Last January, we planned to explore Ethiopia, but this had to be postponed, owing to Ian’s tests and diagnosis of angina. We decided that we would go this January instead, but do it the easy way, on a guided tour.
Journey to Addis Ababa
The cheapest air ticket we could find involved travelling out by Saudi Arabian Airlines. This was an interesting experience, but not one we really want to repeat! On the London-Jeddah flight Muhammad’s prayer for travellers was recited (in Arabic) over the PA before we left, and Muslim passengers were told when they needed to start their morning prayers shortly before landing. One good thing was that the legroom was better than usual; the bad thing was that, Saudi Arabia being a dry country, there was no alcohol at all on the plane.
Jeddah airport was frankly creepy. A big mat for prayers as we entered the terminal, then security where men had to go one way and women another. (Women were searched behind screens.) There were relatively few women travellers, and they were almost all wearing burkhas. It confirmed our thinking that we have no wish to visit Saudi Arabia, and we were quite glad to leave.
We were taken by bus to the next plane, but then kept waiting a long while before they opened the bus doors. We boarded on time, but waited an hour before push-back – no explanation given. Oddly enough, the passengers on this flight were 90% women – not sure where they all suddenly appeared from or where they were going, but they all seemed to know one another and were incredibly noisy: they yelled, shouted, laughed and cheered all through the flight. We’ve never encountered a row like it before.
We were glad to arrive in Addis, and our hotel was fine; the only thing that seemed strange was that you had to go through full airport-type security every time you entered. We actually got in trouble because there was a fairly blunt knife (for picnic purposes) in our suitcase.
The Simien Mountains
We flew to Gondar (shades of Tolkien) and then went by minibus to the Simien Mountains National Park, along with our guide and the five other members of our tour party. The rugged mountain scenery there is stunning, and we enjoyed stopping at viewpoints and doing short walks. The national park rules said that we had to have an armed guard to accompany us on these walks, a tradition maintained since the days when there were guerrilla fighters in the area. On the way we encountered several large troops of gelada baboons.
We had some problems with the minibus while we were there. The sliding passenger door would not open easily; the driver really struggled with it, and one time we had to climb out of the back door. The roads were extremely rough, and at one point it was impossible for the bus to go uphill, so we had to get out and walk. Just after that, we had a burst tyre!
The other issue was the altitude (3,620 metres at the highest point) which meant we got breathless walking uphill. The weather was pleasantly warm during the day, but bitterly cold at night – and the lodge where we stayed had no heating. A fire was lit in the bar (which claimed to be the highest in Africa), and one in the restaurant; the snag was that, after eating and drinking, we had to walk up a steep rough path to our hut, and then endure the cold.
Our next destination was Axum, about 250 kms away. We travelled through great scenery, but the road was appalling – unsealed and very rough most of the way, so the journey took us no less than ten hours. The good thing was, once we came down from the mountains, we no longer had to endure the cold.
We spent two nights in Axum, allowing for a day’s sightseeing in between. We saw several stelae, some underground tombs and a ‘trilingual tablet’ from the fourth century AD. Axum is one of the sites traditionally associated with the Queen of Sheba, so we saw her pool as well as the reconstructed remains of her palace.
We also visited the modern church of St Mary Tsion, and admired the wall paintings. The older church is undergoing restoration, so we could not go in – and women were not even allowed to view it from the outside!