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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.)