February 27 - March 8, 2004

I was rather apprehensive about this trip to Ethiopia – I felt an outsider joining a group of people who all knew each other, but they soon became my friends. The other thing that worried me was the 4-day high altitude trek – how would I shape up against my expectations and the rest of the group who had been to the base camp of Everest, been trekking in Nepal and other places. When we were at Timna a few weeks ago, Moran took Dani, our granddaughter, climbing in a narrow slit in the rock. Afterwards she told me that she had been afraid but she believed in herself and did it; that kept me going.

The flight on Ethiopian Airlines was a surprise – the service good and the food tasty.
At the Addis Ababa airport Firew Ayele, our tour guide and operator, met us with flowers and  drove us into town. We were surprised by the 14-lane highway, a relic of Ethiopia's socialist past, and that is before we saw how sparse is the movement of vehicles. Although Addis has a population of 3.6 million people, it seems more like a village. It is quiet and no one seems in a rush.  The Gihon Hotel was large and basic, reminiscent of some hotels we saw in Lithuania. It was situated next to a carefully tended park where the only people I saw were men washing their feet under a tap.

After lunch a very tired group visited the National Museum where we saw the 3.5-million year old skeleton of Lucy. We were not allowed to photograph nor were there any postcards of Lucy. There is still much to be done on the tourism front.

We perked up at the mercato – a huge open market. The market was divided into areas on the basis of goods offered. The baskets were varied and beautiful. It was only later that we realized that woven baskets functioned as tables, food containers and purses, replacing stainless steel, Tupperware and porcelain we use back home.

Many people still use coal-burning fires even in the towns, using eucalyptus wood for fuel.(later, we saw  men splitting eucalyptus trees for Debark)

The broom makers market was most picturesque, although the only brooms we saw used were the fresh leafy branches of eucalyptus trees. Fast growing eucalyptus trees are extensively planted, with trees close to each other so that they will quickly grow straight and tall. They are used as fuel, house building – wattle and daub – and fences. Their bark is used as rope to tie the woody bundles together, which are later used for tanning hides and papermaking.  They were first imported in the late 1880’s when the people had cut down their native trees and and were faced with a serious fuel shortage. Addis Ababa means ‘beautiful flower’, supposedly referring to the flowering gum tree.

Animals hides are used as mats and covers for sleeping, strips of hide make slats for beds and hides covered baskets that were made to hold ceramic cooking pots. They are also fashioned into bags to hold books.


Enset or false banana is a staple crop in Ethiopia. Drought resistant, its underground rhizomes are rich in starch and are an important food source especially during the dry season. After the pulp is fermented for about 10 days it is either steam baked to make kocho, a flat bread that was not to my taste, bulla porridge or  flour.

We had our first taste of Ethiopian coffee and found it good. Coffee is Ethiopia's main export. Ethiopians were the first to cultivate coffee for drinking.  Possibly influenced by Italian occupation during WWII, good coffee was available even in the simplest of coffee shops and most also served cappuccino. While enjoying our coffee we placed our dinner orders from Romina Miky, the restaurant  next door.

When we arrived at the restaurant it was full of locals and the atmosphere pleasant.The staff, cooking in an open well, was happy to take a minute and pose for the photo. The food was okay; we all loved shiro, a spicy tomato-pea sauce that we sopped up with injera – a fermented rolled pancake made from teff. The group enjoyed a toast on the surprisingly good local Gouder wine. Most evenings the vodka, gin, genever, whisky and wine flowed freely, except when our leader Ivan Dror strongly advised against alcohol because of altitude sickness. The supply of nuts and other nosherai continued unabated.

On our second day we flew to Lalibela, capital of Ethiopia in the 12th Century. The hotel was bungalow style, with running water and no fleas – my room at least – and a great view if you overlooked what was happening just below your nose in the hotel compound. We, of course, drank only bottled water and carefully doled out the empty plastic bottles, highly prized items.

Visiting the local markets was a high priority.  All of Ethiopia walks; on market days our bus was often the only vehicle on dusty gravel roads crowded with villagers walking to and from the regional market. The Lalibela market was fascinating.  Umbrellas are important in Ethiopia.  When crosses and holy books are taken out of the church they are always covered by a ceremonial umbrella. Many people used them in towns and on the roads. In our culture who would care about a broken umbrella. Note the patch on this man's umbrella. He posed happily enough but was cross when I had no local money to give him in exchange for allowing me to take his photo. Most people wanted money for being photographed.

Although sugarcane seemed to be popular, we never saw refined sugar being sold. Here the calabash and sack contain honey. A straw construction is positioned in a (eucalyptus) tree and when the container is full the bees are either smoked out or washed out. The comb is broken and then wax, bees, plant material and honey are collected. The honey in jars that we later had for breakfast was good, not so sweet but also not clear, containing the stuff mentioned above.


Although most people, adults and children, wore some form of footwear, we did see a lot of peasants walking barefoot. We saw one young man running along the road who was not only barefoot but also naked with his clothes on his shoulders.  Each time we got off our minibus, a  string of children and young adults attached themselves to each one of us, asking our names, where we come from and generally explaining things that we passed.  After giving a few birr (the local currency) to ‘my’ young guide, his friend asked for shoes. When I asked how much a new pair would cost all the little urchins showed me that they also had torn plastic shoes.

Our guide Firew <> proved excellent. He was punctual, well organized, knowledgeable about everything we asked him, and a delightful person to boot. Here he is showing me the sign for the local pubs. Inside the locals are drinking Tej, the local brew.

At a market restaurant a woman is preparing injera. The thin pancake is made from teff, a local millet-like grain that is fermented 3 days and then cooked one side only on a ceramic plate and kept warm in a woven basket. It tastes like buckwheat blini. It is either served open like a plate with with meat or vegetarian stew piled on, or rolled tightly to sop up sauce and bits of food. We visited Ethiopia during Lent and the vast majority of Christians ate only 'fasting foods', i.e. they ate no meat nor any other animal products. At the markets we saw a wide variety of lentils as well as peas, beans, wheat, barley, spices, red onions, lots of garlic and tomatoes. It was the dry season and fresh vegetables were severely lacking. For more information about teff:


Mules are the transport vehicles of rural Ethiopians. These small animals are fast and we often saw them seemingly making their own way around the market or alongside their owners on the gravel roads, laden with sacks of food..

I love this picture; it gives the feeling of the crush the market.

My impromptu guide poses in front of a two-storey house made from stone and mortar with a thatched roof. At the top of the steps is an open cooking fire for the house.

 The group sits on the steps of Bete Medahine Alem. I think the reason the group looks serious was that we all were still overwhelmed by the mass of people, sights and sounds of the market.
Everyone perked up when we started to explore the rock-hewn churches. Lalibela, the capital of Ethiopia in the 12th century, is famous for its 13 rock-hewn churches, recognized as a World Heritage site. The monolithic churches are excavated from the soft volcanic tuff, revealing a free standing church connected to the rock only at its base. Two groups of churches, separated by the small River Yordannos represent earthly and New (heavenly) Jerusalem. The scaffolding and roof although unsightly are to prevent further erosion of the volcanic stone. Hermits live in holes hewn into the rock bordering the church.

The two groups of churches are connected by underground tunnels. Bete Gioris, the last built church stands alone.  It is amazing that one thousand years ago kings had the technology and organization to carry out these complicated building plans. Our guide Firew suggested that Crusader Templar masons were brought from Jerusalem to carry out this massive project. We were amazed how the churches were sculpted out from the rock in one piece.In contrast, today Ethiopia is in the Dark Ages – the simple huts, almost total reliance on rainfall for agriculture, subsistence farming in the good years and resistance to change.

As we walk to the cave church of Naakutoleab we are accompanied by a group of Ethiopians with their ubiquitous dula sticks. We all adopted their way of walking, finding it improved our posture noticeably.

 Like all the other churches, the brick building contains the Holy of Holies into which we were not allowed to enter. Their New Testament books are written on parchment in Ghez and delightfully illustrated. Few people outside of the priesthood understand Ghez  – rather like Jews of the Diaspora able to chant Hebrew without actually knowing what it really means.

A group of children sing and dance as we make our way back to the bus.  On the last night I tried to rhythmically shake my shoulders as they do and it is hard work, almost impossible for more than 30 seconds at a time.

This is the Ethiopian equivalent of B'nei Beitcha (housing project): wattle and daub houses but with a corrugated iron roof.

Before going back to our hotel we stopped off in town. There are table soccer machines by the roadside in most villages. It costs the equivalent of about 50 agorot (10 US cents) to play a game. In the background Ivan plays table tennis with the young man who runs the table while Dani learns the fine points of wearing the local dress he has bought.

Back at the hotel we were treated to coffee. Coffee preparation involves an elaborate ceremony that includes washing and roasting the beans and then blowing the smoke into our faces so we can appreciate the aroma, crushing the beans and making the coffee and finally drinking the robust coffee. In the foreground is popcorn, which was always served together with the coffee. It too was delicious.


Our next stop was at Gondar. Again the market congregates around subjects that include the metal market, wholesale and retail grains and the clothing stores. These colorful lengths of cloth are joined together to make wraps, but as they were about the only thing to buy we bought them with the idea of making curtains, tablecloths and of course using them as scarves.

In all the Ethiopian towns and cities there are traffic circles, piazza-like, heritage from the Italian occupation.  Ethiopians are very proud that they were the only country to force a colonial power to leave.

The Gondar hotel, a Government enterprise,  was similar to a South African lodge in furnishings but didn’t have the same high standard of food.

Starting in the 17th Century, Gondar was the capital of Ethiopia for two hundred years. Emperor Fasilidas and his dynasty built a number of stunning castles from roughly hewn basalt stones and mortar. The design and workmanship shine through the centuries.

These women, who were unwilling to tell us how much they earn, break basalt stone into gravel to be used in restoration projects around the castles.
Here Yashuv walks in what was the bathing enclosure with a bathhouse in the middle. It is still used for mass baptisms today.

The Dabre Birhan Silase Church is beautifully constructed and decorated.

This is a picture of an Ethiopian saint and recurs in almost all the churches.

In the evening we went to a local restaurant where Yashuv tried out the local beer, Tej, a honey-based wine similar to mead. On his plate is shiro, the delicious spicy tomato and pea sauce, with lamb stew.


The Trek

On the fourth day of our stay we started our trek. We drove 4 hours to Debark, the entrance to the Semein Mountain National Park. Amnon holds the relief map of the Park where we trekked.
We were relieved that the original plan to walk 8 hours was scrapped.
Instead the bus dropped us off in the middle of somewhere so that we only had to walk four  hours the first day, from an altitude of 2900m to 3250m, the height of Sanka Ber our first campsite.

As we walked along the cliff the scenery was magnificent and stretched as far as we could see. In the Park Gelada baboons with their red hearts were a common and constantly fascinating sight. They often looked more like lions than baboons leading us to wonder whether the Lion of Judah was based on it.

It is the dry season with no prospect of rain for a few months. Despite this with the change of seasons there were wild flowers and in one area many irises.

To our delight, when we reached Sanka Ber our tents were already pitched, the dining tent was full of roasted barley, rusk-like biscuits and tea and coffee.
It seems that the group was used to not washing on a trek. After I declared that even ice-cold water was fine, while the men lingered over tea, Ofra, Leah, Aytalia and Orli joined me at the open air shower where we were helped by a local woman. Our squeals at the icy water rang through the hills.


The second day of the trip was hard with many uphills (and downhills) as we gained height, walking to our next campsite Geech situated at 3600m.

The wonderful scenery and great weather made it a satisfying if challenging day.

Each rest stop was thoroughly appreciated.

Geech is a small Muslim village situated on the slope of a hill. We arrived at an engagement ceremony of this young 16-year old girl (who looked more like 10). Her betrothed would be a man perhaps three times her senior.  She was very tearful – we were not sure because she had to be presented to us or that the whole ceremony was frightening.

Seeing our pitched tents at the end of a very hard day was like coming home. Although the days were warm and even hot at times, the nights were extremely cold especially with a fresh wind ripping across the plain. Here we met people from South Africa, Poland, France, England and two Israeli boys.

Firew had a staff of 14: one official Park guide, two armed security men, two cooks, two assistant cooks and seven muleteers. Two of the mules walked beside us in case of need. Early in the morning they were balking at being prepared for the third day of the trek.
We had an easy walk to Imitgogo 3926m with stunning scenery and good weather.

One of the guards enjoys a quiet moment .

Still the general direction was up, causing shortness of breath. Reaching Imitgogo brought a feeling of satisfaction.  After 7 hours of trekking at that altitude everybody enjoys a well-earned rest before the final descent back to Geech.

We carried daypacks, while the mules carried everything else including tents, food, cooking utensils and water. The cleanliness was remarkable especially under very difficult conditions. That night the cooks prepared a traditional fried lamb meal while Dani organized a barbecue preparing the choice parts.

Before we broke camp for the last day of our trek Dani set up a clinic for the many people who came for medicine. The most common complaints were severe eye infections and abscesses a result of rotted teeth.

 The fourth day of the trek was hard. We had steep downhills and unendling uphills as we trekked to Enatiye 4070m. It was hot and hard.

As soon as we stopped to rest, local children would run up and down the mountains coming to offer us hats from straw or wool. What they covered in 10 minutes would have taken us an hour!

We had spent most of the last day climbing up and then had a treacherous descent to our last camp Chenek at 3620m

Before the bus fetched us on the fifth day, the early risers braved the cold and went for a last look at the amazing scenery. To the right is our driver Yashua, a Falasha, who hopes to come to Israel.

Our ride in the bus was short-lived – the rocky road was so steep we had to walk uphill. Muscle burn even after days of trekking.
While we ate lunch under a flowering umbrella acacia, a delegation from a nearby village brought a sick child to us. Here the other doctor, Eli, checks the young boys oozing abscess.

The rest of the long day was spent in a dusty, bumpy, uncomfortable ride to Gorgora, a town on the shores of Lake Tana.

Near Gondar we stopped at Wallaka, a Falasha village. The synagogue was locked and the women demanded payment to open it up. In retrospect we were unfair to offer her 10 birr, equivalent to 5 shekel, which she refused. After all, Firew had to pay an entrance fee to every church we visited. This is the village that our driver Yashua comes from. Everybody I met was Christian.

Imagine our surprise when we arrived at Gorgora Hotel on Lake Tana that had been opened especially for our visit and walked into the rooms with lurid bedcovers. I thought I had been given the bridal suite.

That night prior to a surprisingly good dinner we sat by the shore of Lake Tana, enjoying a beautiful sunset, the last of the genever, pawpaws and beer.

We woke up early Sunday morning and in the half light we entered the local church with its Ghez incantation and fabulous frescoes

The church guide claimed he was abandoned by his Jewish parents and that the church was kind enough to take him in. His father’s friend told him he was Jewish and now he is looking for a patron to help him reach Israel.
We spent the rest of the day crossing the huge Lake Tana. It is the source of the Blue Nile. Its calm beauty was somewhat marred by knowledge that the whole lake is contaminated by bilharzia. A fisherman in a leaky reed boat offers us tilapia, otherwise known as musht.

The lake is dotted with island monasteries and churches, only some of which are open to women. On Dek we visited Narga Silase with its outstanding paintings on wood. Unfortunately they suffer from termites which have seriously damaged many paintings. Note the panel representing the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and above Miriam, Moses’ sister. Note also the angel with the Indian-like slippers. Christopher, the son of Vasco da Gama occupied parts of Ethiopia in the 15th Century with the help of Indian soldiers. A priest shows a holy book with the same representation of the parting of the Red Sea

The last church that we visited, Ura Kidane Mihret, was one church too many. We were tired and also tired of the endless stream of locals trying to sell us their wares.

We spent the night at a government hotel at Bahir Dar where we met a group of healers from around the world who had come to re-energize the crystals at the bottom of Lake Tana by their unified healing powers and sounds they generate. And this was before they matched the amount of whisky we consumed that evening!
The next day we made our way to the Blue Nile Falls. By the path we saw dung piles that when dry will be used as fuel

Most of the water from the falls is used for hydroelectric power. It still makes a nice backdrop for some final pictures.
Left to right: Firew, Naor, Eli, Dani, Orli, Ivan, Yashuv, Atalia, Leah, and Ofra with Amnon and myself in front.

One last stick of sugarcane to sweeten our way back to Bahir Dar. Even the beautiful goat’s skin covered baskets weren’t interesting any more as we prepared to fly back to Addis Ababa and home. But not before we had dinner and a party to celebrate a great visit to Ethiopia.


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