When I was trying to buy my bus ticket on Sunday, I did run across an educational seminar on the back of a flat-bed truck with a bullhorn, demonstrating how to prevent AIDS. Two young men were showing a plastic model of how to use a condom and presumably explaining the spread of AIDS. It attracted quite a crowd! Good for them!
Hoping that there really would be a ‘second bus’ to Shire/Aksum, I arrived at the bus station at 5:00 AM on Monday, to a totally chaotic, diesel-fumed, noisy pandemonium, and guess what! There was no ‘second bus’ to Shire. So I got on a bus going to Gorgora, (plan B) a small village on the north shore of Lake Tana. I thought I would hang there for three days until the Timkat festival was over and hotel rooms and buses were back to ‘normal,’ once again.
When traveling through small villages I could see many women making injera or bread rounds on large round trays over wood fires in front of their houses. Clearly the Ethiopians start their day early, as when we set out at 5:45 AM in the dark, we encountered many people walking along the road carrying big bundles.
In Gorgora there was one hotel, (all full!) and one campground (Kim and Tim) where they put up a tent for me. This Dutch couple is in the process of building a half-dozen nice huts with bathrooms, but unfortunately, they haven’t been completed. While there, I caught sight of some baboons way up on a high hill. One of the helpers butchered a goat for a barbeque for the following evening.
I met some interesting people at this camp—Ake from Sweden, a birder along with Allem, an Ethiopian who had lived and worked in Sweden for 30 years, now retired to Ethiopia, Jane, the British mother of Amy of the couple running the camp while Kim and Tim were away on holiday, and a nice young couple—he from Spain, and she from Argentina. That evening I probably drank one too many glasses of wine and being very tired (these 4:30 risings to take early buses) caused my stomach to be upset—an unusual occurrence for me, but obviously it can happen! So the next day I transferred to the hotel, which now had a room available. I slept and slept, and got back to normal.
This hotel had lots of flowers and lots of birds, so hunting the birds with my camera kept me busy in between naps. On the second morning I was intending (wondering if I should) walk in the dark about ¾ of a mile to the village where I could get the 5:00 AM bus back to Gonder. The moon was full so I could see quite well, but it seemed scary. I awoke early so set out at 4:40 AM. As I got from my area to the front of the hotel a male voice called out to me. I could also see a small bus parked in the lot. Lucky me! The bus would be going to Gonder at 5:00 and I wouldn’t have to walk in the dark after all. When the bus driver (sleeping in the bus) finally stirred and started the bus, the two hotel guards that had told me about the bus stood up (they had been sleeping on the terrace on benches), slung rifles over their shoulders and walked with me to the bus. I’m assuming that the rifles were for possible wild animals—I had seen baboons from the other camp ground, and had been told there were hyenas about at night.
Some had bleached part of their hair that hung down in curls. There were crowds of people watching different groups dance and many of the young people joined in. My hotel room (same room I had before) was double the price on account of Timkat—so it goes. I took a city bus down to the bus station to buy a ticket for Friday morning at 5:00 AM to go to Shire, and then another bus to Aksum.
4:15 AM came early—I left the hotel at 4:40 and once again, arrived into pandemonium! The bus left for Shire at 5:45 in the dark on a gravel road. The first three hours were in road construction, which necessitated going down into the ditch bypass and then up again over and over. It was also one way at times when the mounds of repair gravel took one lane of the road. But the moon was full and the driver seemed very competent.
The next four hours were going over some wonderfully scenic mountains although it was pretty scary since the road wasn’t very good. We did hairpin turns up, down, up and then down again until—BANG! We blew a tire. We all got out and they changed the tire in about ¾ of an hour. The delay was problematic because the Lonely Planet said that the last bus from Shire to Aksum left at 4:00 PM so if we didn’t make that time of arrival in Shire, I would have to stay overnight there. We were ready to go after the repair, but some idiot had wandered off, and, after waiting 15 minutes, we left without him. Well, there he was in the next village! So we picked him up but some of his countrymen had plenty to say to him!
Another delay—a check point. Everybody got out of the bus and showed their ID cards before being allowed to enter, again. Finally, we were on our way once more, but it was clear that we wouldn’t reach Shire by 4:00.
The countryside was now a flat plain with lots of sorghum fields and many cattle. We began to see camels tied together in a line transporting goods on the road. Eventually we reached an asphalt road (the last five km into town is usually asphalt) and arrived in Shire at 5:00—a looooong ride!
But wait! There was a minibus standing by, that was going to Aksum! Hooray! I climbed aboard and in an hour and a half over a smooth road, I was in Aksum. The hotel I chose from the LP was lauded, but turned out to be not so great. The common showers were cold water only, and the bathrooms were terrible. So it goes.
Aksum is bursting with history. Legend has it that this was the Queen of Sheba’s realm in the 10th century BC. What is known for certain is that there was a flourishing civilization here by 400 BC. For nearly a thousand years Aksum was a world player, trading with other parts of Africa, Asia and Greece. Then in about the 9th century AD, its power collapsed.
There are numerous stelae—needle-like carved slim rock spikes that reach upwards, up to 105 feet high. They are carved out of a single rock, carved with designs and serve to mark a tomb of an important person. They were a bit of a disappointment for me though as they look modern and not old at all. The very largest stele at 105 feet, fell and broke in several pieces while it was being erected in the 4th century, destroying the tomb that it was marking. That ended the stelae business! It still lies where it fell. There were several tombs that one could go down into. One was called the Tomb of Nefas Mawcha.
And there was a ‘Rosetta Stone’ type from the 4th century and King Ezana. This inscription is written in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Greek and records military victories. It also thanks the God of War, making this stone’s age pre-Christian before Ezana’s conversion to Christianity.
I got a tuk-tuk and went out in the country to see the Gudit Stelae Field—field is right; there were cows being herded through it. The stelae don’t compare with the previous ones, but there was a set of six beautiful glass goblets found here (that I saw in the museum) which were remarkable. Across the road was Dungur, supposedly the Queen of Sheba’s Palace, although scholars doubt this. Some say it dates to the 6th or 7th century AD, but others think it is way, way older than that.
There were numerous tombs, stelae and other landmarks to see at Aksum. The one that excites the most curiosity, though, is the chapel where supposedly the Biblical Ark of the Covenant resides. Nobody may see it except the one person who is chosen to guard it and live in the chapel his whole life. Supposedly King Menelik, a decendent of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, went to Jerusalem and brought it back. Needless to say it is considered a very holy place. When I was 13 years old and attended Lutheran Bible camp we had to spend three hours each (sunshiny) morning in class, learning about the Ark of the Covenant. That didn’t go over well—still, I enjoyed seeing the outside of this chapel!
I shall leave on yet another early bus tomorrow to go to Wukro to visit the Tigray Churches.