After all the excitement of Danakil we were happy to chill in Mekele until we’d caught up on sleep and were ready to hit the road again. Mekele was by far the nicest looking city we had encountered thus far in Ethiopia. There is a highly reliable generalisation one can make here in Africa; when you come across a disproportionately well-developed town, you can bet your bottom dollar that it is the hometown of a president/dictator/absolute ruler wannabe. When we came into the outskirts of Mekele, a large and impressive wind turbine project came into view, then gigantic apartment complexes all very empty and very much out of place. As we rode into town it was infrastructure central with proper hotels, well maintained nature strips, stadiums, hospitals and the like lining the main road. Addis had nothing on this place. As suspected, it turned out the former leader Miles Zenawi was from the Tigray region of which Mekele is the capital.
Classic Tigrayan hairstyle
The ‘virgin festival’ in full swing
Unfortunately our extended stay in Mekele coincided with a huge government meeting that had just about every hotel in town booked solid. Finding a hotel room was a mission and took most of the day, something that is highly unusual for Africa. Our eventual hotel was new and cheap and while it had no running water (rather common for us), the staff were nice, so we were happy. It is always a gamble whether the place you’re staying is going to turn into a heaving nightclub come 10pm. We are quite used to this kind of thing and have adapted to be able to sleep through African dance music played to ear-bleed levels. However, that night the hotel/discotech’s music reached a whole ‘nother level, compromising both our sleep and the hotel’s structural integrity.
Apparently all the girls get new dresses for the event.
Lots of ladies co-ordinate outfits for the festival
It wasn’t just the big government shindig happening in Mekele either. We were there in the midst of the ‘virgin festival’ which from what we could gather was a popular celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox church that is rather big in the Tigray region. It seemed a celebration that allowed the ladies their ‘time in the sun’ where they were permitted to forgo some of their disproportionally large workload, get dressed up and made up and walk through town singing and dancing with their girlfriends. All sounds rather nice but there was a distinctly Ethiopian flavour to it. Girls will go in groups and sing and dance in front of people until they pay them money. The groups of girls will then go away and solicit the next people. It was interesting to watch the varying intensity of effort put in by the different groups of girls. Some were more shy and would even walk off if no money was forthcoming and just enjoy themselves. Others were all business employing encircling tactics and various flanking maneuvers and a level of intensity the average mafia enforcer would be impressed by.
The dark side of the festival
When we left on our Danakil tour we saw that the ‘virgin festival’ was in full swing in the smaller villages too. Young girls and women were dressed up with hairstyles in traditional Tigrayan fashion, beating drums and soliciting payments just as in the city. However in the poorer villages the girls have to be a lot more… err …proactive to receive their ‘donations’ as they couldn’t take advantage of a captive audience like you can by going into cafes and restaurants in the city. In the poor villages there was also the matter of there being very little money to pass around. So outside people and money needed to be brought in.
The kindly kitchen ladies of the hotel where we left our bikes during our Danakil tour
The girls in the villages would therefore assemble a large group and stand in front of cars travelling along the highway. We even saw ropes drawn across the road. Once the vehicles slowed they would sing and smile until they got money. If the cars moved off without giving money the girls would yell abuse and strike the door and windows. It could be really aggressive and was undeniably dangerous for the kids on the road. And surprise, surprise they would throw things at the cars too when they didn’t get paid. We witnessed this dark side of the festival both leaving Mekele for Danakil and upon our return in the tour car.
Crushing freshly roasted beans in preparation for a coffee ceremony
As a biker it was an absolutely horrifying sight. We knew there was no way we could face such things on the bikes. We would get torn to pieces. We resolved that there was no way we would be leaving town until this agro begging festival was finished. That’s right… us big burly adventure bikers resolved to hide in our hotel until the all the little girls went away.
Truth be told I was exhausted from all the excitement and physicality of the Danakil tour and wanted a decent amount of rest before hitting the road. Ensuring we aren’t fatigued when we hit the road is out most important safety measure on this trip. It goes double for Ethiopia where there is a considerably higher level of hazards on the road in the form of people and animals, if not vehicle traffic.
Our mates Connie and Alex that we met back in Nairobi joined us in Mekele.
After a couple days of doing nothing we started to think about moving on but lacked the motivation to follow through. This happens periodically throughout the trip and we take it as a sign our bodies must need the rest if we are shocked and repulsed at the very idea of packing our panniers. And we found Mekele to be a pretty lovely town and there was one particularly awesome pizza place that had a hold of us in our injera intolerant states. And right nearby there were fantastic juice bars and cafes so we were pretty content to be exceedingly lazy in Mekele.
They had a most impressive early 70’s Series 2A Landrover. Alex said he could have done the trip in many different vehicles but loved the old Landrovers so wanted to do it in that. What they lacked in comfort they made up for it in Overlander cred.
Eventually it hit us that we were desperate to return to our new friends near Omorate and the only way to get there was to drag ourselves away from the macchiatos and pizza and get moving. But fate intervened as it often does when one faffs about enough to let it do so. As we went to stock up on cash we found all the ATMs in town were offline. We didn’t want to risk needing to exchange our USD stash so figured we might as well stay another night. The decision was locked in when we received word our German friends Connie and Alexander would be in town that night.
After spending the next morning with those guys we did eventually get moving on our way through the dirt roads of the Tigray regions to Axum. The region is known for its many rock hewn churches many of which are precariously located on difficult to access cliff faces. It is a fantastic part of Ethiopia to explore as it is off the main tourist trail, in a very peaceful and scenic area of the country. We had written down a bunch of churches we wanted to visit before realising, that although they are no doubt fantastic sites, we just couldn’t be bloody bothered.
Outside Abraha We Atsbeha – one of the oldest and most well known of Tigray’s rock-hewn churches.
We were in the throws of tourism overload. The good thing about Ethiopia is that it is chock full of interesting natural and cultural sites but there is so much to do it just wore us out. It felt too busy and too over-stimulating and that is really not our gig. So we opted to see just one of the recommended churches, think not about what we missed and just enjoy the ride. Less is more. Less is always more. Overconsumption is at the heart of the current developed world experience. And just as you can overfill your house with stuff until its cluttered and unmanageable, so too can you overfill you travels with experiences. As time has gone on on this trip we have realised we want to do less and less. And rather just soak up the feel of a place.
The priest opening up shop for us.
We were impressed how he managed to keep his whites white.
Impressive paintings floor to ceiling.
It is amazing how well the paintings have held up over the centuries.
The one church we did opt to visit was the Abraha We Atsbeha church. The church is believed to have been chiseled out of the mountainside somewhere around 340AD. The church is named after the twin brothers and co-rulers, King Abraha and King Atsbeha whose mummified bodies are apparently interred there. Its reported that the last priest who tried to get to the bottom of the rumour had his hands badly burnt by supernatural fire when he tried to have a sneak peak into the coffin. As for ourselves we were content to believe the talks and avoid supernatural fire by just taking in the paintings, which are known to be some of the best in the area. We parked up and found the church custodian who went and opened up the church for us. What a sight to behold it was. Vibrant paintings depicting biblical events covered all the walls and ceiling. The priest went to pains to point out the various saints and events before us. There were so rather macabre scenes intricately depicted reminding us biblical times were ….a bit rough to say the least.
The priest pointing out the various saints and religious figures we were racking our brains to recall the stories behind.
These guys we knew. They have just become aware of their nakedness.
Mary and Jesus – quite different to the usual depictions of the two but instantly recognisable.
Michael taking it all in.
Drums in the chanting room of the church.
The priest chilling.
After getting our fill at this very worthwhile stop we hit the road once more on our way to Axum. The winding dirt roads surrounded by awesome views made for a most excellent afternoon of riding. The scenery was slightly reminiscent of parts of southern China with beautiful karst rock formations along the route. The population density in this part of Ethiopia is considerably lower than most other parts and it made for easy peaceful riding with no traffic and little in the way of animals hogging the road. To me it was a stand out part of Ethiopia made for tourists. I’ve since read it is a great place for ecotourism and there are a number of outfits offering multi-day or even multi-week long hikes and homestays.
A fantastic part of Ethiopia
There are dozens of little rock-hewn churches all over the place here. But we opted to power on for Axum.
It seemed like we had the place all to ourselves.
As the day went on and we got closer to joining the main highway to Axum we came across a marauding pack of little girls blocking the entire road ahead. There was no getting past them. It was our worse fears about the ‘virgin festival’ about to be realised. We tried to not stop as they sang and crowded around the bikes insisting on payment. We kept the bikes moving and pushed forward through the throng, it was far too inconvenient to take off gloves and track down money for them all to fight over. In retrospect I don’t know if getting the cash out would have made things better or worse. We continued to inch through them but they were grabbing us and pushing up against the bikes. There were about 25 in total and these tiny little girls were inexplicably gaining the upper hand.
More of the same.
Very good quality dirt
About 6 were pushing at the front of my bike while a few other girls were tugging at my sleeve and arm. As my bike is a bit tall and top heavy with the huge safari tank I was staring down the face of being knocked over by a pack of pretty 8 year olds. Oh the indignity. We got on the horns and revved the engines to minimal effect. Mick made a break for it, which made some of the girls scatter allowing me some space to followed suit. However, a couple of girls had grabbed on to my elbow and wouldn’t release. As I accelerated off they held their ground enough to jerk my still healing rotator cuff. It hurt for days afterwards. Seriously, what kind of religious festival is this!
So you could gun it and enjoy.
Not far from Axum.
Before we knew it we were in Axum and quickly found an affordable and secure hotel for the night. Axum is a placed steeped in history. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in all of Africa and was the capital of the once great Axumite Empire that grew rich from dominating commerce through the Red Sea and Indian ocean ports. The Queen of Sheba is said to have called the place home and the Arc of the Covenant is believed (by some anyway) to be stored in a rather unassuming looking chapel in Ethiopia’s holiest shrine, the St Mary of Zion church.
Little girls out enjoying the festival
Crowds out watching the dancing.
The tales say that the Arc of the Covenant found its way here thanks to the sticky fingers of Menelik, the supposed son of the resident spunk rat, the Queen of Sheba and foreign love rat, Solomon. The story goes that Solomon was so taken by the beauty of the Queen of Sheba that he devised a sneaky plan to get her in the sack. When she visited his court in Jerusalem he had her agree not to touch a single thing in his palace. She agreed, probably putting the request down to a ‘crazy rich guy thing’. That night Solomon put on an elaborate meal of spicy and salty food. In the night the Queen of Sheba woke thirsty and tracked down some water. Solomon was waiting and informed her she had broken her vow. And somehow that translated into obliging him with a night of whoopee in recompense. Allrighty-then.
Axum remains the spiritual heart of Ethiopia. As it is a deeply religious city it was perhaps no wonder that the virgin festival was still in full swing when we visited despite it having come to a close in Mekele. The great thing about the virgin festival in Axum is that there was a much more celebratory and religious feel to the festival rather than the mercantile, aggressive cash grab nature of what we had seen in other places. The mood was buoyant and it was really lovely to see groups of women and girls swaning about town feeling like the stars of the show and having a good time.
Is this girl not the spitting image of Beyoncé?
We spent the following day touristing and drinking coffee and juice while taking in the festivities. We visited Axum’s famous stelae fields where the granite obelisks range from 1m to 33m in length/height depending on whether they’ve managed to stay upright or not. It was while we were here that we got adopted by a group of four little girls. They were having a great time swaning around town and singing. They used the money they had collected (including from us) to get a local photographer to take and print a photo of them in the stelae field. These girls took a shine to us and proceeded to follow us around.
After we managed to lose them for a short time, I was sneaking a little look at a church when I felt a little kiss on my cheek from one of the girls who had appeared out of nowhere. They were super sweet and even managed to breach Mick’s tough man exterior. Eventually we had walked a long way from where we first met and had to explain to them that we had to go and that they had to stay. It was all a bit sad as they were adorable.
Axum’s stelae field.
Getting some shade.
33 The sweet girls who adopted us.
Mick showing his sensitive side.
A spot of house keeping – street corner sandal repair.
Axum was a nice and chilled place and we could have easily spent more lazy days strolling and drinking coffee there but we both realised we were dying to return to our fantastic new friends Dick and Donna down in the Omo. We missed both their company and the environment of the Omo and were hoping that as old Ethiopia hands they would be able to shed some light on what we had experienced in our travels in Ethiopia. Things had happened that had left us feeling utterly despised and by a number of people we had come across. It was a new and really unsettling feeling to see people that seem to look at you with distain and to seem to want to see you come to physical harm. We were hoping Dick and Donna could shed some light on things and perhaps identify a cultural quirk or misinterpretation of things on our part. We resolved to put the hammer down and make it to Omo as soon as we could.
One last look at the stelae field before hitting the road.
The following day we hit the road and were greeting with fabulous smooth tar and traffic free roads. The mountainous terrain meant there was little in the way of people and animals, which made for smooth and carefree riding. It was a fun morning of mountain views and hairpins along smooth as velvet tar.
Bluey looking dapper.
Easy easy riding.
It is at this point I must recount one of the most unusual and surreal experiences of my whole life! I was riding out in front this time enjoying the empty, smooth winding road. We saw barely another vehicle and were both having a good time on the twisties. We came down into a valley and saw a large bridge across a river. We slowed down as the road changed to good gravel as we neared the bridge. On the approach to the bridge there was a very poor looking makeshift village so we slowed down further. For a change the hazards of going through such a village were minor as the huts are constructed lower than the road so there were no kids playing or animals congregating at the side of the road. We were going about 50kph and in retrospect I wish we were travelling a bit slower but it seemed a responsible enough speed at the time.
Good thing we got a roadside blessing that morning. This was a rather interesting thing about Ethiopia that priests would man a little post along roadsides to give roadside blessings. A couple of times we saw bus drivers stop in the road at one such stand and have the priest run out and give them and their vehicle an impromptu blessing.
As usual we were on high alert being in an inhabited area and my eyes were roving the road identifying hazards. I spied up ahead the only kid near enough to potentially run out in front of our path. He was standing on a rung of a large vertical metal pole at the very start of the bridge. It seemed unlikely he’d jump down and run across the road but I still kept my eyes on him. But just then I experienced a super sudden and overwhelming self command to crash my bike right there right now.
It was so strong a compunction and so instinctual I immediately did just that, grabbing the brakes and going down bloody hard on the dirt in the process. I landed over the side of my bike with my forearms and torso taking much of the impact. I was instantly sore having come down flat rather than sliding. But more than anything I was utterly flabbergasted. I knew 100% that I did that on purpose but had not a single clue why. For a second there I thought I must have gone and lost my mind. I remember trying to desperately figure out what I was going to tell Mick happened because at that point I didn’t have the foggiest idea.
Mick was right behind me and figured I must have hit someone or something. It was only when he went to pick my bike up that he realised there was a thin rope across the road. I had crashed the bike right beneath it to the point we had to hold the rope back to be able to pick up the bike up. The rope was maybe 3mm thick and red/brown in colour and had nothing at all hanging from it to allow it to be seen. We had come across plenty of ropes across roads in Ethiopia but they had always had flags/rubbish hanging from them. Not this time. Not at all.
The culprit. Look and you will see the rope…..unless you are riding a bike at the time.
Right before the command to crash my bike came from nowhere I remember thinking of the word ‘metal’ with alarm. As I look back now the only explanation I have for crashing and not knowing immediately why was that I must have subconsciously seen the rope across the road before I had a chance to clearly develop the thought and recognition in my own head. The word ‘metal’ jumped out as I think I subconsciously realised that the rope might be attached to metal pylons in which case I couldn’t count of simply riding trough it… I don’t know for sure but that could be some kind of explanation.
It was an incredibly odd experience knowing you crashed on purpose but not knowing why. It was however confidence inducing in a way to have such an experience that suggested subconscious risk assessments as well as the conscious ones might be going on while I am riding. The rope was at about neck/helmet height so the most likely outcome had I not crashed the bike would have been it hitting my visor and getting caught under the peak of my helmet and pulling my head back and making me crash in a perhaps less than ideal manner.
Once we realised there was a scarcely visible, highly dangerous (to bikers) rope across the road we were a bit pissed about it. There were a handful of policemen guarding the bridge sitting down nearby doing nothing who must have known that something like that might well happen from the moment they saw us riding toward the bridge. We knew however not to confront them about it as we weren’t in a position to challenge them. The fact the guards all hung back and avoided us suggested they knew we might be unhappy at them. But the ladies and kids of the village came and picked me off the ground and patted my head and rubbed my arms and knees to see if I was ok.
I took my off a glove and hung it from the rope to tell them they needed to hang something from the rope so people could see it. One young boy was quick on the uptake and wrapped plastic bag around the rope. I gave him and thumbs up and showed him they needed to be all across the rope. Once the village women saw I was okay we all had a bit of a laugh miming my ‘near decapitation’ and inelegant stack.
As much as I wanted to leave the place I thought it best I sit down and have a coke and make sure I was felling ok. I was feeling quite sore, like I’d been crash tackled by someone twice my size. It hit me that I was so sick to death of crashing this bloody bike and would not be doing anymore of it. After my coke I was fine to go again. Only from then on I was seeing non-existent ropes at every turn.
Approaching the Simiens.
The tar was nice..but this was nicer.
However the fun and games weren’t over for the day. As we approached our next destination, the famed Simien Mountains national park we were given both hints of the amazing scenery and the threatening weather. Soon enough it started to rain heavily making us regret our initial indecision on whether or not to put on our wets. We eventually did but not before we were half wet through. The remainder of the ride was pretty wild and memorable as we finished the last portion of the unsealed road in torrential rain.
The weather looking menacing.
Waterfalls in the distance.
Raining now – cold, wet jocks all round.
I was in front and Mick stopped to take this photo. When he didn’t appear behind me I naturally assumed he had ridden of the mountain and needed rescuing so rode back through it all to find him taking happy snaps.
Waterfalls were crashing all over the mud roads, our over gloves were filling up with water, visors fogging up, thunder rolling and lightening striking in the distance. No one wants to be in the mountains during such a storm. But soon enough the lightning calmed down and we rolled into Debark, the gateway town to the Simien Mountains National Park, soaked to the bone but grinning. We found a good room and set about drying all our gear. Even then I think we knew my much-anticipated visit to the Simien National Park might not be feasible or even enjoyable with the weather the way it was. But the Simiens were the scenic home of some rad looking monkeys (gelada baboons to be specific) that were in want of my gushing affection so we would cross our fingers for better weather (and dry riding gear) in the morning.
I was just happy that after more than a year of lugging it around Africa, I was finally getting to use my Klim suit in anger.
A memorable ride.
Damn what a nice read! Bring back a lot of good memories but also sad to hear Ethiopia people dealing with foreigner have gone backwards that much.
But that is why we travel, to see and experience all that the world has to offer even the bad stuff 🙂
My God. What a journey. Africa must’ve missed you terribly. I can’t decide which I love more– your written text or the photos. They are ALL incredibly spectacular. I think if I had to pick a favorite or two it would be the amazing ones of the priest. Geez.
I’m so glad you still have your head, Tanya. And that you have strong intuitive survival instincts.. xox
Ropes across the highway, egads!
Nice writeup of a exotic land.