WHAT are your perceptions of Ethiopia?
Famine? Drought? Scorched earth and malnourished children? A mysterious land that avoided colonisation by European powers and evolved a different culture to the rest of Africa? A Christian stronghold that gave birth to the Rastafarian religion and provided a communist foothold in East Africa? Or a country of long-distance runners?
Hands up, that’s pretty much my knowledge of Ethiopia before arriving here. How wrong can you be?
Like most of this, at times, baffling continent, it is hard to make judgements, generalisations or sweeping statements without far more study – go round the corner and there is somebody waiting to disprove any theory – but this is a land that has enchanted and surprised at pretty much every turn.
For a start, it is beautiful. It is green. And, as we can testify, it is wet (at least it is at this time of year when the BBC World weather map, available in our Gondar hotel when the power is on, even has rain falling on the Sudanese desert which lies ahead – right next to a temperature of 42 degrees C).
All a far cry from the Ethiopia of popular perception which has been coloured by the images of starving children and rake-thin adults which ended with Bob Geldof swearing at us and demanding we send money.
The 30th anniversary of Live Aid coincided with our stay in Lalibela, home to a collection of churches hewn out of the rocks of the surrounding hillsides.
And for those of us of a certain generation, that is the abiding image of Ethiopia.
It has been a pleasure to have those preconceptions washed away (literally, given the almost daily deluges which have become a part of our stay).
Not that things are perfect here. Much of the country can hardly be described as affluent and is living hand to mouth, but on the whole, things here seem to work. Well, most of the time. And for large chunks of Africa, that’s quite a claim.
Driving through the countryside, the main impressions are that it is a land stuffed full of stunning vistas – especially when rolling through the mountains – and is surprisingly verdant. Any preconceptions about an arid land are washed away by green hillsides carefully cultivated to prevent repeats of those crippling droughts.
Not that it is without barren patches. There are certainly plenty of dry areas strewn with stones, which come in handy for another unique side of travelling through Ethiopia, a worrying side effect from the amount of handouts they have received over the last few decades.
We had been warned to be on the lookout for anyone throwing stones, the remedy for which is to wave enthusiastically at the potential thrower in the hope they forget what they are about to do, drop their missile and wave back.
But when dozing in the back of the truck on a long drive day, that sort of information rather slips your mind. Right up until a stone the size of a golf ball lands in your lap, thankfully just off to the side and missing anywhere that really would have hurt.
Witnesses suggest the person who threw it had been waving at us, right up to the moment we rolled past without showing some charity.
While the vast majority of people we have driven past over the past nine months have waved and smiled enthusiastically, they have been dotted with the occasional less than friendly gesture.
And the more than occasional request for a handout.
It is a rule not to give anything away off the truck, be it money, food or the oft-asked for pens, as it will merely encourage the culture of expecting westerners to act as travelling cash machines and food banks and exacerbate the problem for future trucks – something which is very hard when we pack (or worse, throw) away food at lunch with children standing yards away watching us.
Cries of ‘Cadeaux, Cadeaux’ and ‘Money, Money’ have been commonplace for much of the trip, but Ethiopia has taken it to a new level and if they do not get anything, the rocks are their form of payback.
Walking down the street can become a bit of a gauntlet and, as mentioned in a previous post, you become wary of anyone who wanders up to you.
Many will want something – like Matthias, the suspiciously old schoolboy who wanted me to buy him text books from the Gondar shop he just happened to be hanging around outside every day – and make you wary for others who seriously want to help, such as the woman Ale and I tried to shrug off when visiting Gondar’s Royal Enclosure, but who was actually explaining the prices for guides and what our admission fee got us.
But that (and the sudden appearance of ‘Faranji’ – foreigner – prices when it is time to pay a bill) should not overshadow what has been a fascinating, enjoyable stay amid a unique culture.
Having settled into life in the capital Addis Ababa, where the Ethiopian cuisine went down well (especially the spicy tibs, albeit with some lingering repercussions for one or two of us) we headed out into the countryside and an afternoon and evening clinging to the side of the spectacular Blue Nile Gorge, where the thrill of navigating the winding mountain road was multiplied by herds of animals being walked up the slopes right in our path.
Having weathered the nightly storm at our bush camp, we had to dodge an even bigger one on the banks of Lake Tana at Bahir Dar – the Ethiopian Riviera – the next evening, although most of us (bar the unfortunate souls on cook group duty who saw their fire floating away at one point) rode this one out from the safety of the restaurant.
While the poor waiters had to brave the elements to keep us stocked with beer and replace the chairs we somehow managed to break, we eventually had to pull ourselves away from our drinks (briefly) when reports came in that some of our tents had not weathered the storm so well.
Pegging out was a rapid, necessary job to prevent any of our homes for the night disappearing into the lake, as was the post-deluge setting up of a spare tent once the rather large puddles in mine had been discovered. After it had been retrieved from where the wind had blown it.
Excuse, if any was needed, for a few more drinks at the bar, which continued on the truck as the onerous task of downing the remaining alcohol on board before reaching dry Sudan began in earnest.
Which all added up to a few sore heads for the next morning’s boat trip across Lake Tana – source of the Blue Nile – to one of the many monasteries which dot the islands and peninsulas.
Like the country, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has evolved without too much outside interference and the ancient paintings which illuminate the church provided a more than worthwhile outing.
There were more churches on offer in our next port of call, the ones at Lalibela having the distinction of being hewn out of the rock – rather more solid than the state of my stomach, which meant straying too far from camp was not that good an idea.
Our final, current, destination has seen most of us holed up in Gondar for the past few days – bar those who headed off to trek the Simien Mountains – where we were probably the only ones excited to find out we could sit in the hotel bar all day and watch the Ashes.
Mind you, watching it with an Aussie has been enough to send the rest of us diving into those drinks reserves.