In light of the falling rand, Chris Harvie discovers there's a lot more for South Africans to love about Ethiopia other than the country's excellent coffee
Put out of your mind any preconception of what Ethiopia might look like and replace it with the very opposite. That's the kind of country we are dealing with: a country of contrasts, of surprises, of shattered preconceptions.
Forget drab, dry scenery, unhappy faces, sand and interminable droughts, and replace with twisting road passes, lush, high mountains, sophistication, and smiling faces.
And coffee. Everywhere. Served by beautiful, genteel women behind clothed tables, roasting fresh wild coffee beans with scented herbs in a ceremony of great social significance and gentility. Respect is shown for the process, the beans are presented for the approval of the imbibers and then ground and turned into an elixir, strong enough to make even the most hardened espresso-drinker's hands shake a little.
Amasekanalo - Ethiopian words are very long and very hard to pronounce. It means thank you.
Ethiopia has much to be grateful for, despite its complicated colonial past and its more recent political turmoil. You would think, for example, given the instability of some of its neighbours - such as Sudan - that the fact that Ethiopia is essentially a Christian country with a 40% Muslim population might present a few challenges, but not at all. We were told by Muslims that to insult a Christian in Ethiopia, in any way, was a mortal sin. And Christians said the same of Muslims. Ethiopians are, above all, a tolerant, calm, polite people with a deeply entrenched integrity.
The country's history is a delightfully mangled version of the actual events, interspersed with drama of, often literally, Biblical proportions. They will tell you without even a modicum of doubt that they have the Ark of the Covenant (we know, of course, that Indiana Jones has it) and that the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon's court and consequently bore him a son, who was the first emperor, leading to a long line of Christian emperors which ended with Haile Selassie (who doubled up as a Rastafarian god in his spare time). They will also tell you that many of these emperors, at the heads of their massive armies, fought off invasion by hordes of all descriptions, but mostly Italian.
And you believe them, because not to do so would be disrespectful and would risk cutting short the story.
Our journey began with an over-full Ethiopian Airlines flight. It arrived, heavily laden with small Ethiopians and their overflowing bags and boxes, two-and-a-half hours late in Addis Ababa. At night, on the day before New Year's Day. In September.
Yes. They have their own calendar, as well as their own language and alphabet. The Ethiopians actually don't do anything in quite the same way everybody else does. We'd had our first coffee ceremony before we'd even found our transport.
We had booked only the first night and a driver waited to whistle us through the hybrid ancient and modern streets to our hotel. The tiny, over-furnished room was full of the kind of surprises that Ethiopia throws at the traveller all the time. Too much clobber and not much of it working. Huge dysfunctional lights, sloping shelves, loose-tapped basins and rocking beds. It was as if there had been an earthquake but nobody had tidied up afterwards. We slept, though, and looked forward to breakfast. And coffee.
It is ill-advised and nigh-on impossible to hire a car so we had arranged a driver, who spoke little English, as promised. It had been clearly pointed out that Semagn was a driver, not a guide, so we armed ourselves with a Lonely Planet and pointed to where we wanted to go.
"Chigarillo!" came the response. Every time. "No problem". He meant it. Semagn was the nicest guy in the world, with a ready grin and considerable driving agility, weaving among donkeys, tuk-tuks, horses and carts, goats, pedestrians and low-flying cars and trucks.
We had been advised to stop at the stelae at Tiya, our first introduction to ancient Ethiopia. These dramatic tombstones pierce the sky with engraved pictorial stories of the life buried beneath, interpreted for us with skill and charm by a local guide from the village and followed, inevitably, by a coffee ceremony in a grass-strewn tarpaulin shelter.
Moving on, and after dropping down into the Rift Valley, we stopped just short of the home of Rastafarianism for our first taste of the local food. Don't expect to like injera. While the stews and pastes daubed on top of it can be delicious, injera itself is little more than a sourdough pancake. It looks like a cement-flavoured facecloth and tastes only a little better. There is, however, little alternative in most places.
Shashamane has little to show for its fame as the home of Bob Marley's religion. Red, yellow and green dominate but you are warned not to be dragged into anything illegal. The town is, however, thought-provoking if only in making one wonder why so many foreigners want to be Ethiopian and yet so many Ethiopians want to be foreign. Ethiopians talk about the rest of Africa as if they are somehow not part of it.
Our destination, Bale Mountain Lodge, in the national park of the same name, was a revelation of green-topped peaks and cloudy forests. We particularly enjoyed the hikes and the birding, managing 47 species on our first one-hour walk, including the Abyssinian black-headed oriole, white-cheeked turacos, numerous augur buzzards (including melanistic) and the extraordinary Abyssinian catbird, and all of them despite the rain.
Climbing Gujaralle, the peak in front of the lodge, we saw numerous black-and-white colobus monkeys and even glimpsed the rare Bale monkey, but it was breathtaking in more than one sense. I mentioned to our guide, Awal, as he skipped effortlessly through the bamboo, that I was feeling a little jaded, and was relieved to hear we were almost 4,000m above sea level. Ethiopia is high and much of the Bale Mountains National Park is more than 3,800m above sea level. The highest point on the park's Afro-alpine Sanetti Plateau, Mount Tullu Dimtu, peaks at 4,377m.
We loved the lodge, we loved the food and we saw a lion, one of very few in the park. Awal had never seen one before and didn't believe us when we told him what it was. On the way out, though, he showed huge skill in locating the wolves for us, the icing on a magnificent, high-altitude cake, with 6m-high lobelias and coffee included.
Another night in Addis Ababa and a short flight to Mekele saw us shifting from wildlife to history. Our guide here was Kidane, an archaeologist and fluent French- and English-speaker, whose knowledge of the rock-hewn churches of Tigray, particularly the Gheralta Cluster, was second to none. He and Sisay, the driver, whisked us up and down the mountains around Adigrat and Hawzen, in and out of churches, including the Maryam and Daniel Korkor, and through the most beautiful scenery imaginable for four days. We ended in Aksum with its awe-inspiring stelae, the church that (arguably) houses the Ark of the Covenant, and the Queen of Sheba's palace.
Then, Lalibela called with its extraordinary churches carved, not out of the rock, but out of the ground. An afternoon in the so-called New Jerusalem could only be the high point, and it was.
But where was everybody? Ethiopia's history and its architecture are as mind-boggling as Egypt's and yet we barely saw another visitor, which was wonderful for us but not so good for Ethiopia.
It is the perfect destination for South Africans. Easy to get to. Inexpensive accommodation. Stunning scenery. Friendly people. Go there. It is only the year 2008 in the local calendar and you will genuinely feel eight years younger the moment you step off the plane. And, as you tuck into plate after plate of cement-flavoured pancakes, remember that the questionable food fades into insignificance in the face of the sheer magnificence of Ethiopia. And the delicious coffee.
IF YOU GO...
How to get there: An internet search has Kenya Airways as the cheapest flight option to Addis Ababa at around R7,600, but that includes a stop in Nairobi. Ethiopian Airlines flies direct for around R8,500.
Planning and guides: Molla Miheretu of FKLM Ethiopia Tours (e-mail email@example.com) can arrange a driver to take you to the Bale Mountains. He can also help with the planning of your entire trip. See fklm- tours. com . Alternatively e-mail Red Jackal tours on firstname.lastname@example.org. Kidane and Hailu (our guide at Lalibela) may be booked through them. See redjackal.net.
Visitors travelling internationally on Ethiopian Airlines are entitled to considerable discounts on domestic flights, which operate like buses and, similarly, are often full and late.
Visas: South Africans do not require visas in advance but must buy one, currently $50, on arrival at Addis Ababa’s Bole International airport. There are no compulsory vaccination.