(Not So) Darkest Africa

Ethiopia: The North

I arrived back in the states a few days ago after 12 days in Ethiopia and 5 in Germany; that’s pretty much the yin and the yang of it, civilization wise.

It was my first trip to Africa (and Ethiopia), the lush and forbidding jungle it ain’t.

Much of Ethiopia sits on a high plateau and looks and feels more like Arizona than the Congo; Addis Ababa, the capital, is located at 7,200 feet ASL.

Addis is part tumbledown third-world city and part glitzy capital with the Chinese spending money there as everywhere else.

The trip was a big circle in the north: Bahir Dar, Gondar, Simien Mountains National Park, Axum and Lalibela, some by plane and some by bus with thirteen others, much like the groups I show around Washington.

Ethiopia is an Orthodox Christian country and this time of year they are celebrating various holy days, often connected to the Ark of the Covenant, something I vaguely remembered from Indiana Jones, but read up on, nevertheless.

The country is physically stunning, the Blue Nile originates there in Lake Tana and the horizon all around is studded by peaks, some quite high, separated  by deep river gorges, with intervening heights often terraced for crops.

The average income is less than two dollars a day and the poverty is stark in the rural villages where you see the Africans of yore — thin people simply dressed in a wrap, often carrying a walking stick and usually involved in some aspect of manual agricultural labor.

Small towns and cities offer a stark contrast with folks often attired in western dress and with younger folks clutching smartphones, indistinguishable from their hip counterparts here and elsewhere.

The level of poverty forces many to be “on the make” and I concluded after considerable contact that if a male under the age of 21 speaks to you, they often want something from you.  It may not be out and out begging, more of a soft con, but they have a story to tell and an ask to make.  It becomes exhausting after awhile.

Older Ethiopians will tell you to ignore these youths and to not engage with them but the tragedy of widespread poverty and under-employment is an obvious blight.

The vast majority were extremely friendly, very polite and quick to show their affection for America and Americans; they made me feel welcome.

I mentioned earlier that I traveled with a tour group, like the kind I work with as a guide, and I concluded that it’s just not my cup of tea — I need a smaller group, much smaller.

My groups can be fifty in number and were I to travel with such a group I would probably throw myself under the bus by noon on the first day.

Even with a dozen people there was constant whinging about everything and anything: too hot, too cold, too early, too late, too many choices, too few choices, too fast, too slow — enough already.

I spent as much time as I could with locals, drinking coffee, street gambling, exploring the neighborhoods or just chatting.

Perhaps not surprising for me, the highlight was found in the mountains.

At Simien Mountains National Park I ventured out for a hike near our lodge which was atop a plateau at 10,000 feet.

The sun was setting and it was still, nearly silent.

Not far into the walk I noticed several monkeys grooming; they would turn out to be Geladas, found only in the Ethiopian Highlands.

The farther I walked the more I was firmly in their territory, often with fifty or more in close proximity; I later learned these were reproductive units or possibly a larger group called a “band.” 

Geladas are grass eating cliff dwellers who were doubtless heading home as the sunset and evening arrived.

This was Africa, a distant and majestic horizon, purple in the evening light, while in solitude I joined the Geladas, happy that they let me hang with the group, if only for a moment.




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