Monday, October 6, 2014

Of Mountains and Men

Gondar, the land of castles. Yes, there is a city called Gondar in Ethiopia. The crazy thing is that there is also a city in the north of Ethiopia called Shire and one that used to be called Roha (which is now Lalibela). What an excellent coincidence that there would be three cities in Ethiopia that are named like the ones from The Lord of the Rings trilogy and that we will be going to New Zealand later. I loved saying constantly that we were in Gondar haha!

As we flew into Gondar from Addis and the clouds parted for us to see the landscape, we were hit by the greenest shade of green we have ever seen. The green grass looked so bright and vivid as we landed, we both thought we had flown to Holland instead of an hour north of Addis. It was a drastic change of scenery from Addis and the views just kept getting better as our time in Gondar progressed.

A sea of green is the sight of Gondar in September, spotted only with a few patches of yellow from the daisies that bloom to bring in the new year.

Our first voyage in this ancient imperial land was to experience the castles of the Royal Enclosure in the heart of Gondar. Up until the early 1600’s, Ethiopia didn’t really have a stagnant capital city, but after being founded by Emperor Fasilides (most celebrated emperor by Ethiopians today), Gondar stood as the country’s capital for over 200 years.

There were six castles in all inside the enclosure, each built for a new emperor/ruler once he/she came into power. Every one of the castles tells a story about its royal tenant. One emperor loved music and dancing, and so built a castle as a massive dance hall (The House of Song); one liked having parties, and so built a castle with a huge dining room; one liked showing off his wealth, and so collected incredibly high taxes from his people in order to add decoration to his two-story mansion; and an empress, who came into power after her husband died, built an incredibly ornate castle for her son, who was later assassinated.

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But the thing that was probably most impressive to Belle and me was the level of skill and engineering prowess that went into the construction of the castles so many years ago. Very intelligently crafted water drainage and storage systems were a marvel to see on such ancient structures, and really seemed to make Ethiopia a kingdom ahead of its time. Much of the architecture, though carrying some outside influence, was very much the original work of the country’s own craftsmen. Coming from Tanzania, where it is difficult to find many historical items free from colonial influence, this was even more impressive (according to our guide, Ethiopia is the only African country to have never been colonized). Unfortunately, decades of civil war would erase much of the empire’s former glory and send it down its current path of underdevelopment. I couldn’t help but wonder how things could have been different for the Ethiopian empire and Africa as a whole today…

(Left) An ancient gutter system alongside one of the castles, which leads into a water retention pool for use during the dry season; (Top) Interior arches on the ceiling of a two-story castle; and (Bottom) Lion cages within the enclosure – lions were kept by the emperors as a symbol of their power – a “King and Lionheart” as it were…
His crown lit up the way as we moved slowly
Past the wondering eyes of the ones that were left behind.
Though far away, though far away, though far away
We’re still the same, we’re still the same, we’re still the same.
Howling ghosts – they reappear
In mountains that are stacked with fear
But you’re a king and I’m a lionheart.
[“King and Lionheart” – Song by: Of Monsters and Men]
As we left behind the ruling ghosts of Gondar, we traveled far away to the mountains. The Simien Mountains were absolutely gorgeous. Steve and I did a two day, one night trek up the Simiens and stayed in a small hostel-type lodge. We first went to Debark, the junction town to the Simiens, got our trek arranged by a PCV-recommended organizer, met our cook, scout and guide to go up the mountain and boarded our Land Cruiser to the drop-off point. Once we got to the drop-off, the car left us with just the guide, scout and our small day pack which contained a few snacks. We were then left to our own devices to hike a few hours to the Sankaber camp, the location of our lodging for the night.

We were told (by the locals) that the best views would be between Geech and Chenek, which were the two camps past Sankaber on the way up to the highest peak, Ras Dashen, but I cannot even imagine how much better it could be with the views Steve and I were seeing on our hike.

A map of the Simien Mountain campsites. We only made it to Sankaber (lower left) this time, but longer trips allow travelers to reach Geech, Chenek and Ras Dashen (far right).

The mountain air was so fresh and clean and everywhere we turned there were ridges and crevices as far as the eye could see. The ranges disappeared into the distance, and we could tell that we were lucky since the fog hadn’t come in yet and it was a bright, clear day. In some places, we hiked to the edges of cliffs and felt as if we had reached the ends of the earth – it was both terrifying and breathtaking. Our hike was exhilarating and even as the wind whipped at our shirts, we felt so free, surrounded by the strong mountains around us.

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(Left) Clear skies around the Simien mountains; (Right) Watch where you’re pointing that gun, guy!  

(Left) A massive waterfall near the Sankaber campsite; (Right) Oh hey there!

(Left) A rare sighting of the Simien-native lammergeyer with its massive 10-ft. wingspan; (Right) The end of the rainy season gives some amazingly green scenery.

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(Left) Swarms of gelada monkeys along the mountain landscape; (Right) A close-up view of a red-chested gelada

The cherry on our Simien Mountain sundae was getting to partake in a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony at the home of a woman who lived near the campsite we stayed at in Sankaber. Coffee is an integral part of Ethiopian culture, particularly in the villages, and we were fortunate enough to see an authentic preparation ceremony, quite unlike the ones done in town cafes and airport waiting areas.

As with most meals, it is common to start off a coffee ceremony by laying down fresh grass across the floor. The raw beans are then roasted on a large metal plate over a charcoal stove similar to the jiko’s of Tanzania. As the scintillating aroma wafts throughout the house, all nearby friends and family are welcomed to come and take part in the occasion. The roasted beans are then ground by hand using a mortar and pestle (or in this case, an iron rod), which is no small labor, especially when considering that these ceremonies take place 3-4 times per day! To keep the nostrils enticed, some incense is then lit as a small snack is prepared to be eaten with the coffee, such as injera bread or popcorn, as was the case for us.

The fresh grounds are then added to boiling water and soon after, the first cups of coffee are poured into a set of the typical small cups. In traditional ceremonies, there are actually three rounds of coffee served to each person present, so it is easy to see why the serving sizes are so small! The three rounds of coffee are derived from an old tale of the first Ethiopians to drink coffee. The three men (whose names I forget) tasted the coffee in succession, boiling it after each cup and thus diluting the coffee. So the same is done in the ceremony, except that the first (and strongest) round is actually a double dose. Needless to say, we had an energetic evening despite our tiring hike!

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(Left) Roasting beans and (Right) pouring coffee at a traditional coffee ceremony in the village home of a woman living near our campsite in the Simiens

Having conquered the land of men, our fellowship of two headed next to Roha (Lalibela, actually) for a step back in time to experience first-hand a bit of ancient history. Sound familiar? Indeed, our excellent adventure was only just underway…


  1. Belle, I think it is Gondor in Lord of the Rings. The name sounds very close indeed. Still, I enjoy Steve and your adventure. I can not wait for the next episode.

  2. Great pictures and story! Can't wait for more..... :)

  3. Obviously she's in Gondar to see Habbits. Filthy Habbitses! :D