Feeling on top of the world in the Simien Mountains7 November, Gonder
Siting amongst Gelada baboons is a dream come true. Many years ago I saw a documentary about these crazy looking baboons who graze on the high plateaux of the Simien Mountains by day, and climb down to crags on the cliffs for safety at night. I never thought I would be lucky enough to spend time with them like I have just done.
We have just returned to Gonder from 2 nights at the highest hotel in Africa in the Simien Mountains. The scenery was dramatic and the wildlife spectacular. The Simiens are one of Africa’s largest ranges, with over a dozen 4000m peaks and 1000m escarpments. These high plateau, divided by large river valleys, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is easy to see why.
The Gelada baboons are habituated, allowing us extremely close access. By walking up calmly I could sit surrounded by baboons that I could almost reach out and touch. There were little babies playing around me, as well as aggressive fights where teeth were bared and there was much shouting and chasing – but at all times I felt safe. As the Gelada are vegetarian there was very little chance that they would try and tear me limb from limb. Watching them pick grass leaves or dig for grubs was awesome, they are focused on gathering food and were quiet happy to carry on their feeding with me sitting just a metre away.
Yesterday we drove out to Chennek Camp where we searched for Walia ibex in the rain. We were on the verge of giving up when Minalu, our guide, decided to try one last spot – and we were in luck. A small group of these rare goats, who live on the narrow ledges of the cliff faces and have large recurved horns, were standing proudly on a ridge ahead of us. Again, they were completely happy to have their photos taken, a good sign that poaching is under control in the park.
On our return to the lodge, and the highest bar in Africa, we were able to do some trekking which allowed me to photograph both the dramatic scenery and the huge variety of herbs and other flowering plants.
This morning we headed out to another lookout point and to have a last sit with the Gelada. I always travel slow when photographing, but at 3200 metres I was moving slower than usual due to the altitude, especially on the uphill sections. Even though I have been doing a lot of running I was quickly out of breath when climbing the cliff like slopes, the price I had to pay for going lower in search of another flower photo.
The spectacular sights were not just restricted to the land, soaring above were lammergeyer (Gypaetus barbatus), the bearded vulture. By using the thermals created by the sheer escarpments they can soar effortlessly to great heights. They are known for their habit of dropping large bones onto the rocks to break them open, allowing them to feed on the marrow inside.
I could have easily spent a week exploring the mountains, but we have limited time, tomorrow we head to Lalibela and her ancient churches.
Gonder and an early night4 November, Gonder, Ethiopia
After an early start this morning we reached Gonder by mid morning, 180 km north from Bahir Dar. Spent the rest of the morning and all afternoon visiting the caslte ruins of Fasil Ghebbi, the royal enclosure) and Fasilidas's Pool, a 30x50 metre swimming pool from the 17th century used for religous purposes.
There are new photos on Flickr from today, but the stories will have to wait as I need a shower and early night. At least tonight I hear no drums, and the shower does not look like it will electrocute me.
In search of hippo3 November, Source of the Blue Nile, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia.
Today is hippopotamus day, at least that is what is on the itinerary. Before then though we are heading out on Lake Tana to visit monasteries on Zege Peninsula. There are more than 20 monastic churches on the islands and peninsulas of Lake Tana, many founded during the 14th-century. They are famous for their painted churches and treasure houses.
The boat ride takes about an hour to reach the first church, Betre Maryam, which gives us plenty of time to take in the view and the men on papyrus canoes, who were fishing and crossing the lake.
Land around monasteries is protected, which makes them biodiversity hotspots in a sea of cultivation. The Zege Peninsula is covered with forest, unlike anywhere else I have seen in Ethiopia and wildlife is abundant, I even saw a vervet monkey.
The paintings of the church walls is stunning, the photos do not do them justice, you really must visit them for yourself. The paints are all derived from plant and animal extracts, and even though the most recent painting was over a centaury ago, the colour remains vivid. (see Flickr album for photos)
After visiting the nearby Ura Kidane Mihret church we headed back across the lake to the source of the Blue Nile, in the hope of seeing hippo feeding in the reed beds. Alas, the water was high, with the hippo no where to be seen.
After lunch we set off down a rough road for the Blue Nile Falls, or what remains of them after a hydro-electric dam has syphoned off 75% of the flow. We were met by the usual band of young entrepreneurs, who used some pretty novel methods to try and tempt us to purchase souvenirs.
It was near the main view point of the falls that we met one such entrepreneur. Negese (pictured above), a quietly spoken 12 year old boy is in grade 6 at school and also works as a shoe shine. Your shoes will sparkle for just 3-5 birr (18 birr = $US 1), and he makes 50 birr ($US 2.50) on a good day.
Negese, whose name translates to Prince, agreed to a photo for a small fee, which I happily paid. I will send a copy to him via our guide on his next trip.
Tef, the wonder grain2 November, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
Today we took our direction from a horse. Well a statue of a horse to be more correct. At the heart of Addis stands a statue to Emperor Menelik II mounted on his horse, this is considered the zero point of all major highways in Ethiopia. The statue is heading north, so we took our bearings and followed the charge.
Once out of Addis the countryside opens up into rolling plateaus with deep gorges dissecting them. The deepest was the Blue Nile Gorge, comparable in size to the Grand Canyon, dropping from the 2500m plateau down to the river at 1200m. The increase in temperature as you descend is considerable.
On the plateau grow a range of crops, many of them cereal grains. The mightiest of all is tef (Eragrostis tef of the grass family Poaceae), though it is size, either stature of the plant or the size of the grain, does not give away its secret.
Tef is, gram for gram, the most fibre-rich bran and nutrious germ of any grain, containing 15% protein, 3% fat and 82% complex carbs – no wonder those athletes can run all day. It also has 20 times more calcium and three times more iron of other grains.
The grain is ground into flour and used to make injera, a fermented dough, that is served with various stew (wat). Another remarkable feature is that the grain contains a symbiotic yeast so fermentation starts when you add water.