do the work. Lines of men on their haunches with sickles cutting acres and acres of barley. Lines of horses carrying packs of gear up the mountain roads servicing the villages, farms, the national park and the tourist enterprises. Bullocks threshing barley and the ever present donkeys doing everything else. The people here are incredibly industrious but, even so, are clearly quite a bit poorer than their cousins in the cities.

As for the mountains, well technically I suppose they are not really mountains as such. It is a highland - a very high highland - that has been very deeply scarred over time by water and wind. The vegetation, where it is not being farmed for barley or chickpeas or grazed by horses, is heavily populated by low bushes that carry beautiful flowers - of which I am sure there are photos. We walked one afternoon through the mountains to a number of special view points with the perfume of fresh wild thyme the entire way.

We had a guide in the mountains and 3 scouts. The scouts all carried guns, a couple of AK47s and the other one an older lever action piece that looked like a WWII vintage. It seemed to us to be a bit
Different Country Different Country Different Country

to the desert we have been moving through for a while now
of overkill or a work creation scheme. But then you do notice that most groups of people, tourists and otherwise, generally have someone with a gun amongst them. Fences around some houses are either made with barbed wire or viciously pointed stakes. The scouts with us spoke very little English - and our Amharic is limited to 'thank you' and 'no worries' so there wasn't much communication but they did their jobs seriously. Where anyone straggled or moved away from the group to take a photo or whatever there was a scout there watching over them at all times. At night they slept in different locations around the camp and paid attention when anyone moved about. I don't think anyone ever felt that we were under any threat but perhaps there could have been something about.

For the Australians among us there was a taste of home in the highlands in the very significant plantings of eucalypts of various varieties. Tasmanian bluegums and tetradontas dominated but there were many other varieties as well. The timber is used widely in construction of what we would call 'wattle and daub' houses used by most of the population. It also provides a handy source of firewood. Some of the older trees could be over 50 years old but a lot of the plantings are much more recent. It does look as though they may have overdone it a little in some places but, overall, there are not too many decent sized trees in the highlands and any source of timber is clearly welcome.

Camping out at 3300 metres caused some problems for some of the group who found the altitude a little difficult to cope with but most were fine after getting used to the thin air. The place where we camped was a location that you would really need to see. Perched on an area of flat-ish ground with deep valleys on all sides, with million dollar views. Pied crows, eagles and vey large big billed ravens seeking out food around the camp. It was pretty special. But cold. Bloody cold. One of the women in the camp has a thermometer and it showed 3 degrees early in the night. She refused to look at it again. We may upgrade the sleeping bags one of these days although I must say that we were nice and warm with our current
Beer!Beer!Beer!

After the Sudanese drought
bags, a couple of blankets, long johns, thermals etc.

On Christmas Day some of us climbed the second highest peak in Ethiopia, Mt Bwait, a height of 4430 metres. It did take a while. The altitude issues kicked in for people at different times. It wasn't a difficult climb, more a very steep walk really, but you did need to pull up and take some deep breaths pretty frequently. It was also cold and there was a pretty reasonable wind blowing that made it difficult. It was a lot quicker and easier on the way down.

On the way there and back we spotted a walia ibex and her offspring and many galada baboons. The baboons don't mind tourists but are very wary of the locals who apparently tend to throw rocks at them to chase them out of their crops. You can see why. They travel in large groups, up to a hundred or so, and are pretty savage grazers ripping out plants by the roots by the handful.

Christmas lunch was a special occasion. Half a sheep was barbecued, a wide variety of vegetables were prepared and a cake cooked to Mum's recipe for boiled fruit cake was consumed. Not much alcohol was consumed though. It was too cold. Many would have liked the opportunity to call home but there were simply no phones in the mountains. Our thoughts and best wishes were with all of our family and friends.

From here we head north some kilometres to Aksum which is close to the Eritrean border and is the place from which the Aksumite Empire operated in the later BCs and the early ADs.





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it looked for a while as if we needed another vehicle


29th December 2009

Merry Christmas!
Sounds like a nice Christmas day. We had a lazy brunch with far too much food, then a lazy afternoon tea with more food (with a nap in the middle). Oh, and there was pavlova, because it's not Christmas without pavlova. x
30th December 2009

Happy New Year!
Glad you had a special Christmas lunch. Sounds wonderful. I look forward to seeing your photos. We had the best Christmas present here in Canberra - rain for 60 hours straight - good soaking rain - fantastic! And go, Janet. Just goes to show - idiots are world wide!

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