Week 4: Bahir Dar, Gonder & Simien Mountains

Bahir Dar

This town is known for being a beautiful, calm city sitting on the shores of Lake Tana. The lake itself is huge, covering over 832 square miles, and is full of tilapia and even a few hippos. The lake has two major claims to fame. The first is that it is the source of the Blue Nile which eventually joins the White Nile to become the much bigger Nile River that eventually empties out into the Mediterranean Sea. The second is the large number of monasteries and churches that are located on the peninsulas and islands in the lake. Monks and nuns live in these remote places and practice their spiritual beliefs, while greeting tourists from time to time. The only way to get to many of these monasteries is by boat.

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murals from inside the relatively modern Entos Eyesu, including St. George killing the dragon

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murals from inside the 14th century church Ura Kidane Meret

Gonder

Ethiopia has a few different historical periods and the city of Gonder was the center of the Solomonic dynasty (around 1632-1755). Before this time, the capital moved from place to place, but Emperor Fasiladas rooted the capital in Gonder. The emperor traced his family tree to Menelik I, the legendary offspring of an encounter between the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. There is much discussion about who the Queen of Sheba was and whether or not she actually existed, but many Ethiopians take this story as fact. Regardless, the castle complex of Gonder holds six different royal buildings constructed by the Emperor and his descendants and is definitely deserving of its UNESCO world heritage site designation.

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Emperor Fasilidas’ castle, Yohannes I’s library (his son), me posing with several castles

Gonder is also home to Fasilidas’ baths which are beautiful to behold and are the center gathering spot for Epiphany (called Timkat in Amharic), which celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. Many people enter the baths fully clothed to commemorate the event.

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turret of Emperor Fasildas’ castle, baths of Fasilidas, Empress Mentaweb’s castle

Also in Gonder is the Debre Berhan Selassie church, which has one of the coolest painted ceilings I’ve ever seen. It is entirely covered in angelic cherubs and almost every square inch of the walls are blanketed with murals depicting events from the Bible including Daniel and the lions’ den, Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ crucifixion, and of course, St. George and the dragon.

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church, bell for starting service, closeup of roof

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cherub covered ceiling, the holy trinity above the alter, St. George killing the dragon

Simien Mountains

The Simien plateau is mostly composed of basalt that was then uplifted due to volcanic activity. There’s a strong haze that persists from sand and dust blowing in from the Sahara, but the views are still jaw-dropping. One of the best parts of my three-day hike was reuniting with my old friend Yun who I met during my second Peace Corps rotation in Morocco. She randomly got in touch after she saw that we were going to be in Ethiopia at the same time, so I moved my plans around so I could meet up with her and her crew (which coincidentally included a friend of a friend – small world).

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Yun & I, view out from the plateau, one of our scouts who carried an AK-47 the whole way

The Simiens are also a UNESCO world heritage site, partially designated such because it is the home to several endemic species. Gelada monkeys are the only members of their genus that are still alive today. They are endemic to the highlands of Ethiopia and don’t live anywhere else in the world. They are known for the red “bleeding-heart” shape on their chest. In females, this becomes enlarged when they are ready for mating. Geladas are vegetarians and they are the only primates that get almost all of their energy from just eating grass. Although Bale Mountains has a larger population of endangered, endemic Ethiopian wolves, we were also lucky enough to spot a few from a distance on this trip as well.

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Gelada monkey, Ethiopian wolf, thick-billed raven

This is certainly not the easiest trek I’ve ever walked, since altitude still tends to kick my butt if I’m not acclimatized. It was also colder than I expected at nights, and even after putting on all my clothes, I didn’t sleep well. However, the chance to see incredibly rare wildlife and the always spectacular Milky Way completely made up for any discomfort I may have felt. (Note to self: Next time bring more clothes and gloves.)

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view from the plateau on the last day, sunset behind a giant lobelia plant, our group hiking

Bonus Panoramas

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view from the first day

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view from the last day

 

Week 3: Djibouti

I ended up in Djibouti because I have a small obsession with whale sharks, which are usually in residence in the Gulf of Tadjoura until the end of January. Unfortunately, they were all gone or too deep in the water to see by the time I got there. However, this crazy search for charismatic marine megafauna brought me to a country full of surreal beauty.

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views from the train going from Addis Ababa to Djibouti City (these are all from Ethiopia)

Before I left on my 13 hour train journey from Addis, everyone told me Djibouti was going to be hot, hot, and hot. It was hot, but tolerably so and while I was there, it even rained. Djibouti is a desert and everything is imported from elsewhere which makes this one of the most expensive countries I’ve ever visited. It has two main economic income streams: shipping from the port (where everything is currently trucked overland to Ethiopia) and tons of military bases (including the US, France, UK, Italy, Spain, China, Saudi Arabia, and Japan). Perhaps not that surprising, I rarely ever saw foreigners on the streets, they seem to stay almost entirely on the bases.

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view of Balbala (where most Djiboutians live because they can’t afford to live in Djibouti Ville), old port, house in Balbala

Arta Plage

Since whale sharks were nowhere to be found, I signed up for a kayaking and snorkeling trip to Arta Plage. The day we went kayaking, we were treated to some extremely rare weather: rainy, windy and almost chilly. The water was warmer than the air, which was crazy compared to how hot it was in following days. We did run into hordes of tiny jellyfish, who speared us with their nematocysts, causing some unpleasant tingling in the arms, legs, and especially the skin around the mouth. We took a break for lunch and headed out to rougher waters, where there were less jellyfish and more gorgeous meter wide fan corals. Djibouti has some of the most beautiful reefs I’ve ever seen outside of the Red Sea. (I know nothing about coral identification, as can be seen be the captions.)

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coral reef, nasty hordes of jellyfish, coral

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coral, fish, coral

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fish, corals, giant clam

Djibouti does have some interesting life outside of its water as well.

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Djibouti cow, ostrich (squint and you can see it), hamadrayas baboon

Lac Abbé

After a long, long, long Land Rover journey, we arrived at Lac Abbé which is on the border of Ethiopia and Djibouti. This area sits on top of active geothermal activity. Thousands of years ago, this area was still covered by the salty lake and as mineral-rich and super-hot fluid from underneath the earth escaped into the lake, it formed these crazy limestone chimneys. This area is part of the Afar Triangle, where three plates are pulling away from each other at the same junction. Many of the chimneys are situated along jaunty lines, showcasing the faults below. It makes for some surreal landscapes, both during the day and especially at sunrise.

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limestone chimneys

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chimney, close-up of rock-hard, bubbling surface, me & chimney

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morning steam from hot springs, dawn in Lac Abbé, sunrise at Lac Abbé

This area is dominated by Afars, some of whom have settled into more permanent structures. We stayed in the ones that look like armadillos, which were quite comfortable even in the desert chill. One of the biggest daily traditions in Djibouti is the consumption of khat (also spelled qat, chat). It’s chewed every day in the afternoon, or all the time if you’re a driver. Khat is an upper, making people feel more alert, a milder version of speed. Almost all of the khat consumed in Djibouti comes overland in trucks from Ethiopia. Apparently the smaller leaves are best and it costs about 300 Djiboutian francs ($1.75) for a bundle. My driver went through 2-3 a day.

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wooden structure, armadillo structure (wood or rebar framing), khat wrapped in a towel to keep it fresh

 

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view from the Afar camp we stayed in as the goats are taken back in for the evening

Lac Assal

Lac Assal is the other huge tourist attraction in Djibouti. It’s the lowest point in Africa at 509 ft (155m) below sea level. The water from surrounding areas drains into it but the water has nowhere to go. Instead the water evaporates, leaving behind a very salty lake (the third saltiest in the world).

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Daouid (my guide), me & Mohammed (my khat-chewing driver), random Afar guy at Lac Assal

I, of course, had to get in and try it out. Because the water is so salty, it has a higher density. This creates a larger buoyancy force pushing up on the human body and humans float higher up in the water (very similar to the Dead Sea). When I got out, I was covered in a light dusting of salt and my guide had to pour two liters of water over my head to make the ride home palatable.

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floating in Lac Assal, view from above, walking towards Lac Assal

This means I have been to the highest and lowest points on the continent of Africa. This was not an accomplishment I set out to achieve, but it’s kind of cool nonetheless.

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Highest Point: climbing the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lowest Point: swimming in Lac Assal

 

Week 2: Bale Mountains & Lake Hawassa

Warning, this post is outrageously long because nature is awesome. Also, I have things to say about Addis Ababa, but I’ll be passing through a few more times, so I’ll add my thoughts about the capital to a later post.

Bale Mountains

The reason I’m here in Ethiopia at all is because my amazing neighbor Tselate decided to take a trip back home. For as long as we’ve lived next to each other, I’d been telling her that I was going to come with her the next time she went. She booked her flight, so I booked mine. In spite of growing up in Addis Ababa, she never really got to see a lot of the country and she told me she really wanted to see the Bale (pronounced bah-lay) Mountains, so off we went.

The star of the show in the Bale Mountains is one of the most endangered mammals in the world: the Ethiopian wolf. There are less than 500 of these creatures left on the earth and about 50% of them live in the Bale Mountains. We were lucky enough to see two of them, one of them crossed the road right in front of our car! They are threatened not only by rabies and canine distemper, but also climate change. They live at a particularly high altitude and as the climate gets warmer, they’ll move higher up the mountain until they run out of mountain to go up. I’d recently read the book Inheritors of the Earth, that mentions their plight and some possible solutions.

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Ethiopian wolf (3 photos because they are beautiful and rare creatures) known in Amharic as Ky kebero which means red jackal

We were also able to see the mountain nyala, another Ethiopian endemic. There were large groups of females and babies along with a few lone males loitering around nearby.

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mountain nyala – baby, female adult, male adult

I have a special fondness for primates, and although I’ve seen lots of baboons and vervet monkeys in my life, the colobus monkey is stunning. Their long black and white fur and long shaggy tails make them extremely distinctive.

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olive baboon, colobus monkey, vervet monkeys

Totally unscientific and very subjective comment: warthogs are really cute when they run with their tails wagging. I am aware that the photo of the giant forest hog below is a bit lacking, but apparently it was a rare find (our guide Ahmed had only seen it three times).

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warthog, local impressively-crafted houses, giant forest hog

The flora is the high afro-alpine environment is quite unique as well.

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spiky plant that I can’t remember the name of, moss-covered heather trees in the Harenna cloud forest (at a slightly lower altitude), giant lobelia

In the Harenna forest, there’s a couple of beautiful waterfalls that we hiked to.

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Ahmed relaxing by the upper waterfall, Tselate celebrating our hike, me by the lower waterfall

One of the days we drove three hours (each way) to see a natural limestone cave, known as Sof Omar because of the religious Muslim who lived in the caves for many years along with his daughter. The cave actually continues on for a couple kilometers, but it is full of water at this time of year. The outside was particularly beautiful and it was Tselate’s first time spelunking.

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Outside of Sof Omar cave

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Tselate, me, Tselate and me after I convinced her to skootch up the side of a rock

Lake Hawassa

On our way back we stopped at Lake Hawassa and took a short boat ride around the lake. It’s not very hard to see why this place is beloved among birders and fishermen.

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Egyptian goose, marabou stork, malachite kingfisher

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African fish eagle, fishermen going out to fish (mostly tilapia and catfish), boat loaded with nets

Beneath its calm exterior lurks some pretty dangerous animals. There are a few groups of hippopotamuses that call the lake their home.

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more hippos, me with a colobus monkey on my head, vervet mama carrying child

Pictures can never fully capture the whole experience. Being trapped in a car for five days means getting to know people in different ways. Ahmed (our guide from Bale Mountain Tours) is from the Oromo tribe, which is the largest ethnic majority in Ethiopia. He taught us some really basic greetings in Oromiffa.

Hello. Ah-kem.
Response to hello. Na-ga-ha.
Good morning. Ah-kem bul-ten.
Good afternoon. Ah-kem ol-ten.
Good night. Hal-kan-ga-ri.

In addition, Tselate, Mohammed (our driver) and Ahmed all helped me learn how to count in Amharic. I still can’t always hear the numbers people say to me, but I can stumble through saying them. Speaking and listening are such different skills.

One of my favorite moments of the trip had nothing to do with nature at all. On the way back from the cave, we got a flat tire and the guys put on the spare. We drove onwards to a small town and while stopping for a coffee break, they realized that we had another flat tire, so Mohammed took the car to get the tires fixed at a shop down the road. Next to the tire shop, there was a small shaded area outside of a restaurant where we perched on benches out of the sun. We watched as the tire guys took apart the hubs using giant hammers and crowbars to get to the tubes inside. Once the tubes were out they had to be taken to a different shop down the street to be patched. A faranji (foreigner) like myself attracts quite a bit of attention in small towns and pretty soon there were a group of young people peering at us.

Tselate asked them about themselves and then encouraged them to practice their English with me, but after a few introductory phrases the kids and I were all stuck. I looked over the woven reed wall separating us from the tire guys and the guy who left with the tubes was nowhere to be seen, so we still had to pass a bit of time. At that moment, I realized we could continue to sit there awkwardly gawking at each other or we could actually interact with each other. The teacher in me took over, and I started teaching the girls how to play Slide, the hand clapping game that one of my campers taught me twenty years ago in Los Angeles. If you’re not familiar with Slide, it’s a simple pattern of hand claps that gets repeated based on the number of turns you’ve completed. The first time, the pattern is repeated once and then the second time, twice, the third time, three times, etc. I’d just learned Amharic numbers, so this was perfect practice. Ahnd, hu-let, sost. One, two, three. As I showed one of the girls the pattern, she started to catch on and count with me. Then Tselate got in on the fun and clarified my instructions in Amharic with the first girl and I started teaching another girl. Just as Ahmed told us the car was fixed, we had gotten the two girls to play Slide with each other. As we walked away, we heard them counting and clapping.

I am so deeply appreciative of Tselate for all the hospitality she and her family have shown me. We’ve lived next to each other for years, but nothing brings you together like sharing the same space. I am deeply grateful for everything she has shared and the depth of our friendship that has developed because of this time. Am-se-ge-ne-she-a-le-hu, Tselate. May we have more exciting adventures in the years to come. 🙂

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Tselate in a field of flowers, Tselate drinking mango juice and making new friends in the town of Adama, Tselate drinking her beloved coffee