On 12 September 1974, Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, was captured by the Communist DERG forces that had descended upon his palace. What subsequently happened to Selassie became the source of vivid speculative rumours. This much was known: he had disappeared. But was he dead or alive? Had he been spared by the DERG and exiled or was he slaughtered and scorched like the land he once ruled over? Rumours ran amok, exacerbated by how the ‘ring of Solomon’ which once adorned Selassie’s middle finger, was subsequently donned by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the undisputed leader of the DERG from 1977.
This mystery was finally answered in 1992, shortly after the DERG had been deposed: Selassie’s body was gracefully and respectfully found buried directly below a toilet in the royal palace.
Now, what can one learn from this story? Most obviously, it is clear that nobody wanted to mess with Mengistu. Ethiopia has been beset by many problems (you know, that famine, amongst other things) and the DERG shares part of the responsibility for this. But on another level, a different meaning can be deduced: that Ethiopian’s, quite literally, just don’t give a shit.
That’s right. Ethiopia spurs global norms and does what it wants. To whit: it has its own time zone (two twelve hour days); a unique national language, Amharic, that has its own alphabet and which is about as easy to master as a squat toilet; a devout, God-fearing population that is more pious than Jersualemites and which comprises CHRISTIANS, MUSLIMS AND JEWS (well, maybe not Jews any more, unless you consider this to be a synagogue – and if so, please stop reading now); a national form of dancing, adopted for both traditional and contemporary music (see below); and IT IS THE SPIRTUAL HOME OF RASTAFARIANISM (impressive your friends in the pub by telling them how Emperor Haile Selassie’s birth name was actually RASTA FARIAN – GET IT!?).
So, Ethiopian exceptionalism aside, how was my trip there? One word: awesome.
I flew into Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, a sprawling city home to approximately five million of the country’s 80 million people. Addis is Ethiopia’s largest city by population size, which encapsulates both Ethiopia’s landmass and how dispersed its people are once you consider that this is a relatively small proportion of the population. The city is remarkable for how unremarkable it is. It lacks a distinctive core and lacks the shimmer of other capital cities I have visited in Africa.
Hence, I was pleased to take a flight the following day to Mekele to begin my trip of the Danakil Depression. By some accounts, this is the hottest place on earth. As I learned halfway through the trip, it is also dangerous: six tourists were captured and killed there in 2011 and thus an armed escort accompanied us throughout. Joy. The landscape was varied but rugged and inhospitable: it spanned from sinking, salty and sandy roads to rugged and rocky terrain which was certainly not fit for a Fiat Punto. To put this into perspective, at one point, it took two hours to travel 20km in a robust 4×4. On another occasion, the sand gripped the wheels of our 4×4, preventing it from moving any further; only after 30 minutes of concerted digging and pushing by eight people were we able to move the car again:
Joining me on the trip was a group of nine endearing Russian and Ukrainian tourists who were about as pleasant as having my eyeballs lacerated by piping hot acid. Fortunately, there were also two fantastic Belgians, Savrine and Norman, in addition – for the first two days only – a Brit named Will who works in the British embassy in Kabul, who managed to compensate for what our other comrades were duly lacking.
The trip took me through remote villages, sulphuric mountains, salt flats and salt lakes. In fact, as you can guess, this region relies on salt more than a geriatric does for their dinner. This manifested through the ‘camel trains’ dotting the landscape which were transporting salt to Mekele.
The area was also remote and with that came esoteric quirks, even by Ethiopian standards. During one stopover in a village, I was invited into a hut for what I thought was going to be a swift shot of coffee. How facile. I was greeted with a cup of bubbling milk and entreated to garnish this with salt and pepper. If there is one thing you learn from reading this blog post, please make it this: spare your pepper for steak.
The five day trip to Danakil culminated with a four hour hike up Erta Ale (which our comrades seemed to anticipate being a two month expedition judging by the size of the luggage they hauled), an active volcano that oozed and roared throughout the night. It was mesmerising. I will let photographs fill in the gaps:
(Team Ukraine preparing for war/three hour hike):
ETHIOPIAN NIGHT CLUB IN THE DESERT:
I also scored a victory for pride, decency, dignity and equality on this trip. In my jeep, one Ukrainian insisted that it was his God given right to sit in the front seat throughout the duration of the trip. So, as a matter of principle, I placed myself in his coveted position after completing the hike up Erta Ale. He approached me.
“You in my seat.”
“I paid for it.” (He hadn’t – our guide even told me how absurd it was that he was hoarding the front).
“Look – do not think it is fairer if we all take turns to enjoy this seat? You know, to share?”
And then came the knockout punch:
“We do not believe in sharing in my country.”
Ten minutes later, he capitulated and his minions even dared to sit in the front after me. VICTORY.
After Mekele I visited Axum in the northern tip of Ethiopia. My reason for coming here, like hordes of tourists before me, was simple: to reclaim the Ark of the Covenant. Supposedly, aeons ago it was transported to Ethiopia and it has resided in Axum ever since. In fact, it is not even a secret as to where it is stored. Why, one of the holiest, most significant and most pious artefacts in the Abrahamic religions is openly kept in no other than…
It is guarded by a (probably armed) monk. I also had to keep my distance: I was not permitted to walk past an invisible line, marked by a tree, approaching the Ark. Needless to say, if I had to put a mortgage down on where the Ark is, it would not be in Axum.
In Axum, I also met an irritable Israeli named Amir who seemed to be on a transcendental self-enlightening mission to find his inner soul. Incidentally, he apparently smoked a lot of marijuana. He also followed me around for the next two days like a lost puppy, pretending to be bold when in fact he was ultimately hapless.
From Axum I flew to Lalibela, a small banal town with some beautiful and monumental rock-hewn churches. These had been excavated from the ground and in some instances contained narrow pitch-blank tunnels. Once again, I will let the photographs attempt to display their beauty:
The day after I arrived in Lalibela, I took a 4.30am bus, which Amir had arranged, ostensibly to Gondar which should have taken approximately six hours. 45 minutes into the journey, we were dropped off by a dusty junction and told that we need to take a connecting bus. What ensued was delightful chaos. No bus arrived for 90 minutes. We met a Czech couple, who only spoke a little fragmented English and who had suffered a similar fate to Amir and me.
Halfway through the journey of our connecting bus, we were told to pay over twice as much as Ethiopian passengers. This may seem grossly unfair, and in fact, in many respects it is. But when one considers that the sums involved amounted to about £2.50 extra each for a fairly lengthy journey, it may be concluded by some that it is not worth creating a raucous over. But Amir had a different idea in mind. He was a man of principle and like so many Israelis before him, he stuck to his guns, which resulted in the bus pulling over demanding payment (whilst holding up all of the other passengers in the process). A crowd emerged and tempers flared:
Worst of all, the poor Czech couple had no idea what was going on and seemed completely confounded by the situation:
With both sides being intransigent, the bus eventually drove on for 30 minutes, before stopping at a station where the argument continued.
I sent Amir away and reasoned with the driver, with a crowd beginning to emerge again. It materialised that a punter in the original junction had told the driver that we had agreed to pay the enhanced fee as ‘commission’ to the punter for helping us to find the bus – a flagrant lie, but the driver paid part of this commission to the punter, hence why he was not willing to lower the price. So, through simply talking to people rather than screaming like a hyena (which I know all about – see below), the situation was resolved: we paid the bus fare, plus the extra commission, but not double the price. Everyone was pleased, even Amir. He even sang my name in praise. It was at that point I decided to ditch him once we arrived in Gondar.
Gondar is renowned for its prehistoric castles. It made a comfortable stopover (despite the bed bugs and lack of shower), but it paled in comparison to Bahar Dar, my next destination which nestles alongside the salubrious Lake Tana which the Nile flows in to. Lake Tana is sprinkled with islands, each with their own history and ancient monasteries, and I visited a couple these. The water was azure and it was serene. More interestingly, however, in the evening I went to a ‘Che Che’ show – that is, a traditional song and dance show. I feared it would be a tourist trap, but I was amazed to find that I was the only feranji (white person) there. It was a rout. Here is a taste:
Finally, via Addis, with a gregarious 53 year old Brazilian I met in Bahar Dar, I flew to Dire Dawa whereupon we took the first bus to Harar. Harar can only be described in one way: absolutely, utterly and resolutely mental. It is in the ‘Somali’ part of Ethiopia (owing, believe it or not, to its proximity to Somalia) and it is part of the central hub of Ethiopia’s Muslim community. The old part of Harar is walled city – a UNESCO sight which was wonderful to navigate through amidst the narrow alleyways where traders sold their wares. It was bountifully bright as a rainbow of headscarves lit up the roads. Everyone was also exceptionally friendly. But that is fairly normal and it is hardly reason to call a place mental.
Rather, Harar’s abnormality comes alive at night. Unlike other towns or cities which may have stray dogs or cats, or even wily rodents, in Harar, a different type of animal roams around come nightfall: hyenas. Yes, that is right. HYENAS. Every night hyenas amble to the old city to be fed before happily and freely ambling around the city. For the avoidance of doubt, this is a hyena:
I went to witness this spectacle, and to cut a long story short, it resulted in this:
A paraphrase of Orwell comes to mind: The creatures outside looked from hyena to man, and from man to hyena, and from hyena to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
Please do not ask any questions.
Ethiopia, I salute you.
View the rest of the photographs HERE.
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