Day three in the Simien Mountains was a day of expanding joy. It took us higher than the first two and the views were astounding. In the lead up to the trip, when I had been day-dreaming of being in the mountains of Ethiopia, these were just the views I had envisaged.
I jumped for joy up there.
Here are my best pictures from the morning. I don’t really have the right lens for wildlife or birds but I think I’ve done okay.
We had a long trek ahead of us in the afternoon, so I had a wee ride on the mule for a while (we had to hire one for medical reasons in the morning). I have always been quite sniffy about riding on a mule; as I gave myself a rest and gently plodded along, I began to shift my view on that. So restful!
Alas, we reached a point where the mule had to go back to its village and there was no escaping the long, hot path uphill.
There were more lovely views up there and every now and again, our guide pointed into the far, far distance and claimed our campsite was in view. He promised us a shower when we got there – with hot water. As the afternoon wore on, he urged us to speed up but we didn’t really understand why. But we did our best and as we clambered the final long push downhill, we found ourselves singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for some bizarre reason.
Eventually, we arrived at camp. To our huge disappointment, all the hot water had been used. All of a sudden, we twigged why our guide had been urging us to hurry. There was a limited supply of water in the tank. Instead, we had bowls of water – not quite the same but at least we got clean.
A lammergeier was floating overhead, so I had to race to get dressed again and grab my camera.
Feeling slightly disgruntled for about 10 minutes in that weird way that comes with the privilege of having running water back home, we took ourselves off for a stroll to look at the view on the other side of the road. We lucked out – first, a great big old Ibex strolled into camp just as we were about to leave and then, when we crossed to the viewpoint, three gelada monkeys were huddled together on the cliff edge, giving me one of my favourite gelada shots of the whole holiday.
A year ago, I had a month to go before travelling to Ethiopia. I was bouncy with anticipation and eager to get going. There were mountains to hike in, wildlife to see, coffee to drink.
I don’t know what happened when I returned; I failed to blog about the trip beyond my arrival and initial sight-seeing (Gonder) and my first day in the Simien Mountains. It wasn’t through a lack of enthusiasm. I had a truly fantastic time and one that I want to remember forever.
I’ve decided that it’s never too late to blog about a travel experience. There could be someone gearing up for a trip to this magical country now and who will find my posts useful. Or maybe someone just fancies looking at some cracking photos of Gelada Monkeys for a few minutes. You may simply enjoy travel blogs and stories. Whoever you are and however you have arrived here, you’ll find me blogging about Ethiopia for a while so that I capture the memories before a whole year goes by.
In this episode, we join our intrepid writer as she begins her second day in the Simien Mountains. I’d like to remind readers of our wonderful guide, as I’d like to think that he might get enquiries. Eshete Berju of Travel Simien really was a star.
It was cold and barely light. Sunrise in the Simiens comes slowly. The ridges on the other side of the gorge were hiding the sun but the light was changing. Gold was beginning to light the grass and I bent down to capture the moment with a few photos. The air was so, so pure.
On our second day in the mountains we hiked for about 14km. It doesn’t sound much but when you’re tackling some steep uphill sections and still acclimatising, it’s tough! Tight chest, short breaths, pumping heart. It’s a vile feeling, as I felt as if I were a wimp and unfit but the minute I got onto the flat or downhill, I was right as rain. But it’s worth it for the views, the seclusion, the wildlife.
In the morning we saw buzzards and a young lammergaier.
It was hot that day. Or hot enough to make us very glad indeed to find out that our lunch spot was by a river. Tempted though I was to jump in, I resisted and instead, stuck my head under a miniature waterfall – half a metre of delicious, cold water.
Happily we saw more gelada monkeys. It’s a fantastic daily occurrence up there.
The afternoon was tough and when we reached our second camp – Gich – we had reached 3,650m. It was still early when we got to camp but as it was near a village, there was a good deal of people watching to be done. Locals gathered and children played on the high open high. It was easy to sit and watch, taking shot after shot as the light changed. Here’s a selection.
Here are the best photos from that second day.
The next day was spectacular. We went up to Mount Gogo and experienced the views we had dreamt of before we set off. More about that tomorrow!
Five minutes drive into the Simien National Park we came across our first group of Gelada monkeys. Our driver shrugged when we asked to get out. What was an amazing sight for us was, we now know, just part of everyday life 3,000m up in the mountains.
Our guide, the wonderful Eshete Berju, was thrilled at our enthusiasm. He urged us to go nearer.
“Are you certain?” I asked, looking nervously at the 100 or more baboons frantically tearing at grass whilst grunting at each other. Posing for a photo we were urged nearer and nearer by Eshete and by the total lack of reaction, it was clear the monkeys didn’t give a monkeys about visitors!
It was a glorious introduction to the Simien Mountains and hanging out with Geladas became a necessary and magical part of each day’s trekking; and one that never bored.
The trip up to the Park was easy and fun. It started really when we got to Debark, to the park office. Craggy, rugged rangers hung around outside, ancient guns slung over their shoulders like troubadours would wear their guitars. Assigned to us for the four day trip was Fantoun, whose museum piece wouldn’t scare a five year old, let alone a hungry leopard. In the truck, Kate asked: “When was the last time you fired it?” Eshete translated and everyone laughed – Fantoun, our driver, Messi the chef and his sidekick. “Well?” Prompted Kate.
“Oh, he’s never shot it,” declared Eshete, seemingly amazed.
“So how does he know it works?”
“Well, he takes it apart and puts it back together all the time, so he knows all the parts work.”
Our laughter set them off again. It was going to be a fun trip.
Debark is at 2,800m and our first camp was 3,250m.
It’s not much of an elevation but when you’re trying to acclimatise the heart starts to pound and the breath shorten the very second that a path heads uphill. Thankfully that first day, nothing was too steep. Once the driver left us to trek, taking Messi and his assistant onto camp, Eshete, Fantoun, Kate and I set off for a few hours to walk to camp.
Just twenty minutes in, Eshete chatted to a couple of children and then pointed off track into a flat, almost treeless plain.
“There is a big group of geladas across there.” We couldn’t see them but we set off. It took me a long time to spot them but when I did, I was astounded. Hundreds of them. Hundreds. We had lunch with them. Geladas have absolutely no interest in the food we eat, so we were sitting surrounded by them. It was weird. And amazing. The noise is fascinating, as mostly it’s the sound of constant tearing and munching of grass. Every now and then, there would be a minor squabble about nothing and a minor game of chase, but mostly just tearing and munching, munching and tearing.
Eventually we set off again and the afternoon was filled with great views and birds of prey. As Kate said, “The Simien Mountains: a great place to be a buzzard.” I think I could watch birds coast the thermals for hours on end. It was hard to tear ourselves away from each and every cliff face.
We arrived at camp to find our tent up and a camp table laid out with flasks of tea and coffee. Popcorn arrived within minutes. It’s the snack of choice in Ethiopia – it’s part of the coffee ceremony that takes place all over the country in most houses, hostelries and hotels.
The view just beyond our campsite was fantastic; a gorge so peaceful that the only sounds were bees (do they have bees that high up or is this a figment of my imagination?) and the occasional distant chatter from the campsite. It was a lovely place to sit as the light mellowed.
The minute the sun started to sink, however, it got cold. Suddenly we were very grateful for the fire in the cooking hut and layering up, we rushed inside. Expecting a simple supper, we were staggered at what Messi had achieved. He had one big gas ring and about eight different pots. Vast quantities of vegetable soup were followed by a main course of about six different veggies and pasta. As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, we had banana fritters for pud. I had been expecting very simple one pot cooking on the trip. I couldn’t have been more delighted.
And to top it off, we were given a hot water bottle each to take back to our little tent.
The Amber beer was cold and refreshing; our host’s smile warm and welcoming. Twelve hours into our two-week trip to Ethiopia and I was already feeling embraced by its people. From the minute we stepped off the ‘plane to be directed by a smiling airport official, I had a good feeling about Ethiopia; a feeling that told me this trip wouldn’t just be about the wildlife, landscapes and history.
With every beautiful smile and twinkly-eyed laugh, I fell a little more in love with Ethiopia.
By the time we reached Gonder and Mayleko Lodge, we were ready for that beer. While the domestic terminal of Bole Airport in Addis Adaba had proven surprisingly comfortable, thanks to its body-curve recliners that allowed us to snooze, 24 hours of travelling were taking their toll. A spacious cabin with big beds was just what we needed as we adjusted from British winter to African summer. A beautifully quiet place, 16km outside Gonder itself, Mayleko Lodge is a complex of about ten cabins, each with its own terrace – the perfect place to drink the owner’s favourite beer, Amber. A few minutes later, she sent over a plate of home made fries as an evening appetiser. Nice touch!
As the sun softened and the beer softened us, my friend Kate and I contemplated our trip with huge grins. The flights had been booked back in December, and nearly three months in which to plan and anticipate had added to the excitement of setting off on our first big trip together. Finally, we were here, in the cradle of civilisation and coffee.
With one day to see Gonder, we were keen to get going the next day, thinking it would be a rush to fit everything in. Not so. It’s a lovely place, full of 17th Century palaces, but most of them are grouped together in one site, making it neat and easy to see everything. The complete lack of hassle immediately marked Ethiopia out as different from many other African countries we’ve been to. I’m not really one for a guided tour, although I’ve been on many of them. I don’t absorb historical facts well, so for me, the enjoyment of a place is much more aesthetic than factual. We entered by the ticket office, expecting to be followed round by guides touting for business. But after a polite enquiry and an equally polite refusal from us, that was it. No-one pursued us and no-one looked at all put out that we weren’t hiring a guide.
It was a gorgeous complex of palaces to meander round, mostly crumbling. It was wonderful to imagine the grand court of Emperor Fasiladas meeting, greeting, scheming and partying. While we focused on photos of the ruins, Ethiopian tourists posed for photos. And while they were immaculately dressed, we were in traveller’s gear of baggy t-shirts and deeply unpretty walking trousers; not ideal when they asked us to pose for photos with them! There’s nothing like a stunningly beautiful Ethiopian woman to make you feel frumpy and dishevelled. It wasn’t the first time that I wished that I’d packed some make up and I came to regret deeply the absence of hair conditioner in my wash bag.
Quitting the palace complex we hailed our first tuk-tuk. There’s something about a tuk-tuk ride that makes me feel ‘yes, I’m away’. The noise, the dust, the drivers (and in some countries the crazy traffic) signal ‘other world’ in one gloriously loud and frantic snapshot.
The tuk-tuk driver wound up a short hill to Debre Berhan Selassie Church, one of the area’s most richly decorated. Every square centimetre of the walls and ceiling inside are covered in religious murals – wide-eyed cherubs above and bible scenes on the walls. It was fascinating.
But this was my favourite photo from the site.
All this history made us hungry for shade. And lunch. The tuk-tuk trundled uphill, struggling and bumping, to The Goha Hotel. It was recommended because of the view; perched on the edge of town, it’s truly panoramic. It was full of tourist groups and was deeply disappointing because of this. I think it was just too European for us on our first day of sightseeing. The view, though, was superb.
Suitably rested, we realised our beginners’ mistake; don’t let your tuk-tuk go when you’re in the middle of nowhere. Negotiate a price for the day instead. Still, the long hot walk back into town meant that we chatted on the way to a few people and had lots of nods and smiles.
Thirsty for our first real Ethiopian coffee, we eventually found a tuk-tuk and asked for the EEPCo Coffee House (praised in the guide book as the one with the best coffee in town). Much to our amusement (and that of our tuk-tuk driver) they had no coffee. So we went round the corner to Habesha Coffee Shop. I loved the fact that although we were the only women there, no-one gave us a second glance. I’ve been in plenty of African and Middle Eastern countries where we would have been objects of intense interest. Ethiopia was wonderfully refreshing in this respect.
The coffee was stunning – as strong as an espresso but beautifully rounded and deep without a hint of bitterness. And no grounds, unlike Turkish coffee. Ethiopian coffee made the traditional way is the best coffee I’ve ever drunk and probably ever will.
Next stop was the ceremonial baths, which in Fasiladas’ time was a summer house and party central. These days, it is the focus for Timkat (Epiphany, on 6 January), when hundreds of people are ‘re-baptised’ in a raucous, joyful celebration. In the quiet season, the pool is empty and a gentle wind breezes around the walled enclosure, leaves fluttering to the floor. It was a serene, lovely place.
The highlight of the day wasn’t the sight-seeing, although everything we saw was superb. The highlight was getting on a little minibus, crammed in with local shoppers and workers. We couldn’t chat, as we had no Amharic, but there were many smiles and nods and laughter. I think my bleached, cropped hair was a good source of entertainment but mostly I think it was just that tourists tend not to hop on the bus.
It was a pretty fine start to the holiday but the best was yet to come. The Simien Mountains beckoned…
Last weekend I was in Marrakech. My friend and I arrived after dark and after storms, so we woke on Saturday morning unsure of what would await us outside.
This was the wonderful blue sky that greeted me as I opened the door of our room.
I was happy and couldn’t wait to start the day.
First stop was to find our way back down to Jemaa el-Fnaa, as we had become pretty lost the night before. After many digressions into souk alleyways we made it and headed straight for the Cafe de France balcony, which gives a great view of life happening down below. It was to become a regular haunt in our short stay.
I could have stayed there all day – not only was the people-watching magnificent but the coffee was superb. Best of all there was shade for me and sun for Liz – the perfect arrangement! But the Ben Youssef Medersa, the tanneries and the souks were calling.
When I visited Morocco in 2002 with a travel company that still claims to be all about ‘small group travel’, even though we were in a group of 24 (begins and ends with ‘e’), our local guide promised we would visit the famous Ben Youssef Medersa (or Madrassa as it used to be – why the change, I wonder?). He failed to deliver on his promise two days running, so this architectural gem was top of my sight-seeing list.
I could quite happily have spent a few days contemplating life and studying in one of the tiny rooms off the courtyard. Here are my snaps. If you go to Marrakech, I would recommend it as a ‘must see’.
We had a lovely lunch break nearby and I couldn’t resist taking sneaky snaps. There are so many interesting, craggy and beautiful faces in Marrakech but it’s not a place where I feel comfortable asking to take people’s photos – it’s hard to get your hands on small change and many people who would make for the best pictures would need a little ‘thank you’.
So these are my sneaky lunchtime ‘world goes by’ photos.
We strolled through the streets to go and visit the tanneries. My advice? Don’t bother! Before we could find the classic views of the vats of colourful dye we were gathered up into an impromptu tour of one man’s ‘patch’. It was interesting enough but the photos weren’t even worth keeping and I can’t say I learnt anything about the process that made it worth the smell. If anyone knows how to find the section that gives the classic views (I visited them last time I was there), do post a comment with info!
A bit more ‘souking’ followed – we weren’t necessarily interested in buying. Rather, wandering around the ancient alleyways is a major sight-seeing joy in its own right. Here’s today’s selection of pictures. There will be more tomorrow!
Our final stop in our crammed day was the Menara gardens. Personally, I wouldn’t bother going again but I imagine if you went in the early morning or at sunset, the view would make up for the fact that this is a rather dull garden with a big resevoir and a building that frames pictures of the snowy mountains rather nicely.
The highlight in these gardens was being ‘mobbed’ by a group of about 30 very enthusiastic school children who all wanted their photo taken with us. While we were joining in and finding it good fun, when their teachers arrived, they were horrified that the kids had ‘bothered’ us. They explained in French (and I was chuffed to understand) that the children were from a rural area and hadn’t met many tourists!
We forfeited the sunset on our second evening in favour of going for a beer in a hotel off the square. It was an expensive stop (about a tenner for two beers served with lots of gorgeous nuts and olives) but absolutely worth it, as it had been a hot day of wall to wall sight-seeing! If you find yourself needing a beer stop, then head for Hotel Les Jardins de La Koutoubia
Tomorrow – a trip to the mountain waterfalls with no photos, the Majorelle Gardens, rug-buying and some sunset pics.
Getting lost in the souks is an absolute must in terms of the Marrakech experience. To be honest, you probably won’t have a choice! If you do, then do just go with the flow. Worst comes to the worst – accept a tag-along ‘friend’ and pay them a bit to help you find your way again.
My friend Liz and I arrived at our Riad at about 8pm, so by the time we were ready to go out and eat, it was pretty dark. Armed with a hand-drawn map of the ‘short cut’ to the Jemaa el-Fnaa we set out. Within seconds we were confounded. I had been so laid back and ‘non preparing’ about the weekend break that I all I knew was that we were somewhere north east of the souks. Beyond that, I simply figured that we’d find our way with what the Riad staff provided us…should have known better as I’ve been to Marrakech before.
The alleyways around our Riad were straight out of the middle ages – dark, narrow and mysterious. At night, with lads lurking and eager to ‘help’, it could have felt dangerous. But do you know what? It just wasn’t. We smilingly shook off offers of help and found our way into the souks. At the northern end some were beginning to pack up for the evening. Eventually we stumbled upon the main artery, still packed with people at 9pm.
And out into the heaving, smoky square. The Jemaa al-Fnaa is a sensual feast. Musicians and story-tellers attract huddles of locals, keen to enjoy the evening’s entertainment. The smoke rising from hundreds of food stalls forms ever-shifting clouds, stinging the eyes and making the mouth water (and I’m not even a meat eater!).
I was a right old chicken on that first night, refusing to eat the street food in case my stomach rebelled. How foolish I was. It was the best food in the city, something I only found out on the last night. Take it from me, eating in the square offers the best choice, particularly if you’re a veggie who gets bored of unseasoned five-veg couscous and tagine after a couple of days!
Here’s some night time photos of the Jemaa el-Fnaa.
Tomorrow, it’ll be onto souks, sunsets and people-watching!
I went to Marrakech for a long weekend last Friday. First off, I have to recommend cheap breaks website Ice Lolly. My friend Liz had used them before and she found a brilliant deal – just £350 for four nights and flights.
It was the perfect getaway. Liz has lovely children and they are now old enough for her to have a girls’ weekend away without feeling guilty or starting to miss them.
We both needed a break from the miserable weather and we couldn’t have timed it better. Marrakech had storms and rain on Friday but we didn’t arrive until about 8pm, once they were over. We woke to brilliant blue skies on Saturday and they stayed that way all weekend.
You can’t expect too much from a £350 break – our Riad is billed as four star but was a bit dusty and worn around the edges. For us (keen backpackers, not bothered about luxury touches) it was absolutely spot on.
I don’t have pictures of Riad Amsaffah yet, as I have temporarily lost my photos, but I should be sorting out the photo issue tomorrow and will gleefully post as many as I can. And by the way, the ‘delete after download’ option will now always be unticked by me; I’ve learnt my lesson the hard way. My download failed but the delete went ahead despite this. I understand from the ever helpful internet that they will still be on the memory card (as long as I don’t use it). Unfortunately the free software I downloaded didn’t recognise my camera as a drive, so I’m waiting for a card reader to arrive tomorrow before I can sort it out. I mention all of this, as I hope that other bloggers can learn from my mistake!
So until I have sorted out my own photos, I’ll resist writing of my sun- and souk-filled days in Marrakech.
In the meantime, here are my top tips:
1. Take a canny bottle of your favourite spirit from duty free if you’re partial to a sunset drink. Mint tea is glorious but there is something so lovely about a ‘proper’ drink at that time of day and the rooftop locations around the Jemaa El Fna don’t serve alcohol.
2. The gates to the souk all close by 10pm at the latest, so if your Riad requires you to walk through them from the square, make sure you leave yourself enough time! We did but it was very close on the last evening. Taxis are surprisingly expensive and the drivers aren’t keen to haggle.
3. Budget to buy a rug. Sitting down to drink tea and be presented with a fulsome range of kilims is a great experience.
4. Visit the Majorelle Gardens, as they are stunning. But go early. By 10 a.m. they get busy and it’s a small place.
5. Get lost. Allow a whole afternoon simply to wander the souks without worrying where you are. It is like stepping back into the middle ages and is the most absorbing sight-seeing possible.