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Author: Jerry W. Bird is President of ATA Canada Chapter, Editor and Publisher of Africa Travel Magazine, and Webmaster for the ATA site www.africa-ata.org. He is also Publisher of Air Highways Magazine, the Journal of Open Skies, featuring aviation, tourism, transportation and business worldwide. His career began with the Edmonton Journal Daily Newspaper, and expanded into the full spectrum of media - radio, television, magazines and Internet. He has won international awards for creativity in audio visual and print production.

In The Queen of Sheba's Footsteps
by Jerry W. Bird

Lalibela's Bet Giyorgis, most famous of the eleven rock-hewn churches in this mountainous area, is believed to have been built in the late 12th or early 13th century by King Lalibela. These incredible edifices, which were carved inside and outside from solid rock, are ranked among the wonders of the world. Our team of North American journalists came to Ethiopia with few preconceived notions, yet each had some special areas of concern. For every member of the group, it was a first time journey to this ancient, mysterious, storybook land. What a spiritual awakening it proved to be. The tour of Ethiopia's Historic Route began in Addis Ababa, the capital and geographical center. For starters, Ethiopian Airlines, flew us north to Lalibela, the holy city; to Gondar- Africa's Camelot, and to Bahir Dar on Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. Dire Dawa and the walled city of Harar in the eastern sector completed the agenda. Nothing I had read about the Holy City of Lalibela, its mysteries, legends, saints and monarchs, could have prepared me for what we were about to encounter on this trip. The brief morning flight from Addis Ababa's Airport north was a delight, winging through the cloudless skies, as an ever-changing panorama of awesome gorges, deep canyons and broad plateaus unfolded below.

Everything that I had read about Ethiopia in Wilbur Smith's novels, the River God and Secret Scroll, was as he described. As we learned later from Hon. Yusuf Abdullahi Sukkar, Ethiopia's Tourism Commissioner, airport construction enjoys a high priority, and on the high plain south of Lalibela, a new terminal building is in the final stages of completion. Our temporary waiting area was a baggage shack, where we basked in the morning sun, awaiting the commuter bus.

A Storybook Land: I've never been to Tibet, but the spiritual presence and views we saw during our corkscrew journey up the hillside would easily fit that image. Small wonder this storybook land has such a spiritual presence, a proud tradition and a way of life that has survived three millennia, despite an outside world of hate, conquest, treachery, trial and turmoil. The thatched villages, shepherd boys, terraced farming methods, simple forms of irrigation and donkey power, attest to the fact that time has stood still &emdash; as well it should. Coming from North America it's hard for us to realize that this is the way it has been in this part of the world since time immemorial.

Rocks of Ages: During my recent African excursions, I have been awed by mankind's glorious creations, offset by a Jekyll and Hyde capacity for evil. While we were shocked by the slave castles of West Africa's Gold Coast and Zanzibar's dungeons, we saw the result of godly forces at work in the 12th century rock -hewn churches that have made the Holy City of Lalibela a magnet for Christian pilgrims and historians.

Many come for the famous church festivals in Ethiopia, such as Timket (Epiphany) and other times of celebration and devotion. Souvenirs of King Lalibela are everywhere, as a continuing tribute to his glory and greatness in creating these wonders of the world. Our official photographer, Robert Eilets couldn't get over the abundance of photo opportunities in Lalibela's streets, at the famous stone churches and around every bend in the road leading to this remote highland community. Next time, we vowed to allow an extra day for photography alone.

Footnote: Back in Addis Ababa, it was our turn to be interviewed -- this time by Ethiopian press, radio and television. To a person, each journalist agreed it was a positive experience with no feelings of concern or anxiety about personal health and safety. The climate in mid February was perfect, and the hospitality of the people was second to none. What a beautiful prelude to the ATA congress, Africa's 1st major tourism event of the new millennium. More to come, including map and photos.

Gondar: Africa's Camelot

As our minibus rolled into Gondar, after a short flight from Lalibela, there was ample evidence that here was an area destined for long range development as a destination resort. Several new industries attest to this growing trend, as did our conversation with entrepreneurs at the airport and later at the hotel. Our modern, government operated hotel, the Goha was perched like a sentinel on a hilltop, with a commanding view of the city and countryside. Gondar was Ethiopia's capital and principal city during the reign of Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th century. Perhaps that's why I expected to find it a shrine to past glories, instead of an active, bustling community, with people filling the streets, shops doing a brisk business, and scores of gaudily painted horse and buggy taxis (garis) scooting every which way, like bumper cars at a midway. Several of our group decided to try this hair raising means of transport, and it became a highlight of their day, trotting through the narrow alleys of this centuries old capital.

Thanks to a massive government initiative, many of the castles, palaces and royal structures built by the early Emperors are being carefully restored. These treasures of Gondar include the stone bathhouse of Emperor Fasiladas and the ruined Palace of Kusquam. We also entered the church of Debre Brhan Selassie, to gaze in awe at its unique murals, which have stood the test of time for centuries. These castles display a richness in architecture that reveals the influence of Arabia as well as Axumite traditions, and are said to be the largest concentration of such structures in Africa.

 Bahir Dar, Lake Tana, Blue Nile Falls

A pleasant surprise occurred on day 3 of our Historic Route journey through Ethiopia. Following a short flight on Ethiopian Airlines from Gondar to Bahir Dar Airport, the gut-wrenching condition of the road leading west led me to believe our group of 11 journalists would be staying at some dusty lakeside village. However, like several of my colleagues, I was completely bowled over when tall palms and jacarandas suddenly appeared out of the blue. Like part of a royal procession, we entered a modern, well laid out community with broad, tree-lined boulevards. Bahir Dar would rival many seaside retreats on the Mediterranean or Florida.

En route to Lake Tana, I spotted a huge resort hotel complex nearing completion &emdash; a sign of positive things to come. After checking into our hotel, we boarded a motor launch for a spin around Lake Tana, which is Ethiopia's largest lake. We're told there are 37 small islands on the lake, and most of them shelter monasteries and churches, some dating back to the 13th century. On most inland bodies of water of this size, one might encounter powerboats and sleek sailing craft, but on Lake Tana in Northern Ethiopia, leisure gives way to practicality. Here, the waters are alive with a fleet of 'tankwas' , papyrus canoes, carrying charcoal and firewood to market in Bahir Dar.

Nature's Brush, Fields of Gold and Smoke of Fire
In February, the Jacaranda trees are in full blossom, painting city boulevards and village streets in a soft violet hue. It's a signs that will live in my memory forever. On a peaceful hill near Emperor Haile Selassie's Bahir Dar palace, overlooking the Blue Nile, we stopped to mark the moment on film. How fortunate that the royal gardeners had the foresight to plant a mile long stretch of Jacarandas to frame the entrance to this regal spot.

The Ahramic name for the Blue Nile Falls is 'Tissisat' or 'smoke of fire' &emdash; which describes what many claim to be the most spectacular waterfalls in Northern Africa. Here a wide body of water drops over a sheer cliff more than 45 meters deep. In many photos I have seen, that curtain of spray kissed by a brilliant rainbow. Speaking of rainbows and pots of gold &emdash; in September I'm told it's a sure sign of spring, when the 'Meskel" flower turns entire hills and fields to gold.

Exotic Harar, Ethiopia's Walled City

Within Harar are a bustling 33,000 or so Hararis or Adaris (other groups don't live within the walls) in a square km or two. Despite the numbers, most streets aren't crowded and it is quite relaxed. Just wandering through the narrow pathways bracketed by high whitewashed walls is worth the visit. The special sites in Harar are the House of Arthur Rimbaud, the French poet and arms dealer, the ancient mosque of Abul Bakir, and the gates of the city. There is unfortunately dilapidated mansion in which the Emperor Haile Selassie grew up as well.

The House of Rimbaud (right) is being renovated with the help of UNESCO, making slow but impressive progress until it was recently stopped by a shortage of funds. It is a great two storey affair with plenty of Indian woodwork and art deco wallpaper. It has a wonderful indoor balcony at the top. From the windows you can almost see all four directions over Harar. On the first floor through another entrance you can see the restoration underway on the old library. While this is styled as Rimbauds' House, the other story is that it was a French school at which Rimbaud taught. Regardless it is fantastic. It brings to mind the period of French ascendancy in Ethiopia, which is still highly visible. The French connection here is strong, the language is quite common and even the all pervasive 'Ferengi' for foreigner is an Amharic corruption of 'French'. French support for Ethiopia from the 1880s to World War I included the building of the railroad.

The mosque of Sheikh Abul Bakir reminds you of the Moslem heritage of Harar (there are 87 mosques in Harar). Abul Bakirí's mosque is built on ancient remains which reputedly date back 1000 years. It is a holy site for the Moslem population, who visit in large numbers, attended by the current descendant Sheikh. There are seven gates to old Harar, and AABD will show you them all if you give him the time. The most famous is the one you drive through coming into the old town. Many of the others have been bricked in or replaced by modern roads.

One gate our guide will show you is the one through which the explorer Richard Burton passed in 1855. He was reputedly the first European to come to Harar.

Adaris are justifiably proud of their houses, which are all solid and square, behind walls in a small compound. They have a large sitting area for socializing over coffee or chat (more on this later). They have loads of colorful baskets and Chinese platters on the walls. They are focused on marriage - there is a rack over the front door which holds a valuable rug or rugs which are the dowry for the eligible young lady in the house. They have a room near the entrance which is kept for newlyweds, who are expected to get acquainted through being kept there for a week after their marriage. A small opening is used to pass in food and other necessities. I always wondered how they went to the toilet.

Apart from the regular houses, AABD will show you places which sell the famous Harar baskets and jewelry. The baskets are a bit pricey, but very nice. No foreign resident of Ethiopia should leave without them as souvenirs. There is an odd shaped tubular basket which they use for covering candles. I rudely call them a Harar condom. They also do nice silver bracelets and earrings. The Adder are amongst the most prosperous and educated of Ethiopian peoples. They are traders. They suffered under the Communist Dergue. They are prospering again. There are also a lot of Amhara people in Harar, but much of the town and all of the surrounding countryside is Oromo.

Outside of the old town, there is still a lot to see in Harar. There are the buildings of the Harar Military College. There are numerous public buildings and churches. My favorite stop, however, is the Harar beer factory. I had planned to go to the beer factory for a long time before I got around to it.

Excerpt from a longer article supplied by John Graham. a Canadian living in Ethiopia. Photo by Karen Hoffman, ATA New York

Explorations in Southern Ethiopia
By the late Eunice Rawlings

It was May 12th, 2000. The 26th Annual Congress had been a good one, and even after a late final soiree, 15 ATA members from Southern California assembled eagerly in the Hilton lobby to begin our tour of Ethiopia's famous Historic Route, Axum, Lalibela, Bahar Dar and Gondar. Once at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, airport we passed through formalities and waited in the departure lounge. After we had bought everything possible in the gift shop, time began to drag and we became aware of solemn faces all around us. Finally, an Ethiopian Airlines representative informed us that Ethiopia and Eretria were officially at war and going north was not an option.

We didn't think going back to the hotel for several days was an option either. Our wonderful tour director George from Tourman's/Ethiopia Tours gave us some ideas for alternative arrangements and a phone call to Commissioner Sukkar enabled us to negotiate with the airport operations manger, Bekele Kidane who graciously found just the right sized Ethiopian Airlines plane for us.

We invited members of other groups that were stranded and picked up a couple of hitch-hikers from other galaxies and 19 of us including the steward boarded a sturdy twin-engine prop plane and headed to Arba Minch, 505 kilometers southwest of Addis. To Ethiopian Airline's credit this whole operation was concluded by about 11:30 am. As we headed south and munched on boxed lunches, we passed over spectacular scenery. After leaving the modern skyline of Addis Ababa we found ourselves marveling at a giant patchwork of little farms with fields of green, gold and brown, each with its cluster of round, thatched homes.

Arba Minch, the Lakes and Nech Sar National Park
We passed over lakes and steep craggy cliffs. As we came closer to our destination, Arba Minch, the scenery turned to brilliant green and Chamo and Abaya, the largest of the Rift Valley lakes, shimmered back at us. Arba Minch airport consisted of a tin roof shed with bathrooms in a nearby field. Next door to these amenities a modern, unfinished airport structure rose as a phoenix from the ashes, possibly waiting for the war to be over, so that more funds would be available to complete it. Curious, friendly people who enjoyed posing for pictures and kept us entertained until our vehicles arrived surrounded us. The minivans had seen better days, but given the circumstances they and their owners did very well by us. Our pilots bid us farewell and promised to come back for us in a couple of days.

After a short ride we arrived at our destination, the Bekele Molla Hotel. The main building was whitewashed and dripping with bouganvillias, the terrace had a view that was indescribable. We had several weather changes during our brief stay which only intensified the superb vista of lakes Chamo and Abaya, the intense greens of Nech Sar National Park, the magnificent mountains and the inimitable African skies filled with giant, soaring birds.

The accommodation was in twin bungalows. Very basic. The bathrooms were spartan and as we learned later, water was iffy. Some rooms had water for a while; some showers shut off just as one had worked up a good lather and some had no water. The windows were ill fitting so the mosquitoes declared May 12 ñ 14 a new feast day. Never have I been so glad to be with such a wonderful group of people. We all laughed at each otherís tales of woe, which we shared over breakfast.

Meals at the hotel were also an adventure. But when you consider that 18 of us descended on them on a moment's notice, the chef did a great job. The menu didn't change much, fish, beef, spaghetti and soup. We all soon learned that the fish was incredible (freshly caught from the lake) and the servings were huge. On our final evening, we were presented with breaded Tilapia served on special stands so that it looked as though the fish were swimming along the table. The flesh was easily removed with a fork from each side of the fish and it was truly out of this world.

Green Crocodiles and Pink Flamingos
We were unable to visit some of the different communities and main attractions in the area because most roads had been washed out. We did take a wild boat ride across lake Chamo to see the basking grounds of hundreds of Nile crocodile, (some reach 30 feet in length), with hippos, pink flamingos and storks close by. Our return was quite late in the afternoon and a storm was brewing. The gathering clouds and the setting sun made a memorable panorama of changing light dancing on the water and bouncing off the mountains. That night the heavens opened and it poured!

Shopper's Paradise
The rain continued until after lunch the next day. Near our hotel was a small 'gift shop' which was full well priced local treasures. We bought wonderful pots, jewelry, lip plates and other reminders of the area. We heard later that our little shopping spree had provided enough revenue to feed the storeowner's family for six months. We went into town and walked around the market, a collection of little canvas covered, ground level stalls, which on this day were little islands of dark brown mud surrounded by water. Some of us purchased beautiful shammas the finely hand-woven cotton shawls worn by most Ethiopians. We concluded the day's activities by dropping in, uninvited, on a small village in the country. We were welcomed by young and old alike and were made to feel very much at home.

Awash and Awash National Park
We flew back to Addis and boarded a waiting tour bus that took us southeast to Awash. Arriving late in the evening, we stayed at a hotel that was in a walled enclosure with rooms around the perimeter. There was a large open area in the middle with an assortment of small livestock. Dinner was delicious. There was no water to drink. We had to make do with beer or Coca-Cola. Aside from a dead bat in one of the rooms, (just a tiny one) the accommodation was clean and comfortable. It was hot though, and all of us had packed to go north, so in the rooms with no air-conditioning; well, you get the idea. We awoke to find that we had were staying at the Hotel Paradise

Our morning saw us exploring Awash National Park where dik dik, waterbuck, ostrich, gazelle, zebra, oryx and other plains game as well as cats may be seen. Our game viewing was not good, but a large group in a large bus preempts any serious sightings.

Meeting the Nomads of Southern Ethiopia
Truly exceptional, was an encounter with the nomadic peoples of the area who appeared by the Awash river where we had stopped at a clearing to stretch our legs and admire and photograph some exquisite purple rollers, one of Ethiopia's 830 species of birds. They came in a long, dignified procession, slowly and quietly, the men dressed in little more than a toga, with huge machete like knives at the waist, and the women, shy yet beautiful, some wearing colors, others in traditional off-whites. With them came a large group of haughty camels, long horned cattle, goats and donkeys. The scene was magic, as the various animals came to the water's edge to quench their thirst.

These good folk weren't particularly thrilled to see us and didn't want their pictures taken. When offered Birr (Ethiopian currency), in return for a pose they scoffed at us. "What will we do with money"? They queried. It didn't help that the chief decided that George was looking at his women, and started chasing us brandishing an ancient shotgun. We swiftly boarded the bus and headed towards Addis.

Another similar incident occurred when we stopped to get a close-up look at some great water birds. We drove over a marshy area then walked the final few yards. From a distance we could see a large herd of camel and pretty soon two fierce young men with a halos of hair, and big machetes came and asked why we were observing their camels. When George tried to explain that we were looking at birds, they clearly thought it was a pretty lame excuse. "Birds! Who looks at birds"? Again, we excused ourselves and continued to Addis!

This wasn't the journey we planned and we didn't accomplish a whole lot, but we wouldn't have missed this excursion for anything. For one thing, it was a great bonding experience for the group. But more than that, it was a humbling, learning experience. Ethiopia is two and a half times the size of France, so it is possible to be in a country at war and not be in danger and it is equally possible to be in southern Ethiopia and not see a sign of drought. Ethiopia is a land of many contrasts and as travel professionals we must spread the word that Ethiopia is a country that offers much to the traveler and with proper preparation a visit will be a safe and enriching experience.

Our tour operator in Ethiopia was
Tourman's Ethiopia Tours, Addis Ababa.

Eunice Rawlings passed away in 2001.