Awel on the roof of Africa.
Driving from Kombolcha to Gondar.
Thursday 13 April 2017
The early morning sun glints on the waters of the Borkena flowing through the Kombolcha valley. It is dawn as we set off on our journey to explore the heartland of a great African civilisation. Our Hiace minibus nudges through the bustling streets of an awakening Kombolcha. I am in a reflective mood. The night is lifting as I recall dark times from my childhood in this region of northeastern Ethiopia. Forty five years on and Kombolcha is unrecognisable.
During the famine of 1972, the Borkena river never ran dry. This water supply attracted the desperate and starving from the roadless hinterland. Initially, the Imperial government of Haile Selassie denied the famine, so help was slow to come from the outside world. Finally, Johnathon Dimbleby broke the story on the BBC. Many people considered the huge loss of life to be a factor in Haile Selassie’s overthrow in 1974. The octogenarian Emperor lost his throne in a Marxist military coup. There are strong historical parallels with the French and Russian revolutions and the bloodshed that followed them.
As trained medics, my parents Ron and Maria Cunningham led a team of local Ethiopians to build a famine relief camp and together they saved thousands of lives. I was 10 and vividly remember the endless queues of ragged people. So many died. That was the bad old days.
But now, in 2017, a new Ethiopia is literally being built with vast amounts of steel and cement. Up north they are building the biggest hydro dam in Africa. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is colossal and will give Ethiopia the cheapest electricity in the world.
These days, Kombolcha is a growing city with an airport, many factories, a huge brewery, meat works and a university. Located 400 km northeast of Addis, it straddles the junction of three major roads. Kombolcha is also a growing centre for textile production using cotton from the big plantations in the Afar desert that are irrigated by the Awash river. The new high-speed hydro-electric powered railway under construction will run about 1000 km from Addis through huge mountain ranges to Mekele in the north. It will pass through Kombolcha and connect this inland town, in the heart of land locked Ethiopia, to the world via a rail link to the Red Sea port of Djibouti. From a plane, many tunnels and bridge works under construction are seen in remote areas in advance of the track layers.
It is 6 am, and we have just started our five-day Ethiopian holiday. My Ethiopian friends and I will travel through the northern heartland of Ethiopian history. Northern Ethiopia is legendary in African history. Further north at Adwa, in 1896, Emperor Menelik I inflicted the first defeat on a European colonial army by an African army resulting in the defeat of an entire invasion; notwithstanding the great Zulu victory at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. Menelik repelled the invading Italian army and secured the independence of the Empire of Ethiopia as an independent and free African state recognised by the European powers of the day. Liberia is the only other African country that was not colonised in this traumatic era for Africa.
Omer negotiates the Bajaj swarm.
Adwa Day on 2 March commemorates the Battle of Adwa. The historic Ethiopian victory at Adwa resulted in Ethiopia avoiding colonisation in the 19th-century Scramble for Africa by the European powers.
Adwa is near the city of Axum which was the capital of the Axumite empire from about 400 BC to 1000 AD. The Axumite empire grew rich on trade and controlled the entire Horn of Africa from the Indian Ocean Somali coast, across the Red Sea to Arabia and north to what is now modern Sudan and into the the interior of ancient East Africa. Next to the Chinese, Roman and Persian empires, it was rated by contemporary writers as the fourth greatest empire of the day. They built in stone and, today, their pre – Christian monolithic stelae, or obelisks, weighing up to 500 tonnes remain amongst the largest single pieces of carved granite discovered anywhere. How they were transported from the quarries to the erection sites is still a mystery.
Don’t even start me on the royal tombs in Axum or the Ezana Stone which is the East African equivalent of the Rosetta Stone chiselled in three ancient languages; one of which is no longer spoken by any living person.
Another blog will have to tell you about the Temple to the Moon at Yeha which is the oldest standing structure, south of the Sahara. and dates from about 800 BC.
The four fathers and the grandfather amongst us wear all this history lightly. We have reverted into a group of teenage lads, wise-cracking and taking selfies and photos of each other on our smartphones. I lend my camera to Mohay’s son Omer and his brother-in-law Hussain to take turns using because it has a better pixel count than a smartphone. I ask them to snap anything, and everything and I will print the best. I carry my partner Caroline’s camera.
Everyone is interested in the discussion on taking turns sitting up front beside Omer. It’s the two oldies, Mohay and I, and the three thirty-something upstarts. I am in their hands, and they are in mine. Omer is our driver. His father Mohay is sitting in the front passenger seat. Hussain and the minibus owner Awel, and I stretch out on a long seat each in the back.
Initially, the well-paved road climbs up out of the valley from Kombolcha along the Dessie road. We climb rapidly, slowly negotiating many hairpin and S-bends. It can take a long time to pass a truck on this road. The morning light throws warm gold on the river-cut cliffs below us. A nearly full moon lingers in the deep blue, early morning sky. We are all familiar with this road. So far so good, but I know these views are just a foretaste of what is to come.
Thirty minutes later we pass through the cramped city of Dessie which used to nestle but now squeezes into a bowl-shaped mountain valley surrounded by cliffs. My younger brother Andrew was born here in 1966. The asphalt is in great condition, and we make good progress. We pass the turn off to childhood picnic destination, Lake Hayq. Oddly, ‘Hayq’ means ‘lake’ in Amharic so this is Lake Lake. The 13th-century monastery of Istifanos (St Stephen) is on the site of an 8th-century church built on a small peninsula that juts into Lake Hayq. In 1531, the monastery was looted by the legendary Islamic General Mohammed ’The Left Handed’ Graiyn (1506 – 1543) who was the scourge of the northern Orthodox Christian kings in that era.
We continue north skirting the foot of the escarpment looming on our left. To the right, the land falls away down to the eastern lowlands. It’s as if the road is looking for a westward entry point to penetrate the endless wall of rock. A series of multi-span bridges cross the wide, boulder strewn river beds that drain the peaks. We are on the edge of the Roof of Africa and rivers like these are the guttering and down pipes that drain that roof. Nine major rivers, including the Blue Nile, start in Ethiopia’s mountains and bring moisture to distant desert areas.
Two years ago we had to adjust our tour route after one of these bridges got washed away.
Just before 9 am the road finds our entry point. We turn left into a narrow pass and follow a river upstream. Traces of the old road, now washed away, are still visible on the opposite bank. About 20 minutes later this road opens out into a wide valley. We have arrived in the university and trading town of Woldiya. Breakfast time!
We turn right into an arched gateway finding ourselves in the expansive grounds of the Lal hotel. I see the major refurbishment underway during my last visit has now finished, and the four levels of scaffolding are gone. Our Ethiopian Adventure Tours travel groups stay here. Set behind the vegetable garden and amongst the mature fruit and avocado trees are a cluster of stone cottages. The Lal is a real oasis in this bustling market town. One time, the mosque next door started the call for prayers just as we arrived and it was quite loud for a while, but then tranquillity returned. Each cottage is a self-contained unit with ensuite bathroom and solar power heated water.
We take a table outside in the hotel courtyard and order fresh bread rolls, omelettes, jam and coffee. It’s clear that butter and jam on bread are not a breakfast staple for the guys. Hussain rather likes the strawberry jam. He piles it onto his bread then tries to spread some margarine on top of the jam. It slides about on the jam refusing to come off his knife. Curious, Awel tries some on his eggs. I show the people who taught me how to eat delicious Ethiopian wat by hand, how to eat bread with butter and jam. It is not a fair exchange.
Woldiya is not known for its Ethiopian tourist attractions, but as we leave, the guys excitedly spot the huge new soccer stadium which is home to this successful team in the Ethiopian national league.
Two hours later we have climbed almost 1 km vertically from Woldiya at 2,112 m above sea level to Gashena which is at 2,975 m. Degan lies at 1515 m, and Kombolcha is at 1825 m. The road changes from the endless bends of the climb into long straights across the flat tops of the ambas. An amba is a very Ethiopian shape of mountain. The top is flat with cliff edges that can plunge hundreds of meters down to vast canyons cut by braided rivers. Gashena is the junction town for the turn off to Lalibela the city of 11th-century churches carved out of solid rock. We are by-passing Lalibela because of our limited time. Omer unleashes the horses and we power along the flat straights. We still have a long way to go.
We soon discover these long straights have random pot holes that are potential axle breakers. After hitting one, at speed, a nasty bang under the minibus puts our hearts under water. Omer brakes hard. His head is tilted forward in resignation for the worst. Awel leaps out to look underneath his precious minibus. Symbolically, on his hands and knees in a prayerful posture, he peers under the vehicle. Furrowed brows melt into smiles of relief when a slightly pensive, half smiling, Awel lifts his head and stands up. As Awel climbs back in, Mohay wastes some breath lecturing Omer to slow down on the straights.
The noon sky is deep blue with a few fluffy clouds. Mid-April is late in the dry season. Within a month the rains will start in these highlands. There has already been some rain and pools of water can be seen between the stone-walled, thatch rooved homesteads. Farmers can harvest barley twice a year in these fertile and well-watered highlands. Shaggy sheep nibble bright green grass between copses of eucalyptus trees and small round houses built of stones. Mohay, the dry country farmer from the lowlands, shakes his head and sighs.
“These people don’t know how lucky they are.”
At times the road passes near the edge of the amba and, between the trees, offers jaw-dropping glimpses into deep gorges below.
In 1868, Ethiopian national hero, Emperor Tewedros made his last stand against the British under General Napier not far from here in his mountain fortress at Magdala. But that is another very big story.
We stop for lunch at 2:30 pm in Debre Tabor. There is a university here too. As we sit down, I forget we are amongst people who do not know us. It’s late for lunch, and I’m starving. I’m keen to place our lunch order asap. I ask my mates their preferences. I turn to the waiter who is staring at me slack-jawed. His eyes are unfocused, and he seems to be in a hypnotic trance. The guys notice and look at him, then at me and then each other. Mohay twigs first.
“He’s never a seen a ferenge speak in Amharic like Sam.”
These words break the waiter’s trance, and he smiles sheepishly, shaking his head. We laugh. I’m relieved when he heads to the kitchen with our order for five shiro wats. It should be quick. This popular, delicious vegetarian dish is a thick but smooth, grey-brown sauce made of fava bean or chickpea flour, garlic and delicious savoury spices. Shiro is eaten by hand using small pieces of the spongy, sourdough pancake bread called injera. There are various versions of it. Some do have meat. Traditionally Shiro is vegan and a fasting period favourite. It is a very nutritious and tasty meal. My friends always prepare a couple of kilos for me to bring back after a season. I mix some of the spicy flour with a little cold water like mixing corn flour. Then I add more and more while heating the mixture in a saucepan. It absorbs an incredible amount of water as it thickens.
Just on dusk at 6 pm, we complete the last 150 km from Debre Tabor to Gondar. We have travelled 540 km today in 12 hours, not including meal and toilet stops.
We meet up with Belete who guides us to the hotel that he has booked for us.
Belete is the local professional guide I always hire for my travel groups. He was born in Gondar but earned a degree in Heritage Management from Jimma University in southern Ethiopia. He is in his mid twenties, wears a ready smile and speaks excellent English. With over 40 universities in Ethiopia, it is common now to find brilliant and well educated young people doing jobs well beneath their qualification level. For example, there are not enough museum management jobs for people like Belete, so he relies on highly seasonal guiding work to make ends meet.
He knows this is a private trip for my friends and I so he has pulled some strings to get us a deal telling the hotel proprietor that if I like the rooms, I might bring more travellers to the AG Gondar Hotel. Belete's plan works, and he gets us a deal on two very nice rooms with ensuites on the eighth floor. Mohay loves the lift because it saves him from the stairs. Hussain doesn’t trust it and hesitates to enter. It is too slow for Omer who runs up the stairs. Later we successfully persuade Omer to try it out. The uniformed staff show us to a twin room for Mohay and I and a twin for the brothers-in-law Omer and Hussain. Awel, the Hiace owner, finds himself a little pension nearby. Omer and Hussain spend the first 10 minutes taking photos. Omer rings Fati.
“You’ll never guess where I am!”
Mohay had never been in a shower with three sources and directions of water spray. Neither had I. He went first. He turned all three taps on at once and nearly drowned. He hadn’t closed the door tight, so the black and white tiled floor was soon a swamp. We laughed!
There is a knock at the door.
“Come and have a look at this!”
Omer has found the bidet in their bathroom.
“Hey Sam, do you have one of those at home?”
“No, I’ve never used one ever. I don’t even know how it works really. Do you?”
“Well, I’ve never seen anyone using it on TV!”
Our anticipation and excitement are high. My friends have never been in Gondar before. I feel excited for them. This place is legendary. It's probably a chapter in every Ethiopian school history book. I have that juicy feeling of anticipation that comes from giving a well-chosen, gift-wrapped present.
After flooding the eighth floor, we gather in the foyer and have a cold drink while we discuss dining options with Belete. We settle on a restaurant called Masterchef. It belongs to a friend of Belete, of course. He knows everyone in this town being part of a network of small operators and larger businesses.
The food was excellent as usual and very nicely presented with hearty portions of traditional as well as plated western meals. I love anything that used to swim, so I ordered fish cutlets. Then everyone ordered fish cutlets. I asked them if they had a good look at the menu.
Coffee with popcorn and a small incense brazier.
“You don’t have to follow me! Ask the waitress if you are not sure.”
But the joke is on me. Awel takes the lead.
“You have to remember something, Sam. Our culture is an Islamic culture. As you know, we only eat meat that is Halal. We are now in one of the great cities of the old Orthodox Christian empire. I don’t think we’d find any halal restaurants in this town. Also, we eat shiro every day at home and never get fish except in a tin can. Tonight, we are eating fresh fish. I can’t remember the last time I had fresh fish.”
“My brothers. Tonight, we shall dine and sleep like kings. We may never be back this way again, but tonight, we are kings.”
“But, gather in my friends. Come close. We must swear a secret together. Never, ever tell your wives, or I’ll never hear the end of it for not bringing them along too. Tell them it was not bad or just so, so.”
With their forefingers in front of their smiles, I hear, ”Don’t worry Sam. Sshh.”
Later, we go through the photos of the day. On the camera I loaned the brothers-in-law, we delete the selfies up Hussain’s nose and the blurred shots out the window of the moving minibus.
Back at the hotel we are all tired and retreat to our rooms. It’s been a day.
Good night on day one.
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