ADDIS TO SUDAN - HISTORY IN THE HIGHLANDS

From Addis we headed east towards the Somalia border to the town of Harar.  Harar is a walled city known for being the 4th most important location in the Muslim world.  Interestingly enough it is inhabited by both Muslims and Christians alike who apparently live together without fighting, perhaps because their aggressions are currently focused on the Eritrean border dispute.

The Harari people have developed an interesting relationship with, of all animals, the hyena and every night they feed the local clan of hyenas by hand.  Given that hyenas are particularly nasty animals whose powerful jaws are able to crush bone, we were surprised how comfortable and complacent the handlers seemed to be.  With only a short stick between their hands and the hyenas jaws they held the meat out for the hyenas to jump for.  Occasionally they would even put the feeding stick in their own mouths and feed the hyena mouth-to-mouth.

The real treat of the evening was that after a short "how to" display each of us was invited up to feed the hyenas by hand.  Although a little intimidating, the feeding was pretty straightforward and except for a few occasions when the hyenas ate half the feeding stick, there were no casualties.

The next morning we set out to explore the inside the walls of Harar.  The town itself, though impressive in its antiquity, is showing its age and offered all the unpleasant sites and smells expected in the third world.  That said, under the expert guidance of Solomon we were treated to a few of the traditional sights.  The highlight of the day was our visit to a traditional Harari house.  You enter into the house directly into the main room which is unfurnished but designed with several layered steps upon which the members and guests sit on rugs and pillows.  Each layer is designated for a member of the house and assigned according to status.  The wall is also decorated in ornate style with various pieces of pottery that the women of the house have crafted.

Off the main room there are small bedrooms that also serve specific purposes at times.  For instance, when a member of the household reaches the 7th month of her pregnancy she situates herself in one of the rooms and is not to be disturbed by anyone (even the husband). We were not quite sure whether this tradition was developed to protect the wife from disturbance or to protect the husband from the inevitable complaining that accompanies the latter stages of pregnancy - maybe something Mike and Cathy can try when they return home :)

Another interesting bit of information about the particular house that we visited was that it doubles as a guest house and, during one of his many visits to Africa, Sir Bob Geldof actually stayed in the guest room of this house. 

With our walking tour of Harar finished, we hopped back in the African Routes truck to head back to Addis for a short stopover (i.e. to check-in on how the Sudan visa applications were going for those on the trip that didn't already have them). 

On our way to Addis we camped at Lake Awash National Park.  It didn't quite have the animal populations that some of the parks we got used to during the early stages of our trip did, but, it was a good camp for Mike and Matt to nurture their stomachs after a day of suffering from either a virus they caught or something they ate in Harar.

From Addis we went north to another bush camp before heading on to Bahir Dar on the shores of Lake Tana.  Bahir Dar is known for its Ethiopian Christian Orthodox island monasteries of which there are many.  We hooked up with a guide who had a boat to take us around to three of the monasteries the following day.  It was a long day on a slow boat, but seeing the monasteries was quite cool. 

Arriving at the first one we felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie with the stone entrance way and the ancient (seemed ancient) priest that welcomed us as our boat docked.  Next to us in the water was a boy in a hand-made papyrus canoe fishing the waters of Lake Tana, who was not too busy to stick out his hand and greet us pleasantly with a rousing "give me some money".

The setup of each monastery was very similar - a round building with a sloping roof and an ornamental Ethiopian cross on the top. Inside is a walk way that runs the circumference of the building.  The walk way is only traversed in a counter-clockwise direction (for a reason that we didn't understand) and it follows four full length walled murals of religious paintings.  From what we could tell, every monastery had the same setup - the first wall depicts the life of Jesus and the patron saint of Ethiopia, Saint George.  The second wall illustrates the life of Saint Mary; the third, the miracles of Jesus and the fourth, the lives of the disciples. 

The first monastery was the coolest, with the other two being smaller replicas of it. 

From Bahir Dar, we drove towards Lalibela.  Lalibela is also sometimes referred to as Ethiopia's Petra and is one of the top tourist attractions of Ethiopia.  It is known for its rock-hewn churches (i.e. churches carved out of a single rock) and was a special addition to our tour by popular demand. 

The drive to Lalibela was another impressive one.  Ethiopia has no shortage of mountain passes and beautiful valleys dotted with remote villages.  As a result, the long drive and rough roads were much more tolerable.  Arriving at Lalibela we spent the night in great African tradition - watching X-Men on satellite television and drinking a few local brews.

The next morning we were back in exploration mode and off to visit the churches.  According to the locals, Lalibela is the single holiest city outside of Jerusalem itself.  The town is littered with 11 separate churches which were commissioned by King Lalibela in the 13thcentury but are still in operation today.  Some of the coolest sights of the day involved seeing the local priests and parishioners practicing their faith.

We got a guide with the rest of the African Routes group to visit the 5 northern churches plus the main attraction, St George's church. The churches are working churches and as we visited the different structures, we had to squeeze by praying locals and ancient (again, seemed ancient) priests.  Each church was constructed for a particular reason and had its own designs, ornaments and purpose.  One of the more interesting was the tomb of King Lalibela where only men are allowed to enter.  Legend has it that this tomb is so holy that any person who sets foot in the building is guaranteed to go to heaven.  Sweet for Mike and Matt.

St George's church is the main attraction and is carved into the rock in the shape of a large cross.  Venturing down towards the entrance we passed a mummy cave and a woman sorting and cleaning seeds (or so we think).  The story of St George's church is that while King Lalibela was constructing his original 10 churches, St George (the patron saint of Ethiopia) rode into town on his white horse and was angered by the fact that King Lalibela had not dedicated a church to him.  King Lalibela apologized profusely and promised St George that he had saved the last and best church for him.

The churches were all cool.  Check out the pictures.

From Lalibela we headed west towards Gonder for the last of our historic route stops.  On the way to Gonder we camped in the Ethiopian highlands for what proved to be our coldest night on the entire trip.  Luckily, Wimpie brewed up his signature hot chocolate to help get us through the evening. 

Gonder is the staging point for entrance into the Simien Mountains and is considered Ethiopia's Camelot as it once served as the home to Ethiopian royalty.  All that remains of that period is a series of stone castles that can be visited by tourists.  After the morning drive from our bush camp we spent the afternoon exploring the castles and the lion cages that litter the grounds.  That evening we enjoyed the last beers that we will have for awhile as the next day we head into alcohol free Sudan.