Debark, our home for the evening, is the gateway to the Simien Mountains and is set up as a tourist town with plenty of cheap hotels and tourist guiding services of variable looking quality, it seemed all of whom had found us in our hotel during the previous 18 hours and offered us tours up to the NP for silly sums of money. The weather was cloudy but dry so we decided to try our luck sans guide and head up to the NP and ride around ourselves.
Continuing the drying process in the morning before leaving. We had been stubborn the afternoon previous in resisting getting into our wets in the hope the weather would clear up around the next bend. It didn’t, in fact it did the exact opposite. And we got really quite wet before conceding defeat.
Our cheap hotel for the evening: “The Unique Land Scap Hotel”. How could we not stay there with a name like that!
Our stuff was a little drier from the day before when we hit the road that morning. It was a fun ride on the slippery roads as we ascended, however as we approached the main gate to the park the clouds rolled in and we found ourselves in heavy mist with 50m of visibility at best. The gate is at about 3100m asl and the tracks through mountains in the NP rise to over 1000m above that, but with the mist we couldn’t see a thing and figured with the altitude it probably wouldn’t get any better. So with that, we admitted we had been bested by the wet season and decided to turn around and move on.
Looking ominous. As we rode higher the clouds got closer and closer until at the NP gates we couldn’t see a thing.
On the way back down. First views of the valley just below the cloud line.
We had to be easy on the throttle with our rapidly wearing Golden Tyre GT201’s on the mud. Granted, the tyre offered far more grip than the pretty poxy looking tread pattern suggested, but they just wore out so so quick. They were useless off-road after 6000kms and we threw them away at 8500km basically bald. Rubbish for a supposed 50/50 tyre.
You can see the road down there we were about to ride heading back down to Debark.
Only 350m vertically below the NP gate but the sun was shining and it was warmer. Much more pleasant.
So we rode south to the city of Gondar. We made it there in good time and pulled up at a well located hotel in the main square to take advantage of their nice looking restaurant and convenient parking. We had originally planned to quickly visit the castles of Gondar then zip out of town and find a quieter (and cheaper) place to spend the night. But we were liking the look of the place so resolved to spend the night and be proper tourists for the rest of the day. In the general theme of travelling in Ethiopia we easily found a nice, cheap hotel to stay where we set out the last of our damp clothes before going to check out the castles.
A great thing to do in Ethiopia – drink local coffee. Fresh, strong and cheap. Awesome.
After finding a hotel we walked to the castles and grabbed a street snack on the way. Street food in Ethiopia is generally good and always cheap if a little risky in the sanitary department.
Old streets of Gondar.
The entrance cost was damn steep at 200 birr (USD10 each, an utter shite load considering our quite decent hotel room cost that for both of us) and we passed on the guide when they wanted a crazy sum of money for an hours worth of reciting info we could later find on wikipedia for free. So like the quickly embittering tourists we were, we went in alone.
Fasilides’ Castle, pretty impressive from the outside. And inside too.
A castle peeking out through the lawn
Dawit the Third’s hall. It finally lost its roof about 60 years ago.
The castle complex, or Fasil Ghebbi (royal enclosure), is all that remains of a fortress city within Gondar, which was the capital of Ethiopia during the Solomonic Period in the 17th and 18th century. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. The complex covers about 7 hectares and includes castles for Fasilides, Iyasu I (Joshua the 1st), Dawit III (David the 3rd), and Empress Mentewab, a banqueting hall, stables, a chancellery, library and three churches. Sadly there was no gardening shed as the lawns were seriously in need of a mow.
That is Iyasu the First’s castle on the left.
Dark wings, dark words…
The back of Iyasu’s Castle. There must have been a deck here at some stage.
Tanya liked wondering around these castles and thought she might like to be Rapunzel, except for the whole bit about being ‘imprisoned in the castle tower’. The hair sounded like a crazy amount of maintenance too so she stuck to the first floor just in case.
Tan was thoroughly impressed as she had never seen anything like this before, and I’ve got to admit seeing these unmistakably European inspired constructions juxtaposed against an equally unmistakable African backdrop was a mind-trip. However it is not something I’ll be lining up to do a second time.
Tan on the stairway to Fasilides’ Castle. Tan’s Caption: I made an awesome suggestion of acting out our favourite scenes from Downton Abbey. Mick’s unenthusiastic response; Surly and unimpressed… so Mr Carson.
On the inside, still in pretty decent condition
Getting arty with the camera
Last shot, time to go
Like the majority of this part of Ethiopia, there were a few interesting churches about and we decided to invest a bit of time and visit Debre Birhan Selessie Church on the outskirts of Gondar before heading south in the morning. The Church was built during the reign of King Iyasu I between 1682 and 1706AD, and is famous for its amazing artwork, including its angel covered ceilings. All I can say is it was well worth the visit. The scenes depicted there were varied and in great condition, and the priest was very happy to see us and show us around.
A cool little café in Gondar, there are plenty of these little places about but it’s a bit of a mixed bag whether there might be a menu in English or not. This one didn’t, so we pointed to what other people had and were thankful “macchiato” was universally understood.
What we ended up with. Super tasty.
Outside the church, in true Ethiopian style there was livestock just milling around
The Debre Birhan Selessie Church, impressive enough from the outside but lacking in the gob-smacking grandeur of the rock hewn churches of Tigray and Lalibela, but it wasn’t for the outside that we came…
Boots off. I think the priest may have regretted this request once it was done…
Inside. And here is the gob-smacking bit…
The intricacy of the artwork was astounding.
Doing my best to try and take it all in but just being blown away.
Saint George is a popular figure in Ethiopian Orthodoxy and is always recognisable.
Check out the ceiling…
We did our usual dance with the service stations trying to find somewhere with petrol and were finally directed to one with a tuk-tuk line a mile long. Thankfully they saw we were tourists and let us jump the queue – thanks guys. See, Ethiopia ain’t all bad.
Here is Tan doing her best to understand the priest. Thankfully a lot of the names even in Amharic we could understand and we could work out to an extent who was who. It got complex though as there were depictions of a number of Ethiopian Saints who we simply did not know. We nodded knowingly nonetheless.
Amazing ceiling. Just amazing.
We spent a good half and hour, maybe more just soaking it all up.
Thankfully the priest was patient.
I cant quite remember what we paid to get in but it was quite modest and worth the money.
Shame about the poor photo but I thought the depiction of Satan down in hell with his crazy smile was worth a share.
Some of the scenes were a bit gruesome.
Not sure what exactly is going on here…
Thought this was interesting.
It was only 190kms down the tar to Bahir Dar, another famous tourist town of Ethiopia sited on the shore of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. We arrived mid-afternoon and set to some administration work – sorting visas for Kenya. Kenya had very recently changed its visa-on-arrival laws meaning we had to pre-apply online. So we snuck into the fanciest looking hotel we could find on the shore of the lake, ordered a coffee and “oh, could we have the wifi code please?” This new law of visa pre-approval had only been in action for a few days when we applied and it was such a disaster that by the time we crossed the border a week and a half later Kenya had already scrapped it and gone back to the old system.
Riding down to Bahir Dar. Tan stopped and 2 seconds later the usual assortment of kids appeared out of nowhere and begged for money. Tan did here usual “No money, but I’ll give you a high 5”. The kids were happy with that. She gives the bad mannered kids the additional option of a kick up the arse. So far no takers.
The “Devil’s Nose” rock outcrop. We could think of a few things it resembled more than a nose…
It was after dark by the time we got all of our visa pre-approval sorted (it was a rather convoluted process) and we went looking for a cheap hotel, which was made significantly harder with the power out. We ended up in one slightly dearer than we wanted (400 Birr, about US$20 when cheap and decent hotels can be had for half that) but it was the only one we found with secure looking parking. When checking out the hotel a fella stuck his head out of his room and introduced himself; he had heard my boots and knew I was a biker. The plastic hinge of SIDI boots makes a quite distinctive squeak and Steffen, a German riding down Africa on a yellow R1200GS called Banana Joe, had recognised the noise as he wore SIDI Adventures himself. We caught up for a beer and dinner and hit it off.
Steffen and Banana Joe on their way to Blue Nile Falls.
Some mud about, but nothing of consequence.
At breakfast we chatted more and agreed to join Steffen on his ride out to Blue Nile Falls. Its not often we get to ride with other overlanders so figured it would be fun to join him for a quick side trip. It was only about 30kms from Bahir Dar but the heavy rain the night previous had turned the red clay road to mud, meaning the trip took about 45mins with photo and rock stops. I was tail-end-Charlie and copped a few rocks from roadside riff-raff for my trouble. When I caught up to the guys I had to assure Steffen I wasn’t some psycho who yelled at children, I was just sick of being a target for disgruntled locals. Steffen had only been in the country about 2 days and was yet to come to terms with all the facets of Ethiopian ‘hospitality’, but he was about to get a crash course in the joys/woes of riding in a group of motorbikes in Ethiopia.
Lots of water about from the storms the night before.
And lots of mud…
We arrived at the tourist office and were organising for a guy to watch our bikes while we hiked to the falls, but we got a bad feeling from the group of people hanging around so Tan offered to stay with the bikes and read her book. Better that than stress the whole time. So Steffen and I made the hike and got rained on in the process, and weren’t convinced it was worth the effort once we spotted the falls. Anyway, the exercise was probably warranted. What was of far more import however was what the rain did to the road… the muddy road that was a little slippery on the way out was now diabolical red grease for the return.
The hike out. Wet and slippery in the rain and in riding boots.
Lots of mud and slime
The “Portuguese Bridge” was quite interesting.
It was a pretty decent 30min hike in the soft rain to get here. Blue Nile Falls.
We all binned it at least once. What was most difficult was trying to ride around all the vehicles that were also sliding all over the road. It was mayhem. When coming up to a stationary (and often sideways) vehicle stranded in the middle of the road, it was a decision of stopping and paddling past and then trying to get started again on the red slime, or maintaining momentum and trying your luck and attempt to ride around them. In the very centre of the road it was flat and mostly manageable, however flirting with the road’s camber on the edge of you were guaranteed to slide to some extent.
Riding back. With an hour or more of fresh rain, the road was damn slippery with worn tyres.
Paddling along to keep upright.
This was one instance where 3 wheels were better than 2.
While riding around a semi-sideways truck Tan managed to spin out and clip it’s rear wheel with her fairing. Apparently two kids had already run up and were screaming for money before she had even gotten to her feet. In exactly the same circumstance with a marooned tuk-tuk, I managed to clip its canvas side cover and tear a 5cm hole while in a two wheel slide to horizontal. He must have been the most chilled out mofo in Ethiopia as he looked at the tear and then kind of shrugged and motioned for me to move on. I took my queue and did so, rapidly. Steffen handled his big rig well but went down once or twice and twisted his bars in a fall.
I went down on my right and got my grubby clothes even grubbier. The front TKC80 had about 13000kms on it by this point and wasn’t at its best for these sorts of conditions.
Steffen straightening out his bars.
Back in Bahir Dar we got some fuel and access to a high pressure hose to clean the bikes for a small fee. Steffen was off to Addis while we were heading towards the west side of the Omo Valley, so we decided to ride south together until our routes diverged. It was nice winding tar with mountainous views, all pretty standard fare for Ethiopia, although we (read: Tan) got one new experience to add to the list. While Steffan and I both had rocks thrown at us, Tanya who was 3rd in the group (last always cops the worst) had a bucket of water thrown in her face as she rode past at 70kph. It was a cool day and the sudden soaking certainly ruined her afternoon. But at the same time she was pretty stunned and impressed that it was a ripper of a shot. She reckoned there wasn’t a drop of water from that bucket that she didn’t cop. But on the whole she was not a happy camper when we stopped for the night at the only reasonably looking hotel in Bure.
We had certainly one of our most bizarre experiences that night. The 3 of us wandered down to the hotel’s restaurant and ordered some beers and sat down in the outside dining area, only for a well-dressed English speaking guy to come running up and ask us if we could move inside. “We want you to be in back for camera” he said. We had a quick look inside and there was some sort of TV/movie production in process, and they wanted us token whities to be extras. “Sure” we said.
Well, this is novel. Never had this happen before. Didn’t stop us talking crap all night in the background though.
So we went inside and took pride of place behind the table of soap stars as lead extras, Steffen’s back was put to the cameras to stop the world being distracted by that mangy ranga beard of his. We then tried to work out what the hell was going on, all while drinking beers as quick as they could deliver them in between takes and not gawking into the cameras like noobs. It was a pretty surreal experience. In true dickhead fashion we took great delight in adding and removing and moving beer bottles around the table to give the editor nightmares later on. We joked about taking our jumpers on and off and swapping t-shirts but figured that would be a little conspicuous.
The lead actors, although I tend to think my bald melon definitely steals the show. For the record, main protagonist man was the guy on the left in the red and white jacket, main protagonist woman (“Angry Lady”) was the one in black.
Few beers in and having a good time.
Steffen – a German with a big red beard and a great sense of humour. Just didn’t quite add up if you ask me…
After clearing the table of empties the director wanted to see some real acting skills… buckle up because here it comes!
Turns out the soap went something like this: group of friends catch up for dinner and enjoy some time together and have a few laughs. They then have some more serious discussions and there was some obvious sexual tension going on in there somewhere. Then everyone starts to go leaving the two main protagonists, lead lady and lead man at the table alone. They have a bit of an argument and she walks out. The bill comes out and is put on the table. Lead lady walks back in, opens the cheque, slams in some birr, slams it shut and storms out of the restaurant. Lead man looks morose in a very overacted fashion. All the while extras in the background act like idiots. Scene Ends. We dubbed it “Angry Lady Pay the Bill”.
Tan was popular
The other extras in the table next to us spent a lot of their time laughing at us.
We were such good extras even the crew had to get photos with us… With a name like “Steffen Wolf” and a big red beard, Steffen was made for this sort of stuff. A true natural if I’ve ever seen one (first one I’ve seen for the record, but I’m confident).
Proving that even BMW’s fall apart on the road and even German engineers are a bit dodgy.
While we were a bit suspicious with a decent sense of humour Steffen wasn’t German at all, his spotlessly clean white shirt in Africa proved the point. How on Earth? We can’t even keep black shirts clean!
Planning catch-ups in Stuttgart before we headed south for the Omo. Steffen planned on setting up an email address for himself ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ and ‘email@example.com’ for me. Thanks Steffen, very generous…