Primates and priesthood Ethiopian adventure

| February 12, 2013

The magnificent gelada monkeys of Ethiopia featured in the BBC’s recent series ‘Africa’, presented by David Attenborough. Cox & Kings Africa expert, Louise Stanion, comes face to face with these relatives of the baboon, before following the route of our 14-Day tour, Ethiopian Odyssey, which takes in the country’s northern highlights, with the option of extending into the Rift Valley extension in the south.

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I sat there on the grass holding my breath, camera balanced on knees. I had long since forgotten my companion, Nick Crane, owner of the Simien Mountain Lodge, Africa’s highest hotel.  I was fully absorbed in an impromptu wildlife encounter of the primate kind.

The gelada monkey is an extraordinary animal with a peculiar appearance.  It is known as the ‘monkey of the bleeding heart’ because of the red patch of skin on its chest.  The monkeys have small, black turned up noses and a four leaf-clover pattern on their behinds.  The males sport a mantle of long thick golden hair on their heads and shoulders.  From the back, one might be forgiven for mistaking monkey for lion.

I first saw them from a distance, moving slowly, en masse, across the plateau.  Endemic to the Simien Mountains, these animals form grazing herds of up to 400 individuals and for Nick, seeing them close to the lodge was a regular occurrence.  He recommended that I pick my way carefully out in front of the moving troop, sit down and wait.

The gelada has the largest vocal repertoire of any non-human primate, up to 30 vocalisations in fact.  As I sat there, the background noise of the troop was comforting.  It was somewhere between a chirrup and a squeak, punctuated by the more aggressive shrieks and sudden movements of the competing bachelors.  It didn’t take long before my unease at being so close to these strange creatures subsided and I was mesmerised by their human-like movements and rapid side glances.

They are (thankfully) vegetarians.  As avid foragers, they sit on their hind legs and use their especially shortened thumb and forefinger to mechanically pluck out blades of grass.  Their hindquarters are adapted with foraging in mind; an extra pad allows them to scoot along the ground whilst using both hands to eat.  In high numbers they have the same effect as a greedy combine harvester crossing a field.

I noticed that the dark haired young were shy and took to using their mother’s bodies as ‘human’ shields, peaking out at me intermittently. Their movements were sharp and a little nervous.  The adults had already assigned me to the ‘no threat’ compartment of their brains.  Apparently geladas are very bright and know the difference between the friendly tourists and the locals who sometimes throw stones.

The Simien Mountains National Park is a far cry from the images of famine and bleak desert landscape that dominated our newspaper pages in the 1980’s.Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site the range consists of several large plateaux dissected by large river valleys. The views are green and spectacular, especially when driving up along the escarpment to Chennek Pass (3,260m) where you have the added bonus of spotting the Walia ibex, another endemic mammal.

Accommodation at Simien Mountain Lodge is very comfortable with rooms modelled on traditional tukuls (thatched cottages).  The bar in the evening can be a lively place with low, comfortable chairs around a big central fireplace.  Despite the inaccessibility of the lodge, the choice and variety of food is well above the Ethiopian norm.  Days here can be spent walking, mountain biking and taking in the scenery, a pleasant antidote to the historic sites for which Ethiopia is better known.

Situated between Axum (possible home to the Ark of the Covenant) and Gondar, (ex-capital city and home to the castles of Emperor Fasiladas) the Simien Mountains can easily be included in historical northern circuit, mostly done by small plane.

Driving from Gondar is an easy four hours and there is a tantalising view of the Simiens en route.  Here, Queen Elizabeth II is said to have stopped for tea on her 1965 state visit. From Gondar I took a short 50-minute flight to Lalibela, UNESCO World Heritage Site number 2. (In fact there are 8 in total in Ethiopia).  I had an inkling that it was going to be the historical highlight of my visit to Ethiopia, but nothing can prepare you for Lalibela.

To begin with the approach up the mountains is impressive.  The landscape is littered with stone terraces on which are grown such grains as barley and tef (a nutty tasting grain unique to Ethiopia which comes in three varieties; white, brown and red).  Farmers, accompanied by two zebu cattle and a wooden plough, are commonly seen tilling the soil.In the 13th century, King Lalibela decreed that 11 intricate rock-hewn churches should be carved out of the bare rock landscape.  Scientists estimate that 100,000 tonnes of spoil was excavated to produce these impressive churches, some standing as monoliths below ground level, others dug out of caves.  It is thought that with 40,000 people armed with hammer and chisel, it would take 40 years to finish the job.  However, legend has it that angels came to assist, carving the churches in just 23 years!

Each church is cared for by an elected priest, who is responsible for guarding the beautiful crosses and sacred tabots, (replicas of the Ark of the Covenant) housed in each church.  My guide, Fikru, had been trained for priesthood as a boy before he chose to share his knowledge with tourists.  He is at home discussing Tibetan Buddhism as he is Ethiopia’s Christian Orthodox tradition and the conversation flows freely as we feel our way through some of the dark tunnels that connect church with church.

This easy chat continues the next day as we walk up to Ashton Maryam, a monastery carved out of the cliff face.  Topics range from the governments attempts to raise the age of marriage and halt deforestation to the role and responsibility of the Faranji (Ethiopian slang for ‘foreigner’) when travelling in Ethiopia.  We meander past stalls selling wool hats and ghabis (white Ethiopian homespun cloth worn with style and pride) and stop in the paddy fields where Fikru displays his childhood skill of protecting the crops from birds with stone and sling.  A group of school children gather, and as in the rest of Ethiopia, they seem to be open and all smiles.  A man beams and waves at us from the top of a ladder; he is rebuilding his tukul.

This half-day trip gives a mouth-watering taste of the Ethiopian Highlands, with spectacular views down on Lalibela.  We sit for a while in that quiet stillness which altitude creates, listening as the echoes from the nearby primary school travel up the valley.  Midday comes and students pour out onto the streets in their bright turquoise uniforms making a splash of colour that turns meandering tarmac into river.

It strikes me that the youth of Lalibela go about their daily business unaware of what a unique place they live in.  A bit like Oxford or Cambridge students in our country, but that is where the similarity ends.  If Lalibela were anywhere else in the world but Ethiopia it would be up there with the pyramids, the Taj Mahal or Petra.  Instead this isolated, understated town remains unknown to many but loved by the lucky few who have had the opportunity wonder its cobbled streets and sit awe-struck contemplating how and why?

A visit to the Simien Mountains and Lalibela is just the tip of the Ethiopian iceberg.This country is home to Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.  Close by is the 45m-high Blue Nile Falls (known locally as Tis Isat or the ‘Water that Smokes’) which forms an impressive stop on most itineraries.

A road rather less travelled points south from Addis Ababa down the Great Rift Valley.  It takes you past lakes, banana plantations and villages that buzz with women and children, many carrying baskets of mangoes and papayas to sell.  Everything is mended; anything is resold. Arba Minch (meaning ‘40 springs’) lies towards the end of this route. It is a good base from which to explore the unknown Nechisar National Park (weather permitting). This park gives remote game viewing a new meaning. Although there is no ‘Big Five’ as such, Swaynes Hartebeest, Thompson’s Gazelle and Burchill’s Zebra are among just a few of the plains game that grace this wild landscape. There are also more Kori Bustard’s that I could count on all my fingers and toes! In recent years, Ethiopia has quite rightly become one of Africa’s leading birding destinations. In addition to 840 birds, a staggering 30 are endemic, reflecting an interesting mix of East and West African avifauna.

Also a spitting distance from Arba Minch, up a series of switchbacks lies the village of Dorze.  The Dorze people, renowned cotton weavers, live in unique beehive-like houses up to 6m tall.  These dwellings are constructed entirely from organic material including bamboo sticks, grass and enset (false banana) leaves.  They are dark inside but as with the outside of the compound everything is kept immaculate and has its place.

Although a trip to Ethiopia should be approached with an adventurous spirit and a flexible attitude to schedules and timings, the historical treasures, dramatic landscape and inspiring people outweigh any shortfalls. Ethiopia now faces the question of how to re-brand itself.

View all Cox & Kings' holidays to Ethiopia.

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