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Bibi Undercover - The Ethiopian Files


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Safaritalk needs some Bibi. Fortunately I have some Bibi, and I am not referring to Wee Donald’s luxury-loving friend in Israel.  And I’ll be flying this trip report flight solo.


Ethiopia was a particularly different experience to my previous travels to Africa – not that there hadn’t been great variety in those, but Ethiopia is just even more “other”.  If you went to Ethiopia, loved it and started looking for other places like that you could visit I am not sure you could find anywhere. You’d probably just have to go back to Ethiopia. A weird and wonderful place.


It was an appropriately weird and wonderful trip too. A string of things “went wrong” and we were permanently teetering on the edge of disaster, rather like me on the edge of the cliffs clambering up to a rock church in Tigray. But just as I recovered my balance or was grabbed by an attentive guide, so Ethiopia somehow kept us teetering but never falling, and delivered some wonderful experiences. I could just post the photos and you’d be totally deceived – what a marvelous trip, you’d probably say. But of course I am not going to do that, so give me a few days to get properly started, then get a cup of coffee (or a glass of Ethiopian wine – sometimes better than could reasonably be expected, but don’t get too adventurous!) make yourself comfortable and find out how Ethiopia brought pault literally to his knees sobbing and why it took me two weeks to get back to feeling “normal” again after I got home. In fact I am still not sure I am recovered.


















I was supposed to be visiting Ethiopia with my wife. It was all set up for that, as an after-Chad trip with a very flexible itinerary that meant we could choose just how much activity we did and change the itinerary quite significantly without much effort - we didn’t really know what to expect from Chad. We invited Bibi (aka Mum) along to Ethiopia too. She wanted to go to Chad as well but no places were available (luckily, I think, although it really would have been something to have her there). Anyway, I added on a day in Lalibella for her at the beginning and a day in Addis Ababa at the end and decided we’d all go to Tigray for the rock churches – something that my wife and I could tag team on Bibi-minding duties, giving me lots of time for photography and my wife lots of time for chatting and doing whatever she does when I am not around (including selfies it seems nowadays). Ideal!


Then my wife didn’t get her requested holidays. Disaster #1! She managed to get time off for Chad by swapping vacation with a colleague but she had to cancel the Ethiopian part. I’d be in Africa without her for the first time. I’d need to simplify things a bit and maybe make a couple of lists, but I could handle it no problem, I thought. And I wouldn’t be alone. I’d be with my Mum… Bibi and her lost glasses and endless questions and occasional inappropriate comments. My wife fills a vital role on these trips, especially with Bibi. She’s the slightly organized one, the more observant one, and most importantly the one who vetos the worst of my ideas and keeps us in line. This time it was going to be pault untamed and Bibi unleashed. I’d have to play the straight man. But I manage that at work for most of the year, so surely I could do it on a trip, I thought? It would be fine. Mum would step up too. Surely. How difficult could it be?


“Your poor guides” said my wife. “You better tip them well”.  Oh scepticism, thy name is woman!


The following pages are therefore a vindication for someone. Who will it be?


The original itinerary was as follows. I join on March 9 while Mum starts on March 8

Day 1 - Mum In Addis Ababa

Day 2 - Mum in Lalibella staying at Old Abyssinia, Paul arrives in Addis

Day 3 - Meet early morning in Mekelle/Makale, after each flying there, drive to Korkor Lodge in the village of Megab in Tigray, taking in a church on the way

Day 4 – Korkor Lodge with church visits

Day 5 -  Drive slowly to Axum/Aksum, with a tour of Axum maybe in the afternoon – Overnight Sabean International Hotel

Day 6 – Take the whole day to slowly drive to Limalimo Lodge in Simiens (6 hours actual driving)

Day 7-9 Limalimo Lodge

Day 10 - Day in Gondar before leaving on evening flight to Addis Ababa. Paul flies home

Day 11 – Mum has half day tour of Addis before leaving on evening flight.




Since the first thing I booked was 4 nights at Limalimo Lodge I decided to book the rest of the trip with the company of the Ethiopian trekking guide who is one of the team who owns/runs the place – Shiferaw Asrat, which is called Simien Trek. It’s a separate company from Limalimo but Shif has a good reputation and I didn’t really have any concerns about using his services, even though we would not be using his own guiding at all.


The normal way in Ethiopia would have been to have a Tigray guide pick us up from Mekelle (Makale – many places seem to have two or three spellings in Ethiopia, like it doesn’t matter much how it is spelt – just try buying air tickets online with that attitude though) for the first part, have someone else drive us to Axum, where an Axum guide would look after us, and then have someone else drive us to the Simiens, where Limalimo would organize everything for us. However, I asked Shif for a single driver/ guide for the whole time, as we preferred to have a chance to get to know somebody and have them get to know us a bit. He said while it wasn’t necessary if we wanted that he could do… and so he did. That meant when we were doing organized activities we’d have two people along – our guy and a local guy – but it was all right and it worked out nicely.


All five guides Shif provided were really good at their jobs and very nice people as well. That part generally exceeded expectations I have to say.






I can’t say for sure what Mum’s first day was like. When I arrived, they remembered her immediately at the airport and the hotel reception, so I suspect she was “memorable” in some way, but nobody would tell me more than “she was very nice”. Mum herself denied anything unusual had happened or been said, so I may never know.


She told me Old Abyssinia Lodge was lovely and very peaceful, with lots of birds and plants – only four rooms and owned by a very nice man called Christmas, who took very good care of her. She also loved the food in the restaurant (it is a high quality local restaurant with some nice, upmarket-ish accommodation rather than accommodation with a restaurant), especially the vegetarian platter with injera! I was later very glad to hear she had tried that already and - better still - liked it. Guide was very good too (arranged by Shif, not Christmas) she said. However, the day didn’t end well…. More on that later.  


This can't have been the first black cat to cross my path during the trip, but it was the only one I was alert enough to photograph.



Ethiopia, where the impaled can be happier than the impalers.



Edited by pault
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I can only say that I can't wait for my next trip to Ethiopia. I'm so excited simply thinking about it.  My only problem is that as @Sangeeta will attest to I'm a hygiene freak who needs cleanliness,but then again the quality of accommodation is rapidly improving. 

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@pault -thanks for this report. Will have a couple more trips for work to Addis over the next two years .... will live vicariously through this report for now! From having read a little - everything is far from Addis? 



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@madaboutcheetah Not everything but the wildlife is. The towns like Lalibela, Gondar and Mekelle are accessible within 60 -90 minute domestic flights but still some travel from there to get towns with flights to the wildlife. Simiens is the easiest but that still takes maybe 5 hours Addis hotel to lodge - more if you follow the early check-in advice. 

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Ah, really looking forward to this @pault - I know it's bound to be interesting! Stunning photos in your first post!

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While Mum’s visit to Lalibela was not ending well, my arrival in Ethiopia did not seem to be starting well. I got through immigration, baggage collection and customs fast, as I was late getting down after spending a bit of time chatting with the rest of the folks I’d been to Chad with and getting a list of things I was to do/ not do while “out alone” from my wife. Queue of one at immigration counter at 9 pm, which made it a bit embarrassing that I did not think to give the official the print out of my e-visa, even when prompted by the question “Do you have a visa?” “Yes!” I replied with confidence but no visible sign of intelligence or action. I would swear he rolled his eyes, but it might just have been the light. After a short silence he asked “Can I have it please?” I reddened.

On the way out of the airport there was an x-ray machine through which I was asked to put my bags. After N’Djamena airport and its multiple checks this was nothing of concern, even when the operator asked me to wait a minute and called over someone who was in plain clothes but presumably an official. No problem I thought – just a bit confused by all the bits and pieces in the camera backpack – and this seemed confirmed by a smiley, very friendly and casual approach by the un-uniformed customs official. It wasn’t a kilo of planted heroin or he’d have been looking a lot gloomier, and probably wouldn’t be alone either. Could I just open my bag a moment as he wanted to see what was in there – he thought the machine operator had made a mistake.

When I did the smile dropped immediately into a frown. “Ohhh – how many cameras do you have?”

Oh no, I knew where this was going. “Three” I admitted.

“Oh dear.” (The last thing you ever want to hear is your lawyer, doctor or a sympathetic customs official saying “Oh dear.”) “That is a lot of cameras”.

“Yeah, each one is for a different lens and I would have only brought two but I’d just been to Chad so I needed this one too…” I gabbled, sounding less than convincing even to myself. “Is that a problem?”

“Yes, you can only bring in one camera. No problem with the lenses – that is fine, but only one camera.”

I tried to let my jaw fall to the floor and flood my eyes with panic and fear and terrible, god-fearing guilt, all of which was surprising easy in the circumstances. “Oh no…. I am so sorry. I really didn’t know.”

“What can we do?” I added, just to make it clear I was open to suggestions and to get a feel for the situation. Were we in hostage negotiations here or what? Was I the hostage? Or one body? Two bodies? Looking back I was surprisingly cool, but after a week in Zakouma and the long trip here with everything unfamiliar all was a bit fuzzy and surreal.

Silence for a few seconds and some nodding of heads and pursed lips (thoughtful and concerned pursed lips, not the disapproving ones) and then he spoke and I knew we were going to be okay. He liked me or possibly just liked tourists, or maybe had his dinner waiting. No hostages were wanted.

“Are these all for you? Are you traveling alone?” he asked, with an encouraging smile.

“Well my wife was supposed to be with me but couldn’t come….” I hesitated and watching his face saw that the second part of this was not what he wanted. “… but one of them is hers. Yes!” His smile got warmer and his eyes cheered me on.

“Only the two of you? That’s a pity. If only there were three.”

I took the cue and ran with it. “Oh of course there is my Mum. She arrived yesterday and she asked me to bring her camera with me too.”

His facial expression high-fived me and gave me a slap on the back for good measure, although he didn’t move a muscle other than the eyes and mouth. “Oh I see. So that’s three. Well in that case we’ll let you through this time, but please ask your wife and mother to carry their own cameras next time.”

“Oh I will.” I assured him. “Definitely. I won’t be this careless again. Thank you for understanding.”

“You are welcome. And enjoy your stay in Ethiopia.”

With difficulty, I resisted the urge to hug him.

I had booked a room at the Ramada, who had a booth at the airport and the woman there made sure the hotel shuttle was coming for me. She was chatty and as part of the chat I told her I was traveling with my mother. As already mentioned, she knew exactly who that was without being told Mum had arrived the day before, and told me I had a very nice and very strong mother.  Half an hour in Ethiopia and Bibi was already picking up fans!  More would follow at the hotel, which was very good and can be highly recommended (the hotel – not being a Bibi fan). Everything you want or need for a hotel very near the airport and with nice outlets with live music (no sound of that in my room though). There are plenty of choices and certainly it is not 5-star but my sort of place, especially traveling alone. Anything I asked for I got, quickly and with a smile.


Next morning I was up at 5.45 for a 9 am flight to Mekelle. The domestic terminal was a bit chaotic in the morning and there were the dreaded multiple checks, but it was not half as bad as I had feared; and the flight had plenty of spare seats and luggage space and it was smooth and relatively timely. 




But when I arrived In Mekelle there was nobody at the airport to meet me. Not again! I went outside, where some VIP was arriving and being greeted by about 10 people and a couple of cars – otherwise nothing. I could see a crazy old man who looked like he’d last changed his clothes in the 1990s jumping up and down across the road and waving a piece of paper that no doubt advertised some dive of a hotel but otherwise it was dead. I decided I would wait a bit, and stayed outside enjoying the air and what was quite a nice view, despite this getting the old man going up and down like a threadbare and grubby version of Tigger in Winnie the Pooh. Thank goodness the airport authorities keep the touts away from the airport building I thought – I would be getting no peace otherwise.

Five minutes later I knew something was not right. Perhaps I would have to wait until Mum arrived in an hour. With absolutely nothing open inside the airport and nothing to do, I started taking in my surroundings a bit more carefully. “Tigger” was still at it, but had been joined by someone who looked a little more respectable and was ushering the last of the other people from my flight onto a shuttle bus into town. He looked at me quizzically and then pointed at Tigger’s piece of paper, and when I looked at it, I could just see, scrawled in faint biro and almost illegible, my name! What the……?!?!? I was very suspicious, but I had to see what was up here. I motioned to him to come across to me, but he pointed to the VIP and group and I realised he was not allowed to cross the road because of this VIP arriving, which is why he had been hopping around trying to get my attention.

I dutifully crossed the road and confirmed that was my name he had written down and asked him what was up. He pointed to the other guy I had seen, which made no sense as if that guy was responsible for me, why was Tigger holding the sign? But I finally got it – this other guy would speak a bit of English, because Tigger had about six words and he had used them already. Didn’t stop him talking though - he never stopped. The other guy explained that Tigger was going to call my guide and I should talk to him. When we got through, the guide told me he was on his way from Axum and would be there soon, but the thing was that my Mum was not going to be there until 4 pm.  Shif would call me and explain. “Can you not explain?” I asked him. “It is better if Shif does it” was the response, which seemed a bit odd. And why was he only “on the way” now? He should have been here to meet me. Anyway, I was told that I should go with the old man, who was a taxi driver and would take me to a hotel in town where I could wait. I didn’t actually want to go to a hotel in town to wait, as I had plans for that day, but in the end grumpily accepted there was no choice.

On my way to the hotel Shif called and explained that my Mum’s flight had been cancelled the day before when she was already in Lalibela and so she had had to fly via Axum (not even in the right direction) where she had a 3+ hour layover between flights. My driver was late because he had had to organize a guide to take care of Mum for those three hours before leaving Axum that morning. Shif was really sorry but he had checked and there was no way to get her to Mekelle any quicker. The driver would be with me soon and he would look after me until Mum arrived. Bad news, but it all made very good sense now.

“Tigger” was absolutely delighted that I understood at last, as we hurtled along towards town in his decrepit, rustbucket, tiny taxi. He was telling me all kinds of things and I did not understand any of them, but since he was roaring with laughter when he told me, I laughed too. It seemed the stand-off at the airport had been very funny and he also showed me the sign, which I found out later via translation was created letter by letter to very precise instructions from our driver over the phone. Tigger was very proud when I confirmed that he had got the letters in the right order and that really was my name.

On reflection of course, all this was impressive from Shif and his guys. It could easily have taken them longer to sort things out, or they could have decided to drive Mum up, which would have been maybe 10 hours and left her exhausted before she began. They had that option ready and had even introduced her to the potential driver, but managed to get an air route worked out. At the time I was a bit depressed and even a bit angry – although it was just not possible to stay angry at “Tigger”! And I am sorry I do not remember his real name and dearly hope he would like his assigned pseudonym if he were ever to hear it.... and knew who Tigger was. 

Tigger's taxi somewhat later, but the man himself was nowhere to be seen. Note the baling string holding on the wing mirror.



By the time the driver arrived and we had “met”. His name is Tesfalem and he said we could call him Tesfa – actually Tesfalem isn’t difficult but when you first hear it rolled on the tongue, down the throat and back up in Tigraian style I promise you it is rather daunting. Mum called him Jasper and was so insistent that was how he had introduced himself that I doubted myself, but I’ll risk the wrath of Bibi and stick with Tesfalem for the purposes of this report. Speaking of which, I shortly after I arrived I got to speak with Mum while she was being shown around a basket market in Axum, which Mum suspected was due to miscommunication as she’d expressed interest about going to a market, but all there were there were baskets. Not what she had in mind but the guide was so nice and so enthusiastic she didn’t want to tell him…. Oh Bibi! It was 11 and too late for Mekelle Market. Tesfalem said he would take me to the memorial to the dead of the civil war of the 1970s and 1980s, and adjacent museum, which was actually more of a shrine to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. He was a young man and very enthusiastic about historical TPLF and the former (now deceased) President who had been one of their key leaders during the resistance and then uprising against the infamous Derg – architects of the Red Terror and key facilitators of the horrific famine of the early to mid-1980s. He didn’t seem very impressed by the current lot though, which was surprising since the TPLF were the core party of the government. I didn’t want to pry further having just met him.

I was less than enthusiastic about going to the museum and put it off for a while – walking about and taking a few pictures on the streets. However, it only took me about 20 minutes of street-walking to get into a minor argument with a woman about what I was shooting and why and it became clear that street photography in Mekelle was not going to be hassle free (although Axum-boy Tesfalem had assured me it would be perfectly safe, and it likely was). 




We're not talking shots that would be worth getting into an argument about.....:mellow:

I decided, since it was my first day, that I should be a little more conservative for now and dutifully went to the museum, which was fortunately much more interesting than I had expected (for me… you may not find it so). It is full of artifacts from the TPLF’s particular brand of revolutionary struggle, starting with documentation that appeared to be Ethiopian translations of portions of the Anarchist’s Cookbook and manuals issued to soldiers behind the iron curtain – on everything from rigging a booby trap to finding water to fixing a Landrover. I couldn’t read it of course, but it was easy to see what it was and it really took me back in time to the late 70s and early 80s – not that I was living in a cave or a Berlin squat and plotting the overthrow of governments in those days, but it is very much of that time. There were other sections on logistics, getting water, survival, communications, weapons etc. with lots of captions that I couldn’t read. I spent over an hour in there, despite being unable to confirm what many of the exhibits actually were. Tesfalem had not come inside with me, although he’d shown me around outside and explained what everything was. I don’t think he was supposed to, as I think there was supposed to be a museum guide to offer services (the Ethiopians seems very, very territorial about guides) but there wasn’t anyone there – or at least nobody speaking English - so I was on my own. 

Tesfalem spent the time watching a video about his hero (former TPLF leader and Ethiopian Prime Minister) Meles Zewani and the experiences of ordinary people during the conflict.

Outside was the monument and a display of military hardware seized by the TPLF from the Ethiopian army during the conflict. There was a pretty nice view of the town there too…..

Bullet-holed jeep



I  have more pictures from this museum visit but I guess they weren't very inspiring as I don't seem to have any in my favorites folder for Ethiopia, which means they haven't been processed yet - and might never be!


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Okay, despite exceeding expectations the museum wasn’t riveting enough to keep me going until 4 pm, when Mum was due to arrive, so we left and found a place to have a coffee. We killed time there until Tesfalem got a call asking why he wasn’t at the airport. Mum had arrived at 3, not 4. Oops – and that was my fault as I was so confident Shif had said she was arriving at 4 pm Tesfalem didn’t think it necessary to check again with him.

We got to the airport as soon as we could (which wasn’t long – there is little traffic) and found Mum being looked after until we got there by some young Muslim women from the area who had been on the same flight and waited with her until we arrived. Thank you ladies! Six hours late (basically a day wasted) at last we could get started.

The drive to Korkor Lodge took well over two hours, although we did stop a couple of times for photos (Just a couple, honest - it was such a lovely evening) and it was getting dark when we arrived.

Flora and fauna basics of this part of Tigray.



Even the more ordinary, less historical churches in Tigray can have spectacular locations.



People here are often dwarfed by their landscape. Look at the people at the bottom and the walk they have to church. Not incidentally, this one shows off the housing style in much of this area - round stone houses. This us a particularly attractive and well organized example - almost a little fort and no tin roof here!



This brings back memories of being sent to the corner shop to get something after school... or maybe my chores were a bit easier?



If you're thinking the church looks familiar, the design is common.





Beautiful sunset over, we quickly covered the rest of the ground to Korkor. The road was decent, although not always as good as it should be due to damage caused by trucks. Anyway, now the hassle was done and we’d be back on track straight away, right?

No! Not right! Korkor had messed up our booking after my wife’s cancellation, and they had only one room for us. Mum was not, not, not, not pleased. “What would you do if I refused?” she asked the owner, sulkily. When she last shared a room with me I was probably wearing flares and platform shoes and was coming to terms with my voice breaking. I hope I wasn’t also wearing a shirt with a ridiculously long collar, but I probably was – and a tank top. I was a bit too tired to be bothered much, so this one was more like an annoying poke with a stick than a punch to the guts. Still, what a mess of a start, and that’s why she was unusually aggressive with the owner I think.

Long story short… it was fine. Bibi lived to tell the tale and in fact barely saw me as she was in bed when I came back to the room and I was already out taking photos by the time she woke up. Not that I think there would have been major issues anyway.

Provided they have a room for you, Korkor Lodge is very nice indeed. I didn’t bother to take any pictures of the room as they have nice pictures on the website and they’re accurate enough. It’s actually in the village itself, which was a slight surprise, but it’s on the outskirts and there is plenty of space around and great views. Being in the village adds something too. My only wildlife sighting was a hare, but I didn’t see much more elsewhere.

Views from Korkor Lodge





With roadbuilding going on in the area, we knew soon after dawn exactly how far we were from the main road. This is telephoto though. The sounds of a truck passing is faint enough that it'll barely disturb



Taken around the lodge.....






Next morning we could finally get started.

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Can't wait to read the rest---especially what brought you to tears!  You're good with the suspense! :)


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Loving this, superb story-telling as usual.

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Unfortunately Mum had arrived from Scotland with a cold and she couldn’t shake it off. Apart from giving her a shiny red nose in some photos that you will never see, it also slowed her down. That and the fact that she isn’t quite a spry as she was at 75 meant that I had to rethink some of my plans a little, especially with the lack of time. One of the attractions of Korkor Lodge is its location right in front of Maryam and Daniel Korkor (you can see Daniel Korkor if you know where to look, although it is basically just a hole in the rock, especially at that distance) and close to Abune Yemata (the terrifying one). In fact it is a great location for some of the least accessible of the churches. I thought Mum might make a go at one of these, with lots of stops and water, but with a cold it was clearly not a good idea at all. Also we only had one full day here as we would be leaving in the morning next day.

The weather was lovely, although it was very dry and dusty and of course tending towards hot. Tigray can be a very warm place. Immediately after breakfast at around 7.30 we set off for the church of Maryam Papaseit/Papasetti. This hadn’t even been on my list of possibles originally and the plan had been to visit one of the more accessible churches the afternoon before and Mum then to have the morning off or accompany me up to Maryam Korkor if she was feeling super-fit. Our guide turned up having organized that and I had to tell him it was no longer a go – we had to cancel Maryam Korkor  - I would go up in the afternoon if I still had breath but Mum needed to do something else.

Although the guide was a bit reluctant at first, once he accepted the situation he got on the phone and had everything reorganized in a few minutes, including calncelleing the guy who was waiting to help drag Mum up to Maryam Korkor. And he really made an excellent choice as an alternate destination. Maryam Papaseit is probably not the “most…” in any category for Tigray churches, but it must have one of the loveliest walks to get there. It really was such a nice walk – quite long at well over an hour for Mum, but pretty flat and… well the pictures will show you. After the frustrations of the previous day this was like being free again. My walk there was probably nearly double that of Mum’s because I was running off the path to take photos all the time.

A farm in Africa. They weren’t all as neat as this one. Two shot panorama.



Stuffy nose but happy and ready to go – and she brought her hiking sticks.





Bibi and bodyguard – she really didn’t need him on this route, but I think just because he was there she stumbled a couple of times so he could catch her. On the way back she was glad when she was overheating that he was there to carry her water and daypack too, but overall, since he didn’t really speak any English, Bibi was most unimpressed and tipped him poorly. 




The church is mostly built outside the rock, with only a small part inside, but it has some nice architecture and some striking, beautiful and well-preserved paintings – in fact the paintings are so good that even in the town churches we’d rarely see much better versions of many of them. Like most of these churches, I think its age is open to debate but the paintings are probably from up to 500 years old so obviously the church will be older than that.

Outside the church with guide, waiting for the priest to arrive with the key.



Priest in front of his church. The priests here are usually farmers from the local community who marry, have kids and lead normal lives, apart from being priests. All the guys I met seemed very down to earth and of course they are infamously unafraid of worldly matters such as how much to charge tourists. Although I had heard stories, I noted no issues with this at all and everything was very friendly. But our guide took care of it all and he is an experienced and enthusiastic guide who knows everything and everyone, so your mileage might vary on this. I mention it because I had read a number of stories about getting a bit hassled and extorted and I have no such stories at all. Note you should expect to pay a bit extra if you want the priest to feature in a few photos and maybe show you all of the “good stuff” hidden behind curtains. Theoretically every paying visitor should be shown these but I am not sure you would be if you didn’t know what was there. Our guides (here and elsewhere) knew anyway and sometimes took over the show and tell duties. 



The paintings here are mostly done on fabric, glued to or hung from the walls.

Jesus washing Mary’s feet is one of the most striking and the style (as in most churches we visited) is quite distinctive, although of a very recognizable Ethiopian style, suggesting a single artist for most of them. The eyes are very expressive, but I am not sure what they express is always what the artist had in mind.



This is my favourite – I can’t remember if it is various saints, someone’s eleven wives (unlikely although the figures are quite unisex) or the apostles minus Judas though. I suspect the latter.

At some point it looks like someone decide to repaint the walls without considering the effect on the artwork!



Always something gory on the walls too and our guide was able to tell us the story behind most of them, although many were well known biblical stories, some were not stories I had heard before. It seems the lives of saints and angels were a lot more colourful and violent than most western churches want their congregations to know. This angel spear-fishing for what I assume is a sinful person or devil-fish-man of some type is not a tale I am familiar with from Sunday school.



We spent about an hour at the church – outside and in. You wouldn’t spend much more in any as they are all of course very small, but due to locations it would be difficult to fit in more than three a day without rushing – two is enough if one is on a clifftop.

Entrance to the church grounds.



On the way back to the van.







It seemed to take less time to get back, but then we were hungry and lunch was waiting for us – and we also went by a slightly more direct route, with fewer stops to admire things.

There are some birds on this walk, but no other wildlife that we saw. The farms are very interesting though, especially with the beautiful backdrop.

I’d decided I’d visit Maryam Korkor in the afternoon, even though everyone I’d asked had suggested I not do it when I told them I suffered from vertigo – everyone except our guide, who had said it would be very tiring to do it in the hot afternoon sun, but otherwise it wouldn’t be a problem. He would change his mind about that quite shortly.

Edited by pault
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Loving the photos @pault so good to see you delivering clear and sharp images again. 

The narrative's not bad either. :rolleyes:

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Mum was more tired after the morning walk in the sun than I had expected and was really happy to be having the afternoon off at the lodge. I had delayed my departure as long as possible as climbing in the heat around the middle of the day was clearly not sensible. I am loathe to name our guide as I am not sure I would name him correctly and he is really worth a recommendation – inadvertently recommending someone else could be a bad thing to do as Shif told me it is really difficult to get a good guide who also speaks good English in this area – most have either one qualification or the other. I can imagine this would be the case as there is quite a lot of knowledge required given the large number of churches and competing theories on both them and their art, but you also ideally need someone who has some climbing or hiking guide skills, and while most educated people in Ethiopia speak some English, the level of English needed to communicate about the churches and help us deal with all the unusual names and multiple variations of names and spellings requires another level of awareness and skill to what most people have. Still, let’s call him G in accordance with what I think his name is, so that he is not quite so faceless….


So “G” had said the latest we should start the climb should be 2.30 as any later and we would be hurrying to get down before dark. We drove to a point 1-2 km from the start of the climb – we could have potentially driven a bit further but the walk was nice and gave us the chance to look at the cliffs from a little distance and to pick up our local-local guide. The local-local guide was the one who had been called off in the morning and since we had booked him G felt obliged to use his services in the afternoon if I didn’t mind. Since everything had been paid (or at least charged) in advance I didn’t. I have no idea what would have happened if I did mind. It would probably have been awkward but no more, I guess.


It was really hot and so I had decided to take one big and one small bottle of water as well as some sugary mints – I was not going to be unprepared and allow myself to get dehydrated like last time I was foolish enough to start climbing in this kind of heat. Local-local guide could carry the water and the second camera I had brought along solely because I knew he was there to carry it.  I was well-prepared, but I have to admit I was also quite fearful because the climb looked rather daunting for someone with vertigo.


Our destination was the spot with the trees, in the dip between the peaks on the left of this picture (taken at dawn that day from the lodge). Daniel Korkor church is the two lights on the ledge to the left of that - we did not have time to visit that and my guide anyway had forbidden it when he heard about vertigo as he didn't want to die - the path is a bit narrow in places.





That was pretty high up…… it’s on the left here, and our starting point was next to the church on the left. Alarm bells were ringing as we set off from the van.




Everything was fine at first, although that was hardly reassuring as we hadn’t reached the cliff face yet! Also the steep walk in burning sun to get to the base of the cliffs, added to the not insignificant walk in the morning, drained me of any excess lung capacity I thought I had. We were not at what I would really call high altitude, but we were far, far from sea level – things are generally around the 2500-3200 meters mark here – so that was a factor no doubt. Then my left leg sort of gave out (nothing really pulled but I have problems with it from time to time and this was time) just as we reached the base of the cliffs, where we would follow a crevice up as far as we could. It was steep but not too different from walking up really large steps that sometimes moved when you stepped on them. At least the walls gave the impression that you wouldn’t fall far.


The way up (and down)



There were quite a number of hyrax early on the climb. Pretty well camouflaged and of course deceptively agile. 







Seeing them scurry around on the cliff face of course increased my confidence and comfort no end - I would be just like them, I decided.


Since I had started out in relatively bad shape and over-hot (not to mention burned from Chad) it didn’t take long for me to hit that shade of red and that speed of breathing that signals the need for a break. I’ve learned that I actually need to break more towards the beginning than the end of a climb, and if I do that I’ll be a lot less distressed. I was monitoring my heart rate and we were not approaching that alarming rates that I’d reached on Mount Ololokwe, so I was pretty unconcerned, but my guides were looking distinctly worried. I must have looked to be in trouble with the Chad “tan”, and I guess with a sore leg I was a little bit, as they both tried to persuade me to go back down. But I convinced them I was good to go for a bit further and that I would definitely tell them if I was reaching my limit.


The shade in between the cliffs was very helpful but soon we came out into the open again – we had sort of climbed through the cliffs and were at the side/back of the church now – although that was still a long, long way above us. Not only did that make it very hot, it also exposed us to some fairly scary drops. Fortunately I am not really scared of drops – I am just more likely than you to lose balance for no apparent reason and so it is wise to stay away from drops – and we didn’t have to get too close to the edge most of the time. Everything was still walkable here though – just one or two points where it was easier to scramble and use hands. In fact if it hadn’t been for my aching leg, screaming lungs, pounding heart and a body temperature that seemed dangerously high, I would have said “piece of cake”. There was a downhill bit and it was like I could fly for a moment.


There was always a way that made the climb less difficult than it looked at first. Here we could clamber up the rocks on the right, with no need to try to scale the sheer cliff.





About half way up we went into the cave inside the rocks on the right of the photo below, which was a common sleeping spot for pilgrims and shepherds.



We sat there for 10 minutes or so and it was nice and cool. After that I really felt much better and got my second wind, although I am not sure I should call it that when I had never really had a first wind. The guides had to tell me to calm down and go slow as I was going too fast, occasionally slipping, and nearly fell off the cliff at one point. Silly boy! I did so.

Now the going got a bit tougher and we had to use our hands quite a lot. It wasn’t vertical, but the penalty for a fall was going to be severe now and it was definitely better not to look down. Looking at the view though was very worthwhile.





Eventually I managed to stagger my way to the top, buoyed by encouragement and some pushes and pulls from my guides. My legs were a bit wobbly but I wasn’t in too bad condition. I wouldn’t exactly say I was proud, but I had avoided the humiliation that had seemed certain to my guides 45 minutes earlier.

Having had someone bring the fisheye lens all the way up I felt obliged to use it.




Maryam Korkor is one of the larger churches of its type. The part dug into the rock is as large as many of the other churches and there is another part constructed outside that is just as large again. It also appears to be one of the prettier locations for a church and has very striking architecture inside - these factors are what had dragged me up there, together with the views and a feeling that if I didn’t go up to at least one of the cliff-top churches while here I would regret it. Of course it was a no-win situation as I fully expected to regret going up, but regretting something done feels better overall than regretting something not done, I find – long-term.



Church in situ, with graveyard to the left. The priest here spends a lot of time up here, going down much less often, and so it is a much more hermit-like existence than for the priests at most churches. You can’t really be priest here and live a normal life I guess.





The flora up here was quite interesting and attractive, although I was too tired to care much at the time.



Another view, showing that more is actually outside than it appears from the front



We met an old monk coming up on the way down and he lives here, but the priest himself was younger and probably gets up and down a bit more often.




He didn’t do any of the showing around here as G knew the place very well and just made himself at home. Although there are obvious signs of water and fire damage there are some very striking features, including:


The decorated domed ceiling (remember these are carved out of solid rock, so doing a domed ceiling is a real extravagance.



The carved pillars and arches.. again this is all carved out.



The archangel Gabriel I think – one of the most famous of the paintings in the rock churches, despite the damage.



Up here is vulture height – they were circling around and I imagine they may nest on these cliffs.



After less than 40 minutes we had to head down again as we were concerned about the time. On the way down I found it much easier than on the way up, although definitely more dangerous and of course not looking at the drop was not really an option.


The views were fantastic. We had really come quite a long way up.



From the top of the slot canyon that took us up and down through the sheer cliff walls. You can see even this part of it is quite a climb, and it is not even half way. The church is where the van is parked.




Once we got about 100 meters from the bottom, we took a photo. This is my local-local guide. The holding hands and demonstration of how he carried the water bottle were his ideas! I was almost out on my feet by now and if he’d wanted to pose me on my knees on a leash I probably wouldn’t have been able to raise much energy to resist. 




We got back just after dark and Mum had enjoyed her day off. I told her she did the right thing not coming up but she had long since decided that and had enjoyed an afternoon nap. We were again in separate rooms so I don’t know if that prevented her sleeping. I do know that I slept very well. There was no time to slack though – we had to drive to Axum relatively early next morning, where we had what would normally be a full day city tour crammed into the afternoon. I wasn’t sure how that would work out but I was willing to wait and see.


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Fascinating report................ and well done for completing that climb. I would never even attempted it. 

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Game Warden

@pault A report filled with stunning images and great narrative, as to be expected. When reading of trips like this I'm always inspired to do something similar...



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Well done on the climb up to the church, the views from up there were definitely worth it!

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@pault Well done. You got it. You bring back nice memories. 



2 hours ago, wilddog said:

I would never even attempted it. 


It isn't that difficult as it looks. Normal people needs a bit more than one hour. Me as an unfit person it took two hours. The morning I think is much better than the afternoon and a helping hand in addition to our local Guide was the best for me. My motivation to do it was not the both monasteries on the top. It was the fantastic view from the top. 

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@pault What a great trip and excellent report. The climb looks exciting and more so if it not something you are used to. Lovely images (of course).

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39 minutes ago, Botswanadreams said:

@pault Well done. You got it. You bring back nice memories. 




It isn't that difficult as it looks. Normal people needs a bit more than one hour. Me as an unfit person it took two hours. The morning I think is much better than the afternoon and a helping hand in addition to our local Guide was the best for me. My motivation to do it was not the both monasteries on the top. It was the fantastic view from the top. 


Yes if you have time and hands to help and can bend your knees to get a foot up you’ll make it - just a case of in what state! Having two hours to get up would have made a big difference (I had to do it in just over normal people time) and definitely doing it in the afternoon in blazing sun is for mad dogs and me. Would be so much easier when both you and the weather are fresher in the early morning. Definitely I am in category of ‘ not used to’ as well, living below sea level. 

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WOW - @pault - the views are breath taking ....... that last segment does it! I must go there the next time I go to Addis!!! 

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Spectacular views, Paul, and of course great fun to read. I really hope that the mishaps apparently awaiting us hunble readers were not too drastic.

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Lawdy!   One adventurous trip after another....as always so beautifully captured and documented for us.  Thanks Paul, these reports are a boatload of effort and time.  You're the master.....keep truckin'.

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I should point out before we get to Axum (or Aksum - take your pick) that I did very little reading for this trip. That was simply a consequence of the time of year - I have no time during February and very little in late January, which meant that books stayed on the shelf and web pages stayed bookmarked but only ever scanned. There is actually a lot to know and to study and with almost every place and every story there are 2-3 competing stories. In some cases it appears that one narrative is much more likely than the others, but in other cases none of the stories are really credible. You can go with what a western archaeologist's theory is or you can go with local oral tradition but neither is fact. An obvious (and extreme) case in point is when I saw that a guidebook quoted one of the acknowledged local experts as dating a Tigray church much later than local oral tradition based on the painting style. That clearly is just an off the cuff comment by the expert (after all who knows for sure if the paintings are the originals or done at the time of construction?) being taken as a credible theory, and the reason this happens is because despite the not inconsiderable historical significance of this area, it remains mostly unexplored in a properly scientific manner. For example, Axum was the center (almost literally) of an ancient African kingdom that at its peak controlled an area that included not only all of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea but also big chunks of Nubia/ Kingdom of Kush and the Arabian peninsula, including significant portions of Yemen and most of the important ports on the southern Red Sea, with its influence extending as far north as Mecca. It was certainly a very important part of the trade link between the Romans and India and clearly a very advanced civilisation of its day. However, nobody seems to have a convincing theory of why its influence faded and then ended, since there were no known wars or any other obvious events to cause it. Some descriptions of the kingdom even omit the parts that are on the Arabian peninsula, although it seems likely to be no coincidence that the rise of Islam coincided with the decline of Christian Axum's influence in that area - as for the rest it just petered out and died. Potentially fascinating, right? But only a tiny percentage of Aksum has been explored and excavated by archaeologists and some of the most significant findings have been by farmers. Of course there are reasons - like maybe the Italian fascists weren't all that interested in finding out more about a Black Jesus and of course there was a great deal of unrest in the region (at least from the perspective of Addis Adaba) which had started long before Haile Selassie was deposed in the mid 1970s and the civil war started - although this didn't really encompass Axum.


Anyway, I am not going to go all @inyathion you. In fact, quite the opposite, I am making excuses for being rather ignorant in a case where there are excellent reasons for doing some proper research before you visit - or even after you visit, and I have hardly had any time to breathe and browse since I got back to work either. This is an ignorant, flying visit to Tigray and Axum.


By the way, the owner of Korkor has a great interest in the churches and apparently some interesting theories of his own, but I wasn't allowed to talk to him for the first 24 hours as he was in the Bibi doghouse for the room mix-up (Bibi wanted him to offer his testicles on a silver platter and he wasn't quite ready to do that, I think, especially as he was busy preparing for a trip home) and after that he had left to visit family in Italy - this is the start of the low season here. So I only have anecdotal evidence of that from other guests and his truly lovely and charming and infectiously optimistic wife, Francoise. 


I insisted that we leave early so that we might have time to stop on the way. Unfortunately, with the road in the area under repair the trip was going to take a little longer than it should, and Mum was not up for all that early a start, so in the end there was no chance to stop at any churches. We could have fit in Debre Damo monastery but visiting somewhere that would make Mum wait for me at the foot of a cliff for an hour (no women allowed) seemed like a recipe for trouble. I asked her if she wanted to visit Yeha but she actually wanted to see the Queen of Sheba's baths most of all, and since our tour of Axum was already going to be express, in the end we decided we would just drive straight to Axum and have lunch at the hotel there. Really there is so much more to see than you are seeing here.


We stopped off briefly in Megab as G was there to wave us off and wish us well, and he'd bought some water for us (not what we already had in the vehicle, supplied as a matter of course - he just wanted to buy us something and I guess didn't know what else would be of any use - and no it wasn't for a tip - we were past that).


By the way, this is about the driest time of year, so this is as parched as it gets usually - I feel I should mention that as the region is unfortunately most famous for starvation among people of a certain age, and while it is no green paradise, it is reasonable fertile in enough places to make life relatively comfortable for most who live there most of the time.


Megab village



Someone else interested in our departure......



The scenery is really good most of the way, although of course it was no longer time for landscape photography, with harsh shadows, and so my tripod stayed where Bibi thought it should be - in the luggage. As a result of the sun position I (low but already blazing) only one side of the road could be photographed, so I don't have photos of some of the most striking sights - Utah-esque - it wasn't worth stopping. However, there were still some things to photograph on the goodish (well, photographable) side of the road.




Waiting for the bus... Not sure why he waited up here - planning to run down once he saw the bus coming from his elevated position? He is sitting on his bag though so he's not just people watching. 




Late for assembly again! 



Once past the construction the road was smooth and clear all the way to Axum and we made good time as I decide given the light I would be nice to Mum (actually I was saving up credit for the next day, but don't tell her).




Priest by the roadside, collecting funds for a church roof or something.



Our van - we'd switch to 4x4 for the Simiens outings but this was fine for us here.



Adwa, site of the Ethiopian army's defeat of the Italians in 1896, which kept Ethiopia independent until Mussolini came back for revenge in the 1930s. I love the song about the battle by Gigi Shibabaw.... Link  (Not her video by the way but the sound quality is half decent on this one)




History everywhere... but thanks to my wish to keep Bibi sweet we swept by it all and were checking in at the Sabean International hotel in plenty of time for an early lunch and change of clothes before the afternoon tour. 

Edited by pault
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The photos are stunning---Ethiopia has so much to see!

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Loved the recounting of your trip up to the church! I would no doubt have been in similar straits, if not worse, with that climb in the heat. The scenery is beautiful but I will leave it to looking at your photos rather than attempt it myself! Looking forward to more.

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@paultWonderful report, I never made it up to the north of Ethiopia when I visited, as they had just been engaging in a very stupid war with Eritrea, there was a lull in the fighting when I was there, but the war wasn’t quite over, so the north was really off limits to tourists. At the time Ethiopian Airlines had moved their entire fleet from Addis down to Nairobi for fear that the Eritreans might be able to bomb them in Addis. The stupidity of the war was illustrated by the fact that the main oil refinery that produces all of landlocked Ethiopia’s fuel is in Eritrea, our driver spent a good deal of time on our safari buying black market fuel.


I’ve never been to Axum, so I’m most disappointed that you’re not going to give us the full history ;) actually no not really, just putting together a report takes plenty of time without adding in a load of history. The history that’s actually in my head when I start writing, is usually a bit sketchy, it takes quite a lot of reading to flesh it out and correct all of the things I’ve misremembered, so that I don’t end up writing rubbish. Knowing just how much time it takes, I’ll be very happy just see some great photos of Axum.


I don’t really know very much about Axum, so I’m looking forward to the next part, I know slightly more about the battle of Adwa so it’s interesting to see a photo of the battlefield.


I’d like to say I’m impressed by your climb up to that church, but really, I think you could have tried just slightly harder and climbed up the church of Abuna Yemata Guh,;)  This church featured in the second series of the BBC’s Earth’s Natural Wonders, I presume it’s pretty close to Maryam Korkor. Like you I’m not good with heights, the idea of climbing the cliffs with a baby, followed by an entire village, up to this cave church for a baptism is just crazy. I’ve just seen some of the photos of it on TripAdvisor and watched a video on YouTube of a tourist climbing up, allowing some of the tourists who visit to make the climb without ropes seems completely mad to me, even the video of someone climbing with a rope part way seems mad.


I hope you don’t mind me adding this clip from the BBC, it shows as your photos do, just what an extraordinary country Ethiopia is.




Actually I’m very impressed by your climb to Maryam Korkor because I’m not sure I’d be able to do it and those views are very special.

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